Sleightly Nerve-Racking

I love independent, fun little dramas that give you a sense of not knowing where they are heading.  Sleight does that, and well.  There are some scientific and medical non-possibilities which weaken the final third of this brief film, but I love the whole street performer-with-multiple irons in the fire-angle.  7/10

Comparison Notes (all recommended): Nightcrawler, Dope, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Gran Torino, Drive, Tangerine

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UPDATE: I caught some the beginning parts of Nerve on TV, and was reminded of what a fun and fresh film it is, at least through the first half.  So an upgrade: 7/10.  Just don’t expect it to hold up all the way to the end.

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Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

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I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

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Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

The Nice Guys Finish First

Scott Tobias, NPR, mostly gets it:

With The Nice Guys, his wildly entertaining new detective comedy, Black visits the smog-choked, libertine Los Angeles of the mid- to late 1970s, a few years and a few miles removed from private eyes like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye or Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Only, The Nice Guys doesn’t linger in the haze. It has the byzantine plot of an LA noir, but races through it with the breathless energy of Black’s other work. From a simple missing-person case, the film opens up a full-to-bursting array of running jokes, ornate action set pieces, municipal schemes, and twists large and small. The only trouble is keeping up with it.

A few critics speak to a confusing or multi-layered plot, but I’m not sure what they’re talking about.  I found the story quite straightforward, even simple —  if not especially robust.  But the film does move along well, with lots of fun scenes The Nice Guys - text blockmoving quickly from one to the next.  “Wildly entertaining” is overselling it a bit, however.  Toward the end, The Nice Guys devolves into a sort of fermented corn-and-cheese mixture: the “ornate action set piece” finale I found trite, an obvious take-off on the much better opening sequence of the second Indiana Jones picture.

With its several significant flaws, The Nice Guys nonetheless has more in its favor than against it.  It’s mostly a lot of fun.  The squandered opportunities which yielded American Hustle and Inherent Vice were making me think that no-one could produce a decent ’70s-set movie in this vein, but The Nice Guys comes out on top of this heap.  On the low end of 7/10.

Comparison Notes (all recommended, and more accurately “wildly entertaining”): Chinatown, Catch Me If You Can, Trainspotting, Hail, Caesar!

Film Brief: City of Gold

City of Gold is a fun film for foodies, and a refreshing chronicle of the ever-fascinating, eternal city of the angels.  A nice little follow-up to last year’s Tangerine, if you will.  From a documentary filmmaking point of view, no ground is broken, but the content is amply strong enough to propel the picture. Bethany Jean Clement for The Seattle Times:

It’s a testament to his (Jonathan Gold’s) prowess that the voice-overs of his writing are riveting; you may want to stop watching and just go read everything in his Los Angeles Times author archive. …While the film’s formula gets repetitive, little revelations peppered throughout keep it engaging. Gold’s the unlikely hero with the golden palate, but his work also involves obsessive scholarship and research, and if you don’t know about his background, surprises await.

I concur about this movie making you head over to LATimes.com to read his articles.  A great little character study, and a nice break in the otherwise vapid movie season we find ourselves in.  7/10

She Uses Tangerine [Updated]

Tangerine - poster

Yes, that’s a play on the Flaming Lips.

Tangerine is the most talked-about indie of the year, and for good reason.  It splashes vibrant, ruddy, glowing color all over the gritty urban streetscape of Hollywood.  Then, as night falls on Christmas Eve, that patina is washed away, leaving only the ugly naked truth — and a few more laughs.

I’m going to draw an unlikely comparison to Boyhood, because movies are ultimately about the story.  And the story of Tangerine wasn’t bad, but neither was it great.  The same story with more bland, milquetoast characters would probably get a thumbs down — not just from me but most critics.  The audacious characters of Tangerine drive the narrative.

Tangerine - text blockYou can talk about how different, and how novel, a movie is — and I loved the novelty of Tangerine — but ultimately the story must be there.  So probably the best comparison of all: Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It’s like this whole new world you’ve never seen before.  This is what movies are supposed to do!  So how can you not be over the moon?  How can you not be wildly enthusiastic with your recommendation?  Because story matters.

Every once in a while I wish that some truly profound David Lynch – Inland Empire moment might burst forth to offer true, glowing transcendence — but it was not to be.  Still though, there is something endearing about Tangerine.  Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, my opinion has been raised upon reflection.  But also like Beasts, a more developed story would launch Tangerine into the stratosphere.  7/10

Update: A note I forgot to include: the film was shot almost entirely with three iPhones.  Inspiration to low-budget filmmakers everywhere.

Film Brief: Maps to the Stars [updated]

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Sometimes when watching a movie, I get the feeling that I am seeing a series of scenes strung together with little or no cohesion binding them together.  I’ll often throw out the word “disjointed” to describe such a film.  It’s another Maps to the Stars - text blockway of saying the film lacks a strong narrative thrust; the first two-thirds or so of Maps to the Stars suffered in this way.

It’s a sort of heartless, anti-Grand Canyon, or perhaps a weak cross of The UninvitedMulholland Dr. and The Player.  Inherent Vice kept running through my mind as well.  I found Maps to the Stars driving me, but ultimately it’s a broken picture that can’t put a spark to the kindling it has assembled.  Very much on the fence with this one, because there was a lot I did like.  A marginal thumbs-down; 5/10.

Note: I saw this film in-theater, but it is also available via VOD.

Updated 3/9/15: upgraded to 6/10

Inherent Vice: Not a P.T. Anderson Pic

Inherent Vice - poster landscape

Just as “Wes Anderson” has become an adjective, so too has “Paul Thomas Anderson.”  So when I say that I mostly hated Inherent Vice, do not take that as a disparagement against the PT Anderson brand.  For Inherent Vice was completely Inherent Vice - text block 2unrecognizable as a PT Anderson film.  And it will remain so as long as PT Anderson returns to making PT Anderson pics.

Joe Morgenstern, WSJ:

Since most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” was meant to be impenetrable, the best approach, as you watch it drift by, is to savor the dreamy images and druggy jokes—the action is set in the stoner precincts of Los Angeles in 1970—and forget about penetrating the plot.

That’s how most critics took the film.  Just sit back and go with the groove.  Forget about the story.  Hey I’m hip, baby.  But 2 1/2 hours of vibe gets tedious.  By the end, even the humorous parts wear thin.  What great films do is put you in their world, but then use that world as a backdrop to the story.  Think Fargo, Gattaca, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, and After Dark, My Sweet.  So when a world of critics tell me to slip into the world of Inherent Vice and forget about story I say no.  That doesn’t work for me.  Story matters.

Other critics have pointed out that Inherent Vice does a good job of remaining faithful to the novel.  On this point I don’t care.  Apparently that was the downfall of Wild.  If you can stay faithful to the book and make a good movie, more power to you.  But first you need to make a good movie.

Something else occurred to me scanning the reviews.  Lately it seems critics are instantly enamored with whatever junk a filmmaker puts out there, as long as it’s set in the ’70s.  That was the explanation I gave for all the praise American Hustle received.  Here we go again.

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Inherent Vice - text blockInherent Vice is a scattershot mess, a train wreck disguised as an ingenious labyrinth.  A series of conversations with little to no action never works in a movie.  It’s trying to be some type of latter-day Chinatown or Big Sleep or Jackie Brown.   But those movies focus on story first, then on atmosphere.

The Big Lebowski is the other obvious comparison.  I’m a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, and his “Dude” is great here.  As much as I disliked this movie, the funny scenes mostly worked for me.  And there are other good parts; a rather brilliant sex scene stands out.  But mostly, PT Anderson’s attempt at some crazy cross of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers utterly fails.  He needs to stick to being PT Anderson.  3/10