Tag Archives: Academy Awards


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Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.

BrooklynThe film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.

Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.

Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.

At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.

The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.

But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.

With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.

This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.

It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).

The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.

As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.

Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.

To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”

Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.

Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.

Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.

Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.

Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.

Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.

As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

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What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.

Cartel Land

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A buddy of mine likes to tell me that drug use is a victimless crime. For people who think like this, I give you Cartel Land,  an Academy Award nominated documentary that give us an up-close view of the impact of the drug trade by examining two groups of citizens trying to do something about it. It’s an amazingly intimate portrait that gives us a seldom seen perspective.

Cartel LandCartel Land attempts to make sense of the complexity of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States by focusing on two vigilante leaders – one on the Mexican side and the other on the American side of the border. By going micro, director and camera man Matthew Heineman is able to make real the abstract nature of the tragedy and absurdity of the so-called War on Drugs.

On the American side of the border, in Arizona’s Altar Valley, we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American vet around fifty years old who has organized a small vigilante force dedicated to patrolling the border and stopping the movements of the Mexican drug cartels. It’s dangerous work, and Foley has skin like leather and clear blue eyes reminiscent of the mythological American Cowboy.

On the Mexican side, more than a thousand miles from the border in the state of Michoacán, we meet Dr. José Mireles, a physician from a rural community overrun by a cartel known as the Knights Templar. After seeing many of his friends, neighbors and family members beaten, raped and murdered by the gangs, Mireles took a stand against them, and on February 23, 2013 launched a vigilante effort called El Grupo Autodefensas that was initially very effective in turning back the tide of lawlessness.

Cartel Land
Director, Matthew Heineman

Heineman was allowed to embed himself in each of these groups, seemingly alone and armed with a light and portable camera rig that allowed him to participate in patrols and raids with the vigilante groups where he was often exposed to gunfire. By being approved by the leaders of each group, he was able to film interviews with principal participants and victims that paint a chilling picture of the high stakes each group is playing for.

Foley and Mireles are each dismissive of the desire of their respective governments (as well as the government on the other side of the border) in bringing an end to the drug trade. I must admit a cultural bias that makes believing in Mexican corruption an easier pill to swallow than what is either American corruption or at least callous indifference to the flow of drugs and people who are smuggled across the border with little resistance. But Foley and his band of militants have no such troubles.

To his credit, Heineman deals with the controversy that accompanies each of these groups.

In the American camp, Foley is presented as a clear-headed, fair-minded pragmatist, willing to climb into bed with survivalists, white supremacists and other fringe elements so long as they share the same objective, which is to protect the American border from what Foley perceives as the forces of evil – that is, the drug cartels. Heineman interviews one such individual who states without blinking that good fences are effective and necessary in keeping incompatible races apart. He also shows news clips that we’ve all seen that characterize the vigilantes in a negative light as violent, hateful people.

Foley himself is honest and open about his troubled past, which includes drug and alcohol abuse. But after a near-death experience some 20 years back, he’s now clean, sober and on a mission to make a difference. To put a dent in the universe.

Cartel Land
Dr. José Manuel Mireles

As for Mireles, it’s a trickier tale. When we meet him, Dr. Mireles is a handsome, mustochioed man nearing 60. Tall and graceful, with an eloquent and charismatic appeal to his neighbors. His appeals to one community after another to join his movement to put an end to the mindless violence of the cartels is like something from Hollywood.

And the people followed him.

As the Autodefensas cleared out one village after another, Mireles’ celebrity grew, which also drew the attention of not only the cartels but a nervous federal government, which must have worried about a popular uprising against it. I had a sense, watching Cartel Land, that Mireles was a goner, and right after the thought struck me, the description of the suspicious nature of a plane crash involving Mireles is revealed.

Without the galvanizing force of Mireles’ leadership, the Autodefensas spirals into chaos with counter-offensives from the cartels as well as corruption and in-fighting within the group.

To make mattes worse, Dr. Mireles is open about his weakness for women. At first, he’s shown first as a compassionate neighbor, then as a caring doctor and finally as a doting husband, father and grandpa, but we also see that “El Doctor” also has a thing for pretty young women, which becomes a perfect metaphor for the murky waters of the War on Drugs. Nothing is as it seems. Nobody is pure. Good and evil often co-exist within the same men at the same time.

On the first anniversary of the Auodefensas movement, Mexican president Enrique Peńa Neto made a slick maneuver designed to eliminate the threat of the Autodefensas movement while simultaneously appearing to support it by absorbing the vigilante group into the federal government and giving it legal status and a new name.

Suspicious of this move, Mireles refuses to go along and stands alone against the government that has shown that it has little interest in doing serious damage to the cartels that have infiltrated its halls of power. Not long after, Dr. Mireles was captured and imprisoned. Today, he is in a remote prison in a kind of legal limbo with his health deteriorating as the Mexican government decides what to do next.

The last we see of Mireles, he owns up to his mistakes and unlike the two governments in question, takes full responsibility for his actions.

At the same time, the vigilante movement he spawned has devolved to the level of the cartels they were created to fight, with corruption, in-fighting and lawlessness their signatures. In this case, evil has won out. As we hear two times, from Mexicans on both sides of the fight, “For now, I’m the lucky one.”

Cartel Land
Tim “Nailer” Foley

Back in Arizona, things are a little better. Without a federal government out to stop him, Foley is adding to his numbers and can point to small victories as they regularly intercept small gangs of scouts who are the eyes of the smugglers. He characterizes his efforts as an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, which is okay with him. He’s in this for the long haul.

In the final analysis, I suppose that Heineman’s message is one of hope. Having seen what people can do when they stand up to tyranny, he has shown us that the cartels can be beaten as long as we have people like Mireles and Foley who are true believers with nothing to lose. For though they may be flawed, at least they can’t be bought.

After watching Cartel Land, I defy anyone to say that drugs are a victimless crime.

A first-draft take: The Revenant

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Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant was nominated this week for a Best Picture Oscar, and I went to see it today hoping it was better than I’ve been hearing. Unfortunately, it’s exactly as I’ve been hearing.

The problem with The Revenant, if you want to call it that, is that it’s a good adventure tale dressed up like an epic.

The RevenantThe film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman who lived in the time of frontier heroes like Jim Bridger, with his own true-life adventures that read like tall tales. DiCaprio is solid in the role, which called for very little memorization of lines. What sounds DiCaprio made were mostly in the form of grunts and heavy breathing, and dressed in a thick bear skin pull-over and sporting a scraggly beard and long hair, he looks more like an animal than the suave Gatsby-esque figure we’re used to seeing.

The story opens in a flashback of the savage murder of Glass’ wife, a Pawnee, and the mutilation of their son’s face by white soldiers. Her whispered words of love and wisdom serve as a kind of frontier Greek chorus as Glass makes his way through this story.

The story’s present is years after the massacre and finds Glass and his son Hawk working as guides for American fur trappers in Wyoming in the early-1800’s. As Glass and his son hunt for food, their party is attacked by Ree’s seeking the daughter of their chief.

The action sequences are expertly shot, putting you in the middle of the action. The violence is depicted so realistically that blood spatters the lens at one point. Arrows pierce necks, bullets open up holes in bodies, knives puncture abdomens. And blood flows in nearly every scene.

Glass and Hawk make it back to their party and help the survivors escape to their flatboat, which provides temporary relief from attack.

During all of this, we meet Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (in an Oscar nominated role), a cruel fur trapper who is a tough man among tough men. Of course, he makes it back to the boat without so much of a scratch, cursing and complaining about all the pelts they had to leave behind – no doubt a comment on the boundless greed of American expansionism.

Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of their attackers, Glass recommends abandoning the boat, which is sure to be attacked downstream, and opting for an overland route back to the safety of their fort of origin.

Fitzgerald hates the idea and argues strenuously against it, discounting Glass’ coolly articulated explanation of them being sitting ducks. Their captain, played by Domhnall Gleeson, sides with Glass and orders the boat ashore at the next logical spot.

Fitzgerald keeps up his bitching and complaining until the captain orders him to knock it off. This only shifts his target, but not his tone as he starts in on Glass, asking him if it was true that he shot and American officer in defense of an Indian woman (Glass’ own wife, we learn later). Glass refuses to engage the man.

This sets up the central conflict between Glass and Fitzgerald, two men who openly dislike one another.

When Glass is mauled by a bear a few mornings later, in a scene that is amazingly shot and performed, it’s Fitzgerald who argues strenuously against attempting to haul nearly dead carcass over the mountains. When the captain finally relents, and asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until he dies(along with the real-life Jim Bridger and Hawk), to see he is properly buried, Fitzgerald agrees after a handsome payday is offered. All this is done in full view of Glass, who is injured but conscious.

Later, when Fitzgerald is tired of waiting, he tries to bargain with Glass to let him end his life. When Hawk interrupts this plan, Fitzgerald kills him in a struggle, which is again played out in full view of Glass, who can do nothing but grunt and cry.

When Fitzgerald lies to Bridger, in order to get hi to abandon Glass, the remainder of the movie is the struggle for Glass to literally claw his way back to civilization to exact his vengeance on Fitzgerald.

Against all odds, Glass relies on his training and a single-minded determination to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Cold weather, lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of weapons for protection and an improbably crowded wilderness filled with predatory men are all dealt with in an improvisational manner that would Jason Bourne proud.

Fitzgerald and Bridger make it back to the fort, just after the captain and the others, and as promised, he’s paid his bounty for doing the honorable thing. Not wanting young Bridger to go un-rewarded for his duty, the captain gives him another share even though he’s paid the original to Fitzgerald. Bridger, in a fit of conscience, leaves it with the captain and storms out of the meeting.

Glass finally does make it back to the fort, where his return is announced with enough warning that Fitzgerald can break into the captain’s safe and sneak off for Texas with a small fortune.

The final act of the movie sees a rejuvenated Glass setting off with the captain to finish what he started, challenging his wife’s haunting reminders to leave vengeance to God.

Everything about this film is done superbly, from the fine cast to the extraordinary cinematography to the special effects of the frontier violence. There’s not a false note in the whole movie, which begs the question – “Why did I walk away feeling like there was something missing?”

Again, I think that the story just wasn’t big enough to support the great ambition of Iñárritu and his team.

The first evidence of this lies in the flashback sequences and the voice-overs. My guess is that they weren’t in the first draft of the script, but were added to give Glass’ struggle depth and universality that, although they worked, just didn’t elevate the story.

Compare The Revenant to Jeremiah Johnson, and you’ll see what I mean. Jeremiah Johnson, similarly, was the story of a frontiersman in roughly the same time period whose family is similarly butchered. But what elevates the Redford classic to the level of epic is the framing of Johnson’s story against that of the culture from which he’s escaping from and into. Jeremiah Johnson is a densely layered story that works first as an adventure, then as social commentary and finally as epic.

All this is not to diminish The Revenant. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Oscar nominations, I probably wouldn’t belabor the above points. But because it has been nominated for so many awards, it’s impossible not to think of it in those terms.

I look forward to seeing the remainder of the nominated films to see where The Revenant ranks, but for now, I’m guessing it’s not this year’s Best Picture.

Academy Awards 2011: Final Thoughts

The Academy Awards 2011: Final Thoughts

A lot of people bashed the Oscars, but don’t we go through this same ritual every year?  Is it some kind of guilt over our worshipping the golden calf of celebrity?  It’s as if the day-after bashing is a guilt offering to cover our shame.

That said, I feel no guilt.  Every year, I go into the telecast hoping for some transcendent moment, but end up like Linus on Halloween, waiting in vain for the Great Pumpkin.  Oh well, maybe next year.

How ironic that the year that was devoted to the younger demographic was dominated by a 95 year old legend who reminded everyone that just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better.

Bless the person who booked Kirk Douglas for the broadcast.  Despite at least one stroke, he’s lost none of the spark or timing or determination to seize an opportunity that made him a star.  When he finally and reluctantly receded into the night, after Melissa Leo’s wonderful f-bomb, little did we know that we’d had our high-water mark for the night.

I don’t understand all the energy that’s put into pandering to youngsters, especially when it comes as the expense of the past.  Isn’t that what the Oscars are all about – comparing this year’s talent to everything that’s gone before?

What I REALLY hate is the toast that happens before the awarding of Best Actor & Actress.  It’s painful to watch, especially when Bridges screws up and shatters the illusion of him giving off-the-cuff remarks, like the best man at a wedding.

They need to stop that.

And how come we didn’t get to see Coppola getting his Thalberg award?  I would have loved to have seen the montage they put together, especially if it was as clever as the fake musical one.

And finally, I liked the opening, until they went Back To The Future on us.

2011 Academy Award Predictions

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Here are my final Oscar predictions for 2011:

Best Picture: The Social Network

Best Director: David Fincher

Best Actor: Colin Firth

Best Actress: Natalie Portman

Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush

Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo

Best Original Screenplay: The King’s Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network

Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3

Best Documentary Feature: Exit Through the Gift Shop

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

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For a while it seemed like Christian Bale was running away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but after seeing some of the competition, I think the race might be pretty tight.

I haven’t seen The Town, so I can’t really comment on Jeremy Renner’s performance.  It doesn’t suck to be him, these days, with two nominations in as many years.

Mark Ruffalo doesn’t seem like he belongs in this group.  The Kids Are All Right is a wildly overrated movie that could have made some very interesting observations, but instead, chose a path riddled with clichés.  His performance seems like one I’ve seen him give in more than one other movie, say You Can Count on Me, for example.

All the way through Winter’s Bone, I kept wondering where I’d seen the guy who played Teardrop.  It wasn’t until I was able to look him up on IMDB that I was reminded of Me And You And Everyone We Know, an oddball indie romance.  Look him up yourself, and you’ll no doubt be nodding at the list of movies you’ve seen where he’s one of these supporting characters who looks like he might have been plucked off the street – which is a compliment, because he’s so authentic.

In Winter’s Bone, he plays the unpredictable uncle of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree.  He’s a man who’s as likely to punch his niece in the mouth as to hug her – it just depends on how he’s approached.  Hawkes perfectly blends paranoia, anger, larceny, and a sense of primal justice to become a very unlikely hero.

I’d love to see him walk away with the Oscar, but I’m afraid the numbers are against him.

Much has been written about Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter, and it is a very impressive performance – almost showy in that old-fashioned, 1950’s way where performances often veered towards the over-the-top (see Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me).

His preparation to play Dicky Eklund reminded me of the stories about DeNiro’s preparation to play Jake LaMotta in The Raging Bull – exhaustive observation of physical tics and habits, drawn from hours of conversation and note taking.  It’s a dedication and work ethic that is tiring just thinking about it, and it has paid off huge for a guy who wasn’t even the first choice for the role.

Later tonight, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon might be wondering, “What if…?”

I have a feeling that Geoffrey Rush is going to sneak in and walk away with the Academy Award tonight.  He’s marvelous in The King’s Speech as Lionel Logue, the man who not only shows King George VI how to overcome a horrible stutter, he shows him how to be a friend.

It’s a well written character that gives Rush much room to flesh out a three-dimensional man who, despite his failure a Shakespearean acting is a highly skilled therapist.  In a fine monologue, Rush defends his lack of formal training with an account of his wartime experience helping shell-shocked World War I veterans regain their speech after witnesses unspeakable horrors.

Choosing a best performance in any category is really a fool’s errand, especially with the performances of Rush, Bale, and Hawkes.  Give it to Rush by a nose.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

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I love the supporting actor and actress awards.  This is where the Academy likes to surprise us.  In 1984, Haing Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist working with American journalist Sydney Schanberg, in The Killing Fields.  And oh yeah, Ngor himself experienced the same killing fields of the character he portrayed.  He himself was a Cambodian refugee, and lost a wife and child to the Khmer Rouge.  If all that weren’t enough, Ngor was trained as a physician, not a doctor, and The Killing Fields was his first role.

Though there may not be a story like Ngor’s in this year’s field, there is room for a big upset.

Jacki Weaver’s nomination for Animal Kingdom came out of left field, and I haven’t seen the movie.  Weaver has a long career in Australian cinema dating back to Picnic at Hanging Rock.  In Animal Kingdom, she plays Smurf, a kind of godmother of a crime family.  The film has been in limited release, and a victory on Sunday would be a major upset.

Amy Adams takes a turn away from the sunny characters she’s best remembered for in movies like Junebug and Enchanted.  In The Fighter, she plays Charlene, the working class girlfriend of boxer Micky Ward.  Among the obstacles she has to overcome are Micky’s mom and sisters, who are straight out of hell.  Look for her to get KO’d on Oscar night and walk away empty handed.

Helena Bonham Carter was born for costume dramas.  From A Room With a View to The King’s Speech, she has appeared in so many historical dramas as to seem born in another time.  In The King’s Speech, she plays Elizabeth, the Duchess of York.  Her husband, the future King George VI, suffers from a severe stutter that hampers his ability to lead in a new age, where the radio has become as important as looking regal in uniform on horseback.

Though her husband has resigned himself to obscurity, Bonham Carter stays on the lookout for help until she finds Lionel Logue, a highly unorthodox speech therapist who comes highly recommended.

Thus begins her effort of orchestrating and cheerleading as her husband is subjected to an invasive course of therapy that not only breaks down his affliction but also the social structures that keep commoners like Logue at a great distance.

It’s a delightful performance, but not enough to take home the trophy.

Many kids have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, like Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon), Anna Paquin (The Piano), and Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird), which has to make Hailee Steinfeld and her family feel like she has a pretty good shot for her performance in True Grit.

She more than holds her own onscreen with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and a supporting cast that includes Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.  It’s an impressive debut because not only is she in just about every scene, she has to speak her dialogue in an archaic, 19th century dialect devoid of contractions and slang.  Mattie is a precocious adolescent who worships her murdered father and applies her devotion to seeing his murderer (Brolin) hanged.  Her sense of justice is forged from a Protestantism steeped in blood and sin and judgment.  That said, she plays the role straight, allowing for an ironic humor to bleed into every scene.  True Grit is a very funny movie.

I’ll be crossing my fingers, hoping for an upset, but I’m – or rather I am – afraid that the award is predestined to do home with another.

That other is Melissa Leo, who plays Alice, the matriarch of the Ward family in The Fighter.  Alice Ward is a manipulative woman who will use anything at her disposal to impose her will.  In addition to her boxing boys, she’s raised seven daughters who are like something from Shakespeare or Greek Drama.

This nomination is the second in three years for Leo, who was nominated for Best Actress in 2008 for her role as Ray in Frozen River. It’s a vindication of sorts for an actress who is undeniably talented, but also carries a difficult reputation.

Leo is a force of nature in The Fighter, and like Alice’s younger son Micky, she won’t be denied her title.  Pencil her in as the Oscar winner.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actress

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For the Best Actor race, I used a horse racing analogy to establish the odds of the nominated actors.  Let’s stick with that device for the Best Actress race because Natalie Portman is looking like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes.  Not literally, of course, but in the sense that according to the previous awards and various pundits, she’s way out in front of the competition, which is made up of great actresses in roles that either haven’t been seen much or didn’t match the mania of Portman’s unstrung ballerina.

Nicole Kidman, nominated for Rabbit Hole, stars in one of the movies no one has seen, which is too bad.  Kidman has had an interestingly uneven career, veering from crap like Australia and Bewitched to daringly original projects like To Die For and Margot at the WeddingRabbit Hole is among the latter, but according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it was shot for $5 million, but has only made back $2 million.  How does that happen with talent like Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, a director like John Cameron Mitchell (Short Bus), and Lionsgate distributing?  Hopefully, the Oscar buzz will cause more people to see this movie.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as an overburdened Ozark teenager out to find her missing father, in Winter’s Bone, is a strong debut performance that promises more nominations to come.  Ree Dolly is a 16 year old who has to take care of two younger siblings and a mom who’s lost to mental illness.  Her father is a meth cooker who’s disappeared while on bail.  Facing homelessness, she journeys into a hardened world of drug dealers and murderers, most of whom are related by blood.  Had it been a supporting role, I’d be predicting her as a winner, but she’ll have to settle for the nomination this year.

Michelle Williams is one of my favorite actresses, and Wendy and Lucyis one of my favorite movies over the past few years, so her nomination for Blue Valentine was a very pleasant surprise.  She plays Cindy, a young woman in a failing marriage who hungers for more.  Blue Valentine gives us snapshots of the relationship, from the sweet beginnings to the bitter end, and Michelle Williams gives a fearless performance that confirms her position as one of the best actresses in Hollywood.

For a while, Annette Bening was being presented as a rival to Natalie Portman for Best Actress.  After seeing The Kids Are All Right, I can only guess that the hype came from her publicist.  Of course, sentimentality and popularity has as much to do with the Academy Awards as merit, and for that reason alone Bening would have a shot at winning.  There’s just not that much to her role, which is more of an ensemble or supporting role than it is a lead.  She’s wonderful as the uptight, type-A half of her relationship with Julianne Moore.  She keeps her performance from veering into a cartoonish, two-dimensional villain.  Rather, she gains our empathy for being the person in her relationship who feels the pressure of being the sole bread winner.  Forgive the sexist analogy, but she’s like the traditional husband who has the weight of providing for her family squarely on her shoulders.  Sadly, there’s too much melodrama and not exploration of her stresses in this overrated movie.

From the very beginning of Black Swan, you know Natalie Portman is in trouble.  A grown woman who sleeps in a pink room, surrounded by stuffed animals, music boxes, a smothering mom who never cashed in her dream, and no dad in sight is a caution.  And then we get to know Natalie Portman’s Nina, a dancer with the New York ballet, a girl who is driven and high-strung.

She’s also at the tail end of her prime, but fears of being passed by seem to be swept away when Nina is cast in the lead in the company’s production of Swan Lake.  But rather than being a boon, the role becomes a curse, as we watch Nina’s hold on her sanity loosen to the point of letting go.

It’s a role to die for – I’m talking about the film role – and Portman more than meets the challenge of capturing both the pampered little girl in pink, who has never really had a boy friend, and the type-A career girl, who is pushing herself past her limits to achieve a dream that may or may not be her own.  Portman’s physical appearance contributes to the tension.  She lost a lot of weight for the role – to the point of appearing nearly pre-pubescent.

Helping her along the path to mental exhaustion, like a perverse Scarecrow in a balletic Wizard of Oz, is Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the artistic director of the company, who manipulates his dancers mercilessly to get the performance he envisions.

Once she’s been cast as the lead, jealous rivals accuse Portman of having slept with Leroy, a charge that hurts and baffles Nina.  Having lived so pampered a life, she can’t imagine using sex as a tool or tactic.  That said, she’s not really up for the challenge of playing the Black Swan.  She’s so technical and precise that she’s incapable of cutting loose and letting her base instincts take over.  They’re repressed to the point of not existing.

As she frets over her lack to connect with the sexy, dirty side of herself and the character, Nina begins to hallucinate.  At first, it’s small, but it grows and grows until it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imagined.

Natalie Portman will win the Academy Award for Best Actress this year, and it’s an honor that’s well deserved.

2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actor

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If this were the Kentucky Derby, Colin Firth would be going off at even money and you’d be looking to box him with some long shot, like Javier Bardem or James Franco, to make the bet worth walking all the way to the pari-mutuel window.

That said, let’s take a look at the field anyway, just in case Firth stumbles down the stretch.

I haven’t seen Biutiful, so I can’t comment on Javier Bardem.  We’ll say he has no chance, which is ridiculous given his award a couple of years ago for No Country for Old Men.  Scratch him.

Jesse Eisenberg was wonderful in The Social Network, but wearing a hoodie and a wrinkled t-shirt for two hours worth of film time doesn’t add up to a substantive enough performance to warrant an Oscar, despite perfectly capturing the white-hot intensity of a dot-com jillionaire.  Give him a 2-in-10 chance at winning.

It doesn’t suck to be James Franco these days.  He’s hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway, he’s studying literature at Yale, he

went to the Rhode Island school of design, cool directors want to work with him, he does soap operas, he recently made sport of himself on 30 Rock, and he stars in 127 Hours.  Surely this guy will be around for a long time, provided he doesn’t burn himself out, which is a good thing because I don’t think he’ll win the Oscar this year.  His performance as Aron Ralston, the hiker who cut off his own arm – which was pinned to the wall of a remote canyon by a boulder – to save his life is finely modulated, capturing the hubris of a 20-something year old guy who probably never considered his own mortality until it stared him in the eye, followed closely by the regret and sadness that comes with understanding what this will put his family through.  Give him a 4-in-10 chance at winning.

A lot of people I talk to automatically assume that since Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor last year (Crazy Heart) there’s no chance he’ll win it again this year for True Grit, but it was only a decade ago that Tom Hanks won consecutive awards for Philadelphia and Castaway.  That said, Bridges has a formidable mountain to climb.  First, there’s Colin Firth, who he beat out last year (A Single Man).  Then there’s the material – True Gritis a western, and a very funny one at that, which doesn’t bode well when placed next to a highly regarded costume drama.

While guys like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman have retreated to silly and irrelevant roles, Jeff Bridges has enjoyed a long prime, with no drop off in sight.  Rooster Cogburn could have easily become a cartoon, but Bridges and the Coens went deeper, and what we end up with is a layered character who is part blowhard, part cold-blooded killer, part raconteur, and part hero.  And along the way, we laugh our ass off at the verbal sparring that takes place between him and virtually every character who crosses his path.  He gets my vote, but sadly, the Academy will probably ignore him in favor of another great actor.  Give him a 7-in-10 chance of winning.

It’s good that the Academy doesn’t publish the vote talleys for each race, else we’d get hung up arguing that so-and-so only won the award by one vote, which would cheapen the honor I guess.  That said, it would be interesting to know how much Colin Firth lost by last year.  Many predicted he’d win for his stunning performance in A Single Man.  Here we are, a year later, and the same two men are back in the same position.

This year’s performance as King George VI in The King’s Speech is a showier role that calls to mind award winning performances by Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), and Jamie Foxx (Ray) who won for playing men with handicaps.  Firth brought to life a lesser known British monarch and fleshed him out with very human qualities.  His future king is a man who has it all, but is still haunted by crippling insecurities that arise from an embarrassing stutter that seems impossible to overcome.

This leads the Royal to the unorthodox and uncredentialed speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush in another beautifully realized performance.  Though they come from different social stations, The soon-to-be King must humble himself before this man in order to deal with the underlying issues of his speech impediment.

This all leads to a rousing climax involving a…speech, of course.  And thanks to Firth, we cheer for the King just as we would Rocky Balboa in one of his countless long-shot battle.  Give him an 8-in-10 chance of winning.