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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tier Ranking the Independent Spirit Award Nominations

Don't you just love it when an awards committee actually honors talent and films you love or at least care about? This is why I am always excited about the Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, because this crew just gets it. Their red carpet fashion may be questionable (at best), but few other awards can legitimately claim that they celebrate as much diverse talent and underrated gems as the Spirits.

Before we get to the full list, I want to present my very biased ranking of the nominees, followed by my second and third tier favorites (those who don't make any of these three lists...welp). Here goes (note: this is not category specific):

1st Tier (The Best of the List)
  • Boyhood
  • Director Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
  • Patricia Arquette (Boyhood
  • Director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)
  • Cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)
  • Edward Norton (Birdman)
  • Michael Keaton (Birdman)
  • Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)  
  • Screenwriter Justin Lader (The One I Love)
  • Screenwriter Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive)

2nd Tier (Those I Liked, But Didn't Love)
  • Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
  • J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
  • Director/Producer/Writer Justin Simien (Dear White People)
  • Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive)
  • Jenny Slate (Obvious Child)
  • Director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child)
  • Emma Stone (Birdman)

3rd Tier (The Nominees I Haven't Seen Yet, But Whose Past Work I've Loved)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
  • Jessica Chastain, (A Most Violent Year)
  • Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma)
  • Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter)
  • David Oyelowo (Selma)
  • Carmen Ejogo (Selma)
  • Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler)

Since I am a slave to my own snark, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how shocked I am to see serious duds Love is Strange and Jimi: All is By My Side anywhere on the nominations list -- particularly Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias's screenplay for Love is Strange (which leaves a lot to be desired) and André Benjamin's performance in Jimi: All is By My Side (a film that is horrendous in every aspect). Also, this list could have really used more Christopher Meloni (White Bird in a Blizzard ), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Elisabeth Moss (The One I Love), but instead they are SNUBBED.

Okay, I got that out of my system. Check out the complete rundown of the nominees here, and let me know your thoughts.

The Film Independent Spirit Awards air live on IFC February 21, 2015 at 2pm PST/5pm EST

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Werewolf Thriller LATE PHASES is About Something Far More FrighteningThan Its Grizzly Villain

We often talk about common tropes in horror films -- everything from characters running purposely into the direction of the danger to the family pet being the most intelligent characters in the film. When we get to the topic of older characters in the genre, there isn't really much to say about them. They're either possessed (The Taking of Deborah Logan), the maniacal villain (Drag Me to Hell) or a peripheral character that's irrelevant to the central story. Rarely are they protagonists, someone we can root for. Which is what makes Adrián García Bogliano's LATE PHASES so interesting to watch. It propels the senior character into a role that isn't instantaneously definable.

From its start, there's a sadness about LATE PHASES. The film opens as Ambrose (Nick Damici) is sitting tensely in the passenger seat of his son Will's (Ethan Embry) car as he's driven to Crescent Bay, an out-of-the-way retirement community where he is to spend the rest of his days alone. He doesn't speak much, despite the effort Will puts into the conversation. We soon realize that this has been designated his final destination without his full consent, which has left him cantankerous and bewildered. Ambrose's failure to connect with his son is no longer because he is unable to but because he simply doesn't want to. A widowed veteran left blinded by the Vietnam war, Ambrose is at the point where he feels it's too late for him to start being the man he's supposed to be. Rather, he's settling for the man he actually is.

The idea of settling is a strong component of LATE PHASES. The word is often used in describing the twilight years of someone's life, the notion that at this stage it's all about merely existing, reflecting and, well, waiting for death to arrive. But Ambrose doesn't fit that stereotype. When he looks back on his life, it's filled with pain and regret -- punctuated by the thought that the only honorable thing he's ever done was serve his country in a war it ultimately lost. He's more than simply present; he's restless, radioactive and frustratingly aware of his desolate surroundings. As he seeks for an activity to fill his days, he quickly finds one when he learns of the frightening events that are decimating the people of Crescent Bay quicker than old age ever can: werewolves.

The irony of wolves attacking people in a community where they've essentially been dropped off to die isn't lost on the audience. They're the forgotten family members, pushed away from society, neglected by both their loved ones and even law enforcement -- who have all but given up on trying to protect the neighborhood that's become under siege. So Ambrose channels the one thing he's confident in, his military skills (miraculously sharpened by his blindness), as he comes to terms with the fact that he will likely die in this community, but not without winning the grizzly war that's taken out so many of his neighbors. As he gathers his ammo and military attire, he embarks on the greatest battle of his life.

Interestingly, many think of old age and immediately think of death, when in fact the bigger concern among seniors tends to be loneliness -- the idea that they're no longer needed or even wanted. What Bogliano and screenwriter Eric Stolze do is give the senior agency to take claim of his life one final time, giving him something to fight for before he takes his last breath -- using the idea of wolves terrorizing residents of a retirement community only as an allegory to present this more poignant message. Though LATE PHASES isn't as smart as Bogliano's excellent Here Comes the Devil, the filmmaker once again provides terror where you least expect it, blending themes of faith and redemption. As the film leads up to its bloody conclusion, there's a sense of peace that falls upon our hero, a reparation that he is unable to find at the local church or even with his son.

LATE PHASES is influenced by the success of many classic horrors in that it doesn't allow the element of fear to be the film's only value. Though the special effects in the werewolf transformation scenes come off more cheesy than terrifying (I kinda wish Bogliano chose to cut away from those scenes and focus the camera on the victims' faces instead), it is the imminence of death even before we actually see the wolves that incites such an unsettling feeling. As the lead antihero, Damici embodies the film's strongest themes in a performance that is physical, emotional as well as psychological.

Rating: B (*** out of *****)

LATE PHASES opens Friday in select theaters and on VOD.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So, THE AGE OF ADALINE Trailer Kinda Confirmed My Worst Fears

I'm conflicted. While I love Blake Lively as a red carpet superstar, Blake Lively as a serious actress I am having some trouble with. But, as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been trying to keep hope alive about her new role as a woman stricken with the inability to age in a world that continues to evolve and pass her by. Or something. The trailer for THE AGE OF ADALINE has now been released and...guys, I just don't know.

Lively seems uncomfortable and ill-fitted for the role, and the rest of the cast -- as dazzling as they are in other films -- noticeably seem just as lost as she is to be in this movie that may just have been doomed from its premise. The trailer looks lifeless, unconvincing and in desperate need of a clear target audience. Here's the official synopsis of the film to give you a better idea of the story:

After miraculously remaining 29 years old for almost eight decades, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) has lived a solitary existence, never allowing herself to get close to anyone who might reveal her secret. But a chance encounter with charismatic philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) reignites her passion for life and romance. When a weekend with his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker) threatens to uncover the truth, Adaline makes a decision that will change her life forever.

Take a look at the trailer:

Eh, maybe this is just a bad trailer. 

THE AGE OF ADALINE comes to theaters April 24, 2015.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Just Got Way Too Excited About This 'PEANUTS' Trailer

And I make no apologies about my geekasm, whatsoever. I grew up with the Peanuts comic strip and I've always loved its minimalism -- reflective of old school cartoons that don't rely on a whole lot of wild effects and snarky wit to attract audiences. Charlie Brown was that quintessential character of his time who couldn't ever win for trying, but we loved him anyway. Which is also why I never miss a chance to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (which should be re-airing any minute now), and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Yes, my obsession is very much real.

So, needless to say I nearly dropped my coffee mug this morning when our beloved Snoopy presented the trailer for THE PEANUTS MOVIE, which you may remember is finally making its way onto the big screen next year (and in 3D!). We have a grueling 12 months to wait until we can see this, which means you'll likely see me mention this movie a lot on this site. So, here's what the gang is up to this time:

In PEANUTS, a 3D, CGI animated comedic adventure, Snoopy, the world’s most lovable beagle – and flying ace! – embarks upon his greatest mission as he and his team take to the skies to pursue their arch-nemesis, while his best pal Charlie Brown begins his own epic quest back home.
Watch the adorable new trailer:

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is in theaters November 6th, 2015. Who else is psyched about it?

Now on DVD: Nicole Beharie Stars in the Interracial Romance Drama, MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU

November 21st update: I've since watched MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU and, while it's not a perfect film (Duken is especially unremarkable in it), Nicole Beharie is absolutely divine in this role. Watch it if only for her. 

Those of you who have recently boarded the "I love Nicole Beharie" train after watching her team up with Ichabod Crane on FOX's Sleepy Hollow may be interested to catch her in the indie romance, MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU. After a limited theatrical run late last year, the film is finally available on DVD today, and you will also be able to catch it streaming on Netflix in December. As a longtime fan of Beharie after seeing her in the criminally underrated American Violet back in 2008 (seriously, go find this film if you haven't seen it already), I'm so here for her as the lead in any film. Here's a little more about MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU:

My Last Day Without You is loosely based on Emmy-winning television and film producer Christoph Silber's whirlwind romance with his late wife. Directed by Stefan Schaefer, My Last Day Without You is about two strangers from opposite corners of the world, who meet by chance in New York City and fall in love. 

Two lives become intertwined when, on a one-day business trip to New York, young German executive, Niklas, played by Ken Duken, falls in love with African-American singer-songwriter, Leticia, played by Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow, 42) . Leticia exposes Niklas to her Brooklyn-bred world, Niklas experiences emotions he's never felt before, but their two worlds clash when Niklas's business interests threaten to overshadow his feelings for his new love. With a soundtrack comprised of five original songs recorded by Nicole Beharie, this story portrays an unlikely but layered love story between the film's romantic lead characters, the music, and the city of New York. 

OMG, in case we needed another reason to love Nicole Beharie, she sings too -- and well! Also, I was just discussing interracial romance on the big screen during Cinema in Noir's Twitter chat on Sunday when I brought up the 2006 film Something New. We don't see this portrayed very often in romantic cinema by two lead actors, so I'm really interested to see how MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU unfolds.

Watch the trailer:

Monday, November 17, 2014

That Feminist Vampire Warrior Film You Ordered Has Been Served

And let me be among the first say, it is delicious. That's just one way to describe how absolutely hypnotic musician-turned-filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is. If only for its cool black-and-white photography, awesome indie rock/80s pop soundtrack and one of the baddest goth heroines we've seen in some time.

But if the premise (which follows the nocturnal escapades of a female vampire) sounds derivative to you at all, then just wait. It gets zanier. Amirpour personalizes the well-worn concept by blending the cinematic styles of 50s horror icon Vincent Price, 80s romcom king John Hughes and the millenial badassery of Robert Rodriguez with her own Iranian rock feminism -- resulting in a gorgeous, mysterious and seductive film. Picture it, if you will, a young woman vampire (remarkably played by Sheila Vand), wearing a striped Freddy Krueger-like shirt and sneakers underneath traditional full chador, prowling the streets of Bad City for misbehaving men. Her transportation of choice? A skateboard.

It's this fusion of several different cultural influences together that make the film so intoxicating to watch. But at its core the film is about the human connection, or the lack thereof. As Vand's character, simply referred to as "The Girl," lurks through the town (which actually looks like the backlot of an old John Wayne film though it was shot in a California desert), she encounters "The Persian James Dean" charmingly played by Arash Marandi, who is simultaneously slinking down the street after leaving a particularly joyless costume party. The two share very little conversation. Actually, it is our James Dean incarnate who does all the talking as he tries to mask his insobriety. But the two strangely hit it off as she struggles to hide her fangs from him and he likewise avoids telling her about his drug addicted father whose habit costs him his kickass convertible (a prize possession he worked hard to obtain). They are virtual strangers but united in that they both remain invisible except to each other in a town overrun with abominations. The world may be coming to an end, but as long as they've got a decent Lionel Richie song to listen to and each other, it may not be as bad.

This awkward 80s-styled romance humanizes an otherwise bloodthirsty tale in which a dangerous vampire seeks vengeance on men like James Dean's father, who solicits prostitutes and forces them to partake in his habit. Or the tattooed drug dealer/pimp who's so obsessed with his hustle that he doesn't even notice that The Girl he welcomes into his home is not interested in sex...

Rapturous, bold and even funny at times, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is that Iranian feminist vampire film you never knew you always wanted. Amirpour creates an unusual world that defies era and location. The electrifying performances further illuminate Amirpour's vision that is sexy without being about sex and modest without being at all conservative. It's so smart, meticulous and fresh that I can only hope it marks the beginning of a provocative new franchise.

