Monday, February 29, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Deadpool


This week's top pick is the latest "surprise" hit comic book adaption "Deadpool". Taking place in the X-Men universe, this unambiguously R-rated offers an alternative outlook on what it means to be a "superhero". With a foul-mouthed jokester at the center, first-time director Tim Miller delivers an action-comedy film that's naughtily entertaining.

Ryan Reynolds stars as our eponymous star, a former Special Forces operative named Wade Wilson who, soon after falling madly in love with his dream girl (played by Morena Baccarin), gets the worst news of his life. After a sudden collapse one day, a doctor informs him that he has terminal cancer that has spread throughout his body. Some time after, a mysterious man approaches him with a potential cure and Wade decides to take a chance. But the experiment turns ghastly, forcing him to endure extreme torture to activate any latent mutant genes. Overseeing his distress is the sadistic Ajax (Ed Skrein), who leaves him irreparably disfigured. To make matters worse, Wade learns that he is destined to become a super slave with powers to healing powers. Rejecting his fate, he manages to escape his captivity, vowing to exact revenge and restore his former life.

"Deadpool" signals its irreverent intentions from the opening credits, which list the cast as featuring such characters as "the hot chick" and "the comic relief". From there, we get whizz-bang action sequences that would give you whiplash if it weren't for the intermittent flashbacks. In this regard, editor Julian Clarke finds a nice balance between character development and spectacle. Avoiding lengthy "origin story" exposition but still giving a full understanding of Deadpool's backstory amidst the thrills, the film is very well paced.

The film's most successful experiment though, is its crude tone, laying waste to the taboos of sex and foul language usually absent from blockbuster entertainment. And breaking the fourth wall with mischevious glee is Ryan Reynolds in his most charismatic performance to date. Perfectly cast as a knowingly sexy bad boy, the role will surely mark a renaissance of sorts for this longtime A-list-but-not-quite movie star.

Unfortunately, some of the other filmmaking choices weren't as astute. As the film's main villain, Ajax is too sadistic without much of a reasonable motive beyond simply being pure evil. In addition, the immortality he shares with Deadpool makes the climactic battle feel like an excuse for gratuitous violence with no actual impact. And in general, as much as the film consciously tries to break free from the established mold of comic book films, it still eventually succumbed to some of the more annoyingly familiar tropes. But all things considered, the film's debauched sense of humor felt truly fresh and exciting. "Deadpool" may not be groundbreaking cinema, but within its limited scope it provided a thoroughly enjoyable time from start to finish.

And the Oscar goes to... Spotlight


Dear Spotlight, it was you all along. We had fun with all these momentary flings with The Revenant and The Big Short, but we were always meant to come back to our one true love.
As you surely know by now, Spotlight won the top prize in an eventful Oscar ceremony, which featured its fair share of upsets, topical humor and a lot of Mad Max: Fury Road. Indeed, George Miller's action extravaganza took home a whopping 6 statues, compared to Spotlight's paltry pair of wins for Picture and Screenplay. The main talking points on film twitter however, were Leo DiCaprio's win for Best Actor (capped by a wonderful speech) and the shocking surprises of Mark Rylance beating Sylvester Stallone and "Writings on the Wall" topping "Til It Happens To You", especially after Lady Gaga's powerful performance. But hey, you win some, you lose some. I certainly didn't do much winning with my predictions, putting up my worst showing yet (17 out of 24 correct). Maybe next year I'll finally get that elusive 100% score.
Until then, I'm looking forward to another great year for film, hopefully with more diversity (yes, I had to stick that in there). Here are your Oscar winners for 2015:

Best Picture
Spotlight

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Saturday, February 27, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Awards


As the final precursor before the big Oscar night, the Independent Spirit Awards have long prided themselves on their celebration of emerging, diverse voices in cinema. Tonight was no exception, as the members of Film Independent (of which I'm a member) selected a fine group of winners for the best in independent cinema for 2015. Indeed, it was a rather joyous night for me, as many of my personal picks (indicated below) won prizes tonight. One film that I didn't vote for but was nevertheless happy for was "Spotlight", which virtually swept the night with wins in Best Feature, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay and the previously announced Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble. Is this a preview for the Oscars, as has been the case with the Indie Spirits as of late? We'll find out soon enough. Here are this year's excellent Spirit Award honorees:

Best Feature
Spotlight

Best Director
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best Male Lead
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation

Best Female Lead
Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Male
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation*

Best Supporting Female
Mya Taylor, Tangerine*

OSCAR WATCH: Oscar Predictions


It's all come down to this. Tomorrow we finally shut the door on 2015 cinema with the 88th Academy Awards. All signs indicate a very unpredictable night, but that won't stop me from making my best "educated" guess. Here are my final Oscar predictions for 2015:

Best Picture
Spotlight

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Thursday, February 25, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Spotlight


The common campaign tactic "some movies make you feel" has been a staple of Oscar politics for some time now. When more cerebral films come up against broader crowd-pleasers, that extra emotional edge can make the difference. Other times however, it's a combination of smart writing and commercial entertainment that delivers the right stuff, as proven by our most recent Best Picture winners. It's a recipe for success that I certainly see in Thomas McCarthy's subtle, but powerful "Spotlight", a strong contender for the top honor come Oscar night.

"Spotlight" refers to the Spotlight team, a small group of dedicated reporters tasked with investigating major stories for The Boston Globe. Having reported on some of the biggest cases of their time, they were seasoned experts with the full support of their editorial staff. But nothing could have prepared them for their latest case, an investigation into a far-reaching sex abuse scandal in the hallowed institution of the Catholic Church. What started as one-off cases of child molestation by a few priests is gradually revealed to be a larger conspiracy designed to cover-up the shocking trend and protect the church's public image, at the expense of thousands of victims. But this skilled team of social justice warriors soon connect the dots, determined to end the corruption once and for all.

In a time when style often trumps substance, "Spotlight" feels almost like a relic of times gone by. When the film premiered at Venice last year, the most common comparison was to the nearly 40-year old film "All the President's Men", another straightforward drama about a high profile scandal. And indeed, both film share the same bare bones approach, gathering a talented ensemble to downplay their star personas in service of their roles as determined journalists simply doing their job and doing it well. In this instance, those roles belong to Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James, in addition to many other fine performers in bit parts. Picking an MVP among them is a futile effort, as the film is as much about the power of teamwork as it is about the outcome of the case and its heroes.

The film's biggest strength lies in this lack of triumphalism, valuing the work over the end result. In doing so, the filmmaking is perfectly attuned to highlighting the discipline and dedication required to produce credible, influential journalism. Even as the film involves a lot of document review and interviews, McCarthy smartly ensures that the action is never static, often actively tracking each character as they hunt down their next piece of evidence. Likewise, the understated score acts as a ticking clock in the background, reminding you of the urgency of this crisis.

There were numerous other aspects I could list to show how Tom McCarthy has delivered a strong piece of cinema in "Spotlight", particularly when it comes to the Oscar-nominated screenplay. And likely there are even more to found as the film reveals even more depth and detail on repeat viewings. But in the spirit of the film's humble tone and filmmaking style, I'll simply say "good job". This film is deserving of all the acclaim and is one of 2015's must-see films.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra


From the Amazon jungle, to the Cannes red carpet and beyond, it has been a long but successful journey for Ciro Guerra and his Oscar-nominated film "Embrace of the Serpent". Now released in North American theaters and with the big Oscar night ahead, this magnificent film will surely captivate new audiences, as it did when I first saw it back at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was therefore a pleasure to get the chance to sit with Guerra last week in LA, where we discussed the making of the film, the Oscars and the recent surge of Colombian cinema.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, February 22, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Trumbo


There's a scene late in Jay Roach's lastest feature "Trumbo", where our title character Dalton Trumbo makes a speech in acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement award at the WGA's annual awards ceremony. In it, he explains how he had often felt like the "elephant in the room" in the film community, due to the controversial political beliefs which provoked much of the drama surrounding his biopic-worthy life. The analogy could easily be applied to the film itself. Largely ignored in general media coverage, it still managed to be a consistent presence throughout this year's awards season. And though the general consensus framed the film as bland Oscar bait engineered for AMPAS love, what I found was a harmless film that certainly wasn't as egregious as the critics would have you believe.

"Trumbo" chronicles the life and work of Dalton Trumbo, a talented screenwriter who's career was marred by unfortunate anti-Communist paranoia throughout much of the post-war 1950s. As one of the infamous "Hollywood Ten", he was blacklisted for his association with the Communist Party USA. But despite the aggressive backlash, lead by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and her House Un-American Activities Committee, he managed to rise above it all, sacrificing his personal life and freedom. Throughout his ordeal, he found a way to keep writing under various aliases, delivering some of cinema's classic screenplays, including Oscar winners "Roman Holiday" and "The Brave One".

And of course, the usual triumph over adversity narrative unfolds, with Cranston leading a strong ensemble cast. Those seeking a more inventive style of storytelling will surely be repelled by this by-the-numbers plotting, and with good reason. But on the other hand, it tells an interesting, engaging story and crafts a fascinating central character through Cranston's compellingly self-aware performance. His Trumbo is as self-involved as so many other "great, but flawed" men we've seen on screen, but he has his own nonchalant sense of humor that sets him apart. Would I nominate him for an Oscar? Perhaps not. But it's more than capable acting considering the constraints of playing a real-life character.

In casting the other roles, the film has a few other standouts, notably Michael Stuhlbarg as the conflicted Edward G. Robinson. And it's understandable why Helen Mirren gained plaudits for her showy performance as Hedda Hopper, a real "piece of work" as they say. Most importantly, the cast deserves credit for avoiding mimicry, which could have easily cheapened the film (hey "Hitchcock"!) given some of the more dubious casting choices.

In summary, "Trumbo" doesn't do anything outstanding, but it's tastefully made and pleasantly entertaining. Sure, it could have taken a bit more risks, but I found more to like than not. And in a week of underwhelming films, that was good enough for me.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

PAFF: The Unseen


The notion of Africa as a singular country has long perpetuated throughout Western society. Sometimes it's due to willful ignorance, for others it's sometimes inadvertent misunderstanding. But even for the more enlightened citizens of this vast continent's 54 nations, pinning down their own definitive individuality can be a challenge. It's no wonder then, that existentialist narratives like Perivi Katjavivi's "The Unseen" are becoming more commonplace in African cinema.

"The Unseen" is a contemporary look at Namibia, through the eyes of 3 different individuals from various backgrounds. The first is Marcus (Antonio David Lyons), an African-American actor who is visiting to play the role of one of the country's historical leaders. With little guidance from his director, he's left to research the role on his own, hoping to find the "truth" in this unfamiliar landscape. Honesty is also a major concern for our second character Anu (Mathew Ishitile), an aspiring local musician who struggles to find his voice out of his muddled Western and traditional influences. As he looks to more mystical sources for answers, he becomes increasingly isolated from those around him. And finally, the film also follows Sara (Senga Brockerhoff), a disillusioned young woman who returns home harboring thoughts of suicide. As all three of them go about their daily lives, an open-ended essay film emerges on what Katjavivi describes as "what it means to be alive in independent Namibia".

Indeed, "The Unseen" unfolds more like a conversation than a defined narrative. One scene particularly stands out, where Marcus is in a press conference to promote the film and gets into a discussion with a white Namibian about reverence and ownership of indigenous characters/stories. While the white Namibian claims it is his right to play this tribal chief (justified by the "we're all African" argument"), Marcus asserts that a black man would be more appropriate.

The film is at its most resonant when it actively engages with such questions of postcolonial identity. The more esoteric storyline involving Sara on the other hand, keeps the audience at distance. At times frustratingly vague and lacking insight into her inexplicable depression, the character feels inessential to the overall narrative. Ironically, she herself states "I've always had these doubts about whether I ever really existed".

Anu however, is a man of many words, convincingly delivered by Mathew Ishitile. Through a series of conversations with various acquaintances, the actor conveys the internal conflict of a philosophical mind. It's a testament to his acting ability that his musings on teleportation and Greek mythology feel sincere rather than pretentious. And when he talks about his struggles in rejecting/embracing his African heritage through his music, he becomes instantly relatable.

But ultimately, "The Unseen" is less about finding resolutions for these characters as it is about evoking atmosphere. As such, the black and white cinematography plays a big part, perfectly speaking to the central themes with its interplay between shadow and light. In addition, the intermittent use of archival photos provide a welcome geographical and cultural context. But most of all, I'll take with me the images of Namibia's natural beauty, whether it's the trees blowing in the wind, or a shot of giraffes cantering through the savanna. It's therefore completely understandable that these characters feel so lost in this environment, which almost defies comprehension. And for the audience, like the characters, the film's appeal lies as much in this mystery of the sublime unknown as it does in the unseen.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Biggest Oscars Surprises This Century


This year's Oscars might be the trickiest to predict in recent memory. Sure there are some expectations, such Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning Best Actor or relative newcomer Brie Larson taking Best Actress. But these don't seem to be as thoroughly set in stone as some favorites in years past, and other major categories appear to be wide open.

However, even if the coming days between this writing and the Academy Awards do bring about some clearer favorites, it's important to remember that the Oscars have always held the capability to surprise us. To illustrate this fact, here's a quick look back at some of the biggest surprises we've seen at the awards so far this century.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

PAFF: iNumber Number


Corrupt cops? Check. Heist plot? Check. Morally conflicted undercover detective? Check. The formula for the crime thriller hasn’t changed much over the years and with good reason. Donovan Marsh’s "iNumber Number" is a testament to the genre’s power, providing slick entertainment with his South African take on the ever popular cops and robbers tropes.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, February 12, 2016

PAFF: Lamb


In an era where “bigger is better”, it’s always refreshing to see a simple story that’s well told. Such is the case with Yared Zeleke’s debut feature "Lamb", Ethiopia’s official selection for this year’s Oscars. This tenderly wrought tale follows a young boy and his lamb, growing up in a world that threatens to tear them apart.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

PAFF: Necktie Youth


Back in 1994, South Africans went to the polls to vote for their first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela. After many years of apartheid rule, there was renewed hope among the people, especially those who had previously suffered. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s "Necktie Youth" takes place in this new post-apartheid era, focusing on a group of privileged youth who benefited from the new paradigm. But far from the enthusiastic cries of “Amandla!” heard throughout the years of struggle, this contemporary piece presents a more dismal outlook, framed by a pair of suicides which seem to reflect a pervading feeling of discontent.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

PAFF: Stories of Our Lives


One of the films that best embodies the ethos of the Pan African Film Festival this year is "Stories of Our Lives", an anthology film directed Jim Chuchu. Reenacting personal stories from the lives of various members of the oppressed LGBT community in Kenya, this stirring film gives a voice to those who have been silenced. Indeed, while the film has banned in its home country, its important message has deservedly been given a platform at various festivals around the world.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, February 7, 2016

PAFF: Where Children Play


After blazing the screen in "Dear White People" and "Chi-Raq", Teyonah Parris adds another compelling performance to her growing resume through "Where Children Play". In this new drama from Leila Djansi, Parris plays the lead role of a woman who is forced to face a tragic past. And as she digs through her character’s scars, this rising actress proves her ability to elevate even the most conventional narratives.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, February 6, 2016

PAFF: America is Still The Place


In a recent Hollywood Reporter discussion on diversity in film, an important point was brought up about narratives featuring minority protagonists. Namely, the fact that these films often have to be about “the most amazing person of that race who’s ever lived” in order to be successful. White protagonists on the other hand, are allowed to be just regular people who “did a thing”. Director Patrick Gilles attempts to challenge this dichotomy however, with his second feature film "America is Still The Place", a biopic about a black everyman who fights for his small share of the proverbial American pie.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, February 1, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: As I Open My Eyes


This week's top pick "As I Open My Eyes" takes us to North Africa for the rare Tunisian film to make it big on the world scene. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, "As I Open My Eyes" is the promising debut feature from Leyla Bouzid. Telling a poignant story of personal and social revolution, it's easy to see why this French-Tunisian co-production has already won festival plaudits for both Best European Film and Best Arab Feature.

Set during the eve of the period of social upheaval known as the "Arab Spring", the film follows 18-year old Farah (Baya Medhaffer), a bright young woman living in the Tunisian capital with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali). Having recently passed her college entrance exams with flying colors, Farah has a bright future ahead. But exactly what that future holds is the source of contention between the mother-daughter pair. As lead singer of a rock band gaining in popularity on the basis of overtly political music, she hopes to develop her skills by studying musicology. But Hayet insists on a more sensible and crucially, safer career in medicine. Both refuse to compromise however, and Farah continues to play the music circuit in the local bar scene, a decision which could lead to dangerous consequences.

"As I Open My Eyes" refers to the lyrics of one of Farah's songs, which laments the state of the nation as injustice grows rampant and opposing voices are silenced. To see her perform it, you can immediately understand the gist of its intentions, as Medhaffer's eyes convey all the sorrow in each phrase. In an eye-opening debut role, Baya Medhaffer delivers an emotional honesty that completely draws you in, as one of the film's fascinating central female characters.

Indeed, "As I Open My Eyes" joins recent films like Haifaa al-Mansour's "Wadjda" in its complex approach to depicting Arab women. With her curly hair and carefree demeanor, Farah looks like your typical Western teenager, living in a comfortable middle class home where her independent mother is the head of the house (the father is mostly absent for work). But even as they could easily fit in with a more progressive lifestyle, Farah's impending adulthood reveals how longstanding societal norms can stifle even the most free-minded individuals.

And Tunisia is an ideal setting for this story, being one of the more liberal nations in the Arab world. Many scenes involve heavy drinking and other vices, as Farah and her friends engage in typical teenage behaviour. As expected, Farah comes under the heaviest scrutiny as a female, as partiarchial customs frown on her liberal attitude towards sex and alcohol.

But what becomes uniquely interesting about this quintessentially feminist script is how we come to understand Hayet's perspective. Delivering even more subtext than what's on the page, Benali gives subtle hints that Hayet and her daughter are in fact, kindred spirits. And in doing so, the film shows how people's actions are so strongly influenced by societal pressures rather than personal beliefs. Even as the film insists on painting her as a villain - to almost murderous ends - we leave with the impression that, under different circumstances, Hayet would be rocking out in the front row in support of her daughter.

"As I Open My Eyes" ends with a simple utterance of "continue", referring to Farah's musical exploits in the face of adversity. And the scene speaks to the power of music, which pervades throughout both the film's content and the filmmaking itself. Indeed, the film excels most during Farah's performances, where both director and actor seem to be at their most passionate. But even outside of those moments, there's also an underlying musicality to the filmmaking overall, in the way the camera tracks Farah's movements, the smooth editing, and of course, the melodious score. If it's true that music is the universal language, it's therefore no wonder this film is such a compelling, empathetic success.