28 January 2018

Black Lightning


Episode #1: The Resurrection and Episode #2: Lawanda: The Book of Hope
The CW's latest entry into its ever expanding DC superhero franchise is decidedly different from anything else that Greg Berlanti et al has done. And, no, it is not only about the pre-dominantly African-American cast, but also the whole tone and mood of the series. It definitely is not as light and breezy as The Flash or Supergirl, nor is it as irreverent as DC's Legends of Tomorrow; but yet not also not as dark and grim as Arrow. Black Lightning as a point. It is topical. It is gritty. It is violent (or as violent as can be on network TV). It does not shy away from making a socio-political statement reflective of the world we live in now. And for all that, it is an exciting series. The closest - and perhaps inevitable - comparison would be with Netflix's Luke Cage. Thematically they are both similar, but whereas Luke Cage benefited from cable network's PG-standards and a higher budget. Black Lightning impressively did as much with less. That predominantly boiled down to the excellent cast, with Cress Williams anchoring as Jefferson Pierce and Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain as his daughters. Black Lightning is about family and the family here is tight. Perhaps the only outcasts would be Christine Adams as Williams ex-wife (she better have a bigger role/purpose other than being the catalyst/distraction) and James Remar as the token techie (unbelievable to say the least). Marvin "Krondon" Jones III seemed to be our primary antagonist, and as scary as it seemed, he ain't no Mahershala Ali or Alfre Woodard. So yes, this is one superhero entry that seemed really exciting to watch.

27 January 2018

Phantom Thread


This was a very Paul Thomas Anderson sort of film. PTA crafted an unique/atypical love story (and a somewhat cautionary tale regarding loving an artist) between two highly-complex sociopaths that was tremendously well-acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, in another highly committed performance, and newcomer Vicky Krieps, in a star-making turn; both of whom were supported by the ever-reliable and commanding Lesley Manville. As expected, the costumes by Mark Bridges were gorgeous; but more unexpectedly was the beautiful score by Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead.

PTA wrote and directed Phantom Thread and it is hard to imagine that it was not in some way sort of semi-autobiographical. Nonetheless, this historic fashion drama is unlike Saint Laurent or YSL, but a highly nuanced character study of one very unlikeable man, and his equally unlikeable muse. However, the strength of PTA's work laid in layering these characters for they were never really outrightly detestable.

At the heart of it, this was a love story. But one that lacked the expected passion. However, although that was the case, there was a genuine feeling of love and affection between the two leads. Day-Lewis and Krieps had great chemistry, and the latter more than held her own. As said, this was finely tuned narrative of two deeply flawed characters. Seriously, they are perhaps even more unlikeable than the cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

And there was humour. A surprising amount of wry, dry humour. Mostly courtesy of Day-Lewis and Manville. The famous British wit.

PTA's direction was superb here, with beautifully shot one-takes that emphasised the flow and rhythm of the narrative, as well as expertly framed moments that heightened the tension to almost dizzily suffocating. The story was paced very well with nary a wasted scene or moment, and he relished in the faces of his actors who do not disappoint him with their nuances, from an arched eyebrow here to a side-way glance there, or a pursed lip here and lip quiver there. Brilliant acting with a brilliant doctor.

In what is supposedly his last role, Day-Lewis proved once and again that he is one of the best actor of his generation. If it was not for Gary Oldman's excellent portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, the Oscar might go to Day-Lewis (Sorry, Timothee, you just got to wait your turn and maybe prove that you get act-act). Day-Lewis has the mannerisms of a dressmaker down. It never felt like he was acting but that he was really taking your measurements and fitting you. He was not just going through the motions of a dressmaker, but instead he was a dressmaker. That is commitment. Combined that with his absolute submersion into character, he was a marvel to watch.

Krieps was a standout. As a newcomer against established veterans like Day-Lewis and Manville, she more than held her own. Her face was capable of a complex range of emotions that felt authentic. Hopefully this role would open more doors for her, but it is up to her to choose which doors to go through.

Manville deserved her Best Supporting Actress nod. Her scenes with Day-Lewis were absolute delight even though they were mostly the quieter ones. Gosh, that woman can do more with an arched brow than most other actors with their whole body. But ultimately, her role was less showy than her fellow nominees, so her chances of Oscar glory looks slim. Maybe a BAFTA?

Greenwood's score was beautiful. It was omnipresent but never intrusive and so elegantly carried the narrative, bolstering the dramatic moments and livening the lighter scenes. It would be a pleasant surprise if Greenwood wins against perennial favourites like Alexander Desplat, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Carter Burwell.

