Film of the Week: LaLa Land (2016)

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Damien Chazelle directs Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend in this original musical about an aspiring actress and obsessive jazz pianist trying to make it in Los Angeles. 

I settled into a New York multiplex seat with high expectations and within minutes they were exceeded. The opening number reached a crescendo of such dare, verve and painstaking timing (yet while feeling fresh and unstaged), popping with vivid colours and confident moves, that the rest of the running time could have just been the effervescent Stone and likably flawed Gosling making shadow puppets on the wall and I still would have given this a 10 anyway. They all do more than that (Whiplash was apparently no fluke and we all already love these stars), wearing the technical ingenuity, the quality influences proudly on their collective sleeves, and glorifying the simple emotions of risking it and failing and pulling yourself back together and moving on with an expert flourish. And the risky ending… featuring a forgotten almost star who made his name in a similarly bright movie about creative hopefuls almost touching the sun…. is just on-point. I’ll hold my finger to my lips and say no more right now. A breezy, touching, reverential, stops pulled all out, modern masterpiece.

10

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

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Nicholas Ray directs Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge in this technicolor western about a saloon owner being driven out of town by her fanatical respectable counterpart. 

Romance, star vehicle, feature length catfight, gender subversion, blatant exploration of McCarthyism and still with your industry standard shoot-outs to boot, Johnny Guitar is one of those rare 50s form-busting, risk taking, tongue in cheek genre endeavours that make you constantly ask “What the fuck am I watching?” as it snares you tighter into its trap (see also 40 Guns). Obviously a massive influence on Tarantino with its long, monologue driven sequences and genre deconstruction, the above image sums up the camp fun to be had within; Crawford greeting a lynch mob in all her fineries at a piano, stuck between a rock and hard place. She plays for them for five whole tense, illuminating minutes.

7

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990)

"Why, yes, I am sloppy seconds. How did you know?"

 

Steve Barron directs Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas and Corey Feldman in this superhero action comedy about Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Heroes in a half-shell – Turtle Power! They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting teens, They’re heroes in a half-shell, and they’re green…

I’m going to chalk this up as a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t revisited this since the height of the toy craze, when my height was at least a foot shorter… but as a colourful entertainment it holds up rather well. Corners have been cut in the production, there are obvious padding sequences to separate the more expensive fight and FX work (which in the main is cartoonishly tactile – a positive) and the humour is obscurely adult… not in a blue way either, just in a would-kid’s-ever-get-some-of-the-reference-points-in-the-quips? weirdness. But April, Casey Jones, Splinter and the main four are a likeable bunch and when they get into rumbles they are kinetic and threat filled. What more could you ask from a blockbuster adventure made on a shoestring and a prayer the Turtle bubble wouldn’t burst before the celluloid was developed.

7

The Tichborne Claimant (1998)

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David Yates directs John Kani, Robert Pugh and Charles Gray in this true tale of servant who brings back from Australia a dubious missing heir, only to have the family reject him while the British public embrace him. 

A grand little first film from the now blockbuster director of the State of Play TV show, the later Harry Potter entries and spin offs, and last year’s underrated Legend of Tarzan. A remarkable footnote in British history is brought to life in the detached, ironic and episodic style similar to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Although slight, it is a handsome and wry jaunt through that period’s concerns and styles with a luvvie supporting cast who glow rather than grate – as more often than not they are here playing acidic establishment rotters rather than their standard kindly butlers and portly fairy godmothers. One of those magical realist successes that feel even more mythic and important when you realise the historical accuracy of the story. Fine lead performances from Kani and Pugh too.

7

Brooklyn (2015)

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John Crowley directs Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson in this period romance where an intelligent young Irish girl has to choose between her new life in a land of opportunities and the unexpected chance of happiness in her homeland. 

Just magical. A rare beast these days – a movie love story that leaves you genuinely uncertain what the right choice is, both men and locations are so seductively filmed. The calm, almost ethereal centre of the dilemma is Saoirse Ronan… now, she has been fantastic in more demanding roles, but this part seems to fit her like a glove. You deeply care about with who and to where she ends up, egging her on to make that right choice even if she knows before you what that should be. A deceptively light film with hidden grit and one that frames its heart and salt with sheerly wonderful presentation… you just want to get wrapped up in it all over again as the final frame freezes.

9

Enough Said (2013)

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Nicole Holofcener directs Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini and Catherine Keener in this comedy about a mature single mother who starts an uncertain relationship with a man, only to discover one of her new massage clients is his ex and has plenty to say on his ‘qualities’. 

An upper middle class comedy of errors, this at times feels a little insignificant, set in a world of no financial worries and where jobbing middle age women take umbrage that their paying customers don’t do more to help them take a light padded mat up a flight of stairs… Men, hey! The whole endeavour has the tanned look and expensive tastes of being sat in cafe unwillingly listening to the loud, moaning conversation of people who have never cleaned up after themselves. The dialogue is just slightly better written. Having griped about that, like a class warrior, the subtle chemistry between Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini is captivating – the sorely missed big man puts in a beautiful shift. His gruffly spoken, flawed but gracious romantic interest is very real and seductive. Throwaway then, if it wasn’t for the quality cast.

5

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

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Sam Liu directs Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Tara Strong in this achingly faithful animation of the controversial graphic novel where the Joker breaks Bat-Girl and Commissioner Gordon yet reaches a moment of clarity with the Caped Crusader himself.

Watching this transgressive tale be brought to life is a treat in the main – within there’s a keen exploration of the Joker / Bats dynamic, moment of harrowing nastiness and a surprisingly hot sex scene between two costumed freaks. You can see The Killing Joke’s far reaching influence on Nolan, Burton and Snyder for at times this could be storyboards for the universes’ live action stablemates. But… it’s a very bitty narrative – many of the first and second acts’ plotlines are just left ignored and unresolved at the credits. Part of that is due to fidelity to the source materials arch punchline but you really would like to see Barbara, Gordon and the initial goons journeys reach some kind of epilogue. As a standalone movie this abrupt dismissal of key players once they’ve served their unfortunate purposes leaves a casual viewer unsated.

6

 

Jackie (2016)

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Pablo Larraín directs Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig in this fractured recreation of Jackie Kennedy’s reaction to her husband’s assassination.

I was a bit unwell when viewing this and dozed for a chunk in the middle (woken with a snap by the bullet tearing through JFK’s skull no less) so I am going to give it the benefit of the doubt. The sumptuous production design and Portman’s equally elegant central turn are winners but the mosaic style structure means this feels like a slightly hollow tribute to an icon rather than a propulsive narrative, a cold hard monument rather than a lyrical song you can get caught up in. Admitting there may be parts my nap overlooked, this did not feel the sum of them all at close.

6

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1990)

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Stephen Herek directs Christina Applegate, Joanna Cassidy and Josh Charles in this comedy about some obnoxiously useless siblings who have to fend for themselves over summer vacation when their elderly babysitter pegs it. 

Too much subplot and not enough jokes mean this essentially becomes a vehicle to dress the appealing but underdeveloped Applegate in a variety of neon coloured outfits. Only one point off the score I gave Silence below, due to the utter lack of laughs in both, I’d still probably watch this again over that if channel surfing late one night.

4

Silence (2016)

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Martin Scorsese directs Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Yōsuke Kubozuka in this tale of Jesuit priests who travel to feudal Japan to spread the Catholic faith, at a time when the religion is being violently stamped out. 

A tough one this. Though mastefully made (there are blips of shock and awe that are wholly affecting) and containing committed performances (the Japanese cast members particularly stand out) throughout, Silence boils down to 150 minutes of increasingly grubby priests allowing people to suffer while they hide or cower in a variety of different wooden boxes. And if you take that as an examination of faith under arduous pressure, fair play to you, that’s Marty’s intention. But the agnostic in me would have much rather have seen him use all his enviable powers revisiting philosophically troubled mobsters, coked up penny share millionaire brokers or ageing pool hustlers rather than passive men in vintage dog collars crying as the people they led down the garden path suffer because of their obstinate delusions. I was unengaged, adrift by the last third as Garfield prayed directly at me to let the madness, he was a party to, end. It is still a strikingly beautiful movie and hard to fault on a technical level.

5