Monday, March 30, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Girl Is In Trouble


At a critical juncture in Julius Onah's relentless thriller "The Girl Is In Trouble", an uber-privileged white man (Nicholas,played by Jesse Spencer) encourages a struggling first-generation Nigerian-American (August, played by Columbus Short) with a cry of "Yes You Can!". The tone is knowingly condescending, preying on the adage made famous during Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Whether intentional or not, the comment bears deeper meaning, arriving towards the tail end of a multi-narrative plot that's acutely aware of the social dynamics which propel it.

All of the action leading to this moment centers around our main protagonist August, a down on his luck aspiring DJ who has just been fired from his job as a bartender. Plopped onto his bed to call it a night, he soon gets an unexpected phone call. It turns out to be Signe (our eponymous girl in trouble), the attractive Swede he met some nights before. She explains that she's seeking some company before flying back home and August invites her over, anticipating a fun nightcap to come. In the light of day however, things take a turn for the worse. Before he knows it, August becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving Signe, a missing drug dealer and an entitled heir of a major investment firm.

"The Girl is in Trouble" may pose as your run-of-the-mill crime thriller, but it's one that aims to make a statement about our world. Its script is primarily concerned with the way desperation affects the lives of those seeking the American Dream. Of its core cast, the characters are carefully selected, including a Nigerian-American (August), an American Jew (Nicholas) and a pair of Latino Americans (played by Wilder Valderrama and Kareem Savinon). Interestingly, the most desperate of them all is the pretty white girl from Sweden of all places. And what better place to set this story than New York City (the Lower East Side, to be exact), the ultimate melting pot within the immigrant nation called the United States of America.

It's hard not to infer a personal attachment to the story on the part of writer-director Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American himself. The multiple narrative strands suggest a keen interest in the shared experience of struggle among its characters, even the wealthy Nicholas. Onah explores this with great stylistic verve, employing purposeful flashbacks, deadpan voice-over narration, rapid editing and clever social media references to reveal the connections between them. It all feels convoluted at first, but soon reveals a clear narrative focus, like Tarantino in "Jackie Brown" mode.

Consequently, the character-focused dramatic scenes fare better than the action-thriller ones. The latter is mostly a series of rudimentary tropes (interrogations in dark rooms and shady dealings in cars). On the other hand, the main dramatic thrust remains potent. From recounting the ethnographic history of the Lower East Side, to a shot of side-by-side Clinton and Obama portraits, Onah effectively and impressively roots the story on the notion of hope. In this case, it's the disappointment associated with such hope that binds its victims in a web of drugs and murder.

In his admirable quest for socio-cultural relevance, Onah's does falter in some aspects. Specifically, there's a misogynistic element to Signe's predicament that doesn't quite land. One particular rape comment by our protagonist felt wildly out of character and sticks out like a sore thumb. But the sentiment is valid and doesn't negate the otherwise solid film-making surrounding it. As a debut director, Onah shows a lot of promise. Further special mention must also go to Columbus Short, who finds a perfect fit in this lead role. Misfortune and everyman plainness look good on him.

"The Girl Is In Trouble" releases on VOD and in theaters April 3, 2015.

Friday, March 27, 2015

REVIEW: Cupcakes


Boasting a film career that spans a considerable 25 years, director Eytan Fox has developed a reputation as a multi-faceted filmmaker. He’s dabbled in comedy, drama, romance, thriller and war genres, refusing to be boxed in. Yet despite his established versatility, few would have anticipated his latest venture – a bright, bubbly musical appropriately titled "Cupcakes".

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

COMING SOON: The Girl Is In Trouble

Courtesy of eOne Films, the thriller "The Girl Is In Trouble" will be released in select theaters and VOD on April 3rd. The film stars Columbus Short (who some of you may recognize from TV's "Scandal") and is about a DJ who becomes entangled in a murder mystery that involves a web of dangerous characters. Based on the title, I assume he'll be tasked with saving a damsel in distress (played by Alicja Bachleda-Curus). Short hasn't really proven his leading man chops yet (unless you count "Stomp the Yard"), so this should be a good test for him. You can look out for my review of the film within the next week or so. Check out the trailer below:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow


Can you believe I hadn't seen a Sophia Loren film until this week (not counting "Nine")? Thanks to Hit me with your best shot, I was able to rectify that embarrassing oversight through Vittorio De Sica's anthology film "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow". As it turned out, it was a wonderful introduction to the actress in her prime. The film's highly amusing characters and scenarios provided a great showcase for her comic gifts, as well as that of Marcello Mastroianni.

The film is divided into 3 shorts, titled after Loren's character in each - Adelina, Anna and Mara. In selecting my best shot then, I tried to choose images that captured the essence of each segment.

Click below for my favourite shots from "Adelina of Naples", "Anna of Milan" and "Mara of Rome" respectively...

Monday, March 23, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Water Lilies


This week's top pick is the debut feature of Celine Sciamma, one of the most promising directors around. The film is "Water Lilies" and it's set in a suburb of Paris, where a trio of young girls are on the verge of sexual awakenings. As has come to be Sciamma's trademark, it's a delicate coming of age film framed around the fresh performances of her young actresses.

