La La Land – A Review

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Every year, I look forward to my traditional “Oscar Death Race” where I try to see every movie and performance nominated in every category of the Academy Awards. It’s a quixotic task that I’ve never completed, but I like that it gives me a project during the cold winter months where my first instinct is to hibernate and when pop culture is still emerging from its holiday hiatus. It also usually guarantees that I’ll see some pretty stellar movies. Generally, movies that are nominated are of the best quality, though there are occasionally movies that I hate so much that I am still angry that I was forced to watch them years after the fact (War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I’m looking at you). So as much as I’ll complain when I’m trying to track down a film that is in purgatory – not in wide release but also not available yet on streaming – it’s a challenge that I revel in.

The only real downside of the Oscar Death Race is that many of the movies nominated range from slightly depressing to soul crushing, so the whole endeavor can be quite a downer after a while. I’m all for serious films, but my self-imposed immersion in Oscar nominees means I’m spending a lot of time with death, racism, Nazis, complicated relationships, tragedy and similarly uplifting plots with nary a comedy anywhere to be seen.  The animated features often the best chance at reprieve, but are also films that I’m likely to have watched already earlier in the year. So by the end, it can kind of feel like slog.

But every once in a while, along comes a movie like La La Land that is so charming and joyous that I was literally sitting in the theater with a big old smile on my face. Given my love of musicals this movie was obviously going to be in my wheelhouse, but I was completely delighted by La La Land from the very opening sequence, which doesn’t even feature Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone. The film is gorgeously shot and possibly one of the only potential Oscar nominees that puts you in a better mood than you were before you were watching it. I won’t be surprised if this film is a frontrunner for both Best Picture and Best Director for the Academy Awards. This movie just made me happy.

La La Land is something of a mashup; it has a lot of elements (and pays tribute to) some old school movie musicals of the 1950s, but it is set in modern day. That last part is easy to forget, given the costuming and lushness of the film. When someone takes out a cell phone, it’s almost jarring. The plot is also something that is more at home in the movies of the past: Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz musician purist that is working on opening up his dream jazz club that pays tributes to artists of the past, while Mia (Stone) is a struggling actress working at the coffee shop on the studio lot. They meet-cute – or actually meet-less-than-cute – in LA and fall in love, occasionally breaking into song and dance along the way. But can they find a way to balance their love and still chase their dreams?

What I was most curious about with La La Land was how Ryan Gosling would fare. Sure, he did his stint on The Mickey Mouse Club when he was a kid, but that was a long time ago. Could he hold his own in a movie that required singing and dancing? Emma Stone was something of a known quantity, since she’s been on Broadway in Cabaret, but I really had no idea what to expect from Gosling. While he’s not the world’s best singer or dancer, he does a fine job in this movie. In fact, soft shoeing Gosling may be my new favorite type of Gosling. His innate charm and his chemistry with Stone elevates what he may be lacking in other areas. This is the third time that the duo has worked together and I hope it’s not the last.  I don’t see Gosling running out to cut an album or anything, but he is more than serviceable; I wouldn’t call this a Russell Crowe in Les Miserables-type situation. You can’t help but fall in love with Sebastian as Mia does.

Gosling is definitely good in this movie, but La La Land belongs to Emma Stone. She is transcendent and elevates the character of Mia beyond what is written for her. You cannot take your eyes of her and her energy and charisma help bring this movie alive. She’s so great that you don’t recognize right away that there isn’t really much character development for Mia; the viewers don’t have a fully realized image of Sebastian either, but Mia is even more flimsily written. Played by a less committed and talented actress, this flaw of La La Land would immediately be obvious. But Stone’s performance distracts you and makes way more out of Mia than we had any right to expect. La La Land isn’t a movie with a lot of depth – perhaps by design – but don’t tell that to Stone. She is so expressive and dedicated that she basically single-handedly wills Mia into a three-dimensional person rather than just an archetype. This could easily be one of her best performances to date.

Beyond the great performances, visually this is a stunning movie. The color palette of the film is gorgeous and much of the film has a dreamlike quality to it. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that director Damien Chazelle is also responsible for the film Whiplash. Tonally, these movies could not be more different and while I really liked Whiplash, you do not walk out of that film thinking that this is a guy who should attempt a musical. Chazelle and his crew are flawlessly able to capture the feeling of a vintage musical in La La Land; at one point, Sebastian and Mia visit the Griffith Observatory after watching Rebel Without a Cause and it almost feels like that sequence is simply an extension of the classic James Dean film. And not for nothing, but I would kill for Emma Stone’s wardrobe in this film (and the ability to look as great as she does).

