Tag Archives: Ryan Gosling

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: Only God Forgives (2013)

The Godless Jungle

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Only God Forgives (2013) Review

By Adam Tawfik

At the most basic plot level, Only God Forgives seems identical to countless other male-oriented revenge action flicks; a handsome, young white man Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). In the hands of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, God rises above the tediousness of most action fare on every level.

Amidst an epidemic output of gimmicky CGI or 3D flicks or equally unimaginative remakes of iconic classics that have flooded the Hollywood market in the last few years, God’s commanding surrealistic scenery is welcomed in an era where most directors pay little (if any) attention to mise-en-scene.

God, like Drive, Refn’s pervious film (also starring Gosling), is primarily a stylistic achievement. Although Drive sported some of the most jaw-dropping cinematography with virtually every frame as a colorful phantasmagoric orgasm, a vapidity in the narrative bogged down the overall film.

God evocatively employs mise-en-scene to convey the ominousness of the seedy side of Bangkok, particularly in its innovative but unsettling low-key neon red and yellow color scheme. Fused with a flurry of deep dark shadows, these normally warm colors add an anarchic psychedelic layer to a somber noir-like landscape.

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

The squalidness is reinforced in the background scenery. The large warehouse-like quality of many of the locations contribute an animalistic, subhuman quality to the proceedings. Alternately, other locations such as the nightclub with heaps of Chinese Lanterns and crowds of people still project a hollow emptiness in spite of the clutter. The nightmarish dream sequences with characters running around narrow corridors with red walls are aesthetically similar to Dario Argento’s Inferno and carry the paranoia and perplexity of the corresponding scenes, minus the camp.

God’s story and atmosphere is certainly harsher (perhaps too rough for many critics’ and audiences’ tastes), but ultimately more compelling than Drive’s. Yet it has been widely condemned as an incoherent, gratuitously violent mess.

This is because the filmmakers take an abstract, often un-PC stance on violence. On the one hand, they effectively present a dystopic world where violence is a necessary evil for survival, but at the same time, show how it spawns a vicious cycle of insanity. What gives God its power to disturb and transfix is its handling of the uneasy balance between rapid, senseless acts of violence and calculated personalized murders committed at an uncomfortably prolonged pace.

 

Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

The lapses of silence in these latter types of sequences don’t feel ponderous like they did in Drive, because they all contribute to creating mood and character. In one particularly off-kilter sequence, all the clients and prostitutes of the nightclub blankly stare (with the exception of a female prostitute) as head vigilante Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) progressively slices a henchman associated with Julian’s family (Gordon Brown) to death, giving the impression that this kind of brutality is quotidian.

The moral ambiguity of the central characters gives the actors something to sink their teeth into. In his previous film with Refn, Gosling’s pretty-boy mannequin-esque persona struck me as too inorganically sanitized for the role of a daredevil stuntman-by-day-hit-man-by-night operating in LA’s criminal underworld and the romantic subplot with Carey Mulligan was pointless.

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

God lets him draw on his delicate looks to create a vulnerable character whose cerebral demeanor isolates him from the ultra-sadistic misogynists surrounding him. Gosling convincingly shows the inner turmoil between taking issue with the violent status-quo (in particularly in avenging the death of his murdering rapist brother) and latent violent misogynist urges acted out towards Mai, an “entertainer” (bewitchingly portrayed by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) in his fantasy to compensate for his impotence.

Due to the predictably linear narrative and one-note archetypes in Drive, there was no doubt that the protagonist would be victorious. God offers no such assurance for Julian. Gosling bravely sheds the infallibility of the typical action hero as he allows himself to be beaten to a pulp several times on-screen by several people less virile than himself.

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

The most surprising adversary is Lt. Chang. As an average height, slightly portly middle aged man with soulful eyes, he hardly seems to be a formidable opponent for the muscular Gosling. But deception is his strength and Pansringarm believably projects a quiet but deadly ferocity, and in some scenes he appears and disappears as rapidly as a phantom. Even at his most heinous, Pansringarm brings an earnest and wise quality to his role.

In many respects Chang, not Julian, is the film’s true hero as he is the off-kilter God. Only he can exercise the right to moral vigilantism. In one altercation with the distraught father of the slain prostitute, who has just murdered Billy, Chang chops off his hand, reminding him that “This isn’t about your dead daughter. It’s about your three living daughters. This is to make sure you never forget them.” At the same time he is the most grounded character; he is the only one with a stable family unit and sings karaoke with his colleagues.

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

The most astounding revelation is Kristen Scott-Thomas, who sheds all traces of her elegant English sophistication in a bravura performance as Crystal, Gosling’s sadistic revenge-crazy matriarch. Audaciously resembling a white-trash komodo dragon, her uninhibited kinkiness and aggression is the root of Julian’s central conflict between his reluctance and morbid fascination with sex and violence.

Crystal makes no pretense of her partiality towards the brutish Billy over the passive Julian, whom she considers weak. In one darkly humorous scene, she belabors her comparison of Julien’s average-sized cock in favor of Billy’s “enormous” one in front of Mai, whom he has hired to act as his girlfriend, while he silently sits in shame. Hearing Scott-Thomas call Mai’s vagina a “cum-dumpster” makes this film required viewing.

Courtesy of IMDb.com

Courtesy of IMDb.com

God’s divisively zealous reception resembles that of Oliver Stone’s 1994 classic Natural Born Killers, which was also met with heaps of controversy and disparagement for its excessive violence. Stone and Refn are savvy at translating their heavy-handed directorial style into energetic, stylistic films that have the courage to provoke and disturb. If Killers can receive the love it deserves (even if it was ten years belated), here’s hoping that God will receive its deserved glory too.