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.

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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.

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REVIEW: Polina

In the world of ballet, elegance and grace is of the essence. The titular dancer of Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’s “Polina” knows this all too well, facing criticism at an early age for not being limber. But natural-born talent can only get you so far, as Polina proves in this captivating saga about a young woman who fearlessly chases her dreams.

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As decent Americans look on aghast after another incident of racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, films like “Gook” remain incredibly timely. Starring, written, and directed by Justin Chon, this drama relives the tense atmosphere of South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the infamous Rodney King verdict. Crafted carefully around those real life events, “Gook” delivers a rare, engaging Korean-American take on race relations in the early 90s.

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REVIEW: The Nile Hilton Incident

Corruption is a disease that plagues societies all over the world, particularly when under the rule of a dictatorship. Such a regime forms the background for “The Nile Hilton Incident” a crime drama directed by Tarik Saleh. Set in pre-revolution Egypt in 2011, this Sundance winner is a scathing indictment of corruption, as uncovered in the aftermath of a murder.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, October 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Battle of the Sexes

Before Serena, before Steffi, before Martina, there was one woman who changed women's tennis and paved the way for them all. Her name is Billie Jean King and her fight for equality revolutionized the sport forever. Unsurprisingly, she is now the subject of an inspiring Hollywood movie by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris titled "Battle of the Sexes", chronicling a pivotal moment in her illustrious career.

That titular Battle of the Sexes refers to an exhibition match that became a turning point for women in sport. It was played between King (Emma Stone) and a retired male pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who posed the challenge to assert male superiority. In the lead-up to the battle, King was at the top of her game. But she was frustrated by the lack of respect shown to the women's players. Despite their ever-increasing popularity, they were awarded only a fraction of the prize money of their male counterparts. Taking a stand, she joined with fellow players to form their own Women's Tennis Association with their best interests at heart. Meanwhile, an unhappy ex-pro named Bobby Riggs saw their efforts and decided to take advantage of their media visibility. So he decides to propose a challenge match to prove that even an out of shape 55-year old man could beat the best women's player in the world. King was initially reluctant however, perceiving it a fiasco designed to humiliate her and the entire sisterhood of athletes. But she later realized the golden opportunity it presented to prove the value of the women's game and promote equality. And the rest is history.

Indeed, King's on-court achievements are well known. As with any biopic then, the challenge is to give deeper insight into the person. In that regard, Simon Beaufoy's script (a likely contender for Best Original Screenplay) mostly succeeds, delving intimately into King's personal life and public activism. And Beaufoy is commendably efficient in establishing King's character and the central conflict, setting things in motion with an early scene where King confronts the head of the US Lawn Tennis Association to put forth her case that women deserve equal prize money.

Of course, the times weren't as progressive as they are now and she was rebuked. But we soon learn that King is nothing if not a fighter. The storyline soon reveals her leadership qualities in establishing the WTA, her fierce work ethic and as a married woman, her personal struggle to hide her secret lesbian affair. But even as she was evidently an icon of women's rights, LGBT rights and an ambassador for the sport, one of her most winning traits is her humility. And this humility is shared between both the character and Emma Stone in her portrayal of her. While the role is easily Stone's most transformative, the performance is completely naturalistic and devoid of actorly showmanship. Her effortless warmth therefore creates a rooting factor that serves the film well and will surely gain her fans in the Best Actress Oscar race.

In contrast, Bobby Riggs is considerably less remarkable, which is no fault of Steve Carrell's enthusiastic performance. With the frequent reminders that he is a "self-proclaimed chauvinist" who is simply putting on a show, the script sometimes undermines the feminist intent of the film. Instead, his character is mainly just a moronic gambling addict craving the spotlight, making him a rather lame antagonist.

As the film engagingly builds towards its triumphant conclusion, the imbalance between the characters becomes ever clear. I therefore agree with others who believe that the film would be more interesting as a more fulsome biopic focused more on Billie Jean King. Still, the film is a perfectly solid "down the line" play, to use tennis terminology. But perhaps more significantly, it's a striking reminder of how this Battle of the Sexes mirrored the recent US Presidential election. This social relevance will surely give the film some lasting power and will likely resonate with Academy voters. And with Billie Jean sure to join in on the film's awards campaign, the Best Picture has a proven champ in its midst.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

