Monday, December 30, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Lone Ranger


Nope, your eyes aren't deceiving you. 'The Lone Ranger' is my top pick for this week. In case you hadn't heard, this film was a major flop this summer, getting shunned by critics and audiences alike. Well, I clearly disagree as I found it to be one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Based on an old radio series, this western features Armie Hammer the title character and Johnny Depp as his sidekick Tonto. Teaming up to exact revenge on the man who killed the Lone Ranger's brother, they embark on an adventure through the wild west. What follows is a messy chutzpah that really shouldn't work (and many would say it doesn't), but somehow I found it very entertaining.
Perhaps my positive response to the film is based on my experience watching 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' the day before. By some strange stroke of fate, 'The Lone Ranger' came along and justified every problem I had with that film. It's perhaps easier to understand my contrarian opinion then, by doing a comparison between the two.
Firstly, I found "Hansel & Gretel" to be very uninspired and plain, but this film definitely had a vivid style. It's often hard to ascertain how certain films accrue such massive budgets, but it's very apparent here. The $215 million budget is all there on the screen, with outstanding production design, makeup, costumes and visual effects.
While "Hansel & Gretel" struggled to establish its tone, "The Lone Ranger" was very consistent with its frivolity. This film uses classic screwball sight gags and audacious stunts that evoke nostalgia for the comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age. I remarked on the ineffectiveness of the R-rated content in "Hansel & Gretel" and this is a great example of the creativity that can still arise out of PG-13. For example, the villain is no less intimidating (he even eats someone's heart!) than Famke Janssen's over the top shenanigans. In general, the danger is just as palpable, maybe even more so.
In terms of the humour, I found this to be much funnier too. Depp's deadpan delivery, quirky antics and his "buddy cop" chemistry with Hammer were fantastic. The same can't be said about the leads (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) in "Hansel & Gretel", who suffered from unspecific characterizations.
In the end, I would certainly admit that the script needed some fine-tuning but those strong points left me mostly satisfied. These elements came together best in my favourite moments of the film - the action sequences. The big setpieces here were just so much fun that I couldn't help but ignore the film's flaws. If modern blockbusters are all about the spectacle, then I definitely got my money's worth.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Saving Mr. Banks


One of the many "based on a true story" Oscar films this year is Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks". This film is based on the tireless efforts by Walt Disney to make the famous 1964 film "Mary Poppins". In capturing this pre-production, Tom Hanks fills the shoes of Mr. Disney himself but the central performance of this film is the author of the Mary Poppins novels - P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). As we take this behind the scenes look, we get to the know the inspiration for the character and her importance to the author. As we soon find out, Mary Poppins is a very personal creation for Travers, explaining that the character and the Banks family (the major characters in the book) are like family to her. In order to make the film though, she must relinquish some creative control to Disney as he secures the rights to the novel, which turns out to be the ongoing struggle of the plot.
Indeed, as the story progresses much of it is dedicated to the repeated objections by Travers in relation to the concept of the film. Strongly opposed to the intended playful, musical nature she becomes quite an insufferable character. Due to this constant narrative thread, the film often feels very dull. It makes you likely to wonder what was so special about this particular film production in the first place. Especially considering the magic and charm involved in Mary Poppins, this ends up feeling very mundane in comparison. Thankfully, there's another aspect to the story that picks up the slack. Using flashback sequences from Travers' own childhood, we get a stronger understanding of this fictional story and the seemingly rigid Travers. For my money, this subplot is the real heart of "Saving Mr. Banks".
Despite the humdrum plot mechanics of the production drama though, Thompson and Hanks give compelling performances that keep you engaged. Thompson is clearly better than the material she's given, expertly towing the line between making her character empathetic without softening her hard edges. Meanwhile, Hanks is the epitome of warmth and charm as he embodies the persona of his iconic character. As a Mary Poppins fan, I would have liked to see some recreations of individual scenes, but these actors captured the essence of the film well enough.
Overall, I would hardly call this an outstanding feat of filmmaking but the performances and general design (the costumes and production design of 1960s Los Angeles are a visual delight) make it well worth your time. Fans of the "Mary Poppins" are likely to be particularly pleased with this further insight into the making of this beloved film.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters


Eternally in vogue, the Grimms' Fairy Tales received the Hollywood treatment yet again with 2013's "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters". The tale tells that of siblings Hansel and Gretel, who escaped death at the hands of a wicked witch who tricked them with her candy cottage. Using their wits, these children manage to push her into an oven to be burnt alive and they live happily ever after. This is the story's foundation in both the traditional story and this film, however this 2013 adaptation takes it one step further, continuing their witch-killing tendencies through adulthood, transforming them into ferocious bounty hunters. It's a bold narrative choice but does it work?
Well, the simple answer is no. What we have here is an uninspired take that lacks any sort of distinctive filmmaking style. The visuals are plain, the characters are broadly written and the action is over the top. As much as "Snow White and the Huntsman" was bashed last year, at least it had a well-defined tone with its moody cinematography, striking costumes and a memorable villain. This production has none of that. In taking a fairy tale and adding such dark violent elements, the whole narrative struggles with tone. For example, the warm set design never conveys any sense of desolation, yet the savagery of the action (bloody impalements and severed body parts) seems taken from a brutal horror film. On top of that, the "f words" and "b words" just seemed out of place for the film's setting. All things considered, this film may have been better off if it had been adjusted for a PG-13 rating. It's likely that it would have forced some more creativity in the filmmaking process.
Apart from the confused tone, everything just seems so dated. The campiness of the action and dialogue strangely reminded me of the Power Rangers TV franchise. That isn't an insult by itself (I was a Power Rangers fan back in the day), but it's a problem when you consider that was a popular 90s kids show (I refer to the original series of course) and this is a 2013 R-rated action movie. As a result, the campy humour never made me laugh and the cruelty just seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited.
In the end, the Power Rangers comparison would suggest that this may have worked better as a TV series. In fact, it often does feel that way with its open-ended climax and underdeveloped characters. Heck, Famke Jannsen (the main villain) gives her role enough spunky attitude that I could envisage a whole series dedicated to her war with the witch hunters. Unfortunately, I can only judge the 90-minute film that I've been presented with. My final verdict - "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is a grotesque, unappealing movie that lacks depth and artistic vision.

Monday, December 23, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Paradise: Love


This week's top pick is Ulrich Seidl's provocative film "Paradise: Love". The first in a trilogy, it tells the story of a 50-year old Austrian woman Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) on a "sex holiday" in Kenya, taking advantage of the virile local men. Overweight and single, Teresa's trip becomes a search for the affection that is missing in her life. On paper, it sounds like a tough watch, made only for the inherent shock value. I certainly assumed so myself. However, the film is about more than just sex. Indeed, there are scenes of graphic nudity but these are just narrative devices to explore its larger themes.
Using an observational style of filmmaking to rival the likes of Steve McQueen, Seidl perfectly captures a typical vacation in one of these Third World countries. Based on my own experiences, everything felt very authentic, from the harassment by souvenir merchants to the frustrating language barrier. Of course, the aspect I wasn't familiar with was the sex business at the heart of the plot.
Lined up along the beach waiting for the white women, the Kenyan men aren't much different from your typical prostitutes lined up along a dark street. However, the social dynamics involved don't overtly present the situation as such. Fooled by their declarations of love, Teresa engages in sexual relationships with these men. As she goes on her various exploits, it becomes apparent that this paradise is an illusion and the "love" she receives is merely a business transaction.
The more we learn about this situation, you're likely to wonder who is the victim in the scenario. Of course, the usual response is to assume that the wealthy foreigner is taking unfair advantage of the underprivileged African man. However, this film instead shows these men as rather shrewd opportunists. In using flattery to profit from these rejected women of the superficial First World, they are willing participants in a disturbing cultural practice. It makes for fascinating viewing as every scene is purposeful in showing the despicable objectification from both sides. Most importantly though, the script carefully elicits the audience's sympathy for both parties.
Overall, "Paradise: Love" is an thorough example of director-driven cinema. The screenplay and Tiesel's courageous performance are essential but the director's clear, purposeful vision is always present. Despite a seemingly austere visual style, the thematic depth is undeniable. In exploring the societal constructs of beauty and poverty, in addition to the politics of race, gender and sex, Seidl manages to make a statement without overtly making a manipulative "message film". As a result, his deft, non-judgmental touch takes this from mere arthouse provocation to something more deeply engaging. It's still unlikely to appeal to most, but for me this is a vital piece of work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: The Songs

Perhaps the most unpredictable category to predict at the nominations stage is Best Original Song. With no reliable precursors, the nominees are entirely dependent on the mood of the voters. Sometimes they go for popular music (Lose Yourself), other times they lean a bit more obscure (Al otro lado del rio). With that in mind, there are still a few songs that have certainly been given a boost from their Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

CONTEST: Predict the Oscar nominations!


