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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!)

My thought on today

Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and handles a mean shotgun -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and wields a mean double-barrel -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

There’s a brief scene early in “3:10 to Yuma”* that cuts straight to film’s conflicted conscience: Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) sizes up one of his holier-than-thou captors and remarks, “Even bad men love their mamas.” And with that one seemingly junkheap-bound line of dialogue “Yuma” reveals itself to be a different kind of Western – one where the villains are intelligent and adaptable and the righteous are greedy and downright foolhardy in their moral inflexibility. One thing is for sure: a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture “Yuma” is certainly not.

At the heart of this Western is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher who serves as proof that the good don’t always triumph. (Sometimes they even fail miserably.) Broke, weary and nearly crippled by a Civil War injury, he’s all but run off his land by moneygrubbers who want to cash in on the ever-expanding railroad industry. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) and wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) don’t believe they’ll survive the season. Then Evans stumbles upon Wade robbing a stagecoach, and his luck begins to change. Soon, he volunteers as part of the caravan scheduled to transport Wade to Contention, where the robber will board a train headed to Yuma prison and end up with his neck getting intimate with a hangman’s noose.

The trip, of course, is far from simple: There’s a misguided attempt to pass through Apache-controlled lands, and Wade’s gang — led by the vicious Charlie Prince (an impressively menacing Ben Foster) — tries to free the infamous robber at every stop. It’s a nonstop ride of violent action and quietly devastating character interaction that trails into an unexpected (and some might say unfulfilling) end.

Ah, the end. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has taken place over the film’s final minutes, with most everyone railing and wringing their hands in frustration. Of course, the conclusion will not be revealed here, but it must be said that the film’s finale is the key to understanding what makes “Yuma” tick. The end offers no panacea — its ambiguity serves a purpose, a big one, and it’s up to viewers to do the mental heavy lifting.

But the end is only a small part of why “Yuma” is such a worthwhile venture. As an action film, “Yuma” is surprisingly bloody and brutal. Set against the unforgiving dustbowl of the searing Arizona desert, the shootouts and mine collapses and top-speed horse chases seem larger than life. (Then again, that’s what Westerns are, in some small part, about — showing the truths of life in unflinchingly hard ways.) But with a small cast studded with high-profile powerhouse actors, the acting in “Yuma” is hardly shabby, either. Legendary Peter Fonda has some fun with his character, Byron McElroy, a mean-as-a-snake bounty hunter who’d just as soon but a bullet in Wade’s eye than deliver him to the station. Alan Tudyk, a wildly underappreciated comic actor, draws a few laughs as Doc Potter, a large animal vet who unwitting gets roped into Wade’s caravan. And a note here about that Ben Foster, who tears into Charlie Prince like a man in throes of demonic possession: What an actor this guy’s turning out to be. 

For the most part, Bale and Crowe run this show, and with good reason. Bale, known for taking darker roles, transforms Dan from a one-note do-gooder into a conflicted character, a man who chooses to do right not because he’s a saint but because it’s all he’s got left. Ben Wade is the kind of role Crowe, who excells at creating laconic, morally amibuous characters, was born to play. With his crooked smile and mirthful eyes, he’s near perfect as Wade, a crook who lives as much by his wits as his pistol. He’s equal parts venom and compassion, and he sees what so few other characters do: Morality is entirely subjective.

Though Crowe alone is almost worth the admission price, there’s another reason to give “Yuma” a chance: Any Western where there is nary a tumbleweed to be seen, well, isn’t afraid to take chances.

Grade: B+

*Readers who have seen the original 1957 film: How does this one stack up?

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49”) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

A case for Christian Bale

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

There comes a time in a reviewer’s life when she (this is my story, so the reviewer has girl parts) must defend the honor of a very fine actor who has, in recent times, made several not very fine movies. Or seems to have grown an ego large enough to consume Amy Winehouse’s beehive with a single dainty princess bite.

To no one’s surprise … that actor is Christian Bale.

Of late, several friends (and, OK, me) have mentioned that the post-“Batman” Bale bears precious little resemblance to the actor who wowed us with intense performances in movies of every genre, from odd, disturbing arthouse to coming-of-age drama to nihilistic horror. Whatever magic Bale had, whatever innate ability to dissolve completely into a character and eliminate all traces of self, he’s starting to lose it. He’s certainly never been a whimsical actor, but these days he seems to approach every role the way Idi Amin approached dissenters. And Bale’s just about that subtle, too.

Despite this turn of events, I want to believe that Bale isn’t through yet, that he didn’t let “Batman” fame ruin him for acting forever. Why, you wonder, would I keep hoping when there’s so much evidence suggesting that he is, well, a complete jackass? One: The cynic inside hasn’t managed to kill the dreamer … just duct-taped her and stashed her in the nearest closet. And two: Bale has a history too full of daring, innovative or just plain commendable performances that suggest there’s enough talent to beat down that ego.

