Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Film Actually's Year in Review + 2015 Resolutions

Looking back on the year that was 2014, I feel nothing but pride for my accomplishments. It was truly a watershed year for myself and the blog, as many fortunate opportunities came my way. In the summer, I joined the staff of The Awards Circuit and soon after, I was also invited to join the African-American Film Critics Association. This gave me access to interviews and countless screeners and early press screenings. Throughout the year, my travels took me to Guyana, Baltimore and New York, where I met some more of my online friends (namely Andrew Kendall, Andrew Boyd Stewart, Clayton Davis and Joey Magidson). During those New York trips I also attended the Tribeca Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

Of course, I couldn't do all this without the support of my wonderful readers, whose patronage allowed the site to hit 1 million views in October! I am truly humbled and grateful for anyone who has taken the time out of their day to read anything I've written.

Now for my 2015 goals/resolutions. In 2014 I managed to achieve 3 out of 4, but this year I expect a 100% success rate. Here they are:

- Finish watching every Best Picture winner.

- Read more. This includes cinema-related books, as well as general reading.

- Watch more movies!

I'm anticipating another wonderful year ahead, and I wish the same for you as well. Onward and upward.

Friday, December 26, 2014

REVIEW: Tangerines

Cinematic stories of war come in many different narrative forms. Some focus on the physical destruction of the battlefield, while others emphasize the lingering emotional and psychological impact of the conflict. Zaza Urushadze’s "Tangerines" mainly falls in latter description, examining how a brutal war affects four men in a small village.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Right now I'm getting ready to fly home (i.e. St. Vincent) to be with family for the Christmas holiday, so there won't be a "Movie of the Week" review today. However, you can check back later this week for new posts. In the meantime, I'd like to share season's greetings from myself and the African-American Film Critics Association. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 20, 2014


As you probably know already, the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film has been announced. One of those films is Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu", which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will hit US theaters next month. This drama is about the oppressive occupation of Timbuktu by religious fundamentalists and its impact on the people. My fellow AAFCA members have already named it the Best Foreign Film of the year and many audiences have reportedly been moved to tears. I can't wait to finally see it. Check out the trailer below:

Timbuktu hits theaters on January 28th.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

CONTEST: Predict the Oscar nominations

Film Actually is proud to announce the 2015 Film Actually Oscar Contest! This will be our third year and this annual event continues to get better and better. 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 feature a grand prize of a $50 online gift card (USD, or the equivalent in another currency) for their relevant Amazon store (US, UK, Canada etc). In addition, there are other bonus prizes up for grabs (read below).

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

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Foreign Language shortlist

Best Foreign Language Film is one of the trickiest categories to predict for the Oscars. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed, it’s that there will be surprises on the 9-film shortlist which precedes the nominations. That list should be arriving any day now, so I decided to take on the foolish task of predicting which films will show up.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sundance films set for big Oscar comeback

Way back in January, I wrote an article decrying the loss of the "Sundance movie" in the Best Picture conversation since the AMPAS rule change. It was written in response to the hyperbolic praise for "Boyhood" after its premiere at Sundance 2014. After "Fruitvale Station" and another Linklater film "Before Midnight" failed to make it after a similar response the year prior, I found myself being immediately pessimistic about its Oscar potential. Even after I finally caught "Boyhood" in August, I was very conservative with my predictions (I didn't anticipate traction for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for example).

Well, I was wrong. Not only is "Boyhood" an Oscar contender, it looks like it may walk away with the whole damn thing! Many pundits expect it to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay at the very least. "Boyhood" isn't the only film representing the Sundance brand however. "Whiplash" - this year's winner of the Grand Jury and Audience prizes - has also come on strong. At the moment, it seems like a likely Best Picture nominee and will potentially feature in other categories too. If you've been following the awards season, you'll know that J.K. Simmons already seems unstoppable as this year's Best Supporting Actor frontrunner.

It's really encouraging to see these small indie movies can still have a strong presence in the machine that is Oscar season. As of right now, I see "Boyhood" and "Whiplash" getting nods in many major categories. Take a look at my latest predictions:

Monday, December 15, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Dear White People

My top pick this week is an exciting debut feature that has found many fans since its Sundance debut in January. Curiously titled "Dear White People", Justin Simien's film is boldly up-front about its intentions. For those who are slow on the uptake, the tagline spells it out for you, reading "A satire about being a black face in a white place".

The setting for this satire is a fictional Ivy League college called Winchester University. Winchester is a predominantly white institution, with a small but vocal population of black students. The loudest of them is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), the host of a radio show called "Dear White People" and the new president of the campus' all-Black residential hall Parker-Armstrong. When she's not drawing attention to racial insensitivity through her show, she's rallying support to prevent the marginalization of black culture that will come when her residence becomes homogenized like the others. As she and other characters come to terms with their racially-based pressures and biases, an upcoming black-themed party threatens to cause unrest within the student body.

As someone who experienced a similar college situation in the US - I doubt we even had enough black students to fill a residential hall - "Dear White People" immediately rang true to me. Like Lionel Higgens (played by Tyler James Williams) in the poster, I had a white best friend/roommate who was fascinated by my hair, likening it to Velcro. To make matters worse, I was a foreign student. So I also received the obligatory "Do you have roads/electricity/internet where you're from?" Most of us black/international students just shrugged off these comments (they often came from a place of genuine curiosity). We didn't have a Samantha White to publicly call out the ignorance. Heck, even some of the black American students could have used some education on the African diaspora.

What's great about Simien's script then, is how it accurately captured that diversity among the black students. It's no coincidence that Issa Rae (star and creator of the YouTube sensation "Awkward Black Girl") has a brief cameo in the film. Simien and Rae are artists who are cut from the same cloth, featuring black characters in their work who are generally underrepresented in mainstream media - the awkward, quirky types. As such, one of the film's most interesting black characters is Lionel, who struggles to fit in anywhere by virtue of being gay and not relating to black culture. Though the film's title explicitly addresses white people, it also calls attention to the pressures that black people place on ourselves.

In addition to Lionel, the 3 other main characters struggle with expectations of blackness. Namely, there's Samantha (who overcompensates for the shame of being only "half-black"), Coco (who hides her less fortunate background by feigning affluence) and Troy (who's afraid to show any weakness as the model black man). Altogether they present positive images of black people as smart and complex and crucially, imperfect. In this regard, the script is refreshingly free of religion (Christianity being the default of course).

In a sly reversal of the norm, the white characters are much more one-dimensional. They are mostly resigned to expressing a bogus belief that racism no longer exists. As can be expected, it results in many humorous confrontations, especially with each role being so perfectly cast and performed. What's even more impressive is how introspective the film is. It goes further than satire, giving us a universal story about the pressures (relationships, parental expectations, personal ambition, social acceptance) that young minds face in a college environment.

