Category Archives: Film

I Don’t Like Musicals, So Why Did I Like La La Land So Much? A Self-Investigation. La La Land and the Year in Movies

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I’m almost embarrassed by how much I liked La La Land. On the surface it is the exact type of movie I should not like, i.e.—a sappy rom-com musical, based on an era I don’t particularly care about with ridiculously good looking actors who struggle for a period of time but then succeed beyond all expectations. Ugh.

But I liked it, a lot. And I’ve never ever been a musical guy. This means, along with Hamilton, the number of musicals I like has skyrocketed to two (!) in the last year alone. I mean, what. the. fuck. is happening to me? I told my photographer friend Mike (a fellow dark and cynical artist) that he needed to go see this movie called La La Land and he turned to me with a straight face and repeated the title: “You want me to go see a movie called Laa Laa Land?”

But yes, La La Land seduced me and cast me under its hypnotic, romantic, magical spell.
The music! (by Justin Hurwitz, good luck getting the songs out of your head).
The acting! (by the always excellent Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling).
The writing! The directing! (especially that freeway scene) by Damien Chazelle (who previously wrote and directed the taut and intense Whiplash).
Generally, films like Manchester by the Sea are more in line with my taste for movies. Casey Affleck, the main actor of the film, referred to Manchester when he hosted SNL as “a testament to how unbearably sad movies can be … funny, but crushingly sad.” That’s generally what I like. Crushingly sad movies. Or else weird, art-house flicks. Birdman was one of the only films in recent memory that I thought was absolutely brilliant and way too weird to win Best Picture, and yet did.

https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/casey-affleck-christmas-monologue/3442501?snl=1

What’s even more telling, however, of how much I like La La Land, is that I still like the movie, even after the hype of winning seven Golden Globes and being nominated for FOURTEEN Oscars. Generally, once a movie wins awards, I pull that move pretentious music people do and say something about how “I was into that movie before it won all the awards.” La La Land is a great film, but I don’t think it’s great enough to sweep anything per say, which it nearly did. And the song “City of Stars” (which won a Golden Globe for Best Song) is good, but “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” happen to be great songs.

Still the question remains, why did I like this particular film so much? I don’t know. Maybe as a secret romantic, I’m just sucker. Perhaps it’s because I’m white, as it is undoubtedly, a very white movie.
I think though, more than anything, it is a movie that, as my cousin Dane put it (who I saw the film with in Hollywood while visiting), “sticks to its convictions.” It embraces its antiquated musical numbers, its tap dances, its sentimentality and romanticism and melancholy. Not to mention everything in the film, whatever you might think of the content itself, is crafted with perfection.

Why did other people like the movie then? is perhaps a better place to start.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people liked La La Land, consciously or not, specifically because it was based in Hollywood nostalgia, and people in Hollywood, i.e., people who make up the Academy and vote for awards, love movies about Hollywood, they love movies about movies, and films about films, and anything about how wonderful they and their industry are. I can almost imagine these people touching themselves as they watched La La Land. (There was even an SNL skit about a guy being arrested because he said La La Land “dragged in the middle.”)

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/la-la-land-interrogation/3457925?snl=1

But also, because of the shit show 2016 was, maybe everyone just wanted to feel good for a couple hours.

Why I liked La La Land however, is not really a mystery. I knew immediately why I liked it so much and it was the ending. The sense of optimism and romanticism that begins the film, soon ends in two people who should be together, not being together. It is both tragic, simple, and in some way, a metaphor for how life goes awry and upends our expectations. I don’t know why, but that wrecked me. I wanted to grab Emma Stone through the screen and tell her to dump her shitty husband and run away with Gosling (though the husband actually seemed like a pretty decent guy).
La La Land did the thing all cliché movies do. It “touched a nerve” or “tugged at my heartstrings,” probably because I spend a lot of time in my head—in nostalgia or fantasy (not for some sort of “Golden Age” but pining for some sort of world or reality that never existed in the first place). I spend a lot of time thinking about what could have been versus what is, wondering if either one would make a difference in a sort of existential or universal sense, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what I don’t have and what my life could look like, even though I don’t particularly dislike my life as is. There’s something within me that can’t help think what if, which is essentially, what that whole montage with Emma Stone towards the end of the movie is about.
The ending is also, “surprising, yet inevitable” which, as writer and my previous Antioch mentor Peter Selgin says, is exactly what makes a great ending in fiction. The ending surprises you, but in a way that you say, “Of course, it couldn’t be any other way.” And it is in this “turn” at the ending where La La Land transforms from a 1930’s garish Hollywood musical into something else. A meditation on art, romance, relationships, love, nostalgia, and struggle (though, in typical Hollywood fashion, both of the leads are successful in their career pursuits, unlike, say, Don’t Think Twice).

