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.

The Big Short Review

Wall Street is good theatre. Several films have been set on what is basically the capital of the United States market and economy. In that sort of high-stress environment, good cinema thrives, with films like Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street and…well Wall Street. Does The Big Short (nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) stand with these great films?

The Big Short stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt and is directed by Adam McKay. Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film follows several brokers on Wall Street who predicted the 2008 Housing Crisis and decide to bet against the market and get rich.

If you don’t know the first thing about stocks, don’t worry I’m right with you. Top bond salesman Jared Vennett (Gosling) turns to the camera early on and says, “I know this is boring and confusing, so here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.” The film does this several times, with celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain popping up and explaining what several of the market terms mean through simple analogies. It’s incredibly funny and is kept up throughout the entire film, with characters turning to screen to explain how things happened or drawing pictures in thin air. However, don’t think it’s a pure comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street (despite it being nominated in several awards under “comedy”), it’s more of a drama that a laugh-out-loud film.

You have to pay attention throughout, the film will stop and explain a term but it will then set off again and assume you got the gist of it. I missed a couple of lines of dialogue and for the next ten minutes I was confused over what was happening. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to talk about complex and deliberately puzzling exchanges and statistics. Luckily, with the help of those previously mentioned cut-aways to celebrities or a Jenga set to symbolise the housing market, the audience can follow along the winding trail of buying and selling dodgy commodities. It’s a riveting script, and McKay and collaborator Charles Randolph have done a fantastic job of making what could be an intensely boring subject into one of the most suspenseful.

The cast is a major strong point. A lot of the main players are playing against type; Steve Carell is a surly man with emotional baggage, Christian Bale is a doctor with Aspergers who walks around his office barefoot and plays music obnoxiously loud and Brad Pitt is quiet retiree who is paranoid the government is spying on him. Most of these men never meet face-to-face, but they all figure out at some point that the market is going to collapse and the joy comes from their different methods and approaches to how they will get out of it without losing money or their jobs.

By far the best performance is Ryan Gosling. Sure, I might be a fanboy, but in The Big Short he is fantastic. He’s obviously channelling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and looks like he’s loving playing the part of a ruthless salesman. The moments where he verbal puts-down his underlings, or clears an entire men’s bathroom so that he can have a private phone call are funny and create an interesting character, and serve as a good distraction in-between the major money-conversations.

As soon as I finished The Big Short, I knew that it had majorly shaken up my predictions for the winner of this year’s Oscar. It’s riveting and often hilarious but it’s painfully fast. When your problem with the film is “there should be more of this”, you have something good. If you think you can keep up with its rapid pace, then The Big Short get’s my recommendation.

Score: 9/10 Thrilling, funny, thought-provoking and totally deserves it’s nomination.

Only God Forgives Review

Preface

After my The Raid 2 review, I was thinking “What are my other favourite films?” The usual’s came up, Psycho, The Thing, Gran Torino, on and on the list went. There are many people who have already argued the merits of those films, you don’t need me to tell you they’re good. But one film on my favourites list stood out, receiving both glowing and panning reviews. The retro review I do for you today is, Only God Forgives.

Review

Only God Forgives stars Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm and Rhatha Phongam and is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The film follows Julian (Gosling), a criminal in the Bangkok underworld, who is urged by his mafia mother (Scott Thomas) to kill a local police lieutenant, Chang, (Pansringarm) in revenge for killing Julian’s brother.

While Psycho may have been the film to get me interested in the idea of studying film at university, Only God Forgives was the film that cemented it. And what a film to inaugurate a degree choice with. I had enjoyed the last Refn/Gosling team-up Drive and while Only God Forgives has many similar elements to its spiritual predecessor, it’s by far the stranger film.

I realise now that I have a penchant for neon-infused streets and buildings (see my love for John Wick and Blade Runner) and Only God Forgives doesn’t let down in this department. Both Gosling and Pansringarm walk on the seedy side of Bangkok, full of drinking-dens and barely legal brothels, and all of it is drenched in vibrant blues and reds. It’s breath-taking, and truly shows what a master cinematographer Larry Smith is.

The music, composed by another Drive alumni Cliff Martinez, fits the neon cinematography well, drawing in several different elements. Martinez uses organs, Thai strings and drums and even synths to create weird hybrid that fits all of the films themes. It’s similar to Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner, with a definite 80s vibe running through it.

Ryan Gosling seems to be channelling his earlier Refn role from Drive, but somehow even more quiet and awkward than before. While Gosling’s lines in Drive added up to around five minutes of film when collected together, his lines in Only God Forgives would be less than a sixty seconds. Julian has only 17 lines in the film, with one of them just screaming like a madman at his favourite prostitute. While some might call it pretentious, I believe it’s a master-class at showing a character through his actions rather than his words. Vithaya Pansringarm turns in a very good performance as Chang, who probably has less lines than Gosling, but manages to have an ethereal presence over the film, since Chang is playing what Refn called the “Angel of Vengeance”. According to sources, before starting a take, Refn would whisper in Pansringarm’s ear, “You are God”. This tactic seems to work dividends, as you can almost see the power building up behind Pansringarm’s eyes as his dishes out punishment or forgiveness all over Bangkok.

The standout role however is an unrecognisable Kristen Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother Crystal, a mafia matriarch who flies to Bangkok to find her son’s killer. Crystal seems to be a mash-up of several different people, equal parts Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace, making for a truly terrifying and antagonising female presence in the film. With her bleach-blonde hair, cigarette always in the corner of her mouth and wearing the tightest and brightest clothes known to man, it’s a far cry from Scott Thomas’ earlier work. And once you add all of that to the expletive ridden dialogue she has, it makes for one hell of a character.

When I first finished Only God Forgives, I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I wasn’t a fan. I watched it again the next day and when the credits came up I had completely switched minds. It’s a film that you have to go away and think about before knowing if you like it, but on the way to finding out whether you like it too, you’ll have a whirlwind of a film.

Score: 9/10 One of the strangest and most compelling things put to film.