Review: La La Land

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Whitrock
Released: December 26, 2016
Grade: A-

La La Land
At the start of 2014, few cinephiles were familiar with name Damien Chazelle.  The 28-year-old had one directorial credit to his name, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which opened in 5 theatres in the United States and grossed a total of $35,556.  One year later, he was one of the hottest properties in the film world.  Whiplash, his sophomore feature, took in roughly $50 million internationally and won 3 Academy Awards.

Chazelle and fellow Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz came up with a script for La La Land in 2010 but film studios had padlocked their doors.  The majority of musicals which have thrived at the box-office in recent years were all based on existing, well-known Broadway productions – Chicago, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, Hairspray and Mamma Mia!  The idea of an original, modern-day musical from an unknown filmmaker sounded like a financial train wreck.  I wouldn’t have invested either!

It’s funny how the world works sometimes.  La La Land won the Audience Award at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival back in September and is sure to be nominated for a slew of Oscars next month.  We have the benefit of hindsight but you still have to question the vision of studio heads who all turned down Chazelle’s project.  If not for the success of Whiplash, this script would still be sitting in Chazelle’s bottom drawer.

As for the premises, Mia (Stone) works at a café located on the Warner Bros. studio in Los Angeles.  It’s a job she hopes is temporary.  The huge poster of Grace Kelly on her bedroom wall provides more than enough insight into Mia’s hopes and dreams.  She fell in love with moves as a young child and has wanted to be an actress ever since.  Despite an obvious talent and numerous auditions, she just can’t get her foot in the door.

Sebastian (Gosling) has lofty goals himself but they’re related to a different artistic craft.  A gifted pianist and songwriter, Sebastian wants to buy and run his own jazz club.  His problem is money, or the lack thereof.  He drives in an uninsured car and he’s accepted a small, unfulfilling job in a restaurant just so he can pay his other bills.  He articulately describes his situation by telling his sister (DeWitt) that “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired.”

Mia and Sebastian meet in serendipitous circumstances and a relationship ensues.  The first two acts are all very light and charming and you could argue that they’re designed for the cheesy romantics among us.  However, the film’s tone shifts in the final half-hour and it’s here where the film makes its impact.  Damien Chazelle has something to say about the choices we make in life and the directions they take us in (without giving too much away).

Lovers of classic musicals are likely to be drawn to the material.  Chazelle admits to being influenced by films such as the Palm D’or winning The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).  La La Land opens with two big, bright dance numbers but what follows is a little more nuanced.  There are moments when dialogue takes a back seat and the beautiful music of composter Justin Hurwitz controls the mood.  In contrast, there are emotional conversations where no soundtrack is required at all.  The simple sound of the needle on a record player as it reaches its climax is all that’s needed.

The film isn’t without its weaknesses.  It’s a relatively simple storyline that goes through several lulls before its powerful epilogue.  Mia and Sebastian share fleeting discussions with supporting characters that are rushed to the point of being superfluous.  Examples include scenes with Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister) and Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend).

La La Land still amazes from a technical perspective.  The use of lighting and music is pin point.  Parts of the film are heavily edited to get the blood pumping (like the opening song) whereas others require no editing at all (such as a single-shot dance number atop a hill overlooking Los Angeles).  The casting of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is perhaps the film’s strongest element.  It’s the third time they’ve worked together on screen and the chemistry is evident.

Easy on the eyes and tough on the heart, La La Land is a film I could watch again and again.


Review: Little Men

Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri
Released: December 8, 2016
Grade: B+

Little Men
Released in 2004, House of Sand and Fog showed that life often throws up situations where there are no winners.  Jennifer Connolly played a struggling woman from San Francisco who had her house mistakenly repossessed by the government.  Ben Kingsley played an Iranian immigrant who subsequently bought it as a home for his family.  Neither side had done anything wrong but they found themselves in a tragic tug-of-war for the property when the government realised its mistake.  It was one of my favourite movies of that year.

That film and its messages sprang to mind when watching Little Men, the latest from American director Ira Sachs (Love is Strange).  Brian (Kinnear) and Kathy (Ehle) are a long-married couple who are battling to make ends meet.  He’s earning next-to-no income while pursuing an acting career and she’s just getting by as a physiotherapist.  They have a 13-year-old son, Jake (Taplitz) who shows a healthy interest in the arts but has trouble making friends at school.

Their economic situation improves considerably when Brian’s father passes away.  The will prescribes that title to his small Brooklyn apartment be split equally between Brian and his sister.  Brian and his family move into home in the short term to avoid having to pay rent back in Manhattan.  Jake is the most affected by the transition who now must adjust to a new school.

The apartment contains a downstairs tenancy that is occupied by Leonor (Garcia), a single mother with a 13-year-old son of her own, Tony (Barbieri).  She operates a small dress shop and makes a small profit only because of the peppercorn rent granted by Brian’s father.  Jake and Tony quickly become best friends and they spend an endless number of hours playing computer games and talking about girls.

Their friendship will be put to the test when a dispute develops between their parents.  Brian needs to sell the apartment so that he can split the proceeds with his sister (who also needs the money).  However, that involves terminating Leonor’s current tenancy and charging a “market rate” as to ensure the property retains its value.  This would immediately put her out of business and she protests strongly that it’s not what Brian’s late father would have wanted.

Shot on a budget of just $2 million, it is simple, moving stories like these which have struggled to find a place in Australian cinemas over the past few years.  Low budget independent films are now more likely to go straight to DVD/download because they don’t have the marketing budget (nor place in cinemas) to compete against the big blockbusters.  It’s nice to see Little Men bucking the trend and getting a release, albeit a small one.

It’s a well-told tale that comes together nicely in the last half-hour.  None of the performances are overplayed.  The adults are sympathetic towards others but realise that their own needs have to come before others.  The kids find themselves trapped in the middle where their mix of innocence and naivety serves as both a strength and a weakness.  The finale is a good fit for the material and the closing scene (set a little bit into the future) provides an important moment of reflection.


Review: Arrival

Directed by: Denis Villenueve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien
Released: November 10, 2016
Grade: B+

When it comes to aliens and science fiction, one of my all-time favourite movies is Contact, the 1997 release starring Jodie Foster and directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Instead of portraying a full-blown alien attack and relying on huge action sequences (like Independence Day), it was a more dramatic film that looked at what would happen if a peaceful alien race was looking to reach out to humans and make “first contact”.

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), has been made from the same mould.  It begins with a world changing event.  12 alien vessels have descended upon Earth and are hovering above different parts of the planet.  There doesn’t appear to be any pattern to their locations but one has parked itself in a grassy, isolated field in Montana.

It’s one of those moments where time seems to stop and the world comes to a standstill.  We see footage from a university where a normally packed lecture theatre is almost empty.  Everyone else is huddled outside watching the news on their phones and television screens.  The days that follow become more and more troubling.  Citizens panic, grocery stores are looted, gas stations run out of petrol, and the government is forced to impose a night time curfew.  It’s a tense time.

Based on the short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is told from the perspective of Dr Louise Banks (Adams), a renowned academic who lectures on language and linguistics.  Having previously performed translation work for the U.S. military, she is called in by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to help make contact with the alien lifeforms.

It’s a situation that requires Louise to take more than a few deep breaths.  She is taken aboard the spacecraft where she comes face-to-face with the alien creatures.  The only thing separating them is a thick sheet of glass.  It’s clear they want to communicate but Louise needs to work out how.  Is it best to attack the problem by speaking or by using words and visual imagery?  Also helping is a scientist (Renner) who specialises in mathematics.

Action junkies may be disappointed but this is an interesting exploration of how humans would react if presented with a similar real life situation.  If a more advanced alien race did visit Earth, how much could we learn from them and how big an impact would it have on our own existence?  Would it alter science in a radical way?  What would religious leaders have to say?

The film also delves into the darker elements of human nature.  It taps into the theme that the biggest danger to our planet is not aliens but rather, it is us.  We see governments around the world divided on how to approach the situation.  Are the aliens truly friendly and how much should be shared with them?  Further, how much should be revealed to the nervous public who are thirsty for information?  As rumours spread and the conspiracy theorists weigh in, it all becomes harder and harder for the U.S. government to control.

I love the concept of this movie but it’s a little clunky in how it gets its message across.  It’s trying to pack a lot inside of two hours and parts are rushed.  The best example is the deteriorating relationship between some countries as the days and weeks drag on.  We know there’s tension but we hardly see any interaction between their representatives.  Would a country actually be serious enough to sever all forms of communication with others? 

Perhaps the reason this area doesn’t get the focus it deserves is because this is a film with Louise at the centre.  It’s about the effect the aliens have on her and how she has a role to play in helping advance humanity.  That becomes apparent during the later scenes and Amy Adams deserves credit for another emotive performance.

Complete with another blaring film score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (who worked with Villeneuve on Sicario), Arrival is going to divide audiences.  Don’t go in thinking you can sit back, relax, and enjoy some action-heavy entertainment.  Your mind will be put to work. 


Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo
Released: November 17, 2016
Grade: B-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Harry Potter franchise wrapped up in 2011 (after 8 successful films) but it seems the thirst for J.K. Rowling’s intricate fantasy world still exists.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is reported to be the first in a five-part series that will be produced over the coming decade.  Don’t expect to see your favourite characters.  It’s set roughly 70 years before the earlier films and has a very different look and feel.

While J.K. Rowling penned the novels, the previous movies were adapted for the screen by other writers.  Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) was responsible for every film with the exception of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which was handled by Michael Goldenberg (Contact).  For this new franchise, Rowling will be taking on the responsibilities.  It is loosely based on a textbook she wrote to raise money for charity back in 2001.

The narrative begins in New York City in the year 1926.  A British wizard by the name of Newt Scamander (Redmayne) has travelled to America to locate a particular beast.  Magical folk are often scared of these mischievous creatures but Scamander wants to write a book that shows why they need to be protected as opposed to killed.

Many storylines are developed and it’s hard to keep up.  There’s a Magical Congress located in New York who are trying to maintain a National Statue of Secrecy that keeps the magical world hidden from ordinary humans.  There’s a cult-like group trying to infiltrate and expose those with magic powers.  There’s a media mogul trying to get his son elected President of the United States.  Oh, and there’s a factory worker who gets caught up in the mayhem.  He knows the magic isn’t a dream because he “ain’t got the brains to make this up.”

The problem with this film is that it feels more like a knowledge building history lesson rather than an exciting, free-flowing adventure.  The fact it’s the first in a multi-part series is also evident.  It takes a long time to warm up and there’s not a lot in the way of “pay off”.  You get the feeling that we’ll learn more about these characters and their relevance over the next few years.  The most obvious example is the storyline involving with media mogul (Voight) which is so small that it’s almost irrelevant.

The fractured screenplay will leave many scratching their heads.  What exactly is it that these characters are after?  Katherine Waterston plays a witch who has been demoted at work and doesn’t know where she fits.  She originally sees Scamander as a threat but changes her tune too quickly to fully comprehend.

You also get the sense this is intended for a more adult crowd.  This isn’t about young kids trying to find friends at wizardry school.  This is pushing heavier themes such as discrimination, injustice and oppression.  We learn of individuals who have supressed their magical powers and are scared of the truth.  It’s reminiscent of the X-Men series but as mentioned above, it’s another of the subplots that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very cool from a visual perspective.  I can’t remember the names of any beasts but the special effects artists deserve praise for bringing them to life.  They serve as a nice contrast from the 1920s setting and its old fashioned clothes and activities.  Eddie Redmayne’s nerdy, nervous personality gets a little tiring but he still wins points for a strong performance.

With no novels to guide us this time around, we’ll have to wait until the next instalment in the franchise to see what happens next.


Review: Nocturnal Animals

Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer
Released: November 10, 2016
Grade: A

Nocturnal Animals
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is going to cave in.”  It’s an iconic quote from Sam Mendes’ Oscar winning American Beauty but it could equally apply to the films of Tom Ford.  This is only the second release from the fashion designer turned movie director (following 2009’s A Single Man) but he’s already developed a unique cinematic fingerprint.  From the cinematography to the costume design to the music score… Ford finds a way to make you pay attention and soak it all in.

As his sophomore film, Nocturnal Animals taps into a common theme – the struggle to escape one’s past.  Ford gets his message through by skilfully weaving three timelines together.  The story begins in the current day and is centred on 40-something-year-old Susan Morrow (Adams).  At a first glance, Susan epitomises the American dream.  She is married to a successful businessman (Hammer), she lives in a stunning home in Los Angeles, and she runs an highly regarded art gallery.

Susan is quick to acknowledge the success in her life but she doesn’t come across a bubbly, chirpy, content individual.  She confides in a close friend that she feels “ungrateful not to be happy.”  She bored at work and she’s grown increasingly distant from her workaholic husband.  It’s clear that whatever she wants out of life, she’s not getting it.

Her world gets an unexpected jolt when she receives a delivery in the mail from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal).  The pair got married back when they were college students but divorced not long after and haven’t spoken in 19 years.  Edward had always wanted to be a writer and the package contains a completed manuscript which, as per the inscription on the front page, is dedicated to Susan.  Battling a mix of emotions, intrigue comes through strongest and so she sits down to read Edward’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’.

It’s at this point where the narrative fractures into its three parts.  The words on the page come to life and we are shown a visual representation of Edward’s fictitious novel through Susan’s eyes.  It’s the tale of man (also played by Gyllenhaal) consumed by revenge.  He seeks a group of thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who abducted his wife (Fisher) and daughter while travelling on an isolated road in Texas.  He is assisted by a local police detective (Shannon) who promises to “look into things around here”.

As we follow the novel and Susan’s reaction to it, the final timeline takes shape – that of the relationship between Susan and Edward two decades earlier.  To understand why Edward wrote the novel, you have to understand their past.  Without giving too much away, it’s this important piece that connects the other two narratives and leads to the film’s powerful conclusion (and also one of the year’s best).

Just as he did in A Single Man, Tom Ford has extracted quality performances from his high profile cast.  Amy Adams is superb as the film’s troubled protagonist and Jake Gyllenhaal distinguishes himself by playing two subtly different roles.  Michael Shannon has been tipped as an award season contender and it’s easy to see why with his portrayal as the scraggly police detective with a steely determination that burns within.

Evidenced by its eye-opening opening title sequence, Nocturnal Animals is also to be admired for its colours, lighting and imagery.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) provides a dark, colourless perspective of Los Angeles and a contrasting view of the Texas deserts.  Having also worked with Ford on A Single Man, composer Abel Korzeniowski has crafted another bold film score and editor Joan Sobel has laced the overlapping storylines together with precision.

Most of us would struggle to justify the high cost of a Tom Ford suit but when it comes to the ticket price of a Tom Ford movie, I can’t recommend the later more strongly enough.


Review: I, Daniel Blake

Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann
Released: November 17, 2016
Grade: A-

I, Daniel Blake
A lot has been said and written about the recent Federal election here in Australia and the Presidential election in the United States.  Many issues have been discussed and, judging by the number of posts on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, there are a seemingly endless number of viewpoints.  It’s often hard to dig through the detail and form an opinion of your own.  Adding to the complexity are lies that are told, facts that are concealed, and data that is poorly analysed.

I, Daniel Blake takes a complex issue and breaks it down into its simplest form – by putting you in someone else’s shoes and asking you to think about it.  The film begins by introducing us to 59-year-old Daniel Blake (Johns), a widower with no children who lives in a small apartment in Newcastle (the one in England).  He has spent close to 40 years working as a carpenter but recently suffered a heart attack on the job.  Doctors and specialists have provided him with medication and ordered him to rest for several months before returning to work.

The film’s opening scene has Daniel interacting with a contracted “health care professional” at the British welfare office.  They are running through a formal checklist of questions to determine if he is eligible to receive welfare payments from the government.  A few days later, a letter arrives in the mail with a negative response.  They have ignored the doctor’s assessment and declared him fit for work.  He tries to contact the welfare office’s help line but after waiting two hours to speak with someone, that too amounts to nought.

This is a sad tale about a man who needs help but lives in a world where support is not forthcoming.  Daniel is a self-described “dog with a bone” who refuses to accept defeat but he’s stuck in an endless loop of beurocracy and “red tape”.  He can’t appeal until he receives a phone call from the “Decision Maker”.  He can’t get unemployment benefits in the interim until he completes an online form (he doesn’t know how to use a computer) and agree to conditions he cannot meet given his health issues.

While waiting at the welfare office, he befriends Katie (Squires), a single mother in an even worse financial situation.  Her case officer is threatening to withhold her unemployment benefits because she did not arrive on time for her appointment.  There was a valid reason for her lateness but it counts for nothing – the rules are the rules.  Katie is desperate to work but cannot find a job.  She forgoes dinner some nights because she can only afford enough food to feed her two young children.

Some might describe this as the comedy of the year.  There were plenty of laughs at the preview screening I attended.  Let’s be honest though – there shouldn’t be any humour in this situation but it’s hard to react differently given its sheer absurdity.  Daniel and Katie aren’t treated like people.  They are numbers is a system.  When a welfare officer considers going outside the rules and helping Daniel, she is immediately shut down by her superior.  You have to ask yourself the question – is this really what we want as society?

Directed by 80-year-old Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), I, Daniel Blake took home one of cinema’s most coveted prizes – the Palm D’or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.  It’s easy to see why the jury, headed by Australian George Miller, was moved by this great piece of cinema.  The leading performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are outstanding.  They’ve created two ordinary, every-day characters that are well-intentioned and are passionately trying to make ends meet.  A lot of people will be able to relate.

Cinema has the power to open our eyes to the world’s issues and offer a path forward if we’re willing to take it.  I, Daniel Blake is a great example and should not be missed.

You can read my chat with star Dave Johns by clicking here.