END OF THE CENTURY: Interview with Lucio Castro

Isn’t life just a series of moments with different weather conditions along the way? Lucio Castro’s feature debut, End of the Century, is a film about summer days in Barcelona. The film focuses on the character of Ocho (Juan Barberini) and the life-changing experience of meeting Javi (Ramon Pujol)—twice. Looking into these two different encounters, the film sheds light on the weight that our life choices carry, and how timing is a key component of that equation. Unable to find each other at a more appropriate time, Ocho and Javi choose to stay apart on both occasions, even if each moment leaves an impression on both men.

In an Autumn moment of my life, I had the chance to meet up with Lucio Castro and discuss End of the Century during Film Fest Gent 2019! 

Ioanna Micha: What made you want to write this particular story?

Lucio Castro: Well, it basically started when I thought of the title (laughs). The truth is that that title just stuck with me. I was intrigued by it, and I needed to discover what it was all about. So, I started in a very simple way. I thought ‘okay, a character arrives in a city he doesn’t know. He goes to some tourist sites and then he sees this guy on the streets. He gets interested in him and they end up having sex.’ It’s after, when they started talking in my script, that I thought ‘okay maybe they know each other.’ So, I went to the past and I started thinking about their first encounter. If you really think about it, I wrote it almost in the way you’re watching it! I was discovering the story as I was writing it. Maybe you could say that I was writing it as if I was watching it! (laughs)

IM: So you’re saying it was basically an instinctual process?

LC: Yeah! It was about what felt good!

IM: Were the actors chosen in the same way then? By following your instinct?

LC: Well, you could definitely say that! I gave the screenplay to my casting director (Maria La Greca) who mainly does theater, and she knew both actors. First, she recommended Juan because she had worked with him before. I decided to meet with Juan, so I watched his movies and I discovered something that I really liked about him! Juan feels very confident at first, but then once you get to know him, he’s quite insecure! I liked that about him because I feel that it gives him a duality that works very well for the character of Ocho. And here is where Ramon connects perfectly to the story; he’s the opposite! He feels very insecure in the beginning. He’s almost sensitive and a bit scared. But then, once you get to know him, there’s a very strong cord in him that’s actually quite confident. So, yes! I chose these actors because they felt like a good addition to the film. After all, they are almost complementary and opposite to each other! The one is darker, the other is lighter. Of course, one of them is handsome and it’s good to have a handsome guy (laughs)! All these things came together and kinda worked I guess.

Juan Barberini in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: Well, every decision brings about a different end product. So, how come you started the film with such a long take that has no dialogue?

LC: Yes, It’s a very long intro. It’s almost 13 minutes with no dialogue. I did that for a few reasons. Firstly, when I am in a city that I don’t know, and I’m walking alone, I’m very aware of the city, its buildings, the wind, even the people walking around me. I like listening to what they’re saying. I enjoy watching everyone’s faces. For me, it’s almost as if time sort of slows down when I’m by myself in a new city. When I’m with somebody else, however, the city kind of disappears because we’re always talking. And this is what happens with these characters; after they start talking that’s all they do! So, I wanted to show how one feels when you’re alone in a new city in relation to how it is when you’re with somebody else. I also like the gradual flow. First Ocho is kind of lost in the city with no particular aim,  but then once he sees Javi, he gradually starts to focus his aim on him, and I thought that this was a nice juxtaposition: from focusing on the beauty of a city to the beauty of a person.

IM: You have definitely succeeded in bringing the city to life in that initial silent sequence. Actually, it feels as if the city becomes a character in itself because we get to experience it so vividly even though we’re never really there! Plus, it’s their meeting point, so time doesn’t really matter; it’s more about the space.

LC: Yeah, that’s also true! The film is a lot about space. First, it’s the city; it carries a lot of meaning, even if Ocho is not initially aware of it, because that’s where they met before. Then, there’s the space of the Airbnb which is so strange. It’s a weird transient space. It’s not a hotel and it’s not someone’s home; it’s something in the middle. Now, when I stay in an Airbnb, I always look at the books, if there are any, because they give you an idea of the owner. But then of course, you’re not sure if it’s the owner that’s left them behind; it could be other guests that left them there. What’s more important about the film’s setting, however, is that no one has any roots in this space, and to me that was a nice background or place for this thing to happen. You know things are a little more volatile and a bit looser. If I had made a movie about their whole lives, I feel that it would have been very different. On vacation, you have a temporary space. You go there for a few days and then you leave. I feel that this is something that went well with this story.

Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: It’s like a neutral space because they don’t have specific roles to conform to! Is there a particular reason you chose Barcelona?

LC: Yeah! I chose Barcelona for many reasons. Firstly, Barcelona has a lot of tourism and it definitely brings out that feeling during the film. Plus, I wanted a summer city. A city that had a beach, but also one that is a city by itself, not one that’s just about summer vacation. And Barcelona is exactly like that! People live there all year round! Of course, there were also some practical reasons such as weather. Barcelona is known for its good weather conditions and I thought that it would be a great and easy place to shoot. Of course, it rained the whole 12 days that I shot there (laughs). There were also financing issues as it’s quite expensive to rent space in summer cities. So, I wanted a place that was more approachable! Lastly, I wanted to tell the story in a city that I didn’t know personally. I wouldn’t have done it in Buenos Aires, for example, because I know that city too well, and it would have been hard for me to write a movie on someone who just arrived. When I wrote the movie in Barcelona, I didn’t know it at all. I actually wrote it with like Google Maps and top ten attractions! (laughs)

IM: Well that is exactly what a tourist would do! Why did you decide to let Ocho remember the whole interaction with Javi on his own? How come Javi doesn’t say anything earlier on?

LC: I think that Javi’s intrigued. I think that he would feel vulnerable to just say it. When they’re in the beach I think he realizes that Ocho didn’t recognize him because he doesn’t say ‘hi,’ he just goes into the water. So, I feel that in this moment he starts thinking ‘he doesn’t remember me, so what’s the point in telling him? Oh, we met 20 years ago, remember?’ So, I feel he’s a little bit shy, or that he doesn’t want to intrude too much. And, once they start talking and have sex, he never finds the right time because he really likes him and the moment they’re sharing. And I feel that he doesn’t want to ruin that with the weight of the past; the weight of the ‘we actually know each other.’ It’s a thing that changes the subtlety of flirting and, no matter who you are, it’s almost like a political war, you know? Everything you say will illicit a reaction. You have a lot of back and forth. So, adding to the equation a shared past would have destroyed the whole thing; it would have transformed into something else. I think that’s why he doesn’t do it. And by the moment he says it, it’s okay. Also, let’s face it! Javi is playing a little bit with Ocho too! The movie has this sort of playful vibe, and I think he’s playing with the whole idea. He puts on the Kiss T-Shirt after he sees Ocho the night before, and tries to see if that will help him remember. He’s trying to antagonize him in a way.

Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: So you think it’s some sort of power-play?

LC: Yes! I definitely think that there is a form of seduction. It doesn’t even have to be a sex thing. But, you know, when you’re trying to entice another person there’s definitely a power play. A lot of things are happening at the same time. There’s a bit of anxiety and some sort of fear. Actually, I see their reactions like a chess game! Think of beach scene: there is this atmosphere of I move, you move. There’s some power struggle, and there’s no doubt about it.

IM: So you’re saying there’s some sort of action and reaction going on?

LC: Right! Exactly that!

IM: Does them not ending up together have anything to do with the title?

LC: Well not exactly! I think that the title mostly refers to these 20 years in their lives and how they’ve changed. Ocho, for instance, wanted to be a writer in his 20s and he has achieved that, but he’s also an airline employee. So, the film definitely touches upon this change from 20 to 40. Now, about the ending! Well, for me I can’t see how they could have ended up together. There’s a beautiful quote that says ‘every love story is a ghost story.’ I’m very moved by this quote because it’s basically referring to a connection between love and loss and I find that very fascinating. Love is about attaining something beautiful. It’s so powerful that it shakes your whole body, and your whole life. And when you lose that, you’re influenced in an intense way. We see that with Ocho. The moment Javi leaves the Airbnb, he’s questioning his past life choices. I find it more intriguing to follow the life of a character who has lost something. I prefer to experience how certain characters act when they lose rather than when they win. Not to say that meeting someone and getting married is not a beautiful thing. It can happen and it is definitely love. If Ocho and Javi would have ended up together, however, I feel that they would have been in a comfortable space, which, in a way, is place that is a little bit less affecting; all your feelings are kind of secure. When you lose something, the story becomes more riveting because the characters need to act. I’m just enchanted by the unattainable and how that can change your life.

Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: So you’re not into passivity. You feel that things have to be intense?

LC: (laughs) No, I also like passivity! I love movies where nothing happens, but I think that for this story the idea of loss makes Ocho a much more interesting character in the end!

IM: It certainly does! I mean I really like the ‘what if they had stayed together?’ scene in Ocho’s imagination because it’s not ideal!

LC: Exactly! (laughs)

IM: I feel that’s very realistic! That after 20 years it’s not going to be the same as when you first met. You show that love is not perfect; it’s work!

LC: Right! Exactly!

IM: Is there something that I haven’t covered yet that you want mentioned?

LC: No I think that we covered every interesting part of the film! I’m happy you didn’t ask about the sex scenes! (laughs)

IM: (laughs) Yes! I find it somewhat tiring after a certain point. I mean of course it’s an integral part of the film. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t become obsessed with it! Well, then, I have one final question: do you have another project in mind for the future?

LC: Yes; I’m working on a film that’s shot in the mountains. It’s a female lead. It’s not a queer story. And, it’s shot next year. That’s all I can say for now! (laughs)

The Highs and Lows of THE AERONAUTS

It’s not uncommon knowledge that some movies claiming to be “based on a true story” aren’t always accurate. Sure, the broad strokes are there and make for a story compelling enough to be green-lit by the big shots in Hollywood, but everyone takes creative liberties when telling these types of stories. A few years ago, I went to see a movie called The Danish Girl, which starred Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe. That movie claimed to be based on a true story, despite its source material being mostly fictitious, going as far as to make people up specifically for storytelling purposes.

I bring this up because Redmayne has another movie coming out called The Aeronauts, which also claims to be based on a true story despite once again taking creative liberties. It’s a shame because the movie itself is a solid adventure film with some good performances and visual effects whenever they are up in the sky.

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

The Aeronauts comes from director Tom Harper (I honestly had to double check to make sure they didn’t mean Tom Hooper) and tells the story of James Glaisher and Amelia Rennes, two young adventurers who go up in a hot air balloon to study the sky. Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) believes that by going up into the sky, he can predict the weather. This idea is laughed off by The Royal Society. He seeks out a pilot to help him prove his theories and meets Rennes (Felicity Jones) who agrees to help him out. Throughout the movie, people try to persuade the two aeronauts to give up and go for something more conventional.

The movie open with the two at a festival about to go up in their balloon. Rennes decides to put on a bit of a show for the audience before going up, much to the dismay of Glaisher. This, along with the flashbacks that are sprinkled throughout the movie, give the audience an idea of what kind of adventurers they are. Both are determined, but Glaisher comes off a bit more serious than Rennes. The two play off each other really well, which makes sense since this is the second time Redmayne and Jones have starred opposite each other (the first time being The Theory of Everything, which earned Redmayne his first Oscar).

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Whenever the two are up in the air, the movie is at its most breathtaking. They’re boasted by some visual effects that are quite impressive given its budget. When the film flashes back to scenes of them meeting on the ground, however, it becomes another dull British period piece. I know its purpose is to establish their characters, but I found myself dozing off whenever these scenes were happening. Thankfully, the majority of the film takes place in the balloon, and some scenes of peril in the third act make up for the boring people on the ground.

Now I mentioned earlier that the film takes creative liberties with this true story. The most major one is that the character of Amelia Rennes is just that; a character. She was made up for story purposes and for the sake of giving the audience a female character to relate to. James Glaisher is a real person, but he took this journey with an aeronaut by the name of Henry Coxwell, who would later help save Glaisher’s life during the ascent and descent. I thought that creating a female scientist for the sake of connecting to contemporary audiences was some form of pandering, especially when there are plenty of female scientists who are not only real, but probably have an equally compelling story to tell.

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Regardless of historical accuracy, The Aeronauts is still a solid adventure movie. At 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was nice seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones back on screen together, and I can appreciate that the movie didn’t try to force a romance between these two. Serious issues with pacing keep me from calling this a great movie, but its visual deserves to be seen on the big screen. If it’s playing in a theater near you, seek it out. In the end, I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen before it hit Prime Video. I don’t know if it would’ve had the same impact if I was watching it at home.

The Aeronauts is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

Revisiting THE LITTLE MERMAID 30 Years Later

1989—the year before I was born, and also when the House of Mouse dove into what is now known as their Renaissance period. So, before the live-action wand is waved over the story that is now set to star Halle Bailey, I’m going back Under the Sea to delve into why this animated feature is both a classic and favorite of mine.

The poster child for wanting more – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale is the loose inspiration for Ariel’s tale (tail), and it’s through delving back into past fictional writings that re-captures the magic first unearthed when Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sure, the animation company takes the original plot and sprinkles the Tinkerbell magic of family friendliness over a bleak ending originally penned by the original Danish author, but the core idea is there, and what do you expect from a distributor known for being appealing, bleeding feet and a suicide? Of course not!

There is great simplicity in following the narrative of this foray into an underwater world. The plight of teenage Ariel desiring a chance to see what life is like above the waves is the driving force, and sees us clash with a fantastically theatrical villain and ultimately have her falling in love—the age old Disney trope. However tired that model of a princess needing a man may look now, and however good the red-headed mermaid may have it in Atlantica, you sort of forgive her moaning, because there’s a fun atmosphere presented.

Colorful Currents – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

During the timeline of ’89 to ’99, most Disney films share the common theme of being encouraged by legends, fairy-tales, and stories already penned. This watery-based closing curtain to the 80s is a fun and fancy-free yarn which is spun with bubbles of color and charm, and it is very easy to see why, with effortless storytelling and a new musical direction, that The Little Mermaid holds up over 30 years later.

The hiring of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are two massive reasons why The Little Mermaid holds up as a buoyant, brilliant animated film. After their work on Little Shop of Horrors, Disney realized that their influence could inject a Broadway vibe into their films and this is a musical staple of pretty much every release since then. The toe-tapping sounds and memorable lyrics stand the test of time and are why, for me at least, I can’t stop singing if a track from this film comes on somewhere!

From the likes of Sebastian’s groovy, reggae inspired “Under the Sea” to Ursula’s intoxicating, dark, and campy “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” you’re submerged into a world of catchy music and if nothing else Jodi Benson belts out the famous “Part of Your World” number, which gets everyone lamenting having twenty thingamabobs in the most perfectly adolescent decree of wanting what you don’t have. And here I am not even mentioning possibly my favorite ditty; “Kiss the Girl,” which comes from the crustacean wing-man of the century and builds to a sea-life crescendo.

Sha la la la la la, my oh my – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

I share similar nerves to this 1989 gem getting the tedious live-action treatment as I did for The Lion King—there’s something so wonderfully cartoon-ish about the environment that Ariel, Flounder, and Triton roam in. Seeing it handed off-putting photo realistic imagery is just one concern, on top of them likely ruining infectious songs. The film is a classic and sometimes it’s best to leave it that way.

I grew up with a sister and my mum, so Disney movies were a primary component of my growing up and it’s possibly why to this day, however gigantic and monopolizing the company gets, I’ll still always like to see what emotions or enjoyment I’ll find in their newest animated flick. The Little Mermaid is one from their back catalog that I find a clear sailing pleasure to the eyes and ears. If you want a short, simple and sweet movie with a bright palette and insanely feel-good tunes then this movie should be Part of Your World.

Part of Our World – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

ASHMINA: Enough is Enough

Films set in Nepal have a tendency to explore the Man vs. Nature conflict with the peak of Mount Everest as their crowning jewel. Whether documentary or fiction, features such as J. B. L. Noel’s The Epic of Everest, which was re-released in the UK following its digital restoration in 2013, George Lowe’s The Conquest of Everest, and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest depict the deadly trials of previous real-life expeditions.

Behind the scenes of Ashmina (2018) – source: IMDb

Whereas western productions have their eyes on the world’s highest mountaintop, Nepalese cinema doesn’t concern itself with Mountain films as much. Min Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen (Kalo Pothi) and Nischal Poudyal’s Riingata, for instance, focus on the impact that the 10-year-long Nepalese civil war had on people.

Dekel Berenson also takes an alternative route with his short film, Ashmina. Set in Pokhara, Nepal, the world’s center for paragliding, Berenson writes and directs a story inspired by a past trip about a 13-year-old girl, Ashmina (Dikshya Karki). Following her life, the plot dissects issues that arise not only from within, namely the restrictions women experience within the confines of a patriarchal society, but also from outside, as tourists enter the Nepali borders and have a somewhat negative effect on its culture.  

Ashmina (2018) – source: Blue Shadows Films

Having visualized Ashmina as a social realist film, Berenson cast only non-actors and worked mostly with the available light on location. In close collaboration with a semi-professional crew comprised mainly by locals, he was able to blend in and capture on camera the natural behavior not only of the natives, but also of the tourists.