I am excited to announce that the Film Actually Oscar Contest is back! Last year's contest was a great success and I just knew I had to make this an annual tradition. If you're a newcomer, the idea is simple - just predict as many correct Oscar nominations and you can win!
This year's contest will be bigger and better, as I have even better prizes for you. The person who gets the highest score will receive an $40 online gift card (USD, or the equivalent in another currency) for their relevant Amazon store (US, UK, Canada etc). In addition, there are other potential prizes up for grabs (read below).

As with last year, I will also be competing and I'm in it to win it! Read below for further details.

Monday, December 16, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations


Once again, 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle rise to the top, taking the lions share of nominations. The Critics Choice nominations were announced this morning and both films lead the field with 13 nominations each! David O. Russell's film in particular is picking up heat, notably with Christian Bale asserting himself in the competitive Best Actor category. It's all a lot to take in (especially with those silly action and comedy categories), so I'll just leave you to ruminate over the full list of nominees:

Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Saving Mr. Banks
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All Is Lost

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Scarlett Johansson, Her
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze, Her
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Great Beauty


"The Great Beauty" as its title suggests, is a film of extraordinary beauty. Set in contemporary Rome, it showcases the glamourous existence of its wealthy inhabitants. They enjoy life to max, but is there something more behind that facade? Well, that's what this film attempts to find out through the existential crisis of its protagonist Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo).
The film opens on a raucous note - the 65th birthday party of Gambardella. It's a dazzling affair, rivaled only by Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" for its euphoric thrills. As we find out later, this is the culmination of a lifelong ambition to be the king of the socialites. We also learn that he is a writer, suffering from a lengthy affliction of writer's block. Struggling to find inspiration and with age creeping up on him, he starts to reflect on his life.
Of course, he soon realizes that the decadence provides merely temporary satisfaction. Like all of us, he reaches a point where he wants something more. Curiously though, the film doesn't fully condemn his lifestyle. Unlike the plethora of other socially conscious films (just look at "Elysium" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" from this year alone), this isn't an "us vs them" scenario. We're used to these films that present poverty as something inherently noble, while portraying the wealthy as pure evil. It often rings false to me, as I'm a firm believer that one's character is solely based on personal choices rather than financial wealth. In "humanizing" the Italian high society then, I found this film to be very unique and much more fascinating.
The narrative is essentially a portrait of a city and its people, intertwined like a singular entity. Within this collective being is breathtaking beauty - the people, the architecture, the landscape, the art. The film captures this perfectly, with gorgeous locations, impeccable clothing and exhilarating music. On a deeper level, it also shows the individual struggles of these people. As we gaze upon Gambardella's world, it becomes much like a symphonic arrangement of life's fragments. The various aspects of life (relationships, career etc.) and their success/failure are given due attention, culminating in an acknowledgment of mortality.
This realization of life's ticking clock seems to hint towards a personal reinvention for Gambardella. Furthermore, the plot also adds a spiritual element in the final act. This is where the film starts to falter though, as it doesn't quite nail this seemingly crucial theme. For every scene of quiet introspection, there's another that suppresses it with dazzlingly appealing superficial beauty. As a viewer, it's therefore hard to be convinced that he's prepared to change his life. The luxury is too addictive and strangely enough, it seems satisfying in itself. Gambardella is hardly an immoral devil so there's no dire reason for a turning point. Instead, his crisis stems from curiosity rather than true disillusionment. In the end, it seems like he'll continue to indulge and I can't blame him. Unfortunately the film wants to dig deeper than this, but it eventually becomes overwhelmed by the great beauty it displays.
Of course ,"The Great Beauty" is the title of the film, so criticizing it for a narrow focus on beauty is inconsequential. With that in mind, this film is tremendously rewarding for any lover of artistry of all kinds. Considering the arthouse audience of this film then, it's a resounding success. Go ahead and bask in its glory.

Friday, December 13, 2013

#FF Making the Case for blogathon, reviews and more...


With the awards season fully upon us, Stevee hosted another "Making the Case for..." blogathon to champion some unsung performances, directors etc. She received some great entries and I've included some of them below. Check out those posts along with the other great reads from the past week:

Josh couldn't settle for only one pick, so he made a case for "everything".

Nikhat made the case for a phenomenal young actor Tye Sheridan.

Clayton reviewed A Letter to Momo, likening it to a mix of Ozu and Miyazaki.

Jesse from Movie Mezzanine looks back fondly on Woody Allen's Annie Hall for their "History of Film" series.

Nick wrote an amusing post about hypothetical Actor vs. Actor Showdowns.

Ryan reviewed Dirty Wars and highlighted some of its main issues.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, December 12, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations


You can always count on the Golden Globes to be idiosyncratic with their choices. This year however, they were unique in a way we didn't expect. Firstly, the main shock was the lack of love for The Butler, a starry film that seemed right up their alley. We always assume they will cowtow to the celebrities, but this year they defied that. In particular, I don't think anyone saw that Oprah snub coming. The other unexpected idiosyncracy is the unusually strong Best Picture (Comedy/Musical) lineup. In fact, it seems like a stronger category than drama this year, a rare thing indeed. I'd also like to point out the strong showing for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, which managed 3 nominations - Best Actor, Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Harvey Weinstein is probably ecstatic that this film is finally getting some attention. The biggest celebrations today though, are for 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle, leading the field with 7 nominations each. Both films now seem to be very strong contenders for Best Picture. Will the Golden Globes have a large influence on the Oscars this year? Only time will tell. For now, let's ruminate over their full list of nominees:

Best Picture (Drama)
12 Years A Slave
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Philomena
Rush

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
American Hustle
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor (Drama)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All Is Lost

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Best Actress (Drama)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet, Labor Day

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Nominations


And so it begins. The SAG Awards were announced this morning and as expected, 12 Years A Slave reaped the most nominations. There were some minor surprises however, as August: Osage County, The Butler and Dallas Buyers Club received a much-needed boost in their Oscar campaigns. Likewise there were some surprising snubs, especially Robert Redford missing Best Actor (very curious considering the film received a Best Stunt Ensemble nomination). It's incredibly difficult to win the Oscar without a SAG nod, so he's going to need some major help to keep in his spot in this competitive category. There's not much else to say about this set of nominees, so let's just take a look:

Best Ensemble
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
August: Osage County
The Butler
Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Forest Whitaker, The Butler

Best Actress
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Judi Dench, Philomena

Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Brühl, Rush
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Black contenders target Oscar record



Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article titled "Coming Soon - A Breakout Year for Black Cinema". It put a welcome spotlight on all the emerging talent from black filmmakers and their deserved acclaim. Of course, it's perhaps too early to declare a paradigm shift in Hollywood, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. What's truly outstanding about this year though, is the number of black contenders in the Oscar race. In fact, we may see a new record for the number of individual black Oscar nominees (discounting duplicate citations) for a single Oscar year. The current record was set in 2006, which yielded nods for 8 persons - Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Sharen Davis, Siedah Garrett and Willie D. Burton. While that tally was largely due to "Dreamgirls", this year is noteworthy for the wider variety of films gaining attention. Of course, many of the smaller films will lose some traction throughout the season. However, I'm fairly confident that we'll see at least 9 different black contenders securing nods on January 16th.

So without further ado, here are the black nominees(in bold) I'm currently projecting for the 2013 Oscar year:

Monday, December 9, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Back to 1942


This week I caught up with the Chinese Foreign Oscar submission - "Back to 1942". Set in China's Henan province in 1942, the film recounts the experiences of the villagers who were caught between a catastrophic drought and China's war with Japan. If it sounds dreary, that's because it is. This film is about the suffering of a large population of civilians due to the actions of people in power. Although the drought was an environmental issue, the lack of governmental aid seriously exacerbated the situation. Of course, the war played a big part in this but this story isn't primarily about the war itself. We never go to the front lines to see the combat. Instead, the plot focuses mostly on a few families from Henan who were affected by the disastrous situation.

With scarce food to eat and the impending doom of a Japanese attack, our protagonists become refugees, trekking hundreds of miles for salvation. Two families are specifically given the spotlight, allowing interesting character development and a strong understanding of the social implications. The Fan family is wealthy through land ownership and the drought effectively brings them down to the social status of everyone else. As the desparation creeps in, the plot gets a lot of mileage out of this deconstruction of social heirarchies. A happy ending seems unlikely for all, including the most resourceful. As such, the film becomes relentlessly devastating. Despite this, the film feels somewhat emotionally distant, which has bothered many critics. Their qualms are valid, since the film never milks the horrors for their inherent sentimentality. However, I thought it was a smart choice by the director. To explain, one must consider that the film is about long-term misery (even using intermittent captions to indicate the long journey from home), rather than acute moments of distress. This is further emphasized by the fact that the drought has already happened before the events of the movie take place. So in my interpretation, I understood it as the characters being too weak from starvation to outwardly mourn every loss. The actors do a great job with the emotional peaks they are give though, so it's not a question of acting ability. There's strong character development, but the director (Xiaogang Feng) has no time for hysterics in his plot.

The plight of the main characters command most of the attention, but other people exist in this script too. Notably there's the military leader Chiang Kai-shek, who shockingly downplays the severity of the drought and effectively sacrifices the people of Henan. It's a striking reminder of the unfortunate "collateral damage" that is too often disregarded in times of war. In addition, American actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins are also shoehorned into the story. Frankly, they are both disposable in the grand scheme, but Brody makes a strong impact. In fact, he threatens to take over the whole movie with his subplot as a TIME magazine correspondent fighting to save the displaced people. Unfortunately, the film summarily abandons him and disregards his importance. There's surely a separate film to made about that character.

Apart from story elements, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal production values. The costumes, cinematography, sound and production design are so remarkable that I regret not being able to see it on the big screen. The film is worth it just for the top-notch visuals. It really gives you a strong sense of this period's atmosphere.

Overall, the plot mechanics of "Back to 1942" don't add much to the war epic genre, but the quality of the production is highly commendable. The struggle of the characters is suitably harrowing and the cast/crew capture this brilliantly. I certainly wouldn't want to literally go "back to 1942", but I appreciated this cinematic exploration of Chinese history.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

AWARDS SEASON: The Survivors

Will Gravity survive the long Oscar race?

It's awards season, can you feel it? Well, the Oscar race has been going strong since August but the actual awards-giving and nominating begins in earnest this week. As you may know, many major critics groups have already had their say (New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Boston Society of Film Critics etc.) have already had their say. However, I consider the televised precursors (SAG, Golden Globes, Critics Choice) to be the true start of the season. Those groups will announce their nominees in the next 10 days and we'll then have a better idea of the frontrunners. Read on for my thoughts on the Oscar race as it currently stands, including my first official predictions of the season...

Monday, December 2, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: To Kill A Mockingbird


Full disclosure: this isn't the first time I've seen "To Kill A Mockingbird". However, after considering the circumstances under which I first approached it, I felt it was appropriate to include it on my "List of Shame". To explain, my initial viewing of this film was about 10 years ago. I was much less advanced in my cinephilia and I prejudged it as a lame black and white movie that couldn't possibly be interesting (it was a supplement to the required reading in high school English Literature). This time around though, it became clear that I made the right choice in revisiting this classic. It truly felt like I was seeing it with fresh new eyes.
As you may already know, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. It's a story about equal rights and justice, focusing on a court case where a black man is falsely charged with raping a white woman. At the center of the plot however, is a white lawyer named Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), who passionately defends this accused man out of a sense of moral duty. The setting is the American Depression-era South and as a result, it brings up themes of poverty and bigotry.
In assessing the effectiveness of this film, it's hard to separate it from the brilliant novel that inspired it. The film evokes a storybook quality throughout that strongly captures its literary source. Even though the narration is predominantly found only in the beginning and ending, it always feels like actual storytelling. Each scene is so exact and purposeful that you can easily imagine the storyboards or specific chapters used to develop the script.
To compare the film to a storybook doesn't do it justice though. One of the things that stood out to me this time was the harsh authenticity in portraying the era. The novel is often regarded as a "Great American Novel" in the way it captured the zeitgeist and this has been successfully translated to the screen. In some ways the film feels like your standard African-American Civil Rights story, but it's also unique in the way it portrays bigotry. Even without overtly depicting racially-motivated violence, the danger of uneducated, unemployed, racist alcoholics is palpable and terrifying. There are scenes where the lives of black citizens are threatened and the mere thought of what could happen is the stuff of nightmares. The hopelessness of the Depression seriously exacerbated the already troublesome environment of the pre-Civil Rights movement American South.
The truth of the matter is, almost all the inhabitants of this community are dirt poor and willfully ignorant. It's a situation that clearly doesn't bode well for a happy and fair society. Thankfully, there was an anomaly in this destitute system - Atticus Finch. In the history of memorable cinematic heroes, Finch sits firmly among the best. He is the ultimate role model, instilling strong values of compassion, tolerance and the importance of education in his two children. Even more impressive is that he "walks the walk". In standing up for justice and passionately defending a black man, he put himself at risk. For Atticus though, there was no other choice. "To Kill A Mockingbird" is told from the point of view of his daughter Scout and as you get to understand his character, you're likely to idolize him like she did. It takes a special performance to make a simple man seem like a superhero and that's exactly what we get here. Gregory Peck is simply perfect in the role. The character is unassuming and the subtlety in his acting indicates a true understanding of the character. With all the odds stacked against him, he maintains a quiet dignity and determination that is exemplary. In summary, he is the heart, mind and soul of the story.
The importance of Peck's performance in making the film watchable cannot be understated. The actors playing the bigots were so authentic that it often became quite discomfiting. Put these opposing views together though and you get a film of great poignancy and timeless relevance. From a general filmmaking standpoint too, it's just as brilliant. The film is warmly shot and it uses appropriately simple background music. The appealing storybook quality also has a lot to do with the great editing.
Overall, this is a beautifully realized literal adaptation. Robert Mulligan really did this book justice. Go watch this film and be inspired.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Friday, November 29, 2013

#FF Gifts for Movie Lovers, Single Setting Movies and more...


The shopping season is well underway, with Black Friday raging on and Cyber Monday still to come. In light of this, John (from John Likes Movies) came up with some cool gift ideas for movie lovers on his site. Go check em out along with the other interesting posts below:

John recommended some cool Gifts for Movie Lovers, in honour of the holiday season.

