26 February 2017

Elle



A subversive, psychological thriller with a powerfully enigmatic and utterly mesmerising performance by Isabelle Huppert. Can she do what Marion Cotillard did and what was robbed from Emmanuelle Riva?

Paul Verhoeven, of "Basic Instinct" fame (and "Showgirls" infamy), has directed an oddly exciting, occasionally disturbing, and almost always taut, sexual-psychological thriller. Dealing with multiple issues related to sex from infidelity, jealousy, cougar-ism, rape, power, gender roles, etc, Verhoeven translated these onto the screen with a very Euro (or "French") sensibility. And it is this rather non-sensational - even blasé- portrayal of sex (and all its aspects) that leads the story down an exciting and, almost heretofore, unchartered narrative.

But through it all, the story was anchored by the phenomenal Huppert. Truly, this lady deserves all the accolades and her performance here was mesmerising. Outwardly strong and tough yet occasionally the facades cracks and fragility seeps out;  yet, we are always left to wonder if those moments of vulnerability is but a show. Huppert's character remained an intriguing cipher all the way to the end and that really made her so exciting to watch and so fascinating to follow.

Of all the five nominees this year for the Oscar for Best Actress (minus Ruth Negga, sadly have not watched "Loving") it should be a close fight between Huppert and Natalie Portman, with Huppert inching out for her nuanced portrayal over Portman's louder, and slightly more showboating, "Jackie".

18 February 2017

Moonlight



Director/Writer Barry Jenkins' moving examination about one boy's tumultuous upbringing shaping his teenage years and moulding him into the man he becomes is both a deeply personal story about self-identity and also an heartachingly poetic narrative of love and romance.

Where "Fences" and Denzel Washington failed in their translation from stage to screen, Jenkins effectively transposed Tarbell Alvin McCraney's "In Midnight Black Boys Look Blue" to the silver screen and embraced all that cinema has to offer to give the story the necessary added depth, scope and cinematic magic.
However, all would have been for nought if not for the cast.

Jenkins struck jackpot with his casting of Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert as the film's protagonist in all three ages. Not only for their uncanny resemblance to each other, but also in the way their eyes and body talk. Similarly, the roles of his best friend were also exceptional. Perhaps only Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" surpasses it in this respect, but "Moonlight" did not take 15 years to film.

All three main adult-roles were equally superb with Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris carrying the emotional weight whilst the protagonist was still young. Ali, however, had a quiet and powerful moment (almost his Viola Davis' in "Fences" moment) for which placed him as a front runner for the Best Supporting Actor. Janelle Monáe continues to be a revelation following her outstanding turn in "Hidden Figures".

"Moonlight" was not an easy film to watch as it explored issues that may seemed to not be directly relevant to most people. However, with patience, you will come to realise that its story was achingly personal and its message painfully universal. Even its ending will drive debate but kudos to Jenkins for eschewing Hollywood schmaltz.

"Moonlight" and "La La Land" actually do bear similarities with each other with their own portrayal of love and self-identify. Whereas "La La Land" carried its nostalgic romance brightly on its sleeves, "Moonlight" chose the darker path of insinuations and allusions. And perhaps, in this day and age, what we do need is more light.

Fences




A difficult and complicated film to watch with a lead character that is as unlikeable as he is undeniably relatable to everybody in some aspect. Denzel Washington is a force to reckon with, bringing this complicated man of August Wilson's into being. However, just give the damn Oscar to Viola Davis already. *That* moment haunts you! One of the most powerful scene captured on screen.

Washington directed the film and it was possibly its weakest portion. There was a constant conundrum in how he presented the story. At times, the film felt like a play and at times like a film trying to be a play. The story definitely fits the landscape and ridgity of a stage, but Wilson's screenplay and Washington's direction lacked the energy and scope offered by celluloid.

Although there was quite a fair bit of backlash with Davis for running for the Best Supporting Actress, the way the film presented it, Davis' character was there in support of Washington's even if she was the only (lead) actress in the film. This was not her film and her character only served to highlight the flaws, depth and complexity of Washington's.

Washington's character is a challenge for any actor and Washington really rose to the occasion. In comparison with Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea", Washington - like Natalie Portman and Emma Stone - definitely outclassed Affleck. But Affleck embodied the essence of his character from the stooped shoulders and constant brood and became part of the story. "Fences" and Washington, despite their individual brilliance, remained separate and that would be the main thing that would count against him come Oscar night. Can they look at the acting critically and ignore the package/magic surrounding it?

Hidden Figures


A feel good, underdog triumphs, girl-power film, highlighting both a significant and unlooked scientific history during a period of known darkness and discrimination. Led by the superbly entertaining and funny trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, this story deserved to be told. However, despite all the hype, its execution was rather lightweight and the storytelling frou frou in nature. Director Theodore Melfi could not find the true heart of the story and although all three women are extraordinary in nature, without a true focus, all three stories felt under served.

Henson was great. Funny and heartfelt, showing us the great range that she has that made her a previous Oscar nominee and now a perennial Cookie/Emmy nominee. However, she was failed by the lack of characterisation and the simplicity in which her character was handled.

Spencer was also strong in her role. Although like Henson, her character was way too simplified.

Monae was a revelation but her story seemed to run tangential to the other two.


Jackie



Three things stood out for this film. Firstly, Natalie Portman's transformational performance. She was utterly astounding and absolutely enthralling as she inhabits the role of Jacqueline Kennedy. This is to her what Margaret Thatcher was to Meryl Streep. She made Jackie such a layered character and never allowing her to be clearly defined nor her inner thoughts and motivations transparent.

Secondly, was director Pablo Larrain's style. Filming the story almost documentary-like, it gave a sense of immediacy and intimacy (and even voyeurism) to the proceedings on screen. And the constant close ups gave the actors no chance to let up on their performances. The camera constantly embraced Portman's face and she never broke. An absolute magnetic presence.

Thirdly, was the production. The costumes, hair and makeup were gorgeous. The score was a character on its own, haunting, intimate, jarring and yet also an extension of Portman: constantly heightening her emotions. Both Costumes and Score are on track to nab the Oscars.

This film truly belonged to Portman and perhaps the only other supporting actor that stood out was the late great John Hurt; Peter Saarsgard, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup fulfilled their roles sufficiently.

In terms of just acting and technique, Portman here was definitely ahead of Emma Stone in "La La Land". However, Stone (with Ryan Gosling) completed the magic that was "La La Land" and it was that mystical factor that made Stone a front runner in the Best Actress race.

16 February 2017

Hell or High Water



A great gem of a film by David Mackenzie that showcased excellent work from all three co-leads.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine sold the story of two different, yet ultimately similar, brothers with their tight chemistry and solid acting. Pine doing his best work and reminding us he is not just Captain Kirk and Foster following up his star-solidifying turn in The Programe with another strong, character work that steals the show. Then of course we have Jeff Bridges, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor here, who imbued a possibly flat character with layers of complexity that made his story worth paying attention to.

Mackenzie's direction was assured and the story told with enough action and tension to actually keep the engagement throughout. Other than a slow opening, the pacing was great. There was enough complexity and depth to not make the characters or their motivations stale. Even when the scene slowed down, to something cliched, Mackenzie wisely chose not to linger too long on the moment, trusting that the audience knew what was happening, why it had to happen and then just leaving it as such.

Nick Cave did the music and I am loving this country vibe and it really added to the mood of the film. "Nashville" might just not be a fluke.

13 February 2017

The Lego Batman Movie


The Lego Batman Movie may perhaps be the best DCEU movie thus far - if it was canon - but where The Lego Movie was original and funny and new, The Lego Batman Movie felt more like a parody of the DCEU (and to a lesser extent, MCU and the superhero genre) than a standalone product. Nonetheless, this film was loads of fun for its whole 104 minutes (credits to credits, seriously...don't miss the beginning!).  It was irreverent, ridiculous, silly, laugh out loud funny, loud, noisy, colourful...and forgettable.

The film was at its best when it was aware that it was parodying itself. The self-referential remarks and punchlines were hilariously funny, as were the digs at the whole Batman franchise itself. However, the incessant pop culture references stretched too much and got to the point of reference-for-reference sake and look-at-us-we-are-so-cool-and-hip.

The voice-cast was excellent, especially Will Arnett and Ralph Fiennes. They both had a good audio rapport and was believable. Michael Cera continues to grate and Rosario Dawson's should stick to being Claire Temple.

However, the characters themselves were uninteresting. Unlike The Lego Movie where we had Emmet who was an engaging protagonist for whom we were actively rooting for, Batman bordered on annoying and was such a flat, two-dimensional character. And seriously, despite all the awesomeness of the final act, the Joker barely existed as a thread. Although, perhaps, children might find it different?

In all honesty, The Lego Batman Movie felt like the Scary Movie version of the superhero genre. And that is something that we should be scared about if this franchise continues on. I can just imagine a The Lego Justice League Movie...yikes!

A bit about the songs: the original songs were fun, but not as catchy as Everything is Awesome. They are funny to listen to, and hilarious to watch on screen, but they do not stick...everything is awwweesoooommmmmeeeeee....!

Allied



We are truly living in the Golden (or Platinum) Age of Television when while watching this film, one cannot help but think that the story would make an excellent prestige drama or event series, under ten episodes total. But instead, what we ended up with was a subpar WWII spy drama that lacked urgency, tension, romance, thrills and drama. Ultimately, regardless of the shortcomings of Steven Knight's screenplay and Robert Zemeckis' directing, this film was failed by the absence of chemistry between its two leads: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.

To be fair, Cotillard did her best and she was the more engaging of the duo. Unfortunately, Zemeckis and Knight chose to tell the story from the Pitt's character's POV and after the first third, Cotillard was relegated to the background. Her previously established characterisation wiped clean and forgotten until the penultimate scene.

With the weight of the film resting on Pitt's shoulders, he had a lot to answer for, but sadly this was truly one of his worst performance in recent years. Pitt and his (very) pretty face were under the same curse that befell Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco:  Botox; and fillers in Pitt's case. A pair of dead expressionless eyes in a slightly immobile face do not win you any awards! It was so difficult to watch trying to see him emote as Cotillard danced circles around him with a twinkle in her eyes.

The film really needed to sell the story of these two complicated individuals to establish the conflict. But instead they were painted in broad strokes in the first act, washed-off in the second, and glossed through in the final. There were no urgency or depth in the characters to make the audience care.

Zemeckis and Knight should have focused the story on Cotillard. She is the one with the Best Actor award.

On the other hand, this should have really been a series instead too. Think The Crown meets The Americans meets Parade's End.

The epilogue was Zemeckis and co unabashedly trying to wriggle some residue emotions and goodwill from the audience and felt cheap and utterly unearned.

However, I do agree with one thing: this film truly deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.

10 February 2017

Split


M. Night Shyamalan follows up his (modest) comeback hit The Visit with another back-to-form psychological/paranormal thriller which really only worked because of the astounding, chameleonic acting showcased by James McAvoy. The epilogue was a pleasant surprise and I am so glad I was not spoilt on it at all.

Shyamalan's writing and directing still lacked subtlety - also evident by the promo posters for the movie - and nothing that happened throughout the film was really surprising. On one hand, that showed incredible restrain by Shyamalan, but yet it does not make for an interesting narrative.

Similarly, all the other characters, besides McAvoy and the lead girl (Anya Taylor-Joy). were so thinly written that it was hard to root for them. As much as Shyamalan tried to upturn the conventional trope of girl(s)-abducted-and-so-be-useless, it came out more mocking than smart.

Furthermore, even with Taylor-Joy's character, she was so blandly written that it made it very hard to root for any of the protagonist. Her backstory was so blatantly just an excuse to justify her narrative that the payoff at the end was not earned. The fact that Shyamalan committed the cinema sin of show and tell, did nothing to help her case. Taylor-Joy was a fresh revelation in The Witch but her subsequent screen choices showed she lacked guidance and may be stuck in a genre rut.

Ultimately, if it was not for McAvoy, the film would have been a lot more unbearable.

McAvoy was brilliant. He truly showed us what a great actor he has always been from the times of The Last King of Scotland to Atonement and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby; just slightly lost now in the X-Men Universe. The shift in character as the camera stayed on him was exciting and thrilling to watch. It kept you guessing who is he now?

A pity the rest of the cast was not up to par. But maybe now, with two back-to-back hits, Shyamalan can finally go back to his roots and cast more actors of McAvoy's calibre. Although if anything was to follow-up next, we might in for a treat to the final instalment of his most underrated success Unbreakable. Bruce, Sam and James...that I will be there.

On a side note: it was a great casting coup to cast Professor X as a character that bears such similarity to his literary son, Legion.

9 February 2017

Legion


Chapter 1: I am seriously in love with this new series, and this is just from the first episode. A stunning, visually arresting, absolutely trippy tour de force by Fargo's creator Noah Hawley. I love the directing, the storytelling, the set designs, the sound designs, the music, the cinematography and the acting! This first episode has got to be one of the most daring, beautifully directed and shot pilot in a long time! Despite its trippiness and non-linear narrative and its tendencies to flit in and out of reality - what is reality?? which is reality?? - the story is so absolutely engaging that you just trust that Hawley will deliver the goods. What pilot has the audacity to insert a Bollywood-esque dance number in the middle of a revelatory moment? Kudos to Hawley and I cannot wait for more!

7 February 2017

24: Legacy


12:00 Noon - 1:00 PM: Undoubtedly, the familiar ticking of the 24 digital clock still brings with it the expected adrenaline rush and excitement, but Jack Bauer was most definitely missed in this first hour of the reboot. Corey Hawkins is our new hero and thus far, he lacked the charismatic gruffness of Kiefer Sutherland to adequately engage the audience. In addition, the main plot itself has so far been rather pedestrian and contrived, with plot moments and twists telegraphed a mile away. The "B"-plot itself. 24's usual politicking shenanigans holds more intrigue as it is at least anchored by the magnetic enigma that is Miranda Otto - shades of her Homeland role carried over - with Jimmy Smits and Teddy Sears being the men behind her. The "C"-plot dragged it down almost as much as when Kim Bauer met the cougars. Chloe is sorely missed. Even Teri and Nina and David Palmer and Charles Logan and Tony and Michelle...comparisons will be inevitable and currently 24: Legacy is lagging behind.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...