Both Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Arrival, and even Hell or High Water are more profound, complicated, and richer films in many ways. Manchester and Moonlight especially deal with grief, tragedy, and often untouched or “unfilmed” emotions of unspeakable depth. Both films are generally the sort of stuff that is in direct contrast to business banking or even “award garnering” movies (and they are BY FAR the two best films). And yet, La La Land did indeed win me over. Even if it is to the dismay of my own sense of self and overall identity.

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Untrusting Neighbors: Dawn of the Planet of The Apes and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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In the near future, two neighboring groups struggle to co-exist in the land around them. Mistrust, betrayal, resentment, and fear plague both sides as certain members of the group try to find a way to co-existence and peace and others work to disrupt. One side has lived under the oppression of another. One side is all-too-aware of its previous frailty. Is this the plot to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Or the current conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces? It’s both. And yet, not really. It is striking though how particularly resonant the plot of Dawn is to one of the worst modern day conflicts in our world.
Dawn picks up some years where Rise of the Planet of The Apes left off. A virus has spread across the globe killing off nearly every human civilization imaginable. A small remnant still exists in the city of San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). They are nearly out of power though and so a group of scientists and engineers treks across the Golden Gate Bridge to try and restore hydroelectricity to an abandoned dam. The group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a few others. A surprise run in with a talking ape in the Sequoias of Muir Woods however leaves the humans speechless and one ape dead. The apes, led by the terrific Cesar (Andy Serkis), warn the humans to never come back. Both sides retreat and the talk turns to what action each side should take. Some say war. Other co-existence. Cesar wants to exist with the humans, as does Malcolm with the apes. Is such a thing possible?
Cesar has experienced the kindness of humans while most of the other Apes, like the ferocious and gashed Koba, have only experienced torture and experimentation at the hands of humans. Likewise Malcolm sees the apes not only as a threat or as animal brutes, but as equally intelligent allies. Some of the other humans however take a less than favorable view of the apes, mocking them or wishing for their annihilation. Is there a path through such conflict? I won’t ruin it for you here but you could probably guess the answer.
Dawn is perfect in the way it pairs tense action sequences with an exploration of complicated (and close to home) relational themes of co-existence between species or groups. It is terrific science fiction with a plot that mirrors an array of relational and territorial disputes that have occurred in our homo sapien history. You could change out apes and humans with any number of former conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian is undeniably the closest though and the movie portrays what is perhaps the biggest barrier to peace in any situation, forgiveness and an eventual willingness to let go of the past. As Cesar remarks towards the end of the film, “Apes start war. And humans will never forgive.”

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A Tale of Beer and Small Interactions

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Director Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is perhaps his most palatable and commercial film to be released in a while. You may never have heard of Swanberg, unless of course you’re an avid indie movie viewer, but he has directed and produced such titles as Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs. His films are marked by improvisation, a lower-budget, lesser-known actors, and hails (if such a genre term still exists) from the “mumblecore” scene with the likes of Jay and Mark Duplass. Drinking Buddies has all the same elements of previous films but transcends the bounds of low-fi-indie-world-cinema to a greater commercial success largely in part to its casting of more prominent actors.

Drinking Buddies features co-workers Luke (Jake Johnson from New Girl, Safety Not Guranteed) and Kate (Olivia Wilde from House, Rush) who work together at a brewery. They both have significant others but have an undeniable chemistry at work. The two often hang out outside of work and have a friendship that borders on the inappropriate for two people who are also dating other people. On a double date to a cabin however, we begin to see that their significant others Chris (a much missed Ron Livingston, Office Space) and Jill (the adorable Anna Kendrick) may have just as much chemistry between the two of them as Luke and Kate. I know.

From this point I thought I could see the entire trajectory of the story. Luke would break up with Jill and get together with Kate and Kate would break up with Chris to date Luke. Things looked so predictable I was about to yawn. Not so, however. While these tensions do exist and a reality beyond this time frame may prove these events to be occur, we never see the end result. Mostly we see small interactions. Glances and hand touching and conversations with underlying subtexts. It’s funny, but slow and winding. Real enough to hold our interest but not so real that it becomes boring.

Luke really does love Jill and they’ve even talked about getting married. It’s hard to know if he’s merely being naïve in his relationship with Kate or if he doesn’t want to explore what he knows is there to break the status quo. Kate’s not exactly sure what she wants. Chris is the only one who seems confident, he’s older, more experienced with relationships and life. All actors turn out funny and terrific, albeit subtle performances.

Drinking Buddies defies rom-com or even it’s own name. If a movie called Drinking Buddies was to come out of mainstream Hollywood you know it would include lots of binge drinking and frat parties with a heavy emphasis on the drinking. Do people in here drink? Sure. Do they drink a lot? Yeah. But that’s not the point.

I thought I knew for sure where this movie was going at first but it never went there. It offers a look in time at the overlapping of relationships between two couples. What happens beyond this point of time, it’s hard to say.

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