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by Matt Mazur

27 Apr 2007


Liv Ullmann is one of the most talented, visionary, and literate performers in modern acting’s history. She also happens to be a hopelessly addicted to Henrik Ibsen’s simple and eloquent play, A Doll’s House. Throughout her long, illustrious career, the plum role of Nora has lingered in her work, making her (in this writer’s opinion) one of the actresses to best equipped to navigate the tricky depths and glossed over surfaces of this complex character.

Ullmann, who like Ibsen is Norwegian, has said she has a strong connection to Nora. There are many similarities between the actress’s real life and that of the character: she had a long, ongoing relationship with a much older, semi-controlling man (Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), her fame and personality were largely related to her relationship with Bergman, and as a performer, Ullmann is always putting on appearances like Nora; she has many great, fascinating layers. As Ullman puts it:

“This woman, who uses and manipulates those around her while at the same time wanting to help and love them, refuses to do something she feels is morally repugnant to her when the decisive moment comes. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of exploiting the situation when Dr. Rank declares his love and begs to give her the money she so badly needs… When she finally sees, she also understands the anger she feels over everything that is false between them is directed just as much against herself as against him. Her responsibility was as great as his. She hopes that the change will also take place in him—not for her sake, but for his own… In the first acts Nora is not just the songbird and the squirrel; neither is she pure wisdom and feminine strength in the last.”

Her first appearance as Nora would, technically, have to be in the early 1970s, as Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film is a thinly veiled, more modern version of Ibsen’s domestic epic. Scenes tells the story of a brutally unhappy couple examining their relationship; he is older, she seems easily controlled by him. Like Nora, Marianne must put on appearances for the couple’s friends and the general public.

By the end of the film, Marianne comes into her own. She finally lets her strong personality shine through, allowing her marriage to Johann disintegrate in the process. As Marianne says in the film “For my sisters and me, our entire upbringing was aimed at our being agreeable”—something that could also ring true for Nora. It’s as though she is able to, for the first time, be on her own without the punishing influence of her overbearing husband.

One other interesting detail of note is the fact that Scenes takes place mainly in the mundanely decorated living room of the middle-class couple. It’s a nice representation of the couple’s bourgeois normality. Early on in the film, Bergman even has Johann and Marianne returning from a performance of A Doll’s House as if to really drive his point home.

Many Swedish film scholars would argue that Ullmann has played versions of Nora in just about all of her films with Bergman. In efforts such as Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and even in Cries and Whispers, she essays variations of the sheltered woman-child wife, each creation seemingly fragile but ultimately steely.

Ullmann originally played the stage role of Nora in its native Norwegian language, and said she found it incredibly difficult to transition to English when she brought an acclaimed version of the play to Broadway in 1975. Nonetheless, she managed to overcome the language barrier with an acute, complex performance. The actress explains some of the challenges in working in both languages:

“Performing ‘A Doll’s House’ in a foreign language, after having played it in Norwegian is extremely difficult for me. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Read and read. Make a lot of changes in the translation because Nora’s words are so full of meaning for me. I know them so well, and I think the English translation has missed a lot of what is Nora’s distinctive quality.

One of the problems I have is ‘washing’ the Norwegian text from my head. It is essential for me now to think in English and I cannot leave the Norwegian associations behind me, I will never be able to manage this.

Here, I have to acquire a new set of images, a new grid of references; Nora in New York can never be the same as Nora in Oslo.”

In her later life, as Ullmann left her relationship with Bergman, she abandoned acting for a new career as a stage and film director. Her long-planned big-screen version of Ibsen’s play was never realized, but it was set to star Kate Winslet as a Nora for the new millennium, and co-star John Cusack as Helmer. It is a damn shame that this Doll’s House expert was not allowed to give us yet another brilliant interpretation of this classic. After all, she knows this material better than anyone. She lived it.

by Matt Mazur

10 Apr 2007


Director Michel Gondry has long made a career of re-hashing his particular brand of French surrealism. He’s given us a number of mildly interesting music videos (from such cutting edge acts as The White Stripes and Bjork), as well as the intriguingly dreamlike features Human Nature (which is sorely underrated), and the surprisingly popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which Gondry somehow managed to take home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). The biggest problem with being a whimsical man-child (which Gondry clearly identifies with through his work) is that it permeates everything you create: every precious maneuver becomes repetitive, every fantastical sequence becomes obnoxious.

