Friday, December 30, 2016

LA LA LAND (2016)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
DIRECTOR:Damien Chazelle
GENRE: Musical/Romantic Drama

Not since Fred and Ginger have I seen a couple trip the light fantastic as if they are dancing on air--in fact Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally do rise into the air and dance among the stars in one of their numbers in the feelgood movie of the year, La La Land.

Who knew what they were capable of?

The tone is set in the opening scene. A line of cars stuck in a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway. Then, one by one, the peeps get out and begin frolicking about--on top of their cars, everywhere--in an energetic and acrobatic number requiring part accomplished dancer and part stunt person to pull it off--to the tune of Justin Hurwitz's  bright and bouncy "Another Day Of Sun." 

Take the infectious energy and the sheer kinetic joy of the final scene in Slumdog Millionaire and ladle it liberally throughout an entire film and you have La La Land; set in present day Los Angeles and Las Vegas, yet unabashedly paying homage to the big screen musicals of the past. 

In many of those musicals that we recall, the plot could seem like little more than a vehicle to get you from one song and dance number to the next, but here we have a developed romantic set up that would stand on its own minus all the great music--with echoes of Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an accomplished jazz pianist (and he is really playing--no body double) who dreams of one day opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who drags herself from audition to audition, frustrated by her lack of landing a significant part. From their initial "meeting" (she flips him off from her car window after enduring his incessant honking) they appear to be an unlikely couple, but the traditional rom-com formula--opposites attract--is in play here, as they keep running into each other, and eventually discover they are each pursuing a dream, and maybe they'd be better off chasing rainbows together than separately.  

And while La La Land soars into the stratosphere musically, kudos go to writer-director Damien Chazelle for keeping the plot grounded in down-to-earth reality. Couples meet...they fall for each other...all looks rosy at the start...time passes...they have their differences... the relationship is tested. Sometimes it all hinges on careless words uttered during an argument. 

After the screening, I ducked into the restroom and encountered a guy who was standing at the urinal, whistling and humming the haunting refrain from the main theme in the film, which goes: da da DA da da de da...da da DA da da da de...and doing it in a very accomplished manner! (Don't know if anyone has ever been discovered and put on America's Got Talent under such circumstances.) Obviously, he was taken with the movie. As was I. 

La La Land is likely up for a slew of Oscar nominations. It's a milestone of a film, coming along at the time it did, in the respect that we may not see anything quite as breezy or gleefully life-affirming in tone from Hollywood any time again soon (considering where the world could possibly be headed), for like, the next four years. 

Grade:  A


I give Tim's review a lot higher grade than La La Land. But readers of our jointly-written opinions tell me they much prefer when we don't see eye to eye. (Or, in this case, toe to toe-tapping!) My lack of enthusiasm may be due to a serious lack of sleep the night before I saw it.  Still, I felt La La Land was trying too hard to be original. (A poor man's version of the 2012 Oscar winning The Artist – which I thought was brilliant.)  Like The ArtistLa La Land takes us back in time to the glory days of Busby Berkeley. Huge production numbers, each one more lush and dazzling than the one that came before it. 

For me, the real star of La La Land is Mandy Moore. (No, not the actress in NBC's new hit series This Is Us. I'm talking about the choreographer who has honed her skills creating the production numbers on Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.) To quote Miss Moore, she admits that choreographing the numbers inLa La Land has been "the Super Bowl of my career." And she definitely deserves Super Bowl applause!

The fact that movie actors are now required to sing in roles that require it (i.e. Les MizRay, Walk The Line, etc. ) is proof that today's crop of superstars deserve their mega salaries. Gone are the days of lip-synching and cringing while watching Clint Eastwood as Pardner in Paint Your Wagon.... (Amen!)

For all the hoopla surrounding this film's seven Golden Globe nominations, I still say it doesn't hold a candle to The Artist. I also felt some of the musical numbers were way too long. It will be interesting to see if La La Landwins the same amount of awards at Oscar time. (If it does, I've promised Tim I'll kill him!)

Grade: C

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Rated : R

STARS: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Lonergan
GENRE: Drama

The reasons why people behave as they do aren't going to be obvious to most of us unless we know their back story. But initially all we know about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in Manchester By The Sea is that he's a blue collar guy--employed as a janitor and handyman in the Boston area--who has two speeds: sullen and uncommunicative, or volatile and on the verge of exploding at the slightest provocation.  He gets into disputes with the tenants in the building where he works. He gets into bar fights. He's not the sympathetic character most are going to identify with. 

But then, through a series of flashbacks, we begin to learn what makes Lee, the time bomb, tick. It's rooted in personal tragedy and loss. His heart is broken. And so we begin to comprehend, and we soften to him. The story question is: will the man himself ever soften? Will we see the traditional arc of personal growth and conquering one's demons in the end?

Being haunted by the past is one thing, but then Lee's brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away, and in his will he has assigned custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), to Lee, who is ill-prepared for and resistant to the idea of taking on that level of responsibility.  But as it turns out, there is no one else remotely suitable.

The relationship that develops between Lee and his nephew--who is something of a ladies man at age sixteen--and just as hard-headed in his own way as his uncle, is stormy at times, darkly humorous at others. Patrick wants his uncle to move to Manchester, where he has his school hockey team and his girlfriends. Lee is stubbornly resistant and wants to move Patrick to Quincy with him, not wishing to return to the scene of painful memories.

The acting in Manchester By The Sea is superb, and Affleck is likely in line for an Oscar nomination. And I've been an ongoing fan of Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife as a"tough broad" in the flashbacks to her life together with him, and then as the broken woman she has become in an aching scene where the two of them meet again after all that sea water has passed under the bridge. Some hurts you live with forever. 

It's not a film for everyone. It's two and a half hours long and slow paced. And the ending will take you unawares and likely expecting more--and make you gasp, perhaps, as the audience did audibly in the showing I attended.  But Manchester By The Sea is a film of subtlety. Subtle movement. Subtle changes, not marked ones. Much more like real life than the way life is normally portrayed in the movies. For some, that might be hard to live with. 

Grade: B


For those who know me, subtle I'm not! And Manchester By The Sea is, by anyone's standards, beyond subtle. The subject matter is not easy to make simple. Grief never is. And without giving away too much, the event that turns our once-loving character into an emotional stone would be difficult for anyone to get over. Casey Affleck—in my view a far better actor than his brother—turns in another stellar performance. For me, he has the same vulnerable qualities as a James Dean or Montgomery Clift. (Oophs, I'm dating myself.)

Being originally from New England and quite familiar with Boston and its environs, I give high marks to director-writer Kenneth Lonergan for his visuals of that area. The bay's bleakness, the unending snowfall, the row houses, cluttered interiors. They add to the film's claustrophobic darkness.

Okay. I've praised this Oscar-contender enough. Now let me tell you what I really think. The musical score was overdone and intrusive. The suddenness of the ending left me feeling both confused and resentful. The length of the film tested my patience.  Worst of all, the character arc—if there even was one—was way...too...subtle.

Grade: C-

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Rated: R

STARS: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon
GENRE: Drama/Thriller

This film is not directed by Brian De Palma, though if you're a fan (as I am), you may have to keep reminding yourself that Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford's movie. Ford (A Single Man) admits to an Alfred Hitchcock influence in his work, and De Palma--as I like to refer to him--is the poor man's Hitchcock. He transported the essence of the master into the modern day, with all the realism (erotica, graphic violence, etc) that Hitchcock's repressive era wouldn't allow. Completing the noir effect in Nocturnal Animals is Abel Korzeniowski's mesmerizing score;  it had me flashing back to Pino Donaggio's equally captivating soundtrack in De Palma's Body Double.

All that aside, Ford has given us what surely is the most memorable film of the year!  It grabs you from the opening scene, which cannot be adequately described (nor would I want to ruin it for you)--you've got to see it to believe it!

