Saturday, February 25, 2017

Theeb (2014)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film - Jordan

David Mackenzie’s exceptional Hell or High Water has received a great deal of praise for revitalizing the western, but with all due respect to this worthy entry into the genre’s pantheon, the film was a just a little late to earn this distinction. Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is in some ways an unconventional western, replacing the American Southwest with the Wadi Rum and Stetsons with head scarves, but in all of the ways that count it is very much in the tradition of the best of the genre. More importantly, it is a beautiful and thrilling film with elegant performances and keen direction.

The film centers on young Theeb (Jacir Did Al-Hwietat), a Bedouin child recently orphaned who finds himself alone in the Wadi Rum during World War I. Theeb is forced to partner reluctantly with his enemy in order to survive as the aftereffects of the Great Arab Revolt surround them.  

All of the conventions of the western genre are here - some in perhaps slightly altered forms - yet in the context of the story and location these conventions feel entirely new. The remarkable cast is made up almost exclusively of non-professional actors, and Naji Abu Nowar hit the jackpot in finding his star, a young man with a strong presence and deeply soulful eyes who gives an honest and compelling performance. He is surrounded by an equally talented cast, and the performance of these untrained individuals speaks to the director’s talents.

Of course, any film set in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I and filmed in Jordan lives in the shadow of Lawrence of Arabia. Theeb can be thought of as a worthy companion piece, but it also very much stands on its own. In recent years several talented filmmakers have attempted to reenergize the western with great films (see True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, Django Unchained, et. al.), but after watching Theeb, I’ve never been more confident that the future of the western is in good hands.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stutterer (2015)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Film, Live Action - Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage

Stutterer Short Film Academy Award winner

Watching the nominees for Best Short Film, Live Action in any given year can be a relatively traumatic experience; of the five nominated films, three or four can be counted on to be gut punches of emotion, trying to outdo each other in what horrors they can foist upon the characters. This year's nominees were no exception to this rule, with themes of childbirth in a warzone, the death of a child in another warzone, and the abduction of a child. Between viewing each of these films, I was relieved by the relatively lighthearted "Ave Maria," but was especially grateful for the lovely film "Stutterer" for bringing a sincerity and sweetness not found in any of the other nominated films.

Starring the soulful Matthew Needham, "Stutterer" depicts Greenwood, a young man with the titular speech impediment battling his insecurities to find love.  The plot is simple and the lead performance understated, but director Benjamin Cleary introduces emotional and technical complexity in his contrast between the silence of what is depicted and the voiceover of Greenwood's thoughts.

On a personal note, as someone who has battled speech impediments for my entire life, I am used to seeing impediments depicted in a comical and mocking manner on screen.  Cleary represents Greenwood's impediment with dignity and respect, neither minimizing the challenges it presents nor mining it for humor or sympathy.

"Stutterer" is a sweet, deceptively simple film that quietly and confidently builds a strong central character through equal parts expertly written voiceover and a lovely collaboration between director and performer.

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subject - Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck

Watch Chau, Beyond the Lines on Netflix

In addition to the 24 competitive categories currently recognized by the Academy at the Oscars ceremony, over the past several years there has become an unofficial 25th category, that of "Most Difficult Shoot."  This past year, The Revenant's awards campaign focused on the difficult conditions faced by the filmmakers as much as it did on the film's artistic merit.  Last year, we heard about the longstanding 12-year dedication of the cast and crew of Boyhood, and the year before that we heard about the hours Sandra Bullock endured in a harness for the filming of Gravity.

No disrespect intended toward The Revenant, but my vote for the Most Difficult Shoot Oscar goes to Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck for their moving and well crafted documentary short Chau, Beyond the Lines.  Director Courtney Marsh told The Moveable Feast that what was initially intended to be a 24-hour shoot during a trip to Vietnam instead became an eight-year project by a first-time filmmaker working in a country whose language she did not speak and telling a story that didn't reveal itself until years after the project commenced.

It is a testament to Ms. Marsh's nascent talents that, even as she was still learning the rudiments of her craft, she was able to create such a compelling and satisfying documentary as Chau, Beyond the Lines.

The film follows the transition of Chau - a Vietnamese teenager disabled by the effects of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War - from his teenage years living in a Ho Chi Minh City care center through his transition to adulthood and independence.  Initially the film focuses on Chau's disability, an unsatisfying decision as Chau is not prone to reflecting upon his disability.  He is singularly focused on twin goals of independence and pursuing a career as an artist.  Ms. Marsh showed remarkable dexterity in adapting the focus of the film, shedding the initial themes and instead focusing on Chau's artistic ambitions.

Chau, Beyond the Lines doesn't look deeply into Chau's art, and does not question - nor does it ask the viewer to question - whether Chau's art is in any way remarkable.  The film's narrative carefully focuses on Chau, never falling into the easy trap of diving into tangential subjects like a wider look at Agent Orange, the art world's response to Chau, or any number of possibilities that are all too common for documentaries.  This singular focus is what makes the film special.

For a population that is all too often made silent, Chau, Beyond the Lines gives Chau the forum to speak entirely for himself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Salvador (1986)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - James Woods
Nomination: Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Oliver Stone and Rick Boyle

It has been 24 years since the peace accords were signed that brought a cease-fire to the Salvadoran Civil War, and 30 years since Oliver Stone's Salvador was released in theaters.  In that time, as El Salvador has faded from international headlines and back into relative obscurity, Stone's film has largely experienced the same fate.  While some political thrillers transcend the events that they depict and find their own relevance outside of their times, Salvador is grounded in the Salvadoran Civil War to such a degree that it was likely destined to be forgotten once time passed.

This is a shame; while not transcending its circumstances, Salvador is not limited by them.  Salvador is not a film with great character development or tense plotting, and much of the film is polemical rather than narrative in tone.  James Woods brings a manic intensity to the role that adds nuance to his brashness, anchoring both the character and the film itself.  He was never going to win the trophy over Paul Newman in The Color of Money, but it's an aggressive, bold performance well worthy of its nomination.

Oliver Stone's collaboration with Rick Boyle on the screenplay was equally worthy of its nomination (it also had little chance to win an Oscar, facing off against Woody Allen for Hannah and Her Sisters (interestingly, Stone was also competing against his own screenplay of Platoon)).  The film is about the Salvadoran Civil War, and the characters mostly exist as windows into the conflict rather than full individuals.  Yet the dialogue is so passionate and the pace is so focused that it still feels alive and important.

Ultimately, where Salvador succeeds is Oliver Stone's relentless focus on showing the horrors of the conflict.  The violence is raw, but never sensationalized, and the senselessness of the violence is on full exhibit.  The film takes a strong point of view, and Stone backs up this decision through his expert storytelling.  There are few examples of a film as focused and meaningful in Stone's oeuvre.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Richard III (1995)

Richard III DVD Ian McKellen 1995

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration - Tony Burrough
Nomination: Best Costume Design - Shuna Harwood

There's nothing rare about a William Shakespeare play adapted into another time period on film, whether in original Shakespearean English (as in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet or Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost) or in a looser sense (as in 10 Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate).  What is rare, however, is for an adaptation to to be done with as much intelligence, style, and verve as Richard III.

Directed by Richard Loncraine from a screenplay he co-authored with the film's star Ian McKellen, Richard III is made by people with both a sincere understanding and a deep affinity for the Bard's work.  The production finds the perfect balance of maintaining faithfulness to the original text while introducing a modern and compelling reimagination.  Richard III is as faithful to the original as is possible without being too dependent on what has come before.  Richard III is alive in the present without killing its own past.

Ian McKellen is magnificent in his portrayal as King Richard as only a performer of his caliber who has spent his life interpreting the works of Shakespeare can be.  There is no struggle to wrench meaning out of each word nor to prove he is up to the task of taking on the role.  McKellen had portrayed Richard on stage in 1990 and 1992 just a few years prior, and his experience and deep familiarity with the role allow him to practically exude glee as he tears through the film.  This could have easily been an Academy Award winning performance, and it is only because the class of Best Actor nominees at the Oscars was one of the stronger groupings of the 1990s that prevents his omission from even a nomination from being a complete travesty.

Annette Bening is adequate in the role of Queen Elizabeth, widow to Richard's brother Edward IV, while Robert Downey, Jr. and Kristin Scott Thomas are both solid but ordinary in portraying Lord Rivers and Lady Anne, respectively.  The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, representing some of the best British characters actors of the 90s: Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, John Wood, Jim Carter, and many others.  It comes as no surprise that, with the exceptions of the late Nigel Hawthorne and John Wood, each continues to astound as among the best of their generations.

There was no way for the Academy to ignore the costume design of Shuna Harwood or the set decoration of Tony Burrough, and both received well-deserved nominations for their creativity in portraying 1930s Britain through an imagined fascist lens.  Both were bested by Michael Hoffman's Restoration, proving the truism that there's nothing the Academy likes better than recognizing the visuals behind a British period piece.

When it comes to adapting a work of William Shakespeare to the modern (or nearly modern) day, Richard Loncraine's Richard III is the model for all others to follow.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises Photo - Hayao Miyazaki Photo

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature Film - Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki

In many ways, The Wind Rises's adult-oriented, historically based storyline is a departure for Hayao Miyazaki, but in other ways it is the natural culmination of the legendary director's career.  Though missing the fantastical elements of his previous output, the film brings the same childhood wonder and mystery from Miyazaki's world of imagination to a world more grounded in reality.

Hayao Miyazaki was born to Katsuji Miyazaki, an aeronautical engineer and the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company that supplied rudders and other parts to Japanese fighter planers used in World War II.  It is not hard to see why Miyazaki was attracted to telling the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the primary engineer behind many of the airplanes used by Japan in the war, including the A6M Zero that Katsuji Miyazaki's rudders supplied.

Speculative psychology aside, what Miyazaki has put on film is a love letter to human flight, expertly balancing dramatically beautiful flight sequences with quieter moments of human drama.  Like all of Miyazaki's films, it is simple enough for children to love and complicated in its simplicity enough for adults to love.

The animation is beautiful, the American voice cast is well selected - particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role - and the story is told briskly and thoughtfully.

While the master is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from filmmaking, I selfishly hope the 75-year-old genius still has another film or two in him.  If not, The Wind Rises is a wonderful coda to his career.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession with Rock Hudson, Directed by Douglas Sirk

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jane Wyman

Every genre has a filmmaker or two who dominates all discussion of the genre, not by subverting or reimagining it, but by fully engaging in its conventions while introducing a previously unmatched level of artistry.  Like John Ford with the western or Vincente Minnelli with the musical, Douglas Sirk is the undisputed master of the female melodrama.  Though largely dismissed in his own time, the reevaluation of Sirk began in the 1970s with Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave and hit its crescendo in the early 2000s with Todd Haynes's majestic love letter Far From Heaven.  As Haynes continues to demonstrate Sirk's influence in his growing filmography, it is clear that Sirk's influence grows as well.

Magnificent Obsession began filming within days of the release of The Robe, a Biblical epic adapted from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas that became a huge hit for 20th Century Fox.  Douglas's first novel, Magnificent Obsession - previously adapted in 1935 starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor - had sold nearly two million copies (according to the Chicago Tribune), and Universal saw potential taking another pass at the tearjerker.  They gave the assignment to their director Douglas Sirk, who had just wrapped production on Taza, Son of Cochise, a largely forgotten 3-D western starring Rock Hudson.  Though Taza did not exactly suggest a pedigree suited to Magnificent Obsession, Sirk, who had already built an extensive filmography at this point, had directed All I Desire immediately prior to Taza, a melodrama with many of the motifs that would become Sirk trademarks.  Magnificent Obsession began a run of several films for Sirk that firmly established his legacy, culminating in 1959 with Imitation of Life, Sirk's most admired film (and also his last).

It is impossible to deny Sirk's abilities as a director, and though Magnificent Obsession does not yet demonstrate the level of visual beauty he would offer in his later films, he loads frames with deep, rich colors and textures.  Performers never looked better than they did in front of Sirk's cameras, and co-stars Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman both practically glow in his frames.

The plot of the film is thin, and the character development is thinner.  In preparing for her performance, Jane Wyman claimed (to Hedda Hopper) to have gone to lengths that were unusual for the time, including speaking with an adult who had lost her vision.  Her performance is capable if uninspired, but it is not surprising that what might nowadays be characterized as Oscar bait resulted in an Academy Award nomination.  Hudson, who for reasons I cannot comprehend was Sirk's muse, is at his best when working with Sirk, though he still manages to bring little more to the role than any capable actor would bring.

Despite his visual gifts, I remain unconvinced of Sirk's genius in other aspects of filmmaking.  Magnificent Obsession is little more than the 1950s version of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and the visual beauty cannot make up for average performances and an emotionally insipid story.