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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: Florence Foster Jenkins

Have you wanted something badly enough to be blinded by the wanting? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the newest movie by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents) about a matronly woman who bucks the status quo for her own private reasons of innermost agony. The humor is as broad, the delivery as dry and the showmanship as campy and bawdy as in his previous outings.

This time, however, the woman’s life is itself more centrally at stake.

FFJ_1SHT_MAIN_fff-600x878The title character is, once again, based upon a real person. As portrayed by showy Meryl Streep (Hope Springs, The Iron Lady, Suffragette, The Giver, Into the Woods), playing an old woman as old for the first time in her long and enduring career, the title character is a haughty eccentric with an impetuous and checkered past which jeopardizes her health. Paramount’s marketing has successfully established for the audience in advance that Jenkins is an awful singer who skates along taking voice lessons and singing out of tune.

Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes why she does that. While you’re waiting for the big moment, whatever it may be, Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes something else, though, too; how being a failure in some endeavors can let you cash in on other, higher values.

Florence Foster Jenkins is not as sentimental as it sounds, and it’s a complicated, lush and polished Forties-in-New York-City affair which makes you laugh at the main character, double check the laughter and think twice about what the whole movie means (as Frears pictures usually do).

Opening credits play on New York’s skyline, teasing the romp to come. Decked in outrageous costumes and prancing around her marriage to Hugh Grant’s Shakespearean actor, who’s reduced to being her manager, Jenkins has good taste in music. She favors Chopin. She creates an appreciation club for Verdi. She supports her conductor friend Toscanini. But the rotund heiress, who once played piano in the White House as a child, can’t sing. That she really, really wants to sing and is oblivious to her inability makes most of the movie’s humor.

Hugh Grant shines portraying her husband, who, incidentally, really, really wants to act. He arranges an elaborate facade which becomes the film’s farcical conflict, evoking the spirit of the lighter, naughtier Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The dreadful private shows are hilariously deceitful whatever the ethics and it’s hard to suppress laughter no matter how hard you try. Enter an expressive, young pianist (perfectly cast Simon Helberg) with an ambition to match hers and the plot deepens.

For a time, screenwriter Nicholas Martin seems to lampoon serious artists but that’s not a Frears imprint. Then, there seems to be a contest between loyalty and unchecked or unearned ambition but that’s not it, either. How then to account for a movie that holds its ardent fool in high regard? This puzzle is part of what makes Florence Foster Jenkins, neatly scored by Alexandre Desplat, engaging, if not flawless. As the young performer comes out, and how and what he comes out and into happens in gentle and suggestive ways, this Paramount picture’s theme that art in general and music in particular, from opera’s Verdi to jazz’s Louis Armstrong, inspires one to become stronger for life takes shape.

This happens in a scene at the young man’s home, a warm, lived in place of solitude where he conditions and practices with relaxed, monastic devotion. It’s a lovely scene for its bonding and it marks the transition of Florence Foster Jenkins from a snickering, snorting romp to an elegy for making real in one’s life the track that plays in one’s mind.

In an age of flickering amusements by American Idol‘s Sanjaya or William Hung, as well as more lasting, damaging fakes and frauds named Kardashian and Trump, it’s natural to laugh at what’s ridiculous. In a culture of faking, it’s harder to grasp that goodness—and a sense of benevolence gives Florence Foster Jenkins its wings—starts with honest effort, even if you fail to pull it off (and more so, in the case of Susan Boyle, if you do). Not every moment rises above what can also be acknowledged as a sad, tragic spectacle. But neither is every moment a jab or a joke about telling a gigantic lie and the best scenes depict with sincerity and strength the attempt to reconcile one’s damaged life in a perfectly balanced note.

Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.


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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.

Movie Review: Sing Street

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John Carney’s spirited Sing Street is the perfect movie for right now. Writer and director Carney (Once), who wrote or co-wrote several songs in the picture, balances the bitter with the sweet on a small scale and lets the story achieve an idealistic purpose. This fact alone makes Sing Street a rare and welcome accomplishment.

