From the Archive — Pan’s Labyrinth

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Look, I’m well aware that the only movie anyone cares about this weekend is set quite some time ago in a galaxy that’s a significant distance from ours. Ideally, I’d devote this weekly exercise in excavation to an relevant piece of old writing, but everything I’ve ever tapped out about the franchise in question had already appeared here. I’d rather dig up some writing about an older Rian Johnson joint, but those reviews have similarly already appeared here. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of a forecast of a different new movie review that should bubble up here this week. While it’s been covered in one of my best-of-the-decade countdowns, I haven’t yet transferred over my original review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Until, you know, now. Back when this was first posted — in my former online home — I was still using mildly relevant song lyrics to headline the reviews. I’m pleased to report this one was presented under the banner “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl, ’cause it hurts like hell.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His film carry a common denominator of carefully constructed frames marked by fantastic imaginings, and these are the things that linger in the memory after seeing the film: the smoke plume of blood flowing from a head wound in The Devil’s Backbone, the perfectly realization of Mike Mignola’s comic book world in Hellboy, even the creature unfolding itself and its secrets in the process in the underrated Mimic. The emphasis on the images is never at the expense of the story, exactly. It’s just that the stories don’t carry as much richness as Del Toro’s imaginings made as real as film can make them, so the progress of the characters becomes a sort of afterthought.

So it seems a perfect match for Del Toro to craft a fairy tale, a type of story that practically begs for comforting simplicity, where unexpected marvels naturally carry the weight. The new film Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a deep, dark fairy tale, but Del Toro also takes the enduring purpose of fairy tales as a hopeful charge into a land more wondrous than their own and dramatizes it. For many children, the fairly tales are simply an escape for the plainness of their own experience, where they world grows disappointingly smaller with every day and every new discovery. For others, it a far more necessary escape, a safehouse away from a grim, dangerous home. This is the case for the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, a ten-year-old named Sofia.

The film takes place in Spain in 1944, during the beginning of Franco’s despotic rule. Sofia arrives with her mother at the home of her new stepfather, a military leader fighting off a local rebellion while dispensing clumps of bread to the citizenry with the begrudging benevolence of a fickle deity. He’s a vicious man, which Sofia’s mother, pregnant with his child, tolerates because there are few other options for her. Sofia seeks refuge in the strange world revealing itself in the great stone labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. There is a faun that promises her she is the lost princess from a mystical land, and a quest involving an oversized amphibian, a mysterious key and an enchanted chunk of chalk.

For all the charm it holds, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, uncompromising film. The military captain father, played with focused menace by Sergi Lopez, is no cardboard villain, but a font of malevolent rage, his self-perceived power manifested through explosive violence. The movie is not gory in the way of the new splatter renaissance but the frank violence Del Toro puts on screen is more affecting in its purposefulness. Every moment that’s hard to watch is there for a reason beyond making the audience squirm; Del Toro is establishing levels of danger and brutality that are more disturbing that that jolting gushers of blood that populate lesser films.

Del Toro has made a film that is a paean to the powers of imagination. It’s a splendid testament to the inventions of a wandering mind, even when those inventions scare us a little. It’s a terrific film, bathed in the muddy colors of dusk and yet bright with the splendor of unfettered inspiration. It is unmistakably the work of its director, from the soothing growl of its storybook opening narration to its brave, beautiful ending.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

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Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.

From the Archive — Richard Linklater films

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On the occasion of Last Flag Flying, the new Richard Linklater feature, arriving in theaters — at least in New York City — here are, I believe, all of the reviews of the Texas filmmaker’s work that I’ve written, but that haven’t previously shown up in this digital space. While there are plenty of titles in Linklater’s filmography that would cause me to offer breathless raves, all of these are lesser, deeply compromised efforts. Of course, in the case of most of these, Linklater was also in the extended process of making a flat-out masterpiece, so I give him a pass on these varied misfires.

