Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Sunday, Jan 7, 2007


In the last of our looks back over SE&L‘s brief time on the filmic forefront, it’s time to champion our occasional commentary pieces. Sometimes, we hit the nail right on its pointed little pop culture head. At other instances, we voice strong opinions that rub the average movie maven the wrong way. Between our first piece on hiring talk show hosts and actual directors to be film critics, to challenging the “classic comedy” stance of one of 2006’s biggest hits, the SE&L staff has never shirked its responsibility to be provocative, thoughtful and daring. The 14 pieces offered here provide clear proof of such a literary mandate.


A Critical Misstep
Parental Guidance Rejected
Plane Crash
You’re Joking
Home Video’s True Legacy
Bye Bye, Besson
Too Late?
Akiva Goldsman Must Die!
The Incredibly Inconsistent Career of Bob Clark
Is that the Fat Lady Singing?
Whorat
It’s the Year of the Yahoo!
The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam
Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronoksy’s The Fountain


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Saturday, Jan 6, 2007


Butcher Wing is a good-natured manchild who’s always in trouble with Master Wong Fei-hung of the Po Chi Lam School, where he studies. One day, he mistakenly attacks a member of the rival Five Dragons School and angry Master Ko demands satisfaction. He warns Master Wong that he will destroy Butcher and the entire academy if any more disgrace befalls the Dragons. Before taking a planned trip, Fei-hung warns Butcher not to get in any more trouble, but the arrival of two disparate entities to town will challenge this mandate. First is Butcher’s long lost brother, who along with his new wife is searching for the “skinny pig” sibling he remembers from years ago. Enter from the outskirts of dishonor Ko Hai Toi, Master Ko’s evil, shiftless son. He kidnaps Wing’s sister in law and even gets the dimwitted meat cutter to beat up his own kinfolk. With the help of a wine-obsessed vagrant, Beggar Kao (who may just be a kung fu master himself), Butcher sets out to set things right. But thanks to the wicked ways of the evil Ko Hai Toi, a series of tragic events leave Wing disgraced, disheartened, and marked for death by the Five Dragons. His only hope? Learn the iron arm techniques of the drunken derelict and use them, in combination with the techniques of Master Wong and the “five animals” school of kung fu, to defeat Master Ko, his family, and followers. And if he succeeds, he will bring honor and respect to Po Chi Lam and be forever known as The Magnificent Butcher.


Even though it ends too abruptly and takes a little while to get started, The Magnificent Butcher is still one of the best old-fashioned martial arts movies ever made, a rip-roaring adventure of loyalty and honor, family and fiends. Director/stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, newly discovered by Western fans with his wire fighting time tricks in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here shows why he is considered one of the greatest kung fu fight film creators of all time. Everything about The Magnificent Butcher is indeed spectacular. From the setting and set designs to the acting and athletic prowess of the renowned cast, this is the kind of foreign action film that gets non-fans instantaneously hooked on the genre, like John Woo’s epic crime dramas or Jackie Chan’s stunt spectaculars. If you don’t want to run out and immediately buy every film the beefy, gregarious Sammo Hung ever made after witnessing his physical brilliance in this movie, you just don’t appreciate true talent. Probably the least well known of all the famous Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts film stars, some may recognize the fleshy force from his short lived television series of a few years back, entitled Martial Law. But most action aficionados have followed “Big Brother” since he battled Bruce Lee in the opening of Enter the Dragon and watched him easily move from comedy (Wheels on Meals) to horror (Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind) to director of some of Hong Kong’s biggest hits (Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy). The Magnificent Butcher is primo Sammo and a definitive representation of the Asian action film in all its glory.


