Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Weekend Box Office

https://youtu.be/aFN22tFiCFA The rogue wins again, but it's a big enough week for everyone.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

La La Land Successfully Updates A Genre

La La Land is a rare bird, a genre musical film— refreshing and uplifting, sincere and happy and melancholy, a much-needed anodyne for the darkness and cynicism of late cinema. It tells the story of the meeting of two young people, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the musician and Mia (Emma Stone) the struggling actress. Both are working marginal jobs, waiting for their moment to break into the careers they dream of. When they meet (after a few hilarious missteps) love begins to bloom— and in true musical manner, their emotions soar in the form of song and dance. This is what is wonderful about musicals: in their universe emotions cannot be contained by prosaic reality. They require the characters spontaneously burst into song. Narrative reality breaks loose and people levitate into a magical space where people dance in the middle of traffic jams and fly into the stars of a planetarium.

But it’s not all just a cinematic heaven of singing and lyrical passages of fancy: the eternal rival of romance and career soon takes over.  Mia and Seb inspire each other to take risks, work hard and strive to make their personal dreams come true. The cost of pushing career first soon becomes the central conflict of La La Land, which leads to one of the most soaring and beautiful and melancholy and moving conclusions I have seen in a modern film.

The third character own this film— the namesake— is it’s wonderful, make-believe Los Angeles: Angel’s Flight, Mulholland Drive, Griffith Park, palm trees and stately SoCal architecture under an endless blue sky or deep blue night. It’s a fun, vibrant place full of artist, actors, strivers and dreamers. It’s been too easy in films of late to see LA as some of late-capitalist hellscape (see Training Day): It’s refreshing to remind all of us that LA is a place where people still go to try to make their dreams come true.

Director Damien Chazelle’s last film was Whiplash, a sort of crazy stalker film set in the world of jazz music about an earnest drummer and his insane instructor (J. K. Simmons, who has a lovely cameo in this film).  Jazz plays heavily and strangely in La La Land as well: Sebastian is a young man obsessed with the world of jazz: he has posters of jazz greats in his apartments, Hoagy Carmichael’s piano stool and longs to open a real jazz club in Los Angeles. There are plenty of kids these days who passionately love alls sorts of dead or marginal forms of music: it never becomes clear of Seb is sincere or just really good at affecting his love of the genre.

"A Lovely Night" on location.
The most remarkable number— a real masterpiece of a shot— is “A Lovely Night,” which occurs near the beginning of the film. After a party in the Hollywood Hills where they accident meet up, Seb is helping Mia look for her car. They break into song and dance at a scenic overlook, the wash of lights in the LA basin below. The scene, which goes from real-world to singing to dance to tap-dance (!) is shot at the real location and very specific time: PAST “Magic Hour,” just after sunset, when the warm glow of the sunset underscores a deepening dark blue sky. The set lighting is low as to illuminate the actors and still leave the sunset and sky bright. This scene not only highlights the considerable singing acting talents of of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, it shows off cutting-edge film technology: fine-grained, fast film stock (La La Land was mostly shot on 35mm film), fast anamorphic lenses and the latest light, agile camera packages. Were this a Golden Age musical, this shot would have happened on a soundstage. But instead, it is one long, six-minute shot at a very narrow, specific time of day. This makes it breathtaking on several levels.

