Thursday, December 31, 2015

Film Actually's Year in Review

And here we are, signing off another year into the history books. As I reflect on 2015, these 12 months will certainly go down as some of my most memorable. Though I started the year with a set of resolutions that weren't fully accomplished, there was still lots to be proud of at Film Actually.

Film-wise, the year began with Rob Marshall's musical adaptation "Into the Woods", a film that I would re-visit by year's end. 310 films later, I capped the year with late-breaking Oscar contender "The Big Short". As always, the awards season was a big focus of my writing, both here and at The Awards Circuit. And I'm particularly proud of the community I've developed through my annual Oscar Contest, which has become a highly anticipated staple of the site.

Indeed, I'd be nowhere without you wonderful people who take time out to read and comment on any of my posts. This year, I achieved one of my biggest goals as a blogger - attending the Toronto International Film Festival - and I know that your support is a major reason why I was afforded that opportunity. That trip was certainly the highlight of my year, a true haven for cinephilia where I was able to partake in a feast of great cinema, meet up with friends both old and new, and hobnob with people I admire in the film industry.

Of course, the year wasn't all perfect. There was a period of self-doubt when I was rejected by the New York Film Festival, the Online Film Critics Society and AFI Fest in quick succession. But overall, the good far outweighed the bad. So in celebration of hopefully greater things to come, here's a recap of some of my top articles this year, as selected by the readers:

Most Popular Posts:
Teeth and Blood review
Whiplash review
Life Inside Out
Top 20 Acting Performances of 2014
The Girl is in Trouble review
20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2015
Panama Canal Stories review
10 Must-See Bollywood Films
Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Room with a View

As I look ahead to 2016, the only resolution I have is to be the best writer I can be. I hope you'll continue to join me on that journey. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 28, 2015


After last year's brilliant dark comedy "Birdman", Alejandro González Iñárritu is back with another venture in the genre phase of his career. In "The Revenant", the Mexican director takes on the Western in all its unsavory glory. In this brutal revenge tale, it's man vs the wild, men vs each other and man vs himself.

Leonardo Dicaprio stars in the film as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in the 1820s who is part of a group of men hunting for pelts (furs from animals used for coats). Making their way through dangerous territory in the Northern region of the USA, they are ambushed by Pawnee Indians one day, leaving many men dead. Glass and the remaining few escape by the skin of their teeth, but more trouble soon arises when he is attacked by an aggressive grizzly bear. After some attempts to revive him and carry him home to safety, one of the men (John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy) decides to leave Glass and his son - who he kills - behind. Miraculously, Glass survives, and upon the realization that his precious son was murdered, he sets out on an epic journey to avenge him.

Terence Malick meets Sam Peckinpah in this stunningly photographed and unflinchingly violent Western. The former's longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki is in fine form here, reprising the jaw-dropping long takes that made "Birdman" so audaciously entertaining. And when the camera isn't up close and personal to the action, it steps back to capture the beauty and wildness of the environment. Nature truly becomes as much a character in the film as the actors, both literally (Judy the Bear) and figuratively.

But most of all, "The Revenant" is an authentic Western in the vein of Peckinpah, and a great one at that. It features all the elements we've come to expect from the genre - savage Indians and frontiersmen, horses, stunning landscapes and of course, violence. And within that violence, the film is anchored in not just the motives for our lead character's revenge plot, but the effects of revenge long before it is executed. Iñárritu's script (co-written with Mark L. Smith) engagingly explores the way revenge consumes you, both mentally and physically. As Glass braves the wilderness, it becomes clear that his mission is self-destructive, almost like a murder-suicide.

Naturally, the actors are also crucial in creating the staggering sound and fury of the film. As the brutish Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy crafts a striking villain, using his natural brooding skills and imposing physicality to great effect. But it's Dicaprio who's the star, giving a deeply committed, almost wordless performance. Once again, he proves why he's one of the most beloved actors of our time. Some may she he's trying too hard, but I don't mind seeing an actor sweat for his work. And ultimately, it's this level of intense dedication that makes "The Revenant" so awe-inspiring. From cinematographer, to composer, to the visual effects artists, everyone involved goes above and beyond, much like our determined protagonist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2015


Growing up can be tough. For Lale and her four older sisters, the central characters of "Mustang", it is practically dehumanizing. In this winning debut feature from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the typical coming of age tropes are imbued with an uncommon sense of dread, resulting in a poignant film about sisterhood and female empowerment.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, December 19, 2015


If you need to be reassured that "love conquers all", then Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" is the film for you. Of course, this old adage would seem more suited to a corny "Hallmark" movie. But this Brie Larson-starrer takes on poignant meaning through its sensitive, affecting filmmaking.

Larson plays Joy, mother to a little boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Despite her name, feelings of elation are hard to come by. She and her son have been confined to a room for years, held captive by a man who kidnapped her 7 years ago. Under the harsh circumstances, she makes the best of the situation, ensuring that Jack feels safe and comfortable. She convinces him that the outside world is not real, and that Old Nick (their kidnapper) is a friendly man who kindly provides them with their daily needs. But when Jack's 5th birthday arrives, she decides it's the right time to finally tell him the truth, in the hopes of hatching an escape plan to return to the world that beckons from their skylight.

Based on Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel, Lenny Abrahamson takes her horrifying ripped from the headlines premise and brings it right where you live, knocking on the door to your heart. "Room" is immediately empathetic, framed from the perspective of the endearing young boy named Jack. Born as the product of a sociopath and an innocent victim, he could have been a "bad seed" of sorts. But our introduction to the character shows a regular child like we all were, blissfully ignorant of the abnormality of his life.

And Tremblay is truly remarkable in the role, with a piercing glare and actorly awareness that could make him a future star. Alongside an equally terrific Brie Larson, they convey a genuine mother-son relationship, as every acting beat feels informed by the love they share. Working with Donaghue's emotionally resonant dialogue, it comes as no surprise that both actors have developed a close relationship in real life. Indeed, for a debut screenwriter, Donoghue has an impressive understanding of how to portray the intricacies of human relationships, which allows this often unbelievable story to suspend all disbelief. Throughout each plot turn it asks you, what would you do for someone you love?

In answering that question, the film is absolutely gripping from start to finish. And that's helped in no small part by the film's incredible pacing. Through Nathan Nugent's masterclass in "invisible" editing, "Room" manages to feel like the shortest film of the year.

Ironically, the tremendous pacing ended up being the film's biggest drawback for me. Perhaps I'm just nit-picking, but it ultimately felt a bit too lean and neat. Especially in the latter half when Joy attempts to assimilate into her family - which itself was significantly affected by her kidnapping - I wanted more of the messiness that comes with the trauma of her ordeal. I wish the film left more room (pun intended) to explore the other relationships and characters - like the brilliant Joan Allen, who is almost wasted as Joy's mother - that are revealed at the end of the film.

In essence, "Room" gave me everything but the kitchen sink (i.e. kitchen sink drama). Though I was satisfied with what came before, the ending still left me with an intense craving for more from these characters and their story. Indeed, for Joy and Jack, life is just beginning. Likewise, the film left me with a feeling of a world of possibilities still waiting to be explored.

Friday, December 18, 2015

CONTEST: Predict the Oscar Nominations!

