Sunday, October 4, 2015

REVIEW: The Second Mother

There’s a great scene in writer-director Anna Muylaert’s insightful new film The Second Mother, where the long estranged daughter (Jessica, played by Camila Márdila) of our title character (Val, played by Regina Casé) meets the family that her mother has been caring for as their live-in housekeeper. As the aspiring universiy student explains her plans for higher education, the responses from the lady of the house (Bárbara, played by Karine Teles) reveal a subtle air of condescension, expressing surprise that this lowly maid’s daughter is applying to the highly competitive local university in her chosen field of architecture. Towards the end of this friendly interchange, Jessica expresses her belief that architecture is an instrument for social change. In the moment, the statement seems innocuous – to the characters and audience alike – but the ensuing class conflict to come reveals why this carefully crafted portrait of modern day Brazil is such an ideal film to represent the South American nation for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 3, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: The Martian

"The Martian", the latest space adventure from the man who gave us the seminal "Alien" franchise, can be summed up in one particular scene. In it, commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) of the Ares III mission discusses the rescue options for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the crew member they mistakenly left behind on Mars. The most viable one will require great risk and extend their current assignment by a few more years, keeping them away from their loved ones for and the safety of home. From the immediate affirmative reaction from the crew however, she might as well have been saying "Call the sitter, honey. We're going to be out a little late." Indeed, despite the high stakes, this latest addition to the "lost in space" canon is a joyous testament to the power of human optimism and intelligence.

But let's back up a bit. At this turning point in the film, Watney had already been on Mars for many days (or "sols" as they are known on Mars), after a storm left him stranded and presumed dead by his crew. With an unfavorable atmosphere and limited resources, his situation was dire to say the least. But through perseverance and brain power - using his training in botany and other sciences - he managed to provide himself food, a habitable environment and establish communication with his people. In effect, creating life on Mars. Eventually, his efforts are detected by NASA, prompting a daring mission to bring him home.

It's been a good few years for the "space" genre, with the likes of "Gravity" and "Interstellar" taking us into the stratosphere exploring concepts both intimate and epic. And now with "The Martian", Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have taken the best aspects of those films - emotional catharsis and intellectual discourse - and distilled them into another thoroughly entertaining film.

On paper, "The Martian" wouldn't immediately appear to be riveting cinema, focusing on pure science and problem-solving above sentimentality and spectacle. But the film fully engages its audience through strong writing and compelling lead performance. Indeed, the beauty of the script is how it takes complex scientific concepts and makes them accessible. Unlike more ambitious sci-fi films, the clarity of Goddard's writing never makes it feel like a daunting science lesson.

Indeed, "The Martian" is consistently exciting and cinematic, and its greatest spectacle is Matt Damon's shining one-man show at the heart of the larger ensemble. As the character keeps himself occupied and entertained to maintain his sanity and hope, it's amusing to watch Damon's transition from momentary despair to eventual triumph.

Ultimately, it's this triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds which makes "The Martian" so satisfying. While recent space epics have left us in fear of that vast unknown in the sky, "The Martian" makes space exploration cool again. It leaves you in awe of what we are capable of as human beings. We can use our wit to save ourselves, our fellow man, and in the case of Ridley Scott, to revive a floundering film career.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


In Hollywood, as in life, everyone loves a comeback story. When Scott Cooper's "Black Mass" released its first trailer, the comeback narrative for Johnny Depp already started writing itself. After years of hiding his talent behind odd "paycheck" caricatures, it appeared that megastar had finally returned to a "serious" role. And now that the film has been released to the masses, I'm happy to report that Depp has thoroughly delivered on that promise.

"Black Mass" tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), an Irish-American gangster who came to prominence in the 1970s. Starting out small-time with his Winter Hill Gang, he gradually took control over the criminal underworld of South Boston. Throughout his rise to power, he was abetted by a corrupt arrangement with the FBI, requiring him to provide information on the activities of the rival Angiulo Brothers. With the ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) leading the away, along with the willful ignorance of Whitey's influential brother - a local senator -, the Winter Hill Gang was able to unleash their reign of terror. But Whitey and John are playing with fire as mob informant and accomplice respectively, a fact that all but guarantees their demise.

The proceeding rise and fall narrative of Whitey and John is depicted with pulpy gusto by Cooper. With all the gratuitous violence and tense showdowns we've come to expect, "Black Mass" proves that the long-standing tropes of the gangster film still have the power to entertain. Recounted in the form of confessional flashbacks from the gang members, Cooper breezes through decades worth of action. As such, the film does suffer from its superficial - albeit thrilling - treatment of the material, giving the sense of an unduly condensed plot.

But what the film lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for in the superb performances of its star-studded cast. Despite being a formulaic gangster film, "Black Mass" surprises with how genuine each character feels. As the film's main star, Johnny Depp is especially impressive. He completely disappears into the role, acting through the extreme makeup to give a smart, grounded performance. Even when Whitey is at his most monstrous, Depp makes him feel like a real human being instead of a cartoonish villain. It's such a great reminder of his talent considering his recent career choices.

As John Connolly, Joel Edgerton matches Depp all the way too, proving his leading man chops with a performance that brims with confidence and attitude. Indeed, the performances are the reason to watch this film, with strong work coming from Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons and David Harbour as well. "Black Mass" may not bring anything knew to the table, but like the mercurial gangsters it portrays, these actors get the job done.

Monday, September 28, 2015


From dark family secrets to child kidnappings, Denis Villeneuve has developed a knack for delving into some of the most unnerving mysteries of life and human nature. For his latest film "Sicario", the French-Canadian director continues in the same mould, turning his piercing gaze towards the war on drugs. And like his previous efforts, what he uncovers is another hard-hitting, sobering truth.

Set around the border between the United States and Mexico, "Sicario" follows one woman's perilous journey into the grimy world of the Mexican drug cartels and the agents sent to take them down. This woman is Kate (played by Emily Blunt), a shrewd FBI agent whose ability to ascertain the links in the drug chain has proved invaluable. After one crucial mission, her skills land her in the big leagues, dropped into the middle of enemy territory. Apprehensive but determined to carry out her job, she finds herself confronted with the harsh realities of a world she thought she already knew. But as the lines between good and evil become increasingly blurred, her disillusionment becomes as inevitable as the moral compromises she'll be forced to make if she wants to get out alive.

"Sicario" begins with a doozy of a scene - shot by an in-form Roger Deakins - tracking Kate and her fellow agents as they approach a crisis situation. With immediate intensity, Villeneuve keys us into the non-stop cycle of savagery associated with the drug war, with bodies piled up like window dressing to remind us of the human toll. And with a booming brass score to set the ominous tone, the ensuing film is as disturbing as any horror.

And like the great scary movies, Villeneuve's approach thrives on the element of surprise, enhanced by the film's realism. "Sicario" isn't the first film to take a frank, cynical look at the war on drugs, but the bleakness with which Villeneuve handles the narrative really lets the rot of moral decay fester. Indeed, we are forced to stare in aghast solidarity with Emily Blunt - subdued, but always engaged and engaging as Kate - as each scene reveals the shocking levels of human depravity on both sides of the fence. The screenplay is as incisive as its characters, particularly Josh Brolin's unperturbed Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro's menacing Alejandro Gillick (channeling rugged Brad Pitt in one his best performances), who perceive the war as one with no end in sight.

And from the looks of it, Villenueve shares the same viewpoint. "Sicario" is an intentionally punishing watch, deliberate in its pacing, merciless in its brutality. Unlike most thrillers though, Villeneuve's style resists easy audience satisfaction, framing the narrative as part of an open-ended saga. But the sheer conviction in his storytelling - and his bleak outlook - makes for a damning, unforgettable statement.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

REVIEW: Labyrinth of Lies

It’s hard to believe now, but in the aftermath of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz, there were many Germans who were still ignorant of the harsh truth. Exacerbated by the efforts of public officials who wanted to conceal their own complicity in the Nazi regime, these dark secrets were kept hidden away. But the past can come back to haunt you, as is the case in the aptly titled "Labyrinth of Lies", a fascinating account of a young public prosecutor’s courageous pursuit of justice.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


This past Sunday, the award winners for TIFF 2015 were announced and somehow, I ended up missing all the winners. But such is the nature of the beast at such a gargantuan festival, and now I have a number of films to look forward to. Of course, the big story was the reveal of the People's Choice Award winner, which has built up a reputation as a strong indicator for Best Picture Oscar success. This year, that honor went to Lenny Abrahamson's "Room", which was a slight surprise, beating out the popular "Spotlight" into 3rd place. But the question remains, will the Academy really find room (pun intended) for "Room" in the Best Picture lineup?

The answer to that question is especially tricky this year, which seems to be one of the most wide open races in recent history. Although "Spotlight" and "Steve Jobs" have launched to raves, no film thus far has received the slam dunk notices that propelled films like "12 Years a Slave" in the past. What it does prove however, is that Brie Larson will indeed be a force to be reckoned with in Best Actress, even if "Room" ultimately misses out. Additionally, the 3rd place showing for "Spotlight" further confirms that it will play gangbusters to audiences when it finally releases. I think we have our frontrunner.

In terms of the other awards handed out, their impact on the Oscar race is likely to be minimal. At best, we may see some of these being submitted by their respective countries as Foreign Language submissions next year. The NETPAC winner for Best Asian Film premiere "The Whispering Star" could also be Japan's submission next year, but they are always impossible to predict. Among the FIPRESCI critics' prizewinners, Czech-Slovak co-production "Eva Nová" could potentially follow in the footsteps of "Ida", which also won a FIPRESCI award at TIFF 2013.

As we head into the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest though, we'll soon have a clearer idea of where everything stands. For now, here's the list of award winners from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TIFF: Wrapping up the festival

When I first found out I would be attending the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time, I was filled with as much anxiety as excitement. With such a daunting lineup ahead of me, I immediately began stressing over my selections. Do I watch the would-be Oscar contenders? Seek out the new talents? Plunge into the delights of world cinema? Eventually, I ended up scheduling a mixture of them all, in what turned out to be a richly fulfilling experience.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, September 21, 2015

INTERVIEW: Stephan James

Among many other sidebar events, one of the coolest initiatives of the Toronto International Film Festival is its annual Rising Stars programme, co-presented by the Casting Society of America. Now in its fifth year, the programme provides a platform for a selected group of promising Canadian actors, allowing them to engage in various development opportunities to boost their careers. This year’s distinguished honorees were Deragh Campbell, Stephan James, Aliocha Schneider and Karelle Tremblay; and I was fortunate to be invited to the Rising Stars Mixer, where I was able to have a quick chat with Stephan James ("Selma", "Home Again"). This talented Toronto native is one to watch, as he eyes a breakout year in 2016, when he plays Jesse Owens in the upcoming "Race".

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, September 20, 2015

INTERVIEW: Saoirse Ronan

One of my highlights of TIFF this year was the opportunity to sit down with Saoirse Ronan to discuss her new film "Brooklyn", as part of Fox Searchlight’s press junket for the film. Having seen the film a day earlier, I was eager to find out how she prepared for the role and the experience of making such a beautiful film.

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TIFF: Embrace of the Serpent

As TIFF 2015 comes to a close, my festival experience ended on an ethereal high with an outstanding Colombian film. Directed by Ciro Guerra, "Embrace of the Serpent" is a hypnotizing look at the Amazon rainforest and its varied inhabitants. With the feel of an epic tome, it tells two interconnected stories about the dying indigenous cultures and the effect of Western influence.

Read more at The Awards Circuit