Tag Archives: Film Reviews

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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Best Films of 2014 (I Was Going to Post this Before the Academy Awards but Somehow Forgot and Am Now Left With Posting This Late)

Best Movies of 2014

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2014 was a great year, for movies at least. Globally, not so much.

Boyhood

If you’re not an avid indie-cinema nerd then Richard Linklater is one of those directors who sneak up on you. Chances are you’ve seen one of his movies and not even known it (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly). But once you get a taste for his casual, yet profound style of filmmaking your movie viewing experience will be forever changed. Many of his films take place within a 24-hour time period giving a large dose of realism to an industry that’s often focused on the spectacular and extraordinary. Linklaters gained prominence this year especially as his magnum opus of a film, Boyhood, is slated to amass a slew of awards. The most talked about feature of Boyhood has been its filming history (Linklater began filming Boyhood 12 years ago and used the same cast and crew every year for a couple weeks of the year) but even if he didn’t shoot the film in such a manner it would be a tremendous story. It’s profoundly American (in both the good and bad), a true portrait of change, maturity, and the significant, yet terribly normal, course life takes. Ethan Hawke (who I now think should work only with Richard Linklater as he’s phenomenal in his movies but completely hit or miss in everything else) and Patricia Arquette give great performances and Ellar Coltrane as the real-time morphing boy is superb.

Selma

David Oyelowe gives perhaps the performance of the year, if not his entire career. His mannerisms, voice, and moral-burden-carrying face move Selma in lush portraits of humanity, dignity, and perseverance. Director Ava Duvernay does a great job focusing the vast array of M.L.K’s career into the events around Selma rather than attempting a vast biopic. The movie is tight, focused, and inspiring (a word I’d normally never use to describe a film as it’s so vastly overused, and bromidic, but in this case fits).

Snowpiercer

Captain America star Chris Evans stars in the new film by Joon-ho Bong (director of The Host). All of humanity has been wiped out by an artic freeze as the result of a counterattack against global warming, and the last few remaining survivors are on board a bullet train that races around the globe. For those in the back of the train the situation is dire, they’re fed black protein blocks of goo and cramped in dirty dirty living quarters. A revolution is brewing though and Curtis (Evans) must lead the other proletariat against the ruling powers and try to make it to the front of the train. As the film unfolds layer upon layer of the train and its society are unlocked in both beautiful and haunting fashion. It’s brilliant commentary on society, though at first glance you may miss it.

Calvary

Brilliantly written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (who also did the The Guard with Gleeson) Calvary is the bleakest of black comedies, one that will leave you both changed and disturbed. It’s a dark, brooding piece on forgiveness, injustice, and sin—both ecclesiastical and personal. Tis not for the faint of heart.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Just a fun movie. Best Marvel film yet. This rag tag group of characters give depth and meaning to an otherwise other-worldly universe.

Grand Budapest Hotel

This is perhaps Wes Anderson’s best film to date. It has all the Anderson quirkiness we’ve come to expect—elaborate set pieces, quirky characters, and deadpan humor but seems to have more layers than his other films, even down to the aspect ratios the movie is shot in. And Ralph Fiennes is incredible.

Gone Girl

In the hands of any other director this movie could have taken some wrong turns. However with the expert direction of the master of dark cinema (David Fincher, Fight Club, Seven, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) this movie stuck to the text of the original novel by Gillian Flynn and somehow does better.

Locke

Locke stars Tom Hardy, as the only man on camera for the entire film. In fact the entire film takes place in one location: a car, at night. What does Tom Hardy do in this car? He talks. Not to himself but to other people through his cars built-in-hands-free-phone. He’s on a mission. But what is his mission? Where does he have to go so urgently? What has happened that is more important than his job, his wife, and his family? These are the questions that may run through your mind while watching Locke, and while it may seem like a cruel joke, the film is actually a testament to the minimalism of film making and acting. The film is taut and gripping, never boring. Hardy raptly holds our attention and delivers a performance very few others could. To say any more about the film would be to spoil it, but suffice it to say the film is a deeply human portrayal of mistakes, regret, and what it takes to set things straight.

Inherent Vice

By far the most entertaining movie of the year, and perhaps the best. Many will not say so because it’s well, sort of about nothing, or about somethings, those somethings becoming ever more slippery as the movie progresses. Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon and expertly (as always) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The director of There Will be Blood and Magnolia presents us with the last hippie of California, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a private eye who investigates the disappearance of his girlfriend and runs into (among other things), a possible drug smuggling ring, a gang of Nazi bikers, runaway youth, a possible undercover agent, a straight-laced cop moonlighting as a T.V. actor cop, all while remaining deliriously and hilariously high.

Birdman: Just the best. 

Meh: The Imitation Game

A great movie based on a heartbreaking and fascinating story. However, the movie tries way too hard to be everything award audiences want: a bit of wit, crying, an inspirational saying repeated throughout. It’s not quite as brilliant as it thinks it is.

Honorable Mentions:

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Interstellar

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies (I thought I’d hate this movie or at least be as severely disappointed with it as the last two Hobbits, but I was pleasantly surprised. It has all the epicness of Lord of the Rings with only a little bit of melodrama of the previous Hobbits. Also, it finally returns to the main allegory of why we’re all here, to the theme of greed and power and their ability to corrupt.

Movies I have not seen yet most of which I’m pretty sure would supplant the current list, may have to get back to you in a couple weeks.

The Babadook

Force Majeure

Whiplash

Theory of Everything

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12 Years a Slave is Brutal and Beautiful at the Same Time

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Steve McQueen is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors…and he’s only made three full-length movies. I’ve only seen two of the three, Shame, which came out in 2011 about one New York City man’s addiction to sex, and recently 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s movies are highlighted by an intense focus on the body and the physical, as well as stories that have gone untold, such as his first debut Hunger, which focused on a prison strike by IRA inmates in Northern Ireland.

The camera work of his films is incredibly interesting, artsy even, the shots long, and the detachment visceral. 12 Years a Slave is no different. It follows the trials of Solomon Northrup (played heroically by Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man who is duped and drugged by two frauds, and awakes to find himself in Washington D.C. in chains. His new captors tell him that he is no longer a free man, but a slave from Georgia, and mercilessly beat him till he agrees, or at least stops talking. As the camera pans up we see we are not but a few blocks from the capitol of the United State of America.

Northrup is then shuffled off to Louisiana where he has a relatively kind master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being transferred to the manic cruel servitude of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way he must keep his reading and writing skills a secret lest they get him in trouble, as they must assuredly do throughout the course of the movie. Northrup is smart, too smart for his own good, and finds his education, status, and name all but worthless in the bayous and plantations of Louisiana. He is merely the “property” of another human being.

12 Years is complex in that it refuses to generalize or demarcate its characters. Some of the white people are good (well only a few), some utterly evil. And yet there is almost the sense that within the “masters” of the plantation, the guilty consciences over their treatment of others in fact spurs even more violence, violence to cover guilt in an endless circle. Michael Fassbender is insane in this movie and I mean it in both the bad way and the good. 

12 Years also draws our attention to the fact that some of the greatest evil was in fact imposed by the hands of fellow slaves at the behest of their masters. How much crueler can a whipping get? By having the perpetrator (themselves a victim) perpetrate the violence upon another victim. Was race-on-race violence a form of oppression and suffering devised at the hands of the white elite unknowingly years ago? I might say so. 

 Of course Brad Pitt gets to be the good Canadian abolitionist in the end, his speech and opinions coming so late in the movie it feels as if he is from another planet, but who can resist Brad Pitt? Actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, and Adepero Oduye are incredible and even surpass the heroism of Northrup, especially Patsey (Nyong’o). Each portrays a different version of how women handled their situation with grace and perseverance, and yet not without a few tears, or scars.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit let the camera linger on scenes of 12 Years for extended periods of time, as if McQueen is forcing us to look when other filmmakers would cut or the average person avert their eyes.

“Look!” the entire film seems to scream out.

In what is perhaps the most infamous scene of the film, Northrup is disciplined by standing on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for an entire afternoon as plantation life continues on around him. Some images, particularly Ejiofor’s burning of a compromised letter, are stark and say more than words can. Certain critics have complained that this “artsy” camera work takes advantage of Northrup’s story and allows McQueen to showcase his talent of imagery and beauty at the expense of the story. To that I say, “Pssht.” No way. It makes the film.

Detachment is a huge theme in all of McQueen’s movies and while 12 Years is a deeply heartfelt and passionate experience, there is something about it that leaves you numb and void of emotion, or perhaps so overcome by emotion that you have nothing left. Even though the film recreates the South and experience of slavery in a way that is so real and visceral, it also lacks a hearty psychological interior. I see this detachment as the only experience of emotion left to feel at the end of such horrific events. It is the absence of feeling, anti-attachment, that visually recreates experiences such as slavery or addiction in ways you can’t otherwise. To be addicted is to be utterly overcome with desire, and yet completely numb. I can’t speak for slavery but there is something about the way in which Northrup must categorize his servitude and refuse to give in to despair that requires a certain amount of stoicism or even ignorance on his part.

McQueen is able to take a story and historical experience shown or written about thousands of times and make it feel fresh, deeply important, and utterly terrifying. One friend I was with remarked that the entire feeling of the film felt more like a horror film than historical narrative. My body was tense from the minute the first image drifted on screen to the moment the credits started rolling. So, be prepared when you see the movie, but the result is breathless. Breathless in beauty. Breathless in terror. Breathless in acting and directing. If this movie isn’t the best of the year I will be personally offended. 

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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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