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.


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.


Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

2017 #132
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

Last weekend, a film about an android negotiating an existential crisis when he learns he may actually be human, told over almost three hours with a slow pace in an arthouse style, topped the US box office. Put like that, Blade Runner 2049’s debut sounds like a stonking financial success. Alternatively, it’s a widely-advertised critically-acclaimed $150-million-plus effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle with a pair of movie-star leads, in which context its $33 million opening weekend only looks remarkable for how poor it is. For those of us who did bother to see it (and us Brits turned out — it did good numbers on this side of the pond), such concerns are almost immaterial. In creating a belated sequel to an innovative, influential, and beloved classic movie, 2049 has (to borrow a phrase from another unexpected big-screen sci-fi sequel) done the impossible — because it’s really bloody good — and that makes it mighty.

Set 30 years after the original movie, 2049 introduces us to new characters and a new mystery: when blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) makes a shocking discovery at the home of a Replicant he’s just retired, it starts him on a mission to find something previously thought impossible that could have world-changing implications; something with connections to the events of 30 years earlier. While unfurling this mystery/thriller plot, 2049 is also about K’s personal development/crisis as a character. Although they kept it out of the marketing, it’s only a mild spoiler to say he’s a Replicant (as if the single-letter name didn’t hint at that already, it’s also mentioned casually within the first couple of scenes), and the case he works causes him to question his place in the world.

Buried secrets

This is a movie with a lot to think about. It doesn’t do the thinking for you either, instead leaving space for the viewer to interpret not only what themes they should be thinking about but also what they should be thinking about those themes. This seems to have been a little too much for some viewers — I’ve seen anecdotal reports of people falling asleep or walking out. That’s not necessarily just because they were asked to do some work, of course: it could also be the pace and length. It’s definitely a long film — a shade under 2 hours 45, though obviously there’s a fair chunk of credits — and, watching it with a grotty cold, as I was, it certainly felt long. But I would also put that entirely down to the cold. It’s not a mile-a-minute thrill ride of a movie, but I think it’s the length it needs to be. It leaves room for ideas to sink in.

Not only that, it allows you time to luxuriate in the visuals. This is possibly one of the finest-looking films ever shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, we all know this, but if he doesn’t finally earn it for 2049 then there is no justice. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the kind of thing to expect. When people say “you could hang any frame of this movie on your wall” it’s usually a ludicrous overreaction, but here it’s as true as it ever could be. (Also, having complained in several reviews recently that I think my cinema of choice is showing films too dark (a not unheard of problem — they run the bulbs too dim to save costs), 2049 looked absolutely fantastic. Maybe it’s just that other filmmakers aren’t as good as Deakins.)

Hot robot-on-robot action

It’s not just the film’s technical merits that recommend it either, as there’s an array of superb performances here. Gosling has a difficult job as K: he starts out almost as a blank, an emotionally reserved Replicant but also a character that we need to identify with, and later struggling with his innate programming as he’s presented with challenging ideas. It might be easy to do this in a very outward manner, all handwringing and moistened eyes and so forth, but Gosling keeps it low-key — in keeping with the overall style of the film, of course. I guess some will find him cold, but I still thought he was a relatable, likeable character.

Elsewhere, Harrison Ford is definitely a supporting character, despite his prominent billing. That’s okay, though. He gets some great, meaty material — surely the best stuff he’s had to work with in a long time, and he delivers on it too. Deckard isn’t as obvious a personality as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really matter how much Ford does or doesn’t feel like his role of 35 years ago: Deckard has a place and a function and a story in this new narrative, and that he sells. As a fan, it’s impossible not to think of the long-standing debate from the first movie: is Deckard a Replicant? 2049 manages to smartly dodge this question that you’d’ve thought it has to answer. If you’re watching out for how it handles it, it’s an impressive bit of work. And the debate does still rage: as shown in a recent joint interview, Ridley Scott still thinks Deckard definitely has to be, but Denis Villeneuve disagrees. You can make up your own mind (if you think it even matters).

Blade Runner 79, more like

Among the rest of the supporting cast, the stand out for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend. You may’ve seen some reviews that say 2049 has a “a woman problem”, and maybe it does, but I still thought Joi was an interesting, nuanced character. Her role is very much in how she affects K, that’s true, but that the film tackles a love story between a robot and an AI is fascinating in and of itself. Maybe theme trumps character. Maybe they contribute to each other.

Really, it’s no surprise that 2049 has struggled at the box office. Despite trailers that emphasised the action, reviews were keen to point out it isn’t an action movie. Although they’ve mostly been glowing, maybe people looked beyond the star ratings to the content, which highlighted the truth: it’s a slow, considered movie; one that makes you think, rather than simply entertains. It’s not for everyone. All of that said, it’s kind of surprised me how few people it’s for: I’ve not even seen reviews pop up from many of the blogs I follow that routinely review new releases. (If you’ve posted one and think I’ve missed it, feel free to mention it in the comments.) One I did see is by long-time Blade Runner fan the ghost of 82, which is more spoilersome than this piece and so digs deeper into some of the film’s questions.

Shoot to retire

Now that it’s ensconced as a classic, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the original Blade Runner wasn’t massively popular with critics and didn’t do well at the box office back in 1982. It started out with a cult fanbase, which grew into the more widespread esteem it enjoys today. 2049 isn’t doomed to the same fate, but perhaps it’s destined for a similar one. Mainstream audiences might be ignoring it right now, but this is a movie that many people are going to be thinking about, talking about, rewatching, thinking and talking about some more, and being influenced by, for years — decades — to come.