TIFF: Wrapping up the festival

With the announcement of a surprise People’s Choice Award Winner that precious few predicted, the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close with less fanfare than previous years. The general consensus was that the festival lacked the slam dunk hits that Oscar dreams are made of. But on deeper reflection, there was much to appreciate from this year’s slate of films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: A Ghost Story

The only certainty in life is death. But what comes after? With his latest film, David Lowery poses an answer to this question that provides even more room for thought. It may be titled "A Ghost Story", but it's also a love story and so much more.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple simply known as C and M. They live in a quaint suburban home as C tries to make a living as a musician. But one day, he dies tragically in a car accident just outside their home. M is distraught, consumed by her grief and loneliness. C returns home in spectral form however, hoping to re-connect with his wife. She can't see him however, though she senses his presence. Unfortunately, the pain and memories are too much to bear. M plans to move out of their home, leaving C desperate to break through to her before it's too late.

The experience of watching C's subsequent odyssey is one that delivers endless surprises. In the first act, the heartbreaking tragedy of its love story is presented with stark austerity, emphasizing the quiet solitude of loss and the overwhelming impact of grief. Free from hysterics, Lowery instead channels these feelings through his evocative use of music and Rooney Mara's delicate performance.

But Lowery does an interesting thing with this heartbreak, turning the focus towards C's ghost in the most fascinating of ways. It truly becomes "A Ghost Story" of unusual depth, gradually evolving into a bleak contemplation of the meaning of life and the afterlife. If Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was his faithful homage to the master Terrence Malick, then "A Ghost Story" is his graduation from his apprenticeship. With this effort he has truly found his voice, exploring an inspired take on cosmic existentialism to rival "The Tree of Life".

Indeed, "A Ghost Story" gets deeply philosophical - with a strikingly nihilistic outlook - but there's also an immediacy to the emotions that comes from his experimentation with recognizable genre tropes. Our protagonists' home is essentially a haunted house for example. But the haunting invokes despair rather than fear, as it plays off the "unfinished business" concept. Additionally, the film confronts the cruelty of time in a manner typical of sci-fi films. And these moments are so visceral that they put every 2017 film I've described as "profound" or "breathtaking" to shame.

In essence, "A Ghost Story is very sad, but it's also richly satisfying. Few filmmakers could take such a potentially comical premise (Casey Affleck haunts Rooney Mara dressed in a sheet with two holes for eyes) and make something so stunning. "A Ghost Story" is therefore a testament to the unlimited potential of a resourceful, visionary director. With minimalist production design, unshowy cinematography (i.e. a modest 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and little dialogue, Lowery conveys a story of tremendous beauty and power. "A Ghost Story" is a little film with grand ambitions. And it's easily one of the year's best.

Friday, September 22, 2017

INTERVIEW: Ruben Östlund and Terry Notary

On the basis of his first 4 features, writer-director Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most exciting voices of world cinema. His work is often mischievously satirical, giving him a reputation as the “Master of Discomfort.” With his latest film “The Square“, he soars to new heights with a brilliantly absurd comedy centered around the world of modern art. In celebration of the film’s TIFF premiere and its recent selection as Sweden’s Oscar submission, I sat down with Ostlund and actor Terry Notary for a discussion on pretension in art, the value in making mistakes and the gratifying feeling of awards recognition. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Sebastián Lelio

It feels like every few months we get an article decrying the paltry numbers of speaking roles for women in contemporary cinema. With his recent string of in-depth portraits of a diverse range of heroines, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, therefore, feels like a rebel against the status quo. True to form, he brought not one, but two unconventional female-centric films to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In “A Fantastic Woman“, a transgender woman copes with an intolerant society in the traumatic aftermath of her boyfriend’s untimely death. For “Disobedience” he made his English-language debut, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as Jewish women harboring mutual feelings of forbidden love.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TIFF: In The Fade

When we first meet Katja (Diane Kruger), the protagonist of “In The Fade” she seems to have it all. Living a comfortable lifestyle in Hamburg with her loving husband and son, she has no worries. In the blink of an eye, all that is taken away in this gut-wrenching revenge thriller from Fatih Akin.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Wajib & Sheikh Jackson

In a pair of TIFF films set in the Arab world, the tensions between Eastern and Western culture take on personal implications. Both are Oscar submissions for their respective countries, with “Wajib” and “Sheikh Jackson” representing Palestine and Egypt respectively. They also share similarities in their focus on father-son relationships, through which they discuss cultural differences surrounding religion, ancient traditions, and individual freedom.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Racer and the Jailbird

Film history has given us such memorable pairings as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. For his latest film, Michaël Roskam sought to emulate these dynamic duos with his own take on love, crime, and punishment. The result is “Racer and the Jailbird“, a flawed but ambitious film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Disaster Artist

After receiving his first Oscar nomination for “127 Hours”, James Franco hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of that honor. Though he remained incredibly prolific and acted in a few hits, his place on the A-list became precarious. Most noticeably, he made a foray into directing, which resulted in a slew of underwhelming indie experiments that almost became a running joke for their consistent inclusion at major film festivals.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Disobedience

Not content to bring just one award-winning film ("A Fantastic Woman") to TIFF 2017, Sebastián Lelio doubles up this year with another engrossing female-led drama. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience” marks his English-language debut. And more significantly, it is arguably his most impressive directing achievement to date.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: A Fantastic Woman

Movies about “triumphs over adversity” have long been a staple of cinema throughout the history of the artform. Unfortunately, that ubiquity can lead to predictable clichés. But every so often, a film like “A Fantastic Woman” comes along that breaks the mold. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, this aptly titled drama features a uniquely inspiring protagonist, showcased through the perceptive eye of a brilliant filmmaker.

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TIFF: You Disappear

In the opening scene of Peter Schønau Fog’s “You Disappear“, a man (Frederik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas) recklessly joy rides his family car – with terrified wife and son inside – to a potentially deadly crash. Moments later, as the family exits the car to catch their breath, he falls off a ledge at the side of the road. When he’s taken to the hospital, the family gets unexpected news. A tumor has been found in his brain, explaining his erratic behavior. But there’s an even more troubling revelation to come in this challenging Danish drama.

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TIFF: Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle

With a title like “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle“, you’d be correct in assuming this comedy-drama from Mike van Diem is not a simple story. Indeed, this cross-cultural, decades-spanning yarn is at its heart, a showcase for the art of storytelling. Whether you are narrating or being told a story, it can be a joyous experience, as shown with this highly entertaining film.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Florida Project

In his latest indie gem “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker puts the spotlight on everyday heroes hidden in plain sight. Much like his Hollywood-set “Tangerine,” he looks at the “shady” side of another one of America’s famous dreamlands. This time around the setting is a cluster of cheap motels located just a stone’s throw from Disney World. And in the same empathetic way that made “Tangerine” a highlight of 2015, “The Florida Project” is one of this year’s most warm, vibrant films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: I, Tonya

In one the best surprises of TIFF so far, Margot Robbie stars in “I, Tonya” as Tonya Harding, the disgraced American figure skater who came to prominence in the early 1990s. Her story begins in Portland, where from a very young age, she longed to become a professional figure skater. With prodigious talent to go along with her desire, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) encouraged her to aggressively pursue her dream. As a struggling waitress with a failing marriage, however, LaVona quickly realized that Margot’s humble background did not fit the elegant image expected of the sport. Through ruthless determination and undeniable skill, however, the combative (towards naysayers and each other) mother-daughter duo fought for Tonya’s place at the top of the figure skating world. But it all came crashing down in one of the biggest sports scandals in history.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: On Chesil Beach

Adapted from an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel (“Atonement”), set in 1960s Britain, and starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan, “On Chesil Beach” has all the makings of a classic “prestige” period film. That it centers around a prickly romance also promises rich dramatic potential. But while “On Chesil Beach” offers the conventional pleasures of an engaging story and handsome production values and actors, this debut feature from Dominic Cooke falls short of its potential.

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TIFF: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

As a Jamaican, it is with great shame that I confess to knowing relatively little about Grace Jones. Outside of her androgynous persona and a general sense of her iconic stature and cultural influence, she remained an almost mythical figure of a bygone era in my mind. It was on this basis that I eagerly anticipated the documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami“, an up close and personal look at this one-of-a-kind woman.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Call Me by Your Name

It’s easy to get caught up in unnecessary hyperbole when attending a film festival, especially under the excitement of your first screening. But after seeing Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name“, I am confident in calling it an instant classic of queer cinema. Filled with moments of pure bliss, this deeply touching film is a romance for the ages.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TIFF: Preview

Now that we’ve come down from the rarefied air of Telluride, it’s time to head north for the Toronto International Film Festival. Known for its audience-friendly programming and major industry presence, TIFF is the last stop in the early fall Venice-Telluride-Toronto trifecta. With an abundance of big premieres on its slate however, this mainstay of Toronto culture is certainly no after-thought.

