La La Land – Review

La La Land is a bright, colourful almost to the point of corny, and honestly rather poignant homage to modern cinema. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who previously worked on the critically acclaimed Whiplash and the sci-fi 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s about two twenty-something lonely souls trying to make it big in Hollywood, a city well-known for dashing one’s dreams and breaking hearts. The movie itself is set in modern-day Los Angeles, but its sensibilities are refreshingly set in the florid trappings of a 70’s broadway musical.

Mia is an aspiring actress (Emma Stone apparently playing Emma Stone) who one night chances upon Sebastian, a jazz musician (Ryan ‘The Notebook’ Gosling), just as he is fired from his pianist job for playing a bit of jazz instead of sticking to the Christmas repertoire. She goes to compliment him but is rudely snubbed, and in the tradition of movie cliches, they start off on the wrong foot but somehow end up falling in love. In the process, the audience is treated to a set of whimsical song-and-dance numbers that take you out of the story itself, which is initially jarring but settles into its groove about a third of the way through the movie.

La La Land is a movie that is quite unlike the blockbuster, superhero, sci-fi crowd-pleasers of late. The colour-saturated set pieces are over-the-top, the musical numbers are unapologetically flashy, and the art direction is truly something out of a Looney tunes Technicolour wet dream. The music score is infectious, both uplifting and wistful in equal measure, sounding as though it was lifted directly out of a Disney movie set in Moulin Rouge.

While some in the audience may already be turned off by the excess of shmaltz in this movie, credit should be given to the choice of using the actors’ real, untrained voices to sing the musical numbers. Gosling’s thin, reedy tenor in particular stands out if only for its rough, unpolished rendition, but this creative choice helps ground the movie in some much-needed imperfection that comes across as charming rather than contrived.

Gosling also brings to the table his jerkish character from The Nice Guys, a buddy cop movie where his physical comedy was played off a very grumpy Russell Crowe. In La La Land, this works, for the most part, when paired with Stone’s jaded portrayal of a girl-next-door, who is cynical and idealistic in equal measure. Stone’s performance is the heart of the film, guiding the audience through her struggles and disappointments, ultimately leading to the film’s highest point, the casting call that finally makes her famous. This is where Stone metaphorically and figuratively shines, delivering a heartfelt monologue which is dedicated to the creative talent that goes unrecognised, the ones who spend years in the dark honing their craft, trying and failing, over again, until they get it right.

One would be forgiven in thinking that the movie is about how two people fall in love, fight, kiss and make up, and live happily ever after. Where this movie redeems itself is how it subverts that trope and explores, with great panache, what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the appeal of the spotlight. When success comes, it comes at a price, and like everything worthwhile in life, one has to make sacrifices. This juxtaposition is an age-old conflict and is the vehicle for what Damien Chazelle really wants to say, which is a love letter to the human condition of what it means to make a living out of your passion.

Should you watch this movie? It depends. The original target audience was meant to be Broadway buffs, middle-aged women and young couples. Since its release however, it has generated a ridiculous amount of hype, so for those who go to see it based on hype alone, you may find yourself let down. But if you have ever been in the position of deciding whether to be a filmmaker or a business executive, an entrepreneur or an accountant, this film will resonate with you.


The Hateful Eight – Review

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 American revisionist western, a cinematic tale of localised bloodshed where an assortment of 8 shady characters are forced to hole up at a lodge to take shelter from a blizzard. Set 7 years after the American Civil War in Wyoming, the film is a tightly knit, plot-driven story that culminates in a gruesome finish in the director’s quintessential style.

Tarantino is no stranger to the genre of the spaghetti western, having helmed the bombastic Django Unchained in 2012 with Samuel L. Jackson in a supporting role. But while Django reveled in its melodramatic portrayal of black slavery set in the Wild West, The Hateful Eight takes that gleeful violence and distills it down to short bursts of plot-driven brutality.

It starts off slow, with bounty hunter John Ruth (a very bearded Kurt Russell) transporting his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) across the mountains to get to Red Rock town to have her hanged and claim his reward. He picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who has his own bounties to collect. They strike up a partnership of necessity when they are forced to seek refuge from a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery, coming across the lodge’s existing tenants who (in true Agatha Christie mystery novel fashion) aren’t all as they appear.

The pacing of the movie may throw some viewers who are more used to action-packed sequences in the first 10 minutes. Whereas most westerns are like chili wings, explosively zesty from the get-go, this movie is a slow pot-boiler, building up the tension with each individual scene. Like a more successful Wile E. Coyote, it patiently lays gunpowder under the viewer’s chair while they’re distracted, only to blow them off their feet in the gory climax. This form of storytelling is reminiscent of the murder mystery game Cluedo, leaving viewers guessing as to the true motives of each character right up to the point someone’s head gets blown off.

The characters are all shadier than a plantation of palm trees, each bringing forth a suspicious backstory which pricks a sense of unease in the audience. Jackson, as usual, steals every scene he’s in with his trademark braggadocio, a westernized throwback to his Pulp Fiction character, while the supporting cast are sly, rough around the edges, and carry with them an unsavoury aura that would make a lamb curry scurry off the table in fright. Leigh’s turn as Daisy Domergue deserves a mention, channeling Helena Bonham Carter while playing the unhinged small-time criminal to a fault. The performance earned her a string of nominations from various critics’ panels including BAFTA and the Golden Globe.

The movie’s suspenseful, more nuanced take on the cowboy western is able to draw the viewer in without apparent effort, using masterful music scores and set pieces to set the tone and pace. The cinematography of the snow-covered mountains with a lone stagecoach in the foreground as it navigates a treacherous path just shows a love of cinema that Tarantino puts into his films. Coupled with a soundtrack that would not be out of place in a Hannibal sequel, along with a nod towards contemporary music (inclusion of a White Stripes song being a nice touch), one is afforded an experience not unlike sitting through an episode of Game of Thrones, or participating in a roleplaying boardgame set in a haunted mansion – beauty and gore, all in one twisted package.

One aspect of this movie which may turn some viewers off is that nobody is the good guy. This is not a movie where you instinctively know who to root for. You may even find all of them appalling, as I did, not being able to sympathise with any of them at all (except the innocents who die of collateral damage). But the point is, you’re not supposed to: When you hole 8 outlaws of the west in a large room with each their own agenda, the ensuing bloodbath is exactly what you’d expect. There is a certain macabre pleasure in watching things go spiraling out of control, like watching a car crash happen in slow motion, the viewer glued to their seat half-terrified and half-wanting to know what happens next.

As well-executed as it all is, one does come away from the movie with a hollow feeling in the gut, as though your own insides have been scooped up and left in the cold dirt outside for the vultures to pick. The blood-vomiting scene, for example, was particularly nasty, and the hanging was finally executed with gleeful, almost farcical relish. If there is an overarching message to take home from this movie, it is buried beneath verbal subtext, poetic justice, a hard look in the eye, dead-serious dialogue, and a whole lot of gore.

If you liked Quentin Tarantino’s previous works, you will sink your teeth into The Hateful Eight, which bears all the hallmarks of a rollicking good suspense/action/gore film. If you are looking for a movie with some kind of redemptive storyline, you won’t find it here. It’s all fatalistic, tightly scripted murder-mystery suspense without a happy ending, but if you enjoy the visceral pleasure of bad guys killing each other in true-blue cowboy western style, sit back, relax and enjoy the carnage.