Friday, December 30, 2016

REVIEW: "La La Land" (2016)

Hollywood has certainly had a long history since the golden era of MGM in adapting successful stage and Broadway musicals into feature films (including recent hits Chicago, 2002; Into the Woods, 2014; and Les Miserables, 2012). But what director Damien Chazelle does in La La Land is different. Sure, it is an homage to the films of the aforementioned era (including, also, Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain), and it encompasses more than a century of various music genres. But this is perhaps the first real musical of the 21st century that is original. More than that, Chazelle (who recently directed Whiplash, 2014) has stated this is a musical for those who don't love musicals.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz musician (Sebastian) and an aspiring actress (Mia), both struggling to make it big in Los Angeles. Being a movie musical, they both express themselves through song, through dance, and through jazz. The 50s/60s-inspired setting--with modern day tweaks, of course--adds to the thrill. The opening segment, for one, begins with classic-style studio logos, including the CinemaScope title card (and screen ratio span), while showing a time span of over a century of music via radio-station-skimming.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
This fusion of fantasy and reality works brilliantly, as Sebastian and Mia try to make their dreams a reality, and are challenged by the notions of what is behind and what is ahead, especially in the case of jazz music. (One character tells Sebastian, "You're holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.") These characters even try going their own directions, hoping for the best. And still, they do try to remind each other if what they do is what they're passionate about, or if it's just work for somebody else's dreams. The same goes for, in spite of many disappointments and not feeling good enough, seizing opportunity while it's there and giving everything your all.

La La Land is thoroughly irresistible. Every number, from the opening segment on a freeway to Gosling and Stone tap-dancing on a hill to the phenomenal climax, is a showstopper. The same goes for the wonderful costume design, terrific score, and Gosling and Stone's winning performances. What a rarity to see a film like this being made in our current franchise-heavy culture.

Love is in the air.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

REVIEWS: "Arrival" and "Midnight Special" Redefine the Science-Fiction Genre


There seems to be a trend growing in science-fiction so far this decade. Not only have several filmmakers from Alfonso Cauron (Gravity, 2013) to Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, 2014) to Ridley Scott (The Martian, 2015) resurrected interest in the space race, but this year alone seems to see a return to extra-terrestrial activity. And we're not talking about pot-bellied botanists or men in black. (Okay, maybe a little on that last one.)

Netflix's smash-hit series "Stranger Things" centers on the disappearance of a boy, as well as a mysterious girl and a malevolent creature, while police, government agents, and friends pursue them all. The series is a clever and engrossing homage to 1980s pop culture, particularly the sci-fi/horror films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, the novels of Stephen King, and "Dungeons & Dragons". (You can read my post on the series here.) Now there's director Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a linguist and a theoretical physicist who make contact with aliens. And earlier this year, director Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special featured Michael Shannon as the father of a young boy with mysterious otherworldly powers, and who's being pursued by government agents and cult members.

Amy Adams in Arrival
The premise of Arrival involves mysterious spaceships that land in twelve different countries around the world. As the film opens, we glimpse moments in the life of linguistics professor Louise Banks (the always incredible Adams, in perhaps her best role to date), specifically her life from her young daughter's birth up until her unexpected death, leading to a life of loneliness and bleakness. (The accompanying string score is profound and emotional.) Even her lakehouse home is dark, bleak, and lifeless (a color scheme that seems to permeate most of the film).

The film jumps to a lecture hall Louise teaches at, with a clear lack of communication among her students--that is, until news spreads about twelve mysterious egg-shaped spaceships that land in different areas around the world. Military specialists soon arrive with a recording they need Louise's expertise on, and eventually she's shipped to a base in Montana, where one of the ships (known as "shells") hovers nearby. The military's objective (as any person or organization or government branch would want to know) includes finding out what these beings want, where they're from, and why they're here? Theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner, in an equally engaging role) wonders, "Are they scientists or tourists?" How do they communicate? How do they think?

Jeremy Renner in Arrival
This is a classic and engrossing storytelling devise of ordinary characters thrown in extraordinary situations. The transition and character development throughout the film is partly shown in the way Louise breathes as she initially approaches contact with the extra-terrestrial beings (whom she and a colleague name, amusingly, Abbott and Costello). And when Louise exposes herself physically and consistently to the aliens, she begins to see images (possibly or apparently memories of her daughter), leading her to wonder what they mean, as well as what the aliens' intentions are. They also soon provoke various questions: Are these things/memories that have happened? Or are they premonitions of what will happen? But when news spreads from other base sightings around the world of a possible war spreading, it creates fear amongst several countries. "We're in a world with no single leader," says one character.

All political controversy aside, the shot of the UFOs is one of the most unforgettable images on screen this year. The same for the crew's containment suits (rivaling what Ridley Scott did in The Martian and Prometheus). Even the sight of the aliens (called "heptapods") is a cross between squids and trees, with foggy, cloud-like symbols that represent their language. And the score by Johann Johannsson is haunting and mysterious, just as it is evocative.

Amy Adams makes contact in Arrival
Most surprising is that this film is not what you expect it to be. For some, they may be expecting a slam-bang sci-fi thriller with high-octane action and gripping drama a la District 9 (2009). For others, it may be an entertaining journey a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013; Sicario, 2015) is more interested in the human aspect of his first-contact story. His main objective (as well as unconventional approach) is the illustration of communication, language and understanding, as well as regret, memory, time, and learning to live again. As one character says, "There are days that define your story beyond your life, like the day they arrived." That same character later asks, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?"


Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
Midnight Special opens in a hotel room, with tape and cardboard covering the windows. A boy hides under a blanket, wearing blue goggles and reading a Superman comic book. Two adult guardians (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) get ready to go late at night and hit the highway, in a sequence that set the stage for the gripping, intense, and engrossing events on the way.

This science-fiction drama about a father (Roy Tomlan) and son (Alton Meyer) on the run from government agents as well as cult members has the elements that make up a worthy chase movie, as Alton shows he has extra-terrestrial powers (light beaming from his eyes and hands, hence the goggles, and catching radio signals), and Roy's objective is to get him to a specific place at a specific time on a Friday ahead.

Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and
Joel Edgerton in Midnight Special
Other characters besides Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and Roy (Shannon, in a riveting and devoted performance) include his friend and former officer Lucas (Edgerton), the ranch leader (Sam Shephard), NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst). This is a terrific, impeccable cast in a provocative story of faith, fatherhood, and pursuit of the unknown. In fact, as Arrival is, at its center, a mother-daughter story, Midnight Special is very much a father-son story, with real human drama and mystery that is perhaps stronger than the equally brilliant dialogue and script.

The motif of light is prevalent throughout, and suggests many different meanings, such as how it tells of people's places in the world, as well as what man-made religions (like the cult/ranch) make of it. (In fact, one interrogator in a scene makes an accusation that the ranch's "sermons" contain mysterious encryptions and/or coordinances to the aforementioned time and place.) The way Alton reveals light in his eyes and hands illustrates the intense phenomena that occurs, as it does when meteors crash at a totally unexpected moment, and the way he reacts to the sun. It's also interesting the way Nichols (who also directed Shannon in Take Shelter, 2011, and Mud, 2013) incorporates Superman comics into this story and raises all kinds of questions. Is the sun Alton's "kryptonite"? What is the significance of the date and time they are heading towards? Is there a place beyond our own where there are others like Alton? Perhaps guardian angels? What will happen when Roy lets his son go?

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
This theme of new life and a world beyond our own (and perhaps facing fears) recalls the type of world Gandalf describes to Pippin during a moment of doubt in The Return of the King. Furthermore, it exemplifies the question of what doesn't last long and what does (this world or our own?). There are certain elements from E.T. and Close Encounters that Nichols pays subtle homage to, yet he makes them completely his own, especially during what many may perceive as a pretentious moment. Yet, said moment illustrates this aforementioned theme very well. It's as if M83's track (and accompanied music video) "Midnight City" were made into a feature film. And a very restrained and mysterious one, at that.

WRITER'S NOTE: A featurette for this film can be found on YouTube titled, "Shine a Light" (watch here) while a track over the credits, titled "Midnight Special," contains the lyrics, "Shine a light on me."

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Ralphie Parker. Buddy the Elf. These are just a few characters we often think of when it comes to the holidays.

And then there's John McClane. Okay, maybe not the first name that immediately comes to mind for yuletide splendor and cheer, but definitely with cinematic action and mayhem. Nevertheless, and interestingly, many film buffs consider the 1988 action movie Die Hard a "Christmas classic." Sure, it's set around Christmas time (other movies that have done so include Lethal WeaponGremlins, and Batman Returns), as our hero (an NYPD cop) goes to visit his family in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The real plot, however, gets going when McClane's estranged wife's office building is suddenly taken hostage by a group of German terrorists, while McClane himself slips out unnoticed and becomes the only hope they have.

It's a pretty straightforward and simple story, but in retrospect, Die Hard has a surprisingly strong narrative, along with cast of archetype characters from the hero McClane (Bruce Willis' most iconic role) to the villain Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman, in his unforgettable film debut) to the "bride" Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, now also famous for NBC's "Parenthood") to the supportive cop Al (a pre-"Family Matters" Reginald VelJohnson). It also happens to be one of the best structured movies ever written, with excellent examples of a setup, confrontation, and resolution (read Syd Field's book "Screenplay").

Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)
Holly Gennero McClane (Bonnie Bedelia)
Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson)
Lest we forget, other films that weren't initially or ever intended as "holiday" films (including It's a Wonderful Life) are now regarded as such today. ranks Die Hard as the best "alternative Christmas movie" ever made. A few years ago, Christian media discernment site PluggedIn, in a way, commented that this film ranked better than others that are regarded as "holiday" movies (such as Jingle All the WayFred Claus, and even The Polar Express). Cinemagogue creator and pastor James Harleman even had an interesting sermon and theological discussion on the film earlier this year (read here).

What makes John McClane an engrossing and interesting (yet flawed) character is not just the way Bruce Willis portrayed him--as a cocky, smart-alecky everyman in a situation he didn't ask for--but also the fact that this character is a direct contrast to the macho characters of the 1980s (from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Predator hunter to Sylvester Stallone's Rambo to Peter Weller's Robocop). All McClane has are the clothes on his back (pants, undershirt), his gun, and (surprise!) his bare feet. In fact, director John McTiernan insisted that McClane be portrayed as "an everyday, flawed man that rises to the occasion in dire circumstances" (IMDb), even over the holidays. In the series' sequels, however, the character would become more unbelievable and cartoony. Nevertheless, McClane represents the modern-day cowboy, as well as the unconventional hero (or antihero, if you prefer), who does what nobody else will do. Hans Gruber even says to McClane, "So you're just another American who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" McClane responds by comparing himself to classic western star Roy Rogers.

To be sure, as exhilarating of a movie as it is, Die Hard is also a very violent and profane one (obviously not for everybody), what with it's many pre-9/11 set pieces "with enough explosives and gunfire to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger" (remember the scene with McClane's bare feet and the broken glass?), very brief images of nudity, and, of course, Willis' infamous one-liner. On the other hand, those who are wise and discerning when and if they choose to see/watch it will arguably find some strong narrative and thematic components that counter the typical consumerism of the holidays, and may instead find a flawed character who's more determined than anybody else and tries to restore things, including his relationship with own family. Yippee ki-yay, indeed.