Thursday, July 30, 2015

COMING SOON: Straight Outta Compton

If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that there will never be a shortage of biopics. Next month however, there's one that looks like it may bring something different. F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" will tell the story of the legendary group N.W.A, but it seems like it will be as much about the social climate of 1980s California as it is about the artists. Now, I'm hardly an aficionado of old school hip hop, but I'm looking forward to the performances from these virtual unknowns. Who knows, we might find our next breakout star. The film is already getting good early buzz, as the review embargo is being lifted very early (i.e. tomorrow). That's always a good sign. Check out the trailer below:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


This week's Hit me with your best shot takes us back to the 90s for a special film by Todd Haynes called "Safe". If you haven't seen it, quit reading now and go watch it blind. That's the approach I took and it was really eye-opening. The film follows Julianne Moore a suburban housewife named Carol, who becomes inflicted with a strange illness called multiple chemical sensitivity, where her body basically rejects all the synthetic chemicals in our modern environment. Her condition eventually gets to the point where she struggles to breathe. It's so horrifying that I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

But even more fascinating than the disease, is the surprising direction of the plot. Living in the "Gone Girl" era and knowing Moore's predilection for playing dissatisfied housewives, I was initially expecting her to break free from her dull, seemingly "sterile" environment. Well, she does eventually escape, but for the exact opposite reason! I was really quite intrigued by this narrative, which lead me to my choice for best shot...

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 27, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Far From the Madding Crowd

In a countryside locale in Victorian era England, a headstrong farm owner named Bathsheba must decide whether to accept a marriage offer from three different men. So reads the general plot description of "Far from the Madding Crowd", the latest cinematic iteration of British novelist Thomas Hardy's most commonly adapted work (along with "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"). Like John Schlesinger and Roman Polanski before him, this romantic drama is Thomas Vinterberg's attempt to successfully translate Hardy's seemingly quaint stories to the big screen. And while a true Hardy film masterpiece still eludes us, his vision comes quite close.

As already stated, "Far from the Madding Crowd" revolves around a love quadrangle (or rectangle?) between Bathsheba and three men of distinctly different personalities and backgrounds. The first suitor she meets is Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), a humble sheep farmer with big aspirations. The second, Frank (Tom Sturridge), is a rakish Sergeant already betrothed to another. Finally, there's William (Michael Sheen), a wealthy but lonely middle-aged man. All three vie for Bathsheba's affections throughout the narrative, and circumstances lead her to eventually say yes despite her independent spirit. But will she make the right choice? As the film seeks to answer this question, "Far from the Madding Crowd" beautifully explores the implications of Bathsheba's decisions in this agragrian society, where love, power and respect are intertwined with ownership of the land itself.

Like Bathsheba, Thomas Vinterberg had to solve his own puzzle in directing "Far from the Madding Crowd". Namely, how to make this 18th century literary material resonate with contemporary audiences? To address this he accomplished two things - make the film gorgeous to look at and cast each role to perfection.

Indeed, the visual storytelling is absolutely stunning, conveying the story's themes wonderfully. One particular scene in a forest stands out, when the scarlet red of Frank's uniform contrasts with the lush greens around him. These saturated colors are so breathtakingly gorgeous that it borders on fantasy. But even more importantly, the striking red figure instantly signifies the passion and danger associated with the character and the scene. All throughout the film, such similar examples exist which elevate the spectacle and make the film pop off the screen.

Speaking of popping off the screen, the most beautiful thing to look at is undoubtedly Carey Mulligan. Not since her breakout performance in "An Education" has she been this ravishing on screen. A combination of Janet Patterson's flattering costumes and Mulligan's own poise make her Bathsheba truly one of the most spellbinding characters of the year. Having watched this film merely hours after the similarly feminist "Trainwreck" made her interpretation all the more fascinating to me. The way she plainly states (with a smile on her face) to her first suitor "I'm too independent for you", aligns her more with modern women than the defiant Lizzie Bennets of her time. Her warm, contemporary spin is an unexpected delight.

Mulligan's performance isn't the only acting triumph in the film either. All three of her love interests find the truth in their characters in such captivating ways. Sheen's sympathetic vulnerability is certainly a highlight.

Ultimately, "Far from the Madding Crowd" suffers from the best flaw you can have, in that it's almost too perfect. Having not read the source novel, the film hints at a level of earth-shattering emotional turmoil that it doesn't fully deliver to the audience. Likewise, the behaviour of the characters largely follows the expectations associated with these stock types. So by the time it wraps up with its neat ending, you're left feeling a little underwhelmed despite its undeniable virtues. You therefore won't find me complaining about the next inevitable remake. For the time being however, the overall loveliness of this version will suffice.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


For this special episode of Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel flipped the script on us, assigning this year's MTV VMA nominees for Best Cinematography as this week's topic. The recently announced honorees include music videos from Flying Lotus, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, FKA Twigs and Alt-J. To be honest, it's not the most visually stimulating set of nominees overall, but I did have some very brief thoughts for my best shot picks...

Click below for my favourite shots...

Monday, July 20, 2015


John Maclean already claimed the title "Slow West" for his Michael Fassbender-starrer this summer, but there’s another Western in theaters that fits the bill even better. In "Ardor", the Western heads south for an Argentinian take from director Pablo Fendrik. Replacing the desert plains of the Wild West with a lush jungle setting, the film plunges us into a brooding, dangerous world.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


This week on Hit me with your best shot, we looked at none other than "Sunset Boulevard", Billy Wilder's immortal film noir about a forgotten film star. Released in 1951, this extraordinary film was beloved since its premiere (unlike some other re-evaluated classics) and continues to be appreciated today. It's hardly surprising, since its central conceit - the cutthroat nature of the film industry and its unfair treatment of actresses - still applies to modern times. Not a day goes by without an article about the poor state of women in Hollywood.

This continued sociocultural relevance accentuates the underlying feeling of "Sunset Boulevard", which is one of deep sadness. No matter how crazy Norma Desmond may be, I always find her incredibly sympathetic. Every time I watch the film, I'm silently rooting for her comeback. Here we have someone who was one of the best at her chosen profession - and made many people rich in the process - and yet was abruptly sabotaged by the new technology. The tragedy of it all is so incisively relayed through the sharp dialogue, when Norma proclaims "Without me, there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio".

Unfortunately, none of that mattered in a town full of egotistical, uncaring people. But like Max, I still appreciate her, and that's why I chose the image below as my best shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, July 13, 2015


After relinquishing the animation spotlight to Laika and parent company Disney over the last two years, Pixar is back with a vengeance with no less than two new films this year - "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur". The first of this duo, "Inside Out", has already been released earlier this summer to fervent acclaim, following a high profile premiere at Cannes. For fans of the studio - i.e. most cinephiles - the film was a triumphant return to form, proving they hadn't lost their knack for executing original concepts with appeal for the whole family.

"Inside Out" is the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley and the complex set of emotions that exist in her mind. The film takes place in one pivotal year in her life, when her family packs up their Minnesota home to move to San Francisco, turning her world upside down in the process. As Riley struggles to adjust to her new environment, it's up to her anthropomorphic emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness) to keep her stable. Lead by Joy (Amy Poehler) in Riley's mental Headquarters, "Inside Out" thus takes us on an adventure through the mind of a little girl, revealing the memories and relationships which define her personality.

As I sat and watched this film unfold, I couldn't help but remember an article written by Tim Brayton, resident animation expert over at The Film Experience. In praising Laika as the most exciting animation studio right now, he remarked on one of the core problems holding back mainstream animated films. He stated that they all follow a basic plot structure, "where the first third builds a world, the second third is about making the characters feel feelings, and the final third is a chase sequence". Essentially, Hollywood animated films are hamstrung by the need to appeal to an ADHD mentality, favoring manic adventures to draw in the kids.

Being a product of the referenced Hollywood system, this observation is of significant relevance to "Inside Out", forming the basis of the single fundamental qualm I had with this otherwise outstanding film. Having arrived late to the game in critical discussion of this one, its reputation already preceded it. The reports coming out of screenings spoke of adults in tears, and there numerous thinkpieces about the film's accuracy in depicting childhood depression. With this knowledge in mind (as well as its basic premise), I came into it expecting a deep character study about Riley and her state of mind. But despite good intentions, "Inside Out" is primarily about the Joy and Sadness characters, and their adventure through Riley's world of longterm memories. Glimpses into the implications on Riley herself were disappointingly brief.

That "Inside Out" manages to still be so affecting is thanks to incredible work from its voice actors, particularly Amy Poehler as Joy. Through her lively character, we get the film's most meaningful message about emotions. Joy's constant optimism and "never say never" attitude to the plot's most challenging obstacles shows how true joy is a feeling that requires conscious effort. While the film struggles to uphold its own logic with regards to depression (how does Riley get so depressed if Sadness isn't controlling Headquarters?), the mere vigour of Joy is able to emphasize the film's theme that depression is waiting to afflict you if you let your guard down.

