Yesterday, we returned to our annual fall film preview by reminding readers about the Oscar-O-Meter™, a handy prognosticating formula that measures Academy interest in upcoming films on a scale of 1 to 10. Today, we wrap up the rest of the prestige season in a neat little box with a small gold man on top.
Releasing the week of November 13:
Premise: In the 1960s, rock fans who tired of the BBC deciding what they should hear had another option: Offshore pirate radio. Heading an all-star cast, Bill Nighy plays the proprietor of one such station, which broadcasts an edgy selection of rock and pop with the help of DJs played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, and others.
Pedigree: Okay, we might have cut off that cast list a little too soon. Also around: Kenneth Branagh, Rhys Darby, and Mad Men’s January Jones. And it comes from writer-director Richard Curtis. But which Curtis will show up? The screenwriter behind the delicately funny Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill, or the shameless, anything-for-a-laugh-and-a-tear director of Love Actually?
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. If it’s funny, it probably won’t get any awards. And if it isn’t funny, it definitely won’t get any awards.
Advance word: Not so great. Pirate Radio opened in Britain last spring under its original title, The Boat That Rocked. Few thought it rocked.
Up In The Air
Premise: Like a feature-length expansion of the “single-serving friend” montage from Fight Club, this adaptation of Walter Kirn’s bestselling novel stars George Clooney as a professional downsizer who travels from city to city to fire people. As he approaches his coveted ten millionth frequent-flyer mile, a change in the business threatens to ground him permanently.
Pedigree: Director Jason Reitman was nominated for Juno, but most of the credit for its success was shifted—perhaps unfairly—to screenwriter Diablo Cody. He has another chance to solidify his reputation with Up In The Air, and he has top-to-bottom support, from the critically respected source material to a gifted cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, and Anna Kendrick.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 9. Clooney’s own status as a committed bachelor heading well into middle age adds an extra layer of intrigue to his performance, which relies on his comedic timing and charisma, as well as his age and world-wariness. And if Reitman delivers, he might start getting the credit he’s due. Add in a touching, recession-friendly theme about the importance of family and home in troubled times, and this feels like the right movie for the moment.
The view from TIFF: Ladies and gentlemen, meet your Oscar frontrunner—at least for the time being. No Toronto première came out of the festival with more goodwill, and the film’s deft fusion of impeccably timed comedy and resonant personal drama goes down easy. If anything, the film is too slick by half, but fine performances by Clooney, Farmiga, and especially Kendrick give it the requisite depth and emotional authenticity.
Also in multiplexes: A long-prophesized “end of days” year has been turned into the disaster movie to end all disaster movies with 2012, the latest from Godzilla and Independence Day landmark-leveler Roland Emmerich. Break out the buttery popcorn, folks: The world is coming to an end.
Releasing the week of November 20:
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
Premise: A sorta/kinda/not-really remake of Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 cop drama features a decorated police lieutenant who misbehaves, but otherwise, the two films have little in common. Nicolas Cage stars as a gambling, stealing, substance-abusing detective put in charge of a murder investigation in a ravaged New Orleans neighborhood.
Pedigree: Cage won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, and was nominated a second time for his dual role in Adaptation, but lately, he’s become notorious for hamming it up like late-period Al Pacino in films like The Wicker Man and the National Treasure series. Director Werner Herzog is a filmmaking icon—and a cult of personality in his own right—but last year’s documentary Encounters At The End Of The World marked the first time the Academy has ever recognized his work.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 0. There’s an audience out there eager to check out this insane project, but it decidedly isn’t the fogies who vote on the Oscars every year. And while it’s true that over-the-top acting wins sometimes awards, over-the-stratosphere acting rarely does. Cage doesn’t apply for the Shelley Winters Exception here.