"Water Lilies" follows the exploits of Marie (Pauline Acquart) and Anne (Louise Blachère), a pair of 15-year old best friends who live in a Paris suburb. The film is set in the summer, where the two spend much of their time at a local swimming pool, where Anne trains as part of the synchronised swimming team. It's there that she first glimpses Floriane (Adèle Haenel), one of Anne's teammates. With her confidence and natural beauty, Marie is instantly enchanted by Floriane and strikes up a friendship. As the summer days pass by, a friendship triangle forms that reveals their secrets and desires. The plot thickens with teenage lust, as Floriane struggles with her promiscuous image, Marie with her queer attraction and Anne with her feverish sexual longing. By the end of the summer, their relationships and personal outlooks will have changed as they learn the realities of sex and value of true friendship.

As we learn more about these three girls, Sciamma's script shows a keen understanding of the sociology and psychology of young teenage girls. While it paints an unfavourable picture of the male species, it's always fair, showing how girls' relations with each other can be detrimental too. In varied ways, it strongly speaks to the emotional damage that girls inflict on each other, sometimes unwittingly. In Floriane's case, she's so widely known as a slut that she resigns herself to living up to the image, despite no desire to do so. She's effectively cursed by her own beauty and success (she's the swim team's captain), as jealousy causes rumours to manifest. It's a fascinating change from the usual high school drama, where the pretty girls are put on a pedestal.

In a similar fashion, Anne's actions are influenced by outside expectations. Throughout the film, she makes forthright efforts to lose her virginity, which are obviously stimulated by a need to prove herself attractive to the opposite sex. In a world of hard-bodied athletes, even her best friend views her as an ugly duckling.

The most severe act of emotional violence is saved for the timid Marie however. As she pines for Floriane, it doesn't take long to recognize that it's a one-sided romance. Floriane is way too self-involved and free-spirited to devote herself to the demure Marie, but the latter isn't mature enough to understand this. Indeed, one could easily imagine "Water Lilies" as a hard-edged psychosexual thriller with Floriane as its dangerous femme fatale. Such is the allure of Adèle Haenel, who deservedly received a Cesar nod for Most Promising Actress (along with Blachère).

Though it may be a small film in terms of scale and scope, "Water Lilies" exhibits the perceptive traits that Sciamma has become known for. Her characters are well-defined and easily empathetic, with tangibly relatable insecurities. Sciamma may have expanded her narrative ambitions in her later work, but this remarkable debut is invaluable as a blueprint for what is destined to be a long, exciting career.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

10 Foreign-Language Actors You Should know


Ever since the earliest days of cinema, international actors have been embraced by American audiences for being among the best in the business. During Hollywood's Golden Age it was people like Ingrid Bergman, Laurence Olivier and Marlene Dietrich. Today, it's the likes of Christoph Waltz, Marion Cotillard and Javier Bardem who are becoming household names. But for every Lupita Nyong'o that comes along and steals our hearts, there are countless other talented actors who aren't afforded the mainstream visibility that comes with Hollywood success. For this week's Foreign Circuit column, we will highlight 10 of these individuals. Specifically, we will celebrate the foreign actors who have thus far worked exclusively in the underseen realm of non-English language films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Quiet Man


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we watched a film that was practically tailor-made for this sort of analysis - "The Quiet Man". In a filmography chock-full of gorgeously shot films, it says a lot that "The Quiet Man" puts forth a strong case for being the most beautiful of them all. Cinematography Winton C. Hoch captures the Irish landscape so vividly here that it makes you want to pack up your bags and go. On this viewing, I once again found myself enamored with the film's color palette, especially those rich, deep reds. That particular color really pops from the screen in this film. You notice it in the costumes, but also in the hair of it that fiery beauty named Maureen O'Hara. For my best shot, I decided to highlight this redness.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, March 16, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Mommy


In the first scene of Xavier Dolan's latest film "Mommy", we see our protagonist Diane (Anne Dorval) pensively rummaging through her yard, picking apples. She doesn't say a word, the score swells with melodious strings and the cinematography goes in and out of focus. It's a sight of rare elegiac beauty, yet it's abstraction was cause for immediate concern. Knowing his previous work, I became worried that Dolan would resort to some of his worst tendencies - stylistic over-indulgence and superfluous storytelling. What a relief then, to see that this scene is not reflective of "Mommy" as a whole. Instead, the film turns out to be Dolan's most focused and rewarding work to date (pending a viewing of "Tom at the Farm").

The film tells the story of a single mother named Diane and the trials and tribulations she endures with her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). At the beginning of the film, Steve has just been expelled from his school after setting fire to the cafeteria, following a violent outburst triggered by his uncontrollable ADHD. Said school is actually a detention center, but even they are unable to deal with his problems. Placement in a mental hospital seems to be the most logical next step (encouraged by a new federal law), but Diane is staunchly resistant. After effectively telling them which orifice to stick their advice in, she grabs her precious son and they march on, determined to figure it all out on their own.

As expected, the first few days are rough for Steve, his mood swings creating an unstable living environment for him and his mother. After one especially aggressive tussle between the two, help comes from the an unlikely source. The fight leaves Steve visibly injured and bleeding, prompting a diminutive, shy neighbor to come over to help. Soon, the family strikes up a friendship with this woman named Kyla (Suzanne Clement) and upon hearing that she's a teacher on sabbatical, they persuade her to home-school Steve while Diane tries to earn a living. Eventually, Kyla becomes more than just a tutor, acting as a calming presence in the household and also getting her own therapeutic benefits from the companionship. With mutual love and compassion in abundance, the future seems bright and hopeful for the first time in years. But will the peace and harmony last? "Mommy" is ultimately a testament to a mother's unconditional love, its abiding comfort and the obstacles that arise when it's all you have left.

Throughout his still young career, Dolan has consistently assembled some excellent acting ensembles. Of his core group, the luminous Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement (is it just me, or do they get more beautiful with age?) are given the spotlight. It's no secret that he's fond of actresses, yet this is the first time I've felt that his directorial flourishes are completely in service of their craft. He came close with the superb "Laurence Anyways" but not to this extent, where he seems to have handed over the film entirely to his characters.

Much has been said of the film's unique aspect ratio, a sacrilegious 1:1 that probably made the purists want to run screaming for the nearest exit. The most revered film auteurs are those who challenge the form though, and the way Dolan uses the aspect ratio as a narrative device is absolutely inspired. The boxy framing conveys the pressure-cooker feeling of this makeshift family's volatile situation, keeping us attuned to their persisting unease. Whenever that pressure releases momentarily, the way the aspect ratio shifts is nothing short of breathtaking.

The great achievement of "Mommy" is this ability to be so firmly character-driven without losing the director's signature style. Dolan has admitted the same, describing the film as a "simple family drama" with the style being secondary. Of course, Dolan never met a pop music interlude he couldn't milk for all its worth, but this time he also reveals something about the characters and their relationships, while his typical slow-motion montages take us deep into their individual and collective psyche. All the way, Dorval, Clement and Pilon take us on an intense, emotional journey. Their outstanding performances are so alive and present that they manage the substantial feat of becoming the stars of the film, rather than Dolan himself.

When all was said and done, I felt invigorated by the filmmaking and emotionally wrecked by the story and its characters. Alternately uplifting and tragic, "Mommy" is the definition of an emotional roller coaster ride. When it comes to the distinctive artistic vision of Xavier Dolan, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Paris Is Burning


"Paris is Burning" is one hell of a documentary. It's enlightening, detailed, entertaining and utterly engrossing. In fact, it's so engrossing that I failed miserably at this week's Hit me with your best shot exercise. I was completely captivated by this film and it wasn't until the end that I realized that I hadn't screencapped anything. So instead of a best shot, I'll write about my favourite character.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, March 9, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Heartbreaker


For this week's top pick, I'm gonna lighten the mood a little with a good ol' romantic comedy. The film is 2010's "Heartbreaker", directed by Pascal Chaumeil. It stars Romain Duris in the title role as a man who breaks up unfavourable relationships for a living.

The premise of "Heartbreaker" is fairly simple. Alex (Romain Duris), his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and his brother-in-law Marc (Francois Damiens) own a business that caters to persons who wish to break up relationships in which the woman is too blind to see the mismatch. To accomplish this, they use Alex to seduce the women, before offering up a teary-eyed goodbye and claiming that it's too late for him to find love. This is the same method they've attempted for their latest client, a gangster who is trying to stop the impending marriage of his daughter Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) to a wealthy Englishman. It turns out to be a difficult task though, as the couple seem very happy. At his wit's end, Alex decides to get up close and personal with Juliette, inserting himself into her life as a bodyguard. As he gets to know her however, he finds that he may be developing genuine romantic feelings of his own.

Fully embracing the cliches of its genre, "Heartbreaker" has an unabashed energy that plays a huge part in its appeal. Its concept is a playground for the considerable comic gifts of Romain Duris. With his slender frame and bright smile, he slinks in and out of these women's lives like a fleeting dream. There's something fundamentally devious about Alex's manipulative behaviour, but Duris' performance gives him an irresistible appeal. As he gradually falls in love in with Juliette, his vulnerability is equally compelling.

Really, the film depends almost entirely on the charisma of its central actor (it's a rather lazy script otherwise), but he's also well-supported by a fun cast. Ferrier, Damiens and Helena Noguerra (as Juliette's friend Sophie) make for a trio of colorful supporting players who get some very amusing scenes. As Alex's love interest, Paradis also has a certain je ne sais quoi.

It may not have anything new to say about love and relationships, but "Heartbreaker" is worth it for its affable cast and its jovial spirit. You may roll your eyes at times, but no romantic comedy is without its contrivances and at least this one is French. When it comes to romance and offbeat humour, you could do much worse.