Category Archives: Film

Review: La La Land (2016)

La La Land: City of Dim Stars

By Adam Tawfik

La La Land, like every Oscar frontrunner is bound to face a wave of backlash. From its premiere at Sundance last January, La La Land was hyped, and hyped, and hyped by everybody, including the highbrow critics, the awards pundits, and the industry bigwigs. Around September, the unfiltered euphoria was challenged by editorials suggesting that La La Land was overrated. Closer to awards season as La La Land usurped prizes left and right, the criticism took a more pointedly aggressive turn.

Having seen it myself, I can understand the visceral reaction around this film. My experience was akin to eating a store-bought cake; in spite of my reservations to the fake vanilla and the stale batter, I still eat it for that taste of sugar. In the end, the aftertaste of artificiality lingers in my mouth and my mind. With La La Land, I was reasonably entertained in the moment, but its flaws resonated with me longer.

Although its over representation at the awards show is certainly annoying (considering that it ties for the same amount of Oscar nominations as my darling All About Eve), what really galls me most about La La Land is the overabundance of commentary of the behind-the-scenes technical challenges and all of the side by side comparisons of scenes La La Land and scenes from classic films that Damien Chazalle clunkily “paid homage to.”

The Bandwagon, 1953. Courtesy of cliqueclack.com

What makes the musicals by Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Astaire endure the test of time is their ability to be effortless yet superhumanly multitalented at the same time. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a 32-year old Harvard graduate, conversely, slaps you in the face with his technical and film geekery. This approach inadvertently spotlights La La Land’s mediocrity, from the songs, the breathy auto tuned singing voices of the entire cast, the costumes, and worst in my mind, the negligible choreography which is one step above a beginners swing dance course. For this reason, La La Land lacks the magic spark that makes masterworks like Singing in the Rain and others dazzle. As Richard Brody sharply observed, “Chazelle strives to impress, to wow, to dazzle…[the numbers] close off the imagination rather than opening it. [And] The one thing that Chazelle seems to have little interest in is life.”

The only person to escape criticism is Emma Stone. I think that her “it girl” status of 2016 has given her this immunity. Richard Brody faulted Chazalle’s characterization of Mia, rightly pointing out that she is nothing more than a “cipher.” However, he praises Stone, dubiously claiming that “all the movie’s charm emerges from her performance.” Like with so many of the “it girls” of recent years- Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, etc.- Stone is a watchable actress, but one with a decidedly limited range.

Courtesy of www.elantepenultimomohicano.com

As in Birdman, Stone proves that she can handle snarky comedy “one liners” well. She’s in her element where she can utilize her easygoing, sarcastic vibe to mock Seb (Ryan Gosling), who is an uptight, sullen self-proclaimer of “pure jazz.” She is considerably buoyed by Gosling’s intensity and moroseness, which compliments her light touch. With the exception of a montage where Stone amusingly auditions for a series of unsuitable roles, she lacks dynamism in her solo scenes. From the films I’ve seen Stone in, she doesn’t have a flair for grief and sadness. Like the Oscar bait monologue in Birdman, Stone in her “made for Oscar” number (“Here’s to the Ones who Dream”) overdoes the eyes and nostrils while her overall presence underwhelms as she strains to convey pathos.

It is an interesting aspect of current film criticism that male directors and male actors/characters are intensely scrutinized for faux pas’ while female counterparts’ flaws are cast under the rug. Much has been made (and to a degree fairly so) about Gosling’s “white savior” jazz appropriator and the way he supposedly “mansplains” jazz to Emma Stone (I think this is a bit overwrought). In an interesting perspective, Will Brooker argues that La La Land’s (evil) genius is that it symbolizes how 2016 is the year where mediocre hacks reign supreme. Brooker makes parallels between Ryan Gosling and Donald Trump:

“Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief.”

