Movie Review: “La La Land”

Starring
Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director
Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” wasn’t just my favorite film of 2014 – in my estimation, it’s one of the best movies of the past decade. So it goes without saying that the bar was set pretty high for his latest project, a loving homage to the big, bold and colorful musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring two of today’s brightest stars. Making a musical these days is already a huge risk, but the fact that “La La Land” is a completely original piece of work rather than an adaptation of preexisting material is what makes it truly daring. The film’s ambition is evident from the very first frame, launching into an elaborate song-and-dance number set during a gridlock on the Los Angeles freeway that announces itself in grand fashion. Though it falls just short of matching that ambition (perhaps due to a tiny bit of overhype), “La La Land” is still one of the most dazzling, effervescent moviegoing experiences of the year.

The film tells the love story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) over the course of four seasons. When the two artists first meet, it’s not cute like in the movies but rather a curt interaction during the opening traffic jam that begins with a loud honk and ends with a middle finger. The pair crosses paths later that night when Mia wanders into a Hollywood restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired by his boss (J.K. Simmons in a fun cameo) for failing to play the agreed-upon setlist of holiday jingles, and again, their encounter is less than friendly. As fate would have it, Mia and Sebastian run into each other at a house party several months later, and this time around, the sparks finally fly. But as their romance blossoms through the summer, they’re forced to reassess their careers, leading both of them to wonder whether being together means that they must give up on their dreams.

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Blu Tuesday: Jason Bourne and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Jason Bourne”

WHAT: When former CIA analyst Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) steals top secret files on the agency’s black ops programs and uncovers new details about David Webb’s (Matt Damon) past, the Treadstone agent formerly known as Jason Bourne is dragged out of hiding. Hot on his trail is ambitious CIA cyber division chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and a vengeful operative (Vincent Cassel) with a personal grudge against Bourne.

WHY: Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass were pretty adamant about being done with the Jason Bourne franchise after 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but following the disappointment of the Jeremy Renner-led spinoff “The Bourne Legacy,” Universal must have thrown duffle bags of money at the duo to convince them to come back. They should have resisted, because while it’s good to see Damon and Greengrass return to the series that helped make their careers, “Jason Bourne” doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Not even Damon looks particularly excited to be back, speaking as little as possible over the course of the film’s bloated two-hour runtime. Though it boasts an excellent cast (including Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel and Riz Ahmed) and some great action that culminates in a thrilling car chase through the Las Vegas strip where a SWAT truck is used like a battering ram, “Jason Bourne” is so fixated on its titular character’s past (yet again) that it fails to look ahead to the future.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a general making-of featurette, as well as five additional featurettes on filming the major fight scenes and the Athens and Las Vegas chase sequences.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2016 Holiday Gift Guide: Movies

While we could easily fill several pages with suggestions of great films and cool box sets that deserve a spot on any holiday wish list, we’ve picked some of our favorites released over the past 12 months. If you can’t find anything worth buying here, then chances are that the person you’re shopping for doesn’t like movies.

Click the links within the write-ups to purchase each product online, and check back throughout the week for more additions to our Holiday Gift Guide.

Captain America: Civil War

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Civil War” has been jokingly referred to as “Avengers 2.5,” and for good reason, because while the movie may be a Captain America sequel in name, it’s a continuation of several different story threads from “Winter Soldier,” “Age of Ultron” and more. Though the film feels a bit crowded at times with all the various characters and cameos (including the introduction of Black Panther and Spider-Man), they never overshadow the central conflict. Unlike “Batman v Superman,” “Civil War” actually gives its characters a reason for fighting, and that goes a long way in legitimizing the ideological and physical clash between its opposing heroes. The movie isn’t perfect – Daniel Brühl’s villainous Zemo is underserved, and the filmmakers ignore a key argument in favor of the anti-registration side – but it does such a good job of balancing the emotionally-charged narrative with some excellent action sequences and fan service that those flaws seem trivial in comparison. “Civil War” is perhaps Marvel’s darkest and most mature film to date, but it still knows how to have fun, and that’s key to its success.

The Nice Guys

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Shane Black is to buddy cop films what Raymond Chandler is to hard-boiled crime novels, and his latest movie, the retro detective noir “The Nice Guys,” is arguably his best entry in the genre since redefining the buddy cop formula three decades earlier with “Lethal Weapon.” Although it hits all the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency – brimming with humorous banter, exciting action and even a little heart – that it feels totally fresh. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s dialogue crackles with wit and humor, while the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is simply outstanding. The two actors form one of the best double acts in recent memory, and though Crowe is quite good as the sardonic straight man, Gosling is the real standout, delivering a side-splittingly funny physical performance that makes great use of his comedic abilities. “The Nice Guys” doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, but it’s a consistently enjoyable flick that reconfirms why Black is the best at what he does.

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Movie Review: “Jackie”

Starring
Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
Director
Pablo Larraín

“Jackie” is a breath of fresh air for a biopic. Unlike other films in the subgenre, this isn’t a series of CliffsNotes or the greatest hits of a former first lady’s life, but rather an entirely subjective, visceral, upsetting and sometimes beautiful experience. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have crafted a dazzling 99-minute drama.

For the most part, Oppenheim’s script focuses on Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) following the assassination of her husband and President of the United States, John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), which we experience via a framing device where Jackie tells her side of the story to a journalist (Billy Crudup) about what occurred and what she was feeling at the time. She’s surrounded by people throughout most of the movie – brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Social Secretary and close friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), a priest (John Hurt) and Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), to name a few important figures – but she’s portrayed as deeply alone and hurting, and Larraín and Portman make that pain tangible. She has to go from trying to pick up her husband’s brain, to witnessing Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) be sworn into office, to then trying to arrange a funeral that’ll help maintain her husband’s legacy.

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Blu Tuesday: Don’t Breathe, Pete’s Dragon and The BFG

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Don’t Breathe”

WHAT: Three young thieves break into the house of a blind Iraq war veteran (Stephen Lang) who’s reportedly sitting on a large stash of money. But the man isn’t as innocent as he seems, and before long, the intruders (including Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette) are unexpectedly thrust into a fight for their lives.

WHY: Following his 2013 remake of “The Evil Dead,” it’s nice to see director Fede Alvarez return to more original genre fare like “Don’t Breathe,” which features one of the best horror premises in recent years. The film gets off to a cracking start as well, ramping up in intensity at every turn as the burglars slowly make their way into the blind man’s house, only to discover that they’re messing with the wrong guy. Unfortunately, while the first half is a really strong home invasion thriller that smartly uses its confined space and sound design to build suspense, “Don’t Breathe” is ruined by some lazy writing. Not only does it contain a really dumb twist that comes completely out of left field, but the characters are so idiotic that their poor decision-making skills will have you pulling your hair out. It’s been a while since the horror genre has had protagonists this patently stupid, and when combined with the sheer implausibility of certain events, it turns what could have been a new cult classic into just another mediocre B-movie.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, co-writer Rodo Sayagues and actor Stephen Lang, there’s a collection of featurettes on the cast, production design and score, and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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