Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shaft, Django And Intermediate Tarantino




There’s a moment in “Django Unchained” where Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) walk into a bar and pour themselves a drink. As Dr. Schutlz speaks, in love with the words filtered through his German accent, the camera focuses on his beer pouring. Suddenly, his speechifying stops. The brew pours gracefully into his glass, as the Doctor removes a knife to brush away the cream at the top. Director Quentin Tarantino preserves this moment, silently observing Schultz pouring a second glass and doing the same, the foam sensually slipping off the curved glass, into the bar top. It’s a moment that stops the scene cold, a borderline-romantic observation of objects in motion that reminds us that, if Quentin Tarantino is an expert linguist in the language of cinema, this is one of his more intermediate lessons.
As he has aged, Tarantino has begun to lose his youthful recklessness. Instead, he’s filled in these gaps by allowing his cinematic universes to widen, to create worlds with colorful characters that feel less eccentric and more of a product of a crooked world. This has shown not only in his camera-work, but also in his storytelling interests and long-winded dialogue exchanges that often seem to be talking about talking. Moving from the world of super cool hitmen and bulletproof assassins, Tarantino’s turned to re-writing American history, even if his historical awareness has rarely stretched beyond the movies of which have resulted. He’ll never be cinema’s greatest teacher, but in some ways he’s one of the more unique students.

“Django Unchained” right off the bat shows Tarantino to be our best remixer, opening “Django Unchained” with the triumphant Luis Bacalov “Django” theme from the 1966 film. Except this isn’t a lone gunman toting a casket behind him, but black slaves two years before the fall of the South. This recontextualization extends to the identity of Django himself -- formerly the wise, soft-featured hero played by Franco Nero, he’s now a man who removes his robe to reveal whip-marks scattered all over his back. He says little when freed by the loquacious Dr. Schultz, a traveling bounty hunter who needs reliable confirmation from the slave as to his former owners’ whereabouts. Schultz does most of the talking, as you can forgive Django’s reluctance to fully trust another white man with a gun.
Your political and moral readings of the world may interfere with your enjoyment of “Django Unchained,” which is a pity given that you should be able to separate the real world and the world of Quentin Tarantino -- such is the power of a skilled filmmaker. In Tarantino’s films, violence and revenge, intertwined, are a form of currency. When you put a gun in the hands of a Tarantino character, his intentions are to punish those who have less ambiguous moral shadings than he/she does. Violence is always the great equalizer, and in “Django Unchained” we’re dealing with a character who has faced a lifetime of oppression. When Schultz puts a gun in Django’s hand and points him into the direction of his former slave owners, Schultz is the only one surprised by what will happen.
This momentary union soon becomes a partnership, as Schultz vows to help Django find his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and free her from slavery. There is a moment where Schultz, in a moment of rare affectionate cultural exchange that never occurs in a Tarantino film, explains the meaning of Broomhilda’s name to Django, illustrating the myth of Siegfried. What Tarantino does here is both ridiculous and understandable -- the clunky Von Shaft surname refers to Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft in the three “Shaft” films from the 1970’s, meaning that Tarantino is essentially equating “Die Niebelugen,” the story of a heroic Aryan empire that crumbles under its own hubris, with that of a series that produced “Shaft In Africa.” Of course Tarantino’s appreciation of black history is going to start with a film series that helped pioneer the blaxploitation movement. Broomhilda was the name she was given by German slaveowners. Von Shaft is the name she has, and Tarantino here is taking great pains to take the story of slavery away from the white man, and gift it to the black man. Is what he’s doing any more problematic than Steven Spielberg turning black people into hood ornaments as a group of old white men debate their rights in dusty rooms through three hours of “Lincoln”?

Tarantino doesn’t make films as much as he adds to the rich cinematic tapestry that has solidified the art form as the primary one for audiences in the twentieth and twenty first century. As Django sits at a bar, he’s greeted by a nameless figure played by none other than Franco Nero himself. It’s a brief moment of passing the baton, with the suggestion that Nero himself is playing Django, a character who has consciously walked out of his film to this one. He enters and exits, a tourist in a film carrying his character’s namesake. On another level, there’s the casting of Tarantino regular as Stephen, the “house nigger” for notorious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jackson is instantly recognizable, a man of dark skin who has, for multiple generations, represented onscreen African American virility. But as Stephen, Jackson looks to have darkened his skin, while wearing artificial-seeming light curls in tufts of hair above his brow. Jackson is playing a symbol, one that carries certain significance, one that reminds us of this time period more than many others. Jackson, in costume, is THE Uncle Tom.
While DiCaprio’s Candie is a sadistic sociopath who genuinely makes the skin crawl as he rambles on about the phrenology of a black man’s skull, Stephen is his companion, his confidante, charged with keeping the Candie home running, and allowing the profiting off slavery in order to continue greasing the wheels for the white man. It’s an ugly performance, which some might find unsettling due to its abstraction: Stephen is playing all Uncle Toms, beyond all of cinematic history. Tarantino’s film lets no one off the hook, exactly, but it does suggest that the Uncle Tom archetype is something to be ashamed of, despite the fact that it still persists today in forms like the popular Magical Negro trope, with black characters in one way or another assisting in the advancement of whites. It’s the most scathing contemporary blow that Tarantino strikes, one that, judging by reviews, some critics are unprepared for.
Then again, maybe casting Jackson as an oppressor to Von Shaft has its own subtle critique within. After all, it is Jackson who starred in the stillborn “Shaft” remake, which didn’t whitewash the character, but it did de-fang the racial commentary of the material as well as the racial identity of the character himself, while casting a host of non-Hispanic black actors as Latinos. Problematic, that. Of course, there is the moment in that otherwise forgettable film when Jackson toasts to “Uncle Jay,” played by Richard Roundtree. Unlike many filmmakers, Tarantino understands cinema as a Moebius strip, and “Django Unchained” a highlight of another intermediate lesson.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On The Subject Of Torture And "Zero Dark Thirty"



There's a certain delicacy to the topic addressed not only by Kathryn Bigelow's bracing new film "Zero Dark Thirty" but also the debate surrounding the film's use of torture and mistruths in weaving the story of Osama Bin Laden's capture. You can come at this topic(s) from several perspectives, and for the sake of fairness, I will attempt all of them.

Mind you, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a film made by millionaires that will see a wide release in theaters and win several awards from critics and organizations discerning or otherwise.

Fairness is a concept that remains malleable in this context.
And now, an attempt to engage with the facts of this situation.

Kathryn Bigelow Is Not A ‘Nuanced’ Filmmaker

I'm personally a fan of Bigelow's pictures, as if that matters, but I also think they're culturally and socially relevant. I also think "Zero Dark Thirty" is her finest work, worthy of close observation and debate. And, like her best films (particularly genre fare like "Point Break" and "Near Dark"), there's a certain brute honesty to her craft.

