Wednesday, November 26, 2014

COMING SOON: Top Five

One of the newly announced December releases that has me very intrigued is Chris Rock's "Top Five". The film is about a comedian trying to make it as a serious actor and it premiered to very good reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. Some have even called it his "Annie Hall" and Paramount is also giving the film an awards push. Could this be our next word-of-mouth hit? Check out the trailer below:



Top Five hits theaters on December 5th.

Monday, November 24, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Beyond the Lights


As was the case with last week's "Interstellar", Gina Prince-Bythewood's latest film "Beyond the Lights" is one that I'd been anticipating for months. Its main themes (romance and music) seemed like the perfect fit for Prince-Bythewood's filmmaking sensibilities and the rave reception out of its Toronto International Film Festival premiere further cemented my excitement. As expected, I therefore approached the film with high expectations. Now after finally watching the film, I can report that it didn't disappoint, managing to surprise me in more ways than one.

"Beyond the Lights" is the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a pop star at the top of her game. Her success is the result of a master plan devised by her mother (played by Minnie Driver), a single parent determined to give her child a good life after a rough start. The effort has paid off, with Noni winning awards and amassing widespread attention following her latest single and upcoming album. Everything seems perfect on the surface, but underneath it all is a different story. Like many of her peers, she feels the pressure of being treated like a product rather than an individual artist. On the night of her biggest success (winning a Billboard Music Award), she decides to step out on her balcony with every intention of jumping. As she prepares to leap, she's saved at the last minute by a young police officer named Kaz. Subsequently helping her get through this bout of depression, they strike up a strong connection and through his love and support, she begins to find her voice again.

This melodramatic premise - so forcefully conveyed in the trailer - has had some comparing the film to the showbiz romance movies of Hollywood's Golden Era. Indeed, watching Noni's physical transformation reminds you of Judy Garland's character in "A Star is Born". Despite the overall "rise and fall" though, this isn't merely a rehash of classic tropes. One could even say it's an inversion of the traditional story, with the character's low point arriving within the film's opening minutes. Instead, what Prince-Bythewood has done is to take this old-fashioned story and remodel it with a contemporary spin.

Indeed, what the film's marketing fails to convey is the film's elegant direction. Fans would remember Prince-Bythewood's auspicious debut "Love and Basketball", a film that gave her a reputation for excellent music choices that capitalize on the atmosphere. Since then, she clearly hasn't lost this skill, this time curating an urban soundtrack of tracks that speak to Noni's romantic, personal and professional journey. These include a few original songs like "Masterpiece" (a cookie-cutter R&B/Hip-Hop earworm) and the optimistic closer "Grateful".

Apart from the film's beautiful aural quality, Prince-Bythewood also excels in her storytelling approach. There's a subtlety that one wouldn't expect, especially in the film's big moments. While Noni's public persona and performances are fiery and racy - impressively so, I might add - the more private scenes are all stunningly intimate moments between the main characters. By the time the film changes gears for its final act, it's absolutely disarming in the way it puts across its symbolic and literal concepts of finding one's true self.

Of course, the film wouldn't work without the right actress in the lead role. Well, there's surely no doubt that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was the right choice. She has the looks, the attitude, the voice, the dance skills, the attitude and all the sex appeal that goes along with it. More importantly though, she has the acting chops to toss all that aside and convey Noni's grand character arc. It's a truly transformational role that has major physical and emotional demands which she handles like a pro.

Mbatha-Raw's performance also soars due to her great chemistry with Nate Parker. An accomplished actor himself, he acquits himself well in this role as the supportive, positive figure that Noni desperately needs. Unfortunately, the character is the source of one of the film's problems. It's clear that Noni is the film's main attraction, so the script's efforts to develop Kaz as a lead character seemed unneccessary. His subplot about his political aspirations and father-son relationship with Danny Glover's character add little of value of the story. In fact, it often distracts from the film's real focus. Considering how woefully brief the last act is about Noni's renewed artistic integrity - we barely get a sense of Noni's presumed singer-songwriter talents - it makes you wonder what could have been there instead of Kaz's storyline. Perhaps we may have gotten more from the superb Minnie Driver, so effective in her dual role as Noni's strict but empathetic mother/manager.

These hiccups prove to be minor though, as "Beyond the Lights" emerges as finely crafted drama. In just her 3rd feature, Prince-Bythewood has cemented herself as one of cinema's most vital voices, making universal love stories that just happen to have actors of color. Furthermore, it confirms the promise of one our brightest new stars in Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In her two breakout performances this year (this and "Belle"), she has already given us 18th century British aristocracy, ratchet diva and the girl next door. I can't wait to see what she does next.

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