The Oscars -- a fun time

It's been a fun night, watching the Academy Awards. Here are some of my comments, as the show goes on:

-- Good news: Baz Luhrmann created that spectacular number, celebrating the return of the movie musical. Luhrmann's touch -- in "Moulin Rouge," "Romeo and Juliet," "Australia" and more -- is masterful. This was a grand moment.

-- Bad news: Five presenters for one awards? That's approximately four too many.

-- Good: Hugh Jackman can really deliver a song, including the clever ones written about the best-movie nominees. That may have been the best song ever to use the word "excrement."

-- Bad: Forget the music and Jackman may have had the fewest jokes of any host in modern Oscar history.

-- Good: Fortunately, lots of other people made jokes. The bit by Steve Martin and Tina Fey was one of the best ever.

-- Bad: Martin wasn't the host. He should be, every year.

-- Good: The "Slumdog Millionaire" songs were beautifully presented. Great dancing and choreographer, in a limited space.

-- The bad: Lots of dull acceptance speeches. Don't these people think about it in advance?

-- The good: An occasional great speech. It was wonderful to hear the guy talk about growing up in Utah, then moving to the more-open world of San Francisco. Now he's written an Oscar-winning script about Harvey Milk, who helped spur the gay-rights movement.

-- The bad: Kate Winslet, a great actress, is still a so-so speech-giver. After her two bad Golden Globe speeches, I had her on my no-more-awards list. I rescinded that because of the brilliance of her performance in "The Reader"; she was better this time, but I might put her back on the list.

-- The good: For Michigan people, it's good to know that Andrea Meditch, the new MSU faculty member, had a weekend sweep. "Man on Wire" -- she was one of the six producers -- was named best documentary at the Oscars and at the Independent Spirit awards. That's a pretty good weekend.

-- The great: Hey, Robert De Niro really is a funny guy. His speech about Sean Penn (like De Niro, a great actor) was delightful.

-- Also: There was a lot of talk about Mickey Rourke winning best-actor. Penn won and included a little Rourke tribute. I didn't see these two films, but any victory by Penn is a good thing.

-- And finally: "Slumdog Millionaire" is best picture, as it should be. Yes, "Benjamin Button" is a meticulously well-crafted film. Still, nothing matches the ragged, eccentric, wild brilliance of "Slumdog." One movie ranged from a kid soaked in excrement to a joyous Bollywood number. This is the creative zest that marks an Oscar.



Let's talk Oscars

The Academy Awards are Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), so let's talk about them. Also, please check and comment on my previous three blogs, all about "American Idol":

1) The new Oscar producers are out-and-out loony. (You'd tell me if these were too harsh, wouldn't you?) They won't say who the presenters will be; they don't even want the presenters to walk the red carpet. This is sort of like good show business, but the opposite.

2) Hugh Jackman was an excellent Tonys host. Now he's hosting the Oscars, which is another matter. Yes, he's smart, handsome and Australian, all of which are good things. Still, he's no Steve Martin.

3) Steve Martin should be the host. Or Jon Stewart. Or Chris Rock.

4) "Benjamin Button" is a terrific movie -- big, ambitious, precisely crafted. Still, it can't match the sheer, ragged energy of "Slumdog Millionaire," which will get the best-picture Oscar.

5) Fortunately, that leaves room in all the acting categories. I may have some thoughts on that tonight, because I'm heading out now to see Kate Winslett in "The Reader." I'll finish this later.

 6) I'm back from "The Reader" and I see what the buzz was about. No, the film isn't quite up to the level of its best-picture nomination; it's extremely good, without being great. (The same is true of "Frost/Nixon.") But Winslet's performance is superb. Alongside the master of understatement (Ralph Fiennes), she has topped his art; she needs only the tiniest moves to create rich emotions. I have to agree with Ben Mankiewicz, co-host of the syndicated "At the Movies," who told me flatly that Winslet is "the best actor in the world, man or woman." I also have some rather eccentric remarks, but they might be spoilers for people who don't know about the "Reader" plot. I'll put them at the end, with a spoiler alert.

7) Mankiewicz is also delighted that Mickey Rourke is now considered a slight favorite to win as best actor. It would be a Hollywood touch -- a worn-out, self-destructed actor triumphing for playing a worn-out, self-destructed wrestler.

8) People in Michigan should pay attention to the documentary-feature category. Two of the five nominees -- "Man on Wire" and "Encounters at the Bottom of the World" -- were produced by Andrea Meditch, Michigan State University's new faculty member. She's not one of the people who would get the Oscar, but she's still one of the producers; she'll be at the ceremony Sunday, ready to celebrate.

9) Now for the extra Winslet comments. If you want to avoid hearing plot details, quit reading now.

10) Winslet should go down in history as the person who included the most nudity in an Oscar-winning role. Such contributions are too often forgotten. (Jason Segal wasn't even nominated this year, despite his full-frontal role in "Forgetting Elizabeth Marshall.") Much nudity AND much talent. Moviegoers are grateful.

11) As Ricky Gervais pointed out at the Golden Globes, he predicted this well in advance. In a hilarious scene in HBO's "Extras," he had Winslet play a parody of herself, vulgarly insisting that she was doing a Holocaust film so she could get a bleeping Oscar. Now that is about to come true.

12) OK, I'm temporarily removing my ban against any Winslet awards. (I instituted it when she managed to give TWO awful acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes.) I'll give her one more chance, but this is it. Remember, Kate: You're not up there to please a dozen or so actors and agents and such; you're talking to the world. Quit thanking people, say something cogent and leave with your Oscar. You deserve it.

"Idol" finalists: The same guy twice

A strange thing seemed to happen, as viewers chose the first three finalists for "American Idol":
In a way, they chose the same person twice.
Danny Gokey and Michael Sarver come from opposite parts of the country, 1,100 miles apart, but they have much in common. "We definitely are kind of attuned to each other ... We pray together," Sarver said today (Thursday).
Both men are church worship leaders. Both have done much of their singing in religious settings. Both talk of marriage as a key factor in their lives.
"My wife is my absolute best friend," Sarver said. "If she died, I can't imagine how I'd be able to get up in the morning."
Gokey's wife, the former Sophia Martinez, died in July, during surgery for a congenital heart ailment. "She was spunky and so cute and she just had a little attitude," Gokey said.
Both men blossomed as church-music leaders, but Sarver said his singing began before that. When he was 11, "a family situation" -- he won't be specific -- brought pain. "I found joy in music and I found peace."
He also found praise. He sang for his family, in church and in bigger youth-group settings. "I've sung in auditoriums and arenas, but never in clubs or bars."
Gokey also succeeded with Christian music. That grew, he said, eight years ago when he joined Faith Builders. He's been a worship leader at churches in his home town of Milwaukee and in Beloit, Wis.
"American Idol" quickly latched onto both men, featuring them often. It loved reminding people that the beefy Sarver is an oil-field roughneck from Jasper, Texas, with two kids. That's definitely helped get votes, he granted. "The hard-working American (image) is part of the appeal."
And Gokey granted that sympathy has tied into his appeal. "There's no way to avoid it," he said. "It's only been seven months since she passed. This is who I am."
The other person boosted into the final 12 comes from a different musical world.
Alexis Grace grew up in Memphis, home of the blues. "When you grew up listening to it all the time, that's what you're used to," she said.
Now this tiny person -- Grace said she's almost, but not quite, 5-foot and 100 pounds -- has a big, bluesy voice. "My dad and I are in a band together," she said.
She's an experienced singer who changed her look since the auditions. Gokey merely changes his glasses. He has several he hasn't been allowed to wear, he said, because the brand logos are visible.

