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Play the Oscar game? Why not? This is as good a way to assess the merits of a film as any.
Best supporting actor? If it is written (but who wrote that?) that a performer cannot win an Oscar in the same category two years in a row, and if history itself could be rewritten, Chris Cooper should receive that award this year, instead of having received it last year, for his role in ADAPTATION, an intriguing, but lesser film. His performance as Tom Smith is unique : he invented a special way to talk, a special way to be for his character. That is what acting is all about at the highest level, the level of a Laughton or an Olivier, which is precisely what we are talking about here. But he will certainly be nominated. The Academy has but little choice in that regard.
Best supporting actress... Although she is unlikely to be nominated, Elizabeth Banks fully deserves to be recognized for her achievement in insuring a strong and attractive feminine presence in a film set in an almost exclusively male world.
Best actor? Jeff Bridges would deserve a nomination, but is unlikely to get the prize, unless the Academy wants to make a gesture, and reward him both for his performance in this film and for the rest of his worthy career, as happens sometimes.
Tobey Maguire could also be nominated, but I would be surprised if he got anything, if only because HollywoodÕs mind is not yet made up about his unusual approach to his craft. This film, in which the young actor breaks new ground for himself like in none of his previous work (which is to say a great deal), constitutes one more testimony to his extraordinary potential. But this is ensemble work, and, fine as his performance may be, the script, as is, does not allow him to stand out in the way that he did in both THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and WONDER BOYS.
If Gary Ross were to receive an award, it should be as director, rather than for his screenplay. At the same time, as a foreigner who has always admired American ideals, I cannot but be charmed by the refreshing simplicity of his patriotism, apparently innocent of the tacky and at times aggressive nationalism that is all too common in Hollywood. No flag-waving here, because no flag-waving is needed : this is love and country pure and simple.
It would be a shame if SEABISCUIT, which is so magnificent to look at, were not nominated for best cinematography, and there would need to be a very strong contender emerging over the next six months to beat it in that category.
Finally... Best picture? SEABISCUIT is likely to be nominated for that award, but just as likely not to get it, regardless of its intrinsic qualities and those of the competition, as there will be pressures on the Academy to recognize the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. That will be its last chance to do so, by design, as it were, inasmuch it seems to have waited until the third year to make that almost inevitable move. Unless THE RETURN OF THE KING is markedly weaker than the previous two instalments (which is improbable), it is almost a shoe-in for best film.
Children are strong. They abide and they endure.
This small gem of a film aims at depicting a case of classic poverty in the Great Depression. It shows how a family who would otherwise had led a fruitful and happy life is thrown into abject misery after the father and sole breadwinner loses his job. It also shows what misery does to people and the fateful mistakes that it makes them commit, as they are struggling to retain their dignity in impossible circumstances.
The sociological analysis implicit throughout the film never gets in the way, however, thanks in large part to the superlative cast. Of particular note : Ian Hart, as LiamÕs father, who proves once more that he is one of the important British actors of his generation, and the 7-year old Anthony Borrows whose naturalness in taking directions (one can hardly talk of acting at that age!) is stupendous.
LIAM is a film demanding of its audience. For one, it is essentially visual as it means to show the adult world as seen by a young boy - Liam - whose soul is full of ideas, impressions and desires, but who is prevented from expressing them in words because of a serious speech impediment. As a result, and while there is a rich and subtle dialogue, much of the filmÕs substance is, in fact, conveyed in pictures requiring constant attention. LIAM is a film that rewards repeated viewings.
LIAM is also demanding because, dealing with a particular time and place - the slums of Liverpool where, about a decade later, the future Beatles would be born -, it presupposes that the viewer will be more familiar with the local circumstances than is actually the case with most of us. I picked up a few topical references, but I am sure that I missed many others. Of particular importance to make sense of a key scene is the knowledge of the fact that stammerers are fluent when they sing.
Finally, some will find it hard to watch such a sad story. Sad, it certainly is, but not relentlessly so. To begin with, Frears has a keen sense of the small pleasures of life and there are a number of scenes (e.g. the afternoon at the movies and its joyful aftermath) where he celebrates them. More importantly, there is the intelligence and inner strength that emanate from LiamÕs eyes, and, while watching him in the final scene, earnestly combing his sisterÕs hair, one gets a sense that, somehow, in spite of the cards stacked against him, the brave little boy will not only survive but thrive and live to tell his story - perhaps as a film director.
As Mrs.Cooper used to say in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Òchildren are strong, they abide and they endureÓ and they are the hope of the world, points magnificently driven home in LIAM.
Having said this, LIAM could also be a better film.
As is, it suffers from two main weaknesses.
Firstly, the screen-play lays it a bit thick on the Catholic Church, traditional Irish style. Undisputably, all that you see and hear is a true testimony on the stern messages that that Church used to preach to its flock, complete with terroristic sermons meant to make the faithful feel personally responsible for the sufferings of Christ on the cross and frightening metaphors of the everlastingness of the eternal punishment that awaits sinners in hell. The point is well taken, and perhaps could bear some limited repetition, to give us a sense of how such notions were unceasingly hammered into the Irish mind, but by the seventh or eight time around, the critical view has turned into an all-out attack which has turned into a caricature. Now, a caricature is an object of fun and ridicule, and, with Anne Reid and Russell Dixon hamming it up as the schoolmistress and the priest like a pair of merry buffoons, we are in for some famous entertainment! Admittedly, the story is gloomy enough that we may have use for some comic relief. At the same time, however, the most precious qualities of the film, its seriousness and its objectivity, the NON-JUDGEMENTAL value of its examination of the human condition, are badly compromised.
Secondly, the filmÕs approach of the issue of antisemitism is curiously problematic. LiamÕs dad becomes a fascist because he is convinced that Òthe JewsÓ own the world and run everything in it - therefore, they must be responsible for his misery. I am sure that Frears and McGovern disagree with that view, and yet it so happens that, in their film, ALL of the characters who own property and thus hold the key to the economic survival of the others are Jewish - as if to confirm the contentions of fascism! Truly there was not need to make the landowner a Jew in addition to the pawnbroker and the industrialist, or to make the latter the owner of the selfsame factory where LiamÕs dad was laid off. Also, generally speaking, and in spite of some nice touches, the Jewish characters remain sketchy and abstract, except for the pawnbroker, whose distress at the sight of his shop burned down by the black shirts is sure to break your heart - a fine piece of body-language acting on the part of Arnold Brown.