Phantom Thread is not everybody's cup of tea. It is a character drama wrapped up in pretty organza and tulle. It may not be PTA's best work, but it still stands as one of the best picture of the year (2017).

25 January 2018

The Resident


Pilot and "Independence Day": After two episodes, it is safe to say that this latest medical drama tried to offer up something supposedly edgy but ended up with just another ho-hum medical procedural. But at least Matt Czuchry gets to play the lead after being second - and then third - fiddle in his last series The Good Wife. Czuchry is good here. And also wasted. Maybe, hopefully, his storyline will pick up and he develop more as a character, rather than just being the rebel without really a cause. Standouts so far include Billions fave Shaunette Renee Wilson and late entry Melina Kanakareded. Both ladies brought a complexity to their characters given their little screen time. Emily VanCamp, on the other hand, as the female co-lead ain't no Nurse Carol, and so far, other than being shown to smart, attentive and had a thing with Czuchry's character, is kind of a blah/blank. At least she has chemistry with Czuchry. Lastly, we have Bruce Greenwood who is so good at being slimey. Oh right, we also have Manish Dayal as the (very) annoying intern. Less said of him the better. With The Good Doctor and this airing together, it does make one miss the good times of quality medical drama of ER and House. Although at least The Good Doctor has more heart in it and isn't afraid to be all schmaltzy. Truth be told, the first season of Code Black wasn't all that bad comparatively.

22 January 2018

The Post

A very timely and topical film that was well-directed by Steven Spielberg and boasted terrific performances by its multi-talented cast. However, in its totality, the film did still feel like a by-the-numbers kind of thriller that was perhaps a bit too blatant and on-the-nose in its moralising. That being said, it was still entertaining, smart and riveting and Meryl Streep was great in it. Streep had many standout scenes both loud and commanding, and quieter yet mesmerising ones; Tom Hanks, on the other hand, although good and convincing, was much less showy than Streep and in his previous two films. The very-talented supporting cast was a veritable who's who of Hollywood (both the big screen and small), including Tracey Letts, Carrie Coon, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlberg, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods and Allison Brie. A Best Picture nominee for sure, with Spielberg and Streep as potential nominees in a crowded field, and perhaps an Original Screenplay nod.

It would have needed a director like Spielberg (or may be even Ridley Scott) to have this film rushed through production as fast as it did. And perhaps, only him would have been able to ensemble such a talented cast and crew. Despite the speedy turnover, the film never looked - and felt - liked a rush job, and that is a testament to Spielberg's skill, experience and talent. However, does that make him a Best Director contender? In the same vein as Scott, they both did what few could do but the final product though polished and competent, somehow still lacked the excitement of the other potential Best Picture films.

The film very efficiently showed how - and why - Katherine Graham made the decision to publish the Pentagon papers. The turmoils and emotional struggle added layers to both the narrative and Graham as a character, and even though we - the audience - obviously knows how it ends, Spielberg still managed to engage the audience with Streep capably selling the character. And like almost all Spielberg films, one is unable to resist rooting for the protagonist despite the hackneyed schmaltzy of it all. But that is what we love about a Spielberg film - the undeniable feel-goodness of it all.

Streep had a very challenging role here mainly because Graham was a character - and person - that may be difficult to relate to. She belonged to the upper class and most times experienced #FirstWorldProblems, but what Spielberg, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, together with Streep managed to do was create a persona that felt real. Graham had a voice that was sincere and never patronising, and with Streep, a body language and facial expression that exuded sincerity and humanity. In addition, Streep was a strong embodiment of the present times of gender equality and the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement.

Hanks role was easier and so consequently less showy. However, a lesser actor may have made Ben Bradlee more abrasive, but Hanks imbued in him a likability that made him a co-lead to support even as he led the charge to what many had thought was a wrong move.

Furthermore, Streep and Hanks had great chemistry and it was evident early on when Spielberg framed them both together engaged in a one-take banter. That was an exciting moment.

Also kudos to the rest of the cast, with shout outs to Odenkirk, Letts, Rhys and Whitford. Unfortunately the ladies, Coon and Paulson, did not have juicy roles to fill other than being part of the feminist/#MeToo voice of the film.

Janusz Kaminski lensed the film and did a great job reflecting the 70s. John Williams provided the score and it was beautifully apt - very Williams-esque - but not entirely memorable.

The Post is an important film of our times. Solidly well-acted and capably directed. In another year, it might have been a front-runner for almost all categories, but this year, with the embarrassment of riches that we have, it might just be an also-ran. Nonetheless, it should be watched.

17 January 2018

Darkest Hour


Together with the cast and the creative team, director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten, created a film that was utterly riveting despite all the talking and the 125 minutes run time. But more than that, the film was also surprisingly funny, unexpectedly rousing and heartfelt. This was Wright's best film since Atonement. Gary Oldman was phenomenon in it, just give him the Best Actor Oscar already, and the supporting cast was also stellar, especially the underrated Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James and Ben Mendelsohn. In addition, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and the score by Dario Marianelli (whom also worked with Wright on Atonement) were both absolutely top-notched; similarly, the costume design by Jacqueline Durran was outstanding, as were the makeup and production design. This film was an outstanding creative achievement.

Wright's direction was assured and he paced the story very well, except maybe for a slight lagging in the middle of the second act. However, he and Carten crafted enough villains and obstacles to entertain as we arrive at the already-known conclusion, i.e. that Churchill will succeed and Operation Dynamo will triumph (if not, there's always Dunkirk to remind us). But we may not have known was the sacrifices that were made en route, as well as the governmental opposition to Churchill's leadership. And the opposition was presently logically (who can forget Gallipoli?), albeit a tad blatantly as the weaker options.

Oldman was fantastic! Timothee Chalamet has nothing against him. This is acting. Oldman inhabited the role totally, looking and sounding like Churchill. And beneath all that makeup and prosthetic, Oldman was barely recognisable. However, his eyes carried so much weight and so much acting was done through his eyes and body language. Oldman and John Lithgow each had their own strengths in their portrayal, but Oldman definitely had more opportunities to embody the spirit and determination, i.e. more speeches to give, and in so doing, also more chance to shine.

Thomas was highly underrated. She brought such poise to her Mrs Churchill, and the love and affection she had for Oldman's Churchill was palpable and genuine.

James, one of the more underrated actress of her age, shone as the audience surrogate. And although her role was small, she was a catalyst for the emotional climax and allowed Oldman to be more than just a curmudgeon grouch.

Similarly, Mendelsohn - an Aussie King - displayed a nuanced performance as the monarch torn between doing what is right and what is safe. And like James, he served to bring out the many other aspects of Churchill beyond the public speaker/politician.

Marianelli will surely get another Oscar nomination for Best Soundtrack/Score, with a composition reminiscent of his award-winning work for Atonement.

And like most of Wright's period films, the production and cinematography are simply top-notched, as were the costumes and makeup. All these men and women made the film possible and made it as stunning as it was.

Darkest Hour was a superb film and one of the best, all-around film of the year. Oldman may be the only one getting all the attention, and deservedly so, but everybody else contributed to its success. A genuine Best Picture/Ensemble candidate.

11 January 2018

Molly's Game


This was, from the start, a very Aaron Sorkin-ish kind of film with bullet-speed dialogue, rapid-fire exchanges, sports metaphors and humour. The film was engaging, intelligent, funny and even a bit sentimental, and despite its 140 minutes runtime, it never felt long or draggy. There is a benefit of having Sorkin direct his own script, as he would be the best person to understand how he would want to tell the story. Although the choice to have so much voiceovers was a gamble, but luckily he has a way with words and Jessica Chastain's narration was great. She was a great casting choice, with her pro-feminist persona in full force as she ably rattled off Sorkin's words with aplomb, and giving a strong, layered performance as Molly Bloom. Her chemistry with Idris Elba as a Sorkin-dialogue sparring partner was palpable and it would have been great if they had more moments together.

Sorkin's directorial debut was competent, however he does not seem to have an eye for continuity and it was clear that certain scenes were edited together from multiple cuts. In addition, who made the decisions on how to dress Chastain's Molly? Boy, was her cleavage front and centre almost always.

Where Sorkin excelled in was his screenplay. The script was smart, witty and funny. He never dumbed it down and it demands your full attention. Which was also why the film felt so engaging. You really got to pay attention to it.

Chastain was great here. It seemed like a continuation of her role in Miss Sloane, and kudos to her for choosing to play such strong women. But yet for all her strength, Chastain imbibed in her a realistic amount of vulnerability that felt honest and not manipulative. Sorkin had created for her a layered, complex character that she carried off with style. However, the role was not showy - except for her cleavage - and that may hamper her chance (again) this year at the Oscars. Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand and Saoirse Ronan are the only sure bets for a nom, and Chastain will have to vie with Judi Dench, Margot Robbie, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams.

Elba, otstensibly the male lead, was really just playing a supporting character here, but he had great chemistry with Chastain, and their scenes together were fun to watch and exciting to see.

Kevin Costner had a small - but pivotal - role which was surprising light on the usual Sorkinisms.

Cinematographer was Charlotte Bruus Christensen who also beautifully lensed the underrated Far From the Madding Crowd.

This film may not appeal to everybody as it demands attention. There were no explosions or bombastic moments to distract but just great acting and smart writing.

8 January 2018

All The Money in the World


A competent thriller/drama, given all its last minute controversies, that remained intriguing and rather tightly tensed by Ridley Scott despite the mildly apparent and distracting reshoots. Nonetheless, Scott deserved praise for his dedication and direction to saving this film in light of Spacey-gate. Christopher Plummer more than aptly raised to the challenge presenting a fascinating portrayal of an equally fascinating man, and Michelle Williams gave a strongly nuanced and layered performance that deserved to be seen. Unfortunately Mark Wahlberg was the weakest link of the main cast. David Scarpa's screenplay was efficient but the story - and Scott's direction - tended to meander and lose focus in a long/draggy second act; Dariusz Wolski's washed-out palette also did not help to engage the audience visually. Where the film worked best was its character studies of J. Paul Getty and Gail Getty, and consequently when the focus were on Plummer and Williams.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


An absolutely riveting, searingly powerful and bitingly black comedy/drama by the brilliant director/writer Martin McDonagh. Led by Frances McDormand in a tour de force performance and the equally astounding Sam Rockwell, the talented ensemble cast (in particular Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones and Lucas Hedges) brought McDonagh's wickedly smart script to life. This was despite the film's difficult premise and generally unlikeable characters. However, McDormand and Rockwell really nailed their complex characters and hit it right off the park. They both should be in the running come Oscar season and hopefully together with McDonagh for screenplay and maybe even direction, Carter Burwell for another sublimal score and Ben Davis' for his lensing. With one of the longest title - yet also catchiest - "Three Billboards..." had moments that were sincerely touching and emotionally raw, and also equal parts bitingly funny and honestly bleak, this film was superb and anything but dull.

The Greatest Showman


An entertaining, original, period-musical that was over ambitious in its scope, scattered in its direction and shallow in its emotional execution, but by god, Hugh Jackman was charismatic and the songs were show-tunes calibre and quality. The life story of P.T. Barnum - interesting in its own right - was too complex to be shoehorned into an 105 minutes musical. Newbie director Michael Gracey lacked the chops to handle the story and the reshoots by James Mangold were apparent in the scattered tone of the final product. The book - or the script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon - had too many strands that were not well handled, resulting in a lack of character depths and emotional resonance. Other than Jackman, broadway star Keala Settle was a refreshing breath and Rebecca Ferguson was aptly cast; unfortunately Michelle Williams looked bored and lacked chemistry with Jackman, and Zac Efron was badly miscast (does Zendaya have a clause in her contract that her romantic partner must not be taller than her?). But as aforesaid, the songs were the showstoppers and the choreographies, especially the large group ones, scene stealers, so kudos to lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and composers John Debney and John Trapanese.

Wonder


A wonderfully told, unabashed, tearjerker that absolutely earned its tugs on the heartstrings. A film for all ages that is so relevant with its message of optimism and kindness. Directorial manipulation is inevitable but Stephen Chbosky kept the swells of the strings and the montages to a bare minimum, instead relied on the strength of R.J. Palacio's story, the sincerity of its characters and the honest, heartfelt portrayal of its actors. If Sandra Bullock could win a Best Actress with "The Blind Side", then Julia Roberts really, really deserves at least a nomination. Her performance exuded sincerity, warmth, vulnerability and a genuine maternal love. But this film belonged to the young actors and the casting of Jacob Tremblay, Noah Jupe and Izabela Vidovic were superb casting choices with Chbosky eliciting a natural, authentic ease from them. Equally, the rest of the supporting cast from Owen Wilson and Mandy Patinkin to Daveed Diggs and Danielle Rose Russell were spot on. #ChooseKind

Mudbound


A beautifully shot and uniquely crafted film. Director Dee Rees weaved a multi-faceted and multi-layered story interlaced with alternating POVs of the main characters like chapter divisions in a novel. The film explored a myriad of themes from race and class division, family vs self, post-war PTSD and place in society, and ignorance and inaction vs responsibility and guilt; but for all its ambitions, "Mudbound" could not sustain the juggling act and some stories fell to the side. However, the most important of which - racial politics - was powerfully told and climaxed in an heart wrenching third act. And Dee Rees was the director to tell that story, in particular this less often told period of American history: the changing of generation and evolving attitudes and the conflict within family towards the change. A complex story with complex characters, simply told. Mary J Blige was a standout with a strong, restrained performance; Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan were as usual reliable and more than competent; Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell were pleasant revelations. Rachel Morrison - as aforementioned - lensed this film utterly beautifully, regardless whether by candlelight or the gorgeous dusky sun of the Mississippi delta.

Call Me By Your Name


A touching and affecting coming of age story by Luca Guadagnino that exuded sensuality without overt sexuality and effortlessly showcased the emotional turbulence of First Love. Beautifully crafted, the film is intensely powerful in its languidity as Timothée Chalamet commanded our attention as we cycled with him through the emotional turmoil that is adolescence. Chalamet fell into his character with natural ease, perfectly embodying the 17-years old in all his youth, energy, confusion, naïveté and passion. He will surely get a nomination, but would he win? Was he acting or was he just playing a role that was him? Either of which, he deserves recognition. Playing opposite him, Armie Hammer had the best role of his career; believable in his capacity as the older, more worldly-wised man. But for all the film's honesty, sensuality and beauty, the chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer lacked the enigmatic passion that would have made this a love story for the ages. Instead, the coming of age aspect trumped the romance as Guadagnino and writer James Ivory focused - and rightly so - on Chalamet. Chalamet's POV was the focus of the film and as the audience we are part of it but only through his eyes and his heart (and also sneakily acknowledged by Guadagnino and Chalamet in the final moments). And from that perspective, this film was a triumph. Kudos too to Michael Stuhlbarg for his supporting turn and that beautiful monologue at the end

Wonder Wheel


A good performance by Kate Winslet that bordered on over-maniacal against a more-exaggerated-than-usual Woody Allen dramedy on Fate and Love. Jim Belushi held his own with Winslet and Juno Temple was an interesting revelation, however Justin Timberlake was miscast and distracting with his foundation-caked complexion, botoxed and doll-eyed blank stares. Perhaps it was the Allen controversy, but Winslet does deserve some recognition for her work here as a complicated woman/mother/wife/lover. She had two stunning monologues - in single takes no less - that showcased her talent, but perhaps her lack of campaigning amidst the current climate was a double-edged sword for her.

The Disaster Artist


James Franco turned in a committed and truly charismatic and very funny performance as the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau that was oddly affecting and also surprisingly touching. James Franco really does deserve a nomination again for Best Actor this year. As the director, Franco did a great job in telling the unique story of Wiseau and "The Room" without mocking nor belittling the history or the legacy; and also not excessively elevating it beyond its cult status. Instead, what he did was that he managed to make a consistently funny pseudo-mockumentary that injected empathy for its subject and a piqued curiosity for those who have not watched "The Room". The parade of pals-of-Franco making cameos throughout also helped to keep the film interesting. With regards to casting his brother - Dave Franco - as a co-lead, that was a brilliant decision. The chemistry and trust between them both were critical in the selling of the story and the dynamics between Wiseau and Greg Sestero. Stay on for a terrific end credits scene!

The Killing of a Sacred Deer


Another outstanding and original modern day morality fable by Yorgos Lanthimos inspired by the Euripides' "Iphigenia in Aulis". Highly macabre and deeply disturbing, but yet tinged with the bleakest of black humour in its harrowing - yet darkly honest - exploration of humanity, family, parenthood and responsibility. Led by a suitably restrained Colin Farrell and a chillingly haunting, top-formed, Nicole Kidman, with a breakout performance by Barry Keoghan. The film was also enhanced by the eclectic and aptly fitting, atmospheric music/score by sound designer Johnnie Burns and Lathimos, and the visual cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As part of the Star Wars franchise, this was a great entry into the mythos with major character developments coupled with good action, narrative twists and emotional relevance. However, objectively, as a film, it was poorly acted (still looking at you three Daisy Ridley the blank, Adam Driver the petulant pout and John Boyega the stare) and ham-fistedly scripted, riding on the goodwill of the fan base to cover up the lack of emotional resonance, multiple plot holes and contrivances and heavy handed mythology exposition - too much tell, too little show, Rian Johnson. And as cute as the Porgs were, it was too much blatant merchandising branding by Disney. At least we had Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro and Oscar Isaac, some gorgeous cinematography by Steve Yedlin (one moment at the end of the Second Act was simply...WOW!) and another great score by John Williams. "The Last Jedi" clearly moved the pieces to prep the stage for a potentially great finale, and with JJ Abrams back at the helm it should not disappoint. Here's hoping.

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...