Thursday, February 16, 2017

La La Land

**** out of ****

I may have said this before, but my regard for musicals is the same as my regard for science fiction films: When it doesn't work, it plummets into an abyss of unwanted awfulness. When it does work, it's the most wonderful thing that I could ask for.

La La Land is a dazzling escape for those who like to dream and a sobering wakeup for a genre that normally promises dreamers that they can have their cake and eat it too.

Its status as a Best Picture contender at this year's Academy Awards (among thirteen other nominations) raises questions sparked by Mark Harris' book, Pictures at a Revolution, which chronicled the making, release and Best Picture nominations of five movies released in 1967 and what significance each film held for the cultural changes that reshaped Hollywood.

I haven't always applied the question of cultural relevance to the biggest category at the Oscars, but we are living in an increasingly divisive point in history.

This year we're looking at several movies which were all made before Donald Trump even came close to taking office due to the support of many Americans who were clearly upset about one thing or another. Naturally, I look at these nominees and look for hints of what was coming.

It might be fair to say that Hell or High Water was unconsciously a movie about Trump's America. Arrival was almost timeless in its theme of communication and still felt relevant as ever given our world's difficulty at moving forward to survive as a species.

I have many things to say about the other nominees, but I'll jump back to the film I'm reviewing, which may be the most culturally irrelevant film nominated. La La Land is an escapist movie that is almost about looking backward -something one of the two main characters is criticized of doing. 

It's a big callback to classic dance numbers, old Hollywood, jazz music and innocent idealism -all captured on vibrant colorful celluloid. It's a make-movies-great-again experience and had it not subverted a few common genre expectations, it would have very little to say as a new movie.    

Its writer/director, Damien Chazelle, is toying with nostalgia that wins my sympathy and is evading reality in the same way that has allowed Woody Allen to thrive for years by giving filmgoers a world where no one dresses like a jackass and even the characters' idea of "bad music" is pretty catchy compared to the abominable dog shit I overhear on today's Top 40 radio.

Comparing his work to Allen's is appropriate since Allen is one of the few auteurs I can think of who made a film similar to this one [See Everyone Says I Love You]. However, Chazelle is a lot more cinematically ambitious. The aesthetics in this movie reminded me a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson's careful compositions and creative ways of silhouetting characters in Punch-Drunk Love

The movie is essentially a story of two artists in Hollywood trying to catch a break. Ryan Gosling is an anal-retentive jazz pianist who can't find gigs that allow him to play his compositions and Emma Stone is an aspiring actress bouncing between auditions while getting by as a studio backlot barista. After the two collide with one another enough times, they recognize each other's passion which binds them until the prospect of success down their respectively different paths threatens to tear them apart. The film's conclusion to this issue is refreshing, if not bittersweet and all of it being put in the context of a classic musical works.

This is a movie of few surprises, but it delivers the kind of feeling that I crave when light hits a big screen. The only sad feeling that comes when a movie like this ends, is that I can't escape reality forever. Knowing that is, I suppose, a good quality as a filmgoer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie

***1/2 out of ****

It is what it is. The LEGO Batman Movie is the kind of wonderful thing that happens when things are bad. The current run of DC Comics franchise films are making money but I certainly don't value them and neither do the many comic book and movie fans with whom I associate.

In my Batman v Superman review last year, I've gone over what's wrong with these films, so I'll try and let that go here, because whether anyone at Warner or DC is willing to admit it, this new movie represents the institutionalization of a troubled series. It isn't the cure, but Batman, Superman and Joker all got sent to the nuthouse thanks to their benefactor, Lego, where we can see if a little self-parody can help these guys work out their issues.

Directed by Chris McKay (TV's Robot Chicken) this hilarious animated film picks up on the adventures of Batman's Lego incarnation (voice of Will Arnett) last seen in The Lego Movie and continues that particular film's aesthetic splendor where simple figures with choppy animation are given a comically epic context.

The movie does everything you can expect with a plot that portrays Batman as a hero so enamored with his awesomeness that he is unwilling to do a little self-exploration -despite the insistence of his loyal butler Alfred (voice of Ralph Fiennes). Why does Gotham City continue to have a dramatic crime problem, despite Batman's help? Why does Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis) seem so insistent on creating problems for Batman to solve while Batman allows him to get away every time? Why does Batman prefer to work alone, when a little cooperation with others would be better for everyone?

These questions all come to the surface when the criminals of Gotham all mysteriously choose to voluntarily surrender to the police for their absurd schemes and are jailed, leaving Batman without a sense of purpose until Robin (voice of Michael Cera) enters his life as an orphan looking to assist the caped crusader, which Batman refuses until he realizes the boy has skills necessary to help him agitate the crime world back into operation. Naturally, Joker is counting on this. 

This isn't such a bad plot considering that this is the first tongue-in-cheek take take on Batman in cinema since Joel Schumacher made a couple of movies in the '90s which could have stood to embrace their campiness more in order to work. 

The movie is expectedly hyperactive with pop-cultural and meta humor running throughout its simulated plastic construction blocks and I had a great time watching it. But there is still the strange feeling that came with the realization in 2014 that one of the best movies of that year was essentially a 100-minute commercial. The fact that a toy brand name attached to a franchise brand name gets people swarming to the theaters feels kind of cynical. The fact that it delivered great entertainment is just... weird.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

20th Century Women

***1/2 out of ****

Director Mike Mills caught my attention during my college years when I found a deep fascination with filmmakers interacting with the music world. Mills had filmed music videos for one of my favorite bands, Air, and was working as a graphic designer, often producing album covers.

After coming across a dvd of short films he'd made, I wished that he would follow in the footsteps of people like Spike Jones and Michel Gondry to make feature films. When he finally did this through the film adaptation of the novel, Thumbsucker, I was glad that the movie was good but a little disappointed that it lacked the dreamy quality of his short works.

His second feature, Beginners, was his first step into the autobiographical when he reflected on the memories of his father (Christopher Plummer) during his final years when he had terminal cancer and came out as a homosexual. That film also spliced in a few childhood memories of a peculiar mother, which seemed a little distracting to the narrative.

Maybe if he'd known he would make a film about his mother through 20th Century Women, he may not have bothered with teasing us with her odd behavior in the last film. Annette Bening picks up on Mills' last representation of her and despite the change in actress, we know it's the same woman.

Mills' place as a feature filmmaker is continuing to develop as this movie continues his knack for detached anthropological representations of social behavior without judgement but incorporates new editorial and stylistic choices that give this film a very unique tone.

Set in southern California in 1979, the film puts emphasis on three women in the life of a boy in his early teens: His single mother (Bening), her tenant (Greta Gerwig) and his best friend/love interest (Elle Fanning).

Many of the scenes take place in the large semi-dilapidated home where the mother rents space to Gerwig's feminist photographer character who has an affinity for new wave and punk rock music. The other tenant is played by Billy Crudup as a hippie handyman/grease-monkey who is always working on some corner of the home or one of the many old cars parked on the property.

Like A Christmas Story, Crooklyn, The Tree of Life and many other autobiographical films recalling youth, the film functions in more of an episodic fashion than one that tells a whole story. A lot of the story is a tribute to mother who keeps her emotions in check but has decided to find loose ways to manage her son after his distant and sometimes alarming youthful explorations seem dangerous and disturbing to her.

The movie seems to convey admiration for a mother who has a very open mind, but seems far from a cliche. She doesn't pretend to understand the ever-changing world of young people, but is trying so very hard in all the right ways. When he's out of the house, she listens to his records and she goes out to the local band venue to see how people respond to this music.

In the meantime, the son's attraction to his best friend becomes more intense. She stays the night regularly but will not have sex with him -even though she does quite often with boys for whom she has no emotional connection.

A great amount of the film becomes about a boy's search for manhood through feminism, as Gerwig's character guides him through literature, art and music that will allow him to understand women in ways that his peers will not.

Like Wes Anderson's quirky (and sometimes obnoxious) tendency to cut away to short biographies of his characters in the middle of a scene, Mills goes further by plunging into sincere and relevant stories that seem so absorbing that we may fail to notice when these mini-bios have caught up to the present and we're back in the loose narrative of everyone living in this partially-functioning home. The only complaint I have, is that these interruptions happen a few too many times. 

The title is defied by stopping to tell stories of the film's men, when I thought their backstories could have been shared through dialogue only. This isn't a bad thing but it's the only element that gives the film a direction that is as lacking as the film feels on the surface.

The cinematography is colorfully natural and the score combined with killer soundtrack selections make the movie a hypnotic experience. Very good film

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hidden Figures

*** out of ****

Hidden Figures examines unsung heroes during the early years of the space race by focusing on black women who worked in the computation department of NASA solving advanced mathematical equations that enabled the successful launches and returns of astronauts like John Glenn.

Taking plenty of dramatic license, the film tells us the true accomplishments of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

Vaughan powers her way through the obstacles of her spiteful white superior (Kirsten Dunst) to have a hand in the giant IBM being installed in a room that may take the place of her job. Jackson struggles to become an engineer -which requires the completion of education courses not offered to blacks - or women - in the state. It is Johnson’s story that gets the most emphasis as the she is promoted to work with the Space Task Group on the Friendship 7 mission where she deals with daily adversity that slowly dissipates when the head of the division (Kevin Costner) realizes she is a unique genius capable of solving their most difficult problems.

I struggle with movies like Hidden Figures because they dare me to judge based on content more than form. This movie is the kind of cinematic fluff that deserves a pass because it is important enough to be worthy of school field trips to the theater until it charms families at home with its unchallenging –but relevant history lesson when it plays on cable TV.

This is the kind of glossy period film that gets romantically nostalgic by relishing in vintage Americana through colorful costume and set design – while simultaneously showing contemptuous regret for the time by rubbing in reminders of Jim Crowe era racism and the general sexism of the time. I’m rather sure that no one in this film is seen smoking, so I guess Virginia had some level of sophistication back then –or maybe the movie was trying to keep its PG-rating.

It is one of many historical films that is friendly to the senses, but has me wishing for a fact-driven documentary instead. However, lots of people –especially young people are likely to respond to its lesson in a positive way. 

The struggles and triumphs of these women in their personal and professional lives are demonstrated with an accessible cinematic fashion. Henson and Spencer expectedly bring a lot of wit and emotion to their roles as seasoned pros while Monáe brings a magnetic screen presence in her second film. This is a formulaic-but-fun movie.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

*** out of ****

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a new type of motion picture for the nearly forty-year-old franchise and it is appropriately a major callback to the original 1977 film without imitating its plot. Certain places, characters and even subtle music cues that have not been revisited since that first entry take part in this movie. The idea behind these new "Star Wars Story” films is to tell original stories that take place at any desired point in the history established by the Star Wars Universe. What’s more interesting is that they are not stylistically beholden to the traditional filmmaking characteristics that define Star Wars.

The movie dumps sacred traits associated with the "Episode" series, such as the opening crawl with the famous theme and those classic iris and wipe transitions between scenes. It also utilizes cinematic techniques that are against the rules in the other series like location captions, flashback sequences and handheld cinematography.

The film’s ambivalent heroine is Jyn Erso, played with effective screen presence by Felicity Jones. She is a drifter in and out of trouble living under an alias ever since her mother was killed and her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by the Empire to take part in the planning of a super-weapon.

The rough tutelage of a guerrilla warlord (Forest Whitaker) has taught her self-reliance, but no sense of direction to take aside from running and hiding to avoid the reach of the evil Empire. While imprisoned in a labor camp, she is rescued and taken to a familiar Rebel base where she is informed that the super-weapon of her father’s forced involvement is rumored to be complete. Using a lead, they want her on a team that can track down his whereabouts and find some key to destroying the construction of technological terror: The Death Star.

The team of heroes this movie brings us amusingly subverts George Lucas’ good-versus-evil vision and explores the gray area of war. Diego Luna portrays a morally questionable rebel spy/assassin. Riz Ahmed is an Imperial pilot in the process of defecting to the Rebel Alliance. Through voice and motion-capture, Alan Tudyk plays a sardonic and brave reprogrammed Imperial droid working with the Rebels that seems like the result of listing everything the cowardly C-3PO would never do. Donnie Yen is a blind warrior who religiously regards The Force as his protector while his doubting arsenal-clad friend, played by Wen Jiang, covers him at all times.

