Sunday, 22 January 2017

What do you mean you don't like jazz?

La La Land
(2016)

(SPOILERS) La La Land is very likeable, which is surely why it has been embraced so rapturously, as if it represents the second coming of Gene Kelly. It isn’t that, but it’s backward-looking take on old-school musicals, with a twist of sobriety, has made it seem fresh and distinctive in an increasingly homogenous (mainstream) landscape. It does make me wonder, though, whether director Damien Chazelle has a one-track mind. He can make a film about anything. As long as it involves jazz.


And additionally, when positioned alongside Whiplash, it’s suggestive of an unsettlingly uncompromising temperament. Whiplash justified its teacher’s extreme methods in its final reel; wanton cruelty maketh the purer artist, we are told, despite having seen all we needed hitherto to convince us that such behaviour is entirely detrimental to the nurturing of talent. I conceded at the time that maybe this was down to lack of judgement on its maker’s part, that Maybe Chazelle intended to leave his audience with more of an open debate than he does”, but in light of La La Land, I’d lean heavily to there being no mistake there. In both movies, the ends justify the means, along as the ends are success. So Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are not destined to live happily ever after, not together at any rate, but in forsaking potential bliss they gain what they have always dreamed of: fame and artistic fulfilment, respectively.


Working backwards from that, within the parameters of the generally uncynical genre of the musical, Chazelle leaves himself some curiously gaping potholes to traverse. Because he’s left with a love story in which the lovers aren’t really, not wholly, not convincingly, that into each other, and so there isn’t really any great disappointment in their eventual not to be-ness. It also means there isn’t any great flight of fantasy during their musical outpourings, certainly between the opening number (of which they aren’t a part, and which I had difficulty making out what Another Day of Sun was even about until the near the end, which isn’t very good form; either that, or speakers in the cinema weren’t doing the business) and the quite dazzling, “what-might-have-been” montage that concludes the movie.


Maybe that’s intentional, though, reflecting Mia and Sebastian’s lack of sincerity? That’s a charitable take, certainly, and I couldn’t help but notice how the choreography of the leads, Gosling in particular, is on the stiff side. The Coen brothers delivered a musical number in Hail, Caesar! that was no more than a side dish, but displayed, deftness, sleight of hand and a vibrant wit lacking even in the best of what’s on offer here. Not that La La Land isn’t funny, but I didn’t find it as spirited or as invested in the genre as, say Woody’s Everybody Says I Love You. The manner in which, for the main body of the piece, the songs shuffle in and out or linger on the side-lines, without much fanfare, reluctant to intrude too overtly on the drama of the relationship, or let things really take off, suggests something else; a quality of “musical realism” (is that a phrase?), perhaps, closer to the kind of approach we see in diegetic musicals like The Commitments than a full-blown fantasy?


It also means that, because they’re restrained, those numbers feel more rehearsed, less free and expansive than in your typical musical (admittedly, I’m no aficionado of the genre, so am happy to stand corrected). The segues too feel a little on the studied side at times, the lights lowering around the subject(s) at the appropriate moment on each occasion. But the songs themselves are extremely catchy, and for all that I’ve noted the choreography being limited, Chazelle is light years ahead of the go-to-guy for musical adaptations, Rob Marshall, in staging, cinematography and editing. Indeed, if La La Land wins the Best Picture Oscar, it will at least do something to displace the stink of the last musical to win, Marshall’s Chicago.


Gosling and Stone have previous movie form of course, flourishing in Crazy, Stupid, Love, less so in Gangster Squad (but then, no one was done any favours there). A number of reviews have noted their singing isn’t up to scratch, but as someone who enjoyed the very variable performances in the aforementioned Everyone Says, I can’t say their timbres really put me off. Mind you, unless someone is actually tone deaf, I’d probably come away nodding, “Yeah, they were fine.” The main thing here is the chemistry, and their natural charisma as performers. 


If there’s a problem, aside from a fizzled romance that is a fait accompli, it’s one of which Stone is the unfortunate bearer. Chazelle may be repeating himself with Sebastian’s all-excluding jazz obsession, but at least it’s a strong through line. He’s a sufficiently proficient pianist, but his dream isn’t of great fame, it’s of a venue where the form can be allowed free expression. And through necessary compromise (to find the funds to achieve that goal) he achieves it. It’s a very specific, heartfelt intent, the expression of an artistic soul.


In contrast, Stone’s character is rather empty-headed. There’s almost a sense that Chazelle, having fixed on what he really wanted for his male character, settled on the most rote, “That’ll do” target for her. So, she’s an aspiring actress in Hollywood, and she wants to be a writer, so she just is a writer; presto, she flourishes a one-woman play in which she acts. And is spotted. And success is asssured. There’s no path or mountain to climb, and her trajectory is entirely generic. That Mia doesn’t completely flounder is entirely down to Stone’s charm and expressive frog eyes. There’s one song (Audition/The Fools Who Dream) arising from Mia being asked to tell a story at an audition, and all she can come up with is her aunt getting wet in Paris and wanting to do it again, the theme of following one’s dream, and I was left thinking, “That, the most moribund of all Hollywood themes, got you the gig?”


All that said, I was frequently most impressed and taken by Chazelle’s confident telling of scenes distinct from the musical life blood; Mia taunting Sebastian as he sacrifices his dignity to an ‘80s cover band is much more surefooted than the subsequent song as they walk to their cars. And then there’s the standout passage in which he comes home from touring and admits he has done what he has done because he thinks that’s what she wants him to do (joining John Legend’s very slightly cheesy, populist band); it’s one of the high points of the picture.


And, of course, Epilogue is near-sublime. If the rest of the movie had the breath-taking flourish of that final number, La La Land would be an instant classic. While, on the one hand, I genuinely appreciated that the picture’s ending chose not to opt for the conventional route, that it was more resonant that way, it also led to the nagging feeling that this was a very calculated conclusion, and that there’s something cumulatively ruthless about Chazelle’s worldview, something showing through the colourful trappings and sympathetic protagonists. But I look forward to his next effort, a science fiction yarn in which Louis Armstrong becomes the first jazz musician to set foot on the Moon.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 20 January 2017

I know plenty of people who do The Invitation.

The Invitation
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Discussion of Karyn Kusama’s movie has been roundly prefaced by admonishments not to spoil its plot. But really, if you’re more than fractionally familiar with genre trappings and tropes, you’d be hard pressed not to figure how this is all going to turn out within about five minutes. Indeed, as seductive as Kusama’s direction is, aided by a fine ensemble cast led by Tom Hardy, the only way The Invitation could have marked itself out as something truly other would have been to subvert expectations.


Perhaps the point was not to do so, what with all the heavy pre-empting and foreboding, such that the tension derives from the how and when rather than the fact of it. In which case, I’m a little dubious the picture has sufficient thematic integrity to justify itself. The sceptic in me would also say that, if Kusama really is someone who “when I sit in these studio meetings – I’m not afraid to say this – I’m one of the smartest people they’ve ever met and I’m certain it’s terrifying (for them)”, then she would have realised there was something that needed fixing in (hubby) Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay.


Kusama evidently greatly admired it, but one comes away doubting how much of The Invitation’s quality comes from they wrote and how much was layered and textured in by her. Certainly, Hay and Manfredi’s track record is spotty at best (they’re credited on messes like Clash of the Titans, R.I.P.D. and Ride Along). They penned the much maligned Æon Flux, a movie I quite liked, which was, by all accounts, a nightmare for Kusama (her sophomore feature); she had it taken away from her and then capitulated into gutting it for the studio on the basis that the result wouldn’t be quite so divested of integrity as their first mutilation. If nothing else, it would be nice for to see her make a $100m grosser on a peanuts budget, so her stock rises sufficiently that she can exhume her original vision (provided it still exists in a vault somewhere).


The Invitation is one of those dinner parties from hell movies, which can run the gamut from social dramas and marital breakdowns (Guess Who’ Coming to Dinner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) to psychological thrillers (The Last Supper). The horror genre tends to feature dinner parties as an entrée only (or, in Hannibal, a dessert), an aspect of the proceedings, since things usually devolve pretty quickly. Although, like the recent Green Room, defining whether The Invitation is a thriller or a horror is surely a matter of personal taste.


What is notable about it, and most impressive, is the length of time it sustains its tension before the dinner party actually goes to tits up. That’s because we’re expertly placed in the paranoid mind of Will (Logan Marshall-Green), invited with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the aforementioned affair hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and new beau David (Michiel Huisman, well cast as creepy, much less so as a romantic lead in The Age of Adaline); Will’s withdrawn and cautious, and at every turn the house haunts him with memories of the death of the son that drove him and Eden apart.


