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Movie Review: La La Land

Has writer and director Damien Chazelle made new magic following his outstanding feature film debut, Whiplash?


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Yes, and he does so with depth and delight in a fusion of cities, methods and styles. La La Land, apparently in development for ten years, is both experimental and expressionistic, and it is not a musical as that term applies to classic movies. Also, Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, The Notebook) as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone (Birdman, Aloha) as an actress, reuniting after Crazy, Stupid, Love, can’t be compared to classic movie stars. As with 2012’s memorably romantic The Artist, which La La Land resembles, it’s best to see, hear and take La La Land as it is.

Opening on the interchange of two of the oldest and newest freeways in Los Angeles, the film’s infused with youthful expression. Riding bikes, doing urban acrobatics, gymnastics and exuberant dancing on cars, lanes and guard rails, La La Land begins with singles getting out of cars to dance. It’s winter in the city of angels and the fantasy sets the movie’s tone as two young strangers have an LA encounter.

Depicting Los Angeles as the world’s vital center for artists and entrepreneurs, Chazelle introduces Stone’s actress in an extended musical sequence involving homage, deflation and the ideal. But he gives the first serious dialogue to Gosling’s musician. Pouring a cup of coffee and playing a vinyl record on the Columbia label, the artist struggles and creates. Amid solid, primary colors, piano playing slips Gosling’s Sebastian into another encounter with Stone’s Mia. The two meet after he’s fired by J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).

In long, sweeping widescreen shots, La La Land lets the two leads sing, dance and glide through auditions, deals, gigs and performances and, of course, newly discovered romance. Tracking the duet in four seasons, Chazelle deliberately spins every reason to hate, doubt or envy this beautiful metropolis into reality-based fanfare. Traffic jams, lone drivers everywhere you look, constant warmth and sunshine; Chazelle depicts everything you’ve heard that outsiders hate about LA as a catalyst for what and whom to love.

La La Land comes with realism. This film is not escapism, despite those minimizing it as such. In fact, what’s most distinctive about this picture is its blended, balanced sense of a whole life, specifically, the whole life of one who creates. Chazelle delves into how hard it is to create; how it’s lonely, stressful and agonizing, including why it costs and why the artist’s life is going to be to some degree cruel, not kind. Like the title, La La Land imports what haters regard as artificial about LA and strips it bare, showing that it’s where the artist creates work that adds value, power and life.

This is what matters in La La land, as detractors dubbed Los Angeles long ago, where the city stokes the virtue of productiveness and the productive enlighten the city. Those who envision, create and pursue goals, from Walt Disney to Damien Chazelle, dream, live, love, fail and refocus, as the movie’s turning point demonstrates when a first date to see Rebel Without a Cause (with its climactic scene at Griffith Park Observatory) at an old movie theater sparks an idea to realize the ideal. Springtime comes and goes, with more auditions, an awakening, more money to make and business to do, a classic convertible and a summertime montage of outings in LA. Slowly, songs get jazzier, people get heavier and more relaxed, and drink goes from wine to beer. Singer John Legend makes an entrance (and major movie debut) as a voice of realism and futurism, if not exactly egoism.

That this crucial mid-point comes with a band called The Messengers speaks to La La Land‘s sole deficiency. As an audio and visual feast, it is too pronounced in certain respects and, yet, Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are muted. Don’t take this to mean that they are not good songs. They fit the context, tone and mood. But they make the audience more aware of the movie than the moment. Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul elevate the tunes and the movie. So do Mandy Moore’s choreography, costumes by Mary Zophres and Linus Sandgren’s photography. Again, do not expect the caliber of an MGM musical in look, song and dance.

As Mia and Sebastian strive to bring out the best in themselves, autumn casts change in their LA story. With important references to and scenes in Boulder City, Paris and Boise, each loaded with meaning, the music stops, an alarm sounds and someone storms out in the volatility of hard earned magic, love and life. Failure, rejection and regret are depicted with nods, symbols and cues to classic film points, from umbrellas to The Band Wagon. Los Angeles is essentialized and matched to its organic art of storytelling, and heartbreak, in multicolored tablecloths, downtown LA’s Angels Flight and Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.

When someone says, “This is home” it isn’t long before someone else says, “You’re a storyteller.” La La Land dramatizes in color, music and dance what knowing, understanding and bridging these two statements means.

Pasting a singularly eye-popping segment involving Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do) in a small but critical role, a silhouette and a reference to The Red Balloon, La La Land exits with one long, last take toasting the visionary who is both rebel and romantic. It’s a hymn to Los Angeles (and its cousin, Paris), celebrating with lightness and seriousness that LA is where idealists make what’s ideal become something meaningful and real.

Movie Review: Mud

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Boys become men in the refreshingly masculine-themed Mud. It’s a wild, incredible adventure story. A man (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) takes a secretive, squatter’s residence on an island in Arkansas. Two young, developing boys find him. Mud‘s about what happens when they do.

It’s like an all-star, Southern-accented mixture of To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Goodfellas and Bible stories rolled into one raucous, alternately methodical and violent tale. Beyond comparisons, which are warranted, it’s a psychological drama with a romantic theme about the mirror-like journey of the rare boy who chooses to become a man and the rarer man who chooses to dust off disappointment and reclaim his best boyishness. Don’t let Christian symbolism – serpents, crosses, even an ark – fool you: Mud molds men based on reason, not faith.

It’s possibly the best movie this year.

Writer and director Jeff Nichols brings simple screenwriting and filmmaking to muted light in a gray, overcast river town down south. We meet the damaged boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, evoking Rupert Grint in the Harry Potter series) who are lookin’ to get out. They flip through girlie magazines, talk about “titties” and try to figure “the right thing to do” as they navigate defective parents and guardians. When the pals set out on a river boat, they take a short breath going past unseen boundaries their parents have foolishly, dangerously failed to establish. They make a few waves in their wake. This pair of heathens is up to no good in the most innocent, natural sense. It’s easy to see that they’re about to cause real, serious trouble.

In a town with people named Juniper and Galen and a mean old codger named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), that could do damage and that’s the last thing this broken down town needs. Men dive deep in these parts, digging up secrets. Dredging it up as two wandering boys are bound to do, might just rock the boat and change the world. I know I’m having a little bit of fun with this. But so does Mud, which layers on symbols with relish as it renders lesson after lesson after lesson.

“Don’t get bit.” That’s what the filthy stranger – don’t call him a bum – named Mud (it’s what he goes by) advises the river boys who lay claim to the temporary home Mud inhabits near cottonmouth snakes and other dangerous types. “Watch yourself,” people tell these two kids time and again as they mark, observe and go about their proper if misguided mission to grow up and get on with girls and life.

But Mud’s on a bender and it amounts to his mysterious life, so it ain’t gonna be easy. Everybody in this film talks like that. You may start talking like that, too, after spending ten minutes with these folks, from Reese Witherspoon as a hussy in cut-offs to Joe Don Baker as a Big Daddy-type thug, so Nichols gets the cast exactly right. Especially two exceptional, adultish child performances from the boys in the tradition of Quinn Cummings in The Goodbye Girl and Justin Henry in Kramer Vs. Kramer. The boys play off one another in razor-sharp turns that add layers to a script already thick with thought. Be alert or miss the dry, good humor in Neckbone’s easy one-liners.

Their interplay makes Mud more meaningful and, remarkably, keeps this zinger realistic, though it stretches plausibility toward the end. In one important early scene, it’s Neckbone who gives up information. Then, Ellis steps up to say more than he should. Like that, the river boys are alternating an exercise in trust, friendship and guardianship for one another that unfolds throughout the movie amid boyhood crushes, broken hearts and matters of life and death. We see trepidation on their faces as they ride the river to Mud’s mysterious island. Mud makes men from boys in plain sight of their fathers and father figures. This is a father-son film. But it’s friendship that drives the plot.

A woman’s proper place falls to Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave), proving to be the year’s most versatile actress, this time as a conflicted mother to Ellis. In a small but crucial role to keep the movie from becoming too conservative, her mother Mary is a model for her son and she’s more of a man than her husband, a weakling of few words who, like Mud, is tested and judged on whether he finds manhood in himself. Mud is that deep and flowing, like the mighty Mississippi, hitting the essence of what makes – and unmakes – a man: warding off evil spirits, as Mud puts it, taking ownership based on property rights and using or abusing the power to make a baby. It taps reason, romantic love and making the world one’s own to motor, rev up and master.

Mud is one fantastic – almost too fantastic – and engrossing motion picture. “You remind me of … me,” the grizzled river tramp, well played by McConaughey, says to the boys. The art of Mud lies in how – and why – he says it. Picturing a boat on the backend as denouement to a quiet early scene, there’s much to mine in Mud, mercifully shot with solid, stationary filmmaking. The message is like the reward and it goes against almost everything we’re told: get into it deep and make some waves.

Movie Review: Catching Fire

CF posterLionsgate’s second installment in the series based on the young adult fiction literary series by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, is not as satisfying as the first movie, which I reviewed here. The film, a two and a half hour episode titled Catching Fire, is too static. There are fine moments, scenes and themes – how could there not be with the West being on track toward dictatorship and the studio bringing on top talent to create this movie? – but the story is promised more than it is delivered.

Catching Fire is transitional, given the planned and hyped four-picture deal, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t stand on its own. Here, writers Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), directed by Francis Lawrence (the atrocious I Am Legend), whom I suspect is partly the cause of the problems, take too long and convey too little. It’s not a bad movie. Fans will want to see it and should. But it is lacking in key parts.

Catching Fire fails to depict the full grip, scope and magnitude of totalitarianism. This pervaded the first picture in the capable hands of director Gary Ross. The death cannon lingered. Gray skies closed in. Every part of every person’s existence reeked of control by the state. By shifting focus to the personal after-story of heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence again), who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological damage, the feeling of the dystopia’s chronic, constant control is dissipated. All the players return and they’re in fine form as Katniss is threatened and ordered back to the death hunt in an all-star, prior victor “Quell”. But a subtle approach by Gary Ross is replaced with more generic, overstuffed direction. This film is less cohesive.

Without a strong, integrated theme of oppression, the story’s rising demand for revolt feels unearned, episodic and tacked on. Action happens too fast. Relationships are abbreviated. Too much is stuffed. The need for revolt is taken for granted.

With so much going on, as hunting partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who is very good) steps up again, too, one gets a sense that society should be moving toward revolution in an organic, grass-roots movement to quell – a term which originates with kill – the totalitarian state. And there are signs of rising opposition, such as when an old man defiantly whistles a tune or the people of District 12 unite to voice support for the good. These moments, and counterbalancing scenes of brutality, such as slave-whipping and black-bagging people’s heads, are well done. They drive Catching Fire in the first hour. The power of ignition is even in the government’s torching of people’s private property.

So we should see sparks. Beyond the deepening bond between the leads, we don’t.

Katniss is too caught up in PTSD, despite tender moments with her true love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her sister Prim, who has observed her sister’s acts of bravery and chooses to act on what she’s learned. The government’s monopoly on the use of force and constant threat to use it is spoken more than depicted, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) personally confronting Katniss. In spite of missing elements, by the time the Quell gets underway, with predictable developments and usual Capitol freaks in tow, we’re ready to witness an unwinnable game and hungry for the rise of the resistance.

The game comes with a new batch of misfits. Here, too, there are good scenes. Director Lawrence is more comfortable expressing the script in action sequences than in depicting the cause of the action – rule by brute force – in all its insidiousness. Giant waves and lightning strikes are more interesting to the director than the forces behind both – statism – which diminishes the power of the writing. In one crucial scene, an old woman demonstrates without words how love of life is what matters – more than life itself – and the theme that the old and young are interlinked in camaraderie against the omnipotent state, as both persecuted groups are in reality under the fascist ObamaCare, filters through Catching Fire. The best aspects are muted by excessive, nonessential material.

Jeffrey Wright portrays an intelligent character in the jungle-set game. His character figures out a key point that could alter the course of history and power the revolution. It’s a metaphysical fact that he abstracts and, as played in the picture, it’s brilliant and original. Even better is his character’s insight that the state-sponsored “Quell was written into law by men – and, certainly, it can be unwritten.” This goes to the core of what satiates about this series: the individual transforming government-dictated hunger into hunger for rebellion, revolt and resurgence for life. However, the revolutionary theme is treated as a twist, not as a logical swell of the Wright character’s radical philosophy.

What might have been another work of art comes off as synthetic, like the artificial arena where people are pitted against one another – another metaphor for the deathtrap ObamaCare – and forced to fight for life. The story of one woman’s revolt against tyranny advances in Catching Fire. This time, it is less powerful.