Saturday, April 30, 2016

20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2016

With Cannes just around the corner and the temperatures starting to rise for the summer, the cool environment of the cinema beckons as the films only get better from here on out. You may be thinking it's too late for a list such as this one, but as is my tradition I always wait until the end of April. As we all know, the early months often see many release date changes and unconfirmed casting rumours. This time of year therefore feels like an ideal time to assess the exciting acting prospects to come. So without further ado, here my 20 Most Anticipated Performances for the rest of 2016.

Friday, April 29, 2016

COMING SOON: Ma Ma

As you'll see in a post I'm writing for tomorrow, there's a small foreign film I'm highly anticipating and it's called "Ma Ma". It stars Spanish acting giants Penelope Cruz and Luis Tosar in a heartrending story about a woman who finds renewed purpose in her life despite a devastating breast cancer diagnosis. You may know the film's director Julio Medem from his 2001 film "Sex and Lucia". All in all, it seems like a promising project, with strong talent behind and in front of the camera. Who knows, Penelope Cruz may sneak a Best Actress bid out of it. Check out the trailer below:



"Ma Ma" opens in theaters May 20th.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Throne of Blood


This week on Hit me with your shot, we dug into an early classic from Akira Kurosawa, one of cinema's greatest storytellers. The chosen film was "Throne of Blood", a Japanese re-imagining of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" starring Toshiro Mifune as our tormented "hero". And as usual, the collaboration proved successful, making for an easy translation of the famous tragedy.

What most jumped out at me was the powerful thematic effect of the production design and cinematography in the interior settings, which provides a fascinating contrast to the more grand visual spectacle of Kurosawa's other revered Shakespeare adaption "Ran". Here, the spare decor and horizontal lines convey the vast space and the wealth that implies, as well as the ample room for Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife to contemplate their guilt and literally fight their demons. Furthermore, it creates an impression of a comparatively level playing field between royalty and the commonfolk, far from the more vertical indicators (tall thrones, palatial pillars) of traditional Western aristocracies. In this scenario, the throne is a more grounded platform, making the inevitable usurping so feasible and within reach.

And below, I've chosen my best shot pick as one that encompasses these elements of the art direction - the use of space, the class dynamics and the overwhelming guilt - as Washizu recoils after inflicting his latest murderous act of paranoid vengeance. Aptly positioned in the center of frame, slightly above his doomed messenger (in addition to the head of another assassinated challenger), the weight of his guilt bears down on him. A throne of blood indeed.


Monday, April 25, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Dark Horse


This week's top pick is an auspicious sophomore film from down under titled "The Dark Horse". Directed by New Zealand filmmaker James Napier Robertson, this inspirational sports drama has been quietly racking up acclaim along the indie film circuit since its 2014 debut. And like the title suggests, this underdog story surprisingly wins you over its humanistic spirit.

Based on the true story of a troubled New Zealand chess champion, the film stars Cliff Curtis in the lead role of Genesis. Beginning from his early years when he first discovered the game with his friend Ariki, the film fast forwards to his adult years, when Genesis has just been released from a mental hospital. Put in the care of Ariki, he meets Mana, Ariki's son who is being groomed to join a notorious local gang. With troubling memories of his own experience with the group, Ariki decides to turn his attention away from his new home, forming a chess club with some of the underprivileged local youth. Seeing an opportunity when noone else can, he coaches them with the intentions of entering the upcoming national championship. But when Mana decides to rebel against his father's gang-related wishes and join the club, a conflict of allegiance arises that may threaten the hopes of the club and the stability of the community at large.

Indeed, the concept of stability forms the foundation of the youth group that Genesis gets involved with. As he is advised by their guardian, these children have effectively been abandoned by family and society alike. A reliable role model is therefore a necessity in order to keep them on the right path.

And thus brings up the central dilemma of the film, as the team's success and stability is reliant on a bipolar man. It's a premise that Robertson handles deftly, imbuing the formulaic broad strokes with nuance through the actions of our complex protagonist as well as the other characters. Known for his abilities as a chameleon - playing Latin Americans, Arabs and everything in between - Genesis (a Maori like himself) truly feels like the role Curtis was born to play. Childlike in his optimistic outlook but threatening in his unpredictable physicality, he takes the typical "disability" role and uses it to show universal truths about suffering and healing.

