Christian Bale

Oscar Diary #6: “American Hustle” Premieres: The Game Begins for David O. Russell

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Jennifer Lawrence slinks into the Oscar race in “American Hustle”

American Hustle endured its first preview screening in L.A. this past Sunday. Oprah is busy extending every root of her titanic media tree into the depths of the industry for The Butler‘s campaign. Jennifer Lawrence fidgets in her seat, adorably (ok, “accidentally”) spilling mints all over herself at a panel for Catching Fire.

The minute–albeit entirely calculated–nuances of awards season power plays are sprouting here and there, and it’s time to start paying close attention.

Initial reaction to David O. Russell’s third installment in a reinvention series of sorts (the first two films being The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) seems to be tipping slightly north of average. Although a reviews embargo is in effect until December 4th, Oscar bloggers and film critics alike have taken to Twitter to post first-round comments, and it seems that American Hustle is poised to shake up the pre-Oscars race in at least two major categories.

The film is likely to receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay by default (O. Russell finished the film in a crazy-fast amount of time. Writers love to reward quick work, as I assume it motivates them), though most who’ve seen the film praised Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, indicating that she’s a true show-stealer in an otherwise simple picture.

With SAG ballots in the mail last week, Jennifer Lawrence seems poised for another headline year. Recognition for American Hustle in the supporting categories at a few major awards shows seems likely for her. Though American Hustle lacks backing from the Weinsteins (they’ve got a fantastic track record for actors, given that they were able to get Silver Linings Playbook nominated in each acting category last year), Lawrence is riding high on the trails of her colossal star ascending at breakneck speed. She’s someone who appeals to the broad membership of the SAG voting base (about 100,000 strong) and the narrower nominating sect (around 2,200 members), and an ace interviewee. Her likeability is universal, and she connects with all demographics thanks to a relatable personality and legitimate acting prowess, who knows when to be funny, but doesn’t let her red-carpet persona precede her talent (think of her as a much more respectable Robert Benigni).

Hustle represents an interesting spice thrown into the pre-Oscar sauce. While, of the past four Oscar years, it marks the third within which David O. Russell has released a legitimate contender, it’s no secret that the tone of Russell’s work has shifted. That’s not to say it has gotten worse. Silver Linings Playbook is an enjoyable (if unchallenging) film entirely worthy of the praise it received last year. I’ve yet to see The Fighter, so I can’t speak on it, but I do know that even on the basis of subject matter it represents a vast departure from Russell’s early work. I’m not alone fearing the loss of the days of the intrepid, ruthless spirit who brought us the oddity of a vision that was I Heart Huckabees in favor of Oscar-friendly fare.

Jeremy Smith of Aint It Cool News tweeted an interesting thought yesterday:

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It’s an interesting point in a time where so many forget what Oscar season truly is. It’s all just a game–no different than football, hockey, or the Miss America pageant–and Russell is a star player on the road to securing a legacy, one which can be as fruitful as he wants it to be (without limits) if his name is cemented with Oscar gold.

If he is playing the game, Russell never seems to have the upper hand. His films have managed a minor dent in the Best Picture race  at best (Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot at the title, thanks to its all-encompassing gravitational pull of actor appeal and love from the general audience audience), though his contemporary regard within the industry only approaches that of an auteur without fully realizing it. Silver Linings Playbook and I Heart Huckabees are entirely different films within which I can find almost no semblance of a directorial hand’s similar strokes. Huckabees is cold, philosophical, and existentially perplexing, whereas Silver Linings Playbook forces us into the minds of its characters, exploring their pathos, and functioning to make their feelings ours. One is a philosophical monologue, and the other is a town hall of emotions.

It’ll be interesting to see how American Hustle fits into Russell’s legacy. His reputation was tainted after a few on-set outbursts during the filming of I Heart Huckabees, and his style underwent a drastic change over the course of the 6 years between that film and The Fighter. 14 Oscar nominations after I Heart Huckabees, though, his recent work shows that he’s willing to play the game we all know so well. Does this make him an inferior artist? Absolutely not. The game is tense and the game calls for strategic plays.

An artist who knows how to conform his art while still pouring himself into his work (he writes his screenplays, directs with passion, and produces a quality product) deserves respectable praise, but what exactly is it that Russell isn’t doing to push himself over the edge? He aligns himself with master marketers and campaign veterans (the Weinsteins) and buzzy stars with real talent (Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams) to create a spectacle of near-genius instead of a weight display of heavy greatness.

His films are consumable without entirely sacrificing complexity. They’re provocative enough for his built-in audience to enjoy, but accessible enough to be sold to the masses. He’s helming masterworks of perfectly-blended commercial cinema, but that’s also his problem. His films don’t push hard enough in either direction, and it may be a while before he gets the recognition he deserves.

At this point, it seems entirely unlikely that American Hustle can steal the thunder away from 1Years a Slave or even Gravity, for that matter. Both have hyper-strong, agenda-pushing awards narratives pushing them to the forefront of the discussion (black filmmakers and diversifying the Oscars, women once again become a box-office force), and Russell’s work again seems destined to only reap the benefits of what love is leftover from the headliners.

His art isn’t compromised if he stands behind it, and as long as people love it, he has found a way to cement a firm grasp on the ever-elusive Oscar machine. He’ll have to learn to prove himself to the DGA if he wants to go all the way to Oscar (though the new voting dates don’t allow Oscar voters to use the DGA nominations as a basis for their own voting). His time might not be with American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook, but somewhere down the line his credibility-building run as an Oscar darling will pay off with a legacy win bound to make I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings shine a hell of a lot brighter in retrospect than they would have if their creator had remained a creative alien to the mainstream.

Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

Dark Knight “Rises” In Pittsburgh; Hathaway, Cotillard, Bale in the Steel City

"The Dark Knight Rises" Filming in Oakland, Pittsburgh. Photo by me.

Oh, you know. Just Batman fighting some bad guys on the streets of Pittsburgh.  No big deal.

And no, I’m not talking about one of the crazy PAT bus patrons trolling the streets of Oakland at 1 AM  who think they’re Batman. Nope, this is the real deal. And it’s all unfolding about four streets over from my house in Oakland.

I know the photo is terrible, but it’s a miracle I even got that shot because I was having such frantic bursts of excitement. I cannot contain myself over the fact that I was about 100 feet away from Anne Hathaway. That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

Not to mention the fact that Marion Cotillard and I have been breathing the same smoggy air for the past week or so, and will be doing so until the end of August. If I see her on the street, I’m thinking of taking an alternate approach to the whole “rabid fan meets idol” thing. Perhaps I’ll just stand with my back hunched a bit, arms outstretched, frantically wailing “MARCEEEL! MAAARRRCEEELLLLLLL!”. Insert laughter from those who also love “La vie en Rose” here.

The scene in the picture above, however, yielded only momentary glimpses of the action. Bale and Hathaway were spotted leaving the set about a minute or two before I got there, and filming quickly concluded about 30 seconds after that. Dozens of extras dressed in Gotham police attire boarded about 6 busses outside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, where Bigelow (the street directly in front of the building) is closed off to house trailers and equipment trucks.

Today production is taking the crew to Heinz Field, where a mock football game is being held with hundreds of extras. That should be interesting. Pittsburghers know how to chear a damn team. I’m just concerned about how those bright yellow monstrosities also known as “Heinz Field seating” are going to look onscreen.

In other news, I’m currently trying to get Michael Keaton’s reaction to the franchise he’s such an iconic part of filming in his hometown. Hell, I went to the same high school as him. The same church. I even lived about 10 houses down from where his late mother resided until her death.

Keaton sent me this message, however.

Thank you very much but I am working on different interview pieces right now and don’t want them to overlap and I can’t find the time right now anyway.  Thanks again. MK

According to the movie editor here, I should simply reply in a week with five questions he can answer via email. “He’ll definitely do that” she says. I certainly hope so.

Val Kilmer and Adam West have also been contacted on my end. Here’s to hoping I don’t have to flash any bat signals in the sky to muster a response from any of them.

Someone’s Hot For Oscar; Predicting the Academy Award Nominations

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To begin this year’s Oscar predictions with continued harping over last year’s pitiful excuse for an Academy Awards ceremony would be to completely demean the conspicuously-outstanding American cinematic offerings 2010 served up. But to hell with that, I’m in the mood for bitching, and Kathryn Bigelow and Sandra Bullock still personally owe me for the distress they caused in my life around this time last year.  I’ll most likely be taking my tears and backhanded compliments elsewhere this year, particularly casting shade on what, if the Golden Globes are any indication, could potentially turn out to upset even last year’s Oscar telecast as one of the worst in the AMPAS’ longstanding (and long-respected) history.

The problem I’ve had with the Academy for quite some time now is their increasing insistence on insulting their many followers, not unlike myself, who somehow find it within themselves to hinge what is basically their entire lives on a single telecast that’s gradually making its way down from being the precipice of artistic recognition to a night full of industry favors upheld by a “we need to like you so people like us” nomination process. If last year taught us anything, it’s that giving into societal agendas and journalistic ideals of catchy headlines (First Woman Wins Best Director!) for free press has apparently turned into the Academy’s game.  I mean, absolutely no one but a casual moviegoing public who didn’t see much more than the commercially-friendly The Blind Side could possibly even begin to consider Sandy’s performance as 2009’s crowning achievement of female performances.  The fact remains that Sandra Bullock is a crowd-pleasing, widely-appealing ‘star’ and not a gifted actress. She’s an essential part of what makes Hollywood a business; she’s marketable, relatable, likeable, and just rubs America the right way in general, making it easy for the AMPAS to align themselves with her.

All bitching aside, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that this year’s race to watch out for is Supporting Actress, a category that’s generally one-sided and ultimately locked months before the nomination process even begins. No clear frontrunner has emerged amidst a group of women whose performances are as brilliant as they are ambiguously fitting for both the Lead and Supporting categories (I’m looking at you, Lesley Manfield and Hailee Steinfeld). Both could fall into either category depending on how the Academy chooses to dole out the nominations this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they give both potentials a spot in the Supporting category to make room for some powerhouse players in the Lead category (I’m thinking Moore, Kidman, Williams, and even Swank as an outside pick have a shot this year).  Amy Adams is the only definitive lock at this point, with Melissa Leo potentially creeping in as the category’s alternate. The case of Mila Kunis, on the other hand, is one that has me scratching my head a bit; Her work in the film clearly pales in comparison to what she’ll potentially be up against, seeing as she’s the obligatory “let’s fit the seeming frontrunner into as many categories as possible to up its tally” acting nomination this year. Her’s is neither a girthy or substantial role at all with literally not much for her to work with. A sufficient turn, but nothing Oscar-worthy. I do love me some sweet lips, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like her role is one which is enhanced by  the atmospherics and diegetic emphasis placed upon it, not necessarily by the output of Kunis herself. It’s a role anyone would have been nominated for if they were casted in it simply because of the containing film’s momentum going into the nominations, it just so happens Mila was lucky enough to get it. You can’t forget about Helena Bonham Carter either, although something’s telling me she could be the surprise snub (although rightfully so) of the Awards this year.

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Keeping up with the ladies of 2010, Lead Actress should prove no less exciting than Supporting Actress will be. Annette Bening and Natalie Portman have been locks for months now, and not a thing will change that by come tomorrow morning. I’m confident in placing Kidman as the third in line as of right now, with Moore trailing just behind her. The fifth spot, however, is a complete toss-up. It’s hard to say who exactly would “fit” in with the typical awards season momentum going into the nominations (seeing as not one other performance has consistently garnered accolades across the circuit), but at this point I’m most inclined to say Michelle Williams (interchangeable with Lesley Manville or Steinfeld, if one or both are not placed in Supporting, with Moore as the other alternate here as well) is the likely holder of the fifth spot. I’d be entirely unsurprised if Jennifer Lawrence or even Hilary Swank made their way past Williams despite their earlier-in-the-year releases losing the majority of the buzz they’d garnered. This fifth spot becomes entirely crucial to Portman’s road to a win on Oscar night as well, seeing as a win is most likely for her if both Leading Ladies from The Kids are All Right snag spots (Bening is a lock, Moore is up in the air) as the Academy could likely split if this is the scenario.

The men’s race has been pretty low-key this year, seeing as veteran mainstays (Jeff Bridges, Robert DuVall) each gave expert turns in crucially-timed-and-released pictures that pandered directly to Oscar voters. James Franco is likely to sneak into the fifth spot based on the director’s namesake on his performance’s containing film alone, trailing just behind Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Firth for their respective turns in Lead roles. Supporting male is, for the second year in a row, the least enticing of all the acting categories this year. Christian Bale obviously leads the pack in terms of buzz coming off of his crucial win at the Globes, and putting your money on Geoffrey Rush as a potential nominee wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The rest of the slots are a complete toss-up, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who could potentially fill the rest of the slots, ranging anywhere from Jeremy Renner in The Town to even Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right.

Best Director should also prove to be an interesting race albeit a tad predictable in terms of the nominations. I can’t see anyone other than Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Tom Hooper, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan even coming close to snagging a nomination slot aside from the slight chance that The Coen’s might edge out Russell.

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The now-all-inclusive Best Picture race is proving to be a tad more exciting than last year’s as well, with about 11 or 12 of the year’s best films all realistically vying for the coveted 10 slots. Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3, and True Grit are all definitive locks and that’s no surprise to anyone; it’s the remaining 3 slots that have me stumped. I can absolutely see the Academy pandering to the Indie crowd they sort of drastically alienated over the past two years and giving both Another Year and Blue Valentine (I can dream, can’t I?) some love, and placing Inception atop the package as a finishing touch to please the masses. A long outside guess has me thinking The Town or 127 Hours could sneak in there as well.

But if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that the AMPAS are growing increasingly more liberal with their classification choices in many major categories (ahem, going as far as to consider Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader as Leading and placing The Blind Side alongside Precious and An Education in the Best Picture category) and that’s ultimately what I think this year’s major categories will come down to as well; how the Academy decided to classify certain performances over others. But I can’t say I’ll be surprised at any of what unfolds tomorrow morning, just elated that neither Kathryn Bigelow, Sandra Bullock, and Kate Winslet will be  without cause for celebration come 5:30 AM.

PREDICTIONS

Best Picture

Black Swan

The King’s Speech

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The Social Network

True Grit

Inception

Blue Valentine

Toy Story 3

Outside Shots: Shutter Island, Another Year, Winter’s Bone

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

Outside Shots: Hilary Swank Conviction, Jennifer Lawrence Winter’s Bone, Hailee Steinfeld True Grit

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Robert DuVall, Get Low

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Outside Shots: James Franco 127 Hours

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, The Figther

Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Outside Shots: Lesley Manville, Another Year

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, The Fighter

Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

Jeremy Renner, The Town

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Christopher Nolan, Inception

David O. Russell, The Fighter

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

David Fincher, The Social Network

Outside Shots: Mike Leigh Another Year, Martin Scorcese Shutter Island, The Coen Brothers True Grit