La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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I mean, let’s be clear: it is not necessary to hate La La Land in order to love Moonlight. It makes total sense that it was nominated in many categories throughout awards season, including the Oscars. Neither of those statements, however, speak to La La Land being a good film. It’s a fine film, eminently watchable once you get past the first couple of truly grating numbers, Ryan Gosling’s piano is impressive enough that we may forgive his singing, and it may have grabbed me at several moments, but it never once held me.

People are starting to find the postmodern genre flick, constantly referencing cult classics, increasingly obnoxious. Even I had to put my foot firmly down whilst watching The Hateful Eight, and I’ve given Tarantino pass after pass over the years. It surprises me, therefore, that La La Land‘s “love letter to Hollywood” schtick has been so celebrated. Considering its release during the Brexit/Trump era, I can’t help but think of the 1974 MGM musical compilation film That’s Entertainment! and its piteous tagline “Boy, do we need it now.” Certainly, there’s an affective seduction at the heart of La La Land but I do feel the need to stress the manipulative quality implicit in that observation. Tarantino’s own aesthetic at least allows for hidden gems: you will genuinely enjoy his films more if you do seek out the often semi-obscure B-movies being referenced with varying degrees of subtlety throughout. La La Land, on the other hand, makes unmistakeable-by-design nods towards exceptionally well-known and well-loved classics and yet never exploits their recognisability to the extent of entering into any depth of analysis.

Indeed, most cynically, Damien Chazelle & Co. seem to rely on the general audience’s lack of knowledge about either films or music, which brings us on to the question of jazz. Does La La Land have a racial problem with regard to jazz music and white saviourism? Undoubtedly it does. And yet, for my white, jazz loving money’s worth (which, admittedly, may not be worth much at all), it’s not something we need take all that seriously, because La La Land‘s relationship with jazz is so utterly surface-level, it doesn’t risk teaching anyone anything about it at all, either racist and incorrect, or gospel truth. Jazz is little more than the mcguffin for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to mansplain to Mia (Emma Stone) throughout the narrative. It could have been replaced with oldskool techno, heavy metal, opera, and the effect would have been precisely the same. It’s not, after all, like much of the score even has that much to do with jazz – certainly the type Sebastian is interested in – it really just, much like in Whiplash, acts as the catalyst for the extreme gender problem both films seem to reveal about their writer/director.

Jazz music is a serious white concern for serious white men who, for the sake of its continued existence, must not be distracted – let alone criticised – by any woman. Both films seemingly follow the logic of Foucault’s description of neoliberalism to the letter, stressing the need for ruthless micromanagement and the absolute discardability of personal relationships for the acquirement of human capital. Perhaps most interesting is Chazelle’s desire to have his cake and eat it too by also acknowledging the necessity for amoral situational adaptability in the quest for human capital (whether sustaining abuse in Whiplash or – at least temporarily – “selling out” in La La Land) whilst still romanticising the nature of integrity, left entirely abstract by the end of the film because being “principled” is more important as a general personality quirk is worth so much more to Chazelle than ever detailing what these principles are. It’s entirely reasonable for many people to state that, no, Keith (John Legend) is by no means a sell out; acid jazz etc etc is a generic tradition in its own right and has been since the 1980s – more or less the only thing Sebastian told us / Mia about jazz is that it has improvisation, and he clearly is allowed to improvise onstage with that band, too. If Sebastian truly is as horrified as he seems, the first time he sees The Messengers employing synthesizers in a jazz setting, he’s going to freak out when he learns about Herbie Hancock’s later work. Clearly, these concepts of “integrity” etc are decided by one person and one alone: Damien Chazelle. If you don’t agree with his worldview, your enjoyment of La La Land is instantly going to be limited.

“Integrity” and, indeed, “passion” are the codewords for – from the romantic perspective – that which allows you to “achieve your dreams” and – from the capitalist perspective – that which allows you the most easy access to human capital. “Integrity” and “passion” are codewords for individualism and whiteness. Despite the intersubjective, often democratic, nature of jazz performance, about which Sebastian speaks at length – the type of thing that allowed Thelonious Monk multiple times in concert to stop playing piano and just dance to the sound of his sidemen – Chazelle’s interpretation of jazz always has but one most important player and that player is always the protagonist. La La Land routinely made me think of Whiplash‘s ending, in which the protagonist, who has never once met the band before, high-jacks the entire performance for the sake of an alienating if impressive solo, after the more-or-less antagonist of the piece had moments before decided to ruin the show for all of them, just to humiliate him. The solipsistic – not to mention white – gall of that scene drives the whole of La La Land, no matter how much more subtly, and that strikes me as the crux of its white, capitalist cynicism.

Apparently, Chazelle’s desire when making La La Land was to “have something which had the magic of musicals, but also had the texture and the grit of real life.” So, just like Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, New York New York, Rent… As I said, no matter how well put together this film is – and it certainly is – La La Land is a duplicitous exercise. It demands you praise its referential nature, whilst ignoring its unoriginality. It demands you praise its affect, whilst ignoring the working class / POC labour and genius upon which it depends. It demands you praise its romanticism, whilst ignoring its capitalism.

Huh, maybe it is a genuine love-letter to Hollywood and the music industry, after all…

**1/2
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The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

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The Nice Guys is a genuinely enjoyable action comedy neo-noir which is tragically let down by the fact that the combination of director, cast, setting, premise and plot puts the films LA Confidential, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice so firmly in one’s head as to make them irremovable and, sadly, they are all much better and much more memorable films than The Nice Guys ever was going to be. There are some great moments and child actor Angourie Rice, playing the Penny to Gosling’s Inspector Gadget is in my opinion the film’s secret weapon in mixing comedy with charm, but held in particular against Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, its flaws do shine through. For one, The Nice Guys dwells for too long on the “buddy movie” angle, which inevitably blunts its neo-noir edge. This is a real shame, when the charming implausibility of the central conspiracy, if finessed and explored further might well have made this a real contender in this slowly expanding sub-sub(?)-genre. Instead, by spending too much time following the leads, despite the scene-stealing support, The Nice Guys comes across as a little too economically conscious as it sacrifices story for stars, thus leaving the impression that lightning very rarely strikes twice. It can hit reasonably close, though.

***

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**

 

Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2015)

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Watching Lost River, I couldn’t help but get an eerie feeling of déja-vu. After half an hour or so, I realised that it’s more or less one of the film scripts I wrote in my bedroom at age 14 up till the moment where my laptop had the good sense to die forever, depriving the world of more derivative, albeit aesthetically harmonious, twaddle.

It is instantly apparent that each and every one of the characters are entirely picked from a deck of instantly recognisable archetypes but, strangely enough, not a one of them is fleshed out enough even to fulfil the required tropes. Granted, for this it makes the characters less obnoxious than the overbearingly paint-by-numbers archetype list to be found in so many films from Birdman to Calvary, but that’s but there is more than one alternative to glitzy 2D character writing that isn’t frustratingly 1D character writing. Lost River‘s aimless approach to in media res means that we’re never really given insight into any motivations, allegiances or conflicts, and the nearly-last-days universe, for all its neon cool, just isn’t interesting enough forLost River‘s lack of tight plot to be made irrelevant by immersive experience, à la Hard to Be a God.

To be sure, I have occasionally wondered what Ryan Gosling’s blu-ray collection looked like, and I’m glad to have Lost River take me from J through M (Jodorowsky, Korine, Lynch, Mallick) as well as confirm for me that he’s seen and enjoyed Stalker at least once, but I cannot help but resent him for recycling these auteurs in such a dull, privileged way. I say privileged, because there are films that have managed to borrow unmistakable elements from, say, Lynch on what seems to have been a fraction of this film’s budget and make a simple, pleasant watch. Enemy is a fine example of such a film. Lost River, by contrast, feels simultaneously somehow too simple and too complex at the same time, Gosling never quite sure what point he wants to make, but never having the nihilism of the majority of his considerably more existential influences to allow it to have no point with dignity.

It’s heartbreaking to think Gosling believed he was making something good and new with Lost River and it’s sickening to think some stupid teenager will honestly believe this is the peak of filmmaking. I certainly hope they discover the source texts for every rip-off in this film and realise how much more there is to explore than Lost River.

**

Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn, 2011)

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(Rewatch)

 

On second viewing, my thoughts are pretty much the same – in terms of nice little exploitation movies of the current era, Drive is pretty much king. It has that visual-narrative cinematic purity that has since been exaggerated upon to even greater, more epic success in Mad Max: Fury Road but I think Drive manages to create and re-create tension, beautifully paying off with just the right level of ultraviolence to make it an eye-watering, uncomfortable experience, but not too much that it stops being a stylish romp. My one complaint is that I wish there had been a little more driving! The chases are filmed fantastically and the film could easily have done with one more. Otherwise, a great, fun film that balances extreme playfulness with palpable tension and some great, Noé-esque brutalism in a way so few films manage.

****