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Obituary: G.D. Spradlin

G.D. Spradlin, whose successful acting career  included playing a crooked Nevada senator in The Godfather: Part 2, died last Sunday at his home in California.  He was ninety.

Gervase Duan Spradlin was born in rural Oklahoma in 1920.  He earned a degree in education from the University of Oklahoma and taught for a brief period just before the outbreak of World War II, where he served in China.  After the war, Spradlin earned his law degree and quickly rose through the ranks of the legal team for Phillips Petroleum.  In the early fifties, he started his own oil company, struck it rich, and retired by the end of the decade.  After trying his hand in politics, Spradlin became interested in acting – now in his forties – when his daughter started auditioning for local productions.  He soon moved to Los Angeles, where he broke into the business playing guest roles on many of the popular series of that era.  His big break came when he was cast as Senator Pat Geary in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part 2.  After that, he mostly played authority figures in films like One On One, Apocalypse Now, North Dallas Forty, and finally, in Dick, Spradlin’s last movie, where he played famed newspaper editor Ben Bradlee.

If you grew up in the ‘70’s and watched a lot of TV and movies, then you might have a negative reaction at seeing Spradlin’s photo – not because of his appearance, but by how effectively he portrayed men who were the embodiment of “the system” gone wrong.

In The Godfather: Part 2, watch how Senator Geary seamlessly glides from glad-handing politician to tough-talking power broker and back again at the beginning of the story when he meets with Michael Corleone.  It’s a chilling portrayal of corruption that perfectly and more nakedly mirrors Michael’s own slide into darkness.

Godfather 2 was released during the Watergate era, and as that incident forever wiped away our insistence on the goodness of our elected officials, Spradlin’s performance eerily anticipates a cascade of scandals that have now become cliché.

 One On One is a movie that’s largely forgotten now, but because of its star, teen heart-throb Robbie Benson, it was a surprise hit in 1977.  The movie is a coming-of-age tale about a bumpkin (Benson) who earns a scholarship to a large basketball factory, much like UK or North Carolina.  Spradlin plays the coach, a my-way-or-the-highway dictator who is equal parts Wooden and Patton.  Spradlin’s coach resorts to brutal tactics to get the attention of, and ultimately scare off, Benson’s character, who must learn to be a man.

One On One is an interesting time capsule.  The way the student athletes are given preferential treatment with grades and jobs is played as absurd comedy, but it wasn’t long afterwards that programs like UK were being hit with crippling penalties for doing pretty much the same thing.  Leading the charge is Spradlin, the coach as CEO.

For Apocalypse Now, Spradlin teamed up with Coppola once again for a small but powerful role as the General who gives Martin Sheen his orders to kill a fellow officer, played by Marlon Brando.

Spradlin is effective as the polished professional soldier who can quote Lincoln on the fly, exhibit a courtly manner, and disarm the nervous junior officer with a warm sense of humor – all to mask a sense of desperation in how to handle one of their own, who has seemingly gone mad, a victim of the fog of war.

Spradlin looked the part, probably relying on his experiences as a soldier and high-powered attorney, to be a stand in for The Military.  He sets the tone for the movie, even if it becomes discordant when contrasted with the madness to come.

Finally, there’s North Dallas Forty, the freewheeling comedy based on America’s Team – the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970’s.  Spradlin is B.A. Strothers, a stand-in for Tom Landry, the successful but distant coach of the team.

Who better to play the buttoned-down, IBM-like innovator than Spradlin?  He was perfect as a cold and calculating numbers crunching leader whose allegiance was to data over something as unquantifiable as heart or big play capability.

In the late seventies, football was well into becoming the money-generating behemoth it is today, and North Dallas Forty was a light-hearted attack on how the fun was being bled from the league in favor of turning it into Big Business.  Spradlin’s portrayal of the Landry-esque coach perfectly embodies this transition from seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurialism to corporate sameness.

Rarely has an actor so successfully monopolized a niche for himself.  In an era that worships the chameleon-like abilities of a Daniel Day Lewis, it’s nice to take a moment and honor the career of an actor who supported great film talents of his era with equal craft.

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The Tree of Life

Tree of Life movie posterLast Friday, I was in New York helping a friend celebrate his 40th birthday, and after a long day of walking all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, we headed over to the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street to rest our feet while we took in Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated The Tree of Life.

My friend had no idea what he was getting himself into.

As I paid for my ticket, I asked the girl on the other side of the glass if she’d seen the movie.  Her eyes lit up as she nodded and said “Oh yeah.”  I asked her what she thought about it, and she said it was the “most Malick of all his movies.”  I smiled and nodded back to her as I walked away, anxious to see how that assessment would play out.

Much has been written about Malick’s style of movie making, which is typified by loosely constructed narratives that do not adhere to traditional rhythms.  Rather, his stories are like a child’s meandering exploration of a new environment, following whatever catches his attention.  They are also marked by beautifully captured images, especially of nature, that sometimes overwhelm the senses.  This was used to great effect in The Thin Red Line, where shots of blowing grass were allowed to linger for many beats past what would be considered normal, only to be shattered by explosions of gunfire or bursting shells.  Malick also makes frequent use of voice-over narration by his characters.  It’s often used novelistically, to take us inside the minds of the characters, usually as they wrestle with philosophical questions.

Malick’s fans see these characteristics as great strengths that set him apart from an increasingly formulaic style of film making that places little value on intellectual adventurism and any other kind of risk-taking.  His detractors, like Richard Schickel find these traits tedious, pretentious, and self-indulgent, a kind of pseudo-intellectualism that is impossible to stomach.

And so it is with The Tree of Life, Malick’s most ambitious film, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, despite drawing boos from the audience at its screening.

It’s an impressionistic story that contrasts the tragedy of one American family against the backdrop of the relentless march of time – putting into greater perspective the things that consume us and distract us from the bigger picture, namely of our God.

It’s a theme that many have found – and will continue to find – offensive, or simple-minded at best.  But it’s the desperate questions that Malick’s characters ask themselves in quiet moments of pain, regret, or remorse that hound most of us, I think.

The movie opens with a quote from Job 38:4,7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted with joy?”

This passage is a key to understanding the movie. As these characters suffer – as we all do – there is a bigger picture, another view of the problem, but we are often too consumed with our problems, to the point of navel gazing, to lift our heads up for a different point-of-view.

The first images of the film are of the Mother (Jessica Chastain), going from a young girl to grown woman, and over the popcorn-like flashes of her life, we hear the adult version of herself telling us that “there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.”

And with that, we have the central conflict of the family we will come to know.

But first, there is that tragedy.  Years later, as the Mother’s sons have become young men, there is a telegram delivered to her house, informing the Mother that her middle son has been killed.  How this is, we never learn.  Nor is it even important.  She collapses under the weight of this news until finally, she gathers herself so she can tell the Father (Brad Pitt), who is traveling.

Cut to the present, where we meet Jack (Sean Penn, in a brooding role that has become all to familiar to his fans), a successful looking architect who is married and lives in a very nice home, wears nice suits, and works in a high-rise building in what looks like Houston, Texas.  He lights a candle.  Is it the anniversary of this event?  We don’t know.  But he is out of sorts.  He talks to the Father and confesses that he thinks of his dead brother every day of his life.  He’s stuck, unable to get beyond this tragedy, this great hurt.  In voice-over, we hear Jack ask where this all began, and it is here that Malick takes us all the way back – to the very beginning, when the foundations of the earth were laid.

This passage, which is to be expanded and turned into an IMAX documentary at some future point, is Malick’s interpretation of how the earth came to be.  To bring this vision to life, he employed the talents of Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is a long passage that conveys us from nothingness to the violent forces that resulted in a world that eventually produced the dinosaurs, some of which are recreated with startling realism on beaches and in forests and rivers.

At the conclusion of this passage, we are transported to 1950’s era Waco, Texas, where we meet the rest of the O’Brien family.

The Mother is the embodiment of the way of grace.  She is a beautiful woman, earthy and nurturing, who is often photographed as she hugs, kisses, caresses, or comforts her boys with a reassuring touch to the shoulder or arm.  She holds back none of her love, and encourages her sons to do the same.  At one point she warns, “unless you love, your life will flash by.”

At the other pole is the Father, who practices the way of nature and worries that his wife is making the boys soft.  In response he over-compensates, never missing a teachable opportunity to drive home his philosophy of self-determinism.  He’ll live to regret this, lamenting the fact that while he was busy grabbing at life he missed “the glory,” a term that is also used in The Thin Red Line to describe God, or at least the way of grace.

In the middle are the boys, with the story being told from the point-of-view of Jack, the oldest.  Vignettes from the life of this family spill onto the screen like old snapshots, painting painfully accurate portraits of pre-adolescent angst and parental ham-fistedness.  It’s to Malick’s great credit that I found myself identifying equally with Jack and the Father (I have three children of my own).  So close are Malick’s observations that I spent a good deal of the movie wiping away tears, connecting this fiction with my own experiences.

We see young Jack, as he teeters over the line from childhood innocence to the world of adult awareness, where those early recognitions of parental imperfection are often met with harsh judgments and resentment.  But Malick wisely avoids the trap of making the Father a monster.  Instead, he is a flawed creature, equally capable of moments of great tenderness and monstrous cruelty, motivated by his personal frustrations and a fear of what might befall his children.  Pitt plays this middle ground wonderfully, coming at his family from a place of good intentions gone awry as he erupts into fits of anger at the transgression of his rules.  He is a man of his time, trained for one thing – to provide for his family materially.  To nurture or even encourage an emotional intimacy with his sons seems to be equal parts impossible and distasteful to him.

And so the rhythm of this middle section of the movie is the daily life of a middle class American family, punctuated by the milestones that we can all recognize: school crushes, fighting and playing in the neighborhood, pulling weeds, climbing trees, and getting into trouble for seemingly random things.  It’s a passage of love, hurt, laughing, and crying – and through it all, we hear the voices of Jack, the Mother, and the Father as they struggle to makes sense of this life, and these key moments that can’t be shaken.

Speaking of acting, praise must be given to Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (middle child R.L.), non-professional actors who do a splendid job of inhabiting the boys and playing many key childhood moments with truth and grace.

Finally, after too short a visit with the O’Briens, we are brought back to the present.  And it’s after Jack has ruminated on these moments – in the context of all that has gone on before them in the grand scheme of time – that he is able to move on.

Malick concludes this God-soaked film with a passage that I won’t spoil here.  All I’ll say is that The Tree of Life is truly the most Malick of all Malick’s movies.  The girl at the ticket booth was correct, and I can’t remember being more moved by a film than I was by this beautiful story.

I wish I could see it again, to better organize my thoughts, but I’m back in Louisville where this film won’t soon come, so I’ll have to make do with this.

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #5 The Royal Tenenbaums

Depending on when you ask, I might say that The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite movie ever.  The third feature directed by Wes Anderson and written by Anderson and Owen Wilson is about as perfect as a movie can get for me.

In case you’ve never seen The Royal Tenenbaums, here’s kind of how it breaks down (spoiler alert – skip ahead 10 paragraphs if you don’t want to know the plot):

The movie opens with an extended introduction to the characters.  It’s about a family from a place that looks like New York, but isn’t exactly New York.  Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston) had two sons – Richie (Luke Wilson) and Chas (Ben Stiller) – and adopted a daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Royal abandoned the family and left Etheline to raise the children on her own.

The children, prodigies in tennis (Richie), playwriting (Margot), and business (Chas), all peaked shortly after Royal left the family, and have been stuck ever since.

The action of the movie takes place 22 years after Royal’s departure.  He’s just been kicked out of the fancy hotel where he’s lived for years.  He’s broke.  As this is taking place, Etheline gets a marriage proposal from her longtime accountant and bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

The family butler, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), informs Royal of the proposal.  Royal doesn’t want her to get married, and cooks up a scheme to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, the children’s problems come to a head, one-by-one, and they move back into their old home with Etheline.  Chas, on the verge of a crack-up after the death of his wife in a plane crash, brings his two sons with him.  Margot leaves her husband, noted neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but is having an affair with family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).  Richie is the last to arrive (he’s been avoiding Margot because he’s in love with her), and Royal quickly enlists him, his favorite, to convince Etheline to allow him to move back into the house.

Royal’s presence is a major disruption.  Royal sees no problem in offering unsolicited advice to his kids, whom he hasn’t seen in many years.  He also condescends to Henry in a borderline racist manner.  Henry suspects that he’s faking his illness and looks for clues to prove his point.  Royal seems to enjoy being back in the midst of his family, even if they don’t all reciprocate.

Finally, Henry finds the proof he’s looking for, and exposes Royal in front of the entire family, which gets him and Kumar kicked out of the house.

Instead of being defeated, Royal experiences the loss that his family must have felt at his leaving them all those years ago, and he becomes determined to win back their love.  Hackman’s performance is wildly underrated.  He’s marvelous as the scoundrel Royal, keeping us rooting for him even though we maybe shouldn’t.

The third act of the movie finds Royal mending fences and making attempts to reconcile himself to his children, ultimately succeeding in winning them back one-by-one and helping them to get on with their lives.  Royal does end up dying, but not before salvaging his family legacy, which is something we should all shoot for.

So, what’s so great about this movie?  I’ll restrict myself to just a few reasons.

First, there’s Wes Anderson.  His imagination and point-of-view are so seductive to me.  He has a child-like way of portraying the worlds of his movies without being childish or simplistic.  Far from it.  The Royal Tenenbaums, despite all the visual flourishes, is a knowing take on the fallout of broken homes and how important an intact, functioning family is, especially on children.  The movie was inspired by his own experiences in a broken home at the insistence of Owen Wilson, whom he met in college.

Anderson has a sophisticated grasp of the history of cinema.  He reminds me of Bob Dylan in that he’s this film geek who’s absorbed an encyclopedia’s worth of influences – in interviews, he’s always referencing movies he’s seen that have influenced his movies, and he points out how he’s quoted them in his own movies – but rather than being a copy-cat of his heroes, he actually transcends them by combining their influence with his own vision to make something completely original.

Anderson has cultivated a style that is so uniquely his as to be easily spoofed: the omnipresent Futura font in all of his films, the artful use of montage sequences, an obsessive fascination with the tiniest of details (take inventory of the inside of Richie’s tent for just one example), the fantastic soundtracks, and finally, the quirky characters.  I love it all.

Quick side-note:  Independent cinema has always been populated by quirky characters, but one might trace the current epidemic of quirkiness in even the most mainstream of movies to the success of Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), all directed by Anderson and co-written with Wilson.  It could be said that Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino are the most influential directors of the last 15 years, having spawned a plague of imitators.

In addition to his style, I love his creation of a kind of altnernate universe New York in The Royal Tenenbaums.  Anderson is from Texas, and I like to think that he fantasized about New York for years before actually moving and working there, and the version of the city we see in the movie is like the way a kid might have imagined the city having read about it in books and experienced it in movies and TV shows before actually seeing it in person.  No actual places are used, and even places that are familiar, like the Waldorf Astoria hotel, are given alternate names (The Lindbergh Palace Hotel).  When you take the stylized costuming of the characters, combined with alt.NewYork, you end up with a kind of fairytale story.  And it works.

Speaking of New York, another great thing about The Royal Tenenbaums are the literary trappings of the movie.  From the first frame, the movie is sold as a kind of adaptation of a book called “The Royal Tenebaums,” as the book is checked out of a library old-school style with the pocket and card and stamp.  The scenes are even set up with inserts that are designed to look like the chapter headings of the faux book – the sentence fragments we see are actually the scene headings from the script.  In addition to this, the precocity of the children, combined with the New York setting and their upper class interests, are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family.  They are similarly eccentric and jacked-up.

Finally, there’s the aforementioned use of montage.  Anderson has been compared to Martin Scorcese.  In fact, Scorcese himself has called Anderson the next Scorcese, which may strike some as weird.  I won’t get into that here, but I would like to compare Anderson’s use of music and montage with Scorcese, who has obviously influenced him (and a whole host of other film makers).

My second favorite moment in The Royal Tenenbaums is when Margot steps off the bus as she’s meeting Richie at the boat docks.  He sees her from where he sits, and as she steps down, the action goes to slow-motion and Nico’s “These Days” plays as she moves toward him.  Richie’s in love with Margot, and this device perfectly captures that sense of longing that Richie feels for his half-sister.

Compare that scene with a famous moment from Mean Streets, Scorcese’s explosive debut.  Johnny Boy’s (Robert DeNiro) entrance to the bar where he and his friends hang out is just as emblematic of Johnny Boy as Anderson’s scene is for what it does.  The action is also in slow motion as Johnny Boy enters with a girl on each arm and a silly grin on his face as the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays.  His best friend and protector Charlie (Harvey Keitel) watches him approach (a la Richie Tenenbaum).  The lights in the bar bathe them all in blood red (foreshadowing?).

The scenes line up as though Anderson is tipping his cap to the maestro, something he freely admits to doing elsewhere with other directors and other movies.  And just as Scorcese has become the master of using motage sequences, juxtaposed with perfect music, to advance his stories, so too has Anderson (my favorite Anderson montage sequence is the opening of Rushmore, where we see all the clubs that Max belongs to).

From its perfect three-act structure to the perfect touch writing to the acting, and, at last, to the directing, The Royal Tenenbaums is a high-point of American movie-making, and it confirmed Wes Anderson’s place as an important director – not just in America, but on the international stage.

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2011 Academy Award Predictions

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

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2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

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.

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2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

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.

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2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actress

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 Lucy is 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.

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2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Actor

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 Grit is 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.

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2011 Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

The nominees for Best Picture, 2011:

127 Hours: Hyperactive yet engaging true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who hacked off his own arm to save his life after being trapped in a Utah canyon for days.

Black Swan: Trippy tale of a dancer’s decent into madness as she gives it all for her art.

Inception: Ultimately, an action movie set in a sort of Jungian dreamscape, where new age thieves not only steal dreams, but cause trouble by leaving behind counterfeit ones.

The Fighter: Real-life story of a working class stiff who overcomes long odds and a family straight out of Jerry Springer to become a contender.

The Kids Are All Right: Lesbian moms struggle to maintain a long-term relationship, raise two teenagers, and fend off the hunky sperm donor who’s interested in meeting his progeny…and one of the moms.

The King’s Speech: The Duke of York overcomes a debilitating speech impediment, a host of neuroses, and class prejudice to rise to the throne and rally England against Hitler.

The Social Network: The pyrrhic triumph of a maniacally driven nerd over his maniacally driven jock rivals.

Toy Story 3: A franchise is brought to a close with Andy all grown up and Woody and the gang coping with what comes next.

True Grit: A Protestant wet dream of a western, jam-packed with violence, vengeance, good and bad counter-balanced with a devil’s dose of laughter.

Winter’s Bone:  A hillbilly teenager, stuck looking after her mom and raising her younger siblings, goes off in search of her meth-cooking father in order to save the family farm in a kind of Ozark Odyssey.

The King's Speech

For this year’s Best Picture race, let’s start off by eliminating 127 Hours, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone.  That leaves us with five movies.

Black Swan and The Fighter are long shots to win, which cuts the field to three.

My criteria, when looking at this award, is which movie will people still be talking about in 20 or 50 years?  Which movie is so good or so entertaining or so…special that it will stand the test of time, and not become some dated joke, like “Oliver” or “Dances With Wolves”?