So now I present the facts:

  • “El Maquinista” — Every list of great Christian Bale performances must be topped with his work in “The Machinist.” It counts as a stunning physical transformation because Bale did Matt Damon’s gaunt smackhead in “Courage Under Fire” one better. Bale lost a frightening amount of weight to play tortured insomniac Trevor Reznik, so much that you fear for the actor’s own safety. It’s an extreme, brave performance, and that’s what makes it so haunting and memorable.
  • “American Psycho” — Bale might not have been the first choice to play superficial, amoral serial killer Patrick Bateman, but he was the best. As buff as his “Machinist” character was skeletal, he manages to evoke wit, charm underlined by subtle menace as a murderer who takes lives for no other reason than to curb his boredome. Compelling, scary stuff.
  • “Little Women” — Anyone who believes Bale came out of the womb with a grim frown on that chiseled face need only look back to 1994, where he played the spritely, witty, delightful Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women.” Fifteen years later, his heartfelt speech to Jo March still makes my heart turn into a mushy, mushy bowl of Cornflakes.
  • “Harsh Times” — Bale, much like Ray Liotta, possesses just enough menace to make him seem a hair-trigger from cheerfully choking (or worse) the next person who steps in his path. He tapped into that bubbling inner rage pit to play Jim, an ex-Army ranger discharged for mysterious reasons. PTSD turns him into violent, delusional free agent, but Bale makes him into someone who seems human despite his seemingly inhuman rage.
  • “The Prestige” — Here is a movie that I love for many reasons, and the main one is Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a magician with loads of raw talent but (surprise!) little flash and almost no skills. But Bale had a gleam in his eye, a slight spring in his step that suggested he was having a bit more fun with this part, crafted in part by Christopher Nolan. Oh, Chris, can’t you coax Fun Bale out again?
  • “3:10 to Yuma” — I can’t quite resist a film (especially a Western) where the hero (Bale) is far more discouraged and damaged than the villain. Enter Bale as Dan Evans, a got-nothing-left-to-lose man who can’t even farm his land, much less keep the respect of his wife or teenage son. There’s a hint of sly humor in his verbal sparring matches with Russell Crowe that suggests Bale does have a lighter side … buried under all those layers of dark twistiness.

Perhaps there is hope for Christian Bale yet, though his next projects — including a pic about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a pairing with Mark Wahlberg for 2011’s “Prisoners” and more movies for the “Terminator” and “Batman” sagas — hardly suggest he’s lightening up. Maybe he can wise up to the fact that it’s possible to play a serious character without losing his sense of humor.

At the very least, he could take Heath Ledger’s advice and, every other day or so, look in the mirror and ask himself: “Why so serious?” ‘Cause chances are, Mr. Bale, if you’re not having the slightest bit of fun, neither are we.

Despite great talent, “Public Enemies” falls a little flat

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

If The Academy feels froggy this year and decides to create a “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” category, it’s fair to say that Michael Mann’s overlong, disappointing gangster shoot-’em-up/biopic “Public Enemies” has the Oscar all sewn up.

Why? That’s a tough nut to crack, since all the elements for success are firmly in place: a strong — if unconcerned with this “historical accuracy” business — director; beautiful cinematography; one hell of a leading man (call him a kook, but Johnny Depp rarely disappoints); and a top-of-the-line supporting cast (including Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and the always-surly Christian Bale).

And yet. Somehow all these elements can’t gel into the great movie “Public Enemies” surely ought to be. It’s a case of all all pomp and no circumstance. By the time the credits roll, all we’re left with is the particular brand of letdown that comes when you invest 150 minutes in a movie that is merely pretty good, not great.

The fault lies somewhere, alright, but not with Depp, who possesses an unerring instinct for doing the opposite of what moviegoers expect. He plays it cool and collected as John Dillinger, an Indiana-born bank robber who spent the sorriest, hardest parts of the 1930s emptying bank vaults and becoming something of a national hero in the process. Dillinger isn’t the sort of criminal who waxes philosophical about his crime; he’s a doer, not a thinker, who sees what he wants and figures out how to get in the quickest, smartest way possible. This philosophy colors all parts of his life, including his attraction to Billie Lechette (Cotillard), whom Dillinger plucks from a dull life checking coats. “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow,” he tells Billie, and she thinks that sounds like a nice alternative to her barely-scraping-by reality of $3 dresses.

The couple’s fun starts skidding on the tracks, though, when J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who sees a chance to turn his Bureau of Investigation into a bigger, more powerful national organization, charges dogged lawman Melvin Purvis (Bale, whose “I’m intensely devoted to my craft” act is growing very old) with catching Dillinger, who’s become Public Enemy No. 1. And Purvis, single-minded to the point of pointless violence and recklessness, is a man who doesn’t like to come back empty-handed.

But let’s dispense with all talk of plot. That’s not really what “Public Enemies” is about. Frankly, it’s not clear what Mann wants his movie to be. He tries for pared-down historical biopic a la “Walk the Line.” Not quite. Mann distorts so many facts that the story becomes unforgivably sloppy. Is it a love story, then? Hardly. Cotillard and Depp have chemistry, but it certainly doesn’t make Dillinger and Frechette’s strange, codependent relationship endearing. “Public Enemies” has some success as a straightforward gangster movie, with impressive gunfights filmed in high definition. The HD work, indeed, is a plus, giving the movie vibrant colors that pop off the screen and fabric textures that look very impressive.

