Tuesday, January 27, 2015

COMING SOON: Focus

Remember when Will Smith was box office king while also racking up awards attention with smaller indie projects? It's been a while since the Fresh Prince has given us anything to be excited about like those glory days, but I have hope for next feature "Focus". In the film, Smith co-stars with Margot Robbie as con artists with a complicated romantic history. Check out the trailer below and see for yourself if this may be the start of a much-needed Will Smith revival:



Focus opens in theaters February 27th.

Monday, January 26, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Girlhood


After the success of 2011’s "Tomboy", rising French director Céline Sciamma is back with another sensitive coming of age film in "Girlhood". While the former was an intimate look at the life of a 10-year old, her latest work sees the director exploring the more volatile teenage years. As its title suggests however, Sciamma remains firmly within her wheelhouse as a steadfast champion of thoughtful female-centric narratives.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, January 25, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


After a mostly predictable SAG awards show, Birdman emerged on top with a Best Ensemble win to ensure that the season's Boyman narrative stays strong. There was one upset tonight though, as Eddie Redmayne picked up another win to turn the Best Actor race into a real dogfight with Michael Keaton. There will be no such excitement in the other acting categories, as Moore, Simmons and Arquette will not be denied. Here are your SAG winners:

Best Ensemble
Birdman

Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Top 20 Acting Performances of 2014

This list of acting performances perfectly encapsulates the intriguing year that was 2014. It was a year where my top performances and top films felt even more divorced from each other than usual. It just proves that film is a complex artform, where even some of the most underwhelming films can feature outstanding performances. In the end, there was a bounty of great work to choose from, making this once again the most agonizing year-end list to compile. There was a lot of talk about it being a weak year for actresses but I didn't find that to be the case. While it wasn't as impressive as 2013's banner year of female roles, I still ended up with an even split of male-female performances.

On this list you'll see many of the usual suspects, while some of the others may surprise you. If you've seen some of my previous lists, you'll know that I always aim to be honest about which performances impacted me most, regardless of consensus opinion. With that said, I hope you enjoy reading my take of the Top 20 Acting Performances of 2014.

N.B. - Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant) was already featured on my 2013 list. Likewise, I decided to consider Mia Wasikowska's performance (Tracks) as 2013 as well. #BlameHarveyWeinstein

Saturday, January 24, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


Tomorrow night is the next stop on the awards tour and I'm expecting more of the same. The only difference I expect to see is Birdman taking the top prize. Here are my full predictions:

Best Ensemble
Birdman

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best of 2014

It's time for me to officially sign off on the year 2014 with my list of the Best Films of the Year. Although there are still some films I would have liked to have seen (Selma, Love is Strange, Citizenfour, Mommy), I'm happy with the list of films I've ended up with.

When making a Top 10 list, the first question that we tend to think about is "was it a good year?" For me, I've begun to realize that the answer depends on the pool of films you've been exposed to. Looking through my list, there are a number of surprise gems that I could have easily missed. Had it not been for my Foreign Circuit column or awards screeners, this list wouldn't have been nearly as diverse.

As usual, there is a mix of foreign language, documentary, animated, indie, arthouse and multiplex fare. Of note, it was a particularly strong year for "queer cinema", with a trio of LGBT-themed titles making my Top 15. In the end though, two special films from modern masters stood out from the rest of the pack.

One of the them is David Fincher's Gone Girl, which gave me my most enjoyable time at the cinema all year. Its brilliantly propulsive narrative structure is a screenwriting marvel and the titular performance from Rosamund Pike absolutely blew me away. I was so impressed that I prematurely decided that Gone Girl couldn't be unseated at the top. Then a few months later, I saw my eventual choice for #1 - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. This superbly acted film dazzled me with its explosion of creativity, a true tour de force in every aspect of its filmmaking. In my opinion, there was no better cast ensemble, direction, cinematography or editing in 2014. We all thought we'd figured out Iñárritu's MO (i.e. misery and despair), but with this comedy he's proven that he's willing to test himself with new tricks. It's an attitude that many other auteurs would do well to adopt.

With that preamble out of the way, here are my Top 15 Films of 2014 (in ranking order):



Birdman
Gone Girl
Foxcatcher
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Calvary
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Circle
Obvious Child
Stranger by the Lake
Dear White People

Thursday, January 22, 2015

REVIEW: R100


The kinky sex comedy gets a Japanese spin in "R100", the latest film from director Hitoshi Matsumoto. This bizarre extravaganza dares you to take a ride on the wild side, delving into some of our most twisted fantasies. Sadomasochism is the name of the game, as this film plunges the viewer headfirst into a world where the dominatrix rules.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, January 19, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: The Imitation Game


After a steadily rising profile in the Norwegian film industry, it's hardly surprising that Morten Tyldum would attempt an English-language crossover. With his 2014 release "The Imitation Game", Tyldum has done just that, taking on one of the more traditional narrative formats - the biopic. As soon as this project was announced, it had been labeled "Oscar bait" and sure enough, 8 Oscar nominations followed. We all know "Oscar bait" can be both good and bad, so what kind is Tyldum's "The Imitation Game"?

