Usually by this point in awards season (if not sooner), it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen on Oscar night. Clear favorites emerge, especially in the best-picture category: “Argo” last year, “The Artist” in 2012. But things could go a few different ways Sunday night at the Academy Awards. So! Here are a few thoughts on who will win, who should win and who might serve as a possible wild card.
Nominees: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Will win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “Gravity”
Wild card: “American Hustle”
“Gravity” was my pick for the year’s best film. It’s both an incredible technical achievement as well as a profound emotional experience. But “12 Years a Slave” is just too important, too powerful. Director Steve McQueen makes you squirm, think, confront uncomfortable emotions and feel deeply. It’s beautifully shot and acted. It matters. I’m not sure I ever want to spend another night watching it, but “12 Years a Slave” will take the top prize Sunday.
Nominees: Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”; David O. Russell, “American Hustle”; Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”; Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”; Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Will win: Cuaron
Should win: Cuaron
Wild card: McQueen
Here’s one of those weird years where different films will win best picture and best director. What Cuaron has done with “Gravity” is just too groundbreaking, too magnificent. It took several years and an army of geeks pounding away at computers, but Cuaron has changed the way movies will be made moving forward. His film is so awesomely beautiful and technically dazzling, it had me on the edge of my seat and the verge of tears for 90 tight minutes. He deserves this prize.
Nominees: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Will win: McConaughey
Should win: Ejiofor
Wild card: DiCaprio
“The McConaissaince” will be complete when the winner of the best-actor category is announced Sunday night. Over the past few years, McConaughey has transformed himself from a smug, rom-com bimbo to a serious actor capable of versatility and depth. The line he walks in “Dallas Buyers Club” is impressive because his character, the real-life Ron Woodruff, undergoes a change of mind and heart once he’s diagnosed with AIDS, but he remains kind of an asshole. Yet, we can’t help but root for him to find an answer to his disease and survive. Ejiofor is quietly dignified and powerful as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave,” and undergoes a great transformation of his own, but I suspect it’s McConaughey’s year.
Nominees: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”; Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County.”
Will win: Blanchett
Should win: Blanchett
Wild card: None
Blanchett is the juggernaut. No one can stop her. As a damaged Blanche DuBois figure in “Blue Jasmine,” she’s selfish and condescending, fragile and desperate. She’s kind of an awful human being, and yet you still find yourself hoping that she’ll turn it around, build a new life for herself and find some happiness. But man, it would be nice to Adams finally win an Oscar. She is just too damn sexy in “American Hustle” — formidable in two distinct personalities. Some other year, it will be hers. This year, it’s Blanchett’s.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Will win: Leto
Should win: Fassbender
Wild card: Abdi
Leto has won every single award imaginable leading up the Oscars, and is the front-runner in the supporting-actor category Sunday night. I’m not in love with his performance as an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club” the way most people are. I think it’s a little superficially showy and stereotypically drag queeny. Fassbender is truly frightening and disturbingly unpredictable as a plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” but, for whatever reason, he isn’t even part of the convesrsation. Maybe his character is just too evil. I also have these wild fantasies of seeing former limo driver and first-time actor Abdi win for “Captain Phillips.” Weird things happen in the supporting-acting categories, so who knows?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska.”
Will win: Nyong’o
Should win: Nyong’o
Wild card: Lawrence
Nyong’o is such a discovery and such a force as Patsy, Fassbender’s character’s favorite slave. She brings such raw fear and humanity to the part. She is going to be a superstar, and deservedly so, but first she’ll win Sunday night. Lawrence is a hilarious scene-stealer as a trashy trophy wife in “American Hustle” — and she does rock the cleavage and big hair in those flashy, ’70s get-ups — so it wouldn’t be a total shock to hear her name called. We know from her win last year for “Silver Linings Playbook” the she gives one doozy of an acceptance speech.
There’s no way any of us realized in the moment how great Harold Ramis was.
The comedies he directed, wrote and/or co-starred in have seeped into our systems through our pores and entered our DNA by this point — especially for those of us who grew up in the 1980s. We’ve all seen “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” so many times, we can quote them instantly, if not recite entire scenes by heart.
But I suspect that wasn’t necessarily the case the first time around. That kind of appreciation takes time — that kind of enduring legacy requires repeated viewings. We probably laughed our asses off when we first saw John Belushi silently smash a guitar against a staircase at a toga party or heard Bill Murray tell Sgt. Hulka that chicks dig him because he rarely wears underwear, and when he does it’s usually something unusual. But in retrospect and taken as a whole, Ramis’ output is staggering. It represents a collective act of intelligent rebellion — of slyly smart subversion. Back when I was in college, even the so-called “top tier” fraternities longed for the scrappy, underdog cool of the fictional Delta Tau Chi.
Ramis died early Monday after years of suffering from an autoimmune disease that caused inflammation and damage to his blood vessels. He was 69 years old. His work, in all its forms, surely will leave its mark for many more years to come. It’s not hyperbole to say that he defined film comedy for an entire generation.
On screen, opposite Murray in “Stripes” or “Ghostbusters” (both of which he co-wrote), Ramis often served as the bemused straight man — our conduit, if you will. We could only dream of being as twisted and quick-witted as Murray’s characters. Ramis’ steady presence made us feel as if we still could be part of the team, part of the action. Subdued and sardonic, nebbishy and bespectacled, he was usually the smartest person in the room in these films, but he never made us feel like idiots for wanting to join in the adventures.
“Groundhog Day” certainly seems more profound as time has passed. By 1993, a more quietly pensive Ramis had emerged, directing and co-writing a film that allowed Murray to be his ferociously verbal self, but with some room for introspection. The notion of what you would do with your time and your actions if given the opportunity to relive the same day over and over is both deeply existential and sweetly rueful. It’s high-concept but also highly thoughtful. (The fact that Ramis and Murray had a falling out during the filming of “Groundhog Day,” and didn’t speak for years afterward, adds a retroactive twinge of melancholy to their work together.)
As the years and decades passed and Ramis’ filmmaking tapered off, it was always a joy to see him appear in comedies in small supporting roles — as Seth Rogen’s no-nonsense father in “Knocked Up,” or John C. Reilly’s Orthodox Jewish manager, the hilariously named L’Chaim, in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Both were Judd Apatow productions, and Apatow spoke for so many of us when he said that Ramis was the kind of dad we all wish we could have had.
Looking at my Twitter and Facebook feeds today, I see such an outpouring of sadness and love for this man and his movies. When he died, it’s as if a part of our childhoods died with him — the crazy side, the raunchy side, the side that fearlessly bucked authority and wrested control back for the freaks and the little guys. It’s as exciting an idea now as it was in the ’80s.
It just doesn’t matter. Be the ball. That’s the fact, Jack.
I’ve been dreading writing about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman all day — not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because words seem so insufficient at a time like this, even ones that are heartfelt and well-intentioned. How does anyone adequately summarize such a prolific and powerful career, such a complex talent, such a life that ended so early and so sadly?
Hoffman died Sunday in his Manhattan apartment of an apparent drug overdose. He was only 46 years old but already he’d carved out a rich and diverse filmography. A scene-stealing character actor who transformed himself into a formidable leading man, his instincts and and presence never wavered. Doughy, rumpled and scruffy, with a ruddy complexion and wild tuft of blonde hair, he was the furthest thing from a matinee idol, yet he was mesmerizing to watch. He reveled in playing oddballs and outcasts, creeps and freaks — the unattractive and the unlovable. And yet, he always made these characters fascinating; rather than recoil, we’d want to know more about these people because he infused them with such recognizable humanity, with a loneliness that hits close to home.
It’s impossible to pick a single favorite performance of Hoffman’s. Try it. Can’t be done. They were all great in some way — daring, thrilling, often dark but full of surprises. His was a name you’d always be happy to see in the opening titles of a film because you never knew what you’d get, but you knew it would be filled with inspired, unexpected choices. Even in a forgettable romantic comedy like “Along Came Polly,” for example, the one thing you probably remember is Hoffman’s trash-talking, pickup basketball-playing former child star.
The major roles stand out, certainly. His deeply immersive, Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote in “Capote.” The popular but accused Catholic priest in “Doubt.” His profane, force-of-nature CIA operative in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” And perhaps his greatest work of all: the Scientology-inspired cult leader of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master,” which he played with a ferocious mixture of charisma and animalistic impulse.
But then there were all the performances before, after and in between; taken as a whole, they reveal a dizzying range but a consistent ability to dig deep with fierce commitment and precise technique to become absolutely anybody, believably. A phrase like “greatest actor of his generation” doesn’t sound like hyperbole here.
The first time he leapt out at me was in the role that so many of us recall as the first one that mattered: as lovesick porn crew member Scotty J. in “Boogie Nights” for Anderson, with whom he worked so frequently and memorably. The vulnerability and embarrassment at being rejected by Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler was so raw, it made you uncomfortable as a viewer, and yet your heart broke for him.
There was the prissy, obsequious Brandt in “The Big Lebowski” (strong men also cry, indeed), the preening Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (in which Hoffman damn near stole the whole film away from A-listers Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett) and the kindly, supportive nurse Phil Parma in Anderson’s epic “Magnolia.” The world-weary but idealistic rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” the sad-sack English teacher Jacob Elinsky in Spike Lee’s brilliant “25th Hour,” a rumpled college professor opposite a high-strung Laura Linney in “The Savages.” He absolutely tore it up as a veteran, no-nonsense campaign manager in “The Ides of March” but also registered palpable frustration in just a few scenes as Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in “Moneyball.” Admittedly, I didn’t love “Synecdoche, New York,” but its intertwining of art and death seems so much more poignant now. And he was both hilarious and frightening as gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” wielding that deep, rich voice of his like a weapon. If 12-year-old girls now know the name Philip Seymour Hoffman because of his rare involvement in this big-budget sequel, the world is a better place.
It’s so telling that the reaction to Hoffman’s death on places like Twitter and Facebook has gone beyond shock and sadness to devastation — a deep, emotional feeling of loss. Of course, none of us knew him, but we’ve all felt moved or provoked or dazzled by his performances, and the wide swath of people reacting to his death speaks to his versatility and the depth of his talent.
I actually had the pleasure of meeting Hoffman once, briefly, in a setting that seemed inordinately jubilant compared to the dark, meaty work on which he’d made his name. It was 2005, and Hoffman was a contestant on a brief-lived TV game show called “Celebrity Charades.” Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe, who were still married then, had amassed a bunch of their friends in a Manhattan loft — including Hoffman, Bob Balaban, Stanley Tucci, Bebe Neuwirth and Jill Clayburgh — to play charades for their favorite charities. It was a high-energy, high-pressure situation, with serious stars running around acting like crazy people for a good cause.
“You think you’re gonna goof off,” I quoted Hoffman as saying back then, “but then you get in the middle of it and it gets really competitive and it immediately just becomes fun — because everyone gets so surprised at how seriously they start to take it.”
It was impossible to do anything but take Hoffman seriously whenever we saw him on screen. He demanded it of us, and he earned it. Every time.
Oscar nominations morning is actually really fun, despite the ungodly hour. For years, I’d cover the nominations from the Academy on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills alongside all the other reporters and producers. Everyone’s in a good mood, if a bit bleary-eyed, buzzing on a combination of caffeine and expectation.
This morning, I rolled out of bed at 5 a.m., made some coffee and watched the nominations in the dark in my jammies. Here are a few, quick thoughts (and I may add to this as the day goes along):
— TOO MANY BEST ACTORS: I was shocked that neither Tom Hanks (for “Captain Phillips”) nor Robert Redford (for “All Is Lost”) heard his name called this morning. Hanks has a steely, steady power as the real-life captain who keeps his cool when Somali pirates invade his cargo ship, and the final moments when he lets himself collapse are just shattering. Redford does perhaps the best work of his prolific career — while saying about a dozen words total — as an aging man trapped alone at sea. Maybe the Academy just hates movies about people in trouble in the middle of the ocean. Oh wait …
— BAD GRANDPA MAKES GOOD: We must forever refer to Johnny Knoxville’s latest shock romp as “Academy Award nominee `Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,'” with its recognition in the makeup and hairstyling category. (Eddie Murphy’s raunchy “Norbit” also was nominated in this category back in 2008.) Truly, Knoxville was unrecognizable as an inappropriate octogenarian with his dick stuck in a vending machine.
— FARE THEE WELL, OH HONEY: “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t necessarily my favorite Coen brothers movie, but it’s a beautiful (and beautifully acted) one, and it deservedly earned a lot of love critically. There was room for it in the best-picture category — only nine of the 10 slots were filled. And it would have been great to see Oscar Isaac sneak into the crowded best-actor race as a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York. Still, it did receive nominations for Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeous cinematography, and for sound mixing.
— JUNE SQUIBB, PEOPLE!: The supporting-actress nominee is just a complete bad-ass as Bruce Dern’s long-suffering, spitfire wife in “Nebraska.” She’s not only the voice of reason, she’s usually the one to say the most shockingly blunt thing in the room, and in the process steals her every scene in Alexander Payne’s drama. After decades in this business, how cool is it to see her receive this very deserved recognition now?
— NO-PRAH: I did think Oprah Winfrey would get a supporting-actress nomination for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” She’s riveting as Forest Whitaker’s drunk and damaged wife, and seems to revel in the chance to play such a meaty, gritty role. It’s a reminder that before she was a multimedia empire unto herself, Winfrey could really act. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was shut out completely, which was a real surprise, given that it was the inspiration for a story I wrote on Oscar bait back in August.
— LOOK AT HIS SHIT! OR DON’T: It’s not a complete surprise to see James Franco snubbed in the supporting-actor category, given his ill-fated Oscar-hosting duties a few years back. But he is just mesmerizing as a trash-talking Florida drug dealer in “Spring Breakers,” and it would have been nice to see him nominated for such daring work. With his cornrows and shiny grill, the actor who famously played James Dean transforms completely. But the performance — and Harmony Korine’s film as a whole — were probably too much for the Academy to handle.
— “STORIES WE TELL,” SHUT OUT: This one bums me out the most. In a year of strong documentaries, Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley’s was my absolute favorite. A clever and poignant exploration of family and the fleeting nature of memory, Polley’s film keeps changing and surprising. It continually keeps you on your toes and breaks your heart, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Go find it.
An eerie sort of sadness lingers following the death of Paul Walker.
Of course, the way he died was horrific — crashing into a light pole as a passenger in a red Porsche during what was supposed to have been a quick ride at a charity event. To say that his death in a car accident is ironic, given that he made his name as a star of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, is too easy (and not entirely accurate). It’s just unfortunate. And the fact that he was so young — just 40 — and leaves behind a 15-year-old daughter is heartbreaking.
But I think a lot of the reason people are reacting so viscerally to Walker’s death — myself included — is because there was something vibrant and likable about his presence, both on- and off-screen, as well as something old-fashioned and rare. What he did in all those “Fast & Furious” movies was so difficult, and so easy to dismiss or underestimate. As undercover-cop-turned-con Brian O’Conner, Walker had to serve as the strong, stoic center in the middle of much flashier characters and insane, gravity-defying car chases. Not everyone can be the gruff muscle like Vin Diesel. Not everyone can be the intimidating bad girl like Michelle Rodriguez. Someone has to be sturdy and serious and hold shit together when so much is flying around in the air: That person was Paul Walker.
I haven’t always been a fan of these movies. Part of my review of 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” the weakest film in the franchise, read: “Noise, noise, noise. Crunched metal and shattered glass. More noise. Revving engines. Vin Diesel’s giant head. Hot chicks in tight miniskirts. Even more noise. The end.” But I appreciate the fact that they know what they are supposed to do and that they try to amp up the action each time to thrill their loyal audience.
Walker knew what his purpose was in Hollywood, as well, it seemed. With his blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and just the right amount of facial scruff, he exuded the carefree air and magnetic vitality of the classic California surfer. His striking good looks made him a bona fide movie star in the most traditional sense of the term. Long before the “Fast & Furious” films, it was impossible to stop looking at him in early roles in “Varsity Blues” and “The Skulls.” (Although, if we’re being honest with ourselves, something like “Into the Blue” with Jessica Alba is all about the eye candy.)
But in the vein of Brad Pitt before him and Liam Hemsworth since, Walker seemed interested in providing some unexpected depth to his performances — to offering more than just superficial appeal. Clint Eastwood cast him as part of the impressive ensemble of his World War II drama “Flags of Our Fathers,” for example. There was a heft to his presence that merited more serious consideration alongside his escapist action pictures.
Above all, Walker was decent and intelligent enough to use his fame for the greater good. In 2010, he founded the charity Reach Out Worldwide to help victims of natural disasters; the event where he died Saturday, in Valencia, Calif., was a fundraiser benefiting victims of the recent typhoon in the Philippines. So when people reflecting on Walker’s life comment that he died doing what he loved, maybe they’re right after all. But it wasn’t just racing expensive cars — it was reaching out to help others.
Is “All Is Lost” “Gravity” on a boat, or is “Gravity” “All Is Lost” in space?
The proximity of the release of these two films — which surely will rank among the year’s best — offers an intriguing juxtaposition. Where would you rather be stranded: floating in the middle of nowhere in the stars, or floating in the middle of nowhere in the ocean? (I’m no expert, but I’m going with the ocean, just because you’re at least on the planet — some planet, any planet.)
It’s a totally outlandish proposition — the vast majority of us would never find ourselves in either of these extreme situations — but we can enjoy the process of watching others struggle to survive from the well-stocked, climate-controlled comfort of our couch or the multiplex. We can thrill at the peril, wallow in the catharsis and revel in the eventual redemption these kinds of films provide. And seeing A-list stars give powerful performances as they subject themselves to such torment — whether it’s Sandra Bullock as an engineer in “Gravity” or Robert Redford as a yachtsman in “All Is Lost” — significantly enhances the emotional heft of such movies.
What can be just as frightening as staying alive in these punishing scenarios, though, is the fact that these characters truly are alone — with their thoughts, with their fears, with nowhere to hide. Placed in this crucible, they must face the purest form of their deepest selves, whether they want to or not. Think about it: How often are we really alone, with no one around, no one texting us, no email to check? We multitask constantly, overload ourselves with stimuli and try to cram everything we possibly can into every single second of the day. Partly this is because we can, and we think we should because technology allows it. But the juggling also provides a distraction — from our troubles, from instincts we’d rather not ponder.
Take “127 Hours,” for instance. We know that Danny Boyle’s 2010 film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young man with a taste for high adventure who went hiking alone in the canyons of southern Utah and resorted to extreme measures to extricate himself from a large boulder. James Franco does tour-de-force work as Ralston as he considers his options, exercises his resources and tries to entertain himself so he won’t go mad. Eventually, though, he must turn inward, reflect on his shortcomings and make amends with himself. It’s almost a religious experience — a last confession to whatever spiritual being happens to be listening.
Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007), also inspired by a true story, features another daring figure who sought the solitude that would become his undoing. Emile Hirsch gives a mature and transformative performance as Chris McCandless, who fled his well-to-do family in search of adventure. After graduating with honors from Emory University, he rejected the safe, comfortable life that surely was in store for him by destroying his credit cards and donating his savings to charity. After traveling the country and connecting with various strangers, McCandless ended up in the wilds of Alaska, in an abandoned bus, in the ratty sleeping bag where hunters would eventually find his emaciated body. He died alone — but he remained true to himself and his purpose, for better and for worse.
Bullock’s character certainly didn’t intend to be stranded when she signed up for her first space mission, but as we learn through the course of Alfonso Cuaron’s stunningly beautiful and intimate film, she is running from something: a traumatic and painful personal loss. She doesn’t want to think about it — she wants to focus on the challenging task at hand. Only when she believes she’s on the brink of death does she allow herself to break down, forgive herself and let go of her blame and self-doubt. Only then does she find peace — when there’s nothing else to seek.
Redford’s character also seems to be running from something — himself, presumably. We never even learn his name in J.C. Chandor’s precise, minimalist and nearly wordless film. We don’t know what he does for a living or why he’s chosen an arduous solo journey that leaves him scrambling to survive in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We know that he regrets this decision from an opening voice over: a farewell letter he writes on day six of his ordeal. And he’s clearly a man of means and intelligence, given that he can afford this vessel and all its accoutrements and he displays a calm resourcefulness with every new obstacle that arises. We are left to fill in the blanks, but can still identify with the powerful sensation of facing one’s mortality.
“All Is Lost” has obvious parallels to 2000’s “Cast Away,” although Redford doesn’t even have the benefit of an anthropomorphized volleyball to keep him company. Tom Hanks’ character, a time-obsessed systems analyst for FedEx, must come to accept the irrelevance of the passage of time once his plane crash lands in the middle of the South Pacific. Trapped on an uninhabited island, a man who had devoted his career to improving productivity must learn to devote every ounce of his energy to sheer survival. As in “All Is Lost,” so much of the way Hanks’ character reveals himself in Robert Zemeckis’ film is through his actions: the methodical way he uses airplane scraps to build shelter, for example.
At least the characters in the terrifying, low-budget horror movie “Open Water” (2004) — about married scuba divers who find themselves stranded when their group leaves without them — have each other. But they also have real sharks to contend with (and the actors playing the vacationers wore steel mesh under their wetsuits for protection while shooting). At that point, there’s no time for an existential crisis. You’re just trying to avoid having your legs bitten off.
Ben Affleck will play Batman in the upcoming “Man of Steel” sequel, we learned yesterday, which essentially caused the Internet to implode. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of angst-ridden responses to this news, some of which come from legitimately sane people decrying the decision as if it were the end of the world.
The announcement from Warner Bros. that Affleck will replace Christian Bale as tormented vigilante crimefighter Bruce Wayne has spawned not only the cutesy contraction of #Batfleck but also the hashtag #BetterBatmanThanBenAffleck. Meryl Streep will be happy to know she made the cut.
Why the freak-out? How much of it has to do with Affleck himself, and how much of it would have occurred no matter who was chosen? Yes, Affleck starred in what is widely considered one of the worst films ever based on a comic book, 2003’s “Daredevil,” which flopped critically (45 percent on the Tomatometer) and commercially ($102.5 million total domestically, which is usually what a blockbuster superhero movie will make on its opening weekend alone). Last I checked, Affleck didn’t write or direct “Daredevil.” He’s just the guy in the shiny, red suit at the center — so he gets to take all the blame.
I also see lots of bandying about of the word “Gigli,” as if the infamous 2003 Bennifer vehicle were the only career-defining cinematic moment in his 20-year career. Was “Argo,” this year’s best-picture Oscar winner which he directed and stars in, really so long ago? Has he not proven his brains and solid instincts time and time again over the past decade? Affleck also happens to have played George Reeves, TV’s Superman, in the 2006 drama “Hollywoodland,” and it represented his best work in a while at that point.
In the right supporting role, Affleck can be charismatic as hell — just look at his early work in “Boiler Room,” “Shakespeare in Love,” even “Good Will Hunting,” which essentially belongs to his best friend Matt Damon. But to get back to “Argo” for a minute, what he did as that film’s star — functioning as the all-business straight man in the middle and allowing the flashier Alan Arkin and John Goodman to shine around him — is difficult to do well. It’s easy to underestimate his skills as an actor, and even easier to turn him into a punch line.
The more I think about it, though, the more I’m inclined to suspect that whoever was picked to play opposite Henry Cavill’s Superman would have prompted some sort of backlash, simply because fans of this genre are so passionate and proprietary about it. I witnessed this personally last summer when I dared not heap massive praise on “The Dark Knight Rises” — and I happen to be a woman, which inspired a whole ‘nother charming level of vitriol. If not Affleck, then who would have been the right choice? We could peruse the filmography of myriad potential candidates and find a questionable decision here or there.
I can only imagine the sort of outcry that would have arisen had Twitter existed (or the Internet, for the matter) when Michael Keaton starred in Tim Burton’s “Batman” back in 1989: “Not Michael Keaton! He wore a flannel shirt and played poker with the neighborhood housewives in `Mr. Mom’!” Now, he’s regarded as one of the best Batmans (Batmen?) we’ve had.
So let’s all just take a moment, take a breath, and wait ’til Zack Snyder’s film comes out sometime in 2015. Let’s just calm the fuck down. Because until then, I promise you: Ben Affleck does not care what you think.
After a recent screening of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” based on the true story of a black butler who served every United States president in the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan, a friend asked me what I thought of the film.
My first instinct was to respond: “It’s good. But it’s total Oscar bait.” And then I stopped and wondered why those two notions had to be at such odds with each other.
A quick glance on Rotten Tomatoes at early positive reviews for the film, which opens Friday, revealed I’m not the only critic to regard the star-studded historical epic in such terms. Far from it: Several other critics have used the phrase “Oscar bait,” or suggested that key moments of Daniels’ sprawling drama were being submitted “for your consideration” come awards season.
It does boast an impressive cast, led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as the dignified and inspiring title character and Queen of Everything Oprah Winfrey as his loyal but lonely wife. (You forget that before she was a one-named multimedia phenomenon, Oprah could act. She gets to be a little trashy and show great range here — the kind of performance that earns an Oscar nomination. There’s that mentality again.) Key supporting work comes from David Oyelowo as the couple’s Black Panther son, Vanessa Redgrave as the plantation owner of the butler’s youth, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and — most amusingly of all — Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
Daniels has a provocative, tawdry streak in him, though; witness Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron in the Southern-fried melodrama “The Paperboy.” But his “Precious: Based on the Novel `Push’ by Sapphire” earned him Academy Award nominations for best picture and director, and it won for Mo’Nique’s supporting-actress performance and for its adapted screenplay.
Oh — and this is crucial — “The Butler” comes from The Weinstein Co., led by Harvey Weinstein, who mastered the not-so-delicate art of campaigning for Movies That Matter in the 1990s as co-founder of Miramax Films.
The chicken-and-egg dynamic at work here is fascinating to me. Are certain movies simply excellent, and so they inevitably end up rising above the hundreds of films released each year as awards season arrives? Or are films made with Academy Awards ambitions in mind, and they end up being excellent by virtue of the production values and prestigious names attached to them?
More fundamentally: Why does this bother us? If a film is good, it’s good – and that’s such a rare, satisfying experience whether you see a handful or a hundred films a year. Shouldn’t we just allow ourselves to be swept up in the high-mindedness or artistic grandeur of it all — to lose ourselves in the dark, which theoretically is the reason we fell in love with this profession in the first place?
Many of us, I suspect, view such prestige pictures with cynicism, coming clustered as they do each October, November and December, just before the voting for major awards and critics groups’ accolades. (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is opening in the same mid-August slot occupied two years ago by the Oscar-winning “The Help,” which similarly addressed themes of racial strife and civil rights in glossy fashion). The blatant manipulation that seems to be at work is galling, and our inherent skepticism causes us to sniff it out and balk at it.
There’s almost a formula you can detect, such as playing a real person during a key moment in history, or a character suffering from some sort of physical or psychological ailment. When you can combine both of those forces at the same time — the 2011 best-picture winner “The King’s Speech” comes to mind, as well as “Shine” and “My Left Foot” — then you’re a shoo-in.
My good friend Glenn Whipp, who’s seen both sides of this topic as both a former film critic for the Los Angeles Daily News and now an awards expert for the Los Angeles Times, thinks the phrase “Oscar bait” is just a lazy pejorative, and one that’s not always accurate.
“Take `The King’s Speech,’ a movie that, on its surface, seemed like the ultimate Oscar-bait movie — monarchy, historical drama, lead character overcoming a disability, British accents, Harvey Weinstein,” Whipp said. “But it’s not like people were lining up to finance a movie about two middle-aged men — an unknown and a king with no charisma — sitting around and talking for two hours. It was anything but a surefire success. But audiences loved it at Telluride and Toronto, which gave it a momentum for its theatrical release.”
USA Today film critic Claudia Puig, also a good friend who attended the same screening of “The Butler” as I did, acknowledged that the “Oscar-bait” notion popped into her head as she was watching it.
“The reason that can feel like a bad thing, or at least something to be wary of, is that it places more emphasis on business and promotion over artistic concerns,” Puig said. “Most of us would prefer to think that marketing plays a much less important role than art. But that’s in an ideal world.”
Ah, so that’s what’s really bothering us: We’re seeking the sensation of authenticity in an inherently artificial world. Maybe we’re idealists after all.
You may have read an article in the last day or so in which “The Lone Ranger” stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer blamed critics for the film’s abysmal showing at the box office, at least in the United States. The action comedy opened July 3 with a paltry $29 million, and since then has made only about $86.8 million domestically. (International figures double the gross to about $175 million total. But still — not great.)
Depp said in an interview with Yahoo! U.K. Movies that he believes critics walked into the $250 million Disney blockbuster with their minds already made up and their knives sharpened. “I think the reviews were written seven-to-eight months before we released the film,” said the actor, who does a version of his familiar, heavily made-up, eccentric persona as Tonto.
Against the advice of his publicist, co-star Hammer, who plays the title character, added: “While we were making it we knew people were gunning for it. I think it was the popular thing when the movie hit rocky terrain they jumped on the bandwagon to try and bash it. They tried to do the same thing with … ‘World War Z,’ it didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”
As much as I hate to disagree with Hammer — for whom my admiration is well-documented, as my good friend and “What the Flick?!” co-host Ben Mankiewicz points out on Twitter — this really isn’t the way we film critics do our jobs. We may have had certain expectations of what “The Lone Ranger” might look like, what tone it might strike, based on the fact that it reunites the star (Depp), producer (Bruckheimer) and director (Gore Verbinski) of the enormously successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. There is a precedent here; these people don’t exactly function in a vacuum.
But I truly don’t believe that any of us walk into a movie hoping to be miserable, especially when that movie is 2 1/2 hours long. We don’t make enough money doing this to choose to inflict misery upon ourselves; we write about film for the love of writing about film. We want to be entertained — we want to be dazzled — and we want to share that joy with the world. (I will speak for myself, however, in acknowledging that seeing a raunchy Adam Sandler comedy on the horizon inspires certain pangs of dread. Sandler knows his target audience, and we are not it.)
Similarly, an effects-laden summer spectacle like “The Lone Ranger” should be critic-proof — not unlike the “Transformers” movies, which also are based on a well-established pop-culture phenomenon. If word of mouth killed “The Lone Ranger,” the words probably weren’t coming from critics’ mouths, but rather from those of regular moviegoers who saw the film for what it was: overlong, bloated, choppy and unfunny. I actually forgot there had been any production troubles as I was watching it and focused on the end result on the screen.
Also, the notion that critics go into a movie with any sort of group-think mentality is sort of ridiculous. We love to be contrarians — we love to disagree. We love to get into the nitty-gritty of a movie and champion the elements that work and dissect the parts that don’t. Forming your own opinion and fighting for it is one of the great pleasures and privileges of the gig — why would we relinquish that just to arbitrarily bash a blockbuster?
One of the many qualities I appreciated about Roger Ebert, as I wrote in my remembrance of him the day he died, was his ability to sit down for any movie of any genre with an open mind and heart, hoping to be wowed the way he was as a kid. Hopefully, the better part of all of us follows that same approach.
It’s been a long time coming, this whole website thing. I’ve owned ChristyLemire.com for about five years but have let it sit there, languishing until today, because a) I had a day job and b) I had no idea what to do with it. Now that I am a citizen of the world, I’ve been building this thing little by little over the past couple months – hence, you will see some insanely old reviews here. But you still care what I think about ‘The Internship,” right?
The plan is to offer you guys a daily mix of stuff: new reviews, What the Flick?! clips, links to various television appearances and random thoughts in general. One of the reasons I decided to branch out on my own was to have the freedom to write about whatever I want in as many words as I want, so I look forward to reviewing a wide variety of movies. And I take requests, so if there’s something you want to see, please say so.
ChristyLemire.com is very much a work in progress, so feel free to look around, see what you think and pipe up with any ideas/suggestions/criticism. If I’m gonna dish it out, I better be able to take it.
Tremendous thanks go to Steve Zehngut, founder of Zeek Interactive and an important friend for nearly 30 years, for taking my babblings and turning them into the beautiful website you see now. I am a total freaking Luddite and could not have done any of this without him.
I’m so proud to be able to share this with you, and thrilled that you took the time to stop by. Hope you enjoy.