Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Short Take: "The Wave" (2016)

As the world becomes more globalized, so does cinema. Big-budget blockbuster films, once seemingly the sole provence of Hollywood, are now regularly produced in China and India, and other film industries around the world are starting to create their own blockbusters. European films are no longer necessarily the personal auteurist projects that Americans associate with Godard, Bergman, and Fellini; those films are now joined by bigger films meant to please crowds more than provoke intense introspection.


Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug's The Wave is billed as "Norway's first disaster movie," and it was a huge hit in its native country, finishing at the top of the 2015 box office (by ticket sales, one in every six Norwegians saw the film in theatres). Based on a true scenario, the film follows geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) on the day is family is due to move away from Geiranger, a coastal tourist town in Geirangerfjord. Seismic activity along one of the mountain, however, triggers a landslide that results in an 80-foot wave thundering toward the town, with only ten minutes to evacuate everyone. Kristian must race against time to save his family before the wave destroys the town.

Uthaug obviously studied the art of the disaster film: his film follows all of the standard beats (occasionally to a fault), including a lengthy prelude establishing Kristian's family life and marking which characters are clearly doomed once the wave comes pummeling through the fjord. Yet the film is more than a boilerplate blockbuster, as the main characters are complex and achieve meaningful development over the course of the film, in addition to Uthaug's canny eye for stunning images. Of course, the film hardly had the budget for Hollywood-caliber effects, but Uthaug and director of photography John Christian Rosenlund create breathtaking images of disaster without the need to digitize everything. Most imporantly, Joner's performance anchors the film, imbuing his hero character with genuine awe at his tragic situation and concern for his family. It's more than just a great genre performance, it's a great performance, period. The same can be said of the film. B+

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Short Take: "45 Years" (2015)

Does a memory ever truly leave us, even after years of dormancy? How do you navigate the influence of the past on a loved one, particularly a past that you were not a part of? Does remembering the past alter the present?

These are questions raised by Andrew Haigh's magnificent, long-awaited second feature, 45 Years. This quiet drama is about a couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), approaching their 45th wedding anniversary when Geoff learns that the body of his missing former flame, Katya, has been discovered frozen in the mountains. The revelation brings back a flood of memories about Geoff, and Kate discovers more about the man she married and his life before her.


The above plot description is intentionally sparse, because the film itself does not sensationalize this premise (other films surely would play up the soapy development that sets the plot in motion). Instead, Haigh focuses his film on the relationship between Geoff and Kate and how this discovery impacts them separately and together. Courtenay and Rampling each give phenomenal, understated performances that highlight their characters' interior lives and their inability to gain access to the other's. Together, they present a marriage that feels lived-in, complete with a sense of history between them.

More than anything, this is a film about memory. The spectre of Katya hangs over the entire film: though she is never seen, her presence is felt in every scene. Haigh doesn't spell this out or underline anything, however. He trusts his actors and himself to convey the intimate, achingly human truths of the film. Like his previous masterpiece, Weekend (2011), 45 Years is heartbreaking and engaging, a truly human document. A+

Short Takes: Catching Up on the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominees

The 88th Academy Awards were handed out over half a year ago, but there's no reason we can't keep talking about them! I recently completed viewing the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, so below you'll find capsule reviews of all five films along with how I would have ranked them if I had a ballot. I'll post ballots for the eight major categories (Picture, Director, Acting, and Writing) at a later date.

Son of Saul (dir. Laśzló Nemes, Hungary)


It's no surprise that this harrowing Holocaust feature won the Oscar. The film is the story of a Hungarian prisoner (Géza Röhrig) assigned to the Sonderkommando (charged with burning bodies) at Auschwitz who believes one of the bodies may belong to his son. Nemes films Saul's efforts to provide a proper Jewish burial in tight close-ups, with the camera rarely leaving its position just over Saul's shoulder. It's a terrific directorial trick: by keeping the literal focus on Saul, the film avoids the easy exploitation of the horrors of the concentration camps that so many other Holocaust films traffic in. Instead, Saul's dangerous plight and his emotional journey is the heart of the film, and it's no less distressing. Though Saul remains something of a cypher throughout, the film itself stands as a powerful and unique entry into the Holocaust film canon. A

The other four nominees after the jump.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Oscar Predictions August 2016: The "Shot in the Dark" Predictions

The Academy Awards page is now officially the predictions page for the 89th Academy Awards, happening February 26, 2017. Of course, that's a long way off, and most of the films that will be contending then haven't been seen yet (and in some cases, may not even be finished filming yet). So a lot can happen, but that's not why we do these predictions. We do them because we are 1) certifiably insane and 2) Oscar nuts through and through. And so, a brief explanation of my thought process; you can see the predictions and commentary at the Academy Awards page (click that link or the tab labeled "Academy Awards" under the banner).

BEST PICTURE

There are several really big question marks in terms of films awaiting release dates. Mike Mills, director of Beginners (2011), supposedly will have 20th Century Women - starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning - ready by the end of the year. John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Rabbit Hole) should have the Neil Gaiman adaptation How to Talk to Girls at Parties ready as well. And Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences is also set to be released in December. However, we haven't seen much from any of these films beyond set photos and a few stills, so there's no indication that they'll be ready in time.

Silence

Fences is a big one, but the biggest question mark as far as release dates go is Silence, Martin Scorsese's new film about Christian missionaries in feudal Japan. The film is still pegged for a November release, and it's been in post-production since last year, but there's no sign that it will make its intended release date yet. Now, this isn't the first time Scorsese's dropped a long-awaited (and very long) film quickly: The Wolf of Wall Street was a big question mark until late in 2013, and it went on to multiple Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, and Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. For now, I'm leaving the film out of my predictions on the assumption that it's moving to 2017, but if it does come out this year, expect it to contend in most of the major categories.

As for what I did predict, I'm probably over-estimating Lion and under-estimating Loving at the moment, assuming that the former tearjerker will draw more attention than the racial drama (I will also admit that I didn't care much for Midnight Special, so I'm a little cool on director Jeff Nichols right now). I may be under-estimating La La Land too; Damien Chazelle is clearly a director they admire, given the reception of Whiplash, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are terrific leads (even if they only have two nominations between them). But I find it difficult to believe that the Academy will go for an original, contemporary musical in a major way. We'll wait and see.

Acting categories and more after the jump.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Crisis and Confusion: What "Goldeneye," "The Rock," and "Independence Day" Say about the Blockbuster Then and Now

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1996, the Hollywood blockbuster was a different beast. Unlike today, the multiplex was not flooded with superheroes, sequels, spinoffs, "reimaginings," or some combination of those. Films were not prepackaged as franchises (or "cinematic universes"). And there was arguably still credence in "star power," where casting the right actor or movie star would result in instant box office success. The mid-1990s were also a time in which serious, made-for-adults films could also be some of the biggest hits of the year: Forrest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), and Jerry Maguire (1996) all finished in the top 10 at the box office of their years. Perhaps even more telling, during those same three years, only four sequels placed in the their year's top 10 at the box office: Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Goldeneye, and Die Hard with a Vengeance (all in 1995). By the same measure, 17 sequels finished in the top 10 of their year in the past three years.


This is nothing new, of course. We're all very aware of Hollywood's need for mega-expensive sequels and reboots in their effort to compete at the global box office, especially with China swiftly rising as a world film power (in box office if not necessarily in production, though they are catching up there too). But looking back at three films in particular - Goldeneye, The Rock (1996), and Independence Day (1996) - provides us with a fascinating look at the historical context of the blockbuster in the mid-1990s, as well as a glimpse into just how different the form is today.

Historical Implications: Wither the Red Scare?

Notably, all three of these films are action films beefed up with big-budget spectacle. All three of them also represent the biggest challenge this particular genre faced in the 1990s: who are the villains?

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "International Masterworks"

Finally, we'll wrap up the spring semester (three months later) with what was hands-down the most challenging class I have taken so far: International Masterworks. The films themselves come from filmmakers who, in some way, changed the language of cinema and pushed our understanding of what a film could be. That makes the class challenging enough, but it was taught by a professor who pushed us to think deeper about the films. This meant setting aside the typical filmic grammar - character psychology, narrative, symbolism - and thinking about the films in their own terms. Needless to say, this is not an easy thing to do. But, regardless of any other disagreements I might have had with some of his statements, the class proved to enrich my understanding of cinema and how to approach a work of art.

So below is the list of films we watched for the class. I heartily recommend every single one of them, something that I haven't been able to say for my other lists.

Grand Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)


These days, Renoir is probably best known for his 1939 farce The Rules of the Game, and rightfully so. But two years earlier, he made Grand Illusion, a remarkable blend of slapstick, satire, and drama, and the first foreign-language film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Set in WWI, the film concerns a group of French prisoners of war and their German captors, particularly the bond between officers de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, who also had a celebrated career as a director). Considering the political climate of the time, Renoir shows incredible empathy towards all of his characters regardless of nationality, focusing instead on their shared humanity than their arbitrary differences. Very few war films are this devoid of political ideology or "us versus them" mentality.

A Man Escaped (dir. Robert Bresson, 1956)


Bresson, on the other hand, may have shared Renoir's disinterest in the politics of warfare, but if A Man Escaped is any indication, he didn't see a need for empathy either. French Resistance member Fontaine (François Leterrier) is captured by the Germans and imprisoned, but he bides his time by plotting his escape. Bresson (who himself was a prisoner of war during WWII) adopts Fontaine's perspective, presenting every potential ally and threat with wary distrust. Instead, the film focuses on the process of escape, as Fontaine's narration provides access to his clinical planning and understanding of his environment. As such, it can be frustrating at times, since Bresson does not grant the audience access to understanding the other characters. But as a study of understated survival, the film is a triumph.

More after the jump.

Short Take: "Austin to Boston" (2015)

Any musician will tell you that the most grueling part of the job is touring. Sure, Taylor Swift may make a 50+ city world tour seem like one giant party with her friends, but for many artists - especially the bands trying to get noticed - touring can be a slog from one small venue to the next, sometimes reaping a decent paycheck and sometimes being paid in beer. Touring is an itinerant life too: bands spend most of their time away from home and loved ones to constantly move from one town to the next, living out of hotel rooms or tour vans. As cheesy as the song is, there's a reason why Journey's "Faithfully" resonates with many artists.


Austin to Boston, James Marcus Haney's short documentary about four artists embarking on a tour from (you guessed it) Austin, Texas to Boston, aims to provide a brief glimpse into touring life while promoting the artists featured. Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff, Bear's Den, and The Staves travel together in five old Volkswagen vans through a number of stops, including Oklahoma City, Nashville, and Woodstock, New York, sharing their experiences from the road. Haney mixes performance footage with scenes from the road made to look like it was shot on 16mm stock, fitting the rustic folk sounds of the four artists.

Make no mistake, though, this is not the kind of confessional tell-all that some music docs are, nor is this a "behind the music" history of these artists. The documentary is arguably a promotional video above all; it won't come as a surprise that all four artists are signed to Communion, producer Ben Lovett's (of Mumford & Sons fame) label. As a result, there's not a lot revealed about the artists that feels genuine: a scene of Rateliff visiting the intersection where his father died in a car accident, for example, would be more moving if he hadn't been described as "emotionally honest" a few minutes prior, giving the moment a tinge of contrivance. Luckily, the music performances are pleasant, and if the artists pick up some new fans as a result of the film, then Haney and Lovett did their job. C+

Monday, August 8, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "The Profane"

Yes, you're reading that right: I took a class entitled "The Profane" last semester. The class focused mostly on sex, specifically on the presentation of women and female sexuality. It was a really fascinating class, anchored by a collection of films that pushed the boundaries of taste and "decency" in a variety of ways.

So here's the list of the films that we watched. Well, some of them: in the interest of brevity, I excluded the documentaries and short films that we watched, and instead I'm including only the narrative features.

A Short Film about Love (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)


An expanded version of the sixth chapter of his epic television series The Decalogue, A Short Film about Love finds Polish master filmmaker Kieslowski doing his best Rear Window interpretation. Postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on a promiscuous older woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), and falls in love with her. When she does not reciprocate his feelings, however, events spiral out of control. The dynamics of Tomek's and Magda's relationship are more than a little questionable (it's essentially stalker-stalked), which makes the film's final act discomforting. Kieslowski's direction, however, surprisingly makes it work, and hints at the greater films he would make toward the end of his career. On it's own, however, this film is more of a curio than anything else.

In the Realm of the Senses (dir. Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)


Ôshima quickly established himself as Japan's leading provocateur with Death By Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards in the 1960s, and his frequently scandalous material found him working in France as often as his native Japan. In the Realm of the Senses remains his most notorious film, a retelling of the story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), who in pre-WWII Tokyo became a sensation for murdering her lover Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) and keeping his severed genitals in her kimono. Ôshima presents the story as a tableaux of explicit, reportedly unstimulated sex scenes, often accompanied by BDSM and allusions to the rise of fascism in Japan in the 1930s. It's a bold film that is provocative and thoughtful without being titillating.

More after the jump.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "French New Wave"

Taking a class on a specific cinematic movement was an interesting experience. On the one hand, it closed a lot of gaps in my viewing knowledge and provided me with a better understanding of how this particular movement - the French New Wave of the 1960s - was important to the history of cinema. These were films that rejected the traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking traditions that dominated French cinema and sought to expand the possibilities of what film can achieve, though there was no coherence as to how to do so. The success of French New Wave films abroad influenced dozens of other new waves, including the emergence of American Independent Cinema and the "New Hollywood" in the United States.

On the other hand, studying a single movement - even one without a single unifying vision and a diverse group of filmmakers - means seeing a lot of films that start to blur together after a while. Even if there was not a coherent vision to the French New Wave, each of the films we watched did share common themes, aesthetics, or actors, with some even more or less telling the same kind of story. It was interesting and exhausting in equal measure.

The links correspond to articles I previously wrote about the film.

The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958)


Malle's film predates the generally accepted period of the French New Wave, and he is generally not considered a New Wave filmmaker. The Lovers, however, is an interesting precursor film. Jeanne Moreau stars as Jeanne, a bored housewife who develops passionate affairs with polo player Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga) and archeologist Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). The film is perhaps best known to American audiences as being the center of the Jacobellis vs. U.S. obscenity case that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to define obscenity as "I know it when I see it." But the film itself is a bit of a standard-issue "finding yourself through adultery" story, aided mostly by Malle's serene direction and Moreau's measured performance. It's also a reminder that Malle was only 25 when he made this, his second film, suggesting that he was the Xavier Dolan of his day.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959)


Similar to Malle, Resnais is not often considered a part of the French New Wave, if only because he was not a part of the collective of filmmakers to emerge from the Cahiers du Cinema critics. But his masterwork, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, certainly fits the bill with its poetic dialogue, easygoing narrative, and elegiac cinematography. The film focuses on the romance between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) while the former shoots a film in Japan. The film is staged as a series of conversations overlapping with flashbacks, as each of these characters process the personal tragedies they faced during World War II. Okada and Riva each give masterful performances that enrich the film's emotional content through what isn't said as much as what their characters reveal to each other. Resnais' film is as haunting as it is beautiful.

Films by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and more after the jump.

Take Me Outback: A Cinematic Mini-Return to Australia

I'm back after another long hiatus. More notably, I'm back from my adventure in Australia, which was a phenomenal experience for me academically, professionally, and personally. I'll post more about the Australian film industry in the future; it has a fascinating history, one that is markedly different from Hollywood.

But, in the meantime, as a welcome back, here are five Australian films that I watched recently while I missed the Land Down Under. Three of them are more recent films, while two are classics from the early days of the Australian New Wave. The three more recent films are currently streaming on Netflix, while the latter two are available via Hulu Plus.