Indeed, despite a decision to scale down the number of films – by a considerable 20% – this year, there is still a plethora of choices for all tastes. With a total of 255 feature films to be shown, Oscar campaigns will be launched (or face an early death) and new talent will be discovered among an array of diverse perspectives from all around the globe. And notably, about a third of these films are directed by women, a significant contrast to the low numbers seen at other major festivals like Venice and Cannes.

In short, if you love movies, Toronto is the place to be over the next 10 days. And with so many enticing choices, Awards Circuit is here to guide you with our 17 Films to See at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, September 4, 2017

COMING SOON: The Oscar Slate

After a surprisingly strong summer at the multiplexes, it's once again time to turn our direction to the "prestige" films vying for Oscar consideration. But first, it's worth mentioning the contenders that have already been released this year.

During the same weekend that "Moonlight" scooped a shocking Best Picture win, Jordan Peele gave us an early preview of the next awards race with "Get Out". This horror-comedy opened to raves from critics and chart-topping box office numbers, with audiences praising its astute satire about race in America.

Towards the end of the summer, another film about race relations made its own Best Picture claims in the form of Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit". But while some praised raw intensity of this true story, others criticized its depiction of brutality against African-Americans and questioned Bigelow's intentions as a white director.

With the bona fide "genre" style of "Get Out" and controvery surrounding "Detroit", it remains to be seen whether the Academy will ultimately embrace them. But there was one summer film that emerged with serious potential to go all the way. Namely, Christopher Nolan delivered another astonishing masterwork to his filmography with "Dunkirk", a truly nerve-wracking cinematic experience. You can expect Warner Bros. to pull out all the stops to get Nolan his first Best Director nomination to go along with a likely Best Picture nod.

Looking ahead, "Dunkirk" will surely face some stiff competition however, as evidenced by the reactions to the recent Venice and Telluride premieres. And in a few days, the Toronto International Film Festival gets under way with even more possibilities to consider. With so many Oscar hopefuls, it can be hard to keep track of the race. But if you dig deep enough, you can see the Best Picture field starting to take shape. With that in mind, here are the trailers for the major films to keep an eye on over the next 6 months:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

COMING SOON: Toronto International Film Festival

For the third year in a row, I'm pleased to announce that I'll be attending the Toronto International Film Festival. As a member of the press I'll have prime access to all the screenings and events this wonderful fest has to offer. Be sure to follow me at The Awards Circuit, where I'll be posting all my coverage, including articles, interviews, reviews and more.

INTERVIEW: Sunao Katabuchi

It’s not often that you find an animated film that caters directly to older audiences. But that’s exactly what Japanese anime director Sunao Katabuchi has achieved with “In This Corner of the World.” Based on a manga by Fumiyo Kouno, this film is a profound reflection on life during wartime, as seen through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu. Recently, I caught up with Katabuchi to discuss the film’s mature themes and its surprising audience of “children.” Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Whose Streets?

In the wake of several incidents of police brutality towards black people, the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved into an international phenomenon. One of the catalysts for this increased activism was the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, which is the focus of “Whose Streets?“, a documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. Fueled by the deep outrage felt by his community, this film chronicles the efforts of those who woke up to this atrocity and in the process, rallies viewers to support one of today’s most important human rights causes.

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REVIEW: In This Corner of the World

In the world of animation, it’s always quite striking to be reminded of the still untapped potential of Hollywood films. Save for a few ambitious efforts, the medium has been mostly synonymous with fantasy-related children’s fare. Internationally, however, animated films have been more willing to approach difficult subjects through a realist lens. One such example is “In This Corner of the World,” the new anime feature from director Sunao Katabuchi. Recalling the 1988 Studio Ghibli classic “Grave of the Fireflies,” this impressive period drama takes place in Japan during the tumultuous events of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. Told through the eyes of a young civilian, it never shies away from the harsh realities of life during wartime. As such, this modest animation stands out at this summer’s box office alongside like-minded fare such as “Dunkirk.”

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REVIEW: The Untamed

It probably won’t take much more than 5 minutes to decide if “The Untamed” is for you. Indeed, this new film from prominent Mexican director Amat Escalante presents its audacious premise right from the start. Incorporating themes of sexual liberation into an alien movie, it leaves it up to the audience to determine whether they are witnessing a disturbing horror or intriguing sci-fi/drama.

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REVIEW: False Confessions

With its reputation as the “city of love,” it’s no surprise that Paris sets the stage for countless French romantic comedies. One of the latest additions to this list is “False Confessions,” the final film by the late director Luc Bondy. As its title suggests, this Parisian tale spins a web of lies, as a wealthy widow is manipulated by an enamored young man.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

REVIEW: City of Ghosts

Two years after examining the violence of the Mexican drug trade in “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman is back with another bracingly intimate account of an ongoing state of terror. With “City of Ghosts,” the talented documentary filmmaker is once again at his unflinching best, documenting the rise of ISIS in Syria. In this hard-hitting chronicle, he follows the efforts of an activist group fighting to reclaim their homeland from these radical extremists. Through their work emerges a story of true heroes, displaying admirable courage against seemingly insurmountable odds.

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REVIEW: The Ornithologist

In a scene from “The Ornithologist“, one character advises another that “there are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand.” Uttered towards the end of the narrative, this statement might as well have been directed towards the audience. Indeed, João Pedro Rodrigues boldly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, ensaring the viewer in a mysterious and mesmerizing adventure.

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REVIEW: Score: A Film Music Documentary

Think of your favorite films. Now imagine them without music. For movie fans all over the world, this is a near impossible task. And yet, film music is often taken for granted, as we more often heap praise on the visuals, story, and direction. In “Score: A Film Music Documentary,” however, director Matt Schrader puts a necessary spotlight on the contribution of composers to the popularity of cinema, in this wonderful look at the world of film music.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Released to major critical acclaim and audience enthusiasm, "Get Out" is still the film of 2017. Marking the debut feature of Jordan Peele of "Key and Peele", it satirizes our current sociopolitical climate with his trademark humor and wit. And as white supremacy continues to rear its ugly head, this clever horror-comedy has become even more timely 6 months later.

For anyone going into the film blind, the premise seems simple at first. A successful young black photographer named Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is nervously preparing to meet the parents of his pretty, rich white girlfriend Rose Armitages (a perfectly cast Allison Williams). As they make their way to the Armitage's affluent surburban home, things get off to an ominous start, as their car hits a deer on the way. When a cop arrives to assess the situation, undue attention is paid to Chris, who innocently sat in the passenger seat. Confidently defending her boyfriend, Rose handles a potentially fatal situation. But a larger, more sinister racist plot awaits them in the suburbs, in this modern, amped up take on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner".

For any satire to be effective, it needs to be funny, smart and true. With his background in sketch comedy, the humour comes easily to Peele, as he writes characters and situations that are absolutely hilarious. Most notably, the paranoia of Chris' best friend character Rod (played by LilRel Howery) provides some of the film's funniest moments. As an inquisitive TSA agent, his investigation into the mysteries of Chris' suburban nightmare is pure comedic gold. Hypothesizing about possible sex slavery and brainwashing, he is essentially the audience surrogate, warning our hero of the dangers he may face.

Of course, what makes it all the more amusing is the fact that Rod's suspicions are well-placed. Without going into spoiler territory, the eventual reveal of the underlying sci-fi premise plays brilliantly off the notions of white privilege and exploitation. Indeed, one scene is a blatant nod to the auction blocks of the slavery era, disguised as a harmless game of bingo.

But while Howery brings the laughs with every frantic, concerned phone call and the script delivers the sci-fi smarts, what really hits home is the film's scathing truths. Namely, the truth that our outward personalities and attitudes are often just a performance. Whether its the seemingly tolerant white Obama-voters or the blind man who claims to be supportive of the black photographer with a great eye, these nice "allies" could be just as integral to maintaining the unjust status quo.

As Chris comes to terms with this reality, Kaluuya is tremendous at conveying the character's unease. Among an excellent cast, he is the standout, perfectly capturing the awkwardness and incredulity experienced when faced with subtle racism. He is a hero we immediately sympathize with and root for when the film shifts gears in the final act.

With its humor, thematic depth and the nuance of its social critique, "Get Out" is worth praise on ambition alone. But if it manages to make it into the Oscar conversation, that will surely be credited to Peele's impressive direction. Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations are surely on the cards for Peele's astute handling of the film's shifting tones, from the deadpan apathy of the aforementioned bingo game to the ballsy thrills of the film's conclusion. Furthermore, his unique visual concepts reflect the imagination of a true visionary. "Get Out" is undoubtedly just the beginning of an exciting film career which I will certainly be following with keen interest.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


As the ongoing announcements of TIFF titles reminds us, Oscar season is fast approaching. But before the onslaught of the fall releases, one infamously overdue director is already staking his claim for recognition. With his unbearably intense "Dunkirk", superstar director Christopher Nolan may finally break through for an hitherto elusive Best Director nomination.

World War II dramas have long been catnip for Academy voters, from "Twelve O'Clock High" in 1949 to last year's "Hacksaw Ridge". Hope springs eternal for Best Picture contender "Dunkirk" then, which fits the bill not just thematically but in quality too. As the title suggests, "Dunkirk" depicts a pivotal moment in the war, when Allied soldiers were left stranded and cornered by the enemy in the region of Dunkirk. With little help on the way, the outlook looks grim for the thousands of men hoping for deliverance on land, air and sea. Through the perspectives of 3 such groups of men, "Dunkirk" thus takes us through their grueling experience. On land, a young British private (Fionn Whitehead) awaits evacuation on the beach of Dunkirk as German forces continue their relentless attack. In the air, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his small squadron engage the Germans in combat, though fuel and reinforcements remain in short supply. Meanwhile, a man named Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to aid in the evacuation, setting sail for Dunkirk from the safety of Britain with only his inexperienced son and a teenaged assistant as support. With their backs against the wall, all of these men must play their part to achieve one objective - survival.

Indeed, "Dunkirk" sets itself apart from other war films by focusing not on violent displays of heroism but on humble retreat. While doing so, Nolan immerses us in the terrifying experience, dropping us right onto the beach like an unwilling soldier. As if to answer his critics, there is little exposition or backstory aside from a few opening lines of text explaining the current situation. What follows is therefore a taut, nerve-wracking experience and one of Nolan's most lean, consise films to date. For diehard fans like myself however, it also means a somewhat disappointing lack of originality in the script. Apart from the non-linear structure (which will likely reap a Best Editing nomination), this is a fairly straightforward survival story.

But what the film lacks in screenwriting ingenuity, it more than makes up for in technical mastery. Indeed, Nolan takes the term "theater of war" to heart, acting as the conductor for an astonishing cinematic symphony. Rarely has a war film felt so visceral, as Nolan recreates the sights and sounds of World War II with remarkable skill. Thanks to liberal use of wide shots, the cinematography conveys the enormity of the war with expansive vistas of land and sea. You can definitely expect Hoyte van Hoytema to be in the mix for his first Best Cinematography nomination.

Though these visuals and Nolan's direction are worthy of praise, the true MVPs of "Dunkirk" are actually composer Hans Zimmer and the team of sound editors. Much of the film's intensity is due to Zimmer's pulsing, agitating score, which perfectly captures the "ticking clock" nature of the evacuation. And if any viewers walk away from the film with PTSD, they have the frighteningly effective sound effects to thank. Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing would therefore be well deserved.

As with any Nolan effort, the filmmaking is top-rate all around, with many other fine aspects worthy of mention. Mark Rylance for example, could net another Best Supporting Actor nod for his steadfast performance. And though it's not his most memorable script, the satisfyingly cathartic conclusion will surely find some love in the Best Original Screenplay race. Indeed, this may finally be Nolan's year to steal the Oscar spotlight. There will certainly be several challengers to come, but for now, awards season has an early frontrunner.

Monday, July 17, 2017

REVIEW: Night School

In one scene of Andrew Cohn’s documentary “Night School“, we see a counselor advising a former high school dropout while the words “Black Lives Matter” are conspicuously displayed on his computer screen. In another, a young woman fights for her rights in a street protest for better wages. Neither of these scenes nor the overall film explicitly address the BLM movement, but it’s impossible to ignore its inherent relevance. The comparison however proves to be both a blessing and a curse in “Night School”, a limited but important examination of America’s flawed education system.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Though the term “cultural appropriation” has only recently become a widespread trigger word in public discourse, the practice has been a part of society for centuries. A perfect example is lacrosse, which usually brings to mind elitist images of private school-educated WASPs. To make matters worse, this relatively niche sport received perhaps its most prominent headlines for a college rape scandal. But this unfortunate reputation perfectly exemplifies how the sport has been misappropriated throughout its long history. In “Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation,” directors Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter turn the spotlight on the Native American founders of the game, giving lacrosse a much needed face lift through this vital documentary.

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REVIEW: The Commune

In his new film “The Commune", Thomas Vinterberg directs Trine Dyrholm in an award-winning role that should delight fans of this Danish thespian. Dyrholm plays Anna, a dutiful wife and well-known TV news reporter, who lives with her architect/professor husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and daughter Freya (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen). They live in a large house inherited from Erik’s late father, enjoying the spacious luxury that entails. However, when the bills begin to pile up and her husband’s demeanour becomes increasingly gloomy (due to frustrations at work), Anna demands a change. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, July 16, 2017

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

In the rarefied air of "film twitter," of which I am a sometimes reluctant member, reboots and sequels are usually frowned upon. Thanks to the tentpole strategies of the major studios, each new "summer" movie season (now effectively running from March onwards) feels almost like a replica of the last. But as this atypically strong year for blockbusters has proven, these box-office driven spectacles can still deliver inspired, quality art. One prime example now playing in theaters is "War for the Planet of the Apes", the utterly amazing conclusion (well, until the studio decides to greenlight another one) to the latest trilogy of Planet of the Apes films. Though it is both a reboot and a sequel, it feels as fresh and visionary as the brilliant 1968 original.

In "War for the Planet of the Apes", the protagonists of the story are unambiguously the apes, lead by their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), a highly intelligent chimpanzee. Following the events of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", an ongoing war has erupted between them and the humans. Hiding out in the woods, Caesar still hopes for peace. But an attack is soon unleashed on the ape clan, with the aid of treacherous apes who assist the humans. With their home no longer safe, the remaining apes venture out to find a new sanctuary. But Caesar takes the violence personally and sets out on his own quest to confront the humans and their ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

And so begins a war of epic proportions, as Caesar and the refugees set out on divergent, perilous paths. But as much as the narrative is about apes vs. humans, the real focus is on Caesar. In this regard, the film becomes a rich character study of his internal struggle, which wrestles with themes relating to forgiveness, heroism and the great responsibility of being a leader. His is a heavy burden, shouldered with admirable complexity and conveyed superbly through the use of astonishing visual effects and yet another groundbreaking performance by Andy Serkis. Throughout the course of this trio of films, this character has been the cornerstone of the franchise's success. Vastly surpassing your run-of-the-mill CGI, one look into those eyes reveals a living, breathing individual experiencing a gamut of emotions.

Indeed, "you're so emotional" retorts the Colonel when he finally meets face-to-face with Caesar. And it's this strong sense of emotion that guides the narrative. Though the story incorporates a highly entertaining mix of recognizable genre tropes relating to war, holocaust dramas and prison breaks, it never loses sight of its affecting emotional throughline. At the heart of it all, "War of the Planet of the Apes" is a dialogue between compassion vs survival instincts. Is violence essential to survive? Can man and ape coexist? If not, who deserves to inherit the earth?

In answering these questions and more, the remarkable script finds tremendous empathy for both points of view. And though the Colonel admits that the apes have achieved superiority, there is still a sense of a level playing field, which makes the outcome of the war so gripping and intriguing. Neither ape nor man feels invincible. But as the film smartly concludes - in what is essentially a sly allegory for climate change - nature will ultimately prevail.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Top 10 TV Programs of 2016-2017

Looking back on the landscape of television this past season, I continue to be impressed by the medium's ability to surprise me. As you'll see in my Top 10 list below, my faves ranged from music concerts, to lavish costume dramas, to provocative sci-fi and everything in between. Among this eclectic bunch, it's worth repeating that women-centric programming had a standout year, with the majority of these shows featuring a female lead - and in some cases, multiple female leads.

Much credit for this welcome sea change from the brooding male antihero of years past goes to Netflix and HBO. Indeed, these premium content providers landed 4 and 3 shows each on my list, including such actressy delights as "The Crown", "Orange is the New Black" and "Big Little Lies". Meanwhile, "Transparent" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Feud: Bette and Joan" ensured representation for Amazon, FX and FXX. And though there were no network shows that made the cut, they also played a major role in offering quality programming for all audiences. In short, it's a great time to be a TV fan.

Here are my Top 10 Programs of the 2016-2017 TV Season:

  1. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Netflix)
  2. Black Mirror: San Junipero (Netflix)
  3. Transparent (Amazon)
  4. The Crown (Netflix)
  5. The Leftovers (HBO)
  6. The Night Of (HBO)
  7. Big Little Lies (HBO)
  8. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)
  9. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FXX)
  10. FEUD: Bette and Joan (FX)

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2016-2017 TV

Best Casting: Big Little Lies, Transparent, The Crown

At the end of another strong season of television, one thing is clear when it comes to the best performances of 2016-2017. Thanks to a slew of excellent women-centric shows, the women ruled the roost. From fading screen legends to underestimated young queens, the small screen offered female roles that captivated audiences and had the world talking. As one of the complicated mothers on "Big Little Lies" for example, Nicole Kidman sparked renewed interest in her career through her exquisite portrayal.

Among the male actors, there were also some outstanding performances. These included Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells who subverted expectactions of the "sassy gay friend" by showcasing their vulnerability, acerbic wit and yes, even a showtune or two. Other highlights included Jeffrey Tambor's deeply affecting work on "Transparent", further proving that TV is really where it's at if you want to see a diverse range of ethnic, gender and sexual representation. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Performances of the 2016-2017 TV Season.

  1. Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
  2. Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies
  3. Carrie Coon, The Leftovers
  4. Claire Foy, The Crown
  5. Jessica Lange, FEUD: Bette and Joan
  6. Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies
  7. Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  8. Andrew Rannells, Girls
  9. Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
  10. Matthew Rhys, Girls
Honorable Mention: 
Angela Bassett, Master of None (Best Guest Actress in a Comedy)
Kathryn Hahn, Transparent (Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy)
Issa Rae, Insecure (Best Lead Actress in a Comedy)
Glynn Turman, Queen Sugar (Best Guest Actor in a Drama)
Ann Dowd, The Leftovers (Best Guest Actress in a Drama)
Michael J. Harney, OITNB (Best Supporting Actor in a Drama)
Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Best Supporting Actress in a Drama)
Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar (Best Lead Actor in a Drama)
Alfred Molina, FEUD (Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series/Movie)
John Turturro, The Night Of (Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series/Movie)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


For this week's edition of Hit me with your best shot, we took a dive into the Disney vault to watch one of their 1960s classics - "The Parent Trap". Nowadays, most people are perhaps more familiar with Lindsay Lohan's delightful 1998 version. But that film certainly owes a lot to this one, with much of the original dialogue being retained.

While watching this one for the first time, I must admit that I spent much of the first half wishing I were watching the more entertaining remake instead. Hayley Mills is adorable, but Lohan did a much better job delineating the differences between the twins. As for the adults, they were allowed to bring a stronger sensuality to their roles.

The film improves greatly in the second half however and unsurprisingly, there was one adult actor who did manage to bring some sexual tension - the iconic beauty Maureen O'Hara. As such, she became the focus of my Best Shot pick.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


As is the case around this time every year, the cinephile world currently has its eyes glued to the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival. But for me, the most exciting film-related news of the past week was the announcement that The Film Experience's Hit me with your best shot series is back for another season. And to kick things off, Nathaniel has chosen a wonderful film for us to dissect through its beautiful imagery.

For this first installment, we looked at Barry Jenkins' masterpiece and recent Best Picture winner "Moonlight", a perfect choice for this exercise. This was my third viewing of the film and it didn't disappoint, providing an even richer experience than I'd remembered. What I particularly loved is how Jenkins portrays Chiron's struggle and coming of age with such specificity and underlying optimism. Though my eventual pick for Best Shot was primarily an aesthetic choice, it also reflects these traits.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, May 22, 2017

10 Essential Palme d'Or Winners

In just a matter of hours, the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival will open with Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” kicking off an 11-day celebration of contemporary film. Amid the cinephilia, most of the attention will be focused on a select 19 films competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, the most prestigious film festival prize in the world. If chosen by the Pedro Almodóvar-led jury, the eventual winner will go down in history alongside an esteemed group of films. Indeed, the treasure trove of Oscar winners, arthouse classics and smashing debuts associated with the Palme d’Or gives us much to be excited about.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, May 19, 2017

REVIEW: The Last Shaman

It’s no secret that America is overmedicated. As persons seek a quick fix for their problems, drugs like Xanax have proliferated throughout society. But is there a more natural alternative? One young American searches for these answers in the jungles of Peru, embarking on the strange, spiritual journey documented in “The Last Shaman,” written and directed by Raz Degan.

Read more at The Awards Circuit