by Nathaniel R
On the first full day at the Middleburg Film Festival after that cathartic teary opening with Lion, I attempted to schedule a horseback ride for the full Middleburg experience. The town is known for its rich horses & hunting history and you can see horses and foxes in sculpture form and in signs and logos in the charming little town. Rain got in the way of a ride but all was not lost since a beautiful black and white cat named Callisto greeted me inside the stable at practically a full gallop and began rubbing up all over me. Dear reader, I can assure you that her love was requited! She was 21 years old but super friendly, spry and playful so the country life has obviously been kind to her. One can assume the horses also love her as she hasn't been stepped on.
So back to the movies I went, a perfect activity for rainy days even when you aren't at a film festival.
The Oscar winning A Separation (2011), masterpiece that it was, was always going to be a very tough act to follow for writer/director Asghar Farhadi. But after an overworked misstep with his plotty French language film The Past (2013), the auteur returns with dramatic force in this year's Iranian Oscar submission. Despite the title and a stage production of Death of a Salesman within the narrative, it is not an adaptation of Arthur Miller's play as I had previously incorrectly assumed. (In fact, unless I don't know Death of a Salesman well enough -- which is quite possible -- it could have been any play as backdrop) The story revolves around married actors (Farhadi favorites Taraneh Alidoosti from About Elly and Shahab Hosseini from A Separation) who are staging a censored production after being forced to move quickly from their long time home in the film's very first disorienting scene, perfectly punctuated by a tiny window crack and the opening credits. Once relocated to a less than ideal rental, tragedy strikes. The slow simmer of the plot leads to a gripping final act (that keeps threatening to go off the rails but never does). It's almost too tense to bear but Farhadi is a gifted storyteller, particularly with beginnings and endings. The dialogue free coda backstage at the play is just sublime.
Oscar Chances: Yes. The film won Best Actor for Hosseini and Best Screenplay for Farhadi at Cannes and it's a strong contender for the finalist list this year in Foreign Film.
Manchester by the Sea
This will sound so insane but bear with me - after having seen so many films in the past month or so that have lived up to or exceeded their hype, and having a top ten list that's currently about 21 movies long it was something of a relief to see something good that didn't bowl me over. Proof that I haven't lost all critical faculties and won't just love every movie in front of my eyes. Jason already reviewed Manchester for us (and loved it) and Murtada sang the praises of Michelle Williams (who plays both against and to type here in engaging ways though her role is quite brief with a handful of very short scenes). I'll just say that though the film is well acted and beautifully photographed in non-showy ways (it really captures the crisp brightness of wintry New England) it never quite soared for me but flew low and steady at one level throughout. Perhaps it was the stoic masculinity. All the characters need a good jagged cry and group therapy but nobody is willing to actually talk about their feelings. A subplot about Patrick's alcoholic mother (Gretchen Moll) never quite gells and the movie was just a whiff too Scripted and Acted (for me) to transcend the simple goals. But all in all it's a solid drama about grieving men and private hells that you have to move on from or drown.
Oscar Chances: Yes. In all categories but particularly for Actor (Casey Affleck), Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), Picture, and Screenplay. I seem to be in the minority on this one so all the major nominations could happen. A lot of people are pulling for Lucas Hedges in Supporting Actor. He's quite good, particularly in a beautifully specific panic attack sequence, but Oscar has historically been very reluctant to nominate teenage boys for acting.
P.S. Between movies on day two I also caught the last half of a panel on Women in Hollywood, a discussion of how to achieve more gender parity in the industry (AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs will talk about diversity initiatives in a keynote address on Day 3). I coincidentally sat next to Priyanka Bose (who I almost didn't recognize despite having watched her on screen in Lion the night before; poor illiterate labourer on the screen, sophisticated and glamorous in person!). Much to my surprise having just written about the infamous Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), actress/producer Bo Derek herself was on the panel! To make the time travel of seeing Bo Derek in the flesh even more impactful another early 80s star, supermodel Beverly Johnson, was also in the room (not on the panel). During the audience participation portion of the event, Johnson shared her efforts about the difficulty in getting her biography made into a movie despite best seller status and plenty of drama. Also on the panel was the producer of Lion Angie Felder who described the advantages of government subsidies for film but also shared her another advantage in Australia -- distributors there really care about the adult female audience since they're the biggest moviegoers. Other panelists: the Washington Post's Kristen Page-Kirby, Lauren Versel (Producer, Custody, The Last Five Years), Cassian Elwes (Producer, Dallas Buyers Club) and Shanice Johnson (who had recently won a student directing award).
The panel seemed to agree that in addition to supporting emerging talent, and speaking out more in industry meetings and on social media (which has helped force Hollywood into recognizing their diversity problems) we need more regulation to move things along. There are many tax incentives from state to state and government to government in filming movies in various locations and they usually come with some provisos like hiring a percentages of local talent. On that why not "this percentage of your staff has to be female or POC?"