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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Dancin' In The Key Of Life - La La Land review

You can't judge a songbook by its cover.

Take a glance at the poster. Watch the trailer or see the clips on TV. Surely it's all the evidence you need that La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle's valentine to the glorious Cinemascope musicals of the 1950s. And it is - clearly, unabashedly, unashamedly. To the film's benefit, however, Chazelle's love for them is not unconditional. 

After a rousing opening number (don't be late taking your seat), we meet the leads. Ryan Gosling is a frustrated jazz pianist. He's either playing standards to an unappreciative bar audience or slumming it in an '80s covers wedding band. Emma Stone works in a film studio cafe, dishing out the coffee and cookies whilst dreaming of starring in her own, one-woman show.   Boy meet-cutes girl and lo and behold, love is in the air. Gosling and Stone then dance and sing their way, in dizzyingly long takes, through L.A.'s most Kodak moment worthy locations, 

Credit: Dale Robinette

Credit: Dale Robinette

La La Land is a rarity - a film musical, with original songs, that hasn't come from Broadway and isn't animated. A musical stands (or falls) on his songs. Fortunately, Justin Hurwitz has composed a soundtrack packed with memorable tunes, the kind that you'll be humming all the way home. And then all the way back to the cinema for your second (or third or fourth) viewing.

What ultimately makes La La Land work so well is that, for each Technicolor fantasy moment (a hillside duet here, a gravity-defying waltz through the stars there), there's a sobering measure of back-down-to-earth reality. Two shots of happy, one shot of sad. It's most clear when late on in the film, Gosling and Stone come across a fork in the yellow brick road of their careers. The route that they choose is not one that would have been taken by the musicals of the '50s. It's this blending of sky's-the-limit fantasy and modern-day reality that makes La La Land such an irresistible movie. Chazelle doesn't shy away from real life - the joy and pain of being in a relationship and how that special person in your life can either raise your craft or hold back your ambitions.   

Truly wonderful, La La Land is a rush of sunshine, perfect for this wintry time of year.

Credit: Dale Robinette

Credit: Dale Robinette

Disorganized Crime: Live By Night review

This is not a hatchet job on Ben Affleck.

For the record, I think he's a decent actor. He was particularly good in Changing Lanes, Hollywoodland and Gone Girl. I liked all three of the films he directed before this one - Gone Baby GoneThe TownArgo. Solid, respectable efforts.  And let's not forget that he's won Oscars for direction and scriptwriting.

The guy's got talent.

However, little of this talent is on show in his latest,  Live By Night. To be blunt, Live By Night is a mess. A good-looking mess, sure, (it's handsomely photographed by Robert Richardson) but as a whole, this is a shockingly sub-par effort by Mr Affleck, who not only directs but wrote the adapted screenplay and takes the central role. 

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live By Night.

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live By Night.

Night is an adaptation of the book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Gone Baby Gone. It starts off in Prohibition era Boston, with Ben's bad boy character having to relocate at short notice. He's in debt to one of the local gangster bosses and so is encouraged to go sort out some problems down in Florida .Once down there. Affleck's character starts butting heads with the Florida branch of the Ku Klux Klan, whilst his plans to build a sprawling casino are dangerously undermined by the local church.

Live By Night isn't a lively movie. Affleck sleepwalks through it, dressed to the nines but mumbling his lines. It's a sign of a bad film when the lead character is the most uninteresting one in the cast. The script (also by Affleck) is similarly dozy, with his narration clearly an attempt to paper over the cracks in the plot. There is a horrible, horrible plot contrivance in the third act - a bullshit coincidence that may well be in the book but one that Academy Award screenwriter and director Ben Affleck should have yanked out at first sight. 

This is a beautifully photographed facade of a gangster film, with no grit or guts under its glossy surface. It's a stumble for Affleck but the quality of his earlier films is surely enough to not write him off just yet.

Broken Glass

Short version: if you haven't already, go see The Revenant. It's the most astonishing cinematic experience you'll have had in years.

Long version (and full disclosure): I went into The Revenant with some trepidation. I had liked Birdman well enough but thought co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's choice of follow-up project was...curious, to say the least. 

After watching the first thirty minutes, my worries were gone. This was bold, gutsy, innovative film-making, the like of which I hadn't seen for some time. 

As a modern cinema audience, we're fully aware of film storytelling works. We understand the filmmakers know how to push our buttons and the cinematic bag of tricks they use to do so. But with this film, Iñárritu doesn't rely on them - he's rewritten the rulebook.

The story at the heart of the film is a simple one. Set in the early 1800s, it's a bloody tale of red in tooth and claw survival and revenge. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a frontiersman mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. DiCaprio then has to literally drag himself through the frozen wilderness to safety, navigating icy-cold rivers and struggling across the barren landscape. It's a powerhouse performance and DiCaprio is utterly convincing.

The Revenant works as both philosophical drama and action movie. It's a personal odyssey and a brutally raw widescreen epic at the same time - Terrence Malick meets Tough Mudder. By the end of its 156 minute running time, you'll feel as exhausted, drained and battered as Hugh Glass. And wanting to go through it all again.

A Loss In The Family - Still Alice review

Alice Howland has a brilliant career. She's witty, happily married and the proud mother to three teenaged children. Then she begins to forget the odd word. She occasionally loses her sense of direction. Alice is concerned but she's barely fifty - how bad can it be? A visit to a consultant delivers the shocking news - she has Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Her life, and the lives of her friends and family, are turned upside down. But Alice refuses to be defined by her disease. Her memory may be fading but she her resolution stays strong.

Hollywood has a pretty unfortunate track record in handling medical conditions like Alzheimer's. Cinematic good intentions become hollow, over-sentimental tearjerkers. Fortunately, Still Alice avoids this trap. It spends its time creating carefully-drawn characters that you can believe in. Each step of Alice's mental deterioration is sensitively handled, whilst the devastation the disease wreaks on the family is heartbreakingly portrayed.

There's an understandable reaction to a film like this - why go see it? There won't be a magical cure appearing in the third act to save the day. A happy ending is not on the cards. So why see Still Alice?

The first and foremost reason is Julianne Moore. Moore has cleaned up during the recent awards season, winning virtually all the trophies she was nominated for. She capped this off with a Best Actress Oscar win. And rightly so. Her performance brilliantly conveys Alice's frustration at having to deal with the disease, the dementia that is slowly destroying her memory and her ability to communicate. It's often snidely remarked that portraying an affliction can fast-track you to Oscar success. Moore's restrained yet powerful performance is fully deserving of the accolades showered upon it.

Another reason to see this film is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's direction of their own screenplay, based on Lisa Genova's novel. They approach the material sensitively and with great care.  

At the core of the film is Alice's resolve to not lie down and be a victim. She knows that the quality of her life is slowly being eaten away by Alzheimer's but she refuses to give up. In a memorable scene, Alice decides to speak at an Alzheimer's Association meeting. As a linguistics professor, this would have been a walk in the park - now it's an uphill struggle. Armed only with several sheets of paper, a highlighter pen and her steadfast determination, she battles on.

There are other, less challenging movies to go see but I strongly recommend you see Still Alice. It's not an easy watch but that's evidence of its power and its integrity. Ultimately, Still Alice is that increasingly rare artefact - an intelligent, thought-provoking film about real life issues, with characters you genuinely care about.

Boss Drum - WHIPLASH review

Shaffer Conservatory Of Music is not only the best music school in New York...but it's the best in America.

Student Miles Teller - newly arrived - not only wants to succeed but wants to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. He gets his opportunity when he's personally auditioned by teacher J K Simmons and invited to join the school's flagship jazz orchestra. Getting in was hard - staying in the orchestra proves to be almost impossible. Simmons is a ruthless taskmaster, throwing insults and chairs if anyone can't achieve - overachieve - his exacting standards. Keep up or get out. You want fame? Well, fame costs - and here is where Teller starts paying not only in sweat but in tears, blood....and his belief in himself.

