Tag Archives: Whiplash

La La Land (2016)

Of all the movie genres out there, I would say the musical is probably my least favourite, followed by romance. There’s just something about suddenly breaking into song and dance that takes me out of a film, and most romance flicks are done so poorly that they make me cringe with embarrassment. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part I try to avoid them. La La Land, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to director Damien Chapelle’s Whiplash, has received a lot of acclaim, and yet I still did not know what to expect because it is both a musical and a romance.

Well, I finally got around to watching it at the cinema today, and all I can say is, “Wow”. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie knowing it has received good reviews and then having it exceed my expectations this much. 

The premise is actually quite simple: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, respectively, who come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams.  That’s pretty much all you need to know, but it is a romance after all. so you know they are going to meet and fall in love. However, it is the way that this is portrayed that makes the film so engrossing. We already know that Gosling and Stone have excellent chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, and here they elevated to a whole other level. There is just something really organic about their interactions, which never feel forced or contrived. It also helps that they are both well-developed and likable characters you want to root for. 

The first half of the film is sweet, dreamy and full of energy, just like the characters pursuing their dreams and falling in love. The second half is darker and more serious as it deals with the practical realities of their lives and careers. I don’t recall a movie in recent memory that got me genuinely smiling (not because of a joke, but because of how joyful it is) and then genuinely on the verge of tears. It’s one of nose rare bittersweet films that sucked me in right from the beginning, warmed my heart, then damn near broke it. I can’t imagine how people who are have really gone to LA to pursue their dreams feel when they watch this movie. As I said, I usually don’t like romance films because they’re so poorly made. La La Land, on the other hand, nails it perfectly.

The other thing I was afraid of, the singing and dancing, surprisingly did not bother me. Part of it is because the songs are so fantastic and catchy, and part of it because the lyrics fit the emotions of the narrative so well. And part of it is because the amazing choreography and the way it was shot is so flawless. I was sold from the opening  sequence that really set the tone for the rest of the film. I had always felt that musicals would be better confined to stage plays, but the incredible long takes and creative camera angles, as well as the way Chazelle blends them in with the stunning cinematography, makes La La Land an experience built for the big screen.

Full credit must go to Gosling and stone for their performances, both of which deserve Oscar nominations if not wins. They play off each other seamlessly, from the silly banter to the serious conversations to the cute duets and dance numbers. It was almost a little annoying to see such highly attractive and fit people be able to sing and dance this well. And who the heck knew that Gosling was such a good piano player?

Chazelle has also made himself a favorite for Best Director and Best Screenplay by proving that Whiplash was no fluke. La La Land is so different from Whiplash, and yet both films exude the same type of self-assured confidence and controlled pacing. I can’t wait to see what Chazelle comes up with next. 

I’ve heard some people call La La Land a love letter to Los Angeles, and I guess you could construe it that way. I just think it’s a brilliant, funny, sweet, heart-felt movie from start to finish. There were a couple of decisions I perceive as minor missteps, though on the whole, there’s really nothing to dampen how I feel about the movie. Perhaps it’s just the dreamer in me talking, but I just can’t believe how much I love it.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I literally walked out of the cinema after watching La La land to discover that it had won a record seven awards at the Golden Globes with a clean sweep. I’m not usually one for hyperboles, but it’s well-deserved. I still have a few films left to watch that could potentially knock it off its perch, but as of now, La La Land is the best 2016 release I’ve seen.

The 10 Best Movies of 2014

At last, my 10 best movies of 2014. Some controversial choices in here, and as usual, it’s probably not what my list would be like today, though I’ve stuck with the ratings I gave at the time of initial review (which can be accessed by clicking on the film title).

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

The iconic Quicksilver scene
The iconic Quicksilver scene

With several movies on the same rating, I had to make a decision as to which film I wanted to squeeze into the 10th spot. After some self-deliberations, I decided I had to put a comic book adaptation in there. X-Men: Days of Future Past was my second-most anticipated film of the year and it lived up to expectations by effortlessly fusing the older and younger X-Men franchises through a complex but well-told time-travel concept that also cleverly inserted some historical events into the narrative. Terrific cast, superb special effects and a whole lot of action-packed fun, it paves the way perfectly for next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

9. Wild

WILD - 2014 FILM STILL - Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" - Photo Credit: Anne Marie/Fox    © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox
Reese Witherspoon sure looks terrible without makeup

On its face, this is basically a female version of Into the Wild, one my all-time faves, though there are enough differences across the board — whether it’s characters, plot or themes — for Wild to be a wildly satisfying emotional journey. It’s a great film for people who are past the innocence of their youth and are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Powered by fantastic performances from Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, this is a special experience I found both moving and uplifting.

8. Gone Girl

GONE1
Ben Affleck was perfect as the douchey husband

I didn’t expect Gone Girl to be so high on the list, only because I had already read the book when I saw it and many of the surprises had already been spoiled. But it’s hard to deny that David Fincher did a masterful job in adapting a difficult, multi-layered book with complex and difficult characters who are hard to root for. He captured the dark tones of the book superbly and had me on the edge of my seat even when I knew what was going to happen. Rosamund Pike was wonderful and Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris both surprised in how well they played their respective parts. A very impressive, unsettling experience.

7. Stretch

Stretch is one wild ride
Stretch is one wild ride

Probably the biggest surprise on this list. Not for me though. Stretch was hands down the funniest movie of the year. With Patrick Wilson at his all-time best, rampaging through the streets of Hollywood as a limo driver to the rich and famous, Stretch was weird, wacky and all over the place, but it was also a laugh a minute and so frenetic in pace that I was glad to have gone on this fantastic ride. I’m still shocked that the film has barely registered a blip on the radar of most audiences, but its 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes feels like vindication in my books.

6. Whiplash

Tense
Tense

I went into Whiplash with my expectations raised already, and it still impressed the hell out of me. Never did I think a movie about drumming could be so intense, and yet it turned out to be arguably most suspenseful film of the year thanks to the brilliant writing and direction from Damien Chazelle and the performances of JK Simmons and Miles Teller. Energetic, powerful and pumping with adrenaline, Whiplash is a unique instant classic that deserves all the superlatives.

5. The Babadook

Terrifying
Terrifying

It’s not often that a horror film makes the list, let alone an Australian horror film. The Babadook, however, is a legitimate masterpiece that also happens to be the scariest movie of the year. It’s the anti-modern-horror flick in the sense that the characters are well developed, it’s creepy and atmospheric, genuinely tense, and the scares are not merely cheap tactics. You could tell it was going to be different from the very first scene. Rather than make you jump, The Bababook makes you squirm and quiver because the terror penetrates beyond just the surface and seeps all the way to your core. People with children will get an additional layer from the experience.

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Nothing beats talking horseriding apes
Nothing beats talking horse-riding apes

I doubt this movie is on anyone else’s top 10 list of 2014, but if you know me or have been following this blog, you’ll know that I have a certain bias towards movies with talking apes. And talking apes who ride horses and shoot guns? Forget about it. I know Dawn of the Planet of the Apes probably isn’t, objectively speaking, one of the best films of the year, but it’s easily one of mine. Granted, Dawn is not as jaw-droppingly awesome as its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It makes up for that, however, with more apes, more ape character development and more large-scale ape action. Losing James Franco also helped. Dawn is the only movie I watched twice at the cinema in 2014, and it was just as spectacular and powerful the second time around. I can’t wait for War of the Planet of the Apes in 2017.

3. The Imitation Game

I think I just invented Playstation!
I think I just invented Playstation!

Every year there seems to be a highly regarded movie that I love even more than everyone else (that is, apart from the one that has talking apes), and this year that film is The Imitation Game, the tragic “true story” of British code-breaker Alan Turing. I just found the film to be a captivating experience. It’s a multi-layered drama-thriller filled with intriguing characters, educational and exciting plot developments and moving moments. With the incredible Benedict Cumberbatch steering the film, it turned out far more interesting and compelling than a code-breaking story should have been. I was engrossed from start to finish. It’s probably one of the few films I saw last year where I can’t really nitpick about anything.

2. Interstellar

So pretty
Alright…

When I first saw Interstellar I thought everyone would love it as much as I did, but as I realised later on, a lot of people hated it for various reasons. Too long, too slow, too corny, too little logic, too little real science, too “out there”  — all of these criticisms could be considered valid, though for me the biggest challenge was always getting past the fact that I’d have to stare at the smug face of Matthew “Alright Alright Alright” McConaughey for nearly 3 hours on an IMAX screen. In all seriousness, I think Interstellar is perhaps one of the most epic and beautiful sci-fi films ever made. From the scale to the ideas to the risks that Christopher Nolan was willing to take with the plot and the characters, it’s everything that I want from an epic cinematic experience. Sure, it got a bit melodramatic at times, though I think it’s a film needs melodrama more than it doesn’t need it, especially given Nolan’s past catalogue of films. I enjoyed the visual spectacle, I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed the sci-fi concepts and ideas. In terms of pure entertainment and visual splendor, Interstellar sits atop all other films of 2014.

1. Boyhood

Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn't age in the film
Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn’t age in the film

It’s a shame 5 stars is the most I can award to a film because there are rare occasions when I feel it’s just not enough. Boyhood is one such film. As remarkable as the fact that it was shot over 12 years with the same actors, what is even more impressive about Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s ability to mould all that footage into a deeply human, poignant and emotional movie that’s as close to depicting real life on film as a fictional motion picture can be. It’s a film like no other, one that truly has to be experienced personally to appreciate what the fuss is all about. It’s now in my pantheon of favourite movies of all-time.

Honourable mentions: A Most Violent Year, The Lego Movie, Horns, The Good Lie

So there you have it, my best and worst of 2014. Some surprises, some controversy, for sure, but a list I’m very happy with when it’s all said and done.

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

whiplashJPG

So everybody’s raving on about this little movie called Whiplash that is tearing up the critics circle and earned a Best Picture nod for the Oscars later this month. Naturally, I had to check it out, and now I’m singing its praises like everyone else.

Whiplash is a testament to what a bold idea, a strong script and capable actors can deliver notwithstanding a shoestring budget of just US$3.3 million. To be honest I don’t think this is the type of movie I would have considered watching had it not received so much hype. I don’t know about you, but the idea of a drama about a student jazz drummer and his volatile teacher doesn’t exactly rock my boat. And yet, thanks to positive word of mouth, Whiplash has become one of my dark horse favourites of the year.

The story centers on 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller), a seemingly regular teenager except for his obsessive ambition to be the best drummer in the world. Andrew attends New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, and a step in reaching his goal is to get onto the band of renowned conductor Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), a horrifying human being who loves driving his students not just to the edge, but flying right over the cliff Thelma-and-Louise style.

It may sound like a “meh” premise, but Whiplash is no doubt one of the most explosive and intense movies of the year. Apart from the tension from the constant thumping of the drums, my heart pounded every time Fletcher was on screen and about to rip into one his students. The fear and anxiety they felt was very terrifying, but also very human. I was on the edge of my seat from the very first scene, and I don’t even care much for drumming. I guess never knew music schools and jazz bands could be so cutthroat, and that the blood, sweat and tears could be — in this case — so real.

Full credit to writer and director Damien Chazelle in his sophomore effort for making every scene count. It’s one of those films where you don’t really know where it’s heading, and yet you don’t care because you’re so caught up in the moment. Some of the characters may seem like caricatures at first, but they reveal more and more of themselves — most of which are negative character traits — as the film progresses.

One of my favourite scenes from the entire movie was Andrew sitting at the dinner table with his family, who clearly think more of sporting achievements than musical ones. It’s a brilliantly constructed scene with beautiful dialogue, and despite it being one of the only scenes involving Andrew’s family, it was all the audience needed to know about them and Andrew’s simmering ego below an apparently timid surface.

Most of you have probably seen JK Simmons do his curt, straight-faced deliveries before, though he’s never been this good before. The viciousness he pours into Fletcher cuts right to the bone, and yet there is a “I’m doing this for your own good” vibe that underlies his nuanced performance. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar is well deserved.

The real revelation of the film is Miles Teller, who absolutely got snubbed by the Oscar committee for his portrayal of Andrew, whose single-minded obsession drives the soul of the narrative. Teller first grabbed my attention in Rabbit Hole, and despite not having movie-star looks he appears to be headed for big things by snagging the role of Mr Fantastic in the new Fantastic 4 remake (and judging from the teaser trailer, it’s gonna be gooooood).

Whiplash also makes some interesting observations about talent, hard work and the type of teaching methods employed by Fletcher. We want our kids to aim for clear goals in life, but at what point does obsession with success become self-destructive? And is pushing students beyond their limits so they can be truly great worth the cost? How many people have to be demoralized and destroyed so that one can rise up above the rest? Whiplash doesn’t answer these questions, but it certainly will make you think about them.

At 109 minutes, it is arguable that Whiplash‘s running time is a little long for a film of its kind, though much of that could be blamed on a crazy climax some might think is over the top. Personally, I didn’t mind it because the satisfaction from the pay-off is well worth the wait.

This is an unusual film with an allure that is difficult to grasp. The experience speaks for itself, and you don’t have to love music or drumming to be riveted by its brilliance.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

It was always going to be an uphill battle for director Jon Favreau in creating a sequel to Iron Man that lives up to the original, one of the best superhero films of all-time (along with The Dark Knight, depending on personal preferences).  Despite a valiant effort, as expected, Iron Man 2 falls short of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a fun, thrilling superhero action film.

Iron Man 2 begins where the first one ended, when weapons genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) reveals to the world that he is indeed Iron Man.  To be honest, there’s not a whole lot in terms of plot.  Most of the film is about the brilliant and cocky Stark as he struggles to deal with being a superhero and facing his own mortality.  Meanwhile, he has the US government pressuring him to give up his invention, a couple of new villains on his back, and dealing with a range of difficult personal relationships all at the same time.

The cast is again brilliant.  Apart from the sensational Robert Downey Jr as Stark/Iron Man, there is a brand new Russian villain, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a new competitor by the name of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and a sexy and mysterious new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).  Characters returning from the original include secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), supportive friend Happy Hogan (John Favreau), and army buddy Lt Colonel James Rhodes (played this time by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard).  Samuel L Jackson, who appeared in a cameo after the end credits in the original, has a slightly bigger role this time as Nick Fury of SHIELD.

Robert Downey Jr shows once again why he is getting all the biggest and best roles in Hollywood.  He is totally believable as a genius, a narcissistic prick and a superhero, sometimes all at once.  For me, Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as jealous rival Justin Hammer.  He is equal parts pathetic and dangerous, but always hilarious.  Mickey Rourke is also very good as Whiplash, his performance giving the character a dimension not achievable from a lessor actor.  Scarlett Johansson felt somewhat underused, though she did get to strut her stuff for a brief moment.  If there is a weak link, it’s Don Cheadle, whose straight-faced performance doesn’t live up to the deadpanning foundations laid down by Terrence Howard.

As for the action, most of Iron Man 2 felt more subdued than what I remembered from the original.  That is, of course, until the final battle, which is insanely exhilarating.  There’s more machines, more weapons and more explosions than the first film, but because it lacks that unexpected freshness and attitude, Iron Man 2 has less of a “wow” factor.  And for some reason, I felt there were a few moments where the film sagged a little.  A stronger script with less subplots and fewer characters may have served the film better, but these are relatively minor complaints.

The first Iron Man film blew me away because it was so different and fun.  Being a sequel, Iron Man 2 started from a disadvantaged position because it is stuck with the parameters it has set for itself and consequently has become so much harder to surprise.  That said, it’s still a solid film which is a lot of fun and about as well as you could have expected under the circumstances.

3.75 stars out of 5!

[PS: If you want to stay till after the credits there is a short scene which introduces us to Thor’s hammer, which I believe is for a different franchise.  It’s a long wait and a short scene that doesn’t show much, so only stay if you really want to see it.]