It’s easy to see why La La Land is by far and away the most commercially successful of this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s light, it looks great, and it has two A-list stars heading it up. About much of the film, I genuinely cannot complain. The cinematography is exquisite, with care and thought poured into every single frame. The songs too are genuinely good. You can drown in Emma Stone’s huge glassy eyes and cut yourself on Ryan Gosling’s chin. The two have chemistry. The entire film is a love-letter to the Hollywood musicals of the ‘50s and before, and it’s made by a director who clearly has a love and respect for that style. It’s not ironic pastiche, but loving homage. I walked out of that cinema satisfied.
It’s a week later, and I’ve already forgotten most of what happens in La La Land. I can remember that amazing one-take opening number amidst a traffic jam. I can remember one or two tunes. And I can remember that the story is a fairly basic boy-meets-girl setup. Yet, I cannot for the life of me remember whether I had any emotional reaction to the film. Which, in effect, means I had no emotional reaction to the film. You are meant to give way to La La Land on an emotional level, that is the intention.
The reason Singin’ in the Rain remains such a beloved classic is because it takes audiences on a ride of pure emotional exuberance. It’s made with love and care by everyone involved. But for La La Land, I don’t get the impression that anyone outside of Damien Chazelle was really enthusiastic about it. Sure, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are excellent stars, and they have the charisma to hold a movie together alone, but they’re both also excellent actors beneath that, and neither really pushes themselves here. Not to mention they’re both mediocre singers and dancers. Critics have defended their singing on the grounds that the plot requires them to be average dreamers rather than stars, ignoring the fact that this is Ryan fucking Gosling and Emma fucking Stone we’re talking about here, not Art Garfunkel and Denise Richards.
It’s that romance at the centre of the film where La La Land drops like a brick. There simply isn’t enough in it to sustain interest in the film; both characters are thinly written. Neither Gosling’s Seb or Stone’s Mia go beyond the level of ‘desperate for success and willing to work really hard to get there’. Mia’s acting dreams are the same as any other young Hollywood starlet we’ve seen onscreen over the years, but they don’t have the psychological depth of say, Mulholland Dr., or the prickly, complex relationship with fame we see in Sunset Boulevard. No, you’re right, La La Land doesn’t aim for the mood of those films. But it doesn’t change the fact that her dreams are just…there. Seb too, is similarly flat. He’s a hardcore jazz traditionalist who wants to open a jazz club. He ends up in a successful band, taken along by Keith (John Legend), despite his reservations about its modern sound. That’s about it. They’re both too career driven for us to care about their relationship with each other.
Of course, jazz, or a version of it, was a central subject of Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash. Miles Teller’s determined drummer, JK Simmons’ authoritarian bandleader, and Seb here, are all jazz traditionalists. The difference is that Seb’s relationship with jazz is very superficial, described quickly in just two scenes; one where Seb explains to Mia why he loves jazz, and one where Keith explains why Seb’s version of jazz is dying out. As a result Seb is a flat, simplistic character, built on Gosling’s star charisma rather than Seb’s interior life.
To compare, the writing and characterisation in Whiplash is much more complex, much more forceful. Plenty of people have written on Chazelle’s films thus far accusing them of racism and elitism, especially when it comes to jazz, and they may well have a point, but in regards to Whiplash I think people are mistaken when they take it as a director’s statement on what it takes to be a great artist. The film doesn’t elevate either Teller’s or Simmons’ characters onto a platform, and indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great film about an utterly fucking terrible drummer (seriously, if I was in a band and some smug prick started a 5-minute drum solo in the middle of a song, I would decapitate him). The central brilliance of Whiplash is that both characters are utterly completely wrong about their methods, and yet so determined, so stubborn in their efforts to attain their ambitions. It’s a film built on contradiction, and that contradiction drives the narrative.
No such thing here. There are no contradictions. There’s are dramatic scenes, some musical scenes, and a romance thrown in. But the drive just isn’t there. When Seb and Mia’s relationship breaks down because both of them are so concerned with their personal careers, I don’t care. When she runs out of a dinner date with a pleasantly bland boyfriend to catch Rebel Without a Cause with Seb, I don’t care. The film doesn’t ask you to care. It asks you to take their relationship and just wait for the music, or the next showstopping moment of choreography or cinematography. La La Land is in effect, little more than a few utterly beautiful sequences hung around a fairly weakly-written romance.