Courtesy of IndieWire

It’s true that Gosling isn’t a singer or a hoofer, but why is he faulted when Stone isn’t any better at either (and in my opinion she’s worse on both counts)? I agree that Seb is too cocky in his pedestrian opinions of jazz as well as in his actual ability as a musician.

At the very least Gosling overcomes the many shortcomings of his character by coming the closest to La La Land’s goal of combining the old movie cocksure naiveté with modern cynicism. Although Seb, as conceived by Chazelle, is problematic in many ways, at least he has a logical arc that Mia sorely lacks. We at least get a glimpse of Seb’s process as well as his (limited) ability as we see him in action. It is insinuated that Mia’s self-financed one-woman show is great, but there’s no way to gauge for ourselves as we don’t get to see it for ourselves. That doesn’t stop the film and Stone stridently instructing us to empathize with Mia’s heartbreak over the lack of attendance and her inability to pay her costs.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Seb’s trajectory from a struggling jazz musician to a keyboardist for his friend’s sellout electronica group (making $1000 a week) to the proprietor of his own jazz bar is wishful thinking. But Mia’s rise from barista to being discovered by an agent who was one of 3 people in attendance for the one-woman show who just happened to remember Mia several months after the fact, leading to a starring role with a script that will be based around her for a film in Paris, which makes her an A-list movie star is truly fantastical.

Certainly, Chazelle’s underwriting of Mia is a huge handicap, but in the end, Stone is wrong for the role because she is too mainstream, too trendy to be a credible underdog. Basically, the film assumes that we’ll root for Mia because Emma Stone is America’s Sweetheart; it seems to have worked as Stone is a shoo-in for Best Actress. Mia truly is the most entitled and undeserving character I’ve seen on film in a long while.

La La Land is the lucky recipient of a widespread nostalgia about the glamour and escapism of old Hollywood musicals, and from the fact that very few are knowledgeable of the movies themselves. In the long run, I do believe that La La Land will be contextualized correctly as another one of those lily-livered Best Picture winners that bested more original and innovative movies. (I guess it’ll make the Alternative Oscars relevant for years to come.)

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

A fantastical dive back into J.K. Rowling’s universe of witchcraft and wizardry

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Courtesy of ComicBookMovie.com

Courtesy of ComicBookMovie.com

I would consider myself to be a Harry Potter fan, albeit less intense then some of the other fans I know. Still, when granted an opportunity to attend an early screening of this film I jumped on it; however knowing I would have to review it I tried to watch it as a film student rather than through rose colored glasses.

Overall I’d say Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a whole lot of fun. The visual effects dazzle and impress, the score is wonderful and engaging. Also I actually like the main protagonist more than Harry Potter himself. I know, sheer blasphemy. Fans of the series, I’m sure you’re going to see this film and even if you’re not a fan of Harry Potter and you’re getting dragged into a screening by someone, so long as you like the fantasy genre I don’t think you’re going to have a bad time at all. If it was the nature of the main story being set in a school that was your main turn off or perhaps you were just too old for it when it came out, this story might still be for you.

The film is set in 1920’s New York City shortly after World War One. Eddie Redmayne delivers a great performance as Newt Scamander, a Magizoologist or one who studies magical creatures- you see where this is going. Scamander carries an enchanted case with magical creatures and circumstances lead to the case having an accidental switcheroo with ordinary man, Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler) who lets some of the beasts escape.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Courtesy of Warner Bros

What sounds like your typical Saturday morning cartoon plot where they’ve got to go out and “catch them all” (obviously I’m referencing Pokemon here) turns into a much larger story where alliances are formed. However there is a grey line when it comes to morality that leads to it being more complicated than simply having a team of good guys versus a team of bad guys.

Yes, there is an overall big baddie, but this film touches some pretty dark subject matter when it comes to the subject of morality which we’ll talk about more in the spoiler section down below. Though while we’re at it, don’t take the little kids to see this one. Even though it is only rated PG-13, they’re not going to get some of the stuff in it and some of the other stuff might be considered disturbing.

