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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Precious

Cannes 2012: Festival turns 65 with a lineup heavy on U.S. titles

May 16, 2012 |  5:00 am

Cannes Film Festival

If all film festivals are balancing acts, it stands to reason that the annual extravaganza at Cannes, likely the world's most celebrated cinematic event, has more to balance than most. Especially this year.

Opening Wednesday night with Wes Anderson's oddly endearing “Moonrise Kingdom,” Cannes is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year and marking that milestone by embracing all kinds of opposites: old and young, dramatic and documentary, commercial and politically committed, avant-garde and classic, even American and not.

The U.S. presence seems especially strong, starting with the official poster, an Otto Bettmann photo of a luminous Marilyn Monroe blowing out a birthday cake candle. An 80- by 40-foot version looms impossibly large on an outside wall of the Palais des Festivals, while the building's inside walls feature photos of other Hollywood luminaries, including Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable and Judy Garland, even Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch, having a go at birthday cakes of their own.

Cheat Sheet: Cannes Film Festival 2012

On one level, American films are thick in the main competition, with a roster that includes new movies by Lee Daniels, who is following his Oscar-winning drama “Precious” with “The Paperboy,” and Jeff Nichols, whose “Mud” comes after the acclaimed apocalyptic meditation “Take Shelter.”

But some of the most eagerly anticipated American films — Walter Salles' take on Jack Kerouac's legendary “On the Road,” Andrew Dominik's Brad Pitt-starring “Killing Them Softly” (based on George V. Higgins' “Cogan's Trade”) and John Hillcoat's Prohibition era “Lawless” — were all directed by filmmakers who hail from other countries.

Speaking of elsewhere, new films are also on offer from such stalwarts as France's Jacques Audiard (“Rust & Bone”), Italy's Matteo Garrone (“Reality,” following up on “Gomorrah”), Britain's Ken Loach (“The Angels' Share”) and Austria's Michael Haneke (the Isabelle Huppert-starring “Amour”).

The honor of being the oldest director in the competition goes to 89-year-old Alain Resnais, here with the puckishly titled “You Haven't Seen Anything Yet.” Considerably younger, with films in the Un Certain Regard section, are debuting Americans Adam Leon, whose “Gimme the Loot” took the grand jury prize at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and Benh Zeitlin, whose “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did the same at Sundance in January.

Straddling the young-old divide in a personal way are Canadian director David Cronenberg, in competition with the Robert Pattinson-starring “Cosmopolis” from the Don DeLillo novel, and his son Brandon, in Un Certain Regard with the thriller “Antiviral.”

Though the world's artier directors are always to be found at the festival, Cannes is also determined to embroil itself in the commercial side of things, which it does by scheduling the animated adventure “Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted” in an out-of-competition slot.

Then there are the numerous billboards for features that dot the city's streets and the fronts of hotels. Most noticeable this year is the way names that were considered edgy once upon a time have now become commercial enough to merit major-league spending.

Billboards could be seen not only for Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained” but also for Harmony Korine's “Spring Breakers.” And who should look right at home in the prime real estate of the entrance to the Carlton Hotel but Sacha Baron Cohen in full Admiral General Aladeen regalia for his satirical comedy “The Dictator.” Thus pass the bad boys of the world.

Perhaps even more startling, however, is the recent announcement from Canada's Alliance Films that it would charge Canadian journalists for interview access to the stars of some of the company's films.

If this is starting to sound all too frivolous, Cannes has political antidotes all ready to go. There will be a special screening of “The Oath of Tobruk,” Bernard-Henri Levy's doc about the fall of Moammar Kadafi, with “four key figures of the Libyan revolution” in attendance.

Closer to home is “The Central Park Five,” a quietly devastating documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, that examines how and why five innocent teenagers ended up being convicted of and imprisoned for the savage rape of a jogger in New York's Central Park in a case that became an international media sensation.

If you view film as a refuge from the cares of the real world, Cannes is ready for you as well. The ever-expanding Cannes Classics section features an impressive variety of restorations, including Alfred Hitchcock's silent “The Ring,” a 4-hour, 13-minute reconstruction of Sergio Leone's “Once Upon a Time in America” and Andrei Konchalovsky's aptly named “Runaway Train.”