Rating: A (**** out of *****)

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles Friday, with national expansion to follow.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is a Cliched Romantic Drama with Two Great Lead Performances

If you thought the commercials for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's BEYOND THE LIGHTS looked like any number of romantic dramas in which a damsel in distress is "saved" by a big strong -- and beautiful -- man, then you were right. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a pop starlet caught between her fabricated image and her true identity, who does in fact find the strength to stand on her own two feet only when she falls in love with her heroic bodyguard (Nate Parker) -- after which they live happily ever after. It's derivative, it's cliched, it's expected (considering Prince-Bythewood also brought us the equally simplistic, Love & Basketball). But you know what? Mbatha-Raw and Parker sell it.

Let's move beyond its well-worn premise for a bit, which admittedly deserves every criticism you may have -- from its presumed failure to honor the much talked about feminism code to its made-for-MTV appeal. Ponder this instead: how many times have we seen a recent major release original romantic film (in this case meaning not adapted from a book, not a sequel and not an independent film) with two lead characters of color entangled in a romance that does not include gang members, murder and/or drugs? I'll wait.

It's strange that we live in a world in which tiny victories like this are considered major milestones, but here we are. We're at a place where two gorgeous actors of color portraying lovers on screen is something of an anomaly. Even more interesting, it seems like the world is finally catching on to what many of us already knew -- Mbatha-Raw and Parker are undeniable talents. It might have taken Mbatha-Raw donning a long purple weave and skimpy costumes, and Parker nearly in the buff, to get here -- but we've finally made it. At least a little.

BEYOND THE LIGHTS takes a lot from films like A Star is Born in that it's about two distinct individuals whose big time careers often get in the way of who they really are -- and how their romance collides with their separate ambitions. It's hokey and melodramatic at times for sure, but it doesn't get so carried away from reality that it removes you from the film. And that's all due to the performances. Mbatha-Raw's vulnerable performance as fragile pop sensation, Noni, is particularly heartrending at times -- infused with equal levels of tenderness and bold, naughty girl sexuality that will make anyone's head spin at the fact that this is all coming from one actress who just earlier year brought us the demure, corseted royal heiress in Belle. Yes, Hollywood, Mbatha-Raw is beautiful, talented and here to stay.

Same goes for Parker, who's delivered one great performance after another for years that it seems silly to refer to him as a "breakout star." Did people miss his amazingess in Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters seven years ago, and how he held his own alongside Richard Gere in 2012's Arbitrage? Parker yet again redefines himself here as an actor playing Kaz, a dapper cop/security officer in charge of keeping Noni safe. When Noni takes a dramatic personal stumble, it is Kaz who becomes her knight in shining armor -- rescuing her from a downward spiral and helping her find her true voice. This male superhero trope gets a jolt when Noni in turn far less dramatically rescues him back. (Sorry, I couldn't resist this Pretty Woman cliche in a genre that continues to borrow from itself). So that's a mild but appreciated surprise which allows Parker to play with a little nuance. The scenes between Kaz and his father (Danny Glover) are particularly special to watch.

Then there's Minnie Driver, who stars as a rather unsung character in the commercials yet delivers the film's most complex performance as Noni's single mother, Macy Jean. Introduced as an unreasonable stage mom right from the beginning of the film, Macy Jean was determined to remove herself and her young daughter from their South London flat and turn Noni into a superstar -- by any means possible. Which entails turning Noni into a product, sacrificing her innocence, voice and natural hair texture in order to be accepted in America's superficial yet coveted vault of approval. Driver portrays Macy Jean as driven but unlikable, narrow-sighted yet by the end of the film she allows an ounce of love to peak through her tough exterior. Actually, to her own words, everything Macy Jean does is on account of love for Noni. It's just that her love isn't the gooey, pleasurable kind we see in other areas of the film. It's dutiful, deliberate, and harsh but still unyielding. Driver carries all these responsibilities in a performance that is nothing short of impressive.

These fine performances would not be what they are without Prince-Bythewood's dedication to the story and insight into the life of an American pop product. The filmmaker is known for her often mawkish portrayals of black romance, but she attempts to touch on the misogyny and pride-swallowing apathy that makes up much of the entertainment industry -- though not enough to make a definitive point about that as it focuses on the romance between Kaz and Noni. I would have liked to have seen more of a statement piece, something that gives me a little more to cling to, but there is something charming about Prince-Bythewood's depiction of the power of love. It's not enough to compel cynics like myself, but it will likely touch the heart of romantics everywhere.

Rating: C+ (** 1/2 out of *****)

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is in theaters Friday, November 14th.

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