It’s Another Day of Sun in the City of Stars

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The amount of time it takes for me to recognize whether or not I’m going to love a film is a variable depending on the particular movie. Sometimes it takes some brilliant third act movement to get me really on a film’s side (Hullo there Arrival) and sometimes it’s around the middle where I find myself more or less surprised by how I’ve been enjoying myself (What’s happening, John Wick). When it comes to La La Land, it wasn’t exactly the very first frame of the film where we see a jam-packed street of bright cars stuck in rush hour L.A. traffic, bright enough to understand how hot the sun must be bearing but not blinding to the point of being unpleasant to watch. It wasn’t when that opening shot leads into an uninterrupted take of a musical number (if there’s a hidden cut – and there usually is – I didn’t catch it) where the inhabitants of those stuck cars just start dancing in the lanes to their bombastically upbeat tune about the legend of Hollywood as a place for sunshiny happiness and where everybody walking down the street is a star in the making called “Another Day of Sun”, though it was very much close to that point with how it evoked the high-spirited breeziness of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. Not least in its selection of solid colored costumes leaping and jumping over dark chrome vehicles without missing a beat.

But no, the moment I realized that La La Land was going to be my kind of movie outright that even if it turned out to be bad, I was going to have fun rewatching it was exactly at the end of this sunshiny number where it bookends it with the film’s title card followed by another.

“Winter”.

A glib sense of humor about how the obnoxiously genial manner that first number set La La Land up that I was surprised I was the only one laughing at it (and then embarrassed enough at how quickly I responded that I was quiet). Like I said, even if La La Land turned out to be bad after that moment, I was on its side.

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Thankfully La La Land was far from bad. I’d go so far as to call it one of the best times I had in the cinema. Writer/Director Damian Chazelle may have spent most of Whiplash baiting as much tension as he could (and sometimes really stretching for that tension), but La La Land is not similar to Whiplash by any means. Where Whiplash could be read as how painful art is to accomplish, La La Land is not not about that. But it spends so much of its runtime promising that the payoff, when you reach your dreams, will be worth any of the pain that comes to you. Chazelle’s script is so certain of the impending accomplishments of its leads Seb (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who wants to own his own club, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, that even when the movie takes a turn for the bitter in its latter half, there’s never any doubt that they’ll get where they’re going eventually. Chazelle’s optimism for the characters he loves so much is infectious and it’s facilitated baldly through his love for two things: movies and jazz, which Mia and Seb both spitfire obsessive factoids and anecdotes on. Writing about something you’re genuinely enthusiastic about for a greater narrative about love and dreams works wonders. Who knew? In the meanwhile, Chazelle lets the movie play that out in its naked homages to musical artificiality – Linus Sandgren’s cinematography absolutely shameless in its nostalgic purples and reds of the magic sky because look how gorgeous it is, the production design of David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco with the costume design of Mary Zophres looking for the thoroughline between 1950s Hollywood class and modern 2010s L.A. plausibility, and editor Tom Cross game enough to let long takes show-off how far the cinematic lie can go before Cross has to cut away from the master take – but it wouldn’t be as successful without Justin Hurwitz’s score. Or to me at least, since mileage on the score may vary because it is a blatantly shallow little thing in all its dramatic Romanticism even when it’s trying to be low-key about itself. But that’s exactly what makes it so engagingly junk food and contagiously memorable for me that I don’t really care that it’s not a complex music. My foot is still tapping to some of the melodies as I write this down as we speak, with motifs being emulated and called back from the five primary songs Chazelle and Hurwitz co-wrote from that opener “Another Day of Sun” to the melancholic “City of Stars”. And of course, to have the score act as a worthwhile compliment to both Mia and Seb as characters, Hurwitz injects as much jazz into the hopping notes (of course, it’s also the unchallenging kind of jazz that would probably piss the purist Seb off, so I can’t say it always works).

At least that’s how Chazelle gets that love for movies across in the script, but the creation of Seb and Mia as a romantic duo takes more than just writing. It takes the screen charisma of Gosling and Stone, already proving to be a deadly cute couple in pictures like Crazy, Stupid, Love and even a reward for those willing to make it through Gangster Squad. Their chemistry on-screen should not be a surprise to anyone and they’re not exactly bringing anything new to the idea of romantic foils in a musical, but it’s the right amount of talent and movie star recognizability that makes the romantic plot central to La La Land such an engaging confection to guide us through their characters’ wants and needs. Gosling, after spending a lot of recent years playing characters with heavy flaws to near unlikability, gets a character for whom he could turn that compulsive personality of Seb into double-edged charm. While Emma Stone is no newbie to grounded eartnestness, and when that comes to the film’s manifesto song “Audition (Here’s to the Fools That Dream)”, her emotiveness pays off wonderfully at selling the humanity behind La La Land‘s blatant movie gloss (it helps that this is one of several moments where Sandgren knows to completely turn off all light sources except what’s on the actors’ faces so THEY and the music can manipulate our feelings) and Mia’s potentials as an actress (Seb never has to sell us on his quality as a pianist – he gets an early showcase piano solo before we also see how underappreciated his talents are and how much of a prick he can be).

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This was tough to write without turning it into a detail list of “this cool moment” and “this cool moment” (save for “Another Day in the Sun”), because La La Land is the type of movie that is just filled with moments dedicated to dazzling us and leaving a smile on our face if we’ll just meet it a little bit into the way. It’s shocking to me that I have gone this far without nudging to its showstopper finale where it goes 100 on artifice and recollects all the music it has allowed us to indulge in, but it’s also probably for the best to keep that under wraps, especially if you love musicals as much as yours truly. It’s the sort of ending that’s much more rewarding as a surprise and then it’s pretty obvious what note the movie will end on 15 minutes later. It’s not a perfect film, by any means. There’s a sort of problematic presentation in the conflict between the white Gosling and the black John Legend – who is a game and impressive actor for the limited screentime he gets – on the matter of jazz, though I don’t feel the movie misrepresents jazz so much as plays safe with it. And that comes from a lifetime of love for the genre from me, I don’t think Chazelle is less than authentic in his attitudes. And there is just the slightest possibility that Gosling and Stone might rub audience members the wrong way in their one-track mindedness. And it’s possibly the least challenging movie on movies you could see while still being impressed by its glamour, especially coming from the same year’s Hail, Caesar!another movie about how fun movies are with more intelligence behind it.

But there’s also no other movie this year that I’d be more inclined to recommend to everybody I come across. It’s too accessible, joyous, and impressive not to be a great note to end the year on.

Hey all you people!

Hey all you people! La La Land s’marvelous!

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Flock This

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Remember how in my Suicide Squad review, I was talking about how it felt like every song in existence appears in its soundtrack. The Angry Birds Movie definitely holds that claim up to scrutiny and it even has at least one overlap in the form of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” (hell, I might want to suspect they both appear within the first ten minutes of both movies). It is one of several forced pop culture references that comes out of nowhere in context, from a Shining parody to a Coexist sticker. Like, what the hell with that last one?

So, I wonder if I am somewhat blessed in my cave residence that I barely regarded the huge sensation The Angry Birds game by the Rovio company from the early turn of this decade. I think I played it once and found it kind of fun, but I wasn’t writing home about it – come to think of it, I only got my first smartphone AFTER this hype – and I’ve been accustomed enough to deflecting mainstream culture that everything Angry Birds went right over my head. For this reason, the existence of an Angry Birds Movie is a complete shock to me, a rude awakening that I am forced to confront with my own eyes. I mean, I know people mentioned it in passing to me and I saw ads and stuff, but I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening until I sat in the theater realizing “Oh my god, this movie made number one at the box office” waiting for the movie to begin, too late to change my path. This is the reason I also can’t bring myself to say “who is this movie made for?” since I can’t trust myself not to realize that maybe a cell phone game still has its hype. Besides, we all know how time-consuming animation work takes, especially coming from the green animation wing of Rovio (with help from Sony Imageworks) and if there’s anything worthwhile at least about The Angry Birds Movie, it is the animation. It sure as hell has nothing else going for it.

Anyway, so let’s hit this head-on from the slingshot…

Oh God, this shit hurts, I haven’t even started on the plot, but it means acknowledging the hoops jumped to a climax of birds slingshoting themselves Kamikaze-style against green pigs. But anyway…

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The Angry Birds Movie, as drafted in a book of flesh with blood for ink by screenwriter Jon Vitti (story credits to Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla, and John Cohen), establishes a genial community of birds on an island called Bird Island. And everybody on the island seems to have a good attitude about things except for Red  (Jason Sudeikis), a triangular red bird whose face is kept in a permanent scowl thanks to his solid block eyebrows. Which makes me wonder if this character is designed after me and I just never noticed. In any case, I would not be mistaken for a birthday clown, the job the ill-suited Red takes up that almost immediately gets him into trouble when he can’t suppress his wrath for an unpleasant client. Red’s dismissive attitude towards everything Bird Island holds dear lands him in an anger management class with the rapid yellow speedster Chuck  (Josh Gad, and man, no other actor has quickly turned for me from amusing in The Book of Mormon and Frozen to insufferable in Pixels and this), the explosive black Bomb  (Danny McBride), and the mostly quiet and huge and looking-angrier-than-even-Red Terence  (Oh no, Sean Penn, what happened man?).

Already there’s a huge problem for me with The Angry Birds Movie within its first 30 minutes. Like Red, I recognize that community he lives in is absolutely intolerable because Bird Island maindates more sycophantic happiness than Disneyland’s employee policy. So I’m obviously close to identifying with his annoyance and exasperation. But then there’s also the fact that Red is absolutely dislikable as a protagonist. The film’s unwillingness to let the animation have Red’s expressions give away his thoughts means Red never shuts the fuck and given the extremely anonymous voice of Sudeikis just makes Red a bird who likes the sound of his own superiority and I don’t feel that’s much better than asphyxiating cheerfulness.

It doesn’t help that obviously the premise sets itself up for Red to learn a lesson about how not to continuously rely on his anger (and even hammers one a line of “anger is not the answer to everything”), but then the pigs show up in a giant ship that demolishes Red’s home. At first, the pig leader Leonard (Bill Hader) introduces himself as benevolent but even after Red exposes lie after lie from Leonard, starting with the fact that Leonard has his entire pig family following him, Bird Island is painstakingly ignorant to the sinister intentions of the pigs and somehow surprised when they steal all of their eggs to eat.

In order to rescue those eggs in time, Red attempts to enlist his childhood hero, the legend Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) but when it is clear that Eagle has lost the will to rise up to heroics again like he was once known for.

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Y’all get how convoluted this is, right? And how it’s obviously going to end in a sort of muddled message when Red trains the entire Bird community to use their anger as a way to defeat the pigs and save their eggs. It’s probably classless to go and criticize The Angry Birds Movie for not being more than just a hell of a lot of twisted circumstances that lead to slingshotted birds at pig establishments, but there I am doing it when it swears it wants a character arc for Red at the very least but it leaps from his anger being terrible and ostracizing himself from the community to it being good to suddenly he’s a happier guy.

And keep in mind, I’m only distracting myself with the contrivances of its plot to steer from having to talk about the nonexistent effort in voice casting by the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Maya Rudolph, and Kate McKinnon, the terrible sense of humor (even ignoring the unnecessary pop culture overglut, the movie is filled with the crudest of snot jokes and barely veiled sex jokes to augment parental regret), and the pop music. But if I was looking for a kind word, it’s this – the movie’s animation is impressive for a first-time company. It matches the aesthetic of the video game and adapts it into 3D depth while playing with primary colors to pop out the vibrant variety of its bird character designs – even when characters like Bomb and Terrence seem to just revolve around “big” and “round” as visuals. The pigs are all the same sickly shade of green, but that just obviously gives them a more menacing and nasty look, so good job for color coding your villains, directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly. Your literacy in visuals does not exactly make up for your poor storytelling, but it’s something.

That’s it. That’s the most I can spare to praise the movie and I don’t feel like hurting my brain trying to look for reasons not to regret watching it. Oh well, I guess it did what it came for, but what it came to do isn’t much.

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Time Is a Flat Circle

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I really hope this trend keeps on rolling. This interest mainstream cinema has been having since 2013 with science fiction films largely focused on character-intimate narrative and involving space or extra-terrestrial life. It’s been around before but I can’t recall a previous streak of annual tentpole after tentpole interested in supporting character arcs with as much hard science fiction as they can make palatable. Gravity kicked that off and remains the best of the bunch largely on the merit of its technical achievement in putting the viewer in the position of a space castaway, Interstellar used relative time to make us feel heavily for the domestic drama of the Coopers, The Martian was a hip-hip-hoorah bit of showing-off just how smart and resourceful humans can be and the achievements of international cooperation, and now Arrival is the closest return to the quality of Gravity, without really being thaaat close to reaching it.

