THIS WEEK’S BRIEFING

22 Aug


Denzel Washington plays a ’70s drug lord in early Best Pic favorite American Gangster.
(photo source: ConcreteLoop.com)

Awards Chatter

  • It’s way too early to make a serious prediction of who’s out front for Best Picture, but my sense at the moment is that it may be a three-way race between Atonement (Focus), American Gangster (Universal), and Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal). Take this with a grain of salt, since prognosticators had crowned Cold Mountain, Munich, and Dreamgirls as frontrunners at this point in years past—but keep in mind that while the aforementioned films did not win, they still went on to play major roles in the race. I am hearing marvelous things about both Atonement and Gangster (not much yet on Charlie), and my early impression is that we might see a Picture-Director split (a la ‘00, ‘02, ‘05, etc.), since Atonement has more of a Best Picture pedigree, but Gangster is directed by the revered Ridley Scott, who has been around forever (started in the ‘60s), is getting up there (he’ll turn 70 in November), and has never been honored (he was the victim of the aforementioned ‘00 split), and will therefore engender more affection (see Scorsese in ’06) than the lesser-known helmer of Atonement, Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice). We’ll see.
  • I can’t say for sure until I see the film in Toronto in early September, but my gut—based primarily on a very well-done trailer and the way WB seems to be handling the film—is that Michael Clayton, which stars George Clooney as a lawyer dragged into scandal, is actually a lot better than people realize, and will be in serious play for a Best Picture nomination.
  • I’m being told that the magnitude of Reese Witherspoon’s role in Rendition as a grief-stricken wife of an alleged terrorist has been greatly overemphasized in advance publicity for the film, including the film’s trailer. It is certainly understandable that New Line would want to capitalize on Witherspoon’s box-office power, but awards watchers should guarded about her prospects as a serious candidate for Best Actress. In other words, she may be more Blanchett-in-Babel than Witherspoon-in-Walk the Line. (Supposedly, the film itself is more of the commercial than awards sort, anyway.)
  • Joaquin Phoenix fans have to be feeling good about his prospects. After struggling for years to emerge from his bad-boy rep and the shadow of late brother River, he made great strides with his awards-worthy perf in Walk the Line in 2005. Now, he is being heavily touted for a Best Actor nomination for Reservation Road, and if he does indeed make the cut, he could very possibly benefit from being the category’s only nominee without an Oscar—likely competition includes past winners Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tommy Lee Jones. The only other anticipated contenders without Oscars are Johnny Depp and James McAvoy. (Note: The impossible-to-dislike Keira Knightley and Laura Linney may find themselves in a similar situation in the Best Actress field for their performances in Atonement and The Savages, respectively.)
  • Harvey Weinstein is revving his engines, and while he no longer has the resources of Miramax to work with, you can be sure his hunger for Oscar (which is directly responsible for the ’98 win of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan) has not evaporated since his founding of The Weinstein Company with baby bro Bob. Therefore, when Harvey talks, I listen, and he is now on record with the following statement pertaining to TWC’s Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There: “I may be jumping the gun, but if Cate Blanchett doesn’t get nominated, I’ll shoot myself.” (I have been independently projecting a Supporting Actress nomination for Cate the Great for some time now.) Aside from Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and the mid-season release Sicko in the Documentary category, Harvey’s got nothing else to focus on, so this is a strong indication of where he will be investing his considerable energy and resources this awards season.
  • I keep hearing from various sources about two films to keep an eye on as sleeper contenders in major categories: The first is Love in the Time of Cholera (New Line), which is adapted from a novel, depicts a love-triangle in South America at the turn of the 20th century, and apparently features a particularly impressive performance from Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the woman caught in-between Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. The second is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax), a French film that I’m told is in the same vein as Life Is Beautiful—it is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a stroke in 1995 that left everything but his brain and his left eye paralyzed, and who managed to write his touching memoirs using only those two functions. (I’m hearing that Max von Sydow, the great veteran of so many Ingmar Bergman classics, will get a Supporting Actor push for his performance as the afflicted man’s elderly father.)
  • To me, the category that is proving the hardest to get a read on is Supporting Actress. At the moment, with all things being relatively equal and based on a little buzz, I think one has to give the edge to the respected and versatile veteran Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding), who has never before earned so much as a nomination, and is way overdue for some attention. That said, I’m hearing very mixed things about the film itself, and so she may be on shaky ground—in which case who steps into the frontrunner slot? The category’s recent winner Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There), who will in all likelihood be contending for Best Actress; Abbie Cornish (The Golden Age), who will have to contend with the dominating presence of lead Blanchett; past winner Mira Sorvino (Reservation Road), who many associate most with her dumb blonde in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and regard as an Oscar fluke; perhaps Evan Rachel Wood for playing the younger version of Uma Thurman in In Bloom; or any number of other options. The good news: the field is usually won by youngish, attractive women. The bad news: that pretty much describes all of them.

News and Notes

  • I’m so happy that people discovered Superbad, which far exceeded expectations and opened “Supergood,” in the words of every cutesy writer out there, to $33 million. Since seeing the film at a screening in late July, I was so excited for my friends to see it that I really built it up a lot, and then got a bit worried that I might have overhyped it. It turned out I had nothing to worry about, since they, like most people, thought it was absolutely hilarious. In this case, success couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of guys than Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who proved to be really nice guys when we sat down for an interview on July 25th—that chat will be a nice time capsule, because these guys’ lives will not be the same after this. (I have to admit I feel a little sorry for director Greg Mottola, whose name has been virtually ignored in favor of the actors, co-writer Seth Rogen, and producer Judd Apatow. In the industry, however, the film’s tremendous success is starting to pay dividends: he has been given a greenlight to direct Adventureland, a semi-autobiographical comedy set in the 1980s about a recent college graduate who, after his father is suddenly terminated from his job, is forced to abandon his elaborate plans for a trip to Europe and instead take up work at a local amusement park.)
  • If Superbad was a big winner at the box-office, The Invasion was a big loser. Most of us saw this coming a mile away: the fourth re-make of a beloved classic in fifty-five years that required multiple re-writes and directors? Additionally, it confirms that any past box-office success of its leads, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, can probably be more attributed to their vehicles—hardcore dramas and James Bond—far more than themselves. (This has to worry New Line, which has $150 million on the line for the December release The Golden Compass, which stars—you guessed it—Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and which also had its director replaced after production had already begun.)
  • True movie buffs will appreciate the following: Over the past week, I interviewed two legendary Academy Award winners for my ongoing book project addressing the history of the movies. Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress Oscar for her haunting performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, while Cliff Robertson took home the Best Actor Oscar for his heartbreaking turn as a man briefly given a reprieve from his mentally retarded condition thanks to a science experiment in Charly (1968). Both have worked relatively little since their big nights—Fletcher has been irreparably typecast as a villain, while Robertson exposed studio corruption as part of “Hollywoodgate” in the 1970s and has, for the most part, been a persona-non-grata ever since (with his small part as Peter Parker’s grandfather in the Spider-Man films being a notable exception).

Suggested Reading

  • Judd Apatow may be the man with a seemingly magic touch at the moment, and I’m certainly one of his biggest proponents. That said, I share Anne Thompson’s trepidations about his next film, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which will star the undeniably talented, Oscar-nominated actor John C. Reilly in a spoof of musical bio-pics like Walk the Line and Ray. I have yet to really buy Reilly in an all-out comedic role—he’s fine when he plays things down in movies like Boogie Nights, but I don’t think he clicks when he tries to be funny in things like A Prairie Home Companion and Talladega Nights. That said, he has the endorsements of Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell, so who the hell am I?
  • You may remember that, back in April, I was lucky enough to attend the first screening anywhere of S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, an upcoming documentary about Abu Ghraib by the great Errol Morris. If that piqued your interest, be sure to check out “Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up,” a fascinating piece Morris has written for the New York Times web site.
  • Poor Tom Cruise just can’t catch a break, huh?