I’d actually call La La Land musical-adjace, since I was disappointed that there wasn’t more singing and dancing. I would have been perfectly on board with them bursting into song or a two-step with more frequency. Perhaps I just go to see too many shows on Broadway and that shifted my expectations. It didn’t really hurt my enjoyment of the film, but I was having so much fun with the musical numbers that I was hungry for more.

As much as I was utterly charmed by La La Land, the film does have some flaw. As previously discussed, the characters are underwritten at best and complete archetypes at worst. There is a scene of Sebastian “mansplaining” jazz to Mia that it was a little hard to not roll your eyes at. Whenever Stone isn’t on screen, the move seems a little less exciting. I like John Legend just fine, but the entire storyline with Sebastian’s role in his band was just not as exciting to me. But overall, La La Land was just a joyous movie experience at a time when joyous movie experiences are hard to come by. It’s pure escapism and it’s done well. Since Hollywood loves nothing more than a feel-good story that pays tribute to Hollywood, I’m guessing that this film will resonate with a lot of Oscar voters. La La Land is the most fun that I’ve had at the movies in a long time; I don’t think you even have to like musicals to be enchanted by La La Land, though it certainly doesn’t hurt if you are a fan of the genre. La La Land is simply a delight.

Birdman – A Review

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Is easy to forget, but Michael Keaton used to be a kind of a big deal.

Back in the 80s, Michael Keaton was a bona fide movie star; he had a string of successful comedies where he played the lead – Mr. Mom, The Dream Team, Beetlejuice – and he could also play it straight in films like Pacific Heights, Jackie Brown and My Life. He famously originated the role of Batman in the modern era, playing the Caped Crusader for Tim Burton in the first two films of the 90s reboot. He was generally well respected and liked; clearly a talented actor.

And then he just disappeared.

After Keaton left the Batman franchise, you just didn’t hear much from him. He went from a guy that was being considered for a ton of big budget films to a guy you forgot was even still around. He’d turn up every now and again – he did a lot of voice work during his “sabbatical” – but for the most part he kept a low profile and wasn’t much of a working actor. It was like Batman broke him; once he walked away from that role, things just weren’t the same anymore. Throughout the 2000s, he was like a specter in the acting world; he was nowhere to be found, but he lived on in the re-runs of his movies. If only we could have said his name three times and he would magically appear.

In the last few years, Michael Keaton has slowly begun to return to the conversation; he made some appearances on 30 Rock and had a role in the 2014 Robocop movie, which may have been the only interesting thing that movie had to offer. I was glad to have him back – I’ve always enjoyed Michael Keaton and lamented his exile, whether it was self-imposed or not. He seemed like a guy that didn’t get a fair shake and who should have had a much more storied career; it always made me sad when I mentioned him to people and they didn’t know who I was talking about.

As it turns out, however, the wait may have been worth our while; Birdman, which marks Keaton’s triumphant return to leading man, is an exceptional movie. In so many ways, it was the role that Keaton was born to play and if there were any speculations about his command of his craft or doubts about his ability, Birdman dispels them in spades. This is an engaging and entertaining film that you will find yourself thinking about long after the credits have rolled. The entire cast is phenomenal, but Birdman is Keaton’s show and he gives a tour de force performance. It’s so good to have him back.

Birdman tells the tale of Riggan, a basically washed-up actor that once upon a time played a superhero named Birdman, but hasn’t done anything much else to date since he passed on reprising the role in a sequel (sound familiar?). In one last attempt to prove his relevance and that he does indeed possess some acting chops, Riggan sets about writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s the pretentious move that a lot of actors make to prove their legitimacy and it is not going particularly well. Shortly before previews, Riggan must replace one of his actors. Enter Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a talented method actor who has a reputation for being something of an ass (sound familiar?). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is serving as his personal assistant and is fresh out of rehab.

And oh yeah – Riggan may possess telekinetic powers and is haunted by the voice of Birdman. So there’s that.

Keaton does a beautiful job as Riggan; while there are obvious parallels between the actor and the character he plays, they never overwhelm or take the focus away from the movie. Riggan is a complicated guy and Keaton deftly handles all the facets of his personality; Riggan isn’t a terrible guy, but he isn’t a great guy either. He doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the women in his life and his ego and need for validation seemingly obscures his sensitivity to other people’s feelings. Yet he isn’t a monster, just an actor that is a little too self-involved and who is desperate to prove that he matters. You both like and root for Riggan and think he’s a jerk; Keaton fully brings Riggan to life and inhabits this character. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that I expect will get some attention come awards season.

