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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Black Butterfly: A Review

Black Butterfly, a remake of the 2008 French film, seems to draw heavily on other films about writers in thriller and horror situations. Most obvious are the comparisons to Misery and The Shining, down to the shared names of the lead characters in those films and in this one. Overall the movie has much to recommend it, in theory, but little to distinguish it. The basic concept is fairly similar to Misery, in that a once-popular writer is held hostage (though not by a fan in this case).

The hostage taker this time is the drifter, Jack (played by Johnathan Rhys Meyers) who saves the writer Paul (played by Antonio Banderas) from being beaten up in a diner. He is later picked up on the side of the road by Paul. After reading Paul’s latest work, Jack and Paul come to an “agreement” where Jack helps Paul out of his writer’s block. The film attempts to make points about storytelling and the craftwork for creating believable works. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue about storytelling seems to be little more than “write from experience” with Jack threatening Paul with a knife to make his writing more realistic.

Write from experience might have been a good idea for the screenwriters to stick to since the film itself suffers from attempting to take the viewers on an unnecessarily complex series of twists. The film also suffers from moments where credibility is stretched. The entire sequence of motion is set into play by Jack saving Paul from a fight with a truck driver. This fight was entirely set up by chance and it seems unlikely the final scenes, with all the implications, would have been set into motion by luck.

 Furthermore, in the sense of menace around the small town, with reports of murders throws the aura of fear around so much that it seems unlikely anyone would pick up a stranger. Jack, as played by Rhys Meyers, is unnerving enough from the outset that the fact that someone would pick him up and offer to house him, even for a day, stretches belief. With him then in the house, why he lets him stay and doesn’t pick up on the warning signs of clearly sinister intentions seems even less believable.

 With that being said, both the performances of Banderas and Rhys Meyers are what drive the film which at times seems to be a double protagonist play in the style of Harold Pinter. Their engaging performances, more than the writing (which is rare for a thriller) are what capture the attention and retain it.

The problem with the final scene is that it stretches credibility and insults the intelligence of the viewer. Without this small scene, the film still has occasional issues but is mostly engaging and definitely entertaining. The twist before the final twist is not exactly great but it sits well enough. It is the final twist that pushes the boundaries of belief one step too far. With this kind of film, there is little new material to work with and it is no surprise that writers try too hard to make things seem fresh. They did not succeed in this time.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sleepless: A review

Sleepless: A Review


Sleepless is by no means an original film. This is not entirely a problem when watching an action movie since entertainment value supersedes originality, but with a vast number of action films being produced, having an original storyline would add points to a film of this genre. A remake of the French film Sleepless Night , this adds to the feeling that the viewer has seen it all before. The ability to know what is happening before it happens is not ideal when the movie needs to really capture the audience’s attention by building tension.

However, this is not a bad film. While it does possess a number of clichés and the entire crooked cop storyline can feel a bit rewarmed, this is a solidly entertaining film. The problem is that for fans of action films, they’ll have seen better done versions of every set piece. The chase scenes have all been done before as have the gunfights in parking garages and fistfights in kitchens. Not every film can show us a unique action sequence like John Woo but if we have to see things we’ve seen before, it’s reasonable to expect the standard to match. But, the issue with the film lies really in execution of the familiar.

The storyline doesn’t help either. There are many attempted twists to the story but they never really land. From the opening introduction of Jennifer Bryant who is completely sure that something is rotten at the police force followed by the immediate confirmation that government issued ammunition was used at a crime scene to the torture scene that happens in the middle of a baseball park for little reason other than to show the criminals they’re dealing with are bad guys, there’s a lot that seems contrived.

Plot holes are an issue as well. The fact that the Novak, the crime boss who wants the cocaine, meets with the crooked cop who happens to have picked up the cocaine and works for him but doesn’t mention the fact that he’s done so then leading Novak to continue to search for it is one of the main issues. Having every single person in Las Vegas have a gun in their glove compartment, while convenient for the film, isn’t particularly believable either. Having Vincent run through the entire film while bleeding profusely from a stab wound also brings to mind the question of if he should have bled out by now.

