La La Land (2017)

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Well, not for a long while have I been eagerly anticipating a movie like the release of this musical drama. Add on top the record-breaking Golden Globes haul then you have a very excited chap. For the most part this film delivers, it’s stylish, fun, heartfelt but I don’t agree with all the souped up hype it’s received.

After a minor amount of road-rage where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) cross paths, they end up bumping into each other again and again which leads to a romance through the year. As they try following their dreams in LA it becomes a harder challenge to keep the love alive.

I have to say that I absolutely adored the first half or so of this film. It harks back to that classic glitz and glamour of Hollywood old with a neat dose of a modern touch thanks to the musical and confident direction from Damien Chazelle. Just from the sweeping opening on a Los Angeles highway to the delicate changes in lighting, the songs and story begin with a bang.

It helps that we get brilliant performances and a clear chemistry between the two main characters but also the style adds a neat note to the song-sheet that is this feature. There’s times that it looks and sounds like a studio set production and you’d expect Fred Astaire to come tap dancing in. The writing by Chazelle, is for the most part a well handled story that lends a two-sided coin to the LA lifestyle but with an obvious landing on dreams to follow and achieve.

As I sat in my seat I found myself hooked and smiling along to a wonderful series of scenes but then annoyingly, there came a specific moment where I even felt myself disengaging and from then on, the writing becomes very generic and almost cliched. It drifts into a romantic plot you’d expect to find in every other manically churned out rom-com. This frustrated me because I was expecting it to keep going with the gleeful whizz of CinemaScope delight but instead…it wains.

It is almost saved as we get a short burst of style near the end showing a quick run of events. So yes I agree it’s a fantastically well made and enchanting film, it deserved 3 perhaps 4 of the Globes it picked up out of 7. This is obviously, as I realised as they were winning, a case of the voters loving films that celebrate America or the US saving the day -(note Argo winning Best Picture)

Song wise, ‘Another of Day of Sun’ is jolly, sun-drenched and a perfect, literally perfect way to start a film of this genre. ‘City of Stars’ is sung well and has a melancholy yet magical sound but I don’t see how that gets the attention when Stone’s ‘Audition’ song is better performed and has better lyrics. Though it’s naff for jazz and a typical Top 40’s track, John Legend’s performance of ‘Start a Fire’ works well in showcasing the path Seb is taking away from his dream.

I’m not a total grouch because I did enjoy the majority of the film, I just don’t feel it should have broke GG records and I hope the Oscars gives some variety because ‘La La Land’ does swerve into a nearly boring not great second half.

7/10

Sisters (2015)

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Like the central party gone wrong, this film cranks up to fun drunken heights of sibling chemistry and silly smutty comedy but crashes down to the ultimate hangover of sparse laughs and predictable sisterly heart. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s entertaining as a whole and shows off just why Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are a fine double act.

After learning that her mother and father are selling the house they grew up in, wild non-child Kate (Tina Fey) and worrying square Maura (Amy Poehler) decide to throw a party to recapture their youth and see what it’s like in each others shoes. So as the house full of adults partying gets madder and madder, the sisters realise what the other puts up with.

It’s a fun enough comedy but not as snappy or perhaps sharp as I thought it may have been. Paula Pell lands her debut screenwriting job and hits all the marks you’d expect from an American comedy film. Her background for TV and links to Fey with scripting 30 Rock is felt with a scattering of well penned lines that zing really nicely. The idea of 40 somethings wanting to be youthful is nothing original but the chaotic proceedings written in the party distract from that clichéd basis for a narrative.

Jason Moore certainly knows how to direct a party. As drinks and pools overflow the home becomes a symbol of the damaging relationship the sisters have if they don’t both change. There’s nothing fancy either side of the party but it sets up the characters and that’s all you can really ask for. The manic throw-down of the Ellis Island reunion bash appears like a call back to ‘Animal House’ as total carnage ensues. Foam. Cocaine. Paint. Injury. Frat like behaviour, all of these features bash heads and swirl into a hazy mix to show off how insane this night is, this is where director and screenwriter have the most fun in giving more to not just the sisters but supporting characters also.

The whole predictable aspect of the romantic entanglement between Maura and neighbour James isn’t overly interesting as we know where’ll it end up but they do share perhaps the best scene of the film as they prepare to have sex and end up listening to a winding ballet doll which is rammed into the butt of nice guy James. We also get some laughs as a fat unfunny funny guy becomes the embodiment of Tony Montana with cocaine fuelling his spark. I may as well just put that the comedy mostly hits within the party as we see the adults behaving like teenagers.

It goes on a little too long, it’s almost forty minutes before any real laugh out loud moment happens and that’s close to when the party begins anyway. There are some places where it feels like Fey and Poehler are trying a little hard and then the resolution comes to a head so quickly that it feels like a tired writer wanting to wrap up the obvious threads of all involved. But that’s honestly the only big negatives, it’s an enjoyable film that suits as a lazy day watch.

Tina Fey lords it up as the woman-child of the piece, her squeals and tantrums are on point, she grimaces and scowls like an angsty adolescent but she shows off the softer almost Liz Lemon side she has when needed. Amy Poehler gets to have more fun in playing the dopier sister transitioning into the drunken reveller. As she becomes more intoxicated Poehler demonstrates how well she can play inebriated and what a ball she has with it. Ike Barinholtz has his best moment in the previously mentioned scene but apart from that he only serves as the potential new hope for Maura. Maya Rudolph appears now and then but almost steals the show as painfully dull and wannabe posh Brinda. The faces she pulls are just incredible. Oh and points to the film for the John Cena casting who appears like a brick-house of muscle and drug dealing comedy.

It has some fine moments but that doesn’t stop it from being quite weak and relying on a lengthy party to capture magic and laughs. To see Poehler and Fey on true form then witness their hosting of the Golden Globes, as here they fall a little short of the fantastic talent they both share.

5.5/10

Oscars 2015 Look Back

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A fairly predictable night at the 87th Academy Awards, with all acting winners being the ones I expected and on the whole, ones I was happy to see pick up the golden statuette. The show itself started off spectacularly with showman Neil Patrick Harris doing his usual song and dance shtick, but he does it so well it doesn’t matter. ‘Moving Pictures’ was stylish, cool and one of the better notes of Harris’ hosting gig.

J.K Simmons deserved the win, his role as Fletcher in WHIPLASH is blisteringly good. The harsh way he tries to inspire a new musical icon is violent and cold and Simmons does well giving the teacher some light shades from time to time, either in marvellous one liners or a brief scene of sadness. Patricia Arquette was the out and out favourite all along, scooping up major prizes in the run up to last night, it was a shoe-in for her to get the biggie. Don’t get me wrong, I felt her motherly vulnerable performance held a lot of BOYHOOD together but I would have loved to see Rosamund Pike win, for shock value and doing something Pike had never really done before. Eddie Redmayne is someone I never really loved until seeing his turn as Stephen Hawking. He embodies the genius and his bodily acting as Hawking is outstanding, he thoroughly deserved the win and I was glad he got it, a sweet and gentlemanly speech too. Julianne Moore was the fourth out of four predictable acting wins but from the small snippets I’ve seen of STILL ALICE she looks damn good. Just have to see it now and watch what got the trophy.

Birdman got Best Picture and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu clawed up another two for Original Screenplay and Directing. I’m more than happy with these three big prizes as Birdman was not a bio-pic, it’s theatrical, clever, funny and excellent. I have to admit I thought Boyhood would win but luckily it didn’t. It’s a sheer statement and project but not an overwhelming treat of a film whereas Birdman stands out. The second year in a row for a Mexican to win Director and gladly it seems the Oscars voters are rewarding the talents and not just American releases. Just waiting for more female recognition and they’re doing better.

Glory got Best Original Song for SELMA, beating off earworm ditty, ‘Everything is Awesome’ featured in THE LEGO MOVIE, still a major snub for not being in Animation but it’s too late now! Glory well and truly deserved the win, John Legend and Common collected the Oscar mere minutes after their hair raising performance. The production value of the Edmund Pettus bridge and large groups marching on the Dolby Theatre stage was emotional and powerful. It got a rapturous ovation and tears were shed by snubbed David Oyelowo and Chris Pine also.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely Anderson film and the whole look is perfect, so it was 100% agreeable that it picked up all the visual elements, such as costuming and production design. The state of Zubrowka is quirky and sweeps through doll house like mountains, hotels and prisons in typical Wes design.

Neil Patrick Harris himself threw in a couple of good jokes and zingers but on the whole the show did drag on, his magic suitcase prediction gag was a pointless waste of time. The opening number and his Whiplash/Birdman skit were the peaks of his hosting role. Harris stepping out in his tighty whities was brilliant and perfectly spoofed. I don’t know who may get the honour next time but Fey and Poehler are full of character and have chemistry so hopefully they’ll move up from Golden Globes duty.

A long and sometime odd show, Gaga and Sound of Music being a case in point, but I still can’t shake off the Oscar buzz every year it comes around. Even when the films aren’t as exciting or the winners are expected, there’s something fun about staying up to watch the Academy Awards. See you again next year. #stayweird #staydifferent.

Whiplash (2015)

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This film is more than just a “good job” and if you’re on the movie’s time you’ll love the wonderful frenetic energy drummed up from start to finish. It’s shot and more precisely edited spectacularly to fit the core theme of the story and it’s major acting talents are majorly talented actors.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is 19 and into playing drums big time. He gets invited to play jazz drum for Shaffer Conservatory and teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) but soon his musical talent is tested to the absolute limit as Fletcher pushes Neiman to breaking point and beyond in the quest to find a new star.

Damien Chazelle excels here, in only his second feature film. The simplicity and stress of the story are more than enough to leave room for blossoming ballsy acting and racked up tension. The shots of the band have a fluidity that gets broken up nicely from time to time with widening frames or quick cuts to fit in motion with the progression of the song being played. An in car camera makes for a more real shocking cinematic decision that pays off in immersing you into an impacting moment and in general the feel and look of the film grips you at the collar from the beginning and never really lets go.

As expected, with a film centered on music and the world of jazz, a lot of this review must square on the music involved and wow oh wow, does it do a grand job. Justin Hurwitz masters a score that goes from smooth to unbreakable in brutality. The title of the film comes from a song called ‘Whiplash’ where brass and piano make beautiful backing for it and through it the focus of drum beats is subtle but effective. Then ‘Caravan’ showcases more expertise of drumming that smashes in a good way…a perfect way…at least when not rushed or dragged. Double swing time of ‘Caravan’ rockets the the tempo of drumming to the stratosphere and Neiman pours his heart and soul onto the drum kit and you can feel that passion of music power through the speakers. Normally the sound of drums could infuriate without suitable accompaniment but here drum solos however loud are damn exciting and pump you up as you watch adding to the empowering mood this film leaves you with. The sticks blaze over the drum skins with furious intent and not one musical section of this movie is out of place or lacking.

The intensity of the story by Chazelle is more than worthy of it’s Academy Award Adapted Screenplay nomination. It’s crammed with pulsating tension and the level of intensity in both narrative and character traits is unyielding. The desire to be the best is understandable and the tutor/student relationship is harsh and believable. The drive Fletcher tries to instill into Neiman is constant and through one ups and reversals the story comes to a natural conclusion of how Fletcher really is and it’s a brilliant ending with no need for cheesy wrap ups.

J.K. Simmons is a ferocious figure throughout and his Golden Globe win and now Oscar nod are fully deserved. He brings a bullying degree of musical terror to proceedings but isn’t the panto villain he could have been as there’s softening touches to his character and his sharp superb remarks dotted throughout the script are genuinely funny or ouch that’s harsh reaction grabbing. Miles Teller is presented as alone, gifted and somewhat self righteous to his path but the practice route is pushed through Teller’s graft of sweat and non-stop attitude of getting to the top. I know not everyone can be nominated for an award but honestly Teller is amazing. Melissa Benoist who has a small amount of screen time as potential love interest Nicole is the perfect pretty distraction to give more humanity and real world problems to the self-entrapping life of Neiman.

Most people will surely leave the cinema upon watching ‘Whiplash’ with a real burst in their step and a thumping in their mental psyche as it’s such a raw look at music and the compelling back and forth between Neiman and Fletcher. Pacy, tense, funny and just out and out fantastic.

8.5/10

Cake (2015)

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Not really a special film, it’s a good enough story to keep you watching that’s main selling point is the spectacular grounded performance of its lead star. Softly shot swimming pools and suicide feel a bit pushy for emotion and therefore don’t tug the heart strings but Aniston just might.

Attending chronic pain groups is Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) who becomes interested in the suicide of a member that used to go the classes also. This quiet obsession with the death of Nina (Anna Kendrick) leads her to face her own issues.

The majority of the film has a soft touch to it, that sort of curtain billowing in the breeze feel. The edges of frames look blurred and/or softened, shots are smooth at times with wind aiding the gentling atmosphere. All of this stops the film from being as hard and powerful as it may have been, but then it does help it build that dreamlike sense, the sort of automated way Claire goes through her painful life.

The music by Christophe Beck is a lovely little thing. It’s not constant or overpowering and in fact serves nicely with diagetic sounds of background chatter, wind or traffic. Quite a lot of the score mixes with the tingles of wind chimes which become an audible and visual symbol throughout. The music is just another tool on top of Daniel Barnz’s direction that wash this film with calming influences.

I don’t know if I liked that style overall though, it feels perhaps too bland. The story is impactful but not dramatic enough to tide you through the softly softly approach of directing. There’s no oomph in the film to mirror the power Aniston gives to the show. It ends up a bit of a soggy bottomed cake that Mary Berry wouldn’t be proud of.

The more the film keeps going, it begins heading into a different strand that isn’t anywhere near as exciting, sad or interesting as it could have been if it stuck on the same path. The cake crumbles and what you end up with is a bar of soap, I’m trying to say the film begins to resemble a soap opera! It had the potential but loses that fairly quickly.

Jennifer Aniston is well worthy of the praise and awards attention she is getting. It’s by far one of the best acting demonstrations she’s ever shown and you really feel her pain. Aniston changes her body stature and exudes that raw human emotion, which alongside sharp and angry wit helps you connect to her. Adriana Barraza who plays Silvana the maid is also brilliant. The yin to Claire’s yang and she keeps a level head most of the time even through clear infuriating trials. Anna Kendrick comes floating along as a combination of malevolence and ethereal guide to Claire’s life and she does that well.

It speaks volumes that the film is only getting nominations here and there for leading actress as Aniston is the only main redeeming factor of ‘Cake’. It gets too soppy as it develops, the low budget indie style doesn’t have anything new to say and it becomes a let down sadly.

5/10

Foxcatcher (2015)

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Now then, aside from the tonally grey look and non stop chilling aspects, I found this film rather disappointing. It’s not a victim of over hype, though I was really looking forward to its release, it just chugs away pretty slowly to an unsatisfying end. The acting is quality, the mood set up is bang on but something didn’t strike with me and I didn’t overly like it.

This, another bio-pic in the run up to tonight’s Golden Globes and the soon to be announced Oscars, sees Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler moving in to Foxcatcher Farm under the growing coach and father mentoring of wealthy philanthropist John du Pont (Steve Carell). There they both work hard to try and gain glory for their country but it’s not enough for du Pont who wants Marks more acclaimed brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) leaving tensions to grow on du Pont’s estate.

Perhaps in my lack of seeing previous Bennett Miller films, I don’t get the style of the slow paced movie. Though of course I’ve heard masterful things about ‘Capote’ and ‘Moneyball’ and both centre on real life figures and draw out fantastic performances from his stars. It could also be that I’m growing tired of biographical films in the lead up to awards time, though I don’t think that’s correct because if they’re done well then I really invest in them. There’s just a slight niggle throughout watching this movie that it’s boring and I didn’t want to use that word but alas I just did.

The crime of the story is shocking and the petulant childlike behaviour of this money throwing Golden Eagle (du Pont) is chilling to the bone, but knowing where this film is heading to, at least in some direction if you’ve seen the trailer or know of the event leads it to ticking away very slowly for a long time. It sounds bad, but you’re just waiting for it to happen already. The film is over two hours and in my opinion it felt that way and some.

The music tinkles away with dread and the piano score racks up that unpleasant vibe, making the screen you’re sat in feel colder and nightmarish, but the music and the subject matter are just obvious ways to illicit feelings of the directors wish. It’s nothing groundbreaking or unique in bio-pic terms, just done quite generically knowing that simple chills and thrills can do enough for award voters.

I did really like the commitment of the actors, Ruffalo and Tatum training and bulking up to bring presence to the Schultz brothers and then Carell who drops his comedy stereotype like he never had it. The body control he has to make John feel still and predator like is fantastic and his voice is twisted to stuttering levels making you hardly recognise Brick Tamland under that prosthetic nose. Steve Carell deserves his nods, it’s an attention worthy role and he brings about the best qualities of the film as you begin getting lost in this uncomfortable yet somehow inviting gentleman. I don’t think he’ll win but the recognition enough is brilliant and hopefully he’ll tread down the serious route more often. Channing Tatum is of course convincing as wrestler Mark but that’s no stretch for him and most of the time it’s a case of pulling dumb faces to make Mark seem stupid or hulky and nothing else. Mark Ruffalo who I like a lot doesn’t have a defining moment that made me understand his supporting actor nod, Ruffalo is always good as he is in this film but nothing leapt out making me go, “oh, that’s the Golden Globe nod right there.” Sienna Miller is sidelined massively making emotional connection all but lost, they could have utilised more family time bringing more heart to the sport heavy film.