Perhaps Gondry needs to perhaps step back and re-evaluate his stock style as his current offering, The Science of Sleep, is merely another regurgitation of his boyhood dreams and fears. The director is searching for explanations that connect reality and dream life, but only offers us his own point of view (which is more akin to a 13 year-old girl’s romantic sense of love and starry graphics—I half expected a parade of glittery unicorns to spring from someone’s imagination and begin a chorus line). Unfortunately, it’s the same point of view we have been “treated” to for years.

Centering in on Stéphane (a multi-lingual, appealing Gael Garcia Bernal), The Science of Sleep wants to detail the tribulations of an artist’s turbulent mind, but actually plays out more like the fantasies of a petulant little boy (this point is driven home by the fact that Stéphane actually sleeps in his boyhood bedroom—something I found singularly irritating and cutesy). In the world of Stéphane, spending so much time alone is detrimental, and everyday objects begin to animate themselves as shadows creep around ominously. As he says “dreams are very tiring”.

He watches everything from “Stéphane TV”, the control room inside his chaotic brain that produces a cadre of bizarre images: the imaginarily heroic Stéphane sprouts gigantic hands to fight his “evil” co-workers, while in another scene, he battles an electric shaver that gives his boss long hair and a beard instead of cleaning him up. In true Freudian fashion, the filmmaker brings up a recurring dialogue with his mother (French icon Miou-Miou) that always seems to arrive at inappropriate time, much to his chagrin. In his head, Stéphane is a dynamo; in reality he is swallowed up by issues with women (notably his mother), his jealousy (professional and personal), and his own narcissistic ego.

Stéphane is given a job doing typesetting for a calendar company, a job which his mother arranged from him. The whiny young man is shocked to learn that he will not be performing creative tasks, but instead will be doing formulaic work that could be done by a machine.

As he becomes disenchanted with his job, surrealism begins to show in everything. It’s in Stéphane’s dreams (which is the only place where he realizes his artistic potential), his waking life (where he is essentially awkward), and all places in between. Perhaps what Gondry is trying to say with his audaciously colorful mise-en-scene is that the surreal isn’t all that significant; that we all experience such wildness in our dreams and in our reality all the time. It’s really no big deal. Everybody daydreams, so in this respect surrealism and dreams are quite mundane—they are perhaps vivid when happening, but they are also quite commonplace. 

That the film takes place in Paris is a grand homage to pioneering surrealist films such as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and the concept of Dadaism. Stéphane and his new friend/paramour Stephanie (the amazing Charlotte Gainsbourg—the sole force that saves the movie from complete disgrace), actually at one point ride a giant, animated “hobby horse”, an image that pounds it’s message home like a hammer to the brain. The pair is practically engulfed in ineptly obvious bizarre imagery.

Stephanie implores Stéphane to “stop acting like a child” (an additional bit of sound advice for the unstable young man might be to also get some Prozac, ASAP), but she is really no authority on the subject: Stephanie is equally plagued by whimsy, and by the looks of it, she enjoys letting go of control over her actions every bit as much as Stéphane. She is generally reserved and quiet, but something in Stéphane brings out her dormant, girlish feelings. And the next time someone decides to cast Gainsbourg as a piano-playing singer/songwriter, they should have the good sense to incorporate her lovely compositions into the story. That was an unforgivable foible on Gondry’s part.

The inane parade of images from a film such as Entr’acte (which was fairly cutting-edge, given it was made in 1924), from the weirdly-angled shots of a ballerina twirling to the little black dolls with expanding, balloon-esque heads, are all intrinsic to Gondry’s overall purview: his body of work seems to solely rely on these sorts of silly, almost repetitive images and concepts. It’s as though the director wants the viewers of The Science of Sleep to think they are engulfed in dada, that everything happening is totally random. The opposite is true of his finished product: everything is so meticulously scripted, so neatly-packaged, and so ably tied together that the concept of happily not making any sense is thrown out the window for the banality of extreme, rigid logic.

It would be refreshing if Gondry could completely escape this stale style so deeply ingrained in his own conventions and tackle his next filmic subject with fresh eyes and more detached focus. For a director that people believe to be so cutting edge, Gondry is really just another imposter - borrowing (or should we call it stealing shamelessly?) from his predecessors. We get it; your childhood was filled with bizarre, artsy French magic and you have mommy issues. Can we finally move on to something a little more original that fulfills some of your artistic promise?

by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2007


At a recent shareholders meeting, current President and CEO of the Walt Disney Compnay, Bob Iger, dared suggest what many film fans have long considered impossible. Though no specific plans were announced, the House of Mouse big wig seemed to indicate that after a long stay in unacceptable entertainment exile, 1946’s live action fantasy feature Song of the South MAY finally see a DVD release. Amid much hemming and a great deal of hawing, Iger stated that “the question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” But the product path is not cleared just yet. “Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted”, he continued, “or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”

For those unfamiliar with the pro-PC stink surrounding the film (even though it’s been shown as part of the standard Disney re-release theatrical schedule in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), the main complaint stems from something that stains most pre-‘60s cinema – obvious awkward racial stereotyping. At the center of the narrative is kindly literary figure Uncle Remus, a happy go lucky slave seemingly oblivious to life as part of his Master’s post-War plantation. He regales the coy white children of the house with his mischievous tales of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. Using their patented pen and ink skills, Uncle Walt’s animators created a kind of seamless branching between the character of Remus (played by James Baskett) and the cartoon trickster tales he spun. With the entire feel good enterprise wrapped up in an Oscar winning tune (the immortal “Zip-Pa-Dee-Do-Dah!”) Song of the South appears innocent enough.

But once you look below the surface and examine all aspects of the South story, you begin to see why the film remains missing in action. To begin with, the Remus books, written by post-Reconstruction journalist Joel Chandler Harris, have not held up over time. Using a horribly inappropriate dialect slang to realize his narration, and portraying slavery as almost idyllic, Harris’ tomes suffer from good intentions couched in basic bad judgment trappings. No one is suggesting that the actual plotlines he presented are racist – indeed, like all good fables, they offer up life lessons that little ones can relate to and appreciate. Yet it’s the exterior aspects of the Remus issue that taint and trump the inner motives. While many can forgive some of the more misguided ideas, there is an overriding feeling of frivolity that just doesn’t mix with American’s historically harmful treatment of minorities.

The film doesn’t lessen the impact. In fact, many argue that by visualizing the patronizing ‘pie in the sky’ ideal of Remus’ reality, what could be almost forgiven on the printed page becomes undeniable in Technicolor reality. Critics championed Baskett’s portrayal, claiming he brought humanity and dignity to a role that required very little of same. And since Disney was creating this during Hollywood’s shameful treatment towards people of color, many appreciated the fact that Remus wasn’t copying the “Stepin Fetchit” style of slow, lumbering black man. Still, nothing can remove the humilation associated with having a subservient African American character kowtowing to the whims of some spoiled little white children (there’s even a token slave child just to maintain some kind of corrupt cinematic balance).

It’s clear then where the problems lie. In the 60 years since Walt Disney envisioned bringing Harris’ heartwarming tales to the silver screen, race has become a solid social undercurrent in the United States. Where once it was an unspoken scourge, a misguided communal corruption that found no problem in separating individuals (and the services to same) based on the color of their skin, it’s now a given facet of any interpersonal interaction. For as many strides that have been made to equalize the scales, to take ethnicity out of the equation and keep bias against individuals based solely on their own actions/attitudes, we still live in highly prejudicial times. No matter the positives achieved during the ‘60s, or the setbacks suffered in the ‘80s, one cannot deny that race remains a weeping wound on the American dream.

