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Emotion develops in old-fashioned underdog story

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011 9:22 am

I’ll continue to do my best catching up with some late 2010 releases while we wait for the new year to really get going. So in that vein we’ve got a brief look at the awards-season favorite “The Fighter,” along with my predictions for this year’s Oscar nominations. Completely meaningless, but kinda fun.

“The Fighter”

★★★★ 1/2 (out of four)

2010, David O. Russell, U.S., R

I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the biopic, and I’m even less interested in that inspirational sports sub-genre typically populated by completely disposable, banal films like “Rudy,” Invincible,” “Remember the Titans,” “Invictus” ... the list goes on and on. It’s all manufactured, false sentimentality for the sports-obsessed masses, and I want nothing of it. Striking, then, that I responded so strongly to David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” an old-fashioned underdog narrative that wears sentimentality on its sleeve.

The difference between Russell’s film and the dozens of other similar, less successful sports dramas is that here, the filmmaker lets emotion develop organically from the characters and their histories. Instead of attempting to manipulate viewer responses via swelling music and tearful exchanges and all manner of riffraff, Russell (most noted for “Three Kings” and “I Huckabees”) has gone back to basics. For one, the film has a very rugged, neorealist, almost documentary-like style that immediately lends a certain degree of authenticity to the proceedings. Clearly, Russell has seen Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.”

More important than Russell’s style, though, are the performances the director gets from his powerhouse cast. Mark Wahlberg gets top billing as would-be champion boxer Mickey Ward, and the strength and resilience he displays are central to the film’s inspirational effect. But as Mickey’s meddling mother and concerned girlfriend, respectively, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams take command of every scene they’re in. That is, unless they’re sharing the screen with Christian Bale as Mickey’s ultra-pathetic, has-been crack-addict brother, Dickie Eklund. Bale will in all likelihood win an Oscar for his work, as it’s the kind of startling, immediately engaging, all-too-rare supporting performance that flavors the entire film.

Speaking of Oscars…

Heavyweight contenders

I don’t usually print my Oscar nomination predictions, but with the multiplexes running slow and me having nothing better to do, I figured what the hell? Some readers may scoff at the fact that most of these prediction lists are largely the same, and that’s because the Academy is quite predictable — any idiot could tell you that “The Social Network” will bag a nod for Best Picture, that Natalie Portman is leading the Best Actress race, and so forth. The key is those one or two “dark horse” slots in each category. Tricky stuff, and very serious business indeed. So, with the nomination announcements set for Jan. 25, I present my sage-like prognostications:

Best Picture

Locks: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “Inception,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit,” “Winter’s Bone.”

Wild cards: “127 Hours,” “Blue Valentine,” “The Town.”

“The Town” is gaining momentum as awards season progresses, but I suspect it will have to settle for a nod in the adapted screenplay category. “Blue Valentine” is too “small” a film and will be perceived as more of an actor’s showcase, so that leaves Danny Boyle’s survivor’s tale “127 Hours.” Gotta love the process of elimination.

Actor

Locks: Jeff Bridges in “True Grit,” Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network,” Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech,” James Franco in “127 Hours.”

Wild cards: Robert Duvall in “Get Low,” Ryan Gosling in “Blue Valentine.”

Oscar voters love to honor grizzled old vets, so Duvall fits the bill nicely. But has anyone actually seen the movie? Moreover, does anyone even want to see it? It’s close, but I expect Gosling to get his third nomination for his reportedly searing work in the bad-romance drama “Blue Valentine.” Now if only the movie would open within 100 miles of here …

Actress

Locks: Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right,” Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

Wild cards: Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole,” Lesley Manville in “Another Year,” Julianne Moore in “The Kids Are All Right,” Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine.”

A tough category, since last year offered an unusually large number of quality roles for women. Both Kidman and Williams are topping the “buzz” charts, but I see them getting bumped in favor of Moore (unless she’s being promoted in the supporting category to avoid competing with Bening) and Manville (voters have a penchant for performances in Mike Leigh movies, and who can blame them?). Like I said, very close.

Supporting Actor

Locks: Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” Jeremy Renner in “The Town,” Geoffrey Rush in “The King’s Speech.”

Wild cards: Andrew Garfield in “The Social Network,” John Hawks in “Winter’s Bone,” Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right.”

Hawks and Ruffalo both scored Screen Actors Guild nods, while Garfield inexplicably got the shaft in spite of his tremendously effective, artfully nuanced tour-de-force as the moral conscience of “The Social Network.” Oscar will know better. As for the final slot, as much as I’d like to see the under-rated characters actor Hawks on the red carpet, I think Ruffalo will ride the “Kids Are All Right” gravy train to a questionable nomination. Seriously, why is this movie so beloved?

Supporting Actress

Locks: Amy Adams in “The Fighter,” Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech,” Melissa Leo in “The Fighter,” Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit.”

Wild cards: Mila Kunis in “Black Swan,” Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom.”

Mila Kunis is considered a lock in most circles, but I think there’s a possibility she could be overlooked in favor of Weaver, the critics darling who conveyed sly menace to pitch-perfect effect in the Australian crime drama “Animal Kingdom.” Kunis’ role is more subtle — not really “showy” enough for Academy voters, and naturally overshadowed by her costar’s far more difficult performance. In the end I guess I’ll go with Kunis, just ’cause I’m susceptible to peer pressure. But watch out for that crazy Aussie mama.

Director

Locks: Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan,” Joel and Ethan Coen for “True Grit,” David Fincher for “The Social Network,” Christopher Nolan for “Inception.”

Wild cards: Debra Granik for “Winter’s Bone,” Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech.”

Hooper isn’t in imminent danger of losing his presumed spot, but “Winter’s Bone” is gaining more traction each day. And on the heels of Kathryn Bigelow’s win last year for “The Hurt Locker,” there may be an impulse to again highlight strong work by a female director. But knowing Hollywood, probably not.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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