Wednesday, June 22, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Foreign Language Contenders


As we venture into the heart – and heat – of summer, the upcoming awards season may not be the most prominent thing on our minds. But with the recent conclusion of the influential Cannes Film Festival, the cards are already being put in place for one category in particular – Best Foreign Language Film. With an early October submission deadline, countries will be faced with tough decisions over the next few months. And in many cases, festival awards can prove to be the deciding factor.

This piece will therefore highlight some of the hot titles from the four major stops on the 2016 festival circuit so far (Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca and Cannes), all of which have premiered country submissions and nominees in recent years.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we took a foray into the New German Cinema movement, which lasted roughly from 1962 to 1982. This renaissance in German cinema propelled several talented filmmakers into international acclaim, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the director of this week's chosen film - "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant". Starring Margit Carstensen in a juicy role as the titular character, it's a rather talky film about a fashion designer lamenting her failed relationships.

And indeed, within the course of the film we witness her endure yet another failed relationship as a young beauty named Karin Thimm (played by the incomparable Hanna Schygulla) enters her life and absolutely upends it. By the end of the film, Petra is a broken shell of her former self. And this gin-soaked climax contains my pick for Best Shot, emphasizing Fassbinder's strong skill in staging characters within a frame.

In the shot below, we effectively see all the film's characters - if you include the doll who represents Karin - towering over a subdued Petra. Not only does it showcase the all-female cast, but it also includes the sight of the "Midas and Bacchus" painting, providing the setting's only male imagery (and perhaps even a reminder of Petra's other failed relationships). It's such an effective and revealing scene about the all-consuming power of desire, thanks in no small part to Michael Ballhaus' cinematography.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

REVIEW: Tikkun


Avishai Sivan’s "Tikkun" – winner of several festival awards last year – opens with a slaughter. Not a vindictive homicide however, but the traditional practice of kosher slaughter of meat, accompanied by prayer. As customary of Hasidic Jews, this is just one of the many religious observances we’ll witness being carried out by the film’s two pious main characters – Haim-Aaron and his father. Indeed, their lives are consumed by such rituals, but their faith will be put to the test when a near-death experience disturbs their worldview in this solemn, uncompromising drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

REVIEW: The Nice Guys


Everyone loves a comeback. Indeed, our obsession with seeing actors reinvent themselves has lead to the coining of portmanteaus like the McConaissance (for Matthew McConaughey) and the Reesurgence (for Reese Witherspoon). From the looks of Ryan Gosling's recent work, we may need to come up with another such term, as the actor has returned from a brief hiatus seemingly reinvigorated. Following from his brilliant turn in "The Big Short", the popular heartthrob shines in another comedic role in Shane Black's entertaining crime caper "The Nice Guys".

Set in 1970s Los Angeles, "The Nice Guys" teams up Ryan Gosling (as Holland March) and Russell Crowe (as Jackson Healy) as a private eye and enforcer hired to solve the interconnected case of Misty Mountains - a porn star who died in a fatal car crash - and Amelia - a young hippie girl who goes missing. On the surface, their task seems like a routine investigation involving small-scale local crime. But as they delve deeper into this underworld of the porn industry and the mob, the pair of misfits start to realize that they may be in way over head.

What follows is a hilarious romp through the city, as March and Healy - as well as March's streetsmart daughter Holly - embark on a wild misadventure. Despite the noir premise, Black keeps the tone light, often favoring dumb luck over shrewd crime-solving. And the comedy benefits from the shenanigans of an impressive ensemble, notably reuniting Crowe and Kim Basinger (who plays a high ranking government official) for a mini "L.A. Confidential" reunion.

To be honest though, the obvious linkage does the film no favours, as it lacks the distinctive style and atmosphere that made that 90s classic so great. And although it shares a similar tone, time setting and counterculture vs "The Man" theme, it doesn't hold a candle to the intricate storytelling of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice". Of course, the film deserves to be judged on its own terms. But although Black's screenplay is an original, it feels so standard issue that it begs comparisons.

Still, there's some strong filmmaking on display here. The editing is brisk, maintaining the high energy of the characters and the plot. And much of that strong editing is in service of some brilliant visual humor, seamlessly connecting the outrageous comic set-pieces.

But most of all, the film feels like an audition for Ryan Gosling's heretofore underused skills as a comedic actor. And he absolutely nailed it. Rarely has he appeared so relaxed and effortless on screen, willing to be self-deprecating with both his voice and body. It's certainly a drastic change from the brooding "Only God Forgives" role which preceded his break from acting. Indeed, "The Nice Guys" may not be the most memorable neo-noir buddy comedy, but I'm sure we'll remember its stellar Ryan Gosling performance for some time to come.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Trevor


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we went for something small scale with the short film "Trevor". But this excellent Oscar winner was far from unsatisfying, presenting a wonderful story about a boy who struggles to fit in due to his sexual orientation and his endless love for Diana Ross. Indeed, he gets by literally on "Endless Love", his favorite Diana Ross song.

And it's his rendition of that hit tune that provided my pick for best shot below, a perfect example of the film's macabre sense of humor. As Trevor attempts suicide by popping pills, he makes sure to joyously sing along to "Endless Love" one last time. For a moment, it gives you hope that the power of the music will make him change his mind. And in a way, the film's happy ending does support the popular saying that a fabulous diva can truly "give you life".

Sunday, June 5, 2016

REVIEW: The Fits


For as long as civilization has existed and into the foreseeable future, there will always be pressure on individuals to “fit in”. Particularly among younger generations, the expectations of “coolness” can be overwhelming. In her captivating debut feature "The Fits", Anna Rose Holmer explores this desire for belonging with a fresh, vibrant and triumphantly female perspective.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Film Review: The Idol


Earlier this year, American Idol aired its final episode after years of dominating the TV ratings. The phenomenon was the most successful of the Idols franchise, which included many iterations of the format around the world. One of those was Arab Idol, the Middle Eastern version of the competition which forms the basis for Hany Abu-Assad's latest feature "The Idol". Based on an inspiring true story, the film furthers Abu-Assad’s reputation for complex, humane portrayals of the Palestinian people.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, May 29, 2016

REVIEW: Barbershop: The Next Cut


In our era of hashtag activism, it's easier to complain about what's wrong with society and culture, rather than celebrating the more positive strides people are making everyday towards a better world. When it comes to the issue of diversity in film, one person who is certainly deserving of more praise is the multi-hyphenate film producer Ice Cube. Since his first feature "Friday" in 1995, to his latest installment in his Barbershop franchise, Ice Cube has always been savvy in his filmmaking exploits, with a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Especially when it comes to bringing the African-American experience to the big screen, he has proven time and time again that he knows how to speak to that niche audience. In "Barbershop: The Next Cut", that voice is as strong as ever, touching on meaningful contemporary issues without sacrificing his ability to entertain.

"Barbershop: The Next Cut" takes us back for another round of hijinks at Calvin's Barbershop. It's been 10 years since the last major fight to keep the doors open and things haven't gotten any easier. The surrounding community and the city of Chicago at large is plagued by rising violence, as gangs become more and more powerful in their attempts to claim their turf. With an impressionable young son growing up in this environment, the crime rate is of major concern to Calvin, who also has to worry about keeping his business afloat (now shared with a woman named Angie and her beauty salon). Inevitably, the violence starts to hit closer to home, creating a crisis that affects everyone, forcing Calvin and his gang to take a stand. But can their efforts really make an impact?

Hot off the heels of Spike Lee's impassioned plea for peace in "Chi-Raq", this film tackles the issue of violence in Chicago head on. Like that film, the unending cycle of tragedy makes way for an attempted truce that seems doomed to fail. But similarly, the message becomes more important than the actual solution, as the film wears its heart on its sleeve to show how collective action can prove change.

Indeed, the franchise has always been predicated on the power of family and community, whether it be Calvin and his employees, or the more literal family at the heart of the story. And the always reliable cast of actors take this to heart, creating believable chemistry that has grown increasingly effortless through the years. As expected, the highlight is once again Cedric the Entertainer's cantankerous Eddie, always dependable for a hilarious one-liner that seems to set the tone for the relentless laughs to come.

Along with Eddie and the other usual suspects, a number of new and colorful characters are introduced, including Nicki Minaj as Draya, Lamorne Morris as Jerrod and Utkarsh Ambudkar's Raja in the token non-black role as Raja. Admittedly, this new ensemble doesn't quite gel like the original team - mostly due to weaker character writing - but individually, they all add to the film's sharp dialogue-heavy dynamic.

And indeed, the words written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver bring up some interesting questions about blackness that prove why there's still life in this series of seemingly trivial films. Aside from the issues surrounding crime in the black community, the casually conversational premise allows the film to touch on deep topics without feeling heavy-handed. Among the topics discussed are the notion of "good hair", discrimination in a presumably post-racial America, the lingering effects of segregation and above all else, loyalty to the black community.

By and large these discussions are handled with great humor and intelligence, but the latter aspect continues to be one of the franchise's most nagging misteps. Once again, a central conflict of the story is Calvin's secret plans to seek a better life for his family. And like the previous films, he's made to feel ashamed for his ambition. For a film that promotes black empowerment, it's disappointing and contradictory to see this character being stifled for purely sentimental purposes.

Apart from this groan-worthy recurring trope however, "Barbershop 3: The Next Cut" is a laugh-a-minute crowdpleaser that is well worth your time. While it may not improve on the original, it is perhaps the most consistently funny and thought-provoking of the Barbershop films. Actor-producer Ice Cube has delivered another winner, one that should make Chicago proud and leave audiences longing for their next visit to this fine establishment.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

COMING SOON: The Fits

Ever since its premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits" has been quietly building acclaim along the festival circuit. Featuring a breakout performance by debut actress Royalty Hightower, the film has an intriguing premise about a young tomboy who tries to fit in with a dance troupe and soon notices they are plagued by a mysterious illness. From the looks of it, this could be one of this summer's indie gems. Check out the trailer below:



"The Fits" opens in theaters June 3rd.

Monday, May 23, 2016

REVIEW: Ma ma


As Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett – the character played by Taryn Manning in "Orange is the New Black" – can attest, there’s a difference between pain and suffering. “Pain is always there, but suffering is a choice.” These wise words (taken from that series’ recent trailer) are definitely relevant to the plot of Julio Medem’s latest film "Ma ma". Featuring Penelope Cruz in one of her most vulnerable roles to date, this star vehicle sees the acclaimed actress put on a brave face despite the hardships endured by her character in this understated, depressing cancer drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit