Tag Archives: Film

Mountainfilm travel-study gearing up for another round

In the week leading up to and including Memorial Day weekend, Winona State University’s film studies department will be hosting a travel-study in which students are given an opportunity to visit Telluride, Colorado, and experience the annual Mountainfilm Film Festival.

Not to be confused with the town’s other film festival, the aptly-named Telluride Film Festival, Mountainfilm is documentary-based, curating nonfiction stories that explore topics like the environment, culture, recreation, political and social justice issues and more.

This will be the second year in a row for the travel-study.

The students and professor of the 2018 travel-study to Telluride pose in the town [Photo supplied by J Paul Johnson]
English and film studies professor J Paul Johnson, who is co-leading the travel-study with former director of the Frozen River Film Festival Crystal Hegge, said he hopes students will learn from the festival and the course.

Johnson said a festival like Mountainfilm provides attendees with a chance to see a breadth of career opportunities.

“Novice-level understanding of film is typically predicated on people being aware of … somebody who’s hitting the headlines with big breakout blockbuster films …,” Johnson said. “What many people don’t understand … is that there are thousands and thousands of jobs in this industry at all levels …”

According to Johnson, Mountainfilm teaches people that film jobs burrow deeper than what is displayed on a teaser poster.

“There are people who are deeply invested in and working hard at the production of films,” Johnson said, listing grips, gaffers and sound technicians as examples, while also adding there are jobs in filmmaking that do not “necessarily involve being the director of ‘Avengers: Endgame’ or ‘Black Panther.’”

Another important concept students learn is even the best in the industry start at the bottom.

This concept was amplified during the 2018 travel-study to Mountainfilm when students had a chance-meeting with Barry Jenkins, director of the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture “Moonlight.”

Johnson said Jenkins, like all students of film, started at the bottom and worked his way up.

“He remembered very well being at the start of his career,” Johnson said. “He remembered getting to go to a film festival for the first time, getting to meet a few directors, going up to a couple of others, tapping them on the shoulder, asking if he could have a minute of their time. He was superbly gracious with students and talking about that.”

Johnson said he believes those who attended the 2018 travel-study returned with a greater appreciation for filmmaking.

“I guarantee students came back awed … by that experience and really motivated by it,” Johnson said. “I think if you talk to any of them who went there last year, I’m pretty confident that that is what they’ll say.”

Film student Brynn Artley, a sophomore who took the travel-study in 2018, agreed with Johnson.

“I had a ton of fun, highly recommend the trip,” Artley said. “We saw a ton of different films in the span of three or four days. We wrote up reviews, we made blogs about it. It was just a lot of fun.”

While any student can register for the course, Johnson said film majors and minors are ultimately given precedence over others.

“We have a built-in selection system, in that it requires a 2.5 GPA,” Johnson said. “We do give priority to declared film studies majors and minors.”

Johnson added a vetting process would only take place if the course had more students than necessary.

Twelve are enrolled.

“We rank and evaluate applicants if we have more than 20,” Johnson said. “I would not at all be displeased if we had so many people wishing to go on this program that we had to make those kinds of decisions. That would be a good problem to have. But right now … I’m pretty comfortable with where we’re at.”

A caveat of the travel-study is the price.

Despite her taking the travel-study this year, Brittany Bluhm, a senior double majoring in English writing and film studies, discussed her past financial constraints and how they kept her from taking the course and attending the festival last year.

“I was hung up on rent and a lot of medical bills,” Bluhm said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way I can come up with $500 (the confirmation deposit) to stash toward the trip.’”

Senior Brittany Bluhm prepares for her first visit to Telluride by reading about the town

According to the brochure for 2020’s travel-study to Telluride, the cost fluctuates around $3,000, which includes tuition and student fees for the three credits linked to the program, as well as roundtrip airfare, transportation during the program, lodging, breakfasts and dinners, admission and event fees for all educational activities and the Study Abroad administrative fee.

The price is discounted, as well, as Bluhm said students taking the course will be volunteering with film screenings and other activities.

While she was unable to go last year, Bluhm said she understood the reasoning for the price.

“I think, because our film program is relatively new, I can understand why it’s maybe a little bit more expensive,” Bluhm said. “I anticipate the school will contribute more in the future as long as this trip keeps on going.”

