Review: “Yesterday” is a vapid excuse to listen to pop’s greatest songs

If the works of The Beatles are integral to a movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t acknowledges it, do The Beatles make a sound?

That ends up, unintentionally, being the thought-experiment driving the vastly underwhelming “Yesterday,” rather than its elevator pitch for the ages: What if you, a struggling musician, woke up to a world in which The Fab Four never existed? Directed by the typically-reliable Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is a two-hour long and winding road through two stories with clashing styles and sympathies, yet the most confounding thing about this project – one that would’ve worked better as either a 3,000-word experiment in “The Atlantic” or an 8-episode Netflix experience – is that neither justifies the existence of the other. Continue reading →

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Review: ‘Rocketman’ is an exuberant, earnest chronicle of a rocker

From its opening moments, no one’s going to make the mistake that Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” – 120 minutes of the life and times of Sir Elton John – isn’t about someone destined to be a star. A sparkling sheen worthy of the flamboyant rocker imbues the movie’s spirit before we even see him, enough to provide a jolt of familiarity even to those who can’t tell “Crocodile Rock” from “Your Song.”

But “Rocketman” isn’t just a flight of celebrity fancy—the opening seconds, however cathartic, is a bait-and-switch with an effectiveness in line with how much you really know about Elton’s life. And when the cinematic energy reaches stratospheric heights after a slightly turbulent bit of setup, the movie bares its ambidexterity at painting the portrait of Elton John not as a star, but as a comet—at once a a majestic force burning through records sales charts and sold-out stadiums and also an an enigma of self-destructive tendencies, hurtling through the vast space of celebrity at speeds none can be expected to smoothly navigate.

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

Jersey Boys is a jumbled adaptation of mixing up passions and priorities. Also, music!

Jersey Boys is an old-timer movie with old-timer music and an old-timer atmosphere.

So, I guess it makes sense for an old-timer like Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, J. Edgar, Invictus) to go about directing this adaptation of the popular Broadway show….with an old-timer state of the mind?

If that’s the case, it doesn’t quite work for the modern age.

Jersey Boys is the story of four friends who grow farther apart the more successful they get. Oh, and music.

What? Oh, that’s not what you were expecting? Spontaneous breakout into song and dance a la Footloose, Fame, or – dare I say it – High School Musical? Is that what you paid $10 for?

Sorry. Better luck next time.

Here’s the thing about Jersey Boys. It’s been hit pretty hard with criticisms about allegedly being a musical that doesn’t  exactly emphasize the music. But cut Eastwood a break, who said that’s the kind of movie he was going for? Perhaps his goal was to create a drama using the idea of this iconic band and their music as a plot device. That’s totally okay.

But he doesn’t quite pull it off. Because Eastwood is going for the exact opposite of a fun, glamorous musical…the guy has been watching a lot of Goodfellas lately.

The atmosphere and tone of Jersey Boys is very ominous and dark throughout. Not morbid – it’s a story about The Four Seasons after all – but certainly foreboding. Indeed, early on before they achieved fame of astronomical levels, Jersey Boys tells of how Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi risked run-ins with the law to get their way. Cue the dark color contrasts.

The direction Eastwood tries to take Jersey Boys results in a movie that is confusing and lacks a sense of clear…well, direction. Like the band’s members, Eastwood gets his priorities mixed up. First we believe the relationship between Valli and DeVito is the primary one, only to have the movie focus on songwriter Bob Gaudio for a short while, and then, to the audience’s relief, a small part to the spirit and soul of the band and their music.

Oh, and toss Valli’s family in there, the most frightening relationship in the film. Not only because Valli was seemingly never on good terms with his wife or kids before we get to yelling and frustration in the family, but because the film almost asks too much of us. We have to care about the band’s integrity, and then, out of nowhere, the film centers on Valli’s personal life, one part of which we are introduced to mere minutes before they are shockingly offed. It’s stressful to watch and even more stressful to understand what kind of movie we’re watching and who we have to care about when the film doesn’t do a good job at making us care for characters outside of the Seasons.

Which makes just about every scene without at least two band members in it pretty useless in a narrative sense.

Similar to The Social Network, Jersey Boys spends a lot of its time building up the tension between two best friends. It ultimately does a good job, as you can sort out who can handle the fame and who can’t, but the payoff isn’t nearly as rewarding as Network’s.

But when the band is together? The movie shines. No, they don’t break out in spontaneous song and dance with a multitude of dancing extras coming out of nowhere (save for the final memorable number), but Boys does a good job of portraying the impact that the band’s first hits had on them. You do learn the stories (however true) behind some of the songs, but a mere few are memorable origin stories.

The movie’s high points, however short they are, are when the band is on stage playing their tunes, and we are awash with nostalgia and fascination and the timeless music.

But while the band seemingly puts out No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit, Jersey Boys doesn’t do an amazing job conveying the band’s mounting success, save for bigger audiences, bigger stages, and more sophisticated dance moves. The movie lacks a certain amount of spectacle and ultimately doesn’t owe the band what it’s due.

Jersey Boys was cast well, with John Lloyd Young (in his first major role outside of an TV episode or two) and Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) leading the charge with memorable performances that are basically what we’ve come to expect from a 50s era film set on the East Coast, however exaggerated they may be. In short, their accents are on point. The legendary Christopher Walken and Mike Doyle provide fantastic performances, however brief they may be.

Boys moves along at a pretty brisk pace, partly – actually, mostly – due to some pretty merciless and sudden time gaps that catch you off guard. Without even stopping to catch our breath or pausing to download that latest Four Seasons song on iTunes, our protagonists are growing up, getting married, and getting beer bellies just when we’ve acclimated to where we are in the timeline. The movie is like a song without bridges or meaningful transition between its verses. Beware of whiplash.

But we do get an idea of how the band member’s lives are changing over the course of their success, and ultimately, that’s what the movie aims to do.

Thankfully, at the end of Jersey Boys when the band reunites in 1990 for a performance, each character tells us personally what their priorities were in the film. That’s Eastwood saving his butt, in case you couldn’t quite catch it in the film. But for a few minutes, the soul of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is center stage, and it is wonderful.

In a Nutshell

Clint Eastwood attempts a mash up of different genres…and we are better off with a mash up of Frankie Valli hits. The story of The Four Seasons, and their music, is entertaining enough, but not all the notes are hit once you leave the theater.

7/10 or Would you pay ten bucks to listen to the music on your iPod?

Jersey Boys is rated R for language throughout
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erick Bergen, Michael Lomenda
Directed by Clint Eastwood
2014

**note** This reviewer has not seen the stage play of Jersey Boys.