Sunday, February 26, 2017

La La Land

Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone,
John Legend

"Here's to the Fools who Dream"

There was a lot of hype over this Damien Chazelle directed musical. Justifiably so because rarely do we get to enjoy a musical amidst all those action filled films of Marvel super heroes out to save our planet from some form of extinction.

I could also see how Hollywood can easily relate to the narrative as most of them did go through numerous auditions while working as a bartender/barista in the hopes of becoming a celebrity in the flashiest of businesses - show business.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both struggling artists with their own mapped out plans on how to reach for the stars. They cross paths, fall in love without losing sight of their dreams - that is the stuff that good romantic comedies are made of - never mind that they had to swing, swirl and vocalize their intentions through catchy songs and choreographed steps inside elaborately attractive set designs. 

The production design takes you on a nostalgic ride with its vibrant cinematography. You can't be faulted for thinking that the story unfolds in the 1960s where Emma Stone regales us wearing lovely pastel colored dresses. Then a smartphone tone rings and you are suddenly brought back to the current times with its pressing problems. Setbacks like money concerns which begs the question: "What would you prioritize ... love or career?" Is it too much to ask for both? In essence, I believe Mia and Sebastian both made the correct decision regardless of whether it was right or wrong.

Damien Chazelle impresses with his fertile and creative mind to present a much welcomed form of escapism from our hasty lives. The same director who amazed with "Whiplash" once again make us appreciate jazz as a music form that is slowly fading. The combined acting (signing and dancing) efforts of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling was a delight to watch. They melted our hearts with their sparkling performances. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams,
Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet loner with no social life who works as a janitor/handyman in an apartment block. One day, he is informed his elder brother Joe has died and appointed him as legal guardian of his 16 year old nephew, Patrick.  

Reluctantly, he is forced to return to his hometown Manchester to make funeral arrangements and reconnect with Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a popular high school student.  As he sorts through things in his brother's house, certain aspects of his painful past are revealed through flashbacks. Happy bonding times with Joe and a much younger Patrick as well as a very heartbreaking personal tragedy which explains the withdrawn, sad nature of Lee. A life altering incident which marred Lee's demeanor forever.

Filmed in a quiet New England town where fishing is the main source of livelihood for its inhabitants, the setting provides an appropriate backdrop for a film that tackles grief, depression and the state of moving on with a firm silent resolute. The somber, morose music though, in my opinion was too loud and dramatic for an already desolate story. 

An original script which was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret), the germ of the idea was pitched to him by his close friends actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Matt Damon was supposed to star and direct it but due to a conflict in his busy schedule (he was filming The Martian), he offered the role to Casey Affleck, the younger brother of his best friend, Ben. 

A good choice as Casey Affleck was able to dig deep into his character to deliver a moving and touching performance as Lee. Struggling to suddenly cope with being a 'parent' to a teenager with big plans as well as resettling in a town that reminds him of his painful past, his nuanced depiction is on point.

He has good rapport with Lucas Hedges, the actor who plays Patrick. Although I admit there were times I felt like slapping him for being a petulant and insolent teenager, it just shows how effective Hedges was in his role. I'm surprised that Michelle Williams was nominated as best supporting actress. Her role as Randi, Lee's ex wife was really brief and she had this exaggerated Boston accent which was irritating.

Manchester by the Sea is one of the poignantly sorrowful movies I've seen in a long time. It has just the right amount of drama, a bit of humor and a sound coping mechanism for its main characters. Highly recommended, just keep the tissues close by, you'd need it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, 
Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst,
Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali

"Meet the Women you Don't know,
behind the Mission you Do."

If it wasn't for this truly inspirational movie, we would not have known about these brilliant women who not only were instrumental in sending the first American astronaut to orbit around Earth but also laid the ground work to the numerous successful space missions for NASA.

This is the true story of three pioneering African American women who were part of the 'human computers' pool in the 1960s during the early stages of the space agency. A period of racial segregation amidst the fierce space program race between the US and the USSR, they proved that anything was possible despite the challenges (racism, gender inequality) they faced not only at work, in school but also in their own community. 

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson are very good role models not only for African Americans but for the human race. Geniuses who were skilled in mathematical calculations, deciphering the IBM computer code, achieving feats in engineering  - they represent the triumph of the human spirit.

The elaborate set design is reminiscent of the 1960s from the wardrobe, the cars, the NASA office complex to the music through the collaborative efforts of Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer.  The nicely compiled bounchy soundtrack gave the film its light and glossy tone.  

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae thoroughly took center stage with the credible depiction of their multi-dimensional real life characters. They were funny and lively when happiness abound and also disappointed, sad and crestfallen when faced with adversities. Great performances.

I do have misgivings about how the 'white characters' were portrayed as being racists and misogynists. So while it is good to celebrate and recognize the efforts of these 'human computers' and their contribution to the space program, doing it at the expense of the other equally qualified employees who just happen to be white and portrayed as 'villains' is not fair, at all.

So although, these hidden figures were 'unmasked' and their long overdue story is well narrated through this movie, I believe NASA owes its success to the collective efforts of  all these hard-working people, regardless of their position, race and gender.

Thursday, February 9, 2017


Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte,
Anna Consigny, Jonas Bloquet

Dutch born director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall) presents a revenge dark comedy (in French with English subtitles) starring French actress Isabelle Huppert. Her performance as Michele Leblanc, a successful business owner who refuses to be a victim (in every sense of the word) after she is violently raped by a masked intruder in her own home is very powerful.

The first few minutes of the film is pitch black with grunts and groans. Then it shocks our senses as we are shown the brutality of the assault which is witnessed by Michele's black cat. Then the attacker leaves, she picks herself up, cleans the broken shards of glass, takes a long shower and simply goes to bed. The next day she goes to her video gaming company like nothing happened.

She only 'opens' up during an intimate dinner with her close friends. Her friends are shocked but they are more stunned that Michele adopts a stoic, nonchalant demeanor, being quite dismissive about the entire disturbing incident.

Michele is surrounded by an odd mixture of colorful people like her good for nothing son, his controlling pregnant girlfriend, her theatrical mother, her small group of close friends and her business associates. Although she barely talks about the incident, it dangles over her head like a little cloud that refuses to fade away. She arms herself with a gun, goes to bed with a hammer under her pillow. A certain horrific and traumatic chapter in her childhood also resurfaces from the deepest and darkest folds of her past as if she didn't have enough on her very full plate. 

The identity of her attacker is revealed well before the gripping finale. The tone of the film then takes on a cat and mouse game between them handled with dark humor, dangerous flirtation and defiant subjection. That it ends with a shocking yet triumphant twist clearly justifies everything that elle (she) stands for. 

Kudos to Isabelle Huppert for accepting this daring and risque role. Director Paul Verhoeven remarked in one interview "No American actress would take on such an amoral movie."  She is one of France's greatest actresses playing women of a certain age who are not afraid to take risks and does it so well. Her personification of Michele as this strong woman who empowers herself with stoicism, wit and a wicked sense of humor to get through her life's many challenges was admittedly a bit difficult to fathom. Even if we cannot really understand how and why she is that way ..,. we still admire her for her tenacious spirit.

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