La La Land: Movie Man Jackson

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Dreams, dreams, dreams. Los Angeles, California is the place people go to achieve their dreams. However, it is also the place where many a dream unfortunately go to die. For aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and old-school jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), only failed auditions and small-bit gigs have come from their hard work. Both do not have much more effort to give to their aspirations.

But, their batteries are recharged after chance run-ins continue to bring them together. Romance arises out of it. And luck actually begins to change for both of them. Their careers appear ready to take off, but the relationship they’ve built together could be undone if so.

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Much like Hail, Caesar!, La Land Land is a love letter to something particular. Whereas the former film was a love letter to old Hollywood, the latter film is much more specific in its scope, writing a letter to a particular genre of film. That genre of film being the musical. Its simplicity and uncommon-ness in today’s day and movie age makes for a fascinating and fresh watch.

Yours truly never looks forward to watching a musical, and I was a little skeptical of La La Land for this very reason initially. My skepticism was put to bed rather quickly, as director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) opens the movie with an astonishing set piece on the actual LA freeway. What Chazelle does here is simply amazing. The music happens rather organically, rather than overly manufactured. Though the pieces become significantly smaller scale-wise as the film progresses, that doesn’t make them any less impressive. In fact, it allows the cinematography to shine brighter, making for a beautiful-looking movie. This obviously isn’t a three-dimensional feature, but it pops a lot more than most do. It’s impossible not to appreciate all of the technical hard work and cinematic skill that’s on display. Underrated aspect of the movie? Cool to see the City of Angels not as a dunghole of despair, but—ahem—a beacon of hope and opportunity.

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But, La La Land isn’t purely a musical. It is basic romance between two characters that initially start at odds, the common backbone for many a film. He also takes stabs at a few themes that hit emotionally, mainly the idea of taking destiny in one’s own hands and the internal fight an individual has with remaining true to their artistic values, versus cashing in and providing stability.

Chazelle also wisely veers away from falling into overly cheesy mode or the happy Hollywood ending, and it gives more credence to the story. Perhaps 10-15 minutes could have been trimmed off in the middle, but otherwise, the film moves at a brisk pace, and an engaging musical number is seemingly right around the corner when things ever so slightly bog down.

I like to believe that the strongest romantic on-screen chemistry between stars makes a viewer believe that off-screen, the two could easily be an item that plasters the front pages of the tabloids and leads the E! nightly news. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have that kind of chemistry, surely cultivated from previous movies, scintillating from the initial crude beginning on the freeway to the touching ending. Neither is classically trained in the art of song and dance, but their commitment is evident. These aren’t easy roles to nail even with extensive research or hours upon hours of practice. It speaks to the raw skill that each person has that their performances come off pretty effortless.

Sound and unmemorable work is turned in by supporting castmates John Legend, J.K. Simmons (pretty much a cameo), and Rosemarie DeWitt, but they do their jobs. Their roles aren’t written to be meaty, just to provide more meat to the characters Gosling and Stone occupy. Outside of Stone, Gosling, and Chazelle, the biggest star of the film is the unseen choreographer Mandy Moore (to my surprise not the singer). If Chazelle wins Best Director, Moore’s got to be right beside him or mentioned at the top of the acceptance speech.

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Liking the musical genre does not need to be a prerequisite for appreciating La La Land. To qualify it as only a musical would be a disservice to it. There’s more than enough in this particular number for anyone who just likes film.

A-

Photo credits go to reddit.com, ew.com, comingsoon.net, and popsugar.com.

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Movie Man Jackson

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“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bull****.”

No, this isn’t a movie about the rapper  or the basketball player nicknamed as such. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about Riggan Thomas, a once larger-than-life movie-star whose claim to fame was starring as “The Birdman,” a superhero character in a blockbuster film franchise. Now down on his luck and considered to be washed up by most in the business, Riggan seeks what everybody in showbiz or even everyday life desires: Relevance.

Riggan decides to undergo a reinvention by going to Broadway, where he will star, write, and direct a play titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. If successful, this has the potential for people to see Tom in a whole new light, one that doesn’t involve a bird suit. As he soon finds, the Broadway acting isn’t the issue, it is dealing with the many people he comes in contact with. From his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), to his co-stars and producer (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough), everyone is seeking something. And no matter if he surprises people with this thespian work, he may always be The Birdman whether he likes it or not.

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It takes a delicate hand to to be able to say so many things in a film and still make a coherent and consistent piece. It isn’t easy to pull off, but in Birdman, it is something that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu achieves, and not just at a fringe level. Inarritu manages to make something sharp, comical, meta, and inward-looking into, but not limited to, Hollywood, Broadway, dramaturgy, and individual desire. If originality is craved, Birdman delivers.

I am sure Broadway and stage performances can be very riveting, but at this point in my young life I have no desire to see any. As the movie began, I really was unsure of whether I would enjoy or not, and by this admission it was a little of a slow start for yours truly, even a small bit of bore. And yet, this dissipated quite quickly, because Innaritu drew me in with the gorgeous cinematography. By utilizing a continuous (or at least very skilled editing) shot throughout, the characters and their situations felt so organic. There are no true scenes really, everything runs together as one complete take. so smooth and effortless, like a good actor getting into and out of character with no hitch. Spontaneous is a perfect way to describe, just like the outstanding, drum-heavy score that appears ever so often here.

Making use of this tracking technique allows a stronger, introspective look into these character’s lives. All are masters of a sociological theory known as dramaturgy, essentially how people interact with others based upon time, place, and audience. Really talented people can blur, perhaps unknowingly, what occurs in the backstage setting with what is supposed to be seen in the frontstage. Inarritu’s technique embodies this, in the sense that there often is no clear distinction when the acting ends and the real life begins for these characters.

