Stronger (2017)

It does not take much to convince me to see a film with Jake Gyllenhaal in it. I have sat through his good and bad films, and I consider him one of the greatest actors currently in Hollywood. He is one of those actors that forces you to forget that he is “acting,” which is no small feat. Once again, Gyllenhaal did not disappoint in Stronger.

Stronger debuted in theaters across America last weekend. Directed by David Gordon Green, the film stars not only Jake Gyllenhaal, but successful TV and film actress Tatiana Maslany as well. The true story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman is told as the audience gets a bigger glimpse at the tragic incident. The media at the time failed to cover the emotional distraught and internal conflict that Bauman faced afterwards. It is actually based on the book Stronger by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The story is intense, of course, and it is also emotionally draining. There were few dry eyes in the theater.

Good acting is essential in a biopic because the audience must be drawn into the world that the film is portraying. The director does not have a “fantasy” world to experiment with because all of the events happened in real life. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany perfectly executed their roles as Jeff Bauman and his girlfriend (now wife) Erin Hurley. Gyllenhaal delivers a great Boston accent, but he also captures Bauman’s personality and mannerisms. In a recent interview, Gyllenhaal stated that he asked Bauman how he gets up out of chairs and other similar movements so that he could portray exactly what it was like to lose both legs. It is these nuances that make Gyllenhaal such a prominent actor, especially in this role. Maslany is completely believable as Bauman’s girlfriend. Her life became a roller coaster after the bombing, and Maslany conveys that up and down emotion to the audience. A powerful story needs compelling performances, and I think the acting was the best aspect of the film.

Jeff Bauman’s life was dramatically changed from working at Costco to being Boston’s hero. He represented “Boston Strong,” the phrase that was attached to the memorable day in Boston. Bauman became somewhat of a celebrity just because he happened to be in a certain place at a certain time. I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional stress and burden that he endured, but Stronger does a fantastic job of detailing it. David Gordon Green uses traumatic flashbacks and thoughts to explain the PTSD that Bauman suffered. No one outside of Bauman and Erin had an idea of what he was experiencing, which made it all the more difficult. Bauman, before the incident, was capable of taking care of himself. Afterwards, he has to succumb all of his power to the caretakers around him. That transition set him back, but he eventually found a way to battle through it.

Although Stronger depicts something heroic, it is never exaggerated. Green never downplays Bauman’s flaws. He shows Bauman’s dysfunctional family, his breaking point in physical therapy, and the mistakes that he makes in his relationships. Nothing about these shortcomings screams “hero.” This decision to include all of these faults not only keeps the audience intrigued, but it keeps the story very realistic. No one can easily go from a life of anonymity to a life of fame overnight as Bauman did. The film ends on a positive note as Bauman begins to accept his new life, and he throws out the first pitch at the Red Sox game.

Stronger tells a profound story that not many individuals know both sides to. Solid acting performances and great directing helps shed light on the personal survival story of Boston hero Jeff Bauman. It is obvious that everyone who worked on the film wanted to present the true and realistic story of what happened. If you like inspiring but emotional films, do not miss Stronger.

Stronger is rated R. 

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Splendor In the Grass (1961)

While scrolling through the Watch TCM app*, I came across Splendor In the Grass. I had heard of the film before, so I clicked on it to see more details. I saw Natalie Wood’s name attached to it and immediately decided to watch it. I love a good story and interesting characters, and this film did not disappoint.

Splendor In the Grass was released in the fall of 1961. It was directed by the notable Elia Kazan and written for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Inge. The film stars Natalie Wood as Deanie Loomis and Warren Beatty as Bud Stamper. This was Beatty’s film debut. They are supported by Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie, and Barbara Loden. The screenplay won an Academy Award and Natalie Wood garnered her second nomination for Best Actress.

Splendor In the Grass, set in late 1920s Kansas, follows the seemingly perfect high school romance of Deanie Loomis and Bud Stamper. They intend to marry, but sinful actions and domineering parents wreak havoc on the young couple’s love. Immorality, innocence, and insanity are a few of the themes displayed in the bittersweet story. It was considered risqué and a bit controversial at the time of the its release. The film contains the first-ever French kiss shown on screen and touches on sensitive topics like suicide. But Elia Kazan was known for creating films of such material, and he always motivated his actors to put their best efforts forward.

The acting in Splendor In the Grass, in addition to the complex characters, is part of what makes the story captivating. Deanie’s personality ranges significantly as the film progresses, which Natalie Wood captures perfectly. Her role was anything but simple, especially considering the physical and mental demands. Wood had a great fear of water, and there are several scenes where she is involved with water in some way. I was surprised to learn that this film was Warren Beatty’s film debut, because he played his role of Bud extremely well. It is easy for the audience to sympathize with his character, which is aided by Beatty’s performance. Bud’s obnoxious father is played by Pat Hingle. His father is incredibly annoying and frustrating, but I think that is an indicator of good acting. Kazan did a fantastic job of casting and directing actors who could take the already intriguing characters a step further.

As I was watching the film, I kept noticing that there were so many factors that could have changed for the better had certain characters modified their mentalities, had some guidance, or been able to express what was really bothering them. If Bud and Deanie’s parents had developed better and healthier relationships with their kids, then particular events would not have played out the way that they did. Splendor In the Grass has a lesson for audience members of all ages. It is a real and human story that most can find something to identify with. Kazan expertly shows both Deanie and Bud’s upbringings and how that molds them into who they are and what they become. Deanie comes from a poor, strongly conservative family and her parents choose not to deeply discuss any issues she may be having. Deanie struggles to have a close relationship with her mother, causing her to feel isolated. Bud is from the opposite side of the spectrum. His family is wealthy and has everything, even alcohol that was prohibited at the time. But Bud is emotionally neglected by his outspoken and belligerent father. His father makes all of Bud’s life decisions without consulting him, which silences Bud for the most part. It is sad to see the struggle that Bud and Deanie go through, pushing the audience to really care for them. It is hard to hate the parents though, because as the film progresses we see that they are just human too.

Splendor In the Grass is a classic coming-of-age story if anything, and it is displayed in an authentic and emotional way. Many scenes are shocking and heartbreaking, but not everything is sorrowful. The title of the film is based on a poem by William Wordsworth. The most remarkable line is:

“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

Even though some situations may seem bleak and go against our will, there is always something to look back on in gratitude. The very last scene of the film encapsulates this line. Splendor In the Grass is definitely worth the watch.

*It is available on the Watch TCM website and app until September 14.

This film does not have an official rating, but I would say it is PG-13. 

Image Credit: http://www.mark-markmywords.blogspot.com

Dunkirk (2017)

Most history buffs and movie fans have been waiting for the release of Dunkirk for a while. I, of course, was one of those people. With a name like “Christopher Nolan” attached to it, the film comes with extremely high expectations. I was not disappointed.

As I mentioned above, Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this summer blockbuster that opened on July 21 in the U.S.A. Although Nolan has a long list of film accomplishments, Dunkirk is his first war picture. Despite the huge cast, the film does not have a list of recognizable stars besides Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy. Nolan used mostly young and unknown actors to highlight that fact that the soldiers at Dunkirk were young and inexperienced as well.

Although most people are familiar with the story of Dunkirk, it does help to have some background knowledge before seeing the film. During World War II, approximately 400,000 British and French soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk after having been forced to retreat from the advancing German army. They were stuck with little food and water; survival looked bleak. Fortunately, the German advance was stopped for 48 hours, giving the Allied troops time to evacuate off the island and head to England. Hundreds of civilian boats and some military boats came to the rescue. War and humanity are not often synonymous, but this feat displayed otherwise.

The cinematography of Dunkirk is stunning. Nolan teamed up with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema for the second time, the first being for the critically acclaimed Interstellar.  There are many breathtaking shots involving the water and boats, but the shots of the planes flying throughout the sky caught my attention. The color palette perfectly fit the theme of the grit of war, but it also brought moments of warmth. Sky blue, dark blue, and orange were the dominant colors, and this was done on purpose to incorporate the idea of the air, the sea, and the land. Every color worked together to create a visually appealing product that added to an already compelling story.

Although Dunkirk has received extremely high praise from critics and audiences, there have been some complaints. The biggest criticisms seem to be that there is a lack of depth in the characters, providing no reason to be emotionally invested in them. While, compared to other successful films, this may be true, I do not believe that is what Nolan wanted to accomplish. Instead, he focuses on the battle as a whole. His script concentrates on the heroic act of a whole country, not just one person. If he were to narrow in on one or two characters, then the audience may have disregarded the other hundreds of thousands of men on the beach. Nolan was able to present a narrative that allows the audience to care for every single character. He is telling the story of Dunkirk, not the story of one particular brave soldier. There would not be much to develop anyways, because the only thing the men wanted was survival. To make something more out of that would be unrealistic.

I cannot write a review of this film without talking about Hans Zimmer’s music score. Nolan has used Zimmer for five of his other films, so this collaboration was no surprise. The combination of ominous instrumentals and a ticking clock increased the pulse of the Dunkirk. Zimmer actually used Nolan’s pocket watch to create the ticking noise on the score. I loved this aspect because it was a reoccurring theme and reminder that the time for evacuation from Dunkirk was limited. The score was not overpowering, but instead effectively complimented the pace and purpose of the film.

Dunkirk forces the audience to look beyond the characters and into the thematic elements of a major historical event. This was not a typical heroic war story. In fact, it was a serious blunder. But courage and perseverance shine through as the film presents a crucial moral victory. Nolan captures the importance of patriotism and how selfless civilians put their lives on the line to try and rescue the stranded soldiers. Disaster turned triumph and the Dunkirk incident ended up being a turning point in World War II. Dunkirk is authentic and a truly great historical film. I recommend!

Rated PG-13 for intense war sequences and some language. 

Image Credit: IndieWire

October Sky (1999)

Since it is Thursday, I figured I would do a “throwback” review to one of my favorite films. October Sky is a film that I grew up watching, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a good family drama and a genuine story.

October Sky, directed by Joe Johnston, was released in February of 1999. It is a true story adapted from the memoir, Rocket Boys, written by Homer Hickam. The film follows the story of Homer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a teenager who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Homer grows avidly interested in rockets after the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik. With the help of his math teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), and several friends, he builds many successful small rockets. However, Homer faces several obstacles along the way, including his own father, played by the great Chris Cooper. Gyllenhaal’s role in this film is often considered his break out performance; he was only 18 at the time.

“No. Coal mining may be your life, but it’s not mine. I’m never going down there again. I wanna go into space.” – Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Storytelling is one of the features that makes October Sky stand out. It is simple and incredibly touching, especially since it is a true story. There is conflict between father and son, which many viewers can relate to, no matter their age. The film depicts a traditional coal mining town, and how there is a cycle of what boys are expected to do once they graduate high school. The only way they can escape the life of a coal miner is to receive an athletic scholarship. Homer is different. He wants to be a scientist. He does not want to follow his father’s footsteps into the coal mining business, and he is not good enough at football to catch the attention of a collegiate scout. It is no surprise that Homer’s uncommon rocketry interest causes a rift in the Hickam family. Homer fights to win his father’s approval, but he matures from the experience. The story gives every audience member something to focus on or take away from the film.

The presence of Miss Riley, Homer’s math teacher, has a huge impact on the outcome of the rocket building adventures. She encourages the boys, specifically Homer, to follow their dreams. Miss Riley acts as a silver lining in a town where the “Rocket Boys” are mocked and insulted. She allows them to see that there are other options besides being a coal miner, and that it is okay to stand up to the barriers that block them. Laura Dern was an excellent choice for this character because she brings tenderness to the role. The audience sees how supportive she was of Homer, and how much that attributed to his success. Miss Riley is a reminder of how important teachers are to young students, and how teaching can be such a rewarding job. Of course, Chris Cooper nailed his performance as Homer’s father, John. He took on the role of an extremely stubborn person that seemed incapable of showing his soft side. But Cooper does let the audience catch a glimpse at his vulnerability. As mentioned before, this film pushed Jake Gyllenhaal into stardom. He always has an incredible ability to show emotion through his expressions. He acts charming but intelligent, which makes his character immediately likable. Apparently, the real Homer Hickam looked like a “typical nerd” and Quentin (one of the “Rocket Boys”) was more handsome. But Gyllenhaal was considered a teenage heartthrob at the time, so the physical appearances of the characters were reversed for the film. The cast was solid and supported the compelling story.

October Sky is an authentic “Americana” narrative. Because it is based on a true story, it is considerably influential. It displays the working class sector of a small and struggling town. American pastimes such as football are involved as well as the coal mining industry, which helped build the economy for the country. And of course, the space race. By taking Homer Hickam’s memoir and putting it on the screen, Joe Johnston is able to reach to various backgrounds and individuals. The significance of perseverance when striving for a goal is highlighted along with the trials of a middle class family. These factors, plus the all-star cast, are why the film remains timeless and relevant.

I highly recommend watching October Sky if you have not had the chance. Please comment below if you have any questions or remarks about the film.

