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.

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The Limey (1999)

2016 #72
Steven Soderbergh | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

There’s an argument to be made that, from a cinematic perspective, mainstream US cinema these days is boring. Look at the kind of films American auteurs were producing in and around the studio system in the ’90s and early ’00s: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Memento, Requiem for a Dream; films that experimented with how they told their stories, the shots they used, how they were edited. Does anyone do that now? Or does anyone do it successfully?

Personally, I’ll be adding Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey to that list. At its most basic it’s a straightforward thriller, in which a British crook played by Terence Stamp is released from prison and travels to L.A. to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter (played in flashbacks by Melissa George, which is kinda weird because she has little to do and no dialogue), and probably take revenge on those responsible. By all accounts, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs was indeed that run-of-the-mill. In the hands of Soderbergh, however, it becomes an arthouse-ish experience, mainly thanks to the editing.

It’s the kind of cutting that’s hard to accurately describe on the page without overdoing it. The movie jumps back and forth in time — not from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. For instance, Stamp’s arrival at the home of his daughter’s friend, and the conversation that follows, is jumbled up with shots of him on the plane, driving in the city, the people his daughter was associating with, and even within the conversation itself, sometimes speech continues on the soundtrack while we watch the characters not talking, or doing something else. This isn’t a conceit Soderbergh uses for one scene, or wheels out now and then, but an overall approach. Some sequences are more thick with it than others, but it’s always right around the corner. It creates a unique sensation. Not disconcerting, exactly, but mysterious and querying. It has you constantly question what you’re watching — is it a memory? A plan? A fantasy? A delusion? It draws connections back and forth across the timeline of the story, bringing out thematic angles. At its most key, it helps explain what happens at the end (too bluntly for some reviewers, I should add). This collage-like style — which unlike, say, Memento’s back-to-front narrative has no obvious in-story point — will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but it presents an interesting challenge to our usual ideas of how a film should be constructed.

This led to a somewhat infamous commentary track on the film’s DVD release. The A.V. Club even included it in their New Cult Canon series — not The Limey, that is, but The Limey’s commentary track. In it, Soderbergh and Dobbs discuss the filmmaking process, understandably focusing on how screenplays get transformed, and how screenwriters get screwed over. The Limey that ended up on screen is very different to Dobbs’ screenplay, having been aggressively filtered by Soderbergh. This isn’t hard to believe — the film on screen is a very film-y film; how would you go about conveying the crazy editing style on the page, even if you wanted to? By the sounds of things the whole track is basically a friendly argument, and makes me wish someone somewhere would get round to releasing this on Blu-ray so I could hear it (the film looks great in HD, so I don’t much fancy settling for a DVD, thanks).

Despite the visual trickery, The Limey still works pretty well as a straightforward thriller. You have to be prepared to accept the slippery editing, because there’s no avoiding it, but the throughline of Stamp tracking down bad men and how he deals with them is still here. Personally, I’ve never much rated Stamp as an actor, but somehow he fits here. He’s a fish out of water, a man out of place — way out of place — and possibly out of time, too, seeming like a ’60s or ’70s British gangster transported to turn-of-the-millennium L.A. It’s no discredit to the supporting cast that they mainly exist to bob around in his wake.

At a guess, I’d say some would criticise The Limey for being a basic revenge thriller with a veneer of artistry applied in the form of its editing, while others would be turned away from its basic revenge thrills thanks to that editorial veneer. I’m always up for mashing together arthouse and mainstream, though, and here Soderbergh does just that, and in a way I found consistently thought-provoking, too. It’s discoveries like this that are the reward for digging into less-heralded corners of interesting filmmakers’ back catalogues.

5 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

The Limey placed 7th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Die Hard (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #23

Twelve terrorists. One cop.
The odds are against John McClane…
That’s just the way he likes it.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1988) | 15 (2007)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th July 1988
UK Release: 3rd February 1989
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense)
Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility)
Reginald VelJohnson (Turner & Hooch, Die Hard 2)
Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard 2, Presumed Innocent)

Director
John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October)

Screenwriters
Jeb Stuart (Another 48 Hrs., The Fugitive)
Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Beverly Hills Cop III)

Based on
Nothing Lasts Forever, a novel by Roderick Thorp.

The Story
While off-duty cop John McClane is visiting his estranged wife at her office Christmas party, a gang of terrorists enter the building and take the guests hostage. McClane avoids capture, making him their only hope of rescue…

Our Hero
One of New York’s finest unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… or, as it turns out, the right place at the right time. They’re currently working on an “origin story” movie for cop John McClane, which is daft because Die Hard is his origin story — he may’ve become an action hero in later movies (I wouldn’t know, I still haven’t got beyond the second), but here McClane is just an ordinary cop. Well, a very committed ordinary cop, anyway.

