January 13, 2016

Oscars 2015: Nominations Eve – My Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 12:45 pm
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Early in the premiere episode of the about-to-conclude-tonight American Horror Story: Hotel, Wes Bentley’s homicide detective is reviewing gruesome crime scene photos while listening to a recording of facts about the case to which they pertain. His notes identify the brutally mutilated victim as an Oscar blogger. I chuckled at that. Then I locked all the doors and windows and peeked out onto the street from behind the curtains to make sure no suspicious activity was afoot. I suppose if a deranged killer was out there targeting an Oscar blogger, there are several professionals for them to pursue. They wouldn’t bother with my small-time operation. So I’ll just continue toiling away here for the five of you who have showed up to read this. But in case this is my last hurrah, savor it. We who are about to die salute you…and still can’t believe Al Pacino wasn’t nominated for Donnie Brasco.

To begin, it’s safe to say that whatever Vin Diesel might have promised us last April, Furious 7 will not be counted among this year’s contenders for the top Oscar. There are, however, an unusually high number of commercial films in the hunt that do have a legitimate shot. Mad Max: Fury Road, Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, Inside Out, Creed and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens all have varying degrees of momentum.

The big question mark is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year, and has collected several Best Picture wins from national and regional critics associations. Nearly every organization that didn’t give it their top prize, if they name runners-up or nominees, had it in one of those two positions. It’s far and away one of the two most honored movies of the year so far, which would appear to make it a no-brainer Best Picture contender…except that it couldn’t be further away from a typical Best Picture contender. This is a loud, crazy, high-octane action movie that begins at full-throttle and rarely lets up. Whatever intelligence and strong feminist themes run through it, it is on its surface a far cry from the type of films that earn Best Picture recognition. When this category was expanded to include more than five nominees, the move was believed to be, in part, a reaction to the Academy’s failure to nominate Christopher Nolan’s action drama, The Dark Knight. With a larger field of nominees, the thinking went, smart commercial movies could earn a place at this table. Alas, that isn’t really how things have gone…but then again, has there been such a film since The Dark Knight that has truly deserved that recognition? Maybe Skyfall. Definitely Fury Road. So this will arguably be the biggest test of the Best Picture expansion since its inception. Will voters make room for an acclaimed action film that has been embraced in all other corners as one of the year’s finest? Or will they ignore it in favor of more standard Academy fare that feels Moving, or Important?

The question is further complicated by the presence of The Martian. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi drama, with ample doses of crowd-pleasing laughs – so much so that it was rather questionably nominated in the Golden Globes’ Musical/Comedy categories, where it won Best Picture and Best Actor – is a box office success (more so than Fury Road), and also a big hit with critics (though less so than Fury Road). Crucially, it feels more like an Academy movie. I can’t articulate why, exactly. Whatever Oscar-friendly fortune smiled on Avatar and Inception – popular, mainstream films that have been nominated since the category’s expansion – also seems to grace The Martian. The Best Picture race will rarely accommodate more than two “popular” movies, and The Martian is a commercial film with a larger whiff of prestige than the gritty, grungy, in-your-face Fury Road, making it a more likely nominee. Given how well Fury Road has done in the precursor phase, it would be foolish to bet against its chances for a Best Picture slot. More importantly, it’s scored nominations from every guild to announce so far except one, which indicates support across the filmmaking community. Many voting members of the guilds are also Academy members. On the other hand, the film failed to land a Best Picture nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which could be a bad omen…or could mean little, considering that BAFTA’s Best Picture race still only has five nominees. Like our Academy, the BAFTA is a large voting body comprised of filmmakers, so it can be a decent indicator of which way the winds are blowing, but it’s still just one of many such indicators, and must be weighed accordingly. On paper, Fury Road appears to have all the momentum it needs to score a Best Picture nomination. Yet the fact remains that there is zero precedence for a movie like it to be nominated, while there is plenty of precedence for critically adored and even guild-heralded movies to be shunned by the Academy.

Moving on to some safer bets, I mentioned that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the two most honored movies of 2015, at least based on the year-end awards. The other is Spotlight, which has captured the majority of Best Picture precursor awards so far. I expect it will be joined by Brooklyn and The Big Short, as well as aforementioned commercial prospects The Martian and Inside Out. So that’s five slots for sure, and six if we go with Mad Max: Fury Road. That leaves a maximum of only four spaces – five if we bet against Fury Road – and several contenders in the hunt: The Revenant (crowned with a Best Picture – Drama win earlier this week at the Golden Globes, though Oscar voting had already closed by then), Room, Carol, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Joy, Trumbo, Sicario, Ex Machina, Beasts of No Nation, Son of Saul, plus Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Star Wars. That may seem like a kitchen sink list, but every one of those movies – even Star Wars – has legitimate potential to land a nomination. A solid case could be made for each, let me put it that way.

Once again, we don’t know how many nominees there will be. Last year there were eight, while the three previous years each had nine. I’m guessing nine again, based purely on the few years of evidence we have to work from. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with how many worthy films there are, or whether it’s been a strong or weak year for movies. It’s all about how many votes each movie gets. The way the numbers are crunched, a movie with a few hundred first place votes will be nominated over a movie with many more second or third place votes. (There are approximately 6,000 members of the Academy.) The passion vote is the key when it comes to the Best Picture nominations, and that’s tough to get a handle on. I’ve read, for example, that Carol and Room – while performing quite well with critics – have been less embraced by Academy members; the former for being perceived as too cold, and the latter for portraying difficult subject matter that has discouraged voters from watching it. Even if those rumors are true, there could still be enough devoted admirers who choose one of those films as their first choice, helping land it a coveted spot. (I’m counting on that passion vote to carry Fury Road over the finish line.)

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Personal Picks:
The Hateful Eight
Love & Mercy
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Steve Jobs

Whatever happens with Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Best Picture prospects, director George Miller’s chances in this race are a different ball game. As far as the critics awards go, Miller is miles ahead of the competition, having been named the top filmmaker of the year by nearly two dozen groups. The director’s branch usually makes room for one outside-the-box contender alongside a line-up of more traditional choices that align with Best Picture nominees. Miller could end up fitting either of those slots, depending on how things go. I imagine fellow members of his branch will want to honor him for getting out there at age 70 and mounting an immensely challenging production full of brazen physical effects and practical stunt work. It was a complicated endeavor with stellar results, and it’s hard to imagine his peers won’t honor him for it.

His peers in the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) did indeed honor him for it, nominating him alongside The Revenant‘s Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who also took the Golden Globe, in a minor upset), The Big Short‘s Adam McKay, Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy, and The Martian‘s Ridley Scott. It’s the first such mention all season long for McKay, though he has collected his fair share of Screenplay honors. His slot comes at the “expense” of the only other director besides Miller, Iñárritu, McCarthy and Scott to be recognized during the precursor phase: Todd Haynes, director of Carol, who was honored by a couple of major critics groups.

What does it all mean for the Oscars? Well, as is the case with most of the guilds, the nominees rarely line up exactly. Scott and Iñárritu seem safe, as does McCarthy, having directed the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Despite dominating the critics circuit, however, I’m not prepared to say that Spotlight will go all the way. And good as it is, it doesn’t jump out as a directing showcase…although the fact that it isn’t a flashy epic shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking it’s not a superbly helmed film. So McCarthy could be the omission that will shock the pundits. I’m hearing that The Big Short is playing like gangbusters with Academy members, and that its popularity was hitting its stride smack in the middle of the voting period, so McKay could definitely benefit if people are loving the movie. On the other hand, might some voters be reluctant to hand a Best Director nomination to the guy behind Anchorman and Talledega Nights? You never know. I mentioned that the Director’s branch often goes for a less mainstream, more outsider candidate, and that can translate to “arty,” so I wouldn’t count Todd Haynes out.

Steven Spielberg could break into the race with Bridge of Spies, which has proven a surprisingly strong contender throughout both phases of the season, earning consistent mentions from critics in various categories, as well as nominations from several guilds and a field co-leading nine nominations from BAFTA. The movie is exactly the kind of sturdy, old-fashioned, handsomely crafted and entertaining production that older Academy members love…or at least greatly admire. Other than Spielberg, the only two people I can see sliding in – and they’re both huge longshots – are Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). I’d be surprised if anyone else showed up. There’s plenty of good, worthy work, but nothing that looks likely to push through. I don’t see Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell getting in this year, nor up-and-comers like Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Ryan Coogler (Creed), or John Crowley (Brooklyn). Danny Boyle and Tom Hooper are past winners with prestige films in the mix – Steve Jobs and The Danish Girl, respectively – but nominations don’t appear to be in the cards.

We’ll see soon enough if I’m underestimating someone.

Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott – The Martian
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Personal Picks:
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario
Danny Boyle – Steve Jobs

This is typically a tough category to crack, overcrowded with excellent, deserving work. The competition isn’t quite as intense this year as it’s been the last few, but there are several viable contenders, and the category feels more pliable than in other years. Leonardo DiCaprio is the one true lock, for his all-in work in The Revenant, and he’ll likely be joined by Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. The fate of that film seemed up in the air for a while when, despite strong reviews and big box office during its limited release, the movie faltered in wide release and disappeared from theaters far too quickly. But the critics revived it with constant mentions during Phase 1 of awards season, and Fassbender has been nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) award – a hat trick which doesn’t guarantee an Oscar nod, but doesn’t hurt.

Last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne has good odds of being back again, for The Danish Girl, but that movie’s reception seems just muted enough to make what might seem on paper like a surefire nomination be less of a guarantee. (He plays a real-life artist who was one of the first people to ever undergo gender-reassignment surgery.) Heading into the fall season, everyone assumed – and even hoped – that Johnny Depp’s work in Black Mass would be a return to form for the actor, and a surefire awards magnet. Unfortunately the movie was underwhelming, and Depp – while very good – was stuck with a script that gave him a two-dimensional character to play. There was nothing below the surface to dig into. He’s been largely absent from the awards conversation, but did score nominations from SAG and the BFCA, so he’s not completely sidelined.

Bryan Cranston has done quite well on the circuit for his role as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Cranston’s popularity among actors (everyone loves Breaking Bad) as well as the boost of being in a movie about the movie industry – which tends to go over well with Academy members – give him an excellent chance of finding a spot. Matt Damon is a favorite for his versatile turn in The Martian, while Will Smith has garnered positive notices for his performance in Concussion.

Circling on the periphery with limited chances but just enough buzz to break through as a surprise, we have Michael Caine in Youth, Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Ian McKellan in Mr. Holmes. Tom Hardy and Jason Segel have garnered some critical attention for Legend and The End of the Tour, respectively, but neither have the momentum to push through into this race, while Jake Gyllenhaal might have had a shot for Southpaw had the movie made more of a splash. I’d bet there are many voters who would want to make up for him missing out last year with Nightcrawler, but Southpaw just didn’t catch on. I should also mention child actors Abraham Attah from Beasts of No Nation and Jacob Tremblay of Room, though they would probably find themselves in the Supporting Actor race – despite both being leads – if they make it at all.

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Jacob Tremblay – Room

What I’m about to say will defy logic and make you doubt all that you have come to believe in and understand about the world, but just know that everything is going to be okay. Here goes: Meryl Streep starred in a movie this year and is NOT going to get nominated for an Oscar. It feels like heresy just to write that, but I must speak the truth. Meryl Streep’s performance in Ricki and the Flash is not part of the Best Actress conversation at all. It might have been, in a more typical year…”typical” meaning a year with a disappointingly small pool of great female roles from which to select. Happily for us all, this is not a typical year. In fact, the number of women in the Best Actress hunt is larger than it’s been in a long time, and the problem that has plagued Best Actor over the past few years – so much good work that no matter how the nominations turned out, some great performances were going to be left out – now impacts the ladies.

Two actresses that needn’t worry about the stiff competition are Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan, who are comfortably positioned to be recognized for Room and Brooklyn, respectively. Whatever issues Room might have in cracking the Best Picture race, they shouldn’t impact actors’ desire to recognize Larson’s extraordinary work. Jennifer Lawrence is an Academy darling, and even though Joy hasn’t resonated as strongly as American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook – Lawrence’s last two collaborations with David O. Russell – her work in the film is admired enough to make her a likely nominee. She missed out on a SAG nomination, but ballots for those awards went out in mid-to-late November, well before the movie was completed and screening for guild members.

That leaves two slots and a dozen strong possibilities. In addition to Larson and Ronan, SAG nominated Cate Blanchett for Carol, Helen Mirren for Woman in Gold, and in a major shock, Sarah Silverman for the little-seen indie I Smile Back. Blanchett is probably a safe bet for an Oscar nod, and Mirren can never be discounted, but I suspect she’ll be squeezed out by more compelling work. Silverman’s SAG nomination is impressive, but a matching Oscar nod isn’t in the cards.

There’s been plenty of talk for Blanchett’s Carol co-star Rooney Mara as well as The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander, but both of them are being promoted by their studios for Supporting Actress recognition. This has led to cries of category fraud, since both actresses are clearly leads. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, rejected these categorizations and filtered Mara and Vikander into the Lead race, where both were nominated in the Drama category. Some critics organizations also put them into Lead, while others stuck with Supporting. Both actresses received SAG and BFCA nods, both in Supporting. Academy voters always have the option of ignoring the studios’ suggestions and placing performers in the category they feel is most accurate, though more often than not they go along with what is recommended. The danger for both actresses’ chances comes from the possibility that many voters will place them in one category while many will place them in the other, splitting their recognition such that they don’t collect enough votes in either category to break through.

A number of veterans have been in the conversation this year, from character actress Blythe Danner, playing her first lead film role in I’ll See You in My Dreams to Lily Tomlin for her acerbic turn in Grandma to Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van. But the only one from this over-65 club who seems to have a real shot is Charlotte Rampling, who has earned raves for 45 Years. The movie is a small one, but she’s received enough praise that if voters get a chance to see the film, she could land a spot. It’s a definite “if,” however, especially since her performance is so quiet and internalized. Voters prefer fireworks. She missed out on a BAFTA nomination (her assumed spot went to Maggie Smith), and that could be a bad sign for her Oscar prospects. If she couldn’t break through with a home field advantage, she may not have the votes to get nominated on this side of the pond.

Carey Mulligan turned in a pair of excellent performances, with Far from the Madding Crowd and Suffragette, and Emily Blunt was terrific in Sicario, though like Rampling, who has racked up far more mentions than Blunt, her work is probably too understated and nuanced to pop amidst such strong competition. There’s also Charlize Theron’s lauded performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, but while that would be great to see nominated, I have a hard time imagining she’ll collect enough votes to get her there.

Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

Whereas the last two years have seen one actor dominating this race heading into the Oscars – Jared Leto in 2013 and J.K. Simmons in 2014 – this time around the race is wide open, with critics groups spreading their love across a dozen performances. The one to collect the most prizes so far, believe it or not, is Sylvester Stallone for his reprisal of Rocky Balboa in Creed. It’s a part he’s now played seven times, and he was a Best Actor nominee the first, back in 1976. Stallone is quite good in Creed, and gets to bring some lovely new shadings to the character. On the other hand, we don’t tend to think of Stallone and “great actor” in the same sentence, and although he’s in a frontrunner position at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise me if many voters felt that he hadn’t “earned” Academy attention. He did just win a Golden Globe, and is nominated for a BFCA award, but was passed over by SAG, which is the only one of those three voting bodies that has any crossover with the Academy. On the other hand, if the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the Globes is any indication, his chances look good.

If we consider Stallone a lock, the only other person who enjoys similar status at the moment is Mark Rylance as the accused Soviet agent at the center of Bridge of Spies. Rylance isn’t well-known by film audiences, but he’s a Broadway fixture with three Tony awards, and has been a highlight of Steven Spielberg’s drama for those who’ve seen it. (I enjoyed the performance, but felt it needed to be more substantial in size to deserve an Oscar nod.)

From its earliest showings in September at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Spotlight was seen as having strong Oscar potential, with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo the standout performers likely to earn award recognition. The only question throughout the fall seemed to be if the category would have room for both of them, or only one. Now the question is whether it will have room for either, as both have missed the cut with nearly every major group so far. SAG, BFCA and the Golden Globes all overlooked them. The thinking seems to be that they’ve split the vote, but I’ve said before that the long-held notion of vote splitting makes little sense to me. By and large, people will vote for the performances they most enjoy, whether or not there happen to be more than one in a given movie. If Spotlight does as well with the Academy as it’s expected to, I find it hard to believe that at least one of these guys isn’t getting nominated. But if only one, which one? Keaton could have support from what I’m sure is a large number of people who wanted to see him win last year for Birdman. Ruffalo, also widely admired by his fellow actors, is still awaiting his first Oscar, and he has the showier role in Spotlight. And in a late breaking boost, he got a BAFTA nomination last week. I think he’s going to make it, but it’s no sure thing.

Michael Shannon has garnered a fair amount of critical accolades for the searing housing crisis drama 99 Homes, and even landed SAG, BFCA and Golden Globe nods. But have enough Academy members seen that movie? Enough to go for Shannon over Keaton and Ruffalo in Spotlight, a movie many of them will definitely have seen? Only Shannon and Rylance have scored nominations from all three of those groups. Idris Elba was recognized by SAG and the Globes for Beasts of No Nation; Christian Bale by SAG and the BFCA for The Big Short; and Paul Dano by the BFCA and the Globes for Love & Mercy. Bale, Elba and Rylance have also added BAFTA nods to their tally. Tom Hardy picked up a BFCA nomination for The Revenant, while Jacob Tremblay scored a SAG nod for Room. SAG often goes to bat for child actors, but I’m unsure about Tremblay’s Oscar chances. People who’ve seen the film – actors who’ve seen the film, importantly – are definitely moved by his performance, but with someone so young, there’s often the question of the line between acting – making conscious choices about a performance – and playing a sort of make-believe guided by natural behavior. There’s also the category fraud issue again, seeing as Tremblay is unquestionably a lead in Room. As with Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander, Tremblay’s placement as Lead vs. Supporting has varied among critics groups.

Benicio del Toro garnered buzz for Sicario, and has been on the bubble all season long. He landed a BAFTA nod, but that’s the biggest honor he’s collected to date. The buzz may not have remained strong enough to get him in. Oscar Isaac is a longshot for his work in Ex Machina, and Joel Edgerton had a bit of shine around him early on for Black Mass, but his fortunes seem to have faded along with the movie’s. Still, if it somehow rebounds with the Academy – if they nominate Depp – he could benefit.

One more longshot that I have to mention is Harrison Ford for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He hasn’t been named by a single critics group, let alone SAG, the Globes or the BFCA…though to be fair, the movie wasn’t available for most of these groups to watch before they announced their nominations. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. But consider: Ford is a beloved actor with only one nomination, way back in 1985 for Witness. He hasn’t even earned an Honorary Oscar yet. From George Burns to Don Ameche to Sean Connery to James Coburn to Alan Arkin to Christopher Plummer, this category often recognizes veteran actors who have never won before. With The Force Awakens, Ford returned to the role of an iconic character, also beloved, and slipped comfortably back into the part despite 30+ years elapsing since he’d last played it. The character is deepened in this new film, allowing Ford to bring new dimensions and play a more emotional arc than the earlier films allowed. All of these points, by the way, also apply to Stallone, though as popular a character as Rocky Balboa is, he doesn’t hold the same cultural significance as Han Solo. And those who’ve seen the movie know that Ford has one scene in particular that could go a long way toward earning him some sentiment for recognition. Do I think it will happen? No, probably not. Do I think it could? Absolutely. There are all kinds of factors beyond just the performance that voters think about when making their selections, and some of the things I’m mentioning here could propel Ford to a nomination.

Christian Bale – The Big Short
Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Personal Picks:
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone – Creed
Stanley Tucci – Spotlight

We now come back to Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander. If voters fall in line with the studio marketing, both will earn their recognition here…and chances are good that both will earn recognition. In Vikander’s case, the mystery is whether her nomination will come for The Danish Girl or Ex Machina. While the assumption all season long has been that Vikander would garner recognition for The Danish Girl, she has quietly amassed a field-leading number of critics group wins for Ex Machina. I don’t know what to expect from that film in terms of how it will play with the Academy. It was nominated for Best Picture by the Producers Guild of America, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will repeat with the Academy. It’s been out long enough and received enough attention that I’m sure many voters have seen it. So in which role has Vikander most impressed the most people? And could she end up pulling double honors, with a Best Actress nomination for The Danish Girl and Supporting for Ex Machina, which she got from the Golden Globes and BAFTA? That’s what I’m predicting…but I’m not convinced about her Best Actress chances. I just had to make a choice and get on with my life.

