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 Used to refer to a outdated idea of a typical Oscar contender, the term itself has become outdated following such outside the box recent award winners like "The Shape of Water" and "Moonlight".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