Monday, March 22, 2010

You lose, Netflix

Netflix knows I am not going to leave them.  but I am going to talk bad about them over lunch and refer to it as "your father" when talking to the children.  I am going to withhold my love.  And like many other voluntary movie reviews, I am not going to give it free content.

Here's what happened.

In 2004 --  not long after I opened my membership -- Netflix went all "social network" before we had invented the word by creating the Friends list. This was my toe-in-the-water of internetworking, and being a product designer myself, I enjoyed looking for the angles in this feature. What was in it for them, I wondered, to introduce such a cross-account look-up drain on its own system. If you were there in those days, you may remember they pushed it hard, even encouraging us on the from page to invite our friends to join Netflix.

That made sense of course.  More referrals, more customers.  Refer a friend.  I get it.
When selecting a movie, you could write a little review about it, called a Movie Note, and share it with someone in your circle.  You could see how they had rated the film, and notes they had written about it.  I decided this served their distribution system, by helping to keep discs in a given region for a longer period of time to speed their turnover and build large local libraries. I made this explanation up, but it sounded like the kind of theory I would pose in a business case of my own.

Movie notes and movie sharing did have an influence on film popularity , most famously by pushing Crash to the top of the Netflix 100 within weeks of its DVD release, though the film grossed only $53M   in theatres and was the least-grossing Best Picture winner until The Hurt Locker.   Even today,   it sits atop #1 on the Netflix 100.    I also believe that Friends sharing and movie notes helped feed the algorithm that determined what "people like me" like and  what they also rent.  On the new movie details page, of course, those suggestions are no longer offered.

I don't doubt that Netflix's business model is a strain.  They are the largest customer of the US Postal service and are now considering pausing Saturday deliveries.  They are working hard on more ways to stream films so they don't have to deliver at all, and perhaps that is the wave of the future.  The point I am trying to make is that they sold themselves hard, then throttled back when we bought into it.
Netflix members are a vocal lot, and resent most being told that only 2% of them use this or that feature, so it is being discontinued.   The Company backed down on getting rid of multiple queues after a public uproar, but seem committed to the new details page and have stated that the Friends features are being eliminated.  I can't confirm what their success measures were for the Friends design when it was launched, but it must have been more than 2%, no matter how large a number that grew to be. (200,000 estimate)

Turns out they are not a Passion Brand after all.  Too bad, because they are in Passion Member territory.
And they may lose 1% of the 2% they no longer want to spend resources on.  Maybe customer retention is no longer a goal.

* Friends and Profiles shareholder excerpts from Netflix 2004 Annual Report

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Creative hostess gifts

or... what to get the family who has everything

 The Readership knows by now that I am a professional houseguest -- the sure thing, without plus-one who will talk to your grandmother, eat everything you serve, and not expect you to endure sun salutations in the living room at 5am.  "Low Maintenance," they tell me I am.  Everything I needed to know about houseguesting I learned from English country novels, Stephen Sondheim, and Bewitched.

Respectively, those life lessons are:
1. Be amusing
2. Wear your hair down, and a flower/Don't use makeup, dress in white
3. Bring a hostess gift

As hostess gifts go, I have a few go-tos.  ( I hate to give away my secrets.  So many of you have hosted me...)  If plants, get potted.  No one needs another vase, and when the lady of the house is brining a turkey, she can not stop to muck about with cut flowers.    I recently had a roundtable with a frequent hostess who talked about the difficulty of guests who bring food -- particularly dessert -- that doesn't match the menu but now has to be served.  And my hostess admitted this seemed petty and ungrateful but it did throw her off.  Though this wasn't directed at me (I think) it was then I stopped bringing pie. 

Unless this is a potluck, a weekend, or a picnic.  In which case I bring pie.  Husbands will back me up on this -- boys like a pie. 

For family events, family gifts.  Don't alienate the kids by bringing wine.  You are begging for a frog in your chair.  Oh wait, that's the list of things I learned from Sound of Music.

In January I was nearly stumped by a family of four: 8 y.o boy, 5 y.o. girl.  I'll just tell you they got a DVD of Johnny Tremain.

Today I had plans with the Bs.  It was a spectacular unseasonably warm day after the rains finally went to sea, or the earth rotated out of them, or however weather works.  I had a day of driving errands planned, and a bribe stop at Shopper's World, which is very close to the Bs' neighborhood.  And they had me at grilled meats.  The plan was that after my pillage through Shopper's World I would come to their place for the cold beer and the smoky meats.

Trouble was, I had not been there before, so I wasn't sure whether there was a hostess-gift stop on the way.  (Cookout qualifies for pie, I think, though I was going to fancy-up with a Boston Creme Pie, which you never buy for yourself but love to get).  So I was at Shopper's World looking for the one thing I wasn't likely to find there.

I once had a quest to see if you could live for a year and only shop on Rt 9, but this is a quest that works best in your mind, like training for the Marathon.  or marriage.  You would think, being at Shopper's WORLD, I would have a world at my fingertips.  But let's knock out Babies R Us, or honestly anything on that side of the parking lot, 20 football fields away.  I started at Barnes and Noble, hoping for a DVD score (would they have liked the anniversary wide-screen of Fast Times at Ridgemont High I carried around for a while?) or a cheesy coffee table book of the kind that are only found at B&N: Machine Guns of the Roaring Twenties.  Hostess gifts can be funny.  Once you've known a couple long enough, they have caught on to the pie.  You need to mix it up some.

I'll spare you every other store I went into, because I have a list of 10 posts to get through this weekend and I want to spend way too much time talking about where I did end up (colon) the pet store.  I don't know which pet store.  The one at Shopper's World.  The point is I know nothing about Pet Stores and I wondered through this one like Borat, mesmerized by the magnitude of stuff.

Left side, dogs.  Right side, cats.  Rodents and other ridiculous house vermin down the middle.  Fish, by this store's definition, do not seem to be pets.  I have to concur that anything you can not actually pet should not be given that name.  Dammit.  have I wandered again?

Now I haven't had a dog in 20 years, but I know plenty of people who do and I know that there is no middle of the road on things like rawhide and other rendered chew toys  (but seriously, you can buy a pallet of them for next to nothing!).  Dog toys, like kid toys, can take over the house, so I moved on.  From here it was a hardware store for a few aisles: chains, collars, fencing, things you spray, things you wipe, things you dust.  Then beds and blankets, then the racks of dog food bags.

Dog food is pretty personal.  Once again, I used my kid analogy.  I wouldn't show up with baby food.  Better steer clear.  Back to blankets and beds.

Score one puffy floor cushion, creativity points, and a friendly wet nose in my lap.

Friday, March 19, 2010

You caahn't get there from here

Road Closed.  Seek Alternate Route.
("good luck with that," the roadside signs should flash)

And so the rains came.  For days.
Monday was the scariest, because the roads hadn't yet been closed, but certainly should have been.  These thickly settled Massachusetts towns rest along narrow 2 lane roads that meander past streams and brooks, reservoirs, and yes mill-driving rivers that on most days one just drives over without much thought other than worrying over the color of the duckweed or fooling yourself that one of these weekends you'll try renting a canoe. 

Then comes a day when you are driving through it, with no alternative in sight -- 100 cars in both directions, as far as the eye can see. 

I've been through a few of these by now -- some much worse than others, worse than this week's even.  But not until this week did one make me think about quitting my job.

This is the map around which we center our lives of quiet desperation.  The rings are 93, 95, and 495.  The long east/west road at the center is the Mass Turnpike.  Above that Rt 2.  Or, as we like to say, Bleepin' Root Two.  A necessary evil.  Four lanes of state roads full of stop lights, Jersey barriers, a Stephen King-worthy State Pen, and the kind of rotary that makes the rest of the country throw up their hands.  (It's a simple explanation, really: the road is 300 years old.  And we were British at the time.)

Rt 2 got the ARRA money!  And what an exciting summer it was with one road constantly down for paving, and tunnels being installed for migrating animals.  The area I have shaded above contains the even smaller back roads that daily commuters use to avoid as much of Rt 2 as they possibly can.  When it all works, the traffic moves steadily.  Not very quickly, and with the occasional school bus stop.  But it moves.

And so the rains came.  And so the waters rose, in the Assabet, the Sudbury, the Nashua, the Concord.  Behold the sinkholes, potholes, guardrails with nothing to guard, train tracks that can not support trains, lost shoulders, pastures,  You can see how they powered the Industrial Revolution.

(Nice Mill footage at 4 and 5 minutes)

With the roads awash in that yellow-shaded area of the map, all traffic that usually fans out along those wooded river roads was now on Rt 2.  All morning.  Every morning.

7am-9am; 5pm-7pm.  Standing... Woodstock...Great James River Raft Race traffic.  
I can think a lot of things with time like that on my hands. Mostly it was "this is not worth it."  And I thought the 90 minute standing bus ride on the 111 to Chelsea (which one Good Friday famously crashed through a telephone pole and into a building, but that is not the story I am telling)  I thought that commute was worth it.  So I am not just being a big baby.  I am just assessing the ROI.

Now it is Friday night.  I see that roads will still be facacta through the weekend.  Then, presumably, we are back to normal.  Until I get to complain about my commute on Patriot's Day.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I got nothin'

I have been sitting here for about 20 minutes hoping to conjure up a topic for you.  Thinking and clicking and clicking and thinking, and there is just a lot of random what-if, snippets of song, hunger, Daylight Saving sleepiness...

Did we just end DLS, or begin it?  I can never keep it straight.  I gave up on accurate clocks years ago.  My alarm system may finally be correct, as it has been an hour ahead since about November.  It resets itself, but according to an automated command based on the OLD DLS calendar, not the new one.  I suppose I have some control over it, but it intimidates me, to tell you the truth. A couple of weeks from now, it will spring ahead again on its own and then I'll be late for everything.

The stove has a real clock dial, with the buzzy alarm.  It is usually correct until the power goes off, then I tend to leave it where it is because I don't like the sound of that alarm either.   (That is not my actual oven clock.  Please do not send letters.  But certainly you know by now that if I won't reset a clock, I am not buying a new oven either.)

I am happy for all other devices that get their time updates from their home planets, or however they do it.

Remember when we thought that "digital" meant "it displays digits"? Of course, round clock faces also display digits.  We loved the Grand Central Station flippy effect of those clock radios, didn't we?  If this post is already boring you, switch over to calculator humor for more digital fun.

I do keep a file of things I would like to explore for post ideas, but by the time I go back to them, I either can't remember why or the link has expired.  Crazy Internet, keeping its attic clean.  I tried to clean the house yesterday.  I did vacuum the most offending carpet, but by the time I had put all the scattered magazines in a pile, I thought I should reheat the pizza and watch the last episode of The Riches so I could send the disc back.

I am starting to get the plotlines of The Riches and Big Love confused.  The creepy brother is mad at our protagonist family because they stole the money, and everyone is sneaking around everyone else, and that younger son no one pays attention to is going to go rogue eventually.  Wedding, funeral, Dahlaila, Marjean...I need to put some space between them in queue.  A couple of weeks ago, I dorked out completely adding 1960s live-action Disney comedies to my queue, triggered by a Parent Trap double bill which featured the original Hayly Mills version, and the 1980s Parent Trap II "reunion" movie.  Did you know that Disney invented that split screen "twins" editing technqiue -- Parent Trap was nominated for an Oscar?

From there I discovered all manner of "bonus discs" for things like Parent Trap and Old Yeller, Pollyanna, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I gorged the queue on Kurt Russell and Jan-Michael Vincent.  Oh Fred McMurray... how far you fell....

You have to shuffle a load like that into your queue -- you really shouldn't watch them all at once.  And a cherry slushie makes it all come back to you.  Or a half-dozen Boston creme donuts, whichever you prefer to sneak into your local.

Movies that do not qualify: Gnome-Mobile, Darby O'Gill, and Dr Doolittle.  This should be self-explanatory.  Doolittle is a double whammy of talking animals, and that creepy puppet Anthony Newley .

Today is a Brunch Sunday -- 2 Moms, 2 not-Moms -- braving the downpours for fritattas and wine.  I need to be getting dressed for that.  Well, not dressed, as in dressed for dinner.  But dressed as in dressed for a $22 breakfast where Mickey Mouse pancakes are not on the menu.  One must pay more for adults-only experiences.  I had a lead on going to see Alice in Wonderland at the Premium Cinema, which bills itself as "distraction-free" entertainment (read: 21+).  After experiencing the Sunday matinee of Julie Taymor's The Lion King, I decided I would prefer the comparative literature geeks and  Burton acolytes to seeing Alice with the {shudder} general public. Unfortunately, I missed my window and they have replaced that show already.  Your reviews are welcome.

I believe I will have fulfilled my 1000 word commitment to you by the time this paragraph is finished (not to mention the use of the future perfect progressive just there.  If you count these words, you have worse OCD than I do.  And I admire that.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Painters Pants

My niece just posted this Facebook status: "Anyone who remembers the 70s wasn't really there."  I think she is paraphrasing the 60s statement, specifically about the Summer of Love.  Just an inch above her status was this:

30 years?  Ooof.  My corns.
In honor of these twin statuses, the DrawingIn Room  presents "Painters Paints":

#26  in an occasional series of repressed 70's memories that turn out to be true.
 May I say, Anyone who owns a pair of  painters pants from the 1970s can not actually fit into them.  Unless they are this guy.

There were rules for painters pants in my school, as I am sure there were in yours.  Remember that scene in Heathers when the Heathers school Veronica on what days to wear pink... wait, is that Mean Girls?  Anyway, you get me.  If you are going to wear a dress, better call around first.

1.  Fridays only.
This was not a dress code thing.  It was our way of making sure we all wore them on the same day.  You didn't have to wear them on Friday, but only on Friday could they be worn.

2. Scoop-neck T with piping is best.

pocket accessory.
Fro pick was also acceptable, but I never recall seeing a Black kid in painters pants.

4.  I also enjoyed a belt loop accessory -- in the photo at right, you will see it was a Bobby whistle.  I was always more "off the amrk" than "ahead of the curve."

5.  Colors other than white were not tolerated, and your white had to be Clorox II ultra-white.  Screw the environment.

6.  Handmade painters pants... uh-no.
Shortly after painters pants came painters caps, which did not last very long.  They can still be had, of course, but the "gotta-have by the end of the summer" fervor is no longer with us. 

Incidentally, if any of you is working on Repressed Memories of the 1990s, I recommend a piece on the cap with metal-plate, Rhythm Nation style.  Because you know you had one.  Don't make me get the photo album.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year

Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Screenplay(s): Up in the Air; A Serious Man
Actor: Jeff Bridges
Actress: Helen Mirren
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Picture: The Hurt Locker

Dodie reports that she was originally going to bring Green Day as her escorts, in a kind of Grammy/Oscar lovefest, but at the last minute changed to Colin Firth -- one of her regulars.  This is not just insurance toward getting into the right parties, and getting to hold the statue.  She does often take him.  I might say the same for Clooney, who I may have taken last year.  Like the winners themselves, one rarely remembers one's date a year later.  I am afraid that my date will lose to hers, and that's all right.  My date is more fun.  And looks less like Charles Nelson Reilly.

At 7:59 I turned into an old person when I turned on the TV to…STATIC.  Just snow.  And for a second I estimated how quickly I could get registered in a hotel before the show began.  Could I find a Chinese website that was pirate broadcasting?  Would I watch all four hours in Chinese?  Should I yank out all these cables as if I know what I am doing?

Would I remember to call 1-800-COMCAST?

The rep’s tier one support for people calling from Del Boca Vista pointed out that I should never change channels ON the TV set, only through the remote.  I am pleased to report that my heart was not pounding as I defused this bomb.

I don’t usually spend time on the red carpet, but now I feel I must earn this privilege.
Should Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Wettig do something together?  Get me a treatment.

8:15pm  getting my bevvy.  Though according to Whoopi, it will make me wet myself.  I am dumbfounded by this ad.

If Taylor Lautner were any prettier, he would be spun glass.  It’s like a Boy Band is missing their tenor.

8:30 – and awa-a-a—ay we go.
I am fine with big production numbers.  In fact, I saw more dancing in that opening number than in all of The Lion King, which I saw this afternoon.  I’ll write more about that later this week, I guess.  This year’s Oscars is directed by a choreographer, and we are promised more of this as the evening goes on.  Some people don’t go for it, but what’s Golden Hollywood without it?

Best Supporting Actor
Have I mentioned how annoyed I am that Netflix won’t send me Inglourious Basterds?  I realize that is not what the category is officially called, but it is what we all say.

Basterds – 1

8:55 – Best Animated Feature Now that Up has won in the animated category, we have to wonder if it rules it out of Best Picture.  Most probably.  Wouldn’t it be cool to see it win both, though?  I smell an immediate rule change.

Basterds – 1
Up - 1

9:00pm – Best Original Song
Crazy Heart was best described by dear Otto who said, shouldn’t something happen in a film based on 3 people’s lives?  Tender Mercies starring unpleasant people.  But yes, YES to that music.  Sometimes I get Ry Cooder and T-Bone Burnett mixed up. Ry Cooder just made an album with the Chieftains about the San Patricios, Irish soldiers who fought in the Mexican-American War.  That has nothing to do with the Oscars.  This is the Drawing In Room, not the One Thought at a Time Room.

Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart – 1

9:15 – Best Original Screenplay
Of all the things I liked about The Hurt Locker, the dialogue seemed sort of weak to me.  An interesting idea, though, and a fairly tight story.  So, original screenplay… why not.  And thanks for acknowledging that we are still at war.

Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart - 1
Hurt Locker – 1

MOLLY RINGWALD???  Hhhh….wow.
Listen, don’t miss the article about John Hughes in the current Vanity Fair.  If the family consents to releasing John Hughes’  notebooks, that would be worth any amount of money.  Poor, poor, out of work Brat Pack.  Please call them.  Incidentally, Molly and Hughes had some sort of falling out years ago, according to the article.  We will have to wait for her memoir for this.

9:35 – Best Short Documentary
We will need Entertainment Weekly to explain what the hell just happened during the acceptance of the Documentary Award, because I don’t think that was the intended speech.  More to come on that.

I want you to know that I mean no disrespect to the artistic awards by not counting them.  I can’t even promise I’ll be consistent about not counting them.  I got this Medal Count going but it already feels like overkill and it’s not even 10 o’clock.  Even Kate Winslet looks bored.  So another acting award is being offered soon, they say.

9:48 – Best Adapted Screenplay
At the time everyone was reading Precious, I’ll admit I was not.  I am anywhere from 10-15 years behind reading “the new books.”  And if they were written before 1990, well… you do the math.  Where IS Sapphire?  And how did she avoid all this press? Well, here's some.

Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart - 1
Hurt Locker - 1
Precious - 1

9:55 -  Best Supporting Actress
How cool for one stand-up with an Oscar to give an Oscar to another stand-up.  Nice touch.
Go 'head, Mo'Nique 

Precious - 2
Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart - 1
Hurt Locker - 1

Kate Gosselin on Dancing with the Stars.  DISCUSS.

Now a few minutes about the fabulous Sigourney Weaver, dressed tonight as the Firestone Christmas album.  I was going to list Films in which Sigourney appears in her underwear.  But I just stopped at …. All of them.

Best Art Direction.  Avatar just got on the board.

Precious - 2
Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart - 1
Hurt Locker - 1
Avatar – 1

10:20 – A salute to horror without Jamie Leigh Curtis?  What a waste.  They should have done this tribute the way they did John Hughes, with people who got their starts in horror films.  They should have called me.

These are my 36th Academy Awards.  I started following them in ‘72, but couldn’t stay awake until ‘74.  I don’t remember when we started bringing dates.

10:24 – sound awards – where the action pictures clean up.

Hurt Locker - 3
Precious - 2
Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart - 1
Avatar – 1

10:35 – the photography cycle, that it to say, actual FILM making awards.  Things get hot for Avatar. 
Hurt Locker - 3
Precious - 2
Avatar - 2
Basterds – 1
Up - 1
Crazy Heart – 1

I have not talked much about the impact of Avatar on traditional filmmaking and acting, mostly because I haven’t seen it. 

10:52 – Musical Score
Hurt Locker - 3
Precious - 2
Avatar - 2
Up - 2
Basterds – 1
Crazy Heart – 1

Things are starting to speed up now.  Avatar picks up Visual Effects, and no one can deny them that.  Won’t make me go.
Hurt Locker - 3
Avatar - 3
Precious - 2
Up - 2
Basterds – 1
Crazy Heart - 1

As we go to commercial, the most awkward teaser over: " see if Oscar history is made as the first female (“female”??) or first African-American, or will James Cameron, Jason Reitman, or Quentin Tarantine take home the prize…"  The names of the PEOPLE you just reduced to “and the rest” status are Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels.

11:07 – Editing – Typically, after a film rakes in a lot of photography awards, it misses on Best Picture (Titanic aside).  This does not change my prediction (because it is unfair to change your prediction).

