Sunday, November 23, 2014

REVIEW: Red Princesses


More often than not, you know what you’re going to get with independent films. Just watch the parody video “Not Another Sundance Movie” and you’ll see this is true. Laura Astorga’s debut feature "Red Princesses" certainly hits some of those beats, yet it manages to separate itself as one of the more distinctive films of recent years.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 21, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Latin America


When Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow received its 2009 Oscar nomination (a first for Peru), it was one of the more eye-opening nominations in the recent history of the Best Foreign Language Film category. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that the region’s film industry is often exclusively associated with a very small group of countries – Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Peru’s nomination was certainly a surprise then, but not for those who were familiar with the developments in the region’s cinema. Since then, Chile has also secured its first nomination (from Pablo Larraín’s No) and it seems like only a matter of time until other Latin American countries get their first nods too. Though there’s still a long way to go for Latin American filmmakers to achieve the success of their Eastern counterparts, the region’s cinema is on the upswing. This year, the submissions include a number of critical darlings, a box office hit and a Hollywood-style epic.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: BUtterfield 8


You often hear about films being described as primarily an actor's showcase or star vehicle, often created to introduce new stars to the public. Daniel Mann's 1960 film "BUtterfield 8" could certainly be classified as such, with its promotional material clearly intended to highlight Elizabeth Taylor. Of course, by then the actress had nothing to prove, having already secured 3 consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actress. With this latest film, the studio (MGM) was definitely anticipating a 4th, having tied down the actress to the project under contractual obligations (which she famously resented).

As it turns out, Elizabeth Taylor ended up winning her first Oscar for the role, playing a woman named Gloria Wandrous. Gloria is a high-class call-girl, who starts to change her attitude towards her lifestyle after an encounter with a wealthy man named Weston Liggett. Unfortunately, her new beau is a married man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Gloria must then decide whether to pursue the opportunity for true romance and happiness (despite its homewrecking implications), or continue to endure the societal scorn and personal shame of her scandalous but profitable profession.

We're introduced to Gloria after a one-night stand with Liggett, waking up in his upscale New York apartment. We see her quietly rummaging around the room, going through a typical morning routine that feels almost improvised in its naturalism, a credit to Taylor's acting sensibilities. The peace is disrupted however, when she reads a note that alludes to a payment for her sexual favours. Furious, she uses her lipstick to scrawl "No Sale" on his mirror.

As she leaves with his wife's mink coat (to replace her torn dress), the film already begins to feel somewhat contradictory. Despite the constant acknowledgment of her not-so-secret lifestyle, the film takes a initially timid approach to Gloria's sexuality. It's a problem that persists throughout the narrative, as the film struggles to decide what it wants to be. Early in the film she seems to be nothing more than your average socialite, at odds with some of the more crass scenes in the film's latter half. When she eventually exclaims to her mother "I was the slut of all time!" it feels terribly out of place.

There's really no getting around it, the film falters due to its poor writing. It tries to be a character study but it mistakes its few melodramatic speeches and obvious moralizing for actual character development. It's a near miracle that Elizabeth Taylor manages to be effective at all, as you can practically feel her straining to make sense of Gloria. Is her lifestyle dangerous? Is she ashamed, or proud? These are all questions that are brought up in the film, but never fully clarified. The script (co-written by Charles Schnee and John Michael Hayes) is just too concerned with its shallow "hooker with a heart of gold" agenda, which makes it all the more bewildering when the film eventually vilifies her.

One could argue that the strict production code limited the filmmakers here, but there were already similarly themed films that would put this one to shame. For example, there's 1959's Room at the Top. It features Laurence Harvey in another lothario role but much more convincingly, as well as a fully realized female character in Simone Signoret's Alice Asgill.

Then again, maybe the quality of "BUtterfield 8" didn't matter at all. It still won the Oscar and was a box office hit for MGM. Even I would admit that in spite of its glaring flaws, it's eminently watchable. That's all due to the allure of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most effortlessly compelling actors to ever grace the screen. If you want to know what a "star vehicle" is, look no further than "BUtterfield 8".

This film is part of The Matinee's Blind Spot series.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: The Shorts


Wow, time is really flying. It seems like just yesterday that we were wrapping up last year's Oscars. Here we are again with some early shortlists. Here are all the short films that have made the shortlists in Animated Short, Documentary Short and Live Action Short. Have you seen any of them?

Animated
The Bigger Picture
Coda
The Dam Keeper
Duet
Feast
Footprints
Me and My Moulton
The Numberlys
A Single Life
Symphony No. 42

Documentary
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Joanna
Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace
The Lion’s Mouth Opens
One Child
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

Live Action
Aya
Baghdad Messi
Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)
Carry On
My Father’s Truck
Parvaneh
The Phone Call
SLR
Summer Vacation (Chofesh Gadol)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PLUG: Movli


With so many options for existing movies and new releases arriving every week, I'm sure you can agree that it's often difficult to settle on a film to watch. That's what makes film sites like Netflix so great, with their personalized recommendations and instant streaming features. Building on this model is the recently launched Movli - a movie recommendation engine, social network and movie database all in one. Read below for more details:

Monday, November 17, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Interstellar


In the year 2000, Christopher Nolan broke out with a brilliant neo noir ("Memento") that defied the conventions of linear storytelling. In 2005, he revamped the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy, layering it with real-world gravitas. Since then, this writer-director has become a household name for his originality, making popular films that dared to challenge audiences. With his latest film "Interstellar", he has once again stepped it up a notch. It's his most ambitious project to date, delving into complex notions of space, time and gravity.

"Interstellar" is set in the not too distant future. It's a time when the world is in a major crisis. People are running out of food, as a mysterious dust called "blight" has made almost every crop go extinct. The land is therefore in need of good farmers, forcing all of the resources to go towards an agriculture-focused society. Cooper (our protagonist) is one of the best farmers around, but he's not satisfied with his lot. Formerly an engineer with space-bound aspirations, he longs for the day when he will get the chance to use his best skills once more. His intellect has also rubbed off on his 10-year old daughter Murphy, an inquisitive mind who's obviously being held back by the dumbed-down educational system. One day, a mysterious event takes place in her bedroom that gives them renewed hope. It leads them to a secret location that eventually leads Cooper on a risky mission to the far reaches of the galaxy. His mission - to find a viable new planet and save the human race.

This Cooper character is played by Matthew McConaughey, an actor who seems like he was born to play this role. With his Texan accent and effortless air of confidence, he's instantly believable as someone who could be both a successful farmer and an engineer/astronaut. He rattles off the character's numerous all-important monologues with ease, mostly lamenting the complacency of mankind. It therefore comes as no surprise then, that he grabs the opportunity to test our limits once more. He's aware of the sacrifice (leaving his family behind) but in his mind, it's necessary.

The subsequent adventure is a major leap of faith, much like the actual filmmaking itself. Both Cooper and Nolan are men who want to explore new horizons. The result is a film that's staggering in its ambition, with monumentally high stakes that we can't even begin to fully comprehend. Cooper's mission takes us to new galaxies, where time works in different ways due to gravitational forces. Wormholes and blackholes are but a few of the highly intellectual concepts found in the film, brought to vivid life through the Hoyte Van Hoytema's astonishing cinematography and the stunning visual effects from the talented artists at Double Negative.

Under all the visual grandeur is an engrossing story too, no easy feat considering how overwhelming it sometimes is. "Interstellar" is literally a race against the clock (if Cooper doesn't complete his mission in time, all of humanity may have already died), with a high likelihood of failure at every turn. If there's one criticism that I'd agree with then, it's that the film sometimes seems too grandiose. With some awkward, flowery monologues and far-fetched acts of impossible triumphs, it projects a high level of arrogance. You can easily picture Christopher Nolan marveling at his creation (co-written with his brother Jonathan), not realizing how bleak it actually is. Hans Zimmer's emphatic score and the characters' motivations are reminiscent of Spielberg (think "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") but make no mistake, there's a dark dystopia at its core. As a result, its denouement carries a feeling of relief rather than the joyous satisfaction that's clearly intended.

Yet despite its flaws, I'm reminded of a recent conversation involving Paul Thomas Anderson (an ambitious director in his own right). It was an hour-long talk that was organized by the recent New York Film Festival and recently aired on the Film Society Lincoln Center's "The Close-Up" podcast. In it, he explained how he views "emotional logic" as more important in filmmaking than the plausibility of the plot. It's a view that seems to be reflected in Nolan's work here, as the script has already been derided as excessively convoluted. For me however, "Interstellar" successfully makes up for it with its beating heart. Much of the film's power comes from its exploration of the film's myriad human relationships. Among all the science is a central defining thesis that love is a powerful force that transcends all. It's admittedly corny, but through the performances of Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey, it was acutely, heartbreakingly felt.

In the end, "Interstellar" may not be as satisfying as Christopher Nolan's other films, but he remains a vital presence in contemporary "popcorn cinema". There are moments in this film that gave me a visceral rush that is unmatched by other blockbusters. Christopher Nolan is known as a man who holds the cinematic experience in high regard and it definitely shows. Go see it on the biggest screen possible and have a grand time.

FYC: Interstellar


This post was created to accommodate all the awards tracker labels in blogger.

Click here for my full review of Interstellar

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Silence in Dreamland


Some films have poetic titles just for the sake of it, while others possess a literal meaning in the context of the film. Tito Molina’s aptly named "Silence in Dreamland" is one of the latter. In this arthouse drama, words are few and dreams are a welcome escape.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 14, 2014

INTERVIEW: Pirjo Honkasalo


Pirjo Honkasalo is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable filmmakers working today. As a cinematographer, director, screenwriter, editor, actress and producer, she has built up an impressive resume that dates back to the 1960s. It was a great pleasure then, for me to get the chance to interview her about her latest film Concrete Night, Finland’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards. A gorgeously shot coming-of-age tale, it’s a formidable piece of work. In our chat, we discussed the making of the film, as well as her thoughts on the current state of cinema in general.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, November 13, 2014

REVIEW: Beside Still Waters


Chris Lowell's debut feature "Beside Still Water" begins with references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway about the "Lost Generation". Our protagonist Daniel quotes Hemingway, who claims that all generations are lost and always will be. It's a sobering thought, one that seems to be justified by the characters and events of this film.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold) is having a rough time. His parents have just died in a car accident and he's never felt so alone. Thankfully, he has his longtime best friends for support...or so he thought. It doesn't take long into Daniel's planned getaway/reunion at his parents' house before he reveals the elephant in the room. Despite many of them being rather close to his family, none of them bothered to attend the funeral. Not even his ex-girlfriend Olivia (Britt Lower), who figured it was a good idea to bring her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott) to the group's private trip. Unsurprisingly, Daniel - who still has strong feelings for Olivia - struggles to cope with all the added stress.

Indeed, the tragedy functions as a catalyst for conflict and drama between our characters. Though Daniel is seeking closure by packing up his parents' home, everyone else seems to have brought their own unresolved issues. For some it's a struggling marriage, for others it may be job-related. Basically, it's the common concerns of adult life.

Yet there's an initial level of discomfort in the plot's situations and between the characters that didn't sit well with me. The script forces this awkwardness (it seems like barely any substantial condolences were previously offered in Daniel's time of need) in a way that felt contrived. Too often it feels like it creates conflict for conflict's sake, like when they decide to sabotage Henry despite every indication that he's a perfectly nice guy.

The film does recover in the latter half however. Under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, everyone begins to confront their individual insecurities. Humor and tension-filled drama arise in equal measure, delivered with conviction by its talented cast. We get a better sense of the history between these friends, culminating in a third act that delivers genuine pathos.

"Beside Still Waters" is a film that gets off to shaky start but eventually finds its footing. Though it may have been too late to appease this viewer, general audiences are likely to connect with it. There are echoes of "The Big Chill" here, though it's sometimes drowned out by the self-involved angst of our current "Lost Generation".