Sunday, February 7, 2016

PAFF: Where Children Play


After blazing the screen in "Dear White People" and "Chi-Raq", Teyonah Parris adds another compelling performance to her growing resume through "Where Children Play". In this new drama from Leila Djansi, Parris plays the lead role of a woman who is forced to face a tragic past. And as she digs through her character’s scars, this rising actress proves her ability to elevate even the most conventional narratives.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, February 6, 2016

PAFF: America is Still The Place


In a recent Hollywood Reporter discussion on diversity in film, an important point was brought up about narratives featuring minority protagonists. Namely, the fact that these films often have to be about “the most amazing person of that race who’s ever lived” in order to be successful. White protagonists on the other hand, are allowed to be just regular people who “did a thing”. Director Patrick Gilles attempts to challenge this dichotomy however, with his second feature film "America is Still The Place", a biopic about a black everyman who fights for his small share of the proverbial American pie.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, February 1, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: As I Open My Eyes


This week's top pick "As I Open My Eyes" takes us to North Africa for the rare Tunisian film to make it big on the world scene. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, "As I Open My Eyes" is the promising debut feature from Leyla Bouzid. Telling a poignant story of personal and social revolution, it's easy to see why this French-Tunisian co-production has already won festival plaudits for both Best European Film and Best Arab Feature.

Set during the eve of the period of social upheaval known as the "Arab Spring", the film follows 18-year old Farah (Baya Medhaffer), a bright young woman living in the Tunisian capital with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali). Having recently passed her college entrance exams with flying colors, Farah has a bright future ahead. But exactly what that future holds is the source of contention between the mother-daughter pair. As lead singer of a rock band gaining in popularity on the basis of overtly political music, she hopes to develop her skills by studying musicology. But Hayet insists on a more sensible and crucially, safer career in medicine. Both refuse to compromise however, and Farah continues to play the music circuit in the local bar scene, a decision which could lead to dangerous consequences.

"As I Open My Eyes" refers to the lyrics of one of Farah's songs, which laments the state of the nation as injustice grows rampant and opposing voices are silenced. To see her perform it, you can immediately understand the gist of its intentions, as Medhaffer's eyes convey all the sorrow in each phrase. In an eye-opening debut role, Baya Medhaffer delivers an emotional honesty that completely draws you in, as one of the film's fascinating central female characters.

Indeed, "As I Open My Eyes" joins recent films like Haifaa al-Mansour's "Wadjda" in its complex approach to depicting Arab women. With her curly hair and carefree demeanor, Farah looks like your typical Western teenager, living in a comfortable middle class home where her independent mother is the head of the house (the father is mostly absent for work). But even as they could easily fit in with a more progressive lifestyle, Farah's impending adulthood reveals how longstanding societal norms can stifle even the most free-minded individuals.

And Tunisia is an ideal setting for this story, being one of the more liberal nations in the Arab world. Many scenes involve heavy drinking and other vices, as Farah and her friends engage in typical teenage behaviour. As expected, Farah comes under the heaviest scrutiny as a female, as partiarchial customs frown on her liberal attitude towards sex and alcohol.

But what becomes uniquely interesting about this quintessentially feminist script is how we come to understand Hayet's perspective. Delivering even more subtext than what's on the page, Benali gives subtle hints that Hayet and her daughter are in fact, kindred spirits. And in doing so, the film shows how people's actions are so strongly influenced by societal pressures rather than personal beliefs. Even as the film insists on painting her as a villain - to almost murderous ends - we leave with the impression that, under different circumstances, Hayet would be rocking out in the front row in support of her daughter.

"As I Open My Eyes" ends with a simple utterance of "continue", referring to Farah's musical exploits in the face of adversity. And the scene speaks to the power of music, which pervades throughout both the film's content and the filmmaking itself. Indeed, the film excels most during Farah's performances, where both director and actor seem to be at their most passionate. But even outside of those moments, there's also an underlying musicality to the filmmaking overall, in the way the camera tracks Farah's movements, the smooth editing, and of course, the melodious score. If it's true that music is the universal language, it's therefore no wonder this film is such a compelling, empathetic success.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 10 Films of the Year


And here we come to the big list, my Top 10 Films of 2015. As I think back on the year that was, I'm reminded of an article by the great Courtney Small of Cinema Axis, who opined that too many cinephiles were being unfair to the year's films, claimint that they were "good" but not good enough. From where I stand, I would tend to agree with the masses that there weren't as many stone cold masterpieces as in year's past. But Courtney does raise valid points however, as the year was far from disappointing for me. By my estimation, no less than 30 films merited a 4-star rating, which certainly suggests a satisfying year at the movies indeed.

