Sunday, February 27, 2011

83rd Oscars: Franco, Hathaway, Youth and Legends

Time for the little gold man!

The 83rd Academy Awards, hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway, will be televised live nationwide on ABC at 8 Eastern / 5 Pacific tonight, Sunday, February 27. I make films for a living, but the Oscars are always a kick - a chance to root for favorites, discuss the fashions and check one's predictive powers.

I'm not an Academy member though, as a member of the Directors Guild, I had a chance to cast my vote for our directing winner, Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"). My votes for the Oscars are strictly for fun and, since I'm still working my way through last year's films, here I'll just share a few impressions of what caught my eye in several categories.

It's cool that Franco and Hathaway, gifted and likable actors both, have been chosen to host this year. They've made interesting choices in their careers and have demonstrated considerable acting chops, elevating them far above the just-another-pretty-face crowd. Choosing a male and female duo to host for the first time in Oscar history brings other layers of possibility to tonight's telecast, so get your popcorn ready.

For so many years when I was a movie-addicted kid, hosts like the wisecracking Bob Hope were older than this year's hosts ages combined. But part of the age difference being touted this year is an illusion: across film history, many of the stars we "remember" in black-and-white or as their older iterations were 20- and 30-somethings (the impossibly sexy Lauren Bacall was just 19 when she asked Bogie if he knew how to whistle, and 1963s Best Actor, Sidney Poitier, had just turned 36.) Still, I look forward to Young Hollywood shaking things up a bit, celebrating and tweaking Hollywood traditions.

The envelope, please:

Actor in a Leading Role
Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”
Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”
Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”
Colin Firth in “The King's Speech”
James Franco in “127 Hours”

My impressions:

I've loved Jeff Bridges since I was a kid, and he remains one of my favorite actors. Consider the perfect actor/director/writer choice of introducing Rooster Cogburn with only his voice through the outhouse door and his decidedly unglamourous reveal, gut peeking through dingy longjohns - no Hollywood glitz there. More than anything, I love the authenticity and integrity he brings to this unsentimental but touching portrayal. Bravo, Jeff.

I wasn't familiar with Jesse Eisenberg before "The Social Network" and I came away from the film absolutely riveted by what he had done in a quiet and unassuming performance. Jesse creates the undercurrents of his character so convincingly in a role where he barely raises his voice, laughs or cries. It's a conplex and layered depiction that has stayed with me.

Colin Firth can do no wrong. Okay, I'm kidding, but I've liked this guy for a long time and I'm always impressed by what he has to offer to each role. He's not as strikingly handsome as some of his Brit contemporaries, nor as flashy, but there is something very deep and solid in all that he does, as well as a hint of the unexpected. As Bertie, there is heartbreak and fear and hope and strength, all in a role where he rarely speaks clearly - but is entirely understood. It's a brilliant job, and my choice for Best Actor.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale in “The Fighter”
John Hawkes in “Winter's Bone”
Jeremy Renner in “The Town”
Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”
Geoffrey Rush in “The King's Speech

At his Golden Globes acceptance speech, Christian Bale said something that applies to his role in "The Fighter" and Geoffrey Rush's in "The King's Speech." Flashy, over-the-top characters only work when grounded by quiet, realistic ones, so much is owed to the actors Bale and Rush are playing against (Wahlberg and Firth). Both bring the yin to their opposite number's yang, both remain in the shadows of the men they know, and both bring knowledge and power that help the hero achieve his glory. Wonderful actors in memorable roles, but I'm giving this one to Bale.

Actress in a Leading Role
Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”
Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”
Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter's Bone”
Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

I'm a complete slacker in this category this year, so I'll go with Natalie Portman's passionate, fragile portrayal of Nina. The already slim Portman's choice to lose weight, coupled with a year's intense training, makes her convincing physically as a prima ballerina, but all of those emotional layers are what make the role. Talk about disturbing! About a millenium ago, I used to act and dance a bit, and I got used to going all out for a role. Nina takes that about half a million steps too far. It's a fascinating, dark look at art turning to obsession.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams in “The Fighter”
Helena Bonham Carter in “The King's Speech”
Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”
Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”
Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

My favorite thing about Amy Adams is her versatility. She's made me laugh, made me think and made me cheer for her in various portrayals. In "The Fighter" her love and support for "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) helps ground his character and gives added dimension to the entire movie. More fine work from a future Hollywood legend.

Helena Bonham Carter as the loving wife of the future king is not just a support for her man. Bonham Carter is too interesting for that. There's always something sly and strong in whatever she does, and I like that I can feel her determination and her spirit. Nicely done.

I've been a fan of Melissa Leo since her days on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and I'm delighted to see her making a mark on motion pictures. As Alice Ward, she's raw and honest and not at all prettied up. It's a fierce and fearless portrayal, with no interest in being likable. I'd call her the frontrunner for to Oscar.

The Coen brothers have a gift for introducing a character. From the first words she spoke, I knew Hailee Steinfeld was much, much more than a precocious child actor. She inhabited Mattie Ross with the strength, conviction and authenticity (that word again) that are essential components of making this film work. In the scene where she bargains to be paid for her father's horses, she reveals an intelligence and maturity that makes it believable that this young girl would risk all to avenge the death of her father. Here's a 14 year old with a bright future - and it might start tonight, if she takes home the Oscar in an upset.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
“127 Hours” Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
“The Social Network” Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
“Toy Story 3” Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
“True Grit” Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
“Winter's Bone” Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

I've been an absolute fool for Aaron Sorkin's writing since "Sports Night". I love intelligent writing, and Sorkin's elevated reality makes me interested in everything he does (including this film, which didn't impress me in trailer form but knocked me down when I saw it.) I think he writes conversations better than any other contemporary writer. I'm handing the Oscar to Aaron.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
“Another Year” Written by Mike Leigh
“The Fighter” Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson;
Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
“Inception” Written by Christopher Nolan
“The Kids Are All Right” Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
“The King's Speech” Screenplay by David Seidler

Much has been made of how time is telescoped and events are tweaked in "The King's Speech," but that's a really fine script. I enjoyed the no-nonsense integrity of "The Fighter" as well, but I think "Inception" is brilliant. Bucking the trends and going with Nolan.

“Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky
“The Fighter” David O. Russell
“The King's Speech” Tom Hooper
“The Social Network” David Fincher
“True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

I'm glad to have seen all five films in this category. I'm torn on this one. Aronofsky created a disturbing masterwork, Russell told the truth and avoided the bathos, and the Coens reigned in their brilliant fantasias to create a great Western for modern audiences. I cast my vote for DGA's best director this year for Tom Hooper ("The King's Speeech"), but there is something about David Fincher's work in "The Social Network" that is sticking with me and becoming more and more impressive in my eyes. I have a feeling that film and director honors might split this year. We'll see!

Best Picture

(Editorial note: Ten Best Picture nominees and five Directing nominees? Which of these pictures directed themselves? There's always been something kind of goofy about Director and Best Picture nominations not being tied together, and it seems even stranger to return to ten pictures nods and have half as many for directors. Oh, well, the best part of this is that smaller films without money machines behind them will now get some recognition - and there's twice the chance for an upset.)

“Black Swan” Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin, Producers
“The Fighter” David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg, Producers
“Inception” Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
“The Kids Are All Right” Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray, Producers
“The King's Speech” Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, Producers
“127 Hours” Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson, Producers
“The Social Network” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ce├ín Chaffin, Producers
“Toy Story 3” Darla K. Anderson, Producer
“True Grit” Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
“Winter's Bone" Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Producers

"The King's Speech" is a great traditional movie; "The Social Network" is a great modern one. Either would be well-deserved, but as time goes by, what I like best about "King's Speech" is the acting and the story. What I like best about "Social Network" is, like the subject in the title, the innovation.

I choose "The Social Network."

(I've not written about the technical awards, but my hope is that Roger Deakins will finally win for his breathtaking and brilliant cinematography for "True Grit." It would be about damned time.)

Find everything you need to know about the history of the Academy Awards here at the official Oscars website.

For breaking news on this year's Oscars, and to follow along during the broadcast, go to

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Friday, February 25, 2011

George Harrison and UNICEF: "Help us save some lives"

George Harrison was more than a singer and songwriter, more than a guitarist, more than a part of The Beatles, arguably the most influential band in rock history.

George was a passionate humanitarian and advocate for children. In fact, according to UNICEF, the Concert for Bangladesh (organized by George and inspired by sitar legend Ravi Shankar) "marked the first time rock musicians collaborated for a common humanitarian cause," raising both awareness and money to assist the ten million people of Bangladesh who were victims of flood, famine and civil war.

I loved that man.

Today would have been George's 68th birthday.

2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh. On August 1, 1971, George, Ravi, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell and Billy Preston came together, using their musical talents to help raise funds for people in dire need. Imagine what it would have been like to be there!

George used his fame for a cause higher than himself. He wanted his music to inspire people to do more than tap their feet.

He succeeded on both counts.

Six years ago, a permanent fund was set up in his name, with a goal of continuing assistance to the people of Bangladesh, as well as other places where a child's survival is threatened.

The George Harrison Fund for UNICEF is a joint venture between the Harrison family and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF that aims to support UNICEF programs providing lifesaving assistance to children caught in humanitarian emergencies. --- UNICEF

As someone who admired George, it means alot to me to see that his twin legacies, music and activism, live on, so many years later.

The need still exists.

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help before his country dies
Although I couldn't feel the pain, I knew I had to try
Now I'm asking all of you to help us save some lives

--- from "Bangladesh" by George Harrison

Were you inspired by George Harrison? Do you want to help save some lives?

Click the highlighted link to Support the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF

Visit the United States Fund for UNICEF for further information.

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