<p>Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in &quot;The Help.&quot;</p>

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help."

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

The Long Shot: Big enough for the both of us

When deserving acting contenders face formidable foes in their own co-stars

Last week, approximately one eon behind every other film writer on the beat, I finally saw “The Help.” As I’m sure many of you will agree, it’s not always easy seeing a film months after its supposed plus and minus points have long since been concretized by the critical majority, but I was pleased to find myself agreeing with everything that’s been said, even by the film’s detractors, about Viola Davis’s performance: graceful, intuitive, material-elevating, all that. If she has the Best Actress Oscar wrapped up (and even with the Streep Express still unseen, I’d wager that she has), I take no issue with that.

But over in the film’s Best Supporting Actress camp, things start coming a little unstuck. Octavia Spencer is a set-in-stone nominee—and in some pundits’ minds, the notional frontrunner—for her grandly sassy turn as the mouthy maid who redefines the term ‘just desserts.’ And to apply a favourite South Africanism: jawellnofine. Spencer’s a good time in the film, but she’s working several rungs below the astonishing Jessica Chastain, who may even outdo Davis in terms of enlivening and complicating a waxily written character: her guilelessly empathetic bubblehead is the film’s most interesting characterization, and the sharpest of Chastain’s 47-odd performances this year. She may well find her way to a nomination, particularly given the category’s predilection for dual nominees from a single film, but Spencer remains the sure thing – and there you have one of my first beefs of the awards season.

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<p>The&nbsp;Muppets are ready for their close-up, Academy.</p>

The Muppets are ready for their close-up, Academy.

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Why the Academy needs to drown this controversy in a healthy dose of 'The Muppets'

Screenwriter Nick Stoller weighs in with his thoughts on the notion

So I put the question out to you, both here and on Twitter: Who should host the Oscars now that Eddie Murphy has bowed out?

The replies include the usual wish-list picks (Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey) to preferred returning emcees (Hugh Jackman, Steve Martin, Jon Stewart) to interesting original picks (Albert Brooks, Amy Poehler, Craig Ferguson). And while those are all nice and make sense for various reasons, I think the best option is staring us right in the face.

I have to come clean. I was not aware of the online campaign to get The Muppets to host the Oscars (which obviously lost steam once Eddie Murphy was tapped) until this morning. You can read all about it @MuppetOscars and at Facebook. And here's the thing: BRILLIANT.

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<p>Eddie Murphy at the New York premiere of Brett&nbsp;Ratner's &quot;Tower Heist&quot;</p>

Eddie Murphy at the New York premiere of Brett Ratner's "Tower Heist"

Credit: AP Photo/Peter Kramer

Oscars host Eddie Murphy follows Brett Ratner out the door

'Tower Heist' star bows out after controversy forced his creative partner's hand

Well. This is a mess.

I honestly hadn't expected Eddie Murphy to take his leave as Oscarcast host following the Brett Ratner dust-up, mainly because I imagined the Academy would have made sure he was still on board so as not to have two big stories to deal with. But it seems Murphy has indeed followed Ratner out the door after Ratner's controversial media appearances put him in a position with the Academy that left no choice but resignation.

"First and foremost I want to say that I completely understand and support each party's decision with regard to a change of producers for this year's Academy Awards ceremony," Murphy said via AMPAS press release. "I was truly looking forward to being a part of the show that our production team and writers were just starting to develop, but I'm sure that the new production team and host will do an equally great job."

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<p>Morgan&nbsp;Freeman previously won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his performance in &quot;Driving Miss Daisy.&quot;</p>

Morgan Freeman previously won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his performance in "Driving Miss Daisy."

Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Morgan Freeman to receive HFPA's Cecil B. DeMille Award

The 'Dark Knight Rises' star gets the lifetime achievement treatment

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has tapped actor Morgan Freeman as the recipient of this year's Cecil B. DeMille Award, the organization's lifetime achievement prize. Recent honorees have included Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty.

Actress Amy Adams and filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar were on hand at a press conference this morning to make the announcement. No, they have no connection to Freeman. But you know the HFPA and their celebrity fixation.

Freeman has been nominated for a Golden Globe five times, for the same five performances that netted him Oscar attention, in fact: "Street Smart" in 1987, "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989 (he won the Globe but lost the Oscar to Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot"), "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1994, "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004 (he lost the Globe to Clive Owen in "Closer" but won the Oscar) and "Invictus" in 2009.

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<p>The poster for Cameron&nbsp;Crowe's &quot;We Bought a Zoo&quot;</p>

The poster for Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo"

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Cameron Crowe's 'We Bought a Zoo' gets a nifty new poster

Will the film register this season?

With all the talk about the great "unknowns" this season, with "Young Adult" and "J. Edgar" having dropped over the last week and "War Horse," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" still to come, Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo" has kind of fallen through the cracks of expectation. I haven't heard much about it and most seemed to disavow it after that saccharine-loaded trailer, but I'm actually looking forward to it with fingers crossed.

Details of the Jónsi-led soundtrack were recently revealed and I noted in a Best Original Song finger-to-the-wind post that the track "Gathering Stories" will be in the mix for that category. But what else could register for the film? Is Matt Damon lurking as a Best Actor possibility? Is the adapted screenplay up to snuff? I just don't know.

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<p>Stan Lee receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in&nbsp;January.</p>

Stan Lee receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January.

Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Stan Lee lands another film honor

The PGA will give him its Vanguard Award this year

It's a good year for Stan Lee. "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" have laid the groundwork for "The Avengers" next year. He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January. The Visual Effects Society has tapped him for a lifetime achievement honor, and the awards just keep coming.

Today the Producers Guild of America (PGA) announced that the comic book legend will receive its Vanguard Award this year. The prize recognizes achievements in new media and technology. Previous recipients include George Lucas, John Lasster and YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Will Wright.

“I am extremely appreciative that the Producers Guild has chosen me for this distinguished award,” Lee says in the press release. “I am eager to continue to expand comic book storytelling into the digital space and am honored to be awarded alongside such amazing visionaries.”

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<p>Oprah&nbsp;Winfrey:&nbsp;&quot;I don't think there's room for criticism in the do-good department.&quot;</p>

Oprah Winfrey: "I don't think there's room for criticism in the do-good department."

Credit: AP Photo/Paul Beaty

Oscarweb Round-up: Oprah's honor

Also: Gurus pick lead actor, animated feature and Searchlight debuts 'Shame' site

With the Governors Awards right around the corner, this year's recipients have been making the press rounds. When they were announced earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey's planned Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award fete was criticized by many who felt like she was known more for her TV work than her film work and therefore it was a stretch to extend her an honor that has gone to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis over the years. Well, Winfrey says she gets it, and that she was surprised herself, but she also defends herself: "I don't think there's room for criticism in the do-good department." Let's get down to brass tacks. Do I win a car or what? [Associated Press]

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<p>Zhang Yimou (left)&nbsp;directs Christian Bale on the set of &quot;The Flowers of War.&quot;</p>

Zhang Yimou (left) directs Christian Bale on the set of "The Flowers of War."

Credit: Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Zhang Yimou's 'Flowers of War' set for Oscar-qualifying run

Meanwhile the Chinese filmmaker has already landed his first award

It’s been a momentous week for Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) and FIAPF-International Federation of Film Producers Associations announced that the prolific (and often times controversial) director will be this year’s recipient of the FIAPF Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film in the Asia-Pacific region. The honor will be awarded at the fifth annual Asia Pacific Screen Awards ceremony on Australia's Gold Coast on November 24.

The director’s previous achievements include the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, two BAFTA awards, Silver and Golden Lions at Venice and Berlin's Silver and Golden Bear. Zhang’s “Ju Dou” became China's first Academy Award-nominated film in the Best Foreign Film category in 1991 followed directly by his next film “Raise the Red Lantern.” The director’s latest offering, “The Flowers of War” has already been selected as China's official foreign language entry for this year’s Academy Awards.

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<p>After several years, Jonathan Franzen's bestseller &quot;The Corrections&quot; is reaching screens as an HBO series.&nbsp;</p>

After several years, Jonathan Franzen's bestseller "The Corrections" is reaching screens as an HBO series. 

Credit: Picador Publishers

Has Franzen's 'The Corrections' dodged a big-screen bullet?

HBO the perfect home for sprawling modern-classic novel

Since I first read Jonathan Franzen's National Book Award-winning novel nearly a full decade ago, "The Corrections" has been simultaneously my most anticipated and most dreaded of all mooted Hollywood prestige pics -- a project that has wavered from inevitability to promise to mirage in the years since the film rights were first snapped up.

Anticipated, because I love the novel as much as legions of other people: its ubiquity has done little to dim the brilliance of its densely knotted construction, jagged comedy and profound capacity for pain and empathy in its deconstruction of what makes and breaks the modern American family. Dreaded, because -- well, everything I just said. It's such a vast, heaving, emotion-sodden work that the odds would be against even the most judicious film treatment matching its breadth and tonal range; a less judicious one, meanwhile, could veer into unholy realms of soggy highbrow soap-opera.

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<p>Indeed, sir.&nbsp;&quot;Peace out.&quot;</p>

Indeed, sir. "Peace out."

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Brett Ratner issues statement after resigning as Oscarcast producer

The 'Tower Heist' director steps down in the wake of homophobic slur controversy

I'm happy to have dedicated the least possible amount of column inches to this Brett Ratner situation. But the actual news of the thing is today's announcement that he is, indeed, after many called for his head in the wake of his using a gay slur at a Q&A last week, out as producer of this year's Oscar telecast. (Kudos to The Hollywood Reporter's "The Race" blog for landing the initial scoop.)

It was the only play. I know it was a tough decision for all involved (not that it should have been, but relationships are tough to just gloss over). But it was the right one. It was a PR nightmare, a picket line on Hollywood Boulevard waiting to happen. It's just not what you want overshadowing what is meant to be a celebration of the year's finest filmmaking.

Alas, this will be Ratner's legacy. This will be what he's remembered for. The easy joke is, "Well, it wasn't going to be his films." Whatever. He's a working filmmaker who gets the job done and keeps the suits happy. And some of his films are entertaining. I'll never begrudge him that. And I was actually getting a little bit excited for the prospects of his Oscar stint, especially with the announcement of a fresh crop of comedy writers for the show.

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