 By stating the film is not a bad film, I mean that someone who is unfamiliar with action films and tropes will miss the clichés.  Action film fans will have nothing special to speak about after the film is done and even those who are not fans will have trouble remembering this film in the future. Its decent entertainment but isn’t at the forefront of the genre. The issue is not all lack of execution but it seems a lack of ambition. The film is content to be a standard film of the form but has a talented enough cast and decent source material to be better than it was.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Marvel Netflix Series: The Villains

Marvel Netflix Series: The Villains

Filled with spoilers below

Over the past few months I’ve watched Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil in that order, so I’ve watched them all out of order. While this means I wasn’t really able to appreciate the interlocked nature of the series and really spot cross-series links when they showed up (a lot of the time) it did allow me to take each of the series from a stand-alone point (as much as that is possible when Marvel movies and television series have been around since forever and I’ve been reading comics pretty much my whole life).

The series are all more distinct than they are similar but one of the uniting threads is the quality of the villains they face. In Luke Cage this means Cottonmouth (played by Mahershala Ali, who seems ever present and excellent these days) and Mariah to a lesser extent although the character of Diamondback doesn’t match up to those two and seems like a late and not as well thought out entry (for every season of these shows, I’ve thought at one point or another that 13 episodes might be too much since the narrative strains somewhere between halfway and episode 10). Mariah, especially, is interesting in her descent from corrupt politician who wants the best for her neighbourhood most of all to a more dark and sinister character. Unfortunately her rise coincides with the killing off of Cottonmouth (by her) which deprives us of one of the smoother but still ruthless villains. Cottonmouth is noteworthy especially for his willingness to be a villain. Unlike Mariah or Fisk in Daredevil he isn't interested in the city and making it better. He wants things better for himself.

 In Jessica Jones, Kilgrave remains one of the most entertaining super powered villains in recent memory because of the depth in which they try to psychoanalyze him. Sure, mind control is pretty scary but Kilgrave is a supremely evil character whose warped sense of the world may be due to the fact that he has no idea how to exist in a world where he’s never had to hear no. It doesn’t make him any less evil (choosing to do unethical things is a choice, despite the reasoning) but it does make him much more relatable. After all, ethics are pretty subjective and he’s never had parents who told him (or could tell him) what was right or wrong.  

Wilson Fisk is undoubtedly the best character of Daredevil’s first season. The second season of the series is quite good as well but without a strong central villain, it lacks the focus of the narrative. The return of Stick and Yoshioka plus the introduction of antiheroes like The Punisher and Elektra are welcome additions (especially The Punisher) but the episodes in season two featuring Fisk (rapidly on his way to owning the Kingpin moniker) are the best in the season. His manipulation of Frank Castle which sends him on the way to the incarnation of the Punisher is magnificent.
Fisk rules the screen in season one because of the originality of his character. We’ve seen Kingpin for years in Daredevil comics as well as in Spiderman so getting originality into this character is a decent achievement. Having the character with a redone backstory involving killing his father (also, is the entire cast of The Wire hired by Marvel for this series?) immediately adds credibility to Fisk’s way of seeming like a man who is childish in his actions. While violent and manipulative in a very adult way, Fisk’s mannerisms and voice seem like he’s always on the verge of either crying or screaming. Fisk’s love for Vanessa and his desire to do everything to please her also has a childlike romanticism to it.

Without strong antagonists, series are not set up to succeed. In the past it was enough to have villains who were caricatures which would be made up for by the heroes commanding the screen. But as heroes have become more troubled and complex, the need for complex villains has arisen as well (it was well overdue). Hopefully the trend of quality villains continues into future seasons and series as well. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscar Predictions-Film Awards (i)-2017

  • Best Picture
Most likely winner : La La Land. A heavy favourite and much has been written about the race between La La Land and Moonlight for the best Picture prize as representative of the two types of movies that pick up Oscars. La La Land is a backward looking film in the sense that it draws heavily on the history of film and is influenced by the past. It is a good film and despite having a bit of a backlash recently on its treatment of jazz and its female protagonist, it is a spectacle in every sense of the word.

Backup Pick : Moonlight. The best odds on this right now are 9/2 which is enough for second favourite but not really close (La La Land is at 1/9). While La La Land is backward looking and a film about the movies and making movies, Moonlight is a far more unique film. It isn't an original story or even an uncommon one; but it is a rarely portrayed one. Films in African-American communities that have a heavy drug component are common but too often cliche. Coming of age films in African American communities with any gay references are rare. This is a film that transcends stereotypes.

Most deserving : Arrival. A total longshot at 100/1 and definitely underrated. I think it's the best movie of the year and Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. It's not expected to make a good film out of the intricacies of communication methods but it's been done here. The film is a slow-burn thriller from start to finish and while many other films are good in the list, there's not others as original and entertaining as this.

