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Is Silence Golden? The 2011 Academy nominees…

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Nine Pictures. One statuette…

In a bold move, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made good on their promise to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from their recent unwieldy total of ten contenders to a much more reasonable nine films. If ever there was any question that the Academy moves quickly to institute change, this should forever address that issue…

Silent vs. 3-D?

The Best Picture nominees for the 84th Academy Awards include very few surprises. Audience darling, Golden Globe winner and Oscar campaign veteran “The Artist” was nominated for Best Picture, one of its 10 Oscar nominations. It does mark the first time since the inception of the sound era that an (ostensibly) silent film has been nominated, which is Oscar history. Also nominated is “Hugo,” which received a total of 11 nominations. Golden Globe drama winner “The Descendants” also did well, garnering a Best Picture and 4 other Oscar nominations. “The Help”‘s popularity at the box office elevated that film to a Best Picture nomination, as well as 3 acting nominations. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earned him his best reviews (and box office) in years – and a Best Picture nomination, along with similar nods for original script, directing and art direction. Another veteran director, Steven Spielberg, received a Best Picture nomination for his “War Horse,” although his other film of 2011, the motion-capture ‘animated’ film “The Adventures of Tintin,” was a no-show in the animated film category.

Rounding out the  pack of nine nominees are “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” Of these, only “Moneyball” received multiple acting and adapted screenplay nominations, while ‘Tree’ scored nominations for veteran director Terrence Malick and Best Cinematography. Having another large field of Best Picture nominees does little to solve the traffic jam that is the Oscar telecast, but given the speed with which the Academy addressed the Best Picture nominee overpopulation issue, it’s a sure bet they’ll fix that moribund telecast… any day now…

Director

The Best Director field is broad this year. Oddly, despite directing two films in 2011, Steven Spielberg is NOT represented, but his pal Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” earned him his best reviews and audience acclaim in years, is. Alexander Payne, who won the statuette in 2005 for “Sideways,” is nominated for directing “The Descendants,” as well as for adapting its screenplay, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Michel Hazanavicius, best known in his native France for lowbrow spy spoofs, is the surprise of the directing nominees. His “The Artist,” a Golden Globe winner for comedy film, is reaping the benefits of a carefully-orchestrated Oscar campaign, complemented by wild audience acceptance. As noted above, Woody Allen is nominated for his popular “Midnight in Paris,” his seventh nomination as director (he won once before, for “Annie Hall,” for which he also won an original screenplay Oscar with Marshall Brickman). Finally, iconoclastic film director Terrence Malick was nominated for directing “The Tree of Life,” a film that has confounded, enthralled and agitated moviegoers, often simultaneously. A legendary perfectionist, ‘Tree’ is only Malick’s 5th film in 34 years, although he is rumored to have a couple of films nearing completion.

Best Actor

The Academy’s nominations for Best Actor seem to fall into two categories: favorites and newbies. The favorites (at least among audiences)?: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney won the Golden Globe for his “The Descendants” role (against Pitt). The newbies? Jean Dujardin of “The Artist” and Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.” Dujardin won the Golden Globe for comedy actor, and is probably the betting favorite for the actual statuette. The wild card? Longtime screen vet and first-time nominee Gary Oldman, whose turn in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination as Best Actor. In light of Oldman’s long and varied career, it’s surprising to learn this is his first Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

As with the Best Actor category, the race for Best Actress seems split into the familiar and the new. Familiar faces show up in the form of gender-bending Glenn Close, who adopted a male persona in “Albert Nobbs,” and ubiquitous Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” has earned her both critical plaudits and jabs, mainly because her portrayal of Thatcher includes depictions of her as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Streep has been nominated for a record 17 acting nominations and won 2, but her last win came in 1983, for “Sophie’s Choice.” Close has now earned six nominations, but no Oscar statuettes. Up against these two legends are relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. Although Mara (the lone non-technical nominee from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,”) has never been nominated before, this represents Davis’ second nomination (the first was for 2010’s “Doubt”), and Michelle Williams’ third (following “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.”)

Notably absent…

Sony’s Christmas tentpole film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was noticeably overlooked in Academy nominations; apart from Rooney Mara’s acting nod, as noted earlier, every other nomination was for technical contributions, leaving director David Fincher (and the film) basically shut out. Director Stephen Daldry, (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), failed to score a nomination for directing, his first time ever; Daldry has been nominated for each of his previous films, “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader,” but has never won. Similarly, Bennett Miller, a directing nominee for his 2005 “Capote,” failed to make the directing cut, although his film “Moneyball” did for Best Picture.

