La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.

★★★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle


The secrecy surrounding this film as it came out is I think one of its best selling points. As it was being developed and filmed, few people realised that it was going to be a sequel to the J.J. Abrams movie. The ambiguity and intrigue that the revelation of the film’s title inspired ended up being a key ingredient in what made watching this film such an enjoyable experience. The question of how this story is connected to Cloverfield adds much to the uncertainty provided by the film’s very concept and also keeps the viewers on their toes whenever they start to believe that they might have figured this movie out. I was a bit apprehensive about watching this movie as I wasn’t really a fan of the original Cloverfield. However I ended up finding the sequel, with its wholly different tone and style from that of its predecessor, to be a fascinatingly compelling and intriguing film. It works well enough on its own but as an ambiguous sequel with an uncertain connection to its original counterpart it works splendidly as both a mystery and a thriller.

After breaking up with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) frantically drives through rural Louisiana where she ends up in a car collision. When she regains consciousness she finds herself chained and locked in an underground bunker. Howard (John Goodman), the man holding her in this place, reveals that an unknown attack has occurred and that he cannot allow her to leave his shelter. These claims are given credence by the testimony of a third survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a construction worker who helped to build this bunker and who witnessed the attack himself. After an escape attempt convinces Michelle of the truth behind these claims she accepts that she must remain in the bunker with these two men for an indeterminate amount of time. As time passes by however, Howard’s eccentricities and antagonism convince Michelle that he might be withholding secrets from them both and might even have ulterior motives for holding her in the bunker.

While Cloverfield was a found-footage monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane adopts an entirely different style as a claustrophobic psychological thriller. The audience is trapped in the bunker along with Michelle while the threat in the outside world remains invisible and anonymous. The film makes the wise decision of portraying the entire narrative through Michelle’s eyes, meaning that we only ever know as much as she does. With each new discovery she makes about the ominous threat that has them all trapped inside this bunker and also about the strange, hotly tempered man keeping her here, the deep tension and stirring intrigue keeps growing and growing. Although I do think that the ultimate pay-off in the third act was perhaps a little too far-fetched, the way that the mystery unfolds over the course of the first and second acts is a suspenseful and captivating experience.

At the centre of it all is Winstead as Michelle, the viewer’s window into this world. While we never really learn much about her, we get a strong enough sense of her personality that she never feels like a mere surrogate for the audience. In her attempts to understand the reality of her situation and the natures of the men sharing this living space with her, the film never makes the mistake of making her an idiot. She applies reason and rational thought, she is able to be trusting without being naïve and she takes action when faced with a legitimately threatening situation. The best performance of the film however belongs to John Goodman as Howard. This is a man who clearly isn’t all there, given that he was paranoid enough to have actually built the bunker in the first place, and whose eccentricities range from strange to charming to terrifying. He is the one who holds all of the power within this bunker which means that he could be either Michelle and Emmett’s greatest asset or most dangerous threat. The fact they don’t know which he is scares them to no end.

10 Cloverfield Lane is easily a clear step up from its predecessor. The film is tense, smart and enthralling and unfolds its story and just the right pace. While I did find parts of the climax to be somewhat bewildering and cannot help but feel that they sort of undermined the film as a whole for me, I can still definitely say that I never saw a single frame of it coming. Obviously I cannot elaborate in any way on what happens, but feel I should say that the decision to make this movie a sequel to Cloverfield without explaining how or why was an excellent one on the studio’s part. The mystery of how the two movies are connected is the icing on what is already a rich and layered cake. If this franchise chooses to continue the trend of reinventing itself then I eagerly await its future instalments.

★★★★

Whiplash

Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


Pursuing a dream is often difficult. One could argue that everyone would do it if it were easy. It requires patience, determination and passion. Even then a dream can often prove to be unattainable. Other times it can consume you and turn into an obsession. Some people can chase their dreams so fervently that they lose sight of all else and end up destroying themselves. This is the central theme of Whiplash, a film about a young man’s compulsive quest for perfection and greatness and the sufferings, inflicted both by himself and by his teacher, he undergoes in order to achieve his dream.

