Notes On The Season: Cate Blanchett On The Relevance Of ‘Nightmare Alley’ And ‘Don’t Look Up’; Plus ‘Spider-Man’ For Best Picture Oscar?

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

‘Tis the season … for handing out nominations (and yes, even some awards). This week we had long lists of nominees from Critics Choice, Indie Spirits, and even the Golden Globes despite their woes and lack of a televised show to really heat things up. On Tuesday things get really interesting when the Academy releases its much-awaited shortlists for various crafts as well as for Documentary, Animated and International features and shorts.

Still, it is not quite business as usual. Those shortlists had to be compiled without the usual screenings at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, which has remained shuttered throughout the pandemic, as well as its Hollywood location the Linwood Dunn. AMPAS is promising to reopen their theaters just after the New Year, that is unless plans change due to new variants, etc. The Academy Museum theaters are wide open, however, so it will be nice to have the state-of-the-art Beverly Hills and Hollywood viewing venues back in action.

In the meantime, the Academy has really been pushing members to watch contenders on the AMPAS digital platform known as the Academy Screening Room, promising it is also available to view those films on industry-standard sites for home streaming such as Apple TV, Roku, mobile member app with Air Play and Chromecast support, and “more,” They even casually suggest going out to “your local movie theatre.” The latter should be getting a bigger push because those members of the Academy with a dog in this current Oscar hunt would love for their colleagues and voters to see their film the way it was intended to be seen – on the big screen, even if it is not yet the big AMPAS screens themselves.

This is also the first year the Academy has completely banned physical DVD screeners. How encouraging watching these films on mobile apps, Roku and the rest will affect the way the film is felt, and ultimately judged by the industry’s most important voting body, is unknown, but I sure wouldn’t want to see Spider-Man: No Way Home this way. It is indeed heartening to see that blockbuster about to do $200 million-plus domestic its opening weekend — and perhaps even more surprisingly it is actually good enough to be seriously considered for a Best Picture Oscar nomination (you heard me!). It will help get people back into the moviegoing experience, and maybe like the Bond film before it possibly entice older moviegoers as well, even those in the Academy’s senior demos. Saving the moviegoing experience is as important as saving the world is to Spidey. With a solid 10 films back to being nominated for Best Picture this year, hopefully Academy members don’t snob out on us and recognize the filmmaking expertise, and pure thrills, that go into the crafting of films like this Marvel marvel, Dune and others. And pray that the audience will turn out for another superbly crafted “big” movie, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which opened slowly but hopefully will pick up once its key older female audience is again available beginning Christmas Day.

L.A. CRITICS WANT THEIR SCREENING LINKS BACK

While I am on the subject on encouraging the return of the theatrical experience, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which is getting together virtually to vote for their annual awards Saturday, needs to realize that as an organization supposedly made up of “critics” — or at least supposedly informed people who judge movies in presumably the best possible way — should instead of shilling for studios to send them screeners and links to watch on their TV, laptops or worse, instead be touting the importance of seeing movies whenever and wherever possible on the big screen, and that does not mean your “big screen Sony.”

The group recently put out a press release using pandemic-era changes, “disabilities” of some members, and general “safety concerns” (i.e., mask wearing, Covid vaccinations, testing, avoiding public gatherings) as a reason to also restore home screener access now that theaters are once again open and some distributors are insisting their films (especially those exclusively going to theaters) be judged the way the public will generally see them — in a movie theater. In the press release they also thank the president of the Utah Film Critics Association for “drafting a statement  that provided much of the language and ideas as this one.” That is fine, but LAFCA is in the heart of the movie business — Hollywood for God’s sake —  with a lot of access to the best theaters in the country. This is not Utah.

Use your clout and expertise L.A. Film Critics to instead support theaters and exhibition. Let’s send a positive message, but also help the business. I get that the LAFCA loves television (it inexplicably they gave their Best Picture award last year to Steve McQueen’s Amazon TV limited series Small Axe despite the director’s promise it was made for TV, not theaters), but rather than urging studios to make it easier to watch movies on your laptop (no matter how noble the reasons), they should talk about the glories of seeing movies in a theatre with your fellow human beings. Those ads with Nicole Kidman for AMC theatres are a beautiful thing. I asked an LAFCC member, and former President, about all this and he just winced and said he “abstained” when it was brought to a vote for members. A studio source with a late breaking movie they hoped would be a contender also was discouraged when critics for a major East Coast newspaper tried to twist this PR executive’s arm in order to show a hotly anticipated movie not yet ready to them because they had to prep their year-end Best Films of 2021 lists by November 27th. What does that imply?  When last I checked the actual year ends on December 31st. Critics have had to endure about 18 months or so of watching movies in a very un-ideal way, most of the time with links where their name is visible across the middle of the picture due to piracy concerns, and now – Omicron permitting – theatres are open to stay again (no outbreak of Covid has been reported coming from a movie theatre as far as I can recall) and critics especially should be shouting this from the rooftops

A DOUBLE DOSE OF THE GREAT CATE FOR THE HOLIDAYS

This morning I had the opportunity to interview Cate Blanchett whose latest film, Nightmare Alley  opens today.  I got to see that in a packed preview screening earlier this month at the spectacular Academy Museum Theatre and it looked stunning (not sure how I would have reviewed its considerable visual glories off a link). I brought up the fact that it is so great to see this Guillermo del Toro film opening exclusively in theatres, and it is great to see people going back, however cautiously. “It is crazy times but I doubt there is going to be a non-crazy time in the near future,” she said. “I really think people, well I can speak for myself, but I think the one thing I missed, even though we are not out of the woods yet, the one thing I missed in the epicenter of the pandemic was gathering in the dark with strangers, because it does add to the experience when other people you don’t know are all joined in that experience.”

Blanchett had high praise for her director, working with del Toro for the first time, saying ” Guillermo is a singular filmmaking creature. There is no one like him making movies”. This two-time Oscar winner has obviously worked with a LOT of great directors so that is saying something. Nightmare Alley is a delicious period film noir in which the psychiatrist she portrays goes toe to toe on the dark side with a devious Bradley Cooper in this remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power classic and reimagining of the controversial book which came out in 1946. It is a film that has strong entertainment value but also a timely message. In some ways you could say, even though this film is set in 1939 and early 40’s it talks about things Blanchett thinks are a global problem today, including the big lie.  “It is a big problem today, this relationship with the truth, and something that obviously the film deals with absolutely is the most dangerous part is when the liar starts to believe the lie. It is sort of relevant to the old Soviet era, the systems we labored under, where we know they are lying , they know that we know and don’t give a damn, and we don’t give a damn either…I think it is very nightmarish,” she said.

Usually film noir is in black and white, but this was shot in color. However as we were chatting this morning I told Blanchett, who was zooming in from England, that it was just announced there will be a special black and white version of the movie released to select theatres in January. I for one can’t wait. “Guillermo talked about it when we were shooting saying ‘Oh maybe this should be in black and white but they’ll kill me’, but it is so great they finally are getting to do that. I don’t enjoy watching myself on screen but I loved watching this movie so I will queue up and buy a ticket,” she laughed.

She not only has Nightmare Alley this holiday season, she also has the hilarious, timely, and pertinent all-star Adam McKay comedy in theatres and hitting Netflix next week, Don’t Look Up which uses the premise of an impending comet about to destroy earth as a wry comment on the lack of urgency by many for the distinct dangers of climate change. I wondered if she was now picking movies like these two that not only have great entertainment value, but also have something important to say. Both films were nominated this week for Best Picture by the Critics Choice Association. “It is very rare that two movies come along like this in relatively quick succession and you get to be a part of it,” she said. “Both of them have such exceptional casts, with two incredibly distinctive directorial voices, and you’ve got all of these people working at the top of their game in films that deal with very contemporary relevant issues but doing it in a way through allegory and metaphor and satire, so that there’s no agitprop preaching quality to either film at all. They are there to hold the audience’s hand  and entertain them and hopefully leave them feeling more deeply, connecting maybe. It is very rare. I feel pretty blessed to have been a small part of both.”

VOTE FOR WOMEN

Blanchett is certainly a major woman working in film, but actors aren’t on the third annual WIF Women In Film “#Vote For Women campaign ballot to shine a light on the cinematic contributions of women across the industry, including 27 alone asking for consideration in the Best Director category this year, one that has only been won twice by women in 93 years of Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow, Chloe Zhao last year).  It is kind of sad that it takes this kind of campaign to point all this out but kudos to WIF for carrying the torch.  Here is their statement: “WIF has created its #VoteForWomen ballot recognizing the abundance of women whose work behind the camera made the film landscape of 2021 possible. Every year we see hundreds of women excelling at their roles as creative and craft leads on the set of films big and small, and we are too often dismayed by how few of them make it into the predominant discussions of who gets celebrated with nominations and awards—recognition which can lead to continued work and compensation. The WIF #VoteForWomen ballot seeks to shine a light on a broader scope of women and nonbinary film professionals, drawing attention to them as a reminder for members of awards-granting bodies, guilds, and other organizations to consider when casting their votes this season.”

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