2017 Movies, Reviews

REVIEW: John Wick Chapter 2

In recent years, there have been only a handful of sequels have lived up to their predecessors. Think of all the disappointments. Avengers: Age of Ultron,  Anchorman 2, Iron Man 2. The list goes on and on. Thankfully, John Wick Chapter 2 not only lives up to the first film in the series but exceeds it in practically every aspect.

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The story follows the titular John Wick (Keanu Reeves), an almost mythical, unstoppable, assassin who, at the start of the previous movie, had left his violent ways behind to live a quiet, suburban life with his wife but was called back into action after his wife’s passing when enforcers stole his car and murdered his precious dog. John is called into action again, very much against his wishes, this time by Italian Crime Lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), due to a blood oath he made a long time ago that enabled him to escape from his life in the shadows.

The opening of the movie makes a clear statement to the audience, outlining exactly what this film is all about. That it’s going to be bigger, bolder and better than what came before. This little prologue, which involved Wick trying to recover his prized 1969 Boss 429 Mustang from Peter Stormare, (any movie that has Peter Stormare in it is automatically improved by his very presence) is extremely entertaining and amusing, it’s somewhat detached nature from the main story rather pleasantly reminded me of the way Bond movies open with a mission that is usually irrelevant in the overall arc of the story. It’s brilliantly silly at times, completely over the top, fast paced, heart pumping and, most importantly, extremely enjoyable. The tone for what is to come has been perfectly set.

John Wick Chapter 2 does everything the first film did so well except that now everything is turned up to eleven. Although, those really awesome, sweeping bird’s eye view shots from the first movie are somewhat missed. And yet, they kept the stupidly stylised subtitles. Strange.

If anybody ever wants a lesson in how to choreograph, shoot and edit action, then one need look no further than what you see on screen in this movie. Every cut is used at precisely the right time during the action scenes, to compliment the action that is happening on screen, not to hide and disguise the choreography that so many modern action movies, even great one’s like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy are guilty of.

Some of the sequences in John Wick Chapter 2 will be etched in the memories of viewers for a long time. The catacombs fight, the opening chop shop fight, Cassian and Wick taking pot shots at each other, the fight on the subway and, by far, the best Hall of Mirrors sequence captured on film since The Man With The Golden Gun. There are also a whole heap of memorable quotes this time around which shall not be spoiled here but will surely be fired back and forth between fans of the film for years to come.

It is also a beautiful film, as the first movie was. If you are a sucker for some neon then the John Wick series has to be right up your alley. The great thing about the second film in the series is that we get to go to many new and stunning locations, most notably Rome.

Every single character is so well fleshed out. They all feel like they have a real history outside of the 2 hours we see them on screen. They all have very clear identifiable traits that distinctly separate every single character from each other. Whether it’s Ruby Rose’s Ares, a deaf assassin who can only communicate via sign language, Lawrence Fishburne’s Bowery King who is as entertaining and quotable as he is mysterious, Peter Serafinowicz’s scene-stealing turn as John Wick’s very own Q-esque character or the returning cast of characters from the first John Wick movie that are for the most part expanded on and given more to do in this movie, or at least given an amusing cameo.

By far the best addition to the cast is Common as Cassian. Wow! This guy more than anybody else in either of the two movies, feels like a real equal to John Wick, somebody who can actually go toe to toe with him. Every scene he was involved in was brilliant in every sense of the word and I really have to applaud Common for being able to have the stature, stunt training and acting ability to be able to make us believe that Cassian is a real match for our almost unstoppable hero.

Reeves’ John Wick persona does feel a little more forced and less natural than the previous movie, particularly his voice. However, there can be no criticism in the level of commitment and dedication Reeves shows with his fitness, his desire to perform his own stunts (which can clearly be seen during a car related action scene where the driver’s door has been ripped off) and his almost unmatchable combat skills amongst leading Holywood actors.

The only slight issue with the movie is that it does spend quite a bit of time retreading previous ground in the first act. After the initial over the top fun sequence of Wick retrieving his car, John Wick Chapter 2 goes over many of the same beats as John Wick. John Wick returns to his home, mopes about his dead wife, watches some videos of her on his phone, plays with his dog, he meets Aurello to talk about his car, is confronted at his house by some villainous tough guys, is forced on a mission of revenge following this attack, has a quick conversation with his old police friend and then heads to the Continental Hotel in New York.

All those things literally happen in both movies and mostly in the same order as described in both. Repetition is not usually something you want in a sequel. Thankfully the retreading of previous ground does not last too long and once we get past this section of the story, the movie really kicks into gear and becomes its own beast.

If you take this movie too seriously then you are clearly going about it the wrong way. This is a movie to sit back, relax and just enjoy. It’s silly, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. Now, this is an argument that gets thrown around a lot about a lot of bad movies but the difference between John Wick Chapter 2 and the “switch your mind off” popcorn movies, is that you cannot switch your mind off during this film. As a viewer, you are constantly engaged, consistently challenged by what you see before you. Everything on screen is not just loud and explosive things lazily put there to just distract you from your most likely lacklustre lives, every single frame of this picture and every single aspect of it is carefully crafted to near perfection; the cinematography, the choreography, the stunt work, the sound work, the editing are firing on all cylinders. What is the difference between this and most modern action movies? Well, the people who made this clearly care about what they are doing and doesn’t hurt that they also happen to be really good at what they do.

After some initial retreading of ground early on in the story, John Wick Chapter 2 quickly steps out of the shadow of its predecessor and stretches its legs. It does what every good sequel should do. It builds on the initial film, brilliantly expands the world it is set in and most important of all it takes everything that made the first film great and elevates every aspect to a new level. The bar has been set very high for John Wick Chapter 3.

Eating: 8.5/10

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2017 Movies, Reviews

REVIEW: T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting. The film that fans have been waiting for just over 20 years. After watching this movie however, fans now might wish they had waited a little longer.

 

t2-trainsPhoto by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Picking up 20 years after the original Trainspotting, Mark Renton (Ewan McGreggor) makes his first trip home to Edinburgh since betraying his friends and taking off with the majority of the £16,000 from their heroin deal. He reconnects with his old friends Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). Meanwhile, Franco Begbie (Robert Carlyle), fresh out of prison, looks to get revenge on the man who cheated him all those years ago.

Over the years there has been so much talk about a Trainspotting sequel. It had been on the cards for a long time but they always said that they wanted to let the actors age naturally and wait for the right story. Well, the actors definitely aged. As for the story, well where do I begin?

Let’s start with that there is no real story. This movie is too preoccupied with reflecting on past glories to have any real story. At the start of the story, I liked the direction they were going in. The characters were nowhere in their lives, so their story was going nowhere. Now I’m perfectly fine with a movie that starts slow. As a matter a fact, a lot of the greatest movies ever created start very slow and gradually build and build into something great. The problem with T2 Trainspotting is that it never builds. It never gets out of first gear. It just trundles along without ever picking up the pace.

The energy is lacking, there’s no forward momentum, even the soundtrack is extremely lacklustre (White Man in Hammersmith Palais aside) and it’s kind of surprising how quickly you’ll probably find yourself losing interest in the characters you once loved. Sometimes it’s better to leave things well enough alone, or you know, wait until you have a better story to tell. Having said that, the movie does have some highlights and frankly, Danny Boyle always manages to bring something that you are unlikely to see in most mainstream movies.

Boyle does a very commendable job trying to inject this movie with some spirit, but the stillborn story cannot be kickstarted into life despite his best efforts. The one good thing that can be said about this movie, is that it does not take anything away from the greatest of the original, which definitely does happen to some sequels. The problem is that even though it doesn’t detract from the original, it doesn’t add anything to it either.

Sequels can be a tricky mistress, especially after a lot of time has elapsed between them. You need to stay true to the themes and spirit of the original but you also need to progress the characters and move in a different direction to the original. Whilst T2 definitely does stay true to the themes and the spirit of the original, it mostly fails to progress the characters and take the story in a new direction.

