Thursday, April 30, 2015

20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2015

As you would have undoubtedly heard already, tomorrow marks the US premiere of "Avengers: Age of Ultron", signaling the arrival of the summer season at the movies. Following this, we'll be getting a new mainstream action/comedy film each week to bring in the big bucks to the studios all through the summer months. Interspersed within these cash cows too, will be several smaller releases to prepare us for the full onslaught of prestige cinema towards the end of the year. As a primer for the busy period ahead, I've therefore prepared a list of performances I'm looking forward to for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Bright Star


This week for Hit me with your best shot we watched a drop dead gorgeous film by Jane Campion - "Bright Star". It tells the story of the romance between famous poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne and it's a film I remembered fondly from my first viewing about 5 years ago. The years have also been kind to the film, as it has only improved in my estimation. It's less stuffy than I'd remembered, with all the actors seeming so comfortable in their roles. This accessibility is quite a feat considering it's based on the most highbrow of propositions - a costume drama about poets, set in the early 18th century. Much of the appeal is surely due to the amazing cinematography, which provides such a rich sensory experience. My pick for best shot then, is one that visualizes how the film makes me feel.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, April 27, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Paris, Texas


With the 2015 Cannes Film Festival just around the corner, this week's top pick is appropriately one of the most revered Palme d'Or winners of all time. The film is none other than Wim Wenders' 1984 drama "Paris, Texas", starring Harry Dean Stanton. In it, Stanton plays a wandering man who must come to terms with his past when he's found by his brother in the desert.

"Paris, Texas" opens with a majestic wide shot, showing the vast landscape of an unknown desert area of Texas. The scene is desolate, save for a mysterious man (Stanton) who traverses the land with seemingly nowhere to go. It doesn't take long before we find out more about him, as he makes his way to a bar and his brother is notified of his appearance. It turns out that the man's name is Travis and he's been missing for four years.

As his brother brings him to his home in Los Angeles, the initially mute Travis gradually opens up. We learn that Travis left behind a young son, who has since been informally adopted by his brother and his wife. Their reunion is understandably prickly, but they eventually start to rebuild a bond. Something is still nagging at Travis though, forcing him to hit the road again to find closure on the harrowing events that haunted him all these years.

From the outset, "Paris, Texas" carries an intriguing sense of familiarity. Immediately, the film's title and stunning cinematography of its introduction suggest a transformative journey to come. Our central characters also recall movie stars from previous decades, especially Nastassja Kinski as Travis' estranged wife, whose gorgeous side profile takes us back to Ingrid Bergman in her prime. Most importantly though, there's the trauma that Stanton wears on his face and his slight frame. It's of the sort that doesn't take long to identify - heartbreak.

What makes the film so special then, is how Wenders and his screenwriters (Sam Shepard and L. M. Kit Carson) take these familiar traits and manipulates them into something that feels entirely fresh and personal. The Paris of the film's title doesn't represent a final destination, but serves rather as a memory and a perfect "white-picket fence" ideal, which leads to his present despair. Likewise, the subplot of Travis' bonding with his son develops into one of the film's most sincere elements, removing the broad sentimentality that has become commonplace in the road trip subgenre. All the while, the actors give performances - again, Stanton and Kinski deserve singling out - that feel organic and specific to this film. They engage you with every word spoken and every tear cried, never more so than in the pivotal scene where we finally learn the details of Travis' harrowing past.

Ultimately, "Paris, Texas" reminds us that in order to move forward, we sometimes have to revisit the past. Similarly, it proves that familiar cinematic tropes can form the basis for inspired filmmaking. Like Travis, we may bring our own expectations of Paris, Texas. The key to success however, is being prepared to embrace and appreciate the possibility of an altogether different journey.

This film is part of my German Cinema marathon.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

COMING SOON: Noble

Heading to select theaters in a few weeks is a biographical drama called "Noble", directed by Stephen Bradley. It tells the story of Christina Noble, an inspiring Irish woman who overcame her own difficult childhood to help over 700,000 homeless children in Vietnam. The film has already racked up awards at various festivals across America, so it's definitely one to watch. I'm definitely intrigued by the cast, which includes Brendan Coyle, Liam Cunningham and Deirdre O'Kane as Noble . Check out the trailer below.



Noble opens in theaters May 8th.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Nine to Five


This week's featured film on Hit me with our best shot is the somewhat odd, altogether entertaining 1980 comedy "Nine to Five". Directed by Colin Higgins, it plays like a self-contained sitcom episode of "Mad Men" that's focused on the women while retaining the relatively understated performances. Indeed, there are obvious comparisons to be made with the film's leads, especially Dolly Parton's buxom Doralee and Jane Fonda's inexperienced Judy, who reminded me of Joan and season 1 Peggy respectively.

But enough about "Mad Men". My pick for Best Shot in "Nine to Five" came right off the bat during the catchy opening theme song.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, April 20, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul


This week's top pick is a 1974 West German film called "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul". Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is one of the most highly acclaimed works to come out of the New German Cinema movement, fostered by the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962. Following the lives of two unlikely companions, it tells a story of love and intolerance in post-Hitler Germany.

"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" centers around Emmi - a German cleaning woman in her 60s - and Ali, a Moroccon immigrant worker in his 30s. The pair meet in a bar in their local German town, where Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is often found kicking back with other compadres of Arabic origins. Their introduction comes about when Emmi (a terrific Brigitte Mira) enters the bar, entranced by the Arabic music. Upon the encouragement of one of the women in the bar, Ali approaches Emmi for a dance. Almost instantly, the pair find a common understanding and an extended nightcap in her home turns into a full-fledged romance. But their bliss is soon degraded by society's scorn, as many of the locals (especially Emmi's own family) dissaprove of the match based purely on racial grounds. With the pressures of society bearing down on them, their relationship is put to the test.

It's said that "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" was influenced by the conventions of melodrama, particularly the films made by noted director Douglas Sirk. But what immediately struck me about this film was its subtlety. Sure, it's about a taboo love affair, but it largely avoids the extremes of emotion and plot turns which define the genre. The biggest turning point in the film is an impromptu marriage proposal between Emmi and Ali. Yet despite the big ruckus it causes, the scene is presented as simply a pragmatic solution to loneliness and unhappiness.

Indeed, the performances and script never go over the top in their delivery. The two leads act with a matter-of-factness that's a little stilted at times, but is very efficient and effective. On the screenwriting side, Fassbinder eschews any elaborate turns of phrase for a simpler, more direct approach which pays dividends in the long run. Aside from the sociocultural aspects, the film also examines some of the struggles which plague all relationships. As Emmi and Ali's marriage progresses, the necessity of selfless compromise comes across so clearly. It's a testament to the filmmaker and his cast that a simple conversation about couscous could have such potency.

In the end, it's this refusal to be overtly poignant that has allowed "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" to stand the test of time. Its portrayal of infidelity, class conflict and racial discrimination is well-considered and moving. This was my first Fassbinder film and it's truly a great place to start.

This film is part of my German Cinema marathon.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

REVIEW: The Dead Lands


There is no place for peace. These are the words uttered by the main atagonist Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), in one of the opening scenes of Toa Fraser’s "The Dead Lands". The statement is a strong indicator of what’s to come, as the film takes us on an action-packed ride with its depiction of an epic tribal conflict.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Taxi Driver


For Hit me with your best shot this week, we looked at the 1976 Scorsese classic "Taxi Driver". This complex film could be interpreted under numerous genres like crime, neo-noir or romance, but above all, it's a fascinating character study of its titular vigilante. Robert De Niro gives one of his most compelling performances as Travis Bickle and his character arc is what I was most drawn to for my best shot.

Click below for my best shot...

Monday, April 13, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Cinderella


Almost exactly 4 years ago, the world watched with eyes peeled at the wedding of Prince William and relative "commoner" Kate Middleton. I was one of those persons, intrigued by the real-life fairy tale nature of the proceedings. It was a firm reminder that the Cinderella story is one that will never go out of style, destined to be retold for generations to come. It's with that frame of mind that I came to appreciate the latest film adaptation of "Cinderella", given an unabashedly old-fashioned interpretation by director Kenneth Branagh.

The plot for "Cinderella" needs no explaining, but here's a rundown just in case. Cinderella is a happy young girl who lives with her parents in a beautiful home tucked away in a kingdom. Everything is perfect for a time, until tragedy strikes. Her mother falls ill and soon passes, leaving Cinderella and her father alone in their grief. Eventually, her father remarries to a snobbish widow named Lady Tremaine (played by Cate Blanchett), who brings her pair of bratty daughters with her. Now a teenager some years later, Cinderella has finally gotten over her sadness, when tragedy strikes yet again. Her father goes away on a trip and doesn't return. So Cinderella is left with her stepmother and stepsisters who grow more and more cruel by the day. Before long, Cinderella becomes their servant and is banished to the attic. Her days are filled with misery and loneliness, but Cinderella maintains the positive attitude that her mother instilled in her as a child. Her cheerful disposition will serve her well, as a fateful encounter with a prince will set her on an a magical journey that may restore peace and happiness in her life once more.

The virtue of kindness and generosity is what drives the narrative of "Cinderella", especially when it comes to Lily James in the lead role. The young actress is simply radiant here, reminiscent of the sort of warmth and genuine goodness displayed by Olivia de Havilland in "Gone With the Wind". It's truly a breakout performance and I'd be surprised if her star doesn't continue to rise from here.

Likewise, Richard Madden is compelling as the Prince, making his character just as intriguing as our heroine. Disney Princes often run the risk of being bland, but this combination of sympathetic characterization and charismatic performance ensures that he is every bit Cinderella's equal. Madden's success in the role is consistent with the appeal of the rest of the cast, where the best performances seem to come exclusively from the "good guys". As the main antagonist, the scowling meanness of Cate Blanchett's Lady Tremaine seems glaringly out of place in the world Branagh has created here. Though she gets a few lines to justify her attitude, the character struggles to feel like a real human being.

Indeed, most of the attention is paid to the grandeur of the kingdom itself. Branagh's direction is frequently awe-inspiring in that regard, employing gorgeous establishing shots to express an epic scale that we normally don't get from this story. On top of that, the film features some absolutely stunning costumes by Sandy Powell. The clothing is such an important aspect to the Cinderella story (the glass slipper, the show-stopping ball gown) and Powell does not disappoint. In fact, Blanchett owes much of her own character development to the luxe stylings.

In the end, the film gives you everything you want from a "Cinderella" adaptation. It has a true sense of adventure and romance, along with dashes of the Disney humour that became popular during the studio's Renaissance. Sure, you could complain that the screenplay plays it too close to that old-school formula, but this gratifying production proves that it still works in 2015. It's overly familiar, but Branagh makes a heartwarming, grand spectacle out of it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

REVIEW: To Life!


"To Life!", the latest film from German director Uwe Janson, is a film that seems well suited for today’s audiences. Melding familiar topics like post-Holocaust trauma and the tragedy of terminally ill youth, it hits many of the expected beats. The result is a film that’s effective in engendering pathos, but already feels destined to be forgotten.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Johnny Guitar


This week on Hit me with your best shot we looked at an unusual (in a good way) film, "Johnny Guitar". It's a rare Western where two women are given the meatiest roles, in the form of Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Both gave strong performances - especially the strikingly confident and authoritative Crawford - and I loved how the central conflict boiled down to a showdown between them. Therefore my pick for Best Shot is an image that speaks to this tension, when McCambridge's Emma Small momentarily gets the upper hand. You can sense the satisfaction in the scene as she burns Vienna's saloon to the ground, arms wide open like a sorceress over her cauldron.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

REVIEW: Schmitke


The woods can be a creepy, dangerous place. That’s what the title character in Stepan Altrichter’s "Schmitke" learns as he finds himself caught up in a mystery in the Czech Republic’s Ore Mountains. With unexplained disappearances and possible murder, the stage is set for a bizarre, unsettling film.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, April 6, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Luck By Chance


This week's top pick "Luck By Chance" is a rare treat, a non-musical Bollywood film made by a female director. In 2009, Zoya Akhtar made her feature debut with this drama about a young man who finds himself on the verge of stardom in the Hindi film industry. Perfectly befitting its title, I stumbled upon it by chance and subsequently felt fortunate to have witnessed this strong piece of work.

The film begins with our star Vikram (played by Zoya's brother Farhan), who is fresh out of acting school and keen to make a name for himself. As he slums it in Mumbai, he finds company with a pair of longtime friends and a new acquaintance named Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma), his eventual romantic interest. All of them are desperately seeking fame, especially Sona, who has been working for years in small supporting roles, hoping for a breakout. From her, Vikram learns of the difficulty of making it in the world of Bollywood, especially as a woman. But they support each other's dreams without fail, leading to a fortunate event that sends Vikram on the road to stardom. Hearing about an opening in an upcoming high-profile film, Sona selflessly slips Vikram's headshots to the producer (who promised her a star vehicle to no avail) and he ends up charming his way into the lead role. As the fame gets to his head, Vikram starts to crave the good life, including his hot new co-star Nikki (Isha Sharvani). As his star rises, he's forced to learn the hard way that money and fame isn't everything.

"Luck By Chance" is a fascinating riff on the "A Star is Born" narrative, deftly translated to an Indian setting. Its satirical intentions are made clear from the outset, drawing attention to Bollywood's penchant for superficiality and its obsession with a small group of stars. Particularly insightful is its critique of the industry's worship of male actors over actresses. Western audiences would hardly bat an eye at this - it is of course, the established norm in Hollywood - but it's a curious practice for a film industry so resolutely founded on lavish musicals. An early scene in an acting school is especially enlightening, as the instructor states "It is easy to become an actor in Hollywood. But in Hindi films, very difficult. The Hindi film hero not only acts, but also sings, dances, does comedy and excels at action." An aspiring actress then asks about female roles and he curtly responds "That too, takes some...effort."

It's with that attitude that the film makes an intriguing gender digression from the "A Star is Born" template, charting the rise of Vikram and the unending struggle of Sona. All throughout, Akhtar's script makes sharp observations in a metatextual way. Just as the film in the plot tries to break the rules with an anti-hero protagonist played by a fresh face and favors realism over exuberant escapism, so too does Akhtar approach her film and its main character.

Yet while the film challenges the formula in some respects, Akhtar still embraces Bollywood's mainstay traditions. While Farhan was a relatively fresh face at the time (he was more known for his acclaimed direction of 2001's "Dil Chahta Hai"), she fills the cast with a staggering lineup of the industry's biggest stars and personalities. The cameos are the ultimate fan service for Bollywood aficionados. Even I was giddy with delight at seeing the familiar faces. On the other hand, Akhtar adopts some of the less favorable traits of Bollywood films. Specifically, there's always a sense that the film could have gone deeper and darker with its "Inside Bollywood" exposé. Of course, one would assume there were limitations on the film's content. After all, Bollywood is an industry with separate awards categories for "Most Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment". On a technical level, the cinematography is also disappointingly bland for a film about Bollywood.

Taking everything into consideration however, the good vastly outweighs the bad in this instance. Having seen Akhtar's more refined 2011 follow-up "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara", I accept the minor flaws as first film "greenness". All in all, "Luck By Chance" is conceptually refreshing and thoroughly captivating. It provides rewarding viewing for Bollywood fans and a nice introduction for the newbies.

BLOGATHON: A Fistful of Moments


For Andrew's A Fistful of Moments Blogathon, I decided to use the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite scenes. It comes from the 2005 adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice", directed by Joe Wright. I watch this at least once a week and every time, it leaves me feeling weak at the knees. Here's why...

Saturday, April 4, 2015

REVIEW: Tour De Force


A little over a month ago, Eddie Redmayne was the toast of Tinseltown for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". The story was an inspiring portrait of a man suffering with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), showing how he coped with the disease for decades with the support of his loved ones. Marsh’s film makes a good reference point for Christian Zübert’s new drama "Tour De Force", which features a main character with the same disease, but approaches it from a markedly different perspective.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Mommie Dearest


In honor of April Fools' Day, Nathaniel chose a doozy of a film for this week's Hit me with your best shot - "Mommie Dearest". This camp classic was a major winner at the 1982 Razzie Awards (and once again 8 years later, winning Worst Picture of the Decade) and is infamous for Faye Dunaway's portrayal of Joan Crawford. This was my first time watching the film and boy, Dunaway's go-for-broke performance is certainly memorable. She really should be commended for taking on such an unflattering role. In choosing my best shot, I was naturally drawn to the trademark element of Crawford's persona - her face.

Click below for my favourite shot...