It's that time again! The best Oscar contest on the web is back for a fourth year as experts from the international blogging community compete for bragging rights and fun prizes. I've always enjoyed the friendly rivalry this competition provides, and with such a wide open Oscar race this year, it promises to be even more exciting. The regulars should know the rules by now. But if not, the idea is simple - just predict as many correct Oscar nominations as you can!

Once again, the top prize will be a $50 gift card (USD, or the equivalent in another currency) for the Amazon store of your choice (US, UK, Canada etc). In addition, there are other bonus prizes up for grabs (read below).

1. This contest is open to any interested bloggers.
2. To register: fill out the entry form below by 6PM US Eastern Time on January 9th, 2016.
3. To submit your predictions: send me (via twitter or email) a link to your blog post with your FINAL predictions. I will then save your predictions and enter them into my spreadsheet. Your predictions are due by 6PM US Eastern Time on January 13th, 2016. Absolutely no changes to your predictions will be accepted after they have been submitted.
4. Here are the categories I need you to include:

BEST ORIGINAL SONG(name the song, not just the film)

Each correct prediction will earn you 1 point. However, in the Best Picture category, every wrong prediction will lose you 1 point. With the current rules for this category (anywhere between 5-10 nominees), this will force you to choose wisely!

1. The person with the highest score will receive a $50 online gift card (USD or the equivalent in another currency) for their relevant Amazon store (US, UK, Canada etc.).
2. In the event of a tie, the winner will be the person who scores highest in the Best Picture category. If there's still a tie, we'll go to Best Director and further down the list (in the order above) until the tie is broken. The loser of the tie will receive a DVD/Blu-ray of one of last year's Best Picture nominees (your choice).
3. Anyone who is the only person to predict a particular nomination correctly will receive a DVD/Blu-ray of one of last year's Best Picture nominees (your choice).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Foreign Language Shortlist

just a few days, the foreign language shortlist will be announced, thereby making or breaking the Oscar dreams of films from around the world. In the long road to an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, this represents the most pivotal stage of the process, as 80 films are ruthlessly cut down to 9. This three-tier voting system is infamous for throwing up shockers, and with a high quality field this year we expect nothing less. Making sense of the race is therefore a challenge, even for those who follow it closely. But that’s all part of the fun of Oscar predicting. With that in mind, here’s my rundown of the top contenders as we await the impending shortlist.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


In contemporary slang, the acronym GOAT is commonly used to refer to “Greatest Of All Time”. That word takes on ironic meaning in the English translation of "Goat", the latest feature from Ivan Ostrochovsky’s and the Slovakian Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Originally titled "Koza", this drama follows the exploits of a boxer who is way past his prime, resulting in what is handily the most unorthodox sports film of the year.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 14, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations

"I can see clearly now, the rain is gone." After the confusion of last week's SAG and Golden Globe nominations, the race is starting to take shape across the various categories. If you weren't convinced before, then now you should know that "Mad Max: Fury Road". The action extravaganza lead all films in today's Critics Choice nominations with a whopping 13 nominations. Also holding on strong are "Spotlight", "Carol", "The Martian", "The Revenant" and most unexpectedly, "The Big Short". Until something drastic happens like a whisper campaign, these are your top contenders, folks. The next phase will begin in a few weeks with all the red carpets and speeches we love. And then after that, it's the Oscar nominations! Will the Academy match up with the critics this year? Peruse the nominations below and let me know what you think.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Supporting Actor
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Director
Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies


All sins are not equal. All sinners are not created equal. Pablo Larraín serves up a stark reminder of these truths with "The Club", a scathing statement on abuse and its dangerous ties to religion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, December 11, 2015

REVIEW: The Fencer

Around this time of year, it’s common to see dramas centered around inspiring men, especially those based on real life. Indeed, the proliferation of biopics in Hollywood over the years has contributed to the popularization of the term “Oscar bait”. But this formulaic style of filmmaking isn’t only the domain of Hollywood, as evidenced by "The Fencer", the latest film from Finnish director Klaus Härö.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, December 10, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations

Well, after the madness that was yesterday's SAG nods, some normalcy was returned to the awards season via this morning's Golden Globe nominations. Coming on strong was "Carol", leading all films with 5 nods. Elsewhere, the love was spread across many of the usual suspects, with "Spotlight" still looking like the film to beat. Each category is still way too open to gauge any other sort of momentum shift though. So without further ado, here are the Golden Globe nominees:

Best Picture (Drama)
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Big Short
The Martian

Best Actor (Drama)
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redymane, The Danish Girl
Will Smith, Concussion

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Steve Carrell, The Big Short
Matt Damon, The Martian
Al Pacino, Danny Collins
Mark Ruffalo, Infinitely Polar Bear

Best Actress (Drama)
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Melissa McCarthy, Spy
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck
Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van
Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Best Supporting Actor
Paul Dano, Love and Mercy
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Jane Fonda, Youth
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Director
Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Todd McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Nominations

Hey Oscar junkies, have you recovered from this morning's whiplash? Those SAG nods were so out of left field that many were left wondering if we were being punked. Some of the most surprising nods, among many, included Sarah Silverman for "I Smile Back", Christian Bale for "The Big Short" and double nods for Helen Mirren! And I must give a special shoutout to the cast of "Straight Outta Compton" for getting an unexpected nomination for Best Ensemble. Nothing had me more elated this morning than to see that richly deserving cast get some love. But the most shocking outcome was that "Trumbo" was the most nominated film, considering hardly anyone was talking about it prior to today.

And yet, the major takeaway is that the race is still all about "Spotlight" and then everyone else. Though its male actor failed to secure nods, it still had a stronger showing than its closest rivals. "The Martian" for example, was completely rejected from the SAG party. I'm sure none of us saw that coming.

Tomorrow could be even crazier with the reliably zany HFPA voters. But for now, let's try to make sense of these SAG nominees for 2015:

Best Ensemble
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Straight Outta Compton

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Jacob Tremblay, Room

Best Supporting Actress
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

AWARDS SEASON: Chasing the Spotlight

Will Spotlight hold on to its early lead?

If you're an Oscar fan like me, then you know last week was a big one for awards, culminating with Super Sunday, when "Spotlight" made a clean sweep of Best Film awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online and the Boston Society of Film Critics. This ensemble drama from director Thomas McCarthy has been gaining momentum since its successful run through the festival circuit. And now it's position at the top of the field has been confirmed.

But the race is far from over, with many films jostling for their spot in a Best Picture lineup that could have as few as 5 nominees. And looking at these other contenders, one thing that's clear is the potential for one of the most varied Best Picture shortlists in years. Whereas other years reflected an nearly homogenized "mood" or "zeitgeist", 2015 seems set to capture what the Oscars are supposed to be - a celebration of cinema. Indeed, the presumed race spans a wide range of genres, mediums and themes. These include: sci-fi ("The Martian"), action ("Mad Max: Fury Road"), sports ("Creed"), western ("The Revenant"), romance ("Brooklyn") and of course, the requisite historical drama about a great man ("Bridge of Spies"). Particularly noteworthy is the presence of several women-centric films, like TIFF People's Choice winner "Room" and the lesbian-themed "Carol". After last year's overwhelmingly male-dominated field, it's certainly refreshing.

