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La La Land – Review

11 Jan

There are movies that come around every now and again where it’s so clear that the film makers poured their entire hearts and souls into it. Sometimes, a film maker comes along where it seems like that’s all he’s capable of doing. A few years ago, Damien Chazelle gave the movie world Whiplash, a film about jazz drumming, passion, and pain. It was easily one of the best movies of 2014. Chazelle knocks it out of the park yet again with his latest film, which just so happens to be an original musical, La La Land. Like WhiplashLa La Land is a film about jazz and passions to succeed in what you love, but told in a much different way. By the time the movie ended, I almost could believe what I saw.

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Hollywood is filled with a dreamers and hidden potential, but there are some who truly make these dreams part of their lives. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista in a small coffee shop in a movie studio who also spends her days rushing to different acting auditions, hoping beyond hope that one of the will be her big break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who earns what little money he has playing in bars and restaurants, even when their theme or style isn’t the music he loves. His goal is to one day open a jazz club that truly is all about the music in its raw, organic form. The two also seem to keep running into each other as if by fate. While their both quite different, their passions for their respective dreams are very much the same and a relationship quickly forms. The ultimate test for them, however, is can it withstand what it takes for them to achieve their dreams.

There’s so much to talk about with this movie, I don’t even know where to begin. I left the movie feeling so excited and my brain was just going a million miles a minute. I’ve had some days to think on it, and I’ve been enjoying the movie even more as I think about it. I guess a good place to start would be the music. I’m not a huge fan of musicals. There are some exceptions to that rule like Meet Me in St. Louis, The Producers, or Chicago, but I really can’t get too into them. La La Land takes everything I do like about musicals and utilizes them to the fullest potential. The film opens with a big musical number on a crowded freeway, which is filled with different colors, sweeping camera work, and energy that flies off the screen. Every musical number keeps up this level of energy and wonder but uses them in different ways. Two standout scenes are a song and dance number on a cliff overlooking Los Angeles and a slower number inside Griffith Observatory. There’s grand numbers like the big finale, but there’s also smaller and quieter musical themes that tie the movie together.

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Chazelle has shown in Whiplash that he is more than capable of writing characters that feel very original and exist perfectly in the movie they inhabit. When I went into La La Land I was excited to see the musical numbers, the colors, and a lot of the more technical aspects of the movie, but I didn’t really have expectations for the characters. I was pleasantly surprised with how well rounded and real these characters felt, especially since they existed in a musical. They never felt like archetypes or characters made solely to break into song and dance. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have fantastic chemistry, and it almost didn’t feel like I was watching them act a scene, but rather peeking into the lives of the characters. A lot of their realness can also be attributed to Chazelle’s writing and how he throws in a lot of quick comedy and natural dialogue.

Finally, we come to the film making. La La Land is one of, if not the best directed movie of the year. The way this movie is shot is a marvel to behold. From the opening shot to the very last, the movie has a beautiful widescreen quality and a color palette that will catch you attention immediately. The aspect ratio of La La Land is 2.55:1 which is known as CinemaScope. This makes the film look really big, and there are certain scenes in this movie where it really shows. Of course, it’s no surprise that this technique was used mostly in the mid-1950s into the 1960s. Chazelle also works great with cinematographer Linus Sandgren to use the camera and the lighting to the fullest. I go back to the opening musical number where the camera swoops all over the freeway in such grand ways. It caught me right away and held me until the very end.

Just thinking and writing about La La Land is getting me excited all over again. This is some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year and it’s a reminder of why I love them so much to begin with. This film is a love letter to film and the passion and love of the arts while also standing as it’s own established movie. It’s filled with excellent music, natural performances, and so much magic that I’m starting to think Damien Chazelle must be from some other dimension. La La Land is absolutely phenomenal.

Final Grade: A+

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Gangster Squad – Review

4 Dec

The early to mid-1900s was a very interesting time when discussing the topic of crime and criminals. At the same time, graphic novel style action and visuals are really entertaining to look at, but they get even more entertaining when they are infused with a layer of noir over top of it. Think the Sin City movies and graphic novels, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Instead I want to look at Ruben Fleischer’s film Gangster Squad, a movie that was never destined to win any Academy Awards, but holy hell, it couldn’t have been more fun.

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The year: 1949. The city: Los Angeles, the City of Angels. Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has made a name for himself through his unapologetic brutality and no nonsense way of business. Along with Cohen, corrupt officials and officers of the law run the streets so the criminals get their way and stay out of their hair. This angers Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to no end, so when he’s assigned to create an off the books task force to personally take care of these criminals he jumps at the opportunity. Along with his friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), O’Mara creates a team and begins wiping the violence off the streets of L.A. in the only way they can: more violence. Complications arise, however, when Cohen begins to learn the identities of these men, while Wooter strikes up a relationship with Cohen’s girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Gangster Squad that I really don’t understand. All this negativity about how inaccurate it is, how much violence is in it, and how seriously the movie takes itself. Well, first of, it’s pretty clear from the get go that this movie isn’t meant to be realistic. It’s meant to be an ultra-stylized look at a pretty crazy time in American history. Now listen, I do like movies to be accurate when it’s clear that I’m watching a pretty serious historical movie or biopic, but it’s so obvious that that’s not what Gangster Squad is supposed to be. This movie works so well as an action/noir movie, it makes me jealous that I didn’t make it.

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So while the action is almost too fun to even process, I have to give some major recognition to screenwriter Will Beall, especially since this is his first feature film screenplay. He knocks it out of the park with all of the tough talking, gangster and noir dialogue. Some of the one liners in this movie really made me crack up, but also respect the cleverness behind them. The actors all play their parts to perfection, with Ryan Gosling sort of stealing the show. He provides much of the comic relief, and when I say comic I mean really funny lines of dialogue. It made me wonder what the reaction would have been if they made a movie like this in the golden age of Hollywood. All hell would have broken loose.

It can be argued that Gangster Squad is mostly style and little substance, but I don’t really agree with that. The story and characters aren’t boring, and each character has their own distinct personalities. I think what people are saying is, “Why isn’t this movie like The Untouchables?” I really can’t stress this point enough that this movie is solely meant for entertainment, and honestly I don’t see how someone couldn’t be even a little entertained by it. Watching Gangster Squad is like watching a comic book of seedy 1940s crime playing out right before your eyes.

Much like Van Helsing and The Matrix Reloaded, I will defend Gangster Squad until the day I die. Not every movie has to have some deep message or generate debate for it to be a really good movie. As pulpy, popcorn entertainment, Gangster Squad is top tier fun. The stylized actions scenes, complete with plenty of slow motion and Tommy guns, kept my eyes glued to the screen and left me with a huge smile on my face. What Fleischer, Beall, and the rest of the cast and crew has created is an explosive, graphic novel of a movie that looks at the 1940s, noir, and criminals in an over the top, and most of all fun way.

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Review

10 Nov

Every so often, a movie comes around that makes me really appreciate all the creative work that film makers put into it. When I first saw the trailer to Birdman, I was set and ready to see it. When I saw that Alejandro González Iñárritu was in the director’s chair and also wrote the film, I was more than ready to see it. This is a film like no other that I’ve seen in a very long time, with a story that hits you where you really feel it and cinematography that will make you rethink how the medium can be utilized. This is an amazing film, and very well may be the best movie of the year.

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Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an aging movie star best known for his portrayal of the comic book hero, Birdman, in the early ’90s. Now, he considers himself to be washed up and only remembered as the man behind the mask, so he decides to reinvigorate his career by adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a full length Broadway play. A number of things begin to go really wrong including replacing one of the actors with the belligerent, but well known, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), getting into multiple confrontations with his recovering drug addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and just plain bad luck. At this rate, it would be a miracle if they made it through the few previews they have before opening night.

Where do I even begin? When I left the theater, I was completely wound up and trying to sort through all of my thoughts on the movie. It was just so exciting to see a movie that seemed to hit everything perfectly. I don’t have a single complaint about Birdman. First off, the cast in this movie are excellent. Michael Keaton completely owns the show and I’d say deserves some recognition when the time comes for Best Actor nominations to be announced. The other person that matches Keaton’s level of performance is Edward Norton, who I think deserves his own bit of recognition when the time comes. Everyone else is also note perfect.Zach Galifinakis, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts are all memorable in their own ways, which brings me to my next point.

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I was really surprised at the layers the characters had. It’s great when characters are fleshed out, but the ones in Birdman were strangely real. There aren’t any good people or bad people, but only people who have troubles that affect how they live their day to day lives. Each day that passes presents each character with their own set of problems, and the most entertaining part of this movie is watching each person deal with the issue, but also change a little bit because of it. The arcs that start in the beginning and get wrapped up as the movie progresses come so naturally and I believed everything I was watching, even though there were moments of fantasy strewn throughout the film. This is one of those movies that I think is just perfectly written. Every joke made me at least chuckle and the drama was enough to completely floor my emotions.

In my opinion though, the most impressive part of Birdman was the cinematography and the editing. The audience literally follows these characters around as they prepare for the show’s opening night. By that I mean that the camera doesn’t cut until a few minutes before the end of the movie. Now, I know that would be ridiculous to say, because it is ridiculous. It’s not like this movie is one continuous take, but it is cleverly edited to make it seem like it’s one take. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, except the cuts are much more subtle. Does the film have to be edited like this in order to work? Certainly not. The movie would have been just fine if it was edited normally, but it did add a new dimension of appreciation and skill that wouldn’t have been there.

Birdman is a movie that is sure to blow you away, just like it did with me. I went in expecting a lot and left feeling like I was given a lot more than I could’ve ever wanted. This is a comedy with an sort of depressing edge to it, but one that seems very understood by everyone working on the film. The bottom line is that every part of this movie came together so perfectly that it surprised me. If you haven’t gone out to see Birdman yet, consider it your duty as a human being to get to the theater as soon as possible!