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Finding Summer Sunshine in ‘Tammy’ Beyond the Muck and the Fat Jokes

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By: Joey Nolfi

Twitter: @joeynolfi

What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.

But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.

Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.

In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.

What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?

Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.

We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.

Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.

So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.

For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.

xmelissa-mccarthy-susan-sarandon-tammy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.KmtdTVSL3lTammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?

Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.

It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.

So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Jane Fonda Talks Loving Pittsburgh: Exploring a Film-Laden City Amidst Its Cultural Revolution

Jane Fonda on-set in Pittsburgh (photo from her website)

So, Jane Fonda is here in Pittsburgh and just wrote this incredible blog about the city and how Russell Crowe isn’t crazy.

I mean, that sounds crazy in itself, but I’m all about relinquishing personal judgments when a Queen speaketh her truth—especially when it concerns showing such love to my hometown.

She’s been in the city for the past week filming scenes for Fathers & Daughters alongside the likes of Crowe and Amanda Seyfried (rumor has it that Octavia Spencer has also joined the cast). It does read sort of like an episode of “This American Life: Jane Takes Pittsburgh,” but she makes heartfelt observations about her co-stars, the film, and the wonderful city around her.

She talks about Crowe having the charm of a “little boy,” and how quickly he can “slip” into the pain and depth of his characters, but Jane also takes us on a journey through phrases one could only accept coming from the mouth of Jane Fonda. If spun gold were to take the shape of blog-based text, it would be the following: “My friend, Quvenzhane Wallis, is also in the film.” Does 10-year old Quvenzhane also describe 76-year old Jane Fonda as her friend? Oh, the conversations they probably have. Does Mrs. Wallis pick Jane up when Quvenzhane asks to go to the mall? Does Jane sit in the back seat? What does Mrs. Wallis’ face look like when she’s forced to remember she’s driving Jane Fonda around each time she looks into her rearview? The follow-up questions I have about this statement are for another article entirely.

All kidding aside, I don’t necessarily take the Crowe-praising bits 100% seriously (I’m not saying Fonda is fibbing, I just think even Russell Crowe knows not to spill his boiling pot of crazy onto the lap of a Queen/dignitary of sisterhood like Jane freaking Fonda). The post’s existence in the first place is rather odd, as it seems almost like Crowe’s PR had something to do with the nicey bits about him (come to think of it, what Fonda described about the actor above [re; “slipping” into his character, his boyish charm, etc.]  is merely a description of, well, “acting” in general).

What I do appreciate about her post, however, is its candidness and the way Fonda speaks about Pittsburgh.

It’s short and sweet, though she posts scores of photos, bits of history from her own recollection of having been there once before in the 70s, and textbook facts in addition to her personal observations. She’s done her research, and is engaging with the city versus letting it serve merely as her backdrop.

The city hosted a score of A-list talent over the last few years. From Anne Hathaway and Laura Dern to Tom Cruise and Chloe Sevigny, Pittsburgh has been a hotbed of celebrity activity for the better part of the past decade. Dozens of films and television shows have filmed here for networks like The Disney Channel and A&E to studios like Warner Bros. and Lionsgate.

Tax credits are the main incentive for productions to shoot here, but studios aren’t the only ones benefitting (I wrote a front-page article for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazeete about what happens to local businesses during production, here).

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The term “Hollywood of the East” has been slapped on to the city for quite some time now, and I’ve always had an issue with it. While certain films host part (The Dark Knight Rises) or all (Those Who Kill) of their production here, any shred of a potentially lasting implication on the city’s identity as a film-conscious production hub is packed onto trailers and shipped out when the crews leave. There’s not a lasting film presence (aside from a few studios in the city–namely the 31st Street Studios) and I’d love to see that change, but the city’s national identity needs to before anything else can.

Everyone remembers Sienna Miller’s trashing of the city when she tried to get in to a local bar without an ID (remember the article where she called us “Shittsburgh”?), but it was a momentary blip on the city’s otherwise spotless track record of hosting major stars and productions. People like Jane Fonda embracing the city is key to taking the appropriate steps in the right direction to make that happen.

The city is in the midst of its own little cultural revolution. There are things going on here that surprised even me, someone who was born and raised here, someone who’s love for film and the arts was fostered by the vast array of local festivals, theaters, and artists that served as a foundation.

