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Hailee Steinfeld (#110 of 5)

Cannes Film Festival 2014: The Homesman Review

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Cannes Film Festival 2014: <em>The Homesman</em> Review
Cannes Film Festival 2014: <em>The Homesman</em> Review

Back in 2005, Tommy Lee Jones made his directorial debut with the gritty (and somewhat gruesome) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a neo-western with a distinctly Peckinpahvian flavor. Now he returns with The Homesman, an oddball oater about a cagey claim-jumper who partners with a stern spinster to take three madwomen to Iowa and thence to their homes back East. In contrast to Three Burials, this one counts as a retro-western—“retro” as in retrograde with regard to fundamental depictions of generic tropes, not as in old-school throwback.

The film was adapted by Jones and two other screenwriters from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose works have previously provided source material for the John Wayne swan song The Shootist and, perhaps more telling given The Homesman’s unwieldy mix of earnest intentions and batshit craziness, Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and Children, wherein a ragtag bunch of misfit campers derogatorily labeled the Bedwetters take on Great White Hunters involved in a wild buffalo safari. All this is to say that no doubt some of the problems inherent with The Homesman’s abrupt shifts in tone can be laid at the doorstep of the original novel.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

While maybe not quite as tight as this category was in 2007, at which time we guessed correctly that Tilda Swinton would take the trophy from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Amy Ryan, and Ruby Dee practically by default, once again Best Supporting Actress is giving Oscar prognosticators everywhere the fear of—gasp!—getting one category wrong. The only candidate everyone feels pretty safe writing off without a qualm is Jacki Weaver, whose performance as Animal Kingdom’s quasi-incestuous Ma Barker picked up a citation from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, but whose slow-burning presence in the film doesn’t really start to accrue merit points until long after some voters could be expected to hit eject.

The Conversations: True Grit

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The Conversations: True Grit
The Conversations: True Grit

Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today’s film culture that it’s disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn’t take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don’t get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and ’50s. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.

This actually shouldn’t be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller’s Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens’ first actual western, but it’s such a natural fit for them because they’ve always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.

True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens’ film differs from Hathaway’s in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven’t read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What’s ultimately most striking about the Coens’ film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it’s just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.

Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Leading Role

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Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Leading Role
Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Leading Role

All season long, two prominent Oscar players have straddled the uncomfortable line between aligning with the supporting and leading categories. One appeared in approximately two-thirds of her film’s running time, most of it not merely the center of attention but arguably the black hole of attention; her handlers gunned for a Best Actress nomination, no doubt confident that “female lead in Mike Leigh’s newest film” translates to instant Oscar buzz. The other appeared in all but the final three or four minutes of her film (when an older actress took over the role for a “30 years later”-style coda), but admittedly spent significant chunks of that running time making room for her male costar’s grizzled, drunken antics; her handlers pushed her for a Supporting Actress berth. Both won various awards and nominations in their chosen categories, but now all the buzz surrounding these two particular races is whether the latter, Hailee Steinfeld, can pull off a Keisha Castle-Hughes miracle, which we now believe she can. All the while, virtually no one even mentions the name of the former, who would’ve probably been a slam dunk if she’d switched category allegiance. The hard lesson for Another Year’s almost certain also-ran Lesley Manville to learn from this: Don’t you dare, even when both the relative centrality and overtly showy nature of your role would justify the placement, stiff up in class when you could just as easily slum. Manville will be punished for daring to do the right thing, whereas True Grit’s Steinfeld will be doubtlessly rewarded—and, we think, in the correct category—for feigning modesty about her chances among the big girls. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that youth helps in Oscar’s distaff categories—a double-edged sword which only actually cuts those who play women who openly lust after men 10 to 15 years younger than themselves.

Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

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Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role
Oscar 2011 Nomination Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

At least three of the spots in Oscar’s supporting actress category have been sewn up since the start of the awards season—one for triple-A method actress and Golden Globe-winner Melissa Leo in The Fighter, a second for her costar and possible Oscar-night spoiler Amy Adams, the around-the-way alpha to Leo’s Medea-like omega, with Helena Bonham Carter happy to be riding shotgun for her piffle of a performance in The King’s Speech, wondering if her winsome solicitation of Geoffrey Rush’s services for her king of a husband, or her winsome intake of stammer-proofing breath, will constitute her likely nanosecond-length Oscar clip. By most accounts, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld is also a lock, but like everyone else, we have to ask, “In which category?”