For Palisadian Kenneth Turan, who works fulltime watching an overwhelming number of movies produced every year and writing about them, the Oscar contest is always an exciting crescendo. But less so this year, the Los Angeles Times film critic told Optimist Club members Tuesday morning. “I wish I was coming here in a more exciting year,” said Turan, who took over the prognosticator’s role once filled by retired Times critic Charles Champlin. Speaking of his Times colleague, Turan was humbled. “It means a lot to me to follow Chuck Champlin; he is a great gentleman in the reviewing business.” Back to the contest, Turan said that the projected Oscar winners on February 29 have been uniformly agreed upon, although he did hold out the possibility that there will be some surprises. “The Academy is just like the Optimist Club, except bigger. What is a good film is a matter of individual taste. Nobody picks the best film, they pick what they like.” Characterizing his critical remarks as probably pretty close to what everyone is saying, Turan offered his list of winners, leading off with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” as the Best Picture. “There really isn’t another film that has this much enthusiastic support,” he said. “Brian Helgeland’s ‘Mystic River’ is good, but it’s running against a trilogy. ‘Lord of the Rings’ has been nominated three times before and there’s a feeling that the Academy would be remiss if they didn’t pick this film. The Tolkien adaptation was an idea that nobody wanted to make, Turan explained. All the studios turned it down, no doubt daunted by the prospect of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into something that might have been a flop. Turan also gave the nod to director Peter Jackson for taking on just such a challenge, which required shooting three films simultaneously and at several different locations. He also credited Jackson for not only engaging the audience with technological wizardry, but also eliciting good acting. In the Best Actor and Actress categories, Turan narrowed the field to two-person races. While he predicts that Sean Penn will win for “Mystic River,” he agreed that Bill Murray’s laconic performance in “Lost In Translation” probably was the best role of his career. “It’s possible he will win, but the Academy mostly goes for serious performances,” Turan said, referring to the powerful role Penn enacted in “Mystic River.” “Sean has been nominated four times, including for ‘I Am Sam.’ If you’re nominated for ‘I Am Sam,’ you’ll win for “Mystic River.” If Turan’s serious role theory pans out, Charlize Theron, who makes an incredible transformation into the hooker who takes grisly vengeance on men in “Monster” will win the Oscar for Best Actress. He noted that the Academy voters also like the “stunt aspect of casting, people playing against type.” Theron, a beautiful woman, gained a lot of weight, put on false teeth and blotched up her face to play the role. The dark horse for Best Actress could be Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give,” if the Academy members want to acknowledge a good performance but also to honor older actresses doing good work. In the supporting categories, Turan puts his money on Tim Robbins in “Mystic River” and Renee Zellweger in “Cold Mountain.” In discussing the Best Original Screenplay, Turan once again predicted that “Lord of the Rings” would win. “The question is, is there ‘Hobbit’ fatigue or will they want there to be a [‘Lord of the Ring’] sweep? Often the Academy will give each nominated film for Best Picture an Oscar in another category so that the picture finds a place to win.” For Best Original Screenplay, Turan saw the contest as coming down to second-generation filmmakers: Sofia Coppola (daughter of Frances Ford Coppola) for “Lost in Translation” and Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In The Name of the Father”) and his daughters Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan for “In America.” Who makes up this amorphous Academy? one Optimist wondered. The Academy has about 5,000 members, including about 1,000 actors and an average of 300 in the other categories, such as writers, directors, art directors and cinematographers. Each branch nominates the films in their category, but the entire Academy, including executives and publicists, votes on all the categories. Conscientious Academy members will watch all the films nominated, said Turan-a daunting task at best, and impossible if the Motion Picture Association of America had barred the use of tapes as they had threatened to do to minimize piracy. But Turan endorsed the use of tapes enthusiastically, explaining that the nature of the Academy changed when tapes came in and gave small pictures a good shot. Citing Newmarket Films’ “Whale Rider,” which garnered a Best Actress nomination for star Keisha Castle-Hughes, Turan said that Newmarket sent out a lot of tapes early. “Smaller companies count on these tapes, it’s life or death for small films.” Another Academy rule change propelled Brazil’s “City of God” onto the radar screen with four nominations, including Best Achievement in Directing for Fernando Meirelles. This film was nominated because any foreign film that had not been nominated for Best Foreign Film the year before and opened in theaters the following year was eligible for consideration in any category. “These four nominations show the adventuresomeness of the Academy,” Turan said. Having reviewed for the Times for the last 12 years, Turan says that he does not worry about being pressured to write a favorable or unfavorable review. “Films have a life and death of their own, regardless of critics,” he said. “You have to do what you feel.” The relationship between box-office success and quality films boils down to the audience. “The reality of today’s movie business is that younger people, under 25, go to the movies once a week. It’s a small population, but most of the young people who go to the movies like them. Films are expensive, $60 to $120 million, and tens of millions of dollars are spent on advertising. Therefore, they dumb down the movies, and worry about anything that will turn people off.” Turan advised the Optimist audience to go to more movies, pick carefully and read reviews.
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