Friday, November 16, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations


As independent films become increasingly prevalent at the Oscars, the Spirit Awards are now seen as the first major set of nominations of the awards season. That bodes well for several films after this year's announcement of the nominees, with presumed Best Picture contenders "Eighth Grade", "First Reformed" and "If Beale Street Could Talk" showing early strength. With many buzzy titles being ineligible this year, it remains to be seen whether there will be much crossover with the Academy's eventual picks. There's still a long way to go yet. So for now, let's just celebrate this year's esteemed list of Spirit Awards nominees:

Best Feature
Eighth Grade
First Reformed
If Beale Street Could Talk
Leave No Trace
You Were Never Really Here

Best Director
Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Tamara Jenkins, Private Life
Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here
Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, The Wife
Toni Colette, Hereditary
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
Helena Howard, Madeline's Madeline
Carey Mulligan, Wildlife

Best Male Lead
John Cho, Searching
Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Christian Malheiros, Socrates
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

Best Supporting Female
Kayli Carter, Private Life
Tyne Daly, A Bread Factory
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace
J. Smith-Cameron, Nancy

Best Supporting Male
Raul Castillo, We the Animals
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Richard E Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade
John David Washington, Monsters and Men

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: First Man


For years, one of the most popular dreams for young boys and girls was to be an astronaut when they grow up. Whether they were American, South African, Japanese or Australian, space exploration had captured children's imaginations all over the world. This widespread ambition is no coincidence however. It is a testament to the efforts of NASA and one astronaut in particular - Neil Amstrong. Known to be the first man to walk on the moon, his accomplishment was televised in front of more than 500 million viewers in 1969. Now, nearly 50 years later, audiences can relive his journey through Damien Chazelle's incredible new film "First Man", based on Armstrong's official biography "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong".

"First Man" beings in 1961, when Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) underwent his first test flights at NASA. It is a tumultuous time both personally and professionally for Armstrong, as his young daughter Karen is suffering from a brain tumor and his flights have been largely unsuccessful. When Karen dies shortly after and Armstrong is temporarily grounded, he finds himself at his lowest point. But when an opportunity arises for him to be a part of the groundbreaking Project Gemini, Armstrong gets a new lease on life. He proceeds on a rigorous training program leading up to what will eventually be the historic Apollo 11 mission. But the fatally high risks and expenditure behind the Space Race draws concern from the tax-paying public and families of the astronauts. Armstrong is determined to make it to the moon, however, committing himself to one of the most daring feats ever attempted by the human race.

Through his musically-themed work in his first three films, Damien Chazelle has established himself as one of Hollywood's greatest showmen. But despite the high-flying premise of "First Man", Chazelle surprisingly brings the traditional space adventure down to earth. Largely taking the form of a biopic rather than a thriller, Chazelle shows ingenious directorial instincts in the film's audiovisual language. The atypical cinematography comprises mostly of closeups and two shots, making the audience feel immersed in Armstrong's headspace and immediate perspective. Meanwhile the impactful sound effects and gradual crescendo of Justin Hurwitz' score make for a riveting experience.

The result is a supremely well-crafted, thoroughly engaging experience which will surely contend for Oscar nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Claire Foy), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. And perhaps most notably, it also features a Oscar-worthy script for Best Adapted Screenplay. Indeed, Josh Singer delivers the richest screenplay of any Chazelle film to date, effectively accentuating Chazelle's directorial vision to convey palpably high stakes yet remaining tethered to relatable everyday struggles. This intimacy in the storytelling allows Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy to explore Armstrong's personal and family lives with remarkable emotional depth. The former brings the perfectly unassuming "everyman" quality required for the film's approachable hero, while the latter has a quiet intensity that asserts itself with impressive confidence and conviction.

Ultimately, the biggest triumph of "First Man" is not its awe-inspiring mission - though that is certainly a captivating highlight - but for its touching examination of the man in the spacesuit. As if inspired by his ambitious protagonist, the film's poignancy and resonance signifies the next step up for Damien Chazelle as filmmaker. And just like Armstrong inspired generations of youth to be astronauts, so too will Chazelle's body of work influence the next generation of filmmakers. I'm looking forward to wherever he goes next.

Friday, October 19, 2018

NYFF: If Beale Street Could Talk


When Miami-born filmmaker released his debut feature "Medicine for Melancholy" back in 2008, even the film's most ardent fans couldn't have predicted the meteoric rise to come in his follow up. From those humble micro-budget beginnings, Jenkins would enter the history books with his sophomore outing "Moonlight", which won the Academy Award for Best Picture 8 years later. Translating an unproduced play into an artful cinematic masterpiece, Jenkins redefined our ideas of what urban male masculinity could look like on screen.