The other notable actors are Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol who play the magical Goldstein sisters. Sudol delivers a charming performance, reminiscent of the character of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Waterson on the other hand, I’m not totally sold on. It could be because this film is just the set up for her character and she’s dealing with a lot of stuff, maybe upon a second viewing or with further sequels she’ll grow on me but overall her performance just felt the most underwhelming. Either that or maybe we’re just so used to seeing such confident, strong characters in the series such as Hermione and Professor McGonagall that she feels like a letdown. It’s also hard to tell if from the performance if the character is supposed to be fragile or a go-getter and like I said maybe she’s supposed to be that way, but the performance is just weird for lack of a better word.

I’ll wait to discuss other performances as well as specific plot points in the spoiler section since a lot of what I have to say about them will give away key elements from the film and I want those who are looking to avoid the spoilers to be able to do so.

For those who are concerned that this film and its projected sequel are just here to milk the franchise for more money- well you’re not wrong but in this case I’m willing to let it pass. Since the opening of Pottermore we’ve found out that Rowling wrote backstories for essentially every named character in the book. I’ve always been for using film to breathe life into that extended content, also I love fantasy visuals so I mean it’s one thing to read about a Hippogriff but then to see one rendered on a big screen is kinda awesome; they truly come to life as Fantastic Beasts, tee hee. We’ve come a long way since the Claymation effects in Clash of the Titans and the animatronic T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

Courtesy of slashfilm.com

Courtesy of slashfilm.com

Overall I give this film a high recommendation, though I’m pretty sure if you like Harry Potter you’re going to see it no matter what I say. I expect there to be mixed reception just like there is among the core film versus book series. Personally I’m holding off reading these books until the movies are out as I found I enjoyed the last four films more when I did that because I didn’t feel like things were missing. But I know some people like to do the opposite. To each their own. One thing I think people are really going to enjoy is the chemistry between the four main actors, especially Redmayne and Fogler.

I look forward to the future of this franchise. It has shown that it’s for adults with a good balance between comedic, serious, and the occasional melodrama because this film features adults and we get to see sexual tension more than we did in the Hogwarts storyline- though some fanfiction writers will tell you otherwise, good god the way some of them wield language like a sword, but if the sword was actually a phallus and their username is Sigmund Freud.

I really enjoyed Fogler’s everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation and the chemistry he has with Redmayne as I had said before, really is the heart of the film. They also flesh out their characters a whole lot with subtle gestures and a few lines here and there so I gotta give it up for the screenwriters who did a good job of “show don’t tell.” Fantastic Beasts excels where many fantasy films fail because it just goes with it, it doesn’t weigh the plot down with information, and it establishes the way magic works in a couple simple lines which is really refreshing.

SPOILERS       SPOILERS           SPOILERS

 

Alright kids, its spoiler time. When things get dark in this film they really get dark. Holy crap. The execution scene might possibly be the darkest scene we’ve had on camera in this series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it, but wow talk about interrupting your “gotta catch em all” adventure for some ascended fridge horror. (Here’s a quick definition of what fridge horror is courtesy of tv tropes (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AscendedFridgeHorror).) So here we have the people governing over the magical world, the law, who are supposed to be the good guys- and their form of punishment is essentially being no different than the witch hunter group of Non-mag/muggles that are hunting after them. That’s messed up.

We also have some on screen child abuse. Ezra Miller’s Credence is played so well that he’s almost unrecognizable from the roles I’ve seen him in prior to this. He toes that line between broken bird and human grenade so well I really wish the Academy would give more acknowledgement to this genre and give him a nod for supporting actor. Another good performance comes from Colin Farrell, I really do like when he’s the bad guy- I’m not a huge fan of the twist that at least half the audience will see coming but I digress. He was good in this, and I’m going to miss him in the sequels.

I’m keeping the spoiler section short this time because I really want people to see the movie and enjoy it for themselves. Also since the story is being told through multiple films it’s still too soon to tell if certain payoffs are going to happen or if certain lines meant more than what they seemed to mean. Only time will tell. Fantastic Beasts is getting the Heather seal of approval.

Review Short Film: Here Lies Joe (2016)

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood films is how predictable and formulaic they are. In the 90s, film festivals like Sundance were in their zenith when they provided a platform for writer/directors such as Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch, who delivered films that brazenly asserted an edgy, idiosyncratic style, often mixing the irreverent with the absurd.

Over the years, Sundance and indie films in general have lost their cachet as many of the films that come out of the festivals have arguably become as formulaic as blockbuster flicks, yet often without the slick efficiency. One of the stalest forms of American indie movies is the emo rom-com between suicidal depressives.

The new short film Here Lies Joe checks most of the boxes of the aforementioned genre: washed out color palette, slow mumbly alternative soundtrack, gratuitous long takes that are supposed to signify how bare the protagonist’s life is, and forced snarky-cutesy banter between a man and woman.

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor, etc. Mark Battle has some flair for morose comedic awkwardness as evidenced in the suicide anonymous group meeting scene (buoyed by an amusing performance by Mary Hronicek as an emotional wreck).

Joe loses momentum when it hinges on a meandering series of awkward scenes between the titular character (Dean Temple), a former professor? living in his car, and Z (Andi Morrow), an intellectual and brash, but self-destructive woman.

There are hints that Temple and Morrow, are sensitive performers, but they are constrained by the overly self-conscious archetypal nature of their characters.

Morrow is better at asserting the abrasive elements of her character than the more vulnerable side, which as written feels more obligatory than organic. If the character of Z is overly snarky, Joe is on the wrong side of understated; underdeveloped. While protagonists in many films overexplain themselves, we never conclusively know anything about Joe (the scraps of evidence of his past are never tied in to the story, alas), and therefore have very little connection with him.

What Joe lacks in originality, it makes up for in overall competency, which puts it way ahead of most low-budget small crew short films in the festival circuit.

Review: Batman The Killing Joke (2016)

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Courtesy of variety.com

Courtesy of variety.com

Let me start off by saying if you’re a hard core fan of Batman you’re going to want to see the newest entry, Batman: The Killing Joke. If you’re not a Batman expert, this is not the film to start off with. However, if you would like to jump into the Batman animated pantheon there is no shortage of material. I highly recommend you start with the 90s animated series, it’s very film noir, and possibly the best direction of a comic book series to date. Well, now I’m about to spoil this whole thing so if you want to go watch it and come back, please do so now.

The Killing Joke, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name which has influenced most of the newer Batman-related material, follows the basic outline of what is considered to be one of the darkest Batman stories ever told- In an attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, the Joker tortures and subsequently paralyzes his daughter, Barbara aka Batgirl, in front of him. The plot point as well as the ambiguous ending has long been a source of controversy amongst the Batman fandom community. Of course, now that we’ve seen it play out on the big screen, the controversy continues.

The 1988 graphic novel only spans about 64 pages, which really doesn’t cut it for a feature length but it’s also not short enough to cram into one episode, so the creators decided to go ahead and write an almost half hour long prologue that focuses on Batgirl, setting her up as the central character. This is fine because in the events of the graphic novel she’s just there as a catalyst and really there’s nothing more to her involvement. In fact it’s something that to this day has angered Batgirl fans (of which I’m actually not), feeling that the comic disrespected her by disregarding her life and using her suffering as a motivator for the men in her life. The prologue sequence adds depth to the character, showing her as strong and capable and for that I like it.

Courtesy of movieweb.com

Courtesy of movieweb.com

I’m just going to start off by tackling the “big controversy” since the main issues are in the Batgirl prologue arc. The main reasons circulating around the internet by Social Justice Warriors who see this whole arc as a misogynistic portrayal of Batgirl include, the fact that she’s a librarian (which comes from the comics guys), she has a sassy gay friend (who doesn’t?), the fact that she isn’t as capable at fighting crime because she’s a woman (first of all that’s your reading into it, secondly even Batman states she’s still a rookie, a thrill seeker, so nope not letting you have that one) and of course there’s the whole thing where Batgirl has sex with Batman…

So let’s back it up here- the film opens with Batgirl and Batman in pursuit of a cocky little SOB- named Paris France, who is planning on robbing his mafia boss uncle and is obsessed with Batgirl. Not much to him. However the devil is in the details with this one, if you pay close attention to his dialogue he’s basically representative of a misogynistic fanboy. It is heavily implied he regularly uses date rape drugs, which he unsuccessfully tries this tactic on Batgirl. A subtle but notable moment that emphasizes how deep his fetishism of Batgirl goes is when he has a call girl wearing a bat mask. His lines are sexist, at one point saying that “it must be her time of the month,” when she delivers a word of hurt on him. However neither Batgirl nor Batman actually addresses his comments, rather they just ignore him and continue to kick ass.

Now as far as the Batgirl/Batman relationship goes this is where some fans might be turned off out of the sheer idea of Barbara being with anyone other than Dick Grayson, aka Robin who eventually becomes Nightwing. His character is noticeably absent. He was most likely omitted so we could really focus in on the central players, not to mention he’s not actually in the source material so keeping it simple is just the way to go sometimes.

Courtesy of comicbook.com

Courtesy of comicbook.com

Barbara’s story fits into the classic, rookie cop makes amateur mistakes and gets bailed out by veteran cop. It’s not a sex issue. Several Robin stories also have this sort of mentor-who-has-to-correct-his-dumb -pupil storyline (see Son of Batman for another example). To further this point Batman even says, “You’re not like I am Barbara, it’s still a game for you, still a thrill.” And he’s right. In fact it’s pretty early on and she’s already starting to lose that thrill of being Batgirl. But there’s still a couple things driving her down this path; one giving her the chance to open a world of hurt on Paris France, the other her feelings towards Batman.

But of course Barbara is a layered character. To simply say she’s Batgirl just because she’s in love with Batman doesn’t do her feelings justice. In one of her exchanges with her sassy gay friend she says she’s in a relationship with her yoga instructor and wants the acknowledgement that she is his best pupil- this of course is code so as not to give away their identities. When he asks why the instructor, she says it’s the yoga, she likes the yoga.

So breaking that down, she’s attracted to the Batman but she’s also frustrated by him. Some people on the internet are using this as fuel for their misogyny argument.  To them I say imagine this scenario- you’ve had a crush on your favorite celebrity for years and now you’re finally working with them and you’re realizing they are a giant pain in the ass to work with, but you’re still attracted to that idea of them. I can totally believe in Barabara’s sexual frustration if you look at it from that angle.

Courtesy of www.techtimes.com

Courtesy of www.techtimes.com

Furthering my point is the fact that Barbara is the one who initiates the sex; she knocks him down, she takes off her own top before the camera pans up and away- if the film makers wanted to they could have shown the whole thing, the film was rated R. They didn’t because this was supposed to be a moment for Barbara to shine as a strong sexual independent woman and they didn’t want to spoil that image because if they showed everything that’s all anyone would talk about.

So we get to see Barbara in the aftermath of that and it’s not the prettiest of pictures but keep in mind this is Batman, a character with dozens of love interests both with and without the cowl (really, check out DC wikia. His love interests have their own separate page). Are we surprised he didn’t call? People have been critical of the scene after in which Barabara walks by an arguing couple and throws the guy in a bush, citing it as an example of “women’s rage.” You know for a fandom community so concerned with misogyny ya’ll make some pretty messed up comments.

