From com­mer­cial prospects to Academy Awards, noth­ing is for sure in Hol­ly­wood – but you’d bet­ter plan for it any­way, writes Michael Dwyer

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM2006 -

FROM the awards sea­son in early spring through the bat­tle of the block­busters at the sum­mer box-of­fice, 2006 was an­other year of win­ners and losers, yield­ing more than a few sur­prises that de­fied con­ven­tional wis­dom. The first came as the most bor­ing Os­cars show in years crawled to an end. Jack Ni­chol­son opened the Best Pic­ture en­ve­lope and seemed so sur­prised that he had to look again be­fore declar­ing that the most cov­eted Academy Award was go­ing to Crash.

With that sin­gle word, Ni­chol­son sent shock­waves through the au­di­to­rium and around the world. This was the big­gest Os­car up­set in decades. And, for the sec­ond year in a row, the most hotly fan­cied film fell at the fi­nal hur­dle, as Broke­back Moun­tain fi­nally lost the mo­men­tum it had built on the awards cir­cuit.

Last year Martin Scors­ese’s The Avi­a­tor suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate, en­ter­ing the cer­e­mony as front-run­ner and los­ing out to Clint East­wood’s Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby, which was scripted by Crash di­rec­tor Paul Hag­gis. The cru­cial dif­fer­ence is that East­wood’s film was far more de­serv­ing of the ma­jor award than The Avi­a­tor, whereas Crash, for all its mer­its, can­not com­pare with Broke­back Moun­tain as a film-mak­ing achieve­ment.

The be­gin­ning of May marked the tra­di­tional start of the block­buster sea­son, and first into the fray was the ex­pen­sive, ef­fects-laden Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble III, car­ry­ing high com­mer­cial ex­pec­ta­tions that were dashed by the end of its open­ing week­end. The spe­cial ef­fects served the nar­ra­tive, rather than the other way round, and the ac­tion set-pieces were spec­tac­u­lar, or­ches­trated with cin­e­matic flair and ex­em­plary stunt work.

The prob­lem was per­ceived to be the star, Tom Cruise, whose long-held sta­tus as Hol­ly­wood’s golden boy was tar­nished overnight. It was all about im­age, and the con­sen­sus was that sev­eral mis­steps – his ex­ces­sive dec­la­ra­tions of love for Katie Holmes, his at­tacks on Brooke Shields for us­ing anti-de­pres­sants to deal with post-na­tal de­pres­sion – alien­ated a sub­stan­tial share of his au­di­ence: women. Cruise and Shields later made up, and she even at­tended his highly pub­li­cised wed­ding to Holmes in Italy last month. But the pow­er­ful owner of Paramount Pic­tures, Sum­ner Red­stone – prompted by his wife, he said – sev­ered the stu­dio’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Cruise in Au­gust.

The ac­tor who re­placed Cruise at the top of the box-of­fice pile was Johnny Depp – an out­come that would have been un­think­able a few years ago, when Depp was a stal­wart of edgy, off­beat pro­duc­tions. His amus­ingly man­nered por­trayal of Cap­tain Jack Spar­row pro- pelled Pi­rates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest into the com­mer­cial strato­sphere, eclips­ing ev­ery other movie re­leased here and around the­world in 2006. Most crit­ics, how­ever, failed to share the en­thu­si­asm of au­di­ences for what was rated as an un­wisely over-ex­tended yarn that sank when­ever Depp was off screen.

The chasm be­tween au­di­ences and crit­ics had come into sharp fo­cus a few weeks ear­lier, when Ron Howard’s movie of The Da Vinci Code was lam­basted in the me­dia and cleaned up at the box-of­fice, rid­ing on the coat-tails of Dan Brown’s mega-seller novel.

Some dis­trib­u­tors bit the bul­let and opened movies with­out ad­vance press screen­ings, which paid off for a few genre fran­chises such as Saw 3. The early in­ter­net buzz sur­round­ing Snakes on a Plane con­vinced its dis­trib­u­tors that web­site hype was a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to cur­mud­geonly crit­ics, but the movie’s in­dif­fer­ent box-of­fice re­sults told a dif­fer­ent story. And the most un­sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter in M Night Shya­malan’s ris­i­bly self-in­dul­gent folly, Lady in the Wa­ter, was a sniffy film critic who came to a sorry end, just like the movie it­self when it opened and quickly closed.

The cho­rus of dis­ap­proval over The Da Vinci Code echoed around the world within hours of its world pre­miere at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, over­shad­ow­ing, at least for a few days, many far su­pe­rior movies show­ing in com­peti- tion. When it came to awards night in Cannes, there was an­other big sur­prise.

Pe­dro Alo­mod­ó­var was the hot favourite to take his first Palme d’Or for the widely ad­mired Volver, but the jury opted to give its most pres­ti­gious prize to Ken Loach for his Ir­ish Civil War drama, The Wind That Shakes the Bar­ley, shot en­tirely in Co Cork with a pre­dom­i­nantly Ir­ish cast and crew.

“This is ex­tra­or­di­nary,” Loach told The Ir­ish Times af­ter he ac­cepted the award. “I hope Ire­land feels it’s their film. It is their film.” The Ir­ish au­di­ence agreed, turn­ing out in such num­bers to see it that only Pi­rates of the Caribbean 2 kept Loach’s film off the top of the Ir­ish box-of­fice chart for the first 11 months of the year. Only Casino Royale (fea­tur­ing an­other of the year’s sur­prise win­ners, Daniel Craig, lay­ing firm claim to the 007 role) has any prospect of dis­lodg­ing it be­fore the end of the year.

Apart from Neil Jor­dan’s ad­ven­tur­ous Break­fast on Pluto, which en­joyed a suc­cess­ful Ir­ish re­lease in Jan­uary, it was a dis­ap­point­ing year for Ir­ish pro­duc­tions on home turf. John Boor­man’s The Tiger’s Tail and David Glee­son’s The Front Line, top­i­cal con­tem­po­rary pic­tures that re­ceived more favourable re­views in the in­ter­na­tional film trade pa­pers than in the Ir­ish me­dia, fell well short of ex­pec­ta­tions at the Ir­ish box-of­fice, as did Paul Mercier’s Studs, and cin­ema ad­mis­sions for Brian Kirk’s Mid­dle­town, Billy O’Brien’s Iso­la­tion and An-

Sur­prise pack­age: Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine

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