The Rise of Damien Chazelle

The Oscars are over and it’s time to reflect on Chazelle’s journey to the top

Now the dust has settled from the 89th Academy Awards we can begin to truly appreciate Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise to Hollywood’s front page. At the ripe old age of 32, he has become the youngest person in history to win the coveted Academy Award for Best Director. Three films is all it took to reach this incredible milestone, with each achieving dramatically more success than the one before it.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island to Celia and Bernard Chazelle (professors of history and computer science respectively) he was always drawn to filmmaking and as a child constantly wrote scripts. That was not his only passion however as whilst studying at Princeton High School he attempted to be a drummer in Princeton’s prestigious jazz program. An intense music teacher (the inspiration being JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash) and a self attributed lack of talent meant that keeping up was a constant struggle. By the end of high school a fork-in-the-road situation arose: attend a vocational music school and properly dedicate himself towards the art, or concede and follow another path. This other path was his old passion of film and he described music as ‘a detour, almost.’

After finishing high school, Chazelle went on to Harvard University to study for a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies. Throughout this time he attended as many film classes as possible culminating in his first film, ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’, released in 2009. A completely improvised jazz musical, directed, written, produced, shot and co-edited by Chazelle. Originally planned as his thesis film, he ultimately left Harvard temporarily in order to focus on finishing the film. It set the tone projects to come, from it’s jazz based plot, to the musical collaboration with Justin Hurwitz. Shot completely in black and white 16mm film, this debut feature made just $35,556 at the box office but was met with wide acclaim scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84 out of 100 on Metacritic.

The next few years were not too comfortable for Chazelle as he was forced to become a ‘writer for hire’ to pay the bills. This resulted in several writing credits in films such as ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ and ‘Grand Piano’. Although continuing to create his own screenplays, none ever materialised into film and he cited this as a low point in his career, ‘I’d pour my blood, sweat and tears into them, and no one would like them’. One particular script caused him much frustration, mainly due to various aspects of the film that made it impractical, such as a dance sequence on a freeway. Unable to get the project off the ground he channeled his frustration into another script, one that drew on his past experiences with jazz drumming, titled ‘Whiplash’.

Initially he found difficulty showing the script to others as it felt too personal, but eventually ‘Whiplash’ gained interest from several producers, including Helen Estabrook (Labour Day) who suggested JK Simmons for the conductor role. Chazelle’s problems didn’t end there as no investors could initially be found, with the script featuring on a top 10 list of unmade films for 2012. To overcome this a proof-of-concept short was made, with JK Simmons in the role Estabrook proposed, and submitted to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the short film prize. The following year ‘Whiplash’ was released to universal praise, 94% Rotten Tomatoes and 88 out of 100 on Metacritic, a notable improvement from his first directorial effort also achieving $49 million in box office sales.

When award season came around it was hardly surprising that Chazelle’s second project got nominated for several Oscars, five in total including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons. There was some controversy surrounding one of his nominations in particular. Critics widely suggested that Whiplash was a sure winner of the Best Original Screenplay category but when the nominations were released the film was placed in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The reasoning behind this seemingly bizarre decision was to do with the concept short made a year prior. The Academy deemed the short film the original screenplay thus making the subsequent feature length film adapted. Any anger was short-lived as Whiplash took home three Oscars, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons.

Riding the wave of success Chazelle decided to revisit an old script that gave him frustration previously, La La Land. The idea was ‘to take the old music but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out’. The casting decisions almost led to a very different film with Miles Teller (who also starred in Whiplash) and Emma Watson in the lead roles. Both ended up departing from the project due to long contract negotiations and a commitment to 2017’s Beauty and the Beast respectively. As a result small adjustments were made to the script, making the leads older, struggling to achieve their dreams rather than just starting out. Chazelle immediately cast Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after Summit Entertainment bought the rights to the film calling them ‘the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple’.

Multiple aspects of the production caused trouble for those involved with the film. Firstly, Gosling didn’t know how to play the piano, at all. For three months during pre-production his job was to become adept at the piano and he called it ‘one of the most fulfilling pre-production periods I’ve ever had’. From the beginning of the film Chazelle pushed for the musical numbers to be filmed in a single take to emulate his inspirations Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. The consequence of this is several of the scenes took several days to shoot. One specifically, the six-minute long Prius scene had a one hour window each night to be filmed, called the magic or golden hour where the sunlight is softer and redder than normal. After eight takes the pair finally nailed it and ‘everybody just exploded’.

