Saturday, October 1, 2016

September Festivals and Releases Offer Oscar Season Warm-Up

For journos and festival globetrotters, Oscar season officially kicks off in early September with the unveiling of several potential contenders at Venice, Telluride and Toronto (big takeaway is that Damien Chazelle's La La Land -- my most anticipated film of 2016 -- seriously has the goods). But for Oscar hobbyists like you and me, September is merely a warm-up period; A chance to read up on all the festival players and ease out of blockbuster mode, as more adult fare that may not have what it takes to go all the way look to cash in on summer fatigue.
At least that was Touchstone's plan for The Light Between Oceans. On paper, the description of the Derek Cianfrance project as a morally complex family drama that spans multiple years should make it sound right at home with his previous features, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In truth, this stately melodrama based on the 2013 novel by M.L. Stedman is actually something of a departure for writer-director, but one he handles rather well. Eschewing the intimate visual poetry of his first two films, the subdued period dressings and natural beauty of the setting -- northern Australia post-WWI -- offers many a painterly frame for Cianfrance and DP Adam Arkapaw to treat us with, often basked in ravishing light, except when heavy narrative developments call for dark clouds. Through it all, Cianfrance is still more focused on his characters, especially when they have such weighty dilemmas foisted upon them.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are terrific as a childless couple who take in a baby that washes up on their shore, unaware of the consequences this decision will have on them, and the baby's real mother (Rachel Weisz), down the road. All three are eventually forced to make near impossible decisions between what they want and what is right, and their choices resolve the story in interestingly karmic ways.

Unfortunately, The Light Between Oceans struggled in wide release, even prompting Cianfrance's wife to publish an open letter blaming critics for its tepid audience reception. That's quite a stretch, but I do softly echo her disappointment. I think the film is a bit better than its mixed reviews.

Happier box office fates awaited the likes of Clint Eastwood's Sully and Antoin Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven, both smartly utilizing the late summer media platform of TIFF and the barren wasteland of mid-September to generate quick buzz and quick payoff. Neither have entrenched themselves deeply into the awards conversation -- apart from the perennial discussion of when Tom Hanks will finally get his sixth nomination -- but I'm sure shareholders couldn't care less, so long as mid-budget star-driven titles can continue to turn such tidy profits.
I'll be interesting to see if the same result is in store for the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Deepwater Horizon, the latest true-events action procedural from Wahlberg's Lone Survivor collaborator Peter Berg. The marketing has wisely steered clear of billing itself as "that movie about the BP oil spill", because who'd wanna see that?
Berg focuses purely on the human element of the infamous 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers, rather than engage in any enviro-political tangents about the over 200 million gallons of oil that decimated the Gulf of Mexico.

On the one hand, it's kinda refreshing to see this approach taken for what could so easily have become a heavy-handed message movie. On the other hand, this approach only really works if the human interest truly connects, and I can't say I felt much attachment to any of the characters.

Still, Berg is a sturdy action coordinator, and at its best Deepwater Horizon is quite gripping -- Particularly the lengthy middle chunk of the picture which illustrates in clear detail the series of events that led to the gusher and ensuing explosions aboard the rig, intensely articulated by Wylie Stateman's sound design.

Normally, I'd be eager to start getting down to the true-blue Oscar contenders by now, but alas, the bulk of serious contenders is severely back-loaded this year. Most of the movies that made such waves at the festivals are waiting until at least late November before even starting limited release (December is going to be hell)! But we'll make do, as usual.

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