Review: In ‘The Favourite,’ Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz battle for adoration

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work, politicians squawk and squabble, insult and chastise, demean and decry. It’s a time of war, but personal status and desire are much bigger priorities than frontline strategy, and a royal palace that increasingly feels populated by childish personalities rarely puts country first.

Lanthimos and Co. probably weren’t expecting or intending for “The Favourite” to have so much in common with the American political hellscape of 2018, but this delightfully deranged retelling of power struggles in 18th-century England makes for eerie and enticing comparison. During an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for satirists to make hyperbolic sense of our world, “The Favourite” –  a period piece “Mean Girls” with layers of complexity – smashes us over the head with (mostly) historically accurate allegory. Continue reading →

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Review: Emma Stone dazzles as women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Like the ostensibly unordinary back-and-forth dance that eyeballs engage in while watching a tennis match, so too does “Battle of the Sexes” breeze along fairly unspectacularly in telling the story of former tennis champion and feminist icon Billie Jean King.

And like a dramatic gaining of a point in tennis serves to remind the owners of those eyeballs that there is much more talent involved than they may realize, so too does Emma Stone turn in another forceful and endearing performance — one of the very best of the year, really — as King. Continue reading →

Review: Musical enchantment, visual wonder await in ‘La La Land’

An edited version of this review appears in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

There was a moment as I was taking in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” at my screening, an ironic occurrence that perhaps perfectly encapsulates why this movie is so necessary nearly two decades into the 21st century.

It was one of the quieter moments of the film, as our characters Mia and Sebastian were contemplating the current state of their ambitions. Out of nowhere, the theater shook, with the boisterous, bass-heavy interruptions of whatever was playing in the next screen over.

It lasted for a few minutes, and returned at some scattered points later. It wasn’t a welcome intrusion, but it certainly wasn’t enough to detract from the experience provided by “La La Land.” Afterwards, I would see that the movie so keen to make its presence known was the fifth entry in the “Underworld” franchise, one that – like many other modern Hollywood offerings –  has found solace in becoming an unremarkable attack on the senses.

“La La Land” couldn’t be more different, through its style nor its effect. It’s comparatively much more intimate than what was playing next door, yet its confident spirit was indomitable in a way movies simply aren’t anymore. Its spirit soared.

Chazelle takes the acute direction he utilized for 2015’s “Whiplash” – one of the most memorable works of that year – and infuses it with even more ambition and charisma. The result is “La La Land,” a film that is van Gogh’s “Starry Night” come to life. It represents a genre-reinvigorating tribute to the musicals of 60 years ago, as well as a timeless story of romance, dreams, and what happens when the two collide.

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The film grabs our attention from the onset, via a musical number that slowly escalates until it becomes one of the most exuberant sequences of anything in film this year. From that point on, it was hard to get rid of the smile on my face and the glee that the film so warmly injects the audience with.

The aspiring actress Mia is played by Emma Stone, in a turn that is remarkable and poignant. She seems so natural here, dancing as though she came straight from the stage and singing the movie’s most memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling stars opposite her as Sebastian, a pianist concerned with the impending extinction of traditional jazz. He has his moments as well, but his performance feels comparatively subdued by some margin, as if he’s playing a particular version of himself with a charm that feels all too familiar.

When the two cross paths, their story begins, and it’s an enchanting experience to be had.

At one point Sebastian asks a friend, “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” It certainly isn’t for Chazelle, as he combines the charm of a stage play with a film camera’s potential, which this film somehow shows it still untapped. It swirls and it twirls as its own dancer, without ever becoming too much for our eyes to handle.

The visuals are magical, from the way lone spotlights are utilized to when our lovers seem to take to the cosmos. The sum of all this? The very definition of what makes life romantic.

It goes without saying that, musically, “La La Land” is a marvel. The Oscar-worthy score has a demanding presence that, with the incorporated dance numbers, provide a wealth of memorable moments that we simply don’t see out of contemporary Hollywood anymore. It gives a new meaning to “spectacle” at a time in the cinematic landscape when the word has become too much associated with overindulgence and gratuity.

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It always seems like an effortless endeavor when filmmakers continue to test the technological limits of what a movie can do, but here you can sense that there was real passion involved, resulting in emotionally stirring instances of breaking out into song and dance.

The score’s strongest notes work to convey the moods of particular scenes in a way that is so graceful and organic that you’d forget there is little to no dialogue involved at times. It’s that engrossing, and might entice you to hunt for old jazz records after leaving the theater.

A sharp ear might also notice the subtle returns of the film’s main theme. It almost becomes its own character, surveilling Mia and Sebastian as the sparks between them fly, and even when they begin to doubt the possibility of their original ambitions.

That’s another thing to appreciate about “La La Land.” It has a story to tell, and it doesn’t waver in that regard. This is a cautionary tale by Chazelle, who also wrote the film, balancing joyous optimism with the realities of what happens when we yearn to make our dreams a reality. We remember that in doing so, we will stumble along the way, and sometimes we might not get up on the same path.

In some ways, Chazelle is making a similar commentary on the state of cinema today. One scene in “La La Land” includes a rather explicit critique of the modern moviegoing experience, and the sense of magic that has perhaps been lost along the way.