So any film that wants to champion a perplexing pitch of revisionist history should definitely be discussed before returning to the cultural marketplace of ideas. But there seems to be a higher benchmark towards potential family fare than entertainment geared more toward adults. For the longest time, film fans and cinematic scholars feared that 1936’s Green Pastures would never see an official home video release. Based on a novel by Roark Bradford (another 19th Century Southerner) with the troubling title Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun’, and adapted for stage by another white man, Mark Connelly, this all black cast retelling of the Old Testament was long considered unreleaseable. For starters, the Good Book narrative featured the broadest ethnic archetypes around, with various characters called “shiftless”, “trifling” and “wicked”. God is seen as serene and subjugated, while his angels speak in jargon-based buffoonery that saps them of all pride.

But perhaps the worst part of the production is the over reliance on so-called modern euphemisms – in essence, obvious intolerant depictions of African American traditions and customs as a short cut to three dimensional characterization. In heaven, every day is a fish fry, and watermelon is plentiful. On earth, juke joints become the primary focal points and Biblical figures like Noah and Moses are taunted by jive spewing no-accounts with loose dice, switchblades and ever present bottles of liquor by their side. For all of Remus’ mindless ‘Massa’ merriment, Green Pastures is nothing short of a primer on prejudice. So how did Warner Brothers finally manage a recent DVD release with all this potential controversy in play? Why, they let the film speak for itself, and offered up clear scholarly support for the narratives many positives and negatives via an in-depth audio commentary

Disney’s movie doesn’t have such luxuries. You see, at its core, Green Pastures is a film about faith. It wants to depict matters of the soul in ways that will emphasize and support the way religion and belief uplifts and binds us. No matter how stupefyingly stereotypical they may seem, the depictions of the Archangel Gabriel and ‘Da Lawd’ himself are housed in an undeniable coating of spiritual joy. They are so open and genuine with their conviction, so single minded and celebratory in the devotion, that one cannot help but feel their strength. Such a hefty foundation helps overcome many of the movie’s more troubling elements, and allows stateliness and solemnity to trump intolerance again and again.

Song of the South seems incapable of this kind of subtext. Instead, it flounders amid a full blown fantasy illustration of Antebellum benefice. It’s hard to imagine times being this good for any black man before or after the Civil War, but Remus is shown as carefree and oblivious to any sort of suffering. True, this could form the basis of an argument that, just like Green Pastures, Song of the South exists in a world wholly its own, made up and modified to look like reality – well, the majority’s version of the real world. But unlike Gone with the Wind, which stretches its Hollywood classicism to legitimate breaking points, or Birth of a Nation, which is significantly sunk by its mean-spirited minstrel show ideals (not to mention the pro Klu Klux Klan conceits), Song of the South wants to be forgiven for its flagrant disregard for the facts. In fact, it asks that innocence be substituted for all the clear contextual problems.

The most compelling argument for maintaining the reissue boycott however centers on the status of video – and now DVD – in the lives of children. When Disney discovered that parents would pay through the teeth to provide their wee ones with a non-stop supply of surrogate babysitter fodder, they marched out every title in their canon, purchased a few more to continue the commercialization, and even went so far as to draft new direct to market merchandise. While the bottom line was served and served well, the repercussions of such a decision were never questioned. Neither was the impact all this unattended viewing was having on pre-adolescent brains. It is clear that, without a host of supplementary support, Song of the South could cause impressionable minds to become confused about race. Since parents rarely take the lead in educating their kids, Uncle Walt’s view of slavery would have to suffice.

