Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…

Judgement Day

Trainspotting 2 (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Back in the day there was a Panic, nay, a Right To Do, over Trainspotting the movie. Irvine Welsh was the Scottish flavour of the month for cult writer, but the film version led to Peter Bottomley and other Tory MPs to condemn it as it would turn everyone into junkies, which is an unlikely experience for anyone who actually saw the movie, as indeed Bottomley hadn’t. Will Self called it drugs porn, whatever that meant, presumably because it didn’t match his flavour of smugness.

Cool Britannia was heading for its height — the Oasis vs. Blur conundrum exercising everyone who hadn’t heard Pulp, Mr Tony was already doing his Tory PM in waiting grin and John Major was still the grey man. Family values and all that? Don’t eat the eggs.

Trainspotting was a breath of fresh air as I recall, being neither the chocolate box heritage adaptation nor the mockney gangster, Danny Boyle (and Ewan MacGregor) was hot from Shallow Grave and Robert Carlyle was emerging as a great character actor (Hamish Macbeth? The Full Monty was on its way). John Hodge weaved a series of vignettes into a linear but heavily narrated movie, the stories of junky Renton (MacGregor) and his friends in Edinburgh. The editing and mise en scène was sharp, the pacing assured, transcending various moments of MTV video. A hundred moments stand out — a freeze frame of Renton leaning on a car bonnet, Renton licking his cut finger, Renton wincing at a needle, Spud (Ewan Bremnor) gabbling his way through a job interview, a toilet dream fugue…

Carlyle and MacGregor went onto greater things — the latter fell out with Boyle when he wasn’t cast in The Beach and did Star Wars instead — Bremnor would appear from time to time, Jonny Lee Miller (Sickboy) never quite made star status and seems to have had more success on TV. And Boyle never quite repeated himself, so a return to Trainspotting seemed unlikely even though Welsh had written a sequel Porno.

But the creative team reassembled twenty years on — double the interval of the first two Linklater/Delpy/Hawkes Before movies — and found space for a sequel. Oddly, I had the same sense of fanboy stomach lurch when I saw the trailer for T2 as I did for The Force Awakens, which puts Carlyle somewhat in the Harrison Ford position and suggests that he may well have an emo kid who will be the death of him.

T2 is a darker film, both visually and thematically, even as Edinburgh itself has thrived. Renton, last seen heading for Amsterdam with a hold all full of money, has had a dull career and failed marriage, Spud used the money left for him on more drugs, Sickboy has moved into pimping and blackmail and Begbie (Carlyle) has been in and out of prison. Renton returns to Edinburgh, partly to rebuild his life and to make amends, but not everyone is pleased to see him. Revenge is on the cards.

Of course, we want to see the old team together again, whether it’s the three junkies and Begbie or the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but we know it can’t be the same again. Boyle cleverly plays with the desire from reunion, whilst quoting the earlier film in a parallel way to Abrams with Lucas. Sometimes it’s a matter of music cues — although in different recordings — sometimes it’s equivalent scenes such as chases, fights and Sean Connery impressions. We get the odd filmic flashback, lifting Trainspotting footage, sometimes we get newly shot versions. We even get, finally, the vignette that explains both the film’s title and Begbie’s behaviour, just in case we don’t realise the danger his son faces.

The junky lifestyle seems to be about history repeating itself, always as tragedy, certainly as fuck up, and the four leads always circulate around the possibility of falling back into old ways. There is the Big Scheme, one last scam, that will help them all escape, but you know they are doomed. Judgement Day awaits.

If Trainspotting was Renton’s film, then this is Spud’s, with a curious arc of redemption that almost makes the film eat its own tail. Certainly he is the focus of the stand out visual set pieces. He steals the scenes as Begbie chews and punches and kicks the scenery; Sickboy meanwhile is a minor villain and Renton largely an enabler.

If you remember the original posters for Trainspotting there were five figures in black and white surrounded by orange. The fifth, the only female, was Diane, Renton’s underage conquest, although in a sense he was the one who was conquered in a rather dubious sequence. Diane is back, in cameo, but relegated from poster duties. Two decades of sexual politics leads to a film about four men; the women here are mothers and ex-wives or girlfriends, the common sense of a normal life when the boys have stopped playing.

Danny Boyle would be eighty if we checked in again in twenty years. Is it a cheap metaphor to wonder if we would like another fix? Do we want to see the characters as the old men in the bar, nursing pints and chasers as young men fight each other? I suspect it is. I suspect we do.

so much depends upon a red collar

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Eddie Redmayne was lauded for his problematic performance in The Danish Girl, but it’s not until the closing credits of Paterson that it is revealed that here Marvin the dog  is actually played by Nellie (and has since died).

What are we to make of this? Is it a sign that her human, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is so obsessed by her relentless redecoration of their house in black and white that she hasn’t noticed Marvin’s sex? Or in her world is Marvin a gender neutral name? She is explosively creative — painting the walls, the soft furnishings, the shower curtain, trying to learn the guitar in three days, wanting to make a fortune with cupcakes — and even subjecting Marvin to the indignity of bad paintings. It’s only a wonder she hasn’t painted on Marvin.

Whilst Laura stays at home, hubby Paterson (Adam Driver) drives a bus.

Imagine that. Imagine the version where they’d cast Minnie Driver.

Paterson, living in Paterson, has read Paterson and aspires to be a poet. He writes poetry when he should have been starting on route 23, he writes poetry in his lunch hour and he writes poetry in his den. He writes it in big friendly letters in his Moleskine (gotta love stationery porn) and on the screen, just in case we don’t get it. It is clean and there are no crossings out.

First thot, best thiught.

Obviously it is Paterson-esque because this is Paterson in Paterson. No wonder Marvin’s confused. Is it meant to be any good? Paterson’s let Laura read it, but he’s never performed it and he’s never submitted it anywhere and because he doesn’t do any fucking drafts, the Moleskine is his only copy. So is it any good?

And every night, Marvin is taken for a walk to a bar. Not into the bar — he is made to sit outside, even though it is made clear that dog jackers are about. His life is at risk.

Paterson just sits there nursing a drink, chatting to the locals, in a kind of post-racial utopia where one of the African American patrons can pull a gun and not be gunned down by the law. Everyone can quote Abbott and Costello routines.

Maybe Marvin is better off outside.

But clearly Marvin is building stress and resentment, and, having committed minor acts of vandalism takes a bloody revenge on his humans. Serves them right. He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I have to say I never quite trusted Paterson. I suspect he’s on the edge of becoming all emo, obsesses over his dead grandfather and is likely to upset his parents.

Meanwhile, Marvin the paranoid canine has good reason to be paranoid, and Nellie is a great loss.

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.

Contains Moderate Violins

Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)

This is perhaps the most disturbing of Craven’s films.

It’s heart-warming.

I mean, what the fuck?

This is based on a true story of Roberta Guaspari, here played by Meryl Streep, dumped by her Navy SEAL husband for a younger model, picked up and speedily dropped by a writer, but not before she’s argued her way into a job at a East Harlem school. Well, not exactly a job, but a programme to teach a few of the children to play the violin.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Some of the kids don’t want to be there and one of them is killed and there’s a nasty trad music teacher who hates her guts but doesn’t seem to age in ten years. Slowly, she makes progress, overcoming resistance, opening eyes, battling low expectations and the programme expands to other schools.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

And then the authorities cut the budget, so the programme is doomed unless the kids and Roberta can raise the money. Fortunately, photographer Dorothea von Haeften (Jane Leeves, showing the talent for accents she brings to Daphne in Frasier), knows a few proper fiddlers and the day might be saved.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Craven resists the temptation to throw in a few nightmares or inbred families, and even the corruption of the central family thanks to Charlie leaving them is explicitly celebrated towards the end of the film — sometimes it’s better for daddy to go.

It has to be noted that the kids are a diverse bunch — African American, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, with a few more white faces in later years, a character in calipers — and Streep here is presumably Greek-American rather than Jewish. A mother is given an apposite speech about white knights coming in to save the underprivileged, and asked her to name any non-White composers (she can’t, or doesn’t), but somehow she endures. Angela Bassett, as school principal Janet Williams, is given a frankly better role than the one she has in Vampire in Brooklyn: tough, caring, hard ass, wise.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

In the hands of a Scorsese, we might have been clearer about the passage of time — she seems to use same classroom for over a decade and may have slight changes of hair, but it’s not clear if it’s 1975 or 1985 or 1995. Her sons suddenly turn from adorable tots to lanky teens, ready to pimp her out for a new boyfriend, but the film is less epic than its two hour plus running time might suggest.

This is, perhaps, Craven’s most overtly political movie and is, “Pére-Lachaise” in Paris Je t’aime (2006) aside, pretty well his only venture out of the horror genres. Whilst based on a true story, it seems almost too easy. The jeopardy never seems as high as when a character’s soul is at stake.

That being said, my eyes were distinctly moist for the last fifteen minutes.

The horror, the horror.

Mirthless in Brooklyn

Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995)

It’s a bad sign when, even a week or so after watching, you are unclear whether you are watching a horror film or a comedy.

There was a time when Eddie Murphy was box office gold — actually he’s waxed and waned several times — and this film comes at a point where he’s tied into doing films for Paramount (for example Beverley Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984) and sequels, Coming To America (John Landis, 1988), Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy, 1988), Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992)), but wants a break from doing comedy. Craven, meanwhile, had long harboured desires to move on from horror.

It is a match made in…

Well, somewhere damp.

The opening seems promising enough with a ship adrift and heading into a Brooklyn harbour in the fog — a nod back to Dracula somewhere along the line. But Murphy in weird wig and thick accent as vampire Maximillian from somewhere in the Caribbean is insufficiently horrific or comedic, displaying the same kind of tension that Jim Carrey sometimes does when playing straight. Maximillian is in search of a woman to continue the species, in the form of NYPD cop Rita Veder (Angela Bassett). Maximillian, meanwhile, has to pass as a preacher and an Italian criminal, allowing him space for the comic business that has largely been displaced onto his hapless, petty criminal assistant and valet, Julius Jones (Kadeem Hardison). These are some of the longest scenes in the movie.

Let’s note the theme of the untrustworthy family — Veder’s mother, some kind of paranormal anthropologist, is dead, and it almost seems as if Maximillian is her father, or a father figure, which leads us to incest. There are a couple of dream sequences, as she wakes from a nightmare, and Maximillian turns a squalid apartment into a mansion.

Meanwhile, we have a strong female lead — albeit with the slightly lovelorn Detective Justice (Allen Payne) to help her out — and indeed an African American lead (compare Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) in The People Under the Stairs (1991)). In fact, Italians aside, there are very few white actors in the film — Joanne Cassidy has a cameo as Captain Dewey, as does Jerry Hall as a woman mugged in the park in a moment that ought to have political bite, but… We should note Zakes Mokae from The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) as Dr Zeko, but have a creepy sense of the Haitian equivalent of Orientalism about both roles. Craven is trying.

But the film is trying — Murphy will go onto better things, and Craven was to put his tongue better in his cheek in the Scream franchise.

Old Red Eyes is Back

Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

So the original plan was to watch a film that wasn’t work-related – Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – but that started skipping and so I went back to the Wes Craven pile I’ve been working through and should have written up but haven’t. Of course, this is a late entry in the oeuvre and I need to check out whether this or Cursed (2005) came out first. These were his penultimate non-Scream franchise movies.

I’m interested in these as works of an auteur and so the point is I suppose that this is thriller rather than horror, although it has hints of the home invasion horror that Craven began with in The Last House on the Left (1972). Craven was arguably the director who introduced the supernatural into the slasher, but he didn’t need it here or in many of his early films. Unusually, too, there is no playing around with reality and fantasy, although comic relief receptionist Cynthia (Jayma Mays) is wandering through a nightmare shift.

So we have Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a nervous flier on her way home to Miami from her grandmother’s funeral, making phone calls to an over protective dad, the great Brian marked-for-death Cox; you know it can’t end well. She strikes up a brief relationship with blue-eyed Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) – indeed the film could have been called blue eyes – who turns out to be part of a plot to kill deputy Homeland Security guy Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia). She must move him into a suite where he can be assassinated or her father gets it. Most of the film is in the claustrophobic confines of the plane.

So, relatively common for Craven, we have a female lead – although at first you wonder whether she couldn’t fight back a little more. The decks seem stacked against her, but that’s the way the plot works. She comes good in the end, although (spoiler) she is denied the pay off.

There is a political subtext – the evils of the Homeland security – but oddly the film comes down on the side of them and the villains are mostly unseen and ill-defined off screen machinators. Should we see it as a critique of the TSA that the characters are so able to move on and off of aeroplanes, even on a domestic flight? The earlier Craven would have had a bit sharper teeth, but this is Amblin after all.

The families are less ambivalent than usual – the Keefe family seem adorable and whilst Lisa’s parents are split up, daddy seems nice if overprotective. Again, earlier films have critiqued the family, and in the avenging family there is a question of whether eye for eye justice is justified.

The climax, despite a largely unnecessary return to the hotel, is at the family home, mid remodelled, and somewhere along the line there is the sense of the uncanny as the familiar and he forgotten. The place of refuge and safety turns into a trap – Lisa moves from locking out into locking in. The police, obviously, can’t help as usual, and justice has to be personal. Her weapons are improvised – whilst villains have guns and knives, she has chairs and fire extinguishers and hockey sticks but an inexplicable failure to kick anyone in the balls. And, as I say, patriarchy reasserts itself.

I’m glad I’ve ticked this off the list, but it’s a by the numbers slick thriller with some nice touches.