Tag Archives: Damien Chazelle

If You Believed

First Man

by Hope Madden

We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the US space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.

Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.

The director’s La La Land lead Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this biopic of the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface. It’s another of Gosling’s impressive turns: reserved, with an early vulnerability that hardens over time to a protective stoicism.

A no-frills Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, and the characters the two actors carve share a bristly chemistry that adds to the film’s committed authenticity. It also provides some kind of emotional center for the story.

Chazelle’s observational, unhurried style doesn’t draw attention to the drama. There is nothing showy about this film. That understatement allows the most startling, horrifying and awe-inspiring moments their own power. The approach also quietly reminds you of the escalating pressures shouldered by Armstrong as he and NASA faced tragedy after tragedy in the name of space exploration.

Gosling shares screentime with an enormous and talented ensemble boasting many fine performances and just as many welcome surprises. Though most roles are very small, Shea Wigham, Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll stand out.

Stoll, playing a socially obtuse Buzz Aldrin, offers an enjoyable foil to Gosling’s composed Armstrong, sparking one of the film’s only real grins.

Though Gosling’s distant performance and Chazelle’s near-verite style mirror Armstrong’s increasingly walled-off psyche, it becomes difficult to connect with characters. First Man deposits you inside the action but keeps you at arm’s length from Neil Armstrong.

As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully.

Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, queasying and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.

Dream Baby Dream

La La Land

by George Wolf

What an utterly glorious piece of filmmaking La La Land is.

Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.

Nostalgia? That’s hard to get right.

“That’s the point!”

So says Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a frustrated jazz pianist whose dinner music gig will soon be gone if he doesn’t stick to the approved playlist. He meets struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and the cutest couple in town contest ends quickly.

Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is again steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.

It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.

But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.

Gosling (displaying some impressive keyboard chops) makes Sebastian a natural charmer who’s “letting life hit me ’til it gets tired,” and trying to stay true to his old school ambitions. When a well-paying gig with a pop-leaning band comes calling (the publicity photo shoot is a scream), Gosling underplays Sebastian’s sell-out frustrations but never the resonance.

And good as Gosling is, Stone is luminous. She takes Mia from the plucky Doris-Day-next-door enduring a string embarrassing auditions to a nuanced young woman facing the realities of what her dream demands, and Stone has us at hello. This film has everything going for it, yet it still rests on Stone’s ability to find the perfect blend of wonder and authenticity. She does not disappoint.

Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has hit many of us ’til we’re more than tired, we’re damned depressed. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.

Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

Killer Performance

 

Grand Piano

 

by George Wolf

A man with a very particular set of skills is lured into a deadly cat and mouse game by an unseen tormentor…

If you’re thinking Liam Neeson, think a little smaller.

Elijah Wood is the star of Grand Piano, as stage-fright prone master pianist Tom Selznick.  Returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus, Tom finds an unexpected piece of music inserted into his planned repertoire. It is an “unplayable” piece, and one that he botched big-time in a previous try.

A hand-written message on the sheet music, coupled with a sudden laser target on his chest, give Tom extra motivation: play it perfectly, without missing one single note, or die.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s request hour!

Much like Neeson’s recent thriller Non-Stop, Grand Piano does a fine job setting up an engaging premise, only to stumble trying to find a worthy way out.

Screenwriter Damien Chazelle invents clever twists to keep the tension going, providing multiple Hitchcock homages that are able to toe an entertaining line between cheesy fun and pretentious contrivance.

Chazelle has the perfect partner in director Eugenio Mira, who seems almost gleeful in the way he sets the pace. Multiple perspectives are blended with skill, precision and timing, not the least of which are impressive concert sequences of Wood appearing to be a virtuoso.

The unplayable piece and the deadly situation escalate in delightful symmetry, and Wood deftly conveys the persona of a man pushed to the edge of both his nerve, and his talent.

In case you don’t already know who plays the baddie, I won’t spoil it, but his battle of wits with Wood is all fiendish fun until everyone involved must deal with that pesky conclusion. After the buildup, it smacks of a give-up, or something lifted from an old episode of Magnum, P.I.

Sure, there are a couple leaps in logic and classical music fans will likely nitpick the concert details, but until that last sour note, Grand Piano stays in tune.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars