Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oscar Nomination Reactions: Many middle-fingers (and one high five) to Academy Voters


In the wee hours of Thursday morning last week, Oscar nominations for the best in cinema in 2014 were announced.

And with one glorious exception the academy voters either checked off expected boxes, or worse, made angering, stupefying omissions. Were it that they had only checked off the expected boxes, we would have shrugged our collective shoulders, never expecting much adventurousness from this group. But this year, there is reason for outrage. The nominations tell more about the academy voters than they are probably willing to publicly admit.

I hate to jump in with the pitchfork carrying mob, but there really is cause for ire. Below are five truly angering nominations:

  1. Best Director: Besides BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD, THE IMITATION GAME, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, the biggest, most shameful of all Oscar nominations this year revolves around the fifth pick. It went to
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first Female Director of color.
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first female Director of color.
    Bennett Miller for FOXCATCHER, which in itself is mildly shocking considering the lack of critical consensus for this film, or how little steam the movie has gathered at the year-end awards circuit. But the biggest shock is that the FOXCATCHER nomination came at the expense of snubbing SELMA. And most egregiously, for passing on the opportunity to create history by the first-time nomination of a female director of color (which would have been the case with Ava Duvernay, who helmed SELMA). I am not suggesting that SELMA should have been picked just to please our liberal political sensibilities. No, SELMA has been consistently and universally considered a front-runner in this year’s race and it is difficult to argue against its worthiness; it’s a magnificent, heartfelt film. I acknowledge that one shouldn’t read deliberate political intent with the Oscar nominations. But both FOXCATCHER and SELMA are based on real-life events, and wouldn't it be irresponsible not to read something into the fact that a cold film about White male privilege gone awry unexpectedly derails a film about an important chapter in the African American history in America.  Now that we can have up to ten best picture nominees, those with the Best Director nominations have generally been considered an indicator of the top five films in the eyes of voters. But what is perplexing about the FOXCATCHER director nomination for Bennett Miller is that it comes without a corresponding Best Film nomination. When ironically, SELMA picked up a Best Film nomination but had no love for its director, go figure. Is this a reflection on the predominantly older, predominantly white and predominantly male demographic of Oscar voters?
  1. Best Male Actor: Here’s the other stinker. No one is going to contest nominations picked up by Benedict Cumberbatch (THE IMITATION GAME), Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), and Michael
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    Keaton (BIRDMAN). But check out the remaining two selections: STEVE CARELL (again, for that troubling FOXCATCHER) and Bradley Cooper (AMERICAN SNIPER). Effectively leaving out Jake Gyllenhaal. Really? Honestly, forget personal allegiances or favoritism. But what objective person can watch Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and pick Carell or Cooper over him. Even if voters were clueless that Gyllenhaal is doing career-best work right now (coming off his underappreciated stints in PRISONERS last year and also ENEMY this year), that many voters watched FOXCATCHER, AMERICAN SNIPER, and NIGHTCRAWLER and picked the first two films for acting nods boggles the mind. Gyllenhall plays the title character in NIGHTCRAWLER as a person of troublingly intensifying moral disarray; he is off-kilter from the start but one of the joys of the film is to recognize the trecherous shrewdness of a person for whom, we realize too late, that no line is too far to cross. His work in this film is achingly wry, at once hostile and funny. But there was no love for Gyllenhaal from the voters.  I am generally a fan of Steve Carell, but his performance in FOXCATCHER is so cold and stylized and deliberately impermeable that one wonders if he was picked simply for the prosthetic transformation of this face. And what is with Bradley Cooper and the Academy? Listen, he is a capable enough actor who works very hard and his screen presence is always likeable, but he has never demonstrated the gleam of genius in anything he has done to date. In AMERICAN SNIPER he put on weight and threw himself into the role of real life soldier Chris Kyle with admirable passion. But his rendition does not bring particular insight into the pathology of this character who remains rather one-dimensional. Cooper’s third consecutive nomination (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE and now AMERICAN SNIPER) is frankly befuddling; Daniel Day-Lewis, he is not. So what gives with all this love? And honestly, what more does Gyllenhaal have to do to get recognized?
  1. Best Female Supporting Actor: Meryl Streep nabbed a record 17th nomination in this category for INTO THE
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft for being left out of the Best Female Supporting Actor race, at the expense of an undeserving Meryl Streep nod.
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft at being left out of the race ?
    WOODS. No one is going to deny that Streep is the legend amongst our living acting legends. But can we all agree, please, for the love of all that is good in cinema, that she cannot become a de facto Oscar nominee just for showing up in a film. INTO THE WOODS is not without its charms and is a respectable adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical. But it is an ensemble film and there is nothing in Streep’s performance that elevates her from the remaining cast members. If she is recognized for that film, then so should have Anna Kendrick. Or Emily Blunt. But no, the academy voters appear to put a tick against the Streep name every year,with collective zombie minds. Last year it was for AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, and this year for INTO THE WOODS. I will be the first to defend Meryl Streep’s 25th nomination when it happens, but provided it is for a film where her work is stellar. The Streep nomination this year came at the cost of Jessica Chastain’s remarkable work in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Or the opportunity to recognize the late-career revitalization of Rene Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER. This laziness on the part of voters is beyond frustrating. You are Academy voters. Watch the films. It’s your job. Be discerning.

  1. Best Foreign Film: Apart from the SELMA debacle, the snub that stung me the most was the unexplainable
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film nominations. I watched many films in 2014, close to a hundred I believe. And FORCE MAJEURE holds the top spot on my personal list of the best films of the year. This film crackles with so much confidence and wit and anger and intent in every one of its scenes. Just the technical prowess of the film is something to behold, as one incredible episode follows another with wonder. The incredible cinematography, the grand score, the churning, squeaking, disquieting Sound Design. But set the technical aspects aside. Just watching the film take a minor natural disaster and have that detonate the marital bliss of what appeared until then, a strong family, is one of the giddiest pleasures to be had at the cinemas all year. Granted I haven’t seen LEVIATHAN, TIMBUKTU, TANGERINES or WILD TALES, also nominated in this category (and they all come with remarkable critical lauding) and I am keeping an open mind until I have watched these other films. But IDA (which did get an Oscar nomination) and FORCE MAJEURE were leading the pack with all other Foreign Film nominations (The Golden Globes, BAFTA, Independent Spirit Awards, Jury prize win at Cannes). To have FORCE MAJEURE suddenly fail to pick up recognition at the Oscars seems particularly cruel.

  1. Best Animated Film: I love animated films. On their own terms. Within the confines of their intended goals.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough for this film.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough.
    Some of the greatest films of all time in my mind are animated films. And they often show up on my list of the best films of the year. But 2014 was surprisingly tepid. There wasn’t a single film in this category that came close to greatness. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON-2 took the deft internal struggle from the original film - of a teen trying to do right and giving the benefit of doubt to a long considered enemy – and traded it in for grandeur and spectacle in the sequel, losing most of its emotional purity in the bargain. THE BOXTROLLS and BIG HERO 6 have their heart in the right place, but no one is going to rush to call either one a classic any time soon. If those three films are to earn nominations, I do not understand why the similarly accomplished (but not great) films THE LEGO MOVIE and THE BOOK OF LIFE got left out. Was the tremendous commercial success of THE LEGO MOVIE held against it?

The nominations this year unfortunately did nothing to detract from the common narrative that Academy voters are lazy, do not see too many films, are racially disconnected from the rest of the nation, and are overeager to recognize the same individuals repeatedly, often sight unseen.

At least they did not nominate Amy Adams blindly again this year (for the mediocre BIG EYES) for which we should be thankful. Which brings me to the one silver lining in all of the nominations this year. The one instance in which I raised a pumped fist up in the air with delight. The one instance where the Academy voters demonstrated uncharacteristic flair. Which is with the nominations for Best Female Actor. Yes, Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL), Reese Witherspoon (WILD), Felicity Jones (THE THEORY
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE) are deservedly the top contenders this year and got the expected nods. But it was the fifth spot that was open for the taking, and many had assumed it would go to Jennifer Aniston for CAKE. But thank our lucky stars, Academy voters did the right thing and picked Marion Cotillard for her remarkable, heartbreaking turn in the French film TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. IFC films which is distributing this film, did little to push this movie so Cotillard could be considered for this category, and it was mostly through word of mouth that interest in her performance got around. To see this film is to recognize why Cotillard is one of our great living actors. Under the direction of the Dardennes brothers, likely the more humanist of all filmmakers working right now, Cotillard plays a character who has to, over a weekend, convince her ten coworkers to give up their annual bonus so that she can keep her job. And the wonder of her performance - and it is hard not to grasp at hyperbole when talking about it - is how contrary it is to expectations. Where one might have expected this character to be angry, or belligerent, or panicked, or indignant, Cotillard plays her instead as broken and fragile, and deeply aware of the troubles of others. And thereby single-handedly brings the audience in her corner. And we never leave her. Not after we have lived those two days with her. Not after the film is over. Not for weeks afterward. How great that amongst all their unexplainable, infuriating snubs, the Academy voters found the grace to recognize Marion Cotillard for her great work in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. And I will choose to be grateful for this one right amongst many wrongs.

