LA LA LAND Movie Review & Analysis

LA LA LAND is the story, in musical form, of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who wants to own a jazz club.  While there’s a romance between the two, it’s a deeper story about how goals and ambitions change over time and how certain decisions can alter the course of your life.

What’s key in this movie is that while you may have multiple paths in life and the course of things may change, it doesn’t mean the outcome is worse—it’s just different.  There’s a tendency for movies that show two different paths to make one the ideal but LA LA LAND doesn’t make that mistake.  It shows that happiness doesn’t mean forgetting all that has come before and that our history is what makes us who we are today.

LA LA LAND contrasts a vibrant, technicolor color palette with a more muted one to show the evolution of the characters and their story.  At the beginning, the characters all wear bright colors which seem to jump off the screen.  It feels very larger-than-life and passionate, since passion is at the beginning of any relationship.  As Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and lives evolve, the colors shift into browns and more muted tones.  A great example of the shift that you can watch for is the color of Mia’s bag.  At the beginning notice how she carries a bright, reddish-orange bag and then watch for when the color changes into a dark one.  It doesn’t mean the feelings or story is dark, but represents the maturity that comes with life.

Mia herself is the epitome of life, energy and growth.  In her first real interaction with Sebastian she wears a bright yellow dress with flowers on it. Later, after she moves in with Sebastian, there’s a scene with no fewer than four potted flowering plants in his previously empty apartment—and all appear in the same shot with Mia.  If you compare their apartments you see her vibrancy as well.  Her apartment is packed with people, color and things.  His is stark until she moves in and then slowly things start to change.  

Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film WHIPLASH won three Oscars, wrote and directed LA LA LAND.  He says he wanted to do a traditional musical in a contemporary way.  It does feel completely timeless and I found myself wondering about the time period before reminding myself that it was present day.  

LA LA LAND pays tribute to an older style of filmmaking in three distinct ways through the cinematography.  First, there are a lot of camera push-ins during which the camera moves closer to the subject, more than we normally see in modern filmmaking. 

Second, there are a lot of long shots without camera cuts.  It puts more pressure on the actors because good takes cannot be pieced together. 

Finally, the third element of stylized cinematography is the use of frequent Swish pans, which is when the camera movement is so fast that everything becomes a blur.   These aren’t styles that are used a lot today and create a distinctive period feel.

Interested in more analysis about LA LA LAND?  Wondering about the Fellini-esque elements and some of the more obscure locations used in the Los Angeles area?  For more about LA LA LAND, take a look below:

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ARRIVAL Movie Review & Analysis

This week I review ARRIVAL.  The movie stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited to help communicate with aliens who arrive in 12 cities around the world.  She’s joined by scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.  Forest Whitaker also stars.  Denis Villeneuve directs this Oscar-contender.

ARRIVAL is a fairly quiet film without a lot of fanfare that’s more reflective than action-packed.  The screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer who is known for movies such as FINAL DESTINATION 5 and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. ARRIVAL is a different type of movie entirely, though.  It’s mind-bending and self-reflective and contemplative in its themes and storyline.  The screenplay is well-written in that it doesn’t get in its own way with too much unnecessary dialogue.

The big theme here is time and the motif to represent it is the circle.  If you look at traditional interpretations of them, they represent wholeness, eternity and timelessness.  Louise tells us herself that the movie is about time and that these circles are no coincidence.  In the opening lines of the movie she says “I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”.  Circles are everywhere in this movie.  One of the first shots in the movie is of Louise’s hand with her gold wedding ring on it.  It’s a simple, unbroken band of continuity and time.  Circles are everywhere—the hallway in the hospital is curved like the side of a circle, the student tables in the hall where Louise lectures are curved facing her like a circle, the quilting on her jacket later in the movie looks like waves up close but from further away looks like giant embroidered circles.  Ian, the scientist Louise works with at the alien site in Montana, wears a watch with a large circular face.  The circular face stands out in particular during a scene when he looks at the alien transport vehicle with binoculars, themselves a set of circles.  The door to the alien ship opens every 18 hours—even the choice of 18 involves two stacked circles.

For more about the themes and symbolism in ARRIVAL, take a look below:

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INFERNO *Movie Review & Analysis*

This week I review INFERNO.  This is the third movie starring Tom Hanks as professor Robert Langdon, the character from the Dan Brown book series which includes THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS AND DEMONS.  There’s always a female sidekick and this time it’s Sienna, played by Felicity Jones who is probably best known for her Oscar-nominated role in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.  This time around, Robert Langdon is working to find the hiding place for a biological agent that will kill half of the world’s population.

On a basic level the movie was fine: the plot was clear and it was complex enough to be interesting without getting bogged down in too many details.  The music and acting were fine and the special effects were really good.  The biggest problem is that it’s the same movie as THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS AND DEMONS.  The book series is suffering from the same thing that the movie is and that’s that there are only so many ways to change up this theme of “professor decodes things on the run”.  In other franchises where you’re pretty much watching the same thing again and again, you get more complicated stunts or bigger explosions or intricate fight sequences.

For more about the movie, including the email address where you can email Robert Langdon directly (and get a reply) take a look at the video below:


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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN Review & Analysis

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is based on best-selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins. It’s about a divorced woman who likes watching the homes in her old neighborhood as she rides the daily train. When one of the women she watches disappears, she gets involved on a personal level.

The movie stars Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney and Lisa Kudrow. It’s directed by Tate Taylor (THE HELP).

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN does everything right from a technical standpoint. Everyone’s acting is fantastic and the cinematography is particularly wonderful with some beautiful and unique shots. So, by most accounts that should make it a good movie. It really depends on your definition of good movie, though, because what stood out as much as the great technical details was just how unpleasant every single person was in the film. There was not one sympathetic character and I felt an equal amount of distaste for everyone.

I couldn’t help but think, too, that Emily Blunt is starting to develop a career out of characters who may be intriguing but who aren’t pleasant to be around, all the way back to her star-making role in DEVIL WEARS PRADA and including her role in SUNSHINE CLEANING as well.

There were lots of interesting parallels between and connecting the main characters in the movie. It reminded me a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which I actually wrote a paper on in college talking about how the two strangers were connected in an X-shape, with each character “reaching out” to the other side. That’s how THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is also structured and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the first things on screen is an X drawn in the condensation on the window of a train that we then see Emily Blunt’s eye through. The theme of X is continued with an email written by Tom and played across the screen as Rachel walks through a train station. I don’t want to give away too many details for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but definitely suggest paying attention to them.

For more about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, take a look below:


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QUEEN OF KATWE Review & Analysis

QUEEN OF KATWE is based on the true story of a girl named Phiona from the slums of Uganda.  She learns to play chess and uses it as a means out of poverty. It stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother, David Oyelowo as her coach and introduces Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. It’s directed by Mira Nair.

The theme of this hero’s journey is one that spans cultures. While it’s an inspiring and interesting story about Phiona herself, the message translates to anyone. You don’t have to be a certain color or gender to connect with this story and the deeper messages that even the small can become big. Many of the words of wisdom come from Phiona’s chess coach who says things like: if you use your mind and follow your plans then you can find safe squares; losing does not mean you’re a failure it takes time and stamina is the key; and sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong, which is one of director Mira Nair’s recurring themes.

Mira Nair is a fantastic director and a lot of her work is about feeling out of place, which is the situation each of the three main characters are in. There’s Phiona, a young girl who learns about a life that she never ever knew existed. She struggles as she’s torn between world that she wants to be part of with the one that exists. Like the real Phiona, the film version’s Madina  Nalwanga also grew up in the slums of Uganda. This is her first film and she conveys such a subtle depth of emotion with her eyes that I was ready to hand her an Oscar. Her performance was utterly moving.

Lupita Nyong’o, plays her mother, and David Oyelowo, as her chess coach, were also amazing. One of the things I loved was that while this is the story of Phiona at first glance, the characters of her mother and Robert were treated equally. They each went through their own evolution and weren’t strictly relegated to cardboard supports. Too often there are supporting stories that can compliment the main one but which are never fully realized and these were. Having these three circle the same theme of self discovery made the film that much more successful.

The style, the locations and the saturation of color and sound make it feel like you can walk directly through the screen and into this world!

For more about QUEEN OF KATWE, take a look below:


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SULLY Review & Analysis

SULLY is based on the true story of a US Airways flight that did a controlled water landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.  The flight was piloted by Captain Sullenberger, affectionately known as Sully, played here by Everyman Tom Hanks.  It’s directed by Clint Eastwood and co-stars Aaron Eckhart.

A movie like this could have gone in two directions.  It easily could have become a bit of a sensationalistic disaster movie causing the audience to rethink ever boarding a plane without Sully at the helm.  Instead, it was handled more deftly and uniquely as the story of a man who was thrust into the spotlight for a single decision at the end of 42 years of flight experience.  The choice to follow the storyline in this way elevated the movie and turned it into nuanced filmmaking.  That said, there’s no doubt that this movie is solely and completely about Sully and his actions.  The bits of humanity that are injected into the passengers are the weakest point in the story.  They’re expected, right down to the mother with the baby on her lap.

The only spot that it disappointed me was Aaron Eckhart’s character, Sully’s co-pilot.  He doesn’t have a lot to say in the movie and while his acting is good, he’s more a living prop than anything else.  

Casting Tom Hanks was as expected as it was imperative.  There’s no other actor who plays Everyman as well as he does, almost to his detriment.  I believed every second of his performance, every grimace, every questioning look and every ounce of relief at hearing everyone survived.  But, it becomes difficult in separating the good acting from the actor himself.  Tom Hanks is so tied to his image and indeed his reputation of the kind Everyman that I didn’t quite known if I was watching Tom Hanks or if I was watching the most amazing performance ever. 

There’s a great scene of Tom Hanks’ Sully talking to his wife on the phone and questioning if he did the right thing in landing on the Hudson.  It’s shot with half of his face in shadow, a great bit of cinematography and direction showing exactly what he’s going through at that moment.  In fact, the entire movie is well done. 

For more about SULLY including eagle-eye details to watch for, take a look below:

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SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Review & Analysis

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU depicts the first date between President Barack Obama and his now-wife, Michelle. The roles are played to perfection by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, respectively. Regardless of political affiliation, this romance is a movie that won’t disappoint.

A romance is a romance and that’s the ultimate take-away from writer/director Richard Tanne‘s SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU.  The movie depicts President Barak Obama’s first date with his now-wife, Michelle.  Regardless of your political affiliation, this is a romance that won’t disappoint.  It’s well made and well acted.

One of the qualities I appreciated the most about SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is that there weren’t big moments added for dramatic tension.  A lot of times indie movies with real stories translate ‘real’ to ‘misery’.  Rather than going that route, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU provides an escapism movie threaded with meaning, themes of forgiveness, learning what you want from life, not judging, and striving for more even if you don’t know what that ‘more’ is at the moment.

Tika Sumpter stars as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barak Obama and it’s their chemistry that carries a film which is otherwise walking and talking.  As the movie unfolds, viewers get to enjoy how the pair get to know each other, prickle at each other and see the best in each other.  It’s truly like going along on a good first date.

For more about the film’s themes and eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:


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KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS succeeds in creating a story that feels Japanese while being written and helmed by Americans.  It’s mystical in a way that feels both possible and magical at the same time.  The choice to do this as a combination of claymation and digital animation fit the style and worked well.

This is a story of a boy who goes on a quest to find three pieces of samurai armor his father owned which will help him defeat the Moon King.  He’s accompanied by Monkey and Beetle.  Kubo himself possesses magic of his own when he plays his enchanted shamisen.  It stars the voice talents of Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei and Art Parkinson as Kubo.

While it was definitely very good, it was missing that final element to make it magical.

As someone who lived in Japan, I am always curious to see how the culture is addressed by American filmmakers.  For more about KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and the Japanese culture reflected in particular, take a look below:


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THE BFG Review & Analysis

Book-to-movie adaptations are tricky work.  What works in a book may not translate well to screen and that’s where Steven Spielberg‘s THE BFG stumbles.  Each individual element of the movie seems like it should work, from the two time Oscar winner production designer Rick Carter to last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Mark Rylance as the title character.  The music is beautiful as well.  However, bringing realistic-looking giants to life when they eat children is a tricky proposition since visuals like that take the movie squarely out of the “family friendly” camp.  THE BFG lacks the darker elements of the story, and that’s part of what makes it a bit dull.

The young girl who plays Sophie, Ruby Barnhill, doesn’t quite mesh with Mark Rylance‘s Big Friendly Giant.  Their cadence is different and at times they seem to talk at each other vs with each other.  The character of Sophie who worked well in the book comes off in the movie as a slightly unlikable know-it-all.

For an in-depth analysis of the themes in THE BFG, take a look below:

–>Direct link to the video footage:


When INDEPENDENCE DAY came out 20 years ago it was groundbreaking.  It was the first time we saw the White House get destroyed on film, along with a host of other International landmarks.  The effects were at the top of their class and the movie was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning in the Visual Effects category.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE picks up in real time 20 years later.  Roland Emmerich returns, helming this film as creator/writer/director with Dean Devlin partnering up again.  Although Will Smith did not return, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch are all back, joined by Liam Hemsworth and Singaporean actor Chin Han who was named by CNNGO (a subsidiary of CNN) as one of Asia’s 25 Best Actors.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is the type of movie where you get exactly what you expect.  It’s not plot driven and despite the actors’ fine pedigrees, no one will be winning any awards for their work.  However, it’s the quintessential popcorn movie where you go for two hours of mindless entertainment.  So often we look down on movies that seek to entertain, but it’s not a bad thing.  With busy lives and horrors in the news, a bit of fluff entertainment is exactly what hits the spot sometimes.

For more about INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, including some eagle-eye details to watch for and behind-the-scenes information about what it was like on set, take a look below…

–>Direct link to the video footage:

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