Life in Technicolor: “La La Land” Rewrites the Musical Genre

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Contemporary cinema is all about nostalgia these days. But where most films recede into self-referential tedium, along comes a fresh, beautiful little marvel that not only provides an entertaining cinematic experience, but, I think, rewrites the concept of the musical entirely.

La La Land is the darling of the current awards season, and rightly so. The film has an interesting (if somewhat a bit predictable) storyline, excellent music, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in recent years. It is not just a musical love story, but a love letter to the idea of Los Angeles itself: the hope, the dream, the romance and the craziness that is the “city of stars.”

Approaching the film from a design perspective, this has to be one of the most gorgeously photographed pictures I’ve seen. Linus Sandgren, director of photography, did a knockout job in capturing not just the remarkable colour tone of the film, but setting that against the backdrop of Los Angeles made for a dynamic pairing. The use of primary colours and accents stood out for me in creating the hyper-reality that contributed to the dreamlike narrative. It’s certainly refreshing to see such attention to detail paid to subtle things like colour (especially after watching the washed-out tones of recent DC and Marvel superhero movies). That photo above captures this aptly: the costume designer expertly manipulated the perfect colour tone to complement both characters; the bright colours for Stone’s Mia and the stylish yet subtle hues for Gosling’s Seb perfectly complement each other whilst making the characters pop on-screen; it’s hyper-real cinema at its best.

The entire picture feels surreal; the breakouts into song and dance, coupled with these vibrant colour tones, truly transport the viewer to this alternate reality. They heighten the sensory experience of the city, and in this exaggeration emphasize the relationships between the characters and magnify an otherwise standard plotline.

Director Damien Chazelle did a good job in getting sterling performances from the leads. Gosling and Stone have undeniable chemistry (this isn’t their first on-screen pairing), and their voices aren’t that bad either. The songs, composed by Justin Hurwitz, are catchy. I loved the use of jazz as a metaphor for the entire film – being used both literally as a narrative device for Gosling’s character Sebastian, and more abstractly as that moment of magic, that tension and dynamism that is Los Angeles and the romance with this city; the romance that emerges from this city. The refrain that becomes the film’s theme is beautiful; it carries the gravitas of the narrative whilst imbuing a certain nostalgia, a subtle longing for that golden age of cinema (this is how you do nostalgia: with classy subtlety, rather than in-your-face rehashing).

Here’s that theme:

That same feeling is conveyed in one of my other favourite numbers, City of Stars:

John Legend’s character Keith captured it best when he said:

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

In a way this is what La La Land is about: using mechanisms of the past to proffer the idea of a bolder, new cinematic experience: one that uses the traditional tools of cinema (writing, music, cinematography) to create compelling new narratives and entertainment. As much as it is a love letter to the city it’s named after, La La Land is also a homage to Hollywood itself: capturing the frenzy, the absurdity and the magic of showbiz through the perspective of our heroes and their whirlwind romance.

In a world that’s getting darker each day, it’s refreshing to see a bit of technicolor injected into a movie experience that is true, unabashed escapism. La La Land transports you to a time when cinema meant something: losing yourself in the romance of the magic unfolding on the silver screen, getting catchy (but still good) songs stuck in your head, and reveling in the chaos of Hollywood and its bright colours, all in glorious Cinemascope.

As Seb says, “I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”

8/10

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Super (under)powered Cinema

So I’ll be honest at the start of this: I was a huge fan of superhero films. Browsing Life in Pixels’ archives will testify my adoration of the genre. But recently, I’ve become tired of these films. They’re formulaic (which is sometimes not such a bad thing… but, you know). Netflix does a great job of producing some actual substance in this field, but for the most part the television side of the genre leaves much to be desired.

I would watch, week in week out, the latest episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., … until it all just got too much. How much of my life was I willing to invest in this? There comes a point where entertainment becomes a chore, and I think I’ve reached that. In its response to mass-consumption, itself a product of the success the genre has felt since the first Iron Man hit theatres, superhero films and television have since departed the gravitas that once underscored the category.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a voice with final-say in what people should be watching or consuming. We live in a free(ish) society; we can do what we want. But I’ve since become uninterested in this genre, a part of pop culture that at one time was a powerful critique on society, and that formed a big part of my own life.

Take Nolan’s Batman films. Yes, I know. It’s a cop-out whenever a critic of contemporary superhero cinema brings out Mr Nolan and his work. But with this succinct trilogy, he crafted a piece of cinema that is both powerful as a work of art, a strong series of examinations on our society – a society that is plagued by fanaticism, crime, terror, rogue ideology and fear. The Batman becomes the lens through which we examine what it means to live in such a world. Tom Hardy’s Bane represents that strong, terrifying faction that can, at any moment, shake the very foundations of our civilisation. Ledger’s Joker, of course, just wants to see the world burn.

The point is, these films carried substance. Gravitas. And Nolan knew when to stop. He set out to tell this legend, this mythos of the Batman, and he achieved it through those three films.