Ultimately, Genesis' journey takes you where you wants to go with a film of this ilk and yet, "The Dark Horse" rises above the fray of other easy crowdpleasers. With its gritty, urban aura that feels painstakingly specific to the region, a sentimental ending never feels assured, as the plot explores a test of wills from all corners - the game of chess, the psychological vulnerability of Genesis and the oppressive forces of a stagnant society. As such, each small triumph feels wholly earned and fully gratifying, an increasing rarity for the now ubiquitous underdog sports drama. This small indie film may be a dark horse in the grand scheme of things, but Robertson's well considered filmmaking is the stuff champions are made of.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

REVIEW: Men & Chicken


You can always count on the Scandinavians to shake up the arthouse with their warped sense of humor. Arriving stateside by way of Denmark is "Men & Chicken", the new black comedy from writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen. Starring an unrecognizable Mads Mikkelsen, this bizarre film will make you laugh, gasp and turn up your nose in disgust, often within the same scene.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, April 21, 2016

REVIEW: Above and Below


Early on in our introduction to Cindy – one of the five main characters in Nicolas Steiner’s documentary "Above and Below" – we see her hauling a discarded couch to restore her living room after the latest rain showers have decimated the makeshift home she shares with her partner Rick. She lives in a tunnel under the streets (another character Lalo lives also lives there), a mere stone’s throw away from the flashing lights of Las Vegas, hidden from the public eye. But as the saying goes, “it’ll all come out in the wash” in this nakedly honest portrait of five unusual Americans.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

RIP: Ronit Elkabetz


This morning I woke up to the devastating news that the phenomenal Ronit Elkabetz passed away after a private battle with cancer. And considering she was one of my absolute favourite actresses (also an acclaimed writer-director), I felt the need to mention it here. If you're unfamiliar with her work, I urge you to introduce yourself to her glittering filmography, which includes personal faves "Late Marriage" (pictured above with co-star Lior Ashkenazi) and "The Band's Visit". Last year I profiled her in a piece for The Awards Circuit titled "10 Foreign-Language Actors You Should Now" and my final sentiment still holds true. She is truly one of Israel's national treasures. Her legacy will not be forgotten. RIP.

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Beguiled


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we looked at an early 1970s drama that's set for a remake - Don Siegel's "The Beguiled". This fascinating film is set in a Southern girls boarding school during the Civil War and explores themes of lust and gendered power as an injured Union soldier stumbles into the school. Clint Eastwood stars as the titular beguiler John McBurney, as he charms his way into the hearts of headmistress and student alike, causing inevitable tension in the household.

In truth, the film isn't nearly as "messy" as it sounds. That is, until the events surrounding my choice for best shot...

Monday, April 18, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Invitation


As I pondered the decision to review this week's top pick, I immediately felt that any such explanation of its merits would be a great disservice. As a film that challenges your perception of its reality from the very beginning, "The Invitation" is a thriller best experienced with no prior knowledge of the plot. For those wishing to watch the film cold, I therefore encourage you to stop reading now. For everyone else, here is my rave review of Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation".

The premise of "The Invitation" begins with a typical reunion of old friends, as our protagonist Will (Logan Marshall-Green) introduces his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the gang. The dinner is being hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who we soon learn is Will's ex-wife, with whom he shares a very troubled past. Eden seems to have recovered from their fraught breakup however, putting forth a calm, cheerful disposition with the support of her new husband David (Michael Huisman). But Will isn't convinced, and as the night trudges along and a pair of strangers enter the mix, he starts to suspect that this dinner party isn't what it seems.

The mystery behind what's wrong - or not wrong - in this scenario of fake smiles and polite table manners is the fuel behind this brilliantly mindbending thriller. Teasing the audience with equally valid suggestions of paranoia and impending danger, Kusama creates a gripping storyline that makes it impossible to look away. Like the great genre directors before her, she makes you an active participant in the proceedings, watching every move and deciphering every line reading to figure out this puzzle.

Another thing she does well is instilling the film with an unsettlingly creepy atmosphere, which allows us to easily relate to Will as our appropriately suspicious audience surrogate. In a performance that teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout, Marshall-Green is tremendously vulnerable in the role, asking all the questions we're thinking and freaking out just as much as we are. In what is truly a inspired male performance, Will is a character with more forebears within the canon of fragile actress roles than the traditional male protagonist.

But as the truth is revealed towards the end of the film, Kusama proves that being scared shitless isn't exclusive to any gender. The fear is so visceral that our protagonists' survival takes on almost personal importance. And when all is said and done, Kusama also deftly lays on the gravitas with poignant observations about how people struggle to cope with grief. Indeed, like an deeply probing social experiment, this emotional roller coaster is one nightmare you won't soon forget.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Witness


For this week's Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel had us take another look at a 1980s classic - Peter Weir's "Witness". And it's a good thing we did, as I only had a faint recollection of the film as an underwhelming drama. But boy was I wrong, as this re-watch proved that "Witness" is really a strong film, especially for its richly fascinating screenplay which could have easily have been mistaken for a literary adaptation.

Another standout aspect is of course, the megastar at the center of this drama/thriller/romance - Mr. Han Solo/Indiana Jones himself. In what would become Harrison Ford's first and last Oscar nomination (surely a surprise given his popularity at the time), his role is a genius bit of casting. Playing a city cop who hides out in Amish Country during a particularly nasty corruption case, he embodies the central culture clash that emerges in the narrative. Indeed, he delivers such an undeniable MOVIE STAR performance that he naturally stands out among a more docile environment and characters, leading to my choice for best shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...