REVIEW: La La Land

24 12 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.

But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.

If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.

Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.

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REVIEW: 10 Cloverfield Lane

26 03 2016

I scarcely remember anything that happened in 2008’s “Cloverfield,” though I will never forget the nausea-inducing vertigo its constant shaky-cam gave me. I have a vague recollection of seeing the monster at the end (sorry if that spoiled something for anyone) and some kind of government cover-up of the whole thing. In other words, nothing had me clamoring for a sequel or offshoot.

Yet along comes “10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, written (to some extent) by “Whiplash” wunderkind Damien Chazelle and presumptively overseen by producer J.J. Abrams – and all of a sudden, they showed me that I did not know what I wanted. How refreshing to see a brand extension that serves as a brand revitalization. Rather than relying on the formula, mythology or beats of its predecessor, this bold new path in what now is supposedly a franchise delivers exactly what we need by giving us nothing we expected.

Most people remember “Cloverfield” chiefly for its marketing campaign. “10 Cloverfield Lane” arrived like Adele’s “25,” a teaser out of nowhere with the full product dropping shortly after. Ironically, the lead-up hardly presaged the experience. While the anticipation “Cloverfield” ultimately revealed thin substance, the somewhat muted hype machine surrounding “10 Cloverfield Lane” was only scratching the surface of the film’s tremendous impact. Trachtenberg’s film is like a master-class in suspense building, expertly and tautly edited to ratchet up the heat in every scene until it reaches a boiling point. In many ways, it could not be more different from “Cloverfield,” whose verité live video style relied on overwhelming the senses to communicate urgency and danger.

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REVIEW: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

22 02 2015

Guy and MadelineDamien Chazelle might have struck gold on “Whiplash,” but before that, he had to get “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” out of his system.  The former, now Oscar-winning film feels like the story the writer/director was born to tell.  His actual debut, however, seems like that final student film he had to submit to get a diploma.  (Chazelle is a Harvard graduate, by the way.)

Even as it catapults well over the bar of the average thesis film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” still feels mired in its trappings.  Chazelle feels beholden to a stubborn insistence on his own artiness, as if to announce his own arrival onto the scene.  And, apparently, he seems willing to sacrifice the narrative clarity of his modern romance on its behalf.

He demonstrates a clear understanding of both cinema verite American independent film as well as MGM-style filmed musicals, even making the bold move to combine them into a single feature.  When he wants, Chazelle proves capable of making a few fun modernizations to the movie musical tropes.  But more often than not, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” appears uncommitted to its stylistic approach.  Chazelle, understandably, comes across as somewhat apprehensive of going full throttle.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Whiplash

18 11 2014

WhiplashWhile the film “Whiplash” is about drumming and jazz music, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s intense focus on the physical demands of training and competition essentially transforms art into athletics.  The story follows Miles Teller’s Andrew as he goes through the music conservatory training process, both honing his craft and advancing through the studio ranks.  Andrew aims for nothing short of becoming one of the all-time great drummers, and the quest quite literally claims blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

Chazelle’s filmmaking captures the coexisting violence and agility of drumming with the same sort of madcap, fast-paced artistry.  “Whiplash” probably has the average shot length of a Marvel film, although these fast and furious edits are actually deployed to induce a physiological effect.  Chazelle conducts a cinematic symphony in his quick cutting of extreme close-up shots, cerebrally conveying just how many moving parts have to synchronize in order to create stirring music.

“Whiplash” is hardly a concert film, however, and much of the momentum of these extended bravura sequences comes from attention to and investment in the story and characters.  Chazelle’s script keeps an even keel even with its fairly rapid succession of events, largely stemming from its streamlined attention on Andrew’s quest for musical brilliance.  (Seriously, any more obsessed and he might turn into a swan.)  Even his romantic interest, which seems like a pleasant diversion when first introduced into the film, serves its purpose in advancing Andrew’s plot arc.

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