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

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.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


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.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

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.