Monday, March 31, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: King Of Devil's Island

This week's top pick is a Norwegian drama called "King of Devil's Island". Set in the early 20th century, it tells the story of a rebellion in a boys prison called Bastøy. Ruled with an iron fist by its stern leader Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), it's a brooding film that threatens to get under your skin.
The story begins with an allegory about a harpooned whale. According to the narrator, the whale had been hit by three harpoons but took a whole day to die. Spoken in a solemn manner, it quickly sets the tone of the film to come. As we meet our main characters and learn about their situation, this theme of dogged perseverance becomes immediately apparent.
Essentially, this is a story of young men being pushed to the limit. Our main protagonists are the brash, hot-tempered Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and the more reserved Olav (Trond Nilssen), who is on his way out after years of good behaviour. On first glance they seem like polar opposites, but they strike up an alliance that becomes the driving force behind the events of the film. When a fellow prisoner fatally succumbs to the pressures and injustices of the system, it spurs them to fight back and topple the regime.
Of course, one may think they know how this all plays out from there and in some ways you'd be right. Due to its nature as a "true story", the outcome isn't intended to be too much of a surprise. However, the fantastic storytelling in the interim is what makes this compelling film stand out from the rest.
As we've come to expect, serious dramas such as this are supposed to exhibit a director's flair. It's noticeable then, that director Marius Holst never truly asserts himself into this film. Due to the popular auteur theory, this could be seen as a slight, but in this scenario the lack of the director's stamp proves beneficial. This is decidedly a screenwriter's showcase and it's all the better for it. It's obvious that everything about the filmmaking is in service of the story it's trying to tell. The acting, cinematography and sound are therefore delivered without any overt "flair". Of course, it may mean that nothing is seared into memory, but this also makes it refreshingly unconventional.
Indeed, we've all seen "The Shawshank Redemption", "The Great Escape" etc. The prison break narrative is nothing to new. Most of those films build up to a cathartic payoff, but this one focuses more on the everyday experience of constant suffering. The thesis here suggests that the seemingly banal acts of cruelty can add up and multiply until you reach a breaking point. For these boys it's the frigid environment, the strenous labour and the overall lack of humanity(they're stripped of their names and referred to by a letter-number combination).
In one scene, Bestyreren advises one of the Housefathers to refrain from excessive cruelty, due to the Christian principles upon which Bastøy was founded. It succinctly sums up the main point of the film. As these masters failed to realize, the chronic discomfort can be more oppressive than acute pain. The fallout is inevitable then, depicted in an organic, suspenseful way that will keep you glued to the screen. The plot is so engaging that even the cynics can forgive its brief moments of blatant sentimentality.
Make no mistake, "King of Devil's Island" is a harrowing drama, but it's one that draws you in to its wintry, gloomy world. Its filmmaking style may feel conventional, but the script never rests on its laurels. It's obvious that the screenwriters are carrying most of the weight, working hard to sustain the intrigue. In my opinion, it paid off. This is a film that deserves your attention.

Friday, March 28, 2014

#FF Nymphomaniac, Director profiles and more...

Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" duology is a hot topic right now within the blogosphere. While the reaction seems mostly positive, I was a bit more lukewarm. I'm not alone however, as other bloggers have stated their own issues with the films. Find out what Andy and James had to say below, in addition to some other interesting reads from the past week:

Andy found the film unpleasant, but was impressed with Stacy Martin's performance.

James was unsatisfied with Volume II, feeling that the first film was better.

Alex recently profiled one of the most talented, uncompromising filmmakers - Alejandro González Iñárritu.

John also wrote a director spotlight, focusing on Darren Aronofsky.

Shala is getting ready to attend the Tribeca Film Festival and compiled a list of 10 must-see films from the lineup.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

GIVEAWAY: Veronica Mars Prize Pack winner

Partnershub is offering a cool giveaway in honor of the Veronica Mars movie, releasing in selected theaters nationwide on March 14th.

Details below:

To Enter: Name your favourite mystery film in the comments section for the chance to win a Veronica Mars DVD and limited edition trucker hat! The winner will be randomly selected on March 26th.

AND THE WINNER IS: Tinsel & Tine

Thank you for participating and congratulations!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


This week's chosen film for Hit me with your best shot took us back to the 90s to revisit one of the best neo-noirs "L.A. Confidential". This tale of corruption and murder was a hit with the critics and duly received some awards attention for the 1997 film year. I certainly count myself as one of its fans, as it always manages to reel me in even though I know how the plot plays out. The film is truly a complete package with stellar acting, directing, writing, editing and sound.

On this viewing, I found myself particularly drawn to the characters and how they are written. I always have and always will be fascinated by Guy Pearce here, but this time around I was especially intrigued by the brawny machismo of Russell Crowe as Officer Bud White.

To explain, I found myself mentally comparing the style of this film to HBO's recent craze "True Detective". During its run we became accustomed to the brooding, atmospheric qualities of that miniseries. The more pulpy violence depicted here is obviously a major departure and right in the thick of it is Crowe himself. His character is a live wire, always ready to brawl when necessary. He's unafraid to use force to solve a case and as the viewer, I found it very entertaining. Hence, my favourite shot comes from a scene that depicts this character's skills in targeted aggression.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, March 24, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: It's A Disaster

The end of the world was obviously a popular theme in the films of 2013. From broad comedies ("This Is the End", "Rapture-Palooza") to summer blockbusters ("Pacific Rim", "World War Z"), it seemed like every other month brought a new interpretation of the apocalypse. One such film that went largely unnoticed was Todd Berger's indie comedy "It's A Disaster".

Released on limited screens last year, this film is perhaps the most original of all the aforementioned films. It's set in a single location as a gathering of friends assemble in suburbia for a routine brunch. As the guests arrive, the day begins much like normal with awkward introductions to a new boyfriend and complaints about that couple who is always late. It's not until the guys and girls separate for pre-brunch chit chat (about sports and relationships respectively) that things start to get worrisome. The cable, internet and phone are all shut off. Assuming that the bills weren't paid, they shrug it off until a neighbour arrives in a hazmat suit to deliver some bad news. Bombs have exploded, releasing deadly nerve gases intended to wipe out everyone in their path. To make matters worse, one of the bombs was located only a few miles from this neighbourhood.

The shocking news affects each person in different ways, as each character brings their own unique concerns to the dilemma. The film largely ignores the actual apocalyptic events outside, choosing to instead focus on the expressions of character from the talented ensemble. These include such staple characters as the carefree hippie, the paranoid nerd and the stern realist among others. Triggered by their individual perspectives, they represent the full spectrum of pessimism to optimism. As expected then, some respond more rationally than others. Yet despite their eccentries, they are most notable for their normality. Whereas a similar film like "This Is The End" exaggerated its larger-than-life celebrity personas, this outing is more like a general satire of regular middle-class people.

In developing this satire throughout the plot, the film displays some impressively astute writing. More importantly though, it delivers the humour. It's certainly amusing to see what matters most to these people in such a dire situation. Some reveal secrets about failed marriages, while others harbor regret about not completing their bucket list. Or better yet, some may be distraught about never watching "The Wire"! It's all played with deadpan seriousness by the actors, completely unaware of their folly. Yet even when their responses are at their most foolish, the characters remain undeniably familiar. So in a way, we're not just laughing at them, we're laughing at ourselves. Indeed, the best satires all aim for this fine balance between absurdity and truth. Thus, in making us laugh at the silliness while acknowledging the reality of their behaviour, "It's A Disaster" successfully accomplishes its intent.

Most doomsday films rely on special-effects and visual cues to drive the plot. With 'It's A Disaster' however, the heightened tensions are scaled down to hone in on the essence of contemporary middle-class society. What it ultimately reveals is perceptive and often very hilarious. This may be modest low-budget filmmaking, but it delivers some major entertainment value.

Friday, March 21, 2014

PLUG: First Time Fest

A new film festival is set for its 2nd annual edition in New York City with some exciting screenings, programs and panels in store. Read below for the full press release:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

Continuing his two-part sex addiction saga, Lars Von Trier goes to some dark places in "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II". Clearly he was just getting warmed up, as the lead character's escapades become more intense and severe. As with the first installment, it's uncensored and shocking, but does the prolonged storytelling sustain its intrigue?

It's perhaps pertinent to state that I liked "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I". I found it mostly captivating, partially due to the novelty of its explicit approach and also due to the daring artistry employed by Von Trier. However, after seeing these two films within quick succession, it soon became clear that the plot isn't nearly has substantive as one would hope.