Apart from the film's satirical merits, its craft elements are also deserving of praise. I love the warm amber hues of the cinematography and the way the camera changes angles to key you in to the shifting perspectives and the power dynamics between the characters. I love the score, which accentuates the tone without ever overpowering the scene. I love the bright intertitles that maintain the film's playfulness. Finally, I also love the character-specific details in the hairstyling and costume design. The latter especially, for how it rejects some of the outdated stereotypes (XXL t-shirts, FUBU etc.) as expressed in the film's pivotal scandal.

"Dear White People" announces Justin Simien as a fresh voice that we need in contemporary cinema. This is a film that's quirky, funny, sexy and oh so cool. I look forward to seeing what he'll do next. Until then, I'm sure I'll be revisiting this one.

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations

Another day, another lovefest for "Boyman" as the Broadcast Film Critics Association announced their Critics Choice nominees for 2014. Interestingly, The Grand Budapest Hotel is right up there with them, as the film earned a whopping 11 nominations, only 2 nods behind Birdman. For the most part, it seems they were up to their usual Oscar predicting ways, including a revival for Unbroken in Best Picture and Best Director. Oh BFCA, never change. The various Oscar categories are starting to come into focus, but I'm still quite stumped as to which films will eventually fill out Best Picture.

Here are your Critics Choice nominees:

Best Picture
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Best Actor
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Bidrman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

INTERVIEW: Philippe Muyl

Philippe Muyl’s The Nightingale is easily one of the most surprising selections in this year’s foreign language Oscar race. While the film is set in China with Mandarin dialogue, he is actually the first non-Chinese director to be submitted to represent the country. I recently caught up with Philippe for a Skype interview where we discussed the circumstances that led to his eventual Oscar submission.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, December 14, 2014

REVIEW: The Dark Valley

A dark silhouette traverses a mountainous landscape. It’s a lone rider of unknown origin, but the upbeat music immediately lets you know that he’s someone important. His face is soon revealed as he approaches a little Austrian town tucked into the valley between these hills, ready to set the plot into motion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, December 12, 2014


We’ve come to our final set of contenders in the 2014 Foreign Oscar Guide and it’s a group that could conceivably claim all 5 spots in the nominations. It’s no secret that this category has traditionally been very Eurocentric over the years. Of course, this may just be a result of the sheer number of submissions they send each year, usually accounting for about half the entire field. But there’s no denying that the quality of the continent’s cinema has a lot to do with it too. Who can argue with winners like "The Lives of Others", "All About My Mother" and "Cinema Paradiso"? Once again, the European films this year are high on quality and quantity, already boasting many awards heading into the Oscar race.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GOLDEN GLOBE REACTIONS: Ruben Östlund and Pawel Pawlikoswki

Hollywood was abuzz today as the Golden Globes announced their 2014 nominees for film and television. Among those waking up to good news were the nominated directors for Best Foreign Language. The Awards Circuit was able to get reactions from two of them, via phone interview with Ruben Östlund from Sweden and a written statement from Pawel Pawlikowski...

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations

The HFPA chimed in with their nods today and...they're not half bad! As expected, "Boyman" is still very strong but some other films got a big boost today. These include Selma and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with both getting the crucial Picture-Director combo as well as slew of other nods throughout. It's clear that Selma is indeed in our Top 5 for this Oscar race, despite the SAG slipup yesterday. Foxcatcher pulled out a key mention too, finding its way into a tight Best Picture lineup. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo are also looking good at this stage. Apart from that, most of the other frontrunners claimed their expected spots.
Of course, everyone can't be a winner so let's talk about today's losers. The big story is the complete shutout of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, which seemed like a no-brainer considering this group's usual taste. I mentioned in my review how uninspiring the film turned out to be and that's clearly playing out in the awards season so far. The starry American Sniper also took a significant knock, with no mentions to speak of. We'll see if the Critics Choice Awards will revive these films on Monday, but I get the sense that the field is already narrowing down. Have a gander at what the Golden Globes brought to the table:

Best Picture (Drama)
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

Best Actor (Drama)
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bill Murray, St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes

Best Actress (Drama)
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Quvenzhane Wallis, Annie

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Avu Duvernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Nominations

And so it begins. The Screen Actors Guild has spoken and they've really thrown some curveballs at us this year with their nominations. As expected, Birdman (4 noms) and Boyhood (3 noms) had strong showings but almost every category had some surprises. Sure they seemed like possiblities, but was anyone confident about The Grand Budapest Hotel (Ensemble), Jake Gyllenhall (Actor), Jennifer Aniston (Actress), Robert Duvall (Supporting Actor) and Naomi Watts (Supporting Actress)? In terms of snubs, I'm sure the teams behind Selma and Unbroken will be very concerned after this shutout. Should we dismiss them as potential Best Picture winners? Taking the ultimate prize without a SAG ensemble nod is incredibly rare. We have lots to ponder, folks. In the mean time, here are your SAG nominees:

Best Ensemble
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Best Actor
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Naomi Watts, St. Vincent

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

REVIEW: Human Capital

Italian cinema has long been fascinated with the lives of its rich and famous. From the works of Federico Fellini to recent films like The Great Beauty and I Am Love, filmmakers have attempted to use film as a way for audiences to empathize with society’s elite. One of the latest entries into this canon is Paolo Virzi’s "Human Capital".

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 8, 2014


After months of waiting, "Unbroken" is finally upon us. This ambitious biopic from Angelina Jolie couldn't have entered this fall/winter movie season with higher expectations. Assembling a dream team of collaborators to work on this incredible true life story, many pundits even labeled it as an inevitable awards magnet. Of course, perception and reality and two different things. Now that it's finally here, did this ambitious production live up to its considerable potential?

"Unbroken" tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympian who became a prisoner of war during World War II. His journey begins in
New York, the son of Italian immigrants with an older brother and two younger sisters. Initially an aggressive, unruly boy (a response to constant school bullying) his life soon takes a drastic turn. Upon the urging of his brother Pete, he becomes a competitive runner, finding a new sense of self-discipline he never had before. Eventually he makes it on to the 1936 Olympic team, with hopes of making an even greater push at the following games.

Unfortunately, his athletic ambitions were curtailed when he enlisted to fight in World War II. This sent him on the awe-inspiring journey that makes up the majority of this film. After surviving a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, him and two other survivors spent 47 days stranded at sea, before being captured and placed in Japanese war camps. He eventually survives to tell the tale in his best-selling Unbroken biography, aptly subtitled "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption."