Hurt Locker - 4
Avatar - 3
Precious - 2
Up - 2
Basterds – 1
Crazy Heart – 1

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but…
I hate that panel of stupid piano lamps

11:24 – let’s give out some OSCARS!  (that rhymes with “are you ready to rumble.”)
Lead Actor – Standing O for Jeff Bridges.  I think they should have asked Cloris Leachman to give his tribute.  But Michelle Pfeiffer is lovely, Maan

11:39 – Lead Actress
I originally predicted Helen Mirren because I forgot she had so recently won for The Queen.  But I will stand by it, and perhaps be wrong.  And why doesn’t Oprah act in more films?  She is the most poised creature on this or any stage.

Standing O for Sandy!  They really like her.  And I do too.  Such southern grace to personally acknowledge her fellow nominees.

And how nice for Sean Penn to check in on her as they walked off stage.

11:52 – Director
Barbra left the dining table with her tablecloth tucked in her blouse.
Hey, what do you know – girls DO win this award.  Very very TALL girls.  82 years in.

The orchestra played “I am Woman.”  Oh my.

Here’s where we are:
Hurt Locker - 5
Avatar - 3
Precious - 2
Crazy Heart - 2
Up - 2
Basterds – 1
Blind Side – 1

This show will go over.
11:58 Best Picture – come on back up, KB

Hurt Locker - 6
Avatar - 3
Precious - 2
Crazy Heart - 2
Up - 2
Basterds – 1
Blind Side – 1

Here is a pic of a real EOD Unit

Remember your OIF and OEF troops by writing
A Recovering Soldier
c/o Walter Reed Army Medical Cntr
6900 Georgia Ave NW
Washington, DC 20307-5001

And thank your cable Help Desk.

Friday, March 5, 2010

New Lows in Comment Spam

My apologies to the faithful readership -- especially those who Comment -- for flipping the Moderation switch.  I know you like the immediacy of comment dialogue, and the additional steps for me to Accept comments (especially during my work day...) prolong that feedback.

You have already tolerated the Comment Verification (known in the biz as the CAPTCHA) that requires you to play Jumble before you can even send me your comment.  Spammers, like airplane bombers, will always be a step ahead of us.  But they make so much noise doing it that they are easy to spot.  It started with comments in Chinese (as if I might be flattered by the following) that were actually embedded URLs so that you, the curious, would be driven to some pharmaceutical site (also in Chinese) .  I have never understood how spammers make money through an approach like that. 
"Honey...?  Did you want some cheap pharma?" 
"What is it, dear?" 
"Oh, I don't know.  It's in Chinese.  But I linked here from Caroline's blog, so it must be ok..."

What's interesting is that this Commenter was validated as a human.  I don't think the spammers have cracked the CAPTCHA as much as they have found out that unemployed people really will do anything for some scratch.

The DrawingIn Room is currently under a barrage of Comment spam that has gotten downright raunchy.  The comment will typically call someone out by name (think of those spam emails you get with subject lines "Mary said you needed this.").  The comment will start with, "Mary, I know you read this site, and..."  In the Recent Comments widget, such as I use on this blog, the reader has to "Continue" to open the full text, which then turns into porno-spam and links to a site that is probably full of viruses (virtual and other kinds).

We have had similar trouble on the Finishing School Site, so now comments are moderated by me, and Rejected or Accepted manually before they appear.

What does this mean for you?  Your anonymity is still protected -- as much or as little as you care to say.  Blogger IDs are not required, and I hope they will not have to be.  The DrawingIn Room has always been public, and it is not my desire to limit Readership to a pre-approved audience.  Less drastic measures can be taken before then, but they get us farther and farther from supporting Comments at all.  And that would be too bad.

Looking out for you,

Monday, March 1, 2010

Oscar Strategy

My Oscar Strategy fell apart this year.  This is not entirely my fault.  Anyone can manage to see 5 Oscar nominees before the broadcast.  I saw 7 of 10.  I am not saying it is impossible to see 10.  Only impossible for me.

There is no secret behind choosing 10 nominees in a field where 5 will do.  Producers (no doubt with some incentive from ABC) strategize that with 10 films, fans (viewers) are more likely to find their favorite in the running (and tune in).  By this logic, there would be 4 teams in the Super Bowl.  So keep your eye on ABC.