The view from TIFF: Bad Lieutenant: POCNO is everything the trailer promised and much more, a batty policier fueled by a sublimely deranged lead performance that recalls Herzog’s work with the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s apathy toward the nuts-and-bolts of genre storytelling gives the film’s worst scenes a perfunctory, straight-to-DVD quality, but his Bad Lieutenant comes to life whenever Cage gets to holler and strut, or when he hits on a bizarre flourish like the iguana-cam.
Premise: A blind screenwriter tells his young assistant the story of the woman—and the avocation—he loved and lost.
Pedigree: Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar continues his late-career transition from outrageous showman to mature craftsman with a movie that toys lightly with film-noir conventions, and comments on how people reconstruct their memories out of art. The first hour is livelier than the second, though the movie does end on a high that should play well to Almodóvar’s considerable fan base.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. As has been the norm with Almodóvar films lately, Broken Embraces was passed over when Spain submitted its official selection to the Academy for the Best Foreign Language Film category. But past Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz is terrific yet again as an aspiring actress with a jealous magnate for a husband, and she could find her way back into the Best Supporting Actress category.
The view from TIFF: Broken Embraces played on the festival’s opening night to a largely appreciative audience, then was long forgotten by the time TIFF closed. It’s a solidly entertaining film, but years from now, when people look back at Almodóvar’s career, Broken Embraces is more likely to be greeted with “Now which one was that again?” than “Man, I loved that movie!”
Also in multiplexes: While it’s based on a true story, the inspirational drama The Blind Side is already drawing heat over how simple stereotypes take over its story of an underprivileged, ignorant, humongous African-American kid taken in by a privileged white family (led by an unpleasantly perky Sandra Bullock) and groomed for football superstardom. The trailer pounds home the uplift with a sledgehammer, but the quieter racial implications make more of an creepy impact. Less controversial: Planet 51, a CGI kids’ comedy that reverses the old E.T. story by turning a human astronaut into the alien marooned on a planet of little green men. Finally, roll up the windows and prepare for a lot of tween-girl screaming as The Twilight Saga: New Moon brings dreamy, sparkly abstinence-vampires into contact with shirtless werewolves.
Releasing the week of November 27:
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Premise: Indie film fave Wes Anderson supervises a stop-motion-animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a crafty fox, his family, his band of animal associates, and their human enemies.
Pedigree: Anderson reportedly worked with his actors (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson) on location rather than in a studio, looking for a different feel for the movie’s audio track. Then he instructed his animators—remotely, according to rumor—to give the movie a look halfway between Rankin-Bass and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 6. Even though it’s been a strong year for animated films, it’s hard to believe this won’t get a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category. Although…
Advance word: …critics who’ve seen early screenings have been divided over whether Anderson’s quirky sensibility is even funnier in animated form, or Fantastic Mr. Fox just reinforces his limitations as a filmmaker.
Premise: Okay, take a deep breath and try to keep up here. This is not 9, The Nines, The Nine, $9.99, or District 9, all of which were fairly recent. This is a whole ’nother thing. Specifically, it’s a film adaptation of a highly successful Broadway musical based on a less successful Italian play based on Federico Fellini’s film 8 1/2, which was itself based on his life. Got all that? Ready for more? It’s about a film director undergoing a midlife crisis relating to the many women in his life. It’s also a big, stylish musical/visual extravaganza, very much in the mold of Chicago.
Pedigree: Geez, it’s like there was a sign on the door of the studio that said “You must have this many Oscar nominations to participate in making this film.” Director Rob Marshall was nominated for directing Chicago. Also nominees or winners: co-writers Michael Tolkin (for The Player) and Anthony Minghella (for The Reader, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The English Patient); cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago and Memoirs Of A Geisha); production designer John Myhre (four nominations, with wins for Chicago and Memoirs Of A Geisha), star Daniel Day-Lewis (four nominations, most recently winning for starring in There Will Be Blood) and much of the cast, which includes Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, and Sophia Loren.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: Does this thing go to 11?
Advance word: …has largely been limited so far to swooning over the dramatic trailer and production stills, catty musings over all the cast shuffling, and hypothesizing about its Oscar chances, sight unseen. It’s worth noting, though, that Nine seems to be following much the same path of huge buzz as Showgirls back in 2006, and that film racked up a bunch of nominations and then largely got stiffed when it came to actual wins.
The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee
Premise: Robin Wright Penn plays a troubled ex-hippie now settled down with retired book editor Alan Arkin in Florida, where she deals with sexy, brooding neighbor Keanu Reeves and a sudden onset of sleepwalking spells.
Pedigree: Writer-director Rebecca Miller adapts her own novel, which deals with the ways people change from year to year and even minute to minute, affecting everyone around them and causing them to change.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 2. Pippa Lee is populated by recognizable faces, but they all amble by, leaving little impression. The exceptions are Penn, who has her richest role in years, and Reeves, who may get a nod just for getting back to his dramatic roots.
The view from TIFF: Miller renders a tricky theme as slickly as possible, but the movie tries to play both sides, simultaneously criticizing the sterility of Penn's upper-middle-class existence while taking her near-paralyzing anxiety seriously. The consensus at Toronto was that Pippa Lee is too middle-of-the-road.
Premise: Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s supposedly unadaptable novel, The Road takes place after a mysterious catastrophe has wiped out most of humanity and left the world nearly uninhabitable. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to stay alive in spite of the lack of food and water, and the ever-present threat of marauders and cannibals.
Pedigree: The last McCarthy adaptation, No Country For Old Men, won Best Picture, though the one before that, All The Pretty Horses, was a notoriously troubled production. Mortensen was the secret MVP of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, if only by virtue of his character being human, and director John Hillcoat brings in the credibility earned by his gritty Western The Proposition.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 4. This number would be much higher had The Road been released last year as scheduled, but by shelving it for 12 months, the Weinstein Company has given it a D.O.A. taint that it might have trouble overcoming. Only Mortensen’s performance seemingly has a chance of transcending the bad rep.
The view from TIFF: Hillcoat’s grim odyssey isn’t anything close to the disaster that people might expect—it moved some critics to tears—but it also has some problems. Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresrobe supply some haunting images of an American landscape shrouded in ash, but the film is mysteriously flat and shapeless, with a delicate tone that’s strangled by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ regrettably sentimental score.
Also in multiplexes: Stephen Colbert’s arch-nemesis Rain gets a big international vehicle in Ninja Assassin, an action movie produced by heavy hitters the Wachowski brothers and Joel Silver, and directed by V For Vendetta’s James McTeigue. Even though the always-classy John Travolta turns up in both, Old Dogs is not a sequel to Wild Hogs, but rather an all-new crapfest about a pair of undomesticated gents (Travolta and Robin Williams) forced by circumstances to look after a pair of 7-year-old twins. The Princess And The Frog marks Disney’s first conventionally animated cartoon since the 2004 flop Home On The Range, and its first fully animated film with an African-American protagonist, in this case a princess whose life changes unexpectedly ways when she kisses a frog.
[pagebreak]Releasing the week of December 4:
Premise: A widower (Robert De Niro) decides to visit his adult children in this remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 drama; it features an explosive reunion of Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, stars of the 2007 mega-hit Snow Angels.
Pedigree: Astonishingly, Robert De Niro, the star of Righteous Kill, Meet The Fockers, Hide & Seek, Godsend, and What Just Happened was once considered one of our finest actors. It’s true! He even won two Academy Awards!
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Everybody’s Fine’s trailer makes it look like a bland variation on About Schmidt, but De Niro is a legend, and the supporting cast boasts great actors like Rockwell and Melissa Leo. Everybody’s Fine might just be inoffensive and pleasant enough to win the Academy’s favor.
Advance word: Sleepy.
Also in multiplexes: In Armored, Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne play veteran armored-car drivers who convince a rookie to join them on a heist, then set him up to take the fall. And in Jim Sheridan’s American remake of Susanne Bier’s Danish film Brothers, Natalie Portman dallies with her brother-in-law Jake Gyllenhaal when her soldier husband Tobey Maguire goes missing in Afghanistan.
Releasing the week of December 11:
Premise: Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, who, in his early days as South Africa’s president, attempted to unite his still-divided-in-the-wake-of-apartheid nation behind an effort to host rugby’s first World Cup event. Matt Damon co-stars as the captain of South Africa’s national team.
Pedigree: Damon, Freeman, and at the helm Clint Eastwood, whose film is based on John Carlin’s well-received book Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Team That Made A Nation.
Oscar-O-Meter: 10. That cast? Plus Eastwood? Plus a story about racism far enough away from the American variety that we can condemn it from a safe distance? Are we sure Invictus hasn’t already won an Oscar?
Advance word: As usual, Eastwood is keeping the movie close to the vest right up until its release.
The Lovely Bones
Premise: After a young girl is raped and murdered, she observes from the afterlife as the world goes on without her, with her family and friends coping or obsessing over her death.
Pedigree: The story comes from Alice Sebold’s mega-bestselling novel; director Peter Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have a slew of nominations and awards between them, for the Lord Of The Rings movies. On the other hand, they also made the gigantic flop King Kong.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 7. It’s hard to say which way this will go; the tender, phantasmagorical material recalls Jackson’s breakthrough hit (and his first Oscar nominee), Heavenly Creatures. On the other hand, it also recalls the ridiculous, overblown life-after-death movie What Dreams May Come. On the other other hand, What Dreams won a Best Visual Effects Oscar, and Lovely Bones looks to be similarly focused on groundbreaking visuals, so this may pull off some design awards even if it doesn’t strike the right chords in the bigger categories. If nothing else, rising young star Saoirse Ronan already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for her starring role in Atonement last year, so the Academy may be kindly disposed toward her unusually wrenching role here.
Advance word: From the beginning, there have been rumors that this was a troubled production, with an early key role swap (Mark Wahlberg taking over for Ryan Gosling), questions about how the material could be handled, and a series of production and release delays. Originally scheduled for a March release, the movie was delayed until December, supposedly solely to position it for awards season. Frankly, the production-trouble rumors seem pretty weak and speculative, but the proof’s in the pudding.
Releasing the week of December 18:
The Young Victoria
Premise: Before she became the iron-willed monarch of Great Britain, Queen Victoria was a young lady, learning about politics and romance simultaneously.
Pedigree: Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes brings his good taste to bear on a movie that attempts to humanize a remote historical figure, while rising star Emily Blunt plays the woman known more for her prim social values than her youthful passion.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Blunt has a shot, Fellowes’ screenplay could raise some interest, and costuming nods are a near-certainty. Beyond that, who knows? Every year, it seems some little prestige picture with few strong supporters becomes an unexpected player in the Oscar race. (The Reader, anyone?) The Young Victoria could be one of those movies that plays better with the Academy than it does with audiences or critics.
The view from TIFF: Though Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée was the camera and Martin Scorsese produced), this movie drew little to no attention when it played in Toronto. The critics who saw it said it was fine, but no one was doing cartwheels.
Premise: On a distant planet, human colonists use technology to inhabit the minds of catlike indigenous people and participate in a local war. In spite of the look and feel of the much-derided trailer, this is closer to the recent science-fiction film Surrogates than to what it more closely resembles: Thundercats: The Elfquestening.