The excellent Ben Mendelsohn brings the most personality we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars villain as Imperial science director, Orson Krennic, a man who answers to characters we haven’t seen on the big screen in quite a long time - one of whom is a digital recreation of a deceased character actor that is probably more astounding than any previous attempt at something similar, but still eerily distracting. This brings to mind my gripes with the movie.

I think Rogue One could have ventured further away from Star Wars familiarity. The film's environment sells us on its setting so beautifully, that there is no need to dish out heavy-handed reminders of which famous characters could be residing in the same place. 

It is said that this film went through heavy re-writes, reshoots and changed composers rather late into production. I don’t know what the original shooting script or score were like, but I have the feeling that they were meant to be darker.

Michael Giacchino’s score is fine, but it’s easily the weakest in a series that has always used the immense talent of John Williams. My problem is that it feels like a pale imitation of the Wagnerian tone Williams was known for when this project presented the opportunity to go for something refreshingly different.

As for the characters and story, the plot is a little convoluted and the characters seem like they’re missing some important moments that clarify their motivations and bonds with one another. The preoccupation with inserting moments of unrelated fan service costs this movie a bit in terms of its own development –particularly at the very end.

To its credit, the film probably contains the best action in the entire franchise and lives up to the title “Star Wars” more than any other entry. This movie immerses itself in the feeling of danger when violence breaks out between a heavily armored military and an ill-equipped rebellion. In other words, don’t expect a goofball CGI creature luckily dodging laser blasts in this film. People die.

If I love anything about this movie, it is how it functions as the kind of prequel I wanted over a decade ago when I not only felt that George Lucas was failing to do a good job telling the backstory to his beloved original trilogy, but that he was telling the wrong story altogether. As a kid, I always wanted to know more about the people running the Rebel Alliance. If you were just some average person, how bad was it to live under the Imperial regime and what was the ideal intergalactic life that people were fighting for? This movie touched on some of these thoughts and relished in others.

John Knoll is the brainchild behind this film’s concept, which is pretty cool considering how long he’s been realizing the concepts of others as an innovative special effects supervisor who helped bring CGI to cinema and invented Photoshop with his brother.

It should be noted that while 2002's Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones was the first major motion picture to be shot on the digital format intended to replace film, it is nice to see that the digitally-shot Rogue One represents how far the medium has come since its premature debut -even if I prefer the glorious return to celluloid we saw in last year's The Force Awakens.

The film’s director, Gareth Edwards may not improve his lacking ability for character and story emotion, but I really respect his gift for producing atmosphere and this film proves that he knows and loves Star Wars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may be a corporate-mandated spectacle ride from Disney to keep fanboys like me enthusiastic, but it is clearly a labor of love that is a little tainted by some pandering. I think Star Wars fans have every reason to watch it over and over, because I know I will.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

**** out of ****

Giving a film my top recommendation isn’t the same as giving readers a guarantee that it will be universally appreciated. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a great accomplishment, but it’s not the kind of film most people seek out - even leading up to the end of the year when award-worthy slice-of-life films are expected to have a bittersweet kind of satisfaction. This movie has some dry laughs from its many realistically awkward situations, but "satisfying” and “entertaining” are certainly not the first words that came to my mind after seeing it.

Like Lonergan’s other films, it is about the day-to-day existence of characters experiencing a change in their life, which in some way connects to a painful tragedy in their past. Casey Affleck plays Lee, an antisocial Boston janitor who must return to his original home of Manchester, New Hampshire when his brother (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) passes away due to a heart condition, leaving a teenage son without anyone to look after him.

To Lee’s surprise, his brother’s will named him as the boy’s guardian and trustee of his assets. Lee doesn’t want the responsibility, which means an interruption to his preferred solitude and requires relocating to the town he has very strong reasons to avoid.

To say that this character is damaged would be an understatement. Affleck captures the essence of a shell of a man who only lives out of a sense of duty and obligation when he isn’t having a violent outburst. Like many good dramas, the film tells us his backstory in selectively placed flashbacks, which eventually reveal a horrifying mistake in his past that most people couldn’t live with. Affleck has demonstrated his naturalistic talent in many films but is occasionally given the spotlight and this may be his greatest role.

