Wednesday, December 11, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Parasite


Of all the memorable movie moments of 2019, there's one in particular that I haven't been able to shake. It comes in a climactic scene in Bong Joon-ho's ingenious social satire "Parasite", as class revolt within the narrative comes to ahead in response to a insulting gesture. Though the film pits the %1 against the disadvantaged poor, this scene's power comes from the way it forces middle class audiences to confront our own insensitivities.

Elaborating further on the scene would unfortunately ruin one of the film's key attributes. Indeed, "Parasite" succeeds largely on its suspenseful and utterly unpredictable screenplay. While its premise may seem like a variation of Robin Hood's "stealing from the rich to give to the poor" premise, it reveals much deeper levels as the plot unfolds.

The story surrounds two families, the wealthy Parks and the unemployed Kims. Desperate to find work, they get a lifeline when the son Ki-woo secures a tutoring job for the Parks, through the recommendation of a friend. Ever the opportunist, his arrival at their upscale home quickly sets off a light bulb in his head. Before long, he schemes to get the rest of his family to infiltrate the home by offering various household services. But the Park home harbors secrets which could completely derail their plans.

Bringing new meaning to social hierarchy with its darkly comic take on the "upstairs, downstairs trope", Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" offers an incisive critique of class in South Korea. Much like his previous genre-inflected social satire "Snowpiercer", Bong Joon-ho uses entertaining scenarios to convey his message. As the Kims speedily take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, "Parasite" is crafted with the blistering pacing and brilliant dialogue to match. And through the efforts of a superb ensemble, the personas they embody further emphasize the wide chasm between the classes. As the mother of the Kim clan remarks of her aloof Park counterpart, she is "nice because she's rich."

As the plot twists and turns to thrilling effect, Bong Joon Ho never loses sight of the film's central anti-capitalist themes. Conveyed visually and verbally with the utmost panache, the result is a film which is universally relevant and impactful. It's therefore no surprise that it's receiving serious Oscar consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best International Feature. With its strong social commentary and thrilling storytelling,  "Parasite" is truly one of the year's must-see films.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Once Upon a Time...The Irishman Led the Best Picture Race

'The Irishman' takes early frontrunner status, but the race is far from over

When the ever expanding Critics Choice Association announces their 2019 award nominations later today, the state of the awards race will begin to come into sharp focus. While early critics awards (i.e. NBR and NYFCC) have annointed "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" and "The Irishman", the televised impact and large voting pool of the Critics Choice Association tends to give a better reflection of where the Academy place their votes. And later this week, two more televised awards-giving bodies will add their say, namely the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes. Based on current buzz, we can expect them all to agree on, the following top 5: "The Irishman", "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood", "1917", "Parasite" and "Marriage Story".

If this were 20 years ago, those would be your Best Picture field. But in this era of the category's expansion, there will be fierce competition for the remaining slots. Will the divisive but distinctive "Jojo Rabbit" and "Joker" garner enough passion votes? Or will more universally acceptable films like "Ford v Ferrari", "Dolemite is My Name" and "Knives Out" take their place? As the academy continues to diversify its ranks, I suspect we will see a combination of challenging and accessible filmmaking in the final Best Picture lineup. As it stands, here is my current assessment of the top frontrunners for Best Picture:

  1. The Irishman
  2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
  3. 1917
  4. Parasite
  5. Marriage Story
  6. Jojo Rabbit
  7. Ford v Ferrari
  8. Richard Jewell
  9. Knives Out
  10. Dolemite is My Name
Stay tuned throughout the season as I continue to track the awards season all the way through to Oscar night on February 9th.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Richard Jewell


Throughout the history of cinema, there has been no shortage of narratives surrounding heroes. Often played by handsome movie stars, we've come to expect a certain type of heroic figure. That trend is intriguingly bucked in Clint Eastwood's typically late-breaking Best Picture contender "Richard Jewell", however, telling the true story of a decidedly average man.

The events of "Richard Jewell" take place in 1996 Atlanta, when all eyes are on the city as it hosts the Olympic Games. As the related activities get underway, Richard Jewell - an security guard and aspiring police officer - is assigned to watch over one such event. Always enthusiastic, he painstakingly patrols the area, looking out for anything suspicious. During his investigations, he stumbles on an abandoned bag and alerts the authorities. When this bag turns out to be a bomb, Richard Jewell steps in to protect the attendees from harm. After the bomb goes off without causing catastrophic fatalities, Jewell is declared a hero. But the FBI investigation soon turns towards Jewell himself, as his past behavior brings his motives into question.

