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.