Sunday, December 31, 2017

INTERVIEW: Rise of a Star

The drama of the ballet world has long been a source of inspiration for filmmakers. Indeed, films like “The Red Shoes” to “Black Swan” have delivered indelible portraits of women enduring the pressures to succeed. In James Boris’ short film “Rise of a Star“, a ballerina named Emma finds herself on the verge of stardom. But she is hiding a secret threaten that could potentially her career. Starring real-life prima ballerina Dorothée Gilbert and the legendary Catherine Deneuve, her personal journey to overcome society’s obstacles is conveyed with beautiful artistry. In a recent interview with Awards Circuit, James Bort explained how he used ballet, fashion and feminist themes to craft this empowering tale that was recently named to the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action Short.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Kevin Wilson Jr.

The tragic story of Emmett Till has long been recognized as a significant catalyst for the African-American Civil Rights Movement. His brutal murder in 1995 Mississippi brought a much needed spotlight to the severity of racist violence in the United States, forever ensconcing the then 14-year old as a martyr for civil rights. With his short film “My Nephew Emmett“, writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr. revisits this horrific incident from the atypical perspective of Emmett’s uncle. Featuring a superb performance by L.B. Williams, this powerful film has already won the Student Academy Award, ahead of making the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action short. It was therefore an honor to speak with the talented Kevin Wilson Jr. as we discussed the importance of the Emmett Till story and his aspirations as a rising filmmaker.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Sean Meehan

Based on a short story by Jack London, “Lost Face” is a bleak tale of survival set in Russian-colonized America during the mid 1800s. It centers around a Russian fur thief named Subienkow, who must use all his wits to escape a slow, painful death at the hands of native tribesmen. Directed by Sean Meehan, this short film showcases terrific craftsmanship and is worthy of viewing on the biggest screen possible. Following its selection to the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action short, I recently spoke with Meehan about the making of his surprising debut film.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


When it was announced as Germany’s Oscar submission, Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade” immediately became one of the top contenders. This intense revenge thriller had already been garnering attention for Diane Kruger’s performance, which won Best Actress at Cannes. And with its topical themes and provocative storyline, it seemed destined to make an impact with the Academy. I was therefore excited to speak with Akin recently, as we discussed those themes and the thought process behind making the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


On first glance, “Quest” seems to be a documentary about an ordinary American family. Its first scenes depict a mother frying up some bacon for breakfast, followed by preparations for a modest wedding. Over the course of the film however, director Jonathan Olshefski stumbles on a profoundly bittersweet testament to the human condition. At once universal and specific, “Quest” is a truly American story.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Woodpeckers

This may sound like a corny reference, but one of the first things that came to mind while watching “Woodpeckers” was a line from the Rihanna song “We Found Love”. In it, she sings “we found love in a hopeless place”, a lyric that could easily have been the tagline for this unique romance drama directed by Jose Maria Cabral.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: A Ciambra

In 2015, Jonas Carpignano made a splash with his debut feature “Mediterranea,” a drama that hearkens back to the heyday of neorealism. With his follow-up “A Ciambra,” the Italian-American filmmaker continues in the same vein. Once again, he focuses on a member of one of Italy’s minority populations. And in the process, he crafts an intimate, melancholic portrait of their daily struggle.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Annemarie Jacir

The term “wajib” refers to an obligatory practice in traditional Islamic culture. And with director Annemarie Jacir‘s latest film, audiences will be introduced to one of Palestine’s most fascinating examples. Screened at film festivals all over the world, “Wajib” follows an estranged father-son pair who are brought together to hand-deliver the wedding invitations for their daughter/sister. And as Palestine’s official Oscar entry, this gentle drama now awaits the decision of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award committee. In anticipation, Annemarie Jacir kindly spoke with me via phone from Nazareth, to discuss the film’s unique premise and her perspective as a female director from Palestine.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Dome Karukoski

As an actor, director, writer, and producer, Dome Karukowski is one of the shining talents of the Finnish film industry. And with a biopic about the popular author J. R. R. Tolkien on the way, we’ll definitely be hearing more about him in the future. It was, therefore, an honor when Karukowski took time out of his shooting schedule to discuss his current biopic in theaters called “Tom of Finland.” Below is an edited version of our chat, in which we talked about the film’s social relevance and the importance of its selection as Finland’s Oscar submission.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Amit Masurkar

With a pair of well-received films under his belt, writer-director Amit Masurkar is one of the most promising talents in India’s thriving film industry. In his sophomore effort “Newton,” his confident voice is evident as he incisively examines his country’s democracy. After a successful run on the festival circuit, the film has now been chosen as India’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. In celebration of this honor, I recently spoke with Masurkar to discuss the fascinating politics he depicts as well as the pleasant surprise of the Oscar selection. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


Released earlier this year to strong box office both at home and abroad, “A Taxi Driver” shines a spotlight on South Korean history with poignant and entertaining results. Now, director Jang Hoon hopes to make some history of his own. The film is now an official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, an award for which South Korea has never been nominated. And for Jang Hoon, it will be his second chance at bat. As we await this year’s nominations, I caught up with the promising filmmaker for a chat about the making of the film and his Oscar hopes. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: A Taxi Driver

From May 18-27, 1980, in South Korea, a series of events known as the Gwangju Uprising led to the deaths of 606 people. Director Jang Hoon revisits this tumultuous period with his latest film, “A Taxi Driver.” While conventional wisdom would lead to you expect a somber affair, Jang instead takes a national tragedy and crafts a winning film about sacrifice and honor.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Song of Granite

This year’s Foreign Language Oscar race features no shortage of biopics, but none are quite like Pat Collins’ “Song of Granite.” On the surface, this uniquely musical drama chronicles the life of singer Joe Heaney. But more memorable, it is a love letter to Ireland. It’s no surprise then that this beautiful film was selected as their official Oscar submission.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Daniel Rezende

Daniel Rezende may be an unfamiliar name to you, but you’ve probably seen his work. In 2002, he burst onto the scene as the editor for the seminal Brazilian film “City of God”, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Having established himself as a renowned editor (his other credits include “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “The Tree of Life”), he now takes on a new challenge. The biopic “Bingo: The King of the Morning” marks his directorial debut and was submitted by Brazil for contention in the Foreign Language Oscar race. With his proven talent, it was therefore a pleasure to speak with Rezende about this new phase in his career. Below is an edited version of our interview, which covered a range of topics including the legacy of “City of God” and political correctness in Brazil.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Bingo: The King of the Mornings

One of the central plot points in “Bingo: The King of the Mornings” sees our protagonist pleading to change the script for the American TV franchise in which he stars. He argues that the humor will not translate well to Brazilian kids, suggesting they add more edge. After watching this biopic, however, it’s hard not to wish the film had fully committed to that same philosophy.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Félicité

As explained in Alain Gomis‘ new film “Félicité,” the title roughly translates to “our joy”. It is also the name that was given to its protagonist after surviving a near-death experience as an infant. Decades later, that joy is hard to come by for Félicité however, especially after a personal tragedy strike in this poignant drama set in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Divine Order

Earlier this fall, “Battle of the Sexes” revisited a famous 1970s event that became a referendum on women’s rights. Now, that turbulent time period is once again the focus of Petra Volpe’s “The Divine Order“, an award-winning new release which chronicles a battle of the sexes of a different sort. In its opening montage, we see recognizable archival footage from Woodstock, the Black Power movement, the sexual revolution and the various student protests. But most importantly, the women’s liberation movement is also mentioned, which provides the central conflict in Volpe’s compelling look at the struggle for women’s right to vote in Switzerland.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: BPM (Beats Per Minute)

“Damn, so soon.” This is the immediate response given by one of the characters in “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” upon hearing of the death of another. Uttered at a climactic point in the film, it conveys the urgent crisis of the AIDS epidemic being depicted. But it may also be your own response at the end of this thoroughly engaging film, which this year’s French submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is so fascinating and lovingly crafted that it leaves you wanting more.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Paul Haggis

Scheduled to take place from October 26 to November 4, the 2017 Evolution Mallorca Film Festival is one with a distinct character. According to its founder and director Sandra Seeling Lipski, this budding festival (now in its 6th year) focuses on films that “share a vision of more than one culture and portray how people from different cultures interact and respect each other.” In keeping with this mandate, the festival will bestow the inaugural Evolution Vision Award this year to a filmmaker who represents these ideals through their work. This year’s deserving honoree is Oscar winner Paul Haggis, a native of Toronto whose filmography nevertheless shows a keen interest in American society, culture and politics. In anticipation of the upcoming gala in his honor, recently spoke with Haggis for a candid discussion of his impressive career, which spans several decades, mediums and genres.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Thy Father's Chair

At the beginning of “Thy Father’s Chair“, the new documentary from Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora, we see men putting on protective body coverings in preparation for a hazardous situation. Like a scene from a sci-fi film, they seem to be gearing up for a dangerous mission into unknown territory. What awaits them may not be aliens or a mysterious virus, but the reality depicted is no less disturbing.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Wound

Those who are knowledgeable of the Foreign Language Oscar race will know that there is a common theme typically expected of the South African submission. Whether it is representative of their cinematic trends or encouraged by the success of 2005’s “Tsotsi”, their films typically center around tales of urban crime. In a surprising twist, however, an entirely different setting and the theme is the focus of South Africa’s 2017 entry. In “The Wound“, John Trengove uncovers fresh perspectives on South African culture with a drama that explores class, race, and sexuality.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 25, 2017


I'll be the first to admit, I was a bit skeptical when Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" was first announced. Films directed by actors can be hit or miss, especially when the actor is relatively inexperienced behind the camera. But with her solo directorial debut - she previously co-directed "Nights and Weekends" with Joe Swanberg - Gerwig quickly dismissed all my reservations. "Lady Bird" is simply delightful.

Set in Gerwig's hometown of Sacramento, "Lady Bird" follows the exploits of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, a high school senior with big dreams. Living with her parents, adopted brother and his girlfriend, her home life contrasts greatly with that of her more affluent schoolmates. But though they've fallen on hard times, Lady Bird's mother Marion makes every effort to keep her daughter in the expensive private school and the opportunities it provides. This comes at a price however, as her cynical outlook and frugal attitude is at odds with her daughter's lofty ambitions. The pair's combative relationship is just one of the pressures Lady Bird will experience however, as her eventful final year of high school will challenge her ideas about friendship, home, family, sex and her eventually, herself.

Indeed, over the course of the narrative, Lady Bird learns a myriad of lessons that will change her life. In that sense, it provides the familiar pleasures of a coming-of-age comedy. But Gerwig elevates the premise through deft screenwriting, delivering a script that is uncommonly rich without ever feeling didactic or overly self-serious. That it manages to delve into a such extensive thematic territory - the complex love-hate relationship between mothers and daughters, the awkwardness of losing your virginity, the depression of losing your job and more - is all the more impressive for a film that barely runs over 90 minutes.

With a quick pacing that borders on frantic, "Lady Bird" is therefore the rare film that feels like it could have benefited from being longer. The sharp dialogue explores the internal and interpersonal dynamics of its characters with such sincerity and empathy that I almost wished that some scenes allowed for more contemplation. Still, one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint anything lacking in this outstanding script, a deserving contender for Best Original Screenplay.

If nothing else, "Lady Bird" proves that Gerwig is a filmmaker with a distinct aesthetic. It's no wonder that there is so much goodwill towards her as a potential Best Director nominee. Her sense of humor is quirky yet intellectual and her character development is extraordinarily efficient. On the latter note, I was especially intrigued by the way she conveys Lady Bird and her mother's (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf) conflicting perspectives. Gerwig deconstructs the former's faux-intellectualism to poignant effect, while the latter's cynical realism is subtly underlined by an unspoken motherly love. It would be a major surprise if Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf don't find themselves among the nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Along with "The Florida Project" and "I, Tonya", "Lady Bird" completes a fascinating trifecta of Best Picture contenders about the struggles facing white working class families. And with its delicate balance of tragedy and joy, it offers the most holistic view of them all. At one point in the film, Lady Bird declares that you can't be "scary and warm". But "Lady Bird" proves otherwise. It never loses sight of the looming threat of poverty and failure facing its characters, while still offering a story that is infectiously buoyant in its underlying optimism and joie de vivre.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Nominations

Rounding out this week's trifecta of nominations for the major televised precursor awards was the Screen Actors Guild, who once again proved that this is going to be a nailbiting awards season. Despite a rocky start with the critics, the actors rallied behind Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" in a big way, giving it 4 nominations, including a rare double in Supporting Actor. Meanwhile, "The Post" was nowhere to be found. As we head into the new year however, I'm sure that film will rebound as more Academy members see it. Here are this year's nominees for the SAG Awards:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
“The Big Sick”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Judi Dench, “Victoria & Abdul”
Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Steve Carell, “Battle of the Sexes”
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson,”Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Hong Chau, “Downsizing”
Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”


Earlier this week the African American Film Critics Association announced their 2017 award winners in film and tv and I've gotta say, it's one of the most satisfying lists they've produced since I became a member a few years ago. Some of my personal faves include Daniel Kaluuya for Best Actor, Tiffany Haddish for Best Supporting Actress and Queen Sugar for Best TV Show. Check out all our winners below:

BEST PICTURE: GET OUT (Universal Pictures)
BEST COMEDY: GIRLS TRIP (Universal Pictures)
BEST ENSEMBLE: DETROIT (Annapurna Pictures)
BEST SCREENPLAY: GET OUT (Universal Pictures)
BEST SONG: “IT AINT FAIR” — DETROIT – THE ROOTS featuring BILAL (Motown Records)

AAFCA TOP 10 FILM – 2017

GET OUT (Universal Pictures)
COCO (Disney/Pixar)
GIRLS TRIP (Universal Pictures)
DETROIT (Annapurna Pictures)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Sony Pictures Classics)
THE SHAPE OF WATER (Fox Searchlight)
GOOK (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
CROWN HEIGHTS (Amazon Studios/IFC Films)
MARSHALL (Open Road Films)

AAFCA TOP 10 TV – 2017

INSECURE: Season 2 (HBO)
MASTER OF NONE: Season 2 (Netflix)
BLACK-ISH: Season 4 (ABC)
THE HANDMAID’S TALE: Season 1 (Hulu)
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE: Season 1 (Netflix)
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT: Season 1 (Netflix)
TIE: GUERILLA/SNOWFALL: Season 1 (Showtime/FX)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

OSCARS: Predicting the Foreign Language Shortlist

It’s that time of year when the Academy announces its various shortlists prior to the holiday season. And perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of them all is the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. This year is truly shaping up to be one of the most nail-bitingly competitive years ever for this contentious category. And if 2016’s shocking lineup is an indication, there will be more surprises in store when the 9 lucky films are announced next week. Indeed, predicting this category can be a fool’s errand. But Awards Circuit embraces the challenge. Here is my rundown of the current state of the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Darkest Hour

When Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour" was announced, it immediately became one of the most anticipated films of 2017. Boasting Oscar-nominated actors and craftsmen and a premise centered on of the most important figures of the 20th century, it promised a handsome, crowd-pleasing production. And whether you consider this a good or bad thing, that's exactly what this Best Picture contender delivers.

The aforementioned important figure at the heart of the film is none other than Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), the revered statesmen who lead Britain through one of the darkest periods in its history. Focusing on critical events at the height of World War II, the film follows his controversial selection as prime minister through the tumultuous days to come, when life or death decisions needed to be made. As the German army exerted their might, Churchill was urged to pursue a peace treaty with the tyrannical Hitler. But he refused to back down, standing firm against the advice of his war cabinet, executing one of the riskiest and bravest political maneuvers in world history.

Taking place away from the battlefield in the hallowed halls of parliament and behind closed doors, "Darkest Hour" is an atypical war movie. It therefore requires a special filmmaker to elevate a film about a series of meetings and make it dynamic and cinematic. Thankfully, Joe Wright was up to the task. Through his still nascent career, he has shown a knack for kinetic filmmaking, whether it's the high-flying adventures of Pan, the rhythmic musicality of "Anna Karenina" or "Atonement", where he previously visited the Dunkirk crisis with an iconic tracking shot. Admittedly, he is notably constricted this time around due to the more sedentary nature of the situation. But he still manages to find a groove largely through oratory fireworks, as words become the most agitating force in the film. As one parliamentarian puts it, Churchill "mobilized the English lanuage."

Charged with delivering these words, Gary Oldman's role is a herculean task of its own. Though Churchill impersonations have become an awards magnet of late, it's also a thankless role in some ways, requiring a level of showiness that is frowned upon in modern criticism. But Oldman brings a fortuitous combination of movie star charisma and character actor peculiarities that impressively avoids caricature under his obvious Oscar-baiting Makeup and Hairstyling. And when he delivers Churchill's famous speeches, he does so with rousing gusto. Indeed, it's the equivalent of a mic drop aimed at the Best Actor race.

Oldman's performance is undeniably the main reason to see this film. But the overall filmmaking is much better than it has thus far been given credit for. Bruno Delbonnel for example, would make a respectable Oscar nominee for Best Cinematography. The way he uses lighting to convey how Churchill steps in and out of the spotlight is highly effective. Meanwhile, Dario Marianelli's reliably melodious Original Score also merits Oscar consideration. Perhaps most surprisingly, the script is liberally sprinkled with humor, which significantly enlivens the film. Furthermore, screenwriter Anthony McCarten was previously nominated for "The Theory of Everything" and I think he could be in the running again, this time for Best Original Screenplay.

Finally, although it is far from the dazzling heights of his best work, Joe Wright should factor into the Best Director conversation. "Darkest Hour" is clearly a star vehicle for Gary Oldman. But underneath it all, it's Wright who is really in the driver's seat, ensuring it stays on track.

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations

Another year, another set of simultaneously thrilling and disappointing nominations from the HFPA. The Golden Globe nominations have been announced and leading the pack of "The Shape of Water". But the more newsworthy story was the complete shut-out of "The Big Sick", despite ample opportunities for recognition in the comedy categories. Furthermore, Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele were both skipped over in Best Director. Will these snubs repeat at the Oscars? The competition is getting very stiff.

Here are the 2017 Golden Globe nominees:

Call Me By Your Name
​The Post
The Shape Of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The Disaster Artist
Get Out
The Greatest Showman
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

Christopher Nolan - Dunkirk
Martin McDonagh - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ridley Scott - All The Money In The World
Steven Spielberg - ​The Post
Guillermo del Toro - The Shape Of Water

Timothée Chalamet - Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks - ​The Post
Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington - Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Jessica Chastain - Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins - The Shape Of Water
Frances McDormand - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Meryl Streep - ​The Post
Michelle Williams - All The Money In The World

Steve Carrell - Battle of the Sexes
Ansel Elgort - Baby Driver
James Franco - The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman - The Greatest Showman
Daniel Kaluuya - Get Out

Judi Dench - Victoria and Abdul
Helen Mirren - The Leisure Seeker
Margot Robbie - I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird
Emma Stone - Battle of the Sexes

Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project
Armie Hammer - Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins - The Shape Of Water
Christopher Plummer - All The Money In The World
Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mary J. Blige - Mudbound
Hong Chau - Downsizing
Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer - The Shape Of Water

Monday, December 11, 2017

REVIEW: First They Killed My Father

Taken at face value, Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father" is one of the most misleading film titles of the year. The eponymous father does not meet his demise until more than an hour into the film. But therein lies the film's biggest strength. While similarly-themed films focus on the violence of civil war, this historical drama (based on a non-fiction book by the same name) captures the arduous experience of a revolution to gut-wrenching effect.

"First They Killed My Father" depicts a first-hand account of Loung Ung, a survivor of the vicious Khmer Rouge regime that took control of Cambodia in 1975. Being only 7 years old at the time, hers is a story of innocence lost, as she suffered through a myriad traumas. Her journey begins when US forces evacuated the country after a period of unjustifiable aggression towards Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Leaving behind a fragile country, the communist rebels called Khmer Rouge seized the moment, claiming to act in the best interest of the nation. But as the regime forces the citizens to flee their homes, their real intentions become apparent. Before long, they are stripped of their rights and forced to work for the military under strenuous conditions, as another war between Cambodia and Vietnam seems imminent.

Told from perspective of Loung Ung (in addition to stunning overhead shots from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), the film rests largely on Sreymoch Sareum's tiny shoulders. But whereas many child performers rely on a certain level of precociousness, this subdued performance is impact for doing the exact opposite. She is quiet for much of the narrative, like a journalist bearing witness to the atrocities happening all around her. Her watchful, unblinking eye is the camera recording this history.

Indeed, the screenplay is notably methodical in its approach, almost to the point of being monotonous. But this is certainly by design, showing the gradual process of dehumanization that occurred. The audience feels initial promise of salvation through repetitive propaganda, the desperation of hunger and the gradual stripping away of family and identity, all leaving a lasting impact. In that regard, the film becomes a powerful anti-communist statement.

Ultimately, "First They Killed My Father" succeeds largely on its humanism. Though it eventually illustrates the devastating effects of war, it is more memorable as a lament for the beauty that was lost. As Loung daydreams throughout her living nightmare, Jolie's optimism and love for these people and their culture is evident. As mentioned earlier, the bleak "First They Killed My Father" is misleading. A more appropriate title would be the one given to one of Jolie's previous films - Undefeated.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations

Is there any awards body as blatant with its Oscar predicting as the Broadcast Film Critics Association? I think not. Today, their Critics Choice Awards nominations were announced and they've surely covered their prognosticating bases with a number of categories having 7 nominees. "The Shape of Water" was surely a benefit of this padding, leading the field by far with 14 nominations. Will it be as successful as the Oscars?

Here is the full list of Critics Choice nominees:

The Big Sick
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Steven Spielberg – The Post

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger
Tom Hanks – The Post
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Allison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water


"Quality drives profitability." This is the mantra that fuels the narrative of "The Post" and its courageous protagonists. But one could also see it as an indirect humble brag from its director Steven Spielberg. In a career spanning several decades, he has become a household name through a reputation for producing quality entertainment. With his latest effort "The Post", he adds another triumph to his lauded filmography, delivering a thrilling period drama that is painfully relevant to our modern times.

"The Post" is set in the early 1970s, a time when American citizens were becoming increasingly concerned about the nation's involvement in the Vietnam war. As it became clear that it was a waste of precious human lives and resources, the press played a central role in giving voice to these frustrations. One of those major players was The Washington Post. Lead by publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), The Post was known for its integrity and commitment to reporting the facts, no matter how harsh. Their biggest challenge was soon to come however, as they are made aware of secret cover-up called The Pentagon Papers. Acquired from a whistle-blower named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), this shocking information detailed years of deception by the government and was first communicated to rival newspaper The New York Times. But when the government successfully silences them from proceeding further, The Washington Post is left to make a history-making decision. Do they risk their careers and freedom in order to do the right thing?

As history will tell us, The Washington Post did eventually go to print with this news. But the journey to get there was understandably fraught with fear and intimidation. And this is before even taking into account the extensive research and legal acrobatics required to find loopholes to avoid possible prosecution for treason.

In the hands of Steven Spielberg however, this procedural becomes as exciting as any of his crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Indeed, with the aid of a typically stirring score by John Williams, "The Post" is a Spielberg movie through and through. The story moves at invigorating pace, with a palpable energy that exudes from Janusz Kaminski's agile cinematography and the sharp editing.

But the most riveting aspect is the treat of watching a pair of thespians at the height of the powers. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep lend the film effortless gravitas with their graceful work here, which is sure to put them in contention for Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars. Through their respective character arcs, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer beautifully explores the personal dilemmas that were intimately linked to their ultimate decision. Streep's Graham is especially compelling as a woman who broke a glass ceiling as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Faced with the possible ruination of the legacy of a company inherited from her father and late husband, her internal struggle is brilliantly conveyed. It's easily one of Streep's most skillful performances. And she has such terrific chemistry with Hanks that it makes you wonder why it took so long for these icons of American cinema to share the screen.

Indeed, Hanks and Streep do the roles justice. At a time when journalism is under threat by "fake news" and "post-truth politics," their story is incredibly inspiring. And "The Post" emphatically captures what makes the profession so rewarding, as it captures the thrill of the scoop, the nerve-wracking pressure of deadlines, the excitement of competitive rivalries and the power of teamwork. It's simply sensational. And the Academy now has another major contender to consider in many categories, including Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and of course, Best Picture.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

AWARDS SEASON: A Battle of the Sexes?

Is Lady Bird our frontrunner?

Awards season is now upon us and it's turning out to be a real "battle of the sexes." While men in the film industry have come under increased criticism in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it's no coincidence that women have come to the fore in record-breaking ways. This summer, "Wonder Woman" was a major box office success for director Patty Jenkins, while the fall season brought Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird", now the best reviewed film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. Fresh off a big win from the New York Film Critics, this beloved coming of age tale has now soared to the top of the current Best Picture rankings:
  1. Lady Bird
  2. The Post
  3. Call Me by Your Name
  4. Get Out
  5. Dunkirk
  6. The Shape of Water
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  8. Darkest Hour
  9. The Florida Project
  10. Mudbound
Of course, the race is still far from over. But an interesting narrative is starting to form around Best Picture and the associated Best Director categories. If Gerwig's film were to be nominated for both, she could join Jordan Peele ("Get Out") and Dee Rees ("Mudbound") in what would be a watershed moment for the newly diverse Academy. Having a Best Director lineup comprising only two white men may seem far-fetched to seasoned awards fans, but they are definitely in the running. 

Aside from Gerwig and Rees' achievements behind the camera, there are also a number of female-led films in Best Picture contention. These include "The Post" with the legendary Meryl Steep, "The Shape of Water" with the exquisite Sally Hawkins, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri" and its dynamite Frances McDormand and "The Florida Project" starring the pint-sized phenom Brooklynn Prince. After years of "women's pictures" being ghettoized as Best Actress contenders only, such a female-centric Best Picture field would be a welcome change.

