Is it time for the Oscars go back to having only five nominees for Best Picture? There are rumors The Academy is seriously considering doing just that, in the wake of the lowest TV audience in six years. Back in 2010 the list of nominees for the top prize was expanded to 10, something that hadn't been done since the 1940s. And it stayed that way for 2011. Then in 2012, The Academy decided to add even more suspense to Oscar nomination morning by announcing there'd be a range of Best Picture candidates, from 5-10, depending on how many films qualified with a certain percentage of the vote. That year, and the next two, there were nine contenders. This year there were only eight (I, along with many others, were surprised that "Foxcatcher", which got Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay nods failed to become the "obligatory" ninth Best Pic. nominee).
A return by The Academy to traditional policy will cause nightmares for studios pushing their films in an already crowded Awards Season. Each year seems to bring more contenders than the year before, so the list of Best Picture snubs will simply grow and grow.
And here's a related question that's bothered me ever since the 2013 Oscars: Since Ben Affleck shockingly failed to receive a Best Director nod for "Argo", was that film one of the top five (of nine) to qualify in the Best Picture category? If the Academy's policy wasn't to allow up to 10 films to be nominated in '13, then "Argo" may not have even been in the running to take home the top prize. Of course, that answer will never be revealed, though I'd love to know the rankings of the nominated films each year with initial and final voting.
10 nominees could be too many, but five may just be too few. And I really don't see how fewer Best Picture candidates will bring in more viewers. I think the current system, for the most part, is working. There are plenty of reasons why the ratings for this year's Oscars telecast were down and having eight titles on the Best Picture list isn't one of them. And chances are either "Selma" or "American Sniper" (or both) would have been left-out had there been only five nominees this year, creating more negative backlash for the Academy which absolutely would have resulted in an even smaller TV audience.
"Divergent", released exactly a year ago, was based on the first installment of a popular tween/teen book series about a female heroine in a post-apocalyptic world. Similarities were immediately made to "The Hunger Games", with "Divergent" having copycat concepts and lackluster big screen results in comparison. Interestingly, Lionsgate, which recently bought Summit Entertainment, is now the distributor of both franchises.
The star power for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" has been ramped-up - with new cast members Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim adding a little bite. And, thankfully, it is shorter than its predecessor by 20 minutes. There's also more energy this time with a few solid action scenes. But, once again, the overall pacing is very slow, and so the mediocre story is so stretched-out simply to fill time.
Kate Winslet is back as the evil Jeanine. She talks often in "Insurgent" about how coincidental and ironic it is that Tris (Shailene Woodley) is, once again, the main Divergent making her life miserable. Of course she is - she's the main character in the story! And there's plenty of hoopla involving the five Factions, the up-and-down romance of Tris and Four (who reveals that his name isn't really a number - which hilariously comes as a big shock to Tris), and the subplots with Tris' shy brother Caleb (played by Ansel Elgort, who Woodley fell in love with in "The Fault in Our Stars") and the good guy who may have become a bad guy, Peter (played by Miles Teller, who Woodley fell in love with in "The Spectacular Now").
The main storyline in "Insurgent" is that Jeanine needs Tris to open a box for her that contains an important message about the collapsing Faction system. But - another shocker - the box contains a "surprise" - except it's really no surprise as everyone knows how this is going to end (it's a sci-fi/futuristic version of a prequel to "Pandora's Box").
What is surprising is that "Insurgent" plays-out like a series ender. But unfortunately...it's not. There are two more films: Parts 1 and 2 of "Allegiant" are set for March releases over the next two years.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" gets a C-. And that may be a little "Indulgent".
"Run All Night" is the fourth action/thriller starring Liam Neeson to be released in the last 13 months. Jaume-Collet Serra directed Neeson 2011's underrated gem "Unknown" and last year's "Non-Stop". Both of those films provided intrigue, suspense and engaging storylines worthy of your full attention from the first frame to the last.
"Run All Night" is clearly the weakest of Serra's three colaborations with Neeson. The story, which is given away in the commercials and trailers, is played in a straightforward and unspectacular fashion. It's not a dull action film, but it doesn't provide the bite it should considering the star-power and resumes.
As it turns out "Run All Night" would've worked better had the main focus been the confrontation between old best friends turned bitter enemies - Jimmy Conlon (played by Neeson) and Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Their scenes together, including a pivotal one in an NYC restaurant, provide the tension and satisfaction that's lacking everywhere else.
But, instead, the main story centers on Jimmy's fractured relationship with his son Mike. "RoboCop"'s Joel Kinnaman doesn't provide much screen presence opposite Neeson. 99% of "Run All Night" takes place over the course of 16 hours, and it feels like it, especially in the first half. We spend an evening with Jimmy & Mike as they attempt to outrun Shawn and his henchmen, along with Detective Harding (a very good Vincent D'Onofrio) and the NYPD. Interestingly, most of "running" done on this night is via driving, not actual running.
The main supporting character in the mix is a hitman played by Common. I was expecting this guy to have some more layers, but a scene in which he and Neeson duke it out in a burning apartment complex is pretty entertaining. And, there's an uncredited cameo from a veteran Oscar-nominated actor late in the film that provides a little spark.
"Run All Night" is strong in the second half, but really needed a couple of legitimate twists to elevate the all-too-simple script. Neeson does his best to convince us he's a bad guy, but I kept waiting for him, at some point, to save everybody. I guess I'll have to wait until his next action role for that. Chances are I won't have to wait very long.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Run All Night" gets a C+.
Disney's animated "Cinderella" was released in 1950. Now, 65 years later, as part of The Mouse House's current trend of remaking/reimagining classics from the vault (which will continue over the next few years with new versions of "The Jungle Book", "Pete's Dragon" and "Beauty and the Beast"), veteran director Kenneth Branagh brings to life the latest live-action interpretation of the glass slipper story.
If this was the first version of "Cinderella" ever made, or if it's the first you've ever seen (which would most likely apply to a little one), it will blow you away. Branagh is able to take a tale most of us know by heart and transform it into a genuine drama and sweeping romance, that's both grand and sincere, much like Cinderella herself. Lily James ("Downton Abbey") gives a star-making performance opposite the excellent Cate Blanchett, who really sinks her teeth into the role of the evil Stepmother (Blanchett receives top-billing but doesn't have as much screen time as you might expect). And Richard Madden ("Game of Thrones") is quite good as the much more down-to-Earth than dashing Prince.
The screenplay, by Chris Weitz, who's come a long way since writing 2007's "The Golden Compass", is packed with emotional storylines and serious themes. The abuse Ella endures is pretty intense and, in true Disney fashion, death plays a big part in the story. The PG rating is deserved. This is a mature "Cinderella", clearly intended for an "older" young audience. 6-9 year-old girls going to the theater in their bright blue dresses with their moms may not enjoy this film (though they will enjoy seeing Anna and Elsa in the "Frozen Fever" short that plays before the feature). This "Cinderella" is not a comedy (though there are a few lighter moments) and it's not a musical (updated renditions of two of the classic songs from the animated version are saved for the end credits). This is essentially a romantic drama.
The only time Branagh delves into "whimsical" territory is when Cinderella meets her Fairy Godmother (played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is also the narrator) and she uses her magical powers to turn a pumpkin into the coach, a goose into a driver, etc. This sequence is far different in tone from the rest of the film. I wouldn't be surprised if Branagh is criticized for not making a "fun" "Cinderella", especially for the young female target audience. However, I contend that this "Cinderella" can be appreciated by all ages, thanks, first and foremost, to James' fresh, pure and lively portrayal of a character who, in most other versions, is pretty dull.
"Cinderella" is filled with beautiful, and rather large, costumes, gorgeous set design (there's an extravagant and effervescent ballroom sequence) and a lovely score. And with a talented director and cast behind this bold and almost completely anti-fairy tale approach, it's the most impressive film of 2015. I felt more than satisfied when the clock finally struck Midnight.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Cinderella" gets an A-.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a 2012, Golden Globe-nominated dramedy with an all-star cast of veteran actors playing seniors looking to re-live their youth and re-charge their lives by traveling to India and staying at a newly built, but poorly constructed hotel. It was solidly entertaining, but a little overrated and rather depressing, all of which made the news that a sequel was in the works rather surprising.
Yes, the original was a surprise box office hit, but a concept like this, specifically for an older audience, doesn't usually result in a second go-around. I had fairly low expectations going into "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (which will be a strong contender for the longest title of the year honor). Thankfully, with a warm, authentic script, a lighter story that still deals with some heavy themes, and an excellent ensemble cast in top form, this return visit is a much more enjoyable experience.
The plot of "The Second..." is overwhelming. There are at least half a dozen storylines going on all at once. Most of them involve past, present, or potential romances between and among the residents from the first film, with a few newcomers tossed in. But the focal point is the upcoming wedding of hotel owner Sonny (a much less annoying Dev Patel than in the original) and his fiancee Suniana. Sonny also has his sights set on opening a second hotel in town. After a meeting he attends with Muriel (the great Maggie Smith) in San Diego with a possible investor, the chances for expansion are looking better. However, complications quickly arise.
Meantime, Evelyn (Judi Dench) has been freelancing for a fabrics company, but gets an offer to work for them full-time. Longtime friend and now tour guide Douglas (Bill Nighy) wants to marry Evelyn, but she, at the age of 79, still isn't ready to commit. Another resident's companion is having an affair, another can't decide between the two men who have asked for her hand in marriage. And, if all of that wasn't enough, Richard Gere shows-up to the hotel as a writer Guy Chambers. He immediately falls for Sonny's mom, who wants nothing to do with him.
The best thing about "The Second..." is the more positivity and spirit that was missing from in the original. There are some genuinely funny moments, and plenty of sarcastic one-liners about getting old and dying. Smith received a SAG Awards Best Supporting Actress nomination for the first "Marigold Hotel", but she actually gives a more effective and meaningful performance here. And while much of the film is completely predictable, real emotion does come from the final act, which has a lot to say about life and love.
Should we expect "The Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"? Probably not. But you've got to give a lot of credit to returning director John Madden, who proved that, for once, it was completely worthwhile to make a sequel to a film that really didn't need one.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" gets a B.