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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drama

Manchester by the Sea

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Manchester by the Sea, 2016

There’s nothing quite like watching a cold movie in the winter. And Manchester by the Sea is cold in several regards. Kenneth Logerman‘s buzzed about film tells the story of Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor who returns home after learning that has brother has died. But that’s the simplistic, spoiler-free version. Lee is a complex, beautifully imagined and perfectly performed character. We get to see Affleck navigate Lee’s past and present, and Logerman’s script and direction make flashbacks as seamless as possible. They are touching, often suspenseful, never cheesy or appearing to be trying. The cyclical nature of many, and the subtle similarities such as Lee’s yellow shirt then and now, get even better with each viewing. I can say that since I’ve seen Sea twice now.

I left (both times) with zero complaints, other than Lee heats up two slices of pizza for two whole minutes. And is that really a complaint? In addition to Affleck, the other players do not disappoint. There are exciting, short moments with Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and even Matthew Broderick but perhaps the best is Lucas Hedges, who gives essentially-orphaned teen Patrick all the heart and angst a human could possibly muster. Mix that in with gorgeous scenery and perhaps the best script of the year and Logerman’s created what many have called a “masterpiece.” Can’t blame them.

The film shows us his ability to impeccably showcase a range of emotions in a way that feels all too real. In truth, a lot of Sea is devastatingly too real. The dialogue mirrors life so well that you may find yourself experiencing what’s best described as deja vu. You might ache or laugh remembering the emotional weight of an experience, curious as to what life’s good decisions are, what the right person would do. Yes, Sea is a story that won’t blow your mind or take you to a magical place, but it’s a reminder of how authentic cinema can be.

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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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based on a true story, drama, history, war

Hacksaw Ridge

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If you don’t like blood, slow-motion, or Vince Vaughn in a serious role, then you won’t like Hacksaw Ridge. It’s Mel Gibson’s first film since Apocalypto, and I’m not sure he even knew what he was making. It’s quite the war film in that its choreographed violence is impeccably bleak, while its moments of spirituality are brightly lit and sincere. Then you’ve got Private Private Parts, a naked guy going through basic training. What is happening?

The story is a true one, based on the early life and service of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an Army Medic in World War II who refused to carry a weapon. It’s disappointing the start of the film shows Doss in battle – it makes the “suspense” of his trials during basic training (literal and figurative) rather mute. But as we see him grow from a boy to a man, a boyfriend to a husband, and a trainee to a medic, we develop feelings for this conscientious objector and that helps make what seems too good to be true exciting to watch. The breathtakingly gruesome portion of the film portrays the Battle of Okinawa, which took place on Hacksaw Ridge (get it?) – essentially a cliff. After battle, American soldiers climbed down, but Doss stayed and saved 75 men. While in reality this heroic act led Doss to receive a Medal of Honor, a condensed film version showing Garfield dodging literally every bullet, grenade, and countless Japanese soldiers in a tunnel takes away from the awe of it all. I would’ve been thrilled to see just three lives miraculously saved by Doss, but Gibson seems to show all 75. Well, maybe 50. But the montage was a lot of the same, and I left feeling underwhelmed. It doesn’t help that we never see Doss train to be a medic (beyond reading a book on arteries and veins from his then-girlfriend Dorothy [Teresa Palmer]), and when he does save these men it always started with, “Put pressure on it!” Perhaps this is accurate but with the often corny creative liberties Gibson did take, why not add something Grey’s Anatomy worthy?

Ending with real footage alongside what can best be described as iMovie style, viewers are reminded of what an authentic story Ridge tells. At a time when emotions, beliefs, and opinions seem to be simultaneously more valued and divisive than ever, the tale of a man defending his conscious while supporting the greater good is interesting to watch. Because of this, and Garfield’s potential Oscar nom, see Ridge. Or skip the blood spewing and slow-mo fog and read up on Doss.

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drama, mystery, sci-fi, Uncategorized

Arrival

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Arrival, 2016

Shoutout to Camelot Cinemas for not playing trailers? I was barely late to see Arrival – my friend’s dog had a pee incident, and then Ben (the dog’s human) had to pee. By the time we walked into the theatre, a few minutes after the listed showtime, the movie had started. But what was a disorienting experience only enhanced an already disorienting start to a film. Arrival is all about Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is recruited by the US military to communicate with aliens. Twelve shells (“What we call the UFO”) landed all over our planet. Why are they here? Who/what is inside them? And what is the purpose? These are all questions, or, as Dr. Banks would explain, quests to answers, Arrival hopes to explain. Frankly there’s lots of quests to answers throughout Denis Villeneuve’s latest two hours.

Still, I could see this movie 20 more times and never grow tired. It’s beautifully shot, well paced, and explores countless questions that are eerily pertinent today (insert spoiler thought here about a link between Dr. Banks and Villeneuve). Even the soundtrack, with its occasional far-t00-THX intro sounding segments, is gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeous, the alien language is, too. I could question why Louise’s hair was naturally wavy but straight when she chatted with aliens… are we really supposed to believe in her 10 minutes to pack she grabbed a straightener, and are we also supposed to believe that she’s fixing her hair mid-global crisis? But alas, the only true complaint I have would be regarding the very long scene in which Dr. Banks, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker using a frustrating “accent”), etc first go into the shell together. Yes, it was a powerful, crucial moment but after what seemed like half an hour the aliens could have had my own face on them and I would not have been impressed.

It’s the time of year when the studio’s arguably award-season worthy films begin showing. In other words, it’s the most wonderful time of year. And while there are plenty of things to watch, I think Arrival is what I needed. It’s distracting, it’s empathetic, it’s thought-provoking and not in a controversial way but in one that makes you shrug positively and think of who to watch it with next. Whether or not you like aliens or Amy Adams or the awkwardly shaped shells (which, yes, you will grow to love), I would say, “See Arrival.” It’s a worthy cinematic escape.

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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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action, drama, thriller

The Revenant

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The Revenant, 2015

It’s a 2015 film set in the 1800’s. It’s beautifully shot on location (a grueling shoot, we get it), it’s got plenty of snow and blood, there’s lots of focus on a beverage container, and a man loses his, uh, assets. This is The Hateful Eight… but also The Revenant. The difference is that while Tarantino’s eighth film is laced with his infamous quick-wit dialogue, the script for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest is mostly a wheezing Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting team who, after being mauled by a bear, is essentially abandoned by his fellow frontiersmen. It’s an extended episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, with Glass somehow surviving attacks from Native Americans and Frenchmen, free falling, infections from that bear attack, and so forth. By his fifth miraculous moment I was over it, and yet, Iñárritu keeps one hooked through over 2 hours of this. While the score is predictable and occasionally clunky, the sound mixing is unbelievable. I’m not one to necessarily notice the surround sound in a theatre, but Revenant makes one feel as if he or she is in the middle of the frontier, whether it be a quiet nature scene or an attack. The attacks are definitely brutal but perhaps the second best part of the film, as they are intricately choreographed and shot with an energy hard to put into words. Just watch the first five minutes and you’ll understand.

The locations, as mentioned above, are undoubtedly beautiful; however, Iñárritu can try too hard, namely the desktop screensaver-esque images between scenes. Seriously, that northern lights shot was laughable. In these moments of too-good-to-be-true shots and CGI bison, what keeps the film grounded is its performances. Tom Hardy is insanely good as Fitzgerald, and seeing Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter were pleasant surprises. DiCaprio, our five-time Oscar nominee with zero wins, could win this year. At first I wanted to be mad about this, thinking it could be a win long overdue and consequently not based on the film. Glass experiences dreams of dead wife, but so did DiCaprio’s Cobb in Inception. DiCaprio ate raw fish (and bison liver), but so did Taran Killam in Hobbit Office and he didn’t get any praise (only somewhat kidding here). But… looking at his competition, and remembering Revenant‘s final shot, it’s easy to imagine Leo receiving a standing ovation as he accepts the award.

A coworker has repeatedly called The Revenant “the perfect man movie,” and while it’s far from perfect and isn’t a “man movie,” is is a very good revenge movie. Seeing it without the Academy Awards so close would’ve been a completely different experience, but alas, it’s the time of year where films fight to the death. Revenant is pretty good at that.

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