Tuesday, March 3, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Sound of Music


Nathaniel Rogers' excellent Hit me with your best shot series is back for a sixth season and of course, Film Actually will be following with keen interest. If I wasn't excited enough, then the announcement of the premiere episode ("The Sound of Music") certainly did the trick. This film was a childhood favorite of mine and as I sang my way through yet another viewing last night, I was once again reminded of how lovely it is. Indeed, that's the best way to describe the film, as its loveliness permeates throughout every aspect of it. There's the lovely cinematography, lovely music, lovely story, lovely singing and of course, the lovely Julie Andrews. I get all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it. For my best shot then, I chose a scene that for me, is the loveliest of them all.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, March 2, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Selma


This week's top pick is a film that has been at the forefront of critical discussion for the past few months. Having come from the micro-indie world - i.e. not the glossy David O. Russell type of "indie" - Ava Duvernay probably never anticipated the intense level of debate and politics that met her latest film "Selma". This Martin Luther King biopic is now known for its Oscar "snubs", but when I finally sat down to watch the film this week, I was surprised to see that it wasn't the obvious "Oscar bait" that the public outrage would suggest.

"Selma" refers to the city of Selma in Alabama, where Martin Luther King Jr. lead a historic civil rights march in 1965, in an effort to rally support for the eventual Voting Rights Act. It was a time of civil unrest, as the Southern states of America were desperately trying to hold on to their traditional way of life, namely the segregation of whites and colored people. In the lead-up to the march, various factions within the black community had begun to rise up against a social state of inequality that had become increasingly untenable. The people needed a leader however, to put up a single united front to fight for equal rights for all citizens. That leader came in the form of a pastor and social activist named Martin Luther King Jr. This film follows his brave efforts to make the African-American Civil Rights movement a national issue, fighting to make it a priority for President Lyndon Johnson and successfully garnering support among blacks and whites alike.

Unlike most biopics, "Selma" doesn't seek the chronicle the entire life of its main subject. Instead, as its title suggests, it's a contained piece that highlights the social and political climate of a specific time in American history. In one of the very first scenes of the film, Duvernay instantly conveys the urgency of the period through a harrowing act of violence. Anyone familiar with the "4 Little Girls" incident - stunningly captured in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary - will immediately feel a sense of dread as a group of young black girls cheerfully descends down church stairs to meet their eventual demise. It was one of numerous such incidents of hateful crimes that swept through the south, many without any form of legal punishment. By putting this scene at the forefront of the narrative, Duvernay instantly taps into our basic humanity and empathy.

That bombing scene is just one of many standout moments in "Selma", as the film is littered with many great scenes. From minor ones like a late night phone call from Mahalia Jackson to the more eventful, visceral attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, each succeeds as its own individual vignette. Once again, Duvernay has collaborated with the talented cinematographer Bradford Young and his work here is as evocative as ever. Under his watchful eye, all the actors are able to flourish, proving the film's exceptional casting. Most significantly, David Oyelowo is terrific as King, creating his character from the inside out. His work delves into the man behind the speeches and soul-stirring rhetoric, revealing a modest individual with a heavy load to bare. The weariness of the performance sticks with you, that furrowed brow conveying so much.

I was truly captivated by "Selma" from beginning to end, but it also came with feelings of reservation. Blame it on the overwhelming power of its original song "Glory" or the universal critical acclaim. Either way, I must admit that it lacked the agitated narrative thrust that I was expecting from its central conceit (i.e. the march and the resulting social upheaval). As I stated in the intro, it's not the "Oscar bait" you'd assume it to be, delivering subtlety and texture rather than pomp and circumstance. It's an inspired approach, but I did feel that it could have used a little more of the latter.

In the end though, I'm left with immense appreciation for Ava Duvernay's artistic vision, both in this film and in her filmography as a whole. She has proven herself to be a unique storyteller when it comes to "black cinema", taking narratives about the African-American experience and infusing them with a universal empathy. Whereas others may deem it necessary to make their characters assert their blackness (through a soliloquy about the virtues of fried chicken for example), she finds the common American struggle within her stories, removing all the extremism of poverty and pitiful sorrow. If you want to know what kind of filmmaker Duvernay is, just look at the scene in this film where Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) comforts Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) by reminding her that she is descended from a strong people who weathered the storm of slavery. It's a scene that filled me with such pride and made me so grateful to have such a fresh voice in contemporary cinema. Ava Duvernay is a vital filmmaker and this is an essential black film. Go see it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

REVIEW: Futuro Beach


"Futuro Beach", the latest feature from Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, begins much as you’d expect from its title and its associated setting. A pair of young men ride their motorbikes on a glistening beach with sunny blue skies overhead. After the adrenaline rush, they leap into the water to cool off. Tragedy soon strikes however, cutting this idyllic vacation abruptly short and setting off the narrative of this moody drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, February 26, 2015

COMING SOON: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema


NEW YORK, NY (FEBRUARY 10, 2015) – The 20th Anniversary of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance films’ celebrated annual showcase of the best in contemporary French film, sweeps across screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the IFC Center, and BAMcinématek, March 6-15.