So on the eve of the nominations for the Big Three televised awards (SAG, Golden Globes, Critics Choice), here are my current predictions for Best Picture:

INTERVIEW: Gabriel Ripstein

Arriving in US theaters at the tail end of a banner year for TV shows and films about the drug cartels, Gabriel Ripstein’s award-winning debut 600 Miles is a film that impressively stands out. A Mexico-US co-production, "600 Miles" eschews some of the more lurid conventions of the subgenre, offering a thoughtful rumination on the inextricable connection between both countries in the world of the cartels and gun trafficking in particular. Recently, I caught up with Ripstein to find out more about his distinctive approach to the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 7, 2015


"Creed", the title of Ryan Coogler's second feature film, refers to the last name of its protagonist Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan). But the word also has another meaning. In the dictionary, creed is described as "a set of beliefs or aims which guide someone's actions." Both meanings are at the forefront of this exhilarating drama about life and boxing, which succeeds through the legacy and ambition of the "Rocky" franchise, as well as its own characters and filmmakers.

For Adonis, the name Creed carries a heavy burden, a reminder of the large shadow cast by his late father Apollo, former world champion heavyweight boxer. Acquiring the same athletic gene, Adonis carried a fighter's spirit all his life, a trait that landed him in a youth correctional facility. With the aid of his stepmother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) however, Adonis becomes a man reformed and eventually finds himself in a plum job at a securities firm.

But his own individual creed to be a world-beating boxer leads him back to the dangerous world of the ring, where he eventually teams up with his father's greatest rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Together they form a formidable coach-athlete relationship, as Adonis sets his sights on creating his own legacy (adopting the last name Johnson instead). And on his way to the top, he learns valuable life lessons and the true meaning and pride of being a Creed.

"Creed" continues a saga that began almost 40 years ago with 1976's "Rocky", the little movie that became the year's big box office and awards champ. And it's with that same underdog mentality that "Creed" emerges as a triumphant work of quality mainstream entertainment. Indeed, who could have predicted that this re-hash of a longtime sports movie narrative, from a new filmmaker, would become one of the year's most outstanding studio efforts?

Well, "Fruitvale Station" was clearly just the warm-up for Coogler, who has now delivered a superlative knockout from top to bottom. "Creed" is funny, sexy and absolutely thrilling. From existing players like Stallone's Rocky Balboa, to the love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson), each character is well-written and played with compelling nuance. Most notable of course is our aptly named star Adonis, played perfectly by Michael B. Jordan. On a superficial note, his superhuman physique makes everyone else in the film look like lesser mortals. But more importantly, his brings great emotional depth to his character's impressive physicality.

That performance is largely the result of the exciting teamwork between director and actor, one of many collaborations which make the film soar. One scene in particular lays a strong claim to being the best of the year, showcasing the film's strong attention to craft at all levels. In one long unbroken take, we see Adonis engage in his first fight and the immersive quality of the sights and sounds was nothing short of glorious. Rarely has a boxing film - or any sports film in general - so viscerally captured the adrenaline rush and sensory hyper-awareness that comes with intense athletic competition.

"Creed" features several other enthralling - and sometimes downright extravagant - moments throughout its fleet-footed 133 minute running time, enough to compensate for its less inspired elements. Specifically, by depending so heavily on the iconography of previous films - music cues, story beats, locations - the film feels like it can't fully stand on its own despite its fresh energy. As with anything in life, it's certainly less impressive when some of your best attributes aren't of your own making.

By large however, the nods to the original series enhance "Creed" and adhere to the core philosophy of the film and its filmmakers. Namely, it shows how greatness is achieved through the collective efforts of yourself, those who came before and the ones who are presently by your side. And by applying this with such sincerity both inside and outside of the ring, "Creed" firmly secures its place alongside the other great boxing films of our time.


With an upcoming "Celebration of Hip Hop Cinema" event already announced, I had a strong feeling that "Straight Outta Compton" would top this year's African-American Film Critics Association's awards. Sure enough, the summer hit lead the field in AAFCA voting, taking awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Jason Mitchell) and Best Ensemble. Following closely behind was Ryan Coogler’s Creed, which won for Best Director, Breakout Performance (Michael B. Jordan) and Best Supporting Actress (Tessa Thompson).

Below is a complete list of the AAFCA Awards Winners for 2015:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

REVIEW: Félix and Meira

There’s no doubt that romance has been a major attraction in 2015 cinema, with love stories ranging from Fifty Shades of Grey and Carol capturing the hearts of moviegoers. And when it comes to romance, there’s hardly anything more compelling than forbidden love. In "Félix and Meira", Maxime Giroux gives us just that, as two strangers find comfort in each other despite coming from wildly disparate worlds.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, December 3, 2015


By now you've heard of the infamous all-white Hollywood Reporter cover in honor of this year's Best Actress roundtable, an unfortunate reflection of the state of film in 2015. The truth is that there was a noticeable dearth of good leading roles for black actresses this year, save for "Tangerine". But Spike Lee may have the answer for that, with his latest film "Chi-Raq", starring the talented Teyonah Parris. In this modern, semi-musical take on the classic Greek text "Lysistrata", Parris leads the women of Chicago in a sex strike to rid the community of the never-ending cycle of gang violence. The film has already received strong reviews and I can't wait to see it. Check out the trailer below.

"Chi-Raq" releases in select theaters tomorrow (December 4th).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

5 Thoughts On "Gods Of Egypt"

For a while, conversations about films for 2016 were largely dominated by the upcoming superhero projects. "Captain America: Civil War," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," and even "Suicide Squad" and "X-Men: Apocalypse" are headlining the talk about the coming year. In all likelihood these are still the films that will make the most noise at the box office in 2016, but another title suddenly seems to be seizing most of the attention. Lionsgate's "Gods Of Egypt" was unveiled through a wild trailer in November, and the Internet has been abuzz ever since.

However, it's been for all the wrong reasons, as the film is receiving a great deal of criticism due to various factors in the trailer. But in the interest of taking a real look at what this project might be, here are five general observations about it judging by the trailer and IMDb page.

Monday, November 30, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Iraqi Odyssey

It’s no secret that Iraq is a country without much of a positive reputation at the moment. This fact is certainly not lost on the subjects of "Iraqi Odyssey", directed by Iraqi-born Swiss filmmaker Samir. In this eye-opening new documentary, he travels far and wide and digs deep into the history of his family and his homeland, examining the roots of many of the issues facing the Iraq today.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, November 29, 2015

REVIEW: Catch Me Daddy

Alfred Hitchcock thrilled us with "The 39 Steps", Arthur Penn changed the game with "Bonnie and Clyde" and Terence Malick made a legendary debut with "Badlands". These are some of the greatest films of all time, but they also share a common theme of lovers on the lam. Daniel Wolfe therefore had a lot to live up to with his debut feature "Catch Me Daddy", a thriller about two young lovers on the run from their family and their past. Despite his admirable efforts however, Wolfe's gritty ambitions yield underwhelming results.

"Catch Me Daddy" centers around Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed), a young woman of Pakistani descent living in Scotland. Alienated from her family on account of her interracial relationship with her Scottish boyfriend Aaron (Connor McCarron), she gets by on a hardscrabble existence, working as a hairdressing assistant while Aaron seeks employment. Their love sustains them however, until her brother and his gang of miscreants decide to hunt her down. Things soon get violent, and the doomed lovers are forced to make a run for it through the perilous Yorkshire Moors.

The success - or lack thereof - of "Catch Me Daddy" rests on the shoulders of its young leads, both making their film debuts here. But whereas the actors themselves have an appealing screen presence, the characters felt vaguely written. Throughout much of the film, I constantly questioned the motives of the characters and as such, I struggled to care about them or their plight. Admittedly, the heavily accented, unintelligible dialogue may have been a factor.

The dialect spoken by the characters speaks to the film's impressive authenticity however. And in that regard, what makes the film most intriguing is the palpable milieu of its setting. Indeed, what the screenplay lacks in clarity, it makes up for in the potent atmosphere of the Yorkshire Moors and its environs. The enveloping fog brings inherent drama and mystery, while the cultural specificity of the urban setting has a unique, vibrant energy. It's hardly surprising that the gifted Robbie Ryan - who shot all of Andrea Arnold's films - is credited as the film's cinematographer. His compositions are as rich and evocative as anyone else in the business.

It's truly a shame that "Catch Me Daddy" is ultimately so underwhelming, as director Daniel Wolfe shows undeniable promise as a filmmaker. His visceral use of sound and imagery certainly delivers its fair share of indelible moments, mostly due to its unflinching eye on the harsh brutality. Indeed, the film's grit and authenticity are beyond reproach. But unfortunately, between the unstimulating leads and their repellent antagonists, "Catch Me Daddy" gave me nothing else to hold on to.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

By now this is incredibly stale news but I couldn't let the week go by without acknowledging this year's nominations for the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards. Indeed, as the big studios have all but abandoned the low to mid-budget dramas (aka "Oscar bait"), the Indie Spirits continue to have increased relevance to the Oscar race. That's therefore good news for "Carol" and "Beasts of No Nation" as they lead the field with 6 and 5 nominations each. Not far behind was "Spotlight", with 4 nods to go along with the Robert Artman ensemble prize it already won. Overall, it was a strong lineup of films this year, including my personal faves "Tangerine" and "Embrace of the Serpent". Both films will surely be in serious contention when I submit my own ballots for these awards come February 2015.

Here's the full list of nominees:

Best Feature
Beasts of No Nation

Best Director
Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, Anomalisa
David Robert Mitchell, It Follows
Sean Baker, Tangerine
Todd Haynes, Carol
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best Male Lead
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Christopher Abbott, James White
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Kudos Seihon, Mediterranea

Best Female Lead
Bel Powley, Diary of a Teenage Girl
Brie Larson, Room
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine
Rooney Mara, Carol

Best Supporting Male
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Kevin Corrigan, Results
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk

Best Supporting Female
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa
Marin Ireland, Glass Chin
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Robin Bartlett, H.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

REVIEW: 600 Miles

Drug wars have been a hot topic in entertainment lately, from films like "Sicario" and "Cartel Land", to the Netflix series "Narcos". It can therefore feel like we've exhausted all angles of the issue and audiences become fatigued. With his debut feature "600 Miles" however, Mexican filmmaker Gabriel Ripstein brings another fresh perspective on the US-Mexico relations involved in the war on drugs and guns.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 23, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Jafar Panahi's Taxi

Back in December 2010, Iran's rebel filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to 6 years in jail and banned from making movies for the foreseeable future. Since then, he has directed 3 films in secrecy to universal acclaim, the latest of them being "Taxi", my pick for Movie of the Week. In this Golden Bear winner from the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Panahi once again proves that when you're a creative genius, sometimes the rules don't apply.

As resourceful as ever, Panahi took to the streets for "Taxi", posing as a cab driver to stage a series of documentary-like conversations with the various people who make up the city of Tehran. As he makes his way through the capital, he paints a clear portrait of Iranian society that is incisive and thoroughly engrossing. And he accomplishes all this with a simple camera on the dashboard and rarely ever leaving the confines of his car.

Indeed, within moments of the film's opening, the first thought that came to my mind was "how clever!" What initially feels like a documentary soon reveals itself to be an exercise in unorthodox narrative filmmaking. The first passengers are a man and woman who get into an argument over the disturbing practice of using of extreme measures (i.e. executions) in the punishment of small crimes. And as they trade their opinions back and forth, a clear picture of the nation's ideological divide (tradition vs modernity) comes into focus. Soon, Panahi proceeds to drop them off at their separate destinations and another passenger acknowledges that the scene was staged with actors.

This transparency in Panahi's approach turns out to be one of the film's greatest virtues. By crafting a structured narrative, he is able to openly express his own personal perspective without contradicting the sense of "realism". Though the various characters he encounters come from different walks of life, we are fully aware that they reflect his own voice.

The result is a film that acts as a subversive protest of the sociocultural conditions which lead to his present predicament. Panahi's screenplay covers a wide range of topics, challenging even anti-piracy sentiments by extolling the importance of such bootleg copies in fostering cinephilia among the populace. But "Taxi" is far removed from the agitprop tradition, conveying its message instead with delicate humor and wit. As you can even see from the poster, Panahi wears a smile throughout, which helps to make this such a pleasant, engaging watch.

"Taxi" features no camera tricks, no epic score, no flashy costumes or sets. It is pure, elemental cinema from a genius who is clearly at the top of his game. Indeed, having only seen this film from Panahi, I can already subscribe to the belief that his work is vital, enlightening and brilliant.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

REVIEW: The Summer of Sangaile

There are good films that have the whole package – strong direction, brilliant writing, compelling acting. And then there are other equally good films that sacrifice one aspect of the craft in favor of another. Alanté Kavaïté’s "The Summer of Sangaile" is an example of the latter, where skillful direction compensates for screenplay shortcomings in this intriguing Lithuanian coming-of-ager.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, November 21, 2015


We’ve come to our last group of submissions and they represent the largest and arguably the most formidable of them all – the European films. Indeed, Best Foreign Language Film has been notoriously Euro-centric over the years, with the last three Oscars going to European countries. And with the high quality of this year’s batch, we could easily see the continent extend it’s winning streak. Here’s a look at the films bidding to make it four in a row for Europe.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 20, 2015

INTERVIEW: Roar Uthaug

With a bona fide box office smash under his belt, his first selection as Norway’s representative for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and a US distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures, it’s safe to say that Roar Uthaug is having one of the best years of his filmmaking life. The reason for all of this success is his latest film "The Wave", a heartpounding disaster epic that beat the big studios at their own game. And Hollywood is certainly taking note. Since our recent interview, he has already been announced as the director of the Tomb Raider reboot. Indeed, this talented director has a bright future ahead.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Submitted by Georgia as their 2015 Foreign Language Oscar submission, Levan Tutberidze’s "Moira" will hope to appeal to AMPAS voters with its familiar design. The latest addition to the pantheon of family-related crime dramas, it has a tragic feel that explores the essence of crime and punishment. Despite its best efforts however, Tutberidze’s tale of fate and woe falls short of its Shakespearean ambitions.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 16, 2015


'Twas the night before Christmas and all through Los Angeles...Sin-Dee was on the hunt for Chester, the no-good pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her. So reads the very basic premise of Sean Baker's new film "Tangerine", the groundbreaking Sundance film that was shot on an iPhone. But that doesn't even begin to the tell the full story of this raucous Los Angeles romp, which is not only my "Movie of the Week", but the comedy of the year thus far.

