Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article titled "Coming Soon - A Breakout Year for Black Cinema". It put a welcome spotlight on all the emerging talent from black filmmakers and their deserved acclaim. Of course, it's perhaps too early to declare a paradigm shift in Hollywood, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. What's truly outstanding about this year though, is the number of black contenders in the Oscar race. In fact, we may see a new record for the number of individual black Oscar nominees (discounting duplicate citations) for a single Oscar year. The current record was set in 2006, which yielded nods for 8 persons - Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Sharen Davis, Siedah Garrett and Willie D. Burton. While that tally was largely due to "Dreamgirls", this year is noteworthy for the wider variety of films gaining attention. Of course, many of the smaller films will lose some traction throughout the season. However, I'm fairly confident that we'll see at least 9 different black contenders securing nods on January 16th.
So without further ado, here are the black nominees(in bold) I'm currently projecting for the 2013 Oscar year:
Monday, December 9, 2013
This week I caught up with the Chinese Foreign Oscar submission - "Back to 1942". Set in China's Henan province in 1942, the film recounts the experiences of the villagers who were caught between a catastrophic drought and China's war with Japan. If it sounds dreary, that's because it is. This film is about the suffering of a large population of civilians due to the actions of people in power. Although the drought was an environmental issue, the lack of governmental aid seriously exacerbated the situation. Of course, the war played a big part in this but this story isn't primarily about the war itself. We never go to the front lines to see the combat. Instead, the plot focuses mostly on a few families from Henan who were affected by the disastrous situation.
With scarce food to eat and the impending doom of a Japanese attack, our protagonists become refugees, trekking hundreds of miles for salvation. Two families are specifically given the spotlight, allowing interesting character development and a strong understanding of the social implications. The Fan family is wealthy through land ownership and the drought effectively brings them down to the social status of everyone else. As the desparation creeps in, the plot gets a lot of mileage out of this deconstruction of social heirarchies. A happy ending seems unlikely for all, including the most resourceful. As such, the film becomes relentlessly devastating. Despite this, the film feels somewhat emotionally distant, which has bothered many critics. Their qualms are valid, since the film never milks the horrors for their inherent sentimentality. However, I thought it was a smart choice by the director. To explain, one must consider that the film is about long-term misery (even using intermittent captions to indicate the long journey from home), rather than acute moments of distress. This is further emphasized by the fact that the drought has already happened before the events of the movie take place. So in my interpretation, I understood it as the characters being too weak from starvation to outwardly mourn every loss. The actors do a great job with the emotional peaks they are give though, so it's not a question of acting ability. There's strong character development, but the director (Xiaogang Feng) has no time for hysterics in his plot.
The plight of the main characters command most of the attention, but other people exist in this script too. Notably there's the military leader Chiang Kai-shek, who shockingly downplays the severity of the drought and effectively sacrifices the people of Henan. It's a striking reminder of the unfortunate "collateral damage" that is too often disregarded in times of war. In addition, American actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins are also shoehorned into the story. Frankly, they are both disposable in the grand scheme, but Brody makes a strong impact. In fact, he threatens to take over the whole movie with his subplot as a TIME magazine correspondent fighting to save the displaced people. Unfortunately, the film summarily abandons him and disregards his importance. There's surely a separate film to made about that character.
Apart from story elements, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal production values. The costumes, cinematography, sound and production design are so remarkable that I regret not being able to see it on the big screen. The film is worth it just for the top-notch visuals. It really gives you a strong sense of this period's atmosphere.
Overall, the plot mechanics of "Back to 1942" don't add much to the war epic genre, but the quality of the production is highly commendable. The struggle of the characters is suitably harrowing and the cast/crew capture this brilliantly. I certainly wouldn't want to literally go "back to 1942", but I appreciated this cinematic exploration of Chinese history.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
|Will Gravity survive the long Oscar race?|
It's awards season, can you feel it? Well, the Oscar race has been going strong since August but the actual awards-giving and nominating begins in earnest this week. As you may know, many major critics groups have already had their say (New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Boston Society of Film Critics etc.) have already had their say. However, I consider the televised precursors (SAG, Golden Globes, Critics Choice) to be the true start of the season. Those groups will announce their nominees in the next 10 days and we'll then have a better idea of the frontrunners. Read on for my thoughts on the Oscar race as it currently stands, including my first official predictions of the season...
Monday, December 2, 2013
Full disclosure: this isn't the first time I've seen "To Kill A Mockingbird". However, after considering the circumstances under which I first approached it, I felt it was appropriate to include it on my "List of Shame". To explain, my initial viewing of this film was about 10 years ago. I was much less advanced in my cinephilia and I prejudged it as a lame black and white movie that couldn't possibly be interesting (it was a supplement to the required reading in high school English Literature). This time around though, it became clear that I made the right choice in revisiting this classic. It truly felt like I was seeing it with fresh new eyes.
As you may already know, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. It's a story about equal rights and justice, focusing on a court case where a black man is falsely charged with raping a white woman. At the center of the plot however, is a white lawyer named Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), who passionately defends this accused man out of a sense of moral duty. The setting is the American Depression-era South and as a result, it brings up themes of poverty and bigotry.
In assessing the effectiveness of this film, it's hard to separate it from the brilliant novel that inspired it. The film evokes a storybook quality throughout that strongly captures its literary source. Even though the narration is predominantly found only in the beginning and ending, it always feels like actual storytelling. Each scene is so exact and purposeful that you can easily imagine the storyboards or specific chapters used to develop the script.
To compare the film to a storybook doesn't do it justice though. One of the things that stood out to me this time was the harsh authenticity in portraying the era. The novel is often regarded as a "Great American Novel" in the way it captured the zeitgeist and this has been successfully translated to the screen. In some ways the film feels like your standard African-American Civil Rights story, but it's also unique in the way it portrays bigotry. Even without overtly depicting racially-motivated violence, the danger of uneducated, unemployed, racist alcoholics is palpable and terrifying. There are scenes where the lives of black citizens are threatened and the mere thought of what could happen is the stuff of nightmares. The hopelessness of the Depression seriously exacerbated the already troublesome environment of the pre-Civil Rights movement American South.
The truth of the matter is, almost all the inhabitants of this community are dirt poor and willfully ignorant. It's a situation that clearly doesn't bode well for a happy and fair society. Thankfully, there was an anomaly in this destitute system - Atticus Finch. In the history of memorable cinematic heroes, Finch sits firmly among the best. He is the ultimate role model, instilling strong values of compassion, tolerance and the importance of education in his two children. Even more impressive is that he "walks the walk". In standing up for justice and passionately defending a black man, he put himself at risk. For Atticus though, there was no other choice. "To Kill A Mockingbird" is told from the point of view of his daughter Scout and as you get to understand his character, you're likely to idolize him like she did. It takes a special performance to make a simple man seem like a superhero and that's exactly what we get here. Gregory Peck is simply perfect in the role. The character is unassuming and the subtlety in his acting indicates a true understanding of the character. With all the odds stacked against him, he maintains a quiet dignity and determination that is exemplary. In summary, he is the heart, mind and soul of the story.
The importance of Peck's performance in making the film watchable cannot be understated. The actors playing the bigots were so authentic that it often became quite discomfiting. Put these opposing views together though and you get a film of great poignancy and timeless relevance. From a general filmmaking standpoint too, it's just as brilliant. The film is warmly shot and it uses appropriately simple background music. The appealing storybook quality also has a lot to do with the great editing.
Overall, this is a beautifully realized literal adaptation. Robert Mulligan really did this book justice. Go watch this film and be inspired.
This film is part of my List of Shame.
Friday, November 29, 2013
The shopping season is well underway, with Black Friday raging on and Cyber Monday still to come. In light of this, John (from John Likes Movies) came up with some cool gift ideas for movie lovers on his site. Go check em out along with the other interesting posts below:
John recommended some cool Gifts for Movie Lovers, in honour of the holiday season.
Josh listed 10 Underrated Performances from 2013 that he's thankful for this Thanksgiving.
Sam from Movie Mezzanine interviewed the esteemed Wesley Morris for his "Film Critic of the Week" feature.
The French Toast Sunday crew discussed their favourite Single Setting Movies on their latest podcast.
Tom finally watched The Passion of Joan of Arc and gave it a favourable review.
Monday, November 25, 2013
This week's top pick is Sam Peckinpah's dynamic 1969 film "The Wild Bunch". A sprawling, gritty western with a formidable ensemble cast, this turned out to be one of the most impressive entries in the genre. It begins with our title characters attempting to get away with one final robbery in 1913 Texas. As these aging renegades attempt to rob the local railroad office, their plans go awry in bloody fashion. In a violent shootout, a group of bounty hunters retaliate, even killing the innocent bystanders. Only a select few of the bunch remain, prompting them to make their way to Mexico to evade the law. With these bounty hunters already on their case, the wild bunch encounter even more trouble along the way.
Indeed, the violence doesn't end with the opening scene, an aspect that made this film infamous in its day. In fact, John Wayne himself criticized the film for its liberal depiction of violence. It's what makes the film stand out even now, due to its lack of heroic characters and a general absence of civility. This highly patriarchal society laid bare all the vices of men, including heavy drinking and hedonistic sexuality to go along with the violence. They were a wild bunch indeed.
With all of the debauchery on display, it would be easy to assume this film would play like B-movie pulp. However, if you actually watch the film, you're likely to be impressed with the skill on display. At the forefront is Peckinpah's dynamite direction, with stunning cinematography, superb sound design and a great control of tone and pacing. Even as the plot seems to overstay the depth of the material, the production values are so compelling that it never becomes tedious. The film is set during the final days of the "American West" and Peckinpah sends out this social construct in grand style.
The classic westerns have always seemed to glorify violence as a means to uphold justice. Furthermore, the antiheroes are often portrayed as sympathetic. Peckinpah however, presents a more realistic take on the wild west, showing how unpleasant such a society would have been. Women and children alike were caught in the crossfire, unwilling participants in an untamed parade of machismo. As the plot unfolds, the Latin American trajectory may remind you of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", but you'll find no Burt Bacharach songs here. Peckinpah took me on a brutal, bumpy ride and I loved every minute of it.
This film is part of my List of Shame.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
The first phase of the Oscar race is really starting to gain steam, with the announcement of the shortlists for 3 categories - Animated Short, Documentary Short and Live Action Short. As usual, I have no idea of the quality of these films or the likeliness for nominations. Perhaps the most obvious contender is Disney's "Get A Horse!" (pictured above), which should get a lot of publicity from playing in front of the feature film "Frozen". With that said, here's the full list of finalists for these categories:
Get a Horse!
The Missing Scarf
Requiem for Romance
Room on the Broom
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem
Friday, November 22, 2013
Mettel Ray recently started another great blogathon titled "Breaking Emotions" and this week's theme was "Tears and Suprise". It inspired some great entries and I've included a trio of them below. Go check them out along with some other fascinating reads from the past week:
Mette's post included The Broken Circle Breakdown, Fight Club and Magnolia.
Shantanu also made some excellent choices, including Finding Neverland, Grave of the Fireflies and The Usual Suspects in his post.
Stevee's choices included The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Psycho and Atonement.
Alex updated us on his upcoming feature film Wait.
The French Toast Sunday gang did a hilarious podcast about Race Against Time Movies.
Jessica explains how "Let The Right One In" influenced a new wave of Scandinavian sci-fi and fantasy film.
Nostra interviewed Joey Pollari, star of "Profile of a Killer".
Monday, November 18, 2013
There has been much debate lately over the notion that television has overtaken cinema in terms of quality. Indeed, the rise of the cable networks has produced many acclaimed shows that have pushed boundaries and provided a weekly dose of excellence that you are unlikely to get from the multiplex. While the constant rewards of HBO and AMC shows certainly make a strong case for television, it's perhaps more useful to view this as a natural evolution of the medium. While TV was just gaining popularity around the 1950s, cinema was already emerging from the shadows of the Hays code, producing daring films like this week's top pick - "The Manchurian Candidate".
Much like the popular TV series "Scandal" and "House of Cards", this film focuses on political antiheroes. John Frankenheimer's 1962 film is an unflinching portrayal of high-level corruption and moral bankruptcy that continues to fascinate audiences to this day. The focal character is war hero Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) who is brainwashed in Manchuria, China to become an assassin for the Communists upon his return to the US. Under the influence of a psychological trigger (a Queen of Diamonds playing card), he is obliged to follow the murderous orders of Communist agents. However, his unwitting plan is hindered by fellow war survivor Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who was also brainwashed with false memories of Shaw's heroism. His hypnosis isn't as successful however, as recurrent nightmares slowly remind him of the truth. As Marco slowly comes to his senses, the film becomes a race against the clock as he must convince the authorities that Shaw isn't who he seems before it's too late.
As the plot unfolds, the first thing that strikes you is the director's style, or lack thereof. Specifically, there's a calm steadiness to the storytelling that really allows the viewer to focus on the script and the acting. With our modern obsession with distinct auteurist directing styles, it's quite refreshing to see a film where a director is fully able to divert the attention away from himself. This proves to be highly effective as it reinforces the sense of evil lurking within civility. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock's personal favourite of his own filmography - "Shadow of a Doubt". Of course, this film isn't set in picket fenced suburbia, but rather the more executive level setting of Washington and its associated social structure. It's not an obvious comparison, but expectations of politicians are quite the same (perfect families, baby-kissing etc.) as those of the quintessential American household.
While Hitchcock's film employs his creative techniques of varying camera angles (Joseph Cotten's fourth wall-breaking is legendary) and evocative score, the aforementioned plainness of direction on display here is equally impressive. Considering the macabre premise of the plot, the frank, almost banal visualizations of the heinous acts is deeply chilling. As a result, the film is both potently of its time (the Cold War was escalating) and seemingly ahead of its time with its bold cynicism.
With the screenplay's strong content and themes, this was already destined to be a fascinating film. However, it's the outstanding acting ensemble that completes the package to make "The Manchurian Candidate" must-see cinema. Namely, the trio of main performers (Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury) gave truly memorable performances. Working in different registers of acting technique (Sinatra's grounded steadfastness, Harvey's jaded fragility and Lansbury's chilly deviousnes), this is a prime example of inspired casting. The film may be a slow burn overall, but the dramatic peaks are handled with crackling brilliance by these fine actors.
In essence, "The Manchurian Candidate" captures many of the traits of today's dark political TV dramas (along with the steady stream of similarly themed films). Of course, production values have improved and our tolerance of antiheroes as protagonists has vastly increased. The message is still the same as it always was though. With power comes the threat of corruption. This is true whether the power is obtained in a communist or capitalist society. It's a constant battle that we need to be reminded of in order to strive to a better future. That's why I have a great appreciation for films like "The Manchurian Candidate", where the entertainment value goes hand in hand with its important social relevance. I implore you to seek out this film, even if you've seen the 2004 remake.
This film is part of my List of Shame.
Monday, November 11, 2013
This week's top pick is the charming little indie "Frances Ha", starring Greta Gerwig as the title character. The almost-mumblecore plot of this film follows an aspiring modern dancer in New York City, who stumbles along the way to achieving her dreams. Struggling to make the jump from apprentice to company dancer, she finds herself in a minor crisis. As she tries to figure everything out, we watch as she simultaneously deals with various relationships, including a best friend who seems to be forging her own path in life.
What's immediately clear as you watch the film, is that it portrays a very specific subsection of society (i.e. Brooklyn hipsters). While there is definitely a discernible plot, the film is more concerned with capturing the tone and mood of Frances and her world. Thankfully, Gerwig is up to the task, as she fully embodies the character and its associated lifestyle. She's quirky and carefree with undeniably "white middle-class" problems. Indeed, this proves to be the crux of the entire film. If you can sympathize with Frances' struggle, then you're more likely to jive with this screenplay. On the other hand, you may alternately find her predicament unworthy of your concern (which seems to be the main issue for the film's detractors).
Even so, the screenplay (written by Baumbach and Gerwig herself) does a lot of work to help you to at least empathize with her situation. It's really a great portrait of your mid to late 20s, when you're too young for a midlife crisis, but old enough to be wary of your lack of direction. Haven't we all been there? In this regard, the subtle script manages to unwittingly tap into the zeitgeist. With the current economic situation, it's easy to dismiss her professional aspirations as folly (if you're familiar with modern dance then you'll know it's quite a curious art form and not very lucrative). However, her determination is admirable. Even as insecurity starts to creep in, (her best friend is achieving significant success in both her love life and career), she stays relatively level-headed, even taking unglamorous jobs if needed. Like many of us, she responds by meandering for a while, but she never loses sight of her dreams. You just know that she won't be content to wallow in apathy forever. As a result, I find her incredibly endearing.
Many will try to compare this film to the terrific TV show "Girls", but it's not entirely accurate. With the likable Greta Gerwig as the protagonist, "Frances Ha" is never allowed to be as acrid as Girls' many cringeworthy moments. As such, the film is less cutting edge, but certainly more accessible. As shocking as it sounds, I personally find Lena Dunham's cynical Hannah more relatable, so this film isn't as impressive as "Girls" to me. There's much to like here though, with the lovely black and white cinematography, pleasant script and affable lead actress.