Friday, December 12, 2014

San Diego Film Critics Society announces nominations for the best in cinema in 2014



How quickly the year is coming to its last reel. Since the past two weeks, film reviewer communities everywhere have been announcing their year end picks for the best of the year. Closer home, the San Diego Film Critics Society announced today their final nominations in various categories.

The San Diego Film Critics Society (SDFCS) consists of 18 members (including Moviewallas) who write about film in our city, and include the major print and online film outlets in San Diego.

This year's SDFCS nominations includes a diverse list that is likely to have something for everyone. In fact, we had ties in the tie-breaker round (!) for Best Film and Best Male Actor, and hence have 6 names instead of the usual 5 in those two categories. Some picks are similar to those from other critics groups in the country (including those from New York, Los Angeles, and Boston). And then there are some unique picks such as nominations for Venus In Fur and Heli in the Best Foreign Film category.  The SDFCS may also be the first critics group to hand a Best Male Actor nomination to the redoubtable Brendan Gleeson for his work in Calvary. Personally, I am just glad that Marion Cotillard made the cut for Best Female Actor for her remarkable work in Two Days, One Night, a film that deserves a wide, wide audience.

Without further ado, here are the final 2014 SDFCS nominations. Do not forget to provide us your feedback on the nominations in the Comments section.

   BEST FILM
   BOYHOOD
   GONE GIRL
   NIGHTCRAWLER
   SELMA
   THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

   BEST DIRECTOR
   Alejandro González Iñárritu, BIRDMAN
   Dan Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER
   David Fincher, GONE GIRL
   Richard Linklater, BOYHOOD
   Wes Anderson, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

   BEST ACTOR, MALE
   Brendan Gleeson, CALVARY
   Eddie Redmayne, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
   Jake Gyllenhaal, NIGHTCRAWLER
   Michael Keaton, BIRDMAN
   Ralph Fiennes, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   Tom Hardy, LOCKE


   BEST ACTOR, FEMALE
   Felicity Jones, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
   Hilary Swank, THE HOMESMAN
   Marion Cotillard, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
   Mia Wasikowska, TRACKS
   Rosamund Pike, GONE GIRL

   BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, MALE
   Edward Norton, BIRDMAN
   Ethan Hawke, BOYHOOD
   J.K. Simmons, WHIPLASH
   Mark Ruffalo, FOXCATCHER
   Riz Ahmed, NIGHTCRAWLER

   BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, FEMALE
   Carrie Coon, GONE GIRL
   Emma Stone, BIRDMAN
   Keira Knightly, THE IMITATION GAME
   Patricia Arquette, BOYHOOD
   Rene Russo, NIGHTCRAWLER

   BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
   Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacabone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, BIRDMAN
   Dan Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER
   Richard Linklater, BOYHOOD
   Steven Knight, LOCKE
   Wes Anderson, Hugo Guiness, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

   BEST ADAPATED SCREENPLAY
   Anthony McCarten, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
   Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL
   Joel Coen, William Nicolson, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, UNBROKEN
   Nick Hornby, WILD
   Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

   BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE
   FORCE MAJEURE
   HELI
   IDA
   TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
   VENUS IN FUR

   BEST DOCUMENTRAY
   CITIZENFOUR
   ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME
   GLEN CAMPBELL: I’LL BE ME
   LIFE ITSELF
   THE LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

   BEST ANIMATED FILM
   BIG HERO 6
   BOXTROLLS
   HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
   THE LEGO MOVIE
   THE NUT JOB

   BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
   Fredrik Wenzel, FORCE MAJEURE
   Hoyte Van Hoytema INTERSTELLAR
   Jeff Cronenweth, GONE GIRL
   Robert Elswit, NIGHTCRAWLER
   Roger Deakins, UNBROKEN

   BEST EDITING
   Barney Pilling, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   James Herbert, Laura Jennings, EDGE OF TOMORROW
   John Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER
   Kirk Baxter, GONE GIRL
   Sandra Adair, BOYHOOD

   BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
   Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pincock, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   Dennis Gassner & Anna Pinnock, INTO THE WOODS
   John Paul Kelly, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
   Maria Djurkovic, THE IMITATION GAME
   Nathan Crawley, INTERSTELLAR

   BEST SCORE
   Alexandre Desplat, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   Alexandre Desplat, THE IMITATION GAME
   James Newton Howard, NIGHTCRAWLER
   Antonio Sanchez, BIRDMAN
   Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, GONE GIRL

   BEST ENSEMBLE
   BIRDMAN
   BOYHOOD
   SELMA
   THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
   THE IMITATION GAME

Monday, November 17, 2014

THE WAY HE LOOKS | Review | ****


Of all the genres in all of cinema, my favorite is coming-of-age films. Because when done right, they can reflect on life just about better than any other art form.