The reason most fans are drawn to martial arts films is for their spectacular stunts and freewheeling fights, and the ones created for The Magnificent Butcher are mind-boggling. Intricately choreographed like a tap dancer’s well worn routine and genuinely moving to behold, their mix of ballet with brutality, skill, and showmanship reminds the viewer of the physicality of Gene Kelly mixed with the ingenuity of Fred Astaire in their heydays. So graceful and delicate are the moves Hung and the others must manage with spilt second timing that their age and size just disappear. The minute they break into a series of intricate hand or foot moves, or they pick up a found object with which to attack or defend, a beautiful mesmerizing mystery unfolds before our unblinking eyes. Honestly, you will never witness physical agility and grace as profound as in the dance like kung fu exchanges in this film. Each is a minor miracle unto itself, but two specific sequences demand special note. Kwan Tak-hing, another legend in the world of Asian cinema, plays the role of Master Wong Fei-hung (sort of a Chinese El Santo, he essayed this character some seventy times in his career), and even though he is 74, feeble and frail here, when challenged to a calligraphy duel with Lee Hoi-San’s Master Ko of the Five Dragon School, he rises to the occasion spectacularly. Thus begins a complex hand and paintbrush battle that will have you picking up your jaw from the home theater room floor. As with all the clashes in The Magnificent Butcher, just when you think it can’t get any more multifaceted or outrageous, they add a flip or a close-up exchange that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. Sammo Hung also has a creepy fight with one of Master Ko’s henchmen, an insane fighter known as the Weird (or maybe it was Wild) Cat who uses a kind of claws and feline mentality style of fighting. Skittering up the walls, across the ceiling, and over and around columns, the tabby terror gives Butcher Wing a true run for his money, and between the oddity of the character and the intricacy of the hand-to-hand combat, it’s a truly memorable sequence.


But probably the best thing that Sammo Hung and director Yuen Woo-ping accomplish in this film is grounding the over-the-top skirmishes of skill in reality. Some martial arts movies make their participants out to be gods, unable to be killed without near supernatural special moves and almost impervious to injury or disability. Not so in The Magnificent Butcher. Characters die at the hand of their combatants, but not in some single blow balderdash. Indeed, each victory and/or defeat is earned in long drawn out encounters where nothing seems superhuman. And our hero is also a main recipient of pain and loss. Hung is a fantastic actor when he has to show remorse or resolve. While one assumes, from the goofy comedy undercurrent that flows through this (nay, most) kung fu capers, that Hung is trading on his size for some manner of slapstick silliness, the reality is that his clichéd jovial fat man persona hides a wealth of depth and desire. When shown in solo practice mode, running literarily hundreds of moves and combinations in elaborate, complex exercises, there is nothing dopey or dumb about him. He is all poise and power. Woo-ping’s camera is also precise, never interfering or disturbing the action. Like a great musical director, he seems to understand instinctively where the lens needs to be to capture the best angles and shots of the action. About the only complaint that can be offered is that the movie could have used an extra five minutes, post finale, as kind of a coda to Butcher’s story. He is such a likeable character, and we have followed him for almost two hours, that the freeze frame joke closing is kind of a letdown. Still, for the vast majority of its running time, Hung and Woo-ping create a timeless work of magical martial arts action.


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Spalding Gray was more than just a monologist. He was a capturer of moments, a filterer of the fallacies of man, turning insecurity, insanity and ineffectualness into an artform. Using that long lost human gift of communication to sell his sensibility, he worked in autobiographical shades, hoping his well-rehearsed screeds would lead individuals into some manner of performance epiphany. Though many may have known him from his minor turns in motion pictures, it was Swimming to Cambodia, and that story’s endless search for a perfect moment, that finally won him real recognition. That film, by live concert juggernaut Jonathan Demme, dealt with Gray’s growing discontent with life, his small role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, and a momentous swim in the Indian Ocean which resulted in a kind of karmic closure.


