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Things I Learned on the Awards Circuit, from Costner, Aniston & Chastain to Streep in ‘Into the Woods’ (Q & A VIDEO)

Things I Learned on the Awards Circuit, from Costner, Aniston & Chastain to Streep in 'Into the Woods' (Q & A VIDEO)

Sometimes the media join the scene. Who could resist an invite to ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan’s Malibu manse (complete with Impressionist paintings), adjacent to Steven Spielberg’s, right on the Pacific Ocean? It turns out he’s pals with Rory Kennedy, who also lives in Malibu, and was happy to give her excellent “Last Days in Vietnam” a boost, just as the doc branch was heading for the November 21 deadline for submitting their tallies for the shortlist of fifteen, which the Academy will reveal on December 2 or 3. 

Monday brought a lunch party at Spago in Beverly Hills for Interstellar,” hosted by Paramount chief Brad Grey, who chatted up director Christopher Nolan, who has been hands-on throughout the process of releasing “Interstellar” at a studio that does not market films in the same way as did his long-time home studio Warner Bros. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain also turned on their charms for the voters on hand. Chastain said she had a blast sitting next to Academy member Martin Landau. 

That night was the LA premiere of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I,” with a rooftop LA Live party on a grand scale. The debate: maybe Lionsgate would make money splitting up the finale into two   movies (as did “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”), but was it really successful as a movie? The answer, as anyone who has read the books knows, is that our heroine Katniss Everdeen (well-played by Jennifer Lawrence) is bummed and depressed as her chum Peta (Josh Hutcherson) is a pawn of President Snow at the Capitol, and the rebel chief (Julianne Moore) wants to use her as a propaganda tool for the insurgency. There’s a lot of exposition and repetition and little action.

The big guns–and Lionsgate and the filmmakers debated how to break up the two sections–are saved for Part 2. The word on this is clearly out, as the movie opened behind “Catching Fire.” I had fun at the party talking to Lionsgate execs Rob Friedman, Patrick Wachsberger, and Erik Feig, producers Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik, as well as Joss Whedon, who is escaping from the rigors of Marvel’s latest “The Avengers.” He admitted to me that no one at Warners ever told him what was wrong with his “Wonder Woman” script. Sigh.

On Wednesday, Kevin Costner and his “The Upside of Anger” writer-director Mike Binder dropped by Sneak Previews with crowdpleaser Black or White,” an indie that debuted in Toronto (to mixed reviews) that gives Costner a juicy role as the grandfather of a biracial girl torn between two households, one black, one white. Relativity is releasing it on December 3.  When the studios passed, Costner paid for the topical film himself –based on Binder’s own experience with a biracial family member–recognizing the kind of timely family drama that just doesn’t get made these days. Octavia Spencer holds her own with him as the girls’ powerful grandmother. This is one of those ‘tweeners that plays for adult audiences but is neither art film nor home run awards contender. 

Similarly,  executive producer Jennifer Aniston goes for broke in indie labor of love “Cake,” going to the makeup-free dramatic side as the scarred survivor of a deadly car crash who is struggling with grief, chronic pain and drug addiction after losing her child. Angry and self-destructive, she relies on her doting housekeeper (“Babel” Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza), after pushing away her loving husband (Chris Messina), and finds herself oddly drawn to the widower (Sam Worthington) of a woman in her support group who has committed suicide (Anna Kendrick), and keeps haunting her hallucinations.

Again, Aniston, who introduced the film Friday night at the Sunset Cinemas, is excellent, but the movie is unlikely to crack the Oscar barrier–with ten Actress slots, a Golden Globes nomination is a stronger possibility. And Aniston gets to show her mettle for later consideration for dramatic roles. 

On my way to retrieve my car at the DGA, I ran into “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller and Brad Pitt, who is back in town after filming wife Angelina Jolie’s third feature “By the Sea” and rejoining the awards fray as the producer of “Selma” and star of “Fury.” At the Sunset Tower Hotel “Cake” party, Aniston and her director Daniel Barnz (“Won’t Back Down”) hobnobbed with guests Ellen Page, who is also adding producer to her skill set, screenwriter Kiwi Smith (“Legally Blonde”), and press agents Lisa Taback and Stephen Huvane, who also reps Julianne Moore.

Every year, there are blink moments–when you see something and KNOW that this is the year, the moment, the time for a given performer. This year, it’s Moore, playing an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice.” She leads the race for Best Actress (my predictions here). 

And yet again, Meryl Streep is looking good for her 19th nomination and possible fourth Oscar win for the Stephen Sondheim deluxe musical Into the Woods.” Press and Academy members piled into the first screenings of the film in New York and Burbank and a live Q &A (well-moderated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez; highlights here, full video below), during which Streep looked really happy. That’s because the movie directed by ex-Broadway director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Nine”), which juggles many familiar fairy tale figures in one philosophical musical, is hugely entertaining, never more than when Streep is on-screen as the Witch.  

The films starts out strong with the “I Wish” medley cross-cutting between all the characters as they express their desires and reasons for entering The Woods (or the big bad scary world). The screening room applauded after that first number, and for Streep. While James Corden and Emily Blunt are winning as the central characters of baker and wife who desperately want a child, and Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine bring welcome humor to Cinderella and Prince Charming, the movie often feels rushed. Some sections work better than others (Johnny “Sweeney Todd” Depp is terrific in one number as The Wolf), some songs carry the narrative along while others run too long or bring it to a halt, and the last third of the film drags to its conclusion.

But this enjoyable picture will play to fans of Sondheim and musicals. It’s a strong Christmas box office player for family and adult audiences alike. Is it “Les Mis?” Even if Daniel “Gavroche” Huddlestone is in the cast as Jack of beanstalk fame, that’s beyond Disney’s wildest dreams, at $442 worldwide. And “Into the Woods” will have to do better than “Sweeney Todd” ($153 million worldwide), to make back its global negative & marketing costs. (Ex-Disney motion picture chief Rich Ross budgeted the film, which shot at a London soundstage for six months, at $50 million, but it looks far more expensive.) 

In all likelihood, the musical will get recognized by the Academy not only for Streep but its delicious costumes, hair and makeup and production design. Alas, this functions as a musical revival on some level; there’s no new original song. The one written for the show by Sondheim and James Lapine didn’t work and was excised; the lushly scored and edited Sondheim stage material isn’t eligible as original. 

Onward. Next week: “Big Eyes” and “Unbroken.”

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