Keaton is not the only person bringing his A game to this film; Norton is also fantastic, playing a role that also closely parallels his own off-screen reputation. As Mike, he is both charming and obnoxious; he can completely de-rail a performance and think nothing of it. He is so talented that is excuses a lot of his disruptive behavior, but he and Riggan have very different ideas about what this show should be and how best to achieve that. You are ready to write Mike off completely, but then there are unexpected moments of honesty and sweetness in some of his interactions with Sam. Emma Stone is always solid, so it is not surprise that she is great as recovering addict Sam. Sam has a tough exterior that masks a lot of vulnerability and Stone is able to balance both elements to create a very believable character. My only complaint was that I wish that there was more screen time for Stone, though she makes the most of the time that she’s given. The rest of the supporting cast is also spectacular – I’m always pleased to see Amy Adams in anything – but special recognition goes to Zach Galifinakis who plays totally against type in Birdman. He’s mostly the straight man in the film and serves as the voice of reason; as Riggan’s best friend and the producer of the play, he tried to keep everything from going completely off the rails as well as preventing financial ruin. Galifinakis proves that he can do serious and small work as well as he can do his usual broad gonzo comedy. To see him so restrained in his performance was unexpected, but opens up a lot of possibilities for his career.

Aside from the overall strength of the acting, the cinematography deserves to be recognized as well. As a fan of Martin Scorsese, I am conditioned to enjoy a long tracking shot; what Birdman does with its cinematography is even more impressive. The film is comprised of multiple very long takes; there is no cut in the action and the camera follows the characters through the bowels of backstage at the theater. I imagine that these shots were difficult for the actors to execute; if anyone flubbed their lines or was out of place, an entire 10-15 minute scene would have to be redone. Their hardship, however, was well worth the effort. Because of these long takes and the choreography of the scenes, the film has an energy to it that would otherwise be lacking. As a viewer, you feel like you are dancing along with these characters in a carefully orchestrated ballet and the film feels more vibrant and quick as a result. In some ways, the camera work and dialogue reminded me of The West Wing on steroids; there was walking and talking and ducking through hallways and down stairwells. It was dizzying and enchanting, drawing me even further into a story that I was already enraptured by.

Prior to seeing this film, I was a little concerned about how much I would enjoy it because of the director. I have seen several of           Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous films and did not really enjoy them; I felt that they were too heavy handed in their attempts to be serious films dealing with great philosophical issues. I had particularly hated Babel, a film that I thought should have been called Babble since people spent way too much time pontificating. While there are some big philosophical issues at play in Birdman, Iñárritu has figured out how to present them with a lighter touch. Birdman is funny, but it also deals with legacy and perception of self without bogging down the fluidity of the story. You could easily enjoy Birdman without spending a lot of time contemplating the “big issues” at play if you preferred. There is some ambiguity about the ending, but that didn’t feel like a cheat; you can interpret the events presented as you see fit.

Birdman definitely lives up to the hype that preceded its release and marks a triumphant return for star Michael Keaton. The stellar cast and impressive direction and cinematography created a movie that crackles; Birdman is uproariously funny while also not strictly serving as a comedy. The actors create fully realized characters that you are fully invested in and the story is anything but predictable. I had absolutely no idea where Birdman was going, but I simply sat back and enjoyed the ride and was happy to be surprised by how the story would ultimately resolve itself. Birdman is a fun and energetic movie and if this is what the 2014 Oscar race has to offer, I’m already excited about it. I just hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for another Michael Keaton performance of this caliber. It’s clear that we’ve all be deprived of the work of a very talented guy.

Birdman is open in limited release and will continue to roll out in additional cities.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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I guess calling this franchise The Mediocre Spider-Man probably wouldn’t sell as many tickets, even if it was truth in advertising.

On the one hand, I am glad that the people associated with the newest Spider-Man reboot are finally getting the chance to tell a new story (if you taxonomy for “new” means “not told on the big screen” since obviously this is all based on a comic book series). One of my biggest problems with The Amazing Spider-Man was that it wasn’t bringing much new to the well-worn origin story of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man; I am honestly a little over seeing Uncle Ben get killed. So is should have been a mark in The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s favor that we were now beyond the initial “setting the table” for this franchise and that they could explore some different stories. And they certainly do explore some new stuff, though I would argue that they explore too much new stuff. There are a lot the threads in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but they never come together to create a beautiful tapestry. Instead, you get the feeling that they just threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would stick without a lot of concern for cohesive narrative and story development. There were individual moments that I liked in this film, but overall I have just not been impressed with this latest iteration of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

My criticisms of the film are not a critique of the leads; one of the things that does work in these films is the fantastic chemistry between Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). When the two of them are bantering or on screen together, the entire movie lights up. This is, of course, assisted by the fact that Stone and Garfield are a couple in real-life; they may both be very good actors, but the underlying love and affection that the two of them have for each other clearly elevate both their performances. Tobey Maguire is still my default conception of Spider-Man, but Garfield has made tremendous strides in winning me over. I wasn’t particularly familiar with him before he donned the spidey-suit, but he’s done a fine job in bringing the wise-cracking Peter Parker to life. I am a longtime fan of Stone, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy her in this as well. I only wish that the material was better suited to both of their talents.

As I was watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it dawned on me that one of the big problems that I had with this film was that all the characters that inhabited this world had the emotional development of toddlers. If you have spent any time around little ones, you know that they haven’t quite learned to control their emotional reactions and can go from zero to crying in the blink of an eye (a process that is repeated when they become teenagers). Almost all of the characters in The Amazing Spider-Man have crazy mood swings and reactions that seem disproportionate to what is happening. I understand that this is an action movie and that there isn’t necessarily a lot of time to deal with emotional development, but the end result is that the audience feels like they are being bounced around like a ping pong ball. This is most obvious in regards to the relationship between Peter and Gwen, but all the characters are guilty of this. Aunt May (Sally Field) is absolutely never going to tell Peter anything about his parents – until she does less than 5 minutes later. Harry Osbourn (Dane DeHaan) throws all sorts of tantrums. And then there is Electro (Jamie Foxx).

We all know that as good as any of the other characters are in a superhero movie, the film ultimately lives and dies on the villains. They provide a necessary counterbalance to our do-gooders and need to seem like a legitimate threat to raise the stakes. I don’t know if it is Electro the character or the choices that Foxx and the writers made in portraying him, but he just never worked for me. Admittedly, I am not a Jamie Foxx fan, but I do think he can do good work and I’ve enjoyed him in other stuff. And I’m all for adding some diversity to the world of comic book movies. Electro’s origin is of a “nobody” who is accidentally transformed into having powers, but they are so over the top about his sad sack status that it became comical. Perhaps Foxx relished playing an everyman that isn’t smooth with the ladies or particularly charming. Whatever the motivation, Electro was such a doormat that he was far too easy to manipulate. It makes for a wishy-washy villain that is hard to take seriously. You should not be able to disarm a super-villain by offering to be his friend. The film also tried to shoehorn in two additional villains, but that all feels very rushed. I had flashbacks to the monstrosity that was Spiderman 3, where too many villains exasperated all the other problems with that film. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 simply tries to do too much.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are some very exciting action sequences. On that front, the film does deliver.
  • I saw this film on Sony’s dime, so I did see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not only in 3-D but also in IMAX. I really didn’t enjoy the IMAX 3-D glasses, but it was a pretty cool way to see a movie. I don’t know that it’s worth springing for an almost $20 ticket to see it this way, unless money is no object.
  • I have not read the Spiderman comics, but I do know some of the major plot points that occurred in them. I’ll give the film credit – they were more loyal to the source material than I thought that they would be in regards to Gwen’s journey.
  • Sony is doing something weird in the post-credits sequence. If you use the app Shazam on your smart phone during the final credits (the song is “It’s On Again” by Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar), you can unlock a video to watch on your phone. This seems unreasonable complicated, especially since I didn’t bring my phone into the screening as they are usually discouraged. However, resourceful chickadee that I am, I just Shazam-ed the song from YouTube and was able to see the video. What I was seeing made no sense to me, but it appears that they give some (pretty vague) clues as to who upcoming villains in the forthcoming Sinister Six movie. As I said, I don’t know the source material THAT well, so unless you are pretty well versed in possible villain candidates, you may need some help in understanding the teaser.
  • There is also an actual post credit sequence that teases the new X-Men movie. I forgot all about this so I didn’t stay during my screening, but have seen it thanks to the wonder that is YouTube.
  • If Peter really doesn’t want his Aunt May to figure out who he is – or not think he is nuts – he probably shouldn’t erect a Carrie Matheson worthy wall-o-conspiracy:

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  • One would have to assume that Paul Giamatti will have more to do in future films. Too small of a part for an actor of his stature.
  • The actor who plays Dr. Ashley Kafka, founder of the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, is so ridiculous and over the top that he is a distraction.
  • This film makes a pretty solid case for why you should just stay away from Times Square.
  • Particularly hysterical to me was the idea that when a major battle was going down, New Yorkers wouldn’t fee but would instead stand behind barricades around the action that somehow mysteriously appear.
  • The Roosevelt Station is a real thing. Sadly, I didn’t have time to look for it when I was in the City yesterday.

All in all, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t all that amazing either. I have a lower standard for these kinds of summer blockbusters that I do other movies, but I still found this one to be an ultimately unsatisfying and boring superhero film. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are fun to watch and there are some visually interesting action sequences, but the failure of the film to satisfyingly interconnect all the various plot points or deliver a particularly convincing villain is too much for even the charm of Garfield and Stone to overcome. Spiderman has never been my favorite Marvel superhero and this latest franchise has not done much to change my opinion. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has its moments, but just didn’t work for me as a cohesive film.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens nationwide today.