Monday, January 9, 2017

Song and Dance, Man: LA LA LAND


I saw La La Land a few weeks ago and, though fun, the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve thought of it. There’s much to admire about its shaggy fastidiousness bringing the movie musical to an aw-shucks shuffle and mumble aesthetic bursting with glitter at the margins. Writer-director Damien Chazelle glides the Steadicam with dancers great and small, dialing up the colors in the smooth cinematography to just shy of Technicolor vibrancy. The songs don’t exactly burst forth in memorable wit or hummable melody, but noodle around with a passive aggressive earworm tendency to quietly wrap a measure or two around the back of the brain. There’s something appealing about sitting in the theater watching it unspool, but little to stick with you beyond the feeling of having seen something largely pleasant, a mostly empty exercise in style and self-satisfaction. But that's not so bad, considering.

It begins with one of the most exuberant curtain raisers in recent memory, pure joy as a traffic jam erupts in dance, buoyant and colorful gestures totally swept up in moving to the beat. The movie ends with an even better sequence: one of the loveliest sustained passages in any movie I’ve seen lately. I held my breath as the film steps into a poignant, melancholy, graceful dream ballet about fleeting moments, about love and loss and the fantasy of what might have been. In between the film isn’t quite as enchanting and transporting, but it’s really trying, you know? Chazelle has traded in cachet gained from the gruff, buzzy, and percussive Oscar-winning drama Whiplash for the chance to make an original movie musical. We don’t get too many of those anymore, let alone evocations of a Jacques Demy style peppered with allusions to MGM’s Freed unit fare all nestled in a quipping romantic comedy (another genre that’s fallen fallow of late).

Like his earlier film it’s an exploration of artists pushing their talents to the limit, unsure whether their passion is enough to get them to the level of success necessary to make a living, let alone becoming a Great. But instead of that film’s dark central relationship – a jockeying for power between a domineering professor and an aggressively ambitious student – this film is a fuzzy and light romance, as charming as can be while still maintaining a simmering striving sadness underneath. This film’s central couple is a pair of dreamers trotting through a fantasy Los Angeles. She wants to be an actress like her studio-era idols. A huge Golden Age Hollywood poster covers one wall of her tiny bedroom in a cramped apartment shared with three other girls, a place to crash between auditions and barista shifts at the Warner Bros. lot. He wants to run a jazz club. In the meantime he’s obsessively hording artifacts from when jazz was king and piecing together savings from small time gigs playing background noise piano in restaurants or New Wave cover bands at shallow parties.

She is Emma Stone. He is Ryan Gosling. They turn up the movie star charm and crackling chemistry as they perform the expected rom-com moves, starting out prickly, jabbing at each other with glowing conversational daggers. They don’t like each other, each quick with an insult. But they dance so swimmingly in sync, a soft shuffle of steps, a sudden graceful motion, a swooping flourish. In true Astaire and Rogers fashion (in spirit, but definitely not in skill) feet tell the real story of feelings. We know they’re meant to be, and soon they’re giving it a go. Their only problem is being young in 2016, a time in which it’s awfully hard to make jazz pianist or glamorous star a career goal. (Not that it was ever easy to succeed in those professions, but it sure was a lot smoother when there was popular demand.) This makes La La Land, a self-consciously colorful and charmingly artificial romantic musical, a bittersweet tale of people who just weren’t made for these times. They bond over artistic passions – he explaining jazz, she taking a backlot tour – and fall in love, before the demands of selling-out start them on separate paths.

Chazelle makes use of his leads’ appealing banter and expressive moves, turning this into a slight two-hander. No time to flesh out others, it is a duet for young talent with enough experience to shoulder the demands of the roles and smooth-enough faces to play striving ingénues and ambitious self-starters. They are figures conjured for genre play, the types we’d expect to find in a movie like this, their movements and behavior dictated by the way a dress should ruffle, the way glitter should float on a puff of breeze, the way a hop-skip-slide should gleam under a lamppost at night. It’s all rather sweet, but narrow. Their pursuit of success (and each other) is the movie’s exclusive interest, crowding an ace supporting cast (fleeting glimpses of Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and others) out of the chance to strut their stuff. And in the end, even their relationship is lopsided – far more interested in his jazz than her acting – and remains vague on their actual progress to career destinations.

The central question for the characters is whether or not they’ll be true to their artistic ambitions – he likes real jazz; she prefers serious roles – or give in to temptation. And maybe choosing one means losing the other, or each other. That their potential sell-out moves – a gig playing fun popular music with a John Legend type (played by the man himself); a role on a series described as Dangerous Minds meets The OC – sound at least as, if not more, fun than their dream art maybe muddies the movie’s point. Gorgeous widescreen colors stretch across the screen, and the film’s protagonists’ swooning, naïve worship of modes of artistic expression fallen from peak popularity (clinging to an ideal that keeps their prospects slim and dusty instead of embracing the actual mess of creating art) is mirrored in the fussy (and sometimes fusty) evocation of genre gone by. I was frustrated by all this inconsistency, but then there’s that final dreamy conclusion that practically lifted me out of my seat. And, hey, it was worth hanging in there after all. Any movie with two great scenes bookending a technically accomplished (if hollow) middle can’t be all bad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

For Better; For Worse: FENCES


Fences is the sort of smart, big hearted, densely written, deeply felt, smartly blocked, stirringly performed theatrical experience that can knock you sideways for the rest of the day.  Denzel Washington’s powerful film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is thoughtful, patient, considered, literary. It uses the medium of cinema to recreate the full feeling of having spent and been spent by a consuming, heavy-duty, satisfying evening at the playhouse. Feeling no pressure to open up or embellish upon the text, Washington uses screen staging to bring full expression to Wilson’s writing, letting actors roam the frame, boxed in by their circumstances and holding court for each other as a way to feel heard, even and especially if they’re simply talking past each other. Here is a film with no frivolous exchanges. Every line is imbued with forceful personality and deep meaning. A complicated film, this rich text is contrary to the usual contemporary cycle of instant reaction and shallow analysis. You have to sit with it. You have to live in it. The film creates a fully formed world out of a backyard, entire lives out of conversations.

We sit in and around the home of Troy and Rose, a black couple living paycheck to paycheck in 1950s’ Pittsburgh. They have a mostly happy life, but there are unresolved dramas, neglected compromises, and lingering regrets. He (Washington) is a frustrated garbage man still hoping to get ahead, discrimination be damned. Once a potential Negro league star, he just missed the desegregation of the major leagues. He’s trapped by what could have been, caught in the tug of war between prejudice and opportunity that defined the Northern migration of African Americans looking for better futures in the time between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet for as much as his circumstances defined his possibilities and his worldview, he has made progress, with a steadfast wife (Viola Davis), a loyal friend (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a troubled brother (Mykelti Williamson), and two sons (one grown (Russell Hornsby), the other (Jovan Adepo) almost there). He can’t quite reconcile his offspring’s ambitions (jazz and football) with his sense of practicality. He worries for them, and though times have changed and are about to continue changing, he can’t quite see it, because they didn’t change in time for him.

Human and humane, Wilson’s worldview makes the story and characters not a sociological specimen or mere vehicle of messaging. No, Fences is stirringly true to life, with characters full of complications. And into these people a perfect cast breathes astonishing life. In long, complicated, dense dialogues and monologues they speak. We hear them gossip, reminisce, plan and dream, and yet underneath we can hear their fears and see their foibles. Fully rounded and shaded figures, they aren’t always easy to get a read on. They reveal flaws and disagreeable aspects of themselves, sometimes through trying to hide their truth, and other times because they’ve run out of obfuscations and must now confront their human failings. There’s a core elemental quality to the film’s specificity, true to Wilson’s sharp evocation of race, class, time, and space, and his keen ear for the ways in which speech can bring people closer and pull them apart, how the sum total of a person’s experience can both expand and contract a person’s possibilities. We can see and hear how some are taken for granted, and others show affection through gruffness, how cruelty can be a kindness and how compassion can flower even in withering relational pains.

What’s most thrilling about Washington’s directorial approach here is how he turns the movie house into a playhouse, importing all the immediacy of live theater while retaining all the power of the wide big screen image. He finds large emotional scenes subtly wrought, moments of deep psychology and powerful exchanges played not to the back rows but perfectly calibrated with delicate electrifying intimacy for the cameras. He, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, builds frames with a proscenium in mind, not stagey but thrillingly contained. The blocking (often a lost art in a world of bland coverage and frivolous CG-assisted swoops) is thought through so deeply, each actor’s placement on the screen, as well as every element of production design, strategically situated to reveal and deepen the emotion of the moment. Watch how a fence becomes metaphor sitting unfinished behind people working to build separations. See how a tree looms above, sturdy growth, or a bat leans ready to strike, full of unspoken potential. Spot movement through a back window, a sight alternating between comfortable domesticity and intentional isolation.

A most intelligently constructed film, Washington has engineered every moment to highlight the power of the play’s text, and the impressively felt, effortlessly deployed performances by himself and his tremendous co-stars. This is a movie of small gestures, quiet revelations, sharp exchanges, quicksand confessions, and dazzling complexity. In its smallness, it grows big, breathtakingly apparent that it’s a major work. More than a surface transposition from theater to cinema, Washington (who surely knows the play inside and out, having starred with Davis in its 2010 Broadway revival) interprets, making it a vital and unshakeable moviegoing experience. He provides space for his talented cast to inhabit their characters, digging deep into their drives and desires, dramas and disagreements, hard pasts and talented possible futures. Through their conversations whole worlds open up. Without visualizing a flashback, Washington need only let the camera linger as he or one of his colleagues holds forth in colorful language, evoking whole strains of conflict and trauma or love and loss in a nod, a fleeting expression, a softly spoken word. It is a rich, dense, and hearty meal in a multiplex otherwise full of empty trifles.
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