M. Carter’s Oscar nominations (and then some)

As a fledgling movie lover, a burgeoning blogger, I grew up trusting that The Academy as the ultimate and final word on what was good and award-worthy in cinema. Then, somewhere around the time I realized that my parents didn’t know everything, either, I turned a corner and headed down the “Hey, Academy People, You Might Have Petrified White Dog Turds for Brains” Hallway toward the “Wearing a Leopard-Print Wonderbra and Screaming Obscenities at Albert Finney Does Not Translate to Acting Talent” Conference Room. 

(Yes, I am still a little bitter about how the 2001 Best Actress Oscar race played out and please, let’s change the subject before I have to go back to therapy.)

Old grudges aside, the point is that sometimes The Academy gets it right. But more often than not these sorry, sad little people get it wrong. Very wrong. This is why Frank, the Pompous Film Snob himself, asked a number of us movie bloggers to come up with our own nominations for the best of the best in 2010. Find the compiled list here, and peruse my own nominations below.

Best Picture: “Winter’s Bone”; “The King’s Speech”; “Black Swan”; “Restrepo”; “Cairo Time”

Best Director: Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”; Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”; Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech”; Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, “Restrepo”; Christopher Nolan, “Inception”

Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man”; Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”; James Franco, “127 Hours”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”; Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”; Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Patricia Clarkson, “Cairo Time”

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”; Jeremy Renner, “The Town”; Christian Bale, “The Fighter”; Ken Watanabe, “Inception”

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Hall, “Please Give”; Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”; Amy Adams, “The Fighter”; Dale Dickey, “Winter’s Bone”; Barbara Hershey, “Black Swan”

Best Original Screenplay: “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “Winter’s Bone”; “True Grit”; “Shutter Island”; “The Social Network”; “The Town”

Best Ensemble: “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”; “The Fighter”

Best Cinematography: “Winter’s Bone”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”

Best Score: “Shutter Island”; “Inception”; “True Grit”; “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”

Best Editing: “Restrepo”; “Predators”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Social Network”; “Winter’s Bone”

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Richard Jenkins and Ron Leibman (let’s hear it for the underappreciated character actors!)

Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured – “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

Review: “The Door in the Floor” (2004)

When Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), a fledgling writer, lands a job as the assistant to acclaimed children’s book author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), he takes it as a harbinger of good things to come. He couldn’t be more wrong. We perceive this to be so because of a sentence, one single line, that Bridges utters: “I want to thank you for being a good friend to Marion.” There’s a thrashing undercurrent of menace in these words; Bridges and Bridges alone could block the surge and still offer a peek at what’s to come. He’ll explode the dam only when he’s good and ready.

Such is the beauty of Bridges’ performance in “The Door in the Floor,” based on John Irving’s expansive novel “A Widow for One Year”: He has the ability to maintain an air of predatory control in the face of shocking circumstances. It’s as if whatever happens is a predicted outcome of the plan of attack he’s devised. His calm allows him to disarm nearly everyone around him, like the women who act as models for his sketches — all of whom he puts through a ringer of emotions, beginning with reverence and ending with disgust and disdain — or the young and impressionable Eddie. The only woman he can’t fool is his wife Marion (Kim Basinger, haunting and heartbreaking). She remains with him because they have suffered the same tragedy, even if both emerged on the other side completely different people. If not for Ted, Marion might cease to exist, so far from the land of the living has she drifted. Their mangled bond provides both with a strange sort of sustenance. Maybe neither could surve without it.

Director Tod Williams takes his time unraveling the reasons behind the dissintegration of Marion and Ted’s marriage. Williams’ methods typify T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on poetry, which he described in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” “The Door in the Floor,” which deals with the first 1/3 of Irving’s novel, fits this definition. Though the film tells an emotional story, there are no shrieking fits of weeping, no histrionics. Marion and Ted’s story begins with their trial separation. After the deaths of their teen-aged sons Tom and Tim in a grisly car accident, they’ve grown so far apart they’re essentially strangers. Grief has turned her into a wisp of a woman, while Ted numbs his pain with alcohol and bedding his nude models. The tragedy aside, their only link is their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), who makes a nightly ritual of looking at the photographic shrine built to brothers she never knew. Into this dysfunctional environment walks Eddie, who believes he has much to learn from Ted. He does, but what he learns has nothing to do with writing; instead, he has an affair with Marion. Only when Ruth catches her mother and Eddie in bed together do Ted’s plans come to fruition.