As for the outstanding films below, they reflected a year full of unexpected gems, just like the year's best performances. In a year where when personal faves Ridley Scott, Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg brought new work to the table, my Top 10 instead comprised of 2 debut features, 2 documentaries and a wealth of variety in genres, countries and themes. And defiantly perched above them all was a trangender comedy that was shot on an iPhone. If that doesn't excited about the future of cinema, I don't know what will.

As we look towards another year, I therefore put forth the mantra to "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Movies". Too often critics over-analyze the art of films and forget that films are also entertainment.

So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of 2015, complete with gifs (we don't have the budget for a David Ehrlich video, sorry) and quotes from my reviews.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but...THIS AWARDS SEASON IS CRAZY! As expected, even the SAG Awards were unpredictable, highlighted by Idris Elba's win for Best Supporting Actor, making him the first ever SAG winner without an Oscar nomination. Elsewhere, had crucial win for Best Ensemble, proving that the race is far from over. Here are tonight's winners:

Best Ensemble
Spotlight

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actor
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Friday, January 29, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


You know it's a crazy awards season when you can't even predict SAG. Indeed, a number of categories this year have huge question marks surrounding them. Is The Big Short about surge ahead, or are we due for another gamechanger? Here's how I think it'll all go down:

Best Ensemble
The Big Short

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actor
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 20 Acting Performances


When I think back on the year's best acting performances in film, the first word that comes to mind is "surprise". Of the 20 performances I most anticipated at the start of the year, only 2 of them ended up on this final list. Instead, a slew of dynamic duos, breakout stars, comedians-gone-serious and A-listers at the top of their game came along and impressed me with their unforgettable turns. But most of all, 2015 was the year of the actress. Indeed, women dominated the top ranks of this Top 20, with a long line of other incredibly worthy performers just missing the cut. Compiling the following names was therefore as difficult as ever, but I'm happy with my choices. Here are the 20 performances that resonated with me the most in 2015:

Honorable Mention: Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 10 Documentaries of the Year


In case you didn't know this already, documentaries are consistently some of the best films of the year. Like many cinephiles I've shamefully neglected non-fiction filmmaking in the past, but I've been making a concerted effort to seek them out as of late. For 2015, I watched more documentaries than ever - including 14 of the shortlisted Oscar contenders -  and therefore felt it appropriate to shine an extra spotlight with this Top 10 list.

This year was a uniquely interesting one for the form. Although the subjects weren't as inherently fascinating as year's past (like art forger Mark Landis or the eccentric filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky last year), documentarians continued to impress with their filmmaking technique. Indeed, my Top 10 includes films that could easily be classified as courtroom dramas, thrillers, biopics and romantic comedies, and in some cases they even exceeded their fiction counterparts in both style and impact. It's clear that even if mainstream cinema seems to be losing quality, the artform of non-fiction filmmaking is still going strong. Here are the 10 best examples of this from 2015:

Monday, January 25, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Dil Dhadakne Do


There's a memorable scene in John Wells' underrated 2010 film "The Company Men" that still strikes a chord with me to this day. In it, a recently fired successful businessman (played by Ben Affleck) explains to his wife why he continues to wear a suit and tie, play golf and maintain his Porsche despite his unemployment. "I need to look successful" he says, reminding us of the value we place on public perceptions. Sure, he thereafter begins to lose the pretense and becomes a regular guy who learns what is more important in life. But even as he becomes more relatable towards the end, I was fascinated by how much I already sympathized with him in that earlier scene.

I bring up this film as I think about this week's top pick "Dil Dhadakne Do" and in general, how we empathize and better yet, find sympathy for certain narratives. Specifically, there seems to be a prejudice against films about "rich people's problems", exemplified so well last year in much of the criticism towards Angelina Jolie's "By The Sea". Before he even saw the film, I remember one tweeter deciding that this so-called "vanity project" couldn't possibly provide any appeal due to its premise of beautiful people in an idyllic local being miserable. We can tolerate anti-heroes and even outright villains, but what could be so interesting about unhappy rich people?

Well, Bollywood directors Farhan and Zoya Akhtar would surely have something to say about that. The brother-sister duo have made careers out of the "plight" of the upper class, with Farhan's debut "Dil Chahta Hai" widely regarded as a game-changing film for its novel depiction of a modern urban lifestyle and likewise, Zoya's similarly elitist "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was an awards/commercial/critical success that sent her straight to the upper echelon of contemporary Indian directors. Having grown up in the same social circles they often portray on film, they know this world well, and with their latest feature "Dil Dhadakne Do" (with Zoya directing, Farhan starring and both sharing writing responsibilities) they've once again shown an ability to make these "rich people problems" absolutely compelling.

"Dil Dhadakne Do" is centered around the wealthy Mehra family, who are about to embark on an eventful cruise to celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of the parents. Everything seems hunky dory, with all four seeming to enjoy success in their personal and professional lives. But like the aforementioned Ben Affleck character, it is soon revealed that they are all just keeping up appearances.

The patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor) is going through a rough patch at work, with his company nearing bankruptcy. But this threat of financial ruin is of the least concern for his wife Neelam (Shefali Shetty), who must put on a brave face despite their marriage having long run its course. Her daughter Ayesha (a successful travel agency owner played by Priyanka Chopra) knows a thing or two about failed marriages as well, having to hide her unhappiness towards her husband due to a society that frowns on divorce. The baby of the family however (Kabir, played by Ranveer Singh), has issues of a different sort. Happily single and being begrudgingly groomed to inherit his father's empire, all he wants to do is fly planes and avoid the pressures to get married. But as they all set sail - with family and friends in tow - on this new adventure, all their secrets will come to light as everyone finally starts to get real about themselves and their relationships with each other.

And what drama unfolds! To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about this film when I first noticed the 170 minute running time, but Akhtar delivers so much intrigue, character development and sheer entertainment value that the length is completely justified. Indeed, there's romance, melodrama, humour and infectious song-and-dance routines all packed into one glamorous, well-acted package.

I remember feeling that much of the world tour conceit of "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was just empty travel porn, and there are still traces of that here. But Akhtar has impressively refined her style to use her typically bright, sunny vistas to simply set the scene, while amping up the costume and set design to add character. And the result is a captivating visual aesthetic that fulfills all the aspirational, escapist qualities mainstream Bollywood is famous for.

But it all comes back to the strong writing, which keeps you engaged and leaves you completely rooting for these primary characters by the end. Even as the somewhat light touch may fool you, the film is undeniably making a statement about Indian society (women's rights, non-traditional careers, marriage). And while doing so, it helps you to better understand each individual's perspective. On the surface, Kabir may seem like a spoilt brat as he complains about his dad selling his plane, but we come to appreciate his humility. Ayesha may seem ungrateful towards her faithful hardworking husband, but we relate to her insecurities and regret. Neelam may seem like a fortunate woman with everything money can buy, but her underlying loneliness is heartbreaking. And finally, Kamal appears at first to be your sterotypical tyrannical patriarch, but his tough exterior gradually withers away to reveal a kind soul. Commendably, Akhtar never once shies away from their undeniable privilege, but she brilliantly makes their struggles feel valid and recognizable. They say our basic human needs are food, clothing and shelter. But even if you drink champagne like water, wear impeccably-tailored designer suits and live in a grand mansion, you still need freedom, love and respect to survive.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

COMING SOON: Race

As you may recall, last year I had a chat with Stephan James at a TIFF party in his honor. While there we talked about his upcoming film "Race", which finally releases in theaters next month. In a potentially star-making performance, James will play legendary athlete Jesse Owens, depicting his record-setting feats at the 1936 Olympic Games. Now, I know the February release is cause for concern, but director Stephen Hopkins ("The Life and Death of Peter Sellers") has enough pedigree to keep me optimistic. I'm definitely rooting for this to be a winner. Check out the trailer below:



"Race" releases in theaters February 19th.