Friday, January 20, 2017

Sing (2016)

Given its fairly fresh presence in Hollywood, it's hard to put a label on Illumination Entertainment as an animation picture studio. I mean, the Despicable Me franchise propelled them swiftly and they seem to have the ambitions to make distinct fare. I can see what they are trying to do, but who are they trying to be? Their movies have a farcical, smart-alecky, rapid-fire energy akin to Dreamworks, yet possess a genuine warmth and delicacy, more akin to Disney. It's hard to decipher whether they are trying to bridge the divide or inhabit two sensibilities simultaneously. 

This lack of a concrete, penetrable identity, from my perspective, has thus far been both limiting and liberating. They haven't that knockout film yet, but I believe they will. I don't know where they are going, but they are certainly on the right track. The Lorax, while bearing some substantial narrative flaws, came the closest to representing Seuss' style, visually. The Secret Life of Pets, while met with eye-rolling criticism, was such a lively concoction of humor, animation, characters, and voice acting that The Angry Birds Movie is still seething with envy. And their most recent film with the most humble, understated premise they have conceived is their best non-Despicable Me effort to date: Sing.

The film begins by introducing us to Buster Moon, a koala whose love of the theater eventually led him to open his own theater. However, he has produced nothing but flops and has found himself in considerable financial ruin. With the theater on the verge of shutting down, he has one more idea to save it: to host a singing competition with a grand prize, which later becomes $100,000. The contenders are Rosita, a pig who carries the hefty responsibility of caring for her negligent husband and their twenty-five piglets, Mike, an arrogant, self-absorbed, street-performing mouse, Gunter, a flamboyant, dancing pig, who becomes paired up with Rosita, Johnny, a gorilla who is involved with mobsters, Ash, a porcupine who struggles to escape her boyfriend's shadow and upkeep her own artistry, and Meena, an elephant with oft-debilitating stage fright. As the contestants battle their own struggles, Buster struggles to come through with the prize money, as everyone works to put together a dazzling show.

If there is one pervading vice I find in Illumination Entertainment, particularly their two recent films, it's their timidness and lack of zest in their beginnings. The first fifteen minutes of this film is slow, somewhat off-putting, not very funny, and it basically lays out the arcs of all of the characters, making it fiercely predictable. It doesn't spoil anything, but if you have any predictions of these characters within the first fifteen minutes, *spoiler,* you're probably correct.

Conversely, however, one of the their greatest strengths is crafting characters that are simple yet convivial. The character of Ms. Crawly, Buster's iguana assistant, is actually rather pointless and trite (sorry, director/writer Garth Jennings, who voiced Ms. Crawly). Most of her jokes are moribund, one-note, and go nowhere. However, Mike the mouse, voiced by Seth McFarlane, is the funniest of the contestants. He's so self-centered that he begins living the high-life before he even has the money to support it. Rosita, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, is such a lovable, gentle sweetheart of a character, but is more vivacious than the typical excessively loving, doting or overworked mother archetype.

Jennings is also shrewd enough to seamlessly, surreptitiously use some characters to make realistic points about artistry and performance. Rosita can sing, but has very little stage presence and is paired up with Gunther, voiced by Nick Kroll. Johnny, voiced by Taron Egerton, can sing, but he is also told to play piano for the show. These are indications that, yes, sometimes more is expected of you than your accustomed talent, which is a rather atypical message in a children's film. However, Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johannson, wants to perform original music and she crafts an original song that she is allowed to perform, which also sends the message that sometimes your mere abilities are enough. That dichotomy is existent in the entertainment business, but it is so rarely seen or have been expressed in movies and it's one that is very important to bring to the forefront and be made aware of.

Jennings has not only given us nicely presented characters, but paired them with voice actors that bolster their likability. Witherspoon, Johannson, Egerton, and Kroll do immense justice to their characters. Tori Kelly clearly has more comfort as a forceful, boisterous singer than acting as shy and modest, but for the role, she plays it convincingly. Matthew McConaughey has the naive optimism, the gentle charisma, and the blissful spirit that enlivens Buster Moon. I suppose it's fitting that McConaughey's most intriguing, bustling, and productive period involves two animated movies in 2016; a field previously unventured by him that he knocks out of the park both times.

One aspect that is absolute with Illumination Entertainment is their animation. While Secret Life of Pets cloaked itself in gorgeous, autumnal hues evocative of New York, Sing's climate in a city unique unto itself and it's simple, yet even more fetching. The animation is magnificent, displaying poppy, luminous, vibrant colors. A sequence involving the flooding of the theater is as enthralling, enrapturing, thrilling, and intricate as a marvelous action sequence. As expected for a film called Sing, the film features a wide array of musical numbers. What's rather surprising is how all-encompassing the music is. It doesn't tread the avant-garde waters, but it also utilizes more musical selections than the simple Top 40 playlist often present in kids' films. The music is used straightforwardly and humorously, as showcased specifically in the climactic competition that is all parts bizarre, riotous, lively, and warranting a shimmy in your seat.

Initially, I wasn't sure that this movie was going to resonate securely. I knew it would succeed financially, but I figured it would be just...cute. During its start, I thought that it would have been more interesting if the script had more of a bite or a satirical slant. However, this film is not just cute. It's entertaining, moreso than expected. It's not a grand slam, but in these progressive, boundary-pushing times of animation, sometimes just a simple, effective bit of entertainment is all you need. Sing, the last animated film released in 2016, is guaranteed to leave a smile.

RATING: An enthusiastic three stars out of four

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land (2016)

It is quite a feat when a musical film becomes universal. Seeing how the mere conceit and style of musicals are so polarizing, capturing the complete, consensual consciousness is practically an anomaly. A select few that come to my head are Singin' In the Rain, Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Grease, and a plethora of Disney movies. I assume that our current generation's obsession with delving into retro sounds and renewing archaic trends coupled with our desperate need for some positivity after a drudging burden of year we had to suffer through (Oh God, inauguration day's approaching us) has equated the enormous affection for Damien Chazelle's newest cinematic incorporation of music. If Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was his debut film and Whiplash was his full-on breakthrough into the public zeitgeist, then La La Land is the missing, albeit fully, unequivocally realized, piece for his cinematic trifecta.

The intro, while providing us with only a glimpse of what to expect thematically, sets the tone impeccably. An upbeat opening number uses music to offset the jarring, galvanic sounds of road rage to give us a peek of what certain strangers' "la la lands" seem to encompass. When it seems to come across as simplistic, we are then introduced to Mia. She's an aspiring, but down-on-her-luck actress, who works as a barista to make ends' meet. After a disastrous night, she meets (or, should I say, reunites with) a jazz pianist, Sebastian. He's obsessed with jazz and plans to open a jazz club named in honor of his idol, Charlie Parker, but he's failing to make ends' meet and an incident at a restaurant has just cost him his job. While, at first, they do not respond to each other kindly, they soon begin a winning romance, as they both become invested in each others' aspirations.

I must concede that this film, initially, caught me off-guard. At the start, I minorly struggled to discover Chazelle's intention. I mean, it seemed very straightforward, but I felt that I was missing something. It's set in modern day, so it clearly wasn't trying to be set in the 40s, but moreso trying to be an homage. However, the pieces still came across as heterogeneous. Part of it may have been that, at first, the story didn't compel me enough. Adequately, mind you, but not excessively. It seemed adorably, infectiously genial, but that was about it.

However, after the first third, I cracked the code promptly. This movie actually isn't a straightforward musical. It definitely has musical elements and I am not denying that it's a musical film. I'm saying that there is a bit more under the surface. It is more an embrace of nostalgia, not just conceptually, but thematically. Mia states that her love of acting stemmed from memories of watching vintage movies with her mother, specifically Casablanca, Notorious, and Bringing Up Baby. She seems to be more concentrated on the current times, which is where some of the anguish in her character can blossom from. She's so fixated on her current situation that, occasionally, she seems to let the innocence and purity of those memories evade her.

That can be said with Sebastian. He is impassioned about reviving jazz. He is clearly distraught and shaken about the overall disintegration of jazz and he hopes that his club can renew an interest in jazz. At the forefront, all the odds are against him, but his focus, determination, and his mere fascination of jazz cause him to turn a blind eye to those obstacles and he keeps pursuing his ultimate goal. Nostalgia is their "la la land," if you will. It's not a warning about being too heavily blindsided by it. It's not even a comment on the tragedy of possessing exorbitant amounts of nostalgic feelings. It's an encouragement to stay attuned to your nostalgic tendencies. All of it comes full circle during the final ten minutes, stating that even the most minute amounts of nostalgia can elevate and transcend wistful thoughts and cursed memories into those of effusive, unparalled joy. It's an audacious yet straightforward set of convictions Chazelle provides us.

Chazelle has the job title of filmmaker, the sensibilities of a musician, and the acumen and savvy forte to amalgamate the two fields. The musical numbers here are extraordinary. The songs themselves, while cute and upbeat, are best experienced with these visuals. Chazelle's knack for mise-en-scene is absolutely astonishing. The colors, the cinematography, the locations, the lighting; all of it seems like an ordinate painting coming to life. Chazelle recruited his Harvard classmate, Justin Hurwitz, to orchestrate the film and Mandy Moore (not the singer) to choreograph it and, by god, does he also have a knack for selection a top-tier crew. Hurwitz's orchestrations are marvelous, completely immersing himself into the spirit and context of this film, while Moore delivers some of the most taut, controlled, and lushest choreography I have seen on film in years. The Planetarium number is, quite fittingly, beautiful in an interplanetary way and the final music number, while not possessing the aggression and fury of the final drum solo from Whiplash, still stands alone as an exquisite, lovely, expressive, and dazzling musical piece. Additionally, the fact that he made Ryan Gosling look like a professional piano player is an achievement unto itself, although...he still could have used some Auto-Tune.

 Speaking of which, the performances are magnificent. Sure, John Legend is basically disposable, acting in the same vein of Aloe Blacc from Get On Up (seriously, y'all, don't quit your day jobs), but Ryan Gosling is absolutely winning, completely diving into Sebastian's obsessive, vigorous, passionate demeanor, sharply acting as the perfect male foil that was common in rom-coms of the 40s. However, the star of the film truly is Emma Stone as Mia. Stone has had many forays with characters that are both forthright yet fragile. This performance may just be at the zenith of that, possessing a biting wit, an inner facade willing to be exposed naked and raw, a warm smile, a delicate singing voice, and, above all, a fixated, intent-laden, transfixing, nuanced stare. Each and every time she delivers her protracted stare, it's utterly haunting and hypnotic. Chazelle's a master of dynamism and vibrancy, as opposed to nuance, but Stone gives him some credibility in that department.

Leave it to Damien Chazelle for making this film his blockbuster: a musical film that operates viscerally and cerebrally. It may not be a four-star classic, in my opinion, and I doubt it's going to spark a stark revival of movie musicals, but it's refreshing that one of the last films of 2016 can act not only as a therapeutic outlet for those who suffered through 2016, but also as a film that can enliven the spirits in any year. Given who we have to laboriously witness lead our country for the next four years...I can safely say that a "la la land" is exactly what we all need right now. A four-year vacation sounds just fine to me.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four