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars
THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars
THE WAY HE LOOKS  (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) is Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. By the third scene in the film, I had decided that I had unreasonable love for this film, and from that point on, it did not once betray my judgment. Written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro, it tells the story of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. His parents want to protect him even as they struggle to let him be independent. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana (Tess Amorim) and the two are inseparable. In many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. One need only watch Giovana looking at Leo to know how she feels about him. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel (Fabio Audi) and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship may need to be redefined.

Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. We have seen these young love triangles a hundred times before. Jules et Jim kicked off the entire French New Wave for crying out loud. We’ve seen well-meaning coming of age films do an admirable job again and again. But it is the control over this material that singularly elevates this film to something of a discovery. The refusal of the film to make a big deal about developments is what is truly surprising, in comparison to say Blue Is The Warmest Color from last year, which carried an unbearably heavy agency about it. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance.

MV5BMTQ5NjYxODk2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyNTU4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person. Best friends get married. They move to other cities. They follow other professional tracks in life. In recent years Frances Ha and Bridesmaids has dealt with these situations with some degree of depth. But see how the material is handled in The Way He Looks; the respect the script grants these characters, to be contrary and complex, to be hurt and to stumble, and to grow and find their footing, is something to behold. To watch a movie capture this universality on screen without heavy chest-beating is a minor miracle.

Like the best films, this one is populated by characters who are for most part, all inherently good. Which is like life; people we interact with in the real world are seldom all out evil. Films that understand this and refuse the easy out by creating conflict through a single malevolent character are already leagues ahead of other movies. See how this first time filmmaker, Daniel Ribeiro,  treats even the least likeable character, that of the school bully Fabio. He constantly taunts Leo. He is cruel, yes, but not necessarily because Leo is blind. It is because Leo is an easy target, a misfit, different because of his blindness. Fabio makes fun of Leo, first alone, and then when he is with Gabriel. And at some point the film asks the audience, do you want to be Fabio? Do you want to be this insecure person who is unable to accept anyone who is different? It is strikingly mature handling of this material, when it would have been so much easier for the film to simply paint Fabio as a villain.

If there were justice in the world, this script would get nominated for year-end awards. Watch this film if only for its writing, particularly with sly observations about how the world deals with someone who is visually impaired. And like the no-fuss aesthetic of much of the film, it does not linger on the dialog, as exacting and truthful as it is. When Gabriel is first making friends with Leo, he asks Leo if he has noticed something in a particular movie. And then realizes with a start that Leo couldn’t have seen the film since he is blind. Leo isn't offended, and Gabriel takes him to a movie instead, where he explains the film to him in whispers. Touches like this make you realize that this is the work of a gifted storyteller.

Any lover of good films should make plans to watch The Way He Looks because of all the things it gets right. It gets the acute hurt that a person with disabilities feels when they are made fun of. It gets the love of parents who are protective of their child and the horror they must feel to forfeit what part of their child’s environment they can safeguard from harm (another masterful film Margarita, With A Straw, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, also dealt with this situation with uncommon empathy). Most of all The Way He Looks is worthy of veneration for how it makes a hero out of Giovana, because it gets that best friends and real friends will sacrifice their own thumping affections for the sake of their friend’s happiness. The film gets the hesitation, the tentative thrill-and-despair dance of acknowledging first love, just right. It gets just about everything right.

Yes The Way He Looks may just be a film about a teenage love triangle set in Brazil. But it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. The hell with CGI. The hell with histrionics. The hell with unnecessarily complicated non-linear, non-narrative mumbo-jumbo. Give me something as simple and well-intentioned and humorous and kind as The Way He Looks any day of the year. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness.

 [THE WAY HE LOOKS is playing in San Diego November 14-20 at the Landmark Ken Cinemas]


Sunday, September 7, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update Two



The man ahead of me in the line has just arrived from the Telluride Film Festival. While you wait to get into a film screening, you strike up all sorts of film conversations. And this man gives me his opinion of what will be celebrated at year's end. BIRDMAN, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a wonder he says. Adding that it is about a filmmaker trying to take control of the world around him. That sounds a bit like Fellini’s 8 ½, I offer, and he says no, no BIRDMAN is far more serious than that. The entire film has been shot to simulate a single continuous take, so it gets high marks just for that he further explains. And Michael Keaton is Oscar bound he prognosticates.  As is Steve Carrel, for FOXCATCHER he says, another film bound for Academy awards honors. The biggest disappointment for him has been WILD in which he complains that Reese Witherspoon is horribly miscast. I mention that I am part of that small minority that believes that Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous effort DALLAS  BUYER’S CLUB was a terrible film. Then WILD is not going to change your mind about this director, he says. What was his best film he saw at Telluride, I ask? Oh, it’s the Argentine film WILD TALES he says with much excitement, and it is playing at Toronto and I must buy a ticket. And then we get into the cinema, leaving my head spinning. And that is the opinion of just one person at the festival. Throw together all the world’s cinephiles and you wouldn’t sleep for fear of missing an important film at the festival.

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is the latest film from Francois Ozon. It wasn’t so long ago that Ozon was the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema, having helmed movies that gleefully crossed the line. But with wit that went beyond the shock value;  SWIMMING POOL, WATER FALLING ON BURNING ROCKS, and CRIMINAL LOVERS were the films that put him on the map. Then he turned respectable with UNDER THE SUN, 8 WOMEN and POTICHE. How curious that in what seems like only a matter of years, Xavier Dolan (who is not even 25 years old) has taken over the enfant terrible title, bringing into question Ozon’s ability to still rock the boat by making films that simultaneously provoke and impress. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is not going to change Ozon’s calling card, not least because this film has the unfortunate timing of coming out on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed LAURENCE ANYWAYS from Xavier Dolan last year. No matter how you cut it, Dolan’s a superior film.

With THE NEW GIRLFRIEND Ozon is clearly paying homage to the films of Douglas Sirk (with a dash of Almodovar, for good measure). So it is necessarily a melodrama, which is not a liability if handled well (Todd Haynes did an admirable job doing just that with FAR FROM HEAVEN). But THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, through most of its running time, feels like a helicopter trying to land in gusty winds; it keeps circling and circling, but is unable to settle on ground.

The film tells the story of Claire (Anais Demoustier) who is trying to shake off the sorrow following the death of her best friend Laura, who has also left behind a bereft husband David (Romain Duris) and infant child. Trying to deal with her grief and offer comfort to David, Claire walks into his home unannounced, to find him dressed in women’s clothing. David explains that he wants to be both father and mother to his child, and while Claire fails to understand this at first, she eventually becomes David’s accomplice in exploring his feminine sensibility. Much to the dismay of Claire’s husband who begins to suspect Claire’s time spent away from work. This can play as a light-hearted farce, as a serious look at the fluidity of sexuality and identity, or even as bitter satire of the overzealousness of political correctness in contemporary mores. But to play this material as a Douglas Sirk melodrama presents with issues. For one thing Ozon over-commits to the Sirk sensibility to the extent that David’s home has the look and furnishings of sixties décor. It is difficult to shoehorn this into a story set in contemporary times without it seeming anachronistic. And what should have been frothy and giddy comes off labored, and worse, dated. The film suffers as a whole from seeming like something that was made at least a couple of decades ago, not least from the way certain characters react to situations. I wish that Ozon’s desire to do Sirk had led to him setting this story in the sixties, which would make the look, and more critically, the behavior of the characters in this story a lot more believable.

TOKYO FIANCEE is first-time director Stefan Liberski contribution to all the stories in all the films about star-crossed lovers. It is based on a popular European novel by Amelie Nothomb about a French-speaking Belgian girl (Pauline Etienne) obsessed with Japan who happens to go to Japan and fall in love with a local Japanese boy (Taichi Inoue) who is obsessed with France. There have been many films about this sort of cultural dislocation. In particular such films that are also wittingly or otherwise romantic, tend to have a way of getting twee. TOKYO FIANCEE is very much a film about cultural dislocation, but it keeps the whimsy somewhat in check, doling out only homeopathic doses of it, for the most part. These are individuals you enjoy spending time with, even as you wonder why your own life did not come pre-filled with this sort of charm offensive. Heck, the lead is even named Amelie which should remind of you a certain Audrey Tatou confection that is much beloved but extra-frosted all the same. While the film spends the first half by playing with the mores of this sort of cinema (honest, if a little indulgent look, at the fish out of water), the latter part of the movie ultimately finds a defiantly unique voice. About being dispossessed in youth, and trying to locate a sense of self in a scary uncontrollable world.

Films of this type live and die by their lead actors who essentially have to carry the entire film, convincing every audience member that their company is worth having. And this film is worth watching, and you must do so, for Pauline Etienne. Looking uncannily like a young(er) Carey Mulligan, Etienne grounds the film with an openness that is disarming. Even when the plot calls on her to be charming beyond reason, she makes us believe that this person would indeed have this effect on these other individuals. Fragile, irrational, lost, impetuous, and searching, Etienne’s Amelie seems to convey these all with enviable flair. Even in the Q&A session after the end of the film, Etienne came across as effortlessly disarming. Discover this actor before the world catches up to her wonders. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

CART is a South Korean film loosely based on true events in which female workers at a supermarket who were abruptly notified of being laid off prior to the expiration of their contracts went on a strike to protest. What initially started as a frightening but also empowering stance to take on the system, eventually led to grave and worsening outcomes.  What starts out seeming like a feel-good David vs. Goliath tale descends into a reckoning with reality in which corporations almost always prevail over workers. There is no doubt this film has a sincere focus, and it spends a fair bit of time investing in the individual lives of several of the key characters, if only to make clear the cascaded effect of social injustice on those beyond the direct victims. All of which is almost undone by a shrill background score that cues up every scene with the exact sentiment that the audience member is supposed to be filming. This very nearly destroys the film, but unlike say the nakedly melodramatic MARY KOM, this film makes it clear that hope may be the most elusive currency when a group of individuals decide to take on those who control them. This is an angry film, and necessarily so. And it is acted with honest conviction by a group of persuasive screen presences. Even with its flaws, including an over-eagerness to elicit sympathy, the cinema of the disenfranchised is essential. And CART is a good entry in this genre.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl "aawrrr" at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting. 

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival. 

TIFF 2014 publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE
The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense.  Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors (some of them kids) and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design! The sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lifts, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche - all add incomparably to the texture of this film.

I have deliberately not mentioned much about the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film's plot is generally known even before it is released. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. So I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And while the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships - the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships - as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps into the elevator with a huge cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple has literally been pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife says the following words to her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: "What's wrong? That's not us!" It is a marvelous way to think of one's relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate upon viewing. 

The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic about India's first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about their abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity soon after she got married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning Indian female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with many: her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard-to-please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that mostly comes off as unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual appear depicted on screen as rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating an emotional response from the audience at any cost, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role, remained unconvincing to me. And unable to get behind the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be a shallow, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and when they work they can be remarkably potent; there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. 

There are a few pieces that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary's relationship with her husband, as well as scenes involving a farm cow.  But it comes off as a lost opportunity. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competive sports; that this film misses the chance to tap into this with respect and depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to further rouse audience fervor, I had had enough. 

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

LOVE IS STRANGE | Review | ****


I like all sorts of films. And amongst those films that I like, I hold a special place for those that are interested in depicting the decency of its characters. Most stories pit the protagonist against a person who means him harm, but in my opinion those are lesser stories, lazier stories that take the easy way out. The more accomplished ones, the more human ones, are those where all of the characters are inherently decent. Filmmakers who refuse to create villains, but instead watch generally well-meaning individuals crash and bump into each other’s orbits by virtue of who they are, come the closest to approximating life on the cinema screen. Because no one in the real life is all out evil; there are few bonafide villains in the real world. And it takes a giftedly perceptive writer to be empathetic to every character on the pages of his script. Ozu’s films are watched by film-lovers more than half a century after they were made for this reason alone. In contemporary cinema, Asghar Farhadi, the director of A SEPARATION and THE PAST is able to pull this off. And the lovely, remarkable films by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, the heir to Ozu are case examples of how to do this right; Kore-Eda’s latest movie, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is my favorite film of the year for its impossibly clear-headed commitment to seeing the inherent decency in its assembly of characters. The new film LOVE IS STRANGE joins that rarefied cadre of films.

My favorite moment in LOVE IS STRANGE comes at about the halfway point when the two sixty-plus year old leads of the film are squeezed into the bottom half of a teenager's bunk-bed. George and Ben (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), together for almost four decades, have been recently forced to seek roof in separate homes. On that bunk-bed, they are finally together after a long time, and Ben says "After thirty nine years together, I am used to the presence of your body next to me in bed. These new living arrangements are putting a serious damper on my sleep patterns". He says it only half jokingly.

And it is a rare moment of self-pity (no matter how aching) in a film that is not particularly interested in wallowing, or in yelling what it wants to say.

As the film opens, it catches George and Ben getting married in the presence of a small group of family and friends who gather in their New York City apartment to celebrate after the ceremony. Like the elderly couple at the center of AMOUR, you can tell that the decades George and Ben have spent together has brought them to a place of unquestionable burnished commitment. They are used to each other and understand each other and know each other. Lithgow and Molina, taking their cues from a gentle, keenly observant script rise to the challenge of this film with remarkable dexterity; you will not find a scene in this film where they are not exceptionally convincing. History has finally allowed George and Ben to legally cement their relationship; one can sense that these two have waited their entire lives for this privilege. But this simple act of commitment snowballs into much undoing. George who teaches music at a Catholic school is told that he can no longer keep his job. The mortgage to their apartment no longer affordable, George and Ben have no option but to sell their home, and move out, if only temporarily, until they find another place they can rent in the city. After living together so long the two are suddenly, in effect, homeless. And you realize that this is the space the film has wanted to explore all along.

What are their family and friends, as well meaning as they might be, to do to help them? This being New York City, nobody has room to spare for two guests. Ben goes to live at the home of his nephew, his wife and young son (Dan Burrows, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan). Ben is offered temporary housing at the home of friends who are cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). With the best of intentions, the presence of a house guest in an already cramped home space is bound to create tensions. Tomei’s character, a stay at home writer, tries her best to concentrate on her work while Ben talks up a storm all day. She is patient, and perceptive, and naturally kind, but slowly the strains begin to show. The teenaged son Joey, already upset at having to give up his (bunk) bed and room to his uncle is further unsettled by his best friend’s rapport with Uncle Ben.

George soon realizes that the home of his friends is one that is constantly committed to entertaining others. There is loud music and singing and coming and going of many, and literally no place for George to hide.

Being separated from each other after decades of co-habitation is one thing, but finding a physical state of stability in their respective new residential arrangements is even more elusive. In many way the condition of Ben and George evokes that of the older parents from TOKYO STORY, who realize that their presence in the lives of their grown children has a intrusive effect, and hence strive to respectfully step away. Everybody means well, and everyone is inherently decent, and it is in this, that these films manage to find of reflection of our own lives.

This could have been a film about the First World problems of the privileged. But with its shrewd script and studiously underplayed tone, LOVE IS STRANGE (just as LIKE FATHER LIKE SON) provides a definition of family that is relevant. Not just for Ben and George but for all those around them. And it is the only definition that matters.

As Roger Ebert liked to say, whenever it opens, this will be the best film playing in town.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Natural Sciences | Review | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014 | ****


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

Nothing in the world is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo more than a hundred years ago. And so it is with the lead character in the quietly amazing Argentinian film NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES).

Lila, a teenager in a boarding school at a rural mountain town has suddenly reached a juncture in life where her paramount need is to find her biological father. Her mother who works a bare, hard life on the farmland will not give her any information regarding the man. Freezing winter is fast approaching but Lila is undeterred in her pursuit. She has tried to run away from school in search of her father, once on a horse through the snow-covered hillsides, and once in a car she doesn’t know how to drive. The school Principal is perplexed, then angered by this sudden, irrational desire on the part of someone who had until then been a quiet, unremarkable student. Reasoning or discipline prove ineffective. Lila is consumed by her mission and is unstoppable. A more sympathetic faculty member, who teaches Natural Sciences at school, also tries to deter Lila. But recognizing that Lila will not relent and likely concerned for her safety, she joins Lila in her quixotic quest. With nary a clue about the man they are looking for, the two hit the road.

This should sound like the sort of sappy, road-trip movie that Hollywood likes to dole out with some regularity. If you are more generous, this may seem to you like one of those well-meaning, heartfelt indie films about strangers connecting through unusual circumstances. But NATURAL SCIENCES transcends those categories altogether.

This is an accomplished film from first-time director, Matias Lucchesi, who retains a strong, confident hold over this material at all times. Pick a scene from this film, pick any scene, and notice the rigor with which it has been constructed, how it completely bypasses familiar traps, or cliché. You can notice this on a minute by minute basis, in the precise writing, the affectless acting and direction that does not draw attention to itself. In its hard-won naturalness and rigor around all of filmmaking components, NATURAL SCIENCES draws easy comparison to the austere, stark and no less devastating Chilean movie from last year, THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY (DE JUEVES A DOMINGO).

The actor who plays Lila (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) necessarily carries the film on her young shoulders. And effortlessly brings it to a place of believability, capturing the sullen, untalkative affect of the teenager whose world is dominated by a singular myopic obsession. She may seem possessed by the fever of an irrational pursuit, and may not have the means to articulate it fully, but she is also inherently a good person, a person trying to discover herself as a grown human being and unable to do so without locating her roots first. And how about Paola Barrientos who plays the teacher who accompanies Liza on her search; one of the hardest things for an actor to do on screen is to transmit empathy, and Barrientos does it with a rare authenticity that never once tilts into cheap sentimentality. What great fortune for this director to have been able to recruit these two actors for his first film.

This is a film of quiet wonder. It tells a story that may initially seem familiar, but in how it goes about telling it, the film is note-perfect . I cannot wait to see the next project from this filmmaker.

NATURAL SCIENCES is the best film I saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. And by a wide margin.

[Natural Sciences is an Argentinian film currently making the festival rounds and was screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.  It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. You can watch the trailer here].

2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Something Must Break | ***1/2


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

SOMETHING MUST BREAK (Original Swedish title: Nanting Maste Ga Sonder) is an astonishing film.

It tracks the progression of a relationship between two unlikely individuals with a rigid honesty that is a little reminiscent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Sebastian works in the backrooms of a furniture store in Stockholm. Andreas comes from a more affluent background.

Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
One day, as bullies taunting Sebastian for his androgynous looks are about to get violent, Andreas steps in to help. Gradually the two, both in their early twenties, start spending time together with the start and sputter rhythm of individuals not entirely sure of where they are headed. As the relationship progresses to something deeper and physical, Andreas is caught off guard, unable to reconcile the significance of this development with his otherwise traditional life. He doesn’t even consider himself gay. Long unmoored with regard gender identity and comfortable with it, Sebastian too suddenly finds himself starting to gravitate toward the possible emergence of a female persona of himself: Ellie. And the all-consuming connection between Andreas and Sebastian inevitably takes a dark turn. Think of this as a stark, spare version of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.

This could have been a preachy film. But it has no interest in polemics or political statements. Like its central character, the film is not too concerned about labels that viewers may ascribe to it…too uncomfortable, too gay, too extreme. It simply tells this specific story without filter, without condescension, without judgment. Where most films, either out of tact or politeness, stop when a character closes the door, this one walks in behind the door with the character. Sebastian makes plenty of terrible choices and mistakes. The film (based on a novel of the same name) has no intention to edify Sebastian or turn this individual into some sort of role model, and in doing so actually humanizes him. I do not know that I have seen a better on-screen treatment of a person forging through a gender identity crisis. What is particularly commendable is that while Sebastian is the more atypical character, the film is as much interested in Andreas as it is in Sebastian. And one can argue as to which of the two goes through a greater transformation during the course of this story.

Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK
I give this film credit simply for being what it is about. And being in-your-face unapologetic about it. It may be a film about the first connection between a man who wants to be a woman and another man who starts to question what it is to be masculine. But in its honesty, it demonstrates the universal struggle of any person who learns to come into their own, and the pain as well as the grace of the process.


2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Alex Of Venice ***1/2


[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]

The film ALEX OF VENICE made me think about how we think about films.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
I have noticed, more so of late, that most people are eager to stamp a film as belonging to a particular genre, and then in the same breath penalize it for being just another example of that genre. For example, a film will get labeled a British comedy and then criticized for not living up to the standards of good British comedy. But why should a film have to be this, orthat? Why cannot it just be a slice of life. With no aspirations other than that. Is that not enough? ALEX OF VENICE is the sort of film I watched and then wanted to hug afterward. Many will brush it aside as inconsequential, trite even. But I warmed up to it. And later, just believed in it. And you can’t say that about much of cinema these days.

A great deal of the film’s success lies in the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the lead. Winstead, like Shailene Woodley or Brie Larson, has such an honest, open screen presence, that the audience instinctively rallies behind her. To have a protagonist in a film that the viewer automatically roots for is half the battle won. Contrary to expectation, ALEX OF VENICE is not about a man in Italy. Its about a girl named Alex (Winstead) who lives near Venice, California.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Alex, an attorney at a grassroots organization, returns home from work one evening to be told by her husband (Chris Messina, who also makes his directorial debut with this film) that he has had enough of being the stay at home dad to their ten year old son, and wants out for a while. He is gone the next morning. Which leaves Alex’s life suddenly thrown into a whirlwind. Her father (an unexpectedly wry Don Johnson, who plays a famous former television star, natch) invites Alex’s free-spirit sister (the plucky Katy Nehra, who also shares writing credits) to come stay with them to help things out. As much as Alex struggles to reach a new equilibrium, it stays persistently out of reach. How do you convince a son pining for his father that things may never return to how they used to be? How do we reconcile with our parents’ worsening health, striking the balance between keeping your pride and granting them dignity? How do we negotiate the boundaries of a siblings’ involvement in our lives? Who amongst us has not dealt with all of this. The film deals with these issues with a lightness of hand and even though it tows toward being a mainstream film, it also pulls off being authentic.

Plus how can you find fault with a film that finds roles for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Beth Grant. Chris Messina, who has quietly being creating a fine resume of acting credits (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, ARGO, the underrated 28 HOTEL ROOMS, and many television credits including THE MINDY SHOW), shows remarkable empathy behind the camera as well, and I am eager to see what he helms next. He has already demonstrated uncommon savviness with picking the soulful Mary Elizabeth Winstead to be main player in his directorial debut.

This is a lovely little film.

ALEX OF VENICE screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.