Graduation(4/29/2017)

Every great cinema movement usually has one filmmaker in it who acts as a standard bearer and for the Romanian New Wave that figurehead is almost certainly Cristian Mungiu, who was the first Romanian filmmaker to win the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.  That winning film was 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an intense but realistic film about back alley abortions in Ceaușescu’s Romania, and it was one of the landmark arthouse movies of the last ten years.  After that film’s success Mungiu used his newfound clout to make his next film Beyond the Hills on a slightly bigger scale.  That film examined the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romanian society and the way women are treated with in it as well as the divide between urban and rural society.  His new film, Graduation, is a little more modest but has clear depths to it in its examination of contemporary Romanian society and family dynamics.  When it debuted in Cannes it was greeted as another success for the director and won an award for Best Director, but it maybe didn’t quite make the splash that his earlier films made.

Graduation is set in contemporary Romania and follows a skilled surgeon named Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) whose daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) is about to graduate from high school.  Eliza is a strong student who has already earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge but this scholarship is dependent on getting high marks on a series of heavily proctored SAT-like exams.  Going into the movie Romeo isn’t too worried about her chances of passing these exams, but that changes when she’s assaulted on the street by a man who appears to have been an escaped convict.  This throws her and Romeo worries that the trauma will put her at a big disadvantage during the exams and could throw her hopes of getting that scholarship out the window.  As such he does what any good helicopter parent would do and uses a contact he has in the ministry of education in order to try to give her scores a boost in the off chance she underperforms.  This is very much out of character for Romeo, who has long been disgusted by the kind of corruption that occurs in Romania, which is a big part of why he’s so excited for his daughter to study abroad.  It also goes against much of what he’s taught his daughter about integrity and given that she would need to mark the exam in order for it to be pulled and given special treatment it puts her in an oddly compromised position and makes her reconsider her father.

Depending on your perspective Graduation could be viewed as a critique on a culture of corruption that exists in modern Romania, or it could be viewed as a look at the hypocrisy of one man and the consequences of his sanctimonious views, or it could be viewed as some combination of the two.  The protagonist is notably not a patriot, or at the very least he’s a very frustrated one; it’s established early on that he and his wife once lived abroad and returned to Romania after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime hoping to make a difference.  He was disappointed in what he came home to and now believes that the only hope for his daughter is for her to move abroad.   However, it becomes clear that in many ways this is a classic “this isn’t my dream, it’s your dream” when looked at from his daughter’s perspective.  From a certain perspective the father’s pessimism perhaps seems overblown, snobbish almost, and that may especially be true when looked at from the perspective of someone who has grown up in this environment.

At the same time, Romeo is the film’s protagonist and you do see his point of view in all of this.  Everything had seemed to be plotted out perfectly for him and seemed to be going so well until his daughter was attacked on the worst possible week and suddenly started rebelling and having second thoughts about her future on the worst possible week.  He’s certainly right to want her to keep her options open, and you can also see why he’d justify the lengths that he’d go to in order to ensure she had a leg up.  After all, if everyone else in the country is getting theirs why shouldn’t he get his?  However, it’s that one moment of failure that’s ultimately his downfall.  I’m reminded a bit of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character from A Serious Man, whose life turns into a Jobian trial as he considers selling out his principals once.

Stylistically Graduation is less bold than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills and perhaps more closely resembles the look of some of Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian contemporaries, especially Corneliu Porumboiu, but that choice does fit this particular movie well enough.  The movie actually kind of reminds me of one of the movies that it was competing against at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman.  The two films actually do have the shared theme of men reacting in less than appropriate ways to women in their lives being attacked, but really what the two films have in common is that they’re in the slightly awkward position of being very good movies unto themselves while also kind of being the weakest efforts from their respective filmmakers.  Of the three films Cristian Mungiu has made since his breakout this is clearly the third best to me but that maybe says more about those other films than it does about this one.

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.

20th Century Women(1/21/2017)

It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie.  For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more.  It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick.  When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain.  Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc.  That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.

The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son.  The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after.  She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way.  That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game.  In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways.  This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently.  Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.

20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners.  That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar.  Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up.  However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie.  Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times.  All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail.  The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen.  This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream.  What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.

The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another.  Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son.  Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens.  She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her.  There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act.  Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age.  Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins.  Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into.  Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.

At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself.  In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge.  It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice.  In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long.  The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.

Silence(1/7/2017)

On October 22nd 1988 a fundamentalist Catholic group linked with the far-right National Front firebombed the Saint Michel theater in Paris, a theater that was showing what had become a highly controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ.  The film had been condemned sight unseen by everyone from The Vatican to Jerry Falwell to Pat Boone.  People were picketing outside the home of the president of Universal Pictures, it was banned in numerous countries, and everyone involved received numerous death threats.  A film this controversial would be the most famous thing that most Hollywood directors would ever be involved with, but for Martin Scorsese it almost feels like a footnote in an extraordinary career.  That’s partly because, once the controversy died down, people were left with a rather complicated movie that isn’t easily digested.  It’s certainly isn’t my favorite Scorsese film but I do see it as a pretty important movie in understanding Scorsese’s career.  The weight of a traditional catholic upbringing has long been a central theme within his work and it’s something that he’s put a lot of thought into… so much thought that when he dives into it he often presents audiences with works that are a little over their heads.  That’s probably what happened with Last Temptation even among audiences who were open minded, and perhaps something similar befell his under-rated 1997 film Kundun.  Despite this, he has boldly dived back into those waters once again with another long awaited passion project: his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.

