Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Win Your Office's Oscar Pool

 
It's the end of February and the Super Bowl is history. That means the fantasy football betting at work has been temporarily replaced by the Oscar pools.

Should be easy to win the pot on this, right? A lot fewer variables than the NFL.

The problem is no one's always got a clear line on who's gonna win the Oscars. They aren't really about which pictures are the best, so much as an excuse to have a 3-hour worldwide commercial for Hollywood (and so do they really care if it goes over the scheduled time?).

The raison d'etre of the show has always been showing clips, reminding you to rent last year's winners on VOD (oh yeah, Birdman), the nervous glamour on the red carpet, Kate's (and Cate's) designer dresses, and who's so drunk they mess up their acceptance speech.

But who gets the gold statues is increasingly impossible to predict -- #OscarsSoWhite not withstanding. The Academy tries each year to be more inclusive, nominating films no one's heard of, letting James Franco and Anne Hathaway host (ruin) the 2011, and featuring well-meaning foreign-based issue pictures for lesser awards to class up the joint.

How can you possibly win your Oscar poll this year? The secret to remember is the best films and performances seldom -- never -- get the prizes.

You saw who won the Golden Globes (The Martian as best comedy or musical, it must have been that Abba music on the boombox), and what the Spirit Awards has nominated (Carol, which only appears in the acting and adapted screenplay categories among Oscar's major awards). The most popular films of the year aren't even nominated (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron aren't "Oscar material"--they don't need the extra publicity push).

Inside Out, the 4th highest grosser of 2015, is safe, being in the animation ghetto; also, it's a little girl's bike. The front-runner among the best picture nominees, The Revenant at #17, is modest enough to pass the art-over-commerce test.

None of these are predictors for how to mark your ballot. But you can have the inside track, beat that Oscar pool and annoy your co-workers as you agree to take them to lunch next week when you trump the odds.

Here are the things to remember:

1. Don't watch any of the films beforehand.

No. Really. Millions of people try to see all the nominees in the weeks leading up to the broadcast to give the ballot an objective, fair ranking.

Don't.

Measures of quality will only confuse and confound you. What wins has little or nothing to do with actual accomplishment and everything to do with who's sleeping with who, whether or not the grosses were too big (but not too small), how many little people you pushed aside on the way up, or if they forgot to nominate you last year.  

This is inside baseball and you're better to read Deadline Hollywood than Manohla Dargis. Does it feel like it should win? What looks good on the front page tomorrow will statistically win more than the best film.

The more culturally acceptable and polite, the better the odds. Ergo, Crash beats Brokeback Mountain (2005), Out of Africa beats The Color Purple (1985), Ordinary People beats Raging Bull (1980), Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now (1979), the list goes on. The losers, all worthy, were made by young turks and maybe those guys hadn't paid their dues yet.

Their time will come (see 3 below). Shakespeare In Love won over Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that upset seemed to be about the size of Spielberg's bank account. Plus, Spielberg. (Nothing against any of the winners, but no one's teaching Gandhi in film school nowadays.)

The winner can't embarrass anyone when it's picked. If you steer clear of quality, you're alright. It's strictly business. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

The runners-up tend to engage with youth culture, which brings us to:

2. The Academy is old (and white) (and male).

The real truth is the Academy (spoiler alert) picks what it understands, and being made up predominately of old men who used to work in the industry (who are also, yes, mostly white) this year as much as any made it clear the field inadvertently gets biased towards films they feel comfortable with.

The voting ranks are filled with professionals at one point were nominated for or won an Oscar, or were invited by their peers (white, male nominees) to join.  It ends up being a self-selecting "minority" of the majority.

And until this year, you didn't leave the Academy until you died. The average age is 74. It is not a democracy. So imagine a screener of Straight Out Of Compton hitting a retired cinematographer's mailbox along with Spotlight. Which one gets popped in first?

Those Academy members might have voted for Compton when they were 22, but they weren't in the Academy when they were 22.

Remember who's casting the votes, and you can't go wrong on your Oscar poll. What would rich grandpa vote for?

(The Academy has recently revised its voting rules so that anyone who hasn't been "active" in the industry loses their voting status. This ensures younger voters will have more of a voice in future nominees, and will, for the good, dramatically change future ballots. Tab Hunter however will still be allowed to participate.)

(The full effect of this change remains to be seen. Next year's meme: #OscarsSoYoung.)

3. Timing is everything.

Oscar history is rife with people who won for "last year's performance," when the Academy failed to honor what they should have and are now playing catch-up.

Did Paul Newman really win in 1986 for The Color of Money, or for Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Verdict, The Hustler, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all of which he was nominated for but didn't win?