Mara and Vikander and their category confusion aside, the safest bet here is Kate Winslet, who has earned consistent accolades for her work in Steve Jobs, and just picked up an unexpected Golden Globe win. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the finest actresses to never be nominated for an Oscar, could finally have her chance with a live-wire role in The Hateful Eight, and Helen Mirren is in play for a small role in Trumbo…much too small, in my opinion. She earned the SAG/BFCA/Golden Globe trifecta, but enjoyable as she is playing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, this is a spot that should go to someone who contributed more to their film. Like Elizabeth Banks, for instance, in Love & Mercy. The prolific actress gives one of her best performances, and although she has picked up some recognition in the precursor phase, she’s a dark horse for an Oscar nomination.

Another dark horse, though she has received a few major critic’s prizes, is Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria. I’m a bit baffled by the attention she’s received for this. (Last February, she became the first American actress to ever win a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar. Bizarre.) Clouds of Sils Maria is a movie that stuck with me all year even though I had significant issues with it, and Stewart was good…but Stewart is rarely better than good. There is something compelling about her screen presence, but she’s not a great actress, and I can’t figure why she’s earning such high marks for this role. Her co-star Juliette Binoche is the one who should be in the conversation, for Best Actress, but there’s been nary a peep about her, or a single critic’s notice during Phase 1. The question of “deserve” aside, I seriously doubt Clouds of Sils Maria has been seen by enough voters to earn Stewart a spot.

While Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton have been unable to register as widely as expected, Spotlight‘s Rachel McAdams has carried the torch for the movie’s lauded ensemble, earning SAG and BFCA nominations. She’s solid in the movie, but it’s a pretty muted performance, and I’m not sure she would be singled out unless voters indeed can’t choose between Keaton and Ruffalo, and want to make sure someone from the cast is acknowledged.

Jane Fonda has a shot for her brief, memorable work in Youth, but like Helen Mirren in Trumbo – more so, in fact – the role is much too small to deserve a spot. It’s little more than an extended cameo, really, but it was enough to land her a Golden Globe nomination. With all due respect to these esteemed actresses and the admittedly fine work they did in their films, it would be a shame if their brief contributions were allowed to eclipse roles that are significantly more substantial, even if from less known performers or films outside the mainstream. Consider Tangerine, the Sundance breakout hit starring transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who created two of the year’s most vivid and memorable characters. The movie’s producers, indie rock stars Mark and Jay Duplass, initiated an Oscar campaign for Taylor and Rodriguez, and while the movie surely remains too under-the-radar to actually land any nominations, it would be a breath of fresh air from the Academy if they were to honor either of these vibrant performances.

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Helen Mirren – Trumbo
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Personal Picks:
Elizabeth Banks – Love & Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Mya Taylor – Tangerine
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Bank on Spotlight and Inside Out to land here for sure, with Bridge of Spies also a near-lock. Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell have both done well in the writing categories in recent years, but while QT’s The Hateful Eight is a good bet, Russell may not be able to repeat unless the Academy turns out to embrace Joy more enthusiastically than any other group this year. Straight Outta Compton, Sicario and Trainwreck all picked up nominations from the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) – alongside Spotlight and Bridge of Spies – but there are always several major players which are ineligible for recognition from the WGA, and this year’s victims include Inside Out and Hateful Eight. I’m sure the former will get a nomination, and the latter probably will too, so there won’t be room for all of the guild’s selections. Sicario may have the best shot of the three, but even that’s hard to say, seeing as the film has been on the bubble all season. It’s done well with guild nominations, but I can’t say with any confidence that things will play out the same way with the Academy. Ex Machina, which was also ineligible with the WGA, is another strong possibility here, though again, I’m have no sense of how the movie is playing with Academy members.

Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ex Machina – Alex Garland
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Personal Picks:
Dope – Rick Famuyiwa
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Sicario – Taylor Sheridan

There are six films that have come up consistently in this category throughout the season: The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, Room and Steve Jobs. There’s only room for five, of course, and there are a few others looking to break in. Chief among those is Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman, whose work is always unique and admired. A few critics groups have nominated The End of the Tour, about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s interviews with David Foster Wallace near the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, but I seriously doubt that movie has the momentum to be a threat here. Others that have cropped up are Creed, 45 Years and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, as well as Trumbo, which landed a WGA nod. But again, ineligibilities always clear the way for some longshot nominees to have their day in the sun with the WGA. Brooklyn and Room were the most notable omissions this year, but both seem like safe bets for an Oscar nod. I’d say Carol is the most vulnerable here, but the fact is that all six of these are favorites, and something’s gotta give.

The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Room – Emma Donaghue
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

Personal Picks:
Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman
The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

Sixteen films were submitted for consideration this year, a quota which means that up to five can be nominated…though I think there can be fewer. Inside Out is a no-brainer, and Pixar’s other 2015 release, The Good Dinosaur, is a safe bet too, though it was less well-received than most of the studio’s films, and could be bumped. The animation is often stunning, but the plot is fairly pedestrian. I’m not sure which of those qualities will be given more weight by voters.

Anomalisa and The Peanuts Movie will probably make it, so if we assume there will indeed be five nominees, the question is whether or not one of the more obscure, indie animated films can break through. Salma Hayek produced Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which might be able to land a slot. Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli, which has enjoyed several nominations over the years, has When Marnie Was There in contention, but I feel like that movie has flown further under the radar than other Ghibli efforts. Not that it matters, since the branch members have often selected little-known movies that have received no mainstream publicity prior to being nominated. I don’t think this is going to be one of those years, but that could well be because I have absolutely no framework in which to evaluate movies like Moomins on the Riviera or Boy and the World.

The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Personal Picks:
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Emmanuel Lubezki, who triumphed in this category the last two years, is going for a three-peat with The Revenant, shot in remote landscapes using only natural light. He’ll surely be keeping company with John Seale, the 70 year-old Oscar winner who came out of retirement to lens Mad Max: Fury Road, a monumental production with a dazzling visual style. And count on the brilliant, still Oscar-less maestro Roger Deakins to make the cut for his evocative work on Sicario. Those three are the sure things, with Carol‘s Ed Lachman probably right at their heels. Who gets the fifth spot?

Much has been made of The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and the decades-old lenses that were used, but will any of that ultimately be meaningful to voters on a film that, however well photographed, is largely confined to a single-room location? Robert Richardson is a three-time winner, nominated for Tarantino’s last two films, but I could see him getting edged out this time. Lubezki, Seale, Deakins and Lachman were all nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), which chose Janusz Kaminski’s work on Bridge of Spies to round out their list. Kaminski is another Academy favorite with two wins under his belt, but rarely does the Academy line up five-for-five with the ASC, and of these five impressively photographed productions, Revenant, Fury Road and Sicario seem immovable. Carol could get knocked out, but it feels too entrenched. The Martian has a good chance, as a movie that could hit a lot of these below-the-line categories and does have an exotic look thanks to its alien location. The employment of different film stocks, along with digital cameras, to capture the three distinct acts of Steve Jobs could earn it some votes, but the end result might not be viewed as dynamic enough to land a spot in such a competitive race. There is also plenty of deserving work that probably doesn’t have the momentum to make the cut, including Luca Bigazzi’s wondrous shot compositions in Youth; Maryse Alberti’s fluid work on Creed; Dan Lausten’s gothic play of light and shadow in Crimson Peak; and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s unflinching hold on child soldiers in the African jungle in Beasts of No Nation.

I could go on, as there’s no shortage of impressive cinematography to marvel at, but if the Academy offers up a surprise, it could be The Assassin. I missed the film, so can’t speak to it personally, but the Cinematographer’s branch of the Academy sometimes goes for a more obscure pick, and it’s often a foreign film. The Assassin has collected enough critics prizes to make me think it will be on voters’ radars, and while it’s definitely a longshot, I’m going out on a limb and guessing it turns up.

The Assassin – Mark Lee Ping Bin
Carol – Ed Lachman
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins

Personal Picks:
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins
Steve Jobs Alwin H. Küchler
Youth – Luca Bigazzi

This category is closely associated with Best Picture, so some of the frontrunners are sure to appear here as well. However, the most obvious Editing nominee is Mad Max: Fury Road, even though its position here doesn’t necessarily reflect its Best Picture odds. It’s just a hell of a skillfully assembled movie. The Big Short moves between multiple storylines, and also uses a lot of rapid-fire imagery to convey its message, so expect a nomination for that. The Martian also shifts between different storylines, maintaining successful pacing throughout its running time, so I think it has a good chance too. As the current frontrunner for Best Picture, Spotlight would seem like a sure thing for Editing, but it was conspicuously absent from both the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and BAFTA nominees. That may be a bad sign, but given the history of connection between Picture and Editing, I can’t bet against Spotlight. ACE breaks things out into categories for Drama and Comedy, and The Big Short is named in the latter, where it feels like the only nominee that will also land with the Academy (it joins Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and the only one I wouldn’t dismiss as a possibility, Joy. On the drama side, Fury Road and The Martian are up against The Revenant, Sicario and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. BAFTA threw Bridge of Spies into the mix as well. My guess is that Revenant, Sicario and Spies are fighting it out for the fifth spot, and I’m giving a slight edge to Sicario.

The Big Short – Hank Corwin
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

Personal Picks:
Dope – Lee Haugen
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

Once again, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian are out in front. I’d be questioning the latter’s chances if “spaceship” movies didn’t do so well with the voters in this branch. Apollo 13, Gravity and Interstellar all picked up nominations here, so I’m guessing The Martian will follow suit, especially with the arid Mars exteriors lending color and character. While Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are all technically science fiction, they portray realistic designs, as opposed to the more fantasy-based science fiction of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which could also find success here. Much of its design seems to take its cues from the earlier Star Wars movies, which might be a strike against it, and I don’t know if the category – which also favors period pieces – has room for both The Martian and Star Wars. But it very well might.

On the period side, Carol, Brooklyn and The Danish Girl seem the likeliest contenders, with Bridge of Spies also a strong possibility. The Art Directors Guild picks nominees across three categories – Contemporary, Period, and Fantasy – and still didn’t find room for Carol or Brooklyn, which came as a big surprise, though I think both are very much in the running for an Oscar nomination. Two additional strong contenders, bridging the gap between period and fantasy, are Cinderella and Crimson Peak. Also worthy of consideration is the excellent design of Ex Machina, but unfortunately films with contemporary settings – even ones like this that are not only uniquely stylish, but also serve the story quite organically –  are rarely given their due by designers. I’d love to be wrong in this case.

Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

Personal Picks:
Crimson Peak
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road

Costume designers, like their brethren in the Production Design branch, favor period pieces and, to a slightly lesser extent, fantasy.  So while Mad Max: Fury Road is a probable nominee, the frontrunners are Carol, Brooklyn and Cinderella. The Danish Girl is also a strong possibility, and Bridge of Spies, though more muted in color palette than the films that do best here, also has a shot. Trumbo and The Hateful Eight have decent odds, while Far From the Madding Crowd, Crimson Peak, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could all find a way in. Two other films that deserve to be mentioned are the tongue-in-cheek 60’s spy adventure The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Will Smith-Margot Robbie con artist caper Focus. I’m sure neither earned any real consideration, falling outside the “prestige” purview, and in the case of Focus, being set in the present day. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at least has the period setting in its favor, and maybe it will collect some votes, but not enough to get nominated.

The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road

Personal Picks:
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road

Even with 74 eligible songs this year, the pickings are slim. Like…really slim. This list is comprised of lots of forgettable pop songs as well as tracks from movies you’ve never heard of. Vin Diesel’s promise of a Best Picture nomination for Furious 7 may not come true, but the unstoppable franchise may in fact land its first ever Oscar nomination, for the song “See You Again,” which serves as a farewell to the series’ late star, Paul Walker. In addition to that song, most of the critics groups that include a Best Song category have featured the same short list of titles: “Love Me Like You Do,” from Fifty Shades of Grey; “Simple Song #3,” from Youth; “Writing’s on the Wall,” from Spectre; and “‘Til it Happens to You,” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. There have also been a couple of mentions each for Shaun the Sheep Movie‘s “Feels Like Summer,” Pitch Perfect 2‘s “Flashlight” and Concussion‘s “So Long.” A number of critics groups nominated the Brian Wilson selection “One Kind of Love,” from Love & Mercy, but for reasons I’m not sure of, it didn’t qualify for Academy consideration…which too bad. The lackluster category could have used the work of someone like Wilson.

I really have no idea what will happen here, and I’m not sure I care. The selections could all be from this pool of pop songs, or maybe something out of left field will impress the voters. It wouldn’t be the first time. The Wrap‘s Steve Pond once again listened to every eligible song and filed this report, but he doesn’t really offer predictions; just his own thoughts. If you’re interested in a bird’s-eye view of the contenders, it’s worth a read. I didn’t listen to most of these songs myself, but nothing I’ve heard this year has left much of an impression. Maybe there are some gems I didn’t hear.

See You Again – Furious 7
‘Til it Happens to You – The Hunting Ground
Feels Like Summer – Shaun the Sheep Movie
Writing’s on the Wall – Spectre
Simple Song #3 – Youth

Personal Picks:
Uhhh…..I like the new Adele stuff. Was any of that in a movie? Can we figure out a way to nominate David Bowie for something?

Fortunately, one of the music categories offers some work this year worth getting excited about. Despite a typically large pool of qualifiers – 114 this year – the conversation has focused around a small-ish selection of likely nominees. Fresh off a Golden Globe win, legendary Italian maestro Ennio Morricone is gunning for his first competitive Oscar (he received an Honorary statuette in 2006) for The Hateful Eight, and I can’t imagine him not getting nominated for this terrific work. Another legend, John Williams, returned to sacred territory with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to which I give 50/50 odds for a nomination. The popularity of the film and of Williams himself could be enough to get him a spot. Working against him? The score is good, but not great. He was nominated for each of the original three films, but none of the prequels, and the Force Awakens score is more on par with those later efforts.

Health issues prevented Williams from collaborating with Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies, making it only the second of the director’s 28 features since 1974 not to be scored by Williams. (Do you know the other? No Googling! And Twilight Zone: The Movie doesn’t count; Spielberg only directed one of that movie’s four segments.) Bridge of Spies was instead scored by Thomas Newman, who did nice work…though I preferred his score for Spectre. Newman, long overdue for an Oscar win, could be in the running again this year with either one. Another excellent composer who has never won – who has never even been nominated (not even for Fargo!?!) – is Carter Burwell, but he’s poised to finally join the club with his work on Carol. (He also won acclaim this year for Anomalisa.)

With The Danish Girl, last year’s winner – and a near-perennial at this point – Alexandre Desplat may collect his ninth nomination since 2006, and another of last year’s nominees, Jóhann Jóhannsson, could get cited for his moody, unsettling contributions to Sicario. That score might not make for the most enjoyable listening experience on its own, but works magnificently in the context of the movie. I generally favor scores that stand on their own as music you can listen to without the film, but what I favor has nothing to do with anything, and the Oscar for Best Original Score should first and foremost recognize music in service of its movie. Others this year that could land nominations for serving their movies well even if they might not be as compelling on their own include The Martian, by Harry Gregson-Williams, and Ex Machina, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

Spotlight (Howard Shore), Brooklyn (Michael Brook), Inside Out (Michael Giacchino), Cinderella (Patrick Doyle) and Steve Jobs (Daniel Pemberton) are all serious contenders, but two scores that have done well in the precursor phase – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – will be sidelined. The Revenant was ruled ineligible, while Fury Road features the kind of thumping score – more rock than classical – which the music branch voters rarely favor. One last possibility that should be mentioned is The 33, a movie that isn’t otherwise on the Academy’s radar, but which features music by James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of Titanic, among many other great scores. Horner died in a plane crash over the summer, and it’s possible his colleagues will want to honor him one last time.

Bridge of Spies – Thomas Newman
Carol – Carter Burwell
The Danish Girl – Alexandre Desplat
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
The Martian – Harry Gregson-Williams

Personal Picks:
Ex Machina – Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Far From the Madding Crowd – Craig Armstrong
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
Sicario – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Spotlight – Howard Shore

The Academy has already taken a fair amount of guesswork out of this category by narrowing it down to seven contenders, of which three will be nominated. The lucky finalists are Black Mass, Concussion, Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mr. Holmes, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and The Revenant.

If you’re anything like me, that list begs a few questions. Like, what the hell is the The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared? Or, are they retroactively talking about the 1985 Tom Cruise-Tim Curry fantasy Legend? Because what could they possibly be thinking about by including the Legend with Tom Hardy as twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray?

There are some unfortunate omissions from this shortlist that deserve a shot at the final three, including In the Heart of the Sea (this poor movie got the shaft in every way), Everest, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, and maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the seven finalists are generally a good lot. Seriously, though…Legend? Am I forgetting something from that movie?

Black Mass
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Personal Picks:

Like the Makeup and Hairstyling branch, the Visual Effects group goes through an organized process of elimination that began with a list of 20 films. That was narrowed down to 10, from which the final five will be selected. Our pool consists of Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tomorrowland and The Walk. Last Saturday, members of the branch gathered at an Academy theater for presentations by each film’s visual effects supervisor, immediately after which they cast their ballots. (The Makeup and Hairstyling branch held a similar bake-off event the same day.)

It’s an impressive line-up this year. There’s not a film here that doesn’t feature really high-quality work, so it’s a tough call. The voters love to honor visual effects from Best Picture-caliber movies, so that bodes well for The Revenant and The Martian. The primary work in both The Walk and Ex Machina, while excellent, is somewhat limited in terms of how much it’s employed. Ex Machina‘s effects create the visible robotic portions of the AI character Ava, but those parts are often concealed by clothing. The Walk, meanwhile, has one truly spectacular sequence that lasts maybe 20 or 30 minutes, but beyond that it’s not an overtly effects-heavy movie. I’m also not sure if both The Walk and The Revenant will make it. Each employs visual effects on major, buzzed-about sequences – the former on the breathtaking walk between the two World Trade Center towers, the latter on the harrowing bear attack – and both with stellar results. I’m trying to figure which one has the edge, but maybe they’ll both make it and push a presumed nominee like Jurassic World or The Martian out of the final five. As Yoda once said, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” No idea, he has. Predicting the Oscars he should try sometime, then talk to me he can.

Anyway, if you want an insider’s view, Variety‘s David S. Cohen was at the bake-off, and offered his take on the presentations and how they were received.

Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

Personal Picks:
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

I feel like a broken record when I reach the Sound categories each year, because I always say the same things: the difference between the two categories, the wide array of films that could turn up, and how I think there should be a single sound category honoring overall Sound Design. So first, the two categories. In simplest terms, sound editors create and/or fix sounds that couldn’t be recorded during filming or were not usable, while sound mixers combine all the elements – dialogue, music, sound effects, etc. – into a balanced whole.

Second, the array of possibilities. The categories are usually dominated by action movies, so we could see things like Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spectre, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We could see dramas that have strong action-ish elements, like Sicario, The Revenant, Everest, In the Heart of the Sea, The Hateful Eight (Tarantino’s last two movies have been recognized) or Beasts of No Nation. We could see something with a heavy musical component, like Straight Outta Compton or Love & Mercy (which employs sound mixing to great effect by using it to bring us inside Brian Wilson’s troubled headspace). We could see an animated film, which requires extensive creation of sound elements (several Pixar movies have been nominated). And we could also see the odd, straight drama that doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for recognition in Sound, but apparently is, because, well, what do we know? Bridge of Spies seems a likely bet to fill that potential slot this year.

Sound Editing Predictions:
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Sound Mixing Predictions
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finally, in lieu of personal picks that I feel wholly unqualified to offer, I have my fantasy category of Best Sound Design, which I feel slightly less unqualified to offer. I’d go for Inside Out, Love & Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, and The Revenant.

And that’s everything. Well…almost everything. As always, my sincere apologies to the Documentaries and Foreign Language films that I didn’t get around to seeing, as well as the short films that no one ever gets around to seeing until the nominees are announced and each category’s selections are released as a package…at which point I probably still won’t get around to seeing them, so advance apologies for that too.