The film opens with Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer enrolled at one of the best music schools in the country, practising on the drums. Andrew is an ambitious young man who emulates the big names of jazz music, including Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and aspires to one day join their ranks as one of the greats. He stops playing when he notices that one of the school’s music maestros, the jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is listening in. Fletcher puts Andrew on the spot, asking him confrontational questions and giving him a complex drum beat to play, before leaving in the middle without another word. After a second audition, which takes place when Fletcher spontaneously walks into his class and asks each student in turn to play him a couple of bars, he makes Andrew the new alternate drummer in his band.

Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Fletcher, a musical genius with psychopathic methods who demands perfection and nothing less. He proves to be a teacher with a sadistic temperament who verbally abuses his students for the slightest offences. It is startling to see him casually talking to Andrew with a calm and kindly demeanour when only a few minutes ago we saw him reduce one of his musicians to tears and kick him out of the band for playing out of tune. When he asks Andrew about his parents, one wonders if he is genuinely trying to be friendly or if he is simply looking for ammunition that he can use against him. He assures Andrew not to be too worried about getting the music right only to fling a chair at him moments later for not keeping tempo. He goes further to strike Andrew repeatedly and brutally insults him using his recently acquired knowledge of Andrew’s family as the rest of the class watches in grave silence.

Following this first session Andrew becomes utterly determined to improve his technique and to prove himself to Fletcher. He furiously practices on the drums for hours on end until his hands bleed. Wanting to save himself from any distraction or future difficulties, he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend so that she won’t divert any of his time or attention from becoming a great drummer. Yet in session after session he continuously fails to impress Fletcher who unrelentingly berates him for not being good enough. During a jazz competition when Andrew loses the drummer’s notations he rises to the challenge by performing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ from memory, earning himself the post of the main drummer. Believing that he has finally proven himself to Fletcher, his pride is short-lived as Fletcher brings another drummer into the band. Fletcher then maliciously pits his drummers against each other in an intense sequence where all three drummers play themselves through blood, toil, sweat, and tears as they try to earn the right to perform the double-time swing in the song ‘Caravan’.

The conflict between Andrew and Fletcher throughout this film is harrowing to behold as Andrew undergoes a disturbing transformation. He goes from being a quiet, mild-mannered boy, frequently spending his afternoons with his father and too shy to ask out the pretty girl who works at the cinema, to an aggressive, wrathful man who scorns his family for failing to appreciate how talented he is and who pushes himself to extreme lengths in order to be the best. He pursues a path of desolation and self-destruction, all the while with Fletcher’s merciless attacks provoking him even further.

Fletcher might have easily turned out to be a caricature of a character (not unlike J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films) if not for the depth he is given. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Fletcher comes to a session with a mournful look on his face. He asks his band to listen to a piece of music and after a moment reveals that the musician they are listening to is a former student of his who recently died in an accident. He praises his late-student as a “beautiful player” before bursting into tears. It is astonishing to see a man who has performed such heinous acts over the course of the film show such sensitivity. Knowing what we know about him, one starts to wonder whether his outburst is motivated by grief or by guilt.

As Andrew pursues his destructive ambitions, the film raises the question of how far one should go when pursuing their dreams and whether there’s even such a thing as going too far. A recurring story that Fletcher tells to justify his actions recalls an incident where Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for failing to keep the tempo during a concert, an incident that motivated Parker to practice obsessively until he delivered the iconic performance that made him the jazz legend that he is today. This story is used as an incentive for Andrew to endure all the trials and tribulations that are thrown at him because they are what it takes for someone like him to be a great musician. Yet as Andrew pushes himself further and further and becomes more volatile, we the audience are unsure whether or not he will even survive this ordeal. The result is a truly astonishing film with an explosive finale that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat.

★★★★★