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La La Land (2016)
Yes, legitimately great
Okay, big deal, they've made an original Hollywood musical for the first time in decades, and the music is okay, and it's all a big L.A. love-fest. Ho-hum.
BUT... La La Land really IS that good, even if it doesn't immediately present itself as anything more than a fluffy confection. This takes its place comfortably with "An American in Paris" (to which it pays considerable homage).
To me this is kind of a "guerilla musical"; most of the shots seemed to source from hand-held cameras. It's a low-budget production that frequently uses lighting effects that would be at home in a high school musical. There's little in the way of purpose-built sets and heavy use is made of locations with showbiz-themed murals and the like.
The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, and fits the classic romantic comedy rags-to-riches template. Neither lead is either a great dancer or a great singer, but the characters are engaging and they're having so much damn fun that it's easy to get pulled in.
This is a sticky-sweet L.A. love story, presented without a whit of irony, and its sincere cheer is infectious. The original music is nice and catchy and both Gosling and Stone present fun, relatable characters.
***SPOILER*** Where La La Land goes from escapist confection to truly great is in the final number, a bittersweet composition that re-imagines the story of Nia and Sebastian with some crucial differences. It's an expression of regret and longing and somehow makes a meaningful comment about the ways we want to reshape reality. The ending is note-perfect.
Lovely movie. Worth the hype.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Powerful, chilling, and still utterly relevant
Great. Really great. Deserves wider recognition, because as a study of power and populism it's up there with "Citizen Kane".
No, Elia Kazan didn't have Orson Welles' dazzling technical brilliance (though there's a wonderful natural feel of being onstage with the performers throughout), but he was very much an actor's director and brings some spectacular performances to the screen here.
I'm a child of the early '60s, so I grew up with The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry RFD, and Matlock. I'd experienced many, many stories on TV with Andy Griffith, and he was a comfortable, familiar presence. Maybe the best compliment I can pay this film and his performance in it was that I quickly forgot he was Andy Griffith at all.
Griffith's character of "Lonesome" Rhodes is honestly a performance for the ages. He's by turns charming, pitiful, and terrifying as he quickly ascends from an Arkansas county drunk tank to become a powerful media presence. The story is plotted conveniently but Griffith is utterly believable through the entire climb.
Though Rhodes is the focus of the story, there's a great surrounding ensemble, too. The great Walter Mattheau has a strong supporting role as one of Rhodes' writers who eventually becomes disillusioned, and Patricia Neal is fantastic as the reporter who brings attention to Rhodes to begin with and tries to follow him all the way up. The performances are all amazing.
Some personal speculation: I understand that Kazan was very demanding on Griffith during shooting, and that Griffith's experience on set was dark and difficult. His subsequent, more prosaic television career may well have been shaped by a desire to atone for his performance here.
Kazan did this movie following his classic "On the Waterfront", and perhaps it's overshadowed unfairly. It's a great story of power, populism and corruption and deserves to be known more widely.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Yes, a genuine great
I'm writing this review long, long after my original viewing of the film, and that's significant in itself: it's stayed with me this long.
Ben Affleck did such a good job on this movie I could hardly believe it was him directing. The gritty settings, the bang-on performances, the solid pacing... It flat WORKS just on a cinematic level. It's a good detective story with really compelling characters. Notably, Casey Affleck's performance is magnificent. Deadpan, absolutely, but it's a character that demands it.
What elevates Gone Baby Gone to true greatness, though, is the moral question posed in the course of the story. It's a great movie to see with other people, because it's sure to raise discussion.
Surprisingly entertaining, even life-affirming
Given the disturbing premise of "Room", I was expecting emotional intensity, a fairly static plot, and a generally dark tone, so I was surprised to find this movie to be an engagingly-told story of resiliency.
Both Brie Larson and Jacob Trembley are outstanding. Playing mother and son, their characters and relationship are completely convincing, and while the story starts fairly quietly (perhaps to reflect Joy's and Jack's captivity), the story gains intensity as Joy realizes the need to escape, and prepares Jack to help in the attempt.
This is a story about trauma, survival, and resiliency, told very quietly and carefully. I marvel at films that find the significance in the everyday, without having to warp it for dramatic effect. "Room" achieves it beautifully.
I don't even LIKE the Marvel movies...
...but DEADPOOL was awesome! It was great to find an action-comedy that assumes I'm an adult.
It's dumb, it's profane, it's utterly silly, and I loved every minute of it (literally, right from the opening "credits"). Is there a story in there? Yeah, I guess, but it's really just secondary to Deadpool's constant smart-alec riffing. If anyone was considering writing a Marvel spoof screenplay, don't bother; "Deadpool" frequently bites the hand that feeds it and skewers the label as thoroughly as anyone could hope.
