Mutter, mutter, mutter – La La Land

Let’s start with a point that I am sure we’d all agree with, a movie is not real life, and, however much we suspend our disbelief when watching a film, deep down we know we are watching a fiction. Now let’s consider musicals. Loosely, that is films where, at the drop of a hat, characters move from speaking to singing and dancing to tell the story. Now, here, we are in no doubt that we are watching a fiction. Some folk like musicals, some do not. Oddly, for some time there has been this strange situation that ‘the Hollywood musical’ has been viewed as passé and naff yet musical theatre in the West End (London), on Broadway and around the world, has been extremely popular. Apparently, if you believe all the hype, change is coming. The latest Hollywood musical ‘La La Land’ is going to make screen musicals popular again.

Written and directed by the youthful, Damien Chazelle, ‘La La Land’ presents a 21st century musical version of the Hollywood dream scenario. It opens with an energetic, fast-paced, one-take, song and dance routine in the midst of an LA traffic jam. Then the focus tightens and we are introduced to Seb and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (two major Hollywood stars), who will then sing, dance, play the piano and act out their tale for us.


A musical is fiction in capitals. Now, with that in mind, and taking into account that there are sequences of true flights of fantasy in this film, was it too much to ask that the two leads could actually sing and dance! I am a huge fan of Ryan Gosling, but honestly he can’t sing. It is really impressive that he learnt to play the featured piano pieces for the film but this ‘jazz’ playing must have had true jazz aficionados stuffing their fingers in their ears. I understand that Damien Chazelle is passionate about the old musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well as the big Hollywood hits, Singing in the Rain, et al) so why wouldn’t he celebrate the essence of ‘the musical’ which is the music, the singing and the dancing. I’ve heard well-known film critics explain that using stars that aren’t tiptop song and dance people gives an authentic feel to their performances. Mmmm, really? – I just feel so sad for all the young, talented musical theatre trained performers, wannabe film stars, grinding their teeth as they watch this.

However, I admit, I seem to be in a very small minority on this one. I was not impressed. All the knowing, clever, referential ‘homage to the great musical’ fell rather flat for me when the film’s leads turned out to be musical lightweights. What is the point of a musical if the stars can’t carry it (or a tune!)? I’ve heard and read plenty of reviews of this movie and cannot for the life of me understand what’s going on. Is this a postmodern and then post-ironic musical? One reviewer went as far as noting that there is ‘the charm of amateur singers’!!


I think we are living in unnerving and challenging times at the moment and people are looking for ‘warm glow’ escapism. I went to a Monday afternoon, big screen showing with a fair sized audience and there was a palpable feeling of disappointment at the end of this film.




I wrote the above on Monday evening and originally concluded my mutterings with “Something just didn’t feel right about it for me.”

Since then I’ve read these two, interesting and powerful, slightly less mainstream articles . . .

‘The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land’ by Geoff Nelson


‘La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative’ by Ira Madison III


Steve Jobs – the biopic, and the slippery nature of biography

The other evening I was lucky enough to attend a UK preview of the biopic ‘Steve Jobs’. It was a marketing event preview and the cinema was absolutely full. As the film ended the final shots were accompanied by the dramatic yet plaintive Maccabees’ song ‘Grew Up At Midnight’ and there was a palpable stillness about the audience as the credits began to roll. It was strange as the film ended at what is considered a successful point in Steve Jobs’ life and long before he died. Of course, it is possible that many in the audience were sitting there recalling those painful photos and video footage showing the terminally ill, emaciated Steve Jobs. It is also possible they were surprised by such a negative portrayal of Jobs, or they were just plain confused (if they knew anything about Jobs) by the audacious inventiveness of the script.

Perhaps four years after his death is too soon for a considered, truly insightful biography let alone a Hollywood biopic as most of the protagonists are still living and Jobs’ life was most definitely controversial. This film is based (rather loosely) on the Walter Isaacson biography which I read in the summer. The biography was not popular with the fans, but it was the ‘official’ one written at Jobs’ behest with a fair amount of access to some of the key players. However, as with any biography there is never a full picture. How can there be? No human beings have complete recall and as psychologists have shown we readily rewrite our memories to suit our own story. I think Steve Jobs knew more than most about contemporary myth-making. Isaacson tells us that Steve Jobs’ colleagues at Apple often referred to Jobs’ “reality distortion field”. It is as if by sheer force of will he projected his reality and attempted to pull everyone into it.

Isaacson’s book has over 600 pages to get to grips with his complex, mercurial subject, but the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film has only a couple of hours to take a pinch of Jobs and grind it into a spicy biopic. What are we looking for? A drama that distils the essence of such a life. A tall order to achieve when that somebody was at the centre of so much technological excitement, yet shots of fingers at keyboards and beige plastic boxes isn’t that interesting. So, as with real life, it’s the people, the business and personal relationships that are the drama. You may love your phone, but it’s still just an iPod, a phone and an Internet communication device! A means of connecting with other humans. It’s the human interaction that matters.


The film gives us an interpretation of one facet of Steve Jobs by focussing on the behind the scenes, backstage preparations for three different famous product launches. Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t just read Isaacson, but also interviewed and re-interviewed some of the major players. We are shown taut often confrontational adult interactions between Jobs and his colleagues whilst a continuous family thread relates Jobs’ difficult and awkward dealings with his eldest daughter, Lisa. There are plenty of ‘walk and talk’ scenes, frequent opening and closing of doors and shots of long corridors. One sequence shows a corridor as if it was a screen showing video footage. Perhaps these are all visual signifiers for opportunities taken or not taken and the long, long hard road to success. The film gives us a one-sided, less than pleasant Steve Jobs provoking fear and confrontation in colleagues, but sadly does not give us any hint of an inspired, passionate, creative dreamer. Remember this is a dramatised retelling of a controversial life and apparently many of the scenes are less about biography and more about dramatic film-making. And, this is the major problem for biopics the sacrifice of authenticity in order to make a watchable movie.

Altogether, I think it’s worth seeing, but I think something is missing. I can’t explain why, but perhaps it is something to do with that driven quality that true game-changers have which, even when played by a star like Michael Fassbender, can’t be captured. Persistent, energetic, awkward, obsessive, determined, supremely secure in one’s own judgment and ability may not make for the most charming individual, but appear to be essential to the mix for those who wish to make an impression on history. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the real Steve Jobs from about 1980 onwards. Each one is his version of himself for that moment. Who are we, the watching public, to know or understand his life simply by owning an Apple product? Nobodies. We read biographies and watch biopics to find out more, but we should remember not all the players contributed and those that did may not agree with any subsequent reinterpretation of their memories by authors, directors or screenwriters – biography is a very, very slippery affair. Final thought . . . not really possible to do justice to such a life in just two hours.

Outstanding British film – probably a period piece

I’m sure I’m not the only person to see the BAFTA nominations for the award ‘Outstanding British film’ and wonder why there isn’t a single film that tells a contemporary story played out in a contemporary setting. Of course, ‘Under the skin’ was filmed in the ‘real’ streets of 21st century Glasgow with some of the shots attempting to catch unscripted interactions with hidden cameras, but the film is essentially a science fiction film.

The nearest to contemporary is the family film ‘Paddington’ which gives us a deliberately sugar-coated London of an ill-defined time period. In the film there are plenty of visual signifiers for the 21st century, but it is purposely unreal, a fairy tale version of London – it is after all a family film.

The other four films are all period pieces and no doubt all worthy of their nomination in the category ‘Outstanding British film’. Of course, the production of culture, and that obviously includes film-making, always tells us something about the time in which it is created and a ‘period’ film is no different. It just disheartens me as a film fan that the best British film this year will probably be one that, whatever its outstanding contribution, compounds the idea of Britain being the heritage isles forever looking backwards through mostly rose-tinted glasses.

Günther Bachmann – A 21st-century Smiley?

It is difficult to compare a film of just over two hours with a TV series luxuriating in a five and a half hours viewing experience, but more than ever we come back to the primary question of why people want to make books into films.


One of the Sunday newspaper film critics compared the latest John le Carré to be translated to the big screen, ‘A Most Wanted Man’, to the 2011 film version of le Carré’s famous ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ noting that both films were very ‘brown’. As I have just finished watching the 1979 TV version of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ made late 1970s about a story set in the 1970s, I guess you could forgive the 21st-century film makers their shorthand ‘brownness’ to signify the murky world of spies. However, a captivating film, especially an espionage thriller needs more than just atmosphere and beautiful shots, it also needs a gripping plot and compelling characters too.


The central role of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is Günther Bachmann played superbly by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film needed somebody of Hoffman’s ability to have any chance of holding your attention, but with little back story or personal relationships it is hard to engage with Günther despite Hoffman’s undoubted talent. The generally remote, detached feel of this film doesn’t help either and so whereas you really care about Smiley, played by Alec Guinness in the TV series, it’s all a bit ‘ho hum’ for Günther. I haven’t yet read ‘A Most Wanted Man’, so this ‘nobody really cares about Günther’ feel could be the quality that le Carré wanted, an almost invisible, background grand master type. Trouble is what can work on the page doesn’t always transfer to film. And, don’t even get me started on the bizarre need for German characters to speak English with a German accent when they are supposed to be talking in German to one another. Or, is the spying world nowadays like the world of civil aviation where English is the lingua franca?

