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Oscar Verdicts on Mirren, Clooney, Jackson

While waiting for the remaining big guns to screen, a look at acting showcases, a foreign film and the King of Pop’s final encore.

These days, Oscar is a waiting game. Most of the films that are in contention for the top awards have made the festival circuit or been screened around town; in the best-picture race, there’s probably not much left to see.

But what is left is significant. Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine,” Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” and James Cameron’s “Avatar” – those four films, none of which have screened to any significant degree, occupy four of the 10 slots on the majority of Oscar pundits’ forecast sheets.

So while we’re waiting to get a look at the fearsome foursome, the latest round of Oscar verdicts will examine a handful of films looking to score in the acting and foreign-language categories … plus, just for kicks, the movie that Elizabeth Taylor thinks should be up for everything.

“The Last Station”
Verdict: No offense to Hilary Swank (see below), but if you’re making a biopic, it’s a VERY smart move to start by casting Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. Particularly if you’re looking for actors to play the charismatic but vaguely seedy Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (we know him as Leo), and his fearsome and slightly unhinged wife Sophia. Mirren is a force of nature, Plummer is quietly commanding and always fascinating, and together they turn what otherwise might be a somewhat routine movie into something grand and touching. (Castmates James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti don’t hurt, either … nor, for that matter, do the radiant Kerry Condon and the appropriately unpleasant Anne-Marie Duff.)

Director Michael Hoffman plays it straight and keeps the tone fairly light through familial battles and disputes over who ought to own Tolstoy’s work after he’s gone: his family, or the Russian people. Giamatti, anxious to cast the author as the prophet of a new movement, opts for the latter, Mirren fights savagely for the former, and McAvoy is caught in the middle as the political turns very, very personal.

Oscar chances: Mirren is unquestionably in the best-actress hunt. From there, things get complicated. That’s partly because of confusion over where to fit McAvoy and Plummer, the latter of whom would probably be lost in the best-actor category but might split his supporting-actor votes between this film and “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” (though he’s far more deserving here). (Photo of Plummer and Mirren by Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Men Who Stare at Goats"
Verdict: Primed to expect this to be the least of Clooney’s fall and winter releases – when it comes to buzz, the film is no “Up in the Air” – I wound up pleasantly surprised by Grant Heslov’s fast, entertaining and very funny semi-true farce about oddball experiments within the U.S. military. As an (ex?) government agent who could have special powers (then again, maybe not), Clooney delightfully plays against type; he might think he’s as cool and slick as the typical Clooney character, but he’s seriously deluded. The narrative flags and meanders and doesn’t really add up, but the film’s spirit is so engaging that it doesn’t matter much. And Jeff Bridges really ought to make more movies.

Oscar chances: It’s silly. It’s weird. It’s a heck of a good time at the movies. They don’t expect to win Academy Awards as well, do they? Although Heslov does have some cachet with the writers branch …

“The White Ribbon”
Verdict: Impeccably shot in luminous black-and-white, gorgeously composed, leisurely paced and deeply disturbing (or is it deeply disturbed?), director Michael Haneke’s meditation on the evil undercurrents in a pre-World War I German town is not assaultive the way his films “Cache” and “Funny Games” were; the film, Germany’s entrant in the Oscar foreign-language race, makes its arguments for the venality of mankind more subtly.

You can read it as an understated look at the incipient seeds of National Socialism, or as a creepy treatise on how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children (and sometimes vice versa). Haneke does not make cheerful films – I think “malice, envy, apathy and brutality” are the words one character uses to describe the milieu in this one – but he is an assured, provocative and absorbing filmmaker, and his quietest film is awfully hard to shake.

Oscar chances: Is it too dark for the voters who screen foreign-language films in the first round of voting? Quite possibly. But I’d say it’s a near lock for the shortlist of nine, because if it’s not chosen by the voters it’s bound to be a pick of the executive committee, who fill three of the slots with worthy, often tough films that might otherwise be passed over. The question is whether it’ll then make it to the final five; it’s certainly not a shoo-in, but I’d say that its beauty, the way it sustains a mood, and the pressure applied by its festival wins and rave reviews will get it into the finals.

Verdict: The problem isn’t that director Mira Nair’s “Amelia” is an old-fashioned biopic – it’s that it’s an inept old-fashioned biopic. Hilary Swank’s Amelia Earhart was drawn to flying for reasons unknown, we learn in a laughably brief flashback. She was apparently good at it, though we never really see why and more often we hear about how she’s not really up to the challenge. She loves hubby Richard Gere but won’t promise fidelity. And she’s headstrong but willing to endorse every product he puts in front of her. Assembled from brief, almost haphazard vignettes, the film never creates anything approaching a coherent portrait, let alone an interesting one.

Oscar chances: What’s that Joni Mitchell line? Oh, yeah: “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” I said my piece on this front a few days ago, and there’s no need to revisit that territory. Suffice it to say that its hopes lie mostly in categories (costume design, maybe score) where old-fashioned is still a virtue.

“This Is It”

Verdict: One thing I always found disturbing about the concert films and TV shows Michael Jackson released during his lifetime was that his desperate need to be adored meant that for every shot of him performing, we got a shot of screaming fans worshipping at the altar of, you know, the K of P. I figured that this one, composed as it is of rehearsal footage without an audience, would be an exception – except that the film opens with a long sequence in which his dancers all talk about how fabulous Michael is. Sigh.

And yes, he was indeed a fabulous performer; the handful of times I saw him live, which began with an eye-opening Jacksons tour in 1981 and most memorably included the night he debuted the moonwalk at the “Motown 25” TV taping in 1984, testified to that. Neither a full-fledged performance movie (he’s at half-speed during many of these rehearsals, though even then he tries to oversell a slinky, understated song like “Human Nature”), nor a clear-eyed look at the process of putting together a show (it’s way too reverential for that), “This Is It” is fascinating, occasionally riveting, but in the end inessential look at a troubled performer whose comeback should have been triumphant rather than tragic.

Oscar chances: Dame Elizabeth notwithstanding, it’s really not in the awards picture. You could make a case for the editing that created a coherent performance from various rehearsals (and some suspiciously well-lit shots of the band that look to me as if they were filmed after-the-fact), but people who’ve lately been calling this a best-picture contender are dreaming if they think the Academy contains enough Jackson fanatics.