La La Land Review

Damien Chazelle blew onto the mainstream circuit with Whiplash two years ago, an excellent film about the passion of musicians, with great performances from Miles Teller and JK Simmons. After writing the script for the lauded 10 Cloverfield Lane in 2016, all eyes were on him for what he would produce this year.

La La Land stars Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend and Rosemarie DeWitt and is directed by Damien Chazelle. The film follows an aspiring actress (Stone) and a jazz musician (Gosling) in Los Angeles who meet one day and fall in love.

You don’t see many musicals these days. After a certain Golden Period in Hollywood, musicals were quickly picked up by Disney. But seeing as the House Of Mouse are now aiming for more standard animation (along with remaking their classics) it falls to new talent to bring back the musical. And Damien Chazelle has made La La Land a smash hit.

The film starts with a song and dance number along the LA freeway, setting the stage for the old-school romance that is going to unfold. It’s an excellent opening, with hundreds of extras dancing on the roofs of cars. And due to some excellent cinematography by Linus Sandgren and editing by Tom Cross it all looks like it’s done in one sweeping shot. All the dance numbers are done in a similar way, all being performed in a couple or sometimes one long take with the performers dancing around the entire set. It’s the sort of performance that makes you want to give the film a standing ovation.

The songs and music were all done by Justin Hurwitz (who worked previously with Chazelle on Whiplash) and certainly deserve the high praise it has been given. Jumping from the melancholic piano solos to upbeat trumpets and saxophones to a full orchestra in the final act, it’s a film that needs not only to be seen, but to be heard in the cinema.

The two leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are perfectly cast in the film. We see Stone get shunted from audition to audition, showing the brutality of casting directors. Her soliloquy that we see her practising early on the film is performed in one take and is masterful show-off of her acting ability. Gosling is his usual quiet but passionate self and their chemistry is electric. When they perform together you get this sense that they are channelling the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they are perfectly in sync and react well to each other.

La La Land is set in the present, but its whole shtick is an affinity for the yesteryear of Los Angeles. The film name-checks and references a lot of the films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stone and Gosling talk about Casablanca and go watch Rebel Without a Cause, their dance numbers have inflections of Singin’ In The Rain, and they obviously pay homage to the previously mentioned Astaire and Rogers with their tap-dancing duet. It never feels like they overshadow the actual film though. The references are there for those who know them and don’t distract or make the film seem like it is showing off (much like how I thought Hail, Caesar or Café Society did).

If there were any misgivings I had they would be the age rating. The film has a 12A for infrequent strong language. It’s so sporadic that it seems a bit jarring when it’s used and it’s annoying that the film has been bumped up to a 12A when it could easily be a U and fun for all the family with its great song and dance numbers. Another small nit-pick, the second half takes a little time going, but that maybe due to the fantastic dance number that precedes it, knocking a bit of the wind out of the film’s sails for the second act.

In the end, La La Land deserves all the praise you’ve been hearing about it. Everything from the cast, to the songs, to the choreography to the cinematography and the overall vibe is astounding. This is definitely not one to miss.

Score: 10/10 A superb, swinging, sexy dream of a film.

David Brent: Life On The Road Review

Ricky Gervais is a comedian I have mixed feelings about. I find The Office and The Ricky Gervais Show relatively funny but find his stand up as well as his more recent stuff like Derek unbearably bad. So I was looking forward to him going back to one of his best characters, David Brent, from arguably his best show. And after Ab Fab and Dad’s Army earlier this year, will Ricky Gervais give us a good TV spin-off?

David Brent: Life On The Road stars Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Tom Basden and Diane Morgan and is written and directed by Ricky Gervais. The film follows former sales rep David Brent (Gervais) as he forms a band and goes on tour.

David Brent tries to emulate the great cringe-worthy humour that made The Office a hit, to varying success. There were many moments when I had my head in my hands, hysterically laughing at the sheer awkwardness on-screen. Those times are when David Brent shines, when he’s playing his songs about the plight of Native Americans (with lyrics based off facts from Wikipedia) or when he’s over-explaining his suggestive lyrics. The film works when Brent plays off other people, but when he’s on his own, it’s like a pathetic form of stand-up. Gervais didn’t team up with his Office co-writer Stephen Merchant for Life On The Road, and it can be felt in the script. It feels too stuck on Brent, who is insufferable to deal with in long bursts.

