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.

The Nice Guys – A Review

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Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in a slapstick film noir that takes place in the 70s? That doesn’t sound like a movie; that sounds like a Mad Lib that is so ludicrous that it isn’t even funny. And yet those are the keywords that best describe the new film The Nice Guys that is co-written and directed by Shane Black. And as improbable as it is, The Nice Guys mostly works thanks to the chemistry of the two stars and their willingness to go all in on this project. The Nice Guys has a few problems, but it’s still a movie that is worth the occasional bump in the road.

Director Shane Black is no stranger to the odd couple, action/comedy genre, having cut his teeth in the industry on films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. For The Nice Guys, he places the story in 1970s Los Angeles; Holland March (Gosling) is a two-bit alcoholic private investigator who tries, but mostly fails to be a good father to his 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) and Jackson Healy (Crowe) is a guy who beats people up for a living and longs to have some sort of purpose in this world. An investigation of the death of a porn star and the disappearance of a young girl brings these two men into collision and they wind up teaming up together to try to unravel the many layers of the case. Kim Basinger and Matt Bomer also appear.

Now, The Nice Guys had two things going for it from my perspective right out of the gate. I am a sucker for movies set in the 1970s; I have no idea why, but this particular time period I find aesthetically pleasing when depicted on film. This is kind of odd since while I did live through some portion of the seventies, I was too young to really remember any of it. So if it is some semblance of nostalgia, it is misplaced or faux. All I know is that if you have a soundtrack that is heavy on the hits of the 70s and some ridiculous clothing and hairstyles, I’m ready to meet you half way. I’m also a big fan of when filmmakers see the comedic potential of Ryan Gosling. That dude is a funny guy, but he is too rarely given the chance to flex his comedic muscles. Perhaps it is because he is also aesthetically pleasing that people assume that he doesn’t also possess good comedy timing, like that would somehow be an embarrassment of riches (see also Jon Hamm). In The Nice Guys, Gosling gets his chance to prove what he can do and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s better at absurd humor than most people give him credit for; he pulls off scenes in this movie that reminds me of what Lou Costello would do.

Gosling’s comedy game is only elevated by his pairing with Crowe, as the two play beautifully off each other. Crowe/Gosling is not a duo that I would have organically come up with, but their chemistry is just off the charts. Crowe really takes to the role of Healy and it’s perhaps his most likable performance in recent memory. While I had some inkling that Gosling could pull off some of the more slapstick-y aspects of The Nice Guys, I was completely unaware of what Crowe was capable of. He’s mostly known for his dramatic roles and the last time he strayed from that (the musical Les Miserables) it wasn’t exactly a home run. Apparently Crowe has been hiding his sense of humor, since his performance works just as well as Gosling’s and performs a nice counterbalance. Newcomer Angourie Rice makes her role as Gosling’s precocious daughter much more than it could have been and serves as the moral center of the film as well as a method for softening up the tough guy antics of Crowe and, to a lesser degree, Gosling. The trio make for an unconventional but amusing team.

The Nice Guys doesn’t skimp on the violence and mayhem; there are plenty of car chases, gun fights and explosions to more than hold up the action component of the action/comedy mashup. The action sequences are entertaining, but they also help to mask one of the issues with The Nice Guys – the plot. The deeper that they get into the investigation, the more muddled and confusing it all becomes. There are definitely some leaps of faith that have to be made on the part of the audience and The Nice Guys works best if you can think of their case as one giant McGuffin. The less that you think about it, the more enjoyable the film is. The pacing is also a little off, as things are chugging along just fine until the final act, where they try to cram too much story into a short amount of time.  There are also some occasional moments that drag, where jokes don’t quite land or last a beat too long.

Some other random thoughts….

  • Gosling’s mustache in this film is an endless source of amusement for me.

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  • This exchange also was particularly funny to me:

Holland: Look on the bright side. Nobody got hurt.

Healy: People got hurt.

Holland: I’m saying, I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.

 

  • Considering that the porn industry is a plot point in the film, there is less sex and nudity than you would expect in The Nice Guys. But it is there (especially in the opening scene), if that is a concern.
  • I’ll be interested to see what else young Angourie Rice does in the future. She steals a lot of scenes.
  • Warner Brothers released this cute animated short for the film:

 

  • Gosling and Crowe have been on quite the publicity tour for this movie, which is usually a red flag for me. However, it appears that the blitz for The Nice Guys is the exception to that rule. Perhaps they just like spending time together.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Nice Guys, but it wound up being a pleasant surprise. My mileage with absurd and slapstick humor is probably lower than the average viewer, but I still found a lot to like about the film. Gosling and Crowe are an unpredictably strong comedic pairing and they each serve to bring out the best in their co-star. There’s a lot of silliness and plenty of action; don’t think too much about the complexities of the case and The Nice Guys is a fun night at the cinema.

The Nice Guys opens nationwide today.

The Big Short – A Review

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When I heard that Adam McKay (Funny or Die, Anchorman) was directing a movie about the 2008 economic collapse, I was a little confused. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of humor in what happened on Wall Street, so I wasn’t quite sure what McKay was bringing to the table. The man who brought us Ron Burgundy wasn’t the person that I expected to adapt Michael Lewis’ book about the housing credit bubble finally bursting. However, McKay had assembled an all-star cast and I’ve enjoyed all the other adaptations of Lewis’ books, so I figured that there was something to this project that I just wasn’t seeing that would make this partnership make sense.

Turns out that McKay might have been the perfect person for this job, as The Big Short finds humor in the lunacy of the behavior that contributed to the recent recession while at the same time educating the viewer on what things like subprime loans, CDOs and bond ratings are without being boring. The Big Short will make you laugh, make you angry, and make you smarter about economics all at the same time – no small feat. It’s rare when a cast of such famous people can all disappear into their roles, but Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt do just that. The Big Short will make you chuckle, but this is not necessarily a comedy; there is a slow burn of anger that is simmering just under the surface of this film and if you don’t walk out of this film a little more outraged than when you walked in, there is no hope for this country.

The Big Short tells the story about a handful of investors who saw what so many people missed or willfully ignored – the pending housing collapse caused by banks giving out loans like candy to people, many of whom were in over their heads financially. Hedge Fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) crunches the numbers and realizes that the housing market is being artificially supported by a series of subprime loans; when interest rates on these loans increase in 2008, Burry predicts that there will be many people who will default on their mortgages. He approaches numerous banks and asks to essentially bet against the housing market; the banks, believing that the housing market is secure and that this is easy money for them, accept this offer with no thought to the potential catastrophic economic impact that will result if Burry is right. Other investors, including Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magano) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) hear about Burry’s investment and agree with his analysis. Further analysis by Baum’s team lends further credibility to Burry’s predictions – rating agencies are inflating ratings on bad loans to keep the bank’s business and that mortgage brokers are not even conducting preliminary background checks on potential loan recipients. All the investors bet against the market and essentially profiting from the pending economic meltdown that will cost thousands of people their job, their pensions and their homes.

This could have been an extremely boring film, but the development of the personalities of the individual investors helps keep this film from feeling like an economics lecture from Ben Stein. Christian Bale’s Murray is definitely an eccentric – a former M.D., he analyzes trends while barefoot and blaring heavy metal – and that gives Bale a lot to work with. Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert serves as the conscious of the film, reminding his friends Geller and Shipley that their profit will come at the expense of a lot of people’s suffering. Steve Carell’s character is full of self-righteous anger at a system that is not only fiddling while Rome burns, but irresponsibly throwing gasoline on the fire.

The film also uses an innovative technique to explain some of the more technical terms and concepts that contributed to the collapse; it breaks the fourth wall and uses celebrity cameos to provide insight into what these intentionally confusing words actually mean. I have a degree in economics, so I’m probably a more willing audience than most, but having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans is perhaps the most accessible way to make people understand what exactly was happening. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are used similarly (minus the bathtub). These bits are of course humorous, but they are also educational; I walked out of The Big Short with a much clearer picture of how the economic recession of 2008 came to pass. And the more that you understand what happened, the more incensed you become. If you weren’t already mad at bankers for their role in the collapse, you will be after The Big Short, especially after you are reminded how little they paid for their negligent behavior. The Big Short may mine the crisis for laughs, but make no mistake about it that this film also wants you to be infuriated as well. The film smartly doesn’t lecture, but  under the farcical behavior  there is an undercurrent of anger that eventually becomes palpable.

Some other thoughts:

  • This film is lucky enough to boast all-star actors in even the smallest of performances; Oscar winner Melissa Leo briefly appears as an employee at the rating agency. Marissa Tomei also has a small part as Carrell’s wife.
  • I’m really only familiar with Finn Wittrock from his work on American Horror Story, so I was kind of conditioned to think that when he appeared he was going to kill everyone. Sadly, he didn’t slice up even one banker, which would have made for an even more satisfying movie.
  • I would 100% sign up for an economics class taught by Anthony Bourdain.
  • This shouldn’t be a deciding factor in seeing the film, but Gosling and Pitt have much less screen time than Carrell and Bale.
  • Bale’s character rocks out to Metallica in the movie, which makes him aces in my book.
  • Even though you are rooting for all the investors in the film, they aren’t heroes. They all profit from this broken system, with varying impacts on their consciences. In a way, they are the lesser of two evils.

The Big Short manages to do what many people would think is unthinkable – create a movie that doubles as both entertainment and an economics lecture. The stellar cast and smart directing choices makes The Big Short an immensely watchable film that also serves as a primer for understanding why the global recession of 2008 occurred. It’s a fun, yet frustrating movie, since it is clear that because so few people were held accountable for their role in the collapse, they continue their dangerous practices, just under another name. The Big Short is a smart and funny movie that will also make you angry. It’s a heist movie, a satire and true crime, all rolled into one.