Posts Tagged ‘Oscar’

It is not everyday you watch a female-centric biopic which does not reduce its protagonist to a mere appendix of the man her fame is indissolubly bound with. Jackie, Chilean Pablo Larraín’s latest work, is one of such rare cases. It is a superb character study which does not just show Jacqueline Kennedy as John Fitzgerald’s wife, but a strong-willed woman who both loved her husband and struggled to come to terms with the pressures that being a Kennedy entailed. A beautifully written and directed tale that Natalie Portman’s superb performance as the late first lady turns into an outstanding piece of work – amongst the very best of those presented at Venice’s 2016 Film Festival.

Larraín employs several different narrative devices to reveal Jackie’s persona. We first meet Jackie shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death. She is furious at the way the press is handling the story and invites a journalist to her house to give her version of the facts. The interview is the first entry into Jackie’s world, and also a great vantage point to understand the conflict between her tormented private life and public figure. The journalist recalls an old White House TV tour Jackie starred in, and Larraín intelligently juxtaposes the smiley debutant-esque TV version of Jackie with the bitter one she shows to the journalist. But the interview must eventually be published, and Jackie can only reveal a small fraction of the traumas she has suffered. She does so with a priest, whose exchanges with the first lady are among the film’s most touching moments.

Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is a true gem. The film seamlessly shifts from Jackie’s heart-breaking memories to Bob Kennedy’s frustration with the way the Johnson administration will sideline the Kennedys, while the different entry points into Jackie’s life (the interview, the old TV show and the chats with the priest) help building a multifaceted and magnetic character.

Larraín staggers Jackie with old-looking footage that reconstructs the White House tour she gave as well as some original material from the early 1960s, mimicking a strategy he had already successfully adopted with his best foreign feature Oscar-nominee No (2012).

Yet Jackie is also a testament of Natalie Portman’s talent. Watching the real footage of the White House Tour the first lady gave in 1962, one realises how spot-on Portman’s accent, facial expressions and gestures are. Her moving performance adds strength and credibility to the drama, and the way she becomes Jackie leaves one speechless.

Jackie is not a hagiography of the woman who survived John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. It is much more than that. It is the vivid and poignant story of a lady whose entry into one of the world’s most powerful families was both a blessing and a curse. It is a tale so exquisitely written and directed that it will move many to tears. It is, above all, a memorable film.

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The jubilant “¡que viva Chile!” producer Patricio Escala shouted as he and director Gabriele Osorio received the Oscar for best animated short film was probably one of this year’s ceremony’s most memorable moments. The two had more than one reason to celebrate: Historia de un Oso (Bear Story) was Chile’s first ever Oscar. Yet Escala and Osorio’s was not the only Latin American country to leave a trace on last Sunday’s ceremony. Colombia made her first appearance before the Academy with Ciro Guerra’s El Abrazo de la Serpiente as best foreign language film nominee, and Mexico won big with the duo Iñárritu-Lubezki, the first now celebrating his second consecutive best director award, the latter his third as best cinematographer.

In some important ways the Oscars seem to have consolidated the spot Latin America cinema has gained over the past few years. The region’s cinema is blossoming, and the world is enjoying and rewarding its growth. A look at the most recent Academy’s decisions is telling: if Emmanuel Lubezki has become one of the Academy’s most successful habitués (and now holds a record as the only cinematographer to have won three times in a row), Mexico has also fathered the best directors of the past three editions: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2014) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, 2015 and The Revenant, 2016). But Latin America’s successes extend outside the United States too. In 2015 alone the region left an indelible mark across Europe’s most prestigious festivals. Venezuela’s Lorenzo Vigas’s Desde Allá won the Golden Lion at Venice’s 72nd International Film Festival, where Argentinian Pablo Trapero received the Silver Lion for best director for El Clan. At Cannes’s 68th Film Festival, Colombia’s César Acevedo’s was awarded the Caméra d’Or for his La Tierra y la Sombra, and Mexico’s Michel Franco’s Chronic won best screenplay.

While Latin America exports its gems abroad, Colombia is home to a festival which has historically helped developing the region’s cinematic potential. Held yearly in the Caribbean walled-city of Cartagena de Indias, the International Film Festival of Cartagena (FICCI) is Latin America’s oldest. Founded in 1960, it seeks to promote Ibero-American cinema, hosting the works of directors from Latin America, Portugal and Spain for a five-day movie feast set in Colombia’s coast. An entirely public event (entrance to all movies is free of charge), this year it will be home to some 120,000 viewers and will be screening 154 films, all of them more or less directly touching upon the region’s relationship with its often violent past.

For cinema, in the words of FICCI’s Artistic Director Diana Bustamante, turns into a mechanism that can help deconstruct a people’s history and heal collective traumas. Arguably never in the history of Latin America, and of Colombia in particular (close as it now is to sign a peace treaty and put an end to over 50 years of internal conflict with the leftist FARC guerrilla) has this calling been so urgent. The ten Ibero-American movies that will be screened in this year’s official competition look closely into the region’s past and the suffering caused by the multiple conflicts which have plagued it. From the armed conflict which Colombian Felipe Guerrero talks about in Oscuro Animal to the conflicts of gender and performativity which Gabriel Mascaro and Julio Hernández Cordón deal with in Boi Neon and Te Prometo Anarquía respectively, FICCI 56 aims to show the extent to which cinema can turn a history of violence into an opportunity to reimagine and shape an altogether different future.

From the 2nd until the 7th of March Cartagena’s Film Festival will offer a snapshot of the most recent transformations of Ibero-American cinema. FICCI, for the European as well as Latin American public, will be a unique opportunity to make sense of the renaissance which has brought the region back at the center of world cinema.

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Wild Tales aside, it’s been a terribly long time since a Spanish-language thriller has revelled in worldwide regard. Six years have passed since Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) by director Juan José Campanella scored a wide audience along with critical acclaim (including an Oscar nomination), and Marshland (La Isla Mínima) has qualities akin to its success.

It is the universal aspect of the crime yarn that compels us; a story that could happen anywhere – when framed around a specific culture – can take on a new meaning. The Spanish backdrop, and 80s setting, give Marshland a paradoxically fresh feel, along with that gritty tone that mystery/thriller audiences crave.

The plot is something you have may have seen before, yet hearing that different language, and seeing an unfamiliar environment – different to that of say London or New York – gives it a special essence. Of course, this perspective can primarly be experienced by those less aware of European cinema, but however familiar you are or aren’t, Marshland should not be missed.

It is 1980, in the South of Spain, and deep within the harshest environment, two bodies have been found – those of two missing girls. A pair of homicide detectives are sent to solve the case, ahead of the harvesting season, and before more trouble erupts in the town.

Every review or word you hear about Marshland will speak highly of its cinematography. The spectacular imagery of the titular landscape opens the film – and continues as transitional edits throughout. Cinematographer Alex Catalán’s eye for darkness and splendour helps the film address its symbolism – it is, after all, about the murders of innocent, beautiful girls. For audiences comfortable with the more prime time crime dramas, this may be too morbid in tone. However, the film’s biggest draw is its murkiness.

Director Alberto Rodriguez does a sterling job at generating tension through his lengthy fixation on gloom. Visually the film combines a murky yellow, foggy grey and a steel blue palette, something like Darius Khondji’s Seven photography. In many respects, Marshland will live longer in memory thanks to Catalán’s sense of what makes a crime film look great.

Additional praise must go towards Javier Gutiérrez and Raúl Arévalo for their performances. Relatively secretive and silent, the two actors lend more expression to denoting emotion. It aligns with the film’s sensibilities – that of soft disquiet. They develop well, giving the audience opportunities to understand their motivation and skills. By the end you are rooting for them 100%, giving the film’s volatile finale added dread.

An excellent addition to the wide catalogue of crime films, Marshland compels all the way through. Its short box-office life in the UK can be ignored in light of its deserved success on home entertainment and 10 Goya awards in Spain. To settle down in the dark with Rodriguez’s drama is a rewarding, and cinematic, experience. He uses the medium well, scoring and editing the film masterfully to keep your eyes locked on the screen.

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Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort Whiplash (which follows Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has caused quite a stir already in critics and festival circles, and by the film’s end it is not difficult to see why. Here we see big, compelling, but not even remotely attractive performances from two actors, in their characters’ skin, playing a brutal game of one-upmanship in a terrifying battle over Jazz music as an art form.

Indeed, the relationship between young drumming protégée Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his unforgivingly tough mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) is a difficult watch at the best of times but it is equally a thrilling one. There is a real permeating sense of terror elicited by Simmons’ performance as the unrelenting band leader – at a top east-coast privileged music conservatoire – who over the course insults and attempts to maim his students, in an attempt to motivate the truly committed and extinguish those who don’t have the same fire as him. Meanwhile, the initially sympathetic Neyman becomes some kind of monster himself – adapting to the punishing perfectionism of his tutor – and turning into an equally obsessive beast in order to be “one of the greats”, like his hero Buddy Rich; he is expertly played by the young Teller.

It’s not surprising then that both are being tipped for Oscar nominations (and stand a strong chance of winning), given the visceral torture one puts through the other to achieve perfection, through hours of tedious practicing. As a musician myself who works in a highly distinguished music conservatoire, Chazelle captures the tedium and pain of rehearsal expertly well, ratcheting up the tension with Simmons’ terrifying ogre.

Whiplash is not without its problems however. At times the narrative clunks along just a little too conveniently: the use of foreshadowing and an off-putting “recap of everything you’ve seen so far” 3rd act plot point. Even more troubling is Simmons’ character as a homophobic, misogynistic bully. The repeated use of the word “faggot” amongst other charming terms, as well as repeated attempts to push Neyman to the brink (by repeatedly using the mother who abandoned him) in less than pleasant ways, gets a bit too cruel for entertainment’s sake.

While undoubtedly there are highly strung, highly driven people out there who use horrendous language and get away with it, it becomes problematic when Fletcher comes off as humorous. Worse so, when he appears vaguely heroic; he is given the opportunity to become sympathetic and redemptive, even after the audience has discovered that he may well have driven a previous student to suicide. The film is such a difficult and exciting watch, precisely because the two lead characters are so consistently ghastly.

But the constant undercurrent thread of the music itself is what underpins and drives Whiplash towards its thrilling conclusion. The film opens with a drum roll increasing in velocity with terrific force, setting the tone for large sways of the experience. The film is at its best when it’s highlighting the excruciating work it takes to become the best and the closing few moments are edge-of-your-seat stuff. Chazelle is careful to not give too much of the music away until this point – only highlighting titbits and the often exhausting rehearsals – so when we finally see the finished performance, complete with a new found sense of optimism, it is truly rousing, immersive stuff that captures what it must feel like to witness the real-life greats.

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