To get the tone of the film just right, Chazelle and Tom Cross spent nearly a year editing and that time was obviously well spent as when ‘La La Land’ was rolled out at the end of 2016 it received worldwide acclaim, with 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 out of 100 on Metacritic. At the 74th Golden Globes, usually used as an indicator for Oscar performance, it won every category it was up for, a record-breaking seven. All eyes then turned to the Academy, and when the nominations were released ‘La La Land’ equalled the record of fourteen with 1997’s ‘Titanic’ and 1950’s ‘All About Eve’. Sadly, Chazelle faired the same as ‘All About Eve’ winning six rather than the eleven won by ‘Titanic’. Those six wins included Best Director for Chazelle, Best Actress for Emma Stone and two for former roommate and long time collaborator Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ( for ‘City of Stars’).

It seems that Chazelle is not content to stop now as his fourth feature film is already in the works. Titled ‘First Man’, this biopic will follow the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Adapted from the book of the same name by Josh Singer (Spotlight) there will undoubtedly be high expectations from a director who has produced nothing less than excellence throughout his career. With Ryan Gosling already announced in the lead role this will not be a film to miss.

Review: Patriots Day

An exciting docudrama or an exploitation of tragedy

Patriots Day, depicting the events leading up to and immediately after the Boston Marathon Bombings, marks the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg (the other two being Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor). From the initial announcement, the film seemed destined to follow one of two paths: by-the-book action film paying vague attention to the actual events, or an inspirational retelling of how an entire city came together. Unfortunately this is neither and sits in the middle, taking what it pleases from each. The result is unnecessary and borders on exploitative as it uses recent tragedy and an all-star cast to sell tickets.

The majority of the negative feeling stems from Mark Wahlberg’s character, or rather characters. As the film progresses, it seems suspicious how Tommy Saunders is at the forefront of every major story event. The initial bombing, the command centre investigating, the first responder to the carjacking, the last stand battle and finally at the house where the younger of the two brothers is hiding in a boat, he’s at them all. But he’s not. Tommy Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s fictional. The reasoning behind this choice is clear. It allows more character development as we follow one hero as he battles the evil villains. The consequence of this choice is that it becomes painfully comical. There are over 2100 police officers in the Boston Police Department and yet this single officer is there each time.

Four years is all it took to transform tragedy into an evening of entertainment at the cinema. In two more I suspect we’ll see a film documenting the Paris attacks, probably featuring Vincent Cassel. Following 2012’s Argo or even Peter Berg’s last directorial effort Deepwater Horizon, there was great potential for a gritty, as-it-happened docudrama. Sadly aside from Wahlberg, several other plot elements were also invented or exaggerated as the original story must not have been captivating enough for the general audience. For example the tense standoff in Watertown looked more like a Michael Bay movie with multiple cars erupting in flames contrary to every report of the incident. Not every relationship shown actually existed either, MIT officer Sean Collier’s (Jake Picking) romance with a student at the university never happened. It was added so that you’d care just enough about the character that when he ultimately met his downfall it would be more shocking.

There were redeeming qualities to the film. The way real phone and security camera footage was interwoven in relevant scenes throughout the film repeatedly reminds you how this truly did happen, making the initial aftermath to the marathon bombs all the more chilling. Shortly after, the hijacking of Dun Meng’s car was arguably the most gripping part of the film. Sheer edge-of-seat tension unfolds as Meng slowly works out a risky escape strategy. In a few short minutes, he becomes the most human, the most authentic. It is at this moment that the attackers, the Tsarnaev brothers, seem most human too. It is all to easy to paint the generic terrorist caricature in film and Berg instead makes them almost relatable. A bold move which is shown during the carjacking as the younger of the brothers is more interested in whether the car has bluetooth or an aux cable so he can play his music.

The aftermath to the bombings was complete disarray and Peter Berg embodies this throughout Patriots Day. Why was Saunders suspended? How did the Tsarnaev brothers go from stoners to subversives? And why did the final speech make no sense at all? The supposed docudrama brought up too many questions and too few answers. The most important question of all, ‘What is the purpose of this film?’, is doomed to also remain unanswered.

Review: The Founder

An overnight sensation 30 years in the making

The idea that John Lee Hancock’s latest film was probably just another narrative about making it in America meant that my anticipation for it was rather low. But as the film unfolded I was caught off guard by its surprising density.

The Founder, which has interesting ironic undertones, explores the conceptual origins of fast-food and the empire of the food-chain McDonald’s. It is 1954 when we are introduced to the insatiable salesman Ray Kroc (convincingly played by Michael Keaton). Struggling and fast-paced, he is the embodiment of the free market system and good old American capitalism. Unsuccessfully attempting to sell milkshake makers to diners, an order of eight from a San Bernardino burger stand piques his interest. What distinguishes this thriving restaurant from the ones that he struggles to sell a single one to? He drives all the way from Illinois to find out.

The stand, of course, is the original McDonald’s. The whole concept of the busy place confuses Kroc, he can’t seem to grasp that his food is presented to him almost instantaneously after ordering it, or that no crockery is required, or he can eat it where ever he pleases. The movie addresses the shift of fast food and the initial learning curve consumers experienced in the next sequence superbly, and will also be our first encounter with the McDonald brothers. Featuring terrific performances by John Caroll Lynch (The Zodiac) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson) as Mac and Dick, they manage to convey a down-to-earth pair who simply strive to have their own piece of the American Dream after years of persistence and hard work. Except they came up with a notion that would revolutionise America and they didn’t even know it.

Over a particularly well shot scene of dinner between our three main interests, a fascinated Kroc listens to the brothers recount their long and arduous process to coming up with their unique system. Hancock unfolds the brothers’ past through a series of flashbacks of their thirty-year struggle. The story rises to an electric climax as they calmly come to explain their Eureka moment by pinpointing the weaknesses of competitors, such as poor quality food and slow service that attracts undesired clientele (here it is teenagers that are the problem). It is Dick who localises where they are losing and could potentially save time and money. From past experience, he assesses that certain items are guaranteed to sell, and by pure logic decides to strip the menu down to the basics such as hamburgers, fries and milkshakes. The next point is a stroke of genius, simultaneously in the filmmaking and in real life, as the scene shows Dick arbitrating his staff around a mock-up chalk kitchen, manoeuvring it over and over in order to create their pioneering time-effective system. This is the stuff capitalist dreams are made of.

Concise, minimal and easy to keep cleanliness and quality in check, the McDonald brothers are perfectly content with their creation. But Kroc thinks differently, and has the gut feeling he has stumbled upon a rare opportunity. His love for business immediately latches onto the fact that the McDonald’s structure can be endlessly replicated, urging the brothers to “franchise it”. Here the direction puts the viewer in a conflicted spot, aware of the potential Kroc sees, yet faced with the brothers’ sincere attachment to their creation and high-quality standards. Soon enough, Kroc comes up with just the right hook to reel them in— American values. Each town he drives by has two things: a church and a court house. Both places where the American Family congregate, both with symbols associated to these common values: The Cross and the American flag. Kroc insists that the “Golden Arches” of McDonalds could be of the same meaning, a place where “decent, wholesome people come together”.

After a tug-of-war business relationship between the three, Kroc’s hunger for more pushes him to cease all decency and figures out how he can pull the business from under the McDonald’s brothers’ feet through real estate trickery. In a poignant, and for the audience, uncomfortable phone call between the brothers and “The Founder”, Kroc hits them with the disheartening truth: “I’m national. You’re local”, succinctly addressing the at times chilling American capitalist drive.

Review: Hidden Figures

An Ordinary film about the extraordinary

Coming two years after the overly sentimental St.Vincent, Theodore Melfi returns to the directors chair for Hidden Figures. The inspiring true story of how three African-American women fought against gender and race discrimination to assist in arguably the greatest human accomplishment of the time, launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. An event which turned the tide of the space race and united America in it’s desire to reach the moon.

The three women depicted in Hidden Figures begin as ‘computers’, someone who performs long and often tedious mathematical calculations prior to the invention of electronic computers. They all aspire for greater things but due to the societal hurdle of skin colour find great difficulty in getting acknowledged, let alone respected. Katherine Johnson’s talent (Taraji Henson) has incredible mathematic ability, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has natural leadership skills and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is a fantastic engineer. All three actresses are commanding in their roles, which isn’t entirely positive as the weaker performances are more noticeable with the weakest of all being Jim Parsons’ portrayal of head engineer Paul Stafford. A character whose only purpose in the film is to reinforce the fact that people of colour face discrimination. Melfi must have doubted the audience’s ability to denounce racism on its first appearance so decided to make Stafford repeatedly, and to no additional story benefit, belittle Katherine.

Parsons’ character is not the only story element that if removed would have made the film less forgettable. Another example of this is the needless romantic subplot involving Katherine and Army Officer Jim Johnson. Romance for the sake of romance is usually for one of two reasons, either the scriptwriters needed an extra 15 minutes runtime and got lazy, or the film needed to be more accessible for the general public (to bring in those box office returns). Maharshala Ali (Moonlight) who plays Johnson is a great actor and it is a shame that his talent is wasted in this role.

Whilst there were many scenes showing discrimination against the women of the West Computing wing, and people of colour as a whole, one particular example was overplayed. After Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group, a collection of the greatest scientific and engineering minds in America, she is constantly on the receiving end of racial prejudice. This occurs to such an extent that they are made to seem villainous to fit with the generic Hollywood narrative: character faces adversity, almost succumbs as a result but is eventually victorious. There is nothing new or original here. Just another underwhelming ‘based on a true story’ film that seems to hit the cinema screens every few weeks.

In years to come it will be the films that took risks that will be remembered and sadly Hidden Figures took none. The outcome is an ordinary film about the extraordinary. One that uses the leads to push an agenda rather than treat them like the pioneers they were. Yet another addition to the pile of potential classics.

2017 Film Challenge – January

The beginning of my 250 films challenge

When the clock struck midnight on 2016 it was time to work on my new years resolution, to gain as much knowledge on film as possible.  In order to achieve this I decided to set my set the target of watching 250 throughout they year, as well as becoming more aware of how the behind the scenes magic is engineered. An average of just under 21 a month is required to hit my goal and I hit the ground running watching 23 in January. I’m still debating whether to only count unique watches or if repeat watches should count too although this will be something I’ll mention in a subsequent update. Each month I will list every film I’ve watched in order and then add any thoughts along with a top 5 list of my favourites.

Films Watched:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Silence (2017)
  • The Big Lebowski (1998)
  • The Big Short (2015)
  • Casino Royale (2006)
  • Zombieland (2009)
  • Source Code (2011)
  • A Monster Calls (2017)
  • Assassin’s Creed (2017)
  • Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
  • 21 and over (2013) x2
  • The Martian (2015)
  • La La Land (2017) x2
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  • Moneyball (2011)
  • Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
  • Zootropolis (2016)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
  • Whiplash (2014)
  • Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

January was a month of discovery for me, most notably watching my first, second and third Wes Anderson film. I was instantly in love with his unique and quirky style. Warm colour palettes, recurring actors/themes and the way he works symmetry into his scenes all stood out to me with Anderson quickly becoming one of my favourite directors. Similarly the two most recent Damien Chazelle films were both fantastic, it’s just a shame that his catalogue is so small at this time.

Not everything was a good watch though with a couple of massive disappointments. Scorsese is a fantastic director in my opinion however each of his religious movies have not quite hit the mark with me. Silence was without a doubt a beautifully shot film, it just lacked the necessary substance to hold my interest. Assassin’s Creed was one of the biggest let downs since Independence Day: Resurgence in my opinion. Another film which held so much promise but ending up far short of my expectations.

Here is my Top 5 for January:

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Whiplash
  3. La La Land
  4. Fantastic Mr Fox
  5. Moonrise Kingdom

Special mention goes to Moneyball, The Big Lebowski and The Martian which were all wonderful.

Review: Gold

In the gold rush of gold rush films, not every one will hit the jackpot

Director Stephen Gaghan was probably trying to ride the McConaissance wave with his latest effort Gold, following the story of a near bankrupt mining company. Unfortunately Gaghan’s ship couldn’t hold against the relentless McConaughey’s performance, showing that one man can’t make a movie.

The star of Dallas Buyers Club and Interstellar looks unrecognisable initially, after a massive 20 kilo weight gain for the role of Kenny Wells. Portly and poor, this third generation prospector is desperately trying to keep his business afloat. So much so that he’s willing to risk everything for the chance to strike it lucky. Scraping together every last cent and even pawning his wife’s golden jewellery, he travels to Indonesia after a dream reveals where he must go. Wells meets with renowned geologist Micke Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) after arriving in the country in order to discuss a partnership in discovering and subsequently mining the gold. What follows is a gripping tale of corruption and the greed of man. Or at least it could have been.

What began on paper as a story with considerable financial and critical potential ends up lethargic, with messy narrative. It appears that Gaghan is unsure how he wanted to direct the film, as if he was attempting to complete a lego set without the instructions, having all the correct pieces but lacking the knowledge of how to assemble them. Instead of having a neatly constructed product to display with pride we have Gold, with its ugly structure, scenes that look entirely out of place and an irregular rhythm that hinders the viewer from being properly immersed. I feel as though there are other directors far better suited to tackle a film of this nature and it’s bitterly disappointing to see the initial promise go to waste.

Gaghan’s plight is not helped by the seemingly lifeless script written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman. As a result it’s hardly surprising that several performances, notably Edgar Ramirez’, fell way short. It must be made clear that this is not a judgment of individual ability, as those involved acted commendably given the quality of material. The film did feature a very light dusting of commendable displays though. In particular Toby Kebbell stood out with a wonderful yet disappointingly short stint as an FBI Detective. The Warcraft and Dead Man’s Shoes star has had several similar appearances recently begging the question why has he not been handed a leading role in years.

Although there is a quite considerable heap of negatives, a sprinkling of positives can be seen. Enough to sway a minor proportion of viewers perhaps, but look closer and you’ll see those positives don’t quite fit. They hint at another film — a better one.

Recently Hollywood has been awash with this type of rise and fall true story and as with any genre of films, not all will succeed in greatness. This is sadly the case with Gold, falling massively short of the competition. In the gold rush of gold rush films, not every one will hit the jackpot.

Review: The Birth of a Nation

A powerful reminder of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and issues still relevant today

Burning with rage and revenge, Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation is immediately powerful through his choice of title, the same as D.W. Griffith’s Klu Klux Klan glorifying film from just over a century ago. However, it is a great shame that Parker’s questionable past of alleged rape has detracted from how the film has been received.

This story is the biopic of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), an African-American slave who initiated the pandemonium that was the 1830s rebellion he and his followers spread in Virginia, terrorising the pre-civil war South. As a child, Turner is taught how to read from the Bible and is made a house slave, a much less onerous form of slavery and essentially the lesser of two evils. Early on in the movie, the cotton plantation runs into financial problems when the owner dies leaving his wife Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) in charge. Due to this turn of events Elizabeth reluctantly transfers Nat to work in the cotton fields. We see the emotional turmoil young Nat experiences on his first day of labour; he can’t quite grasp why he is being forced to do this, yet he knows something is basically wrong.

The film next picks up Nat’s personal journey through slavery two decades later, the plantation is now owned by the son of Elizabeth and childhood friend of Nat, Samuel (Armie Hammer). He appears to have survived as well as any slave could, in spite of being a white man’s personal property and bearing that man’s surname which erases his own identity.

Nat’s knowledge of the Bible has put him in a more comfortable position compared to other slaves, made to deliver sermons for the neighbouring plantation slaves which ironically widens his first-hand experience of slavery. It is painfully clear that the basic human rights promised by the Constitution were in fact not intended for this lost population, uprooted and forced into a life devoid of meaning. The key moment in The Birth of a Nation is the shift in mind-set of Nat Turner. A more than heated disagreement occurs between himself, his master and a white reverend (Mark Boone Jr.), in which Nat attempts to reason with quotes from the Bible, only to be put down by the reverend’s choice of other biblical quotes. The argument ends in the kind of violence that is particular to the mindset of the white supremacist. It is in this moment Nat comes to the realisation that the Bible on its own is not going to change a thing. As a slave, this is an argument he will never win — he needs to act.

The rebellions that follow are of a raw vengefulness, unfiltered and violent. However, they are doomed to fail, lacking structure, organisation and most of all, power. We must not overlook that it is still only 1831, we’re still a long way even from Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement for equality of the 1960s. Nat Turner’s rebellion was an isolated first-step towards dealing with what was to become the biggest problem for 20th century America — the Color Line.