Awards news: Director’s Guild and Sundance

There’s some sadness hanging over the American film world this morning due to the tragic and disturbing death of highly respected 39 year-old editor Karen Schmeer, best known for her work on Errol Morris projects as “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” “Mr. Death,” and “The Fog of War.” (Shawn Levy of The Oregonian has much about piece her shockingly random death in a crime-related automotive accident, her work, and her early start in the documentary film business.)

Nevertheless, the awards beat goes on and today, as Nikki Finke points out, we can chalk up a big victory for female directors as Kathryn Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker” defeated a boys club of directors that included such ultimate mega-males as Quentin Tarantino and her one-time husband, James Cameron.  Bigelow, of course, has been a noted director since her early features, 1982’s “The Loveless,” which introduced Willem Dafoe, and 1987’s ahead-of-its-time vampire drama, “Near Dark” attracted the attention of genre friendly critics. Her best known film, ironically enough, is probably the silly action flick, “Point Break,” which has emerged as a culty guilty pleasure after its 1991 release.

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“The Hurt Locker” is the first time Bigelow has been associated a project to get this kind of near-universal acclaim. It’s a major departure stylistically from her often slick and superficial past work, looking at an unexploded bomb team with the same kind of dispassionate intensity as “The French Connection” examined police work. This award definitely makes Bigelow the apparent favorite for the Best Director Oscar. It also doesn’t hurt it’s chances at the Best Picture award either.

“Hurt Locker” also swept the Producers Guild award earlier this week. Similar to the DGA, that award is widely seen as a harbinger for the “Best Picture” category, in which the producer is the one who actually receives the award. Still, as Dave Karger reminds us, the DGA doesn’t make the award inevitable. Also with the nominees this year doubled to ten and a more complex voting system for “Best Picture” that category, at least, remains open to any of the four or five most frequently nominated films in my opinion.

In other awards, “The Cove” got a boost in the nevertheless very hard-to-predict documentary Oscar category with an award for its director, Louie Psihoyos. I usually don’t cover TV, but it is worth a mention that the winner of the award for direction in a TV drama series was also won by a woman. Lesli Linka Glatter was awarded for her work on the action-packed “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” episode of “Mad Men.” Not a bad choice.

Meanwhile, over in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival presented its awards, which offer a fairly significant peak into what are likely to be some of the most acclaimed and potentially award-winning films of the next year or so. Young people with family ties to crime seemed to be a winning theme in the dramatic categories: “Winter’s Bone,” about a young girl in search of her crystal meth manufacturing father, won the U.S. Prize; the Australian crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” about a teen boy born into a crime family in 1980s Melbourne, took the international award.

The documentary award went to one of the festival’s most high profile entries, “Restrepo.” From two-first first-time directors, journalist/author Sebastian Junger (the book, The Perfect Storm) and documentary cinematographer Tim Hetherington. The film is follows a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan for a year. As the offical Sundance description has it, it depicts a “surreal combination of back breaking labor, deadly firefights, and camaraderie….”  Indiewire’s Eugene Hernandez has a complete rundown.

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Monday night at the movies

* We’ve been pretty enthusiastic here about both trailers for “The Wolfman.” Still, there’s been some disconcerting news about the promising looking remake of the 1941 Universal monster classic. Composer Danny Elfman, who has a terrific way with slightly over-the-top genre material going back to his earliest work with Tim Burton on “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” has left the project due to “scheduling conflicts.” Word that a score has actually been composed makes it seem even a bit odder. It’s true that there’s a lot more to scoring a film than composing the music, but there is more than one way to deal with that short of dumping a largely finished score if all there really is is a time problem, I’d guess.

More worrisome is Elfman’s replacement, Paul Haslinger, whose resume includes the rock scores for two of the “Underworld” films Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Death Race.” To be fair, Haslinger was a member of synth group Tangerine Dream from 1986 to 1992 and participated in the scores to films like “Near Dark.” However, I’m usually of the opinion that a period picture requires a period sound and the vague Euro-synth of the “Underworld” music does not inspire me. Hopefully, he’ll go for more of an orchestral sound.

