Oscar Watch: A Midyear 2020 Report

It might be hard to fathom, but we are at the midpoint of this experience we call 2020. As COVID-19 and social issues dominate the landscape, the cinematic world has necessarily taken a backseat to the times. The Academy recently announced that the Oscars will be delayed until April 2021 and that movies premiering in January and February of that year will be eligible for consideration. This is in addition to previous notice that streaming pictures that forgo a theatrical release will also be able to nab nominations at that ceremony.

Since theaters have essentially been shuttered since March and with several festivals (the normal breeding grounds for awards hopefuls) either canceled or significantly modified, a midyear report on Oscar contenders is, to put it mildly, challenging.

Yet… here goes! As awards followers already know, the bulk of serious contenders aren’t  typically released until fall anyway. In fact, the earliest release of the nine Best Picture nominees last year was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which came out in late July. The remaining 8 had autumn and winter dates.

The Sundance Film Festival from January did give us some potential contenders. Florian Zeller’s The Father was acclaimed and it could score nods for previous winners Anthony Hopkins in lead actor and Olivia Colman in Supporting Actress. The biographical tale of feminist icon Gloria Steinem finds several actresses playing her at different ages. Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander (they also both have gold statues) are among them and could be potential nominees. Previous nominee Carey Mulligan garnered solid reviews for Promising Young Woman. 

And there’s Minari. The South Korean family drama starring Steven Yeun won the Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. I wouldn’t sleep on its chances with the right marketing push from its studio A24. That same studio has the 19th century set indie First Cow, which also has its ardent admirers. They would need to make a major push in order for Oscar to notice it.

For movies that have actually come out, the Jane Austen inspired Emma saw positive notices for lead Anya-Taylor Joy. Ben Affleck got some of the best reviews of his career with the basketball drama The Way Back. Pete Davidson’s starring debut in The King of Staten Island drew mostly praise. And Elisabeth Moss starred in the hit The Invisible Man and it’s a possibility she could be recognized even though acting nominations in horror flicks are rare. Neither Toni Collette (Hereditary) in 2018 or Lupita Nyong’o (Us) last year could pull it off. Moss could also be recognized for Shirley, a drama that debuted at Sundance and is already available via streaming.

Then there’s Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods from Spike Lee. The director saw his last picture, BlacKkKlansman, receive numerous nominations and win Adapted Screenplay. I would posit that Bloods stands the best chance at multiple nods including possibly Picture and Director. Delroy Lindo (though it’s not clear whether he’d be campaigned for in lead or supporting) seems highly likely to be recognized. And if he’s campaigned for in Best Actor (which he probably should be), it could open the door for Clarke Peters or Jonathan Majors to make the cut in supporting.

In other races – Pixar’s Onward could compete in Animated Feature, though Disney could save their muscle for the upcoming Soul. Look for Emma to nab a Costume Design nod.

And we shall leave it there for now, folks! As readers of the blog know, expect more Oscar Watch posts to come your way as titles screen. Typically it’s late August when I start my weekly predictions and hopefully that’s a tradition that can be kept in this crazy thing we call 2020…

Top 25 SNL Alumni Movie Performances: Numbers 25-21

It’s time for another list on this here blog of mine and Saturday Night Live has been on the mind lately. With The King of Staten Island garnering solid reviews and serving as a launching pad for the film career of current cast member Pete Davidson, I’ve decided to compile my own personal list of top 25 performances from the 45 years of SNL alumni.

And this is sure to be a list where many moviegoers would have their own choices that do not reflect my own. Obviously SNL has a rich history of performers that have made the transition to the big screen and there are lots of notable comedic (and some dramatic) highlights.

A couple of notes before we start with numbers 25-21:

  • There are couple well-known actors that I chose to leave on the cutting room floor due to their very brief tenures on the show. Ben Stiller was a cast member for only 4 episodes and Laurie Metcalf was a not ready for prime time player for exactly 1 show. That didn’t seem like enough to include them. In short, if you lasted a season or more on SNL, you are eligible.
  • This list is undeniably dominated by men. That’s just a fact. On the other hand, if I did a list that included TV (which I may after this), you would certainly see a more substantial presence of former female performers. Think Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and their acclaimed small screen work.
  • We have a couple of cinematic legends like Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray and I could have chosen plenty of their roles for inclusion. I tried to limit that, but you will see them make quite an impact in the top 25.

And with that, let’s get to the list!

25. Jan Hooks, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

OK, maybe this is cheating a little bit since Ms. Hooks (who was brilliant on SNL) gets about three minutes of screen time in Tim Burton’s team-up with Paul Reubens for his iconic character. Yet her work as the cheery tour guide with the southern drawl is so memorable that I couldn’t leave it off. Six words: “There’s no basement at the Alamo!”

24. Bill Hader, It Chapter Two (2019)

Hader has been one of the most versatile cast members in recent times and has had memorable film roles in Superbad and Trainwreck, among others. I include this horror sequel because he was the undeniable bright spot in an otherwise inferior sequel.

23. Will Forte, MacGruber (2010)

Count me in as one of the ardent defenders of this SNL spin-off featuring Forte doing a feature length version of his idiotic MacGyver like role. MacGruber was a box office flop upon release but has since turned into a deserved cult classic (with a rumored sequel happening).

22. Tina Fey, Mean Girls (2004)

Before her fantastic work on 30 Rock, Fey wrote this hit comedy that has spawned a massive following and a Broadway musical. Her work as a teacher here served as a springboard to an impressive TV and movie career.

21. Billy Crystal, When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Crystal has certainly had his share of hits, but I’ll give the nod to his romantic leading man role opposite Meg Ryan in Rob Reiner’s blockbuster.

That does it for now, folks! I’ll continue the list with numbers 20-16 in short order…

The King of Staten Island Movie Review

Pete Davidson is not your average Saturday Night Live cast member. He is less known for characters he plays and is more known for essentially portraying himself on Weekend Update sketches. That includes warts and all with his much publicized romantic life, struggles with mental health and drug issues, and tragic family history. It is no surprise that Judd Apatow is the director to bring his semi autobiographical story to the big screen in The King of State Island. And the Apatow treatment comes with the high points of his previous efforts. It also comes with the warts and all of his pics that includes an unnecessarily lengthy running time and subplots that don’t really pan out.

The big screen treatment ended up being a misnomer since Island went the Video on Demand route due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Davidson is Scott Carlin, an aimless 24 year old living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) in the borough where it is joked that New Jersey looks down upon. His little sister (Maude Apatow) is an achiever who is moving along to college. Scott’s longtime friend and sort of girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) is a glass half full type in contrast with his constantly half empty outlook. The similarities between Davidson and his character are hard to miss. Scott’s father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty and so did Davidson’s on 9/11. Substance abuse and effects of ADD are prevalent with Scott and, as mentioned, the actor hasn’t been shy about addressing those matters.

One key difference: Davidson has been a pop culture fixture on the famous sketch comedy show for a few years. The man he is playing isn’t accomplishing much of anything. His idea to open a tattoo parlor/restaurant is met with understandable skepticism. Scott’s arrested development is dealt a setback when Margie finds romance after 17 years of being a widow with fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Their courtship elevates his anxieties to a new level.

Apatow, over the past decade and half, has elevated numerous comedic performers to new heights. These include Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. The similarities here are most in line with the latter as Davidson’s known persona is put through the cinematic lens. As an avid SNL watcher, I have found his bits occasionally inspired and frequently a little grating. It is a credit to Apatow and Davidson that Island finds a balance that is primarily satisfying. However, that’s not to say there aren’t issues. Island is too long. A subplot regarding Scott and his buddies and a pharmaceutical heist could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. While it often deftly switches between humorous and serious segments, the tone shifts are not always consistent.

On the bright side, some scenes are quite well done. This includes a night out with Scott, Ray, and some fellow firefighters where his late dad’s angelic legacy is tarnished to his son’s delight. Every time romantic interest Kelsey (with a terrific performance by Powley) is around, it works. I actually found myself wishing Scott had more interest in her because she deserves more screen time.

Ultimately The King of Staten Island is vintage Apatow and that includes the glass being measured in both ways. Thankfully it is full for the most part.

*** (out of four)

Oscar Watch: The King of Staten Island

The latest dramedy from director Judd Apatow is receiving a lot of similar praise and a bit of the same criticism as other titles in his filmography. The King of Staten Island hits the VOD circuit this Friday after foregoing a theatrical release due to COVID-19. The pic is a showcase for Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson, who’s received as much press for his personal life as his SNL antics. This is a semi-autobiographical vehicle for him and reviews out today give high marks to his work.

Overall Island currently stands at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. Several critics are calling it Apatow’s most mature work. There are kudos for the supporting cast that includes Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, and Bel Pawley. On the flip side, there are some complaints about its 136 minute runtime. This is a common gripe for the director’s efforts.

While Oscar attention is unlikely, the pic could garner the attention of Golden Globes voters since it splits acting races between Drama and Musical/Comedy. In the latter, Davidson could be a contender for Actor. Yet the Apatow track record at the Globes is shaky. Neither Steve Carell (The 40 Yr. Old Virgin) or Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) made the final five. I would especially say that Carell was robbed in 2005. On the other hand, 2015’s Trainwreck nabbed Amy Schumer an Actress mention.

Bottom line: some awards chatter for Apatow’s latest stand-up star could happen, but I don’t think it would be at the biggest show of all. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Coronavirus and The Movies

Let me start by stating the obvious – with COVID-19 or the Coronavirus dominating the worldwide news cycle, its impact on the moviegoing public is very far from the most important story. However, this is a blog focused on the world of film and especially the box office.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has touched the cinematic universe this week and beyond. The major news in this space began a couple of days back when the latest James Bond pic No Time to Die was delayed from April 10th until November. Producers made no secret that Coronavirus was the reason. For a tentpole release of this stature to get delayed opens up the real possibility of others that could follow. On a smaller scale, the Dave Bautista comedy My Spy was pushed from next Friday to mid April.

News continued yesterday as the South by Southwest Festival in Austin was canceled. Scheduled to begin on March 16, SXSW serves as a launching pad for dozens of features and documentaries. In 2020, this included such high profile titles as David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island with Pete Davidson, and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick follow-up The Lovebirds starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae.

We will see what the future brings as outside factors are certainly influencing how studios and festival organizers make decisions.