Screening Room

  • An Unmarried Woman (1978), starring a young and attractive Jill Clayburgh, was a feminist groundbreaker when it came out and earned Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and Actress, but it does not hold up particularly well today. Clayburgh, her daughter, her friends, and—to a somewhat lesser extent—her lover (Alan Bates) are all a bit grating. To me, the most invigorating part of the film is its soundtrack (especially “I’m Yours” and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”), which was incorporated into the film well.
  • A friend forced me to sit down and finally watch Contact (1997) for the first time. While it revolves around an interesting enough plot, it is overlong (153 minutes) and oversentimental, and seems to be the usually solid director Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to catch up with contemporaries Spielberg and Lucas in the science-fiction realm. Jodie Foster, in the lead, is good at playing the tough girl but very unconvincing at playing romantic scenes with a young Matthew McConaughey.
  • Over the course of several nights spread out over a few weeks this summer, another friend—a fellow film history guy—and I sat down and watched Kevin Brownlow and David Gil’s 10-part mini-series Hollywood (1980)—narrated by James Mason—which chronicles the silent era of film and features rare on-camera interviews with the likes of Mary Astor, Louise Brooks, Yakima Canutt, Jackie Coogan, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore, Hal Roach, Gloria Swanson, and King Vidor. While the film leaves a lot to be desired technically, it is a wonderful appreciation of the bygone era made well before it occurred to almost anyone else that it was worth chronicling.
  • Finally, just channel-surfing recently, I came across two movies that I had enjoyed when they were first released in 1993, and did not want to turn off once I started watching them today: Dave (1993)—directed by Ivan Reitman, Jason’s dad—stars Kevin Kline as the President of the United States and as the average joe who poses as him. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) features Robin Williams near the top of his commercial appeal as a divorced husband who goes so far as to pose as an elderly nanny in order to be with his kids. (It only occurs to me now that they share this impostor theme.)

Shout-Outs

  • Kudos are in order for Jason Kohn, the young director of the documentary Manda Bala, which won Best Documentary at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, began unfolding this past weekend on just one screen, and did enough business to place behind only Superbad and Rush Hour 3 in per-screen-average box-office intake. Back in March, I had a chance to attend an early screening of the film and then chat about it with Kohn–who sorta physically resembles a young Spielberg–over dinner with a few others. I’m very interested to see what he’ll do next.
  • I also want to pass along congratulations to Collin Pelton, a young actor-screenwriter friend in Los Angeles who this week completed his first original screenplay, Subconsciously, which I plan to read soon.
  • My buddy Harley Yanoff, a Boston-based actor who earlier this year shot some scenes with Kevin Spacey for the upcoming film 21, recently had the opportunity to be directed by Denzel Washington in Boston, where the Oscar winner shot some scenes for his soon-to-be-released film The Great Debaters, which also stars Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and–you can’t make this stuff up–a young actor named Denzel Whitaker. Recent Weinstein Company press materials indicate that the film may be in theaters this December, although I see it probably getting pushed to 2008 to avoid any conflict with Washington’s performance in American Gangster.
  • And, finally, a shout-out to Andrew Percy, an old friend and fellow movie lover, who is celebrating a milestone birthday this week.

Coming Soon…

  • I am at work now on a piece related to 3:10 to Yuma (LionsGate)—which opens nationwide on September 7 opposite Shoot ‘Em Up—based on my interview last month with its supporting stars Peter Fonda and Ben Foster.
  • For my book project, I have scheduled interviews over the coming weeks with: Oscar nominated actress Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H); controversial Oscar winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront); and perhaps most controversial of all, Aurora Snow, the adult film star, who has agreed to discuss that often-ignored genre, which cannot be swept under the rug when discussing film history.
  • Lastly, I have confirmed that I will be in Toronto for the Toronto Film Festival from Friday, September 7 through Sunday, September 10. I am currently in the process of scheduling a number of screenings and interviews, some of which will be videoed and placed on the site as part of an effort to make it more interactive. (It will be a lot of fun to catch up with my great friends Jamie Metrick and Sam Jonas, two native Canadians who may also step up and help out with some of the cameraman duties as an act of not only friendship, but true patriotism.)

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