Tag Archives: Oscars

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: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The Many Rings of Hell

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

A Review of 12 Years a Slave

By Adam Tawfik

*This review contains SPOILERS

Although the institution of slavery officially ended in 1865, its ramifications still remain with us and America hasn’t fully dealt with this national shame. When the film industry takes on this controversial subject, it is usually relegated to the background of a storyline of white characters (a la Gone with the Wind) or, if it’s a slightly liberal film, it offers a chance to glorify or vilify white people while oversimplifying the institution (a la The Help).

Throughout history, some of the more unrelentingly salient critiques of American society have been made by foreign filmmakers, e.g. Otto Preminger, Tony Kaye, Billy Wilder, and Costa-Gavras. British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously directed two gritty indies Hunger and Shame, presents an uncompromisingly grim portrait of slavery in his latest film 12 Years a Slave, which seems to be a very faithful adaptation of the memoir of the same name.

Courtesy of patheos.com

Courtesy of patheos.com

The story is told through the lens of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a well-respected violinist who is illegally sold into slavery after being tricked by two white “musicians” offering him a fictitious job. With Slave, McQueen proves that he can take on a larger-scale project without compromising the quality.

Chiwetel Ejifor delivers a tour-de-force performance in the leading role, subtly instilling a quiet desperation and strength, holding his ground against his many cruel white opponents. Throughout his rough journey, he subtly demonstrates how his spirit has been broken and shows how he’s been worn down. His ups and downs keep the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. In certain ways he is a slightly unsympathetic character.

As an educated, literate free man, he feels superior to the other slaves. He doesn’t integrate with them until the funeral of a fellow slave who died from heatstroke and exhaustion on the cotton field, where he joins them in their song.

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

This film is a great skeleton, providing a great overview for Solomon and his trying circumstances. For the most part, this is the correct approach as it avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality or oversimplification, but there were a couple of times where I wanted a little more pulping out. One interesting storyline was that of Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who married her plantation owner.

Had we seen her in a couple of more scenes, it might have made an interesting counterpoint to the brutality and helplessness that most slaves were subjected to. I would have liked to have seen how she and her white husband interacted with one another and how she treated her own slaves. Besides, Woodard’s acerbic wit left me craving for more.

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

The stellar screenplay by John Ridley eschews stereotypes, giving each black and white character distinctive personalities, even down to the smallest roles: it’s not the usual binary of white people are mean and stupid and black people are pure and noble victims. Slave refuses to exclusively restrict its narrative and visual scope to Solomon’s story.  The film constantly reinforces that slavery was a collective suffering and as such, the responsibility of a whole society.

While it’s primarily an intensely and unrelentingly dark drama, there are nice fleeting moments of humor organically woven in. One such moment is Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett), who sees herself as a good Christian, attempting to console a newly-purchased Eliza (Adepero Oduye) by telling her that she’ll forget about being separated from her children, oblivious to the trauma Eliza is experiencing. Another takes place in a harrowing chase scene where sadistic Master Epps (Michael Fassbinder) chases Solomon, but falls in pig sty and briefly stumbles around before a brutal payoff.

This film has an abundance of well-defined female characters that are especially interesting and integral to the narrative. Eliza and Patsey are catalysts for Solomon’s growth, instrumental in inspiring change in him. Eliza refuses to get over the loss of being separated from her children, and her grief is the only thing that keeps her human and forces Solomon to confront his own resignation to his situation. Adepero Oduye, who starred in the overlooked shoestring-budgeted film Pariah in 2011, again proves that she is a stellar dramatic actress capable of great versatility.

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Lupita Nyong’o, in her debut feature film, is a revelation as Patsey, the beautiful slave who is the object of Master Epps’ (Michael Fassbinder) lust and the wrath of his violently jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o demonstrates her character’s strength and tenacity while hauntingly presenting the emotional and physical toll of her arduous and hopeless existence as she pleads for Solomon to kill her.

There’s a shattering moment toward the end of the film as she watches Solomon leave that we see the beginnings of her collapse, but the rest of her story takes place off-screen, a cruel reminder that many remained in obscurity. Solomon’s main journey is to regain his will to live, not merely survive, and as he sees the atrocities of working for the Epps (particularly for Patsey), he’s willing to take more chances in order to reach that goal.

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Michael Fassbinder is superlative as the craziest and most sadistic slave lord. Although he’s a wealthy plantation owner, Fassbinder renders a disgusting portrait of an alcoholic bum whose disheveled appearance and sloppy clothing makes him look ironically similar to the slaves on whom he looks down and treats with subhuman contempt. He also superbly evokes Epps’ inner turmoil of loving Patsey without seeing her as a human and this threatens his grip on reality.  

Sarah Paulson fully immerses herself into the role of Fassbinder’s equally vitriolic and screwed-up wife, stripping her character of all joy and compassion. At one point, the script seemed to establish a storyline of Mistress Epps using Solomon as her pawn and had it been expanded it could have added an interesting quadrangle to further complicate the relationship.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

The excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, some of the most expressive I’ve seen recently, has significant narrative meaning. Evocative juxtaposition of extreme long shots emphasize the larger human suffering, and claustrophobically tight medium and extreme close ups intently focus on a character, often in the midst of extreme suffering. There’s a provocative close up on Solomon’s face towards the end that lingers for many seconds as if to challenge the audience to look into his soul and see if we really know the man, even after watching his agony for two hours.

McQueen has come under fire for putting a lot of aesthetic beauty into the film. It didn’t bother me; if anything, it makes the plight of the slaves more sickening as it provides a stark contrast between the refined environment and how they’re treated like animals.

