Sunday, January 29, 2017

Totally Ga-Ga for "La La Land"

There was never any doubt that I was supposed to like this movie.  Despite being a caucasian, sports-loving, beef-eating, Southern Baptist, Republican heterosexual male, I think it says something about me that I rank Gene Kelly right up there with Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Ronald Reagan as “Dudes I’d Love To Be Just Like.”  An American in Paris and On the Town and Brigadoon… Man, but THOSE were musicals!  From the minute I saw the first trailer for La La Land, I knew this picture had a chance to win me over in a way that Chicago and Into the Woods and other such turn-of-the-Millenium musicals haven’t.  The danger in finally getting to see it was that I would have set myself up with unmeetable expectations - that after the whirlwind of praise and awards the movie has already received, there was no way it could be as good as my subconscious demanded it be.  

Oh, but all that worrying was for nothing!  La La Land is an absolute, total, incredible triumph, and deserving of any and every accolade the industry can think to throw at it.  From the very first song in the opening set piece, I was totally won over, and I knew it would take a total train wreck over the subsequent two hours to change that opinion.  Okay, sure, Ryan Gosling is NOT Gene Kelly, and Emma Stone is NOT Cyd Charisse, but writer/director Damien Chazelle just may very well be some sort of reincarnated, melded version of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli.  

Set in Los Angeles, La La Land (Chazelle’s follow-up to his very impressive Whiplash)  tells the year-long story of a blossoming romance between Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress and Sebastian (Gosling), a talented but struggling jazz pianist, whose paths cross amidst the world of Hollywood moviemaking and downtown music clubs.  They first meet in a road-rage incident, re-meet by chance later, find common ground, find love, and then… well, that would be telling.

In terms of a bittersweet love story narrative and old fashioned tap-dancing choreography, La La Land offers nothing that we didn’t see in those glorious musicals from the 40s and 50s (even down to the “Presented in CinemaScope” banner that opens the film), but when something is done so brilliantly and executed so perfectly, it can feel like the most refreshing and innovative thing in the world, and this is exactly the kind of feeling this movie evokes.  There’s a distinct “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore!” vibe here. It’s true that it’s a big, bright, colorful, ambitious movie musical, reminiscent of releases from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the beauty of it is how that vibe is used to tell a story that is so obviously set in our own world.  I mean, c'mon - Fred Astaire never danced with Ginger Rogers on an Interstate overpass! The soft-focus, shot-on-real-film visuals take you on a whimsical, yet at times heartbreaking ride, populated by characters with hopes and dreams, nimble feet and magnificently contoured faces, that provides exactly the kind of cinematic escapism for which lovers of musicals yearn.

In terms of casting, Chazelle could not have got it more spot on.  Being that original stars Miles Teller and Emma Watson dropped out at different points of pre-production, these depar-tures might very well have been evidence of the ghost of Busby Berkeley guiding things, as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling create a pair of characters, and a chemistry, that are far, far greater than the sum of their parts.  These two actors are currently (arguably) at the very top of their game, both serious triple-threats with enough charisma to charm even the most cynical of viewers. As Mia, Stone typifies the spirit of a struggling actress and part-time barista, filled with that eternal hope of a big break, but also nuanced enough to break our hearts with every cold rejection.  As Sebastian, Gosling gives what is probably my favorite performance of his career, carrying himself with a delicate swagger that is irresistible to the camera. There is no doubt that the musical numbers could have been sung with more precision and gusto by other, more outlandish singing performers, but to have replaced these two would have been to sacrifice the heart and charm of the film.  Though both are clearly immensely talented, the delightful rough edges of both Stone and Gosling’s performances are what make them so human and endearing.  That slight imperfection helps me believe there really is an alternate universe where every day, everywhere is a musical, and perhaps someday, I’ll get to go there.

Chazelle’s graceful camera work is thrilling, his timing impeccably tied to sumptuous images that are as delightful as the leads on screen.  In collaboration with his Whiplash musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz, the film’s score is the heartbeat of the work, pulsing with energy and emotion.  With songs that feel like standards, tied to graceful yet occasionally cheeky choreographed numbers, the film is unabashedly a musical in the traditional sense.  I saw the movie twenty-fours hours before writing this review and have already Google Music-streamed the soundtrack half a dozen times - the tunes are that endearing.

As if anyone doubted Chazelle’s talent after Whiplash, La La Land firmly establishes him as a filmmaker to watch over the coming years.  He has crafted a highly personal film that speaks not only to our sense of romance, but also to that little part of everybody’s heart (and yes, everybody has that “little part” SOMEWHERE inside) that longs to break out in song when the situation calls for it.  A captivating treasure of a film, La La Land will make your heart and your head sing in praise, and maybe even tap a soft-shoe for a couple of steps.  I simply cannot wait to see it again.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The latest Tom Ford design - "Nocturnal Animals"

Lost love is “lost” because not only is the love gone, but you are misplaced as well, changed into something you weren't before, and it may be years before you realize it. When the crying is done, you move on - you adjust, you grow, you heal.  Maybe you’ll end up meeting someone better than that awful person who ripped up your heart - someone who makes you feel alive and free, someone who makes you forget and forgive the pain your last love caused.  Or instead, maybe you’ll slowly slip into despair, longing and regret.  Maybe you’ll sit and wait for that text, or that e-mail, or that phone call… all but certain that none of them will ever come.  Maybe you’ll sit and wait and watch the door, hoping he/she will come through it.  Maybe he/she will even be smiling when you next see him/her… or maybe they won’t.

Nocturnal Animals, the second film from Tom Ford, the fashion designer who so impressively made his foray into filmmaking with A Single Man seven years ago, is based on a novel that bears little resemblance to this movie.  Ford discovered the novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright and contemplated how to actually adapt the book into two different films. The more he churned the story in his mind, however, his imagination began to formulate something that resulted in this offbeat, non-linear tale of a woman who believed she was growing into a better person by casting her first husband aside, then comes to realize over the next decade how guilty she was of hurting him and destroying her own happiness.

Beginning with images so incredibly silly, yet so awfully uncomfortable to view, Ford instantly sets a tone that will make discovering all the traits of these characters, both the “real” ones and the characters in the novel-within-the-movie, all the more impactful.  The images are part of a conceptual art exhibit hosted by Amy Adams' Susan, a gallery-owning high roller in the Los Angeles art world.  Susan is beautiful and haughty, living an extravagant lifestyle funded largely, we assume, by her husband Hutton, played with born-into-privilege knowingness by Armie Hammer, and thoroughly, thoroughly miserable.  After her opening, Susan gives herself a nasty paper cut opening a package: the manuscript of a first novel by Edward Sheffield, Susan’s first husband.  She’s disturbed by the package and the accompanying note, telling her that he has dedicated the novel to her.

Susan soon settles in with Edward’s novel.  Without warning, we cut to Susan’s visual interpretation of the book.  This story-within-a-story begins with Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) driving his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), to a weekend home.  They’re driving through the night on barren Texas roads, and in an instant, things go very, very wrong.  It isn’t fair to describe what Tony and his family endures, as to do so would diminish its horror.  I will say that this scene of roadside terror is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen on film since, maybe, Blue Velvet. This has nothing to do with physical violence, as none is shown, but the scene takes its time tormenting us.  It is so realistic, and it could happen to any of us - you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and your world is forever altered.

Susan is so disturbed by the novel that the almost subliminal questions she’s been having about her life begin to make their way to the surface.  Is this text some fictionalized version of some horrific event that happened in her and Edward’s own shared past? Her memories of life with Edward then present a third line of narrative, with Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) and Susan as young and idealistic lovers.  He encourages her to pursue art - not as a business, but as a calling.  She wants him to be more responsible, or realistic.  She dreads turning into her materialistic upper-crust mother, but he’s not so sure she really dreads it.  Emotional damage ensues, but nothing like the stuff that happens in Edward’s novel. This is a movie that, among other things, trusts the viewer to make sense of it, or maybe demands the viewer make sense of it.  All the threads pull together, we presume, when Edward and Susan (whose current life continues to turn to rot as she makes her way through Edward’s novel) agree to meet again in “real life.”

The triumph of the film is how the individual stories are kept in the air so beautifully by Ford, and how the individual actors can convey so much about their jaded, miserable characters with a minimum of exposition (Armie Hammer’s Hutton, away on business, is cheating on her so blatantly he’s almost too bored to hide it anymore).  Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the scumbag who terrorizes the novel’s “hero” shows a side of his ability audiences have never seen before, and of course, Amy Adams is her usual spectacular self.  Michael Shannon also achieves a career high (and an Academy Award nomination) with his dry but enigmatic portrayal of a Texas lawman with nothing left to lose.

The final scene is one that, I presume, intends to have viewers debating as they leave the theater, and I admit that I would have welcomed such a discussion had I not been alone when I saw the movie.  I suppose that without the benefit of a human sounding board for my reaction, I found Nocturnal Animals to be a reminder of how much the loves we leave behind form us in such ways that continue to shape our outlook on life.  Whether those past loves were good or bad, happy or sad, we will have suffered damage of some sort along the way, and even inflicted some of our own.  Seeing such a simple lesson in dealing with adult emotions told in such a powerful fashion may have been a tad uncomfortable, but it made for a movie that is definitely worth seeing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

"Sing Street" crafts a catchy Coming-of-Age tune

Okay, indulge this old fogie a moment of nostalgia - we all thought John Cusack holding that damn boombox over his head, blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” outside of Ione Skye’s window in Say Anything… was so damn cool.  What better way for a guy of that age to let a girl with whom he’s incredibly smitten know that, despite not even knowing who he really is himself, he’s sure she’d be incredibly into him if she just gave him a chance.  

Most of us poor males have been there, or wish we had been: you’re young and you think the only way to get the attention of The Girl is to impress them with some talent or another, assuming you even have one.  Wouldn’t it be super if you could start a band?  Yeah, that would do it!  Problem is, your band would probably suck, cover songs don’t really impress girls, and nobody would show up for your gigs (assuming you could get any), but if you can just get her to see you play, just once, it would all be worth it.  Dream on, you poor adolescent schmuck...

Cut to the present - today’s youth may have been given their own version of John Cusack, and even though this one may be a bit more low-key than old Lloyd Dobler was, I believe 15-year old Conor Lawlor’s (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) solution in Sing Street may be a bit ballsier. I mean, why stand there blasting someone else’s love song at The Girl when you can write a new one?  Conor does just that when he spots Raphina (a luminous Lucy Boynton), deciding the instant he sees her that he’ll impress her with the band he hasn’t even formed yet, fully confident the details will work themselves out.

This is the predicament in which Conor finds himself at the beginning of the latest film from writer/director John Carney (Once, Begin Again), a filmmaker who seems to be specializing in musical fables.  We first see Conor in his bedroom, plucking on his guitar as his parents argue outside, turning their shouts into jokey song lyrics.  It’s 1985 in Dublin, and Conor’s life is about to fall apart; not only are Mom and Dad on the verge of divorce, but hard economic times also force them to move Conor to a different, more hardscrabble (and free) school.  He has no friends (the campus bully even threatens him with a slingshot on the first day), no real prospects, and the cruel headmaster’s top priority seems to be the dress code.

Then he spots the mys-terious Raphina standing outside the schoolyard. All Conor knows about her is that she’s an aspiring model with an older boyfriend, but somehow, he has enough confidence to get her number under the pretense of having her appear in a music video for a band that doesn’t even exist yet.  With the assistance of 14-year old self-proclaimed “manager” Darren (Ben Carolan), Conor sets to it, rounding up a group of kindred spirits with an ease that strains believability. Sure, it’s total fantasy, but Carney executes this scenario, along with so many others throughout the movie, with such spirit and earnestness that one can’t help but be taken in by it.

Through a series of changing outfits and musical influences, the film charts Conor’s musical and personal growth, his compli-cated relationship with Raphina, and how he tries to keep an even keel kept on the home front.  In the absence of any meaningful parental guidance – his parents are peripheral figures in the story – his stoner older brother Brennan (Jack Reynor) provides musical education and some Miyagi-like wisdom (of a sort), and proves much more aware than his slacker appearance would suggest with gems like, “No woman can truly love a man who loves Phil Collins.”  Based on Carney’s own experiences as a boy in Dublin, the screenplay digs deeper than the usual universal love story to comment on Irish life in 1985 and sets it to a soundtrack that hits all the right notes for those with fond memories of The Cure, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.

The songs scattered about the soundtrack, many of which were written especially for the film, feel totally at home in the mid-80s time-frame (I dare you to hear the band’s first composition early in the film and not hear Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” in the back of your head).  Carney himself co-wrote all the new compositions with veteran composer Gary Clark, and these tunes add so much to the old-fashioned and optimistic vibe that just exudes from the screen that I can’t imagine the movie working without them.

It’s the kids on screen that make the movie, though. Sing Street wonderfully communicates the exuber-ance and enthusiasm of its young cast, most of whom are non-actors, and the natural-ness of all their performances is an absolute wonder.  The chemistry that Walsh-Peelo and Boyton share would make the movie watchable on its own, but Mark McKenna’s performance as Conor’s songwriting partner Eamon matches theirs, and all of the youths in the band, even with smaller roles, deliver incredibly believable performances.

This movie actually brought some of that awful teen angst so many of us guys felt during those years of Swatch watches and Trapper Keepers crashing back to mind, yet it still made me smile and remember those years with fondness.  In my recent review of The Edge of Seventeen, I said that film was one which John Hughes would wish he’d have made were he still alive.  Sing Street could also fit that bill.

Cue Lloyd Dobler and that boombox now.