Oscars Combat: Chiwetel Ejiofor vs. McConaughey

Kevin Spacey, in “House of Cards,” just played one of the best villains I’ve ever watched. But in 1994, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Verbal Kint, his character in “The Usual Suspect,” was a disabled “gimp” getting interrogated by a hard-ass special agent who keeps calling him “piece of shit.”

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Back when I was pickin’ beans in Guatemala . . .

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This is another installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. We’ve previously engaged the Best Supporting Actress battle, the Best Documentary battle, and the Best Supporting Actor battle. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third in Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

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“You’re stupid,” Agent David Kujan tells Verbal. “Worthless rat cripple.” Then it turns out he’s the baddest gangster in the entire world. He was lying and faking the entire time, to escape with $91 million he killed all those men for. On top of the money, his enemies are wiped out.

That was a classic performance. Spacey deserved to win an Oscar and he did and it was great.

There are people who claim to have figured out the ending of “The Usual Suspects” ahead of time. They shouldn’t talk. Because even if you knew Verbal was Keyser Soze, there’s a moment toward the end of the movie when Kujan says “It was Keaton,” and explains why. It’s a shockingly good case. So you might have know it, but for second there you thought you were wrong.

But wait, Keaton dies in the first scene, when a ship full of something worth $91 million that isn’t dope explodes. McManus yells. Hockney: “You sure you brought enough guys?” Benicio Del Toro’s Fenster mumbles like a young, drunk Vito Corleone. There’s a suitcase full of blueprints and blackmail files. “The Usual Suspects” was a thriller about huge heists and strong men’s secrets, with a twist ending and Keyser Soze. What a screenplay! By Christopher McQuarrie.

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The movie was nominated for two Oscars and won both. 13-year-old me knew Kevin Spacey was the best supporting actor. And that “The Usual Suspects” absolutely had to win Best Screenplay. I feel the same way about Chiwetel Ejiofor this year. (Choo-it-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.)

Ejiofor is indeed that great in “12 Years a Slave.” There’s a scene toward the ending, after poor Patsey’s back is obliterated by lash, when Ejiofor stares into the camera for a very long time. It’s how we finally get to take a break from the craziness, with Solomon Northup’s beyond-addled face looking right at us.

That’s acting. That’s something especially powerful. In some of the best scenes (like the funeral), the camera just frames Ejiofor’s face and holds still while he carries the best movie of the year. (Click here for another tiresome slobberfest over Ejiofor’s performance, and here for The Flip Side’s review, ecstatic over the cameos by Omar from “The Wire” and Eli from “There Will Be Blood.”)

Ejiofor deserves to win Best Actor. And Kevin Spacey rules.

P.S. I realize this is not a clean argument. The point I’m trying, without succeeding, to make is that one of the reasons the Oscars are cool, when the Academy Awards show is so uncool, is when you love movies you find yourself rooting for some of them to be rewarded in very specific ways. I loved Kevin Spacey’s performance in “The Usual Suspects,” and that was the first time I realized movies were written, and could be written amazingly well. Heath Ledger as Joker and Day-Lewis in “Blood” and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” were other times I really loved a movie and knew how I thought it could best be acknowledged. “12 Years a Slave” is probably going to win Best Picture, but I really hope Ejiofor upsets Matthew McConaughey and wins Best Actor.

The Underwood Ethos

Frank Underwood loves his life. We know Kevin Spacey is playing a man thrilled with each day by the way he sings out his window into the DC night at the end of a “House of Cards” episode. The killing and manipulation—especially the manipulation—are skills in a sport, and Underwood is an all star in his prime.

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Spacey gave an interview on “This Week,” the ABC Sunday-morning political show, where he said “our storylines aren’t that crazy” relative to real-life Washington DC. The most far-fetched parts, he said, depict Congress working hard to pass legislation.

“Some people feel that 99 percent of the show is accurate, and that the 1 percent that isn’t is that you could never get an education bill passed like that,” Spacey said.

That’s exactly right. “House of Cards” is a great show, but its deepest message portrays our government’s greatest failing: This conniving killer is better than what we actually have.

In October last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got caught on a hot microphone talking politics with Rand Paul, his fellow Kentucky senator and a big star in politics.

“I just did CNN,” Paul said. “I just go over and over again: ‘We’re willing to compromise, we’re willing to negotiate.’ I don’t think they’ve poll tested ‘We won’t negotiate.’ I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.”

“Yeah, I do too,” McConnell answered.

They’re reading lines they aren’t smart enough to write for themselves. Frank Underwood is always acting—yet another layer to Spacey’s performance—but he’s at least a master of improv.

In the new season, Frank negotiates entitlement reform. Retirement ages are raised under a Democratic president. Sick deals are slung, and Frank’s motives for backing the radical legislation are utterly villainous.

But utter villainy is better than our real-life Congress. They are less than nothing. Lower than evil. They poll test stalling messages. They don’t pass shit, on purpose, because they’re preening hacks who like easy work. They get to be rich TV celebs despite how ugly they are, and they don’t have to do anything but attend parties with donors and lie the same tired lies into cameras.

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seriously

Immigration reform is dead. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t working his connections to make it happen. He wasn’t making deals or threats or even, I’d bet, phone calls. He was drafting his statement for the press. And here’s what he came up with: “Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Right. Months (years!) go by without you getting anything done, and then you meekly blame the president. Frank Underwood would slap your face.

I’m not quite done with Season 2, but I love it. Frank is this embodiment of a particular aspect of society—soullessness in politics—who transcends what he represents. He doesn’t want children, yet he cares about his family’s past and his own legacy. He loves his wife. He loves his life.

Daniel Plainview, the oil baron anti-protagonist of “There Will Be Blood,” personified capitalism’s single-minded lust for profits. He also cared for his son and, for a while, longed to reconnect with a long-lost brother. Great characters can stand for something terrible and still be dynamic.

The president in “House of Cards” is a tool. This may not mirror our present Oval Office occupier, but we’ve seen tool presidents before in America. The most recent example exemplifies, again, how this TV character Frank Underwood is better than his real-life counterpart.

“Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Dick Cheney famously asked George W. Bush about Saddam Hussein over lunch one day. It was a dare, and it worked.

Cheney manipulated the president into giving what he wanted, but what he wanted was war. That’s not how you get the stone building that stands for centuries.

“Man of Steel” Preview, Part III: Everything at Stake

“Man of Steel” mustn’t suck. We are living in a moment of American history when corruption’s rot has tangibly spread across entire states, screwing up the lives of everyday innocents. Supervillains are real. They’re in Congress. If Superman isn’t awesome, that will only make it worse.

Emotional investment is key. For “Man of Steel” to be great, General Zod must feel real and terrifying. He’s gotta put up a spirited, spectacular fight. Michael Shannon as much as anyone (except, maybe. . .) is the right man to play Zod. His crazy, crooked cop in “Premium Rush” is a classic*. For just this scene in “Revolutionary Road” (this is such a good scene), he earned an Oscar nomination:

Flip Side editor’s note: This is the thrilling final chapter in an epic “Man of Steel” Preview Trilogy. In Part I, we fretted the director selection and costume (Click here). In Part II, we handed Hollywood the blueprint for a “Justice League” movie that will make more money than all the Harry Potter and Star Wars flicks combined (Click here).

The first scene of that movie, incidentally, is Joker giggling and murdering his way through a maximum-security underground government/Green Lantern Corps prison (with help from Deathstroke, whom he’ll quickly double cross) to free a shackled, locked-down Doomsday.

Count this somewhere among the Top 10 greatest things about the Netflix TV show “House of Cards”: It reminded us how good Kevin Spacey is. Spacey had been, for a while, the best. “Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty” Oscars. Hypnotic in “A Time To Kill,” “L.A. Confidential” and, especially, “Seven.” (Not “Se7en.” How did that happen?)

Since those high times? “Superman Returns” in 2006. No one cared if another Lex Luthor raised an ugly continent, or whatever the f*ck. We just wanted them all to shut up. And Spacey was such a predictable choice as Lex Luthor. You know who would have been way better? Duh.**

Anyway, Spacey turned to TV to finally douse the permastink from a lousy Superman movie.

Watch out, Michael Shannon. You might get the stink on you too. Spacey’s “American Beauty” and Shannon’s “Take Shelter” feel kind of similar—they’re both entertaining, emotional movies about normal guys, and they both address relatable issues simultaneously personal and grand. (“American Beauty” and the meaning of freedom; “Take Shelter” and fear of disaster.)

Zack Snyder will take something wonderful and twist it into garbage. Again, see “Watchmen.” No don’t. So the pressure is on Shannon. “Man of Steel” might very well need saving from a runaway maniac of a movie director. A transcendent bad-guy performance can work like ultimate medicine.

Oh, and what’d Kevin Spacey play in “House of Cards” to reestablish his cred? An evil, corrupt politician. Check out Kelsey Grammar as an insane, murderous Chicago mayor on “Boss.” What about “Scandal”? I didn’t watch it, but isn’t the president an alcoholic sex freak? TV is getting its villains exactly right lately.

Read the news, or just look around. Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way, right? Except truth and justice aren’t the American way anymore. You or I can’t do anything about that, but maybe a superhero could. We need the Man of Steel.

At the very least, we need “Man of Steel” to not suck.

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* This can’t be stressed strongly enough: “Premium Rush” is the best movie a person in the mood for something fast and fun could rent. Daredevil bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) vs. corrupt cop (Shannon), on the streets of Manhattan. It’s a great, great time.

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Lewis

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