Despite a supporting cast, there are really only two characters in this film - Teller's eager-to-please student and J K Simmons' brutally unsympathetic professor. It's the back-and-forth between these two personalities that gives WHIPLASH its energy, its snap, its tension. Miles Teller excels in his role, his character having to endure euphoric heights and soul-destroying lows - often in the same scene. Teller is also an accomplished drummer in his own right and so gives his part the musical credibility it needs.


However - with due respect to Teller -  this is Simmons' film. He dominates every scene as the sadistic Fletcher, viciously tearing into his students with cutting, imaginative insults. Yet although he does monstrous things, Fletcher is no monster. Scriptwriter Damien Chazelle - who also directs - takes care to ensure Fletcher is not your run-of-the-mill, one dimensional hard bastard. There are many different shades to the character - light as well as dark - and Simmons blends them into a convincing, believable character. You may hate the guy but he's no cartoon. Instead, feel sorry for Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. There is no way on earth that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is going anywhere else other than J K Simmons' shelf next month.

It's a surprise to note that accomplished as it is, this is only the second film from Chazelle. It's a remarkably disciplined piece of work - tight as a drum - with no unnecessary subplots to distract our focus on the two leading characters. There's the kind of creative spark running through WHIPLASH that you find in the best of Scorcese's films. Imaginative camerawork. Razor-sharp editing. Smart, salty dialogue. There's a bold confidence to WHIPLASH that never lets up and keeps you hooked.

As well as script, acting and direction, a film like WHIPLASH stands or falls on the quality of its soundtrack; fortunately, the choice of jazz classics and Justin Hurwitz's score are both exemplary. There's a danger some will be put off by the "j" word. Don't be. Yes, jazz runs through the film - in many ways, its the film's third character - but it's great jazz. It's sure as hell not the anonymous muzak that masquerades as jazz in bars and lifts around the country. This is the real deal. Fired up, red in tooth and claw and hungry for your attention.

A terrific start to the movie year.

Reassuringly Expansive - Interstellar review

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: INTERSTELLAR is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think INCEPTION's a big film, but that's just peanuts to INTERSTELLAR...

Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan has taken the super-size option with his latest epic. As planet Earth withers on the vine, mankind needs to find somewhere else to survive - whether in this galaxy or the next. A team, led by Matthew McConaughey, heads off into space and a wormhole which may take them to a planet suitable enough to sustain human life...and our race.

Vast in scope, stuffed to bursting with ideas, INTERSTELLAR has spectacle in abundance. Although even watching it in IMAX, you get this weird feeling that you're being shortchanged. That the massive screen is somehow cramping the film's style, that the near three hour runtime is restricting Nolan's vision. INTERSTELLAR is the proverbial quart in a pint pot, a movie overflowing with purpose, ambition and scale.

All of which is to be naturally applauded. In an era of lowest-denominator comedies and cookie-cutter sequels, ambitious, original cinema is a rare commodity these days. When a film like INTERSTELLAR comes along, it fully deserves our acknowledgment and our cheers; it reminds us of how powerful and richly rewarding the cinematic experience can be.

Not that we should completely turn off our critical faculties. A closer look at Nolan's epic reveals several plot points left unforgivably fuzzy. Scientific explanations - crucial to the audience's understanding of key parts of the story - have been clumsily shoved into the dialogue. An extended sequence on a water-covered planet - whilst undeniably exciting and spectacular - is completely redundant. And don't get me started on that ending, which essentially makes most of what has gone before completely pointless.

Yet in the scale of things, these are merely nitpicks. INTERSTELLAR is not 2001: A Space Odyssey - what films are? - but it is still a brave, intelligent, thought-provoking addition to the cinema of science fiction. 

Most importantly of all, INTERSTELLAR endorses us - the human race. It states that as a species, we deserve our place in the cosmos, that we have the determination to survive - no matter what the odds. A positive message to be welcomed in these nihilistic times.