Category Archives: International

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

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Final 2019 Oscar Predictions

After nearly a whole year’s worth of screw-ups, terrible announcements, last-minute changes, and other controversial matters, the 91st Academy Awards are finally upon us. And as was with last year, I managed to see nearly all of the major contenders from last year in preparation for this one night. While there are more frontrunners this year than previous expected, I still have some thoughts about who I think will win in all 24 categories (Which will THANKFULLY be all aired live) as well as who I think better deserves it. Also like last year, I took the liberty of including some films I really thought deserved a nod in a category that were ultimately snubbed. And remember, regardless of how it turns out or if we even like it, the ceremony airs this Sunday, February 24th.

Best Picture

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma

Could Win: Spike Lee for BlacKKKlansman

Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale in Vice

Should Win: Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Glenn Close in The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Coleman in The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Coleman in The Favourite

Should Have Been Nominated: Viola Davis in Widows

 

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sam Elliot in A Star is Born

Could Win: Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Should Win: Sam Elliot in A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Could Win: Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Should Win: Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Should Have Been Nominated: Tilda Swinton in Suspiria

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Sorry to Bother You

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: BlacKKKlansman

Could Win: A Star is Born

Should Win: BlacKKKlansman

Should Have Been Nominated: Widows

 

Best Animated Feature Film

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Could Win: Incredibles 2

Should Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Should Have Been Nominated: Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

 

Best Foreign-Language Film

Will Win: Roma (Mexico)

Could Win: Cold War (Poland)

Should Win: Roma (Mexico)

Should Have Been Nominated: Border (Sweden)

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: Free Solo

Could Win: Minding the Gap

Should Win: RBG

Should Have Been Nominated: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

Will Win: A Night at the Garden

Could Win: Period. End of a Sentence

Should Win: A Night at the Garden

Should Have Been Nominated: Zion

 

Best Live-Action Short Film

Will Win: Fauve

Could Win: Detainment

Should Win: Fauve

Should Have Been Nominated: One Cambodian Family Please For My Pleasure

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Bao

Could Win: Late Afternoon

Should Win: Bao

Should Have Been Nominated: The Ostrich Politic

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson

Could Win: If Beale Street Could Talk by Nicholas Britell

Should Win: Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson

Should Have Been Nominated: First Man by Justin Hurwitz

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Shallow” from A Star is Born

Could Win: “All the Stars” from Black Panther

Should Win: “Shallow” from A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: “Hearts Beat Loud” from Hearts Beat Loud

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: Ready Player One

Should Win: First Man

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: A Star is Born

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Widows

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Black Panther

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: The Favourite

Should Have Been Nominated: Paddington 2

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Vice

Could Win: Border

Should Win: Vice

Should Have Been Nominated: Suspiria

 

Best Production Design

 

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: First Man

Should Have Been Nominated: Annihilation

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Vice

Could Win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should Win: BlacKKKlansman

Should Have Been Nominated: Hereditary

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: A Star is Born

Could Win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Do you have thoughts or predictions of your own? What films do you think will, could, or should win in each category? What are some that you feel got snubbed by the Oscars? Be sure to leave a Comment on it below, and if you like what you see here, be sure to Like this post and Follow my Blog for similar film-centric content.

“Shoplifters” Movie Review

Have you ever wondered what a dose of so-called “tough love” would feel like in cinematic form? By my estimate, this film is about as close to that feeling as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future. This Japanese family drama originally premiered as part of the official competition selection for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It ultimately went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or, the first Japanese film to do so in 21 years. After screening at a handful of fall festivals such as TIFF and AFI, Magnolia Pictures released in the United States on November 23rd, 2018, with an expanded rollout in the subsequent weeks. Thus far, it has grossed over $64.8 million at the worldwide box office, including a strong intake from domestic markets, and has received Best Foreign-Language film nominations from both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kor-eda, one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, the film had been in his mind for several years with a strong interest in the structure of families. He looked into numerous reports of poverty and was also strongly influenced by the effects of the recent Japanese Recession. Kor-eda also apparently was inspired when he toured a local orphanage and noticed a small girl reading a children’s book by author Leo Lionni. Set in modern-day Tokyo, the 2-hour story focuses on the Shibatas, a dysfunctional and impoverished family who mainly rely on shoplifting and low-end jobs to scrape by. One night on their way home from one of their sessions, father and son Osamu and Shota, played respectively by Lily Franky and Kairi Jō, come across a young girl in the streets. This girl Yuri Hojo, played by Miyu Sasaki, is brought into their home and becomes accustomed to their way of life as the rest of the unit attempts to adjust properly. I had heard of this highly acclaimed film for a long while, mainly since it premiered at Cannes. I’m usually attentive to the big winners at the festival, but this one just seemed fascinating for how different it seemed from films that usually take the major prize. While I’m not familiar with Hirokazu Kor-eda’s work, this film seemed like a more accessible arthouse film than usual. Moreover, my regular theater also partook in a bid where a portion of the proceeds made from the film would be donated to a shelter for the chronically homeless in Austin, Texas. And believe it or not, this actually ended up being the first foreign-language film I’ve seen in theaters. That doesn’t matter though, because Shoplifters is indeed worthy of the Palme d’Or and many of its other accolades it’s been receiving. Truth be told, I’m not very informed on what’s going on in Japan in current events. But judging from this film, and the way Kor-eda handles the subject matter, the socioeconomic conditions of the lower and middle class citizens is about the same as it is here in the U.S. We watch as this one particular family struggles to get by just on the daily, whether it’s earning the bare minimum wage or taking periodical trips to the grocery store just to get some food. What’s most remarkable about Shoplifters is how non-judgmental the whole thing is. All of the characters are damaged individuals, but can also be truly caring and honest. It’s really a breath of fresh air to find a film that treats its characters and ideas with three-dimensionality and respect. In a perfectly cast lead role, Lily Franky leads the pack as the resourceful and witty father Osamu. He may not be well-educated, but he still keeps his wits about him and tries to live by a moral code. When confronted with what he’s taught his children, he simply says, “I can’t think of anything else to teach them.” Newcomers Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki also do impressive work as Shota and Yuri, respectively. Despite the griminess and poverty that surrounds them, they manage to stay optimistic and forego the cliched childhood innocence that such characters are usually prone to, although they do try to cling to that. And arguably the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch is Sakura Ando as Nobuyo, Osamu’s hard-working and strong-willed wife. She’s extremely subtle and quiet in her own suffering, but still carries a warmth and radiance that’s hard to shake off. The rest of the family is rounded out by Mayu Matsuoka as the complicated aunt and the director’s frequent collaborator Kirin Kiki as the elderly matriarch of the family, in her final on-screen performance. What’s fascinating is that while we learn quite a bit about each person, there’s still plenty more left open to interpretation. And yet, each actor embodies their character so beautifully like a real, fleshed-out human being. Meanwhile, Shoplifters also manages to showcase Hirokazu Kor-eda as a technical master in control of his craft. Shot on 35 mm celluloid, cinematographer Kondo Ryuto is able to capture the streets of Tokyo in such an authentic and nuanced way. The use of real film creates a crisp grain and texture for the images shown, and is never too showy. It often times follows the characters in little tracking shots and just as easily utilizes intimate, Demme-style close-ups. Meanwhile, the editing is done by Kor-eda himself, who is remarkably patient and careful with his cuts. He knows exactly when to stay on a subject long enough and where to trim out the fat. These include two moving shots of the family playing together at the beach and an extended close-up of Nobuyo processing her actions. Renowned songwriter and musician Haruomi Hosono provides the extremely minimalist film score for this picture, his first in many years. It’s a very sparse soundtrack, comprising only 18 minutes over a 2-hour runtime. But it’s still worth mentioning, as it lacks normal convention- possibly due to its unusually short length. It’s surprisingly piano-heavy in the majority of tracks, and rejects using a real structure or melody to carry through the whole thing. It also uses softer percussion and strings for scenes specifically involving Shota to highlight how much of a difference his world is from his father. With an enormous heart at the center and a naked eye observing issues of poverty and familial connections, Shoplifters is a highly emotional and humanistic drama that engrosses from the start. After watching this film, I’m not surprised in the least by all of the love that it’s received over the last several months. Hirokazu Kor-eda knows just what he’s doing here, and I’m mighty hungry to check out what else he’s done.

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“Throne of Blood” Movie Review

Aaanndd, we’re back with my New Year’s Resolution, ladies and gentlemen. Same rules from last year apply here, (Check out my Letterboxd account if you want more details) and I decided to start with something really daring. This black-and-white samurai drama was originally released in Japan on January 15th, 1957, and was a major commercial success for Toho Studios. It didn’t arrive in the United States until November of 1961, where it enjoyed similar acclaim to the filmmaker’s other works. It later found even more success when, in 2014, the Criterion Collection added it to their library and made a brand new restoration on home video. Co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, the film is a very loose adaptation of the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, one of several the Japanese auteur made in his lifetime. He waited a few years to go forward with it until after Orson Welles made his own cinematic interpretation of The Bard’s story, and was only initially attached as a producer. There was something of a hurdle when the crew attempted to build the castle set on the slope of Mount Fuji and had to enlist troops at a nearby Marine Corps base to help build it from the ground up. Set in feudal Japan, the film follows a samurai warrior and commander named Taketoki Washizu, played by Toshirō Mifune. He and his close friend Miki Yoshiteru, played by Akira Kobo, encounter a spirit in a thick forest who prophesizes their respective futures and rewards. When the first part comes true, Washizu’s scheming wife Lady Asaji, played by Isuzu Yamada, urges him to murder their liege lord and take his place. The two subsequently become gradually insane and drunk with power as the consequences for their actions begin unraveling. Confession time: This is the first feature-length Akira Kurosawa film that I’ve both watched and finished all the way through! As a devoted cinephile, I understand that saying this is a downright travesty; to some, it might even be treasonous. But for whatever reason, for the longest time, I was unable to get my hands on any of his films, especially his supposed masterpiece Seven Samurai. But I was finally able to get the Criterion DVD for this particular film over the holiday season, and thought it would make a great addition to my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I have read that Throne of Blood is not as impressive as the director’s other works. But in my opinion, this is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare’s work that I have seen in cinematic form yet. Like Kenneth Branagh, Kurosawa has a deep understanding of the story that many other directors seem to miss. By taking the barebones story of a traitorous and power-hungry noble and applying it to the world of Medieval Japan, Macbeth no longer becomes beholden to the barrier of language. What makes Throne of Blood so fascinating to watch is that it ultimately doesn’t need the extravagant poetry and monologues that Shakespeare puts in his works to get to the point or themes of the story. We still have staples such as the sorcerer, Lady Macbeth, et. al., but the new setting makes it feel so unique and memorable. In one of just 16 feature films films they worked on together, Toshirō Mifune is incredible as Washizu. It’s so easy to see why the director constantly wanted to work with him, as he full commits to playing a man slowly losing his grip on reality. This performance is especially impressive during his scenes in the last act of the movie, when his sanity just completely collapses. Opposite him is Isuzu Yamada as his wife Asaji, who’s arguably even more ruthless and cunning than he is. Her small and seemingly quiet demeanor are a perfect cover for a cutthroat and callous woman who simply wants as much power in the land as possible, no matter who suffers. Also, Akira Kobo does great work as Washizu’s former friend turned-enemy Miki, who apparently is inspired by Banquo. While he initially does have decent intentions, as soon as its clear he’s a threat to his old comrade, all bets are off. As far as technical aspects go, Throne of Blood sees Kurosawa taking full command of his voice and surroundings once more. It sees him working with many of his regular collaborators, including Asakazu Nakai for the cinematography. There are many static wide shots and sweeping landscapes used in the film, which creates an incredible use of negative space. Kurosawa also edited the film himself, provide a healthy amount of variety for shots in scenes. For example, a sudden zoom-in or a character in a room will suddenly be intercut with close-ups and the like. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Yoshirô Muraki’s incredible production and costume design. It’s so amazing that the Castle of Spider’s Web was made from scratch as it looks so authentic and real. Not to mention that numerous extras were used to film large battle scenes and, of course, the fog. It adds such a brilliant atmosphere to the film as a whole, and frequently is used to throw audiences off from reality. Masaru Satô composed and conducted the instrumental film score, and it’s highly dynamic and unconventional. Rather than give a straightforward melody to serve as the backbone for the whole soundtrack, Satô uses sparse tracks in an attempt to capture what’s going on inside Washizu’s headspace. With the possible exception of the opening title track, nearly every single piece is cacophonous and chaotic. There’s a consistent percussive sound beating around violently, as well as high notes from wooden flutes to create something truly baffling but memorable. I think if for nothing else, this film would be a great introduction into classic Japanese cinema for more mainstream audiences. Yes, it’s black-and-white and subtitled, (With two different versions on the Criterion DVD) something that can turn some people off. But it’s surprisingly accessible in its narrative and style. Not to mention, it has one of the most jaw-dropping final scenes I’ve watched in quite some time. Throne of Blood is an extremely thematic and riveting tale of power and tragedy. Not only does it so expertly adapt one of Shakespeare’s mot revered plays while retaining its spirit, but it’s arguably the perfect launching pint for my exploration of Akira Kurosawa. I’m mighty hungry to see his other adaptations of The Bard, and the rest of his filmography in general.

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