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.

★★★★★

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The Nice Guys

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi


My experience with Shane Black’s work was minimal prior to watching this film. The only movie of his that I had ever seen before was the divisive Iron Man 3, a perplexing but sometimes entertaining movie. I now understand that The Nice Guys as a concept falls more within his wheelhouse and marks a sort of return to basics for him. Based on what I’ve heard about his movies Black is more in his element when depicting unlikely duos dealing with sex, murder and mystery in tongue-in-cheek movies that blend comedy, violence and vulgarity. This film in particular is a neo-noir and has thus been compared to his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film I’ve yet to see. There’s an intricate mystery, a dubious setting, colourful characters and a strongly defined visual style. The Nice Guys is also a black comedy though and so it does as exemplary a job of parodying these tropes as it does of duplicating them.

In 1977 Los Angeles hapless private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is hired to look into the death of a famous porn star. The trail leads him to pursue a girl called Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). This lead brings him into direct conflict with the hard as nails Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an enforcer hired by Amelia to prevent others from looking for her. When Amelia goes missing however Healy realises that he needs to team up with March to find her before the hired thugs Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and Older Guy (Keith David) do. Assisting them is March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), a bright young girl with a strong moral compass to keep her father’s in check. What they discover is an elaborate conspiracy with twists around every corner encompassing a wide variety of sleazy and notorious characters.

If this film is demonstrable of the type of movies that Black usually creates, then I am definitely looking forward to checking out the rest of his filmography. In this movie he exhibits a distinctive style that is both entertaining and fascinating to watch. As opposed to the grim and ruthless violence of the classic noir movies that have so clearly influenced him Black favours a more awkward, comedic form of violence. It is a style that allows for randomness, absurdity and luck to be key factors in the story without seeming unwarranted. It is also a style that allows for a funny and entertaining means of establishing and furthering character, setting and story. Early on in the film there is a scene where March attempts to break through the glass pane of a door to unlock it from the inside only to horrifically cut himself on the broken glass. As well as being humorous this scene enables us to better understand the viciousness of 1970’s LA, the sad inadequacy of this character, and the random and pitiless nature of violence in this universe. Black’s use of this style is so skilful that he maintains a degree of unpredictability in this film. The characters walk and stumble their way through the story in equal measure and, when chance occurs, we never know whether it will for the protagonists or against them.

The unlikely duo that Gosling and Crowe form in this film is an awesome one, made by possible by strong performances and chemistry. March shows himself to be both shameless and inept as we see him often disregarding his morals for a paycheck and dropping the ball on many an occasion, usually at the worst possible moment. However this pathetic character is one that he has created from misfortune and self-pity as we learn from the occasional glimpses we see of a less useless, less unprincipled version of himself. While March wallows in his inadequacy Healy actively seeks to better himself. He does what he does because he’s good at beating people up but maintains standards, limits and rationale in his work… for the most part at least. Both characters are broken in their own ways but, like all unlikely duos, they come together out of necessity and discover better versions of themselves in their partnership. Helping them to get there is Holly, played terrifically by Angourie Rice, who grounds them both with her level-headedness and reliability.

The script could’ve used a little polish and some tighter editing might have allowed some of the weaker jokes to work a little better but The Nice Guys is, all things considered, a wildly entertaining movie. The characters are crazy and memorable. The 1970’s look is gorgeous and stylish. The action is hilarious and well choreographed. In an age where visual comedy is almost a lost art, Black’s expert use of slapstick is very welcome and greatly appreciated. Like most good film noirs The Nice Guys boasts of a convoluted yet engaging story, intriguing characters and an irresistibly strong sense of mood and tone. Throw in some of Black’s wicked sense of humour and you have a thoroughly enjoyable movie that succeeds in being stylish, thrilling and funny all at once. That is not an easy mix to pull off.

★★★★

The Big Short

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Director: Adam McKay

Writers: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph


I was about 15 when the when the financial crisis took place and understood absolutely nothing about what was happening. Now I’m a 23-year-old student studying for a degree in History and still have no understanding of what happened. The big obstacle faced by any film that aims to tackle a story based on a major economic incident is that few people understand economics and even fewer care to understand. It is near-impossible for any film to invest its audience in a story that they cannot follow so Adam McKay’s job in The Big Short is to try and present a hugely complicated and often dull subject to the average mainstream viewer in an informative yet entertaining way. Not only does the film succeed in this but it even manages to draw the viewer even further in with its off-beat tone, complex characters and deep moral debate.

The plot can be broken down into three separate but interlinked stories. The first is centred around Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who notices in 2005 that cracks are starting to appear in the housing market, the bedrock of the U.S. economy. Predicting a financial collapse within the next couple of years he invests the entirety of his fund against the housing market, much to his investors’ displeasure. The second story is set off by a trader called Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who hears about Burry’s actions and realises which way the wind is blowing. He enlists the help of the hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) so that they might profit off the greed and stupidity of the banks that caused this impending crisis. The third story follows two young investors called Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who hear about Vennett’s plan. They too decide to make a profit out of this whole mess with the help of the retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). As these characters learn more about the nature of this crisis however they slowly start to realise that the corruption of the economic structure and the scale of the inevitable collapse is greater than any of them could possibly have imagined.

One of the great things about this film is that even though it is tackling a serious topic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It wants to inform and stimulate its audience but it also wants to entertain them. Therefore The Big Short adopts an off-beat tone that allows it to tell its story however it pleases. If something needs to be made clear to the audience in order for them to follow the story, one of the characters will break the fourth wall and explain it to them. If an analogy needs to be made to explain some sort of economic device or practice, the film will show that analogy in action. If the film is ever in danger of getting bogged down in the details, it’ll throw some comedy into the mix to keep it interesting. This film manages to communicate the information it needs to get across without ever turning into an economics lecture or treating the viewer like an idiot.

What also impressed me was how unheroic the film allowed its characters to be. Michael Burry is driven only by the facts in his actions and simply does what those facts have determined to be the soundest financial move for his investors. Jared Vennett, the film’s narrator, makes it clear from the start that he is a Wall Street shark and is only interested in making money. Mark Baum serves as the film’s moral centre as he shows himself to be deeply sickened by the reprehensible greed of the banks but he’s also an antagonistic, self-righteous jerk who has no qualms about calling somebody an idiot to their face. The satisfaction these characters get from profiting off the banks’ mistakes is sullied for some of them by the realisation that they are to a certain degree part of the problem. While they’re making a fortune out of this mess, honest and working people all over the country are going to lose their jobs, savings and livelihoods. The film enters a fascinating moral debate as the faith some of these characters hold in the American economy is destroyed. Yes, they always knew that greed and stupidity were rife on Wall Street, but what they’re witnessing here is downright criminal!

The Big Short is a challenging film that pisses you off in the right way. As soon as the credits rolled I wanted to march straight over to the nearest bank and punch everyone there. This film handles its subject matter in just the right way to educate its audience and to invest them. Through clever writing and editing the film draws you into the ins and outs of this complicated yet deathly serious subject while managing to be interesting and entertaining. While The Wolf of Wall Street depicted the despicable and corrupt nature of the economic system by portraying its grotesque and deplorable characters in an exaggerated way, this film does it by educating its audience and then directly confronting the morals issues at stake. The Big Short is a compelling, funny, creative and, above all, an important film that is uncompromising in its candour and directness.

★★★★★