I Am DB

July 16, 2016

“Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”

Filed under: Books,Movies,TV — DB @ 4:45 pm
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“Great literature is not great literature until it’s been made into a movie.” – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 7, 2013
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There’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction (included in the published screenplay and among the DVD’s special features) in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace first meets John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and videotapes an interview with him, with the intention of getting to know him before they head out for the evening. She explains that one of her standard questions in these interviews is whether the subject is a Beatles person or an Elvis person. “Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like The Beatles,” she says. “But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”

I feel the same way about books and movies. You can like both, but you can’t like them equally. Maybe you think you can. But you can’t. You’re either a book person or a movie person.

Way back in 2011, while I was putting this blog together and getting familiar with WordPress, I came across a post titled, “Why I Hate (Even Good) Movies Based on Books,” in which the blogger, R.H. Culp, expressed his frustration with books being adapted so often to film. As a writer of books himself, Mr. Culp is clearly a book person, and was asking why a book couldn’t be allowed to simply exist as a book. I wanted to leave a comment, but my thoughts were too long and my time too short, so I decided I’d just save it for my own eventual post on the topic.

Six years later…

I love to read, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows me and most who see me pass them on the street that I’m a movie person. And as a movie person, I have to start by pointing out just some of the movies we wouldn’t have if books were never adapted for the screen. The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind. Jaws. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Silence of the Lambs. The Princess BrideApocalypse Now. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Shawshank Redemption. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Die Hard. The Lord of the Rings. The Graduate. Blade Runner. Mary Poppins. Dracula. Frankenstein (and by extension, Young Frankenstein). Brokeback MountainThe Exorcist. Nearly every film made by Stanley Kubrick, including Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. More than half of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including Rebecca, Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window. The entire James Bond series.

I could pretty much rest my case right there and feel that I had more than justified the practice of adapting books into movies. The topic, however, merits more than that, and my intention is not to deliver a glib rebuke of Mr. Culp’s position. I understand his feelings. After all, this is a popular and enduring debate that dates back to the Stone Age, when an ambitious caveman first took the symbols chiseled on a stone tablet and translated the text into a cave drawing.

A book person might look at the list of titles I offered and stand their ground that we would all be just fine if these stories existed in print only, never having made the jump to celluloid. But come on; show me a person who wants to live in a world without The Godfather and The Princess Bride on film, and I’ll show you a person without a soul. Also, before we get too far along, don’t we have to expand the scenario to television? Legendary miniseries such as Roots and Lonesome Dove are based on books, as are some of today’s most popular shows, including Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Outlander. Even The Wire, regarded by many as the greatest TV series of all time, grew out of the David Simon books The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood — itself the basis of an HBO miniseries that preceded The Wire — and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which also inspired NBC’s critically adored series Homicide: Life on the Street.
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THE RIGHTS STUFF
In fact, David Simon offers a fine jumping off point for this topic. Because the answer to Mr. Culp’s question about why books can’t just remain books begins with the authors themselves. No matter how much Hollywood wants to buy, if the author doesn’t want to sell, the story ends there. Some writers are involved in the adaptation process and some stay away, but all of them have to sign on the dotted line. And there are practical reasons for them to do so. In a Q&A session with a class at Eugene Lang College, which is included among the extra features on The Wire‘s third season DVD set, Simon addresses this:

Why do it? It’s gonna get done. If somebody wants to do it, the author will always sell. Or invariably. It’s very rare when the author will not, because it’s hard getting paid as a writer. In the beginning, what it is, is you’re really just trying to extend the shelf life — literally the shelf life — of your book. It’s so hard to sell books in America, because people don’t read. I mean, Homicide sold 30,000 in hardback, maybe, and another 20 in trade paperback, and then the show came on the air. And by the time the show finished its run, it had sold like, 400,000 paperback. It’s like, ‘Oh, if there’s a TV show about it I’ll read it.’ So that’s the economy of scale as a writer. So if you can get your stuff made, if you can get a bad movie made about your book, you’re gonna do it. Anything will go from print to screen if they pay you money.

Tom Perrotta, the writer whose books have been adapted into films Election and Little Children and the HBO series The Leftovers, said in an interview with New York Magazine that even the decades-long, unsuccessful efforts to turn his first novel The Wishbones into a film paid him more money than he’d made doing anything else. “It went from a frustrating thing to an insurance policy,” he said. All six of Perrotta’s novels have been optioned for film or TV development. He collected an Oscar nomination for co-writing the Little Children screenplay, and along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, he is the co-creator and co-showrunner of The Leftovers, which enjoyed a well-regarded second season last year.

Simon is also correct that to a certain extent, the release of a movie or TV show based on a book does drive people who haven’t previously read the source material to check it out. Mr. Culp’s main concern seems to be the opposite: that the existence of a movie deters people from reading the book. That is undoubtedly true for many people, but it’s also undoubtedly true that many people will read the book because a film is coming out. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was a massively popular best-seller right out of the gate, and director David Fincher’s 2014 film version (adapted by Flynn herself) renewed the book’s popularity. It was back atop best-seller lists in the paperback categories when the movie came out, and while this is hardly a scientific statistic, I’ll just toss out there that at the time of the movie’s release, there were 273 copies of Gone Girl across the entire Los Angeles Public Library system, and every single one of them was checked out or on a hold shelf awaiting pick-up. Granted, Flynn’s novel was already a popular hit and the involvement of talents like Fincher and Ben Affleck assured high awareness of the movie. Not every book that gets adapted is a huge hit, and not every adaptation gets the kind of high-profile release of Gone Girl. But does anyone think the book would have been in such demand at that time if there weren’t a movie about to land?

Another reason authors might be willing to see their work translated for the screen is for the opportunity to dive even deeper into a world they created. This tends to be true more for TV adaptations than films, since TV’s ongoing, episodic structure more closely resembles that of a novel, and allows more time for story and character development than a movie limited to a few hours. After years of futile efforts to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s award-winning 2001 novel The Corrections into a film, super-producer Scott Rudin brought the project to HBO for development as a series. Franzen, who had not been involved with the attempts at a film adaptation, came onto the project to work alongside Rudin and Noah Baumbach, who was brought on to direct the series and co-write it with Franzen. The author enjoyed the process of re-visiting the book for a new medium. “Minor characters in the book are becoming very substantial characters in the show,” he told New York Magazine. “It’s fun. I’m coming back to the book as a stranger, essentially twelve years after I wrote it, and I’m filling in blanks that were deliberately blanks, but I’m having the pleasure of filling them in.” The creators planned a four-season run of ten episodes each, and shot the pilot in 2012 with a sterling cast featuring Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Greta Gerwig. Unfortunately — or fortunately, for those who feared another beloved book being corrupted — HBO decided to pass on the series, feeling that the narrative structure — which frequently shifted between time periods and required different actors playing different characters at different ages — was too complicated. Having been deemed unfilmable, The Corrections stands as a feather in the cap for purists. Still, the fact that Franzen was enthusiastically involved in the attempt is exciting to consider.

Another author who is immersed in the TV adaptation of his work is The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman, a writer and executive producer on AMC’s gargantuan hit. And the interesting twist here — which also applies to the equally popular Game of Thrones — is that the series on which the show is based has not yet concluded. Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics launched in 2003 and are still going strong. Fans of the comics who also follow the show are well aware by now, as the show’s seventh season is in production, that Kirkman is not afraid to change things up between page and screen. While the overarching plot of the show has followed that of the books, some characters who have died on the page remain alive on the show, and vice versa. Things that happen to one character in the comics might happen to a different character on TV. In an interview with TV Guide following a Season Three episode in which a main character on the show was killed despite still being alive in the comics, Kirkman said:

I think fans of the comics recognize that this show is a different animal…There are going to be differences from time to time and some big differences. People know the comic still exists, and I want people to experience both and get a somewhat different experience. I think it’s cool that there are differences that are going to make the show as dramatic, startling and unpredictable as the comic book was the first time you read it. That’s really what we’re going after.

The timeline of The Walking Dead comics is far beyond the events currently playing out on the TV show, but the same can not be said for Game of Thrones. As I’ve covered in some of my posts about that series, the TV show has now caught up to the novels, with the newly concluded season being the first to venture into new territory unfamiliar to readers. Like Kirkman with The Walking Dead, author George R.R. Martin is an executive producer on Game of Thrones; unlike Kirkman, he isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the show. He has a producing credit, but other than writing the teleplay for a few episodes, he leaves the show in the hands of its creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

I always find it fascinating when novelists adapt their own material for the screen. Flynn’s script for Gone Girl faithfully follows the book’s plot, with the film version featuring the necessary trims and adjustments that must be made to accommodate the medium’s time constraints. There’s some valuable material that gets excised, and some that has little effect on the film. On the whole though, Flynn doesn’t do anything radical to her source material. The same can not be said for Scott Smith, who wrote the 1993 novel A Simple Plan and then adapted it into a 1998 movie directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. What’s so intriguing about Smith’s adaptation is how wildly it veers from his book. The film actually follows the book quite closely up to a certain major event that occurs in the middle of the story. From that point, the film radically diverges from the book, and although they eventually come back around to the same place for the climax — with one significant difference resulting from that mid-story divergence — the pathways are shockingly different. I’ve always wondered why Smith deviated so markedly from his novel, and whether the decision was based on how the novel’s events would come across on film vs. his own desire to try something different. Was the film’s direction something he considered for the novel but ultimately abandoned? I’d love to know, but have never been able to find any interviews with Smith discussing his adaptation.

So whether their reasons are financial or creative, authors seem to have no problem, for the most part, allowing their work to be translated to the screen. Furthermore, there are no shortage of filmmakers looking to bookshelves for great stories they can bring to life. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of the post, noting that almost every one of the director’s films was based on a book. He was a voracious reader, consuming all kinds of genres and styles, and was always reading with an eye toward what might make a good film. Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Shining with Kubrick, said in a 1998 interview with film historian and critic Michel Ciment, “Kubrick always said it was better to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay, and that you should choose a work that isn’t a masterpiece so you can improve upon it. Which is what he’s always done, except with Lolita.” People can argue about whether Kubrick’s films were always improvements upon their source material, but whether they were better than their books or not, his filmography boasts one classic after another. Perhaps his choice to adapt rather than start from scratch had to do with high standards for coming up with a great story. In a 1972 interview with Ciment, following the release of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick said:

A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe [Anthony] Burgess’s achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you’ve really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process — something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn’t, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.

“THE BOOK WAS BETTER”
For book fans, that’s the concern: that the movie will ruin the book. Or if not ruin — since the book is still there to be enjoyed — the movie will be a disappointment. “The book is always better.” Isn’t that the most common statement made whenever this topic comes up? Well let’s be real…it’s not always better. We all know that. Right now, I’ll bet you can think of at least one example of a movie or TV show that you think is better than the book on which it was based. Go ahead. Mention it below in the comments section. I have a few that come immediately to mind. Field of Dreams, adapted by Phil Alden Robinson from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Wonder Boys, adapted by Steve Kloves from the book by Michael Chabon. Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The English Patient, adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. The aforementioned A Simple Plan. These are movies that, for me, surpass the books they’re based on. (With the exception of Never Let Me Go, I read all of them after seeing the movies, and in all fairness, I do wonder if I’d still prefer the adaptations had I read the books first.) I never read The Bridges of Madison County, but from what I heard, it was a cheese-fest of the first order. Yet somehow screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood turned it into a beautifully nuanced film with great performances from Eastwood and Meryl Streep. And good luck finding someone who will tell you that the novels Jaws or The Godfather are anywhere near as impressive as the films they became. I haven’t read The Godfather, but its reputation as a trashy beach read is well-known. I’ve read Jaws, and what’s most interesting about it is seeing how it’s different from Steven Spielberg’s film. (Lest you think I’m insulting authors Mario Puzo and Peter Benchley by maligning their books, bear in mind that both novelists co-wrote the respective screen adaptations.)

It may be rare that the movie or show is better than the book, but more often than people probably admit, the truth is that the book and the adaptation are both good. Different, but good. I could cite countless examples, and I’m sure you could too. One that comes quickly to mind is Misery. A faithful adaptation, but there are enough differences to make both worth your time. Chunks of Stephen King’s novel are comprised of the manuscript that the character Paul Sheldon is being forced to write by his rescuer/captor Annie Wilkes. So we get to taste the world of Paul’s book series which has inspired such demented devotion in Annie. Legendary Hollywood screenwriter and raconteur William Goldman wrote the script for Misery, and to open up the story beyond the confines of Annie’s house, he created the characters of Buster and Virginia, a married sheriff and deputy who work the case of Paul’s disappearance. In the novel, there is only a state trooper who shows up at one point to look for Paul. One of the biggest differences — though not really too big — is the punishment Annie exacts on Paul when she learns he has managed to escape his bedroom and wander the house while she was out. The punishment is essentially the same — she takes his legs out of commission through a process called hobbling. But the method changes. In the novel, armed with a blowtorch and an axe, she chops off his feet. In the movie, she smashes his legs with a sledgehammer. Goldman, in his book Four Screenplays, writes about first reading Misery and his reaction to the hobbling. “I could not fucking believe it. I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie. That scene would linger in audiences’ memories as I knew it would linger in mine.”

Goldman goes on to explain, however, that George Roy Hill, director of The Sting and Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who was set to direct Misery, left the project because he felt chopping Paul’s feet was too extreme. He couldn’t do it. Goldman, convinced that the scene was the key to the whole movie’s success, refused to take it out. Rob Reiner, initially just a producer on the film, stepped in to direct after Hill departed. But everyone connected to the film — other than Goldman — was now having second thoughts about the hobbling scene. Goldman couldn’t believe it, and held fast. He says that Warren Beatty, who was in talks to play Paul, articulated the problem with the scene as King and Goldman had written it. “Beatty’s point was this,” Goldman explains. “He had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles. But know that, if you did it, the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser.” Once a scene like that comes to life from the page, it’s visceral in a different way, and the filmmakers’ fear was that while cutting off Paul’s feet works in the book, movie audiences would reject it. Ultimately, despite Goldman’s vehement protestations, Reiner and co-producer Andrew Scheinman did some script revisions and replaced the hobbling scene of King’s book with the one that made it into the movie. Goldman was livid. He writes:

The lopping scene was gone, now and forever replaced by the ankle-breaking scene. I hated it, but there it was.

I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff, and I know when I am right.

And you know what?

I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie.

What they had done — it was exactly the same scene except for the punishment act — worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Kathy [Bates] and, in time, hated us.

If I had been in charge, Misery would have been this film you might have heard of but would never have gone to see. Because people who had seen it would have told you to ride clear. What makes a movie a hit is not the star and not the advertising but this: word of mouth.

Goldman’s story — and Beatty’s point contained within — gets to one of the main reasons that things often change between page and screen. Readers use their imagination to fill in the details provided by the writer, but once characters and situations come to life and no longer reside in the mind’s eye of the individual, everything from tone to performance can necessitate a change. Alexander Payne’s film version of Perrotta’s novel Election features a different ending than the book, which Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor addressed in a 1999 interview with Scenario Magazine. “We loved that ending in the book, and we shot it and it’s fine,” Payne said. “But the book is more ruminative and quiet and allowed that ending more. The movie came out too funny and too fast-paced and too cynical, and that ending just felt wrong.”

“Which is ironic,” Taylor added, “because the ending is one of the things that I love most about the book and was what convinced me that it was worth making as a movie. Because in spite of all this comedy, there was this beautiful moment of grace at the end…” After the movie was edited and shown to preview audiences, the production company offered Payne and Taylor the chance to come up with a new ending if they wanted, so they took the time to figure out what they would have devised had it been an original script. What they came up with is a perfect fit for the movie they made, and the change speaks to how a story takes on a life of its own when it makes the transition from page to screen.

Scott Frank, the screenwriter behind two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations — Get Shorty and Out of Sight — also speaking to Scenario in 1999, discussed how a character who died in the book Out of Sight remained alive in the movie…though the change came late.

Right up until the very last draft. He was killed in the script, and at the last-minute [producer] Danny DeVito said to me: we just can’t kill this guy. You like the character so much, it’s such a left turn to kill him, given the way the movie’s evolved. It’s also for no reason…It’s one of those things where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it earlier…I just felt that audiences, having invested so much in these people, to get the rug pulled out  from under them was too much. And on-screen, they’re alive in a way that they’re not in the book.

MAKING IT WORK
That last point connects back to what Warren Beatty was trying to say about the Paul Sheldon character in Misery, and why chopping off his feet in the film would have been a mistake. Movies come alive in a way that books do not, and sometimes changes need to be made to compensate for that difference. On the other hand, changes often happen for more mundane and practical reasons involving budget, logic and time constraints. In Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, Inigo and Fezzik must make their way through the Zoo of Death — an underground cavern with multiple levels, each containing some of the world’s most dangerous animals — in order to rescue Westley from Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. But the setting was too elaborate for the film’s budget, so it was replaced with the more modest Pit of Despair. Similarly, Game of Thrones faced budget limitations when realizing the second book/season’s massive Battle of Blackwater, and while they were still able to create a spectacular sequence that had no problem conveying the scope and scale of the clash, fans of the book missed the massive chain which is pulled from the water as a defense against an invading fleet. The effect was simply too expensive to include.

In the same interview with Scenario previously referenced, Out of Sight‘s Scott Frank explained how the need to streamline certain elements of the book for logic’s sake led to some of his decisions in adapting it. Almost all of the main characters in the film serve time together at the same prison, but in reality, given their varied crimes, they would not have been in the same place. “Even though it’s not real, a white-collar criminal wouldn’t have been in jail with those guys. But I thought there were too many different prisons in the story, and people were in prison at different times. It was hard for me to keep it straight, in the book. I thought the only thing to do was to visually see them there, in one prison, all together.”

Then there’s the issue of time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J.K. Rowling’s series, spends a great deal of time examining Dumbledore’s past and how it impacts Harry’s current mission. Yet even with the novel translated across two movies, not all of that history and backstory could be covered, partly for time reasons and partly because it’s material that Harry is wrestling with internally. The flow of the movie would be interrupted if we kept flashing back to a younger Dumbledore as a way to include what seemed like crucial intel, not to mention that in doing that, we would lose the filter of Harry’s perspective on his mentor. So instead, screenwriter Steve Kloves — with one simple line of dialogue from Harry — erased the need for all of that. One character challenges Harry to confront all the ways in which Dumbledore may have failed him and all the secrets he kept from him. Harry responds, “I trust the man I knew.” That’s it. Harry can move forward toward accomplishing his goal, and the film is freed from having to address chapters worth of material that would not necessarily work on film. There is a cost to this, of course. We wind up with a less intriguing, less enjoyably complex story than what Rowling offers on the page. But the movie can forge ahead with thrills and pleasures of its own, and the books are there for our enjoyment anytime we want to dig deeper.

Logic and time tend to be the primary concerns that necessitate streamlining a novel into a movie. Screenwriters often talk about finding the central idea or theme around which the movie version of the story can be built, and how that often boils down to their own interpretation. In his Scenario interview, Scott Frank explained this as it pertained to Get Shorty and Out of Sight:

I think that the key to any adaptation is to find out what the running theme of the book is. The thing with [Elmore] Leonard’s books, and the challenge of adapting them, is that it’s all so delicious. When you begin the process, you just love everything you read. It’s so much fun that you want to keep it all in the film. So you need some sort of template, and the only template you’ve got is: what does this mean to me? If you’re just trying to preserve the book, you get a real flat version for the movie. So you have to filter it through your own point of view and make it your own, to some degree; otherwise it has no shape. My first pass with his books has always produced long drafts. I would begin with a 180-or-so-page-long draft, where I would have virtually everything that’s in the book, in the script.

So you find out what the book is about for you. Everything else has to fall away. In Get Shorty, it was the idea of everyone coming to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves. This is a city of reinvention. Whether you’re a waiter who wants to be an actor, or a writer who wants to be a director, or, in the case of Get Shorty, a coke dealer who wants to be a producer. It’s about how people are constantly looking at themselves as something other than who they are. So it’s very simple — anything that isn’t about that idea just falls away. In the case of Out of Sight it was about a road not taken. It was about a guy who thought: what if I hadn’t been a bank robber? I could be with a woman like this, I could have that kind of life…In adapting the novel, anything that was not about “the road not taken” fell away.

This approach will often eliminate parts of a book that readers might love — Peter Jackson’s Frodo-centric approach to The Fellowship of the Ring meant that fan favorite character Tom Bombadil had to be jettisoned — but asking people to sit down and watch a story unspool on a screen is not the same as asking them to read it at their own pace. Onscreen tellings require a forward momentum; the page can take its time.

PROSE AND CONS
There are two things books can do that screen adaptations will never replicate: they can take you inside the head and the thought-process of a character (something no amount of voiceover narration, however skillfully deployed, can truly match), and they can revel in the power of the written word. If a novel is wonderfully written, that particular characteristic can not be translated to the screen. Not that people don’t try. Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, explained that he and his writing staff would sometimes repurpose Thomas Harris’ prose as dialogue. “We put it in actors’ mouths because it was so beautifully written and we wanted the DNA of Thomas Harris to be present in all of the episodes…The text and the fetishization of the text was really all about the want to honor Thomas Harris in this adaptation.” Still, good writing itself logically can’t make the jump from page to screen, a point well made by essayist Calum March in a 2013 Paris Review piece about an attempt to bring J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise to the screen (an attempt which was just realized this year). He uses some brief examples from the book to illustrate how certain things Ballard is able to convey with words do not have an equivalent in the language of cinema. Yet just because stirring prose can’t be replicated onscreen doesn’t mean there can not still be value in an adaptation of the material. Several of Ballard’s works have been brought to the screen, the most notable examples being Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s Crash, both of which succeeded on their own merits, whatever may have been — as Marsh titled his essay — lost in translation. Marsh humorously contrasts his Ballard examples with excerpts from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, where the writing is flat and descriptive, leaving the filmmakers to do little other than cast appropriate actors and follow the direction of the action.

Seeing as the pleasure of exquisite writing is nearly impossible to carry over in adapting a book to the screen, filmmakers who adapt books are likely responding to a great story that they want to see brought to life. Studio executives vying for the rights to the Harry Potter series probably saw dollar signs, but producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus were surely drawn to Rowling’s story and its cinematic possibilities. Or perhaps the response is to a great character, above all. In discussing Appaloosa on film critic Elvis Mitchell’s podcast The Treatment, Ed Harris — who directed, co-wrote and starred in the 2008 Western — said that he had brought Robert B. Parker’s book on a family vacation for some pleasure reading, and asked his agent to inquire about the rights after reading only a few scenes, so taken was he by the easygoing friendship between the two main characters. He also estimates that 85% of the dialogue in the movie came right out of the book. (It’s certainly easier to carry that from book to film than it is the kind of descriptive writing that March examines in his Ballard essay.)

Conversely, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen — also on The Treatment — talked about the need to eliminate much of the dialogue when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, particularly for the character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh doesn’t say much in the movie, whereas in the book he speaks quite a bit. But Joel points out that McCarthy offers little-to-no physical description of the character on the page, which creates a sense of mystery to him. Once an actor is cast, that mystery goes away. In order to preserve the character’s enigmatic nature for the film, the Coens stripped away much of his dialogue, allowing his ghoulish physicality to accomplish on-screen what his dialogue did on the page. (Give the full half-hour interview a listen for some terrific insight on the process of adapting McCarthy’s book.) This is also a reminder that we don’t have to make a choice between the book and the film. Chances are the two will be different enough to offer distinct rewards. Here, we have one character — Anton Chigurh — made equally yet uniquely compelling in the hands of two different storytellers in two different mediums.

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE
In my college screenwriting class, our professor had us examine the adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player. We started by reading the book, then read the screenplay which Tolkin wrote, then watched Robert Altman’s film. It was the traditional way to experience the adaptation trajectory. I had already seen (and loved) The Player, however, so as I read the book, the movie was in my head. It was not the first time I’d read a book after seeing the movie it became, but it was the first time I realized doing it this way might well be the key to loosening up about books making the jump to the screen. This isn’t the order in which it’s usually done, and it’s an unrealistic scenario for the avid reader who is likely to have finished a book long before its movie comes out; maybe long before they know it’s even going to be a movie. But for those of us who move more slowly, and who might be inspired to finally pick up a book they’ve heard good things about because they know the movie is coming and they want to read the book beforehand, I would suggest trying it the other way around. When you read a book after seeing the movie, the story opens up instead of closing in. Movies are a purer distillation of story/plot and character arc, where a book allows you to swim in the details…and as March would point out in the case of something like High-Rise, enjoy high-quality writing. Even though you’ll still see the story unfold differently, somehow it doesn’t seem so problematic when things are expanding rather than contracting. We tend to be unforgiving toward the movie when it veers from the source material, yet when we go from screen to page, those same alterations are more easily accepted. The differences make the book seem more like an interesting alternative than a bastardization.

Admittedly, this approach has its downsides. What if you don’t like the movie? Are you going to invest the time to read the book — which you might find more enjoyable — if the movie didn’t satisfy you? More significantly, reading the book after seeing the movie undoubtedly robs you of the imagination you bring to the experience. I tried to read The Shining years ago, but Jack Nicholson’s performance from the movie loomed large in my mind. Knowing that Stephen King’s book was quite different from Kubrick’s film — and that one of King’s chief complaints about the adaptation is that Nicholson seemed off-kilter from the get-go, whereas the character was supposed to be a decent man who succumbs to the hotel’s forces — the vision of Nicholson became distracting, so I put the book aside. For many active readers, the great pleasure of sitting down with a book is conjuring the world and the characters in their own imagination. If you read the book after seeing the movie, you’re sacrificing some, if not all, of that experience, and that’s understandably too big a price to pay for someone who loves to read.

I’ve never pictured deeply detailed images of characters while reading, so this is generally less of an issue for me. Being a movie person, my imagination more often manifests by casting the book in my head. Even at age 15 or so, while reading Jurassic Park (I don’t remember if I knew it was movie-bound when I read it), I was assigning actors to the parts. For what it’s worth, my Jurassic Park featured Nick Nolte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Silver, John Heard, Hume Cronyn and Mercedes Ruehl. (Such a movie nerd. Seriously, how many 15 year-olds knew John Heard, Ron Silver or Hume Cronyn by name?) The screen first/book second formula has generally worked for me, and I’ve been championing it ever since that experience with The Player.

In fact, my first encounter with the differences between books and movies also came about in this manner, and it happens to connect with another central concern Mr. Culp’s blog post expressed, which is the idea that kids in particular might be less inclined to read if watching the film is an alternative. But I think his fears for that demographic are unfounded. There are such omnipresent efforts to promote literacy and reading amongst children — campaigns conducted through schools, daycare, and libraries — that when kids have the opportunity and ability to read, they appear to do so with great enthusiasm. When I was in third or fourth grade, the class was assigned a book report, and I decided to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I chose it because I loved the movie, The Secret of NIMH, and was curious about the book. What I found in the pages of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel was a story vastly different from that of the film. Characters from the movie were portrayed differently in the book, events were different, entire elements were missing…and none of this bothered me. On the contrary, those differences fascinated me.

 

LOOSELY ADAPTED
That brings up another important point to remember when considering adaptations, which is that plenty of movies adapted from novels are barely adaptations at all, but rather nearly original concepts that are only loosely tied to or inspired by their source material. I encountered an excellent example of this around age 11, courtesy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was another movie I loved enough to eagerly seek out the novel from which it was adapted, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary K. Wolf. I was surprised to discover that the book told an entirely different story in which not even the concept was the same. The cartoon characters of the movie were, in the book, stars of comic strips. When they opened their mouths to speak, a word balloon would rise above them; their words had to be read, not heard. All the book and the movie have in common are characters named Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant and Baby Herman. Nothing more. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, for all intents and purposes, an original screenplay.

The same is true of the Jason Bourne series. Although each of the existing films does take its name from one of Robert Ludlum’s novels, there is almost zero connection between the books and the films. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all four films in the series prior to this summer’s Jason Bourne, had this to say on The Treatment in 2007, after the release of The Bourne Ultimatum: “The first 15 minutes of the first film is sort of around the book, until you get to a safe deposit box in Switzerland. And after that, it has nothing to do with anything, anything to do with Ludlum. So once we’d finished the first film, no one ever thought that there would be a sequel…there was no intention of having it go forward, and by that point we were so far afield of the whole cosmology of what the books were about, there was no relationship whatsoever. So it’s pretty much original material all the way on out.”

