PRISONERS



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For the 2011 Oscars, Canadian director Denis Villenvue’s film Incendies (a puzzle film about twin brother and sister who find out they are closer to their unknown father and brother than they thought) was nominated for best foreign language film.  In punishment for his sins, Villenvue was given the movie Prisoners to make.  
Actually, I don’t know if this is accurate or not.  As far as I really know, this was Villenvue’s pet project from beginning to end.  But it sure feels like proof of that anecdote by Michael Haneke who came to the U.S. and was presented with a screenplay so outside his purview, he asked (and I paraphrase), “Is this what Hollywood is?  You come here and they just give you whatever screenplay they have lying around in a drawer” (a viewpoint that seemed proven as far as I was concerned when the dynamic Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park was given the embarrassing screenplay of Stoker to make). 
There is one good scene in Prisoners, a routine thriller about child abduction written by relatively newcomer Aaron Guzikowski.  It comes early on with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (Loki?  Okay, sure, why not) interacting with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.  They talk about animal signs and fortune cookies and it has nothing to do with anything, but it is witty and fun.  But after that (and before that as well), everything goes downhill rather quickly.  It plays with religious imagery, but that all feels clichéd and under dramatized.  And the movie brings nothing new to the genre, seeming to have no real purpose for existence, even the purpose of a movie that does nothing, but does it very, very well.
Prisoners is a one note film.  It starts at a relatively high point of tension (even before anything happens) and pretty much stays there the whole time.  Everyone seems so angry in the film.  Hugh Jackman, trying a bit too hard to play against type as everyman working class father Dover, feels angry from the opening shot (both literally and figuratively, but you’ll have to see the movie to get the pun).   And the scenes with Loki at the police station are so filled with furious confrontation, it feels like an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I never knew how anyone could stand working with anyone in that show, they were all so unprofessionally mean to each other).  Even the weather is angry; it’s always overcast, raining or snowing.  And when there’s no place for anyone to go, when they do go there, it tends to become camp, over the top and unintentionally funny.
There’s only one really effective performance in the move and that is Wayne Duvall as the Captain at Loki’s precinct.  He’s one of those, I know I’ve seen him a million times before, though I can’t quite place where, actor.  And he is spot on.  But everyone else, Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, the unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Len Cariou (or maybe I just didn’t want to recognize them), and the unfortunately recognizable Paul Dano, just can’t do much with what they’re given.  At least Mario Bello, as Dover’s wife, is lucky enough to have a character so traumatized she takes sleeping pills and is out for most of the film.
Because I and my friends could never become emotionally involved in the movie (though our eyebrows got plenty of exercise as we rolled them over and over again), all that was left for us was to wait, and wait…and wait, until we find out who did it.  And because we could never become emotionally involved, all we did afterwards was pick apart the plot (a highly convoluted one by the time it’s over, a bit too clever perhaps than was necessary, but it did seem to hold together).  If we had been riveted by what was going on and so involved with the characters and what they were going through, we probably wouldn’t have cared about the details so much (especially a particularly hysterical one at the end where Loki has the choice of calling 911 for help or speeding to get a little girl to a hospital down a crowded freeway during a deluge of a rainstorm while in danger of blacking out from being shot—guess which one he chooses?).   
I do hope that as far as Villenvue is concerned, this was a take the money and run movie and that he’ll next return to his roots and make something that means something to him and not to some producer’s profit sheet.  We can only hope.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES, THE WOLVERINE and WASTELAND



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I hate to say it.  It’s so snarky and such a cliché and I hate it when I hear someone else say something like it, but I simply don’t know a better way to phrase it: Only God Forgives is the sort of movie a filmmaker makes when he starts believing his own press.  In other words, it’s a film that shows incredible talent on the part of its director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also wrote the screenplay), but is so showy, ostentatious, gaudy and florid, calling attention to how brilliant the filmmaker thinks he is, that it  becomes impenetrable as it drowns in its own pretentiousness.  One just stares at the screen trying to figure out what everyone was thinking while you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m sure it means something to the filmmakers, but hell if I can make heads or tells of it”.
This is too bad, I mean, really too bad, because Refn is the wunderkind from Denmark who made his name with the Pusher trilogy (which I haven’t seen) and used the notoriety of those films to come to the U.S. to make Drive, that glorious neo-noir about a stunt driver by day, get away driver by night, who finds himself conflicted when he falls for his neighbor who has a little boy as well as a husband in jail.   That movie was a controlled, tension filled character study with a real page turner of a story.  In contrast, Only God Forgives moves at a snail’s pace with a story made up of beautiful sets filled with people who often sit or stand immobile looking like mannequins, all filmed within an inch of its listless life (the stunning cinematography is by Larry Smith)—it’s as if Macy’s windows were designed by Chan-wook Park or Kar Wai Wong.
The basic story revolves around an American with mommy issues who runs a boxing gym in Bangkok.  When the American’s psychotic brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a fascistic, but righteous, police detective uses very righteous and fascistic means to restore order by manipulating the prostitute’s father/pimp into killing the brother.  When the American finds out what his brother did, he lets the father go.  But then the American’s mother comes to town ahead of an expected drug delivery and she wants vengeance.
Ryan Gosling plays the American, and like many of his other roles, he’s probably a bit too metrosexual for the part (he speaks so little so that whenever he does, his tinny voice seems a bit out of place).  In the end, it’s Kirsten Scott Thomas as the mother, in wicked Babs Stanwyck blonde tresses, and Vithaya Pansringar, as the righteous police detective with a karaoke fetish, who deliver the most effective performances (Thomas also has the best line; when she finds out what her son did to the prostitute, she says, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons”).  
Much has been made of the violence in the movie and it’s there, for sure, but it’s nothing that out of the ordinary for this sort of film and I’m not sure what everyone is so upset about.  At the same time, IMHO there is some hypocrisy here.  It’s obvious that Thomas has more going on in her relationship with her sons than simply expecting a card on mother’s day.  But while Refn has no problem throwing gallons of blood around the sets, he seems to balk at showing incest.  I’m not convinced the movie is as brave as Refn may think it is.  Even White Heat with James Cagney was more daring in this area.
In the end, Refn has nobody to blame but himself for how it all turned out.  He is the director and the writer after all, so it’s a little hard to find another fall guy.  But it might be interesting to take note: for the first film in the Pusher trilogy, he co-wrote the screenplay with Jens Dahl; Drive was written by Hossein Amini.  And there is something about this movie that does show contempt for screenwriters.  It’s a film that feels all driven by the vision of an auteur who doesn’t think he needs help to reach his vision.   There was certainly potential here, but it might have been interesting to see how it would have all turned out if someone else had written the screenplay.
The Wolverine is a perfectly acceptable entry in the rash of blockbusters revolving around comic book heroes.  There’s nothing that wrong with it and ends up being more fun than one might think.  Perhaps the easiest way to say it is that on a scale of one to ten, it’s far, far superior to Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, but it’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight.  It stars Hugh Jackman in the title role and he looks great in his Elvis sideburns and motorcycle tough Marlon Brando clothes.    The serviceable screenplay is by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; the ditto direction is by James Mangold.  It all revolves around some dirty dealings among a wealthy Japanese businessman; the Yakuza; and a walking virus of a slinky blonde (played amusingly by Svetlannd Khodchenkova, again in tresses gold of Stanwyck Babs).  In the end, it should be said the movie doesn’t paint the country of the rising sun in a particularly positive light: it’s major themes seem to be that save a Japanese soldier from the bombing (atomic, of course) of Nagasaki, he’ll still stab you in the back, and Japan is a country run by the rich and the mob with a police force that doesn’t seem to exist. 
Wasteland is a sort of heist film that is structured in such a way that the pay off finale is its only real reason for existence.  Because of this, the screenplay (by the director Rowan Athale) has only one purpose and that is to revolve itself around the “surprise” twist ending (the surprise is in quotations because it’s really not all that big a surprise by the sweet time it takes to finally get there).  What happens is often what happens in movies structured this way: the story and the characters never quite seem believable or satisfying since they are not there to drive or tell the story, but only to set up the ending. 
The story unfolds in an as told to way:  recently released petty criminal Harvey (Luke Treadway) is being interrogated by DI West (Timothy Spall) after being found at the scene of a crime, a break in at a club owned by a mobster with the mobster’s enforcer, who Harvey has a grudge against, lying almost dead on the ground in front of him.  Harvey, who is in pretty bad shape himself, tells West what happened. 
