comedy, drama, musical

La La Land

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La La Land, 2016

Call it Damien Chazelle’s ode to yellow, the overrated record-breaking Golden Globe winning film, or that musical with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. All are accurate descriptions of La La Land, Chazelle’s supposedly impossible project that’s charming the awards circuit. It’s simple to summarize – Mia (Stone) is a wannabe actor, while Sebastian (Gosling) dreams of opening a club and preserving “pure jazz.” But can they have each other and their careers?! You decide if you want to sit more than two hours to find out.

What was most troubling about Land is its marketing as a modern day musical and yet, it has four songs. Four. And three of the four are sung by barely-there vocals. The fourth, what feels like the finale, is belted by Stone, which made me more mad at the previously mediocre vocal performances. It doesn’t help that the the songs hardly push the film along, as a true musical’s would. Perhaps if I had shown up and expected a typical film this random, breathy singing would have been charming but because of the bombardments of ads it was simply disappointing.

On top of that, these characters are tough to root for. We know nothing about Mia other than she’s a barista who was inspired by the classics… like Casablanca. So, so far she’s any barista in America. Meanwhile, Sebastian is a white jazz pianist serving as a savior to jazz. At least he sounds intelligent speaking about his passion, sourcing and collecting from the greats. Beyond the planetarium scene and the very, very end, watching these two fall in love was painful. Was it worth Gosling’s GG acceptance speech though? Maybe. Just maybe.

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comedy, drama, musical

Hairspray Live!

Hairspray Live! - Season 2016

Hairspray Live!, 2016

Another Christmastime, another “Live!” musical. This year NBC chose Hairspray, and unfortunately these overexcited productions seem to get better with time. More than its predecessors, though, Live! was a reminder of how stage doesn’t always translate to screen. From the intro with animatronic rats and men stirring empty coffee cups to a scene “playing” dodgeball, viewers were robbed of the charm of theatre that’s possible thanks to the illusion of distance. Then again, it was neat to see The Corny Collins show on an actual TV. Whether or not you enjoy Hairspray (any version of it) doesn’t matter though, because with this viewing its eerie timeliness and star-filled cast is what made the show.

So much of this musical, primarily about positive body image and establishing desegregation in Baltimore, felt “too soon” as 2016 comes to a close. Lines that may have been funny your last viewing/listening suddenly felt passive aggressive, or like salt in the wound. Worst/Best of all, it made Jennifer Hudson’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” a motivational speech for the US of A. But of course, things have changed since the 60’s. That line about beer being a quarter? Let’s bring that back. And speaking of the past and Hudson (who played Motormouth Mabel), her rendition of “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” made you wonder what Weight Watchers Jennifer would think of all this. The rest of the cast, which included Derek Hough, some Disney stars, Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, and Ariana Grande playing her SNL Tidal intern Chloe, did well. Newbie Maddie Baillio (playing Tracy Turnblad) stepped up to the challenge, and was at one point flanked by past Tracy’s. It took my viewing party several minutes to solve the tres Turnblad mystery, which featured Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur. Oh, and Hamilton alum Ephraim Sykes blessed everyone as Seaweed. I hope he laughed as hard as I did when Link (Garrett Clayton) exclaimed “I will not throw away my shot!

Unfortunately the mics were not as reliable as the talent and it was often difficult to hear the words above the music. Costumes, on the other hand, were very loud. Shoutout to the Dynamites’ outfits; too bad my office Christmas party is tomorrow and I can’t snag one in time. Even if Tracy was playing tic tac toe with herself in jail and the best song of the night was arguably featured in the Arby’s Fire Roasted Philly ad, Hairspray was fun to watch, and reflect with. What NBC is predicting for 2017 by choosing Bye Bye Birdy as its next live musical is unclear…

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comedy

The Intern

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The Intern, 2015

On a flight at 6 AM, countless feet above the ground, I could have caught up on cinematic masterpieces but instead I chose to watch The Intern. Can you blame me? It’s a Nancy Meyers film, features 2/3 of Workaholics, and would suck up half of my plane ride. Easy decision. For better or worse, this is the first 100% Meyers movie I have seen (The Parent Trap and Father of the Bride were collaborative affairs) so I won’t be fan-girling or treating this solely as one of her films, but a film in general. And with that in mind… it’s clear Meyers can write about women’s struggles and love and include some quippy lines. But a lot of Intern had me figuratively scratching my head.

Thirty-something Jules (Anne Hathaway) is the founder and CEO of About the Fit, an online retailer that features reviews about the actual fit of the clothes. So, Mod Cloth with Anne Hathaway. Jules runs around (or bikes) the office frantically, trailed by Andrew Rannells (I’m sorry, Cameron) and an assistant who solely uses sticky notes for note taking (strange, no?). Cameron has set up a senior (citizen) intern program and soon the office gains a few new interns, with 70 year old retiree Ben (Robert De Niro) assigned to Jules herself. Almost immediately after, Jules learns that investors want to bring a seasoned CEO to the company and Ben becomes the ultimate shoulder to lean on.

As Jules interviews her potential bosses, we overhear lots in the supposedly trendy office; things like, “Let me track that for you,” “Can we make this ‘5’ more graphic?” and “You wanna Netflix something?”  Perhaps most painful is an Arby’s-esque bell which is rung by a woman who shouts, “We just hit a record high of 2500 likes on Instagram!!!” My office would kill me. Fortunately, with every unintentional laughable moment (did I mention “All About that Bass” is played?) there is some gravitas. Ben is handling his status as a widow, Jules is trying to find work/life balance in addition to hiring a CEO, and lots of younger people at the office have their own (minimally played out but genuine) struggles. Whether or not Ben would be so generous and willing to help them is another post altogether.

The movie is often inconsistent (random voice-overs, breaking the fourth wall at the start) and frequently mockable but also, as the woman seated next to me repeatedly said, “so, so cute. It’s so cute.” For as out of touch and cliché as Intern can feel, it’s got just as much going for it. Even if I’d been on the ground watching it at a reasonable hour, I would have enjoyed it. Believe me, that’s saying a lot.

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comedy, drama, musical

The Last Five Years

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The Last Five Years, 2014

Blame it on work or relationships or really burning through awards season. I’ve got eight hopeless reviews in draft mode, and while I’ve been seeing movies in theaters and at home and on planes and trying to fulfill my #52FilmsByWomen challenge… there hasn’t been anything posted in a while, huh? But tonight I finally sat down to watch The Last Five Years. Building on Jason Robert Brown’s musical of the same name, the film focuses on the relationship between Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). What makes it far more interesting than a love story is that it starts with Jamie and Cathy telling it from beginning and end, respectably. That, and it’s a musical. Because of the alternation of devastatingly sad and heart-fluttering cute, it’s an emotional tour de force complete with both actors belting their hearts out.

Brown was a big deal among kids I grew up with (no, seriously, worship level), so I knew the songs but had never seen them performed, and was admittedly wary of it. At the start though, the typography was nice and the film started with credits against a black screen, New York City’s own sounds in the background. In this immediate nod, the city became the third character. Part of what makes Years so intimate and sad is that you know nothing of anyone but Cathy and Jamie. Even regarding those two characters, we know very little about them other than their relation to each other and their jobs. Jamie is a wunderkind author while Cathy is a struggling actor, and the portrayal perfect. From phone calls and Skype dates to living together and attending work functions, there is clearly effort being put into showcasing the growth (and decay) of a relationship.

The camera angles are sweeping, often feeling handheld (maybe some were handheld?) to the point of disorienting a viewer. The color correction makes some scenes nearly neon, with trees far greener than need be. Kendrick’s blonde hair and Daisy Mae sweater are incredibly distracting. If you don’t like musicals, skip Years. It’s cheesy and  nearly all sung and occasionally features choreography from plot bystanders, but if you like musicals you can look over all of this and become sucked in. From the first note of “Still Hurting” (if you went to theatre camp, you know it) you’re done. And at an hour and 34 minutes, you can afford to be.

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comedy, drama, mystery

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight, 2015

The Hateful Eight, 2015

Sometimes I play a game so that I don’t eat my popcorn at the movies all at once – wait for a certain word to be said or an actor to appear. Going into The Hateful Eight, I decided I wouldn’t eat until the first gunshot; fortunately, my self control was pitiful and I caved after 20 minutes or so because Eight is a slow burn. And I mean that positively. Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film (as if that hasn’t been stressed enough) is a whodunit set in post-Civil War Wyoming. In a single “day” nearly all inside Minnie’s Haberdashery, two bounty hunters, one’s captive, a Confederate general, a sheriff, a hangman, a cowboy, and a Mexican (phew) find themselves stuck together in a snowstorm. Various tensions, like race and gender and class and roots, build throughout this 187 minute masterpiece, and being Tarantino of course it’s violent (eventually) and excessive but it’s also remarkably theatrical, hilarious, and stunning.

Shown in 70mm film, hearing the projector clicking behind me and seeing a ridiculously large, crisp picture felt more submersing than any film experience I could have imagined. The limited time roadshow came complete with a beautiful program and plenty of “ooh”s and “ah”s. Whether or not one appreciates the viewing experience, the amount of work that went into the cinemas using such dated (and arguably forgotten) equipment is thrilling. Pair this with its sheer attention to detail and Eight easily becomes the most beautiful film of the year. The (few) locations are astounding, and the refrigerated set allows the intimate feel of Minnie’s to be exaggerated to a point of reality, in which each spoken word comes with visible breath. Chalk-full of dialogue (but using silence wisely), Eight is a story of each character telling stories. Getting to learn about each individual provides momentum to the mysteries until a wild few minutes before intermission. From theatrical to cinematic extreme, Tarantino keeps the second half of the film bloody, tense, and absolutely hysterical.

As soon as it ended I wanted to see Eight again. Stefon would maybe go far as to say, this film has everything – an interesting plot, dynamic cast, tense drama, laugh out loud humor, gore and guts, and it looks good to boot.

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comedy, drama

Tangerine

Tangerine, 2015

Tangerine, 2015

Each Christmastime I revel in watching non-Christmas Christmas movies – the ones simply set during the holiday season or featuring an unforgettable Christmas scene, from Meet Me in St. Louis and Mean Girls to Just Friends and When Harry Met Sally. Though Tangerine takes place on Christmas Eve and is filled with many festive greetings (including its opening line, “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!”), I can’t imagine adding this one to the lineup. While Sean Baker’s story of two transgender prostitutes tearing through the margins of L.A. to seek revenge on one’s cheating boyfriend is hysterical and surprisingly sweet in moments, Tangerine is also so gritty and raw that it’s almost a film worth seeing less for enjoyment and more for its innovative story telling and characters. It doesn’t spread holiday cheer but it does tell fantastic stories of life on the fringe, from various prostitutes and pimps to a cab driver and his extended family.

Instantly the script captures a frankness and sincerity that magnetizes the viewer to two of its characters, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Freed from prison, Sin-Dee learns her pimp-boyfriend cheated on her with another prostitute. The dynamic exchange between Sin-Dee and Alexandra about finding this girl (who is comically called by various “D” names throughout the film) leads to the many small plots to follow, which include a fabulous vocal performance by Taylor in one of my favorite scenes of the year. Shot entirely on iPhone 5s’, the film features incredibly close angles of its actors and, as one would assume, has a gritty quality that works in favor of the roughness of the film itself. Tangerine represents what independent filmmaking should be. It showcases new, evocative talent, tells a unique story anchored gracefully in truth, and is shot intentionally with carefully chosen transitions, including a neat use of sound bridges.

Whether or not you enjoy watching the first hour of Tangerine, it’s worth seeing for the last half hour in which the plots and characters literally collide back where we started, at a tiny shop called Donut Time, still on Christmas Eve. The chaos is captured perfectly with languages blending, voices rising one against the other, and a perfect impromptu performance of “Say My Name.” It’s evident why this performed well at Sundance, why it’s on countless “best of” lists for 2015, and how it fits into the dialogue regarding inclusivity that’s been discussed ’round tables all year. Whether or not you’ll want to bring up Tangerine at your holiday feast is up to you.

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adventure, comedy, drama

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, 2012

There are plenty of “end of the world” iterations in cinema, each seemingly more extreme than the last, but Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is refreshing solely since it isn’t outrageous. It starts abruptly, with Dodge (the how-can-you-not-love-him? Steve Carell) being left by his wife Linda (Nancy Carell). Following Dodge roam around New York City, we get to see how the general public is handling the apocalyptic news. There’s “Best of Humanity” magazines for sale, Last Supper parties, folks hiring hitmen so they won’t have to wait to go down with the rest of the planet. Dodge himself is torn between a sense of normalcy and accepting his fate. He’s one of a handful of people still working at his office, where senior titles are now literally up for grabs, though he tries to convince his housekeeper to quit, for example.

Dodge then meets his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who’s missed her flight to see her family abroad. Escaping a riot outside their apartment, the two make a deal: Penny will drive Dodge to find his high school sweetheart and Dodge will connect Penny with his friend who has a plane. The relationship between Dodge and Penny (and the casting of Carell and Knightley) was troublesome, but as I continue to mull the couple over, I still can’t put a finger on why it bothered me. Is it the speed at which their friendship progresses? The extreme example of opposites attracting? The way Knightley looks constipated throughout all of World?

One of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is films that feature inconsistent title cards, and World is guilty. When it begins, the screen fills with the text “21 days,” letting viewers know there are this many days left till the killer-asteroid Matilda hits. (Side-note: I like to imagine that director Lorene Scafaria chose the name Matilda having been scarred by the movie. Plausible, right?) We see a few more countdowns early in the film, but the title cards stop. Next thing you know, the end is near with no overt warning as in the beginning. Why bother with title cards at all?

Blame it on the rain or my Toasted Graham Latte, but I’m rambling. Listen, the two main reasons to watch world are for the random one liners and the supporting cast. With quotes like, “You got alotta guns and alotta potato chips,” it’s hard not to crack a smile several times during World.  Throw in Jim O’Heir (Dammit Jerry!), a brunette, middle-part and heroin-loving Amy Schumer, Gillian Jacobs, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Adam Brody, and a scene stealing TJ Miller and you’ve got… well, it’s not the last movie on earth I’d want to see, but I’d see it again.

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