We know something’s off even before they reach the house, though. There’s an ill omen as soon as Will hits a coyote en route and then puts it out of its misery with a tyre iron. The party seems fine if forced on the surface, with a spread of old friends and a couple of unfamiliar faces, but there’s something too effusive about Eden (Kusama relishes the small details, like the over-forward manner in which she dabs Will’s face when they first greet) and David, and their loony friend Sadie (Lindsay Burge), and that’s before overbearing and not-remotely-convincingly-benign Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) arrives. And just where is Choi (Karl Yune), who should have arrived before them?


The weirdness of the hosts, immediately announcing themselves with a born again, culty vibe, informs us that paranoid Will is not off his rocker, particularly since his fellow guests also recognise things are a bit odd; they’re just less inclined to conclude that it’s down to the most extreme possibility. Less a Scientology-type sect than a determined intervention on behalf of the misguidedly ignorant (“I was just telling Will that pain is optional”), Eden and David introduce a video of the titular The Invitation, in which a group member is shown dying (4real), instigate party games that initially seem like a variant on spin the bottle but lead to Pruitt announcing that he killed his wife, and generally provoke extreme dis-ease in Will, unnerved by the cache of phenobarbital in the bedroom, the cult leader’s video on a handily prominent laptop and David’s penchant for locking the front door.


We’re expecting some sort of Manson-style incident long before it happens, so the only potential twist in store is that this isn’t that at all. And Kusama and the writers engineer a couple of false reliefs; Choi does show up, just after Will has enacted a massive meltdown, and for the briefest spell it seems like it might be in his own head (earlier, there’s a superbly staged sequence in which guest Claire – Marieh Deflino – decides to leave, either being far more sensible than everyone else or simply unfamiliar with standard-issue, crazy LA dinner parties; Will makes a scene, instructing the protesting David to allow her to go, and then, just as her car pulls out of sight, Pruitt goes to speak to her…)


The violence, when it escalates, is suitably impactful, but to her credit Kusama doesn’t allow the picture to become a prolonged stalk-and-slash number. Will and Kira are trapped in a house of darkened rooms and corridors, helplessly witnessing the grisly demise of (Tommy) just as makes it outside, but quickly decide “We’re going to do whatever it takes”. Which entails Kira, who has barely uttered a peep in the whole proceedings (this really is top heavy in characterisation for the brooding Will), beating Pruitt to death in fairly decisive fashion.


The problems thus arise in retrospect, that one realises the picture has been almost entirely built on tone and atmosphere, that the cult itself is rudimentary in designation (murder-suiciding and off to paradise we go; thus, Marshall-Green’s portrait of grief is rather undermined by the blunderbuss of the final act). It may even have been built backwards from the twist of the apocalyptic final shot (which itself has that kind of WTF moment we’ve seen in as diverse affairs as Deep Rising, the cliffhanger ending of Angel Season Five, or In the Mouth of Madness) and that, rather than anything truly surprising we’ve been delivered exactly what Will was anticipating from the first 15 minutes of his arrival.


There’s also the genre-typical failing of there being little sense that these people knew each other prior to this fateful get-together. The Invitation thus doesn’t really dig into the nature of the changes within a group of friends that is inevitable with the passage of time, such that any sense of a Big Chill style reunion is entirely absent. Kusama’s palate is much too icy and moody for that, and the characterisation too spartan, and for all the quality of the performances, this makes The Invitation essentially an exercise in genre atmospherics, a superior piece of exploitation fare, rather than a piece with serious emotional substance. The stylisation, and vaguely ‘70s vibe – a Manson-esque cult, Logan with his Manson-esque hair (poor guy probably looked at stills from Tom Hardy in Mad Max and decided to go in the opposite direction, and then cursed his rotten luck when The Revenant came out), opportunities for narcotic or sexual abandon – add to the sense that the picture lives in a bubble, removed from any real connection to the contemporary world.


But with this level of assuredness, anything Kusama lays claim to from now on has to be a must-see. I’ll have to dig up Jennifer’s Body, to give it a fair chance. As a female director working in genre cinema, she has relatively few notable peers (Kathryn Bigelow has long-since sacrificed herself to sloppy, faux-literate “reality-based” political thrillers, which is all our losses); it seems the response to The Invitation has rightly led to a slew of TV work. It will hopefully, from thence, lead to a slew of movies. She may even get that “man turns into a woman” screenplay made one day.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.