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Friday, February 22, 2013
The annual sportswriter's Oscars preview!

By Jim Caple

Ben Affleck at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon for Argo
Thanks to "Argo," Ben Affleck is a great comeback story. But will his rally end with a win?

I love coming attractions, better known as movie trailers. They whet your appetite for the main feature like batting practice prepares you for the real game. But at least batting practice ends.

The same can no longer be said for trailers, which are now so many endlessly strung together that not even Evel Knievel could have leaped over them all with his skycycle. The trailers at the past two movies I saw lasted 20 minutes. Worse, the previews are preceded by a relentless barrage of commercials. It’s become a draining experience. Literally. I think the objective it to drag out the trailers so long that you’ll pay the extra 25 cents to upgrade from a “small" 64-ounce soda to the “medium" barrel so your drink lasts to the end of the movie.

The obvious solution to all this, of course, is to simply show up later than the scheduled start. Except every once in a while, the trailers are shorter than usual and you wind up walking into the movie five minutes late. So I don’t know what to do, other than to bring along a book and a reading light. "War and Peace" might be a necessary choice.

And with that out of the way, here is my annual Academy Award preview. Hopefully, it won’t take 20 minutes to read.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild": Michael Jordan turned 50 this week and he retired (the final time) a decade ago, but he still is a cultural influence. For one thing, we still have to endure his occasional ad for Hanes underwear. And now he’s in a movie nominated for Best Picture! Well, not M.J. himself. But his jersey is.

An old Bulls 23 jersey with a face drawn on it stands in for young Hushpuppy’s departed mother. Hushpuppy talks to the Mother Jersey about how much she misses her. The jersey never says anything, but it still delivers a more emotional, nuanced performance than Jordan did in "Space Jam."

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis: What a WARR.

"Lincoln": Of course, M.J. has nothing on Abraham Lincoln. He was president 150 years ago, but in just the past year he has been the subject of three theatrical releases: "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter," Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" and the recent "Saving Lincoln." He’s on the $5 bill and shares a holiday with George Washington. Plus, he competes each game in the Washington Nationals mascot race, where he holds a commanding overall lead with 214 victories. With all that, I’m surprised Honest Abe doesn’t advertise Hanes underwear, too. “For a tight, uncomfortable fit, wear Rail-Splitter briefs."

Anyway, Daniel Day-Lewis is the prohibitive favorite to win Best Actor for his performance as Lincoln -- and for good reason. This is one of the greatest acting performances in film history. Which is no surprise. As I’ve noted before, Day-Lewis has appeared in just 11 movies since 1989 but has received a Best Actor nomination for five. And this will be his third win. That gives him Hollywood’s highest WARR -- Wins Above Ryan Reynolds. (For sabermetric purposes, Ryan Reynolds is considered the base line for a decent looking but bland and thoroughly replaceable AAA-level actor).

"Silver Linings Playbook": I thought Robert De Niro had played psychotic, angry, violent and otherwise mentally-unhinged characters before in "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas," "Raging Bull," "The Untouchables," "Analyze This," "This Boy’s Life," "The King of Comedy" and "Cape Fear," but those roles are nothing compared to the gambler with OCD in this movie. He plays a Philadelphia fan who repeatedly bets on the Eagles to win! And yet Bradley Cooper is the one who spends time in an institution and takes drugs for his mental issues. Go figure.

I don’t think “Silver Linings" is the year’s best picture but I liked it a lot. It’s one of the few recent movies that I enjoyed more as it went along. Which is probably because the characters developed as the movie went along, rather than the film simply becoming an ever-more ludicrous stretch of fights, explosions and assorted violence. You know, like fans at a Philadelphia game.

"Les Miserables": I went to the theater expecting a movie about fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Lions or any Cleveland sport but instead was greeted with a very long opera about a man released from prison after years of brutally dehumanizing labor because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his family, only to be hunted for even more years by an obsessively zealous policeman. So, basically, Les Miz is a comedy compared to what Pirates, Lions and Cleveland fans have endured.

Anne Hathaway will win Best Supporting Actress for her emotionally wrenching performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." With her head shaved, her body emaciated from hunger and her spirit destroyed by prostitution, she sits at the bottom of a dank, fetid hole and sings: “I had a dream my life would be, So different from this hell I'm living, So different now from what it seemed, Now life has killed the dream I dreamed." Hmmm. Maybe this is about Pirates, Lions and Cleveland fans aftr all.

R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets
R.A. Dickey: 2012's *second* most inspiring comeback story.

"Argo": R.A. Dickey was a U.S. Olympic athlete and a first-round draft pick in 1996. But he lost an $800,000 signing bonus when doctors discovered he was missing a ligament in his pitching elbow. He gave up a record-tying six home runs in a game. He changed teams eight times and was 35 years old before he had an ERA below 4.60. Then in 2012 at age 37 he threw two one-hitters, made the All-Star team, won 20 games and was named the National League Cy Young winner.

The most amazing 16-year career arc, however, belongs to Affleck, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1997, then went on to make "Gigli," "Surviving Christmas" and "Daredevil" before having a movie nominated for Best Picture this year.

I enjoyed "Argo," but my one beef is the scene at the end where a gun-toting security force in a car chases after the plane as it takes off. It’s not only silly and complete fiction, it’s unnecessary. The scene where they simply try to have their documents accepted by the Iranian customs agents at the airport is gripping and dramatic enough. Sigh. At least Affleck didn’t include J-Lo in it.

"Django Unchained": I really enjoyed this movie for the first two hours. Unfortunately, it’s a 2-hour, 45-minute movie, and the final 45 minutes completely ruin it and left me angry and desperate to escape the theater (though the again marvelous Christoph Waltz deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). It was like the Pirates 2012 season. Wonderful up to mid-August, then destroyed by the final six agonizing weeks.

Why does Quentin Tarantino feel the need to fill his movies with such blood-letting? When I see audiences lap up the gratuitous carnage in today’s movie, it makes me wonder why we’re shocked at gun violence in America.

But enough sermonizing. What I found most interesting in this movie was the presence of actor Dennis Christopher. I’ve written before that Christopher was in two of the best sports movies of all time -- he was the lead character, Dave Stoller, in 1979’s "Breaking Away" and had a small part as American runner Charlie Paddock in 1981’s "Chariots of Fire." And then his career went in the toilet. He appeared in such dreck as "Dead Women in Lingerie" and an episode of "Murder She Wrote" -- though fortunately not "Angela Lansbury in Lingerie."

But he’s back on the big screen as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lawyer in "Django Unchained." And with his career back on the mend, perhaps it’s time for a "Breaking Away" sequel in which Dave Stoller reveals to Oprah that he was on performance-enhancing drugs when he won the Little 500.

Amour At age 86, Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress and the second-oldest to be nominated for any Oscar. Meanwhile, “Beast of the Southern Wild’s" 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, is the youngest ever nominee. Frankly, I don’t get the fuss over Wallis (or “Beasts," for that matter). If she were 19, 29 or 39, would anyone be impressed by the performance? It’s the same as when any child actor gets nominated (Tatum O’Neal, Anna Paquin) -- their age is somehow considered as relevant as the actual performance. But anyway, this makes the greatest age spread ever in any competition, though it wouldn’t have been if only Jamie Moyer had pitched to Bryce Harper last year.

"Zero Dark Thirty" I’m sorry, but whenever I hear Jessica Chastain’s name, I always think of Brandi Chastain first. And frankly, Brandi revealed far more at the end of the 1999 World Cup than we ever learn about Jessica’s character in this movie, who is the perfect CIA operative in that she apparently has no personal life, family or backstory to hide. Chastain gives a good performance, but her Zero Dark Character is as anonymous as the 2013 Astros.

By the way, Chris Pratt, who is one of the prominent Navy SEALs in "ZDT," also played Scott Hatteberg in "Moneyball." Now, we all know how tough Navy SEALs are, but I think "ZDT" would have been improved if director Kathryn Bigelow had included a training scene with Billy Beane telling Pratt that becoming a SEAL "isn’t that hard. Tell him, Wash." And then Ron Washington responds, "It’s incredibly hard." And then Beane/Brad Pitt has Pratt swim five miles through shark-infested waters while towing Brangelina’s yacht.

Lance Armstrong
"Life of Pi" and Lance Armstrong have more in common than you might think.

"Life of Pi": Yann Martel’s "Life of Pi" is one of my favorite books. And director Ang Lee faithfully and beautifully recreates Pi’s story about a boy trapped for 227 days on a lifeboat in the ocean with a ferocious and very hungry adult tiger named Richard Parker. I’m usually not much for movies dependent on special effects, but Lee did a masterful job, making us feel Pi was in the boat with an actual real tiger when Richard Parker was almost always as nonexistent as the LSU Tigers offense in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

Those who read/saw "Life of Pi" know that its paramount question is "Which story do you prefer?" As in, which stories do you tend to believe: The positive, inspiring tales or the horrific, depressing tales?

In sports, we’re constantly challenged by this question. Did you believe a man could overcome cancer and become the world’s greatest cyclist without cheating? Do you believe a running back can suffer torn ACL and MCLs and then not only come back just eight months later but also rush for 2,000 yards through nothing more than hard work? Do you believe a player who shows up to spring training buffed and 20 pounds heavier got that way just through protein shakes and rigorous training?

I am not so positive and upbeat, however, that I think the Minnesota Twins can make the playoffs this year, given that they will be sharing their divisional boat for 182 days in the AL Central Sea with Tigers named Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter.

Anyway, here are my Oscar picks: Hathaway and Waltz win Best Supporting Actors, Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings" and Day-Lewis win Best Actors, Spielberg wins Best Director and "Lincoln" wins Best Picture. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to the theater. The trailers are starting.