Tuesday, December 25, 2018


The experience of watching "Roma", the latest masterwork from Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is hard to fully express in words. Transcending mere entertainment, it's a film that you experience, as if living vicariously through its characters. Inspired by his own childhood, Cuaron's deep personal connection shines through in this astonishing drama which he directed, wrote, shot and edited.

Taking place throughout the course of one pivotal year in the early 1970s, "Roma" follows a middle class family in Mexico city, from the perspective of their live-in maid Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparacio). They live a quiet, normal life, with Cleo acting as a second mother to the four young children. But things are about to change for them all, as personal and social upheaval threatens to divide them forever.

Indeed, relationships are at the heart of "Roma" and the source of much of its emotional power. While the narrative takes an understated "slice-of-life" approach, there are some unforgettable scenes of loss, heartbreak and joy littered throughout. As we witness this world through the eyes of Cleo, Yalitza Aparacio provides a lovely cipher for the audience. Cleo's experiences are deeply felt, alongside those of Sofia, the head of the household played by Marina de Tavira. Together, the pair examine the challenges of being a women in 1970s, showing that despite their disparate social standing, their plight is more similar than not.

While Cuaron deserves kudos - and an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay - for his touching, female-centric storyline, it's the film's impeccable formalist qualities which will have you talking. Indeed, Cuaron's sophisticated black-and-white cinematography is a feast for the eyes, utilizing slow pans and wide shots which make even the smallest rooms seem as vast as the outdoor landscapes. And his mise-en-scene has never been better, crafting a plethora of memorable images which will surely garner the Academy's attention in the voting for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. Though the technical bravado sometimes veers into over-indulgence, the awe-inspiring visuals and immersive sound design - worthy of consideration for Best Sound Mixing - are cinematic world-building of the highest order. "Roma" is a film to get lost in.

So while I personally preferred other films in 2018, I can't deny that "Roma" is an outstanding work of art. Any Best Foreign Language Film or Best Director recognition would be fully deserved. Furthermore, if it goes on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, I certainly wouldn't complain.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

INTERVIEW: Benedikt Erlingsson

Although Iceland hasn’t been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar since 1991, the Scandinavian nation has submitted some of the most intriguing films over the years. Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War” is no different, telling a unique story of an environmental activist who wages a one-woman war against her local aluminum industry, while facing major upheavals in her personal life. With several surreal elements in the narrative, the film showcases Scandinavian cinema’s penchant for absurdism and dark humor. In a recent interview with Erlingsson, however, he revealed his strong influences from Greek art and literature. Below is an edited version of our discussion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Eva Melander

Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival and now the official Swedish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, Ali Abassi’s “Border” is easily one of 2018’s standout films. Its bizarre yet beguiling storyline centers on a woman with abnormal features who comes to realize her true nature when she develops an attraction to a fellow troll. Playing that lead role is Eva Melander, who underwent an extraordinary transformation to look the part. I was therefore excited to talk with Melander recently, as we discussed how she approached the role and ultimately empathized with an inhuman character. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Javier Fesser

It’s rare for a feel-good film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but Spain’s submission “Champions” is trying to buck the trend this year. Directed by Javier Fesser, this unlikely sports dramedy follows a basketball team made up entirely of players with intellectual disabilities. Led by a disgraced professional coach, their heartwarming journey conveys the importance of empathy and camaraderie. Expressing the same enthusiasm depicted in the film, Fesser was effusive about this unique filmmaking experience when I spoke with him recently. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Gustav Möller

One of the year’s most captivating films hits North American theaters this weekend in the form of “The Guilty,” the debut feature from Danish director Gustav Möller. This inventive thriller takes audiences through a nerve-wracking kidnapping investigation, as it plays out through a phone call set entirely within the confines of an emergency dispatch center. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “The Guilty” now aims for a bigger prize as the official Danish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. In recognition of its release and upcoming Oscar campaign, I recently spoke with Möller to discuss the making of the film. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Guilty

In our troubled times, it often seems like we are in constant need of a hero to swoop in and save us. With the media frequently reminding us of mass shootings, societal inequalities and other forms of injustice, it’s no wonder we love heroic narratives in our films. But while we love the fantasy of perfect, God-like heroes, in reality our heroes are flawed individuals themselves. Such is the case with the protagonist in “The Guilty,” the debut feature from director Gustav Moller. This nerve-racking thriller explores the definition of “hero” through the perspective of a man with painfully recognizable imperfections.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Champions

When Spain’s selection committee for the Oscars infamously snubbed Asghar Farhadi’s star-studded “Everybody Knows” for a little-known film without US distribution, it was widely assumed their chances for a nomination were squandered. But in a category traditionally dominated by solemn dramas/documentaries, their surprise pick will surely stand out. Coincidentally reflecting its current status among awards prognosticators, Javier Fesser’s “Champions” is an underdog sports story that brings rare feel-good vibes to the Foreign Language Oscar race.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 17, 2018


Prior to 2015, no one would have listed Adam McKay as one of American cinema's most prominent filmmakers. But following that year's release of the Oscar-winning "The Big Short", McKay quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's most distinctive auteurs. Building on the comedic credentials of his Will Ferrell-starring earlier work, McKay has boldly applied that sense of humor to topical dramas surrounding contemporary issues. The latest of those is "Vice", a satirical examination of the life of former US vice president Dick Cheney.

Beginning with his rowdy college years as a Yale dropout, "Vice" charts the rise and fall of Dick Cheney, whose influence as the 46th Vice President of the United States far exceeded any before him. A tale of a man's hunger for power at any costs, his career in politics is portrayed as a calculated masterplan which paid off in ways even he never anticipated. With his equally ambitious wife Lynn by his side, he weathered the storm of the American public's ever-changing mindset to position himself at the heart of the Republican party. But as he made his way to the top and exerted his power, his actions revealed a man who gradually lost his soul at the expense of his own family and the lives of citizens both at home and abroad.

As one unnamed character complains in a post-credits scene, "Vice" proudly wears its liberal bias. Its overtly comedic tone never lets us forget that the characters are meant to be ridiculed. Though the narrative's basic structure is a "greatest hits" biopic, McKay uses it as a playground for his trademark style.

Indeed, from its non-linear storytelling, to tongue in cheek asides, to the narration, the filmmaking is typically showy work destined to once again garner Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Editing. This certainly isn't your grandfather's biopic, for better or worse. As the sociopolitical issues get even more serious, the style begins to feel distracting. This is especially unfortunate in light of the rather erudite screenplay (a major contender for Best Original Screenplay), which efficiently gives the viewer an understanding of the reinforcement of the conservative ideals which laid the groundwork for the current Trump presidency. While Cheney is at the center of the story, "Vice" also serves as a scathing but entertaining review of the Republican playbook of the past few decades.

McKay's flashy style will certainly keep you glued to the screen, but the most impressive aspect of it all is the decidedly more understated lead performance by Christian Bale. In yet another incredible transformation, Bale embodies the portly physicality of Cheney. But under all the weight gain Oscar-worthy work for Best Makeup and Hairsytling, is a skillfully controlled performance. The calm growl in his voice is both magnetic and intimidating. A second Best Actor nomination for Bale is all but a certainty.

Like "The Big Short", "Vice" employs a large ensemble cast. But while Amy Adams stands out as a Best Supporting Actress candidate, most of the roles are little more than superficial cameos. And ultimately, this lack of true depth is what hampers "Vice" from being a great film. While it gives a widespread introduction to the various players in recent Republican politics, it never slows down enough to really reckon with their inner lives. At one point in the film, Bale's Cheney asks Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carell) what the Republican party believes in, to which Rumsfeld simply laughs hysterically. As you watch "Vice", it becomes clear that McKay has a similarly dismissive view of the Republican party. But considering the desperate times we live in, a more rigorous assessment would have been more impactful. And it could have made the difference between "Vice" cementing itself as a Best Picture winner instead of just a Best Picture nominee.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Foreign Language Film Shortlist

Among the various categories to follow in the Oscar race this year, Best Foreign Language Film is at once the most exciting and uneventful. On the one hand, the caliber of submissions promises one of the most impressive lineups in recent memory. At the same time, the overwhelming adoration of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” suggests that the winner is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, this black-and-white epic has managed to transcend the usual foreign language “ghetto,” positioning itself as a major player in marquee categories like Best Picture and Best Director. As such, its slot in the upcoming Academy Award shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film seems all but secured. But what about the other eight films? Read on for my take on how this category could play out in the lead up to the shortlist announcement on December 17.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Documentary Feature Shortlist

By all accounts, it was an outstanding year for documentary filmmaking. While the traditionally narrative feature-focused Best Picture race has seen some high profile flops at the box office, audiences turned up in unprecedented numbers for several non-fiction films. And with the streaming services providing further access to the documentaries, it’s no wonder that publications have declared this a new Golden Age for the form. Ask any cinephile for their favorite documentaries of the year and you’re bound to get a myriad of answers.

The Academy faces a huge task in narrowing down the 166 eligible films to 15 when the Documentary Feature shortlist is announced on December 17. From festival darlings to awe-inspiring human interest stories, there is no shortage of great options. As we eagerly anticipate the shortlist announcement, here are our best guesses for which contenders will make the cut.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, December 14, 2018

AWARDS ROUNDUP: Golden Globe, Critics Choice & SAG Nominations

It's been a whirlwind week for major nominations announcements, culminating in a rather shocking set of SAG nominees that left Oscar pundits scratching their heads. While the expected frontrunners "A Star Is Born" and "Black Panther" comfortable secured the important nods, it was "BlacKkKlansman" which showed a real surge after somewhat underwhelming showings at the various regional critics awards so far. Is it finally Spike Lee's time? As we head into the New Year, the awards season is really starting to heat up.

Here are the nominees for the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG Awards for 2018:

Golden Globe

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star Is Born

Crazy Rich Asians
The Favourite
Green Book
Mary Poppins Returns

Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Alfonso Cuarón – Roma
Peter Farrelly – Green Book
Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay – Vice

Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe – At Eternity's Gate
Lucas Hedges – Boy Erased
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
John David Washington – BlacKkKlansman

Glenn Close – The Wife
Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
Nicole Kidman – Destroyer
Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Rosamund Pike – A Private War

Christian Bale – Vice
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Mary Poppins Returns
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
Robert Redford – The Old Man & the Gun
John C. Reilly – Stan & Ollie

Emily Blunt – Mary Poppins Returns
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
Elsie Fisher – Eighth Grade
Charlize Theron – Tully
Constance Wu – Crazy Rich Asians

Mahershala Ali – Green Book
Timothée Chalamet – Beautiful Boy
Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman
Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell – Vice

Amy Adams – Vice
Claire Foy – First Man
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite

Full list at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Early yesterday morning, the African-American Film Critics Association (of which I'm a member) announced their winners for the best in film and TV in 2018. And it was certainly one of the highest quality lists of honorees this group has ever selected. I was particularly pleased to see some of my picks getting recognition, including Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" for Best Independent Film. Unsurpisingly, it was "Black Panther" which took the top award, continuing its run of success this year. Here is the full list of AAFCA Award Winners for 2018:

Best Film: “Black Panther”
Best Director: Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”)
Best Screenplay: Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Best Actor: John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Best Actress: Regina Hall (“Support the Girls)”
Best Supporting Actor: Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”)
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Best Breakout Performance: Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”)
Best Animated Film: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Best Independent Film: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Best Foreign Film: “Roma”
Best Documentary: “Quincy”
Best Song: “All The Stars” (“Black Panther”)
Best New Media: “Red Table Talk”
Best TV Drama: “Queen Sugar”
Best TV Comedy: “Insecure”

AAFCA’s Top Ten Films:

  1. Black Panther 
  2. If Beale Street Could Talk 
  3. The Hate U Give 
  4. A Star is Born
  5. Quincy
  6. Roma
  7. Blindspotting
  8. The Favourite 
  9. Sorry to Bother You 
  10. Widows

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

AWARDS SEASON: Who's the Favourite Star?

Will "A Star is Born" shine on Oscar night?

It's that time again, as we enter one of the most significant phases of the awards season. Tomorrow morning, the Golden Globe nominations will be announced, giving a boost to the myriad of contenders vying for Oscar glory. As the first of the major televised awards shows, many will look to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's picks for clues as to where the real buzz lies.

Best Picture has become increasingly difficult to pin down at this early stage of the game and 2018 is no exception. When looking upon the expected field of contenders, it is clear that we are in a new era of defining what is Oscar-worthy. In a year when a proposed Best Popular Film category threatened to sully the prestige of the Oscars, the eventual lineup of Best Picture nominees could be the most populist in years. From genre fare like "Black Panther" and "A Quiet Place", to the decidedly youth-oriented "Mary Poppins Returns" and "Eighth Grade", it seems we can finally put the term "Oscar bait" to rest.

Which brings me to the three presumed frontrunners in the race. If you were to ask awards pundits a year ago to predict the Best Picture winner, I doubt you would get many mentions of "A Star Is Born", "Green Book" or "Roma". "A Star Is Born" is the fourth remake of a story that has historically underperformed with the Academy. "Green Book" has already been chastised for its antiquated approach to exploring the racial tensions of the American South during the civil rights era. And "Roma" is the unlikeliest awards beast of them all, as a black and white, understated, subtitled drama.

And yet, all three have captivated audiences and critics alike. Eliciting the passionate support needed to sustain a successful Oscar campaign, it's hard to imagine any other film usurping them at the head of the race. Of course, anything can happen between now and February 24. But here's how I see the current standings for Best Picture:

  1. A Star is Born
  2. Green Book
  3. Roma
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk
  5. First Reformed
  6. Mary Poppins Returns
  7. Black Panther
  8. The Favourite
  9. Eighth Grade
  10. A Quiet Place

Do you agree with my assessment of the Best Picture race? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back throughout the season, as I continue to update my official predictions.

OSCAR WATCH: The Favourite

I've never professed to be a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, the director behind such acclaimed films as "The Lobster" and "Dogtooth". Though I've always admired singular auteurist style, I tend to be slightly put off by the mean streak that runs through his work. But with his latest effort "The Favourite" I am now a new member of his fan club. This period drama set during the reign of Queen Anne is a vulgar delight that kept me thoroughly entertained.

"The Favourite" takes place in 18th century Britain, where Queen Anne sits on the throne. Despite dwindling resources, Britain is at war with France. Seeking counsel over the imposition of increased land taxes, her subjects jockey to exert their influence over the vulnerable, ailing queen. Her closest confidant is Sarah Churchill, who actively works as her adviser and secret lover. The arrival of a Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), however, threatens Sarah's status as Anne's right-hand woman. A former member of the aristocracy who has fallen on hard times, Abigail is a wily operator determined to regain her place among the elite. Before long, Sarah and Abigail are engaged in a rivalry, as both will stop at nothing to be their queen's favourite.

Fueled by lust, jealousy and betrayal, "The Favourite" sees Yorgos Lanthimos reimagining the costume drama as a way to express a sordid view of high society. While the ornate backdrops and elegant attire - sure to be spotlighted among the Oscar nominees for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design - reflect the commonly held belief of a more dignified and sophisticated era, Lanthimos' interpretation is one of both moral and physical decay (with the projectile vomit and festering wounds to match). The film may be set within the posh confines of the British royal court, but Lanthimos applies many of the peculiarities of Greek Weird Wave to thrilling effect.

At the center of the debauchery is Olivia Colman, who gives a bravura performance as the sickly Queen Anne. The character's limping gait and impetuous personality is positively grotesque, but behind Colman's searching eyes lie a vulnerability and insecurity that is undeniably relatable. A Best Actress nomination is certainly on the cards for her, as she emerges as the MVP of an outstanding cast.

Indeed, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone should also find themselves in the Best Supporting Actress conversation as Colman's competing ladies-in-waiting. Weisz is particulary memorable, as her silky voice is the perfect fit for the loquacious and confident Sarah Churchill. Meanwhile Nicholas Hoult is the film's most pleasant surprise, turning in a deliciously Machiavellian performance as cocksure Parliamentarian Robert Harley.

All four actors are given a prime showcase for their talents, thanks to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, which is rich, cheekily funny and unpredictable in equal measure. There's a touch of modern irreverence to the nearly Shakespearean dialogue that captivates the viewer and will likely impress voters for Best Original Screenplay. Indeed, Lanthimos manages to pull the costume drama out of the stuffy doldrums, creating a truly invigorating cinematic experience. He would therefore be a deserving Best Director nominee for this visionary work of art. "The Favourite" may initially appear to be your usual Anglophilic period drama. But as you look closer through Robbie Ryan's (a surefire Best Cinematography contender) fishbowl lenses and obtuse angles it becomes obvious that this is one of the most innovative and masterful films in this year's Best Picture race.

Friday, November 30, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: The Front Runner

If there's one thing I hate about the awards season, it's the prevalent use of the reductive term "Oscar bait". Used to refer to a outdated idea of a typical Oscar contender, the term itself has become outdated following such outside the box recent award winners like "The Shape of Water" and "Moonlight". And yet, it was impossible not to think of that unsavory term while watching Jason Reitman's new film "The Front Runner". Not only does its title nod towards the common awards pundit lingo, but its conceit is clearly meant to tap into the political zeitgeist and thereby staking a claim towards Best Picture buzz.

"The Front Runner" tells the true story of Gary Hart, a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the 1988 US elections. A charismatic and attractive family man who is committed to his ideals, he seems like the perfect choice to be his party's nominee. But his appeal backfires one day when media interest uncovers an extramarital affair which could derail not just his campaign, but his entire career in politics.

In a time when the presidential controversy has become the norm rather than exception, "The Front Runner" offers an intriguing opportunity to reflect on early events which lead us to where we are now. Indeed, as an actual celebrity is currently presiding over the White House, Gary Hart is an interesting prototype for the uneasy balance between popularity and actual governance. Though his indiscretions pale in comparison to the horrifying ideologies proliferating today, his downfall raises pertinent questions about the high level of responsibility attached to public office.

It's therefore disappointing then, that "The Front Runner" fails to live up to its potential. After establishing the characters and their motives, the film strays from a character study into a more shallow political thriller more befitting primetime television. Reitman's direction is overly reliant on flashy montages to inject energy into a rather mediocre screenplay. Despite a few good scenes, it falls short of truly digging in to the mind of its protagonist and the philosophical impact of his actions.

Indeed, throughout the film I kept wishing the script could have been penned by Aaron Sorkin. With his knack for deconstructing brilliant but flawed men with a chip on their shoulder, Hart would have provided a great subject for Sorkin's lacerating wit. Furthermore, the cast would have certainly have been up to the cast, with J.K. Simmons and Vera Farmiga hinting at underutilized brilliance in their standout scenes. Sure, Hugh Jackman holds his own and may still find himself in the Best Actor conversation. But he too would have benefited from stronger writing. Overall, this is merely a decent film which could have been a great one. Rather than live up to its name, "The Front Runner" is running from the back of the pack in this year's Oscar race.

Monday, November 26, 2018


"This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don't catch you slippin' now (ayy)
Look how I'm livin' now
Police be trippin' now (woo)
Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)"

The above lyrics are taken from Donald Glover's (aka Childish Gambino) single "This Is America", which was accompanied by a provocative music video that had everyone talking. A sly but unmistakable commentary on racial and sociopolitical tensions in America, it utilized painfully familiar violence to get across its message. As I sat in the theater for "Widows", this blistering film from Steve McQueen elicited the same feelings of Glover's hit single. On the surface, "Widows" is just your everyday heist movie. But it gradually reveals deeper layers which make it one of the most resonant films of the year.

Adapted from British TV series of the same name, "Widows" gets a modern American update with a stellar ensemble cast. Set in Chicago, it begins with a heist gone wrong, as a man named Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners are set ablaze in their getaway vehicle with millions of dollars inside. As it turns out, that money belonged to a man named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is currently in the midst of an election for alderman in his local South Side precinct. Requiring this money to mount a seemingly impossible campaign against a powerful political dynasty, Manning vows to get his money back by any means necessary. He therefore proceeds to give Rawlings' wife a deadline to repay the debt. But with her little property or money in her name, she is forced to band together with the other surviving widows of her husband's team to find a solution. They decide to attempt another dangerous heist, hoping to set themselves free from the mess their husbands left for them to clean up.

Indeed, Veronica and her new partners Linda and Alice will quickly have to learn how to use guns and plan a robbery. But that payoff is only one piece of this story's puzzle. McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn have a lot on their minds and they don't mince words, patiently bringing each character and their motivations into sharp focus. In the process, a damning portrait of interwoven issues surrounding race, ruthless capitalism, police brutality and deceptive politicians emerges. Four years ago, Flynn was denied her just rewards from the Academy for "Gone Girl", but hopefully they'll make up for it now with an overdue nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. This script may not reach the mind-blowing heights of "Gone Girl", but it's yet another brilliantly structured narrative which packs a real punch. And once again, she's paired with a director who is totally in sync with her cynical outlook of the patriarchy.

There's no denying the feminist undertones to the film, which provides fuel for both the thought-provoking drama and exciting thriller elements. Seeing Veronica and Alice gradually come into their own as independent, powerful women is a true delight. Viola Davis will surely be in the running for Best Actress for this special performance which calls on all her considerable faculties as an actress. She is the action hero we deserve. To quote the film, she proves she has the "balls to pull it off."

From its commanding star down to the ingenious camerawork, "Widows" truly delivers on all fronts. From its initial slow burn, the film eventually ignites into a heist scene so tense and nerve-wracking that I was literally on the edge of my seat. As such, it's a film that stays on your mind. And if there's any justice, Academy members will also remember it with a nomination for Best Picture. It certainly deserves it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

As independent films become increasingly prevalent at the Oscars, the Spirit Awards are now seen as the first major set of nominations of the awards season. That bodes well for several films after this year's announcement of the nominees, with presumed Best Picture contenders "Eighth Grade", "First Reformed" and "If Beale Street Could Talk" showing early strength. With many buzzy titles being ineligible this year, it remains to be seen whether there will be much crossover with the Academy's eventual picks. There's still a long way to go yet. So for now, let's just celebrate this year's esteemed list of Spirit Awards nominees:

Best Feature
Eighth Grade
First Reformed
If Beale Street Could Talk
Leave No Trace
You Were Never Really Here

Best Director
Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Tamara Jenkins, Private Life
Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here
Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, The Wife
Toni Colette, Hereditary
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
Helena Howard, Madeline's Madeline
Carey Mulligan, Wildlife

Best Male Lead
John Cho, Searching
Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Christian Malheiros, Socrates
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

Best Supporting Female
Kayli Carter, Private Life
Tyne Daly, A Bread Factory
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace
J. Smith-Cameron, Nancy

Best Supporting Male
Raul Castillo, We the Animals
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Richard E Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade
John David Washington, Monsters and Men

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


For years, one of the most popular dreams for young boys and girls was to be an astronaut when they grow up. Whether they were American, South African, Japanese or Australian, space exploration had captured children's imaginations all over the world. This widespread ambition is no coincidence however. It is a testament to the efforts of NASA and one astronaut in particular - Neil Amstrong. Known to be the first man to walk on the moon, his accomplishment was televised in front of more than 500 million viewers in 1969. Now, nearly 50 years later, audiences can relive his journey through Damien Chazelle's incredible new film "First Man", based on Armstrong's official biography "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong".

"First Man" beings in 1961, when Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) underwent his first test flights at NASA. It is a tumultuous time both personally and professionally for Armstrong, as his young daughter Karen is suffering from a brain tumor and his flights have been largely unsuccessful. When Karen dies shortly after and Armstrong is temporarily grounded, he finds himself at his lowest point. But when an opportunity arises for him to be a part of the groundbreaking Project Gemini, Armstrong gets a new lease on life. He proceeds on a rigorous training program leading up to what will eventually be the historic Apollo 11 mission. But the fatally high risks and expenditure behind the Space Race draws concern from the tax-paying public and families of the astronauts. Armstrong is determined to make it to the moon, however, committing himself to one of the most daring feats ever attempted by the human race.

Through his musically-themed work in his first three films, Damien Chazelle has established himself as one of Hollywood's greatest showmen. But despite the high-flying premise of "First Man", Chazelle surprisingly brings the traditional space adventure down to earth. Largely taking the form of a biopic rather than a thriller, Chazelle shows ingenious directorial instincts in the film's audiovisual language. The atypical cinematography comprises mostly of closeups and two shots, making the audience feel immersed in Armstrong's headspace and immediate perspective. Meanwhile the impactful sound effects and gradual crescendo of Justin Hurwitz' score make for a riveting experience.

The result is a supremely well-crafted, thoroughly engaging experience which will surely contend for Oscar nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Claire Foy), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. And perhaps most notably, it also features a Oscar-worthy script for Best Adapted Screenplay. Indeed, Josh Singer delivers the richest screenplay of any Chazelle film to date, effectively accentuating Chazelle's directorial vision to convey palpably high stakes yet remaining tethered to relatable everyday struggles. This intimacy in the storytelling allows Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy to explore Armstrong's personal and family lives with remarkable emotional depth. The former brings the perfectly unassuming "everyman" quality required for the film's approachable hero, while the latter has a quiet intensity that asserts itself with impressive confidence and conviction.

Ultimately, the biggest triumph of "First Man" is not its awe-inspiring mission - though that is certainly a captivating highlight - but for its touching examination of the man in the spacesuit. As if inspired by his ambitious protagonist, the film's poignancy and resonance signifies the next step up for Damien Chazelle as filmmaker. And just like Armstrong inspired generations of youth to be astronauts, so too will Chazelle's body of work influence the next generation of filmmakers. I'm looking forward to wherever he goes next.

Friday, October 19, 2018

NYFF: If Beale Street Could Talk

When Miami-born filmmaker released his debut feature "Medicine for Melancholy" back in 2008, even the film's most ardent fans couldn't have predicted the meteoric rise to come in his follow up. From those humble micro-budget beginnings, Jenkins would enter the history books with his sophomore outing "Moonlight", which won the Academy Award for Best Picture 8 years later. Translating an unproduced play into an artful cinematic masterpiece, Jenkins redefined our ideas of what urban male masculinity could look like on screen.

Thankfully, it would only take 2 years for Jenkins return with his third film "If Beale Street Could Talk", a ravishingly gorgeous drama which further cements his status as one of our most important storytellers of the black experience. Based on James Baldwin's novel of the same name, this period piece takes us to early 1970s Harlem, a quintessential African-American neighbourhood. It is in this setting that our young protagonist Tish Rivers (played by the dazzling Kiki Layne) faces the harsh realities of justice in America, as she fearfully hopes for the release of her wrongfully accused fiance (Alonzo "Fonny" Hont, played by Stephan James) from prison. Charged with the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Fonny's outlook is bleak. But the now pregnant Tish and her supportive family are determined to do whatever it takes to clear his name in time to see the birth of his child.

The unjust incarceration facing Fonny is all too common within the black community, an unfortunate fact which the film addresses with frank honesty. As the film's opening quote explains, the Beale Street in the film's title represents not just the location in Harlem, but all the black communities in America and their shared experiences of struggle and perseverance. Indeed, one of the film's most memorable scenes involves an ominous conversation between Fonny and a friend, as he recalls the oppressive fear he felt during his own experience in prison.

But while such familiarly sobering moments are inextricably embedded in the narrative, it is Barry Jenkins' inspired vision which sets the film apart from others set during this time period. While other filmmakers would aim for a "gritty" tone, Jenkins' direction is as elegant as ever, reuniting with many of his "Moonlight" collaborators to create some of the most breathtaking moments you'll see on screen in this year. From Nicholas Britell's jazz-inflected score to James Laxton's picture-perfect cinematography, the film finds the beauty in these black lives, exalting them through his lens as works of art. As such, repeat Oscar nominations should definitely be in store for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. And Regina King should also be in contention for Best Supporting Actress as Tish's mother. Her performance - alongside an outstanding ensemble - beautifully adds further nuance to the story, exploring how family, religion and society influences the lives of this black community.

Indeed, there's no denying Jenkins' love for his characters, which shines through in the way the camera lingers on their faces and leans in to attentively listen to their perspective on the world around them. This is especially true when the film focuses on the central love story between Tish and Fonny. While the film admittedly drags slightly when it reverts to the more dispiriting legal procedural, it absolutely soars in the depiction of their romance. The sincerity and purity of their love is truly euphoric to witness.

And ultimately, the bittersweet withdrawal from that euphoria makes the film's message resonate deeply. "If Beale Street Could Talk" shows how love transcends the hardships imposed by the American nightmare. And it is only through the proliferation of love's beauty and humanity in future generations like Tish's unborn child, that we can truly call it the American dream.

Thursday, October 18, 2018


There are few stories in cinema as dramatically compelling as the simultaneous rise and fall narrative of "A Star is Born". Initially produced in 1937, the film was remade in 1954 (featuring one of the greatest acting performances of all time) and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand as its titular star. All three versions have cumulatively built an undeniable legacy based on their artistry and/or cultural impact, touching the hearts of audiences - myself included - for generations.

With such a storied history, you should therefore forgive me for my initial apprehension towards the latest remake. This 2018 iteration of "A Star is Born" sees Bradley Cooper directing himself as the tragic Jackson Maine, a country music star suffering from alcoholism who falls in love with an unassuming singer-songwriter (Ally, played by Lady Gaga) and takes her under his wing. As their relationship develops, Ally becomes a pop star in her own right, while Maine's vices send him on a downward spiral. Through it all, they try to support each other the best they can. But as Judy Garland conveyed in 1954, love isn't enough.

Helmed by a first-time director (Bradley Cooper) and a singer (Lady Gaga) in her first lead role in a film. It all seemed so ill-advised to me. But then, the film premiered to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and the buzz kept building from there. Immediately, it generated Oscar buzz as the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Some even suggested to it would be this generations' "Titanic".

It was with these astronomic expectations that I watched "A Star Is Born". And by no fault of the film itself, it therefore felt a little disappointing. The film is more modest than the showstopper the reviews would suggest, especially when the screenplay is so familar (albeit still very satisfying).

But that understated quality is one of its best attributes, particularly when it came to the performances and direction. Indeed, the highlights of the film turned out to be the elements I was most concerned about (the aforementioned Cooper as director and Lady Gaga in the lead). Cooper's execution of this melodrama is truly impressive, earning his deserved Best Director buzz by deftly balancing the intimacy of the relationship with the spectacle of the musical performances. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga will surely be a popular Best Actress contender with her moving performance, which has an unpolished authenticity to it. Best Supporting Actor contender Sam Elliott also deserves kudos for a stealthily brilliant performance as Jackson Maine's concerned brother.

Indeed, both her and Bradley Cooper (a lock for a Best Actor nomination) have a dynamism to their performances which elevate the film. Particularly as they make and perform the film's amazing music. In many ways, the film's romanticism transcends its central love story to become a love letter to pop music. Through both Cooper and Lady Gaga's characters, the film acts as a tribute to pop stars old and new, as their struggles and artistry are reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga herself. And the film's deeply affecting narrative and soundtrack - "Shallow" will be a Best Original Song nominee, along with nods for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing - reminds us of pop music's healing power, however fleeting it may be. It's a category of music that brings people together like no other and touches our heart and soul, resulting in phenomena like the Beyhive, the Little Monsters and This Party Is Killing You. I can hardly think of another film that so effectively captures the contemporary allure of pop music and the inevitable pressures afflicting musicians caught up in its whirlwind. As they say, Bradley Cooper and co. did it for the culture.

Monday, October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Border

When you think of the word "troll", the first images that come to mind are probably an irritating internet commenter or a hideous creature likely to kill you. Ali Abbasi's latest film "Border", however, presents a more nuanced perspective. This fascinating tale finds the humanity in trolls, exploring their nature with disarming empathy.

"Border" is the story of Tina, a customs border agent for the Swedish authorities. We are introduced to her on the job, where she excels by literally being able to sniff out criminal activity. Despite her expertise, however, she doesn't fully feel like she belongs. Thanks to facial features which resemble something not quite human, she harbors feelings of self-doubt. But one day, she encounters a mysterious man named Vore, whose face is strikingly reminiscent of her own. His confidence immediately draws her in and they slowly become acquainted. And as their relationship develops, Tina begins to question her life and by extension, her sense of self.

With Tina's subsequent self-discovery comes life-changing news. Vore informs her that she is not human, but a troll. And as that revelation opens her eyes to the truth behind her past and present life, "Border" becomes a compelling character study.

Indeed, despite the grotesque character design and fanciful mythology, Abbasi takes a serious approach to the material. In establishing Tina's identity, the narrative presents familiar scenes of domestic life alongside a hard-boiled crime investigation worthy of its own distinct narrative. Furthermore, the film is grounded by Melander and co-star Eero Milonoff, who imbue their roles with naturalism. Despite extensive makeup, their impressively lived-in performances allow us to see their troll characters as beings with relatable needs and wants. There's a loneliness to Tina's quiet demeanour which blossoms into titillated curiosity around Vore's confident swagger. And as they open up to each other, they express their newfound happiness with childlike enthusiasm.

Even as the film delves into some of the more bizarre concepts - with shocking imagery to match - behind troll physiology and behavior, there's an enchanting feeling of rebirth in Tina. On the surface, the film may set up an allegory of racial intolerance and prejudice, but it is more successful as a fable about the power of self-love. Though the crime subplot distractingly shifts the focus away from Tina's personal growth, the film's ultimate lesson is deeply felt. Whether you use your self-love and acceptance for good or evil is what truly separates the monsters and men.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

REVIEW: The Heiresses

When we first meet Chela, the protagonist in Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature “The Heiresses“, she seems to have her life under control. She is lounging in her handsomely appointed home with her partner Chiquita, as they get ready to attend their friend Carmela’s 50th birthday party. Following this relaxed evening of music and socializing, however, their private conversations, reveal that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: No Date, No Signature

“No Date, No Signature” begins on a regular night for its central character Dr. Nariman (played by Amir Aghaee). Driving down quiet Iranian streets after a day’s work as a forensic pathologist, he expects a peaceful rest ahead. But fate has other plans for him as a seemingly minor collision has serious repercussions in this powerful drama from director Vahid Jalilvand.

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REVIEW: Five Fingers for Marseilles

With its expansive, sun-kissed plains and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, South Africa provides the perfect backdrop for Western films. But while international productions like “The Salvation” have taken advantage of the setting, the genre has been effectively unexplored by homegrown South African filmmakers. That vacuum is now being temporarily filled, however, by Michael Matthews’ debut feature “Five Fingers for Marseilles“. Paying homage to the time-honored traditions of the genre, this is a quintessential Western albeit with an appealing South African makeover.

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REVIEW: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Restrained, respectful, sedate. Those are hardly words you’d use to describe the notoriously rambunctious tennis legend John McEnroe. But such is the surprising approach taken toward this outsized personality in the Julien Faraut documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection“.

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10 Best Asian Films Since 2008

As the eagerly anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters this week, one of the most underrepresented minority groups will get a rare chance to shine in a major Hollywood production. While we wait for Hollywood to catch up to the world, with this long overdue cultural moment, it’s worth reflecting on the success of native Asian filmmakers. Indeed, the well-established film industries across the Asian continent have produced filmmakers and movie stars to rival any Hollywood A-lister. And with the vast array of socioeconomic and cultural contexts of the various countries, Asian cinema is a buffet of cinematic delights. From the dazzling spectacles of India’s Bollywood cinema to the consistently edgy works from South Korean directors, there’s something for everyone.

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OSCAR WATCH: Eighth Grade

If you're anything like me, your middle/high school years were a trying time that you've long forgotten. The experience of watching Bo Burnham's debut feature "Eighth Grade" could therefore give you a feeling of déjà vu. This chronicle of an eight grader's life may not reflect your exact experience, but Burnham knowingly captures the essence of those anxiety-ridden years.

"Eighth Grade" is the story of a girl named Kayla. Like many kids her age, she has an active life on social media, even producing and starring in her own YouTube vlog. But her everyday life is a different situation altogether, with her school even naming her Most Quiet at a year-ending awards ceremony. Determined to shirk this label before she enters high school, sets forth to break out of her shell and make new friends. A tumultuous week awaits her, however, which will forever shape the person she aspires to be.

Elsie's journey of self discovery will surely be familiar to anyone who has dealt with the pressures of fitting in. Capturing all the awkwardness and insecurities of adolescence in painstaking detail, some scenes will surely have you cringing and peeking through a covered face. Burnham is so attuned to Kayla's perspective that every embarrassing moment or burst of joy is viscerally felt.

Speaking of Kayla's perspective, Elsie Fisher is the main reason why the character is so affecting. Delivering the year's most precious performance, her fumbling speech and eager energy feels absolutely genuine. Despite her young age, Fisher would not feel out of place in the Best Actress conversation at the Oscars.

While the film is primarily a showcase for Fisher, first timer Bo Burnham also shows tremendous talent with some brilliant directorial flourishes. Indeed, each major event is often introduced in slow motion with intense musical fanfare, signalling the emotional highs and lows which accompany them. With this ingenious touch, Burnham effectively conveys the extreme "best day ever" or "end of the world" feelings associated with pivotal social interactions.

Of course, going to a pool party or hanging out with friends may seem trivial in hindsight, but "Eighth Grade" also shows how formative these interactions can be. While the protagonist's endearing awkwardness mostly elicits hysterical laughter or relatable pathos, there are also some horrifying moments which remind us how our toxic gender dynamics and sexual politics are established at such a young age. Underneath Kayla's eager attitude is an unfortunate desperation to impress the opposite sex that is frustrating yet all too familiar.

As such, the film will resonate with audiences young and old (including Academy members, as it makes a strong case for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). Through her, we remember the people we used to be and the importance of those early relationships, whether it be with an encouraging father - a crucial but underwritten character - or the sincere support of a good friend. On the latter note, the film saves the best for last with a scene so sweet that it brought tears to my eyes. It's a heartwarming reminder that with the right people in your corner, everything's gonna be alright.

Friday, September 28, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Leave No Trace

We've often been taught that our basic needs are food, water, clothing and shelter. But modern society often takes a step further, dictating the acceptable forms of food and the notion of a proper home. Those who live outside these norms of "civilized" society are often shunned, much like the father-daughter protagonists of "Leave No Trace", which sees Debra Granik returning to the survivalist themes of "Winter's Bone" to deliver another moving Oscar contender for Best Picture.

Indeed, Tom and her father Will hardly fit the common ideal of an American household. While they occasionally visit the city to gather supplies, they spend most of their time as squatters in a public park in Oregon. Having long settled into their way of life in the woods, they have found happiness, with no desire to move. But one day, their secret existence is revealed to the authorities, forcing them to leave their home forever. Soon, they are put into the care of social services and given a traditional home. Knowing that their lives will never be the same, they try to settle into their new environment. But as time goes by, father and daughter have divergent views as to whether this change is for the better.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I tend to preemptively balk at these kinds of narratives about people who choose to rough it in the wilderness. With my academic background in environmental studies, I understand the environmental benefits and I've met numerous fine people who aspire to some version of this way of life. Yet I still involuntarily roll my eyes at people who reject the basic conveniences designed to keep us safe and improve our lives.

Thankfully, "Leave No Trace" quickly relieved me of my skepticism, thanks to the honesty that Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini bring to the direction and screenplay. Whereas films like "Captain Fantastic" expressed a condescending viewpoint of primitive lifestyles as being more respectable, "Leave No Trace" gives a much more nuanced portrayal. Instead of sanctimonious monologues about the virtues of simple living, Granik explores this outlook through the beautiful relationship between a troubled widower and his daughter.

Having previously depended on each other to survive, a fascinating conflict arises through Tom's coming of age following the upheaval of their lives. Expressed with a tender-hearted spirit by Thomasin McKenzie, Tom's curiosity brings forth poignant revelations about this seemingly unbreakable father-daughter bond. Meanwhile, Ben Foster brings depth to a character who plays it close to the chest. Though the film doesn't fully get to the bottom of his pain, it's all there in Foster's wounded, careful performance. And through his character, the film is touchingly honest in acknowledging that some traumas can't be overcome. He may not verbally express it like Casey Affleck's devastating "I can't beat it" in "Manchester by the Sea", but no words are needed when there's a shot as plaintive and eloquent as the one which ends this gracefully crafted film.

Friday, September 21, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Black Panther

When Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" released on February 16 this year, few could have predicted the cultural juggernaut it would become. 7 months later, it still sits comfortably atop the year's box office and critics' charts, a position it will likely hold for the rest of 2018. With this level of success, it's unsurprising that the blockbuster became embroiled in a debate over the validity of the Academy's hastily announced new category for Best Popular Film. Thankfully, that ill-advised idea was subsequently scrapped, allowing Disney to refocus its awards campaign strategy to once again take aim at the Best Picture race. Of course, the ongoing fall festival circuit is providing many other alternatives. Therefore, I felt it would be an appropriate to reassess the film's merits.

"Black Panther" takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a prosperous nation untainted by the colonial exploitation. Thanks to an omnipotent mineral called vibranium, its people have experienced considerable wealth and technical advancements which have allowed them to stay hidden from the rest of the world. Sustaining that level of independence and affluence is the primary concern of its heir apparent T'Challa, destined to ascend the throne following the untimely death of his father. But Wakanda's secret is under serious threat, as outsiders plot to harness the vibranium for nefarious means. With his nation under attack, T'Challa must call upon his allies and his own powers - obtained by a heart-shaped herb - to defeat these infiltrators and protect his people.

T'Challa's story has been a long time coming, as one of the newest members of the wildly popular superhero team called the Avengers to make the big screen. And to our relief, the resulting film was worth the wait. Delivering action-packed entertainment with a potent undercurrent of black power and struggle, "Black Panther" elevated the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new heights of sociocultural relevance.

Indeed, the film's "blackness" plays a large role in the film's success. Directed by Ryan Coogler in only his third outing as a director, the film is the rare Marvel film that feels driven by a distinct voice. Blending the poignant social commentary of his debut "Fruitvale Station" with the big-budget showmanship of "Creed", this film is the natural progression for his ascendant filmography. Like both of those films, "Black Panther" puts black faces front and center, showcasing both their inherited trauma and resilient glory.

What makes "Black Panther" so special is the way it addresses a topic rarely explored in cinema before. Namely, the diasporic tensions between Africans and African-Americans. In that regard, the film introduces a compelling villain in the form of Erik Killomger (played with dangerous swagger by Coogler's muse Michael B. Jordan). His resentment of Wakanda's self-serving apathy towards the struggle of their African diaspora makes him an empathetic figure, despite his bloodthirsty mentality.

While Killmonger's morally complex philosophy and intense conviction may garner Oscar attention for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, it is actually this aspect that forms the source of my only critique against the film. Understandably, the film ultimately plays it safe in putting Killmonger's revolutionary plan in motion. As such, it left me wishing Marvel had taken a bolder narrative risk, which they actually did in Avengers Infinity War two months later.

Nevertheless, Coogler more than makes up for it with the exhilarating spectacle of the filmmaking, so richly infused with the aforementioned elements of "blackness". From the thumping hip-hop beats of the soundtrack, to the real-word parralels of its Pan-African plot, to the dazzling production design and costumes, the meticulous world-building is truly a sight to behold. And for pure thrills, its Busan-set action setpiece is easily one of the most impressive of the year. Oscar nods for Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing would be well deserved.

As the long awards season progresses, it's quite possible that Academy voters may ultimately dismiss "Black Panther" as just another Marvel movie. But if you place close attention, you'll realize that the film stands out on its own, offering a complete story that challenges as much as it entertains. Maybe the superhero glut at the cinemas isn't so bad after all.

Friday, September 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BlacKkKlansman

Three decades ago, we watched as Mookie threw a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria in "Do the Right Thing". It was Spike Lee's 3rd feature film and it became one of the most talked about and defining moments in the film and in some regards, Lee's career as a whole. Many years later, audiences are still split as to whether, to use the film's own title, Mookie did the right thing. But whichever side you landed on, this scene of heightened racial tensions established Lee as a filmmaker unafraid to confront the unsavory legacy of America's checkered past.

Fast forward to 2018 and I couldn't help but think of "Do the Right Thing" as another character breaks a window in his latest film "BlacKkKlansman". In this scene, the men involved are a black detective named Ron Stallworth and his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, who is being interrogated by a vehemently racist member of the Ku Klux Klan. The detectives are working undercover on a daring mission to infiltrate the KKK, with Stallworth impersonating a white-sounding man over the phone, who is presented as Zimmerman in the field. With their true identities under threat of being revealed, the scene sees Stallworth breaking a window to dissipate the tension. But this won't be the only nerve-wracking moment in the film, as the men put their lives in danger in a race against the clock to stop the KKK's next terrorist attack.

The inherent miracle of the story and the protagonists' bravery are indeed what makes "BlacKkKlansman" compelling. The script - a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay - effectively balances some anxiety-inducing close calls with frequent humorous scenes inspired by the sheer audacity of the mission and the narrow-minded psychology of the antagonists. As such, it functions as both an amusing satire and a stirring period piece (with all the cool threads and afros to match).

Dealing with such sensitive subject matter as the notoriously evil KKK is a risky gamble and admittedly, Lee does falter with a few excessively comic moments. Thankfully, John David Washington's confident performance always keeps the film afloat. Displaying much of his father Denzel's charisma, he could potentially follow in his footsteps as an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Furthermore, Adam Driver should be in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor, as his character adds thought-provoking dimensions to the film. His reckoning with this Jewish identity is one of the film's highlights.

Overall, "BlacKkKlansman" represents one of Lee's most restrained directorial efforts. But that's not to say that he's getting soft with age. Indeed, his confrontational voice is unmistakable in the film's prologue and conclusion. The former shows Alec Baldwin spewing propagandist hate speech as a character clearly intended as a parody of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the closing moments are true masterstroke that will likely seal long overdue Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.Using sobering real-life footage of the present-day KKK to hit home the film's themes, it proves that Spike Lee remains one of the most essential voices in cinema, sticking it to the man like only he can.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

REVIEW: Hereditary

If there's one movie this year that will have you turning to God in prayer, it won't be a faith-based movie like " but rather Ari
Aster's extraordinarily creepy "Hereditary". With one of the most striking debuts in recent memory, Aster proves to be a new mastermind of the horror genre. Scaring audiences through both supernatural and worldly terrors, it's a film that won't leave your mind any time soon.

"Hereditary" tells the story of a deeply troubled family, made up of a teen son, his younger sister and their parents. At the beginning of the film, the family has just buried the grandmother, a woman who passed on her internalized trauma to her daughter Annie. As the new matriarch of the family, Annie (played by Toni Collette) tries to keep the family strong through this latest tragedy. But forces from within and without threaten to break their already tenuous family bond forever.

When "Hereditary" was released earlier this summer, audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. Despite strong reviews from critics, the film scored a paltry D+ CinemaScore, indicating general audience dissatisfaction. I was therefore genuinely surprised when I finally watched the film and found it to be one of the most effectively terrifying horror films I've ever seen.

Though the marketing promised a standard issue haunting/possession narrative, Aster arrives at that place from a more indirect angle. He brilliantly incorporates the idea of metaphorical inner demons with literal ones and then unleashes them all on this vulnerable family, wreaking havoc on their lives.

Indeed, one early therapy scene is quite telling, as Annie explains the mixed emotions she feels after the death of her estranged mother. Harboring inexplicable guilt and blame for all her misfortunes, it's hardly surprising when we realize the brittle tensions within the intra-family relationships. That underlying malice within the family is viscerally felt, thanks to some go-for-broke, raw performances from the cast.

At the center of it all is Toni Collette, who all but turns herself inside out for her role. As her character endures unimaginable tragedy and inescapable anguish, she is a whirlwind that stirs up her co-stars and brings out the best in them. Most notably, the scenes she shares with Alex Wolff are absolutely searing as they unravel this fraught mother-son relationship.

Even if it didn't have the traditional horror elements of disturbing images and creepy sounds - and contrary to popular belief, this film has more than enough of them - the film's central conceit of the effects of damaged families would be haunting on its own. Indeed, if you can't feel safe around your own family, then where do you run to? I can hardly think of anything more traumatizing.

Friday, August 31, 2018

COMING SOON: The Oscar Contenders

In case you weren't aware, the first phase of awards season is upon us, as the Venice and Telluride Film Festival are in full swing. Indeed, this is the most exciting time of year for any discerning cinephile, as some of the most anticipated films of the year will be premiering at various high-profile festivals. And already, various hot titles like "A Star Is Born" and "The Favourite" are positioning themselves as major Oscar contenders, with many more on the way. Of course, a lot can still happen between now and Oscar night. But for now, hope springs eternal as we await the rest of the year in "prestige" cinema. With that being said, here's a first look at some of the films garnering early Oscar buzz:

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: First Reformed

Although he has directed as many films as he has written, Paul Schrader is more widely known as the screenwriter behind some of Martin Scorcese's greatest films. Most notably, he penned the script for "Taxi Driver", starring an unforgettable Robert De Niro as a disillusioned war veteran. The misanthropy which fueled that character echoes 40 years later in Schrader's latest effort "First Reformed", which sees him doing double duty as writer-director to craft a film that is chillingly relevant to modern society.

While De Niro's Travis Bickle was a taxi driver in the gritty streets of 1970s New York City, the protagonist of "First Reformed" is a priest named Reverend Toller, who is in charge of a historic church further upstate. Played by Ethan Hawke, he is a man tormented by the crises affecting both him and others in the past, present and future. One day, his faith is put the ultimate test upon meeting a couple experiencing difficulties due to the husband's severe depression. As this man slips into crippling despair over mankind's destruction of the earth, Reverend Toller realizes that piety may not provide the answers, causing Toller to question his and the church's purpose in the world.

Bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ethan Hawke is well cast in the lead role. While his furrowed brow conveys his internal anguish, his youthful persona serves him well as the character becomes increasingly agitated. Pitched somewhere between grumpy old man and furious activist, it will surely be remembered as one of Hawke's finest hours.

Indeed, Hawke is the anchor of this heavy film which sees Schrader ultimately taking aim at one of the most unspoken, yet critical issues of our time. Namely, what is Christianity's role in environmental protection or lack thereof? Evidently, Schrader takes a cynical view to this answer, starkly showing how capitalism and Christianity are often unholy bedfellows. The influence of both is omnipresent through various perspectives in the narrative, whether it be the aforementioned wife's ingrained religious belief (excellently portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) or the self-serving authority of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of a megachurch. As the film gradually reinforces the pervading sense of apathy towards the earth, one can't help but empathize with our protagonist's plight.

With an exacting stillness and pallid visual scheme, Schrader's tone is unwaveringly morose. But ultimately, the film leaves a powerful impact that may even strike up Oscar talk for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Whether you're religious or not, it will have you pondering its central concern - Can God Forgive Us?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Top 10 Spike Lee Joints

On August 10, “BlacKkKlansman” will be released in theaters nationwide, marking the 38th feature film in the storied filmography of Spike Lee. As one of the pioneering figures of the 1980s independent film movement, Lee’s career has made him one of the most influential black filmmakers of all time. And with the release of his latest, early reviews prove that he hasn’t lost his flair for the politically-charged, provocative work that captivates audiences everywhere.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Best Debut Films by Directors of Color Since 2008

Ask any director and they’ll tell you that getting your first feature funded and completed is no easy task. And when you’re a director of color, it’s even more daunting. Indeed, it’s no secret that white directors are often afforded greater opportunities to further their careers following their debut features. But for filmmakers of color, there’s the likelihood that their first film could be their last.

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REVIEW: The Cakemaker

From poisoned apples in fairytales to raunchy kinks in adult-oriented fare, food has long served as a plot device throughout film history. That tradition continues with “The Cakemaker,” a cross-cultural drama directed by Ophir Raul Graizer. In this delicate drama, the power of food creates an unlikely love triangle that transcends borders.

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REVIEW: Believer

If you thought Hollywood had the cornered the market on seemingly unnecessary remakes, think again. Back in 2012, Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s “Drug War” opened to critical acclaim, strong box office, and eventual awards recognition. Hoping to repeat that success, Lee Hae-young brings his take on that story with “Believer“. As with any remake, there’s an inevitable element of familiarity. But this gripping tale of crime also forges its unique identity, adapting a proven formula to deliver heart-pounding entertainment.

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10 Foreign Directors to Watch in 2018

Taking place at the start of the blockbuster-driven summer season, the Cannes Film Festival always holds a special place in the film calendar. While the next few months will see most of the media attention focused on Hollywood fare, this prestigious festival shines a spotlight on the best of world cinema. Indeed, at the recently concluded 2018 edition, only 2 American directors competed for the coveted Palme d’Or this year, while filmmakers from Egypt to Kazakhstan were feted.

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INTERVIEW: Carla Simón

Filmmaking rarely gets more personal than the award-winning debut feature from Carla Simón. Inspired by the personal tragedy surrounding her mother’s death from AIDS-related complications, “Summer 1993” is a tender drama told from a child’s point of view. As the film heads to US theaters around the 25th anniversary of the events depicted, I recently caught up with Simón to discuss the challenges and fulfillment of making a film from painful memories. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

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REVIEW: The Desert Bride

When we think of the term “starlet,” the image that immediately comes to mind is a conventionally attractive actress in her teens or 20s. Indeed, the label would hardly ever be used to describe a woman nearing her 60s. But ever since making her film debut in 2002 at the age of 42, Paulina García has proven to be every bit a rising star as her younger counterparts, turning in stunning work in recent films like “Gloria,” “Little Men.” Now, she adds another exquisite performance to her résumé as the lead in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s “The Desert Bride.”

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Top 10 TV Programs of 2017-2018

Maybe I've become spoilt for choice over the years, but I must confess that the overall TV programming in 2017-2018 didn't feel as groundbreaking as seasons past. Apart from a few exceptions - including a returning powerhouse duo from the ever reliable FX - the top programs I watched this year were mostly stalwart favourites offering familiar pleasures. Still, the ever growing TV landscape did provide some freshman entries which underlined the boundless potential of peak TV. As eclectic as ever, the best of TV provided a diverse range of entertainment to suit virtually all tastes. Here are those Top 10 Programs of the 2017-2018 TV Season:

  1. Queen Sugar (OWN)
  2. The Americans (FX)
  3. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation (Netflix)
  4. Outlander (Starz)
  5. Godless (Netflix)
  6. Insecure (HBO)
  7. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
  8. Game of Thrones (HBO)
  9. Atlanta (FX)
  10. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

Honorable Mention: Queer Eye

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2017-2018 TV

Best Casting: Godless, GLOW, Queen Sugar

While the 2016-2017 season brought a heavenly smorgasbord of outstanding female performances, I found myself unexpectedly drawn more to the scintillating men of the small screen this year. Indeed, my Top 10 Acting Performances features 6 such male actors who challenged themselves with daring work that proved integral to the success of their respective shows. Crude, bizarre and even downright psychotic, these MVPs never played within the comfort zone.

Equally impressive were their 4 female counterparts on this list, who all portrayed leaders in their own right and brilliantly navigated the associated complexities relating to racial oppression and capitalism. Altogether, their characters may live in vastly different eras and locales. But they are all uncompromising portrayals that get to the heart of what it means to live in America. Here are my Top 10 Acting Performances of the 2017-2018 TV Season.
  1. Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace
  2. Donald Glover, Atlanta
  3. Marc Maron, GLOW
  4. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Queen Sugar
  5. Rutina Wesley, Queen Sugar
  6. Keri Russell, The Americans
  7. Matthew Rhys, The Americans
  8. Jon Jon Briones, The Assassination of Gianni Versace
  9. Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta
  10. Danielle Brooks, Orange Is the New Black

Monday, April 30, 2018

20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2018

While movie lovers around the world are gearing up for another jam-packed summer slate of effects-driven films, more discerning cinephiles will also be eagerly anticipating movie magic of a different sort. Indeed, in the coming months and throughout the fall, audiences will be treated to the crème de la crème of arguably cinema's most spectacular element - the actors. Some of them will go on to garner Oscar buzz, while others will live on as fan favorites. Either way, the standout performers will never be forgotten. As we look ahead to what the remainder of 2018 has to offer, here are my 20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2018:

REVIEW: In the Last Days of the City

How do you capture the essence of a city? Is it the people, the buildings, the sounds? In Tamer El Said’s elegiac debut film “In the Last Days of the City“, one man wrestles with this central question as he attempts to capture a cinematic portrait of a place that no longer feels like home.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Godard Mon Amour

There’s a cruel irony that runs through “Godard Mon Amour“, the latest nostalgia-tinged effort from Michel Hazanavicius. Its titular subject – famed pioneer of the French New Wave Jean Luc Godard – was known for his anti-establishment, inventive style of filmmaking. The name Godard is, therefore, one of the last names you would associate with a genre as old-fashioned as the biopic. But in perhaps one of the boldest moves of his career, Hazanavicius makes a valiant, if misguided attempt at capturing a key moment in the auteur’s life.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


Early in Lucrecia Martel’s historical drama “Zama“, there’s a portentous scene that sets the one for the rest of the film. In it, a man recalls the story of a species of fish that spends its entire life swimming to and fro against the tide of the water, forever remaining in one place. The significance of this anecdote isn’t immediately apparent. But as this story unfolds, it becomes a metaphor for the film itself, which follows a man who is actively going nowhere.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Boyz n the Hood

During the recently concluded awards season, the Hollywood Reporter published an interesting article in honor of the success of “Get Out”. In it, all of the African-American directing nominees in the history of the Oscars gathered for a candid discussion about their experiences in the industry. Before even reading the article, the accompanying photo was already telling in two significant ways. Firstly, the paltry 4 nominees couldn’t even fill a single year’s quota of nominees. And secondly, the oldest nominated film represented was “Boyz n the Hood“, released just 27 years ago in the summer of 1991. Though the blaxploitation movement had already emerged out of the civil rights movement and Spike Lee had given us the seminal “Do the Right Thing” two years earlier, it wasn’t until “Boyz n the Hood” that a black director finally received that public stamp of industry approval.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The China Hustle

By no fault of its own, Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle” is an eye-opening yet somewhat underwhelming documentary. Thanks to prominent media coverage and a slew of fiction and non-fiction films about the 2008 economic crisis, its revelations of fraud will hardly alarm even the most casually informed viewer. Many Americans have already become disillusioned with the nation’s financial institutions. But this fascinating documentary further adds an unexpected piece to a global puzzle of capitalism gone mad.

Read more at The Awards Circuit