How ironic it is then that, nearly three years ago, the man took his life by throwing himself in the East River. New York was where he felt the most comfortable, the most escaped from his haunted New England past. The issues surrounding his upbringing (distant father, cracked Christian Scientist mother) and his late in life turn toward fatherhood (longtime companion and first wife Renée Shafransky was out, new spouse Kathleen and their two kids were in) have been dissected before. In his CD only offering, It’s a Slippery Slope, Gray used the noted philosophical metaphor to discuss both happiness and depression. Any person, he believes, poised on the precipice of both emotions, can easily see himself or herself sliding down, landing in an arena of tremendous joy, or endless torment.


If Cambodia was prophetic, then Monster in a Box is a last gasp warning. Genial in its tone but devastating in the problems it presents, Gray’s fierce follow-up to his sudden celebrity is at once a denouncement of such stardom, and a strangled attempt at dealing with his mother’s emotional suicide. Framed around the writing of Gray’s only novel, the eerily reflective Impossible Vacation, the process reveals a man in desperate inner pain, projecting his mental unease on everything and anything around him. As we follow his adventures at a writer’s colony, a bungalow in Beverly Hills (complete with earthquake), trips to Nicaragua and Russia, and a stint as the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, we hear someone slowly coming apart at the seams. Every adventure is attached to a disaster, all progress measured against endless internal angst.


Perhaps the best example of this collaboration of contradictions comes when Gray spends Thanksgiving in Manhattan. Ecstatic to be away from LA’s combination of cars and culture shock, he attends a screening of Cher’s Moonstruck. Prior to the event, his girlfriend Renee shocks him with the news that the rash she has on her inner thigh (something Gray describes as “radioactive blue shingles”) is sometimes considered a sign of AIDS. What follows is a perplexing combination of psychosomatic insanity (Gray gets incredibly sweaty feet, dry mouth, and tends to bark like a dog) and deliciously vile descriptions of the stage door slut who may have given him the disease. On the one hand, he celebrates the sexual score. On the other, he worries about the price he must pay.


Almost all of Gray’s monologues deal with mortality. One of his first was entitled Sex and Death to the Age 14. Gray’s Anatomy, the film that followed Monster, dealt with an eye condition and his investigation of alternative medicines. To call him hypochondriacal would be the cup of kindness. Gray is goofy on human physicality, awash in worries that no normal person places on themselves. The threat doesn’t have to be interior either. During Monster‘s fact finding tour of Central America (a trip as part of a potential film script deal for Columbia), he discovers that his roommate, a tightly wound pedantics major from Berkeley, is so paranoid that he’s threatening the groups security. Hoping to keep him out of a Nicaraguan asylum, Gray and the gang try to comfort him. Unfortunately, all our hero can do is make the man’s fears all the more fathomable (“No, I’m not part of the CIA…I think…”).


Interspersed throughout these travails are snippets of Vacation, an incredibly insular book that basically uses wild eccentricities, gay sex, and a few passages of sweeping literary majesty to mask the fact that Gray never forgave his loveable loon of a mother for taking her own life. The metaphor he uses – the notion of getting away and spending time in the leisurely pursuit of relaxation – is rather obvious, and its one he employs in Monster as well. The numerous projects he takes on post-Cambodia (an HBO special on UFO abductees, a year in residence at a LA theater interviewing people, etc.) become excuses, ways of not dealing with his mom’s decades-old decision. Even when he begins therapy with a strict Freudian shrink in California, his sessions are more an avoidance than an admission. Gray even states that Vacation was a way of working out his Oedipal issues. Sadly, it seems like it didn’t work.


Luckily, there is more to Monster in a Box than mental insights into a frayed and fractured soul. One of the reasons so many grieve for Gray is that, as a performer, he remains remarkable. His monologues are funny, full of snide little swipes at inanity and the impracticalities of modern life. When his LA assistant refuses to leave her car to help locate some potential interview subjects, Gray condemns her for having a “35 mph mentality” (nothing traveling below that speed registers on her retina). Similarly, a chance meeting with other Americans while in Russia results in the celebrity being booted from the Hermitage. The crime? Impersonating royalty. Like a less reference oriented Woody Allen, Gray mixed metropolitan life with personal phobias to enter a realm of vicarious victimization. And we simply sit back and laugh along.


Revisiting this movie today, some 14-plus years after its release (Image Entertainment deserves kudos for finally bringing it on everyone’s favorite digital domain), one is struck by how poignant and hopeful the ending is. As he describes his dream job – starring in Our Town – one senses a sort of finality for Gray. Even as he explores his moments of resignation and resolve, we can actually hear him exhale, subconsciously giving up a little of the ground the past has stolen from him. It’s just too bad that elements that most people find centering – family, children, success – didn’t really help this talented yet troubled man. As the middle sequence in a trilogy of trauma, Monster in a Box is Spalding Gray’s masterwork. It begs to be experienced, not only for what it says about this fine, fallen artist, but about life in general. 



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Monster in a Box was released on 28 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Nominees, Best Actor: 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Matt Damon for The Departed
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed *
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Ray Winstone for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Edward Norton for Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, and The Painted Veil
Patrick Wilson for Little Children


The Best Actor races of awards seasons past have been really heating up in the past few years. 2006 is turning out to be more of a lean race for the men, where it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will take home the Oscar at the end of all of the pre-awards lunacy, but the same few names keep popping up as being “in the running”.


In his last two outings with Martin Scorsese, Dicaprio was either not the focus of the attention (he was far out-classed by Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; wearing a horrible fright wig and saddled with the wooden Cameron Diaz as a co-star), or he was passably functional but not “classic Scorsese” great (as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he had some terrific moments, but for my money was miscast). Third times a charm, it seems: Leo has finally given us a “classic Scorsese” performance with The Departed. Filled with rage, youthful macho abandon, and the expertly shaded heroics of Scorsese’s pack of anti-heroes of past awards seasons his character really stacks up favorable next to some of Robert DeNiro’s early work with Scorsese (the rawness in Mean Streets for some reason comes to my mind). DiCaprio has finally delivered fully on the promise everyone has been talking about for years now. We get it; you’re a very serious actor, Leonardo.


Co-star Matt Damon would be an equally compelling choice as actor of the year for his stellar, similarly surprising turn in Scorsese’s film; it seems as though Damon just gets better and better with age. In a cast that is filled with knockout turns, Damon fits perfectly. With strong performances in diverse lead and supporting roles (from tortured gay misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the sublime action of the Bourne films franchise) for more than ten years now, Damon’s collaboration with Scorsese makes perfect sense. It will be very exciting to see his next move after the third Bourne installment this year.


While comedy doesn’t really play well with most film critics organizations that dole out awards (generally to the most austere dramatic performances), Sacha Baron Cohen’s skilled portrayal of a hapless, hysterical Kazakhstan-born reporter is not only one of the best comedic performances of this year, but of any in recent memory. Tackling the outrageous physical demands of the part without any vanity, Cohen has seen his name popping up on year-end “best actor” lists all over the country. He shared the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Actor this year with Forest Whitaker’s ferocious characterization of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (talk about an odd couple), and snagged a Golden Globe nod the same week. His is a performance so buzzed about, that at this point he might be considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination, provided of course, they can look past the whole testicles-in-the-face scene (or the anti-Semitism, or the sexism, or the… well you get the point).


Two men flying under the radar of everyone this year, are Ryan Gosling for his searing, natural work in the indie drug-addiction drama Half Nelson and Ray Winstone as a English lawman in lawless Colonial Australia in Nick Cave’s revisionist western The Proposition. Both turned in career-best work that is shamefully going unnoticed by the predictable critic’s groups, mainly because everyone is so obsessed with Whitaker’s role in a shamefully by-the-numbers biography film. I guess original characters aren’t interesting to watch anymore?