Deadpool "breaks the 4th wall" frequently, and even parodies that device by breaking the 4th wall in a flashback WHILE breaking the 4th wall ("That's like, 16 walls!").
Do NOT take kids. This movie revels in gratuitous violence, graphic language, and juvenile humour, and makes no apologies for any of it. This is an "R" rated movie and comes by it honestly. If you're good with that, though, the odds are good you'll laugh your butt off.
The Interview (2014)
Not sure what people were expecting...
For what it is, "The Interview" is fine. It's an adolescent comedy with moronic slapstick humour, in very much the same vein as the previous Seth Rogen/James Franco movie "This is the End". It's vulgar, raunchy, and contains no pretence of social responsibility.
Personally, I laughed my butt off. The jokes worked for me, and in fact I wound up seeing it twice this weekend and found many jokes I'd missed on the first viewing.
You can really look at "The Interview" as kind of the 2014 version of the old Crosby-Hope "Road" movies. No substance, fun chemistry, doofy plot. Rogen is actually very funny as Franco's straight man.
I like the generosity of these guys that they give lots of laughs to their supporting cast, too. Randall Park's role as Kim Jong Un didn't strike me as terribly convincing, but he winds up covering a pretty fair emotional range.
Again, vulgar, raunchy, and no pretence of social responsibility. Or really any responsibility. If you're good with that, you have a better-than-average chance of liking this movie.
The Object of Beauty (1991)
Worth seeking out
There's a genre I like to call "little English comedy" that really traces its roots back to the Ealing studios in the late 40s. The movies didn't have high budgets (they couldn't afford them), but frequently had clever scripts that made them eminently watchable (Alec Guiness got his start there in movies like The Man in the White Suite and The Horse's Mouth).
The Object of Beauty fits this category nicely. It's a little puzzling that it didn't do better, actually, with two American leads and rave reviews from Siskel and Ebert. Their review, in fact, is the only reason I happened to be on the lookout for this one.
It's an elegant, witty comedy of manners. It's carefully, quietly scripted, and rather subtle. Totally worth seeking out.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Long... Weird... Kind of amazing.
Synechdoche, New York is nothing if not ambitious. It's about mortality, love, loss, creativity, and fear. It's a 2 hour comedy that doesn't have a single full-out laugh but countless sly observations, from the mundane to the profound.
This is an art film, and it makes no apologies for it. It's remarkably confident and does little to explain itself. That alone makes it kind of wonderful.
It's challenging. I'd watched the first 20 minutes and had to abandon it because I wasn't "getting" it. Catch it with the right set of expectations, though, and it becomes one of those stories that kind of flows around you like a dream. When I went in for a second attempt, it worked a lot better.
The length works in the movie's favor. You follow secondary characters from the beginning, and the way their lives unfold (and end) are meaningful (SPOILER: The scene with Caden at Olive's deathbed is a brilliant summation of the gaps between parents and children).
It's cinematic absurdism. Pretty accessible as absurdism goes, but it's not going to be for everyone. I "got" it, though, and I'm very grateful.
My favorite of MGM's classics
I adore Brigadoon.
Won't quibble about the authenticity of the story, the sets, or the choreography. However inauthentic the movie may be, it WORKS. For me, it works better than any of MGM's other classics.
The production is beautiful. The sets (however artificial) are beautiful. Kelly's choreography is beautiful. Cyd Charisse is BEAUTIFUL (honestly, my favorite woman in any musical, ever--masterful dance if I've ever seen it).
"Heather on the Hill" is a highlight of musical cinema, period. Lovely song, spectacular dancing and choreography.
The ending, however preposterous, still ranks among my favorites.
First thing to get out of the way about "Looper"; time travel is a plot device, and nothing more. The movie is much more about the characters and the implications of their actions. It's kind of a philosophy treatise wrapped up in an engaging action plot.
There are multiple holes and inconsistencies in the plot. Honestly, they don't matter. This is a character-driven story, and a rather good one.
There's a neat, "noir-ish" tone to the movie. There's some exposition in the first half-hour that helps us understand the rules of this universe. A great many of these rules are explained in an early sequence where a friend of central character Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to "close his loop" by killing his future self. The results are gruesome, but not in any way we see explicitly.
Great sci-fi doesn't actually have to be believable. It just has to provide a setting for a story that wouldn't make sense in our own world. "Looper" turns out to be a very interesting contemplation of what makes people "good" and "bad" and does it with some smartly-conceived action and better-than-average writing.