Monday, September 29, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Obvious Child


This week's top pick is an unlikely comedy about a very serious topic. That topic is abortion and it's what Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) wants in "Obvious Child", the feature debut of Gillian Robespierre. Well-received at Sundance, this wonderful little film is a fine example of how to approach controversial topics with humour.

The film's protagonist is a young 20-something who works as a stand-up comedian at small bar in New York City. When we meet her, she's about to face crushing news as her boyfriend dumps her to be with another woman. Devastated by the news, she wallows in self-pity which affects her life and her performances on stage. Things take a turn for the better however, when she meets a handsome man after an especially embarrassing comedy routine. Charmed by this eligible bachelor, she ends up going home with him for a one-night stand. During all the fun times however, they forget to use a condom, leading to the crisis that forms the core of the story. Determined to have an abortion, Donna soon finds that the prospect brings up various issues including her strained relationship with her mom, her self-confidence and her future.

Donna is effectively having a minor existential crisis, but the film isn't so concerned with its gloomy ramifications. Robespierre's script is as witty as Donna herself, favouring light-hearted silliness over painful self-reflection (though it does engage with deeper issues when necessary). It's a combination of Annie's self-deprecation ("Bridesmaids"), Frances' quirky aimlessness ("Frances Ha") and Hannah's crude honesty (HBO's "Girls) that works surprisingly well. If you're a fan of any of those films/series then you'll likely find some appeal in this.

As with those female-centric comedies, Slate's breakthrough performance seems to claim as much authorship of the material as the writer/director. Audiences may remember her from her minor supporting roles on TV but this is the first time we really get to see what she can do. This freewheeling script proves to be the perfect fit for her as she nails the role. She's hilarious and very endearing.

There's no doubt that Slate's performance is what makes this film so special. There's one scene in particular that shows her deft understanding of the material, where her character uses a stand-up routine as both personal confession and social commentary on the unfair stigma placed on women who have abortions. It's hard to think of many actresses who would be able to pull off the comic timing and engaging candor it requires.

Familiar comedy tropes may form the basic framework of "Obvious Child", but it's a film that succeeds on its own terms. It's an entertaining, funny acting showcase that just happens to have serious issues on its mind. I'm sure you'll be craving more Jenny Slate after watching it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: 8 Mile


When it was announced back in 2002 that Eminem was set to star in a loosely autobiographical film called "8 Mile", I must admit that I dismissed it as a vanity project. With no acting experience to speak of, I assumed it was just a way to take advantage of his highly popular music career. Even after hearing positive reviews, I still avoided the film for many years. You can therefore understand how taken aback I was to find out that the film is actually rather excellent.

"8 Mile" is the story of a young white rapper named Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith (Eminem), trying to make a name for himself in Detroit's underground scene. The title refers to 8 Mile Road, a dividing line between the urban city area and the more affluent suburbs. As is the case with gentrification, it results in racial separation with the inner city becoming predominantly populated by minorities. There are exceptions to the rule however, as is the case with our protagonist's blue-collar white family. Living with his unemployed single mom in her trailer, B-Rabbit comes to the realization that he has to find a way out.

When we're first introduced to B-Rabbit, he's preparing for a rap battle hosted by his close friend David "Future" Porter (Mekhi Phifer). Warming up in sweats, he could be easily mistaken for a fight. He seems confident until we realize his true nature - he has crippling stage fright. Puking over himself due to nerves, it's no surprise when he chokes in front of the hostile audience. Quickly losing his all-important respect, it seems like his journey to success has been curtailed before it began.

These ideas of fear and respect are explored quite well in the subsequent plot. Much of that is due to Eminem's impressive performance in the lead role. Showing the intuition of veteran actors, he nails the character's frustrations, passion and oppressive fear. I believed every word and gesture. The script makes him work hard too, refusing to allow him to hide behind his well-known musical talent. Despite its main thrust of a budding music career, screenwriter Scott Silver makes a smart decision to avoid musical territory. As such, it allows Eminem to flex his acting muscles through subplots involving romance and domestic drama.

There are numerous other examples that illustrate how shrewd Silver's script is. Take for instance, the rapport between B-Rabbit and his slacker friends. They often discuss their dreams for the future, with the main goal of acquiring wealth and the female attention it brings. They have a clear objective but no actual strategy to achieve it. This trend of "plans without planning" is an unfortunate attitude that plagues many young people in poor neighbourhoods (and even others who are more fortunate). They often lack the means the pursue their goals but they are also influenced by a society that suppresses their ambition. It all relates to that theme of fear, a throughline that is evident in nearly all the film's characters. It's a fear of failure, fear of disappointment and most significantly, it's a fear of the hard work it takes to gain a better life.

Curtis Hanson's directing and technical detailing is also quite deft. In approaching the theme of earning respect within the rap community, he does a great job visualizing the extreme pressure of B-Rabbit's white infringement into a black world. The rap battle scenes make this particularly vivid, with the tight framing emphasizing the pressure cooker atmosphere of his presence in front of the homogenized mass of dark figures. Their imposing taunts and ridicule make the cathartic final battle all the more gratifying.

The filmmaking is indeed remarkably assured but most of all, "8 Mile" thrives on the back of its characters. Apart from Eminem, I must also single out Brittany Murphy as his love interest and Kim Basinger as his mother. Murphy is absolutely radiant in the film, acting like a muse to B-Rabbit and enlivening the film with her presence. Meanwhile, Basinger was digging into her own role like it was destined to deliver her another Oscar. Bless her heart, she didn't realize that it wasn't her movie but she's terrific in her scenes.

So you see, there's more than meets the eye when it comes to "8 Mile". Eminem certainly proved that he has the acting chops and Curtis Hanson obviously approached the material with the same level of care as his "prestige" dramas. It took a long time to get here but just like B-Rabbit, this film eventually earned my respect.

Friday, September 19, 2014

REVIEW: Cantinflas


The biopic is a genre that has come under much scrutiny from cinephiles over the years. For some, it’s cherished for its reliably inspiring design. For others it’s mere “Oscar bait”, emblematic of Hollywood’s aversion to more daring material. No matter how you feel about the genre however, all signs indicate that these true life stories won’t be going away any time soon. The challenge therefore, is finding a way to stand out within the confines of the genre. In the case of Cantinflas, Sebastian del Amo attempts to shake up this formula by approaching its subject with a light, comic approach.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, September 15, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: To Kill A Man


We all have a breaking point. For some, it could come from merely an insult. For others, it takes years of injustice. In a civilized society, most people would never be in a situation where they’re agitated to carry out the action in this film’s title – "To Kill A Man". In this brooding drama, Alejandro Fernández Almendras uses the psychology of murder to raise interesting questions. Mainly, what if your family’s survival depended on it?

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, September 13, 2014

REVIEW: The Little Bedroom


Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond's "The Little Bedroom" is a film with death on its mind. In its first scene, a Swiss man explains his upcoming emigration plans to his aging father who remarks "I'll try to die in August, so you can come to my funeral". It's a comment made in jest but founded in reality. Such thoughts plague the minds of our protagonists, in this surprisingly gratifying story that deals with loss and companionship.

Confined to the indoor boundaries of nursing homes and private residences, "The Little Bedroom" hones in on the personal lives of the aforementioned Edmond (Michel Bouquet) and his nurse Rose (Florence Loiret Caille). When we're introduced to the diabetic Edmond, he's being taken on a visit to the nursing home where his son wants him to be re-located, a proposition he staunchly rejects. He prefers to remain at home with the comforting presence of Rose. Despite his typical elderly stubbornness, the two have a mutual understanding. They're not exactly compatible personalities but as the plot unfolds, it's revealed that they share struggles with loss. For him, it's the loss of his independence, vitality and family. In Rose's case, she suffers from memories of the loss of a son during childbirth, exacerbated by a husband who wants to move on. These factors cause them to lead melancholic lives but together they are content. Edmond one day suffers from a fall however, forcing Rose to take drastic measures to ensure that they maintain their relationship. Moving him into her own home, they strengthen their bond further, digging deep into their wells of despair to find hope and a new zeal for life.

In approaching this character study of our protagonists, "The Little Bedroom" carries itself with a warm simplicity. It prioritizes heartfelt storytelling over bold direction or camerawork. As such, one could almost see it as a less harrowing version of Michael Hanekes "Amour". Surely, this film may not live up to Haneke's accomplished filmmaking, but its screenplay places no less demands on its actors.

Indeed, the film's success relies on the abilities of Caille and Bouquet to keep you engaged with their emotional journey. Along they way, they prove to be fine casting choices. Despite the sombre tone, Bouquet is a shining light in the film. Decades of acting experience are evident in the way he embodies the character's labored physicality as well as his subtle expressions of Edmond's inner soul. Caille's bigger performance is similarly affecting, but her traces of self-awareness are no match for his lived-in minimalism.

Where the film falters then, is keeping so much of the focus on Rose, whose problems just don't carry the same dramatic weight as Edmond's fragile health and the associated existentialism. Admittedly, the significance of the titular "little bedroom" provides a beautiful turning point that bridges the pair's issues. It's really a nice touch. Still, it doesn't salvage a script which finds itself straining for poignancy in its closing stages.

In the end, "The Little Bedroom" is unlikely to have fired up your emotions but it's an agreeable effort. I'd recommend it mainly for Michel Bouquet's endearing performance, one that flickers with gentle reminders of life's treasures - music, family, friendship and of course love. For these moments of graceful humanity, it's a film that's worth a look.

Friday, September 12, 2014

COMING SOON: New York Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center proudly presents the 52nd annual New York Film Festival and guess who'll be going? That's right, I'll be heading up to the festival once again armed with press credentials to cover the fest during October 3-6. It's sure to be another exciting experience with a great lineup of films in store. To give us a preview, a trailer has been released with snippets of the various films. Check it out below:

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Borgman


It's that time of year again, when all the snobs complain about the "Oscar bait" films being unleashed at the various fall festivals. Once an easily identifiable descriptor, the term has proven to be increasingly meaningless over the years, seeming to encompass any drama film that becomes popular. As an awards fan, it should come as no surprise that I'm one of those who embrace the prestige drama. However, as I sat down to watch Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman" recently, I realized that there is some truth behind the derogatory term.

In most Hollywood productions, there are clear distinctions between good and evil. Not just from the audience's perspective, but also for the characters in the film. Each role is motivated by a the character's personal philosophy and outlook. It's how we know who are the protagonists and antagonists. But what happens when there aren't these opposing forces? What if the evil trounces the good without any cause? Well, that's exactly what we get in "Borgman", a largely cruel story that pushed me too far out of my comfort zone.

When we first meet the titular Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) he seems fairly innocent, pitiful even. Residing in an underground makeshift home, he is chased away by a group of unidentified armed men. After making his escape out of the woods, he eventually arrives at the home of a wealthy family and asks for a bath. As expected, the owners Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis) refuse the unkempt stranger. Borgman is resolutely determined though, so he makes up a story about being formerly nursed by Marina in a past life. She promptly denys it, but is unable to alleviate her husband's suspicions and things escalate. Soon, Richard has attacked Borgman, leaving him unconscious. When Marina returns to tend to him, he has vanished. Little does she know that he will soon return, infiltrating her home to covertly upend everything in her life.

Borgman embarks on his sinister plan by cleaning himself up and appealing to Marina's feelings of guilt. He manages to befriend her and convince Richard to hire him as their new gardener. With seemingly good intentions, he even forms a bond with their 3 young children and the nanny. Soon enough, everyone is under his spell (except for Richard) and he unleashes psychological terror that manifests itself in deadly ways.

Like Marina, I was initially entranced by Borgman. The burgeoning relationship between the pair had me invested, curious to understand his peculiar behaviour (as well as that of his accompanying team of sociopaths) and her perplexing fascination with him. There are no false notes in either performance. This is especially true of Minis, conveying a woman who is brimming with inner life. It's too bad that the script forces her to become frustratingly foolish in order to facilitate its overly sinister endgame. What started out as a darkly comic antagonism of the comfortable middle class becomes something that is off-putting with its nihilism. As such, it lost any allegorical power it aspired to.

There's certainly a lot of originality to admire in "Borgman". Despite the distinctive images and interesting performances though, it ended up feeling like too much purposeless shock value. Perhaps I'm just not ready for this level of "art film". Maybe if you wrap this up in a more moralistic "Oscar bait" package I'd be on board.

Monday, September 8, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: When Harry Met Sally...


My top pick this week is Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally...", a small romcom that turned into one of the most interesting success stories. Like so many other classics, this tale of friends who become lovers was released with modest ambitions in 1989. Using the "platform" strategy, the film used strong word of mouth to become a major box office hit. Decades later, it has established itself in pop culture as a quintessential romcom, to the point where even those who haven't seen it (myself included) are familiar with its legacy. You can't discuss the genre without mentioning Nora Ephron or Meg Ryan. All it takes is one viewing of this seminal film to erase all doubts as to the value of their contribution.

