Sunday, February 22, 2009

Live Blogging the Oscars

Caught just a part of the Jackman intro. He's good, but Billy Crystal he's not. Too much talent, not enough "we're all in this together" charm.

James is finally in bed, we're watching some TiVo'd stuff. Thank God for Ben Stiller.

Seth Rogan bit... way too long.

Fast-forwarding through German guy.

Isn't it yet another sign of America's decline that we have to hire an Aussie to host the Oscars?

Oh no, he's going to sing again. Didn't we get rid of the song and dance numbers?

Beyonce got back. Obviously lip-synching, but the butt can't be faked.

Fast-forwarding through rest of overblown song-and-dance number. Wait, is that guys in tuxes playing snare drums?

I always wondered what ever happened to Cuba Gooding, Jr. Here he is!

"Seymour Philip Hoffman!" Bravo, Mr. Arkin!

Shit, I thought that was Burt Reynolds. It was just Josh Brolin.

Walken, oh my God. What's with the back bangs?

Kevin Kline looks old.

Does anyone think Heath Ledger isn't going to win this award?

Shit, I thought that was Yul Brynner. It was just Alan Arkin.

Heath wins. I can't say anything snarky. This speech from his family is authentic.

Werner! What kind of accent is that? It's more than German.

Time for Documentary. I think Bill Maher is presenting. He already made it clear on "Real Time" that he thinks he should have been nominated. I don't think he'll be able to resist making a similar sour grapes "joke" when he appears.


"Documentarians"? Is that a word?

I think "Encounters at the End of the World" is the only nominated movie that I actually saw. You should see it.

Upside-down Oscar trick. That's a first.

Why is it that the actual voiceovers for announcing the nominations are pre-recorded? It's always a little jarring to go from the live voice to the recorded voice. I guess actors can't be relied on to deliver their lines without screwing up.

Will Smith. You know, he could probably host sometime. He has the right energy.

"Slumdog" wins a sound editing award. America isn't hosting the show. America isn't winning the awards. (Wait, did that sound xenophobic? I just meant it to sound cynical.)

I have to say, I kind of like this year's set.

Film Editing award. I predict "The Dark Night." Nope, "Slumdog" again. Oh, a Brit.

A tribute to Jerry Lewis?! He's still alive?

Eddie Murphy. Wow, actually looking old. Jerry Lewis doesn't look half bad. Wow.

Why does Sean Penn always look like he's being uplit by a camp fire?

Very humble speech by Jerry Lewis.

Anne just said, "He is VERY fine" (re: Hugh Jackman).

Alicia Keys is very fine.

A.R. Rahman wins. This is seriously getting funny. We aren't even a super power on Oscar night! (He just said "God is great." Somewhere, Bill Maher just rolled his eyes.)

I'm not a very good judge of when people are stoned, but I think Alicia Keys is pretty much stoned all the time.

John Legend is a cool dude, no question about it.

Indians say "fillum"; the British Empire lives!

A foreigner even won Best Foreign Film! Where is the justice?!

I like Queen Latifah as much as the next guy, but why is she here every year?

I'm not liking this year's dead guy format. Too much attention on Queen L.; can't read the names of the deceased.

Michael Crichton died? Before global warming killed him?

Did they skip Heath Ledger? He died in Jan. 2008.

Reese Witherspoon. Lots of blue tonight. Unfortunately, most of it is in her eye shadow.

The director creates "one singular vision." Redundancy.

Ron Howard directed "Frost/Nixon"?!

Slumdog wins again. The Yanks are now, like 0 for the last 6.

Seriously, besides the screenwriter for "Milk," has an American individual won an Oscar tonight?

Halle Berry is the most beautiful woman in the world. Sorry, Gwyenth.

Please give it to Kate Winslet. Please give it to Kate Winslet...

Oh, Sophia. What the hell are you wearing, and what's up with your lips? Oh, you borrowed them from Angelina Jolie.

There's a peacock on Nicole Kidman's chest! (When did she go from beautiful to alien-like?)

Kate gets it. Thank God. (For the record, another non-American.)

More blue.

The dad whistle. That was cool.

Did Kate Winslet just tell Meryl Streep to "suck it up"?

(Hey, why no cutaways to a smug Jack Nicholson this year? Is there a Lakers game tonight?)

Woooowwww. Adrian Brody looks scary.

DeNiro rocks.

It's cheesy, but this peer-to-peer announcement thing works. At least for one year.

Anthony Hopkins is drunk.

Oh, Mickey! (Wait, did HE steal Angelina's lips?) Sean wins. He forgot to thank his wife. Hey, he's American! I don't mind the soap boxing, because I agree with it.

There's just no suspense for the Best Picture announcement. None at all. The only question is, will the cast and crew break into a song and dance number when they win?

There it is. "Slumdog" takes it.

Jackman: "Keep on making movies, and keep on going to them." Nice to end on a subtle hint of, shall we say, economic tension...

Thank you. Thank you all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who Says the Newspaper Is Dead?

Introducing America's newest newspaper, created by a five-year-old. You think he's kidding? Mom took him to make 10 color copies at Kinko's last night, and after school today, he's going to stuff them in plastic bags and deliver them to select houses on our block.

(I'm waiting for the day he says, "Daddy, today I want to start a social networking site!")

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PETA Controversy

A few weeks ago, I embedded a YouTube commercial Conk Creative co-produced for Anytime Fitness. As anticipated, that spot has now prompted a complaint letter from PETA.

The video, the PETA letter and Anytime's response are now on the corporate Anytime Fitness Facebook page, and the company is encouraging opinions. If you'd like to take a look, here's a link to the Anytime Facebook page. You can view the video (in HD no less), and comment in the Video or Notes sections, as well as on the Wall.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Learnings from a Funeral

The sad part isn't the framed photo in front of the altar, or the blue-and-green-checked cap or other assembled life artifacts. It's the looks on the faces of those who must wake without him. Unlike the sun, grief is more powerful when reflected.

Every young parent should pay special attention to the eulogies of bereft siblings. They don't reflect upon big birthday parties and expensive toys. They remember five things: long, sustained moments spent together (even in silence); the times you taught them something, anything; advice, so long as it proved wise; quirks (the stranger the better); and when you spoke lovingly of their other parent.

Eulogies are sometimes confessions. Sons confess the moments when they felt that they couldn't live up to their fathers.

It is rare indeed when someone says, "He did not leave any unfinished business." And when they do, one must look upon that as perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's Most Important Bill

Barack, Barack, Barack ...

I watched part of your press conference last night. Let me first say how refreshing it is to know that we're back to having a president with the guts to go on prime time and actually take (and answer) questions from the media in a partially unscripted format. But that's also part of the problem.

The shift in your effectiveness as a communicator makes a tangible clunking noise when you switch from "canned speech" mode to "off-the-cuff." It pains me, because I can actually hear the voices in your head as you formulate your answers. When a reporter asked about your lack of effectiveness in luring Republicans to your side of the stimulus debate, your inner voice said:

"Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with a bunch of Dittohead man-children legislators who divide the world into Evil Government vs. the Sacred and Infallible Private Sector? I mean, these people say they love America, but then despise the entity that manages it. They think government shouldn't do anything but funnel money to the private sector, which in this case has completely f***ed up. So when the people they govern have a serious problem, they just shrug their shoulders and walk away. How friggin' childish and lazy is that? What a way to view the world! What an easy job! What a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jeeeeez!"
Then you wish you could have prepared a speech to answer the question, which would have sounded something like:
"Just as we must reject the false choice between protecting our environment and growing our economy, now is the time to dismiss the myopic view of government and private sector as adversaries. To the men and women elected by the people to serve this great nation of ours, I say this. If you believe in the American promise--if you believe in serving the constituents who checked your name on the ballot--don't shrug your shoulders at their pain. Don't walk away from their suffering. Don't erode their trust. And do NOT dismiss their dreams."
But in the tug of war between these two voices, the actual voice that came out sounded like this:
"Now there are some folks... aaaand I acknowledge this... there are some folks who believe, fundamentally... thaaaaat government shouldn't intervene. Aaaaaand... I don't doubt their sincerity... but if that's... what you believe... theeeeen... I'm not sure... that's a productive view... aaaaand a view that I can work with. Aaaaaand..."
You need a little bit of The Bubba, Barack. You need to acquire the skills of an improviser. This doesn't mean anticipating every question and having a pat, meaningless answer. It means anticipating every question and packaging runs and fills that can be sprinkled throughout your answer. You do have an idea of how to respond to most questions, but first you struggle with how to say it diplomatically and respectfully, then you fall prey to temptations to digress on each element of the larger point. This has to change.