That being said, Song of the South will indeed be released on DVD one day – if not now, definitely within the foreseeable future. There is too much money at stake, and if the House of Mouse can find the proper presentation, and select the right explanatory bonus features, the initial uproar will be masked by the sound of ringing cash registers. There will always be people who automatically feel disrespected and/or demeaned by the kind of craven characterization offered in this film, and they have an absolute right to complain. For almost a full century, Tinsel Town treated minorities like laughing stocks in a crass Caucasian view of acceptability. But other studios have found a way to avoid the stigma while standing by their less than likeable output. Disney’s dilemma is a little deeper though. No matter how many apologetic bells and whistles they surround it with, Song of the South still carries a disturbing disrespect that’s hard to hide.

by Bill Gibron

30 Mar 2007


It’s sad but true – mainstream movie critics hate horror. Not in the conventional way, mind you. No, the standard print or online journalist hates motion picture macabre in a manner that seems inherent to its very makeup. It’s like how little kids hate vegetables or teenagers hate authority. Put something scary out into the marketplace and watch the negative notices pile up. Don’t believe it? Well, let’s look at the stats, shall we. Picking the major theatrical releases of 2006, and finding the ones that specifically deal with standard genre themes, the results are absolutely shocking. There is a definite anti-terror sentiment. Even recent outings by James Wan (Saw) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes 2) remain with low double digital decisions on the webs’ review database, Rotten Tomatoes.com.

It’s not just the standard fright flicks either. Big budget Hollywood horror, anchored by box office favorites like Jim Carrey (The Number 23), Sandra Bullock (Premonition) and two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (the soon to be released The Reaping) are being purposefully pigeon-holed as garbage by a journalistic paradigm that dismisses supernatural and paranormal elements as third class cinematic citizens – and it’s done automatically and en masse. Let’s go back to the beginning of 2006, shall we, and revisit the release of Eli Roth’s drop dead brilliant Hostel. Destined to be the Halloween of its generation, a movie as influential within the genre as it will be among the fanbase, the 93 writers who bothered to see the film ardently dismissed it (it earned a 59% approval rating). While certain caveats must be considered when dealing with such a gratuitously gory film, to read the blurbs posted, Roth committed some manner of horror movie hate crime.

It’s a revulsion that permeates almost all movie criticism. Though comic book movies and action films must endure the same perplexing prejudice, it seems that anything given over to terror just can’t catch a break. And if you combine the two – look out! Take Silent Hill. A video game adaptation (strike one) helmed by a style oriented foreign filmmaker (strike two) that dealt with themes and imagery revolving around death, religion, and surrealistic shocks (strike three), Christophe Gans’ groundbreaking masterpiece failed to fire up the Fourth Estate. Instead, they saddled the film with one of its lowest overall ratings – 27% - and argued that the visual brilliance on display was not enough to overcome the narrative’s intrinsic shortcomings. And almost all pointed out its PS2 platform origins.

It’s the same situation that happened when the first Hills Have Eyes remake hit theater screens. Granted, there is no love lost between franchise founder Wes Craven and those who write about film for a living. Their adore/deplore battle has extended as far back as the director’s first fright landmark, the nauseating and nasty Last House on the Left. Perhaps it’s his lofty ambitions for what are essentially exploitation flicks (he tends to defend his ideas by providing sound scholarly support for same), or the ruthlessness in their execution, but the two have been at loggerheads for decades. When a Hills revamp was announced, most applauded the decision, especially since those old enough to remember the original didn’t hold it in high regard. The second supposed stroke of genre genius came when director Alexandre Aja was chosen to steer the scarefest. His Haute Tension was a tasty slasher throwback, and all believed he could resurrect this sleazoid tale of a family vacation gone cannibal. Finally, we were dealing with a remake here – a somewhat proven entity seeming capable of providing the foundation for some funky fear factors.

With more than 50% of the press hating it, the Hills revamp turned out to be a major mistake. Not to fans, mind you. They loved the fact that Aja gave his flesh eating fiends a no nukes nastiness that clarified their repugnant ravenousness. But for those so-called sophisticates who bring their anti-dread baggage with them whenever they opine, Hills was a geek show glammed up with recognizable actors and overdone special effects. In fact, if one were to peruse every terror title released, over the last couple of years, they would see a similar set of descriptions used to undermine the genre’s very elements. “Too gory”, some will say, or “Not enough character development”, others will state. “Over the top” or “extreme” become the mantras for demeaning the decision to go for the throat, while “far too subtle” and “somber” illustrate when a critic feels the movie is making its case with mood and atmosphere alone.

