“Crazy Heart” — 3 out of 4 stars
“An Education” — 3 out of 4 stars
“Food, Inc.” — 3.5 out of 4 stars
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” — 2.5 out of 4 stars
“Nine” — 1.5 out of 4 stars
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” — 4 out of 4 stars
“The Young Victoria” — 3 out of 4 stars
■ For a full list of Oscar-nominated movies, log on to www.oscars.com. The Academy Awards air at 6 p.m. March 7 on ABC.
■Find reviews of nominated films such as “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “District 9,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Invictus” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Up,” “Up in the Air” and more at www.craigdailypre...>
With the nominations announced in early February, the race for the 82nd annual Academy Awards is well under way. And no matter how much one may try to get to the cinema, it can be nigh impossible to see everything that’s up for the top honors.
But a good movie is a good movie, at least in certain elements, and whether you see the cream of the crop before or after the awards ceremony, movies approved by Oscar always are worth a look, either in a theater or on DVD, and fortunately, the former applies to numerous selections.
■ “Crazy Heart” — Washed up country musician Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is adrift in a sea of whiskey, floozies and a never-ending string of cigarettes, all of which are decimating the aging singer’s health. But when a journalist and single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes an interest in him, he may just have something to live for after his years-long personal tailspin.
Best Actor contender Bridges is astounding in this tale of a walking mess whose substance affected skin is as leathery as his guitar strap, while Best Supporting Actress nominee Gyllenhaal does just as well as the cautious younger woman trying to help him get his life together. After the almost identical storyline of last year’s “The Wrestler,” the movie’s impact is slightly lessened, but supporting cast members Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell — as Bad Blake’s more successful protégé — enhance the quiet Southwestern atmosphere, along with the bluesy Best Original Song nominee “The Weary Kind.”
■ “An Education” — In 1961 England, the middle class life of 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) entails nothing more than attending school, studying at home and practicing the cello, as her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) push her insistently toward a future at Oxford. But a chance encounter with a sophisticated older man (Peter Sarsgaard) leaves the impressionable teen enamored with an easygoing life of fine art, music and other such pursuits.
As far as coming-of-age stories go, director Lone Scherfig constructs an above average, highly poignant look at a teenage girl’s somewhat limited options in the time period, culminating in a Best Picture nod. Best Actress candidate Mulligan brings out the best of the material in Best Adapted Screenplay-nominated novelist Nick Hornby’s treatment of journalist Lynn Barber’s memoirs.
Though not mind blowing, the movie excels in emphasizing the true value of the finer things in life rather than subscribing to the idea that scholastic education is only necessary for financial security.
■ “Food, Inc.” — In order to answer the question of where America’s food comes from, documentarians travel across the country learning about the ins and outs of the food industry and how it has changed so drastically in the past 50 years. Touching on topics such as the treatment of animals in meat processing consortiums, outbreaks of E. coli and the evolution of genetically engineered products, the movie begins with arguments which have long been in the public eye but then moves on to subjects that get less of the spotlight. This includes the shifty practices of conglomerates in hiring procedures and sowing the seeds of discord through bullying tactics in the legal system.
Maker Robert Kenner’s attack on the secrecy of large-scale agriculture businesses is made all the more powerful by the accused companies’ lack of commentary on the issues at hand. Though strategically constructed toward the promotion of a greener lifestyle, this Best Documentary nominee is impossible to ignore with devastating statistics and an earnest approach to balanced information that would make Michael Moore stand up and take notice.
■ “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” — Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a 1,000-year-old guru of enlightenment, finds his traveling show — which includes a self-contained alternate universe unique to the mind of every individual who enters it — in danger when his nemesis Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) threatens to claim the soul of Parnassus’ daughter (Lily Cole). Only with the help of a mysterious stranger (Heath Ledger) can the ancient being hope to make things right in his world and perhaps in the worlds of others.
Noteworthy long before its completion because of Ledger’s untimely death during filming, Terry Gilliam’s latest is an indescribable phantasmagoria in terms of its alluring art and costume design, both of which are up for Oscars. Still, the story becomes confusing, and the cast isn’t utilized to their best — though Plummer did receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “The Last Station” — but the last-minute sharing of Ledger’s role by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell is reason enough to watch.
■ “Nine” — 1960s Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is suffering a midlife crisis and a huge slump in his career. After much soul-searching, he realizes that he must reconcile the relationships with all the women in his life in order to regain his sense of self and finally get a true cinematic achievement under his belt.
How many Academy Award winners does it take to ruin a movie? The answer to that riddle almost syncs up with the titular number, as two-time winner Day-Lewis bungles through “Chicago” director Rob Marshall’s misfire of the late Anthony Minghella’s screenplay. Oscar winning actresses abound in poorly realized roles: Marion Cotillard, as Guido’s neglected wife; Penélope Cruz, as his attention-starved mistress; and Nicole Kidman, as the actress who inspires his work.
Former statuette winners Sophia Loren and Judi Dench are easier to take than the ninth Oscar personality — if you want to count a nominee — with Kate Hudson insufferable as a flighty American fashion writer. With Cruz receiving the movie’s only acting nomination, it’s enough to make viewers wish Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie had gotten the distinction for her portrayal of the zaftig prostitute who haunts Guido’s memories, one of the few good characterizations the film takes from auteur Federico Fellini’s original opus “8 1/2.”
But as with most musicals, at least the sets and costumes are flashy and well-done.
■ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” — Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives a hellish existence in 1987 Harlem. Tormented by her mother (Mo’Nique) verbally, physically and sexually maltreated by her long-gone father, she is pregnant with her second child and is failing middle school at age 16 because of her illiteracy. But when she enrolls in an intensive educational program, a dedicated teacher (Paula Patton) helps her realize her own worth and find hope for the future.
Taboo topics such as incest, child abuse and more are given prominence in a story that is not afraid to show an unrelentingly ugly and uncomfortably realistic scenario. But this portrait of urban squalor — up for the Best Picture/Best Director combo for maker Lee Daniels — does have a flower poking out of the center of the soiled concrete, with Best Actress nominee Sidibe phenomenal in her debut performance as a child who’s never had a chance in life yet still manages to keep going after being beaten down day after day and never treated as if she’s the least bit precious.
Comedian Mo’Nique, tagged for Best Supporting Actress, matches her step for step in a groundbreaking dramatic role as Precious’ sadistic, hopeless mother who either fails or refuses to realize the worth of personal drive, parental love or even something as basic as daily nutrition. Also in the running for an award is screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s adaptation of Sapphire’s — the pseudonym for poet and former social worker Ramona Lofton — novel, which truly allows us to get into the head of the world-weary heroine and not only sympathize with her harried life but strive along with her for the better existence she desires with all her heart.
■ “The Young Victoria” — Sheltered and oppressed by her domineering relatives throughout her entire childhood, Princess Victoria (Emily Blunt) is the heir presumptive to the British throne in the 1830s. Upon the passing of her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent), Victoria is ready to take charge as the reigning monarch, but the nobles and commoners are uneasy with having a ruler so young and without a proper consort, though the new queen eventually finds one in her cousin, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
Blunt keeps this period piece fresh with a bravura showing as the woman who would go on to be the longest reigning British ruler, holding the throne for more than 60 years. The facts of Victoria’s life are tweaked for the sake of creative interpretation and though most of these changes are non-inhibitive, there is a lingering sense of sentimentality that makes it difficult to take it as seriously as it should be. As with any good period piece, art design, costumes and makeup are key, and here is no exception, with the film receiving nominations in all three categories.