Variety recently published a 10th anniversary retrospective on the making of The Devil Wears Prada, which details that Fox 2000 bought the rights to Laura Weisberger’s book before it was published, based on the first 100 pages of the manuscript as well as an outline of the full story. It’s not at all uncommon for studios or individual filmmakers to purchase the rights to a book before it hits shelves, but in the case of Prada, the adaptation process began particularly early, before Weisberger had even finished writing. Once it was released and became a bestseller, more details from the book’s plot were worked into the script. Yet the movie still shifted direction from the book, which is a revenge fantasy about a put-upon assistant striking back against her oppressive boss. Fox eventually hired David Frankel to direct the movie, partly because they were impressed with his idea that the material should be less about retribution and more about the sacrifices made by the women working at the story’s iconic fashion magazine. Frankel and Fox brought in Aline Brosh McKenna to write a new draft of the script, and the result is a movie that tells Weisberger’s story filtered and reshaped through the vision of the filmmakers. It goes back to what Scott Frank (and so many other screenwriters) say about determining their own take on the story. In the case of The Devil Wears Prada, it was less about finding the book’s through line than it was looking at the story from another angle, but the adaptation process follows the same course either way. The filmmakers have a strong response to the material and a desire to see it brought to life, but need to find a way for that material to work cinematically while perhaps also integrating their own ideas. (In a post a few years ago, I brought up a book called The Manikin, and how I think it could be a terrific movie even though I would make a couple of significant changes in order to deal with plot developments that I found hard to believe.)

Stories like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games are very specific narratives that are obviously going to result in reasonably faithful adaptations that translate the original story for the screen, but many movies use their source material as a mere inspiration or jumping off point for something almost entirely new. Examples like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Bourne movies demonstrate that this can work out perfectly well.

BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT
For anyone who likes to read and watch movies, and finds this topic at all interesting, the best examination of the adaptation process may be John Irving’s memoir, My Movie Business. Irving’s books have been adapted into the films The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Door in the Floor, Simon Birch and The Cider House Rules. That last title is the focus of My Movie Business. It’s the only one of his novels that Irving adapted for the screen himself, and in My Movie Business he delves into the experience of translating the book over the course of a decade, as it evolved dramatically each time a new director came onto the project. At 170 pages, it’s a slender volume that serves as a quick read and an indispensable glimpse into the art of adaptation. Irving also talks a lot about the genesis of Cider House the novel, because it was a personal story inspired by the work of his grandfather, and therefore his investment in the material and his feeling about what was lost and changed in reshaping it for the screen took on additional significance and informed his thoughts on how it was brought to the screen.

Interestingly, Irving says that of the four major iterations the story went through during years of development, his favorite was the one that strayed furthest from his novel. When the director he was working with at the time would propose changes, he was rarely open to them at first. But he always came around to trying them, and often found that the story and the characters became stronger. The movie that eventually got made more closely resembled the novel, and Irving admits that he loves the finished film, but he was ready to take it in another direction. If the guy who wrote the book was open to radically changing it, can’t we the readers be more open to the idea?

Look, I’ll be the first to say that Hollywood is sorely in need of more original stories. But I’m much less turned off by a movie or show based on a book than I am by remakes, reboots, reimaginings and sequels. There are good examples in all of those categories, but the bad and unnecessary far outweigh the good and worthwhile. The translation of a book into a movie doesn’t strike me as nearly the bankruptcy of creativity as launching the third iteration of Spider-Man in a decade, or continuing to churn out Transformers movies, which somehow keep making millions of dollars even though no one seems to like them.

So as far as I’m concerned, books are fair game. I want them to be adapted with thought and care, but I try to be understanding about the necessary changes that will allow them to work onscreen. Adaptations are always going to involve loss. It’s unavoidable, and that’s a starting point we have to accept. To those like Mr. Culp who would say we don’t need to start in the first place, I’d counter that something new and uniquely enthralling can be born out of the disassembly and reconstruction that goes into adapting a book for the screen. A book and its filmed adaptation can both be terrific despite their inevitable differences. Sometimes the book will be better, sometimes the movie or show will be better, and sometimes they’ll both be pretty damn good. Just because a novel has the luxury of diving into details that wouldn’t work for a movie, or is written with a flair for description or language that can not be re-created on film, that doesn’t mean the movie is an inferior method of delivering the same story. The movie version might offer indelible performances, a breathtaking visual realization, or a soaring music score. Instead of automatically proclaiming that the book is always better, you need to shift your expectations. Adjust your perspective. Open yourselves up to the new interpretation that doesn’t replace, but rather compliments, the source material. To the book people among us: you need to adapt. Admit it: the world is a better place with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins…

May 7, 2016

20 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2016

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 10:00 am
Tags: , ,

Yes, I realize that we’re more than a third of the way through the year and that this annual post might seem pointless by now, but there are probably only three movies released up to this point that would have made the cut, and one of those — the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! — would already have hit theaters even by my usual March, post-Oscars timeframe. So I say this is fair game…and since this is my blog, what I say goes. Truth is, I’m not hugely excited about this year’s offerings, so it took a while for motivation to strike. But there are always movies to look forward to, so the inevitable surprises notwithstanding, here are 20 still to come this year that have my interest piqued.

20.
THE BOOK OF HENRY

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Greg Hurwitz
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Bobby Moynihan, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, Jacob Tremblay, Maddie Ziegler
Release Date: TBD

Colin Trevorrow made his feature directorial debut with the indie dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed, before being snagged by the studio system — like so many indie directors before him — to make the massive budgeted Jurassic World. His success on that monster hit led to his selection as director of Star Wars Episode IX. The jury’s still out on whether he deserved that golden ticket or not, but we may get some more clarity on the issue when he delivers this scaled-down story about…I don’t know really. There’s not a lot of information out there yet about the movie, including whether it’s a comedy or a drama or something in between. It makes my list based on my curiosity about Trevorrow, and because it features two of the best child actors working today: Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special, Masters of Sex) and Tremblay (Room, this adorable Instagram feed).

19.
LA LA LAND

Director/Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock
Release Date: December 2

Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough movie Whiplash was set in the world of music. For his follow-up, he’s doubling down by going full-on musical. At one time set to feature Emma Watson and Chazelle’s Whiplash star Miles Teller, the movie instead came together with Stone and Gosling, collaborating for the third time after Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. They play Mia and Sebastian, an actress and jazz pianist, respectively, who fall in love while trying to pursue their dreams of artistic success. Chazelle has spoken of the film as being a heart-on-its-sleeve love letter to Los Angeles and all the regular people therein, struggling to make it big without losing themselves along the way. The songs are, I believe, originals, though I can’t seem to find confirmation of that anywhere. Regardless, original, modern-day musicals are a big creative swing, and there’s no way to know yet if Chazelle’s will emulate Woody Allen’s charming Everyone Says I Love You or James L. Brooks’ disastrous I’ll Do Anything. It’s a dicey proposition, but Whiplash definitely earns Chazelle the benefit of the doubt.

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18.
ALLIED

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Jared Harris
Release Date: November 23

Not much to say about this one yet. My interest stems mainly from the pedigree. I know that it’s set during World War II, and that Pitt plays an intelligence officer who meets Cotillard’s French resistance fighter in North Africa circa 1942. They fall in love, and meet a wacky cartoon rabbit who has invented a time traveling car that whisks them through history, where they interact with presidents and other prominent figures, and influence decades worth of pop culture.

Probably not, but with so little to go on, I’m taking cues from Zemeckis’ resume to fill in the blanks. Kidding aside, a lush period romance set against a dramatic backdrop has its appeals, especially when the central couple are played by actors as watchable as Pitt and Cotillard. And I gotta say, it’s been great to have Zemeckis back in the world of live-action filmmaking. May we never again speak of The Polar Express.

17.
UNTITLED HOWARD HUGHES PROJECT
Director/Writer: Warren Beatty
Cast: Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Lily Collins, Steve Coogan, Chace Crawford, Alden Ehrenreich, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Amy Madigan, Joshua Malina, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen
Release Date: TBD

It’s been 16 years since Warren Beatty made a movie, in front of or behind the camera, which makes this long-in-development project — supposedly due to arrive later this year — a tremendous curiosity. The story concerns an aspiring actress (Collins) who comes to Hollywood and signs a contract under Hughes, where she meets a businessman (Ehrenreich), who is also trying to make a name for himself working for the enigmatic mogul. The two fall in love, but their relationship is complicated by their strict religious upbringings — hers Baptist, his Methodist — and by Hughes’ rules about dating amongst his employees, as well his own direct meddling in their affairs.

Beatty, never known for doing anything quickly, has been trying to make a movie about Hughes for roughly 40 years, and his take has apparently evolved significantly over time from more of a direct biopic to the current incarnation in which Hughes is not the central figure. The tone has been described as “lighthearted romantic dramedy,” and beyond that, the project remains cloaked in mystery. The story sounds charming, and ripe for some classical screwball comedy, if that’s the direction it goes, but it doesn’t seem like anything to generate significant excitement on its own. However, Beatty is a true Hollywood legend, one of the last we still have, so his return to action after such a long hiatus can’t help but generate high hopes.

16.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Deirdre Lovejoy, Steve Martin, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben Platt, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker
Release Date: November 11

Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar-winning screenwriter adapts the celebrated 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, about a group of Iraq war soldiers on a victory tour, and their stop at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Thanksgiving Day, where the jarring experience of celebration clashes with soldier Billy Lynn’s memories of the operation that earned him and his company war hero status. That general story recalls Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Iwo Jima drama Flags of Our Fathers, but if the plot sounds familiar, the filmmaking technique promises something new. Lee is shooting the movie in 3D and at a whopping 120 frames per second (fps). Every movie you’ve ever seen has been shot at the universal standard of 24 fps. But filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson believe that higher frame rates offer a more immersive and eye-popping experience. Jackson shot the second and third Hobbit films at 48 fps, and while the results underwhelmed most viewers — they complained that it gave the movies the quality of cheap video — there is still a lot of belief in its potential. In the less fantastical, more realistic setting promised by Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the higher frame rate — combined with the 3D photography and 4K resolution (which produces a sharper image with more detail and deeper blacks) — could work more successfully. The idea is that when these pieces of technology — 3D, 4K and higher frame rates — are used together, they compliment each other and negate the problems that each one has on its own. In the end, it won’t matter to most of us, since very few theaters in the world are even equipped to handle projecting a 3D, 4K movie at 120 fps. So let’s hope the story and the film itself are good. At this point, I’ve learned to never underestimate Ang Lee.

15.
SILENCE

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Jay Cocks
Cast: Tadanobo Asano, Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson
Release Date: TBD

A project that Scorsese has been trying to make for years, Silence is the story of two young Jesuit priests in the 17th century who travel to Japan to search for their missing mentor and spread a little Christianity while they’re at it. They arrive to find Christians are being persecuted, and that the man they seek may have turned away from the faith. Religion has been a consistent theme throughout Scorsese’s work, manifesting in both the gritty urban tales he’s most closely associated with (Mean Streets, Bringing Out the Dead, The Departed) and period dramas like this one that address the topic head-on (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun). I can’t say this story sounds riveting on paper, but Scorsese remains a bold and vital master filmmaker well into his fifth decade working in the medium. Whatever he’s doing demands attention.

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14.
JASON BOURNE
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Cast: Matt Damon, Riz Ahmed, Vincent Cassel, Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Stiles, Alicia Vikander
Release Date: July 29

After four films, the Bourne formula has become familiar, but the James Bond series is no less formulaic, and that franchise continues to thrive in its sixth decade, so if the movies still deliver the goods, I’m game for more. After the thrilling third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon and director Greengrass walked away from the series, unable to settle on a satisfying story. Undeterred, Universal Studios moved forward with The Bourne Legacy, which cast Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton in a story about another agent in a highly secretive government program with ties to Bourne’s, and which depicted events that unfolded parallel to those of Ultimatum. And like its three predecessors, it was pretty great.

Jason Bourne was a character trying to put together the lost pieces of his adult life, and he finally did that in his last outing, so where does the character go from there? Greengrass developed the new story with Christopher Rouse, the film editor who won an Oscar for his work on Ultimatum, and the director’s interest in the post 9/11 political landscape has provided these movies a depth and intelligence to go with the relentlessly paced action. The government conspiracy angle in which this series is steeped is always rife for further exploration, and the role of Bourne has been a great fit for Damon from the beginning. Let’s hope they can keep their streak going.

13.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Jane Goldman
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Judi Dench, Kim Dickens, Rupert Everett, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Stamp
Release Date: December 25

There’s been little consistency to the quality of Tim Burton’s films over the past several years, unless we’re talking about the quality of the production design and overall look of his films, which is seldom unimpressive. Early word is that his latest is another triumph on that score. Whether it succeeds beyond that remains to be seen, but I’m always looking for Burton to recapture that combination of humor, heart and the macabre that permeates his early career. The potential is there with this adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel, a rapturously reviewed best-selling book that was notable for including interspersed black and white photos of creepy, old-timey kids. No wonder a visualist like Burton was drawn to the material. It should be interesting to see how he spins the tale from page to screen, and how this eclectic cast fits into the milieu.

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12.
PASSENGERS

Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Sheen
Release Date: December 21

The Academy Award nominated director of The Imitation Game heads to deep space with two of the most charismatic movie stars working today. Katniss and Star Lord play passengers aboard a massive freighter carrying thousands of people to a colony planet that will take 120 years to reach from Earth. A malfunction in their hibernation chambers wakes the duo up decades before they reach their destination. It’s a great set-up; what happens from there, I don’t know. Is it a creepy sci-fi thriller in which strange things are happening aboard the ship? Is it romantic drama about how these two people deal with their isolation over the course of a lifetime that will likely end before they arrive at the colony? Is it a slapstick comedy about a couple of goofballs who have to save the ship from an invading alien force? Until a trailer arrives, it’s anyone’s guess.

11.
THE NEON DEMON
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws
Cast: Elle Fanning, Desmond Harrington, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Alessandro Nivola, Keanu Reeves
Release Date: June 24

Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish filmmaker who brought a stylish aesthetic and Lynchian atmosphere to the 2011 Ryan Gosling crime drama Drive, comes back to L.A. for the story of an up-and-coming model whose youth and beauty are targeted by a group of envious women. The trailer teases a psychological thriller with arresting visuals and a throbbing pulse of danger, though I’m not sure I’m buying Elle Fanning in the central role. There’s not much to go on yet, so I’ll see what she and Refn have in store. It could be an exciting, against-the-grain piece of casting…or a total misfire. Either way, the movie sure looks pretty.

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10.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
Director/Writer: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Release Date: September 2

Derek Cianfrance only has a few narrative movies under his belt, but all of them are wrenching, contemporary stories of complicated romantic and/or familial relationships that face disintegration. So get ready for what’s sure to be one of the feel good movies of the year! An adaptation of the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, Fassbender plays a lighthouse keeper in Australia whose wife (newly crowned Oscar winner Vikander) has been unable to have children. When a rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead man and a living baby, the wife insists that they keep the child…and hilarity ensues! Or a tragedy of Greek proportions. I’m definitely betting on one of those two.

