La La LAND**** Worth all the song and dance


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AT YET ANOTHER one of her many auditions (where she’s usually ignored, interrupted or just dismissed), aspiring actor and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) is asked to “tell us a story”. So, because it’s that type of movie, she sings. She sings a story of her aunt, her inspiration, who dared to jump into the Seine, because she just wanted to. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, she sings. “…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to two hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make”

The song neatly summarizes the idea that drives this compellingly charming movie. La la land, or LA, or the city of stars, is where the action takes place. But la la land refers not to the silly escapism of people who dare to follow their dream, but to the cynical put down by people too scared to follow theirs. Perhaps at a meta dimension, it also refers to the fantasy of a director who dared produce a movie – a musical of all things – that contained both the romantic joy of singing dancing Hollywood, but also the realism that followed dreams don’t necessarily lead where you’d planned.

The story itself follows the fortunes of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s the wannabe actor waiting, like her friends to be discovered; he’s a brilliant, if undiscovered, Jazz pianist. In the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals, they keep bumping into each other. “This could never be” he sings, “You’re not the type for me”. “What a waste of a lovely night”, she concludes. But with each serendipitous bump, antipathy turns into friendship and friendship turns into love. They each provide the motivation the other lacks (so it goes with love), until, one day, motivation is needed no more.

The very idea of “follow your dreams; never give in to the average, the everyday, the easy payday” is of course a tired cliché. But director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) manages the enormously difficult balance between the potential silliness of the idea and the pure magic that makes us believe; that seduces us into a la la land of fantasy, established from the get-go with an over the top dance routine right out of “Fame”…when an entire highway of drivers stuck in traffic sing about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine”. But the silly fantasy (is it silly to dream? To reach for the stars?) is all grounded in the same kind of honesty of vision and integrity of storytelling Chazelle delivered in “Whiplash”. This mix of fantasy grounded in the real world is nicely underscored (via Justin Hurwitz’ lovely book and Mandy Moore’s choreography) through the real, and clearly unprofessional, singing and dancing of its two stars. His voice (like his acting) is pretty dull; hers is clear and glorious.

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Indeed, this is Emma Stone’s movie. Chazelle is wise (and trusting) enough to allow his camera to linger on her. Through her eyes, through the subtlest of expressions, Emma, without words, manages to communicate vast depths of complex emotions. Her character morphs from the ditzy Hollywood hopeful in awe of ‘movie stars’ to a knowing sophisticate, well experienced in the ways of love. She it is who, singlehandedly, neutralizes any trace of cliché; and who (unfortunately) diminishes Ryan Gosling’s character to that of a simplistic, if pretty, one-trick pony. Gosling has a nice sense of comic timing, but too often, there’s no “there” there. He seems to spend more time trying to look cool than expressing emotion.

The idea all falls into place near the very end, in an extended sliding doors montage that delivers a resonance way beyond the limitations of its story…as it suggests to its audience the ‘what if’s’ to all their – our – lives. What if, the story concludes by asking, the sliding doors in all of our la la lands led us into alternative lives, alternative sound tracks? Would we be all the better or worse for it? Happier or just different? Are we living the life we chose, or just living in la la land?

 

LA LA LAND. Dir/writer: Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K.Simmons. Composer: Justin Hurwitz. Choreographer: Mandy Moore. Production designer: David Wasco (“Inglorious Basterds”). Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”)

 

 

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ROGUE ONE*** Absent, the Force


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ROGUE ONE, ONE of the – no doubt – many new spin offs of the Star Wars saga to come, is a pleasant, often surprising Christmas treat for fans of the saga. The story (developed by John Knoll, known for his work on Episodes IV and VI and “Avatar”) is a clever enough prequel that slots in between episodes III and IV. It’s centered around the development of the Death Star (by an underused Mads Mikkelsen), and sews the seeds of its later destruction by the Rebel forces. And it’s fun to meet some of the old favourites: R2D2 and C3PO, still bickering; an imperious Darth Vader (still James Earl Jones) flicking his enemies away like flies; and a surprise performance by an actor who died in 1994, and was clearly disinterred for the role. There are other familiar faces, but that would be giving away too many nice surprises.

Not unlike its recent predecessor, “Episode VII The Force Awakens”, director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) and his masterful team of designers (Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont) have managed to recreate that special look and feel so unique to the franchise. So, from the very first frame, you know you’re back a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Knoll’s story cleverly re-engages us with the familiar (the ubiquitous canon-fodder Storm Troopers, a flash of light saber, those kite-like space-craft from the Empire etc.), whilst slipping in a few sly newbies: the ‘hero’ droid for instance is, unlike the droids we’ve known, ruthlessly badass.

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The problem with the movie is, apart from a blind Kung fu warrior (Donnie Chen, better known as the Ip Man, as the first Chinese in the saga. Such is the power of that audience!), the lead characters exist in a charisma-free zone. The wonderful relationships that formed the heart of the franchise – Han Solo and Princess Leia, Rey and Finn – are absent from this one. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, and her co-rebel, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna from “Elysium”) run and shoot and exhort fellow rebels throughout the story, but as people, they’re less interesting than the droids. They’re as dull as dishwater.

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It’s the great characters that gave George Lucas’ star-gazing mumbo jumbo, the rich thrill and excitement that seduced the world: Han Solo’s rogue-ish charm, Darth Vader’s menace, Luke Skywalker’s innocence. And in its reinvention, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega wowed the world with their over the top charm. But in “Rogue One”: nothing. Nada. Zip. Jyn and Cassian are bland, video game action figures, for whom one can really feel very little. They neither bleed nor breathe; and tiny Felicity’s exhortation of bulky rebel fighters just comes across as fairly ludicrous.

