Some publications just love doing the old ‘Who’s Up, Who’s Down’ thing on a weekly basis all season long. Yawn. Let me tell you “Who’s Up.” It’s every filmmaker who can get any kind of movie made these days that is not cookie-cutter stuff ordered straight out of a studio development meeting. And “Who’s Down“? That’s all the filmmakers whose ambitious projects have been shot to pieces by clueless executives and are still looking for a way to get them made and financed.
I am not going to get into the weekly game of creating this kind of Oscar meter measure except this once. Indulge me because this weekend held a number of interesting turns of events for some of Oscar’s current favorite directors. And it says a lot about the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of this business and the fickle way Oscar winds blow.
In terms of “Who’s Up” in the nascent 2014 Oscar race, I would venture to say way up is two-time Best Director nominee David Fincher (The Social Network, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), who wowed critics and scored his biggest box-office opening ever with an estimated $37.5 million for his powerful adaptation of Gillian Flynn‘s best seller Gone Girl.
The 20th Century Fox/New Regency film is sparking strong conversation among grownups who recognize this is not just a “cookie-cutter” kind of standard adult thriller, but a real humdinger of a movie that dives deep into the mysteries of marriage and the male-female relationship. It is the polar opposite in terms of ambition and achievement of Annabelle, the derivative horror movie with which it has been in a seesaw battle for No. 1 all weekend.
I saw Gone Girl again at a packed screening Friday night, just one week after the first viewing and – love it or hate it – the film got the crowd talking, perhaps dividing them but drawing audiences into the tent. If it continues on this path, its chances to put Fincher back into the directors race, as well as Best Picture, will increase despite nominally being in a genre that doesn’t generally compete there.
Gone Girl’s ‘B’ Cinemascore rating on audience satisfaction is par for the course for a challenging, and unexpected, thriller like this. If it got an’A’ I would think it wasn’t quite the complex and important movie it sets out to be.
You shouldn’t please all the people who show up on opening night or you are doing something wrong. And Gone Girl apparently didn’t, but it did well enough to justify a further expansion next weekend for the normally slow-to-show adult audience to which it is aimed.
At Saturday night’s SRO screening for the Los Angeles contingent of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (it screened for Oscar voters Tuesday in NYC and Thursday in London) it obviously had the same want-to-see fervor that characterized its public bow. And perhaps the same kind of divided reaction.
I am told by more than one observer that applause was only polite at the end but that there was more laughter than they had ever anticipated. This is a good thing as the film itself is often wickedly funny and dead on. That could help it down the line in an awards campaign. One of my Academy voters isn’t sure one way or the other about its ultimate Oscar prospects and said some of the older members left “shaking their heads” but even that kind of reaction will spark talk – and that’s what you want in October. Another Academy voter said “people were not happy with the way it ended,” but hey, that ought to spark conversation as well. And that’s exactly what Fincher and Flynn, who also adapted her novel into the film’s screenplay, seem to be going for.
Speaking of “shaking their heads,” that seems to be the case for quite a few viewers, critics and Twitter posters after Saturday’s New York Film Festival world premiere of another awards hopeful, Inherent Vice, the latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson and distributed by Warner Bros.
Anderson has been nominated five times for Oscars as a producer, writer and director, but only once in the latter category (There Will Be Blood). The film isn’t scheduled to open until Dec. 12 (expanding in January following the exact pattern of the studio’s Oscar-winning 2013 Best Picture nominee Her that also starred Joaquin Phoenix) so there is time to turn perceptions around.
But when phrases like “stoner noir,” “unapologetically weird,” “druggy, dazed and detached” and “pale and narrow” are thrown around by critics, along with statements like, “maybe it will come into focus after I have seen it a second or third time and can access the subtitles on the Blu-Ray,” you know the studio has its work cut out to turn this into the kind of mainstream Oscar contender Anderson has created in the past. It reportedly received polite applause.
Apparently, all reports say the film is a faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon‘s book, a comic, whacked-out L.A.-based mystery set in the drug-soaked 1970s. I say apparently because I haven’t seen it but certainly look forward to it.
Warner Bros decided against the kind of simultaneous L.A. screening with the NYFF premiere that they did last year with Her and that Fox did last week with Gone Girl. I actually heard it may have been Anderson’s choice to make this a pure NYFF debut and nothing else. So having said all that, and now noting for the record that I am a huge fan of this filmmaker, I would have to say the mixed response (even a near-rave from Variety noted it is “not for all tastes, including the Academy’s”) would put frequent Oscar favorite Anderson on the “who’s down” list as far as hot awards prospects this week.
But Warners scored a “Who’s Up” with genuinely positive response to their first trailer of Clint Eastwood’s late-breaking December entry, American Sniper. It’s a hell of a teaser and indicates Eastwood could be in it to win it once again if the film lives up to the promise exhibited in this first look.
And the studio also gets a “Who’s Up” for the increasingly positive reaction I have witnessed at industry screenings of their Oct. 10 drama, The Judge. Several screenings have elicited standing ovations and it played well with the Academy last weekend from all reports. Star Robert Downey Jr. has really been out there, everywhere, promoting the movie and doing Q&As. All the work seems to be striking a chord. The David Dobkin-directed film came out of its jinxed opening-night slot at the Toronto International Film Festival as sort of a “Who’s Down” or maybe a “Who’s Sideways,” if you were to believe the buzz or lack of it. Now I am detecting new life and possibly some incremental Oscar momentum. Time will tell after it opens next week. It is the kind of actor-driven human drama to which the Academy, if not necessarily curmudgeonly critics, has traditionally responded.
And then there is another long-time Academy favorite, Jason Reitman, a four-time Oscar nominee who came out swinging with successive hits, Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air. He didn’t hit those heights with his fourth film, Young Adult, but I loved that one.
Last year’s Labor Day was a miss that didn’t crack $14 million domestically and came up zero at the Oscar nominations. But there were high hopes for his 2014 entry, Men, Women And Children, a look at how the Internet is changing the way humans interact.
However, it pretty much struck out at its TIFF world premiere and its limited opening this weekend was pretty much off the charts – in a bad way. It didn’t even crack $1,000 on its opening night Friday at L.A.’s Landmark theater and its per-screen average of $2,824 does not bode well for future expansions or awards cred. For Reitman’s Oscar chances this year, you have to say it is a “Who’s Down.”
But whether “down,” “up” or “hanging in the air,” I have to say all of these “contenders” make the Pete Hammond list of “Who’s Up” just for trying something original and out of the box. That’s more than enough in my book.