La La Land – LFF Review

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Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?

The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.

From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.

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Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.

But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.

For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.

Gangster Squad – Film Review

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Gangster Squad opens on Sean Penn as real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, alone in a boxing ring. With a murderous glare and muscly arms more scary-looking than Madonna’s (incidentally, Penn’s ex-wife) he beats a punching bag violently whilst Josh Brolin details through voiceover how awesomely criminal Cohen is. Because director Ruben Fleischer doesn’t think this convinces us enough that Cohen is a cold-blooded psycho we cut to a remote location where he has a man chained to two cars pointing in opposite directions. Cohen instructs his goons to drive and audience cheers at the bloody violence thrown at them before they’ve even had a chance to sit down.

Mickey Cohen’s mafia occupation is a force that 1950s Hollywoodland can do without. That is why the incorruptible LAPD Chief recruits Josh Brolin’s equally honest Sgt. John O’Mara, a too-dedicated-to-the-force war veteran, to put together an unofficial squad to not just arrest Cohen but to destroy him.

Although some may find it odd that director Ruben Fleischer has seemingly taken a different route from his previous efforts Gangster Squad isn’t all that different from Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less. They all play host to dark humour, they all feature excessive violence, and they all play with their genres in ways that we don’t see often. It may play the plot straight but at the same time it is certainly no The Untouchables.

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Without crossing into parody the squad O’Mara selects are pretty laughable. The gang are sincere in their efforts to take down Cohen’s operation but run into problems only Mr Bean could have if he ever challenged the mob. Needless to say, the misfits are incredibly hard to not love. Brolin is excellent as the group’s leader whose biggest flaw is his dedication to his Protect And Serve oath, constantly endangering himself, ticking his pregnant wife right off. As friend, Sgt. Jerry Wooter, Ryan Gosling somehow balances cutie-pie with hard-nosed cop brilliantly, falling in love with Cohen’s favourite “doll”, Grace, played by Emma Stone (which makes the pair two for two in playing love interests in a film they both star in – the other being Crazy Stupid Love). The rest of the gang consists of veteran character actor Robert Patrick whose skills put to shame loyal Michael Peña, doubter Anthony Mackie and the reserved but bold Giovanni Ribisi.

Sticking to cliché most of the way some may sneer at Gangster Squad, but it spreads itself equally between set pieces and long dialogues, making it easier watch than most crime films without becoming a soulless actioner.

Gangster Squad is one of those fine films that fills you with absurd excitement; the kind of film that has you imitating the characters for the rest of your evening. Just like I put my socks on my hands and pretend to shoot webs right after seeing any Spider-Man film, Gangster Squad had me adding “lickety split” to every sentence and firing an imaginary tommy gun everywhere as I travelled home. Les Miserables this weekend? Gangster Squad, lickety split!

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Drive – DVD Review

Ryan Gosling is an unnamed driver making his living by fixing up cars or driving them for whoever is willing to pay regardless of any moral ambiguity involved. A quiet, almost childlike figure, Gosling’s naive driver becomes involved with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and finds himself embroiled with dangerous criminals and reacts in a horrifically violent manner.

When I first reviewed the film I called it, “a slow, gorgeous, and tense drama” and when declaring it the 4th Best Film of 2011 I described it as, “sleek and smooth, Drive lures you into a false sense of security with its tense yet relaxing atmosphere before erupting into shockingly graphic violence.” Obviously all of this remains true of the film on DVD, it looks stunning and the unique soundtrack sounds great. If you’re looking for a great new release filled with stellar performances, a surprising plot and stylish direction then look no further.

If you’re a film nerd looking for a DVD crammed with extras then sadly you’re out of luck.

The only special feature on the DVD worth writing home about (check the post Mum) is a 40 minute interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn, but there are no documentaries or commentaries in sight. If you are truly desperate for extra content, I’m afraid two trailers and a photo gallery are going to have to suffice. I know not everyone cares about the special features but for those that do this DVD is a disappointment, especially considering the US release is much more well-endowed.

In summary, Drive is a five star film and well worth owning despite a deficit of DVD extras. Drive is out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 30th 2012.

2012 Golden Globes Nominations

With awards season truly hotting up we are treated with the nominations for the 2012 Golden Globe Awards. They’re an interesting bunch, a lot of the more challenging and/or smaller films have been passed by. The Los Angles Times has it spot on when they say that the nominations seem to recognise those works featuring the A-list actors, more accessible films and less dark dramas. No Tyrannosaur or Like Crazy to be found below.

What you will find is my gut reaction and my opinions for each category (apart from Best Original Song and Best Original Score as that is not my strong suit) whether you want it or not. Continue reading

Drive – Review

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive Ryan Gosling plays a nameless driver far more at ease in the company of a car than with another human being. A mix of mechanic, getaway driver and stuntman, the driver lives a simple, uncomplicated life which begins to unravel as he falls for his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and life suddenly becomes complex.

With Gosling’s lead role requiring almost no dialogue, it is up to the supporting cast to flesh out the piece and Drive‘s acting stable is well stocked with a talented fleet. Mulligan brings the heart as the vulnerable neighbour while Bryan Cranston offers some comic relief as Gosling’s boss. Gosling isn’t just a near-mute, his character shows almost no emotions throughout so the comedy and the heart provided elsewhere become even more important for the audience to find a connection with the film.

For the most part Drive is a slow, gorgeous and tense drama and it frequently lulls you into a false sense of security. It is when you are most relaxed, settled into a gentle dialogue scene that Drive unleashed its flashes of raw, brutal violence. These are never overplayed but always shocking, the violence at times becoming so extreme the audience couldn’t help but laugh. Rest assured this is an 18 through and through.

Shot with a true artist’s eye Drive has a B movie plot but an art house sensibility. This is an exploitation film directed as something so much better. Stunning, shocking and flawless. I loved it.

Poster Quote: The Taxi Driver of the 21st century.