I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

la-la-land-mia

“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

Advertisements

Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

cemetery+of+splendor_02

What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading

Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?

Traversing the Treacherous Geography of Childhood in Lady in White

Do you see what I see?

Do you see what I see?

Frank LaLoggia’s forgotten classic from 1988, Lady in White, opens with a Stephen King-style novelist returning to his hometown of Willowpoint to visit a gravesite.  From there we’re whisked back to 1962 when our protagonist Frankie Scarlatti was 10 years-old living with his widowed father and smart-aleck older brother.  One fateful Halloween, a couple of childhood chums play a prank and lock poor Frankie in the coat closet at school where he must brave the night cold and alone.  There he witnesses the mysterious ghost of a little girl act out her murder – and from there young Frankie becomes determined to help the ghost find peace, uncover the identity of the town’s serial child killer and solve the mystery of the town legend of The Lady of White (which is somehow connected to the killings).

The ghost hums the eerily nostalgic Bing Crosby tune, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” – the killer’s favorite – and the song is used as a powerful motif throughout the film. Continue reading

The Mirror of Film

The Tree of Life - Submerging memories through film.

Still awash in fresh memories of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I watched for the first time Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror.  The problem I’ve had with Tarkovsky films in the past (especially Stalker, which I found tedious and nearly impenetrable though certain moments and images have stubbornly stuck with me) is that I feel like you need an advanced degree in Russian history to understand the context and symbolism.  With Malick’s film, however, illuminating the way, I found Tarkovsky’s The Mirror to be deeply rewarding on multiple levels, and it emerged as an unforgettable cinematic experience deserving of repeated views.

The two films are strikingly similar: deeply personal, semi-autobiographical, supplemented by other art forms (classical music is used exquisitely in both, while The Mirror also drew upon original poetry) and constructed in a stream-of-consciousness style made to evoke dreams and memories.  Both films are deeply rooted in the childhoods of their makers. Continue reading

Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading

The Inception of Woody Allen

Marion Cotillard amuses Owen Wilson in Paris.

In present day Paris, a hack Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) finds himself on an extended vacation with his spoiled dolt of a fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her hateful parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy – both spot on).  Gil hopes to uncover some literary inspiration in the City of Lights so he can finally finish that novel he’s been working on.  Soon he finds himself on the streets at midnight and transported back to his favorite time-period – the 1920’s.  There he discovers himself in the midst of artistic geniuses and idols such as Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, the Fitzgeralds and Pablo Picasso.  While putting up with the inanity of his stifling present situation during the day, his dreams are fueled at night by his time-tripping walks where Gertrude Stein gives him manuscript critiques and he falls in love with one of Picasso’s mistresses, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris follows the trend of his latter-day persona where a change in venue invigorates his imagination. Continue reading

The Inception of Dreams

Slick marketing evokes Lang's Metropolis.

Roughly twelve years following their first feature films, these legendary directors delivered the following:  

Fritz Lang:  M   

Alfred Hitchcock:  The Lady Vanishes   

Stanley Kubrick:  2001: A Space Odyssey   

Twelve years after Following, Christopher Nolan invites us to dream along with him through Inception.  And while it’s operating on different levels than the Lang and Kubrick pieces, it shares in Hitchcock’s sense of dark fun and could easily be considered Nolan’s most ambitious and devilishly clever piece of work to date.  He’s an auteur with a full blessing from the studio and his audience, and the project he devised in this rarefied air is awe-inspiring.  Though there are some minor flaws, if you can’t find a way to overlook them and latch onto something meaningful in at least one layer of the dreams on display, then you have no business sitting in a darkened theater watching movies.   

Christopher Nolan’s decked-out and high-concept new film brings new meaning to the idea of stealing ideas.  In his futuristic universe, technology has developed where you can enter the mind of another through dream invasions and steal their ideas.  It’s espionage…it’s dangerous…but what’s even more intriguing is the idea of diving deep into dreams within dreams and implanting an idea that can then spread like a virus and alter the shape of one’s universe.  Whoever implanted this idea into Nolan’s mind, we thank you.   

Continue reading

Revisiting There Will Be Blood – The Best Film of the 2000’s

Most film bloggers and critics raced against time and each other to get in their “Best Films of the Decade” lists after the clock struck midnight and we were suddenly thrust into Arthur C. Clarke’s…dun dun dun…TWO THOUSAND AND TEN.  With the past decade so fresh on our minds, so many films yet to be seen or uncovered, so many to re-watch and re-examine, and the world-famous polling for this decade not to start until April over at Wonders in the Dark…it seems like there is still so much left to say about the 2000’s, or the Noughties as people like to call them now.

Yet all I can think of is one word.

DRAAAAAAAAAAAAAINAGE!

Drainage, my boy!!!!!!!!!!

Looking back, the 2000’s were to my generation what the 1970’s were to my father’s.  It seemed the dawn of a new golden age.  Gone were the nostalgia tinted frames of the 1980’s and 1990’s and here was the first decade to exist completely within the context of my adulthood…under the harsh scrutiny of my ever-evolving critical eye.  This was a decade where film reflected the big ideas, big dreams and previously unimaginable nightmares of the post-millennial, post 9/11 generation.  Continue reading

A Tribute to Ingmar Bergman

Anything can happen; all things are possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist: over a minute patch of reality imagination will weave its web and create fresh patterns…”

–August Strindberg, Preface to A Dream Play (1902)

This spring I arrogantly went through my own self taught film school where I explored critically for the first time some of the defining works of legendary directors like Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and Francois Truffaut, among others, many of which I have discussed and reviewed on this blog.  It seems foolish now to think I could sample all of the greats of cinema’s past in just a few short months.  What I came to realize is that my film school will never end as long as I continue my love affair with movies.  For all the careful planning that went into the selection of the films I explored and searched for, sometimes it is the film that finds me before I realize I had been looking for it all this time.  Thus is the case with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. 

Two kids lost inside Ingmar Bergman’s head.

My interest in Bergman began with his 1966 classic Persona, which had allured me since first seeing David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, as it was often quoted as a heavy influence.  Continue reading