A couple of the great unknowns of Oscar season 2011 aren't so unknown anymore.
Over the last couple of weeks, Jason Reitman's "Young Adult," his first film since the multiple Oscar nominee "Up in the Air," has been holding surprise screenings around North America, unveiling his reportedly dark and funny film away from the glare of major film festivals.
And Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" adopted a similar tactic this week, with a string of preview screenings away from urban centers or dens of critics.
For both films, the early reaction has for the most part been positive – though questions about whether "Young Adult" is too dark or "War Horse" too schmaltzy for the Academy certainly remain unresolved.
"Young Adult," which was written by Reitman's "Juno" collaborator Diabo Cody, hit the stealth screening circuit first, with what the director dubs"pop-up screenings" taking place in Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, Austin, San Francisco and, on Tuesday, Los Angeles.
At TheWrap, Sharon Waxman called it dark, smart, accomplished and hard to categorize: "[it] could be a black comedy, but then again could be an outright tragedy merely punctuated with moments of hilarity."
And other reactions essentially concurred: Reitman's tale of an author who returns to her hometown in an attempt to win back her (now married) high school sweetheart is very good, but very challenging, particularly for those who might be expecting the friendlier likes of "Up in the Air" or "Juno."
Kris Tapley at In Contention called it "an uncompromising dark comedy" and "an unflinching piece of work committed to following its lead character on a downward path, eschewing a narrative of redemption and never conceding any ground." He also predicted Oscar nominations for Charlize Theron (Best Actress) and Patton Oswalt (Best Supporting Actor).
At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells said he "admired the hell out of it" and summed it up thusly: "it's very ballsy, very well written, very uncompromising, very brazen -- a leap forward for Reitman and Cody both."
"War Horse," meanwhile, had a string of preview screenings this week: on Tuesday it showed in Bellevue, Washington; Leawood, Kansas; and Cleveland Heights, Ohio; an on Wednesday in Beaverton, Oregon; Bethesda, Maryland; and Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania; and on Thursday in Olathe, Kansas
The out-of-town strategy suggests that the film is a crowd-pleaser and the studio wants to build word-of-mouth among moviegoers, not critics; most of the latter camp won't get the chance to weigh in until the end of the month, when DreamWorks will begin aggressively screening the film for the press. (Folks like the New York Film Critics Circle, who vote for their annual awards on November 28, will get an earlier look.)
The word out of those early screenings was for the most part positive, not surprisingly for a Steven Spielberg film holding its sneaks in places that don't usually get advance looks at Spielberg movies.
One full review came on Ain't It Cool News, a site always ready to write full reviews of sneaks and test screenings. Nordling's verdict on the film, which is based on Michael Morpurgo's book and Nick Stafford's Tony-winning stage adaptation about the bond between a young man and his horse during World War I: "David Selznick would have adored 'War Horse.'" He meant that as a compliment to a movie that, he concluded, was "magnificent."
An anonymous review on Movievu went even further, giving the film a rating of "Masterpiece" and calling it "a model of cinema done right and – even more importantly – the epitome of Spieberg done right."
The writer, who took to several blots and message board to link to his review, placed it second to "Schindler's List" and detailed its qualities: "genuine in its emotion, unflinching in its reality, epic in its grandiose, effective in its performances, and imaginative in its storytelling."
On Twitter, post-screening comments ranged from "truly exceptional" and "simply stunning" to "nothing more than manipulative and predictable Oscar bait" and "absolutely no shot at winning anything."
In other words: nobody really knows. But some of the season's biggest unknowns are finally out there – and "Hugo," "J. Edgar" and "The Adventures of Tintin" are right on their heels, leaving only a couple of great unknowns left to be uncovered.
Hey, isn't it time for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" to sneak in Pacoima or somewhere?