La La Land

La La Land

Here’s to the fools who dream.

Call me superficial, but I like to end each new batch of 1001 additions on a particularly good or significant note. That said, I knew that La La Land was gonna be my final 1001 film of this year before it even got added, and indeed before I’d even seen it. Having loved Whiplash to a ridiculous degree, I was more than eager for whatever director Damien Chazelle was gunning to do next, so I followed the pre-production of La La Land closely, and I figured that, even with it being a musical, I would enjoy it enough to want to pick it up on Blu-Ray anyways, so I even passed on initially seeing it in theaters. When I finally did pick it up, I tried to go into it with as little ceremony as I could, just in case the film actually let me down and didn’t meet the expectations that a film that had just tied the record for most Oscar nominations for a single film would generate. Well, I learned something that day, and here’s the best way I can put it into words: Sometimes, some films, even the critically beloved ones, just aren’t for everyone. La La Land is entertaining, a hell of a production, and certainly one of the best films of the past year. But it’s not the best, and that ended up being the period at the end of the sentence that was my experience with it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are Mia and Sebastian, two individuals living in Los Angeles with their own individual dreams of stardom and making things happen based on what the town can offer them. Being in a musical, the two naturally meet up on a few occasions and end up together… but ending up together doesn’t necessarily mean ending up together, especially when individual dreams are involved, and both Mia and Sebastian must try and come to terms with the inevitable clashing of their dream versions of making it in L.A. and the reality of being dreamers in a town that’s ultimately just another real-life town. For what it’s worth, almost everything involved in this production is the top of its respective game; from director Chazelle’s handling of the material, both dream and reality, to the Oscar-winning work with color and camera of Linus Sandgren, to the score and songs by Justin Hurwitz. And let’s absolutely not forget Gosling and Stone, both of which are very nearly note for note perfect, even if their performances in the song-and-dance aspects of the film aren’t exactly Astaire-Rogers level, but it’s enough to get you through the film; Stone’s rendition of the audition song in the third act being what very likely won her the Oscar. The one thing I will say, though, is that I don’t really know why City of Stars was picked out as the choicest song of the film, or why it won the Oscar for Original Song; aside from the actual melody of it, I didn’t really find it to be the centerpiece of the film the way the film so clearly wanted it to be, and from a quality standpoint, I would’ve put my weight behind Audition for Oscar recognition if I were one of the producers.

Here’s the thing, though, about this one: it’s good, it’s actually very good. But that’s it. And what’s more, it’s not the type of very good that compels you to want to watch it several times over, at least for me personally; I picked it up for home viewing and watched it the first time, and since then I actually haven’t had any desire to see it again, and I haven’t until just now to write notes for this review. Whereas Whiplash is endlessly watchable for me, and I still get every ounce of entertainment out of that one that I did the first time I saw it, La La Land is just… there, and I feel fairly bad about thinking that way about what was Chazelle’s passion project. I can see why people love this, and I can see why Oscar admired it as much as they did, and I might even agree with a lot of what’s been said about it, especially with the rating I’m choosing to give it. But, even with all that’s been said, that personal validation, that internal gong that certain films just strike within me, wasn’t hit by the efforts of La La Land. This is still a really good film, and who knows; you might get a lot more from it than I did. From all that I’ve seen, though, across the realm of cinema, and from all the cinematic knowledge that I’ve accumulated; to me, this isn’t the cinematic second-coming that it thinks it is.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

And that’s 2016’s additions in the books. Now then, I think I hear Best Picture calling my name once more.

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Jackie

Jackie

Let them see what they’ve done.

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie seemed a slightly incongruous addition when I first saw that it had been added; it didn’t seem like enough of a picture to warrant inclusion in the Book, as negative as that comes across. Having seen it now, I get the decision to pick this over other fare a lot more; it’s not just that Jackie is a fine film, but how it goes about telling its story is extremely unconventional, which must have of course been exceptionally appealing to the editors of the list. Now, one can certainly argue either for or against this indeed being a fine film, and I’m absolutely not going to be the one to settle that argument. But, for what it’s worth, while the point of the film may have been slightly hard to ascertain at first, the exceptional effort put into this by everyone involved is certainly worth making the argument for this film.

For those who are unaware or somehow unable to discern the film’s plot merely from the title, this is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy, specifically about her in the days directly following President Kennedy’s assassination, as told through an interview she gives a reporter much later in her family home. As befitting the structure of the film (having the reporter’s interview as a framing device), the film is very unorthodox with how it presents its content to us; the narrative skips through time, almost wantonly, as if the memories of Jackie herself are jumbled around in her head, trying to make sense of themselves, and the film is merely printing them out in whatever order they happen to come up. For whatever reason they had in presenting the film this way, it did make everything very effective; you get into the headspace of our lead quite easily, mostly thanks to the very slight disconnect between Mrs. Kennedy and the events she is remembering, a disconnect that permeates almost every aspect of this picture. There’s a lot, for instance, in portions of the film of Natalie Portman merely walking around in a fugue state, and indeed we are reminded a few times that, the reporter scenes aside, most of the film is in the days (or sometimes even hours) directly following the assassination. Really, the goal is to get us into the same mindset as Jackie in that timeframe, and in that, the film is largely a success, mostly thanks to Larrain’s steady hand in directing and Natalie Portman’s work in fully embodying the presidential widow. The score was also very interesting; strange and off-setting, making sure you are never in a comfortable place, much like Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination. Looking it up afterwards for myself and finding it was done by Mica Levi, who also provided the score for Under the Skin, merely has it all make even more sense.

What is probably going to be troubling to most of the people that take the time to watch Jackie, is to try and decipher what the point of it all ultimately is. Jackie the character goes through much of the film upset and ravaged, wondering and struggling to make sure that her late husband’s place in history is assured and as perfect as she knew him to be. This, I think, is only ancillary to the point of Jackie the film; this, as redundant as it is to say, is about Jackie the person, what her place in history will be, and how she will be remembered, either by her hand or by the hands of those that write of her. This is the point of the film; sure, it may not exactly be a point that most people will need to have gotten, either by watching this or not, but this was still the point of making it, of making it possible for others to see it if they choose to. It’s up to each potential viewer, and their own cinematic palettes, to weigh that choice for themselves.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Arrival

Arrival

So… what happens now?

I honestly don’t know what to say. I went into my viewing of Arrival only knowing just enough to know that I would be uncertain as to how to approach the film; I deliberately left most of the particulars unknown to me, because I’d known from what I’d read that the best way to see the film was knowing as little as possible. How could I have possibly known what this film was going to manage to do, how it somehow transcends linear storytelling and still manages to do it in a film that one watches from the beginning to the end? If it sounds like I’m unable to put into words what the experience of watching Arrival is like, that is precisely the case; I have personally not encountered a film that one must truly see for themselves like this in quite a long time, and I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I’ve had in watching it in this way for myself.

Amy Adams shows why she is one of the best in the business as linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is brought in by military colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make first contact with one of 12 alien crafts that have spontaneously appeared in 12 locations across the globe. As Louise and Ian try to make contact with the aliens inside and struggle with how to get the two species to understand each other’s languages, the nations surrounding the other crafts have their own potential conflicts with an alien intelligence to deal with, and it’s when agents of several nations end up crossing lines that Louise and Ian’s timetable is shortened, forcing everyone involved to try and crack the code before certain irrevocable actions are taken. As should be apparent by now, I’m being deliberately coy about the plot of Arrival, and really about the film in general; as I said in the opener, this is a film that demands one experience it for themselves. So what can I talk about? The stunning cinematography by Bradford Young? The beautiful score by Johann Johannsson? Denis Villeneuve’s assured and confident direction? Perhaps the script by Eric Heisserer, which I would happily read a book about how either he or the writer of the original novella he adapted this from came up with this story and managed to successfully write it? I could talk about any of these elements, some of which at great length. But I won’t. Again, I say; it simply must be experienced on your own.

What this film manages to accomplish in its short, almost-two-hour running time is nothing short of standard-shattering, and unfortunately, to try and explain why is to give away the film’s very essence, its gift to the cinematic audience. I try and think about it, try and put it into words, and it truly seems that my efforts in doing so almost seem to undermine what the film itself tries and succeeds in doing in terms of redefining the very language and linearity of cinema. This film could have been so much less than what it is and still succeeded as a damn good sci-fi, and that it doesn’t, that it not only manages to raise that bar for itself but still clear it with plenty of space to spare, makes me incomprehensibly grateful. This film is a boon, both to those that watch it and to cinema as a whole; it’s a monumentally rewarding experience, one that introduces a new way of thinking about storytelling and filmmaking, and that I honestly feel, at least to my fellow writers and filmmakers, makes us better for having seen and experienced it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow

People can convince themselves anything’s real if they want to.

This is my reaction to another horror film being added to the list, and thus my being forced to watch another horror film: Hoo boy. Another horror film to sit through. To be honest, such a reaction isn’t entirely fair to Under the Shadow, the newest horror film on the list; it hasn’t done anything to me personally to warrant an immediate dismissal. Still, it took me a bit longer than I would’ve preferred to actually get to the film, purely because of my general disdain for the horror genre, stemming from my participation in several no-budget horror productions in film school which turned me off the genre almost entirely. Thankfully, it’s films like Under the Shadow that exist to show me that, yes, horror can still be a viable genre of cinema; when they’re done right, of course, and Under the Shadow is absolutely a film done right.

Shideh is a mother to a single daughter, Dorsa, in Tehran circa 1980 or so, right after the Iranian Revolution; elements of which are still in the process of being ‘resolved’, hence the air raid sirens and Xs of tape covering the windows of the apartment she shares with her husband. At the beginning, her husband, a doctor, is called into service near the frontlines, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone with a handful of neighbors in the same building; this is right after Shideh is informed her own doctoral studies cannot continue due to political activities she undertook while in university years earlier. One of the neighbor families has recently taken in a cousin of theirs, a young boy, who shows concern for Dorsa and gives her a charm to ward off evil spirits called djinn, which are said to take personal belongings of humans so they can haunt them without impunity. Naturally, small items of both Dorsa and later Shideh start to go missing, Dorsa comes down with a fever, and both women start having odd and increasingly scary nightmares, and Shideh, skeptical at first, is slowly convinced that the stories of the djinn may not be as ethereal and fanciful a folklore as they’d been led to believe. What Under the Shadow really gets right about being a horror film, aside from the actual tension and mounting sense of dread that slowly overcomes the main characters and us the audience by proxy, is using the horror setting to juxtapose against real world elements; specifically the post-revolution Iran setting the film takes place in. What did end up surprising me, though, was how generally effective this was as a straight-up horror film, juxtaposition either included or not. Another aspect I really enjoyed was how certain things, almost throwaway lines or events in the film, were later brought up again in ways that underscored how disturbing and out-of-place the horror elements of the film were intruding upon the lives of the main characters; items go missing and are of little consequence until they show up later in the wrong place, actions taken by or imparted onto characters have no meaning until they later rear their head in the worst way and in the worst possible moment. It’s the little touches like these that really cement the universe of the film, while simultaneously upping the ante as to what is going on with the two leads and what they may or may not be up against. Also, heads up; the film, on Netflix at least, defaults to English dialogue, dubbed over the actors’ original Persian, which gets distracting very quickly, so you might want to switch the audio and turn on subtitles if you head there to watch this one.

I still don’t think I’m going to come around to horror completely; not as long as low-to-no-budget horror films continue to be churned out that are of absolutely no value to the cinematic community, something that I don’t think will literally ever stop happening. But, as I said in the opener, it’s nice to be reminded that horror can actually be good and effective, and Under the Shadow is definitely one of those films. To those who might have similar misgivings about venturing into this one as I did, you really needn’t worry; for me personally, I counted exactly one jump scare in Under the Shadow, and the rest of the film still managed to unnerve and keep me on the edge of my metaphorical seat, especially during the last act when things ramp up considerably to near-unbearable levels. This is yet another one that I initially wasn’t sure why it got added to the list, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad it was if only for getting me to actually watch it, because this is definitely worth watching.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)

How many lives is a man-cub worth?

With all the additions to the list this year, even with the innocuous ones, I don’t think I was more surprised by any one film being added more than this one. This past year’s version of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, is one of the latest in Disney’s newest fad of taking their older animated features and remaking them in live action, and it’s a fad that I’ve never been one to get behind, but that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, what with the box office returns for this one and the recent Beauty and the Beast being what they were. That said, this one does have one major thing going for it, and it was that one thing that I figured was more than likely why it got added to the list at all: the visual effects used to bring the animals and the jungle to life.

You probably know the story to this one already, but still: Mowgli is a “man-cub” found in his infancy by a panther, Bagheera, after the tiger Shere Khan killed his father (getting burned in the process by the adult man’s fiery torch, or “red flower”). Raised by the jungle’s wolf pack into his childhood, Mowgli’s life is upended when Shere Khan returns for him, and he is sent off by Bagheera to find his true place in the man village where he can be protected, all while other jungle creatures meet and try to waylay him for their own purposes. Now, the story for this one isn’t exactly that of Disney’s original version, so it might be a little confusing to fans of the original (especially, for instance, when the film decides to end its story and start rolling the credits), but this is still The Jungle Book, so you pretty much know what you’re gonna get with it. The standard Disney conventions are put to new and interesting ways, from the talking animals to the musical numbers, and it’s thanks to the film being a 3D, live-action version of the story that these conventions have some form of new life breathed into them. Still, the conventions are such for a reason, and that this version holds to them as rigorously as it does is probably why the film, visual effects aside, feels as unnecessary a remake as it does. The visual effects have drawn a lot of comparison to films like Life of Pi and Avatar, which this really does feel like a combination of those two films visually, but it is still in service to a story that doesn’t feel like enough time was put into it. Make no mistake, in contrast to my previous review, this is almost certainly a film to see to be wowed by the visual splendor and technical prowess on display, instead of one to watch for the narrative itself.

When I saw that this had been added to the list, I was surprised at first, but I chalked the addition up to the editors wanting representation for the film’s groundbreaking and Oscar-winning visual effects. Now that I’ve seen it, I feel my original assessment is a lot more solidified, in both positive and negative ways; this was absolutely added for the visual effects, but I can’t really find any other reason for this to be on there. Even with the slight modifications to the story, it didn’t seem enough to warrant another whole spot in the Book to me, and really, it was only by the barest of margins that I was kept entertained through the entire picture. Stunning visual effects, and some good voiceover work as well, but other than that, if you did skip this one when it came out last year, I guess I can’t entirely blame you.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I am a citizen; nothing more and nothing less.

As far as I know, the only Ken Loach film I’d seen before this one was Kes, so I didn’t have much of a handle on Loach as a director. Thus, in my usual bit of research into these films before I see them, I looked into Loach himself, who is apparently quite the political hotrod as a director in the U.K., which I hadn’t been aware of. Watching a film like I, Daniel Blake, however, this becomes readily apparent, as the film itself deals with the unemployment system in England and how all the red tape and bureaucracy dehumanize the regular working man instead of treating them like people and managing to help them. Seeing as I am not in the exact same situation as the Daniel Blake of the film, but understanding and empathizing with his circumstances, I was able to view this film from both angles; as someone who would be outraged at the treatment of Blake as the film puts across, while also being aware that this is a film that is deliberately trying to put this sort of thing across. That might not be Loach’s intention with his making this; he would likely rather that I be squarely in the former camp, but the specificity of the circumstances in the film unfortunately limits that possibility from happening, with me and with the general cinematic public as well. Even so, I, Daniel Blake manages to work as a pretty decent film, despite the limited range of the film’s genesis as a cinematic cattle-prod.

Daniel Blake is a hard-headed, decent-working man in northern England who’s just survived a heart attack, and wants nothing more than to get healthy again and go back to work. Being an average man in the system, however, he’s put through the bureaucratic runaround, seeing as one government agency says he’s fit to work and thus ineligible for employment assistance, and his doctor and physician are saying he’s not yet healthy enough to return to his job. It’s through his running around in the system that he happens to meet Katie, a young single mother just moved to the area who’s also stuck in the system trying to get a job, and the two end up befriending one another and trying to help each other get by, especially as Daniel’s case leads him toward appeal court through the same system that’s been treating him like a statistic or a number instead of as a human being. The first thing that becomes very apparent watching I, Daniel Blake is that this isn’t a film with the purpose of wowing you with how well-made a film it is; the technicals are enough to get by and get the story told, and little more than that. No, this is a film that has something to say, with well-constructed characters put into positions to get the narrative point across through their actions and what happens as a result of their actions. Chief among these assets is the main character himself, Daniel Blake, played by Dave Johns, who manages to keep Blake humane and relatable even and sometimes because of his short temper regarding his bureaucratic situation. Secondary in the constellation of characters Blake interacts with is Katie, who provides a sympathetic foil for Blake as well as a backup for his endeavors, which proves essential when the film gets into its endgame. Also, heads up on the accents in the film; it’s not nearly as indecipherable as Kes, but it’ll take a few minutes or so to get used to.