The problem with our worst filmmakers who produce thoughtless, irresponsible work is the lack of aesthetic that produces films of non-specific spectacle. Bigelow's pictures, which reveal their strengths through force-of-will, show power through the details, the termite art behind paper-thin narratives like the bank robberies in "Point Break" and the sexually-poisonous future-shock of "Strange Days." Hers is the cinema of Anthony Kiedis' cheap sneakers hitting the pavement in "Point Break," or the uneasy sneer of Ron Silver in "Blue Steel," or even the exaggerated hell of suburban life in "The Hurt Locker." The easy way out is that she is a "genre" filmmaker. The complex truth is that she is a master of perception, of point of view, and of storytelling, but not of morality.
Therefore...

There is More Value In Insight Than There Is In Moral Responsibility

"Moral responsibility," such as the non-torture viewpoint (of which I subscribe to) is a personal attribute. It's necessary to understand that it is also a judgment call, a dead end where viewers can find no added awareness. PERSONALLY, I would appreciate that all viewers who paid money to see "Zero Dark Thirty" did subscribe to that theory that torture is inhuman and inefficient (which is not the only subject involved in this debate), and if not, that after the film, they did. That has nothing to do with a discussion of the film, but Kathryn Bigelow isn't making the film for me. Clearly I'm not handsome enough.

So Kathryn Bigelow has a right to make a pro-torture film. She does not owe the national discourse a political opinion, nor does financier Megan Ellison or distributor Sony. As successful as "Zero Dark Thirty" might become, it is a big fish in a small pond. And this is because, sadly...

The Public Is Largely In Support Of The Industrial Military Complex
What to make of Times Square, a veritable port for wayward tourists, spotlighting several recent ads for the "Call Of Duty" videogames? I could have researched this further, but upon seeing one of the "CoD" games (the sinister-sounding "Black Ops") generated $1 billion in sales in only two months, I would assume this franchise and its latest installment are landing in a few households. Naturally, this puts the $80 million worldwide take of this spring's forgotten "Act Of Valor" to shame.


The latest game actually has ads that spotlight the use of unmanned drones to do "the dirty work" as a selling point. Never mind the fact that this is a hot button topic amongst some, regarding the use of these weapons and the resulting collateral damage that has occurred, not to mention the moral issues of sending robots called Predators into unconfirmed "war zones" (and never mind the fact that robots called Predators designed for killing suggest the creators have seen far too many sci-fi films). The sales numbers suggest what we already knew: mass audiences openly support flying death robots descending on small villages to kill what they TRUST are "the bad guys." Moreover, they gladly sponsor the raid that entered Bin Laden's compound and placed a bullet in his defenseless head. The idea of a fair trial is straight farce to them.

So, to re-adjust the narrative, you wonder how much responsibility is being laid out at Ms. Bigelow's (and writer Mark Boal's) feet in regards to shifting the narrative. Some might say it's responsible or irresponsible, but it is undeniable that they are feeding the beast. Any reluctance towards this idea should be checked at the gate. Perhaps next to the billboard advertising the new "Call Of Duty" video game.

For A Reference Point, The Movie At Hand

On paper, there is zero suspense to the story of Osama Bin Laden's murder. We searched for years, found him, executed him, and rid ourselves of the body. For government appointed killers, it was a professional task, pushed through with expedience, and a lack of judgment: by the powers that be, Osama Bin Laden had to be killed. Calling it a "procedural," as many critics have, is shorthand for "We have accepted the basic immorality of this premise as commonplace in American film and society as a whole." Dumb. Accurate.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opens with one of several scenes set at an unspecified CIA "black site" where a weary agent (Jason Clarke, creepily believable) tortures a suspect, cruelly forcing him into a small box, and later using brute force. He ends up being the entry point for poker-faced Maya (Jessica Chastain), herself something of a killer robot. Aside from the difficulty in participating in such cruel acts against another human being, she has no moral issue with the mistreatment of only potentially-guilty suspects. She also appears to have no family, and her only casual friend within the Agency dies during a suicide bombing (not long after Maya scoffs at her friendly inquisitions about a potential love life).

The character gains further purpose simply by being denied Bin Laden, whom she believes will be the biggest possible success thus far in the battle against terrorism. Critics, positive or otherwise, have called her crusade “heroic” and “brave,” which is placing labels where it seems as if they do not belong. To the weary agent played by Mr. Clarke, and to Maya, this is a job, presented via Bigelow’s clear-cut cause/effect storytelling. The first moments of the film feature the isolated audio of the September 11th tragedies over a black background. The first scene following this is an isolated black site, where a terrorist suspect is interrogated. There’s no judgment implicit: something happened, and the rest of the film is the reaction by the human bullets put out onto the field, trained to do one job only. In the final moments of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Maya confirms the body, then sits and quietly stares off into the distance, a tear of exhaustion falling from her eye. But her eyes are blank, emotionless, borderline absent. It’s not a rah-rah moment, as much as certain audiences will want to pump their fists. Maya, in essence, is almost like an unmanned drone herself: this is where she powers down.

The Issue Regarding “Facts”


The movie very explicitly states that “enhanced interrogation techniques” aided in the knowledge that led to Osama Bin Laden’s courier. Ms. Bigelow has claimed that she took a “journalistic” approach towards the material while also playing fast and loose with the facts (ill-advised contradictions she should have avoided). But this piece of information was apparently “vetted” by a CIA lackey so in-the-tank for “enhanced interrogation techniques” that he’s been ostracized by colleagues even as he currently pens a pro-torture book. As such, the CIA cooperation received by this production was compromised, according to… the CIA.

So yes, it does appear as if there aren’t many ways to figure out “the truth.” Did torture play a part in locating Osama Bin Laden? The CIA says no, and major voices, from the likes of Senator John McCain, claim that the CIA do not use these, ahem, coercive measures to gain key tactical insight. Writer Mark Boal, like Bigelow, has sounded somewhat like an idiot during the press campaign for this film, but he makes an interesting semantic point, noting that one of the suspects divulges information not during a torture session, but while sitting and eating lunch with interrogators. Boal thinks this to be a defense against those who claim the character is giving information in response to EIT, which is ludicrous given that the character explicitly says he is revealing what he knows to avoid further torture.

