Oscars: Movies, predictions, and other fun stuff

We love to hate the Oscars because in theory they are supposed to reward the best performances of the year; in practice, the Oscars are often handed out as 'mercy' trophies for past slights, as part of some Academy agenda, or as part of some rotation or quota. While you can quibble over the categories and the winners, at least give the Academy credit for doing a good job of noticing the best movies of the year. But griping about the Oscars is as much a tradition as is Martin Scorsese being passed over. I am also waiting for the bitching and moaning that follows the next morning - best exemplified by Annie Proulx's (despite her disclaimer) grapes-are-sour gripe last year. If 'the Oscars suck' and they 'didn't really care' why even bother watching or attending? Who would really watch or care about the Golden Globes if they were not presented before the Oscars?

The hosts in the last two years have been somewhat disappointing. Jon Stewart and Chris Rock were nothing to write home about. Rock was out of control and Stewart too restrained. Ellen Degeneres might provide the right balance and might be a worthy pretender to the throne that Billy Crystal vacated.

Thanks to the Michigan Theater, I shall be able to watch all the nominated short films making this year the closest I have ever come to watching every movie that has been nominated. (I will update those categories later today Updated.)

Before getting to the predictions I would like say that it is a bit of a shame that one of the best movies of the year - Robert Altman's Prarie Home Companion - did not get a single mention. The overlapping dialogue between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson sisters is priceless. Another fantastic movie not to make it in some of the technical categories was - Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Best Supporting Actor
What's Mark Wahlberg doing here? Haley doesn't have much of chance too. The serious contenders are: (in order) Hounsou, Arkin, and Murphy. In a presence that is felt up to the last frame, Alan Arkin's performance as the crochety, foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpop was lovable and all his advice is well taken and useful. In a movie where all the roles were stereotypes the challenge and beauty was in doing something original and unique; Arkin, unlike Breslin, just played what he was supposed to play - a wise, but maverick dirty old man. Hounsou has an outside chance, but easily Eddie Murphy as the soulful, can't-keep-me-down Jimmy Early (a thinly disguised James Brown) has stolen the show.

Should Win: Eddie Murphy
Second Guess: Alan Arkin

Best Supporting Actress
If you were really looking for a puzzler then this is the category. So far, the acting awards have never been shared and if there was a year for trophies to be shared - this is the year. For reasons mentioned earlier if not for Abigail Breslin's unbelievably natural performance Little Miss Sunshine would have totally fallen apart; it would just be another cute family movie. Rinko Kikuchi has been a revelation (no pun intended) as the wounded deaf-mute girl in Babel. Adriana Barraza playing the Mexican maid reiterates just how awesome she is playing character roles. Cate Blanchett? What can I say? She is not only beautiful on the bicycle, but also can convince us to sympathize with a teacher who decides to have an affair with a 15-year old boy. In this crowd of talent, I would still pick Jennifer Hudson to edge them all out. Hudson has given it her all. While Deena Jones(Knowles) is the just another pretty singer, Effie White is a real artist. She is loud-mouthed, emotional, independent and knows how to throw a tantrum. Hudson might have been booted out of American Idol but it looks like tomorrow is her night on the stage.

Should Win: Everyone or Jennifer Hudson
Second Guess: Rinko Kikuchi

Best Actor
Forest Whitaker has saved the nominees in this category the trouble of writing speeches. In the Last King of Scotland he has stolen every scene, even scenes in which he is not present. Whitaker plays Idi Amin better than Idi Amin. Not only does he play Amin from the outside - the accent, the booming laughter, movement of the eyes, and the half-crazed look, but he is also Idi Amin from the inside. He conveys Amin's magnetic personality and how charisma can blind an entire nation. In a sense, Whitaker's performance is a disservice to the movie. The movie would have garnered more appreciation for its other merits if the magnificent Forest Whitaker had not overshadowed everything.

Should Win: Forest Whitaker
Second Guess: Forest Whitaker

Best Actress
There was a time when playing characters with some physical, mental defect was a sure-shot at Oscar success. Lately, the trend has been towards playing real characters. Six out of the last ten Oscars for Acting have gone to people playing real characters. Perhaps, since people have a better sense of a real person, it is easier to judge and reward such a role. In order, Streep and Dench have given the other best performances of the year, but the Queen is all set to rule.

Should Win: Helen Mirren
Second Guess: Judi Dench

Foreign Language
I was happy to see Water nominated and it deserves some sort of award for perseverance on the part of the filmmakers in the face of the most idiotic, politicized opposition. The best of Deepa Mehta is yet to come, this ain't it, I'll wait. Guillermo Toro's Pan's Labyrinth does not belong here; it should be in the Best Picture category. It is the finest film of year and the host of nominations in other technical categories vindicate the claim. Sergi Lopez as the vicious captain in Franco's Spain and Ivana Banquero as the innocent, fable-loving step-daughter are simply fantastic in this 'adult fairy tale'. It is hard to describe what the movie is about, because it is simultaneously about a lot of things - good and evil, honour and duty, reality and dreams. A masterpiece.

The Black Dahlia, an otherwise uninspired movie, gets a honorable mention here. Children of Men will win only if it is better than Pan's Labyrinth.
Should Win: Pan's Labyrinth
Second Guess: Children of Men

Costume Design
This is a toss up between Marie Antoinette and Dreamgirls. Looks like soulful Motown has an edge over gay Paris.
Should Win: Dreamgirls
Second Guess: Marie Antoinette

Best Documentary
God may or may not exist, Iraq is a mess, but global warming is a much bigger danger and given the misinformation about it, the truth better get out.
Should Win: The Inconvenient Truth
Second Guess: The Inconvenient Truth

Glass's insistent sound ruined an otherwise fantastic movie - Notes on a Scandal. Santaollala's work for Babel sounds much like his work for Brokeback Mountain. Navarette's score for Pan's Labyrinth struck the right note.
Should Win: Javier Navarette
Second Guess: Gustavo Santoallala

There is talk that three nominations will split the Dreamgirls vote, but they have a winner here.
Should Win: Dreamgirls
Second Guess: The Inconvenient Truth

The Departed felt apart in the end because of poor writing. Some of the loose ends were rather unsatisfactorily resolved. Notes on a Scandal deserves the award for cleverly adapting Zoe Heller's novel told from Dench's point of view without having too much of a voice-over. Good to know that you have Dench and Blanchett to pull it off.

Should Win: Notes on a Scandal
Second Guess: Children of Men

Original Screenplay
This is a tough one. It was amazing to know that Pan's Labyrinth was not written by someone like Marquez. Babel was a good effort but some of the connections in the story were a little tenuous and Arriaga could have made it a little tighter. A good contender is Letters from Iwo Jima. Here I would have to hand it to Little Miss Sunshine for a fresh look at a cliched theme.
Should Win: Little Miss Sunshine
Second Guess: Letters from Iwo Jima

Animated Film
Should Win: Cars

Animated Short Film
Should Win: Lifted

Live Action Short Film
This category is often overlooked and it was two hours well spent. I sincerely hope the Academy doesn't put the nominees in this category in the cheap balcony seats and imposes it usual 'no-speeches' rule. The most impressive adaption of Romeo and Juliet via West Side Story is Ari Sandel's musical satire - West Bank Story which features two competing falafel stores called Kosher King and Hummus Hut. Helmer & Son features a father who locks himself in a closet at a retirement home and refuses to come out. It has laughs, comic situations, and insights in family relations equivalent to films that take 4 times the amount of time. Éramos Pocos (One Too Many), the Basque-Spanish movie, is easily the best. When Joaquin's wife suddenly leaves him and his adult son, he struggles to manage the household. They both decide to bring Joaquin's mother-in-law back from a retirement home which works out great for the both of them.

Should Win: Éramos Pocos

Best Director
Unless the Academy has finally decided to take mercy on Martin Scorsese, the real contenders are Inarritu and Eastwood. Like Scorsese fans everywhere, I would rather not have him win at all than win for The Departed. It might be worth just giving him the award to watch his expression and hear what he says - that is stuff for legend. Realistically, the strongest contenders this year are Eastwood and Inarritu. They are a study in contrasts. Inarritu has done a great job of handling all the talent in his transnational, butterfly-effect movie and while the movie has been criticized for lacking 'follow-through', it is perfect in its details. If the Mexican Inarritu is bursting with talent, the American Clint Eastwood, at twice his age, is bursting with energy. In contrast to the colorful spread of Babel, we have the dark Letters from Iwo Jima, the story of Japanese soldiers stuck in the tunnels with no hope but of certain death. While Inarritu could leap from one timezone to another to move his story, Eastwood had to make a movie of soldiers in tunnels speaking in a language most of the audience would not understand - interesting and explore war from a fresh angle. He has largely succeeded.

Should Win: Clint Eastwood
Second Guess: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Best Picture
The Queen has the weakest chance and should be happy just to be nominated. The Departed is a good thriller, held together by some great acting by Jack Nicholson, DiCaprio and others, but lacks a deep theme that is so needed to be a winner. Why was there no place for Pan's Labyrinth? Little Miss Sunshine's story of a family in crisis is entertaining, but certainly not worthy of the big prize as it lacks the depth that is shown by the next two contenders. I feel that this year, the best director and best picture prizes are going to be split again. Babel has a much richer palette and while the directorial work is not as challenging as it was for Eastwood, essentially stuck with a dreary tale of soldiers and war, it has the correct soaring multi-ethnic, human theme that is always a favorite. Every element is so Best Picture Oscar-friendly that it might actually go against it. But, if my impression when I first saw months ago, before the horse-races were on, is correct Babel should win.

Should Win: Babel
Second Guess: Letters from Iwo Jima

Air Hostess equation

Ashutosh grumbles about the Air Hostess myth. I almost resigned to the fact of facing or rather combating matronly hostesses on NWA and I considered it a norm after seeing it same on the other carriers. Not after I flew on Easy Jet in Europe and Indigo Air in India. BTW US airlines suck in comparison to the new Indian carriers - SpiceJet, Kingfisher, Indigo, Deccan, etc.

Air Hostess equation:
Unattractiveness of the air-hostesses = k. Age of airline

Those desirous of prettier faces in the sky should fly on newer airlines; often most of them are budget airlines making it doubly attractive.

What makes a quote quotable?

The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.
- HG Wells

It is well-known that in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman never said: "Play it again, Sam"; she said, "Play it, Sam." In this week's anniversary edition of the New Yorker Louis Menand says, "...quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation", and the most famous quotes, as originally uttered, were not quotable quotes; they needed some "editorial attention". Editorialization ensures that the quote survives and consequently the person who said does too. Quotes are memes that have a life of their own.

So what is a quote anyway? Why do we find them magical? The last paragraph of his essay is just as quotable for the reasons he describes:

Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It’s quotable because it’s been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority. Quotations are prostheses... We pick them up off the public street, but we put them to private uses. We hoard quotations like amulets. They are charms against chaos, secret mantras for dark times, strings that vibrate forever in defiance of the laws of time and space. That they may be opaque or banal to everyone else is what makes them precious: they aren’t supposed to work for everybody. They’re there to work for us. Some are little generational badges of identity. Some just seem to pop up on a million occasions. Some are razors. "I see a red door and I want it painted black." "Devenir immortelle, et puis, mourir." "Much smaller piece." "You’re two tents." The quotation I have found most potent in warding off evil spirits is the motto of the Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx (1624-69): "Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis." "Where you are worth nothing, you should want nothing." That’s mine. You can’t use it.

This American Life

If you had time to listen to only one program on Public Radio, then it would be - This American Life. Last week's show was all the more special since it was about quiz shows, or rather people associated in some way with quizzes.

To describe the show in their own words:

One of the problems with our show from the start has been that whenever we try to describe it in a sentence or two, it sounds awful. For instance: Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show. In the early days of the program, in frustration, we'd sometimes tell public radio program directors that it's basically just like Car Talk. Except just one guy hosting. And no cars. It's easy to say what we're not. We're not a news show or a talk show or a call-in show. We're not really formatted like other radio shows at all. Instead, we do these stories that are like movies for radio. There are people in dramatic situations where things happen to them.

Ira Glass has worked every possible position in a radio station: a tape cutter, newscast writer, desk assistant, editor, producer, and host. This American Life has won the highest honors for broadcasting and journalistic excellence, including the Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards, as well as the Edward R. Murrow and the Overseas Press Club awards. At first, Ira Glass's voice is not one that you would associate with a radio personality: it's slightly nasally, the delivery is often choppy, but it feels feels direct, genuine, and matter-of-fact; after a while, you can't think of another voice that would match the material better. It is well-crafted like everything else on the show. Glass uses his training in semiotics to great effect: every pause, repetition of sentence, choice of word is a deliberate choice. Glass spends hours selecting, adding, or deleting the position of a particular pause, cadence, and selecting the songs for the show. Consider selecting songs for all these topics? I bet it's a tough job. Try finding a song for a show on quizzes? Their selection could not have been better - the punk tone and lyrical content of Smarter than You by The Undertones almost perfectly describes the attitude of quizzers. He says, "There are only two things in radio - sound and silence."

This American Life goes beyond just finding extraordinary stories on the most mundane of all topics:
The retiree in Brooklyn who invites some homeless prostitutes into his house on a cold winter night and they never leave; pranksters who go on missions to create a cell-phone symphony, board the NY subway in just underpants, or give a band its greatest gig; on New York building supervisors, or the 'Supers', and their fantastic tales; students at a high-school prom when a tornado rips a third of the rest of their town. One of my favourite stories is about Charlie Brill and Mitzie McCall who got caught in another kind whirlwind, when they got their biggest break on Ed Sullivan.

After listening to a couple of shows you realize that despite the name the show is not really about America; it's about life in general and stories of humans caught up in it. How we deal with situations and how we don't. How things that seeemed liked good ideas at the time went fatally wrong.

* * *
All the shows are available free on the website as streaming audio. To my great joy they are now allowing episodes to be downloaded on iTunes as podcasts. Each show is availabe for a week after the broadcast and is then archived on Audible.com.

Just Drag a Drop

It's Oscar week and everyone has something to gripe about. The Oscars simultaneously stand for all that is good about the movies and all that is bad about them. It is the big daddy and the whipping boy.

Since we are on the subject, this story finds a new reason to gripe about acting and the movies in general. Note that the Oscars got singled for what can be said for acting in general. While, thanks to Adobe, glycerin manufacturers are out of business, it gives the less good-looking among us more options in the celluloid world!

If you want to see real acting then you need to look to the stage. Every performance is unique, there are no takes, no special effects, actors interacting with the audience, but there ain't no free lunch - wait till you actually pay for the theatre tickets. Also you cannot carry your popcorn inside.

(All the fun stuff on the Oscars: predictions, movies of 2006, rants, etc. tomorrow.)

Krugman on Friedman

In the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman deconstructs the late Milton Friedman in his essay: Who was Milton Friedman?

If Keynes was Luther, Friedman was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. And like the Jesuits, Friedman's followers have acted as a sort of disciplined army of the faithful, spearheading a broad, but incomplete, rollback of Keynesian heresy.

If Economics was a Church, Friedman is already on the fast-track to canonization (his zealous followers are seeing to it). No one disagrees that Friedman was one of the greatest economists of the 20th century; however, Friedman is lionized by economists and the general public for different reasons:

Moreover, Friedman's effectiveness as a popularizer and propagandist rested in part on his well-deserved reputation as a profound economic theorist. But there's an important difference between the rigor of his work as a professional economist and the looser, sometimes questionable logic of his pronouncements as a public intellectual. While Friedman's theoretical work is universally admired by professional economists, there's much more ambivalence about his policy pronouncements and especially his popularizing. And it must be said that there were some serious questions about his intellectual honesty when he was speaking to the mass public.

So, the lay public can hardly be blamed since Friedman himself was responsible for much of the misrepresentation and subsequent misperception of his ideas by public. The disconnect between Friedman's bold rockstar-like public and his more cautious academic pronouncements reveal Friedman to be a more complex than the simple tag-line 'biggest champion of liberty and capitalism' suggests.

The larger issue the article bring up is: if you wish to market yourself as a public intellectual then there better not be any ambiguity and self-doubt. Your band of followers are looking for a clear message and once you get on the roller-coaster there is no getting out.

What Men Want From Women

For a few months now, I have been carrying Hugh's Gaping Void on the sidebar. He has a quirky sense of humour that reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.

Today's comic is a true gem, more so when you realise the subtlety of the order. It has inspired me to send this man a cheque. Why not? He does as much to make the world more livable than any bleeding-heart social worker. When Hugh figures out what women want from men, I guess his mailbox will be flooded with cheques. We won't have any more troubles with homo sapiens XX and no more comics. What is worse?


Serious Scrabble is not everyone's cup of tea, especially once you realize it has very little to do with words, their usage and meanings, and everything to do with memorization, anagramming, calculation and strategy. As much as I like Scrabble, I have to admit that it merely masquerades as a word game. When you get stuck with a bunch of A's and E's, or worse, all consonants, you wish you were playing in some other language.

The most serious contender for being called the king of word games, in any language, is - the crossword. For many, it is as much of a daily addiction as their cup of coffee in the morning. The meteoric rise of Sudoku puzzles seems to suggest that to the general population even crosswords are just too hard, and even elitist. To them and fellow word fanatics, I recommend Stanley Newman's book - Cruciverbalism. Somewhere along the way, the few rules about crosswords have been obscured from sight. It was a surprise for me to learn the unwritten rule about daily crosswords - they progress in difficulty with the day of the week. So, starting your crossword career on a Saturday might not be a great idea. One of the few pleasant things about Monday is that the crossword is the easiest.

The short book is wittily written and explains the hidden rules of the grid, history of the crossword, and tips on getting better. Enough to get you hooked, provided you start on a Monday. The only feature of the usually ludicrous campus rag, The Michigan Daily, that never lets its readers down is their crossword. As is the case with many newspapers, a large chunk of their readership is attracted by the crossword. Despite their importance crosswords are treated like step-children and are always tucked away in a corner within the folds of the newspaper. Newman argues on behalf of the constructors who spend hours constructing puzzles that aim to tickle and tease readers only to end up as no-name nobodies who don't even merit a byline on the page. It is interesting to note that the most prolific constructors of crosswords are guests of the state. Apparently, felons are among the few who have the time to spend hours and days working on the possibility of a $50 reward.
Passionately making his case Newman says:

"I saw nuances in language, I'd never appreciated before, I savored witticisms that I might have not understood in the past, and I become adept at considering information from a multitude of angles, identifying possibilities and patterns with ease..."

It was a little disappointing to find that the book hardly mentions cryptic crosswords. When crosswords crossed the Atlantic the Brits found them to be too boring and spiced them up by inventing cryptic crosswords. If crosswords are addictive, cryptic crosswords are doubly so (once you get a hang of the idea). The Hindu, which rather magnanimously allows free access to their daily cryptic puzzle, is now a daily fixture till I rise to Guardian level standards.