Let's All Go to the Lobby: Holiday Movie Preview

This holiday weekend millions of Americans will ditch their families and head to the movies. Luckily, it's the time of year when Oscar contenders are starting to be released. Madeleine Brand talks with Slate movie columnist Dana Stevens about films that will be opening in the next few weeks.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Over the next few weeks, many of us will simply run out of things to talk about with our relatives visiting for the holidays. So, we head out to the local Cineplex where, waiting for us are movies Hollywood Studios think are Oscar worthy. Slate's movie critic Dana Stevens joins me now. Hi Dana.

Ms. DANA STEVENS (Movie Critic, Slate): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Now some of these Oscar worthy movies are already out in theaters, some are not, which ones are getting all the attention?

Ms. STEVENS: Well, you know, a lot of the ones that are being pushed the hardest for Oscars are ones, precisely, that haven't been released yet, because of course they like to reserve the maximum amount of Oscar juice for that last burst right before Christmas.

But, some of the movies out there that you could see over Thanksgiving weekend that are definite Oscar fodder would be Scorsese's “The Departed.” “Dreamgirls” is going to be released a little bit closer to Christmas I think, but that certainly is a family fun, one of those, sort of, more lighthearted Oscar movies still to come.

Robert De Niro is directing a movie for the first time in over a decade, called “The Good Shepherd” that has a great cast - Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, who hasn't been on screens for a while. So you know, probably it's too early for De Niro to be recognized as a director, but there might be some acting awards in there somewhere.

BRAND: Okay, and let's talk about another movie, it's called “The Fountain.” And just looking at the plot outline on IMDb.com, it says spanning over 1,000 years and three parallel stories, “The Fountain” is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world. Wow.

STEVENS: That's an ambition, right? Well, there's also if you look at some of the readers comments on IMDb, the director of “The Fountain” observed a sort of wunderkind director Darren Aronofsky - it's his third movie - has a very intense cult following. He's got a small but very passionate audience. And there's also some reader comments at IMDb that are some of the most out there place for a movie I've ever read. I just saw “The Fountain” last night actually, and it's a very unusual film.

I have to say that for me, the movie didn't work, but I have to respect its unbelievably outsized ambition. And the only movie I could think to compare it to, in terms of the kind of story it tries to tell, is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in the sense that, you know, the story spans millennia and has a sort of metaphysical aim to it.

BRAND: Well, let's listen to a clip.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Fountain”)

Unidentified Man #1: The myths tells us of a holy pyramid built upon the naval of the earth, the birthplace of life. A special tree sprouts there. They say whoever drinks of its sap will live forever.

BRAND: Ooh, that sounds…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: That's the kind of clip that generates unintentional laughter for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: It's very, very giggle-worthy. And the movie is full of a lot of those moments for me. I found myself doing a lot of cringing and unintended giggling. But I actually, you know, talked afterwards with some people, other critics in the screening whose opinions I respect, who loved the movie. So, it'll be really interesting to have conversations about this movie over the next month.

BRAND: Okay, and in the tear-jerker category, there is Will Smith's vehicle, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and let's listen to a bit from the trailer.

(Soundbite of film, “The Pursuit of Happyness”)

Mr. JADEN SMITH (Actor): (As Christopher) Did mom leave because of me?

Mr. WILL SMITH (Actor): (As Christopher Gardner) Mom left because of mom, and you didn't have anything to do with that.

(Soundbite of song, “Ooh Child (Things Are Going to Get Easier)”)

Unidentified Man #2: There's no salary.

Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Gardner) No, I was not aware of that. My circumstances have changed some.

Mr. JADEN SMITH: (As Christopher) Dad, where are we going?

Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Gardner) I don't know.

BRAND: Okay, Dana. That trailer made or almost made some of the people on our staff weep. This hasn't been seen yet by you, right? No one's seen this movie yet?

Ms. STEVENS: Yeah. I mean, there may be some people who saw it at extreme advance screenings at a festival somewhere, but this hasn't been screened for critics yet. So, all I know about it is the kind of well-known buzz about it, which is that it's Will Smith's first, you know, serious role. This not an action picture, not a comedy, and that he's great in it. It's exactly the kind of role that, you know, is tailor-made for Oscar recognition because especially lately, it seems like the Academy loves it when a funny man, you know, turns it around and takes on a serious role. And obviously, Will Smith as a homeless man is, you know, the last kind of casting you would expect.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about funny men, and why is that Oscar-worthy movies are never funny movies?

Ms. STEVENS: It seems like the Academy just has a certain taste. I mean, you know, for all the changes that have happened in movies in the last 30, 40 years, the Academy contains not only some of the same kinds of voters but some of the same voters as it did 40 years ago. And they are a staid bunch.

BRAND: So Sacha Baron Cohen, who played Borat, not a shoo-in for best actor.

Ms. STEVENS: There's always that outside nominee, you know, and even if that person doesn't win, you know, it's sort of - the Academy likes to have that one person from the outside, if only to sort of prove their jobs, you know, that they go to maybe, you know, less mainstream movies, as well. Of course, Borat is a strange paradox because now it's become an extremely mainstream and the top-grossing movie in the country for weeks. But it remains pretty raunchy and pretty out there. I don't see Sacha Baron Cohen getting that kind of recognition, as astounding as the character is that he pulls off.

(Soundbite of film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”)

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): (As Borat Sagdiyev) My name is Borat. I journalist for Kazakhstan. My government send me to US and A to make a movie film. Please, you look.

BRAND: Understated, quietly moving, haunting, evocative - no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: That's sort of the Kazak version of For Your Consideration, right, the Oscar pitch? Please, you look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: But given the reality show element to the movie, as well, it's not the kind of thing that would be recognized next to a good hammy performance in a sad, fictional film.

BRAND: Dana Stevens watches and writes about movies for Slate.com, and Dana, have a good time in Oscar season.

Ms. STEVENS: Thanks, Madeleine, bye-bye.

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