Sometimes temperatures can deal in extremes (freeze your ass off, sweat into extinction, etc.), and life as a film critic can often be the same way. The best movie you’ve seen all year can immediately be followed up by the worst. Sometimes it’s a little more consistent (as in mediocrity stacking up on mediocrity) but you have to be prepared for any quality curveball. Because I know you, the reader, is smart, you’ve probably already figured out what happened when I did an all-day sit-in at the Harkins Scottsdale 101 theater. 

    It was also a night where I got betrayed up the ass like few men ever will (don’t think about that image please), but you’ll figure out what it was later. ON TO THE MOVIES!

 

La La Land

 

    I loved this film. I loved every perfect inch of every shot that permeated my screen. La La Land is not just a classy tribute to the old school musical, it’s a fabulous and realistic testament to the benefits and heartbreak that comes with following your dreams. Maybe it just hit me on a deeper level than most, but I believe this is the best picture of the year. It’s warm and glowing, and who cares if it occasionally gets too cute? Just let it take you. 

    Despite the obvious classic influences on display here, you’d be surprised to learn this takes place in modern-day LA. Making Smog City look vibrant and incredible is the first feat this film accomplishes. The second is in how it breaks your heart. 

    But first, it builds you up with music. Calling the musical numbers merely inspired does them a disservice. They’re beautiful accomplishments that both evoke the days of Gene Kelly while standing on their own.  There’s an opening number set on a crowded LA highway (“Another Day of Sun”), an eye-opening tango in the stars (“Planetarium”) or a confessional doubling as an audition (the aptly titled “Audition” [The Fools Who Dream]). The greatest traits a musician can have are passion and intensity, and every number in here has both of them

    Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has a passion for old school jazz that makes him out of date. He rants about how the world doesn’t appreciate him and gets paid doing poor jazz renditions of Christmas music. It’s while doing one of these shows that he meets Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who is losing faith in her dream.

    They both become much more inspired in each other’s presence. Their connection is so immediate that it seems magical. It helps when you have obvious chemistry from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third collaboration after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). But external forces, namely the almighty dollar, start to get in their way. Sebastian’s insistence on jazz in the tradition of Miles Davis doesn’t get appreciation in hip LA, while Mia toils away auditions to no avail.

    This is where the divide begins. Sebastian encourages Mia to write her own one-woman play, while he goes and joins a jazz-pop band with a fellow musician (John Legend). That decision makes nobody happy. He toils away making money at a job he hates while she struggles with the distance being apart of their relationship. 

    Both artists must wind up living a lonely life despite being together, and the moment where they find out (an extended conversation over dinner) is fascinating. What was most impressive was how La La Land worked just as well as a straight drama than a musical. The music also isn’t always of the burst-out-into-song type, there’s a lot of instrumental moments that are even more impressive.

    Gosling’s performance is an impressive mix of great musicianship and understated acting. But he can’t still this picture from Stone. She mines every bit of love, hate, fear, anger, disappointment, heartbreak and triumph into her sensitive face in what deserves to win an Oscar. 

    Where she really breaks your heart is in the end. Without spoiling it, I’ll just say that La La Land will break your heart in a way you didn’t think was possible. The final set piece (“Epilogue”) acts as the live action equivalent of the first scene in Up. It taps into the true tragedy of love, which is not the kind that didn’t work out, but rather the one that could’ve had circumstances been different. It’s a heartbreak that quietly reveals itself. Watching it made me applaud as my eyes welled up. 

    I wasn’t originally planning on seeing this yesterday, but did so after I missed an initial showing of Collateral Beauty (more on that later). Doing that was a blessing in disguise. Like any inspiration for a good song, the beauty hit me when I wasn’t expecting it.

 

Collateral Beauty 

    I would like to end what has been a depressing year with a fact that will make you question your faith in humanity: somebody got paid to write this crap. Collateral Beauty was so bad it almost killed the ecstasy I was feeling post-La La Land. This is a confused picture that takes some of the nastiest and worst twists I can imagine (even more so than Passengers, which oh boy will we get to later).

    Howard Inlet (a terminally sad Will Smith) watched his daughter die a few years ago, and  now basically makes a big sad face wherever he goes. That’s unfortunate (although the movie can’t stop showing it, which is obnoxious), but the problem is that Howard is a board member for a large tech company, and his conduct is alienating business partners. So his three co-workers (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena) concoct a plan. A selfish, horrible, mean plan that nobody that’s not a sociopath would endorse.

    You see, Howard post-daughter-death is so depressed that he could probably be called mentally ill. He sits in his dilapidated apartment for hours and rides his bike in the middle of traffic. He writes letters to Time, Love and Death, berating them for destroying his life.  Clearly he’s not the kind of guy to be having his head screwed with.

    Except his co-workers think that’s actually pretty swell. They pay three actors (Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Helen Mirren) to pretend to be Time, Love and Death and talk to him. A private investigator (Ann Dowd) then films it, and digitally removes the actors so said footage can be used to prove Howard insane for talking to people that aren’t there.

    THAT IS DISGUSTING. I’m sorry for using all caps like a 14-year-old girl, but it’s true. This makes me hate everyone in this film. Pena’s character winds up dying of cancer, and I still didn’t feel sorry for him after seeing him sign off to this (I don’t care if he’s trying to provide for his family). 

