The Lost City of Z(4/23/2017)

It’s always interesting to watch a good filmmaker as they pivot.  That’s what seems to be happening at the moment with James Gray, who’s not really a director I’m an expert on but whose work I know well enough that I can tell he’s in a transitional place in his work.  Gray began his career with a trilogy of crime films set on the gritty streets of New York and dealing with the Russian mafia.  He then seemed like he was going to transition into the realm of intimate contemporary character study when he made the movie Two Lovers but then he seemed to realize that that the indie film world already had more than enough intimate romance films so he switched things up again with his next film The Immigrant.  That film was another New York story but one set in 1921 and focusing on a female protagonist.  I was really fond of that movie when I saw it a couple of years ago but I’d be lying if I said that it had stuck with me as much as I had thought it would.  That movie did seem to indicate a new direction Gray would be going however as his next movie also seems to be taking a classical, if slightly modernized, approach to a familiar kind of period piece, in this case the “jungle adventure.”

That film, The Lost City of Z, is Gray’s first film to not in any way be set in New York.  The film is about a British military officer in the late 1800s/early 1900s named Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) whose career has been stunted both because he served in peacetime and because he comes from a family line that’s been previously tainted in scandal.  When an opportunity comes along to finally that would allow him to gain military rank and help overcome his family’s legacy he jumps at it and that opportunity comes in the form of working together with the Royal Geographic Society in order to survey the Amazon along the Brazilian/Bolivian border in order to settle those countries land disputes and maintain the peace.  While there he finds himself fascinated by the native populations and begins searching for evidence that would suggest that there was once a vast civilization he calls “Z” (which is pronounced “Zed” in the British fashion) in the Amazon which would prove to the other whites that that there was more to these people than it seemed.

The film is based on a recent non-fiction book called “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann and seems to largely be a pretty close re-telling of the real history of Percy Fawcett… and this is kind of a problem.  It’s easy to picture Gray reading that book with rapt attention, falling in love with the story it told, and feeling compelled to make audiences the world over as interested in Fawcett as he is.  And indeed, this is a guy who did live a fascinating life and I’m glad to have learned about him but his life does not exactly fit into a three act structure, which is not an insurmountable obstacle but it would have forced Gray to either adapt the story a little more to fit into one or found some new creative way to get around it.  Instead Gray has opted to do a very straightforward adaptation that would let the facts speak for themselves, which wasn’t necessarily the worst idea ever but it does give the film a pretty awkward through line.  It’s very much a film told in simple factual prose instead of poetry more often than not.

That should not suggest that the film doesn’t have its share of redeeming qualities.  The film is at its best when it focuses in on that “obsession” that featured in the title of the film’s source material.  This manifests itself in some kind of hokey ways at times (looking at you fortune teller) but at its heart it’s pretty interesting.  Characters in the film frequently mentions that similar lost cities had also become the fixation of the conquistadors and driving them to ruin, which conjures up images of Aguirre drifting down river surrounded by chimps, and contrasts it with Fawcett’s own obsession for a lost city.  His reasons for looking for said lost city are certainly more “woke” than those of the conquistadors but is his obsession any less self-destructive?  His motives are also a bit curious.  He’s trying to prove that South American natives were capable of building large civilizations with big structures and pottery but it’s not exactly clear in the movie why that would have been such a revelation.  Europeans were already well aware of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires at this point so what would a third civilization have really proved?  I’m sure there are answers to that question but if any of those answers are in the actual movie I think I missed them.  Still, there was something to watching Fawcett’s evolution as a humanitarian and anthropologist of sorts and I was interested to see him doing this to some extent.

Of course one of the things preventing the obsession theme from really reaching its full potential is that Charlie Hunnam’s performance is a bit weak.  I’ve never really been much of a fan of Hunnam’s work and while he’s not terrible here or anything but I don’t think he really gives this role the presence that would really make him pop from the screen and become something memorable.  Some of the adventure/travelogue elements of the film do work and manage to find a way to be interesting and entertaining without having the kind of Indiana Jones style serial action that often characterizes other jungle adventure films.  Still, even if the film is an interesting journey through the Amazon with some respect for the indigenous people, there is another movie that looms large over all this: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which was one of the best movies of last year.  For whatever The Lost City of Z does to try to be different from the colonialist narratives of this region it sure as hell isn’t that different and it also isn’t in much of a position to engage in anywhere near that movie’s level formal and narrative experimentation.  I’m not trying to just say “this movie with Robert Pattinson in it isn’t as daring as a black and white foreign film, therefore it’s bad” but it does put into perspective that there were more interesting ways to adapt this kind of material and Gray just wasn’t able to find them.