In a slow-burning character study like “The Door in the Floor,” everything depends on the performances and the director’s knack for capturing the small, telling details within the performances. Basinger is not terribly expressive; here, that’s an advantage. She has a bruised quality, a rawness that Williams, unlike so many other directors, intuits how to film. Her final scene with Bridges consists of no words. As she silently and gently strokes Ted’s face, it’s clear that words in this moment are unnecessary. Bridges, too, never hits a sour note. He is the only choice to play a man like Ted Cole, who can make you smile and shred your heart even while he’s pulling the knife across your throat.  He’s a monster, alright, but he’s also a fascinating enigma. In fact, at the film’s conclusion, he is the unanswered question. Did staggering tragedy create the Ted Cole we see, or did his sons’ deaths merely force his dark side into the light? Bridges is too shrewd and skilled an actor to summarize his character so methodically. There is no explanation for Ted Cole, and because of Bridges we almost don’t need one.

Grade: A

(A special thanks goes out to Pompous Film Snob for this recommendation.)

Review: “Iron Man” (2008)

Truth likes to hide in triteness; great responsibility does trail on the heels of great power. Along the way, people tried to tell billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that. With all that ice clinking in his lowball of Scotch, he had trouble hearing them — and that’s not counting the times Tony was embarking on his mission to do the horizontal mambo with all 12 Maxim cover models (pity about Miss March). Whatever honorable qualities comic books have taught us to expect in superheroes, they don’t exist in Tony Stark. He’s a horndog with a smart mouth.

Hallelujah! After years of do-gooder types (even the tortured Batman abided a moral), Downey fashions a different hero: a likable jackass who gives his id full control; who flaunts his wealth instead of hiding it; who gives new meaning to the phrase “doing a piece for Vanity Fair.” And if just any old actor played him, that’s all the character would amount to. Because Downey has a Ph.D. in likable jackassery, he goes beyond the surface and dredges up pathos that catches us unaware. The end result is a hero who reinvents himself because he has to, then lets that new persona slowly change his heart. That’s no novel concept, but in a comic book movie it feels like one.

Unforseen circumstances necessitate the reinvention, and director Jon Favreau wastes no time setting up the expected superhero origin story. “Iron Man” hints the ground running: Tony makes an appearance before the U.S. military — including friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard) — in Afghanistan to test out the Jericho, the latest Stark Industries-manufactured weapon. (The expectedly laconic Tony describes it as “the weapon you only have to fire once.”) Afterward, insurgents attack the humvee, igniting an explosion that embeds shrapnel in Tony’s chest and dragging him off to a cave in the desert. Fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub, compelling in a small role) saves his life by implanting an electromagnet in his chest to draw the shrapnel away from his organs. The attack’s mastermind, Raza (Faran Tahir), charges the pair with creating a new missile. Knowing they won’t leave the cave alive, they construct an iron suit that paves the way for escape. The experience leaves Tony with emotional scars that alter his perceptions about war, and he shuts down Stark Industries — to the dismay of his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

None of the remaining action sequences in “Iron Man” — all credibly done, with seams-hidden CGI — match the taut, nerve-snapping tension of Tony’s capture/escape. Since Favreau is shrewd enough to let Downey advance Tony as he sees fit, it barely matters. If anything, the precisely dispersed action helps because it allows for a degree of humor normally not found in the standard bells-and-whistles superhero film. For much of “Iron Man,” the action is played for chuckles, with Downey slinging one-liners only to take crazy pratfalls during disastrous test runs of his suit. (He warns his fire-control robot, called “Dummy,” not to douse him again or he’ll donate him to a city college.) His wit, bemused smirk and impeccable comic timing keep the momentum high and supply a surprisingly in-depth look into Stark’s personality, quirks and all. There’s a line between “witty” and “talky,” and Robert Downey Jr. is an actor who knows how to tease both sides of the tape without ever overstepping.

So Downey is money; this soil has been tilled before. What else makes “Iron Man” a horse of different color? Favreau. He handles the timely backstory with a welcome level of maturity, giving “Iron Man” the feel of a grown-up superhero movie. He doesn’t bully the chemistry between Paltrow and Downey into the obligatory sex scene, nor does Favreau give up the major villain within the first half hour. Favreau also has a script that gives the supporting characters more to do than be props, particularly Obadiah. Bridges would seem a strange choice for a supervillain — until you see him in action. He imbues a question about a newspaper with more menace than Hannibal Lecter’s “Hello, Clarice.” His presence in “Iron Man” is all we need to know that subtlety goes farther than an exploding missile.

Grade: A

The Really Big Shew

It wasn't so much the Academy Awards as it was "Hurt Locker" Appreciation Night.

Methinks there ain’t much room left in that locker for hurtin’, Mrs. Bigelow, on account of all those shiny, shiny awards.

Fans of the film or no, readers, I believe we all can come to harmonious agreement that that was the unofficial sentiment of last night’s 82nd Academy Awards … and color me elated (which I do so hope is a peppier color than “stucco,” the current palor of M. Carter’s skin given the lack of sleep I got last night). Any movie that could play such strong defense and keep “Avatar” at bay – the film got the awards it deserved, says I — is OK with me, and in this case that movie happened to be Kathryn Bigelow’s flat-out fabulous and gritty “The Hurt Locker.” (That’ll teach me to doubt the Mighty Ebert and his Mighty Oscar Picks.)

The only thing that could have made me happier is if the War Flick That Went Boom didn’t have to trample “Inglourious Basterds” to go to the finish line. I’m not bitter, you understand, because “Hurt Locker” strong-armed its way to no. 2 on my Best 0f 2009 list, knocking “Up in the Air” down a peg. A really stellar film, the kind that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

It just didn’t have a scene with two men smoking really big pipes, or one where Hitler gets shredded like Parmesan by some machine-gun bullets, is all I’m saying. And as far as originality goes, aren’t those the kinds of scenes that deserve Best Original Screenplay, is all I’m asking.

(I’m not bitter, dammit.)

Alas, this isn’t a perfect world and I didn’t get all my hearts desires and Mr. QT didn’t get recognition for crazy-blazin’-mad-freakin’ genius and Ben Stiller came out in “Avatar” garb looking freakier than Chuckie in “Child’s Play” and we were subjected to an unholy union of “We Are the World 1,126″ and “So You Think You Can Dance.” But for me, a few good things did happen, as I’ve highlighted below:

**************
Best Picture: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker” (Girl power)
*Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart” (The Dude abides … and wins)
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
                            (Dear Academy: WTF? Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies)
*Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds” (Was there ever any doubt? If so, how can you read this because clearly you’ve spent the last decade living with wolves?)
                             Oh, and that überbingo comment? Just made me fall madly in love with you all over again. Let’s make  babies. Or dinner. I’d settle for dinner.
*Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, “Precious” (That speech kicked ass and TOOK NAMES.)
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, “Precious” (No love for “Up in the Air”? I suppose “Precious” is second most deserving.)
*Best Animated Feature: “Up” (Can you say “only viable choice”?)
Best Foreign Feature: “Secret in Their Eyes”
Best Documentary Feature: “The Cove”
*Best Cinematography: “Avatar” (Of course)
Best Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Art Direction: “Avatar” (Naturally)
Best Costume Design: “The Young Victoria”
*Best Make-Up: “Star Trek” (And you thought Eric Bana was scary in “Munich”)
Best Original Score: “Up”
*Best Original Song: “The Weary Kind,” “Crazy Heart” (One of the most haunting, achy ballads this Southern country music fan has heard in years — it’s real country y’all)
Best Sound Mixing: “The Hurt Locker”
Best Sound Effects Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Visual Effects: “Avatar” (Must I keep typing?)
Best Documentary Short: “Music by Prudence”
Best Animated Short: “Logorama”
Best Live Action Short: “The New Tenants”
**************

This year I accomplished a personal goal of having seen all but one Best Picture-nominated film, and you can bet I’m counting the days until “An Education” hits Netflix. This, I figure, will give me fodder for a whole ‘nother mess of rant-like anger. Like about how Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe get passed over for Miss Congeniality.

Jeff Bridges radiates in lackluster “Crazy Heart”

Jeff Bridges embodies the ache of a drink-drowned life in "Crazy Heart."

Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) would smoke three cigarettes at once if he could, and after a few hours of daylight boozing he almost does. Mostly Bad just uses the smoldering butts to light new ones, a constant effort to busy his mind with nicotine. A man like that has a lot of hard stories in him, and any one he lets out is one you want to hear. Bad’s got a way of making everything sound like pearls of wisdom even when he was too drunk to learn his lesson.

A part like this requires a certain kind of actor, and that happens to be the kind of actor Jeff Bridges has been throughout his whole career: mumbly voice, weathered, closed-off face, tired eyes that look distant but take in everything. From Barney Cousins to Michael Faraday, The Dude and beyond, he has been finding the minute details that make his characters as long as he’s been playing them. Bad Blake may shame all the rest, and the role will be the one that wins the actor the accolades that have eluded him. Should Bridges nab that Best Actor Oscar, forget all the chatter about it being some placating “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He’ll deserve that statuette based on Bad Blake and Bad Blake alone.

Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel, is a showcase for Bridges, and don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s the center of most shots, the man everyone else orbits around (though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farell don’t waste their parts). And because he has such presence, that almost excuses some of the film’s more obvious flaws, like the underwritten secondary characters, the overreliance on twangy background music (not to be confused with Bad’s excellent concerts) and the recycled story, which sometimes feels like “Walk the Line.” (In fairness, the Bad Man Uplifted by Good Woman’s Love tale is older than time.) Unlike “Walk the Line,” “Crazy Heart” opens at a low point: Suffering that perpetual day-after-yesterday syndrome late-stage alcoholism brings, Bad’s broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys, the only places people still recognize him. His fans don’t get their money’s worth, since he plays so loaded on McClure’s he mumbles through every song. His refusal to bend to Nashville trends makes him a dinosaur; however, his more successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Farell) hasn’t given up. Tommy wants Bad to write new material, but with five marriages over and no life to speak of, Bad figures he’s got nothing left to write about.

Into this spiral appears Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe single mother and freelance writer who wants to interview the musician. He latches onto her as his beacon of goodness, and her 4-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) gives him the shot at fatherhood he gave up 24 years ago, when abandoned his own son. Down is the only place this affair can go, naturally, yet Gyllenhaal generates so much spirit and warmth that she doesn’t seem like the crutch/muse/stray-collector Jean’s written to be. Through her eyes we see a flicker of life in Bad’s eyes. When he drawls “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” her attraction to him feels … warranted. Farell, too, takes his flat character to higher levels, playing Tommy not as a showboating poser but a genuine talent with respect for his mentor. Only Robert Duvall, as Bad’s longtime confidante Wayne, seems wholly wasted. 

Acting aside, there are other things “Crazy Heart” gets right, like the cinematography (the stunning, arid landscapes of Texas, Santa Fe and Arizona give Barry Markowitz plenty to work with) and the music. Nobody bests T-Bone Burnett at churning out to-the-marrow gems like “Fallin’ & Flyin’” and the achingly exquisite “The Weary Kind.” Songs like these have a slow, whiskey burn doing down, and they cannot exist separately from the film. They are the film, and so is Bridges’ performance of them. Whether he’s singing “I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else” or “this ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he’ll crack your heart right open. You couldn’t stop him if you tried.

Grade: B-

One to Watch: “Crazy Heart”

Between his fan-friggin’-tastic performance as Obadiah Stone in “Iron Man” and this, consider my opinion of Jeff Bridges totally and unequivocally revised.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “The Big Lebowski” (1998); dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

The moment: My glasses have disappeared.

The correlation: I loved those glasses. They really tied my face together.

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