Besides that, Berenson gets the audience’s undivided attention as elaborate frames fill the screen, leaving the viewer in a state of stupor. It’s almost as if each shot is part of a fabricated reverie designed for the sole purpose to hypnotize every set of eyes fixed on them. The secret behind the spellbinding quality of Ashmina is not only Nepal’s nature, but also Vasco Viana’s cinematography.

The titular character of Ashmina, however, is neither hypnotized nor confused during the three-day period Berenson puts on display. Working at the landing field, she packs the parachutes of tourists in exchange for small tips, and tries to bring some form of financial stability to her home. This is not a sacrifice, but a duty. Forced to forget about her education, or any type of delightful detail in life, Ashmina is meant to follow orders—no questions asked.

Ashmina (2018) – source: Blue Shadows Films

It’s no surprise then, that a rare query here and there is met with disdain; every act of disobedience is worthy of a slap in the face, and nothing more. Perhaps that is why, after what she perceives as the final betrayal, Ashmina goes beyond the Nepalese socially constructed script of female subjectivity; a violent, but silent, outburst that even though it leaves the viewer startled, it also raises the question: “who’s really at fault here?”

DUNYA’S DAY: Death of a Party

Prior to the end of the cinema ban in Saudi Arabia in 2018, film distribution was limited to sparse screenings of educational documentaries or dubbed cartoons accessible only to women and children. Of course, few Saudi Arabian features such as Izidore Musallam’s How Are You? (Keif al-Hal?), Saudi Arabia’s first big-budget movie, and Abdullah Al-Eyaf’s documentary Cinema 500 km managed to be completed, but weren’t shown within the Saudi Arabian borders.

Behind the scenes of Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: IMDb

With the turn of the century, the Saudi female experience became a main theme for many filmmakers, the most controversial of all being Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female filmmaker, whose feature debut Wadjda was the first film to be selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Another filmmaker who tackles this theme with his short film debut Dunya’s Day is Raed Alsemari. Alsemari takes a different approach on the subject by employing satire genre conventions in his investigation of the affluent diva. In a golden room with red detailing sits Dunya (Sara Balghonaim), the Queen Bee of a suburb household in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Abandoned by her staff, Dunya and her minions, Deema (Rahaf) and Dalal (Sarah Altaweel), have to throw the most memorable college graduation party to keep Dunya’s image intact.

Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: Raed Alsemari

Dunya’s obsession with flawlessness is made clear non-verbally from the get-go. The impeccable symmetry of the setting’s design almost emulates the immortality of a momentary photographic click; everything has been petrified into perfection to frame Dunya as the face of a royal portrait. With her staff on the run, however, the estate’s metaphorical foundation is cracked, and Dunya’s world comes crumbling down. Looking for them in every corner of the manor, she gradually starts throwing tantrums as she realizes she’s left on her own.

This mental health crisis takes a visual manifestation as well through Olivier Theurillat and Alsemari’s precise editing. Temporarily replacing the initial smooth cuts with abrupt ones not only enhances Dunya’s distress, and consequently the film’s comic effect, but also signifies the tiny glitches in her spotless image. Having established that Dunya is almost compulsively fixated with her public persona, the film moves on to pose its vital question: How far is Dunya willing to go to get the social validation she so desires? The answer is: too far.

Considering that Alsemari has stated that he drew inspiration from Michael Lehmann’s Heathers and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, Dunya’s ruthlessness is to expected. After she takes a step too far for her, yet too hilarious to us, Dunya stands before a mirror scouting for imperfections on her face and body. A clear parallel between Dunya’s Day and Mean Girls as women are literally unable to see that their appearance—but more significantly their lives—belong to them and them alone.

Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: Raed Alsemari

Besides her inner demons, however, Dunya is constantly confronted by a mean rival, Anoud. Anoud is more than an adversary; she is the standard against which Dunya measures her worth. This never-ending battle has taken a toll on Dunya as her nearly unbearable vulnerability inevitably cracks in front of that mirror. Here is where Balghonaim’s talent is indisputable—while the humorous aspects are skillfully handled to say the least, she thrives in Dunya’s subtle despair. It’s a layered performance that gives her character a sense of humanity that no one can ignore.

Alsemari’s aim was to go beyond the Saudi female experience previously shown on screen, and he succeeded. His take, albeit an undoubtedly male perspective, offers a different type of adversity. As a satire, Dunya’s Day is providing social commentary on the type of victimhood created by ideological confines that keep Dunya from realizing her inner value shouldn’t be calculated in monetary terms.

Even if Dunya is no Regina George, as a bus never runs her over, she has definitely learned a lesson through experiencing social ridicule. That final shot, however, in all its hilarity, is not addressed to Dunya alone; the punchline is dedicated to every eye staring at the screen, and screams that keeping up with the Joneses can only make you one of the herd.

Watch the teaser trailer for Dunya’s Day here!

MISSING A NOTE: If Memory (Doesn’t) Serve(s) us Well

Memory can be defined as the brain’s capacity to accumulate and remember information. Or as the recollection of a past point in life. Or even, in the technology obsessed societies of today, a card inside a computer’s motherboard that keeps data in an invisible space. Memory is a tricky thing—there needs to be an acknowledgment that it isn’t a static set of mental images that can be trusted, and it’s also vulnerable to the passage of time; the mind stretches and memories, along with a person’s understanding of who he/she is, fade.

Missing a Note (2019) source: Fact Not Fiction Films

This theme of loss is the main topic of Beth Moran’s short film Missing a Note. The director and writer, inspired by her grandfather’s illness and in collaboration with Dementia Matters, strives to raise awareness on the initial signs of dementia. So, instead of telling the story of a senile old man in the character of John O’Connell (Ian McElhinney), Moran decides to portray those other times when loved ones are still recognized, but can be fleetingly lost as whole worlds crumble within a momentary confusion visible only in the eyes. Those moments of temporary perplexity that family and friends laugh away tenderly either to protect themselves, or the elder one, from a terrible truth.

