Movie Review – Whiplash

Whiplash (2014)
Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle

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Andrew Neiman has one goal in his life, to become one of the great jazz drummers. He’s a first year at the Shaffer Music Conservatory playing in one of many campus bands. He’s chosen by Terence Fletcher to join the prestigious Studio Band. Neiman quickly finds that Fletcher demands near unrealistic levels of perfection from his performers. There are verbal assaults which eventually lead to physical ones. Neiman starts sleeping in a practice room where he sets up his drum kit and pushes himself to go faster, have more control until his hands bleed. However, the tension keeps building, and Fletcher attempts to manipulate and twist events around Neiman that it is driving the young to the brink of a mental breakdown.

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Movie Review – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966)
Written by Melvin Frank & Michael Pertwee
Based on the musical by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Richard Lester

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Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is a slave in ancient Rome who enjoys gambling and disobeying his masters of the House of Senex. His son of his masters, Hero (Michael Crawford) is in love with a woman he has spied only from his bedroom window at the brothel next door. Pseudolus sees this as an opportunity to gain his freedom and makes this the reward if he is able to get Hero’s dream girl for him. What follows is a farce of class and society filtered through the lens of the satires of Roman playwright Plautus and the vaudeville schtick of Jewish comedians. The whole production is directed by English filmmaker Richard Lester who was hot off of The Beatles’ Help! and British sex farce The Knack…and How to Get It. All of this makes for some very wild cinema.

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Movie Review – Baby Driver

Baby Driver
Written & Directed by Edgar Wright

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In the Southern metropolis of Atlanta lives Baby, the best wheelman your heist could hire. He’s under the thumb of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a man who makes the jobs happen. The rest of the crews may change, but Baby is the one constant, Doc’s lucky charm. What makes Baby different than all the rest is that he’s always cranking the tunes, using the rhythm of his music to drive the car, life his life, and fall in love. Everything changes when Baby meets Deborah (Lily James), a waitress who wants to leave town and just drive while the radio blares on the speakers. Baby struggles to extricate himself from the mire of crime he’s drowning in, surrounded by lowlifes and sociopaths (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, etc.). Will he get free and ride into the sunset with Deborah or will this be the day the music dies?

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Movie Review – West Side Story

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West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)

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It’s 1957 in the West Side of Manhattan and tensions are brewing between the white American gang The Jets and their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks. The local police aren’t much better than the gangs but make a weak effort to stop these young men from becoming violent. In the midst of the brewing gang war are Tony and Maria. Tony is a former member of the Jets and still friends with them while Maria is the little sister of The Sharks’ leader Bernardo. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, Conductor and Musician Leonard Bernstein, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents take the classic Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet and place it in this setting, contemporary to them at the time, to find connections between that iconic play and the violence they saw erupting from urban youth.

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Movie Review – One From the Heart

One From the Heart (1982, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

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Ambition in filmmaking is a dangerous tightrope. In the 1970s, there was a cascade of filmmakers who were highly ambitious and succeeded. Many of them (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese) continued their successes into the 1980s. Others were not so successful. Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo) became increasingly addicted to drugs and faded away. Michael Cimino translated his enormous success with The Deer Hunter into the bloated critical and box office failure of Heaven’s Gate. And there’s Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are held is such high esteem and Apocalypse Now has garnered a similar appreciation in the decades that followed its release. But something happened in the 1980s that caused Coppola’s star to dissipate. One From the Heart is widely considered the moment everything collapsed, but it’s more complicated than just one movie.

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Movie Review – Sing Street

Sing Street (2016, dir. John Carney)

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Conor Lawlor is fifteen years old and, with his two siblings, stuck in the middle of his parents’ deteriorating ends up at Synge Street, a free state school run by the Christian Brothers. The school is managed chaos, full of delinquent young men and priests who brutalize their students. Conor meets Raphina, a girl who lives across the street from the school and after seeing a Duran Duran music video for the first time decides he wants to form a band. The group is assembled from the boys he attends school. At the same time, his older brother begins educating Conor on various bands of the day (The Cure, Spandau Ballet), and slowly Conor develops his own sense of songwriting. The endeavor awakens a love of songwriting in him, and the band becomes more than just something to impress a girl, and their relationship becomes more than merely a crush.

By the mid-1980s due to economic stresses, young Irish were immigrating to London in significant numbers. Early in Sing Street, we see a news report covering this and mentioning the fact that many of this young people arrived with little to no money and quickly ended up on the ferry back to Ireland. Conor’s parents’ problems come from both a marriage that is drained of love and the economics issues that have come up. The Catholic Church also looms as an institution that not only oppresses Conor but even his parents. At one point his older brother says, “Two Catholics in a rented flat with a screaming baby who just got married because they wanted to have sex. They didn’t even love each other.” So while the tone of the film is generally upbeat, there is an honesty in the events unfolding.

The style of humor in Sing Street is a mix of dry and playful. I was reminded of the great recent Irish sitcom Moone Boy during a lot of the interactions between the boys in the band. There’s this sense of heightened wit among the children where they come across as wise beyond their years. Other moments have the feel of a Wes Anderson film like Rushmore or Bottle Rocket, that mix of staged scenes and rough energy. The side characters never overtake the main story but are painted with just the right full broad strokes that we have a definitive sense of who they are without the film having to overtly explain.

The music, written by Gary Clark a veteran of the music industry in the 1980s who still writes and produces has a very genuine feel. Each song is directly mimicking a particular band’s style and reflects exactly how a young songwriter would operate, first simulating the music they like as they develop their own sensibilities. I was born in 1981 so much of the music featured in the film I don’t necessarily look back with nostalgia. I certainly enjoy the lighter pop of that era, despite my dark tastes in nearly all other media, and I found the music well done.

Sing Street is a feel good coming of age movie, and I approach this type of film with a lot of trepidation. So often these films depend on a false sense of emotion. They use lazy shorthand to get across the feelings they want to evoke in the audience. Sing Street always manages to keep itself grounded and never tread into those maudlin spaces. Even the film’s “happy ending” leaves the real conclusion for these characters open. The message is that we don’t know what happens when we risk for those higher aspirations, but the risk itself is a victory.

Movie Review – La La Land

La La Land (2016, dir. Damien Chazelle)

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Two aspiring young people in Los Angeles, Mia and Seb pursue their individual dreams and their paths continually cross. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who seems to never get a callback to a single audition and when she does she’s dismissed before getting a chance to read. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to live up to the quality of his idols but ends up playing Christmas carols at a cozy dinner spot in the evenings. The duo isn’t sure if they want to be a couple and the story is rife with an interesting variety of musical styles, many reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.

La La Land is unashamedly a musical. The opening moments are a sweeping crane shot of a traffic-jammed freeway where the motorists depart their vehicles for a song and dance number that evoke a slick Gap commercial. Eventually, the music settles down when the story of Mia and Seb comes into focus, and we don’t really get a showstopping number for the rest of the pictures. Instead, we have duets that appear to have been filmed in very intimate and loose ways. The piano duet of “City of Stars” has the actors sharing a piano bench and it’s obvious that Gosling flubs a couple lines eliciting a chuckle from Stone.

Director Chazelle paints his film in Cinemascope, a 2:35:1 aspect ratio that evokes the iconography of 1950s studio cinema. Set pieces embrace artifice with stages covered in grass apparent as the two soft shoe across them. There are fantastic flights of fancy, particularly during a date to the Griffith Observatory, where Mia and Seb end up waltzing across the galaxy. The whole tone of and look of the picture doesn’t so much as resemble Singin’ in the Rain, but rather films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It’s a very stylized French palette, especially in the film’s dreamlike final number. In fact, the film feels much more of a tribute to dance once it gets past its opening numbers than old Hollywood Musicals.

The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Gosling and Stone. There are supporting characters, but the film refrains from developing any b plots. We have Gosling’s sister and just the lightest touch of her engagement and subsequent marriage. There’s Stone’s trio of fellow actress roommates who show up for a bit but then fade from the story. It never feels like sloppy writing, though. The intent that this is Mia and Seb’s story feels tightly focused. The chemistry between the leads is excellent. They seem like a real couple, and a scene that serves as the pivot in the plot shows just how real this relationship can feel. We’re witness to such an intimate, cringing personal argument between the two. The choking back of tears, the narrowing of eyes in anger, words spoken to cut deep then immediately regretted. Painfully real.

What I loved most about La La Land was the theme of compromise threaded throughout. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” might have the tone of an upbeat, showstopping musical number but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals the central conflict of the film:

I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé

We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew

Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene

Later we have Seb walking alone along a pier quietly singing “City of Stars” to himself with these darker lyrics standing out:

Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?

The entire focus of La La Land is on having big dreams and the compromises and choices involved in making those dreams come true. In a lot of ways, the film is saying “You can’t have it all” so you need to prioritize and figure out what is important to you. It is also speaking out the people with dreams to know that life will be challenging and that finding the core of why you had this dream in the first place is essential to getting through the hard times. La La Land does not have a happy ending. Characters make some of their dreams come true, and they learn something about what’s important. Damien Chazelle has made what I’d dare say is a perfect film, visually rich, sonically beautiful, and a story that acknowledges the romantic nature of dreams and the grounded way we have to live life.