9.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Director/Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges
Release Date: November 18

One of the standouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Manchester By the Sea was picked up for distribution by Amazon Studios, which won a bidding war and will give it a theatrical release before it finds a home on the streaming service. Word out of the festival is that this could be a big player in next year’s awards season, buoyed by stirring work from past nominees Affleck and Williams, and Emmy winner Chandler. Set in the small Massachusetts coastal town that gives the movie its title, the story follows a man who takes on the responsibility of caring for his nephew after his brother’s death. I avoided reading the unfailingly stellar reviews, but gleaned that the movie is deeply affecting, powerful and leaves a lasting impression. It will be nice to see Lonergan — best known for his stage work — regain his cinematic footing after the the ill-fated, ambitious but maddening Anna Paquin-led Margaret. Man, was that movie a mess. But this is the guy who made You Can Count On Me, so..fingers crossed for something closer to that.

8.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Director/Writer: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Roger Guenveur Smith, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Dwight Henry, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
Release Date: October 7

Nate Parker is an actor who has impressed me in under-the-radar dramas Arbitrage, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Beyond the Lights, but he has his sights set on bigger things. The actor has worked for years to pull together financing for a dream project about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a violent rebellion against white slave owners in 1831. The film was was ecstatically received at Sundance, where it won the Dramatic category’s Audience Award and Grand Jury prize, and sold for a record-breaking figure to Fox Searchlight, the same studio that guided 12 Years a Slave to a Best Picture win in 2013. The Birth of a Nation hit the festival just as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was exploding, and speculation was already rampant that come next year’s awards, Parker and his movie would be in the thick of the race, bringing some much needed color back to the proceedings.

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7.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Director/Writer: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kim Basinger, Kristen Bauer van Straten, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Release Date: TBD

In 2009, fashion designer Tom Ford moved into filmmaking with A Single Man, starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicolas Hoult. It was no surprise that his eye for great design translated to the screen, but he proved a natural director right out of the gate, demonstrating an ability to tell a story cinematically and draw strong work from actors. Ford has taken his time landing on a follow-up, which suggests that his interest is filmmaking is driven by producing material that truly speaks to him. That bodes well for Nocturnal Animals, based on a 1993 novel by Austin Wright, which offers a compelling premise: years after their divorce, a woman receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, accompanied by a letter requesting that she read the book and offer her feedback. What unfolds from there is both the story of the novel — a family vacation that takes a violent turn — and the story of the woman, now remarried, as she re-examines the relationship with her ex-husband and where her life has gone since. I tend to enjoy the story-within-a-story structure we’re in store for here, and I’m genuinely excited to see Ford’s sophomore effort, backed by this excellent cast.

6.
STORY OF YOUR LIFE

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker
Release Date: TBD

In this grounded sci-fi story, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is recruited by the military to determine whether alien spaceships that have appeared across the planet have come in peace or hostility. The premise sounds intriguing, but the main attraction for me is French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. With his 2012 kidnapping drama Prisoners and last year’s drug war examination Sicario, Villeneuve has quickly established his expertise at building tension and exercising tight control over every moment of his movies. He continues to fly under the radar, but after these last few films — even the bizarre, uneven Jake Gyllenhaal mystery Enemy achieved an intoxicating, moody atmosphere — he’s due to be recognized for the immense talent that he is. Maybe this will be the movie to bring him into the light of wider recognition. And if not, well, there’s always the Blade Runner sequel he’s gearing up to shoot.

5.
THE NICE GUYS

Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Hannibal Buress, Keith David, Margaret Qualley, Ty Simpkins
Release Date: May 20

Shane Black began his career as one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, who practically pioneered the action-comedy genre as we know it today, through films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. He transitioned into directing a decade ago with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a boisterous crime/mystery/comedy that paired Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer to pitch perfect effect, and marked an auspicious beginning to the post-rehab phase of Downey’s career. The actor even got Black to direct Iron Man 3, which had its merits but was definitely unfamiliar territory. Based on the trailers for The Nice Guys, he appears to be back doing what he does best: blending violent action and fast-paced comedy in a crime-mystery that brings together two great actors who instantly demonstrate an easy, natural chemistry. Gosling looks so goddamn funny in this thing I can hardly wait to see it.

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4.
LIVE BY NIGHT
Director/Writer: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Max Casella, Chris Cooper, Scott Eastwood, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Titus Welliver
Release Date: TBD

Ben Affleck’s foray into the DC Comics universe delayed his directorial follow-up to Argo, which was supposed to come out this year or even last year, only to be pushed to October 2017. But test screenings for the movie are said to have begun, and my reliable sources placed high atop the Hollywood food chain tell me that Affleck is hoping to get the movie out this year, likely in December. We’ll see if he makes it. The Prohibition era crime drama set in Boston and Florida is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who has been pretty well served by Hollywood to date. Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Drop, and Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone are all based on Lehane books, and all are pretty good, at least. Given Affleck’s skill behind the camera, there’s no reason to think both his and Lehane’s track records won’t continue here.

3.
THE FOUNDER

Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch, B.J. Novak, Nick Offerman, Patrick Wilson
Release Date: August 5

Set in the 1950’s, Michael Keaton will portray Ray Kroc, the salesman whose milkshake machine led him to a small, successful chain of hamburger restaurants started by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald. Impressed, and seeing potential for something much bigger than the brothers had in mind, Kroc went to work for them and grew the business into the billion-dollar, billion-served ubiquitous behemoth it is today. But the growth came with drama behind the scenes, as Kroc’s aggressive style and lofty ambitions clashed with the brothers’ more humble goals for their operation.

When the movie went into production, I heard it described as being in the vein of The Social Network and There Will Be Blood. Those are two stirling touchstones to aim for, but let’s be clear: director John Lee Hancock, who helmed The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, doesn’t have it in him to make anything as idiosyncratic as There Will Be Blood, nor as blistering as The Social Network. But a script by Robert Siegel — who wrote The Wrestler — is a good start, and more than anything really, I’m just looking for another great role for Keaton. The beloved actor is flying high these days, having starred in the last two Oscar winners for Best Picture. Hopefully The Founder will put him back in the hunt himself, after he came up short for Birdman. Master awards strategist Harvey Weinstein is releasing the movie, so you can bet he’ll push hard for Keaton.

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2.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman, Alison Sudol, Jon Voight, Katherine Waterston
Release Date: November 18

This return to the world of Harry Potter doesn’t really have anything to do with Harry Potter, as it takes place 70 years before the birth of The Boy Who Lived. The focus of this story — the first in a trilogy — is Newt Scamander, an expert in magical creatures (and author of a book on the subject that was among Harry and company’s Hogwarts texts), who runs into trouble during a visit to New York City when some of his specimans escape. Fantastic Beasts existed as a slender volume Rowling published during the Potter years, as if it were a copy of Harry’s textbook. Now, she expands the story, but whereas all the Potter books were adapted for film by other screenwriters, here Rowling makes the leap herself. This is her first foray into writing directly for the screen, and her direct involvement — the fact that this is all-new material generated by Rowling herself — elevates this to something for all us Potter geeks to be truly excited about. Like all great world builders of fiction — Tolkien, Lucas, Martin — Rowling knows every inch of her universe, having developed detailed backstories for every character, creature, event and location. To see her dip back into this beloved world and transpose it to the screen makes this movie much more than a cash grab for Warner Bros., who were no doubt desperate to remain in the Potter business after the series came to its logical conclusion in 2011. David Yates, who did a mostly admirable job with the last four Potter films, returns to the fold.

1.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen
Release Date: December 16

The first in what might be a never-ending series of spinoff films, Rogue One will depict the Rebel Alliance’s dangerous mission to steal the plans for the Empire’s Death Star. Described by director Edwards (the man behind 2014’s Godzilla) as a war movie, Rogue One — connected to the previous films but outside of its established parameters — will allow for a different tone and feel than we’ve seen in any previous Star Wars movie. That’s an intriguing opportunity, and we can only hope that after the success of The Force Awakens and its revival of this beloved series, this new offshoot will stand on its own while earning the right to call itself a Star Wars story. If the teaser trailer is any indication, we have nothing to worry about.

 

 

April 24, 2016

Game Without Frontiers

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 2:00 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, fly away to safety like Drogon flew from the Sons of the Harpy.

The arrival of every new Game of Thrones season is highly anticipated, but my guess is that none of have been more eagerly awaited than tonight’s kick-off of Season Six, thanks to the downer of a cliffhanger we were left with last June: the death of Jon Snow. In the 10 months that have elapsed, speculation of Jon’s fate has been a constant presence on the internet. I don’t think a single day went by in all that time when I didn’t see something about it online. So this premiere should bring with it an especially acute wave of relief. And lest we forget about all the other big developments awaiting resolution — or at least exciting continuation — here’s my annual stroll down memory lane to catch us up on where things stood when last we danced with the dragons.

Many characters were in particularly interesting places last time we saw them, beginning of course with Jon Snow. He was dead. That’s pretty interesting. He was murdered by a band of Night’s Watch brothers that included his nemesis Ser Alliser Thorne and his squire Olly, for what they deemed the betrayal of making peace with the wildlings and allowing them to pass through Castle Black into Westeros. He wasn’t inspired by generosity, of course, but rather the recognition that only by fighting alongside the wildlings would they stand any chance against the growing army of White Walkers — a lesson crystallized when the Walkers attacked the wildling base at Hardhome and added huge numbers to their Army of the Dead.

Still in the North, but a bit further south, Stannis Baratheon is also dead, having met his end after a series of bad luck and bad decisions. Challenging weather conditions, along with a calculated strike on Stannis’ camp by Ramsay Bolton and a small group of his men, left Stannis significantly handicapped in his mission to defeat the Boltons at Winterfell. At Melisandre’s convincing, he made the harrowing decision to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light, burning her at the stake in front of his full army. Although the weather turned more cooperative after this, Stannis’ wife Selyse hung herself, and half of his army abandoned him, taking all the horses with them. Stunned by this turn of events that contradicted her supposed visions, Melisandre quietly slipped away. Stannis pressed on all the same, but his reduced army was roundly defeated outside Winterfell by Team Bolton. Badly wounded, Stannis himself was killed not by Ramsay or his men, but by Brienne, who had long awaited her moment of vengeance for Stannis’ murder of Renly.

Brienne had been just outside Winterfell, keeping watch on the highest tower for a lit candle in the window — a sign that Sansa needed help. Moments after Brienne learned that Stannis was approaching Winterfell and went off to find him, that candle was finally lit. On her way back to her room, Sansa encountered Theon, along with Ramsay’s paramour Myranda, who nearly shot an arrow into her until Theon finally stepped up and shoved her ass over the balcony wall. Myranda plunged to her death in the courtyard below, just as Ramsay and his men were returning from their victory against Stannis. With the die cast, Theon and Sansa jumped over the outer battlement to escape…though it looked like a deadly jump.

Further south still, the power structure in King’s Landing had been turned upside down. Cersei mobilized an order of religious fanatics known as the Faith Militant and granted power to their leader, the soft-spoken, seemingly incorruptible High Sparrow, hoping she could use them to deal with her enemies. It worked for a while; she managed to get both Loras and Margaery thrown in jail, where they remain as they await trial for their sins — Loras for engaging in intimate acts with men and lying about it at a hearing before the Gods, and Margaery for lying about her knowledge of his behavior. But a similar fate awaited Cersei, when confessions to the High Sparrow by her cousin Lancel — now a Brother in the Militant — implicated her in murder, incest and adultery. King Tommen, kind but weak, proved ineffectual against the Faith Militant and withdrew to his chambers after the arrests of his wife and his mother. Cersei finally confessed to incest, but denied the other charges against her, including sleeping with Jaime. (She admitted only to bedding Lancel.) The High Sparrow allowed her to return to the Red Keep while she awaited trial, but as her atonement, she had to walk there from the Sept of Baelor, naked, through streets packed with less-than-admiring citizens. Upon her arrival back at the Keep, she was greeted by her uncle Kevan, Maester Pycelle and Qyburn, who covered her with a blanket and introduced her to The Mountain 2.0, disguised as a member of the Kingsguard. As the hulking zombie carried her off for cleaning and treatment, Cersei’s expression hardened into what could only be described as Sweet Vengeance Will Be Mine, Motherfuckers.

Sadly — or not, depending on your feelings for her — things are going to get worse for Cersei before they get better. Jaime is on his way back from Dorne, but Myrcella is dead, victim of a poisoned kiss by another vengeance-minded lady of power, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand. Accompanied by Bronn, Jaime had gone to Dorne to save Myrcella after a threat on her life was sent to Cersei. Doran Martell, Oberyn’s brother and the ruler of Dorne, had no intention of going to war with the Lannisters, and struck a peaceful resolution with Jaime that would see his son Trystane — Myrcella’s intended — return to King’s Landing with her and take a place on the Small Council. When Cersei learns that Myrcella is dead, Doran’s intentions may well be rendered moot.

Across the Narrow Sea, on the continent of Essos, the third Lannister child has been tasked with keeping the peace in the divided city of Meereen. Tyrion was accepted into Daenarys’ circle of advisors, but they have had little time together so far. At the Great Games of Meereen, the insurgent force known as Sons of the Harpy staged an audacious attack, which Dany escaped by flying away on Drogon. Wounded in the arena attack, the dragon settled down to rest in a patch of rolling green hills far from the desert city. Exploring on her own, Dany encountered a Dothraki Khalasar, and those hardcore warriors weren’t about to let her continue wandering alone and free. Back in Meereen, Daario Naharis took charge, assigning Tyrion to draw on his skills and past experience to govern the city along with Missandei and Grey Worm, who was still recovering from an earlier attack by the Sons of the Harpy that left Barristan Selmy dead. Tyrion has an additional ally as well, now that Varys finally made it to Meereen. Meanwhile, Daario and Jorah — who has been accepted back into Dany’s good faith after saving her life in the arena — set off to find her. Unfortunately, Jorah is now contending with an affliction of Greyscale, which he contracted when he and Tyrion were attacked by Stone Men while passing through the ruined city of Valyria.

For now, Jorah’s condition doesn’t seem much of a hindrance. Doubtful we’ll be able to say the same for Arya, who faces a new handicap of her own. When she discovered that Meryn Trant was in Braavos, she abandoned the mission that had been assigned to her by Jaqen H’ghar and instead tracked the movements of the Gold Cloak who killed her beloved dancing master Syrio Forel. She stole an identity from the Hall of Faces and exacted a brutal revenge killing on Trant. But the cost of her disobedience was the loss her eyesight.

Hmmm…who else? Prior to Jon’s murder, he granted Sam permission to leave Castle Black with Gilly and journey to the Citadel to begin his training as a Maester. But Jon wasn’t completely without friends at this time of his death. Ser Davos had been sent by Stannis to seek supplies from the Night’s Watch, so he is currently at Castle Black, as is Melisandre, who returned there after leaving Stannis to defeat. She took quite the liking to Jon, and she may have the power to bring him back to life.

Last but never least, there’s Littlefinger. The last time we saw him was in King’s Landing, meeting in secret with Lady Olenna Tyrell, with whom he had conspired to kill Joffrey. What exactly he was promising Lady Olenna was not clear. He had met with Cersei earlier, prior to her incarceration, and revealed that Sansa was in Winterfell, about to be married to Ramsay. It’s hard to say at this point whether he has any genuine desire to protect Sansa, after leaving her to be Ramsay’s plaything…though he claimed to not know much about Ramsay, and therefore might not be aware of his psychotic predilections…even if it seems unlikely that anything so significant could elude Littlefinger. Still, I have to assume that revealing Sansa’s location to Cersei and promising to deliver the girl in exchange for being named Warden of the North is yet another example of him playing his own game that isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Oh, and there’s one more story thread yet to be mentioned, but we have to jump back to Season Four to pick it up. That, of course, is Bran. The crippled Stark child, along with his companions Hodor (Hodor) and Meera Reed, finally made it to the Three-Eyed Raven, where apparently he has spent the time covered during Season Five learning how to control and harness his powers. He’ll be back, and hopefully with a big impact on events to come.

LET IT SNOW
Whatever those events are, non-book readers are no longer the only ones in the dark. The show has now caught up with George R.R. Martin’s novels, so we are in completely uncharted territory as Season Six gets underway. Things are said to pick up right where we left off last year, which means Jon Snow is lying in the courtyard of Castle Black in a pool of his own blood. Ever since Season Five ended, the question that’s been asked ad nauseum is if Jon Snow is dead. Which has always been the wrong question. Of course he’s dead! The guy was stabbed in his chest and abdomen six times, and that final blow from Olly was, if not in the heart, pretty damn close. Jon Snow is dead. The question should be, does he stay dead? The season was barely over before Kit Harrington was seen at Wimbledon still sporting his Jon Snow locks and facial hair, and it wasn’t long after that when he was spotted around the Ireland locations where portions of the series shoot. In this day and age, there was little-to-no chance that Harrington could have been on set without evidence getting out, but considering the desire for proof of his return, it’s impressive that no one managed to ever get a shot of him in costume or to provide any concrete, irrefutable proof that he was filming. At this point, we know that he was on set and in costume, if for no other reason than to play Jon’s corpse, which has been seen in trailers for the new season. An article after the recent Season Six premiere event in Hollywood confirmed that Harrington’s name appears in the first episode’s opening credits, though the same was true of Charles Dance and Jack Gleeson — Tywin and Joffrey, respectively — when they appeared as dead bodies in the episodes following the demise of their characters.

In November, HBO made the rare move of unveiling an early teaser poster for the new season, and they put Jon Snow and the question of his survival front and center.

Teaser Poster

 

The network just recently released the log line for the first episode: “Jon Snow is dead. Daenarys meets a strong man. Cersei sees her daughter again.” (Interestingly, the description I see on DirecTV is slightly different; it says, “The fate of Jon Snow is revealed.”) That official word on Jon from HBO sent The Internet into a tizzy, as if the mystery had been addressed at long last. But again, “Is Jon Snow dead?” was never the right question. The question is what happens after he dies? There’s the theory that he turns into one of the White Walker’s wights and joins the Army of the Dead. There’s the theory that he suddenly developed warg-like abilities akin to Bran’s, and that his consciousness was transferred into his direwolf, Ghost. But the prevailing theory — and the most likely and logical — is that he will be restored to life by Melisandre, who will call upon the Lord of Light just as fellow priest Thoros of Myr did the six times he brought Beric Dondarrion back to life. (See my previous Thrones post for clips of one such resurrection, and of Thoros explaining the circumstances of these revivals to Melisandre.)

One thing the latter scene makes clear is that Melisandre has never done this herself, so if she does attempt to revive Jon, it will be a first for her. Assuming she does, will it go smoothly? Her faith is clearly shaken with everything having gone wrong for Stannis. She wasn’t looking like her usual confident self when she returned to Castle Black. Will her more fragile state impact a possible attempt to bring Jon back? Or will she pull it off and be reinvigorated by her success? What are the potential side effects to Jon? Beric stated that each time he’s been brought back, he’s a bit “less” than he was before. Jon could surely be revived once and still be the badass fighter he was, but are there other unknown risks to Melisandre attempting to bring him back to life? Is timing an issue? I’m not sure how long a body can be dead before the Lord of Light can revive it. When we saw Beric Dondarrion cut down by The Hound, Thoros sprang quickly into action to try and bring him back. It doesn’t appear that a potential revival of Jon will happen that fast.

I just hope we know by the hour’s end whether Jon is alive again or not, and that we aren’t left with his possible return still to come in a subsequent episode. The premiere is titled, “The Red Woman,” so we can assume that Melisandre factors in prominently, and the trailers have already suggested that Davos is right up in the thick of this as well. Whatever awaits Jon, it can’t be dragged out too long. The Night’s Watch brothers who stabbed him will surely be looking to handle the body and move on with their business, and they might not be so keen on the continued occupancy of Davos and Melisandre. (Is that why Davos is seen drawing Jon’s sword at the end of the first full trailer?) So I’m highly curious to see what awaits not just Jon, but also Alliser Thorne and Olly. And speaking of Olly, the biggest clue to Jon’s fate may have been out there in the open all this time, teased by the writers in the scene from “Hardhome” when Olly talks to Sam about Jon’s mission to make peace with the wildlings. “Try not to worry, Olly,” Sam says. “I’ve been worrying about Jon for years. He always comes back.”

THE ODD COUPLES
Sansa’s storyline in Season Five was tough to endure. The internet certainly lost its collective shit when Ramsay bent her over and took her on their wedding night. But to be fair, the internet loses its collective shit whenever Taylor Swift makes a veiled allusion to an ex-boyfriend, or the latest in-production comic book movie reveals the design of its hero’s costume. So that’s not the most reliable gauge. (It was legitimately controversial though, with critical reactions coming from more than just angry bloggers. Bryan Cogman, a producer on the show who wrote the episode, addresses it on the DVD commentary.) When Littlefinger first tells her that he’s bringing her to Winterfell to wed Ramsay, she is livid and refuses, but he implores her to see it as an opportunity. “You’ve been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father,” he tells her. “Stop being a bystander, do you hear me? Stop running. There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.” We saw, toward the end of Season Four, how Littlefinger’s cunning was rubbing off on Sansa and how she was starting to show some savvy. She seemed to cross a threshold and was poised to continue down that path, emboldened and clever.

Thing is though, the story didn’t follow through on that. Upon her arrival at Winterfell and her marriage to Ramsay, she became passive again; a victim of the very kind that Littlfefinger said she’d been all along. I suppose she did what she could, trying to light that candle in the tallest tower, which an ally had told her to do if she needed help. But was that really her only card to play? We wanted to see her put Littlefinger’s tutelage to use and take steps to ruin the Boltons. Littlefinger, before returning to King’s Landing after a summon from Cersei, spoke to Sansa in the Winterfell crypts, and told her she could wrap Ramsay around her finger and make him hers, though she said she doesn’t know how to do that. Fair enough. Using her sexuality as weapon, like Melisandre does, probably doesn’t make sense to someone who’s never experienced sex. But Sansa better figure out pretty soon what her way is, because to watch her storyline backslide so jarringly after the progress it seemed to make was a shame. It’s hard to see what there is to be gained, story-wise or character arc-wise, by putting her in this situation. As if things haven’t been bad enough for her, do we really want to see Sansa impregnated by Ramsay, something that’s bound to happen if he’s raping her every night? As I noted in my previous Thrones post — and as Cogman mentions in that DVD commentary — this is not Sansa’s storyline in the books. Ramsay marries Sansa’s childhood friend, and these events play out with her while Sansa remains back in The Eyrie. Knowing this, I assume that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will ultimately bring her story to the same conclusion that George R.R. Martin intends. Benioff and Weiss can kill supporting characters like Mance Rayder and Barristan Selmy who are still alive in the books, but I gotta think that with the main players, they’re going to follow Martin’s lead. So that’s why I ask what is gained by these events. Why is this a good story for Sansa, if Martin is getting her to the same endgame by other, non-rapey means? Let’s hope that Benioff and Weiss’ long-term plan justifies this problematic detour.

As for Ramsay’s part in all of this, even considering what a vicious asshole he is, it doesn’t seem that making life so miserable for her can be good for him. He’s not Warden of the North yet. His father still holds the title, and may have a true born son on the way. Isn’t it in Ramsay’s interest to handle Sansa a little more carefully? Or is he just too much of a raging sadistic psychopath to help himself from torturing her? And why does Roose allow it? He must have some sense of what’s going on, especially if Sansa spends her days locked in her room, and shows up with fresh bruises whenever she is seen outside. Roose is repeatedly chastising Ramsay for his aggressive behavior, and he understands — even if Ramsay doesn’t — how crucial Sansa is to the Bolton’s position in the North. You’d think he would step in and bring Ramsay into line.

The biggest question mark in this thread is Littlefinger. He’s always the biggest question mark, isn’t he? We never really know what angle he’s playing, and that’s never been more true than in this particular scenario. In that Winterfell crypt scene, he says that he’s betting on Stannis to defeat the Boltons. Presumably, the plans he makes from there depend on that outcome. Or do they? He later tells Cersei to let Stannis and the Boltons fight each other, and then to attack whichever one wins. He volunteers the Knights of the Vale as the fighting force, and in return asks to be named Warden of the North if they prove victorious. He also promises to deliver Sansa to Cersei, who still believes her to be a co-conspirator in Joffrey’s death. Later still, in that aforementioned secret meeting with Olenna Tyrell — now at odds with Cersei over the arrests of Loras and Margaery — Littlefinger promises her a gift. “The same kind of gift I gave Cersei,” he says. “A handsome young man.” This was the last we saw of Littlefinger or Lady Olenna for the season. And I have no idea what he’s talking about. What handsome young man? Ramsay? Robyn Arryn, and more accurately the fighting force he now technically commands? Or someone else? The new season’s trailers have offered only glimpses of Littlefinger, in snow-covered forests that suggest he’s back in the North. How will the games he’s playing with the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Boltons and Sansa Stark all pan out?

STATE OF THE UNION
That’s all I have regarding where the story stands. What about where the show stands? For a while now, there’s been no question that the show will conclude before Martin has completed his books, but there was some hope last summer that his sixth book, The Winds of Winter, would make an early 2016 release, in time for fans to catch up before the show returned. But that was not to be, and Martin posted a message about it on his blog in January, explaining earnestly where things stand and apologizing to those disappointed by the slow progress. I felt bad that Martin felt so bad, and that he felt the need not just to update, but to apologize. He began A Song of Ice and Fire years ago, and should be allowed to complete it at his own pace without having to endure the vocal frustrations of fans, most of whom have no idea what it takes to seriously write anything, let alone write an epic tale of a wholly imagined world. Sure, it’s unfortunate that the show will finish before the books, and that Martin will have many of his plot resolutions revealed by Benioff and Weiss before he gets the chance to reveal them in his own way, but as he talks about near the end of his post, he seems to have a good attitude about that, and about the pleasures of both reading a novel and watching its adaptation, no matter the order in which they are consumed. And if Benioff and Weiss are to be believed, the show is going its own way even more now than it already has, and it’s gone its own way quite a bit of late. The two showrunners, along with Martin, all seem in sync that when fans finally do get to read the last two books, there will be plenty of surprises in store that will not have occurred on the show.

Another timing question that has cropped up often in the past couple of years is how much longer the show will air, and sadly, it looks like the end is in sight. Benioff and Weiss recently speculated that after Season Six, there are probably about 13 more hours of story to tell. They concede that nothing is set in stone, and HBO certainly wants to clarify that talks are still ongoing. (The network has already renewed the show for another season.) Thrones always runs 10 episodes per season, but the idea would be that the remaining 13 — if that is indeed the number that sticks — would be told over two shortened runs, with more time being spent on each episode. As Benioff and Weiss explain, at this point the show — already a massive logistical undertaking that films with multiple crews on multiple continents — is more on the scale of a mid-size movie than even a typical high-quality episode of television. The behind-the-scenes scope of the show is daunting, and necessitates that directors helm two consecutive episodes in order for the production to run efficiently. To give a sense of the complexity involved: one of this year’s directors is Jack Bender, whose long list of credits includes being Lost‘s most frequent man behind the camera. This will be Bender’s first experience with Thrones, and his two hours of story required him to be on location for over four months.

But I digress. Whenever the show ends, whenever the books end, the focus for now is on Season Six, which arrives as the reigning Emmy Award winner for Best Drama Series. In fact, the show set a record at last year’s Emmys when it captured 12 awards — the most ever for a drama series in a single year. It nearly swept the main categories in which it was nominated, with wins for Best Directing and Best Writing (both for season finale “Mother’s Mercy”), and a second Best Supporting Actor win for Peter Dinklage. It’s other eight wins came in the Creative Arts categories for achievements such as Production Design, Editing and Casting. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had slightly mixed feelings about the Emmy victories. I’ve been waiting since the beginning for the show to win the top award, and yet I couldn’t help being a little disappointed that when it finally happened, it was for the show’s most problematic season. I loved Season Five overall, but as I detailed in my previous Thrones post, there were a few storylines that stood on shaky ground. I wish the show had triumphed for a year in which, to my mind, no such problems existed. And while it was great to see a win for Best Directing, it was for the wrong episode. How was “Hardhome” — one of the best and most spectacularly directed episodes in the history of the show — not nominated in that category??

But again with the digressing. Back to Season Six. HBO usually sends the first two-to-four episodes of the season to critics in advance so they can write their reviews, but this time, no episodes were provided ahead of time (except to President Obama, apparently.) There was a premiere in Hollywood a few weeks ago, with a large number of the show’s cast members in attendance…but not Kit Harrington. Some members of the press were there as well, and while they all swore not to reveal any details (only the first episode was shown), the reactions were extremely positive, with word circulating that the episode is full of shocks and surprises. The screening was followed by a new trailer showing what’s to come. Among the clip’s most intriguing images are the return of Red Wedding co-orchestrator Walder Frey, not seen since the Season Three aftermath of that slaughter; Podrick being grabbed from behind; several shots of the Night’s King and the White Walkers; and a new Red Priestess visiting Tyrion and Varys in Meereen. (This will be interesting. The usually confident Varys has a look of concern on his face as this new character walks away, and he has previously expressed his loathing for those who practice the sort of dark magic that a servant to the Lord of Light could conjure. See: Melisandre and her crazy, Renly-killing Shadow Baby.)

We also get a quick glimpse of the great Max von Sydow, who joins the cast as Bran’s mentor, the Three-Eyed Raven. I love that von Sydow is joining the show; hopefully he’ll be better utilized than he was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where his brief role in the opening sequence made little use of his talent, presence and all-around awesomeness. (von Sydow was previously heard, but not seen, as the narrator of the season’s first teaser trailer, which highlighted such prominent past incidents as the deaths of Ned, Robb, Joffrey, and Jojen; the massacre at Hardhome; Jaime’s behanding; and perhaps most out of place and therefore most telling (?), Littlefinger kissing Sansa. Past events were also recalled in a subsequent teaser trailer, set in the Hall of Faces.) Other notable actors who will appear this year in undisclosed roles are Ian McShane and Richard E. Grant, and the new characters we’ll meet include Theon’s uncle, Euron Greyjoy, as well as Sam’s entire family. How will the Tarly clan factor into his Citadel storyline, I wonder?

All will be answered soon enough. Need some things to tide you over in these remaining minutes I’ve left you? Here’s something from the special features of Season Four’s DVD: a roundtable conversation with actors whose characters were killed off that year: Pedro Pascal (Oberyn), Charles Dance (Tywin), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), Sibel Kekilli (Shae), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) and Mark Stanley (Grenn).

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If you prefer focusing on beginnings rather than ends, here’s a compilation of moments from the cast’s audition reels. I’d have hired Kristofer Hivju (Tormund) on the spot.

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In this clip, members of the cast try to differentiate between the names of GoT swords and 80’s metal bands. No easy task…

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And here’s another amusing trivia game to test your knowledge of the show. It’s called, “Why is Sansa Frowning?” (To be fair to our put-upon red-headed Stark, those aren’t all frowns…but it’s still a good reminder of things Sansa has gone through.)

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Here’s something crazy: a guy who makes snow art, and offered up this massive salute to the Starks. Must be seen to be believed.

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And finally, in tribute to the character who gives tonight’s episode its title, here’s what happens when Melisandre attends a baby shower.

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With that, there’s nothing left to do but wait for the witching hour. Whatever happens, at least we can be grateful that we no longer have to endure any more questions about whether Jon Snow is dead. Seriously…every day for the last 10 months.

 

February 27, 2016

Oscars 2015: The Envelope Please

As usual, and despite all efforts to do better, I’m once again down to the wire with this post, so there’s no time to waste with lengthy introductions. Let me waste your time with the lengthy play-by-play instead. Away we go…
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BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING
One of Oscar night’s big battles starts in these two categories (well…for our purposes, anyway; it’s not like these will necessarily be the first two awards presented). Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant face each other in 10 categories, and while Phase One of the season suggested that Fury Road would dominate below-the-line, The Revenant‘s emergence as a top-category frontrunner during Phase Two could easily trickle down to these races and shake things up. Poor Tom Hardy isn’t going to know who to root for half the night.

The big question as to whether Fury Road would get those Best Picture and Best Director nominations was partly a question of whether the film was more than just a critic’s darling. Would the industry show it enough love for the conservative-leaning Academy to take the hint? Well…they did. But how far will that extend? As Fury Road faces industry favorite The Revenant in category after category, will it have a chance, or get clobbered by the new kid in town?

As for these two categories, we’re not even talking about a one-on-one bout, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could totally take one or both of these. I think Sound Mixing nominee Sicario and Sound Editing nominee Bridge of Spies are out of the running, but everything else is in play, and where you can sometimes make a pretty strong guess as to which film has the edge when it comes to sound, there is no such clarity here. So for no reason other than having 17 more categories to get through, I’m guessing they’ll split this year: Sound Mixing will go to The Revenant and Sound Editing will go to Fury Road.

Which probably means they’ll both go to Star Wars.

Personal: As usual, I have no real investment in these categories. To the extent that I notice sound work, the only nominee that didn’t make an impression on me in that area is Bridge of Spies. I was probably most affected by the soundscape of Sicario, so I suppose I’d throw my Mixing vote in that direction. For Editing, any of them would make me happy except Spies…and it’s not like that would make me angry.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

This category poses a conundrum. When there’s no obvious VFX game-changer, this award tends to go to a Best Picture nominee, or the closest thing in the category to a prestige film, even if there’s clearly better work elsewhere. See Gladiator‘s victory over The Perfect Storm, Hugo‘s over Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Interstellar‘s over Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no major breakthrough work in this year’s nonetheless admirable slate, so we should look to The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a wild card. A Star Wars movie isn’t a guaranteed winner; neither The Phantom Menace nor Attack of the Clones triumphed here, and Revenge of the Sith wasn’t even nominated. But those movies weren’t particularly well-liked outside the realm of fandom (and not always so well-liked within either). The Force Awakens, on the other hand, reignited everyone’s love of Star Wars, and the legacy of the franchise could be enough to make this return-to-form victorious.

All three films can make a strong case. The Revenant‘s bear attack is one of the most talked-about movie scenes of the year, and it looks incredible. On the other hand, it’s just one brief scene, and the movie’s other visual effects are more invisible. Fury Road is the rare nominee these days to feature a huge number of practical special effects, which makes the work seem that much more tactile and impressive. Star Wars can make that claim too, offering a balance of practical and digital work that also boosted its reputation after the overly CGI’d prequels. But still, Star Wars is a more traditional VFX movie; Fury Road has the charm of being something a little different. Once again, I have absolutely no idea what will happen, as each of these three is a viable winner. My shot in the dark is that it will go to Star Wars, the movie that’s synonymous with modern-day visual effects and is finally worth celebrating again.

Personal: Difficult choice, but I think I’d have to go with Fury Road. Like I said, it’s something a little different. That bear attack in The Revenant was mighty impressive, but I don’t like the idea of a movie that’s two hours and 36 minutes winning an Oscar for basically five minutes of its runtime. As for Star Wars, excellent work…but nothing we haven’t seen before. And since there are going to be new Star Wars movies every year until the oceans rise and cover the planet’s surface, it has plenty of other chances.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Apologies to The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. Nobody outside of the Makeup and Hairstyling branch that nominated you has any idea what you are. Which leaves…wait for it…wait for iiiiiiiiiit…Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant! And once again, they both have an excellent chance at the gold. Most pundits appear to be predicting Fury Road for the win. But I’m thinking that more voters, when sitting in front of their ballots and trying to recall the movies, will remember the beards and grime and dirt and blood and gashes and scalps and bad teeth and all around horrible, horrible hygiene of The Revenant before Fury Road‘s work, which is more inventive but perhaps less obvious. Then again, if voters mistake that crazy, instantly iconic face mask worn by Fury Road villain Immorten Joe to be a piece of makeup rather than a piece of costume design, all bets are off.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road, because I tend to be more impressed by the imaginative than the realistic.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Will it be Fury Road or The Revenant this time around? Trick question! Neither are nominated for Original Score! Among the films that are competing is The Hateful Eight, featuring music from the prolific Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. In 2006, Morricone was awarded an Honorary Oscar for career achievement, having been nominated five times previously. His first nomination was for 1978’s Days of Heaven, meaning he was never cited for any of his beloved Spaghetti western scores, such as Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Now he stands to win his first competitive award for his terrific compositions from The Hateful Eight, which recall the work of those famous movies that have been such an inspiration to Hateful writer/director Quentin Tarantino. I wouldn’t call Morricone a lock, though; he faces another prolific titan in John Williams, who returned to his most famous and popular series with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Enthusiasm for that movie — which has been seen more widely than The Hateful Eight — could earn Williams his sixth trophy. Carter Burwell’s score for Carol is a dark horse, but I think it will come down to Hateful Eight and Force Awakens, with Morricone pulling off the win.

Personal: The Hateful Eight. Williams’ work on Star Wars was solid, and there were a couple of good new themes, but there was nothing in the score that matched the music of original three films. That won’t necessarily stop people from voting for Williams, but Morricone’s Hateful Eight score made a bigger impact on me than the overall score for The Force Awakens. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario score is supremely effective in the movie, but I always gravitate toward scores that stand alone as a listening experience apart from the film.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG

While trying to guess what might be nominated in this category, I expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the field of contenders. The final five (hear them all for yourself) haven’t done much to change my mind. Nice, fine, okay….these are some of the words that might describe them. Nothing too memorable or fun or beautiful or really worth getting excited about at all. But someone’s gotta win, and it will probably be Lady Gaga and Diane Warren for “‘Til it Happens to You.” It’s from a documentary called The Hunting Ground, about rape on college campuses. The importance of the issue, the star factor of Lady Gaga and the lack of a compelling choice among the competition should all combine to bring this tune a win.

If that happens, it will end one of Oscar’s notable losing streaks. This is Diane Warren’s eighth nomination, and she’s never won. Probably because most the songs she’s been nominated for are bland, forgettable ballads. Remember “How Do I Live,” from Con Air? Or “There You’ll Be,” from Pearl Harbor? Of course you don’t. How about “Because You Loved Me,” from Up Close and Personal? Do you even remember Up Close and Personal? (I do…but I’m a freak of nature.) To be fair, Warren does have one great nominated song to her credit: the epic, just-the-right-side of-cheesy-to-still-be-good-in-the-way-that-80’s-songs-could-be-cheesy-and-good-at-the-same-time “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” from Mannequin.

Anyway…I’m not trying to be a Warren hater. I’ve got nothing against her, and she is a renowned songwriter who’s worked with a long list of great artists. It’s always nice to see somebody finally win an award like this after so many times coming up short. And since she’s not going to beat someone who I’m rooting for, it’s all the same to me.

Personal: I’d vote for “Simple Song #3” from Youth, just because it’s something different from the norm.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

After a brief interruption in their nominations domination, please welcome back Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. But to keep things interesting, let’s dismiss one of them right off the bat. I don’t think The Revenant will factor in here. And while The Danish Girl won the prize in the Period film category at the Costume Designers Guild Awards just a few nights ago, I think Academy voters will make this a three-way contest between Carol, Cinderella and Mad Max: Fury Road. And as with most of these below-the-line categories this year, there’s no obvious frontrunner. Cinderella‘s outfits are grand and colorful, which is the most common winning recipe, while Carol‘s are also strikingly colored, yet more conservative in style. Exquisite as both film’s sartorial selections are, however, I think the rugged and gritty outfits of Fury Road could win here, following triumphs with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Costume Designer Guild’s Fantasy category. It’s no sure thing; Carol and Cinderella are more in line with the traditional winners of this award (and of those, I’d give the edge to Cinderella), so we’ll see if enough voters are up for a change of pace.

Personal: I love the work on display in Carol and Cinderella, but I think I’d have to go with Mad Max: Fury Road, for that aforementioned Immorten Joe mask, if nothing else. I mean…look at that thing!

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

I think most people — myself included — tend to think of this category as just sets and locations, but it also takes into account all the stuff in the movie. Keeping that in mind, Mad Max: Fury Road — with its tricked-out vehicles and wild, creative props — may have the edge here. The setting itself is mainly a vast, open desert landscape. But pretty much everything moving through that landscape is ingeniously conceived.

If voters remain stuck on the idea of location and backdrops, the path to victory becomes more hazy. The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies faithfully recreate their period settings — 1920’s and 1950’s, respectively — but the visuals aren’t particularly eye-catching. The Martian‘s interiors have a standard spaceship look, and the beautiful exteriors, while impressive, are just natural settings that don’t seem to require much work from a design standpoint. The Revenant, like Fury Road, primarily takes place outdoors in vast, untouched locales. This award usually goes to movies with lots of interior work, and as with Costume Design, voters tend to favor flashy over muted. Or not; Lincoln was a surprise winner here in 2012, and Bridge of Spies — despite being set nearly 100 years later — has a similar palette. So really, this year’s line-up — in its own vacuum and compared to past nominees — is a study in contradictions.

It really depends on how broadly voters are thinking when they consider what makes up Production Design. I could see almost anything except The Danish Girl picking up the prize, and even though it’s outside the box, I think they’ll go with Fury Road.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. All of the Mad Max movies exemplify brilliant world-building, with endlessly fascinating details in the sets, costumes, vehicles, accoutrements, etc. Sometimes they are just seen quickly, in passing, helping in their small way to tell the story of this brutal post-apocalyptic world. These flourishes might not be explained, but they speak volumes. This is one of the most impressive elements of the series for me, and it makes Fury Road a no-brainer in this category.

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BEST FILM EDITING

Here’s another contest where we can probably eliminate The Revenant right off the bat, unless voters really go deep for it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a bit of a surprise in this category, is also out. I doubt Spotlight can pull this off, but it’s not out of the question. It mainly comes down to Mad Max: Fury Road and The Big Short. This award often goes to a Best Picture frontrunner, unless there’s another film where the editing work truly stands out. That can apply to action movies like past winners The Matrix and The Bourne Ultimatum, or movies that are longshot Best Picture nominees like last year’s victor, Whiplash. In this case, we have one of each. The Big Short has a big shot at the big prize, while Fury Road has less of a shot, but showcases masterfully assembled action. Both movies are highly admired within the Academy, and I have no idea which side the majority of voters will come down on. Every year has one particularly difficult-to-predict, coin toss category, and this year’s is right here. I’m going with Fury Road, but this is a nailbiter…and if The Big Short takes it, watch out when Best Picture rolls around.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought the editing of The Big Short was a little annoying, truth be told. It wasn’t so much an example of best editing to me as it was most editing. There’s a difference.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

There’s not a weak contender in this lineup, and there are several more films that could easily have been here, but it will boil down to the two most obviously difficult movies to shoot: Mad Max: Fury Road, with its mind-boggling mayhem of practical effects and stunt work; and The Revenant, with its remote locations, long takes and natural light. This time, look for The Revenant to take the gold, making Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki the first person to win this award three years in a row, following Gravity and Birdman.

Personal: It would be fun to see 70 year-old John Seale win for coming out of retirement to shoot Fury Road, but The Revenant is hard to deny. And as much as it pains me to think of Sicario‘s criminally Oscarless Roger Deakins losing for the 13th time while Lubezki wins his third, there’s a reason Lubezki keeps on winning. The guy is a magician, and these last three films have been unusually complex tricks.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

I don’t know which of Inside Out‘s five emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger or Sarcasm — covers jealousy and disappointment, but those feelings will be working overtime in the heads of everyone not nominated for Inside Out. In one of the night’s few slam dunks, Pixar will celebrate its eighth win since this category’s inception 15 years ago. I wonder if Roger Deakins is interested in directing a Pixar movie…

Personal: Anomalisa and Inside Out were both funny, sad and beautiful. Either would be fine with me, but the creativity on display in Inside Out is tremendous.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Not a lot to say for the two writing categories this year, as each one has a pretty clear frontrunner. The Big Short has been far out in front of this race from the start, with more wins from regional critics groups than any of its competition, as well as wins from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and BAFTA. The movie has been a big hit with Academy voters, and all signs point to an Oscar win. Room has potential to surprise, but that potential is low. The Big Short will take it.

Personal: I like Room, The Martian and Brooklyn better than The Big Short, but I’d still give this award to the latter because I have no doubt that it was the most challenging book to adapt. The other three stories — as well as the remaining nominee, Carol — tell straightforward narratives, but The Big Short is not a traditional A to B to C tale. It’s a fragmented story following multiple, unrelated groups of characters and dealing with incredibly complicated, dense concepts, which the script illuminates with humor and clarity. Like I said in the previous post, I haven’t read any of these books (and I’m sure most voters haven’t either), but finding a compelling movie in the pages of The Big Short was probably no easy task.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Like The Big Short, Spotlight took home prizes from the BFCA, WGA and BAFTA, and nearly swept the critics awards, capturing even more than its adapted counterpart. While its Best Picture hopes may have faded, it’s still held in extremely high regard, and for good reason. It’s one of those films where everything just clicks, and that begins with the impeccably researched, unfailingly truthful script. It’s hard to imagine any of the other nominees coming up from behind.

Personal: I’ll be happy to see Spotlight take this, especially since co-writer and director Tom McCarthy is long overdue for this kind of recognition after being ignored for past work like The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. Still, I’d probably go with Inside Out. I loved how it handled such abstract concepts as, well, abstract thought, short-term and long-term memory, and the subconscious. The imagination behind every detail of how the mind functions is just wonderful.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

I never thought that the phrase “Oscar frontrunner” would be used to describe Sylvester Stallone, but his moving and grounded performance in Creed has put him in that position. Stallone dominated the critics awards, and took home the Golden Globe and the BFCA prize. So with all that momentum, he remains the man to beat. But consider this…Stallone was not even nominated by SAG or BAFTA, which are the only two organizations that actually share membership with the Academy. Perhaps that shows some vulnerability.

Or perhaps not. Consider this: the SAG voting opened so early that Creed had barely been identified or positioned as an awards player. SAG voters had a brief window in which to view the unexpectedly acclaimed movie before ballots were due. As for the BAFTA awards, Creed didn’t open in the U.K. until mid-January, too late for 2015 awards consideration. (Oddly, it opened in countries like Kuwait and Pakistan much earlier. Go figure.) In addition, Stallone’s wins at the Globe and BFCA ceremonies were accompanied by long and enthusiastic standing ovations, which suggests big support from the industry. People seem genuinely moved by the narrative of a guy who created a character (let’s not forget that) 40 years ago, was nominated at the time, and now comes full circle to give what many have called the performance of his career in an acclaimed spin-off of his brainchild, conceived by a young filmmaker who was deeply impacted by that original film. That story could almost be a movie itself. So momentum remains with Sly, and betting against him would be unwise if you’re in this thing for money or even just bragging rights. Still…a surprise is not out of the question here.

Personal: Stallone’s journey is touching, no doubt, but the focus should be on the performance. His is great, but for me, it’s all about Ruffalo. Sure, he’s the one who gets the big emotional outburst scene that will almost certainly be the clip played during the telecast, but it’s not about that. It’s because he’s the one principal actor in the movie who is called on to transform, and he does it completely. His voice, his speech pattern, his walk, his entire physicality…he inhabits this guy so fully, and because it’s a guy who’s so intense and committed, it allows him to really get under the skin. It’s enough of a makeover that it could have been a showy performance, but it’s not, because the writing and directing are so grounded. I enjoyed Tom Hardy in The Revenant a helluva lot, but Ruffalo would get my vote.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Alicia Vikander has been leader of this pack, collecting the BFCA and SAG trophies, plus far and away the most critics awards (though for what it’s worth, most of those critics awards were for Ex Machina, while her nomination here is for The Danish Girl, as they were at the BFCA and SAG awards). The only major prize she lost was the Golden Globe, which went to Kate Winslet. That could have been dismissed as a fluke…until Winslet won the BAFTA prize as well. Now we have to stop and wonder if Vikander is on less solid ground than it initially seemed. I think she’s still the frontrunner, as the SAG award is generally a more reliable indicator of Oscar success than the BAFTA or Golden Globe. But the two taken together suggest that Winslet is closing in. Then again, Vikander was nominated for Ex Machina — not The Danish Girl — the two times she lost to Winslet. So…there’s that…whatever that is.

Winslet is an Academy darling, of course, with this being her seventh nomination, and she’s excellent in Steve Jobs, but as a co-lead in The Danish Girl, and by virtue of the story and her character, Vikander gets to go deeper in her role than Winslet does in hers. Not that Winslet’s work is shallow; it just isn’t as chewy a role as Vikander’s. The Swedish actress is young and still not widely known, and will surely have many more shots. But I think that on the strength of her work not just in The Danish Girl but also in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth (in which she gave another award-worthy performance), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a fun, breezy summer movie that showcased her playful side) and Burnt (not much to do in her brief appearance opposite Bradley Cooper, but she looked great, for whatever that’s worth), voters will reward her for an incredible year full of shining performances.

Personal: I’d vote Vikander too. Although I’d have nominated her in this category for Ex Machina, she’s been fantastic in everything she’s been in this year. Any way you slice it, her work speaks for itself.

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BEST ACTOR

There’s not much to say here, as this award is one of night’s easy bets. Leonardo DiCaprio has reigned supreme all awards season long for the all-in, go-for-broke dedication he displayed in The Revenant. After years atop the Hollywood food chain, he will finally take home his first Academy Award.

Personal: Here’s the thing about DiCaprio. He gives an excellent performance in The Revenant, no argument, and his nomination is deserved. But he has given stronger performances, and he will again. Leo winning this Oscar is about two things: finally rewarding him for a career full of outstanding and committed work, and rewarding him for the physical extremes to which he pushed himself in order to make this movie. For his willingness to go to those extremes, I applaud him. But an Oscar win should be recognition of the performance, not the personal struggles. Leonardo DiCaprio, the Actor, buried himself in the experience of making The Revenant, but he doesn’t bury himself in the character of Hugh Glass the way he did with The Departed‘s William Costigan or The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘s Arnie or J.Edgar‘s title character or so many others. He doesn’t bury himself in Hugh Glass to the same extent because Glass, as depicted here, doesn’t require the same level of immersion. The story of The Revenant is primal and powerful, but it isn’t deep. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact. It doesn’t have to be deep to be great. It’s a story of survival and revenge, plain and simple. At the end of the day, what went into the performance is more impressive than the performance itself.

With that in mind, my pick would be Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. He had a much more challenging character to play, requiring him to hit notes grand and intimate, and to capture so many subtle and contradictory facets of the pioneering tech giant. He’s in nearly every moment of the movie, deftly maneuvering the acrobatics of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, and not trying to guide how the audience feels about his mercurial character. His performance is completely magnetic. He really is quite something.

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BEST ACTRESS

There’s little commentary or analysis required here either. Very early in Phase One, it seemed that this award might be a neck-in-neck race between Room‘s Brie Larson and Brooklyn‘s Saoirse Ronan, but Larson soon pulled ahead and built up a considerable lead that she hasn’t relinquished. With BFCA, SAG and BAFTA awards now on her shelf, as well as a Golden Globe, she’s got the Oscar all locked up.

Personal: This is an absolute heartbreaker of a choice between Larson and Ronan. Putting aside that I have major celebrity crushes on them both, their performances are so, so good. I’d have to give the tiniest, tiniest edge to Ronan, just because her role calls on her to play what appeared to me as a wider range of emotions. There’s no question that both actresses nail every beat. Ronan just got a more varied array of beats to hit, and when the choice is this difficult, you look for whatever you can to guide your decision.

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BEST DIRECTOR

The stars seem aligned for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who took home this Oscar last year for Birdman, to become the first back-to-back winner of Best Director since 1950, when Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for All About Eve a year after taking the prize for A Letter to Three Wives. Prior to that, the only back-to-back winner was John Ford, for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. A few weeks ago, Iñárritu became the first person to ever win the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) award two years in a row. Given that award’s success rate at predicting the Oscar — only seven times since the DGA award was first presented in 1948 have the two not been in sync — a win for Iñárritu is extremely likely, especially when you add in Golden Globe and BAFTA victories. In what has been another tough-to-call year in the top categories, it’s always possible that this will turn out differently, but the momentum is definitely with Iñárritu.

Personal: George Miller, by a mile. I kinda don’t get why Miller isn’t the frontrunner here, or at least considered a major threat. I understand why people are impressed by Iñárritu’s achievement, but since so much of the admiration derives from his insistence on pushing the limits under such extreme conditions, how are people not in even greater awe of what Miller accomplished? I look at The Revenant and I see the beauty and the skill, and I admire Iñárritu’s drive for authenticity. But as hard as the movie surely was to shoot, it doesn’t feel impossible. Mad Max: Fury Road feels impossible. I look at that movie and I am completely blown away by the directorial skill on display. I look at that movie and I have absolutely no idea how Miller even begin to film it. How to even conceive of the specific beats of the action choreography, let alone actually capture it all on camera. It’s a towering achievement. With all respect to Iñárritu and The Revenant, as well as to nominated directors like Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Lenny Abrahamson (Room), whose talents are absolutely evident even if showcased differently by the nature of their movies’ smaller scales, what Miller did with Mad Max: Fury Road was singular and stunning.

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BEST PICTURE

As Alejandro G. Iñárritu looks primed to win the directing prize, so too is his film The Revenant poised to capture the night’s top honor. But it’s not a sure thing. The only sure thing is that whichever movie does win, the victory will have been hard-won. This was an unpredictable awards season in many ways. (Do I say that every year? I probably say that every year. It must feel that way every year.) The precursor awards, which are supposed to help narrow the field — and ultimately take any and all suspense out of Oscar night — proved to be mostly unhelpful this year. It was one of the rare times when the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA), the DGA and SAG each went with a different movie. The producers chose The Big Short; directors rewarded The Revenant; SAG went for Spotlight. SAG’s Best Ensemble winner has the least impact on the Oscars, and Spotlight — an early frontrunner thanks to its dominance in Phase One — has seen its odds decrease.

With The Revenant‘s recent successes, The Big Short no longer feels like the movie of the moment, but here’s why it could win. Of all the other movie award-distributing bodies, the PGA is the only one to use the same voting system as the Academy uses for Best Picture. That would be the preferential ballot, and as I’ve included each of the past two years, here’s a video from The Wrap‘s Oscar expert Steve Pond explaining how it works.

The PGA and the Academy both moved to the preferential system in 2009, and every year since, the PGA winner has gone on to win the Oscar (with the only hiccup being when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied). That doesn’t really mean anything — these streaks are made to be broken — but it doesn’t mean nothing either. Then again, the PGA award has only been around since 1989. The DGA award has been around since 1948, and there have only been 14 occasions in the ensuing 66 years when the DGA winner’s film has not gone on to win Best Picture. But again, what do any of these facts ultimately mean? Some people doubted Birdman‘s chances last year because no movie had won Best Picture without a Best Film Editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1980. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had its naysayers because the Academy had never awarded a fantasy film the Best Picture prize. Could the song Skyfall win an Oscar when no James Bond theme had ever managed the feat? Yes it could, and it did. These factoids are interesting to bring up, but eventually they all get defied. Other trivia, records and statistics that pundits have brought into the discussion for this category:

  • Only three films — Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, The Sound of Music and Titanic — have won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, which The Revenant does not have. And no film has ever won Best Picture without either a screenplay nomination or a WGA nomination, which The Revenant also did not have.
  • There have never been back-to-back Best Picture winners from the same director, even though there have been back-to-back director winners. With Iñárritu’s Birdman the reigning champ, a victory for The Revenant would be a first.
  • Seldom does a movie win Best Picture without also winning at least two other awards. In the last 62 years, only one film — The Greatest Show on Earth — has managed it. So by that statistic, The Big Short — only considered a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay — would have to win one more to be a viable Best Picture winner. It’s a strong threat to take Best Film Editing, but can Christian Bale or director Adam McKay pull off upsets? (Spotlight faces the same challenge.)

We’ll see which of these talking points are altered come Sunday night. Other things to consider in the meantime? The preferential ballot favors consensus, so the movie that wins probably isn’t the one with the most first-place votes, but the one with lots of second and third place votes as well. The Revenant seems like more of a love-it-or-hate-it movie than The Big Short, which could have a better shot at placing higher on more ballots. Could that be why it lost with the PGA? Or has it just been more widely seen since the PGA – one of the earlier voting groups in Phase Two – presented their award? And who knows if I’m even right in that love-it-or-hate-it estimation? This is just intuition on my part. Really at this point, I’m just spinning my wheels, so enough is enough. In a tumultuous award season like this one, few things are certain. Something could come along and knock down The Revenant — most likely being The Big Short — but the odds seem stacked in its favor.

Personal: I’m a big fan of most of the nominees, so almost any of them would be fine with me. Only The Big Short or Bridge of Spies would disappoint me, though I definitely liked both. Still, once again I’d choose Mad Max: Fury Road, because the fact that it even got here is such a triumph, and I’d love to see it go all the way. And because, as I said in the Best Director commentary, the movie sorta blows my mind. I’m left to wonder again why The Revenant became The One to Beat. I think its Phase Two surge had more to do with the narrative behind the movie than the one in the movie — an effective bit of strategic campaigning on the part of the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox. What surprises me is that given how taken the industry at large seems to be with the movie’s behind-the-scenes lore, they aren’t showing more of that love to Fury Road. My conjecture is that they think The Revenant is somehow “important” and that Fury Road, at the end of the day, is still just an action movie and ultimately too frivolous to win the top awards. The irony is that The Revenant may have the appearance of depth, but is actually quite superficial (again, not meant as a criticism), while Fury Road, which appears to be just explosions and car chases, has much more substance brewing beneath the surface. Oh well. At least it made it this far. That’s worth appreciating on its own.

 

As usual, I’m sorry to say that I have nothing to really offer in the remaining categories. Son of Saul is the favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film, with Mustang being called the most likely spoiler. Amy is said to have the inside track on Best Documentary, though I don’t know; I’m not sure the subject matter of Amy Winehouse has wide enough appeal across the Academy. I might go for Cartel Land. As for the live-action, animated and documentary shorts…you’re on your own.

Hopefully it will be an exciting show, given some of these up-in-the-air categories, and it might be a bit of an uncomfortable show too, with Chris Rock and others commenting on the lack of diversity among the nominees. I still haven’t been able to write-up all my thoughts on that issue, so perhaps I’ll do a separate post. The issue isn’t going away, unfortunately.

To close, here’s a great bit from Chris Rock’s 2005 hosting gig.

February 14, 2016

Oscars 2015: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Complete List of Nominees

And so we are deep into Phase Two of awards season, with the Oscar nominations announced and the guild awards rolling out. I’ve already been asked several times who’s going to win the Oscar in this category or that. To which I’ve responded, “Does it matter? They’re all a bunch of racists, apparently, so who even wants one?”

Unfortunately, that’s where we have to begin this year, as the nominations set off a firestorm of controversy when acclaimed films about black characters like Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Creed were not nominated for Best Picture, and for the second year in a row, all the acting nominees are white.

A lot has already been said about this topic. Like…a lot. It’s been in the news nearly every day since the nominations were announced. I wrote about this in last year’s corresponding post, and having just re-read that, I feel it’s pretty spot-on, thank you. I don’t know what I can add this year, especially with so much already said by so many others. But it’s too big a story to ignore. I can’t get wrapped up in all the awards nonsense and spend all the time I spend writing about the Oscars and not wade into this mess. The whole reason I’m posting this a month after the nominations were announced is that I’ve been trying to stay abreast of all the developments and respond to specific points that have been made, but it’s been too much to keep up with. So for now, I’m going to leave it alone, and hopefully get to it in the next post. At this point, it’s well past time to review the nominations, so let’s stick to that.

It was another middling year for me on the predictions front. Of the 19 categories I covered, I only went five-for-five with Best Actor. But in 11 others, I missed by just one…though perhaps I lose a point for expecting Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress nomination to be for Ex Machina. The Academy voters cited her for The Danish Girl — clearly a lead performance, but one that the studio campaigned as Supporting to give her better odds at a nomination.

Let’s drill down into some of the categories, shall we? While you want to glory in being as accurate in your predictions as possible, there’s also fun in seeing where you went wrong and what unfolded that went against your instincts, where your theorizing went wrong, and where it went right. If you consider any of this fun, that is.

BEST PICTURE
I once again predicted there would be nine nominees, and for the second year in a row there were only eight. I got seven of them, but missed Room. I opted for Carol instead, and also included Inside Out. In the previous post, I mentioned Room and Carol as movies I’d read were not being received as enthusiastically by Academy members as they were by critics. Goes to show that you can never be be sure how 6,000+ people are going to come down on something. Because Carol director Todd Haynes is a more established filmmaker than Room‘s director Lenny Abrahamson, I thought Carol would have a stronger base of support and would make the cut thanks to a small but passionate contingent. Instead, Room turned out to be the movie that got the necessary boost, and I’m thrilled to see it here.

As for Inside Out, I had thought that given its level of acclaim, it would have found a place here just like previous Pixar efforts Up and Toy Story 3 did in 2009 and 2010. But after the nominations were announced, I became aware of something I hadn’t realized. In 2009 and 2010 — the two years where the Academy went with a guaranteed slate of ten Best Picture nominees — voters were asked to list ten movies on their ballots. (I knew that part.) Beginning in 2011, however, when the change was made to a system that would result in anywhere from five to ten nominees, ballots reverted back to just five choices for voters to write down. I didn’t know that. If I had, I wouldn’t have predicted a nomination for Inside Out. With ten selections to make, voters are more likely to honor an animated film. With only five selections, they’re more likely to stick with live action and leave movies like Inside Out to the Animated Feature category. Live and learn.

Mad Max: Fury Road, meanwhile, overcame historical odds and landed in the Best Picture race, coming in behind The Revenant as the second most nominated movie of the year. In the narrow scope of this year’s award season, it may not be surprising, but given how outside the Academy’s “top award” box this movie is, the fact that it’s now a Best Picture nominee is pretty astonishing. It’s great to see the Academy recognize the artfulness of this movie — both the staging and creation of its incredible action, but also the character drama and underlying themes that propel the story. The movie is more than one big car chase, and the Academy’s recognition is a ringing endorsement of that fact.

BEST DIRECTOR
The most surprising omission from this year’s nominees came in this category, with The Martian director Ridley Scott being left out. He was supposed to be one of the day’s absolute sure things, with many at that point already dubbing him the sentimental favorite to win. Whether his omission was a matter of too many voters deliberately choosing elsewhere, or a matter of them thinking he was a lock and therefore giving their vote to someone else — something I suspect happened to Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow in 2012 — we’ll never know. I didn’t think Scott deserved a nomination for The Martian, so I’m okay with his absence. I loved the movie and he did a great job with it, but it didn’t strike me as such a strong directorial achievement as to be singled out among the year’s five best.

I only guessed three out of five in this category, expecting Scott to get in, and going for Steven Spielberg over Adam McKay. Overlooking McKay was a dumb move. I knew The Big Short was apparently doing really well with Academy members, and with the DGA nomination under his belt, I shouldn’t have underestimated him. I thought his comedy background would hinder his chances with this crowd. But the evidence for his nomination was all there, and I ignored it.

The other big surprise in the category was the man who took Scott’s perceived slot: Room’s Lenny Abrahamson. He was a real longshot, not expected to go the distance. So not only were those rumblings about Academy members staying away from Room unreliable, they belied how taken with the movie voters actually were. It may have only landed four nominations, but it was never going to place in the crafts categories, so its showing in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay is a huge victory. Too bad the actors branch couldn’t overcome their reticence to nominate children by recognizing the movie’s not-so-secret weapon, Jacob Tremblay. Given the enthusiasm for the movie, you’d think voters would have gone to bat for him. But with the exception of Best Picture, each branch votes for their own, and apparently not enough actors could find a place for him, even though their SAG counterparts did.

BEST ACTRESS
I was mildly surprised that Charlotte Rampling made the cut. Many pundits expected her to be nominated, but I left her off my list, thinking 45 Years was too small to get noticed, and her performance too subtle and quiet to stand out. I also thought the lack of a BAFTA nomination was a big omen, but I was obviously wrong. She made it…and promptly killed her chances with some poorly worded comments on the diversity controversy (seriously, Charlotte…you’re not helping.) No no, I’m kidding: ignorant and tone-deaf as her comments were, she didn’t kill her chances. She never had a chance. Her nomination is her reward.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Of all the non-white actors who were in the conversation this year, the one with the best odds of a nomination seemed to be Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba. As we know, it didn’t happen. Some blamed the fact that Netflix didn’t have experience mounting an Oscar campaign. Some blamed the movie’s difficult subject matter. Some blamed a bias against black actors. The film’s subject matter is the only one of those possibilities I believe might have been a factor. But I’d bet a lot of people did watch the movie, and I’d bet a lot of those people did vote for Elba. Just not enough, in the end…though interestingly, he did go on to win the SAG award. Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance and Christian Bale survived from Phase One, while Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hardy — who were largely absent from the precursor awards — found a place too. I’ve been baffled all along by the consistent inclusion of Bale. He’s a great actor, of course, and I enjoyed him in The Big Short, but I just don’t see it as an award-worthy performance at all. If anyone from that movie should have been singled out, it was Steve Carell, and even he wouldn’t have made my cut. I remain disappointed that Jacob Tremblay didn’t get nominated for Room, as I mentioned above. He would really belong in Best Actor, but that was never going to happen, so Best Supporting Actor would have been his spot if he had made it. Still, Tremblay seems okay with being passed over. He’s having a blast, Instagramming his way from one starry red carpet event to another and making the talk show rounds, proving hilarious and adorable at every turn.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Despite a lot of attention paid to category fraud this year, Academy voters fell in line with studio campaigning and nominated Carol‘s Rooney Mara and The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander in this category, despite both actresses being co-leads in their films. Vikander received far more attention during Phase 1 for her role in Ex Machina, but The Danish Girl always seemed more in the Academy’s wheelhouse. I still thought, as did several others, that her many critics citations for Ex Machina would translate here, but it did turn out to be The Danish Girl that earned her a nomination. She’s superb in both movies, so…either way, really.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh finally earn an Oscar nomination after years of excellent work, and although Rachel McAdams has been around for far less time, she’s a versatile and always reliable actress, so it’s nice to see her here too. I wasn’t convinced she would make it for her strong but unassuming work in Spotlight, but the movie — whose fortunes some thought might be fading when the nominations came around — is still making a big impression on people.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
After Ridley Scott, the second most shocking omission this year came in this category, with Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs script failing to make the cut. This one astounds me. It should be the winner here, as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t read the source material for any of these contenders, but who are we kidding: neither have the voters. No one is ever really evaluating this category by how successfully the source material is translated to the screen. They’re going off the movie itself. Even without reading the source material, I doubt that any of the nominees — all of whom did excellent work — crafted anything as creative, unique, or just plain smart as what Sorkin did with Steve Jobs. Very disappointing.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
My risk in predicting The Assassin didn’t pan out, as the voters in the Cinematography branch stuck with a more expected set of nominees. Despite all the fanfare over The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and use of anamorphic lenses literally not employed since the 1960s, I thought the film’s mostly interior settings would hurt its chances. Not so, with three-time winner Robert Richardson earning his ninth nomination. Not at all undeserved; I just wasn’t sure it would happen.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I was a little surprised to see The Revenant here. So much of the film’s settings and locations are natural landscapes; beautiful, but not appearing to require the work of a production designer so much as a location scout. That’s not to diminish the work that did go into the film from an art and set decoration perspective, but it does seem that with so much good design efforts to consider, this slot might have been more deserved by something like Carol, Crimson Peak or Ex Machina.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Again, The Revenant is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Clearly, as evidenced by the field-leading 12 nominations, Academy members across all branches were big-time in the bag for this movie. But this nomination — and the Production Design nod, to a lesser extent — strike me as the kind of unimaginative thinking that leads voters to just fill in a favorite movie all the way down the line without really considering the options. If members of the Costume Branch were taken with the look of heavy furs and 1800s winter wardrobes, they’d have made a better choice going for The Hateful Eight, where the costumes at least had some creative flair. And for a branch that usually prizes color and elegance above all, a nod for the drab outfits of The Revenant over Brooklyn or Crimson Peak is curious.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Poor Vin Diesel. This was the one category where Furious 7 actually stood a decent chance of earning a nomination, but it didn’t happen. Diesel’s Oscar dreams have died hard this year, but he surely has another half-dozen Fast and Furious movies coming down the road that could finally end the series’ inexplicable Oscar drought. Keep on truckin,’ Vin.

At least Fifty Shades of Grey is now an Academy Award nominee.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Still trying to figure out what the hell The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is.

BEST SOUND EDITING AND SOUND MIXING
I did surprisingly well in these categories, calling four out of five in each. And they were the same four, which is a frequent trend: four common nominees between the two categories, and one loner in each. Fury Road, The Force Awakens, The Revenant and The Martian were the shared contenders. I predicted Bridge of Spies for Sound Mixing, and it ended up in Sound Editing. Go figure. I may ostensibly understand the general definition of these two categories, but I still don’t really get it, or have any idea how to evaluate it. Nevertheless, I know enough to know they made a good call by including Sicario in Sound Mixing. The sound work in that movie was stellar, and huge contributor to its incredible sense of tension that was sustained throughout.

 

Chris Rock copyThat’s really all I have to say about the nominees at this stage. The big show is two weeks away, so we’ll see each other before then. Chris Rock is hosting, and in this year of racial controversy, who better to comment on the drama? I have a great idea for the opening of the show. The announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host for the evening, Chris Rock!” And out walks Louis C.K., nodding and doing his understated, I’m-kind-of-uncomfortable-right-now Louis C.K. thing. “I…I know you were expecting Chris. You were probably expecting Idris Elba or Will Smith too, but you know…anyway the Academy quietly decided that in keeping with the theme this year…” and then he’d just kinda point to his face with a telling look. And it would go on for a minute until they figured a way to get Rock out there. I imagine maybe Louis calling Chris and tracking him down to Jerry Seinfeld’s house. They put Jerry on screen, Chris is over his place just hanging out in a tux, Louis and Jerry convince Chris that the show needs him, he agrees to come, and then Jerry drives him over, the ride becoming a riff on Seinfeld’s web series, this time called Comedians in Cars Getting Oscars. I dunno — it’s a work in progress. I’ve got two weeks to figure out the second part, but the opener is gold.

Anyway, after three years of being produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who insisted on stuffing the show with musical numbers, this year’s producing duties fall to the ebony and ivory team of Reginald Hudlin and David Hill. Hudlin is a writer/producer/director/executive with many credits in film and television, while Hill is best known for his work on live sporting events. Interestingly, Hudlin and Hill were talking about a focus on diversity at the show months ago, long before the nominees were determined. They’ve stated that diversity also means taking into account movies that are popular with audiences but don’t necessarily find themselves represented at the Oscars. (Furious 7, you may yet get your moment in the Oscar sun.). Hill, whose work in the sports world often focused on telling personal stories of the athletes in the game, talked of bringing that kind of device to the Oscars as a way to better acquaint audiences with nominees in the below-the-line categories. He also said he wants to construct the show in such a way that the awards are not given out in a totally random order, but that they have a flow and build to night’s final award, Best Picture. So…pretty much they’re talking about doing what was done for the 2008 awards, which is probably the overall best and most creatively produced Oscar ceremony I’ve ever seen, and did almost everything Hudlin and Hill have talked about, except for personalizing the lesser known nominees. Not a bad model to emulate. One idea I’m not crazy about, which was introduced earlier this week at the nominee’s luncheon, was asking all nominees to submit in advance a list of people they’d like to thank, and then the list will scroll across the bottom of the screen like a 24-hour news ticker. The idea is to encourage the winners to say something interesting during their time on stage, as opposed to just reading a list of names that have personal significance to them, but mean nothing to anybody watching. I understand the instinct, but the idea seems pretty crass to me. I kinda hope most people just don’t submit anything.

Okay…I’m sure nobody reading this cares about any of this stuff, so I’ll end it here. Your time would be better spent catching up on nominated movies.

(Class of 2015 photo from Nominee Luncheon. Click image to enlarge and scan for recognizable faces.)

 

 

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