Inadvertently, he’s revealing the convenient hole in the logic used by politicians like McCain, a former POW who briefly endorsed EIT in an effort to detain terrorists. Which is, in essence, where this whole situation becomes farce in the first place. Senators like McCain are placing the burden of truth on Bigelow and Boal, instead of the CIA itself, who openly collaborated with the filmmakers in making the film. Of course, the torture issue obscures the thornier, more unsettled issue of the black sites where torture occurs. Guantanamo Bay has yet to close, somehow, while worldwide, the CIA continues to operate unspecified black sites to illegally detain citizens.

A large chunk of this film takes place at these locations. Does anyone want to tackle the fact that we should not be operating these black sites and holding these “enemy combatants” without a conviction or trial? Torture in films is going to be a mainstay, now and forever -- black sites are something we rarely see and, like unmanned drones, represent a topic that few in the mainstream media want to question.

And when they do, they may be speaking to the wrong people: a scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” finds agents casually watching President Obama interviewed on “60 Minutes,” where he disclosed that America did not torture, contrary to… reality, I suppose. The characters are silent when he says this, and a great deal has been read into this silence by commentators. By the manner in which Maya turns away should be most significant. This President, leader of the free world, doesn’t factor in her universe. Her job has little to do with elected officials, television programs, or idealistic mantras. When one agent fumblingly quotes Donald Rumsfeld and is shouted down by another, it’s proof that these people operate in a world where morals are not of anyone’s concern. The reality of “should” is not a part of their job description, and the voices in power have almost nothing to do with their actions.

The Role Of The Viewer


The issue is representation versus lionization -- as was once said, paraphrased, one cannot make an anti-war film. The implication of that train of thought implies that the camera immediately sensationalizes, though I disagree, and I feel it has more negative connotations: That thought process instead reflects the base mentality of filmgoers, who have inherent biases depending on their generation, and who will not see their views challenged by a film even if its main intent is to upset the status quo. People seek validation for their opinions, not opposition.

So yes, people will walk out of “Zero Dark Thirty” endorsing torture as a means to “get the bad guy.” They will accept the existence of black sites as a necessary tool to win the “war” and, in some parts of the country, that third act will feature cheering sections amongst the crowd. But living in the information age, it is their civic responsibility to take something home from the film. “Zero Dark Thirty” deals with a crucial moment in American history, one where much of the actual information is clouded in secrecy (as the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” learned). To let the film do the heavy lifting for you is intellectually dishonest, as much as some would prefer it.

Ideally, audiences will see a film and use their two hour experience to build upon (or even create a base for) a certain type of knowledge. “Zero Dark Thirty” will only be the beginning of the thirst for knowledge. And ideally that thirst for knowledge would be quenched by a government who can be free and clear with the details. At that point, we can have a debate about ethics.

And perhaps one day, that audience member will see fit to tell a more accurate version of the story of how we located Bin Laden. Filmmaking is not a democracy: that’s both the good and bad news.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reality Seeps In

I’m no longer in my early twenties, and I feel as if movies are attempting to make me feel my age. It’s not necessarily that I am outside the ideal 18-25 age bracket for blockbusters (I very much am) but that I can no longer watch films without some sort of specific reality seeping in. The issue is, why does this disrupt my feelings not through the escapist fantasies, but in the more ground-level offerings presented to movie fans this season?

And that’s unfortunate, because during awards season, the films released tend to touch on topics that are familiar to my world, elements of story that have a certain truth, metaphorical or not. But is it possible they’re, in a way, lying to ourselves? I felt like that during David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook,” in which we meet two self-destructive individuals knee-deep in therapy, medicated to prevent mood-swings that still almost seem inevitable.

Considering Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are fairly limited actors (Cooper in particular has been gifted with dead eyes), I was surprised at how familiar their characters were, in sometimes troubling ways. Sitting at a table obnoxiously rattling off prescriptions, launching into shit fits that consume everyone around them, and generally behaving erratically, the two are a portrait of mental imbalance that strikes the right tone, considering the narrative of the film mostly keeps them out of Worst-Case-Scenario territory people like this generally live in. Both are especially susceptible to emotional bouts of doubt and anger, given that she’s a suffering widow, and he’s recovering from the deceit of his wife’s infidelity.



Being a big Hollywood movie, there remained choice elements that still felt preposterous, but I accepted them. I accepted the alleged age difference between these two characters -- I’d guess it’s meant to be a decade, which is plausible, though I’m guessing in reality it’s somewhere near fifteen years, considering Lawrence is in her early twenties and Cooper is likely late thirties. I even went with the improbability that the two most mentally-damaged people in town are also the best-looking, and that the man could conceivably be People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive©. As long as there’s emotional truth behind the characters and a plausible reality established by the filmmaker, then there can be a tenuous acceptance of the Hollywood nature of the endeavor.

Unfortunately, there’s that third act, where this genre-approved romantic comedy has to tie itself into a bun. And these characters had grown on me that I had realized I had seen them before. I had seen them come together and find common ground. I had also seen these people create havoc together, fight endlessly, and generally cause harm to others. Russell’s gamble is that you can also buy that these two could heal each other, that they could fix each others’ wounds and generally walk off into the sunset. But if you know these people in real life, and you see them get together, you know the only future is in late-night fights, frantic phone calls and police-tape. I felt as if Russell, who knows comedic dysfunction based in his work in “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter” (which makes light of some certain mental imbalances), had established that these two people could find salvation. But their situations (she’s placed herself in a high stress dance competition, he lives with his impulsive, undiagnosed OCD father) seemed ill-fitting for where they were within the film. She was headstrong and sexually liberated. He had control and trust issues, and a notoriously short fuse. Guys, this just isn’t going to work, no matter what David O. Russell and a best-selling novel say. 



I’ve always had issue with the class concerns of Judd Apatow as well, but they never quite came to the forefront as they did in “This Is Forty.” The characters of Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up” have moved on to their life of suburbia, where he runs a record company and she labors over a small boutique store while they raise two mostly sweet little girls who nonetheless fight like monsters (Apatow, their actual father, likely edited this film after a huffy argument with the two of them). But Apatow, a TV vet who has struggled to get material on the air, shows exactly where his sympathies lie with his troubling reading of the music industry.

Pete’s record company is flailing, and his Hail Mary strategy is to reunite Graham Parker and The Rumor, an actual act that likely less that 1% of this film’s actual audience will recognize. Of course Pete doesn’t realize that this is commercial suicide, because this music-loving record executive is so tone deaf he thinks his young daughters will respond positively when he turns off Nicki Minaj and replaces her with Temple of the Dog. After a much-touted Parker concert yields limited interest, a depressed Pete goes backstage to greet Parker, who genially tells him the show went well anyway, and that he’s just made a stack of cash selling a song to “Glee” (not likely). As he and random guest Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day walk off into the distance to celebrate their commercial success, Pete is left to tabulate the weak numbers.

It’s amusing that Apatow feels the music industry operates like this, as he empathizes with the music execs and curses (and envies) the successful artists who can sell a single song independently in the modern age. The reality certainly seems reversed -- a music industry beset by piracy, and a Top 40 world forever fractured, forcing artists to agree to middling deals with streaming sites, where a thousand plays of their hit song will get bands a cool ten cents to split amongst them. If the music industry is a Titanic, the execs are controlling the ship, and ensuring that they retain the majority of lifeboats. There are VERY few scenarios where the artist who only moves 600 digital copies of their latest online walks away laughing as their record company screams poverty. But that’s where Apatow’s head is right now: sympathy for the management, cursing the freedom of the artist.



Of course, the mostly-plotless “This Is Forty” attempts some forward momentum when Pete attempts to hide that the couple is behind on their mortgage payments, and have stretched themselves thin financially. Pete obviously has no clue how to run a record company, while Debbie has to deal with an employee skimming thousands off the profits in her store (is it slut-shamed Megan Fox, or dowdy truth-teller Charlyne Yi? Oh, Judd, you master of suspense!). In addition to this, there are economic realities at play -- Pete’s been lending thousands of dollars to his broke father, who in turn correctly informs them that the house where they live is simply too big (he says this with no knowledge of their finances, but it’s impossible to ignore their excess).

Except the film is loaded with wasteful spending by both characters that ignores they’re headed towards a fiscal cliff. The couple decide to remake their life, which involves getting rid of fatty foods of any kind, the majority of which goes not to a shelter or to a neighbor, but straight into the trash. It also involves more quality time with each other, which involves the two taking an unannounced vacation to one of the most gorgeous hotel/spas you could imagine, ordering room service by the truckful in a scene IMMEDIATELY following a moment when a character is worried about finances. And after a movie-length debate about what they need to do about their failing businesses and home payments, Pete has a massive, wasteful birthday party with professional catering and “Happy Birthday” sung by a rock star. Because it doesn’t really matter, I will spoil that by the end of the film, the solution about their declining funds is simply to love each other just a bit more. Not move into a smaller house. Not eliminate extravagancies. And not stop pretending that Graham fucking Parker is going to sell out clubs.

“The Impossible” brought back memories of when I had first read about the horrific tsunami that claimed the mainland of Thailand. For most people, their feelings were immediately with the people of Thailand, the thousands of lives lost and the savage nature of the disaster itself. I can’t think of a single person who said, Oh no, what if there were white people there as well? Fortunately, we have “The Impossible” to present us with that conundrum instead. The film finds Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the leader of a British clan vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hits, viciously separating them. Director J.A. Bayona previously helmed “The Orphanage,” and you can tell some of his boo-tactics remain during the harrowing disaster scenes, horrific moments cued by a string-heavy score that suggests a supernatural force has taken over the mainland.



“The Impossible” has been advertised as what it is: a true story about survival (which is to say it isn’t about much). But this also emphasizes what we find out early on -- they’ve all survived, it’s simply a matter of reuniting them. To do this, these white interlopers have to withstand the harsh conditions, most of which leave the corpses of locals at their feet, which they must tastefully step over. All the while, I could not divorce the film from the true story, recognizing that while these loaded white people underwent a traumatic experience, there remain thousands dead, and even more loved ones in painful grief. To vacation somewhere and become victim to an awful tragedy is terrible. But to the thousands of residents in Thailand, they could not have predicted this would arrive at their doorstep. That reality seemed far more upsetting than the ordeal in which these characters had participated.

And then, the final credits inform us that it WASN’T a reality. We see the photos of the actual surviving family, and they seem to be Spanish. Which is doubly fascinating, considering “The Impossible” has a Spanish director and a Spanish screenwriter (and, likely, a Spanish crew). The reality in which this film exists is where one family lived to tell its story, but thousands died and left their arguably more important narratives buried in their watery graves. And then that family got to be whitewashed. As their private plane (!) takes off at the film’s close, they look out the window. The film’s reality is, I can’t believe we survived this. The actual reality is, “Thank God we got out of that hellhole. Good luck suffering, natives!”



Ironically, the only film that spoke to me about a familiar reality was a picture that just got released to complete audience rejection and critical apathy. Following the sprawling, elegiac “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik instead directed the tight, caustically funny “Killing Them Softly.” In this film, which received a rare ‘F’ Cinemascore from audiences, a couple of idiotic mooks (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a high-stakes card game held by organized crime kingpins, bringing down the heat in the form of sly dog Coogan (Brad Pit). As the designated mob enforcer working with a nameless corporate stooge played by Richard Jenkins, the two of them in the service of unseen benefactors, Coogan breaks down the ins and outs of the situation with comic ease, understanding exactly what happened that night and who were the culprits.

But it’s 2008, and as the country is turning towards the hope of soon-to-be President Obama, Coogan positions political pragmaticism as his accepted dogma. Which is to say, it isn’t that the guilty need to suffer, it’s that there need to be fall guys that serve the narrative of cause and effect. America is a business, he argues, with the implication being that he’s serving a machine, greasing the wheels more accurately by hitting up targets to the left and right of the two rootless drug-addled morons who just walked away with dirty petty cash. Dominik isn’t subtle about these themes, which is a turn-off to those who prefer their sledgehammer honesty to be sunnier and more optimistic -- happy horseshit is still horseshit. “Killing Them Softly” has curious, clever music cues, but the soundtrack is mostly occupied by the televised political speeches of the era, emphasizing that those in power are peddling straight bullshit in an attempt to convince others to toe the line.

The treat of “Killing Them Softly,” which was advertised as a go-for-broke actioner it most certainly isn’t (which is thematically appropriate, in a way), is that it’s often enormously perceptive. In two extended scenes, Coogan’s old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) comes to town to provide services. But in his older age (despite Gandolfini being two years older than Pitt (curse you, Brad Pitt)) Mickey has compromised his principles in order to provide for himself. Of course, being a sickened, diseased degenerate who subsides on coke, scotch and sodomizing prostitutes, his interests are strictly prurient, but Coogan is more concerned with the job and its ramifications. What’s interesting is that Coogan retains his movie-star stoicism as Mickey rattles on about the ugliness in his life, but there’s also a wincing sadness that starts to weaken Coogan’s eyes. He’s a plainspoken, curt type with sharp sarcasm, but his voice softens considerably when he asks Mickey to drink just a little bit slower.

It’s only when Mickey responds to Coogan’s light requests with belligerency that Coogan snaps back into professionalism, reminding him that they all serve someone else. The coolly practical Coogan is about recompense, and his compassion drops out as soon as Mickey’s behavior makes it clear he might be responsible for the money train halting before it arrives. “Killing Them Softly” feels toxic at points, but appropriately so, one of the smarter films in recent years to realize “politics” reside not in “politics” but in the darker desires we all understand, whether that be our vices, or the need to get ahead, even if it means jeopardizing the lives of others. I hated this truth, but it was one of the year’s only cinematic truths to me nonetheless.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Meme-Watching "Rust And Bone"


I’m always trying to consider different ways of watching movies. I’ve been toying with a piece on what matters when watching a film, what to focus on, and what to examine. Cinema is a collaborative art, and hundreds of people can find employment on a movie set. Their work creates various avenues from which to explore a picture, from the music that plays, to the performances of an actor, to even the financial involvement of the producers and the possibly-colorful world in which they inhabit.

But there is something to be said about a visceral, primitive reaction and appreciation to film. This approach and understanding does not lend itself to writing, but it does honor a modern shorthand that I would like to call Meme-Watching. A similar designation would be Hashtag-Watching, but I would like to think viewers would not Tweet their way through a film, unless it were something inherently not worth the attention -- even then it should be done in the safety of your own home, and remains debatably disrespectful on a case-by-case basis.

Regardless, this approach, which lends itself well to films of certain types of spectacle (shallow or otherwise) is probably the only non-critical way to engage with some films. Films lack the poeticism of earlier eras, and more and more studio offerings feel like station-to-station filmmaking, checking off boxes in a vain attempt to adhere to Screenwriting 101 rules, as well as the tenets of blockbusting (see: Marvel). Those films can be deemed worthy of meme-watching almost derisively: to say anything negative about “The Hunger Games” is to fail to acknowledge that it’s a machine, not a film, comprised of only loosely-related moments meant to be Frankensteined into a plausible, inoffensive, apolitical, forgettable narrative.


But sometimes Meme-Watching can be the product of an idle or unprepared mind. You can’t parse through the narrative, or the themes, but you can grab onto a film moment-by-moment, riding the picture as if it were a roller-coaster (an analogy used for years to describe blockbusters that always struck me as subversively backhanded). The truth is, I do think there’s a sense of egotism when someone suggests they’re always going to be invested and intellectually involved with every film they see, particularly as far as the notion of understanding the filmmakers’ thesis.

So yes, Meme-Watching has an element of guilt attached. That guilt nagged at me during Jacques Audiard’s “Rust And Bone,” a somewhat-preposterous but emotionally engaging film which I very much Meme-Watched. Though “Rust And Bone” is a dead-serious awards-season release from Sony Pictures Classics, starring respected actors, and featuring the deadly-serious combination of songs by Bon Iver and a totally non-ironic reappropriation of a Katy Perry tune, I couldn’t help but think that any way I would describe the film, it would feel like endless hashtag abuse. *Deep breath*

#This handsome guy is totally broke #This pretty woman works with whales #He becomes a street fighter #She loses her legs #Amputee Sex!


And so on and so on. My descriptions of this film can only be captured through breathless run-on sentences. My takeaway from “Rust And Bone” was that Audiard’s fascination with curves and flesh allows a fetishization of Marion Cotillard’s (digitally) amputated legs, and Mathias Schoenarts’ muscled gut. But that discussion is cowed by absolute fascination that the two lead characters become f-buddies first, and colleagues second. By the time Schoenarts was enlisting her as his streetfight booking agent, I was merely checking off what thrilled me about this setup. As if her fabulous metallic replacement legs weren’t swaggy enough, he refers to her as “Robocop,” as she walks into a mess of sweaty moneymen (where, previously, a woman was not permitted) proudly displaying her gray limbs while strutting with a cane, hand full of hot street cheddar. I suppose it’s a testament to the filmmaker that I stopped looking for heady ideas when I simply wanted to cheer for a decidedly unconventional narrative.

I attended the film with uncertain expectations. Knowing that it involved a handicapped character and the notoriously-intense Cotillard, “Rust And Bone” (especially given it’s elliptical title) was earmarked as something of a chore. Truth is, the film is compelling from start to finish, funny, sensual, and populated by these two delightful actors who imbue two troubled personalities with touching humanity. And yet that endorsement, if you will, feels like just another mishmash of hashtags. #criticalthought

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lesser Miserables - The Wonderful World Of Movie Embargoes And Advance Screenings


Kudos to the wise wizards over at Universal Pictures for controlling the flow of information regarding Friday’s premiere of “Les Miserables.” Studio rules have not evolved up to modern culture’s 24/7 journalism world, so studios request embargoes on critical opinion until it is closer to a film’s release in order to properly utilize critical response as a commercial tool, turning critics into walking billboards. It’s an insulting practice, one that becomes even more ludicrous when an embargo is broken. If the embargo is broken for a positive review, then the “buzz” swarms over the film, and everybody wins -- extra exposure to the journalists who were “FIRST!” and a solid bit of publicity for the film. If embargo is broken and the review is negative, more often than not the publisher will find punishment at the hands of the film’s publicist, who will then limit their access to future screenings of other films. It’s all political, and it’s all in service of critics’ function in this day and age -- as soon as they begin writing a word, they must realize their prose is promotion first, criticism second. I'm doing it right now.

“Les Miserables” is one of the very last “prestige” films premiering to audiences this year, and as such, few knew what to expect before Friday‘s screenings. Fortunately, Universal has gamed the system expertly. Their embargo limits actual reviews, but it allows for “impressions” to be posted. It’s fascinating, distinguishing between “reviews” and “impressions,” as the word “impression” suggests an inarticulate, primitive response. We’re allowing you to print your unthinking reaction, is what Universal is saying, knowing they have a big, bombastic, expensive star-filled movie designed to bowl you over, for better or worse.

This reaction was further tweaked by the company shared by the critics in Alice Tully Hall this past Friday. The specifics are not completely thorough to me, but this was some sort of theater group of actors and performers, some of whom knew “Les Miserables” by heart. It was like attending a midnight screening of the latest superhero film, or a “Twilight” picture. They knew the words, they knew the act breaks, they knew the characters. And, Pavlovian to a tee, they knew to applaud rapturously at the end of each song as if it were performed live. One Jean Valjean song ends with Hugh Jackman flinging a torn-up letter into the sky, a fragment becoming CGI and sailing over the mountains like Forrest Gump’s feathers, and the tackiness of this was immediately swarmed by the hooting and hollering of the theater geeks in the crowd. Scrutiny is not welcomed here.


The screening was also followed with a Q+A, where the audience was allowed to genuflect in the presence of director Tom Hooper, and actors Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne (who, it must be said, has the voice of an angel) and Amanda Seyfried. Because so what if our “impressions” are dotted with starfuckery? When the audience was given the floor, professional “journalist” Jeanne Wolf was given the first question: “Hi, this is Jeanne Wolf, friend of the cast! My question is, were you expecting this type of applause?” The second question was an actor who claimed to have starred in a play with Hathaway years ago, who wanted to say hi again (she didn’t seem to recognize him, but played it off well).

Moreover, many of the “critics” allowed to this screening also write about films in other aspects. A review isn’t enough -- their inarticulation has to take into account several outside factors, because discussing the film (even in “impression” form) is an impossibility. These critics go into overdrive near the end of the year, for one reason: OSCAR. That being, these men and women have so little professional pride in their own opinions that they have to instead discuss the collective “impressions” of an outdated, outmoded voting bloc that usually makes inappropriate artistic judgments that lack merit years, or even minutes, after they’re announced.

And those discussing Oscars at this point are in search of a narrative: with only a few potential Oscar films already screened, there had been no “front runner,” no home run Oscar pick just yet. “Les Miserables” being enthusiastically received by an audience of homers suddenly changes that for these people, in a grotesque chicken-or-the-egg situation: these writers say that the Oscar bloc will love this film, and the Oscar bloc catches wind of the buzz before they even see the film. And because these are the saps that will grant awards to the likes of “Crash” and “The Artist,” the buzz will work on them immediately before they even see “Les Miserables,” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this all easily plays into the hand of the studio, who begin to count the opening weekend grosses with a big fat smile on their faces.

So… the embargo only exists for negative reactions. Therefore I cannot disclose my feelings about “Les Miserables.” I can’t say that it’s a loud, obnoxious, gauche mess with absolutely zero nuance. I can’t talk about how the orchestration is tinny, how the transitions are graceless, and how the visual effects are clumsy. I am embargoed, so you’ll never know if I thought the movie was worthwhile or not. Pity.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Handicapping The Oscars With Contempt



Film fans have very carefully over the years turned one conversation into two, both about very different topics. One is, “What are the year’s best and most interesting movies?” The other, very different and more politicized question is, “What films are more likely to be Oscar contenders?” The latter suggests that, yes, the Academy tend to lean towards predictability more often than not. Which is why I’ve devised and revised a guide over the years as to what the Academy Awards committee looks for in regards to acting. These factors stand out, which I will grant with their own alphabetical assignment.

A - This denotes a performance based on a real character. Certain audience members find it easier to qualify a performance as good or bad if they have a very specific rubric to apply, usually based on leftover footage of the subject. The Academy cares little for the fact that these types of performances sometimes lean towards mimicry, or that the corresponding movies often aren’t very good, or even that the person being imitated is someone they would never know.
EX. Geoffrey Rush, “Shine,” Helen Mirren, “The Queen”


B - This designation is reserved for characters who are suffering and/or dying in a prolonged, difficult-to-watch manner, or suffering from a debilitating condition or handicap (see: Full Retard). It is also reserved for those struggling with some sort of social malady, most often homosexuality or racism. The Oscars rarely like gays and minorities unless they suffer.
EX. Daniel Day-Lewis, “My Left Foot,” Sean Penn, “I Am Sam,” Javier Bardem, “Before Night Falls,” Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry.”

C - If the role has ANY association with World War II. Nazis, move to the front of the line.
EX: Ralph Fiennes, “Schindler’s List,” Roberto Benigni, “Life Is Beautiful.”

D - If someone is nominated and the discussion is not around the performance or the film, but the performer behind it. Actors who have gone years without a nomination, or who have triumphed over some sort of First Class adversity, usually contribute to compelling headlines, which often catch the eye of voters. This also applies for non-actors suddenly shifted into the spotlight, or show business veterans who the industry deems “due” an Academy Award for career recognition.
EX. Anna Paquin, only ten when she won the award for “The Piano.” Christopher Plummer, never nominated before “The Last Station.”


E - This is reserved for cases in which the performance itself isn’t exactly thrilling, but benefits from exposure due to people rooting for the film. As an example, the Oscars have a long history of nominating a cast member from a well-liked movie so the picture can be recognized in as many categories as possible.
EX. Ian McKellan, “The Lord of the Rings,” Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech,” Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”

F - They like you, they really really like you. This is reserved either for performers who seem to annually draw nominations simply for tying their shoes, or big stars who generate goodwill on behalf of the industry. The political choice, sometimes known as the You’re Having A Good Year nomination.
EX. Meryl Streep, George Clooney, etc. Also, Robert Downey Jr. for “Tropic Thunder” in the year in which he also played “Iron Man.

G - Sex! More often for women other than men, but a nude scene can earn talk about how an actor is being “brave.” But it cannot be titillating, and the actor cannot appear to be enjoying themselves. Also, if a performer is recognized for subverting their own sexuality in some specific way. There is overlap with B.
EX. Jaye Davidson, “The Crying Game,” Kate Winslet, “The Reader”


H - Mostly reserved for supporting actors, but this letter is used to recognize flat-out villains. Bad guys usually have more morally-complex stories and greater opportunities for an extroverted, outsized, attention-getting performance that steals scenes from others.
EX. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight,” Al Pacino, “Dick Tracy,” Tommy Lee Jones, “The Fugitive.”

Handicapping this year’s potential nominees:
BEST ACTOR

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, LINCOLN - A, F
Day-Lewis is considered acting royalty, and he’s playing a beloved President. You really don’t get more Oscar-y than that, to the point where the award has been wrapped between his Presidential, shoe-making fingers since the role was announced. It’s up to everyone else to pry it away from him.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX, THE MASTER - B, C, D
Phoenix recently spoke out about the Oscar campaigning process, which along with a yearlong departure from acting to document “I’m Still Here” effectively makes him a person of interest. It’s simply gravy that a brief scene reveals him to have fought in the Great War, and that the film’s suggestion is that it left him half-retarded.

JOHN HAWKES, THE SESSIONS - A, B, D, G
It is a MAJOR Oscar score when an actor can stumble upon a subject both real and tragic, as Hawkes did as his handicapped onscreen avatar in “The Sessions,” the late writer who also once appeared in an Oscar-winning short film. Hawkes is an extremely well-liked character actor in Hollywood who worked his way up to critically-acclaimed, and now finally leading-man, status. The unexpected bonus is that the film deals with the character’s desire to lose his virginity, leading to “The Sessions” spotlighting overly-frank onscreen discussions and depictions of sex that are sterile, innocent, and wholly within the wheelhouse of the Academy bluehairs.


DENZEL WASHINGTON, FLIGHT - B, F
Two-time winner Denzel has more than his fair share of supporters in Hollywood, so anytime he wears a serious face in a half-decent movie, he’ll earn Oscar talk. This isn’t one of his better roles, but it represents a high degree of difficulty given the character’s debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol. Great actors playing addiction puts a sexy face on a troubling subject, which always excites voters.

HUGH JACKMAN, LES MISERABLES - D, E, F
Jackman, a leading man for a consistent decade now, has yet to receive a nomination. Part of that has to do with the quality of work, though few would doubt he was superb in the otherwise-ignored “The Fountain.” Some of those people, who once scoffed at that film’s pretension, could still be in the Academy. The others, who understand the politics behind a Jackman nomination (the industry loved his hosting gig at the Oscars a couple of years ago) would happily endorse him, as he’s considered one of the industry’s good guys, an action hero who can sing, dance, emcee and spout adamantium claws. Also, he’s in “Les Mis.”

BILL MURRAY, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON - A, C, F
Fading fast from the race, it’s likely Murray and company pressed those Oscar buttons a bit too hard this time. A war-time President certainly sounds like exciting awards fodder. But the fact that he’s played by a guy Hollywood LOVES, and who has become an annual fixture in Oscar prognostications as if any former “SNL” cast members are owed Academy recognition, and it just seems a bit excessive.

ANTHONY HOPKINS, HITCHCOCK - A, F
Hopkins is acting royalty, and playing one of the all-time great filmmakers seems like a nice play for awards attention. But I’m still waiting on more advanced word before I bump him up in the rankings. He’s probably great, but Hopkins is one of those actors for whom greatness has become an expectation, not a surprise, and it’s probably cost him a second Oscar somewhere down the line.

JAMIE FOXX, DJANGO UNCHAINED - B, E
Foxx overcame “In Living Color” to earn two nominations, and one win, in a previous year (“Ray” and “Collateral”), and for that, he’ll always be a contender. But he’s done a lot of forgettable work since then, so it’s not acknowledged that he’s one of Hollywood’s few justifiable Oscar winners. He’s also playing a slave, which means his race is in play, but it’s a decidedly non-tragic representation that may seem unfamiliar (and scary!) to some voters.

RICHARD GERE, ARBITRAGE - D, F
The role, and movie, are certainly nothing special, a 90’s-flavored potboiler where Gere plays yet another upper-class douchebag. But would you believe Gere has never been nominated for an Oscar? That alone makes good copy, as Gere is always been considered a reliable leading men who often allows supporting players to reliably grab the spotlight. The amount of “Finally!” headlines his nomination would generate is beyond quantifying.

BEST ACTRESS

JENNIFER LAWRENCE, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - B, E, F
Coming off an Oscar nomination for “Winter’s Bone,” the young Lawrence is extremely well-liked within the industry and is garnering the most attention among the cast of one of the more likely Best Picture frontrunners. So who cares if she’s playing Juliette Lewis circa 1995? She gets to be both attractive and mentally-damaged, which the more patriarchal members of the Academy just loooove. And even though it was a terrible film, the widespread public adoration for “The Hunger Games” led to first-half talk that she might be recognized for that movie in the Oscar race. Never underestimate someone attached to two lucrative franchises (“The Hunger Games,” “X-Men”).

QUVENZHANE WALLIS, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD - D
Aw, it’s post-Katrina New Orleans (liberal guilt) but she’s so adorable (cheap seats) and black (liberal guilt again)! She would be the youngest winner of the prize, and while the film has supporters, it also has some seriously nagging detractors, suggesting the only way they can agree on anything is by praising the little girl at the center of the picture.

MARION COTTILARD, RUST AND BONE -B, G
Marion, a previous winner, also benefits from a tenuous connection to the second biggest film of the year, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Here, she plays a woman with no legs, but she also faces her character’s sexual challenges head-on. Hollywood wants to make sex look unenjoyable, but they’ll totally root for it if it’s experienced by the handicapped.


EMMANUELLE RIVA, AMOUR - B, D, G
She’s freaking dying, Academy! Give her the Oscar! Riva is fantastic as an expiring elderly woman in Michael Haneke’s confrontational film, and it’s tough to watch for anyone who has ever lost someone to Alzheimer’s. And if there’s anything the Academy loves, it’s stuff that’s hard to watch (see: Tracy Jordan). Riva’s also a first-timer in the Oscar race, giving her a freshness not shared by some of the other candidates. And hey, hard-to-watch nude scene alert!

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY, ANNA KARENINA - E
A little reluctance plays into this nomination, as it’s hard to shake the fact that Knightley and company have done this sort of thing before. Of course, one could argue what’s keeping her from winning is the same thing that keeps getting her nominated - at such a young age, this ain’t her first rodeo.

HELEN MIRREN, HITCHCOCK - A, F
When Mirren walks onto the Oscars scene, she walks onto it LIKE A BOSS. However, in this case Mirren could be overshadowed by co-star Hopkins, as “Hitchcock” is seen as something of a showcase piece for him. There’s also the suggestion that an actor of Mirren’s power is wasted in the role of the emotionally-abused wife in the shadow of a male legend.

NAOMI WATTS, THE IMPOSSIBLE - E
Most voters probably haven’t seen it yet, and among them, there could be the suspicion that this is a genre thing. So people need to, one, see the movie, and two, forget that Watts is so good all the time that most voters ignore it. This isn’t seen as much of a performance film, though, but if it breaks through, she’ll be the most likely cast member to earn recognition.

MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD, SMASHED - B, D
Role to Hollywood glamour? Don’t wear makeup, and pick up an addiction. So it goes for Winstead, who takes on alcoholism in this indie. Few people expected Winstead, a geek favorite for roles in “The Thing,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Live Free Or Die Hard,” to start trying some serious acting, but here she is, a possible career revival that could lead to… more comic book roles, if the rumors about the “Captain America” sequel are true. Unfortunately, the smallness of this movie could hold her back, as not only does she share most of her scenes with Aaron Paul and Nick Offerman (very good, but associated with smaller screens) but the picture barely limps to the eighty minute mark. Perhaps if they set it during World War II…


ANN DOWD, COMPLIANCE - D, H
People who have seen “Compliance” absolutely HATE the character played by never-nominated Dowd, an unthinking restaurant manager who forces a girl to undergo an extended psychologically-abusive battery of assignments by order of a fake cop on the other end of the phone line. So the relatively unassuming Dowd actually comes across as quite memorable in the film, despite not being an extroverted character, and very much a believably absent-minded professional. The fact that you couldn’t pick her out in a crowd is a strength in a crowded field like this. The fact that no one has seen the movie is a decided negative.

MERYL STREEP, HOPE SPRINGS - F, G
No one liked this movie, and those who did quickly forgot about it. But never underestimate Meryl Streep.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, THE MASTER - A, C, F, H
A mortal lock, even if the qualities that make this performance more obviously Oscar-friendly seem mercurial. How much of Lancaster Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard? How much of this film takes place during World War II? And is Dodd really a villain? Hoffman’s got one Oscar on his mantle, and most expect he’ll have another couple more one day. Also, Best Supporting Actor is the ONE category where you can't win without an incredible performance, and guess what? Here's one.

ROBERT DE NIRO, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - B, D, F
DeNiro’s got the perfect double whammy - some still consider him an Oscar perennial, and others think he’s due, given that it’s been more than twenty years since his last nomination. It doesn’t hurt to remind an entire generation that this guy can act. His performance here is a gently-realized depiction of a long-suffering, undiagnosed OCD sufferer, meaning he gets to play a disease in a big Oscar movie, a golden opportunity. DeNiro’s got two of these awards already, but most rightly believe he’s the best thing about this probable Best Picture nominee.

TOMMY LEE JONES, LINCOLN - A, E
Another former winner, Jones is playing backup to DDL in the Oscar machine that is “Lincoln.” Jones, who won for the silly “The Fugitive,” may rightly believe this sort of thing is beneath him and won’t campaign, but he’s one of the few actors that could pull off such a move and still be considered an industry fave.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, DJANGO UNCHAINED - F, H
The whole “Oscar nominated leading man” thing didn’t work for DiCaprio, so an outsized villain role was just what the doctor ordered. If “Django” is recognized by the Academy, his is the most likely performance to break through. DiCaprio keeps getting nominated for similar roles - alpha male toughies. The voters will appreciate the change-of-pace.

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY, MAGIC MIKE - D, G, H
There was a point when McConaughey was considered one of the top leading men in Hollywood, but also something of a party-boy punchline who shied away from heavyweight acting. But as the distorted mirror image to the title character in Steven Soderbergh’s unlikely blockbuster, he turned heads, in a way which validates his recent experimental phase that saw him give excellent performances in this year’s “Killer Joe” and “Bernie” as well. His first nomination would be an acknowledgement of a career arc, and voters eat that up.

HAL HOLBROOK, THE PROMISED LAND - D
The nice way of saying this is the bullshit way -- Holbrook got an “almost dead” nomination for only a few minutes in “Into The Wild,” his first ever. Five years later, and the guy’s still around. Another “almost dead” nod is certainly a possibility, though no one has seen this yet.


RUSSELL CROWE, LES MISERABLES - E, H
Inspector Javert is a role tailor-made for Oscar consideration, and if “Miserables” scores nods in a bevy of categories, Crowe could be whisked into the top five. The voters know history -- Crowe’s Oscar-winning performance in “Gladiator” is probably the weakest of an incredible run of early-aught turns, some of which were never once noticed by the Academy. Everyone knows the guy’s got chops, and now he gets to sing. If Crowe is great in the role, people will notice. If he’s not, it’s certainly still possible he‘ll be nominated.

ALAN ARKIN, ARGO - E, F
“Argo” is a likely Best Picture nominee, but the performances are mostly functional. If anyone is noticed, it would be former winner Arkin, who is playing a savvy Hollywood producer, and if there’s anything last year proved, it’s that Hollywood loves to honor it’s past. Complicating matters is the fact that, in a riveting true story, Arkin’s character is actually the biggest completely fictional element.

ALBERT BROOKS, THIS IS FORTY - D, F
Also known as the Make-Em-Up. Brooks seemed like a frontrunner to win the Oscar last year, having grabbed a slew of critics awards for “Drive” until the Academy shut him out completely. He could be back as the standout performance in this film, though, again, no one’s seen it. Brooks is loved within the industry, however, and even critics of “Drive” acknowledge Brooks’ lack of recognition seemed like an oversight.

IAN MCKELLAN, THE HOBBIT - E
Christ, this shit again.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

ANNE HATHAWAY, LES MISERABLES - B, E, F
Hathaway’s character is dying of consumption, which is a plus. But she steps out of the narrative for a long time after the first act, which is a minus. But there’s another plus, that being Hathaway as someone the Academy adores, enough that she was able to deflect most of the criticism from her hosting gig. Also, Warner Bros. has a well-meaning Best Actress campaign in place for her in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which won’t hurt.

AMY ADAMS, THE MASTER - C, E, G, H
Again, the usual Oscar buttons are being pressed her, but in an unusual way. She has an off-putting nude scene, and another troubling sexual moment soon afterwards. Her relationship with Dodd is purposely unclear, leading some to speculate she’s playing his daughter. And she may or may not be a villain in this film, but Jesus Christ is she terrifying.

SALLY FIELD, LINCOLN - A, E
Field won thirty years ago, and most seem to forget she’s actually a two-time winner. Most would also assume that was some sort of typo, as Field, a legendary ham, seems to have conned her way into being credited as Acting Royalty. No matter -- as long as she’s not awful (not a sure bet), she’ll be riding the “Lincoln” nomination wave.

HELEN HUNT, THE SURROGATE - A, G
Bumping her to supporting reads like category fraud, but it also calls attention as to how stupid it is to structure and divide acting performances as if they were dinner plates. So whatever -- Hunt makes the “brave” move of being nude a whole bunch in this film, which is compounded by her being based on a real person, even if it’s someone for whom the voting bloc would be unfamiliar.

ANNETTE BENING, IMOGENE - B, F
That fifth spot seems like a tough one in this category, though Bening quite literally is Movie Royalty, having been married to Warren Beatty for years. Here, she gets to booze it up and ham her way through this film, which just might be enough to get that nod.

MAGGIE SMITH, BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL - F
The great Dame has yet to win, but she’s been so prolific, even in her older years, that voters are very likely to bow. Now, will they remember this film, which was a breakout hit in the spring? Hard to tell.

JACKI WEAVER, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - E
Weaver has about twenty lines in this film, and half of them are incidental filler. But if people like the picture, she could grab a nomination simply for reacting to the mental instability of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. Nice work if you can get it.


SHIRLEY MCCLAINE, BERNIE - A, F
Roadside Attractions is going to campaign for her, as they should. But she’s certainly overshadowed by the career-best work from Jack Black (seriously!) and the fact that her character is mostly absent from the second half of the film. Given that this is such a small picture, those odds might be insurmountable.

ALICIA VIKANDER, ANNA KARENINA - D
“Who is she?” will read the narrative. And she’s good, but there’s not much to her character, and not a lot of love for this movie. Perhaps she should have played her character with a hook for a hand.

KERRY WASHINGTON, DJANGO UNCHAINED - B, E
If the picture is a huge favorite amongst the Academy, they’ll reach and pick on her. But all signs say she’s not going to have a role big enough for the final five.