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Review – La La Land (12a) [2017]

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Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Damien Chazelle announced himself to the world two years ago with aplomb. Since Whiplash left cinemas, viewers have waited patiently to see what he would do next. Well, now, Chazelle has returned with La La Land and it is another masterpiece.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

La La Land is predominantly about Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Both live in Hollywood and are struggling to make their dreams come true. She is an aspiring actress, working as a barista to pay bills; and he is a jazz piano player, doing the odd gig here and there to make ends meet. They bump into each other a few times and a romantic relationship blossoms. But is their relationship compatible with their careers?

  La La Land is a delightful musical drama. It is an unashamed throwback to Hollywood’s lost golden era and it is full of radiant joy. Everyone is happy and they frequently break into song and dance to show the world how happy they are. (If anything, the characters are too happy and this grates on the nerves. Nothing is seriously wrong in their lives and money is never a problem, even though both of the main characters lack funds.)

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

In many ways, La La Land is the polar opposite of Whiplash. Whereas Whiplash was intense, with the passion and pace of a boxing thriller, La La Land is laid back and blissful. Yet, it shares the jazzy elements of Whiplash as well as the desire of its characters to fulfill their ambitions, regardless of the price. The issue of compromise is key throughout both films, and it is interesting to see which direction the characters decide to go in La La Land when they are confronted with the junction of their careers on the one hand and their relationship on the other.

The reasons we have no idea which way the characters will go is, one, because of the tone of the film; and, two, because of the acting and chemistry of the two main characters: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The good-looking pair have worked well together before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, but La La Land is undoubtedly their best collaboration to date. Their characters are clichéd, but Emma Stone shows a solid range of emotional skills and also that she can sing decently too (Gosling less so).

However, the two real stars of La La Land are Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. First, hats off to Hurwitz: his score is wondrous. The music he created for Whiplash was terrific, but this is another level; especially, as the range of jazz in La La Land is extraordinary. Even if one does not like jazz in general, one will love it in this film thanks to Hurwitz.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other's eyes.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.

And then there is director Chazelle. What can one say? He is proving himself to be quite a talent. His understanding of directing, editing, cinematography and choreography is exemplary. He also seems to love what he does and this shines through in every scene. Long may it continue!

Over-all, La La Land is a spell-binding musical drama. It is happy-clappy, but it is charming and its two leads perform really well together. Additionally, the music is gorgeous. Nevertheless, it is Damien Chazelle who steals the limelight. More than anything, he proves with La La Land that Whiplash was not a one-off marvel and that, at the tender age of 32, he is on the right road to a distinguished career.

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Review – The Big Short (15) [2016]

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Star Rating: 3/5

Director

  • Adam McKay – Step Brothers, The Other Guys, Anchorman I & II

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Nicholas Britell – Gimme The Loot, The Seventh Fire, A Tale of Love And Darkness, Tramps

In 2007, a financial crisis rocked the world. Akin to the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and homes. Additionally, Lehman Brothers imploded, and the US Congress and the UK Parliament bailed out the rest of the big banks to (allegedly) ensure that the crisis did not worsen. How did it all happen? The Big Short highlights some of the factors.

Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), in his office, listening to music whilst working out that the US property market would collapse in 2007.

Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), in his office, listening to music whilst working out that the US property market would collapse in 2007.

The Big Short is a dark comedy based on the book with the same title by Michael Lewis. The film follows three separate but parallel stories which reveal the duplicity and the fraud of US bankers and brokers with regard to the US property market; in particular, to the business of subprime mortgages, to the buying and selling of (junk) BB ratings, and to schemes like collateral debt obligations (CDOs). However the film also shows us that were some people who predicted the collapse of the US property market several years in advance, such as Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The movie is as much about them trying to take on the big banks (and make billions in the process), as it is about the general fraud that was (is) taking place at every level of the financial sector.

The Big Short is an interesting film. It impressively explains in simplistic terms why the US property and financial markets imploded so spectacularly in 2007/08. The film captures the horror of the upcoming catastrophe by, chiefly, showing us the mind-set and attitude of the people working in Wall Street at the time (and at the present too) in a non-flashy and unglamorous way.

Nevertheless, as interesting as that is (and it is genuinely interesting), the overwhelming majority of the characters in The Big Short are just horrible, greedy and selfish individuals with few (if any) redeeming traits. Of all the people in the film, Steve Carrell’s Mark Baum is the most empathetic and likeable as he has a conscience. Carrell plays well, but his character’s hot-headedness comes across as cartoonish and silly (like it did in Bruce Almighty) when it is supposed to be funny at times and serious at others. Similarly, Christian Bale plays very well and deserves his OSCAR nomination. Yet, his character is weird and socially awkward. This makes him/Michael Burry difficult to root for. (And it does not help that Bale looks miscast in the role. With his huge biceps, one does not expect him to behave weirdly, but rather to don the Bat-gear again and beat every banker and broker to a pulp.)

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell, sitting down in the centre), contemplating the horror about to unravel, as his associates shout at Jared Vallett (Ryan Gosling, sitting down, right).

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell, sitting down in the centre), contemplating the horror about to unravel, as his associates shout at Jared Vallett (Ryan Gosling, sitting down, right).

As for the rest of the cast, their crassness guarantees that bankers and brokers are going to be hated for some time to come yet. Even if one can admire one or two of them for their foresight and intelligence, e.g. Jared Vallett and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), one is almost certainly going to be put off by their arrogance, rudeness and avarice. There is only so much one can endure of watching arseholes behaving so unscrupulously. One becomes bored by it and disinterested in the film’s subject matter; and 130 minutes of it is just too much. That one has seen deplorable bankers and brokers behaving in such an amoral manner before (Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps, Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street) adds to the boredom and disinterest.

Yet, what is worse is the frustration one feels with The Big Short. The film has been billed as a satirical comedy, but to smile wryly only twice throughout the movie is not enough to justify such a billing. Plus, some of the movie’s (alleged) humour is just downright misogynistic. How is a cameo of Margot Robbie (as herself!) naked and in a bathtub explaining subprime mortgages funny? How is having a female stripper explaining the hazards of having loans on multiple houses, whilst lap-dancing, funny? Both just seem wrong in so many ways and not funny.

Charlie Geller (John Megaro, left) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, right) speaking with Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) about making investments.

Charlie Geller (John Megaro, left) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, right) speaking with Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) about making investments.

The sense that the film seems wrong is not just limited to its humour. The directing is extremely ill-disciplined. At certain points, the movie is linear; at other points, it is a music video; at others, the scenes change so suddenly and often, one can get a seizure; and, randomly, the film stops, so we can see a profile of a character or so that a character can face the audience and explain something. All of this makes for quirky viewing at best and ADD at worst. It also begs the question why Adam McKay has been nominated for an OSCAR in the Best Director category, considering that Ryan Coogler has not when the latter directed Creed so much better.

Over-all, The Big Short is a frustrating film. It is not particularly funny and it lacks focus in numerous ways. Yes, the movie successfully elucidates upon why the US property market and the world economy collapsed in 2007-08, which is no mean feat. But by The Big Short merely shouting at its viewers that it all happened because bankers and brokers are two-faced wankers is not only going down a well-trodden path, it also makes for repellent viewing.

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Review – The Ides of March (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

During the campaign to become the President of America, the public and the media tend to focus so greatly on the candidates and their running-mates that the people behind the campaigns frequently fade into the background. The Ides of March, in fascinating fashion, reveals some of the darker arts that go on behind the scenes in presidential races, and why a term synonymous with the assassination date of Julius Caesar is so apt.

The main men behind Morris’ campaign, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Ben (Max Minghella) and Steven (Ryan Gosling), sitting and discussing the campaign with the journalist, Ida (Marisa Tomei).

The Ides of March is not a true story. But much of the film, directed by George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, And Good Luck, Leatherheads), is based round the unsuccessful run of Clooney’s father, Nick Clooney, for Congress in 2004. The movie centres round Steven (Ryan Gosling – Fracture, Drive, The Big Short), a relatively young and idealistic Junior Campaigns Manager for the Governor of Pennsylvania, Mike Morris (George Clooney – Michael Clayton, The American, Gravity). Morris is in the running for the Democrat presidential nomination, and is up against Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell – A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Ocean’s Thirteen, Ca$h). To gain the necessary number of Democrat delegates for nomination, Steven and his boss, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote, Mission Impossible III, The Master), attempt to court Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright – Casino Royale, Source Code, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), who holds the delegates for Ohio, a key state for nomination.

However, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti – Saving Private Ryan, Cinderella Man, 12 Years A Slave), Pullman’s Campaign Manager, has secretly made an agreement with Thompson, offering the Senator the position of Secretary of State in exchange for his endorsement. For Steven and Paul, the agreement must be broken at any cost. Simultaneously, Duffy pulls a trick or two of his own, with Steven in the thick of it. Thus, the campaign backstabbing begins.

The plot for The Ides of March is not particularly fast-moving, but it is interesting and revelatory. Certain aspects of the storyline might go too far (as some of the scandals would be almost impossible to keep hushed up with the current hawk-like media), but over-all it is plausible. Indeed, it is believable that some campaigners would betray their loyalties for personal gain, hence the film’s title being so fitting.

The pretty intern, Molly (Evan Rachel-Wood), out for a drink with Steven.

Paul and Duffy, the characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, respectively, epitomise the modern day Marcus Brutus, the friend-turned-assassin of Caesar. Both, Hoffman and Giamatti, play the ruthless sort of individuals who would use underhand tactics to ensure that their candidate would come to the fore.

Without being outstanding, both actors play very well. Moreover, their characters teach Steven a lesson in the malicious nature of political campaigns and politics in general too. If one leaves the cinema with a bad taste in their mouths about politics, this might reflect the director’s disillusionment with the industry after his father’s failed campaign. Could Steven’s experiences in The Ides of March divulge some of what happened to Nick Clooney in 2004?

Regardless, Steven’s actor, Ryan Gosling, gives a solid performance in the lead role. The changes he goes through, as events around him get nasty, are praiseworthy. It also gives Steven’s personality a third, survival-type dimension that makes his character credible. Yet, Gosling is far from brilliant; he lets himself down when Steven’s with Molly (Evan Rachel-Wood – Thirteen, The Wrester, True Blood), the cute, just-out-of-college intern. Their conversations are, at times, painful to watch, and their exclusion would have benefitted the film.

Surprisingly, George Clooney has only a limited role in The Ides of March. As ever, Clooney’s character, Mike Morris, is smooth-talking and suave (smug as well). But how many times has Clooney churned out this sort of performance? In saying that, Governor Morris also has a shady side, which gives him depth and virtually certifies him as a real (morally dubious) politician. Still though, Clooney’s performance here is one we expect from him, and is, therefore, nothing exceptional.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), looking very presidential, addressing an audience as part of his campaign to become the leader of the free world.

Clooney’s ability to act, direct, produce, and screen-write vary in quality. The directing and the production are fine, even if there is an unexpected amount of silence before and during scenes. The way the movie has been choreographed might seem peculiar as well, since discussions frequently begin a while before the people come together in the scene. That does not make it bad, just unusual. The same is true for the music, which Clooney probably did not use enough to his advantage to enhance scenes or uplift viewers, unlike The King’s Speech.

Nevertheless, Clooney has written the dialogue very well. It may not be on a par with The Social Network, The King’s Speech or True Grit; yet, it is always apt for the scenarios without being melodramatic.

On the whole, The Ides of March is a very decent film about an indecent industry. The world of presidential campaigns is one that often goes unreported, and this movie sheds light (or darkness) upon it. Above-all, just like its title, The Ides of March exposes the ruthless, double-crossing nature of politics and political campaigns, and why it is perhaps not an industry for nice, honest people.

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