There were so many times when I felt like the story was finally going to kick into gear. Sadly, it never did. I had real hope in the months building up to the release of this film that the story would be great because I naively believed that to get everybody involved in the original would only get back together if they had found the right story. Apparently, that was not a requirement. Clearly everybody involved is passionate about the project so I’m not accusing them of getting the band back together just for a paycheck but it feels like they started from a very weak base and although they tried their best to build something good on it, it’s an uphill battle when the base (the story) is weak.

So the story isn’t the best, well surely the brilliant, personable, electrifying, engaged characters we all loved from the first Trainspotting will carry us through it! Sadly even this isn’t the case. Renton is boring in this movie, the only time he seems to have any life is during his updated “Choose Life” speech, which sadly doesn’t quite stick the landing the same way it did in 1996. Sick Boy has some interesting things going on but none of it really seems to connect and Spud, well, the entirety of his story seems very contrived.

The only one of the main cast who shines anywhere close to how they did in the original is Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Fresh off of playing Rumplestiltskin in the ABC fairytale series Once Upon A Time, (the only reason I mention that is because I’ve never seen the show and can’t for the life of me imagine Carlyle being in a family friendly Disney show) Carlyle slots back into the role of Begbie with so much easy and swagger one suspects he might just have been secretly revisiting the role behind closed doors over the years to stay in practice. His performance is electric, every second he is on screen the movie comes alive.

In a movie that is far too hung up in the past, Begbie’s relationship with his son Franco Junior was a particular highlight of the movie. The difference between these two generations, between father and son, was too brilliant. Whilst Begbie assumes his son will want to follow in his footsteps, to turn to a life of crime due to him growing up in the same area devoid of any real prospects like his father, Franco Jr. instead wants to don a suit and study a diploma in Hotel Management. This story was by far the most effective way T2 Trainspotting showed us how times had changed between the two Trainspotting movies.

That’s not to say it isn’t effective is showing us how times have changed in other ways. Whether it’s with widescreen televisions and silly Instagram filters, or society’s ever growing obsession with fitness.

There were so many aspects of this movie that made me want to like it. A scene involving Renton and Sick Boy in a patriotic Orangeman establishment is pure genius. There is one of the greatest references/parodies of Raging Bull ever seen in entertainment history. Personally, as both a massive James Bond and The Clash fan, any movie that jumps straight from a classic Connery-era John Barry composed James Bond song to one of the best Clash songs should be a home run. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

As I’ve stated, Begbie’s story, in particular, his story with his son was most compelling. The one aspect I really loved in this movie was the role of Kelly McDonald’s character Diane. She did not feel shoehorned it at all and best of all she did not outstay her welcome. Perfectly handled.

To be honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the first movie. Yes, obviously it is a very good movie, perhaps even a great movie but I’ve never really thought it stood out as the clear best in the pantheon of Danny Boyle films. So my negativity here is not because my expectations were too high. Even for those that have not been waiting for this movie all these years and still, this will still probably feel like a letdown. I think Danny Boyle would be best in future to experiment and pursue various different genres of movies as he has done through his career instead of returning to his former glories. Go back to pushing the envelope instead of fawning over the past. Especially after Steve Jobs which one could argue is right up there with Boyle’s best and by far one of the most underrated films of recent years, T2 Trainspotting is a disappointing step back.

Whilst by no means a bad movie, T2 Trainspotting is a massive step down from the original and if judged on its own merits is not very interesting. Nostalgia, a few entertaining highlights along the way, and a healthy heap of social commentary about the modern world make this sequel somewhat entertaining in parts. This movie is unlikely to leave you with a lust for life, but a lust for a much more engaging movie.

Rating: 6.5/10

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REVIEW: Manchester By The Sea

Let’s just get this out of the way at the start, if you do not like depressing stories then this movie might not be for you. It is not exactly what one might call uplifting. Having said that, I would still urge everybody to watch this movie, despite any reservations you might have.

The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a very sombre, downtrodden, introspective janitor who is left as the sole guardian of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). It also occasionally jumps back in time to show us the breakup of Lee’s marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) some years previously.

When discussing most great performances, the word “commanding” usually comes to mind. When you picture a great performance, you tend to picture an actor throwing their performance all over the screen, getting right up in the audience’s face. Exclaiming, emoting, amplifying. Casey Affleck is the polar opposite of all of that in this movie. He is so perfectly understated in pretty much every way. This is not a movie where the main characters often express their emotions out loud. They bury them deep down, they disguise them any way they can. A lesser actor could have easily turned this into a melodrama but Affleck nails the tone perfectly. His understated performance means that when we get a glimpse into how his character is really feeling, it is all the more powerful because of how at arms length we have been kept the rest of the time.

Speaking of the tone of the movie, Kenneth Lonergan, the director and screenwriter, manages to balance the tone exquisitely throughout the two hours fifteen minute run time. The dialogue in the script feels so real. The way people act around death and tragedy. The way they try to talk around it. The way they try to comfort people. Lonergan’s script perfectly encapsulates these aspects of life. He manages, for the most part, to resist the temptation to have his characters burst out into angry monologues. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good angry monologue and I especially love really witty clever over the top dialogue but to have them in this movie would be a betrayal of the characters, the story and the tone that Lonergan has created. He wants to draw us into this world of real sorrow and he more than succeeds. Not only does he manage to successfully draw us into this world, he manages to encapsulate us in it.

Everything about this movie is slow. To some that might sound like a bad thing but to rush through this story would have be a terrible disservice. Every look shared between characters lingers for just a little longer than it normally would. Every awkward moment is as drawn out as possible. A scene involving a gurney and an ambulance in particular jumps to mind for just ringing out the awkwardness for as long as possible. The editing is never quick or frantic but calm and measured. The cinematography shows off the great beauty of the world, but somehow always manages to show it in a light that is empty and lonely. The film is as cold and distant as the temperature of the icy town of Manchester By The Sea itself.

Lesley Barber’s score is possibly the greatest part of this movie. It’s sweeping, lush and incredibly beautiful. The score perfectly contrasts with the downbeat tone that every other aspect of the movie plays to. The real genius of this score is how much you miss and notice it when it’s not around. It makes a noticeable impact when it arrives and leaves a gaping hole when it’s not present which of course works brilliantly as it tends to vanish at Lee’s low moments, reinforcing the gaping hole in his life. In pretty much any other year I would be amazed if it did not win the Oscar for best score but given that it happens to be up against a certain LA based musical juggernaut I can see why it might not take home the golden statue this year.

For all this talk of the movie being slow paced, it’s surprising how it never manages to be ponderous or dull and manages to keep hold of your attention throughout. Part of that is down to the brilliant execution of the story. The non-linear nature of the script, skipping between two different time periods, leaves the audience curious to fill in the blanks. For the first half of the movie, the question is “What caused Lee Chandler to become the way he is?”Once the answer to this question is revealed (I will not spoil it but the reveal is well worth the wait), the question for the rest of the film is “How can this character move on from what happened to them?” and “Can they move on from what happened to them?”

The supporting cast is rich in talent down the line. Full of character actors you’ll undoubtedly recognise and like but probably not be able to name and actors relatively new to the scene that show a lot of promise. Kyle Chandler, who’s character surname is rather confusingly also Chandler, manages to bring that lovable good-hearted charm that we’ve so often seen from him to this role. As a side note, I love Kyle Chandler in every movie I’ve seen him in. I feel like I should finally give in and watch Friday Night Lights just because of him.  It was also nice to see Kara Hayward again, as she was ever so good in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s good to see her grace our screens more, if only for a short while.

Lucas Hedges does a very commendable job in the role of Patrick. He has certainly proved that he has acting chops, and I’m positive he will be gracing our screens quite a bit in the coming years.

