Sunday, February 27, 2011

oscar doc predictions

It's been three or four years since I started getting obsessive about seeing Oscar-nominated documentaries prior to the big red carpet event. But let's face it: Most Americans don't do docs. It's a damn shame, if you ask me. Documentaries are like college classes, without the tuition and without the prerequisites. True, you have to be prepared to get angry or upset, but docs teach you what the world is really like, without the sugarcoating of shows you might see on cable networks, even the ones that purport to offer "in depth" coverage of real-world events. And before you complain that documentaries do nothing but make people feel helpless, I'd counter that the best docs often reveal how one person, or a small group, can make a big difference, even in the face of powerful, monstrous forces.

Fortunately, it's been getting easier to find the Oscar docs in theaters here in New York over the past few years. The Paley Center in midtown Manhattan now shows all nominated docs, both feature-length and short, every year on the weekend of the Academy Award ceremony, and at least this year, the IFC Center screened all short subject nominees each day for more than a week. But you'd expect docs to show in New York and LA; it's time to get more of them out to places like Wichita and Montgomery and Albuquerque so everyone can watch and learn!

This year's crop of Oscar-nominated docs features a few recurring themes: big business's devastating impact on the environment; the plight of American soldiers during and after war combat; and funky-ass art. But there are some powerful and moving wild card topics, too. So on the eve of the Oscars, here are my picks for who should win and who will win in both of the documentary categories! You can find synopses and trailers for all 10 nominated docs on this page; some are also available for purchase from iTunes.

Documentary Short Subject

Will Win: Strangers No More The most upbeat and heartwarming of the five nominees in this category, Strangers No More tells the story of a unique school in Tel Aviv, Israel in which refugee children from around the world come together to form the ultimate melting pot. There are really no losers in this year's batch of doc shorts, but considering the Academy's choice in the past two years of the similarly hopeful Smile Pinki and Music By Prudence, this seems like a pretty good bet to take home the statuette.

Should Win: The Warriors of Quigang Whether we like it or not, China is going to have to lead the environmental movement of tomorrow. This doc gracefully captures how one small city in Anhui Province is attempting to battle both an unruly local polluter an unrepresentative and unresponsive government. Here's one great example of a film that not only explains where the big problems lie but also makes heroes out of ordinary citizens trying to better the ugly hands they've been dealt.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: Gasland I had never heard of hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," before I saw this film, and what I learned scared the bejesus out of me. There's been quite a bit of press coverage about this doc since the nominees were announced, mostly due to the unsurprising loud reaction from the natural gas lobby over the film's depiction of their use of what can only be described as a poorly regulated and highly toxic method of extracting gas from the ground. While some have criticized certain methods of director Josh Fox, I think that in seeing this film, Academy voters will have come away with a pretty powerful overall message. What's more, the time seems ripe for a major environmental movie to take home the big doc prize.

Should Win: Inside Job Okay, boys and girls, here's the one movie that everyone in the country needs to see, and pronto. Director Charles Ferguson does an epic job of weaving one-on-one interviews together with easy-to-follow narration and infographics to explain how the recent financial crisis of the late '00s came about. At the end of the day, the lesson is obvious: Our economic policies have been set by the very cronies who masterminded what one interviewee describes as the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. What's more, the film makes it crystal clear that our government is deeply embedded in the pockets of a few powerful corporations, who literally gamble away our security in order to make billions for themselves—with no reprecussions whatsoever when everything collapses. I happened to catch this film in a theater, and the rage of the audience was palpable; people shaking their heads over and over, guffawing and sighing out of frustration at just how blatant the deception was and continues to be. Aside from the surprising production value, which I thought was super considering how dry a subject finance might seem to the average American, this doc needs to win for the sheer power it has in making people see why increased financial regulations—not to mention campaign finance reform—are absolutely essential to the future of our country, and indeed the entire global economy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

making her pitch

<a href="" target="_new" title="Ladies first">Video: Ladies first</a>

The last throes of February are upon us, which can only mean one thing: Major League Baseball's spring training is officially in full swing. It's a time when fans of our national pastime can get up close and personal with the sport's biggest stars, hottest prospects, and the support staff who whip them into shape. It's a time when anything is possible; there are no winners or losers, only players and coaches with an eye toward Opening Day. But yesterday, at a training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, one individual shone above all the rest when she became the first woman to throw batting practice to an MLB team.

For most of her adult life, Justine Siegal has been an outspoken supporter of girls and women who want to be involved in the world of baseball. She is the founder of Baseball For All, which seeks to empower girls to play hardball. In case you're unaware, some of the earliest baseball players were women, but by the middle of the 20th century, the sport was mostly considered off-limits for girls. In 1973, a judge opened the way for girls to play Little League ball, but Little League organizers decided that while it could no longer deny them from participating, it would encourage them to play softball, a very different sport. Today, relatively few girls get into baseball, primarily because they think they can't. Justine Siegal is trying to change that.

Siegal grew up playing baseball in Cleveland, Ohio, and dreaming of one day donning the uniform of her hometown Indians. At 13, her coach told her he didn't think girls should play baseball and suggested she quit. He clearly didn't know who he was dealing with! Siegal ignored him and continued playing for another two decades. In the late 1990s, she started Baseball For All as a way to encourage others like her who wanted to enjoy the experience of participating in our national pastime. She eventually became a coach for the men's team at Springfield College in Massachusetts. And in 2008, filmmaker Max Tash released a documentary film about her attempts to bring an all-girls' team to the Cooperstown Dreams Park Tournament, a prestigious tournament for youngsters near the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A year later, Siegal became the first woman to coach in the pros when she spent part of her summer with the Brockton Rox (pictured) of the Can-Am League. Since then, she's been seeking out and gaining an increasing amount of national support for her girls-in-baseball projects.

A few weeks ago, I found out that Siegal had been invited to throw batting practice for both the Oakland A's and her hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, at their spring training facilities in Arizona. Justine has been a great inspiration to me, a former ballplayer who's long been frustrated with the marginalization of girls and women in the baseball world, from the majors all the way down to tee ball. When I attempted to start up a girls' baseball program in New York City last year, Justine served as a valuable mentor, and she even came down to host a clinic for a number of young girls who were eager for more than they were getting with their local teams. (My project eventually stalled, but I'm hopeful that girls in the NY area will soon have a new baseball outlet thanks to a new initiative, led by Justine, that partners players with various RBI Baseball teams in cities around the country.) So I was thrilled to hear the news about her Major League assignment, and I enjoyed reading about her preparation for the big event. I was also not surprised to learn that Justine would be dedicating her outing to the late Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in last month's tragic Tucson shooting spree. Green had been a second-baseman on her Little League team, and, like Justine before her, had hoped to break the so-called "grass ceiling" by becoming the first woman to play in the majors.

If you'd like to know how it went, Glenn Swain in The New York Times and Tim Brown at Yahoo! Sports have good recaps of yesterday's historic session. And I highly recommend Justine's own stirring posts relating to the event on her new blog, Justine's Baseball Journey. Her writings are the kind of thing I wish I'd had available to me growing up, when coaches, players, and parents were telling me in ways both subtle and explicit that baseball is for boys. So if you know of a girl or woman who could use some baseball inspiration, please pass it on! You can also follow Justine on Twitter.

Anyway, congrats on your awesome accomplishment, Justine! Can't wait to see what's next.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

the art of science

One of my favorite things in the whole wide universe is when art and science get a little wild and make some sweet music together. With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it was inevitable that I'd spy some new pairings that clearly just need to get a room. To wit, first there were the cute scientist valentines, featuring the likes of Ada Lovelace, Nikola Tesla, and Carl Sagan. But my heart truly went aflutter for the Periodic Table Printmaking Project, an outstanding work by 97 graphic artists from around the globe who obviously adore science as much as I do. As you can see from the samples above, the idea was to identify each element in a way that's some combination of historical, whimsical, and (of course) scientific. What can I say? I'm in love. The full complement of 118 elements can be seen as a group in periodic table form or individually on the project's Flickr set.