This does more to the odds than simply split and block votes.  The Best Picture votes are also weighted by order of preference rather than simply finding a majority count.  As anyone who has selected Student Leader of the Year can tell you, this can have unexpected mathematical results when more people agree on the lower ranking film than the Best Picture.  The 3rd or 4th favorite could actually win Best Picture.  This explains the cheers when The Blind Side was read.  It is an even all-favorites contender, as is Up and Up in the Air, while most of the others will appeal to a fewer fraction as the “best.”  Still with me?  If you want to see what the odds-makers have to say about it, check out gambling911’s explanation.

This is the Drawing In Room’s 4th  Oscar ceremony, and as in the past years (2009, 2008, 2007), I hope to give you my commentary and freethink hour by hour.  It is the closest I can come to sharing this night with you.  It is otherwise sacred.  It has taken me a while to get enough opinion to post this year’s predictions, but I am now as close as I think I can get, unless Netflix delivers the Basterds before Sunday.  Not having seen 3 of these does not exclude me from having opinions about them, of course.

I had plans for seeing An Education – twice, in fact – but both times I came up with something better to do.  It made a compelling Masterpiece Theatre-type trailer,  but then I remembered I could catch a matinee of [Title of Show] in Boston, and another time a BPL exhibit on Edgar Allen Poe.  Did you hear me?  A collection of letters on Poe struck me as more compelling than this film.  For that reason only, I put it as my 10th choice, even though I know that if I saw it, I would probably like it.  Call this the “meh” position.   Plus, I still tend to get Peter Saarsgard and Steven Soderburgh confused, and I should be past that by now.

Inglourious Basterds has been at "long wait" in my queue for several weeks.  Netflix just keeps skipping over it.  Could one of you return yours, please?  Again, I will base my #9 rank on what I know about the film rather than what I don’t know, like… what it’s like.  I do enjoy Quentin Tarentino’s vision, about 50% of the time.  Other times he is too grindhouse for me.  I am not sure which 50% Basterds is, but I feel pretty strongly that a Tarantino film is not going to win the Oscar anytime soon.  I realize we said this once about Woody Allen, too, and every under-biting dog has his day, but I think it is not today.

I did not see Avatar either.  A few years ago, after suffering through the first LOTR, I decided I could give myself permission to skip nominees that I was pretty certain I was not going to like.  If there was ever a year to take advantage of that, it was a year of fitting 10 pictures into 6 weeks.  It has a better chance than where I am ranking it : #8.  I do find the technical achievements impressive and Performance Capture a fascinating development.  But I don't see in 3D in real life as it is.  And I was pretty sure it would be stupid. 

The slate of 10 is what gives the makers of District 9 the opportunity to use "Academy Award Nominee" in front of their names. A technical achievement in many of the same ways as Avatar, with a similar "alien like me" sensibility, District 9 is solid cinema that delivers on its premise.  That premise is derivative, and so is the film.   If you mistakenly watched Plan 9 or 9 instead of District 9... it won't really matter.  9 gets a 7.

In the middle field I am placing The Blind Side and Precious, and not for the same reasons.  I have mentioned above that The Blind Side, as the mainstream all-around-competent film most people in the industry can agree is good at being what it set out to be.  I lost track of my syntax there.  But what I am saying is that The Blind Side does not make any promises it can't keep.  File it under Mr. Holland's Opus.  Within 10 years it will be a Thanksgiving Day staple on TBS or TNT because American families love football and underdog stories.  And most of us want to think we would help out a kid like that, even if we wouldn't.

Much is being made of the Streep/Bullock face-off for Best Actress and here is what I will say about that.  Both played real women; both played outside their usual box.  Both put on a crazy accent and stood up to the system.  Neither played a death camp victim, prostitute, or mentally challenged musician.  So from there all you have is popularity among the branch.  And this may be a break-even.  Meryl Streep does get nominated a lot.  What she doesn't do is win.  Bullock can hold her own against someone who wins 1/8 of the time.

This puts Precious as my #5, and I want you to know that I really liked Precious.  First and foremost those performances, and I put Mariah Carey's disappearance into a disengaged Bronxy social worker ahead of Mo'Nique's reincarnation of Sybil's mother in the green kitchen.  Mo'Nique will blow your mind -- with TNT.

Precious does not have "weaknesses," but stylistic choices that took me out of its reality and made me feel like I could see the audience comment cards.  Precious's inner fantasies were too uneven for a motif, and felt borrowed from Slumdog Millionaire.  And like Millionaire's, this film's supposedly happy ending seemed ignorant of the fact that the character is no more prepared to face the opportunities ahead than she was the nightmare she was living.  Now she is homeless, HIV positive, and the mother of 2, one of whom has Down's Syndrome.  Still uneducated and 16.  What I loved are the performances, the chemistry between Precious and her teacher Miss Rain, and the merciful (though horrifying) revelation of how cycles of abuse continue.  I actually liked this better than Millionaire, yet we may not honor that story 2 years in a row.

