Thursday, June 25, 2020

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods


Arriving at an opportune time in the midst of social unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods" is yet another emphatic political statement from one of cinema's foremost truth-tellers. Opening on a montage of archival footage depicting the racial and political tensions surrounding the Vietnam War, this post-war drama comments on the present by digging up the past, literally and figuratively. Its story centers on four African-American war veterans called the Bloods, who return to their former battleground to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman. After decades of trauma surrounding their harrowing experiences, it is hoped that their quest will provide a sense of closure and relief. But the memories of their fellow soldier aren't the only driving force behind their risky adventure. Also buried in the jungle is a treasured bounty of gold which was initially intended to fund a wartime operation, but was instead withheld by the Bloods in the name of reparations for centuries of oppression.

As the men journey to Vietnam , the script explores several ideas relating to justice. As the men reflect on their disillusionment with the racist American society they fought for, they must contend with the lasting pain inflicted on the Vietnamese people. Indeed, many of the film's most tense moments come from angry confrontations between the Bloods and citizens retaliating in honor of fallen relatives. Add a dash of white guilt in the form of an NGO group dedicated to demining the land and it's clear that Lee and his writing team have a lot on their mind.

Translating those ideas into a coherent narrative proves to be slightly unwieldy, however. In particular, the trio of NGO workers seem shoehorned into the narrative without adding much value to the story. Meanwhile, the treasure hunt lacks true suspense.

Instead, "Da 5 Bloods" finds its strongest voice when it focuses on its core theme of brotherhood and its vulnerability in the face of greed. Riding the crest of its soul-inflected soundtrack, the main ensemble - Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. - bring the easy chemistry of a shared past stained by varying levels of PTSD. Most notably, Delroy Lindo has deservedly earned Oscar buzz for his tormented role as Paul. Through him, we are reminded of the often forgotten struggle of black soldiers who have served America in disproportionate numbers since the nation's inception.

Also making memorable appearances in smaller roles are Veronica Ng as the sympathetic radio personality Hanoi Hannah, as well as Chadwick Boseman as Norman as Stormin' Norman. Reminiscent of Corey Hawkins' cameo as Kwame Ture, there's a galvanizing power to Boseman's impassioned performance as he makes the case for reparations and the virtues of peaceful black solidarity. While Lee's filmmaking techniques have been deployed to greater effect in previous efforts, the conviction behind these performances and their spoken words reflect a cinematic voice that continues to be desperately needed in American film.

Monday, May 25, 2020

REVIEW: The High Note


In a key scene in Nisha Ganatra's "The High Note", the lead character Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) explains to her assistant (Dakota Johnson) the uphill battle she faces as a black female pop star trying to stay relevant in her 40s. Convincingly spoken by Ross, there is a sense of metatextual commentary in the scene, with Ross being the daughter of music legend Diana Ross, who would have surely have faced similar issues throughout her decades-spanning career. And if you didn't already connect the dots, Ganatra leans in further to the homage through the character's glamorous style and the upbeat pop diva style. But while "The High Note" is decidedly not a Diana Ross biopic, it struggles to make its protagonist an intriguing personality in her own right.

Davis' story takes place within the Los Angeles music scene, a place she calls home when she isn't jet-setting the world as a touring artist. As one such tour comes to end, she ponders her next career move. Her label and management team suggest lucrative offers to record a live album and accept a residency in Las Vegas. Davis, however, wants to a rejuvenate her sound with new music. But the only support for her vision comes from an unlikely source - her devoted and ambitious personal assistant.

Ageism and racism in the entertainment industry are a recurring fascination for Nisha Ganatra, who previously explored the themes within the context of late night television in 2019's "Late Night". Yet while that film offered soul-searching complexity for Emma Thompson to explore through a flawed character, Ross's Davis isn't afforded the same sense of an inner life. As she performs to sold-out audiences and lives a life of luxury and privilege, the script barely gives her a distinctive persona aside from her hard-working attitude and talent. Indeed, she is hardly a retired has-been hoping for a comeback, contrary to the claims of June Diane Raphael in an amusing but perfunctory role.

Instead, the star of the show is Dakota Johnson as the assistant (herself a scion of Hollywood royalty), whose character gets a fully realized arc that is sorely lacking in the film's central character. Through understated confidence and palpable chemistry with another musician played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., she gives a dynamic turn as her character becomes embroiled in moral conflicts and a tender romance. But ultimately, her commendable performance is a rare bright spark in a story that ultimately fades under the shadow of a clichéd, shallow screenplay.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Pieces of Us: The Best Films of the 2010s


As I write this, a new decade is proceeding under inauspicious circumstances, as a deadly pandemic has enforced drastic measures such as social distancing and quarantining. In reflecting on the best films of the previous decade, it is therefore somewhat ironic that we are now lamenting the forced online social lives and streaming entertainment which we so heartily ushered in. Always a reliable time capsule, the medium of film showcased this new mode of human interaction, most noticeably in one of the films mentioned in the list below. And in addition to this thematic relevance, visionary filmmakers also called on technological advancements as a tool to produce groundbreaking works of art.

Technology wasn't the only thing on our minds throughout the decade, as buzzwords like "diversity" and "representation" gained major traction in the film industry. While these issues became primarily about race, however, a burgeoning movement of new queer cinema was also claiming the spotlight. This is reflected in 4 of the titles listed below, among many other brilliant works which would have been equally deserving.

Finally, the films of 2010s notably existed in a historic political climate, straddling both the Obama and Trump eras of the influential American empire. While the films themselves may not be providing direct political commentary, it is possible that the resulting tensions between optimism and cynicism subconsciously affected the way I received the decade's films. Whether that may be case or not, I was certainly fascinated by a myriad of characters similarly representing antiheroes, superheroes and everything in between.

As we wait with bated breath to return to theaters and experience a new decade of modern classics, here are 20 of the best films of the 2010s to keep us entertained until then.

Monday, February 10, 2020

And the Oscar goes to... Parasite!


History has been made! At the end of an incredible Oscar ceremony, it was Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" which took home Best Picture, thereby becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy's top honors. The win capped a remarkable night for Bong Joon-ho, who also won for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, while the film expectedly took home the trophy for Best International Feature. Elsewhere, the awards were largely predictable, as Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern scooped up the 4 acting prizes. While their categories reflected a worrying dismissal of actors of color in 2019, the Academy almost redeemed themselves with their celebration of "Parasite" and by extension, Asian and world cinema. It remains to be seen whether this will actually turn out to be a watershed moment for non-English language films, but it's a very promising start. Here are your Oscar winners for the year 2019:

BEST PICTURE
Parasite

BEST DIRECTOR
Bong Joon-ho - Parasite

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 10 Films of the Year


With the Academy Awards ceremony just moments away, it feels like an appropriate time to finally sound off on my personal faves of the year 2019. And as I reflect on my Top 10 list, I am reminded of all the amazing works of art I was able to witness. More than most other years past, the year's best films truly represented my range of cinematic tastes. Big budget spectacles with even bigger emotions. Passionately acted dramas with scintillating dialogue. Jaw-droppingly beautiful period pieces. Hilarious comedies with poignant messages.

Looking towards the 2020 cinematic landscape, I can only hope for another richly satisfying year. Here are my Top 10 Films of 2019:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: 1917


With dozens of films dedicated to the subject, every announcement of a WWI comes with a feeling of "been there, done that." But in the ambitious hands of director Sam Mendes, the "war to end all wars" gets a new perspective. Filmed to convey one single take, "1917" is a mind boggling cinematic achievement. But at what cost?

The premise of "1917" is relatively simple. Two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a message to a distant battalion, in the hopes of calling off an attack after intelligence indicates that a deadly trap has orchestrated by the rival Germans. The rescue mission will thus take them through dangerous enemy territory, with very artillery support. But though it seems impossible, the men are driven by an additional motivation, as a brother is among the endangered battalion they hope to save before it's too late.

As our protagonists proceed on their harrowing journey, "1917" is an impressive showcase of filmmaking techniques. Most obviously, the cinematography amplifies the stakes, giving the illusion of real time action. But while the camerawork is the star, it would be ineffective without exceptional work from the actors, composer, production designer and editor. Indeed, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman are unwavering in their physicality demanding lead roles. The stirring music is deployed judiciously and impactfully. The world-building of the sets are downright incredible, particularly in giving a visceral sense of the omnipresence of death through human and animal carcasses, rodents and flies. And of course, the editor deserves highest praise for making it all feel so seamless and forcing the audience to constantly wonder, "How did they do that?"

It's therefore hard to argue against the film's 10 Oscar nominations, namely Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. And yet, despite my admiration for the filmmaking, I rarely felt truly emotionally connected to the story and the soldiers' plight. Even in the intentionality sentimental moments, the "obstacle course" style of the storytelling hardly gave room for the film to contemplate the characters' humanity. In the end, I was reminded of Martin Scorcese's criticisms of Marvel movies as theme parks. Despite the technical mastery on display, "1917" lacks the gravitas to be a truly great war film. Those who fought in WWI are often referred to as "The Lost Generation." It's a shame that this tribute to their efforts falls short of making them unforgettable.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 20 Acting Performances


During the days of classic Hollywood and the peak of the studio system, great acting was often showcased through star vehicles - films crafted around the persona of a single movie star to enhance or build on their popularity. As movie stars have become less of a draw for audiences, ensemble casts have become even more popular, bringing together multiple fan faves. While compiling this list of the Top 20 Performances of 2019, I also found myself drawn to the ensembles, particularly the pairings within them. Indeed, that almost magical alchemy between actors who "click" delivered some of my favorite movie moments of the year. And in the final rundown, this left only 13 films represented in the list below. Here they are:

Best of 2019: Top 10 Foreign Language Films


When Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” dominated the awards circuit in 2018, it represented a rare instance of non-English cinema taking the spotlight. But in a welcome turn of events, 2019 was arguably an even bigger year for foreign language films. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has produced unprecedented crossover success for Korean cinema, looking to go even further than “Roma” at the Oscars. In addition, a particularly strong year for French cinema had cinephiles falling in love with such stellar work as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Atlantics” and “Les Misérables.” These films and more are celebrated in this year’s list of the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2019.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Best of 2019: Top 10 Documentaries


A daring mission to the spoon, a nerve-wracking war story, a devious political conspiracy. For mainstream audiences, these premises bring to mind some of the year’s most popular blockbuster films. But they also represent the true stories behind some of the year’s best documentaries. Far from the traditional “talking heads” style of yesteryear, non-fiction filmmaking continues to thrive, delivering cinematic thrills and artistry on par with that of narrative features. Indeed, the following list of the Top 10 Documentaries of 2019 includes several films that would hardly feel out of place on awards ballots for cinematography, directing, editing, screenwriting, and sound.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, January 18, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


With the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards agreeing on their acting winners, I expect more of the same tomorrow at the SAG Awards. Here are my predictions:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


Tomorrow, the last major awards before the Oscar nominations will be handed out by the Critics Choice Association. And as they love to remind us, they are one of the more reliable precursors to the Academy Awards. Will they serve up a preview of this year's Oscar nods? Here's how I see it playing out at the Taye Diggs-hosted 25th annual Critics Choice Awards:

BEST PICTURE
1917

BEST DIRECTOR
Sam Mendes – 1917

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


With the Oscar nominations fast approaching, the Golden Globes last weekend gave a strong hint of who the frontrunners will be come Monday morning. And in a rather surprising outcome it was Sam Mendes' "1917" which took the big wins of Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Could this ambitious war effort lead the Oscar noms, or will it be Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", winner of the Best Picture prize in the Comedy/Musical category? The stage is set for an interesting final phase of this Oscar season indeed. Here are this year's Golden Globe winners:

Best Picture, Drama
1917

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actress, Drama
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Taron Egerton, Rocketman

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Little Women


Given the debate surrounding the value (or lack thereof) of yet another "Little Women" adaptation hitting theaters, let me preface this review by saying that I have never read Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Furthermore, my memories of the 1994 film adaptation have long faded. With that being said, I approached Greta Gerwig's latest work with great anticipation. And what I discovered was a cinematic tour de force that is fully worthy of praise and a place in the Best Picture conversation.

In this classic tale of sisterhood set around the time of the American Civil War, we are first introduced to our main protagonist Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer hoping to sell her latest work. As the story progresses, we soon learn that she is just one of several sisters with artistic inclinations, including an avid pianist (Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen), an ambitious painter (Amy, played by Florence Pugh) and a talented actress (Meg, played by Emma Watson). These interests will evolve and change over the years, however, as they come of age in a time of hardship which will test their family and other relationships.

Indeed, romance, humor and tragedy are the order of the day, as Greta Gerwig delivers a bold interpretation of classic costume drama tropes. Making a strong case for a second Best Director nod, she perfectly balances the contrasting tones through smart visual and storytelling choices. At once delicate and exuberant, the cinematography is equally adept at capturing the restless optimism of youth and the stillness of disillusioned adulthood. Similarly, the color palette reflects the contrast between the glow of nostalgia and the more solemn pragmatism of the present and future, further emphasized by non-linear storytelling which enriches rather than obfuscates the narrative.

As that narrative follows the diverging lives of the titular sisters, Gerwig's screenplay - worthy of consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay - compellingly explores feminist themes which continue to resonate today. And in conveying the perspectives of the richly defined characters, the audience is treated to a plethora of sensational performances. Among the sisters, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are standouts, deservingly garnering attention for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress kudos respectively. As the headstrong and fiercely independent Jo, Ronan anchors the film with vulnerability and charisma. Meanwhile Pugh is truly inspired in her take on the petulant Amy, brilliantly charting her character's arc with almost vaudevillian expressiveness in her youth and stoic poise as she finds her way in the world.

Simply put, "Little Women" is one of the most entertaining, emotionally affecting and downright gorgeous films of the year. Several of its painterly shot compositions (nominations for Best Production Design, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design deserve to be foregone conclusions) are seared into my memory, and Alexandre Desplat is on track for another Best Original Score nomination for his typically wonderful music. It may tell a familiar story, but Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is unforgettable.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


The 2020 phase of the awards season kicks off in fine style tomorrow with the Golden Globe Awards and anticipation is high as several films are looking strong to dominate the night. Will it be nominations leader "Marriage Story", foreign language breakout "Parasite" or the throwback masterworks from two of Hollywood's most respected auteurs (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese). Tune in to NBC at 8pm EST to find out if my predictions below are correct.

Best Picture, Drama
The Irishman

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Best Actress, Drama
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story