The question of Jewell's guilt, however, is never in question for the audience. From the first moment we meet the character, Clint Eastwood makes it clear that he is a genuinely good guy. Indeed, his introductory scene sees him leaving candy for his superior (played by Sam Rockwell) at his early job, addressing him with utmost politeness. And as we get to learn more about the character, he becomes almost saintlike in his selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, Jewell's goodness makes for rather unremarkable storytelling, as the investigation lacks any bombshells or plot twists to plant seeds of doubt or tensions. Furthermore, the media frenzy personified by Olivia Wilde's unscrupulous journalist character is portrayed in crass, broad strokes. And like many recent Clint Eastwood films, the film's visual language is hampered by the dull color palette of the cinematography.

Yet despite it falls, "Richard Jewell" remains engaging thanks to the unique appeal of its central performance. Playing a character that could have been annoyingly nice and compliant in the face of injustice, Paul Walter Hauser manages to completely sell the character's sincerity and naivety. In addition, Kathy Bates is naturally sympathetic as a loving mother trying protect her son. Oscar nods for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress are definitely possibilities for them both.

Ultimately, what "Richard Jewell" lacks in nuance and complexity, it makes up for in admirable symbolism of its titular character. It brings to mind Michelle Obama's memorable phrase "When they go low, we go high." Sometimes the most inspiring heroes are the ones who simply choose to be kind, even towards their enemies.


Friday, December 6, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Marriage Story


The most toxic relationships are the ones you don't even realize as such, until hindsight makes you see things clearly. That's the lesson Nicole and Charlie learn in "Marriage Story", the exceptional new drama from Noah Baumbach. Stunningly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this Best Picture Oscar hopeful conveys honest truths about love, marriage and divorce.

We first meet the embattled couple - Nicole, a up-and-coming actress and Charlie, a hotshot theatre director - during a mediation session, as both have decided to split amicably, in the best interest of themselves and their child. When the therapist asks them to list the positive things about their partner, however, Nicole suddenly realizes that she's harboring deeper feelings of pain than she initially suspected. Subsequently, she uproots her New York life - and their son Henry - to return to Los Angeles and be with her mom. But the pressures of long-distance parenting puts a strain on their civil friendship. Though they had agreed to forego legal proceedings, a heated divorce case and custody battle ensues.

The messiness of divorce is put in a sharp focus as Baumbauch's perceptive screenplay unleashes the myriad of emotions associated with it. As Nicole tries to rationalize the reasons for the split, the film gets to the truth of how willfully one-sided relationships can be, as the hopes and dreams of one partner become subsumed into the other's. It is often said that married people gradually begin to look like one another and "Marriage Story" poignantly conveys that "oneness" and loss of self.

Smartly, the script balances both perspectives, also showing how Charlie's ambition and pride caused him to neglect his wife's needs and to a certain extent, his own. Indeed, the nuances of both characters' personalities are brilliantly elaborated through many relatable moments littered throughout. I'm sure many audiences can relate to the hate-filled outbursts you instantly regret, as well as the subconscious competitiveness and selfishness that can erode a relationship over time.

While Johannson and Driver (slam dunk Best Actor and Best Actress nominees) show incredible vulnerability as the leads, the rest of the scintillating cast is equally as riveting. Laura Dern is particularly compelling as Nicole's self-assured lawyer who fights for her client like a bulldog with a smile. After two nominations throughout her career, she may have finally earned her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work here.

Dern's delicious performance embodies one of the film's most winning touches, namely it's frequent moments of levity. Indeed, Baumbach deserves every Best Director and Best Original Screenplay accolade he'll receive during this awards season for his masterful juggling act of humor and pathos. Punctuating the narrative with music, situational comedy and delightful bit roles (Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty are terrific as Nicole's sister and mother), it serves as a reminder that things are rarely black or white in life and relationships. As conveyed in the heartrending monologues which bookend the film, when all is said and done, sometimes the hardest truth about broken relationships is that there's still some love that remains.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Irishman


A decade ago, the BAMcinématek curated a series called "The Late Film", a collection of late career films from established auteurs. As described in the New York Times, the term refers to work that is "both familiar and strange, characteristic of the artist and yet markedly at odds with everything that preceded it." As I watched the latest from American master Martin Scorsese, the descriptor could not feel more apt. Among Scorsese's esteemed canon of gangster films, "The Irishman" expresses familiar themes in profound and revelatory ways.

In my review from over 5 years ago, I marvelled at Scorsese's direction of "The Wolf of Wall Street", impressed by its audacity and edgy, kinetic style. It felt like the work of a younger, maverick filmmaker, proving that he was still a vital voice in the contemporary film scene. Four films later, I am stunned once again by "The Irishman", which sees Scorsese reuniting with many of his most famous collaborators. This epic surrounds Robert DeNiro's titular character Frank Sheeran, as he reflects on a life of mob-related crime. From his younger years as a truck driver, to his subsequent rise up the ranks of the Buffalino crime family, his story is one of violence, greed and power. But in his dying days, the events of his life weigh heavily on him.

With this premise and the recognizable director and cast – including Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in supporting roles – you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just another Scorsese gangster flick. But "The Irishman" deepens the genre through a directorial approach that is more subdued and graceful. It feels in direct conversation with the aforementioned "Wolf of Wall Street", as well as the other iconic gangster narratives that came before for it. Indeed, while "Wolf of Wall Street" was accused of glorifying the debauchery of its immoral men, "The Irishman" is never gratuitous, filled instead with an undercurrent of regret. Though violence are central its themes, the film is more concerned with the impact rather than the act.

One particular scene stands out, where Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa, desperate to reclaim leadership of the mob-controlled union remarks to Sheeran that "They do something to me, I do something to them. That's all I know. Nothing else." Epitomizing the endless cycles of violence and revenge (also emphasized through frequent pop-up subtitles about various characters' future demises) it achieves a rare emotion for audiences in a gangster film – pity. And as the decades-long narrative of "The Irishman" plays out, this sentiment only deepens as the bodies pile up and families and friendships are irreparably broken.

The result is an uncommonly calm and contemplative gangster film from Scorsese, with the screenplay's themes amplified by impeccable acting - particularly the soulfully captivating DeNiro and the chillingly unflappable Pesci - and Scorsese's usual attention to detail. Oscar nominations are definitely on the table in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Picture. Admittedly, it's still not my favorite of the year, but I wouldn't begrudge any of these wins. It's truly exciting to see Scorsese continue to be so inspired and invigorated (this year he also directed the impressive documentary "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"). Unlike Frank Sheeran's life story, this film may be a late work, but it's far from a swansong.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Ford v Ferrari


As Henry Ford II - aptly portrayed with gruff egomania by Tracy Letts - proudly reminds us in "Ford v Ferrari", the invention of the automobile (especially those made by Ford) completely revolutionized modern society. In the proceeding decades, a love affair with cars has been a staple element of consumerism, particularly for men. Today, those earliest wagon-esque models have evolved into sleek sports cars, prompting an obsessive "need for speed" as chronicled in this gripping new film from director James Mangold.

As the title suggests, "Ford v Ferrari" depicts the true story of the battle between rival automotive makers Ford and Ferrari. Representing the best of American and Italian innovation, they were at the forefront of the industry, with Ford representing the populist choice for everyday consumers and Ferrari representing the cutting edge of speed-oriented technology. As the 1970s approached however, Ford began to feel its influence fading. New generations craved forward-thinking style and sophistication, rather than boxy models that came before. So Ford hatches a daring plan to design a car to beat Ferrari on their most dominant stage - the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. Under the advice of a determined automotive designer/engineer named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his unpredictable but extraordinary driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), they set out to secure bragging rights and ensure the viability of the company.

Unsurprisingly, "Ford v Ferrari" shines brightest when its on the race track, appropriately delivering edge-of-your-seat thrills with slick production values and nail-biting stakes. The film will surely figure into the Oscar races for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Editing. It gives you a visceral sense of the power of these cars and the real dangers being faced every time someone gets behind the wheel.

Indeed, while the film duly indulges the male fantasy of automotive prowess, the more unexpected grace notes are its elegant screenplay and strong character development. As the wily Ken Miles, Christian Bale turns in a performance as finely tuned as his souped-up Ford, combining lived-in naturalism with a distinctive persona. Likewise, Matt Damon's monologues about the existentialist experience of driving a car are a highlight of the film. If "Ford v Ferrari" were to net an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, it would be due in large part to his eloquence.

Ultimately, "Ford v Ferrari" succeeds for its sincere empathy towards the relationships between men and their cars, and each other. Its depiction of masculinity, pride and male friendship feels authentic to the way men express their feelings. As the plot races to the finish line, those withdrawn emotions will likely catch up with you. For all its masculine bravado, this Best Picture contender turns out to be one of the most heartfelt films of the year.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Joker


Ever since Christopher Nolan completed his final installment of The Dark Knight trilogy, cinematic adaptations of DC comics have failed to capture the zeitgeist in contemporary film culture. While the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has soared to unprecedented heights, the DCEU has been criticized for their super-serious, dark aesthetic which turned even the squeaky clean Superman into an agent of chaos. Rather than embrace the "comic" nature of their origins, however, DC films have instead doubled down on their dark, gritty house style. Indeed DC has even dedicated entire films to villains, including "Suicide Squad" and now, "Joker". As directed by Todd Phillips, this bleak character study is the first under the proposed DC Black banner and it is arguably the most accomplished - and most problematic - DC film of the post-Nolan era.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely and mentally ill resident of a decaying Gotham city. His days are filled with caring for his ailing mother, going to therapy sessions and making a living as a party clown. But his big dream is to become a standup comedian. While he aspires to be like the successful talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably attracts the ridicule of his intolerant society. Unable to cope with the fading possibilities of fulfilling his dreams and suffering the abuse from various sources, Arthur turns to a life of crime and embraces the alias of Joker.

As Arthur "breaks bad", both actor and director fully commit to the film's unsettling premise. In one of the most striking performances of the year, Joaquin Phoenix is at once grotesque and sympathetic. As he breaks into spontaneous laughter and contorts his emaciated body, he strikes fear into the audience long before he turns to violence. But what makes the performance so compelling - and a surefire Best Actor contender - is its vulnerability. Phoenix conveys a deep pain in his quest for acceptance, thereby humanizing this iconic villain like never before.

Indeed, Phillips and Scott Silver's script works overtime to generate audience sympathy for its protagonist. Arthur receives virtually no kindness from any of the named supporting characters, and the world created is oppressively bleak. You can practically smell the conspicuous garbage on the streets, while almost every surface seems to be covered in graffiti. In crafting this palpable atmosphere, there's no denying that this version of Gotham city is a stand-in for 1980s New York City.

The "Taxi Driver" inspirations are therefore obvious, but unfortunately, the film's social commentary is too broad to truly add a fresh perspective. Despite its best attempts - such as the inclusion of a pompous, Trump-like Thomas Wayne character - the script lacks the nuance of Hildur Guðnadóttir's evocative score as it charts Arthur Fleck's disturbing transformation. As such, the implications that the Joker's violent acts are part of a larger, justified revolution fail to ring true.

Ultimately, "Joker" won't be winning any prizes for original storytelling. But in its strongest moments, this likely contender for Best Picture and Best Director touches on some important issues surrounding mental health, conveyed through a central performance that's hard to shake. In our contemporary landscape of formulaic superhero films, this challenging cinematic vision is definitely worth your consideration.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

TIFF: Wrap-up


After 11 days of screenings and other film industry-related activities, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end. And as the curtains came down on Sunday, it was Taika Waititi‘s irreverent, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” that nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The announcement came as a surprise to many who favored more universally beloved contenders such as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” In retrospect, its victory was a perfect reflection of the 2019 edition of the festival, where many directors challenged audiences with their risky themes and filmmaking approaches.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Harriet


As much as Hollywood tries to convince us otherwise, the world doesn’t need another biopic. But with a subject as underappreciated and vital to history as Harriet Tubman, a cinematic tribute is certainly justified. With Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” that long overdue biopic of the legendary freedom fighter has finally arrived. But this underwhelming drama fails to truly capture the awe-inspiring efforts of its extraordinary heroine.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Cave & Adam


Issues of women’s rights have long been a subject of heated debate in the Arab world. While situations vary considerably throughout the region, women are still fighting against culturally and religiously imposed restrictions rarely faced by their counterparts in the rest of the world. At TIFF 2019, a pair of films stand out in this regard, in the form of the documentary, “The Cave,” and the narrative feature, “Adam.” Though set in drastically different environments, both highlight issues surrounding women’s rights through affecting stories about the power of female solidarity.

Read more at The Awards Circuit