Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →

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Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves Best Picture over ‘La La Land’

To say it hasn’t already won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – and the movie scene in general – with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations would feel like a false statement.

But if history has anything to say about it, a victory for “La La Land” in the Best Picture race isn’t a total lock. Cinephiles will remember last year, when it seemed the Leonardo DiCaprio-Alejandro Iñárritu vehicle “The Revenant” had all the momentum, before the journalism drama “Spotlight” stole Oscar gold in the biggest category.

“La La Land” is critically revered and audience-adored, and viewing it through the scope as a tribute to classic Hollywood, it would be a risky gamble to bet against it as the film the Academy names the best of the year on Feb. 26.

But here’s a case for the movie that very well surprise everyone on Oscar Night; at least, those who haven’t experienced it yet. Whether the Academy recognizes it as such or not, “Moonlight” – the $1.5 million indie project by Barry Jenkins that explores masculinity and identity in crack-riddled Miami – is the best picture of the year. And it deserves to be named the Best Picture of the year.

It isn’t that seemingly every element in “Moonlight” works so perfectly and cohesively that it feels like living, breathing poetry.

It isn’t that the film – somewhat miraculously, seemingly effortlessly – makes three very different, very unknown actors portraying one character legitimately feel like one person at three different stages of his life, a la Boyhood without the gimmick.

It isn’t that (well, ok, it’s a tiny bit this) honoring “Moonlight” as the year’s best film would serve as a stamp of recognition of its masterful nature, on a night when it will be very difficult for the drama to pick up Oscar gold in anything outside of the Best Supporting Actor race for Mahershala Ali.

It’s the fact that, while it’s so easy to watch “La La Land” and imagine it taking place in the ‘50s if you remove the iPhones, “Moonlight” is so completely in tune with its time and place and setting. Even as it takes place more around the turn of the century, its subject matter couldn’t be more simultaneously relevant and timeless.

In an age when historical dramas and Hollywood-worshipping throwbacks have become synonymous with Oscar bait, “Moonlight” instead represents something so different, so inherently human in its intimacy and relative small-scale nature that it’s almost a wonder it was recognized by the Academy at all.

The story of Chiron over three distinct phases of his life isn’t an easy watch, but a substantial part of that is because it’s made in a way that we haven’t seen very much before in film, if at all. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of urban America, one that it seems we’ve been waiting on for a long time, like a distant stretch of land that we can see for years from the ocean before we final reach its lush shores.

There’s extremely little dialogue in “Moonlight,” probably as much over its entire running time as the first 30 minutes of “La La Land.” When characters do speak, Jenkins’ screenplay makes every word count, but it’s the long looks between them that speak volumes more the subject matter than any movie not from the silent film era.

Whereas “La La Land” tells a story of big dreams and the sacrifices we take to reach them in the brightest of lights, “Moonlight” contemplates much more basic urges, ones that are almost primal in their longing to answer a simple question: Who am I? And it does so without wasting nary a single frame, each beautiful shot as engrossing as anything conjured up by Damien Chazelle.

At a time when, on a political and social level, so much is being made about identity, sexuality, masculinity, and the interweaving of the three, “Moonlight” simply screams 2017, in its art and in its spirit. And it does so much in the same way “Pulp Fiction” is associated by so many with 1994, “The Social Network” earnestly captured the early 2000s, and “E.T.” the paranoid, childlike wonder of the ‘70s.

None of those won Best Picture, either.

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