A review of Francois Ozon’s latest film Frantz for Wales Arts Review
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.
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.
John Ford may have been one of America’s greatest directors, but fuck if he didn’t do some utter shite from time to time. If The Long Gray Line was supposed to be a propaganda piece for the US military (as I suspect it was), it sure makes being a soldier look about as exciting as tap water.
We follow approximately fifty years in the life of Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), a fresh-off-the-boat Irish migrant who ends up at West Point military academy, initially as a waiter but quickly going into enlistment, where he stayed for most of his working life. Alongside meeting his wife, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), that’s pretty much the entire film. Maher enlists, he isn’t a good soldier, but keeps trying, he ends up becoming a part of the furniture, and that’s about it. Furniture isn’t very exciting though, and neither is Maher, nor is Tyrone Power, never one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most charismatic or engaging screen presences.
If there is a point of interest in the film, it’s mostly in its value as a propaganda piece. Released in 1955, at the height of Eisenhower’s Presidency and as the Cold War was kicking off, the film is essentially an extended advert for joining the US military. Look at how it depicts the forces; it’s an educative, unified force, a collective that impresses the value of education and physical education above, seemingly, actual warfare training. As Maher rises to the position of instructor, most of his work appears to involve teaching cadets how to box or swim, or encouraging them to focus on their studies. At no point does anyone even fire a shot in a practice range, let alone a training exercise. With the context of the times, it’s obvious The Long Gray Line was an attempt to reinforce faith in the military, and particularly its sense of male camaraderie and bonding, which the film is absolutely bursting with. And John Ford sure loved him some male bonding in his pictures.
But the fact is, even by the standards of propaganda, The Long Gray Line is just terribly fucking boring. There’s little to no dramatic impetus here: the fact that Martin Maher is a real-life figure, and the film was adapted from his biography is no benefit to the film. The fact that the screenwriters took extensive creative licence to spruce up the dramatic arc of the film yet still turned out an event-free turd suggests to me that, whatever his qualities as a human being, Martin Maher was not really worth making a film about. Certainly not a film that runs to two hours and twenty minutes either.
Aside from the fact that he’s an average guy who isn’t really physically built for the military, there’s nothing interesting about him; it’s the film equivalent of an under-researched undergraduate dissertation being stretched to the requisite word count. It doesn’t even pass as a slice-of-life film ambling through Maher’s daily routine because the scope of the film stretches five decades, too large a time period to apply the focus of such a perspective.
Film-wise, Ford does at least make the film look handsome enough, even if it’s still dramatically inert. Power is no great star, but at least Maureen O’Hara adds a bit of spice to her scenes, and Ward Bond, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, also does a fine job in the scenes he’s in. As a lesser film in Ford’s back catalogue, The Long Gray Line barely even manages to at least be compelling, of only passing interest even to Ford enthusiasts.
Peter Mullan’s tale of gang youths in Glasgow embodies much of British kitchen-sink melodrama’s visceral power, as well as some of its flaws and clichés. Telling the story of John McGill’s (Conor McCarron) journey from bookish pre-teen to rampaging teenager beset by his raging alcoholic father and criminal older brother, Neds is certainly littered with powerful performances and perceptive details; unsurprising as the film is partly autobiographical for Mullan. The main revelation here is McCarron, who resembles a young Ray Winstone in the hard-hitting Scum, another film that dealt harshly with youth violence in ‘70s Britain. However, despite these considerable strengths, Neds is hamstrung by a certain predictability and a certain degree of misery-wallowing, where dramatic strength is sacrificed for blunt violence and gruesomeness. No doubt it is a realistic and engaging portrayal, but to what end?