Kong: Skull Island(3/9/2017)

The 1933 film King Kong is pretty much an undisputed classic, but it’s also one that can be easy to take for granted.  That might be because it doesn’t really fit too cleanly into any of the other trends of 1930s cinema.  It has little to do with the horror films being made by Universal at the time, its stop-motion effects were largely relegated to B-movies after it came out, and its director Merian C. Cooper never directed another movie and relegated himself to roles further behind the scenes after he made Kong.  It wasn’t really until a new generation of filmmakers who grew up on Kong came to prominence that its influence really became known, and this has led to a number of highly reverent remakes which have tried to recapture what they see as the importance of the original film.  There was of course the 1976 version, which seems kind of corny in retrospect but it is clear that Dino De Laurentiis was trying to make it an event blockbuster in the mold of Jaws and he really wanted to make audiences cry when the gorilla kicked the bucket.  But the movie that really showed the reverence that a new generation of filmmakers had for that first movie was Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which worked really hard to remake the first movie into a prestige epic that audiences would take as seriously as he took the original.  I was on board for that, but I think Jackson’s zeal turned out to be rather off-putting to general audiences that didn’t share his reverence for the material just wanted to see a giant monkey smash things and move on with their lives.  That movie was also probably not what the studio was looking for as it, like every other version of the story, ended with Kong dying which doesn’t leave room for much of a franchise.  With the new film Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts has taken a different approach and decided to make a King Kong movie that fits more into the mold of a modern summer blockbuster that takes the series in a more populist B-movie direction.

For this iteration of the Kong story the setting has been moved to 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  With Nixon negotiating and end to the war a scientist named William Randa (John Goodman) and his colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) believe they may be seeing their last opportunity to explore an uncharted island that has been the cause of many missing ships and airplanes.  After convincing a senator (Richard Jenkins) that they need to explore this mysterious island before the Soviets do he’s allowed to mount an expedition.  Because he knows this could be trouble he brings along a military escort led by a colonel named Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s bitter about the end of the war and eager to do one last mission.  They also bring along an experienced Jungle tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as well as a whole bunch of other scientists and soldiers.  Once they get there however, they quickly find that the weather is hardly and most frightening thing about Skull Island and that they are once again in for the fight of their lives.

Previous films in the Kong franchise and movies of the Kaiju genre in general really tend to play the Jaws approach of delaying the appearance of their titular monster as much as possible so as to make its really satisfying when said creature finally makes its entrance.  Kong: Skull Island doesn’t really play that game.  Instead the military and the expedition members encounter Kong almost immediately after they get to the island and before they’ve even seen the rest of the monsters on Skull Island.  People who were disappointed by the relative lack of Godzilla from Gareth Edwards’ recent Godzilla will probably not feel the same way about this film.  This Kong walks fairly upright and as such more closely resembles the original Kong than the one in Peter Jackson’s movie, which more closely resembled the look of a real Gorilla.  Vogt-Roberts is very willing to give Kong close-ups and seems particularly fascinated by his teeth.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effects work here and it won’t amaze people the way that the effects in the 1933 film and even the 1976 and 2005 versions did to some extent but the CGI here is strong and confident just the same and watching Kong and the various monsters do what they do is definitely fun to watch with the emphasis being on action rather than raw spectacle.

One of the first thing you notice about the film is that it has a surprisingly large cast of characters played by a variety of fairly recognizable characters and it quickly becomes clear that this is because the movie is absolutely ruthless about killing people off and is kind of shockingly violent for the sort of lighthearted blockbuster that this is.  This was perhaps also true of the 1933 film, in which dozens upon dozens of nameless sailors are killed by various monsters and the Peter Jackson movie also killed off a whole lot of people but there was usually a certain gravity given to the scenes where the characters you’ve come to recognize were dispatched.  This movie on the other hand kind of revels in building up characters just enough so that you make some connection to them before it proceeds to kill them in fairly flippant ways.  I wasn’t exactly disturbed or offended by this but it did seem rather tonally odd, and this movie generally is not very precious about tone.  The movie invokes the novel “Heart of Darkness” by naming characters Conrad and Marlow (yet somehow has the restraint not to name Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz), which was reference that didn’t make a lot of thematic sense when Peter Jackson made it before but at least the jungle adventure in that movie was appropriately dark, here it makes even less sense as the tone doesn’t resemble that book in the slightest and it has none of its themes about colonialism or psychology.

I suppose those references were included because of its association with Apocalypse Now which is definitely a movie this movie wants to be, except without all the darkness and politics.  There is pretty clearly some Vietnam allegory with the Samuel L. Jackson character once again stubbornly trying to win an unwinnable war, but it doesn’t have anything to profound to say about that conflict in general.  It also has an incredibly lazy soundtrack that hits seemingly every cliché of the “Vietnam movie.”  I mean, if you’re making a movie with Vietnam in the background and you think “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a creative choice you should go back to the drawing board.  You also shouldn’t invoke “We’ll Meet Again” unless you want your audience thinking about nuclear war, and it’s probably just generally a mistake for any movie to use “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies for any reason, as that is seemingly in every movie set in the early 70s. In general, the film’s period setting does not add a lot to the movie at all and mostly just seems to be flavoring, but not necessarily bad flavoring and probably does give it a certain something a film set in 2017 wouldn’t have had.

This thing is coming out in early March but at the end of the day its best described as a movie that follows the template of what audiences expect out of an early 21st Century blockbuster for better or worse.  Its characters are fairly stock action movie types, it has a lot of CGI driven action scenes, it has the balance of drama and comedy that people have come to expect from these movies.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t a completely bland director and he does bring some interesting visual ideas to the film (looking at you Richard Nixon bobble-head) but he also doesn’t have a wildly bold vision either.  This is a very lightweight monster movie action movie and it will probably please most audiences and will subvert very few expectations.  People looking for a silly little monster movie to watch will probably not be disappointed: the monster fights are cool, the human parts are amusing, and the scenery is nice… it does pretty much everything it advertises.  People looking for more than that or for something that’s more of the lineage of the classic film that this takes its name from might be a little disappointed.  It’s an inelegant and kind of messy movie but it gets the job done and it has some very cool moments at times.

Logan(3/4/2017)

Is there any actor working today who has as consistently been as frequently featured in a single role as Hugh Jackman as Wolverine?  If you count his rather brief cameos in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse he’s played this character in no fewer than nine different movies now including two movies that are dedicated Wolverine solo movies.  Well, I suppose Robert Downey Jr. will exceed that count pretty soon if he sticks with the MCU and he’s certainly got nothing on historical examples of this like Shintaro Katsu’s 26 film run in the role of Zatoichi but it still seems kind of incredible in a film climate where the likes of Daniel Craig can’t seem to be convinced to play James Bond more than four times or Jennifer Lawrence seems to need endless pampering in order to be talked into playing Mystique more than three times.  Still, I can see why this role would appeal so much to him.  It’s a flattering role that makes song and dance man Hugh Jackman seem like the ultimate badass, an ultimate warrior who can win pretty much any fight and operate off of his id constantly.  His enthusiasm for the role has however led to some regrettable choices, namely the two solo Wolverine movies which were probably low points for the series give or take an X3.  The first of these X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a true embarrassment that few like to even remember, and the second called The Wolverine wasn’t bad so much as wildly forgettable.  That second solo film was directed by James Mangold and promised bigger better things with its simple title, and that is why I’ve maintained some skepticism about this new Wolverine movie, the Mangold directed Logan, despite its cool trailer.

Logan is set years after the events we saw in previous X-Men movies and it’s not entirely clear where it fits within the various complex timelines of that series.  The very first X-Men is referenced but otherwise the film avoids talking continuity.  I’m pretty sure it’s actually meant to be what they call in DC comics an “elseworld” story, sort of a “The Dark Knight Returns” for the movie version of Wolverine.  In this future mutants are no longer being born for some reason and many of Wolverine’s compatriots have been killed off by government hit squads.  Logan himself (Hugh Jackman) is hiding out as a limo driver in Texas and many of his powers have been failing him in old age.  He has however maintained contact with one person from his past, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is now in his 90s and in his semi-senile state has had his powers become unstable.  He’s now hiding out in a water tower with a mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and is being kept medicated to keep him stable.  One day Logan is approached by an unknown woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who is offering him money to escort a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a sanctuary she believes exists in North Dakota, which Logan considers because he could use the money to move Xavier but soon it becomes clear that Laura is being pursued by an agent named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who intends to steal her.

That Logan is a notably more gritty and stand-alone take on the X-Men universe would be notable enough but as you watch it you also quickly notice that these characters have suddenly learned how to say the word “fuck” more than once in a movie and also this strange red liquid is now pouring out of all the injuries that Wolverine has been stabbing with his claws.  That’s right, Hugh Jackman and James Mangold have somehow convinced the fine people at 20th Century Fox to let them take off the safety wheels and make this thing as a hard R-rated movie with a high body count and graphic violence and it does feel like they were dedicated to this direction rather than sort of hedging their bets and trying to decide whether or not this would just be a PG-13 release with an “unrated cut” down the line.  One could argue that they should have been filming these action sequences like this from the beginning given that this is a character whose defining feature is metal blades on his hands but it does become quickly apparent that this bloody violence feels more at home in the world of this movie than in the sort of half-dark half-lighthearted world of those other X-Men movies.

Logan is in many ways a movie that’s doing everything we’ve been asking the makers of big budget super hero movies to do.  It tells a smaller scale yet still action packed story that doesn’t end with a city about to be blown up, it doesn’t feel too much like a setup for a million other sequels, it narrows in on its characters and their individual issues, and of course it doesn’t compromise in its violence and language.  You can also tell that the people making the movie realized that they were being given something of a gift with this opportunity and didn’t want to waste it.  Hugh Jackman is pretty committed to this worn down and cynical version of Wolverine and director James Mangold (a guy who has been a pretty inconsistent journeyman director over the course of his career) works hard to make this look different than your average superhero movie and to take full advantage of this opportunity.

However, for all the film’s merits it really only seems as creative as it does when compared to the incredibly cookie-cutter world of 2010s superhero movies and when you start comparing it to the wider world of entertainment it starts to have a bit of an originality problem.  In fact the movie seems shockingly similar in tone, story, and imagery to a recent video game called “The Last of Us” right down to the look of the protagonists and of course that game was itself highly derivative of movies like Children of Men and The Road which were in turn inspired by movies like The Road Warrior, and the movie also has similarities with other “road trips with powerful children while pursued by the government” movies like Midnight Special or Firestarter.  If this had been the first movie in recent years where a grizzled man finds redemption through escorting a young girl who represents hope for humanity through an apocalyptic landscape I’d be over the moon for it, but it’s not, and that does kind of bring the movie down a few pegs for me.  Still, Wolverine is a cool-ass character and his presence does elevate pretty much any scenario you put him in and this is far from the least creative stock scenario they could have gone with.  I’m willing to bet there are some younger viewers for whom this will feel a lot less familiar and they’re probably going to love this thing.  It’s a movie that’s probably going to be over-rated in general in certain quarters but its accomplishments should not be discounted too much either.  The fact that we live in a world where we can have a hyper-violent $100 million dollar post-apocalyptic western starring Marvel’s pre-eminent badass is pretty awesome and I’d rather enjoy that than nitpick it.

Lion(1/15/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Harvey Weinstein is a guy who’s ultimately probably done more good than bad for the film world, but man does he do some annoying things sometimes.  Of course Weinstein is instrumental in making independent film go mainstream back in the 90s and he’s also helped introduce a number of foreign films to the American market and he’s also helped Quentin Tarantino be the wonderful maverick that he is but there’s always been a dark side to his empire.  He used to be notorious for buying up foreign films, especially Asian genre films, and then sitting on them for years instead of actually releasing them.  He is also of course infamous for tampering with movies to make them palatable to less sophisticated audiences, a practice that earned him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands.”  But most of all when I think of Harvey Weinstein I think of all the lame mawkish movies that he’s tried to sell to the film-going public because he (often correctly) thinks they’ll be eaten up by the more basic members of the Academy and earn money off of Oscar buzz.   These are movies that serious cinephilles don’t really want anything to do with, but they end up having weigh in on them anyway because they get sold as “art films” when they are in fact anything but.  The new film Lion certainly had the look of everything that’s wrong with Weinstein’s brand, but I had heard some people defend it as something that’s better than it looks, so I was willing to give it a go.

The film follows the life of Saroo (Played by Sunny Pawar as a child and Dev Patel as an adult), a four or five year old boy living in a very impoverished Indian village.  One evening his slightly older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) reluctantly takes him along with him to his night job but decides to leave him to wait at the train station.  When Guddu takes a very long time to return Saroo boards a train thinking his brother is on it only to then be locked inside the train as it proceeds to travel a very long distance without routinely stopping.  By the time the young boy finally finds his way off the train it has gone as far as Calcutta.  Lost, the boy lives on the streets for a while and when he’s finally rescued by authorities he’s unable to locate his home on the map and because his family is in such a remote and impoverished area they have no way to find him either.  Finally the boys ends up in an orphanage and ends up being adopted by an Australian couple named Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who also adopt another boy from India named Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a child, Divian Ladwa in adulthood), but as Saroo gets older he begins to get more and more curious about where his parents are and how to find them.

The first third of Lion, which depicts Saroo being lost as a child, is almost certainly the strongest part of the film.  This section of the movie, which is entirely in Hindi and Bengali, functions as a strong little short film of sorts and tells this neat Dickensian story about a scrappy kid’s journey.  I think that the main problem with the film is that everyone involved in the making of it seems to find this true story to be a lot more “extraordinary” than I do.  When Saroo finally begins searching for his family he doesn’t do it through some sophisticated detective work or by tirelessly knocking on every door or by doing some grand publicity campaign.  No, he literally just does some google searching.  To say that this is a very un-cinematic means of going on a lifelong quest is quite the understatement.  To spice up the drama in this segment the film tries to focus in on Saroo’s existential guilt about his family not knowing where he is, but the way they externalize this guilt to the audience was rather tedious and at a certain point almost made me resent the character as he moped on the screen for something like forty minutes.  I don’t completely want to dismiss what the guy was going through but when you watch the film you can’t help but think: “dude, you have two seemingly saintly adoptive parents supporting you, you seem to be fairly wealthy, you look like Dev Patel, your girlfriend looks like Rooney Mara, and yet all you can do is whine about this one less than perfect thing in your life.  Get over it and move on.”  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the transition between “third world problems” to “first world problems” in the movie can be rather jarring.

There are other little things about this second half that annoy me.  The sub-plot about Saroo’s adopted brother, for example, ultimately goes nowhere and seems like this half-baked element that was thrown in both because they felt obligated to add an element from the true story and because they needed to pad the running time.  I also kind of hated the very end of the movie, by which I mean the title cards that summarize things at the end.  Specifically I kind of despise a card that flashes on the screen at the end which announces something along the lines of “there are [x number] of missing children in India, go to [x charity’s URL] to help the cause.”  This is ridiculous, firstly because no movie should end by encouraging people to go to a website, and secondly because it implies that this movie was in any way made to raise awareness of this or any other issue when it very clearly wasn’t.  Saroo Brierley is in no way a representative example of the kind of missing children this charity is fighting for and his predicament is not presented as any sort of indictment of any system or institution so much as an unfortunate accident possibly borne of the family’s poverty.  That title card exists solely to make the movie feel more important than it is and I’m almost positive it was added in by Harvey Weinstein as it reminded me a lot of his rather cynical attempt a couple years back to re-paint The Imitation Game as a statement about pardoning people convicted under England’s “indecency” laws.  I realize this seems like a goofy thing to nitpick about but I think it’s emblematic of this movie’s problem: it’s taking a moderately interesting human interest story and treating it like something it’s not: namely something they needed to make a feature length movie about.

La La Land(12/15/2016)

The 1970s were a famously grand and tumultuous time for American cinema.  The “New Hollywood” era as it’s known is when the film industry moved on from the “old Hollywood” style as we now call it and embraced a newer more gritty style.  Of course being as American film did still have its roots in those Hollywood classics to some extent the new crop of auteurs weren’t going to completely abandon what came before and much of the New Hollywood era was dedicated to finding new and relevant ways to bring the old styles to the screen.  Sure enough the filmmakers of the era were indeed able to find new ways to make gangster films (The Godfather), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), film noirs (Chinatown), and various other familiar film genres, but there was one style they were never really able to crack: musicals.  Of course this wasn’t for lack of trying.  One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, attempts to bring back the musical was Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York, which was a huge bomb at the box office and is often seen as something of a blemish on the director’s career but it is very interesting to watch today if nothing else than for what it’s trying (and perhaps failing) to do.  Now, some thirty-nine years later a young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle seems to be trying to succeed where Scorsese failed and is making his own neo-musical named after a major city and focusing on a rocky relationship between a female performer and a jazz musician called La La Land and it’s finally coming out after a massive wave of hype and anticipation within the film community.

As you can probably guess from the title, La La Land is set in Los Angeles and it focuses very much on the people who are trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry.  Specifically it’s about a couple named Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), who are trying to start careers as an actress and jazz pianist respectively.  They actually first meet when Sebastian tries to pass Mia during a traffic jam and she ends up flipping him off but things do improve however when they meet again at a couple of Sebastian’s less glamorous gigs and they end up becoming a pair.  Of course it quickly becomes clear that dedicating themselves to each other is not always easy when they’re also trying to dedicate themselves to making their dreams come true.

Let’s go back to New York, New York: why did that movie fail?  Well for one thing it was too long, but aside from that I think that movie had two major flaws.  Firstly, I think it probably went a little too far into gritty cynicism as 70s films are wont to do.  The relationship between the Robert De Niro character and the Liza Minelli character is completely toxic almost from the beginning to the point of being almost abusive.  It’s not a movie where you want these crazy kids to get over their problems and get together so much as a movie where you want the woman to get the hell away, and that makes its ending a lot less melancholy than it’s supposed to be.  Secondly, New York, New York is kind of more of a musical in theory than it is in practice.  The characters don’t really burst into song in that movie, which is an understandable decision, but the story only occasionally finds reasons to have the characters sing and when they do the songs themselves just aren’t very memorable outside of the title track and while some of the scenes are memorably staged a lot of them aren’t.  I bring all this up to look at what pitfalls La La Land needs to overcome if it wants to succeed where Scorsese failed.

Let’s start by checking to see how the film operates at a musical.  Unlike other screen musicals of recent years like Les Misérables, Into the Woods, Nine, or Sweeney Todd this movie is not a Broadway adaptation.  Instead this is an original musical that’s very much in dialogue with the language of Hollywood musicals of the Vincent Minelli variety but to place it in a contemporary context.  Characters do burst into song and the movie generally embraces the general magical realism involved in the genre and director Damien Chazelle really brings it as a visual stylist to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s showing off.  Take the opening scene, where a bunch of commuters stalled on a freeway overpass get out of their cars and begin a full on six-minute song and dance number set up to look like it was done in a single shot.  This isn’t necessarily emblematic of all the musical numbers in the film as few of them actually involve choruses or backup dancers like that and the numbers actually get more intimate and infrequent as the film goes on, but it is emblematic in that Chazelle is really in take no prisoners form and is very interested in capturing these sort of spectacle moments and is often quite effective in doing so.

That having been said, I think the musical numbers here are in many ways more of a triumph of staging than they are of songwriting.  The music here was written by Justin Hurwitz, a very young composer who’s mainly only worked on Chazelle’s last movie Whiplash with lyrics written by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who are probably best known for working on the short-lived NBC series “Smash.”  In other words, the music here was not constructed by Broadway masters of the Sondheim or Lin Manuel variety, and it does sort of show.  Ignore the songs and Hurwitz music does actually function very well just as a film score (and the instrumentation is more front and center than you usually see from these things) but the songs don’t necessarily have those sort of pop hooks that will really get them caught in your head and while the lyrics are often appropriate they aren’t as meticulously crafted and written as some of the best that Broadway has to offer.  It’s not the kind of musical I expect anyone to want to sing along to and there aren’t really any numbers that you’re really going to get stuck in your head.  Also, while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can both definitely sing and pull off the songs generally, you can tell they’re actors first and you’re not going to get any super standout vocal moments along the line of Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” moment in Les Misérables or Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go” turn in Frozen.  Don’t get me wrong, the music here is entirely passable, even quite strong in its aggregate and it all works in the film.  I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things the songs do have their limitations without Chazelle’s staging.

So the movie handles music better than New York, New York, but what about the central relationship?  Well, it doesn’t make it’s male protagonist an unlikable monster, so it definitely has an advantage there, but I’m not sure that the central relationship in the film is quite as well cooked as it could have been.  In fact the romance gets off to a really questionable start with a series of kind of lame meet-cutes where the Gosling character is seemingly playing hard to get with Emma Stone and being sort of a dick in the process.  I didn’t really buy that part of the movie, but when the two finally do get together it works a little better even if certain things do sort of get glossed over.  It’s never really explained what these two really see in each other beyond the fact that they are the ones being played by the stars and some fairly standard “spark at first sight” kind of material.  This is ultimately a musical and in the history of that genre there are definitely romances that have been explored a lot less poignantly than this one, so I don’t want to be too hard on it, but at times the movie does sort of walk and talk like it’s this deep bittersweet dive into a relationship which it really isn’t when compared to something like Blue Valentine or something.

So, the music and the romance while not perfect still works a lot better than they did in New York, New York, where else do they compare.  Well, there is the matter of how the two movies are in dialog with the musicals of old as both are asking a very pertinent question: does this old style have any resonance with modern and seemingly more sophisticated understandings of the world.  New York, New York for all its problems did find some interesting if perhaps unsatisfying ways to bridge the gap between old Hollywood artifice and New Hollywood grit and it did so at the expense of a lot of the joy people expect from musicals.  There’s very little of that sort of giddy delight people expect from the songs in these movies to be found in Scorsese’s movie and when it did fully embrace the Vincente Minelli-style in the “Happy Endings” number it did so in ways that were bitterly ironic.  La La Land by contrast is a bit more nostalgic, or at least nostalgic in a way that’s a bit more conventionally recognizable.  Unlike Scorsese’s movie, La La Land starts with its giddiest and most Hollywood-style musical numbers right up front and gets more restrained as it goes, and when it starts pulling the rug out from all this later on it feels a bit more organic.

There are concessions to modernity here.  The characters do not have that sickly happy look on their faces as they sing like they do in some of those older movies and the film does more or less position its musical sequences as unreal fantasy moments rather than a diegetic reality within the film, but at the end of the day the film is deeply nostalgic and indebted to the past.  This slightly uneasy relation the film has to the past is made into something of a theme in the movie with the Ryan Gosling character’s purist views of jazz.  The character is laser focused on a dream of opening and running a jazz nightclub where nothing but “pure” jazz is played.  Not the most realistic dream given that jazz is not a terribly profitable genre and that some of his uncompromising ideas he has about running this establishment are kind of crazy, but people have gotta dream right?  Anyway this is challenged when he’d given a chance to join a Jazz/urban fusion band fronted by a guy played by John Legend.  This is counter to all his traditionalist views, but the Legend character makes a pretty good case for what he’s doing.  I expected this to end with the Gosling character realizing that there was something vibrant and original about what this band was doing and that he’d realize that embracing the new wasn’t an insult to the old and that this would be something of a metaphor for what Chazelle was doing to the film musical… but that isn’t really what ends up happening.  The character and the movie both more or less end up dismissing that band’s music as being sellout bullshit and the movie moves on from there.

That didn’t really rub me the right way, and I’ve got to say, this movie’s whole “take a moonshot and dare to dream” philosophy never quite spoke to me.  Here we’re getting into territory that’s largely a matter of personal taste and outlook, but I just do not relate to people who chase unrealistic dreams and I don’t have a ton of sympathy for starving artists.  When I hear people whine about having to work at a coffee shop before they’re “discovered” or talk about traditional jazz as a realistic career goal I can’t really help but roll my eyes a little and it’s hard for me to really sympathize with these kinds of characters who are mostly just suffering the consequences of their own questionable decisions and this might have played a little into why I wasn’t terribly invested in these characters.  When I hear movies tell my dreams I can’t help but think “easy for you to say, what about the people who don’t make it and have to live with the consequences the rest of their lives.”  La La Land certainly isn’t unaware of these pitfalls and even has a prominent music number that acknowledges the how “foolish” these dreamers are while still strongly celebrating them, and this perhaps makes the message a little less naïve than something like Sing Street which goes so far as to actively demand that it’s character drop out of high school in order to start a band but it still seems a bit like a sentiment that is pretty disconnected to the experience of most people.

There are of course movies that are a little more honest about chasing careers in show business do exist, Inside Llewyn Davis comes to mind, but I suppose there’s a reason that those movies don’t make a lot of money or win many Oscars.  And of course it’s hard to talk about this movie without bringing up the “O” word as it’s pretty much been pegged as a surefire Best Picture winner since even before anyone saw the damn thing and because of that it’s kind of hard not to watch it and judge it less on its own merits and more on its worthiness to be given Hollywood’s most prestigious honor.  If I’ve sounded like I’m kind of hard on the movie, this is probably a big part of why.  The movie’s bigger merits are readily apparent; those musical sequences do look great, it’s impossible to not at least admire it both for its filmmaking, its cinephilia, and its general ambition.  Hell, the movie managed to more or less succeed where someone as brilliant as Martin Scorsese in his prime failed, that’s very impressive.  The movie in general is very impressive, but there’s a difference between being impressed with a movie and falling in love with one, and I’m not in love with this movie.

Loving(11/20/2016)

When President Barrack Obama was elected there was a lot of great hope that we’d finally entered a “post-racial” era of American history.  That was a nice thought, but clearly it was total bullshit.  Here we are eight years later and not only have we failed to continue in a progressive direction but we’ve allowed a monster to become president, a blatant racist and misogynist who has made no secret of his plan to dismantle whatever progress has been made in recent years (Editor’s note: if you are a Trump supporter and are offended by any of this partisan discourse, kindly get fucked, I’m in no mood to mend bridges right now).  What to make of this?  Well, what it suggests to me is that these ideas of “making progress” were misguided.  Racism is not something that can ever truly be defeated and erased from the minds of the American people, rather it’s something that we’re always going to need to fight and keep in check through elections, laws, and court rulings because whatever milestones we reach and victories we achieve can be wiped away if we’re not vigilant.  The new film Loving is about one of the landmark victories of the past in the fight against institutional racism, a victory that in more ways than one helped pave the way for Barrack Obama’s electoral victory eight years ago but now almost seems like something that could disappear someday if we aren’t more vigilant than we have been recently.

Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a white man and black woman from Northeast Virginia who in 1958 bucked the mores and laws of their time and place by crossing into the district of Columbia to get married.  The two of them lived in a semi-secluded valley where the poorest inhabitants seem to live in relative integration between the races, including Richard who gets along well with Mildred’s family and friends for the most part.  The two of them don’t seem to think about their union as something done in defiance of an unjust law so much as it just seems like a natural progression in their relationship.  However, wind of this marriage does eventually make its way to the county’s sheriff and suddenly the two of them have deputies storming into their house at night and arresting them under anti-miscegenation laws.  With limited resources the two of them accept a deal which would allow them to avoid jail time but force them to move across state lines into D.C. and thus live an urban lifestyle that they are unequipped for.  Fortunately they do eventually meet an ACLU lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who believes this could be a good test case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

This film can easily viewed as one in a long line of black history movies that have come out recently, but I suspect that the project was originally conceived in response to a different civil rights fight: the fight for same sex marriage equality, a similar fight for the right to marry for which this story could serve as a sort of allegorical argument for preventing the government from deciding who could and couldn’t legally sanction their union.  Granted, Deadline Hollywood has reported that director Jeff Nichols wasn’t even hired to write the film until May of 2015, which was about a month before the landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced, so it’s fair to say that this wasn’t written to be a propaganda tool, but I’m still pretty sure there’s a reason this particular case is coming up at this particular time.  One could look at this timing and say that the movie came out too late and that it isn’t as topical as it could have been had it come out a couple years earlier, but once again, recent events have led me to reconsider my previous notions of “progress” on social issues and consider that it is perhaps worth being reminded on a regular basis how important the legal protections we currently have.

As previously mentioned, Loving was directed by a filmmaker named Jeff Nichols, who is not really the first director I would have suspected to be making this kind of middlebrow civil rights history movie, but I guess it makes a certain sort of sense given that he has long been the maker of films about the South.  What Nichols seems to bring to the movie is a degree of restrain and dignity that you wouldn’t get if this was given the treatment that something like 42 or Race doesn’t.  The movie never succumbs to the corny indulgences that I’m sure this could have stepped into though this approach does have some shortcomings as well.  The racism here seems a bit colder, more institutional than it does in a lot of these movies, which is probably realistic but it almost makes the environment that these two characters are living in seem at odds with their legal predicament.  In the movie it almost seems like the only people in the state of Virginia who were viscerally offended by inter-racial marriage were police and judges, which would seem to beg the question of just who it was who was electing these openly racist police and judges.

I also feel like the movie could have stood to be a bit more… romantic.  I suppose I like that the movie didn’t go the rather cheap and probably dishonest route of turning the Lovings into some crazy kids who consciously buck the odds and let love conquer all, but a little more of a spark between the two of them might have been nice.  The movie begins with Mildred already pregnant with their first child and Richard proposing, so the movie completely sidesteps their initial courtship and their relationship seems so tender and almost naïve that there isn’t a whole lot of physical chemistry onscreen.  What’s more their relationship later on seems almost a little too ideal to be real.  There’s hardly a single argument between the two aside from a few almost passive aggressive disagreements about how to proceed with their case.  I’m sure there are marriages out there which are this conflict free, but there’s a reason they tend not to make movies about those relationships, and given the pressures they were under I would imagine there would be at least one or two blow-ups between the two of them.  Part of this disconnect likely had to do with the pressure the Lovings were under during their lifetimes to prove that their relationship was viable and their understandable desire not to let the world see signs of weakness, but I at least like to think that fifty some years later it might be time to show another side of the relationship even if it required a degree of creative license to achieve.

Needless to say, as well made as this is it’s still a decidedly “safe” movie that’s meant to tell a story that will tell provide a fairly digestible moral to audiences who don’t want to be challenged to hard by their tales of racial strife.  The movie doesn’t really go into the reasons why the Lovings were chosen to be the test case brought to the supreme court rather than the other interracial marriages that the ACLU could have chosen.  The fact that it was the woman who was black, the fact that the two of them couldn’t be construed as “radicals,” the fact that Richard looked like a “good ol’ boy,” and Mildred had very maternal ambitions were likely all factors in why they were more likely to be sympathetic to the public of 1967 and they’re also likely factors in why this was chosen as the movie to sell to middle class movie goers and Academy voters in 2016 and also why the whole movie can seem a bit less than radical to people looking for something a little more radical in their modern civil rights movies.  And yet, once again, recent events have made me rethink these things a little and wonder if maybe there’s more of a need for education in “the basics” of civil rights than I might have thought a month ago.  But, the fact remains that whether or not movies like this are needed a film review is ultimately supposed to be a personal reaction and my personal reaction was to find the movie mostly respectable and decently watchable but decidedly less than visionary effort and the mere fact that it could have been a lot cornier than it is doesn’t automatically make it something too special in my eyes.