Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Up the Academy

I am sure you have have been eagerly awaiting my thoughts on the upcoming Academy Awards.

I waited for the invitation to appear on the radio to opine over the airwaves about this stuff, but it never arrived. So you lucky readers have the full benefit of my perspicacious predictions.

Best Actor

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor: a good movie few people saw and even fewer remember. Jenkins is a fine character actor, but not even he believes he has a chance at this one.

Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon: I found Langella’s performance mannered and unconvincing. Anthony Hopkins did a much more memorable RN in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Unlikely.

Will win: Sean Penn in Milk. The probable winner, given the current political climate and the acclaim surrounding his portrayal of slain San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk. I didn’t think Gus Van Sant’s movie captured the essence of Milk, a far more volatile and interesting man than Penn’s nebbishy portrayal suggested, but nevertheless I think he’ll get the Oscar.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. My dislike of this overblown Forrest-Gumpification of a fine F. Scott Fitzgerald story is detailed in earlier posts. The movie might have actually worked better with an actor more interesting than Brad Pitt. Pitt is best suited to absurdist comic roles (Fight Club and Burn After Reading), but he’s a bit hollow as the centerpiece of an emotional saga.

Should win: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. I think everything about Darren Arnofsky’s portrait of a has-been ‘80s wrestling star is just about perfect, but it rests entirely on the naturalistic, bravura performance of Rourke, whose pumped-up comeback mirrors that of the washed-up performer Randy. A triumph of Method acting.

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Josh Brolin in Milk. Brolin immerses himself in every role, whether it’s the ne’er-do-well George W. Bush, the hunted drifter in No Country for Old Men or the straitlaced San Francisco city supervisor-turned-murderer Dan White in Milk. He probably won’t win, but of the nominees, his performance seems to me the most award-worthy.

Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. I loved this movie, and thought Downey was a scream as the Australian actor who darkens his skin to play a black soldier and then can’t drop the character. I love the political incorrectness of this movie and the ire it raised, and Downey always does impeccable work. Given the competition, though, he won’t win.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. This nomination might be a consolation prize for the lack of nominations for the much more complicated Synechdoche, New York. It’s a pretty workmanlike performance, though, in an adaptation of a workmanlike play. Not this time for Hoffman.

Will win: Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, being famously and recently dead is a surefire win for Ledger, whose performance as the Joker in this lugubrious Batman sequel –- a movie hailed for unexplainable reasons as a “masterpiece” –- was all about dry mouth and drag makeup. The performance was humorless and repellent and made me long for Nicholson’s flamboyance. And therefore, being so very dead, he will win.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road I’m sorry, but everything about this misguided adaptation of an unadaptable Richard Yates novel was laughably awful, from Leo DiCaprio’s attempt to portray an adult man of the 1950s wearing his granddad’s fedora, to the fresh-from-the-showroom fifties furniture and overwrought period music. So I can barely remember Michael Shannon, though he played the only interesting character in the movie, a psychotic man who is for some reason a frequent guest — and the Voice of Truth — at the Kate and Leo characters’ smart dinner parties. Ho hum, I say. Go away, terrible movie.

Best Actress

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader

A very good lineup, in which all are worthy except Meryl Streep, the most overrated actress in the history of acting.

It’s heartening to see the small, low-budget Frozen River nominated in several categories; Melissa Leo was great as the desperate mother who becomes a reluctant smuggler of illegal immigrants, but she will not win.

Winslet was very good as the former Nazi guard and boy-lover in the flawed Reader, and Hathaway was surprisingly effective in Jonathan Demme’s supremely grating Rachel. I think it’s between Jolie, who was snubbed two years ago for her tour de force in A Mighty Heart, and Winslet, whose nomination compensates for the lack of Oscar mojo for the godawful Revolutionary Road. I favor Jolie, who was very good (if disturbingly skinny) as the mom whose son goes missing in 1920s L.A., but her celebrity may work against her. I’ll go out on a limb and give the prediction to Winslet.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, Doubt Adams’ squeaky-voiced, goody two-shoes nun, who is cowed by Meryl Streep’s big scary nun, wasn’t anything to write home about.