"The Imitation Game" is based on the biography of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician/scientist who was a key figure in World War II. Unbeknownst to the public, he lead a secret team of codebreakers that developed a special computer to crack the enigma code, which the Germans used to communicate their war strategies. His computer worked and was instrumental in helping the Allies win the war at a faster pace. Unfortunately, his heroic acts had to be kept a secret and later in a life, another secret came back to haunt him. Despite his valiant efforts, he was criminally prosecuted for gross indecency on account of his homosexual inclinations. As such, the film is a tale of triumph and tragedy.

In telling Turin's story, Tyldum has crafted a stirring film. The detailed production design captures the time period and setting. The costume design is handsome and the cast is excellent. The latter is especially key in the film's crucial moments, where the human emotions speak directly to the film's primary themes (saving human lives and shedding light on injustice). As Joan Clarke - a brilliant codebreaker and Turin's main confidante Joan - Keira Knightley is especially terrific, commanding the screen with her presence. Cumberbatch is also strong as our lead character, though his cocky genius is unlikely to feel fresh to fans of his Sherlock. Other roles are well-cast too, including characters played by the likes of Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.

With a talented ensemble and an inherently fascinating story, it's hard for the film to truly fail and it certainly doesn't. Yet there are deficiencies in the filmmaking that prevent it from being truly inspired. For example, it's disappointing to see how Tyldum handles the thriller aspects of the codebreaking scenes. If you weren't familiar with his previous film "Headhunters", you wouldn't guess that this is the same director who made that clever, uniquely constructed thriller. On this occasion, he seems to have suppressed his special talent in service of something more generic.

There's also the issue of the prosecution subplot, which turns out to be the film's main raison d'être. The screenplay plays it too safe, often a little too coy in dealing with actual sexuality. The eventual trajectory of the story is still heartbreaking (thanks to the moving performances from Knightley and Cumberbatch), but it all seems a bit underdeveloped for something that's presented as the main emotional hook of the story.

"The Imitation Game" is a highly intriguing story that's just a little too conventionally told for its own good. It definitely falls into some of the usual traps (from the moment our protagonist begins to tell his story to an astonished stranger, you know you're in familiar territory). Still, when all things are considered, it remains a very compelling film on its own terms. It may be "Oscar bait", but I enjoyed what it served.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: American Sniper


Like the skilled sharpshooters who feature in his latest film, Clint Eastwood has managed to bypass the precursor season and aimed straight for the big targets with the war drama "American Sniper". With 6 Oscar noms under its belt and a record-breaking opening weekend on the way, it's safe to say that the film can already be deemed a success. All that's left to ponder is whether the film has the goods to really stand the test of time.

"American Sniper" is the true story of famed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who is reported to have executed 255 kills in the line of duty. Based on his autobiography, the film shows us his experiences during four dangerous tours of Iraq. His military exploits are juxtaposed with his family life, where a loving wife and children are anxiously awaiting his return, afraid that each departure might be a final goodbye.

Before Kyle's military career even begins, his "kill or be killed" attitude is ingrained in his psyche from a young age. In one key early scene, his father - head of a conservative, religious household - reinforces the mantra that the men in his family will "sheepdogs", rather than weak sheep or predatory wolves.

This concept of "the protector" is the founding principle of the film's protagonist. On the macro level he's protecting America, while on a more immediate scale, he's protecting his fellow SEALs on the battlefield. How does he accomplish this? By killing as many antagonistic Iraqis as he can.

In showing us the violent details of these acts, many of the film's fundamental concerns come to light. The biggest of these is the actual filmmaking itself. In that regard, Eastwood acquits himself well. The film is riveting, intense and dare I say it, exciting. However, it's within those same thrills where it all gets a bit sticky.

Eastwood's film follows Kyle's narrow perspective of the war and with that, adopts a limited moral complexity. All of his kills are presented as justified acts and the character never seems remorseful. In doing so, the film robs the character of emotional nuance. Though this directing choice may be closer to Kyle's "truth", it prevents the drama from being as impactful as it could be. Kyle never has to worry about whether he killed an innocent civilian, so any anti-war sentiment is barely up for debate. It makes the ubiquitous presence of guns all the more disturbing. We see guns for hunting, guns for combat, guns for funeral salutes and even guns for seduction. Valor and honor is great, but what about the psychological trauma caused by the dark, murderous side of war?

Thankfully, there's Sienna Miller to bring the film back down to earth. As Kyle's suffering wife, she plays into the expected tropes but does so in a way that adds weight and balance to the film. Where Eastwood brings the audiovisual thrills, she brings the heart and the soul.

Ultimately, "American Sniper" remains a stubbornly patriotic film. Though it succeeds as a showcase of filmmaking aesthetics, this a gripping biopic that leaves you wishing there was more. We've seen the killing machine, now we want to see more of the human being underneath.