The thesis of "When Harry Met Sally..." hinges on a single question - "Can men and women ever just be friends?". It arises in the beginning of film when our male lead Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), declares his negative stance on the matter to his new acquaintance Sally Albright (Meg Ryan). He claims that "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way", much to the dismay of the more optimistic Sally. His macho cynicism gets them off on the wrong foot and the young graduates part ways following their shared ride to New York from the University of Chicago. Years later, a pair of chance encounters following failed romantic relationships causes them to confide in each other. Challenging Harry's initial position, they decide to form a platonic friendship which sustains them for a long time to come. As time goes by however, their unexpressed mutual attraction threatens to complicate their lives. Spanning more than 10 years, the plot moves towards its all-important resolution - will Harry and Sally end up as friends, apart or lovers?

Watching "When Harry Met Sally..." for the first time turned out to be one of my most surprising experiences of introduction to a classic. Considering its reputation within a now cliché genre, it's a film that's refreshingly unassuming. More often than not, comedic romance films rely on screwball elements to bring the central couple together. It seems like you can't have a romcom today - really, this goes all the way back to the 1930s - without some major moment of humiliation to bring the characters together. Of course, when it's well done it can be hilariously effective. Gauging from the general dismissal of romcoms however (from critics at least), it seems like the genre is running out of ideas in its attempts to stage the next iconic pratfall. For "When Harry Met Sally..." on the other hand, there's no need for grand absurdity (yes, including the famous "fake orgasm" scene) in order for it to satisfy audiences. Its understated humour is one of the main reasons why it still holds up so well today.

For me, the best word to describe "When Harry Met Sally..." is effortless. From top to bottom, it shows its brilliance with seeming ease. In the background, Harry Connick Jr.'s perfectly curated soundtrack of standards is sweetly romantic. Behind the camera, Rob Reiner's direction is light and unfussy but always purposeful. On top of it all, the writing and acting give a thoughtful, honest depiction of various types of relationships and the influence of time on our lives.

Deservedly Oscar-nominated, Nora Ephron's screenplay gives an excellent showcase of well-written characters and dialogue. It starts out with the pervasive "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" gender dichotomy and grows into a more meaningful exploration of the unique affectation between opposite sex best friends. From the perspective of a straight male, I found the dynamic between Harry and Sally to be instantly relatable. Throughout all the phases of their relationship, their conversations and changing philosophies were insightful and honest. As they encountered life's triumphs and tribulations, I laughed along with them and I also felt their pain. It may be a relatively short film (96 minutes), but it's incredibly rich and fully-formed.

Of course, the world's best script would be moot without the believable chemistry of its co-stars. Luckily, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were the perfect match. Their chemistry is of the naturalistic, relaxed variety and it makes their relationship entirely believable. The lack of sexual heat works in the film's favour, allowing them to develop their close relationship on a more solid foundation than mere physical attraction. They're individually very compelling too, especially Meg Ryan as the more high-maintenance half of the duo. Her particular mix of affable cuteness and unapproachable beauty makes you fall in love with her, even in her most grating scenes. It's no wonder that Hollywood milked her charm for all it's worth, making her the go-to female romantic lead of the 90s. As we all know, her career hit a slump after that but when she was on top, there was hardly anyone who could match her appeal. Tell me, has there ever been another utterance of "I hate you" that was so disarmingly romantic?

In short, I was thoroughly impressed by "When Harry Met Sally...". It really solidified my belief in the underrated cinematic potential of the "chick flick". Like the oft-referenced "Casablanca" in the film, it fully earns its reputation as a timeless gem among the screen's long history of love stories.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

OLDIE GOLDIES: Gone With The Wind (1939)


Vivien Leigh with her Best Actress Oscar

"Oldie Goldies" returns with a bang this week, as we shine a spotlight on "Gone With The Wind". This epic film is known for its immaculate production values and stellar cast, especially Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. Her performance is perfectly judged, nailing the role's self-involved superficiality while also giving it incredible nuance. It's truly one of the greatest female characters and performances of all time. It's no surprise that the film was hugely successful at the Oscars, winning in 8 categories - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. It was also nominated for Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Sound, Best Special Effects and Best Original Score.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Matrix


This season of Hit me with your best shot sadly comes to a close this week, as we take a look back at a seminal sci-fi film "The Matrix". This film became a real cultural phenomenon of the 90s with its brainy premise, awesome stunts and impressive effects. Naturally, some of these aspects seem dated today but the film remains as entertaining as ever. I was actually introduced to this film quite late (July 2010) and it still lived up to the hype. I was really blown away by how "cool" it was, much of it due to how well shot it is. Every frame is a feast for the eyes.

For my best shot then, I simply chose one of the many images that had me internally hollering with glee.

Click below for my favourite shot...