Saturday, October 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Joker


Ever since Christopher Nolan completed his final installment of The Dark Knight trilogy, cinematic adaptations of DC comics have failed to capture the zeitgeist in contemporary film culture. While the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has soared to unprecedented heights, the DCEU has been criticized for their super-serious, dark aesthetic which turned even the squeaky clean Superman into an agent of chaos. Rather than embrace the "comic" nature of their origins, however, DC films have instead doubled down on their dark, gritty house style. Indeed DC has even dedicated entire films to villains, including "Suicide Squad" and now, "Joker". As directed by Todd Phillips, this bleak character study is the first under the proposed DC Black banner and it is arguably the most accomplished - and most problematic - DC film of the post-Nolan era.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely and mentally ill resident of a decaying Gotham city. His days are filled with caring for his ailing mother, going to therapy sessions and making a living as a party clown. But his big dream is to become a standup comedian. While he aspires to be like the successful talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably attracts the ridicule of his intolerant society. Unable to cope with the fading possibilities of fulfilling his dreams and suffering the abuse from various sources, Arthur turns to a life of crime and embraces the alias of Joker.

As Arthur "breaks bad", both actor and director fully commit to the film's unsettling premise. In one of the most striking performances of the year, Joaquin Phoenix is at once grotesque and sympathetic. As he breaks into spontaneous laughter and contorts his emaciated body, he strikes fear into the audience long before he turns to violence. But what makes the performance so compelling - and a surefire Best Actor contender - is its vulnerability. Phoenix conveys a deep pain in his quest for acceptance, thereby humanizing this iconic villain like never before.

Indeed, Phillips and Scott Silver's script works overtime to generate audience sympathy for its protagonist. Arthur receives virtually no kindness from any of the named supporting characters, and the world created is oppressively bleak. You can practically smell the conspicuous garbage on the streets, while almost every surface seems to be covered in graffiti. In crafting this palpable atmosphere, there's no denying that this version of Gotham city is a stand-in for 1980s New York City.

The "Taxi Driver" inspirations are therefore obvious, but unfortunately, the film's social commentary is too broad to truly add a fresh perspective. Despite its best attempts - such as the inclusion of a pompous, Trump-like Thomas Wayne character - the script lacks the nuance of Hildur Guðnadóttir's evocative score as it charts Arthur Fleck's disturbing transformation. As such, the implications that the Joker's violent acts are part of a larger, justified revolution fail to ring true.

Ultimately, "Joker" won't be winning any prizes for original storytelling. But in its strongest moments, this likely contender for Best Picture and Best Director touches on some important issues surrounding mental health, conveyed through a central performance that's hard to shake. In our contemporary landscape of formulaic superhero films, this challenging cinematic vision is definitely worth your consideration.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

TIFF: Wrap-up


After 11 days of screenings and other film industry-related activities, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end. And as the curtains came down on Sunday, it was Taika Waititi‘s irreverent, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” that nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The announcement came as a surprise to many who favored more universally beloved contenders such as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” In retrospect, its victory was a perfect reflection of the 2019 edition of the festival, where many directors challenged audiences with their risky themes and filmmaking approaches.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Harriet


As much as Hollywood tries to convince us otherwise, the world doesn’t need another biopic. But with a subject as underappreciated and vital to history as Harriet Tubman, a cinematic tribute is certainly justified. With Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” that long overdue biopic of the legendary freedom fighter has finally arrived. But this underwhelming drama fails to truly capture the awe-inspiring efforts of its extraordinary heroine.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Cave & Adam


Issues of women’s rights have long been a subject of heated debate in the Arab world. While situations vary considerably throughout the region, women are still fighting against culturally and religiously imposed restrictions rarely faced by their counterparts in the rest of the world. At TIFF 2019, a pair of films stand out in this regard, in the form of the documentary, “The Cave,” and the narrative feature, “Adam.” Though set in drastically different environments, both highlight issues surrounding women’s rights through affecting stories about the power of female solidarity.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Blackbird


It is never easy to accept the impending death of a loved one. Even more troubling is the knowledge that they have chosen to die. Following in the vein of award-winning films such as “The Sea Inside” and “Million Dollar Baby,” the controversial topic of euthanasia features prominently in “Blackbird.” A remake of a Danish film, this formulaic drama from Roger Michell likely won’t garner many accolades. But the tender performances from its gifted cast elevate it to something worth seeing.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Instinct


People have long claimed that women prefer bad boys. Whether this is true or not, this widespread belief has formed the basis for many of the most popular films in history. With her daring directorial debut “Instinct,” Halina Reijn attempts to explore this phenomenon through the eyes of a trained psychologist. The result is a film that is at once challenging, frustrating, perplexing, and thoroughly fascinating.

