Wednesday, September 2, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Ex Machina


We may still be a few months away from the barrage of end-of-year critics awards, but there's already one film I suspect will stake a claim for numerous Best First Film prizes. "Ex Machina", the directorial debut of Alex Garland, is sure to be one of the most acclaimed genre outings of 2015. This uncommonly disciplined sci-film is sure to have you rapt in its exploration of intelligence and emotion, of both the human and artificial kind.

The film follows a fateful week in the life of a man named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at Bluebook, a company not dissimilar to Google. His week begins with an exciting invitation to meet the company's CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who works at home from a grand, secluded estate. Caleb soon learns that he has been brought in to perform the Turing test, to determine whether Nathan's A.I. creation - an humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) - displays proof of true consciousness. Thus begins a series of interactions between Caleb and Ava, forming a relationship that gradually uncovers some of the mysteries of this secret facility.

And so the stage is set for one of the most expertly crafted films of the year. Indeed, if you weren't aware that this was a debut feature, you wouldn't guess from Garland's confident direction. Where others would try to sensationalize the thriller elements, he shows remarkable restraint, doubling down on the film's chilly atmospherics. The score is sparse but impactful, while the art direction and cool lighting evoke a feeling of disquiet. You can practically hear a pin drop in its mesmerizingly sterile surroundings.

"Ex Machina" is far from lifeless however, thanks to the work of Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander in the primary roles. As the POV character, Gleeson is a great audience surrogate, his inquisitive eyes always searching for answers. Meanwhile as the mad scientist archetype, Oscar Isaac is truly outstanding. His casual, wry sense of humour compels you to keep your guard down, despite the script telling you otherwise. Likewise, Vikander's Ava is hardly a Frankenstein's monster, delivering an utterly convincing performance that instills empathy and gives you a character to root for. Her perfectly calibrated mix of mechanical physicality and soulful expressions display the perfect convergence of the technological and psychological concepts at the heart of the story.

Ava's desires for freedom and happiness are brilliantly elaborated in the screenplay, conveyed with all the subtlety of Garland's directing style. And though its myriad questions are deeply philosophical, the understated tone removes all airs of pretense. As such, it draws us in and begs us to come to our own conclusions about the moral implications of the entire experiment.

Ultimately, "Ex Machina" is a fascinating thesis on the limits of control, whether it relates to man over machine, our feelings or other people. For Garland however, his manipulation of our hearts and minds is a gratifying showcase of boundless talent. "Ex Machina" is a near-perfect specimen of sci-fi filmmaking, fitting all the criteria with its element of surprise, engaging scientific thought and palpable social dilemma.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

DVD REVIEW: Five Star


Hot on the heels of the infamous Rodney King riots in 1992, a new subgenre of film emerged in the 1990s. These films came to be known as "hood films", shining a spotlight on the side effects of gentrification and the endless cycle of drugs, violence and poverty endemic to black communities like South Central Los Angeles. The most prominent of these films were John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" and the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society", which received critical acclaim and mainstream popularity. Now decades later, Keith Miller continues the conversation with his film "Five Star", which looks at gang culture from an east coast perspective.

"Five Star" takes the idea of film as conversation quite literally, as its opening scene shows one of the film's two leads - Primo (James "Primo" Grant"), a real life member of the Bloods gang in Brooklyn - engaged in dialogue with an undisclosed passenger in his car. In the scene, he describes how his greatest regret is missing the birth of his son, due to his incarceration at the time. The memory clearly had a profound effect on him, and he vows to never neglect his children again.

Shortly thereafter, we meet the passenger from the opening, a young man named John (John Diaz). As the son of another Bloods member, he is eager to carry on his late father's legacy. It turns out that this father was also Primo's mentor, thus linking the two men, who have formed a new mentor/mentee relationship. As Primo shows John the ropes, Miller delivers a unique "slice of life" narrative that eschews the typical violence-centric tropes of the 'hood film".

The psychological clarity and optimism in the film's opening perfectly captures the essence of "Five Star". Indeed, what's most striking about the film is in fact, its domesticity. Much of it takes place either in private homes or communal public spaces like parks, beaches and outdoor basketball courts, while the characters themselves are defined in relation to their families (inclusive of the gang itself). As an established gang leader on his way out of the game, Primo is therefore afforded rare complexity for such a character. He's essentially a drug kingpin, but he's hardly a Don Corleone. The film doesn't soften his edges (he's still an intimidating figure) but he's not propped up on a metaphorical throne. Rather, he's a family man trying to makes ends meet with a side job as a bouncer.

On the other hand, John harbors delusional "get rich quick" perceptions of gang life, much to the chagrin of Primo and his knowing mother. But even John's motivations are two-fold, as he also hopes to use the experience to finally uncover the circumstances behind his father's sudden death, which was attributed to a stray bullet. This underlying throughline in the plot provides most of the film's most tense moments, especially in its climatic confrontation.

Overall though, the plot is very low-key, highlighting the everyday banality of these characters' lives. Cinema has often painted a picture of ghetto living as a series of tumultuous events, but Keith Miller's vision is one of ordinary working class routine. Absent of drive-by shooting and harrowing tragedy, these people could be you or me, allowing us to relate easily with his characters. His camera gives a feeling of intimacy, tracking the characters as they walk through streets filled with happy children and busy adults. Furthermore, his leads - both making their film debuts - greatly contribute to the film's realist quality, as they are completely comfortable and naturalistic in front of the camera.

If there's one gripe to be had with "Five Star" is that its simplicity sometimes veers into dull territory. As the film gets caught up in its observational style, it sometimes seems to miss opportunities for further character development and narrative progression. In the grand scheme of things though, you can't fault Miller's approach, which feels so fresh and genuine. The film trades the tragic fatalism of similarly themed films for an authentic "slice of life" in every sense of the term. It may not portray an exciting lifestyle, but Miller's strong sense of humanity is altogether endearing. As the saying goes, he keeps it real.

"Five Star" is now available on DVD.

Monday, August 31, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Gift


As we get ready for the "prestige" dramas of the fall season, the tail end of summer brought one more hidden gem to send us forth on a high. With "The Gift", talented Australian actor Joel Edgerton makes an accomplished directorial debut, delivering a taut thriller that will surely go down as one of the biggest surprises of the year. Impressively taking on triple duty, Edgerton also penned the screenplay and co-stars in the film alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall.

"The Gift" begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) moving into their new home in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Everything is perfect until one day, they meet a man named Gordon "Gordo" Moseley (Joel Edgerton), a long-forgotten classmate of Simon's. He seems friendly at the start, as the two men quickly reacquaint themselves and Robyn takes a liking to him. But Gordo starts exhibiting strange behavior, leaving gifts on their doorstep and showing up unannounced. When they probe him for answers however, Gordo is always ready with a reasonable explanation. But as Gordon gets increasingly involved in their lives, Simon starts to get suspicious, recalling the circumstances that gave him the nickname "Gordo the Weirdo". As secrets and lies start to emerge from the shadows, Simon and Robyn come to realize that Gordo could be an even greater threat than they could have ever anticipated.

As the mystery unfolds, Edgerton's screenplay keeps you guessing at every turn. Is Gordo genuine? Is he dangerous? And most of all, why are they allowing him into their lives? From scene to scene, "The Gift" is an astute study in human behaviour, shining a light on our capacity for kindness and its limits.

The psychological complexity underpinning the film can largely be attributed to the triumvirate of strong performances from the cast. As Gordo, Edgerton subdues his leading man appeal for his most unnerving performance to date, while Jason Bateman shows a new side of himself with an assured dramatic performance (though thankfully keeping some his sarcastic wit). The standout performance belongs to Rebecca Hall however, here reminding us that she's one of the most undervalued actresses of her generation. She's the glue that holds the film together, bringing subtext to her interactions that surpass the written script. Her quiet anxiety and fragility bear striking similarities to Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby".

Indeed, "The Gift" isn't shy about its inspirations, as Edgerton's direction recalls classic thriller techniques, particularly those pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock. Edgerton's jump scares therefore feel unoriginal, but the way he ratchets up the tension while maintaining the mystery shows a high level of competence. If you appreciate a good scream and a thought-provoking plot, then you're in good hands.

COMING SOON: Toronto International Film Festival

Over the next few weeks, cinephile excitement over the fall festival season will reach a fever pitch as we turn our attention towards the Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festivals. Yours truly will once again be in the thick of it, as I head up to the "Great White North" for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival! With another exciting lineup of films in store, I'll be on the ground to provide you with my take on some of the hottest films. The atmosphere promises to be electric as the festival celebrates its 40th year.

Check out the festival teaser below and be sure to follow me at The Awards Circuit, where all my coverage will be posted.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

100 Things I Love About Bollywood


As I conclude this special week of Bollywood appreciation, I hope you've enjoyed reading the articles as much I enjoyed writing them. Indeed, thinking about all the awesomeness of Hindi cinema brought back so many good memories from all the films I've seen. So I hope you're ready for more, because I'm about to unleash a listapalooza with 100 Things I Love About Bollywood:

Friday, August 28, 2015

10 Must-See Bollywood Films


India is known for having the most prolific film industry, producing upwards of 1,000 new films every year. This staggering figure is attributed to various regional production centers within the country, but ask most persons around the world and they'll tell you that Bollywood represents Indian cinema. This Bombay-based industry has grown from strength to strength over the years and now, it offers a platform for a diverse range of voices. From small arthouse films to big blockbusters, comedy to drama, and everything in between, there's something to suit every taste.

Indeed, it's impossible to run out of good Bollywood films to watch, which can be both a daunting and exciting prospect (especially for newbies). To get you started however, I highly recommend this sampler of 10 Must-See Bollywood Films:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 Spectacular Bollywood Song-and-Dance Scenes


When most people think of Bollywood, the first thing that comes to mind is surely the song-and-dance numbers, and for good reason. Since the start of the Hindi film industry, the musical has been an essential component of popular cinema. Bollywood filmmakers take pride in staging the most lavish spectacles they can envision and thus, skilled choreographers, composers, songwriters, art directors, singers and costume designers are always in high demand. Indeed, musical numbers have become so important that Bollywood invented the "item number". While other cinema traditions promote a tight focus on the central narrative, Indian audiences have become appreciative of these musical interludes, which are often completely unrelated to the plot and feature actors who aren't part of the film. For the most part though, the musical numbers follow the same narrative purpose as the Hollywood musicals we're used to, just bigger and brighter.

These vibrant scenes are truly one of the best aspects of Hindi cinema. It's therefore more pleasure to present my list of 10 Spectacular Bollywood Song-and-Dance Scenes:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

10 of Bollywood's Hottest Stars


In our era of heavily branded franchise filmmaking in Hollywood, celebrity obsession is at an all-time high and the same applies to Bollywood, where they take fandom to a whole other level. As we unfortunately found out earlier this year, not even manslaughter charges can deter the diehard support. The simple fact is that movie stars are the lifeblood of Bollywood, no matter how hard the directors and writers are trying to change that. It doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon either, with the advent of the "100 Crore Club" (referring to box office grosses of 100 crore or more) driving competition between actors to get butts in seats. This elite status offers an enticing pay-off, as it ensures further high-profile acting gigs, increased earnings and the adoration of some of the world's most devoted cinephiles.

Below are some of the actors we can't get enough of, all of whom have lead multiple films to the 100 Crore Club. I present to you 10 of Bollywood's Hottest Stars:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

10 Awesome Bollywood Soundtracks


The close relationship between Bollywood and music can be traced back to the genre's earliest days. As the template for this new artform was being developed, filmmakers looked to the established traditions of Indian theatre, as well as the popular Hollywood musicals of the time. But while American audiences turned away from the lavish musical by the end of the 60s, Bollywood audiences couldn't get enough of the song-and-dance driven spectacle. Now many years after Bollywood's Golden Age (roughly the 1940s to 1960s), the musical is thriving and composers and playback singers (actors very rarely sing the songs) have become as popular as the movie stars. Soundtracks are now a key component of film marketing, generating buzz through the release of songs and item numbers (essentially a music video specifically created for marketing purposes). By the time the film is released then, the songs are therefore already dominating the pop charts. It's a method that works and for fans like myself, a good soundtrack can enhance the most mediocre of films.

With that in mind, I decided to highlight some of the best music Bollywood has given us over the years, with my list of 10 Awesome Bollywood Soundtracks:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Announcing...Bollywood Week!


If you've been following the site lately, you'll have noticed that it's been quite heavy on Bollywood films. Indeed, I caught the Bollywood bug this summer, re-kindling a love affair that began 10 years ago when I started college in the US. It was then that my closest friends (most of them being South Asians) introduced me to a whole new world of cinema unlike anything I'd seen before. During this time I watched films like "Hum Tum", "Kal Ho Naa Ho" and "Jab We Met", which sparked my fascination with this unique style of filmmaking. Since then, time constraints haven't allowed me to keep up with Bollywood as much as I would have liked (these films tend to be more than 150 minutes long!) but its always held a special place in my heart. So this summer I decided to marathon some of the classics I'd missed, in anticipation of the project I'm announcing now. For your reading pleasure, this week will be Bollywood Appreciation Week here at Film Actually, where I'll celebrate the best of Bollywood.

But first, here's a brief introduction to Bollywood for the newbies...