“La La Land”: A Modern Musical Masterpiece

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance the night away in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. (Source: Esquire)

Musicals have been extremely popular ever since the Great Depression leading to Hollywood’s Golden Age. They have the power to transport viewers to a light, whimsical world as a way to forget the harsh reality for awhile. The films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, including Top Hat and Swing Time, had everyone smiling as the two stars danced as if they were weightless. After the Depression, more musical stars, such as Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris), Frank Sinatra (On the Town, High Society), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born), danced and sang their ways to the top. With West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Grease being some of the most popular musicals of the past century, only ten of them have ever taken home an Oscar for Best Picture. Most musicals of the 21st century–Across the Universe, High School Musical, and Mamma Mia!–are often harmless, but tend to be lousy and forgettable.

Enter Damien Chazelle. A 33-year-old Harvard graduate from Providence, Rhode Island, made his directorial debut with 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the black-and-white indie film he made in college following a jazz trumpeter falling for a shy girl in modern-day Boston. Following the marvelously dark story of a drummer’s road to becoming the greatest in Whiplash (2014), he would eventually use the same concept of his first film about star-crossed lovers making ends meet in La La Land (2016), winner of 6 Oscars including Best Director for Chazelle (becoming the youngest person to win such an award). However, it lost to Moonlight for Best Picture after a shocking mix-up.

One of those rare musicals not based on a novel or a famous play, the movie is rich in originality while paying tribute to musicals of the past–from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the all-American classics mentioned above. Not only that, it stars two of the most gorgeous people working today: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

As the late Roger Ebert once said in one of his reviews, “The first time seeing the movie, I focused on the foreground, and liked it. The second time I focused on the background, too, and loved it!”

That’s the case of me seeing La La Land five times in theaters (plus many more to come). I always catch what I missed from before. It gets better with each viewing.

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Stone, who won an Oscar for her role) is an aspiring actress working at a cafe in the Warner Brothers lot. She attempts to earn a big break, despite the numerous failed auditions she goes to. One night, after attending a party with her roommates, she goes to a nightclub and sees pianist Sebastian Wilder (Gosling), who also has dreams of his own of opening his own jazz club (“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”). Eventually, they fall in love.

We see how their storylines unfold leading up to their first encounter at the jazz club, owned by the fiery Bill (J.K. Simmons, in a small yet effective role). Spotlights shine down on one another as Sebastian plays a beautiful piano piece that would make Frédéric Chopin blush.

Yes, Ryan Gosling is actually playing the piano here. Prior to filming, he would practice two hours each day for three months to learn the music by heart. He wouldn’t play any other song on the piano other than the songs Sebastian plays in the movie. One thing that’s impressive about Chazelle as a director is he never uses doubles or CGI for the actor whenever they are playing a musical instrument. There isn’t a single second where any of the hard work Gosling had to endure felt wasted.

Chazelle’s collaborator and college roommate Justin Hurwitz joins the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin providing a marvelous score and memorable music numbers. In a film rich in color, it pays homage to Los Angeles. Like the Oscar-winning song “City of Stars”, it’s a city filled with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The opening music number, “Another Day of Sun”, resembles the hopes of success despite the many challenges that have yet to be faced. Set during a traffic jam on a busy highway consisting of one six-minute long take (one of many continuous, long shots in the movie), the dancers start getting out of their cars and break into song and dance, singing a chorus that goes, “Climb these hills, I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine, and when they let you down, you’ll get up off the ground, ‘cause morning rolls around, and it’s another day of sun.”

In another beautifully-choreographed music number, “A Lovely Night”, we see the two lovebirds walking the Hollywood Hills on a gorgeous spring evening after a pool party (one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Mia dances and lip-syncs to a cover of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” after encountering Sebastian–no wonder why she dominated “Lip Sync Battle” on the Tonight Show back in 2014). While they confessed they don’t have a connection, they begin teasing with each other until they put on their tap shoes and pull off a dance routine reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers. It’s entirely difficult not to smile and giggle during these scenes when they are together.

Jazz might be a dead genre, but Hurwitz brings it to pure light. Sebastian introduces Mia to his world of the genre after Mia discusses how her love for classic movies made her want to pursue acting. He mentions jazz is not just for listening, it has to be felt. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s new every night,” he says. “It’s brand new every night. It’s very, very exciting!”

When Seb’s old buddy, Keith (John Legend), offers him to be in his band, he reluctantly accepts to be a part of his company. However, it conflicts his relationship with Mia (more on that later). Seb is taken aback by the contemporary, electronic style of jazz while he prefers the old-fashioned style of jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. “How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks him after rehearsal. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Another part of La La Land’s brilliance is the pure optimism these characters–especially Mia and Seb–have of going far and beyond, even though they get frustrated on how it might turn out at first.

La La Land contains the most realistic portrayal of love than any other romance film in recent memory. It also contains fantasy elements thrown into the mix, which is also a breath of fresh air. There are two spectacular sequences that contain no dialogue, and feel as if they are something out of a ballet. One is where Mia and Sebastian sneak into the Griffith Observatory planetarium after hours. They begin floating in the air and dance in the stars. It serves as a metaphor for their emotional connection with each other.

The other is the epilogue reminiscent to the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence at the end of An American in Paris. It shows what would happen if Mia and Sebastian actually ended up together. They go through numerous luscious set pieces–all painted by hand, no less!–as if they have both stepped into a dream. With Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous cinematography, this movie is like a painting in motion!

After winning audience’s hearts in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, Gosling and Stone are dynamite as the two lovers. While they wear gorgeous clothes (Gosling in a variety of suits, and Stone in a variety of dresses), their romance is filled with so much charm and humor. Not only can they dance, they can also sing well. No one can play a better dynamic duo than these two!

While Moonlight might have deserved its award for Best Picture of 2016 over this movie, La La Land will be a musical that will be discussed for years to come. It’s hard not to love an old-fashioned musical set in the present day. I hope Damien Chazelle will direct hundreds of movies after his upcoming film First Man, starring Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to ever set foot on the moon. La La Land is easily one of the best musicals of the century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is adapted into a Broadway musical in the coming years. Mia’s song, “The Fools Who Dream”, sums Los Angeles’ portrayal perfectly:

“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.”

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2018 Summer Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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The life and legacy of Fred Rogers is explored in the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Source: IMDb)

I watched an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood this morning where Fred talks about how balloons are made and Prince Tuesday, in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, being worried about his parents not coming home. Mr. Rogers’ message really hit home. “Children need to be able to believe their parents, and Prince Tuesday needed to know that his mother and his dad really did mean what they said about coming home.”

If you have never watched a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, your childhood must have been boring. Fred Rogers always had a gift of teaching children the world around them as well as learning how to love and be loved. He always meant what he had to say in front of the camera. In an imperfect world, he talked to the young viewers as a way they could understand. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the latest documentary from director/producer Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). He dives deep into the most humble, down-to-earth, and complex human-being who ever lived.

Born and raised near Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers hated how children’s television shows, back in the 1960s, were presented. They would always display cartoon violence or slapstick (“It’s not all clowns and guns”). After attending graduate school for childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh, he decided to star in a show on WQED, in which he would eventually host for more than 30 years. The show contained colorful sets, puppets (not to mention providing the voices of all of them), and, most importantly, life lessons to teach to the kids around the country. The documentary mixes interviews from his friends (from Yo-Yo Ma to Francois Clemmons), his wife Joanne, and his two sons talking about his life and legacy, home footage of Fred Rogers, and gorgeous hand-drawn animated sequences that play out as his dreams as Daniel Tiger, who represents his childhood anxieties and feelings; trying to understand the meaning of what’s going on.

While seeing the documentary, I learned about the man I never knew. For instance, Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. It makes sense considering his Christian beliefs of “love your neighbor, love yourself” worked well for the show. His soothing voice, beautiful music ability, and bright personality is what made the show shine. He never talked down to the young viewers. He gave them full understanding about everything including the meaning behind number 143 and assassination, following the death of Robert F. Kennedy.

Rogers was no stranger to criticism and rumors. This included being a Navy veteran, being gay, and having tattoos. Of course, they were all false. Also, on a monumental day on May 1, 1969, he spoke before the Senate to defend the cutting of $20 million in PBS funds, proposed by Richard Nixon.

Rogers had a delightful sense of humor. He always had fun with his crew on the set, especially when they pull pranks on one another (their stories had the audience in stitches). He didn’t care for the parodies of the show, from Johnny Carson to Saturday Night Live. While he idolized Eddie Murphy, he found his parody Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood to be quite offensive.

With the world infested with segregation and the Vietnam War being in full swing, black men were thrown out of a “whites only” pool by guards pouring bleach on them. However, in one episode, Rogers invited Francois Clemmons (who was black and gay) to be on the show to sit and talk with him dipping his feet in the wading pool. He told Clemmons he likes him just the way he is. No matter what race, gender, or disability, he treats everyone as equals. His song, “It’s You I Like”, showcases the true love in one another.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a perfect documentary for this day and age. It’s definitely something that would make people learn more about Fred Rogers and his show. I doubt there will be another person like him. He will always be my role model. This is easily one of 2018’s best!

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: On Chesil Beach

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Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) have doubts about getting married in On Chesil Beach. (Source: IMDb)

24-year-old Saoirse Ronan has certainly matured over the years. No matter how good or bad her movies are, her charming, glowing presence has moved audiences worldwide. A young English girl growing up in a wealthy family in Atonement, a badass heroine craving for revenge in Hanna, an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn, and a rebellious high school senior in Lady Bird, there is simply no other role Ronan can’t do. A young newlywed in On Chesil Beach is no exception.

Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) and Florence Ponting (Ronan), both in their 20s, just got married and they are very nervous about spending their first night together. On their honeymoon at a hotel on the English coast, they both confess they are virgins. They tell their love story through a series a flashbacks including their first meet-up in Oxford and introducing them to each other’s families. After they have sex for the first time, everything begins to go downhill.

First-time director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Ian McEwan (adapted from his novella of the same name) do a good job expressing the anxieties of getting marriage at a young age. Kudos to the legendary Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines, and the overlooked Byzantium) for giving a vintage feel in his cinematography. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up how dramatically dull the movie is. The flashbacks prior to their honeymoon, while amusing, are almost inconsistent to the point of boredom.

Ronan and Howle do fine work as the couple as they unravel secrets about each other, which results in a disastrously awkward makeout session. Their argument on the pebble beach is easily the highlight. Their frustration feels and sounds so real as if the audience is watching an actual young couple going at it. Other than the fact they both love music and walks in the forest, and have no sexual experience, they certainly have the feeling they rushed into getting married.

On Chesil Beach has its moments, but it slowly begins to sink as the movie progresses. Not to mention the last act being completely redundant. These two actors are going to star in another film coming out nationwide soon called The Seagull, based on Anton Chekhov’s play. I doubt it will be any better.

2/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Hereditary

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Annie (Toni Collette) realizes everything is turning into a living hell for her family in the latest supernatural horror movie Hereditary.

It’s a rarity for a horror movie to steer clear from cheap scares to rely more on atmosphere and character’s suffering. Hereditary has been getting unanimous praise ever since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; going as far as calling it the scariest movie since The Exorcist. Whenever A24 distributes a horror movie, it gets wide release so audiences nationwide can get their socks scared off them. It’s almost as if I went on a roller-coaster ride from hell; mixing the supernatural with real family drama.

The movie centers on the Graham family. After the matriarch Ellen passes away, they begin to witness strange occurrences around them. Mother Annie (Toni Collette) works at home as an artist making miniatures and dollhouses resembling events within the family. While husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, one of The Usual Suspects), eldest son Peter (Alex Wolff), and young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) cope with the tragedy with her, they soon find out everything is spiraling out of control. The secrets about their ancestry come to life. If I continue talking about the movie, it will ruin the surprise.

In his directorial debut, writer/director Ari Aster has crafted something brilliant. A slow-burning, old-school freak-fest containing some terrifying imagery, kudos to his smooth direction and creepy saxophone music by Colin Stetson. It’s almost as if the Graham house is a character itself. It’s obvious there is something in the house that rubs you the wrong way. Once the mystery slowly begins to unravel, it makes perfect sense on what’s going on.

Collette leads a terrific cast as the mother whose perfect life is ruined by family tragedy. She begins to get support of her grief and explains her disturbing family history. One night, she meets up with old friend Joan (Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale), who teaches her how to communicate with the dead. Once she starts doing the craft, she wants to prove her husband that she isn’t insane and to give in once and for all. This is one of the best performances in any horror movie.

Shapiro makes an impressive acting debut as the teenage daughter, who might be on the autism spectrum. While she rarely talks, she makes a habit of clicking her tongue (which is going to be stuck in everyone’s heads for years to come).

I don’t think everyone will be impressed by Hereditary. My suggestion: the little you know about the movie before going in, the better. This is one of the most terrifying horror movies of the 21st century.

4/4

I also want to share something exciting. I saw author Stephen King went to the same screening I went to last night. At first, I thought to myself, “This couldn’t be him.” Once I heard his voice, I almost lost it. I did have the special opportunity to talk with him for about a minute after the movie was over. We shook hands and I told him I was a big fan of his work. When I asked him what he thought of this movie, he said it was great.

2018 Summer Movie Review: The Rider

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Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) looks out in the distance in The Rider. (Source: Vanity Fair)

Movies featuring performances by non-professional actors are always fascinating to watch. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once. Brooklynn Prince and the kids in The Florida Project. Harry Styles in Dunkirk. The cast of City of God. All of these examples feature those who weren’t familiar with the craft. As a result, they give some of the most natural performances so far this century.

After suffering through this year’s The 15:17 to Paris, starring the three heroes of the terrorist attack as themselves (let’s be fair, they cannot act), a new indie film has finally come out nationwide that features–gasp!–non-professional actors.

Beijing native Chloe Zhao (educated in London and America) met Brady Jandreau in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation while filming her directorial debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me. As a rodeo expert ever since he was a child, he taught her how to ride a horse and help him and his family with cattle. After Jandreau suffered a severe skull fracture from falling off his horse during a rodeo, Zhao knew she wanted to cast him in her second film The Rider, a semi-autobiographical take on Jandreau’s life. With Lean on Pete being the first masterpiece this year to feature horses, this movie truly deserves the praise it keeps receiving ever since its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who used to be a massive star in the rodeo circuit. After his freak accident, he learns his riding days might come to an end (“10+ concussions–by NFL standards–I should be dead,” says one of his cowboy friends while sitting around a campfire). Brady has staples in his head after the doctors in the hospital put a metal shield in his skull. He returns to his trailer where he lives with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and 15-year-old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. One day, Brady slowly goes back to training a new horse named Apollo, who has never been trained before. With the support of his friends and family, he learns how to go through life in the American heartland.

One of the main reasons why The Rider works is the authenticity between its characters and setting, kudos to Zhao’s wonderful direction and screenplay and Joshua James Richards’ gorgeous cinematography. The actors don’t just feel like characters, but real people. Brady Jandreau, in particular, is a tour-de-force. He is a physically broken man searching for his true self. While he eventually wants to go back training horses (in which he has been doing for most of his life), he decides to work at a grocery store to give plenty of time to heal. In one scene, he stands out in the middle of the prairie watching the storm roll in (as seen in the image above). It’s a quiet yet beautiful moment that I will never forget. You might be thinking his performance is inspired by Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Wrestler. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t. Zhao did, in fact, show Jandreau The Wrestler in preparation for this movie.

The movie is a special experience, and a beautifully heart-rendering tale about self-discovery. While the year might be far from over, I think I found my personal favorite movie of 2018! The Rider is going to be hard to beat.

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Deadpool 2

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Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) holds a cassette player in the sequel to Deadpool. (Source: Forbes)

Ryan Reynolds is back as Douche–I mean, Deadpool.

The foul-mouthed, wise-cracking, fourth-wall-breaking superhero with incredible healing powers made his Marvel debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He might be one of the only standouts throughout this terrible movie, but the movie played him off a bit safe. In his 2016 standalone feat, the audience witnessed the true nature of his character. Despite the villain being too generic, the movie is as violent as it is hilarious; poking fun of the superhero genre and the film’s budget (“It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”). It also became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all-time (worldwide). The sequel, Deadpool 2, contains a bigger budget, lots of laughs, lots of wall-to-wall action, and it’s unexpectedly poignant.

Two years after saving his fiancee Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) from Francis, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) tries to get back to his normal life. It doesn’t take long for him to dress back up in his red spandex suit to reunite with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), among other mutants to protect Russell a.k.a. Firefist (Julian Dennison, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), a teenage mutant with the ability to shoot fire from his hands, from the hands of the orphanage staff who vigorously abused him to no end. Deadpool later learns Firefist is the target of Cable (Josh Brolin), a cyborg soldier who can time-travel. He–along with his buddy Weasel (T.J. Miller) help form a team of other mutants including Domino (Zazie Beetz), Bedlam (Terry Crews), and Peter (Rob Delany) to save the teenager.

There is no arguing Reynolds being the perfect choice to play Deadpool. He does crack jokes on X-Men, DC and Marvel Comics, and generally pop culture (not to mention with perfect timing), but he begins to evolve as a human-being. With his crew, he learns the true meaning of family. Brolin’s Cable, just as effective, is also trying to forget his dark past.

David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) replaces Tim Miller as director for the sequel. As one of the up and coming masters of action cinema, his direction is put to great use here with some excellent stunts, gruesome action sequences, and hilariously stunning visuals to mix with the film’s humor and amazing soundtrack. Not without its problems, Deadpool 2 is slightly better than its predecessor and certainly the best X-Men sequel since Days of Future Past. Make sure you stay for the credits. Trust me!

3.5/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Tully

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A nighttime nanny (Mackenzie Davis) comes to take care of Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her newborn child in Jason Reitman’s Tully. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

The collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody started in 2007 with Juno. The film following a pregnant high schooler trying to make the decision to adopt it to a loving couple earned Cody an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Four years later, they did Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as a fiction writer returning to her hometown to reconnect with her high-school sweetheart. Now–Theron reunites with the duo in Tully, the latest film about the hardships of motherhood. After going in blind, I’m happy to admit the movie surprised me in every way!

Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three children: 8-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland), 5-year-old Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica)–who is on the autism spectrum, and newborn Mia. She loves her family very much including her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), although he spends more time traveling for his business job. She spends many sleepless nights trying to take care of her newborn child. As a way to get the much needed sleep, Marlo’s wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) hires Tully (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049 and The Martian), a night nanny in her 20s. She reluctantly accepts Tully’s presence, especially noticing she had the time to clean the house and bake cupcakes. They form a bond together, and Marlo begins to look at the bright side of life.

Theron is no stranger to going above and beyond while preparing for her roles. She gained weight for 2003’s Monster, in which she won her first and only Oscar. Here, she put on 50 pounds to play Marlo. Her diet consisted nothing but junk food–from burgers to milkshakes. It took her more than a year to lose the weight. All the hard work she had to endure pulls off brilliantly! Her chemistry with Davis’ quirky title nanny is what makes the movie shine. While Marlo maybe a bit rude, she decides to give in when Tully shows up. She couldn’t imagine what she will do without her. “You can’t fix the parts without treating the whole,” Tully explains to Marlo when she’s there to take care of not only her baby, but Marlo entirely.

With a screenplay filled with razor-sharp dialogue and dark humor, I have never seen a film about parenthood so odd, so delightful, and brutally honest. And better yet, it never feels forced. It’s hard for mothers not to relate the pain Marlo endures in the movie. This is the perfect film for them to watch with their (older) kids. It might be slow early on, but it is something special once Tully picks up the pace.

3.5/4