Friday, December 30, 2016

City of Stars (When Sebastian Met Mia)

The subject of my final review of 2016 also happens to be the best of the 65 movies I’ve seen in theaters this year, Damien Chazelle’s reverently crafted and wondrously exuberant musical love letter to the City of Angels, Golden Age “CinemaScope” musicals (RIP, Debbie), classical jazz and lost love told through the eyes of two young lovebirds struggling to realize their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.  With ‘La La Land' the immensely talented Harvard man Chazelle, who previously directed and wrote the Oscar darling ‘Whiplash,’ single-handedly rejuvenated the movie musical and gave us the perfect feel-good movie in which to surrender ourselves.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (the adorably cute couple from ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’) are reunited on-screen as two idealistic twentysomethings pursuing their flights of fancy.  Sebastian is a talented pianist who aims to keep the torch of traditional improvisational jazz (not the new age elevator "smooth jazz" of Kenny G, that's Keith played by John Legend) burning and to save enough money for his own jazz club someday, while Mia is a lover of classic TCM movies and dreams of becoming an actress and playwright.  The two cross path by chance and, despite their initial feigned indifference and nonchalance toward each other, soon fall madly in love.  While the story is a familiar one, we can’t help but be swept along by their blossoming romance and eventual drifting apart through the four seasons on the strengths of the performances and chemistry between the two engaging leads.  The always endearing Emma Stone had never shone brighter and is an utter delight to watch, proving once again why I've been a fan since first seeing her in 'Zombieland' and 'Easy A.'  Just listen to her half of the wistful ditty below:

Evoking the kind of movie magic all too rare these days, ‘La La Land’ is an exercise in pure whimsical fantasy but is also irresistibly charming and sweet.  The original songs and musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz and the dance numbers by choreographer (not to be confused with the singer) Mandy Moore are Oscar-caliber, eliciting feelings from joy to melancholy, and the film's bittersweet “what might have been" epilogue is a sublime masterpiece of such heart-wrenching beauty and tenderness that only elevated its poignancy and resonance.  Light on its feet but heavy on our hearts,  'La La Land’ is a stunning cinematic musical tour de force that appeals to the hopeless romantic in all of us and makes our hearts swoon.  Now that's entertainment!  Have a safe and happy new year, my friends.
Grade: A+
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Monday, December 19, 2016

Going Rogue

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RIP, Carrie.  Thanks for playing "Beauty" to the Beast and being the best. slave. ever.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is Disney’s first stand-alone movie set in the popular Star Wars universe, a spin-off rather than a numbered installment in the Star Wars film franchise.  Directed by British helmer Gareth Edwards (‘Monsters,’ ‘Godzilla 2014’), it was made clear from the very outset that R1 is going be a darker, grittier Star Wars movie that promises to put the “war” in Star Wars.  Edwards even went so far as to say that it’s inspired by one of the best WWII movies of all time, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ which, by the way, should have won Best Picture instead of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ in 1999.
Unless you’re ignorant about everything Star Wars, it would be no spoiler for me to tell you that R1 is a prequel to Episode 4 (aka ‘A New Hope’), about a ragtag group of rebels who successfully stole the plans of the Death Star which Luke Skywalker destroyed in his X-Wing starfighter in Episode 4.  This “Dirty Half Dozen” includes Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist forced to build the planet-destroying superweapon; Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel Alliance intelligence operative; Chirrut Ĭmwe (Donnie Yen, Chinese #1), a blind warrior monk who thinks that “The Force is with him and he’s one with The Force”; Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen, Chinese #2), a Boba Fett-like bounty hunter and friend of Ĭmwe; Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot-turned-rebel and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve the rebel cause (think of "him" as a more kick-ass or less wimpy version of C-3PO).  How do you think Luke and his Red Squadron knew where the critical flaw/weakness of the Death Star is?  Thanks to the one-way suicide mission these brave misfits undertook, that’s how!
R1 is the Star Wars movie we’ve all been waiting for, providing us with a tale of heroism and sacrifice from the grunt’s POV as well as the space-spanning galactic battles we've come to expect while keeping the overall tone of the movie light enough for a Disney picture.  The realism and immediacy of the pitched laser gunfights have come a long way from its humble beginnings in the original trilogy, and Storm Troopers actually displayed "proper tactics" and behaved in a way that’s semi believable even if their marksmanship still leaves a lot to be desired.   What I like the most about R1 is that it maintained the dusty “space western” feel of the original trilogy; the rebels are all dirty-grungy looking like desperados and wearing their gun belts loose.  All that’s missing are cowboy hats.
Grade: A-
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Love Lies Bleeding

The new movie from fashion designer-cum-director Tom Ford, ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ is a weirdly compelling art-house gem which defies convention and description.  Not having seen his directorial debut from 2009, the critically acclaimed ‘A Single Man,’ I probably wouldn’t even have sought out his latest release if not for the fact that a friend mentioned it to me.  Thanks, Penny!
The narrative structure of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ involves two parallel stories.  One is set in the present and follows art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with an unfaithful husband.  One day she receives the manuscript of a novel (dedicated to her) entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ from her ex-husband, whom she left on bad terms some years ago, and finds herself increasingly engrossed in it.  The other story is the one told in the novel itself, a tale of obsession and vengeance that was set into motion when a teacher's road trip through West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher, who kinda looks like Amy Adams!) and teenage daughter turned into a hellish living nightmare.  The two otherwise unrelated stories are told in alternating fashion and are tied together by Jake Gyllenhaal, who played both the protagonist (teacher) in the novel and Susan’s real life ex-husband shown in a series of flashbacks, which gave me the unsettling impression that the events which unfolded in the novel are real. Alas, it is an allegory of the death of true love.
Billed as a “neo-noir psychological thriller,” ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a boldly provocative film that’s unafraid to go where few other movies would dare.  From its shocking and disturbing opening scene featuring plus-sized burlesque strippers to its final act, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ never ceases to surprise (though not always pleasantly) and manages to hold us spellbound even as it repulses us in its surreal excess and nihilistic violence.

Grade: A- 
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Axis & Allied

It’s ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ versus Nazis with ‘Casablanca’ as the backdrop in Robert Zemeckis’s sizzling World War II spy actioner/romance ‘Allied.’  The accomplished and accessible director of such films as  ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘Castaway’ is no stranger to pairing flirtatious male and female leads, with 1984’s ‘Romancing the Stone’ starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner among his directorial credits.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard play dashing Canadian commando Max Vatan and sultry French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, rendezvousing in Casablanca and posing as French socialites on a daring mission to assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco at a high profile Nazi party.  Their mission goes without a hitch and their budding romance soon blossoms into marriage after they returned to London, but things get a bit, ah, more complicated when Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi spy by British intelligence.  How can this be?  Please say it isn't so!
‘Allied’ is an action-packed and suspenseful thriller anchored by its two strong leads. The cinematography and period flavor evoke nostalgia and remind us of ‘Casablanca,’ which undoubtedly is its intent.  It is also surprisingly sexy.  There is one memorable scene inside an automobile where the raw passion and desire between Max and Marianne build up with increasing urgency, before reaching a crescendo in tune with a raging sandstorm outside.  No wonder Brangelina broke up.  Just kidding.
Grade: B+
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