I was quite curious to see Manchester by the Sea which was considered one of the best movies of the year and received two Academy Awards. Overall I was quite disappointed (relative to the expectations and the fuzz) and I believe that the success of this film is due merely to the dry season that was 2016 for the American film industry, with a selection missing movies that were both ambitions and well made, and with criteria for promotion and selection as nominees dominated by non-cinematographic arguments.
There are certainly many reasons for the film to be interesting. The script is well written (director Kenneth Lonergan has authored several smart scripts beyond the ones of his own movies) and builds carefully the characters while gradually dissipating the fog around their past and the reasons they behave as they do with a mix of the progressing story and flash-back scenes interleaved in a clever manner. The atmosphere of the small town by the sea not far from Boston is well described, the characters that populate it are credible, and the cinematography is so poignant that it makes us feel the cold, the wind, the proximity of the sea. All these cannot however hide the thin content of the story – a mix of a tutoring story of a teenage boy orphaned by his father and of guilt caused by the responsibility of a terrible tragedy in the past of the uncle assuming the parenting. One way or another all characters in the story are marked bu grief – how they cope with it and what are the consequences of the disappearance and absence of the dear ones differs. The problem is that the story is thinner than the materials it is built from, and the characters are less interesting from the moment we understand their stories. I happened to see this film three days after 20th Century Women which was also bringing to screen a piece of life including the story of coming of age of a teen boy. What a difference between the characters in the two movies, between the rich and interesting universe of Mike Mills‘ film and the dry and empty world of the world described by Kenneth Lonergan!
What about acting? A lot was written and said about Casey Affleck‘s performance which earned him the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award. I appreciate his acting of a man who hardly survives the grief, but there is nothing unexpected or interesting in the character. He is under shock, he has accesses of violence, he tries to do best to help his nephew, but is and will be forever marked by the tragedy of his life. All these are obvious. Are these worth an Academy Award? I doubt. Young Lucas Hedges provides actually a good counterpoint with some unexpected but well placed humor for a teenager who sometimes acts as the adult in the difficult relationship with his uncle. The rest of the cast does well, with Michelle Williams being wasted talent in a film that is not bad, but is certainly overrated and in many moments simply boring.
Îmi place sezonul cinematografic de primăvară, în special cel american. Mă refer în mod special la piaţă cinematografică americană, deoarece această este influenţată foarte vizibil de Premiile Oscar, care în ultimii ani sunt decernate la sfârşitul lunii februarie. Din această cauză, multe dintre filmele lansate în lunile premergătoare festivităţilor de la Dolby Theater din Hollywood (şi perioada se extinde până la şase luni!) ochesc premiile, îşi modelează temele, jocurile actoriceşti, viziunile regizorale, chiar şi atitudinile politice după gusturile membrilor Academiei. După sfârşitul lui februarie apar filmele mai eliberate de aceste constrângeri, cele pe care producătorii îşi iau riscul să le lanseze într-o perioadă în care ştiu că pot fi ‘uitate’ de cei care vor propune listele de candidaţi la râvnitele statuete. Trei dintre filmele văzute de mine în ultimele săptămâni (sau poate doar două dintre ele, primul fiind ceva mai ‘convenţional’) aparţin acestei categorii de filme care nu ţintesc şi nu aspiră la vreun Premiu Oscar. În schimb ele sunt toate legate de temele ştiinţifice şi implicaţiile lor pentru viaţa noastră de azi şi pentru viitorul nostru care sunt subiectele principale ale rubricii CHANGE.WORLD.
Foarte puţine filme s-au ocupat până în prezent de începuturile programului spaţial american, şi mă întreb de ce. Avem de-a face cu o adevărată saga americană aşa cum îi place Hollywood-ului, care a avut loc la un moment istoric despre care încă ne amintim mulţi dintre noi. Este o poveste cu eroi celebri şi anonimi, o poveste care începe cu disperarea şi teama provocate de sovieticii care luaseră avans în cursa pentru spaţiu (cu lansarea satelitului Sputnik şi cu trimiterea primului om în spaţiu) şi se termină în triumf cu aselenizările din programul Apollo. Şi totuşi, Hollywood-ul încă nu s-a prea ocupat de această perioadă şi nu a făcut filme despre această poveste şi oamenii care au făcut-o posibilă. Filmul ‘Hidden Figures’ (‘Cifre – dar şi figuri – ascunse’) umple doar parţial o parte din acest decalaj, ocupându-se de un aspect puţin cunoscut al primelor programe spaţiale, dintr-o perspectivă specifică, cu accent pe un episod neaşteptat şi necunoscut – prejudecăţile rasiale cu care se confruntau şi pe care au trebuit să le depăşească primii contribuitori afro-americani la programul spaţial. El spune povestea (până acum) puţin cunoscută a unor eroi, care nu numai că erau „de culoare“, dar, de asemenea, se întâmpla să fie femei.
„Hidden Figures“ este un film de ficţiune bazat pe cartea documentară ‘ Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race ‘, scrisă de Margot Lee Shetterly. Autorii scenariului şi regizorul Theodore Melfi au fost extrem de atenţi la detalii, situaţii şi dialoguri cu scopul ca acestea să fie cât mai aproapiate de ceea ce s-a întâmplat în realitate. Reuşita lor în acest sens a fost confirmată de eroii care au trăit perioada (inclusiv, se pare o scenă care arată foarte a la Hollywood, dar se pare că s-a întâmplat în realitate, cu astronautul John Glenn pe rampa de lansare a primul zbor solicitând calculele de traiectorie care urmează să fie verificate de „fata“ pe care o întâlnise în sala de şedinţe de pregătire). Au fost reconstituite în detalii clădirile, coridoarele, camere de lucru, toaletele (!), locurile de parcare de la sediul NASA din Virginia acelor ani. Ceea ce este şocant astăzi mai ales dintr-o perspectiva ne-americană este măsura în care segregarea şi discriminarea rasială era incă o parte a vieţii şi a sistemului legal cu puţin mai mult de o jumătate de secol în urmă, în ţara care era liderul de blocul democrat în lupta împotriva comunismului, şi care concura cu Uniunea Sovietică pentru a trimite primii oameni în spaţiu.
Tonul „de inspiraţie“ domină filmul, iar privitorul are senzaţia că aproape fiecare cadru, atitudine a personajelor sau dialog este în conformitate cu concluzia pe care filmul îşi propune să o transmită. O abordare mai realistă sau mai neutră ar fi făcut în opinia mea ca mesajul să fie mai convingător. Mi-a plăcut în schimb cum au fost construite personajele, faptul că cele trei femei care sunt eroinele filmului au fiecare propria ei personalitate, talentele şi căile proprii de confruntare şi depăşire a prejudecăţilor. Cele trei actriţe – merită să le menţionez numele – sunt Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer şi Janelle Monáe şi sper să le văd în mai multe filme (bune) în viitor. Actori cunoscuţi cum sunt Kevin Costner şi Kirsten Dunst apar în roluri secundare şi fac o treaba bună. ‘Hidden Figures’ este un film solid şi în unele locuri emoţionant, dar nu se poate desprinde de convenţiile de gen şi stil pe care se pare că autorii înşişi şi le-au impus.
Dacă în ‘Hidden Figures’ totul merge până la urmă bine şi se termină cu bine, nu la fel stau lucrurile în drama spaţială ‘Life’ (în România titlul sub care este difuzat filmul este ‘Semne de viaţă’). Va amintiţi faimoasa lege a lui Murphy? „Orice lucru care poate merge prost, va merge prost.“ Aplicarea ei cinematografică în genul filmelor ‘horror’ spaţiale pare a fi filmul regizoruluiorului Daniel Espinosa. Ce se întâmplă dacă cele mai rele presupuneri şi cele mai profunde temeri legate de contactul lung căutat şi aşteptat cu viaţa extraterestră vor deveni realitate? Această pare a fi premiza filmului, subliniată de o execuţie care face reverenţe unor predecesori renumiţi ca ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ a lui Stanley Kubrick şi ‘Alien’ a lui Ridley Scott, dar o face cu o altă dozare a componentelor, adăugând câteva ingrediente proprii care fac filmul interesant şi palpitant.
Regulile de ficţiune fantastică sunt bine respectate aici. Acţiunea începe în atmosfera familiară şi confortabilă a unei staţii în spaţiu la întoarcerea din Marte. Expediţia a fost un succes, în bagaj se află şi prima dovadă a vieţii extraterestre. Ştirile sunt primite cu entuziasm pe Pământ. Times Square se umple cu spectatorii entuziaşti ai transmisiilor în direct de pe staţia spaţială internaţională. Reportajele amestecă ştiinţa cu trivia despre introducerea şi eliminarea de alimente din corpul uman, în condiţii de imponderabilitate, iar copiii de şcoală sunt cei care dau un nume familiar („Kevin“) noii formă de viaţă adusă de pe Marte. Se întâmplă însă că această celulă vie foarte inteligentă are puterea de a se transforma în câteva minute de timp pe ecran într-o maşină de ucis, care va începe prin a devora unul după altul pe membrii echipajului a căror misiune de a asigura o protecţie a Pământului şi a vieţii de pe planetă este în pericol. Dintr-o dată consecinţele par mult mai grave.
Pentru un film serios de science-fiction scenariulul are găuri uriaşe şi abundă în gafe ştiinţifice, dar acest lucru devine secundar din cauza dezvoltării bune a personajelor. Destul de neobişnuit în filmele genului, vom ajunge să-i cunoaştem pe cei şase astronauţi, iar atunci când încep să moară decese eroice dar oribile, deja ne pasă de ei. Jocul excelent al actorilor contribuie la reuşita filmului, cu Jake Gyllenhaal excelând în tipologia ‘băiatului-de-care-ne-pasă’ . Decorurile încearcă, de asemenea ceva special, această staţie spaţială are o mulţime de coridoare tubulare care da o senzaţie de labirint claustrofobic, imponderabilitatea este sugerată spectatorilor prin utilizarea poziţiilor în unghi ale aparatului de filmat, şi atmosfera este dominată de o paletă de culori care par negativul sumbru al non-culorilor reci din filmul lui Kubrick. Nu voi spune mai multe despre cum se termină filmul decât că acesta a fost unul dintre cele mai neaşteptate şi tulburătoare finaluri pe care l-am văzut în ultima vreme. Încă un motiv bun să nu pierdeţi acest film, mai ales dacă va plac genurile science-fiction şi de groază.
Nu am văzut filmul original, un anime / manga japonez cu acelaşi nume, care stă la baza producţiei ‘Ghost în the Shell’ (‘Fantoma din Carcasă’) şi acest lucru poate fi un avantaj sau un dezavantaj. Am citit unele articole care compară cele două filme, şi care de asemenea, se referă la seria de benzi desenate creată ulterior, precum şi la seria de mare succes „Matrix“, care a preluat aparent multe idei de la ea. Mi se pare că mă pot bucura şi aprecia filmul regizorul Rupert Sanders chiar mai bine fără această comparaţie, deşi poate îmi lipsesc unele dintre nuanţele sau diferitele direcţii din lucrarea originală.
Ceea ce poate s-a schimbat în cele două decenii de când lucrările japoneze originale au fost create este faptul că o mare parte din tehnologia care este descrisă în film a devenit realitate, iar pentru restul, fezabilitatea este un fapt confirmat. Organele artificiale sunt acum tot mai pe larg folosite în înlocuirea ţesuturilor afectate de boli sau accidente. Ştim mai multe despre modul în care funcţionează creierului, modul în care informaţiile circulă între creier şi corp, precum şi modul în care acţiunile mecanice ale corpului uman sau ale protezelor artificiale sunt controlate. Transplanturile de creier nu a fost încă executate pe oameni, dar sunt considerate realizabile, şi la fel, în viitor, implantarea creerului într-un organism complet artificial. Ca şi în film, mulţi dintre oamenii sunt sau vor deveni hibrizi cu un procent mai mare sau şi mai mare de piese de schimb înlocuite.
Filmul se ocupă de un viitor în care primul implant cerebral este făcut într-un corp artificial. Acest lucru face din eroina principală (Scarlett Johansson), un fel de super-erou, o armă vie pentru a lupta împotriva teroriştilor. Doar că fosta ei identitate („fantomă“) apare în ‘flash’-uri din ce în ce mai dese şi mai consistente, şi în timp ce ea îşi recapătă treptat identitatea umană, realitatea din jurul ei devine mai puţin conectată la adevăr. Ceea ce urmează este o combinaţie de film de acţiune (sau chiar de acţiune cu super-eroi) şi genul de science-fiction inteligent, care are loc într-o lume în care oamenii coexistă cu hibrizi, sau poate mai bine spus aproape orice om a devenit, de asemenea, un hibrid. Este un film care reuşeşte atât să distreze cât şi să pună întrebări dificile despre evoluţia viitoare a omenirii şi relaţiile cu maşinile gânditoare create de oameni. Ca şi explorarea spaţială, acestea sunt teme pe care le abordăm şi le discutăm des în rubrica CHANGE.WORLD.
The most unusual and violent scene in director Mike Mills‘ 20th Century Women is the opening scene. A car suddenly bursts in flames in the parking of a supermarket. The year is 1979. Is this a violent act (not unusual for a period when racial and political clashes often turned so) or some mafia coup? It turns that it’s just an old car overheating. That’s the most extreme scene, the rest, even some fist-fight between teenagers, is just life. Real life, brought to screen with talent and emotion in one of the best films I have seen lately.
It could be the story of the coming to age of a 15 years boy with a rather intrusive and dominant single mother. It could be a film about a period of confusion in history, or better said the beginning of many consecutive periods of confusion, when values were eroding and the old generation of leaders were having too many doubts to be able to continue to lead. It may be the story of a single mother, born after WWI, raised during the Big Depression, who dreamed to become a fight pilot but WWII ended to early for her to fulfill this dream, who fell in love, gave birth to a child, got divorced, and raises her child as well as she understands, in the friendly and tolerant atmosphere of California ten years after the Flower Power era. It may be the story of three women at three different ages of their lives coping with loneliness and failed relations. It may be all these and more.
The characters in 20th Century Women are weird because they are true. They are actually weird as in real life, weird as each one of us is. Fabulous acting helps to make these characters live persons which remain with you as viewer long after the screening ends. Annette Bening as the aging mother gives a performance which reminded me some of Meryl Streep‘s finest. Elle Fanning acts literally since she was a toddler, and grows into becoming a formidable actress – this may be the role we shall remember years later of her as a growing and mature teens (but are not teen girls more mature than teen boys as a rule?). Greta Gerwig is a real revelation, she enters her messy character and makes it true. Lucas Jade Zumann succeeds to be real, complex, and likeable – with him Hollywood has a new teenager idol, I hope it will not break but rather lunch his career. I do not know where director Mike Mills hid until now, but before I applaud his work I would like to praise script author Mike Mills who wrote a story that lives on screen, moves the viewers and brings back the time when things started to go wrong but the emotions and kindness of the people prevailed which is always a reason to hope. The only objection I would have is related to the exaggerated use of quotes, this may have tried to convey a feeling of what the characters were reading and were influenced by, this seemed a little precious and verbose – too little shade however for a shining film experience.
I did not see the original Japanese anime film with the same name which triggered the idea of Ghost in the Shell and this may be an advantage or a disadvantage. I have read some articles that compare the two works, and also refer to the comics series, as well as to ‘Matrix’ which took apparently many ideas from it. It seems to me that I can enjoy and appreciate director Rupert Sanders‘ film even better without that comparison, although I may be missing some of the nuances or different directions the original work was taking the theme to.
What may have changed in the two decades since the Japanese original works were created is the fact that much of the technology that is described in the film became reality, and for the rest the feasibility is a confirmed fact. Artificial organs are now more and more replacing organs and tissues damaged by diseases or accidents. We know much more about how brain functions, how information circulates between brain and body, and how mechanical actions of the human body or artificial prosthesis are controlled. Brain transplant was not achieved, but it’s considered feasible, as well as a future implant in a completely artificial body. As in the film, many of the humans are or will become hybrids with a higher and higher percentage of replaced parts.
The film deals with a future in which the first brain implant is made in an artificial body. This makes of the lead heroine (Scarlett Johansson) kind of a super-hero, a living weapon to fight terrorists. It’s just that her former identity (her ‘ghost’) comes to haunt her, and while she slowly recovers her human identity the reality around becomes less connected to the truth. What follows is a combination of action (or even super-heroes action) and smart science-fiction genres, which takes place in a world where men coexist with hybrids, or maybe better said almost any man also became a hybrid. It’s a film which succeeds both to entertain as well as to ask difficult questions about the future evolution of mankind and it’s relation with the thinking machines created by men.
Some exceptional work was performed in order to create on screen the possible world of the future described in Ghost in the Shell. The visual concept makes reference to previous art like the one in Metropolis or Blade Runner, but develops those into new directions starting from the images and shapes that define today’s Asian big cities. There are a lot of computerized effects but they all have logic and are backing the story line, and so do the action scenes. The film succeeds to satisfy both action fans as well as viewers who are looking for meaningful science-fiction. Scarlett Johansson is very good in the lead role, she continues her daring undertaking of roles in science-fiction movies, but each one of the roles is different and this should help her avoid automatic casting in a new stereotype which replaces the older beautiful-fragile girl one in the first years of her career. It’s a pleasure to see huge actors as Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche also involved in this project.
As John Wick: Chapter 2 is on screens and gets unexpected good reviews and not only from fans, I thought that it’s a good opportunity to see the first and original John Wick which also received some positive echos, much above what is typically delivered for a film in its genre. It’s certainly a matter of setting expectations, but I personally was not disappointed. If violent action movies are one of the genres that entertain you, good chances that you will not be disappointed either.
Rule #1 to enjoy such a film is to accept the conventions of the genre. The story takes place in the parallel universe of the crime underworld. Although bodies start to accumulate in piles pretty soon, there is no policeman in view with the exception of one cop showing up at one point, looking at the scene of the carnage and wishing good evening to the hero who happens to be a professional killer. This parallel universe is not lawless, it’s just that the laws or better said the rules are different. There is a code of honor, there are territories of neutrality, and there is only one punishment – death – for breaking rules or trespassing borders. At the roots of the story stands a failed tentative by the main hero to break the cycle of violence of his profession and jump in the universe of normal people. All this is just memories when the action starts. This film is for Keanu Reeves what ‘Jack Reacher’ is for Tom Cruise and I suspect that at some point even taking the name of the hero as a title is not a coincidence. It’s the start of a series and the second installment was not too late to come.
Assuming you bought into the story and the convention, there is some good stuff to enjoy. Stuntman Chad Stahelski is sitting for the first time on the film director chair and he delivers exactly what is expected – a coherent story telling and perfect choreography of the many action scenes that occupy more than half of the duration of the movie. Keanu Reeves delivers what is expected, and a few other fine actors show up in small and even smaller supporting roles. Cinematography is just beautiful, with combinations of dark colors that fit well the violent dark universe that they populate. If you can just forget how sketchy the whole story (or pretext) of the film is, you have good reasons to enjoy it.
I have somehow avoided seeing There Will Be Blood for ten years despite its success, and despite having as lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis who got his second Academy Award for this role. The reason is that I was under the impression that this is one of those Big American Sagas which make great impression at the Oscars but seldom have convinced me to jump on their ship of emotions. This is true to some extent, as the film deals with the period of the beginning of oil drilling in the United States, the very important difference being that this saga has not an American Hero but and American Anti-Hero as main character. Which probably makes the film even more interesting.
The story takes starts before the turn of the 19th to the 20th century and ends in the late 1920s, following the raising of an oil magnate from his first discovery of one oil pit to his taking over a small empire of oil fields and the building of the pipes that ensure the transportation. Daniel Plainview, the character played by Day-Lewis seems to come from nowhere and grows from being nothing to the status of a millionaire. Achieving this takes not only luck and a complete lack of any scruples in dealing with competitors, friends or his very close ones – it also takes his soul. The story is kind of Faustian, it’s just that Satan never shows up, or maybe he is there during the whole story under the form of the black gold. The script is loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, with the difference that while in the Socialist writer novel the emphasis is on the social aspects with a critical view of the Capitalist system, in this adaptation it’s the moral aspects that prevail, with Planview’s character finding a counterpart and nemesis in preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). It’s the material world faced with the possible spiritual salvation, another Faustian theme if you wish, but the preacher character eventually proves to be as corrupt and empty in substance as its arch-rival, which makes it unable to fulfill its goal. The destinies of the two are interleaved and they both end in damnation. Director Paul Thomas Anderson opens here a theme which he will continue in his next great picture The Master which offered Philip Seymour Hoffman the opportunity of incarnating one of his last greatest roles.
At the end of the day, telling the story of an American hero or of an American anti-hero does not look that different. It is still one of these sagas starting in the days of the rush for gold and ending when the rush for the black gold – the oil – stabilizes into the big corporations consolidations. The lead hero does not seem to have real roots in history or a specific place, and he needs none as most of the attention is focused on its deeds, mostly evil, with the exception of the personal survival story that is being told in the first 15 minutes. As any saga that respects itself it’s long, which in cinema today means more that two and a half hours, which according to tastes and attention pass more or less easy. Daniel Day-Lewis‘s performance is superb, he fills the screen with his personality to the point that the balance between his character and the one played by Paul Dano is broken in his favor. Dano acts well but he just cannot raise to the height and intensity of Day-Lewis. There Will Be Blood is one of those movies which cannot be really placed in a specific box, or in more than one – they just build to themselves a category and a name of their own.
I cannot help it. Every film she shines in (because this is what stars do – they shine) ends by being about her. The great actress who is and lives on screen as every character she is incarnating, who makes this character an unforgettable person which you may love or hate, worship, despise or pity, but always remember. Of course, I am speaking about Meryl Streep. What a luck for us, movie viewers, to be her contemporaries!
Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, involved in the social and musical life of the first half of the 20th century in New York. She had a real passion for music, and enough money to pay for this passion, including helping and promoting musicians and musical events. Her only little sin was that she had the ambition to sing and her talent did not match her ambition. She had passion though, and was protected by a loving (and apparently platonic) husband who was hiding from her the bitter truth about her skills. The film is about the balance between passion and talent, and is also about the very special forms real love sometimes takes.
This combination of biopics and melodrama worked incredibly well for me. This was of course because of the tremendous talent and amazing performance of Meryl Streep, but not only. I also found Simon Helberg to be charming and funny in the role of the pianist who is hired to play with the strident diva. Hugh Grant is aging well and fits wonderfully in the role of the husband, and all the show is directed with British elegance by Stephen Frears. This is a film to enjoy, one of the better ones of the Academy Awards season. Watch it. You may learn that the ways of Art and the ways of Love are sometimes as mysterious as the ways of God.
The Japanese master Akira Kurosawa is credited for the original script (and remarkable movie) Seven Samurai made in 1954. Six years later an American remake named The Magnificent Seven provided one of the exception of that rule too often true which says that Hollywood remakes are much worse pictures than the non-American original movies they are based upon. John Sturges‘ film was actually very good (in my opinion) because of the presence of great action movies stars like Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and because it translated well the code of honor of the samurais in the rules of ethics that made eventually the lawless Wild West into a cradle of an efficient and lawful society. So the question may be asked – why do another Hollywood remake in 2016. One answer is of course – because more than half a century passed and the Western evolved. The problem is that in processing the script for the 21st century the writers and producers felt the need to add a dimension that was practically absent from the previous 7s – multiculturalism. And so, in two hops, we get from the mono-cultural Japanese saga with samurais to an internationalized (and PC – suspect) story that may fit some of the 21st century taste, but seems less credible in a 19th century setting.
The team of mercenaries assembled by law man Denzel Washington to protect the citizens of the city threatened to be taken over by an avid landlord and his army includes almost all the races and nations that populate the America of that time in an ‘international’ team that will work, fight and (some) die flawlessly. Nice idea, but lacking credibility. Worse – all with the exception of Washington‘s character lack consistency, they are more the stereotype that they are supposed to represent than real characters we get to care about, even when they are hurt or die.
Otherwise, it’s a good action movie, respecting the basic rules of the action Western films. One cannot expect Denzel Washington to provide anything but a fine performance. He worked with director Antoine Fuqua in The Equalizer and was lucky for a more consistent and complex role there. Haley Bennett was also present in The Equalizer, here, in The Magnificent Seven she seems to be a little too young and a little too pretty for the role of the beautiful widow who gathers the team of mercenaries. Fine actors as Chris Pratt or Ethan Hawke get too little substance in their roles to be remembered. The action scenes are reasonably well made, but there is nothing special to remember the day after the screening.
The ‘Wild’ West at the end of the 19th century was many things, but what it was not was a multi-cultural and tolerant society. One can describe it as such, but this smells of historical revisionism or political correctness. The West may have been populated by different nationalities, but they were far from equal and far from living and acting in harmony – this is the historical truth. Taking into account that today’s American society is as well far from having overcome all its traumas related to its attitude towards race and minorities, maybe such an alternate view can be regarded as an act of balancing. All good, but this does not automatically translate into good cinema.
What happens when an undercover CIA agent and the investigative journalist who is exposing her to the broad public are both dedicated mothers of kids who learn together in the same well established American urban milieu? What happens when everybody does the right thing and yet the personal lives of the people involved are destroyed or worse? What is the price that is worth paying for following one’s principles – family, freedom, life? These are some of the questions that are being asked in Nothing But the Truth, the 2008 film directed by Rod Lurie.
Despite the disclaimer that starts the film the story is obviously inspired by a true case and the lead character by a true person – Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who served 85 days in prison for refusing to name her source in a case where the name of a government agent was made public. It can also be seen as a strong feminist story, as all the key involved persons (the journalist, her redactor-in-chief boss, and the CIA agent) are all women, while the system of justice persons (the prosecutor, the lawyer, the judge) are all men. The story tells about political reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) getting under pressure to disclose the source of the information she published about the real identity of a CIA agent, actually a whistle-blower whose revelations are covered up. The clash is between the journalism ethics and the government secrecy, as what is perceived by the journalist as protection of her sources is from the legal point of view a possible crime of disclosing the identity of the agents. The price is however to be paid by both women in their personal life, although the film mostly focuses on the fate of the reporter. How far will she go to respect her principles?
The specialty of director Rod Lurie seems to be in political films, but here he succeeds to create not only an interesting intrigue and ask the tough questions, but also to build a credible character drama that exceeds the strict borders of the story. Lurie also wrote the script and the story flows well and is helped by an efficient team of actors. Best are Kate Beckinsale in the lead role and Matt Dillon as the prosecutor. The resulting film is both entertaining and raises interesting issues, it’s a politically-motivated film that avoids being dry and rhetorical by focusing on the human dimensions of the story.
The buzz is high, the prizes started to accumulate. They tell however more about the status of the industry and the longing of the public for escapist entertainment combined with a high dose of nostalgia for the musical successes that were running high 60 or 70 years ago. La La Land directed by Damien Chazelle combines a well known formula, makes reverences to the golden period of the musical films in Hollywood (some scenes were filmed in the studio were Fred Astaire once was filmed) but also to some more modern film makers and their ideas (like Ki-duk Kim), and enjoys the participation of shining stars like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It may be sufficient for collecting statuettes. It is not enough to make it a real good film. I know I am in a minority expressing this opinion now. I believe that it will be a growing minority soon.
What we get with La La Land a collection of a few wonderful moments connected by an awfully schematic story. Boy meets girl, of course. Boy is an aspiring jazz musician in a time when real jazz seems to be in a descending slope of interest, Girl is an aspiring actress, waiting in a Starbucks (or like) coffee shop and auditioning in a serial and desperate manner. They both have visions and passion. They both aspire to careers, but life is tough and art and success seldom meet for one person and almost never with personal happiness. Or true love. From here on the story accumulates many of the possible stereotypes and too little artistic truth. Great scenes are not missing – actually this film has a number of memorable quotes, the problem is the rosy sweet materials on between. There is also one great idea that I liked – who does it belong to? script writers or director – the non-reality scenes are drawn in music and dance. The ones from the films in the 40s and 50s.
When jazz is played however, it’s different. Jazz music is also about being true, great jazzmen do not lie when they play music. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) explaining to Mia (Emma Stone) what jazz is about is one of the best scenes I have ever seen about jazz. The problem is that this is not a jazz movie. As much as I love Ryan Gosling and appreciate Emma Stone their chemistry on screen is not enough to sustain the film, and it actually makes their breaking (and the break away scene) even less credible.
Just to be clear – La La Land is not a bad movie. Damien Chazelle is at his third film, the two other were also one way or the other related to music. Whiplash was welcome with ravishing critics and a very high IMDB rating. La La Land however belongs to a very different category. In the thin air of the ideas and good cinema of the last years it will get a lot of prizes in the next couple of months. Many of them are not deserved. I write this by respect for what the film is (and is not) and for what the Academy, BAFTA, or Golden Globe awards should be. I am expecting more and better films about music from Damien Chazelle. Maybe a great jazz movie.