Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 — Pat’s Picks, Predictions and Potential Threats to Your Pool

Going to an Oscar party this Sunday night? If so, here is help for your Oscar pool —my fearless predictions for who will win, who should win, and the nominees who might upset the Academy’s applecart in the top six categories: picture, director and the four acting categories.  (For those of you who doubt my credentials, I have a success rate above 90 percent, and even when I am not correct, I am always certain.)


Truthfully, this year’s prognostication is a bit easier because of the momentum of La La Land, the frontrunner with 14 nominations. While a backlash against the film is possible, I doubt it. The film is appealing, accessible, and it is about Hollywood’s favorite subject: Itself. So it should dominate the awards, even against more deserving competition. Here is how I see the race shaping up:

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • MAHERSHALA ALI — Moonlight
  • JEFF BRIDGES — Hell or High Water
  • LUCAS HEDGES — Manchester by the Sea
  • DEV PATEL — Lion
  • MICHAEL SHANNON — Nocturnal Animals

PREFERENCEMahershala Ali. I never saw Ali’s work before, but he captivated my attention in this film and also with a gentle yet commanding turn in Hidden Figures. I am a fan of his going forward, and I’m cheering for him here.
PREDICTION Mahershala Ali. Ali won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award, and the actors comprise the largest block in the Academy membership. Also, his lovely supporting performance in Hidden Figures allows the Academy to honor his body of work for the year.
POOL DISRUPTOR?Dev Patel. Patel has been a reliable actor since he was in a previous best picture, Slumdog Millionaire. He also won the UK’s BAFTA award, so he could steal this. However, it’s more likely that the nomination itself is his recognition.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE


  • VIOLA DAVIS — Fences
  • NAOMIE HARRIS — Moonlight
  • NICOLE KIDMAN — Lion
  • OCTAVIA SPENCER — Hidden Figures
  • MICHELLE WILLIAMS — Manchester by the Sea


PREFERENCE — Viola Davis. Davis conveys a wide variety of emotions throughout this film, ranging from joy, to disappointment, to sorrow, to anger, and finally to acceptance. No actress supported a film as magnificently as she did.
PREDICTION — Viola Davis. Davis could have been submitted for lead actress but traded down to ensure a win. One of Hollywood’s most respected players, she has won everything else in this award season, and she is due.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Sorry, but no one will upset Ms. Davis. I have as much of a chances of nabbing this award as the other four nominees do. This is as close to a lock as you will ever see in an Oscar race.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • CASEY AFFLECK — Manchester by the Sea
  • ANDREW GARFIELD — Hacksaw Ridge
  • RYAN GOSLING — La La Land
  • VIGGO MORTENSEN — Captain Fantastic
  • DENZEL WASHINGTON — Fences


PREFERENCE — Viggo Mortensen. As the iconoclast raising his kids off the grid, forced to face the real world (literally and figuratively) during a tragedy, Mortenson gives a believable and original performance. But he is a Hollywood outsider, so unlikely to win here. 
PREDICTION — Denzel Washington. Affleck had been the front-runner (which I don’t get, given his monotonous, zombie-like performance). But his recent bad behavior has reportedly turned off voters. Between that and his SAG win, the iconic Washington is poised for his third Oscar. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Ryan Gosling. He reached outside his range by singing and dancing in La La Land. Given that the film is this year’s darling, he could possible ride its coattails to his first Oscar in an upset.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE


  • ISABELLE HUPPERT — Elle
  • RUTH NEGGA — Loving
  • NATALIE PORTMAN — Jackie
  • EMMA STONE — La La Land
  • MERYL STREEP — Florence Foster Jenkins


PREFERENCE — Emma Stone. Okay, her singing and dancing were passable. But when Stone emoted in this role, she showed a range most performers don’t have. She’s this year’s Jennifer Lawrence; she is already due for an Oscar even at her young age.
PREDICTION — Emma Stone. Since her breakout in Easy A, Stone has worked steadily and reliably, amassing an impressive portfolio. Given her SAG victory over much of this same field, and the way Oscar likes pretty young woman, the odds favor her. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Isabelle Huppert. A respected and much-honored European actress, voters may feel her time has come (surprisingly, her first Oscar nod),  and that younger actresses like Stone and Negga still have time, while Portman and Streep already have their Oscars.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • LA LA LAND —  Damien Chazelle
  • MOONLIGHT —  Barry Jenkins
  • HACKSAW RIDGE —  Mel Gibson
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA —  Kenneth Lonergan
  • ARRIVAL —  Denis Villeneuve

PREFERENCE — Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve fashioned an otherworldly world, portraying extraterrestrials uniquely, creating a new language, and manipulating the time/space continuum. Considering that La La Land’s Chazelle openly cribbed from a variety of past musicals, Villeneuve’s work was startlingly original by comparison. 
PREDICTION — Damien Chazelle. When Chazelle made Whiplash some years back, I called him an emergent and visionary artist. Now he’s made the feel-good movie in a year when we really needed something to feel good about, and he’ll be rewarded for that.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Barry Jenkins. Jenkins is the flavor of the month, making his first feature on a shoestring, turning a profit with it, and shining a light on a neglected segment of society. He could be a surprise winner here.

BEST PICTURE

  • ARRIVAL
  • FENCES
  • HACKSAW RIDGE
  • HELL OR HIGH WATER
  • HIDDEN FIGURES
  • LA LA LAND
  • LION
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
  • MOONLIGHT 

PREFERENCE — Arrival. Perplexing and challenging, Arrival’s cinematic qualities are unique. It moves us not only around our world and beyond, but to the interiors of its characters, exploring how we may choose to love, even in the face of preordained tragedy. 
PREDICTION — La La Land. Singing and dancing, starring two young and charming performers. What’s not to love about this confection? People complain that “They just don’t make movies like that anymore!” Damian Chazelle did, establishing his future in Hollywood by mining its past.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Hidden Figures. This won the SAG‘s “best ensemble” prize — essentially that group’s best picture award. Could there be an undercurrent of Oscar voters dying to honor this sweet movie? If any film is poised to upset LLL, this could be it.

Feel free to toast me when you astound your friends and family with your uncanny predictions. And if it turns out that I’ve misled you, just load up on the guacamole dip and enjoy the rest of the party. After all, it’s only the Oscars.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oscars 2017 -- Slim Pickings in a So-so Year

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which movies of 2016 are the best. The result for me is that I am less interested in this Oscar cast that I have been since Driving Miss Daisy nabbed the top prize in a snoozer of a ceremony.
This is a down year for me. There are many good films here, but none that I would term great. I doubt that there are any classics here, and I also don’t think that the Academy overlooked any hidden or underappreciated gems. Simply put, I think there were slim pickings in 2016.
Still, this is a task I take on, so here is how I rank the nine nominated films, in descending order. These are not my predictions, but my estimation of their innovation, uniquely cinematic quality, and overall excellence. I have often stated that I follow the Roger Ebert rule. I think the best film of a given year should make me look at cinema differently. Only one film did that for me in 2016.
By the way, there is one common positive element among all the nominated films this year: The acting is really good, not just among the Oscar nominees, but throughout all the casts. It used to be said that film is a director’s medium while the stage belongs to actors. But this year’s crop of performances must have been hard to pare down. Bravo to all.

So here goes.

How Did That One Get In?

9. Lion — This movie has all the earmarks of Oscar bait: A pathetic child. Let’s elaborate on that: Make that “a pathetic child who is separated from parents.” Heart-rending absences.  Climax of an inevitable and predictable closing. (I won’t detail the closing because I don’t want you to say I spoiled it for you. But if you operate on a mental level above Forrest Gump’s, you’ll see it coming a mile away.)  The plot of this two-hour film could have been told in about 40 minutes. Instead, it is padded with B reel of train rides, Google Earth looking down on terrains, and faces filled with longing. While I am happy to see Dev Patel get an overdue acting nomination, Lion is the Filomena of 2017, a cloying film that breaks no cinematic or scriptwriting ground, but instead relies on sentimental clichés.

Worthy Competitors

8. Fences —Denzel Washington’s challenge in directing Fences was to free it from its stage origins. While the film is still more talky and “stagey” than you want a film to be, Washington triumphs in the raw emotion he conveys, thanks to the wonderful performances he elicits from his skilled cast. Yes, let’s just hand Viola Davis her Oscar now. What you’ve heard is correct; she IS that great as long-suffering Rose, wife of protagonist Troy Maxson. Washington himself is terrific in the lead, and given his recent Screen Actors Guild award, I predict he will win Best Actor. They are both ably supported by a fine cast, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize –winning play (which he adapted for this movie) has created a new Death of a Salesman, replete with anguish, disillusionment and betrayal. Washington has honored Mr. Wilson’s work with this adaptation.

7. Moonlight — I admire much about this freshman effort from director Barry Jenkins. The autobiographical story of its main character, Chiron, is moving as the young man gropes for his place in the world. Moonlight is also filled with terrific performances, particularly Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as the neighborhood drug dealer who mentors the boy. That Jenkins could shoot his film so quickly and so quickly and have it turn a profit is remarkable. However, I found that its torpid third act, which goes nowhere for the longest time, killed the momentum built to that point. I expect a well-deserved Oscar for Ali, who is charismatically electrifying in every frame he fills. I also foresee an undeserved adapted screenplay award to Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. I predict that in a few years we will wonder what the hubbub of this film was about.

6. Hacksaw Ridge — This film tells the dramatic story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during The Good War who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, not by killing a single enemy soldier but by saving 75 fellow soldiers.  I found Hacksaw Ridge to be the most technically accomplished film of all nine nominees. Its cinematography, production design, editing and special effects are superb. Though the film is a little long, director Mel Gibson still manages to navigate the narrative skillfully. Along the way he gets fine performances from his actors, your typical Hollywood cast of ethnic and temperamental misfits who come together (predictably) on the battlefield. Andrew Garfield does a fine job of bringing Doss’s unlikely story to life. It is a story well worth telling, and Doss is a man who deserves to be remembered. I am grateful for Hacksaw Ridge.

5. Hidden FiguresHidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA during the nascent years of the U.S. space program. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the impossibly brilliant mathematician at the center of the film. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) takes it upon herself to guide the space agency into the computer age, wresting control of the behemoth IBM machine that lands there. Finally, Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, fighting in court to attend a segregated classroom to become an engineer. The trifurcated story moves gracefully under the skillful direction of Theodore Melfi. There are cliché moments to be sure (The boss crowbars the sign to a segregated ladies’ room! The snooty white male mathematician gets his comeuppance!). Still, even though Hidden Figures does not always amount to high drama, it typifies Hollywood when its heart is in the right place.

4. Hell or High Water — Such a pleasure to see this polished gem get the recognition of Oscar love! Hell or High Water is a fitting morality tale for this era of resentment against the haves of this country by their victims. Two brothers rob banks so they can get back the ranch that was once theirs — hitting the very banks that bilked their family!  Solid performances abound. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the brothers play two men searching for justice rather than revenge, with Pine measured and controlled and  Foster like a pop bottle ready to explode in the hot Texas sun. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham anchor the film with supporting performances as the sheriff and deputy hunting the criminals. David Mackenzie shows a real feel for the land and character portrayed in the movie, directing this film with an economy and focus that wastes not a frame.  

3. La La LandLa La Land begins on a Los Angeles off-ramp filled with stalled cars. Suddenly the drivers dance in one of the most vibrant movie openings ever filmed. We also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who are searching for love and stardom, he as a jazzman, she as an actress. What an opening!
Apparently this film is everyone’s darling, but after this auspicious opening, it moves unevenly, charming at times, but also settling to a snail’s pace. I liked La La Land, but not as much as everyone else seems to, and not even as much as I wanted to.  How groundbreaking is a musical that admittedly borrows liberally from past works? Also, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone kind of sing and dance, but not well enough to anchor a movie like this. I appreciate the chutzpah of making a musical in these grouchy times, but it didn’t make my number 1.
(As a bonus to my readers, here is a link to a Saturday Night Live sketch that I loved. It features a suspect being grilled by the police for having the impudence NOT TO LOVE LA LA LAND! It also helps explain why it didn't make the top of my list.)

2. Manchester by the Sea —Lee Chandler is a struggling laborer, suffering silently through an untold tragedy (voiced later in a heartbreaking piece of acting by Michelle Williams).  Then Lee is unexpectedly tasked with caring for his late brother’s son, a role he neither wants nor seems suited to.  As we slowly uncover Lee’s character in Kenneth Lonergan’s moving screenplay, there are no grand heroics. We witness the quotidian triumphs we achieve in our everyday responsibilities. Some films eschew cheap sentiment, loud music, and other tricks to move us. Better films earn our engagement by appealing to our common humanity. Manchester by the Sea is a fine example of the latter, a movie that seems populated by real people like you and me. (By the way, one negative point here: I do not get the acclaim for Affleck in the lead. I don’t believe that moping around with your mouth open constitutes great acting.)

1. Arrival — Roger Ebert once stated that film directors are “set free from the rules of the physical universe and the limitations of human actors, and can tell any story his mind can conceive.” This principle puts Arrival at the top of my list of the Oscar-nominated films of 2016. I found it to be the entry that most tested our notions of how to use film not only to tell a story but to challenge our imaginations.
Arrival is what’s known as “a thinking person’s science fiction movie.” Sometimes that phrase refers to a movie that is absent special effects and, worse, dull. But Arrival is perplexing and complicated, and it is also surprisingly moving. The story begins when spaceships from an unknown, unnamed planet land at seemingly random spots around the world. A group of linguists, including Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is gathered to determine how to communicate with these aliens. What is their mission? Are they on earth in peace or to conquer us?
To complicate matters for us, the viewer, director Denis Villeneuve has the film jump back and forth in time and place, showing Louise with a small child and then a young adult woman. Is this one and the same person? What is the story here?
I can’t say too much more so as not to give away the plot. But I will say that I have viewed great films over the years that use editing to alter our sense of time and place and also to advance several stories at one time. Examples include the great silent film, Intolerance, as well as Citizen Kane, Nashville, Crash and Inception. Villeneuve took a seemingly unfilmable short story and brought it to life on the big screen, testing our very notion of this temporal world (a key plot point) as only cinema can.
NOTE: Villeneuve is in the post-production of Blade Runner 20149, the sequel set 30 years after the original. I can’t wait to see what he does with that material.


So once again, I will take a look at next Sunday’s broadcast, curious to see who wins but not in very much suspense. I will probably not even be overly engaged. I expect La La Land to take the lion’s share of the prizes (e.g., best picture, director, actress, probably score and one of the songs, maybe even best original screenplay). But I am already holding out to see what is released in the remainder of 2017, hoping for some films that are a little bit better that this year’s crop.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Look at Oscar's Nominees (and One More for Good Measure)

Another year, another list of nominees, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which films released in 2015 may be the best. For me, this is a down year. Twelve months ago, I wrote in this annual blog that I could make a case for any of the eight films that were nominated. And I termed my top film, Birdman, a film for the ages. This year, I am underwhelmed. I found all the nominated films good, but none of them great. In fact, I think the Academy whiffed on the truly best film of the year, and that will be my bonus selection later. 

As in years past, I rank the nominated films in ascending order. This is not my prediction of who will win, but how I rank the films against each other according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. 

The Head-Scratcher
8. Bridge of Spies —Steven Spielberg has lately turned largely to history in his films (e.g., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, all masterpieces in my view). Bridge of Spies takes place during the Cold War, and in Spielbergian fashion, it hits the right notes at first. The film boasts two skillfully understated performances: the  reliable Tom Hanks as James Donovan,  the negotiator horse trading with the Soviet Union to bring home not just U2 pilot Gary Powers, but also an unjustly jailed math student, and Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy who is trade bait. Yet this film left me cold in the end, overly long, with a pace that often had me checking my watch. I found nothing cinematically outstanding about it, so it’s the one film here that has wondering how it was included.
(I would have preferred to see Ryan Coogler’s Creed get this spot. Coogler essentially rebooted the Rocky franchise for the 21st century, and that was daring. After this film and Fruitvale Station, I look forward to seeing more from this talented filmmaker.

Worthy Competitors
7. Room — Film at its best creates an entire world that envelopes its viewers. Director Lenny Abrahamson has accomplished the impossible:  He re-creates a tiny world where Ma and her five-year-old son, Jack, live — a 10-foot space, a universe Jack knows only as “room.” In short order, we learn Ma (nee Joy Newsome) was kidnapped at age 19 by “Old Nick,” a neighborhood psychopath who built “room” solely to hold her prisoner.  We can infer that Jack is the Nick’s son, born and raised in captivity, yet thriving because of Ma.
Brie Larson brings the character of Ma to life admirably, including the phases of peaceful protection, planning the escape, and dealing with its aftermath. She is likely to be named best actress, a deserving honor, though I would prefer that Charlotte Rampling win for her elegance nuances in 45 Years. Still, Room is a noteable achievement; like Ma, it thrives triumphantly within its confines.

6. The Revenant — You may be surprised at my low ranking for this film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to Birdman, last year’s best picture. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a trapper left for dead in the woods. When he revives, he seeks revenge on his would-be murderer (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio is brilliant in a feral and virtually wordless performance, which leaves him to communicate Glass's pains, fears and hatred through his face and grunts. The Revenue has many merits, most notably Emmanuel Lubezki‘s startling cinematography. He and Iñárritu committed to shooting the entire film in natural light, and the result is a spectral tone poem that testifies to the power and beauty of nature. But I also found The Revenant to be bloated in length, at least 30 minutes too long. DiCaprio will likely (finally) get his Oscar. In addition to the awards for cinematography, I think it may capture direction and Best Picture. But it’s not at the top of my list.

5. The Martian — This is an audience favorite that is also as finely crafted a film as they come. Credit that to veteran director Ridley Scott (still without an Oscar! And no nomination this year!). In a tidy and economical piece of opening exposition, we meet astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his fellow explorers on Mars. Soon Watney is stranded when the crew mistakenly escapes without him. The Martian documents Watney’s survival techniques, whether it’s his protection from the elements or his ingenious use of (his own) human waste to grow food. Ultimately, the film is about our human connections, as Watney’s plight becomes a cause célèbre back on planet Earth. Though the final scenes are both emotionally overwrought and somewhat corny, they are also genuinely exciting and moving. The Martian delivers the fun and reminds us why we love the movies.

4. Brooklyn — This exquisite film is anchored by the lovely Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis, a young Irish woman who makes the difficult decision to move to America for a better life. The film documents her entry to the new world as sensitively as any since the Ellis Island scenes in The Godfather II. Eilis finds work through the patronage and guidance of her fellow Irish who had preceded her. She even falls in love with an unlikely Italian American (a career-making performance by Emory Cohen). But when a personal tragedy leads Eilis back to Ireland, she faces a personal crucible that teaches her the true meanings of home, country and identity. I don’t expect this flawless gem of a movie to win one Oscar, but let’s at least pay attention to its star. If you want to remember her name, just know that it’s pronounced “Ser-sha,” like inertia — indicative, I hope, of this talented actress’s momentum.

The Contenders
These last three films are my personal favorites, and I think they may also be the finalists for the top prize. If any one of these wins Best Picture, I’ll be pleased. 

3. Spotlight — It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. Spotlight proves the opposite — that a superlative script is worth a thousand gratuitous visuals. It is about the Boston newspaper team that uncovered the child abuse scandal covered up by the archdiocese. 
But “uncover” may be too strong a word; the journalists more or less stumble upon the case, learning that the facts may have been under their noses for too long. On one hand, much of Spotlight is All the President’s Men for the 21st century, detailing the shoe-leather procedurals that slowly revealed the facts of the case. But on a deeper level, it is also about the complicity of so many Bostonians who may have turned their heads in an effort to leave well enough alone. That may be the illustrative point of this deceptively remarkable film. 

2. The Big Short — Hollywood should just take Michael Lewis’s manuscripts and make movies from them before they even go to press. After Moneyball and The Blind Side, Lewis’s books are clearly box office gold in the right hands. Director Adam McKay — a man known for such silliness as Anchorman I and II, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers — created this smart and fast-moving film about the collapse of the real estate market and the wise guys who capitalized on it. McKay’s many clever techniques to instruct the audience include subtitles, cutaways to instructional segments (Anthony Bourdain and a fish stew analogy! Margo Robby in a bubble bath!), even breaking the fourth wall, where characters turn mid-scene and address the audience directly. Mix in the imaginative editing that adds an urgent energy, and you have what is probably the best film ever about finances. The funniest, too. 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road — I tend not to like action films like these, but I was enthralled by George Miller's 21st century incarnation of his dystopian saga. This film was extremely well crafted, including the production design, the non-stop film & sound editing, and particularly the wonderful cinematography by Oscar-winner John Seale. Even though I predicted that The Revenant would be the film to beat for the cinematography Oscar, Seale's work is at least equal. 
Miller, like Ridley Scott, shows that directors can maintain their chops into their seventh decade. While some may be turned off by the cacophonous energy and visual onslaught of Mad Max, I encourage viewers to look past that and concentrate instead on the imagination and superb execution that Miller and his team brought to this ambitious and stunning piece of work.

So this was the list of nominees I had to work with. But I think the Academy blew it this year, so I am going to name my own best film of the year, which is…

INSIDE OUT
If movies’ goals are to make us see a compelling message, then Inside Out is this year’s most absorbing film. This remarkable, primary-hued romp is set inside the mind of Riley, an 11 year-old whose world is turned upside down after her father’s job forces her family to move from the familiar confines of Minnesota to the alien world of San Francisco. Well, actually, many of us know that the City by the Bay is spectacularly lovely… but not to this preteen whose fragile and still-developing psyche is not yet equipped to handle such change.

The script is smart, and it brings to life and to bright light the difficulties of preadolescent youth. It would be easy to dismiss the script as an adaptation of Psychology for Dummies. That would be too easy. It takes a lot of smarts to write a movie about such an arcane subject as the interior workings of the human mind, and an 11-year-old human mind at that. 
We encounter all this tumult among the avatars who live inside Riley’s head.  The leader is the indomitable Joy, joyfully voiced by the perfectly cast Amy Poehler. Bill Hader plays Fear, high strung, high energy and high maintenance. Mindy Kaling is Disgust, and who else could play Anger but Lewis Black, as volcanic on screen and aurally as he is on stage. Finally, there is Sadness, played by The Office’s Phyllis Smith. In many ways, she is the sweetest character in the film, loveable in her melancholy and giving voice to Riley’s most legitimate apprehensions. Though not one of Riley’s emotions, Richard Kind does a wonderful job playing Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend. This rainbow-colored elephant makes a surprise return when Riley needs him most, and I found this character most poignant.

Screenwriter Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley weave the inner workings of the mind into a kaleidoscopic amusement park filled with twists, turns and hidden dangers, much as you might find when you venture off the beaten path of a circus, behind the sideshow tents. Ostensibly for kids, I felt Inside Out’s emotions and insights were strictly for adults. There are moments when we older members of the audience are reminded of when we lost our childhood innocence. If you didn’t shed a tear during the third of this film, well, then, I don’t think I want to know you.

I know that Inside Out is up for best animated feature, and maybe I should be satisfied with that. But other animated features have been nominated for best film (e.g., the Toy Story sagas, Beauty and the Beast), so I contend that Inside Out was wrongfully snubbed this year. For its combination of insight, compassion, humor and intelligence, all made possible through sheer mastery of film, I say that Inside Out is the best film of the year, easily outclassing the other nominees that the Academy put up.

Well, I will be firmly on my sofa this Sunday night to see who wins what. I also look forward to seeing what Chris Rock brings to the event, especially in light of the ongoing diversity issue at the Oscars. I know that this year’s crop is a little substandard, but the Oscars are like sex: even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Hooray for Hollywood.

Monday, February 16, 2015

2015’s Best Picture Nominations Mirror a Good Year for Movies

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded their nominees for the Best Picture Oscar from five to as many as ten in 2009, the list has sometimes seemed bloated to me. I mean, really, how many people remember A Serious Man from that year? But 2015 is different. I could make a case for any of the eight films that are nominated, each being worthy film achievements in their own rights. I don’t find one head-scratcher in the bunch, not a single one in which I said, “How did THAT sneak in?”

As in years past, I rank the nominated films, in ascending order. However, don’t take any individual position as a snub. Ranking these films is tantamount to comparing students who have earned an “A” with a grade of 90 versus a 99. The only distinction is my #1 film, which I believe is not only far and away the best film of this year but one that is a groundbreaker that will stand the test of time.

Again, these are not my predictions for the Oscar, just the way I would arrange them on a cinematic continuum. I’m confident that the final awards will be different, but I’m also confident that, regardless of the outcome, no selection will be undeserved, regardless of how surprising it may be.

8. The Theory of Everything — In the tradition of My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, James Marsh’s keenly felt and sensitive film about Stephen Hawking puts us in the center of a man’s debilitation. Marsh’s storytelling moves tidily into Hawking’s courtship of his wife, Jane (exquisitely, delicately portrayed by Felicity Jones), the discovery of Hawking’s ALS, and Jane’s decision to marry him anyway, determined to enjoy whatever time they have. As we proceed through their difficult life together, Eddie Redmayne, in the title role, gives an excruciating performance, one that I predict will get the Best Actor Oscar. Redmayne evokes nuances that only a most disciplined actor could achieve. I only wish that this film’s definition of “...Everything” included Hawking’s actual theories and how they illuminated physics for so many people. That would have made this fine film more complete for me.

7. American Sniper — Clint Eastwood shows yet again why he is one of our finest directors over the last 35 years. This portrait of Chris Kyle, the eponymous sniper, takes us into the psyche of a soldier with a specific and unique role in warfare. The combat scenes are tense at times, harrowing at others, but always realist. Bradley Cooper, bulked up for the role, can now be recognized as one of the more versatile actors of his generation with his third consecutive Oscar nomination. (By the way, how was the wonderful Sienna Miller overlooked for her portrayal of Kyle’s loving but suffering wife?) Forget the phony debate of whether this is a prowar or antiwar film. It is a look at a man who fulfilled his duty to country distinctively.

6. Boyhood — I knew a film director who, when asked what he did for a living, said “I manipulate time and space.” Richard Linklater proves this view with Boyhood. It is the story of Mason, told over 12 actual years, which lets the film’s characters age in real time. Linklater’s commitment to this innovative technique is marked by his devotion to craft. The consistency in characterization, performance, even film stock, is remarkable. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give loving performances as Mason’s parents, and Arquette seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actress Oscar. For me, the one downfall is the story itself, which I found wanting. Many have excused this aspect, saying Boyhood shows the ordinariness of life. Yes, a story in any medium can show the mundane, but it should also have a dramatic arc. This deficiency diminished Boyhood for me.

5. The Imitation Game — This remarkable story of how mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turning helped break the Nazis’ Enigma code unfolds in a roundabout way that illustrates the injustice shown its subject. The film begins with Turing’s arrest for homosexuality, and only as the police investigation unfolds do we learn of Turing’s titanic contribution to the Allied war effort. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a magnificent and heartbreaking performance, portrays Turing as a guy who didn’t fit in with others, even as he towered over them in intellect, leadership and achievements. Though the film’s subject of computer science could have been arcane, director Morten Tydlum makes it accessible and comprehensible to the audience (a contrast to the treatment of Stephen Hawking’s scientific work in The Theory of Everything). In the end, we are confounded with how such an important and valuable human being could have been so mistreated simply for being who he was.

4. Whiplash — Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a promising young drummer honing his craft at a New York conservatory of jazz. He comes under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in the performance of a lifetime), the revered and feared bandleader. Neimann comes to be terrorized by Fletcher, whose motives are not made clear: Is he pursuing perfection at all costs? Or is he merely a controlling sadist? Miles Teller shines as Neimann, fulfilling the promise he showed as a teenage alcoholic in The Spectacular Now. But Whiplash belongs to Simmons, and he is practically assured an Oscar for his performance. Writer/director Damien Chazelle emerges as a talent as auspicious as Andrew. While the third act strains credibility (a shortcoming in the screenplay), the overall film explodes with a kinetic intensity that I have rarely seen. Whiplash is a unique vision by an emergent talent.

3. Selma —One scene defined Selma for me: Martin Luther King (wonderfully portrayed by David Oyelowo), on his way to Selma to capture the vote for African Americans, stops with his lieutenants at a friend’s home for breakfast. They savor the meal laid out for them, laughing and relaxing as only good friends do. In a single stroke, director Ava DuVernay shows the humanity of those who led the civil rights movement, making them more than plaster saints. DuVernay, a one-time documentarian, imbues Selma with a sense of authenticity rarely seen in historical films. Her King is not only regal, but flawed (his adulteries are referenced) and given to uncertainty. How DuVernay could have been passed over for Best Director in favor of  Bennett Miller’s somnambulant helming of Foxcatcher is beyond me. Her work on Selma breathed new life into a story that is already a familiar part of the American canon, casting it in a fresh light.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Jean-Luc Godard said “cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” I prefer to think of movies as a place where we create exquisite illusions. Given that, The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most delightful films I saw all year — a concoction of artifice and whimsy, centered on an imaginary Eastern European country that must fight for its existence. The unconventional visual style of the movie unfolds more like a storyboard or a comic strip, which is the very antithesis of filmmaking, but Anderson makes it all work. I have not always found Wes Anderson’s styles endearing (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, yes. Moonrise Kingdom, no). But The Grand Budapest Hotel was a treat for me, a break from the familiar tropes of conventional filmmaking and one of the most imaginative films of 2014.

1. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Film critic Godfrey Cheshire once said of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's masterpiece, that it had “the epic collision of talent and ambition…. It exudes the wonder and thrill of artistic discovery, the giddiness of high-stakes daring, the narcissistic pull of power, fame and youthful self-regard.” I would apply these same words to Birdman, an audacious film that takes us into the state of mind of a desperate man, Riggan Thompson, an actor once famous for the Birdman superhero franchise, Today, years after he abdicated that role, Thompson is going for broke, betting all his remaining cash and the remnants of his reputation on a single roll of the dice. And like his film’s main character, director Alejandro G. Innaritu pulls out the stops, innovating story-telling techniques that will influence films for years to come.

As I watched Birdman, I couldn’t believe the long tracking shots, wondering when they would end. (Could they go on forever? They seemed as if they would.) Not merely a novelty, these seemingly inexhaustible shots informed the desperation of the main character and the chaos in the Broadway show that he was staging in this last gasp of his career. One must not overlook the practical challenges Innaritu faced in executing such shots; one error by an actor reciting a line, one inadvertent intrusion by an errant camera operator, and it all starts at the beginning. Yet the director pulled it all off, completing the film within a tight budget and a tighter deadline. 

Equally daring was the unusual score of the film, a driving piece of percussion performed on a single set of drums. I haven’t heard such a choice since the 1950s (e.g., Sweet Smell of Success), and it works. Such cinematic sleight of hand hangs together on the screen through Michael Keaton, giving the most physically demanding performance I saw this year. He appears in nearly every frame, so the success of Birdman depends on him. Keaton blurs the lines between sanity and madness continuously, letting us see every stage of Riggan Thompson abjection as he strains to regain relevance. For me, Keaton’s performance is the best of the year, a tour de force that plumbs the depths of his talent and the breadth of his risk taking. (How many other actors would allow themselves to be photographed on the streets of New York in their tidy whities?)

Innaritu has already won top prize of the Director’s Guild of America, and I believe he will repeat at the Oscars. It would be just. Birdman is an exhilarating work that shows us what film is capable of accomplishing, as it cuts across time, through space, and even in and out of sanity. It is the best film of the year, the best film of the last few years, and I expect it will be viewed as the best film of many years to come.

Those are my thoughts in this excellent year. I look forward to the actual awards on February 22. The beauty of this year’s ceremony is that the auditorium will be filled with winners, regardless of whomever Oscar blesses as his final choice.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From Space to the Ocean to Nebraska: Ranking the Oscar-nominated Films

The Academy Awards are this weekend, and the Big One is up for grabs. 


For the last few years, I have praised the new and improved Oscar system for nominating strong films beyond the traditional “five films” in the Best Picture category. However, I think the Academy regressed this year, as there are some real clunkers among the nominees. I think they could have cited fewer films than they did. Still there are two or three strong contenders slugging it out for the top prize, and I would be happy if any of them won. 

So here is my annual ranking of the nominated films — nine this year — in ascending order. For those who are new to my annual exercise in arrogance, here are the rules: 

  • These are not my predictions, just my choices. 
  • This list does not necessarily comprise my personal picks for the best films of the year. I am simply ranking the Academy’s nominees. There are films I thought merited consideration as "best film" that are not on this list. 
  • I rank these according to my perception of their entertainment value, the attention to craft, and most important, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality, challenging my long-held notions of cinema.. Or as the great Roger Ebert used to put it, a film that made him look at film a new way.


This year, I think there is such a disparity in quality among the nominees that I have grouped the nine into three broad categories: How was this thing ever considered a ‘best film;” the worthy- efforts-that-are-not-great-in-the-end; and the films that are probably already classics and will be appreciated for years to come.

THE HEAD-SCRATCHERS

9. Nebraska — I saw this film as a sneak preview at a local art house, long before the award seasons began. I thought, “Boy, director Alexander Payne really sleep-walked through this one. Bruce Dern’s initials could stand for ‘brain dead,’ as he is practically inert in this performance. This woman playing Dern’s wife (June Squibb) is a rank amateur; this must be her first film. But Will Forte does an admirable job playing Dern’s son. A nice turn by an actor we don’t know. I hope he is recognized for his efforts.”
Now imagine my reaction when the nominations came out and everyone BUT Forte received nods. This thing was a bewildering disappointment to me — a thin story brought to life in a plodding production. I think the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce should sue for defamation of character.


8. Philomena — Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. The boy was taken from Philomena by the nuns who boarded her after she became pregnant. In this movie, the sisters perpetrated innumerable sins against poor Philomena, but none as heinous as those committed by the screenwriters. There is no dramatic arc to this story, which hits its peak early with heartbreaking scenes in which Philomena’s son is taken by a rich family to America. Afterward, the film is populated by scenes in which Dench plays… well, basically, she plays the same precious, twittery Judi Dench we have seen in countless other movies over the last 15 years. I believe a Best Picture should show cinematic freshness. If not that, at least it should show exceptional craft. This film was created the originality of a paint-by-numbers work.

7. Her — This movie is an overlong, somnambulant musing on a simple premise (and to my mind, one not so profound or original): What would happen if we made a computer operating system that was so smart that we could engage with it? And what if some imminent nebbish took the bait and fell in love with said software, in this case, his smart phone? I once saw a Twilight Zone episode in which a computer fell in love with Wally Cox, and that show had more to say about human/computer love in its allotted 30 minutes than Her did in 126.
And when will this unspecified future time be? It was so similar to our current time, that I thought this vague “future” would occur in the next nine days. Woody Allen did a better job conjuring the world-to-come in his hilarious Sleeper. Her was a major disappointment for me, given the possibilities the theme presented. Additionally, it wastes a thoughtful and elegiac performance by Joaquin Phoenix


(For my money, here are three films that would have deserved a Best Picture nomination more than the three above: Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine and Mud.) 

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

6. Captain Phillips — Oh, Tom Hanks, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Just when you think that this guy has played out his string, and there are no more decent all-Americans/ AIDS-afflicted noblemen/lucky idiot savants that he can play, and maybe, just maybe, we can't even accept him any longer as Woody in Toy Story X… well, then he plays Captain Richard Phillips, who must protect his crew of a commercial ship from modern day pirates. And once again, Mr. Hanks pulls more tricks out of his hat to give us insight into this ordinary man who overcomes an extraordinary situation.
The entire production is guided by the wonderful Paul Greengrass, the director who was able to give an urgent realism to United 93, the story of the hijacked plane that would be doomed on 9/11. Unfortunately, Captain Phillips’s script runs out of gas about three-quarters of the way through the film, and Greengrass pads the film unnecessarily. While this movie had much potential, I rank it as a a near-miss. 


5. Dallas Buyers Club — Ron Woodroof is a most unlikely hero. He is a part-time rodeo rider and homophobe with poor personal habits, who also practices indiscriminate, unprotected (heterosexual) sex. The last point catches up with him when he is unexpectedly diagnosed with AIDS. In fact the disease is so advanced at the time of diagnosis that his doctor gives him 30 days to “get your affairs in order.” Ron turns out to be smarter and tougher than we think, and so begins his remarkable journey to get medicine for himself and, over time, others suffering from this modern-day plague.
Matthew McConaughey gives a career-defining (or is it career-reviving?) performance as the real-life Woodroof. Even more stirring is Jared Leto, who plays the transgender, HIV-infected woman named Rayon in a performance that has won him nearly every award except the Lombardi Trophy. He is as close to a shoo-in for an Oscar this year as I have ever seen, and I am cheering for him myself. Unfortunately, this hard-core movie has a mushy center, when Woodroof’s business dealings become too tedious to watch. Still, this is a worthwhile film about a shameful period in our recent history, a time when AIDS was running rampant in this country and few people cared because "they" were getting it.


4. The Wolf of Wall Street — I think I liked this movie when I saw it before, except it was named Goodfellas back then. Still, Martin Scorsese proves that he has the juice at age 71 with this biopic about Jordan Belfort, a financial investor scumbag who lines his pockets with the money of sucker investors he has essentially victimized. 
This movie wants to rock and roll all night with scenes about cocaine, hookers, various levels of infidelity, and many more examples of wretched excess. The problem is that The Wolf of Wall Street is too long by half, and that blunts the power of Scorsese’s mastery. Still, the movie is distinctive for its energetic performances, particularly those by Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio. Hill builds upon his breakthrough performance in Moneyball , portraying  Donnie Azoff, a wiseguy cipher who comes apart when ill-gotten money flows into his life. Hill can kiss his teenage "everyboy" roles goodbye, as this movie vaults him into the front ranks of modern day character actors. DiCaprio’s performance is absolutely revelatory as he brings an unforeseen energy and comic timing to his role as Belfort. Watch in particular the scene when he tries to go down a flight of stairs and drive home under the influence of Quaaludes. It was probably the best physical comedy I have seen from an actor since Steve Martin was inhabited by Lily Tomlin’s spirit in All of Me.

THE FINALISTS

I am finding it difficult to pick the one film from these last three nominees that should be named "Best Picture." They are all superb. Let it suffice to say that I will be pleased if any one of them (or even any TWO of them) picks up the top Oscar on March 2.

3. 12 Years a Slave — That this horrific story is true makes 12 Years a Slave  even more powerful than a depiction of slavery may have been. Imagine that you are a free man; being sold as a slave would be just about the last thing you would imagine. That is the story of Solomon Northrup, a professional musician and middle-class citizen of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who is drugged and awakes to being bound in a dank cell. So begins an ordeal that happened to him only because of his skin color. 
While the graphic physical abuse in the film was profoundly disturbing, it was actually the ongoing indignities that affected me more, because many of us take decent treatment for granted. So imagine being slapped merely for responding to a white, low-level functionary. Or watching a slave boy who is up for sale show off his physical abilities as though he were a prize horse. There was the subtly demeaning confrontation Northrup had with his owner (a manic, irrational Michael Fassbender in another fine performance) when the possibility that Solomon could read and write is uncovered. All of these add up to a Bedlam that would have destroyed a lesser man. 
Solomon’s character is made more vivid by the brilliance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I believe has actually been underrated for his finely nuanced performance. Consider all the changes to Solomon’s character, going from content family man, to frightened and bewildered prisoner, to a survivor. For me, Ejiofor earned my fictional vote during a scene when he is forced to whip another slave. The look on his face and his body language portrayed a man who had lost his soul along the way just so he could live another day. Ejiofor is my personal choice for Best Actor. Perhaps he would have had a better chance at the top prize if he had lost 41 pounds for his role. 

2. Gravity — It is a wonder that this riveting spectacle never turned into an audio-visual cartoon. Credit for that goes to director Alfonso Cuarón. This man is not a newcomer, as he showed us his prodigious talent in the underseen masterpiece, Children of Men. In that film, Cuarón portrayed a dystopian future (one more clearly illustrated than Her, I might add) in which there is no hope because no children are being conceived. Gravity  also gives us a hopeless situation when astronauts George Clooney (ever handsome, charming and commanding) and Sandra Bullock (the accessible everywoman, once again in a wonderful performance) face their destinies as a result of a space accident. 
No time is wasted on exposition here. We viewers are thrust into the story at the get-go as though on booster rockets, and we hang on, white knuckles and all, until the triumphant end. As Ang Lee did last year with Life of Pi, Cuarón takes control from the beginning and never lets us go, exhibiting mastery both of his technical cinematic craft and the art of storytelling. He is sure to win a well-deserved Oscar for his direction. I also believe that this is the film that will take home Best Picture, also deserved.  
     
1. American Hustle — This film ended up at the top of my heap after a lot of consideration for one simple reason, one I state every year in this blog: American Hustle expanded my view of the possibilities of cinema. Yes, 12 Years a Slave tackled the sensitive topic of slavery, but anyone who says a film like this has never been done before hasn't seen the classic mini-series, Roots. Gravity is an exciting space adventure, but let’s be honest. Stanley Kubrick laid down the template for this film with 2001: A Space Odyssey. And he did it in 1968 — 45 years ago — with more vision and much less technology available to him. American Hustle used the Abscam debacle of the 1970s to show the foolishness of government and the banality that lurks in the hearts of our elected officials as well as our criminals. Underneath all that snarky, sarcastic tomfoolery was some very sad truths about human behavior.
David O. Russell is not my darling as he is to so many reviewers. For example, I found The Fighter obvious and tedious, filled with overwrought acting. But as Russell showed us in Silver Linings Playbook, he is a damned good director of actors. He proves it again here, coaxing four Oscar-nominated performances from his cast (the always amazing Christian Bale; Amy Adams, who seems incapable of a bad performance; Bradley Cooper, who seems to be growing in stature before our eyes; and the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, who imbues her floozy character in American Hustle with a delightfully comic approach.) There were also countless supporting players, and I make special note of Louis C.K., who was terrific as a hapless government agent who was Cooper's character's nemesis. 
American Hustle is a modern-day comedy of manners, and it does not speak well of the manner in which we conduct ourselves. The film is full of laughs, but many of them are at our own expense.

Okay, I take off my reviewer’s hat for another year. This should be another fun year. I am predicting that, other than Gravity picking up many technical awards, the honors will be spread around a bit this year. And why did I suggest above that TWO films may take home the Best Picture award? Because the voting promises to be that close. (For the record, the Producers Guild Award went to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps the Academy will call it a draw, too.)

I look forward to this ceremony as I almost always do. So don’t call me the night of March 2. I will be transfixed by the pomp and splendor once again, and reviving my love for the movies. I hope you will enjoy the ceremony, too.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fulfilling that New Year’s Resolution of a New Job is Easier with Pat Rocchi's New $.99 e-Book

I'm pleased to announce the release of the following announcement tomorrow of my latest book.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact Pat Rocchi — patrocchi@comcast.net
                                    610-909-7922

Fulfilling that New Year’s Resolution of a New Job is Easier
with New $.99 e-Book

C.R.A.F.T.I.N.G. a New Job Search author says that
“For less than a buck, job seekers can improve their luck.”

NORTH WALES, PA, January 21, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ — Many of the unemployed who face longer-than-expected searches have resolved to find a new job in 2014. They now have an affordable resource in a new value-priced e-book, C.R.A.F.T.I.N.G. a New Job Search, by self-help writer Pat Rocchi, author of the acclaimed book, The Six P's of Change.

Rocchi wrote C.R.A.F.T.I.N.G. a New Job Search to fulfill a leadership requirement as a member of Toastmasters International.  He offers the book for just $.99 as a public service to those who have been unemployed for an extended time. Rocchi's book has been distributed by BookBaby to the following e-book publishers:  Amazon Kindle, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Copia, eSentral, iBookstore, Kobo, PagePusher, Scribd and Sony.

“People should not be discouraged in these difficult times or in any era from finding work that meets their financial or emotional needs,” says Rocchi. “For less than a buck, job seekers can improve their luck with this book. Considering that the average price of a greeting card is between $2 and $3, $.99 for a 20,000-word book with job-hunting advice is a real bargain.”

Dr. Bill Lampton, nationally recognized communication consultant and speech coach, has already given C.R.A.F.T.I.N.G. a New Job Search a five-star review on Amazon.com, “If you are job seeking, you'll want to consult Rocchi's recommendations right away,” writes Lampton. “His ‘been there, done that’ perspective magnifies his credibility on this topic.”

The word “C.R.A.F.T.I.N.G.” in the title is an acrostic for eight guiding principles that are detailed in the chapters of the book:
  • CELEBRATE the Possibilities of Every New Day!
  • REVIEW Your Passion and Purpose
  • ACQUIRE a Mentor
  • FORM Measurable, Meaningful and Achievable Goals
  • TEND Your Time to Accomplish Your Goals
  • INCENTIVIZE Yourself
  • NURTURE All of Your Needs
  • GIVE BACK After You’ve Succeeded
About Pat Rocchi Communications
Pat Rocchi, principal of Pat Rocchi Communications, is an author of self-help books and a communicator whose award-winning work crosses all media. Rocchi also provides services in presentation coaching, speechwriting and as a keynote speaker. Learn more about Pat at www.patrocchi.com.


XXX

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Incentivizing Yourself During a Long Job Search

A job hunt is one of those times when we are inundated by responsibilities, tasks, schedules and deadlines. What can be very discouraging it that you are working at least as hard as ever, and you are not getting paid for it. How do you keep yourself motivated as you were before? The answer is that you need to reward yourself.

The Psychology of Reward
First of all, it’s important to understand that at a time like this it is not frivolous to be thinking about rewards, as though it is too selfish under the circumstances. Actually, quite the opposite: It’s absolutely critical that you reward yourself regularly for achieving your goals along your job search. One of the reasons a job search stalls amidst hopelessness, lethargy and a creeping loss of motivation is the lack of reward. On the other hand, if we reward ourselves during this process (or during any extended endeavor), we will begin to feel like as though we’re making progress. A gift also becomes a material reminder of the efforts we are making. And when you feel better, you will maintain your enthusiasm. 

Another important point to keep in mind is that this notion of incentivizing yourself is not about rampant materialism, greed or selfishness. This is about a psychological reward. As much as we would like to think we can’t be manipulated, in truth we can be influenced easily. Human beings are taught to crave appreciation as well as a reward. So if material rewards during this job search bother you, then think of something else you can use to compensate you for your efforts. Because it is your reward system, it is entirely up to you to decide on the reward.

The research I have conducted indicted that that there are several types of incentives, but we will consider only three that we can give realistically generate for ourselves:

  • An economic incentive that results in some form of material reward, such as money or a gift certificates.
  •  moral incentive to behave in a particular way when it is perceived to be the "right" or "worthy" thing to do. This usually results in personal self-esteem.
  • A physical incentive results in a contribution to our physical health and well-being. 


We can receive some form of these incentives in our jobs. Economic incentives come in the form of pay, benefits, paid time off and more. But we may also derive personal satisfaction about the product of our work, such as building a road or administering medical care in some capacity. A person in the military may rightly feel pride as a defender of the country, a teacher can be cited for contributions to shaping young minds, and the head of a financial institution can claim to disperse funds that allow citizens to start businesses or purchase houses or cars. When your job requires you to move around, such as a police offer, postal carrier, stock keeper, or even an office manager, it exercises the various parts of our bodies.

I understand that incentivizing yourself is easier said than done. While you are in the middle of this maelstrom, facing so many tasks and responsibilities, it may be fatuous to say, “I am going to indulge myself.” I still encourage you to do so. Even though I have advised you to make the most of your time, I also wish that you resist the urge to be productive all the time. There are rates of diminishing returns, and since you cannot be truly fruitful in all of your moments, you should plan some off time just to recharge. Here are some easy ways to take care of yourself from each of these three broad categories of incentives that we mentioned. 

Economic incentive

Spend money to fight a feeling of scarceness. Theologians generally agree that when Jesus proclaimed “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he was not encouraging people to be materially impoverished. Instead, he was encouraging them to be humble. Similarly, I encourage you to consider spending money at times to fight off “feeling poor.”
True-life Story! Several years ago, my wife and I had planned a trip to Italy to visit our families during Ferragosto, which is a holiday celebrated on August 15, a summer bacchanal that is not dissimilar to America’s Independence Day. We booked the flights, contacted our relatives and were set to go. Months earlier, my consulting business hit a wall, and we could have just as easily canceled the trip. One day, as our departure approached, Marie said to me, “I know that you have not mentioned calling this off. I would understand if you did.”
I said, “Marie, I don’t want to do that. If we don’t go, we will feel poor, and I don’t think that will be good for our spirits.” We went; we had a great time and received a lot of loving from our families, and we were able to say that we were in Italy for one of its most popular holidays. 
While I was there, I posted photos of the trip on Facebook and my social media, and that maintained everyone’s interest in what I was doing. Furthermore, I received phone calls about a possible job at a company back home. All of this helped keep us in a positive mood; there is no telling what the effect on our mental health had been if we stayed home and wallowed in pity and regret. It remains one of the best events in our long marriage.
Think about this for yourself. Were you scheduled for your own vacation, a remodeling job on your home or some other outlay of money? If so, weigh the hidden and real costs if you cancel. 
Though it may be counterintuitive at this time, it may turn out to be the best decision you ever make.