The jokes are Gervais’ usual. If you’re easily offended then you will think that Life On The Road is walking an extremely fine line. Borderline racist impressions of Asians, constant and crude references to sex acts and genitals, to some it will be too much. I think that misses the point. There isn’t a malicious side to it, and while you will laugh with Brent, you will find yourself laughing more at him and his actions. The songs that he plays on his tour follow this train of humour, with songs about disabled people and terminally ill children. You’ll either be with it or you won’t.

The film tries to replace Tim, Dawn and Gareth of The Office with Brent’s bandmates and entourage. Some of the band, such as Doc Brown’s fledgling rapper Dom Johnson (who has to rap about inane nonsense that Brent writes for him) and Tom Basden’s road manager Dan, who keeps getting more and more irate with Brent’s constant unfunny jokes, are great additions. While these two characters get several scenes, the rest of the band gets little to no character development, relegated to just sitting around the bar and drinking. We get small talking-head interviews with them but none last more than a minute. Diane Morgan (known for her character Philomena Cunk) turns up half way through the film as Brent’s recently hired publicist, but again, like the band, she’s a cameo at best. The film would work better with more interactions with characters.

I had two major problems with the film. While the second half of the film, when the band is performing, is full of jokes, the first half has hardly any, focussing more on Brent in his new job. Gervais said this “wasn’t an Office film”, so why do we spend so much of the first act there? The second is the ending. After nearly ninety minutes of showing Brent as a buffoon, Life On The Road tries to swap it and make him some sort of tragic hero. It feels tonally at odds with the rest of the film and lowers the ending. The tone also swings wildly throughout, with trips to the psychiatrist and depressing early mornings while drinking alone, it just doesn’t mesh well within a comedy.

Fifteen years after The Office started, David Brent: Life On The Road feels a little bit like a cash-in on a greatly revered series. It’s not a great follow-up, but the script and biting humour stops the score from being any lower.

Score: 6/10 Funny but flawed.

I Saw The Light Review

Another year, another musical biopic. Last year we had Love and Mercy (The Beach Boys) and the rather well made Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A.). Now for something more classic, folk and country singer Hank Williams in I Saw The Light. 

I Saw The Light stars Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen and Cherry Jones and is written and directed by Marc Abraham. The film follows the real-life story of Hank Williams, a folk and country singer from Alabama, his sudden rise to fame and his death at the age of 29.

Tom Hiddleston was the reason I was interested in seeing I Saw The Light. After his phenomenal performance in High-Rise and rumours that he may be the next James Bond, I’m intent on watching any film knowing he’s in it. Sadly though, I Saw The Light is one of the films I should have probably skipped. Hiddleston mostly shines (even with a ridiculous Southern accent) but everyone around him is either boring or forgettable. Elizabeth Olsen comes on screen now and again to be passive-aggressive towards Hiddleston, skipping between showering her love over him and then arguing with him.

I can attribute most of the problems to the story. It’s too unfocused. We start with Williams first touring around small clubs, playing on radio before finding his big break. It jumps all over the place and despite getting time stamps counting the years I was mostly lost as to where it was in William’s life. It feels more like a highlight reel of his defining moments rather than a full story, only for people who know his life and want to see Hiddleston try and find his way through it.

The film tries to hit all of William’s major points in his life, but even at two hours it feels rushed. Hiddelston downs one beer at breakfast and suddenly he’s a alcoholic. He takes a couple of pills on the road and snorts a couple of lines in a single scene and now he’s a drug addict. We see one woman leaving his hotel room in the entire films and he’s a compulsive cheater. If like me, you didn’t know Hank Williams’ story before you watched I Saw The Light, then you’d probably be completely lost as to what was going on.

I Saw The Light tries to fit in Amy style “talking head” interviews, filled with actors as the real life people who knew Williams. It’s an interesting mechanic for telling the story, but once again it’s under-used. We get a couple in the beginning, before a long dry spell and then another two near the end. If it had dispersed them throughout, it would have been an interesting feature, and if it had used more people, Williams’ wife, his children, his mother rather than just a couple of music record executives, we would have been able to get a nice side-view into his life. The newsreel footage of his tours and his funeral back in Alabama is used well and ends the film fittingly.

The saving grace is the music. Hiddleston sings and plays guitar in all of the concert sections and even though these are the best moments of the film, looking back they just feel wasted. You could have the exact same experience as watching I Saw The Light as listening to a Hank Williams best-of CD at home. You would get the best part of the film minus all of the things that don’t make the film work or bring it down to a much lower level.