Chazelle may believe he has performed a duty by demanding our attention with a wholly unique and emotionally satisfying experience. But not in years has the nature of a film’s very existence echoed its themes so profoundly.

In “La La Land,” Los Angeles is full of risks. But it’s also a world with so much wonder and vigor that we just have to get lost in it, despite the stumbles we might take.

 

 

“La La Land” is rated PG-13 for some language 

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons

Directed by Damien Chazelle

2016

Birdman is an all-too-rare film actually worthy of the title “masterpiece.”

After you see the penultimate Hunger Games installment, whether because you want to or because society implores you to, go see Birdman. After you drop the kids off with grandma on a Big Hero 6 date, go see Birdman. Why are you even reading this review right now? Just GO SEE BIRDMAN.

This is a work of art. A genuinely surreal yet disturbingly realistic and compellingly rare film that takes every trope of modern film and spits in its face. Birdman is something that you should see once to experience, a second time to fully digest, and countless more times just to assure yourself that the 21st century can still output some incredible movies.

Birdman, written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is a tale of relevance in the modern age, at a time when its themes couldn’t be more relevant. It is so shockingly in the NOW that you’d think it was made last week.

It seems like something that should have been novel that we should have read in high school. Its themes are mature ones, to be sure, but they are diligently and delicately molded into the very minutiae of the film. The subtle pop culture jabs and even subtler references to mythology. The gruff attitude of the film which, at least on the surface, seems to be so light-hearted and fun, only to scare us with its realism once the audience takes some time to dig deep into particular scenes and conversations. It all forms a perfect cycle of parity. You’d have to go back to 2011’s The Artist or 2007’s Juno to find such distinct thematic elements working together for the greater good of actually having something significant to say about society.

Birdman being stalked by Birdman.

Birdman being stalked by Birdman.

The majestic nature of Birdman is that it accomplishes so much with so little. So often movies are labeled as “rollercoasters”. Name any superhero property – whether it be the first, second, third, fourth, tenth installment – and you’ll find dozens of critics who are quick to call them “an absolute ride from start to finish!”

I’m not harping on big blockbusters. Some of them actually have substance, although that is an increasingly unique trait. But if that overused moniker of “rollercoaster” has truth to it with those films, then I can confidently say that experiencing Birdman is like injecting yourself with weaponized TNT and skydiving from Mars into the face of the Sun.

Yeah, it is that exhilarating.

There isn’t a single department Birdman doesn’t excel at. There just isn’t. The cinematography alone deserves several rounds of applause (as well as an Oscar). Virtually the entire movie is a single take, something that works to grandstanding effect and must be seen to be believed. There are two kinds of moviegoers: Those who notice the effect of cinematography, and those who are ignorant to it. Birdman converts the latter.

The score, seemingly made with nothing more than a single drum set, is captivating and engrossing.

The dialogue is Tarantino-meets-Aaron Sorkin. Wonderfully exaggerated yet so true to the situations and the film’s overarching themes of holding-your-ego-in-check-at-all-costs that the movie is almost self-aware of its own ridiculously wonderful irony.

Birdman is also one of the funniest films you’ll see this year, perhaps the funniest. In the vein of 2007’s There Will Be Blood or even The Wolf of Wall Street from yesteryear, Birdman uses humor so well to disguise its own masochistic themes, and arguably better than the two aforementioned films.

The acting is some of the best in any movie this year, too. The ensemble’s individual performances are what power the film. There’s nothing to say about Michael Keaton’s (RoboCop, Batman Returns) performance as washed-up movie star Riggan Thompson other than it will terrify you, suspend you, make you laugh, make you contemplate, make you wonder if this is the highlight of an otherwise colorful career. It is. And we should be grateful for it.

Keaton and Norton may or may not be arguing over who had better acting in Birdman.

Keaton and Norton may or may not be arguing over who had better acting in Birdman.

Name any other cast member and you have yourself a performance just as enthralling. Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zack Galifianakis. They all deliver. On such multilayered levels that they make their characters seem so inherently real. That is the trademark of great acting in a film.

Pacing is another strength of the film. Birdman does so well what other films strive so so so hard to do, only to fall flat in the end. Birdman simply never stops. There is never a dull moment, from its high crescendos of fast paced cinematic scurrying to its slower, more human moments. You never know what’s going to happen in the next moment, but you can bet it’s going to be there before you know it.

It truly is a shame that, unlike the Tonys for theatre, the Oscars have recently become so preferential towards historical dramas with themes that have been delved into countless times. Although they are sure to recognize Keaton’s performance, as well as the stupidly incredible camera work, there is no doubt Birdman will be grossly overlooked by the Academy.

Just make sure you aren’t overlooking it. You’d be skipping out on a masterpiece of modern cinema. And once you see the film, you’ll understand why that is the greatest irony of all.

 

In a Nutshell

Mr. Iñárritu has given us something special, something that deserves the mature moviegoer’s admiration. A wholly original piece of art that seemingly is long overdue, but actually arrived just at the right moment. Other movies can utilize their technological standard-raising methods and budget-busting capabilities to create something memorable. But Birdman aims to be something more. It aims to be as devilishly charming as anything released in recent decades.

 

10 / 10 or The Best Picture of 2014. If the Academy doesn’t coronate it as such, I sure as hell will.

 

 

Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu 

2014