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001). Released the same year as Waking Life, Linklater’s trippy foray in animation and dream analysis which perfectly suited his penchant for talky philosophizing, Tape is comparatively small-scale. Without any specific comparison, it’s bland and unimpressive. Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play, the whole movie take place in the confines of a dingy little motel room as two old friends wage a battle of psyches over a long-ago transgression. It’s not an issue that Belber and Linklater chose not to open up the play, leaving it much the same way it probably was when it played out on the confines of a stage (in fact, Linklater’s few attempts to create some dynamic camera angles to shake things up are weaker than his more flatfooted presentation the material), but someone should have reminded the actors to adjust the level of their performances. Ethan Hawke is especially over-amped, pitching his take on an admittedly anxious character somewhere between the Phantom of the Paradise and Daffy Duck. Uma Thurman fares somewhat better as a woman intrinsically involved in the dispute between the two friends, but her role is a much a dramatic device as a fully drawn character.

Bad News Bears (2005)On paper, this has a lot of potential. The screenwriters behind Bad Santa recondition the 1976 Michael Ritchie film for the foul-mouthed frontman Billy Bob Thornton and turning it over to director Richard Linklater, who proved his slick entertainment chops with School of Rock. In execution, however, it’s a real mess, somehow managing to be both weirdly tame and pointlessly profane.

Fast Food Nation (2006). Eric Schlosser‘s 2001 book is a mind-spinning feat of investigative journalism, examining the insidious influence of fast food on the American culture in a way that goes well beyond the sort of health-based condemnation that’s become commonplace. Schlosser digs into the nasty child psychology manipulations employed by the big chains and considers how the meat-packing industry has dangerously cut corners in part to meet the high-production, low-cost demands of the top clients. Linklater works directly with Schlosser in adapting the book into a fiction film and that sort of ambition remains in place. Unfortunately, the material seems to repel these efforts. Linklater and Schlosser throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks only to find themselves staring down a blank wall. Nothing ever gels. Individual story threads just drift along and sometimes vanish for lengthy stretches, leaving them feeling especially underdeveloped (Greg Kinnear’s fast food exec is unseen in the last third of the movie, only reappearing for an afterthought coda). It’s a bad sign when the throwaway details–like a man toiling away at the meat packing plant despite missing a good chunk of one of his arms, undoubtedly sacrificed to the machinery earlier in his career–carry more impact than the big scenes taking aim at the powers-that-serve-burgers.

A Scanner Darkly (2006). Have no fear: Robert Downey Jr’s trademark style of fidgety overacting can survive the process of being rotoscoped into animation. He’s as distracting as ever in writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. It maybe unfair to lead with that bit of snark since Downey is hardly the biggest problem with this well-intentioned but sadly inert drama of paranoid science fiction. For one, it hardly seemed necessary for Linklater to return to the animation technique he employed in his excellent 2001 film Waking Life. In that film it helped him to create imagery with the fluidity of a dreamscape, merging his philosophical meanderings with visuals that were as casually exploratory. Here, beyond realizing a couple of concepts in a way that would have difficult to believably pull off with the most advanced CGI, there seems little reason to have taken the steps beyond using the filmed footage of the actors. The story itself is grim, probably more faithful to Dick’s original vision than is usually the case and a bit of a bore.

From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

From the Archive: Little Miss Sunshine

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As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.    

Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.

Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.

I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.

Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.

From the Archive: Dreamgirls

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The proper way for me to raid my own writing history to align with the major release this weekend entails unearthing my original radio review for the animated classic Beauty and the Beast, from 1991. I did write one at the time. And I was fairly proud of it, if I’m recalling correctly. That review is lost to the eroding waters of time (or at least taped into a box that hasn’t been accessed in a good long time). So I’ll instead look to the director of the new live-action take on Disney’s finest animated effort (Pixar movies don’t count). This review of Dreamgirls first appeared at my former online home.

The new movie musical Dreamgirls has two distinctly different halves, separated by the number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” which has to stand as one of the most impressive showstoppers in the annals of Broadway. Of course it’s not hard to spot that the song signals the act break when the production is on the stage, but it’s more than that. The two sides of the movie are quite different in their effectiveness. Some of that may derive from shortcomings or strengths inherent to the material, but there’s some clear filmmaking choices shaping the impact as well.