Josh listed 10 Underrated Performances from 2013 that he's thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Sam from Movie Mezzanine interviewed the esteemed Wesley Morris for his "Film Critic of the Week" feature.

The French Toast Sunday crew discussed their favourite Single Setting Movies on their latest podcast.

Tom finally watched The Passion of Joan of Arc and gave it a favourable review.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, November 25, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Wild Bunch


This week's top pick is Sam Peckinpah's dynamic 1969 film "The Wild Bunch". A sprawling, gritty western with a formidable ensemble cast, this turned out to be one of the most impressive entries in the genre. It begins with our title characters attempting to get away with one final robbery in 1913 Texas. As these aging renegades attempt to rob the local railroad office, their plans go awry in bloody fashion. In a violent shootout, a group of bounty hunters retaliate, even killing the innocent bystanders. Only a select few of the bunch remain, prompting them to make their way to Mexico to evade the law. With these bounty hunters already on their case, the wild bunch encounter even more trouble along the way.
Indeed, the violence doesn't end with the opening scene, an aspect that made this film infamous in its day. In fact, John Wayne himself criticized the film for its liberal depiction of violence. It's what makes the film stand out even now, due to its lack of heroic characters and a general absence of civility. This highly patriarchal society laid bare all the vices of men, including heavy drinking and hedonistic sexuality to go along with the violence. They were a wild bunch indeed.
With all of the debauchery on display, it would be easy to assume this film would play like B-movie pulp. However, if you actually watch the film, you're likely to be impressed with the skill on display. At the forefront is Peckinpah's dynamite direction, with stunning cinematography, superb sound design and a great control of tone and pacing. Even as the plot seems to overstay the depth of the material, the production values are so compelling that it never becomes tedious. The film is set during the final days of the "American West" and Peckinpah sends out this social construct in grand style.
The classic westerns have always seemed to glorify violence as a means to uphold justice. Furthermore, the antiheroes are often portrayed as sympathetic. Peckinpah however, presents a more realistic take on the wild west, showing how unpleasant such a society would have been. Women and children alike were caught in the crossfire, unwilling participants in an untamed parade of machismo. As the plot unfolds, the Latin American trajectory may remind you of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", but you'll find no Burt Bacharach songs here. Peckinpah took me on a brutal, bumpy ride and I loved every minute of it.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: The Shorts


The first phase of the Oscar race is really starting to gain steam, with the announcement of the shortlists for 3 categories - Animated Short, Documentary Short and Live Action Short. As usual, I have no idea of the quality of these films or the likeliness for nominations. Perhaps the most obvious contender is Disney's "Get A Horse!" (pictured above), which should get a lot of publicity from playing in front of the feature film "Frozen". With that said, here's the full list of finalists for these categories:

Animated
Feral
Get a Horse!
Gloria Victoria
Hollow Land
The Missing Scarf
Mr. Hublot
Possessions
Requiem for Romance
Room on the Broom
Subconscious Password

Documentary
CaveDigger
Facing Fear
Jujitsu-ing Reality
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Recollections
SLOMO

Live Action
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)
Dva (Two)
Helium
Kush
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
Record/Play
Throat Song
Tiger Boy
The Voorman Problem

Friday, November 22, 2013

#FF Breaking Emotions blogathon, Profile of a Killer and more...

http://mettelray.wordpress.com/b/
Mettel Ray recently started another great blogathon titled "Breaking Emotions" and this week's theme was "Tears and Suprise". It inspired some great entries and I've included a trio of them below. Go check them out along with some other fascinating reads from the past week:

Mette's post included The Broken Circle Breakdown, Fight Club and Magnolia.

Shantanu also made some excellent choices, including Finding Neverland, Grave of the Fireflies and The Usual Suspects in his post.

Stevee's choices included The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Psycho and Atonement.

Alex updated us on his upcoming feature film Wait.

The French Toast Sunday gang did a hilarious podcast about Race Against Time Movies.

Jessica explains how "Let The Right One In" influenced a new wave of Scandinavian sci-fi and fantasy film.

Nostra interviewed Joey Pollari, star of "Profile of a Killer".

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, November 18, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Manchurian Candidate


There has been much debate lately over the notion that television has overtaken cinema in terms of quality. Indeed, the rise of the cable networks has produced many acclaimed shows that have pushed boundaries and provided a weekly dose of excellence that you are unlikely to get from the multiplex. While the constant rewards of HBO and AMC shows certainly make a strong case for television, it's perhaps more useful to view this as a natural evolution of the medium. While TV was just gaining popularity around the 1950s, cinema was already emerging from the shadows of the Hays code, producing daring films like this week's top pick - "The Manchurian Candidate".
Much like the popular TV series "Scandal" and "House of Cards", this film focuses on political antiheroes. John Frankenheimer's 1962 film is an unflinching portrayal of high-level corruption and moral bankruptcy that continues to fascinate audiences to this day. The focal character is war hero Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) who is brainwashed in Manchuria, China to become an assassin for the Communists upon his return to the US. Under the influence of a psychological trigger (a Queen of Diamonds playing card), he is obliged to follow the murderous orders of Communist agents. However, his unwitting plan is hindered by fellow war survivor Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who was also brainwashed with false memories of Shaw's heroism. His hypnosis isn't as successful however, as recurrent nightmares slowly remind him of the truth. As Marco slowly comes to his senses, the film becomes a race against the clock as he must convince the authorities that Shaw isn't who he seems before it's too late.
As the plot unfolds, the first thing that strikes you is the director's style, or lack thereof. Specifically, there's a calm steadiness to the storytelling that really allows the viewer to focus on the script and the acting. With our modern obsession with distinct auteurist directing styles, it's quite refreshing to see a film where a director is fully able to divert the attention away from himself. This proves to be highly effective as it reinforces the sense of evil lurking within civility. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock's personal favourite of his own filmography - "Shadow of a Doubt". Of course, this film isn't set in picket fenced suburbia, but rather the more executive level setting of Washington and its associated social structure. It's not an obvious comparison, but expectations of politicians are quite the same (perfect families, baby-kissing etc.) as those of the quintessential American household.
While Hitchcock's film employs his creative techniques of varying camera angles (Joseph Cotten's fourth wall-breaking is legendary) and evocative score, the aforementioned plainness of direction on display here is equally impressive. Considering the macabre premise of the plot, the frank, almost banal visualizations of the heinous acts is deeply chilling. As a result, the film is both potently of its time (the Cold War was escalating) and seemingly ahead of its time with its bold cynicism.
With the screenplay's strong content and themes, this was already destined to be a fascinating film. However, it's the outstanding acting ensemble that completes the package to make "The Manchurian Candidate" must-see cinema. Namely, the trio of main performers (Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury) gave truly memorable performances. Working in different registers of acting technique (Sinatra's grounded steadfastness, Harvey's jaded fragility and Lansbury's chilly deviousnes), this is a prime example of inspired casting. The film may be a slow burn overall, but the dramatic peaks are handled with crackling brilliance by these fine actors.
In essence, "The Manchurian Candidate" captures many of the traits of today's dark political TV dramas (along with the steady stream of similarly themed films). Of course, production values have improved and our tolerance of antiheroes as protagonists has vastly increased. The message is still the same as it always was though. With power comes the threat of corruption. This is true whether the power is obtained in a communist or capitalist society. It's a constant battle that we need to be reminded of in order to strive to a better future. That's why I have a great appreciation for films like "The Manchurian Candidate", where the entertainment value goes hand in hand with its important social relevance. I implore you to seek out this film, even if you've seen the 2004 remake.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Monday, November 11, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Frances Ha


This week's top pick is the charming little indie "Frances Ha", starring Greta Gerwig as the title character. The almost-mumblecore plot of this film follows an aspiring modern dancer in New York City, who stumbles along the way to achieving her dreams. Struggling to make the jump from apprentice to company dancer, she finds herself in a minor crisis. As she tries to figure everything out, we watch as she simultaneously deals with various relationships, including a best friend who seems to be forging her own path in life.
What's immediately clear as you watch the film, is that it portrays a very specific subsection of society (i.e. Brooklyn hipsters). While there is definitely a discernible plot, the film is more concerned with capturing the tone and mood of Frances and her world. Thankfully, Gerwig is up to the task, as she fully embodies the character and its associated lifestyle. She's quirky and carefree with undeniably "white middle-class" problems. Indeed, this proves to be the crux of the entire film. If you can sympathize with Frances' struggle, then you're more likely to jive with this screenplay. On the other hand, you may alternately find her predicament unworthy of your concern (which seems to be the main issue for the film's detractors).
Even so, the screenplay (written by Baumbach and Gerwig herself) does a lot of work to help you to at least empathize with her situation. It's really a great portrait of your mid to late 20s, when you're too young for a midlife crisis, but old enough to be wary of your lack of direction. Haven't we all been there? In this regard, the subtle script manages to unwittingly tap into the zeitgeist. With the current economic situation, it's easy to dismiss her professional aspirations as folly (if you're familiar with modern dance then you'll know it's quite a curious art form and not very lucrative). However, her determination is admirable. Even as insecurity starts to creep in, (her best friend is achieving significant success in both her love life and career), she stays relatively level-headed, even taking unglamorous jobs if needed. Like many of us, she responds by meandering for a while, but she never loses sight of her dreams. You just know that she won't be content to wallow in apathy forever. As a result, I find her incredibly endearing.
Many will try to compare this film to the terrific TV show "Girls", but it's not entirely accurate. With the likable Greta Gerwig as the protagonist, "Frances Ha" is never allowed to be as acrid as Girls' many cringeworthy moments. As such, the film is less cutting edge, but certainly more accessible. As shocking as it sounds, I personally find Lena Dunham's cynical Hannah more relatable, so this film isn't as impressive as "Girls" to me. There's much to like here though, with the lovely black and white cinematography, pleasant script and affable lead actress.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#FF 12 Years A Slave, Kerry Washington and more...


"12 Years A Slave" continues its theater expansion this week and continues to recieve rave reviews from my fellow bloggers. Check out some of those great reviews below, as well as other interesting reads from the past week:

Clayton W. is impressed by the harsh authenticity of McQueen's vision.

Nick is fascinated by the screenplay's depth.

Ryan praised the film's direction and ensemble cast.

Clayton D. from the Awards Circuit makes a plea to AMPAS to expand their viewing horizons.

Jessica compares watching About Time to the delights of good old fashioned milk chocolate.

Shala reflects on the career of rising star Kerry Washington.

Stevee reflects on her own first hand perspective upon hearing the news that all remaining Blockbuster stores in the US will be closing down.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

OLDIE GOLDIES: Room At The Top (1959)


Simone Signoret receives her Best Actress Oscar
This week's featured film is Jack Clayton's impressive debut feature "Room at the Top". This British film is about an ambitious working class man who schemes to wed a beautiful upper-class young girl, all while getting entangled in a love affair with an older woman. As you can probably tell, it has elements of kitschy melodrama but this smart screenplay keeps it grounded. The script has such a rare openness about sexuality, especially for a pre-1960 film. In addition to the writing, the highlight is the alluring performance of Simone Signoret as the older woman. She deservedly won Best Actress at the Oscars (in addition to an equally deserved Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) and the film was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Picture.

Monday, November 4, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Die Hard


What else is there to say about "Die Hard"? The film and subsequent franchise have ingrained themselves so much into pop culture that most people are already very familiar with them (except for me evidently). As a result, I'll keep it brief.
"Die Hard" is a 1988 action film starring Bruce Willis as John McClane, a New York police officer who is visiting his wife in Los Angeles. While at a Christmas party hosted by his wife's company, he gets involved in a dangerous hostage situation. Trapped in a tall office building by German terrorists, McClane must use all his crime-busting experience to ward off these perpetrators.
What follows is a thrilling exercise in action filmmaking. As the criminals carry out their extortionist plot, there's a growing sense of danger and anticipation. Hans Gruber is a genuinely intimidating villain, while John McClane is the ultimate badass. The clash of these strong personalities is the exhilarating driving force of this movie. Indeed, it has many exciting scenes, but what most surprised me was how subdued the overall plot is. For the most part, this is merely a battle of wits between McClane and Gruber, which adds some intelligence to the surface-level thrills. Thus, when we do get the explosions and gunplay, it's very effective. It's a sign of strong direction, as John McTiernan makes full use of Willis' movie star appeal and the labyrinth-esque setting.
In many ways, "Die Hard" is a fascinating curio of its time. It's equal parts corny (yippee-ki-yay anyone?), thrilling and intense, much like many other mainstream films from the 1980s. The dialogue dates it a bit, but it holds up well due to the crowd-pleasing aspects. That's my biggest takeaway from watching "Die Hard". This film is just so much fun! It's no wonder they decided to milk the character and concept for all it's worth.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Girl Most Likely


With a cast that includes Annette Bening, Kristen Wiig, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss, I expected "Girl Most Likely" to at least be mildly amusing. Well, that wasn't the case as this comedy is largely humourless. It's a real shame because the plot had some seeds of potential that would have allowed the film to flourish with this talented group of actors.
The story follows Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a young playwright who loses her job and her boyfriend in New York City, prompting an emotional breakdown that leads to a fake suicide. Due to her unstable mental state, she's forced to move in with her eccentric mother in New Jersey. Unfortunately, they have a strained relationship. This is further exacerbated by the fact that also has to deal with her mother's disengenuous boyfriend (Matt Dillon), her awkward brother (Christopher Fitzgerald) and a strange young man (Darren Criss) who is renting her old room. As she slowly reconnects with her hometown community though, she gradually fines new meaning in her life.
These characters and the themes lay the foundation for an interesting character study, but the film gets stale very quickly. Despite the offbeat characters, the performances aren't nearly quirky enough to make them interesting. Whoever's decision it was to downplay the comedy made a huge mistake. Furthermore, there are some interesting ideas of depression, family and tolerance, but the screenplay is reluctant to dig any deeper than the basic plot outline. To be honest, it's a cowardly screenwriting effort.
"Girl Most Likely" is easily one of the most disappointing films I've seen this year. It wastes a perfectly capable cast (especially Kristen Wiig who found great success with a similar character in "Bridesmaids") on a script and a pair of directors who clearly don't have a proper grasp on the material. As a result, it's a film that is thoroughly lackluster. I'd skip it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

OLDIE GOLDIES: A Face In The Crowd (1957)

This week on Oldie Goldies I looked at one of the many great films by Elia Kazan - "A Face in the Crowd". This rags to riches story follows the rise of a charismatic everyman who becomes an overnight media sensation. It makes for a thoroughly compelling film, as the potent screenplay brilliantly shows the power that comes with fame and celebrity. It's so timeless that you could easily adapt it to a contemporary setting without changing a thing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Dirty Harry


