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 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 an 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

OSCAR WATCH: Eighth Grade


If you're anything like me, your middle/high school years were a trying time that you've long forgotten. The experience of watching Bo Burnham's debut feature "Eighth Grade" could therefore give you a feeling of déjà vu. This chronicle of an eight grader's life may not reflect your exact experience, but Burnham knowingly captures the essence of those anxiety-ridden years.

"Eighth Grade" is the story of a girl named Kayla. Like many kids her age, she has an active life on social media, even producing and starring in her own YouTube vlog. But her everyday life is a different situation altogether, with her school even naming her Most Quiet at a year-ending awards ceremony. Determined to shirk this label before she enters high school, sets forth to break out of her shell and make new friends. A tumultuous week awaits her, however, which will forever shape the person she aspires to be.

Elsie's journey of self discovery will surely be familiar to anyone who has dealt with the pressures of fitting in. Capturing all the awkwardness and insecurities of adolescence in painstaking detail, some scenes will surely have you cringing and peeking through a covered face. Burnham is so attuned to Kayla's perspective that every embarrassing moment or burst of joy is viscerally felt.

Speaking of Kayla's perspective, Elsie Fisher is the main reason why the character is so affecting. Delivering the year's most precious performance, her fumbling speech and eager energy feels absolutely genuine. Despite her young age, Fisher would not feel out of place in the Best Actress conversation at the Oscars.

While the film is primarily a showcase for Fisher, first timer Bo Burnham also shows tremendous talent with some brilliant directorial flourishes. Indeed, each major event is often introduced in slow motion with intense musical fanfare, signalling the emotional highs and lows which accompany them. With this ingenious touch, Burnham effectively conveys the extreme "best day ever" or "end of the world" feelings associated with pivotal social interactions.

Of course, going to a pool party or hanging out with friends may seem trivial in hindsight, but "Eighth Grade" also shows how formative these interactions can be. While the protagonist's endearing awkwardness mostly elicits hysterical laughter or relatable pathos, there are also some horrifying moments which remind us how our toxic gender dynamics and sexual politics are established at such a young age. Underneath Kayla's eager attitude is an unfortunate desperation to impress the opposite sex that is frustrating yet all too familiar.

As such, the film will resonate with audiences young and old (including Academy members, as it makes a strong case for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). Through her, we remember the people we used to be and the importance of those early relationships, whether it be with an encouraging father - a crucial but underwritten character - or the sincere support of a good friend. On the latter note, the film saves the best for last with a scene so sweet that it brought tears to my eyes. It's a heartwarming reminder that with the right people in your corner, everything's gonna be alright.

Friday, September 28, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Leave No Trace


We've often been taught that our basic needs are food, water, clothing and shelter. But modern society often takes a step further, dictating the acceptable forms of food and the notion of a proper home. Those who live outside these norms of "civilized" society are often shunned, much like the father-daughter protagonists of "Leave No Trace", which sees Debra Granik returning to the survivalist themes of "Winter's Bone" to deliver another moving Oscar contender for Best Picture.

Indeed, Tom and her father Will hardly fit the common ideal of an American household. While they occasionally visit the city to gather supplies, they spend most of their time as squatters in a public park in Oregon. Having long settled into their way of life in the woods, they have found happiness, with no desire to move. But one day, their secret existence is revealed to the authorities, forcing them to leave their home forever. Soon, they are put into the care of social services and given a traditional home. Knowing that their lives will never be the same, they try to settle into their new environment. But as time goes by, father and daughter have divergent views as to whether this change is for the better.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I tend to preemptively balk at these kinds of narratives about people who choose to rough it in the wilderness. With my academic background in environmental studies, I understand the environmental benefits and I've met numerous fine people who aspire to some version of this way of life. Yet I still involuntarily roll my eyes at people who reject the basic conveniences designed to keep us safe and improve our lives.

Thankfully, "Leave No Trace" quickly relieved me of my skepticism, thanks to the honesty that Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini bring to the direction and screenplay. Whereas films like "Captain Fantastic" expressed a condescending viewpoint of primitive lifestyles as being more respectable, "Leave No Trace" gives a much more nuanced portrayal. Instead of sanctimonious monologues about the virtues of simple living, Granik explores this outlook through the beautiful relationship between a troubled widower and his daughter.

Having previously depended on each other to survive, a fascinating conflict arises through Tom's coming of age following the upheaval of their lives. Expressed with a tender-hearted spirit by Thomasin McKenzie, Tom's curiosity brings forth poignant revelations about this seemingly unbreakable father-daughter bond. Meanwhile, Ben Foster brings depth to a character who plays it close to the chest. Though the film doesn't fully get to the bottom of his pain, it's all there in Foster's wounded, careful performance. And through his character, the film is touchingly honest in acknowledging that some traumas can't be overcome. He may not verbally express it like Casey Affleck's devastating "I can't beat it" in "Manchester by the Sea", but no words are needed when there's a shot as plaintive and eloquent as the one which ends this gracefully crafted film.