There’s really very little to be said about this film, which makes it of course a struggle for someone like me to try and write a review about it. If you can take to what this film says about its world and what the characters go through, it will be very affecting; if not, then it will only be mildly so, if that. That’s unfortunately all I’m able to scrounge up in regards to I, Daniel Blake, which is a bit of a shame since the film itself really wants to be a lot more than that, and the only reason it’s not is because of how specific its drive is towards what it wants to say. I’m actually a little surprised this managed to win the Palme d’Or, as stripped-down as it is, but I guess it just hit the right note with the jury that year. It hit a hard note with me as well, but again, as I am not essentially the same man as Daniel Blake, it didn’t hit that note as hard as it otherwise would’ve. And, to repeat a recurring statement with my reviews towards films like this, I’m not convinced this is really a must-see film, but (again) neither is it a poor watch should you decide to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Victoria

Victoria

“Are you scared?” “I’m never scared.”

Victoria seemed to be one of this year’s incongruous additions to the list, just unknown enough to make me wonder why the editors decided to add it… Then I looked up the film, and found out the gimmick, and it suddenly made sense. Victoria is yet another single-take film, where the whole film was literally shot in one take, with no cuts or video editing at all; a feat that would be impressive and novel had it not been done by other films before, including one that already made the list. So, why is the single-take film that is Victoria special enough to warrant another spot in the Book? I watched it with this question in mind, and the more the film went on, the more I began to wonder if my question would actually get answered.

The film starts out finding the titular Victoria, a Madrid-native uprooted and living in Germany, partying in a club in Berlin, in the early morning night-time hours. After leaving, she runs into a group of four guys, which includes Sonne, who takes a liking to Victoria and she to him. After they spend some time cavorting around Berlin, the group leaves Victoria to open the cafe where she works, implying that there is something the group has to do. Shortly after, however, they return, as one of their group is too drunk to help the others, and reluctantly, Sonne asks Victoria to step in and be the fourth in their group for whatever it is they have to do, and she agrees, sparking a wild and unforeseen series of events when the group finds out their mission. Obviously, the big selling point to this is the fact that the whole film is a single, unbroken take, and it is extremely impressive that the film manages to be so given everything that happens in the plot. But what’s probably most surprising is that the film still manages to tell a complete story even with its gimmick, though the point of the story might’ve been slightly lost the more the film decides to go on, as far as the ending is concerned in my opinion. Despite a large percentage of the dialogue being in English, there is still quite a bit of German spoken as well, and the version I watched did not have any subtitles for the German spoken in the film, which I was a little perturbed about in the beginning. The more the film went on, though, I actually started to appreciate the lack of translation; it got me more into the mindset of Victoria herself, as she spoke very little German herself and thus couldn’t understand the others when they spoke it, so we as the viewer can more readily put ourselves in her shoes as she goes through this wild experience for herself. One can always look up the full synopsis on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in the blanks as necessary, in case one decides to see this the same way I did.

Don’t get me wrong; Victoria is quite the experience, and that it is a one-take film certainly heightens the experience. But is this an experience one must have before they die? As I said in the opener, I viewed the film with this in mind, and even with the single-take nature of it, by the end I wasn’t convinced that it really needed to have been added to the list. I even reviewed the Book’s blurb about this one, which went on about how the eponymous character starts the film out one way and ends it entirely transformed, as if this big, massive character arc had taken place, and I was a little stymied as to how they arrived at such a conclusion, given how the film (to me) was largely about the actions performed and not really about why they were performed or what happens to the characters as a result of them. Mild spoilers aside, the drop-off nature of the ending in particular seemed to signal to me that the filmmakers, the more the film went on, were more and more amazed that the single take was actually working and less invested in what they actually wanted to say with the film in question instead of just getting the take on film and clapping their hands afterwards. This pretty much makes Victoria amount to a heck of a technical achievement, and little more than that. Still, it was watchable, if a little long in running time, so your mileage may vary with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10