The film picks up from its prequel where our lead character Joe is suddenly unable to feel the sensations of sexual activity. Shattered by this misfortune, she decides to challenge herself by engaging with even more extreme behaviour than we'd witnessed previously. Eventually, Joe's sexual desires end up incorporating pain (through BDSM) and it's around that point where the film becomes tiring. As we follow her descent into darkness, the barrage of unpleasant imagery just becomes too much. What started out as a fascinating artistic endeavour eventually devolved into a case of overindulgent filmmaking.

Indeed, the style of the film certainly reflects an auteur's vision and it was a strong reminder that I was lacking in my knowledge of the director's work. Perhaps I should have expected something more like "Antichrist" rather than the more thematically-rich and narrative-driven thrills of "Melancholia". Prior to this pair of films, I had only seen "Melancholia" from Von Trier's filmography so I never fully understood his reputation for putting his actresses through hell for the role. In that film, the challenges placed on Kirsten Dunst (in a brilliant performance) seemed like they were geared towards testing her emotional depth. In this case though, it actually felt like Charlotte Gainsbourg was going through a torturous experience. Many of her present-day scenes with Skarsgaard are delivered in a subdued, mundane manner, while her flashbacks seemed to be just a series of endless discomfort. As a result, it never felt like a performance that required much skill. Like the plot, there wasn't much substance in the acting under all the surface-level shock value. I hate to use the word pretentious, but the philosophical analyses of Joe's sex life, in addition to the convenience of the narrative device (Joe's confidant Seligman seems too perfectly matched for a random savior), were the source of much eye-rolling. If this is what his other films are like, then maybe Von Trier's brand of filmmaking just isn't for me.

Early on in this duology, Joe establishes her perspective by claiming that her only sin is that she always "demanded more from the sunset". The statement seems to suggest that we are dealing with a woman with vitality and a passion for life, explored through an unquenchable desire for sex. However, by the time we reach the events of Vol II, the character seems to be handicapped by this addiction, unable to truly live her life to the fullest. Perhaps that's the point, but for the audience member it results in a film that ultimately fails to stimulate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Nathaniel Rogers' fantastic "Hit me with your best shot" series is back, kicking off the season with Michel Gondry's popular "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". The film is one that I'd seen twice before and it still manages to feel fresh every time I watch it. It's also a film that improves on repeat viewings. On my first watch, the narrative structure lost me but by this latest viewing it made such beautiful, brilliant sense. In terms of individual images, I did however find it difficult to choose my favourite shot. Despite some iconic shots and overall visual playfulness, it's not a film that strikes me for its imagery. For me, it's more noteworthy for its thought-provoking script and fine performances (Kate Winslet's line readings slay me). For my chosen shot then, I looked for a moment that best expressed my feelings towards this film.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, March 17, 2014


Among a slew of foreign films watched this week, the one that stood out the most was a Japanese drama titled "Nobody's Knows". Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it tells the story of a struggling family in Tokyo, Japan. Delicate and affecting, it's destined to break your heart.

The film begins by introducing us to the close-knit Fukushima clan. Headed by a single mother named Keiko, this seemingly nomadic family of five are seen moving into a tiny apartment intended for two. With the youngest packed into a pair of suitcases and another waiting at the train station, they avoid the landlord's suspicions and settle into their new home. Their humble situation may not be ideal, but for the time being they are content. Their small measure of bliss is short-lived however, as one day the mother unexpectedly deserts them to go live in Osaka.

The abrupt abandonment truly comes as a shock in the narrative. Keiko is portrayed as a caring person, showering the young children with affection and providing their most basic needs. We soon learn however, that she harbors regret for unrealized dreams (she wanted to be an artist) and has engaged in various affairs that resulted in separate fathers for each child. Her desertion therefore feels like the result of disillusionment rather than hateful neglect.

Of course, it's still hard to muster sympathy for Keiko, as it goes against all notions of the maternal instinct. There's no excuse for her actions, so it's interesting that Koreeda instills some empathy. In doing so, he diverts the attention from her horrifying action to create something intentionally more palatable. Without lessening seriousness of the situation, he directs the film with a slight, but reassuring touch. Whether its the sparse but charming score, or the maturity of the now-father figure (eldest son Akira), the film evokes optimism amid the bleakness.

The casting of Akira is a major success, as Yûya Yagira carries the film remarkably well. Through his performance, the film transforms into a tale of survival and coming of age, rather than a traditional tearjerker. He's impressively adept at underplaying his emotions, maintaining a believable composure even when things take a turn for the worst.

Yagira's assured presence is truly the key attraction for this leisurely, patient film. With a running time of 141 minutes, the plot is most concerned with developing a complex portrait of this family and the city in which they reside. The lack of dramatic turning points may therefore test your patience, but the gradual layering of stresses results in a conclusion that genuinely earns its heart-breaking effect.

As its title suggests, we never fully understand why Keiko left her children. It's just one of those befuddling headline news stories we read about every day. What we do know is that the world is a harsh place for a large percentage of the world's population. Some are able to triumph against the odds, but others are unable to cope. Thus, snap judgments are often useless until you understand the context behind a person's actions. That context is captured beautifully in "Nobody Knows", a thoughtful film that reminds us of the tenuous balance between happiness and sorrow. May we all find our light.

Monday, March 10, 2014


This week's top film is 2012's "Any Day Now", directed by Travis Fine. This moving drama was a hit throughout the festival circuit and it's easy to see why. Starring Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt, it shines a poignant light on social issues of the 1970s that are still relevant today.

The film begins with the image of a little boy. He's wandering the streets alone, with a doll in tow. His name is Marco (played by Isaac Leyva) and he has Down syndrome. We aren't given any context for this scene until later in the film. However, it beautifully establishes the humanist tone that makes this film so special.

There's no denying that "Any Day Now" is a loaded film. It's inspired by a true story, mixing courtroom drama elements with a strong sense of "social issue" advocacy. The main roles are that of Rudy Donatello (Alan Cumming) and Paul Fliger (Garret Dillahunt), a gay couple who obtain custody of Marco after he is neglected by his drug-addicted single mother. At night, Rudy works as a drag queen while Paul makes his living as a lawyer. Together with Marco, they seem like an odd group but there's no denying the love shared between them.

Yet over the course of the film, society gradually rejects this notion of a family. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Rudy and Paul are deemed to be unfit parents due to their sexual orientation. Determined to preserve their home situation, the duo engage in a legal battle that addresses society's stigma with homosexuality. Set in an era that is decades away from our progress in terms of gay marriage, it highlights the irrational prejudice towards gay parenting. In particular, it's quite striking to see that a custody battle would favour a junkie single mother over a caring, supportive gay couple. Sadly, this is the reality and in this instance it endangered the life of an innocent child.

It's therefore no surprise that given the plot, the film falls into some of the cliches of similar social issue/courtroom dramas. It lays on the sentimentality too thick at times, including the usual moralistic monologues about justice and human rights. Still, its heart is in the right place. The lead performances feel so genuine that it works.

Most importantly, the film never loses its focus on that boy in the opening image. He doesn't get much to say but when he's on screen you feel his every emotion. All he wants is love, happiness and safety. It's this basic human rights message that speaks loudest in this film. On the surface it may seem like a story about gay rights, but their vulnerability pales in comparison to that of a neglected child.

"Any Day Now" is a film that proudly uses traditional storytelling technique (introduce characters, add conflict, conclude with resolution), but that's not a problem when it's accomplished with such sensitivity and compassion. While we are still negotiating the legal definitions of a family today, the truth remains that love and protection are the most important things. If you've lost sight of this basic truth, then I'm sure this film can help you see that.

Friday, March 7, 2014

#FF Post-Oscars reflections, Motifs in Cinema and more...

The Oscars are over and as per usual, the blogosphere has chimed in with their personal reflections on the show. One of my favourite posts is from Alex (from And So It Begins...), who highlighted some of the drawbacks to the modern idea of the "awards season". Check out his article below, as well as other interesting reads from the past week:

Alex wrote a great piece about The Problem with Liking the Oscars Too Much.

Andrew assembled some fine articles for his Motifs in Cinema blogathon.

Jason had nice things to say about the Saudi film Wadjda, calling it a stunning, moving debut.

Rich refuses to be fooled by the hoopla of awards season, daring Hollywood to Make Nyong'o a star.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

COMING SOON: The A24 Slate

The upstart production company A24 Films is quickly becoming one of my favourite distributors. 2013 was just their first year in the business and their releases included personal favourites like Spring Breakers and The Spectacular Now. This year promises to be just as intriguing, as they've acquired some more really cool films. Enemy is already on demand and hits select theaters very soon. Check out the trailers for all the other films they have lined up for this year:

Monday, March 3, 2014


My top pick of the week is Spike Lee's 1991 film "Jungle Fever". If you're not aware of the term, it refers to an interracial relationship. Such a relationship takes center stage in this film, as a black man falls in love with a white Italian woman. Their love seems destined to defy the odds. Yeah right, who are we kidding? This is a Spike Lee joint.

As you probably know, Spike Lee is not a coy director. He has a penchant for making his thematic intentions clear with overtly socially conscious films. Naturally, he's not exactly someone you'd describe as "subtle". Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's exactly the case here, as "Jungle Fever" is a film with great elements mixed in with some unfortunate flaws.

The plot is framed around a successful black architect named Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and his Italian secretary Angie (Annabella Sciorra). After spending long hours working together, they fall in love (or lust?). They become intimate and proceed to the infatuation phase. The problem is, he's married. To compound this further, they both come from intolerant families who are averse to the idea of dating someone from another race. With the ever increasing societal pressure, the pair must examine their relationship to figure out if it's all worth the struggle.

In typical Spike Lee fashion, he uses this situation as a platform to discuss important issues of social stigma. In doing so, he's particularly effective in showing the disturbing ignorance from both sides of the fence. For the black characters, Flipper and Angie's relationship is indicative of black men's desire for light-skinned woman, the ultimate ideal of beauty. For the Italians, it brings up underlying resentment for the infiltration of seemingly inferior black culture into their pure Christian (Catholic, to be specific) society. For them, Angie is effectively behaving like a common whore.

Lee handles the proceeding fallout well, slipping in some preachy, but meaningful dialogue to get his point across. At the same time however, it makes our lead characters feel badly written. In particular, Flipper's approach to this forbidden relationship seems downright foolish considering the circumstances. For someone who makes a concerted effort to point out his own brilliance, he behaves curiously unaware of the risks involved for a married black man cheating with a white woman. As a result, many of the scenes end up feeling contrived in an effort to serve Lee's vision.

This is never more apparent than in the ending, when the plot seems to fall apart altogether. It becomes obvious that Lee is more concerned with protesting social injustice than following through on the film's basic premise. He can't seem to decide whether the film is about love, racism, urban decay or just general misanthropy.

Still, there's no denying the great elements. In terms of stylistic aspects, Lee's direction is in top form. From the opening credits to the end, he always manages to make the images pop with life and colour. However, he's nowhere near the MVP. Enter Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. As Flipper's junkie brother and his equally coked up girlfriend, they absolutely steal the show. They provide the comic relief, giving an excellent showcase of "character acting". If you're anything like me, you'll end up wishing you were watching a movie focused on their characters.

Overall, "Jungle Fever" is an engaging film that examines race in America from a uniquely romantic perspective. It may be plagued by the director's own worst tendencies, but his game cast picks up the slack. It's unlikely to have you smitten like its characters, but there's enough to make it an enjoyable experience.

This film is part of my Black Cinema marathon.

And the Oscar goes to... 12 Years A Slave

The dust has settled and the Best Picture winner for 2013 is 12 Years A Slave! Overall, it was a bizarrely predictable night. I correctly guessed 21 out 24, my best showing ever. In terms of the ceremony itself, I thought Ellen was a good host. It wasn't the most memorable ceremony, but she was far from bad. More importantly, I was happy with the picks throughout. I think the Academy did a good job this year. I especially liked the split, as I think that 12 Years A Slave and Gravity were both tremendous cinematic achievements and deserved major recognition. 12 Years A Slave won the big one, while Gravity took the lion's share of Oscars. I'm perfectly fine with that. So there you have it. I've been extremely prolific with my Oscar coverage this year, so I'm looking forward to the break. Thanks for reading all season long and may 2014 be another great year at the cinema!
Here's the full list of this year's Oscar winners:

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave (pictured above)

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave

Saturday, March 1, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: Oscar Predictions

This long awards season comes to an end tomorrow and I could honestly see the night playing out many different ways. I'm not very confident about a lot of these predictions but I think that applies to anyone predicting the Oscars this year. My biggest gamble is 'The Lone Ranger' for Best Makeup & Hairstyling. So ater much deliberation, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards:

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle