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  • Jim Keller

With the New York Film Festival just around the corner, I am excited to finally see some other films that may find themselves in contention this year, starting with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. The film is a historical epic inspired by true events concerning an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. Viola Davis stars as a general who trains the next generation of warriors (the Agojie) to fight their enemies in 1820s West Africa (present day Benin). The film also features supporting players Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega.


While watching The Woman King I felt as though I was the closest I had ever been to how Nettie describes her first sight of the African coast in The Color Purple in a letter to her sister: “Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated.” Despite all the backlash the Steven Spielberg film has received, it remains among my top five of all time, so I do not say this lightly. Although primarily shot in South Africa, Bythewood all but transports you to West Africa and drops you smack dab in the middle of a region rife with those who take it for granted and who seek to exploit its resources—even if it means turning on their own. What follows in the razor-sharp script written by Dana Stevens, based on a story she co-wrote with Maria Bello, is an epic that has been compared to the likes of Gladiator, but that stands on its own two feet anchored by the electric hum of the outstanding ensemble. To be sure, Davis delivers a knockout performance as Nanisca—a warrior who has more than her own fair share of enemies and demons—inhabiting a role you haven’t seen her in before. Try as I might, I cannot see this year’s Oscar race for Best Actress without her. Similarly, relative newcomer Mbedu, a 31-year-old South African actress who doesn’t look a day over 19—coincidentally, the age of her scrappy character Nawi—looks to be the one to watch in the Best Supporting Actress race, but perhaps only because she has the Oscar scene. Lynch, who appeared earlier this year as Captain Marvel in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also shines as Nawi’s mentor Izogie and could also feature in the race.

The real beauty of The Woman King is that it expertly walks a fine line between action and drama without any missteps. Fans of films like the Gladiator will relish in the fight sequences whereas those more inclined to shell out for a family drama will find themselves right at home. When all was said and done, I left behind my bucket of tears feeling as though I had just witnessed something truly groundbreaking because indeed, I had. Oh, don’t forget to stay for the extra scene following the credits!

Possible Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Director

  • Jim Keller

Two years ago, I launched this site with some uncertainty of what it would ultimately be. I discovered that much like Hollywood actors are a mere representation of the village working hard to prop each of them up, so too are blogs in that you hear a singular voice instead of the chorus of people working behind the scenes, honing the final product, and ensuring that each post contains a clear message. Unlike most “Oscar watch” sites, this is a fledgling with only one person doing the work of an entire team. There have been multiple occasions over the past year where I felt compelled to sit down and write a post, but the time I had shrunk down significantly when I became a parent last fall. It’s now nearly a year later, and my husband and I are the proud parents of a nine-and-a-half-month-old. Every day is a gift and even more so now that I have a little one to look after. With that said, some of the fog of parenthood has lifted—I call it “Daddy Brain”, and just in time for the fall festival season. There are already some heavy hitters out of the Telluride Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, with more to come. Like last year, I will have the opportunity to see some of the Oscar hopefuls early on via the New York Film Festival (NYFF), beginning at the end of this month. Below is a list of what I hope to see:


She Said

Women Talking

TÁR

Till

Decision to Leave

The Inspection

Triangle of Sadness

Armageddon Time


A common stressor for entertainment writers is filing their piece immediately after the event--in this case a film festival. Often, writers try to pack in what they can see during the festival, and when you factor in the Q&A, festival viewing makes for a time-consuming endeavor. Last year, I saw six films at NYFF, and I only found the time to write about the first one I saw, Bergman Island. To be fair, I did also write about The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which I saw before the festival, and for which (it warms my heart when I remember this every time) Jessica Chastain went on to win the Best Actress Oscar.


This all to say that I am going to try to simplify my posts to get out more content and put this site to use—especially during NYFF. As before, my posts will be less reviews than experiences, and I hope you will join me on this journey. If all goes well, my first film of the festival will be Till on October 1st. Stay tuned!





  • Jim Keller


On the surface, the films Dear Evan Hansen and Bergman Island couldn’t be more different—one is a musical, the other a quiet meditation on the reconciliation of love and the creative process. But the two share some blood in that they depict characters who are struggling with their mental states, and they both made appearances in the fall film festival circuit. Hansen had its world premiere this year at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 as the Opening Night Gala Presentation, and Bergman Island premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, and most recently, the New York Film Festival. Here, I examine the beating heart behind each one.


By now you have probably heard the incessant jeers coming from the first critics to see Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen concerning its relatively young lead Ben Platt’s age (28) and that of the title character he portrays (17). But having seen the film, Platt’s appearance did not bother me. He delivers an emotional performance that is every bit as engaging and genuine as that of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name the film was based on and for which Platt won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.


As the high school senior Evan Hansen, who is plagued with social anxiety disorder, Platt goes out of his way to let everyone around him suck the air out of the room—even after an injury leaves him with a bum wing. He has stooped posture, stumbles on nearly every word, becomes easily flustered, and relies on a steady regimen of Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Ativan to get him through each day. He is a ghost walking amidst giant hallways, drowning in the din of day-to-day high school life, who feels he is perpetually "waving through a window", as one of the story's songs goes. Evan even sits alone in the cafeteria, barely glancing around as he steadies himself through a simple meal that is probably the worst part of his day.


But unbeknownst to Evan, there is another ghost haunting the halls, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a teen with a bad boy exterior who like Evan secretly desperately wants to feel a part of the world that seems to go on around him and without him. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Connor takes his own life, setting in motion the plot that unfolds, and I share that because as low as Evan feels, he couldn’t know the darkness going on inside the mind of Connor, or could he?


Connor’s parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find a note in his pocket that is misinterpreted as a suicide note but in reality was written by Evan, a practice note to himself as part of his therapy. Hence, the title of the musical and film, and once Connor's parents entrust Evan with that information, his journey of self-discovery and acceptance begins.


The first part of his journey involves meeting Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg), a plucky joiner who we later find out is regulated by her own set of medications. Stenberg wrote a new song for the film’s soundtrack, “The Anonymous Ones” that her character sings and describes her to a T:

“The anonymous ones

Never let you see the ache they carry

All of those anonymous ones

Who never name that quiet pain they bury

So they keep on keeping secrets that they think they have to hide

But what if everybody’s secret is they have that secret side?”


Above: Advertisement for Dear Evan Hansen at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, NY

Photo: Author


This past weekend, in a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, the star of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Vicky Krieps described the feeling she had working on set using the German word “sehnsucht”, a cross between longing and missing. “So, it’s like you long for something you’ve known before maybe or something you might know one day, but you don’t know. It’s quite melancholic but more positive,” she said. The film was shot on Fårö, an island in the Baltic Sea and off the mainland of Sweden's southeastern coast, where Ingmar Bergman made his home and directed several of his films.


Above: Anders Danielsen Lie (second from left), Vicky Krieps, and Mia Hansen-Løve at Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY, September 25, 2021 Photo: Author


Bergman Island follows a couple (played by Krieps and Tim Roth) who retreat to Fårö to work on their screenplays when the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. In the film, Kriep’s Chris recounts her story for Roth’s Tony where a young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) struggles with her intense romantic feelings for a man she once had a sexual relationship with and with whom she is thrown back in the mix with over a weekend wedding celebration (Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph). Amy is thrilled when Joseph responds to her advances, but after their first encounter, she cannot contain herself and begins pursuing him. When he doesn’t call when he says he will, she shows up, when he doesn’t follow through with seeing her, she calls—you get the picture. Amy is wholly consumed by the anxiety she experiences vis-à-vis her feelings for Joseph. Meanwhile, outside the film within the film, Chris quietly radiates her own feelings of anxiety as she lives in the shadow of Tony, who enjoys some celebrity, evidenced by fans who attend his events on the island, and who she struggles to keep the attention of when describing her own work.



Although Chris’ anxiety is less palpable, the intensity of Amy’s anxiety is like that of Evan Hansen’s, the difference being that Evan conceals his (as if behind a window) until he nearly blows a gasket and Amy does blow a gasket. In any case, to see mental health issues depicted so clearly through two completely different films and multiple characters—and in the case of Bergman Island even through varying degrees—was beautiful given the lack of attention in our society.


As much as I enjoyed both films, neither will feature in the Oscar conversation, and that’s OK. Because the point is that they were made, are accessible to anyone who wants to reach them, and in the words of Evan Hansen “be found”.


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