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TIFF: Jojo Rabbit


With a filmography that includes such heartwarming comic gems as “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, Taika Waititi is hardly a director who comes to mind when you think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. The traumatic genocide of Jews certainly doesn’t lend itself to his trademark offbeat sense of humor. Yet in one of the year’s most daring directorial achievements, Waititi keeps his distinctive voice in tact with “Jojo Rabbit,” a poignant anti-war satire that is also his funniest film to date.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


“It’s not really about Mister Rogers.” So remarks a character in Marielle Heller’s new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in response to the profile of the iconic children’s TV host that forms the basis of the narrative. For better or worse, that statement is true of the film itself, which eschews traditional biopic expectations for an endearing tribute to Mister Rogers’ legacy of kindness and empathy.

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TIFF: Synchronic


If you ever wondered what a gritty cable drama about paramedics would look like, it would probably be something like “Synchronic,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Featuring a duo of tough guys responding to a mysterious series of gruesome deaths under dim lighting, it might cause you to wonder if “True Detective” had been remade as “True Paramedic.” Indeed, “Synchronic” captures the brooding aesthetic of recent HBO miniseries, but with an intriguing sci-fi twist that almost elevates its otherwise dreary filmmaking.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Just Mercy


When a director gets an inherently powerful story, it doesn’t take a herculean effort to make a film that will resonate with audiences. With “Just Mercy,” director Destin Daniel Cretton accomplishes just that. Channeling the classic legal dramas, Cretton delivers a genuine crowd-pleaser by trusting in the power of the film’s story and the ability of his actors to convey its essential message.

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TIFF: Disco & Hala


If you delve into the various sections of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, you’ll find a number of films which explore issues surrounding religion and morality. In Special Presentations, you’ll find Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes“, which examines the tensions between the worldviews of a traditionalist and a more modern pope. In the Masters’ section, Terrence Malick continues his career-long interest in spirituality with “A Hidden Life“, about a conscientious objector to the Nazi cause.

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TIFF: Preview


With all the buzz emanating from the Venice and Telluride film festivals, there’s no denying that the fall movie season is upon us. Indeed, films like “Ford v Ferrari” and “Marriage Story” have already ignited Oscar talk about journalists, as some of the year’s most anticipated films have finally made their debuts. But while several of these contenders seem to be booking their places at the Oscars, there are still many challengers waiting in the wings as the Toronto International Film Festival brings their own exclusive premieres to the table. As a smorgasbord of films jostle for attention among its famously massive slate, here are 10 world premieres we are most excited about for TIFF 2019.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

CTFF: A New Day for African and Caribbean Films


While Toronto will be abuzz with the excitement of this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, there’s another September festival in town that is worth your attention. Founded in 2006 to promote emerging filmmakers from the Caribbean and the diaspora, the CaribbeanTales Film Festival celebrates its 14th edition under the theme “A New Day.” Playing from September 4-20, the CTFF will feature 8 themed nights of programming, with eight feature-length films complimented by an array of short films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, September 27, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


If there's one thing that Hollywood loves is movies about movies. And if there's one filmmaker who loves making those movies, it's Quentin Tarantino. Famously known as a film nerd, Tarantino's filmography is filled with homages to film history. Whether it's the blaxploitation era in "Jackie Brown" or the spaghetti westerns in "Django Unchained", his love of cinema is always on display. You could therefore argue that his latest Best Picture contender - "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - represents a culmination of his filmography to date. Chock full with references to classic cinema, Tarantino shows off his film literacy with a comedy-drama that educates as much as it entertains.

Indeed, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is practically a crash course in classic cinema. Set during the late 1960s, it reflects the turning point when Classic Hollywood was making way for the New Hollywood movement which would emerge in the next decade. Incorporating real life figures of the time with fictional characters, the film thus follows a fading star of 1950s TV Westerns - Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio - who struggles to find his place in the new world order. With his trusted stunt double and closest friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) by his side, he attempts a personal reinvention as a movie star. But it will prove to be his greatest challenge yet, as a growing, youthful counterculture threatens to leave him behind.

That tension between old and new hollywood is at the core of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", as it serves as a time capsule for a turning point in the film industry. In this regard, Tarantino instills an evocative atmosphere of 1960s Los Angeles, thanks to the music, clothing, sets, and the hair. Oscar nods for the film's aesthetic would definitely be well deserved, particularly for Best Production Design. And Quentin Tarantino will surely garner the respect of his peers in his Best Director bid.

Tarantino's attention to detail brings a tangible authenticity to the settings, augmented by playful nods to films and stars of the era, ranging from "The Great Escape" and "Rosemary's Baby" to "The Wrecking Crew". Indeed, the latter notably draws attention to the subplot involving rising star (played with eager gusto by Margot Robbie). But while initial promos highlighted the ill-fated Tate - and the murderous Manson Family plays a major role in the film - she remains more of a concept than a fully drawn character.

Ultimately, Tate's storyline becomes a casualty of a screenplay that struggles to cohere. As such, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, its best parts truly resonate enough (and will surely push it forward in the Best Original Screenplay race). Namely, the friendship between Dalton and Booth and the charismatic performances from DiCaprio and Pitt. Indeed, Brad Pitt is cool personified in a performance that will likely net him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Meanwhile, DiCaprio will also garner himself yet another Best Actor nod for his outstanding work. Using every ounce of his physicality and expressive eyes, he is often self-deprecating and vulnerable as a man who must prove to himself and the world that he is a true movie star. Ironically, DiCaprio is effortlessly charismatic in the role, once again proving his movie star bona fides. And perhaps that's the essence of the film and Hollywood itself. No matter the era, it's a town built on make believe and only the most convincing imposters survive.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

REVIEW: Pain and Glory


With a career spanning more than four decades and a filmography that includes such masterworks as "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her", Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is rightfully one of the most highly regarded auteurs in cinema. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, however, I think "Pain and Glory" could arguably be considered his magnum opus. Supremely artful and poignant, it is a stunning showcase of his unique skills as a filmmaker.

Antonio Banderas stars in this semi-autobiographical drama as Salvador Mallo, a film director in the twilight of his career. Suffering with several ailments, he struggles to reclaim his former glory. As he searches for inspiration, he reflects on the momentous occasions of his life, recalling the good and bad memories which shaped him.

Though the film is only loosely biographical, it's hard not to see its creator in the figure of its protagonist. Indeed, with his ruffled, silvery hair, Banderas is a striking stand in for Almodovar. And with the character's background as a filmmaker whose best work was seemingly behind him, this metatextual context brings a natural empathy to his plight, especially for longtime Almodovar fans similarly hoping for another masterpiece.

It therefore brings me great pleasure to report that Almodovar does indeed deliver another arthouse gem. Working at the top of his game, "Pain and Glory" is a reminder of what makes Almodovar such a distinct storyteller. Every facet of the filmmaking is gorgeously wrought, from the colorful costumes and sets, to the beautiful music.

As can be expected of an Almodovar film, the cast also shines. Once again, he is able to garner tremendous performances from his actors. And in this case, he reunites with two of his favorite muses - Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. Long known for their sex appeal, Almodovar's script has crafted roles which bring a fresh perspective on their personas. As his character requests of another actor - the equally brilliant Asier Etxeandia - tasked with playing him in a play, Banderas underplays the sentimentality and brings a world-weary gravitas to his afflicted character. Meanwhile, Cruz recalibrates her innate sensuality to portray a fierce mother with all the passion of her signature roles.

The elegant musicality, touching performances and exquisite mise en scene all come together to convey the film's poignant themes. Through flashbacks and present scenarios, "Pain and Glory" embodies the saying "time heals all wounds". Despite the physical and emotional pain he endures, Salvador recognizes that it's all part of the school of life. Ultimately, all we can do is live, learn and continue to love.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

REVIEW: What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?


A boy leading his scared younger brother through a haunted house, a woman preparing to host a party, and a mother scolding her son for coming home past curfew. These are some of the images that greet audiences in the opening minutes of Roberto Minervini’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” On the surface, these introductions to the characters reflect typical scenes from across America. But after the subsequent two hours of this pointed documentary, a very specific slice of Americana emerges.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Jirga


Virtually as certain as death and taxes, humanity has proven that it cannot escape its addiction to war. Likewise, in cinema, filmmakers have shown an affinity for the subject, where narratives surrounding violent conflicts have become a prevalent staple of the art form. Some of these directors choose to portray the dangerous thrill of the battlefield. Meanwhile, others, like director Benjamin Gilmour, focus on the aftermath of war and its far-reaching effects. Indeed, such is the case in Gilmour’s latest film “Jirga,” an unusually understated drama about a soldier wrestling with his demons.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: For Sama


“We never thought the world would let this happen,” so laments director Waad al-Kateab in the opening scenes of her film “For Sama“, co-directed by Edward Watts. This deeply personal documentary is not the first to depict the ongoing Syrian Civil War, but the sentiment behind that statement remains as vital as ever. As she recounts her experiences during five years of the conflict, this harrowing film reminds us of one of the most urgent human rights crises of our time.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Three Peaks


A deceptively cheerful scene opens “Three Peaks,” the new film from director Jan Zabeil. It’s summertime in Italy and families are merrily playing in the pool. One of them is a couple exploring their new relationship with a son. But this seemingly idyllic vacation eventually becomes one that they and, unfortunately, audiences will want to forget.

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REVIEW: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am


A few years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought much needed attention to an ongoing problem in the film industry. With a lack of diversity throughout all levels of the filmmaking process, the recipients of the art form’s highest honors often reflected a largely white-male clubhouse. As evidenced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ illuminating new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am“, this problem has not been exclusive to cinema. In profiling one of the greatest literary minds of our time, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” engagingly reminds audiences of the inherent politics in how we value art and honor artists.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: International Oscar Hopefuls


Though we are still months away from the first wave of official submissions for the newly renamed Best International Feature Oscar, the spring/winter festival circuit has already introduced some worthy candidates. As major awards are won and distribution deals close, the excitement is mounting for another competitive year among the non-English Oscar contenders. Here’s a look at some of the early contenders from the three biggest international film festivals so far, namely Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Third Wife


Despite existing for more than a century, the art of filmmaking still has the power to surprise and transport us. Whether it’s a fictional African metropolis or a remote tribal community in the Pacific, cinema possesses an unparalleled ability to open our eyes to new cultures and societies. Such is the effect in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature “The Third Wife“, which delicately uncovers the lives of patriarchal Vietnamese society through the eyes of a young woman.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Shadow


Grabbing attention from the very first frame, there are few films as visually striking as Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow“. Though the director is known for more colorful spectacles such as “Hero” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang delivers a fresh surprise with the awe-inspiring greyscale palette of this latest effort. Coupled with a storyline rife with meaningful symbolism, “Shadow” is a stunning addition to the wuxia film canon.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Inside Jamaica's Growing Film Industry


Though it may not be making major headlines, Jamaica’s film industry is currently having a significant moment in the spotlight. This month’s release of “Sprinter” marks the third film made by, or heavily featuring, Jamaican talent to be distributed in North America in 2019. Showcasing an array of filmmaking sensibilities, these films – Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter”, Idris Elba’s “Yardie” and Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother” – reflect the changing dynamics of the nascent Jamaican film industry. As “Sprinter” prepares for a unique theatrical run, AwardsCircuit.com caught up with some key figures of the contemporary Jamaican film scene to get an inside perspective on the factors that are fueling the industry’s recent growth.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Sprinter


“Hope is the thing with feathers.” Famed poet Emily Dickinson surely wasn’t thinking about 21st century immigration and athletics stardom when she penned this quote in her poem of the same name. But the sentiment behind those immortal words resonates strongly throughout Storm Saulter’s new film “Sprinter“.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Sauvage


The trope of the “hooker with a heart of gold” has become such a mainstay in cinema that ardent cinephiles and casual movie fans alike can easily recognize its cliches. When it comes to such matters of love and sex, however, you can always count on the French to bring a fresh and often subversive perspective. Such is the case in Camille Vidal-Naquet’s “Sauvage“, which turns this trope on its head with a surprisingly tender-hearted drama about a gay male prostitute.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Top 10 TV Programs of 2018-2019


There's no business like show business. As streaming, broadcast television and the theatrical experience continues to wage a war to capture audiences, viewers have benefitted from this competition greatly. This is most evident in the TV landscape, where the variety of programming delivered some truly extraordinary storytelling. Notably, the best of them included brilliant showcases of the life and work of female entertainers, at a time when their voices are crying out to be heard. As I bore witness to the awe-inspiring narratives of these wrestlers, comedians and musicians, it filled me with hope that they will be silenced no more. Indeed, this current Golden Age of Television continues to thrill us in unforgettable and surprising new ways. So without further ado, here are my picks for the best of TV from this wonderful year.

  1. GLOW
  2. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
  3. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
  4. Better Call Saul
  5. Fleabag
  6. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  7. The Good Fight
  8. Veep
  9. When They See Us
  10. Escape at Dannemora

Monday, July 15, 2019

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2018-2019 TV

Best Casting: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Queen Sugar, When They See Us
As has already been said in many other forums before, contemporary TV has gifted today's actresses with golden opportunities like never before. Indeed, in reflecting on the past season of television, the most memorable performances were largely drawn from a remarkable array of female characters. Whether they were forging life-changing careers in the entertainment industry or exploring deep personal traumas, these women kept us glued to our screens, compelled by their rich inner lives and unique perspectives. And right behind them were a trio of award-worthy performances from male performers, capping yet another extraordinary of acting for the "small screen". Here are my Top 10 Acting Performances of the 2018-2019 TV Season.
  1. Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  2. Alison Brie, GLOW
  3. Amy Adams, Sharp Objects
  4. Patricia Clarkson, Sharp Objects
  5. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag
  6. Betty Gilpin, GLOW
  7. Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul
  8. Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
  9. Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
  10. Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame


As I sat in the movie theater for "Avengers: Endgame", a initial feeling of dread came over me. The trailers - "Aladdin", "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" and "Spider-Man: Far from Home" - shown before the film were a sad reminder of the state of popular cinema in 2019, with nary an original concept in sight. To make matters worse, the two prior installments of "The Avengers" had left me wanting. As such, I feared the worst for what would surely be an overblown piece of fan service.

After the subsequent 3 hours of this epic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "Infinity Saga", however, I admittedly felt guilt for my prejudice. Alleviating all of my fears, I was thoroughly satisfied with the accomplished filmmaking on display. Taking place in the apocalyptic aftermath of the "Infinity War", this film brings a level of humanity and humility rarely seen before in the MCU.

Reduced to vulnerable human beings in the wake of the cataclysmic events caused by supervillian Thanos, the remaining Avengers are desperate to reverse the course of history. Some years later, an unexpected solution arises when Ant-Man emerges from the quantum realm. Based on his experiences in this alternate universe, the Avengers devise a time-travelling master plan so crazy that it could spell either further destruction or salvation.

With a decidedly downbeat first hour, "Endgame" quickly lets audiences know that they are in for an ambitious story arc. Indeed, the stakes have never been higher, as the Avengers seem to have come to terms with their failure. The costumes and superpowers are largely absent and in their place are human beings mourning the friends and families they've lost.

