Tuesday, July 29, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Cries and Whispers


This week on Hit me with your best shot we tackled a film by the esteemed Ingmar Bergman - "Cries and Whispers". This was my first viewing of the film and as expected, I found it to be a fascinating, singular piece of work. It even resonated with the Academy, managing some major nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay etc.). In my case, I was entranced by its ability to be so austere and yet highly emotional at the same time. The 4 actresses (Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann) are especially fabulous in this regard.

Of its 5 nominations, it managed to win Best Cinematography and it's certainly deserved. For this series, the image that stood out to me most is said to have deep thematic meaning for the film (the use of the colour red). I however, chose it as my best shot for purely aesthetic reasons. I love everything about it - the framing, the dresses, the actresses' poses, the decor. It looks like a high fashion editorial and strongly conveys Bergman's artful vision.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 28, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Snowpiercer


After much deliberation this weekend, I finally decided on my choice for "Movie of the Week". In a showdown between a pair of esteemed genre flicks by Asian directors, Joon-ho Bong's "Snowpiercer" just barely edged out Gareth Evans' "The Raid 2". In the end, the deciding factor proved to be the unique ambition of the former (as opposed to the entertaining but familiar nature of a sequel).

That ambition comes from the gonzo sci-fi premise. The film tells of a dystopian future where an experiment to combat climate change has gone wrong and caused the world to freeze over. There is no more life on earth, except for the few on board the Snowpiercer, a train that circles the globe in perpetuity and provides a fully-functioning living environment. As with any cinematic dystopia, the arrangement isn't fair to all, as the train is divided by class. The upper class stay towards the front, while the underprivileged are relegated to the desolate tail, with no hope of advancing their status. The arrangement stays stable for the most part, until the disadvantaged decide to revolt, staging a coup d'etat of sorts to get their chance at the happiness afforded to the elite.

As the action unfolds, the incredible vision of director Joon-ho Bong is quickly realized. The tone he creates is an interesting mix of styles. Firstly, the quirky characters (Tilda Swinton's defiant Minister Mason) and unusual set details (the strange protein blocks that are used as food) provide a touch of Terry Gilliams-esque whimsy. In addition, the visceral violence and extreme levels of human depravity remind you of the director's roots in Korean cinema. On top of all this, the high quality visuals and recognizable faces give it a compelling Hollywood sheen. It all comes together to make the film constantly interesting.

The stylistic flourishes are certainly inspired but perhaps more importantly, everything's in service of a very thrilling ride. These thrills are rooted in the film's remarkable efficiency. The script sets up the film's rules succinctly without long exposition and manages to find intriguing digressions within its obstacle course trajectory. In addition, the main cast of protagonists (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song) are uniformly strong, nailing each emotional and character beat with pointed urgency to keep things moving. As a result, the film maintains a high energy that keeps you on an adrenaline rush until the poignant climax. The film's setting may be confined and claustrophobic but it definitely feels epic in every sense of the word.

In summary, there's a lot to appreciate in "Snowpiercer". Even when the tonal shifts become admittedly irksome, it still invites me to always watch, listen and ponder with keen interest. It's the rare big-budget action movie that feels truly one of a kind.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

BEST ACTOR ROUNDTABLE: Marlon Brando


This week on the roundtable we took on the man, the myth, the legend. Click here to find out what we had to say about Marlon Brando.

Friday, July 25, 2014

BLOGATHON: 6 Degrees of Separation


We have another blogathon making the rounds from Nostra (from Myfilmviews) called "6 Degrees of Separation" and I was recently passed the baton from Josh at The Cinematic Spectacle. The rules are simple. Each participant must connect one actor/actress/director/movie to another actor/actress/director/movie in six connections or less.

Here are the previous participants:
Drew at A Fistful of Films
Sati at Cinematic Corner
Alex at And So It Begins
Steven at Surrender To The Void
Chris at Movies And Songs 365
Josh at The Cinematic Spectacle

My task is to connect James Stewart to Spike Lee. I decided to do it in 5 steps:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

COMING SOON: If I Stay


As you probably know, one of the biggest box office hits of the year was the cancer romance film "The Fault in Our Stars" (to the tune of $121 million domestic!). Based on a bestseller, it capitalized on its established fanbase and actually delivered a moving film with a strong Shailene Woodley performance. Next month, we could have a similar hit on our hand with the adaptation of Gayle Forman's novel "If I Stay". It stars Chloe Moretz in the lead role described as follows on IMDb:

"Life changes in an instant for young Mia Hall after a car accident puts her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to wake up and live a life far different than she had imagined."

Sounds grim right? After watching the trailer above, it seems like the tone could be overly maudlin. Whether it's good or not, I'm more interested to see how it performs at the box office. When a concept finds success (e.g. superhero movies) the studios are likely to churn out more films in the same vein. Will the "young lovers face death" become the next fad? Perhaps. The fact that these films are backed by major studios ("The Fault in Our Stars" was distributed by Fox) with wide releases means that these are expected to be big commercial properties.

If I Stay will be released by Warner Bros. on August 22nd.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Under the Skin


This week's assignment for Hit me with your best shot is a recent film that has thrilled many cinephiles since its debut nearly a year ago. 'Under the Skin' is the latest feature by Jonathan Glazer and it stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious predatory woman who roams the streets of Scotland. This was my first encounter with the film and man, I was captivated. Much of that is due to the mesmerizing performance by Johansson, in a role that plays well to her otherworldly beauty and effortless magnetism.

It's hard to think of anyone else in Hollywood who could have pulled off this role better. She's dangerous in the worst way (i.e. she's so irresistibly appealing!). I never once questioned why any of her victims would follow her into that dark creepy lair.

For my best shot then, I selected an image that relates to the power of Scarlett Johansson in this movie.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 21, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Shall We Dance?


Back in the 1997 awards season, a foreign film landed on American shores that seemed to universally capture the hearts of the nation's critics. Among the various high profile groups, it was either winning the Foreign Language Film award (BFCA, OFCS, NBR), or finishing in 2nd place (NYFCC, LAFCA, Boston Society of Film Critics). No, it wasn't a harrowing war drama or an obtuse art film. Rather, it was an unassuming Japanese drama about ballroom dancing titled "Shall We Dance?".

If the name sounds familiar, then you've perhaps seen the 2004 American remake starring Richard Gere. As you know, that one wasn't as well-received by this one certainly was. Both films tell the story of an overworked middle-aged man who has lost his zest for life. In this original version, the lead role (Shohei) is played by Koji Yakusho. One day during his regular commute from his accounting job, he spots a beautiful young woman (named Mai) in the window of a dance studio. Staring wistfully into the distance, she has him entranced and he soon devises a way to meet her. Eventually, he signs up for dance lessons in her studio, hoping to use the opportunity to get to know her better. Of course, she doesn't immediately fall at his feet and Shohei must then save face by seriously committing to his dance training.

Before the film gets into the meat of the plot, it sets the stage with a voice-over narration. In it Shohei explains Japan's conservative culture, whereby couples don't engage in public displays of affection. As such, ballroom dance is frowned upon for the expressive physical and emotional connection it requires. Even worse is when it's done between strangers. At the end of the narration however, Shohei notes that many Japanese are secretly fans of ballroom dance for the joy it brings.

For much of the film, this joy is clear. It's evident in our lead character whether he's energetically cycling down the street or blissfully dancing in the rain. Sharing the sentiment is his co-worker Tomio, another student at the studio who is a ballroom dance fanatic. Played by Naoto Takenaka, he provides the film's comic relief. Mugging away with a tacky wig and exaggerated gestures, he lacks the skill but has all the enthusiasm. Together with other students and instructors (Reiko Kusamura is particularly lovely as the kind, mature Tamako) they successfully convey the exhilaration that the film tries to get across. To further establish this, the person in the studio who is least keen - Mai, due to events in her past - is also the one who is most unhappy.

Where the film does falter for me though, is in exploring the social effects of Shohei's new hobby, as stated in the opening narration. Despite his romantic desires, Shohei is in fact a married man (with a daughter too). Due to the stigma of ballroom dance then (and the potential infidelity of course), he keeps his endeavours secret from his wife. It's a seemingly important aspect of the plot, as his absence does not go unnoticed at home. It's therefore curious and disappointing that the domestic drama (the source of his discontent in the first place) isn't addressed significantly until he's well on his way to becoming a champion dancer (it is a dance movie after all). Instead we spend a lot of time watching Tomio's eyesore dancing, time which could have easily been replaced to confront Shohei's family life just a little bit. Perhaps this was never the focus of the film, but it feels like a missed opportunity to fully enlighten the audience to the unique implications for this man, in this culture.

Having now watched the film, I'm still surprised that it became such a critical darling but I can see why it would inspire widespread appreciation. It doesn't satisfyingly fulfill all of its potential, but it gives you just enough surprises to feel fresh and compelling. Most importantly, it successfully translates the joy of dance to the viewer and leaves you on a high.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

BEST ACTOR ROUNDTABLE: Fredric March


On the latest Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable, we looked at the Oscar-winning performances of Fredric March. You can find that discussion here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Caesar's ready for his close-up!


I don't post random film news very often, but this one was too good to pass up. We all know that red carpet glamour and publicity are equally as important as the actual performance when it comes to Oscar campaigns. Just look at Lupita's slaying of the red carpet last year for example. Well, it looks like the team behind "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" are giving their star the similar treatment. Yep, Caesar is out there gracing magazine covers and putting us mere humans to shame! Many think that the Andy Serkis Oscar talk is just wishful thinking, but this is the kind of buzz that can keep him in the conversation. At the very least, the 2nd installment will hopefully rectify the shocking Visual Effects Oscar loss of its prequel.

Check out some of the shots below from Caesar's photoshoot for ShortList Magazine:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Batman: The Movie


Hit me with your best shot returns this week and it's a Batman celebration! For this assignment, Nathaniel had us select any of the 9 theatrically released Batman movies for our best shot. I decided to go with one that I hadn't yet seen - "Batman: The Movie" from 1966. Having now experienced this strange film, I now fully understand the extensive transformation that the comic book/superhero movie genre has undertaken.

Under the scrutiny of modern eyes, this film provides a unique challenge. It's the rare occasion where any criticism I can throw at the film could just as easily be interpreted as compliments. "Batman: The Movie" is dumb, phoney and slight...but that's exactly what they were aiming for! From the very beginning, it's clear that you shouldn't take this very seriously. The performances are just so chipper and tongue-in-cheek. Really, the events of the movie are just an elaborate private party game and you can't convince me otherwise.

Despite the relentless stupidity, it's a fun watch (that bomb disposal scene is comedic brilliance) and I eventually began to appreciate its warm embrace of its comic book origins. This lead to my pick for best shot below.

Click below for my favourite shot...