Good Oscar news: "Winter's Bone" gets its due

As the Academy Award nominations came out this morning, there was some extra-good news: "Winter's Bone" got nominations for best picture, actress (Jennifer Lawrence), supporting actor and adapted script.

"Winter's Bone" is a tiny movie, filmed in the Ozarks with a rich sense of realism. Lawrence -- last seen as a teen-ager in the bland sitcom "The Bill Engvall Show" -- is engrossing as a teen who must find her father (dead or alive) to save the family home. We get wonderfully textured portraits of people who -- like Tony Soprano, perhaps -- have their own decency and moral code, in a brutal setting.

It didn't land a Golden Globe nomination, because those are split between five dramas and five comedies. By comparison, the Oscar nominations include only two comedies (the Globe-winning "The Kids Are Alright" and the cartoon "Toy Story").

That left room for eight dramas, including front-runners "The Social Network," "The King's Speech" and "Black Swan," plus "Winter's Bone," "Inception," "127 Hours," "The Fighter" and "True Grit."

Like many people, I'm behind on seeing these. So far, I've seen "Social Network" and "King's Speech" -- either would be worthy of best picture, best actor (Jesse Eisenberg or Colin Firth), script (Aaron Sorkin for "Social Network") and supporting actor (Geoffrey Rush for "King's Speech"). I've also seen "True Grit" -- an excellent film, but not quite Oscar-worthy -- and "Winter's Bone" ... a terrific little film, now alongside the big guys, where it belongs.






Skipping the speech? Try "Onion News Network" and "Portlandia"

OK, you really know you should be watching the State of the Union speech tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 25). If you don't, however, this is the perfect time to find "Onion News Network" and "Portlandia."

Their openers aired at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and rerun at 9 and 9:30 p.m. tonight. That's on IFC (Independent Film Channel), which is hard to find -- you'll need satellite or digital cable -- but worth it.

My previous blog had the overall IFC story I sent to papers. Here are the other two I sent, on the two individual shows. Give both a try; IFC has become a vibrant force in new and rerun cartoons that are fresh, odd and witty.


TV keeps celebrating the same centers
of fun and sin and art and culture.

It gives us Vegas and Miami and San
Francisco and such. Now Portland, Oregon, is ready for its turn.

“Portland is a city that has a lot of
self-esteem, that's filled with people with very little self-esteem,”
said Carrie Brownstein, one of the creators and stars of the cable
comedy series “Portlandia.”

So Portland may deserve a spot
alongside such hip places as Austin, Texas; Ann Arbor, Mich.; or
Madison, Wis. Fred Armisen, who stars with Brownstein, sums it up in
the first minutes of the show: This is “a city where young people
go to retire.”

Its emphasis is on leisure and
reflection and doing the right thing, Brownstein said. “The goal is
not just to be good, but to be good in a certain way. It's so
earnest, so well-intentioned.”

And that leaves room for comedy, with
the stars portraying artists, bikers, book-sellers and more.

Neither is from Portland originally.
Armisen, 44, is from Long Island, not far from his current “Saturday
Night Live” duties; Brownstein, 36, grew up in Seattle, forever
getting attention.

“I've always had this innate desire
to perform,” she said. “I had never been to a ballet, but that
didn't stop me from putting on a tutu and performing for my family.”

No ballerinas lived nearby, but a rock
guitarist (Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate) was in the next
neighborhood. She took lessons from him; in college, she joined
Sleater-Kinney. called it “one of the
most important feminine punk rock bands of the '90s”; Rolling Stone
called Brownstein one of the 25 “most underrated guitarists of all

Armisen was a fan, befriending
Brownstein after a New York concert.

“Fred was a drummer,” said Jonathan
Krisel, the “Portlandia” director. “(When) they said, 'Oh,
let's collaborate on something, I think both of them thought it was
going to be music.”

Instead, they did comedy videos under
the name ThunderAnt, having fun with Portland's earnest ways.

That expanded into this six-week
series, with short bits and recurring characters. Guest stars dropped
in; Kyle MacLachlan of “Twin Peaks” played a super-hip mayor. “I
have made a career out of choosing slightly eccentric things to work
on with unusual, strange people,” he said.