To come out on top in this battle of the sexes however, these films will likely have to fend off the challenge of a pair of films centered around perhaps the most masculine of topics - war. Indeed, Christopher Nolan and Joe Wright will certainly count on the Academy's affinity for World War II stories - in addition to an "overdue" awards narrative - to ensure their films "Dunkirk" and "Darkest Hour" will be announced in January. But do they represent a brand of prestige cinema that is losing its appeal with the Academy? A year after the "Moonlight" victory, a masterful LGBT love story like "Call Me By Your Name" may be more to their liking. It's certainly my favorite of the year so far, and I think AMPAS voters will respond to it too. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Shape of Water

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a unique gift of transporting us to fantasy worlds that are not far from our own. In 2006, he created such a masterpiece with "Pan's Labyrinth", exploring the darkness of Spain's Franco-era fascism. With "The Shape of Water" he's done it again, turning his lens towards an original fairytale set in 1960s Baltimore.

"The Shape of Water" stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a kindhearted woman who has been mute since she was very young. She lives above a grand movie theater called the Orpheum, spending much of her spare time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). During the nights however, she diligently clocks in for a mundane job as a janitor at a research facility. One day, her life gets a jolt of excitement however, as a mysterious "asset" arrives at her workplace. Her curiosity leads her to discover that there is a humanoid sea creature being held captive. Sneaking in to interact with this fascinating being, Elisa and creature soon strike up an unlikely friendship that deepens to something more. But external forces - namely the cruel boss Colonel Richard Strickland - threaten to keep them apart.

With a voice-over narration that bookends the film, "The Shape of Water" immediately signals its "once upon a time" storybook premise. Indeed, Elisa is referred to as "the princess without a voice." Her life is far from perfect however. She doesn't live in a castle and isn't placed on a pedestal for her beauty.

As you can imagine, del Toro instead uses her speech impediment to make a parable about tolerance. But this inspired tale (sure to be in the mix for Best Original Screenplay) casts the net even wider, using the atmosphere of the pre-civil rights and Cold War era to comment on racism, homophobia and in the case of the monster, a lack of humanity towards other species.

In doing so, the script establishes some easily identifiable archetypes alongside our outcast protagonist with her heart of gold.The chatty black friend (played by Octavia Spencer), the evil bureaucrat (played by Michael Shannon), the kind scientist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and the middle-aged man who is despairingly lonely and gay. Among them, the latter is the most fully realized character, allowing Richard Jenkins to convey his insecurities and motivations. In addition to the more obvious choices of Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Jenkins could definitely become a contender for Best Supporting Actor.

But even though the character development is somewhat lacking, del Toro more than makes up for it with his astounding visual and sound design. The wondrous art direction (largely rendered in a striking teal color palette) is arguably the best of the year, while cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures some unforgettable moments. I dare you not to be utterly enchanted by the underwater shots of Elisa and her Amphibian Man in a loving embrace. And composer Alexandre Desplat produces some of his best work with a whimsical score. The film should therefore be a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score nods.

"The Shape of Water" is undeniably a fairy tale for adults. That's evident in its unflinching depiction of violence and gore, as well a brazen sexuality that is jarring at times. But underneath it all, this is a gorgeous romance that will have you feeling like a child again, hoping for a "happily ever after" for its star-crossed lovers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Wonder Woman

As we enter the thick of awards season, filmmakers and publicists are very busy trying to get attention for their fall releases. But it's worth remembering that the year is 12 months long and has already delivered Oscar-worthy fare. One such example is Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman", a summer box office hit that was an unexpected critics darling and sparked significant Best Picture talk.

"Wonder Woman" is the origin story of its titular character, a member of the famed comic book superhero team known as the Justice League. But before becoming one of Earth's most vital protectors, she was just Diana, a gifted child growing up around a civilization of women called Amazons. These women are fierce warriors created by the god Zeus to protect mankind. After man was irreparably corrupted by war and hate however, they retreated to the secret island of Themyscira. But one day in 1918, a mysterious American man stumbles upon them, bringing the ongoing World War with him. With her world and that of the humans now under threat, Diana must venture out into to fulfill her personal mission to stop the forces of evil and restore peace.

As Diana embarks on her adventure, "Wonder Woman" essentially shifts between 3 different films, of which the first is the best. The opening act is a coming-of-age fantasy tale, as we are introduced to the mythology surrounding the Amazons and Diana herself. Handsomely shot, it provides effective world-building as it captures the untouched beauty of Themyscira. This segment also offers the most thrilling action sequences through its training montages and the aforementioned invasion. The awesomely choreographed athleticism is truly something to behold.

The film gets increasingly more familiar after this promising start however. Still, it never fails to keep your attention thanks to terrific performances from Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. The former is effortlessly compelling in his role as both an Allied spy and Diana's eventual love interest and partner. He has excellent chemistry with Gadot, who once again proves that she was indeed the right choice to play this beloved character. She has the perfect combination of girlish naivety and womanly strength that pays off wonderfully in the middle act's "fish out of water" humor in London and an enthrallingly feminist scene in the aptly named "No Man's Land".

Subsequent to this World War I subplot, the film unsurprisingly devolves into the usual explosive battle royale between our heroine and the "Big Bad" that often garners Oscar nods for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. But even within this formulaic conclusion, there's an unabashedly moralistic message that distinguishes the film from the typical superhero film. Despite her incredible powers, Wonder Woman is more importantly a beacon of goodness and love. And this sentimentality is ultimately refreshing in a genre that usually caters to the "cool" bravado that appeals to young men. "Wonder Woman" is funny and thrilling, but it also has a sweetness and sincere romance at its core. In other words, it's a comic book movie that anyone can enjoy. I know I did.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Documentary Feature Shortlist

With a record 170 films in the running, there’s no doubt that the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature will be one of this year’s most competitive. And with many esteemed films in contention, the category is high on quality too. In a few months we’ll know which 5 of these the Academy deems the best, but prior to the nominations, this unwieldy longlist will soon be whittled down to 15. Predicting which films will make that shortlist is no easy task however, as the Academy’s Documentary branch is known to throw curveballs every year. But after observing the festival and awards circuit thus far, there are some clues as to which films are generating buzz. Here is our take on the main candidates for this year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 27, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

"Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?" That is the central question being asked in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", the latest work from director Martin McDonagh. Answering that question gets complicated however, in this timely and resonant drama.

The three billboards bearing this question were placed by a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a devastated mother seeking justice for a daughter. Living in a town where a laid-back attitude permeates throughout society, she hopes it will bring more attention and stir up some urgency. So said, so done. The billboards cause a commotion in the community and gains attention in the local media. But not everyone is on her side. The police department feels unfairly chastised, especially the Chief (played by Woody Harrelson) and others like Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who had already been in the news for a case of police brutality. Furthermore, the locals feel a sense of loyalty to their Chief, who is seen as a role model in the community. But Mildred will stop at nothing to bring her daughter's murderers to justice.

As the determined Mildred, Frances McDormand delivers what will likely become one of her signature roles (and a possible Best Actress-winning performance). There's a riveting bombast to her straight-shooting defiance that masks a deeply felt pain over her loss. As she rages against the machine that is the patriarchy and indirectly, white supremacy, you can't help but root for her.

Indeed, McDonagh's brilliant screenplay takes on metaphorical power in its scathing condemnation of American society. Whether through a razor-sharp monologue about the nature of culpability or highlighting ineptitude and complacency in the broken justice system, it gives voice to the voiceless.

And yet, there's also a humane comfort to this story. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is undoubtedly a Martin McDonagh film, primarily evident through its irreverent humor. In that regard, Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell's dimwit Dixon are fascinating characters. Particularly the latter, as McDonagh's Oscar-worthy original screenplay peels back the layers of his hate. And Rockwell's detailed performance is worthy of every Best Supporting Actor recognition he'll get during this awards season.

Directed, written and performed to perfection, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" depicts an arresting crusade (nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing should be forthcoming). But its ultimate message is more disarming than a simplistic tale of vengeance. Indeed, it is one of empathy, even in the worst of times. As such, it is one of the most urgent and relevant films you could watch right now. And it would likely remain so in March 2018, where it would make for a fine Best Picture winner indeed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

Awards season is well underway, as the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced today. As major studios have steered away from awards fare, this formerly low profile awards show has grown to become a significant bellwether for future Oscar success. Things are looking good for "Call Me by Your Name" then, which lead all films with 6 nominations. Following right behind were "Get Out" and "Good Time" with 5 each. Will the Spirits continue their trend of predicting Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards? Let the speculation begin. Here are this year's Spirit Awards nominees:

Best Feature
Call Me By Your Name
Get Out
The Florida Project
Lady Bird
The Rider

Best Director
Sean Baker – The Florida Project
Jonas Carpignano- A Ciambra
Luca Gudagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Benny Safdie/Joshua Safdie – Good Time
Chloé Zhao – The Rider

Best Female Lead
Salma Hayek – Beatriz at Dinner
Francis McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saiorse Ronin – Lady Bird
Shinobu Terajima – Oh Lucy
Regina Williams – Life And Nothing

Best Male Lead
Timothee Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
Harris Dickinson – Beach Rats
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Robert Pattinson – Good Time

Best Supporting Female
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Alison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Lois Smith – Marjorie Prime
Talia Webster – Good Time

Best Supporting Male
Nnamdi Asomugha – Crown Heights
Armie Hammer -Call Me By Your Name
Barry Keoghan – Killing of a Sacred Deer
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ben Safdie – Good Time


"Pain is here." This line is taken from "Queen Sugar", a TV drama set in present day New Orleans which recently concluded its phenomenal 2nd season. But it could just as easily have come from Dee Rees' Mississippi-set period drama "Mudbound". In this powerful new film, two families - one white, one black - experience the pain of racism that is inextricable from the history of America and particularly its Southern states.

The aforementioned quote is a response to a plot-line involving the display of Confederate symbols in a well-heeled private school, which seems to bother only its few black students. In similar fashion, "Mudbound" opens with a scene where the deep roots of racism stare its characters in the face. A pair of brothers are digging a grave for their deceased father, only to encounter remnants of a murdered slave already laying there.

Over the course of this film, we learn of the events leading up to the racially frought circumstances of this burial. It involves the McCallans, a white family trying to build a new life as farm owners in 1940s Mississippi. The family includes Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), as well as his charming younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and severely racist father (played to bone-chilling effect by Jonathan Banks). As they struggle to run a successful business amid imperfect rainy conditions, their lives intersect with the Jackson family, who are sharecroppers with ties to the land that extend back to slavery. Hoping to eventually buy their own land and provide for their family, Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) work tirelessly for the McAllans. But as World War II looms, both families will become even more connected, in ways neither could have anticipated.

Indeed, when Jamie and the Jacksons' eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the war, the lives of all the characters are changed forever. While both are war heroes, Jamie suffers from crippling PTSD and Ronsel comes "home" to a society that treats him as a second-class citizen. The latter's experience is especially fascinating, as the astute script (a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay) starkly underlines the irony of being embraced more by the "evil" German enemies than his own countrymen.

As with similarly themed dramas, Ronsel's family faces unconscionable injustices as his enlightened perspective stokes the flames of hatred in the community. But the toil and suffering is only part of the story. Indeed, "Mudbound" captivates audiences by also exploring the better world that could have been. Through the unlikely friendship between Jamie and Ronsel (played with sincere chemistry between Hedlund and Mitchell), we see the capacity for human kindess that is still to be fully realized today. Likewise, the empathy shown by Laura and the strength of Mary J. Blige's Florence (a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress) is deeply felt. And there are other standouts in this stellar ensemble, as the poetic narrations allows their varying perspectives to resonate.

Indeed, "Mudbound" is a poignant film that will surely remain in the conversation in the coming months (look out for potential history to be made in Best Director and Best Cinematography). At once intimate and grand, bleak and hopeful; it has the feel of an American classic. This Best Picture contender is "prestige cinema" done right.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Terrorism, debilitating illness, the lingering trauma of war. These are just a few of the dark themes represented in this year’s European submissions for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a typically sizable contingent of 38 films, exploring this year’s European films can therefore be a daunting task. But as past winners like “Amour” and “Son of Saul” can attest, “serious” fare is catnip for the Academy. And with festival prizes and famous actors in the mix, they would appear to have the recipe for success. Here’s a closer look at the European films vying for Oscar glory this year:

Read more at The Awards Circuit


After a 4-year streak of European domination for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, 2016 was a standout year for cinema from the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Iran and Asghar Farhadi claimed their 2nd win for “The Salesman” while Australia picked up their first ever nomination with “Tanna”. Looking ahead to 2017, the new submissions from the Far and Middle East boast the potential to perform even better. As always, they are a diverse set, ranging from intimate indies to crowd-pleasing blockbusters and everything in between.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


For reasons good and bad, there’s been a lot of talk lately about women in the film industry. Notably, Hollywood has been rocked by recent sexual harassment scandals in the same year that Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman” conquered the summer box office. While the picture isn’t perfect overseas, the Foreign Language Oscar category continues to be a beacon of positivity. Just last year, we celebrated a record number of submissions from female directors, yielding a nomination for Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” in the process. And now, that milestone has been smashed, with 26 women-directed films being chosen to represent their countries. Only three women have ever helmed winners in this category, but hope springs eternal with this talented group. Here’s a deeper look at these films and the directors attempting to follow in the footsteps of Marleen Goris, Caroline Link and Suzanne Bier.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


After a fruitful run that garnered four shortlisted films over the last three years, this year’s Foreign Language Oscar submissions from Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean enter the race with a noticeably lower profile. Films from the region were less prominent on the festival and awards circuit in 2017, compared to years past when films like “From Afar” and “Embrace of the Serpent” stole the headlines. But while the names associated with this year’s crop of submissions may be unfamiliar to Oscar voters, there is still plenty to like about the offerings.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


If you’re still looking for proof that #OscarsSoWhite, look no further than the history of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Unsurprisingly, this category has been overwhelmingly dominated by European films, with 56 winners from the region. In comparison, you can count the African winners on less than one hand, with only three winners to date. The under-representation of African cinema could also be explained by the low number of entries, however, as only a few countries bother to submit films each year. But as this year’s slate proves, there is no shortage of talented African filmmakers. Here’s a closer look at the eight African films vying for Oscar attention.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


Less than a year after the historic “Moonlight” win at the Oscars, its influence is already being felt. Indeed, if the 2017 race for the Foreign Language Oscar is anything to go by, queer cinema will once again be at the forefront of awards chatter this season. Like “Moonlight”, these acclaimed films are bringing new LGBT perspectives to the screen, representing a diverse spectrum of genres and countries from across the globe. Here’s a look at the 6 submissions hoping for some “Moonlight” afterglow.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, October 15, 2017

REVIEW: The Square

There must be something in the Nordic air. The filmmakers of this region seem to have a talent for dry, satirical - and often dark - comedies that is totally unique. In a 2015 BBC article titled "Is Nordic humour too dark for the rest of the world?" their trademark style is given the name "gálgahúmor", which means gallows humour in English. Among his peers, Ruben Östlund is a leading proprietor of this subgenre, notably breaking out with his award-winning 2014 film "Force Majeure", which has already been set for a Hollywood remake. His latest will undoubtedly be a harder sell for North American audiences, with an even stronger Swedish sensibility despite its inclusion of American and British actors. Nevertheless, Östlund has truly outdone himself with "The Square", delivering a delicious, hearty slice of absurdist cinema.

While "Force Majeure" focused on the emasculation of a "man's man" in the wake of a single split-second decision, Östlund takes things to a whole new level with this new protagonist. Similarly confident, handsome and even more influential, Christian (Claes Bang) is the chief curator of a prestigious art museum in Sweden. Always looking to push boundaries with his exhibitions, he is working on a new project called The Square, described as "a sanctuary of trust and caring." But as Christian organizes the concept and marketing of this new artwork, a series of misfortunes challenge his own belief in the ideals of the project. Beginning with a robbery of his phone and wallet, he begins to lose control of his life as angry pre-teens, pushy women and homeless beggars alike gradually cut him down to size.

The darkly comic style of "The Square" is distinctly Swedish, but the storytelling is all Ruben Östlund. As the film satirizes the art world, Ostlund displays his boyish sense of mischief, his immaculate directorial eye and his knack for crafting hilariously awkward situations out of human interactions that would otherwise seem banal in real life. Indeed, masculinity has rarely been as fragile as it is in Östlund's films. With a narrative structure reminiscent of Roy Andersson, the film puts Christian through essentially a series of skits which are alternately thought-provoking, shocking or delightfully cringeworthy in their awkwardness. Or sometimes all at once.

With all due respect to Claes Bang's excellent performance though, Östlund is truly the star of "The Square". For a film about a man that is losing control of his life, the direction and screenwriting shows an auteur who is in total command of his voice. He never wastes a single frame, whether it be a morbidly funny sight gag or a moment of vulnerability for his lead character. Furthermore, the unexpected humor he generates from simple scenarios could only have come from the mind of a comic genius and perceptive humanist. Indeed, underneath the gut-busting laughs is a rather scathing examination of the apathy and prejudice of the upper class. Ultimately, this masterful film becomes not just a satire of the modern art world, but of life itself and its endless absurdities.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW: The Other Side of Hope

"An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." This famous Nina Simone quote was uttered in reference to the mid-20th century civil rights movement but it remains equally relevant today. And as one of the most powerful and popular artforms, cinema has always been a champion of this belief. With the ongoing refugee crisis, it's no surprise then that a new wave of films about the immigrant experience has been flooding theaters. From non-fiction to traditional dramas, this urgent human rights issue has become an increasingly important topic for filmmakers. Few of them however, capture the refugee experience with the same level of sharp wit and purposeful artistry as Aki Kaurismaki with his latest - and possibly last - film "The Other Side of Hope".

This tale of unlikely friendship between two men is set in modern day Helsinki. One is an elderly local named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a former salesman who has just left his wife. After winning big on a poker tour, Wikström has his sights set on a new career as a restaurant owner. Meanwhile, a young refugee named Khaled also hopes to start fresh, seeking asylum in Finland after an arduous journey from Syria. Both men are somewhat lost in their new worlds however, but when their paths collide, they instantly strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.

Like a lost film from the New German Cinema movement, "The Other Side of Hope" gives you a retro feel with its cinematography (obviously shot on film), wry sense of humor and strong characters. Indeed, the relationship between Wikström and Khaled is particularly reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul". There's a heartwarming simplicity to their friendship that poignantly contrasts the unnecessary bureaucracy that Khaled faces in his asylum appeal.

This juxtaposition of individual humanity vs collective intolerance is handled brilliantly by Kaurismaki. He blends a gently comic tone with the harsh reality of our modern times with equally unsentimental matter-of-factness. The brightly colored walls and humorously misguided attempts at cultural appropriation may seem to affirm the illusion of a welcoming society. But Kaurismaki is soberingly blunt in exposing the hypocrisy of European liberalism, where the possibility of racist violence lurks around every corner.

In this regard, Sherwan Haji is amazingly effective as Khaled. There's an intensity in his eyes that feels almost accusatory towards the viewer, as if we are complicit in the harrowing ordeal that brought him to Finland. We are therefore invested in his tumultuous journey, through which Kaurismaki shows the other side of freedom, home and hope.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Blade Runner 2049

If there's one thing you can't fault Denis Villeneuve for, it's his ambition. Since his Oscar-nominated foreign language breakthrough "Incendies", this gifted French-Canadian has successfully crossed over to Hollywood, taking the industry by storm with his awe-inspiring directorial vision. Indeed, with each new film, he has charted new cinematic heights, amassing praise for the stunning scope and scale of his productions. It therefore gives me no pleasure to admit that I was left disappointed by his most ambitious effort to date - "Blade Runner 2049".

As the title suggests, the film takes place in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the original film. In this future society, the bioengineered humans called replicants have been redesigned to obey, allowing them to act as blade runners to eliminate the remnants of older models. One such blade runner is a man simply known as "K" (played by Ryan Gosling), who is sent on missions to infiltrate a rebel movement of replicants fighting for freedom. During one portentious mission, he comes across the remains of a female replicant. And upon further analysis, it is revealed that she died in childbirth. This shocking revelation calls into question the humanity of the longstanding practice of using replicants as slaves. The authorities therefore try to cover up this potential scandal. But K is hell-bent on finding answers, which takes him on a journey that will change his world forever.

"Blade Runner" fans will be pleased to learn that this new outing retains the philosophical essence of its predecessor. This time however, the mythology is deepened further, improving on the dystopian vision by incorporating ecosystem collapse. Indeed, Villeneuve's expansive world-building is truly something to behold. And with great style, he maintains the grungy noir atmosphere, albeit spruced up with modern production values, such as the Oscar-worthy Cinematography and Production Design.

The visuals are almost staggering at times, complimented by the bold, immersive sound design (Oscar noms for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing are a lock) that has become a staple of Villeneuve's work. And the storyline is just as rich, though at nearly 3 hours, it struggled to keep me engaged throughout. In fact, the only thing measured about this film are its performances, notably by Gosling in the lead role. There's an intensity to him that is gripping and often saves the film through its dull patches.

"Blade Runner 2049" is bigger in every way, but is it actually better? I'm not fully convinced by this lauded Best Picture contender. Despite its considerable virtues, the film left me cold. Whereas "Blade Runner" was concise yet still intellectually and emotionally stimulating, this grandiose and overly cerebral feels superflous in comparison. There's undoubtedly some outstanding filmmaking on display (I would certainly support a Best Director nod for Villeneuve). But for me, it was maybe too much of a good thing.

Sunday, October 8, 2017


As buzz words like "inclusion" and "diversity" become increasingly prominent within the film industry, there is one group that still feels neglected. Namely, persons of Asian descent have scarcely seen themselves represented on screen outside of token roles. But there are signs of change, as Asian-Americans have been slowly coming to the forefront of film and TV. A perfect example is Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and stars in Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick", an autobiographical romantic comedy that was a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The Big Sick" follows the personal crises of Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant who moved with his family to the United States a young age. Now an adult, Kumail is starting to realize the American dream. He is a budding comedian on the brink of success, a path that his more traditionalist parents firmly oppose. However, they are willing to indulge his "hobby" if he can grant them one wish - that he marry a Muslim woman. But as much as they try, Kumail is uninterested in his mother's matchmaking attempts. To make matters worse, he meets a white American woman named Emily, who he begins to fall in love with. The situation is a stressful one, as Kumail struggles to chose between his family and his heart. Meanwhile Emily is reluctant to fully commit to this new relationship, having already been through a divorce. And things get even more complicated when she contracts a mysterious disease that forces Kumail to finally decide what's important in his life.

Kumail's subsequent journey of self-discovery is filled with humor and tragedy, as he faces the messiness and unpredictability of life. Indeed, Kumail's courtship of Emily goes to unexpected places due to the baggage they both bring to the relationship. Free from gimmicky quirks, there is a rare authenticity to the characters, as much of the story is based on the experience of the writers - Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. In the case of Kumail, the script therefore touches on the unique perspective of first-generation Asian-Americans. Much like Ravi Patel showed in his documentary-romcom hybrid "Meet the Patels", the loving, close-knit family structure of Pakistani and Indian cultures is hard to reject, even in the face of "true love." And that delicate balance between suffocating control and comforting support is handled particularly in a series of dinner table scenes, which hilariously includes a revolving door of suitors who "just happened to show up", as Kumail's meddling, but endearing mother claims.

As many in his situation do, Kumail takes it in stride, with a sense of humor which stands out whether the character is on stage or in his daily interactions. Indeed, Nanjiani is far from your typical romantic lead, possessing a dorky personality that would make most casting directors look the other way. But director Michael Showalter smartly leans into Nanjiani's unorthodox screen presence, which pays off wonderfully when he eventually meets Emily's parents (perfectly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). As he shares in their anxiety and sorrow and laughs through the tears, Nanjiani shows new depths to his acting ability.

And ultimately, it's surely Nanjiani's impressive performance and his sharp writing that have lead many to declare the film as "one of the best romantic comedies" in years, even spurring talk of an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar. Personally, there are some perhaps unavoidable cliches that prevent me from falling head over heels for it however. Though beautifully acted, Kazan's character mostly functions as a catalyst for the male lead's growth. Thankfully, she is no manic pixie dream girl and she isn't beholden to the man, which is a credit to the script (a deserving contender for Best Original Screenplay). "The Big Sick" may not be "perfect", but it's a heartfelt, satisfying film that at least brings a fresh face and voice to the big screen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

REVIEW: Window Horses

It takes a certain skill to make an animated film both educational and entertaining. However, this style of “edutainment” seems to come naturally to Anne-Marie Fleming, director of “Window Horses“. Under Fleming’s creative vision, “Window Horses” compellingly navigates dense thematic terrain, exploring history, culture, and politics through the experience of a young Canadian woman’s journey to Iran.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Bobbi Jene

We’ve been taught to believe that geniuses are often anti-social, narcissistic and selfish. When we meet one who contradicts these expectations, we are therefore amazed at how “down to earth” and “nice” they are. Such is the case with “Bobbie Jene“, Elvira Lind’s compassionate documentary about the life and art of its titular subject.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Kill Me Please

At once lurid and aloof, “Kill Me Please” is a truly puzzling film. A debut feature by Brazilian director Anita Rocha da Silveira, this genre mashup takes a simple horror premise and takes it to unexpected places. But while its varied themes and styles are ambitious, the film never fully coheres to pique audience interest.

Read more at The Awards Circuit