Superheroes are, I believe, a potent vehicle for exploring very human issues: politics, race, culture, power… historically, they have been used as a critique on society. But in the commodification of the genre, as Hollywood’s prying fingers tear through the metaphor to mine the cashflow, I fear we’re losing that very essence. Yes, on the print side, things still seem to be alive and kicking. But I’m arguing from the cinematic perspective, and the state of things in that arena leaves much to be desired.

 

Superman: Modern Day Socrates

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol.2, Bill has a very interesting monologue. Perhaps the most famous monologue in the entire two-part saga.

The essence: he slices through the very nature of Superman, and argues for the idea that Clark Kent is the image Superman perceives of us, as a species, as the human race.

Here’s the speech:

(edited to remove spoilers)

As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

[…]

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

–Bill, from “Kill Bill vol.2” (2004)

Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

2015 in Cinema

2015 films

Every year I make a list of films I’m looking forward to. Being a cinephile, I make an effort to seek out not only those movies that I know will be surefire hits (I’m looking at you, Avengers 2), but also those dark horses (Chappie, perhaps?).

2015 looks like our best year in film yet. It’s got one of the most anticipated films of the past decade (Star Wars Episode VII), the gritty setup for Marvel Phase III with Avengers 2, and a host of reboots that I can’t wait to get into the cinema and watch.

Without further ado, here’s my pick of films to look out for this year.

(Films marked with an asterisk are my must-see items of the year).

  • Mortdecai (Jan 23)
  • Jupiter Ascending (Feb 6)
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service (Feb 13)
  • *Chappie (Mar 8)
  • The Gunman (Mar 13)
  • Furious 7 (Apr 3)
  • *Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15)
  • Tomorrowland (May 22)
  • *Jurassic World (Jun 12)
  • Inside Out (Jun 19)
  • Ted 2 (Jun 26)
  • Terminator Genisys (Jul 1)
  • Minions (Jul 10)
  • *Ant-Man (Jul 17)
  • Pan (Jul 24)
  • Pixels (Jul 24)
  • Hitman: Agent 47 (Aug 28)
  • Everest (Sep 18)
  • Victor Frankenstein (Oct 2)
  • St. James Place (Oct 16)
  • *Spectre (Nov 6)
  • *The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Nov 20)
  • The Good Dinosaur (Nov 25)
  • The Martian (Nov 25)
  • Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Dec 18)
  • Mission: Impossible 5 (Dec 25)

A lot of exciting films coming out this year, but a few notable mentions regarding this year’s selection: this is the first year that Pixar Animation Studios will be releasing two films in one year. Perhaps this will make up for last year’s lack of a single film from Emeryville, CA. I do hope they regain their classic touch, something I feel they’ve lost in recent releases.

Star Wars will be the biggest movie of this year. Yes, even bigger than Marvel’s “Avengers” sequel. That’s because there’s so much riding on this movie, such anticipation, and most of all: the great mysteries surrounding this release are sure to compel fans new and old to this franchise to check out what director J.J. Abrams has in store.

Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which will release sometime later this year (no official date yet). This revenge western set around the Civil War is another film I’m really excited about.

I will once again post my thoughts on some of the films above once I’ve seen them, and this year I will also write a few posts a month on cinema, the technical aspects of the industry and my thoughts on some of these upcoming releases, in anticipation of watching them.

Dawn of the Age of Spectacular Performance Capture

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Good science fiction stories offer one an opportunity to escape to fantastical worlds. Great science fiction goes a step further: it brings up philosophical issues, questions human nature and societal constructs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly falls into the latter category. It is a film deserving of the “blockbuster” status because it not only has a deeply compelling narrative, but immerses audiences in captivating performances, breathtaking scenery and masterful use of new cinematic technologies to bring a screenplay that’s rich with layered meanings to life.

I haven’t watched the original “Planet of the Apes” films, so my review won’t be comparative. Instead, I approached this film as a continuation of “Rise”, and as one of the tentpole action films of mid-2014. “Dawn” is so good that I actually watched it twice – in both 2D and 3D.

Director Matt Reeves does a sterling job of balancing intense, emotional scenes with Caesar and his brethren of apes, and explosive action sequences between apes and humans. This is the kind of pacing and delivery that so many sci-fi films of late are lacking – here’s hoping this film serves as a guide on how to make a good, well-rounded picture. Ape society, led by Caesar and now thriving 10 years after the events of “Rise”, comes across as a sort of parallel to (early) human society – one that is built on the foundations of fear-induced leadership to some extent. This becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses and one of the two primary villains, Koba, wins over the apes. Parallels can again be drawn between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, and Malcolm and his son – this suggestion of similarity between both species brings heart to the story and adds an appreciated dimension to both Caesar and Malcolm, the two protagonists of their respective species.