Moral incentive
Give your time to the community.  Figure out the amount of time you can spare from your job of searching for a job, and give at least some of it to someone else. Volunteer at the public library. Tutor a student in the area you know best. Drive seniors to their medical appointments. You will be surprised at the mutual benefits derived.
Give away material goods. This may be a good time to clean out your closet or attic to the benefit of others. You may be tempted to wear your oldest clothes to an interview, but rid yourself of that lure by giving the clothing away first. Then see what old but functioning appliances are hanging around, and consider how others can make use of them. At a time when you are not drawing a regular pay, you may discover just how rich you truly are.  

Physical incentive

Take time to laugh. We learned a lot about laughter therapy from Norman Cousins, the famous editor of Saturday Review. In his revolutionary book, Anatomy of an Illness as Described by the Patient, Cousins described the effect of emotions on his own health. In 1976, he had been diagnosed with a very painful, life-threatening form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Doctors gave him little chance of recovery. Eschewing traditional medical treatments, Cousins took megadoses of vitamin C and watched Marx Brothers films and TV sitcoms. He found that good old-fashioned laughter, out-and-out guffawing would relieve his pain and allow him to sleep. He eventually recovered from the disease and wrote extensively on the links between humor and health.

We know today how laughter relaxes the whole body and relieves our physical tension and stress. Laughter also boosts the immune system, decreases stress hormones and improves the function of the entire cardiovascular system. So turn off the TV and find things that make you laugh. (I have several comedy stations on my Pandora list, so I turn on comedy whenever I take a break, when I am up in the morning, and before I go to sleep each night. It has made demonstrable differences in my own physical and emotional health.)
Take the weekends off as you would any job. As I have written, this job hunt is your job right now. But as with any job, you need time off. So let up on yourself and keep your weekends completely open for a movie, time in the mountains or at the shore, and perhaps most important, a date with your significant other. Turn off the e-mails and cell phone and just unwind.

These are just a few of the ways we can keep our sanity during a job search. I will be discussing more in future posts and in my upcoming e-book on how to rejuvenate a lagging job campaign. The book is untitled at this time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My Next Book, All for a Worthy Audience

I am excitedly approaching the last step in my goal to become a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest designation awarded by this global speaking organization. I have given all my speeches over many years, and I've held the requisite leadership roles. But my last step is one of the most ambitious -- the High Performance Leadership Project (explained here in this video). There is a wide range of projects I could take on, but the one I have chosen is aimed at solving, or at least ameliorating, an endemic condition in our world that is taking a toll on many of us. That goal is to help lift the spirits of people who are out of work. 


For anyone who has not been unemployed, I will start with the most obvious point: The job search process sucks big time. It is ever present, and it can grind down the spirit.  Time magazine had a cover story titled "Whatever Happened to the Great American Job?" The article is an unsettling and depressing amalgam of material. There are the usual anecdotes of fruitless searches by people who were swiftly and unexpectedly jettisoned by major corporations after decades of service. The article also includes data gleaned from both public and government agencies. For example:

A telephone poll shows that two-thirds of respondents believe that job security is worse for Americans now than in the two previous years. Of those who describe the situation as “worse” when they were questioned, 53 percent say the situation will be bad over the long haul, for many years to come. Fifty-eight percent say they have friends who have lost jobs since the economic recovery began.
A U.S. Labor Department study shows how a full 30 percent of new graduates will be underutilized over the next 12 years.  Also, these graduates are likely to earn less — in inflation-adjusted dollars — than their graduating predecessors did a generation ago. This includes graduates of many top colleges.  

Labor analysts describe the bleak future of the job market. Here are their suggestions for dealing with it:

They say don’t count on big companies for employment. These companies have learned that it’s more efficient and profitable to operate as contracting centers and outsource the talent they need.  Instead, turn to small- and medium-sized companies.

Be prepared to work for a foreign company, as many corporations outside the U.S. are investing in this country’s manufacturing. The flip side to that is that many American companies are outsourcing their services to operations outside of our borders.

Get as much training and education as possible and keep upgrading your skills. Workers can expect to change their careers, not simply their jobs, three or four times during their working lives. 

So those are some of the takeaways of this article. By the way, I am not citing a recent issue of Time. It was published in November, 1993 — nearly 20 years ago. So challenges in employment have been with us for a long time, even in past economies, and yet it stays with us today.

 In my book The Six P’s of Change, my first piece of advice to readers is to develop the PERCEPTION, the recognition, that change is a reality. Nobody is immune from this change. You and I were either born into an America or adopted into an America that is so fortunate and wealthy that perhaps we began to think that our opportunities were limitless, as though trees could grow to the sky. But my periods of job search gave me lessons that informed my life philosophy of being prepared for change. 

I come by these lessons honestly. I had several tours of duties in various outplacement agencies because my jobs were eliminated several times. It was in those times that I learned one key fact: It’s necessary to maintain an optimistic and hopeful attitude. Job searches are more likely to die on the vine from hopelessness than they are from ineffectiveness. And so I adopted this this mission statement for my High-Performance Leadership Project: To create an affordable and accessible tool to help job seekers maintain their spirits and their momentum as they advance toward their job goals.

To fulfill this mission, I am currently writing an e-book on how to lift your spirits in the face of an otherwise demoralizing search and how to arm yourself with the optimism, energy and momentum that will help lead you to success. In this way, I can publish it relatively inexpensively, as the barrier to entry for e-publishing is fairly low. In that way, I can make it available at a nominal price, probably 99 cents — a price that is easily affordable for people who are out of work. 

I hasten to mention that this is not another how-to on finding a job. There are already many books on the market to cover that topic. Frankly, those authors do the job so thoroughly that I doubt I can improve it. Instead, my book is about how to lift your spirits in the face of an otherwise demoralizing search and how to arm yourself with the optimism, energy and momentum that will help lead you to success.

I am currently writing an e-book on how to arm yourself with the optimism, energy and momentum that will lead you to success in an otherwise demoralizing job search.


Like my previous book,  this one began as a speech. I often give pro bono presentations to people who are seeking employment in the hopes of helping them deal better with the change in which they're embroiled. The woman who managed the last outplacement office I attended contacted me and asked me if I could speak to their current crop of candidates. But she did not want me to speak about The Six P’s.  She told me that many people in her office were searching for so long that they were discouraged and lethargic. She asked if I had a speech about maintaining enthusiasm and momentum in a job search. 

I thought about her request, and I said, “No, I don’t.” But after drawing a long breath, I added, "Let’s set a date six weeks from now. I promise you I will arrive with a presentation.” 

And so knowing that I committed a speech to her by a specific date, I created a presentation that has now evolved into the outline of this book. I looked over my own successful searches, and I devised several guiding principles. I can't tell you too much about the book right now. First of all, I am in the process of writing it. Secondly, I don't want to give away the details. I would hate for someone to come to market with my book sooner than I did simply because I spilled the beans. 

Author Louisa May Alcott once wrote that “I’m no longer afraid of the storm for I am learning how to sail my own ship.” That is what I want to teach my readers and audiences: To exercise control over this process during a difficult time. I know we’ll never completely eradicate unemployment. Even so-called “full employment” is achieved at about five percent. But I do hope that the tool I am creating will help inspire the hope and direction many people need for a fruitful job search.

Stay tuned. I look forward to telling you more when there is more to tell.