And now he's doing it in, perhaps, a
strange city.

– “Portlandia,” 10:30 p.m.
Fridays, IFC (Independent Film Channel), reruns at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays

– Six episodes, starting Jan. 21,
after the “Onion News Network” debut


In their giddiest moments, the Onion
people say they're on a roll.

Their new cable show (“Onion News
Network”) debuts Friday (Jan. 21), just 10 days after “Onion
SportsDome” started. The plan is “to take over the entire media,”
Will Graham joked.

Don't believe that. This has been
gradual, after decades of popularity.

The Onion was started by two University
of Wisconsin students as a sorta-newspaper, with humor stories drolly
disguised as real ones. Headlines would proclaim: “BYU scientists
convert matter into Mormonism” or “Area stoners mistakenly hold
massive Kemp rally” or “Stupid magazine ranks some stupid crap”
or “Mousy brunette removes glasses, becomes sizzling sexpot.”

The style was straight-faced and
Midwestern; the paper was free. “Everyone in Madison got it,”
Carol Kolb recalled. “It was the greatest; it was hilarious.”

She grew up in Spencer, a central
Wisconsin town of 1,900 people, unaware of Madison's comedy
reputation. This was the birthplace of Chris Farley, the Kentucky
Fried Theatre (whose founders then made the movie “Airplane”) and
the Onion.

The paper had started in 1988; when
Kolb joined it in 1997, it was “on State Street, in some crappy
offices,” she said. It was a place for wild ideas, with “a
humongous list of headlines on the wall.”

That lingered after the Onion moved to
New York, Graham said. “Our office is still kind of crappy.”

The Onion reported a distribution of
690,000 papers, but its Web site became more important. “I think
the online version started in 2000 …. From there, it was four years
ago that we started to develop our Web video department,” said
Julie Smith, executive producer of the newscast.

At first, sportscasts and ONN reports
were strictly online. Now both have gone cable.

The ONN stories are pure Onion –
starting with one in which a blond teen is shocked to learn she will
be tried as a black male. The production, however, adds lots of TV
flash and hype. It “combines all the worst qualities of modern
media and then takes it 200 percent further,” Graham said.

It even hired a pro as its fake
newscaster. Suzanne Sena has worked on cable (E, Fox News), at a
broadcast station (in Dallas), even on infomercials.

She's known the quirks of reporting
from an empty site, after the newsmakers have left. “But we're
there, because we're live on the scene …. That's some of the
absurdity that we like to explore at ONN.”
It's a ripe field –
enough to turn the Onion (gradually) into a media empire.

Onion empire

– “Onion SportsDome,” 10:30 p.m.
Tuesdays, Comedy Central; debuted Jan. 11

– “Onion News Network,” 10 p.m.
Fridays, IFC (Independent Film Channel), debuts Jan. 21; rerunning 9 p.m.Tuesdays

– Online:

– Also: Onion print editions (in some
cities) and books


Friday fun: Onion and "Portlandia" lead the way

One of the best trends lately has come from an unexpected source -- the Independent Film Channel.

IFC used to be content with showing indie movies (which its name kind of implies). Lately, however, it has also been the late-night place for clever, short-form comedies.

Some of these are reruns -- "Mr. Show," "The Ben Stiller Show" and more -- but there are also originals. Tonight (Jan. 21) brings the debuts of two of the best, "Onion News Network" at 10 p.m. and "Portlandia" at 10:30.

Those two -- rerunning from 9-10 p.m. Tuesdays -- are delights. Here's a story I sent to papers:



Decades ago, comedy was quick and

A generation of “Monty Python” and
early “Saturday Night Live” fans created “Mr. Show,” “Kids
in the Hall,” “The Ben Stiller Show” and more, with short,
funny sketches. “It's kind of like they were doing Internet comedy
before the Internet was invented,” said comedian Scott Aukerman

That died for a while, but now cable's
Independent Film Channel is leading a revival. Known mostly for
movies, IFC has added:

– New shows on Fridays. The latest –
10-11 p.m. Fridays, rerunning 9-10 p.m. Tuesdays – are “Portlandia”
and “Onion News Network,” a fake newscast that gets big laughs.
“IFC is the perfect place for us to be,” said Suzanne Sena, the
fake anchor.

