The 2015 Oscar race has shifted yet again.

By winning the Best Cast Award at the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Spotlight has regained the awards season edge.

As an early favorite last fall along with the period drama Carol, Spotlight saw its front-runner status slide when Mad Max: Fury Road began to rack up critics citations and award nominations, followed by The Revenant virtually sweeping the Golden Globes in all major drama categories. Then last week, the Producers Guild honored The Big Short as the year’s best film, effectively putting the whole race into a complete free-for-all.

Now, the Screen Actors Guild may be bringing the awards season full circle. By honoring Spotlight with its top prize, SAG has shown where the actors are leaning, and their membership branch in the Academy is by far the largest. Still, historically speaking, the SAG Best Ensemble and Oscar Best Picture winners have matched up less than 50% of the time – only 10 out of 22 – so while the win certainly helps, it by no means predicts a lock.

The individual races brought much more clarity to 3 of the other 4 categories. The Best Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actress winners went according to expectation (see winners below). All three are now the clear Oscar favorites. But in the Supporting Actor slot, winner Idris Elba (for Beasts Of No Nation) isn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. That probably leaves Sylvester Stallone, who wasn’t SAG nominated for his heralded return as Rocky Balboa in Creed, as the prohibitive favorite to round out the Oscar acting awards.

In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it’s intriguing to note how diverse the SAG Awards were by contrast. Of 10 individual acting awards across film and television categories, 5 went to African-Americans (and two to Elba; he won a 2nd as Actor In A TV Movie/Miniseries for his role in BBC’s Luther).

The biggest ripple effect from this year’s SAG results isn’t so much that Spotlight won but rather that The Big Short didn’t. If it had taken the SAG Cast trophy – after having surprised last week at the Producers Guild AwardsThe Big Short would’ve been a clear favorite come Oscar night. Now it’s back to being a dark horse, at best.

The last major Oscar pre-cursor comes next week: the Directors Guild. If their choice isn’t Spotlight director Tom McCarthy or The Big Short director Adam McKay (personally, I think it’ll go to either George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road or Ridley Scott for The Martian), we’ll have the most unpredictable Academy Awards ceremony in memory.

Here are the 22nd Annual SAG Award winners for 2015, in the film categories:

Outstanding Cast – Spotlight
Outstanding Female Actor – Brie Larson, Room
Outstanding Male Actor – Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Outstanding Female Supporting Actor – Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Outstanding Male Supporting Actor – Idris Elba, Beasts Of No Nation
Lifetime Achievement Award – Carol Burnett

To see winners in the television categories, click here.

KUNG FU PANDA 3 (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG

for martial arts action and some mild rude humor
Released: January 29, 2016
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan

Within the scattershot and now faltering DreamWorks Animation brand, the first two Kung Fu Panda movies stand out as the studio’s crown jewels.

They’ve had an actual artistic ambition that most other DreamWorks Animation entries have lacked, and even their general adherence to the same formula – a “you’re destined for something special” hero’s journey – has remained fresh and lively through comedic charm, emotional family dynamics, and the bottomless well of Jack Black’s adorable comic silliness.

Kung Fu Panda 3 continues that tradition with a sincere, heartfelt spirit, not the flat or rote calculation that’s common to so many third chapter sequels. It takes that same formula and visual flair, boosts it with new characters that deepen the franchise’s family themes, raises the stakes with a supernatural villain from the spirit realm, and keeps it all light and fun and funny without diminishing the narrative or emotional stakes. That last and best trait remains, thanks squarely to Jack Black. He can skidoosh the laughs with an earnest purity that anchors the cartoonish action to a stronger, more meaningful core.

Although seemingly dumped into late January – a move by studios that often suggests a lack of confidence in a movie’s quality and prospects – Kung Fu Panda 3 plays like the thoroughly entertaining major Christmas release it was originally scheduled to be. Now smartly repositioned a month later, KFP3 is perfectly timed to give kids and families a new movie-going option after multiple Star Wars VII viewings. They’ll definitely find a similar spirituality, as this film’s “Chi” (pronounced “chee”) bears a strong resemblance to The Force, a universal all-binding essence that can also be possessed – and strengthened – by individual monastic warriors.

The villain Kai (J.K. Simmons, 2014’s Supporting Actor winner for Whiplash), a former ally of Master Oogway who now covets all martial art power, travels from the spiritual to the mortal realm in order to go on a Chi stealing spree. The most coveted Chi of all? That which belongs to the Dragon Warrior…aka Poe, our heroic titular Jack Black-fueled panda. And in a prophetic warning from Master Oogway to Kai, the Dragon Warrior is the only one who can stop him.

This sets the stage for the perfunctory “Am I good enough?” identity crisis for Poe, which is compounded by his elevation from warrior to teacher (it doesn’t go so well, albeit hilariously so). The discovery of his biological panda father Li Shan (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) also complicates matters, bringing great joy to Poe but anxiety to his adoptive father Ping.

As Kai’s onslaught grows, accumulating the Chis of kung fu masters and warriors alike (including Oogway’s), Poe retreats with Li Shan to his panda village birthplace. There, and without the help of the Furious Five or Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, another anchor in this franchise), Poe plans to channel and master his own Chi so that he can face and defeat the formidable Kai. This inevitably involves the enlisting – and training – of the entire panda village, emphasizing those enduring themes of teamwork and family, and the truth that we can’t reach our destinies alone. And it’s within that unity that we each realize the fullness of who we are as individuals, and what we’re meant to be. All set to the occasional “Kung Fu Fighting” song cover, of course.

Kung Fu Panda 3 ends up being that perfect sequel comfort food, giving you everything you’re expecting but in the best possible way, still unfolding with the same boundless energy (and pockets of cuddly cuteness) that made the original so entertaining and endearing. It also provides a villain and climax so daunting that the outcome to victory isn’t readily apparent, and will require not only valor on the part of Poe, but ingenuity – and possible sacrifice.

By its conclusion, Kung Fu Panda 3 makes a clever connection to the saga’s beginnings, allowing it to be – if it ends up being – a perfect final chapter in a consistently successful trilogy. Sure, there’s still plenty of room left for a Kung Fu Panda 4, of course, and while audiences may not necessarily be clamoring for more Poe down the road, it’s safe to say they’d welcome him back with warm anticipation if there’s more fight in him.

LITTLE HOUSE On The Big Screen

The Ingalls Family is coming to a theater near you.

After being put into turnaround by Sony, Paramount Studios picked up the feature adaptation to the beloved books by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her family life in the 1880s American Midwest.

With a script by Abi Morgan (whose recent screenplays for Suffragette and The Iron Lady centered around strong female characters), no casting choices have been made. A director, however, has been attached: Sean Durkin. A surprising choice, Durkin’s past films have been intense, heavy, even dark indie dramas like Martha Marcy May Marlene and last year’s James White. While Paramount likely plans to keep this a family friendly property (and hopeful franchise), the hiring of Durkin suggests a desire for authenticity over sappy sentimentality.

No timeline for production or release has been announced, but don’t be surprised if we see Little House: The Movie hit screens sometime in 2017.

Next Year’s Oscar Race Heats Up At Sundance With Slavery Revolt Epic


And you thought this year’s Academy Awards were competitive?

2016 is already an intense battle between the two hottest properties at the Sundance Film Festival, and the latest may guarantee that next year’s Oscar race won’t be so white. It also promises to add a theological dimension to the canon of slavery-themed films.

Just days after the intense family drama Manchester by the Sea debuted to unequivocal, universal acclaim at its Sundance debut – and was purchased for a Sundance record-tying $10 million by Amazon, with a promised awards season push – The Birth Of A Nation, based on the violent early 1800s true story of the most successful slave uprising in American history, received a standing ovation at its Sundance premiere that lasted through the entire end credits and beyond. Variety described the audience atmosphere as “electrifying”, adding that “response to the picture was seismic, and the Oscar buzz erupted as soon as the lights went up…”

To no one’s surprise, a rabid bidding war immediately ensued. After a heated contest between many suitors, Fox Searchlight bought the rapturously received indie-epic from African-American filmmaker Nate Parker (who wrote, directs, and stars as revolt leader Nat Turner) for a record-shattering $17.5 million bounty. It beat out other serious bids from The Weinstein Co., Paramount, and Netflix (it’s even rumored that Netflix offered $20 million, but was declined for unknown reasons). For more on the buzz at the premiere, and comments from Parker, click here.

The film, which will likely be released in the fall, co-stars Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union.

Variety Justin Chang raves that The Birth Of A Nation is a “biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror” that “builds to a brutal finale that will stir deep emotion and inevitable unease,” adding that “the film is perhaps even more accomplished as a theological provocation, one that grapples fearlessly with the intense spiritual convictions that drove Turner to do what he had previously considered unthinkable.” (read the full Variety review here)

The Hollywood Reporter proclaims that it “vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of [Nat] Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders” and is a film that’s “very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that will assuredly generate a great deal of media attention, and probably controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons…” (read the full THR review here)


At Sundance, Amazon Buys Likely Contender For Next Year’s Oscars

The first Oscar Contender for 2016 (by virtually all accounts) was just purchased by Amazon for $10 million at the Sundance Film Festival.

Manchester by the Sea looks to follow in the footsteps of Brooklyn, the romantic drama that saw its Oscar buzz during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival pay off (it’s currently up for 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress).

Manchester, from writer/director (and Broadway playwright) Kenneth Lonergan, is described by Variety’s Chief Film Critic Justin Chang as an “emotionally overwhelming” and “beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander (played by Casey Affleck) to confront a past tragedy anew.” The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd wrote, “I don’t need more time, more reflection, or another viewing to confidently declare that Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea (Grade: A) is a tremendous achievement…a film so overwhelmingly powerful that I spent most of yesterday afternoon’s world premiere screening either holding back tears or releasing them.” Vulture.com’s review headline said simply “Manchester by the Sea Will Wreck You”.

After its debut screening, Manchester was immediately swept up into an aggressive bidding war between multiple distributors. It eventually narrowed down to three – Amazon, Focus Features, and Fox Searchlight (which purchased Brooklyn a year ago) – before Amazon landed Sundance’s hottest entry with $10 million and a commitment to an awards season campaign.

Translation: that likely means Amazon – which continues to build its Prime streaming service brand as Netflix’s biggest competitor – will give Manchester by the Sea a legitimate theatrical run. This would be in stark contrast to Netflix’s failed strategy with Beasts Of No Nation, an awards contender it purchased at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Netflix only gave Beasts a token theatrical play before keeping it exclusively on its streaming service. As a consequence, Beasts wasn’t able to gain any consistent awards traction.

Manchester by the Sea has a very interesting history. Initially intended to be the directorial debut of Matt Damon, he and actor John Krasinski (who co-wrote and co-starred with Damon in the Gus Van Sant film Promised Land) approached Kenneth Lonergan with a script they’d come across, asking Lonergan to do a rewrite on the bulky overlong piece. Damon also intended to star, as did Krasinski. As the film’s development took longer than planned, and the actors’ schedules changed, Damon dropped out as director and then actor, eventually staying on solely as a producer. In that capacity, Damon asked Lonergan to direct and to cast Casey Affleck in the lead. Now the film is receiving instant Best Picture buzz, as is Lonergan for director and Affleck for Actor. Even Michelle Williams is garnering accolades in a small role; Collider.com’s Adam Chitwood raves that Williams “soars with emotional complexity to spare, and the impact of her performance is enormous.”

Lonergan, for his part – whose feature debut You Can Count On Me was the toast of the 2000 Sundance festival, and introduced Mark Ruffalo to the film world – was coming off of a very discouraging experience with his second feature Margaret, which starred Anna Paquin and Ruffalo. After finalizing a three-hour cut of the film, distributor Fox Searchlight demanded the contractual requirement of a 150-minute final edit not be exceeded. Fox Searchlight eventually released a 150 minute cut in 2011 that was not approved by Lonergan. Its critical reception was widely divided, and its box office was dead on arrival. Lonergan’s three-hour cut was eventually released on DVD/Blu-ray, and that version has largely been lauded as a masterpiece.

Amazon has not yet announced a release schedule for Manchester by the Sea, but its likely to get a platform release in the fall, through the heart of awards season.

To read Variety’s review, click here. The A.V. Club’s review is here. Vulture’s is here. And Collider’s is here.

In Major Upset, THE BIG SHORT Wins Best Picture From Producers Guild

Welcome to your new Oscar front-runner.

Saturday night at the annual Producers Guild Awards, The Big Short was the surprise winner of the 26th annual Darryl F. Zanuck Award for the year’s Best Picture, stunning the tongue-tied producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (fellow producer and co-winner Brad Pitt was not in attendance). Variety reported that Gardener and Kleiner “were clearly stunned in accepting the award without prepared remarks and both thanked director Adam McKay and Paramount profusely.”

The dramatic satire – which adapts Michael Lewis‘s non-fiction book about the housing crash and financial crisis of 2008 – beat out heavy favorites Spotlight (the year’s critical consensus) and The Revenant (the leading Academy Award nominee with 12, compared to 5 for The Big Short). The other seven films it beat out for the PGA’s top prize were Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Sicario, and Straight Outta Compton. Winner for the Animated Feature prize was Pixar’s Inside Out, and Documentary went to the producing team of Amy (about the late singer Amy Winehouse).

This is the 2nd PGA win for the producing trio of Gardner, Kleiner, and Pitt. They won two years ago for 12 Years A Slave. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the producer and director of The Revenant, won the Zanuck last year for co-producing Birdman.

So what does this mean for the Oscar race? If recent PGA history is any indication, The Big Short is going to be hard to beat. The Producers Guild winner has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar for the past eight years, and has matched up 19 out of 26 times overall. The last time the Academy made a different choice was in 2006 when it awarded Martin Scorsese‘s The Departed after the PGA honored that year’s indie darling Little Miss Sunshine.

For the trajectory of the current Oscar race, two (and possibly three) major tea leaves remain. Right now, with the Producers win, The Big Short is the front-runner. If it picks up Best Cast from the Screen Actors Guild (their Best Picture equivalent), The Big Short shifts from front-runner to actual favorite. And then if Adam McKay pulls off the biggest upset of all by winning the Directors Guild top prize, The Big Short goes from favorite to lock.

The last time a movie won the PGA, DGA, and SAG awards and didn’t go on to win Best Picture was 20 years ago in 1995 when Apollo 13 won all 3 guild pre-cursors only to lose in a shocking upset to Braveheart. What Braveheart had going for it that year was that it led all films with the most Oscar nominations; that would bode well for The Revenant.

If The Big Short fails to win the SAG or DGA but picks up the Writers Guild trophy, then it would still have to be considered the prohibitive favorite. If it goes 4-for-4, start placing your bets. Or in this case, your shorts.

The Screen Actors Guild will hand out their awards Saturday evening, January 30th. The Directors Guild will follow a week later on Saturday, February 6th, and the Writers Guild a week after that on Saturday, February 13th.

To read a full list of 2016 PGA winners, including all television categories, visit the Producers Guild site here.


Harry Potter And The Flatulent Corpse: Controversy At SUNDANCE

Daniel Radcliffe‘s latest role is playing a farting corpse.

One of the hottest tickets at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival is for Swiss Army Man, a bizarre tale about a man (Paul Dano) who befriends a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) after finding him washed up on a shoreline.

Hundreds of eager viewers had to be turned away from its packed debut screening. But for those who made it in, most didn’t make it through.

A slow but steady – and escalating – number of walk-outs occurred over the course of the screening, marking it as one of the most divisive entries in Sundance history. Film writer Matt Dentler nutshelled it in his tweet: “I just watched a 90-minute fart joke, but it was a wholly original one.” Whether that’s an actual endorsement is unclear, but no doubt it’s accurate.

Swiss Army Man  directed by the music video duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert  does not yet have a distributor, but given its provocative nature (which includes other sexual elements), some film company will likely give it a shot. Whether audiences do or not will be interesting to track.

To read Variety’s full review, click here.

UPDATE: After seeing this post, film writer for Collider.com and good friend Adam Chitwood provided some much-needed – and eye witness – perspective on these reports from the Swiss Army Man screening. Adam, who was there, was compelled to express how exaggerated these reports of “walk-outs” are. As a veteran of the Sundance Film Festival, Adam says that walk-outs aren’t uncommon, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes its because people are offended, or bored, but often times – especially at premiere screenings – it’s strictly business related. Possible distributors attend these premieres, and if they get the sense that the movie they’re watching isn’t something they want to buy and distribute, they leave before it’s over, mainly in the hopes of catching as many other films in the busy festival slate as possible. That was likely the case with Swiss Army Man. And furthermore, Chitwood says that regarding this actual screening, all reports of a “mass exodus” are wildly overblown, characterizing that hyperbole as crass “click bait” by the industry trade papers (Variety, et al).

To read Adam’s review of Swiss Army Man, click here.