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As described earlier, nothing is left off the table here. It is just as much of a film about internal self worth as it is about the superhero genre or even love. The real treat though is the meta aspect that is present within this. Immediately, the parallels between the characters played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton and their actual personas/career arcs in real life is abundantly clear.

Much like Riggan, Keaton once was a big star in the biz who hit peak popularity with portraying a well-known crimefighter, only to fall down a few rungs after his time in the Batmobile. Riggan’s co-star in Mike Shiner appears to be eerily similar to Edward Norton and all of his real life difficulties on set. Like Norton, Mike is extremely talented, immersing himself in his craft so much that he can be kind of a jerk in the process, fusing real life with whatever character he is portraying. For all of Birdman’s soaring surrealism, this real life allusion  grounds it in a necessary and needed way.

As time goes on, this may very well be regarded as Michael Keaton’s best role. Keaton is front and center here, playing the semi-broken, dejected, but “f**k you, I will do this and at a high level” type of guy. Every emotion seems to be covered here, and then some. Was it really just this year that Keaton was in Robocop and Need for Speed? Not to be overlooked is Norton, who is so douchey, gratingly perfect, and particular as his character, while still able to give him some soul and feeling.

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Honestly, everyone here comes together to deliver extremely memorable work, like Emma Stone and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s troubled daughter and former wife, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as Mike and Riggan’s co-stars, and even Zach Galifianakis in a subdued and serious role as the producer just trying to keep it together. Everyone in this film is intriguing, which makes it disappointing that at a certain point in the runtime, many seemingly get pushed to the wayside with hardly any revisiting to their personal plights. Just some additional resolution would have been appreciated.

The journeys are still worth experiencing though, just like Birdman is. Wholly original, superbly acted, and impressively directed, it glides to pretty sizable heights. The only ignorance would be failing to check this out.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to miaminewtimes.com, amazonaws.com, movpins.com, contactmusic.com, and apnatimepass.com.

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Easy A: Movie Man Jackson

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“Oh, haven’t you heard? I’m the new school slut.” 

Depending on who you talk to, high school can be an amalgam of the best of times and the worst of times, but often it is remembered as either being a great time or being an absolute drag. One thing that everyone can agree upon? High school rumors spread like wildfire. In Easy A, Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone), is your average and kind of nondescript teen. She has a friend but is not high on the secondary school totem pole of popularity. One day, her compadre Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) invites her on a weekend camping trip with her quirky family, but Olive, after attending this trip before, tells a lie saying she is going on a date to get out of it.

The following Monday in the women’s restroom, Rhiannon incessantly grills Olive about the date, believing she has lost her virginity. While resistant at first, Olive does lie again and confirms Rhiannon’s belief. Unfortunately the Christian zealot Marianne (Amanda Bynes) overhears the two, and before you know it, the rumor of Olive losing it has permeated every classroom and hallway. As expected the details of rumor undertake many iterations, but the understanding is that Olive is now a bold harlot. This sounds like irreparable damage to one’s reputation, but also an opportunity for sizable personal gain.

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On my first watch, I have got to say that Easy A was not really what I was expecting. I did not love it, but it was enjoyable enough at times. It is definitely a comedy, but not one that will leave you in laughing stitches for a good part of the movie. By and large, it is a movie that relies on its charm, which it does possess. Immediately the similarities between it and 1980’s classics such as but not limited to The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Weird Science (which all happen to be John Hughes movies), are pretty prevalent. That is not to say it is a carbon copy of any of these films, as Easy A definitely does enough to stand on its own. But the vibes are there, and it clearly wants the audience to know how highly it thinks of them through injected scenes of said films and the occasional character monologue.

The film is well made, and captures the feel of high school pretty realistically. There are even parallels to The Scarlet Letter book, and the plight that the character in the novel went through in comparison to the film’s main character, Olive. I was pleasantly surprised with the storytelling direction as well. It was a nice little device that gave an interesting take.

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But was it funny? That is going to depend on the viewer. I give props to the dialogue, which is sharp, natural, and reminiscent of high school. But for most it, nothing was truly that funny. There are some chuckles to be had, and Thomas Haden Church was my favorite character who had some good moments. Still as a whole it failed to leave a comedic mark upon me. I have to concede that I am probably not the target audience for this movie though, and others who are or who are closer to it will probably find many laughs embedded. The ending of the film felt extremely rushed to me and maybe too much time was spent on the rumors and all of the things Olive was asked to do. Everything just tied up too neat, but it is what it is. Definitely a Hollywood ending without a doubt.

There are a cast of characters, but make no mistake about it, this is Emma Stone’s movie. All of it falls on her, as it is her story. That is a lot of pressure, and she succeeds rather easily. While she had been in previous roles, Easy A really did put her on the map and made people realize her potential. The only thing I really did not buy was the fact that she was so “invisible” at school. She doesn’t do a whole lot for me aesthetically but I have to imagine most guys would have been fawning over her. Amanda Bynes has a interesting character as Marianne, and her scenes with Emma are fun to witness. Aly Michalka is nice to look at, but is unlikable and meant to be funny, but ultimately adds nothing. As mentioned, I loved Thomas Haden Church as the cool but well meaning teacher. I would have loved to see more of him but his role is small. But for the time he gets, he delivers.

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Despite my lack of a completely positive endorsement, Easy A does enough to distinguish itself from most teen comedies. It has got some heart and a real direction, even if most of the humor falls flat for yours truly, which is most likely a personal thing. Not ready to give it an A, but still a passing grade.

Grade: C+

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