What Kinda Poker Am I?

Sunday’s Oscar Poker chat runs a fast 35 minutes. It began with Sasha Stone and I discussing Spotlight‘s big ensemble win at the conclusion of Saturday night’s SAG Awards. Before that happened The Big Short was looking like the hottest Best Picture winner. Not so much now. Until next weekend’s DGA awards Spotlight is a hot ticket again. “What kind of mind is this? An empty shell, a lonely cell. In which an empty heart must dwell. What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?” Again, the mp3.

No Regrets, Later, etc.

A day or two ago a Sundance-attending journalist friend who’d seen Deadpool told me he really liked it, etc. Me: “Really? But the tone is so arch…it’s obviously a huge meta thing.” Sundance-attending journalist friend: “That’s what all the superhero films are doing these days.” This trailer has convinced me that I’ll hate it no matter what, and so I’ve no concerns about missing Thursday’s Los Angeles all-media screening as I’ll be attending the Santa Barbara Film Festival starting on Wednesday. Maybe I’ll pay to see it up there.

In For A Penny, In For A Pound

The winners of last night’s jury and audience awards for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival bore only an incidental relationship to what the festival actually boiled down to for many if not most of the attendees. 

The only serious home run was Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester-By-The-Sea, but it wasn’t award-eligible as it was shown in the premiere section.

Before anyone had even seen Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation it was all but assured an award from the jury or the audience or both. Everyone felt the clamor and knew that Birth was the movie to support in order to demonstrate their humanism and compassion, and to proclaim that they weren’t in league with the OscarsSoWhite crowd back in Los Angeles. Yes, Parker tried very hard and put his heart into every shot and frame, but at best it’s an okay, at times mediocre film, hindered by an idealized attitude about Nat Turner and too much paint on the canvas.

As BBC.com’s Owen Gleiberman noted a couple of days ago, The Birth of a Nation is basically an Ed Zwick or a Ron Howard film, but it wouldn’t have won at Sundance if Zwick or Howard had actually directed it. (more…)

Words To Live By

“Honestly, this [film and this award] is not only for the survivors of this horrific situation, but for me personally this is for the disenfranchised everywhere…for every Flint, Michigan in the world. This is for the powerless, [and] this is for the powerful who take advantage of the powerless. And you can hang me for that and I don’t really care [but] I’m proud of this, [and] thank you very much. But it comes down to two things. There’s fair and there’s unfair. I’m always going to pull for the fair. I’m always going to pull for the good guys. Thanks for this. Means a lot.” — Michael Keaton‘s SAG acceptance speech after Spotlight won last night for Best Ensemble.

Spotlight Is A Straight Indoor Fastball — No Bears, No Hatchets, No Electric Guitars, No Wasteland Vistas

After The Big Short won last weekend’s PGA Daryl F. Zanuck award I had the following exchange with a director friend who’s been a Big Short praiser from the get-go:

Director friend: “Do you still think I steered you wrong?”

HE: “The Big Short is a good film but calm down.”

Director friend: “Bubba, you don’t get off that easy. After your initial viewing of The Big Short you shamed me, ridiculed me, questioned my Oscar predicting manhood. I told you it was a contender and I was banished to the Elba of your mind for saying so. On the other hand, when I told you to calm down about Truth, I was ridiculed the other way. You said it was on the level of All The President’s Men.”

HE: “Truth and All The President’s Men are analagous. One is a success story, the other is about failure. Truth is a complex tale of a journalistic disaster that is ironically compounded by the fact that the reporters, despite their failure to fully vet the Killian documents, were reporting the truth about George Bush‘s record in the National Guard. They were right but they got taken down anyway when the Karl Rove brigade went after the report and CBS corporates felt they had no choice but to wash their hands.

“Yes, I found The Big Short too dense and wonky after the first viewing, but I warmed up to it with a second viewing, and now I’d actually like to see it a third time with a friend.”