In summary, I Saw The Light was just plain boring. You might get some enjoyment if you’re a Hank Williams fan or you know a lot about his personal life as you can fill in the blanks, but for everyone else, you can miss this one.

Score: 3/10 Hiddleston and the songs keep it from getting any lower.

Legend Review

The Kray twins have always been a source of media attention. Several books, television shows and even musicals have documented the infamous duos lives when they single-handedly ruled the backstreets of London. The first film about the Krays was all the way back in 1990 and starred Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp. 25 years later, a new biopic about the twins arrives, this time called Legend.

Legend stars Tom Hardy (twice!), Emily Browning, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston and is directed by Brian Helgeland. The film follows both Ronnie and Reggie Kray (both played by Hardy), their rise through the criminal underworld and their eventual demise.

The standout of the film is the dual performance by Tom Hardy. The man is an acting powerhouse, and he manages to give both twins character. Their looks seem to be the only thing that is remotely similar as each twin has a different speech pattern, mannerisms and ways of holding themselves when speaking or being spoke to. It’s amazing to watch and it really does feel like it’s just two different actors rather than one man. Praise must also be given to Emily Browning as Reggie’s wife Frances. Browning’s whole performance is of a fragile and nervous woman who is constantly at her breaking point, trying to cope with her lying and violent husband. While this might have got stale very quickly, I thought it added more weight to her constant empty threats of leaving Reggie, as you could tell she would never go through with it for fear of being alone or what he would do. Browning also narrates the film, but I wasn’t convinced by it. Browning doesn’t sound interested or invested in the story (although she’s not as bad as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner) and it feels more like narration for the sake of it.

The film focuses on Frances and Reggie’s romance and marriage, which seems an odd choice for a film about brutal and notorious gangsters. While we do get the odd scene of violence (including my favourite, a fight in a pub that stars knuckle dusters and hammers) the film just keeps switching back to Reggie and Frances’ relationship troubles. It starts to feel less about the Krays and more to do with what a dysfunctional and abusive relationship looks like between a violent gangster and a quiet and shy drug addict.

Being set in the 1960s, the soundtrack is excellent. Recognisible and catchy songs such as Green Onions by Booker T and the Mg’s or I’m Into Something Good by Herman’s Hermits make Legend a pleasure to listen to. I can’t think of a gangster film that has reveled so much in it’s iconic music, but Legend has a string of songs that slip in and out of the film perfectly. The points in the film when the Krays are driving a flashy car, wearing suits fit for a king and listening to a crooner on the radio, those are the parts that stick with me from the film.

Legend has its flaws. As a biopic the film has to hit certain historical points, but the film doesn’t feel coherent at all. Several of the scenes could have been jumbled up and put at opposite ends of the film and it probably would have looked the same plot-wise. It’s less of a story and more a collection of events, each one disconnected from the last. This fluctuation in narrative ties in with another problem I had with the film, which was the ending. I won’t spoil the ending of the film (even though the true story is readily available to anyone with access to a library or the internet) but the film feels like it drags on for the last ten minutes so that it can tell us the final part of the Krays story instead of stopping at a more natural conclusion for the love-focused narrative of the film.

The film also tries to make jokes about Ronnie Kray’s sexuality, which felt a bit off-kilter to me. Early on in the film Ronnie bluntly states that he is gay (which is historically inaccurate but that’s besides the point I’m making). The film continues with these outbursts of his sexuality, and the jokes it tries to make about it feel a bit forced and more of a mockery of Ronnie’s sexuality rather than Ronnie himself.

In summary, Legend looks and sounds great, but the lack of cohesion in it’s narrative and story telling leaves it being nothing but superficial. If you like music from the 1960s or you’re a fan of Tom Hardy then it’s a definite watch.

Score: 7/10 A lot of style making up for very little substance.

Amy Review

Another summer film about a talented musician that was taken from the world in the middle of their life? Last week it was the biopic Straight Outta Compton, this week it’s the documentary Amy.

Amy stars Amy Winehouse, Nick Shymansky, Salaam Remi, Blake Fielder and Mitch Winehouse and is directed by Asif Kapadia. Amy is a documentary that follows the life of singer Amy Winehouse from the start of her career to her death in 2011. Featuring several interviews with her friends, family and fellow performers, the film looks into both her struggling with addiction and her successes as a soul singer.

