It looks and sounds exactly like a shaggy dog story: a white New York nightclub bouncer takes a job driving a black pianist around the Deep South on a concert tour – in the 1960’s. What could possibly go wrong? Inspired (as the poster has it) by a true friendship, Green Book clearly has awards bait written all over it, and the double acting powerhouse of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is definitely something to look forward to, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of this movie is its director and co-screenwriter, Peter Farrelly. Known, along with his brother Bobby, for some of the most raucous and indelicate of comedies of the last twenty-five years, Farrelly would appear to be an odd choice for a tale of inter-racial harmony, and especially when you consider his last three movies were Hall Pass (2011), The Three Stooges (2012), and Dumb and Dumber To (2014). But the trailer for Green Book – and despite its obvious yearnings for Oscar nominations come February 2019 – shows Farrelly upping his game and getting the measure of both the period and a friendship that doesn’t depend on madcap antics or toilet humour. There is humour, mostly from Mortensen’s less than worldly Tony Lip, but you can see already that his performance won’t be as broad as it looks, while Ali’s exasperated Don Shirley has a quiet sincerity that belies a more passionate soul underneath his reserve. So, early indications are that this could be a movie to resonate with its audience, and in its way, to hold up a mirror to the continuing racial and class divisions that still plague the US fifty years on.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Tom Everett Scott, J.K. Simmons
A bona fide awards magnet, La La Land is the movie that’s grabbing accolade after accolade, award after award, and more recognition than you can shake a well-timed dance step at. It’s lively, it’s precocious, it’s endearing, it’s alluring, it’s beautiful to watch, it’s often breathtaking, and it’s absolutely deserving of all the praise that has been heaped on it since it was first screened at the Venice Film Festival back in August 2016. In short, it’s a triumph.
Movie makers – in recent years at least – have somehow managed to forget what makes a musical so enjoyable, what elevates them above all the comedies and the romantic dramas and the sincerity-driven historical biographies that we see year in and year out, never quite offering audiences anything new or different, or breaking free of their self-imposed comfort zones. Movies such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) or Into the Woods (2014) – adaptations of successful stage incarnations – were too dark to warrant “enjoyment” as such, while the animated movie became the bolthole for musical numbers needed to pad out already short running times. Some musicals did try to be different – the “hip-hop” opera Confessions of a Thug (2005), splatterpunk/rock extravaganza Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), biographical comedy-drama The Sapphires (2012) – but it was only fan favourites like Mamma Mia! (2008) and Les Misérables (2012) that made any impact at the box office or garnered any awards.
What modern movie makers failed to recognise when making these movies, was what made all those famous, much-loved musicals of the Forties and Fifties so beloved of contemporary audiences, and today’s aficionados. It wasn’t just the sight of Fred Astaire dancing effortlessly, and sublimely, with Cyd Charisse, or Gene Kelly pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in a dance routine; it wasn’t even the sheer joy and enthusiasm of the singers and dancers, or the dizzying, dazzling cinematography that made each routine a small kinetic masterpiece all by themselves. What made those movies work was a shared love for the medium, a heartfelt commitment to making the best musicals they could, and by attempting to infuse these movies with a wonder and a magic you wouldn’t find anywhere else. If you need any further proof that the Forties and Fifties were a Golden Age for the movie musical, then take a look at any of the following: On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), or The King and I (1956). Now, those are musicals.
Which brings us to La La Land. A shot in the arm for the modern musical, La La Land succeeds because it combines the look and feel of those long-ago musicals with a more up-to-date sensibility, and in doing so, breathes new life into a largely moribund genre, and gives audiences the best of both worlds. By ensuring they honour the conventions of the musical, Chazelle and his talented cast and crew have created a movie that pays homage to those great movie musicals of the past, while also having one foot planted very firmly in modern musical aspirations. And there’s a trenchant, beautifully observed love story at its heart, a tale of two aspiring entertainers who come together by chance, and explore what it means to be in love through a series of primary colour-drenched sequences that provide audiences with an endorphin rush of happiness. You can’t help but tap your fingers, or your toes, as jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Stone) sing and dance and fall in love against a fantasy LA backdrop that is both dreamlike and alluring.
Chazelle has chosen his leads well, with Gosling and Stone displaying an easy chemistry together, a comfortable vibe that translates to the screen and makes their affair all the more believable. There are too many times when stars look at each other and the viewer can see there’s just no connection there whatsoever, but here that’s not the case (and this isn’t the first time that Gosling and Stone have been an on-screen item: check out Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) for further evidence of how well they look together). With the central relationship served perfectly by its award-winning duo, La La Land is free to present the couple with the necessary obstacles that challenge their love, and their desire for each other. As they navigate the treacherous waters that Love and Life can put in people’s way, Sebastian and Mia transform from musical archetypes into fully-grown characters we can sympathise with, empathise with, and wish all the best for. We know them, and somewhat intimately, because we recognise ourselves – our better, more devotedly romantic selves – in them, and we want their relationship to succeed, and for their personal dreams to succeed as well.
But the course of true love never runs smooth, and La La Land‘s bittersweet ending may be upsetting for some, but it’s a perfect way to show just how passionate and all-consuming love can be, an experience akin to lightning in a bottle. Sebastian and Mia are lovers in the moment, bewitched by each other, and when the inevitable cracks begin to appear in their relationship, you’ve become so invested in their future together that you can’t believe there’s trouble ahead; in fact, you don’t want there to be any trouble. But this is a romantic musical drama, and there has to be sadness and tears amid the laughter and exultation. Chazelle, though, is confident enough to include melancholy in his tale of love, and love in his melancholy denouement.
He’s also made the music and dance elements work independently of the main story, but at the same time, ensured they’re intrinsically connected in such a way that they elevate Sebastian and Mia’s love affair. You can watch only the musical sequences and gain an understanding of the emotions and feelings the couple are experiencing, but as expressions of their love for each other, they take on an extra weight when interlaced with the main narrative, as each strives to be successful at what they love (or at the expense of each other). Desire and sacrifice are often two sides of the same coin when it comes to intense love affairs, and Chazelle shows how these two facets can co-exist for a time before they take on a disastrous over-importance in the couple’s lives.
La La Land is an amazing visual experience, a gorgeous, splendid ode to the Land of Dreams and an inspiring dreamland all by itself. It’s a bright, happy, sad, poignant, beautiful, wonderful confection that wraps up the viewer in its warm embrace and keeps you there as it makes you laugh and cry and feel a myriad of unexpected emotions. There’s not a wasted moment in La La Land, and Chazelle has created a world where each second is infused with meaning and significance, and the beauty of two people finding each other becomes paramount. For once, it’s an award winner that fully deserves all the acclaim that’s been afforded it, and is that rare thing: a modern classic musical.
Rating: 9/10 – ravishing, and astonishing for how delightfully beguiling it is, La La Land is a treat for the senses, a movie that keeps on giving and giving and giving; bold and exciting, there’s no room for churlish brickbats or grumbling sentiments, this is a lively, handsomely mounted movie that has, or will have, no comparable, contemporary equal, either now or in the future.
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
A Hitchcockian thriller with a preposterous MacGuffin at its centre, Grand Piano is set at a classical concert that sees the return to the stage after five years of pianist Tom Selznick (Wood). Selznick hasn’t played in all that time because he choked at his last recital, failing to complete a piece by his mentor Patrick Godureaux called La Cinquette. Now, having been persuaded to return by his actress wife Emma (Bishé), Tom has to face both his fears about playing, and once he’s begun playing, a sniper hidden somewhere in the building. The sniper, Clem (Cusack), wants Tom to play every note of the concert perfectly or he will kill Emma; in particular he wants Tom to play the same piece he couldn’t complete five years before.
The reason for Clem wanting Tom to play that particular piece is revealed at around the halfway mark, and has the potential to make some viewers give up there and then. Up until that point, the script has made a good job of keeping both Tom and the audience in the dark about Clem’s intentions and the reasons why he’s doing it all. It’s also done a good job of slowly increasing the tension as Tom tries to find a way of stopping Clem while keeping both himself and Emma alive, and still completing the concert. Depending on your response to Clem’s motive – and this reviewer found it to be too complicated for its own good – the inherent implausibility in the whole endeavour will either cause you to say au revoir to Tom’s predicament, or keep going out of curiosity as to how everything will be resolved.
My advice, though, is to stick with it. Grand Piano is one of those thrillers where the very unlikelihood of what’s transpiring is irrelevant (Speed anyone?). Thanks to some inspired direction by Mira and a wonderfully nervy performance by Wood, Grand Piano succeeds where perhaps it shouldn’t. From the moment where Tom finds notes from Clem written on his score sheets, the movie shifts up a gear, tightening the screws (or should that be piano strings?) with each new twist and turn. Mira proves himself a supremely confident director, orchestrating the action with style and not a little panache. He knows when to keep the camera moving, even if some of his pans are a little dizzying, but he’s more effective when he keeps the camera static; he makes a virtue of it when Tom begins to play La Cinquette, keeping the camera at a respectful distance and allowing Wood to show off his moves for a good two minutes. It’s a bold move, holding up the action for a solo piano piece, but it works; you’re waiting for the moment where Tom froze last time, hoping the difficulty of the piece won’t trip him up again.
Mira also fares well with his cast, eliciting strong performances from all concerned. As mentioned already Wood puts in a great performance, his initial stage fright giving way to panic and then to desperate resistance before finding a way out of his predicament. When he finally confronts Clem, the script is clever enough not to make him into an instant action hero, and his solution to their fight is entirely credible. As the villain of the piece, Cusack’s performance is mostly a vocal one, as for most of the movie he’s just a disembodied voice in the earpiece he makes Tom wear. Despite this restriction Cusack is more effective under these circumstances than he is when he finally confronts Tom; somehow his physical presence in the movie – while entirely necessary – still feels like a bit of a letdown. It’s not Cusack’s fault, and yet given how good he is as just a threatening voice, maybe it is.
Of the supporting characters, most are underwritten in comparison with Tom and Clem, but they’re there to serve the story’s momentum rather than stand out. Ashley (Egerton) and Wayne (Leech), as friends of Emma are annoying and dim in equal measure, while Emma herself is required to do little more than look constantly worried about her husband. More interesting, and given better motivation and dialogue are Tom’s friend and conductor Norman (McManus) and Tom’s assistant (Winter). Norman is larger than life and shows more faith in Tom than Tom does himself. It’s a small part but McManus plays him with just the right amount of brio and concern. As Tom’s assistant, Winter has a larger role than at first expected, but shows what a talented actor he is, keeping his character’s motives and actions pleasantly off-kilter.
The script, by Damien Chazelle, has its flaws, not least that McGuffin, but it’s structure is sound and it keeps the viewer wanting to know what’s next. There’s some florid dialogue in there on occasion but the cast handle it well, and there’s a satisfying conclusion. But ultimately this is Mora’s picture, and if it wasn’t his guiding hand on the baton, then this could have turned out a lot, lot worse.
Rating: 8/10 – a bravura piece of filmmaking that has a hypnotic effect on its audience; thrilling and exciting in equal measure, Wood’s convincing performance adds greatly to why the movie works so well.