Also, there are master class lectures by director Philip Kaufman (here with HBO's “Hemingway & Gellhorn” starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen) and 97-year-old Norman Lloyd, who has seen a lot (he co-founded the Mercury Theater with Welles) and remembers it all.

ALSO:

Cannes 2012: Alexander Payne, Ewan McGregor named to jury

William Friedkin to serve as L.A. Film Fest's guest director

'Gangster Squad' trailer highlights L.A. landmarks

— Kenneth Turan

Photo: A giant canvas of the official poster of the 65th Cannes Film Festival featuring Marilyn Monroe. Credit: Stephane Reix / EPA.


Will color return to this year's Oscar season?

September 21, 2011 |  8:31 am

Help

When Oscar nominations were announced earlier this year, it was impossible to avoid this unsubtle fact: All of the major nominees were white. And when the presenters had all taken their turn on the Kodak Theatre stage, not a single black man was among them, a fact that Samuel Jackson noted tartly in an email to a Times reporter.

It was a sharp turn from the 2009-10 season, when “Precious” and "The Blind Side" drew numerous accolades, and there were black nominees for best director, best picture and best actress (and black winners for best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay).

For anyone concerned about which way the Oscars could go this year, there's reason to take heart. As a new season gets underway, there are signs the Oscars could return to the diversity of two years ago. In fact, the show this year could match and even surpass those landmark events -- and not only because Eddie Murphy is presiding (the first black host since Chris Rock in 2004) or because Oprah Winfrey will be given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award,  the academy's honorary Oscar. It's the potential nominees themselves who offer the prospect of a more diverse Oscars.

And it could happen, notably, on the basis of more than just  one or two films -- and without the help of Oscar stalwarts such as Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Halle Berry or Will Smith, none of whom have new movies this year.

Driving the expectations, of course, is the Southern drama "The Help." Oscar handicappers are already predicting a best actress nomination for Viola Davis, while Octavia Spencer could be in the mix too, likely in the supporting category.

There's also T.J. Martin, co-director of the documentary "The Undefeated,” which was a hit at the South by Southwest festival in March and wowed crowds at the Toronto Film Festival last week. A football documentary about a black high school in Memphis, Tenn., the movie is getting a release from Weinstein Co. and has a solid shot at a doc nomination. Martin would be only the second black director ever to be nominated in the documentary category.

But it's hardly just those films, or even race-themed movies in general, that could color in the Oscars. Steve McQueen, director of "Shame" (about a sex addict and dysfunctional sibling relationship, not about race at all), generated buzz at early fall film festivals and is shaping up as a strong contender this season. If the sophomore filmmaker lands the nomination, he would become only the third black director to ever be nominated.

(Asked about the subject of race and the Oscars in an interview with 24 Frames, McQueen said he wanted to think about it a little more before answering and would get back to us later in the season. The BAFTA winner did note that he believed racism, both in the entertainment business and society at large, was far worse in his native Britain than the United States.)

Joining these Oscar hopefuls is director Dee Rees and the actors of "Pariah," a favorite from this past year's Sundance Film Festival that features an almost entirely black cast and deals as much with themes of sexuality as with race. Focus Features is releasing the micro-indie and is expected to give it an awards push.

Davis may also have a shot at a supporting actress nomination with her part in Stephen Daldry's much-anticipated (though so far unseen) 9/11-themed literary adaptation "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

At a time when black actors say there's a dearth of meaty parts, it's hard not to find at least some encouragement in all of this. A new class of black actors is getting a bit more of a toehold in prestige movies -- witness Davis springboarding to these parts from her role in "Doubt" a few years back.

Hollywood still makes fewer serious movies than it has in a long time, and minorities struggle to land parts in those films. But the early indications, at least, are that the Oscars this year look a little less like the rest of Hollywood and a bit more like the real world.

RELATED:

'Shame' director surprised by controversy

Does Hollywood discriminate against young black actors?

'The Help' is fine, but is Hollywood ignoring modern black life?

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

 Photo: Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help." Credit: DreamWorks



Toronto 2011: An Oscar winner takes an un-'Precious' turn

September 16, 2011 | 11:56 am

Violet
If you spend 20 frustrating years trying to get your first movie made, only to suddenly find yourself the toast of Oprah and Oscar voters, what do you do next?

For "Precious" screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the answer was easy: You go out and make the oddest movie you could possibly imagine. You never know, after all, when you'll get the chance again.