Needless to say, I would like to see this trend keep on rolling because all four movies are pretty darn likable, if not for the exact same audience (I have not seen that many people enthusiastic for all four of these movies). And they all despite their faults (like the fact that Interstellar‘s script is… out there) have a tendency to encourage more thought on scientific concepts in their themes, even if they’re not really that in-depth and the closest of the four to hard sci-fi is the most commercial crowd-pleaser, The Martian.

But Arrival is still one of those pleasant intellectual sci-fi films and, wouldn’t you know it, it doesn’t even have to leave Earth. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival‘s script by Eric Heisserer is pretty straightforward with its premise and only allows itself to get in-depth on the minutia of the academic elements during its first half.

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This time around out of the bunch of 2010s science fiction, the aliens have arrived and for once they’ve arrived in 12 different locations around the globe rather than just the United States, but of course, our focus is on the spaceship floating above Montana. Every single one of those nations with a spaceship in its vicinity takes the sudden and unannounced arrival seriously enough to try engage their ship individually and apparently they’re all having trouble getting the message across to the extra-terrestrial septapods and back, so on behalf of the US government, Col. GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) enlists linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to figure out a way to communicate with the septapods despite their language being marvelously designed as a strictly visual one, basically a ghostly black ink circle. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a recruited theoretical physicist, turns out to be the most receptive of Louise’s colleagues to her methods and findings and proves to be an invaluable aid to their mission as the tensions between the aliens and nations (and between the nations themselves) start ticking down behind them.

And so for the most part, the action remains between the US military’s base right below the giant sleek yet stonish alien ship and the interior of the alien ship itself when Louise, Ian, and company are able to enter daily to attempt communication and man, the ship is the biggest surprise of the film to me in all of its weird treatment of gravity, its cavernous interiors that the humans explore separated by a screen from a foggy infinite where the septapods reside. It’s all obviously the work of ambitious CGI that still retains a real-world grounding and tangibility in its natural and low-key look. Even despite its fantastical make-up. And once again there’s that messy-looking language that still retains recognizable patterns so that we can identify certain phrases without being as educated as Louise or Ian.

Those moments inside the ship are the true interesting elements of the procedural that is the first half of Arrival, while the moments in the base with Weber and Halpern are there to remind us that there’s a fire lighting under Louise’s ass to make this film a race against time. It’s reminiscent enough of Contact without being an out-and-out spiritual sequel.

And that’s all enough to make the movie worth stopping this review and checking out if you want to because… semi-warning: I don’t want to spoil the movie and I won’t. But I’m going to be implying things that might be able to figure out what happens in its second half, so… be warned)

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Ah and then there’s the real shocker of the movie where it reveals just how cheekily it has been messing with our chronological association of moments and from there… well, I can see how some people have a problem with it. Arrival‘s treatment of Louise as a character sinks low to a sort of conservative-esque reduction of her life, a very gender-role-based attitude about where her destiny lies (which is not helped by the fatalistic attitude the movie has about people’s lives via the same twist). One of my friends promised me that “want to make a baby?” would be one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard and in the context of the movie, I guffawed in the theater at its inopportune placing in the most emotional point of the film (I understand it also is placed there to give autonomy to Louise as a character, but its an inorganic way to do so and very much goes against its fate-based attitudes).

It’s also the sort of twist that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny the more you overthink it. The drive back was spent in discussion of just how tangled the movie’s premise becomes when the first half is looked back on through the lens of the second half. It’s not nearly as successful a finale as I like to pretend it is.

BUT! It’s still the sort of structural sleight-of-hand I love a movie to pull off, the kind of subjective tricks that Joe Walker’s editing should be shamelessly proud of. And Adams is no slouch in giving a movie a human element, as even when Louise distracts herself with her workload, she has a vacant depression looming over her punctuated by flashbacks of her late daughter. And so when Adams is carrying your humanity, you can bet its going to work as emotional release, just as much as it works as cinematic manipulation. So I don’t regret liking and I don’t regret telling people to go see it. It’s as worthy a piece of character drama mixed with sci-fi as Interstellar and Gravity (and much cleaner than their scripts too, but y’know… Interstellar) and a very impressive work of science fiction craftsmanship in almost all regards (the fact that I barely find space to mention how Bradford Young continues to be the best new talent on the camera, yet feel compelled to mention it says a lot), putting Denis Villeneuve on better terms with me after too many films I dislike. Two hours could be spent in worst ways that learning how to talk to aliens, especially when it says some pretty radical things about time to begin with.

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