The fault probably isn’t theirs. It’s the writing. Episode VII had the writing talents of Lawrence Kasdan (various Star Wars versions as well as “Raiders of the Lost Arc”), Michael Arndt (“The Hunger Games”, “Toy Story 3”, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and of course J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost” and “Alias”). This informed the characters and gave the whole enterprise the feel of “real-ness”. But the “Rogue One” combination of director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla” really?) and writers Chris Weitz (“Cinderella” and “The Golden Compass”) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne franchise) was just not up to the task. The dialogue is functional and leaden. Not real words voiced by not real people.

What’s also missing (and is so much a part of the soul of this franchise) is John Williams’ stirring score. There are traces of it here and there, but Michael Giacchino’s version of the Star Wars’ anthems is as flat as the dialogue.

Apparently there was a massive amount of reshoots after the first rough cut was shown. So somebody must have realized – too late – that there was a problem in the Empire.

It was not a problem that they managed to solve

SNOWDEN**** Quick Unplug. Hide. They’re watching you


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Oliver Stone’s Snowden (his best in years) is a movie with a mission: to remove the stock-villain obscurantism that the US Government has wrapped around whistleblower Edward Snowden and humanize him. His Snowden is really a combination of a coming of age and a love story. We follow the life of his protagonist (played earnestly and carefully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) as it evolves and metastasizes from the easy patriotism of gung-ho, unquestioning all-American innocence to the difficult patriotism of the questioning  and informed citizen.

Stone has structured the movie into two narrative time frames: in one of them we’re with Snowden, now a fugitive, hidden away in a hotel room in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo of The Big Short), Glen Greenwald (a bristling performance of restrained anger from Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill from The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson). There, racing against the immanence of capture, they craft the public revelations of his pilfered security documents. But the main body of the narrative follows Snowden’s life from his earliest days with the CIA, as it seeks to answer the dual questions: what happened to turn this hand-on-heart believer of American exceptionalism into a ‘traitor’? How did it come to this? And, the bigger question: what is the meaning of patriotism?

To answer this, Snowden unfolds along the criss-crossing paths of Edward’s private and professional life. In his private life, he falls in love with Lindsay Mills, a pretty, liberal, photographer, (Shailene Woodley of  The Fault in Our Stars and  Allegiant in a role that finally matches her talent) even as, in his professional life, as a highly valued intelligence analyst, he’s falling in love with his other ‘lover’, Corbin O-Brian (a menacing performance from Rhys Ifans), his boss and mentor at the CIA. It is this boss who explains the big picture of the job to him: it’s not about uncovering jihadi plots and, as he notes, “Standard Oil plans for stealing the oil supplies” but about the Russians and the Chinese.

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But as Snowden rises in the ranks, privy to more and more of the dark web of professional secrets and deceits (and as a result more and more disturbed by what he knows), the toll on his private life becomes acute. The innocent joire de vivre of his love is slowly transformed into a life of bickering, and distrust. It is as though his increasing experience as a spy, a professional liar, poisons the relationship.

The professional and the private merge in two crisis, ah-ha moments. The first is when he, and a group of his young colleagues (under the leadership of a character played by Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) realize that the government is spying twice as much on US (and German and ‘friendly allies’) citizens than on the Russians and Chinese. And the second is when he’s reassured by his mentor Corbin that his fears about Lindsay’s fidelity are unfounded. Snowden is just another citizen whose e-mails, and social media conversations and privacy have been hacked and is under the daily remorseless surveillance of Big Brother.

For, to the government, privacy means secrecy; spying is snooping; its surveillance extends to everyone everywhere anytime. And the secret service is only too happy to lie to the government’s elected officials about it all.

It is the totality of this deception, the limitlessness of the snooping and the callous disregard for the individual citizens’ constitutional rights that drive Snowden over the top…and that redefines his own self-harming expression of patriotism.

The journey from innocence to experience finally ends in the hero’s exile, first in a lonely room in an airport and finally somewhere in Russia. Throughout the movie, Stone is at pains to remind us that this is all ‘real’; and the movie ends with a ‘real-life’ interview between the actual Edward Snowden and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian (who had the balls to break the story). This Greek tragedy is of course still being played out. But there’s little doubt that the honour, nobility and selfless integrity of this one wandering Odysseus will win out against the patience and implacable amorality of the omniscient State.

Stone’s thesis suggests that once belief in the moral rectitude of said State (the world view of the young Snowden as CIA recruit) disappears, we disabused citizens, become as isolated and exiled as this lonely young man. No more “I am…Spartacus”; to most of the increasingly embattled liberal world, “I am…Snowden”

(Apart from the strong performance of Shailene Woodley, there was another – surprising – strong cameo from Nicolas Cage, as a washed up, embittered operative; a man who’d seen too much for too long.  Snowden  is also a movie whose gripping story-telling was well crafted by its editors, Alex Marquez and Lee Percy)

 

SNOWDEN. Dir: Oliver Stone. With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Shailene Woodley. Melissa Leo. Zachary Quinto. Rhys Ifans. Nicolas Cage. Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone from the books by Anatoly Kuchera and Luke Harding. Editors: Alex Marquez and Lee Percy