Bill was a sax player. He wasn't a great one, but he knew a few blues scales and some catchy runs and riffs. Over time, he developed the ability to improvise with the press, sprinkling his actual knowledge of the issues (a knowledge you obviously share) with images, metaphors and soundbites that got his point across while creating a clear dividing line between him and his opposition. And, unlike your furrowed-brow tone, he played this particular instrument with a mischievous smile that said, "I know this is a game, and damn if I ain't good at it. Suck it, Newt."

I know you can get there. And I hope you have eight years to hone your craft.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

But what is normal?

Rather than constantly making judgments about whether my five-year-old son is normal, I'm going to work from one of two premises: a) there is no such thing as normal; or 2) I have no way of knowing what normal child behavior is because James Kelley Conklin is the only child I have (and will ever have).

With that in mind, here is the Seamus Report from the weekend of Feb. 7, 2009:

* * *

Friday Morning:
Kid cannonballs onto our bed at 7 a.m. First words out of his mouth: "Mommy, is eight times eight 64?"

Saturday Morning:
Kid calls me into the bathroom where, while sitting on the pot, he asks me if I can find an "E" in the bathroom that isn't written on anything. I guess the towel rack, where two draping towels could be interpreted as a hanging sideways "E," (though admittedly lacking a third line). "No," he says, and points to the door hinge.

Saturday afternoon:
We're driving back from Northfield, playing the new Bruce Springsteen album in the car. On the opening track, "Outlaw Pete," Bruce repeatedly croons, "Can you hear me?" An annoyed response comes from the back booster seat, "Yes, we can hear you, Bruce Springsteen!"

Sunday morning:
I'm trying to get an extra half hour of sleep. James is typing at the computer, asking Anne how to spell "decided." Fifteen minutes later, he's presenting me with the newest page in his current book, "The Magic Paintbrush," which he is writing and illustrating, about a boy who buys a paintbrush at an art supply store, then discovers that everything he paints with it comes to life. (I'll share when the author deems it complete.)

* * *

Ten-odd years ago, I completed a spec screenplay called "Brain Child." It was based on a premise from two friends about a couple who have a hard time conceiving, but then when they finally do have a baby, discover that it can already talk. Among the reviews I received was one from a New York screenwriter who said, "At first, I liked the premise. The idea of a couple giving birth to a baby that is already more intelligent than they are seemed fresh and original, presenting many opportunities for interesting challenges and conflicts." He then proceeded to figuratively tear the script apart. After which point, I, humiliated, proceeded to do so literally.

I'm thinking of revisiting the premise.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Son Is on TV

I'm starting to wonder about this kid. The first Timberwolves game I took him to, he appeared on the Jumbotron. Now Anne takes him to the Science Museum and KARE-11 just happens to be shooting a segment. The boy has already used up about 35 seconds of his 15 minutes of fame.

Click here to link to the video.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Other Worlds

Of the people I've read, seen and listened to recently, three strange bedfellows have emerged: Ben Folds, Werner Herzog and Hooman Majd. That's fun to say. Read those names again, really fast.

Ben Folds has released a new album, "Way to Normal," which I've devoured in my car in the post-Christmas weeks. Two nights ago I watched the newest Werner Herzog documentary, "Encounters at the End of the World," on DVD. And three months ago, I bought and read Majd's nonfiction work, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, simply on a hunch after seeing him on "The Daily Show."

Each in its own way does what art is supposed to do: takes you to another world.

Herzog's film lacks a certain clarity, yet is visually, if not thematically, arresting. Inspired by gorgeous footage of a diver under the Antarctic ice shot by his cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog decides to earn a National Science Foundation grant and take a crew to McMurdo Station, the continent's largest settlement. He seems to have taken the trip with only a negative idea to guide him: "I will not make a movie about fluffy penguins." In the end, what he does is take you inside two places: 1) the minds of the cowboy researchers and explorers who are drawn to McMurdo; and 2) Antarctica's stunningly alien visual landscapes--most notably beneath the oceanic ice and inside a volcanic steam tunnel.

What's ultimately most interesting about the film is its juxtaposition of a certain DIY vibe (the people part) with a high-def reverence bordering on religiosity (the nature part). You meet a man who talks about icebergs with the smile of a new father. A woman who hitchhiked between continents while sitting inside a newly minted sewer pipe. A cell biologist who is convinced that human beings evolved from their microscopic ancestors to escape the incredible violence he studies among those creatures. A former banker who drives the Antarctic equivalent of a bus. And perhaps the world's only Bulgarian tractor-driver/philosopher. At the same time, you see ocean-floor dwelling creatures that will haunt your dreams, listen to seal calls that sound like Battlestar Gallactica, and see land- and seascapes so blue and magical, you could swear you've just entered a Yes album cover.

Hooman Majd's book is in some ways an even more deliberate attempt at transportation. As an American-born Iranian, Majd is the perfect ambassador to straddle both worlds and provide the translation. The structure and purpose of the book are simple: Majd takes a sort of Iranian road trip with the express purpose of trying to make an American audience see the complexities behind the evening news videos. Like Herzog's work, Majd's feels loose. His purpose is not to force anything; it's simply to travel, talk, experience, document, and then edit out all the boring stuff. Majd is not a particularly artful writer, but his sincerity of purpose is what matters. He seems authentic, and you trust him.

What emerges of most interest are, again, two things: the perspective of the Islamic Revolution (today celebrating its 30-year anniversary) as an escape from monarchy; and the image and symbolism of the Persian garden. These two forces strike an identifying blow, at least to this American. We tend to think of the move from Shah to Ayatollah as an odd choice for oppression. But to the vast majority of Iranians, it was the exact opposite (just because a leader wears Western clothes doesn't mean he isn't an evil monarch--perhaps the same kind of man who fueled our own Revolution). The garden is a compelling monolith-busting symbol, as Majd observes that for most Iranians, almost any rule is fine for when you're in public, but don't even think about enforcing it within the home and garden. Lord knows we also have our love of personal privacy. Iranians feel the same. In fact, their gardens provide the etymology of our word, "paradise."

And finally, Mr. Folds. No singer-songwriter has ever been as skilled at leaping from hilarious adolescent tantrum to soul-wrenching melodic sincerity. This album is certainly no exception, and might actually be his best. On first listen, it simply has plenty of both elements--on some tracks proving that the piano is, in fact, technically a percussion instrument; while on others, showing that Ben can match Elton and Billy damn near anytime he wants to.

On closer listen, I was struck by another songwriter contradiction that Folds somehow manages to transcend. His lyrics are alarmingly "on the nose"--meaning, on one level, they're so specific as to be impossible to apply to anyone else. Witness:

If I'm the person that you think I am.
Clueless chump you seem to think I am.
An errant dog so easily led astray,
Who occasionally escapes and needs a shorter leash, then
Why the fuck would you want me back?

Is there any doubt that Folds actually experienced being called "an errant dog" by his now former-wife? (If there's any doubt, he also includes a song called "Errant Dog.") Yet the title of this song is "You Don't Know Me"--a wonderfully simple universal sentiment of both bitterness and self-absorption that has probably been thought by every person at every age in human history.

Folds shouldn't be able to get away with this kind of thing (he's a sort of anti-Dylan in not providing any vague "I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it" lines to read between). Yet this song absolutely obsesses me in its tight perfection.