The villains of “Dawn” are well crafted. We can empathise with both Dreyfus (the human villain played by the always brilliant Gary Oldman) and Koba (the rogue ape that turns on Caesar). This is a mark of good screenwriting:  both ape and human villains have justifiable reasons for their respective actions, and if one were in their place, one could indeed see themselves acting similarly. Both parties are operating inherently on fear, and on trying to preserve their respective species. This is where the philosophical implications arise: can two dominant, intelligent species co-exist? This is explored to an extent, but along with the entire plot, sets up the answer to be determined in the planned sequel to be directed by Reeves with a release in July 2016.

Now, intrinsic to the sci-fi genre is the use of high-end cinematic technology to create such immersive experiences. And in “Dawn”, the true star is the spectacular use of performance capture. Watch the video below to see how not only body motion, but intricate facial expressions were captured and superimposed onto the ape CG models.

Andy Serkis is a veritable legend when it comes to performance capture, cementing his role as the leader in this realm with his breakout role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “Dawn”, he brings Caesar to life, creating the most compelling digital character I’ve ever seen. Watching this film in 3D with Dolby Atmos sound is an experience unlike any other; the Atmos soundscape draws you in to the auditory world, and the 3D used in this film is some of the best in an otherwise contentious aspect of modern blockbuster cinema. It felt like I was right there next to Caesar and Malcolm, right there in dystopian San Francisco witnessing the battle for the fittest species.

Michael Giacchino adds to the film’s overall impression with a great musical score that is equal parts nostalgic – the high notes of energetic flutes mixed with thunderous brass and strings, and powerful timpani – and dynamic, creating a strong soundscape that accentuates the drama unfolding onscreen.

The future of this rebooted Apes franchise should, in my opinion, be the arc of Caesar – thus, there should be a new human cast in the next film, so that we see how Caesar’s interactions with various humans affects his judgement as the battle for the Planet of the Apes reaches its high point. Having said that, it would still be nice to have James Franco return, at least briefly, and meet Caesar. That would be another poignant ape/human interaction that would add immense tension to the impending battle.

Should you see this movie? Well, let me put it this way: apes on horseback, with machine guns, riding through flames. Your argument is invalid. Go and see this. Now.

Could DC Make “Superman: Red Son”?

2493286-Superman_RedSon_Hardback_cover_by_DevilpigSuperman: Red Son is a curious rendition of the Superman tale. It provides an alternate reality, where Superman lands on Earth a handful of hours earlier, ending up in a collective farm in Ukraine rather than Kansas during the reign of the USSR. The story aims to answer a simple, intriguing question: What if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union? He grows to become Stalin’s golden son, spreading communism throughout the world and becoming the United State’s chief enemy. This plot is, of course, in direct contrast to what we know the “normal” Superman to be. However, it makes for extremely compelling reading, and at times is quite fun to notice how this alternative tale diverges from the orthodox rendition of the Man of Steel.

DC is about to breathe life into their highly-anticipated cinematic universe. And whilst we know that it will draw inspiration from some interesting sources – for example, the new Batman is inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns book – wouldn’t it be incredible if they chose to make a film adaptation of this particular Superman tale?

Superman is seen as the colourful contrast to Batman’s monochromatic portrayal. He provides hope, serves as humanity’s beacon and supposedly guides us into a more enlightened future. Red Son, by contrast, still maintains Superman’s powerful moral compass whilst set against the backdrop of communism, an idea that is incredibly controversial in contemporary society.

Yet Red Son makes for an enthralling story, one where there’s plenty action, suspense and ambiguously sketched characters that provide varied interpretations and thus depth. Perfect ingredients for great story-driven cinema, wouldn’t you say?

The idea for a Red Son adaptation came when I was recently discussing the DC Cinematic Universe with a friend of mine, a veritable comic-book guru (incidentally, he introduced me to Red Son). We talked about how this film could end up being a slight departure from the overall arc of the DCCU, providing an alternative reality – perhaps even a completely standalone film separate from the DCCU. Sure, we need to get audiences acquainted with DC characters, but once that establishing is done, these deeper, darker story lines could be explored.

Red Son is indeed controversial material. Communism seems to be a touchy subject in popcorn cinema, but I feel that a story of this caliber could transcend mere popular cinema and launch a niche in the superhero film obsession – one where there’s a deeper sense of story permeating the flashbang nature of these sci-fi-action-fantasy flicks. Red Son would seriously challenge DC’s prime competitor, Marvel. It would provide the battleground for the serious era of superhero films.

In reality, could Red Son be made? Could we seriously see Ben Affleck as “Batmankoff”, Henry Cavill as a Russian Superman, Jessie Eisenberg as a positive Lex Luthor trying to fight the spread of communism that’s accelerated by Superman’s rise to power? In today’s world, realistically, no. DC is laser-focused on getting their Cinematic Universe started-up, and such a film would be a sidetrack, with too limited an audience appeal at this stage. Hopefully in the future, when we’ve exhausted the conventional story lines, producers will begin to delve into these fascinating conceptions of some of our most beloved heroes.