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“It's really... commercial,” a friend remarked to me as we left yesterday's screening of “Silver Linings Playbook,” a press-and-BAFTA mixer that was as warmly received as its buoyant Toronto debut had promised it would be. He said it with a hint of distaste, and he's not the only one resistant to its unapologetically Audience Award-y charms -- there are those who believe that a film dealing with tricky variations of mental illness and familial damage should perhaps make itself harder to like. Or just a little harder, period.
For my part, I joined the majority faction of those beguiled by the film. I delighted in the same free-jazz trick David O. Russell pulled so deftly with “The Fighter” two years ago: injecting tried-and-true narrative formula with agitated sociable energy, leaving the whole scrappier and more abrasive than most Hollywood journeymen would given the same script. It's a crowdpleaser that's at once comforting and unfamiliar as it hits its romantic comedy marks, giving its two superb leads plenty of space to see each other as emotional chaos slowly finds its way to order.
Russell's volatile personal reputation may linger in the memories of some, but from where I'm standing, he's fast growing into one of the most humanly engaged filmmakers in US film today. If this is commercial, I'm buying -- and The Weinstein Company has every reason to expect many others will.
The grown-up reform of the multiplex looks to be one of the dominant narratives of this year's awards season. Perhaps even more glowingly greeted at Toronto, Audience Award voting notwithstanding, was Ben Affleck's propulsive, emotionally charged thriller “Argo” – a rock-solid piece of conscientious entertainment that isn't coy about its debt to such smart American craftsmen of decades past as Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula.
As a true-blue Warner Bros. production, many of the raves have noted the relative scarcity of such intelligent, character-driven accessibility in latter-day studio product. As, indeed, have the film's detractors, many of whom take the line that critics wouldn't have thought the film nearly so remarkable in US cinema's 1970s boon. This can be argued, rather unproductively, back and forth, but everyone's reaching the same “They don't make 'em like this anymore” conclusion.
If Affleck has been designated as this year's poster boy for the virtues of adult-oriented studio cinema, he and his film cut a more modest figure than, say, Christopher Nolan. The British neo-Spielberg had this barbed position bestowed on him in the 2008 and 2010 races, when “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” were hailed as sainted proof that studio blockbusters could have something going on upstairs – though the Academy only seemed semi-convinced when the nominations were announced.
The blogosphere attempted to revive that discussion back in the summer for “The Dark Knight Rises” – having pretty much surrendered the idea of the vastly popular but wholly synthetic “The Avengers” being taken seriously by voters. Whether it was because the Batman sequel failed to match the commercial, critical or cultural clout of its predecessor, the conversation didn't exactly take hold. Champions of high-concept franchise cinema have since taken to touting the Oscar potential of “Skyfall” – a stronger horse for Best Picture recognition, but not one any pundits are willing to bet on just yet.
For the second year running, then, the odds are stacked against a bona fide pop blockbuster cracking the Best Picture lineup. With that, the greater-than-usual abundance of mainstream prestige fare in the late-season release calendar (“Argo,” “Playbook,” “Flight,” “Lincoln,” “Les Miserables,” “Life of Pi,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” even “The Impossible”) offers an array of options to populist-minded voters looking to stem the Academy's recent taste for “smaller” contenders from the indie/foreign fringes.
Sasha Stone recently asked an online assembly of Oscar pundits if the high standard of studio cinema this year – a debatable notion, to begin with – could wind up freezing favored independent contenders like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” out of the race. But the narrative could never be that simple, since the concept of “studio cinema” this days is an increasingly malleable one.
Does the term only apply to releases from the so-called Big Six – Paramount, Warner, Disney, Universal, Columbia, Fox? Do studio releases that weren't produced in-house carry an asterisk? “Les Mis” may be a Universal release, but it's a wholly foreign – well, British – production. Speaking of foreign productions, Summit's pumped-up, Spanish-made disaster pic “The Impossible” has the sensibility, if not the lineage, of a Hollywood blockbuster; with the film inspiring Steven Spielberg comparisons from many a critic, it's slightly absurd to imply that it's less mainstream than Spielberg's own legislation-themed drama “Lincoln.”
Similar questions arise at the top of the so-called indie sector. The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight, say, are pretty powerful entities that could well be regarded as majors in their own right. They certainly can't be spoken of in the same breath as a Magnolia or an IFC: if “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” both a strange, singular achievement and an undeniable audience charmer, had been picked up by one of those noble indie fighters, would it have the degree of awards buzz it enjoys today?
Weinstein's prestige pair “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Master” may both be jagged, distinctive, stimulating auteur pieces, yet one can surely be regarded as more a pseudo-studio picture than the other – while I'd propose that “Argo” boasts a more independent spirit than Warners stablemate “The Dark Knight Rises.” Perhaps this isn't the year the studios bite back at the Oscars, but the one where multiplex and arthouse queues cross at Crowdpleaser Junction.
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