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Oscar films aim to stay relevant – Oscar-nominated directors explore issues of familial collapse, financial ruin

This photo provided by Warner Bros Pictures shows Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in ‘Creed.’ Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor on Jan 14, for his role in the film. The 88th annual Academy Awards will take place on Feb 28, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)
This photo provided by Warner Bros Pictures shows Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in ‘Creed.’ Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor on Jan 14, for his role in the film. The 88th annual Academy Awards will take place on Feb 28, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP)

LOS ANGELES, Feb 10, (RTRS): With final Oscar ballots set to go out at the end of the week, a number of this year’s best picture nominees are making their sharpest pitches for relevance in the race.

The Big Short” director Adam McKay has a trip to Washington, DC scheduled this week to screen his film again. He has been on the hustings for a while now, making headlines last month after a similar trip, in which he screened it for an approving Sen Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who said the movie “should add energy to the push for real accountability in our broken financial system.”

McKay also met with representatives of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Intl. Monetary Fund, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. From there, he took his message to HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” where he made an attempt to further broaden the film’s lessons. “It really raises the question about American culture and our 24-hour information cycle,” he said on the program. “What are we really being told about climate change, about banking, about income inequality? What do we need to know?”

Funny he should ask. A week earlier, the victorious cast of “Spotlight” stood on the SAG Awards stage, representing a film that is very much about the importance of a fourth estate and an informed populace. Star Michael Keaton took that film’s message to a broader level as well, tying it to current events like the Flint, Mich., water crisis, and intoning as he accepted the award, “This is for the disenfranchised everywhere.”

Speaking of water — an increasingly precious commodity that “The Big Short” subject Michael Burry reportedly focuses his investment time on these days — reps for “Mad Max: Fury Road” could go there if they wanted to. After all, George Miller’s opus takes place in a wasteland notable for its lack of H2O, a supply of which is lorded over by the film’s antagonist. The film also has a strong feminism angle to extol, but Warner Bros isn’t emphasizing any of that on the campaign trail.

Conscious

For those drawn to an environmentally conscious campaign message, there’s Directors Guild victor “The Revenant,” which has been swimming in that lane for a while. Star Leonardo DiCaprio spoke on the early Q&A circuit about experiencing global warming “firsthand,” with the film’s production chasing snow from Canada to South America. He also recently met with Pope Francis in Rome, a comrade for the cause, where he presented a book of artist Hieronymus Bosch’s works. DiCaprio spoke at length about one piece in particular, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which he said reflects the horrors being inflicted on the environment. (“The Revenant” tells the story of fur trappers expanding westward through early-19th century America, and the destruction they wrought.)

Not to be discounted, Fox is looking to connect “The Martian” and its inherent message of science as religion. An upcoming event on the studio’s Century City lot aims to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Aspects of other films resonate with the zeitgeist but don’t necessarily provide a framework for a campaign. During a repeat viewing of “Bridge of Spies,” for instance, a conversation James Donovan (Tom Hanks) has with his son about classroom protocol in the event of an atomic bomb blast stands out. Donovan’s felt like the words today’s parents must have with children who ask about a school shooting. There’s also a streak regarding the importance of diplomacy that runs through the film, with a line from Donovan that particularly reverberates in these combustible times: “We need to have the conversation our governments can’t.”

“Brooklyn’s” depiction of the immigrant experience also takes on an interesting shade in the wake of fear-mongering over Syrian refugees.

Everything resonates in its own way. Harnessing that essence into a message that speaks to Academy voters is one of the many chapters in the Oscar campaign book.

Wall Street, the Catholic Church, society, the government and the family. This year, the director nominees wrestled with institutions in crisis. Looked at together, the directors of “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “Room” and “Spotlight” confront where our culture is at: broken families, broken systems, broken hearts.

The financial crisis comes home In “The Big Short” when a group of savvy men bet against the banks’ subprime mortgages, and win in a Pyrrhic victory that signals a tremendous loss for Americans in general.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” reboots the franchise by transforming a race for survival into a rebellion against an exploitive totalitarian regime.

In “The Revenant,” a man’s desire to return home pits him against the cruelest elements of nature and humanity.

“Room” shows that the love between a mother and a son can survive imprisonment and find a way to heal upon liberation and the media’s glare.

And “Spotlight” presents a battle between the Catholic Church and investigative print journalism when priests abuse children under a cloak of superior-sanctioned secrecy.These institutions don’t exist in isolation, according to “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” McCarthy says. “For any of these institutional evils to exist there has to be deference and complicity, a lot of very good people allowing a crime, whether spiritual or financial.”

“The Big Short” director Adam McKay tied the subprime mortgage crisis to a larger issue that has been erupting on the presidential campaign trail.

“In the last 30 years we’ve seen unprecedented amounts of money funneled into our political process,” he says. “This has created a level of corruption which, although sometimes considered legal, is still dangerous to our democracy, our society and our economic well-being. I felt that this was a story that was important to tell so that working people could maybe have a better understanding of the problems facing us.”

While McKay plumbed recent events, George Miller’s “Fury Road” imagines a dystopian future in political crisis.

“It’s a neo-medieval time where everything is much more elemental,” Miller says. “You have, as always seemed to be the case in history, a citadel, usually high up, usually controlled by power invested in the few over the many. They control the most essential resources — in this case, water — distributed capriciously by the villain Immortan Joe, and supported by military might and coercive religious beliefs serving political interests.”

Last year’s directing Oscar winner, Alejandro G. Inarritu, looked to the past for insight into man’s relationship with nature in his frontier wilderness death match “The Revenant,” a movie that could not be more different from his Academy Award-winning “Birdman.”

“The relation that was established with nature at that time, without any consideration or acknowledgement of its finitude or fragile ecosystem, still prevails today,” he says of “The Revenant.” “The profit at any cost and the pain it inflicted in animals and societies hasn’t changed that much in today’s world even when we now have the science and knowledge to change culture, systems or habits.”

“Room” director Lenny Abrahamson shows healthy skepticism.”In any movie that deals truthfully with people’s lives there’ll be resonances of the kind you’re talking about, insights into the institutions and social structures that those lives move inside,” he says. “But these things are never my primary focus. I’m always more interested in the quality of the experience the film allows. How close it brings an audience to characters. I wanted ‘Room’ to feel like a real, tender and deep encounter with Ma and Jack. Everything we did was aimed at creating the thinnest possible membrane between the audience and these — to me, real — people. So, yes, there’s a lot about the family, about what it is to grow up in the America of today, about the way the media works, but I don’t think any of this would have the power it does if we didn’t, in some really fundamental way, believe in the people on the screen (and) believe that they have an independent life and are not ciphers being manipulated to make some point.”

These directors also addressed the current diversity crisis confronting the institution of Hollywood and how that, too, represents in microcosmic fashion various shortcomings in the world.

“Every institution is man-made and therefore prone to human error and weakness,” McCarthy says. “As a part of a big and diverse artistic Hollywood community we have to ask ourselves: What can we do to improve this situation?”

“All of the massive institutions in our country need to change faster than they are,” McKay says. “Inclusion, adaptation and truth are essential for the arts and even for business. Any institution refusing to adapt can quickly find itself irrelevant. Hollywood has always changed. Sometimes, it’s just slow. Let’s hope we see more diverse movies, diverse stories for race, gender and sexual orientation in the future.”

Oscar-nominated “Creed” star Sylvester Stallone stopped by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Tuesday night for one of the week’s many tributes and to accept the Montecito Award from friend and “Rocky” co-star Carl Weathers. When prompted about a sequel to Ryan Coogler’s fresh take on the material, however, he seemed quite reticent, perhaps concerned about diminishing returns or souring such a storybook experience.

“I really have mixed feelings about this, seriously,” he said. “I feel like Rocky, at the end of this movie on the steps, with the help of a young man, and he looks out and says, ‘From here, you can see your whole life’ — it sort of summarizes the whole thing. I don’t know how much further you can push Rocky.”

Ostensibly a career retrospective, the program still never strayed too far from the Balboa narrative, a full-circle experience for Stallone that has already put him in rare air with the nomination, but could send him into the next chapter of his career with an Academy Award for his most lasting legacy in tow.

That sense of legacy was very much on Stallone’s mind throughout the evening, as it has been all season. “I learn that as I get older you have to be really thankful for what you leave behind,” he said. “Hopefully we left something good behind.”

Attitude

Stallone said that all his life he has been drawn to the “Rocky attitude,” the philosophy of punching through, that everyone is an underdog at some point in time. And that, of course, is why the character resonated then and now. “Just when we think we have it together, something happens — it’s called life,” Stallone said.

At times appearing like a wise sage seated before a classroom of eager learners, Stallone had a number of seemingly platitudinous notions to dispense, but they felt earned, built on the back of experience. “You learn from failure.” “Success doesn’t teach you anything.” “There’s something to be said about struggle.” “Don’t be afraid to be sloppy the first time out — that doesn’t apply to architecture, but it does apply to creative endeavor.”

With that last sentiment, he was speaking of the knocks he took crafting a screenplay like “Rocky,” what it took to see it through as an actor and watch it take life in the culture and define him to this very day.

Stallone told stories of getting into it with one of the sound guys on the set of the 1976 boxing drama, who was so annoyed with the actor he took his name off the film (it was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound, sans the disgruntled individual’s credit). He espoused Norman Jewison’s attention to detail and authenticity (1978’s “F.I.S.T.”) and John Huston’s on-set storytelling (1981’s “Victory”). He spoke about viewing “First Blood” as an incarnation of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and feeling compelled to change the ending to a more hopeful one at a time when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was claiming 20,000 Vietnam vet victims a day. And he recounted finding himself on a low-altitude flight back to a Santa Monica after “anatomical freak” Dolph Lundgren punched him so hard in the chest on the set of “Rocky IV” that four nuns ended up posted at his hospital bed.

He also said he understood what Leonardo DiCaprio must have gone through while filming “The Revenant” after having his own experience with embarking on a tough production in the elements (1992’s “Cliffhanger”). He laughed remembering times in a New York pancake house, packing on pounds for “Cop Land” at a time when he was eager to sink back into drama after years in the action movie limelight. And of course, he beamed about how grateful he is to Coogler for breathing fresh life into his 40-year-old creation.

“He just had a certain sense of relatability,” he said of the 29-year-old filmmaker. “He made it fresh and made it his own. I never in my life would have done this on my own. So that’s why it’s great to take a chance and embrace your fears.”

Stallone came into this race swinging, and as the rounds tick by, it looks more and more like he’ll be the last supporting actor standing on Oscar night. But come what may on that score, on this particular night, as he sipped cognac at a modest after-party and spoke to well-wishers with a gleam in his eye and patience to spare, he looked like a guy content that indeed, he’s left something good behind.

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