Rated PG for some mild language and sensuality. 

For more information about Jake Gyllenhaal, one of my favorite actors, click here.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

I have not done a review on an Old Hollywood film in a while. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  was sitting in my DVR recordings, so I finally decided to watch it. I absolutely loved it, and it made me want to read the play so I could compare the two works.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was directed by Richard Brooks and released in the fall of 1958. Brooks also assisted with adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which was written by Tennessee Williams, into a screenplay. The film stars Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, Burl Ives as Big Daddy, and Paul Newman as Brick. It was actually Newman’s break out role and eventually pushed him to stardom. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was nominated for six Academy Awards but failed to take any home.

The story revolves around the Pollitt family and takes place within one weekend. Everyone has gathered at the family plantation in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. Although the festivities are supposed to be happy, the family is shrouded in conflict. Brick, the younger of the two Pollitt sons, is experiencing marital issues with his wife Maggie. He is victim to alcoholism and depression. Big Daddy is suffering from terminal cancer and the older son, Gooper, appears to be conniving with his wife to take Brick out of Big Daddy’s will. The plot covers the thematic topics of relationships, truth, masculinity, loneliness, and death. It is captivating and touching.

What makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof great is the acting ensemble. Everyone was perfectly casted, even the supporting actors. Many A-list actors turned down the role of Brick, giving Paul Newman the chance. He went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He and Elizabeth Taylor work well together as a troubled couple and both are able to convey impactful emotions. Several words go unspoken between Brick and Maggie, but their expressions say it all. Even though their marriage is on the rocks, the convincing performances give the audience wistful hope that everything will sort out. Originally, the film was to be shot in black and white. Brooks then decided that color would be better so that the famous striking eyes of both Newman and Taylor could be enhanced. This decision was smart and the color adds to the dynamic appearance and personalities of both Brick and Maggie. One cannot help but root for both characters. Burl Ives was fantastic as Big Daddy. He is supposed to be a strong and belligerent man, which is what he comes off as. But Ives allows the audience to see a more vulnerable side of the powerful character as well. The seemingly perfect Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) are deeply flawed. They both strive to do everything that Big Daddy and Big Momma deem to be right, but they still fall short of love and approval. Although their characters are not likable, the actors display how problematic the Pollitt family is. Every single family member is deeply flawed.

Because this film was produced in the 1950s, there were many topics that Hollywood censorship would not allow. Tennessee Williams’ original play had heavy implications of homosexuality between Brick and his deceased best friend, Skipper. Williams claimed to strongly dislike the film because the screenplay cut the relationship out. He thought that Hollywood was making a mistake, and that the industry was blocking necessary progression. Not everyone disagreed with the “scandalous relationship,” even if studio executives did. George Cukor turned down the offer to direct the film because of the removal of the homosexual references and Paul Newman expressed his great disappointment.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof gives the audience a glimpse at the vanishing Southern plantation lifestyle. It is the mid-1950s, but the family still relies on servants. Big Daddy, who represents the traditional way of life, does not show much regard for the help. He also expects Brick to continue running the family plantation, but Brick shows no interest whatsoever. This creates a rift in their already troubled relationship. Big Daddy shows his “love” through gifts and money. He lacks the ability to show real love to not only his sons, but his wife as well. Probably the most emotional scene takes place in the basement. Big Daddy and Brick have come to terms with and discussed the complications in their relationship. They both help each other up the stairs, the beginning of a more caring and loving relationship.

I highly recommend this film. The actors transform the story into something tender and relatable. Although there are some differences between the film and the play, it is still worth the watch. Please comment below your opinions or questions. 🙂

Lion (2016)

I finally had the chance to see Lion, which was nominated for six Academy Awards earlier this year. I was blown away by the film, and it caused me to reflect on everything that I take for granted in my own life. Films like Lion show us just how much we have to be grateful for.

Lion was released in limited theaters in November of last year, but it expanded to more theaters in early January of 2017. It was directed by Garth Davis and written by Luke Davies. The film is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his family in India at the age of five. Saroo was adopted and raised by an Australian family. He tends to cover up his unknown past, but guilt and questions concerning it keep arising. Saroo is faced with the difficult task of delving into his past and not disrupting his current life.

