J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

Spanning seven decades, J. Edgar is epic in scale though imprecise in result. With Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, there’s certainly a sense of gravitas to the proceedings. But what curiously holds the feature back is not Eastwood’s reserved direction or DiCaprio’s bombastic acting, but rather, it is Dustin Lance Black’s curiously flat screenplay. Whereas Milk had utilized a fairly simplistic narrative structure, there was at least a sense of cohesion between scenes, wherein the plot progressed in an incredibly effective manner. But with J. Edgar, the time-spanning nature of Black’s screenplay seems to arbitrarily move between moments in time without much thought or meaning.

As a biopic, Eastwood treats the material and character with reverence, as he seems to be reserving judgment. This manner of approaching a figure like J. Edgar Hoover is appreciated, particularly given that it’s the sort of individual whose significance was not directly felt by my generation. The stories of Hoover’s past have seeped into popular culture, and to some extent, both Black and Eastwood delve into some of them. Said stories include his precarious (or perhaps nonexistent) sex life, his oedipal relationship with his mother, and his close relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

Eastwood relies on the same sort of color-corrected visual approach has he utilized in his 2008 effort, Changeling. Whereas Changeling moved between locales to make greater use of this visual approach, J. Edgar tends to be shot largely in closed-quartered venues, which only makes for a stagnant and visually muddled looking picture. While there tends to be slightly different hues as the film makes it leaps in time, it is simply not significant enough to illuminate the visuals.

Amidst the poor visuals and oddly structured narrative, there happens to be a fairly strong performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. I’ve never been quite taken by the actor, as he seems to be the sort of actor who so persistently acts that it removes you from the picture. But he does an admirable job in J. Edgar, particularly given that this is one of the few times that his young demeanor does not hinder his ability to play an older character. That’s partly attributed to the impressive make-up work of the film. He’s buried under a mask that doesn’t prohibit his facial movements a bit. Though that works better for DiCaprio than others, as Armie Hammer ages more like a zombie than an actual human being. Had it not been for DiCaprio, the film would’ve moved much like a zombie too.

Rating: 5/10

Cinema Chatter – Clearing the Fog

As we’ve entered the early November lull, awaiting the New York Film Critics Circle to announce their best films of the year, some of the mysteries of the season have been solved. Press screenings, early reviews, performance clarifications; it all has helped to address some of the looming question marks of the season. The lines are being drawn, campaigns are underway, and most of all; everyone is going to get a chance to see the films.

A Badge of Honor. One of the more obvious pieces of news of the past few weeks has been the announcement that Shame will be rated NC-17. The film, which stars Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender, sees both actors going full-frontal. But unlike last year’s Blue Valentine, which also had received the NC-17 rating before appealing, there will be no intention of appealing the rating on behalf of studio Fox Searchlight. If anything, the studio intends on flaunting the film’s risqué subject matter, as studio co-head Steve Giulia notes that the film’s rating is to be worn as a “badge of honor, not a scarlet letter.” The buzz for the film’s rating is similar to that of Blue Valentine’s, in that it’s getting people interested in the film; but Blue Valentine’s Academy Awards play was strictly limited to Michelle Williams’ Best Actress performance; it’ll be interesting to see if Shame can expand its play and involve Michael Fassbender in an incredibly tight Best Actor race. At this point, it’s looking like Carey Mulligan could become a serious player in the Best Supporting Actress category, as it’s far more fluid and open.

Supporting “Carnage”. One of the lingering questions of the season was how the Carnage cast was going to be broken down into individual categories; that question has been answered in the form of tossing em’ all in supporting. The foursome, comprised of Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet are all going in the Supporting Actress/Actor category. In a move that draws parallels to how Modern Family goes about its awards season, Carnage all of a sudden looks far more viable than it ever had before. While Winslet and Foster have divided pundits as to who gave the better performance, Waltz has drawn considerable praise on the male side of things. And given the rather fluid state of the Best Supporting Actor category, he certainly seems like a strong contender.

“A Dangerous Method” Upended. Well, it just doesn’t seem like it’s the year for David Cronenberg.  One of cinema’s greatest working directors is not likely to have a single nomination going for his film, A Dangerous Method. The buzz for A Dangerous Method has diminished considerably in the past few months, and with a release just a few weeks away, there really hasn’t been much to keep it in the conversation. The last piece of news has seriously unfurled any sort of traction the film could have picked up, as Kiera Knightly is now going for Lead Actress category. Whereas she may have had a chance in Best Supporting Actress category, her chances have taken a significant hit as she is now in the same category as Glenn Close, Tilda Swinton, Felicity Jones, Elizabeth Olson, Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Williams and Rooney Mara; all of whom are battling it out for two spots (with slots reserved for Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Charlize Theron).

I See (some of) You! Unlike previous years, this awards season is going to be largely decided last minute, as festival darlings haven’t made the dent we expected, and big films from big directors are held off until the end of the year. But the unfurling process for some of these late releases is certainly interesting. And for now, four big films have been seen by the press/pundits/general audiences.

As Young Adult makes its way to various venues, the film’s buzz continues to grow. The screenings have solidified Charlize Theron’s Best Actress chances, and seem to have added fuel to the Patton Oswalt Supporting Actor train. Its Best Original Screenplay chances seem strong too. The film has found its nook within the awards conversation and seems to have nestled in quite nicely. As the film will likely have a good critical response, it could make a play if the stars align commercially.

While Young Adult is making the rounds in larger cities, War Horse heads for smaller, rural venues. Undoubtedly a reflection of its ideals and demographical constituency, War Horse seems to be drawing very divisive reactions; reactions range from the film being a masterpiece to being blatant Oscar-reaching tripe. It serves to affirm my fears from its initial trailer: it’ll be a film of superficial values.

An unfinished version of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo premiered at the New York Film Festival to generally positive reactions. I had initially pegged the film as a possible spoiler earlier in the season, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be the case; expectations that the film will likely be a contender in the technical fields remain, but it’s not likely to make much of a splash in the above-the-line categories.

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar premiered at the AFI Fest to a general consensus: it’s going to come down to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. The praise for the film tends to only involve DiCaprio, with Eastwood’s direction and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay left to wolves to pick apart. Its Best Picture play will likely be minimal, though it remains a contender; as does Armie Hammer’s supporting performance.

So, there’ll be five. And on the lighter side of things, the animated feature film shortlist has been announced, confirming that there will be five films up for the prize in the category. If anything, it gives Pixar a little breathing room to hope that Cars 2 will get nominated, though the contest will be largely between Rango and The Adventures of Tintin, with the obscure international film, Wrinkles playing as potential spoiler.

Check out an updated Contenders page here. Also, expect a visual overall of each category page in the weeks to come; especially as the season begins to unfold.

Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

Buzz is a Bitch: Best Picture 2011-2012

Best Picture Contenders

As I bought tickets for the Chicago International Film Festival today, I found myself prioritizing films based on their buzz, neglecting smaller pictures that may sound good but won’t be in the awards conversation for the year. It comes to a point where you have to embrace the hysteria around Oscar prognostication and take part in the conversation to the fullest extent possible.

Fortunately for me, the Oscar conversation seems to be taking place outside of the festival realm. It gives me greater reign to actually look at films with little to no shot of entering the conversation due to lack of distribution or obscurity. But for films that have been garnering traction over the past few months at Toronto, Telluride, Cannes, and Venice, there’s a sense that it’s simply not enough. Whereas films like The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire had an irresistible-force aura to their festival runs, no film really stands out over the festival circuit to lay claim to the prior two films’ crown. The Ides of March debuted at the Venice Film Festival and had its fair share of acclaim, but hardly the sort of fanatic diehard reception that a Best Picture nominee typically receives, let alone a potential winner. Steven McQueen’s Shame seems to be an actor’s showcase for Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but its appeal as a Best Picture contender is strictly contained to the art-house crowd. Madonna’s W.E. was a bust. Roman Polanski’s Carnage has failed to impress.

What were left from the festival rubble are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Michel Hazanaviccius’ The Artist. The three films are anchored by strong leading male performances, and while they are at this point, likely nominees, neither is on solid footing.

The Artist

The Artist debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered universal praise. The film will undoubtedly garner enough passion votes to secure a nomination come the big day, but I sense a backlash forming. This is largely in part due to where it stands in the minds of the voters – as new films enter the conversation by the week (Moneyball this week, 50/50 next, etc) there seems to be a decline in the film’s staying power with audiences. The fact that it did not win the Audience Award at Toronto (an award that was bestowed on Best Picture nominees and winners like The King’s Speech, Precious, and Slumdog Millionaire) does not bode well for The Artist’s standing. And given that the film may come across as gimmicky for its own sake, its positioning is nowhere near as secure as one is led to believe. But then again, The Weinsteins are behind the film, so I’m probably just imagining it all.

The Descendants fits a specific pedigree of indie filmmaking that tend to get nominated once a year (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids are All Right), but it has already been acknowledged as a lesser effort from those who saw it at Telluride. It’s still riding a wave, but I have reserved expectations on its potential once it gets a wider release. Its comedic roots aren’t going to do it any favors, nor will the fact that Payne has already been recognized (albeit, in the Adapted Screenplay category). There is typically a time when individuals get recognized for their efforts – this was the case with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,  the Coens for No Country for Old Men – it’s not meant to dismiss the accomplishments of the individual performance or direction, but rather it serves as a lifetime achievement award. Simply put, Alexander Payne’s time doesn’t seem to be just now.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has the benefit of a British contingent to bolster its chances and has a good awards-story in Gary Oldman getting a role that will finally get him recognized with a nomination.  It, for all intensive purposes, achieves a particular role of what to expect in a “Best Picture” nominee, and from there, I’d say it’s in better position than The Descendants  The buzz for the film seems to have run stagnant for the past few weeks since its debut at Venice, which I take as a positive – I doubt Focus Features would to bust their load from the onset. Instead, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in a quiet buzz period, before releasing it to a wider audience come December.

The Festival Darlings

  1. “The Artist”
  2. “The Descendants”
  3. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”

Alt: “The Ides of March”

Then we have the summer crop. The summer gave us some concrete possibilities of other nominees with Tate Taylor’s The Help, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life leading the charge. I’d wager all three movies have the potential to make it to the end of the race, as they all tend to rouse a sort of passion vote that is a requirement in meeting the 5% (of first-place votes) needed for a nomination in the category. This works particularly well for The Tree of Life, as its polarizing status won’t necessarily do it any harm come the end of the race – there are those who love it and hate it, and only those who love it will be acknowledged come nomination time. Amongst outside contenders, the only one that bares any possibility seems to be the final addition to the Harry Potter franchise – given its critical acclaim, there’s a sense that the film could sneak in for a nomination. I think not – unlike The Lord of the Rings franchise, none of the previous Potter incarnations have garnered above-the-line awards recognition. I sincerely doubt that will change.

Summer Hold-Overs

  1. “The Help”
  2. “Midnight in Paris”
  3. “The Tree of Life”

Alt: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”

War Horse

So we have six. This leaves us with the possibility of yet another four. Here’s where things get particularly tricky as we explore a great deal of unknowns. The general consensus has placed Steven Spielberg’s War Horse as the one to beat, and quite honestly, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a period piece, set against the backdrop of a war, with Spielberg at its helm. I talked about it being someone’s time earlier in this piece, and if anything, this season seems to be geared toward rewarding Spielberg yet again – his time seems to be here yet again.

Remaining amongst the unknowns include Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. I’m hesitant to lobby for Eastwood’s place in the Academy’s circle, particularly given that he has been largely shut out of the larger awards for the past few years with Invictus, Changling, and Gran Torino. But then again, so has Woody Allen, and Midnight in Paris was a return to form, so it’s hard to make such blanket statements with no word on the actual quality of the film.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is bypassing the festival circuit entirely, leaving one to question where the film stands at all. It’s written by Diablo Cody, which begs more questions than answers. Reitman’s previous two films have garnered directorial and Best Picture nominations, which lends itself to the same logic that has people believing that Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a lock for a nomination. My take: neither film will make much of an impact come nomination time, but if there’s one that might, I’d go with Reitman’s film.

A big question mark that remains in the Oscar season and one that I sense could truly make a play that pundits are ignoring, is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The trailer displays incredible detail in the craft department, though there certainly seems to be a nostalgic essence to the film that could resonate with voters. Again, like with War Horse, J. Edgar, Young Adult, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we’re in a wait and see mode with these films, but the possibility definitely seems there.

The Unknowns

  1. “War Horse”
  2. “J. Edgar”
  3. “Hugo”
  4. “Young Adult”
  5. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

And that concludes my first column of what I hope will be a weekly column that looks at the Oscar race. In the meantime, the site will be going through periodic updates as I attempt to create a more interactive and in-depth Academy Award interface. The focus of the site will still remain on my reviewing of the films I see (with a new post coming soon) but hopefully I’ll be able to supplement that with my own obsessive thoughts on the Oscar race.