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:

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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”
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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.

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

“Blind Side” an uncommonly understated human drama

Sandra Bullock is all sass, little sentiment as Michael Oher's (Quinton Aaron) guardian in "The Blind Side."

Let’s be plain about “The Blind Side”: Lee Daniels’ “Precious” it ain’t. Save for two damaged protagonists, these films have little in common. In “The Blind Side,” John Lee Hancock dulls the sharp edges of a childhood lived in poverty and neglect; Daniels displays the emotional and physical hurts in full view. Really, it’s the difference between neatly bandaged wounds and open ones. 

But perhaps this comparison, though inevitable, isn’t exactly fair, because it implies that “The Blind Side” is some kind of emotionally manipulative mushfest that is top-heavy with cliches. Gird your loins for a startling realization: There’s little schmaltz here. Indeed, what delights about “The Blind Side” is the low-key tone and the balance Hancock strikes between character-based drama, sports and comedy. What’s more, the director sees his characters as actual people and allows them to behave as such; their actions feel natural, not forced along by inane plot conventions. They become real to us, something that rarely happens in films with such clear feel-good intentions as this one.

Much credit must be given upfront to Sandra Bullock for her bold, unidealistic performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy Tennessee interior designer whose designer-label threads belie her kind heart and good intentions. This is strong, nuanced work from an actress who (finally! after years of crap like “Miss Congeniality”!) has begun to trust her talent. She grounds “The Blind Side” firmly in matter-of-fact reality as her story intersects with that of future Baltimore Ravens right tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a poor teen accepted to the private Christian academy her children attend. Accepted because the football coach (Ray McKinnon) sees a bright athletic future for him, Michael has a low GPA and a tendency to retreat into his own head that some teachers mistake as stupidity. But Leigh Anne’s son S.J. (Jae Head) befriends Michael, and so she invites the teen into her home. They hire a tutor (the always-wonderful Kathy Bates) to work with Michael while S.J. teaches him football. Slowly, and much to the dismay of Leigh Anne’s snobbish friends, Michael becomes a real part of the Tuohy family.

The story, loosely based on Michael Lewis’ 2006 book about the real Oher, is simple enough to suggest some parts have been smoothed over. That’s probably the case, but it’s important to note what Hancock gets right: the likable characters and the lack of Hollywood mushiness. Tim McGraw, though hardly Sean Penn, doesn’t overact as Leigh Anne’s supportive husband Sean (he does have a few unnecessarily corny zingers, though). Head doesn’t exactly transcend the Precocious Kid stereotype, but he provides solid comic relief. Bates’ sly humor is a welcome addition as well (Kathy Bates don’t do cutesy, remember?). Aaron, chosen more for his size than acting chops, is a little more hesitant than he should be, but that doesn’t derail the movie.

Actually, that hesitation aligns him nicely with Bullock’s hard-nosed Leigh Anne, herself a bit reticent and not prone to spontaneous displays of emotion. These two have more in common than we’d think (this wins the film more points for originality). Sean describes Leigh Anne as an onion — “you have to peel her back layer by layer” — and that extends to Michael. Perhaps that is what draws Leigh Anne to Michael, the fear of seeming vulnerable. They are, in a strange way, kindred spirits. Bullock, who’s always had a quietly guarded air about her, captures Leigh Anne’s reluctance perfectly. This performance might earn her some nominations, and she will deserve them.

Hancock also sidesteps a number of cliches that lesser directors would devour: the Big Game; the Touching Moments Montage; the Coach’s Big Motivational Speech. “The Blind Side” contains not one of these insufferable moments, and the few checklist items that do crop up — there is a misunderstanding and a scene with Michael’s drug-addicted biological mother — are handled with grace. When given the choice, Hancock errs on the side of poise. And while that doesn’t mean “The Blind Side” is perfect, it does mean that it’s a refreshingly unsentimental inspirational film.

