Sunday, February 27, 2011

One final Oscar post: the 2011 Academy Awards by the numbers

I'm too bored with this year's Oscar probabilities to bother with predictions -- though I foresee an upset in Best Supporting Actress, and so, apparently, does frontrunner Melissa Leo, who continued to campaign rigorously even after most prognosticators declared her a lock to win. Instead I offer the following factoids for those who, like me, are obsessed with numbers and links and trying to restore some semblance of order to seeming chaos.

Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands.

5 Number of Best Actress nominees who are also nominated for the Best Female Lead Independent Spirt Award. A record?

3 Number of last year's Best Actor nominees who are nominated again this year. Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth are rivals again for their 2010 performances in, respectively, True Grit and The King's Speech, while Jeremy Renner has been demoted to the supporting race for The Town.

2 Number of movies in which Natalie Portman has appeared below the title that starred fellow Best Actress  nominees above the title: Cold Mountain (in which Nicole Kidman was second billed to Jude Law) and Mars Attacks! (featuring Annette Bening after Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close in the credits).

2 Number of Best Actor nominees -- Javier Bardem (Biutiful) and James Franco (127 Hours) -- who kissed Julia Roberts on the lips in Eat, Pray, Love, in which 2009 nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) pecked her on the forehead, and Viola Davis (also a 2009 nominee, for Doubt) just offered moral support.

5 Number of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees who were not yet born when Jeff Bridges received his first Oscar nomination for 1971's The Last Picture Show.

4 Number of Best Actress nominees whose leading men (or ladies) were snubbed. The snubbed: Rabbit Hole's Aaron Eckhart, Blue Valentine's Ryan Gosling, The Kids Are All Right's Julianne Moore, Black Swan's Mila Kunis.

3 Number of Best Actress nominees who've had kids with Oscar-nominated actors.

3 Number of Best Actor nominees who played real men (Colin Firth = King George VI, James Franco = Aron Ralston, Jesse Eisenberg = Mark Zuckerberg).

0 Number of Best Actress nominees whose characters existed off-screen. A record? No, but 2009 champ Kate Winslet (The Reader) aside, no winner since Million Dollar Baby's Hillary Swank in 2005 didn't play a real live woman.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The other upset I'm hoping for on Oscar night

By now, it's probably a done deal: Natalie Portman will win the Best Actress Oscar on February 27 for portraying a ballerina's descent into madness with such exacting skill. While I loved Black Swan and Portman's performance, it wasn't my favorite of 2010. That honor would go to Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole. I suffered right along with her grieving mom, and Kidman never once resorted to shameless hysteria.

Despite my love for Kidman and my admiration of Portman's dedication to character and craft, like so many people who have deemed Annette Bening overdue for years, true Hollywood royalty (whatever that is), I'm rooting for her to pull an upset. Not because I thought she was any better than usual in "The Kids Are All Right," or because it was a particularly Oscar-worthy role, but because if Bening wins, we finally can leave her in peace and focus on far more overdue actresses (Glenn Close? Sigourney Weaver? Michelle Pfieffer? Hel-LO?!).

For once, though, Best Actress isn't the most exciting acting race. This year, it shares that distinction with Best Supporting Actress. The Fighter's Melissa Leo is clearly the frontrunner, in spite of the recent backlash over her financing of her own For Your Consideration ad, with True Grit's 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld nipping at her knock-off heels. This is generally the category where upsets are most likely (Marisa Tomei's 1993 win for My Cousin Vinny is still deemed one of the Academy's great blunders, though the actress has more than proven herself worthy of the "Oscar winner" title in the years since), and a win by any of the 2011 nominees is a more-than-remote possibility.

That said, Melissa Leo probably will take it, but if she does, it will be going to the wrong mother from hell. As impressed as I was with her mama bear in The Fighter, as I watched her, I couldn't help but feel that I'd seen her somewhere before. It wasn't until near the end that I realized where: Angelica Huston played a very similar type in The Grifters (and received her only Best Actress nomination in the process). Now that I think of it, the similarities are glaring: same frosted hair, same perfectly mix-and-matched tailored outfits, same prickly disposition, same disdain for the object of their beloved baby boy's affection. If Leo wins, it won't be a travesty, but we've seen it all before.

For your consideration: Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. I just saw this Melbourne-based crime drama, and I am convinced that had it received a wider release in the U.S., Weaver would be a shoo-in for the grand prize. Her monster mom is a monster grandma, too, who hovers over her criminal brood like Mother Nature, kissing her grown boys on the lips and ordering a hit on her grandson. At the beginning of the film, when she found out that her estranged daughter had died of a drug overdose, and she didn't even flinch, I knew she was going to be a piece of work.

What I loved about Weaver's performance is that hers is a completely unique creation, even more loathsome than her murderous sons for so blindly enabling them. Despite the slightly sinister twinkle in her eye, she looks the granny part. There is not a single moment of her performance that seems over-the-top or tailored for awards-season attention. She deserves the acclaim she's gotten -- and all of the work she'll hopefully get going forward -- and she deserves to take Oscar home, too.

May the baddest mama win.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is it the end of the world as we know it -- or are we all just finally paying attention to the news?

Early this morning when I read about the 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, a terrible chill ran through my blood. Could it be true? Are we in the final days? Will 2012 really be the end of the line for all of us?

It was the second major earthquake to shake the area in five months. (Interestingly, when the first one hit on September 4, I was in Australia, where I will be returning in eight days. Fortunately for my sense of safety, Australia falls outside of the Pacific Ocean's earthquake-prone Ring of Fire.) Add to that recent devastating tremors in Chile; terrible fires last summer in Melbourne, Australia, flooding this summer in the east, and cyclones to the north; winter snow all over the U.S. and Europe, and the forecast begins to look dark and dreary indeed. If the weather is the gauge that we should use to approximate the coordinates of The End, then she would indeed seem to be upon us.

Last night I had a crazy dream. Meteorologists were predicting the worst winter of all time. (I'm blurry on whether I was receiving this news in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, or the time of year.) There would be snow covering the entire globe, and travel to parts as close as next door would be tricky. Everyone was panicking. The New Ice Age was upon us.

And then I woke up. After giving the situation on Mother Earth some thought, I've calmed down considerably. While I don't have any data on the occurrence of earthquakes or natural disasters in 2011 or 2010 versus other previous years, I do know that although it seems like the earth is being battered more than usual, it's actually been taking a serious licking for centuries. That Big Bang must have put anything that's happening now to shame!

I spent my entire youth in Florida worried about the next big hurricane. I heard about typhoons and tsunamis in Asia, volcanoes, earthquakes and all kinds of natural disasters. All that stuff is nothing new. What's changed has been the dissemination of information. With the Internet, 24-hour news channels, Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, iPads and other 21st-century concoctions all bombarding us with news, keeping us plugged in all day every day, few things pass us by. If Lindsay Lohan sneezes, we know about it. And if the earth moves, too.

It's not just that we are more likely than ever to hear about every single natural disaster. Crazy weather or a geographical disturbance someplace on the other side of the globe seem so much closer now, not because the world has shrunk, but because modern technology makes it seem so much smaller.

Now when I read about a strong wind in Asia, it might as well be blowing at my back door. Imagine if September 11 happened today. Or Columbine. Or the Oklahoma City bombing. They'd seem so much worse, so much more loaded with foreboding, than they did then.

I'm not saying that Armageddon isn't upon us. Only the Anti-Christ, whoever she is, knows for sure. But don't pack it in and stop planning for life beyond next year just yet. It'll likely come, and when it arrives, you won't want to find yourself locked in the mental -- or physical -- equivalent of a bomb shelter. It's dark in there, and the Wi-Fi connection would probably suck.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why I might be leaving Buenos Aires just in time

Buenos Aires has its charm. Though a lot of it has faded for me, for a while, there were enough things in the plus column to keep me here for more than four years. From the right vantage points, the city's tarnished glamour is still breathtaking, the fruit salad is to die for, and tango, wine and red meat make for a romantic -- if not necessarily heart healthy -- combination. People visit the city and will continue to do so because it's a highlight of South America, right up there with Brazil's twin attractions, Sao Paulo and Rio.

But that's not why so many people from the United States have been flocking here to live over the past few years. Yes, all of the above stuff is a draw for them, too, but for the most part, we moved here because it was cheap.

Was cheap -- emphasis on the past tense to accentuate the negative.

I remember going out to dinner with a friend during my first visit to BA in 2005 and spending the equivalent of US$20 on a whiscola, a shared bottle of wine, an appetizer and a main course. Though the exchange rate has improved (in the beginning US$1 equalled three pesos; now, it's four), you'd be lucky to get an entree and bottled water in any decent restaurant for under US$20. No wonder so many locals are wired to rip us off. The prices go up up up, but the salaries don't. I'm not sure how the honest survive.

The other night I went out with my friend Rob to a traditional BA cafe -- a charming little place by local standards, but the kind of semi-dump you wouldn't be caught dead in on any other continent. Rob ordered a Fernet and coke, and both of our jaws dropped to the floor when the waiter charged him 45 pesos. That's US$11 and change! For a foul-tasting local concoction (Fernet is a kind of unofficial national drink of Argentina) that I wouldn't spend half of that on in the states.

A few nights later, I ordered a whiscola at a bar where whiscolas used to cost around 15 pesos. When I handed the bartender a 50, I wasn't expecting to get 35 pesos back (you know, inflation), but I sure was expecting more than 17 in change. That's US$9 for a mixed drink made with cheap national whiskey that's almost guaranteed to give you a deadly hangover. Sometimes I think they'll continue to raise the price of everything until they no longer have to make change for a 100.