Who?

A few high-profile performances appeared to have gone unnoticed in this year’s performances. Although “Hugo” received the most Oscar nominations, its star, Asa Butterfield, did not receive one; his performance, criticized as flat by some critics, clearly underwhelmed the Academy. Michael Fassbender, hailed for his unyielding performance as a sex addict in “Shame” and as psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” was totally overlooked by the Academy. “The Descendants” actress Shailene Woodley was also passed over for a nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the mistake here seems to be the Academy’s, since her performance was exceptional.

Success is no guarantee of… success? 

Having your movie do well at the box office during the last year (a increasingly difficult proposition given declining B.O. dollars and attendance) offers no assurance you’ll also cash in at Oscar time. Of the year’s 10 biggest moneymakers, only 1 got a ‘Best Picture’ nomination, and that was for animated feature “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Despite a fierce campaign to garner gravitas, the Harry Potter series earned billions at the box office, but no Best Picture nomination for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Likewise with the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” although Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for original screenplay (against Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” – also Iran’s Foreign Language Film nominee, and dark-horse candidate “Margin Call,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor for a relatively microscopic budget of $3.3 million). 

Still to come: Original & Adapted screenplays; Supporting roles and more…

David Fincher must hate Harvey Weinstein…

November 30th, 2011 No comments

Stylish Cinema or Marketing Campaign?

Poor David Fincher. He must feel as though Harvey Weinstein has it in for him. This is the second year in a row in which Fincher is releasing a much-heralded movie adaptation, timed for year-end impact – in this case “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company is releasing a counter-programming one-two punch of “The Artist,” a stylized black & white ‘silent’ film, along with “The Iron Lady,” a biopic of Margaret Thatcher featuring the latest incredible transformation of star Meryl Streep. Last year, Fincher’s “The Social Network” was an Oscar frontrunner even before its October 1st release, but at year’s end The Weinstein Company released “The King’s Speech” along with a savvy blitz for industry recognition, eventually walking off with Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay Academy statuettes. Fincher and company had to settle for Best Editing, Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, despite 5 other nominations for directing, actor Jesse Eisenberg, best picture, sound and cinematography.

Haven’t I seen this before?

Based on the first of the late Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar trilogy, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a demanding tale of dark urges and violent retribution, and perfectly suited for Fincher’s cool, detached directing style. The original film adaptation was made in Sweden in 2009, and followed quickly by “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” all of which feature disgraced journalist Mikail Blomkvist and emotionally-scarred (and pierced and tattooed) computer hacker Lisbeth Salandar. Fincher’s English-language adaptation (by “Schindler’s List” Oscar-winning scribe Steve Zaillian) is likewise set in Sweden, ostensibly to convey the bleakness of the story’s tone and setting. Set to open on December 21, 2012, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is considered Sony’s prestige year-end film, and this marks the second time in two years that the studio has gone head-to-head with The Weinstein Company’s Academy Award ‘For Your Consideration’ publicity machine.

So, if bleak simply isn’t your thing…

The Weinstein Company’s “The Artist,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, is a mostly-silent, black and white romantic comedy about the early days of Hollywood and the advent of ‘talkies.’ An extended homage to the ‘magic’ of the silver screen, “The Artist” has received a textbook Weinstein release: opening over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in only 4 U.S. theaters, the film is benefitting from the numerous appearances Harvey Weinstein has made thumping the project, one of several his company is rolling out during year’s end. Enthusiastic word of mouth and a platform release is the hallmark of a traditional Weinstein Academy Award campaign.  Another well-touted Weinstein Company release is Michelle Williams’ transformative turn as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” based on the journal of a young man assigned to help her during the filming of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” So The Weinstein Company seems to be working a ‘zone defense’ on Fincher, using three of their releases to siphon off industry acclaim. (And box office bucks; although to be fair, the audiences for the films seem markedly dissimilar).

How will it end? The suspense is… familiar.

There’s no way of telling whether Fincher’s dark drama will be a hit – although Larsson’s novels’ remarkable international popularity and the successes of the orginal films in Sweden suggest a built-in audience. What seems certain, however, is this: the Weinstein-Fincher rivalry won’t be going anywhere soon. After all, there are two more Larsson books waiting for Fincher, if he chooses – and another year-end award season coming in 2012 for Harvey to contest. So I guess it’s safe to bet you haven’t heard the last of this competition.

Billy and Oscar: Like Crystal & Gold

November 11th, 2011 No comments

 

Apparently, the 9th is the ‘Crystal appearance…’

It didn’t take long for the Motion Picture Academy and newly-minted Oscarcast co-producer Brian Grazer to announce their choice to replace Eddie Murphy, who stepped down in support of disgraced producer Brett Ratner. Once again, the Academy has dipped into the past (although admittedly the more recent – and seasoned host – past) to find their next show host: Billy Crystal will host the February 26, 2012 telecast, his ninth outing as MC. Crystal is a solid choice for host, and a personal favorite. Still and all, I personally had hoped this shake-up would give the Academy to make an out-of-the-box choice, but the Motion Picture Academy is so slow to change it’s a wonder they have gotten it together to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from 10 to a more realistic number this year.

Despite all this ‘last minute’ change occurring more than three months before the Oscarcast, it’s hoped that Crystal will retain his faux movie appearances at the start of the show, but perhaps lose (or at least update) his satirical ‘musical salute’ to the nominees. Much has been made of the telecast’s ratings slide in recent years, and returning to an old template for the show may be a mistake. We’ll find out together, on February 26th, when Billy Crystal returns to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

Billy Crystal\’s 2004 Oscarcast opening 

 

Oscar: ‘Slurs are for jerks’

November 10th, 2011 No comments

Is Gervais Golden?

It’s the start of awards season, so Hollywood is gearing up to pat itself on the back. The Golden Globes are just a couple of months away, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is still debating whether or not to ask Ricky Gervais to host again. His edgy, ‘knock ’em down a peg’ style of humor last year was equally hailed as a breath of fresh air and reviled as thinly-veiled contempt. Frankly, I thought he was hilarious, but, then, he never made fun of me.

Academy to Ratner: slurs are for jerks

After Brett Ratner made a homophobic slur at a “Tower Heist” Q&A last weekend, calls for his resignation as an Academy Awards producer resulted in Ratner’s quitting the post on Tuesday. This was rapidly followed by the exit of Eddie Murphy, who had been named host shortly after Ratner was made a producer. Academy President Tom Sherak made a statement saying Ratner’s stepping down was “the right thing.” Privately, the Academy was livid at Ratner’s insensitive remarks. (When asked whether he rehearsed his actors before filming, Ratner flippantly responded “Rehearsing’s for fags.”) Since, Ratner has issued a letter of apology, but his recent interview with Howard Stern in which he graphically described his sex life proves that Ratner is still not ready for prime time. To add financial injury to homophobic insult, “Tower Heist” opened very soft this weekend, pulling in only $24 million; B.O. prognosticators had expected at least $25 million, so the film’s opening was weak, and isn’t helping the Ratner ‘brand.’

Bring in a fresh Producer…

Since there are only about 3 months until the Oscar telecast on Sunday, February 26, 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has jumped to replace Ratner. They didn’t have to look far, naming Ratner’s “Tower Heist” producer Brian Grazer as Oscarcast co-producer, along with the previously-named Oscar producing vet Don Mischer.  It’s clear, from the naming of Ratner and his hosting choice Murphy, and now with Hollywood titan Grazer (his “A Beautiful Mind” won the 2001 Best Picture Oscar) that the Academy is looking to ‘jazz up’ its annual spectacle, since recent years have seen a real dip in the famous ceremony’s ratings. Last year’s pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway was widely criticized as a transparent move to inject ‘young blood’ into the show – and it proved a real disappointment. It remains to be seen who Grazer will tap to host the awards ceremony, but he has strong ties to a number of comic (and dramatic) stars. Some names already mentioned are Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks. Stay tuned!

Murphy to Oscar: “Oh-Tay!”

September 8th, 2011 No comments

  

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I smell a Ratner…

Still stinging from criticism of the less-than-stellar 2010 Oscars telecast last February which paired actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco as show hosts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that Eddie Murphy will host the 2011 Oscarcast. That’s right: Eddie Murphy, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned 80s and 90s box-office powerhouse. While still a recognizeable figure, Murphy’s star has faded substantially in the past decade, despite maintaining a lucrative job voicing the character of Donkey in the “Shrek” films, as well as receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Even still, Murphy, whose last film was box office dud “Imagine That,” will be seen in the upcoming “Tower Heist,” opposite Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck, directed by Oscar co-producer Brett Ratner (who works alongside seasoned Oscar producer Don Mischer).

Can “Pluto Nash 3D” or “Re-Meet Dave” be far behind?

Ratner has expressed a desire to resurrect the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Murphy; the 3-film series made nearly a billion dollars in box office receipts from 1984 to 1994. Still only 50, Murphy broke-out in stand-up comedy and was made a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19. Two years later, he made his feature film debut in Walter Hill’s successful “48 Hrs.”, then cemented his box office stature with 1983’s “Trading Places,” a bona fide blockbuster hit. A number of hit films followed (“Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor”), but by 2002 Murphy’s film roles grew increasingly formulaic, and he was saddled with a series of high-profile flops, including “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,”  “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Clearly both Murphy and Ratner believe that “Tower Heist,” in which Murphy plays a thief recruited to help steal $20 million believed hidden by a Bernie Madoff-like con man, will revitalize his career. Early buzz on ‘Heist,’ which features a supporting cast filled with the likes of Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick, is strong.

Have I seen this one before?

The Academy has drawn on comedians to host the Oscarcast many times before: Bob Hope was considered the show’s ‘unofficial host’ for years. Johnny Carson hosted the show numerous times, and Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and even David Letterman have hosted (although Letterman was a one-shot wonder, as were subsequent ‘edgy’ comic hosts Jon Stewart and Chris Rock). It’s hoped that Murphy’s stand-up experience and career longevity will restore the Academy Awards telecast’s steadily declining ratings, but that a tough bet to make, given that Murphy’s dated appeal and R-rated humor may not  translate to a network awards show.

In other Brett Ratner-related news…

Whether by coincidence or design, another Ratner crony re-surfaced this week: Chris Tucker, of “Rush Hour” fame, announced he was set to join director David O. Russell’s comedy “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the director’s follow-up to last year’s box office hit “The Fighter.” Tucker hasn’t been in a film since “Rush Hour 3” in 2007, after hemming and hawing 6 years to make that film. Although he was (and remains) attached to a crime script at Warner Brothers called “The Rabbit,” it seems likely that Tucker’s next two projects will be Russell’s  ‘Silver Linings,’ as well as “Neighborhood Watch,” opposite Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Tucker is a mercurial figure who has worked with visionary directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,”) and Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) before finding financial and career stability with Ratner, with whom Tucker has made 4 films: the 3 “Rush Hour” films, as well as “Money Talks,” Ratner’s debut feature. Presently, Tucker is performing a standup comedy tour, set to end in November.

Beverly Hills Cop-out?

Eddie Murphy’s hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars next February probably won’t change much in terms of the show’s ratings decline. Despite Murphy’s $7 billion (with a b) in career box office earnings, what needs to be changed at the Oscars is the show, not its host. The Academy has already decreed that the number of Best Picture nominees will not be the 10-title phone-book list of recent years, itself a promising start. It’s clear the different producers of the last few years have taken stabs at originality, but the Academy Awards telecast remains a real relic of old Hollywood. Like the movie business itself, which is declining in the numbers of ticket buyers, the Academy Awards TV broadcast is going to have to find a new, sustainable model if it wishes to enjoy continued ratings – or relevancy.

Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’

Oscar’s Hosts, Hollywood Hit? and Passings…

November 30th, 2010 No comments

And the Oscar Comes From…

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced its hosts for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, which are scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2011. As with last year’s choice of “It’s Complicated” co-stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, producers Dan Jinks and Don Mischer opted for Hollywood star wattage over comedy hosting credits this year and cast Hollywood stars (and potential nominees) James Franco and Anne Hathaway as show co-hosts, the Academy announced yesterday. Neither actor is a newcomer to the Oscars: Franco was a presenter in 2009, and performed in a filmed spoof of his stoner character with “Pineapple Express”  co-star Seth Rogen. And Anne Hathaway proved a pleasant surprise when she ‘spontaneously’ sang and danced with  Hugh Jackman during his opening number the same year.

It’s  no coincidence that the Academy aimed younger and more mainstream for its hosts this year; the ratings for the Oscar telecast, a mainstay of Academy funding, have eroded in recent years, and clearly the Academy hopes to stanch this loss. Franco is a likely Oscar nominee for his lead role in the intense “127 Hours,” and Hathaway will soon appear – with an emphasis on appear – opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ed Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” in which the pair perform explicit nude scenes together. Owing to Hathaway’s character’s developing malady, she, too, stands a chance of an Oscar nomination. It’s a fervent hope of the Academy powers-that-be that this year’s telecast will reverse the trend of slipping ratings – and making the hosts younger and sexier is obviously a strategic move toward that goal. Will it work? Check in on Monday, March 8, 2011…

Beverly Hills Murder Mystery

Hollywood is still talking about the murder of successful publicist Ronni Chasen, who was shot multiple times early Tuesday, November 16th,  as she waited for a traffic light in her Mercedes on Sunset Boulevard in a quiet stretch of Beverly Hills. The murder of the diminutive publicist, who was hailed by clients and studio heads alike as tops in her field, has shocked the moviemaking community. Chasen was returning home from attending a premiere and after-party for Screen Gems’ “Burlesque,” when she was apparently targeted at the traffic light at Whittier Drive. Beverly Hills Police, who rarely see homicides, are keeping mum, although they have reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the Los Angeles Sheriff and the L.A.P.D.. Within hours of the killing, B.H. Police confiscated computers and other items from Chasen’s home and publicity firm office, but in the weeks that have passed no further information has been forthcoming. Even still, rumors circulate, including a disputed suggestion today that red-light cameras at the intersection had been tampered with to make them inoperable.  

Chasen, 64, was credited with creating the modern ‘Oscar’ campaign that is so ubiquitous at year’s end in Hollywood. The “For Your Consideration” ads that pepper Hollywood trade publications are a testimony to Chasen, whose publicity efforts brought Oscar gold (and instant credibility and higher salaries) to actors, producers and composers involved with films like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few. In a rare show of Hollywood unity, six major film companies joined to honor Chasen with a memorial service a week after her death. She is survived by her brother, filmmaker Larry Cohen (“Q,””Phone Booth”).

Darth is Dad? Surely You’re Not Serious…

As the year winds down, there are more losses from old Hollywood… Irvin Kirshner, perhaps best known as the director of “The Empire Strikes Back,” died Saturday at age 87. Kershner, who studied film at USC, began his career producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Service in the Middle East, then turned his attentions toward television, where he directed documentaries and episodes of popular shows like “Ben Casey” and “Naked City.” Kirshner transitioned into feature films, earning a distinction as one of producer Roger Corman’s first proteges when he was handed the directing reins for 1958’s “Stakeout on Dope Street.” A-list films (and stars) followed, including “A Fine Madness” and “Never Say Never Again” with Sean Connery, “Up the Sandbox” with Barbra Streisand, and “Eyes of Laura Mars,” with Faye Dunaway (featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones as a killer). But Kirshner had his greatest commercial success with “The Empire Strikes Back,” a substantially darker film than its “Star Wars” predecessor; while critical reaction was muted at the time of its release, now the film is often referred to as the best of the original three “Star Wars” movies.

Leslie Nielsen, whose career as a dramatic leading man took a left turn to embrace comedy stardom in his mid 50s, died from complications of pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 84. Born in Canada, the handsome young Nielsen studied acting at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, and later at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Live television roles followed on shows like “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Kraft Theatre.” Before long, the much-in-demand Nielsen was making feature films, including “Forbidden Planet,” while he continued working steadily as a TV guest star for the next 20 years. Although he remained busy, his roles grew increasingly colorless until he was cast in 1980’s “Airplane!” as Dr. Rumack. His deadpan delivery of lines like “Don’t call me Shirley” and “I’m a doctor, you can tell me anything” revitalized his career, and Leslie Nielsen was ‘rediscovered,’ at age 54, as a comedic star. He went on to star in a TV series, “Police Squad!,” as well as 3 “The Naked Gun” feature film spinoffs starring that series’ main character, Police Lieutenant Frank Drebin. All told, Nielsen’s career covered over 60 years and resulted in 239 TV and movie roles; his credits ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but he will surely be remembered for making us laugh.

Hollywood Autumn

September 30th, 2010 No comments

It has been a tough week for Hollywood and Broadway, not to mention the comedy world, in terms of losses. In just the last week, four Hollywood legends have passed away and two younger talents, a renowned editor and popular comic, have died unexpectedly. Most of us have heard the old saying about losses coming in threes, but multiples of three? That’s hard to take.

Eddie Fisher died at his home in Berkeley, California on September 23, 2010 from complications of hip surgery. He was 82. A singer and actor, Eddie Fisher was a top performer whose tumultuous love life commanded headlines throughout the 1950s. As a teen heartthrob, he scored four number-one hits, and his good looks and charm won him his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, with whom he had two children, including writer-actress Carrie Fisher of “Star Wars” and “Postcards From the Edge” fame. In 1959, Fisher earned notoreity and public scorn when he left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor in a messy breakup, complicated by the fact that Taylor had recently been widowed when her husband Michael Todd died in an air crash – and Eddie Fisher was Todd’s best friend. Fisher married actress Connie Stevens after Taylor left him for co-star Richard Burton while she was making the ill-fated “Cleopatra” in Rome. A period of decline, due to personal, financial and drug problems, ensued in the 1970s. Fisher married twice more, and wrote about his vicissitudes in two autobiographical tomes: “Eddie Fisher: My Life, My Loves,” and “Been There, Done That.”  In addition to Carrie Fisher, he is survived by actress Joely Fisher, his daughter by Connie Stevens, two other children, and six grand-children.

Gloria Stuart (nee Stewart) passed away September 26, 2010. She had turned 100 years old on July 4, 2010, but earned her current celebrity from her role as 101 year-old Rose in James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.” Oddly, Stuart’s long life makes the fictional Rose’s look mundane: born in Santa Monica in 1910, Gloria attended University of California at Berkeley, where she met her first husband, a sculptor. Living in an artists’ colony with the likes of photographer Edward Weston and journalist Lincoln Steffens, Gloria acted in a local theater and wrote for newspapers. In 1932 a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse earned Gloria a newfound respect for theater – and a 7 year contract with Universal Pictures. One of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and a regular at the famed Algonquin ‘Round Table,’ over the next 14 years she performed in 46 films, acting beside Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” and opposite Boris Karloff in “The Old Dark House,” both directed by “Frankenstein” director James Whale. Eventually the roles grew increasingly undemanding, and, in 1946, Gloria Stuart (she changed the last name for marquee symmetry) bid her Hollywood career goodbye. Remarried, she traveled around the world, settled in New York City, had a daughter, taught herself to paint, moved to Italy, later began a new career as a master print maker, and eventually wound up as Rose in Cameron’s epic film, playing 101 years old at age 87. A full life, indeed.

As we already noted in For Bards Blog, Academy Award nominated film editor Sally Menke was found dead on September 28, 2010 after failing to return from a trail walk during a record heatwave. In addition to editing all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Sally also edited two films for Billy Bob Thornton. She was 56 years old; she leaves behind a husband, TV director Dean Parisot, and two daughters.

Arthur Penn died on September 28, 2010 of congestive heart failure, one day after his 88th birthday. Arthur Penn was born in Philadelphia in 1922; his older brother Irving earned international fame as a photographer, but Arthur followed his interests into theater after serving in WWII, working with then-unknown director Joshua Logan. Eventually he garnered a job as a floor manager for the “Colgate Comedy Hour” in New York City, and worked his way up to directing live TV dramas on “Goodyear TV Playhouse,”  “Philco TV Playhouse” and “Playhouse 90.” Before too long, Penn was dividing his time between Hollywood and New York City, directing Broadway hits like “The Miracle Worker,” “Two for the Seesaw”  and “Wait Until Dark.” After winning a Tony for directing “The Miracle Worker,” Arthur Penn directed his Broadway stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the film version of William Gibson’s drama, earning his first Oscar nomination and winning Oscars for both Bancroft and Duke. Penn only made a dozen theatrical feature films, most notably “Bonnie and Clyde,” the 1967 film whose over-the-top violent ending polarized critics of the day. While a string of Broadway successes and quirky films like “Little Big Man” and “Night Moves” followed, Penn will forever be known as the ‘bloodthirsty’ director of “Bonnie and Clyde,” opening the door for cinema followers like Sam Peckinpah, although Penn himself likened the 1967 film to the Vietnam War, exposing the grittiness of violence to give it value.

Comedian Greg Giraldo died Wednesday, September 29, 2010, five days after falling into a coma after an apparent accidental prescription overdose. He was 44 years old. The comedian was a Comedy Central cable TV network mainstay, appearing regularly on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” and Lewis Black’s “Root of All Evil,” and earning special acclaim as host of Comedy Central’s ‘roasts,’ where his sarcastic humor and semi-serious rants offered a glimpse into the comedian’s darker side. Initially educated as a lawyer, Giraldo gave up the legal profession to tour as a successful comedian, and his popularity soon earned him appearances on late night talk shows. His ascendancy on Comedy Central followed. Giraldo, a divorced father of three, was set to perform in New Brunswick, New Jersey when he was discovered unresponsive and taken to a local hospital.

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis died in his home in Henderson, Nevada, also on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx on June 3, 1925, Curtis faced a bleak future when his parents, Hungarian immigrants, placed him and his brother in a state-run institution during the height of the Depression. Toughened by street life and anti-Semitism, Curtis entered the US Navy during WWII, serving on the submarine tender U.S.S. Proteus. After his service, he gravitated toward theater, working in the Catskills until a casting agent saw him and invited him to Hollywood. Signing a contract with Universal, he settled on the pseudonym Anthony Curtis. By 1951 he was the Tony Curtis; it was also the year he married actress Janet Leigh. They had two daughters, including actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis carved out a successful career during the 1950s and 60s, forming alliances with directors Richard Fleischer and Blake Edwards, among others. As his Hollywood film career stalled, Curtis tried his hand at two television shows, “The Persuaders” and “McCoy.” After a stint at the Betty Ford Center to deal with alcohol and drug issues, Curtis re-invented himself as a fine artist, painting boldly-signed, Matisse-influenced works. After his divorce from Leigh, Curtis married five more times. He is survived by 5 children; one son died in 1994 of a drug overdose.

It certainly is a lot of loss to deal with in a short period of time, but we can take comfort in the fact that all these talents left behind works we can continue to enjoy.

R.I.P. Sally Menke 1953-2010

September 28th, 2010 No comments

The cinema world lost an exceptional talent yesterday with the death of film editor Sally Menke, award-winning and multi-nominated talent behind the editing of every Quentin Tarantino film, including his latest, “Inglourious Basterds,” for which she was nominated for both an Academy Award and BAFTA award. Apparently Menke went out in the worsening Los Angeles morning heat for a walk with her dog in Beechwood Canyon, but when she did not return, family and friends notified authorities and began searching. Her body was reportedly found near the trail at 2 AM, with her dog guarding her. Although no cause of death has been established, it is believed to be related to the 113 degree heat blanketing Los Angeles yesterday.

It’s a big loss for the film industry – and for Quentin Tarantino especially. Sally Menke had edited every single one of Tarantino’s films, undoubtedly aiding him in developing the quirky chronology-fragmenting style that has come to define a Tarantino film. From the chatty opening of “Reservoir Dogs” through its casually intense violence, torture, and bloody denoument, Sally Menke showed that there was a different way to put together a traditional bank robbery picture that would turn the genre on its ear… if you’ll forgive a bad pun.

As an editor, Sally Menke worked with other directors: she edited Oliver Stone’s “Heaven & Earth” in 1993, (the year before she edited “Pulp Fiction” for Tarantino, for which she and garnered her first Academy Award and BAFTA nominations) and with Lee Tamahori in 1996 on “Mulholland Falls.” In 2000 she edited Billy Bob Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses,” and in 2001 his “Daddy and Them,” although it seems clear that working with Tarantino was her first priority, and she would only take a non-Tarantino job if the notoriously deliberate writer-director was between films.

But it was “Pulp Fiction” that put both her and Tarantino firmly on the Hollywood map. Nominated for top awards in both America and England, Sally came home empty-handed but with a big reservoir of credibility. For the next few years she worked steadily as Tarantino followed “Pulp Fiction” up with “Jackie Brown,” both ‘Kill Bill’ films, “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2” as well as the ‘Grindhouse’ double bill of “Grindhouse: Death Proof” and “Death Proof,” its feature-length sibling. This was followed by her greatest artistic accomplishment (and, sadly, her Tarantino swan song), the award-nominated editing of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

Sally Menke’s final film was 2010’s “Peacock,” an oddball indie film starring Cillian Murphy as… well, without ruining things for anyone, let’s just say he’s something of a pick-up artist. Apart from its notoreity as Sally Menke’s last film, “Peacock” will probably be best known as another Ellen Page film…

But Sally Menke’s legacy lives on in the vibrant, life-giving momentum she gave her films and their creators. She will be missed. Her work, however, is for the ages.