Kathryn Bigelow's year?  May be.  The Hurt Locker was my Oscar front-runner, based only on industry buzz, until I saw it.  The buzz may still be correct, and there is no surprise if it wins.  Most pundits put this race between Avatar and Hurt Locker and everyone else can stay home.  This may be the kind of win that happens when people vote for what they think will win rather than what they think should win, simply because they want to choose a winner and not a loser.  We elect a lot of officials that way, so why not award Best Picture?   

The Hurt Locker's message comes in the final five minutes and 2 lines of the film.  It takes a long time to get there, and we are not particularly moved, because the guy is such a Asshole we are just glad to be rid of him.  I give it the 4-slot for creating a world and not explaining it too much (though the script is awkward in places, particularly in the beginning where men in a specific small sub-culture should not have to explain their jobs and their jargon to each other).  For creating a real sense of tension and confused feelings, for making me think for a moment -- like Blaster Mike -- that we could just kill this guy and no questions would be asked.  Side by side, frame for frame, this may be a better film than Platoon.  But I was moved by Platoon, and not moved at all by The Hurt Locker.

Here comes a surprise, then.  I am going to rank A Serious Man as #3.  Go ahead, challenge me.  I count on the Coens to take me some place unexpected and to rarely understand what is happening when we get there.  I believe what Charles Baxter said:
If you're trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven't found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides...I've had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I'm suspicious of them.
Narrative can be cathartic without epiphany.  And though I have never been able to pull that off as a writer myself, I am very appreciative as a reader (or viewer).  Add to that fresh characters and rich settings in the service of cinematic storytelling, without the crutch of voiceover and titles and explanatory flashbacks, and you have something truly transporting.

Are you reading ahead?  Stop that.  We are down to "films beginning with 'up' for 200, Alex." 

I had moderate expectations for Up in the Air.  In fact, I thought it was something very different from what it turned out to be.  This surprise may be driving my rank.  Market yourself as a throwaway, then show me something else, and you make a different impression.  Here again we have a world outside the mainstream with its own rules and culture, into which we are invited as long as we can keep up.  Why, you may ask, do I disdain science fiction and fantasy so much if this is what I respond to?  I'll have to get into that some other time.  It usually boils down to what I call the Dr Seuss postulate: It doesn't count as rhyming if you make the words up. 

What about all the voiceover, you ask.  Yeh, well.. that is a shame.  That could have waited for the Backpack seminar.  I should take off more points for that.  And there is not a lot of cinema at work either.  So let's call this by it's name:  I have both automated people's jobs AND been laid off.  So this may not be an objective reaction.  I may just have fallen hard for another story I now don't have to write.

I like Up in the Air even better as a companion piece to Up, a very different film about a man's relationship to his "stuff," and what it does to his ability to connect with the World.  Both characters are entrenched in a world of their making where everything is just so and unchanging until an over-eager companion barges through uninvited, with his/her own ideas.

I have heard the argument that animated films should not be in the Best Picture category, and I don't subscribe to that rule as an absolute.  I thought that Beauty and the Beast more than deserved their nomination when they broke the barrier on this category, and  Up surpasses that achievement with its originality.  I will concede that two animated films in the running (3 if you count District 9, and maybe we should) does start to overwhelm.  But I am not in favor of splitting Best Picture into a bunch of genres like drama, comedy, musical, etc. Otherwise you just have the Grammys.   So I will agree to this: if the other "best film" categories exclude a title from being best in show (documentaries, foreign films, shorts, and animated features could not be nominated) then I will support keeping animated features in the animated category.  But now we need to define what animated means.  And that could get very hairy.

For this year, Up is the best in show.  Up has achieved  the best in what this film set out to be through acting/characterization, art direction, animation, visual story telling, pacing, and  the narrative itself.  It is funny, sad, thought-provoking, exciting, insightful, satisfying.  If I were an Academy voter, I would put Up in my #1 slot and not worry at all what that might do to the chances of everyone else's #1.

Do you not agree with that which I have said to you now?