Friday, September 19, 2014

REVIEW: Cantinflas


The biopic is a genre that has come under much scrutiny from cinephiles over the years. For some, it’s cherished for its reliably inspiring design. For others it’s mere “Oscar bait”, emblematic of Hollywood’s aversion to more daring material. No matter how you feel about the genre however, all signs indicate that these true life stories won’t be going away any time soon. The challenge therefore, is finding a way to stand out within the confines of the genre. In the case of Cantinflas, Sebastian del Amo attempts to shake up this formula by approaching its subject with a light, comic approach.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, September 15, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: To Kill A Man


We all have a breaking point. For some, it could come from merely an insult. For others, it takes years of injustice. In a civilized society, most people would never be in a situation where they’re agitated to carry out the action in this film’s title – "To Kill A Man". In this brooding drama, Alejandro Fernández Almendras uses the psychology of murder to raise interesting questions. Mainly, what if your family’s survival depended on it?

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, September 13, 2014

REVIEW: The Little Bedroom


Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond's "The Little Bedroom" is a film with death on its mind. In its first scene, a Swiss man explains his upcoming emigration plans to his aging father who remarks "I'll try to die in August, so you can come to my funeral". It's a comment made in jest but founded in reality. Such thoughts plague the minds of our protagonists, in this surprisingly gratifying story that deals with loss and companionship.

Confined to the indoor boundaries of nursing homes and private residences, "The Little Bedroom" hones in on the personal lives of the aforementioned Edmond (Michel Bouquet) and his nurse Rose (Florence Loiret Caille). When we're introduced to the diabetic Edmond, he's being taken on a visit to the nursing home where his son wants him to be re-located, a proposition he staunchly rejects. He prefers to remain at home with the comforting presence of Rose. Despite his typical elderly stubbornness, the two have a mutual understanding. They're not exactly compatible personalities but as the plot unfolds, it's revealed that they share struggles with loss. For him, it's the loss of his independence, vitality and family. In Rose's case, she suffers from memories of the loss of a son during childbirth, exacerbated by a husband who wants to move on. These factors cause them to lead melancholic lives but together they are content. Edmond one day suffers from a fall however, forcing Rose to take drastic measures to ensure that they maintain their relationship. Moving him into her own home, they strengthen their bond further, digging deep into their wells of despair to find hope and a new zeal for life.

In approaching this character study of our protagonists, "The Little Bedroom" carries itself with a warm simplicity. It prioritizes heartfelt storytelling over bold direction or camerawork. As such, one could almost see it as a less harrowing version of Michael Hanekes "Amour". Surely, this film may not live up to Haneke's accomplished filmmaking, but its screenplay places no less demands on its actors.

Indeed, the film's success relies on the abilities of Caille and Bouquet to keep you engaged with their emotional journey. Along they way, they prove to be fine casting choices. Despite the sombre tone, Bouquet is a shining light in the film. Decades of acting experience are evident in the way he embodies the character's labored physicality as well as his subtle expressions of Edmond's inner soul. Caille's bigger performance is similarly affecting, but her traces of self-awareness are no match for his lived-in minimalism.

Where the film falters then, is keeping so much of the focus on Rose, whose problems just don't carry the same dramatic weight as Edmond's fragile health and the associated existentialism. Admittedly, the significance of the titular "little bedroom" provides a beautiful turning point that bridges the pair's issues. It's really a nice touch. Still, it doesn't salvage a script which finds itself straining for poignancy in its closing stages.

In the end, "The Little Bedroom" is unlikely to have fired up your emotions but it's an agreeable effort. I'd recommend it mainly for Michel Bouquet's endearing performance, one that flickers with gentle reminders of life's treasures - music, family, friendship and of course love. For these moments of graceful humanity, it's a film that's worth a look.

Friday, September 12, 2014

COMING SOON: New York Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center proudly presents the 52nd annual New York Film Festival and guess who'll be going? That's right, I'll be heading up to the festival once again armed with press credentials to cover the fest during October 3-6. It's sure to be another exciting experience with a great lineup of films in store. To give us a preview, a trailer has been released with snippets of the various films. Check it out below:

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Borgman


It's that time of year again, when all the snobs complain about the "Oscar bait" films being unleashed at the various fall festivals. Once an easily identifiable descriptor, the term has proven to be increasingly meaningless over the years, seeming to encompass any drama film that becomes popular. As an awards fan, it should come as no surprise that I'm one of those who embrace the prestige drama. However, as I sat down to watch Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman" recently, I realized that there is some truth behind the derogatory term.

In most Hollywood productions, there are clear distinctions between good and evil. Not just from the audience's perspective, but also for the characters in the film. Each role is motivated by a the character's personal philosophy and outlook. It's how we know who are the protagonists and antagonists. But what happens when there aren't these opposing forces? What if the evil trounces the good without any cause? Well, that's exactly what we get in "Borgman", a largely cruel story that pushed me too far out of my comfort zone.

