Movie Review: La La Land

Ten Ways You Can Tell If You’re a Character in a Musical

1. When you burst into song, passersby either smile approvingly or join in. No one calls the authorities.

2. When you start to dance, passersby may join in and even do gymnastics around you.

3. If you reach out your hand during a dance number, often a cane or top hat will spontaneously leap into it.

4. If you use a hat to gesture with during a dance number, no errant gust of wind will snatch it.

5. If someone asks, “What’s that?” they do not mean the music starting up out of nowhere.

6. If you perform in public, you may be offered a bouquet of flowers by a complete stranger as a prop.

7. If you perform in the middle of the street, you never have to worry about getting hit by a vehicle.

8. If you are wearing high heels to dance on the street, you never accidentally step in gum or worse.

9. If you’re wearing a skirt, it will only expose your underwear for a second, even if someone flips you upside down.

10. If you and your partner find a place after hours to dance, you won’t set off any pesky alarms.

Most of these things occur in “La La Land,” with the added menace that good old-fashioned musicals never had to worry about: i.e. the interrupting of a dance number by cell phone. This happens, but only once when leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are performing on an abandoned bluff, complete with a star spangled sky and little smog. While Ryan plays an aspiring jazz pianist who’s stuck cranking out Christmas tunes in bars, Emma plays an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop for her day job and isn’t having much luck landing roles. They first see each other after a rousing dance number in which everyone gets out of their traffic-stalled cars to cavort, but it’s only after a series of not-so-cute meets that they actually start talking to each other. At first, the viewer may be forgiven for assuming the entire film is going to be sung, but eventually, the characters communicate in a more standard movie way.

Because Ryan isn’t thrilled about having to play keyboard in an eighties’ cover band, and Emma isn’t enthused about auditions that literally last a minute, they both feel discouraged, but try to bolster each other’s dreams. Ryan is passionate about jazz, considering it the future, but eventually accepts a friend’s offer to join his jazz-ish blues band which means he has to tour. Cracks start to appear in their relationship, as time goes on (the movie takes place over a year), and they start to question their futures. I won’t spoil the ending, just mention that it takes a route to get there that you probably won’t expect. Emma once starred in a teen movie called “Easy A,” where she performed a musical number in the school gymnasium; she was excellent then and equally good in “La La Land.” Ryan is similarly terrific, and the movie is worth seeing (it’s up for an Oscar). It might also be described as “Café Society,” which appeared earlier last year, only without the director’s personal issues intruding.


A Look Back: Holes

When I was in elementary school, my social studies teacher told our class that Iceland was pretty much like you’d expect from its name. But also Greenland wasn’t all that hospitable either. It was just called that to attract settlers. Thus I learned a two for one lesson about history and the power of advertising. Now Camp Green Lake, the camp in “Holes,” the movie and children’s novel by Louis Sachar is also a complete deception name wise. There once was a lake, but it dried up long ago, due to a curse that will play a central role in the film, starring Shia LaBoeuf as the unlucky hero Stanley Yelnats. Now it’s a juvenile detention camp for “bad boys,” to which Shia is sent after getting caught stealing a pair of sneakers from a famous athlete (but there’s more to the story than that). In order to have their character built, the multi-ethnic cast of youngsters is forced to dig a hole of a certain size each day in the desert. Of course, there’s more to the story here, too, which unfolds to a satisfying conclusion with plenty of life lessons learned along the way.

As mentioned, Shia is plagued by bad luck, but it’s not unique to him – every male in his family is under the same curse which has something to do with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather who broke a promise made to a fortune teller (Eartha Kitt). Oddly, enough there is a descendant of Eartha’s among the hapless inmates (Khleo Thomas), known as Zero, but who is actually pretty smart. But before Shia and Khleo can bond and escape from the camp, Shia must negotiate the pecking order of the colorfully nicknamed group of boys (Shia’s own moniker is “Caveman”), learn how to manage the arduous toil of hole digging, and deal with the triple threat of the formidable Warden (Sigourney Weaver), their supervisor Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and their counselor (a term used loosely), played by Tim Blake Nelson. Eventually, Shia figures out that the Warden has a bigger goal than character building, and indeed she does. Her plan, which ultimately involves Shia and Khleo escaping, the curse being reversed, and the good guys living happily ever after, involves a mind-boggling array of clues, including spiced peaches, sunflower sees, yellow spotted lizards, a good girl turned outlaw (Patricia Arquette), a mountain and of course, the sneakers.

I once went to a movie called “Disturbia” featuring an older Shia, which promised to be intriguing, except for the fact that the first twenty minutes of the film were shown upside down. Although the error was finally corrected, I wasn’t thrilled about having to sit through them again, so I persuaded my companions to split. However, “Holes,” is a good enough movie – as well as the kind both kids and adults can enjoy – and I would willingly sit through the first twenty minutes with the screen upside down. Because when you finally correct the mistake, it’s well worth it.

A Look Back: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I once saw a bumper sticker which proclaimed, “Always remember you’re an individual – just like everyone else.” Further investigation using Google revealed that it was Margaret Mead who deserves the credit for this somewhat altered quote. Her original advice was actually, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” In any case, that could be one of the messages of a number of Hollywood teen movies, including “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” directed by Stephen Chbosky (based on his young adult novel). In other words, it’s easy to think that your problems and struggles are unique to you, but the reality is that you have company, often more than you think. This mindset tends to be amplified when you’re a teenager – a period of growth that was actually invented, as people in their teens used to be considered full-fledged adults. But luckily, most of us make it out of the murk of adolescence to realize that we’re more alike in our basic fears than different.

“The Perks of the Wallflower,” stars Logan Lerman as Charlie who begins the film in what sounds like the form of a letter or journal entry to an unnamed “Friend.” It’s shortly before his first day of high school, and he’s beginning it friendless, although we’re left in the dark as to why. (Expected guesses like his family has just moved to the area prove to be false.) His first day is about as positive as Lindsay Lohan’s in “Mean Girls,” but he does have a sympathetic English teacher (Paul Rudd). But a decision to attend a school football game yields unexpected gold when he meets two seniors, played by Emma Watson, as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Ezra Miller, as the acerbic, proudly out gay best friend. Both Emma and Ezra are in relationships that are, to put it mildly, unhealthy, and after they take Logan under their wing, he starts to receive an education in partying, philosophizing and the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” to name a few subjects. Eventually, Logan gets a girlfriend (Mae Whitman) of his own, but he not-so-secretly pines for Emma. However, his biggest task is to come to terms with repressed abuse by a relative when he was younger, not to mention the suicide of his friend (first addressed in the note). In the end, he does triumph with the realization that “I am infinite.” His journey is symbolized by a literal tunnel – that he and his friends ride through blasting David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

Interestingly, that song was scrapped for the tunnel scene used in the trailer which went with the then-popular “It’s Time,” by Imagine Dragons. But the original fits better when you realize that the movie is set in the distant pre-social networking era (indeed one character receives a typewriter as a gift) in the early nineties. That was a time when self-esteem was not considered the most important quality to develop as a youth, and perhaps this is summed up in the scene where Ezra receives a C minus in shop and proudly declares, “I’m below average!” But the movie and book should resonate with any generation. A visit to Amazon reveals that the book has an 88 percent rating over 3 stars and is generally well-reviewed, although a reviewer as Publishers Weekly, who apparently has never been a teen, slams it as “a bath of bathos.” In other words, well worth reading and seeing.

A Look Back: Better Off Dead

Typically, winter is a season that does not lend itself to teen comedy films, at least not half as well as summer, which has the advantage of a three month vacation (in the U.S.), fall (which marks the start of another school year), or spring (break or perhaps the weeks right before school ends). Spring can be tricky, if you keep the setting in school, ignore the subject of college applications and make the characters seniors because then you have the viewer wondering why everyone seems so blithely unconcerned about their future. John Hughes managed to sidestep this issue altogether in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” by presenting the whole day as taking place in an alternate dimension where anything was possible. Though Matthew Broderick does mention college briefly, it doesn’t intrude on the storyline. But if you set a movie in mid-winter, particularly if it centers around specific sports, you have the added issue of where to get the snow. In the eighties’ classic, “Better Off Dead,” starring John Cusack as a high schooler with a mind-boggling array of problems, snow is a necessity because the Big Climax centers around a ski race. The season itself is also a nice metaphor for the overall bleakness in John’s character’s life.

How bleak you may ask? Well, John considers and attempts suicide, after being dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) after she goes for evil ski jock (Aaron Dozier), John’s rival. He’s got one of those teen comedy movie families whose members range from eccentric to downright clueless, including a father (David Ogden Stiers) who is in a perpetual feud with the paperboy, who pops up like the Chucky doll when he’s least expected demanding his owed two dollars. Not only that, but John also has a tendency to get accosted by two Japanese drag racers, one of whom talks just like Howard Cosell. Luckily, there’s a new girl (Diane Franklin) his age next door, a French exchange student who’s stuck with the world’s worst host family – so awful that she prefers to pretend that she can’t speak English. When John and Diane get together at a dance, an attraction forms, and soon Diane is helping John renovate his old car and encouraging John when he challenges Aaron to a ski race. In the latter, John is also cheered on by his wacky best friend (Curtis Armstrong) who likes to snort substances easily found around the house. The outcome of the movie isn’t a real surprise, although there is an unexpected ski pole duel at the end. It is, unsurprisingly, upbeat, but it’s just what John and Diane deserve.

John Cusack reportedly disliked “Better Off Dead,” at the time it was made, but years later he softened and admitted that it wasn’t that bad. The movie was also parodied in an episode of “South Park,” entitled “Ass-pen,” in which the four characters on a ski vacation stumble into a dilemma straight out of an eighties’ teen movie. The movie does have a few situations that may require explaining to this generation (i.e. “What’s a paperboy?”), but overall, it’s still worth watching.


How Soon Is Too Soon?

Today I was going to go see the new movie “Patriots Day,” which came out last week and is finally around locally. But I couldn’t.

Oh, I’m sure it’s an excellent film. Right now, it has a 79 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes, not an overwhelming vote of confidence, but then it’s not exactly a spin-off of the latest J.K. Rowling grocery list. It stars Boston-bred Mark “Remember When He was Marky Mark?” Wahlberg, a good actor and John Goodman (also reliably good) playing Ed Davis, the Boston Police Commissioner who was a key figure in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. It sounds like an intriguing movie by all accounts. The problem is, that for me, it’s just too soon. No, as a Massachusetts native, I’m lucky to not have lost anyone in that tragedy, but I remember what the experience was like.

Last year, two Boston films based on real-life events came out: “Black Mass,” about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe team of journalists who broke the Catholic Church sex abuse story. Both were well-attended when I saw them in the theater, particularly the first, which had as many audience members as my visit to last year’s “Ghostbusters” reboot. And both were fully absorbing, if disturbing narratives to view. I’m blessed to never have encountered Mr. Bulger personally, but I remembered when the Globe story broke and how it hit home (I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I grew up in a mostly Catholic small town.) But though I planned to see “Patriots Day” when I first saw the trailer, ultimately, I couldn’t manage it.

In Massachusetts, April 15 is both tax return due day and Patriot Day, an odd duo. Yearly athletes participate, including many from my suburban community. If the weather decides to cooperate (and around here, it’s not inconceivable that it might decide to snow instead), it’s a festive occasion. But four years ago, two men set off a bomb during the marathon which killed several, injured many, and caused untold anxiety and heartbreak, including during the statewide manhunt for one on April 19. Ultimately, one of the perpetrators died and the other one, after triggering a manhunt, was killed. It was a tragedy, but like many, it also provided an opportunity to see some of the best, as well as the worst, in human nature.

The day after, a friend went with me to help me buy a car, and it was safe to say, that our attention was not completely focused on the sale. During the lengthy process where the salesperson has to run back and forth between his boss and you, the customer, we kept craning our necks trying to see what was going on in the news on the flat screen. We avoided mentioning the subject when the guy returned, but I’m sure it was all on all three of our minds. Afterwards, I drove home with the radio on. During the manhunt a couple days later, helicopters hovered over my town, and later on, a local funeral home was criticized for handling the arrangement of one of the brothers. Obviously, an extremely painful time, and far more so, for those who knew the victims.

I don’t know if it’s too soon for enough people for “Patriots Day” not to perform well at the box office. The “rules” for how soon you can make a movie about a public tragedy have varied over the years, and also depend on whether it’s for the big or small screen. In the nineties, not one but three TV movies about Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita” came out, which more than a few people considered a new low in the history of TV movies. But obviously, it’s a decision that each movie director must deal with themselves. And each would-be viewer. I expect I will catch “Patriots Day” on DVD someday. But just not right now.

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

It’s always a double edged sword after you’ve seen a movie “based on real-life events” to go and track down how much is really “true.” Of course, it can be pleasantly surprising, such as discovering that Andrew Garfield’s character’s counterpart in “Hacksaw Ridge,” was actually braver off-screen. Or disappointing when you realize the truth is much tamer, such as the fact that the American POW in “Bridge of Spies,” allegedly spent his time in enemy prison knitting, not being waterboarded. In the case of “Hidden Figures,” I don’t know which of the secondary characters are composites, but the three main ones: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are all based on real-life African-American math whizzes who played key roles in the NASA space race against the Russians.

Indeed we get clued into that from the start when a state trooper investigates what appears to be a disturbing sight: three middle-aged, nicely-dressed women attempting to get their car re-started by the side of the road. After they provide identification which he regards in clear disbelief, he stares at the sky for awhile although it’s a nice day. “The Russians are watching us,” he intones. Luckily, he provides an escort so they can make it to NASA on time, a surreal experience far preferable to taking public transportation. If only the rest of the obstacles in their work were as easy to overcome.

Though they have all gone as far as they can education-wise, the trio are dealing with some brick walls, or perhaps glass ceilings career-wise. As as one puts it, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line.” Octavia longs to move into the position officially entitled “Supervisor” of the floating African-American office pool, whose work she is already doing sans title, no thanks to the hard-assery of her white superior (Kirsten Dunst). When she learns that NASA is prepping for a miracle machine called an IBM (that will make jobs obsolete), she promptly does the research into FORTRAN cards and begins to master the technology on her own. Janelle wants to become NASA’s first woman engineer, butt that requires that she take classes at an all-white high school – something that will require going to court and delivering a passionate speech to a judge. Luckily, like most movie characters, Janelle possesses the gift of being eloquent under pressure.

As for Taraji, she gets a chance to work in the department that’s calculating the landings for the upcoming flight of John Glenn’s (Glenn Powell) Friendship 7. However, she must scale a number of “firsts,” including being the first black woman to do complex calculations for a department full of tight-lipped men in suits, headed by gruff (but not really that hard-hearted) Kevin Costner. Not to mention that the segregated bathroom is forty minutes away. Eventually, the last is rectified by Kevin who takes a hammer to the sign of the main building’s women’s loo and points out cheesily, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” But the main challenge (other than keeping her self-respect in an office full of side-eye) for Taraji will be to come up with formulas from what Kevin believes is math not invented yet. (Try to top that!) As it turns out, the answer is found elsewhere, but the goal- catching up to the Russians in the space race – will not be easy.

The film is well-worth seeing, and it’s rated PG, I assume because of some hairy moments during the various launches, or possibly because at one point, one woman ogles a visiting astronaut. Actually, I have no idea, though I hope it’s not because young kids can’t handle learning that America used to be far more segregated. Otherwise, there is no sex or violence, and all the romance is “G.” It’s too bad “Hidden Figures” is out so early in the year because that will likely hamper its chances for Oscar nominations, which several of the actors here deserve.

A Look Back: Blades of Glory

“Blades of Glory,” starring Jon Heder and Will Ferrell as a mismatched competitive figure skating duo, faithfully follows the template of your typical Hollywood sports movie, though it also takes a few moments to wink at it. The movie also follows the template of the typical Will Ferrell sports movie – in which a protagonist whose brain cells are far exceeded by ego strength goes from callowness to hard-won maturity – which, of course, is the real prize, not the blue ribbon or first place he ends up with. In various movies, Will has been redeemed by the power of coaching Little League or race-car driving, but in “Blades of Glory,” it is skating that achieves this for him and Jon. Here’s how:

1. Thou shalt suffer adversity as a child, even if just in flashbacks.

Will’s character is quasi-homeless and a former street punk, whereas Jon is an orphan raised by a rich businessman, who disowns him after he gets barred from the sport as an adult.

2. Thou shalt begin the movie as a cocky no-nothing of the ways of real life, although successful in their field.

Both Will and Jon, although successful skaters, are basically insecure little boys in grown men’s bodies, as shown because they can’t be in the same vicinity for very long without erupting into a fight. This has consequences when they disrupt an awards ceremony and are banned from competition.

3. Thou shalt seek an unconventional mentor to aid them on their way in their quest.

Here, it’s Jon’s former coach, Craig T. Nelson (who actually starred in a sitcom called “Coach”), who reluctantly takes the squabbling duo on. He fits the mold nicely.

4. Thou shalt face prejudice of some sort on their way in their quest.

Here it’s homophobia, as Jon and Will find a loophole that lets them compete in pairs together. Various fans and figures in the skating world aren’t shy about voicing their horror and disbelief.

5. Thou shalt go up against a truly vile main competitor.

In this case, it’s an incestuous pair of siblings, played with gusto by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, who are not pleased at having to share the media spotlight – much less with two “freaks.” They’re also really mean to their sister (Jenna Fischer) who they blame for their parents’ death in an accident.

6. Thou shalt have an adorable love interest.

OK, this is every movie with an underdog (or dogs). Here it’s virginal Jon hooking up with the equally chaste and sweet Jenna. They have a rather PG-date scene involving Sno-Cones. Perhaps to balance this sugar, Will’s character is a self-proclaimed sex addict who goes to actual meetings.

7. Thou shalt have to risk life and limb in order to be a contender.

In the double standard of such movies, when the rivals break the rules, they deserve to be punished, but when the heroes go out on a limb and try something risky, they are to be commended. Here it’s a move called the Iron Lotus from North Korea, which has actually resulted in beheadings.

8. Thou shalt face a number of obstacles after arriving at the big event, prior and during competing.

This means a quasi-kidnapping, which leads to a struggle to get to the ice in time. But that pales when an injury forces Will and Jon to switch places – and thus try the Iron Lotus in a way they have never before done.

9. Thou shalt have a scene in which a declaration of love, friendship, etc. is made with flair.

Will, having blundered into helping split up Jon and Jenna, does this to cheers from the championship crowd. And laughs from the viewer.

10. Thou shalt win big while their competitors lose embarrassingly.

Of course, Will and Jon wind up triumphing, while Amy and Will are caught cheating and hauled off in shame by the authorities.

Happy New Year!