Saturday, April 30, 2016
With Cannes just around the corner and the temperatures starting to rise for the summer, the cool environment of the cinema beckons as the films only get better from here on out. You may be thinking it's too late for a list such as this one, but as is my tradition I always wait until the end of April. As we all know, the early months often see many release date changes and unconfirmed casting rumours. This time of year therefore feels like an ideal time to assess the exciting acting prospects to come. So without further ado, here my 20 Most Anticipated Performances for the rest of 2016.
Friday, April 29, 2016
As you'll see in a post I'm writing for tomorrow, there's a small foreign film I'm highly anticipating and it's called "Ma Ma". It stars Spanish acting giants Penelope Cruz and Luis Tosar in a heartrending story about a woman who finds renewed purpose in her life despite a devastating breast cancer diagnosis. You may know the film's director Julio Medem from his 2001 film "Sex and Lucia". All in all, it seems like a promising project, with strong talent behind and in front of the camera. Who knows, Penelope Cruz may sneak a Best Actress bid out of it. Check out the trailer below:
"Ma Ma" opens in theaters May 20th.
"Ma Ma" opens in theaters May 20th.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
This week on Hit me with your shot, we dug into an early classic from Akira Kurosawa, one of cinema's greatest storytellers. The chosen film was "Throne of Blood", a Japanese re-imagining of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" starring Toshiro Mifune as our tormented "hero". And as usual, the collaboration proved successful, making for an easy translation of the famous tragedy.
What most jumped out at me was the powerful thematic effect of the production design and cinematography in the interior settings, which provides a fascinating contrast to the more grand visual spectacle of Kurosawa's other revered Shakespeare adaption "Ran". Here, the spare decor and horizontal lines convey the vast space and the wealth that implies, as well as the ample room for Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife to contemplate their guilt and literally fight their demons. Furthermore, it creates an impression of a comparatively level playing field between royalty and the commonfolk, far from the more vertical indicators (tall thrones, palatial pillars) of traditional Western aristocracies. In this scenario, the throne is a more grounded platform, making the inevitable usurping so feasible and within reach.
And below, I've chosen my best shot pick as one that encompasses these elements of the art direction - the use of space, the class dynamics and the overwhelming guilt - as Washizu recoils after inflicting his latest murderous act of paranoid vengeance. Aptly positioned in the center of frame, slightly above his doomed messenger (in addition to the head of another assassinated challenger), the weight of his guilt bears down on him. A throne of blood indeed.
Monday, April 25, 2016
This week's top pick is an auspicious sophomore film from down under titled "The Dark Horse". Directed by New Zealand filmmaker James Napier Robertson, this inspirational sports drama has been quietly racking up acclaim along the indie film circuit since its 2014 debut. And like the title suggests, this underdog story surprisingly wins you over its humanistic spirit.
Based on the true story of a troubled New Zealand chess champion, the film stars Cliff Curtis in the lead role of Genesis. Beginning from his early years when he first discovered the game with his friend Ariki, the film fast forwards to his adult years, when Genesis has just been released from a mental hospital. Put in the care of Ariki, he meets Mana, Ariki's son who is being groomed to join a notorious local gang. With troubling memories of his own experience with the group, Ariki decides to turn his attention away from his new home, forming a chess club with some of the underprivileged local youth. Seeing an opportunity when noone else can, he coaches them with the intentions of entering the upcoming national championship. But when Mana decides to rebel against his father's gang-related wishes and join the club, a conflict of allegiance arises that may threaten the hopes of the club and the stability of the community at large.
Indeed, the concept of stability forms the foundation of the youth group that Genesis gets involved with. As he is advised by their guardian, these children have effectively been abandoned by family and society alike. A reliable role model is therefore a necessity in order to keep them on the right path.
And thus brings up the central dilemma of the film, as the team's success and stability is reliant on a bipolar man. It's a premise that Robertson handles deftly, imbuing the formulaic broad strokes with nuance through the actions of our complex protagonist as well as the other characters. Known for his abilities as a chameleon - playing Latin Americans, Arabs and everything in between - Genesis (a Maori like himself) truly feels like the role Curtis was born to play. Childlike in his optimistic outlook but threatening in his unpredictable physicality, he takes the typical "disability" role and uses it to show universal truths about suffering and healing.
Ultimately, Genesis' journey takes you where you wants to go with a film of this ilk and yet, "The Dark Horse" rises above the fray of other easy crowdpleasers. With its gritty, urban aura that feels painstakingly specific to the region, a sentimental ending never feels assured, as the plot explores a test of wills from all corners - the game of chess, the psychological vulnerability of Genesis and the oppressive forces of a stagnant society. As such, each small triumph feels wholly earned and fully gratifying, an increasing rarity for the now ubiquitous underdog sports drama. This small indie film may be a dark horse in the grand scheme of things, but Robertson's well considered filmmaking is the stuff champions are made of.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
You can always count on the Scandinavians to shake up the arthouse with their warped sense of humor. Arriving stateside by way of Denmark is "Men & Chicken", the new black comedy from writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen. Starring an unrecognizable Mads Mikkelsen, this bizarre film will make you laugh, gasp and turn up your nose in disgust, often within the same scene.
Read more at The Awards Circuit
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Early on in our introduction to Cindy – one of the five main characters in Nicolas Steiner’s documentary "Above and Below" – we see her hauling a discarded couch to restore her living room after the latest rain showers have decimated the makeshift home she shares with her partner Rick. She lives in a tunnel under the streets (another character Lalo lives also lives there), a mere stone’s throw away from the flashing lights of Las Vegas, hidden from the public eye. But as the saying goes, “it’ll all come out in the wash” in this nakedly honest portrait of five unusual Americans.
Read more at The Awards Circuit
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
This morning I woke up to the devastating news that the phenomenal Ronit Elkabetz passed away after a private battle with cancer. And considering she was one of my absolute favourite actresses (also an acclaimed writer-director), I felt the need to mention it here. If you're unfamiliar with her work, I urge you to introduce yourself to her glittering filmography, which includes personal faves "Late Marriage" (pictured above with co-star Lior Ashkenazi) and "The Band's Visit". Last year I profiled her in a piece for The Awards Circuit titled "10 Foreign-Language Actors You Should Now" and my final sentiment still holds true. She is truly one of Israel's national treasures. Her legacy will not be forgotten. RIP.
Posted by Shane Slater at 9:45 AM
This week on Hit me with your best shot, we looked at an early 1970s drama that's set for a remake - Don Siegel's "The Beguiled". This fascinating film is set in a Southern girls boarding school during the Civil War and explores themes of lust and gendered power as an injured Union soldier stumbles into the school. Clint Eastwood stars as the titular beguiler John McBurney, as he charms his way into the hearts of headmistress and student alike, causing inevitable tension in the household.
In truth, the film isn't nearly as "messy" as it sounds. That is, until the events surrounding my choice for best shot...
Monday, April 18, 2016
As I pondered the decision to review this week's top pick, I immediately felt that any such explanation of its merits would be a great disservice. As a film that challenges your perception of its reality from the very beginning, "The Invitation" is a thriller best experienced with no prior knowledge of the plot. For those wishing to watch the film cold, I therefore encourage you to stop reading now. For everyone else, here is my rave review of Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation".
The premise of "The Invitation" begins with a typical reunion of old friends, as our protagonist Will (Logan Marshall-Green) introduces his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the gang. The dinner is being hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who we soon learn is Will's ex-wife, with whom he shares a very troubled past. Eden seems to have recovered from their fraught breakup however, putting forth a calm, cheerful disposition with the support of her new husband David (Michael Huisman). But Will isn't convinced, and as the night trudges along and a pair of strangers enter the mix, he starts to suspect that this dinner party isn't what it seems.
The mystery behind what's wrong - or not wrong - in this scenario of fake smiles and polite table manners is the fuel behind this brilliantly mindbending thriller. Teasing the audience with equally valid suggestions of paranoia and impending danger, Kusama creates a gripping storyline that makes it impossible to look away. Like the great genre directors before her, she makes you an active participant in the proceedings, watching every move and deciphering every line reading to figure out this puzzle.
Another thing she does well is instilling the film with an unsettlingly creepy atmosphere, which allows us to easily relate to Will as our appropriately suspicious audience surrogate. In a performance that teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout, Marshall-Green is tremendously vulnerable in the role, asking all the questions we're thinking and freaking out just as much as we are. In what is truly a inspired male performance, Will is a character with more forebears within the canon of fragile actress roles than the traditional male protagonist.
But as the truth is revealed towards the end of the film, Kusama proves that being scared shitless isn't exclusive to any gender. The fear is so visceral that our protagonists' survival takes on almost personal importance. And when all is said and done, Kusama also deftly lays on the gravitas with poignant observations about how people struggle to cope with grief. Indeed, like an deeply probing social experiment, this emotional roller coaster is one nightmare you won't soon forget.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
For this week's Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel had us take another look at a 1980s classic - Peter Weir's "Witness". And it's a good thing we did, as I only had a faint recollection of the film as an underwhelming drama. But boy was I wrong, as this re-watch proved that "Witness" is really a strong film, especially for its richly fascinating screenplay which could have easily have been mistaken for a literary adaptation.
Another standout aspect is of course, the megastar at the center of this drama/thriller/romance - Mr. Han Solo/Indiana Jones himself. In what would become Harrison Ford's first and last Oscar nomination (surely a surprise given his popularity at the time), his role is a genius bit of casting. Playing a city cop who hides out in Amish Country during a particularly nasty corruption case, he embodies the central culture clash that emerges in the narrative. Indeed, he delivers such an undeniable MOVIE STAR performance that he naturally stands out among a more docile environment and characters, leading to my choice for best shot.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, April 11, 2016
When it comes to the genre of the American gangster film, there's hardly a name more synonymous with the pantheon of greats than Robert De Niro. According to the American Film Institute, the actor is closely associated with the Top 3 gangster films of all time, namely Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II", and Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas". Indeed, this trio of films came to define not just the crime drama in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, but are often brought up as some of the greatest films of all time, period. Criminally overlooked in these discussions however, is another gangster epic from the 1980s that further cemented De Niro's stature in the industry - "Once Upon a Time in America".
Directed by Sergio Leone of "spaghetti western" fame, "Once Upon a Time in America" is the story of the rise of David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro), a Jewish-American who made his wealth as part of a bootlegging racket during the lucrative Prohibition era. Starting from his younger days as a street rat in 1920s Manhattan, the narrative follows his exploits through flashbacks to formative periods of his life. Along the way, his experiences are inextricably linked to a core group of life-long friends and eventual business partners, as we witness their successes and failures through the many tumultuous years.
A true epic in every sense of the word, Leone's episodic approach switches back and forth through past and present as Noodles attempts to evaluate his life. Beset with regret, the film's natural tone is fundamentally sentimental (emphasized by a sweeping score from the legendary Ennio Morricone). From his coming of age in the 1920s, to the height of his power in the 1930s, to his retirement in the 1960s, each epoch ends in an unforgettable tragedy that shapes his character forever. Indeed, an endless cycle of betrayal and revenge drives the narrative. But Leone uniquely stages the violence as almost perfunctory in comparison to his greater interest in the relationships involved, both interpersonal and geographical.
Indeed, not only are the nostalgic memories of long lost loves and childhood friends at the forefront, but also the recollection of the places that became home. In this regard, Leone imbues the film with a rich sense of place and time, through gorgeous tableaux of New York landmarks and the lived-in details that can only come from authentic set design. Like the fairytale its title suggests, the film truly transports you.
Simply put, "Once Upon a Time in America" is a thoroughly arresting film. Though it clocks in at a potentially overwrought 229 minutes, the scenes instead feel as fleeting as life itself. And at the epicenter of it all is the great Robert De Niro, whose performance is bracingly flawed, brilliantly understated and irresistibly captivating. The same can be said of this under-appreciated classic.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
On this week's edition of Hit me with your best shot, we celebrate the great Gregory Peck for the centennial of his birth. We were given the option of writing about either of two most famous films ("To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Roman Holiday"), which just happen to be two of my all-time faves. As such, I couldn't pass up this excuse to re-watch them both. Earlier I wrote up "To Kill a Mockingbird", and now I look at William Wyler's delightful romantic comedy "Roman Holiday".
When "Roman Holiday" was released in 1953, its star Audrey Hepburn was still a fresh face in the industry. The opening credits emphasized this fact by stating "Introducing Audrey Hepburn". And what an introduction it was! Hepburn gives an absolutely winsome performance as Princess Ann, a role that resulted in her first and only Oscar for Best Actress.
And for me, it was a fitting win, as it captured one of the best qualities of her acting style - her knack for comedy. At the time, Hepburn hadn't yet established herself as a style icon, but her work here already projects the natural elegance and grace she became known for. This laid the foundation for a comedic style geared towards subverting these qualities, most blatantly seen later on in her career with "My Fair Lady".
But in opinion, this role that showed it best. She's instantly believable as a princess and yet, just as comfortable as the girl next door. You can't take your eyes off her as she takes on the town with Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert. As such, my pick for best shot puts her in the spotlight in all her glory. It's a shot, within a shot, within a shot that captures the regal beauty and effortless screwball fun of Hepburn's performance and the film in general.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
On this week's edition of Hit me with your best shot, we celebrate the great Gregory Peck for the centennial of his birth. We were given the option of writing about either of two most famous films ("To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Roman Holiday"), which just happen to be two of my all-time faves. As such, I couldn't pass up this excuse to re-watch them both. First up is a film that I consider to be one of cinema's finest adaptations ever - "To Kill a Mockingbird".
The last time I participated in "Hit Me", I wrote about my fascination with the Briony character in "Atonement". And once again, I found myself intrigued by the villains of "To Kill a Mockingbird", in particular Mayella and Bob Ewell. When we think of "To Kill a Mockingbird", we immediately remember two iconic characters - the misunderstood Arthur "Boo" Radley and the heroic Atticus Finch, played by Robert Duvall and Gregory Peck. But the film would hardly have been as impactful without the work of Collin Wilcox Paxton and James Anderson. Their roles are the sort of everyday bad guys we take for granted, but they are absolutely brilliant in the way they capture the subtext of their racist attitudes without mocking their redneck personas with cartoonish buffoonery. As Atticus states during the pivotal courtroom scene, Mayella is "the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance."
And it's this scene and Paxton's performance as Mayella which contain my choice for Best Shot...
Monday, April 4, 2016
For this week's top pick, we turn to one of those "stranger than fiction" true stories that you have to see to believe. Based on real events which took place throughout the first half of the 20th century, it follows an incarcerated man named Robert Stroud who developed a unique fascination with birds while serving time. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the film stars Burt Lancaster in an Oscar-nominated role as the titular "Birdman of Alcatraz".
The film begins with our protagonist's arrival at Leavenworth Prison in 1912, a federal penitentiary in Kansas. We learn that he was convicted for murder in his hometown of Alaska, just one instance in a history of aggressive behavior. Much to the chagrin of the rigid prison warden at Leavenworth (Harvey Shoemaker, played by Karl Malden), Stroud's attitude is hardly affected by his imprisonment, as he fatally attacks a fellow inmate in the early years of his original sentence. The incident eventually leads to a legal battle between his protective mother and the state, which results in the overturn of his death sentence to a life in solitary confinement.
Resigned to a life of loneliness and solitude, Stroud begins Shoemaker's strict rehabilitation process, which involves a stupefying daily routine. But as the years go by, Stroud stumbles on a revived sense of purpose one day in the prison yard. Spotting an injured sparrow, he adopts it as his pet and nurtures it back to strength. And thus begins an incredible journey of a hardened criminal who becomes the nation's foremost expert on some of the most delicate creatures - birds.
Indeed, what a unique biopic this is, painting a surprisingly tender portrait of a notorious criminal. Frankenheimer revels in the inherent contradictions of the story, playing up the extreme oxymorons of Stroud's character. An infinitely fascinating individual, our first impressions of him are that of a murderous brute, yet also a vulnerable mama's boy who becomes a dedicated nurturer. And likewise, the stifling constraints of the rigid prison unexpectedly becomes a haven of new life as Stroud inspires his fellow inmates to become interested in the care and breeding of birds.
This evolution of Stroud and the setting coincides with the narrative's engaging passage of time. Apart from the film's considerable length - handled with the same patient care as Stroud himself - the film also makes use of impressive makeup work to reflect the long duration of Stroud's imprisonment. And the cast wears it well too, with strong performances from supporting actress extraordinaire Thelma Ritter as Stroud's controlling mother and of course, Burt Lancaster as our dauntless hero. At the beginning, he looks every bit the charismatic movie star we had come to know, but he brilliantly modifies his famously brawny stature to subtly convey the gradual weathering of his body, in contrast to his unfailing mind.
Such is this power of this central performance that by the time Stroud is transferred to the famously harsh Alacatraz prison, we don't need Lancaster's subsequent stirring monologues to understand the film's message of the great value of individuality, dignity and life itself. The nature of rehabilitation is directly addressed throughout the film and through Stroud, we get the word's true meaning. "Birdman of Alcatraz" could hardly be described as a "joyous" story, but in an intelligent film chock-full of surprises, the most pleasant one is this ability to ultimately inspire its audience.