Writer-director Bill Condon previously helmed the marvelous Gods and Monsters and the compromised Kinsey (and Candyman II, what the hell?) but the main bullet point on his resume that landed him this long-developing gig was the screenplay adaptation for the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago. In that film, he notably invented the notion that all of the music performances were the imaginings of the obsessive Roxie Hart, so desperate for her place on the stage that she sees the whole world as a grand music performance. Here, Condon has the luxury of the primary storyline charting the rise of a Motown-styled “girl group” called the Dreams (a veiled-so-thinly-you-may-not-even-notice-the-cloth-hanging-there version of the Supremes) and the freshly invented Detroit record label they help make into a major force. For the most part, characters don’t break into song while walking down the street, but while they’re on stage or in a recording studio, keeping it more grounded in reality, which modern audiences seem to need with their musicals.

That hurts him somewhat, too, as there are a few moments that require that sort of old-style staging with characters singing to one another not because they’re putting on a show, but because they’re expressing emotion or even passing along exposition through song. These few moments are rare enough that they sit somewhat uneasily in the film. More problematically, much of the first act is an overdirected jumble that progresses too rapidly. We feel like we’re watching the characters proceed without really knowing them, as Condon seems more interested in creating some razzle dazzle with his shot choices and editing techniques.

Sometimes that distance from the characters is a natural extension of their very construction. Eddie Murphy plays James “Thunder” Early, a consolidation of James Brown, Little Richard, Bobby Womack…hell, by the time he shows up in a colorful knit hat singing “message songs” it starts to seem that Early is meant to be every black male who carried a tune in front of a microphone between 1955 and 1975. The character is a skilled performer of R&B, soul, funk and even delivers a proto-rap song in a defiant television performance. Presumably we’ll need to wait for some sort of DVD extended director’s cut to see him master delta blues and invent trip hop. That the character has any recognizable through-line at all is a credit to Murphy’s performance. In the past, his best work has been marked by a sort of freeform creativity, a whipsmart fluidity that finds the comic truth (or, on occasion, the poignancy) in any given moment with a considered liberation from the rigors of maintaining the bigger picture of the character or the film. He achieves the opposite here, completely subsuming any tendencies he might have towards caricature, shifting quickly past the most obvious earmarks of his pop chart inspirations to lock onto the echoing disappointment of Early’s life. It may not even be accurate to say this is Murphy’s career-best performance, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him approach a role as an actor rather than as a performer.

Generally, the strength of the performers helps that second half gel into something potent and moving. Condon finds a more agreeable rhythm, letting the stories unfold gracefully while concentrating his fussier energies on the more enjoyable diversion of filling the background with entertaining pastiches of Motown hallmarks, from album covers to performers. Besides Murphy, Jamie Foxx is excellent as the film’s Berry Gordy stand-in, quietly establishing the firm, menacing strength and decisiveness of a powerful man. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, keeper of the most tragic and triumphant story arc as Effie White, the member of the Dreams whose place at the front is supplanted by a prettier, safer singer played by Beyonce Knowles. Hudson performs “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” with the appropriate raw abandon and just pulling off that moment practically guarantees an invite to the Kodak Theater. She’d solid throughout, playing Effie’s self-defeating righteousness with a smooth, on-target emotional efficiency, but it’s the centerpiece song that really sticks. The belted anguish of the moment hits the heart hard and elevates everything that follows.

From the Archive: My Ballot, 2006

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The other day, I provide my list of the twenty performances from 2016 films that I would have submitted on an Oscar ballot had I been given the opportunity to do so. This is an exercise is wishcasting that I have been indulging in for an absurdly long time. In online platforms alone, it has been over ten years of offering my haughty views of which performers were most deserving of awards consideration in any given year. Since ten is a nice round number, I thought I’d drag out my anointed score of acting titans from the film year 2006, originally posted in my first online home, complete with the original commentary, without tempting finesses to make me look more prescient than I was. At least I managed to go four-for-four in predicting the actual winners.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Helen Mirren, The Queen
2. Ellen Page, Hard Candy
3. Luminita Gheorghiu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
4. Kate Winslet, Little Children
5. Penelope Cruz, Volver

Despite my previous griping about the uniformity of the various critics’ awards this year, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the consensus pick. This is in part because the performance is that good, but also due to the field being that weak. Honestly, Ellen Page is the only other performance that I consider even close to Mirren’s work in The Queen and I’m pleased that she was one of the only people to wrest an award from the Dame’s hands this year (albeit from a critics’ organization pretty far down the food chain). Mirren will win tonight, and it will be the most deserving acting award of the night.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
2. Clive Owen, Children of Men
3. Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick
5. Kazunari Ninomiya, Letters from Iwo Jima

Hey look, me and the Oscars agree on Ryan Gosling and that’s it! Just wait until we get to Supporting Actress. I haven’t bothered with Blood Diamond, but that must be a helluva performance if it’s better than the tightrope anguish of Dicaprio’s work in The Departed. Among the many sadnesses of Children of Men neglectful treatment during the awards season is that Clive Owen’s masterfully reserved performance has gone under-appreciated. Having finally seen Gosling’s lived-in edginess in Half Nelson, I’m pleased as can be that he got invited to come clap for someone else. I’ve already typed my piece about Gordon-Levitt, so I’ll just note the great empathy Ninomiya earns as the Japanese soldier who embodies the cultural shift in perceptions of glory and self-sacrifice in Eastwood’s good World War II this year. As for tonight’s likely winner Forest Whitaker, I think it’s a supporting performance rather than a lead (he’s completely absent for a good twenty to thirty minutes in the middle of the film), and I don’t think he really deserves a nomination in that category either.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Vera Farmiga, The Departed
2. Lily Tomlin, A Prairie Home Companion
3. Claire-Hope Ashitey, Children of Men
4. Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth
5. Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion

Among the Oscar nominees, I like the work of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that her storyline is the only one that had any feel of truth to it. As much as I do like all of the performances here, the only person here who really had a chance to make it the big dance was Farmiga, and I’m not entirely sure how Warner Brothers botched the acting categories so badly with The Departed. It would be so much nicer if Streep were being honored for the charming flightiness of her performance in Altman’s closing work than the amusing single-note novelty of The Devil Wears Prada, but I’ll concede that I’m more curmudgeonly about that performance than most. By the way, I also think that Maribel Verdu shoulda been a contender for Y Tu Mama Tambien. Maybe if she gets around to working with the least talented member of the Three Amigos, she’ll actually get some deserved recognition. Bitter? Yeah, a little bit. As to the way tonight will actually play out, Jennifer Hudson remains a lock. Certainly the Dreamgirls soul train isn’t charging as hard as everyone assumed it would be, but the Babel performers will split, and its way too early to give Cate Blanchett her second. That leaves the ten-year-old and they’re not prepared to do that yet again, are they? If they are, expect that stupid yellow bus to win Best Picture. Back to Jennifer Hudson, I think that’s really a lead performance, and I don’t think she really deserves a nomination in that category either.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Michael Sheen, The Queen
2. Danny Huston, The Proposition
3. Michael Caine, Children of Men
4. Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
5. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Listen, I know Danny Huston never had a chance for the wild inspiration of his work in the The Proposition and the Academy is going to foolishly prefer the more self-consciously serious work of Michael Caine, but they couldn’t have shared some of that Queen love for Sheen’s work, which is just as fine as Mirren’s? For tonight’s ceremony, smart money stays on Murphy to win, although the money that’s been moved over to Alan Arkin isn’t so dumb. I don’t especially like Alan Arkin’s performance in Little Miss Sunshine because, like almost everything else in the film, it feels too cutesy and familiar, but there’s nothing wrong with an Oscar having Arkin’s name engraved on it. We can just all pretend it’s actually for The In-Laws or something.