Due to this rare moment of vulnerability, these characters who we've come to know and love reveal their true selves. And through this, the film allows the actors to shine by subverting their trademark personas. As the leaders with conflicting worldviews, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans bring new shades to Iron Man and Captain America. The former's cocky sarcasm is now tempered by a sense of despair and melancholy. And the latter displays a jaded cynicism that starkly contrasts his usual optimism. But perhaps the most eye-opening performance comes from Chris Hemsworth, portraying Thor as a man whose unwavering confidence has finally been shattered. In addition to his much talked about physical transformation, there's an everyman humility that showcases Hemsworth's comic talents to great effect. In my opinion, he's never been better.

Of course, while we bear witness to the fragility of their heroes, they must inevitably rise to the occasion. And as the script sets things in motion for the final showdown, the film kicks into high gear in ways that only a mega-budget blockbuster can deliver. Indeed, we can see the money on the screen, with dazzling visual effects and elaborate production design.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has long claimed that each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is conceived as a particular genre film. Whether it's the intergalactic space adventures of "Guardians of the Galaxy" or the espionage thriller underpinnings of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", they are crafted with a keen understanding of the associated tropes. Unsurprisingly, this has paid dividends through the enthusiastic responses from cinephiles everywhere.

Admittedly, when these characters come together as The Avengers, the filmmakers sometimes struggled to craft a coherent vision. But that is not the case here. "Avengers: Endgame" shows a remarkable synergy between the heist, space exploration and character drama elements. And ultimately, it culminates in a sublime coda that speaks to the power of love and the precious gift of life. After more than a decade of making us want to be superheroes, "Avengers: Endgame" shows us the strength and beauty of being human.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

REVIEW: Working Woman


It’s been almost two years since the #MeToo movement exploded as a major cultural movement in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Unsurprisingly, this zeitgeist has begun to influence the stories being told on film, with several recent documentaries highlighting major cases of sexual abuse. Narrative features are also shedding light on this pervasive issue, including Michal Aviad’s shrewdly crafted Israeli drama “Working Woman.”

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Sheldon Shepherd


With the release of Idris Elba’s debut feature “Yardie“, authentic Jamaican culture gets a rare showcase on the big screen. Among its cast of British and Jamaican actors, actor/musician Sheldon Shepherd stands out as someone who fully embodies the island’s distinctive spirit. On the eve of the film’s arrival in US theaters, I spoke with Shepherd about the experience of making the film and his creative process.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Yardie


From “Get Out” to “A Star is Born”, there seems to be an increasing trend of actors making successful transitions to directing. Making an attempt to join that growing list is Idris Elba with his directorial debut “Yardie“, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Based on the novel by Victor Headley, this gangster drama is rooted in the streets of Jamaica, telling a familiar tale of violence and revenge.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: 3 Faces


As is typical of his filmography, Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” begins without a “based on a true story” disclaimer. This latest effort from the beleaguered director once again continues his penchant for palpable realism, offering a fervent critique of his native Iran. As pointed as ever, “3 Faces” poignantly examines the tensions within a society where art and culture don’t always make a perfect match.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Hero


Early in Frances Anne Solomon’s “Hero: Inspired by The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mr. Ulric Cross,” Nicola Cross – daughter of the film’s titular subject – states that she wishes she had explored her father’s life story before his death. But as the saying goes, better late than never. And after viewing the subsequent two hours of this globetrotting saga, audiences will likely agree that this film is overdue. An ambitious documentary-narrative feature hybrid, “Hero” showcases an accomplished diplomat/lawyer/decorated war veteran whose untold story deserves to be discovered.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Ed Perkins


Recently Oscar nominated for Best Documentary Short, “Black Sheep” tells a powerful true story about racism and identity in the United Kingdom. Its subject is a young black man named Cornelius Walker, who recalls his traumatic childhood experiences with violent racism after moving from London to a predominantly white housing estate in Essex. Deftly mixing interviews and reenactment, “Black Sheep” is one of the impressive contenders in its Oscar category. In speaking with director Ed Perkins, however, he revealed that the idea for the film arose unintentionally from a casual conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Top 10 American Remakes of Foreign Films


With this week’s release of “Miss Bala” and “The Upside” earlier this month, American remakes of foreign films are a hot trend in Hollywood right now. Of course, this is nothing new, as American filmmakers have long borrowed from world cinema since the earliest days of the medium. While many of these fail to live up to the reputation of the original films, there are others which have achieved enough popularity to become known as the definitive versions of their stories. As we anticipate a year slated to bring even more remakes, here’s a look back at 10 such outstanding American Remakes of Foreign Films which either equaled or surpassed their predecessors.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

And the Oscar goes to... Green Book


As you've probably heard already, the Oscars were held on Sunday, with "Green Book" taking the top prize of Best Picture, to go along with wins for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Frankly, it proved to be a disappointing end to a rather surprising and satisfying night. Indeed, I only predicted a dismal 14 out of 24 categories correctly. But ultimately, I don't mind being wrong if it means historic wins for the Black Panther team and a shocking upset for the wonderful Olivia Colman in Best Actress. As we finally put the 2018 film year to rest, here's the final rundown of the year's best, according to the Academy:

BEST PICTURE
Green Book

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST ACTRESS
Olivia Colman, The Favourite

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali, Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Sunday, February 24, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Awards


In a refreshing change of pace from awards season, the Independent Spirit Awards shone a spotlight on some of the year's unheralded films. At the end of their relaxed ceremony on the beach in Santa Monica, it was Barry Jenkins' stunning "If Beale Street Could Talk" which walked away with Best Feature, Best Director and Best Supporting Female. As a member of Film Independent I was quite pleased with the results, with a number of my votes* going towards the eventual winners. Here is that full list below:

Best Feature
If Beale Street Could Talk*

Best Director
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk*

Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, The Wife

Best Male Lead
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

Best Supporting Female
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Supporting Male
Richard E Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?*

Saturday, February 23, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Green Book


On the eve of Hollywood's biggest night, it felt appropriate that I finally weigh in on one of the presumed Oscar frontrunners. That controversial film is none other than Peter Farrelly's "Green Book", nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Inspired by a true story, this dramedy follows two men on a life-changing road trip that harkens back to awards contenders of yesteryear.

Indeed, to paraphrase by mother's first impression of the film, "Green Book" is like one of those "old-time" movies. Starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in roles that could have been played by Sidney Poitier and any of the notable Italian-American stars of the 20th century respectively, it's a message movie about racial harmony between a black man and a white man. Ali plays esteemed pianist Don Shirley, who is embarking on dangerous tour through the Jim Crow South and requires a driver/bodyguard to help him along the way. In steps Mortensen's Tony Lip, a brutish - and racist - Italian-American bouncer who is out of a job when his club closes down. Due to his reputation for handling unruly situations, Lip's services are solicited for Shirley's tour. And after some hesitation, Lip decides to take the gig, as this pair of New Yorkers head down South and strike up an unlikely friendship.

Much has been said about the film's old-fashioned depiction of race relations, where racism is essentially "solved" through communication and walking a mile in another person's shoes. Director Peter Farrelly even said as much his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Understandably, the film's detractors took issue with this simplification of America's tramautic racial history.

Yet when I watched the film, I found myself surprisingly taken with its story. Although I concur that its inevitably happy ending is perhaps overly idealistic, the road it takes to get there is filled with many bumps along the way which truthfully reflect the pervasive intolerance of this time and place. Told in an episodic structure as the duo makes their way through the scheduled gigs, Shirley's experience is marred by a series of humiliations, one of which turns violent.

Suffice it to say, I didn't find it to be such an offensive portrayal of American history. Instead of approaching it as a broader social commentary, I accepted it as a more modest tale of two men whose friendship defied all expectations. Without a doubt, my favorable response to the film was aided significantly by the captivating duo at the heart of the story. The contrasting performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen truly make the film, with the former's poise and eloquence clashing with Mortensen's broad, crass characterization. Together, their chemistry is a "yin and yang" that keeps you engaged in the story and invested in the characters. Ultimately, "Green Book" won't be making any all-time best lists, but I found a sense of comfort in watching two talented actors at work. Outside of all the noise that is awards season, this is harmlessly middlebrow entertainment that doesn't deserve all this animosity.

Monday, February 11, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Awards


The Brits have sounded off and their pick for Best Film of the year is "Roma", giving Alfonso Cuaron's black-and-white epic a significant heading into final Oscar voting. After dominating the nominations, "The Favourite" was another BAFTA favourite with 7 awards, winning both actress categories and Outstanding British Film (where many expected "Bohemian Rhapsody" to prevail). As the Oscars are fast approaching, the following wins could be a preview for what's to come. Here they are:

Best Film
Roma

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron - Roma

Best Actor
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress
Olivia Colman - The Favourite

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali - Green Book

Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz - The Favourite

Saturday, February 9, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Predictions


It's the home stretch! The finish line for this tumultous awards season is within sight as the BAFTA Awards wrap up the major televised precursors. With final Oscar voting beginning soon, they can be a significant indicator of late season awards heat. Will the Brits back their homegrown talent or stick to the prevailing consensus? Here are my predictions for tomorrow's ceremony.

Best Film
Roma

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron - Roma

Best Actor
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress
Olivia Colman - The Favourite

Best Supporting Actor
Richard E. Grant - Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz - The Favourite

Monday, January 28, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


As the penultimate televised awards show before the Oscars, the Screen Actors Guild boosted several campaigns last night in the acting categories. Indeed, Glenn Close, Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali continued to exert their dominance of the awards circuit so far. Will they repeat at the Oscars? Here is the full list of SAG winners for 2018:

BEST CAST
Black Panther

BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close – The Wife

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Emily Blunt - A Quiet Place

Saturday, January 26, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


As the first televised awards show after the Oscar nominations, tomorrow night's SAG Awards will be significant bellwether for the final stretch of the awards season. With a few frontrunners absent from the nominations, however, we'll definitely be saying some new faces on the stage. Best Ensemble seems particularly open. Who will come out on top? Here are my guesses for this year's SAG winners:

BEST CAST
Crazy Rich Asians

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale – Vice

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close – The Wife

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams – Vice

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

OSCAR NOMINATIONS: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


After yesterday's announcement, the Oscar nominations have finally begun to sink in. And as always, there were many surprises in store. Here are my thoughts on this year's lucky nominees, in addition to the full list:

The Good:

  • It was very gratifying to see foreign language films represented outside of their designated category, notably in Cinematography ("Roma" and "Cold War") and Director where there were multiple non-English films selected. Hopefully this will become a trend and we continue to see the Academy embrace films from across the world.
  • Few people could have seen the nominations for "Roma" stars Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira coming, but I'm sure we can all agree that this was a welcome surprise.
  • Spike Lee finally gets his long overdue nomination for Best Director, as "BlacKkKlansman" makes an impressive showing with 6 nominations.


The Bad:

  • I wasn't expecting much, but the Academy really should have come through for "First Man" and "If Beale Street Could Talk". Both are towering cinematic achievements.
  • Bradley Cooper's direction was essential to making "A Star is Born" such a successful film. It's a shame he isn't being recognized for his commendable filmmaking debut.
  • I hope Toni Collette's "Hereditary" character haunts the Academy in their sleep for snubbing her in Best Actress.


The Ugly:

  • The mediocre "Bohemian Rhapsody" continues to be a major presence during this awards season, displacing many more worthy films in the process.
  • Sam Rockwell for "Vice"? Really?
  • It's an absolute travesty that "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature. If you claim that the filmmaking is too conventional, why nominate "RBG"?


Here is the full list of this year's nominees:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

With less than 2 days to go before the Oscar nominations, I've been trying to cover my bases and watch as many contenders across the various categories as possible. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting races to follow has been Best Animated Feature, where new frontrunners continuously emerged throughout the course of the year. As usual, I focused on those main contenders in my personal viewing of the slate. And ultimately, I agreed with the consensus on one particular December release which stands above the rest. Here are my thoughts, personal rankings and predictions for this year's Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature:

From Aardman Studios, the masterminds who brought us such gems as "Chicken Run" and "Shaun the Sheep Movie" comes a new animated tale called "Early Man". As its title suggests, the film takes place in prehistoric times, when cavemen and other early creatures roamed the earth. In this setting emerges a story of Dug, a young caveman determined to protect his primitive tribe from Bronze Age colonizers. After being introduced to their affinity for an early form of football, Dug makes a deal to keep their home by beating them at their own game. The film thus becomes a typical underdog story which only delivers a few chuckles. It certainly has some of the quirks of Aardman's house style, but "Early Man" is definitely one of their lesser efforts. Rating: ★★★1/2

Nearly 10 years after his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" snagged a pair of Oscar nominations, Wes Anderson makes a welcome return to stop motion animation with "Isle of Dogs". Set in a dystopian Japan, "Isle of Dogs" follows a young boy Atari as he goes on a mission to find his dog, which was banished to Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu. Upon arrival on Trash Island, he hooks up with a pack of dogs - delightfully voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum - who help him on his search. Their journey subsequently takes them on a madcap adventure which is relentlessly entertaining. Admittedly, the film doesn't fully sustain its initial madcap energy. But Anderson's distinctive offbeat style shines through in film's hilarious comic timing and wondrous mise en scene, which earned him a well-deserved Best Director prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Rating: ★★★★

With Pixar now firmly into their sequel phase, it was inevitable that they would make a follow-up to one of their beloved hits. This summer, audiences were reunited with the titular family of "The Incredibles 2", as they aim to save the day and restore the good reputation of superheroes. If you've seen the first film, there's not much that will be new to you here. But in trademark Pixar form, the screenplay works in some surprisingly mature commentary on the challenges of domestic life, vis-à-vis parenting and marriage. And when coupled with some truly exciting action setpieces, "The Incredibles 2" becomes fun for the whole family. Rating: ★★★★

After the success of its prequel, Wreck-it Ralph returns with a whole new adventure called "Ralph Breaks the Internet". Once again, the film focuses on the duo of Ralph and Vanellope, as they embark on a mission to save Vanellope's Sugar Rush arcade game by braving the strange new world of the internet. As their journey takes them to Oh My Disney, where this media empire dominates our attention, it's hard to miss the blatant self-promotion on display. And yet, the zippy storyline is genuinely fun and funny, with clever pop culture references and winking nods at Disney cliches. Most impactful is the film's second half, however, which offers a surprisingly mature commentary on toxic friendships. While "Wreck-it Ralph" came up short at the Oscars, this sequel puts forth a strong argument to win it all this time around. Rating: ★★★★

Joining a slew of other superhero narratives in the race, "Teen Titans Go! To The Movies" is one of the most peculiar of this year's animated films. Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, this parody of comic book movies is based on the TV series "Teen Titans Go!" and those roots are quite obvious. Indeed, this juvenile film is hardly much deeper than a Saturday morning cartoon, with the fart jokes and frenetic energy to match. But once you're able to shut off your brain, you'll find a entertaining story about a bunch of carefree young kids who simply want to live out their Hollywood dreams. Rating: ★★★1/2

Fans have long awaited a cinematic iteration of Miles Morales as Spiderman and now, their patience has been duly rewarded. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is a Miles Morales (a half-black half-Latino version of Spiderman) origin story, a regular high schooler who is gains special powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. With the city of Brooklyn and the wider world under threat by a villain named Kingpin, he must summon the courage to use his newfound abilities for good. But he'll have the help of a few friends, as a mysterious occurrence brings together different versions of Spider-man from alternate universes. They include the familiar characters of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, in addition to a pig named Spider-ham, a Japanese girl called Peni Parker and a brooding version of Peter Parker from the 1930s. To be sure, it's an outrageous premise. But the result is a complete reinvigoration of the Spider-man mythology that practically explodes off the screen with its creative energy and features some of the most eye-popping animation you'll ever see. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is not only the best of this year's animated features, it's one of the best films of 2018. Rating: ★★★★

If I had high expectations for "Smallfoot", I'd say it is the most disappointing animated film of the year. But this Warner Animation production is exactly the run-of-the-mill cash grab I expected it to be. It tells a story about a Yeti named Migo, who is ostracized from his community after claiming to see the a smallfoot (i.e. a human), which goes against the insular beliefs of his community. As you ventures out into the unknown to prove his findings and salvage his reputation, the script puts forth a valuable message about the importance of intellectual curiosity. But otherwise, this predictable film offers nothing noteworthy to really distinguish itself from your typical animated adventure. Rating: ★★★

Here's how I'd rank these films (in order of preference):
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Isle of Dogs
The Incredibles 2
Tito and the Birds
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies
Early Man
Smallfoot

My prediction:

Best Animated Feature
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Mirai

Saturday, January 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Bohemian Rhapsody


A funny thing happened during this topsy-turvy awards season that hardly anyone saw coming. Back in November, the troubled production of "Bohemian Rhapsody" opened to middling reviews and was quickly dismissed as a non-starter in the Oscar race. But then, the film became a bonafide box office phenomenon (currently approaching $200 million at the US box office at the time of writing) and then went on become a Best Picture frontrunner following a shocking Golden Globe win for Best Drama.

I was one of those critics who dismissed the film upon release, figuring it would just be accepted as the conventional Freddie Mercury biopic it so clearly is. But as the industry continues to declare its support of this controversial film, it felt prudent to give it a second look. I therefore revisited it with an open mind to try to understand what works and what doesn't.

What's immediately clear is that this is a star vehicle for Rami Malek, who is well on his way to a Best Actor nomination. His performance is affected and showy, but it's nothing if not consistent. Whether it's a perfect imitation or not, it's definitely one that conveys the spirit of a man who was born to be on stage. On that note, the film's climactic recreation of Queen's iconic Live Aid performance is easily one of the best scenes of the year. Even as the rest of the film failed to grab me this time around, that ending holds up brilliantly. I found myself involuntarily singing along, completely entranced in the music and the showmanship.

Indeed, the film does deserve some kudos for its entertaining portrayal of the band's creative process and performances. Yet, there's no denying that these scenes benefit from artistry that has little to do with the actual filmmaking itself. Indeed, the timeless songs are what sustains the film, while the actors essentially lip synch and pantomime. Yes, the recreation of Freddie Mercury's flashy and fabulous fashion sense are worthy of awards attention for Best Costume Design. But it would be dishonest to give Malek the credit for the impact of the music.

Still, the story behind that music is worthy of the big screen treatment in itself. But despite the band and its lead singer's boundary-pushing reputation, the storytelling in "Bohemian Rhapsody" is disappointingly conservative. There are hardly any narrative beats we haven't seen before in countless musical biopics. Personally, I can forgive its much derided manipulation of the facts and its downplaying of Mercury's sexuality. What I can't forgive, however, is an uninspired narrative. Did it get the job done and ultimately entertain me? Yes. But outside of Malek's performance and the music, there's nothing spectacular or outstanding about "Bohemian Rhapsody".

Monday, January 14, 2019

Best of 2018: Top 10 Films of the Year


If you follow the awards season, you'll probably hear a lot about Alfonso Cuaron's visually stunning "Roma", Bradley Cooper's heart-stirring "A Star is Born" or the cultural phenomenon that is "Black Panther". Yet while all of these are certainly worthy of praise, it's a testament to the strength of this year's films that none of them made my final Top 10. Cinema in 2018 indeed offered an embarrassment of riches, with an extensive variety to suit every taste. As you'll see below, the year's highlights represented virtually every genre of filmmaking possible, forcing some of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make for a year's best list. Both of my honorable mentions for example, are as strong as any film in the list and were seriously considered.

But ultimately, the year belonged to one special film for me. While it has been unfathomably underappreciated in the general Best Picture conversation thus far, it delivered everything I could have wanted and more. Find out which film took that #1 position, as I present to you my Top 10 Films of 2018, with excerpts from my reviews:

Honorable Mention: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Hale County This Morning, This Evening