Tuesday, August 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Dunkirk


As the ongoing announcements of TIFF titles reminds us, Oscar season is fast approaching. But before the onslaught of the fall releases, one infamously overdue director is already staking his claim for recognition. With his unbearably intense "Dunkirk", superstar director Christopher Nolan may finally break through for an hitherto elusive Best Director nomination.

World War II dramas have long been catnip for Academy voters, from "Twelve O'Clock High" in 1949 to last year's "Hacksaw Ridge". Hope springs eternal for Best Picture contender "Dunkirk" then, which fits the bill not just thematically but in quality too. As the title suggests, "Dunkirk" depicts a pivotal moment in the war, when Allied soldiers were left stranded and cornered by the enemy in the region of Dunkirk. With little help on the way, the outlook looks grim for the thousands of men hoping for deliverance on land, air and sea. Through the perspectives of 3 such groups of men, "Dunkirk" thus takes us through their grueling experience. On land, a young British private (Fionn Whitehead) awaits evacuation on the beach of Dunkirk as German forces continue their relentless attack. In the air, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his small squadron engage the Germans in combat, though fuel and reinforcements remain in short supply. Meanwhile, a man named Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to aid in the evacuation, setting sail for Dunkirk from the safety of Britain with only his inexperienced son and a teenaged assistant as support. With their backs against the wall, all of these men must play their part to achieve one objective - survival.

Indeed, "Dunkirk" sets itself apart from other war films by focusing not on violent displays of heroism but on humble retreat. While doing so, Nolan immerses us in the terrifying experience, dropping us right onto the beach like an unwilling soldier. As if to answer his critics, there is little exposition or backstory aside from a few opening lines of text explaining the current situation. What follows is therefore a taut, nerve-wracking experience and one of Nolan's most lean, consise films to date. For diehard fans like myself however, it also means a somewhat disappointing lack of originality in the script. Apart from the non-linear structure (which will likely reap a Best Editing nomination), this is a fairly straightforward survival story.

But what the film lacks in screenwriting ingenuity, it more than makes up for in technical mastery. Indeed, Nolan takes the term "theater of war" to heart, acting as the conductor for an astonishing cinematic symphony. Rarely has a war film felt so visceral, as Nolan recreates the sights and sounds of World War II with remarkable skill. Thanks to liberal use of wide shots, the cinematography conveys the enormity of the war with expansive vistas of land and sea. You can definitely expect Hoyte van Hoytema to be in the mix for his first Best Cinematography nomination.

Though these visuals and Nolan's direction are worthy of praise, the true MVPs of "Dunkirk" are actually composer Hans Zimmer and the team of sound editors. Much of the film's intensity is due to Zimmer's pulsing, agitating score, which perfectly captures the "ticking clock" nature of the evacuation. And if any viewers walk away from the film with PTSD, they have the frighteningly effective sound effects to thank. Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing would therefore be well deserved.

As with any Nolan effort, the filmmaking is top-rate all around, with many other fine aspects worthy of mention. Mark Rylance for example, could net another Best Supporting Actor nod for his steadfast performance. And though it's not his most memorable script, the satisfyingly cathartic conclusion will surely find some love in the Best Original Screenplay race. Indeed, this may finally be Nolan's year to steal the Oscar spotlight. There will certainly be several challengers to come, but for now, awards season has an early frontrunner.

Monday, July 17, 2017

REVIEW: Night School


In one scene of Andrew Cohn’s documentary “Night School“, we see a counselor advising a former high school dropout while the words “Black Lives Matter” are conspicuously displayed on his computer screen. In another, a young woman fights for her rights in a street protest for better wages. Neither of these scenes nor the overall film explicitly address the BLM movement, but it’s impossible to ignore its inherent relevance. The comparison however proves to be both a blessing and a curse in “Night School”, a limited but important examination of America’s flawed education system.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation


Though the term “cultural appropriation” has only recently become a widespread trigger word in public discourse, the practice has been a part of society for centuries. A perfect example is lacrosse, which usually brings to mind elitist images of private school-educated WASPs. To make matters worse, this relatively niche sport received perhaps its most prominent headlines for a college rape scandal. But this unfortunate reputation perfectly exemplifies how the sport has been misappropriated throughout its long history. In “Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation,” directors Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter turn the spotlight on the Native American founders of the game, giving lacrosse a much needed face lift through this vital documentary.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Commune


In his new film “The Commune", Thomas Vinterberg directs Trine Dyrholm in an award-winning role that should delight fans of this Danish thespian. Dyrholm plays Anna, a dutiful wife and well-known TV news reporter, who lives with her architect/professor husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and daughter Freya (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen). They live in a large house inherited from Erik’s late father, enjoying the spacious luxury that entails. However, when the bills begin to pile up and her husband’s demeanour becomes increasingly gloomy (due to frustrations at work), Anna demands a change. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, July 16, 2017

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes


In the rarefied air of "film twitter," of which I am a sometimes reluctant member, reboots and sequels are usually frowned upon. Thanks to the tentpole strategies of the major studios, each new "summer" movie season (now effectively running from March onwards) feels almost like a replica of the last. But as this atypically strong year for blockbusters has proven, these box-office driven spectacles can still deliver inspired, quality art. One prime example now playing in theaters is "War for the Planet of the Apes", the utterly amazing conclusion (well, until the studio decides to greenlight another one) to the latest trilogy of Planet of the Apes films. Though it is both a reboot and a sequel, it feels as fresh and visionary as the brilliant 1968 original.

In "War for the Planet of the Apes", the protagonists of the story are unambiguously the apes, lead by their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), a highly intelligent chimpanzee. Following the events of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", an ongoing war has erupted between them and the humans. Hiding out in the woods, Caesar still hopes for peace. But an attack is soon unleashed on the ape clan, with the aid of treacherous apes who assist the humans. With their home no longer safe, the remaining apes venture out to find a new sanctuary. But Caesar takes the violence personally and sets out on his own quest to confront the humans and their ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

And so begins a war of epic proportions, as Caesar and the refugees set out on divergent, perilous paths. But as much as the narrative is about apes vs. humans, the real focus is on Caesar. In this regard, the film becomes a rich character study of his internal struggle, which wrestles with themes relating to forgiveness, heroism and the great responsibility of being a leader. His is a heavy burden, shouldered with admirable complexity and conveyed superbly through the use of astonishing visual effects and yet another groundbreaking performance by Andy Serkis. Throughout the course of this trio of films, this character has been the cornerstone of the franchise's success. Vastly surpassing your run-of-the-mill CGI, one look into those eyes reveals a living, breathing individual experiencing a gamut of emotions.

Indeed, "you're so emotional" retorts the Colonel when he finally meets face-to-face with Caesar. And it's this strong sense of emotion that guides the narrative. Though the story incorporates a highly entertaining mix of recognizable genre tropes relating to war, holocaust dramas and prison breaks, it never loses sight of its affecting emotional throughline. At the heart of it all, "War of the Planet of the Apes" is a dialogue between compassion vs survival instincts. Is violence essential to survive? Can man and ape coexist? If not, who deserves to inherit the earth?

In answering these questions and more, the remarkable script finds tremendous empathy for both points of view. And though the Colonel admits that the apes have achieved superiority, there is still a sense of a level playing field, which makes the outcome of the war so gripping and intriguing. Neither ape nor man feels invincible. But as the film smartly concludes - in what is essentially a sly allegory for climate change - nature will ultimately prevail.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Top 10 TV Programs of 2016-2017


Looking back on the landscape of television this past season, I continue to be impressed by the medium's ability to surprise me. As you'll see in my Top 10 list below, my faves ranged from music concerts, to lavish costume dramas, to provocative sci-fi and everything in between. Among this eclectic bunch, it's worth repeating that women-centric programming had a standout year, with the majority of these shows featuring a female lead - and in some cases, multiple female leads.

Much credit for this welcome sea change from the brooding male antihero of years past goes to Netflix and HBO. Indeed, these premium content providers landed 4 and 3 shows each on my list, including such actressy delights as "The Crown", "Orange is the New Black" and "Big Little Lies". Meanwhile, "Transparent" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Feud: Bette and Joan" ensured representation for Amazon, FX and FXX. And though there were no network shows that made the cut, they also played a major role in offering quality programming for all audiences. In short, it's a great time to be a TV fan.

Here are my Top 10 Programs of the 2016-2017 TV Season:

  1. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Netflix)
  2. Black Mirror: San Junipero (Netflix)
  3. Transparent (Amazon)
  4. The Crown (Netflix)
  5. The Leftovers (HBO)
  6. The Night Of (HBO)
  7. Big Little Lies (HBO)
  8. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)
  9. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FXX)
  10. FEUD: Bette and Joan (FX)

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2016-2017 TV

Best Casting: Big Little Lies, Transparent, The Crown

At the end of another strong season of television, one thing is clear when it comes to the best performances of 2016-2017. Thanks to a slew of excellent women-centric shows, the women ruled the roost. From fading screen legends to underestimated young queens, the small screen offered female roles that captivated audiences and had the world talking. As one of the complicated mothers on "Big Little Lies" for example, Nicole Kidman sparked renewed interest in her career through her exquisite portrayal.

Among the male actors, there were also some outstanding performances. These included Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells who subverted expectactions of the "sassy gay friend" by showcasing their vulnerability, acerbic wit and yes, even a showtune or two. Other highlights included Jeffrey Tambor's deeply affecting work on "Transparent", further proving that TV is really where it's at if you want to see a diverse range of ethnic, gender and sexual representation. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Performances of the 2016-2017 TV Season.

  1. Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
  2. Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies
  3. Carrie Coon, The Leftovers
  4. Claire Foy, The Crown
  5. Jessica Lange, FEUD: Bette and Joan
  6. Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies
  7. Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  8. Andrew Rannells, Girls
  9. Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
  10. Matthew Rhys, Girls
Honorable Mention: 
Angela Bassett, Master of None (Best Guest Actress in a Comedy)
Kathryn Hahn, Transparent (Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy)
Issa Rae, Insecure (Best Lead Actress in a Comedy)
Glynn Turman, Queen Sugar (Best Guest Actor in a Drama)
Ann Dowd, The Leftovers (Best Guest Actress in a Drama)
Michael J. Harney, OITNB (Best Supporting Actor in a Drama)
Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Best Supporting Actress in a Drama)
Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar (Best Lead Actor in a Drama)
Alfred Molina, FEUD (Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series/Movie)
John Turturro, The Night Of (Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series/Movie)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: The Parent Trap


For this week's edition of Hit me with your best shot, we took a dive into the Disney vault to watch one of their 1960s classics - "The Parent Trap". Nowadays, most people are perhaps more familiar with Lindsay Lohan's delightful 1998 version. But that film certainly owes a lot to this one, with much of the original dialogue being retained.

While watching this one for the first time, I must admit that I spent much of the first half wishing I were watching the more entertaining remake instead. Hayley Mills is adorable, but Lohan did a much better job delineating the differences between the twins. As for the adults, they were allowed to bring a stronger sensuality to their roles.

The film improves greatly in the second half however and unsurprisingly, there was one adult actor who did manage to bring some sexual tension - the iconic beauty Maureen O'Hara. As such, she became the focus of my Best Shot pick.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Moonlight


As is the case around this time every year, the cinephile world currently has its eyes glued to the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival. But for me, the most exciting film-related news of the past week was the announcement that The Film Experience's Hit me with your best shot series is back for another season. And to kick things off, Nathaniel has chosen a wonderful film for us to dissect through its beautiful imagery.

For this first installment, we looked at Barry Jenkins' masterpiece and recent Best Picture winner "Moonlight", a perfect choice for this exercise. This was my third viewing of the film and it didn't disappoint, providing an even richer experience than I'd remembered. What I particularly loved is how Jenkins portrays Chiron's struggle and coming of age with such specificity and underlying optimism. Though my eventual pick for Best Shot was primarily an aesthetic choice, it also reflects these traits.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, May 22, 2017

10 Essential Palme d'Or Winners


In just a matter of hours, the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival will open with Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” kicking off an 11-day celebration of contemporary film. Amid the cinephilia, most of the attention will be focused on a select 19 films competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, the most prestigious film festival prize in the world. If chosen by the Pedro Almodóvar-led jury, the eventual winner will go down in history alongside an esteemed group of films. Indeed, the treasure trove of Oscar winners, arthouse classics and smashing debuts associated with the Palme d’Or gives us much to be excited about.

Read more at The Awards Circuit