Now we get to best performance in the entire movie. Michelle Williams is barely in this picture. I don’t actually know how much screen time she receives but I’d hazard a guess that it is around 20 minutes. To get second billing in a film that is 140 minutes long when you are hardly even in it tells you the power of Williams’ performance. Anybody who watches enough movies will already be well aware that Williams is one of the best actresses currently working but in this movie she somehow still finds ways to surprise us with her talent. She gives the best performance out of the entire cast and possibly the best performance of her entire career. (When you take a look at her career, that is really saying something). Of course, her performance did have shades of Blue Valentine to me, being that both stories feature her as the wife in a dying marriage. In fact the first thing I wanted to do after watching this movie was to watch Blue Valentine, not just due to Williams being a part of both movies but due to their similar styles and tones. If you like that movie, I think you’ll very much like this one too.

The final scene between Affleck and Williams is some of the finest acting in recent memory. Please, if there are any actors reading this, just watch these two and stand, or sit, in awe at their talent. The incredibly emotional moment between them feels worthy of the final scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, just with not quite such exquisite dialogue.

It does sound like a complete cliche but there are moments in the movie when it honestly feels like you are not watching actors, but glimpse the lives of real people. Every single character feels so well fleshed out, no matter how significant they are in the bigger picture of the story. They all seem like they have had a full life before the events of this movie and will continue to have one after the end credits roll.

One of the boldest things about this movie, this is something I particularly like, is that the two characters we spend the most time with, Lee and Patrick, are really not that likable at all. Lee is miserable, severely lacking charm and spends the entire runtime making decisions and doing things that are bound to frustrate most people watching. His nephew, Patrick, is not much better. He is a self-absorbed, cocky 26-year-old who spends most of the movie complaining and whining.

I love that our lead characters are not that likeable. When it comes to movies, people seem to confuse likeable characters with engaging characters. Now sometimes they are one and the same but not always. The screenwriting book “Save the Cat” famously says that early on in the story the protagonist must do something to make himself likeable to the audience such as saving a cat from being run over by a car. Manchester By The Sea could have easily been ruined by making it’s two leads too likeable, or charming, or funny, but it resists that temptation and is all the better for it.

You may not walk out of this movie entertained. You might not feel the urge to go rewatch it again anytime soon. Honestly, I actually don’t feel the need to watch this movie again for a very long time. If ever. When you do walk out of the film however, or more likely stand up from your slouched position on the couch in your living room since people don’t go to the movies to watch films like this, there will be certain aspects of the film that I can guarantee will stick with you. This is not a movie you will forget about anytime soon.

Brilliant performances across the board, a well-measured script and a beautifully lush score combine to give this melancholic, hard-hitting tale real power and presence.

Rating: 9/10

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REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge

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Mel Gibson is back! Whilst some may not be pleased by that, the silver screen sure has missed Mel as a presence both in front of and behind the camera, so it’s good to see him back in the game. Putting to one side some of the unpleasant things that have occurred in his private life, you cannot deny what a terrific action star and brilliant director Gibson has proved himself to be.

Based on a true story as I’m sure you know, the movie follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a very religious conscientious objector who signs up as a combat medic during World War II despite the protests of his fiance Dorothy (Theresa Palmer) and his abusive Great War veteran father (Hugo Weaving). During training for the Army, he is ostracised and punished for his refusal to carry a weapon or engage in combat due to his beliefs. He is eventually allowed to serve and his beliefs are put to the test at Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa.

Often these real life movies based around one historical figure live and die by the performance of the lead actor. Even if every other aspect is carried out to a high standard, it is all in vain if the performance they are orbiting is lack-luster. Thankfully, in this case, the lead actor is spectacular.

Garfield manages to pull off being a very sweet, sincere, overly wholesome, good-natured typical American boy, without being incredibly annoying. That might not sound like a compliment but, trust me, it is. An actor of a lesser calibre could have been calamitous in the role and in a movie that is completely focused, structured and entirely dependent on its protagonist. A misfired performance could have sunk the entire movie despite all its other merits. The Amazing Spider-Man movies seemed to have halted Garfield’s rise temporarily. The promise of amazing talent that we first saw in The Social Network had not really taken off since but it seems like Garfield is finally taking the roles that will let him stretch his acting legs and let him finally fulfil the potential that has been bursting to escape for some time now.