"I have no idea what people will think of the film," Fletcher conceded of his directorial debut "Violet & Daisy," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday.  "It is pretty strange."

Even that admission may be an understatement. As it played for the public and distributors Thursday night, "Violet & Daisy" showed itself to be one of the odder genre mash-ups (action, drama, comedy and surrealist art film are several of its modes) to cross the screens at Toronto, or possibly any screen, in a long while.

Visually imaginative and told in a deadpan key reminiscent of Rian Johnson's cult hit "Brick," Fletcher's movie, which he also wrote, features two young, stylish women (Alexis Bledel and Saiorse Ronan) who earn a living as hit women for a shadowy boss. They speak in the flip shorthand of teenage girls but also are whizzes with guns, gore and the game of knocking people off. Youthful exuberance and a capacity for violence often merge; the pair, for instance, have an "internal-bleeding dance" atop their targets after they kill them.

The "Gossip Girls"-meets-"Pulp Fiction" conceit would be odd enough if Fletcher didn't toss James Gandolfini into the mix as a sad sack whom Violet and Daisy are sent to off. The women wind up talking with Gandolfini's unnamed character about the dark turns in all of their lives, turning the film in the third act from comedic blood farce to chamber drama.

Overflowing with whimsical dream sequences, cryptic symbolism and surrealist touches (the main characters tool around on a tricycle), "Violet & Daisy" features flavors that won't be to everyone's taste, and it's hard to imagine a major distributor taking a flier on it. But even its detractors will concede the film has a degree of style and ambition.

Continue reading »

Despite many changes, Spirit Awards stick to tradition

March 6, 2010 |  9:00 am

Spi

With a Friday night time slot at a venue across from Staples Center, the Spirit Awards changed the time and place of its 25th annual ceremony, but little actually proved different from previous years.

For good and for ill.

Concerns that the casualness of the event would be lost without the Santa Monica beach-side setting turned out to be misplaced, as the usual pre-show mingling, and in-show strolling and table-hopping, unfolded pretty much as it always has.

Fears, meanwhile, that a popular Friday night slot would have the Spirits a sparsely populated second choice for Oscar weekend partyers proved overblown as well. Although some attendees rushed from or to agency parties -- a William Morris Endeavor Entertainment fete at Ari Emanuel's house and a party thrown by CAA's Bryan Lourd -- the event still felt packed with industry insiders and stars. Of the major nominees, the Coen brothers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were among the few that didn't show. (Jeff Bridges, Carey Mulligan, Woody Harrelson and Mariah Carey were among those who did.)

The Spirits, run by the nonprofit Film Independent (you can read the full list of winners here) also threw in some of its typically enjoyable ironic touches -- i.e., having David Spade present the best foreign award. And in a moment that was funny until it was awkward, Ben Stiller, an actor known for studio comedies more than any boutique film (his upcoming "Greenberg" excepted), presented the top award of best feature.

Stiller poked fun at his own lack of indie-ness by noting the "350 big-budget movies" he's done over the last five years. But he probably stepped on the wrong side of I-can-say-things-about-my-family-that-you-can't when he said he couldn't name the core values of Film Independent even if they paid him, quipping that his last indie movie came in the '90's "when there still was an independent film industry." A few surprised oohs in an otherwise quiet room told you all you needed to know about where the joke landed. (Also, a bit that had supposed porn stars simulating sex acts onstage as Stiller presented the night's top award also went about two beats beyond good humor, a fact realized by Stiller as he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop it midstream.)

Other traditions were also upheld. The awards felt a little long and, at times, slack, feeling even longer if you were in the back of the cavernous L.A. Live room, as many of us ink-stained wretches were. And the man charged with running point on the evening's festivities, host Eddie Izzard, was only intermittently successful. The British performer's motormouth style of sardonic comedy had its moments (see under: an "orgy room sponsored by Acura"). But, like past hosts, he sometimes came off as less funny than he seemed to think he was -- not to mention a little too shock-for-shock-values-sake (see under: a recurring bit about God not existing), especially for an event that remains, despite all its welcome informality, a conventional awards-and-acceptance-speech affair.

The acting acceptance speeches brought a typical gem or two, including one from best supporting male Woody Harrelson. "I don't know how you distinguish one performance from another. It's never felt right to me," he said. "Of course now it feels a little more right."