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona Cruz was on fire in Woody Allen’s likeable but largely forgettable Spanish romp. I don’t see it as Oscar bait, but it was a lot better than her role as the overage college student who beds bald Ben Kingsley in the embarrassing Elegy.

Viola Davis, Doubt This nomination is remarkable for the fact that Davis has only one teary scene in the movie, in which she is upstaged by the snot running down her face. It was a fine performance, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen for her.

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Henson was lovely and lovable as Benjamin’s unlikely adoptive mom. I think she will get it.

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler She was great, and supremely sexy as the aging stripper and quasi-girlfriend of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler. But Tomei already won that improbable Oscar for the 1992 My Cousin Vinny, and the Academy hasn’t lived down the ridicule. I'd pick Tomei, but she probably won’t win.

Best Animated Feature

It’s WALL-E’s world, everything else just lives in it.

Let’s skip the rest and get to the main event:

Best Picture

Nominees: Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire.

First, what is The Reader doing in there? It was pretty bad, dramaturgically and historically specious, as was the marginally better Frost/Nixon. Some people liked Button a lot more than I did, and I’m sure it will collect a slew of awards in other categories. I think it’s a slugfest between Milk and Slumdog, in which Slumdog, which has received the Golden Globe and all the global buzz, will be the winner. Will its director, Danny Boyle, also win in the directing category, edging out Gus Van Sant? I think so, but you never know about these things.

Friday, February 13, 2009

All This and Norm Coleman, Too

The spotty “fish out of water” romantic comedy New in Town, directed by the Danish director Jonas Elmer, is amiable and endearing, but doesn't have the zest it needs to make it a success.

The early scenes, in which Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious food-company executive in Miami, agrees to relocate to frigid New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee a factory conversion, have a nice indie-film quirkiness as Lucy experiences some icy culture shock. “Holy Mother of….!” Lucy exclaims when a frigid wind blast greets her outside the airport, an experience those of us spending winter in the frozen north can relate to.

Minnesota native Ken Rance, who wrote the screenplay with C. Jay Cox, affectionately mocks his fellow Gopher Staters, who talk in exaggerated “Fargo” accents (anyhoo, you betcha!) and enjoy ice fishing, snickerdoodles, scrapbooking and talkin’ ‘bout Jesus. Lucy’s guide to New Ulm (the movie was actually filmed in Canada) is her secretary, Blanche Gunderson (nicely played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan), who introduces her to the local union rep, Ted (Harry Connick, Jr., a better singer than actor), a widowed would-be Woody Guthrie who rails wearisomely against corporate “robber barons.”

Naturally, it’s hate at first sight between Lucy and Ted, which inevitably turns to love as the movie succumbs to the hoariest of Hollywood clichés, including an utterly improbable scheme to save the factory when the corporation decides to shut it down.

The movie has a strong beginning and a triumphant ending, but the stuff in the middle is lacking. There’s no logical reason, for example, why the New Ulmers, so boorish when Lucy meets them — swilling beer, watching football in Viking helmets and spouting small-town ignorance — would be transformed by movie’s end into wise, lovely people. Still, the movie offers a smattering of laughs, especially at such familiar things as getting a car stuck in a snowdrift, and a talented cast that includes fine character actor J.K. Simmons as the shop foreman. Zellweger, less scrunch-faced than usual but still awfully pale for a Floridian, is effective as the exec in the sky-blue power suits who gradually lets her hair down.

Now, if they could just seat Senator Al Franken....

Monday, February 2, 2009

Will Criticize for Food

Regular readers of this blog -- wait, there are no regular readers! -- have probably noticed that there haven't been many updates lately. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is that your blogmistress has noticed that people seldom visit, unless it's because they googled "pepperoni nipples american teen" or linked onto an ancient article about the New York Times "Ethicist" Randy Cohen.

Another reason is that blogging about movies is something other people -- the ones who can write about celebrity culture without gagging -- can do much better than I. My brand of film criticism seems kind of outmoded these days, and your blogmistress is getting far fewer calls for her thoughts, paid or unpaid, on all things filmic. Still, the Oscar nominations need to be discussed in snarky ways, so there will be some more posts to come.