When one thinks of 70s cinema, "Dirty Harry" is rarely mentioned as one of the decade's best. While it's not exactly a forgotten film, it just doesn't seem to have the same respect as the other great films of the era. While watching the film however, it's easy to notice that it features many of the same trademark stylistic qualities as those famed films by Francis Ford Coppola et al. What made the 1970s so great, is the way that the filmmakers approached film as art, while still ensuring they served their function as entertainment. This is clearly evident in this film.
The plot is instantly recognizable as your usual crime thriller, as the title character attempts to track down a madman named "the Scorpio Killer". We are quickly introduced this serial killer's murderous intent from the very first scene, as he takes out an innocent victim sniper-style. It's a striking opening, not only for the blunt wickedness of the act, but also for the way it is shot. Bruce Surtees (the cinematographer) uses an overhead perspective which instills a strong sense of place (the city of San Francisco) while also establishing the idea of rooftops as a sniper's playground. In fact, the angular metropolis layout reminded me of video games like SimCity. Evidently, even this bright sunny locale is prone to random acts of violence. As we get deeper into the plot, the gritty reality of this danger continues to be fostered through this impeccable cinematography.
To support these daring images, the director Don Siegel and his team of screenwriters also make conscious decisions to portray the setting as a place filled with vice. It's a film that is packed with flawed characters, including our hero Harry. In particular, Siegel isn't shy with his depictions of nudity, racism and violent crime.
As Harry navigates the city to capture this criminal, the film also illuminates the daily procedural aspects of his job. Apart from the murder investigations, the film does an interesting thing by alternately showing police work as annoyance. Yes, Harry has to deal with serial killers, but he also has to deal with more trivial cases of people doing dumb things (like threatening to jump off buildings). It's a fascinating side to police work that is rarely ever included in similar thrillers. This further adds to the realism of the screenplay, showing some of the other variables that make crime-solving difficult.
The final aspect that makes this film compelling is the actors. The casting is simply perfect, with Clint Eastwood effortlessly embodying the confident arrogance of Harry, while Andrew Robinson is suitably diabolical as the villain. The quality of these performances prove to be very important as Harry is forced to make tough (sometimes unlawful), but understandable decisions to prevent further murders. Likewise, if it weren't for the sinister actions and deranged demeanour that Robinson conveys, Harry's blurred moral lines wouldn't be nearly as justifiable. Of course, each viewer brings their own personal set of values, but the script goes a long way in fleshing out the conflicted morality at play.
Overall, this film is the impressive result of a confident director making the most of a talented cast and crew. Despite the pulpy elements of its crime thriller genre, the film doesn't rest on its laurels. It's just as accomplished (smart writing, artful cinematography, skillful acting etc.) as a prestige drama. Truly, the fact that "Dirty Harry" is often seen as a minor effort in the pantheon of 70s cinema emphatically proves that famous saying - "They don't make em like they used to".

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Monday, October 21, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Way Way Back


I watched many good films this week, but the one that left the biggest impression was "The Way Way Back". Chronicling a summer in the life of a lonely, awkward teenager named Duncan (Liam James), this endearing story wore down the cynic in me and won me over. It's a comedy so forthright with its sweetness, it's a minor miracle that it still manages to feel so genuine and true to life.
The film opens with a jarring scene that introduces our main antagonist Trent, played by Steve Carell (shockingly believable as an arrogant stud). He is the new boyfriend of Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Colette) and he is driving them to his beach house for the summer vacation. Along the way (with Pam fast asleep), he asks Duncan to reveal his opinion of himself, on a scale of 1 to 10. Upon replying with the number 6, Trent rebukes him, saying that he's a 3 due to his underdeveloped social skills. Trent further remarks that the experiences Duncan will have in this crucial summer will greatly improve his character. Of course, it's an insensitive way of getting this point across, but there's a truth to it that succinctly sets up the film's themes.
Indeed, we soon realize that Duncan is incredibly awkward, painfully so at times. As the viewer, you'd even want to shake him out of his self-imposed dullness. Fortunately for him, he'll soon get a wake up call from a welcoming stranger named Owen. Played with affable charm by Sam Rockwell, he's a fascinating character to compare with Trent. Even as the script sets up Trent as the villain, Owen isn't all that different. He points out Duncan's lacking sense of humour and his shyness and forces him into uncomfortable situations. However, the different approaches (serious vs playful) by these two men with equal intentions, have vastly different effects on this impressionable young man. It's this attention to character detail and truthful screenwriting that makes this screenplay so admirable. Owen is obviously the inspirational father figure type in this story, but the writers are smart enough to avoid the cliches. There are no "seize the day" pep talks or declarations of love, just endearing expressions of humanity and kindness. He simply spends quality time with Duncan, giving him a summer job at the local water park and ample opportunities for social interaction.
The film shines on these finely written characters, all rendered with superb acting. Apart from Carrell, James and Rockwell, there are standout performances from Allison Janney and Toni Collette. As one of the neighbours in this beach town, Janney's character is similar to Trent, in that she's unafraid to speak her mind. In particular, she never hesitates to point out her own son's physical flaw - his crossed eyes. However, she's also just as expressive with her affections towards him. She's such a welcome scene-stealing presence in the film.
Last but certainly not least, Toni Collette is outstanding as Pam, a woman coming to terms with her failed romantic relationships. Much like her impressive turn in "About a Boy", she has an amazing ability to convey fragility with minimal effort. In a film that already has a lot going for it, she really does make it that much richer.
Many would label this as a coming of age story, but I don't think it's as ambitious as that description usually implies. Duncan's character arc relates to that universal desire to be a better version of ourselves, whether young or old. It's this unabashed optimism that makes "The Way Way Back" such pleasant viewing. It's a film with an important message, delivered with skill by a fine ensemble and a winning script. Taken from the lyrics of the film's end credits song, I'll leave you with that final note - Go where the love is.

Friday, October 18, 2013

#FF Captain Phillips, Le Week-End and more...


The major release of this week was the new Paul Greengrass film "Captain Phillips", starring Tom Hanks. As a fan of the film myself, I was glad to see the warm reception from my fellow bloggers. Check out some of those reviews below, as well as the other great reads from the past week.

Dan was a big fan of Captain Phillips, giving it an enthusiastic review.

John gave Captain Phillips a rave review.

Ryan also praised Captain Phillips in his review.

Amanda from Filmoria reviewed Le Week-End (in black and white version too!).

Simon from Flickering Myth sees similarities to the "Before" trilogy in his review of Le Week-End.

Alex compiled another fantastic list, naming his "Top 10 Movies that Make Him Cry".

David is back in the predicting game, so go check out his early picks for Best Picture!

Joey from The Awards Circuit posted his Ten Best Films of the 51st New York Film Festival.

Josh singled out 10 Acting Contenders We Might Be Overlooking for Oscar.

Shantanu shines the spotlight on a great Bollywood Film - Taare Zameen Par.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

OLDIE GOLDIES: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

This week on Oldie Goldies I highlight one of the best movies about the movies - "Sunset Blvd.". Similar to its thematic sibling of the year ("All About Eve"), the film centers largely on an aging actress desperately trying to hold on to her fame. Playing that role here is the striking Gloria Swanson, who does justice to this plum role. The film surrounding her is equally as riveting, from the brilliant screenplay to the haunting art direction and cinematography. The AMPAS certainly agreed, awarding the film with 3 Oscars (Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Score) in addition to nominations for: Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture.

Monday, October 14, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Captain Phillips


This week brought yet another Oscar contender to table, in the form of Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips". Based on a true story, it recounts the hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. As tensions mount after this ambush, the titular captain (Tom Hanks) must use all of his wits to protect his crew from this band of pirates and their fearsome leader Muse(Barkhad Abdi).
Much of the film is focused on this power struggle between Muse and Captain Phillips and it's a compelling one at that. Hanks and Abdi are superb in their portrayals, never losing sight of their characters' individual realities. Not once do you feel like the plot or dialogue has been embellished for dramatic purposes. There's not a false note in the entire film. Neither actor uses showboating acting methods, captivating the audience instead with empathetic performances of surprising vulnerability. Hanks in particular gives an accomplished display, underplaying the heroism to give it that everyman quality that we've come to love from him. This is a slightly different version though. Throughout his career his acting has often felt "young" (or at least younger than he is), but here he fully embraces the experienced confidence of the character. It's almost like we're seeing a new movie star emerge in front of our eyes.
On the other hand, a truly new actor is presented in Abdi. In his first ever film role, he gives it a fearless authenticity that's effectively unrefined. His dialogue scenes sometimes show his inexperience, but there's no denying his natural ability. Especially in his quieter moments, he successfully conveys a man who is constantly thinking (whether it be worrying, planning or simply contemplating).
These two characters are the foundation for the story and my, what a story it is. This is a plot that is deceptively simple. Yes, the trajectory of events is nothing special, but the screenwriting between start and finish is remarkable. There's a high level of difficulty here, as it requires a great deal of narrative interest to keep the audience engaged. The screenplay accomplishes this perfectly, sustaining a powerful forward momentum from the time the hijacking occurs. It's truly a masterclass of writing and editing, as it breezes through the 134 minute run time without a single dull moment. It's efficient storytelling, eschewing unrealistic monologues and lengthy exposition, yet still supplying ample thematic and character depth. Indeed, the characters' casual anecdotal remarks provide more satisfying background information than some prequel films.
Of course, Paul Greengrass makes a major contribution too, as he firmly puts his stamp on the material. Throughout the film, it plays distinctly like an action-thriller, which is all due to his direction. The big moments (hijacking, escape attempts, rescue attempts) have an undeniable kinetic energy that's usually reserved for more overt action or thriller films. Such is the palpable sense of urgency that you may even begin to doubt your knowledge of the characters' fates, despite the real life evidence. It makes for an entertaining film, even though it sometimes clashes with the intimate nature of the story. The context unfortunately provides no big action setpieces to properly take advantage of his style. In truth, the setting and material seem to call for a more typical dramatic approach (a lot of it is even shot in closeup), so it slightly prevents the film from being as poignant as it ought to be.
All things considered though, the film that Greengrass set out to make is very respectable in its own right. It's highly proficient filmmaking that ticks all the boxes required for an entertaining cinematic experience. Biopics have never been so thrilling.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Gravity


The genre of science fiction, specifically those set in space, has bred some of cinema's finest achievements - "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Alien" for example. With all due respect to the reverence attached these films(based largely on their age), 2013's "Gravity" is just as brilliant and in some ways, even more quintessential. For experiencing the visceral thrill of being in space, "Gravity" is unmatched.
The 90 minute adventure of the film tracks a space mission involving our protagonist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). This is her first expedition, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It's a wondrous new experience for her, made all the more pleasant by the quippy charm of Kowalski. Unfortunately, their work is soon disrupted by high-speed debris hurtling towards them.
What follows is a frightening but thrilling tale of survival. Stone must summon all her courage and wit to devise a new rescue mission. The damage of the collision is catastrophic, practically a disaster movie of sorts. It's a specific personal experience for Stone, but Cuaron amplifies the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation to mind-blowing effect. In a feat of virtuosic directing, Cuaron uses visual storytelling that is unique and original. Words are inadequate to describe the astonishing quality of the cinematography and visual effects. Never has something so unfathomable seemed so tangible. You're likely to be left in flabbergasted awe, wondering how they managed to successfully pull off such an ambitious film. It's a triumph on all fronts, with particular achievements in visuals, sound and editing.
Cuaron really reinvogorates the power of the closeup and the long take. The immediacy is palpable, never allowing you to detach yourself from the raw energy of the adventure. But even though the action is forceful and robust, there's an overarching grace due to the fluidity of the camerawork and editing. It's impressive enough to work as a silent film, but there's no denying the excellence of the film's sound. The sound effects and score resonate and help to transport you to this new frontier (assuming you've never been to space yourself).
Indeed, the technical prowess almost defies the usual classification of cinema. However, there's a beating heart at the film's core that avoids any esoteric agenda. The images of earth, space and spacecraft are stunning, but the human story is why you bought the ticket (by the way, please watch this on the big screen). The screenplay itself is perhaps the weakest element of the film, something you're likely to hear from the film's detractors. I wager that this is simply because the technical craft is so ahead of its time that the storytelling is glaringly conventional. This is nitpicking though, as its not a bad script by any means. It's a film of powerful emotion, delivered by an actress in peak form. Never let it be said that Sandra Bullock is not a good actress. She carefully lays out that character arc so that the emotions creep up on you, coalescing in a rapturous finale. It's such a great character, instilling with it a sense of heroism and sprituality. Without her, the film wouldn't be nearly as profound.
There's a point in the movie when Clooney explains the blissful feeling of being in the calm environs of space. It allows you to literally leave all your troubles and fears behind. The film's audiovisual excellence translates this so perfectly for the viewer. It's why this movie will attract numerous repeat viewings.
But earth beckons in the background, beautiful in its own right. At the end of the day you have to go back home, whether its from a daring space mission or a simple trip to the movie theater. "Gravity" is an apt title then, conveying the truth in the science "fiction". The moments of euphoria (such as the experience of this groundbreaking film) enrich our lives but there are internal and external forces that pull us back to our everyday reality. The beauty of this dichotomy is what allows "Gravity" to transcend its genre and for that, it's a masterpiece.

Friday, October 11, 2013

#FF Gravity, The Third Man and more...


As you already know, "Gravity" made a major splash this past week with massive box office and universal critical acclaim. Personally, I couldn't be happier. It deserves all the attention and as expected, that has resulted in some fascinating debates. Check out some select reviews of the film below, as well as other great reads from this week.

Anna called it one of the best science fiction films ever made.

Candice describes the film as A Harrowing Yet Remarkable Film About Life, Death And The Fight In Between.

John was completely taken with the character arc and Cuaron's direction.

Lindsay from French Toast Sunday calls it a near-perfect cinematic achievement.

Ruth thinks of it as a triumphant film through and through.

Andrew gives his thoughts on Bonnie and Clyde and its inherent falsity.

Morgan caught up with the classic film The Third Man for Fogs' Movie Reviews.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, October 10, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Rush


In case you haven't heard, Ron Howard is back with a new film - a biopic of Formula One competitors Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It follows their exciting rivalry throughout the 1976 racing season, with a disastrous incident in the mix to provide some much needed dramatic weight. It's a film that is distinctly unbalanced in tone and quality but to its credit, it finishes strong.
The first half is certainly weaker, presenting a slight film that negates the main reason for making the film at all. Opening with a voiceover, Lauda explains the risks and dangers associated with the sport. It's particularly ominous, but seems to be quickly forgotten. There's a jovial tone focusing on the glamour of the lifestyle that establishes the characters but adds nothing else. It has a glossy sheen and puts too much emphasis on the petty name-calling and trash-talk. Even though there are brief moments alluding to the fatalities that occur each season, these are swept aside all too quickly. If this was a dangerous sport, then you wouldn't know it from this portion of the film. That is, until Lauda gets into freak accident and gets trapped in his flaming car.
Indeed, the second half is where things really kick into high gear. After surviving the incident, Lauda is determined to overcome the setback and recover in time to still emerge as world champion. Even with obvious damage to his face, he remains as competitive and confident as ever. Brühl plays it well, selling you on the determination of the character. I most admit however, to being more impressed by Chris Hemsworth. As the rakish Hunt, he's perfectly cast. Hunt is all about bad boy sex appeal, which Hemsworth has in spades. Lauda on the other hand, is the buttoned-up, wholesome polar oppposite. He's focused and disciplined, unlike his plilandering nemesis. In other words, he's quite boring from a dramatic point of view. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the roles, but Brühl's predicament should have been approached with a bit more than one-note steeliness.
Performances aside, this section of the film is great for the excitement of the racing scenes. There's a tension and excitement that takes hold, due to the dynamic editing, cinematography and "ticking clock" screenwriting. These final scenes are much better at capturing the serious competitiveness of being a sportsman. The lingering memories of Lauda's crash also add a humanity to the story and characters that was missing at the start. It all comes together for an awesome, heart pounding climax.
Despite the lackluster opening, Howard soon gets on track to deliver the visceral thrills that the story deserves. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it's worth the trip.