Click here for more information.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

REVIEW: White God


Revenge is one of the most prominent themes in populist cinema and for good reason. At the heart of the physical or psychological violence depicted, these stories are essentially about justice, a desire we can all relate to. In Kornél Mundruczó’s ambitious new film "White God", this justice comes at the hands – or more aptly, the paws – of a legion of mistreated dogs. Steeped in satire, it blends realism and fantasy to fascinating effect.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, February 23, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Late Marriage


When it comes to foreign film, the conversation often surrounds a select few countries like Italy, France, Spain etc. Since the turn of the century however, there's another under-discussed film movement that's become just as exciting - contemporary Israeli cinema. One such example of this is 2001's "Late Marriage", directed by Dover Koshashvili.

"Late Marriage" is a story of family, tradition, love and the complicated space in which they coexist. 31-year old PhD student Zaza (played by Lior Ashkenazi) learns this first hand in the film, as his parents have pushed him into the traditional marriage hunt that's typical of his Georgian-Jewish heritage. We get to see one of these arranged courtships early in the film, as he meets a young high school girl upon the urging of both families. Neither party is too keen however, much to the dismay of both families, who wait outside of the girl's room expecting a decision. Unsurprisingly, Zaza uses an "I'll think about it" excuse and he's on to the next one. After yet another failed matchmaking attempt, both the family and the audience are left wondering...why can't Zaza commit?

As it turns out, Zaza has already found love, engaging in a secret romance with a beautiful divorcee named Judith (Ronit Elkabetz). Unfortunately, his family customs prohibit him from marrying her, as she's neither a young virgin nor is she sufficiently wealthy. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Zaza must now decide whether family or true love is more important.

From its opening moments, "Late Marriage" is a fascinating look at this culture. The two families are cordially seated in the living room, but the excitement is muted. Despite the romantic intentions, the occasion feels more like a business transaction. Zaza's father even states, "Too much importance is given to the heart and love." Furthermore, the tradition disallows any drinks from being served.

This serious attitude manifests itself in even more interesting ways later in the story. When Zaza's parents learn of his secret affair, their reaction reflects an almost mafia-like condescension and contempt. It's undoubtedly the effect of a partriarchy, but one where the women are willing accomplices. As Zaza's mother, Lili Koshashvili is brilliantly demonstrative in this regard, conveying that unique motherly combination of disappointment and vexation on her expressive face. When she firmly declares that she'll not accept a divorced woman into her household, you believe every word.

The screenplay is truly remarkable in the way it explores the generational divide that causes the central conflict. What really brings it all together though, is the sort of droll sense of humor that accompanies all the tension and drama. There's a strong sense of the folly of the entire ordeal, depicted in a way that's simultaneously sad and hilarious. It comes across clearly in the obvious chemistry between Zaza and Judith (largely due to a superb pair of performances from Ashkenazi and Elkabetz), as well as the reluctant admission of such by his antagonistic family.

As the film's domestic conflict plays out in front of our eyes, "Late Marriage" proves itself to be outstandingly perceptive. It's the kind of narrative that just gets richer and richer as it goes along, with an ending that gives you much to ponder. I can't recommend this film highly enough. If you haven't seen it, do seek it out. It's absolutely one of the best films of the 2000s.

And the Oscar goes to... Birdman


After a night of fabulous speeches and stirring music performances, the awards season has finally come to a close. Neil Patrick Harris was surprisingly lame, but everything else was so thrilling that for me, it didn't fully register how hard he was flopping. Perhaps it was the quality of the winners too, as I was so happy to see so many deserving artists get some love. On top of them all was my #1 film of the year Birdman, winning Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Congrats! If you follow me on twitter, you'll know that I did fairly well on my predictions too, guessing 19 out of 24. So all in all, it was a very pleasant night for me. I'm looking forward to doing this all over again next year. Here are your Oscar winners for 2014:

Best Picture
Birdman

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu , Birdman

Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Saturday, February 21, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Awards


As the Independent Spirit Awards become increasingly aligned with the Academy Awards, we may need to start considering these as a serious precursor. Earlier today the 2015 Spirit Awards were presented at a ceremony in Santa Monica and there were definitely many familiar names being called. This year, I was able to vote on the winners as a member of Film Independent and I was happy to see most of picks (indicated below with asterisk) claiming prizes. The big winners of course, were Birdman and Boyhood, winning Best Film and Best Director respectively. Could this split be repeated tomorrow? We'll find out very soon but before then, here's a look at this year's best in independent cinema:

Best Feature
Birdman*

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Male Lead
Michael Keaton, Birdman*

Best Female Lead
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Male
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Female
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood*

OSCAR WATCH: Oscar Predictions


Have we ever had such a headscratcher of an Oscar race? There are so many variables this year that I might as well pull my predictions out of a hat in some categories. I usually do very well with my final predictions but I'm sure this year will be different. It's gonna be one hell of an Oscar ceremony. Here's how I see it all going down:

Best Picture
Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Best Picture 2014: The Musical

The folks over at Wayside Creations have a cool annual tradition of parodying the Best Picture nominees musical-style and this year's video is now up! Check out the video below, along with the full press release: