La La Land (USA, 2016)

Not a do-do

Not a do-do

‘Don’t believe the hype,’ rapped Chuck D, in the eponymous song, which is good advice because hype is about selling and the need to sell is often corrupting. Indeed, such is the effect of selling that I suspect most people treat hyperbole, especially if written by an estate agent or spoken by a politician, with scepticism. Film fandom tends to be resistant to scepticism, indeed it fuels the hype so, for example, all things Star Wars and Marvel are wonderful.

La La Land has been buzzing for months and is typical of the hype surrounding a film that’s unusual for mainstream cinema (in this case a musical) and yet is still (surprisingly) entertaining. For some the ‘surprise’ can make it the ‘best film I’ve ever seen’ (to quote a student) simply because they haven’t seen anything like it before. This isn’t to patronise as the ‘awe and wonder’ of discovery is the essence of film watching; if only I still had it!

So my expectations for La La Land were resisting the hype but my renaissance of enjoying film ‘insisted’ I go and see it and, I’m afraid, you need to believe the hype (in this case). The film is a tribute to ‘50s Hollywood musicals, through narrative (Singin’ in the Rain) and form (Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope framed long, flowing takes) but doesn’t forget it’s in the 21st century in its clever narrative resolution.

A distinct difference from Golden Age musicals is the limited, if perfectly utilised, song and dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they ain’t Astaire and Rogers, but that is of no matter. I even enjoyed Gosling’s taciturnity for once and Stone is entirely engaging.

Will La La Land lead audiences, not in the know, to the classics musicals or will it remain an exciting ‘one off’?

Carol (UK-US-France, 2015)

Love at first sight?

Love at first sight?

Fifties (set) melodrama; what’s not to like? Haynes’ Far From Heaven (US, 2002) sumptuously recreated Sirkian melodrama. Here his mise en scene is more restrained though the passion of the characters, perfectly played by Blanchett and Mara, sears the eyeballs. If anything, visually Carol is a little disappointing given the graininess of the super 16mm film; Haynes’ explanation, in December’s Sight & Sound, seems to be that he doesn’t like the sheen of digital film. I had assumed he was after a retro look however I just found it distracting. Enough cavilling!

Haynes’ framing reminded me of Fassbinder; characters are placed at the edges of unbalanced frames. This reflected the ‘forbidden’ love of the protagonists in the homophobic 1950s. The stupidity of those times might be laughable but when Trump is the Republican front runner it’s not funny as many people’s mentality obviously remains backward (to be polite).

I particularly liked Mara’s character; although she is a young woman finding herself in the world she refuses to be browbeaten. Blanchett’s Carol, too, decides not to be a victim of patriarchy and the final scene, with men almost swirling through the mise en scene, is extremely powerful. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

PS there’s an excellent Screen International article on the production of the film here.

Fruitvale Station (US, 2013)

#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America.  Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatizing the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to… two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.

Eden (US, 2012)

Men's entitlement to women

Men’s entitlement to women

A film about sex trafficking would fit readily into exploitation film and so it was a relief that director Megan Griffiths, who also co-scripted, avoided the potential for salacious representation and simply focused on the degradation. It’s based on Kim Chong’s, a Korean-American, true story of abduction and induction into sex slavery in the American South. Ex MTV-presenter, Jamie Chung, brilliantly fills the role from bewildered teen to one who will do whatever is required to escape. The fact that the other women are under-characterised may be intentional and reflect their submission to their exploitation. Matt O’Leary is similarly excellent as the guy running the operation, under Beau Bridge’s corrupt eye; O’Leary captures the junkie’s twitch brilliantly.

Ostensibly the film is a thriller, however Kim’s resistance is long-developing which works against the genre. Correctly, the ‘real life’ source material over-rides the genre’s prerogative and any audience frustration that Kim isn’t fighting back enough works to enhance the feeling of entrapment. Griffiths is excellent in her representation of men, most of whom have no interest in women other than as sex objects and recipients of their ejaculate. Men are shown to feel entitled to the women. It seems that society socialises men to believe they are better than women and any woman who challenges that needs ‘taking down’; hence the bile of trolls against any feminist discourse. The fact that all of these men are pathetic in some way, because they cannot take being challenged by a woman, is something that inevitably escapes them.

Eden works both as a thriller and a feminist film that attacks complacency regarding the position of women in our society.

I recently caught up with a brilliant BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes; a look at the comments below the YouTube video (link) gives a clue as to some men’s inability to understand feminism. Laughably (well it’s not that funny) many of them suggest it is men who are victims. The merest challenge to their entitlement of superiority sets them off on egregious rants. I do sense we are at a tipping point, as in the ’60s and ’80s, when feminism is going to make a big impact and, hopefully, not be recouped by patriarchy.

 

Birdman (US-Canada, 2014)

All the film's a stage

All the film’s a stage

I’m not often keen on satirical takes on Hollywood, it’s too easy a target, however Birdman is so technically adept, and very funny in parts, it’s easy to like. Iñárritu’s decision to film the bulk of the film (the exceptions are the beginning and ending) as if it was shot in one take, unlike Russian Ark (Russia et al, 2002) which actually was, is surely a way of dramatising the difference between acting on film (usually in bits) and on stage (in ‘real time’). The film interrogates the actors’ profession: it concerns a ‘washed-up’ Hollywood star, Michael Keaton playing of sort of ‘alternate world’ self (for we cannot take what we see at face value), trying to gain artistic credibility in his Raymond Carver adaptation for Broadway. This interrogation focuses on theatre, we see the final few days before the opening night, but at the same time, because it’s Keaton we are watching perform as a ‘has been’ acting on stage, also raises questions about acting in film (which, of course, everyone in the film is doing).

If it seems a bit ‘clever-clever’ there is enough emotional heft (the actors’ insecurities; the ‘price of fame’ on family life) to deliver more than technical brilliance. The performances are outstanding throughout and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is both breathtakingly beautiful and virtuoso in its steadicam prowling. Both Mahler and Tchaikovsky feature on the soundtrack: Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) signifies (along with his 9th Symphony) the protagonist’s angst whilst Tchaikovsky’s 5th represents the melodrama of Hollywood. This might suggest that the theatre, which is more likely to dramatise middle class ennui (and sometimes working class existence) than film, is the superior. Hollywood, through economic necessity as the international market becomes ever-more crucial, is now almost entirely focused on big budget spectaculars (more so than ever before) to please the masses more than the niches. However there’s enough ambiguity in the film to suggest…

Whiplash (US, 2014)

Brutal

Brutal

The intention of this blog is to write about ‘films with something to say’; that’s a bit of nonsense as all films have ‘something to say’. I’m trying to suggest the blog’s about films that have ‘something interesting to say’. Many films are interesting though I tend only to blog about films I like. I’m making an exception of Whiplash because it has been critically acclaimed whilst I detested it. If you’re planning to see the film don’t read on as there will be spoilers. In brief: the film celebrates JK Simmons’ character despite the fact he is a homophobic, racist, sexist, violent bully.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle is trying to pull of that difficult trick of getting us to admire someone who’s abominable. Daniel Day Lewis managed to get me to sympathise with his monstrous Bill ‘The Butcher’ in Gangs of New York (US-Italy, 2002) and I understood the psychological torment suffered by Michael Fassbinder’s Edwin Epps, a racist in love with a black woman, in 12 Years a Slave; however JK Simmons’ martinet music teacher, Fletcher, is irredeemable. That’s not, I think, to do with his performance but because the premise of the film, that such bullying can be necessary to achieve greatness, is wrong. Greatness in musical performance, and other spheres, is achieved through talent and utmost dedication to practice. Whiplash does show that but the closing scene’s exchanged smile between the protagonists suggests that every vile thing Fletcher did was to the good is, for me, as vile as his character.

Recently sexual abuse of pupils at an elite music school in Manchester has come to light (that’s one sin Fletcher is not guilty of) and high-pressured relationship between tutor and pupil can obviously be psychologically damaging. For Whiplash to acknowledge this, Fletcher has to resign after a bullied pupil (who nevertheless became successful) committed suicide, and then to say but really what Fletcher did to Miles Teller’s Andrew, a drummer, was right is reprehensible. I could go on about the absence of women, Andrew’s girlfriend only exists to be dispensed with and his mother is dead, but I won’t.

The critics and audiences love the film (imdb is at 8.7) so I’m out of step on this one. Maybe because I am a teacher Fletcher’s  dreadful behaviour is personal. I don’t know but I do know I hated this film.

PS the music is terrific.

Only Lovers Left Alive (UK-Germany-France-Cyprus-USA, 2013)

Staying alive

Staying alive

This film has that rare beast: a good trailer. I’m not a Jim Jarmusch fan, though I admire anyone with an independent sensibility, so I may not have gone if they trailer hadn’t looked as good. And it was the look that mattered, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston give off a wonderful other-worldly ambience which, as vampires, they should. Although it is a vampire movie, it only draws on the basic tropes of the genre and Jarmusch meditates upon modernity.

Although ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ is the motto of a fogey, at a time when politicians squabble over taking credit for an energy company’s freezing of prices, it might be the only one that makes sense. In the UK, PM Cameron, and his opposite number Miliband, seemed not to notice that the energy company was not sacrificing profits in the freeze, but jobs and wind farms. Hiddleston’s Adam moans about zombies (humans) and he’s right to do so. There is an ‘end game’ to life at the beginning of the 21st century as climate change-induced calamities start to pile up with no sign that there’s a will, in politicians or the public, to seriously address the issue. There’s a fin de siecle feel to the film’s narrative too: even blood isn’t what it used to be.

Adam, a drone musician, with a dash of Krautrock, is holed up in decaying Detroit; a post-industrial landscape that epitomises decay and decadence. There can be fewer real surreal sights as the Michigan theatre that’s now a car park. His lover, Swinton’s Eve, lives in the far more vibrant Tangiers, getting her hits from supplier Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). And this is the weakest aspect of the film; the canard that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays is repeated as fact and this, along with the name dropping of characters from history (Byron, Mary Wolstencroft et al), alters the tone of the film, suggesting that we aren’t meant to be taking it seriously. Except, it’s clear we are.

Mia Wasikowska does a terrific turn as the errant sister, suggesting that her talent will take her far. But the star of the film is production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, Bina Daigeler’s costumes and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography.