Tuesday, May 31, 2016

REVIEW: The Idol

Earlier this year, American Idol aired its final episode after years of dominating the TV ratings. The phenomenon was the most successful of the Idols franchise, which included many iterations of the format around the world. One of those was Arab Idol, the Middle Eastern version of the competition which forms the basis for Hany Abu-Assad's latest feature "The Idol". Based on an inspiring true story, the film furthers Abu-Assad’s reputation for complex, humane portrayals of the Palestinian people.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, May 29, 2016

REVIEW: Barbershop: The Next Cut

In our era of hashtag activism, it's easier to complain about what's wrong with society and culture, rather than celebrating the more positive strides people are making everyday towards a better world. When it comes to the issue of diversity in film, one person who is certainly deserving of more praise is the multi-hyphenate film producer Ice Cube. Since his first feature "Friday" in 1995, to his latest installment in his Barbershop franchise, Ice Cube has always been savvy in his filmmaking exploits, with a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Especially when it comes to bringing the African-American experience to the big screen, he has proven time and time again that he knows how to speak to that niche audience. In "Barbershop: The Next Cut", that voice is as strong as ever, touching on meaningful contemporary issues without sacrificing his ability to entertain.

"Barbershop: The Next Cut" takes us back for another round of hijinks at Calvin's Barbershop. It's been 10 years since the last major fight to keep the doors open and things haven't gotten any easier. The surrounding community and the city of Chicago at large is plagued by rising violence, as gangs become more and more powerful in their attempts to claim their turf. With an impressionable young son growing up in this environment, the crime rate is of major concern to Calvin, who also has to worry about keeping his business afloat (now shared with a woman named Angie and her beauty salon). Inevitably, the violence starts to hit closer to home, creating a crisis that affects everyone, forcing Calvin and his gang to take a stand. But can their efforts really make an impact?

Hot off the heels of Spike Lee's impassioned plea for peace in "Chi-Raq", this film tackles the issue of violence in Chicago head on. Like that film, the unending cycle of tragedy makes way for an attempted truce that seems doomed to fail. But similarly, the message becomes more important than the actual solution, as the film wears its heart on its sleeve to show how collective action can prove change.

Indeed, the franchise has always been predicated on the power of family and community, whether it be Calvin and his employees, or the more literal family at the heart of the story. And the always reliable cast of actors take this to heart, creating believable chemistry that has grown increasingly effortless through the years. As expected, the highlight is once again Cedric the Entertainer's cantankerous Eddie, always dependable for a hilarious one-liner that seems to set the tone for the relentless laughs to come.

Along with Eddie and the other usual suspects, a number of new and colorful characters are introduced, including Nicki Minaj as Draya, Lamorne Morris as Jerrod and Utkarsh Ambudkar's Raja in the token non-black role as Raja. Admittedly, this new ensemble doesn't quite gel like the original team - mostly due to weaker character writing - but individually, they all add to the film's sharp dialogue-heavy dynamic.

And indeed, the words written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver bring up some interesting questions about blackness that prove why there's still life in this series of seemingly trivial films. Aside from the issues surrounding crime in the black community, the casually conversational premise allows the film to touch on deep topics without feeling heavy-handed. Among the topics discussed are the notion of "good hair", discrimination in a presumably post-racial America, the lingering effects of segregation and above all else, loyalty to the black community.

By and large these discussions are handled with great humor and intelligence, but the latter aspect continues to be one of the franchise's most nagging misteps. Once again, a central conflict of the story is Calvin's secret plans to seek a better life for his family. And like the previous films, he's made to feel ashamed for his ambition. For a film that promotes black empowerment, it's disappointing and contradictory to see this character being stifled for purely sentimental purposes.

Apart from this groan-worthy recurring trope however, "Barbershop 3: The Next Cut" is a laugh-a-minute crowdpleaser that is well worth your time. While it may not improve on the original, it is perhaps the most consistently funny and thought-provoking of the Barbershop films. Actor-producer Ice Cube has delivered another winner, one that should make Chicago proud and leave audiences longing for their next visit to this fine establishment.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


Ever since its premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, Anna Rose Holmer's "The Fits" has been quietly building acclaim along the festival circuit. Featuring a breakout performance by debut actress Royalty Hightower, the film has an intriguing premise about a young tomboy who tries to fit in with a dance troupe and soon notices they are plagued by a mysterious illness. From the looks of it, this could be one of this summer's indie gems. Check out the trailer below:

"The Fits" opens in theaters June 3rd.

Monday, May 23, 2016


As Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett – the character played by Taryn Manning in "Orange is the New Black" – can attest, there’s a difference between pain and suffering. “Pain is always there, but suffering is a choice.” These wise words (taken from that series’ recent trailer) are definitely relevant to the plot of Julio Medem’s latest film "Ma ma". Featuring Penelope Cruz in one of her most vulnerable roles to date, this star vehicle sees the acclaimed actress put on a brave face despite the hardships endured by her character in this understated, depressing cancer drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cannes Awards Predictions

Another year, another Cannes. Over the past ten days, the eyes of the cinephile world have all been centered on the South of France for the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival. Long known as the prime launching pad for new work from the world's best auteurs, this year's fest was no different, with many familiar names returning to present their films in the various sections.

And by most accounts, these auteurs proved why they have been invited back time and time again. Reports from the press claim that it was one of the strongest competition slates in years, aside from a few late-breaking flops (like Xavier Dolan's It's Only The End of the World and Sean Penn's The Last Face). Among these faves were a number of films from the nascent Amazon Studios, who made a big statement with the success of their Palme d'Or contenders The Handmaiden, Paterson and The Neon Demon, as well as the new Woody Allen (Cafe Society) which played out of competition. It remains to be seen how well these films will play to general audiences, but Amazon is certainly making its presence felt.

One film we'll definitely be hearing about this fall is Jeff Nichols' Loving, seemingly the only major Oscar player to emerge from this year's slate. Based on a true story about a prohibited interracial marriage that became a landmark Supreme Court case, this quiet drama is said to feature an outstanding performance by Ruth Negga, alongside co-lead Joel Edgerton. Hers was just one of the various showcase roles for women, in yet another strong year for actresses at Cannes. Though the festival still has a long way to go in terms of opening the doors for more female auteurs in the elitist Palme d'Or club, there was much to celebrate in front of the camera. Other celebrated actress performances include: Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann, Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, Sonia Braga in Aquarius and newcomer Sasha Lane in American Honey.

The competition for the Best Actress award should therefore be quite stiff, providing a real challenge for this year's George Miller-led jury. And with the high quality of the overall slate, we would expect some heated discussions for all the other prizes too. With a typically eclectic jury this year - ranging from esteemed actors like Kirsten Dunst and Donald Sutherland, to rising directors like László Nemes of Son of Saul fame - it's always fun to speculate this group's collective taste. As such, Awards Circuit continues its tradition of predicting the winners from afar. So without further ado, here are my blind (and probably wrong) predictions for the major prizes for Cannes 2016:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

REVIEW: I Am Thalente

As is proven every year during awards season, the next star can come from the most unexpected places. That’s certainly true of the subject of Natalie Johns' new documentary "I Am Thalente". This inspiring film takes us from the streets of South Africa and across the Atlantic as we watch the talented young skateboarder Thalente Biyela chase the American dream he never knew he had.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


When Nathaniel announced that "Queen Margot" would be this week's featured film for Hit me with your best shot, I approached it with the assumption that it would be a somewhat stuffy, restrained piece of work. Obviously, I had know idea what I was in for with this uncharacteristically ferocious 16th century historical drama. Sure, this gorgeously wrought film begins with Isabelle Adjani (Queen Margot) looking buttoned up and elegant in her full wedding regalia. But she and the film itself soon let their hair down to deliver one of the most sinful films centered around religion.

Indeed, much of the film follows - in vivid, bloody detail - the aftermath of an act of genocide by the ruling Catholics over the Protestant Hugenots during the French Wars of Religion. And all throughout we see a lusty, violent, damning portrait of an unholy alliance between religion and politics. It's staggering stuff, at once starkly beautiful and bracingly brutal.

My choice for best shot reflects this dichotomy, with this beautifully composed, yet harrowing image at the end of the film. In it, Queen Margot stands over a pair of decapitated bodies, one of which is her lover. It's all of the film's romance and savagery distilled into one shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Known for its vintage cars, prized cigars and salsa-infused nightlife, Havana has been the setting of choice for many a film. For Paddy Breathnach’s "Viva" however, Havana nights are all about the glitz, glamour and power ballads of the drag club. In this surprise gem of the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, a young man finds his voice and his family while singing nothing at all on that very stage.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Hit me with your best shot is back again this week with a film starring 3 of the biggest names in Hollywood. In 1992, director Robert Zemeckis struck casting gold with Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis playing the leads in his Tinseltown comedy "Death Becomes Her". The fantasy plot follows Streep and Hawn as a pair of rivals who tirelessly, and successfully, seek eternal youth in an effort to one up each other, while Willis plays the man caught in the middle of their squabbles.

Unfortunately, despite the committed performances of these fine actors, I found the film to be a bit of a trifle, wasting a fascinating premise on a slapstick plot that doesn't really go anywhere. As such, I didn't find much thematic depth to ponder for the purposes of this Best Shot exercise.

However, I did find one image that I loved, which recalls a more substantive film with a fairly similar premise about desperate aging actresses - "Sunset Boulevard". If you've seen that seminal classic, you'll know exactly what this shot references...

Monday, May 2, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Jungle Book

Continuing their lucrative trend of producing live action adaptations of their animated classics, Disney brings another beloved tale to the big screen in "The Jungle Book". Featuring a star-studded voice cast and top-notch visual effects, the film was destined to be a commercial success. And as someone with fond memories of the 1967 animated version, I'm happy to report that the film is an artistic success as well.

Based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling, "The Jungle Book" tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy growing up in the Indian jungle. But this is no ordinary boy though, having been raised as among wolves after being orphaned as a baby. We meet him when he has adopted the ways of the wolf, learning life lessons from his "parents" (Akela Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and his guardian Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a black panther. During one fateful water truce however (the animals' annual peace treaty during the drought), Mowgli is forced to learn some harsher realities about his world and his place in it. Threatened by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who views him as a dangerous outsider, Mowgli is sent to find the nearby human village, setting forth on an unforgettable journey into the wild.

Indeed, "The Jungle Book" is a thoroughly enjoyable crowdpleaser, mixing infectious musical elements, intense action sequences, thought-provoking drama and heartwarming comedy to great effect. Of particular note is the film's visual design, incorporating cutting edge visual effects to create an ultra-realistic world of animal characters. Equally impressive are the environments, with breathtaking shots that feel inspired by the philosophies of the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Whether it's the glistening waterfalls or the evergreen foliage, Favreau seems enamored with the beauty of the jungle, as he rightly should.

And it's this setting that enhances the underlying conflict of the film. Namely, what is man's place in the natural world? Is he protector or destroyer? To wit, this question provides us with a truly complex villain, played superbly by Idris Elba. In Shere Khan's eyes, human intelligence can only lead to destruction, due to inventions such as the "red flower" (the animals' word for fire). And even as Mowgli's innocence is apparent - emphasized by Sethi's lovable, albeit conspicuously American personality - and the famous songs evoke a sense of carefree harmony between man and nature, Khan's concerns and suspicions always ring true.

It's for this reason why I was disappointed in the decision to excise the more honest ending from the animated film. In general, this reflects the only flaw in the filmmaking, which often favors spectacle over the more fascinating thematic material from the novel. The quieter thought-provoking scenes simply aren't directed with the same urgency. But ultimately, the film still delivers its environmentalist message loud and clear, maintaining the narrative's timeless quality and updating it with modern flair. If Disney's upcoming live action remakes are as smart and entertaining as this one, then I say bring 'em on!