And yet. It all winds back to the “and yet.” The look doesn’t matter so much when the little else lines up. Depp turns in a fine, fiercely understated performance that gives nothing away. He refuses to make Dillinger into some kind of glib, vagabond philosopher, or explain his motives. It’s the kind of shrewd, unshowy work that merits a second look and maybe — given the recent changes to Oscar’s Best Picture policy — a little critical praise. Not so with Cotillard, whose character is woefully underdeveloped. She’s too good an actress to get saddled with a part that requires this little effort. The same goes for Bale’s Purvis. As little as we get about Dillinger, we get even less about Purvis. And Bale plays him as he plays everyone these days: a tight-lipped, grim, “mysterious” lone wolf. Maybe “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” inflated his Bale’s ego exponentially. Who knows? The point is that where he once dove headlong into a character, he now squints and mumbles and plays himself playing someone else. He’s as good an actor as his generation has, but he knows it and he’s trying to coast by on his reputation. It’s not working anymore.

But maybe we’re on to something here. Maybe what’s happened with “Public Enemies” is nothing more than the Christian Bale Syndrome. Mann got too cocky with the mount and dismount to worry about the follow-through. He counted on fancy camerawork and his resume to see him through, and it didn’t.

Grade: C

“Terminator Salvation” a crashing disappointment

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

When I heard the mastermind behind such perennial classics as, ahem, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” had signed on to direct the fourth installment in the “Terminator” series, I was apprehensive.

When I heard he’d gallantly dubbed himself “McG,” the apprehension turned into dread. 

When I finally saw “Terminator Salvation,” that dread led me to the realization of a hardy truth: The only one-named celebrities worth caring about are the ones with the talent to match their egos.

Here is where McG fails so magnificently. Oh, sure, he’s great with lightning-quick cuts and smash-and-grab action sequences. He has an enviable ability to desaturate colors and present us with a bleak landscape. He can film a fight scene from every conceivable angle. He’s so pleased with these talents, in fact, that that’s all he wants to show us. Hand-to-hand combat. Explosions. Terminators blown to McTerminator nuggets. For almost two hours. This bloody mayhem wouldn’t be so disappointing if there was the slightest whiff of an intriguing story to tell. There isn’t (the superb “T2: Judgment Day” and the just-above-average “T3” ruined that). And so McG blows everything up to distract us.

For awhile, this almost works. When the actors show up, it becomes painfully clear they have nothing to do but try their best to lend humanity to a movie that has none. As Marcus Wright, an ex-con cryogenically reborn into 2018 post-Judgment Day America, Sam Worthington does the best job. Wright, who donated his body to science, awakens to find the world leveled by a homicidal, self-aware Skynet (damn, those robots are quick studies) and its army of Terminators. Resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale doing his best “Batman voice”) can’t decide why Marcus has arrived, and his presence raises many questions. Was he sent from the future or the past? Is he hell-bent on killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a key player in Connor’s storyline, or delivering the boy unharmed to Connor? Or the most important question: In a gravelly voice contest, could Marcus beat J.C.? (The correct answer to question no. five is a resounding “no.”)

The answers to these questions I will not provide; that’s a fact-finding mission viewers must take themselves. “Terminator” fans should gird their loins, for this is a grim, tedious trip that will yield minimally satisfactory answers. The huge blowouts and Terminator/human fights, so impressive at first, wear down our patience, and there’s no viable human-centered story to win it back. (Note: There are plenty of movies — like “Rambo” or “Predator” — that don’t need plots to move forward. “Terminator” belongs not in this short list.)

Not surprisingly, watching the actors struggle against the tide of McG’s inadequacies is disheartening. Who didn’t have astronomical hopes for Christian Bale as John Connor? The top-notch actor seems out of his depth here. Maybe he’s distracted by the action, overwhelmed by his I-don’t-break-character-till-the-DVD-commentary-intensity. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dissolve into Connor the way he did into scores of other characters (“El Maquinista” comes to mind). He thinks furrowing his brow and whispering in a creaky, ravaged voice equals great acting. Wrong. He’s playing Christian Bale playing John Connor, and that’s not the Bale his fans (me included) know and love. Exchanging Claire Danes for Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t feel like trading up, either, but blame that on the script: Howard has nothing to do but look pregnant and pained. Moon Bloodgood, who has some pluck, is funneled into the love interest role and does what little she can. Yelchin’s better than this, too.

But Worthington … he deserves a second look. The American accent certainly needs work, but he has an interesting mix of bravado and vulnerability not seen since, well … pre-“Terminator” Christian Bale. There’s something about his eyes that suggests he can do more than slug bad guys and kiss hot chicks. Here’s to hoping he tries again, and soon.

As for McG, unless he gets over himself, I suspect he’ll keep trying to live his heart’s desire to become Michael Bay. Which, sadly, he won’t. Michael Bay, you see, has the good sense to use both of his names.

Grade: C