La La Land (2016)

There’s a lot to love about La La Land.

You’ve probably heard how it’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals (and in many ways it is), but don’t let that discount the layers upon layers of passion and ingenuity that clearly went into this project.

Its terrific musical score, treading between big band jazz and melodrama symphonies, is one of the strongest of a non-animated musical in years. A recurring horn line, simultaneously building up in strength while an underlying minor chord wrings out the tension, is a perfect accompaniment to the film’s key conflict: balancing professional dreams with personal passions.

The visuals of the film, for both its musical numbers and dramatic spoken scenes, is also thrilling to behold. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and her roommates go for a night on the town hoping to be noticed by “someone in the crowd,” sporting different colored  dresses. From the costumes perspective, each young woman asserts her own unique identity, to catch the eye of someone who may help her career, while wearing a similar cut and complementary color to one another. Again, the underlying conflict of what must be done for one’s career, while balancing personal and social pressures, is illustrated, in visual film.

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I wish I had roommates like this.

Where the film disappoints, sadly, is its story. There are great nuggets and scenes throughout, but I never really bought the love story between Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), so the abstract, extended dance sequences felt less like organic, romantic movement and more like forced choreography. The musical numbers were great on their own terms, but as the film dragged on (and frankly stopped being fun after a while) I was ready for things to wrap up.

I wouldn’t call La La Land the modern musical masterpiece many claim (or hope) it to be, but it is a great step in a positive direction for imaginative, strong staging of musical sequences within a setting as (typically) unromantic as Los Angeles. The pure heart and love that went into this film is evident in every frame. Pictures like La La Land make the movies a better place.

 

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!

“White Christmas” Bing-isms

There’s a lot to love about Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas: the music, its homey warmth, and certainly star Bing Crosby’s otherwordly slang.

Here are a few choice phrases with a rough translation, so you can bring a little Bing into your everyday speech:

  • Slam-bang finish = a great finale
  • Hunk of dynamite = star performer
  • Mish-mosh = fight, scene
  • First sacker = first baseman
  • Scatback = fast, agile running back
  • Grab the cow = grab the milk
  • Time, time, cut! = slow down

ANNOUNCEMENT: Criterion Book Club

Been brewing on this for a while, and excited to kick off 2017 with the Criterion Book Club.

What is the Criterion Book Club? It’s a monthly digital book club, focused on literature tying back to the films of the Criterion Collection. All are welcome to join the Facebook group here!

These books can include:

  1. Novels/plays that have been adapted into films in the CC.
  2. Biographies/memoirs of key directors, writers, actresses, etc. with films in the CC.
  3. Analysis/criticism of films or individuals who are featured in the CC.

As a digital book club, we can chat about books in the Facebook group, through blogs – the possibilities are endless! (Just be sure to link back so we can find it!)

Here is a calendar for 2017’s reads —

  • Jan: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini
  • Feb: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
  • March: “Godard on Godard” by Jean-Luc Godard
  • April: “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis
  • May: “The Graduate” by Charles Webb
  • June: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa
  • July: “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster
  • Aug: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” by Sophia Loren
  • Sep: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
  • Oct: “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin
  • Nov: “Hitchcock” by Francois Truffaut
  • Dec: “The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography” by Frank Capra

With over 800 films in the Criterion Collection, there is a wealth of books that go along with them – please feel free to chime in the comments section or in the Facebook group for other reads to check out (either as recommendations or ones you’ve been meaning to pick up)!

Hope this takes off as a fun activity for fans of the Collection – happy reading!

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

One of the essential Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life has been entertaining, moving, and inspiring audiences for generations. Although not embraced by critics or the public in its initial 1946 release, it has since become one of the most beloved American films, both during the holidays and any season. Christmas films have come and gone, but It’s a Wonderful Life continues to strike a particular chord with audiences who can relate to, and cheer on, the Bailey family time and time again.

Throughout his life in the small town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey is constantly forced to put his dreams on hold and settle for (what he perceives as) less. After saving up four years to go to college, his father suffers a stroke and George has to stay put and run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. When George and his wife Mary wed, their honeymoon trip around the world is canceled as the Great Depression hits Bedford Falls and their gift money is needed to keep the doors of the Building & Loan open. As World War II hits, a childhood injury prevents George from enlisting, so all he can do is volunteer in smaller, local war efforts. Each step of life brings with it another setback, another factor entrenching George Bailey in the small-town life he’s trying to escape.

This theme works through the perfect casting of James Stewart, the embodiment of the “all-American” lead. Consider the other stars of the era: the dashing Clark Gable, the suave and sophisticated Cary Grant, the “tough guy” Humphrey Bogart. And then there’s the plucky, down-to-earth James Stewart, a small-town hero turned congressman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the slow-witted, mismatched lover for Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Unlike the other male leads in the 1940s, aspirational figures with a key mystique and way with the ladies, Stewart is none of these. He’s no Greek God, just a regular guy who could be the “boy next door.”

Stewart as George Bailey is so essential for how we as an audience engage with the film. He could be any one of us, or our fathers, our husbands. We aren’t watching a romanticized, stylized take on the American man – Stewart is as American as they get. In the film’s final act, when Stewart’s character George Bailey considers suicide as his best option (after his rival Mr. Potter tells him he’s “worth more dead than alive”), it’s not just the Bailey family at risk – it’s the American family.

This makes George Bailey’s breakdown, and redemption, on Christmas Eve all the more powerful. The family gathered downstairs like a Norman Rockwell picture of Americana: sons wearing Santa hats, daughter practicing Christmas carols on the piano. George comes home after suffering a devastating blow at work, and lashes out at his children and wife Mary; in shame, he flees to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. A guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes, by showing George the dark, alternate reality if George were never born. Realizing how much his family, friends, and community need him, George begs to live again.

A newly-awakened George dashes home, and finds his living room full of all those he’d helped and sacrificed for along the way: each ready to return the favor and help George now that he’s in trouble. George’s return home means the restoration of the family, and the community’s support reinstates faith and trust in small-town America.

A terrific film on its own merits, much of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s power is how it affects viewers in different stages of life. As a child, I saw myself more in the Bailey children, confused and upset if my parents were ever unhappy. As I mature more as a young adult, each year I relate more and more to George Bailey, struggling to balance ambitious dreams with the realities of everyday life. Whatever your place in life, everyone can relate to and be inspired by this movie masterpiece and its inspiring message that “No man is a failure who has friends.”