It’s all in the hands of the movie gods now. The nominations will be revealed tomorrow morning, in two segments beginning at 5:30am PST. Ang Lee and Guillermo del Toro will announce 11 categories, followed by John Krasinski and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs with the remaining 13, including all the above-the-line categories like Picture, Acting and Writing. Will you be waking up to watch the gig live?? I will be!! Because, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, I’m waaaay too into this shit. Pray for me…



November 22, 2015

Tremors in The Force

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 3:00 pm
Tags: , , , , ,
It doesn’t seem so long ago that The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm for roughly $4 billion dollars and announced a new slate of Star Wars movies were in the works, but in fact it’s been almost three years. Like any lifelong Star Wars fan, I had some thoughts on these matters, just as I did a few months later when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. All was quiet on the official news front for a long while after that, and I thought the casting announcement would be a good time to check back in. Well…that came and went nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and I apparently had too much going on at the time to wade back in. With each new milestone – title announcement, trailers, Comic-Con, etc. – I wanted to weigh in, but could never find the time…partly because I was accumulating so many articles on the subject that I needed to go back through, the writing itself was always delayed by the “research.” Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a few short weeks (weeks!) away, it’s now or never if I want to get some thoughts off my chest before the movie is looming too large in front of us – not unlike the Death Star over a Corellian starship caught in a tractor beam – for it to matter anymore.

Not that it really matters now. Or ever did. But is that going to stop me?

Since casting was the topic I was so keen to discuss, why not start there? Abrams and company put together an impressive ensemble for the new film, and when they it was announced at the end of April 2014, the big question was how many of the rumored names would turn out to have made the cut. There were, after all, a lot of rumors. In fact, from casting to plot and everything in between, these new Star Wars movies have had the rumor mill churning so aggressively that they might yet break the mechanism.

It was known that Abrams met with a huge number of actors during the casting process. The names I saw connected to the film – whether by their own admission or by sources said to be in the know – were Benedict Cumberbatch, Zac Efron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Michael B. Jordan, Jack O’Connell (star of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken), Gary Oldman, David Oyelowo, Dev Patel, Alex Pettyfer, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Saoirse Ronan, Tye Sheridan, Ed Spleers (Downton Abbey‘s footman Jimmy), Sullivan Stapleton (of the Cinemax series Strike Back), and Hugo Weaving.

The names to surface during this period that actually made the cut were John Boyega and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Adam Driver, whose casting was pretty much confirmed a few months before the full, official group was revealed. Just a few days before the announcement, Oscar Isaac’s name suddenly popped into the mix, and he too would be counted among the holders of this golden ticket. When the announcement came, accompanied by a table read photo featuring most of the participants, it was satisfying to see some people who hadn’t been mentioned in the speculation phase at all. Up and comer Domhnall Gleeson – son of the excellent character actor Brendan Gleeson – was a welcome surprise, as were Andy Serkis and Daisy Ridley, who along with Boyega, extends the tradition of casting newcomers in lead roles…not that we knew at that point that Boyega and Ridley would be the leads. I’m also a huge Oscar Isaac fan, so I loved seeing him thrust into the mix, and later learning that he rounded out the trio of central new characters alongside Boyega and Ridley. But perhaps the coolest inclusion of all? Max von Sydow, the now 86 year old veteran whose epic career stretches back to the classics of Ingmar Bergman. Dude played chess with Death!!  From Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to Terence Stamp and Christopher Lee, the presence of older, esteemed actors bringing a charm and gravitas to these modern stories is another Star Wars tradition. With so much of the attention focused on younger actors during the frenzy of casting rumors, no one reported on the possibility of another veteran performer carrying that torch. I was thrilled to see von Sydow amongst the cast.

(Click image for larger version with labels)

Although their involvement was all but assured, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were confirmed to return as part of the big cast reveal, along with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, respectively). But if there was one complaint amidst the general enthusiasm which greeted the casting announcement, (Stephen Colbert’s disappointment notwithstanding) it was the lack of women. Only Fisher and Ridley represented the ladies, but Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy were both quick to assure fans that a few key cast members were yet to be announced, and that the eventual names would likely appease the concerns. Within weeks, those additions came to pass, with Nyong’o going from rumor to real deal, and Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie coming aboard as well.

The combination of beloved old blood and exciting new blood was a promising indicator that Episode VII, as it was still known at that point, was on the right track. As the months went on, there was plenty more evidence to suggest that Abrams and Kennedy were making all the right moves. Before following that thread, however, I should jump back prior to the casting, to cover the big news that broke about the script during the early genesis of the new trilogy. When Disney first announced its intention to create Episodes VII-IX, they revealed that Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt was already on the job of developing the new story, and had been for several months. So perhaps the first big surprise in the making of the film came when Lucasfilm announced that Arndt was moving on and script duties would be taken over by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter returning to the Star Wars galaxy having co-written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

When the serious effort to create a new trilogy began, Kennedy assembled a brain trust – a term which has long been associated with Pixar’s team of creative leaders and has gained popularity in Hollywood these days as more shared universe film series are developed – which included herself, Arndt, Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (whose writing credits include Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes and the last two X-Men movies). Kasdan’s deep history with Lucasfilm – he also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark – made his return to the fold a major coup. Once hired, Abrams joined this group to help develop the story for the new trilogy. By all accounts, there were a lot of ideas, but time wore on without any kind of actual story taking shape. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly recently:

 “[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place. It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”

Kasdan said something similar in a Vanity Fair cover story from June of this year. “We were struggling to come up with a story. There were elements that we would come up with and say, ‘Oh, that’s good! That’s strong!’ But it was not coming together.” At the time, Episode VII was still scheduled for summer 2015, and with pre-production already underway, the script needed to take shape. However things went down behind the scenes, Arndt left and hasn’t made any public comments about his time on the project or his departure. In the press release announcing the changing of the guard, Kennedy said, “Michael Arndt has done a terrific job bringing us to this point and we have an amazing filmmaking and design team in place already prepping for production.” She also said she was excited about the story they had in place, though these more recent interviews make it clear that when Arndt left, there was no story in place. But hey, Kennedy is a consummate producer, and a little bit of spin goes with the territory. Abrams too, had praise for Arndt, but only a vague explanation about the changeover. It seems odd to me that in all the time Arndt was on the project – and he was on it for a while – there was no story in place by the time Abrams got involved. If he was initially doing a treatment before delving into the actual screenplay, there must have been more than just a random collection of ideas. I’d be quite curious to hear his unfiltered thoughts on all of this. (Fast forward to the present: Arndt retains credit along with Abrams and Kasdan as one of the film’s writers.)

With Arndt off the project, Abrams and Kasdan started nearly from scratch, incorporating some ideas from the brainstorming period but largely working from a clean slate. One thing they had all known from the start was that Hamill, Ford and Fisher were onboard, thanks to the efforts of George Lucas, who had met with each of them before selling to Disney, explaining his plans to hand over the company and, in the process, help launch a sequel trilogy. (Kasdan says he too was courted by Lucas to return.) While I give big kudos to Lucas for being instrumental in getting these members of the original trilogy involved in the new films, I can’t resist noting that the Godfather of the Galaxy Far, Far Away had his own story outline for Episodes VII-IX, which Disney and company decided not to use. It’s intriguing that Lucas even had an idea for post-Jedi storylines, since in the prequel era, he often talked  about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, as the true central figure of the Star Wars saga. This article from The Verge contains a screenshot from an interview Lucas gave to Total Film in 2008, addressing that idea. Then again, the lore going back to my own childhood was always that Lucas had outlined nine stories, of which New Hope, Empire and Jedi comprised the middle three. Whether the ideas that Lucas floated to Disney were developed decades ago or more recently, the studio preferred to start fresh. Lucas told Cinema Blend, “Well, the ones that I sold to Disney and everything, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own. It’s not the ones that I originally wrote.” Lucas sounds unfazed about it, though the Vanity Fair story attempts to suggest it’s a touchy subject for all involved. From the article, by Bruce Handy:

How Lucas felt about that seems to be a delicate topic, one that Disney and Lucasfilm executives declined to address. Decades ago, after Universal had made cuts in his second film, American Graffiti, against his will, Lucas constructed his career so that he’d rarely not get his way. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek while his new Star Wars ideas were still on the table, “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful.” But another part of the deal was that he was paid a handsome sum to cede control, and however he felt about having his story ideas rejected, Lucas (who turned down an interview request for this story) is by all accounts supportive of the new films and eager to see them for the first time in theaters like any other audience member. “I talk to him and see him frequently,” Kennedy said. “And I’m telling you, every time I say, ‘Is there anything you want to know?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I want to be surprised.’ ”

In the article, the paragraph preceding the one you just read says that Lucas’ stories apparently focused on teenage characters, and we all know that didn’t work out so well in the prequels. Disney knew it too, as the article suggests. Whether the discomfort Handy alludes to around the situation actually exists or not is hard to discern based on things we’ve heard from Lucas. On one hand, he has expressed that he’s happy to be out of the loop and excited to see the movie along with the rest of the world. This past January, he told USA Today, “The only thing I really regret about Star Wars is the fact I never got to see it — I never got to be blown out of my seat when the ship came over the screen. The next one, I’ll be able to enjoy it like anybody else.” (Really? That’s his only regret? I’ll assume he means his only regret about the first movie specifically. His quote above about knowing what he’s doing — does he mean he knows what he’s doing when it comes to Star Wars? Because that hasn’t been true in a long time.)

On the other hand, a brand new, yet-to-air interview with CBS This Morning that will coincide with Lucas’ imminent Kennedy Center Honor, finds him revisiting — with faint traces of bitterness — the rejection of his story proposals by Disney and his lack of involvement with the new movies. So really, who knows what goes on in that guy’s head anymore…

With the taste of the prequels still souring scores of fans, we all approached news of Episodes VII-IX with understandable trepidation. And yet with every announcement, every tease, and every peek, the enthusiasm has been palpable. As I said earlier, the evidence strongly suggests that Abrams and company have gotten it right. The signs started early, when we learned the movie would not be shot digitally as the prequels were — and so many movies these days are — but rather on good ol’ 35mm film (and in the case of one sequence, IMAX!). Shooting on film is an unimportant detail to most, but for movie buffs, a good sign. Additionally, the movie would not shoot in 3D, something I would not have put past any major studio to impose on the filmmaker for a movie like this. It will be post-converted, of course, so that 3D is an option, but again, power to the purists.
Very early in the production, Abrams appeared in a video announcing a contest through UNICEF that could win a fan a walk-on part in the movie. His message was interrupted by a creature walking by, and it was joyful evidence that Abrams was going old school on the new movies. This wasn’t a CG character inserted after the fact, but a tactile, seemingly animatronic being interacting with Abrams and the rest of its environment. It backed-up what Abrams and others had been saying, that one big way the new movie would try to recapture the magic that eluded the prequels was by using real sets and practical effects as much as possible. Abrams would continue to send teasing messages throughout the production, offering visual clues that were like manna to the masses. A nod to the Millennium Falcon here, a callback to the Empire there…just fun, non-substantive nuggets, but enough to provide a jolt of excitement of the faithful.

That note about the leaks? It was no surprise that production was going to be off-the-charts in terms of intensive fan scrutiny. Speculation has run rampant since the casting phase we already discussed, and it hasn’t subsided. I don’t think there’s been a single day since the movie started shooting that I haven’t seen at least three stories about it on Yahoo‘s home page, and plenty of other websites have been plastering coverage as well. Hitfix contributor Donna Dickens has been doing near-daily countdown posts since I don’t even know when she started; this is her 287 Days Until Star Wars piece. It’s not even about Episode VII; it’s just random Star Wars stories. Really though? 287 days ahead of time?

Supposed plot and character details were constantly appearing online (and still are). In October 2014, a large number of images from the film leaked onto the web. (I love Entertainment Weekly‘s position that they wouldn’t post or link to the images because they’re stolen property, but describing them in detail was okay because the leak was newsworthy. Sorry guys, but that’s some bullshit. Report on the leak, by all means, but your journalistic integrity melts away when you start describing the material in detail. You’re as guilty as anyone at that point.) Personally, I’ve avoided all of this. I wanted to know nothing that wasn’t officially sanctioned by Disney and Abrams, the latter being well known for guarding his projects’ secrecy and being extremely deliberate about what he chooses to reveal and when. Bits of info slipped through my self-imposed firewall here and there, and things we have learned through proper channels by now have confirmed some rumors while disproving others. But even now, I’m trying to preserve as much surprise as I can. As much as I like the idea of going in completely blind, there’s no way I could ever remove myself from the build-up entirely. When that first trailer debuted almost exactly a year ago, the only debate in my head was whether to watch it online or attempt a trip to a movie theater over an out-of-town Thanksgiving weekend with family in order to watch it on the big screen. That lasted about five minutes, then the laptop came out. There wasn’t much to go on…but it was a perfect and potential-filled tease.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, though there were dissenters too. (This guy had some interesting thoughts). The rolling droid was an instant hit. The three-pronged lightsaber was an instant controversy (Abrams enjoyed that debate, and offered that there was plenty of back and forth about it among the filmmakers as well.) The narration was an instant puzzler. (Who is it?? Andy Serkis? Adam Driver? Someone else?) And the sweeping shot of the Millennium Falcon that brought it all home? I didn’t hear much chatter about that, though I’m sure it was divisive. It’s a cool shot, but it doesn’t feel like anything from the original trilogy. I was okay with that. It’s a good thing for Abrams to bring his own sensibility to the film, up to a certain point (i.e. let’s keep the lens flare at bay, J.J.). By and large, we all want the new movies to evoke the classics while carving their own path.

A few weeks after the trailer hit — which itself came a few weeks after The Force Awakens moniker was revealed — we got a superbly clever and old school introduction to some of the characters and scenes glimpsed in the trailer. These holiday gifts had to hold us over for a while, because it wasn’t until the annual Star Wars Celebration event in April that the next wave of goodies would hit.

More to chew over than in the initial teaser. A lot of enticing and promising imagery. Still not a lot to go on, but it did its job. I loved the piano notes at the end of that superb first shot; loved the hissing echo of Luke’s narration (a sound effect I was only recently able to finally decipher; listen and you’ll hear the phrases “my father has it,” “my sister has it” and “I have it” quietly repeat after being spoken); loved the figure that was soon dubbed the Chrometrooper, and the Death Star-like hallway it was walking down; loved BB-8 peeking around the corner; and odd as this sounds, I loved Han Solo’s hair. I admit to being concerned about whether Ford would be given Han Solo’s traditional style once again or whether he would have the shorter hair the actor naturally sports, which frames his face more vertically vs. the more rounded-face look that distinguishes Han from most of Ford’s other characters. That final image of Han and Chewie, which sent fans into a tizzy of delight, was satisfying to me because of Ford’s hair. What can I say?

This new trailer kicked off another wave of publicity that would continue over the next few months as yet more details were revealed. The aforementioned Vanity Fair cover story was the occasion for The Chrometrooper to be identified as Captain Phasma, with Gwendoline Christie underneath the foreboding suit. We also learned that Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis would be donning motion capture suits to transform into characters called Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, respectively. (These revelations came as slight disappointment, since this means half of the movie’s primary female cast members won’t be seen as themselves — though maybe Captain Phasma’s helmet will come off, just as it appears Kylo Ren’s mask will; and because Serkis’ mocap bona fides are well established by now thanks to  Gollum, King Kong and Planet of the Apes‘ Ceasar. It would have been nice to see him in the flesh.) Maz Kanata wasn’t revealed, but we were told she is a pirate and has a castle that looks like the same sort of hip intergalactic hangout Jabba the Hutt once provided. And looking at this rogue’s gallery photo, many of these characters look as though they could have stepped right off the set of Return of the Jedi, further demonstrating the new filmmaking team’s commitment to practical makeup and creature effects.

(Click image for larger version)

The next few months, with Comic-Con, Disney’s D23 convention, and an Entertainment Weekly cover story, would bring a smattering of new details and clues, from the identity of Domhnall Gleeson’s character — a villainous officer named General Hux, operating out of a location called Starkiller Base — to the possibility of appearances by Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb, two minor but key participants in Return of the Jedi‘s Rebel attack on the Death Star. But no doubt in keeping with Abrams mandate to maintain the element of surprise, the official hype machine had been quiet. Only in mid-October, with about two months to go before the release, did things finally pick up again. First there was the long overdue appearance of the film’s poster, followed closely by the third and final trailer U.S. theatrical trailer.

And so began the final marketing push. As we’re now in November, commercials have started popping up all over TV; more promotional tie-ins will be revealed; and talk show appearances will start up, beginning with Abrams, Boyega, Ridley and Driver on Jimmy Kimmel Live tomorrow night. But in terms of details, plot, etc., we still know so little, and it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much more between now and the movie’s December 18 release. Those who expected the final trailer to give us a more traditional preview of the story or to finally reveal Luke Skywalker were met instead with simply a longer tease which even recycled some shots from the previous trailers rather than offer entirely new footage. The Japanese trailer that followed gave us more enticing footage, but still few answers.

I’m fully in favor of this less-is-more approach, and while I never would have expected Luke to be completely withheld, I love it. And if some of the plot rumors that I failed to avoid turn out to be true — as it looks like they might be based on footage and official details we’ve seen — than I understand why we’re seeing so little of him. But really, how ballsy of Abrams and Disney to keep Luke Skywalker totally away from the ramp up to a new movie in which we know the character returns? He doesn’t even appear on the poster!

So with all of this unnecessary recapping out the way (sorry, but I had to justify the months worth of story links I’d been collecting with the intention of writing multiple posts over the last year and a half), and with the unveiling of the film rapidly approaching, here are some of my thoughts on what we’re in store for when the force awakens. I’m not one to go too deep down the rabbit hole of plot speculation (God knows there’s been more than enough of that plastered all over the internet day after day for months on end), but what we’ve seen — along with what we haven’t — has left me chewing on the following topics.

Oscar Isaac’s character, Poe Dameron, was revealed earlier this year to be one of the three leading protagonists of the new film. And yet we’ve seen surprisingly little of him so far. Not that we know much about Rey or Finn, but both have been featured prominently in all the publicity to date. Not so much with Poe. All we saw of him in the first trailer was a shot of him flying an X-wing. In the second trailer? Pretty much the same shot, and that was all. In the third trailer we see him twice, briefly both times: wearing his fighter suit as he passes Finn, and getting Force-raped by Kylo Ren in one of the trailer’s most captivating images. At Comic-Con, in lieu of a trailer, fans were treated to a behind the scenes video from the set of the film, and we got a shot of Dameron in civilian clothes and handcuffs being marched by a stormtrooper down a hallway strongly reminiscent of the Death Star detention cell block in A New Hope. There’s also this quick shot of him aiming a gun and looking alarmed, released just before the third trailer but not actually included in it. So why such mystery around Poe? How does he fit in? While on stage at the Star Wars Celebration, he said his character has “been sent on a mission by a certain princess and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character, and their fates are forever intertwined.” Indeed, one of the newer photos making the rounds is a shot of these two together…though seemingly at a point in the story where I wouldn’t have thought they’d met yet. In the Japanese trailer, we see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Poe standing close to Princess Leia in what looks a war room similar to the one from which Leia monitored the first Death Star attack. So that, taken with his description, indicates that he already has a connection to Leia when the story begins.

Part of the marketing lead-up to The Force Awakens has been a variety of books covering the period between the events of Return of the Jedi and the new film. Among these titles is a Marvel comic series called Shattered Empire, and apparently the central character of that series is Poe’s mother. So it’s likely that Poe — whatever his role in the story — is already deeply involved in what we presume is a struggle between the Resistance and the First Order (names — revealed at April’s Star Wars Celebration — which seem to have taken the place of the Rebellion/Rebel Alliance and the Empire, respectively).

Oh, and in a related question, how does America’s new sweetheart BB-8 figure into events? The trailers so far have shown him (him?) keeping company with Rey and Finn. But the packaging for the remote-controlled (sorry: “app-enabled”) BB-8 toy that is already the hit of the holiday season and maybe one of the ten most adorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, describes him as “the spherical, loyal Astromech Droid of the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron.” The third trailer does show BB-8 positioned in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, and a model of Poe’s X-Wing that was on display at the Star Wars Celebration showed  BB-8 nestled in the back. So which characters is this little droid rolling with, and when do Poe, Finn and Rey cross paths? (Yes, by the way, Force Awakens toys hit shelves as early as September, and the absurdity of that is a topic I’ll have to avoid for now since this post is already longer than the CliffsNotes for Hamlet.)

The casting of Adam Driver has been a point of interest for me from the start. He’s one of the most original, unpredictable actors to emerge in the last several years, most notably in his three-time Emmy nominated performance on the HBO series Girls. But he seemed an odd choice for Star Wars because there’s something about him that seems so…I keep wanting to say contemporary, but that’s not it; he’s had small roles in period pieces like Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis (opposite Oscar Isaac!), and he was not out of place in either. He just doesn’t strike me as an actor whose persona would translate to sci-fi, fantasy or something otherworldly. Maybe because on Girls he comes off as so real, so unscripted, the idea of him in something less grounded in reality, where the dialogue will have a certain formality to it, has puzzled me. Hearing him speak as Kylo Ren for the first time in the third trailer — even with his voice altered a bit to sound more mechanical — gave me a jolt of excitement. It was just one line, but something about it put me at ease. (Not that I was worried. Totally wasn’t worried.)

I’m also excited to see what the mass audience makes of him. I take my familiarity with his work for granted, but there are a huge number of people who are scarcely aware of his work. They don’t watch Girls; they didn’t see Inside Llewyn Davis, they didn’t see This is Where I Leave You — a bigger, studio movie in which Driver has a large role, but which wasn’t a huge hit — and they haven’t seen his work in other small indies or low-profile films like What If, a rom-com with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. So this will be their first exposure to his untamed talent. I’m fascinated to see how it fits into Star Wars.

I talked earlier about how excited I was for Max von Sydow’s involvement. His role has been kept entirely secret up to this point, even more so than Luke’s. There’s been nary a photo or cryptic hint about who he’s playing or what he’ll be doing, and I love that. So here’s some light food for thought. Given his age, whoever he plays must be somebody who will not only have been around during the years of the original trilogy, but also the prequel era…which means conceivably he could be someone who knew Anakin Skywalker and Anakin’s mother, Shmi. Just doing some very rough math, if von Sydow is playing a character near to his actual age of 86, and we’re now 30 years out from the events of Episodes IV-VI, which themselves began 30 years after the events of Episodes I-III, then von Sydow’s character would have been around 26 when Luke and Leia were born…so maybe in his mid-teens when Anakin was a kid. Before I ran those numbers, I wondered if he could turn out to be Anakin’s father — a random notion that popped into my head only because von Sydow and Pernilla August, the actress who played Shmi, are both Swedish. Like that would need to matter. I was probably just reaching for something to negate the idiotic Immaculate Conception idea that Lucas came up with in The Phantom Menace.  Anyway…my number crunching shows the character would have been too young to father Anakin (not incapable of fathering him, but c’mon, this is a kid-friendly movie), so it’s moot. And there’s no reason to think he will have a connection to Anakin. I just like the idea that he could. That whoever he is, he has probably been around throughout the events depicted in the six previous movies — a set-up that offers some tantalizing possibilities.

Or maybe his character will simply be relevant to these new events, and that’s that. Either way…Max von Sydow!!

It’s been known for a while now that Han Solo has a large role in The Force Awakens, while the size of Luke and Leia’s is said to be smaller. The absence of Luke from the marketing, and the things Abrams has said about him, suggest that his role, even if small, will be central to the plot. As for Leia, it’s tough to gauge. She’s been nearly as scarce in the marketing as Poe Dameron. One of the rumors I heard when Michael Arndt left the project — no idea if there’s any truth to it — is that he wanted to sideline the original characters in favor of new ones, whereas Abrams wanted them to play a larger role and receive a proper send-off. It could be argued that they got a proper send-off in Return of the Jedi and we should be content with that, but at the same time, continuing the story of the original trilogy without its stars figuring in somewhat prominently wouldn’t feel right. Just having them show up for obligatory cameos might be even more awkward than not featuring them at all. So we seem to be getting a story in which Luke, Leia and Han factor heavily. Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it feels right.

But there is that nagging worry of whether or not Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can slip comfortably back into those characters after so long away. Do we really want to see Luke, Leia and Han 30 years older, or do we just think we do? Nostalgia has its allure, but it carries the risk of disappointment. We know they aren’t going to be the same as they were in the movies we grew up with, but will that knowledge make it any less uncomfortable to watch if they seem a little…off? Abrams has addressed the concerns too. In the Vanity Fair story, he said of Ford:

I knew that he had done in some movies a kind of more growly thing, and I didn’t want Han to be growly. But because of the backstory I wanted him to have evolved somewhat. I mean, when you’re in your late 60s you’re not the same person you were in your late 20s, and yet he had to be the character we know and love. So it was a balance that felt sort of emblematic for me in terms of this whole experience, which is it had to be what you know, but it can’t be exactly what you know.

From what he told The Seattle Times, he was not disappointed.

What was incredible from my point of view was how apparently easily they flipped back into these roles. I knew for a fact, for example, that Harrison Ford was going to be in this movie, but I couldn’t be certain that Han Solo would be. Meaning, I hadn’t seen Han Solo return after nearly 40 years, either. And it wasn’t until we got on set that I got my answer. It was a remarkable thing to see how effortlessly Harrison Ford became Han Solo again.

If we take his word for it, then they acclimated to their characters with ease and comfort. Like he says, however, they’re 30+ years older, and have surely accumulated experiences which have shaped and changed them into people who are the same but different. Will we accept those changes? Much of the Star Wars fiction that has extended the life of these characters over the last three decades has concerned offspring of Han and Leia, because of course the assumption is that the fiery princess and the charming scoundrel would stay together and have a family. But isn’t it kind of weird to think of Han Solo as a dad? The prominence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the marketing of The Force Awakens, and various clues gleaned from trailers and interviews, suggest that she might be the child of Han and Leia. If she is, in what kind of light will that recast Han? His relationship with Leia already had him softening a bit in Return of the Jedi. How will fatherhood have affected him?

From The Big Chill to Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan has frequently dealt with questions of how people evolve as time and experience impact them, and he said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that those questions were part of what appealed to him about coming back to Luke, Leia and Han after so long.

I thought, ‘Wow, okay, these people have lived — they’re in a different place in their lives, Han and Leia and so on. They’ve lived the same 30 years I have. What would that be like? How would you see things differently?’ And I was trying to figure out how I saw things differently, and one of the surprises is that you don’t learn all that much. You haven’t become much wiser than you were, and things are not clearer to you, and the world is just as confusing as it always was — and that’s a kind of lovely thing to get to write about again. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.

If Kasdan’s personal insight can successfully inform the characters, adding layers of depth while still holding onto the traits we love about them — and if the actors can tap back into those elements even as they bring their age and experience to bear — then it could be a real joy to watch those performances. My confidence continues to hold. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen (and haven’t seen) so far, and I think bringing them back was the right move. We’re getting the best of both worlds, with a story that connects to the originals but launches a new group of characters and helps us invest in them by pairing them with their predecessors. So far it’s looking like a winning recipe.

Another topic of feverish fan speculation has been the fate of Luke. His absence from the film’s posters and previews — with the exception of that confounding voiceover from the second trailer and the same clip’s hooded, metal-handed figure by the fire with R2-D2 that we all assume is our MIA Jedi — has elicited a lot of discussion. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly that one of the hooks Kathleen Kennedy dangled in front of him, enabling her to reel him into the project in the first place, was the opportunity to explore Luke’s post-Vader trajectory. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’ He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in.’ I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”

I find that question to be less chill-inducing that Abrams.’ Episodes IV-VI gave us a perfectly satisfying picture of who Luke Skywalker is, and Kennedy’s question seems like one that never needed to be asked. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more story to tell after Jedi, just that this notion of Luke Skywalker needing to be demystified kinda comes out of nowhere. Yet it seems the query truly was a guiding light for the filmmakers. Kennedy went on:

The themes and ideas that we all continue to talk about are the themes and ideas that were the inherent in the original movies. We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light. George spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good. I’m not sure all people would agree, but I think that that’s always an interesting conflict to explore. So that’s a big part of the themes inside of Episode VII.

That might explain why Lucas often said that his favorite moment in the classic trilogy was when Luke, hiding in the Emperor’s Throne Room from Darth Vader, gave into his anger and suddenly, furiously attacked his father at the suggestion that Leia could be turned to the dark side. The Emperor applauded Luke’s crippling assault that left Vader on his back with his hand chopped off. This was the moment when Luke would give into the dark side. But he didn’t, as we well know. He was a Jedi, like his father before him. Last month, a 10 year old episode of the Independent Film Channel show Dinner for Five resurfaced, featuring Mark Hamill telling the group that he thought Return of the Jedi would see Luke succumbing to the dark side…for a while at least. He talked about how interesting that would have been to play. Of course, the reason the clip gained traction now was that J.J. Abrams was also on the show that night. So between this TV show and the talk from Abrams and Kennedy about the existential nature of Luke Skywalker and the delicate balance between good and evil, the big new theory was that The Force Awakens‘ Luke would be evil. That’s why they had to keep him out of the trailers. That’s why his place in the movie is such a secret.

I understand why people might think this. But it’s a terrible idea that would make absolutely no one happy. Nobody wants to see Luke Skywalker as a bad guy, and to portray him as such would demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what fans desire, but of the beloved character’s core values. Who is Luke Skywalker? He’s not the villain, that’s for sure. If he managed to stay true to himself in that moment of defeating Vader in front of The Emperor, if in that moment of indulging his fear and his hatred he was still able to keep his wits and tell The Emperor to go to fuck himself (in more PG-rated vernacular), he’s not going to give into the dark side now. What stakes could be higher than they were then? Besides, if Luke had gone bad, Abrams and company aren’t going to leave him that way, and then the story becomes about bringing him back to himself, and we’ve already had the story of a Skywalker’s redemption. We don’t need another one.

All that said, there’s still some room to play with in that idea of the struggle between good and bad. Presenting Luke as a man who continues to feel that conflict within him which The Emperor hoped would result in a transformation, who is tempted by his anger and his fear…that could all be interesting, rich material to explore. A recovering alcoholic will still grapple with the urge, even years after their last drink. We could be looking at something like that when we’re re-introduced to Luke. Perhaps he’s gone into hiding, isolating himself because he has lost his sense of place in the world. Wherever he is when The Force Awakens picks up, it’s likely that he’s separated from Han and Leia. But how long will that have been the case? What is the relationship between them now? He seemed at peace when he returned to Endor to join his friends in celebration, overseen by the spirits of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda. What will have transpired to unsettle him during the intervening years? The fate of Luke Skywalker is easily the most captivating question among many captivating questions raised so far by The Force Awakens. As it should be. Let’s just hope the story doesn’t find him too far astray.

Just a quick thought here. Has anyone noticed the prevalence of red in the footage and images we’ve seen so far? Not the red of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber or the red of other lasers and such, but red on objects? New images of C-3PO show him sporting a red arm. Both Finn and Poe have been seen with beige jackets that have red on the shoulder and above the breast pocket. (Hmm…are they actually the same jacket? Is Finn the stormtrooper who’s marching Poe down that corridor?? Does Poe give him that jacket??? Why????) The TIE fighters — or at least one of them, seen damaged and hurtling through space in the third trailer and then crashed on the ground — appear to be partly red. In a shot from the second trailer that I mentioned earlier, of Captain Phasma striding down a hall, there’s a big red area to her left. Also in the second trailer, there’s that huge red curtain at what looks like a First Order rally (see Trailer #2 embed above). There’s a lot of seemingly symbolic red going on here. But symbolic of what?

We haven’t even seen Episode VII yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to Episodes VIII and IX. Rian Johnson will pick up the reins from Abrams and Kasdan as the writer/director of Episode VIII. Johnson is the director of the highly original indies Brick and The Brothers Bloom, as well as the time-travel thriller Looper. He also helmed some Breaking Bad episodes that are considered among the series’ best. He’s a great choice for Star Wars, somebody who has talent and vision that he can bring into this familiar world, and he’s already been hard at work on the script, applying his own stamp to the next chapter in a story whose groundwork has been laid by Abrams, Kasdan and the rest of Kennedy’s brain trust. I don’t think it’s been made official by Lucasfilm or anyone in charge yet, but Benicio del Toro is all but confirmed to be joining the movie, and there are also reports that rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw has landed one main role, while fellow ingenues Olivia Cooke, Tatiana Maslany and Gina Rodriguez were also said to be among the top contenders for another. (That news came in September, and since then all three actresses have joined or are close to joining other films that might impact their availability for Episode VIII, which will return the series to its proper schedule with a May 26, 2017 release.) Maybe it was all the same role; we know too little about the movie right now to say.

Casting news always excites me, but I hope each new movie isn’t overloaded with major character additions. The original trilogy, and even the prequels, didn’t bring in too many new significant figures from film to film. The Empire Strikes Back obviously had a couple of key additions, but by and large the cast that we met in A New Hope stayed intact through Return of the Jedi. Abrams has assembled such an impressive line-up for The Force Awakens (the jury’s still out on Ridley, but she looks poised to nail it), and I hope that the movie doesn’t pull a Darth Maul and get rid of promising characters before they’ve had a chance to be developed. While the articles linked above mention that some of those actresses might have been screen testing with John Boyega, we really have no idea who will be back for Episodes VIII and/or IX. So far, the only actor I’m aware of to confirm their return for the rest of the trilogy is Anthony Daniels…which makes sense, since C-3PO and R2-D2 have been the connective tissue across every Star Wars trilogy. Boyega and Ridley are safe assumptions at this point, but who else? Harrison Ford has a big part in The Force Awakens, but is he appearing in the next two as well? And if so, how sizable will his role be going forward? If Luke and Leia are featured less prominently in this outing, will they be more central to the next two installments? Given how crucial it sounds like Luke will be to this film — regardless of how much screen time he has — doesn’t it stand to reason that he’ll remain a key figure as the trilogy unfolds?

And what about Lando?!? When so many original cast members were confirmed to return, there was vocal disappointment among fans that Billy Dee Williams wasn’t involved. But hints have been dropped that Lando will yet find his way into the new adventure, and having him join Episode VIII would mirror his arrival in the second film of the original trilogy. Williams expressed the same thought when asked about Lando’s return by some outlet called Cinelinx:

But I uh…I may very well…I have a feeling I’m going to show up. There’s nothing I can really discuss about it at this stage. People think of me as the original cast, but I didn’t come in until the second movie.  I did Empire and then I did Return of the Jedi, but I came in after everyone else was introduced…So I think they’re probably proceeding in that way. I can’t imagine them not bringing Lando back.  But we’ll see, I don’t know.

In his Vanity Fair interview, Lawrence Kasdan also provided hope, saying, “Right now, there’s no Lando Calrissian in this movie. But Lando I don’t think is finished in any way, shape, or form.” So hopefully we will see Billy Dee Williams back in action down the line. Assuming the new cast and their characters prove engaging in The Force Awakens, I already hope we’ll see most of them back too.

So Rian Johnson’s taking on Episode VIII. For Episode IX, Lucasfilm and Disney made a less exciting choice, tapping Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. It felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his having lucked into making what this summer became — to universal shock (and Universal’s shock) — the third highest-grossing film of all time, domestically and internationally. I don’t want to come down too harshly on Trevorrow; he might prove a great choice in the end. It’s just that he’s only directed two features so far (the first being indie charmer Safety Not Guaranteed) and I’d consider the jury still very much out on him. I wish Disney and Kennedy would have gone with someone a little more proven. Not so much in the experience department — Trevorrow showed he was definitely capable of handling a big movie — as in the realm of talent and point of view. To be fair, Gareth Edwards, who won the assignment of directing the first Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One (which I just don’t have room to address in this post, but I’ll get to), also has just two films to his credit: like Trevorrow, an indie breakout (Monsters) and a blockbuster follow-up (Godzilla). His hiring was met with much more fanfare than Trevorrow’s, but I would argue that based on those two films, he’s expressed a stronger vision than Trevorrow has yet demonstrated. Now I liked Safety Not Guaranteed quite a bit, and I enjoyed Jurassic World well enough, but I’m not sure what he really brought to the latter that a number of other competent directors couldn’t have brought. The massive success of the movie is much more a testament to the subject matter and the Jurassic Park brand than to anything exhibiting vision on its director’s part. If the powers behind Star Wars were willing to hire someone like Rian Johnson, whose movies definitely have their own stamp, then they are obviously comfortable handing the reins of their precious $4 billion investment to someone who will apply that stamp. In a September 2014 conversation with director Terry Gilliam, Johnson addressed this:

It’s a balance. That’s been the great thing. Kathy [Kennedy] and her whole creative team have been just so insistent that all the filmmakers they’re hiring for these new movies, ‘We want you to take it and turn it into something that you really care about.’ We’ll see how the process plays out, but so far, that’s a big part of why I’m in it, because that seems to be their attitude towards it. It’s really exciting.

Trevorrow might have a strong voice of his own too, but if so, it’s still emerging, and Lucasfilm and Disney’s decision to hire him seems more concerned with playing it safe, whereas hiring Johnson was inspired. Obviously I want the movies to be great, so I’m rooting for Trevorrow all the way. He’ll have one more chance to show us what he’s got before tackling Episode IX, as he returns to the smaller scale of Safety Not Guaranteed with a drama called The Book of Henry, starring Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris and excellent young actors Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Jacob Tremblay (Room). Here’s hoping that film let’s him show us something promising and sends him into Star Wars with strong buzz that justifies the choice to hire him.

Yes, finally…there’s this. I am fully aware that I’m a grown-ass man becoming giddy about the extension of a movie series that fueled my imagination when I was a little-ass kid. When I was growing up, Star Wars was still a new thing. It’s stature and significance has grown and grown into a phenomenon that I believe to be unequaled, and I came of age as that was happening. Star Wars is in my DNA. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I can’t expect these new movies to impact me the way those first three did. I think those who never caught the Star Wars bug and are able to view us fans from a distance believe that the reason we disdain so much about the prequels is that we expected them to stir us the way the original trilogy did, and they didn’t, because we had grown up.

That’s not it.

We disdain so much about the prequels because so much about the prequels is bad.

Today, those skeptics think we’re setting ourselves up for a bigger fall, because we’re even older now, and that much further removed from the state of being we existed in when Star Wars cast its spell on us. And that’s true. But I don’t expect or need these new movies to take root inside me the way the initial films did. How can they? I’m not an impressionable child anymore. I just need them to be good. To be charming and thrilling and exciting and fun and dark and emotionally grounded. To tell a story that builds on what came before but charts its own course, and makes me want to follow. In various interviews, Abrams has talked about the mood and spirit everyone involved hopes to achieve with these new films. He’s talked about what made the original Star Wars so special to so many and about trying to transport us back to that place. Sadly, we can never truly occupy that space again, but we can feel connected to it.

Even for today’s kids, it will be different. The world has changed. When I was a kid, there was nothing else that had the scope and scale of Star Wars. There was no competition. Today’s kids may love it, but the popularity of Batman, Superman, Spiderman and The Avengers is boundless. Kids have Harry Potter, they have Transformers, they have movies and TV shows that are rife with technical wizardry the likes of which, in my childhood, couldn’t be found anywhere except in Star Wars. With all of these influences (and more) competing for kids’ imaginations, Star Wars is just one piece of the pie. They may love it, they may go back for repeat viewings, but they’ll also move onto the next thing with relative ease. They won’t swim, soak and steep in it the way my generation and those just before and after mine did, because there are too many other exciting things vying for their attention. But the fact that a nearly 40 year old creation still holds such a powerful sway is a triumph in itself, and we need to keep all of this in mind as The Force Awakens takes its place in the world.

In a recent interview with Wired, Abrams spoke of developing the movie, saying, “I asked questions like ‘How do we make this movie delightful?’ That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful.” It’s an interesting word for him to use, because while each trailer I’ve seen has suggested a movie that will live up to its expectations, “delightful” is not a word I would use to describe what we’ve seen. The trailers have been action-heavy, and even a little melancholy and a little dark. Who knows what the overall tone of the movie will be, but hearing Abrams use a word like “delightful” — a word that conjures all the things I said above that I want the movie to be — makes me feel like we really are in store for a treat, because this thing must have a tone that hasn’t been revealed yet. It’s a reminder that even with the exposure going into high gear as we enter the final few weeks before release, we have no idea what to expect.

We’re in the home stretch now. My excitement is high and I can only imagine the fever pitch it will hit as opening night approaches. My tickets are purchased, and while new commercials, articles, photos and interviews are starting to fly at us, I’ve cut myself off. I don’t want to know anything more than I do at this point. If I got more clarity about Poe Dameron with only a few weeks to go, I’d be disappointed. Abrams and Disney have laid down their approach to marketing the story, and I’m on board. If they’ve withheld Dameron from us for this long, then I don’t want to find out anything. If any light were shed on Max von Sydow’s character before I’m sitting in the theater on December 17 watching the movie, I would be sorely disappointed. So right now, I’m good. I feel the Force, and I can’t wait to see what Abrams, Kasdan, Kennedy and this cast of aces have in store for the worldwide community of Star Wars faithful.

I have a good feeling about this.

July 3, 2015

“When You Play the Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die” (But Mostly You Die)

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, turn away, for this post is dark and full of terrors.

It’s always hard to reach the end of a Game of Thrones season, knowing that you face a ten month wait for the show to return. But this season’s finale was especially hard, as it concluded with such a devastating scene. None of the previous finales have ended on such a down beat. Consider each year’s final shot. Season One: Daenarys arising from the ashes of a funeral pyre with three baby dragons. Season Two: Sam hiding behind a rock as an army of White Walkers marches past. Season Three: Daenarys being lifted and embraced by a horde of slaves she has just freed from bondage. And Season Four: Arya sailing for Braavos. In a world as notoriously bleak as the one presented in Game of Thrones, three of those are downright hopeful. The fourth, while not the most pleasant note to end on, is at least exciting, and the beloved character depicted is safe despite his proximity to danger.

Season Five’s final moments did not send us so gentle in that good night, any more than they did the character enduring them. Having arrived at the difficult decision to make peace with the wildlings and offer them passage into Westeros through the gates of Castle Black, all because he knew the threat of the White Walkers would require the combined efforts of all the living — whichever side of The Wall and wherever in the Seven Kingdoms they were — Jon Snow was betrayed by a band of his own men, stabbed repeatedly à la Julius Caesar, each of his killers repeating, “For the Watch” as they plunged their daggers into his torso.

There was no last minute savior, no Ghost to intervene and protect his keeper. (In fact, I wondered if the mutinous brothers also harmed Ghost, to ensure the direwolf wouldn’t be a problem?) The attack was made worse by having to watch Jon’s long-time nemesis Ser Aliser Thorne get the better of him, and because Jon’s squire Olly delivered the final blow. A lot of attention had been paid to Olly this season, particularly to his displeasure with Jon’s decision, given that his entire village was cut down in a wildling attack led by Tormund and Ygritte. Olly talked with Sam a few episodes before the finale, and Sam explained Jon’s actions by saying that sometimes men have to do what they believe is right even if no one else can see it. I could tell at the end of that scene that Olly took away the wrong message. There was something palpably ominous about his reaction to Sam, and I was sure that Sam’s words would motivate Olly toward some ill-advised action, though I didn’t know what, and couldn’t imagine it would be participating in Jon’s murder. (He wasn’t just one of the attackers, after all; he was the one who lured Jon outside and into the trap.) Of course, I couldn’t imagine that Jon would die at all. Not yet, certainly. No death since Ned’s felt as shockingly premature as Jon’s. But Ned’s death did much to set the tone for what the series was, and once we had a chance to absorb it, we could understand it. Making sense of Jon’s death is more difficult. So much so, that few people (if any) actually believe that Jon will remain dead, despite the morbid finality of the season’s closing image.

I admit that in the shock of the moment, such ideas didn’t enter my mind. There was no part of me that watched Jon fall and thought, “No, we’re not done with him.” I took what I saw at face value, and it was like a kick to the gut. Then right after the closing credits, the friend I watched with all season shared his theory with me. Maybe some of this would have occurred to me once I got over my grief and had more time to think about it. Maybe not. But his theory is one that I’ve since read in several places, and it seems entirely plausible. With Stannis defeated and presumed dead, Melisandre returned to Castle Black, clearly distressed by her king’s loss. This hasn’t been discussed much on the show — it’s more explored in the books, I think — but Melisandre believed Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn. According to R’hllor — the foreign religion she brought to Westeros — Azor was a storied warrior who, thousands of years earlier, led a defeat against The Others — a.k.a. the White Walkers — by driving them out of Westeros and into the far north. Prophecies foretold the return of The Others, however, as well as the rebirth of Azor, who would lead a final war against the enemy that would decide the fate of the world. Now there’s a lot more to all this, and I don’t want to go too deep here, but that’s enough to address where Season Five left us. Melisandre now knows that her faith in Stannis had been misplaced, and we know that she took an interest in Jon. We also know that another priest of R’hllor — Thoros of Myr — has summoned his deity’s power to revive his friend Beric Dondarrion. Six times Beric has died, and six times Thoros has brought him back, crediting R’hllor, a.k.a. the Lord of Light.

And we know that Melisandre knows this. (Skip to the 2:40 mark.)

All of this is to say that we’ve seen the Lord of Light’s power to revive the dead. Melisandre is at Castle Black, Melisandre sees something in Jon Snow, and Melisandre will now be searching for a new embodiment of Azor Ahai. My understanding is that her interest in Jon, and his possible connection to Ahai, is given more attention in the books than in the show. This may or may not be telling. The show is deviating from the books more and more, with several incidents this season — including certain deaths — playing out differently or not at all in the novels. Jon’s death is the closing scene of George R.R. Martin’s fifth and most recent novel, A Dance with Dragons, just as it was the closing scene of the season, so what happens from here is pure speculation on the part of book readers and non-book readers alike. Co-showrunner D.B. Weiss and finale director David Nutter have stated that Jon is really dead, as has actor Kit Harington, explaining that he has been told he’s done and not returning to the show. But doth they protest too much? No other death on the show has led to so much reassurance from the cast and crew that the death is final. Yet no other death on the show has necessitated such emphasis. Even if we had a hard time emotionally accepting the deaths of Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Tywin or whichever characters you were sad to see go, we readily accepted them as part of the story, without questioning whether there was an open door. Not so with Jon’s death. Fans have long speculated that Martin’s story would build to Jon and Daenarys coming together to defeat the White Walkers. After all, his saga is called A Song of Ice and Fire, and Jon and Dany are considered the embodiments of those two elements.

Plus, it’s widely known that when Weiss and David Benioff approached Martin about obtaining the rights to adapt his novels for television, he tested them with the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s real mother?” Indeed, the question of Jon’s true parentage is maybe the most discussed topic in Martin’s fandom, and for Jon to die now would seemingly render all that talk moot. I suppose Jon’s lineage could prove important somehow even if he’s no longer around, but that seems like a stretch. He has no children, no full siblings (or so we assume, based on what we currently know of his family and what the prevalent theory entails), so what impact on the larger story could the answer have if Jon isn’t around to receive it? Maybe Martin has just been screwing with us, and the question about Jon’s mother has been a massive red herring all along, goaded by the author himself. Seeing how merciless he is with his characters, you couldn’t put it past him. And yet…it just doesn’t seem probable, does it? None of the characters we’ve lost to date, no matter how impactful they were to the show, feel as necessary to its ultimate destination as Jon. You could argue for Tywin, perhaps, but his death fuels the story arcs of Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime, and perhaps for an eventual collapse of House Lannister. Every other death, no matter how major the character, was understandable for the plot points and/or character development it set in motion. To be fair, other deaths may have seemed abrupt or premature at the time, without the advantage of hindsight, but I would argue that when a character dies, you can consider then and there how it could fuel other storylines. Jon’s death, if it sticks, could fit that pattern too, but it’s a more difficult path to envision.

So if there’s any truth to the rumors, what else can Harington, Weiss, Nutter and everyone else with the show say other than “Jon is dead,” “Kit is off the show,” etc.? The death is certainly presented as if it’s definitive, so if the character is to be revived and Harington is coming back, they clearly need to conceal that until the moment of revelation comes. That will pose quite a challenge to the production, ensuring that no leaked set photos hit the internet. And unless they want his return to be included in previews, like Gandalf’s was in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it means omitting Jon from all trailers and marketing materials next year, and keeping Harington away from all pre-season press.

Some final thoughts on this before moving on. The idea of Melisandre reviving Jon is the one I’ve seen most frequently over the past couple of weeks, but other speculation — drawing from Martin’s description of Jon’s murder — is that he could be a warg who somehow sends his consciousness into Ghost. His half-brother Bran is a warg — and then some — but while the books may have hinted at a connection between Jon and his wolf, the show certainly hasn’t played that card. Again, the show is breaking away from the books more frequently and more substantially, but if Martin intends Jon to be important to his series endgame, I don’t imagine Benioff and Weiss would stray too far from that. For all the time I’ve already spent on this topic, there’s so much more to be found out there — more details to the theories I’ve mentioned, alternate versions of those theories, and other theories altogether — about how Jon could come back, or why Jon is definitely dead, or how Jon could come back but not played by Kit Harington. Other clues from the show, other clues from the books…it’s all a bit overwhelming, frankly, so I’ll leave you to prowl the internet for clues on your own. You probably have already, considering that this post comes nearly three weeks after the finale. I’ll close the topic with this: after my friend shared his theory with me in the immediate aftermath of the episode, I did become hopeful that we haven’t seen the last of Kit Harington’s Jon Snow, even if the rest of my night remained shrouded in the kind of faux-yet-real depression that can only come from the death of a beloved fictional character. But the reading I’ve done since then has left me more uncertain that there’s a happy ending to this situation. Whatever happens, watching Jon’s murder was among the show’s most devastating moments to date for me, ending the season on an upsetting note that will make the wait for new episodes even harsher than usual.

Alright, enough of this morbid, Jon Snow-death talk. We have entirely different morbid death talk to get to. Jon wasn’t the only casualty of the finale, so let’s talk about Stannis. It was a big season for the man who would be king, as he plotted his path to the Iron Throne despite the fact that the whole reason he went to The Wall in the first place was because Davos and Melisandre realized that the threat of the White Walkers was more urgent than securing his crown. Unfortunately, things did not go well for Stannis, whose fate seemed sealed when he made the decision — difficult though it was — to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to Melisandre’s Lord of Light (our buddy R’hllor, discussed earlier). That choice didn’t sit well with his men. It cost him half his army, and the life of his wife Seleyse, who hung herself. Realizing hope was truly lost and that her flame visions of Stannis’ success had been snuffed out, Melisandre deserted him, leaving Stannis and his ragged, reduced army to make a futile stand outside Winterfell against Team Bolton. But after that inevitable defeat, it was Brienne who came upon the wounded Stannis, to exact the revenge she had desired ever since Stannis and Melisandre’s shadow baby killed Renly. Given all the build-up, their encounter — and Stannis’ entire unraveling — felt a little hasty and anti-climactic. This was my main problem with the finale: there was so much plot to get through that we didn’t get many of the character moments that felt so necessary. Brienne came to execute Stannis, but there was an abrupt, jarring cutaway as she swung the sword. Did she even do it? Is Stannis dead? Or did she maybe see some vulnerability in his final moments that gave her pause? That doesn’t seem likely, and yet the fact that we don’t see Stannis’ body or linger with Brienne casts a shadowbaby of a doubt. Assuming she does kill him, it would have been nice to stay with her for a few moments after finally carrying out that long-desired vengeance. How did she feel about it? We didn’t need to see a brutal image of the kill, nor did we need Podrick to show up and talk to Brienne about her feelings. But it would have been nice to see her face after that, to watch her take in the emotion and see what she did next, even if that was just turning around and walking back to her Sansa-watching perch.

And how about Sansa? Unwilling to bide her time any longer under Ramsay’s thumb, she stood up to Myranda even as she was threatened at arrowpoint. Thankfully, Theon finally stepped up, pushing Myranda over the wall to her death. With nowhere else to go as Ramsay and his men were returning from their defeat of Stannis’ army, Sansa took Theon’s hand and the two leaped over an outer castle wall. We didn’t see them land, nor did we revisit them, but the brief glimpse down over the wall we got reveals an awfully long drop, with no discernible soft or easy landing. It appears they’re jumping onto solid — albeit snowcovered — ground from an extreme height; as high, if not higher, than Myranda fell. So what did we miss? How are we supposed to believe they survived that jump? It won’t be long before Ramsay realizes they’re gone. Where can they go for safety before he can catch up with them? Will Brienne find and help them?  The cliffhanger was as frustrating as Sansa’s entire storyline this year. After spending so much time with Littlefinger last season, Sansa finally started to play the game with some smarts, and this season began with the promise of where that would go. Unfortunately, it went into the sick, twisted hands of Ramsay, where she became a victim all over again, even more so than she’d been in Joffrey’s court. Obviously we don’t know where Benioff and Weiss are taking this (Sansa does not marry Ramsay in the novels; she’s still in The Eyrie), and ultimately I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since I recognize that we’re still in the middle of an unfolding story. But it was disappointing to see Sansa’s arc move backwards. Whatever happens, I would have liked to see Ramsay — high on his victory over Stannis — be jolted by the sight of Myranda’s bloody, broken body and the absence of Sansa and Theon. Another character moment that would have been great to witness.

But back to the pile o’corpses. Let us not forget Myrcella, who died in Jaime’s arms after a sweet moment in which they happily acknowledged each other as father and daughter for the first time. Ellaria Sand’s about-face in the previous episode, when she talked to Jaime about his relationship with Cersei and then admitted that Myrcella and Jaime were innocent of Oberyn’s death, felt like it was a step too far toward healing and reconciliation, considering how single-minded she had been in her desire to punish the Lannisters…even though Oberyn was not murdered. (I wish she would have addressed that fact at some point and actually explained her viewpoint, since interpreting his death as “murdered by the Lannisters” was so clearly off-base.) When she delivered Myrcella a goodbye kiss on the lips, I suspected there was poison involved, and so there was. Myrcella’s death doesn’t have much of an emotional impact on us since we spent so little time with her, but obviously it will have major ripple effects on Cersei, Jaime and everyone in Dorne. Cersei is already in a revenge frame of mind (we’ll get to that) but when she finds out her only daughter is dead, that dial is gonna crank to 11.

Then there was Ser Meryn Trant — a minor character, but one whose death was among the most brutal the show has ever presented. Seriously, Arya killed the fuck outta that guy. Trant’s death was so hideous and horrible that it actually felt disproportionate to the crime for which Arya had so long uttered his name — that being his role in wiping out the Starks at King’s Landing, and especially killing Arya’s dancing master Syrio Forel. Trant’s prediliction toward young girls was a new reveal, and one that made his demise a bit more satisfying, but still…the brutality of it felt more like the kind of death we wanted to see for Joffrey, or that we hope will befall Ramsay. Not that I wasn’t cheering and clapping when Arya butchered him, just because it was the first person she really went to town on and for so long now I’ve wanted that for her. Alas, I should have known Martin wouldn’t let her off the hook for disobeying Jaqen’s instructions and abandoning her assignment to kill the corrupt Thin Man. Any pleasure we derived from seeing her extract her revenge was short-lived, with Jaqen informing her that she stole a life from the Red God and would have to pay a price. I admit things got a bit confusing for me here, but it appears the girl who had sort of been Arya’s keeper at The House of Black and White died for Arya’s offense, and then Arya herself went blind. Is that permanent, or can the Red God restore her eyesight if she makes the proper penance? I don’t know, but it was a blow to see Arya debilitated in such a major way.

There were plenty of other deaths throughout the season, and we can’t linger on all of them. I mentioned Stannis’ wife, and of course his daughter Shireen. Burning that sweet little girl at the stake was just the worst, but it was just the kind of bold storytelling we’ve come to expect from this series. Ser Barristan Selmy’s death was a tough one for me; he’s been one of my favorite secondary characters from day one. Janos Slynt, the former Gold Cloak turned cowardly brother of the Night’s Watch, was decapitated after insulting the newly elected Lord Commander. It was great to see Jon step up and behead that prick. A less welcome death among the Watch was Maester Aemon, one of the few characters we’ve seen die of natural causes. And don’t forget all the way back in the first episode when Stannis executed Mance Rayder. I thought Mance’s role would expand this season, but that was not to be. Too bad. A good character, played by the terrific Ciarán Hinds.

Reflecting on the season, I have to keep it 100 and say there were some problems that needled at me. Let’s start with Dorne. When Season 4 ended, one of the earliest pieces of intel we heard about what lay ahead was that we would visit Oberyn’s homeland and meet his daughters, collectively known as the Sand Snakes. The introduction of Dorne was hyped up bigtime as the season approached. Unfortunately, the show largely failed to deliver. Considering all the buildup, there weren’t actually many scenes there, those we got were too spaced out across the season, and they weren’t that well executed from a storytelling point of view. It all seemed like a bit of an afterthought…except for the scene with Bronn and the Sand Snakes in jail. That was great, and not just for…well…obvious reasons. (I was worried for Bronn from the moment Jaime approached him about going to Dorne, but I was so happy that he was not among the season’s fatalities.) With Myrcella’s murder hanging in the air, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Dorne and its new set of characters, but I hope they are better handled going forward.

The rise of the Faith Militant was another of the season’s awkward subplots. Where did they come from, and how did they exert so much power so quickly? I loved the way Lancel Lannister was reintroduced as this newly pious zealot, and the High Sparrow was an excellent addition to the show. But the Militant as a whole and the way they were able to run unchecked played false to me. I know Tommen isn’t a strong ruler, but I just didn’t buy that he would be so impotent in dealing with them. If you’re a 12 year-old boy, or however old he is, and you’ve just gotten laid for the first time — with no less a sex goddess than Margaery Tyrell, who is now your wife and queen — you’ll do whatever you have to do so that your woman stays happy and you can continue getting laid. He’s the king, with an army at his disposal, and it was hard to believe that he wouldn’t unleash that force when Margaery was arrested, and then Cersei on top of that. So the meteoric rise to power of the High Sparrow’s flock, and their ability to retain their might, felt problematic from the start. The Sparrow himself was great, but the story around him could have fared better.

Something else which sat ill with me when a friend pointed it out (I didn’t think about it initially) was the apparent skill of Meereen’s mystery rebels, the Sons of the Harpy…especially when pitted against the Unsullied, who are supposed to be one of the best armies in the world. We don’t know who the Sons of the Harpy are, but our initial assumption was that they were members of Meereen’s wealthy class; slave owners who lost their slaves when Dany came to town. So as my friend pointed out after the episode in which the SOTH killed Barristan Selmy and badly wounded Grey Worm, slaughtering several Unsullied as well: how do a group of rich fat-cats display not just the fighting prowess but also the attack strategy that made the SOTH such an effective force? Wanting to play devil’s advocate and defend the show, I countered that they might not be rich Meereenese at all, but perhaps an outside army brought in to deal with Dany by those who oppose her. Yet they do seem like an insurgent force, don’t they? Perhaps that’s what they are, but not from Meereen. Maybe they’re from Yunkai or Astapor, the slave cities Dany freed before coming to Meereen. If they were outsiders, that might explain why their attack in the huge arena saw them killing indiscriminately, murdering even Meereen’s wealthy. Why would the rich in Meereen kill their own, after all? You may recall a scene from Season 3 in which a representative of Yunkai’s slavers met with Dany in her camp and told her that if she pursued an attack on the city, she would run afoul of their “powerful friends who would take great pleasure in destroying you.” Those powerful friends turned out to be the Second Sons, an army of sellswords who counted Daario Naharis among their leaders. Daario and the Second Sons now fight for Dany of course, but perhaps Yunkai had other powerful friends. Or perhaps some of the Second Sons have broken ranks.

Even if we assume that the SOTH are not just a bunch of wealthy rebels but rather a skilled fighting force with plenty of experience on their side, there’s still the question of why the Unsullied proved so ineffectual. Sure, in the alleyway attack that would be Barristan’s last stand, the Unsullied were outnumbered, and they put up a good fight. But from everything we’ve heard about them, shouldn’t they be more of a match for the SOTH? What about that aforementioned surprise attack in the arena? Jorah spots a SOTH assassin from the middle of the arena and hurls a spear to impale the attacker, but we could see Unsullied soldiers posted behind Dany’s coterie. Why did none of them, so much closer than Jorah, spot the would-be killer? And given their massive numbers, shouldn’t they have been able to overwhelm the SOTH? There are like, 8,000 Unsullied, aren’t there? Minus those who’ve died along the way, but still, they must outnumber this enemy, right? So it’s hard to accept the Sons of the Harpy inflicting the level of damage they did given the fighting force Dany has in her corner.

Shifting elsewhere in Essos, Arya’s experience at The House of Black and White posed one problem for me. Back when she and Jaqen parted ways at the end of Season 2, he invited her to come with him to Braavos and learn to be a Faceless Man. “A girl has many names on her lips,” he said to her. “Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Ilyn Payne, The Hound…names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one.” He said this after killing at least two Lannister guards in order to help her escape from Harrenhal, and those two men exceeded the three he had offered to kill for her in exchange for saving his life and two others back at the caravan. So once Arya makes it to Braavos and comes under Jaqen’s tutelage, why is she constantly told that she has to let go of being Arya Stark and become no one? He encouraged her with the promise of being able to sacrifice her enemies. When she takes action — prematurely, granted; she had another assignment and she cast it aside — she is punished for it. Back at The House of Black and White, Jaqen says, “That man’s life was not yours to take. A girl stole from the Many Faced God. Now a debt is owed. Only death can pay for life.” Did he owe a debt when he killed those soldiers at Harrenhal? Why is she not able to carry out the revenge with which he tempted her? Why would killing her assigned target have been an acceptable murder to the Many Faced God while Meryn Trant’s was not?

The combination of these issues made Season 5 a little less satisfying than the others…but only a little. Don’t think my confidence in the show has been shaken in any fundamental way. It remains my current pop culture obsession, and if I could fast forward to next April right now, pausing only for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I would do so without hesitation. No discussion of the season would be complete without talking about the epic awesomeness that was Episode 8: Hardhome. The Army of the Dead attack on the wildling camp was not only a highlight of this year, but one of the best sequences in the show’s history. For me, much of what made it so impactful was the complete shock of it. It wasn’t something that happened in the books, so no contingent of viewers was waiting for it. It had the thrill and tension of the Red Wedding, without the potential for being spoiled, hinted at or telegraphed. More importantly, none of the previews or commercials for the season revealed it. The initial trailers for the season showed some quick shots of a battle in the snow, but if we made out anything from that, it was assumed to be a skirmish between the wildlngs and the Watch. And personally, none of those shots were on my mind during the scenes where Jon made his case to the wildlings to accept his offer and come south of The Wall. Those scenes were engrossing enough, so when the attack began, it carried the thrill of surprise. Then the escalation, the intensity…I don’t want to spout clichés, but it was literally heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat stuff. Under the direction of Miguel Sapochnik, it was executed supremely well, right through to the final staredown between Jon and the Night’s King, and the quiet, unsettling sound effects — sans music score — over the end credits. (That silent yet loaded exchange between the two commanders, and indeed Jon’s entire performance at Hardhome, is one of the many reasons that his death feels so unlikely. Those two have to meet again, don’t they?)

Another of this season’s highlights, though it was brief, was the meeting of Tyrion and Daenarys. In fact, their two meaty scenes together came in Hardhome, helping to make that episode a standout this season. While a massive action sequence like the one at Hardhome has the ability to rock us, most of Game of Thrones best scenes involve characters talking. Tyrion and Dany are among the show’s more eloquent speakers, so their conversations were bound to be good, and then of course what Emilia Clarke and especially Peter Dinklage bring to them elevates the already fine material. Seriously, how great is Peter Dinklage?

The actor behind Tyrion is the cast’s standard bearer at the Emmy awards, and assuming he earns another nomination this year, it’s possible he’ll be joined by Lena Headey. She had a lot to work this this season as Cersei, culminating in that humbling Walk of Shame. When Cersei went to visit Margaery in her cell, playing the concerned ally, Margaery was having none of it. “Lies come easily to you, everyone knows that,” she said to Cersei. “But innocence, decency, concern — you’re not very good at those, I’m afraid.” It was those traits Cersei tried to access when confessing to the High Sparrow, and though her lack of true remorse or desire to repent was obvious, the High Sparrow agreed to let her return to the Red Keep. Little did she know what it would cost her. That long, dreadful walk — wisely and powerfully presented in its entirety — brought Cersei to a low she’s never experienced, but genuine piety is not in her toolbox. With Qyburn’s introduction of FrankenMountain, the look of steely resolve returned to Cersei’s eyes, and it’s safe to assume that her wrath will be more fiery than ever. (By the way, why no Littlefinger at the Red Keep awaiting Cersei’s return along with Qyburn, Pycelle and her uncle Kevan? He’s still in King’s Landing, as far as we know, and he’s still a member of the Small Council. Seems odd that such a skilled player wouldn’t make the calculated move of being there with a show of support — emphasis on “show” — for Cersei.)

No one knows what her next move will be, or what anyone’s next move will be, since we’ve pretty much reached the end of Martin’s published material. He is hard at work on Book 6, The Winds of Winter, and has even suggested that it could be published early next year, potentially offering time for readers to consume it before Season 6 premieres. That’s his hope, at least. “Maybe I’m being overly optimistic about how quickly I can finish,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But I canceled two convention appearances, I’m turning down a lot more interviews—anything I can do to clear my decks and get this done.” That said, he also knows that his number one obligation is to the quality of the books, not to the ticking clock imposed by the show. Speaking at the U.S. premiere of Season 5 in April, he said, “There is more pressure every year. The main thing is to make the book as good as I can possibly make it. Fifty years from now nobody is going to care how frequently the books came out. They will care if the books are as good as they can possibly be, if the books stand the test of time. That’s what I struggle with as I write.”

During a talk at Oxford Union, Benioff addressed the crossroads that everyone connected to Thrones has reached, from Martin all the way down to the fans.

Luckily, we’ve been talking about this with George for a long time, ever since we saw this could happen, and we know where things are heading. So we’ll eventually basically meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going [in Book 7, A Dream of Spring]. There might be a few deviations along the route, but we’re heading towards the same destination. I kind of wish there were some things we didn’t have to spoil in terms of the books, but we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. So the show must go on.

He added, “[A]t the same time, George has his process. And if it takes him 20 years to finish the series, that’s what it should take him. He’s writing, to my mind, the great fantasy epic of our time. So we can’t rush him and I wouldn’t want to rush him. [But] at the same time, we can’t put the show on hiatus.” Benioff also pointed out — as this season made abundantly clear for those who’ve read the books — that the degree of deviation from the source material which is now occurring on the show ensures that Martin doesn’t lose readers just because the show will finish before he does:

I think the thing that’s kind of fun for George is the idea that he can still have surprises for people even once they’ve watched the show through to the conclusion. There are certain things that are going to happen in the books that are different from the show, and I think people who love the show and want more — want to know more about the characters, want to know more about the different characters who might not have made the cut for the show — will be able to turn to the books.

Martin reinforced this in the same Entertainment Weekly interview mentioned above, wherein he talked excitedly about a new plot development he has devised for one of his characters that the show can’t replicate because of other choices that have already been made:

I’m still weighing whether to go that direction or not. It’s a great twist. It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters. They have to grow out of situations. Otherwise, it’s just being shocking for being shocking. But this is something that seems very organic and natural, and I could see how it would happen. And with the various three, four characters involved… it all makes sense. But it’s nothing I’ve ever thought of before. And it’s nothing they can do in the show, because the show has already — on this particular character — made a couple decisions that will preclude it, where in my case I have not made those decisions.

I would add that given how long it takes Martin to write the books, by the time he gets around to finishing A Dream of Spring it will probably be at least a few years after the show ends, allowing for a renewed excitement about returning to the world and characters he created after we’ll have missed them for a prolonged stretch.

And with that, let us ease the difficulty of another season gone with a new round of Fun with Thrones. All this talk of Martin finishing the books makes me think of this Robot Chicken segment, depicting the horror facing the author everytime he has to leave the house.

Anyone who enjoyed the bizarre web phenomenon Too Many Cooks last year might enjoy this GoT version of the mega-meme. I can’t say for sure, since I have yet to go down the Too Many Cooks rabbit hole myself.

The highest profile bit of Thrones comedy this year was probably from Red Nose Day, a charity event that aired on NBC recently and which, despite a reasonable amount of promotion, left me utterly clueless as to the cause for which it was raising money. Whatever it was, the powers behind it managed to draw a large number of GoT stars to participate in a segment about Coldplay attempting to create a Game of Thrones musical. Seeing is believing.

On a slightly more serious note — okay, a significantly more serious note, but still kinda fun — I stumbled upon this short animated examination about the economics of Westeros. This is surprisingly enjoyable.

Artist Mike Wrobel has continued his series of GoT characters dressed in 80s/90s garb

…and the Beautiful Death series lives on as well, as the mounting body count inspires more excellent work from artist Robert Ball. These can be seen at the Beautiful Death website, or on Ball’s personal site, where the images are a bit bigger. The little details of these are great, so bigger is better. (Note the third image below, by the way. It represents Stannis’ death…but again, no body. And there was no Beautiful Death art for Jon. That would be an unbelievable oversight, if he’s really dead. Just sayin’…)

Comic-Con comes a few weeks early this year — next week, in fact — and there will once again be a Game of Thrones panel, though for the first time, Benioff and Weiss are not attending. I’ve read some speculation that they’re skipping in order to avoid those tricky Jon Snow questions. Who knows. The panel will be mainly cast members, as well as an HBO executive. Without any key behind the scenes personnel, I don’t know if we’ll get any decent hints about what to expect next year, but maybe they’ll throw us a few bones. Emmy nominations will land shortly after Comic-Con wraps, and hopefully Thrones will be represented. I don’t see the show taking Best Drama this year — an award it has yet to win, but hopefully will before the end – but certainly Miguel Sapochnik deserves a directing nomination and arguably a win for Hardhome. Looking further ahead to early next year, we’ll see if Martin and Bantam Press can get The Winds of Winter out before April. And I really hope that the show returns to IMAX venues. The last week of this past January, Game of Thrones became the first TV series to be shown in IMAX theaters. The last two episodes of Season 4, which included the wildling attack at Castle Black, were converted into the large-screen format and presented at several IMAX locations around the country for a limited engagement. Just a week, I think. It didn’t sound worth it to me when I first read about it, but a friend wanted to go, so I figured sure, why not. And it was fantastic. The image quality was superb. Despite being filmed for a television screens, the visuals completely stood up to the demands of a giant screen. The episodes looked and sounded excellent, and the experience was totally worth the ticket price. It turned out be substantially more successful than either HBO or IMAX expected, and Benioff and Weiss were impressed with the results, so I’m hopeful it will happen again. The obvious choices for Season 5 would be episodes 8 and 9, rather than 9 and 10. I mean, Hardhome on IMAX will be phenomenal, and the following episode offers the arena sequence in Meereen that climaxes with Drogon’s arrival and Dany’s flight. I have to think all parties involved will make this happen. They’d better. I’ll need every bit of Thrones I can get to hold me over until the show comes back and Jon Snow rises from the dead…hopefully in better shape than these poor bastards.

April 11, 2015

Let the Game Begin

Filed under: TV — DB @ 5:30 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, steer clear. There are more Season 1-4 spoilers to come than there were pots of Wildfire stored in King’s Landing.

So…where were we?

This game’s board continues to broaden, but before tomorrow night’s Season Five premiere, let’s see if we can catch up with where things stand for its many players. Before we begin, a statement of intention: there are many recaps available around the web, and most of them are probably more succinct than this one. But as I talk to people who are excited about the return of the show, I’m stunned by how few of them can even name the major characters. I hear things like, “Yeah, the chick with the dragons,” or “What’s his name, the brother whose hand got cut off, or “You know the one, oh, what’s his name, kid with the broken legs who can possess the giant.” I don’t understand how someone can be invested in a show, watch it week after week — even if only for ten weeks out of the year — and not know the names of the characters. I admit that I have a good memory for characters, story details, etc. (a knack which helped make me an effective recapper of Lost, thank you very much), but I don’t expect people to know the name of every Lannister soldier. Really though, you can’t name Dany or Cersei or Arya right off the top of your head? If that’s you, then you probably need a recap as detailed as the one I’m about to dish out. It may not be as entertaining as, say, this one…

…or as elegant as this one…

…but it will better prepare you for the new season. That I promise.

Having been accused of killing Joffrey (the title of Bill O’Reilly’s next book, FYI), Tyrion opted for a trial by combat rather than let dear daddy Tywin determine his fate. Wanting to ensure her brother’s death once and for all, Cersei chose as her champion the enormous Gregor Clegane, aka The Mountain Who Rides, aka The Mountain, aka That Crazy Motherfucker Who Chopped His Horse’s Head Off After Losing a Joust – a man who Tyrion’s sellsword pal Bronn would accurately describe as “freakish big and freakish strong.”  With Jaime unable to fight due to the loss of his hand, and Bronn unwilling to put his life on the line against The Mountain, Tyrion found a surprise champion in Dornish prince Oberyn Martell, who had journeyed to King’s Landing with his special ladyfriend Ellaria Sand for Joffrey’s wedding. Oberyn’s sister Elia had been married to the Mad King’s son Rhaegar Targaryen, but he left her for Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna, even though she was betrothed to Robert Baratheon. When Tywin and his army — allied with a rebelling Robert — stormed King’s Landing right around the time Jaime was earning the nickname “Kingslayer,” The Mountain killed Elia’s children and then raped her before killing her too. Oberyn has long sought vengeance on The Mountain, and on Tywin, who he is convinced gave the order. So Oberyn fought for Tyrion and appeared to mortally wound The Mountain, only to find his massive opponent had a few moves left…like the move where he crushed Oberyn’s head to a pulp with his bare fucking hands. Tyrion was condemned to death, but Jaime and Varys plotted his escape. Jaime got him out of his cell, and on his way to meet Varys, Tyrion couldn’t help but take a detour. He went to Tywin’s chambers and found his ex-lover Shae in his father’s bed. She went on the defensive and tried to kill him, but he choked her to death. Then he found Tywin sitting on the toilet, and put two arrows in him. By the time Varys got him to the ship that would carry him across the Narrow Sea to exile and maybe safety, the toll of bells signaled that Tywin’s death had been discovered. Varys knew he could not return to court, so he took a place on the boat alongside Tyrion.

In other King’s Landing news, Joffrey has been succeeded by his brother Tommen, a sweet, decent kid who is almost certainly doomed and who doesn’t to deserve to die the horrible death that will probably befall him eventually as the competitors for the Iron Throne close in. For the time being though, Tommen is king, and with Tywin dead, Cersei is now the true power in King’s Landing, answering to nobody. Margaery Tyrell, who was married to Joffrey for all of a few hours before he was gloriously poisoned — by her grandmother, the supremely awesome Olenna Tyrell, as it turned out — is now set to wed the much younger Tommen. This puts Cersei in a difficult position, since she detests Margaery…though in point of fact, Cersei detests almost everyone who isn’t a Lannister. And almost everyone who is a Lannister, really. But she also seems to recognize the need for an alliance with the Tyrells, the wealthiest family in the kingdoms second to her own.

Olenna’s murder of Joffrey was conducted in cahoots with Westeros’ schemer extraordinaire, Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger. He arranged to have Sansa Stark unwittingly wear a poison-laced necklace to the wedding, where Olenna would have access. As Joffrey gasped his last breaths, Littlefinger had an accomplice whisk Sansa away and deliver her to Littlfinger’s ship anchored in the mists of the bay. The two sailed to the Vale and made for the fortress of the Eyrie, where Littlefinger married Sansa’s aunt Lysa Arryn, sister of her late mother Catelyn Stark. Lysa has always been a little crazy, however, and was convinced that Littlefinger had romantic designs on Sansa. She might have been right; he’s always been creepy, but the way he looks at her takes it to a whole other level. With Lysa unhinged by jealousy, Littlefinger decided the best thing for everyone would be if she weren’t alive anymore, so he pushed her ass out the moon door. Under Littlefinger’s tutelage, Sansa finally began to display some cunning, spinning a story to a small tribunal that held Littlefinger responsible for Lady Arryn’s death. Sansa convinced them that Lysa had killed herself, and that Littlefinger was her kind, brave savior and protector who rescued her from Joffrey’s clutches. Recognizing the creepy fixation he has on her — perhaps because she’s the daughter of his lifelong object of desire — Sansa began to use his feelings to her advantage. Considering the revelation that Littlefinger convinced Lysa to poison her husband — an act which set the whole game in motion back in the very first episode — it will be fun to see if Sansa can get him to lower his guard…and if she can play his own game better than he can.

Meanwhile, north of The Wall, Bran Stark continued his journey to find the three-eyed raven, accompanied by siblings Jojen and Meera Reed as well as faithful Hodor (Hodor.) Bran’s visions revealed their destination to be a weirwood tree, which they finally reached after a few setbacks — the last of which was an attack, just feet from their destination, by a band of wights — reanimated corpses with a connection to the White Walkers. They received help from a mysterious being who looked like a young girl — though she was probably something else entirely — but Jojen didn’t survive the attack. Once safely inside the tree, Bran, Meera and Hodor meet the raven in his human form…or human-like; I’m not really sure what this dude is, all gnarled up and looking as though he’s growing out of the tree’s branches. He tells Bran that he’s been waiting for him a long time, and that although he will never walk again, he will fly. So there’s that.

At Castle Black, a badly outnumbered Night’s Watch made a valiant stand against the first attack from wildling leader Mance Rayder’s army. Jon Snow further demonstrated his leadership by taking command when Ser Alliser Thorne was injured by fierce wildling Tormund Giantsbane, who was eventually captured. The Night’s Watch won the day but suffered heavy losses, including Jon’s friends Pyp and Grenn, and of course his wildling lover Ygritte, who died in his arms after taking an arrow from a young boy whose father she’d killed in an earlier village raid. Silver lining: Jon’s best bud Samwell Tarly survived, and was reunited with Gilly, the object of his affection. Knowing that the Watch will not be able to hold off another wildling assault, Jon ventured beyond The Wall to Mance’s camp, hoping to either kill the leader and thereby scatter his army, or perhaps reach some kind of agreement. Their talk was interrupted when a large army appeared out of nowhere and rode on Mance’s ranks. Wanting to avoid more bloodshed among his group, Mance surrendered to the new arrivals: Stannis Baratheon, accompanied by Davos Seaworth.

Stannis had been back on his rocky island of Dragonstone trying to figure out his next move after his loss to the Lannisters at Blackwater Bay (all the way back in Season Two, people). That defeat heavily depleted his resources, but he finally made some headway when, at Davos’ behest, he sailed across the Narrow Sea to visit the Iron Bank of Braavos. The Iron Bank had been funding the Lannisters as far back as Robert Baratheon’s rebellion, and funded the crown in the War of the Five Kings as well. The crown and the Lannisters — if the two are even considered separate entities at this point — are deep in debt to the bank, and when its representatives initially decline Stannis’s request for a considerable loan, Davos convinced them that backing Tywin Lannister is not a profitable move. Now armed with the funds necessary to reinvigorate his forces, Stannis has arrived beyond The Wall, where he and Davos meet Jon and Mance. This move is a such a big one for Stannis that he’s even brought along his priestess Melisandre, his wife Selyse and his daughter Shireen. There’s no Westeros Disney World, so I suppose The Wall is as good a place as any for a family trip.

With me so far? Cause we ain’t done yet. Ramsay Snow — the bastard son of Stark bannerman-turned-Robb Stark murderer-turned Warden of the North, Roose Bolton — completed a total physical and psychological breakdown of his prisoner Theon Greyjoy, reinventing him as a loyal servant called Reek. So loyal that when Theon’s sister Yara led a mission to rescue him, he refused to go with her. Roose tasked Ramsay with capturing Moat Cailin, a ruined but strategically necessary fortress that was occupied by Ironborn soldiers fighting for Theon’s father, Balon. Fucking with his plaything’s head even further, Ramsay had Reek pretend to be Theon Greyjoy and enter Moat Cailin with terms of surrender on behalf of Bolton. The weary Ironborn accepted, and were promptly killed by Ramsay’s forces. As a reward for his success, Roose stripped away the bastard surname of Snow from Ramsay and allowed his son to take the Bolton name. Theon went back to being Reek, because the only reward he ever gets these days is a warm bath.

There were some other duos making their way across Westeros who were more endearing than vicious Ramsay and tragic Theon. Jaime sent Brienne in search of Sansa, intending to honor his promise to Catelyn Stark that her daughters would be returned to her in exchange for his freedom. Lady Stark is dead of course, but Brienne is sent to find Sansa anyway and protect her. Accompanying her is Tyrion’s squire Podrick Payne, who the imprisioned Tyrion released from his service and sent away from King’s Landing to save him from any harm that might befall him for being associated with Joffrey’s accused killer. Brienne had little patience for Podrick at first, but the loyal boy started to grow on her, and proved knowledgeable about things such as family connections throughout the kingdoms. This led him to suggest that Sansa might be in the Eyrie with her aunt Lysa, so off they went. Before that, however, they stopped to eat at an inn — the same inn that purchased Arya’s former traveling companion Hot Pie from the Brotherhood Without Banners. When Brienne told him of their search for Sansa Stark, Hot Pie confided that he knew an Arya Stark and had been in her company not so long ago. He tells them where she was headed when they parted ways, and that her traveling companions included The Hound. As Brienne and Pod get close to the Eyrie, who do they encounter but that very pair.

After barely missing the Red Wedding at Walder Frey’s stronghold The Twins, they too had been journeying to the Eyrie. The Hound hoped to sell Arya to her aunt, but they arrived three days after Lysa’s death. They were making their way back across the Vale with no clear destination when they met Brienne and Pod, who recognized The Hound, allowing Brienne to realize that she’d stumbled upon the elusive Arya. She told Arya of the promise she made to Catelyn, but with The Hound interjecting, her story didn’t come off so clearly. Brienne and The Hound launched into an epic fight that ended with The Hound bloodied and broken. Arya hid herself, so Brienne and Pod ran off in the hopes of finding her again. When they were gone, Arya approached The Hound, with whom she had shared a reluctant bond. But as he begged her to finish him off and take him out of his misery, she merely regarded him with indifference, finally stealing his money and leaving him to die. She made her way to a port where she found a ship bound for Braavos. In a moment I’ve been waiting for since the end of Season Two, she offered the Braavosi coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar to the ship’s captain, securing herself passage across the Narrow Sea in the hopes of finding H’ghar, the assassin who once offered to train her in his art. (Unfortunately, if she does hook back up with Jaqen, his transformation means he can probably no longer be played by the awesome Tom Wlaschiha, who was so good in the part. I just hope they aren’t stuck with that goofy looking guy from the end of the clip. I hate his stupid face.)

Which brings us to our final set of major players on the board. Daenarys’ invasion of Westeros continued to take a backseat to her insistence on freeing every single goddamn slave on the continent of Essos. After liberating the city of Meereen, she learned that other cities she had freed along the way were not faring so well once she’d moved on. She decided to earn her right to the Iron Throne by spending time first ruling in Meereen. It wasn’t without its challenges. Not all the slavers were the monsters she painted them as, and not all the slaves felt victimized by their situations. As she grappled with the subtleties of the slave city dynamics, she also had to face the fact that her growing dragons were beyond her control, terrorizing the countryside. She finally had to put them in chains and lock them in a large, windowless chamber…though she was only able to do this to two of them, as the third was off on an adventure somewhere, maybe getting domesticated by a scrawny, clever Viking kid. Still, having to lock up her dragons wasn’t the biggest setback Dany suffered. She learned — through the machinations of Tywin Lannister — that her closest friend and adviser Ser Jorah Mormont had been spying on her in the early days of their relationship, reporting on her to Robert Baratheon, who wanted her killed before she could try and re-take the Iron Throne for the Targaryens. Though Jorah had committed himself to her before too long, even stopping her from drinking poisoned wine, she could not forgive him for this initial betrayal, particularly the fact that he had informed her enemies she was pregnant with Khal Drogo’s child. She banished him from the city and told him she would have him killed if she laid eyes on him again. But it wasn’t all depressing news for Team Targaryen. With no small degree of bemusement, Dany finally gave into the romantic overtures of Daario Naharis, the captain of the Second Sons, a sellsword company now backing her along with the massive Unsullied army. Grey Worm, the commander of the Unsullied, has taken an interest in Dany’s translator Missandei. Although his castration as a child would seemingly curb any stirrings of desire, he is clearly enamored of her, and she appears to be receptive to his attention.

So…that’s where we were. And now we arrive at Season Five.

Some fine teasing on display in those trailers, and as the new episodes begin there are plenty of questions about what’s to come for those like me who haven’t read the books. Cersei’s no dummy; will she figure that Jaime helped Tyrion escape, and how will that affect their relationship? After being rather cold to him throughout most of last season, she came around at the end, even coming clean to Tywin with the truth that his twins’ incestuous relationship was no rumor. Granted, throwing herself at Jaime surely had the ulterior motive of getting him to choose her over Tyrion, but he didn’t put one before the other. So where will that leave them?

Is there more to come with The Mountain? He was barely alive after his fight with Oberyn, but Cersei allowed Qyburn to perform some sort of vague treatment on him. Qyburn is the former Maester — like Pycelle or Aemon or Luwin — who was expelled from The Citadel for his radical ideas and experimental techniques. He treated Jaime’s wrist after the hand was cut off, and helped Cersei with some undisclosed issues as well. I only bring up his attempts to save The Mountain because the show seemed to place suspicious emphasis on what would seem a minor story point. He ominously tells Cersei that even if The Mountain can be saved, the process “may change him…somewhat,” also indicating with barely contained delight that whatever happens, he won’t be weakened. I don’t know what Qyburn’s deal is, but after this scene, you know that dude is just a few imprisoned rapists away from inventing the first human centipede. So something tells me this is going somewhere.

When last we saw Sansa, Littlefinger and Lysa’s oddball son Robyn, they were embarking on a tour of the Vale. I thought and hoped they might cross paths with Arya and The Hound, but might they still stumble upon the latter? We didn’t actually see him die, and while there’s zero hope he could survive, maybe the travelers will come upon his body, causing them to wonder what brought him to the Vale.

Seeing Jon’s world collide with Stannis’ should make for some great material. There was a loaded moment in last season’s finale when Melisandre locked eyes with Jon across a burning pile of corpses. Is the Red Priestess going to bust a move on Jon? How will Stannis exert his power at The Wall? How will Mance deal with this turn of events? And will we see more from the White Walkers? One of last season’s most chilling events was when the last baby boy born to Craster was taken by a White Walker into what some kind of ceremonial tableau, where a Walker with a different look from the others we’ve seen so far touched an icy fingernail to the baby’s cheek and turned him into…well, into a White Crawler I guess. This scene garnered a lot of attention for being a significant plot development that had not been part of the books.

One of the impressive things about this saga is how it expands even as it contracts. Tyrion, Varys and Arya are now on the same continent as Dany, Jorah and Ser Barristan, and you can bet that some of those characters will cross paths eventually. And with the Jon and Stannis stories now intertwined, the world of the show could be seen as getting smaller. But then we’ll visit a new locale this season: the late Prince Oberyn’s home of Dorne. There, we’ll catch up with Cersei’s daughter Myrcella, who was sent there back in Season Two, and meet a number of new characters, including Oberyn’s older brother Doran, and three of his daughters. The vengeful girls are known as the Sand Snakes, and word is they will not take the news of their father’s death with peaceful acceptance. We’ll also get to better know the Sand Snakes’ mother Ellaria, whose part last season was smallish. But the move to Dorne and the aftermath of Oberyn’s death should provide her more to do. As the show’s co-creator D.B. Weiss says about actress Indira Varma, “Once you have someone of her caliber, you want to double down on that casting strength.” (Incidentally, with the enlarging of Myrcella’s role, a new actress has been cast in the part, just as Tommen was recast last season. The actress who played the role in Seasons One and Two took the news with a sense of humor.)

Just as the world simultaneously expands and contracts by means of locations and merging storylines, so too does this occur through character additions and deletions. Many die, but new ones get introduced. Along with all of these Dornish figures we’ll soon meet, another key arrival to the story will be a King’s Landing-based religious figure known as The High Sparrow, who could make life difficult for Cersei and Tommen. Whatever he does, he should be intriguing to watch as played by the veteran character actor Jonathan Pryce, who starred in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and had major roles in such movies as Glengarry Glen Ross, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Evita and Tomorrow Never Dies.

And as we get to know these new arrivals, let’s not forget all the characters that are still out there, out of sight, but not out of mind. Not out of mine, anyway. The youngest Stark, Rickon, and his wildling protector Osha; Brotherhood Without Banners leaders Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion; Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Gendry; Catelyn’s uncle Bryndyn “The Blackfish” Tully, who escaped the Red Wedding; Cat’s brother Edmure, who was the groom at that wedding and is apparently imprisoned by his now-father-in-law Walder Frey; Walder Frey himself, that treacherous lecher; and Benjen Stark, Ned’s brother, a ranger of the Night’s Watch who went beyond The Wall in Season One and hasn’t been seen since. Will any of these characters show up again this season? You can can be sure that at least some of them still have a part to play in the game, but when will they make their move?

One major character we won’t be seeing this year? Bran. In a bold move by showrunners Weiss and David Benioff, the clairvoyant Stark child, along with his companions Hodor (Hodor) and Meera Reed, has been benched for this entire season. One reason is that at this point, the show has apparently caught up with Bran’s storyline in the books, and from a standpoint of chronology, continuing would move beyond the timeframe that all of the other characters occupy. It may be worth noting here that Martin’s fourth and fifth books — A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons — take place concurrently and do not both feature each and every major character. Crows follows one group of characters, while Dragons follows another group during the same time period. While each season of the TV show thus far has roughly corresponded to a book — with the third novel A Clash of Kings serving as the basis for Seasons Three and Four of the show — this hasn’t been an exact science. Benioff and Weiss have introduced some elements into the show earlier than they appear in the books, and other elements later. As such, they must have jumped ahead with Bran’s storyline and drawn from book four or five (whichever one he appeared in; I’m not sure). They have still made it clear that by and large, Season Five is based on Crows and Dragons. So again, pushing ahead with Bran’s story would move him too far beyond the other story threads chronologically. (I’m left to assume that his events in book four or five weren’t too far ahead of other characters’ events in book three, allowing them to avoid the issue of timing last season that they’re encountering now.)

To complicate things further, I’ve heard that Sansa’s storyline had also pretty much caught up to the books by the end of last season, yet she and Littlefinger are not getting sidelined like Bran. Now maybe I’ve been misinformed and there is still more Sansa action in the published books. But it could also be that the gap between Sansa’s story in Crows/Dragons and wherever it picks up in the next book is easier to bridge than the same gap for Bran. To that point — perhaps — Benioff and Weiss have further justified holding off on the Bran story by explaining that he’s about to enter a period of training, learning from the Three-Eyed Raven how to use his powers. Benioff puts it in terms of Star Wars: “It would be far less interesting, after The Empire Strikes Back to have an hour-long movie in between Empire and Return of the Jedi where Luke is training. It’s so much cooler to cut from end of Empire to beginning of Return, where he’s become the Jedi.” He elaborates, “It made sense to stop where we did. He’s now entering a training period which is going to take quite some time, much of which isn’t particularly cinematic. So rather than being stuck in a cave for a year, we figured it would be interesting to leave him out for a little bit, so when you see him again…”

I have to disagree on this point. I’ll bet that if Thrones wanted to devote an hour-long episode to Bran’s experience tapping into his abilities, they could make it pretty dramatic and compelling. I think it would be interesting to watch him grow and learn about his gifts. Surely they could draw enough from this premise to visit it periodically over the course of a ten-hour season. But Benioff mentions “being stuck in a cave for a year.” So if that isn’t just a random time period he’s tossing out there, but rather the actual amount of time in the story it will take Bran to do what he’s got to do, I can go with the Chronology Explanation, as it’s a more valid argument to me. Such a training period would  believably be prolonged enough that it might move Bran too far ahead in time than the other characters.

Whatever the case, it will be a shock when Bran returns in Season Six having grown another few inches and looking like a young man far removed from the adorable boy who got thrown from a window by Jaime Lannister. Of all the young actors on the show, Isaac Hempstead-Wright is already the one whose appearance has altered most dramatically with age. By the time we see him again, it will be a jarring sight.

This all brings us to another much-discussed element of the new season: diversion from the books. It was confirmed a few months ago that the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, will not be published in 2015. This news seemed to erroneously give way to the idea that starting now, the show will be carving its own path almost entirely. I’m not sure where this notion came from. As mentioned above, this season is primarily based on books four and five — Benioff and Weiss confirmed this in an interview at the recent premiere event in San Francisco — with the understanding that yes, as always, there will be differences. Asked about taking detours from the books, Benioff replied:

I think every season has been a little bit more. The first season was extremely faithful. The next season had a few more deviations. Each season has had to go a little more. If we were to remain entirely faithful to A Feast for Crows, half the characters — the most popular characters — would be absent from the screen this season. It’s always been about adapting the series as a whole and following the map George laid out for us and hitting the major milestones, but not necessarily each of the stops along the way. It’s an adaptation, it will have to adapt in order to survive. There are always going to be some people who want everything to remain exactly as in the books. For us, it was never a choice.

Producer Bryan Cogman added, “This is the riskiest season, from a storytelling perspective, and certainly the most difficult. We were faced with adapting two huge books and following up on arcs and themes that — while certainly inspired by the books — were a little more our own thing.” Those differences between the books and the show will include some deaths, as Martin stated that there will be characters who die on the show this year but are still alive in the books. However he also explained more recently that the death of a character on the show can carry a different weight than the death of that same character on the page, since the show has fewer main characters to work with than the book does. When it comes to deviations between the source material and the adaptation, we also have to keep in mind that Martin has told Benioff and Weiss the broad strokes of how the story ends, and we don’t always know if things from the show that aren’t in the books — like that White Walker ritual with the baby, for example — were invented by Benioff and Weiss, or are in fact things that Martin is planning but hasn’t gotten to yet. And all of this of course bleeds into the issue of the show catching up to and overtaking the books. There are new comments on that too, from all parties involved, but I think it makes more sense to save those for our post-season check-in…though I will add that for the first time, Martin did not write the script for one of this season’s episodes, choosing instead to devote his time to the The Winds of Winter. I think he made the right call.

Now…on to the fun stuff. Being the cultural phenomenon that it is, there’s always plenty of Thrones-centric fodder in the pop culture stratosphere, and here are the latest additions to my collection. First, how about this interactive map of Westeros and beyond, which not only serves the basic need of helping clarify the geography, but even allows you to trace the paths of various characters — in either their book journey or their TV journey — and even follow them only up to the point you’ve seen if you’re not caught up yet. I haven’t played around with that more advanced functionality yet, but this was helpful of late as I wanted to see where Braavos was in relation to Pentos.

As a fan of visual effects, I always enjoy seeing breakdowns like this one, which show all the ways that effects are used to enhance the scenery and make the entire world of the show believable. This reel is put together quite nicely.

Nerdist offered up this parody of the Taylor Swift song “Blank Space” called “Blank Page,” in which George R.R. Martin sings of his tendency to kill characters. The song’s amusing, but really I just enjoy the guy playing Martin. I wasn’t familiar with Swift’s tune, but it’s worth a listen for a better appreciation of what the parody is riffing on.

And this…this was just begging to happen. I’m surprised it took this long. [Note: It didn’t take this long, as it turns out. Several hours after this post went live, I realized that I actually included a similar but different GoT/Princess Bride mashup in another post a couple of years ago. It’s not inconceivable that there are others out there too. Oh well. This is still good.] 

Plenty of other amusing videos have made the rounds. Things can get awfully grim on the show, and most of the characters don’t like each other very much, so it’s nice to see some moments of levity on the set. The bloopers here are more amusing than hilarious; mostly flubbed lines. But it’s still nice to see them all having fun. Earlier this week, Seth Meyers offered a look at what Jon Snow might be like as a dinner guest. Answer: not great. There was also this Sesame Street clip that wasn’t as funny as some other TV show parodies they’ve done, but still worth a look. Because it’s Sesame Street. Doing Game of Thrones. Oh, and after the requisite Thrones-inspired couch gag a few years ago, The Simpsons dipped into the Westeros well again this year in an episode when Homer is given the opportunity to be the new face of Duff Beer.

The Simpsons, Sesame Street…there’s nothing like some good pop culture cross-pollination, and these minimalist Thrones-style house sigils, courtesy of artist Miguel Lokia, are another fine example. The Starks have “Winter is Coming,” the Targaryens have “Fire and Blood,” and the Greyjoys have “We Do Not Sow.” But what about these prominent families? (See here for others.)

Also in the Art of Thrones files, illustrators Peter and Radu came up with these travel posters that almost make you want to visit Westeros. Almost. (See here for larger versions, plus additional posters inspired by Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.)

Finally, I came across an interesting story a while back that Martin has plans to republish a children’s story he wrote years ago called The Ice Dragon, which is set in the same world as his Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re anything like me, your reaction to that is something like, “George R.R. Martin wrote a children’s story???” Apparently so. In fact, now he’s even adapted Game of Thrones for kids.

And with that, I think I’d best go and emotionally prepare myself for the brutality, the distress and the bloodshed that shall begin anew tomorrow night. Gods, I love it.

March 15, 2015

25 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2015

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , ,

I haven’t gotten around to posting about my favorite movies from 2014, but since that might take until sometime in late summer, why not go ahead and consider what the current year has to offer? Yes, we’re two and a half months into 2015, but the best is yet to come. How many of these movies will be on my Favorites of 2015 list? Find out when that post gets published in October 2016! Until then…

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Emily Blunt, Jon Bernthal, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Donovan
Release Date: September 18

Denis Villeneuve landed on my directors-to-watch list thanks to his impressive work on the 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners, which was among my favorite films of that year. I wasn’t quite as high on his next film Enemy (actually made before Prisoners but released after), although there were things about it I enjoyed. His first true follow-up centers on a female FBI agent who is recruited into a CIA operation targeting the head of a Mexican drug cartel. In addition to my curiosity over Villeneuve’s upcoming projects, Blunt is a big part of the reason I’m anticipating this. She’s been killing it lately, and if she carries this film as well as I expect she will, the strength of her work — combined with excellent performances as anti-damsels-in-distress in Edge of Tomorrow and Looper — could send her already strong stock through the roof.

Director: John Wells
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Daniel Brühl, Jamie Dornan, Lily James, Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys, Omar Sy, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander
Release Date: TBA

Cooper plays a celebrated but wild chef in Europe whose bad habits derail his career and force him to rebuild his reputation. Buzz on the script, which has been kicking around for quite a while now, has been extremely strong, with word that the lead character is a meaty role for any actor lucky enough to play it. David Fincher was attached to direct Keanu Reeves at one point, and some other directors were involved before it went to John Wells. It will be interesting to see how the director of The Company Men and August: Osage County handles the material. Those movies showed he has a way with actors, but both were fairly talky. This film is rumored to have a different energy that will test his range. Still, all the ingredients seem to be in place for something tasty.

Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Frank Dillane, Michelle Fairley, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Riley, Donald Sumpter, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw
Release Date: December 13

This maritime epic tells the true story of the Essex — a whaling ship out of Nantucket — and its encounter with a massive sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean, an episode which would become the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The movie was originally set for release this month, so trailers have been around for a while to tease what looks like a thrilling adventure with great cinematography from Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar winning Anthony Dod Mantle, who also collaborated with Howard and Hemsworth on the race car drama Rush. Until someone makes a film based on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists (seriously, that could totally be a movie), this might do nicely.

Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Matt Cook
Cast: Casey Affleck, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Michael B. Jordan, Anthony Mackie, Teresa Palmer, Aaron Paul, Michael Peña, Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet
Release Date: September 11

There’s not a lot to say yet on this one. We know it’s about a group of criminals and corrupt cops working together to plan a large-scale heist that, in order to pull off, will involve killing a rookie officer. It’s mainly here because of that cast. Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz were attached at one point, but scheduling conflicts prevented their involvement. Not that a good cast is ever a guarantee of a good movie, but I’d like to think that with so much talent involved, or trying to be involved, there must be something great on the page to attract them.

Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Chris Sparling
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts
Release Date: TBA

In what promises to be the feel-good comedy of the year, McConaughey plays a man who travels to Japan to take his own life in the woods at the base of Mount Fuji, an area known as “Suicide Forest” because it has attracted so many others with the same intention. An encounter with Watanabe’s character, who is lost in the woods, leads both men on a physical and emotional journey to find their way. We’ll see if this ends up being plot-driven, or if it’s more of a meandering meditation in the vein of Van Sant’s Elephant and Gerry. I always enjoy Watanabe’s performances, and this is also another nice move for McConaughey, who keeps picking interesting projects and quality directors.

Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Adam McKay, Paul Rudd
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Hayley Atwell, Bobby Cannavale, David Dastmalchian, Martin Donovan, Judy Greer, Wood Harris, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, John Slattery, Corey Stoll, John Slattery, T.I.
Release Date: July 31

The Marvel machine rolls on this year, with two of the summer’s most anticipated movies coming from the comic giant’s stable. While you won’t find it on this list, I’m definitely looking forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I give a spot to Ant-Man, just as I did last year to Guardians of the Galaxy, because it’s an unknown quantity that seems full of fun promise. Marvel’s movies continue to strike the right tone between action, comedy and just enough legitimate pathos to add some depth. Guardians, especially, was as much comedy as fantasy action, and the choices of Paul Rudd to play the lead role in Ant-Man, and Will Ferrell’s creative partner Adam McKay (director of Anchorman) to co-write it, indicates that another supremely entertaining movie is in store. The project was marred a bit by the departure of original director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), whose vision apparently clashed with Marvel’s even after a long period of fruitful development. He brought most of the cast onboard before parting ways, and hopefully something of his spirit will survive to the finished film. He and his co-writer Joe Cornish retain story credit, while the actual script was rewritten by McKay and Rudd. McKay came close to directing it himself  a time commitment he was ultimately unable to make, but a near-miss that further suggests the tone we can expect from the movie.

Side-note: Those of you immersed in the Marvel film series will note that Hayley Atwell, from Captain America: The First Avenger and the Agent Carter TV series is set to appear in Ant-Man, as is John Slattery, who played Tony Stark’s father Howard in vintage footage during a brief scene from Iron Man 2, only to be replaced in Captain America and Agent Carter by Dominic Cooper. Perhaps Slattery is supposed to be an older version of Stark, but I don’t recall his scene in Iron Man 2 taking place so many years after the character’s time with Captain America and Peggy Carter that a markedly older actor would be required to play him. In fact, the switch from Slattery to Cooper has stood out to me as one of the few inconsistencies in the carefully constructed universe of Marvel’s movies. Maybe Ant-Man will clear things up for me.

Geek digression over.

Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Paula Pell
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Samantha Bee, James Brolin, John Cena, Rachel Dratch, John Leguizamo, Heather Matarazzo, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Maya Rudolph, Dianne Wiest
Release Date: December 18

Fey and Poehler play sisters who decide to throw a party at their childhood home before their parents sell it. But honestly, does it matter what the movie is about? Haven’t we gotten to a point where anything that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do together is something we all just watch, no questions asked? If somehow your answer is “no”, consider that writer Paula Pell is a damn funny lady in her own right. She’s been with Saturday Night Live for years, including the Fey-Poehler era, and presumably knows exactly how to write to their strengths. Then there’s director Jason Moore, whose credits include Avenue Q on Broadway and 2012’s comedy gem Pitch Perfect. Satisfied?

Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Scott Cooper, Mark Mallouk
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, W. Earl Brown, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Sienna Miller, Julianne Nicholson, Jesse Plemons, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Jeremy Strong, Juno Temple
Release Date: September 18

Those of us who have been eager to see Johnny Depp wipe off the makeup, shed the silly voices and reconnect with his gifts as a dramatic actor may finally have found the movie we’ve been waiting for. Well…okay, he’ll still be in makeup. And…alright, he’ll probably be doing an accent. But the transformation will be in the service of something more serious than Jack Sparrow (great at first, getting old now), the Mad Hatter or Tonto. Depp will play “Whitey” Bulger, the infamous Boston crime figure who eluded capture for 16 years and was, for most of that period, number two on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, second only to Osama Bin Laden. (Bulger was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime boss Frank Costello in The Departed). Further proof that Depp won’t be fooling around: Black Mass is directed by Scott Cooper, who previously helmed Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award, and Out of the Furnace, a brooding drama with superb performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. Cooper is a thoughtful filmmaker who always looks for a personal angle to keep him invested. Hopefully he’s found one here, as the project didn’t originate with him. He came on after Barry Levinson left. Even if this is more a director-for-hire job than his last two films, he’s a pretty good director to hire. Bulger’s story should provide him, his excellent cast, and the man who was once Donnie Brasco with a lot of material to dig into.

Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley, Jason Clarke, Brian Dennehy, Ben Kingsley, Joel Kinnaman, Thomas Lennon, Isabel Lucas, Nick Offerman, Ryan O’Neal, Teresa Palmer, Frieda Pinto, Imogen Poots, Shea Whigham, Michael Wincott
Release Date: December 11

Terrence Malick’s latest metaphysical drama debuted in February at the Berlin Film Festival, and secured U.S. distribution with a small indie company, although I can’t locate an actual story or article confirming the release date listed above, which started showing up around the web out of the blue. The movie centers on Bale’s character, an actor struggling with the same existential quandaries that most of Malick’s characters grapple with these days. The director shows no signs of moving back toward a more straightforward narrative. In fact, Cups is said to go even further toward the fragmented style of his recent films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. I figure that by the time Malick’s next movie comes around, it won’t actually be a movie, but rather some kind of performance art piece where after buying your ticket, you’re taken to a beach or a field of tall grass and asked to stand around contemplatively while a voiceover talks cryptically of love, loss and God. Hey, I’ll still show up. Even in their sometimes frustrating abstraction, I find Malick’s work transfixing. To the Wonder was kind of a slog, but I’m hopeful that the urban, Hollywood setting of Cups on display in the trailer will inject a little more life into the proceedings.

Incidentally, Joel Kinnaman, while promoting another movie, was asked about working with Malick, and offered this classic response:

I had a one-day shoot, and I had a 17-page monologue. It was a crazy day. It was great to get to be part of the Malick world for a day. I have no idea what the movie’s about. I barely know who my character was. We’ll see if I’m in it or not. I remember, we’d be shooting, and I’d be on page 12 of my 17-page monologue, and I’d turn around and see that he was 100 yards away, shooting a pink dog.

That sounds about right.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
Release Date: TBA

I don’t really know anything about this movie. Brief descriptions I’ve found say it’s the story an investment banker who re-examines his life after enduring a tragedy. That’s a pretty damn vague synopsis. But here’s what I do know: Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, is emerging as an excellent filmmaker who knows how to tell dramatic human stories that skillfully walk the line between naturalistic and cinematic; Jake Gyllenhaal is making great choices and inhabiting his characters with intense commitment; Naomi Watts, likewise, is also picking really good projects lately; and Chris Cooper can do no wrong. With that line-up of talent, this is a no-brainer for me, whatever it’s about.

Director/Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks
Release Date: November 25

Nichols, whose most recent effort was the terrific Mud another of my favorites from 2013 has his biggest film to date, both in scope and budget, with this sci-fi thriller about a father (Shannon, who has appeared in all of the director’s films) trying to protect his young son who has unique abilities that have caught the attention of both the government and a religious cult. Nichols has said that he’s going for something in the tone of John Carpenter’s Starman, the 1985 drama starring Jeff Bridges as a stranded alien who takes the form of a woman’s dead husband. Seeing the filmmaker apply his grounded style to this type of story has my curiosity piqued.

Peter Sohn, Bob Peterson
Bob Peterson, Enrico Casarosa
Judy Greer, Bill Hader, Neil Patrick Harris, John Lithgow, Frances McDormand, Lucas Neff
Release Date:
November 25

What if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by an extinction event? That’s the question that sets up the first of Pixar’s two  count ‘em, TWO  new movies this year. Beyond, that, I’m not really sure what the movie is about, other than that it focuses on a teenage dino from a family of Apatosauruses and a human boy. Based on the kid’s garb in the teaser posters, it looks like we’re still dealing with prehistoric society, as opposed to a contemporary world where dinosaurs still exist; more The Flintstones than The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The movie may have changed considerably from inception to completion, having undergone an overhaul that saw original director Peterson replaced during production (not an uncommon or necessarily negative occurence at Pixar given the way they’re structured; Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, and Brave all hit similar roadblocks and turned out just fine). Toy Story‘s beloved Rex is not going to have his inferiority complex helped by the fact that Pixar is making an entire movie about dinosaurs and not including him, but for the rest of us, two new movies from Pixar  originals, at that  is cause for celebration.

Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Amy Schumer
Cast: Amy Schumer, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Attell, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, John Cena, Jon Glaser, Bill Hader, LeBron James, Brie Larson, Norman Lloyd, Tim Meadows, Method Man, Ezra Miller, Randall Park, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: July 24

I’m not too familiar with Schumer. I don’t watch her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer, but I’ve seen bits and pieces of her work, and I always like what I’ve seen. Here she plays a successful magazine writer whose anti-monogamy views are challenged when she meets a nice-guy doctor (Hader). Being largely in the dark about her, Apatow is the main the attraction for me. I’m a big fan to begin with, but I really like that he so supportive of other comedic voices. This is the first film he’s directing that he didn’t write, and it was simply because he wanted to be in business with Schumer, who he encouraged to write the film in the first place. He’s often perceived as a guy who makes dude movies, so I like seeing him show once again (he also works closely with Lena Dunham on HBO’s Girls) that he’s an equal opportunity comedian whose aim is to nurture funny people with unique voices.

Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Alec Baldwin, Jay Baruchel, Michael Chernus, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Ivana Milicevic, Bill Murray
Release Date:
May 29

This one was on last year’s list, but Sony bumped it from an intended holiday season release. The project has been bouncing around for a while, and it’s nice to see it finally coming in for a landing, especially since the trailer provides the impression that it will be vintage Cameron Crowe: charming, romantic, funny, earnest, and boasting a sublime cast. From what I’ve gathered, Cooper plays a defense contractor at a low point in his career who returns to a military base in Hawaii for a new operation. There, he confronts his past in the form of a now-engaged old flame and considers his future with a pilot involved in his project. Crowe has been a bit off his game with recent movies, and I would love to see him hit a home run with the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that has all but disappeared from the landscape.

Oh, a note to Sony and whoever made that trailer: while it’s true that Cameron Crowe is an Academy Award nominated writer, he’s also an Academy Award winning writer. That might have been the way to go.

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Matt Damon, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig
Release Date: November 25

Ridley Scott is amazing. At 77 years old, the guy is pretty much putting out a movie a year. So is Woody Allen, at age 79. But unlike Allen’s modest, dialogue-driven movies, Scott’s are large in scope, usually requiring massive production efforts, both pre and post. And the list of projects he has in development is lengthy. All that said, the films themselves can be hit or miss, and at this point he’s overdue for a hit. Whether or not The Martian will deliver I can’t say, but the potential is certainly there. In fact, the story behind the film might be worthy of a film itself. It’s based on novel by Andy Weir, who self-published it and then saw it explode on Amazon, earning praise for its detailed and carefully researched science as well as its wry humor and appealing central character. That would be an astronaut (Damon) who is accidentally stranded on Mars when his crew, believing him dead, departs without him. Scott has corralled a terrific supporting cast, and if the script and story are strong, his skill for creating arresting visuals while also coaxing good work from actors should serve this material splendidly.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alan Alda, Eve Hewson, Domenick Lombardozzi, Billy Magnussen, Peter McRobbie, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance
Release Date: October 16

The fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Hanks has been flying quietly under the radar. Hanks will play real-life attorney James B. Donovan, who was tasked with negotiating the release of an American pilot shot down over the Soviet Union while doing reconnaissance. The historical drama sounds like good material for Hanks, and another chance after Lincoln for Spielberg to put story front and center.


Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writers: Thomas McCarthy, Josh Singer
Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Release Date: TBA

Sometimes you hear the plot of a movie, you see the cast, the director, and you just have a feeling it’s gonna be good. Well…I do, anyway. I have that feeling about this journalism drama, the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigative reports into sexual abuse of children within the city’s Catholic Archdiocese. The series exposed a scandal which had been known but ignored for years, and earned the Globe‘s Spotlight team a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Tom McCarthy directed The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, all warm relationship dramadies, but here moves into more straightforward dramatic territory. I’ve compared his films to those of Alexander Payne in the past, and griped that he doesn’t get the level of acclaim that he’s deserved. Maybe this movie will change that. I certainly hope so. This has tremendous potential. (For what it’s worth, I like the irony of the guy who played a journalist fabricating a story on The Wire now co-writing and directing a movie about journalism at its finest.)

Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen
Cast: George Clooney, Pierce Gagnon, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw, Britt Robertson
Release Date: May 22

A decade or so ago, Walt Disney Pictures started looking inward, developing movies based on their theme park rides. Happily, that yielded Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Less happily, it yielded Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears. The studio is still looking to its own vaults for inspiration, resulting in two newer trends: turning its animated films into live action ones (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, the upcoming The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo) and perhaps more oddly, making movies out of its business decisions. That trend kicked off with Saving Mr. Banks, and now we have the more mysterious Tomorrowland. There’s been a lot of secrecy around this project, originally titled 1952, but it does appear to involve the futuristic park that exists within the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland and Disney World  though to be fair, I think the idea was brought to Disney, as opposed to being generated within the studio. Damon Lindelof, who initially conceived of the story and eventually collaborated with Jeff Jensen  who covered Lindelof’s Lost for Entertainment Weekly and came up with theories as thrilling and creative as much of the show itself  and The Incredibles writer/director Brad Bird, has said the movie doesn’t actually take place in the park, but there is definitely a connection. What does seem clear is that the parties involved are aiming for a family-friendly sci-fi adventure that seeks to capture a tone of hope and optimism that’s become increasingly rare in our views of the future  real and imagined.

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu , Mark L. Smith
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lukas Haas, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Release Date: December 25

While Birdman was soaring across the movie awards circuit in the last several months, its now Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was keeping busy shooting his next project, a long-in-development story about a fur trapper in the 1800’s who is robbed and abandoned by his fellow travelers after being mauled by a bear. (Stephen Colbert’s gonna love this movie!) He survives, and goes after those who left him for dead. Just as Birdman was a sharp turn from the heavy dramas for which Iñárritu was known (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), The Revenant’s revenge drama roots are unexplored territory for him. And just as with Birdman, I imagine that this exercise in genre will have much more on its mind than simple brutality or emotional satisfaction.

Sam Mendes
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Jesper Christensen, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw
Release Date:
November 6

I didn’t grow up immersed in the James Bond series, but while longtime fans understandably consider Sean Connery to be the quintessential Bond, can we all agree that the last installment, Skyfall, was among the four or five best  if not the single best  movie in the series? I’ll assume we can. As such, the weight of expectation here is considerable, as it often is with sequels. Director Mendes and writers Purvis, Wade and Logan are all returning, and while the chance of capturing lightning in a bottle twice in a row is unlikely, we can hope. Skyfall is special for many reasons, occupying a unique position in the Bond canon as both pivotal and transitional. Most Bond films are primarily just “the next adventure,” but this one, whatever it is, will be very much the result of Skyfall‘s events, to a degree that none of the previous 23 films  even Casino Royale‘s follow-up Quantum of Solace  have been so directly impacted by their predecessor. As for where the story might be headed, fans recognize SPECTRE as the criminal organization that Bond has contended with in several of the earlier films and in Ian Fleming’s books, and it will be fun to see how Mendes brings the group into the more gritty, contemporary milieu that the Daniel Craig era has ushered in.

Director: Pete Docter
Writers: Michael Arndt, Pete Docter
Cast: Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith
Release Date: June 19

Pixar’s second release this year  though it will be the first to hit theaters  is a pretty ingenious idea. As an adolescent girl facing the major life change of moving to a new city finds herself on an emotional rollercoaster, we go inside her head to see those emotions personified in the form of Joy (Poehler), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling), Fear (Hader) and Sadness (Smith, from The Office). That’s some inspired casting right there. This sounds like the perfect Pixar movie to me, something that will see the studio do what it does best: tell a universal story in a world related to but separate from our own, with plenty of fodder for humor but also a genuinely touching throughline. My expectations are high.

Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Édgar Ramiriez, Elisabeth Röhm, Isabella Rossellini
Release Date: December 25

It’s not so much that this particular story excites me as it is that anything David O. Russell does these days excites me. With Joy, he re-teams with Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro for his third time in a row to tell the story of Joy Mangano, a Long Island housewife, single mother and aspiring inventor who struck gold with the creation of the Miracle Mop. Russell co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo, who penned Bridesmaids with Kristen Wiig, and her comedic voice should nicely complement Russell’s, yielding a quirky biopic in the vein of Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt.


Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels, John Ortiz, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Kate Winslet
Release Date: October 9

Another biopic, but another one that promises to be unconventional. Based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book about the Silicon Valley titan, Aaron Sorkin’s script is structured as just three lengthy scenes, each one taking place backstage at a seminal Apple product launch before Jobs steps in front of the curtain. Sorkin’s script is said to be a massive 181 pages (though earlier descriptions from the writer have described it as more along the lines of 90, so who knows) and as the set-up suggests, it will be extremely dialogue-heavy. No problem there. Sorkin’s dialogue, although self-plagiarized from time to time, can always be counted on to delight the ear.

I surprise myself that the movie places so high on my list, but when I crunched the numbers, did some computer models and ran it all by the boys in the lab, this is where it landed. Prime placement considering my disappointment that the original incarnation of the project fell apart. It was initially shaping up to reunite Sorkin with his Social Network director David Fincher, who wanted Christian Bale to play Jobs. I was over the moon at the thought of that line-up. Unfortunately, Fincher left the project, apparently because the studio (Sony, at the time; it’s since moved to Universal) wouldn’t meet his demands for salary and creative control. Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle came aboard, and courted Leonardo DiCaprio (great actor, but totally the wrong look), who opted to make The Revenant instead. Then Bale officially boarded, only to depart a short time later, stating that he didn’t feel he had a handle on the character. Sorkin championed Tom Cruise (could have been great), while the studio considered the usual A-list suspects regardless of whether they seemed right for the part (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper). In the end, the part went to the versatile Fassbender.

I can’t help but be let down that it didn’t pan out with Fincher and Bale. Not for nothing though, the combination of Sorkin and Boyle is intriguing in its own right. Boyle’s movies are high-energy, lots of editing…there’s a thumping beat to his work that seems contrary to a project that will feature only three extended sequences and limited locations, so seeing how he approaches such unlikely material will be fun. And while Bale seemed like the perfect guy to take on Jobs, Fassbender is no slouch. I have every confidence he will give a performance worthy of such a fascinating figure. Apple’s slogan in the late 90’s was “Think Different.” Looks like with this unusual approach, that’s just what these filmmakers are going for. If they don’t end up doing a big thing badly, it could really be quite something. And you know it.

Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Zoe Bell, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, James Parks, James Remar, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Channing Tatum
Release Date: TBA

Tarantino’s latest almost died on the vine. After completing the first draft of his script, he handed copies to six people, including actors Dern, Roth and Madsen, and one of his Django Unchained producers. Apparently one of them showed the script to their agent, and soon enough it had leaked online. The director was none too pleased about this, and decided to abandon the film, saying he might revisit it a few years down the road, and would perhaps publish it as a novel instead of filming it. He even sued Gawker for enabling wider dissemination of the script, though the lawsuit was dismissed by the court. Tarantino then staged a live read of the script at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with an all-star cast of actors, (most of whom will reprise their roles in the film). Sometime between the leak and the live read however, Tarantino revised the script (the leaked version had only been his first pass) and decided to make the movie after all. The live read featured the initial draft, which is not the same version that will ultimately be filmed.

So that’s the behind the scenes drama. What can we expect for on-screen drama? The Western takes place in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War, and focuses on two bounty hunters escorting a female prisoner to her trial when a blizzard descends, forcing them to take shelter in a haberdashery. During their stop, they encounter a number of unsavory characters, some of whom may pose a threat to their assignment. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to assume that tensions will mount, blood will be spilled, and a lot of tough-guy dialogue will be chewed with gusto. With the exception of Bichir, Leigh and Tatum, all the players here have worked with QT before…and since Roth, Madsen and Dern are still involved, there must be no hard feelings about that script leak.


Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasden, J.J. Abrams
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Kenny Baker, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Warwick Davis, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow
Release Date: December 18

I mean…come on. Was there even a question?

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