I wrote the director friend this morning after Spotlight won the SAG ensemble award, which of course meant a loss for The Big Short, which had been favored to win by certain blogaroonies (Sasha Stone, Kris Tapley, Glenn Whipp).

HE: “Like I said last weekend, ‘calm down.'”

Director friend: “Dude, just because The Big Short didn’t win an ensemble award doesn’t mean it’s not a player. I told you it was going to be in the mix. You told me that I was wrong and that I misled you. Do you still think that?” (more…)

The Right Things

Spotlight beat The Big Short at the SAG awards tonight, taking the equivalent of SAG’s Best Picture award (Best Outstanding Cast, Best Ensemble, whatever) and rejuvenating the Best Picture race once again. It just might be Spotlight after all….hey-hey! I’m sure it was a close vote, but it’s a rebound nonetheless for Tom McCarthy‘s brilliant journalism drama, which, don’t forget, had been the presumptive Best Picture fave for most of the fall. The race ain’t over, of course, but Spotlight lives again. Surges, it’s fair to say.

I’m sure that when and if McCarthy doesn’t win next weekend’s DGA award (nobody has been predicting that he will — they’ve all been saying George Miller or Alejando G. Inarritu), the anti-Spotlight gang will seize upon this as an indication that “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Or even a counter-surge.

Sasha Stone, Glenn Whipp and all the other Big Short boosters/cheerleaders can…I was going to say they can kiss Hollywood Elsewhere’s ass but there’s no need for that kind of talk. We’re all friends, all in the same racket, all on the same side of the fence. But I was feeling very, very concerned about the possibility of The Big Short winning the big SAG award, which, had it happened, would have resulted in a steamroller psychology and an all-but-certain Best Picture win, and I’m sorry but the idea of a Big Short win was bumming me out. So I basically howled and whoo-whooed when I read the news.

I really admire The Big Short, seriously, but it doesn’t have that Best Picture schwing. And yet before I heard the news I was starting to resign myself to the idea of Adam McKay‘s film being the toast of the town. It didn’t feel right in the gut, a Big Short win, but I was starting to tell myself “be a man, accept reality, be gracious,” etc. Now I don’t have to do that. Now I can make barking seal sounds and clap my flippers. Yes, I’m being a bad winner — I know that. But I’m just saying what others are probably saying to each other in private.

It’s also a wonderful thing that Idris Elba won the Best Supporting Actor SAG award — the right guy won! Did SAG members casts their vote after the Oscar nominations and the OscarsSoWhite complaint began? If so, did Elba get a boost from that? Yeah, probably, and so what? He’s a superb actor, he totally nailed his warlord role in Cary Fukunaga‘s grand masterpiece, and it felt awfully damn good when he won.

Eddie Awards…Phfffft!

The fact that Mad Max:  Fury Road and The Big Short won big at last night’s Eddie awards (Best Edited Drama and Comedy, respectively) means bupkis as far as predicting the Best Picture Oscar winner.  Okay, maybe a little something but not much.  The Eddie voters discounted Tom McArdle‘s editing of Spotlight because, I’m guessing, it didn’t strike them as distinctive or flashy enough. And they blew off Stephen Mirrione ‘s cutting of The Revenant because…you tell me.  I only know that the Eddie Awards have never seemed like much of a barometer of anything.  They’re a little house on the hill that nobody visits or thinks much about.  “They’re a sideshow of a sideshow….the real war is being fought against the Germans, in the trenches” — Donald Wolfit in Lawrence of Arabia.

Sundance ’16 Wrap-Up

The two most important events of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival were (a) the debut of Kenneth Lonergan‘s ManchesterbytheSea, a masterful, Oscar-calibre drama which was acquired by Amazon (and which two days ago was already being partly dismissed by Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson for not being commercial enough for the rubes), and (b) the debut of Nate Parker‘s absurdly over-hyped The Birth of a Nation and the subsequent climate of p.c. terror, generated by comintern types who seized upon Birth reactions as a political antidote to the OscarsSoWhite brouhaha back in Los Angeles. It took two or three days before saner, less ecstatic reactions to Parker’s film began to sink in and affect the conversation.

Sundance ’16 will also be remembered (in my head at least) for (c) the two Weiner flicks — Todd Solondz‘s reprehensible Weiner-Dog as well as the first rate Weiner, a doc about the downfall of Rep. Anthony Weiner; (d) the two Christine pics — Antonio Campos‘ fact-based Christine (which contains a first-rate, Spirit-nomination-deserving performance by Rebecca Hall) about the late Sarasota newscaster Christine Chubbuck, and Kate Plays Christine, a doc; (e) the debut of the Sundance film-geek term “boner buddies“; and (f) the ultra-thin-sliced chicken episode at Fresh Farms.

Exotic Psycho Pics Discovered

When I first saw Kent JonesHitchcock/Truffaut in Paris last May, or a couple of days before the start of the Cannes Film Festival, I was struck by brief glimpses of some behind-the-scenes stills of Hitch directing the half-clad Janet Leigh and John Gavin in that Phoenix-hotel-room scene in Psycho. I asked Jones if JPEGs of these stills were obtainable, and he replied that he doubted it, that they were under some kind of copyright lock and key. Last November I asked Jones about these stills again, and again he said “forget it.”

Lo and behold I found two of these stills [below] online last night.

Wells to Jones email, sent this morning: “You said these pics were out of reach. The rights holders were entrenched and adamant, you said. Don’t even hope for it, you said. Well, I found these online last night. I don’t know what to say, Kent, except that you sold me a bill of goods, led me down the garden path, tied a tin can to my tail. Kidding. — Jeffrey Wells, HE”

Up In The Air

2015 was obviously a crazy year and very closely competitive, and of course it’s not over until Oscar night — Sunday, 2.28. If one thing is clear it’s that the so-called “experts” don’t know jack about the Best Picture race. They were totally taken by surprise by The Revenant‘s Golden Globe triumph; ditto Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s Best Director win. And only…what, two know-it-alls (Sasha Stone, Glenn Whipp) predicted that The Big Short would win the PGA’s Daryl F. Zanuck award?

If you ask me there’s only advocacy and determined advocates/detractors like myself. I didn’t care what the odds said last year; I was a committed Birdman guy no matter what. To me there’s only (a) “here’s what I want to win,” (b) “here’s what my latest insect antennae vibrations are telling me” and (c) “screw the odds and to some extent the guilds.”

And yet I’m comforted by the fact that the Gold Derby gang, thought to be sensitive to at least some of the currents out there, is still favoring Spotlight, HE’s personal favorite, to win the Best Picture Oscar. I realize that everyone is holding their water until the 1.30 SAG awards, and then, I guess, the 2.6 DGA awards. Plus I realize that final Academy voting doesn’t begin until 2.12.16 and then closes on 2.23.16. Things can shift around between now and then. Nothing is chiselled in stone except Leo.

But if The Big Short wins the SAG ensemble award, it’s fucking over. (more…)

Right Kind of Subtlety From Spotlight Editor Tom McArdle

Spotlight is not flashy but is fairly dazzling in its efficiency. That’s what I’ve loved about Tom McCarthy‘s film from the start. Clean, true and always on-point. Tom McArdle‘s cutting doesn’t call attention to itself, but every transition is smooth and fleet as a fox. Not for nothing has McArdle, a longtime collaborator of McCarthy’s, been nominated for an editing Oscar. I ran into McArdle at a party the weekend before Sundance, and a day or two later we did a q & a:

Spotlight editor and longtime Tom McCarthy collaborator Tom McArdle

HE: You and McCarthy go back…what, 12 or 15 years? What’s the history?

McArdle: In 2002, my agent sent me Tom McCarthy’s Station Agent script. It was really good. Very thoughtful and funny. I’m L.A.-based but I travelled to New York to meet with McCarthy. We talked about the script and other films that might have a similar feel. I brought up that I was a fan of Local Hero (’83) and that it felt somewhat comparable in tone to The Station Agent. Tom also liked Local Hero a lot, so that was a good thing. We got along well. The Station Agent was a quick edit — 13 1/2 weeks total, due to the Sundance schedule and the budget. We followed The Station Agent with The Visitor in 2006, and then Win Win in 2010.

HE: I for one would love to see a longer version of Spotlight. Was there a longer cut that you personally liked but had to be trimmed down for the usual reasons?

McArdle: We cut out about 18 minutes total from the film. The final version that you see is also my favorite version of the film.

HE: There must have been some scenes that you or McCarthy loved but which didn’t strictly serve the narrative. What were those scenes?

McArdle: We cut out five scenes plus some other shots here and there. We cut out a scene of Robby (Michael Keaton) and his wife after golf where she mentions that the church is important to the community. We dropped a scene with Marty (Liev Schrieber) and the publisher Gilman (Michael Countryman) where Gilman asks to be kept in the loop about the church story. We also dropped a scene of Marty and Ben (John Slattery) talking about getting back on the case after 9/11. We dropped a scene between Mike (Mark Ruffalo) and the receptionist for the judge where Mike gets frustrated that the judge is not around. We also dropped a scene of Mike getting the morning newspapers and ignoring a phone call from his estranged wife. (more…)

Smart Guys Know When To Dump Stock

“It is a critical phenomenon I call ‘buying stock’. Critics and viewers consciously or unconsciously purchase shares in an artist’s work. 10,000 shares of Tarantino, 50,000 shares of Star Wars, etc. Once a viewer has purchased stock in an artist he/she becomes committed to that stock valuation.

“I first noticed this when Peter Bogdonavich purchased a massive holding in Howard Hawks and was then thrust into the awkward position of defending Man’s Favorite Sport. I’ve watched as cinephiles have purchased stock in DePalma, Carpenter, the Coen Bros. to the point that they are no longer objectively assessing the work but instead defending their investment.

“The latest is Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the assumption by stock holders that The Assassin must be a masterpiece because he worked on it for eight years.” — Posted last night by director-writer Paul Schrader on Facebook.

I could write 50,000 words right now about the various directors I’ve invested in over the years — when I bought the stock in each director and why, and how long I held onto the stock portfolio before dumping it. We all try to justify our stock purchases, sometimes against basic reason, but on the other hand you don’t want to be too foolish. The key thing is to knowing when to dump stock. (more…)

Last Full Day in Dodge

I fly back to Los Angeles tomorrow around 1 pm so this is the last day. No rush, no worries, take your time, do a wash. I’m catching Kim Snyder‘s Newtown, a doc about recovering from the Sandy Hook massacre, at the Holiday Village at 3:15 pm. Next is Robert Cannan and Ross AdamsThe Lovers and the Despot, which Magnolia just acquired. And finally a second viewing of Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation…kidding!

Taken after a dinner I had two nights ago with HE’s own Svetlana Cvetko, editor David Scott Smith. 35 minutes later we attended a Library screening of Jason Lew’s The Free World, which is easily the worst film I’ve seen at Sundance ’16. Condolences to costars Boyd Holbrook, Elizabeth Moss, Octavia Spencer.

Prior to last nights screening of Douglas McGrath’s Becoming Mike Nichols.


Suddenly Raining Nichols

Last night I attended a Sundance screening of Douglas McGrath‘s Becoming Mike Nichols (HBO, 2.22), a 72-minute chat between Nichols and Jack O’Brien that was taped late in the summer of ’14, or about three months before Nichols passed at age 83. It’s very good as far as it goes — time well spent with a guy who knew his stuff and how to tell a good story, and who knew from wisdom and smoothitude with a pinch of irony.

Becoming Mike Nichols director Douglas McGrath (r.) and exec producer Frank Rich (l.) following last night’s debut screening at Park City’s Egyptian theatre.

Any conversation with a gifted and loquacious fellow is probably worth your time, but Becoming Mike Nichols is about one of the greatest directors ever talking about the most vital and exciting period in his life, or between the beginning of Nichols’ comedic-improv partnership with Elaine May in the late ’50s through his directorial triumph with The Graduate in ’67.

McGrath’s rationale for keeping the doc short is sound. The “hungry and exploring and trying to make it” chapter in anyone’s life is always the most robust. Things are never quite as exciting once you’ve become a success. Then your story becomes a story about whether to risk or maintain, and because people almost always try for a lopsided mixture of the two (a hint of risk with a lot of maintenance) something always dies or slows down in the narrative.

What’s the best line in the whole piece? An observation about marriages or romantic relationships. At any given moment, Nichols tells O’Brien, a relationship is either about (a) seduction, (b) negotiating or (c) fighting. You’d think that a healthy pairing would be about more than this, but as I thought about it last night as I walked home I began to realize that Nichols was right.

Another Nichols tribute, a PBS American Masters tribute directed by May, airs tonight (1.29). McGrath’s doc, as noted, debuts on February 22nd.


Rivette Hat Tip

I know the American movie realm fairly well; less so the European one. And because I am, or can be when the mood strikes or I fall into a mood pocket, an occasional cinematic Philistine, I never got into Jacques Rivette, who died today at age 87, until La Belle Noiseuse came along in 1991. I’m not attuned or hip enough to have even seen, much less appreciated, Rivette’s The Nun (’66) and for whatever reason I was only vaguely taken with Celine and Julie Go Boating (’74) when I saw it at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in the late ’70s.

But the prospect of studying a naked Emmanuelle Beart for the better part of four hours intrigued me to no end, and so I watched La Belle Noiseuse, all 237 minutes worth, when it opened in late ’91 or early ’92 in Los Angeles. (I forget exactly where but I’m sure it was either the Royal or the Nuart.) And I’ll never regret it.

Wiki boilerplate: “[Rivette’s] films, often improvised, have brief outlines instead of scripts, long running times and loose narratives. They explore themes such as conspiracy theories, fantasy and theatricality in daily life.” Rivette on James Cameron and Titanic: “Cameron isn’t evil. He’s not an asshole like Spielberg. He wants to be the new De Mille. Unfortunately, he can’t direct his way out of a paper bag. On top of which the actress is awful, unwatchable.”

“Never Audacious or Revelatory”

In the view of BBC.com’s Owen Gleiberman, Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation is “scrupulous and honorable, with moments of scalding power. But it’s also just good enough to make me wish it had been better. To present a drama of slavery not so long after 12 Years a Slave, the most searing and artful movie ever made on the subject, is to scale a very high bar. Parker proves a competent filmmaker, but in a slightly flat, middle-of-the-road way that’s halfway between Edward Zwick and Ron Howard.

“If the film were as good as Zwick’s 1989 Glory, I’d have no complaints…but it isn’t. It features a musical score that’s atrocious in its bland sentimentality, and there’s something a little too cautiously retrograde about the whole thing. It’s like a rerun of Roots with more blood.

“In one of the most unforgettable scenes in 12 years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o’s character is being whipped, and the camera fixes on her face (the way it always does in scenes like this) until it suddenly spins around to show us the leather tearing at her flesh; at that moment, the film slices through ‘movie reality’ to reveal a far more agonizing truth. (more…)

Bit By Bit, The Truth Emerges

“Although Nate Parker has called The Birth of a Nation ‘a black Braveheart,’ his rough-hewn directorial debut is less a traditional awards movie than Ava DuVernay‘s Selma from 2014, or even the Philadelphia-shot Creed from last year. The movie’s substantial power is lessened by significant lapses in judgment — the glowing figures who appear to Turner in religious visions tilt perilously close to kitsch — and the movie’s failure to delineate characters beyond Turner and his white owner (The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer) lessens its dramatic scope.

“But when Parker fills the screen with the faces of young slaves, framed so tightly that their 19th-century clothing drops out of sight, you’re no longer watching a period piece or dead history, but looking at the faces of young black men in 2016, demanding their humanity be fully recognized. It’s far from a perfect film, but it fills an aching need in society and the movie industry both, and should find a substantial audience waiting for it in the fall.” — from “Six Sundance Movies To Pay Attention To,” a Philly.com piece by Sam Adams.

Kathryn Bigelow To Direct Detroit Riots Film? Hey, Wait A Minute…She’s White! Have We Learned Nothing?

Kathryn Bigelow will direct and produce a Detroit Riots project, set in 1967, which they’re now calling an “untitled true-crime drama.” She and longtime collaborator Mark Boal are pooling forces with Annapurna’s Megan Ellison and Matthew Budman. Boal has penned the original screenplay. Pic is set to begin principal photography this summer. Boal has been researching and working on the project, which explores “systemic racism in urban Detroit”, for more than a year. Pic is expected to open in 2017 — the 50th anniversary of the riots.

From Joe Leydon: “The #OscarsSoWhite crowd will start complaining that a black director wasn’t hired for this project in 5…4…3…” Then again she’s a woman so maybe it all kinda balances out. (No?) 

Oliver Stone would have been a natural for this project 15 or 20 years ago.  But today Stone or any similar-type director (heyday in the ’80s and ’90s) would have two strikes against them — (a) white and (b) old-farty, tied to the past, etc.

The Anxiety of the One-Eyed Jacks Aspect-Ratio Decision Makers

About 10 days ago I spoke to a Universal source about the progress of the forthcoming One-Eyed Jacks Bluray, a joint restoration between Universal Home Video and the Film Foundation that I’m assuming will street sometime in the spring or summer. (Work began last July.) The big question is what aspect ratio will they decide upon — 1.85:1, 1.78:1 or 1.66:1? I’m presuming that my personal preference of 1.66 will be passed over in favor of 1.78, which I can live with. It breaks my heart but I can take it. As long as they don’t whack it down to the dreaded 1.85:1.

I’m told that when work began on Marlon Brando‘s sole directorial effort it was scanned at the full VistaVision aperture, or 1.5:1. Universal was waiting for input from Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who were both in the process of reviewing the restoration (or about to review it), when I reached out.

Some weeks ago Austin Wilkin, a Brando estate representative who had been asked by Universal for an aspect-ratio preference, sought my opinion. I said it should be 1.66 if the sides aren’t sliced off. Why throw away all that beautiful VistaVision footage on the tops and bottoms of the frames?

We all know One-Eyed Jacks was primarily projected at 1.85 but that dp Jack Lang‘s compositions were made with an understanding that the full aperture would be 1.5:1, that 1.66 was very much in play at the time (the aperture plates were certainly present and being used in theatre booths all over) and that the boxy TV aspect ratio had to be considered. My guess, as noted, is that Universal and The Film Foundation are going to go for a 1.78:1 as this fits 16 x 9 high-def screens, and it at least allows for a bit more height than 1.85.

I was also told that some kind of limited theatrical exhibition will occur prior to or concurrent with with the release of the Bluray. (more…)

Swigging P.C. Kool-Aid

If you want to hear the pure, unfettered voices of the politically-correct cominterm regarding Hollywood racism, listen to Vanity Fair “Little Gold Men” podcasters Katey Rich and particularly Mike Hogan as they discuss same. Their view is that assessments of movies by the usual standards (excellence of acting, screenwriting, direction, editing, cinematography) need to be modified or eased up on in order to show a little generosity toward filmmakers of color. This is a socially compassionate “Little Red Book” approach to cinematic assessment, pure and simple. On the other hand VF‘s Richard Lawson, calling from Park City, tells the truth when he notes that Nate Parker‘s The Birth of A Nation is “not great art”, although it has caught the fervor of the moment. (You can almost hear Hogan audibly deflate when Lawson says this.) Lawson mentions the undisputed greatness of Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester-By-The-Sea — a surprising admission given the all-white cast.