Last Minute Not-So-Fearless Oscars Forecast

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

Hollywood loves movies about showbiz, and Alejandro Inarritu‘s funny, visually novel and quite original “Birdman” is justifiably lauded for its excellence in direction/tech and acting. So look to see that film win for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and possibly for Best Actor (for Michael Keaton’s brilliant performance AND his body of work).

Still, I’m thinking it’s more likely that Eddie Redmayne will win for his impressive feat as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Because, you know, it’s a “serious” biopic and Hawking is played by a Brit. And Brits win many of the big acting Oscars.

The cumulative effect of Richard Linklater‘s beautiful, unusual “Boyhood” — seeing a boy played by the same actor grow from child to adult, and his family members age, too, in what feels like real time over the course of a few hours — indeed was emotionally engaging, and it was the first feature film to notch that accomplishment. So it COULD take Best Picture and Best Director, but my guess is that Patricia Arquette‘s naturalistic turn as the protagonist’s long-suffering mom will result in the movie’s only major win, for Best Supporting Actress.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, as an Alzheimer’s patient in the moving but not entirely satisfying “Still Alice,” deserves the win, and will get it, in part for a career’s worth of great work.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons will win for his towering performance in “Whiplash” as the scariest band director in history.

Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson’s quirky, wildly inventive screenplay for his “The Grand Budapest Hotel” deserves it and will win it, I think. The film will win for Production Design, too, and probably Costume Design.

Adapted Screenplay: “The Imitation Game” deserves/gets the win.

Editing: What feat could beat the artfully-stitching-together-12-years-of-footage accomplishment of “Boyhood”?

Visual Effects: “Interstellar” deserves it and, I think, will win.

Foreign film: Probably “Ida.”

Documentary: Probably “Citizenfour”

Score: Probably Johann Johannsson, for “The Theory of Everything”; AMPAS wrongly denied Antonio Sanchez a nom for “Birdman,” IMO.

Upset potential: If anything, the commercial juggernaut “American Sniper” could force a surprise or two.

Stay tuned.

“ParaNorman” (review)

Stars the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, from a script by Fell. 93 minutes. Rated PG. Critic’s grade: B+

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people. In particular, the boy, a horror-loving social outcast dubbed a “freak” by his schoolmates, routinely talks to his supportive grandmother (Elaine Stritch) and can’t go down the street without having conversations with the spirits of local neighbors, a suicide victim, a leather-jacketed tough, and even a dog that met its untimely end thanks to a passing car.

The kid treats all the paranormal activity as just another trial of adolescence, something he has to put up with alongside an annoying, constantly primping older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), disbelieving parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) and the mean and pimply school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

In the context of his hometown, Norman’s visions, in “ParaNorman,” don’t seem so out of place: Everyone in the 300-year-old Blithe Hollow, built on a tourist industry based on a local legend concerning a witch, seems to turn out for the local school’s production of “The Witch’s Curse.”

Respect and a little redemption comes Norman’s way courtesy of his crazy, mysterious Uncle Prendherghast (John Goodman), who, before dying, has a secret for the kid: “The witch’s curse is real, and you’re the one who has to stop it,” he says. Leading a gang of kids, including chubby friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), sis, Alvin, and Alvin’s gym-rat older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman plots to end the curse. Along the way the gang encounters a frightening graveyard, overeager Puritans, zombies, torch-bearing townspeople, and that would-be scary witch.

The bristles of Prenderghast’s massive beard represent just one image/texture that comes alive in the hands of co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, wielding a brand of stop-motion 3D magic that also lifted the visual wizardry of “Coraline.” Butler, the new film’s screenwriter, was the storyboard supervisor on “Coraline,” and both movies were made at the same studio, Laika.

Young viewers undoubtedly will be captured by the slightly scary story, while the older set will be taken by the handcrafted look and feel of the film, and its references to everything from the “Scooby-Doo” cartoon series to vintage B-grade horror and the likes of “Friday the 13th”; the theme from the latter’s soundtrack is the ringtone on Norman’s phone. Positive, uplifting messages — the power of forgiveness, tolerance for others — abound, too. “ParaNorman” counts as one of the most intriguing achievement animations of the year, so far.

The Last House on the Left (movie review)

last-house

Here’s my “director’s cut” review of Last House, also available at the online sites of two print publications (scroll to bottom for links).

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The Last House on the Left

Stars Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garrett Dillahunt. Directed by Dennis Iliadis. Written by Adam Elleca and Carl Ellsworth. 105 minutes. Rated R.

Grade: D

Blame it on the Mansons. Or, rather, the sensationalistic press coverage of that California cult family’s bloody 1969 killing spree in the Hollywood hills. Three years later, Wes Craven combined the home-invasion theme with story inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and attached a happy — okay, just satisfyingly vengeful — ending, whereby the killers paid for their sins before going to hell.

The resultant low-budget horror thriller, The Last House on the Left, attracted wide notoriety and generated censorship challenges for Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham. The two later helmed franchise starters A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, respectively; they deserve partial blame for slasher films and, by extension, that genre’s spawn, torture porn.

Still stomach-turning after all these years, Last House is back, with a suspenseful and well-made if utterly gruesome remake produced by Craven and Cunningham. The graphic violence is facilitated by a microwave, a garbage disposal, a hammer, a fireplace poker, and pistols, among other sharp objects, household appliances and standard weapons.

Director Dennis Iliadis (Hardcore) handily establishes the setting, a roomy, lived-in lake house owned by friendly, caring physician John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and his coolly efficient wife Emma (Monica Potter), who are still reeling from the loss of their son Ben.