Pedigree: Director James Cameron hasn’t made a proper theatrical feature since his Titanic won every Oscar statuette manufactured in 1998, including the one for Best Animated Documentary Foreign-Language Short. Fans have been hoping that the decade-plus since Titanic was spent entirely on stockpiling all of the awesome in the universe in order to plug it into this one film; naturally, the second the trailer was released, most of them derided the film, sight unseen, as a massive disappointment.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 3. Cameron’s track record aside, and in spite of a worth-watching cast including Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and Giovanni Ribisi, this is still a giant science-fiction action-adventure movie, without Titanic’s respectable claim on real-life history. Expect to see it in the technical categories, and likely not anywhere else.
Advance word: The distributors who’ve gotten to see isolated sample scenes have been highly positive about the groundbreaking visuals, but most of the fan-doubt is aimed at the story, the execution, the seven months of production delay (apparently needed for further post-production), and the sheer monumental cost of the thing. With a reported production budget of $288 million, Avatar stands to be one of those films that could fail financially simply by being a big hit instead of an ultra-massive one.
Releasing the week of December 25:
The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus
Premise: In Terry Gilliam’s latest fantasy, Christopher Plummer stars as the ageless leader of a traveling performance troupe that’s met with apathy and derision in contemporary London. Plummer and a devilish adversary (Tom Waits) are bound by a centuries-long pact that gives Plummer immortality and imaginative powers, with his daughter as collateral.
Pedigree: Though he shared an Oscar nomination for co-writing 1985’s Brazil, Gilliam has always been the consummate Hollywood outsider, an iconoclast known for his grand and sometimes out-of-control visions. But Parnassus is special because it’s Heath Ledger’s final role, a half-finished performance completed by big-name actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 1. Interest in Ledger’s swan song is really the only awards hook for Dr. Parnassus, which is otherwise another wild trip through Gilliam’s mindscape. But even that interest is marginal: Coming after Ledger’s career-defining turn in The Dark Knight, and the accolades that followed, this was doomed to be an anticlimax.
The view from TIFF: Free rein is normally ideal for an artist, but Gilliam needs some conventional mooring to curb his excesses—otherwise, the results are calamities like Tideland or this dull, confusing repository of visual ideas. The “imaginarium” of the title gives Gilliam carte blanche to fiddle with digital effects, but there’s very little nuts-and-bolts storytelling to provide contrast.
Also in multiplexes: Alvin And The Chipmunks 2 has already given the world an invaluable gift in the form of its subtitle: The Squeakuel. Look for “The Squeakquel” to join Electric Boogaloo and The Quickening as go-to jokes for fake sequel subtitles. Can pop culture’s most beloved, ubiquitous detective survive the Guy Ritchie treatment? That’s the question behind Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. is an inspired choice to play Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery-solving coke fiend, and the studio has so much confidence in the film, work on a squeakquel has already begun. Something’s Gotta Give writer-director Nancy Meyers returns with It’s Complicated, another love triangle for the AARP set in which Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin fight for the affections of Meryl Streep.
Releasing the week of January 1:
The White Ribbon
Premise: Witness the birth of Generation Nazi: Michael Haneke’s latest takes place in a remote German village on the cusp of World War I. After a doctor and his horse are felled by a tripwire, this peaceful, God-fearing town is gripped by a series of violent, disturbing acts of unknown origin.
Pedigree: The Haneke name is the only one that matters here, but his respect internationally has never been translated to awards circles in America, for obvious reasons. Though the Austrian provocateur, once dubbed Europe’s “philosopher of violence,” recently drew attention with Caché and an English-language remake of his own film Funny Games, he’s mostly known for bomb-dropping.
Oscar-O-Meter rating: 5. Winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The White Ribbon is easily Haneke’s most awards-friendly film to date, an austere black-and-white slice of life that explores the roots of wide-scale fascism. On the other hand, it’s still a dread-soaked Haneke movie, suffused with the threat of something random and awful happening at any moment.
The view from TIFF: Without getting too explicit about it, Haneke’s film suggests the culture of moral hypocrisy, oppression, depravity, and violence that gave rise to Nazism. But while there’s much to admire in his typically dim treatise on human nature, the film could stand a little more, well, color.