Friday, January 16, 2015

ASC announces Spotlight Award Nominations


As one of the most stunningly photographed films I saw last year, I'm pleased to report that Pirjo Honkasalo's " has been nominated for the American Society of Cinematographers Spotlight Award, alongside "The Immigrant" and "Under the Skin". Be sure to check out my interview with Honkasalo, where we went into detail about the shooting of the film.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Awards


Well, that happened. This year's Critics Choice Awards show was mostly lackluster apart from a few great speeches and it seems like several categories are now locked down. As such, it was a predictable night, where I managed to correctly predict 23 of the 28 winners. Interestingly, many of tonight's winners were snubbed at the Oscars, while Boyhood once again won the top prize. Here are all the winners:

Best Picture
Boyhood

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

OSCAR WATCH: Oscar Nominations


The nominations have been announced and I'm still trying to process all of it. There were some shocking snubs (no Gillian Flynn?) and some pleasant surprises (Laura Dern!). Overall, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel lead the nominations with 9 each. Check out the full list below:

Best Picture
American Sniper
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Birdman
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Selma
Whiplash

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Best Supporting Actor
J.K Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Robert Duvall, The Judge

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Emma Stone, Birdman
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Laura Dern, Wild

CONTEST: The Results

The nominations were announced this morning and after tallying up the scores, we had a tie! Ryan and Murtada both scored 85, with Ryan just edging it out by way of having the better predictions in Best Actor. Overall, the contest was very competitive this year, with no less than 8 persons scoring more than 80 points.

AND THE WINNER IS...
Ryan Fernand of Lord of the Films

Ryan will therefore receive a $50 Amazon gift card.

There were also 4 winners of bonus prizes this year, for those who were the only persons to predict a particular nomination. Those winners are:

Jay for predicting Bennett Miller in Best Director.
John for predicting Inherent Vice in Best Costume Design.
Lindsay for predicting Laura Dern in Best Supporting Actress.
Stewart for predicting The Salt of the Earth in Best Documentary Feature.

You can head over to the full spreadsheet to see how everyone did.

Big thanks again to everyone who participated. I hope you'll join us next year again.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


Here are some last minute predictions for the Critics Choice Awards.

Best Picture
Boyhood

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

CONTEST: The Predictions!


It's time! The Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow and all the predictions are in for the 2015 Film Actually Oscar Contest. Thank you to all those participated and best of luck!

Click this link to see all the predictions:


N.B. - A "1" indicates your prediction. If you predict correctly, you keep the point. If not, then you get 0. In Best Picture, you get -1 for every wrong prediction.

Once the nominations have been announced, I'll start working on the spreadsheet and the official results should be posted by 2 PM US Eastern time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

REVIEW: Life Inside Out


Look at the lineups for any independent film festival and you'll observe that stories about personal reinvention are popular and common within cinema today. Just last year, two indie hits - "Begin Again" and "Chef" - featured such glaringly similar plot devices that one could have assumed they were written by the same person. While Jill D'Agnenica's new film "Life Inside Out" may not entirely change up this popular narrative, it gives a refreshing take, where the reinvention is about reaching deep inside yourself rather than changing who you are.

"Life Inside Out" tells the story of Laura - a wife, sister, daughter and mother of 3 who is dealing with uncertainty in her professional and personal life. Her husband is struggling to live up to his role as the breadwinner, requiring her to go on an unsuccessful job hunt. Meanwhile, her youngest son Shane has just hit the sulky teenage years to the bewilderment of his parents. One day however, Laura randomly decides to revisit an old passion (music), bringing back a sense of purpose and joy in her life. To help perfect her craft, she starts attending a weekly open mic night and brings Shane along for the ride. Soon enough, the pair realize they have much more in common then they thought (Shane has natural musical talent too), developing a deeper bond than either could have ever envisioned.

Based on the real life experiences of mother-son acting duo Maggie Baird and Finneas O'Connell, "Life Inside Out" is an uncommonly authentic film. Every scene is filled with little details that remind you of your own family dynamics - the brutal honesty between siblings, the rebelliousness of teenagers, the intrinsic selflessness of a mother. This lived-in quality is right on the mark. On a more general perspective, it approaches its plot with welcome restraint. Whereas other screenwriters may have chosen to turn Laura's musical aspirations into an all-encompassing family concern, Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso smartly hone it down to a more private, intimate level. In doing so, the burgeoning relationship between mom and son feels more earnest and truthful. The way they initially develop their music (performing and writing their own songs) like it's their own little secret is truly endearing.

That isn't to say the film isn't without its clunky moments, but those are overshadowed by the sensitive performances by the cast. Baird and O'Connell are a joy to watch, as their acting styles complement each other like a perfect duet. Their actual musical duets are beautiful too, contributing to the film's winning soundtrack. With its pleasant music, sincere performances and heartwarming script, this lovely film is one of 2015's first highlights.

"Life Inside Out" opens in NYC January 16-22.

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

Before I begin this post, I must acknowledge that I could have seen nearly all of the 20 contenders but...life is too damn short for me to put myself through "The Hero of Color City" or "Planes: Fire and Rescue". With that out of the way, I think I've covered all the major films in this category. I recently tweeted that this was a stronger year for animation overall than 2013 and I stand by that opinion. The quality of the animation across the board was impressive and the stories were varied and interesting. I strongly suggest you seek out some of these films if you've resisted them before (I know I'm often guilty of that). Here are my thoughts and predictions on this year's crop of animated films:

Monday, January 12, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Birdman


As you can probably tell from my latest reviews, I watched some great films this week. However, nothing dazzled me like Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film "Birdman". It honestly left me feeling unworthy of reviewing it, but I'll give a shot.

"Birdman" is a theater/cinema hybrid that follows a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who seeks to make a comeback on Broadway with an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. In his attempt to reinvigorate himself, Riggan takes on the ambitious task of directing, writing and starring in the play. The production starts off on a bad note however, as one of his lead actors gets injured on set. With the play's premiere fast approaching, a lucky opportunity arrives as the ideal replacement is found - a popular, talented actor named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Things are looking up for the play, until Riggan and Mike begin to clash over the latter's extreme method acting and their conflicting egos. All the while, Riggan is plagued by the nagging voice of Birdman in his head (the role he was famous for) and the threat of failure.

From its first frame, "Birdman" unleashes a full onslaught of creativity. A flaming spectre falls from the sky and then we cut to Riggan, levitating in his dressing room. The voice of Birdman then asks "How did we end up here?" and immediately, the film brings forth its central thematic concerns (disillusionment and rebirth) and challenges the audience's perceptions of reality. Soon after, Birdman adds "This place is horrible. Smells like balls...", introducing the black humor to the mix. The film then moves to the onstage and backstage proceedings surrounding the stage production and we get a hint of the type of classic melodrama which was prevalent during Hollywood's Golden Age. The secret affairs, alcohol abuse and backstabbing are all there.

"Birdman" is undoubtedly a contemporary work though, primarily for the innovative techniques it employs. If you hadn't heard already, the film is shot and edited to appear seem like a single long take. This illusion results in some absolutely exhilarating transitions between and within scenes. The creativity isn't just confined to the visuals either. For the background music, Antonio Sanchez's drum score is unlike anything you've experienced on film before.

Under all its movie magic, "Birdman" also has a great deal to say with its deft screenplay. There's an obvious metatextual commentary on Michael Keaton's own career, but there's also a more general exploration of the pressures that plague actors - pop culture's branding, the death knell of a negative review and the personal/familial struggles associated with fame. These themes are expressed with gusto by the film's sensational cast, which includes Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton. All of them bring their A-games to the film, making its unique challenge (i.e. the single take) seem effortless.

The bottom line is, "Birdman" is something of a miracle. There's a sustained brilliance in this film that's staggering to behold and even more perplexing to contemplate. Alejandro González Iñárritu was always a strong director, but with this latest film he has truly outdone himself.

FYC: Birdman


This post was created to accommodate all the awards tracker labels in blogger.

Click here for my full review of Birdman

OSCAR WATCH: The Songs

The Best Original Song category is always a crapshoot to predict, as it's almost impossible to get a consensus outside of 1 or 2 frontrunners. That being said, the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice awards can be helpful, as the eventual winner usually gets cited by both groups. Here's an overview of some of those songs that have already received some awards attention:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


Well, the Golden Globes happened and as expected, we were thrown a few curveballs (Amy Adams, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Leviathan). For the most part however, the established frontrunners continued their march to Oscar glory. Boyhood was the biggest winner of the day with its 3 awards, with Birdman and The Theory of Everything close behind with 2 wins each. It seems like the Boyhood train is unstoppable, guys. Here's the full list of winners below:

Best Picture (Drama)
Boyhood

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Actor (Drama)
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress (Drama)
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Amy Adams, Big Eyes

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

OSCAR WATCH: The Documentary Features

For the second year in a row, I decided to make a concerted effort to catch as many of the documentaries on the Oscar shortlist as possible. This underseen genre always provides some of the most fascinating stories in cinema and this year is no exception. This time around I was only able to catch 8 (compared to 10 last year) from the shortlist and inevitably missed some of the strongest conteders. In fact, it's very possible that I haven't seen any of the eventual nominees! Still, there was much to appreciate in this sample. I found the subjects of this year's films to be truly outstanding, even in cases where the filmmaking techniques underwhelmed. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on those 8 films:

OSCAR WATCH: Foxcatcher


It's an encouraging sign for American filmmaking when directors can take a genre as conventional as the "sports drama" and spin it in fascinating new ways. Yesterday I discussed the music-related "Whiplash" as an unlikely sports drama and now with "Foxcatcher", we have a drama that's actually about sports but feels even less like one. It comes as no surprise that such a result would come from Bennett Miller, whose previous outing "Moneyball" was a similarly unique exploration of sports and human psychology.

"Foxcatcher" is the true story of the Schultz brothers, who were Olympic wrestlers throughout the 1980s. Both were gold medal winners, but their success never lead to fame and fortune. The younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) is particularly miserable, living a lonely existence in a grungy home. The perfect opportunity arises ahead of the 1988 Olympic Games however, as a multi-millionaire named John du Pont invites Mark and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to live on his estate with access to his top-notch training facilities. Mark is quickly enticed by the opportunity but Dave declines, refusing to uproot his family. As Mark takes up the offer, he strikes a bond with John that seems to benefit both men, with John establishing himself as friend, father and mentor. However, John's insecurities begin to manifest itself in unanticipated ways, resulting in a dangerous situation for all three men.