Of the three movies that remain, there is The King’s Speech, the kind of movie that Hollywood loves to bestow honors upon – dignified, historical, and important-seeming; The Social Network, a very “now” kind of story that has captured a watershed event in our culture; and finally, True Grit, an earnest and old fashioned western that doesn’t appear to be couching some political message in its entertainment.  It’s a throw back, really.

True Grit

If I had a vote, it would go to True Grit.  It’s great story telling, blending humor, adventure, and solemnity.  The cast is pitch-perfect, with Jeff Bridges, perhaps the finest actor of his generation, still at the top of his game; Hailee Steinfeld not a bit stilted in her 1800’s diction; Matt Damon unselfconsciously pompous; and Josh Brolin with the difficult task of playing dumb and doing it brilliantly.  The Coens have conquered another genre, and in the process, they’ve created an instant classic.

The Social Network

This is all highly subjective, of course, but when you look at things like story, direction, acting, sets, and music, you see that True Grit matches The King’s Speech and The Social Network in every category.  That said, I don’t think the Academy will agree with my take, as westerns are usually given short shrift this time of year.

Even though it will go down as one of the very best of the Coen brothers’ films, True Grit will lose out to The Social Network on February 27th.

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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Gasland

In 2006, a guy named Josh Fox received a letter from a company wanting to lease his land for the purpose of drilling for natural gas.  Fox lives in eastern Pennsylvania on a tributary of the Delaware River.  His parents bought the land, and with the help of some friends, they constructed the house that he calls home.

The letter described the Marcellus Shale deposit, that his house sat above, as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, extending from New York to Tennessee.  The company offered nearly $100,000 for the drilling rights, and piqued the curiosity of Fox, a banjo playing writer/director.  Gasland is the result of his curiosity.

Fox starts off by referring to his parents and their friends as hippies and playing an old black-and-white clip of Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land,” which is fitting because Gasland is structured like a folk song along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”  These references can be seen as a warning of where he’s going.

Gasland begins with a question, and leaves the tranquil woods of Fox’s home on a quest for answers, and like a good folk song, it tells the stories of common people – who look a lot like you and I – victimized by faceless companies with generic names like Encana, Chesapeake, and Williams.

Fox does a masterful job of finding and filming people so sympathetic that you never think to question their stories.  A couple are able to catch their tap water on fire with a lighter – as it comes out of the faucet.  Others have chronic illnesses that arose once drilling began.  They are as American as apple pie.  Fox also uses an effective Do-It-Yourself aesthetic that is both beautiful and deceptively amateurish, which underscores the underdog tone of the film.

As Fox travels further west, the density of the drilling increases to a point where he enters a geographical region known as the red zone.  This refers to red dots on a map, so thick they bleed together like a stain.  Remote places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas are portrayed not as idyllic escapes from the stresses of city life, but as polluted as a place like Los Angeles.

The cause of all this pollution?  Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it’s called.  It’s a process where huge quantities of water, sand, and chemicals are shot thousands of feet down into the ground to loosen the shale deposits and free the natural gas.  It’s a process that’s been in practice for decades, but the 2005 Energy Bill enacted regulations that, according to Fox, exempted natural gas drillers from safe drinking water laws, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and just about all environmental regulation.  At the center of this regulatory laisez faire was Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the company he once ran.

Along with the tales from ordinary folk, Fox brings out respected scientists, among them a MacArthur “genius grand” recipient, who voice dire warnings of polluted drinking water and air fouled by neurotoxins that cause a host of ailments such as sterility, loss of smell, loss of taste, and a variety of cancers.

It wasn’t until hours after I’d finished Gasland that I wondered about the accuracy of Fox’s claims.  I Googled the film and found many rebuttals to the film, from natural gas industry spokesmen as well as a few journalists, and the comments weren’t your run-of-the-mill polite disagreements.  Hardly.  Judging from the venom of the insults, Fox has touched a raw nerve made worse by the nomination of his film for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Rent Gasland then read the statements from the industry people and independent labs, and then decide for yourself whether we have anything to fear.  Even if Gasland is full of hot air, Josh Fox will have gotten you to think, if not act.  And that’s no small feat.

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