Mystery Road (dir. Ivan Sen, 2013)


The predecessor to Goldstone, which opened this year's Sydney Film Festival (and will hopefully receive a US release soon), Mystery Road finds by-the-book detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) investigating the death of a young Aboriginal girl in a rural Queensland town. Johnno (Hugo Weaving), an officer working on a major drug bust, discourages Jay from looking too deep into the murder, which leads Jay to uncover a deep web of deception and crime that inherently takes advantage of the town's Aboriginal community.

Director Sen, himself an Indigenous filmmaker, shows a deft hand at weaving political commentary into the thriller genre without sacrificing tension or stunning visuals (in addition to writing and directing, Sen also served as director of photography, editor, and composer for the film). Instead, the issues of Aboriginal struggle become an inescapable texture to the story, at once forming the basis of the plot without underlining its significance. That's a delicate balancing act, but Sen pulls it off with aplomb. Pedersen, as in the sequel, is magnetic and truly brilliant as Jay, a man torn between his sense of duty to the whole community and his Aboriginal heritage. Weaving, too, is reliably shifty as Johnno, and Ryan Kwantan does fine work as one of the murder suspects. If a few of the film's twists and turns are a bit too predictable, there's still pleasure to be found in how those revelations ripple outwards. B+

(I'm also eager to rewatch Goldstone now, especially since both films share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. I'm curious to see if seeing Mystery Road changes my opinion of Goldstone.)

Tracks (dir. John Curran, 2014)


In 1977, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) set out on what was believed to be an impossible journey: to walk from Alice Springs in central Australia to the Indian Ocean, a journey of 2,700 kilometers through the most inhospitable terrain of the Outback. Her journey was documented by her own writings and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), and she was accompanied by four camels and her dog. Robyn's journey was motivated by a desire to get away from city life, and her perilous trek became a sensational story by the time she reached the shores of Western Australia.

Robyn's story is certainly befitting of the film treatment, and director Curran (The Painted Veil), working from Marion Nelson's adaptation of Davidson's memoir of the same name, does the rugged terrain justice in his dusty, sun-drenched photography. Wasikowska, too, delivers one of the finest performances of her career, proving that she is more than capable of carrying her own film without the assistance of CGI landscapes and Mad Hatters (this is a hint, Hollywood). The "find yourself" narrative is presented better than many films of this kind, though the relationship between Robyn and Rick feels a bit undercooked (especially since the film feels the need to emphasize it whenever they share the screen). Overall, though, it's a testament to Robyn's tenacity, the ferocity of the Australian landscape, and Wasikowska's talent. A-

More after the jump.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 12: Closing Night, Awards, and Final Thoughts

We've finally made it to the final day of the Sydney Film Festival - more than a week since the festival actually closed. I apologize for the lateness of these final recaps: since the festival closed, I've started my internship with the festival's Traveling Film Festival (a roadshow-style presentation of select films from the main festival in different parts of Australia), explored the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and discovered exciting things here in Sydney. But now I can finally put a button on things with the final three screenings, plus awards.

Before we get into those things, however, I want to say a few things about my experience here. The Sydney Film Festival was my first festival, and I could not have asked for a better one. The venues were fantastic, especially the historic State Theatre; I also saw films in the Event Cinemas on George Street, the Dendy Opera Quays in Circular Quay, and the Dendy Newtown. The films, regardless of quality, were worth seeing for one reason or another, and I only wish that I could have seen even more. Seeing 22 films in a 12 day period is exhausting, but I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to marathon my way through films from all over the world, several of which may not ever get a Stateside release. I hope that one day I'll be able to come back and do it again.


And now we can get to the final day. Short films are hugely important in the Australian film industry. There is limited government support for film production; therefore, a strong short film greatly increases a filmmaker's chances of getting the funding for a feature project. As a result, the Sydney Film Festival sponsors an official competition slate for Australian short films, complete with cash prizes for the winners and a shot of acclaim.

More after the jump.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Days 10 & 11: A Haunting Animated Fable and a Quirky Coming-of-Age Fairy Tale

Family films often get short-shrift when we talk about quality movies, especially at film festivals. Rarely do they make the main competition lineups at Cannes, Berlin, or Venice, all of which favor "serious" material over anything that a child could understand. Even Sydney relegates its family films to separate section, designated for children so that parents know which films are safe for their children. There's nothing wrong with parents making informed choices regarding what their kids watch, but it's still a shame that such films don't get higher-profile spots in the lineup.


For example, a film such as The Red Turtle (grade: A-), an animated film by Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit and co-produced by Studio Ghibli, would have made a wonderful higher-profile feature at the festival (though, granted, the film was a late addition to the festival). The film is an almost dialogue-free story of a man who is shipwrecked on a deserted island whose attempts at rescue are thwarted by the titular sea turtle. The turtle is not what it seems, however.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Days 8 & 9: Two Political Comedies and an Evening with Mel Gibson

For reasons too banal to get into, I've fallen way behind on my reporting from the Sydney Film Festival. As of the time of this writing, the festival has been officially closed for almost 24 hours. I'll do my best to accelerate the pace of these posts so that they'll be as timely as possible.


Before I discuss the films, however, I had the pleasure (of sorts) of attending a special event, "An Evening with Mel Gibson."

More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 7: An Outrageous Australian Satire and a Jarmusch Tone Poem

Film restoration is an essential task facing the art today, as anyone who's listened to Martin Scorsese talk in the last 20 years knows. Celluloid decays as it ages, and as a result a vast number of films - including nearly all early silent films - are in danger of being lost forever. This is especially true in nations without developed film industries, where the lack of interest or ability to protect film means that scores of films will never be salvaged again. Luckily, there are organizations dedicated to preservation: the Criterion Collection, for example, and the Library of Congress are both essential bodies in the United States. Australia has the National Film and Sound Archive, but pitiful government funding is a huge hurdle to its continued success.


Last night, the NFSA presented its latest restoration project: Bliss (grade: B), an essential Australian satire from 1985 directed by advertising director Ray Lawrence. The film is based on a novel by Peter Carey and tells the story of adman Harry Joy (Barry Otto), who dies for four minutes and wakes up to a skewed world. His wife Bettina (Lynne Curran) is having an affair with his business partner Joel (Jeff Truman), his daughter Lucy (Gia Carides) is buying coke from his son David (Miles Buchanan) in exchange for sexual favors, and he is having increasingly vivid hallucinations while falling in love with prostitute Honey Barbara (Helen Jones).

There's an irreverent streak that runs through most of the film, which makes it surprising when it becomes heartfelt and conventional.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 6: An Australian Classic and a Chinese Debut

Believe it or not, I'm now over halfway through my festival screenings. Out of the 22 films I have scheduled, I've now seen 13 of them, including the two in today's post. And if I'm being completely honest, I'm exhausted. The next couple of days will only have one or two films each, so these posts will get shorter.


Today was the world premiere of a new restoration of The Boys (grade: A-), the 1998 Australian crime classic. The film picks up with Brett's (David Wenham) release from prison, where he was serving a sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He returns home to his mother (Lynette Curran), brothers Stevie (Anthony Hays) and Glenn (John Polson), girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette), and Stevie's new girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise). It doesn't take long, however, for Brett to settle back into his violent ways, encouraged by (and encouraging) his brothers in a series of escalating confrontations between the men and women of the house.

More after the jump.

Sydney Film Festival, Day 5: Dolan's Dud, An Afghan Rapper, and "Indian 'Bridesmaids'"

Managing expectations at film festivals can be tough. In some cases, the film is brand new, either celebrating its premiere or simply very obscure outside of the festival circuit (I would estimate at least half of the films showing at this festival will never see a US release). In other cases, the films arrive on a wave of hype from previous screenings, whether by winning prizes at other festivals or coming from high-profile filmmakers who typically inspire raves. Knowing what to expect from any film varies significantly from very high bars to practically no bar at all.

It's the former that greets It's Only the End of the World (grade: C), Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's latest feature. The film, which won the 27-year-old the Grand Prix (essentially second place) at Cannes last month, tells the story of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a young man afflicted with a terminal disease. He travels home for the first time in years to tell his mother (Nathalie Baye), brother (Vincent Cassel), sister (Lea Seydoux), and sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard) about his diagnosis, but old resentments and arguments get in the way.


If the above grade is any indication, the film did not live up to its lofty expectations. Instead of a rich family drama, the film is 90 minutes of awful people yelling horrible things at one another.

More after the jump.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day Four: A Timely Brazilian Allegory, An Aboriginal Documentary, and Color Guards

Now the exhausting part of the festival kicks in. Truth be told, three films in a single day is not that many, especially considering that hardcore festival goers are more likely to see at least four or five a day if they can. And there have been days in the past where I've sat at home watching three or four films in a row. Yet there's something different about going out and actually attending screenings, getting up early in the morning for a long day of movie watching, restaurant dining, and discussing the films with others. Believe me, it takes a lot out of you; the festival wears you down faster than you'd think.


Exhaustion is a theme of the first film I attended today, Aquarius (grade: B+). Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho's follow-up to his stunning debut Neighbouring Sounds (2012), the film centers on Clara (Sonia Braga), a breast cancer survivor who happens to be the only person left living in her building in Recife. A construction company eagerly attempts to convince her to sell the apartment, but Clara refuses: she's lived there for decades, and she will not be forced out by anyone. That is, until the company begins taking measures to evict her that escalate into a fight neither side expects.

More after the jump.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Sydney Film Festival 2016, Day 3: The De-Camping of Almodovar and Madonna

Today I experienced something that's common at festivals: the mad rush between screenings that are scheduled close together. As soon as the credits rolled on Julieta at the State Theatre in downtown Sydney, I was out of my seat and out the door with 10 minutes to make it to the Event Cinemas on George Street for Strike a Pose. Thankfully, the rest of my screenings for the festival are either spaced better time wise or in the same venue as the previous feature, so I shouldn't have to make that dash again. Still, it was in that moment that I felt like a true festival-goer embracing the insanity of it all.

Speaking of insanity, revered Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is famous for his madcap, campy sex comedies and dramas (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). His latest film, Julieta (grade: B+), however, is a markedly different from his previous films. In fact, it almost feels like Almodovar set out to make a non-Almodovar film.

More after the jump.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sydney Film Festival 2016, Days 1 and 2: A Complex Crime Thriller, A Quiet Masterpiece, and Weird Cartoons

Greetings from Sydney! I'm excited to attend my first film festival, and I want to share this experience with all of you. I'm a little bit behind on reporting here, but now that the Sydney Film Festival is underway, I will report back here every day with what I've seen. I'm currently scheduled to see a total of 22 films at the festival, many of them this first weekend as a result of my unwitting front loading. The films will be a wide variety of new and classic Australian films, recent competitors from other major festivals (including several that just played at Cannes last month), and a few odd films from around the globe. I will be seeing at least one film a day for the next 12 days, so be sure to come back daily for updates!

Me on Opening Night

The opening night film for this year's festival, Goldstone (grade: B), is an appropriate introduction to contemporary Australian film: a standard genre piece enlivened by cultural issues and a slightly askew style.

More after the jump.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "Film Theories"

To be completely honest, the list of films that I watched for Film Theories is a fairly rudimentary list for such a class. The purpose of this class was to introduce students to major strands of film theory, such as Soviet montage, neorealism, semiotics, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and postmodernism. All of which are important theories, certainly, and for an introductory class it certainly makes sense to link psychoanalysis with Hitchcock or genre theory with The Searchers. But with only a handful of exceptions, the screening list left a little to be desired.

Not that there aren't great films on this list; there's a reason why these particular films have stood the test of time. I, personally, just hoped for more curveballs like the final two films on this list.

Links go to corresponding articles that I've previously written on the film.

Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)


Eisenstein's film remains a landmark of Soviet montage and is a masterclass in how editing creates meaning. But, truth be told, Potemkin works better as an introduction to the ideas of montage and propaganda filmmaking. Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is a better example of everything that editing can accomplish.

The Bicycle Thief (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1947)


Often viewed as the quintessential Italian neorealist film, De Sica's tale of an ordinary man (Lamberto Maggiorani, a first-time actor) desperately trying to recover his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome nevertheless still tugs the heartstrings. It's a sentimental film that is never too saccharine or syrupy.

Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)


Though I will admit that, upon second viewing, my estimation of Sirk's classic melodrama has waned, Imitation of Life is still a fine example of Hollywood's ability to produce cathartic films that are as emotionally manipulative as they are extravagantly constructed. No matter how over-the-top the performances go, Sarah Jane's (Susan Kohner) goodbye to the mother (Juanita Moore) she always denied nevertheless brings on floods of tears.

More after the jump.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

One Year Down, One to Go, and Summer Plans

Long time, no see, everyone! It's been a solid five months since I've posted anything here, but I wanted to give you an update on everything that's going on in my life (and, therefore, the blog).

The Sydney Opera House

I'll give you the big news first: next Monday, May 30, I will be flying off to Sydney, Australia to study abroad as part of Boston University's Sydney Film Festival and Internship program! As the name suggests, I will be attending the Sydney Film Festival this year; in fact, my class revolves around the films shown at the festival. I am required to see at least 20 films over the course of the festival, and I will write as much as I can about my experiences here. I will also, as the name suggests, have an internship with the festival. I am very excited about all of it, and, as I said, I will update as regularly as I can!

The other news, which you may have figured out by the title of this post, is that I am now halfway through my graduate program at Boston University. That means that, in addition to my usual coursework, I'm now thinking about doctoral programs and thesis topics. I'm far from finalizing a list of doctoral programs that I will apply for, but right now Northwestern, Texas-Austin, NYU, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Berkeley, and UC-Santa Cruz are all top choices. As for thesis topics, I may try to workshop some ideas here on the blog, so please bear with me.

So that's the big stuff. Now that I have something of a break, I will try to update the blog more often. Before I head to Australia, keep an eye out for a series of posts detailing what I've watched this past semester. I will, of course, have the aforementioned posts chronicling my time Down Under. I hope to participate in The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (now in its final season, sadly) a few more times. And, of course, I'll share reviews, essays, and other great stuff with you.

Thank you for continuing to read despite my sporadic posting, and I hope you enjoy reading my partially coherent thoughts!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Entertainment Junkie's Top 10 Films of 2015

At long last, the top ten list. Everyone else has already put up their lists, and for the most part we've all moved on to what 2016 has to offer us. But with the Oscars only a week away, and myself actually having some time, now's the perfect time to put this list up. Please note that I finalized this list in mid-January based only on the 2015 films that I had seen up until that point, therefore several films that could have easily made the list are not present here. I shouldn't have to note this, but these is also my personal favorites, not some objective ranking of the best films of the year.

And the top 10 films of 2015 are...

10. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)


By now, you've likely heard about this film's gimmick: the entire film was shot on a few iPhones and stars two nonprofessional trans* actors. That alone is a nice piece of trivia, but the film is much more than that. A truly independent production, the film is a raucous, campy, and blustering comedy of friends Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) roaming the streets of Los Angeles to find Sin-Dee's cheating boyfriend (James Ransone). From one scene to the next, the energy never lags, thanks to Baker's sun-drenched visuals and standout performances from Rodriguez and Taylor. Tangerine seems destined for a place in the queer and independent film canons.

9. Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)


No American film has ever depicted the cartel wars of the United States-Mexican border quite like Sicario. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are recruited to join a special task force to investigate cartel movements along the border. However, it slowly becomes evident that the unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), is not exactly what it proclaims to be. Roger Deakins' astonishing cinematography and Villeneuve's tense direction displace the film in a realm of ambiguity. What's not ambiguous, though, is this film's masterful production, with Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro delivering some of the best performances of their careers and Jóhann Jóhannsson composing one of the year's most haunting scores. More than anything, though, the film is a powerful examination of "the land of wolves" without any easy solutions.

8. Ricki and the Flash (dir. Johnathan Demme)


Demme doesn't get enough credit as a filmmaker. He works mostly as a documentarian, yes, particularly music docs, and his most well-known films have been thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar) and The Manchurian Candidate (the 2004 remake). But his narrative films spring to life because he trusts his actors with the material. Take Ricki and the Flash, for example. While most of the marketing focused on Ricki (Meryl Streep) the would-be rock star, the film is, at heart, about a dysfunctional family not exactly trying to put itself back together. That's not a sexy premise, certainly not in a film culture that values flash and cleverness over low-key and straightforward. But this film is an absolute marvel, hinging on Ricki's (in)ability to see beyond herself and her dream - a tension that drives the film in unexpected ways. With a terrific cast and solid musical performances, the film is a triumph of old-fashioned filmmaking done right.

Numbers 7-1 after the jump.

The 6th Annual Jarmo Awards

After a bit more of a recess than I expected, it's finally time for the 6th Annual Jarmo Awards! The Jarmos are my personal film awards, selected solely by me, based only on what I had seen from the eligibility year (2015) before I made these decisions. I picked out my winners shortly before the Oscar nominations were announced, and with the ceremony only a week away, now's the perfect time to present them!

Winners, as always, you are free to pick up your awards whenever it is convenient for you. There's bound to be a trophy place somewhere in Boston, so I'll be sure to have something ready for you.

And the winners are...

BEST ACTRESS


Ronit Elkabetz, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Runner-up: (tie) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Finalists: Emily Blunt, Sicario; Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash; Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Elkabetz is already regarded as one of Israel's finest actors, having won numerous awards in her home country and making a lasting impression on the international scene in films such as Late Marriage (2001) and The Band's Visit (2007). Her performance in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem should win her even more acclaim. As Viviane, Elkabetz runs the gamut of emotions over the course of her divorce trial, but also subtly evolves the character from conservatively-dressed and oppressed toward liberation and agency. That she does so mostly with glances and half-spoken statements only makes her performance all the more accomplished. Her work is a towering achievement that demands to be seen.

BEST ACTOR


(tie) Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, The End of the Tour

Runner-up: Shameik Moore, Dope
Finalists: Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation; Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road; Mattias Schoenarts, Far from the Madding Crowd

It's impossible to truly separate Eisenberg's and Segel's performances without disrupting what makes them both work so well. As journalist David Lipsky, Eisenberg's drive and curiosity - as well as his willingness to push and misread cues - come across as arrogant and off-putting. Similarly, as author David Foster Wallace, Segel's fluctuations between aw-shucks genteel and prickly withdrawal make him difficult, if still captivating (Segel's never been better). But together, the actors push and pull at each other, making those aforementioned tendencies establish the dynamics of their relationship without unbalancing them. This is a masterful duet that reflects the intelligence and insecurities of both men, and the film needs both of their voices in harmony to work as well as it does. And what magnificent music Eisenberg and Segel make together.

The rest of the winners of cinema's most prestigious awards (that are presented by The Entertainment Junkie) after the jump.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards

Christmas Eve has finally arrived! Yes, I know that it's actually January 14 and Christmas Eve is over 11 months away (or just three weeks past, if you're a glass-half-empty type). But the day of the Oscar nominations is mine and every Oscar fan's Christmas Eve, the day the Academy brings us a fun grab bag of recognition that we will trash and complain endlessly about for the next two months and debating and studying for years. For the next few weeks, these will either be the greatest films ever made or the absolute worst examples of the form. They will confirm the joys of cinema and prove that it is dead. And ultimately, none of it will matter, because all of this is subjective and Oscars are a horrible way of evaluating films. But they are a great entryway into thinking critically about cinema and, most importantly, they're so much fun to debate and discuss.

With that mission statement out of the way, let's talk about the actual nominations. Alejandro G. Iñárritu's brutal Western The Revenant leads the way with a total of 12 nominations, with surprising critical darling Mad Max: Fury Road close with 10 nominations (for the record, that's 10 more than the previous Mad Max films combined). There are a fair number of surprises - that Best Director lineup! Jennifer Lawrence! Straight Outta Compton! - but for the most part the nominations reflect the wide spread of films that received praise this year. That nothing was overwhelmingly dominant (outside the aforementioned leaders, which both missed out on the screenplay categories, it should be noted) should be evidence that it was a good year for quality films.

(Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is an Oscar nominee, which should derail that argument, but don't lie to yourself - you love The Weeknd's silky Screamin' Jay Hawkins riff "Earned It.")

Below is a full list of the nominees with commentary. Did your favorites make the cut?

BEST PICTURE


The Revenant; Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, and Keith Redmon, producers


Spotlight; Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, and Blye Pagon Faust, producers


Mad Max: Fury Road; Doug Mitchell and George Miller, producers


Room; Ed Guiney, producer


The Martian; Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, and Mark Huffam, producers


Bridge of Spies; Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, and Kristie Macosko Krieger, producers


The Big Short; Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, producers


Brooklyn; Finola Dwyer and Amanda Poser, producers

Given the divisive nature of the awards season, I'm surprised there aren't more than eight nominees. And they're an interesting bunch: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies managed to sneak in after everyone assumed they'd been forgotten, while Room and The Big Short made good on their late surges. The biggest surprise here, though, is Carol: where is it? Given the passion surrounding the film with critics, it seemed like a shoo-in. But the Academy apparently felt otherwise (perhaps two women in love with each other is too much for them?). 

Also, if you're feeling sad about Star Wars: The Force Awakens missing out here, don't cry too much for them. Now that it's the biggest film of all time domestically and still breaking box office records (in addition to making "Weird" Al Yankovic seem like prescient genius), I don't think J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm, and Disney are losing too much sleep over it. Besides, its five total nominations are the most for a Star Wars film since the original in 1977, and matches the combined nomination total of the prequel trilogy. So technically it did pretty well today!

BEST ACTRESS




Brie Larson, Room


Cate Blanchett, Carol


Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn


Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years


Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Rampling doesn't come as much of a surprise to me because I predicted her. In recent years, there's been at least one acting nominee who missed out at the Globes and SAGs but came up with an Oscar nod: Marion Cotillard last year, Christian Bale in 2013, Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane Wallis in 2012. Rampling fit the bill and, with an esteemed career and the best reviews of her life, she makes sense as a nominee. More surprising, however, is Lawrence. She's her film's only nomination, which, coupled with the 0-for-10 record of American Hustle two years ago, seems to suggest the Academy is ready to move on from director David O. Russell (praise Thor). With her fourth nomination at the age of 25, she surprises Jennifer Jones' nearly 70-year-old record for the youngest actor to reach four nominations. 

BEST ACTOR




Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant


Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs


Matt Damon, The Martian


Bryan Cranston, Trumbo


Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

This is pretty much exactly how it was expected to happen, with newly-minted comedian (though not always very funny) Matt Damon seeming like the only one capable of catching up to presumed frontrunner Leonardo DiCaprio (he almost died for this, you know). Cranston is the only newcomer in the group, and for him a nomination only seemed like a matter of "when," not "if."

The rest of the nominees after the jump.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Final Predictions for the 88th Annual Academy Award Nominations

This is definitely a bit of a rush job, so I apologize for that, but below are my final predictions for the Oscar nominations tomorrow morning. I haven't been able to keep up with the season's pandemonium as much as I have in the past, so several of these are just shots in the dark. Keep that in mind if you're making last-minute bets: I could definitely be wrong, but if I'm right, well, bully for me.

Anyway, check them out and be sure to check back here tomorrow for a full rundown of the actual nominees.

BEST PICTURE

I'm predicting nine:


The Revenant
Spotlight
Mad Max: Fury Road
Room
The Martian
Carol
Bridge of Spies
The Big Short
Brooklyn

If more than nine, then...

Inside Out



BEST ACTRESS


Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Rooney Mara, Carol

After originally posting this, I realized that I left off presumed frontrunner Brie Larson (Room). I'm very much rooting for her, don't get me wrong, and I honestly just forgot about her when I was slapping these predictions together. But you know what? I'm running with it. Mara is going to be nominated, giving us two nominees from the same film in this category for the first time since 1991, and Larson will go down as an Affleck-for-Best-Director level snub, which will then propel Room to a Best Picture win. You heard it here first!

BEST ACTOR


Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Matt Damon, The Martian
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Joan Allen, Room
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

BEST DIRECTOR


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Todd Haynes, Carol
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY


Carol
The Martian
Steve Jobs
Room
The Big Short

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY


Spotlight
Inside Out
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Son of Saul

See the rest after the jump.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Best (Previously Seen) Films of the Semester

I'll conclude my first-semester experience with films that I had previously seen and enjoyed, but haven't written about on this site. Some of these films I may have made mention of before, but I have not written about more than in passing. I highly recommend seeking out all of these films; all of them are classics that deserve to be seen by cinephiles and casual viewers alike. So, without further ado, eight films that you should definitely seek out.

From "American Masterworks"

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966)


Mike Nichols would go on to have an incredible career as one of the United States most notable directors, and he made one hell of a debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film adaptation of Edward Albee's hit play. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - a Hollywood power couple famously on-the-rocks at the time - are perfectly cast as bitterly resentful couple George and Martha, playfully toying with young couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). As the booze flows, so do the pent-up frustrations and passions, as just about every character unveils their most unseemly attributes. Nichols orchestrates everything with perfect pitch, reining everything in with precision. That this film was only the beginning of his illustrious career only makes it all the more impressive.

The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946)


Mark Harris' incredible nonfiction book Five Came Back has a phenomenal account of Wyler's time serving the United States during World War II. Given his experiences, it's no surprise that his first project after the war was The Best Years of Our Lives, a stunningly intimate account (given its nearly three-hour running time) of three servicemen returning from the war to the same hometown. Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell (a veteran who lost both of his arms in the war, making his acting debut) deliver captivating, heartbreaking performances as their characters struggle to make the adjustment to peacetime domesticity. Wyler demonstrates his prowess as a director through deep-focus photography that keeps the characters' environments perpetually in focus, paradoxically isolating them while also integrating them. There is perhaps no greater document of the adjustment after war than this film.

Films from Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and more after the jump.