First off, the amount of footage that has been uncovered in the making of Amy is stunning. The other documentary this summer, Precinct Seven Five, while it had it’s fair share of archive footage, had many instances of reconstruction, but Amy is nearly all home footage made by Winehouse or her friends. The very first shot is of Amy and friends at a 14-year-old birthday party, and the film keeps offering up these brief snippets of candid camera footage, giving us a real insight into how the woman lived. It’s a real achievement by director Asif Kapadia that he managed to find so much and got permission to use a lot of the more confrontational and verbally explicit scenes in the film. Kapadia’s previous work involves the documentary Senna, based on the F1 racer Ayrton Senna. With Amy, Kapadia shows that he is one of the masters of emotionally charged documentaries on influential people.

The footage ranges from simple home cameras to full interviews with friends, news footage and even some mobile phone footage during some of the concerts. It’s a brilliant collage to see the same scene unfold from a different viewpoint. The footage that is the most hard to watch is the continual paparazzi news footage where all that you can see is a small figure in the middle of a thousand light bulbs going off, watching her get more and more irate at the massive intrusion into her private life. The other couple of scenes that are were hard to watch and listen to were the comedians and the talk shows at the time who were turning her suffering into jokes. While it might have been funny to some people at the time, it feels toe curlingly cringe-worthy to see someone’s personal demons get thrown around for a laugh.

Due to the impressive collection of footage, we also get to watch Winehouse perform not just live but also in the recording studio and also before she was even signed when she’s playing her demo to the heads of record companies. Since most of the songs are based on events that happened in Winehouse’s life, they bookend each of the major points that Kapadia focuses on during the film. The performances even come with the pages of handwritten lyrics alongside or with floating text somewhere on the screen showing how the situations around Winehouse shaped the songs that she wrote.

The original score for the film was created Antonio Pinto (who worked previously with Kapadia on Senna) and the work is similarly haunting. While Pinto uses a few of the same tracks from his earlier work, they still pack the same emotional punch as they did when they were first used. The song that plays over the last few minutes of the film pulls at the heartstrings and manages to sum up Winehouse’s life in a series of pictures and notes.

The film also deals with Winehouse’s drug addiction and the attempts to get clean. Some of the footage is disturbing, but what’s more disturbing is the forces at play that want her to stay on the money-producing concert tours than try and seek professional help. While these ideas are attributed to certain members of her entourage, the film doesn’t point fingers at anyone in particular, instead just glossing over the people on the outside and focusing more on Winehouse.

The best scene however is her final recording with Tony Bennett. While Winehouse is moving back and forth, nervous and a little bit worried that she is wasting one of her musical idols time, Bennett just smiles and gets her to come to microphone and perform a beautiful rendition of Body And Soul. It’s a perfect moment between the two singers and for a few moments in Winehouse’s last turbulent months come harmony.

In summary, Amy is a raw insight into the power and pull of fame and stardom. It’s definitely one for the fans and one for those interested in documentaries.

Score: 8/10 Brutally raw and ultimately sad, a very powerful film.

Straight Outta Compton Review

Every year there is at least one musical biopic. We’ve already had one in 2015, with The Beach Boys film Love and Mercy. Rappers and rap groups have not been focused on as much though, with only a few exceptions such as 8 Mile, The Notorious B.I.G. and Get Rich Or Die Trying. Does the new rap film, Straight Outta Compton pave the way for more rap biopics?

Straight Outta Compton stars O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti and is directed by F. Gary Gray. The film follows the formation of the rap super-group N.W.A., and follows it’s members Ice Cube (Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Mitchell) during the 1980s and 90s.

The story starts by introducing our three main protagonists, with a small, handwritten scrawl appearing somewhere on the screen, telling us who they are, along with their alias. The film introduces most of the main characters this way; it’s a nice little feature that gives the film a little bit of personality itself.

The acting by all is well done. Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell, along with the other members of N.W.A., MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Drown Jr.) all portray their respective characters effectively, each with their own traits and flaws. All should be praised for how they throw themselves into the performances on stage during the first half of the film and then for some emotionally charged scenes near the end of the film.

To go back to the on stage musical performances, I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the actors are rapping themselves or just lip-syncing to the actual tracks, but that doesn’t matter. The actors sell the idea perfectly that these guys are passionate musicians who want to express themselves in the way they know how. This is where the film shines, when we see the passion fuelling Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E to create their next big hit. I found it extremely hard to not get caught up in the beat of the songs shown in a montage of the N.W.A. Tour, making me either constantly tap my foot or mouth the words along to some of the N.W.A. songs that I know.