The first act of the movie really succeeds in attaching the audience to the characters in the movie. Nothing that significant story-wise happens apart from Desmond meeting his future wife Dorothy but all the major players and themes in the story are very well set up right from the start.

The middle section of the movie takes place in a boot camp and here’s where the movie could have really dropped the ball. It is impossible to watch a military boot camp scene without comparing it to Full Metal Jacket. The boot camp section of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary movie is an absolute masterstroke. Nothing will ever come close to R Lee Emery’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman crushing the body and soul of his new recruits into the marine corp. At first, it feels like this section of the movie is just going to be a less than spectacular rip-off of Full Metal Jacket, as so many films featuring militaristic boot camps over the years have been (Here’s looking at you Jarhead). Although it does follow some familiar beats (The Sergeant giving each of the soldiers’ nicknames whilst abusing them, we’ve never seen that before have we?), thankfully the boot camp section manages to carve its own unique identity. At first Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell seems like a rip-off of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman but we soon get to see the many facets of his personality other than the brutal drill sergeant.

What’s most surprising and pleasing about Hacksaw Ridge, is that it promises war and it promises violence but at it’s core it’s about morals, strength and heroism. Up until the end of the second act, we have barely witnessed an act of violence. The movie so far has been about ideas and debating those ideas. It has challenged the audience, made them think, as all great movies should.

But this is still a war movie and when we get to the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, the moment the entire story has been building up to, it does not disappoint on its promise of brutal war. After the first wave of the battle, I almost thought Gibson was deliberately holding back on showing how brutal the Japanese are but after the second wave and the scene of Doss going behind enemy lines to rescue survivors, I was pleased to see that Gibson did not back off from showing the brutality.

If the war was not shown as being truly horrific, then it would not do true justice to the bravery Desmond Doss showed in his actions on Hacksaw Ridge. Thankfully Gibson does not hold back on showing exactly how brutal the battle really was. Gibson’s direction, the sound design, and in particular, the editing are absolutely on point during the battle. I love the way Gibson shoots action. There’s nothing flashy or in your face about the camerawork or cinematography (i.e. Kubrick’s extreme long take of Kirk Douglas and his men going over the top in Paths of Glory) which in a way is a shame but what I did really like about the way the battle of Hacksaw Ridge was filmed and edited was that the action seems extremely chaotic and all over the place, yet as you’re watching it you have a clear understanding of what’s happening on screen. The world does not need another Bourne style, where you can barely tell what’s going on action scene, and similarly, we don’t need another war movie, especially a World War II movie, that’s shot like Saving Private Ryan. Pretty much every war movie since 1998 has done this and it’s got just a little old. Gibson refrains from imitating these other styles, and stick to the great action directing that he previously demonstrated in Braveheart and Apocoloyto.

Gibson has many attributes that make him a great director; ability to create a real tone and atmosphere, able to shoot coherent, intense, action sequences, an over-reliance on Jesus imagery. Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t exactly a positive aspect of his filmmaking. By far the greatest weapon in Gibson’s directorial armada is his ability to get truly great performances out of actors, sometimes performances that you weren’t previously sure said actor could even pull off.

Hugo Weaving is the best he has been in years, Vince Vaughn recovers from the disappointment of True Detective Season 2 to pull out a brilliant performance, and Sam Worthington displays so much talent it’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who turned out such dire performances in Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titans.

I must confess that I have not seen much of Teresa Palmer before but based on the performance she delivers in this movie, I would very much like to see her given some really challenging roles. Gibson really seems to get actors and appears to know how to wring the best out of them. Of course, it should be no real surprise that he is well versed in the craft of acting as he himself is an actor.

The most spectacular thing about this movie though is that the story actually is true. Thankfully Mel Gibson and the screenwriters, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, are smart enough not to overdramatize the real events and take too much liberty with them. This is an extraordinary story and the best way to do justice to it is simply to show it as it happened.

A movie that manages to be emotional, heartwarming, inspiration, intense and thrilling at the same time is not a very a easy thing to pull off, but with every aspect of the film firing on all cylinders, Hacksaw Ridge manages to be all these things and more.

Rating: 8.5/10

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REVIEW: La La Land

This movie is just pure and utter bliss. Rarely do I walk out of the cinema feeling so upbeat, so joyous, so energized. I adored this movie. Like most movies pushing for the Oscars, in the UK this movie is a 2017 release and already it’s going to take some beating to dethrone this as my favourite movie of 2017.

Yes, that’s right, I’ve played my hand early in this review. I’ve also thrown down a gauntlet for all other movies this year and I’m very much hoping they will rise to the challenge. Will I regret making such a bold statement so early in the year? Somehow, I don’t think so.

The story is simple. Mia (Emma Stone) is an wannabe actress, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to save jazz from the brink of extinction. In their struggle to find success in the City of Angels, they fall into each other arms. And there’s some singing and dancing along the way.

Damien Chazelle has made a masterpiece of a movie and, what’s more, it’s his second masterpiece in a row. Whiplash completely blew me away when I first saw it and continued to do so on subsequent viewings. What’s truly amazing about La La Land is not only that it is equal in quality to Whiplash, but that Chazelle has managed to make a film that’s so different to it’s predecessor. Yes, the themes that run through both movies are very similar; passion, dreams, determination, compromise, success, but the characters, the cinematography, the editing, the tone, practically everything apart from the themes are completely different. Whereas Whiplash is a movie of kinetic, frantic energy laced with intensity and tension that kept you on the edge of your seat, La La Land has this smooth, charming, almost arrogant swagger that just completely sucks you in.

Let’s start off with the leads. How many better pairings could you dream of in modern day Hollywood than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? I’m struggling to think of many. Forget about all the money this movie is going to make, if they could bottle up the chemistry that radiates between the two of them and sell it to the masses, they’d be richer beyond their wildest dreams.

Both of them seem to be just so effortlessly likable and charismatic. The key in a two handed romantic film is to make the audience fall in love with both characters simultaneously and in this movie it is really not that hard. The romance and charm is handled very well. In these kinds of movies it can be very easy to get a little too cutesy, which usually results in a sudden urge to spontaneously vomit. It can also be very easy to mishandle the romance and leave people wondering why the two leads have even fallen for each other in the first place. It’s a fine line to walk but in this movie it’s walked to perfection.

Also, just to note, Ryan Gosling, a man who has already been a part of a lot of great movies in his career, is currently on his hottest streak ever. The Big Short, to the Nice Guys, to this, and with Blade Runner 2049 coming up. He’s making his claim to being the best actor currently working in Hollywood. Although there is some fierce competition.

It is hard to not write a thousand words on how marvelous Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is but I’ll try to keep it short. There are so many long takes in this movie, which is extremely impressive when you consider how much choreography is going on in some of these long takes. Chazelle and Sandgren know precisely what they are doing with every single shot. Every cut in a movie should count, and in this movie, every cut does count. Yes, they are digitally blending some takes together in some sequences, such as the Freeway dance, but just look throughout the movie at how many times the camera just drifts around like a casual observer, instead of endless cutting and changing angle. This is the perfect kind of style for this movie, because it makes the audience feel like casual observers looking in on this fantasy.

And then there’s the lighting. Wow! I mean what else can you say, it truly is absolutely stunning. Some of the most intimate moments between Mia and Sebastian are brilliantly lit. A dance at magic hour in the Hollywood hills with the most stunning view behind them? Check. Gravity defying waltz in an observatory. Check. In particular some of the shots in the epilogue. The word beautiful does not do it true justice. The editing is also superb. Some magnificent transitions, perfectly timed with the music. The movie ticks along at a rather steady pace, without ever feeling like it’s slowing down. Something that could easily happen in a movie as jam packed as this.

Of course, being a musical, the whole film would sort of fall flat if the music was not amazing. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, it is! The songs have not left my head since I watched the movie. They have been on constant repeat ever since. They are so well written, so well performed, so well choreographed, and extremely well shot. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the music in this film is that out of all the numbers in the film, it’s hard to find a weak link amongst them. Even the one song on the soundtrack that is supposed to be bland, generic pop is actually way better than most bland, generic pop music. The songs are consistently strong throughout and that is something that Justin Hurwitz, the composer, deserves special praise for. Most modern musical numbers feel like pop songs trying to disguise themselves as musical numbers but most of the numbers in this feel like true old school musical numbers. With some brilliant, witty and evocative lyrics and the up in the air song structures that usually separates musical numbers from more popular music.

The most notable thing about Chazelle’s script is it’s structure. I won’t go into specifics as it will spoil too much of the film, but on occasion it jumps back and forth in time to great effect. It makes some lovely surprise turns to keep you on your feet throughout, which is always a nice surprise in a movie. If the movie is taking you exactly where you expect every single time, then it isn’t doing its job properly.  Add to that some pretty stellar dialogue, rich with humour and full of charisma and we’re on to a winner. The story is so well written and perfectly executed, I struggle to see how anybody could not care about these two characters and the paths they take throughout this movie.

As for the criticisms, well honestly I don’t have many. The movie isn’t perfect but it is outstanding in practically every category. Even potential criticisms I had during the film were quickly brushed away, as though Chazelle knew what the criticisms would be and was heading them off. Just when I was thinking that it was a little too convenient Mia and Sebastian kept running into each other, the movie through in a few lines of dialogue that made me laugh it off.

Maybe you could say Gosling and Stone are not the greatest singers in the world but just because you don’t have the greatest voice in the world does not mean you can’t sing. Our two leads both do an excellent job considering their range. Quite a bit has been made about their dancing, because it’s not as perfect as a Gene Kelly routine, but it’s so charming and fun that it really doesn’t matter. Plus it is actually very well choreographed and so it should be, they spent three months in rehearsal. To be criticizing Gosling for not being as good as dancer as Gene Kelly is like complaining that an amazing guitarist is not Jimi Hendrix.

I think that unfortunately, the narrative that builds up around a movie as it goes along the promotional tour trail can often prove to be detrimental. In this case I think the narrative that this movie is a return to the classic movie musicals of the 1940’s and 50’s has caused a slight backlash from people. Why? Well the answers simple, it isn’t a return. Yes it is paying homage to the old classic musicals but it’s also updating the musical, modernizing it.

For example, in the old musicals you don’t get the female lead giving the finger to the male lead. You don’t have the big kiss being interrupted by something completely random. In the old school musicals, you do not have the song and dance numbers out in real world locations like you do in this movie. As great as Singin’ in the Rain is, it is truly one of the all times greats, it is almost entirely filmed on closed, controlled film sets where they had as much time and freedom to film the numbers for as long as possible.This film knows that in modern movies we have the capability of pulling off things we could not over half a century ago. It is not content to just copy the classic musicals, it wants to push them into the modern era and beyond. This movie set itself a challenge to do something different with the musical and, in this regard, it succeeded.

In the current cinematic climate, where franchises and sequels are favoured more than ever over original ideas, it is very pleasing to see an original movie of this scale and caliber being made and supported. It took a lot of audacity for Chazelle to make this movie and a lot of faith from the studio to get it made. Both should be applauded.

The song “The Fools Who Dream” tells you exactly who this movie is perfect for – the Dreamers. But even though it is a movie for dreamers, and it consistently tells you to never give up on your dreams no matter how outlandish they might be, it almost continuously reminds you that your hopes are going to be stamped on at pretty much every turn and interval throughout life. Despite being such a joyous and delightful movie, it does also have a healthy dose of bite and cynicism. And it’s all the better for it.

Now if you excuse me, I’m off to the cinema to watch it again.

Rating: 9.5/10

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