Though "Inside Out" may not be quite the emotional powerhouse that a Studio Ghibli or a Laika would have likely envisioned, its premise still satisfies greatly on an artistic and entertainment level. Indeed, the film is relentlessly funny, and it manages this through cleverness and wit rather than dumbed-down broad humour. You certainly can't accuse this script of being unoriginal, as the world it creates offers up genius concepts - like personality islands, a dream production film studio and a literal Train of Thought - that are all too rare in contemporary animated films. Overall, it may suffer from being overworked to cater to the youngest of audiences, but that's always a compromise inherent in today's family-oriented fare. With such a gifted voice cast, a brilliantly hilarious plot and rare depth to its pathos, "Inside Out" emerges as one of the strongest animated films we'll see this year, or any year for that matter.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

INTERVIEW: Abner Benaim

When you look at Abner Benaim's filmography, there's no denying that he is at the forefront of Panama's young film industry. Having developed a number of film projects to fruition by wearing various hats (director, writer, producer, cinematographer), he has become one of his country's most seasoned professionals in the business. In 2014, he directed 3 films (the feature documentary "Invasion" and segments for "Short Plays" and "Panama Canal Stories") and he is currently working on his next projects. Following a warmly-received screening of "Panama Canal Stories" this week, I reached out to Benaim to discuss his filmmaking. Despite his busy schedule, he graciously took some time out to answer my questions about his films and Panamanian cinema in general. Below is the transcript of our conversation...

REVIEW: Panama Canal Stories

If this weekend's release of "Tangerines" proved anything, it's that we live in an interesting time for cinema. Anyone can make a film these days, with equipment as simple as an iPhone able to capture full-length feature films. For more ambitious projects however, the competitive marketplace has made it difficult for many indie filmmakers to find a footing. In young film industries especially, collaborations are sometimes necessary in order to secure the funding and resources needed to execute ideas that are bigger than a small Sundance project. One such example is "Panama Canal Stories", an anthology of short films from Panama that premiered in 2014. Directed by five different Panamanian directors, the film charts the history of Panama and its people in relation to the legacy of the Panama Canal.

The first story takes us back to the beginning, when the canal was just being built around the year 1913. Focused on an ill-fated romance between a young woman named Clarice (Lakisha May) and her fellow immigrant worker Phillip (Andre Morris), the setting establishes the themes of colonial oppression that would characterize the entire film. This segment is directed by Carolina Borrero and she shows a keen eye for strong visuals. The cinematography captures the scene beautifully, contrasting the expansive construction area with the more minimalist personal spaces of the workers. Though the generic Caribbean accents take you out of the film on occasion, Borrero's visual compositions produce memorable images.

The next short film is set in 1950 and is directed by Pinky Mon. This time period comes years after the completion of the canal, when the United States had established their own territory within Panama called the Panama Canal Zone. This story is told through the eyes of a young boy who grew up in the zone and explores the way his perceptions differ from those around him, including his mother. In the short, the boy's father - a prominent engineer - has just passed away and his mother is making preparations for them to return to the US. As we follow his final exploits in Panama, the most notable element is the film's production design, which convincingly recreates the era.

The story also gives intriguing insight into the complex identity of children in expatriate communities, as the boy struggles to understand the hostile atmosphere of segregation between the local Panamanians and those in the more privileged canal zone. There are hints at some interesting backstory among several other characters too (especially the boy's mother), giving the sense that an expanded plot would have worked better. The final scene is great but its impact would have likely been greater with deeper understanding of the characters and their history.

We then move to "1964" (directed by Luis Franco Brantley), a tumultuous time when tensions between the locals and citizens of the canal zone are at a breaking point. The story centers around a young man and woman from opposite sides of the divide, who strike up a friendship on the eve a violent protest that claimed the lives of 25 persons. Indeed, I use the word "friendship" instead of "romance" as the female love interest in this film is so off-putting that the romantic connection defies credibility. The actress' stilted acting and obvious prejudices (she's American, he's Panamanian) undo much of the goodwill generated by her more compelling co-star.

The next short takes us to 1977 and it's easily the highlight of the entire anthology. Superbly directed by Abner Benaim, it follows a Panamanian spy who poses as a chauffeur to gather intel on the Americans during the Torrijos-Carter (an agreement to give control of the canal back to Panama). The result is a rollicking lark that's reminiscent of the Coen brothers' work ("Burn After Reading" in particular). The lead - a first-time actor named Luis Manuel Barrios - is a real find, with perfect comic timing and charisma to spare.

The final segment brings us to 2013 and it links back to the events of the first film. The main character here is a successful singer living in the US, who is a descendant of Clarice from "1913" and is played by that same actress. After suffering an emotional crisis, she returns to Panama to reconnect with her roots, a family bond that had been broken over decades of struggle. The story offers a lovely coda to the entire historical journey, as she finds peace and redemption on the waters that her ancestors facilitated years ago.

In the end, this pleasant tour through Panamanian history can surely be deemed a success for all involved. "Panama Canal Stories" is a glossy production with interesting stories that showcase a strong core of talented storytellers within this developing national film industry. With the right support, you can see how Panamanian films may eventually rise to the level of those of their Latin American counterparts like Brazil and Mexico.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


The late Roger Ebert is famously quoted as saying “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” He believed that cinema possessed an unmatched ability to help us identify with persons from different backgrounds and with different worldviews than ourselves. Of course, the astute critic’s sentiments were absolutely correct, expressing a fundamental aspect of filmmaking – a desire to reach an audience. This is especially true for foreign language filmmakers like India’s Chaitanya Tamhane, whose debut film "Court" is playing at film festivals worldwide. Court is painstakingly specific to the milieu of its Indian setting, but its international success owes to its underlying relatability.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Hit me with best shot is back with another gorgeous film this week, as we gazed on Ang Lee's lush wuxia epic  "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". This remarkable film still holds a firm grip on the record for highest-grossing foreign language film and the reasons for this are abundantly clear. For Western audiences, it provided familiar Hollywood escapism (epic production values, sweeping romance and exciting action) while also upholding intriguing aspects of the more Eastern filmmaking easthetic (the parable-like storytelling, subtlety of emotion and graceful wire fu). This compelling duality is never more apparent than in the beautiful flashback where headstrong Jen (Zhang Ziyi) reluctantly falls in love with Lo (Chang Chen).

Click below for my favourite shot...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

INTERVIEW: José Luis Montesinos and Lluis Altés

After its award-winning festival run throughout Europe, the new short film "The Runner" is enjoying a second wind after recently playing to appreciative audiences in Palm Springs and Los Angeles. This clever comedy from director José Luis Montesinos follows a chance encounter between a former boss and employee of a company, which brings up unfortunate memories of the financial crisis in Europe. As the men reconnect, surprising revelations unfold through the film’s empathetic social commentary. After enjoying the film myself, I was glad to have a chat with the director José Luis Montesinos and starring actor Lluis Altés about the making of the film and its universal message.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, July 6, 2015

Top 10 TV Programs of 2014-2015

We've come to the final post of Film Actually's coverage of the 2014-2015 TV season. By now you will have realized which programs were my favorites based on my Emmy ballots, so I won't reiterate anything I've already said. I hope you've enjoyed reading these articles and perhaps I've directed you towards your next favorite show in the process. If there's one thing I'd like to get across, it's that contemporary TV provides an abundance of riches for cinephiles. From comedy to drama and everything in between, there's no shortage of compelling programming. My own lineup numbered a total 37 shows (including movies, series, variety specials etc.) and every one of them had aspects of merit.

So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Programs of the 2014-2015 TV season:

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2014-2015 TV

As I stated in my introductory post to this special TV week on Film Actually, the times they are a changin'. You don't need to look further than this list of Outstanding Performances of the 2014-2015 TV season to understand what I mean. The division between TV actors and movie stars no longer exists. As you'll notice below, many top film actors are venturing to the small screen for better roles (especially the women). In fact, over in the GoldDerby forums, there's even a debate going on as to whether this year's Oscar nominees could stand a chance against the Emmy hopefuls. 20 years ago, that probably would have been a laughable proposition.

So as we await the announcement of this year's Emmy nominees, there's no doubt that the art of acting is flourishing on television. Here are just 10 of the great thespians who did extraordinary work this season, among many others.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

My Emmy Ballot: Drama Series

N.B. These ballots are based on the official submissions and follow the Emmy rules for nominations (i.e. 10 for Programs, 6 for Actors and 5 for Casting). All ballots are in ranked order, with winners in bold.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

My Emmy Ballot: Comedy Series

N.B. These ballots are based on the official submissions and follow the Emmy rules for nominations (i.e. 10 for Programs, 6 for Actors and 5 for Casting). All ballots are in ranked order, with winners in bold.

Friday, July 3, 2015

My Emmy Ballot: Lead Actor & Lead Actress (Drama)

N.B. These ballots are based on the official submissions and follow the Emmy rules for nominations (i.e. 10 for Programs, 6 for Actors and 5 for Casting). All ballots are in ranked order, with winners in bold.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Emmy Ballot: Lead Actor & Lead Actress (Comedy)

N.B. These ballots are based on the official submissions and follow the Emmy rules for nominations (i.e. 10 for Programs, 6 for Actors and 5 for Casting). All ballots are in ranked order, with winners in bold.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Emmy Ballot: Supporting Actor & Supporting Actress (Drama)

N.B. These ballots are based on the official submissions and follow the Emmy rules for nominations (i.e. 10 for Programs, 6 for Actors and 5 for Casting). All ballots are in ranked order, with winners in bold.