When we first meet the titular Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) he seems fairly innocent, pitiful even. Residing in an underground makeshift home, he is chased away by a group of unidentified armed men. After making his escape out of the woods, he eventually arrives at the home of a wealthy family and asks for a bath. As expected, the owners Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis) refuse the unkempt stranger. Borgman is resolutely determined though, so he makes up a story about being formerly nursed by Marina in a past life. She promptly denys it, but is unable to alleviate her husband's suspicions and things escalate. Soon, Richard has attacked Borgman, leaving him unconscious. When Marina returns to tend to him, he has vanished. Little does she know that he will soon return, infiltrating her home to covertly upend everything in her life.

Borgman embarks on his sinister plan by cleaning himself up and appealing to Marina's feelings of guilt. He manages to befriend her and convince Richard to hire him as their new gardener. With seemingly good intentions, he even forms a bond with their 3 young children and the nanny. Soon enough, everyone is under his spell (except for Richard) and he unleashes psychological terror that manifests itself in deadly ways.

Like Marina, I was initially entranced by Borgman. The burgeoning relationship between the pair had me invested, curious to understand his peculiar behaviour (as well as that of his accompanying team of sociopaths) and her perplexing fascination with him. There are no false notes in either performance. This is especially true of Minis, conveying a woman who is brimming with inner life. It's too bad that the script forces her to become frustratingly foolish in order to facilitate its overly sinister endgame. What started out as a darkly comic antagonism of the comfortable middle class becomes something that is off-putting with its nihilism. As such, it lost any allegorical power it aspired to.

There's certainly a lot of originality to admire in "Borgman". Despite the distinctive images and interesting performances though, it ended up feeling like too much purposeless shock value. Perhaps I'm just not ready for this level of "art film". Maybe if you wrap this up in a more moralistic "Oscar bait" package I'd be on board.

Monday, September 8, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: When Harry Met Sally...


My top pick this week is Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally...", a small romcom that turned into one of the most interesting success stories. Like so many other classics, this tale of friends who become lovers was released with modest ambitions in 1989. Using the "platform" strategy, the film used strong word of mouth to become a major box office hit. Decades later, it has established itself in pop culture as a quintessential romcom, to the point where even those who haven't seen it (myself included) are familiar with its legacy. You can't discuss the genre without mentioning Nora Ephron or Meg Ryan. All it takes is one viewing of this seminal film to erase all doubts as to the value of their contribution.

The thesis of "When Harry Met Sally..." hinges on a single question - "Can men and women ever just be friends?". It arises in the beginning of film when our male lead Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), declares his negative stance on the matter to his new acquaintance Sally Albright (Meg Ryan). He claims that "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way", much to the dismay of the more optimistic Sally. His macho cynicism gets them off on the wrong foot and the young graduates part ways following their shared ride to New York from the University of Chicago. Years later, a pair of chance encounters following failed romantic relationships causes them to confide in each other. Challenging Harry's initial position, they decide to form a platonic friendship which sustains them for a long time to come. As time goes by however, their unexpressed mutual attraction threatens to complicate their lives. Spanning more than 10 years, the plot moves towards its all-important resolution - will Harry and Sally end up as friends, apart or lovers?

Watching "When Harry Met Sally..." for the first time turned out to be one of my most surprising experiences of introduction to a classic. Considering its reputation within a now cliché genre, it's a film that's refreshingly unassuming. More often than not, comedic romance films rely on screwball elements to bring the central couple together. It seems like you can't have a romcom today - really, this goes all the way back to the 1930s - without some major moment of humiliation to bring the characters together. Of course, when it's well done it can be hilariously effective. Gauging from the general dismissal of romcoms however (from critics at least), it seems like the genre is running out of ideas in its attempts to stage the next iconic pratfall. For "When Harry Met Sally..." on the other hand, there's no need for grand absurdity (yes, including the famous "fake orgasm" scene) in order for it to satisfy audiences. Its understated humour is one of the main reasons why it still holds up so well today.

For me, the best word to describe "When Harry Met Sally..." is effortless. From top to bottom, it shows its brilliance with seeming ease. In the background, Harry Connick Jr.'s perfectly curated soundtrack of standards is sweetly romantic. Behind the camera, Rob Reiner's direction is light and unfussy but always purposeful. On top of it all, the writing and acting give a thoughtful, honest depiction of various types of relationships and the influence of time on our lives.

Deservedly Oscar-nominated, Nora Ephron's screenplay gives an excellent showcase of well-written characters and dialogue. It starts out with the pervasive "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" gender dichotomy and grows into a more meaningful exploration of the unique affectation between opposite sex best friends. From the perspective of a straight male, I found the dynamic between Harry and Sally to be instantly relatable. Throughout all the phases of their relationship, their conversations and changing philosophies were insightful and honest. As they encountered life's triumphs and tribulations, I laughed along with them and I also felt their pain. It may be a relatively short film (96 minutes), but it's incredibly rich and fully-formed.

