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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

REVIEW: Beloved Sisters

Many years ago there was an episode of love and betrayal, set during a time of revolution. Translate it to cinema and that story ("Beloved Sisters") has the makings of a David Lean masterpiece, charting the course of an affair through a tumultuous time in history. Such romantic epics naturally lend themselves to his style of bravura filmmaking, with their expansive scope and rich narratives. Making a good epic is hard work however and in this instance, all the elements don’t coalesce like they should.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 20, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Force Majeure

What does it take to be a man, a husband, a father? We’ve been conditioned to expect certain basic characteristics – bravery, strength, dependable protection. What happens when the going gets tough and his human instincts come to the fore though? That’s what director Ruben Östlund seeks to examine in "Force Majeure", a cruelly funny excoriation of manhood under trial.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 13, 2014


Cinema has long been used as a platform for highlighting sociopolitical issues. From the propaganda films commissioned by Hitler to the racially conscious work of Spike Lee, many filmmakers have found success in blending art and politics. Today, one of the increasingly prevalent topics in contemporary political cinema relates to women’s rights in the Muslim World. Within this sub-genre is "Dukhtar", the impressive debut feature by Afia Nathaniel.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 11, 2014

REVIEW: Concrete Night

Few films can boast as thrilling an opening sequence as Pirjo Honkasalo’s "Concrete Night". Without a word of dialogue, the imagery quickly introduces us to our protagonist Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young teen standing against the backdrop of a city in the dark of night. Soon, an incoming train crashes into the water below and the resulting deluge consumes him. Filmed in vivid black and white, this dream sequence is a portentous sign of things to come in this austere drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, October 9, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: The Theory of Everything

We're living in a fascinating time for the movies. On the one hand we have the branded escapism of the summer blockbusters and on the other hand we have the intellectual auterist movement. Somewhere in the middle we have films like James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything", a film that follows a tried-and-true formula but is also crafted with thought and care. It's of the kind that Hollywood has been making for decades, inspiring and "good" in every sense of the word. It's heartfelt and well-made.

"The Theory of Everything" is a biopic about the brilliant Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), an astrophysicist known for his theories on the origins of the universe and the concept of time. While shaping his mind at the prestigious University of Cambridge in England, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). An arts major at the same school, they fall deeply in love and are eventually wed. With her support, Hawking makes significant progress with his PhD research and finds happiness in their blossoming relationship. Sadly, their journey hits a bump when Hawking has an accident one day that triggers an illness called motor neuron disease. The diagnosis is dire - a gradual debilitation of his speech and movement and a life expectancy of only two years. In the face of this challenge, Stephen and Jane's subsequent story is one about defying the odds through the forces of love and sheer willpower.

Yes, you probably know where this is going. Anthony McCarten's script gives you what you expect - a meet-cute, tragedy, domestic drama, triumph over adversity and a rousing finish that lifts your spirit. As a result it's restricted by convention but it's also eminently likable. As they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Even with it's formulaic tendencies however, "The Theory of Everything" does some noteworthy things with its plot. For starters, I was quite impressed with how important Jane is to the narrative. She's the typical supportive wife extraordinaire but she's never subordinate to her husband's brilliance. They challenge each other (especially when it comes to the topic of the existence of God) and she has her own life and passions. Their marriage is built on mutual respect and trust and it's nice to watch. It provides a great role for Jones and she has the deeply committed performance to back it up.

Speaking of commitment, you'll hardly find another performance as dedicated as Redmayne's this year. In the beginning of the film he projects a beaming young man full of hope and promise, capturing the bliss of youth. When the tragedy strikes, it's this foundation that makes it such gut-punch. When he has to struggle through the disease for all those years, you can really feel the strenous physicality of the role. All the while, he's still giving us the emotions despite the many acting limitations placed on him.

My biggest takeaway however is the film's gorgeous score. Jóhann Jóhannsson left his mark on this film to the point where it often feels like he's the one directing. He took an otherwise dour film and enhanced it with his beautiful orchestrations. The music fully captures the story's ups and downs, the joys and the sadness. His crescendoing piano melodies may feel emphatic at times, but overall it's wonderfully affecting.

The storyline of "The Theory of Everything" may give the impression of a run-of-the-mill biopic, but it has a stunning musicality that's all it's own. It's a treat for the ears as much as it is for the eyes. It deserves your full attention.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


David Fincher has never been one to stray away from the ugly side of humanity. From "Se7en" all the way to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" there's a mean streak that runs through his filmography. For his latest venture "Gone Girl", he's been criticized for misogyny in addition to the usual labels of "cold" filmmaking. Personally, I remain unconvinced of the charge, though the furor over it has resulted in some fantastic op-eds. What interests me more is that it took a female screenwriter (Gillan Flynn) to deliver one of his darkest films to date, if not the darkest.

"Gone Girl" is an adaptation of Flynn's own bestselling novel of the same name. It tells the story of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful woman with a seemingly perfect marriage to her husband Nick (Ben Affleck). On the occasion of their 5th wedding anniversary however, she mysteriously disappears and the search begins to peel away the illusion of marital bliss. The clues seem to point to Nick and he becomes the prime suspect. As the investigation gains widespread media attention everyone wants to know, did Nick Dunne kill his wife?

That million dollar question forms the backbone of the film. Parsing out the reasons why he would do it or whether he even committed the crime at all, brings up a whole world of social commentary. These issues include the idealistic expectations placed on women, the value of marriage and the dangers of our obsession with the media and celebrity. To explain exactly how the film engages these topics would lead into spoiler territory though and that would be a great disservice to those who haven't yet seen the film or read the book.

What I can say is that it's superbly written. Apart from "The Social Network" (a true collaborative effort with Aaron Sorkin) this is perhaps Fincher's only film where the impact of the storytelling is attributed mainly to the actual story rather than his meticulous vision. Certainly, it has all the trademarks of a Fincher film - duplicitous characters, Jeff Cronenweth's stark visuals, Kirk Baxter's shrewd editing and a chilling score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - but dare I say it, the film would still work without him. Gillian Flynn is the one driving this roller coaster ride.

In "Gone Girl", Flynn has really found the perfect mix of side-splitting humour, pulpy thrills and complex drama. A big part of that is due to the film's impeccable structure. It's so rare to see a mystery film that has its pivotal revelation in the midsection and still have enough interesting material to continue building from there. It's riveting stuff that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

The film is just a well-oiled machine and a major component of its success is Rosamund Pike's performance as Amy. As a fan of hers I already went in with high expectations and she still exceeded all of them. Often relegated to supporting roles playing two-dimensional dream girls ("An Education", "Barney's Version", "Pride & Prejudice"), Amy Dunne plays like a rebuke to her typecast career. She's playing at least 3 layers of performances here and she nails them all. You'll surely read many other reviews praising Ben Affleck, Tyler Perry and Carrie Coon (all great by the way), but this is the Rosamund Pike show. They're all just window dressing for Pike's playground.

The prominence of Pike's performance brings me back to the question of misogyny. The accusation really intrigues me when it's directed towards such a well-written female character (she definitely passes the Bechdel test) and the film is credited to Flynn's feminine voice. The whole film is an indictment of selfish men. In fact, I perceived it as a terrifying slap in the face to my masculinity. In my opinion, the film should therefore be lauded for pushing the boundaries of what "women's movies" can be. It's ballsy with a distinct pro-feminist touch.

Many highbrow critics have turned up their noses at "Gone Girl" by calling it disposable "trash", likely due to it's source as a best-selling novel with broad appeal. Yet that ignores how deliriously entertaining the movie is. Furthermore, it's also an incisive commentary on contemporary society. This is a film that asks you to just sit back, relax and enjoy. It's vicious and delicious.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NYFF: Wrapping up the festival

Another New York Film Festival has come and gone for me and it was once again a wonderful experience. This year I really felt like I belonged among the press corps and it made it even more satisfying than last year. As usual, I wrap up my coverage with a rundown of some random thoughts/observations from the festival:

  • When the press schedule came out, I must admit that I was a bit miffed that half of my press screenings would be documentaries. It's a good thing I stuck with them however, as they turned out to be the best films I watched!
  • The selection of films I saw were so varied and inspired that it really reinvigorated my passion for film. Don't let anyone tell you that cinema is dead. Kudos to the festival's selection committee. 
  • Review embargoes are so lame. People inevitably bend the rules anyway.
  • The NYC blogger community once again made me feel very welcome, even if it was just by saying hi. I must give special shout-outs to Clayton Davis, Joey Magidson, Nathaniel Rogers, Michael Cusumano and Andrew Boyd Stewart.
  • This year I really noticed that a lot of the press were senior citizens. It made me wonder if the "old white guy" stereotype applies to film critics too.
  • Favourite film: Red Army
  • Favourite director: Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
  • Favourite performance: Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
  • Favourite screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
Here's how I'd rank the 8 films I saw(in order of preference):

Red Army
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Heaven Knows What
Inherent Vice
The Princess Of France
Mr. Turner
The Wonders
Two Days, One Night

Monday, October 6, 2014

NYFF: Tales of the Grim Sleeper

The festival ended for me today with my final screening, a documentary called "Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Here's what I thought of the film:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

NYFF: The Old Man of Belem, The Princess of France, Two Days One Night & Heaven Knows What

My third day at the New York Film Festival was another busy one with 3 features and 1 short film. Check out my thoughts on "The Old Man of Belem", "The Princess of France", "Two Days, One Night" and "Heaven Knows What".

Saturday, October 4, 2014

NYFF: Inherent Vice

Today the New York Film Festival was buzzing in anticipation of the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice". Read on for my thoughts on his new film:

Friday, October 3, 2014

NYFF: Red Army, Mr. Turner & The Wonders

Film Actually's 2014 NYFF experience began today with a trio of screenings - "Red Army", "Mr. Turner" and "The Wonders". Read below for my thoughts on these films:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

NYFF: Preview

I don't know how the time went so fast but somehow the New York Film Festival is back and I'll be making my return tonight. Over the next few days (Oct 3-6), I'll be checking out a variety of interesting films including documentaries, foreign films and one very special world premiere. I've learnt a few things from my previous few festivals and thus will be keeping my schedule conservative at 8 films, which seems to be the maximum I can manage over the period (in addition to 1 or 2 non-festival screenings). It promises to be a fun time, especially with all of the amazing talent on hand for those post-screening press conferences. Here's what I have lined up: