Deepwater Horizon (USA, 2016): Given director Peter Berg’s previous output (the disreputable Lone Survivor), I was honestly expecting this movie would be on British Petroleum’s side. Thankfully, Deepwater Horizon sticks to the official story and slaps some action scenes for good measure.
Berg’s go-to leading man, Mark Wahlberg, is Mike Williams, the second in command at the ill-fated oil platform. Because of greed inspired BP directives, a number of security checks are bypassed, so when they finally agree to a checkup, all hell breaks loose.
Even though Berg goes way over the top with the jargon, the filmmaker does a good job explaining the events that lead to the oil spilling (the environmental catastrophe that ensued is only mentioned in passing). But for all the didactic exposition and superb execution of complex action sequences, the characters are one-trait ponies. Kate Hudson is in this movie solely to pace around the house and look worried (and gorgeous). Two and a half planets.
Mean Dreams (Canada, 2016): In any other year, Mean Dreams would have shined among TIFF’s Canadian offerings. However, given the strong crop in display this festival, it comes out as pedestrian.
In a rural area near Sault St. Marie, two troubled teens fall in love. Jonas (Josh Higgins, Max) is the son of an impoverished farmer who must quit school to help with the land. To the house next door arrives Casey (Sophie Nélisse, The Book Thief), a sweet girl with a rageaholic father (Bill Paxton). They soon fall for each other, but Casey’s dad doesn’t approve of the relationship. Two caveats: The father is a police officer and has a drug business on the side.
Outside beautiful fall scenery, there nothing particularly moving about Mean Dreams: The lovers on the lam angle has been explored a thousand times and this film doesn’t have anything original to add. That said, Mean Dreams is competently made and Nélisse -who got started as one of Monsieur Lazhar students- is becoming a talent to watch. If nothing else, Bill Paxton’s scenery chewing is worth checking out. Two planets.
Manchester by the Sea (USA, 2016): Playwright, screenwriter and director, Kenneth Lonergan has a knack to capture the depths of an individual just by watching it go through their day. His dialogue never feels forced, but is revealing all the same. His movies are a low-key wonder.
Manchester by the Sea is only his third movie and the most complete one to date. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never better) is a taciturn janitor sleepwalking through his life. The death of his brother takes him back to his hometown, a visit that troubles him for reasons that slowly come into focus. There is also a surprise in stock for Lee: He has been named his 16-year old nephew’s guardian, a task he believes he’s not up to, despite having an easy rapport with the kid.
As is tradition in Lonergan’s work, comedy and tragedy mix seamlessly. Teenage self-centeredness and Lee’s unsociable behavior lead to perfectly relatable (and often gut-busting) clashes. The writer/director doesn’t avoid the leg work and turns those minor indignities of everyday life into representations of inner turmoil. An early frontrunner for the Academy Awards, at least in acting and writing categories. Four prairie dogs/planets/stars.
The Salesman (Iran, 2016): While Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was celebrated for the lyricism of his work, Asghar Farhadi deserves credit for being the filmmaker who best has captured the country’s modern quandaries.
The Salesman is less well-rounded than Farhadi’s previous film –A Separation-, but is just as provocative. Emad, a teacher-cum-actor is forced to abandon his home when the shoddy building he lives in starts to fall apart. He believes he has found a bargain when a friend offers him another apartment, but not even a couple of nights after moving in his wife is attacked. A hunt for the perpetrator ensues, without the assistance of the police or the traumatized victim.
It’s never explicitly said, but the film strongly hints the assault was sexual in nature. Farhadi depicts a society unprepared to deal with crimes of this ilk, and men struggling to see women as their equals. That said, the picture of Iran is of a society much closer to the Western World than other countries in the region are. The Salesman may challenge some preconceptions, without losing sight of the problems that still affect the country. Three and a half prairie dogs/planets/stars.
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