As you can imagine, there's a lot of dramatic material to be found in this tale. With its vast geographical scope, intense wartime scenes and the highs and lows that come with it, the film's narrative arc is truly of Homer-ific proportions. It's easy to see why Jolie was so passionate about this project.

Unfortunately, she lacks the goods to bring it all together. Make no mistake, "Unbroken" looks and sounds good and its basic story is inherently captivating. Kudos to Roger Deakins' cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's mood-setting score in that regard. Yet it lacks the astute directing sensibilities to give it that extra "oomph". From an editing standpoint it's poorly assembled, lacking the narrative flow that would lend it gravitas. The initial non-linear cross-cutting of scenes is most ineffective, as the flashbacks barely seem to inform the scenes around them. As a result, the film never gets to build any cumulative impact. Say what you want about Christopher Nolan's bombastic style, but at least he knows how to build momentum in a story.

What it all boils down to is a film that is emotionally flat. As Zamperini, Jack O'Connell is certainly up to the task, but he's completely under-served by the screenplay. Perhaps there were simply too many cooks in this stew (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) because this script was disappointingly mediocre considering the pedigree of its screenwriters. For each section, the screenplay is only able to give our lead one note to work with - bright-eyed determination at home, tired optimism at sea and endless misery in the war camp. The one potential saving grace (Zamperini's spirituality and faith) seems to have been mostly excised from the script, leaving O'Connell to play a character without sufficient depth or nuance. Still, he does his best with what he's given, especially in terms of the role's physicality. The same can be said about the significant supporting players - Domhnall Gleeson, Garett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Miyavi (in a strong but uninspired debut performance).

It's no spoiler to reveal that "Unbroken" ends with images of the real life Louis Zamperini, overlaid by an uplifting original song by Coldplay. In this moment it accomplishes something that the preceding film didn' inspired. Jolie's final product is a commendable effort - it's nowhere near as mawkish as it could have been - but she clearly needs some more practice before she can tackle these big stories. In the right hands, I suspect there's still a great film to be made about this subject. I'll be right there if that happens.


Today, the African-American Film Critics Association (of which I'm a member) announced its picks for the Best of 2014. Unsurprisingly, Ava Duvernay's "Selma" emerged on top. The film won awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Song. Here's the full press release:

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Is Boyhood ready to join the pantheon of Oscar winners?

Well, awards season is now in full swing after today's blitz of critics awards. It's only going to get even busier this week though, as two of the most influential awards bodies announce their nominees (SAG and Golden Globes). I've always felt that these televised awards shows signify the true start of the season, as the public platform allows contenders to galvanize support with their speeches.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

INTERVIEW: Rebecca Cremona

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Rebecca Cremona, director of the film "Simshar". Cremona is having quite an exciting year, as "Simshar" holds the dual distinction of being her debut feature, as well as being Malta’s first ever Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the tragic real life story of a fishing trip gone wrong and the unfortunate sociopolitical implications surrounding it. In our interview, we discussed the making of the film and many other interesting tidbits.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

PLUG: Devils in Disguise

In an increasingly competitive environment for film production, many indie filmmakers have turned to crowdfunding to help finance their films. Success stories include "Finding Vivian Maier", "Dear White People" and "Wish I Was Here". Recently, another new film (currently in post-production) has been brought to my attention after a favourable response at the Cannes Film Festival. Read below for more information:

Monday, December 1, 2014


In preparation for my upcoming voting in the AAFCA awards, I decided to catch up on a number of indies I missed earlier in the year. This past weekend in particular was like a private film festival for me, as I watched a total of 6 films, which included genre hits ("The Guest"), arthouse faves ("Only Lovers Left Alive") and topical dramas ("Black or White"). Yet out of all these, the one that I liked the most was the decidedly mainstream comedy "St. Vincent".

"St. Vincent" is a story about an old man named Vincent and a little boy named Oliver. St. Vincent (played by Bill Murray) is a grumpy old war veteran who lives alone and enjoys all manner of debauchery (drinking, gambling and prostitution). Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) on the other hand, is as sweet as they come, a frail kid who gets bullied at school. One day, these different individuals are brought together when Oliver and his mom Maggie (played by Melissa McCarthy) move in to the house next door to Vincent's. As a single parent working long hours to provide for her family, Maggie needs someone to help watch over Oliver after school. In desperation, she therefore turns to the reluctant Vincent to offer him the job. As expected, he's initially annoyed by the prospect, but he needs the money to maintain his lifestyle. The relationship is therefore strictly business, until the two open up to each other and strike up a friendship over the course of the film.

As you can see, "St. Vincent" isn't anything you haven't seen before. Just a few weeks ago I lamented the lack of originality in "The Nightingale", another film that hinges on a burgeoning friendship that bridges a generational gap. So what was so special about this one that made me respond to it so well?

For me, comedies live and die by their performances. If the actors are feeling it, then I'll feel it to. Such is the case in "St. Vincent" and its delightful ensemble. It has Naomi Watts in a bawdy - and largely inconsequential - role as a pregnant (for Vincent, no less) Russian stripper/prostitute. Then you have Melissa McCarthy giving perhaps her best dramatic performance. There's also Jaden Lieberher's adorable debut, showing good comic timing. Finally, there's the highly amusing Bill Murray as this obnoxious curmudgeon. It's thanks to them that the film is so enjoyable, especially when it comes to the chemistry between Murray and Lieberher.

Of course, I could easily dissect some of the script's nagging choices. For example, there's the typical "the things we learned" ending that's blatantly manipulative. Admittedly, the reveal of the meaning behind the film's title did get me teary-eyed, but it's emblematic of a film unwilling to embrace the full potential of its mean-spirited central character. Indeed, a better film could have been made if there wasn't the obligatory sentimental backstory to redeem him. It would have been less universally agreeable but so much more outstanding.

"St. Vincent" is a comedy that isn't especially funny or moving, but it's commendably effective within its PG-13 constraints. It made me laugh and it made me cry. This year I've become increasingly receptive of more challenging works in my cinephile diet, but I'll always have a place for these familiar comforts.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

REVIEW: The Liberator

One of the greatest political figures of all time finally has his own major biopic. You may not know him, but his influence was immense. The man I’m referring to is Simón Bolívar, the subject of the Alberto Arvelo’s new film "The Liberator".

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, November 27, 2014


As always, the Asian countries have submitted a diverse slate of films for Foreign Oscar consideration. The selections cover a wide range of perspectives, with debut filmmakers and female directors having a standout year in particular. Will the region be able to reclaim the ultimate prize they last won in 2011 for Iran’s "A Separation"?

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


One of the newly announced December releases that has me very intrigued is Chris Rock's "Top Five". The film is about a comedian trying to make it as a serious actor and it premiered to very good reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. Some have even called it his "Annie Hall" and Paramount is also giving the film an awards push. Could this be our next word-of-mouth hit? Check out the trailer below:

Top Five hits theaters on December 5th.

Monday, November 24, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Beyond the Lights

As was the case with last week's "Interstellar", Gina Prince-Bythewood's latest film "Beyond the Lights" is one that I'd been anticipating for months. Its main themes (romance and music) seemed like the perfect fit for Prince-Bythewood's filmmaking sensibilities and the rave reception out of its Toronto International Film Festival premiere further cemented my excitement. As expected, I therefore approached the film with high expectations. Now after finally watching the film, I can report that it didn't disappoint, managing to surprise me in more ways than one.

"Beyond the Lights" is the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a pop star at the top of her game. Her success is the result of a master plan devised by her mother (played by Minnie Driver), a single parent determined to give her child a good life after a rough start. The effort has paid off, with Noni winning awards and amassing widespread attention following her latest single and upcoming album. Everything seems perfect on the surface, but underneath it all is a different story. Like many of her peers, she feels the pressure of being treated like a product rather than an individual artist. On the night of her biggest success (winning a Billboard Music Award), she decides to step out on her balcony with every intention of jumping. As she prepares to leap, she's saved at the last minute by a young police officer named Kaz. Subsequently helping her get through this bout of depression, they strike up a strong connection and through his love and support, she begins to find her voice again.

This melodramatic premise - so forcefully conveyed in the trailer - has had some comparing the film to the showbiz romance movies of Hollywood's Golden Era. Indeed, watching Noni's physical transformation reminds you of Judy Garland's character in "A Star is Born". Despite the overall "rise and fall" though, this isn't merely a rehash of classic tropes. One could even say it's an inversion of the traditional story, with the character's low point arriving within the film's opening minutes. Instead, what Prince-Bythewood has done is to take this old-fashioned story and remodel it with a contemporary spin.

Indeed, what the film's marketing fails to convey is the film's elegant direction. Fans would remember Prince-Bythewood's auspicious debut "Love and Basketball", a film that gave her a reputation for excellent music choices that capitalize on the atmosphere. Since then, she clearly hasn't lost this skill, this time curating an urban soundtrack of tracks that speak to Noni's romantic, personal and professional journey. These include a few original songs like "Masterpiece" (a cookie-cutter R&B/Hip-Hop earworm) and the optimistic closer "Grateful".

Apart from the film's beautiful aural quality, Prince-Bythewood also excels in her storytelling approach. There's a subtlety that one wouldn't expect, especially in the film's big moments. While Noni's public persona and performances are fiery and racy - impressively so, I might add - the more private scenes are all stunningly intimate moments between the main characters. By the time the film changes gears for its final act, it's absolutely disarming in the way it puts across its symbolic and literal concepts of finding one's true self.

Of course, the film wouldn't work without the right actress in the lead role. Well, there's surely no doubt that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was the right choice. She has the looks, the attitude, the voice, the dance skills, the attitude and all the sex appeal that goes along with it. More importantly though, she has the acting chops to toss all that aside and convey Noni's grand character arc. It's a truly transformational role that has major physical and emotional demands which she handles like a pro.

Mbatha-Raw's performance also soars due to her great chemistry with Nate Parker. An accomplished actor himself, he acquits himself well in this role as the supportive, positive figure that Noni desperately needs. Unfortunately, the character is the source of one of the film's problems. It's clear that Noni is the film's main attraction, so the script's efforts to develop Kaz as a lead character seemed unneccessary. His subplot about his political aspirations and father-son relationship with Danny Glover's character add little of value of the story. In fact, it often distracts from the film's real focus. Considering how woefully brief the last act is about Noni's renewed artistic integrity - we barely get a sense of Noni's presumed singer-songwriter talents - it makes you wonder what could have been there instead of Kaz's storyline. Perhaps we may have gotten more from the superb Minnie Driver, so effective in her dual role as Noni's strict but empathetic mother/manager.

These hiccups prove to be minor though, as "Beyond the Lights" emerges as finely crafted drama. In just her 3rd feature, Prince-Bythewood has cemented herself as one of cinema's most vital voices, making universal love stories that just happen to have actors of color. Furthermore, it confirms the promise of one our brightest new stars in Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In her two breakout performances this year (this and "Belle"), she has already given us 18th century British aristocracy, ratchet diva and the girl next door. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

REVIEW: Red Princesses

More often than not, you know what you’re going to get with independent films. Just watch the parody video “Not Another Sundance Movie” and you’ll see this is true. Laura Astorga’s debut feature "Red Princesses" certainly hits some of those beats, yet it manages to separate itself as one of the more distinctive films of recent years.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 21, 2014


When Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow received its 2009 Oscar nomination (a first for Peru), it was one of the more eye-opening nominations in the recent history of the Best Foreign Language Film category. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that the region’s film industry is often exclusively associated with a very small group of countries – Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Peru’s nomination was certainly a surprise then, but not for those who were familiar with the developments in the region’s cinema. Since then, Chile has also secured its first nomination (from Pablo Larraín’s No) and it seems like only a matter of time until other Latin American countries get their first nods too. Though there’s still a long way to go for Latin American filmmakers to achieve the success of their Eastern counterparts, the region’s cinema is on the upswing. This year, the submissions include a number of critical darlings, a box office hit and a Hollywood-style epic.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: BUtterfield 8

You often hear about films being described as primarily an actor's showcase or star vehicle, often created to introduce new stars to the public. Daniel Mann's 1960 film "BUtterfield 8" could certainly be classified as such, with its promotional material clearly intended to highlight Elizabeth Taylor. Of course, by then the actress had nothing to prove, having already secured 3 consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actress. With this latest film, the studio (MGM) was definitely anticipating a 4th, having tied down the actress to the project under contractual obligations (which she famously resented).

As it turns out, Elizabeth Taylor ended up winning her first Oscar for the role, playing a woman named Gloria Wandrous. Gloria is a high-class call-girl, who starts to change her attitude towards her lifestyle after an encounter with a wealthy man named Weston Liggett. Unfortunately, her new beau is a married man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Gloria must then decide whether to pursue the opportunity for true romance and happiness (despite its homewrecking implications), or continue to endure the societal scorn and personal shame of her scandalous but profitable profession.

We're introduced to Gloria after a one-night stand with Liggett, waking up in his upscale New York apartment. We see her quietly rummaging around the room, going through a typical morning routine that feels almost improvised in its naturalism, a credit to Taylor's acting sensibilities. The peace is disrupted however, when she reads a note that alludes to a payment for her sexual favours. Furious, she uses her lipstick to scrawl "No Sale" on his mirror.

