Tag: damien chazelle

First Man

First Man (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a celebration of mankind-defining achievement capable of avoiding a minefield of clichés embedded in the marrow of the movies. There is not one inspirational speech, no slow motion of men in space suits walking toward the camera, not even a single image, however brief, of worried-looking faces on Earth as Neil A. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) land the Apollo Lunar Module on the moon on July 20, 1969. There is documentary and highly dramatized—commercialized—biographical dramas, and in between lies Damien Chazelle’s technically focused and occasionally affecting “First Man,” more interested in getting as close as possible to what was rather than providing yet another masturbation of American heroism.

Chazelle is back to the precision he exercised in the excellent “Whiplash.” Here, the tone is, like the central figure we follow, Neil Armstrong, quite cold and impersonal. A standard dramatic parabola is not utilized, nor does it need to. Traversing such a path would have opened the door for the expected beats and trappings of the genre. Instead, we follow crucial events in Armstrong’s personal life and professional career between 1962 and 1969, initially as a test pilot and finally as an astronaut who made history. And yet—just because the tone is unsentimental does not mean that it is not first and foremost a human story.

It makes the point of the numerous invaluable sacrifices just so we can go to the moon: millions of taxpayer money, countless hours and tremendous effort put forth by those working in NASA, and, most importantly, irreplaceable human lives lost due to accidents. Watching the picture, I could not help but feel angry—not at the film but at the uninformed or downright ignorant individuals who insist that the 1969 moon landing is a sham. Josh Singer’s sharp and perceptive screenplay broaches the subject of perspective, that it is important for us to reach the moon so that, we, as a species, can gain a new or different way of looking at ourselves, everything around us, and beyond. Before seeing the film, I found that conspiracy theorists who deny the fact that we ever walked on the moon are laughable. After seeing the film, I just felt sorry for them. It made me wish I knew a way to open their minds to both facts and possibilities.

Gosling is in top form as a man who has grown accustomed to hiding his emotions. A case can be made that this characteristic makes Armstrong a great leader, especially in desperate situations when lives are on the line, but this same trait prevents him from being a husband and father who is consistently warm and inviting. Particularly strong about Gosling’s performance is not the character’s lack of apparent emotions (which is agonizing when his wife, played by the equally effective Claire Foy, yearns for him to open up and communicate) but in the way the actor attempts to hide the character’s inner turmoil for the sake of the big picture, of achieving a particular goal so monumental, attaining it would mean a chance for us to try and reach for the next great objective. Gosling disappears into the role; watching him deliver such a calculated performance is such a joy. I admired that he does not attempt to mimic the way Armstrong speaks or Armstrong’s most minute mannerisms and yet he remains thoroughly convincing.

The film, too, provides a terrific aural experience. Spacecrafts with glamorous interiors are nowhere to be found here. In fact, they are so cramped most of the time that being inside one is like having to move around in a coffin. Notice how often close-ups are used when a transport is about to take off or suspended in air as it undergoes gymnastics. Being so close to a person’s face underscores the abundance of noise, especially of metal screeching due to sudden movements, various pressures, and sudden temperature changes. Being inside the spacecraft does, on the one hand, provide a sense of wonder. On the other is a horrifying experience filled with uncertainty; when one alarm goes off, it seems that every other thing that can go wrong does eventually. To say that it is a miracle that we got to the moon in 1969 is not an understatement. Our will to get there, I think, made all the difference.

Grand Piano

Grand Piano (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Despite the fact that five years has passed since he botched “La cinquette,” a piece that is deemed unplayable because it requires not only great agility of the hands but also length of the fingers, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) remains to have stage fright. Considered to be one of the great piano players in existence, Tom is persuaded by his wife (Kerry Bishé), a renowned movie star, to hold a comeback concert. Although things are going rather smoothly in the first few minutes, Tom eventually comes across a threatening message on his music sheet. The message claims that if Tom played even one wrong note, a sniper would shoot him dead.

“Grand Piano,” written by Damien Chazelle and directed by Eugenio Mira, is a thriller with an unbelievable premise but it does have potential to impress. However, it is ultimately unable to capitalize on that potential because the characters are not drawn like real people. Like too many ineffective thrillers, when there is a lack of substance in its core, the strategy is to cover it up by quirky behaviors or superficial personalities.

Tom is a nervous wreck. His wife, Emma, is superfluously supportive. Emma’s friend (Tamsin Egerton) who neither knows anything about nor appreciates classical music is portrayed like an uncultured blonde bimbo who gets upset at just about every little thing. It is not too much to ask to make the main players more relatable in a genuine way so that when, inevitably, their lives are on the line, we care about what will happen to them.

Although Tom is often threatened by a red dot—on his hands, his forehead, his chest—I found myself not caring whether he lives or dies. It is not that Wood is not the best fit for the role. On the contrary, he tries very hard to communicate the paranoia and panic of being on stage once again and maintaining professionalism. The weakness is in the script: The lines, no matter how one plays with them, often come off forced.

This is most obvious during the best scene in the picture: Tom hauling himself backstage to look up and review an important piece because he thought he would not need a physical copy of it. No words are needed to communicate the fear, the anxiety, and the frustration of having to prepare last-minute. Wood puts all of these emotions in his eyes and hands and we feel like we really are in that moment with his character. When no word is uttered, it is top-notch material. Unfortunately, the other scenes are not able to match this scene’s quality.

There is a problem with balancing tone and mood. At times the material comes across amusing when it is supposed to be deadly serious. The protagonist’s manic movements to and from the piano made me wonder why the audience do not ask more questions as to why he keeps getting up or exhibiting strange behavior during the performances. Granted, I have never been to a piano concerto so maybe pianists can leave his or her seat while the orchestra takes over.

The film will be tolerable to some but will likely bore many. I enjoyed the small moments when we are allowed to look what happens inside the grand piano while certain notes are played. I felt I had to find something to relish if I was to make it through the end.

La La Land

La La Land (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” asks a former classmate (John Legend) who has since found commercial success in the music business to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own bar one day. Although “La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is neither a revolutionary nor a traditional musical, it offers a highly watchable escapist romp and delivers a few welcome surprises especially in terms of what it wishes to say about reaching one’s career goals.

The film emits exuberance and the love for song and dance right from its opening sequence. A smile was drawn on my face because it dares to show a real Los Angeles—not simply when it comes to the level of traffic, the noise, and the heat that settles on motor vehicles but also in terms of the level of diversity we see on screen.

Mainstream pictures tend to show a version of Los Angeles that it still too bland and whitewashed in this day and age so it is most refreshing that a reality of various skin colors, body types, and hair textures are captured from the get-go despite the genre being a musical with fantastic elements. This first scene, clearly influenced by a memorable scene in the classic musical “Fame,” makes quite a powerful statement and it is something that I expect from an independent feature film, not a mainstream work with well-known stars—a most welcome surprise.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share effortless chemistry, the former playing a barista on the lot of a movie studio. Mia, like thousands of men and women in LA, dreams of becoming a movie or television performer. Stone and Gosling have a certain rapport that is endearing—even the moments between dialogue command a certain tactile bond that works beautifully in both comedic and dramatic scenes. The two may not have the strongest voices to carry a musical but this should not be counted against them because they should be actors first and singers second.

Despite the actors’ excellent chemistry, the middle section is most problematic. Notice that when life-changing events are not front and center, the pacing slows dramatically to the point of plateau. The material is divided into five sections: winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter once again. Spring and summer is the blossoming of Mia and Sebastian’s romantic relationship which should be just as powerful—if not more—than the major life events that attempt to derail them from the paths they have set for themselves especially because these potential changes challenge them as a pair.

For instance, a most uninspiring scene, egregious in content and execution, involves Mia talking about her past, her hopes, and her dreams to a man she is beginning to like on a romantic level. What should have been a defining moment is shot instead like a throwaway scene—camera from a distance, two people walking in a shot together, not one closeup is employed. Not to mention Mia’s story is so ordinary, she might as well not have said anything because smart audiences have already made assumptions—correct ones at that—about her past and where she hopes to go. I grew bored of the character’s lack of interest in her own life and the lack of energy in making someone else be interested in her life. My sentiment lasted till the next season. Chazelle ought to have rewritten the scene.

“La La Land” is at its most compelling when it hones in on the sacrifices one must make in order to reach one’s dream—or at times settling for a version of one’s dream. It asks us to consider the following: if we choose to sacrifice bits of who we are in order to get a little closer to our goals, by the time we reach these goals, can it still be considered as a success when our core values have been inevitably changed by such sacrifices? Not a philosophical film by any means, the ideas are there if one chooses to ponder. And for those who would rather not think too deeply, there is colorful and toe-tapping entertainment to be enjoyed.


Whiplash (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Some movies leave you quiet when it ends because something deep inside you knows that you had seen something great. “Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is that kind of film. Its weapon: jazz music and inimitable performances by Miles Teller, who plays a first-year student at a music school known for being the best in the country, and J.K. Simmons, an instructor who recruits the freshman to be in his orchestra. Andrew and Fletcher, respectively, share a relationship to be remembered.

