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Awards Circuit: AFI FEST ‘Out of the Furnace’ Review, BAFTA Britannia Awards to Clooney & Elba, Thompson & Penn Sing ‘Mary Poppins’ (VIDEO)

Awards Circuit: AFI FEST 'Out of the Furnace' Review, BAFTA Britannia Awards to Clooney & Elba, Thompson & Penn Sing 'Mary Poppins' (VIDEO)

The toughest thing about filmmakers who aim for the fences is that when they miss, they are not patted on the back for trying. More often, their agents, managers and folks supposedly looking out for their best interest will say, “See, this is what happens when you follow your heart. Next time make something commercial.”

Saturday night at AFI FEST writer-director Scott Cooper, three years after his career skyrocket launch with “Crazy Heart,” which earned singer/actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar, unveiled the world premiere of his sophomore film “Out of the Furnace.” For this Virginia-born filmmaker, this movie is personal; his grandfather was a coal miner, they hunted deer together, and Cooper lost a sister very young.  

The filmmaker has chops: this hardboiled Pennsylvania Appalachia noir (a total overhaul of Brad Inglesby’s black-listed original “The Low Dweller”) is elegantly shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Grey”), with a lushly emotional score by “Winter’s Bone” composer Dickon Hinchliffe. 

The film is impeccably acted by a superb ensemble who give heartfelt, delicate performances, especially Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively. Russell is a factory welder anchored by his deep love for a young teacher (Zoe Saldana), Rodney is a troubled vet who takes his aggression into the ring for bouts of rough-and-tumble fighting. Underutilized as women often are in these male-centric dramas, Saldana is terrific. She and Bale show palpable chemistry; when circumstances conspire to push them apart, it hurts. We like these characters, and except for Woody Harrelson’s too-familiar bad-ass criminal, want them to thrive. 

While trade reviewers Scott Foundas (review here) and Todd McCarthy (here) are upbeat, and In Contention’s Kris Tapley touts Bale’s performance, this Relativity film is unlikely to break out with audiences or awards voters. First, it would need a strategically perfect release–Relativity did not take the film to fall festivals, partly to save money and also because it wanted to build buzz just ahead of going wide–after weak research previews–on December 6. Also “out of the Furnace” strikes some as a tad pretentious and lacking that special something that would lend it must-see status. During his introduction to the film, Relativity chief Ryan Cavanaugh said, “You’re going to need a drink after this movie.” 
No matter how gorgeously wrought, with a movie this unremittingly dark, with no ray of light, it has to deliver something we’ve never seen before. Cooper admits that he was heading for a realistic, violent rural family drama much like Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter.” He didn’t reach it. In fact, Denis Villeneuve gets closer to the mark with his well-reviewed kidnap drama “Prisoners,” which despite well-calibrated support from Warner Bros., has struggled at the box office. But Cooper deserves praise for aiming high. We need filmmakers to keep striving and not play it safe. (“Out of the Furnace” trailer below.)

Also at the AFI, on Friday, David O. Russell unveiled six minutes of his much-anticipated 70s dramedy “American Hustle” (our report is here). And over at the Directors Guild of America, James Cameron did the interviewing honors for friend Alfonso Cuaron after a members-only screening of “Gravity.” Cameron gave Cuaron considerable support during the four-year prep for the complex 3-D epic space adventure, which required the invention of new visual effects technology. 

At a small Warner Bros. “Gravity” awards bash Wednesday at Le Petit Marmont, Cuaron told me that he never thinks about how anything will be received when he follows whatever path on making his films. “There were some dark moments” in the making of “Gravity,” he admits. He likes to look at the long tail. While “Children of Men” met a painful box office reception based on its costs, it’s now a well-regarded part of Cuaron’s film canon. Producer David Heyman praised Warners for its unflagging support, while admitting that his “Harry Potter” track record as well as Cuaron’s turned “Gravity” into a stronger bet than it might have been otherwise. Also, studios crave the R & D that these groundbreaking movies provide for the future. The film’s co-writer Jonas Cuaron is moving on from collaborating with his Dad to write and direct his own project, “Desierto,” a Mexican border thriller with Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in Alfonso’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

Saving Mr. Banks (December 13) opened the AFI Fest Thursday night and played well for the crowd–as it did at a recent Academy screening. The question is whether this mainstream slice of Hollywood history starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as “Mary Poppins” author P.J. Travers will appeal to Academy voters the way “The Artist” did. The film spends as much time on the author’s Australian backstory, featuring Colin Firth as her father, as her 60s battle with Disney (Tom Hanks) over getting the movie made. (TOH’s review here.)  

On Friday night Disney mounted an event for an assortment of Academy members at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, as composer Richard Sherman at the piano performed his well-polished tour of the songs that led to “Mary Poppins” (written with his late partner Robert Sherman). Then he worked his way through the “Mary Poppins” songbook, including Walt Disney’s favorite “Feed the Birds,” as the crowd including Sean Penn and the film’s Bradley Whitford and Jason Schwartzman sang along with lyric sheets in hand. Emma Thompson warbled a surprise solo on “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Later, Thompson held hands with pal Penn on the way out, heading for their separate limos.

At the BAFTA Britannia Awards at the Beverly Hilton on SaturdayGeorge Clooney (still on a “Monuments Men” promo jaunt that was planned before the film was pushed back to February) had a fine time hanging with Julia Roberts and Sean Penn before finally accepting the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film from Roberts (watch video below), who ribbed him mercilessly, while also reading a statement from Meryl Streep: “George (Clooney) is universally admired and loved.” The Clooney clip reel highlights were Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron. Clooney said he doesn’t have children “but I do have a family,” referring to folks in the film community. 

The awards show was hosted by Rob Brydon, who took the stage saying, “It is a British ceremony. We do things a little differently,” and was broadcast on BBC America Sunday night. Brydon delivered hilarious impressions of Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine in “Gravity.”

British artist of year at the Britannias was Benedict Cumberbatch, who said that he felt odd getting the award after seeing the work of his presenter, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Penn presented the Britannia humanitarian award to Idris Elba for working with disadvantaged youth, saying, “Idris Elba represents an interesting dichotomy: Manly and English…Everything Idris does he does genuinely. He is a symbol of hope and belief.” Zindzi Mandela praised Elba’s performance as her father in Oscar contending “Mandela: Long Walk Home.” Elba said, “Young people need a beacon. I love my work with the Prince’s Trust. This is huge.” 

Presenting a Britannia directing achievement award to Kathryn Bigelow, “Hurt Locker” star Ralph Fiennes admitted, “teleprompters make me nervous.” He cited the director’s “tenacity, rigor, commitment…Would you please give a really big whoop when I say her name?” “Zero Dark Thirty” star Jennifer Ehle praised Bigelow for trusting actors and for her joy and enthusiasm. 

Honoree Ben Kingsley advised young actors: “Your vulnerability is your greatest strength.”

Awards-show favorite Judd Apatow described Britannia honoree Sacha Baron Cohen as “a mensch. I love him more than Sean Penn loves Idris Elba.” Apatow also compared Cohen to Jimi Hendrix: “no one can imitate him, and, who would want to?” Needless to say Cohen stole the show. You’ll have to see it for yourself. 

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