Nominees, Best Actress: 2006
Penelope Cruz for Volver
Laura Dern for Inland Empire *
Kirsten Dunst for Marie Antionette
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Kate Winslet Little Children


Other notable performances:
Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett for Little Fish
Fernanda Montenegro for House of Sand


In the category of Best Actress this year, the only name anyone seems to be able to say is: Helen Mirren. Mirren has been fantastic consistently for so long that her sweep of critic’s prizes (and it’s very likely she will take the Oscar too) doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous, even though it sort of is. She is good in The Queen as Elizabeth, but she has been so much better elsewhere that it seems a little insulting that this sort of stock (at times boring) impersonation is being heralded as her career-best when there are so many other more interesting options in this race. Like in the case of Best Actor and Actress winners of the past (and the list is long), playing a real-life character will likely be Mirren’s ticket to a clean sweep of acting prizes this year.


Nothing any other artist, male or female, will pull off this year will top the experimental Laura Dern/David Lynch alliance in Inland Empire. It’s the kind of performance that will be talked about for years to come and will be properly understood sometime in the future, too late. Dern has been kicking ass and taking names since 1985 (with the underrated teen drama Smooth Talk, which was immediately followed by her first Lynch outing, 1986’s Blue Velvet) and this is he best work to date. As she’s gotten older, her acting choices have become some of the most interesting of any woman in the industry: another Lynch turn in 1990 with Wild at Heart, her Oscar-nominated Rambling Rose, the razor sharp Citizen Ruth, and the searing relationship drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore offer a mere sampling of her film work; while her small screen work has been equally effective (just check out 1998’s The Baby Dance, in which she goes toe to toe with the formidable Stockard Channing, if you don’t believe me). Lynch’s film could very well turn out to be one of the worst-reviewed of the year, but even the critics who hate the film couldn’t help singling out the brave performance of Dern.


Another revelation this year is Penelope Cruz, working again with director Pedro Almodovar on Volver (the two last worked together in 1999 for All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a pregnant nun with AIDS). It’s probably a sound bet for any actress to take even the smallest part with Almodovar, who is so famous for drawing out unique, memorable women but never has such a familiar actress caught me this off-guard: I am not at all a fan of Cruz’s technique, but found her utterly compelling here. When she is performing in English, I always feel like something is missing or something isn’t really connecting properly. In her native Spanish, she comes across deadly sexy, fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her material; it’s like we are watching a completely transformed woman. Though she continues to churn out misfire after misfire in the US (my apologies if anyone was really into her “performance” in Sahara), Almodovar continues to see something exceptional in Cruz, which is lucky for fans of great female acting everywhere in the world.


Left out of every major critical outing this year (unjustly) is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, but specifically the deviously girlish performance of Kirsten Dunst, who like Cruz, sometimes has trouble connecting to characters that are perhaps outside of her range or experience. As the young queen, Dunst was able to register on screen like she never had before: she was appropriately beguiling, and eventually commandingly tragic. It’s another case of an actress really hitting her artistic stride alongside a favorite director (2000’s The Virgin Suicides was their first successful match up), which looks to be the most surefire way to achieve a modicum of artistic merit this year.


Little Children was one of the best films of the year that, unfortunately, no one saw. Kate Winslet can apparently not give a bad performance, audience or not: her turn as a bourgeois suburbanite mother whose life is uproariously stirred up by a neighbor is one of the most introspective and well-thought out pieces of acting she has done to date (think American Beauty meets Madame Bovary, and you’ll get the idea of where she is coming from). Considering the career that Winslet has nurtured over the years, it’s a bold statement to call this her best work, but it is clear that she wholly identifies with the material and connects with it on a very important level, being a young mother herself in real life. Playing a woman who isn’t concerned with appearances at all, and who also might not be a great mother, Winslet is able to speak volumes with the most seemingly insignificant gestures and looks; but also with a singular lack of personal vanity. In Little Children Winslet’s beauty is presented as many things other than just physical: it’s empowering, tragic, and even stoic.


And lastly, we have the biggest, boldest hype of the year: Jennifer Hudson. She of the mega-buildup, she of American Idol fame has had a maddening amount of buzz being spilled her way for her tour-de-force debut performance as the now-mythical Broadway character Effie White in Bill Condon’s adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. It is the only time in recent memory I can confidently say that the performance lives up to the hoopla: Hudson is flat-out astonishing. At the end of her huge diva number that closes the first act, prepare to be amazed at her skillful combination of real, gritty emotion (that isn’t glam in the least), theatricality, and vocal prowess. The audience I saw this scene with, outside of Detroit, erupted in thunderous applause and cheers in the middle of the film, after this scene (something I have not seen with any other performance, in any other film).  Hudson is charming, and it is refreshing to see a real woman like her run away with show. She may not be as skinny as co-star Beyonce Knowles or as popular, but she is way, way cooler.


Hudson’s off-screen persona compliments her character’s transition from nothing to star to has-been and back again perfectly and naturally. The only issue I have with her performance is that she is being promoted (and winning) supporting actress honors all over the place, when really she is the lead of the film: she has more screen time than her co-stars and is so expressive that when she is not onscreen, you are still thinking about her and hoping she will be back soon. Like her character in the film, she is being screwed out of what is rightfully hers just so Knowles, who is more of a supporting character in the story than Hudson, can be primed to take a spot in the lead actress categories. At least losing gracefully this time will likely result in an Hudson getting Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rather than an insult from Simon Cowell. Thanks, J.Hud for taking one for the team, a classy, winning move indeed.


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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007


Nominees, Best Supporting Actor: 2006
Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children*
Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion
Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson for The Departed
Mark Wahlberg for The Departed


Other notable performances:
Danny Huston for The Proposition
Paul Dano for Little Miss Sunshine
Brad Pitt for Babel


With ease, I would give Supporting Actor of the year honors to the comeback of the year: Jackie Earle Haley for his creepy, dryly funny characterization of a sex offender living in the most judgmental of all suburban enclaves in Little Children. Most film lovers will remember the former child actor from his work in the 1970s in popular films like The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away or perhaps as the unstable, feminine child star that causes complete, unhinged pandemonium at the end of The Day of the Locust (a truly delirious, weird performance). No matter what sort of disturbing or popular work he’s done in the past, Haley’s current work as a man struggling to keep his urges in check while living with his understanding mother is the most solid, original supporting turn this year.


Speaking of comebacks, where in the hell has Eddie Murphy been hiding? His performance as the James Brown-esque singer in Dreamgirls is a stunning, virtuoso turn that showcases Murphy’s versatility in a fresh new way. While the performance has a few comedic elements to it, Murphy highlights the more dramatic moments of James Thunder Early in addition to his electric musical numbers. It’s a dynamic, show-stopping performance filled with energy, wit and pathos that no one has been able to ever capture from Murphy until now. It’s a revelatory, surprising take on a man who could have descended very easily into parody (especially given the entire film was basically filled with stunt casting). Hopefully this serious attention will translate into Murphy making better movies in the future.


The men of The Departed should maybe have their own special award this year. Martin Scorsese brings the best out of everyone he casts: veteran Jack Nicholson finally gets to go to “Marty school” (to terrifying and humorous result as a very bad man), while Mark Wahlberg (who has flown disturbingly under the awards radar despite such ace performances in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees; any of which he could have feasibly been Oscar-nominated for) gets to make the most out of his relatively limited role infusing his Boston cop with cynicism and humor. It’s clear both actors are having the time of their lives working with the director that most living actors would likely cite as the director they most wanted to work with. Uber-star Brad Pitt (who gave a surprisingly tender and focused performance in Babel), seems poised to steal some awards thunder from the Departed guys, but let’s all remember, he is also doing double duty this year as a producer: on The Departed!


