La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

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The Act of Killing


A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family

The Muppets


The Muppets

Walter, Amy Adams and Jason Segel have stars in their eyes.

(2011) Family (Disney) Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Walter, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Alan Arkin, Mickey Rooney, Whoopie Goldberg, Jim Parsons. Directed by James Bobin

 

Cultural icons carry their own baggage with them. Because they fill a niche in our society, we associate them with particular characteristics – be it the fanboy nerdiness of Star Wars or the catty kitsch of RuPaul. The Muppets, however, are an entirely different story.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s the Muppets were electronic babysitters to the country. Kids of that era (Da Queen among them) were glued to the set. Parents of kids growing up during that era also got to know the lovable felt and fur creations and were amazed to discover that the scripts weren’t necessarily dumbed down and made so kid-centric that parents couldn’t enjoy them. Everybody could and that was the secret to their success.

Times changed and tastes changed. Disney bought the rights to the characters and up until now have mostly used them in their theme parks (which surprisingly isn’t referenced in the movie – I would have thought it a perfect opportunity for the Mouse to pimp their parks a bit). However, Segel – a huge fan of the series – pitched a movie to Disney that would possibly resurrect the franchise and the execs there agreed – the time was ripe for a return of the Muppets.

It is fitting that Mickey Rooney turns up in a cameo during the opening musical number; there is a “let’s put on a show” vibe here that Rooney was famous for in his classic films with Judy Garland.  The plot here is fiendishly simple; Tex Richman (Cooper), a nefarious oil baron, has purchased the old Muppet Theater for the purpose of drilling for oil deposits located beneath it. Gary (Segel), and his brother Walter (voiced by Steve Linz) stumble upon the plot while vacationing in Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Adams) and touring the dilapidated Muppets studio. Walter, you see, is a Muppet-wannabe, a huge fan of the show who yearns to be a Muppet himself, even though he is a Muppet – it’s all so confusing in text but trust me, it makes sense when your butt is in the seat.

The Muppets have scattered to the four winds; Fozzy is in Reno playing in a rundown casino in a tribute act called the Moopets. Miss Piggy is in Paris as the plus-size editor of Vogue. Gonzo is a plumbing magnate and Animal is in Santa Barbara taking self-control classes with Jack Black. Kermit, the glue who always held the gang together, is living quietly in Los Angeles in the house he built for him and Piggy whose relationship has since fallen apart.

They have to raise $10 million (I can almost hear Dr. Evil intoning “ten millllllllllllion dollars” while putting pinky to lip) in order to save the theater. They decide a telethon is in order; trouble is, no network will put it on since the Muppets are no longer the stars they once were. They have gone the way of Fran Drescher, Emmanuel Lewis and ALF.

There are tons of celebrity cameos (a kind of Muppet tradition) and clever musical numbers, as well as a few gentle pop culture spoofs. Segel is properly reverent towards the Muppets (he co-wrote the script) but throws in enough “we’re has-been” references for it to start to get old. Believe me, we get it.

The movie is charming and has enough in-jokes to both the series and the movies that followed to keep rabid fans of the show, who are now in their 30s and 40s like cats in a cream factory. Those too young or too old to have been grabbed by the Muppets may find some references zinging over their heads (as I did – I’m definitely in the “too old” category) but Kermit, Piggy and company are all such major cultural figures from that era that it isn’t hard to pick up on most of the cultural references. In other words, you don’t have to be a fan to love the show.

As for the more modern kids, of course they’re going to love them. Some might grouse that Elmo doesn’t show up (the producers wanted him to, but Elmo still belongs to Sesame Street and even though the Muppets and the Sesame Street characters are related they are still legally separate) but for the most part, they’ll be satisfied with the wacky kid-friendly characters of the show that are still around. I found myself charmed by the movie and I wasn’t even the target audience.

While the late Jim Henson only appears in a couple of photographs in Kermit’s office and elsewhere, he would have approved I think (although former Muppet performer Frank Oz grumbled publically about fart jokes – I don’t recall seeing any but admittedly I might have overlooked it). I think I can safely say that this is a worthy addition to the Muppet legacy.

REASONS TO GO: There are a ton of “Muppet Show” in-jokes. Heartwarming, charming and generally goofy.

REASONS TO STAY: If you have an issue with Muppets, this isn’t going to improve your perception of them.

FAMILY VALUES: While the parental advisories warn against mild rude humor, in truth there is nothing here I would hesitate to expose a small child to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt plays Miss Piggy’s receptionist/assistant at Vogue in Paris; she played a very similar role in The Devil Wears Prada.

HOME OR THEATER: Kids will want to see this on the big screen and you will too.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Descendants