The film begins in Macau in 1639 where a pair of Jesuit friars named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have arrived from Portugal on a mission from the Vatican to assess the location of a priest named Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  Ferreira had been on a mission to Japan in order spread Christianity there when the local government decided to crack down on foreigners meddling in their country.  They banned Christianity within their borders and isolated the country from foreigners.  The last word that escaped from the country suggested that Ferreira had cracked under pressure from the inquisitor (Inoue Masashige) and renounced his faith, rumors that Rodrigues and Garupe find difficult to believe given Ferreira’s previous fervor.  The two insist on completing their mission despite the grave danger of sneaking into Japan and find a Japanese man living in China named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) who they opt to hire as a guide despite his clear alcoholism and questionable motives.  Seeing how determined the two monks are to complete this mission, the head of the local church (Ciarán Hinds) agrees to let them go but warns them that there will be no further missions into Japan and that they are on their own while there.

It would be an understatement to say that this movie is dealing with some pretty heavy themes.  The film’s Japanese setting will almost certainly draw comparisons to the works of Kurosawa, but its contemplative religious musings are in many ways closer in nature to the works of Carl Th. Dreyer and early Ingmar Bergman.  It’s a movie that is very interested in exploring the power of faith and the internal struggles of its main character as he sees people suffer and die for their faith and contemplate whether a god that seemingly does nothing to answer his prayers is really worth dying for.  Central to this struggle is the fact that this character is catholic rather than merely Christian and in a perhaps incidental fashion the movie makes a pretty good argument for the value of the protestant reformation.  It quickly becomes apparent exactly how problematic Catholicism is when it’s removed from the institutional infrastructure that provides priests to forgive sins and deliver biblical interpretations and whatnot, and the more you think about it the more it feels like these “requirements” are only in place to give power to the central authority.

Roger Ebert once related a story of Scorsese telling him during the 70s or 80s that he “thought he would go to hell for violating the church’s rules on marriage and divorce” before eventually rejecting the dogmas of the Catholic Church and becoming an agnostic.  Given that this is at its heart a movie about the Rodrigues character’s inner turmoil about his faith and his increasing skepticism about the rules that he’s been tying his faith to, I imagine that this is a story that is deeply personal to Scorsese.  It is not, however, a story that is deeply personal to me.  As someone who dismissed my catholic upbringing at age 12 with no real struggle it is really hard for me to connect with this kind of person as he writhes in agony over the fact that god isn’t saving his flock from their enemies and the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to make me empathize with him either.  That having been said I’m not sure how many practicing Christians are going to be able to connect with this either as, and I don’t want this to sound too condescending, but I feel like the people who are happily faithful tend not to think too deeply about the religions they practice and the finer points of faith.  In many ways this is a movie that will be too contemplative and questioning for religious audiences that lack theology degrees and yet too focused on matters of faith to really connect with people who just sleep in on Sundays.

In many ways I do kind of feel ill-equipped to fully grasp this movie, at least on a first viewing, and I kind of have a hunch that the same goes for a lot of the critical community circa 2016 given how the consensus surrounding the movie seems to be of the “respectful but now overly enthusiastic” variety.  I suspect that people would be a bit more eager to dive in had the movie spent more time discussing the political situation that led Japan to persecute its Christian population and gave a bit more time to the Japanese Inquisitor to explain his actions.  I was certainly waiting to hear him at least lay out the argument that these missionaries very well could be used for the purposes of setting up the nation for colonization in much the way they were used against the indigenous people in the Americas and perhaps point out that this behavior is hardly unique to Japan (there’s a reason that the word “inquisition” is more closely associated with Catholic Spain than Buddhist Japan).  That’s not to say I would have necessarily agreed with that line of reasoning given that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are core tenants of liberty, but the debate would have certainly interested me.  However, I don’t think that debate is what interests Scorsese about this story and that’s certainly his prerogative.

At the end of the day you have to analyze the movie you’re given and not the movie you maybe wish you were given.  The movie I was given is one that I desperately wanted to like more than I actually did.  I really want there to be a place for serious weighty movies like this to thrive, especially in this larger budget level, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to find much of an audience, at least not during its initial run.  You’ve got to feel sorry for Scorsese, he made the mistake of releasing a very adult movie during very childish times.  And yet, I have to admit the movie didn’t really sing for me either despite the fact that it’s clearly very smart and quite well made.  It’s definitely a movie that I plan to see again, repeatedly, and I also want to look up a lot of what’s been written about it by people who know more about its historical and religious context of what’s going on here.  For not though all I can say is that it’s a quality movie that did not quite deliver that excited feeling I normally get from new Scorsese.