I think this scene is just thrown in for comedic effect and I think she’s mad because her hopes and expectations are not being met- oh my god she’s acting like a real life human being. The first arc starts to wind down, and yes I’m still talking about the first 30 minutes of this film. They confront Paris France and she beats him nearly to death and then every piece of advice Batman was giving her just sort of clicks in her head. She doesn’t like the idea that she nearly beat a man to death and decides this isn’t the life she wants so she retires the Batgirl and goes on to live an otherwise normal life… and then you remember you’re watching The Killing Joke

Courtesy of moviepilot.com

Courtesy of moviepilot.com

The remainder of the story follows the original graphic novel almost note for note, with a few lines of dialogue updated since it is from a story written in 1988. There are two narratives interwoven, the current timeline where Batman is perusing the Joker and a series of flashback that gives the Joker an origin story, one where the audience can finally view him in a more sympathetic light. How Barbara plays into this, as mentioned before, the Joker shoots her and as a result she becomes permanently paralyzed. In a featurette they showed after the film they mentioned that even though they had the R rating, they wanted to tell the story in a way that didn’t make you want to jump off a cliff at the end.

Barbara is raped after being paralyzed by the Joker but it’s never explicitly shown, however we know it happened from four subtle beats. The first being the Joker undoing her top button before the camera cuts to the next scene. When Batman is visiting her in the hospital a detective says something to the effect that she was found naked and bleeding on the floor. While searching for Joker, Batman questions three escorts and one playfully says he usually pays them a visit first but didn’t this time so they assume that he’s found a new play thing.

The final piece solidifies this when Commissioner Gordon is forced to endure a hellish roller coaster ride, during which Joker sings a disturbing song and at the end television screens are covered in bloody naked pictures of Barbara. We don’t seeing anything explicitly detailed, but we know what’s going on. The reason I break this down is because of how much flack the sex scene earlier in the film had. I’d much rather know that Barbara was living life to the fullest then have my only image of her in the film be the victim of a horrific act of violence.

Courtesy of lockerdome.com

Courtesy of lockerdome.com

My criticism of the film is that the whole first part was supposed to be an introduction but really it feels like an episode lead in to a miniseries. Then you have two stories being told simultaneously that have very little to do with the introduction. However I think I understand why the directors did it because prior to the start of the Graphic novel DC was in the process of retiring the Batgirl character so she’s just a tool in a male driven storyline.

To show her in her prime, being Batgirl, kicking ass and showing that she’s just decided to live a normal life gives the audience more of an emotional attachment to the character and gives her more agency to the overall narrative rather than “oh well she was just there.” The biggest criticism the graphic novel received was that it crippled Barbara for no reason. But the film was already alluding to Barbara’s computer skills and in doing so her eventual dawning of the identity of Oracle, so it all comes full circle. The last image of the film is of her, so we know that although broken she is not defeated.

Podcast: Alternative Oscars 1952

Thanks Canva, for the foolproof interface :)

Thanks Canva, for the foolproof interface 🙂

Hi Everybody,

We’re back after a slightly long hiatus. Here’s our 3rd Alternative Oscars Podcast. In each episode, we discuss the Best Picture nominees of a single Oscars year, and then we give our way better choices, other films eligible for an Oscar in the same given year. They usually comprise of a mix between films that are now heralded as classics, underrated gems, and international films. This year is no different.

You can check out our previous two episodes, Tawfik Zone’s Alternative Oscars Podcast 1950 and Tawfik Zone’s Alternative Oscars Podcast 1951 on this website or on The Tawfik Zone’s Alternative Oscars Itunes Feed.

The setting is a newer brighter relish green room. We hope that the consistency is the same, if not better. Again, I am fortunate to be joined by friends and fellow film buffs, Tawfik Zone contributor Candace Wiggins and Tia Nikolopulas. As always, musical credit goes to Kevin MacLeod of Incompitech.com.

Without further ado, here is The Tawfik Zone’s Alternative Oscars for 1952. Please let us know what you thought of the nominated films or our picks. Did we overlook any films?