However, these scenes, of Ice Cube riding the school bus writing down lyrics or Dr. Dre listening to his favourite albums are confined to the first half of the film, with the second half focusing more on the feuding between the different band members and socio-factors that were happening at the time. This divide in the film is the main problem I had with Straight Outta Compton, as the film loses some of the sparkle that the first half had. The constant movement between the sun-drenched pool parties to the studio boardroom arguments back to the pool parties again just isn’t as engaging to watch as the young rappers working together to create some amazing songs.

The film also feels a little disjointed, with some powerful emotional scenes ending and then the main cast returning to a composed state. It might be due to the editing, where these scenes are pushed together to seem like they are happening on the same day, but it just feels a bit off kilter. The length of the film is also a problem. Straight Outta Compton is the better part of two and a half hours, and with that divide I mentioned earlier, it feel a lot longer than it actually was. What seems strange is that there are scenes in the trailer that don’t appear at all in the film. It feels as if the film had been a lot longer before being cut to make it more manageable. This could be the reason why a few of the aforementioned scenes feel disjointed, along with the ending feeling like it abruptly cuts off, instead leaving us with an epilogue of archive footage of the real members of N.W.A. and the artists and rappers that cite them as an influence.

In summary, Straight Outta Compton is a well-made biopic, with a stellar cast and a killer soundtrack. If you’re a fan of rap music then I fully recommend it.

Score: 7/10 A brilliant insight into one of the most influential musical groups of recent time.

Whiplash Review

Take the premise of High School Musical, who’s script has been written by Quentin Tarantino crossed with the boot camp parts of Full Metal Jacket and you’ll get an idea of the film you’re about to watch: Whiplash.

Whiplash (which is also the name of the main accompanying song by Hank Levy) is about a drummer named Andrew (played by Miles Teller), who after catching the eye of Terrence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons) the possibly psychotic band leader of the music college Andrew goes to, becomes the main drummer of the band.

That’s where the connection High School Musical ends. What we now get is one and a half hours of JK Simmons using every single cuss word under the sun against Miles Teller, with nothing off the cards. Ethnic slurs are used; f-bombs are dropped and family members are being verbally disrespected. That’s the Tarantino script. Now for Full Metal Jacket. During the first band practice after getting the timing wrong for what seems to be the hundredth time, Fletcher finally throws a chair at Andrew’s head, before slapping him repeatedly in the face to teach him about timing. That isn’t the first use of violence against our lead and it won’t be the last. Welcome to class.

JK Simmons is one of those actors that everyone knows from somewhere. Be it J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films or Ellen Page’s father in Juno, everyone has that film that they’ve seen him in before. But Whiplash has to be the film that will win him an Oscar. The ferocity that Simmons brings lends him an air of menace which can be seen in every scene that he appears. Whenever he walks into a room, everyone falls completely silent, to the point you would be able to hear a pin drop. That coupled with his use of snatching the air when there is a single imperfection within his band makes us feel like the man is a single break away from total psychosis. Simmons ferocity is only levelled by Miles Teller’s determination to prove he is the best drummer of the band, to the point where Teller’s real blood is being spilled on the drum kit. But it all comes to fruition, just like JK Simmons Fletcher has planned, since we get to bear witness not just the best drum solos ever put to film but some of the best musical performances, with a nine minute drum solo near the end of the film being the crowning achievement. It’s the first time I have come away from a film and been genuinely exhausted after watching it

The film is akin to Hollywood blockbuster, with the story merely a device to bring the next big musical set piece along (the music is front and centre in the film) yet it differs enough from Hollywood narrative to give some flourish to the story. While some scenes might seem daft in other films (one scene where Andrew pulls himself from a car crash, covered in blood and still wanting to play the drums at a concert springs to mind) we the audience buy into it in Whiplash, as the sense of dedication that Teller brings to Andrew makes us believe that the character would do something that drastic.

The only real problem I had with the film was a romantic sub-plot which is set up early on in the film, which apart from two more scenes in the film doesn’t really pay off. It would have been fine to cut this from the film as it doesn’t add anything more to the story.

In conclusion, this film definitely isn’t for everyone. If you are sensitive to foul language or are not a fan of music then I’m not sure that this is the film for you. However, if you’ve ever had a teacher akin to the Demon Headmaster and need something cathartic or if you’re a fan of jazz music, then go see Whiplash, it is well worth your time.

Score: 9/10 An exhausting tour-de-force that never lets up.