Set in Dublin in 1985 at the height of Western civilization’s burst of rock romanticism known as the New Wave, Sing Street sweeps its main character, a young teen named Conor (newcomer Ferdio Walsh-Peelo), into the hopelessness of socialism in short, brisk strokes. At first, he strums music to deflect his parents’ marital tension. Music is a hobby to pass time between bouts. That a new incarnation of melodic, glamorous rock becomes to him and his older brother Brendan (excellent Jack Reynor) a shared symbol of what can and ought to be, in the form of a Duran Duran music video, centers the multilayered plot.

Due to financial strain, his parents send him to a dodgy Catholic school where thugs roam freely and priests merely manage Dublin’s male students. His father forewarns but forces him into the school, where a bully targets the fresh-faced kid and the principal seeks to make him conform as a moral duty to authority. Restless and coached by his worldly older brother, the kid looks for any means to break the line and muddle through. He finds Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on a stoop.

In a moment of bluster, he improvises to her that he’s a singer in a band, so she dares him to sing a line from the new hit song “Take on Me” by a-ha. He stumbles through, improvises again and winds up having to deliver some of what he’s promised. Enter an assembled band with a couple of talented musicians, a chubby kid, a geek with braces and one who likes rabbits. Before you can sing “don’t you wonder what we’ll find” from Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out”, out comes the gear, the cover tunes, the rehearsals, the outfits and, of course, a music video featuring the would-be glamour girl.

As the lad’s life gets complicated, he puts himself into the new enterprise and becomes a songwriter.

With skilled and appealing leads wrapped in Irish sweaters and fitted with witty lines, Carney’s and The Weinstein Company’s radically wholesome and romantic Sing Street breaks down the bone-crushing blows and heartbreaks of being poor, young and trapped in an unhappy family on a religious welfare island. With an old-fashioned spirit of putting on a show rooted in one’s problem-solving amid the prospect of a bleak future, Sing Street finds the good in three acts. Mixed with subtle digs at predatory authority figures, intelligently and marvelously developed characters, performances and scenes about making music from “the wreckage of family”, and learning to love who you see in the mirror, Carney weaves the harshness of life for “a kid, a girl and the future” into the optimism of 1980s’ pop culture.

This essentially American sense of life is rightly named, reclaimed and layered in the invigorating and reverentially idealistic Sing Street, with an adroit sense of melancholy from The Cure and a nod to Philadelphia bop with “Maneater” by Hall and Oates. There are plain and hidden insights about songwriting, friendship and brotherhood besides the awkward romance that develops between mysteriously damaged Raphina and wide-eyed Conor and some of it is so simple that it’s tempting to gloss over its playful abandon. The cast is outstanding. So is the music.

Unexpectedly, Sing Street is the antidote to the John Hughes movie (and I like those movies, particularly Some Kind of Wonderful). Those films often take place in the 80s while playing to themes that emanate from the 1960s or, at their best, the 1970s. Sing Street instead applies the exuberant ethos of the 1980s—with scenes of strangers dancing in public, as the Irish coastline goes by, and a boy’s delightful fantasy—to universal themes relevant in today’s hard economic reality. Like the better New Wave songs and indelible music videos, it cultivates an earnest theme that life can and should be as it is in music and pictures and lets it free as a badly needed burst of youthfulness and joy.

Sing Street opens in movie theaters on April 15.

Movie Review: Sparkle

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Set in the 1960s, Sparkle (a remake of the 1976 version of the same name) tells the tale of three sisters who strive to become recording artists in the Motown era and struggle to remain a family amid the toxic magnification of fame. It is Whitney Houston‘s final film.

Don’t see it just for that reason, though she shows one last glimpse of her larger than life talent in an oversimplified secondary role as the girls’ strict, religious mother. In fact, Whitney, who is credited as an executive producer and reportedly fought to get this movie made, portrays a character very similar to her own mother, Cissy Houston, a former backup singer for Elvis (another luminous star who died tragically – in his case 35 years ago today) who became a Bible-thumping Christian. One can almost feel Whitney putting her own spin on this role, updating, improving, pulling it back and calibrating her performance. She transforms a two-dimensional Bible mother into someone who’s probably better than I imagine her own mother to be. That counts for something.

Unfortunately, Whitney and everybody else doesn’t get much to work with in obvious characterizations and meandering plotlines. See Sparkle (and only if you want to) for the music, the showmanship and the soap opera, but know going in that it’s more soap than opera. Sparkle is not, however, a vehicle for any star, Whitney or anyone else. As the title character (Sparkle’s her name), TV talent show alumni Jordin Sparks is sufficiently fresh-faced (my filmmaker guest liked her more than I did), playing the ingenue who becomes a mature woman amid the wrenching female family saga that encompasses race, sex, drugs, money and religion. Sparkle learns to put some sizzle into God’s gospel and that’s what the story amounts to, which turns out to be anti-climactic and that’s not because I’m not religious. Her big solo number is a repetitious bust, to be frank, but the end credits song is better. It should have been in the movie.

So much should have been in (and left out of) this movie. Mother and children live what looks like an easily upper middle class existence but everyone talks as if they’re struggling in the middle class. Mother has a dress shop – she apparently built her business herself (insert Barack “you didn’t build that” Obama joke here) – yet we do not see enough of what makes Mama make money and pay for her daughters’ pricey bedroom interiors. Nor do we see enough of how middle child Sister (red hot Carmen Ejogo) goes from mother love-deprived sex kitten to drug addict and battered woman or why Sparkle’s boyfriend Stix (Derek Luke) puts business above his honey or why he switches back or why Dolores (known as just “D” and you’ll see why and played by Tika Sumpter), my favorite character, wants to become a doctor when not many black women from Detroit, where Sparkle takes place, sought admission to medical schools. Too much story and not enough cutting and editing, leaving gaps where there should be transitions, is a problem. One gap is an interesting character named Levi (Omari Hardwick), who gets jettisoned from the story and then reappears in an out-of-character way.

Yet it’s not a bad movie and Sparkle has a shine. Burrowed between cuts and fragmentary scenes is a strong thread – stronger in certain ways than in the original and certainly better than was executed in Dreamgirls – about siblings and what it means to be a sister. Sparkle, the spirited songwriter, is the young pup in love. D is the protective, responsible older sibling who has no time for anything but her goals. Sister is the troubled sparrow, who mistakes her virtue for a ticket to ride, and when she gets derailed she recognizes her own limits and pays her sisters back. It all could have been quite moving, really, and at times it comes close or evokes an emotion, but cardboard characterizations such as the heavy Satin (Mike Epps), dim the lights and trivialize real issues such as race-based self-hate, toxic infatuation which is not love, physical abuse and, in what should have been the most compelling part of the story, self-centered opportunism, which many mistake for 100 percent perfectly selfish ambition. All this rests on the musical performances of the early 60s’ girl group, which are nearly worth the price of admission. The first few numbers are excellent, impeccably costumed by Ruth Carter, staged and filmed and with audience reaction shots so that you remember that it’s a story, not a music video. The tunes and numbers are often elegant, sultry and wonderfully accessible. If you love the Motown pop sound, you’ll love the musical scenes.

Religion is played as the cultural black church version – a more positive, jubilant and less fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in which God rejoices in seeing “happy, good-looking black folks” in his house – and when the girls are boppin’ in their babydoll dresses to pave the way for their future, their success is celebrated, not denigrated. Director Salim Akil (TV’s The Game) teases us with thought-provoking lines about never being sorry for telling the truth and about people who ought to be helping themselves being too busy prayin’ with preachers who are awfully quick to take the money in the basket. But the topically relevant director falls back on odd shots that sugarcoat men hitting women and he doesn’t develop the plot to match the tunes. Along the way, we lose track of what begins with an excellent sense of time and place, complete with civil rights clips, and end up with a production number that feels like 1995. But Whitney Houston makes an impression in a movie, from The Bodyguard to The Preacher’s Wife, and Sparkle shows us a peek at what might have been part of a redemptive comeback wrapped in a cautionary tale about discovering why what’s held sacred is what shines the brightest.

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