More Oscar nominees hit the Film Center

"The White Helmets." — Oscar Nominated Shorts

Look for a full house and variety of new films at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. The Oscar-nominated “Documentary Shorts” start screening on Thursday, Feb. 17. The much-acclaimed “La La Land,” with 14 Oscar nominations under its star-studded belt, opens Friday, Feb. 18, and National Theatre Live’s “No Man’s Land” plays Sunday, Feb. 20.

The five documentary shorts join the animation and live action fare in rotation. This genre is driven by powerful stories. Particularly gripping are the three films based on the Middle Eastern conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

Set on the beautiful island of Lesbos, “4.1 Miles” describes the Greek Coast Guard’s rescue of Afghan refugees who have crossed the 4.1 miles of perilous waters from Turkey. Men, women, and children navigate the Aegean Sea in packed boats provided by ruthless smugglers. From 2015–16, 600,000 migrants made the journey. One Greek captain observes, “When I see their eyes, I see their memories of war.” “4.1” captures the chaos and danger.

In the Netflix short “White Helmets,” members of the Syrian Civil Defense race to rescue victims of Russian-instigated bombings in Aleppo. One gripping episode shows these volunteers extracting a newborn infant from the rubble.

“Watani: My Homeland” documents the difficult journey and settlement of a Syrian family in Germany, where 20,000 Syrians have been accepted. Sadness and a longing for home vie with the freedom from war found in a new land.

Another Netflix film, “Extremis,” examines how families cope with dying relatives, and the decision of if and when to pull the plug.

In “Joe’s Violin,” 91-year-old Joseph Feingold, a Nazi death camp survivor, donates his violin to a 12-year-old student in a Bronx charter school for girls. The friendship that develops between the girl and the violin’s former owner is a poignant reminder of music’s power. All five of these films are engaging, informative, and worth viewing.

‘La La Land’

Damien Chazelle’s musical stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a young couple seeking their fortunes in Hollywood. With “La La” Los Angeles in the background, music and dance enliven the romance. A monumental traffic jam launches the movie with a host of dancers and singers celebrating with all-out youthful enthusiasm. As a reminder of Los Angeles’s car-driven world, Gosling’s Sebastian drives a vintage red convertible, and Stone’s Mia, a Prius.

While the story starts out like a conventional musical tale of romance between aspiring performers, it gradually changes course in interesting ways. For starters, Sebastian plays jazz piano and struggles to make a living from a form of music declining in popularity. Mia aspires to success in the competitive world of acting. As their love affair blossoms, they support each other in their careers. Mia encourages Sebastian to open a jazz club, and Sebastian prods Mia to write and produce plays.

Chazelle, whose film “Whiplash” earned a Best Picture nomination and three Oscars, tips his hat to the classic musicals of past — think “A Star Is Born,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and even “Grease.” A scene at the Griffith Observatory sends the lovers into the stars, and it’s a treat to watch them. Uplifting as the song and dance numbers are, the storyline also powers the film. As it unwinds, the question “La La Land” asks is, Does love or career win out? The answer is unexpected but deeply satisfying.

National Theatre Live’s ‘No Man’s Land’

Sunday, Feb. 19, brings the National Theatre Live’s film version of “No Man’s Land” to the Film Center. One of British playwright and Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter’s “memory plays,” it was launched in 1975 with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The 2013 revival, which ran on Broadway, stars Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the poet Spooner and arts patron Hirst, both entering their dotage. They spend the evening drinking, and rival each other’s more and more fantastical, vodka-laced stories. Two of Hirst’s employees, Briggs and Foster, played by Owen Teale and Damien Molony, enter the drinking contest, but the younger men are no match for Spooner and Hirst. Following the production, director Sean Mathias and members of the cast answer questions on the film.

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