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« Oscar Horrors: The Sixth Sense (1999) | Main | Instagram Battles: Where and With Whom? »
Saturday
Oct222016

Middleburg Day 2: The Salesman, Manchester by the Sea, Women in Hollywood

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 Salesman
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.

Grade: A-/B+
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.

Grade:  B
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?"

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Reader Comments (13)

So sad that two of my festival faves - Nocturnal Animals and Manchester - you didn't like as much. Loved La La Land, Moonlight and Lion though so there's solace in that. ; )

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

I recently moved to DC and hadn't heard of this festival. I'll have to check it out next year.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Honestly, to counter the producer of Lion's thoughts, there are barely any positive notes about the Australian film industry because there barely is an industry. There are about 20 films a year made and we are lucky if one is good. Last year was an astounding year with Mad Max and The Dressmaker, the latter of which isn't even that great.

Barely any films with remotely challenging stories can be made in Australia, unless they are American funded stories being mad her. Australia has incredible talent but zero facilities. So please don't think our industry is doing amazing things and truly caring about diversity because it honestly does not.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Oh I actually like The Past, Nat, and Berenice is marvelous in that one. The thing about Farhadi is that he can make even the most mundane daily things full off suspense. Amazing really.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I've been looking forward to Manchester by the Sea for months. I hope I'm not disappointed like you were. At least it doesn't sound like a Little Children-level disappointment: AMAZING trailer, hear good hype, wait months on end for its release, then face the fact that it's just a boring suburban flick.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

"I've been looking forward to Manchester by the Sea for months.."

That could be the problem. It can always be hard to beat the hype-machine and that can totally skew your thoughts on something during your first watch. That is why it is always good to give something that has a lot of hype or you've read a alot about before release a second chance/watch to really solidify your opinion.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

BVR, fwiw, I've seen it twice now and I think it's amazing. Some scenes are so searingly well acted and the it's smart about the way grief works. It's also kinda funny at times.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

BVR is wrong. We have a film industry here, it's just a small one (and comparing it to the size of industries from countries like USA or India is the reason why people like BVR are so down on ours).

And whilst it's true that last year wasn't the best year for Aussie films (every country has fallow years), this year has more than made up for it, with an underseen masterpiece called EARLY WINTER and more widely seen good films like CHASING ASYLUM, A MONTH OF SUNDAYS, GIRL ASLEEP, GOLDSTONE, LOOKING FOR GRACE, PAWNO, SCARE CAMPAIGN and TANNA. My experience tells me that BVR will complain still because none of those are big-budget genre films, but he's got to realise that we are not the country that makes those en masse, never have been, and probably never will be.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

Apologies, the above comment was directed towards Andrew, not BVR.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

huh: That was the problem with LITTLE CHILDREN, as I mentioned before. I built it up for months in my head only to be disappointed. However, there are other movies that I anticipated for a long time and that ended up living to their hype, so we'll see.

Arkaan: Glad to hear another rave on the movie's behalf! I just got worried since I tend to have similar tastes to Nathaniel's, but it's perfectly possible that I might still love it. I'm especially looking forward to being impressed by that cast, but I'll try to go in as neutral as possible into the movie.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

"distributors there really care about the adult female audience since they're the biggest moviegoers. "

THat's certainly true. I think LADY IN THE VAN made more here with a population of 24mil than it did in America.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

When I see the lists of nominees for the Australian Film Awards, I always think I want to see all of these! These look fascinating! Why can't the Oscars be more like this?

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteradri

This is a film festival I have never heard of. But as a citizen of the Dutch city Middelburg, it's nice to know there is a Middleburg Film Festival.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

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