The Post-TIFF Recap+Review: The Last Five Years

via broadway.com

The resounding cheers throughout and at the very end of the second public screening of The Last Five Years at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival indicated approval from a largely musical-loving crowd. You would hope so. The off-Broadway production composed by the Tony award-winning Jason Robert Brown is apparently a pretty well-loved piece – at least, that’s what my very unscientific survey of the numerous young and old theatre geeks in line to get into the screening suggested by their excited commentary.

But how does it fare for the lite-fans or standard moviegoer?

It’s 90 minutes of non-stop singing. The songs are quirky, fun, beautifully sung and there’s a Russell Crowe ad lib that’s just the cherry on top of all of zippy comedic snaps. If you somehow don’t have the prerequisite genuine joy for musicals,  you’ll be treated to a phenomenal performance from Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Into the Woods), who lays down everything that makes her the talent that she is in this movie.

Kendrick plays Cathy, an aspiring actress who is one of two main characters in a story about a deeply passionate love that fails to withstand the challenges of compromise, balancing success and mutual support in their marriage. Her husband Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, Smash) is a novelist whose career launches and thrives over the course of their five year relationship. Cathy and Jamie’s tale alternates between their individual perspectives; her version begins from the moment their relationship ends, while Jamie shares it in sequential order from the time they met. The timelines are a bit confusing for the first few songs, but they eventually overlap in the proposal scene. Suddenly, the whole picture of this devastatingly unfortunate situation is much more clear and eventually comes full circle.

The original production uses the same storytelling device but in the form of alternating soliloquies. Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You, screenwriter on Unbroken) rightly placed Kendrick and Jordan in nearly every scene together so that the audience can see the two characters physically respond to the spiteful and loving words shared as their relationship takes its turns. It is pretty necessary for a film medium, but it also works because of Kendrick and Jordan’s chemistry, especially in the earlier, more emotionally fruitful days of their relationship. Their feverishness in those scenes, aided with LaGravenese’s intimate shaky camera shots, makes those young love moments really palpable, pure and exciting.

Anna Kendrick signing autographs for fans at the premiere screening of The Last Five Years at TIFF.

Anna Kendrick signing autographs for fans at the premiere screening of The Last Five Years at TIFF.

When the conflict driving their separation becomes more apparent, your empathy gets placed in Cathy’s perspective more than Jamie’s. There is a lot more to identify with in her story, and Kendrick drives that connection. Kendrick juggles the emotional, comedic and musical elements  with an incredible brilliance and finesse. If for some reason viewers haven’t been convinced by her talent in her work so far, then this is the vessel that’ll do the trick. Jordan, amidst a lot of frantic choreography and a not-so-kind character arch, proves to be a great on-screen counterpart and similarly holds well in the darkest (and yes, douchiest) of moments. But, Kendrick easily outshines him.

The fact that The Last Five Years is not overbearingly dense in length and plot will probably please viewers more than other musicals released in recent years. It is honest, heartbreaking without excessive dramatics and for at least part of the film, it is a lot of fun. If these are the elements that made fans so invested in the original production, then they should take comfort that LaGravenese projected that appeal with the film adaptation. LaGravenese and Jordan appeared at the screening I attended for a Q&A (Kendrick was actually in the theatre next door for the premiere screening of Cake). Here are a few tidbits from that session:

  • LaGravenese wanted to keep the production as organic and raw as possible, but also had to balance those goals with the visual aspects. This was a bit challenging as there was live singing during the production.
  • Jeremy Jordan found difficulty in bringing body and breath to the songs as he was active while the other sang (which differs from the nature of the stage show)
  • Any lyric changes (which were questioned by a fan during the Q&A) were made by Jason Robert Brown, the original composer, who also expanded the sonic aspect of the songs for the film
  • Anna Kendrick thought of the Russell Crowe bit  ad libbed in a song
  • Jeremy’s actual wife was in the film in a not-so-positive scene

The Last Five Years will be distributed by The Weinstein Company and will release in North America on February 13th, 2015. If you live in Toronto, it will be screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

 

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Film Review: A Most Violent Year

via YouTube

A Most Violent Year is one of those would-be award contenders that didn’t make the cut, save for Jessica Chastain’s Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Golden Globes and a not-so-little declaration from the National Board of Review as the Best Picture of 2014. Maybe its slow pace and minimal character development did not do enough for voters, but its strong performances and storyline is enough to bite on for what becomes a surprisingly thrilling film (in its own way).

A graffiti-ladened New York City is the backdrop for Abel (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Anna (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Jurassic World) Morales struggles to grow their oil distribution company, one which faces fierce competition, violent sabotage and impending charges by a government watch dog headed by a gentleman named Lawrence (David Oyelowo, SelmaPlanet of the Apes.)

The compelling part of the story is birthed out of the violent 1981 setting which was notoriously one of the worst years for crime in New York City. Abel tries to adhere to a business code of conduct rooted in principles of hard work and fairness, whereas his wife Anna is a partial convert who cannot quite shake her Brooklyn roots when it comes to protecting her family and their work. With the cumulative threats of truck hijackings, a hit man, Lawrence’s auditing and a potential expansion deal falling through, Abel sets out to determine who is behind all of his troubles and fix them before it costs him his life’s work and his family.

This type of storyline is akin to one you would find in an episode of The Sopranos. Unlike Tony, Abel has a tighter grasp on his moral compass, which relies on one too many business mottos taken straight out of how-to books and barely changes direction as he faces his obstacles. The little bit of a character arch that is there doesn’t spin out into extremes, but Isaac makes Abel’s good-natured, straight-shoot persona intriguing enough. Anna is a little more fiery and outspoken, but more in vein with Abel’s approach than someone who enjoys melodrama. Chastain brings a sharpness that plays out extremely well opposite Isaac and tends to outshine him; her work in a scene when Lawrence is crashing her child’s birthday party with a search warrant is noteworthy (and also the source of an Oscar snub meme I couldn’t shake while watching.)

via YouTube

The production does not fall too far from that of The Sopranos, either.    Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and his team (which features Brian Young, a fantastic cinematographer who also worked on Selma) simulated a gritty aesthetic which is integral for a movie that seems like it really should involve a mob. Although it doesn’t, the hustle dictated by Chandor’s script is interestingly just as compelling when seen through the eyes of a middle-man enterprise that opts to avoid that world, yet still faces its consequences, regardless of how well the owners rock a power suit and camel coat. It is a notable shift from Chandor’s narrative in Margin Call, which tackled a corporation’s activities on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. If A Most Violent Year is any indication, Chandor really enjoys period-based business-centric dramas – and behind the lens, he’s good at them, too.

I attended an advance screening of A Most Violent Year in Toronto, the tickets for which I won from Free Advanced Screenings in Canada. A Most Violent Year will release in Canada on January 30th by Elevation Pictures. 

Oscar Predictions for Six Big Categories

via listafterlist.com

The nominees for the 87th Academy Awards will be announced tomorrow morning. Between the indie-driven Boyhood, some really fantastic biopics (SelmaThe Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game) and quirky works like Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s a pretty great crop of films to consider for the six main categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress).  Although there are definitely some guarantees (see: lots of nominations for Boyhood), there are a few categories that are up for some contention  given the overabundance of contenders (looking at you, Best Actor category.)

Granted, I haven’t seen all of these films. I missed out on Boyhood’s theatrical run (but I’m planning on renting it soon) and am waiting for A Most Violent YearCake and Still Alice to come out in theatres. I’ll probably see Inherent Vice, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Into the Woods on a cheap Tuesday sometime soon. I’ve read a lot about each of these films though, so I hope that my hours spent on Variety and Vanity Fair and Screen Rant and practically any digital outlet that posted an article on film in the last six months proves to be somewhat helpful in my guesses.

Best Picture (Eight slots)
GuaranteedBoyhoodSelmaFoxcatcherThe Imitation GameThe Theory of EverythingBirdmanWild
Likely: Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods
MaybeWhiplashBig Eyes, Unbroken
I’d Be Surprised By: Nightcrawler, American Sniper.

Notes: I saw Nightcrawler. I loved it. I just think it’s success lies more in Jake Gyllenhaal’s character than the actual storytelling, as interesting as the subject matter was to watch. As I mentioned, I haven’t seen American Sniper, but I haven’t read anything overly spectacular about it. I’m curious to see what warranted all those guild nominations it received, though.

Best Director (Five slots)
Guaranteed: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Alejandro González Inñárritu (Birdman)
Likely: David Fincher(Gone Girl), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Maybe: Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
I’d Be Surprised By
: Tim Burton (Big Eyes), Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), Jean Marc Vallée (Wild)

Notes: The Imitation Game is a well-built crowd-pleaser. I think Tyldum’s got a good shot at pulling a nomination in this category because of how well he pulled everything together. I would love to see Wes Anderson’s work on The Grand Budapest Hotel get recognized. I absolutely loved its quirkiness and aesthetic, which made it a standout in 2014. While Unbroken and Wild  were both great efforts from Jolie and Vallée respectively, I just don’t think they compare to Linklater, DuVernay and Inñárritu’s visions.

Best Actor (Five Slots)

Guaranteed: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Michael Keaton ( Birdman)
Likely: David Oyelowo (Selma), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Maybe: Bill Murray (St.Vincent), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
I’d Be Surprised By:  Jack O’Connell (Unbroken), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Notes: This year, actors were just really great at being dramatic. I know a lot of people are saying that either Oyelowo or Carell will probably get snubbed, but I think both of their physical transformations and embodiment of their characters were much more brilliant than some of the other performances we’ve seen. I’m including O’Connell in that consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of O’Connell’s work. I am one of those annoying individuals  who likes to talk about the fact that I knew of him when he was on Skins (I’ve also seen 71′ and yes he’s great in that as well.) I think his work in Unbroken is a huge, huge turning point in what will certainly be a fantastic career. Will I be disappointed if he ends up taking a spot? Not at all. I just don’t think this is the year that it’ll happen.

Best Actress (Five Slots)

Guaranteed: Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Amy Adams (Big Eyes), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Likely: Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Maybe: Jennifer Aniston (Cake)
I’d Be Surprised By: Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights)

Notes: Yes, I said Mbatha-Raw even though there’s been little to no mention of Beyond the Lights in Academy Award consideration. Who knows what might be thrown at us tomorrow morning, and while I’d be completely surprised by it, I could sort of see it in the realm of far possibility. I’ve heard some lovely things about Blunt’s performance in Into the Woods, but again, I’m not sure how it stacks up against all the other really great dramatic performances see on screen this year.

Best Supporting Actor (Five Slots)
Guaranteed: Ed Norton (Birdman), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Likely: Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher),
Maybe: Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes), Robert DuVall (The Judge)
I’d Be Surprised By:  Channing Tatum, (Foxcatcher), anyone else the Academy may nominate

This category is pretty clear-cut. Majority of these actors were already nominated for the Golden Globes, but I thought I’d throw Channing Tatum in there because while I felt a bit mixed about his performance, it was in many ways a big leap for him. It’d be an interesting turn of events to see his name thrown back into consideration, since Foxcatcher‘s hype has slowed significantly post-festival season. I cannot think of any other supporting actors who left a particular impression off the top of my head, but feel free to send some names my way and we can discuss! Let’s see what happens tomorrow.

Best Supporting Actress (Five Slots)
Guaranteed: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Emma Stone (Birdman), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Likely: Meryl Streep (Into the Woods), Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year)
Maybe: None
I’d Be Surprised By: Kim Dickens (Gone Girl), Carmen Ejogo (Selma)

This category is also pretty clear-cut this year, and I think the nominations are pretty much locked down to the names I mentioned (and who was nominated at the Golden Globes.) That being said, I think Dickens and Ejogo gave some great performances in their respective films. I don’t really see this happening for Ejogo, but Dickens conjured a lot of conversation surrounding her work in Gone Girl and I’d love to see some recognition for it.

The Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow morning at 8:30am. Let’s see how my predictions compare to the actual nominations. Who do you think will get nominated? Comment or tweet me at @whatthemehek and let me know!

Film Review: Selma

via Screen Rant

A month ago, the TIFF Bell Lightbox held a special early screening of Selma which was followed by a special and insightful Q&A with director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo. Selma is slowly gaining traction at the theatres, as its being boosted by some award coverage, high critical praise, Oprah’s name attached as a producer and Brad Pitt’s Plan B backing the film. I’m hopping in to give my two cents about this brilliant film and hopefully convince you to drive out and see it. Centered on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest to bring equal voting rights to America, Selma is a beautifully crafted historical retelling and semi-biopic whose underlying themes are poignant and more relevant than ever.

Filmmakers who may have considered bringing Dr.King’s story to the big screen likely found hefty obstacles in the sizeable weight to his career or determining the right story to tell; as far as I am aware, there are no major studio films with MLK as the central subject. In the case of Selma, the formula is just right; a fine-tuned balance of storytelling on the flawed civil rights leader, strategist, husband and father as well as a well-rounded tale  of one of the biggest marks in civil progress in American history. It’s this streamlined approach (authored by DuVernay and Paul Webb , a British screenwriter whose credits lie in theatre and rewrites on Spielberg’s Lincoln) that helps Selma avoid a lot of the tropes of these types of films. Instead of glazing over the life and times of Dr.King, Webb really hones in on the events that occurred in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Washington’s reactions and a snapshot of the man behind the movement at that time.

When the film first introduces Martin (David Oyelowo, The ButlerRise of the Planet of the Apes), he is in Sweden receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. Oyelowo is striking from the get-go; his presence, articulation and grasp of Martin’s historical importance shine in an intimate moment with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: AnarchySparkle). The majority of people who watch this film likely experienced Dr.King in a classroom setting and are familiar with his infamous speaking ability. Oyelowo does a fantastic job at mirroring it, convincingly instilling the same fierceness, strength and hope that Dr.King conveyed in his speeches through his renditions.

After meeting with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Michael ClaytonThe Grand Budapest Hotel), who fails to prioritize the matter of equal voting rights, Dr.King and his supporters decide to root their next round of voting campaigns in Selma, Alabama. There, Dr.King faces personal conflicts and state political obstacles amidst the organization of a series of peaceful marches in hopes of passing the Voting Rights Act, but attempts to overcome them with the assistance of local, pro vote equality political, religious and social collectives.

From right to left: Star David Oyelowo, director Ava DuVernay and TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, December 9th 2014

From right to left: Star David Oyelowo, director Ava DuVernay and TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, December 9th 2014

Oyelowo exceeds expectations by bringing justice to his memory and also delivering a collection of new insights that characterizes him beyond his public face. His calculations and consciousness involved in orchestrating an organized movement, interacting with his supporters, rallying media attention and negotiating with politicians reveals King as a deeply invested political strategist, which plays incredibly well against the brilliant Wilkinson. But the most humanizing moment comes in a conversation with Coretta, which causes King to pull away from the Selma campaign, showcasing a conflicted individual who didn’t always put the movement above his actual life. Ejogo needs to be credited for her emotional performance here, one that I wish I could have seen more of over the course of the film.

Oyelowo is certainly one piece to Selma‘s successful equation; his performance is easily one of the best of this year’s crop. However, there is a lot of credit due to DuVernay and her team’s treatment of the actual movement itself. They never shied away from the verbal, physical and political abuse and instead drew upon the universal effects of the civil rights movement, from personal mourning to human cruelty to the ramifications felt by fellow citizens across America. In this sense, Selma is well-rounded in its tales of the ramifications of the protests, demonstrating the immeasurable effects it had on families and individuals who fought so hard for change.  DuVernay chose to represent these moments in dynamically creative ways that have an incredible visual and emotional impact throughout the film in both big and small moments.  There is one, however, that particularly stands out.

The scene where the first march from Selma to Montgomery takes place is chillingly reminiscent of recent civil protests and rallies in the United States. As volunteers peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus bridge (which was filmed on the actual bridge itself), they meet state-commissioned troops who enact violent measures to prevent the protest from moving forward. There is tear gas, slow-motion shots (a commonly used technique in the film) of volunteers being slammed into the pavement and beaten as others run, a soulful song playing in the background; it’s completely haunting, but also speaks to viewers of DuVernay’s ability to transform this historical event into art that evokes a deep reflection of America’s past and the current socio-political climate.

DuVernay previously garnered attention for her work as the director of Middle of Nowhere, which also starred David Oyelowo. She received a great deal of critical praise alongside the U.S. Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the 2012 film. I haven’t seen it, but I’m certainly inclined to now, because DuVernay has led her entire production team and cast to execute a film that feels like an invigorating breath of fresh air. It is great to see this type of talent emerge in cinema and for a director who is so early in her career, her potential is limitless. This work makes me excited to go to the movies.

Selma is powerful. It is tragic. It is beautiful. Rapper Common, who stars in the film and is featured on the film’s Golden Globe award-winning track “Glory“, best described the film’s impact by saying, “Selma has awakened my humanity. Selma is now.”

Selma is out in theatres now.