Thankfully, it would only take 2 years for Jenkins return with his third film "If Beale Street Could Talk", a ravishingly gorgeous drama which further cements his status as one of our most important storytellers of the black experience. Based on James Baldwin's novel of the same name, this period piece takes us to early 1970s Harlem, a quintessential African-American neighbourhood. It is in this setting that our young protagonist Tish Rivers (played by the dazzling Kiki Layne) faces the harsh realities of justice in America, as she fearfully hopes for the release of her wrongfully accused fiance (Alonzo "Fonny" Hont, played by Stephan James) from prison. Charged with the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Fonny's outlook is bleak. But the now pregnant Tish and her supportive family are determined to do whatever it takes to clear his name in time to see the birth of his child.

The unjust incarceration facing Fonny is all too common within the black community, an unfortunate fact which the film addresses with frank honesty. As the film's opening quote explains, the Beale Street in the film's title represents not just the location in Harlem, but all the black communities in America and their shared experiences of struggle and perseverance. Indeed, one of the film's most memorable scenes involves an ominous conversation between Fonny and a friend, as he recalls the oppressive fear he felt during his own experience in prison.

But while such familiarly sobering moments are inextricably embedded in the narrative, it is Barry Jenkins' inspired vision which sets the film apart from others set during this time period. While other filmmakers would aim for a "gritty" tone, Jenkins' direction is as elegant as ever, reuniting with many of his "Moonlight" collaborators to create some of the most breathtaking moments you'll see on screen in this year. From Nicholas Britell's jazz-inflected score to James Laxton's picture-perfect cinematography, the film finds the beauty in these black lives, exalting them through his lens as works of art. As such, repeat Oscar nominations should definitely be in store for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. And Regina King should also be in contention for Best Supporting Actress as Tish's mother. Her performance - alongside an outstanding ensemble - beautifully adds further nuance to the story, exploring how family, religion and society influences the lives of this black community.

Indeed, there's no denying Jenkins' love for his characters, which shines through in the way the camera lingers on their faces and leans in to attentively listen to their perspective on the world around them. This is especially true when the film focuses on the central love story between Tish and Fonny. While the film admittedly drags slightly when it reverts to the more dispiriting legal procedural, it absolutely soars in the depiction of their romance. The sincerity and purity of their love is truly euphoric to witness.

And ultimately, the bittersweet withdrawal from that euphoria makes the film's message resonate deeply. "If Beale Street Could Talk" shows how love transcends the hardships imposed by the American nightmare. And it is only through the proliferation of love's beauty and humanity in future generations like Tish's unborn child, that we can truly call it the American dream.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: A Star Is Born


There are few stories in cinema as dramatically compelling as the simultaneous rise and fall narrative of "A Star is Born". Initially produced in 1937, the film was remade in 1954 (featuring one of the greatest acting performances of all time) and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand as its titular star. All three versions have cumulatively built an undeniable legacy based on their artistry and/or cultural impact, touching the hearts of audiences - myself included - for generations.

With such a storied history, you should therefore forgive me for my initial apprehension towards the latest remake. This 2018 iteration of "A Star is Born" sees Bradley Cooper directing himself as the tragic Jackson Maine, a country music star suffering from alcoholism who falls in love with an unassuming singer-songwriter (Ally, played by Lady Gaga) and takes her under his wing. As their relationship develops, Ally becomes a pop star in her own right, while Maine's vices send him on a downward spiral. Through it all, they try to support each other the best they can. But as Judy Garland conveyed in 1954, love isn't enough.

Helmed by a first-time director (Bradley Cooper) and a singer (Lady Gaga) in her first lead role in a film. It all seemed so ill-advised to me. But then, the film premiered to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and the buzz kept building from there. Immediately, it generated Oscar buzz as the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Some even suggested to it would be this generations' "Titanic".

It was with these astronomic expectations that I watched "A Star Is Born". And by no fault of the film itself, it therefore felt a little disappointing. The film is more modest than the showstopper the reviews would suggest, especially when the screenplay is so familar (albeit still very satisfying).

But that understated quality is one of its best attributes, particularly when it came to the performances and direction. Indeed, the highlights of the film turned out to be the elements I was most concerned about (the aforementioned Cooper as director and Lady Gaga in the lead). Cooper's execution of this melodrama is truly impressive, earning his deserved Best Director buzz by deftly balancing the intimacy of the relationship with the spectacle of the musical performances. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga will surely be a popular Best Actress contender with her moving performance, which has an unpolished authenticity to it. Best Supporting Actor contender Sam Elliott also deserves kudos for a stealthily brilliant performance as Jackson Maine's concerned brother.

Indeed, both her and Bradley Cooper (a lock for a Best Actor nomination) have a dynamism to their performances which elevate the film. Particularly as they make and perform the film's amazing music. In many ways, the film's romanticism transcends its central love story to become a love letter to pop music. Through both Cooper and Lady Gaga's characters, the film acts as a tribute to pop stars old and new, as their struggles and artistry are reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga herself. And the film's deeply affecting narrative and soundtrack - "Shallow" will be a Best Original Song nominee, along with nods for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing - reminds us of pop music's healing power, however fleeting it may be. It's a category of music that brings people together like no other and touches our heart and soul, resulting in phenomena like the Beyhive, the Little Monsters and This Party Is Killing You. I can hardly think of another film that so effectively captures the contemporary allure of pop music and the inevitable pressures afflicting musicians caught up in its whirlwind. As they say, Bradley Cooper and co. did it for the culture.

Monday, October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Border


When you think of the word "troll", the first images that come to mind are probably an irritating internet commenter or a hideous creature likely to kill you. Ali Abbasi's latest film "Border", however, presents a more nuanced perspective. This fascinating tale finds the humanity in trolls, exploring their nature with disarming empathy.

"Border" is the story of Tina, a customs border agent for the Swedish authorities. We are introduced to her on the job, where she excels by literally being able to sniff out criminal activity. Despite her expertise, however, she doesn't fully feel like she belongs. Thanks to facial features which resemble something not quite human, she harbors feelings of self-doubt. But one day, she encounters a mysterious man named Vore, whose face is strikingly reminiscent of her own. His confidence immediately draws her in and they slowly become acquainted. And as their relationship develops, Tina begins to question her life and by extension, her sense of self.

With Tina's subsequent self-discovery comes life-changing news. Vore informs her that she is not human, but a troll. And as that revelation opens her eyes to the truth behind her past and present life, "Border" becomes a compelling character study.

Indeed, despite the grotesque character design and fanciful mythology, Abbasi takes a serious approach to the material. In establishing Tina's identity, the narrative presents familiar scenes of domestic life alongside a hard-boiled crime investigation worthy of its own distinct narrative. Furthermore, the film is grounded by Melander and co-star Eero Milonoff, who imbue their roles with naturalism. Despite extensive makeup, their impressively lived-in performances allow us to see their troll characters as beings with relatable needs and wants. There's a loneliness to Tina's quiet demeanour which blossoms into titillated curiosity around Vore's confident swagger. And as they open up to each other, they express their newfound happiness with childlike enthusiasm.

Even as the film delves into some of the more bizarre concepts - with shocking imagery to match - behind troll physiology and behavior, there's an enchanting feeling of rebirth in Tina. On the surface, the film may set up an allegory of racial intolerance and prejudice, but it is more successful as a fable about the power of self-love. Though the crime subplot distractingly shifts the focus away from Tina's personal growth, the film's ultimate lesson is deeply felt. Whether you use your self-love and acceptance for good or evil is what truly separates the monsters and men.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

REVIEW: The Heiresses


When we first meet Chela, the protagonist in Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature “The Heiresses“, she seems to have her life under control. She is lounging in her handsomely appointed home with her partner Chiquita, as they get ready to attend their friend Carmela’s 50th birthday party. Following this relaxed evening of music and socializing, however, their private conversations, reveal that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: No Date, No Signature


“No Date, No Signature” begins on a regular night for its central character Dr. Nariman (played by Amir Aghaee). Driving down quiet Iranian streets after a day’s work as a forensic pathologist, he expects a peaceful rest ahead. But fate has other plans for him as a seemingly minor collision has serious repercussions in this powerful drama from director Vahid Jalilvand.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Five Fingers for Marseilles


With its expansive, sun-kissed plains and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, South Africa provides the perfect backdrop for Western films. But while international productions like “The Salvation” have taken advantage of the setting, the genre has been effectively unexplored by homegrown South African filmmakers. That vacuum is now being temporarily filled, however, by Michael Matthews’ debut feature “Five Fingers for Marseilles“. Paying homage to the time-honored traditions of the genre, this is a quintessential Western albeit with an appealing South African makeover.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection


Restrained, respectful, sedate. Those are hardly words you’d use to describe the notoriously rambunctious tennis legend John McEnroe. But such is the surprising approach taken toward this outsized personality in the Julien Faraut documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection“.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Best Asian Films Since 2008


As the eagerly anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters this week, one of the most underrepresented minority groups will get a rare chance to shine in a major Hollywood production. While we wait for Hollywood to catch up to the world, with this long overdue cultural moment, it’s worth reflecting on the success of native Asian filmmakers. Indeed, the well-established film industries across the Asian continent have produced filmmakers and movie stars to rival any Hollywood A-lister. And with the vast array of socioeconomic and cultural contexts of the various countries, Asian cinema is a buffet of cinematic delights. From the dazzling spectacles of India’s Bollywood cinema to the consistently edgy works from South Korean directors, there’s something for everyone.

Read more at The Awards Circuit