‘Free State of Jones’ and 5 other quick takes

Thoughts on 'The Shallows,' 'Conjuring 2,' 'La La Land,' 'Live by Night' and 'Finding Dory'
Matthew McConaughey in 'Free State of Jones'

Hi there, remember me?  Yes, it’s been a busy off-season for your intrepid pundit, but sadly most of my time has been dedicated writing for other outlets. Sometimes you just gotta pay the bills.

In case you don’t follow me on social media, I spent the 2016 Cannes Film Festival mostly covering for Vox (Kristen Stewart on ‘Personal Shopper,’ Some thoughts on Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving,’ Nicholas Winding Refn on ‘The Neon Demon’) and composed a post-festival Oscar overview for The Playlist.  The past three months also found me interviewing over 30 different actors, actresses and showrunners for four major Emmy preview pieces for The Hollywood Reporter (Comedy Series, Actor, Actress, Drama Series).  But, the good news is that for the foreseeable future I should have more time to devote to Awards Campaign before the season kicks into high gear with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals two months from now.  Moreover, a quick catch up is in order. Let’s get into it shall we?

The strange thud of ‘Free State of Jones’
At first glance, a perfect example of a textbook ‘Oscar bait’ movie would be STX Entertainment’s’ ‘Free State of Jones’ which arrives in theaters tomorrow.  Directed by four-time Oscar nominee Gary Ross (who also wrote the screenplay), ‘Jones’ stars recent Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey and critically acclaimed actress Gugu Mbatha-Ra.  The prestige player is based on the true story of Newton Knight, a Mississippian who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War and led a band of former Confederates who took control of a number of southern Mississippi counties. After the war, Knight married a former slave, aided the Union in reconstruction and led a regiment that battled an aggressive Klu Klux Klan.  If that sounds like a lot to cover for one movie it absolutely is. ‘Free State’ is almost 2 hours and 20 min long and after a compelling first hour it begins to feel closer to three.  There are positives to point out.  McConaughey, Mbatha-Ra and the rest of the ensemble deliver fine performances.  Ross’ gritty direction is light years away from the commercial polish of ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Pleasantville.’ The production design, costumes and below-the-line contributions are impressive.  Unfortunately, Ross could not figure out a way to adequately end Knight’s story.  There are heartbreaking moments to convey (notably how freed slaves were almost immediately denied their new rights by former Confederates allowed back into the Union), but the last third of the picture is one exposition title card of historical facts after another and it all ends with a collective thud.  Perhaps this would have been a tale more suited for a mini-series, but despite everyone’s best intentions it’s a compilation of strong moments that simply can’t coalesce into a complete narrative.  It’s actually no surprise STX is releasing ‘Jones’ in summer. If the picture had been unleashed during awards season critics would have eviscerated it.  Now, it can just fade away. Grade: C+

Quick review: ‘The Shallows’
No film may have gotten a bigger pass from consumer movie critics so far this summer than ‘The Shallows’ (don’t worry ‘The BFG’ is right around the corner). The Sony Pictures release finds Blake Lively – proudly displaying her butt cheeks for those who care – as a medical student who has journeyed to a remote Mexican beach her now deceased mother had adored.  Before she knows it, Lively’s character has been attacked by a great white shark and is fighting for her life stranded on a pile of rocks barely jetting above the ocean.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra gets an assist from longtime collaborator and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano who fashions some truly beautiful imagery from the Australian coast where the movie was shot. What Collet-Serra can’t do is bring any real style or tension to the proceedings.  ‘The Shallows’ has a very simple storyline and Lively deserves credit for keeping your attention over what could be a slow 84-minute escape exercise.  Collet-Serra doesn’t help matters by integrating some cringeworthy interactive graphics that convey Instagram, text and facetime conversations or an original score that sounds like it was intended for a more conventional thriller that might have hit your local cinemaplex a decade ago.  The worst part about ‘The Shallows’ is that by the end Collet-Serra has created so little tension you don’t even care what happens. But, sure, Blake sure is pretty.  Grade: C+

Who else didn’t cry during ‘Finding Dory’?
Listen, it goes without saying that Pixar and Disney’s ‘Finding Dory’ will be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award. The animated sequel has earned a mammoth $134 million and the reviews have been just…fine (77 on Metacritic, 94% on Rotten Tomatoes).  But, while the original ‘Finding Nemo’ was an epic tearjerker and uniformly recognized cinema classic, for many the second installment isn’t getting the same reaction.  Make no mistake ‘Dory’ has a shot at become Pixar’s only $1 billion global release besides ‘Toy Story 3.’  Audiences enjoy it immensely, but it seems to play more like a greatest hits flick than a truly original tale.  Will this open the door for Disney Animation’s ‘Zootopia’ to steal the crown?  It may only be June, but get ready for a Pixar vs. Disney battle at the Oscars eight months from now.