The awards themselves also followed a recent pattern of honoring the films that usually make, but don't register high on, Oscar's radar, as "Precious" won five honors, two for acting, one for screenwriting and the top prizes of best feature and best director for Lee Daniels. "An Education," meanwhile, received a major accolade that it probably won't get on Sunday, as it took home a best foreign film prize. And the Spirits honored a far more traditional choice for best first feature with "Crazy Heart," instead of the unconventional nominee "Paranormal Activity."

(It was also nice to see "(500) Days of Summer" writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who won for best screenplay, get their due after an Oscar nomination snub; ditto for best documentary "Anvil").

Still, it was hard not to register the absence of the "The Hurt Locker." A Jeremy Renner awards presentation and the film's appearance in a montage sequence somehow only shone more attention on the film's ineligibility.

The show, as it can, also brought the heartwarming, this time via a nice moment of standing ovation for Roger Ebert (he and wife Chaz sponsored the Truer Than Fiction documentary prize). And the Spirits kept up its reputation for a little feather-ruffling, mostly of the good kind, with Daniels acceptance speech. In it, the brash filmmaker referenced the Oscar heavyweight that wasn't present, allowing "Precious" to step into the breach. "Kathryn Bigelow's not here tonight," he began, then paused. But "I am."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Best lead female Gabourey Sidibe, left, and best supporting female Mo'Nique. Credit: Getty Images


Predicting Oscar: Best bets for best picture

March 5, 2010 |  7:00 am

GraphicMuch like erratic swings in the stock market, the fates and fortunes of films in the Oscar race rise and fall with each passing awards show and critic's top 10 list.

A closer look at the winners from the film awards handed out so far this season would seem to indicate a clear favorite for best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday: "The Hurt Locker."

The Kathryn Bigelow-directed film has been nominated by each of eight major industry guilds and critics groups that we looked at for the chart at left -- and it won half of the top honors.

The next closest competitor: "Up in the Air," with two wins and nominations from all but one group.

"Precious," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Avatar," ranked by number of nominations by the eight groups, round out the top five in the newly expanded field of 10 best picture nominees.

Down at the bottom of the list, with no nods among the eight groups: "The Blind Side," starring acting nominee Sandra Bullock. But just like the whims of the financial markets, you can never count a movie out until the final bell sounds.


-- Brady MacDonald

RELATED

L.A. Times reviews of the 10 best picture nominees:

* The Hurt Locker
* Up in the Air
* Precious
* Inglourious Basterds
* Avatar
* An Education
* A Serious Man
* Up
* District 9
* The Blind Side

L.A. Times award show coverage:
* Critics' Choice
* Producers Guild
* National Board of Review
* Golden Globes
* Directors Guild
* Writers Guild
* Screen Actors Guild
* American Film Institute

Why can't the Oscars get Americans to see dramas?

March 3, 2010 |  4:43 pm

Prec
Even more than they love than ice cream and puppies, people love an Oscar bounce. The bounce -- that phenomenon in which the very fact of a nomination gets audiences buying tickets -- is loved by studios because it validates all the money they spent trying to get a nomination. The Oscars love the bounce, because it validates the event's importance as more than just a bunch of people in penguin suits handing trophies to each other. And audiences, well, OK, audiences don't necessarily care about them. But they are affected by them.

The past few years have brought a fair share of Oscar bounces, as films like "Juno," Million Dollar Baby" and "Chicago" earned $80 million or more after their nominations. Last year brought one of the superballs of Oscar bounces, "Slumdog Millionaire," which earned $97 million after the nominations were announced, a number that constituted more than two-thirds of its domestic total.

But this year has brought nothing on this order; indeed, there have been deflated basketballs with more bounce than awards movies. Blockbusters like "Avatar" didn't need (or get) one. The dark dramas needed one, but couldn't come up with the goods "An Education" and "Precious" barely could scrounge up more than $1 million or $2 million after they landed on the shortlists Feb. 2. Other films, like "The Hurt Locker" and "A Serious Man," didn't even try; they'd left theaters by the time nominations were announced and hoped to reap whatever benefit they could on DVD.

There's one notable exception in "Crazy Heart." Scott Cooper's country-ditty of a film wasn't even supposed to come out this year -- Fox Searchlight moved it up from the spring when it realized it would lose Jeff Bridges and his promotional efforts to the set of "True Grit." And yet the movie's earned nearly $20 million of its $25-million total since the nominations came out. The film's still going strong, widening this weekend to 1300 theaters three months after it was first released.

Part of this success has to do with the distribution savvy of Fox Searchlight, which is behind some of the bigger bounces of the past few years (including "Juno" and "Slumdog"). The company understands the map of the United States like an FBI on a manhunt, pinpointing exactly which areas to zoom in on, and when. ("Crazy Heart" has also helped offset the struggles the company had with two films earlier in the fall, "Amelia" and "Whip It").Crazy

But at least some of the "Crazy Heart" performance is due to a more specific reason -- older Americans. The company has seen spikes in places with older populations like performance in cities in Florida. Even though the R-rated movie concentrates on a  washed-up alcoholic who's near made a mess of his life, there's something about the pacing of the film, the story of redemption and Bridges himself that's resonating with he AARP set -- confounding the expectations of Searchlight itself.


 “Bridges is sort of an antihero in the movie, and he’s smoking and drinking, so we weren’t sure how it would play with audiences over [the ages of] 50 or 60,” Fox Searchlight president Stephen Gilula says. "But there’s so much good will for Bridges and his filmography. This is an actor who has been working for four decades. I think a lot of older people want to see his achievement in this film.”

As for the other movies, box office experts have given plenty of reasons why the pictures failed -- the movies opened too soon, the field was too crowded, audiences found too many quality blockbusters. But it's an odd trend. For years we heard that people were paying less attention to he Oscars and its movies because the field didn't feature the crowd pleasers. Now that it does, we're told, people aren't paying attention to some of the more upscale awards movies because they're distracted by the blockbusters. A rising tide, apparently, provides no bounce.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photos (top). Mo'Nique in "Precious." Credit: Lionsgate. Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart." Credit: Lorey Sebastian/Fox Searchlight


From 'Precious' to prison riots: New Attica movie offers an unlikely pairing

February 16, 2010 |  4:06 pm

Anyone wondering what "Precious" screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher is doing after that gritty story of the urban poor -- or, for that matter, the next move for Doug Liman, the "Swingers" and "Mr & Mrs. Smith" director -- can wonder no more. The two are collaborating on an independently financed movie about the Attica prison riot of 1971, titled, well, "Attica." (Caveat: It's just development, so this likely won't be on the screen any time soon.)

Atti Liman, who two years back directed the Hayden Christensen teleportation tale "Jumper" -- don't pretend you don't own the DVD -- and recently finished a Sean Penn thriller called "Fair Game" that will likely be at Cannes, makes a move in a gritty direction with the real-life story of hot-button guards and prisoners.  (Representatives for the project also noted that Liman's father was chief counsel to the subsequent investigation.)

Fletcher hadn't written a movie before "Precious" (adapted from the novel "Push" by Sapphire) and hasn't signed on to do anything since that movie began collecting plaudits -- in fact, he told us recently that he initially conceived of himself more as a director. Now he'll get to work with one who's had one of the more unusual careers around.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Correctional officer Mark Cunningham, whose father was a prison guard killed at Attica, in front of the famed prison. Credit: Don Heupel / Associated Press


Envelope Directors Roundtable: Lee Daniels on casting 'Precious'

February 11, 2010 |  8:00 am

Casting is always a crucial component of any movie, but when you're looking for an obese girl to play the role of a victim of horrific abuse, where do you even start? "Precious" director Lee Daniels talks about his process.

Directors Roundtable RELATED VIDEOS:

Envelope Directors Roundtable: The challenges of marketing a film
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Envelope Directors Roundtable: 'The scene I had to cut'
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James Cameron (and friends) on 'Avatar's' box office domination


Envelope Directors Roundtable: The importance of the audition

February 9, 2010 |  8:00 am

So how important is the auditioning process in the making of a film? It depends on whom you ask. James Cameron certainly has a different approach than Lee Daniels, for instance.

Directors Roundtable RELATED VIDEOS:

Envelope Directors Roundtable: The challenges of marketing a film
Envelope Directors Roundtable: Sequels and board games vs. original work
Envelope Directors Roundtable: 'The scene I had to cut'
Envelope Roundtable: 'The moment I became a director'
James Cameron (and friends) on 'Avatar's' box office domination


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