23 February 2018

Visages, Villages (Faces/Places)

This Oscar-nominated documentary was a complex meditation on the people you meet, presented in a seemingly fun package. Everybody has a story and it is up to the individual to find it out. 

The concept of it was highly entertaining, pairing French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda with modern day artist/photograffeur JR, and essentially having them go on road trips. Interweaved between the main narrative, we learn a little bit more about the both of them. 

But at the same time. we also learnt about the immortal transience of art and memories, the role of art in the community and in the culture, and also the duality of both the artist and its subject. At times, the docu may seem meandering but each segment ultimately drove home the point that it is the people that maketh the art.

An entertaining, thoughtful and surprisingly touching exploration of humanity and friendship.

Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird was a sure-handed, touching, and sincere coming-of-age story anchored by strong performances from a luminous and naturally charismatic Saoirse Ronan and an emotionally powerfully yet restrained Laurie Metcalf. The authentically complex mother-daughter (parent-child) relationship portrayed by Metcalf and Ronan was the glue that held the narrative together, and kudos to Gerwig for so aptly capturing that in all its angsty mess. Lady Bird deserved all its nominations and hype, and - with all due respect to Alison Janney - Metcalf has been robbed thus far.

This film was a tremendous success for an almost first time director and although unlike other competitors - Dunkirk or The Shape of Water - it lacked technical complexity, Gerwig was absolutely successful in effectively telling a story. And one with a heart, no less. Gerwig’s pacing of the story was fantastic and although the narrative went along at a breezy pace, it never felt rushed and important milestones are allowed to breathe. The fact that it was semi-autobiographical definitely helped its authenticity. Maybe, one wee problem was the soundtrack which was just a tad too on the nose.

Ronan was phenomenal. She, in my opinion, is a more exciting actress to watch than her fellow multi-nominated peer Jennifer Lawrence. From her ground breaking role in Atonement, to the much overlooked Hannah, and her heartbreaking turn in Brooklyn, Ronan has repeatedly shown us that she is an actress that wholly inhabits her character. Her characters never fail to elicit an empathetic response from the audience. And here, she plays a 17-going-18 teenager with such ease. It was almost as if she herself had the same very experiences, and maybe she did. Nonetheless, Ronan was positively shining here. It is easy to play an annoying teenager, but it is extremely difficult to portray one without being a bitch. And even harder to make the audience fall in love.

Then we have Metcalf. Her final scene itself should have nabbed her every, single, damn Best Supporting Actress award. It killed me. Her role was not showy unlike Janney’s but her scenes were truly amazing. She had such great chemistry with Ronan, and when both of them are together, the screen electrifies until you just look forward to when their next scene will be. And again, her final scene - which was possibly the only scene that Ronan was not in - was amazing!

Of course, we cannot discuss the cast of “Lady Bird” without mentioning the It Boy of the moment: Timothée Chalamet. Let’s just say, Chalamet was very lucky that he landed the role in Call Me By Your Name, because in this film he was entirely forgettable and interchangeable.

No one seemed to be talking much about last year’s surprising Best Supporting Actor nominee Lucas Hedges. But both his performances here and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri easily outstrip Chalamet. Hedges is a more exciting actor to keep an eye out for.

Lady Bird was such a fun film to watch. You laugh, you cry, you cringe and you gasp, and in the end you leave with possibly a new found respect for your mother/parents.

16 February 2018

Black Panther [IMAX/3D]

Black Panther was one of the most unique superhero film by Marvel. Was it the best? Not necessarily (that honour still belongs to The Avengers), but it definitely was unlike any other of the franchises in the MCU. Surprisingly, its closest cousin would be the first Thor film. Both films had a Shakespearan core amidst the political intrigue and a son learning how to lead. However, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther stood out - heads and shoulders above - from Kenneth Bragnah's Thor in that it was superhero feature that had decidedly minimum focus on the superhero power/features. Instead the strength of this film was its focus on truly well-defined characters anchored by strong performances of its actors, and its elegant dive into heavy themes of political and social responsibility, cultural identity and self vs country.

It definitely also helped that Black Panther did not look/feel/sound like a typical, cookie-cutter, MCU film. Coogler's directing filled the screen with a vibrant. kinetic energy that excited the story and propelled the narrative and his own team of trusted creatives helped tremendously to create a distinctive vision: from the beautiful sets (by production designer Hannah Beachler), the absolutely stunning cinematography (by Mudbound's Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison - a new favourite), an authentic and befitting score (by Ludwig Goransson), and sumptuous costume design (Ruth Carter).

Yes, the story by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, could have been tighter. There were a few unnecessary moments that dragged on for a minute or two longer than they should, however, those scenes do allow the film to breathe despite the changing of pace. But at least for once, in the MCU, we have a story line that made sense, a villain with an understandable motivation and no damn mystic cloud of obscure origin and power. Phew!

It was also a wise choice to not have many scenes/moments of superhero feats, but instead with the introduction - and audience's acceptance - of Vibranium, we ended up with more of a James Bond/Kingsman-esque spy thriller filled with gadgets. Oddly enough, that made it more grounded in reality, and together with the topical themes of race, culture and politics, helped to make the film a relatable experience.

Coogler's Creed experience showed here and his one-on-one fight scenes were tremendously exciting to watch. It felt visceral and fluid with a constant movement that never distracted. Coupled with Morrison's lensing, that first fight was truly memorable and the second one contrasted distinctively. There were only two big action sets and that felt sufficient. They were both cool and showed off enough of the world and Black Panther to be relevant, and neither overwhelmed the story. Although Coogler's directing of a large cast action scene was not as visually exciting as his smaller ones.

Nonetheless, again and again, it comes back to the point that this film had a true sense of voice and identity unlike previous MCU films. It brought something new to the franchise, much like how James Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy jolted the MCU with its comedy.

Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as our eponymous hero and he had the gravitas of a king, but also the uncertainty of a young prince thrust into a position by circumstances. He does have the screen charisma to command an audience's attention, but unfortunately his frequent scene partner was the luminous Lupita Nyong'o who acted circles around him with seemingly minimal effort. Although, at least, they had chemistry together.

That then brings us to the other truly great thing about this film. Its strong female cast and point of view. The triple threat of Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, were a total delight to watch. They were smart, strong and independent women unbeholden to the men. They were badassess kicking ass and stealing their scenes effortlessly. Gurira was brilliant but hopefully she does not get typecast in the future, but boy, does she rock! Wright, of Cucumber and Humans fame, has grown up and she thankfully she brought along her delightful British wit and comedy. Give me a show that pairs her Shuri up with Ben Wishaw's Q.

Michael B. Jordan was a great choice to cast opposite Boseman. Jordan was physically imposing and that physicality helped to induce fear and establish that our titular hero is not safe. On top of that, however, Jordan's scene with Sterling K. Brown showed a humanity beneath the veneer and helped shaped him beyond a one-dimensional being.

Martin Freeman was one of two main Caucasian actor, and he was funny. Although inevitably, he was given a hero-moment. They just could not avoid that, could they? The other white guy was Andy Serkis, and it is always odd seeing him out of mo-cap. He continued his story line from Avengers: Age of Ultron and was necessary as an audience surrogate into Wakanda.

Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Daniel Kaluuya rounded up the named main cast. Kaluuya was the only one miscast. This poorly written role - and honestly, not well acted too - ain't gonna do much for his Best Actor campaign.

Morrison's cinematography was simply gorgeous. And it does help that Coogler gets to create a brand new world and he has Africa as his playground. Stunning vistas, beautiful wide-angled shots mixed with a Tron-like epic fight, Blade Runner-esque setting and intimate, closed-up action sequences that showcased the action. Morrison is a cinematographer to watch out for.

Goransson's score had moments where it sounded almost like any other MCU films, but listening closely, you can hear the African beats and rhythms beneath the big soaring strings and bass. And the focus on the constant drumming and percussion over the one-on-one fights highlighted the tension of those scenes as well as pay homage to the authenticity of the story.

And as per usual, stay back for a mid-credits scene and a post-credit teaser.

Black Panther was a MCU gamble by Kevin Feige et al that paid off. So well. And perhaps with this in their pocket, Marvel will be more willing to allow its directors to have their own vision. Who still does not wonder how Edgar Wright's Ant Man would have been like (think Baby Driver meets Hot Fuzz...dream!).

7 February 2018

I, Tonya

This was a problematic film. If you did not know who Tonya Harding was before, this film does nothing to better understand who she was; if you did know about Harding and the incident, then this film also does nothing to better understand why and how it happened. Go listen to the New York Times' The Daily podcast that featured an interview with her, you will learn so much more about her as a person and her motivations, and that will definitely increase your appreciation of what the film may had been trying to say.

You know a film has issues when the best things about it were, in order: the editing (those figure skating moments were top-notched, minus some odd-looking face replacement CGIs), the 80s soundtrack (with the likes of ZZ Top, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Fleetwood Mac), followed by Allison Janey and then Margot Robbie. The narration was haphazard, the tone and pacing were all over the place, characters, including Harding and her mum LaVona, were all broadly caricatured (except Harding in the final 10 minutes - which Robbie rose to the challenge - but it was a case of too little too late) and the central relationships between Harding and her mum, and Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly lacked depth, complexity and substance. Everything was presented as a heady mix of tragi-comedy and mockumentary humour that masked the superficiality of the material and mishandled the complexity of Tonya Harding as a person.

Director Craig Gillespie made a great indie film back in 2007 with Lars and the Real Girl, a so-so remake of Fright Night followed and then he disappeared for a bit, and chose I, Tonya as his comeback vehicle. Following his filmography, it was not surprising that he presented this film in a comedic light. However, it did not work as a broad comedy, maybe as a black comedy it could have been better. It ended up mocking Harding's social background and struggles, as well as trivialising domestic violence.

An anti-hero(ine) can carry a film as long as they are well-written, complex characters with strong emotional relationships with the people around them, and grounded in reality. The Tonya Harding in I, Tonya is none of that. And it is only to the credit of Robbie that we are even vaguely interested in what the film is trying to say.

Robbie definitely stood out, and as shown in a few short years - since breaking out in 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street - that she is a good actress. She was the standout in the horrible mess that was Suicide Squad. And those final 10 minutes of this film really gave her a chance to shine and show her depth and her commitment to her character. And it cannot be easy to act and skate at the same time. But they really should have cast another actor for that brief teenage years (definitely for Sebastian Stan's Gillooly too). However, was she really better than Jessica Chastain, Michelle Williams, Judi Dench, Diane Kruger or Annette Benning other than having a showier role?

Similarly, Janney definitely had a showy role. Her role practically screams "Oscar Nomination Alert", and she surely stepped up to the challenge. She was the one constantly good thing about the film and she stole all her scenes. But I am going to reserve comments on her chances of winning until after watching Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, but Lesley Manville impressed me more with her subtlety.

Unfortunately Stan was shortchanged with all the focus on the ladies, his character was so badly written and he did the best that he could. However, anybody could have been in that role. Stan might just have to stick with Marvel and the MCU for a while.

Julianne Nicholson was also uninspiring (she was so good in Masters of Sex, but nobody really knows what to do with her).

The film might have a chance to take home the Best Editing award (against Dunkirk and Baby Driver, I doubt Best Picture front runners The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will nail this award), and Allison Janney seems to have a good shot at adding an Oscar to her Emmys. But in the end, it was not surprising that I, Tonya  failed to get nominated for Best Picture despite two acting nods. Without Robbie and Janney, this film might have been even more intolerable.

The Shape of Water

This was such a beautiful film. An elegantly directed love story/fairy tale by Guillermo del Toro that was bursting with extraordinary vision and sumptuous details, and lovingly buffeted with a gorgeous score by Alexandre Desplat. Sally Hawkins was simply divine and enchanting in a (mostly) silent role. And Michael Shannon was a truly terrifying villain. This film not only celebrated Love, but was also a beautiful (yes, that word again) homage to the golden age of cinema/films. Del Toro had a vision and he executed it beautifully without sacrificing his aesthetics or storytelling.

The Shape of Water was a culmination of many creative forces and it truly deserved all its 13 nominations at the 90th Academy Awards. The standouts definitely included production design, cinematography and original score, with Desplat having a strong chance of getting the gold. Desplat's score was so beautiful - romantic yet with a tinge of whimsiness that carried the theme of the film so well. And the long moments of silence also helped to fully appreciate the score.

A shout-out also to the accompanying soundtrack. What great and fitting music choices!

Dan Laustsen will have a tough fight in the cinematography section especially against Roger Deakins, Rachel Morrison and Hoyte van Hoytema (Lausten ties with Bruno Delbonnel for fourth place here). However, the cinematography really helped the production design to stand out as well as enhance the ethereal beauty of Hawkins and her love story.

Kudos to Del Toro for having the vision and ensembling a terrific team to tell his story. He shared co-screenwriting credits with Vanessa Taylor and they both came up with a fresh way of telling a not-so-original-story. However, the film worked better during its silent (or music-paired) moments as some of the dialogue could be a tad too heavy-handed. And if not for the great actors of Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer and Shannon, they would have been even more clunky. This would be one category that it will unlikely get the Oscar for (Three Billboards anybody?).

The acting throughout was phenomenon.

Hawkins was simply wonderful throughout the film. She was enchanting, alluring, and a giddy mix of child-like amazement and womanly sensuality. She carried the film with her charisma and yes, her chemistry with Creature (Doug Jones) felt honest, sincere and real. If it was not for Frances McDormand - who had the bigger and showier role and character - Hawkins would have a real shot at winning the Best Actress award.

Jones is the unsung hero of Del Toro's films (and Star Trek: Discovery) and even here, his portrayal of the Amphibian Man was key to selling the inter-species romance. It is not easy to emote in a latex costume, much less as a monster. But with his gangliness, Jones emote with his whole body and limbs to convey the creature's personality and emotions.

As aforesaid, Shannon was truly terrifying (again) as the antagonist and was a great casting choice.

Jenkins and Spencer were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress respectively and they were both good in their roles. Jenkins definitely had the bigger role and he brought depth and complexity in a character that could have been so easily caricatured, but William Defoe and Sam Rockwell will be his biggest competitors. Spencer, on the other hand, had a decidedly small role but she brought her usual ferocity and tenacity to a familiar - and overwrought - character. However, she too will be a long shot for the win with Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf as front runners (and Lesley Manville as the dark horse).

This film, with all its beauty - story, romance, aesthetics - seems likely to be the front runner to win the Best Picture award. And Hollywood sure loves films that celebrate itself (see: The Artist and Birdman). However, in my opinion, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film that should win for its intelligence, strong characters, superb mix of drama and humour, originality, and as a reflection of how the world views middle (read: Trump) America which is likely why there seems to be a backlash against it (it might just triumph at the BAFTAs).

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...