No fucking way I’m restating my thesis again. This is "Part III", homes. Ain’t no Season of the Witch goin’ on up in here. You gots to read the other entries if’n you want this shit to make any kind of sense.
And if you do, by chance, locate the connective tissue, shoot me an email, okay?
The Prohibitive Favorite
Charlie Wilson’s War (d. Mike Nichols)
Almost every year, there’s a highly pedigreed prestige picture looming on the awards season landscape, threatening to reduce the whole "race" to a formality. 2006 had Dreamgirls. 2005 had Munich. 2004, The Aviator. Only the latter two would go on to earn Best Picture nominations. Only The Aviator had any kind of outside shot at winning.
Why did these three very-good-to-great films fail to beat out lesser competition like The Departed, Crash and Million Dollar Baby? It’s because they never had the opportunity to engage critics and Oscar voters as regular movies. I was at the Academy HQ unveiling of Dreamgirls in November 2006, and the energy in the audience before the film even started was split between demented anticipation and seething hatred (the musical nuts were atwitter over finally seeing the finished film; the rest grew increasingly resentful of Dreamworks’ shameless wining-and-dining with each gulp of cabernet). But the one constant between the want-to-love and want-to-hate camp was that both were handicapping, minute by minute, the film’s Best Picture worthiness – and not as a potential nominee, but as the eventual winner! So when the film inevitably fell short for the antis, out came the knives; two months later, Dreamgirls was too shredded to even rate a Best Picture nomination.
Mike Nichols has been in this unenviable position before. Postcards from the Edge was touted as a Best Actress/Supporting Actress showcase for Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in 1990, but ultimately deemed too lightweight for a film dealing with substance abuse. Primary Colors was released in March of 1998 and considered relatively quaint compared to the then two-month-old Monica Lewinsky imbroglio (Nichols and Elaine May were after something smarter and less salacious anyway). And Closer was expected to lock down nominations for its four-performer company, but the script’s cruelty turned off a majority of voters (who couldn’t stomach America’s sweetheart, Julia Roberts, being told to "Fuck off and die, you fucked-up slag").
Even though everything about Charlie Wilson’s War seems to be about eight years off on the zeitgeist (Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts toplining an Aaron Sorkin screenplay?), Oscar prognosticators are in agreement that, based on the combined wins of its cast and crew alone, this is the season’s frontrunner. It’s political at a time when Hollywood can afford to make a sweeping anti-Bush statement (without being widely excoriated for indulging in a fit of limousine liberalism); it’s flatteringly clever in the good Sorkin tradition; and, if Nichols gets the pacing right, it’s going to be tremendously entertaining. The only potential weakness is that it might come off as too pat and pre-digested, but that’s never been a problem for Oscar voters (see: Crash, American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, Driving Miss Daisy and so many more).
Charlie Wilson’s War is set for release on Christmas Day, but it’ll start showing in November because everybody wants a National Board of Review citation! As with the above favorites that fell short, it’ll be the management of perception, not the quality of the film, that determines its fate; although, if any early reviews refer to it as "Sherman McCoy’s War", consider the fucker buried.
The Semi-Known Quantities
My Blueberry Nights (d. Wong Kar-wai)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (d. Cristian Mungiu)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (d. Tsai Ming-liang)
The Man from London (d. Bela Tarr)
We Own the Night (d. James Gray)
Paranoid Park (d. Gus Van Sant)
Don’t Touch the Axe (d. Jacques Rivette)
Grace is Gone (James C. Strouse)
These are the festival films about which we know enough to determine… what the cineastes thought of them? Whatever. One of my favorite movies of 1999, Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, was pronounced DOA at that year’s Toronto Film Festival by a huge majority of critics. Sometimes, it isn’t the film. The festival grind requires an immediate reaction from the viewer; you need to quickly process thoughtful, deeply layered works in order to make room for the next thoughtful, deeply layered film on the schedule. Diligent critics can do five movies a day over the course of two weeks; sheer fatigue or moodiness can taint reactions to movies that might deserve better.
As the opening night selection for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights cannot use critic fatigue as an excuse for its mixed-to-negative reception. This is a shame because Wong a) is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and b) has not made an outright bad movie in his nearly twenty-year career. By no means am I expecting My Blueberry Nights to be a complete waste. In a way, I’m glad to hear that Wong’s English-language debut is confounding; that’s far preferable to "compromised".
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will offer Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire some stiff competition for 2007’s Best Abortion Movie (2006’s winner: The Last Kiss). I am completely unfamiliar with Mungiu’s work, but the nearly unanimous praise for this year’s Palm d’Or recipient is… not enough for pique my enthusiasm. It’s the subject matter, folks, not the foreignness.
Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone has already played in New York City. This is just me hoping it’ll turn up in Los Angeles sometime soon, as I don’t expect to see it on Region 1 DVD until 2012.
I’m also not certain that Bela Tarr’s The Man from London will ever see a domestic U.S. release. His masterpiece, Werckmeister Harmonies, took six years to hit Region 1 DVD. Sure, he’s an acquired taste, but it’d be nice for American film buffs to have the option to acquire it without buying an all-region player (not that that’s an expensive proposition anymore).
If we can’t see Tarr, we can at least enjoy Gus Van Sant’s approximation of the Hungarian filmmaker’s deliberate, oft-tracking aesthetic. With the exception of Elephant, this has proven an acceptable substitute. (Just admit it: you loved Gerry.) Van Sant’s latest Tarr-infused drama, Paranoid Park, follows a Portland, Oregon teenager (they make ‘em weird up there) as he tries to cope with having accidentally murdered a skate park security guard. Notices out of Cannes were largely enthusiastic, but distributor IFC Films has yet to set a 2007 release date.
James Gray’s The Yards wasn’t perfect, but the film was so gracefully understated that I didn’t mind the uneven narrative. Judging from the reaction at Cannes, We Own the Night, a full-bore gangster melodrama starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall, isn’t a huge step forward for this undeniably talented filmmaker – i.e. unless you count the climactic car chase, which is apparently one of the best ever filmed (one critic placed it on the same level as Death Proof). Universal was initially set to distribute this in the U.S., but they inexplicably dropped it earlier this year. Sony immediately snatched it up, however, so it’s not like the film languished. But with the year Universal’s having, I wouldn’t want to second guess their business decisions. We’ll see if their reticence was deserved on October 12th.
The last time I saw Jacques Rivette, he was getting harangued by a borderline incoherent John Simon after a 2001 New York Film Festival of Va Savoir. Most of Simon’s invective was in French, so I’m not entirely sure what was said; all I know is that it was loud and amused Rivette to no end. I’m glad the French New Wave legend has a sense of humor about such things, because his latest picture, an adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s La duchesse de Langeais, didn’t do so hot at the Berlin Film Festival this year. He’s got Jeannie Balibar back from Va Savoir, which is nice. This is allegedly due out in the U.S. this October. We’ll see if that holds.
Finally, Grace is Gone. James C. Strouse’s Sundance fave starring John Cusack as a father who whisks his daughters off on a transformative road trip after their mother is killed in Iraq. Cusack’s performance is supposed to be great, but the movie on the whole has engendered mixed responses. If Cusack is ever going to earn Academy acknowledgment for his impressive body of work, this could be the film that does it.
Michael Clayton (d. Tony Gilroy)
Across the Universe (d. Julie Taymor)
The Kite Runner (d. Marc Forster)
Lions for Lambs (d. Robert Redford)
Love in the Time of Cholera (d. Mike Newell)
Reservation Road (d. Terry George)
These films all boast considerable talent in front of and/or behind the camera, but, for one reason or another, don’t look terribly appealing. I suppose I’m most interested in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, which stars George Clooney as a corporate "fixer" who endures a crisis of conscience when his company’s top attorney goes rogue in the middle of a major class action suit. Gilroy’s never struck me as a great writer, but maybe that’s because he’s been rewritten a ton throughout his career. He’s assembled a terrific cast in Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack and Michael O’Keefe(!), so he could have something special here. The film will debut at Toronto in September prior to its October 5th release date.
I didn’t know who to cite as the director of Across the Universe: Julie Taymor or Joe Roth. As you might’ve heard, these two crazy kids are engaged in a fracas over the final cut of this tribute to the power of The Beatles discography. At issue is the film’s length and general watchability: Taymor’s version is apparently bloated and incomprehensible. (Never saw that coming!) After her cut tested poorly numerous times, Roth did some editing on his own and emerged with a leaner, more conventional take on the film. (Cats and dogs, living together!) When his cut tested better than Taymor’s, the revered director of Broadway’s The Lion King allegedly went nutso. I don’t know what we’ll be seeing on September 28th, but it sounds like it’s gonna be awfully chick-friendly. Not that I give a shit: the trailer is repulsive. But Taymor’s so talented you have to give her some benefit of the doubt.
Unlike most of America, I have not read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, so director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff have nowhere to go but up as far as I’m concerned. Benioff’s adaptation made last year’s Black List, which means execs and their assistants liked it, which means nothing. This is a big-time prestige entry for Dreamworks, and they’ve got a director in Forster who knows how to connect with the sentimentality-susceptible Oscar voters (still can’t believe Finding Neverland got a Best Picture nomination). I’m no fan of Forster’s, but Benioff won of lifetime supply of my goodwill with 25th Hour. These guys last got together on Stay. That can’t happen twice.
I was no fan of the Lions for Lambs teaser that hit the net a few weeks ago, but I’m willing to overlook a shitty marketing campaign when Robert Redford is directing. This’ll probably occasion a healthy spate o’ scorn, but I think Redford gets an phenomenally bad rap. Most of this resentment results from his beating out Martin Scorsese for Best Director in 1980; now that Marty’s got his gold (and co-starred in Quiz Show), can we please put this to rest, especially since Ordinary People is an excellent movie? Frankly, I’ve found stuff to admire in all of Redford’s movies, and consider The Milagro Beanfield War his only failure. (Yeah, I like The Legend of Bagger Vance, magic negro and all!) There’s a chance Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay for Lions for Lambs will be a bit too on the nose for Redford, but The Sundance Kid’s track record gives me hope.
"You know who’d be perfect to capture the ecstatic prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera? That… guy! That… oh, what’s his name? He directed the good Harry Potter movie." Uh, wrong "good Harry Potter" movie, guys. At least you can’t accuse Mike Newell of casting for the marketplace: Liev Schreiber, Javier Bardem, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Laura Harring and Catalina Sandino Moreno. That’ll pack ‘em in! Of course, with a story this relentlessly upbeat, who needs stars?
Terry George uses the death of a child as some kind of inciting incident in Reservation Road, a drama of two families speeding toward an "emotional reckoning". Ooh! I like those! George is a serviceable director, but you don’t have to be much more than serviceable when you’re working with Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino (comeback role, anyone?). It’s got an October release date and will be at Toronto in September. That cast could carry an otherwise average film a long fucking way.
This is now a four-part article.