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…

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.


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.) 


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.


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.

Contact Pat Rocchi — patrocchi@comcast.net

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.


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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Taking a Product to First from Worst

A few weeks ago, I was quite proud, and more than a little amused, when I read the 2012 "Annual Best" awards from KLAS, a research firm in the healthcare industry. KLAS* gathers data and the opinions of thousands in the industry on software, services and medical equipment, choosing their best of the year. ("The best of KLAS," is a commonly accepted term in the industry.)

I chuckled because the results showed that a laboratory information system from one of my previous employers, Siemens Health, was chosen as one of the best of the year. I remembered the time when the product, now called Novius Lab, was quite the opposite of "best." Or even "good."

I was working in marketing for the company (then known as Shared Medical Systems, before Siemens* acquired it) when management declared that their lab information product known as OpenLab was a loser. Lab information systems manage the ordering, testing and results reporting of lab orders in a hospital. This particular system was designed to integrate the patient's clinical information from a variety of  facilities and then turn around the test results quickly. It reduced costs while raising efficiency. 

However, the salespeople said that they couldn't sell it because "everyone hated it." They said that OpenLab had a terrible reputation. The company wanted to drop it and get out of this product line altogether. My boss, the head of sales & marketing, did not want to concede this market. He came to me and said that a big lab conference was coming up. How could we save the product at that event?

The first thing I did was NOT presume the sales force was correct. Instead, I conducted a marketing survey of both the current customers and the market place. Well, the current customers did NOT hate it; in fact, they LOVED OpenLab. They thought it worked great. What we found was that others in the medical lab market who did not even own OpenLab thought it was a bad product. (We believed that this reputation could be traced back to a former sales employee who bad-mouthed the product, though we could not prove it.) But the challenge remained: How could we get new customers if they all believed the product was no good?

I advised rebranding the product altogether...essentially take OpenLab off the market and replace it with a new name. The upcoming lab show was in Dallas. An internal copywriter and I brainstormed and  thought a cowboy theme would work for a new campaign. She came up with a slogan similar to the old Western movie cliche that there was a new sheriff in town. But instead, she wrote that "there's  a brand new new lab system in town!"  At the time, SMS was renaming their newest offerings with the prefix "Novius,"derived from the Latin word for "new." I advised that we rename this project Novius Lab, wiping out the previous, besmirched name as the final step in creating a new impression.

When visitors came to our booth at the conference, we gave them a blinking badge that had this slogan. We encouraged them to wear it, because a "sheriff" from our booth would be walking the floor occasionally, and if he saw their badge... well, he would just invite them back to the booth for a prize!

People were pleased to wear the badge and were excited when he "sheriff" (really, just one of us guys in a big Stetson) collared them and brought them back to our booth. The prize, a horse doll for their kids, was a big hit. More important, we made an impact at that trade show, beginning the introduction of a new product and replacing what was for many a bad memory.

My manager and I have since left the company for other opportunities, but we still laugh about that campaign over a drink every now and then. When the company was ready to abandon this product, we believed in it. We got to the root of the problem and solved it. A product that was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year today is one of the company's biggest, most reliable money makers. It also continues to serve its market, much to the surprise of many in the company. And to top it off, this product is consistently rated at the top of its class by acclimation among the decision makers in healthcare.

Shakespeare once asked, "what's in a name?" Apparently, there's money. And vindication.

*References to KLAS, Siemens and SMS should not be inferred as an endorsement of my work by these entities.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Baseball Writers Stand Up for Baseball's Brand and More

The Commissioner didn't do it.
The players union didn't do it.
God knows that Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa didn't do it.
But the baseball writers did it. They stood up for the game that so many others profess to love yet in fact denigrate with their behavior. They did it by refusing to honor an entire generation of ball players that included many who cheated and soiled the game. They kept these players out of the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, and with that action, they showed more integrity than many others in the game.
My son, who is a pretty fair sportsman himself, said to me, "When are we going to stop the pretense that athletes are role models?" Fair question. But there is one difference with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like it or not, the criteria for admission to the Hall has always included "character, sportsmanship and integrity." Has that clause been overlooked in the past? Certainly. In fact, right from the beginning, when the reprehensible Ty Cobb was among the first inductees. Yes, Ty Cobb, who used to sharpen his spikes so he could injure opposing players when he slid into them, was enshrined. Ty Cobb, who went into the stands to confront a heckler and when he discovered was an invalid beat the tar out of him anyway, is synonymous with baseball's freshman class. But we were all taught as kids that two wrongs don't make a right, and why not stand up for the integrity of the game now?

We have had too many instances in society of how we shave our principles to fit them into our particular and immediate needs. The revelations that reveal the speciousness of our entry into war. The backroom deals that grease the political gears but rob the citizens ultimately paying the bills. Don't report the child abuse or it will hurt the university. Or the Church. All executed with a nod and a wink, dismissed with phrases like "boys will be boys," and "everyone does it." In the meantime, the ones who played clean suffered in terms of reduced pay and lesser fame.

Tom Verducci of SI.com, who votes for the Hall of Fame, states his case more eloquently and with more authority than I can. He sees his vote as a sacred trust that few are honored to exercise. Baseball players and others involved should also feel such honor with all the fame and riches that the game bestows on them. But unlike Mr. Verducci, they have generally chosen to look the other way as the game was diminished by a steady drip of mendacity.The baseball writers focused their attention with this well-deserved slap in the face. Maybe we should all pay attention and shine a similar light into other quarters.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How to Accomplish Your New Year Resolutions

Okay, it's 2013, and if you are like most people, you have a set of new year resolutions. (Come on, admit it: One of them is to lose weight and get in shape, isn't it? My son is irritated how the gym parking lot is overcrowded until mid-February, when most of those people will give up on their fitness program.) However, when 2014 rolls around again, how many of the items on your list will you have accomplished?

