Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: ‘Tis the season to bait Oscar — oh yeah, and critics, too

Well, since I’ve finally managed to pound a significant quantity of tarragon crumb stuffing up a turkey’s backside (“Stuff the cavity loosely” — yeah, right) and get him into the oven where he can fend for himself for a quantity of time, I’ll turn my attention to the burning topic of the season from a critic’s perspective. I refer, of course, to awards season. This is the time of year that the studios trot out the stuff they think will bring them Oscars. As a kind of by-product and lead-in, they also court the lowly critics’ groups in hopes of awards vaious and sundry, and the even lowlier individual critics with their eyes on racking up spots on as many “Ten Best” lists as possible.

It’s an interesting approach really. Think about it. The studios spend roughly 10 months out of the year foisting their “lesser” product on us (yes, there are a few exceptions) and then invest about two months trying to make up for it. (If they honestly think this is going to make anyone forget sitting through Disaster Movie or Saw V, they are sadly in error.) In the case of critics — especially critics in the hinterlands (largely defined by Hollywood as that dead space between New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) — they compound this idea by remembering that we exist by inviting us to screenings, setting up screenings for us and sending us screeners. (Those last come with dire warnings of Spanish Inquisition-like punishments should we allow these things to fall into the hands of mere mortals — despite the fact that I’ve never heard of a pirated movie being traced to a critic.)

I’m not complaining, mind you. I like the invitations, the screenings and the screeners. I may not take advantage of all of them. So far, I’ve received three invitations to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — at distances ranging from 275 miles to 85 miles. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not making a 170 mile round trip to see a David Fincher movie. Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Tim Burton, Danny Boyle—maybe. David Fincher, no. (Yes, I realize that’s heresy in some quarters.) The fine folks bringing out John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt have the right idea. They’re bringing the movie to Asheville. That’s more like it.

Screenings are far and away the best way to see these presumed heavy-hitters, since it’s better to judge movies on the big screen, but screeners are certainly convenient. (And I do my best to arrange to see all of these projected theatrically.) The more ambitious studios (I assume it’s ambition; it could as easily be poor planning) arrange screenings and follow them up by sending screeners. A couple days after being shown The Phantom of the Opera, Breakfast on Pluto and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street they showed up on my porch in DVD form, allowing me to savor them a second time. It probably helped secure them higher positions on my list. At the same time, a screener of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou landed it the number four spot that year, but had I also seen it on the screen, it would have been two notches higher. Size does matter.

This year the push started a bit late. The theory is that the studios were waiting till the election was over, so our critical faculties would be free to better appreciate the treasures being offered. (Yes, well, it’s a theory.) But I’ve gotten the jump on seeing Frost/Nixon. Quick take: Frank Langella is better as Richard Nixon than Nixon was. The film itself is competent, unadventurous, a little obvious and thinks it’s more important than it is. In other words, it’s a Ron Howard movie. And the screener of the Swedish vampire picture Let the Right One In was a God-send, because it’s probably the only way I’m likely to see the film — and, at this moment anyway (there is still much to see), it deserves a spot on my list.

I’ve yet to make time for Last Chance Harvey, but that could be remedied as soon as tonight. It’s a bit of a dark horse. I like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The director is unknown to me. And I really have no expectations. Then again, I’d never even heard of Breakfast on Pluto when that cropped up and it snared my number one slot. I’m looking forward to taking a second — and possibly a third — look at Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which I already saw at the Asheville Film Festival. Right now, it’s the title to beat for my money.

A copy of The Visitor has shown up to remind me of its existence. This isn’t a bad idea. If I’d seen John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch a second time before the end of its year, it would have snagged a pretty high spot on my list. But they didn’t send one and it didn’t make the list at all. More puzzling is the arrival of Kung Fu Panda. I liked it a good bit, but it doesn’t seem a likely “Best of” candidate. Oh, well, I once got a “for your consideration” screener of Legally Blonde. I’m still trying to figure out why.

Of course, some of the contenders—like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky — are already in theaters. Others that were once thought likely — Oliver Stone’s W. and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling — have come and are on their way out with less luster than the studios had hoped. Others, like Gus Van Sant’s Milk will play locally before I make my list (but not before I have to vote for the South Eastern Film Critics Association award, so. hopefully, that’ll show up in screener for this coming week).

I’m curious to see how hard the push will be on Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, another film I saw at the film festival. The buzz surrounding it at the time has quieted a good bit, while the even louder buzz surrounding Mickey Rourke’s performance dropped to a whisper after Mr. Rourke having one of his unfortunate Mickey Rourke moments in front of a TV camera. Since I never more than liked the film, my curiosity is purely academic.

There’s a lot of interest centering on the aforementioned Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I understand, because the trailer looks somewhere in between very interesting and downright fascinating. I hope the studios at least invest in a screener (it opens on Dec. 25 — 11 days after voting). I have to admit that I do not understand the interest surrounding Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. The trailer looks like Dirty Harry Retires to the ‘Burbs and Eastwood sounds like he’s doing a perfectly fine impression of Christian Bale as Batman. I’m just not feeling the profundity. Others apparently are.

Of much greater interest to me is Stephen Daldry’s The Reader — Daldry’s first film since The Hours in 2002. How this can not be of interest baffles me, but no one has suggested a screening yet and there’ve been no rumblings about screeners, though the movie opens in limited release on December 12. Hopefully, they’re trying to surprise us. The same is perhaps the case with Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, which has probably more buzz than anything else coming out (December26). I’m open to the possibility of it being a great movie, though I confess to an aversion to dramas about suburban angst (I’m one of maybe a dozen people who wasn’t whelmed by Mendes’ American Beauty). Still, I’m open to persuasion if I get the chance to be peruaded.

High on my list of things to see in time for voting and Best of listing is Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom. Johnson’s Brick (2005) is one of the most audacious debut features I’ve ever seen and I’m very interested in seeing what he does with his first mainstream work with a name cast — Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo. Plus, the trailer looks at the very least agreeable—and possibly a good bit more.

I’m sure someone somewhere is all a-dither about Gabrielle Muccino’s Seven Pounds — a reteaming of Muccino and Will Smith in the wake of their Pursuit of Happyness (2006). It’s Will Smith. It’ll make a fortune, but it just so screams of mid-cult Oscar-bait that I can’t work up much enthusiasm. It is at least bound to be better than Hancock. There’s always that.

And what of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie? What indeed? The release date on this has been shifted around so often that who knows what to think? Presumably, it’s December 25th opening (nothing says Christmas like Nazis) is etched in stone. The premise is interesting and so is a large part of the cast. However, there’s star Tom Cruise. Surely, I cannot be the only person reduced to unseemly giggling every time the trailer shows up and we’re treated to Cruise playing a German officer as five-and-a-half-feet of homegrown corn. Toss in the fact that Singer’s last film, Superman Returns (2006), ranked pretty high on the ho-hum-o-meter, and this isn’t very enticing.

World War II may fare better — or at least with less laughs — in Edward Zwick’s Defiance, which is getting a last minute foot in the Oscar door on December 31 in limited release. (It doesn’t go wide until January 16.) Whether the studio thinks it’s worth promoting to the critical populace at large is as yet unknown. Zwick is the kind of safe and slightly self-important director that Oscar voters tend to like more than critics, but Warner Bros. did send Blood Diamond (2006) out to critics. Whether Paramount Vantage will feel so inclined with Defiance is a completely separate issue.

That’s pretty much the crop of new-and-important movies for awards’ season. It’s not the most promising one I’ve seen, but it kind of fits 2008, which — despite some very notable exceptions — has been a little lacking in truly blow-you-away titles. But you never know what treasures are lurking until you actually see for yourself.

No, I’m not about to try and dope out the Oscars. At this point, I can’t even figure out exactly where I stand on this. And I long ago gave up trying to figure out the collective mind of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Those people leave me scratching my head oftener than not. Maybe we’ll play that game nearer the time. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to check on the turkey (no, this does not mean a second viewing of Four Christmases) and devil some eggs.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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11 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: ‘Tis the season to bait Oscar — oh yeah, and critics, too

  1. Louis

    …sounds like he’s doing a perfectly fine impression of Christian Bale as Batman.

    How funny…when I saw BATMAN BEGINS I remember commenting outloud that Bale sounded like he was doing dead-on Eastwood/HEARTBREAK RIDGE impression.

    (I’m one of maybe a dozen people who wasn’t whelmed by Mendes’ American Beauty). Still, I’m open to persuasion if I get the chance to be peruaded.

    For what it’s worth, you can make that a baker’s dozen. It never transcended the issue of suburban angst in proportion to quasi-pedophilia. Spacey is so smug that I found none of it compelling or humorous. Every character in the movie–short of the gay neighbors–is such a downer that I never developed interest in their collective welfare.

  2. Ken Hanke

    For what it’s worth, you can make that a baker’s dozen.

    I don’t suspect the number is sufficient to change anything.

    Update-wise, I was kind of surprised to find Changeling and The Wrestler show up yesterday. But in the case of the former, I’d forgotten that there was inevitably going to be a big push on Jolie for Best Actress. That was driven home by a chance encounter with Entertainment Tonight on TV, which contained early Oscar predictions with a pronounced Jolie slant — they had three or four brief clips, all of which included her screaming, “my son!” at some point. Mickey Rourke, on the other hand, was relegated to their “dark horse” category. The question arises as to how many Academy voters watch Entertainment Tonight.

  3. Ken Hanke

    In the realm of the utterly mystifying comes this morning’s mail with a little box from Overture Films. It contains the soundtrack album for The Visitor (kind of reasonable, I suppose) and a six inch tall replica of Richard Jenkins’ drum “as seen in the film,” an item my home conspicuously lacked. This is supposed to entice a vote, one assumes…

  4. Justin Souther

    In the realm of the utterly mystifying comes this morning’s mail with a little box from Overture Films.

    Who made Changeling again? Maybe they’ll send you a talking Angelina Jolie doll that yells “My son!” whenever you yank her pull-string.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Who made Changeling again? Maybe they’ll send you a talking Angelina Jolie doll that yells “My son!” whenever you yank her pull-string.

    Thankfully, I suspect it’s too late in the awards season for such an undertaking to be feasible.

  6. Musoscribe63

    I look forward to seeing Frost/Nixon. I was fortunate enough to see the play on Broadway in summer ’07, and it was mesmerising. Fascinating stuff, well-paced and whatnot.

  7. Louis

    In the realm of the utterly mystifying comes this morning’s mail with a little box from Overture Films. It contains the soundtrack album for The Visitor (kind of reasonable, I suppose) and a six inch tall replica of Richard Jenkins’ drum “as seen in the film,” an item my home conspicuously lacked. This is supposed to entice a vote, one assumes…

    I saw this and, well, I don’t get it.

    Where one calls emotionalism creeping on you, I might just as readily subsitute the word emotionalessness. Jenkins is a solid character actor to be sure. He gives a humane performance here. But bestowing upon him “star” at age 60, based on this outing?–I don’t know. Not unlike its evil cousins SIDEWAYS and SMART PEOPLE, it’s another installment of aloofness-in-lieu-of-affected. Not enough alone for me. The collectively shared apathy theme in this Michael London-sponsored “lassitude trilogy” is worthwhile, but in all three cases the issue of reconciliation and/or balance is never really explored more deeply from one film to the next.

    Jenkins’ performance puts me in mind of Murray in LOST IN TRANSLATION and Nicholson in ABOUT SCHMIDT: What you might call the thorazine-school of acting. It’s tantamount to Clinical Subdue-edness; both in terms of the central character’s performance and the resulting effect on the viewer.

    The most rewarding window of opportunity with THE VISITOR was in the potential cross-cultural, “senior” relationship between Walter and Tarek’s mother–yet, really, the film took it nowhere.

    Indeed, the theatrical version is not too preachy. The DVD and its special features more than make up for such well-advised restraint. It contains “helpful” information about trends in illegal immigration detention.

    This website comes straight from the DVD cover: http://www.takepart.com/

    Thanks. But no thanks. I’ll take HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE GUANTANAMO BAY any day of the week. Its agenda is more distinguable.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I take it, Louis, that a six inch replica of the drum wouldn’t sell you on it?

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not selling me and while I liked the film better than you did, it’s nowhere near my 10 best list.

  9. Judda C

    Bait the critic too? But we love Ken! A good one I’ve seen lately is “Happy Go Lucky”. Thanks for the review on this one Ken.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Thanks for the review on this one Ken

    Oh, you’re more than welcome. Keep an eye out for Slumdog Millionaire.

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