Fences(12/26/2016)

August Wilson was likely one of the most unanimously revered playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century and he also lived in my home state for about ten years, a fact that was more than enough for the local English teachers to adopt him as a hometown hero despite the fact that every one of his plays was set elsewhere.  As such I’m somewhat familiar with his work, but for whatever reason I was never assigned to read his most famous work “Fences,” perhaps because those English teachers all wanted to explore the deep cuts rather than the play that everyone would theoretically find without their help.  “Fences” was often viewed as being sort of a black response to “Death of a Salesman” which makes some sense structurally and thematically even if it is a little reductive.  It was something of a sensation when premiered on Broadway in the late eighties it won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and also won a Tony for its original star James Earl Jones.  Needless to say this is material that has largely been canonized and is not to be adapted lightly.  The play was however successfully revived in 2010 with a cast which included Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and now that revival has been adapted into a feature film with Washington himself directing.

The film is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and focuses on an average working class African American family called the Maxsons.  The patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has been working as a garbage man for decades and has raised a teenage son named Cory (Jovan Adepo) along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis).  As the film begins things are looking fairly decent for the family; Troy is lobbying to get a promotion that has historically not been available to African Americans, Cory is proving to be a talented football player, and the family is soon going to have a nice picket fence to spruce up their home.  However there are cracks in this nice veneer that will soon threaten to implode this tight family dynamic and they first show themselves when it’s revealed that Cory has put his job at a corner store on hold so that he can attend football practice, a move that would seem irresponsible until you realize that his skill is such that he’s already attracted the attention of a college scout and could get a scholarship from this skill.  Troy, played Negro League baseball in his youth and experienced the frustration of having never advanced beyond that because of his race and as such doesn’t see that as any kind of a valid hope for his son’s future and stubbornly refuses to allow the son to continue this pursuit.

Given that this play has basically entered the cannon of American literature at this point it almost feels presumptuous to weigh in on any of this material in and of itself, but I do have a few reservations.  The biggest is that I feel like the conflict that the play builds between the father and the son all through the first act sort of seems to be sort of pushed to the wayside in the second half in place of a different conflict with his wife which I will not reveal.  That second conflict is of course interesting as well but I would have liked to have seen how that tension over the son’s potential football career would have played out if the focus had stayed there.  I also maybe could have lived without a sub-plot involving Troy’s brain damaged brother and I’ve also never been particularly fond of August Wilson’s occasional dabbling in magical realism as he does in the epilog here.  Those quibbles having been aired, it is clear from this movie that this play does live up to its reputation and is clearly a very poignant character study about a flawed man trying to live up to the pressures and expectations of being a patriarch.

Of course with a film like this the question is really less a matter of how good the material is so much as how good the adaptation was, and the answer to that almost entirely depends on how you feel about stage plays being turned into films with minimal attempt to conceal the theatrical origins of the text.  The movie is certainly doing nothing to hide the fact that it’s based on a play.  A few scenes certainly appear to have been relocated to other locations but most of the action takes place in the back yard of the family’s house and the dialogue certainly leans more towards long speeches than any movie written directly for the screen is likely to indulge in.  Of course the film has the benefit of something that the stagings of the play at your local repertory theater company don’t have: it has a world class cast anchored by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are both operating at the height of their abilities.  Washing ton in particular is impressive here, albeit in a very certain kind of theatrical way.  My one real reference point for this character is a Youtube video I found with a three-some minute clip of James Earl Jones doing the play’s signature “why don’t you like me” scene.  Judging a Tony winning performance by a short clip like that is pretty stupid but what I noticed was that Jones’ take on the character seemed a lot more stern and withdrawn into himself.  Washington by contrast seems to be playing the character a bit looser and lets you see a bit more of the character’s roguish past.

If there’s any reservations I have about Washington’s performance it’s that it doesn’t have a ton of internal range.  Washington starts at about a 9 on the intensity range, moves to a 10 frequently, and occasionally pushes into an 11, but never goes much below a 9.  Of course the material invites this and he probably shouldn’t have played it any other way, but it is not the kind of actively naturalistic acting that most modern filmmaking trades in.  That can kind of be said about most of the movie as it is unapologetic in the fact that it’s speaking the language of theater rather than the language of cinema and one’s enjoyment of the movie is going to mostly be rooted in how one feels about that.  Personally I think that does kind of diminish the movie, at least when you’re directly comparing it within the larger world of cinematic accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a lot of value for what it’s trying to be.  I’m not someone who gets out to the theater very often for a variety of reasons and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there like me in this regard.  I’m also not inclined to read plays like books and don’t have much of an interest in seeing filmed plays through Fathom events and the like.  As such these stage-to-screen adaptations are often my only real way to experience great works of theater like this.  So, for a play like “Fences” to be brought to the screen competently like this and with a cast like this is a pretty good thing any way you cut it.

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.