Oscar Circuit Monthly: Month of May Delivers ‘Mad Max’ But Little Else to the Oscar Landscape

avengers_age_of_ultron_2015_movie-wideIn a new column, which is technically just an off-shoot of the regular Oscar Circuit that goes up with every Oscar Predictions update, I’ll be taking a look at the past month in film releases and their possibilities during the awards season.  It’ll also coincide with the Oscar Tracker that will be updated as every film is released each week (page to launch later this week).  Since I’ve already commented on the early year contenders, we’ll be kicking this off with the month of May, which was another financial success for the studios.

*I will not comment on Cannes or any other film festivals in these columns.  These are only for films that have been theatrically released.*

THE TECHNICAL “MARVEL”

madmax_girlsMay is the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, where big movie budgets attempt desperately break box office records and give a decent return to their investors and their pockets.  May kicked off with Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opening in over 4,200 theaters and raking in $191 million dollars, the third highest grossing opening weekend of all-time, just behind “The Dark Knight” and its predecessor.  From a critical standpoint, the film received much more mixed praise than “The Avengers.”  Critics praised its eye-popping visuals, as well as James Spader’s voice work, but the bloated story and standard presentation left much to be desired.  It didn’t help that a surprising critically loved reboot hit theaters just two weeks later, leaving the memory of Marvel in the dust.  As usual, the film will contend in both Sound categories and Visual Effects when it comes Oscar time.  Marvel hasn’t stepped out of those categories despite more than a dozen mentions over the years.  Walt Disney Pictures will surely make a play for some outside mentions like Production Design, Cinematography, and Makeup & Hairstyling, but based on the upcoming competition, it’ll likely come up short.

The talk of the month was surely George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” which wowed critics and audiences who came out to see it.  Featuring a stunning performance from Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, the praise didn’t stop there.  The film is a serious contender in every single technical category, if not the current frontrunner in a few like Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and maybe Visual Effects.  It’s important to judge these films with the thought in your head, “if the Oscars were happening tomorrow, would it be nominated/win?” and if that’s how you’re judging the films as they’re released, then “Mad Max” is at the top of many people’s lists.  The film I can’t answer with confidence is the film’s chances in the major categories like Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  Beginning with the script, it seems like the type of film that will get love from the Writers Guild of America, given they’ll disqualify more than a dozen movies from the year.  If something like Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” can managed a nod from WGA, you have to assume this is an entry worth noting.  In the Picture and Director, it’s much less clear.  At this writing, we are still in the age of the sliding scale.  No official announcement has been made about any changes despite rumors that the Board of Governors is considering going back to five nominees.  On a sliding scale, it’s difficult and hard to imagine.  Will an Academy forgo some of the more Oscar-friendly films during the year to place “Mad Max” at #1?  Will they even remember it?  Better yet, will Warner Bros. put out the money for a strategic, effective campaign?  It’s definitely worth every dollar to try.

A smaller tech player is Thomas Vinterberg‘s “Far from the Madding Crowd” that entices the visual senses and is a contender in Production Design and Costume Design.  Being described as a throw back to the days of Merchant/Ivory is certainly something awards bodies listen to.  Production Designer Kave Quinn is seeking her first nomination after working on films like “Trainspotting” and “The Woman in Black.”  Costume Designer Janet Patterson is a four-time Oscar-nominee for “The Piano,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Oscar and Lucinda,” and “Bright Star.”  This is her first film in six years following “Star” and chances are, her industry respect will spill over all season long.  Also on the table is the performance of star Carey Mulligan, who was singled out as one of the film’s strongest attributes, and the score of Craig Armstrong, who shockingly is still without an Academy Award nomination yet.  Those two will likely stay long shots as the year progresses but if missteps and failed expectations come into play in either of their categories, early year contenders have potential of rising to the top.

THE AMBITIOUS FAILURES

tomorrowland_imageThere were some serious expectations going into May but the buzz and anxiousness going into Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” was one of the highest.  With Bird, star George Clooney, Walt Disney backing, and a premise that intrigued the minds of many.  With reviews dropped, the split was clearly defined.  The misfired script along with a disappointing trip to another dimension left many wanting more.  It doesn’t help that it’s a part of one of the worst Memorial weekends on record for box office.  In its corner is distributor Walt Disney, a studio that muscles into technical categories despite poor reviews.  When the Academy announces their “bakeoff” mentions for Visual Effects, “Tomorrowland” fits the mold of one of those films that makes us scratch our heads, especially when it’s over a more deserving choice.  Though we only spend about ten minutes in “Tomorrowland” (including the Hurricane Katrina aftermath version they discover later in the film), the set designs were very eye-catching throughout.  A play for Scott Chambliss (who is technically owed one after missing for “Star Trek” in 2009) is certainly in the cards.

Hollywood and audiences sit patiently for a few directors to “return to form.”  We’ll have Ridley Scott dropping with “The Martian” later this year as well as M. Night Shyamalan attempting a dark comedy/horror genre with “The Visit.”  Both have reserved expectations at best but Cameron Crowe is firmly in this same category as he’s shown with the release of “Aloha,” which currently stands as his worst reviewed film of his career (18% on Rotten Tomatoes).  Originally slated for a release in 2015, we can see why distributor Sony Pictures decided on a summer release.  I’m not sure if this necessarily hurts any of the stars in the film with other potentials this year including Bradley Cooper (appearing in “Joy”), Emma Stone (appearing in “Irrational Man”), and Rachel McAdams (appearing in “Southpaw” and “Spotlight”), it’ll just be another dud on what’s becoming a long list for Cameron Crowe’s mistakes.

Lovers of the disaster movies came out in drones to see the destruction of the West Coast in Brad Peyton‘s “San Andreas,” where he casts Dwayne Johnson to battle mother nature.  Similar ambitions like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Deep Impact” performed better as a May opener and the critics are just as divided with Peyton’s film.  If you ask some of the movie’s admirers, they’ll try to convince you that the film can contend in the sound categories and visual effects.  Truth is, these type of films are a dime a dozen these days.  “Skyline,” “2012,” and even “Godzilla” come and go with no one looking back.  I doubt anyone will be looking back at the year and call for “San Andreas.”

 

TOO SMALL TO RIDE THIS RIDE?

slowwestThis space is reserved for the well-received films but little chance at making headway with awards bodies outside of something like the Independent Spirit or Gotham Awards.  In a just world, the Academy (and all awards bodies in general) will look at all the possible avenues for a contender but sadly will not.

First and foremost is John Maclean‘s “Slow West” with Kodi-Smit McPhee and Michael Fassbender.  Playing at the Sundance Film Festival and then moving on to Tribeca, the film was released via theaters and VOD in May.  An inventive and clever take on the western genre, “Slow West” is not without its faults but the highs certainly outweigh the lows.  Robbie Ryan captures some marvelous shots that hawk back to Roger Deakins for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”  Kim Sinclair‘s sets are vivacious as well as Kirsty Cameron‘s costume design.  Both would make refreshing inclusions in a lineup.  Same can be said for composer Jed Kurzel, whose score is reserved but equally as effective as any bombastic music you’ll hear in a sweeping epic.  While Fassbender can do roles like this in his sleep, he shows another side of him that will surely help him with the campaign for “Steve Jobs” later this year.  I’ll remember the magnetic Caren Pistorius, who will sadly just be an after thought but manages to steal the movie in more ways than one.

Finally, playing initially at last year’s New York Film Festival, Benny and Joshua Safdie‘s “Heaven Knows What” is beloved by so many.  The talk has surrounded its star Arielle Holmes, who is surely a future Indie Spirit nominee and the strong script and direction.  If we can get voters to watch the film on any platform, we’ll chalk that up as a win.

Make sure to check back next month for June’s recap!
Share your thoughts on the month in the comments!