Jeff Bridges's Crazy Heart win (2009) is really acknowledgement for a long career of solid work. It's not because he did anything special in Crazy Heart he hadn't already done better in, for example, The Big Lebowski.

And speaking of the Coen Brothers, they've made better pictures than No Country For Old Men (2007) and there were better pictures that year, too. But there might not be another chance. (Hasn't been so far.) The Academy realizes time is running out. The Departed? MillionDollar Baby? Thanks for the memories, boys.

(This doesn't explain Argo.)

4. The "trash" awards.

All those minor awards -- documentary shorts, make-up, editing that take up the middle hour while you're making more margaritas and surreptitiously changing your ballot when the boss isn't looking? Just flip a coin. Only people in certain guilds are allowed to nominate and vote on these and who knows what the hell they think?

Difference between sound editing and sound mixing? Time for another margarita.

Besides, your poll probably only assigns a single point to each of these, a handful of darts in the dark. Odds are no one will get any more right than you did. (N.B: If it's French, knock it out. If the animated short's about a cat, automatic win.)

5. It ain't fair.

Mad Max: Fury Road consistently impresses in all the categories it's nominated for. I predict it'll win nothing important. It's a Mad Max movie. This is the Oscars. In a fair fight, Spielberg and Boyle would be with the director and Samuel L. Jackson would be representing The Hateful 8 instead of Jennifer Jason Leigh.

But Matt Damon lost all that weight on Mars and Leonardo DiCaprio wrestled a real bear.

Now you have the inside track. Good luck!



Thursday, February 4, 2016

So Lonely You Could Die

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David Bowie's penultimate album, The Next Day (2013, presumably created before he knew he had the liver cancer that would take him away) is soaked with anger, a dread of violence, and a sense of fighting against mortality that doesn't quite fit our idea of a retired 66-year-old rock star. After 10 years, Bowie was still writing -- and rewriting -- his legacy, calling out images reminding us of the old days, from space dancers to corpses hanging from trees.

"Here I am / not quite dying," he announces. And he's still the magpie he always was. He loved to  reference other songs, from The Beatles ("Beep beep") to Broadway show tunes ("Get me to the church on time") to old novelty songs ("Look at that caveman go").  Part of the fun is in the trainspotting.

And as always, The Next Day's referencing his past and also your impression of his past. The Tin Machine era aside, he continually referenced his earlier tones ("Ashes to Ashes"), and this one's not entirely brand-new Bowie either, as just adding extra notes (post-it?) on a previous iteration.

The cover fairly insists it's just a re-do of "Heroes" -- of course it's not. But its tonal and musical variety of anger and sometimes punk-inflected or broken drum signatures call back most Scary Monsters. "The day after Heroes"?  Yeah, close enough.

From bodies in trees to the armed shooter of "Valentine's Day" -- the lyrics are a dark update of Scary's schizophrenic urban nightmare. Within this context, the track "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die," on the face a romantic-sounding palate cleanser before the drone of the closer "Heat," emerges as something quite different, when digested with the rest of the meal.

The first clue something sinister is up comes from the title, an easy version of Hank Williams' 1949 standard "I Feel So Lonesome I Could Cry," but also calls back to Lennon's "Yer Blues" from the White album. A close reading of the lyrics reveals a night encounter with a lonely figure walking through the park, a silent gun, a character reviled for stealing "their trust, their moon, their sun." 

He's done something awful, and the moon (and the stars (out tonight)) and the sun can't help remind us of karma (instant) -- and those other elements all across the universe, which doubles the reference back to Bowie again (and further evokes whom he collaborated with on that particular record).

With images of rain-soaked streets and a cold concrete city, I can't help think the song's mourning a New York without John Lennon. We know that when Lennon was shot, Bowie was in NY playing on Broadway in The Elephant Man. He didn't make any new music for two years, and then it was the digestible, non-confrontational and non-obsessive Let's Dance. But the event didn't leave our new romantic completely unscathed.

Without naming the subject of the song, there's vitriol hiding behind his Elvis Presley croon. "I can see you as a corpse/ hanging from a tree... Please, please make it soon." Bowie wants him to die lonely, cold -- death his last and only companion.

There's some polite sympathy with "You got the blues, my friend" but Bowie's clipped and tense vocal, purposely limiting his own range past what might just be age (shades of his monotone delivery on Low), suggests he's spitting it out between his teeth. "People don't like you." Karma indeed.

And yet, the track has the romantic wash of a torch song. Bowie's given it the shade of a ballad about love lost (which it also is), disguising the venom behind a theatrical production closer to "Heartbreak Hotel" than to "Working Class Hero." Bowie doesn't ever make it too easy. He can't give everything away.

Ain't that just like him?