Tuesday, February 26, 2019

And the Oscar goes to... Green Book


As you've probably heard already, the Oscars were held on Sunday, with "Green Book" taking the top prize of Best Picture, to go along with wins for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Frankly, it proved to be a disappointing end to a rather surprising and satisfying night. Indeed, I only predicted a dismal 14 out of 24 categories correctly. But ultimately, I don't mind being wrong if it means historic wins for the Black Panther team and a shocking upset for the wonderful Olivia Colman in Best Actress. As we finally put the 2018 film year to rest, here's the final rundown of the year's best, according to the Academy:

BEST PICTURE
Green Book

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST ACTRESS
Olivia Colman, The Favourite

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali, Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Sunday, February 24, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Awards


In a refreshing change of pace from awards season, the Independent Spirit Awards shone a spotlight on some of the year's unheralded films. At the end of their relaxed ceremony on the beach in Santa Monica, it was Barry Jenkins' stunning "If Beale Street Could Talk" which walked away with Best Feature, Best Director and Best Supporting Female. As a member of Film Independent I was quite pleased with the results, with a number of my votes* going towards the eventual winners. Here is that full list below:

Best Feature
If Beale Street Could Talk*

Best Director
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk*

Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, The Wife

Best Male Lead
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

Best Supporting Female
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Supporting Male
Richard E Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?*

Saturday, February 23, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Green Book


On the eve of Hollywood's biggest night, it felt appropriate that I finally weigh in on one of the presumed Oscar frontrunners. That controversial film is none other than Peter Farrelly's "Green Book", nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Inspired by a true story, this dramedy follows two men on a life-changing road trip that harkens back to awards contenders of yesteryear.

Indeed, to paraphrase by mother's first impression of the film, "Green Book" is like one of those "old-time" movies. Starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in roles that could have been played by Sidney Poitier and any of the notable Italian-American stars of the 20th century respectively, it's a message movie about racial harmony between a black man and a white man. Ali plays esteemed pianist Don Shirley, who is embarking on dangerous tour through the Jim Crow South and requires a driver/bodyguard to help him along the way. In steps Mortensen's Tony Lip, a brutish - and racist - Italian-American bouncer who is out of a job when his club closes down. Due to his reputation for handling unruly situations, Lip's services are solicited for Shirley's tour. And after some hesitation, Lip decides to take the gig, as this pair of New Yorkers head down South and strike up an unlikely friendship.

Much has been said about the film's old-fashioned depiction of race relations, where racism is essentially "solved" through communication and walking a mile in another person's shoes. Director Peter Farrelly even said as much his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Understandably, the film's detractors took issue with this simplification of America's tramautic racial history.

Yet when I watched the film, I found myself surprisingly taken with its story. Although I concur that its inevitably happy ending is perhaps overly idealistic, the road it takes to get there is filled with many bumps along the way which truthfully reflect the pervasive intolerance of this time and place. Told in an episodic structure as the duo makes their way through the scheduled gigs, Shirley's experience is marred by a series of humiliations, one of which turns violent.

Suffice it to say, I didn't find it to be such an offensive portrayal of American history. Instead of approaching it as a broader social commentary, I accepted it as a more modest tale of two men whose friendship defied all expectations. Without a doubt, my favorable response to the film was aided significantly by the captivating duo at the heart of the story. The contrasting performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen truly make the film, with the former's poise and eloquence clashing with Mortensen's broad, crass characterization. Together, their chemistry is a "yin and yang" that keeps you engaged in the story and invested in the characters. Ultimately, "Green Book" won't be making any all-time best lists, but I found a sense of comfort in watching two talented actors at work. Outside of all the noise that is awards season, this is harmlessly middlebrow entertainment that doesn't deserve all this animosity.

Monday, February 11, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Awards


The Brits have sounded off and their pick for Best Film of the year is "Roma", giving Alfonso Cuaron's black-and-white epic a significant heading into final Oscar voting. After dominating the nominations, "The Favourite" was another BAFTA favourite with 7 awards, winning both actress categories and Outstanding British Film (where many expected "Bohemian Rhapsody" to prevail). As the Oscars are fast approaching, the following wins could be a preview for what's to come. Here they are:

Best Film
Roma

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron - Roma

Best Actor
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress
Olivia Colman - The Favourite

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali - Green Book

Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz - The Favourite

Saturday, February 9, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Predictions


It's the home stretch! The finish line for this tumultous awards season is within sight as the BAFTA Awards wrap up the major televised precursors. With final Oscar voting beginning soon, they can be a significant indicator of late season awards heat. Will the Brits back their homegrown talent or stick to the prevailing consensus? Here are my predictions for tomorrow's ceremony.

Best Film
Roma

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron - Roma

Best Actor
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress
Olivia Colman - The Favourite

Best Supporting Actor
Richard E. Grant - Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz - The Favourite

Monday, January 28, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


As the penultimate televised awards show before the Oscars, the Screen Actors Guild boosted several campaigns last night in the acting categories. Indeed, Glenn Close, Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali continued to exert their dominance of the awards circuit so far. Will they repeat at the Oscars? Here is the full list of SAG winners for 2018:

BEST CAST
Black Panther

BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close – The Wife

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Emily Blunt - A Quiet Place

Saturday, January 26, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


As the first televised awards show after the Oscar nominations, tomorrow night's SAG Awards will be significant bellwether for the final stretch of the awards season. With a few frontrunners absent from the nominations, however, we'll definitely be saying some new faces on the stage. Best Ensemble seems particularly open. Who will come out on top? Here are my guesses for this year's SAG winners:

BEST CAST
Crazy Rich Asians

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale – Vice

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close – The Wife

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams – Vice

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

OSCAR NOMINATIONS: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


After yesterday's announcement, the Oscar nominations have finally begun to sink in. And as always, there were many surprises in store. Here are my thoughts on this year's lucky nominees, in addition to the full list:

The Good:

  • It was very gratifying to see foreign language films represented outside of their designated category, notably in Cinematography ("Roma" and "Cold War") and Director where there were multiple non-English films selected. Hopefully this will become a trend and we continue to see the Academy embrace films from across the world.
  • Few people could have seen the nominations for "Roma" stars Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira coming, but I'm sure we can all agree that this was a welcome surprise.
  • Spike Lee finally gets his long overdue nomination for Best Director, as "BlacKkKlansman" makes an impressive showing with 6 nominations.


The Bad:

  • I wasn't expecting much, but the Academy really should have come through for "First Man" and "If Beale Street Could Talk". Both are towering cinematic achievements.
  • Bradley Cooper's direction was essential to making "A Star is Born" such a successful film. It's a shame he isn't being recognized for his commendable filmmaking debut.
  • I hope Toni Collette's "Hereditary" character haunts the Academy in their sleep for snubbing her in Best Actress.


The Ugly:

  • The mediocre "Bohemian Rhapsody" continues to be a major presence during this awards season, displacing many more worthy films in the process.
  • Sam Rockwell for "Vice"? Really?
  • It's an absolute travesty that "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature. If you claim that the filmmaking is too conventional, why nominate "RBG"?


Here is the full list of this year's nominees:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

With less than 2 days to go before the Oscar nominations, I've been trying to cover my bases and watch as many contenders across the various categories as possible. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting races to follow has been Best Animated Feature, where new frontrunners continuously emerged throughout the course of the year. As usual, I focused on those main contenders in my personal viewing of the slate. And ultimately, I agreed with the consensus on one particular December release which stands above the rest. Here are my thoughts, personal rankings and predictions for this year's Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature:

From Aardman Studios, the masterminds who brought us such gems as "Chicken Run" and "Shaun the Sheep Movie" comes a new animated tale called "Early Man". As its title suggests, the film takes place in prehistoric times, when cavemen and other early creatures roamed the earth. In this setting emerges a story of Dug, a young caveman determined to protect his primitive tribe from Bronze Age colonizers. After being introduced to their affinity for an early form of football, Dug makes a deal to keep their home by beating them at their own game. The film thus becomes a typical underdog story which only delivers a few chuckles. It certainly has some of the quirks of Aardman's house style, but "Early Man" is definitely one of their lesser efforts. Rating: ★★★1/2

Nearly 10 years after his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" snagged a pair of Oscar nominations, Wes Anderson makes a welcome return to stop motion animation with "Isle of Dogs". Set in a dystopian Japan, "Isle of Dogs" follows a young boy Atari as he goes on a mission to find his dog, which was banished to Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu. Upon arrival on Trash Island, he hooks up with a pack of dogs - delightfully voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum - who help him on his search. Their journey subsequently takes them on a madcap adventure which is relentlessly entertaining. Admittedly, the film doesn't fully sustain its initial madcap energy. But Anderson's distinctive offbeat style shines through in film's hilarious comic timing and wondrous mise en scene, which earned him a well-deserved Best Director prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Rating: ★★★★

With Pixar now firmly into their sequel phase, it was inevitable that they would make a follow-up to one of their beloved hits. This summer, audiences were reunited with the titular family of "The Incredibles 2", as they aim to save the day and restore the good reputation of superheroes. If you've seen the first film, there's not much that will be new to you here. But in trademark Pixar form, the screenplay works in some surprisingly mature commentary on the challenges of domestic life, vis-à-vis parenting and marriage. And when coupled with some truly exciting action setpieces, "The Incredibles 2" becomes fun for the whole family. Rating: ★★★★

After the success of its prequel, Wreck-it Ralph returns with a whole new adventure called "Ralph Breaks the Internet". Once again, the film focuses on the duo of Ralph and Vanellope, as they embark on a mission to save Vanellope's Sugar Rush arcade game by braving the strange new world of the internet. As their journey takes them to Oh My Disney, where this media empire dominates our attention, it's hard to miss the blatant self-promotion on display. And yet, the zippy storyline is genuinely fun and funny, with clever pop culture references and winking nods at Disney cliches. Most impactful is the film's second half, however, which offers a surprisingly mature commentary on toxic friendships. While "Wreck-it Ralph" came up short at the Oscars, this sequel puts forth a strong argument to win it all this time around. Rating: ★★★★

Joining a slew of other superhero narratives in the race, "Teen Titans Go! To The Movies" is one of the most peculiar of this year's animated films. Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, this parody of comic book movies is based on the TV series "Teen Titans Go!" and those roots are quite obvious. Indeed, this juvenile film is hardly much deeper than a Saturday morning cartoon, with the fart jokes and frenetic energy to match. But once you're able to shut off your brain, you'll find a entertaining story about a bunch of carefree young kids who simply want to live out their Hollywood dreams. Rating: ★★★1/2

Fans have long awaited a cinematic iteration of Miles Morales as Spiderman and now, their patience has been duly rewarded. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is a Miles Morales (a half-black half-Latino version of Spiderman) origin story, a regular high schooler who is gains special powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. With the city of Brooklyn and the wider world under threat by a villain named Kingpin, he must summon the courage to use his newfound abilities for good. But he'll have the help of a few friends, as a mysterious occurrence brings together different versions of Spider-man from alternate universes. They include the familiar characters of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, in addition to a pig named Spider-ham, a Japanese girl called Peni Parker and a brooding version of Peter Parker from the 1930s. To be sure, it's an outrageous premise. But the result is a complete reinvigoration of the Spider-man mythology that practically explodes off the screen with its creative energy and features some of the most eye-popping animation you'll ever see. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is not only the best of this year's animated features, it's one of the best films of 2018. Rating: ★★★★

If I had high expectations for "Smallfoot", I'd say it is the most disappointing animated film of the year. But this Warner Animation production is exactly the run-of-the-mill cash grab I expected it to be. It tells a story about a Yeti named Migo, who is ostracized from his community after claiming to see the a smallfoot (i.e. a human), which goes against the insular beliefs of his community. As you ventures out into the unknown to prove his findings and salvage his reputation, the script puts forth a valuable message about the importance of intellectual curiosity. But otherwise, this predictable film offers nothing noteworthy to really distinguish itself from your typical animated adventure. Rating: ★★★

Here's how I'd rank these films (in order of preference):
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Isle of Dogs
The Incredibles 2
Tito and the Birds
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies
Early Man
Smallfoot

My prediction:

Best Animated Feature
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Mirai

Saturday, January 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Bohemian Rhapsody


A funny thing happened during this topsy-turvy awards season that hardly anyone saw coming. Back in November, the troubled production of "Bohemian Rhapsody" opened to middling reviews and was quickly dismissed as a non-starter in the Oscar race. But then, the film became a bonafide box office phenomenon (currently approaching $200 million at the US box office at the time of writing) and then went on become a Best Picture frontrunner following a shocking Golden Globe win for Best Drama.

I was one of those critics who dismissed the film upon release, figuring it would just be accepted as the conventional Freddie Mercury biopic it so clearly is. But as the industry continues to declare its support of this controversial film, it felt prudent to give it a second look. I therefore revisited it with an open mind to try to understand what works and what doesn't.

What's immediately clear is that this is a star vehicle for Rami Malek, who is well on his way to a Best Actor nomination. His performance is affected and showy, but it's nothing if not consistent. Whether it's a perfect imitation or not, it's definitely one that conveys the spirit of a man who was born to be on stage. On that note, the film's climactic recreation of Queen's iconic Live Aid performance is easily one of the best scenes of the year. Even as the rest of the film failed to grab me this time around, that ending holds up brilliantly. I found myself involuntarily singing along, completely entranced in the music and the showmanship.

Indeed, the film does deserve some kudos for its entertaining portrayal of the band's creative process and performances. Yet, there's no denying that these scenes benefit from artistry that has little to do with the actual filmmaking itself. Indeed, the timeless songs are what sustains the film, while the actors essentially lip synch and pantomime. Yes, the recreation of Freddie Mercury's flashy and fabulous fashion sense are worthy of awards attention for Best Costume Design. But it would be dishonest to give Malek the credit for the impact of the music.

Still, the story behind that music is worthy of the big screen treatment in itself. But despite the band and its lead singer's boundary-pushing reputation, the storytelling in "Bohemian Rhapsody" is disappointingly conservative. There are hardly any narrative beats we haven't seen before in countless musical biopics. Personally, I can forgive its much derided manipulation of the facts and its downplaying of Mercury's sexuality. What I can't forgive, however, is an uninspired narrative. Did it get the job done and ultimately entertain me? Yes. But outside of Malek's performance and the music, there's nothing spectacular or outstanding about "Bohemian Rhapsody".