‘La La Land’ opens Venice but still releasing in December
Excuse me while I raise an eyebrow for a minute, but what exactly is Lionsgate doing with ‘La La Land’?  Damien Chazelle’s follow up to his Oscar-winning breakout ‘Whiplash’ was recently announced as the opening night film of this year’s Venice Film Festival that will once again begin at the end of August.  Quizzically, the studio has decided to keep ‘La La Land’s’ domestic release on Dec. 2, 2012, over three months later.  That’s a typically dead weekend that may be fine for a NY/LA bow, but if you are confident enough to let your picture screen at one of the world’s great film festivals in the summer, why would you not open it earlier so it actually has a shot at winning Best Picture?  A film released in Dec. hasn’t taken the top prize since ‘Million Dollar Baby’ eleven years ago.  There have been a number of contenders who tried to break that trend and still failed (‘American Hustle,’ ‘The Revenant’).  If that’s the case, why jump into an expensive awards season with one arm tied behind your back?  Lionsgate still has time to move ‘La La’s’ limited release date to Oct or Nov, but it’s a headscratcher for sure.

‘Live By Night’ makes an Oscar play…maybe
Despite what they insist, Warner Bros.’ 2016 awards season went in a different direction than they expected.  ‘Black Mass’ was a bust; partner MGM came in too late behind ‘Creed’ and ‘Mad Max’ actually resonated with the Academy.  2017 is another intriguing year for the studio. Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks’ ‘Sully’ arrives questionably early on Sept. 9 (indicating a TIFF berth), Gavin O’Connor’s ‘The Accountant’ seems like a wildcard and David Frankel’s ‘Collateral Beauty’ could be a late season player or not.  Now, Ben Affleck’s follow up to ‘Argo,’ ‘Live by Night,’ has moved up from Oct. 2017 to Jan. 13, 2017. That puts it in a perfect window for a limited and Oscar-qualifying Christmas debut before expanding the weekend of the Golden Globes.  It’s curious because Affleck stars in both ‘Night’ and ‘The Accountant’ and could effectively be competing against himself in the Best Actor category.   A limited bow has not been confirmed, but it’s hard to see ‘Night’ doing very well against ‘Monster Trucks,’ another ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ (another potential late Oscar player) without critical acclaim, awards kudos and Globe nods.  Clearly, something to take note of as the season takes shape over the next few months.

Conjuring 2 should be a bigger hit…shouldn’t it?
After opening to $40.4 million James Wan’s positively reviewed “Conjuring 2” dropped 63% in its second weekend.  By Tuesday, the horror thriller had grossed just $75.6 million in the U.S. This was somewhat surprising considering the film earned an A- Cinemascore and grossed almost the same figure the original “Conjuring” opened to.  Instead, 12 days into its release “Conjuring 2” is now $14 million behind its predecessor.  Why the big fall?  Warner Bros. probably doesn’t want to admit it, but opening the Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart comedy “Central Intelligence” the week after wasn’t the smartest move. It might seem that each picture was positioned for different audiences, but with “Finding Dory’s” blockbuster weekend sucking up a ton of business (as previously mentioned) there was only room for other major player and the newcomer took the bait. In hindsight “Central Intelligence” could have debuted in July and still done substantial receipts while not cutting into its sister release.  That being said “Conjuring 2” should eventually slide past $100 million (if not barely) and earn at least that overseas.  Still, considering how tough a year it’s been for WB overall the idea they left extra cash on the table should not sit well with the power brokers in Burbank.

Karlovy Vary is next
Look for an Oscar update for the first half of the year next week, but beginning July 1 I’ll be covering the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for The Playlist. Follow me on twitter for updates.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.