As she leaves with his wife's mink coat (to replace her torn dress), the film already begins to feel somewhat contradictory. Despite the constant acknowledgment of her not-so-secret lifestyle, the film takes a initially timid approach to Gloria's sexuality. It's a problem that persists throughout the narrative, as the film struggles to decide what it wants to be. Early in the film she seems to be nothing more than your average socialite, at odds with some of the more crass scenes in the film's latter half. When she eventually exclaims to her mother "I was the slut of all time!" it feels terribly out of place.

There's really no getting around it, the film falters due to its poor writing. It tries to be a character study but it mistakes its few melodramatic speeches and obvious moralizing for actual character development. It's a near miracle that Elizabeth Taylor manages to be effective at all, as you can practically feel her straining to make sense of Gloria. Is her lifestyle dangerous? Is she ashamed, or proud? These are all questions that are brought up in the film, but never fully clarified. The script (co-written by Charles Schnee and John Michael Hayes) is just too concerned with its shallow "hooker with a heart of gold" agenda, which makes it all the more bewildering when the film eventually vilifies her.

One could argue that the strict production code limited the filmmakers here, but there were already similarly themed films that would put this one to shame. For example, there's 1959's Room at the Top. It features Laurence Harvey in another lothario role but much more convincingly, as well as a fully realized female character in Simone Signoret's Alice Asgill.

Then again, maybe the quality of "BUtterfield 8" didn't matter at all. It still won the Oscar and was a box office hit for MGM. Even I would admit that in spite of its glaring flaws, it's eminently watchable. That's all due to the allure of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most effortlessly compelling actors to ever grace the screen. If you want to know what a "star vehicle" is, look no further than "BUtterfield 8".

This film is part of The Matinee's Blind Spot series.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Wow, time is really flying. It seems like just yesterday that we were wrapping up last year's Oscars. Here we are again with some early shortlists. Here are all the short films that have made the shortlists in Animated Short, Documentary Short and Live Action Short. Have you seen any of them?

The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
The Numberlys
A Single Life
Symphony No. 42

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace
The Lion’s Mouth Opens
One Child
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

Live Action
Baghdad Messi
Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)
Carry On
My Father’s Truck
The Phone Call
Summer Vacation (Chofesh Gadol)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PLUG: Movli

With so many options for existing movies and new releases arriving every week, I'm sure you can agree that it's often difficult to settle on a film to watch. That's what makes film sites like Netflix so great, with their personalized recommendations and instant streaming features. Building on this model is the recently launched Movli - a movie recommendation engine, social network and movie database all in one. Read below for more details:

Monday, November 17, 2014


In the year 2000, Christopher Nolan broke out with a brilliant neo noir ("Memento") that defied the conventions of linear storytelling. In 2005, he revamped the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy, layering it with real-world gravitas. Since then, this writer-director has become a household name for his originality, making popular films that dared to challenge audiences. With his latest film "Interstellar", he has once again stepped it up a notch. It's his most ambitious project to date, delving into complex notions of space, time and gravity.

"Interstellar" is set in the not too distant future. It's a time when the world is in a major crisis. People are running out of food, as a mysterious dust called "blight" has made almost every crop go extinct. The land is therefore in need of good farmers, forcing all of the resources to go towards an agriculture-focused society. Cooper (our protagonist) is one of the best farmers around, but he's not satisfied with his lot. Formerly an engineer with space-bound aspirations, he longs for the day when he will get the chance to use his best skills once more. His intellect has also rubbed off on his 10-year old daughter Murphy, an inquisitive mind who's obviously being held back by the dumbed-down educational system. One day, a mysterious event takes place in her bedroom that gives them renewed hope. It leads them to a secret location that eventually leads Cooper on a risky mission to the far reaches of the galaxy. His mission - to find a viable new planet and save the human race.

This Cooper character is played by Matthew McConaughey, an actor who seems like he was born to play this role. With his Texan accent and effortless air of confidence, he's instantly believable as someone who could be both a successful farmer and an engineer/astronaut. He rattles off the character's numerous all-important monologues with ease, mostly lamenting the complacency of mankind. It therefore comes as no surprise then, that he grabs the opportunity to test our limits once more. He's aware of the sacrifice (leaving his family behind) but in his mind, it's necessary.

The subsequent adventure is a major leap of faith, much like the actual filmmaking itself. Both Cooper and Nolan are men who want to explore new horizons. The result is a film that's staggering in its ambition, with monumentally high stakes that we can't even begin to fully comprehend. Cooper's mission takes us to new galaxies, where time works in different ways due to gravitational forces. Wormholes and blackholes are but a few of the highly intellectual concepts found in the film, brought to vivid life through the Hoyte Van Hoytema's astonishing cinematography and the stunning visual effects from the talented artists at Double Negative.

Under all the visual grandeur is an engrossing story too, no easy feat considering how overwhelming it sometimes is. "Interstellar" is literally a race against the clock (if Cooper doesn't complete his mission in time, all of humanity may have already died), with a high likelihood of failure at every turn. If there's one criticism that I'd agree with then, it's that the film sometimes seems too grandiose. With some awkward, flowery monologues and far-fetched acts of impossible triumphs, it projects a high level of arrogance. You can easily picture Christopher Nolan marveling at his creation (co-written with his brother Jonathan), not realizing how bleak it actually is. Hans Zimmer's emphatic score and the characters' motivations are reminiscent of Spielberg (think "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") but make no mistake, there's a dark dystopia at its core. As a result, its denouement carries a feeling of relief rather than the joyous satisfaction that's clearly intended.

Yet despite its flaws, I'm reminded of a recent conversation involving Paul Thomas Anderson (an ambitious director in his own right). It was an hour-long talk that was organized by the recent New York Film Festival and recently aired on the Film Society Lincoln Center's "The Close-Up" podcast. In it, he explained how he views "emotional logic" as more important in filmmaking than the plausibility of the plot. It's a view that seems to be reflected in Nolan's work here, as the script has already been derided as excessively convoluted. For me however, "Interstellar" successfully makes up for it with its beating heart. Much of the film's power comes from its exploration of the film's myriad human relationships. Among all the science is a central defining thesis that love is a powerful force that transcends all. It's admittedly corny, but through the performances of Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey, it was acutely, heartbreakingly felt.

In the end, "Interstellar" may not be as satisfying as Christopher Nolan's other films, but he remains a vital presence in contemporary "popcorn cinema". There are moments in this film that gave me a visceral rush that is unmatched by other blockbusters. Christopher Nolan is known as a man who holds the cinematic experience in high regard and it definitely shows. Go see it on the biggest screen possible and have a grand time.

FYC: Interstellar

This post was created to accommodate all the awards tracker labels in blogger.

Click here for my full review of Interstellar

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Silence in Dreamland

Some films have poetic titles just for the sake of it, while others possess a literal meaning in the context of the film. Tito Molina’s aptly named "Silence in Dreamland" is one of the latter. In this arthouse drama, words are few and dreams are a welcome escape.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 14, 2014

INTERVIEW: Pirjo Honkasalo

Pirjo Honkasalo is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable filmmakers working today. As a cinematographer, director, screenwriter, editor, actress and producer, she has built up an impressive resume that dates back to the 1960s. It was a great pleasure then, for me to get the chance to interview her about her latest film Concrete Night, Finland’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards. A gorgeously shot coming-of-age tale, it’s a formidable piece of work. In our chat, we discussed the making of the film, as well as her thoughts on the current state of cinema in general.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, November 13, 2014

REVIEW: Beside Still Waters

Chris Lowell's debut feature "Beside Still Water" begins with references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway about the "Lost Generation". Our protagonist Daniel quotes Hemingway, who claims that all generations are lost and always will be. It's a sobering thought, one that seems to be justified by the characters and events of this film.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold) is having a rough time. His parents have just died in a car accident and he's never felt so alone. Thankfully, he has his longtime best friends for support...or so he thought. It doesn't take long into Daniel's planned getaway/reunion at his parents' house before he reveals the elephant in the room. Despite many of them being rather close to his family, none of them bothered to attend the funeral. Not even his ex-girlfriend Olivia (Britt Lower), who figured it was a good idea to bring her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott) to the group's private trip. Unsurprisingly, Daniel - who still has strong feelings for Olivia - struggles to cope with all the added stress.

Indeed, the tragedy functions as a catalyst for conflict and drama between our characters. Though Daniel is seeking closure by packing up his parents' home, everyone else seems to have brought their own unresolved issues. For some it's a struggling marriage, for others it may be job-related. Basically, it's the common concerns of adult life.

Yet there's an initial level of discomfort in the plot's situations and between the characters that didn't sit well with me. The script forces this awkwardness (it seems like barely any substantial condolences were previously offered in Daniel's time of need) in a way that felt contrived. Too often it feels like it creates conflict for conflict's sake, like when they decide to sabotage Henry despite every indication that he's a perfectly nice guy.

The film does recover in the latter half however. Under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, everyone begins to confront their individual insecurities. Humor and tension-filled drama arise in equal measure, delivered with conviction by its talented cast. We get a better sense of the history between these friends, culminating in a third act that delivers genuine pathos.

"Beside Still Waters" is a film that gets off to shaky start but eventually finds its footing. Though it may have been too late to appease this viewer, general audiences are likely to connect with it. There are echoes of "The Big Chill" here, though it's sometimes drowned out by the self-involved angst of our current "Lost Generation".

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: The Cannes-didates

The beaches, the glitz, the glamour, the history, the prestige. It’s no wonder that so many international directors choose to launch their films at the Cannes Film Festival. Over the years, the foreign language Oscar race has become increasingly populated with films that made their bow on the French Riviera. With 11 Cannes premieres submitted this year (a noteworthy 13% of the full list), the fest has once again solidified its reputation as a breeding ground for Oscar contenders. As expected, many of those submissions are from Europe but nearly all the major continents are represented (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America).

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 10, 2014


When Logan Lerman says to Ezra Miller "I didn't think anyone noticed me" in Stephen Chbosky's 2012 film "The Perks of Being A Wallflower", he tapped into a pervading sentiment of high school life. For many in that cliquish environment, being "invisible" is just as bad as being disliked. In Daniel Ribeiro's own take on the coming-of-age drama "The Way He Looks", this predicament gets a fascinating reversal. What if everyone noticed you, but you literally can't see them?

That's the unfortunate situation that Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) finds himself in. Blind since birth, his high school experience is very different from everyone else. Of course, that doesn't prevent the bullies from teasing him or the peer pressure of having a love life. Indeed, despite being set in Brazil, this high school is interchangeable with your typical North American setting. Thankfully, Leo has the support of his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim). They spend practically every day together, hanging out and confiding in each other. They're absolutely inseparable. That is, until a new student named Gabriel (Fabio Audi) enters the picture. A handsome and friendly young man, the duo instantly take a liking to him and they all form a bond. When a school assignment pairs Gabriel and Leo together however, the boys end up spending more time together without Giovana. Feeling scorned, she also starts to distance herself from Leo. All the while, Leo doesn't fully realize the extent of her frustrations, as he's too busy enjoying Gabriel's company. As their friendship strengthens, Leo soon comes to realize that he may like Gabriel as more than just a friend.

The romance that eventually blossoms is a fascinating one, as both parties are uncertain as to how to approach it. One of the film's many strengths is how it honestly shows the difficulty in establishing a relationship with a blind person. The film's central relationship isn't a serendipitous movie romance. As the film shows, it's a unique situation that requires major adapting, even with the best intentions (as is the case with Gabriel). The script illuminates how visually-oriented our lives are, especially for young people. It really hits you when Gabriel embarrassingly asks "Have you seen that youtube video?" or "Wanna go to the movies?". It also poses some interesting questions about the complex nature of sexuality, especially when it comes to blind persons. How do you define someone's sexuality when you take physical attraction out of the equation? As Ribeiro engages with these ideas, he ensures that Gabriel's blindness isn't a gimmick, but rather a thought-provoking insight into blind life.

Yet underneath it all, Leo is really just your average teenager. Many of the film's key dramatic moments are framed around his desire to study abroad. The decision is a cause for concern for his seemingly overprotective mother, bringing out his rebellious attitude. As such, you're bound to see some of yourself in Leo as he tries to assert his independence and explore his own maturity (through alcohol, relationships etc.). This creates a relatability in the characters that not only enhances the viewer's experience, it also frees up our young stars to deliver some lovely intuitive performances. Despite not being blind in real life, Ghilherme Lobo is especially effective in the lead role. He manages to convey an impressive range of expressions with his eyebrows in lieu of his eyes, all the more remarkable for a debut performance.

With its endearing characters and heartfelt script, "The Way He Looks" is one of the most tender films you'll see all year. Some may dismiss it as being "slight" but for me, the film hits a genuine sweet spot. If you're a fan of films like "The Perks of Being A Wallflower", then I think you'd appreciate this one.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

REVIEW: Simshar

Each year, technological advances help to foster an increasingly “globalized” world. There’s no denying that we are now more connected than we’ve ever been. However, as world events often indicate, there are borders that still exist, especially when it comes to immigration policy. First-time director Rebecca Cremona shines a spotlight on this fact in "Simshar", a rare Maltese production. Inspired by true events, it tells an engrossing story of how socio-political influences contributed towards a set of unfortunate events in the Mediterranean.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, November 8, 2014

REVIEW: The Nightingale

Like so many other countries, China is a nation with a marked social divide. Rich vs poor, urban vs rural, young vs old. This dichotomy isn’t lost on Philippe Muyl, the French director of "The Nightingale", a Mandarin-language film that takes the audience on a journey through China’s varied landscapes.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, November 6, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: LGBT Stories and Filmmakers

One of the great things about the Foreign Language Film category is the wide range of cultures and perspectives that it introduces us to. This year, one of those notable perspectives is that of the worldwide LGBT community. Of the 83 submitted films, 4 of them prominently feature gay themes in their narratives while 2 more were made by gay directors. These films are an impressive bunch, already amassing many prestigious awards among them.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


The concept of "The West" has long been synonymous with the ideas of hope and freedom. On a macro-level, it relates to the treasured pursuit of the American Dream held dear by immigrants all over the world. On the micro-level, it can mean movement within a country due to its sharp sociopolitical divide. Such is the case in Christian Schwochow's "West", a film about a woman's quest for a better life on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

It's the late 1970s in East Germany and Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) is a woman in need of a change. A highly educated and ambitious woman, she desires more for herself and her son. So one day she makes the decision to escape past the Berlin Wall and away from communism, in the hope of finding prosperity in West Germany. Pretending to be married to a West German, she successfully crosses the border. However, she soon finds that things aren't so rosy in her newly adopted home. She struggles to find a suitable job to match her qualifications and her initial living conditions aren't too dissimilar from "the projects" you'd find in an urban ghetto.

These setbacks are manageable however, especially when compared to a sudden investigation into her past that brings back painful memories. Specifically, the Allied Secret Service begins questioning her about her mysteriously departed boyfriend Wassilij. Presumed dead, she is forced to consider the possibility that he may still be alive and even further, that he may have been a spy. Under intense emotional and psychological pressure, Nelly must decide if she really wants to know the truth.

As Christian Schwochow explores Nelly's dilemma, one can definitely sense his artistic vision for this film. The gritty cinematography and grounded performances imbue the film with strong atmosphere. On visuals alone it could easily be mistaken for a long-lost 70s film.

Yet for all its visual acumen, there's something lacking in how the screenplay balances its dual storylines. The script tries to foreground the Wassilij investigation but the narrative approach is too tentative. Like a far-fetched conspiracy theory, it always remains hypothetical. While the film places so much emphasis on this storyline, it sidelines the much more compelling immigration drama at its core. In fact, much of the reasoning for the investigation's stalemate pertains to Nelly's preoccupation with her own personal life. As such, there's a wealth of intriguing material to be developed there - adapting to a new environment, building new relationships, restarting your career.

Furthermore, the film's most interesting performances come from these scenarios. In addition to Triebel in the lead role, Anja Antonowicz (as Nelly's friendly neighbor), Tristan Göbel (as Nelly's son Alexej) and Alexander Scheer (as Alexej's new father figure) are all engaging presences that invigorate the film with depth and feeling. They represent the film's most trenchant thematic values - friendship, family and the pursuit of happiness.

In the end, Christian Schwochow's "West" is an admirable effort that suffers from its unrealized ambition. It looks and feels like a 70s thriller but it's much more effective as an intimate human drama. Come for the mystery, stay for the people.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

INTERVIEW: David Trueba

This week I got the chance to have a Skype interview with one of Spain’s top directors David Trueba, whose latest film "Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed" was chosen as the Spanish submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was released in Spain last year and was a major success, winning 6 Goya awards. As the film attempts to crossover to American audiences, we discussed the inspiration behind the film as well as his career in general. Despite some technical difficulties during the interview we managed to have a fruitful discussion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 3, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Stranger by the Lake

Watch out. Sex isn't everything. These crucial words are uttered by a character named Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao) in Alain Guiradie's "Stranger by the Lake, an entrancing film that's part psychological thriller, part crime drama and part erotica. Premiering at the same Cannes Film Festival that gave us "Blue is the Warmest Color", this is yet another French film with a rare openness about sexuality. Though while that Palme d'Or winner was framed around a central romance, Guiradie distills his film down to more basic elements.

Like the Henri character, we as the audience are casual observers of the action that goes on in this film. In the film, he spends his days sitting in his favourite spot by a tranquil lake, taking in the summer sun. This is no ordinary lake however, as only mere feet away are a number of men doing the same thing, except stark naked. As we soon find out (in graphic detail), this is a cruising spot for local gay men, with the surrounding woods used for any amount of salacious activities. Henri doesn't participate (he isn't even sure if he's gay), but he has a newfound friend who does - our protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). Franck is a young man with a passion for life. This passion leads him to fall in love with the attractive Michel (Christophe Paou). However, as the wise Henri - a well-written and well-acted character with insightful thoughts on the underrated value of boring, but healthy relationships - warns him, he's a potentially dangerous man.

Franck knows this too, as a dark turn of events so blatantly demonstrates. Yet, he can't overcome his intense physical attraction. Apart from his good looks, Michel is also a good kisser and an even better lay. He's almost too good to be true. Of course, in such situations the looks are often deceiving.

As we go deeper into the plot and Franck gets dangerously attached Michel, the film unfolds like a curiously laid-back thriller. Really, how intense can it be with such beautiful scenery? The calm, rippling waves of the lake give you a feeling of serenity and you can almost feel the warmth of the sunlight. At its essence, this is nothing more than a regular nude beach after all. Guiradie recognizes this, lulling us into submission with gorgeous shots, particularly those during the sunset scenes.

There's a dark side to this tale however and that's where his directing and writing skills shine through. The film is filled with mystery, combining elements of urban legend (characters mention a dangerous sea creature lurking in the water) with the vulnerability associated with the presence of strangers. Even more unsettling however, is the film's probing analysis of male psychology. As we witness Franck's actions throughout the film, it's hard not to think of the common stereotype of men caring about sex above all else. It's a cruel indictment, as our lead character embarks on a steady descent into the devil's lair. Guiradie brilliantly uses the woods as his own playground as much as the characters, portraying the foliage as both comfortable alcoves for the men's trysts as well as a last-gasp hiding place from predators. Having already gripped the audience with his mesmerizing visuals and engaging story, it all culminates in a conclusion that sends chills down your spine.

"Stranger by the Lake" is a captivating film that truly gets under your skin and into your mind. Though it sometimes gets too voyeuristic for its own good, there's no denying Guiradie's exceptional craftmanship. This film gives you an experience you won't be forgetting any time soon.

Friday, October 31, 2014

REVIEW: The Evil Dead

The horror genre isn’t one that I naturally gravitate to (go ahead, call me a wuss) but as a cinephile I can certainly appreciate a well-made scary movie. In fact, there are quite a number of them that I really love (Psycho, Let the Right One In, Paranormal Activity). Out of all them, the one that I am most impressed with is Sam Raimi’s 1981 flick The Evil Dead. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s about a group of friends who travel to a cabin in the woods where they unfortunately end up releasing evil demons and spirits.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, October 30, 2014


The Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards has been experiencing tremendous growth over the past few years, once again breaking the submissions record with 83 films in 2014. It’s an encouraging sign of a more globalized film market but there is still one continent that remains underrepresented – Africa. History shows that submissions have been scarce outside of South Africa and the Arab-influenced Northern countries, most likely due to underdeveloped film industries and lack of resources to go through the submissions process. There have been some improvements however, with three countries making first-time submissions in the past five years. This year’s crop of African films include one such debut from Mauritania, along with films from Egypt, Ethiopia, Morroco and South Africa. Together, they showcase the continent’s extensive cultural diversity.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

COMING SOON: Beyond the Lights

The fall season is well underway at the box office with tons of prestige films finally hitting theaters. One of those films that is flying under the radar is "Beyond the Lights", which premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood (who gave us "Love & Basketball 14 years ago, a film I absolutely adore) and features rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead role of pop star who struggles to cope with fame. Check out the trailer below:

Beyond the Lights hits theaters on November 14th. Go see it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

REVIEW: Coming Home

"Coming Home" begins with a scene in a small room, where some men are playing pool and having a drink. As if we're intruding, we catch them in the middle of a discussion about the Vietnam War. One of them claims that they would go back and fight if given the chance, out of a moral obligation to uphold justice in that country. The others are in disagreement, appalled that a veteran would come back with such a positive view. It's a very casual scene that stands apart from the rest of the plot, but it signifies director Hal Ashby's approach to the film. By the time of the film's release in 1978, public sentiments towards America's involvement in Vietnam had already soured. Under Ashby's direction, "Coming Home" thus feels like a film that simply joins the conversation, rather than mounting its own angry anti-war platform.

Following the prologue, we are introduced to two of our main characters - Bob and Sally Hyde. Bob (Bruce Dern) is a captain in the Marine Corps who is about to be deployed to Vietnam, leaving behind his wife Sally (Jane Fonda). Bob is enthusiastic about his departure while Sally is understandably sad, dreading the impending loneliness. She's a typical conservative housewife and therefore has a lot of time on her hands. To combat the idleness then, she decides to volunteer at the local veterans' hospital. It's there that she meets former classmate Luke Martin (Jon Voight), now a paraplegic due to injuries sustained in the war. Initially antagonistic and bitter about his predicament, his demeanor gradually softens with the aid of Sally. Soon, a romantic relationship develops that creates a difficult love triangle.

As mentioned earlier, "Coming Home" is a more subdued film than its counterparts (fellow Best Picture nominee "The Deer Hunter" for example). It's less a protest than it is an ethnography. All of its characters are wounded by the war, physically, emotionally and psychologically. In essence then, the film is a lucid examination of their varied recovery methods. Some find comfort in their relationships with friends and family, while others are simply overwhelmed. It's something that the script taps into beautifully.

Indeed, Ashby's direction is remarkable primarily for what it doesn't do. "Coming Home" feels like a "writer's film", in that it places utmost trust in the power of its words. It's never emphasized with poignant shots or emphatic performances. Ashby just gives it to you straight.

Where you do feel his influence is in the soundtrack. Known for his brilliant song choices in other films, he brings that same musicality here. Tracks like Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" infuse the film with his trademark warmth, capturing the beautiful spirit of the people. Though the war was of national importance, the film is very intimate in scale.

That intimacy is never more apparent than when our central lovers are on screen together. In keeping with the tone of the film, Fonda and Voight give wonderfully low-key performances. Fonda is particularly eye-opening. As an actress who I associate with fiercely independent characters (as well as her liberal "Hanoi Jane" personality), I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively she pulled off this "homely" role. She has the perfect match in Voight too, making their evolving romance feel incredibly organic and realistic. Bruce Dern also makes a strong impression, especially in the film's later scenes.

"Coming Home" may not have the same impact for modern audiences as more hard-hitting cinematic accounts of the Vietnam War, but it's an essential part of the canon. The captivating performances, moving story and excellent soundtrack make for a rewarding viewing experience. It deserves to be rediscovered by cinephiles today.

This film is part of The Matinee's Blind Spot series.

Monday, October 27, 2014


If you thought you’d seen every significant historical story about Germany and its neighbors in the mid-20th century, then think again. Did you know that during the 1940s-1950s there was a gay underground organization called The Circle (Der Kreis in German) in Zurich, Switzerland? Did you know that they published a popular magazine? If you answered no to these questions, then Stefan Haupt’s new documentary "The Circle" will prove very enlightening. Even if you already knew the history, you’ll still find interest in this hybrid narrative feature that includes romance and political drama elements.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 25, 2014

INTERVIEW: Afia Nathaniel

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of conducting a Skype interview with writer-director Afia Nathaniel, whose debut feature "Dukhtar" was selected as Pakistan’s official submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In this thriller, Nathaniel tells the story of a woman in the mountain regions of Pakistan who flees her home with her 10-year-old daughter, in order to save her from a forced child marriage. In our interview she went into details about the production of the film, as well as giving some interesting insight into Pakistani cinema in general.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, October 24, 2014

REVIEW: Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed

Oh, The Beatles. Our fanatical world of pop culture wouldn’t be what it is without the phenomenon of Beatlemania. Their popularity was unprecedented and still remains relevant today. So much so that David Trueba felt inspired to make the film Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, a true story about a Spanish teacher’s quest to meet John Lennon.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, October 23, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Australia and New Zealand

As you may have noticed, I've been heavily invested in this year's Foreign Language Oscar race. For my Foreign Circuit column at The Awards Circuit, I've been reviewing many of the country submissions and I've now started a series called the "2014 Foreign Oscar Guide". In these posts I'll give some background info on the various contenders, to help familiarize readers with all these fascinating pockets of world cinema.

Click here for my first post, where I take a look at the Australian and New Zealand submissions.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

REVIEW: Rocks in My Pockets

Animated films aimed at adults are rare in contemporary cinema, especially in Hollywood. We’re used to light-hearted fare that appeals to families in order to get the big bucks at the box office. It’s what makes Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets so unique. It’s a deeply personal, mature film that she describes as “a crazy quest for sanity”.

Read more at The Awards Circuit