"Tangerine" begins with Alexandra (Mya Taylor) breaking the unfortunate news of Chester's infidelity to best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from a stint in prison. Both are working girls - notably of the transgender variety - and the offense is exacerbated by the fact that the other woman is a "fish", i.e. a cisgender female. Determined to reclaim what's hers, Sin-Dee thus sets out on a mission to find both Chester and the fish, in this nonstop tour through Tinseltown and its kaleidoscope of colorful characters.

In the ongoing fall season of "prestige" dramas, "Tangerine" offers a refreshing change of pace. Eschewing all the rules and constraints of period trappings and Oscar-baiting refinement, the film kicks the notion of "prestige" to the curb and gives you drama with a capital D. Indeed, this brilliant screenplay delivers laughs and surprises galore, introducing new characters at every turn, each more uniquely fascinating than the last. Populated with under-the-radar talent, each actor shines with their raw, genuine performances. In particular, leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor send a strong message to Hollywood that capable transgender actors do exist.

The authenticity which fuels the cast is truly the hallmark of "Tangerine", which shows a Los Angeles far removed from the images we've seen before. As one character says, "Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie". And indeed, the film goes to great lengths to show the truth of Hollywood as a place for hustlers of all kinds.

Of course, much has been made of the film's cinematography, namely the use of the iPhone 5s camera. In that regard, the "gimmick" pays off big time, completely suited to the brazen attitude that characterizes Baker's filmmaking. And the intimacy it creates allows for complete immersion in the action.

In summary, "Tangerine" is a wild ride that stands tall alongside more mainstream fare. It may not stimulate the mind like an "Ex Machina" and its leads won't be challenging the likes of Cate Blanchett any time soon, but on the sheer basis of originality and entertainment, "Tangerine" is one of 2015's defining films. Even as we may try to separate ourselves from some of the questionable behavior on display, its energy and innovation are as much a reflection of the zeitgeist as any other film this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

INTERVIEW: Tobias Lindholm and Pilou Asbæk

With 3 acclaimed film collaborations under their belt already, Tobias Lindholm and Pilou Asbæk have developed one of the most compelling director-muse relationships in Denmark and the world at large. It was therefore an honor for me to get on the phone to chat with these talented filmmakers about their latest project "A War", which has been submitted as Denmark’s Foreign Language Oscar submission this year. In our conversation we discussed the making of the film, the power of realism in cinema, and the excitement of Oscar season and international exposure. Below is an edited version of our interview.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 13, 2015


It’s no secret that Asian cinema has been significantly underrepresented among the yearly nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite consisting of some of the world’s most prominent film industries (India, China, Japan, South Korea), it’s not unusual to see Foreign Oscar nominations devoid of Asian films. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to change this year, but hope springs eternal for these tales from the East.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 9, 2015


Where did Alonso Ruiz Palacios come from? And when can I see his next film? That's all I kept thinking while watching his astonishingly well-directed debut feature "Güeros", a deserving winner of countless awards throughout the 2014-2015 festival circuit.

"Güeros" tells the story of a boy named Tomas (Sebastián Aguirre) and his adventure with his older brother Federico (Tenoch Huerta), affectionately known as Sombra. A problem child prone to mischief, the film begins with Tomas being sent to live with Sombra in Mexico City, to relieve his single mother of the burden. When he arrives however, he finds a pair of wayward young men slacking off in an apartment (Sombra and roommate Santos). Formerly students at the National University, a student strike has since left them with no structure to their life. Tomas' arrival springs them into action however, as he encourages them to seek out a beloved, dying rock star, in a quest that will take the trio on an unpredictable, unforgettable journey through the far reaches of the city.

Before Tomas even gets to Mexico City, "Güeros" begins with a bang. In one virtuosic opening scene that mere words can't fully express, we see a pair of unidentified hands pick up a water balloon, cut to a harried woman packing up her crying baby to hit the road for the morning, which eventually concludes with that same balloon crashing down on them both. An audacious introduction to our protagonist if I ever saw one. Indeed, this is the inciting incident that compels Tomas' own stressed out mother to send him away to his brother.

And as we follow Tomas, Sombra and eventually Ana (Sombra's love interest), the film thrillingly maintains the visual flair of its opening. With its black and white color palette, square aspect ratio and dynamic camerawork, "Güeros" feels like a throwback to European art cinema of old, while also bristling with contemporary vitality. And that youthful spirit is also exuded by the cast, all of whom give effortlessly genuine performances.

With respect to the screenplay, the plot is also as carefree as its characters. Despite the road trip/coming of age setup, Palacios and his co-writer Portela never feel the need to make the characters "grow" or learn life lessons. As such, the film does miss a basic level of character development. Our protagonist in particular remains primarily a window into this world throughout all the various escapades. But in a way, the film is all the better for it. Sometimes, a big road trip with friends may not turn out to be so life-changing. More often than not, it's simply about enjoying the ride.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


"I'm begging you to manage expectations out there." So implores Joanna Hoffman of Steve Jobs during during one of the early scenes of Danny Boyle's latest feature "Steve Jobs". Played with gesticulating verve by the incomparable Kate Winslet, it's a line reading that caught my attention from the very first trailer. And as I finally sat down in the theater this week for this highly anticipated film, I couldn't help thinking the statement could have been a slogan for the film itself.

The scene comes from the first act of the film, a biopic about the man who became synonymous with some of the greatest technological revolutions of our time. The first of three distinct acts, it depicts the first of several crisis situations to follow - the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. In an effort to humanize the relatively novel concept of the personal computer, Jobs has promised the excited audience a machine that will say "hello". But on the day of the launch, the system won't cooperate. Refusing to manage expectations as advised and scrap the unnecessary greeting, Jobs puts himself and his team under considerable pressure. And his situation is only exacerbated by the untimely arrival of a demanding ex-girlfriend and the daughter he disowns.

Jobs' family problems and professional failures continue in the second act, which chronicles the doomed launch of the ambitious but misguided NeXT Computer after his dismissal from Apple (the Macintosh bombed). But of course, we all know that this insensitive but determined genius eventually comes out on top in the final chapter. And through it all, we're given an engrossing portrait of the man behind the icon.

One of the main things that we learn about Steve Jobs is that he was a man who was both burdened and boosted by his own expectations and that of those surrounding him. And indeed, it's the story of the Steve Jobs the film too. From Amy Pascal's infamous warnings, to the feverish praise surrounding its Telluride premiere, to its perceived box office failure, much of the discussion surrounding the film was related to expectations both good and bad. Naturally, my own expectations affected my own experience with the film as well. It would have been wise for me to heed the sage advice of Joanna Hoffman however, as the film didn't turn out to be the masterpiece I'd expected.

