Sunday, January 26, 2014

THE FIVE MOST SIGNIFICANT THINGS ABOUT ALFONSO CUARON'S DGA VICTORY

DGA winner Alfonso Cuaron with presenter Ben Affleck.
Most movie pundits and Oscar prognosticators were predicting that Alfonso Cuaron would win the Director’s Guild of America award come January 25 for his revolutionary helming of GRAVITY (http://bit.ly/1ffECP8). So what does the victory actually mean beyond its face value? Here are the five important things that the win has yielded:

GRAVITY moves back to the forefront of the Oscar race.

Together with its win at the Producers’ Guild of America, tying with 12 YEARS A SLAVE for Best Production, GRAVITY now moves to the front of the Academy Awards race, and has the most momentum going into the final month of campaigning.

A science fiction film could be the first to ever win Best Picture.

The Academy has never bestowed their top award upon such a genre film before, but this could change all that. Many, including me, have picked the sci-fi thriller as 2013’s Best Film. Now, we’ll see if Oscar follows suit.

Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress chances improve too.

It’s still Cate Blanchett’s to lose, but Academy voters often bestow an acting Oscar onto a Best Picture winner, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Ms. Bullock to prepare a speech just in case GRAVITY momentum continues to build.

A Best Director Oscar for Cuaron would be the first for a Mexican.

Of course, a Steve McQueen victory in the category for 12 YEARS A SLAVE victory would be a first too. Either way, it looks like Oscar might break its color barrier once and for all this year.

GRAVITY will make even more money.

It’s already the Best Picture nominee with the biggest box office (http://bit.ly/LZGh0t) and this accolade will help its re-release become even more profitable.
Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY.
Not only are all these possibilities exciting, but also for the Oscar telecast coming up on March 2, it means that not everything is a sure thing. The races for Best Picture, Supporting Actress, and a half dozen others are now too close to call, or at least a real contest. And even the locks have a long month to shift before the final gold is handed out. So, it will be an Oscar telecast that has some buoyancy and certainly a significant amount of GRAVITY.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, THE NEW AND IMPROVED JARED LETO!

A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. Jared Leto almost blew his position as the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. His moving performance as the AIDS-positive transgender Rayon in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB was racking up a lot of awards season wins. And going into the Golden Globes, he was not only a virtual lock for their award, but for the Oscar as well. But then he almost blew it by making some silly homophobic cracks about body hair removal when he won his Globe. Was his portrayal a truly sensitive work by a serious actor? Or was he a macho jerk merely playing ‘dress up’?


The press slammed him for his immature jokes and raised questions about his actual attitudes towards those who are transgender or those with AIDS. By the time his name was announced a short week later when he won the SAG Award for Best Supporting Actor, Leto had wisely cleaned up his act. This time, he gave a serious and eloquent speech that paid great heed to the themes of the movie - AIDS and discrimination. And he reassured his colleagues and the public that his reputation as a serious artist was deserved.

I believe the Oscar is now safely a lock again for him. But this story illustrates how tenuous an actor’s ‘brand’ can be, particularly during awards season. No actor ever just wins an Oscar because they did great work. They win for a number of reasons. One must give an acclaimed performance, yes, but a number of other factors can be just as crucial. Is it your time? Are you due? Are you likable? Does the choice seem serious or artistic? Do you take the craft seriously? Do you care about awards? These are all factors that influence voters, and Leto’s missteps in his first very public appearance as an award winner at the Globes, began to jeopardize his chances because he blew a number of such factors.

Sometimes celebrities forget their need to ‘sell the brand’. A movie and a career don’t just happen without marketing. And missteps in such marketing can be the difference between an Oscar winner and an Oscar also-ran. And no matter what the product is, can of soup or movie actor, the properties that make it distinct make it a brand. It’s the promise to the consumer to deliver the goods. If a brand does deliver on what’s it is supposed to do then chances are it will be successful. If Jared Leto breaks the ‘brand trust’ in regarding his performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, then maybe the Academy members won’t award him for it.

A brand’s promise is shaped by the brand’s nature, its capabilities, and its comparison to its competition. A brand can shift and adapt to a marketplace, but it never wants to be left in anything other than ship-shape. Otherwise, a brand can falter, be it Progresso or Leto. After all, everything has a certain ‘shelf life’, no?


Speaking of ships, let’s examine what happened to Robert Redford’s dashed Oscar hopes this year for his performance in the shipwreck film ALL IS LOST. Back in October, most pundits were predicting he’d win the Academy Award for it, let alone be nominated. His performance and the movie were getting a ton of press, accolades and attention. Redford was a beloved legend in the town, a leading man for over six decades, and the father of the independent film movement in America with his Sundance Institute and Film Festival. Surely, the Oscars would give this actor his due, as he’d never won an acting Oscar.

But then, there were no more rounds of press with Redford. No talk shows, no big interviews, nada. With many other movies opening featuring award-worthy lead male performances like that of Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and Joaquin Phoenix in HER, Redford suddenly had new competition. And Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, didn’t push him out into the public. They failed to capitalize on the buzz by releasing the film on more screens.


Redford reckoned that all the branding mistakes made by Lionsgate contributed to him being passed over when the nominations were announced January 16. He said, "In our case, I think we suffered from little to no distribution. And so as a result, our distributors — I don't know why, they didn't want to spend the money, they were afraid, they were just incapable, I don't know."

If you’re not out there spending time and money on any brand, you can get lost in the shuffle. Even with a reputation like Redford’s as one of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights, he was an afterthought for too many voters who were paying attention to newer films opening with full-court presses during the current rounds of press junkets.

The world of marketing is filled with such stories. From market leaders like 9-Lives losing their dominance due to dormant advertising for a decade, to Schlitz beer’s fall from grace when they cheapened their ingredients and the consuming public rejected the inferior recipe, to United pulling their “Rising” campaign in the 90’s because their airline experience was not rising above the competition. 


 How brands are presented can shape their future for the better or the worse. If Redford had been on more talk shows, he most likely would be in Oscar contention. If Leto had made more snarky gay jokes at SAG, he might have been perceived as someone unworthy of film’s highest honor. If Lindsay Lohan had concentrated on acting instead of partying, she may not now be slumming on a new reality show. How far the mighty can fall.

Friday, January 17, 2014

THE PROBLEM WITH YESTERDAY'S ACADEMY AWARD ANNOUNCEMENTS

When the Oscar nominations were announced January 16, the Oscar pundits gasped at who was snubbed. The crew over at GoldDerby.com posted half a dozen pieces on the controversies (http://bit.ly/1dCdKsb). And while there are always some truly worthy candidates unfortunately passed over by the Academy each year, there was another announcement made that was much more troublesome.
Robert Redford in ALL IS LOST
There are many reasons that the likes of Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey weren’t called this season. The amount of marketing, interviews and promotion that their ‘candidacies’ each received, or didn’t receive, played a large role in what the Academy remembers. The less exposure, the less chance the nomination. And in the case of those two lead males, the Best Actor category was simply too crowded. Many great choices, like Hanks, Redford, and Joaquin Phoenix for that matter, were ignored. Oprah’s movie LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER may have come out too early in the year to be top-of-mind, and the fact that the hit film didn’t receive a single nomination points to that unfortunate issue of timing.

However, the announcement that this year’s Oscar ceremony is focusing on a theme of ‘movie heroes’ seems more egregious and out-of-touch than any nominating omission. For starters, this year’s slate of Best Film nominees hardly qualifies as an outstanding year of ‘heroic characters’ in the movies, certainly not in the Indiana Jones, Clarice Starling or Atticus Finch sort of way. The protagonists of AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET are ridiculously the opposite. They’re wildly anti-heroic. The main characters in HER, NEBRASKA and PHILOMENA are many things, but heroic wouldn’t be the first adjective anyone would use. I doubt it would be even the tenth.
Amy Adams and Christian Bale in AMERICAN HUSTLE
Moving farther down the list of nominees, to some of the other movies Oscar has nominated, you’ll find it’s just as bereft of heroes. No character in BLUE JASMINE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, PRISONERS or THE GREAT GATSBY qualifies as remotely heroic. And just because Walt Disney wanted to make the book of “Mary Poppins” into a movie in SAVING MR. BANKS, did that make him heroic? Hardly.
  
True, the main characters in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, GRAVITY, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and a few other nominees qualify as genuinely heroic, but do a handful of films that fit the desired show criteria warrant making it the year's theme?

One could argue that the true theme of this year in movies is survival. It’s literally that, explicitly and writ large, in seven of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees: 12 YEARS A SLAVE, GRAVITY, AMERICAN HUSTLE, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, NEBRASKA and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. I talked about that and the lonely battle that it is in my 10 Best List late last year (http://bit.ly/1ajXgA6). If anything, most of this year’s top movies illustrated how tough it is to make it in the ugly world out there. And how too often, we’re alone in that fight, with no one really having our backs.
Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Wouldn’t that have made for a more relevant topic in 2013? It would have certainly shown that Hollywood gets its times, and creates movies that reflect them. Couldn’t the theme have been how movies reflect their times rather than how movies creates heroes? Indeed, Oscar has a long history of doing just that, particularly if you look at how Oscar’s choices reflected the war years in the 40’s and 70’s, as well as social upheaval in many of their top picks throughout the last five decades. But this year, no dice, as the Oscar telecast has chosen an outdated black and white theme in an increasingly gray world. Oscar is missing the boat. (Or in case of ALL IS LOST, the sinking boat.)

The theme of the telecast should be about the given year of the movies being awarded, not a love letter to the past or the industry as a whole. But unfortunately, the Academy does that oozy-gooey thing too often. And then they wonder why their ratings keep slipping. And you know that all the clip packages this telecast are going to have the same cast of characters and scenes the Oscar show highlights year in and year out. I mean really, how many times do we have to see that same shot of Gary Cooper standing alone in the middle of the dusty town in HIGH NOON?
Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON
Seemingly, the Academy doesn’t care. They’ll just keep running the same type of Chuck Workman clip montages as they've done for so many years since his award-winning work PRECIOUS IMAGES created back in 1986 for the DGA 50th Anniversary.

 
But if the point of this year’s show is to “honor movie heroes” as all the promotions are now exclaiming (http://bit.ly/1gVGcF7), then the Oscar show deserves the derision it will likely get for once again trotting out the same-old, same-old.

The sad part about it is that this year’s Oscar nominees are, by and large, one of the best rosters in years. The Academy did themselves very proud with their choices, and regarding the Best Picture nominees there isn’t a dog in the bunch. But if AMERICAN HUSTLE takes as many statues as it’s expected to, including the top prize, then Oscar not only is sending mixed messages, it’s looking utterly ignorant in their show's theme. The nominations weren't that clueless, why does the show have to be?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A FEW CONTRARIAN NOTES ON THE CURRENT MOVIE AWARDS SEASON

During this season, entertainment news and movie websites are absolutely consumed with awards dissertation. Today, The Establishing Shot will be as well. And there will be more to come throughout these next few months. However, it seems to me that too many of the discussions are off-topic. Here then, are a contrarian’s thoughts on all the awards chatter.

The problem with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET isn’t the language, sexism or racism. It’s the movie's length.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s profane and provocative latest. And Leonardo DiCaprio may give his best performance ever in it. But why must every Scorsese film now come in at three hours? The story here is quite simple – Wall Street is full of immoral scumbags – so there’s no need for the excess of time. It’s not the language and vulgarity that is the overkill. If anything, it’s the clock.

The problem with New York Film Critics Circle provocateur Armond White isn't new. It's been enabled for years.

The NYFCC awards ceremony is not the place for White to express his differences of opinion regarding the winners chosen by the majority of his colleagues. If the divisive critic did indeed catcall director Steve McQueen upon his win for 12 YEARS A SLAVE, then such immaturity should get him thrown out of the circle. In fact, why didn’t the circle do so when he's made such outspoken statements at the ceremony in years past, like when he hosted?  


Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the big story in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Amy Adams is.

Grant you, Lawrence gives a hilariously strident performance as Christian Bale’s tempestuous wife, but it is Amy Adams as his lover that should be getting most of the accolades. As David Poland of MovieCityNews.com points out (http://bit.ly/1dA9jdN), “Amy Adams gave us a fully formed, adult, layered, likable, unlikable, sexy, broken, scared, fearless, powerful, loving, lying, needy, winning woman. And she deserves to win—not just to be nominated for—to win Best Actress this year… on the occasion of her fifth nomination.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. 


Bruce Dern is wonderful in NEBRASKA. But why isn’t there more talk about his co-star Will Forte?

Forte is the glue that subtly holds Alexander Payne’s film together. He’s moving, witty and just as heartbreaking in the role with the true arc in the story. Dern is fantastic, yes, and deserves all the acclaim he’s getting. But so does Forte, and my bet is the Academy won’t even remember to nominate him come Thursday, January 16. And that will be a shame.

12 YEARS A SLAVE shouldn’t be chastised for its portrayal of violence, it should be chastised for its lack of slave portrayals.

It's a good movie. And the violence is harrowing. But the more worthy criticism is in its failure to fill out the story with more characters of color. Other than lead Solomon Northup (Chiwotel Ejiofor), only two other slave characters register – the ones played by Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard. The rest of the black faces are mostly background ones and they're given no real screen time. Meanwhile, the white characters (played by Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Garrett Dillahunt) dominate the supporting cast. Didn’t Solomon have relationships with more of his fellow slaves, and not jut slave owners, during those 12 years?


There are so many great performances in the Best Actor race, but why are Joaquin Phoenix and Christian Bale practically being considered also-rans?

Most critics and pundits are predicting Oscar will nominate Dern, Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks. But not Bale, who was a thousand miles from anything he’s ever done before in AMERICAN HUSTLE? And the resplendent Phoenix, who had to convince us of a man’s great love story with his computer while being the only actor on screen? This year, the Academy needs to make room for 8 nominees, including Leonardo DiCaprio too.

I’m hopeful Ellen DeGenerese will host a good show, but how big a role will the telecast make for special Academy honorees Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury and Angelina Jolie?

If you’ve seen the videos of their acceptance speeches at the special ceremony held this past November, you know that these articulate artists should get some valuable screen time come the main ceremony March 2. But I’ll bet the show’s producers clog the proceedings instead with superfluous dance numbers and painful Best Song production numbers that nobody really wants to see.

Why is AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY being advertised as a sweet family comedy when it’s one of the bitterest stories ever penned?

The ads with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts making heartfelt commentary about the story strikes me as utterly wrong, considering screenwriter Tracy Letts adapted his scathing Pulitzer Prize-winning play with most of the bile intact. (Sadly, he lopped off a good hour of his play, which strikes me as a mistake since it undercuts secondary character screen time for Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dermot Mulroney.) No bones about it, this is a mean and nasty comedy. And it should be sold as such. 


Even with the T. Bone Burnett adapted musical score and moody cinematography, isn’t the greatest conceit in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS really the script which makes the misanthropic musician and his tagalong cat one-in-the-same?

On the surface, the Coen Brothers’ latest is a dark, brooding road picture with a hard-to-like lead. But taken as a metaphor, it has a cheeky and buoyant flair while it chronicles the similar problems befalling both Llewyn and his feline companion Ulysses. Read this article by The Atlantic’s Tim Wainwright (http://bit.ly/1ck3jc2) and tell me it doesn’t paint the whole movie in a different light.


The buzz seems to be all around AMERICAN HUSTLE and 12 YEARS A SLAVE right now, but come Oscar ballot time, isn’t GRAVITY going to be looking like more of the true heavyweight? 

GRAVITY is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscars for visual effects, two sound awards, cinematography and original score. Plus, it’s one of the two leading contenders for the director award, the production design award, and Best Actress. If Academy voters give it five or more statues, wouldn’t it be logical for them to award the most prized film with the Best Picture Oscar too?

There could be some interesting surprises that could change much of the chatter come January 16 when the Oscar nominations will be announced. (An unexpected and well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Adele Excharchopoulos from BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, perhaps?) Or will the nods merely reinforce the buzz that has been talked about for months. We shall see. So stay tuned here at The Establishing Shot for thoughts on what it all means. Contrarian or not.