Friday, September 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BlacKkKlansman


Three decades ago, we watched as Mookie threw a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria in "Do the Right Thing". It was Spike Lee's 3rd feature film and it became one of the most talked about and defining moments in the film and in some regards, Lee's career as a whole. Many years later, audiences are still split as to whether, to use the film's own title, Mookie did the right thing. But whichever side you landed on, this scene of heightened racial tensions established Lee as a filmmaker unafraid to confront the unsavory legacy of America's checkered past.

Fast forward to 2018 and I couldn't help but think of "Do the Right Thing" as another character breaks a window in his latest film "BlacKkKlansman". In this scene, the men involved are a black detective named Ron Stallworth and his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, who is being interrogated by a vehemently racist member of the Ku Klux Klan. The detectives are working undercover on a daring mission to infiltrate the KKK, with Stallworth impersonating a white-sounding man over the phone, who is presented as Zimmerman in the field. With their true identities under threat of being revealed, the scene sees Stallworth breaking a window to dissipate the tension. But this won't be the only nerve-wracking moment in the film, as the men put their lives in danger in a race against the clock to stop the KKK's next terrorist attack.

The inherent miracle of the story and the protagonists' bravery are indeed what makes "BlacKkKlansman" compelling. The script - a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay - effectively balances some anxiety-inducing close calls with frequent humorous scenes inspired by the sheer audacity of the mission and the narrow-minded psychology of the antagonists. As such, it functions as both an amusing satire and a stirring period piece (with all the cool threads and afros to match).

Dealing with such sensitive subject matter as the notoriously evil KKK is a risky gamble and admittedly, Lee does falter with a few excessively comic moments. Thankfully, John David Washington's confident performance always keeps the film afloat. Displaying much of his father Denzel's charisma, he could potentially follow in his footsteps as an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Furthermore, Adam Driver should be in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor, as his character adds thought-provoking dimensions to the film. His reckoning with this Jewish identity is one of the film's highlights.

Overall, "BlacKkKlansman" represents one of Lee's most restrained directorial efforts. But that's not to say that he's getting soft with age. Indeed, his confrontational voice is unmistakable in the film's prologue and conclusion. The former shows Alec Baldwin spewing propagandist hate speech as a character clearly intended as a parody of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the closing moments are true masterstroke that will likely seal long overdue Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.Using sobering real-life footage of the present-day KKK to hit home the film's themes, it proves that Spike Lee remains one of the most essential voices in cinema, sticking it to the man like only he can.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

REVIEW: Hereditary


If there's one movie this year that will have you turning to God in prayer, it won't be a faith-based movie like " but rather Ari
Aster's extraordinarily creepy "Hereditary". With one of the most striking debuts in recent memory, Aster proves to be a new mastermind of the horror genre. Scaring audiences through both supernatural and worldly terrors, it's a film that won't leave your mind any time soon.

"Hereditary" tells the story of a deeply troubled family, made up of a teen son, his younger sister and their parents. At the beginning of the film, the family has just buried the grandmother, a woman who passed on her internalized trauma to her daughter Annie. As the new matriarch of the family, Annie (played by Toni Collette) tries to keep the family strong through this latest tragedy. But forces from within and without threaten to break their already tenuous family bond forever.

When "Hereditary" was released earlier this summer, audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. Despite strong reviews from critics, the film scored a paltry D+ CinemaScore, indicating general audience dissatisfaction. I was therefore genuinely surprised when I finally watched the film and found it to be one of the most effectively terrifying horror films I've ever seen.

Though the marketing promised a standard issue haunting/possession narrative, Aster arrives at that place from a more indirect angle. He brilliantly incorporates the idea of metaphorical inner demons with literal ones and then unleashes them all on this vulnerable family, wreaking havoc on their lives.

Indeed, one early therapy scene is quite telling, as Annie explains the mixed emotions she feels after the death of her estranged mother. Harboring inexplicable guilt and blame for all her misfortunes, it's hardly surprising when we realize the brittle tensions within the intra-family relationships. That underlying malice within the family is viscerally felt, thanks to some go-for-broke, raw performances from the cast.

At the center of it all is Toni Collette, who all but turns herself inside out for her role. As her character endures unimaginable tragedy and inescapable anguish, she is a whirlwind that stirs up her co-stars and brings out the best in them. Most notably, the scenes she shares with Alex Wolff are absolutely searing as they unravel this fraught mother-son relationship.

Even if it didn't have the traditional horror elements of disturbing images and creepy sounds - and contrary to popular belief, this film has more than enough of them - the film's central conceit of the effects of damaged families would be haunting on its own. Indeed, if you can't feel safe around your own family, then where do you run to? I can hardly think of anything more traumatizing.

Friday, August 31, 2018

COMING SOON: The Oscar Contenders


In case you weren't aware, the first phase of awards season is upon us, as the Venice and Telluride Film Festival are in full swing. Indeed, this is the most exciting time of year for any discerning cinephile, as some of the most anticipated films of the year will be premiering at various high-profile festivals. And already, various hot titles like "A Star Is Born" and "The Favourite" are positioning themselves as major Oscar contenders, with many more on the way. Of course, a lot can still happen between now and Oscar night. But for now, hope springs eternal as we await the rest of the year in "prestige" cinema. With that being said, here's a first look at some of the films garnering early Oscar buzz:

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: First Reformed


Although he has directed as many films as he has written, Paul Schrader is more widely known as the screenwriter behind some of Martin Scorcese's greatest films. Most notably, he penned the script for "Taxi Driver", starring an unforgettable Robert De Niro as a disillusioned war veteran. The misanthropy which fueled that character echoes 40 years later in Schrader's latest effort "First Reformed", which sees him doing double duty as writer-director to craft a film that is chillingly relevant to modern society.

While De Niro's Travis Bickle was a taxi driver in the gritty streets of 1970s New York City, the protagonist of "First Reformed" is a priest named Reverend Toller, who is in charge of a historic church further upstate. Played by Ethan Hawke, he is a man tormented by the crises affecting both him and others in the past, present and future. One day, his faith is put the ultimate test upon meeting a couple experiencing difficulties due to the husband's severe depression. As this man slips into crippling despair over mankind's destruction of the earth, Reverend Toller realizes that piety may not provide the answers, causing Toller to question his and the church's purpose in the world.

Bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ethan Hawke is well cast in the lead role. While his furrowed brow conveys his internal anguish, his youthful persona serves him well as the character becomes increasingly agitated. Pitched somewhere between grumpy old man and furious activist, it will surely be remembered as one of Hawke's finest hours.

Indeed, Hawke is the anchor of this heavy film which sees Schrader ultimately taking aim at one of the most unspoken, yet critical issues of our time. Namely, what is Christianity's role in environmental protection or lack thereof? Evidently, Schrader takes a cynical view to this answer, starkly showing how capitalism and Christianity are often unholy bedfellows. The influence of both is omnipresent through various perspectives in the narrative, whether it be the aforementioned wife's ingrained religious belief (excellently portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) or the self-serving authority of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of a megachurch. As the film gradually reinforces the pervading sense of apathy towards the earth, one can't help but empathize with our protagonist's plight.

With an exacting stillness and pallid visual scheme, Schrader's tone is unwaveringly morose. But ultimately, the film leaves a powerful impact that may even strike up Oscar talk for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Whether you're religious or not, it will have you pondering its central concern - Can God Forgive Us?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Top 10 Spike Lee Joints


On August 10, “BlacKkKlansman” will be released in theaters nationwide, marking the 38th feature film in the storied filmography of Spike Lee. As one of the pioneering figures of the 1980s independent film movement, Lee’s career has made him one of the most influential black filmmakers of all time. And with the release of his latest, early reviews prove that he hasn’t lost his flair for the politically-charged, provocative work that captivates audiences everywhere.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Best Debut Films by Directors of Color Since 2008


Ask any director and they’ll tell you that getting your first feature funded and completed is no easy task. And when you’re a director of color, it’s even more daunting. Indeed, it’s no secret that white directors are often afforded greater opportunities to further their careers following their debut features. But for filmmakers of color, there’s the likelihood that their first film could be their last.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Cakemaker


From poisoned apples in fairytales to raunchy kinks in adult-oriented fare, food has long served as a plot device throughout film history. That tradition continues with “The Cakemaker,” a cross-cultural drama directed by Ophir Raul Graizer. In this delicate drama, the power of food creates an unlikely love triangle that transcends borders.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Believer


If you thought Hollywood had the cornered the market on seemingly unnecessary remakes, think again. Back in 2012, Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s “Drug War” opened to critical acclaim, strong box office, and eventual awards recognition. Hoping to repeat that success, Lee Hae-young brings his take on that story with “Believer“. As with any remake, there’s an inevitable element of familiarity. But this gripping tale of crime also forges its unique identity, adapting a proven formula to deliver heart-pounding entertainment.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Foreign Directors to Watch in 2018


Taking place at the start of the blockbuster-driven summer season, the Cannes Film Festival always holds a special place in the film calendar. While the next few months will see most of the media attention focused on Hollywood fare, this prestigious festival shines a spotlight on the best of world cinema. Indeed, at the recently concluded 2018 edition, only 2 American directors competed for the coveted Palme d’Or this year, while filmmakers from Egypt to Kazakhstan were feted.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Carla Simón


Filmmaking rarely gets more personal than the award-winning debut feature from Carla Simón. Inspired by the personal tragedy surrounding her mother’s death from AIDS-related complications, “Summer 1993” is a tender drama told from a child’s point of view. As the film heads to US theaters around the 25th anniversary of the events depicted, I recently caught up with Simón to discuss the challenges and fulfillment of making a film from painful memories. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit