Film Musicals: La La Land Vs…

La La Land (2016) has scored for itself six Golden Globes and has been nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it looks on track to winning too.

The thing is no matter how beautiful this film looks, or how passably melodic the songs are, it still looks like a film that has only gotten so far because of Hollywood’s undying penchant for sucking its own dick.

To be sure, La La Land is a beautifully shot film. Like visually – stunning. Just beautiful. The use of primary colours popped and the panoramic shots of LA were breathtakingly beautiful. The use of primary colours as a motif for fantasy and the blending of the colours into more drab and realist tones also a subtle touch to show the collision between fantasy and reality.

BUT even the well-publicised news of Ryan Gosling spending 3 months learning how to play the piano so he could do the piano bits himself, is not enough to distract from the mediocre singing from the two leads that often left me cringing in my seat waiting for the songs to be over.

The fact of the matter is that there are so many other films that have focused on similar themes and done so in a more streamlined, more succinct manner.

The two main lines of tension in La La Land is firstly, the struggle to straddle the line between being true to yourself and your artistic vision versus selling out in order to become famous and make a living from commercializing your art; and secondly, how the romancing of one’s art can get in the way of the romance between two people.

With regards to these two lines of narrative tension being perfectly intertwined and balanced in a single narrative that works, we can look back 40 years to Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977). There you had a real powerhouse, Liza Minnelli, to belt out the title song.

You also had the dramatic use of music/art as the very thing that drives a wedge between the couple (Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans & Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle), such that you really felt the tragedy of the ending where even after both parties have made it (Jimmy with his night club & Francine with her successful singing career), the healthiest thing they both could do for the sake of their own sanity was to stay far away from each other.

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Granted that at 2hrs 43mins, the film can feel a little overlong but it tracks their relationship from attraction to marriage, pregnancy and divorce, blending in the developments of their respective musical careers at every step of the way.

Another film that uses the romance between a man and a woman to talk about musicians and the music industry is the 2014 film, Begin Again, starring Adam Levine and Kiera Knightly. In Begin Again, a musician couple – where one half represented the indie music scene and the other, whatever it took to become a commercial success – function as a stand-in for a story that is about more than just a girl in love with a boy.

It is another narrative that ends in the eventual dissolution of the romance between the two lovers. Personally, I felt these two films were more succinct than La La Land because as I was watching La La Land, I kept asking myself why an actress and a jazz musician? What’s the connection there? Worse still, what’s the conflict there? The conflict always seemed more personal, in a way that was completely unrelated to their art, than professional or career-driven because when they finally meet with success in the end, there was nothing concrete that prevented them from being together other than the fact that they gave up too early on each other instead of sticking it out to the very end.

The thing about New York New York and Begin Again is that the male and female leads are both musicians and there’s a real conflict of professional ideals mixed in with the romantic hardships each couple faces that eventually prevents them from getting back together. Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle would have destroyed each other if they got back together and Greta (Kiera Knightly) and Dave (Adam Levine) couldn’t because they were each pulling for aspects of the music industry which, according to the way the film set it up, were in direct conflict with each other.

With Begin Again, I also liked how it introduced another element, a music producer (Mark Ruffalo), and spent a huge amount of the plot on the difficulties of producing an indie album that eventually had to welcome and embrace the ambient sounds of the streets since Greta’s makeshift band couldn’t afford to book a studio to record in. Fortunately, that resulted in an inspired piece of work.

Arguably, Begin Again ends with some ambiguity, unlike New York New York and La La Land, with two radio friendly versions of the same song, “Lost Stars”. It leaves it up to the audience to decide which version they prefer and consequently, who they side with, and which side of the tension between indie and commercial music they fall on.

Speaking of the sounds of the street, another film that came out in 2016 that has achieved both critical and popular success and was nominated for the best comedy/musical category at this year’s Golden Globes too, is Sing Street.

Undeniably based on the romanticised version of how the Beatles came to be, Sing Street is about a group of school boys from Dublin forming a band. Although a homage to great bands through the ages like The Cure, Duran Duran, The Jam, Motorhead, etc., this film also had a split focus between visuals and music but managed to marry the two quite effectively by inserting a young model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), as the female star in the band’s self-made music videos, and having the band lead’s (Cosmo played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) clothes and hair style change comically based on whichever strain of music was influencing his songwriting at that point in time.

The shy awkward tones of male voices breaking in the midst of puberty blend together in a heartfelt narrative of small town artists wanting to break away and make it in the big city. Both La La Land and Sing Street feature the film musical trope of having the music overtake the visuals at the height of the film’s narrative and emotional tension to weave an internally focalised illusion of what the musician sees.

In La La Land this is in the much talked about climax at the end of the film where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays the theme song on the piano one last time in his club as he and Mia (Emma Stone) share a fantasy of what their lives could have been. Easily the best moment in the film but also an overly melodramatic and highly manipulative one aimed at bringing audiences to tears.

In Sing Street, this comes before the final sequence in the film about two thirds?three quarters? of the way through the film when the band books the school hall to make another music video and Raphina doesn’t show up. We’re left with Cosmo’s version of how he imagines the music video to look before he and the audience crash back to reality at the end of the number.

What I liked better in Sing Street is that the film musical’s predictable use of this syntactic element of the genre was not left to the end as a climactic scene. Instead, the film ends on a much more subtle note. The young lovers, Cosmo and Raphina, leave on a tiny motorboat with the intention of sailing to England from Dublin to find their fortune in London.

It’s meant to be an uplifting scene with the smiles on everyone’s faces and the rousing soundtrack in the background but this is where soundtrack and visuals clash in a highly satisfying manner. They leave in the midst of a blinding rainstorm, nearly collide with a cruise ship, bring nothing with them except the clothes on their backs, their demo tapes and portfolio of head shots. In the background, Cosmo’s parents are getting divorced, the family is going to lose their house and the kids will have to shuffle between mum and dad. Without any indication of whether they succeed in their journey or drown at sea, the film ends with a decent amount of hope pinned on their endeavour amidst the crashing waves of reality that results in a lovely feeling of ambiguity as you leave the theatre.

I suppose by this point everyone if feeling like, “What the hell? Why are all these musicals so ambiguously depressing?!”Well, if you want a light-hearted romantic comedy with a happy ending, there’s always Music and Lyrics (2007). Again it features the tension between staying true to one’s artistic vision and compromising for the sake of commercial appeal. Except, this time the slant on the music industry is the tension between performer and the lyricists. Anyway, this one ends happily with Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) getting together just as how his melody and her lyrics are eventually performed the way they are meant to be performed.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say about La La Land and how while it looks great, narratively speaking it didn’t quite hit the spot for me.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

In my previous post I talked about how lovely it feels when the CGI introduced into a film is imbued with a specific narrative value. This is true of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well.

Most reviews online readily point out that this is a film that tries to embody the look and feel of the 1960s by making it not just the film’s subject matter but by infusing the form of the film with recognisable signs of film stock used in the 1960s – i.e. the use of “cigarette burns” in the top right hand corner of the cell that indicate the end of a reel of film; and the use of the old Universal logo.

But what I found most satisfying about the film was that the seemingly run-of-the-mill use of CGI to lengthen the creepy little girl’s jaw and turn her eyes a milky white in the trailer was not run-of-the-mill at all. These specific effects were chosen because of the specific nature of the ghosts in Ouija.

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The other thing that I really liked and appreciated about the film was the use of the ear as the point of entry for evil. It’s a very classical choice of body orifice to use.

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“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment” (Act I Sc V, 59-64)

It is how Claudius poisons Hamlet’s father, the king, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also a very gender neutral body orifice to use, and one that is grossly under utilised in horror films.

Most possession horror films, you will find, feature possessed women, girls or girls on the cusp of womanhood. Regan from The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), and even Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), whose mother believed her telekinesis came from her being possessed by satan.

In more recent films you have Angela Vidal from [REC] (2007), Mia from the Evil Dead (2013), Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body (2009). The filmmakers of the The Exorcist even made a production choice to change the gender of the possessed child which was based on a true story about the possession of a boy, Roland Doe (a pseudonym given to the victim by the Catholic church to protect the boy’s identity).

The reason why females are the preferred possessed is because of the fluid nature of their gender. This is especially so in the case of the classics. Carrie and Regan were both female protagonists on the cusp of womanhood. Their adolescent natures and the fact that they are both menarcheal women makes their identity especially fluid and impossible to think of them and their bodies as closed vessels. In the case of Rosemary, she is in the unique position of being with child and again this is a time of great change in a woman and a state that suggests an openness to her identity because where does mother end and child begin in a pregnant body?

In the case of Ouija, however, even though the three main protagonists are women, the use of the ear as the orifice through which evil is spread seems to raise the stakes as we see male characters falling prey to possession and the insidious forces at work.

In addition to this, the spread of evil is not from some messy exchange of fluid that we’ve come to expect in horror films (no projectile pea soup vomit or gushing fountains of blood). Instead, evil is spread through these sibilant whispers poured into the ears of ambushed victims.

We never hear what these words are, but one would assume that they are some kind of language. And I thought this was so interesting because language exists in the realm of the Symbolic, the most codified and rational of the three phases of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real).

However, the forceful removal of words, language, and a means of communication from the souls of the victims of torture that have been forced to live out all eternity in the walled off cellar of the house, forced the re-emergence of language to perform an inverted role of giving form to the Real. The Real, according to Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, can be thought of as “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.” In other words, that which escapes language.

This violation of the order of the Symbolic through the return of the Real represented through a kind of reverse language that the spirits speak then represents a different kind of abject that comes to the fore in the film.

The words, the whispers, the spirits, the shameful history that America gave asylum to many a war criminal fleeing from Germany after WWII to find safe haven amongst its masses becomes the effluvia, the abjected bits that the characters are forced to confront, and for the audience where the horror resides.

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I suppose it’s customary to end off a film review with a conclusive statement about whether I liked the film or not. So in case that wasn’t clear in how I waxed theoretical about it, YES, I LIKED IT! It’s a good horror film. It manages its share of jump scares pretty well too, but towards the end the film felt like it was trying to overcompensate a little for the lack of jump scares at the start. So consider yourself warned.

Westerns and The Magnificent Seven (2016) Remake *Spoilers*

I don’t like westerns. My dad has been trying to convince me for years to partake of the genre citing films like The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), Vera Cruz (1954), and, of course, The Magnificent Seven (1960), as some of the greatest movies ever made in an attempt to get me interested in the genre. I’ve watched a few of these since – including My Darling Clementine (1946), Johnny Guitar (1954), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) as part of a film course – and I am sorry to say that they haven’t been successful in changing my impression of the genre. Although I will admit that I enjoy reading academic writing about westerns because the genre is so well-studied, it’s become really easy to talk about the genre’s syntactic and semantic tropes and formulas being adhered to or subverted.

So in preparation for this post (that I’m writing having come fresh from watching The Magnificent Seven (2016) remake which I will henceforth call Seven), I decided to grit my teeth and watch a couple of westerns last night with my dad, namely The Magnificent Seven (1960) (which I will henceforth call Magnificent, not because it is, but because it’s better than Seven), and High Plains Drifter (1973). Just, by the way, the latter is now one of my better liked westerns… right up there with Tombstone (1993) (which I know you’re all judging me for right now…).

Before I begin digging into this remake with just my personal thoughts on it, I want to say that there is a point to why I’m giving you this laundry list of films I’ve watched before. It’s because I think they have all served to colour my impression of this remake in some way, shape or form. So without further ado, here’s my two cents on this remake!

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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Let’s start with the obvious – the climactic gunfight – because what’s a western without a badass gunfight? I guess I both like and dislike that they changed up the climactic gunfight sequence. I liked it because they couldn’t very well do the same thing as the original without being criticised for just rehashing an old classic. And, there was definitely some thoughtfulness to the way they amped up the violence and the scale of the final clash by pitting 7 legit gunmen and a town of passable shooters against a veritable army of hired gunmen owned by the mining company. The choice to open fire on friend and foe alike with the Gatling gun also literalised the indiscriminate violence unscrupulous modern companies sometimes wreck on the little people – this being whether you’re a hired hand or a mark. This makes the film a sign of its times in terms of how it opts to demonise big companies, a key difference from Magnificent, which featured the seven fighting against bandits.

What I didn’t like about this reimagining of the final gunfight is similar to what Brian Lowry, who wrote the CNN film review for the film, described as Seven being a “blown up and lobotomised” version of the original “for an audience weaned on the ‘Fast and Furious’ movies.” Except that I see more similarities between this film and the slew of successful superhero films. Every one of the seven seems to have a special look, feature or signature move and the only acceptable conclusion to the film is a wasteland of collateral damage.

From this observation I wanna raise two other points. Firstly, this idea of boiling a character down to a look like with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio):

Or a feature with Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun):

With these three characters, their motivations to join Chisolm (Denzel Washington) in protecting Rose Creek were a mystery. Now before you say anything, I get that character motivations were equally unclear in the original. However, there was always a sense that they were driven by the essence of their beings as gunmen-for-hire and that if they didn’t take the job, they would take another very much like it. Conclusion? They might as well take the low-paying job to protect a village from bandits and do something good at the same time. This sentiment is a carry over from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) which was about the samurai class as a dying breed.

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Unlike in Magnificent, however, it is genuinely unclear why Red Harvest agrees to join them. Or how Jack Horne and Red Harvest can even stand to look at each other given that Horne used to catch, kill and scalp Native Americans for money! The only reason I could come up with for why Jack Horne is a character at all is that he is a trope of the western genre. Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (1956), he is the white man whose hate for the Native American Other has twisted and contorted his moral character to fit the form of the imaginary savage he despises.

(I couldn’t find a video of Edwards scalping Scar but he does… just looking it up.)

I can make this seeming leap in logic because the reference to scalping is a clear reference to the shock and horror audiences experienced when they witnessed Edwards scalp Scar (Henry Brandon) offscreen in the John Ford western classic. But this sort of condensation of a key moment in the history of the development of the western genre into the costuming of a character coupled with a throwaway line about scalping fails to encapsulate the poignancy of its original instance that was thick with meaning. Instead it’s more like a thin distillation of the barest essence of a classic western packaged in some very lazy script-writing.

It is also unclear why Billy follows Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) around or agrees to stay after he leaves. It’s safe to say that the only real reason why an Asian and a Native American (and a black and a Mexican) are on the same team, is so Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) can point out that they are. While the flip in having the minorities save the white folk instead of seven white men saving a poor agrarian Mexican village is a good idea, this cast of minority misfits needs to be more than a mere cosmetic change. They should have had meaningful moments of characterisation that added depth to their characters instead of throwaway lines of banter that only gave audiences the facsimile of camaraderie between the seven.

While we’re on the issue of characterisation, it’s not like the writers – True Detective (2014-2015) veteran Nic Pizzolato; and the writing chops behind The Equalizer (2014), Richard Wenk – were incapable of doing it properly. There is a way to begin a character arc with a cosmetic feature like a signature move and then have that go on to mean something more. They certainly achieved this with Faraday. Without giving too much away, his sleight of hand magic card tricks that rely on misdirection is a signature move that accrues meaning every time they make an appearance onscreen.

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To tie characterisation back to the second point I wanted to make, I think the film missed a really poignant part of the western with the ending. My feeling this way is probably because the last film I watched before this one was High Plains Drifter, and that was really dark and pessimistic. (Exactly the kind of stuff I relish… I’m a total 70s and 80s film gal when everybody was angry with everything and made really dark and depressing films…)

Anyway, there was a great moment of ambiguity at the end where we get a real sense of Chisolm’s motivation (something we never got of Yul Brynner’s Chris Larabee Adams). In an attempt not to spoil what happens in this one moment of the story that actually made me sit up and pay attention, all I can say is that this is not a good man. His reasons for helping this town were not pure. And both town and fellow gunmen were caught in the cross-hairs of his quest for vengeance. The fact that the entire job was nothing more than a vehicle for vengeance really should have been pushed more because therein lies the essence of the cowboy – the element of untamed wilderness that rides into civilisation to solve their problems with a violent reckoning that only he is capable of, only to be shunned and to leave again because he does not belong and is incapable of being a part of civilised society.

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Remember how I said there was collateral damage? Lots and lots of it? Akin to a superhero movie?  There was so much of it kinda made you wonder if there was anything left of the town to save. To my eyes, there wasn’t. Just like in the ending of High Plains Drifter. Yet, they thanked Chisolm and the surviving gunmen when they left. Why? Why didn’t Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) say anything about Chisolm’s true motivations? Did she know/hear him give voice to them? It would have been a so much more satisfying if the film had indicated that she knew and had an opinion about what she overheard, about how he essentially exploited her town’s vulnerable circumstances to execute a personal vendetta. Instead, all this lovely complexity and ambiguity was swept aside for a long drawn out sequence of townsfolk thanking them, burying the deceased number of the seven like they were heroes with soft music playing in the background.

It was a real missed opportunity to raise the level of storytelling, methinks. And I really felt it in my gut. As in this was the strongest impression I had of the film and I just can’t stop thinking about how I’ve been cheated out of a really good ending because it had such potential…