Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: LA LA LAND

Funny thing about musicals is that if you put them in a different format no one thinks of them as musicals. Frozen or Aladdin are thought of as animations or kids movies but they are stuffed with songs. When it's live action like Grease or Chicago everyone wants it to be innovative or subversive, never just a musical. Lars von Trier made a near Dogme one with Dancer in the Dark (the genre alone would have disqualified it but the look and dialogue were on the money). Chicago played Broadway for the MTV generation cutting all the fluidity out of the dancing with more edits than the human eye could register. And anyway, apart from a few rogue entries, musicals seemed to have died off after the big 60s bubble, recalled for their kitsch value and then their irony value and then the kitsch of their irony or the other way around. Why do one now?

La La Land doesn't promise much beyond genre and keeps to that lack of promise. Sounds like faint praise but read on. We open (after some cute jokes about technicolor and cinemascope) on a jammed L.A. freeway, closing in on a beautiful young woman in a car who's dubba dubba-ing a tune which turns into a big opening song and dance about the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. The song itself is generic to the point that it needs nothing memorable in the melody or much or the lyric. It's big and loud and colourful and kinetic. It's an opening number which ends on a genuinely amusing note of bathos and the rom com element's meet cute.

Emma Stone is distracted from the traffic by the lines she will be reading in the audition she is driving to. Ryan Gosling can't get the cassette (yep, cassette) in his dashboard to cue at the right spot but when the traffic starts to move again he baaaaaarmps the horn in Emma's ear, overtaking her with a contemptuous sneer. In 1936 when we saw Fred and then Ginger we started following them from the get go. In 2016 this musical also gives us two movie stars and we do the same for them. We're soon to see some developmental dialogue, visual quotes from earlier eras of the genre and so on and the songs will get more character and narrative based. Bring the two together, prise them apart and then bring them back together stronger than ever. End.

With some variations that's what you get. If you don't like that this won't convert you but the curious cinema goer might well feel rewarded by taking the chance in this case. This is a rom com with the theme of following dreams vs sticking at more realistic drudge jobs. The reason you might care about this has a lot to do with that casting. Apart from an early scene between Sebastian (Gosling) and his sister which can't rise above it's old school dialogue about being a serious artist, the central pair put all their more typical dramatic chops into these roles to warm up what might have legitimately been vessels for song and dance numbers. The dramatic and comedic two-plays work well and both get their moments at breakout performance.

The trouble is that the second act sags without strong numbers as we live through the origins of the conflict and it is here that we might have softened the determination to appear like a legit drama between songs and created something more convincing for confidently joining the rest of the musical. As soon as we accept these young A-listers as musical actors we're happy following them through that. Why have such a lengthy dialogue about conflicting lives when a song would have lifted it into compulsion? We know Gosling and Stone can drama how wonderful to have seen them sing it (as they already, creditably had).

The third act lifts itself ably and when director Chazelle (of the compelling Whiplash) amps up the cinema it feels worth the wait. Here we have Mia (Stone) putting the kitchen sink into her audition number. The final what-if sequence, similarly is masterfully handled as the piece remembers it's a movie and can do what it wants which is best done with depth and the director's own obvious musicality.

The score deserves a plaudit for erring on the side of the jazz at Sebastian's core which even knocks on the door at more orchestrally-appropriate moments. This feels less like a tribute to Michel Legrand's masterful Umbrellas of Cherbourg than an extension of it. And we can't leave without stating that the choreography is not only always welcome when we see it but given as live as it can be without those Chicago split second cuts. Stone and Gosling really dance well and one sequence involving swapping places on a park bench rises above it own cuteness with sheer wow-factor.

While I might not see this again soon, I enjoyed it but would rather see another one with even more confidence and commitment to the genre. Now the twenty-teens homages to Singing in the Rain etc have been played out let's find something else (between this and London Street, perhaps) and forge a way. I liked musicals as a kid. They were played on the ABC on Friday nights before I had a legitimate party life at school. I still like them. This shows they can still work but let's keep going and find out what else they can do.

Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE: Rockin' a Hard Place

Dialogue over a black screen with the credits. An ageing man, Daniel, is struggling to get through a welfare interview about his health and capability. He has a heart condition that keeps him from employment, especially in his trade as a carpenter. The interviewer has to keep hooking him back to the script of the form, warning that a combative attitude will only go badly for him. It does.

But it does not because he is difficult but because the Kafkaesque system of queuing and eligibility and eligibility to queue has left no room to move. He can't get his suspension from benefits appealed until the overloaded system allows it which means that he will have to sign on for the dole but that means that he will be obliged to look for work that he has been declared unfit for. That's all assuming he can make his way through the computer form because all applications must be online. He doesn't know what a mouse is when he gets in front of a public access computer and by the time a helpful fellow beneficiary can get him through the form he has run out of time at the terminal.

Trying again at making it personal (the phone queue torture has led to more absurd frustration) at the welfare office he is again rejected but is stopped when witnessing a woman with two children being ejected before their interview for being late. He stands and cries out for the stranger to be given a chance and it is the first moment of control we have seen him take. It leads to more frustration but also a personal bond and that's when we really know that we are in a Ken Loach film.

Why? Well, like Belgium's Dardenne brothers whose work his precedes, Ken Loach has documented the anger of the dispossessed but is always careful to steer away from nihilist revenge fantasy to serve an fanbase. We understand the constraints and feel the anger but instead of going to bed angry afterwards we will leave the end credits with some perception of the value of retaining humanity in dire circumstances and also of keeping lucid when faced with frustration.

Daniel's fatherly relationship with Katie and her kids has the kind of goodness to it that feels like the last vestiges of currency they have. This is not saintliness and it is important to avoid characterising Loach's filmmaking as documentary style. Loach makes fiction cinema and it doesn't pretend to be objective reportage. The good in Daniel Blake (whose name is drawn from the Old Testament and the pantheon of English poetry) is the same that suggests a need for the welfare system that has been so tightly wound that it must reject him. The common good and the commonality of good. While Daniel's efforts to keep the young family's spirits up might give us some unease when we know how others might misconceive it there is plenty we have seen to allow for it. He's not a saint he's just a bloke who, stressed, is yet unbroken.

That Loach is still making films like this after four decades should tell us just as much. These stories don't go away, are not ironed flat by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism nor so bludgeoned by the hard right. That he makes each one with consummate craft and keeps the blocks between us and the characters clear so that we might walk beside them in their trials is testament to his own resolve.

We need Ken Loach, we still need Ken Loach. We need him, his spare but powerful writers, his perfectly chosen casts and the plainness of his eye. We need him as the eighteenth century needed Hogarth and the nineteenth Dickens. And you will need a tissue or two if you want to get through this film. But if you do get through it you will be, however slightly, stronger for it.