Our Villain
Smart, witty, and thoroughly ruthless, Alan Rickman’s big-screen debut is a flawless turn that defined thriller villains (British-accented terrorists with a secret plan) for at least the next half-decade. No one does it better, though.

Best Supporting Character
McClane’s only real friend, Sgt. Al Powell is a beat cop on the outside who just happens to pick up his signal. Fortunately, he’s much smarter and more helpful than a team of FBI agents. Well, aren’t we all?

Memorable Quote
Hans Gruber: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
John McClane: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
As Gruber lectures the collected hostages on how the terrorists have planned for every eventuality, a nearby elevator door pings open. One of the hostages screams, Gruber and co rush over, to find one of their compatriots dead with a message scrawled on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.”

Truly Special Effect
When the bomb in the elevator shaft blows out the side of the building, the effect was accomplished by collecting virtually every camera flashbulb of a particularly powerful type and wiring them to the outside of the actual building to simulate the flash, then superimposing a shot of an actual explosive blowing a hole in an all-black miniature of the building.

Making of
The filmmakers struggled to find a way for McClane and Gruber to meet prior to the movie’s climax. The scene in which they do, where Gruber pretends to be one of the hostages, was dreamt up after it was discovered Alan Rickman could do a good American accent.

Previously on…
Die Hard is adapted from a novel, which is a sequel to one called The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as the lead cop (called Joe Leland rather than John McClane). When production began on Die Hard, Fox were obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra. Fortunately for them, he turned it down.

Next time…
Lightning struck twice for unlucky John McClane when he got embroiled in another Christmastime terrorist incident in Die Hard 2, aka Die Harder; then Gruber’s brother sought revenge in trilogy-forming Die Hard with a Vengeance. Years later, someone realised there was money to be made, leading to poorly-received cash-in sequels Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0, and A Good Day to Die Hard. A sixth is in development.

Awards
4 Oscar nominations (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects — or, to put it another way: Sound, Effects, Editing, Sound Effects Editing)

What the Critics Said
“From its trailer, Die Hard looks like a typical action movie of the ’80s: a sweaty, bare-chested, all-American hero battles swarthy, heavily accented terrorist villains, accompanied by lots of high-tech explosions, vast sheets of breaking glass and enough sophisticated weaponry to account for the Pentagon’s budget overrun. As directed by John McTiernan, it turns out to be something more — the archetypical action movie of the ’80s, the perfection of the form. Sleekly engineered, impeccably staged and shrewdly dosed with humor and sentiment, Die Hard has everything but a personality.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Vulnerable but witty, McClane is a very well realised action hero who has set precedence as far as similar roles are concerned. […] Unlike Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis’ McClane is not the archetypal heroic figure that is invincible and untouchable. He gets his butt handed to him regularly and often finds himself panicking with frequent looks of nervousness and even fear.” — Billy’s Film Reviews

Verdict

The action movie to end all action movies… or, y’know, spawn endless sequels and rip-offs. But Die Hard really did perfect the mix: a capable but not superhuman hero, a genuinely threatening but enjoyable-to-watch villain, plenty of thrills and tension, but also humour and eminently quotable dialogue. And it’s set at Christmas (though originally released in July — what?!), which makes it ideal for seasonal counter-programming. What more could you ask for?

Prepare thyself… for #24.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

2015 #137
John Singleton | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

John Singleton became the first African-American Best Director Oscar nominee, as well as the youngest, for this debut. 23 years on, his story of the lives and troubles of young black men in L.A. remains sadly pertinent.

Unfortunately, the film’s style doesn’t: some parts are plainly constructed and others have dated badly, like the horrible score — bland of-its-time TV soap music, when something befitting the characters (like the hippity-hop tunes that surface occasionally) would seem more appropriate.

Nonetheless, the believable characters, effective storytelling, and authentically new voice (even so temporally removed as we are now) mean it remains powerful filmmaking.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

End of Watch (2012)

2015 #111
David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Crash: Director’s Cut (2004)

2007 #27a
Paul Haggis | 115 mins | DVD | 15

Crash: Director's CutOK, I must confess, this one is something of a cheat — I’ve seen Crash before, and whilst some ‘director’s cuts’ can be vastly different, this one is only around two minutes longer. But I'll take any chance I can get to go on about how this is a much better and more Oscar-deserving piece than a certain overrated film about gay cowboys.

In my opinion this is a film that should be seen, not necessarily for its message, but for its quality in terms of performance, direction, etc.

5 out of 5