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.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

Intellectually stimulating above all, A Dangerous Method has been one of the more difficult films for me to assess. The precision and attention to detail is undeniably impressive, as are the uniformly tight performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud respectively. But there’s a particular dryness to the way in which the film is written; not so much in the actual dialogue or exchanges, but in the way the film connects scenes. The screenplay, written by Christopher Hampton and based on John Kerr’s book, lacks a sense of connected uniformity. Individual scenes work out impressively, but when put together, they seem fragmented and devoid of cinematic bravura.

It’s not to fault the film entirely on Hampton’s screenplay, as it’s hardly a bad work, but rather that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the cinematic. Hampton had initially written the screenplay as a stageplay, therein introducing some of the problems I have with the feature to begin with – it certainly feels like a play, wherein scenes of dialogue unfold in one area, before eventually transitioning to another scene where two individuals combat in verbal acrobatics.

Honestly though, listening to Fassbender and Mortensen play out their roles and discussing theories of psychosexual development and anal fixation (all while Mortensen smokes a cigar; perpetually living out his own oral fixation theory) is worth viewing A Dangerous Method in itself. And the two banter in a way that make use of the material, as they are quite subdued and naturalistic in their performances. But it’s Kiera Knightly as Sabrina Spielrein who chews the scenery and completely revolts against the film’s restrained tone. To say she chews the scenery is an understatement here – she absolutely overwhelms the audience with her gaudy stammering and facial contortions to the point you have to wonder how someone like Fassbender could have kept a straight face throughout some of the film’s initial sequences. Knightly eventually finds her footing as the film progresses, but she is definitely operating under a different understanding of the material.

And there’s David Cronenberg. A Dangerous Method is not quite like any of his other films, as he is subscribing to a far more classical method of visual storytelling than even A History of Violence or Eastern Promises. I’ve read comparisons to Dead Ringers, but A Dangerous Method never really dabbles into an insatiably weird ideology – it’s fairly straightforward in its thinking, and at this point, Freud’s ideological framework isn’t exactly lurid material.  But if Cronenberg is giving up his 80s obsession with physical horror, he is adhering to a far more subtle psychological horror that has allowed for the greater advancement of his formal technique. Precise and perceptive, A Dangerous Method may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it just might be his finest directorial effort.

Rating: 7/10

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.