Even more worrisome still, Renn Brown over at CHUD makes a strong case that this is a generally troubled production. At the same time, movie history is filled with troubled productions that turned out great and fun-to-make films that turned out to be horrible-to-watch. We’ll see when we see.

* New York film critic David Ansen will be artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), writes Anne Thompson.

* Alex Ben Block declares Peter Jackson producer of the year. His methods and approach sound almost Pixar-like in his openness to collaboration. It’s a complicated method: hire good people and listen to them.

* Apparently, Jackson lost all a bunch of weight a few years back simply by swearing off junk food while maintaining a punishing work scheduled during the making of “King Kong,” and he’s kept it off since. Good for him. Judging from the picture in today’s Variety, however, Winona Ryder might consider a regime that includes the occasional milkshake and order of chili cheese fries. Okay, none of our business and, in any case,  the role she is “circling” in Darren Aronofsky’s all-star oddball thriller, “Black Swan,” calls for her to play a veteran dancer, but, my god, those protuberant cheek bones. Part of me just wants her to mainline my mom’s brisket or something.

As for the movie itself, what I’m hearing reminds of just a little bit of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” and not just because of the ballet setting. There’s also the underlying psychoses.

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Box office mini-preview, part II: Weirded out Hollywood agrees: “Transformers” sequel smashes puny humanity (updated)

In the face of the death of Michael Jackson right after the very sad news of the passing of Farrah Fawcett, it’s a weird day in Hollywood — and just a bit weirder and louder in news-chopper infested Westwood, where I happen to be, perhaps just a few thousand yards from the hospital room where Mr. Jackson was pronounced dead.

But the box office goes on, not that there’s much more to report other than the boffo, all-time record breaking $60.6 million performance of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” All this so far apparently impacted by the almost across the board negativity of critics, who, I remind you yet again, are also human beings and therefore perhaps reflective of something.

So, it’s safe to say that a new tearjerker starring Cameron Diaz and directed by Nick Cassavetes of “The Notebook” won’t be much of a threat. Even the counter-programming possibilities of “My Sister’s Keeper” seem limited by it’s mediocre Rotten Tomatoes rating of 46% “fresh.” This kind of movie attracts somewhat older filmgoers and that might actually have an impact. A film like this needs some kind of buzz behind it, and I don’t see it making much headway against the various behemoths already ensconced in our nation’s theaters. The Hollywood Reporter has it pegged for about $10 million. The title also, I think, won’t do it much good.

There is, however, a trio of films worth mentioning in the so-called “specialty market.” (Isn’t it special that there’s a market where quality might help a film’s performance?) THR thinks the timing of the Iran-set drama, “”The Stoning of Soraya M.,” might be helped by news of the upheavals from the nation. However, in an area where reviews mean something, a 45% RT rating isn’t hopeful. (And we all know who’s going to be dominating the news for the next several weeks.)

Far more promising, though opening only in four theaters in L.A. and New York, is the action drama “The Hurt Locker.” I’m not a particularly huge fan of director Kathryn Bigelow. I see what she’s trying to do, but even her best thought of pieces, like the vampire flick “Near Dark,” have never quite connected for me. However, this drama about soldiers deals with a topic that’s always been potent dramatic material: unexploded bombs. This time, of course, they are being faced by U.S. solidiers in Iraq. While this film’s only “names” are in smaller roles, this one could break out and the reviews, and that Pixar-esque 97% RT rating, are impressive. Iraq is supposed to be the kiss of death at the box office, but seeing how few people have actually liked any of the Iraq films made so far, maybe it’s not so much the topic as the particular films. [UPDATE: I should add that “Hurt Locker” was written by Mark Boal, a writer who was reportedly embedded with an actual bomb squad in Iraq. So often, when a director with a problematic filmography suddenly makes a really good or great film, it’s because they’ve finally hooked up with a well-written screenplay. How easy it is to forget that.]

Also, as a fan of both Michelle Pfeiffer and director Stephen Frears (“The Hit,” among many, many others), I have to point out the romantic/possibly sexy period drama “Cheri.” Okay, the reviews are not great for this one, but I’d rather watch even a bad movie involving Pfeiffer and Frears than a bunch of personality-free tins cans fighting.

  

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