REVIEW: “La La Land”

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With 2014’s “Whiplash” Damien Chazelle cemented his place among the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers. After its release few could question the 31 year-old’s deep and sincere affection for music. His affection is made even clearer with his latest film, the bold, audacious, and utterly delightful “La La Land”. It kind of makes sense he is jazz drummer himself.

Hype can be a tricky thing. It certainly spawned a ton of enthusiasm for “La La Land” which is interesting since it was destined to resonate with some while disappointing others. I was somewhere in the middle straddling the fence between nostalgic curiosity and skepticism. But regardless of where you stand, no one can deny this was an ambitious and gutsy undertaking especially in today’s movie culture.

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“La La Land” is Chazelle’s tribute to the classic MGM musicals and the profound cinematic voices they once shared. At the same time I was surprised to find an oddly bewildering modern flavor making this much more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s just as much an ode to those who leave their comforts in pursuit of their artistic dreams. In one of the film’s key songs, Emma Stone’s character Mia describes it like this “Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish, as they may seem.”

Here’s the funny thing – the scene I’ve heard praised the loudest is the one I’m the most mixed on. It’s the opening sequence, a spontaneous musical number on a clogged Los Angeles freeway ramp. I actually like the spontaneity. It’s as if Chazelle is setting the parameters for the audience and wiping the table of any uncertainty. It’s a bold and confident opening choice which I appreciate. I do love the the song “Another Day of Sun” and we get variations of it throughout the film. I didn’t quite go for the messy mish-mash of dance styles. The true highlight of the scene is how it’s shot – in a long flowing take that weaves in and out of stalled traffic and energetic dancers. It’s something to behold.

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The scene leads to the first meeting between two struggling artists, Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia dreams of being an actress but working in a studio lot’s coffee shop is as close as she has come. Sebastian is stuck playing piano in dingy bars but dreams of opening his own traditional jazz club in LA. Their first meeting is…less than cordial, but they keep crossing paths almost as if fate has something in store for them. Some snappy dance numbers and one spark of romance later and Chazelle has all of his pieces in place.

The further “La La Land” goes the more it resembles the classic musicals it draws from. The vibrant colors, dazzling spectacle, catchy tunes, Mandy Moore’s snappy, choreography – it all hearkens back to MGM’s heyday. At the same time I can’t overstate how fresh and original this feels. Chazelle quite literally revitalizes a forgotten genre and injects it with new energy. And if that weren’t enough he also tells a charming love story that’s maintains a plausibility within this dreamy world. It’s also unexpectedly bittersweet and laced with the perfect dosage of melancholy.

And then there is Chazelle’s Fred and Ginger. This is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s third film together. Performance-wise Stone is the standout. It’s a performance rich with feeling and sincerity. It also doesn’t hurt that song and dance have been a part of her life since childhood. You can tell. But she also adds a surprising amount of weight to the dramatic moments which is key to them working so well. It’s a lovely well-rounded performance.

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Gosling is another story. Let me be clear, he’s not “bad” here, but it is yet another performance plagued by the same Gosling problem. Pulling emotion from him is like getting the last bit of juice from an orange. You squeeze as hard as you can but you only get drops. Gosling gives merely drops of feeling even during his dance numbers. It seems as if the character is written with Gosling’s limitations in mind which saves him a bit, but just a touch more charisma would have been nice. To be fair Gosling has his moments especially when he flashes his dry sense of humor.

Chazelle has a lot to juggle which makes his achievement with “La La Land” that much more impressive. I hate to incorporate such an overused adjective but ‘magical’ is a perfectly fitting description. As it started I felt oddly out of place, but soon I was swept away by the the dazzling, joyous, smile-inducing production. My skepticism quickly gave way to exhilaration. Now I’m not naive enough to say everyone will share my reaction. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I left the theater in an unusually happy state and “La La Land” has been dancing in the back of my mind ever since.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Magic in the Moonlight”

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There is no doubt that Woody Allen falls into the ‘hit or miss’ category. The 79-year old Allen is still writing and directing his films and we get a new movie every year. This self-imposed annualized system of his had led to several fairly rotten films. On the other hand, when Woody Allen is on his game, he can deliver some of the sharpest and wittiest character-driven movies you’ll find. His latest picture is “Magic in the Moonlight” and the big question was which Woody Allen were we going to get?

I have to admit my expectations for this film were pretty tempered. Critics seem to be split down the middle on it and even the positive reviews rarely featured high praise. So I sat down to watch the film preparing to be disappointed to some degree. But an interesting thing happened. The film hooked me after its first few scenes. As it went on I found myself more interested in its characters, more taken by its charms, more amused by its humor, and more satisfied with its simplicity. As it turns out I really liked this movie.

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As with many of Allen’s films, “Magic in the Moonlight” follows a very eccentric lead character. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a famous traveling illusionist in late 1920s Europe. He is a smug, snarky fellow who we quickly learn to dislike. His arrogance really shows itself in his obsession with mortality, specifically debunking any notion of mysticism or an afterlife. When describing himself and his perspective on the subject Stanley states “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world. Any other way lies madness.” His close-minded cynicism and innate stubbornness won’t allow him to entertain the possibilities of there being more beyond what we see.

One of Stanley’s side pleasures is exposing psychics as frauds. He is recruited by a childhood friend (Simon McBurney) to travel with him to the French Riviera where a young American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has wooed a very wealthy family. No one has been able to disprove Sophie’s “mental vibrations”, but that doesn’t deter the overly confident Stanley. After arriving at the Côte d’Azur, insulting most of the people he meets, and sitting in on a séance, Stanley finds himself baffled at Sophie’s abilities. Complicating matters even more, he soon finds himself smitten with her.

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When Allen’s material is clicking he can give us some truly fascinating characters. Stanley is a pompous and pretentious jerk. He’s insulting and confrontational, but there is another layer to the character. He’s also a miserable man whose facade of self-assuredness can’t hide his neurotic insecurities. The wily Colin Firth is fabulous and he handles Allen’s dialogue like a fine sculptor with clay. He delivers a character that is detestable, sympathetic, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Much of it is due to the signature sharp writing, but a big part is all because of Firth. The man is incapable of a bad performance.

But it’s Eileen Atkins who almost steals the entire show. She plays Stanley’s wise and straight-shooting Aunt Vanessa. She practically raised him since birth and knows him better than anyone else. She’s a subtle firecracker and her frank but loving dealings with Stanley offer up some of the film’s best lines. I was a little less enthusiastic about Emma Stone. She certainly isn’t bad by any means, but in some scenes she just doesn’t quite feel right for the part. It may be that she clashes with portions of Allen’s writing style. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

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One of the true stars of the film is cinematographer Darius Khondji. This is the fourth film he has shot for  Woody Allen and his work is fabulous. More and more locations are becoming bigger characters in Allen’s films. Here the gorgeous French Riviera setting is vividly captured. Sometimes it playfully lingers as a backdrop. Other times Khondji seems to be framing a beautiful postcard right up until someone enters the frame. And then there is the percolating 1920s setting. I loved the conscientious attention given to the many period details.

I can see where “Magic in the Moonlight” would be too lightweight for some people. For some it may not be funny enough. For others it may not be romantic enough. Overall it has underwhelmed a lot of people. I found myself happily wrapped up in its setting, its humor, and its simplicity. Now don’t misunderstand me. This doesn’t have the magic of “Midnight in Paris”. But it is a film I enjoyed getting lost in, and when the final credits rolled I had a big smile on my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It was 2007 when we last saw Spider-Man on the big screen in the underwhelming and over-blown “Spider-Man 3”. While nowhere near as good as the first two films, “Spider-Man 3” still earned close to $900 million at the box office. In light of that, plans for “Spider-Man 4” immediately took off. But the movie had several problems including creative differences between director Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures which resulted in his departure from the project. The decision was made to scrap “Spider-Man 4” and instead opt for a complete reboot of the popular Marvel Comics franchise. That meant good-bye to Tobey Maguire and hello to Andrew Garfield.

So that brings us to “The Amazing Spider-Man”. Marc Webb takes over the directing duties with James Vanderbilt handling the writing. Vanderbilt goes heavy into the origin of Spider-Man, this time with some new twists but also with the same basic premise. The film starts with Peter Parker’s (Garfield) parents being spooked after their home study is ransacked. In the study, Peter’s father retrieves some secret documents from their hiding place – obviously what the intruders were searching for – then along with Peter’s mother drops Peter off with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) before hurriedly leaving.

We then skip ahead several years. Peter is the quiet, nerdy teen interested in science, photography, and a beautiful fellow student named Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Peter finds out that his father had ties to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an accomplished scientist working for Oscorp. Connors lost his right arm some time ago and thinks he’s found a solution to his handicap through his cross-species regeneration experiments. After slipping into Connors’ Oscorp lab, Peter begins snooping around and comes across an experiment involving – what else – genetically altered spiders. You know the story – he’s bit which leads to new powers and new responsibilities. Meanwhile events unfold that cause Connors to prematurely try out his regeneration formula on himself and, as I’m sure you guessed, it goes terribly wrong. It transforms him into a super strong, destructive, reptilian creature and Peter, now known as Spider-Man, is the only one who can stop him.

As I mentioned above, the movie spends a lot of time retelling the origin of Spider-Man. It’s certainly not a carbon copy of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man picture, in fact it seems to go to great lengths to distant itself from the original three movies. Several key parts of the origin differ greatly not only from the previous films but from the comic book source material as well. But originality isn’t a bad thing as long as the source material is respected and it certainly is here. But the film’s biggest problem is also tied into the decision to go heavy into the origin. While it is well written and stands strong on its own, I never could get over the feeling that it was just too soon for a reboot. Even with the fresh approach it still felt too familiar and at about the 1 hour 15 minute mark I was really ready for the story to move on.

But there are some things that “The Amazing Spider-Man” does better than the previous films. On thing is the relationship between Peter and Gwen. I really responded to their complicated romance and it felt more genuine and real than the Peter/Mary Jane relationship in the first movies ever did. Here it felt authentic and I bought into their emotions and affections. I also think more attention was given to fleshing it out whereas Peter and M.J. from the first films were built around a very simple blueprint and they stuck closely to it.

I also think Andrew Garfield was fantastic and his performance was head and shoulders above Tobey Maguire’s. He played the nerdy, reserved introvert very well and even after he gains his powers, Garfield never overplays his character. He throws out just enough witty banter with the criminals he’s putting away and I never doubted the genuineness of his scenes that required more raw emotion. A lot of that is due to Garfield but a lot is also due to how well Vanderbilt handles the character in his writing. I was also a big fan of Emma Stone’s performance. She’s grounded and believable and she sells her character very well. Sally Field and Martin Sheen are serviceable as Aunt May and Uncle Ben and Denis Leary makes for a pretty decent Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father. But the real stars are Garfield and Stone.

The special effects are quite good particularly during the huge, action-packed finale. The spider-influenced fight choreography is a lot of fun and there are several cool tricks used to give Spider-Man’s New York City swinging a different look than in the previous movies. As far as the Lizard goes, he’s a little of a mixed bag. There are times, especially during the fight sequences, when he looks very good. I also remember a specific scene where the Lizard looks awesome as he was walking around in a ripped Connors lab coat. But there are also a few scenes where the CGI was very noticeable and regardless of the attempts at motion capture, it still looked a little unrealistic. But as a whole the visuals are very good. They’re not overused and for the most part they capture exactly what you would want from a Spider-Man picture.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t quite escape the fact that it just feels too soon to be offering up a rebooted Spider-Man series. In light of that, the first half of the film can drag and it seems a little wasted. The movie definitely creates its own unique beginning but the thrust of the origin is nothing all that new. That aside, Garfield is a big improvement as Spider-Man and his character is one I can really invest in. Now with the origin out of the way, I’m anxious to see where the series goes next. If they’re able to keep their components in place and avoid the trappings of “Spider-Man 3”, we could be in for a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“THE HELP” – 3.5 STARS

Perhaps the biggest box office surprise of 2011 was “The Help”. The Civil Rights era drama dominated movie theaters to the tune of over $200 million. Based on the immensely popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” was adapted for the big screen and directed by the relatively unknown Tate Taylor who was born in raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the deep south city where the film takes place. The movie nicely recaptures that time period and setting both through the look and feel of the picture. You do get a genuine sense of familiarity from the director and it shows onscreen.

At it’s core, “The Help” is a story about racism and the obstacles that the black community faced during the early 1960′s. It particularly focuses on maids, women hired to do everything from cook meals to raise the children of well-to-do white people. These women, simply referred to as the help, earn next to nothing while facing all sorts of embarrassments and humiliations. This is potentially heavy material and the film gives us several strong, emotionally charged moments that you can’t help but be effected by. But the film also dabbles in caricatures, lapses into occasional shallowness, and spends a little too much time away from the truly powerful central story.

The film’s biggest strengths can be found in the mesmerizing performances of Viola Jones and Octavia Spencer. Jones’ Aibileen and Spencer’s Minny are both quite unique and layered characters. They are fascinating individuals and the movie is at it’s best when they are on the screen. I found myself particularly drawn to Spencer. She takes a character that could have been an over the top cliche and beautifully portrays her through a controlled and measured performance. Emma Stone is also good as Skeeter, a young writer returning home after graduating from Ole Miss. After seeing the treatment of the help by some of her town “friends”, Skeeter sets out to convince Aibileen and Minny to let her write about their experiences. There are also several fun but smaller roles featuring Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Cicely Tyson.

While “The Help” works well in many areas, it also hits a few speed bumps. The most notable problem with the film is it’s almost cartoonish portrayal of several of the upper-class white woman. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the proverbial villain (for lack of a better term) and her character is so exaggerated that I could never take her seriously. I’m not sure if it’s her acting or the way her character is written but I tend to think it’s a little of both. We get glimpses of this from several other women but not on the same scale as Howard’s Hilly character. I don’t deny for one second that this type of racism existed or that it was a real obstacle that these African American women faced. But I would have loved to see these white women portrayed in a much more believable and sincere fashion.

I always say that you can’t compare a movie with the book it’s based on. A movie is in a different universe with an entirely different set of limitations. Tate does a good job of keeping the main thrust of the story in tact and spends most of the film focused on what makes this a good movie, the story of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. But the movie does wander off into several more uninteresting directions that do more to take away from the central story than add anything to it. Whether it’s Skeeter’s underplayed and irrelevant romance or Celia’s failed pregnancies and rags-to-riches story, “The Help” sometimes tries to cram too much into too little of a space which leaves the film feeling a little bloated.

Even with a few flaws, “The Help” is a movie that manages to deliver some gripping and powerful scenes. It’s impossible to not be drawn to the main characters and the perfomances from Viola Jones and Octavia Spencer are stunning. The movie manages to maintain the strength of it’s central message even though it could have been stronger with more balanced and believable portrayals of certain characters. But I was moved by “The Help” and although it’s not the most polished and steady film of the year, it certainly deserves the money it has made and the attention it has garnered.