The inflation wouldn't be such a bummer if there were an increase in quality, or if service came with a smile now and then. But it's same old same old here in BA: a kiss on the cheek for all and a scowl if you dare to ask for help. You could buy a bottle of whiskey and Coca-Cola at the supermercado for less money and have enough for a month's worth of whiscolas while avoiding all that porteño attitude. I make it a rule never to drink at home, but if I were sticking around, I'd probably start. Melbourne may not be a bargain basement, but the quality standards are high, and service usually comes with a smile or at least a "Good day, mate." It makes spending 10 bucks on a beer less likely to induce groaning.

To be fair, some things are still pretty cheap in BA. You can rent a decent apartment for less than half of what you'd probably pay in any other major city. If you skip bars and restaurants and do all of your eating at home, you can get by on about 40 pesos a day. I recently even had my apartment painted for US$200. But if you're in the market for luxury items, or you want to go out, be prepared to pay dearly.

I think I read somewhere that the rate of inflation is expected to be 33 per cent in 2011. I'm terrible at economics, so I'm not sure what that means exactly, but it doesn't sound good. Looks like I picked the perfect time to leave a party that was kind of dying anyway.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Five things I will miss most about Buenos Aires when I'm gone

I've still got two and a half weeks left to enjoy Buenos Aires, but already I'm getting a little misty, thinking about what I'll have to give up while I'm off having new adventures and making new memories in Melbourne. I've been pretty tough on BA over the years, but I was the same way with New York. When it comes to cities, I always slam the ones I love -- eventually. But there's a reason why I stuck around as long as I did. Well, actually, five of them.

Ensalada de fruta Eating in Argentina has been tricky, to say the least. I'll pass on the vino (cheap and tasty, but I'm not a big wine person), the milanesa (absolutely disgusting), and the chorizo (hard on the teeth, worse on the digestive system). When I arrived in BA, I hadn't even touched meat in more than 15 years. Because decently prepared fish is so difficult -- and expensive -- to come by, I added chicken to my menu about one year in. After two more, I was once again eating red meat, too. It was either that or overdose on carbs, cheese and sweets, which I had begun consuming in larger quantities than normal to compensate for the lack of anything else. My waist line benefitted, but my taste buds were underwhelmed.

I just never really got into Argentine beef, and I'm still not sure what makes it such a cut above the rest of the world's. Of course, since I hadn't eaten meat for 17 years up to July of 2009, I don't have much to compare it to. As for the other dime-a-dozen offerings here, the Italian food is hit and miss: great pasta, terrible pizza. The helado made me like ice-cream for the first time in my life, but ultimately, like the pasta and the pizza, I can take it or leave it. Fruit salad in BA, however, is an entirely different story. Here it's not just a bunch of dried up chunks of cantaloupe, honeydew melon and watermelon, but an orchard of fruits -- peaches, pears, oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, plums, kiwi, pineapple -- swimming in natural juice. Man cannot live on ensalada de fruta alone, or else I probably would have tried to.

Pilates When I arrived in BA four and a half years ago, pilates was just part of a throwaway lyric in a throwaway Madonna song. (Remember "American Life"?) It's been a way of my life for four years now, part exercise, part therapy, part Spanish lesson. (Last year when I took a pilates class in London, I couldn't understand a word the teacher was saying because I was so accustomed to being instructed in Spanish.) Although I spend more time running and just as much time in the gym as I do on the reformer, pilates is the physical activity that will most define my time in BA. (I'm hoping for an improved sex life down under.) When people who think I look younger than I am ask for my secret, I always tell them, "Face by Kiehl's, body by pilates."

Ambar la Fox Nightclubs, I've seen more than a few during my time in BA, and if walls -- or strobelights -- could talk, what a tale they'd tell. But for the last two years or so, it's been all about Saturday night fever at Ambar. In fact, I haven't stepped foot into another BA club in months. To be honest, the crowd is a hot mess -- young, loud and very messy -- and aside from that spectacular Victorian chandelier overlooking the foyer, the place itself is kind of a dump.

All that said, it's the only party in town where the DJs have been ballsy enough to season their steady diet of Lady Gage and the Black Eyed Peas with the White Stripes, the Strokes, Dizzee Rascal and Elastica, and the spectacle -- a stage show featuring scary monsters, super creeps and other assorted space oddities -- is nearly as big a draw as the playlist. I know, it's only rock & roll, but that's why I like it. When I leave I'll take plenty of great memories of BA nightlife with me (though, sadly, of no club that plays decent hip hop), but the music at every other future hot spot will have to live up to the sound of the underground at Ambar.

Guys whose names begin with M Martín. Marcelo. Matías. Mauro. Marcos. Manuel. Mario. Mariano. Miguel and Maximiliano aside (the former is, after all, just a Latin variation on Michael, and apart from my portero, I've strangely enough met no one who goes by the latter), you name him, I've done him in BA.

My friends I always say that I didn't move to BA because of the people, and that's the ugly truth and nothing but. Still, as infuriating as porteños can be, that didn't stop me from meeting the most interesting characters and making some excellent friends here. Once the flavor of the ensalada de fruta has faded from my taste buds, when I've found a great new Pilates instructor whose English I can actually understand, when Ambar's boom boom boom fades into the wind, to whom will I still be telling all my dirty stories? That's what BA friends are for.