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La La Land

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars:

Released: January 13th, 2017

What is worth more? Where does ambition measure when compared to reflection? Or…how does one know when to quit? When that ambition outweighs or cannot be met by the pure skill or natural talent possessed? La La Land is a movie about Hollywood and the Hollywood system and how it all flows in and out of making and breaking stars, but La La Land is also a movie about dreams and the ugly side of those dreams no one likes to talk about when they tell you to chase them-compromise. Compromise is what must be obtained if one is hoping to have their cake and eat it too. There is compromise in life no matter what professional or personal route one may choose to take, but when dreams are big enough to take you around the world and on extended stays in places away from home that require long or odd hours such as, say, when someone is a musician or film actor-compromises are unavoidable and typically made by the half of the relationship not actively participating in such a career. With La La Land director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) follows up his Academy Award-nominated feature debut with an out and out musical in the vein of those golden age Hollywood musicals from the forties and early fifties that personified stardom, celebrity, and a certain type of lifestyle most could only hope to obtain. This goes well with the plight of the story as we follow two young aspiring artists-the girl an actress and the guy a jazz pianist-as they navigate modern Los Angeles in hopes of achieving their dreams even if the odds seem stacked against them and despite their closest friends and family not exactly holding out hope for success to find them. The standard structure of boy meets girl combined with that of a few song and dance numbers that pay homage to those aforementioned golden days of Hollywood aren’t enough for Chazelle though. The writer/director isn’t simply looking to recreate images and feelings afforded him during his youth as he watched Gene Kelly dance across the screen, but more he is interested in exploring the consequences of having such aspirations; the dark side of fame that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with addiction or other harmful habit forming activities, but more with the decisions such individuals have to make without knowing the answer as to what they’ll regret more twenty years down the road. Can I be the person I want with the person I want? Is it worth more to make a life as I so desire or with the one I desire? La La Land doesn’t prescribe to know the answers to these heavy questions, but its musings on the subject are infectious and reaffirming in that they capture the struggle one in a handful experiencing the film will have come face to face with at some point in their past.

From the opening shot of La La Land it is clear this is a movie like nothing else you will experience in the theater this year. On a packed freeway in Los Angeles in the sunny season of winter, cars sit bumper to bumper each pumping different genres of music from their speakers. It is a simple yet magical device that immediately immerses the audience in a beat. It is strangely impossible to not begin tapping your foot, appreciating the different styles as the camera whizzes through the stalled vehicles before landing on a young woman in a bright yellow dress who begins singing as if nothing strange is happening. She opens her car door, others around her not questioning such an action on an interstate bridge, but rather following suit and joining in on a choreographed number as the girl in the yellow dress leads a charge in song and dance. The girl in yellow is ultimately unable to keep up with Chazelle’s camera as, in a single take, we are guided through a barrage of different dancers and singers each giving us anecdotes concerning their daily struggles living in LA and the hopes of finding that audition or individual who might allow them their big break. It is enough to make a viewer want to stand up and cheer and just as quickly fall in love with everything Chazelle accomplishes in the first three minutes while understanding exactly what he is going for with the project as a whole. As soon as this initial, full cast production hits its final note and the title card appears across the screen it seems improbable that every viewer isn’t at full attention and on the edge of their seat waiting for what is to come next. And so, what does come next? We are first introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress who serves lattes to movie stars on the Warner Bros. lot in between auditions. She is a native Nevada girl whose aunt was an actress and who was responsible for giving Mia the acting bug. Mia was one of those girls who was seemingly always involved in high school theatre and unwilling to be patient with college, leaving for LA after her second year at school. When we come to meet Mia she is several years into her stint in LA and rooming with three other girls who share the same dream as she. Then there is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the jazz musician, who scrapes by playing cocktail parties and bars, but who dreams of owning his own club where he can determine his own set list and create his own atmosphere. It is the chronicling of these two souls coming together, falling in love, and having to decide whether their ambitions can co-exist with their love for one another that La La Land finds its home.

So, obviously the big draw of La La Land is that it is this throwback to the musicals of yesteryear, but this may prove to be the most disappointing factor of the film for those going in expecting something in line with the works of that aforementioned song and dance man in Kelly. Singin’ in the Rain and/or An American in Paris this is not, but this is part of the point of the film as it looks to, as John Legend’s character phrases it, “revolutionize while being a traditionalist.” Sure, La La Land draws its inspirations and many of its choices from those movie musicals of the past, but this is a film very much steeped in a modern environment with modern characters that are dealing in the same struggles of nostalgia as the rest of our culture right now. The question of how do we have anything new or innovative that our children might one day feel nostalgic about if all we do now is recycle what we’re nostalgic for is of key importance in the moving forward of our protagonists. Sebastian is a man so in love with jazz and the rich history of the music that he can’t help but to steep himself in the practices and techniques of those that came before him even going so far as to not being willing to open his club in a location besides the one where one of LA’s most popular jazz clubs once resided. On the other hand, there is Mia who naturally wants to realize her dreams of big or small screen stardom, but without knowing the right people can’t seem to catch a break. She is in a thankless relationship with someone she seems more or less required to be with (Finn Wittrock) and in meeting Sebastian finds a fellow artist who she could see herself striving with forever. As these things go, these dreamers reach points where reality comes crashing down and it can’t help but feel as if life is telling them to show up or grow up. The two come at this from different directions, Sebastian joins old friend Keith (Legend) in his band The Messengers as they need someone on the keys and offer solid pay. Mia begins writing her own, one-woman show in which she plans to self-produce. The means don’t yet justify the ends they want, but they’ll get there eventually-they have to believe they will. And it is from here, after the films wildly pleasant and enjoyable first hour that it begins to beg questions concerning artistic ambition and not just when do we reach a breaking point, but is there a value in the art these characters are so hell-bent on creating? Chazelle seems to want to argue that dreamers are necessary to our fabric as a human race and that if it weren’t for such fools we’d never know just how far we could push ourselves or just how much we are capable of creating.

It’s ambitious of Chazelle to want to make a musical in the first place much less make it about something as potentially disheartening as reality cancelling out hopes and dreams and how one depends on what outcome another decides to doll out. Many will question why there can’t come to be a mutual respect or attempt in such situations-that if two characters were to love one another enough that they could make anything work, but it is in the final moments of La La Land that Chazelle, his writing, and his editors make it clear as to why folks very rarely are able to balance their own dreams with the dreams of others. Not dreams that tend to be as big as Sebastian and Mia’s anyway. It is in this delicate space of the current reality that La La Land is steeped in and the kind of otherworldly romance that it flirts with when breaking into song that allows for the final sequences of the film to really bring the viewer down to a level playing field. Never has there been a film that simultaneously feels just as honest as it does manufactured. Manufactured by virtue of the fact characters break into song and dance at certain moments throughout the film, but honest in its approach to many of the same themes and ideas that were present in Whiplash. Beyond what the film has on its mind though, but be warned it is nothing to scoff at and can’t simply be glossed over in favor of the songs or the attractiveness of the cast, but beyond the questions and contemplations the film has on its mind it effortlessly glides through so many other facets that the shortcomings feel too sparse and too minimal in comparison to all its gets right to complain at all. The biggest detractors are the fact there isn’t more original music throughout the film despite the fact what we do receive is bound to end up resonating and becoming even more rousing on second and third viewings. It is also easy to say that while Gosling and Stone certainly don’t possess the chops or rhythm to necessarily keep up with those who made careers out of starring in such pictures-they are fine enough. The songs are catchy without being too challenging, the dancing is adequate, and the chemistry is of course palpable as this marks the third time these co-stars have shared the screen together, but what easily makes La La Land one of the best and most appealing films of the year is that it exudes a joy in its creation, an affection for all that have come before, and a genuine feeling of empathy for its subjects that extends past the genre classification and into the realm of understanding dreams and reality don’t often go hand in hand, but that when they do they still might not be all they were imagined to be.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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