Tag Archives: Damien Chazelle

Hooray for Hollywood


by George Wolf

Well first, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

There’s an elephant in the room. A real one, delivered to a film exec’s insane party by the ambitious young Manuel (Diego Calva). Wannabe starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) has also found a way past security, and as writer/director Damien Chazelle’s extended take winds us through some impressively staged decadence, Babylon begins its frantically entertaining chronicle of intertwining fates in early Hollywood.

Manuel and Nellie meet that night, each launching a dream to break into the movie business, where Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) reigns as the king of silent films. While Manual begins climbing the ladder on the production side and Nellie’s persona as the screen’s new “wild child” makes her an in-demand sensation, the jaded Jack pines for innovation and laments that “the most magical place in the world” has become stagnant.

And before anyone can warn Jack about being careful with his wishes, “motherfucking sound!” comes to the movies.

Chazelle’s vision here is more ambitious than ever. Babylon is always big and often wild, swinging in all directions as it proposes a drug-fueled toast to the movies, the people that make them, and to the often cruel way those people are used and abused.

It’s a mess of humor, spectacle and emotion, with all angles fighting the urge to run off on their own. There’s surprising humanity in the arc of Sidney (Jovan Adepo), an African American horn player whose success in musicals can’t protect his dignity, but curious excess revealed in the strange cameo from Tobey Maguire as a scary guy with an alligator in his dungeon, as well as a sudden montage of classic movie moments that pops up in act three.

All three leads are terrific. Pitt exudes charisma and hard-earned wisdom as a man forced to admit bitter truths, Calva provides the film’s sympathetic heart and Robbie is flat-out ferocious, delivering a constant challenge for you to just try and look somewhere else. The always welcome Jean Smart is also a treat, stealing scenes with an award-worthy supporting turn as an influential gossip columnist.

Babylon isn’t just big, it’s large, with a three-hour-plus running time that Chazelle packs with enough pizazz and amazing craftsmanship to keep it constantly compelling. This film may be many things, but boring is not one of them.

Like Jack, the silent film star struggling in talkies, Chazelle knows the movie business may be at an important crossroads. But both men still believe in the power of movie magic, and that despite shame from the past and uncertainty in the future, Hollywood deserves the big loud hooray that explodes from Babylon.

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.




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.