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Movie Reviews

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

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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