I speak to many organizations about dealing with change or rejuvenating their job searches, and both topics involve accomplishing goals. I make to-do lists every year, and I fulfill a fairly high percentage of my goals. For example, over the last five years, I built a new website, read a number of new books each year, published my own book, earned two advanced Toastmaster designations, created two new keynote speeches, learned to speak Italian on a conversational level, and got a solo with my singing group (singing in Italian, incidentally). I'm not exactly Tim Ferriss, but I can claim to have done many of things I set out to do. Here are the steps that will help you reach your annual goals.

1) Presume that time management is achievable.
Don’t let anyone tell you “no matter how organized we are, there are always only 24 hours in a day.” I find that thinking limiting and negative.  While it’s true that each of us have the same number of hours, we can always optimize them.

2) Find out where you're wasting time and eliminate them.
What are your time-bandits? Don’t spend too much time surfing the Internet, reading e-mail or social media, or making personal calls. Tracking your daily activities will disclose what you are actually accomplishing, which is an important step in time management. (Example: I don’t turn on the TV during the day unless I see that an important event has happened.

3) Use a time management tool.
 This is the most important step. To physically and actually manage your time, you need to know where it's going now and then plan how you're going to spend your time in the future. You can use a calendar or a software program, such as Outlook, to schedule events know in advance what you will be doing. I'm low-tech, so I use an ordinary to-do list.

4) Set Your Priorities.
No matter which tool you use, it is still important to set realistic expectations, or else you are bound to be disappointed. That is the problem with to-do lists or other lists of goals: They may enumerate all the things you need to do, but they don't actually help you accomplish them. If you simply make lists of the things you need to do, odds are that they will remain unfinished far longer than you think they will. There are two reasons for that. First, we need to break down our projects into specific actions that will help us reach our goals. For example, if your goal is "write an article," don't just have "write an article" as your goal. First, set your objective. Then, set a deadline to write your outline. Next, set a goal of writing each day. And have a deadline to have the final draft completed. 

 I use the A, B and C priority system. A's are things you need to accomplish ASAP. I try to do as many A's each day as I can. B's are "nice to do" things, like cleaning the bathroom or buying a new in basket for the office. These can wait. C's are low priorities, but they are often the things we use to fill our days to make us feel as though we really accomplished something, yet they make no meaningful impact on our lives. Push the C's off as much as possible.

5) Establish routines and stick to them as much as possible.
Know each day which tasks will help you meet your long-term and short-term goals as described above. If you have 20 tasks for a given day, how many of them do you truly need to accomplish what you want to do? Prioritization will help you with that. Get up at the same time every morning. Exercise and eat breakfast at the same time. Take a break around the same time.  End the day at a prescribed time and get to sleep at the right time every night. Rinse and repeat.

Setting a routine includes limiting the things you shouldn't do. Distractions to avoid includes e-mail, social media, eating meals, and needless appointments. Either avoid these things altogether or schedule them so they don't get in your way.
 6) Learn to let go.
My most simple advice are these five words: You Can’t Do It All! And you should not expect to do it all. For effective time management, you need to let other people carry some of the load. Is it really that important that the bathroom is dirty when you are preparing for a critical job interview? Clean the bathroom after they make you the offer!

I wish you luck in all you do and all you want to do in the coming year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas prayer for 2012

Each Christmas Eve, my wife and I host a traditional Italian "Feast of the Seven Fishes" for family and friends. Marie creates a masterpiece every time. However, as the father of the household, I like to lead guests in  prayer before we start. Well, 2012 was a challenge for us with illness, the death of Marie's father, the death of one of my most long-timed friends, and more, including the tragedies in our national community. I composed a special prayer for the occasion; I hope you find meaning in it.
Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Prayer before Christmas Dinner  2012

We are grateful for the many ways we are blessed this night.

In a world where many walk in hunger; we’re blessed to have an abundance of food. And so, may we eat with humble and grateful hearts.
In a world where many walk alone, we're glad to have each other.
At a time when many are in sorrow, having had their children and other loved ones taken from them unexpectedly, we're grateful for this moment of joy and to be together, especially in the light of an extraordinary year.

Having survived a year of illness, we hope that God's compassions never fail us,
and that his mercies are new every morning.
We give thanks for the relief from the sickness of this past year and for the hope of renewed health.

On this night of joy and in this moment of togetherness, we also feel the absence of people we loved. 
Let us remember the Christmas celebrations of the past and be grateful for having had them.
Let us soften our hearts and be more compassionate with everyone we meet and be in harmony with one another.

And finally, let's remember the central reason we are here. The beauty of this table tonight is that we gather as people with a wide range of beliefs. Yet whatever we believe, one fact is indisputable:
Jesus Christ, who was born this night, said that the two great commandments that contain the whole law of God are to love your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength. And also to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

So in light of all what we believe, what we have endured and all we face ahead,
may this food restore our strength, giving new energy to tired limbs and new thoughts to weary minds.
May this drink restore our souls, giving new vision to dry spirits and new warmth to cold hearts.
And may this time together restore our souls as we head into a new year with the opportunity to be renewed.