The acting in Lion was incredible, and probably my favorite part of the film. Young Saroo was played by Sunny Pawar, and he stole the show. Pawar is adorable and he is able to show so much emotion with his eyes and expressions. I was captivated by his performance. Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel both received Oscar nominations for their roles as Saroo’s adopted mother, Sue Brierley, and older Saroo. Their performances are extremely heartfelt because there is so much love between the characters, even though Sue is not Saroo’s real mother. There is one scene in particular where Saroo acknowledges everything that Sue has done for him, and there was not one dry eye in the theater. Rooney Mara took on the role of Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy. I read that Saroo actually had several girlfriends when he was older, but certain qualities of each girl were written into this one role. Mara’s character allowed the audience to see an unfamiliar side of Saroo; a side that was less ethnic and more general for a young adult. The cast of Lion was in a unique position because the screen time of the actors, for the most part, was equally divided. Each actor was able to give their own special attribute to the film.

I love films that can open the audience’s eyes to global issues. I left the theater wanting to adopt an Indian child or somehow help those in need. It was crushing to see how many children were in the orphanage that Saroo was saved from. Lion allowed me to reflect on how I can use my life to help those who may not have the opportunities that I have. There is one part of the film where older Saroo tells Lucy that she does not understand his situation. Saroo has lived in two contrasting scenarios: one in poverty and one in upper-middle class wealth. He knows how privileged he is. I think that the director wants audiences to realize the opportunities and gifts he or she has been given. It can speak to those living in poor situations as well, because Saroo was able to climb out of his past and make a successful life for himself.

Films like Lion sometimes have the tendency to gloss over the hardships that one may endure on demanding journeys. This is ironic and usually makes the films unrealistic. However, Lion does not do that. The amazing cinematography accompanied by a great score help convey the tough and emotionally exhausting life that Saroo leads. Not every moment is sad or gloomy, but there are some challenging circumstances. I love the relationships within the film. Although Saroo and Sue have an unbreakable bond as son and adopted mother, Saroo’s birth mother always holds a place within his heart. Saroo looks up to his older brother, Guddu, as a role model. Saroo carries the guilt of causing his family pain, especially Guddu, after becoming separated from them. This drives him to look into his past. These complex relationships give the film depth and help it connect to the audience.

I highly recommend Lion. It ranks in the top three of my favorite films of 2016.  The cast is perfect and the story is one that needs to be heard. I am excited to see what Sunny Pawar works on next, because he has such a bright future ahead of him. If you saw this film, please comment your opinions below!

Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and intense situations. 

Image credit: The Huffington Post India

Trivia and facts from IMDb.com

 

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Wow! 2016 has flown by, and sadly this will be my last review of the year. Thankfully, I am going out on a high note. No matter what other people say, I believe that 2016 was a good year for the film industry. Some truly amazing and quality films were released.

Manchester by the Sea opened in theaters nationwide on December 16 (USA). Kenneth Lonergan directed and wrote this film that explores a realistic story of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his relationship with his nephew Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges). Patrick’s father, Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler), dies suddenly, and Lee has to take care of Patrick. Lee and Patrick must rekindle their formerly close relationship once Lee moves back to Manchester, his hometown. The audience catches glimpses of Lee’s depressing past as he is reminded of the tragic events that caused him to leave his hometown. Guilt, redemption, and the importance of family are common themes that arise throughout Manchester by the Sea.

This film has received tons of Oscar buzz, specifically for Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture. I was curious to see if those claims were valid. After seeing it, I definitely agree that Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges should be rewarded with Oscars. However, I still think that La La Land deserves Best Picture. Manchester by the Sea was excellent, but it is not as unique or stunning as La La Land.

The acting is what makes Manchester by the Sea great. Lucas Hedges is extremely talented with his comedic timing. His witty character, Patrick, foils Casey Affleck’s brooding character, Lee, very well, and this is what ultimately makes both of them likable. Because of the flashbacks to Lee’s past, Casey Affleck has to play two different roles. Although it is the same character, he had to prepare for two contrasting personalities. Lee from the past has not yet been hurt by tragedy, so he is much happier and carefree. Lee in the present has been damaged by past events, so he is a loner and filled with grief. Affleck gives a fantastic performance because he is able to convey a lot of emotion with looks rather than dialogue. I agree, along with many others, that he is the frontrunner for this year’s Best Actor.

Another aspect I loved about Manchester by the Sea was the setting. It was all shot in Massachusetts, most of the locations being the exact places named in the film. The cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, was able to incorporate the sea and the snow to fabricate some gorgeous images. I love when films are shot during the winter because the whole production becomes visually appealing. Lipes gives the film an authentic feeling because of how the Massachusetts towns are portrayed.

Although the subject matter may seem bleak, the frequent humorous dialogue between Lee and Patrick creates lighthearted moments. Other film reviews I read led me to believe that Manchester by the Sea would be a serious tearjerker, but I did not feel that way at all. I laughed out loud at various parts, and I only remember being sad during one particular scene. Maybe it is just me, but the film is not as dismal or unhappy as some viewers made it out to be.

The only real question I would have after seeing Manchester by the Sea is about the hype surrounding Michelle William’s acting performance. She plays the small role of Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. Critics seem to think that she may win Best Supporting Actress, but I do not agree. There is one scene where both Randi and Lee are brought to tears as they discuss their past marriage. Her character is not developed well enough for me to like or care for her. In fact, I was actually annoyed by her. If Williams is going to receive an Oscar for a role, it should be for a character that the audience can connect to or get to know better.

I really enjoyed Manchester by the Sea and I can see why it is one of 2016’s best films. The acting is flawless thanks to Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. It is beautifully shot and presents Massachusetts in a genuine fashion. The ending might be unsatisfying to some, but it drives home the point that this story can happen, and does happen, to any family. Feel free to comment your opinions and questions below!

Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language, violence, and some adult matters are discussed. 

Happy New Year!

Image credit: http://www.latimes.com

La La Land (2016)

It would be an understatement to say that I was merely excited for La La Land. I have been waiting for this film for a little over a year. Luckily, I had the chance to see it a month earlier than its release date at a local film festival. I love musicals and grew up watching them, so the idea behind La La Land – along with its incredible cast and crew – was a dream come true.

*There are very light spoilers in this review. Read at your own risk.*

La La Land makes its nation-wide debut (USA) on Christmas Day. It is being released in several cities today, December 16. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, it follows the journey of two aspiring artists in Los Angeles. One is a jazz pianist, Sebastian, who is played by Ryan Gosling. The other is an actress, Mia, who is played by Emma Stone. The story takes place in modern times, but there are inklings of classic Hollywood, which I appreciated. Both Sebastian and Mia start off struggling to achieve their dreams. Eventually, the two fall in love, and their dreams begin to grow realistic. Bittersweet sacrifices must be made in order for Sebastian and Mia to accomplish what each person wants in life. I walked out of the theater with all different kinds of feelings. I was amazed and overjoyed, but I was also reflective and emotional. I absolutely loved the film, and might even put it up on my list of favorites.

“Here’s to the fools who dream.”

La La Land was one of those films that was on my mind for days after I saw it. I have so much to say about it, but bare with me and I will try to condense most of it for this review.

First of all, I think that Damien Chazelle (who is only 31 years old) is one of the most talented directors in Hollywood right now. La La Land is his third feature film, his second being the critically acclaimed Whiplash from 2014. Chazelle actually came up with the idea for La La Land when he was a student at Harvard University, which was long before he started on Whiplash. However, studios were not willing to fund his idea because they did not believe that this type of musical could be successful. Not to be defeated, Chazelle put La La Land aside and began to write Whiplash. After the huge praise and success Whiplash received, studios were willing to give Chazelle the money he needed for La La Land. 

Chazelle was inspired by the musicals he grew up watching, and it is evident in the finished film. Some of those musicals included Singin’ In the Rain, Top Hat, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle was so passionate about those films that he would actually screen them for the cast and crew during production to show them what he envisioned for La La Land. He teamed up with his close friend and composer Justin Hurwitz, whom he attended Harvard and worked on Whiplash with. Hurwitz wrote six original songs and the score for the musical, making sure each one matched the tone and mood needed for the specific scenes that they would be featured in. The song that is played in one of the film’s trailers, “City of Stars,” took Hurwitz thirty-one rewrites to satisfy both Chazelle and himself. The music in the film was fantastic, and I had several of the songs stuck in my head for days. All of the songs fit their scenes perfectly.

Although I loved everything about La La Land, if I had to pinpoint my favorite aspect, it would be the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. This is their third film together, including Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Both have said in interviews that it makes the experience a lot smoother and more fun when acting alongside a good friend or “buddy” as Emma Stone puts it. The two talented actors make the romance between Mia and Sebastian seem so authentic, that it is hard to believe they are not a couple in real life. I found myself so attached to both characters, and I wanted to see both be successful. Both Gosling and Stone give such great performances that fit their personalities so well, so I was shocked to learn that they were not the first choices Chazelle had. Originally, Chazelle reached out to Emma Watson and Miles Teller (who was the star of Whiplash). Watson was busy with another project, and Teller did not have the right chemistry with Stone. Thank goodness for this, because I truly think that Gosling and Stone are the closest modern-day comparison to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Obviously, Rogers and Astaire had more dancing talent and experience, but Gosling and Stone do match the chemistry of the legendary pair. There is one scene, which is probably my favorite, where Sebastian and Mia walk to their cars after a party. They are still acquaintances at the time, but that soon changes. The two begin singing and dancing with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, which creates a great cinematic moment.

It is fascinating to read about how much effort and practice went into nailing the song and dance scenes (choreographed by Mandy Moore) in La La Land. Damien Chazelle had the cast rehearse in warehouses for three months prior to when they began shooting. Ryan Gosling claimed in a recent interview that he spent four hours a day for three months practicing the piano pieces his character plays in the film. Yes, that is Gosling playing the piano himself without a hand double. My favorite story from the set is how the cast and crew managed to pull off the opening number (“Another Day of Sun”). Chazelle got a 48-hour permit to film on the 105-110 interchange in Los Angeles. Keep in mind that this interchange is 100 feet high; one of the production designers even questioned that someone might fall off. Somehow, Chazelle managed to pull it off in scorching 100 degree weather. The final result is stunning, and it brings the audience right into the film.

I could go on and on about this film, but I will stop here. La La Land is a must-see for 2016. It says a lot that I saw the film for the first time over a month ago, and I am still thinking about it. It will affect everyone in a different way, so I am curious to see what the final consensus will be. The film is already getting stellar reviews and awards buzz, but time will tell. The musical numbers and dialogue scenes are so well blended; there is no awkward jump from song to reality. It has something for everyone, whether that be a great love story, entertaining music, or witty dialogue. La La Land will speak to idealists and those who have big aspirations. All dreams have little snags here and there, but that does not mean the next step should be to give up. It is happy and it is sad, but without that, there would not be much of a story to tell. 🙂

P.S. There are appearances by J.K. Simmons and John Legend that make the film even better.

Fun Fact: The score composed by Justin Hurwitz was recorded with a 90-piece orchestra on a scoring stage. The stage was the same stage that many classic musicals, such as Singin’ In the Rain, had their scores recorded on.

La La Land is rated PG-13 only because of the very infrequent use of curse words. Other than that, it is a family film that everyone can attend. 

Please leave your comments below! I am very interested to see everyone’s opinions about this film.

Image credit to : http://www.theplaylist.net. and http://www.imdb.com

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

I have always been interested in improv because that is how several of my favorite entertainers got started in the film or television industry. Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell…the list goes on. Don’t Think Twice focuses on an improv troupe in New York City. There are six comedians, and one of them gets a big break. This film gives an inside look into the lives of the members of the troupe and the conflicts they deal with.

Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia, was released in July of this year. As mentioned before, the film follows a popular improv troupe, called The Commune, through their adventures as comedians. The troupe is like a close-knit family, but they all have their individual goals and desires. All six of them aspire to be on Weekend Live, which is supposed to represent the well-known Saturday Night Live. Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key, finally receives his chance and takes it. This changes his life as well as the rest of the troupe’s lives.

I loved the messages in this film. As an aspiring filmmaker, I found the lessons to be helpful and a reminder of what “success” really is. Miles, played by Mike Birbiglia, is the leader and oldest of the troupe. He was Jack’s former improv coach, and has always had joining the cast of Weekend Live at the top of his bucket list. Miles auditioned once before, but did not make it. The big breaks never seen to come to him, as he watches the rest of his “improv family” move up in their careers. However, Mike finally realizes, near the end of the film, what his purpose in life is. This is his version of success.

The acting in this film was very authentic. I felt as if I was actually watching a real improv troupe and their documentary. Although the film is not made in documentary style, it sometimes felt that way. I felt as if I was just standing off in the corner of the room as the troupe performed, or sitting at a nearby table when the troupe was at a bar. The audience and character connection is strong. All viewers care and want to see each character achieve their dreams and do well. It shines an honest light on the trials that the troupe endures, whether that be envy of another member or the change in a relationship caused by diverging paths.