Despite what the plot may indicate, audiences expecting to see the usual trajectory of a sports movie will likely be disappointed. "Foxcatcher" is undeniably an arthouse drama, heavily focused on character and mood. This "ripped from the headlines" story may be sensationalist, but the filmmaking is anything but.

Bennett Miller's direction is a masterclass in control. His scenes are patient and his visual language establishes a melancholy tone that never wavers, even in moments of jubilation. In some respects, "Foxcatcher" could even be considered a horror movie. For example, when Mark first arrives at the du Pont estate he's told not to go to the big house without permission, never to touch the horses and to stay away from the family's matriarch. Through Miller's direction these foreboding warnings are amplified further by the seemingly constant fog over the land and the gritty cinematography. The atmosphere washes over you and instills a sense of unease.

Indeed, "Foxcatcher" threatens to be an overly bleak, austere viewing experience. Thankfully, its ensemble is perfectly attuned to the director's sensibilities and is also able bring out the nuances of each character. The central trio (Tatum, Carell, Ruffalo) form an amazing dynamic with their distinct personalities. Tatum gives a brooding performance, wearing all his angst on his hulking body. As du Pont, Carell completely disappears into his role, giving a chilly and mysterious performance that's at times unnervingly impenetrable. It's truly an astonishing transformation for actor. Finally, there's the counterpoint of Ruffalo, whose Dave is the most relaxed and level-headed of them all. Together they bring out many of the film's best moments, especially in their one-on-one scenes. It's one of the best examples of great ensemble acting.

The foundation of all this brilliance however, is the film's sterling screenplay from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Much of the film's appeal is due to the deep layers of subtext in the dialogue, as well as the way it conceives its characters. Vanessa Redgrave's performance is strong proof of this. Despite playing the minor role of the du Pont matriarch (John's mother), she's well served by the script, haunting the film like a visible ghost. When she does speak, her minimal lines tell you everything you need to know about the family's heritage and the sources of John's eccentric personality. All in all, this screenplay is just impressively dense, with clear character motivations which speak to the pressures of patriotic duty and familial legacy.

"Foxcatcher" is simply an outstanding achievement. From the evocative art direction of the du Pont estate to the sparse but purposeful score, there's character in every aspect of this film. Sports movies are often synonymous with Hollywood entertainment but here's one that is also a true work of art.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


We finally get to see some speeches! The Golden Globes are tomorrow and we'll finally learn who the real Oscar frontrunners are. As always, its tough to predict the first show of the season, but I'm gonna give it my best shot. Here are my predictions:

Best Picture (Drama)
Boyhood

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Birdman

Best Actor (Drama)
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress (Drama)
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

CONTEST: See Who's Playing!


The big day is fast approaching and Oscar pundits are frantically trying to figure out how the nominations are going to play out. It looks to be a very tough year to predict, with many surprises in store. Once again, 34 bloggers from all across the web will be competing for glory in the Film Actually Oscar Contest. These entrants include our two previous winners (Gautam and Lindsay) as well as 6 newbies. Be sure to visit all of these awesome blogs below:

Me! - Film Actually
Samuel - The Awards Circuit
Gautam - The Cinemaholic
Josh - The Cinematic Spectacle
Nika - The Running Reel
Heather - That Film Girl
Daniel - Chicago Cinema Circuit
Jason - The Entertainment Junkie
Andrew - A Fistful of Films
Matt O. - Silver Screen Riot
Paul - Paul's Trip to the Movies
Shawna - Movie Endz
James - The Gold Knight
Liam - La La Film
Tony - Coogs Film Blog
Mark - The Awards Circuit
Matt F. - MovieAwardsPlus
Donovan - Awards and Such
David - Never Too Early Movie Predictions
Colin - Never Mind Pop Film
John - John Likes Movies
Jessica - French Toast Sunday
Joe - The MN Movie Man
Lindsay - French Toast Sunday
Vern - The Vern's Video Vortex
Ryan - Lord of the Films
Alex - Time for a film
Todd - ToddMThacher.com
Murtada - ME_Says
Stewart - TalkieGazette
Jay - Life vs Film
Terence - Le Noir Auteur
Kai - Cinema-Alert
Denizcan - One Man, One Blog

- Your predictions are due by 6PM EST on Jan 14th. They will then be posted here on a spreadsheet for everyone to see.
- Remember: once you have sent me the link, those will be entered as your FINAL predictions. No further changes will be accepted.

Friday, January 9, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Whiplash


Oscar season is well underway and like clockwork, the usual cynics have come out to belittle awards pundits for making something as subjective as art (i.e. cinema) into a competition. To those people, I submit the case of "Whiplash". Though it's set in the art world of an ambitious young drummer, its narrative shares some of the competitive DNA of a sports movie.

"Whiplash" is the story of 19-year old Andrew Neiman, a student at the Shaffer Conservatory, which is the best music shool in the US. One day, he is fortunate enough to be invited to try out for the school's elite competitive jazz band, headed by the mercurial Terence Fletcher. Following an initial audition, he's accepted for a trial period alongside some other candidates and soon establishes a tumultuos relationship with his perfectionist instructor. Both men share the same aspirational outlook, but Andrew soon finds that Fletcher's overbearing teaching methods may soon tip him over his breaking point.

In analyzing the film's merits, one could easily frame a review like a BuzzFeed article, with a title like "10 Things Whiplash gets right about professional athletes". Due to my own personal experience - through involvement in competitive squash - the most impressive aspect was how accurately it portrayed the lifestyle of an athlete. In particular, it highlights something we tend to forget when we glamorize sports stars - the level of insanity required to attain world-class success. Indeed, ask any top athlete about their training routine and you'll likely get exhausted just thinking about it.

Chazelle approaches "Whiplash" with the same "blood, sweat and tears" manifesto that drives a top athlete. The more Fletcher pushes, the more Andrew exerts himself to injurious ends. As the film shows Andrew's repetitive, long rehearsals, it's particularly reflective of an old-school style of sports training, when science/technology hadn't yet evolved to value efficiency over excessive practice. His dogged will to win takes precedence over everything else, including romantic relationships and his general well-being.

The personalities in the film are also analogous to that of many athletes and coaches. Like many successful sportsmen, Andrew is undeniably arrogant. Miles Teller plays this character trait brilliantly, where he's sometimes oblivious to his selfishness, while other times he's defiantly proud of his achievements. JK Simmons is just as impactful in the role of Fletcher, a man who could be described as monstrous under normal circumstances. Yet despite the constant barrage of physical and verbal abuse, he manages to garner sympathy for the devil. There's a method to his madness, as he acknowledges the difference between being great and GREAT (or as internet lingo would call it, GOAT). The riveting intensity these two actors bring in pursuit of this goal cannot be understated, as they often confront each other as rivals rather than a teacher-student relationship.

Much like his characters, Chazelle's directing style is just as perfectionist. The tight framing of his shots capture the pressure cooker atmosphere that Andrew experiences, while the editing has a precise, rhythmic quality which leaves no room for idle scenes. As a former jazz drummer himself, it's a vibrant display of Chazelle's own musicality (a common theme throughout his young filmography). Chazelle's screenwriting still lacks the polish of his directing (some of his dialogue is too obvious), but it's easily his best screenplay to date.

Through the execution of its narrative and characters, "Whiplash" turns out to be one of the surprise "sports movie" triumphs of 2014. Of course, what would a sports movie be without a thrilling climax? "Whiplash" certainly continues this trend, culminating in a scene as exhilarating as any last-second winnning jumpshot or touchdown. It's one of the finest movie endings you'll ever see, all the more impressive from a director who's only just beginning his promising career. Bravo Damien Chazelle. Bravo.

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Nominations


In the wee hours of the morning the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) announced their film award nominees for 2014. They joined a number of other industry nods this week and helped to solidify the Oscar race further. At the end of their announcement, it was The Grand Budapest Hotel which led all films with a staggering 11 nods. Here's the full list:

Best Picture
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Best British Film
'71
The Imitation Game
Paddington
Pride
The Theory of Everything
Under the Skin

Best Actor
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Best Supporting Actor
Edward Norton, Birdman
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Best Supporting Actress
Emma Stone, Birdman
Imelda Staunton, Pride
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Rene Russo, Nightcrawler

Director
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
James Marsh, The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Wild


Following up on the great success of his previous film (2013's "Dallas Buyer's Club"), Jean-Marc Vallée is back with a new drama called "Wild". Like the former, it's yet another character study of a real life individual, but it poses a wholly different set of challenges. Focusing on a single character's lonesome journey, Vallée proves that he's willing to continue testing his own storytelling abilities.

"Wild" is the adaptation of "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail", a memoir by Cheryl Strayed. In this film, Strayed is played by Reese Witherspoon, who relives Strayed's ambitious trek through the Pacific Crest Trail. Throughout the 1,100-mile journey, we see various flashbacks into Strayed's life as we learn more about the experiences which lead her to take this hike. For her, it was a necessary course of action to ease the physical and emotional pain that resulted from the heartbreaking loss of her mother (played by Laura Dern).

The film's plot synopsis may not immediately jump out as anything particularly ambitious but on closer engagement, it's clear that "Wild" is one of the more daring filmmaking endeavours of the year. Conceptually, it brings up various questions. How do you set a film in nature without appearing like a Malick rip-off? How do you make an existential narrative not seem contrived? How do you make a lonesome trek exciting?

To address these questions, Vallée - with the help of scribe Nick Hornby - make some astute choices. In terms of avoiding any Malick-esque tendencies, the film firmly places the focus on Strayed and her human relationships. In doing so, it's unsentimental in its expression of the natural world. The cinematography never indulges in overly attractive "postcard" imagery, with barely any lingering shots of the environment. Rather, it highlights the harshness of the environment (blistering heat, rugged terrain, dangerous animals) and the difficulties Strayed faces along the way.

Stylistically, the flashback format introduces an intriguing "stream of consciousness" element to the present day plot. As such, it brings depth to a narrative that boldly refuses to adhere to the rules of the "existential crisis" film. Specifically, the wandering trip isn't conceived as something life-changing. It's more akin to a timeout used to regroup during a gruelling stretch in the game of life. This refreshing approach strips the film of any lofty ambitions of redemption, allowing the viewer to engage with the character in a more intimate level.

Of all its positive attributes, the best is perhaps the casting of Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. As noted earlier, this is first and foremost a human story and therefore requires characters that you can engage with. In Witherspoon and Dern, this is never an issue, as they both bring a strong level of authenticity that surpasses what's written for the characters. Dern makes full use of her small role as Cheryl's ailing mother (affected by cancer), effortlessly conveying a woman of unwavering warmth and benevolence. In particular, the way she puts on a brave face for her children (despite a torrid relationship with Cheryl's father and her eventual illness) is instantly empathetic and recognizable.

Similarly, Witherspoon also pulls off the tricky balance of portraying a character who's vulnerable but also possesses willful determination. The role serves as a strong reminder of her movie star screen presence, as she's completely captivating despite giving a very lived-in, understated performance. It's an unglamourous role with a caustic edge which gives the film much of its humour (through the acknowledgement of her lack of hiking experience), as well as its more harrowing character beats (through her history of self-destructive behavior). Together, Dern and Witherspoon elevate the material, filling in their roles with subtle actorly details and taking the script to a place of earthly grace and complexity.

Unfortunately, this same inspired script eventually succumbs to some of the temptation to reach for a profound endpoint. In a film with a more defined narrative arc, this would have been a nice poetic touch. In this case however, it becomes the only significant drawback in an otherwise impressively restrained film. Still, this is ultimately a satisfying story when you consider its pleasant journey rather than its uncertain destination.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

AMPAS declares Whiplash is an Adapted Screenplay!


News broke late last night that the Oscar ballot has Whiplash listed under Adapted Screenplay, contrary to the campaign's insistence that the film is an original work. As you may know, the film is merely the full version of a snippet that was shown at Sundance to present the film for potential financing. It seems like a legit reasoning for it to be considered original but alas, the Academy has spoken. This means that the seemingly threadbare Adapted race has another viable contender, while Original now has more room for uncertain contenders like Foxcatcher and Selma. With its poor guild showing so far (to put it mildly), the latter film will be especially grateful for this boost.

My predictions have been adjusted accordingly.

Monday, January 5, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Timbuktu


On first glance at the plot synopsis for "Timbuktu", one might expect a film that’s staunchly anti-religion. In the hands of Abderrahmane Sissako however, this depiction of the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu is given the compelling nuance you’d expect from an established filmmaker. In this bracing drama, the problem lies not within religion itself but the totalitarian power that it can afford.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, January 4, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Into the Woods


Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of...oops, wrong musical. Still, the sentiment applies to Rob Marshall's latest Broadway adaptation "Into the Woods". After catching the film this week, all I could think about was all that glorious singing.

I must confess, it doesn't take much for me to like a musical film. Just give me some nice songs and lovely voices and I'm halfway there. That's exactly what Marshall does with this splendid cast and the wonderful songs that make up Stephen Sondheim's riff on classic fairy tales. The story combines the plots of characters we all know - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella - as a baker and his wife approach them for magical items to break a family curse. All the characters have problems of their own however, as their journeys into the woods reveal that the world is more dangerous and complicated than they expected. As they attempt to fulfill their hopes and dreams, they come to realize the myth of their individual "fairy tales".

Of course, this is all set to music with zest and vigour. Tony Award winner Anna Kendrick clearly brings the most musical theater experience, but you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of the primary cast (Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, James Corden) are just as able to deliver. Even Johnny Depp is serviceable as the ridiculously outfitted "Wolf". They all possess such beautiful voices, but even more crucial is their skilled sing-acting. For most, Streep is the standout in the marquee role as The Witch, but it's Chris Pine who really steals the show as the irresistibly debonair playboy that is Cinderella's Prince. It's his best performance to date.

Not everything is as pitch perfect as the music and the performances however. The fundamental issue in the transfer of this material from stage to screen is the loss of intimacy. I had the pleasure of watching a live stage performance of this musical and it's one that struck me as a quaint but affecting concept. The dramatic turn of events following the intermission is an emotional gutpunch, a feeling I didn't get from this version (or even from a recorded version of the show). On film unfortunately, there's less attachment to the characters and the story ends up feeling a bit trivial.

These intimacy issues are somewhat inevitable in producing a big screen fairy tale though. You can't make this story without expanding the scale of it with those big giants and flashy special effects. For what it's worth, I did appreciate cinematographer Dion Beebe's visual interpretation of the woods. What's most important however, is that it does retain its best attributes - the songs and the story's poignant messages about the importance of family, community and kindness. "Into the Woods" is classic entertainment, a true visual and aural treat.

Friday, January 2, 2015

REVIEW: Teeth and Blood


A pair of fresh voices on the indie scene has arrived with the new horror film "Teeth and Blood". This debut narrative feature is co-directed by Al Franklin and Pamela J. Richardson, who previously worked together on the documentary "Gold Diggin': For Love of Money". As you can surmise from the title, this production sees them exploring the world of vampires.

The events of the film take place around a film shoot, after a diva actress is murdered and her body vanishes. Production on the film is halted only briefly however, as the director soon seeks out a replacement. In step undercover detectives Mike Hung and Sasha Colfax, who are brought in to investigate the case. Colfax manages to land the deceased actress' role, while Hung takes up a job as a grip on the set. Things get even more mysterious however, as the city's supply of donated blood is begins to run low. Something's not right about this movie and its crew, but will our detectives figure it out before it's too late?

As this race against the clock ensues, the film juggles its horror elements and typical crime drama procedural to middling effect. Apart from some frightening special effects work on the vampires, genuine scares are rare. Horror films are prone to veer into camp without the right attention to detail and it seems like the low budget was a constraint on this production. It's a case where the visual design (art direction and cinematography) struggles to convey the requisite sense of dread and fear.

The film does fare better as a murder mystery, though only marginally. Sean Christopher and Michelle Van Der Water are well-matched as the detectives, but the screenplay fails to harness the potential of this dynamic duo. In general, all the characters are bit too broadly sketched for my liking.

Yet what it lacks in atmosphere and character development, it compensates for in - for lack of a better word - swagger. Unlike most other horror films (or mainstream films in general), this urban-set tale features a predominantly black cast. Rather than being relegated to minor supporting roles, these actors are given the chance to play the main protagonists and villains. In doing so, the colorful characters bring a unique flavor to the horror genre. Notably, Van Der Water fierce confidence and sensuality is reminiscent of Sharon Leal, while King Kedar amuses as an outlandish pimp who's aptly named Ghetto Vampire. This fresh approach is a welcome change which is enough to make the film worth your time. "Teeth and Blood" probably won't be giving you any nightmares but it offers a vital new perspective.

"Teeth and Blood" is now exclusively available for digital streaming on Urban Movie Channel.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: The Grand Budapest Hotel


After a startlingly strong start to the awards season, I decided it was time to revisit one of the year's earliest hits "The Grand Budapest Hotel". When I watched the film this past summer, I never imagined it would have such staying power in the "year's best" conversation. Now, several months later, it's clear that Wes Anderson's latest curio is headed for the Oscar race in a big way.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" follows the exploits of a concierge named Gustave H. who oversees the operations of the titular hotel. He's a popular man, especially with the hotel's older female guests. One of them is a Madame D., who abruptly passes early on in the film. Determined to understanding the circumstances surrounding her death, Gustave goes to her wake with his new lobby boy in tow. There he learns that she has bequeathed him a precious painting. This news unleashes outrage within the family, resulting in a wild screwball adventure involving a wealth of eccentric characters.

Upon a first look, my initial response to this film was one of respectful admiration rather than outright enthusiasm. I've always had a complicated relationship to Wes Anderson's work - save for "The Royal Tenenbaums" - as his schtick often fails to connect with me on an emotional level. Such was the feeling again with "The Grand Budapest Hotel", as I was unable to warm to its conscious artifice as well as a plot that I found ultimately tiring.

This second time around however, I found it to be a much more enjoyable experience. Quite unusually, the DVD screener version seemed to give me a better appreciation for the film's exemplary craft, moreso than on the big screen. This is a dense, fast-paced film and if you're not immersed in the experience, you're likely to get lost in its meticulously designed world. Its madcap plot is constantly moving and is rich in dialogue.

What I noticed from this condensed perspective were all the incredible little details. For example, Alexander Desplat's buoyant score that sets the film's energetic atmosphere. Also the bright colour palette, from those pink Mendl's pastry boxes to that red elevator. On top of that, each image is precisely framed as if every shot were a "money shot". The production design and cinematography are truly top-notch. Likewise, the costumes are exquisite and the makeup and hairstyling add so much character.

Indeed, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is film that is all about character - including the charming hotel itself and the extensive troupe of actors. Many of Anderson's usual players are back (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) but even more impressive are the less obvious roles, like Tilda Swinton as a wealthy lady well past her prime (the pivotal Madame D.) or relative newcomer Tony Revolori as the lobby boy. You wouldn't immediately think of some of these actors in their roles, but after seeing the film you won't be able to envision anyone else.

This is easily one of the best cast films of the year and this is never more evident than in Ralph Fiennes' lead performance as Gustave H. Though known more for his dramatic work, Fiennes is perfect in this comedic role, fully inhabiting the role with his impeccable line delivery and elegant carriage. It's a performance that allows him to let loose too, as he sinks his teeth into some of that deliciously foul language that was so memorable in "In Bruges". Fiennes is a pure delight in this film and it seems like Anderson is particularly fond of this character too. The film truly comes alive whenever he's on screen (everything surrounding the prison break is genius). When he - or Revolori for that matter - isn't the focus, I often found my interest waning.

As such, I still struggle to find the deeper connection that it attempts to foster through its narrative style (a single narrator reminiscing about the past). For a film with such mature elements (violence, tragedy, sex, explicit language) it's disappointingly lightweight when it comes to engaging with anything resembling thematic or emotional depth.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is therefore an enjoyable film that I remain unable to fully embrace. However, when you isolate all the pieces of this puzzle, it is without a doubt one of the finest filmmaking efforts of 2014. It's like the loveliest storybook come to life.