I spoke with Neepa Majumdar (professor of Film Studies at the University of Film Studies, where I graduated from in 2012) about Pittsburgh’s place within the industry at large. It’s considered a “C” market, falling anywhere between 20th and 70th place in most population-based studies (we won’t get into metropolitan statistical area or mere urban population, that’s for another article), which essentially means that during Oscar season we don’t get all of the major nominees until their January/February nationwide expansions, and the latest indie and art house films generally reach us a month or two after their New York and LA premieres. There’s a market here for art and independent cinema (including its production, just check out something like the Steeltown Film Factory screenwriting competition by clicking here), but the market for foreign films is expanding—for Bollywood films, in particular.

“You can see a Bollywood film here often at the same time it premieres in India.” Majumdar told me.

That speaks volumes about the diaspora population in a city like Pittsburgh, and you can see it everywhere from the theater marquees at AMC Loews Waterfront (as of this publication, Bollywood comedy 2 States has four scheduled showings throughout the day) to the multiple Indian restaurants lining a neighborhood like Oakland.

The city still has identity issues—not from within, but it terms of outside perception. We’re still the “Steel City” to so many—still the ugly, browning, graying, cloud-covered, smog-infested river country lining the muddy waters of the Ohio. The city is a confluence of culture, art, and diversity far more than people give it credit for, and it’s fantastic to see such a legendary, iconic part of one of the city’s growing industries take the time to write so passionately about our city with such assurance. She’s sure she loves the city and has taken the time to explore it and share her love for it on a such a public forum.

On a final note that needs no justification other than exemplifying her appropriation of rap culture, I’d like to give a shout-out to Jane Fonda’s shout-out to Starbucks:

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The tribute proves everything I’ve been saying about my city, one that’s on the verge of finding its place within the natural urban stew; Pittsburgh is good, but hasn’t yet been able to own the spotlight by itself.

Thanks for helping us along the way though, Jane. I’m glad you’ve had a ball.

Click here to read the full blog on Jane Fonda’s official website.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

What Can Reactionary-Religious Films Learn from “Noah”?

Russell Crowe as NoahAs consumers of film culture and product, we’re used to the many facets of faith.

It’s exponentially important to the continuation of the industry at large. We form allegiances with filmmakers, genres, actors, actresses, producers, screenwriters, franchises and series; we put our faith in these artists and their labors, hoping that they’ll satiate our selfish desires of fulfillment.

There it is: hope, the integral apple to faith’s orange—similar, yet still entirely different fruit. Faith requires pre-established trust, while hope is idealized fantasy that needs no foundation. We can hope out of pure curiosity, but faith requires establishment. Both go hand-in-hand, speaking to our collective desire to indulge in fantasy as we make our way to the theater weekend after weekend.

There are films and audiences that hope for far too much. Religious cinema is often cast aside as its own marginalized (sometimes rightly so) subsect of the film world. The stigma of “Christian” as a descriptor will automatically turn off a majority of the potential audience. It will appeal to the demographic of worshippers; the God-fearing will seek out films like The Passion of the Christ and the upcoming Exodus, and expect them to reaffirm their faith. Christian films rarely deviate from this give-them-what-they-want routine.

Christian films are anomalies of subcultural film in that they seem to cater only to other Christians. The New Black Wave that’s sweeping the country has universal appeal, as does the Queer cinema movement; Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and Gregg Araki make films with subcultural and minority subjects, yet have the ability—and a desire—to speak to everyone.

Noah is a byproduct of the melding of contemporary Hollywood ambition with Christian lore. It’s different in that it offers an alternative approach to a historically-coded text, the biblical story of Noah, his ark, and the raging waters which cleansed the earth in the Old Testament.

It’s a film that can’t escape religious association and—in the hands of a visionary director—has the ability to reach beyond the divided camps of the Christian audience and those who are not Christian.

It’s a film that endured the brunt of built-in criticism; criticism that has taken its toll on the film’s long-term success and standing (Noah took in $4 million on Friday, which will likely result in a drop of over 50% for its second weekend).

The controversy surrounding the artistic liberties director Darren Aronofsky takes with the source material when transitioning from page to screen is to be expected, though it’s never wise to judge an adaptation on the degree to which it adheres to its source. Each text is its own entity, though the Christian audience has made it clear that Noah doesn’t have that luxury, especially when its source material is one of the most well-known symbnols of their religion, known around the world and by other religions for its appeal as a spectacle outside of being a biblical text.

It seems as if pro-religionism has become a trend of obligation. Over the course of the last seven months, ten Christian films have been released to theaters, five of which played on over 400 screens. Christian filmmakers feel the need to release dreck like God’s Not Dead and Son of God in reactionary fashion.

Films like Noah certainly aren’t helping the case for a Hollywood that’s more accepting of Christian subject matter, and it’s clear how Noah might rub the religious sect the wrong way. Aronofsky’s vision of the biblical tale incorporates elements of the whimsical; giant stone-like creatures with glowing eyes and CGI bodies appear only a few minutes into the film, making the bible seem more like another installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Aronofsky treats the Old Testament exactly for what it is; a fantasy, and Christian audiences might respond to the film if they accepted that such biblical tales are as literary and constructed as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

Noah centers on the title character as he receives visions from “The Creator” warning of an impending flood that will wipe out life on earth. Noah takes it upon himself to build an ark that will house one pair each of The Creator’s creatures until the flood is over, an the world will start anew.

Aronofsky’s script, co-written with Ari Handel, consciously deviates from any mention of the word “God,” instead lending itself more to the idea of The Creator as an amalgam of all life. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography speaks to this notion, sopping up vast earthly landscapes from high above, framing silhouetted characters against the night sky and cosmos, visually blending life on earth with its surroundings, globbing it all together for the sake of universality united under the connecting thread of life itself.

The Creator is perhaps one of the least-important pieces of Noah’s puzzle. Character struggle is often internal—sparked by Noah’s adherence to what he believes is The Creator’s plan—and speaks to the film’s relegation of The Creator’s will to second-fiddle in the shadow of Noah’s arc as a character. Noah begins the film as a man of faith, who sacrifices earthly desires for the sake of the will of a higher power, and ends as a man of his own volition.

video-undefined-196A7F3B00000578-247_636x358Faith is a capital principal of filmmaking in general. Studios trust that an audience will respond to their work. Characters generally find their faith in something–spiritually or other–is challenged, altered, or lost. Bob Harris loses faith in himself, his career, and the institution of marriage in Lost in Translation. Dr. Ryan Stone’s spiritual outlook is challenged after the loss of her daughter in Gravity. For many successful plots, something is lost only to be regained through unwavering faith and hope.

Many of these characters become agents of change after internal struggle, or simply succumb to the higher power of narrative necessity or a screenwriter’s desire to see them through to the end of their own story.

Noah is no different. What the Christian audience wanted so badly to be a by-the-numbers retelling of a story they’re already familiar with ended up as a film that values the development of its human characters versus throwing its weight behind the grand scheme of religion. It is a Hollywood production through and through, one that just so happens to strip itself of the chains of religious association and create something new out of dated, fantastical source material.

There’s so much to take away from Noah if expectations aren’t placed upon its “duty” as a story rooted in religion. While faith is a necessary component of satisfactory consumption, it’s simply unwise to treat any Hollywood product as a legitimate reflection of any community, religion, or subculture. What Noah does well, however, is continue the small sliver of artistic favor that’s left in studio filmmaking. This is a film with more than one central female character. This is a film that re-envisions a familiar text for a modern audience. It defies the normative culture in so many ways.

The Old Testament is filled with stories, and accusations of misrepresentation are unfounded when half of what happens within the pages of the bible defies so much of the reality we live each day.

Can you make a greater statement by denying the fantasy or indulging in what meaning arises from the power of fictional construct?

Noah is another one of these stories that lends itself to the cinematic medium moreso than any other. It’s a grand-scale epic of spectacle and action. What we should be celebrating with Noah is what its existence says about the state of the contemporary auteur. The power of a director’s vision and conviction in his craft to take something so familiar and resurrect it as something fresh, something beautiful, and something that can speak to a universal audience instead of jerking off a compartmentalized one.

That should give us hope.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Final Oscar Predictions: ‘American Hustle’ Keeps Dreaming, ‘Gravity’ Pulls Ahead

gravity-movie-review-spaceGauging the months of speculation, bickering, championing, and–of course–whipping out your notebook to take notes in the middle of a crowded movie theater, it’s unfathomable to think that it all amounts to a single night.

Tonight, the 86th Annual Academy Awards will make believers out of skeptics, perhaps proving that the Oscar voters we spend so much of our time putting faith in–because maybe they’ll do the right thing this year–won’t let us down. Maybe they didn’t even entertain the idea of placing American Hustle at #1 on their ballots. Maybe they realized how laughably out of place Jennifer Lawrence’s performance looks amidst the competition. Maybe Spike Jonze will tonight win his first screenwriting Oscar for Her‘s marvelous script over David O. Russell’s barely-there skeleton of a screenplay.

We can dream, can’t we?

It’s so peculiar that a film that’s so laughably inferior to the other films in the race relies so heavily on the very idea of lofty expectations and fantasy existence–dreams, if you will. American Hustle is about slimy characters who dream of a better life, whose grandiose expectations yield shifty crimes and short-lived highs, wrapped up in a flashy package, directed by a renowned filmmaker with an astounding Oscar track record (despite not having won a single statue). Russell managed to get his cast nominated in each of the four acting categories two years a in a row. His work represents the often never-realized dreams of the Academy’s largest branch–the actors. But, it also invites its audience to feel superior to its characters in a sense that isn’t endearing or tongue-in-cheek. We see them as scum, without much redemption.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Screen Actors Guild–with large crossover membership with the Academy’s 2o% acting membership–bestowed its top prize upon American Hustle. For so many, it embodies the spirit of the dreamer.

The dream for tonight, then, is that American Hustle goes down without a single win. It belongs nowhere near the Oscar race (save for Amy Adams’ performance, which is justifiably better than one or two of her fellow nominees’). Scantily-clad women. A plot that’s not really a plot so much as a meandering narrative that’s not really about this, sometimes about that, and all the time about shouting, sex, and trying to justify itself as something greater than it actually is. In other words, it’s typical Academy fare.

o-american-hustle-trailer-facebookWhile Academy voters are still overwhelmingly old, white men (93% white, 77% male), that didn’t stop them from listening to the industry around them when they voted Gravity and 12 Years a Slave into the race, with an astounding 10 and 9 nominations respectively.

Gravity is a British-American co-production driven by a middle-aged female performance, directed by a Mexican filmmaker, and 12 Years a Slave is directed by a black man, about “black issues,” starring a predominantly black cast–you know, to them, this is only a “black” movie, and the majority of them have objectified the racial aspect of the film. It’s great that minority representation is finding its way into the Oscar race, but does either film stand a chance in the grand scheme of the race?

If you’re a by-the-book prognosticator, your answer must be yes. Gravity has, perhaps statistically, the strongest chance of winning going into the race. What it has going for it and against it:

– 10 total nominations, with a guarantee on approximately seven (Director, Cinematography, Sound Editing + Mixing, Visual Effects, Score, and Film Editing [If you’re ticking off multiple boxes, logic would only tell you it’s appropriate to notch a #1 vote in the Best Picture box]), two of which are generally claimed by eventual Best Picture winners (Director and Film Editing) – Strong support from guilds with crossover membership (Directors Guild of America win, Producers Guild of America tie with 12 Years a Slave)
– High-profile visibility in the months leading up to the Oscars (huge worldwide box-office, largely positive response from critics and audiences, which indicates general plug-and-play appeal that the Academy tends to go for)
– Lacks a screenplay nomination

12 Years a Slave, however, has sentiment and passion on its side which, as we’ve learned, is sometimes enough to win. 12 Years a Slave‘s awards summary:

-9 total nominations (though only a lock in a single category [Adapted Screenplay]) – Strong support from critics (the best-reviewed film of the year), though underwhelming box-office indicates lesser appeal across many markets
– Huge Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Drama in January, prior to Oscar voting
– Subject matter that turned many Academy members and audiences off (if you read around the trade papers and websites, many “anonymous” Oscar voters share similar sentiments regarding the film, saying that it was “too much” or “torture porn”, in some cases)
– Inevitable racial objectification at the hands of Oscar voters (they see only the race issues, which precede the film’s existence as a cinematic achievement and work of art)

