A new weekly column talking up the season with bits and pieces from the awards circuit.

AFI Fest, the last big stop on the fall film festival circuit has boosted the Oscar visibility for two late players from the majors this week:  Sony’s Concussion which world premiered Tuesday night, and Paramount’s last minute entry The Big Short which premiered Thursday night at the fest. Reaction at the TCL Chinese was strong for The Big Short which is shaping up to be Paramount’s big Pete Hammond badgeawards hopeful. Virtually the entire large cast including stars Steve Carell , Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale were present.  Their co-star Brad Pitt , who was at the AFI opening last week of his new film By The Sea  was in Europe I am told.  Author of the book Michael Lewis (Moneyball)  was in the AFI FEST 2015house too  along with director and co-writer (with Charles Randolph)  Adam McKay who has a real change of pace from his usual broader comedies with this true story of  a group of guys who predicted the financial meltdown of the mid-2000’s.  Performances across the board are first rate. Carell will be campaigned in lead while the others go in support. Paramount is determined to give this film every possible boost and Par’s Vice Chairman Rob Moore told me the film wasn’t even originally scheduled for this year but the studio was assured it could be finished in time to play in the awards sandbox, and that means screeners.  “I am not going through another year where we don’t have the  ability to get screeners out on time, ”  he said in reference to the fact that both last year’s Selma  and 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street were not available in time to get to SAG nom comm voters and thereby lost out when the group made its nominations in Mid-december. This film definitely has something in common with Wolf which went on to gather five Oscar nominations including Best Picture.  “Wolf Of Wall Street showed  the fun side of things while we show the down side.  Then there was Margin Call which told it from the inside. And I still think Wall Street really holds up. You can’t beat Oliver Stone , ” McKay told me at the Hollywood Roosevelt after-party.  The film is very complexthe big short, with lots of  Wall Street style speak that might go over the heads of some.  Moore said they actually tested it in the Republican bastion of Orange County and scores were very high. He said that audience seemed to understand everything going on. The film has a sobering coda which indicates that lessons might not have been learned. “I actually  think this kind of irresponsible activity is still there.  It’s never really stopped, ” said McKay.

WILL SMITH GETS REAL

After the well-received Concussion, which is a hard-hitting and very powerful expose about the impact of brain injuries on NFL players and the urgency – or lack of it – on the part of the league to do something , there was also lots of Oscar talk , particularly for star Will Smith who plays the real life forensic neuropathologist, Bennet Omalu who first identified the football-related brain trauma known as CTE.  Smith is beyond excellent and definitely could be in line for his third Best Actor nomination. Plus his Nigerian accent is flawless. He deflected that talk when I saw him but pointed to the real people the movie depicts at the after-party who really deserve the praise. “You should be talking to them. They are the ones who did it,”  he said referring to Omalu who was present .  Co-star Albert Brooks, also excellent , was fired up about the potential of this film to really make a difference. “It is time we had more than just that Frontline documentary, ”  he said about the PBS show that focused attention on the Will-Smith-Concussion-AFI-FEST-Movie-Premiere-Fashion-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-1issue. But perhaps most important of all was guest Bob Costas who has been well aware of this controversy for years and didn’t mince words when I asked him what the NFL might think of their depiction in the film.  “What can they say?  This is exactly what happened,”  he said also mentioning the Frontline docu and how this can reach a far greater audience.  ” I really think this movie can have a strong impact. But it also  has a very moving human story and that could really resonate.” Among those at the opening was Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs who told me she was really impressed.  Writer-Director Peter Landesman was there taking in the praise for his movie and also praising Sony and its release plans (it opens Christmas Day).  “The studio has been really great about everything, ”  he said.   Of course there was talk about that New York Times article a few weeks ago that used hacked Sony emails and seemed to be a hit piece on the movie suggesting the studio and filmmakers had softened it.  Clearly anyoneConcussion who sees the film (and I had actually seen it before that piece ran)  will tell you Concussion pulls no punches and is no apologist for the NFL.   Brooks has the best line in the movie when he talks about the insurmountable odds of fighting the NFL. “You are talking about people who own a day of the week”.

BRANGELINA  HOLDS COURT

And speaking of AFI,  the Fest opened a week ago with the World Premiere of By The Sea  which starts today in a limited break and was clearly a labor of love for star/producer/writer/director Angelina Jolie Pitt  and her real life husband Brad Pitt.  Some critics have been harsh , but Brad, who seemed to be having a great time,  told me at the Hollywood Roosevelt after party their goal was really only to do a 70’s style European art film, Angelina-Jolie-By-Sea-AFI-Premiere-2015-Versace-Dress02not one that will be for everyone’s taste. But what is these days?  Jolie Pitt, who is directing herself in a film for the first time after two previous turns behind the camera, told me the experience of acting under her own direction was “schizophrenic”.  She made this film in Malta during the day while still involved in editing last year’s Unbroken at night.  She’s indefatiguable.  In fact this week she won’t be around for the By The Sea  opening weekend because she’s already headed to Cambodia to start work on her Netflix movie, First They Killed My Father:  A Daughter Of Cambodia Remembers  which she produces and directs. Her Cambodian-born son Maddox will also be involved in that film.  He has a credit on By The Sea too as “trainee”.  A chip off the old block?  By the way the Pitts really do know how to look like movie stars, the kind they don’t make anymore. They turned up at the TCL Chinese last Thursday night looking like a pair of mega watt superstars from its Grauman’s  Chinese heyday in the 30’s and 40’s.   They stayed a long time at AFI’s post party on an elevated stage  greeting guests who could somehow scale the human chain of security guys keeping that corner of the soiree as private as possible.

TO SIRS WITH LOVE

The British have landed in L.A. this week in a big way thanks not only to AFI doings but also for the awards season press carnival that always surrounds Saturday’s upcoming Governors Awards. Speaking of those awards the Academy announced today Jean Hersholt honoree Debbie Reynolds would not be able to attend because she is  recovering from recent surgery.  The show will still go on  for her.  Jane Fonda tells me she and Meryl Streep will be presenting the Oscar statuette to Debbie’s granddaughter. But back to the brits.  No sooner had  I finished welcoming Sir Michael Caine to my KCET Cinema Series Tuesday night after a screening of Youth (co-star Harvey Keitel joined us on stage), then the next day I got to have lunch  with 45 Years co-stars Charlotte Rampling and Sir Tom Courtenay  and later that evening host an on stage conversation with them in between an American Cinematheque double feature of his 1963 Billy Liar  and her 1974 The Night Porter (they had come straight from an AFI tribute).  The current film in which they star is a knockout thanks to both , particularly Rampling GettyImages-496864032who should be very high up anyone’s list of Best Actress Oscar contenders.  Both won the Silver Bear Best Actor and Actress awards at the Berlin Film Festival  and just this week were nominated in those same categories for the European Film Awards.  In fact when I mentioned it at the Aero Wednesday night during our conversation Rampling said it was the first time she’d heard about the nomination.  I have a feeling there will be many more this year for this never- Oscar nominated star – and she deserves it. As for Courtenay he has been Oscar nominated twice (1965’s Dr. Zhivago  and 1983’s The Dresser), and thought he was going to be campaigned as Supporting Actor for 45 Years,  even though the stars carry near-equal weight as a married45 Years couple whose 45 year union is suddenly shattered by a long ago secret that has come to light. “That all just changed this morning I am told, ”  Courtenay said.  “Now they tell me I am going to be in the leading category. First they told me one thing, now they tell me another, ” he laughed.   He seemed fairly uncertain as to the reason all this is going on because as an academy voter himself he makes those decisions , but clearly the consultants and distributor (IFC) behind 45 Years have decided the performance belongs in the Best Actor race where it has already been acknowledged at Berlin and the European Film Awards. Quite frankly it would be hard to advertise those accolades and then push him for Supporting.   Courtenay recalled that when he was nominated as Best Actor for The Dresser in which he starred opposite Albert Finney that there was talk then of putting him in supporting  so as not to compete directly with Finney , but both ended up nominated for lead (and lost to Robert Duvall). The whole issue of who is supporting and who is lead can get confusing.  I am now hearing the  Hollywood Foreign Press Association is ruling Alicia Vikander  of The Danish Girl and Rooney Mara of Carol as leads in the Golden Globe Drama Actress category despite the fact that both their respective studios are campaigning them for the Oscar Supporting Actress category.