One interesting, less-talked about performance that will likely breeze through the whole hoopla leading up to the Oscars is Garrison Keillor, who stars as a version of himself in Robert Altman’s home spun A Prairie Home Companion. He helped adapt the script, he sings, he jokes, and he finds the heart of, well, himself. It’s a clever, tender performance given he is playing opposite such heavy-hitters as Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep. The collaboration between Altman and Keillor brings a bittersweet end to the maverick filmmaker’s career, with all of the radio show’s sweet witticisms fitting perfectly within the filmmaker’s signature frenetic, kaleidoscopic-cast vision of Keillor’s fantasy life.



Nominees, Best Supporting Actress: 2006
Adriana Barraza for Babel
Rinko Kikuchi for Babel
Frances McDormand for Friends with Money
Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion *
Emily Watson for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Jodie Foster for Inside Man
Jessica Lange for Don’t Come Knocking
Carmen Maura for Volver


Fabulously over-crowded with amazing women this year, I find myself scratching my head at my personal choice for Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion. I think the woman is vastly overrated (and I think The Devil Wears Prada, for which she is getting an obnoxious amount of awards attention, is one of the worst movies of the year), but I will be damned if she hasn’t returned to top form in a role that requires her to cast all “Streep-isms” aside and actually act. She is funny, poignant, and she sings like an angel (the actress has never found a more appropriate vehicle for her talents to merge within). If you are not moved to tears by the end of the musical number “Goodbye to Mama” (in which Streep and co-star Lily Tomlin sing lovingly about their dead relatives and how much they miss them), chances are you might be a robot or dead inside. In a fitting tribute to the late Robert Altman, in what will be his last film ever, Streep reinvents herself and proves her credibility yet again. Which sadly makes the fact that she is getting all the press for Prada so infuriating: she is being remembered this year for the wrong film!


Last year quintessential character actress Frances McDormand received a rather gratuitous Oscar nomination for the absolute dreck that was North Country (playing a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease—a sure-fire way to get Academy recognition). It is a crying shame that this year she will be sitting it all out on the sidelines after turning in a superior performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money. Opposite co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener, McDormand is the clear cast standout. It’s a great contemporary female role (Holofcener is getting really good at being the go-to director for this particular milieu), and McDormand infuses it with everything we have come to expect from her: daffy grace, biting wit, and pure heart as a fed-up working mother who has a potentially gay husband.


Emily Watson is the sort of magnetic presence that sets the tone for any film she graces. This year, in Nick Cave’s bold re-visioning of Colonial Australia as a lawless pseudo-western, Watson was able to play a “wife” role with heart and grace that lends the brutally violent, macho film an ethereal, womanly air each time she appears. Opposite Ray Winstone (as her rigid law man husband), Watson finds a perfect balance between the times: she is neither an inappropriately anachronistic woman ahead of her time, or a wilting flower yielding to every paternal command. Leave it to Watson, the only major female in the film, to leave the biggest impression with only a few key scenes. Her talent for scene-stealing is exciting to watch.


Two of the year’s most persuasive, original characterizations came from the women of Babel, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. The two couldn’t have possibly played characters more different from each other: Barraza was an illegal immigrant nanny involved with bad decisions at the US/Mexico border, while Kikuchi was a Japanese girl dealing with the recent death of her mother and her distant father who also happened to be a deaf/mute. Each woman perfectly captured a different feeling of dissociation, and the effects of being undone by one’s own sadness; but the most interesting thing, I thought about Babel‘s two stand-out cast members was that the script allowed both women (who are separated by many years in age, and many miles in geography), to explore their characters’ sexuality in everyday manner. Barraza’s examination was admittedly only a small part of her story but the detail was a rich one in a story so filled with politically charged injustice and fear. Kikuchi’s overt sexuality (as well as her sexually lashing out towards others), was more on display and more of a fundamental part of her character, but was so startlingly frank that it is bizarre to think that there has never been another character like hers on screen who has looked at sexuality in such a unsentimental, almost dangerous manner. Both women turn their seemingly ordinary characters into almost mythological women.


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