  • Best Adapted Screenplay
Most likely winner : Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney for Moonlight. This is a film that tells a story that is familiar. Drug problems in African American communities, problematic and distant parent figures; these are not new themes and can become dull quite quickly. It is the strength of the script that these familiar themes are never boring or cliched but always portrayed to give the viewer the ability to make their own decisions on what is being shown. It is difficult to show and not impart a skewed view. This takes trust of the viewer and this script trusts the viewer.

Backup Pick : Luke Davies for Lion. Second favourite at 8/1 but this one I don't agree with. The film starts strongly and after the frantic opening half it's inevitable that the second part would lag, but I think it drags too much. The closing scenes also seem a bit rushed and perhaps slightly overdone in the attempt to get the viewer to really feel the emotions. Solid enough but the strength of the film is in the acting and not the screenplay.

Most deserving :Eric Heisserer for Arrival. The novella is highly scientific with a lot devoted to mathematical methods and Fermant's least time principle. It is a great read but it doesn't set up well for a film because it's very much a stop-and-think kind of book. Hence it's a great achievement not just to adapt the novella but to catch the essence of the novella into the screenplay keeping the nuances of mathematical logic on the storyline but also making a movie that is essentially about linguistics a compelling one.

  • Best Original Screenplay
Most likely winner : Damien Chazelle for La La Land. A front runner but I think the strength of the film lies in the acting (mostly by Emma Stone) and the music (composed by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Pasek and Paul). This means that the script's storyline, with its flaws about the saving of jazz (though there is a discussion about jazz evolving, so it's not as ignored as many articles make it out to be) and the female lead having a mostly passive role (when she was clearly the best person in the film) fall on Chazelle. The film is strong and the script is not a bad one, but it has more flaws in it than others nominated (such as The Lobster, Hell or High Water and Manchester by the Sea).

Backup Pick : Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea. The strength of the film is in the acting and the strong emotional performances shown by the actors. But an actor can only flesh out a performance so far without a quality script. Everything in this script set the actors up with what they needed for a captivating performance. In this sense it is the type of screenplay that becomes a foundation for the film rather than the driver, and it is a strong foundation indeed.

Most deserving: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou for The Lobster. As far as original goes this is one of the most original screenplays of all time. A wholly bizarre black comedy that seems more like a Theatre of Absurd play than a 21st centre movie. Mostly straight-faced satire on the silly obsessions modern society has with modern relationships of the "you complete me" kind. The best movie about relationships in a long time is a dystopian one where single people get turned into animals if single too long. This is as original as it gets.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oscar Predictions -2017-Acting Awards

Oscar Predictions -2017-Acting Awards

  • Best Actor

Most Likely Winner: Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea. This award is not as much of a lock as it once seemed to be. Affleck's allegations of sexual harassment are getting more play in the media which could hurt his chances. And also, no award is sure when Denzel Washington is in the race. This takes nothing away from Affleck's performance in the film which is nothing short of exemplary. He's managed to portray a wide range of emotions in this very emotional film and hits all the right notes. Moving between immature to world-weary as the film moves, it manages to be one of the strongest portrayals of a emotionally suffering character in recent memory.

 Backup Pick:  Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in Fences. Denzel's win in the SAG awards is what has been widely credited as turning this Oscar into a two horse race (which it definitely wasn't last year after The Revenant). Unlike recent years where the actors go through harsh conditions or drastic physical changes to get the award, here it's only the power of the acting itself that drives. This is a flashy and powerful part, which definitely shows its origins in the theatre. Troy Maxson is the most important person in his life and every single scene is about him, no matter how many other characters are in the room. It's that strong of a performance.

Most Deserving (My Pick):  Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in Fences. Paradoxically I want Denzel to win because Fences was not an excellent film. Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge are still good films which are buoyed by good acting. La La Land is good despite Ryan Gosling not because of him. Even Viggo Mortensen doesn't drive Captain Fantastic as much as Denzel (and Viola Davis) do to Fences. Without the acting this isn't even watchable. 

  • Best Actress
Most Likely Winner: Emma Stone as Mia Dolan in La La Land. La La Land might sweep the Oscars and if so owes a large debt to Emma Stone who is magnificent in it. To say it was a natural fit is overused but totally accurate as Stone does everything in this musical like if she's been preparing for this part all along. Despite being given very limited space to work with by the writers, Stone lights up every scene and her performance was reason enough to see the movie. 

Backup Pick: Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. The academy loves Natalie Portman (though not as much as they love Meryl Streep who got a clear courtesy nomination) and they definitely love films about real historic characters. This sets up Portman as a strong second in the race. Just because it's the kind of film the Oscars like doesn't make it undeserving however. Portman hits all the notes to show the rawness of grief following her husband's death. It's fair to say that her performance was expected to be good by her past record but the quality on display makes it possible to put this as her best performance yet.

Most Deserving (My Pick) : Isabelle Huppert as Michele Leblanc in Elle. Huppert has been one of my favourite actresses since I saw The Piano Teacher. I can't remember seeing her in a bad film and this is no exception. I'm not one to overuse the word empowering (or care to use it in discussion of film merit) but there's no getting around it this time. Huppert's performance turns a cliche film trope of rape into a complex portrayal of a response (perhaps not everyone may see the film as empowering). It's one of the most original takes on a rape-revenge film just for the lightness of portrayal in what is usually a heavy handed genre. Without Huppert's self-assured performance  it could have easily fallen flat.

  • Best Supporting Actor
Most Likely Winner: Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight. One of the best movies of the year (I'd really say only Arrival or The Salesman are better) is made better by Ali's performance. The entire movie shrugs off stereotypes about the black experience in America, shown in this portrayal by Ali as sympathetic drug dealer, Juan. It's not exactly uncommon to have drug dealers shown to be complex humans but usually it's within the context of the crime trade (where they're shown to be honorable or motivated by past tragedy). Juan becomes a role model and a makeshift father, putting the criminal aspect of his character firmly in the background (though not dispensing with it entirely, giving more opportunity for Ali to display his ability to convey guilt and emotion).

Backup Pick: Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley in Lion. The win at the BAFTA has put Patel as second favourite, going ahead of Bridges. I have to say I didn't care for this film a lot and it's really only watchable because the acting is very good (much like Fences). The film is filled with cliches and the storyline seems to do its best to be emotionally manipulative. It is not the film you'd expect good acting because it seems to call for overdone. This is where Patel shows his quality. Everything seems to suggest making the role over the top, so his nuanced and measured approach into showing the character becoming more consumed by his obsession with discovering his own past makes the character really come alive.

Most Deserving (My Pick) : Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water. I really like Westerns and crime films and although Jeff Bridges has been playing the same gruff and grizzled characters of rural America for what seems like at least a decade, I'm never tired of them. His Texas Ranger is great, spending most of the film figuring out criminal behaviors while piling good-natured insults at his religious, Native American-Mexican partner. Definitely the most entertaining character in the film and in the climatic scenes, the most determined as well. I want him to win but not so much that I'll be annoyed if Ali picks up the award.

  • Best Supporting Actress

Most Likely Winner: Viola Davis as Rose Maxon in Fences. There's a bit of boring controversy by the fussy about whether this role was actually one which fell under Best Actress criteria instead of Best Supporting (basically the opposite of when Kate Winslet won Best Actress for The Reader  even though most felt it was a supporting role). I'd say it definitely is supporting even though she's the main actress just because of how much Denzel dominates the film. But her supporting role is one which really grounds the film and she plays a perfect foil to the main character, being the voice of reason at times but regularly going up against her husband. At 1/50 to win, this one is almost a sure thing.

Backup Pick: Michelle Williams as Randi in Manchester by the Sea. Probably very unlikely to win which is unfortunate as she's very good in this film. However she's a bit underused and on the bench a lot, even when she's on the screen since the focus is very much on her ex-husband in the film. In that case she can be said to be a supporting character but the her portrayal is solid enough that you want to see more of her and hear her story as well. It is another good role for Williams who is quite good at delivering emotional performances but it seems unlikely to be enough for the Oscar.

Most Deserving (My Pick) :Viola Davis as Rose Maxon in Fences. By the end of the film it's her character who can be said to have made the most changes and moved her state from exceptional weariness to be able to show and express the strength she has inside. It's a great portrayal of immense endurance and just like with Denzel's performance, the movie wouldn't be able to stand without the strength of the acting. Also, I think Viola Davis is one of the best actresses currently working and criminally underrated.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

La La Land: A review

La La Land: A review

La La Land has recently won 7 awards at the Golden Globes, breaking the record for most wins by a film in a single ceremony. The diversity of the awards it has won at the Globes (if you take awards seriously, which can be a bit of a personal choice) suggests its strong on a number of fronts. By winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay as well as both lead awards for acting and the awards for score and song, it is reasonable to assume there’s quality in every aspect of the film. And this would be correct.

 It’s Damien Chazelle’s third film and once again has jazz as one of its central themes. I would love to say that music is the driving force behind this film but because the script and acting is so strong, it’s hard to really make that case. But make no mistake, the songs (it is a musical, after all) and the score play a tremendous part in setting up the world of the film.

The film is a musical romantic comedy and it’s extremely rare in the sense that it’s a quality film that can still be tagged as a romantic comedy. But despite the musical numbers and the sun drenched, colour saturated palate of the film, it isn’t at all about the sunny fantasy world of showbiz. The script takes on the gritty reality of the world of artists and the struggles with authenticity in such a career. Since the film is a romantic one, the centre of the film is about the effects of an artistic career on the protagonists. This is a well-trodden theme of films and literature (even Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash, has the protagonist choose between a relationship or focusing on his music) and so has the potential to feel stale. But it isn’t at all because we’re heavily invested in these characters.

And the reason we care about the characters is because of the quality of acting. Emma Stone is excellent in this film. She’s generally been in quite good films but this time it’s a strong lead performance and not a supporting one. I don’t remember her being in films that required a lot of choreography, so it’s definitely great to see how much she gets into the dance moves needed for this film. Gosling is also quite good in the film, especially on the emotional scenes although you can usually see him focusing on the coordination for the choreography more than getting into it. But it’s a minor point.

The strength of the film from a thematic point is how much it manages to balance drama and comedy. There’s been more serious and challenging films this year (Moonlight, Elle) and also more fun ones (Deadpool, Sing Street) but nothing else really comes close to this film for giving you the mix of an old-style Hollywood full of singing and dancing like you’d expect Fred Astaire in mixed with the kind of realism you’d expect from serious studies of relationships (Asghar Farhadi and Michael Haneke’s films come to mind).

The movie is a joy to watch from the opening scene (easily the best opening scene Inglorious Basterds or Antichrist) to the closing one (also a great musical number). You can pick any reason to watch it from the script to the acting to music and you’d be justified in doing so. While, I’m slightly tired of the white saviour narrative in films and especially tired of “jazz is dead. Can we save jazz?” refrain, it doesn’t hamper the film at all or take away enjoyment.

Easily one of the best movies of the year. Possibly only bettered by Elle or Zootopia. An excellent take on relationships and struggling for art with both enough pathos and verve to make the movie live long in the memory. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nocturnal Animals: A Review

Nocturnal Animals- A review

Tom Ford hasn’t done a lot of films. This is only his second and it comes a full 7 years after the excellent debut of A Single Man. Without a history of comparable films and the fact that the director is a famous fashion designer, you’d expect the film to be visually stunning. And it certainly is. But it’s by no means the most striking aspects of the film. The film is excellently scripted (based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan) and weaves a story within a story. The fictional story is strongly linked to the main story despite being set in two completely different worlds. The main story is set in the world of high art and the society around it. With beautiful sets and fancy costumes, it looks like a photoshoot for a fashion magazine at times. Ford belongs to this world in reality, of course and he seems to be able to make fun of it. All the characters are unhappy but extremely motivated to seem successful.  This story is supplemented (or perhaps overtaken) by a secondary story set in rural Texas about a murder and revenge. The Texas story is introduced into the main in the form of a novel manuscript given to the main character, Susan by her ex-husband who has dedicated it to her.

The film presents us with far from a romantic vision of the world. The sub-story is violent and tense yet manages to never become wholly hopeless or bleak. In terms of setting up tension and thrill, the first scene of the secondary story does this better than any film in recent memory (probably since No Country for Old Men). The film is not romantic but romanticism is a main theme of the film, as it is regularly referenced as a foil to the striving ambition of the main characters. This isn’t a particularly new topic and hence it could have been easy to fall into cliché but while the takes on the struggle between artist versus careerist aren’t new they’re also not boring or rehashed.

The script is excellent but so are the performances. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in a dual role (he doesn’t really seem to be in much bad films). Amy Adams and Michael Shannon (also extremely reliable indicators of the fact that a film will be good if they’re in it) are also quite good with Shannon especially being memorable as a Texas policeman with strong views on meting out justice.

Guilt and revenge are also main themes in the film. More explicitly in the secondary story but also present in the main as the manuscript itself can be thought of as a type of revenge act. Proving that you can be successful to people who doubted you is a common story in everything from rap music to classic literature but there’s a lot in this film that reminds the viewer of The Great Gatsby .

A Single Man could have been dismissed as a one-off success if one is particularly cynical but Nocturnal Animals is also an excellent film. It’d be hard to deny that Ford is a filmmaker of real quality and capable of being as important in the film world as he is in fashion.