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. Go see it.

My review of the film’s 3D version can now be read here.

It placed 1st on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Big Short (2015)

2016 #161
Adam McKay | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Big ShortYou wouldn’t think the 2008 financial crisis would make good fodder for a comedy-drama — it’s both too complicated and too grim — but Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay clearly felt differently. With co-writer Charles Randolph, he adapted the non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis (the author of the books that became awards season contenders The Blind Side and Moneyball) and turned it into… well, an awards season contender — but a funny one.

Specifically, it’s the story of the handful of men who saw the financial crisis coming, and arranged their finances to bet on it, too. It’s not a completely true account but, as it’s presented here, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the only one who actually spots it. He takes out insurance policies or something — look, the whole film is full of really complicated financial stuff and this was right at the start, OK? Here’s the Wikipedia plot description of what he does: “his plan is to create a credit-default swap market, allowing him to bet against market-based mortgage-backed securities.” So, he does that, the investment banks gladly accept his money because they think he’s mad, but a handful of others (including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) stumble across his research one way or another, believe he’s right, and begin to make similar investments.

Christian Bale tries to understand the screenplayThe narrative is laden with concepts that are so complicated even people within the industry don’t properly understand all of them (however did the market fail?!), but the movie nonetheless attempts to explain them in an accessible way. It’s half successful: you kind of understand them at the time, about enough to follow along, but the chances of remembering them later are next to naught. One of McKay’s tricks to engage us with these explanations is to wheel in random celebrities to deliver analogies. It’s a fun idea, though it’s success is debatable — I mean, I’ve just about heard of Selena Gomez, and I guess the “famous chef” that turns up must have a TV show in America, or something, maybe? Yeah, the ‘names’ he’s chosen are going to date this movie far more than its 2008 setting ever will.

Indeed, on the whole I could’ve done without McKay’s jittery directorial style, amped up through ADD editing by Hank Corwin. Both were Oscar nominated and I’ve read other reviews that praise the style, but to me it just felt needlessly hyperactive, like the film is so afraid of being dull that it has to constantly dance around in the hope you won’t notice. I did notice — not that the film was dull, just that it thought it was. I guess that’s what happens when a guy more at home making movies like Anchorman and The Other Guys instead makes one about the world of real-life high finance.

Not very impressedThough the conceptual explanations may fade almost as soon as you’ve heard them, what does stick with you is how it all ends. Essentially, the financial industry that destroyed peoples’ lives in pursuit of never-ending profit not only got away with it, but they actually started doing the same stuff all over again, just with new acronyms. What’s even more sickening is that people are clearly aware it’s going on — I mean, we’ve been told as much in an Oscar-winning movie — but they’re still doing nothing about it.

How’s that for a scary thought this Halloween weekend, eh?

4 out of 5

Lost River (2014)

2016 #79
Ryan Gosling | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Lost RiverThe directorial debut of uber-hearththrob movie star Ryan Gosling is not what you might expect someone of that particular adulation to produce. It’s not just that it has a dark heart, but that it’s slow, opaque, perverted, and not easily summarisable.

To try nonetheless: Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives in a possibly-near-future rundown Detroit, where his mother (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to repay the loan so they can keep their house. A meeting with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) leads to him offering her a job at a mysterious nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones salvages copper for cash, which brings him into the orbit of vicious criminal Bully (Matt Smith). Escaping Bully’s clutches, Bones discovers an old road that leads under a lake. He learns from his neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), that there’s a town under there, which may hold the key to breaking the curse hanging over their town…

If it’s not obvious, there’s definitely some magical realism going on in Lost River. Adult fairytale would be another term for it; there are slices of some form of Gothic, too. To put it another way, it’s definitely Lynchian. Other directors may have been an influence on Gosling as well, but it specifically brought Blue Velvet to mind for me, without in any palpable way being a clone of that movie. Nonetheless, it also engages with some very real present-day issues, like the recession, albeit in an elliptical fashion (despite the plot being about someone under threat of losing their house). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to touch of themes of family, home, and what home means (i.e. more than just a house), as well as the importance or otherwise of escaping that home, or somehow reconstituting it.

Lake lightsIt comes to a very cathartic ending, on multiple levels. I almost didn’t realise I needed that catharsis at the end — I knew I wanted certain characters to get their comeuppance, but the load that seems to lift at the end, with all the different climaxes combined, including parts that might not seem ‘good’… well, it’s almost like Rat is right about Bones’ actions lifting a bad spell.

On a technical level the film is superb, combining fantastic cinematography with evocative costumes, expressive sets, and an effective score. Some of the imagery is the visual equivalent of ambient mood music, as is some of the score (er, literally). That occasionally comes across as self-consciously Arty, therefore, but in the right mood or mindset it works. There are several strong performances as well: Christina Hendricks does understated desperation; Matt Smith is a credible schoolyard bully writ large; Ben Mendelsohn exudes menace as a nightclub-owner-cum-devil-incarnate; and Saoirse Ronan is marvellous in everything.

By giving it a 4, I’m maybe being a tad generous; certainly it’s poor consumer advice, because this is a “not for everyone” film. But if I gave it a 3, I’d be underselling how much I eventually liked it. It’s certainly flawed — slow, slight, maybe pretentious, and Arty. But it also takes us to an intriguing world, toys with some interesting ideas, conveys a few memorable moments, and stuns with consistently arresting visuals. I’ll take that mix over “blandly fine” any day.

4 out of 5