La La Land (2016)

2018 #10
Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

La La Land

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
14 nominations — 6 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

Watching the best picture...

La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

Finale

Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

5 out of 5

The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

Advertisements

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

2016 #151
Woody Allen | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13*

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s 44th film is a Sunday-afternoon-style period comedy, which nonetheless manages to touch on issues of existentialism and the meaning of life. If that sounds terribly Deep, don’t worry: Magic in the Moonlight may tickle your fancy, but it’s unlikely to tax your brain.

Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a genius illusionist and renowned debunker of spiritualists, who’s recruited by fellow magician and childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to expose a young ‘psychic’ named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has enthralled a rich family in the South of France, but whose methods have Howard stumped. Despite his unconcealed cynicism, Stanley too struggles to find the truth, but he does find himself increasingly smitten with Sophie…

After this setup the plot is no great shakes (the one twist is eminently guessable), but the rest of the film is a romantic confection made up of sunny Côte d’Azur locations, pretty vintage costumes, gently witty dialogue, and quality actors gamely playing along. Firth is hardly stretched as a romantic lead — indeed, he has one scene that is virtually lifted wholesale from Pride & Prej — but Stanley’s pompousness and sarcastic cynicism gives the role a little bite. Emma Stone’s big eyes do half the work for her, though she still gives it her all in a way that makes her character and performance endearing. Eileen Atkins, as Firth’s beloved aunt, and McBurney get halfway decent supporting parts, though there’s little time for the rest of the cast, especially Marcia Gay Harden, whose role as Stone’s mother is virtually nonexistent.

Magic with daylightThe most pleasing aspect is probably Darius Khondji’s photography. He emphasises the region’s beautiful golden light, with saturated colours emphasised by deep shadows, to create a warm and idyllic atmosphere, further accentuated by the twinkling blue ocean and stunning locales. It’s exemplary work that will likely make you long for distant times and places.

It may ultimately be a slight work, then, but it is still a delightfully pleasant way to spend 90-something minutes.

4 out of 5

* for “a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout”. So, it’s a PG, really. ^

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

2014 #81
Marc Webb | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Amazing Spider-Man 2Despite the fact that the first film of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot was a wannabe-hipster over-angsty teen-romance take on the webslinger, which needlessly re-told his origin story and posted unexceptional box office takings, it seems there was some degree of consensus that it wasn’t too bad. I don’t agree. Two years later, this sequel seems to have met with a largely negative response, accused of crimes like navel-gazing and franchise-building. Again, I don’t agree — I think this is the best Spidey movie since the previous Spider-Man 2.

Dialling down the rom-com elements to their appropriate subplot level, ASM2 sees Spidey (Andrew Garfield) having to deal with an electricity-powered supervillain (Jamie Foxx) trying to destroy the city, and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), who inherits OsCorp when his father passes away. If you’ve seen Spider-Man 3 (the last one, not the one that’ll be out in a few years… maybe), you’ll know where that’s going…

Fortunately for us, ASM2 has some new twists on the old formulas. Harry’s transformation may be inevitable, but it’s played with different emphasis and motivations. Plus DeHaan is a much more unusual and engaging actor than James Franco, his version of Harry notably different from the previous “pretty young rich kid”. The storyline afforded to Foxx’s Electro is in-keeping with previous Spider-baddies — a fundamentally good person who ends up misguided — but his cool powers keep things visually engaging. Their first big face off in Times Square felt like one of the best effects-driven action sequences I’ve seen for a while, in fact.

Best friends?Then we have the much-maligned backstory about just what Peter Parker’s parents did all those years ago, before they abandoned him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There are pros and cons to this: it’s all new, which at least makes it interesting and unpredictable because it has no forebear in comics or films; but it’s also a pretty stock set of circumstances. Worse still, it robs Spidey of a major defining trait: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider by accident — it could’ve been anyone. In this version, it could only have been him. Boo. Sony clearly want an arc plot they can run across a trilogy (or more), so presumably this thread will rumble on… though whisperings that they’re considering some kind of soft-reboot may see it cut short. I wouldn’t complain.

It’s a moderately minor part of the film though, I thought. So too the setting up of some league of supervillains — presumably the Sinister Six, as that’s the first planned spin-off movie. I still think people over-emphasise how much time Iron Man 2 puts into setting up The Avengers at the expense of being its own film; ASM2 does it even less, so I think the complaints are even less warranted. Honestly, there’s so much else going on, why hone in on the one thing you wish it hadn’t done?

That other stuff includes an increased dose of fun and humour — darkness abounds, to be sure, and in everyone’s storylines too; and Webb still dodges the bright-and-breezy tone of Raimi’s movies (which is a shame, because there’s a good argument that that’s where Spidey belongs) — Electrifyingbut it’s more textured, at least. Then there’s Electro, who (as mentioned) may have a familiar story, but is nonetheless perfectly pitched by Foxx. His powers lead to some excellent sequences, including but not limited to the aforementioned Times Square duel. He also contributes to the music, in a way, as Electro’s whispered/sung thoughts ‘bleed out’ into the score. It’s creepy, especially as it’s so subtle in the mix — I wondered what the hell was going on at first. I thought it was a fantastic score all round, in fact, bringing in a modern music element that fits the notion of Spidey as a young character perfectly.

While I don’t advocate a like-for-like repeat of all that in future Spidey films — innovate, don’t replicate (is that a saying? That should be a saying) — I hope there are people at Sony who are aware that things in ASM2 do work, and work very well. As they rush headlong to fix the film’s perceived failings in future instalments, purely so that they can make a success out of their desired Avengers-style multi-franchise franchise, I hope they don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or washing the spider down the drain. Or some other similar but more apt metaphor.

While ASM2 isn’t perfect, I don’t really see what all the negative reviews were on about — I properly enjoyed it. Is it the best Spider-Man film? No. Spider 'splosionIt lacks the confidence, heart and flair that mark out Spider-Man 2, and the bold originality and clarity of purpose that define Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Equally, it doesn’t suffer from the compromised creativity of the forced Spider-Man 3, nor the fumbled plotting and try-hard hipsterism of Webb’s first Spidey effort. It’s a distinct improvement, but beyond that, it’s an entertaining Spider-Man movie in its own right.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on Sky Movies from New Year’s Day 2015.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.