According to Johnson, while more people would logically bring the price down, that would also mean jeopardizing the level of attention he is able to give in his instruction for the course.

“The price—the bottom line for the trip—would go down if we had 20 people instead of 12,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to having 16 students or even 20 as the cap … but it would be a different experience for me, a more complex one, and I don’t know if my students would get the individual attention that I know they will get with 12.”

Johnson said the price of the travel-study is lower than other travel-studies offered by the school.

“Any travel-study is an expense,” Johnson said. “Our travel-study to Mountainfilm is about half the expense or less than any of the international studies … Normally to travel abroad, earn three credits, over a period of one to two weeks, it is going to set a student back probably about $6,000. The price for our students, including the tuition, air travel, lodging, festival expenses, etcetera, is about $2,600.”

Johnson said he and co-leader Hegge do everything they can to keep the expenses as minimal as possible.

“That’s why, for instance, I cook,” Johnson said. “Because it’s a lot cheaper than having people eat-out in what is kind of a Tony-resort town where prices for that kind of thing are expensive.”

Cost aside, Johnson said he was satisfied with last year’s study and said he hopes this year’s is a repeat.

“There’s not really anything that we aim to do differently this coming year than we did last year,” Johnson said. “We just hope to replicate what we’ve done. It is a really nice experience for students to be able to do this … We have a really good partnership with Mountainfilm, and it’s a great destination for people to be at.”

“Resilience & Resistance: The Films of Spike Lee”

With Black History Month underway, Winona State University’s Film Studies will be partnering with the Department of Inclusion and Diversity to sponsor a film series showcasing select films by filmmaker Spike Lee.

The series, titled “Resilience & Resistance: The Films of Spike Lee,” begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, with the Academy Award-nominated feature for Best Picture and Best Director “BlacKkKlansman”.

Winona State English and film professor J Paul Johnson, whose course “Directors/Stars: Spike Lee” will be curating the series, commented on the reasoning behind choosing specifically Lee for a film series.

Professor J Paul Johnson helped jumpstart and will be overseeing the series throughout its duration.

“We want to celebrate Black History Month by looking at the career and accomplishments of one of the most celebrated, important and influential of all African American filmmakers across the 20th and 21st centuries,” Johnson said. “(Lee’s) work is especially timely given the success of ‘BlacKkKlansman.”

The films selected in addition to “BlacKkKlansman”—“Four Little Girls,” “Crooklyn,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Inside Man”—are, as Johnson describes, meant to showcase the range of Lee’s career, spanning from his political works like “BlacKkKlansman” and “Do the Right Thing,” to his exercise in mainstream thriller filmmaking with “Inside Man.”

“Lee really has a strong body of work,” Johnson said. “And that’s something that can hold up a whole film series.”

Talks for the series began shortly after the hiring of Inclusion and Diversity director Jonathan Locust, who Johnson was interested in partnering on programming for the school upon meeting him.

Regarding his thoughts on the series, Locust expressed excitement at the prospect of Lee being the subject matter of an entire film series.

“Spike Lee (is) one of my favorite directors, he’s also produced some of my favorite movies I grew up with,” Locust said.

Locust expressed excitement in regards to the partnership between Inclusion and Diversity and Film Studies.

“Finding out there was a class being taught (on Lee), and being asked to collaborate, it just made sense,” Locust said. “These are the types of things that Inclusion and Diversity wants to be involved in.”

Locust said the range of the films selected will help identify with a diverse audience.

“No matter who you are, you should be able to find something,” Locust said. “Even though the films are being shown during Black History Month, these aren’t necessarily Black History Month films.”

In regards to the purpose of the series, Johnson commented on the lack of showings for Spike Lee films in Winona.

“I think it would be great if our community could have the opportunity to take a look at once again and celebrate the incredible work he has done over his career,” Johnson said.

Locust himself voiced a lesson audiences should take away from the series as whole.

“I think there is a common perception that everybody in the industry is just white,” Locust said. “… it’s important for people to see that there are films being made by under-represented groups.”

Even though this series is the only planned partnership between the two groups, both Johnson and Locust expressed interest for Inclusion and Diversity and Film Studies to collaborate again in the future.

“I hope Film Studies can keep partnering with Inclusion and Diversity on either Black History Month programming or Women’s History Month programming in the future,” Johnson said. “That could be a pretty exciting avenue for us.”

As for Locust, he referred to one of the objectives of Inclusion and Diversity as the compass for a future partnership.

“The goal is you want to try to meet as many people and engulf yourself in different cultures,” Locust said. “We want to continue having the film series and working with Dr. Johnson and other faculty and asking, ‘Who are other directors we need to be looking at?”

In addition to “BlacKkKlansman,” the subsequent films in “Resilience & Resistance: The Films of Spike Lee” will be showing every Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m., respectively, until the end of February in the auditorium of Winona State’s Science Laboratory Center. All film admissions are free and open to the public.

“The Shape of Water” Takes Best Picture at the Oscars

The 90th annual Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, was hosted by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on March 4.

This year featured a wide range of genres such as horror, science fiction, drama and war films in the award nominations, especially in the Best Picture category.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” promotional photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
: “The Shape of Water” promotional photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
“Get Out” promotional photo courtesy of Universal Studios

There were nine nominees for the category, many of which feature the work of well-known directors such as Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg.

There were also little-known and first time feature film directors such as Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig represented in nominated films.

Film critics, such as those writing for “Forbes” and “The New Yorker”, projected the most likely Best Picture winners were del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Both films have won awards in other competitions such as the Producers’ Guild Awards and the Golden Globes.

Lindsey Brezinski , a film studies student at Winona State University, said, “Ultimately, based on the results of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, I was expecting “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to win Best Picture.”

In the end, “The Shape of Water” took the Oscar.

“I was ecstatic when “The Shape of Water” won,“ Brezinski said. “I personally loved the film and it was nice to see something I wasn’t expecting win the award. It’s a big win for science fiction films as well!”

“Lady Bird” promotional photo courtesy of InterActiveCorp
“Dunkirk” promotional photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
“Darkest Hour” promotional photo courtesy of Focus Features

To film studies students, The Oscars are considered the most prestigious film awards.

Being nominated by and voted on by professionals in each category, with some exceptions, such as Best Picture, which all members of the Academy vote.

“The Oscars are important,” Brezinski said, “because they bring films that may have not been seen by a wide audience into the spotlight and allow people to step out of the big-bucks studio blockbuster bubble they typically live in.”

“The Post” promotional photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
“Call Me By Your Name” promotional photo courtesy of Frenesy Film
“Phantom Thread” promotional photo courtesy of Focus Features

Jake Nielsen, another WSU film studies student said, “It’s the biggest night of the year for movies. A lot of emphasis and prestige is added to the films that win Best Picture.”

There are things that upset film fans about the Oscars.

“There is also a lot of dumb upsets that happen that are predictable because of how The Academy tends to vote,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen expressed disappointment that many low-budget independent films of great quality are ignored for the big-budget studio films.

Seth Lamey, a film student at WSU, said, “I think it is tough for cinephiles [those who study film] because on one hand they want to celebrate the year of film,but on the other side there is a lot more depth to the cinematic year that isn’t even being talked about.”

The Rivoli Theater in La Cross, Wisconsin
The Rivoli Theater in La Cross, Wisconsin

The Rivoli Theater in La Crosse is one of the few theaters that provides movie-goers access to many indie films that most theaters, such as the Winona 7, don’t.

Both theaters emphasized the Best Picture nominees by showing them before and after the Oscars so audiences could watch them on the big screen.

The Rivoil Theater serves alcoholic beverages and pizza as well as other movie snacks.

Frozen River Film Festival Concludes 13th Season

In the frigid winters of Minnesota, a popular way to escape the freezing temperatures of the North is watching movies.

And Winona has its own film festival to do just that.

The Frozen River Film Festival is a documentary film festival held annually in Winona Minnesota.

The festival recently concluded its 13th season, drawing in about 3,000 attendees.

Frozen River included five days of events, Feb. 7 to Feb. 11, on the last day an award ceremony honored some of the most popular films.

Each year, the festival features documentary films whose subjects focus on local, regional and world importance.

Producer Karolo Aparicio answers questions about the film “Keepers of the Future.”

Festival director Sara Enzenauer said. “Planning for the festival is a year-long process. A lot of the heavy lifting takes place a few months before the actual dates, but there is a lot we are trying to do in the offseason.”

This year is Enzenauer’s first as festival director.

She started as an intern while sew was a Winona State University student, with a film minor, working her way up from intern to director.

Along with offering a wide array of films for moviegoers to watch, the festival included live music, artisan foods, and a vendor fair.

The atrium of the Science Laboratory Center at Winona State University where Frozen River attendees gathered.

Attendees had a choice of 70 films to attend in different venues across town including Winona 7 theatre, Winona State University, St. Mary’s University and Island City Brewing Company.

One patron,  Craig Thompson, said he has been attending since the festival started in 2005.

Thompson said he thought one of the best things about coming to the festival was learning about the variety of topics and issues the films covered.

Frozen River Film Festival is a nonprofit organization that uses donations and fundraising to pay for the films, guest lodgings, and venues.

According to Enzenauer, the budget for this year’s festival was $116,000.

“Our fiscal year starts in May and ends in Aril, “Enzenauer said, “so a lot of our spending takes place on promised funds, or what we think we are going to make in tickets. It’s a very interesting balancing act!”

In, Enzenauer’s first year as festival director was a success.

“We are all really pleased with how the festival went,” Enzenauer said. “I was worried that the numbers would drop quite a bit since it was a big transition year, but we were able to keep things pretty steady”.

Malinda Schmiechen, a regular patron of Frozen River, recalled how some films she has watched at the festival have changed her life.

“One year the theme was garbage,”Schmiechen said. There was a film about recycling that changed my life,” Schmiechen said.

One of the complaints heard at the festival was that it was impossible to see every film and that audiences had to pick which to attend.

Overall, the festival holds a sense of education and community to many of the patrons.

“I like to be challenged and learn about things,” Schmiechen said.

Enzenauer said Frozen River Film Festival takes all year to plan, so just days after this year’s festival has ended, she and the festival committee are already beginning to plan for Frozen River 2019.

“It was a little bare bones this year, and there is room for a lot of improvement,” said Enzenauer.

The festival committee plans to work more on their consistency, organization and communication for next year.

Winona State Celebrates Frankenstein Anniversary

Exactly 200 years ago, in 1818, Mary Shelly’s iconic Promethean creature was brought to life when her novel was first published.

In celebration of the 200 anniversary of “Frankenstein” being published, Winona State University is hosting a variety of events throughout January and February.

The events began Jan. 24 at 8 a.m. in WSU’s Science Laboratory Center atrium with a live reading of the entire 1818 edition of the novel.

The nearly eight-hour event hosted a constant influx of audience members, ranging from none to double digits at different times.

According to Dunbar, althogether there were an estimated 75 to 100 attendees.

The live reading was the brainchild of Ann-Marie Dunbar, an associate professor of the English department and director of the events.

“The bicentenary of Frankenstein’s publication gives us a great opportunity to celebrate one of the most original and fascinating novels written in English,” Dunbar said. “A novel that is just as relevant today as it was in 1818.”

The reading featured most of the University’s English department faculty, including Paul Johnson, an English and Film Studies professor.

Paul Johnson, WSU’s Film Studies director reads From Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” in character.

Johnson performed the first few chapters of volume two with enthusiasm, creating voices for the characters, making the event that much more noticeable for the students passing through the atrium, many of whom stopped for a moment to listen.

Johnson is the planner of the film series that is a part of the “Frankenstein celebration” at WSU.

The film series began off on Monday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. in the Miller Auditorium at WSU with a double feature of the 1931 film “Frankenstein” and it’s 1935 sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

Robert Pack, WSU Film Studies student, hosts a showing of the film “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

“For those of us who love the novel and love the tale and love Mary Shelly’s composition of it,” Johnson said, “simply being able to bring that to life for a day is a really rich source of enjoyment for us.”

The film series is the most expensive of the events, costing between $1,600 -$1,800 for public performance rights according to Johnson.

According to Dunbar, the English, Art, Mass Communication, and the University Theme committee are all sponsors working for and donating to the project.

The double feature began with an audience of about 75, most of which were students attending for class.

After an intermission between the films the audience decreased to about 25.

Audience waits for the double feature of “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” to begin at WSU

Brittney Bluhm, an English and Film student at the university attended both features having read the book recently but never seeing the films.

Bluhm said that she liked the venue, but especially enjoyed watching the films together.

“I think that we could have had the five-minute intermission quicker. It was more like a 10 to 15-minute intermission,” Bluhm said.

Zachary Zaboj, an independent studies student who attended for class said he was surprised at how much was changed from the book to the films.

Johnson said he thought the first few events went well, the audience sizes being more than satisfactory.

Frankenfest will continued Feb. 19 with the next film in the series, “Young Frankenstein,” at 7 p.m. in WSU’s Miller Auditorium.

Postmodern Violence in “John Wick: Chapter 2”

By shattering conventions left and right while sticking to what made the first film so breathtaking, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a stream-of-consciousness arthouse action film where the story, visuals and character blend together in visceral ambience.

It’s not often a film comes around that feels unique to the core, especially when looking at action flicks. After years of bland matinee-tier films like “Taken” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” American action films have become somewhat of an anomaly in the cinematic world.

Thankfully, there’s John Wick. With style to spare, a minimalistic plot, and some of the most beautifully directed fight scenes ever put to celluloid, “John Wick: Chapter 2” proves without a doubt that arthouse action is still alive and well.

Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick” was one of 2014’s most surprising releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Starring Keanu Reeves during a relative career slump, with first-time directors and a February release date, expectations were low.

When it was finally released, the film caught many a critic off guard. Instead of a campy and low quality cash grab, audiences were given an ultra-modern, neon-drenched and fluid action masterpiece.

For the sequel, Reeves reteamed with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad to double down on the first film’s successes and blow the world of John Wick wide open.

The first film established John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as an emotional and relatable character, but it did so through his backstory and psyche. Typically, the best action heroes are the ones that audiences can project themselves onto. John McClane in the original “Die Hard” is a perfect example; a charismatic hero who acts based on understandable reasoning and who is shown to be both physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Wick, on the other hand, is a brooding hurricane of an action hero, tearing through endless waves of enemies like an untouchable force of nature.

Unlike many action stars, Reeves’ acting style is simplistic, understated and borderline emotionless. While this would normally be a death sentence in the genre, “John Wick” thrives on it. Wick’s deadpan stares and subtle humor mesh well with how the series is developing, more reminiscent of characters like Ryan Gosling’s refined roles in “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” than the boisterous and grizzled protagonists of modern blockbusters. Like much of the rest of the film, Reeves performance is minimalistic yet thoroughly impactful. As Reeves’ former stunt double, Stahelski knows how to push him to his limits, and by focusing on the unconventional, Reeves is given a chance to shine once again.

Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

This destruction of stereotypical tropes and techniques plays into the style of the film as well. For one, “John Wick: Chapter 2” borrows a great deal from the recent neon noir film movement, with a visual style similar to films like the aforementioned “Drive,” “Only God Forgives,” “The Guest” and even a bit of “Blade Runner. Eminently modern, the film plays with stark contrasts between its grimy underworld and the crisp refined lighting of New York City, a dichotomy illuminated through visuals.

There are some homages to other flicks as well, particularly Japanese New Wave pieces like “Tokyo Drifter.” There are connections to its predecessor, of course, but Stahelski seems to have found his groove for where this franchise is heading, both in storytelling and visual flair. The clearly established stylization gives the film its own unique identity, which is always welcome.

Ruby Rose stars as ‘Ares’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a master class in cinematic composition. The combat is manic and rapid, but it has a smooth sense of style. There’s no uncomfortable Bourne-esque shaky cam or Matrix-style slow motion to be found here. Instead, the film is shot in a fluid, borderline ethereal manner. Every punch and broken bone is visceral and impactful, with each motion fusing together like a kinetic symphony. One sequence, filmed in a gallery of mirrors ala “Enter the Dragon,” smashes all normal action cinematic conventions, abusing the perspective of both the audience and Wick himself.

For all the neck snapping and pencil stabbing the film delivers, there are a few small quirks. Some of the fistfights play very similar to one another, with one in particular dragging on far too long, and Wick’s seemingly super-powered fighting style could be played down a bit to give some real tension and worry for viewers. That said, Wick feels markedly more at risk this time around, and the vast majority of the fights are filled with visual splendor.

Riccardo Scamarcio stars as ‘Santino D’Antonio’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

In storytelling, this film gets a bit tricky. Shying away from the more personal and emotionally driven story of the first film, “John Wick: Chapter 2” feels like a postmodern version of an action film, with the story taking a back seat to the technical and choreographed marvels of the film’s exquisite action sequences. There is a plot, with John Wick on another quest for vengeance after he is forced back into the world that he strives to leave, but it’s barebones at best.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad instead uses small clues in the environment and additions to the lore to expand the world of the film tenfold. The first film laid the groundwork for John Wick’s world, introducing a secret society of assassins governed by a “code,” but not much was explained. Here, that statement still rings true, with a caveat.

Instead of going out of his way to explain everything about the inner working of the shadow government, Kolstad gives audiences more questions to ponder. For instance, who is the high council? What is the marker and why are they used? Who really runs the show? One moment, Wick is fighting in a crowded train as passengers look on in uncanny relaxation, as if this is just par for the course. The next, he’s running through an empty New York City street. Everything feels slightly off and unbelievable, but there’s a definite sense something bigger is going on that still has to be revealed.

This approach to storytelling and world building is unique, but it may be lost on some viewers. Plot holes abound, but it feels as though the points are absent to make audiences think and try to piece together what’s really going on. It is narrative postmodernism, abandoning all notions of concrete storytelling to instead create an ambient world of mystery and questions. While some may find it jarring and underdeveloped, I argue “John Wick: Chapter 2”’s stylistic identity owes everything to its minimalism; a stream-of-consciousness film where the story, visuals and character blend together in visceral ambience.

Santino Di’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio) and Ares (Ruby Rose) in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

This leads to another important point. While the first film was a self-contained piece, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is an exercise in expansion. Midway through the film, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) puts out a massive contract on Wick and sets the stage for an assassin Battle Royale. However, this plot point is only acted on once, and then pushed to the wayside for the climactic showdown between Wick and D’Antonio. The gravity of the contract lingers, and you’re left wondering when all these assassins will take their shots.

Luckily, the final scene shows Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the New York City Continental Hotel, demonstrating his influence over the assassins as they turn silently, in full knowledge of what is to come. It sets the stage for the final chapter, which may be the biggest one yet.

That comes at a cost to the film at hand. Franchise films are known to have one foot in the future and one in the present, constantly clashing between future set-ups and the current narrative. “John Wick: Chapter 2” suffers from this flaw, with the main narrative acting more as a means to an end than a self-contained plot.

That’s also what makes the film unique. The story falls into the background to let audiences feel the world this time around, as the veil slowly lifts on the world’s mysteries.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is the kind of unexpected masterpiece that helps the film industry grow. By shattering conventions left and right, and instead focusing on both narrative and minimalism, Stahelski and company have proved their mastery for modern art-house action.

A vast circulatory mélange of movement and sound composed with deft hands, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a postmodern masterpiece of action filmmaking.

The Effervescent Joy of “La La Land”

A gorgeous love letter to Hollywood and the dreams that keep the industry alive, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.

If there is one thing that defined the early years of Hollywood, it would be the movie musical. After the advent of sound technology, film studios embraced the new development to produce some of history’s most acclaimed musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris” and “42nd Street.”

Now, in the 21st century, director Damien Chazelle has crafted a new film that can be added to the list. “La La Land” is more than just another musical. Chazelle’s film modernizes the genre while, with its sweeping musical numbers and breathtaking final sequence, keeps in line with its roots. It is a gorgeous love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles and the dreams that keep the industry alive. Effervescent and engrossing, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.

The film begins on a vast highway of deadlocked traffic, as a young woman in a bright yellow dress breaks out into song. The camera swings through the organized chaos of the dance number as drivers and passengers jubilate and twirl across the screen. Colors shine amid the frenzy, with stark reds, blues and yellows weaving a bright tapestry of visual splendor.

The cast of LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

As the cast sings “Another Day of Sun,” the first of many fantastic musical pieces in the film, “La La Land” telegraphs what is to come. It draws viewers into this escapist world of song and light while showing the dichotomy of the city itself. Even these drivers, amidst crammed unmoving cars, see the potential for beauty and success in the City of Stars. In essence, that’s what the film is about.

This is only Chazelle’s second feature, and it showcases his personal style and ideals. His first film, 2014’s “Whiplash,” became a quick critical darling and, in this reviewer’s opinion, was the best film that year. An intimate flick involving a young drummer and the constant struggle to better oneself, “Whiplash” cemented Chazelle as a lover of jazz, the lives of artists and the language of cinema.

“La La Land” doubles down on those concepts, beginning with the existential conflict of the artist’s dilemma. At its core, the film is both a tale of love between two struggling artists and how dreams are meant to be chased, even amid constant setbacks.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are the living embodiment of the Hollywood dream, but not entirely in the sense one would expect. Unlike the quick success expected among the Los Angeles crowd, the two keep failing in their own right. To put it simply, they’re relatably human.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Sebastian is a self-taught jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple songs as a restaurant musician, and Mia is just another ambitious actress amidst a sea of seemingly identical actresses. Both have dreams they strive to realize, with Sebastian hoping to open his own jazz cafe and bring jazz back into the forefront, while Mia wishes to act on the big screen. Yet, dreams are often easier said than done, even for people with incredible talent.

Their struggles and eventual romance are enchanting and relatable, acting as a surprisingly unglamorous backbone to a story many would associate with fame and celebrity. They fail like us, try like us and change like us. “La La Land” tells a story of real people and how their lives can come together and just as easily fall apart.

Shedding the clichés of films like “The Notebook,” Gosling has come into his own lately with stellar roles in “Drive,” “Blue Valentine” and “Place Beyond the Pines.” Here, however, he falls back to his romance roots while proving his development over the years. Perhaps his acting is a little predictable at times, but he displays great aptitude for grounding what could have been a cheesy and insufferable role.

Emma Stone, on the other hand, turns in one of her finest performances to date, which has been recognized by everything from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Stone is constantly evocative and dynamic, yet she channels a sort of blissful simplicity that feels both fresh and wholly nostalgic.

The only problem with “La La Land” involves its supporting cast. Keith (John Legend) is the only side character who is even close to developed, with everyone else serving as either one-off plot devices or extra flair in the background.

That said, “La La Land” doesn’t try to tell us the story of a community, but of two people, and that is more than enough.

“La La Land” is proving itself with a record 14 Oscar nominations – a feat accomplished only by “Titanic” and “All About Eve” –  but not just for acting and plot. This production was made for people who love films. From visuals down to music, the film oozes style.

Figure 1: “La La Land” was awarded 14 Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, more than any other 2016 film.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren delivers the best work of his career in “La La Land.” The color work is astounding, with splashes of light and hues bouncing off one another in every way imaginable. Several sequences take on a more stage-musical style, as Sebastian and Mia dance and sing in front of vast painted backdrops and emotive dance ensembles.  Every shot pops off of the screen.

Of course, visuals aren’t enough for this kind of film. Musicals live and die by their music, and composer Justin Hurwitz delivers. Hurwitz previously partnered with Chazelle on “Whiplash,” bringing classic jazz back into the forefront of cinema. Here, that style is expanded and improved, blending the trademarks of musicals and even a bit of pop sentimentality. Trumpets blare, drums crack and the audience is sent through a renaissance of improvisational jazz compositions.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

The most important distinction “La La Land” deserves comes from Chazelle’s flawless balancing act between realism and escapism. While breaking out into song and dancing through clouds is rarely associated with realism, the film feels like it exists in our world. The set pieces and extensive montages give a luminous and fantasy-laden look into the minds of Mia and Sebastian. It’s a modern musical through and through, set in an era of smartphones and electric cars, which it handles by being both grounded and eclectic.

Chazelle’s film is more than just one of the best movies of the year; it’s the beginning of something fresh. “La La Land” is not just a modernization of the movie musical, but a modernization of the love story itself. It’s a fantastic and relatable tale of the volatility of human life and love, and the ability for one’s passions and ambitions to shape them. With its masterful approach to music and visual language, “La La Land” is a film for the ages.