Monday, August 3, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Fort Tilden


It took a while for "Fort Tilden" to finally hit theaters, but the 2014 SXSW Grand Jury Award winner is finally here, and its upcoming August release couldn’t have been more timely. As we head into the final dog days of summer, this indie comedy portrays a common objective – going to the beach. In this case, the beach is Fort Tilden, and for best friends Allie and Harper, the journey is even more important than the destination.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, August 1, 2015

REVIEW: Dhoom


Nothing says "Hollywood" quite like a big budget action movie. From "Fast and the Furious" to "Mission: Impossible", the American film industry is basically living off the receipts from such popular entertainments. It's no surprise then that the world's biggest film industry (Bollywood) would seek to imitate this phenomenon and thus, similar film franchises like the "Dhoom" trilogy were born. The Bollywood-Hollywood mashup of the first installment however, is an unfortunate example where the formula fails when all the right elements aren't in place.

"Dhoom" largely takes place in Mumbai, where a new motorcycle gang has sprung up on the streets, looting banks and other businesses. They've eluded the authorities with ease and the Assistant Commissioner of Police Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan) has decided that he's had enough. In order to stop the gang's leader Kabir (John Abraham) and his followers, he enlists the help of a pesky thief named Ali (Uday Chopra), who infiltrates the group as a new member. But Kabir has a few tricks up his sleeves, as he aims for bigger targets, including a major casino in the tourist haven of Goa, India. The pressure is on, as Jai and Ali must pool all their skills to stop the criminals from getting away with their biggest heist yet.

Directed by Sanjay Gadhvi, "Dhoom" looks to be crafted as a star vehicle for Abishek Bachchan and John Abraham, with ample gratuitous scenes where they both get to pose and look "cool". This is where the film falters from the outset however, as the star wattage is low with these two performances. Indeed, both actors seem to be approximating their idea of "Hollywood movie star", but their generic takes fall flat, bordering on amateurish. Admittedly, Abraham's does find his bad boy groove towards the end - it helps that he looks the part - but the usually charismatic Bachchan is flat, especially when paired with the cartoonish Uday Chopra as his sidekick. As for the two female characters (Jai's wife and Ali's love interest), they serve no purpose apart from being eye candy as they get drenched in water for no reason. Seriously, both are introduced in musical scenes where they get hosed down and dance in the rain respectively. Oy vey!

This discord between Bachchan's mellow performance and the flashy movie around him, particularly highlights the fundamental clash of styles that plagues "Dhoom". As pure action filmmaking, it lacks the scale and audacity required to get your heart racing. Mired in limp procedural and low stakes motorbike action, the pacing is off and genuine thrills are sorely lacking.

Likewise, as your typical Bollywood musical masala - a uniquely Indian mix of action, comedy, romance and drama - it also fails to entertain. Juxtaposed with the more serious tone of the action-thriller tropes, the haphazard song-and-dance interludes come across as corny, especially since the songs are so forgettable. Mainstream Bollywood films are almost always entertaining if nothing else, so something is clearly not right here.

Essentially, "Dhoom" isn't big enough to replicate Hollywood spectacle and it's not masala enough to have that Bollywood appeal. Though I count myself as a fan of this film's sequel "Dhoom 2" (a major improvement in every regard), I remain baffled that it managed to spawn such a wildly successful franchise (the biggest in Bollywood history). Too frivolous to be taken seriously and too blandly serious to be an effective parody, this bastard child of Bollywood-Hollywood intercourse is stuck in no man's land.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

COMING SOON: Straight Outta Compton

If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that there will never be a shortage of biopics. Next month however, there's one that looks like it may bring something different. F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" will tell the story of the legendary group N.W.A, but it seems like it will be as much about the social climate of 1980s California as it is about the artists. Now, I'm hardly an aficionado of old school hip hop, but I'm looking forward to the performances from these virtual unknowns. Who knows, we might find our next breakout star. The film is already getting good early buzz, as the review embargo is being lifted very early (i.e. tomorrow). That's always a good sign. Check out the trailer below:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Safe


This week's Hit me with your best shot takes us back to the 90s for a special film by Todd Haynes called "Safe". If you haven't seen it, quit reading now and go watch it blind. That's the approach I took and it was really eye-opening. The film follows Julianne Moore a suburban housewife named Carol, who becomes inflicted with a strange illness called multiple chemical sensitivity, where her body basically rejects all the synthetic chemicals in our modern environment. Her condition eventually gets to the point where she struggles to breathe. It's so horrifying that I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

But even more fascinating than the disease, is the surprising direction of the plot. Living in the "Gone Girl" era and knowing Moore's predilection for playing dissatisfied housewives, I was initially expecting her to break free from her dull, seemingly "sterile" environment. Well, she does eventually escape, but for the exact opposite reason! I was really quite intrigued by this narrative, which lead me to my choice for best shot...

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 27, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Far From the Madding Crowd


In a countryside locale in Victorian era England, a headstrong farm owner named Bathsheba must decide whether to accept a marriage offer from three different men. So reads the general plot description of "Far from the Madding Crowd", the latest cinematic iteration of British novelist Thomas Hardy's most commonly adapted work (along with "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"). Like John Schlesinger and Roman Polanski before him, this romantic drama is Thomas Vinterberg's attempt to successfully translate Hardy's seemingly quaint stories to the big screen. And while a true Hardy film masterpiece still eludes us, his vision comes quite close.

As already stated, "Far from the Madding Crowd" revolves around a love quadrangle (or rectangle?) between Bathsheba and three men of distinctly different personalities and backgrounds. The first suitor she meets is Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), a humble sheep farmer with big aspirations. The second, Frank (Tom Sturridge), is a rakish Sergeant already betrothed to another. Finally, there's William (Michael Sheen), a wealthy but lonely middle-aged man. All three vie for Bathsheba's affections throughout the narrative, and circumstances lead her to eventually say yes despite her independent spirit. But will she make the right choice? As the film seeks to answer this question, "Far from the Madding Crowd" beautifully explores the implications of Bathsheba's decisions in this agragrian society, where love, power and respect are intertwined with ownership of the land itself.

Like Bathsheba, Thomas Vinterberg had to solve his own puzzle in directing "Far from the Madding Crowd". Namely, how to make this 18th century literary material resonate with contemporary audiences? To address this he accomplished two things - make the film gorgeous to look at and cast each role to perfection.

Indeed, the visual storytelling is absolutely stunning, conveying the story's themes wonderfully. One particular scene in a forest stands out, when the scarlet red of Frank's uniform contrasts with the lush greens around him. These saturated colors are so breathtakingly gorgeous that it borders on fantasy. But even more importantly, the striking red figure instantly signifies the passion and danger associated with the character and the scene. All throughout the film, such similar examples exist which elevate the spectacle and make the film pop off the screen.

Speaking of popping off the screen, the most beautiful thing to look at is undoubtedly Carey Mulligan. Not since her breakout performance in "An Education" has she been this ravishing on screen. A combination of Janet Patterson's flattering costumes and Mulligan's own poise make her Bathsheba truly one of the most spellbinding characters of the year. Having watched this film merely hours after the similarly feminist "Trainwreck" made her interpretation all the more fascinating to me. The way she plainly states (with a smile on her face) to her first suitor "I'm too independent for you", aligns her more with modern women than the defiant Lizzie Bennets of her time. Her warm, contemporary spin is an unexpected delight.

Mulligan's performance isn't the only acting triumph in the film either. All three of her love interests find the truth in their characters in such captivating ways. Sheen's sympathetic vulnerability is certainly a highlight.

Ultimately, "Far from the Madding Crowd" suffers from the best flaw you can have, in that it's almost too perfect. Having not read the source novel, the film hints at a level of earth-shattering emotional turmoil that it doesn't fully deliver to the audience. Likewise, the behaviour of the characters largely follows the expectations associated with these stock types. So by the time it wraps up with its neat ending, you're left feeling a little underwhelmed despite its undeniable virtues. You therefore won't find me complaining about the next inevitable remake. For the time being however, the overall loveliness of this version will suffice.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: VMA Nominees


For this special episode of Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel flipped the script on us, assigning this year's MTV VMA nominees for Best Cinematography as this week's topic. The recently announced honorees include music videos from Flying Lotus, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, FKA Twigs and Alt-J. To be honest, it's not the most visually stimulating set of nominees overall, but I did have some very brief thoughts for my best shot picks...

Click below for my favourite shots...

Monday, July 20, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Ardor


John Maclean already claimed the title "Slow West" for his Michael Fassbender-starrer this summer, but there’s another Western in theaters that fits the bill even better. In "Ardor", the Western heads south for an Argentinian take from director Pablo Fendrik. Replacing the desert plains of the Wild West with a lush jungle setting, the film plunges us into a brooding, dangerous world.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Sunset Boulevard


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we looked at none other than "Sunset Boulevard", Billy Wilder's immortal film noir about a forgotten film star. Released in 1951, this extraordinary film was beloved since its premiere (unlike some other re-evaluated classics) and continues to be appreciated today. It's hardly surprising, since its central conceit - the cutthroat nature of the film industry and its unfair treatment of actresses - still applies to modern times. Not a day goes by without an article about the poor state of women in Hollywood.

This continued sociocultural relevance accentuates the underlying feeling of "Sunset Boulevard", which is one of deep sadness. No matter how crazy Norma Desmond may be, I always find her incredibly sympathetic. Every time I watch the film, I'm silently rooting for her comeback. Here we have someone who was one of the best at her chosen profession - and made many people rich in the process - and yet was abruptly sabotaged by the new technology. The tragedy of it all is so incisively relayed through the sharp dialogue, when Norma proclaims "Without me, there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio".

Unfortunately, none of that mattered in a town full of egotistical, uncaring people. But like Max, I still appreciate her, and that's why I chose the image below as my best shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 13, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Inside Out


After relinquishing the animation spotlight to Laika and parent company Disney over the last two years, Pixar is back with a vengeance with no less than two new films this year - "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur". The first of this duo, "Inside Out", has already been released earlier this summer to fervent acclaim, following a high profile premiere at Cannes. For fans of the studio - i.e. most cinephiles - the film was a triumphant return to form, proving they hadn't lost their knack for executing original concepts with appeal for the whole family.

"Inside Out" is the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley and the complex set of emotions that exist in her mind. The film takes place in one pivotal year in her life, when her family packs up their Minnesota home to move to San Francisco, turning her world upside down in the process. As Riley struggles to adjust to her new environment, it's up to her anthropomorphic emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness) to keep her stable. Lead by Joy (Amy Poehler) in Riley's mental Headquarters, "Inside Out" thus takes us on an adventure through the mind of a little girl, revealing the memories and relationships which define her personality.

As I sat and watched this film unfold, I couldn't help but remember an article written by Tim Brayton, resident animation expert over at The Film Experience. In praising Laika as the most exciting animation studio right now, he remarked on one of the core problems holding back mainstream animated films. He stated that they all follow a basic plot structure, "where the first third builds a world, the second third is about making the characters feel feelings, and the final third is a chase sequence". Essentially, Hollywood animated films are hamstrung by the need to appeal to an ADHD mentality, favoring manic adventures to draw in the kids.

Being a product of the referenced Hollywood system, this observation is of significant relevance to "Inside Out", forming the basis of the single fundamental qualm I had with this otherwise outstanding film. Having arrived late to the game in critical discussion of this one, its reputation already preceded it. The reports coming out of screenings spoke of adults in tears, and there numerous thinkpieces about the film's accuracy in depicting childhood depression. With this knowledge in mind (as well as its basic premise), I came into it expecting a deep character study about Riley and her state of mind. But despite good intentions, "Inside Out" is primarily about the Joy and Sadness characters, and their adventure through Riley's world of longterm memories. Glimpses into the implications on Riley herself were disappointingly brief.

That "Inside Out" manages to still be so affecting is thanks to incredible work from its voice actors, particularly Amy Poehler as Joy. Through her lively character, we get the film's most meaningful message about emotions. Joy's constant optimism and "never say never" attitude to the plot's most challenging obstacles shows how true joy is a feeling that requires conscious effort. While the film struggles to uphold its own logic with regards to depression (how does Riley get so depressed if Sadness isn't controlling Headquarters?), the mere vigour of Joy is able to emphasize the film's theme that depression is waiting to afflict you if you let your guard down.

Though "Inside Out" may not be quite the emotional powerhouse that a Studio Ghibli or a Laika would have likely envisioned, its premise still satisfies greatly on an artistic and entertainment level. Indeed, the film is relentlessly funny, and it manages this through cleverness and wit rather than dumbed-down broad humour. You certainly can't accuse this script of being unoriginal, as the world it creates offers up genius concepts - like personality islands, a dream production film studio and a literal Train of Thought - that are all too rare in contemporary animated films. Overall, it may suffer from being overworked to cater to the youngest of audiences, but that's always a compromise inherent in today's family-oriented fare. With such a gifted voice cast, a brilliantly hilarious plot and rare depth to its pathos, "Inside Out" emerges as one of the strongest animated films we'll see this year, or any year for that matter.