OLDIE GOLDIES: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This week's Oldie Goldies pick is 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success". This film tells the story of a Broadway columnist and his efforts to break up his sister's romance with a musician, with the help of a press agent. On the surface, the plot seems trivial (by film-noir standards), but its sly undercurrents reveal a brilliant screenplay at work. It's also stylishly directed with rock solid acting from the entire cast.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

NYFF: Wrapping up the festival


The 51st New York Film Festival isn't over yet, with the world premiere of "Her" still to come. My time at the festival is sadly over though, but I have no regrets. I had a wonderful time at my first film festival. It was a welcome change to watch films with New York's cinephile community, in addition to the benefits of attending press screenings. I wouldn't hesitate to come back again.

To recap my experience, here are a few random thoughts and observations:
  • Press conferences are awesome. It's an invaluable experience to hear from the filmmakers right after watching a film.
  • Joaquin Phoenix is every bit as flippant as you'd expect.
  • Steve McQueen is a very intelligent man. He gave the best press conference of the weekend.
  • I had the pleasure of meeting fellow LAMB bloggers Shala Thomas and Max Covill. They're so cool!
  • I also met THE Nathaniel Rogers and Michael Cusumano. They're cool too!
  • Favourite film: 12 Years A Slave
  • Favourite director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
  • Favourite performance: Paulina García, Gloria
  • Favourite screenplay: Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Gloria
Here's how I'd rank the 8 films I saw(in order of preference):

12 Years A Slave
Gloria
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Le Week-End
The Immigrant
About Time
Abuse of Weakness
Bastards

Monday, October 7, 2013

NYFF: 12 Years a Slave & Le Week-End

Thanks to Manhattan traffic, I only made it to 2 of my 3 scheduled screenings on my final day. The good news is that I was able to see one of the year's best films, which more than made up for it. Read on for my thoughts on "12 Years A Slave" and "Le Week-End".

Sunday, October 6, 2013

NYFF: About Time & Abuse of Weakness

After watching a non-festival showing of "Gravity" (more on that later this week) last night, my two screenings had a lot to live up to. Perhaps that played into my underwhelmed responses, but I assure you that these are my true gut feelings towards these films. Read on to find out what I had to say about "About Time" and "Abuse of Weakness".

Saturday, October 5, 2013

NYFF: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

My second day at the New York Film Festival was considerably lighter, but no less vital. The focus of the day was the world premiere of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". Read on for my thoughts on the film:

Friday, October 4, 2013

NYFF: The Immigrant, Bastards & Gloria

My first day at the 51st New York Film Festival was quite the busy one and it's a minor miracle that I managed to stay alert after only arriving in NYC late this same morning! Thankfully my body didn't give in to its narcoleptic tendencies and I managed to fully absorb 3 different films. My responses to the trio were extremely varied but I ended the day on a high note. Read on for my reviews of "The Immigrant, "Bastards" and "Gloria".

Thursday, October 3, 2013

NYFF: Preview

The time has come and naturally I'm very excited. Tonight I'll be heading straight to the airport after work to catch my flight, set to arrive at JFK around midnight. I therefore won't get much sleep, as I need to get up bright and early to collect my press credential, followed by a full day of press screenings. It promises to be a great film festival and I've got some interesting films lined up. So without further ado, here's my schedule for the long weekend. All are from the Official Selection unless otherwise stated.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

PODCAST: Most Anticipated for Fall/Winter

I recently made my 3rd appearance on the LAMBcast, discussing our Most Anticipated Films for the rest of 2013. Give it a listen to find out what Justin, Robert, Lindsay, Kristen and I are looking forward to.

Click here to listen.

Monday, September 30, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Fast & Furious 6


With this 6th installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, it's safe to assume that the plot behind these films have adequately permeated through pop culture. I can therefore assume that a lengthy plot description is not needed for this review of "Fast & Furious 6" (or "Furious 6" if you prefer that moniker). Even if you are unfamiliar with the films, you can probably still guess the plot from the title. As it suggests, the film is about fast cars and the furious people who drive them.
With that out of the way, let's move on the analysis. First off, let me state that this not a great film, despite my "Movie of the Week" label (I didn't see many films this week). It's a film filled with scattered moments of genuine thrills and for this, it's deserving of a passing grade. What the franchise continues to lack though, is more emotional depth to instill the humanity in these films. It's not a cold film, but any emotions you feel for the characters are likely to come from your own pre-existing attachment to them, rather than any writing or acting finesse. Still, I readily admit that this is not the place to go looking for emotional or intellectual fulfillment.
So then, what is the purpose of this seemingly vapid film franchise? Well, they are made for entertainment and in that regard it mostly succeeds. If you are willing to submit yourself to the routine machinations of the action sequences, then you will probably find much satisfaction here. For other more discerning viewers (myself included), it's less likely to register as anything outstanding. Even so, I must give credit where it's due. Namely, there's a sequence in the early portion where the main antagonist (played by Luke Evans) is evading capture and it really stood out and made me take notice. With its grand setup it was almost, dare I say it, Nolan-esque in its execution. I would have loved to see the film continue in this vein, but the director clearly had a different vision.
Sadly, the film soon settles in to its more nondescript action scenes and becomes the typical crowdpleaser that you'd expect. The film gives us its usual dose of logic-defying setpieces that are absurd to the point of being admirable.
Many may ask why we need so many sequels to this franchise, but the proof is in the pudding. You would be hard-pressed to find a franchise that finds its critical appeal in its 5th and 6th installments. It's a miracle really, considering the cynicism of modern movie culture. Even the more lukewarm fans like myself tend to recognize the franchise's inherent entertainment value. In a year of disappointing blockbusters, this is a franchise that gave the fans exactly what they wanted. What more can you ask for?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Neighbouring Sounds


Brazil has produced many great films over the years and so I eagerly awaited their latest submission for Oscar's Foreign Language category - "Neighbouring Sounds". It's a highly acclaimed film, with many praising it as one of the strongest directing debuts in recent years. Now that I've seen it, I'm wondering what I'm missing.
In contrast to the more vivacious atmosphere of the favelas, this film is set in the more mundane life of a middle-class apartment building in the city. It's no different from similar apartment settings (especially in Latin America/Caribbean) and is therefore instantly recognizable. As such, one of the film's strong points is that it captures the tone and atmosphere perfectly. It's a laid-back lifestyle that can seem mundane, but can be surprisingly satisfying for many people. The problem is, this lifestyle doesn't naturally translate so easily to a narrative film.
As the plot slowly trudges along, we are introduced to various characters. They're all connected in a network of relationships, as you can expect from such a community. In a way, this gives the sense of a Alejandro González Iñárritu, with multiple storylines coming together. Unfortunately, this film lacks the storytelling skill of Iñárritu's films. It always seems like the plot was setting up for something big to happen, but it never gets there. There's a lack of drama and it therefore makes for periods of tedious watching. The main plot point of the film is the introduction of a team of security guards to protect the community, but it really doesn't add much dramatic weight.
In the end, I give Kleber Mendonça Filho points for his naturalistic directing style and the film's authenticity. However, I can't ignore the fact that I was very disappointed with how the story played out. Filho obviously has a knack for directing, but I think he needs to work on his screenwriting.

ACTING SCHOOL: Leonardo DiCaprio


For this month's "LAMB Acting School 101", the featured actor is none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. This actor burst on the scene in the early 90s building a loyal fanbase (myself included) that has stuck with him throughout his career. Through his various collaborations with Martin Scorsese and many other choice roles, he has a wealth of great scenes. In choosing my Top 3, I decided to highlight the various facets of his acting ability that have made him so popular: