‘La La Land’: Review

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La La Land works well enough because it operates within every preconceived notion and cliche of what you would be perceive this movie to be. It’s quirky, sends up Hollywood pictures of yesteryear and has a couple who meet then dislike each then like each other then date then have the best time of their lives then something UNEXPECTEDLY splits them apart then they become a “better” person from that relationship.

Now none of this is particularly bad per se, and La La Land has enough to distract from its formulaic misgivings, but still in doing so the film seems unoriginal in spite of what it’s trying to project on the screen. It so badly wants to rise from the ashes of all these old time Hollywood movies and become something different and masterful, but it’s still tied down by its trite machinations. I mean, sure, it’s not like the two main characters end up together happily ever after or anything like that, it’s not that formulaic, but it does the next best thing by having its cake and eating it too by saying, “Hey, we’re not gonna put them together, but see they’re better off for that and, awww, heck, fine, we’ll show you them together in some alternative world dream sequence.” Because the film is never content on straying TOO far from that happy Hollywood medium, less it get pulled out of its preordained rut. It’s a fine enough device, giving you the sad and happy by showing you both sides of how following your dreams or staying with a lover can work out either way and letting you choose what applies, but it still rings too cheap and easy.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both exceptional in there roles, although I’m quite less enamoured with Stone even when while I still see the good stuff she’s putting out there. The writing and performances do a pretty good job in letting these characters be fun and eccentric without it veering too far into camp and seeming like these are just movie characters spouting these writer-speak words that nobody in real-life would ever say. In other words this movie wasn’t written by Diablo Cody. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that Gosling and Stone’s characters suffer from Gilmore Girls syndrome, where it’s all fun and charming to see them crack wise at each other and make funny little quips and have all these cutesy sayings, but imagine actually running into these people in real life and you won’t be able to find a razor blade fast enough to get away from these unbearable people.

I enjoyed all the musical aspects, ie breaking into song, but I honestly couldn’t help but thinking that the film didn’t really need any of it and at the end of things it just became more gimmicky than anything. There’s not a single song that stands out (good or bad) and it’s not like the film is worse off for any of it, or that it provides a disruption, it just seems like the musical aspect was force-fed into this movie that didn’t really need that to operate at a high level.

Believe it or not after the first four paragraphs that I wrote, but I actually liked this film. While I hated that it had to rely on so many cliches to get where it was going, it operates so well inside these cliches that it puts itself head and shoulders above what most do with them. Damien Chazelle is a good director and writer who crafts this film on such a grandiose stage thanks to his assured eye and vision that it’s hard to believe it’s only his third film. Everyone behind and in front of the camera delivers this whole package with such passion that it’s hard not to be moved by its emotion and the final grace notes from each character. La La Land is a film that loves old Hollywood musicals a bit too much, it has its own heart, but it just can’t resist the bright lights.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’: Review

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*Nobody reads these things, but mad spoilers ensue*

Rogue One works because it knows when to be a Star Wars movie and when not to be a Star Wars movie. The film is billed as a standalone movie in the franchise, and technically it is seeing as the cast is 90% new characters. It’s really Episode 3.5, as it provides a connective link between the two sets of trilogies and shows how the Death Star came to be.

The thing I hate more than anything else in movies deep into a franchise, spin-offs or whatever of the like is the cute little winks and nods to popular characters of the past just for the simple sake of getting a quick rise out of the audience just for mentioning them. This film has them, of course, but it’s done in such a small scale and organic way that it never feels like the film is stepping aside from its story to focus in on these elements. It bridges the gap between the two trilogies so it makes sense to shade in element of Darth Vader’s rise and fill out the story of how the Death Star came to be and what exactly lead to the moments at the beginning of A New Hope, the place we all originally were thrust into this world. Every other nod is treated as more of an easter egg where if you’re just watching the movie on face value (and/or you’re just a casual fan) you might not get it, but nothing will seem wildly out of place, but for more heedy viewers all the little references are there.

This is all in contrast to The Force Awakens where they pretty much just copied A New Hope and had a heavy presence of characters from the original trilogy. I mean, sure they kind of had a different mission to accomplish with The Force Awakens compared with Rogue One, where the former movie had to re-instill and reboot this franchise in people’s mind by playing to the broadest sensibilities possible to a. ensure the movie and subsequent franchise would be a success and b. to have a connective vessel point for these new characters. Whereas Rogue One is in the wake of the success of that movie and can follow a more niche guide because they knew it was going to be a one-and-done film rather than a direct sequels that had to follow in the story wake of The Force Awakens.

But, mostly Rogue One works because it makes sense and its chief example of this is that every damn body dies in this thing. It makes sense that since we’ve never heard of any of these people in the original trilogy that probably a lot of them wouldn’t be around at the conclusion of it. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting it at first, of course some people were going to die, but then the body count started rising and it all clued in for me and I hoped they would go that sensible route, because it made sense, and they did. I’m still amazed that Disney green lit this movie where literally the whole main cast dies, good and bad. Sure, they had in their back pocket the up note of an end scene where Princess Leia gets the Death Star plans and we see her in all her CGI glory, kicking directly off into A New Hope. But still, damn, I keep scrolling through the main cast on IMDB and I’m just like, “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”

Honestly, I was just as excited about getting a new Gareth Edwards film than I was another Star Wars movie. I absolutely loved his first film Monsters which is almost a masterpiece for me. I was less enamoured with Godzilla, as I thought it was just fine and didn’t really do anything new. But, what I knew with both of those movies is that he obviously has a flare for staging epic battle scenes, but his sensibilities also extends into a passion for smaller human elements. I felt that Rogue One was actually pretty skimpy on the dramatic emotional beats, outside of the Galen Erso and Jyn Erso father/daughter stuff, but it served the film well in that there wasn’t an overabundance on any of that (not that it was bad or anything, it just picked and choosed well what it wanted to accomplish), as the film clearly wanted to focus on the larger battle aspects. And I thanked the high heavens that they didn’t do anything with a Jyn Erso/Cassian Ando romantic relationship because few things are worse than shoehorning a romantic relationship into a movie just because that’s what 95% of them do.

I gotta say I was pretty lukewarm on the movie for about the first 80%, but they really stuck the landing on the last section of the film and were seemingly allowed to do what they wanted and pulled everything off. Like I said earlier, I think this film was allowed to succeed in that it was operating inside of this area between the two trilogies where they knew this would be a one-and-done movie and could go all out and tell a story that didn’t need to be extended or have the end set up sequels (because they’re already made!) or have characters do unnecessary things because they needed to bank on them for the future. I don’t know fully where this stands for me in regard to the whole series, although I do find people thinking this is the best one pretty ludicrous, but I do know if they keep giving these films to auteur action/genre directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson then we’ll be in more than good hands.

‘Moonlight’: Review

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Moonlight is a film about many things. It’s about childhood, growing up, sexuality (repressed and expressive), race, love and a myriad of other constant filmic themes, but Moonlight takes them all into its melting plot and lets them simmer in concert with each other, feeding into the story of one young man.

Moonlight follows Chiron through three stages of his life, firstly as a young child who gets pseudo-mentored by a crack dealer, secondly as an often-bullied teenager and lastly as a full grown adult now working on the block and running drugs. Many through lines exist throughout the three sections including his fractured relationship with his crack-addicted mother, his discovering of his (homo)sexuality and his friend Kevin who is the first person he first becomes intimate with and eventually shapes a lot of who he becomes and subsequently who he never became.

The film works because it takes all these large themes and plays them out on the small scale and focuses them on one character as he progresses through his “boyhood.” It allows us to relate on certain levels (ie. growing up, sexuality, first love, bullying), but it also creates further layers in presenting it through ways that one may not be familiar with directly. It uses the presence of drugs, living in the ghetto, homosexuality, black lives and uses it to inform and play against certain stereotypes and what we generally think are associated with these ideas and making it clear that that’s not always the case.

It’s wonderfully acted by all three of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who all display the quiet stillness of Chiron and are all remarkably skilled at showcasing every emotion that runs through his brain by portraying it on their face. While Chiron never says much verbally, it’s usually always painted directly on his face. The film’s cinematography is wonderfully done with a lot of dark muted blues that help suspend the film in this depressed dreamscape for a lot of what’s representing Chiron and his current head space.

Ultimately, Moonlight is about a lot of various things, but at the base of things it’s about those small personal moments that we hold near and dear to us for years, and something that can provide a life-changing effect for oneself, that might never even register on someone else’s radar. That’s the thing about growing up, love or whatever, it’s never the big, grandiose moments that have the biggest effect on our lives and relationships, it’s the the small personal moments that act as connective tissue to the different stages of your life, for good and bad, and something that continues to trace throughout your life and helps make you the person who you were twenty ago, who you are now, and the person who you’ll be after the next twenty years.