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

Timoth̩e Chalamet РCall 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.