In some similar aspects to ‘Unbroken’ this film feels as if it’s trying a little too much to gain gravitas in the world of nominated movies, it’s got a career defining shine for Steve Carell and the constant chill factor is undeniably well constructed but apart from that, it didn’t grab me in the way it’s loved by others.

5.5/10

Big Eyes (2014)

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Here we get a thoughtful and brilliantly created look at social times and the power of character. ‘Big Eyes’ is displayed on its easel or the big screen with a refreshing turn from a once repetitive and stale Tim Burton. The performers are glorious, the look of the movie is lovely and it comes together to paint a fulfilling and dramatic bio-pic.

This film has Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) up and leave her husband taking her daughter, Jane to San Francisco, where Margaret hopes to use her talent of artistry to make money and raise her child. Once there she quickly falls for a fellow painter called Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), they marry and join forces. Soon her paintings garner more attention than his and he palms them off as his own work leaving Margaret battling to step forward or stay quiet.

This is assuredly one of Tim Burton’s best films, feeling like a hallmark of his good old days. After the same style film churned out, his usual maddening visions of CGI and childish wonder through dark twisted peepers, it’s more than marvelous to see the director shuffle a good few steps away from his normality and provide a film that ends up its own little thing. There’s nifty memories of his style, such as the opening looking a lot like the streets from ‘Edward Scissorhands’. It’s obviously a Burton release, there’s glimmers of quirky and dark hold but not enough to stifle.

The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is quaint and picturesque and he gifts the movie a nice stroke throughout. In general the art direction team have a lot to be proud of, it looks stunning all the way through, from the lush rolling green hills of the start to the turquoise blues of Hawaii. It could hopefully get an Oscar nod for production design or cinematography but I think it’s main hopes lay in the two acting leads, which is a shame as nearly every frame does look as though it’s a painting. The production should warrant that acclaim as scenes become more filled with beautiful yet odd waif portraits. The multiplying paintings culminating in one epic scaled UNICEF hanging are masterful and range from heartfelt to manufactured oil based spew.

What I liked about it most, is that even though it’s a biopic and there’s been a run of them lately especially these awards season, it focuses on two not so obvious candidates for film commentary. Martin Luther King, Jr, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing can move along as I truly found the study of Margaret and Walter more interesting. It’s nice for a film such as this to shed light on these people and however sleazy Walter is, he comes across as a fascinating sad man, while Margaret stands upright as a shaken yet talented woman in the face of oppression.

There’s wonderful moments in vision and sound. The make-up is clever and constant, the iconography of eyes standing tall. The moment Keane sees her artwork coming to follow her is nightmarish and well done, not dragged out in a lucid trip that could have been expected from Burton. The eye make-up in general is perfect, most characters of the plot getting a touch up to their eyes to stand out, Margaret’s who seem bigger, the black of DeAnn’s eyes or in the lack of, as Walter grows more tired in the cyclone of lies he’s manifesting. The music by Danny Elfman is awash with quiet then rising sounds, a sort of echo to tapping xylophone and string effects that link up to Margaret’s paranoia and insecurity of her situation.

It does falter near the latter half, overly dramatic sequences feeling like a Picasso in a Monet gallery, the flaming matches or the fork in the eye threat are slightly off kilter. The Lana Del Rey song that comes into the cinema speakers during a scene feels so out of place, the mainstream artist and her vocals jarring the scene and coming across as a cheap way to get a nomination for Original Song, well by heck it worked as it’s up for the Golden Globe.

Amy Adams is brilliant, as per usual and I don’t think I could ever say a bad word against her. She portrays this wonderful woman with subtlety and emotional reserve against the more extravagant Waltz. You constantly stick on her side and testament to her acting and the true story you want to cheer when she finally speaks out and tries sticking it to Walter. Christoph Waltz is amazing, his acting as colourful as the look of the movie. He gives most of the comedy as the fraudulent schmuck and his overacting spotlight in the courtroom resembles the farce of a theatre play in a great way. The two of them come to the conclusion of The Great American Paint Off as I’m calling it and provide the film with it’s bold character driven quality from start to finish.

Quietly brilliant in direction and performance, it’s not screaming for attention and so much the better for it. Two fascinating real life people get the colorful, engaging and interesting biographical treatment they deserve.

7/10