Three Cheers for Oscar

20 Nov

Dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Member:

I’m writing this with Thanksgiving just around the corner, and that means within weeks moviegoers will be treated to a few dozen–or more–so called “prestige” films, that is, lofty ambitious projects most likely with literary roots or based on/inspired by true stories. These are the year-end offerings that scads of writers, performers, directors, producers, and distributors, not to mention teams of artisans and engineers, hope will curry favor with folks such as you in the quest for Oscar gold. So far, Gary Oldman, starring as no less than late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in The Darkest Hour appears to be the actor to beat and may very well be in the picture poised to win big. Of course, these things can and often do change, as we saw last year when jubilant word of mouth for La-La-Land fizzled during the 11th hour, all the better for surprise Best Picture winner Moonlight.

Oldman’s pic is, to reiterate, only one of many potential Oscar contenders we can expect to see and hear about over the next few months. I look forward, as well, to Ladybird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Despite the best plans of producing teams and marketing personnel, some of the late offerings will sink, maybe even before they expand from limited to national release; likewise, a few entries might catch on in ways that might surprise the cynics. Let’s wait and see. I guess we must.

In the meantime, I urge you, dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Voter, I mean, Member, to not forget that this year, widely reported as mostly underwhelming, per box-office receipts, has nonetheless already produced three mainstream hits that have done more than just rake-in big bucks. They have also permeated the culture, the public consciousness, generating all kinds of discussion while thrilling moviegoers like we expect of the best Oscar contenders. Oh sure, the films at the top of my list might seem a bit unconventional compared to, say, a Churchill biopic or even Christopher Nolan’s summertime hit Dunkirk, an amazing dissection of the cost of war, specifically for the British during World War II; however, for all its rave reviews and substantial ticket sales, Dunkirk pales as a pop-culture sensation. If Oscar voters want to restore the public’s faith in the Academy and amp those ratings toward the stratosphere as in days of old, please consider all of the following when marking your ballot for Best Picture (in order of release dates):

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Since I began writing this piece, Blumhouse, Get Out‘s production company, has ignited a controversy by submitting its film for consideration as comedy (or musical) per the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe awards, a move which many critics are dismissive of given the film’s cultural significance, and I see their point. Get Out most definitely qualifies as satire, but it’s also a tale of suspense in which the stakes are high. Of course, inconsistencies stemming from the Globes and their seemingly arbitrary divisions between comedies and dramas are nothing new. In the meantime, let’s pull for writer-director Peele, along with cast members Kaluuya, Williams, Keener, along with Lil Rel Howery, already an MTV winner for his performance as Kaluuya’s skeptical buddy, and Betty Gabriel, especially good as a housekeeper who is both more and less than what she originally appears. As well, my hunch is that the whole cast is well-poised to win the Best Ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Get Out: Jordan Peele, previously known for his work in TV comedy (MadTV, Bob’s Burgers, and Key and Peele), made his feature film directorial debut with this horror flick that also works as a Stepford Wives-esque social commentary. To clarify, Peele wrote and produced the movie as well though he does not appear onscreen. Instead, the male lead, that of an African-American photographer, is played by Daniel Kaluuya. His character is romantically involved with a young white woman (Allison Williams) who takes her new beau from the bustling city to meet her socially progressive parents at their lovely home in a secluded, scenic hamlet. Soon, Kaluuya’s Chris Washington senses that his girlfriend’s parents (played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) might not be as open to their daughter’s new relationship as he, Washington, had been assured even though, yes, they claim to have voted for Obama.  HA! Washington is only partially right. The situation is actually much worse than he initially suspects. Peele’s movie might not be a film for the ages–time, of course, will tell–but it’s very much of the times as it tackles the dual dilemmas of white culture appropriating–exploiting–black culture while tossing aside the notion of “Black Lives Matter” and arguing that racism in America ended if not with the Civil War, then at least with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Go figure. You need look no further than the scandal that erupts when Black athletes take to their knees during the national anthem, setting off the ire of white team owners, or when a known sexual predator such as Harvey Weinstein goes out of his way to deny that he ever made lewd advances to Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, she of Kenyan descent, while otherwise admitting he has a sexual addiction problem, more or less copping to a pattern of sexual misconduct with streams of young actresses, but not as that concerns Ms. Nyong’o. In a nation as polarized as this one currently is, Get Out, with its taut blend of satire and suspense, quickly emerged as the most talked about film during the early months of 2017 (per its February release) but also a box-office sensation, opening at the top of the charts, earning 33 million in its first three days against production costs of only 4.5 million, and then setting a record as the highest grossing debut by an African-American filmmaker, ultimately earning 175.5 million in theatres. [All figures per BoxOffice Mojo.] A discussion about the year’s best films is simply incomplete without including the one that tackled a timely, uncomfortable subject matter while making money hand over fist; moreover, please remember that while last year’s Best Picture winner,  the brilliant Moonlight, was helmed by an African-American (Barry Jenkins), we have to yet to see an African-American triumph in the Best Director category.

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Best Actress nod for Gal Gadot? Can I get an “Amen,” anyone?

Wonder Woman: Finally. Comic book movies have become so commonplace these days that it’s hard to fathom why it took so long to spotlight Charles Moulton’s ever-enduring mythical warrior-princess.  Why indeed? Batman this, Spiderman that, and all the other Superman(s), Captain Americas, Thors, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Suicide Squads. After Warner’s disastrous attempt at a Catwoman franchise back in 2004, the rest of us wondered if  a female-centric comic book movie was just too much to hope for from mainstream Hollywood. Luckily, the wait was worth it. Maybe, just maybe, the delay had to happen in order to make sure the right personnel were involved, and that means director Patty Jenkins (previously best known for Charlize Theron’s Oscar winning Monster) and star Gal Gadot, the latter particularly strong at owning the character in her own right, quelling the doubts of Lynda Carter loyalists who still treasure–and rightly so–the latter’s portrayal of the character in the 1970s’ TV series. Between Gadot and Jenkins everything clicked, and the result is a film that almost everyone loved, or at least liked. A whole heck of a lot. Even no less than Lynda Carter graciously offers her vote of approval.  Oh sure, naysayers are gonna say nay, that’s why they’re naysayers, but, generally, this was the perfect summer blockbuster, and what a blockbuster it was during a season, don’t forget, when the hits were as notable as the mis-fires, but this one cleaned-up. It opened in early June and held the #1 spot at the box office for two weeks, remaining in the top 10 for two months before slipping to #13 during the first weekend in August, ultimately scoring a domestic box office haul of 412.5 million [as of this writing].  Kudos to Jenkins for her role in shattering the glass ceiling of the old-boys directing club. Let’s face it, female directors simply do not often get the same opportunities as men in Hollywood and when they do, the expectations are skewed. Jenkins helps level the playing field and paves the way for the next generation. And, yes, Wonder Woman gave–and still gives–girls and young women a fantastic role model and inspiration for a future less governed by sexist politics.  This Academy fan has not been a fan of the decision to open the field of Best Picture nominees to as many as 10 per year, thinking it complicates more than it helps, but remember, as well, that the Academy adopted this measure to help increase TV viewership–aka placating sponsors–after anticipated Best Picture nods for The Dark Knight and Wall-E failed to materialize after the 2008/09 awards. The thinking was that allowing for more finalists would make way for more big-budget, audience pleasing “popcorn” flicks, thereby eliciting increased viewership from the fanboys; however, that has not necessarily been the case. Since 2009, no film based on a comic book creation has cracked the Best Picture roster. Instead, the promise of an expanded slate has created opportunities for less commercial, more “artistic” entries into the fray, which has not paid off in the ratings.  A Best Picture nod for Wonder Woman might prove the case that justifies the Academy’s hopes.

It – Of the three movies in this post, It may very well be weakest link as an artistic triumph, but it still scores as a dazzling pop-culture phenom, easily the most buzzed about entry in the fall moviegoing sweepstakes, coming, again, off a mostly lackluster summer; moreover, It successfully pulls off the nervy trick of establishing a following even though the same material, Stephen King’s 1986 best seller of the same name, has already been used as the basis for a fondly remembered mini-series. Not an enviable task, but director Andy Muschietti (previously known for Mama)  takes a fearless leap in the hopes that movie audiences will eagerly revisit the story of a dastardly presence who resurfaces every few decades–often in the form of a sinister looking clown–to wreak havoc on the children of a small town in Maine. Fans of the original TV edition, memorably starring inimitable Tim Curry as Pennywise (the dancing clown), and they are legion, might not have switched allegiances, but no matter. With our without Curry, New Line Cinema successfully promoted the heck out of their property, not only earning top dollar at the box office ($326 million+, two weeks at #1, 8 weeks in the top 10) but also creating an Internet craze with the new and improved Pennywise, per heavily made up actor Bill Skarsgard. Suddenly, the creepy, red-headed clown was anywhere and everywhere, including Halloween get-ups; moreover, It arrives at the perfect time, considering that three of its juvenile stars also appear in Netflix’s hot, hot, hot Stranger Things, itself a throwback to 80s fave The Goonies, not to mention King’s own Stand by Me and even TV’s original IT. Let that soak in for a minute or two. The new It loses its mojo well before the final credits roll, but the early sequences highlight suspenseful filmmaking at its most superlative and that, coupled with the film’s massive popularity, might be enough to tempt Academy voters as they contemplate as roster of Best Picture contenders that bridge the expanse between art and commerce, thereby buoying the awards ceremony’s ratings. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Actor Bill Skarsgard endures a blood curdling transformation as the crazed clown, Pennywise, in IT, the fall moviegoing season’s buzziest and creepiest hit. The actor will be a longshot for Oscar consideration, but the makeup and costuming team could very well find themselves on the final ballot. Btw, Skarsgard is part of the same acting family that includes Stellan (dad) and Alex (brother), among others. IMAGE: https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/855590/It-movie-Pennywise-actor-Bill-Skarsgard-interview-box-office-success-hit

Thanks for your consideration…

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