The teenage nephew, Patrick, is played by Lucas Hedges –an actor I’ve noticed in a lot of east coast productions, like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and the recent American remake of the TV miniseries, The Slap. Hedges realistically communicates the emotional confusion that comes with most teenagers – even though his character is rather outgoing and popular. He’s on the high school hockey team, has a garage band, maintains his father’s fishing boat and is balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about one another. He claims to know what he wants and his nagging attempts to control affairs related to his father’s passing test Lee’s low tolerance for the emotions of others and provides most of the film’s engaging quarrels.

Lonergan is originally a celebrated New York playwright and his first film, You Can Count On Me was praised by critics for its funny insights into human behavior through the troubles between two siblings who have taken to adulthood in very different ways. His second film, Margaret, was a beautiful project that fell apart because he wrote and shot so many scenes revolving around a year in the life of his fictional teenage girl that it turned into an editorial nightmare that was never fully resolved.

Like that last film, Manchester by the Sea also feels more like a long collection of scenes about its characters than a story. Along with assorted classical selections to score the film, it uses simple but effective cinematography that communicates the existence of its characters and the distinctive environment of their New England surroundings. At 137 minutes, it may feel taxing to some, but I could have spent the better part of the day in my fascination with these people.

The movie also co-stars talents like Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick and Michelle Williams - who is understandably given a great amount of emphasis in ads for her small role due to its undeniable power, but this marketing could easily mislead people into assuming she’s Affleck’s primary co-star and that this is a love story. Not the case.

I expected this to be one of 2016’s best and it is, but it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. Even if you think you don't like it, this is the kind of movie that has raw, sobering, emotional moments of truth that are likely to crawl back into your mind years from now.


***1/2 out of ****

It is strange to observe that Disney’s computer animation has advanced to the point of being more photogenic than a lot of live action films that have been digitally color-graded beyond resembling the gorgeous potential of our world. 

In their new animated musical, Moana, there is a musical number where the characters are surrounded by two-dimensional hand-drawn animation and I was reminded of movies like Mary Poppins for how it combined live action people and cell-drawn animation. In this case, everything is animated, which is amazing considering the variety of style that is exploding from the screen.

Moana comes from a team of writers and directors, some of whom worked on recent projects like Big Hero 6, and other more seasoned artists responsible for films like Aladdin. It is a vibrant escape and a gorgeous spectacle to behold on the big screen. The bright blue skies, ocean waves and character designs are all masterfully rendered while possessing perfect combinations of realism and artistic manipulation in their presence.

Inspired by Polynesian folklore, the story is a fantasy about an isolated island whose people live a happy existence that is supposedly free from an ancient curse said to be spreading throughout the ocean. As Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho - her first role), a future leader of her island, deals with new troubles like bad crops and less fish in the ocean to catch, she suspects that the curse has reached their land.

Knowing that she has secretly possessed a power to communicate with the ocean, she defies her father’s law for everyone to stay on the island, and sets out on a voyage to find a herculean demigod (the voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) - ostensibly responsible for causing the ancient curse - in order to make things right.

Along the way, strange and unusual obstacles are encountered, including a giant crustacean (voice of Jemaine Clement – doing his David Bowie impression) and some Mad Max-like pirates in the form of vicious coconuts. Otherwise, the story goes down a very typical path, but not in a boring way. The atmosphere of the film is too breathtaking to cram complexity into its narrative, so I’m unsure if repeat viewings will reveal a strong story. What matters, is that everything about this odyssey feels focused.

Following Disney’s recent princess musicals Tangled and Frozen, Moana feels familiar for giving its lead more emphasis as a heroine. This time there isn’t even a love-interest. While I admire this new movement in their storytelling, I hope that it doesn’t become a redundant formula and that they keep inventing new types of stories.

I’m not sure if this film needed to be a musical, but I’m glad that they’ve reached a point of moderation, alternating between songs and no songs with the animated films they put out every year. I remember back in the nineties when they just about did their musical shtick to death. The songs in Moana, like their other recent princess films walk that line between classic Broadway show tunes and tacky modern pop music. These songs won’t be on my iTunes playlist, but I can’t deny that they’re pretty catchy.

With my first child on the way, there is a chance that in a few years, I’ll be among a world of parents who regularly have Disney songs sung at them day and night. Until then, I can take delight in experiencing the sweet magic of movies like Moana at my own leisure. Recommended.