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a Los Angeles art gallery owner who selects themes for their shock value, but she's bored nonetheless. She has a pretty good life--married to a pretty boy businessman who replaced her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), of twenty years ago. Edward was the sensitive type. A writer. A romantic. She figured he was going nowhere. 

When current hubby exits early on for a business trip, Susan is left to her own devices. She receives a novel manuscript in the mail. It's from Edward--after all this time. The book is dedicated to her, and as she begins to read, it's clear that the main characters closely resemble herself, Edward, and Susan's teenage daughter. The novel unfolds upon the screen, and suddenly we are following the fictional narrative right along with Susan, drawn into an intriguing world of danger, violence, remorse and revenge.  We alternate between parallel universes--the fictional one and Susan's present day reality-- interspersed with flashbacks to dramatic moments of her previous life with Edward.  

Something happens that causes Susan to question her current relationship, and as she reads on she's becoming emotionally drawn back to Edward through the fictional world he has created. Then he shows up in town. 

They agree to meet for dinner.

I become more and more impressed with Amy Adams' talent with every film of hers I see. She has that rare ability to convey a ton of emotion with nothing more than the slightest twitch up of her upper lip. (Elvis had that same ability, but he was conveying only raw sexuality!) Amy Adams is one fine actor. In fact, there are great performances galore here (perhaps my collaborator will expand on that). 

The themes of loss, betrayal, and revenge are explored in multi-layered and multi-level fashion--and you'll be ruminating on them...connecting the dots...before you hit the theater exit. The only thing that seems slightly out of balance is the amount of time devoted to the the fictional tale in relation to the present day reality. I thought the "real" story could have been more developed. Then again, if all reality stems from imagination (which it does) then who's to say what is real (as The Moody Blues so poignantly posited), and what IS an illusion?  Have you ever been so engrossed in a book--so in love with the characters--that you grew saddened at the prospect of it ending as you turned those final pages? Imagination has grabbed hold of your reality (as indeed it has for Susan) and become part of it. 

And here's my epiphany from this movie: While it appears on the surface that Nocturnal Animals is Susan's story--indeed we are led down that path by the sheer weight of her onscreen time--it's actually Edward's story. But I didn't grasp that until the very end. 

Now go, and tell me what YOU get out of it!

Grade:  B +       


I always read what Tim writes before I add my "take." And this time, when I came to the line "She receives a novel manuscript," I laughed out loud. Yes, the manuscript is a novel which is what I believe Tim meant. But it is also novel as in "different from anything seen or known before." That definition could easily apply to Nocturnal Animals in general. It's a disturbing as well as memorable film from start to finish. And trust me, the beginning sequence – one I wish I could forget! – sets you up for a whole lot of discomfort throughout.

Nowadays, when I walk out of a movie theater, I usually ask the same two questions, i.e. "What did you like?" and "What didn't you like?" This time, however, my queries were more script-centered, i.e. "What do you think the meaning of X was?" and "What was the film's ultimate message?" Nocturnal Animals is definitely a thinking man's movie.

As Tim's "collaborator," I shall follow his lead and give Amy Adams' costar Jake Gyllenhaal his due. Anyone with such a complicated last name that can become a bankable movie star deserves special praise. But even if his moniker was Jake Smith, his acting would shine through. He's been in so many movies I've enjoyed (NightcrawlerSouthpaw and, of course, Brokeback Mountain) and those eyes of his? Chick magnets for sure.... I'd also like to mention another extremely talented actor in this film. Michael Shannon. He plays the fictional cop in Edward's 'novel' novel. The minute I saw him on screen, I recognized him from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Talk about intensity? This guy has it in spades.

I could go on and on (and probably ruin the movie for you) but before I sign off, my one miniscule criticism would be that sometimes the director/writer Tom Ford lingered a bit too long on closeups. Who wouldn't with two such beautiful actors' faces?

As Tim was reminded of Brian DePalma, who got his MA from my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College (the first male student to do so, I might add.), I was reminded of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. When you see the movie, you'll understand why.

Grade: B ++