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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Movie Review: “The Nice Guys”

Starring
Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta
Director
Shane Black

Shane Black may not have invented the buddy cop film, but he’s widely viewed as the modern-day godfather of the subgenre thanks to seminal movies like “Lethal Weapon,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black is to buddy cop films what Raymond Chandler is to hard-boiled crime novels (a fitting comparison considering the writer/director lists the author as a major influence), 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 ago. Although it hits all of the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency, brimming with witty banter, solid action and even a little heart, that it feels totally fresh.

Set in 1977 in the seedy, neon-tinged underbelly of Los Angeles, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a drunken private eye who’s less concerned about solving mysteries than getting paid. His latest gig finds him investigating the death of famous adult film star Misty Mountains, and though it sounds like an open-and-shut case, Misty’s grandmother claims that she saw the actress alive several days after the car accident that supposedly killed her. Holland’s only lead is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who was seen leaving Misty’s house on the date in question, but the trail goes cold after enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is enlisted by Amelia to stop Holland from following her around. However, when Amelia’s life is threatened by a pair of menacing thugs and she goes on the run, Jackson and Holland team up to track her down with some help from the latter’s precocious tween daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). But as they get closer to uncovering the truth behind Amelia’s involvement in the conspiracy, an assassin (Matt Bomer) is sent to silence them.

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Movie Review: “The Big Short”

Starring
Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Director
Adam McKay

The housing market crash of 2008 was no joke, which is why it might come as somewhat of a surprise that “The Big Short” is directed by the same man responsible for goofball comedies like “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights.” Though Adam McKay isn’t the first person you’d think of to direct a (mostly) serious movie about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he’s clearly passionate about the material – both the real-life events and the book on which the film is based – because it shows in the final product. “The Big Short” isn’t quite as hard-hitting as J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” the underseen 2011 drama that offers a different perspective of the same events, but it’s a nonetheless effective examination of a nationwide disaster so ridiculous that it’s difficult not to laugh.

Adapted from “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ bestselling book of the same name, “The Big Short” follows a group of investment bankers through the years 2005-2008 as they predicted what many thought was impossible – the always-sturdy housing market collapsing – and then did the unthinkable by betting against (or shorting) the big banks to profit off their greed. The first to make his move is financial guru Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward hedge fund manager who discovers a worrying pattern in defaulted subprime mortgages (which make up the mortgage bonds that the banks trade on) and invests more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, i.e. insurance against the failure of those bonds, which didn’t even exist at the time.

Everyone on Wall Street thinks he’s crazy, except for hotshot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who sees a potential gold mine in Burry’s theory and convinces short-tempered, nihilistic hedge funder Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his tight-knit team (Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) to go into business with him, despite the fact that Mark hates everything that guys like Jared stand for. Word of Vennett’s proposal also reaches small-time investors Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who request help from their mentor, former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), in getting them a seat at the big boys table.

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Movie Review: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Starring
Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Director
Derek Cianfrance

After watching Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” it was clear that the writer/director would be one to watch for the future, even if the anti-romance film wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. His follow-up feature, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” reunites Cianfrance with his “Blue Valentine” star Ryan Gosling, and though the movie is hindered by its own set of problems, the multi-generational crime drama makes good on the potential he showcased in his directorial debut. While it’s difficult to talk about the movie without wading knee-high into spoiler territory, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is an impressive piece of American filmmaking that’s every bit as compelling as it is annoyingly flawed.

The movie’s triptych structure is like watching three separate but interconnecting films, and Cianfrance kicks things off with what is easily the best of the bunch as we’re introduced to Luke Glanton (Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver who reconnects with a former one-night stand named Romina (Eva Mendes) at the local fair where he plies his trade. When he learns that Romina has given birth to his son, Luke agrees to quit his nomadic job and stay in town, even though Romina has already moved on with another man. Determined to do his fatherly duties and provide for his son, Luke decides to put his unique skills to use and start robbing banks, placing him on a collision course with rookie policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an honest family man who gave up his promising career as a lawyer to serve on the force. After becoming privy to some dirty cops in the department, however, Avery must decide what’s more important: his integrity or loyalty to his brothers in blue.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: ‘Bronson’

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a new weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bronson” (2008)

“My name’s Charles Bronson, and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous.” That’s the opening line of Nicholas Winding Refn’s fictionalized biopic “Bronson,” starring Tom Hardy as the titular character, a man who the press often refers to as the “most violent prisoner in Britain.” You may be familiar with Winding Refn’s best known work, 2011’s “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, and recognize Hardy as the guy who played identity thief Eames in “Inception” and most recently appeared as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” While those two pictures might be better films, I don’t think Hardy as ever put in a better performance than he did in “Bronson.”

Charles Bronson is not as well known stateside as he is across the pond. In the UK, the man is something of a national celebrity, both famous and infamous for spending the majority of his adult life in solitary confinement (28 of his 34 years in prison). Bronson was first incarcerated in 1974, at age 22, after being handed a seven-year sentence for armed robbery (of just  £26.18) from a suburban English post office. That seven years quickly became 14 as a result of his starting various fights and hostage situations involving guards and fellow prisoners. Bronson was released in 1988, but spent just 69 days on the outside (during which he began a “career” as a bare-knuckle boxer) before being arrested again. He’s been in prison ever since and his antics haven’t ceased.

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