And you know what, those few sequences are worth it. There’s talent in Damien Chazelle. He just needs to find it and focus it.
Goodfellas will forever be Martin Scorsese at his most wildly entertaining, exuberant and decadent; a full-on rock’n’roll film for a full-on rock’n’roll filmmaker. It might not quite achieve the subtle artistic heights of his very best work like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, or The Last Temptation of Christ, but it’s the one Scorsese film I’ll always return to when I’m looking to kick back and enjoy myself; certainly there are few other gangster films which do such a fine job of depicting both the decadent allure and inevitable crashing fall of organised crime life. At two hours and twenty minutes, it perhaps marks the point where Scorsese stopped bothering to edit his films properly anymore, but unlike, say, the wasteful three-hour runtime of The Wolf of Wall Street or similarly bloated borefests like The Aviator, there isn’t a single wasted second in Goodfellas. Testament to Scorsese’s ability when he’s at the top of his game.
Little more than a snazzy video lecture from Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream ultimately isn’t the best or most worthwhile kind of movie, especially if you’re already familiar with Chomsky’s work. In 75 minutes his ideas are (necessarily) simplified, although this does work as a very effective introduction to his thinking on American economic and social history. That said, his thinking is almost always brilliant and perceptive, and listening to him is always educational. A fine introduction, but certainly not essential.
The Maltese Falcon is generally regarded as one of the ‘proper’ film-noirs, and almost certainly the first ‘classic’ one. It’s a status that is well-deserved: first-time writer-director John Huston guides the film with the kind of classical economy that would make him one of the best American directors of his generation, allowing his four principal actors—Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre—to do what they did for a living. And goddamn. It might not be as finely polished as other noirs that came later such as Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep, but it doesn’t need to be. The Maltese Falcon is a deeply cynical, nasty film about deeply cynical, nasty people, and a classic of the American cinema.
A funny enough comedy from the early days of Woody Allen, when he was content to just pump out joke after joke and not get involved in any philosophical musings and well before he jumped into senility by virtue of overwork. The various sketches of Everything You Always Wanted to Know… vary in quality from dull to brilliant, but the connecting thread is that they’re all send-ups of various film genres rather than the good ol’ sexual intercourse. Particular highlights are a parody of monster movies led by a cackling John Carradine, and Gene Wilder as a doctor falling in love with one of his more unusual patients. Funny, and that’s praise enough.
An early Elia Kazan picture, sitting somewhere between the work of a solid journeyman studio director of the time and the more renowned sense of theatrical realism we would come to expect from Kazan’s later work. Boomerang! stars Dana Andrews as a state’s attorney responsible for prosecuting the murderer of a popular local priest. Yet, as he analyses the facts closer, he begins to realise that the man is innocent, and the murder is being used as a show trial to boost the re-election chances of the local political establishment (the entire plot is apparently based on fact). Often billed as a film noir, it only occasionally presents itself as such; Boomerang! functions better as a fine legal drama, depicting rival factions and political intrigue in small-town America, a precursor to the paranoia and political show-jumping of McCarthyism. Extra credit goes to a variety of fine performances here from a number of excellent character actors of the time working in the US system.
A wildly inconsistent director even in his heyday when he followed up Point Blank and Deliverance with The Exorcist II and Zardoz, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory remains something of an outlier in his filmography, a personal coming-of-age film sitting amongst a variety of thrillers and fantasies. Telling the story of a boy growing up in the UK during WW2, the film is imbued with a wonderful sense of bittersweet nostalgia—Boorman evidently remembers this time of his life as a never-ending Boy’s Own adventure, a time of exploring bombed-out ruins with chums and playground fighting, before moving to his grandfather’s country home with its rivers and fields and summertime wistfulness. The realities of war are, for the most, distant, a faraway concern for adults, something that Hope and Glory subtly acknowledges. There’s a constant undercurrent of danger, of the potential for the idyll to be smashed by bearers of bad news or by a German plane. Boorman strikes just the right balance between the two tones, in the process acknowledging where his own taste for adventure cinema arose from.