The idyllic retreat comes complete with separate guest lodging and a little red boat house. Later, one of the baddies, envying the family’s comfortable lifestyle, asks Emma, “How many houses do you own?” So are the filmmakers commenting on extreme class warfare, as demonstrated when the have nots, represented by these out-of-luck thugs, attempt to forcibly take what they want, including a well-to-do family’s child and home?

As in the original, two girls, the Collingwoods’ daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) and her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) are out enjoying themselves — this time, getting high on “premium weed” with a shy young guy, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), they befriend at a small-town convenience store — when they unwittingly stumble into hard-as-nails criminals.

The latter trio’s bloodlust has already been established in a quick prologue, during which one of the nasties escapes from the confines of a police car.

Justin’s dad, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is the vicious, nominally handsome leader of the gang, which also includes his more hyperactive brother, Francis (Aaron Paul) and their bisexual sidekick Sadie (Riki Lindhome). Krug decides that he can’t let the girls live, and takes them deep into the woods to do his dirty work.

Iliadis creates genuine dread and suspense during the run-up to the attack on the girls, and over the course of the extended battle between the Collingwoods and the cretins. Two moments are striking due to the impressive intensity of the actors’ performances — first, when Justin is physically sickened after seeing a photo of one of the brutalized girls, and second, when the Collingwoods are struck with bewilderment, sheer terror and then righteous anger after realizing that their daughter’s attackers are right there, under their noses, in the guest house across the way. Yep, the predators are about to become the prey.

Then again, there’s the torture sequence, an uncomfortably extended ordeal that’s shot rather matter-of-factly, with the camera mostly unblinking as the victims are variously punched, knifed and raped by their captors. After being made voyeuristically complicit in the relentless debasement of women and then being asked to exult in the subsequent gory payback, some viewers are likely to feel brutalized and debased themselves. Just asking, but, who was this movie made for, and why?

An ugly, mean-spirited exploitation film is an ugly, mean-spirited exploitation film, even when informed by a certain fondness for the lore and conventions of an oddly cherished genre.

Handy review quote for studio publicists in need of a blurb: Last House is the must-miss movie of the season.

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Read this review (shorter version) in Las Vegas City Life here.

Oscar Talk: Awards Bounce? Not so Much

oscars3The Oscar bounce — the uptick in attendance when any particular movie lands Academy Awards nominations — once was the cart placed before the horse of movie productions.

That is, producers and studios routinely attached stars and directors to scripts merely in hopes of assembling a movie that would land awards attention, which in turn would lead to boffo box office, in Variety-speak.

As it turns out, the Oscar bounce is practically as obsolete as the payphone.

So says Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein, in a piece published today.

“The Academy Awards’ best picture nominees were announced Jan. 22, an event quickly commemorated by a blitzkrieg of expensive full-page ads in the trades, the New York Times and my newspaper, designed to use the cachet of a best picture nomination to nudge reluctant moviegoers into the theaters,” Goldstein writes.

“But at the time when the rest of the movie business is booming, the best picture nominees–with the obvious exception of the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire–are doing a slow fade. Only one of the five best picture nominees, The Reader, has made more of its overall box-office take after it earned a best picture nod.”

Downside for viewers, long term: Some high-quality productions, which might only have been given the green light because of their potential for grabbing Oscar attention, will now stay in development hell.

Upside for viewers, short term (as in this season): Oscar prospects have lengthened the on-screen life of an impressive group of films far more worthwhile than such February releases as the turgid The International and the execrable Friday the 13th.

So … see the good stuff while you still can.

Click here to read the rest of Goldstein’s story.

Friday the 13th — Another Horror Reboot

What happens to horror-film franchises that seem to have run their course?fridayposter

D’oh! They reboot.

No need to come up with an original concept when an old idea means instant brand recognition and — thanks to low overhead on script and talent — a really impressive ROI (return on investment).

That’s the thinking, one guesses, behind Friday the 13th, opening this weekend (Fri, 2/13, naturally), the latest in a series of new horror films boasting familiar titles and tried-and-bloody plots.

Why start all over with the tale of Jason, the killer wearing a hockey mask, and the pretty but promiscuous teens he murders at Camp Crystal Lake?

Because the zig-zagging direction and creative dead ends of the existing franchise left filmmakers no other sensible options, as horror specialist Devin Faraci (Chud.com) told the New York Times.

“These films have a ridiculously convoluted history,” Faraci said. “Jason barely appears in Part 1. He shows up in Part 2, gets killed in Part 4. There’s an impostor in a Jason mask in Part 5. Jason comes back as a zombie in Part 6. Toxic sludge turns him back into a child at the end of Part 8. He gets blown up in the opening minutes of Part 9 and then becomes a body-hopping force of evil that gets sucked into hell. In Part 10 the earth is destroyed, Jason becomes a cyborg and lands on an alien planet. Where could the series possibly go at that point? A reboot is the only sane answer.”

The reborn Friday the 13th was preceded by 2001’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2006 prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which together reaped about $120 million at the U.S. box office; 2005’s Amityville Horror,  which scored $65 million; and 2007’s remake of The Hitcher ($16 million).

Just around the corner, due on March 13, is The Last House on the Left, a remake of Wes Craven’s chilling horror thriller of the same name, released 37 years ago. Craven is a producer of the new film, along with Sean Cunningham, director of the original Friday the 13th, released in 1980 and a producer of several more in the series, including the remake.

Toby Emmerich, head of New Line Cinema, home to the new Friday the 13th, said his studio also plans to remake Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, released in 1984.