– Reruns at 10 p.m. on other
weekdays. Some are eccentric situation comedies – “Arrested
Development,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and Judd Apatow's
“Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Still, there's also room
for the sketch-style “Mr. Show” and “The Ben Stiller Show.”

Many viewers will be seeing these for
the first time. “Sanders” and “Mr. Show” were on HBO; the
others had shaky slots on Fox. “A lot of people didn't see
(Stiller's show) when it aired,” Janeane Garofalo said, “We only
lasted, I think, 12 or 13 episodes and we were opposite '60

Still, the show had a convergence of
eccentric comedy talent. On-camera were Stiller, Garofalo, Andy Dick
and Bob Odenkirk; off-camera were Apatow, David Cross and more.

Afterward, Odenkirk and Cross crafted
“Mr. Show,” with Python-esque humor and (in HBO) a benign
network. “The entire season I was on the show,” said Aukerman, a
writer and sketch-player, “we only got one note from the network ….
They trusted Bob and David.”

And then, oddly, short-form comedy
started to disappear. There was still “Saturday Night Live” (far
from its glory days), “MadTV” and late-night talk shows, but
variety and sketch shows faded.

Aukerman – a life-long Python fan –
credits the Internet with bringing it back. On YouTube, people began
seeing quick humor. “Comedy should be silly and stupid,” he said,
and silly should be quick.

A pace became standard on the Internet,
said “Portlandia” director Jonathan Krisl. “The ideal length is
two minutes, 30 seconds; if you go past four minutes, you lose a
million viewers.”

The Internet launched “Onion
SportsDome” (now on Comedy Central), “Portlandia,” “Onion
News Network,” Aukerman's “Comedy Death-Ray” and the short
films on “Saturday Night Live.”

Now IFC is nurturing offbeat comedy.
From 10-11:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays it has reruns,
interspersing Aukerman's chats with comedians; on Fridays, it has new

This fall, it had “Death Comes to
Town” from Kids in the Hall and “The Increasingly Poor Decisions
of Todd Margaret” from Cross. Now come “Portlandia” and “ONN.”

The catch is that none of these last
long. “Death” has eight half-hours; “Todd Margaret” and
“Portlandia” only have six. “This is a very curated, small,
little, perfect universe,” Krisle said.

It's a universe where the “Python”
spirit lives on in strange, short bursts.

IFC (Independent Film Channel),
generally via satellite or digital cable

– “Onion News Network” and
“Portlandia,” 10 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays, starting Jan. 21.
rerunning at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays; “Mr. Show” reruns follow
at 11 p.m. weekdays.

– Other weekdays have “Larry
Sanders” show at 11 p.m., varied shows earlier

– This week (Jan. 24-27) at 10:
“Arrested Development,” Monday; “Freaks and Geeks,” Tuesday;
“Undeclared” and “The Ben Stiller Show,” Wednesday;
“Sanders,” 8-11:30 p.m. Thursday.



J Lo: Didn't you read the job description?

So there was Jennifer Lopez, saying she'd watched "American Idol" for nine years. Now she was looking forward to being a judge.

Then she found she had to say no to people. "Why did I sign up for this?" she asked. "I wanna go home."

Hey, J-Lo, during those nine years you probably should have noticed that judges reject people. I'm pretty sure it's in the job description.

Now, I've always found the inability to say no to be an admirable (and extremely rare) trait for a beautiful woman. Still, it's essential for a judge to do it often.

She and Steven Tyler kept resisting. That may be why the show sent 325 people to Hollywood this year, almost twice the usual number.

Once we're past that, the show is off to a decent start. Lopez comes across as a warm and caring person; Tyler is enthusiastic -- but, so far, non-specific in his comments.

And the contestants? Some mix personality with genuine talent. Victoria Huggins -- dubbed by Randy Jackson "the most personable contestant we've ever had" -- sang well. Another contestant showed big hair, a big attitude and biggish breasts adorned by stars; still, she also wrote a clever introductory song, then offered a beautiful ballad.

There were other strong contestants. "Idol" might turn out to have a good year ... once the judges start judging. 

Let's talk Golden Globes and Gervais

The Golden Globes are handed out Sunday, with Ricky Gervais hosting -- we'll interview him in a minute -- and plenty of chances to cheer and grumble.

My own preferences (not predictions) are topped -- as always -- by "The Big Bang Theory," TV's best comedy. In other categories, I've only seen some contenders, but I'll say something anyway:

-- Movie drama? I love both "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network," two true-life stories told well. I'll go with "Speech" by a smidgen.

-- Movie comedy? "Red" is a delight. ("The Tourist" is interesting, but flawed; it's also not a comedy. "Alice in Wonderland" is sometimes magnificent, but flawed.)

-- TV drama. "Boardwalk Empire" gets my vote, partly because "House" isn't there.

-- TV comedy. Duh, "Big Bang Theory."

-- Acting categories? I won't get into them now, with one exception: Jennifer Lawrence was subtly perfect in "Winter's Bone," helping turn a bare-bone, stern-eyed drama into an amazingly good movie. I'm hoping she wins.

-- And the Globes show itself? With Ricky Gervais hosting, I'm predicting it will be fun. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A year ago, Ricky Gervais had a basic
plan for hosting the Golden Globe awards.

He would have some drinks and have some
fun; he would never be invited back, so there was nothing to worry
about. “I'm just doing it, you know, for a laugh,” he said.

And then? The show was still going, he
said, when he was asked to host again. “I said, 'Well, let's see.
It's not over yet.'”

When it was over, the numbers arrived.
“I think the ratings went up about 18 per cent,” he said.

That cinched it: On Sunday, Gervais
will host again; he also promises to try harder.

Last year, he said, he “gave myself
this weird restriction that I wrote it … in about an hour, all my
lines. And if you noticed, all the lines are about the people that
are about to come out.”

Some of those drew big laughs. At one
point, Gervais explained that he likes alcohol as much as the next
man, “unless the next man is ...” A moment later, a
surprised-looking Mel Gibson was onstage.

This year, he said, he'll expand a bit.
“I've realized I can reference anyone in the room.”

The Globes have been good to Gervais,
in a career that keeps outstripping expectations.“Americans are
told they can be the next president …. British people are told, 'It
won't happen to you,'” he said.

Especially, it wouldn't happen to him:
“My dad was a laborer all his life. He used to get up at 5:30 every
morning, five or six days a week until he was 70 and he never

Gervais tried rock music, worked in an
office for seven years and did some comedy-writing. In 2001, he
created the British “The Office,” giving himself a starring role.
Some Americans saw it on cable; most had never heard of it – until
the 2004 Golden Globes.

In the comedy category, “The Office”
won for best show and Gervais won for best actor. The American
version arrived a year later; it's had nine Globe nominations and one
win (for Steve Carell, who's nominated again this year).

The change in his life has been
startling. “I did a corporate gig in the early days because – for
doing 40 minutes – (the money) was the same as my dad's wages for a

He doesn't do that now. Instead, he
takes chances with odd projects, stand-up and the Globes.

“I like the jeopardy,” Gervais
said. “It's live and there's a quarter-of-billion people watching
and a room full of the most powerful people in the world.”

Those people are looking at a guy who
really never expected to be invited back.

Golden Globes, 8-11
p.m. Sunday, NBC

The E channel has a
preview at 5 p.m. and starts red-carpet coverage at 6; NBC has red
carpet at 7.

Nominated movies,
drama: “Inception,” “The Social Network,” “The Fighter,”
“Black Swan,” “The King's Speech”

Movies, comedy or
musical: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Red,” “The Tourist,”
“Burlesque,” “The Kids Are Alright”

TV drama: “Boardwalk
Empire,” “Dexter,” “The Good Wife,” “Mad Men,” “The
Walking Dead”

TV comedy or musical:
“Glee,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family,” “30
Rock,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Big C”