Another nice PAST-magic hour shot.
La La Land is in many ways an updated classic movie, a pastiche of the conventions, narratives and styles of Hollywood musicals. It is not a breakthrough in and of itself: this isn’t pure storytelling and cinematic innovation like Mad Max: Fury Road was. It takes the best elements of a great genre, updates the sensibilities to contemporary morĂ©s and makes it all fresh and unexpected again. There’s a little Vincente Minelli here, some Gene Kelley there, a little Jaques Demy, Even a bit of Ross Hunter/ Doris Day and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Another girl in magical old Los Angeles, dreaming
of acting fame. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.
Given all these obvious movie-history references it was then very, very strange that while La La Land played, the place I kept going to for a visual and stylistic reference was… David Lynch. I COULD NOT STOP thinking: “This is a light-hearted musical version of Mulholland Dr. (2001).” It shares a lot of the same qualities as Lynch’s masterpiece: striking cinematography filled with shots of strong primary colors; an abiding love of Los Angeles locations, show business, actors and the mechanics of filmmaking; flights of surrealism; and intimate close-ups, bursting with emotion. These films are on entirely different missions— light, uplifting musical surrealism versus a surreal dive into the darkest parts of the id— but there is a common thread as well, in look and feel.

I may well be mistaken and La La Land may have been released in the
original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1. But that's not how I saw it
in Redwood City: they couldn't even manage to mask the screen right.
And, sorry to say, I have to disagree with both the opening title card and Dana Stevens’ review and report that La La Land is NOT in CinemaScope. That specific film format was proprietary for to 20th Century-Fox and Bausch and Lomb, who standardized the elements of anamorphic cinematography. CinemaScope lenses were not much used past 1960: these early models had distortion problems that caused actors’ faces to widen unnaturally: “CinemaScope Mumps,” they called it. Panavision fixed this problem by re-arranging lens elements to minimize distortion. This film is actually in Panavision: they used Series C lenses to shoot it. But this is a quibble: the widescreen compositions are so lovely and the mise-en-scene is so well developed and rich, it’s worth another viewing just to look for visual clues and symmetries.

If you love Hollywood genres old and new, this is a must-see.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Passengers is Spectacular, Immoral Sci-Fi

Caution: standard, “everyone has already given this away” •••spoilers••• ahead.

Having fallen in love with the Century Mountain View’s reclining cushy seats and large screens after seeing Rogue One there (the theater is a left-over from the domed auditorium days, refitted for pampered Silicon Valley kids) I decided to forgo useful endeavors and see Passengers in 3D.

The first impression is it is a very handsome film, as clean and smooth as a corporate vision of the future... Which this is. The film is set on the Avalon, a colonization ship making a 120-year interstellar voyage the scientifically factual way, without the assist of faster-than-light wishful thinking technology.

The Avalon is a wonder to behold, as interesting to comprehend as the handsome actors who clatter around in it. From the outside it resembles an immense Hobart industrial mixer blade. Inside, it is pure high-end hotel-resort: lovely cabins, swanky restaurants, all the amenities. The sheer amount of open-air space available detracts from the reality of the ship: If the Avalon is on a mission to create profit for it’s owners, they are wasting megatons of energy flying crystal chandeliers and huge swimming pools between stars. Sorry, it’s just a pure Sci-Fi quibble.

The Avalon, in all it's mixer-blade glory. You can see the
massive engine burning fuel from tanks that do not
seem to exist. Sorry, another pure Sci-Fi quibble.
The story begins when the Avalon encounters a field of asteroids deep in interstellar space. Some of them punch through the ship’s deflectors and do damage— which causes one hibernation pod to prematurely awaken its occupant, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) who soon realizes that he is completely alone on a ship that is still 90 years from its destination. Unable to re-enter stasis, he has a number of unpleasant decisions he can take to relive himself of the prospect of dying alone…

To proceed with this review , I have to write about a •••spoiler•••. But it’s not really a “spoiler,” for two reasons: 1. It occurs at the end of Act I and propels the main narrative in Act II, and 2. many, many other reviewers have also revealed it. Hell, the trailers have revealed it. But it’s important to talk about this because it’s the moral dilemma at the center of both the narrative and the critical framework in which Passengers resides.

In space, no one can hear you flirt. (I wish I had thought
of that line, but it was some other reviewer.)
Jim’s decision is to wake up another passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)-- and NOT tell her that he deliberately doomed her to die of old age with him well before the end of the journey. The movie makes it very clear that he is emotionally conflicted with this decision— his decision to not tell her hangs a huge lantern on his guilt. What makes it worse is he decides to wake Aurora, out of 5,000 other hibernating passengers, due to what can only be called her dating profile. She recorded an “all about me” profile before she left and Jim watches it obsessively. Stalker-like. He even hangs out next to her hibernation pod so he can gaze at her frozen body. He has thawed her out believing that she could be his soul mate. Being that there is nobody else on the ship, she eventually comes around and indeed becomes his reductio ad absurdum perfect mate.

Nonetheless, the huge tension in Act II is waiting to see how she is going to find out— and how unbelievably pissed off she is going to be when she does. As audience to this act of kidnapping and deception, for most of Act II I was pissed off for her. What he did is the ultimate violation, a slow murder. Aurora had plans and dreams and places to be: Jim selfishly destroys her entire life because he does not want to be alone. The fact that Jim does this awful thing to a woman makes it worse— and, in fact, it highlights how deeply sexist it is. Imagine if the genders were reversed and Aurora woke up Jim ninety years early and lied about it. The aftermath of the revelation would be short and violent. (This premise pissed off the editors of women-centric website Jezebel so much they spoiled the entire movie, end to end, so nobody has to pay to see it.)

A barely touched aspect of the survivor’s dilemma is one of class. Jim is basically steerage, on a subsidized ticket to a new colony as an essential tradesman indentured to the corporation. Aurora is a travel writer from New York City from obvious wealth, on-board to “experience” interstellar travel and a new colony and write a book about it. So she is Julia Roberts from Eat Pray Love— if Javier Bardem kidnapped her to live with him on a desert island. Part of the fun of the middle of the film is watching Jim enjoy all the gold-level amenities of the ship, things he could never afford on his ticket (even his breakfast choices suck). I can’t help think that if he had thought things through a little better, he could have woken up a steerage passenger to be his soulmate. She would be far appreciative of living the high life on a big empty ship than Aurora, who sort of takes it all for granted as the normal accouterments of her posh life.

The astonishingly immoral center of the narrative takes what looks like a rousing sci-fi movie to disturbing new dimensions. And, strange as it may seem, it makes Passengers a great date film: the discussions after the film is over should really add a lot of new definitions to what a fair relationship is— and how far it can go.

Anyway, on to the movie. That asteroid-caused thing that broke Jim’s hibernation pod is still there and threatens to take down the Avalon, sink it like the Titanic. And this immorally created couple must do what is needed to make that big, utterly predictable Act III conclusion happen.

Passengers kicked around Hollywood for a decade; it was a “Black List” script, which meant it was a hot story everyone wanted to develop, but didn’t. Touches of this brilliance and originality show up here and there as the story unfolds. I recommend it— but know that after seeing it you may well go on an unexpected emotional journey of your own.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Weekend Box Office

The industry goes Rogue! Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the numbers themselves.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Regular People Can Be Heroes Too

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story has been called the first “standalone story” set in the galaxy far, far away. This is only partially true: it tells the story of the theft of the Death Star Plans, essentially paragraph two of the opening title crawl from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) turned into a movie. Two other classic films got this “retroactive prequel” treatment: The Thing (1982) had a 2011 follow-up which told the story of the Norwegian Antarctic research station which discovered the alien spaceship and initially thawed out the shape-changing alien. Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) chronicled the events which brought a carnival magician to Oz and set him up as the ruler of the Emerald City.

This new film, directed by Visual Effects artist turned director Gareth Edwards, is a very satisfying action film and one of the finest additions to the Star Wars universe yet. Co-scripted by Tony Gilroy (writer of most of the Jason Bourne films) Rogue One is a gritty, serious, surprisingly dark caper film. It tells the story of group of ragged fugitives and hardened resistance fighters gathered by a desperate Rebel Alliance and given the task of somehow disrupting or stopping deployment of the Death Star, the Empire’s terrible new weapon. Along the course of this film we see this task change and evolve due to changing contingencies, and in the end this modest little spy story becomes a tremendous and consequential battle against the Empire as bold as any in the preceding films.

The Death Star never looked so evocative.
It is without a doubt the most beautiful-looking Star Wars movie yet made. The monumental visuals that we saw glimpses of in The Force Awakens— Rey climbing out of an immense wrecked Star Destroyer, Starkiller Base— are perfectly integrated into Rogue One. A Star Destroyer floats serenely yet menacingly over a walled city. The Death Star, creating an eclipse as it crosses in front of a sun. A pitched battle incongruously playing out on a warm tropical beach.

There is also a lot of fun stuff in Rogue One. It is set in the early days of the Empire and the film is rich with callbacks and easter eggs. Look hard enough and you will see crowd scenes filled with characters and creatures from other Star Wars movies. Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) has a part to play, as does Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) a surprisingly major character considering the actor has been dead for 22 years.

K-2SO, voice and motion capture by Alan Tudyk. This droid
is the 21st century update to C-3PO. Instead of a fussy,
mannered, somewhat feckless British butler, we have
a very capable robot with a habit of gracelessly
saying everything it thinks. K-2SO provides the
funniest and suprisingly touching dialog in Rogue One.
My favorite moment from the film— the scene which shows how unique this franchise installment truly is— happens early on in Rogue One. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), our main protagonist, has seen her mother killed and father apprehended by authorities literally dropping out of the sky, in the form of Imperial stormtroopers lead by Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Having witnessed this, and being a life-long fugitive from the Empire, Jyn has led a criminal’s life. The scene I love takes place on Wobani, at an Imperial labor camp. Jyn is sitting in a transport, being taken to or from some job site, covered with dirt and in worn-out clothes, ankles shackled to the floor. We then see other prisoners, looking dirty and defeated, sitting around her. We then see an Imperial Stormtrooper guard sitting on a bench near the hatch— his white armor smeared with grime and dust, body language broadcasting as much depression and defeat as everyone else in the transport. This is the moment where I realized this was truly a street-level story. We are not going to see the machinations of royals and elites: we’re going to see how regular people live in this universe-- those working for the Empire, those fighting it, and those who are simply caught in it’s grip— and how some of them will themselves out of this obscurity and rise to heroism and greatness.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones): Fugitive becomes hero.
Science Fiction author David Brin has long criticized the Star Wars saga as an exercise in anti-democratic cinema: they concern themselves with the internal conflicts of a single dynastic family. Every other Star Wars franchise entry has centered on the Skywalker clan, a bloodline created by The Force itself which has had a strong hand shaping the history of an entire galaxy and all the creatures in it. Even last year’s The Force Awakens is primary about a new protagonist joining the search for Luke Skywalker with the help of Luke’s brother-in-law Han Solo. Much of the fan speculation about Rey is how she is related to the Skywalkers: is she a daughter? a cousin? Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter? Or— my favorite crazy theory— is she a clone of Luke Skywalker, taken from his hand lost in Bespin, probably found still clutching the same lightsaber that Rey takes up?

In any case, the main franchise storyline is about a family of highly superior, Force-empowered individuals, fighting for governmental power over an entire universe of essentially powerless citizens. Rogue One isn’t about these people at all. It’s about the people they oppress: the Rebel troops Princess Leia sent to their deaths, Luke Skywalker’s wingmen blown out of the sky, the innocents on the planets Darth Vader and his grandson Kylo Ren had a hand in destroying. Because it’s a story about ordinary people fighting for freedom from the oppression of the Empire, it is both a noble and inspiring hero’s saga, and a tale of the frailty and ambiguity of ordinary lives.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Weekend Box Office

If your office Christmas party wasn't mortifying enough, I have great news for you! Thanks to BoxofficeMojo.com, who I namecheck in the video for a change.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Weekend Box Office

This week's new film debuts at number 9! Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the bad news