REVIEW: “The Bachelors”


Kurt Voelker’s “The Bachelors” opens with a father walking into his son’s bedroom in the middle of the night. He sits on the edge of the bed and says to his groggy son “I can’t stay here anymore.” Even without context this simple line of dialogue packs the emotional heft that is threaded throughout this entire film.

“The Bachelors” is a movie about grief which is nothing spectacular or especially new. But Voelker (who both wrote and directed the picture) does something many of these explorations miss. He never loses sight of the human element or the importance of conveying truth in every relationship. Whether he’s juggling drama or comedy, his characters and their emotions always feel genuine.


The father is Bill (J.K. Simmons) who recently lost his wife to cancer after 33 years of marriage. It’s an extraordinary performance by Simmons who maintains a steady heartbreaking tenderness. It’s not nearly as flamboyant or showy as his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash” but just as impressive in a much more measured way.

Bill packs up and moves with his son Wes (Josh Wiggins) to southern California where he hopes a change of scenery will do him good. Wes is equally sympathetic as a teenager who not only loses his mother but also his father to a worsening state of depression. On top of that he’s forced to move to a new town and a new school with new friends. There is an almost natural shyness to Wiggins that comes through in his acting. We saw in “Walking Out” from earlier this year and now here. His understated approach is serves his character which make later scenes when his emotions boil over more effective.

The coming-of-age side of Voelker’s two-headed story has its moments. Many of them are between Wes and a beautiful but troubled wild-child named Lacy. She’s portrayed by Odeya Rush who played a similar role in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”. The two are designated homework partners which allows their unconventional relationship to take form. Wes’ time with his two new outsider friends is a little more hit-or-miss. Some of their banter is funny but other times seems too contrived for the moment.


The other side of Voelker’s story consistently surprised me especially in how deep it was willing to dive into the area of depression. I wasn’t expecting it. There are no soft perspectives or dulled edges. Simmons doesn’t ‘go big’ to add a dominating dramatic effect to the issue. His performance is mannered yet emotionally rich and always believable. There are some wonderful and revealing scenes between Simmons and Harold Perrineau who plays his therapist. And also with Julie Delpy who plays a math teacher who takes an interest in Bill.

The film’s ending could be misconstrued as too tidy, but I was never left with that impression. I think the struggles still ahead of this father and son are implied but Voelker offers us hope. And we want that for these characters. We want it to work out. We want them to heal. We want all of this because Voelker does such a good job making us care for them. That sympathetic and emotional connection he creates is more than enough to carry us through this delightful yet poignant story.



REVIEW: “La La Land”


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.


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.

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.