La La Land (2016) starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

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Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) dance in Griffith Park.

[1] What has been thrown, hurled and heaved at this film is Oscar-seeking acting, Oscar-seeking direction and Oscar-seeking technical twiddling. And hey ho and guess what? It got Oscars.

[2] No legit Broadway-style singing technique. I cannot imagine what real Broadway singers and dancers must be thinking about this travesty.

[3] The big red flag with the story is that the music simply is not very good. There is not one memorable song or dance in the entire film! 

[4] The biggest fault with the movie is the complete lack of supporting actors to flesh out the story. The two main characters are just not strong enough to carry the movie for more than two hours without help. 

-Excerpts from various IMDB reviews

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Director Damien Chazelle (just 32 years old) and Gosling on the set of Sebastian’s apartment.

I find L.A. kind of romantic, actually. As a movie junkie, it’s a city that was built by the movies. There’s something really weird and surreal about it that I find energizing. -Damien Chazelle, director

Ugh, what to say re: this movie… My mom wanted to watch it (it’s on Fios On Demand) when we were hanging out at my parents’ house last SAT. We got through it… somehow. My dad and I saw it together (pausing here and there), then my mom saw it the next day; none of us liked it (as I’d guessed). “What kind of movie is this!?” Mom commented, confused and disappointed. She wanted to see what the fuss was about this Oscar-winning film, like many of you out there (who didn’t see it in theaters). A FEW of my friends saw it on the big screen; their opinions went from “I hated it” or “It wasn’t that great.” 

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Mia (Stone) talks with one of her roommates in her colorful bedroom.

People love what other people are passionate about. -Mia explains to Sebastian

Um, you CAN be passionate re: something, BUT that doesn’t mean other people will be invested in it- sorry, that’s reality! Speaking of passion, WHERE is the chemistry between Stone and Gosling? Also, where is the interesting dialogue (which is something that makes or breaks a movie for me)? The script could’ve been written by an idealistic, sensitive, above-average 16 y.o. kid! 

How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future. -Keith comments to Sebastian

If Sebastian is SO crazy re: jazz music, then WHY don’t we hear any of it (such as the greats mentioned or something new)? I mean, I’m crazy re: Shakespeare, and those who know me will definitely get an earful! LOL… I think John Legend (who also acts here) worked on ONLY one song. What a waste! 

 

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Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) walk over a bridge.

You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are. -Sebastian says to Mia 

Mia is more interesting than Sebastian; she’s also more likable. She suffers through a variety of demoralizing auditions (like a LOT of aspiring actors), has a nice boyfriend (what was wrong w/ him, anyway?), and is on the verge of quitting L.A. I DO like the fact that she writes her OWN story (trying to be a BIT positive here). Why don’t we get to see some of her play? Well, if you have 2 hrs to waste, check it out for yourself. If you’re a fan of classic musicals, smart/snappy dialogue, and effective acting- don’t bother. 

Moonlight (2016): Academy Award Winner for Best Picture 

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A poster for the film featuring the three lead actors playing Chiron.

“Moonlight” is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces. A.O. Scott (The New York Times)

The fragility and preciousness of the spirit, the odds that are stacked against sensitivity, the distortions that can be inflicted on the soul — these are familiar subjects and sources of passion in literature and film. In “Moonlight”… they find fresh and renewed expression. -Mike LaSalle (The San Francisco Chronicle)

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Director Barry Jenkins said that Harris’ portrayal was inspired by both his mother and that of the screenwriter (Tarrel Alvin McCraney).

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you. -Juan tells 9 y.o. Chiron (AKA Little)

This gem of a film was shot (on location, mainly in Liberty City section of Miami) over a mere 25 days- WOW! British actress Naomi Harris (Paula) had a quite busy schedule, so her parts were filmed over 15 days. I FINALLY saw this movie last week; it stayed on my mind for the next couple of days. The acting is VERY good, BUT much is also done w/ silence, cinematography, and music. 

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Father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex Hibbert) to swim in the ocean.

If you watch this actor closely, not only is he in the moment, but his body seems to be in constant motion even when he is sitting still. Like a hummingbird. -Excerpt from IMDB review of Mahershala Ali

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Little (Alex Hibbert) forms a friendship with Kevin.

You feel as if you are watching a real boy cope with life.There are parts where the film asks you what would you do IF you were Chiron? The camera is placed so that it puts you (the viewer) in the place of Chiron. 

Stop putting yo’ head down in my house! You know my rule. It’s all love and all pride in this house! Do you feel me? -Teresa declares to teenaged Chiron

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I was MOST impressed by teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders- now age 21).

The main conflict is Chiron’s inability to define himself. We realize that he doesn’t fit into any of the categories available to him, so he forces himself into the tough guy persona of Black (last third of the film). 

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Black (Trevante Rhodes) reunites with a grown-up Kevin (Andre Holland) in Miami.
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Black (Trevante Rhodes) gives Kevin (Andre Holland) a ride home.

I was VERY pleasantly surprised to see Andre Holland (who I just fell in love w/ in The Knick)! He has a LOT of charm and ease as Kevin, a man who turned his life around after a rough life as a teen/young man. He is surprised to see how Chiron (AKA Black) has turned out, yet also concerned. Heck, I want Kevin to cook ME dinner… LOL!  I’d never seen Trevante Rhodes before, BUT now I’m hoping that he gets some more meaty roles in which he can showcase his talent. Check out this film for yourself (if you haven’t yet)! 

The Salesman (2016) directed by Asghar Farhadi

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Actress Taraneh Alidoosti and director Asghar Farhadi

For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.

However, I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.

-Excerpt from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s official statement re: not attending the 2017 Oscars (where this film has been nominated Best Foreign Language Film of the Year)

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

The film is openly an allegory about social, urban and marital decay. But way beyond it, it is about the costs of masculine pride. …this is a superb statement about the unbearable consequences of trying to live up to codes of honour that centre on the female body.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

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Shahab Hosseini in A Separation

This is the new film from the famed/respected Iranian director who brought us A Separation. I went to see it two weeks ago (it was a sold-out screening) at AFI in Silver Spring, MD. This movie is NOT as interesting as A Separation (which also co-stars Shahab Hosseini), BUT it’s worth a look (esp. if you like naturalistic cinema). It would’ve been more effective if had been shorter; the running time is a BIT over 2 hrs. There is a much left unsaid (b/c of censors); the limits put on artists are referred to also in the play (A Death of A Salesman) w/in the film.

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Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) in The Salesman

A married couple in Tehran, Emad (Hosseini- an engineer turned actor) and Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti), recently moved into a new apt (thanks to their older friend, Babak). They are irritated to discover that one room is locked b/c the previous tenant (“a woman who had many male visitors”) hasn’t come to get her stuff. Babak’s calls go unanswered by the former tenant, so Emad’s friends pry open the door and empty out her stuff. We learn that this woman (no one ever mentions the word “prostitute”) had a young son; his drawings are in one corner of the room.

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Shahab Hosseini at the Cannes Film Festival

WHAT exactly happened to Raana the night she was mistaken for this prostitute and assaulted? It’s left up to the audience to decide, b/c we don’t hear SVU-style details. Hosseini (winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes Film Festival) is in almost every scene; he characterizes an Everyman who slowly breaks down. He can’t communicate well w/ Raana, get help from the law (she wants to forget about it), so gets obsessed w/ finding the attacker (revenge).

…words of truth are spoken not in the real life, but on a theater stage while playing roles.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

Now, this is NOT the type of man you’d expect to act irrationally, being a mild-mannered teacher at a boy’s high school (day job) and actor (in the theater after work). Raana is also acting alongside him and their friends. One of the actresses in the troupe is a divorced single mom w/ an adorable young son. Though Raana and Emad don’t have kids, they are good w/ this boy when they babysit him one evening.

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Emad (Shahab Hosseini) gets his makeup done before the play.

How does Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman relate to their lives? Sorry, I can’t answer that, b/c I haven’t read/seen that play yet. Farhadi said in an interview that the play is VERY popular in Iran, where modern audiences have embraced it.

The last twenty minutes of film are really breathtaking and the spectators associate with Emad more than anytime and I think they regularly ask themselves “if I were him, what would I do?”

-Excerpt from IMDB review

If you’re looking for suspense and tension, then wait until the last quarter of this film. There are intense moments, for sure! By then, Emad is VERY on edge, and getting close to becoming the villain in his own story. Maybe he’s NOT that far from the domineering, volatile, working-class man he played in A Separation? Raana, who has been in a fog of depression, is shocked when she sees his behavior. We wonder: What will happen w/ their marriage?

Hell or High Water (2016) starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster & Jeff Bridges

NOTE: This is a SPOILER-FREE review.

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Tanner (Ben Foster) and Tobey (Chris Pine) drink beer on their ranch.

This is (most likely) the “dark horse” in the Best Picture category in the Oscars, BUT if you like fine films, you need to check it out! I heard great reviews of it on 2 different podcasts, BUT finally saw it tonight (thanks to Redbox). This film takes you on a journey (not TOO long or short); it has interesting characters (including the bit players); and Jeff Bridges is in it (so what’s NOT to like!?) 

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Deputy Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner.

Deputy Marcus Hamilton (Bridges- one of my faves) is 3 weeks from retirement when he gets VERY interested in a curious case. Two men have been robbing branches of a particular West Texas bank for moderate sums of cash. These men are our main protagonists- brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Tobey (Chris Pine) Howard. Tanner is a loud-mouthed ex-con ONLY out of jail for a year; he enjoys robbing banks.  Tobey is more quiet, and his reluctant partner. Though they are VERY different men, they love and protect each other. 

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Tobey Howard (Chris Pine) has his eyes on the future.

This is labeled as a crime drama and a Western, BUT I feel it defies genre conventions. There is much humor, thanks in part to Bridges and his Native American/Mexican partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). There is easy chemistry between Foster (a bundle of energy and volatility) and Pine (somber, scraggly haired, and unglamorous). I NEVER saw what the fuss was about Pine until this film! The music and cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens, who has worked w/ BOTH Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair- two of my fave directors) are VERY well-done; too bad I didn’t see it earlier on the big screen.

Dangal (2016) starring Aamir Khan

NOTE: This is a SPOILER-FREE review.

Indian superstar Aamir Khan is known as a perfectionist, even when it comes to posters.  When I lived in NYC, I used to regularly attend monthly meetings of SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective); though I wasn’t an artist (like most of the women), I wanted to meet interesting desis.  One night, we had a presentation by the young lady who’d worked as the main graphic artist on Lagaan (before moving to the U.S.)  She was working late in her Mumbai studio, when Aamir Khan called her up re: a small change to one of the poster designs.  Wow, talk about attention to detail!

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Young Mahavir (Aamir Khan) gets ready for a wrestling match.

This film will definitely hold the viewers’ attention, even more so than Lagaan, thanks in part to its exciting/tense action sequences.  But this isn’t a historical epic, it’s a (real-life) family story, which MAY be even more compelling to some of you who regularly read this blog.  I didn’t know anything about the story before going to see it last week, aside from the fact that Aamir had gained and lost a LOT of weight for his role.  I later learned that three out of the four (VERY natural) young actresses in the film hadn’t acted before!  I esp. liked the chemistry between the two girls who played the sisters as pre-teens, as well as the charm of their older teen boy cousin. 

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Life is sink or swim- a lesson that Mahavir wants his daughters to learn.

Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), a former national wrestling champion, wins medals and respect in the ’80s.  Unfortunately, he never gets the opportunity to prove himself on the world stage; there is NOT enough money/resources dedicated to his sport.  He loves wresting, so he spends time training other men in the mud pits of his village.  After a time, Mahavir settles into married life (w/ his wife Daya, played by Shakshi Tanwar) and a desk job in his home region of Hariyana.  He has high hopes for a son, whom he plans to teach to be an even better wrestler than himself, and win gold for India. 

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Young Geeta is cheered by surprised locals after winning matches.

His wife gives birth to four daughters though the years.  Mahavir’s family and his small community is disappointed, thinking that the dream for wrestling glory is dead.  But after his two eldest girls, Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnager), beat up two local boys who insulted them, Mahavir is spurred into action.  His daughters will become wrestlers under his coaching!  Gold is still gold, Mahavir is bold enough to think, and who’s to say that a girl can’t win one!?  Watch the trailer below.