A film is not a book. A film of a book is a film, a stand alone work. If you really love any book chances are you won’t like the film, TV or even theatrical version of the original text, perhaps best not to bother with them then. However, good plots and great characters can have another life away from their original incarnation and it is the business of the film people, script writers, directors, actors . . . to make it work. Hoffman’s performance and the excellent casting of Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams fail to overcome the fact you just couldn’t careless about any of them in this lightly plotted, passionless affair.

‘Her’ – an insidious romcom

her-spike-jonze-1Not really sure how the suits categorise films nor how they arrive at release dates, but ‘Her’ was released in the UK on Valentine’s Day and billed as a romcom starring Joaquin Phoenix. Set in the near future the film is more of a science fiction dystopia and actually falls far more naturally into a category that Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) calls ‘speculative fiction’. But, romcom? – I must be living on another planet. The film is amusing in parts, but overall the content is deeply depressing concerning itself with the inability of individuals to make lasting and meaningful relationships. ‘Her’ is more of an antidote to Valentine’s Day. However, it is quite beautiful to look at. For once, the ‘urban’ future is not grey, dingy and underlit. If anything, the outside shots have a bleached quality and the interiors are creams, fawns and browns punctuated with orange accents.


Perhaps this warm palette (even Phoenix’s usually dark brown hair has been softened to a lighter, ginger brown) was chosen to contrast with or heighten the desperate and bleak story. The urban vistas of the near future (apparently mostly contemporary Shanghai) look shimmering and fascinating, but the lives of the people in the film were introverted and self-obsessed. The characters are only interested in themselves to such an extent it is hardly surprising that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is unable to sustain a relationship with a real woman and instead finds love with a computer ‘operating system’, who names herself Samantha.


The story is a bit like Pygmalion, but instead of the sculptor falling in love with his own crafted work, Samantha is an evolving computer program who moulds herself to Theodore’s needs. This is the point where I think – ‘what would this film be like if the lead were a female and a male OS adapted to suit her?’ Although, visually the total opposite to ‘Blade Runner’ (dark and very wet), ‘Her’ is on that continuum of films touching on the relationship between artificial intelligence and what it is to be human. Watching these creepy characters suggests humanity doesn’t have a rosy future.

I don’t want to give away the ending and, of course, a dramatic creation is working on several levels, but as the film progresses we see Theodore’s colourful clothing gradually change. If you’ve seen the main film poster it is red – almost totally red – with Theodore wearing a red shirt. During the course of the film he is shown wearing red, then oranges and tans, then pale orange and soft peach and finally at the end a white shirt. Maybe, I’ve read this all wrong, but Spike Jonze (writer and director) looks like he has experienced a few female bloodsuckers in the past!

Inside Llewyn Davis and The Shoals of Herring

Inside-Llewyn-DavisWhy go to the cinema? Why make the physical effort to go somewhere else when it’s all available (eventually) at home? Why get hassled with winter weather, parking and queuing? Well, for most of us we go to be entertained. A word of warning here, I loved ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, but it’s not an easy, gentle type of entertainment. The Coen Bros are renowned for making films they want to make in the way they want to make them. Here, with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, they don’t attempt to soften the overall relentless, low-level dreariness of existence. They have chosen the early 1960s US folk scene as the medium for their commentary on the nature of a creative life. If you want to go to the movies to see a film pushing an optimistic, ‘we can all achieve our dreams’ theme, concluding with the obligatory Hollywood happy ending, then this movie is not for you. For me this film is a superb antidote to our contemporary celebrity obsessed culture.

Absolutely beautifully shot – worth seeing on a big screen just for the visuals. Sometimes I get annoyed with productions that are underlit and grey, but here the muted palette worked to enhance the bleakness. Also it contrasted well with harsh lighting of the night scene at the motorway services. The film draws you along Llewyn Davis’s (Oscar Isaac) life, not into his life, but closely observing his dwindling energy from the sidelines. There have been many films about creative people (fictional or biopics), individuals struggling for recognition, enduring setbacks, but ultimately ending with them standing in the spotlight of success. Parts of this film are funny, just how funny depends on your own appreciation of black humour, but overall it’s a film more about the nature of reality than the glories of fame.

Several professional reviewers have commented that it is not an accurate portrayal of the 1960s New York folk scene, but it isn’t a docudrama. Perhaps the Coen Bros chose that period as folk was having a resurgence in general and because folk songs are traditionally the songs of ordinary people. I am too young to remember the 1960s ‘folk scene’ at all. Folk has really passed me by, but this harsh yet melancholic film has been a revelatory introduction for me. Once again the globe contracted that little bit more as I heard mention of the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth when Llewyn Davis sang:

O, it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

This is the opening verse to Ewan MacColl’s folk song about the collapse of the herring fishing industry off the east coast of England (where I live). A song of everyday folk losing their livelihoods, not to mention the near annihilation of the herring.

herring boats
Herring boats at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK
At one point in the early 20th century there were over 1000 boats out of Yarmouth.
Photo: Time & Tide Museum, Norfolk

I appreciate a film if it makes me stop and think and look again at my assumptions, particularly if the film is subtle and engaging. We all know that a movie is a fiction, and if you were to record even a couple of hours of real everyday life you might get a few minutes of compelling material, hopefully more interesting than watching paint dry. I think on one level this film has captured the futility present in most peoples’ lives. Through Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers have shown us a personification of the bitter pill. Not every film has to be plot driven, fast paced and packed with special effects – they have their place, but so does a film attempting to reflect how it is – grey.

James McAvoy – Three Days of Rain, Macbeth and Filth

McAvoy-Filth-Sept13For me visual culture absolutely includes film, I love the big screen and will go whenever I think a film might be aimed at just a bit more than the teenage-boy demographic. I love intense or spectacular and preferably both and that’s probably why ‘Melancholia’ directed by Lars von Trier is one of my favourite films. Now, I’ve just been to see ‘Filth’ directed by Jon S Baird from the novel by Irvine Welsh and starring James McAvoy. It is challenging, adult viewing, funny in parts in a grotesque, outrageous way with the black humour lessening the pain of watching the meltdown of a very flawed human being.

My daughter (half Scottish) is a huge McAvoy fan and we’ve seen most of his films and some of his stage work. For my sins I’ve hung around the Apollo Theatre Stage Door with her waiting for her to meet ‘the Star’ and get his autograph after seeing him in ‘Three Days of Rain'(2009). He was very pleasant to the fans and signed all the programmes that were excitedly shoved in his face.

So, Mr McAvoy a ‘nice kinda guy’ actor becomes, in ‘Filth’, Bruce Robertson – a totally repugnant and disgusting character, brutal, slimy, misogynistic, homophobic and most of all treacherous. And, he does look terrible, as McAvoy himself said his face looks “like a bag of smashed crabs”. No doubt some of his fans won’t like this, but commenting in a BBC Scotland interview yesterday, he also said, “audiences just can’t have it easy all the time”. The character of Bruce Robertson is central to the film and McAvoy gives an amazing energetic yet intense performance portraying an alcoholic, cocaine snorting and pitifully disturbed individual. There is also great support from a rich cast including Joy McAvoy, James’ sister.

What intrigues me about the sentiment of modern film/theatre goers is that there are people outraged by contemporary portrayals of disintegrating, deranged individuals in a gritty film such as ‘Filth’, but who will watch a not dissimilar moral breakdown in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and find it acceptable. Earlier this year on 4 April, my daughter and I saw McAvoy play Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in London. It was another dynamic performance with plenty of ‘blood’ splattered around so much so that as we took our seats, close to the action, a member of the production team came to explain that any red splashes on our clothes would wash off!! But, it wasn’t the visual effects that were shocking it was the menacing, terrifying and manic central performance by McAvoy. In this production there was a scene where Macbeth stalks round a room knowing that hiding in a wooden cupboard is the child son of Macduff. He circles the wooden casket and you realise that he is going to murder the boy, and then suddenly it happens he repeatedly thrusts his knife into the cupboard with intense, dark glee, killing the boy. It was stunningly shocking.

Macbeth 2012 Trafalgar Studios

As humans we make culture in order to express aspects and qualities of our humanity and it isn’t all going to be pretty, pretty and smelling of roses. Shakespeare certainly liked to delve into the darker side of the human psyche and explore our foibles. This film is a hard-nosed, 21st-century look at our imperfect nature in our imperfect world. A film like ‘Filth’ with characters like Bruce Robertson give us a magnified, supercharged reflection of a real world. It’s controversial, harsh and at times a difficult film to watch, but if you’re outraged then engage, respond and talk about it.

And, finally a little plug – James McAvoy supports the charity Retrak helping the street children of Africa – take a look, Retrak