Grade: B-

“Proposal” a mixed bag of cliches, worthwhile moments

HOW did I end up in this movie? I mean, I have a SIX-PACK now, dammit!

HOW did I end up in this movie? I mean, I have a SIX-PACK now, dammit!

There is one scene, one single, lonely but powerful little scene, that transcends all the cliches and hokey gimmicks “The Proposal” shamelessly trafficks: Margaret (Sandra Bullock), who checked out on love years ago, stands confronted with the very real possibility (in the form of one Ryan Reynolds) and says, very simply, “I’m scared.” Just two words, but what a whallop of emotional truth they pack. After all, in romance one partner is always chasing the other, no? And here, it seems the person who most wants to run is the one willing to let herself get caught. She surrenders, and not without considerable hesitation. Indeed, it’s a moment so honest and unadorned it feels inexplicably out of place in a movie directed by the same woman who directed — gulp — the subtle-as-an-AK47 “27 Dresses.”

So why is this delicate interaction included in “The Proposal,” which revolves around a cliche so dead-tired even the witty Reynolds cannot charm it alive? Perhaps it exists to provide a shot of credibility, but I suspect the success of the moment has more to do with Bullock and Reynolds. They’re too good. They take a scene meant to be hokey — think Julia Roberts a la “Notting Hill,” that shudder-inducing “I’m just a girl” speech — and make it real and plain and true. Bravo. It works beautifully.

Oh, if only the rest of “The Proposal” were 1/16 that disarming. Bullock and Reynolds, always friendly faces in a romantic comedy, and even the fiery-yet-vulnerable Betty White try their damndest to make it so, but with a plot like this it’s impossible. Raise the shields and prepare for the barrage of cliches: Margaret, the cheerless head of book-publishing company Colden Books, is facing certain deportation (back to Canada!) when she steamrolls her bright, long-suffering assistant Andrew (Reynolds) into a green card engagement. With a highly suspicious INS agent (Denis O’Hare) on their heels, Margaret and Andrew trek out to Alaska, where the orphaned shrew is wined, dined and charmed to bits by Andrew’s family (including White as Wacky Ole’ Gammy and is-she-high-on-something-and-where-can-I-get-it? Mary Steenburgen as Doting Mom). Wacky hijinks ensue, leading up to the same ending that’s been used since the beginning of time. Blecch. Don’t expect any clever tricks here; it’s all as standard as a FAFSA form.

Then again, what kind of schmuck goes into a movie like “The Proposal” expecting clever tricks? This one, that’s who. Or maybe it’s more of a fervent hope than an expectation. An 11th-hour twist? At least one character (including household pets) who doesn’t do exactly what we expect? Nope, nope. Even worse, there’s some seriously bad typecasting going on, and it takes the form of Oscar Nuñez — arguably the funniest secondary character on NBC’s “The Office” — as a heavily accented exotic dancer/lothario. How did he agree to do this? Is the economy this bad, Oscar? Don’t stoop; Sir Ian McKellan would never stoop. What a terrible waste of a genuine talent.

Still, predictable doesn’t have to equal uniformly terrible, especially when heavy-hitters like Bullock (she was aces in “While You Were Sleeping”) and Reynolds (go see “Definitely, Maybe”) show up. Reynolds has had a way with one-liners since “Two Girls and a Guy,” and he’s dependably droll here. Better still, he’s outgrown that lanky cute phase and morphed into something resembling a leading man. He can hold his own. And Bullock injects a little bit of Lucy Eleanor Moderatz into Margaret, proving she can do pratfalls and vulnerability and make it all look believable. Somehow, she makes that same character feel fresh most every time. Ditto that for the unflappable Betty White, now 87 and making a fine career of playing outspoken, kooky-but-warmly-accepting grandmas in Hollywood. Watching these three act (re: not overact) is the most enjoyable pleasure to be expected from the unoriginal “Proposal.”

Grade: C