About Grant

My photo
New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Film Review: La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle 3/5

     Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are kindred spirits at similar places in their personal and creative lives. Young enough to still have attainable dreams, but old enough for life to squelch the possibility of those dreams being realized. This conflict, in addition to the love that Mia and Ryan have for one another, is central to Damien Chazelle's La La Land (2016), a musical with emotional and formal ambitions too great for the script Chazelle has crafted. That is not to say that this film is not enjoyable or well made, but that it is narratively lopsided as La La Land prioritizes trying to be a musical that is both traditional (like those of studio films from the 1950s) and revolutionary (like the Nouvelle vague's forays into the genre). Although such an attempt is entertaining, when a film's story is so thin, the musical numbers begin to work against the plot while still pushing it along.
     Working as a barista on the lot of Warner Brothers, Mia aspires to be an actress like the stars who visit her coffee shop or the icons from classic films she saw as a child with her aunt – the posters for their films, ranging from The Palm Beach Story (1942) to The Killers (1946), adorn the walls of Mia's home that she shares with like-minded talents. Auditioning for a variety of parts (no matter how distant from Mia they may be), she just hopes to have her big break (or anything). Similarly, Sebastian is struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his version of his dream without compromise. He's a lover of jazz with respect for the artists who came before him, and is a talented pianist himself. As the two of them cope with reality, Mia and Sebastian quickly begin running into one another at a variety of places and the stars align themselves in their favor.
     This is where problems with the film begin to arise, as the romantic relationship our protagonists fall into reveals itself to be as lacking in substance as the aesthetic of the film (which I will elaborate on further). Their love is predictable, and it's reliant (to an extent) on cliché, so that the audience can recognize the emotional signposts and place feelings onto those scenes rather than having actual feelings conjured up from a scene unique to the lives of these characters. Still, La La Land is charming and Stone and Gosling's performances are highly charismatic, and they undeniably have an on-screen chemistry, but that only perpetuates the cliché. There's seemingly no need for Mia and Sebastian to have an experience beyond looking like they're experiencing something. 
     Chazelle takes the film, narratively, in realistic directions, but it's merely the directions without the actions to support them. The magnetism between these two creatives and the struggles they face together and apart from one another feel legitimate, but just because they happen doesn't mean that they've been emotionally earned. They're pushed together by fate too quickly, pulled away too swiftly, and yet the parts still kind of work. Were the film not separated by seasons, as it progresses through an entire year (starting in winter), the film would feel like it has more at stake by having a plot that can facilitate causal relationships from one action to the next. Instead, La La Land suffers by choosing to adhere to realistic passages of time instead of embracing the more fantastical elements that Chazelle only flirts with.
     Perhaps the obvious film to compare La La Land to is Jacques Demy's colorful, musical masterpiece The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), but La La Land is even closer narratively to Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977). Robert De Niro plays the saxophone, Liza Minnelli sings, and love is in the air as they try to make their relationship work. However, the difference between Scorsese's film and Chazelle's La La Land is that New York, New York is emotionally taxing as it allows for characters to experience real and original conflict whilst alluding to musicals by Vincente Minnelli and others.
     Featuring colorful wardrobes and scenery, extended long takes to highlight choreography, flashy editing and a creative use of camera movement, La La Land delivers more on the form of a musical than it does as a musical itself. Much like the characters, the film hits its marks based off of what an audience is conditioned to expect from a musical, but it's not lending much to the audience in original technique or visual stimulation. Aesthetically and structurally referencing the dream ballet from the conclusion of Minnelli's An American In Paris (1951), or echoing tracking shots of Deneuve walking on the sidewalk in The Young Girls of Rochefort, La La Land appropriates these references well, but what could be appropriated from La La Land in a decade? The songs are nice, and the primary tune ("City of Stars") is quite memorable, but the music is not always cohesive or tonally anchored to the film. 
     As a dedicated fan of films by Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, La La Land cannot deliver experiences that I haven't already seen in wonderful and eccentric musicals that deal with love and destiny (which is what most musicals deal with). Regardless, La La Land is still a very enjoyable film to watch, but the ingredients have more potential than the product that is actually achieved. Playing it safe from beginning to end, there's little at stake because the film's narrative structure has the action spread too thin over too large a passage of time. Still, as the musical becomes a genre that is seen less frequently in contemporary cinema, there is something special about it just for existing – of course, were the film not as charming or well-acted, simply existing wouldn't cut it.

My rating: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3783958/?ref_=rvi_tt

Monday, December 26, 2016

Film Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016) by Tom Ford 4.5/5

     Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery curator in Los Angeles. On exhibition in her gallery, she currently has an installation piece incorporating video of naked, morbidly obese women dancing and lifelike silicone sculptures of those women lying in a variety of positions – it's like a Patricia Piccinini piece, but without creatures. Real women, bearing their bodies and owning their appearance, and fake versions of those women lying about face down (many even look as if they're dead). Either way, both are not the thing they're representing, as one is an imitation of reality and the other is captured reality. Tom Ford's second feature film, Nocturnal Animals (2016), is all about this relationship between imitation and reality, in addition to art and the people who make it. "Everybody writes about themselves," says Susan's ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). That people do write about themselves is where the tension and anxiety in Nocturnal Animals derives, and that feeling never dissipates.
     "For Susan," reads the dedication in the manuscript of a novel entitled Nocturnal Animals by Susan's ex-husband, whom she hasn't spoken to in nineteen years. It arrives out of the blue with a typed note saying that Edward will be in Los Angeles soon, and just as Susan's current husband, Walker (Armie Hammer), is about to be gone for a few days in New York on business. They're struggling financially, and their marriage is quietly on its last leg, but they're keeping up appearances. With Walker away, Susan has time to focus on reading this novel. As she reads it, a second narrative unfolds in the film: the novel, Nocturnal Animals, potentially as her mind's eye perceives it.
     Set in Texas, where both Susan and Edward met as children, Edward's novel, Nocturnal Animals, tells the story of a husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and his wife and daughter who are going on a road trip across Texas. It is notable that Jake Gyllenhaal plays Tony, and that Gyllenhaal is the only actor in the film who plays two roles – even then, this is Susan's imagining of the words she's reading. This particular road trip that Tony and his family are going on takes a serious turn for the worst. The novel, serving as the second narrative, has an impact on the primary narrative as Susan begins to consider that what she is reading might somehow manifest itself in her actual life. 
      Reliant upon her life being disrupted by the arrival of the Nocturnal Animals manuscript, Susan's narrative arc can go anywhere once the manuscript comes into her possession. Beyond Susan being the programmer for an art gallery, it is only fitting that Susan, who gave up on creating art, is surrounded by art since she couldn't emotionally support a creator of it: Edward. Walking through her gallery, Damien Hirst's Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain is on exhibition, which features an actual bull pierced by a barrage of arrows in an upright position, like depictions of the death of the titular saint. The violence and perversity of that piece and a few others that she owns or has on display at the gallery reflect what she's feeling and "cross the line" of artifice and legitimate violence. Further, the way one of the pieces is introduced is particularly shocking, and the reaction we have to that motionless piece is not too different from the reaction we have from Susan's visualization of the manuscript.
     All of these elements are balanced with great precision and grace by Nocturnal Animals' writer and director, Tom Ford. That the film could be even more visceral in its unsettling subject matter is telling of Ford's own restraint, as he makes a watchable film that still pushes enough buttons to make one sufficiently uncomfortable. Evoking the beginning of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but never going quite that far, Ford manages to express the violence of this story in a frugal manner as he delivers punches only when needed for the emotional and tonal sustenance of this gripping film's narrative. Moving in and out of varying times and spaces of reality, the audience is already primed for these shifts because of the way the film begins. Further, the film juxtaposes "reality" with a sense of dread and manages to pull off more melodramatic tendencies that operate flawlessly in the affluent milieu of Los Angeles' art scene and New York's post-graduate lifestyle.
     In addition to the narrative and tonal strengths of Ford's screenplay (adapted from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright), his ability to film the human form in an emotive manner is remarkable. Capturing various kinds of people in various states of dress, characters wear their skin with personality – it's an extension of their identity that speaks just as loudly as a pair of Vertigo-esque jade earrings. That sounds obvious, but Ford has us see five different kinds of undressed characters in three different planes of the narrative and each instance has something to say about that person in relation to themselves and others. Having one leg of the film set in the art world and another leg of the narrative in West Texas, the clothing says what we need to know for surfaces, first impressions, and even concerns of genre, but it's the moments of undress that communicate the most.
     Complimenting Ford's delicate touch with the subject matter and his aesthetic flourishes is Abel Korzeniowski's original score for the film, which primarily consists of piano, melodramatic strings, the rolling of tympani and the ringing of cymbals. This music, against the images on screen, lends Nocturnal Animals an atmosphere of intrigue and unease as the score is constantly moving and evolving. Its use is calculated, regardless of its beautifully mechanical progression, and with the violence and drama over multiple narratives from varying realities at hand, the music holds the film true to a single standard. 
     All at once morbid and hauntingly sentimental, there's a longing for the past and a resistance to a fictional story that pull Susan and the film in two different directions. Animalistic fear and animalistic violence clash as predatory moves are made and the sense that one is hunted is palpable. The "nocturnal animals" of the title take on a variety of guises and meanings as the film progresses, and all of them are correct at any given time – Tom Ford's ability to maintain a tone that allows for that to be possible is impressive. If Nocturnal Animals pushed its more violent material further, it might be even more effective, but it's still captivating in spite of everything that Ford elects not to show. Set against the backdrop of the art world, Nocturnal Animals manages to portray the gallery, private collections, and the act of creating in an authentic way with well-curated selections of genuine art as well as a very inventive original installation that feels like an actual piece of art and not an imitation of what art looks like (as is often the case in filmic portrayals of art). That it manages to pull off conveying the art world is only the first step to Nocturnal Animals' narrative success, as through those artificial realities come tension and pain that allows for the role of the spectator to be accentuated – and fortunately, we are all spectators of this film, and not victims within it.

My rating: 4.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4550098/?ref_=nv_sr_1