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Benedict Cumberbatch (#110 of 8)

Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Actor

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Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Actor
Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Actor

First, praise be to the brave Oscar pundits who have Bradley Cooper in their crosshairs. Indeed, given how close this race probably is between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton, it’s easy to see how Cooper could benefit from a vote split, not unlike, some have argued, Adrien Brody did back in 2003 when this award was anticipated to go to either Jack Nicholson or Daniel Day-Lewis. But we don’t have the courage to rally behind Cooper, terrific as he is in American Sniper, as this and adapted screenplay seem like the two categories where the contentiousness surrounding the Clint Eastwood film’s ostensibly mythmaking depiction of Chris Kyle is most likely to hurt. Which is to say nothing of the fact that, unlike Brody, Cooper enters this race without SAG, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations.

Toronto International Film Festival 2013 John Wells’s August: Osage County

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Toronto International Film Festival 2013: John Wells’s August: Osage County
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: John Wells’s August: Osage County

The process of adapting the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’s vitriolic epic of familial dysfunction, poses, to borrow a phrase from one of its characters, quite a Gordian knot. With its icky revelations, not to mention the fact that nearly every character in the large ensemble is either a naïve nitwit or an aggressive asshole, the material isn’t exactly audience-friendly. Summer Stock with a score, the film gets to the meat of the play while slightly compromising its darker, murkier undertones. Instead of transcending the source material, John Wells, whose only previous feature is The Company Men, toys with packaging the material in a way that maintains the play’s themes while remaining cautious of its vituperative vigor.

Toronto International Film Festival 2013 Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

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Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

The opening scene of 12 Years a Slave is startlingly tragic for both the viewer and its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), renamed Platt upon being sold into slavery, but it’s also effective in its smallness and intimacy. Shown supine on the hard, wooden surfaces sleeping with fellow slaves, Platt is awakened by a young woman who forces his hand on her breast and pushes it down her body so that he will finger her. He relents, at least momentarily; she watches him with an unimaginable despair that turns into temporary pleasure, and he watches her back with a similarly unknowable sadness. This is the first of many scenes in the film in which director Steve McQueen masterfully articulates the necessity of a character demanding a level of control and power when forced into contexts as depraved as slavery. The woman doesn’t look to Platt for physical intimacy; she just needs to be touched, and knows she can simultaneously trust him and exploit his humane temperament to do it without him hurting her.

Poster Lab: August: Osage County

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Poster Lab: August: Osage County
Poster Lab: August: Osage County

Since the film is so anticipated as both adaptation and buzzy ensemble piece, the poster for August: Osage County would have been an event no matter what it looked like. Directed by TV vet John Wells, who made his feature film debut with The Company Men, this dark comedy marks the first-ever onscreen pairing of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, who play Violet and Barbara Watson, the mother and daughter who lead the clan in Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale. All who know the play know the importance of the work’s vast cast, and such is the major selling point here.

Stacked high like an actorly steeple are names both established and up-and-coming: Streep, Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, (the great) Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, and more. It’s a very tempting mix, and despite the overly genial, all’s-well-that-end’s-well nature of the trailer, it helps to know that Letts has penned the screenplay too, and hopefully hasn’t watered his work down to Hollywoodized dysfunction (lord knows no one needs another The Family Stone). Presumably, Letts’s script also holds the promise of avoiding the trap of multi-character dramedies, which serially fail to develop individual personalities amid the crowd. It’s a grating trend that couldn’t be better visualized here, and let’s hope the packed-house symbolism reflects the film’s ability to overcome it.

Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.