It’s an unusual situation, one that becomes even more striking when you compare it to other cinematic categories. Comedies do get busted for lacking laughs, while dramas are frequently faulted for offering melodrama instead of reality, ennui instead of emotional impact. Action films can feel fake and underdeveloped, while family films are torn apart for failing to deliver the kind of whimsical delights their demographic demands. But in horror’s case, the cuts seem particularly cruel. If a slasher film is only trying to kill off one dimensional teens in as many imaginative ways as possible, doesn’t it live up to its expectations? If a monster movie delivers a beast that simultaneously scares and intrigues you, doesn’t that have some manner of viable value? Not every movie can be The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet you can find writers who’ve readily dismissed each and every one of these examples. So the current trend against the genre is not a new one – but the bias has become far more prevalent of late.

In fact, nowhere was the critic’s bile more inexplicable than in regards to the works of Glen Morgan. With only two major motion pictures under his belt (2003’s Willard and 2006’s Black Christmas) this former X-Files anchor has had the unfortunate luck of helming two major mainstream flops. Willard actually got some good notices, even though it failed to make a dent in the all important fiscal aspects of the industry. But last year’s remake of the Bob Clark classic was literally annihilated. It sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been taken to task for everything - from being unlike the original (unfair) to lacking depth and complexity (again, untrue). Nothing more than a slasher redux with an eye for detail and demented killer backstory, Morgan crafted a clever complement to Clark’s genre-defining shocker. And still, you could feel the verbal tar and feathering commencing all throughout the analytical flogging.

Yet what’s even more interesting about the entire situation is the number of critics who actually review these kinds of films. A recent release like Norbit can offer 111 different reviews, while a major motion picture like The Departed can see upwards of 200. But Black Christmas was discussed by only 47 critics. Hostel found 94 souls brave enough to take on its tawdry delights, while Silent Hill could only manage 78. Of course, this counts those who’ve waiting until DVD to discuss the film, so perhaps a better gauge of how much coverage the horror genre gets can be seen with the previously mentioned (and barely two weeks old) James Wan (Dead Silence) and Hills Have Eyes (the Part 2 sequel) titles. The 22% score for Silence comes from a mere 37 writers, while Eyes 2 gains it 13% from only 31. The importance of noting this is two-fold. First, it argues that only a small minority of the massive print and online community are even considering these films. If a potential pool of, say, 120 exists, only 25% are even bothering to address the release.

But it’s the second factor that’s even more disconcerting. It’s clear that, as a genre, horror is mired in a state of callous disregard. Critics who can’t get into free advance screenings obviously fail to follow up and pay to see the film, nor do they try and broaden their perspective on the artform by taking in such titles in their spare time. While they see dozens of dramas and several comedies per year, a horror film may only cross their path once or twice (and, again, if they don’t get to see it beforehand…), and without the effort to see it and properly contextualize it, there is no room for solid scholarship. A major monster effort like Slither can be easily stereotyped as a Troma film, creating a cynical shortcut to actually reviewing what’s on the screen. Similarly, blood and violence are so tied up in the continued juvenilization of our society that many critics can’t see past the PC pronouncements to respect gore or gratuity for its viable visceral power.

In essence, as a ‘minority’ within the ‘majority’ of mainstream moviemaking, horror continues to suffer from a sort of reactionary racism. This isn’t arguing that every macabre movie made is worthy of praise (just take a look at Turistas, or the recent AfterDark Horrorfest for proof), but, equally, not everyone is worthy of condemnation. Sadly, this is the way it’s always been, and as most fright fans fear, it will remain this way for decades to come. If you ever wondered why, years later, a forgotten horror film is suddenly embraced as a forgotten classic, part of the answer lies herein. The knee-jerk reaction by the critical community to the very idea of a scary movie exposes an undercurrent of intolerance that is both unreasonable and unprofessional. All film should be judged on what it has to offer, not on the bias of those providing opinions. It’s time to review what’s on the screen, not what is in the minds of those who propose to know better. Apparently, they don’t.

by Matt Mazur

4 Jan 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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