It’s not a bad way to tell a story, but it’s a fairly clunky one here.  Athale makes one of the most common mistakes in screenplays like this: Harvey tells West all sorts of details that he couldn’t know since he wasn’t there to witness the events himself.  And the way he tells a story doesn’t feel like the way an accused criminal would tell it, but the way a character needs to tell it so the audience gets the whole shebang (again, to set up the ending).  He doesn’t even tell West the same story the audience sees: at the very end, we discover suddenly that Harvey has never used the names of his accomplices the whole time in talking to West, though in the flashbacks, the names are constantly used—so what parts of the story did he tell West and which didn’t he?  (And just how hard is it going to be for West to figure out just who these friends of Harvey are anyway?  One of them is Harvey’s roommates, for Christ’s sake, not to mention a character who is his ex-girlfriend)
Though there is something satisfying about Harvey’s ultimate plan (Harvey wants revenge and he gets it, sort of; the enforcer ends up in hospital, but there’s no indication that anything more is going to happen to him), it’s just dramatized in a somewhat slipshod manner and it’s all a bit convoluted with too many goals for the characters.  And the ending with West listening to Harvey one more time is ridiculous and not one iota believable (again, it’s not there because the characters would act this way, but out of necessity to reveal to the audience that “surprise” ending). 
At the same time, everybody gives the whole shebang their all.  You certainly can’t fault any of them.  They get more than everything out of their parts that they can and, in fact, act as if an Oscar nomination depended upon it.  At the same time, they are trapped by lengthy sets of dialog that often go on and on.  One doesn’t always know how to react the verbosity.  Sometimes you admire the actors for their dexterity in saying Athale’s realistic and vibrant dialog; at other times, you just want to yell at the screen, just shut the hell up and get on with it already.  Only Spall, with his long suffering, jowly bull dog look, gives the strongest and most interesting performance (and Athale’s biggest error as screenwriter is probably the underuse of this character). 
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

LES MISERABLES



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There has been a lot of controversy over movies that have opened in the last few months (or as they are known in Hollywood, the ones more likely to have a chance at being nominated for an Oscar).  For Zero Dark Thirty, it’s the use of torture (oh, sorry, I mean, enhanced interrogation techniques; but you say potayto and I say, etc.); for Argo and Lincoln, it’s historical accuracy; for Django Unchained, it’s the use of the n-word and Tarantino’s take on slavery.  But none of them have shown the vitriol and ferocious debate that one major motion picture has created in the hearts of true movie goers: Les Miserables and its non-use of lip synching.   While all the objections of other films could be summed up by someone putting words in other people’s mouths, it’s only Les Miserables that hasn’t done it—literally.   And still has gotten in trouble for it.
Les Miserables, the movie version of the long running Broadway musical, is probably an experience you either go with or you don’t.  For the record, I did.  As with others in the audience I saw it with, I was often on the verge of tears at this large, sweeping story that takes place in France during the revolution (no, not the French revolution of 1789, dude, but the June Rebellion of 1832—if you didn’t know that, you are so obviously not a Les Miz fan).  It’s a story that has all the virtues of 19thcentury literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  It also has all the defects of 19th century literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  Again, you either go with it or you don’t.
I don’t know how William Nicholson (who adapted the play to film) and director Tom Hooper did it.  There’s no reason for this movie to work.  It probably should have resulted in an over the top, campy musical adaptation filled with picturesque poor people dancing in the streets.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead we have a deeply moving and often overpowering story of man’s inhumanity to man and the power of spiritual redemption. 
Of course, much of this has to do with the original source material, a French musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, if for no other reason in that it’s not exactly a musical.  Though there are a few lines spoken here and there, Les Miserables is more an opera.  So instead of a story in which the authors had to create clunky transitions to songs sung by the various characters (which can result in a certain disconnect and call attention to the artificiality of what is going on), we instead have a story whose dialog and emotion is only heightened by music, a stirring score that just sweeps you along whether you want it to or not.   One can make the argument, I suppose, that the original story by Victor Hugo has been shrunk by the usual necessity of telling a big story in a smaller venue; but one can just as easily make the argument that the story has also been enlarged and deepened by the expressive and impassioned music.
But much of the success has to be laid at the feet of Nicholson and Hooper who had the dubious honor or taking a stylized staged production and setting it against the hyper realistic background that is almost inherent in film; an almost impossible task, but one the two have more than succeeded in as far as I’m concerned.  And they do it by throwing out all that stagy stylization (except the music, which, of course, can’t be gotten rid of) and adapting it and filming it all with a deathly seriousness.  There’s barely a trace of musical comedy or Broadway tinsel here.  They don’t even use the cute Dickensian approach that was so successful in Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver.    It’s a straightforward look at poverty and injustice filled with people who are desperately poor, starving, having no hope.  And the way Nicholson and Hooper film it, it’s often devastating in its realism, a realism that, in fact, may make it more difficult to return to the original.  Once one has seen Hooper’s staging of the fight at the barricade, the chase through the sewers, the stunning visuals of 19th Century Paris, can the stage ever again satisfy (sort of “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree” type thing)?
One can almost tell how much Nicholson and Hooper have succeeded by pointing out the one major failure, the “Master of the House” number, a comic look at the innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who have so badly abused the young Cosette.  On stage, this number is a real show stopper.  In film, it’s a real show stopper too, but in a totally different way.  This is the one number that is all musical comedy and writer and director just couldn’t seem to find a way to fit its style into the rest of the movie and so it falls ponderously flat.  A close second is the song Suddenly, the only one written expressly for the movie (seemingly in an effort to get an Oscar nomination), a number that feels stylistically inconsistent and doesn’t really add anything to the film as a whole.
And there are some structural issues that can be traced to both source materials, the original musical and the book by Hugo.  From the stage, we get a story that jumps from scene to scene leaving out transitional details that result in a story that is at times told in a somewhat clunky manner (as in the scene at the court where a false Valjean is on trial).  From the book, we have a plot that has two stories—one, the conflict between Valjean and Jabert, and the other the love story of Cosette and Marius.  The two overlap in the middle, but just as one winds down (Valjean/Jabert), the other is still going strong and it takes awhile to wrap things up. 
But the rest of the movie is ravishing and ravishingly filmed, the camera often soaring above the actors to show a world that is being watched by God (astounding cinematography by Danny Cohen).  The CGI that enables the filmmakers to show a 19th Century Paris often takes one’s breath away.  The design aspects (costumes, sets, production design) are stunning.
And then there is the acting.  It’s a superlative cast, with nary a false note (pun intended) to be had.  They succeed for the same reason as Nicholson and Hopper: they all play their roles with a devastatingly seriousness.  It’s probably Hugh Jackman’s (Jean Valjean) best performance.  There’s no point in talking about Anne Hathaway as Fantine; I couldn’t improve on anything that hasn’t already been said.  The young lovers (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) make us believe in not just love, but overpowering passion, at first sight.  The one major issue, as has been pointed out by better men than I is Russell Crowe as Javert.  His singing is a bit lacking (to put it diplomatically).  But I don’t think he’s quite the weak link everyone maintains, mainly because his acting is so sure and strong and he is often filmed against overpowering backdrops that help bring an intensity to what he is saying that his singing cannot.  At the same time, all I could think is how more interesting it would have been if Sacha Baron Cohen and Crowe had switched roles.
As for the non lip synching?  Sorry, guys, but I thought it was a brilliant decision.  It brought a dramatic intensity to the acting that I haven’t seen that often in musicals.  But like the movie, it’s probably something you go with or you don’t, and for the record, I did.

Race for the Oscars 2012: Reevaluation of the Acting Races



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I’ve reevaluated my earlier picks for Best Picture and Director Oscars.  Now I’ll reevaluate my picks for Best Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress:
My original predictions for Actor were:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Richard Gere for Arbitrage
Denzel Washinghton for Flight
My other possibilities were: Jean Louis Trintignant for Amour;  Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables; Bradley Cooper for The Silver Linings Playbook; Anthony Hopkins for Hitchcock; Bill Murray for Hyde Park on the Hudson.
Well, my first revision is obvious.  Gere is out (sorry, you’ll have to get your career nomination another year).  The others I’m keeping.  The only one I think who may have any danger is Joaquin Phoenix (who was at one time Lewis’s only rival for the win) because the reception of the film by voters hasn’t been that stellar, has been out of sight/out of mind for awhile, and he’s kind of pissed people off the last couple of years.  But I think he’ll make it.
Which leaves one opening.  Well, Murray is definitely out. That movie opened and didn’t make much of a connection with the public at all.  Trintignant, who was once a shoe in, is probably going to be pushed out due to competition (this is my biggest disappointment and I’m still asking for divine interference here).  Anthony Hopkins, though he gave an excellent performance, is finding that his film just didn’t make the impact it needed to in order to get a nomination.
That leaves Jackman and Cooper.  Cooper gave the weakest performance in his movie, but it is a Weinstein production and never count them out.  Jackman may depend on whether the movie crashes and burns when it opens.  Buzz is very divided right now.  There is the possibility of Phoenix and Hopkins are out and Cooper and Jackman are in. 
I am going to go for the following:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joachim Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Denzel Washington for Flight
Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables.
Best Actress
My original list was:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible; Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina; Helen Hunt in The Sessions.
As you will have immediately noticed, I blew it big time here.  I didn’t mention Jessica Chastain as a serious competitor for two reasons.  First, at that time, ZDT was still too much an unknown quantity.  Second, it was unclear at the time that her role was large enough for the lead.  Apparently, it is.  Also, in this time, Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea is making a comeback.
So of the five above, if I put Chastain in, who do I pull out?  I will put out Helen Mirren for Hitchcock was a movie that everyone thought was going to connect with the voters, but it doesn’t seem to have.  I still maintain that Watts, Knightley and Hunt will be out for the same reasons I listed before (Watts is in a movie that is probably being shown too late to get enough votes; Knightley’s movie was not well received at all, to be polite; and Helen Hunt is a sure nom in the race for Supporting Actress).  Though Weisz is worthy, it’s just too little, too late.
The big question now becomes, who is going to win?  Jennifer Lawrence was a sure thing until ZDT opened. 
But my current predictions are:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (right now, this is for personal reasons since I just saw the movie and was not imporess)
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
.
Supporting Actor
My original predictions:
Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
Also possible is Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike.
What might strike you first is the absence of the name of Javier Bardem for Skyfall, even on the list of possibilities.  In my defense, no one was really including him as a possibility.  Now he’s doing better in other awards groups, so that does put a Gremlin in the works.
I still maintain my first four above.  The question right now is who is going to win.  De Niro is out for that.  So right now it’s a three way battle between Arkin, Hoffman and Jones.  Arkin had it in the bag, but Hoffman started creeping up on him.  But now Jones is creeping up on Hoffman.  Part of this will depend no how much of a following The Master really has.  But since right now I have no idea who is going to win, I’m going for Arkin.
Now, the only nomination above in danger is DiCaprio.  If anyone is not going to make it, it’s probably going to be him.  And in his place will be either McConaughey or Bardem.  There is a huge ground swell to give McConaughey a nom for all his hard work lately and because he was really well received in Magic Mike.  Bardem may make it because no actor has ever been nominated for a James Bond film before and the voters may find it a bit impish to do it this time around; and his performance was well received.
So my new list of noms are:
 Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike
Now last but now least, Best Supporting Actress:
My previous list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Amy Adams for The Master
(I only had four at the time)
As for the other possibilities:
Maggie Smith for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Ann Dowd for Compliance.; Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook; Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty. 
Of course, remove Chastain immediately.  She’s going in the lead category.
It now looks like Maggie Smith is a lock for a nom for her brilliant performance in …Marigold Hotel. 
So, if someone else gets knocked out, I think it’s going to be Amy Adams for The Master.  It’s a movie the critics love, but did not connect with the general movie goer and possibly not the general voter.  If she is out, I would think that it’s Ann Dowd.  Jackie Weaver is out due to tough competition.
So my new list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Maggie Smith for The Beast Exotic Marigold Hotel
Ann Down for Compliance (just to go out on a limb and be stubborn).
Next: Screenplay

OSCARS 2012: BEST ACTOR ADDENDUM



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I now have an addendum to my previous entry on the race for Best Actor.   As of right now, the top five will be: Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) to win; Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and John Hawkes (Sessions) as Lewis’s only competition; Richard Gere (Arbitrage: career nomination); and Denzel Washington (Flight—getting incredible buzz).  
