Tuesday, November 21, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations


Awards season is well underway, as the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced today. As major studios have steered away from awards fare, this formerly low profile awards show has grown to become a significant bellwether for future Oscar success. Things are looking good for "Call Me by Your Name" then, which lead all films with 6 nominations. Following right behind were "Get Out" and "Good Time" with 5 each. Will the Spirits continue their trend of predicting Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards? Let the speculation begin. Here are this year's Spirit Awards nominees:

Best Feature
Call Me By Your Name
Get Out
The Florida Project
Lady Bird
The Rider

Best Director
Sean Baker – The Florida Project
Jonas Carpignano- A Ciambra
Luca Gudagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Benny Safdie/Joshua Safdie – Good Time
Chloé Zhao – The Rider

Best Female Lead
Salma Hayek – Beatriz at Dinner
Francis McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saiorse Ronin – Lady Bird
Shinobu Terajima – Oh Lucy
Regina Williams – Life And Nothing

Best Male Lead
Timothee Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
Harris Dickinson – Beach Rats
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Robert Pattinson – Good Time

Best Supporting Female
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Alison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Lois Smith – Marjorie Prime
Talia Webster – Good Time

Best Supporting Male
Nnamdi Asomugha – Crown Heights
Armie Hammer -Call Me By Your Name
Barry Keoghan – Killing of a Sacred Deer
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ben Safdie – Good Time

OSCAR WATCH: Mudbound


"Pain is here." This line is taken from "Queen Sugar", a TV drama set in present day New Orleans which recently concluded its phenomenal 2nd season. But it could just as easily have come from Dee Rees' Mississippi-set period drama "Mudbound". In this powerful new film, two families - one white, one black - experience the pain of racism that is inextricable from the history of America and particularly its Southern states.

The aforementioned quote is a response to a plot-line involving the display of Confederate symbols in a well-heeled private school, which seems to bother only its few black students. In similar fashion, "Mudbound" opens with a scene where the deep roots of racism stare its characters in the face. A pair of brothers are digging a grave for their deceased father, only to encounter remnants of a murdered slave already laying there.

Over the course of this film, we learn of the events leading up to the racially frought circumstances of this burial. It involves the McCallans, a white family trying to build a new life as farm owners in 1940s Mississippi. The family includes Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), as well as his charming younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and severely racist father (played to bone-chilling effect by Jonathan Banks). As they struggle to run a successful business amid imperfect rainy conditions, their lives intersect with the Jackson family, who are sharecroppers with ties to the land that extend back to slavery. Hoping to eventually buy their own land and provide for their family, Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) work tirelessly for the McAllans. But as World War II looms, both families will become even more connected, in ways neither could have anticipated.

Indeed, when Jamie and the Jacksons' eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the war, the lives of all the characters are changed forever. While both are war heroes, Jamie suffers from crippling PTSD and Ronsel comes "home" to a society that treats him as a second-class citizen. The latter's experience is especially fascinating, as the astute script (a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay) starkly underlines the irony of being embraced more by the "evil" German enemies than his own countrymen.

As with similarly themed dramas, Ronsel's family faces unconscionable injustices as his enlightened perspective stokes the flames of hatred in the community. But the toil and suffering is only part of the story. Indeed, "Mudbound" captivates audiences by also exploring the better world that could have been. Through the unlikely friendship between Jamie and Ronsel (played with sincere chemistry between Hedlund and Mitchell), we see the capacity for human kindess that is still to be fully realized today. Likewise, the empathy shown by Laura and the strength of Mary J. Blige's Florence (a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress) is deeply felt. And there are other standouts in this stellar ensemble, as the poetic narrations allows their varying perspectives to resonate.

Indeed, "Mudbound" is a poignant film that will surely remain in the conversation in the coming months (look out for potential history to be made in Best Director and Best Cinematography). At once intimate and grand, bleak and hopeful; it has the feel of an American classic. This Best Picture contender is "prestige cinema" done right.

Monday, November 20, 2017

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Europe


Terrorism, debilitating illness, the lingering trauma of war. These are just a few of the dark themes represented in this year’s European submissions for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a typically sizable contingent of 38 films, exploring this year’s European films can therefore be a daunting task. But as past winners like “Amour” and “Son of Saul” can attest, “serious” fare is catnip for the Academy. And with festival prizes and famous actors in the mix, they would appear to have the recipe for success. Here’s a closer look at the European films vying for Oscar glory this year:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Asia-Pacific


After a 4-year streak of European domination for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, 2016 was a standout year for cinema from the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Iran and Asghar Farhadi claimed their 2nd win for “The Salesman” while Australia picked up their first ever nomination with “Tanna”. Looking ahead to 2017, the new submissions from the Far and Middle East boast the potential to perform even better. As always, they are a diverse set, ranging from intimate indies to crowd-pleasing blockbusters and everything in between.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Women Directors


For reasons good and bad, there’s been a lot of talk lately about women in the film industry. Notably, Hollywood has been rocked by recent sexual harassment scandals in the same year that Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman” conquered the summer box office. While the picture isn’t perfect overseas, the Foreign Language Oscar category continues to be a beacon of positivity. Just last year, we celebrated a record number of submissions from female directors, yielding a nomination for Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” in the process. And now, that milestone has been smashed, with 26 women-directed films being chosen to represent their countries. Only three women have ever helmed winners in this category, but hope springs eternal with this talented group. Here’s a deeper look at these films and the directors attempting to follow in the footsteps of Marleen Goris, Caroline Link and Suzanne Bier.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: The Americas


After a fruitful run that garnered four shortlisted films over the last three years, this year’s Foreign Language Oscar submissions from Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean enter the race with a noticeably lower profile. Films from the region were less prominent on the festival and awards circuit in 2017, compared to years past when films like “From Afar” and “Embrace of the Serpent” stole the headlines. But while the names associated with this year’s crop of submissions may be unfamiliar to Oscar voters, there is still plenty to like about the offerings.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Africa


If you’re still looking for proof that #OscarsSoWhite, look no further than the history of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Unsurprisingly, this category has been overwhelmingly dominated by European films, with 56 winners from the region. In comparison, you can count the African winners on less than one hand, with only three winners to date. The under-representation of African cinema could also be explained by the low number of entries, however, as only a few countries bother to submit films each year. But as this year’s slate proves, there is no shortage of talented African filmmakers. Here’s a closer look at the eight African films vying for Oscar attention.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: LGBTQ Films


Less than a year after the historic “Moonlight” win at the Oscars, its influence is already being felt. Indeed, if the 2017 race for the Foreign Language Oscar is anything to go by, queer cinema will once again be at the forefront of awards chatter this season. Like “Moonlight”, these acclaimed films are bringing new LGBT perspectives to the screen, representing a diverse spectrum of genres and countries from across the globe. Here’s a look at the 6 submissions hoping for some “Moonlight” afterglow.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, October 15, 2017

REVIEW: The Square


There must be something in the Nordic air. The filmmakers of this region seem to have a talent for dry, satirical - and often dark - comedies that is totally unique. In a 2015 BBC article titled "Is Nordic humour too dark for the rest of the world?" their trademark style is given the name "gálgahúmor", which means gallows humour in English. Among his peers, Ruben Östlund is a leading proprietor of this subgenre, notably breaking out with his award-winning 2014 film "Force Majeure", which has already been set for a Hollywood remake. His latest will undoubtedly be a harder sell for North American audiences, with an even stronger Swedish sensibility despite its inclusion of American and British actors. Nevertheless, Östlund has truly outdone himself with "The Square", delivering a delicious, hearty slice of absurdist cinema.

While "Force Majeure" focused on the emasculation of a "man's man" in the wake of a single split-second decision, Östlund takes things to a whole new level with this new protagonist. Similarly confident, handsome and even more influential, Christian (Claes Bang) is the chief curator of a prestigious art museum in Sweden. Always looking to push boundaries with his exhibitions, he is working on a new project called The Square, described as "a sanctuary of trust and caring." But as Christian organizes the concept and marketing of this new artwork, a series of misfortunes challenge his own belief in the ideals of the project. Beginning with a robbery of his phone and wallet, he begins to lose control of his life as angry pre-teens, pushy women and homeless beggars alike gradually cut him down to size.

The darkly comic style of "The Square" is distinctly Swedish, but the storytelling is all Ruben Östlund. As the film satirizes the art world, Ostlund displays his boyish sense of mischief, his immaculate directorial eye and his knack for crafting hilariously awkward situations out of human interactions that would otherwise seem banal in real life. Indeed, masculinity has rarely been as fragile as it is in Östlund's films. With a narrative structure reminiscent of Roy Andersson, the film puts Christian through essentially a series of skits which are alternately thought-provoking, shocking or delightfully cringeworthy in their awkwardness. Or sometimes all at once.

With all due respect to Claes Bang's excellent performance though, Östlund is truly the star of "The Square". For a film about a man that is losing control of his life, the direction and screenwriting shows an auteur who is in total command of his voice. He never wastes a single frame, whether it be a morbidly funny sight gag or a moment of vulnerability for his lead character. Furthermore, the unexpected humor he generates from simple scenarios could only have come from the mind of a comic genius and perceptive humanist. Indeed, underneath the gut-busting laughs is a rather scathing examination of the apathy and prejudice of the upper class. Ultimately, this masterful film becomes not just a satire of the modern art world, but of life itself and its endless absurdities.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW: The Other Side of Hope


"An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." This famous Nina Simone quote was uttered in reference to the mid-20th century civil rights movement but it remains equally relevant today. And as one of the most powerful and popular artforms, cinema has always been a champion of this belief. With the ongoing refugee crisis, it's no surprise then that a new wave of films about the immigrant experience has been flooding theaters. From non-fiction to traditional dramas, this urgent human rights issue has become an increasingly important topic for filmmakers. Few of them however, capture the refugee experience with the same level of sharp wit and purposeful artistry as Aki Kaurismaki with his latest - and possibly last - film "The Other Side of Hope".

This tale of unlikely friendship between two men is set in modern day Helsinki. One is an elderly local named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a former salesman who has just left his wife. After winning big on a poker tour, Wikström has his sights set on a new career as a restaurant owner. Meanwhile, a young refugee named Khaled also hopes to start fresh, seeking asylum in Finland after an arduous journey from Syria. Both men are somewhat lost in their new worlds however, but when their paths collide, they instantly strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.

Like a lost film from the New German Cinema movement, "The Other Side of Hope" gives you a retro feel with its cinematography (obviously shot on film), wry sense of humor and strong characters. Indeed, the relationship between Wikström and Khaled is particularly reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul". There's a heartwarming simplicity to their friendship that poignantly contrasts the unnecessary bureaucracy that Khaled faces in his asylum appeal.

This juxtaposition of individual humanity vs collective intolerance is handled brilliantly by Kaurismaki. He blends a gently comic tone with the harsh reality of our modern times with equally unsentimental matter-of-factness. The brightly colored walls and humorously misguided attempts at cultural appropriation may seem to affirm the illusion of a welcoming society. But Kaurismaki is soberingly blunt in exposing the hypocrisy of European liberalism, where the possibility of racist violence lurks around every corner.

In this regard, Sherwan Haji is amazingly effective as Khaled. There's an intensity in his eyes that feels almost accusatory towards the viewer, as if we are complicit in the harrowing ordeal that brought him to Finland. We are therefore invested in his tumultuous journey, through which Kaurismaki shows the other side of freedom, home and hope.