Of course, the world's best script would be moot without the believable chemistry of its co-stars. Luckily, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were the perfect match. Their chemistry is of the naturalistic, relaxed variety and it makes their relationship entirely believable. The lack of sexual heat works in the film's favour, allowing them to develop their close relationship on a more solid foundation than mere physical attraction. They're individually very compelling too, especially Meg Ryan as the more high-maintenance half of the duo. Her particular mix of affable cuteness and unapproachable beauty makes you fall in love with her, even in her most grating scenes. It's no wonder that Hollywood milked her charm for all it's worth, making her the go-to female romantic lead of the 90s. As we all know, her career hit a slump after that but when she was on top, there was hardly anyone who could match her appeal. Tell me, has there ever been another utterance of "I hate you" that was so disarmingly romantic?

In short, I was thoroughly impressed by "When Harry Met Sally...". It really solidified my belief in the underrated cinematic potential of the "chick flick". Like the oft-referenced "Casablanca" in the film, it fully earns its reputation as a timeless gem among the screen's long history of love stories.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

OLDIE GOLDIES: Gone With The Wind (1939)


Vivien Leigh with her Best Actress Oscar

"Oldie Goldies" returns with a bang this week, as we shine a spotlight on "Gone With The Wind". This epic film is known for its immaculate production values and stellar cast, especially Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. Her performance is perfectly judged, nailing the role's self-involved superficiality while also giving it incredible nuance. It's truly one of the greatest female characters and performances of all time. It's no surprise that the film was hugely successful at the Oscars, winning in 8 categories - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. It was also nominated for Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Sound, Best Special Effects and Best Original Score.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Matrix


This season of Hit me with your best shot sadly comes to a close this week, as we take a look back at a seminal sci-fi film "The Matrix". This film became a real cultural phenomenon of the 90s with its brainy premise, awesome stunts and impressive effects. Naturally, some of these aspects seem dated today but the film remains as entertaining as ever. I was actually introduced to this film quite late (July 2010) and it still lived up to the hype. I was really blown away by how "cool" it was, much of it due to how well shot it is. Every frame is a feast for the eyes.

For my best shot then, I simply chose one of the many images that had me internally hollering with glee.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, September 1, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Starred Up


This week's top pick is an acclaimed British drama that finally made its way across the pond - "Starred Up". Set in a UK prison, this unsparing film is most notable for the performance of its star Jack O'Connell (who we'll be seeing in the highly anticipated "Unbroken). Now having seen it for myself, I feel certain that we'll be seeing much more of him in the future.

"Starred Up" refers to the process of the early transfer of a prisoner from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison. Such is the case with our protagonist Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), a troubled young man prone to violent outbursts. We meet him as he enters his new home, a place filled with criminals who are even more dangerous than he is. One of them turns out to be his own father (Ben Mendelsohn), thus allowing for an unusual father-son reunion after many years apart.

Theirs is not a loving reconciliation however, as deep-seated issues still linger between them. The harsh prison environment doesn't help matters either, with every act of kindness treated with suspicion. Watching the film reminded me of an observation from the film "Inception". In the film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) remarks "you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on." It's a similar feeling with "Starred Up", as the film opens with Eric entering the nightmarish prison with no backstory, no smooth introduction. We're placed into the middle of this scary new world with its unruly population of violent men.

Director David Mackenzie does an excellent job maintaining the chilling tone of the film. There's never a feeling of safety in the prison as numerous violent acts happen without warning. Even in the more civil setting of the support group run by volunteer Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), the atmosphere always gives a sense that bad things can still happen. It makes for unsettling viewing, but it's impeccably constructed.

Indeed, it's hard to turn away when the filmmaking is so compelling. The story really grips you, most notably when O'Connell is on screen. His performance is truly staggering, almost beastly in its physicality. The character's emotional instability is perfectly judged, quietly simmering at the surface waiting to explode. O'Connell has been working in the industry for a number of years, but this is clearly his breakout performance.

The rest of the cast provides strong support too, throwing up some pleasant surprises. Most notably, I was impressed with the "Lucozade guy" Anthony Welsh (he features in an ad that plays with our cinema's trailers), who plays a fellow member of Baumer's anger management support group. Likewise, the other prisoners are well-cast and bring a great energy to the film. As Eric's father, Medelsohn is reliable though very familiar. As an increasingly popular character actor, he's played similarly shady characters before ("Animal Kingdom", "The Place Beyond the Pines") and to better effect. I sincerely hope he'll be able to step out of this limited range and express more of his acting ability in the future, lest he become unfavourably typecast.

In short, "Starred Up" is a superb vehicle for the emerging talent of its cast and crew. The clunky pathos (though much needed) shows the tendencies of a first screenplay but overall, there's a lot to admire. You'll definitely want to remember the name Jack O'Connell.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

REVIEW: Ida


After years of working in the British film industry, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski returned to his homeland to direct the post-World War II drama Ida. Filmed in black-and-white, the film captures the solemn aftermath of the Holocaust to stunning effect. It’s an austere piece of filmmaking that vividly illustrates the lingering darkness and painful secrets of the past.

Read more at The Awards Circuit