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…

Oldham On Sea Welcomes Careful Bathers

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

There’s a truism, to set aside the assertion that there are no famous Belgians, that there is no great novel set in Manchester. Well, here we have a contender, although I’m not sure where they filmed it. The Manchester Ship Canal never looked so good, is what I’m saying.

And everyone speaks with American actions.

So we begin with Lee Chandler, a janitor, Casey Affleck — you know, the talented brother — dealing with a series of thankless jobs in various apartments, mistreated by some tenants, hit on by others, clearly heading towards losing it with some of them before the world is much older. He seems allergic to kindness — when clearly being hit on at a bar by a younger woman, he prefers to hit two men, who are presumably gay.

It’s not clear whether we’re meant to be sympathetic yet, but we’ve already seen him on a fishing boat, trying to convince his nephew that he would rather live with him than his father. It turns out the father has a heart defect and has not got long for this world. And it comes down to it, Lee Chandler (Affleck) would rather not follow through because of his Guilt about His Past.

There’s another truism about the gun over the fireplace in Act One — someone will be shot by it in Act Three. Here we are repeatedly told that the fishing boat owned by Lee’s brother and eventually to be Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) has a dodgy engine. Sooner or later it will break down or explode — and so we are set up for the Drama — Patrick out alone on the water, unable to move the boat, either redeeming Lee’s guilt if he survives or kicking a man when he’s down if he’s a duffer.

But this is not exactly a film about redemption, even if it’s clear the characters are Catholic. Lee is damaged goods and you can understand why, but he’s more interested in putting himself through hell. His very body language speaks of being unable to express his feelings — he can barely cry, let alone hug. He cannot be helped, even when those most hurt want to reach out. The only language he can speak is violence.

Patrick, meanwhile, is an extraordinary character — bereft of a mother (although communicating with her in the quiet) and now of a father, speaking the family language in a fight at a school ice hockey practice. He has a band and at least two girlfriends — who try to set Lee up with dates — and is evidently wiser than his years. He is thrown by a cool uncle who refuses at first to set limits and even more thrown when they are imposed. We can see the cycle continuing.

And yet, no matter how sharp the film is over broken masculinity, its careful if fragmented demonstration of how the men get to be that way, I don’t think we get to understand the women in the same way. I don’t think the women have even the hope of consolation.

Michelle Williams is Lee’s ex, Randi, defined both as a mother and a killjoy, a peripheral supporting role perhaps as thankless as Brokeback Mountain. There is the sense that this might be how Jen ended up if she cleaned up her act in Dawson’s Creek and Casey is Pacey. But she is what she is through no fault of her own, whilst Lee’s sister-in-law, Elise (Gretchen Mol), is a drunk who walked out, and another killjoy. Her arc is unclear — we don’t know why she ended up the way she did. I don’t think the film really cares. I think her rôle is to tell us that redemption doesn’t make things any better.

But these worries aside, it is an impressive film, if one that will not give you what you want. I suspect it could lose twenty minutes, but again the broken arc of the films means an ending could come at any time.

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.

Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

Spoilers will follow. Continue reading →

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.

Death of a Maître d

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

The central sequence of this film feels like a stage play: Brooke (Greta Gerwig) wants to open her dream restaurant in New York but is several thousand short, so has travelled to Greenwich, Connecticut (screwball comedy central) to borrow the money from her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) who had previous stolen her best idea for a tshirt, her kittens and her fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). She has been driven there by Harold (Matthew Shear), friend of her soon to be step-sister Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and Harold’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Brooke is a dreamer, probably self deluded, the kind of role that a Ricky Gervais or a Ben Stiller or a Jim Carey would play at any opportunity — a motor mouth, turning on a sixpence, full of how great they are and how dreadful others are. It’s rare that it’s a female character, although it clearly offers a version of the unruly woman. It’s a twenty or thirty year younger version of Edina and Patsy. Her dream of a restaurant, Mom’s, where you could get a hair cut and would be a shop in the day and where her children when she has them would do their homework, needs money, but we go through various shades of farce as she attempts to get it — foiled by a pregnant lawyer at Maire-Claire’s bookclub, a snide neighbour and Nicolette’s jealousy of Tracy.

Tracy is meant to be the viewpoint character — in her first term at a swanky New York university, wanting to be a writer and to join the university’s fraternity (of writers) and the Nick to Brooke’s Gatsby or the I to her Withnail. Tracy has stolen Brooke’s character for her latest fiction, something that will lead to friction. She is dull of course, but we should luxuriate in a rare example of a movie built around female friendships. There is a minor drama around how far she will become like Brooke, but there’s more of a sense that she can see through her whilst wanted to give support.

Your liking of the film will depend on your liking for cringe comedy — think of the embarrassments of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and (restaurant investor) Larry David. At times it’s nails on a blackboard, fingers on a balloon, laughing bat rather than with. But it also has that awkwardness of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the tragic hero of the American Dream, who believes the tales he spins because to sell objects requires commodifying the seller. You can see straight through him and yet don’t want him to fail.

It is surely no accident that the film is Mistress America: Brooke becomes the personification of the American Dream that anyone can make it. She’s brash, self-deluded, yes, but also determined and ambitious. We don’t have to like her — but I think we can respect her.

Meanwhile, how does the film fit into the history of the bizarre post-apocalyptic depictions of New York in which all People of Colour have been wiped out? Well, Brooke has an African American neighbour, there’s the pregnant lawyer in Connecticut and, of course, Nicolette, whose jealousy reminds me of Angela (Jaz Sinclair) in Paper Towns. Is the indie-flavoured young female of colour there to be insecure or clingy? I hope not, but it’s just a sample of two.

All in all, an interesting film, although I can’t say I laughed out loud more than once or twice. But Baumbach and Gerwig, cowriters here, have plainly hit a groove that will be interesting to follow (and I should look up Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), which is clearly on a similar theme).