At least that’s what John’s wife, Angie O’Connell (Elaine Paige), does minus the laughter, as she hides clues from her husband of his dying short-term memory. A misplaced remote control here. Or the complete erasure of the first encounter with a high school girl, Molly (Darcy Jacobs), who, in order to avoid making John aware of his diminishing mental state, has two auditions for a scholarship report he is meant to write as a retired and acclaimed opera singer.

Missing a Note (2019) source: Fact Not Fiction Films

McElhinney incarnates once again a grandfather audiences will love, but instead of offering entertainment with the sharp sassiness of the Irish Granda Joe from Lisa McGee’s hilarious Derry Girls, he appears on screen as an affectionate husband and an even kinder artist who doesn’t revel in his past fame. Rather, he wants to encourage young Molly, as a true mentor would—to evolve and succeed. Besides the warm smiles of a sweet old man, McElhinney’s facial expressions reach a new level of expertise in instances of subtle disorientation.

It is Paige, however, who makes the film even more real. In all of her scenes, she either exudes a tremendous amount of love for her husband, or an unbearable, and most of the time concealed pain for the inevitable day that his eyes, although blinking, will look back at her with emotional emptiness. It’s not only the chemistry between McElhinney and Paige that render this story genuine, however; it’s also the unexpected reveal of John’s illness itself. While overrated films that deal with this topic, such as Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook go for grandiose gestures and reactions, Moran’s take gives a quiet slice of everyday life; John’s sickness creeps up on the audience just as it can in reality.

The title alone hints at the plot twist, but it’s so faint that it’s initially overlooked. On the one hand, it works as a metaphor for John’s minor everyday mistakes. On the other, it can point back to how easy it is to ignore the early symptoms of dementia: they can go unnoticed like the missing of a note. Many wish for a clean slate in life; Moran pays homage to those that, even if they do so involuntarily, they gradually walk towards a date of tabula rasa. 

21 BRIDGES Does Nothing New for Cop Thrillers

The cop thriller is a genre of movie that isn’t going away anytime soon. As long as certain kinds of cops make headlines for all the wrong reasons, Hollywood wants to churn out their own take on those cops. There was a cop thriller earlier this year called Black and Blue that dealt with corruption in the police force. I skipped it because the premise felt a little too close to the headlines. At the risk of being slightly hypocritical, I was looking forward to seeing 21 Bridges, which boasts an impressive cast led by Chadwick Boseman.

Casting Boseman in the lead makes sense, in a way. Cops in general are seen by the public as heroes who, at the end of the day, are just as mortal as we are. With Boseman hot off the cultural phenomenon Black Panther, he now has the opportunity to expand his acting chops that were previously showcased in a handful of biopics he did. Even as the best part of 21 Bridges, however, he can’t save the movie from hitting all the cliches of any other cop thriller.

Chadwick Boseman in 21 Bridges (2019) – source: STXfilms

21 Bridges follows Chadwick Boseman as Andre Davis, an NYPD detective haunted by his father’s death in the line of duty. He gets a call in the middle of the night about a robbery gone wrong. When he arrives on the crime scene, he finds a large stash of uncut cocaine and eight officers dead. In an attempt to catch the two cop killers, he shuts down every exit off the island of Manhattan and is given until daylight to find them. Every now and then, the film focuses on the two killers trying to get away alive.

I’ve been a fan of movies taking place in a shortened time span since the first time I saw Michael Mann’s Collateral. In this movie, the shortened time frame raises the stakes. When Andre first requests a city wide lock-down to the FBI, they look at him like he’s crazy. But they know he’s determined to bring these criminals to justice. It’s this kind of drive that powers Andre through the film. Getting an actor like Chadwick Boseman was smart because he elevates the character from these cliches. The supporting cast of Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch, Sienna Miller, Keith David and J.K. Simmons also make the most of what they’re given, but they can only do so much for their familiar characters.

21 Bridges (2019) – source: STXfilms

The manhunt in the movie is pretty engaging. The tension is always cranked up by the cat-and-mouse chase, some pretty cool shootouts and (as mentioned before) setting this in the span of a few hours. What doesn’t work, however, is a reveal towards the end about a couple of the cops involved in the manhunt. The criminals hold a jump drive containing information that could sink most of the precinct. When Andre gets a hold of this information, he confronts one of the cops at the end of the movie. I won’t give away what the information is or who is involved, but the confrontation took me out of the film.

A tighter movie could’ve been made just about the manhunt and kept at around an hour and a half. Hell, make it longer and give us some character development. But as it stands now, 21 Bridges is just another cop thriller elevated by Chadwick Boseman’s lead performance. There are plenty of better cop movies out there, even some cop shows on TV are more memorable. I have a feeling I’ll forget this movie pretty quickly because nothing else really stood out for me. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll be entertained enough. But like me, you’ll be wishing for something better.

A Gen Z Lesbian’s Top 10 Performances of 2019

Call me young or uncultured—that’s fine. I may be only 17, but I’m positive these performances in film and television this year are some of the absolute best. Or, I’m just a girl in love with Bill Hader and cute women. Either way, I love the following people for their work and for who they are.

10. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo Betzler in Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit (2019) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Opposite beloved actors such as Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson, it’s 11-year-old Griffin Davis that shines the brightest in Jojo Rabbit. The film is an absolute triumph, excelling in humor and heartbreak alike. Though I found Johansson and Wilson to be one-note and awkward, the rest of the cast—Waititi and Davis included—delivered marvelous performances. Davis goes beyond being a simple, cute kid; and while he is plenty adorable, he’s just as dynamic and emotional, more-so than his esteemed costars. I hope he loved doing this film and wants to continue on in the industry.

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

9. Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in Stranger Things

Stranger Things (2016-present) – source: Netflix

Listen—I am a simple young lesbian, so I acknowledge my bias. Maya Hawke’s Robin is hilarious, but she also accesses her deeper, more emotional moments with ease. Additionally, fan-favorite Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) met his direct match in terms of charisma and wit, and the pair carried season three by the sheer momentum of their rarely seen 1980s wlw/mlw solidarity. Thank you, Robin, for my rights!

Season 3 Rating: 4/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

8. Billie Lourd as Gigi in Booksmart

Booksmart (2019) – source: Annapurna Pictures

There’s something in these genes. Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and now Billie Lourd—three of the most dynamic and versatile actresses in my lifetime. Gigi is eclectic, idiosyncratic, and unapologetically herself. Lourd’s own uniqueness adds incredible dimension to what might otherwise be considered solely the comedic relief of the film. She exudes power in every scene, she’s hysterical, and I’m just obsessed with everything she brings to the table.

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

7. Bill Hader as Richie Tozier

It: Chapter Two (2019) – source: Warner Bros.

It: Chapter Two isn’t a perfect movie by any means; it’s messy, slow at times, and changes scenes from the book that left audiences disappointed. Luckily, the film is saved by the stellar cast. The seven kids and their counterparts are perfectly cast—especially Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier.

Hader had big shoes to fill following Finn Wolfhard’s acclaimed portrayal of Richie, but ended up exceeding my expectations as a fan of the book and the 2017 film. Richie is iconic in the horror community, both for his comedic ability and his sexuality. Hader’s delivery lead to the biggest laughs, as well as the saddest moments in either film when [spoiler] the man he’s in love with is killed by Pennywise. It: Chapter Two finally gave Hader a chance to show mainstream audiences the spectrum of his abilities as an honest and sympathetic actor. If you want to see more of this, watch The Skeleton Twins ASAP.

Film Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 4/5

6. Emily Hampshire as Stevie Budd in Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek (2015-present) – source: ITV Studios Global Entertainment

If you haven’t watched season five of Schitt’s Creek, stop reading this article and do it. It’s on Netflix now, so you have no excuse. Stevie is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen. Schitt’s Creek develops each character beautifully, showing their best moments—and their worst—as they try to become a little bit better every day. Emily Hampshire’s performance is honestly hard to define; Stevie steps out of her comfort zone by becoming the lead in the town’s community theater production of Cabaret. Her Maybe This Time at the end of the season is just beyond words. Do yourself a favor and watch it here.

Season 5 Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4½ /5

4 & 5. Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley in Good Omens

Good Omens (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Thank you, Good Omens, for giving us the biblical apocalypse Romeo and Juliet-style love story starring England’s sweethearts that we never knew we needed. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Sheen and Tennant are amazing actors, and Good Omens is no different. I put them together because, while their respective performances are wonderful, it’s really their shared scenes that make the show what it is. Their chemistry is unlike anything I’ve seen—hell, the episode where Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale playing David Tennant’s Crowley (and vice-versa) is just unsurpassed.

Series Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 5/5

3. Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson & Red in Us

Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

Lupita Nyong’o as both leads in Jordan Peele’s Us is a prime example of my problem with The Academy Awards. Horror films, despite their excellence, rarely get any nominations at The Oscars (see: Hereditary). I can only hope that Us and Midsommar get the nominations they deserve following Peele’s debut Get Out, because Nyong’o absolutely deserves it. Her roles were polar opposites—her fear and desperation surrounding her family as they get hunted down made the film. Wake up, Academy!

Film Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 5/5

2. Bill Hader as Barry Berkman in Barry

Barry (2018-present) – source: HBO

You might be asking yourself, “really, Mia? Bill Hader’s on this list twice? Surely he isn’t that good.” If you’ve missed the first two seasons of Barry, this is understandable. Barry is my favorite show at the moment. Season two proved that Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s phenomenon is only getting started, spearheaded by Hader’s run as the titular character. Really, this entire list could be the IMDb cast list for Barry, but it’s Hader that acts as the glue that holds an award-winning supporting cast together. The Year of Bill Hader is everything I’ve ever wanted, and I love that he’s getting the attention he deserves outside of SNL’s Stefon. If you’ve never seen Barry, start with this season one clip that continues to stun me, even though I’ve seen it countless times. (Also… Shoutout to Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in recent memory.)

Season 2 Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 5/5

Honorable Mention: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Don’t mistake this as a recommendation of the flaming train wreck that is Avengers: Endgame—but I wanted to give a shout out to Robert Downey Jr. as he ends (or… doesn’t?) his decade-long career as both Tony Stark and Iron Man. It’s rumored that he’s going to be in the upcoming Black Widow movie, but for the sake of this mention, let’s ignore that and focus on the exit of everyone’s favorite billionaire, genius, playboy, and philanthropist. I love Marvel (usually), and Iron Man has been my favorite hero since I was a child. Robert Downey Jr. has also, in turn, been one of my heroes, as I didn’t know how to differentiate between characters and actors as a kid. Thank you, RDJ, for your service. 

1. Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar

Midsommar (2019) – source: A24

Midsommar is a folk horror acid trip exploring grief, bad boyfriends, and William Jackson Harper being typecast as a philosophy nerd—and holy hell, is it wonderful. It’s disturbing and gory, all overexposed under the bright sun so every detail is seen. This was the first Florence Pugh project I’d ever seen, and I found myself Googling her extensively on the way to my car after seeing the film. I’m constantly in awe of women like Pugh or Toni Collette, who, unlike actors such as Joaquin Phoenix or Jared Leto, are able to deliver shocking and horrifying presentations but remain unaffected outside of their workplace. Florence Pugh is flawless as Dani and a heavenly May Queen. Watch a clip here (content may be disturbing for some viewers).

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 5/5

What’s your favorite performance of 2019? Let us know in the comments!

DARK WATERS Tells More Than Just The Truth

From its opening scene, it is very clear that Dark Waters isn’t your typical whistle-blower drama. Young teenagers sneak around late at night to go skinny dipping in a forebodingly eerie lake—it’s a scene where the ambiance and score provoke a feeling of horror straight out of Jaws. It’s ominous, as if at any moment a shark will come out of nowhere and devour the swimmers. Instead, a boat from the nearby chemical plant appears to urge them out of the water while spraying a mysterious substance onto the grim-looking waves. 

There is no shark lurking in rural West Virginia; the horrific truth of the matter is much more subtle and devious. Dark Waters tells the true story of the ongoing environmental lawsuit against the DuPont chemical company, a result of the negligent and knowing poisoning of a West Virginia community over a handful of decades. Starring Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who switches teams to fight for the little guy, and beautifully directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven), Dark Waters is a legal drama that is somehow both by-the-numbers and unconventional. 

The lilting, light-hearted opening notes of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” purposefully and masterfully contrast a bleak landscape and harsh grey tone that lords over the entire film. “Almost Heaven, West Virginia”, Denver croons, though it’s quite obvious that there is something seriously wrong in this small town that sits in the shadow of a powerful chemical plant. Heightened by Haynes’s creative direction, no message is overly concealed in this film. From the moment Bilott sets foot in West Virginia, it isn’t too hard to figure out that something is off.

darkwaters
Mark Ruffalo and Bill Camp in Dark Waters (2019) – source: Focus Features

The film is slow-paced and purposeful just like the slow poisoning of the water supply and the resident’s bodies over time; it’s a thriller without the big thrills and a far cry in terms of structure compared to something like Haynes’ non-linear biopic I’m Not There. The pacing is even, the story linear. Just when you think something big is about to happen, a major breakthrough in the case or even a car bomb going off, the screen goes black and picks up again two years later without much actual progress having been made. It is both realistic and frustrating, which is intentional but does render the film rather tedious at times.

The slow passage of time with no real light at the end of the tunnel is meant to emphasize that the fight is long and eventually to reveal that it still isn’t over. We don’t get to see big “aha!” moments or major turning points in the investigation that define so many other films like this, just the slow but steady rifling through mountains and mountains of paperwork to discover the truth. The story celebrates Bilott but it doesn’t necessarily pat him on the back for doing the right thing. It is clear how easy it is to give up in these long battles against powerful institutions that have more resources but lack a conscience. 

The movie does slightly delve into Bilott’s personal hardships as a result of his fight against DuPont (pay cuts, health issues, a deteriorating relationship with his wife and family), but that’s not the story that’s on display here. Ruffalo is strong and authentic in the role, his own passion for environmental and social activism shining through despite the rather dispassionate and stereotypical script. The real heart of the film is Bill Camp’s Wilbur Tennant, the instigator of the lawsuit and the victim that the audience grows most attached through throughout. His story is a reminder that even those who do the right thing can be scorned and is reflective of how, often, we would rather ignore something bad happening if we don’t think it affects us. How twisted is it that the man fighting to keep a community safe is ostracized because others believe in a corporation that is poisoning them over their neighbors?

Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters (2019) – source: Focus Features

A story like this can’t help but fall into cliches. Anne Hathaway does the best she can with what she’s given as “the wife,” though she seems desperate to be anything but. The quintessential cries of “How could they do that?” and “The system is rigged” echo from All the President’s Men through Erin Brockovich to more recent entries like Spotlight and The Post.

What is made abundantly clear is that this film was made by people who are passionate about the battle against corporate corruption. No amount of cliches can diminish that truth. Nothing here is a newsflash of brand new information—it’s a simple, terrifying reminder that these kind of things have been happening and are happening every single day and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore them. It asks what you have done lately to help make the world a better place. What have you done to fight the greed and corruption that infiltrates our homes, continuing to poison our bodies and our planet?  

It may seem contrived to make a film about something like this nowadays. Why would we need a reminder of corruption and deceit when we see it in our news cycles every single day? But this story feels even more urgent in the current sociopolitical climate. The kind of reactionary anger it depicts is nothing new but it serves well to remind us all that the outrage we feel so often has been lurking beneath the surface for decades.

In a time when we’re constantly being called upon to do something to fight back against corporate giants and corrupt infrastructure, movies like this can be the perfect catalyst to inspire action if we can move past the heavy feeling of dread and defeat they deliver. Dark Waters doesn’t let you off the hook with a perfect happy ending that makes you believe in the power of one man against the establishment. It is simultaneously optimistic and depressing; it will make you feel like giving up but hopefully inspire you to get out and do something, anything.

So, What Do We Know About The 2020 Academy Awards Race?

November is coming to an end—the fall film festivals have had their premieres, and the annual “for your consideration” posters are popping up all over Hollywood. Best Picture is coveted, despite the difficulty of judging art in the first place. This year’s annual Academy Awards will take place on February 9th, the earliest it has been in recent years. So with The Academy’s push to early February, everything will be happening more urgently than if it were later in February or early March. Even though films like Clint Eastwood’s journalism drama Richard Jewell or Tom Hooper’s live-action take on Cats have not yet officially screened or been reported on, we do have a sense of the names who will have a shot at competing for the biggest awards.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

source: Sony Pictures Releasing

The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino displays a more jaded and mature director than ever seen before in his career, but also one of the first films in a narrative to unite many Oscar contenders. The cynical outlook of DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton on the current entertainment industry could be read as a metaphor for Tarantino himself—looking back knowing that his days of relevancy are numbered, and that he can’t hang with the fresh crop of talent despite leaving behind a very valuable legacy.

It’s not uncommon, of course—some of the greatest movies of all time are self-portraits of artists looking back on themselves with sorrow and melancholy. Nevertheless, Tarantino’s love letter to Los Angeles in the 60s is going to get himself, the film, and Leonardo DiCaprio nominated, because it’s about the very idea that The Oscars are celebrating (it’s no secret they like to be self-congratulatory).

The Irishman

source: Netflix

Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic is out in theaters right now and is coming to Netflix soon, but not without its variables. The Irishman almost garnered unanimous praise coming out of this year’s New York Film Festival, and has the elegance of a swan song from one of the greatest directors to ever live, along with one of the greatest ensembles of the decade. The film spans over a period of time to tell the story of a lifetime, Robert De Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran, was digitally de-aged rather than recasting someone else who resembles his younger self. It was an expensive and ambitious decision that paid off in both Scorsese’s and Netflix’s favor.

All of these qualities make The Irishman a threat for a slew of awards. Scorsese has only one Oscar win (Best Achievement in Directing for The Departed), a win that felt more like a legacy award for so many other missed opportunities rather than something he deserves it for. With The Irishman, he’ll have felt like it’s his. Netflix desperately yearns for one of their original films to win, as it would finally silence the people who still consider films with a “Netflix” logo to be less than.

Marriage Story

source: Netflix

Critics have praised Noah Baumbach ever since his debut film Kicking and Screaming, and he has accumulated many fans over the past twenty-four years of filmmaking. His films are never dramatic enough to qualify as dramas, nor funny enough to count as comedies—he’s always working in this grey area and that’s what makes him stand out. It was only his film The Squid and the Whale that garnered him a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which is another divorce dramedy, much like this year’s Marriage Story.

With Marriage Story, Netflix has used the same strategy they adopted with Roma—screening the film at every major fall festival so word of mouth can spread before its theatrical release in November and its Netflix release on December 1st. It’s very clever and will likely result in quite a few nominations. Personally, I have Adam Driver winning Best Actor and Laura Dern winning Best Supporting Actress (it’s crazy to think she doesn’t have one already!).

Parasite

source: Neon

Speaking of acclaimed auteurs who are just now receiving proper recognition for consistent work since the beginning of the millennium, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is unarguably the most beloved of the year (and my personal favorite). Parasite has not only thrown him into the mainstream—not even his other English language features Snowpiercer and Okja made this level of an impact—but no other foreign film has come close to receiving this type of reaction in this decade (besides Roma, as mentioned above). If Parasite were to be nominated for an Oscar it would be historic, as a Korean film has never been up for an Oscar (Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was short-listed for the 91st Academy Awards, but ultimately never made the cut).

Like many of Bong’s films, Parasite is never defined to one genre or tone, but it always remains satirical and comedic. These two things are what Bong has perfected throughout his career and culminates here with a level of craft rarely seen nowadays—or ever. Bong’s idiosyncrasy may work in his favor, hopefully resulting in him being a dark horse in the running for Best Director, along with a Best Picture nomination and possibly Song Kang-ho for Best Actor (a longtime star of Bong’s films).

Little Women

source: Sony Pictures Releasing

Unlike the other four possible contenders mentioned above, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has a unique campaign and release strategy altogether. Gerwig’s modern take on the classic novel has a considerable amount of hype surrounding it, given the love for the all-star cast and Gerwig coming off the success of her outstanding debut Lady Bird in 2017. Little Women has skipped all the festivals this fall, opting now to screen for critics given its Christmas Day release date and wanting to keep the screenings closer to the premiere (VicePhantom Thread and The Post all opted for similar strategies in the past).

Little Women has enough going for it to guarantee a Best Picture nomination, least of all having Meryl Streep and Laura Dern in supporting roles with success carried over from Lady Bird. More interestingly would be either Florence Pugh receiving her first Best Supporting Actress nomination, or Saoirse Ronan landing a Best Actress win, considering she’s only 25 with three previous nominations (which is wild).

1917

source: Universal Pictures

Sharing the same release date as Little Women, Sam Mendes’ 1917 also shares a similar narrative to building hype around itself. The Academy loves war films—they’ve never been reticent about this, and who’s to blame them? Platoon, Dunkirk, The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, and American Sniper have all done considerably well during awards season and given the genre, it’s very easy to assume that 1917 can sit comfortably in a Best Picture slot.

The film is made to look like one long, continuous take without any noticeable edits to distract from the illusion. It may even play well in below the line categories with a win in Best Cinematography. 1917 may have the same fate as Dunkirk, being the only Best Picture nominee without any acting nominations, since it’s much more experiential than theatrical.

Joker

source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Todd Phillips’ Joker has the most fascinating narrative of any Best Picture contender by far. Before it even came out, Warner Brothers seemed to have a considerable amount of faith in the film, going as far as to use the same strategy that was previously used for A Star is Born last year. Premiering at every major fall festival (Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival, where it then won the prestigious Golden Lion award), it signaled a shift in how seriously everyone should be taking Joker, despite knowing already that it was a strange film to be coming out in the first place.

Nevertheless, taking away any roller coaster ride from hype, to controversy, to profitability, Joaquin Phoenix is a very strong candidate for Best Actor and will challenge Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story. Joaquin is Joker, not just for being in every scene and undergoing a classic physical transformation that The Academy traditionally rewards, but Phoenix is so good that he’ll carry the movie to compete for Best Picture. Joker is simultaneously an orthodox and an unorthodox choice, given The Academy’s known resentment to comic book films but also how hard Joker tries not to be one. Only time and press coverage will tell if this is successful in the long run.

Jojo Rabbit

source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Writer/director Taika Waititi, known for comedies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, has always been clever without crossing into any unwanted boundaries. Waititi has been a voice in modern comedy who hasn’t faced backlash and has been known to provoke with taboo material. Which is why it came at a surprise when his latest film Jojo Rabbit won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival—a prize that has been reserved for every Best Picture nominee or winner since 2011. It’s a film about a boy’s imaginary friend being Adolf Hitler during the height of World War 2, similarly to Joker in how it’s simultaneously traditional and nontraditional “Oscar material.”

Winning the audience award at TIFF may have sealed the deal on a Best Picture nomination for Jojo Rabbit, just by following the pattern seen from the films that have previously won the award. While not being the source of any major heated online discourse, the film isn’t being showered with praise like other predicted nominees, but clever marketing may keep it into relevance.

Who are you rooting for at the 2020 Academy Awards? Let us know in the comments!

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