History and logic would tell us that Gravity will win, though 12 Years a Slave seems to be riding along the narrative path Oscar voters are forging. If this is a split year between Best Picture and Best Director, 12 Years a Slave will most likely have upset in some of the lesser categories with stronger-than-expected support across the board from Oscar voters. If the tide turned in 12 Years a Slave‘s favor during the eleven-day voting process, we can expect it to take things like Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress away from Gravity and American Hustle respectively.

years3Of all the acting categories, its surprising that the one which isn’t locked-up (Blanchett, Leto, and McConaughey are all too far out front to abdicate) will indicate Academy support across the board. I’ve had a sinking feeling that American Hustle will emerge as the surprise winner in many categories tonight, though Supporting Actress is the most likely. Jennifer Lawrence is a fabulous actress with a huge career ahead of her, though her performance in the film is stilted. The film overwhelms her. She’s wooden, aware of the camera, and has a charismatic ability to have fun while onscreen; none of this, however, translates into a good performance. She’s great fun to be in the presence of, though 30 seconds of Lupita Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave puts everything Lawrence does in American Hustle to deep shame.

It seems that Oscar voters (and the industry in general) wants to forge a path to superstardom for Jennifer Lawrence, versus letting her find the work and the roles for herself. They want to be there at the beginning of the trajectory, they want to carve her ascension to the stars with gold. Last year was justifiably the right time for her. This year, it’s simply embarrassing that she’s nominated.

Tonight has the potential to be over shortly after it begins, as key categories are often announced early. Supporting Actress and Editing generally come before the halfway mark, and have the potential to set a course for the evening. If 12 Years a Slave is to take Best Picture, look for it to steal these awards away from the current frontrunners. On the technical side, be prepared for a 30-40 minute segment where nothing but Gravity racks up statues. It’ll likely take a large chunk of aesthetic awards, but don’t let that lull you into thinking it will win Best Picture by default.

It’s difficult to imagine a film like Gravity not doing well on a preferential ballot. The race is essentially down to three films: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave, each with vastly different appeal. Is a voter who puts American Hustle at #1 on their ballot likely to put Gravity at #2 or #3? Is a voter who places films that are likely to be eliminated in the first few rounds–like Philomena or Captain Phillips–likely to put 12 Years a Slave as their #2 or #3? I’m of course making the mistake of assuming that appeal remains the same across each of these films in terms of voter perspective. It’s simply too difficult of a year to accurately predict.

It’s easy to tell if a voter who liked Captain Phillips for the right reasons (it’s critical of American domination) will like 12 Years a Slave, as they’re both critical of and relevant to tensions of inequality with themes applicable to contemporary culture. If an Oscar voter understood Captain Phillips to be a rah-rah America tale of patriotic heroism, it’s extremely difficult to accept that this person would put 12 Years a Slave high on their ballot.

It’s a contentious year with no clear outcome. We can only, as we do every year, put our faith in a system of voting and a crop of voters we never trust, to make a decision that essentially means nothing in the grand scheme of life. After all, Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain did nothing but tarnish the Academy’s image. The Color Purple‘s lack of a single Oscar win only hurt the voters who shunned it, not those of us who enjoy it to this day. Whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave win the Oscar, their presence as quality films won’t diminish.

Is it so much, though, to ask that the celebration of film be done right? Is there even a right way to do it?

We never lose faith that the Academy has the potential to do just that. It’s enough faith to get us back into the awards season machine in a few months. After all, Toronto, Telluride, and Venice are right around the corner–sort of.

Predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture:
Gravity

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Screenplay:
Spike Jonze – Her

Best Adapted Screenplay:
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Hunt

Best Documentary Feature:
The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short Film:
Helium

Best Animated Short Film:
Get a Horse!

Best Original Score:
Steven Price – Gravity

Best Original Song:
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams – Despicable Me 2

Best Sound Editing:
Glenn Freemantle – Gravity

Best Sound Mixing:
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro – Gravity

Best Production Design:
Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn – The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography:
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design:
Catherine Martin – The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing:
Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger – Gravity

Best Visual Effects:
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould – Gravity

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

gravity-sandra-bullock-skip
Gravity
, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

The "fetus" scene

The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.