It is to be remembered because all of us are likely to have had a teacher who was tough, punctilious, a perfectionist. The material works as an exaggeration of such an idea. Imagine a glass of water with plastic tightly wrapped around its rim. With each passing scene, weight, never constant, is placed on top of that flimsy covering. There is genuine tension because we never know when the plastic can no longer support the pressure.

The verbal and psychological abuse that Andrew goes through is fascinating to watch unfold. I think it is meant to make us wonder how far we are willing to go, how much we are willing to sacrifice to become and to be considered great at what we do. But it is not just about willingness. Sometimes it is about having a tough skin. If one does not have it, better get one real quick because it is either sink or swim out there. Andrew’s goal is to become a great musician, to be remembered long after he is gone. He must seize and fight for what he wants, what he believes he is destined for.

There is a partnership between jazz music and the editing. A synergy is reached between them and what results is a series of images, many of them close-ups of the instruments and the highly physical act of drumming, coming across as music. There is a natural flow between the cuts, versatile in terms of whether the tempo is high or low, whether the energy is vibrant or soft. I am not a jazz aficionado but I felt like I knew more about the genre by the end or at least can appreciate it a little more because the picture actively welcomes the audience into the genre rather than remaining insular, too good for the common masses to be understood or appreciated.

Humorous and dramatic moments have a natural ebb and flow, too. This is where Simmons’ character is key and must be played exactly right. The performer embodies the character with unpredictable verve. In one scene, he is throwing verbal daggers left and right. In another, a more quiet menace is communicated. Notice his posture change in subtle ways when he is unimpressed. Pauses between the lines carry additional weight. What is he thinking when a musician is playing? How is he going to respond by the end of the piece? Will he even allow the piece to be played in its entirety? Not once did I feel like I knew him as a person, more like a figure to be respected, feared, or both.

“Whiplash” is a movie that should be remembered decades from now but I am somewhat doubtful whether it will be. It does not command a typical arc, expected character development, and feel-good messages about ambition and “reaching for one’s dreams.” But the lack of such qualities is exactly what I loved about it. We need and deserve more films of this caliber.

The Last Exorcism Part II

The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Nell (Ashley Bell) is sent to live in a home for girls after she is found with only fragments of memories involving what had happened to her while living in the woods. There is one thing she knows for certain: her entire family had perished in a fire. At first, her integration goes well. She gets along with her roommate, Gwen (Julia Garner), and has made friends with all of the girls in the house. Also, there is a nice boy around her age, Chris (Spencer Treat Clark), who seems to show genuine interest. But the demon that possessed Nell in the woods is not finished with her. Its plans have evolved and it is desperate to get her back.

“The Last Exorcism Part II,” based on the screenplay by Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly, feels like a rehash of a rehash. While it does offer a few hair-raising scenes, there is a lack of control in many of its attempts to scare and so the majority of them end up silly or laughable. For instance, must Nell make sexual sounds while being possessed as she sleeps? Is she supposed to be liking it? I don’t know, but it made me feel awkward. A lot of people tend to make jokes about the title. The truth is, the joke is on those, like myself, who has taken the time to sit through the picture and hoped that it would get better. It did not.

The first third is tolerable. I enjoyed the way it is communicated that Nell has lived such a sheltered life. Bell does a good job in underlining the fragility of Nell. Like a child plucked out of the darkness, a lot of things, like rock music, are new to her. Though she cannot remember the graphic details of her past, I rooted for the character because I did not want to see her get hurt. She deserves a new beginning.

There are warm moments between the girls, particularly during Mardi Gras and while at work, but getting to know some of them might have elevated the picture. As a movie that relies on formulas, we know that it is only a matter of time until they figure out Nell’s bizarre history. The betrayal that she feels would have packed more wallop if we had known the girls as much as we know Nell. Instead, during that important scene, the girls end up looking like bullies when, in reality, it is likely that they have troubled pasts, too.

Its ailment is having no ambition: it lacks solid scares because of its reliance on tired techniques. For example, when the camera moves down a hallway, it slithers so slowly that it is obvious that it wants us to wonder what is right around the corner. When the supposed jolts do arrive, the loud music does all the work.

When all is silent, cue the CGI and–can you believe it–more loud music. This is especially problematic in the second half. Horror is at its most effective when simple. Instead, we watch black vein-like figures on the wall (why is that scary?) and various moving shapes underneath a woman’s stomach (it comes across as an act of desperation than being genuinely creepy). The lack of context in these would-be scare attempts is astonishing.

I went into “The Last Exorcism Part II,” directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, willing and ready to be scared. One is more susceptible to be played like a marionette or a piano when one is willing and ready. But the picture barely lifts a finger. Instead, the sheer laziness of the writers and director ends up being on screen for the world to see. If I were them, I would be really embarrassed.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.