At this point, because of the Oscar voting time table now, an actor is really going to have to blow away the voters in order to get a nom; the more days go by without a movie opening that has an actor in it that is on the additional possibilities list, the less likely they will be nominated.  The only other actor with potential now, I think, is Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, but I suspect he’s not going to make it.  He may be great in the movie, but the movie will open too late and just not excite the voters enough (and he’s too young for a career nom). 
Others that are possible are Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) and Billy Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson), who have the advantage of playing real people, but the voters already have Lewis and Hawkes for that. There’s also Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), but the more I see the previews, the less substantial the performance and part feels when it comes to the Academy and when it is held up against the other possibilities (at the same time, it’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company and never count out a Weinstein actor—though it may be Jennifer Lawrence who benefits from that association more than Cooper).   
Of course, what could happen is that once again, Gere doesn’t get his career nom and someone else gets in; his promoters had really better get to work.

ANALYSIS OF THE 2012 BEST ACTOR OSCAR RACE


For my next Oscar entry, I will now turn to the Best Actor race.   There is an irony here.  This is stacking up to be a weak year for movies and for nominations in all categories.  At the same time, the Best Actor race is quickly becoming not just crowded, but overcrowded. 
Of course, this always happens.  No matter what else, Hollywood and movies are so male oriented that no matter how weak a year it is in movies, the men always come out ahead.  As Spencer Tracy said when he was asked whether he should get top billing over his female co-star, This isn’t the Titanic (though there are some in the industry who are suggesting we might be reaching suck a critical stage—but that’s a different story).  At the same time, this weakness will probably have some effect even on this category and that is on who will win.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS (Lincoln):  At this point, there seems to be only one sure thing (the bet your grandmother’s farm on it, etc.) and that is Daniel Day Lewis will be doing a threepeat by winning the Oscar for Lincoln.   Normally, getting a third Oscar period, especially in this short a period of time, is almost impossible.  But as was mentioned, this is a weak year for nominations.  This means there is a lot of competition to be nominated, but not to win.  In addition, it’s what’s called a gimmick nomination—Lewis is playing a real person (ole honest Abe) and it’s a big budget film directed by Steven Spielberg.   Nuff said.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX (The Master):  Lewis’s only real competition and as the days near the voting deadline, we’ll see if the forward momentum leaves Lewis (or Lewis peaks too soon) and it goes to Phoenix.  When it comes to The Master, the critics love it, but the regular people (who vote for the Oscars) don’t seem to so much.  But Phoenix’s performance is about the only thing anyone agrees on, so he should easily receive a nom. 
RICHARD GERE (Arbitrage): Almost a sure thing.  The industry has been wanting to give Gere a nomination for some time (especially starting with Chicago).  He’s not a great actor, but he’s now been around a long time, paid his dues, and gives solid performances in solid movies.  He also has never rested on his looks, but has continually picked roles that stretch him (or try to stretch him—when it comes down to it, he’s not Gumby, damn it).  Gere  is the sort of actor that Hollywood respects, but can almost never give an Oscar to, but they do look to try to give him a nomination at some point so they get it over with so they never have to worry about it again.  For references, this is like John Wayne—who did go on to win one, so you never know; Gene Kelly; Dennis Hopper, etc.   It’s what is called a career award or nomination in industry parlance.
Special note: there generally aren’t any women that come to mind that fit this sort of nomination—women rarely get career Oscars or career noms.  Their nominations almost invariably come from an appreciation of their performance (make whatever social comment you want here). 
That’s as far as I can go right now.  The rest are still unknown quantities.  Jean Louis Trintignant was considered a shoe in for Michael Hanake’s Amour, but he now may get lost in the last minute shuffle.   The others being considered are getting good buzz, but are to some degree still unknown quantities or it’s still unclear how people are responding to the performance.  This includes:  John Hawkes (The Sessions—very good buzz); Denzel Washington (Flight—getting really good buzz and Washington doesn’t do badly come Oscar time); Hugh Jackman (after years of whining at not being cast in a musical, he finally has been, but I never predict when it comes to movie musicals until they open—movie musicals are too likely to crash and burn); Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook—unknown quantity, though the previews look a little too formulaic and sentimental for my tastes); Anthony Hopkins (unknown quantity and he doesn’t particularly look like Hitchcock); Bill Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson—it didn’t work when he went tres serious in The Razor’s Edge, but maybe second time’s the charm). 
That’s it right now, but like in the presidential elections, polls change daily, so keep checking back in.