    That ethical problem overshadows what technically is still a pretty poor film. The acting is okay, but the dialogue is wooden and too cute, while the emotions are laid on way too thick. Others have compared this to a Hallmark film, but I think that’s a disservice to a fine greeting card service that makes easy-going pictures. 

    Never mind the fact that those paper-thin characters at least serve an easy story line as they go direct-to-TV. I was struggling to really understand what the purpose of this movie was. A  bunch of businessmen learn a lesson while playing a cruel joke on their friend. A drama about a man dealing with mental illness? A not-funny comedy about out of work actors doing something terrible to have money? This movie is only for people that like watching suffering in the name of Oscars.

    Speaking of wanting an Oscar, Will Smith cries with the best of them but can’t do anything with a horrible script. All that emoting is in the service of poor plot points and another terrible twist. 

    Dare you want to know what the second horrible twist is reader? Well throughout the mental torture by his friends, Smith visits a sensitive grief counselor (Naomie Harris) who also lost a daughter at a young age. The two bond and she gives a spiel about how we’re all connected blah blah blah. Despite my lack of evident enthusiasm, I can admit it’s a decent sub-plot, which makes what the movie does with it even worse.

    You see, Smith goes to her house, where he finds something odd. The daughter she lost…also died at a young age from a disease…and that caused her husband to leave because he was too sad. Yes, the two were once married. 

    It’s at this point that Collateral Beatuy sticks the gun in its mouth and pulls the trigger. We learn that one of the actors was with Harris’ character the night her son died, espousing some stuff about we’re all connected. It’s a would-be cute moment that just made me face palm.

    Don’t see this movie. The only emotion it tries to extract is tears, when it should have felt some shame for making a poor movie about teasing the mentally ill. I thought Will Smith Oscar Bait couldn’t get any worse than the blah procedural Concussion. As with most things in 2016, I learned it can only get worse.

 

Passengers

    The Homestead II is a beautiful planet, but the ride to it has gotten a little bumpy. As a result, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 30 years before he was supposed to on a luxurious ship. He tries to go back to sleep, but his pod broke. So now he’s stuck on a ship with a lot of things to do and even more time to do them.

    It’s sounds great at first; he plays video games, basketball, gets free food and doesn’t have to deal with anybody. But loneliness, one of the worst feelings a human can have, creeps in, and that turns into depression over knowing he will die before anybody else wakes up. Preston considers suicide, but stops after seeing a beautiful woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) sleeping in her pod. 

    Watching videos of her speak makes him fall in love, one of the best feelings a human can have, but what can he do about it? If you answered something arguably morally reprehensible and called in the movie as “murder”, you’re correct!

    Preston wakes her up. He guarantees that she will not live to see the new planet, which is to say the second meanest thing I saw all day (the first was when my mother jacked up my rent for no reason at all and proceeded to call me a disappointment, yay family). It doesn’t exactly make Jim endearing, but I wasn’t as outraged by it as other commentators were. Loneliness can cause people to do unfortunate things, and at least there’s a moral dilemma that makes this movie something more than watching hot people have sex.

    The problem is that the film doesn’t know what to do with it. At first Aurora’s “where are we?” act is played as cute (and we watch the ship is explained to us for a second time in thirty minutes), then Jim’s decision is forgotten about as they fall in love, then it’s revealed again because it feels like screenwriter Jon Spathis needed their relationship to have a bump.

    When Aurora finds out, Passengers doesn’t just enjoy the twist, it revels in it like a guy laughing at his own joke. Problem is just like that schmuck, it gets old. The film spends a little too much time obsessing over What Jim Did, to the point where it should’ve just been re-named What Jim Did. Well Lawrence spends an absurd amount of time staying mad over What Jim Did, the entire ship starts falling apart. A brief appearance by a terminally ill captain (Laurence Fishburne) provides a lot of explanation as the ship keeps falling apart. In other words, it’s pointless exposition.

    There’s eventually action and a sacrifice from both Jim and Aurora (including a female version that harkens back to What Jim Did), but I still can’t get over the squandering of a moral dilemma. You see, I say they should’ve renamed this film, but that’s not as much of a joke as you’d think. Passengers is far more interesting when it looks into the moral consequences of its situation (even if it makes the protagonist look like a scumbag) than when it devolves into a generic sci-fi love story.

    Let’s put it this way; there’s a moment after Aurora learns What Jim Did where she ambushes him in bed and beats the crap out of him. It’s so bizarre and anti-love story that it’s engaging. I wanted to see an odd sci-fi movie about moral consequences, and instead was treated to a meh picture that strolled along while saying nothing of importance in the end. 

    That’s not to say there’s nothing good here. Lawrence and Pratt both have solid chemistry, even if they go over-dramatic in their acting at times. The initial tour of the spaceship is thrilling, to the point where I might’ve just enjoyed two hours of watching Preston have fun in it.

    There’s a lot of merit to this picture (which gestated around Hollywood for years), but it needed one last re-write. If it was gonna commit to being a moral drama, than stay one. If it wanted to be a romantic space epic, then have both characters meet spontaneously rather than in an odd manner. Otherwise, it’ll be stuck in limbo like neutral like my post-grad butt.

Published by Jagger Czajka