"Idol": No surprises; no problem

Sometimes, it's good when "American Idol" doesn't have a surprise.

Chris Daughtry, Tamyra Gray and LaToya London each finishing only fourth? Jasmine Trias and Nikki McKibbin finishing third? Michael Johns and Carly Smithson being bounced early? Those were surprises, and nasty ones.

By comparison, tonight's results show was sort of what was expected. I'd predicted that Danny Gokey would top the men and Alexis Grace would top the women, with Anoop Desai finishing third; but I'd said Michael Sarver could get that last spot. Sarver did, in a tight one; according to what Ryan Seacrest said tonight, he edged Desai by less than one-percent of the votes.

There were no real surprises, but we should note that:

1) Tatiana Del Toro, lost in her private dreamland, seemed shocked that she wasn't advancing. Maybe she wasn't paying attention.

2) Gokey had switched to fancier glasses. Does that count in the clothing budget?

3) Shortly after going with fun, multi-hued hair, Grace covered it up with a fedora. Hey, why not give the hat to a bad-hair person?

4) The show proved again that this tiny stage, for its preliminary rounds, really can't hold a 12-person production number.

5) Sarver quit his habit of switching his microphone hand with maddening frequency.

6) A long commercial string was interrupted by -- well, sort of a commercial for the "Idol" exhibit at Disney World.

7) This may not be a year for electric personalities. Tatiana is gone; so -- after a rather awful performance Tuesday -- is Jackie Tohn.

8) Producers had to feel bad about this: Their two prettiest people, Casey Carlson and Desai, are both out.

9) Then again, there will still be a second-chance round, when three rejects will be added to the final 12. I'm guessing Desai will be back.

10) And the producers have got to be tickled with the fact that, so far, each finalist has an interesting story. There's a widower, a former teen mom and a burly oil roughneck with a wife and two kids. It will be interesting to watch them.



"Idol" gets serious now

So now the silly part is over and "American Idol" gets serious. A dozen people sang tonight; only three will advance on Wednesday. Here are a few comments; also, I'll have an interview with the three survivors Thursday afternoon:

1) If you had one chance to show what a great basketball shot you were, would you choose a lay-up? Probably not, yet several people tried terribly simple songs, ones with little range and less passion. There was Brent Keith doing "Hick Town," Stevie Wright doing Taylor Swift, Casey Carlson doing something forgettable. They were OK, but your ambition should extend beyond drawing a shrug.

2) I will grant that Casey Carlson is really, really attractive. It was like Valerie Bertinelli, at 20, sort of being a pop star.

3) On the flip side is Alexis Grace. She's a 21-year-old mom with multi-colored hair and an ability to tackle a song. She was terrific.

4) If you're going to try something big, you have to do it right. Simon Cowell summed up Jackie Tohn perfectly: "I think you actually played the clown tonight."

5) Hey, the show had enough time to talk to moms and dads and not-quite cousins. Couldn't it have let the contestants sing for more than a minute-20-seconds each?

6) There are several guys who have the right combination -- good voice and great likability. They include Michael Sarver, Danny Gokey and Anoop Desai. Gokey, a widower, has the intriguing story; Desai gets extra credit for coining the nickname Anoop Dogg.

7) The judges keep telling people not to try to do songs linked with icons. Tonight, people did songs by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. What, did the Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder people back out?

8) Actually, I thought Ann Marie Boskovitch did a good job singing "Natural Woman." Still, it was a bit daring to do it while looking at Randy Jackson, one of Aretha's producers.

9) My preferences to advance: Alexis Grace, best female (and best overall); Danny Gokey, best male; Ann Marie Boskovitch, third-best.

10) My prediction to advance: Danny Gokey, top male (and best vote-getter overall); Alexis Grace, top female; Anoop Desai third. That third spot, however, could also go to Sarver or Ricky Braddy or (despite a bad night) Tatiana Del Toro. We'll see soon.