I disliked the Hans Zimmer’s anachronistic modernist violin score because it sounded like a plagiarized soundtrack from his more mainstream Hollywood work. I particularly objected to it in the pivotal third-act climactic scene where Solomon (under duress) and Epps are whipping Patsey on the tree post as it wasn’t in accord with the viscerally and psychologically taxing action.

I preferred the earthiness of the a cappella slave music; it’s been featured in many films before like Song of the South, where it feels uncomfortably racist. Here we see the context for the pain and misery, and how it was an outlet to articulate the drudgery and hopelessness, while helping to restore a sense of relief and sanity.

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

The film boasts a good mix of well-known actors and character actors, nobody being too showy. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Solomon’s first master, is a hypocritical Christian and a coward, quoting the Bible. He has no problem using slave labor, justifying his actions by being more humane to his slaves than most owners, though he capitulates to pressure.

Paul Dano, who has been overwrought and miscast in many roles lately, restrains himself yet shows all of his character’s vileness. Garrett Dillahunt excels in a tricky role of a drunken foreman turned indentured servant who pretends to be Solomon’s friend. Michael K. Williams plays a brave and rebellious slave with conviction.

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

When I read about the ending of how a Canadian man, played by Brad Pitt, helps rescue Solomon and reunite him with his family, I cringed, thinking it was going to an overly neat resolution with an improbably cliché-ridden happy ending. I was sure that Brad Pitt (who gives a surprisingly serviceable performance), being one of the producers, would make a big deal of his white savior role, but the film wisely downplays his contribution and keeps the focus on Solomon.

The final scene is one of grief and shellshock: there was confusion and resentment on both Solomon and his wife’s part. The epilogue dispelled the potential of hope, reminding us that while he regained his freedom he still faced oppression and injustice.

While many are predicting Slave to reap the Oscars, I suspect that it is far too intelligent and visceral to win.

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Hearts of Darkness

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

 Review of Prisoners (2013)

by Adam Tawfik

At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurial men and women ingeniously concocted a simple but effective formula that have kept motion pictures as one of the more entertaining diversions for over 100 years. In film’s illustrious history, a vast majority of the products are imminently forgettable seconds after consumption. Every few years there’s one film that goes beyond rousing entertainment and worms its way into your psyche for its haunting provocativeness. In 2010, that film was Incendies, written and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, a gut-wrenching account of a modern civil war.

While (unfortunately) it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to an inferior In a Better World, it put Villeneuve on Hollywood’s radar. In many cases, a Hollywood career tends to rob distinctive directors of their unique voice. While Prisoners, Villenvue’s debut Hollywood film is not standard assembly-line work it lacks the nuance, intelligence, and humanity of his prior Oscar-nominated effort.

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

His direction and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski are ambitious and clearly aimed for sophisticated audiences, even if its basic premise seems to resemble an action flick; on Thanksgiving, the youngest daughters of two friends the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped and Keller Dover sets out to rescue them, often resorting to vigilante tactics. But there’s not enough substance in terms of twists and turns or character developments to justify its 153 minute running time.

Firstly, it’s a structural mess. From the first act where Jackman and son are killing the deer, and we see Jackman’s (the Dovers) and Howard’s (the Birches) families enjoying Thanksgiving for about twenty minutes before the kidnapping of their two youngest daughters, it is apparent that this film is going to be overlong. The second act drags because it spends too much time focusing on Keller’s sadistic torturing of Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a retarded man whom Keller thinks is the kidnapper.

Courtesy of joblo.com

Courtesy of joblo.com

Many critics hail Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as his best. While he certainly has some stellar microcosmic moments – his delivery of the line “the moment he took our son he stopped being a human being” or his breakdown in the car when he’s yelling at Gyllenhaal about how it’s on him to find his daughter- he’s basically playing Wolverine again (complete with the rugged beard and animalistic rage) minus the supernatural powers and the CGI blades.

Guzikowski deserves part of the blame as the character as written is a one-note volatile lunatic from the opening scene. It’s impossible to have much empathy with him and as a result we’re not as invested in his plight, giving the overall film a repetitive tediousness.

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

The character of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is too elusive for two thirds of the film, only making an impact in the final act. Gyllenhaal emerges as the best in show as he gets ample opportunity to emote the emotional weight of his inability to solve the case and haunted by the memory of the girls still missing. This gets undermined in the last few minutes by the script’s tendency to wrap things up too neatly and to grab at straws for plausibility.

As this is essentially a two-person drama, everyone else in the very talented ensemble is relegated to the background. Viola Davis and Terence Howard act with professional dignity but they are stuck with characters who are limited to protesting Jackman’s sadistic methods but not stopping them.

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Maria Bello does some harrowing grieving, but she doesn’t get a chance to do anything more. Paul Dano is reduced to whimpering and screaming, mostly in a box as a tortured victim to Jackman’s wrath. Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt nicely underplays her part in earlier segments, but her role veers towards the outlandish as the film progresses, especially in her final scenes.

The technical side isn’t much better. Roger Deakens, one of the more distinctive working cinematographers, delivers surprisingly uninspired work, casting the film with a monosyllabic shade of grey. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is sloppy. I particularly found that the long fade to blacks glaringly emphasized the film’s disjointedness.

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

A lot of the narrative conventions are recycled from Incendies, none of which here are as good as in the former film. We have two protagonists, Det. Loki and Keller, but neither is well defined enough as a character, so shifting between the two is usually more jarring than interesting.

Another thing borrowed is a certain object that becomes important for revealing the twist in the story, but sadly like everything else, it’s too singular. It’s such an obvious motif that I was surprised that Det. Loki didn’t figure it out sooner.

Prisoners is a harrowing journey that has moments of quality, but for a cinematic experience that leaves you with total emotional and intellectual shell shock, watch Incendies.