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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.

Are Movies Getting BIGGER?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

In the 1950 classic “Sunset Blvd.,” when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), he says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.” Norma’s response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”

“Sunset Blvd.”‘s script won Academy Awards for screenplay and story for writers Billy Wilder (who was also nominated for Best Director), writing partner Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.. It’s one of many memorable lines in a classic Hollywood film about Hollywood that garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture, winning the coveted statuettes for Screenplay/Story, Art/Set direction and Best Score (by Franz Waxman). Seen at the time by movie stars and studio heads as an indictment of Hollywood, “Sunset Blvd.” has gone on to become a beloved drama often quoted by cinephiles. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” is another classic line, having worked its way into the popular lexicon as an alternative way of saying “I’m prepared.”

But Norma Desmond’s biting response about Hollywood raises an interesting point. Fewer studio films are being made (110 in 2010 versus 121 in 2009), and the cost of most of those fewer films have risen. Since box office figures represent a drop in attendance in 2010 of 8%, and the total domestic box office return dropped 4%, it’s clear that fewer people are going to the movies – and they are paying more. Premium 3-D ticket prices are the reason the box office take hasn’t shrunk as much as attendance, but the fact remains that the movie business is undergoing a paradigm shift. Are pictures getting smaller? Quite the opposite: they’re getting BIGGER.  

A quick look at the upcoming slate of pictures for 2011 makes one thing very obvious: for better or worse, consider 2011 ‘the year of the numeral.’ Sequels, prequels and remakes rule the roost in the coming year, with titles like “The Hangover 2,” “Transformers 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2,” “Scream 4,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes,” “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” a remake of “Arthur,” another Tyler Perry ‘Madea’ film – “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” along with a new Muppet movie, as well as “Mission Impossible 4,” “Sherlock Holmes II,” another remake of “The Lone Ranger,” (due in 2012) and an American version of Sweden’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by “The Social Network”‘s David Fincher. And that doesn’t even count the veritable flood of superhero movies coming our way: “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Green Lantern,” to name a few.

So – are the pictures getting small? No way. Studios and moviemakers depend on recognizeable ‘properties’ to stoke their B.O. furnaces, and just about every film listed above will have a budget equal to (or more than) the previous film in its series. After all, ‘bigger is better,’ right? At least that’s what Hollywood is counting on. The studios are also readying ‘familiar’ projects (many of them in 3-D to optimize profits) like “Dark Shadows,” an adult-themed “Red Riding Hood,” “The Smurfs,” “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D motion capture film by Steven Spielberg (and ostensibly the first of a series), in addition to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” based on the beloved 1938 kids book.

So – pictures are getting bigger. TV and movie maven J.J. Abrams has his super-secret “Super 8” project coming out in early June – it’s a nod to the early sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg. And things are really going to get loud and in-your-face when Michael Bay opens his next “Transformers” film on July 1st. In addition, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau has his hybrid western/action/sci-fi graphic novel adaptation “Cowboys & Aliens” opening at the end of July. Even Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) has another action film opening with “Sucker Punch,” opening on March 25th. If you didn’t get enough titan clashing in 2010, Mickey Rourke and the next Superman, Henry Cavill, will become “Immortals” in a Grecian epic opening in November.

So – unless you are a denizen of indie arthouse fare, depend on one thing: movies are getting bigger. Running times often underscore this, making some action/adventure films feel like an extended assault on your senses. It’s all part of the ‘magic of the movies,’ although the coming glut of pre-packaged entertainment might leave one wondering whether it’s dark magic – or merely time-worn tricks being utilized to, as Harry Cohn famously said, ‘put fannies in seats.’

Next: Hold On – aren’t movies getting smaller?