It would have required an inhuman level of objectivity to not expect excellence of course, considering the level of talent involved. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin only wrote two of the most brilliant screenplays this side of the 21st century after all. Not to mention the presence of personal faves Danny Boyle, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet too. Indeed, I'm not ashamed to admit that I almost shed tears of joy when I realized that the film would actually play in my local theater (I'd assumed it would be too "artsy" for our Jamaican multiplexes).

Thankfully, I did get to see the film on the big screen and it mostly delivers the excellence I was hoping for. Certainly on a script level, Sorkin is in top form with yet another profile of an egotistical genius we love to hate. The film acts as a sort of spiritual sequel to "The Social Network" bearing all the eloquent verbiage and sharp zingers that made the former so special. And similarly, the ensemble is completely up to the challenge.

Indeed, Michael Fassbender is absolutely captivating - albeit slightly one-dimensional - in a role that will surely land him in the Best Actor conversation this season. Likewise, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen do strong work as Steve Wozniak and John Sculley respectively. In fact, the latter emerged as my unexpected MVP of all the actors. And despite his reputation for male-centric writing, Sorkin even gives Kate Winslet a meaty role to play as Job's marketing executive and loyal confidant. She gets some of the best lines, conveying such wisdom and strength. The film undoubtedly portrays a man's world, but she proves to be an invaluable asset.

If there's one thing that prevents from giving the film a wholehearted rave, it's Danny Boyle's direction. Unfortunately, I didn't feel enough of his imprint on the film, particularly in the first two acts. And it's a shame too, since his directing style seemed well suited to the rhythmic quality of Sorkin's wall-to-wall dialogue. Boyle's previous work is nothing if not vibrantly directed. Still, all the important elements are there. The film is well-paced, well-shot and features a particularly outstanding score from Daniel Pemberton, which mixes classical and contemporary pieces to stimulating effect.

Ultimately, the film once again came down to a matter of expectations. Considering the impersonal direction of the opening acts, I didn't anticipate the satisfaction that came with the film's conclusion. Many critics have derided its sentimentality, but it gave me the Danny Boyle humanism that I felt was lacking all along. Indeed, in terms of expectations, I didn't expect to leave the theater with such a big smile on my face.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


"Theeb", the debut feature from director Naji Abu Nowar, refers to the Arabic word for “wolf”. We first hear the word during the film’s opening narration, essentially a proverb about the importance of being welcoming towards guests, even if they are wolves who may turn their back on you in times of your greatest need (i.e. facing death). Out of context, the message still adds little value to the word for those unfamiliar with Arabic. By the end of this remarkable film however, you likely won’t forget Theeb any time soon.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 6, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Africa and Middle East

One of the benefits of the “one country, one film” submissions process for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is the way it seeks to level the playing field so that even the smallest film industries stand a chance against juggernauts. Just last year, a first-time submission from the African nation of Mauritania secured a nod over the likes of France, Italy and Spain. That balance between the old establishment and the new upstarts is well reflected in this year’s entries from Africa and the Middle East. With an eclectic mix of brand new talent and established masters, they signify a promising cross-generational discourse in the region’s cinema.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 2, 2015


From manhunts, to hijackings, to wars, Denmark’s acclaimed writer-director Tobias Lindholm is clearly drawn to the aggressive side of mankind. But don’t mistake him for a pulpy action director however. Indeed, as one of the foremost screenwriters in contemporary Danish cinema, his work is equally concerned with the internal conflicts that afflict the human psyche. And in his latest film "A War", Lindholm once again shows his penchant for probing explorations of morality and conscience.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, November 1, 2015

REVIEW: Heneral Luna

Judging from the film’s opening scene, director Jerrold Tarog had lofty ambitions for his historical biopic "Heneral Luna". In it, our titular general stands in front of the Philippine flag, preparing to give an interview about his life’s work. Whether intentional or not, the scene immediately recalls that of another general’s biopic – Franklin J. Schaffner’s "Patton". Of course, referencing a beloved Best Picture winner attracts closer scrutiny and raises expectations however. And although ""Heneral Luna is an admirable effort, it unfortunately falls short of the standards it seems to set for itself.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 31, 2015


As is the case with other Oscar categories, Best Foreign Language Film is usually the domain of more established filmmakers. This year however, many of the most high profile submissions come from first timers. Indeed, from Cannes sensation "Son of Saul" to Venice winner "Theeb", one could easily see all five nominations going to debut features. Here’s a look at these promising films…

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, October 30, 2015


Yes, I know I already featured the "Brooklyn" trailer in last month's post, but this a special occasion. It's not often you get to see your review quoted on TV! Check out the new TV spot for "Brooklyn" below, and don't miss the film when it hits theaters on November 4th. It truly "invokes the spirit of the romance dramas of the Golden Age."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

INTERVIEW: Anna Muylaert and Regina Casé

Since its successful bow at Sundance earlier this year, "The Second Mother" has emerged as one of the year’s most beloved films by critics and audiences alike. Telling a female-centric story of class conflict within a São Paulo household, it represents a kind of drama filmmaking we need to see more often in Hollywood. It was therefore a pleasure for me to speak with the film’s award-winning director Anna Muylaert and lead actress Regina Casé during a recent phone interview. Below is an edited version of our chat, where we discussed the film, its themes and the excitement of its submission as Brazil’s Oscar entry.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 26, 2015


On the eve of his deployment to stabilize a volatile Belfast neighbourhood during the Northern Ireland conflict (aka The Troubles), a young British soldier named Gary Hook (played by Jack O'Connell) makes a promise to his younger brother. Reassuring him, he says "I'm not even leaving the country, so you've got nothing worry about". Little does Gary know of the nightmarish ordeal which will constitute the remainder of "71", the impressive debut feature from director Yann Demange.

Over the course of a single night, Gary will be separated from his squad and left to fend for himself in unsafe territory. Like an Irish version of the Gaza strip, the area is home to both warring factions - the Catholics and Protestants. Luckily, Gary initially finds himself in friendly Protestant company. But as he subsequently becomes abandoned and rescued several times over in these streets and homes, he'll soon realize that - contrary to his earlier belief - the most dangerous enemy is sometimes the wolf lurking right outside your door.

The striking domesticity of the conflict is one of the first things you notice in "71". Unlike some other wars throughout history, this one quite literally "hit people where they live", affecting personal liberties and religious freedom rather than higher level power struggles. And Demange takes this and runs with it, sending his protagonist on a obstacle-filled chase in the film's high stakes backyard games. He uses the setting as his playground, creating heartpounding thrills and tension in equal measure. And the result is a cinematic tour de force, with first-rate editing, sound design, cinematography, writing and direction.

And what a tremendous lead performance Jack O'Connell delivers too, crucial to the film's emotional resonance. He certainly looks the part, with a confident strut that convinces you of his capabilities. But although he's a quintessential action hero, his face betrays the vulnerable boy underneath, completely out of his depth as a fresh recruit. Such is the brilliance of his performance, which exudes raw, natural talent.

Indeed, "71" is a strong showcase for the abundant talent to be found in Britain's next generation of filmmakers (though French-born, Demange spent most of his life in the UK). It's even an interesting counterpoint to Paul Greengrass' own recreation of The Troubles in 2002's "Bloody Sunday". That film was a breakthrough critical and award-winning success for the director, and the rest is history. On the evidence provided here, Demange could very well follow that same upward trajectory. One of the best things about "71" is that it's a thriller that knows exactly when to slow down and catch its breath. And like a smart athlete, this approach to filmmaking and his career bodes well for Demange's bright - and hopefully long-lasting - future in the business.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

REVIEW: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

For one of the most unique films of the year, look no further than Roy Andersson’s "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence". Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival, Andersson’s latest boldly eschews the usual conventions of cinematic language. As the final installment of his “Living trilogy” it is a fascinating – and sometimes confounding – exploration of the absurdity of human behavior and life itself.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, October 22, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Francophone Films

Parlez-vous français? If you’re a fan of the Foreign Language Oscar category, a mastery of the French language certainly wouldn’t hurt. Throughout the history of the award, Francophone cinema has been a dominant force, accounting for the majority of wins. With the likes of Maurice Cloche and René Clément claiming statues during the initial years of the prize (when it was just a special/honorary award), to Michael Haneke’s 2012 winner "Amour", French-language films have left an indelible mark on world cinema. And this year’s small but exciting crop of Francophone submissions reflects that global reach, including films from 3 separate continents representing an impressively diverse array of filmmakers and themes. Interestingly, the French submission was actually filmed in Turkish, showing how the definition of "French" cinema is constantly expanding.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


For this week's return of Hit me with your best shot, I was able to eliminate another Best Picture nominee blind spot with 1985's "A Room with a View". In truth, I thought I'd seen the film already, but I was happy to have misremembered "The Wings of the Dove" so that I could be introduced to yet another lovely Helen Bonham Carter costume drama. And once again, she doesn't disappoint.

But the most surprising delight for me wasn't her performance as Lucy , nor was it the sumptuous visuals or the winning dashes of humour. My favourite aspect of the film instead, was Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Bonham-Carter's betrothed. Well-known for his brutish Daniel Plainview, his role here forced him to be a typical gentleman, and I loved every preening, posh second of it. He is the epitome of the stuffy Victorian ideal that lends the film its title and as such, I thought it would be fitting to focus on him for my best shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, October 19, 2015


As I write this, the latest trailer for "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" has just premiered to the glee of millions of fans around the world. This 7th installment of the popular space opera franchise will likely become this year's box office champ when all is said and done. But when we look back on 2015, the biggest story will more likely be Netflix's entrance into the big leagues of film production with the harrowing war drama "Beasts of No Nation".

Based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, "Beast of No Nation" tells the nightmarish story of a young African boy forced to fight in a civil war. His name is Agu (Abraham Attah), an innocent, typically carefree boy from a loving family. Agu lives in a small village which has been converted to a buffer zone, effectively an oasis from the violent civil war raging in the surrounding areas. But one day, his peaceful life is upended when the war arrives on his doorstep, after the fall of the presiding government makes way for military rule. During the chaos to come, Agu becomes irreparably separated from his family and escapes to the jungle. But soon, he is captured by another rebel group and forced to join their ranks as a child soldier. As Agu becomes privy to the horrors of war, he finds his youthful innocence slipping away by the second. Before long, he starts to feel like more of a beast than a human being.

As Agu goes through his descent into a version of hell, director Fukunaga plunges us into this nightmarish world alongside our diminutive protagonist. With an unflinching eye, forces our gaze towards the most unsavory images of inhumane violence and cruelty. And throughout, the film is surprisingly unsentimental too, maintaining a key focus on the aggressors rather than the victims.

But through the muck of war, Fukunaga impresses with some stunning directorial flourishes. Like an early long shot of the jungle which dwarfs Agu with its imposing vastness, or a later scene where the Commandant (Idris Elba) leads a march to ambush a village, an image that could almost pass for a parade with its kinetic energy. Indeed, even as you would want to look away, Fukunaga holds your attention with his impressive technique. In doing so, he lends visceral power to the simultaneous adrenaline rush and terror of war.

But even more insightful is Fukunaga's superb screenplay, which is worthy of dissecting and examination long after the lights go down. Touching on the many complex aspects of the psychology underpinning war and its relation to masculinity and Africanism - too deep to elaborate in a film review - he leaves nothing on the table. Most interestingly, the script emphasizes the irony of how rebellions are fortified by exploiting people's inherent deference to authority figures (so provocatively illuminated in 2012's "Compliance"). As such, the film paints a nuanced portrait of evil through its array of characters, particularly Agu and the Commandant. Representing the "followers" and "leaders" which fuel such incomprehensible brutality, Attah and Elba make a dynamic duo with some of the best naturalistic acting in spite of the challenging material. Attah's transition from abject fear to resigned self-assurance, and Elba's constantly vibrant presence are truly a sight to behold.

There are times when the relentless violence depicted in "Beasts of No Nation" takes on a numbing effect. At one point during my first viewing (yes, I've seen it twice already), my sister even turned to me and said "This isn't even making me sad. I'm just angry." And indeed, I nodded in agreement. But even if it's not the tearjerker you may have hope for, you would be hard-pressed to find a film that is this perceptive about the world we live in. While it may seem completely removed from our reality, it forces us to see ourselves in Agu and his experiences with loss, existentialism and our frightening capacity to cause harm to others. And ultimately, this is what makes "Beasts of No Nation" such a devastating, astonishing achievement.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Bridge of Spies

Is there any greater sign of awards season than a new historical drama from Steven Spielberg? Though he's perhaps better known by the public for his more contemporary - or futuristic - populist entertainments, it's his period pieces that have the greatest track record with the more "highbrow" Academy voters. His latest, "Bridge of Spies", looks backward to the Cold War era, joining forces with the Coen brothers for a film extolling the virtues of America and humanity at large. And like most of the "Oscar bait" packages delivered by these esteemed filmmakers, it's worthy of our consideration.

Based on the true story behind the 1960 U-2 incident, "Bridge of Spies" follows an insurance lawyer named James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who unwittingly gets thrust into the middle of the Cold War. The film begins with Donovan being entrusted with the defense of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in an effort to portray America as a place of fairness with regards to the law. But when Donovan takes his task seriously, he quickly becomes scorned as a traitor to the anti-communist cause. As an American pilot soon finds himself in a similar situation on Russian soil however, Donovan's unwavering empathy becomes crucial to negotiation efforts. And eventually, he is called up to spearhead a complicated POW exchange, which will take him from his quaint suburban life to a faraway land. With the US government unable to publicly acknowledge the mission, Donovan is promised no reward or recognition, aside from the satisfaction that he's doing the right thing.

If you've looked at my personal Top 50 films, you'll notice that "To Kill A Mockingbird" ranks near the top of my list (in addition to some other Spielberg titles littered throughout). As such, I'm naturally predisposed to appreciating a film like this, where one man's humanity shines through in an intolerant society. It can fall apart as schmaltz in the wrong hands, but when done well, it provides gratifying cinema. This is one such instance where the formula is configured correctly.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of a recent episode of the Fighting In The War Room podcast, where the hosts played a game based on Spielberg's filmography. Interestingly, it was based on his career as a producer, not a filmmaker. And in thinking of "Bridge of Spies", I realized that our idea of Spielberg as a filmmaker owes as much to his producing skills as it does his directorial style. Simply put, the strength of Spielberg's oeuvre can be attributed to not just his talent, but his ability to assemble some of the most gifted artists to work with him.

And indeed, "Bridge of Spies" turns out to be one of the most well-produced films of the year. When it comes to production values, there's hardly a film that can touch it. From the warmly lit cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, to the eloquent screenplay from the Matt Charman and the Coens, to the exquisite detail of the production design, everything is in place for classic filmmaking at its finest. As such, you can expect the film to be in the awards conversation for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Production Design.

And in the lead role, Tom Hanks captures the kindhearted demeanor of the Gregory Pecks and Jimmy Stewards of times gone by. But the standout is certainly Mark Rylance, whose wonderfully subtle performance will surely make him a contender for Best Supporting Actor. Perhaps even more so than Hanks, he best represents the film's tone and message.

Admittedly, "Bridge of Spies" is uncharacteristically quiet for Spielberg, lacking the usual emotional impact (John Williams' typically rousing compositions are sorely missed) of his best work. But like Rylance's pragmatic Rudolf, the restraint works for the story, taking an evenhanded approach to what could have easily been jingoistic propaganda. Ultimately, "Bridge of Spies" is a tribute to the unsung heroes on both sides of the war, the ones who you wouldn't even notice if they sat in front of you on your daily train commute. And in doing so with such refined artistry, it commands your respect.

Friday, October 16, 2015

REVIEW: Madame Courage

Back in early September, I fulfilled my dream of attending the Venice International Film Festival. Well...sort of. In truth, I took part in the festivities from the comfort of my own bedroom, as part of the festival's Sala Web initiative, allowing film fans worldwide to view a curated selection of titles from the official programme. This year, I opted for two films - Gabriel Mascaro's "Neon Bull" and Merzak Allouache's "Madame Courage". But while the former was a vibrant piece of world cinema, the latter unfortunately provided a strange situation where its synopsis felt more detailed than the story it actually told.

The plot summary that attracted me to the film reads as follows: "Omar, an unstable and lonely teenager, lives in a slum in the suburbs of Mostaganem, Algeria. He is addicted to a famous psychotropic, nicknamed “Madame Courage”: Artane tablets, very popular among young Algerians, for their euphoric effect of invincibility. Omar is an expert thief. One morning, he goes downtown to commit his usual crimes. His first prey is a young girl called Selma, walking with her friends, prominently wearing a gold necklace. As he commits his larceny, their eyes meet."

Sounds interesting, right? An addiction drama with romance, set against a distinct cultural backdrop. Sadly, the film barely delivers any of the intrigue it promises.

First of all, the film's protagonist is too much of a blank slate. Played unsurprisingly by a first timer (Adlane Djemil), the performance lacks the personality or charisma to justify the dubious premise of the romance. As a result, that aspect of the film remains wholly unconvincing throughout, which in all fairness, has as much to do with the script's deficiencies as it does with Djemil's performance.

As the synopsis explains, Omar commits the robbery in broad daylight quite early in the film. Portrayed as an aggressive, traumatic event, the film struggles to overcome the harrowing nature of this incident to make any sort of romantic connection between Omar and Selma believable. Instead, he comes across as a creepy stalker. In fact, the film makes you wonder whether Allouache is making a judgmental statement about the lifestyle or social class that Omar represents. At one point, he inexplicably gawks at Selma for hours, firmly stationed beside a garbage-ridden dumpster, like a rat in its element. And as if to confirm my assessment of the film's non-existent chemistry, Selma even confronts the persistent Omar during the final act to ask "What's wrong with you? What do you want?"

Fortunately, the film doesn't rely solely on this romance between the thief and his victim. But it even falls short on the more typical aspects of its plot. The effect of the titular drug is virtually indecipherable and the violent crime it frequently depicts is pointless and off-putting. And ultimately, this was the last straw that finally broke my interest in this hapless, unpleasant film.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


To say that Latin American cinema had a great year would be an understatement. Over the past year, films from the region have been the toast of the festival circuit, winning major awards at Berlin, Cannes, Sundance and Venice, just to name a few. And many of those films will be now be aiming for further glory at the Oscars, putting forward arguably the strongest crop of Latin American films ever submitted. It’s therefore entirely conceivable that Latin America could dominate the 9-film shortlist in December, thereby breaking the usual European domination of the category. Let’s take a look at these formidable contenders…

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 12, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Overnight

It didn't take me long to realize that "The Overnight" would be my latest Movie of the Week. With a cast featuring some of my personal faves Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzmann, it was already off to a good start before the film even began. By the time the film's innocent dinner party gets its first obscene interruption (by a totally unexpected breast pump video) however, I knew it would become not just my top pick of the week, but one of my favourite comedies of the year.

Schilling and Scott play a married couple in the film, who have just moved to Los Angeles along with their young son RJ. Schilling's character Emily keeps herself busy with a full-time job, while Scott's Alex is essentially a stay-at-home dad. On the surface, the situation seems to work for them, but Alex starts to feel insecure about his lacking social life. But things are about to look up, when a father-son outing to the park offers up an opportunity for new friendships. Through RJ's new buddy Max, Alex and Emily are introduced to Max's parents Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) and Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who extend a warm welcome and offer to host a dinner/playdate for everyone. But when the night finally comes, things start to get weird, as the boundaries between friends and lovers are increasingly blurred.

The hilarity that ensues is exactly the kind of humour that I love. Raunchy but purposeful, smart but relatable. "The Overnight" perfectly captures the excitement/anxiety/anticipation associated with meeting new people.

And writer-director Patrick Brice takes great care in writing interesting characters. On one side we have the free-spirited "French" attitudes of the hippie-intellectuals Charlotte and Kurt, and then one the other hand, we have the more prudish all-American couple that Alex and Emily represents. And the juxtaposition of their differing attitudes towards sex and relationships offer a fascinating discourse, allowing for all four actors to flourish. Scott brings his usual nerdy goofiness that plays perfectly into Alex's insecurities, Schilling delivers a gif-ready performance with every flabbergasted reaction to all the shenanigans, while Schwartzman and Godrèche are just the epitome of bohemian openness and all the spontaneity that entails.

But what makes "The Overnight" special is how it flips the script on what we'd expect from these personalities. As this overnight romp prances forward with increasing absurdity, it digs beneath its sex comedy trappings to make astute observations about marriage and the truths that can only be revealed behind closed doors. Indeed, it reminded me of a more mirthful take on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". And considering the prevalence of lowbrow jokes referring directly to breasts, buttholes and various genitalia, it speaks volumes that this comparison still feels so apt.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


No matter where you go in the world, there always seems to be some amount of corruption involved throughout all levels of society. In Jami Mahmood’s Moor, this corruption relates to Pakistan’s once prosperous railway system, which is now in decline. And in typical cinematic fashion, it’s a zealous expose, but it left me sadly wanting.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Road trip movies have always been one of the most reliable formats for cinematic storytelling. Their defined narrative arcs fit nicely into the traditional three-act structure and provide ample opportunities for rich character study. In his latest directorial outing, Panos H. Koutras puts forth a compelling example of the unique allure of the road trip movie, with the compelling Greece-set drama "Xenia".

Read more at The Awards Circuit