Oscar Watch and Predictions

The Oscar for Self-Serving goes to... Hollywood!

It’s almost Oscar time again, time for the yearly reminder that the Academy Award seldom honors the best performances within a given year. The Oscars are akin to the claims of efficacy trumpeted by drug manufacturers based on reports they commissioned. The Oscars are really about the thing Hollywood reveres above all other things: Hollywood!

Here are my predictions for the major awards, broken down according to who will win (WW) and who should win (SW), the latter based on the actual quality of the film.

First, I predict one small surprise. It’s close to a given that whatever film is chosen as best picture will also produce the best director winner. I think that this year we’ll see a departure from this.

Second, there is no doubt of what should win (SW) most of the awards; The Artist and its cast are light years better than anything else that’s up for awards. My guess, though, is that it won’t win as many Oscars as it should.

Best Supporting Actor:

SW: Jonah Hill for Moneyball as his portrayal as the portly computer geek that convinced Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane to defy–and ultimately redefine–baseball logic.

WW: Christopher Plummer for his role as a late-in-life-come out-of-the-closet gay man in The Beginners. An okay performance, but one Plummer could have done in his sleep. Hollywood loves to show its liberal chops, though, so score one for Plummer.

Best Supporting Actress:

SW: Bérénice Bejo for The Artist. The only thing wrong with her nomination is that it should have for Best Actress. When she’s on screen, you can’t not look at her. It’s one of the most charming performances I’ve seen in years.

WW: Octavia Spencer for The Help. This wouldn’t be a travesty, as Spencer is good in her role, though it is a sort of Gone with the Wind Mammy role updated for the 1960s.

Best Actor:

SW: Jean Dujardin for his role as a film icon in the dying days of silent movies in The Artist. But he’s French, he (literally) doesn’t speak in the film, and he’s not a Hollywood commodity.

WW: George Clooney for The Descendants. This one’s almost a lock—Clooney is everything Hollywood loves: a big star, liberal, handsome, dashing…. I like Clooney, but this was little more than a walk through in one of the most overrated films of the year. I would label this one a travesty.

Best Actress: (The strongest category by far.)

SW: Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn. It may be the best portrayal of Marilyn Monroe ever done. Williams makes you think she’s a person she only vaguely resembles. Williams’ work was far better than that of distinguished peers such as Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.

WW: Williams’ fabulous acting will not overcome Hollywood’s burning desire to show how “relevant” and “progressive” it is. The Oscar will go to Viola Davis for The Help. Davis is good in the role, but it’s no tour de force and, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that this role wouldn’t be nominated if the character and actress were white. Call this the fuzzy-headed liberal prize.

Best Picture:

WW/SW: The Artist is simply too good not to win. It’s unlike everything else out there, plus it pays homage to Hollywood’s past. Any other choice is just wrong. Even Hollywood will get that!

Best Director:

SW: Michael Hazanavicius for The Artist. His direction is inventive, stylish, and clever. Fabulous use of light, whimsy, and intellect are present in every shot.

WW: Here’s the upset. Hugo is not the Best Picture of 2011, but Hollywood is jonesing to honor Martin Scorsese one more time before he dies, and Hugo is good enough to do the trick. Plus, this award would allow Hollywood to honor several categories it is yet to fathom: animated movies and 3-D technology. Scorcese’s 2007 Oscar for The Departed was payback for not honoring Raging Bull, and this one is compensation for not giving the nod to Taxi Driver, one of the best films of all time. Why can’t Hollywood just say “Ooops!” instead?


Water for Elephants is an Empty Bucket

As flat as the poster!


Directed by Francis Lawrence

Fox 2000, PG-13, 121 minutes

* * ½

Detail is what turns an outline into a story. Detail is what turns a collection of people and animals into a circus. Alas, the film treatment of Sara Gruen’s beloved novel Water for Elephants is an empty bucket that will leave those who’ve read the book parched, and those who’ve not wondering what all the fuss was about.

The year is 1931. Jacob Jankowski, the son of Polish immigrants, is about to achieve the American Dream: a degree in veterinary science from Cornell. That is, until his parents are killed on the day of his final exam. Jacob is left homeless, penniless, and adrift in the Great Depression. Possible salvation comes when he hops a train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers Circus, which just happens to need a guy like Jacob to take care of the animals. Gruen’s novel develops the cast of characters that populate the circus: the midget Kinko and his dog Queenie, hootchie kootchie dancer Barbara, the avuncular Camel, strongman Earl, and many others. Alas, the film pushes the minor characters to the background and, by so doing, drains away the color and leaves us with the sepia chrome of the three principals: Jacob (Robert Pattinson), brutal circus manager August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), and his star attraction wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

August is bipolar, capable of great tenderness, but prone to demons that make him into Hitler in a high hat. When the budget needs to be cut­—as it always must be for a third-rate ragtag outfit such as the Benzini Brothers—he orders his henchman Blackie to toss roustabouts and superfluous performers from moving trains rather than pay them off. Some will die from this, but August cares only for himself and for his prized possession, Marlena, and he’s abusive to her as well. August even exacts his wrath on Rosie, a 53-year-old elephant who might be the only thing that can save the circus. Naturally, his brutality appalls the animal-loving Jacob, whose position is all the more precarious because of the obvious frisson between him and Marlena. Need I tell you that this is not a formula for rational resolving of disagreement?

The first problem is that this isn’t enough to carry a two-hour movie. We know there will be a crisis and we’re just riding the train until it occurs. It could, I suppose, have made a decent character study, though one must ask who the hell goes to a circus to study psychology. To carry this off, however, would require three topnotch actors and only Waltz rises to the challenge. He is very good as August. As he should, he makes us not trust him, but we can also see how others could be taken in by his outward charms. Pattinson isn’t bad as Jacob, but he’s not very good either. Like most of the film and all of Lawrence’s direction, Pattinson is flat—he looks fine on the screen, but when real fire is needed he does little more than strike a match. Still, he’s miles better than Reece Witherspoon, who is all wrong for the part. She is, first of all, too modern in appearance and demeanor to convince us that she’s a 1930s gal. Second, as an actress she falls into the category of “minimally competent.” She has little range or rage, two essential characteristics of Marlena, if her actions are to make any sense at all. Witherspoon’s presence in this film can only be explained as a box office ploy to pair a pop icon (Witherspoon) with a hot commodity (Twilight lead Pattinson). It didn’t work; the film got tepid reviews (like this one) and endured a decent-but-not-spectacular box office. This is a metaphor for what’s wrong with the film: a circus should be spectacular, not just something to pass the time if you’re bored. This film is as toothless as the circus lion and not even the presence of Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier from The Artist, can rescue it.


Homespun Melodies from Pat and Tex LaMountain


Sweet Chabango

Garden Gate Recordings 1007

* * *

I haven’t the foggiest idea of what “chabango” means, but if local heroes Pat and Tex LaMountain want to use it to describe their homespun mix of cowboy jazz, swing, Americana, country, and pop that’s fine by me. The LaMountains invite comparisons to Robin and Linda Williams, though they don’t quite have their flair, and the miles are starting to show on Tex’s voice. But in an age in which pop music is processed like American cheese, the LaMountains offer a good-time antidote, complete with hummable melodies and their own ironic twist on things. It begins with two Tex confessionals; the first influenced by Roy Orbison, and the second an admission that he’s always been a “Record Shop Cowboy.” It ends with three tunes inspired by their travels. There’s good stuff in between. What’s not to like?

Rob Weir