Personally, Sam (short for Samantha) was my favorite character. Gillian Jacobs does a great job of presenting a well-liked, sweet person who is happy with the little things in life. She, like Jack, has the chance to audition for Weekend Live, but she chooses not to go. Sam realizes that her version of success is being in the improv troupe and performing shows every night. She does not want the fast-paced, glamour life that she sees at Weekend Live. Sam is someone who is content with herself and her position in life. She has a moment of self-discovery at the end of the film, when she performs on the stage by herself. She knows that the small stage is where she belongs.

Don’t Think Twice shows that “making it big” does not make life any easier. It might even make it harder. Jack’s new job thrusts him into the limelight, and they have a hard time understanding that. The rest of the troupe has the impression that Jack can put in a good word for them and they will be hired for Weekend Live just like that. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Just because Jack is on a higher level does not mean he has a secure job where he can just say or do whatever he wants. This whole dilemma puts a strain on the friendships in the troupe. These clashes not only happen in improv, but in other professions as well. This is why the film is so relatable.

This film is different, but it is probably one of my favorites (if not my favorite) that I have seen this year. It was a limited release, so it has not gotten the buzz it deserves. Don’t Think Twice is a comedy, but it contains touching and emotional aspects that capture the audience. It is rare to watch a film these days where one can enjoy such a caring connection with the characters. It shows that even as one chases his or her dream, reality always gets in the way. But eventually, everyone finds their place and where they belong. If Don’t Think Twice is in theaters near you, I really recommend seeing it!

Main Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard

*Don’t Think Twice is rated R for language (minor) and marijuana use (minor)*

Image from RollingStone.com

Half Nelson (2006)

Many people have probably never heard of Half Nelson, a film that was directed by Ryan Fleck and released in 2006. It had a budget of $700,000, which is considerably small compared to other modern day films. However, this film is the source of Ryan Gosling‘s only Oscar nomination (so far), one that was rightfully deserved. Gosling is joined by Anthony Mackie and Shareeka Epps, two solid supporting actors.

“The sun goes up and then it comes down, but everytime that happens what do you get? You get a new day.”- Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling)

Half Nelson follows the day-to-day struggle of drug addict Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling). Dan is a history teacher and basketball coach at an inner city middle school in Brooklyn (NYC). He truly wants to inspire his students to make a difference in the world. He encourages them to speak their minds and use their imaginations. However, Dan simultaneously fights a deep drug addiction that he cannot seem to stop. As the film progresses, his addiction spirals. Fortunately, one of Dan’s students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), realizes the problem and stands by his side. The responsible Drey faces conflicts as well, with a full-time working mom and a drug dealing “friend” (Anthony Mackie). The chemistry between Dan and Drey is special, because both need each other to survive the situations they live in. Both are dreamers that want to do more for the world, but they are hindered by their backgrounds and surroundings. The challenge for the pair is how to overcome and have faith that things will become better. The film ends with a glimpse at Dan and Drey as they turn over a new leaf, giving hope to the audience that the silver lining has been discovered.

The acting performances are what make Half Nelson so convincing and touching. As mentioned before, Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Actor for his role as Dan Dunne. Surprisingly, that was the only Oscar nomination the film received. Gosling did an excellent job portraying such a likable but struggling person. One cannot help but sympathize for him since he shows such a good and promising personality when he is with his students. His performance is very authentic. Shareeka Epps does a fantastic job playing the role of Drey. Drey is very mature and Epps shows powerful emotion through her expressions. Anthony Mackie portrays the person that Drey does not want to become, and this is significant. Each presentation of the characters is raw and believable.

Half Nelson focuses on just how destructive addiction can be. It shows the unfortunate reality that a good person, like Dan Dunne, can fall into an extremely deep hole. There is one scene in particular that gives the audience a hint to where Dan’s addiction originates. His parents are alcoholics, so he is not able to turn to them for assistance with his own problem. It is within his DNA to have an addiction, which makes it easier to get lost and more difficult to escape. Drey lives in a similar situation. Her parents are divorced and her mom works a full-time job. Her brother is in jail and she does not have any close friends. Drey does not have anyone to reach out to when she faces conflict. She is only thirteen and has to act as an adult. These circumstances are why Dan and Drey form a close bond.

This film is compelling to those who have faced addiction or know someone who has. It can be relatable or shed a new light on something one might not be familiar with. The portrayal of the struggles are real and eye-opening. The cast and crew deliver a strong story about an unusual bond and the fight to conquer an intense battle. I really recommend this film!

Please comment below your opinions about this film or if you have any questions 🙂

This film is rated R for language, drug use, and adult content. 

Image found on sky.com