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

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.

The Great Gatsby: The Jazz Age, brought to life

Baz Luhrmann crafts a cinematic love letter to the “Roaring Twenties”, at the same time cleverly bridging the gap between that era and our own, in his latest film The Great Gatsby. A film tasked with bringing to celluloid (or, rather, digital projection) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus will undoubtedly be faced with many challenges. How is it possible to capture the very essence of an epoch in the same way that Fitzgerald managed to, almost effortlessly, chronicle it in his Great American Novel?

Lurhamnn’s film is perhaps an answer to that question.

Opening with a beautiful invitation to the 1920s, the film’s photography suggest that of a dream. Lurhmann’s unconventional direction (evidenced in Romeo + Juliet) presents a take on the Gatsby tragedy that is at once both a stunning display of insight into the story, and a presentation that, by its very difference, incites one to journey with the director into exploring the mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The film is beautifully crafted, there’s no doubt. Each and every piece of it was carefully considered; everything, from the opening titles, to the set design, to the camerawork, even the actors matched to their respective characters, was pondered to great extent. That was evidenced in the film’s execution. Interspersing text with dreamy visuals, cameras weaving between the buildings of New York and the void between Gatsby and Daisy’s homes – “the Green Light at the end of the dock” – those were all very clever touches. Which brings me to the actual aspect of the “green light” concept.

Studying this novel in my final year at high school, the metaphor of the “green light” was stressed to a great extent. It is, after all, an important concept in considering Gatsby’s unrelenting hope, his unyielding vision to attain his grand dream. However, I felt the whole concept a bit too stressed, too implied in Nick’s narration. What was excellent, though, was how Luhrmann played with this concept: opening the film with it, thus implying its importance from the get-go, using it in the most important scene in an interesting way – tracking the camera away from it as Gatsby’s vision slowly recedes – and fast-cutting to it in various scenes. Showing, not telling, is the key here.

I thought the idea to portray the narrator, Nick Carraway, as a psychologically damaged individual recounting the events of that fateful summer an interesting decision. It allowed Lurhmann to transcend many of the beautifully crafted words from the novel into film, without losing its essence or forcing anything through implications and cumbersome dialogue. Nick, played by Toby Maguire, becomes the eyes through which we perceive the tragic tale of the great Jay Gatsby. Maguire’s portrayal of this complex character was executed brilliantly – I thought he conveyed the distinct traits of the written character. However, the constant voice-over narration did seem a bit overwhelming at times; it felt like the director was choosing to “tell, not show” us the events unfolding, or allow us to read the character’s emotions through the individual actors. All in all, though, Nick’s step from the book to film was superb, and those familar with the novel will be hard-pressed to not make some connection between Nick and Fitzgerald – especially in that final shot (I don’t want to give any spoilers here… go watch it to understand this!)

Let’s talk about the music. The decision to use big-name rappers like Jay-Z, Kanye West, pop stars (sadcore singer Lana del Rey, rock extraordinare Jack White, even will.i.am and Fergie) was indeed controversial. “How could you possibly link these artists to the 1920s?!” it was decried from the high halls of Fitzgerald aficionados. Well, Mr Baz Lurhmann managed it – and managed it quite well. The way I interpreted this choice of soundtrack was linking it to the jazz music of Gatsby’s time. Jazz was to that era what our music – Hip-Hop, pop, electro-dance, alternative rock – is to us: a platform to chronicle the zeitgeist. By using contemporary music in a period film, Lurhmann inadvertently forged a bridge between these two times, essentially making Gatsby’s story relevant to us, indicating it to be a tale that could have happened just as much then as it could now. And also: it would draw in a younger crowd who would otherwise dismiss the opportunity to witness this film. Essentially: he makes this oft-complex story accessible to a generation perhaps struggling to get to grips with The Great Gatsby.

The fast-paced camera work, at times soaring and then fast-cutting, might be a bit disconcerting. But here, I interpreted this as a conscious decision by Lurhmann: a means of implying the restlessness of the time, the juxtaposition of Nick’s home in the staid Mid-West with the boom of Wall Street and dynamism of a fledgling New York. Using those fast-cut shots and dissolving transition effects in the early scene at the Buchanan residence allowed us to glimpse snippets of dialog lifted straight from the novel, whilst absorbing the aura of trouble about to brew.

Leonardo DiCaprio must be commended on his performance. I don’t think there’s anyone else who could play Jay Gatsby as well as I witnessed here. He brilliantly plays the quintessential charming, mysterious figure that inspires such speculation and masks an incredible ambition. This could very well by DiCaprio’s performance of his life. His Gatsby is carefully executed, tenuously wrung-out until that final explosion of anger and fear in the swelter of the Plaza room at the film’s main confrontation.

Carey Mulligan’s Daisy was just as I’d imagined her from the book: beautiful yet superficial, a woman who represents Gatsby’s “unattainable dream”, and, by extension, the great American Dream – the chance of dreaming big, of having enormous hope; the romantic notion of believing in the dream and fighting for it, in this case, to the very bitter end. Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan was superb: he manifested the “foul dust [that] floated in the wake of [Gatsby’s] dreams.” His confrontation with Gatsby was perhaps my favourite scene between Tom and Gatsby, well played by both actors. I was also pleasantly surprised by Amitabh Bachchan’s Meyer Wolfsheim. Whilst only in a small segment, and clearly a ploy on the studios to attract the lucrative Asia-Pacific market, the Bollywood legend seemed very well suited to the shadowy role of this mafia boss.

This adaptation of Gatsby is perhaps the most honest one yet. Yes, it’s a film that, aesthetically, is made very different to what many cinemagoers would expect. This is, after all, the daring Baz Luhrmann directing. However, I felt that the essence of the book was intricately carried over to the film. Many of the book’s major lines were not, as so often happens, truncated, or weirdly changed for some arcane cinematic purpose. Understandably  not everything will make it over to the film, but the choices Luhrmann made were good ones. The book’s ability to chronicle the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age was indeed mirrored in this film’s retelling of that, with the added touch of making it relevant to our time. It’s not something that can be achieved easily, and Luhrmann should be commended for that.

Reviews are quite mixed on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes, and understandably so. The book’s been around for over 80 years now, so there’s bound to be many people with highly opinionated ideas of how this story should be told on the big screen – if it should even be told at all. You could listen to them, and decide not to watch this film. Or, you could take the chance and experience something magical, and interpret for yourself what this film means for the legacy of Fitzgerald, and of this remarkable book. And maybe even just have a good old time enjoying a well-made, entertaining cinematic experience too.

I’ve been waiting to watch this film for nearly two years now – ever since it was announced that Baz Luhrmann would be adapting this novel. I’d become familiar with Luhrmann’s style from Romeo + Juliet. His unique direction allows him to bring to life stories that are oft-plagued by the dense study of their eras. With Romeo + Juliet, he modernised the classic love story as a feud between two rival business families, adding guns and cars to the mix. And here, with Gatsby, the music, the visuals, the glamour, the lavishness and the decadent colours and sets transform the black-and-white words into a stunning portrayal of the classic Great American Novel. However, with the audacity to be different, to take existing, well-respected literature and just let yourself go, you’re undoubtedly setting yourself up for (very harsh) criticism. In that vain, I think this film won’t go down too well with some people. However, what can be gleaned from this is the willingness to accept another’s interpretation of this work. Literature by its very nature is open-ended, and up to the consumer of that literature to extract meaning. This film is just one man’s understanding of a very well written tale. And I thought he accomplished it with aplomb.