La La Land

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For his follow up to the exhilarating Whiplash (2014), writer/director Damien Chazelle has turned his precocious talent to revitalising the old-school Hollywood musical with La La Land (2016). Two lives fatefully cross paths, first on a log jammed freeway and then in a bar, but aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) initially comes to the conclusion that struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an arrogant jackass. When they run into one another yet again during a party at which Sebastian is now part of an embarrassingly retro ensemble playing poolside, Mia decides to test the limits of his seemingly minimal sense of humour. Sparks fly, of course, as they later leave the party together and drift into the first of many great shared musical numbers that accompany the ups and downs of their relationship.

As one normally resistant to musicals, I found myself in a very strange and unusual place in this case, being immediately enamoured of La La Land. It proves to be an endearing, vibrantly staged and superbly choreographed gem from first scene to last. In paying homage to a near forgotten Hollywood era, Chazelle has necessarily conceded his essential narrative to a tried and true formula of forging individual identities, self-belief and searching for vindication of your own dreams but there’s a nice balance of darkness and light in the journey of Sebastian and Mia.

Gosling and Stone are perfectly matched, both on-screen and off-screen, apparently. There’s no disputing they have genuine chemistry and if Gosling’s vocal talents are a notch in quality below that of Stone’s, it never hurts the travails of their romantic union as it blossoms through exotic, quivering highs and despairing lows. Both sides of the relationship are well represented musically with Justin Hurwitz’s score, extrapolating from the many memorable tunes that form the basis of his songs co-composed with lyricists Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, breathing magical life into scenes in which Chazelle has allowed his imagination to run unchecked.

Conventional relationship arc aside, the couple’s general likeability is enhanced by some strong dialogue which elaborates, with equal measures of whimsy and seriousness, on the intoxicating power of life, art and aspirations. The obvious, easy broad appeal of La La Land will be off-putting to some but it can’t cancel out the almost guilty envelopment of bliss generated by Chazelle’s visionary cinematic sweep which so often is complemented by the dazzling gifts of emerging Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Together they have conceived a series of memorable sequences, from sumptuously staged montages, like one that culminates in a dreamy planetarium drift, to the raw emotional truthfulness that marks Mia’s most important audition, perhaps the most memorable musical high point.

Swiss Army Man

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Taken at face value, the story of a disturbed man dragging a flatulent corpse around a forest to converse with as he waits for rescue has the potential to be something offensive and intolerable. But this peculiar, strangely moving film, the work of Daniels – co-writers and directors Daniel Schienert and Dan Kwan – provides us with a uniquely painful portrait of mental illness.

On the verge of suicide by hanging on what is seemingly a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body washing up on the beach. When his rope snaps he takes it as an omen that the dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who he later names Manny, has been sent to keep him alive. Once he reveals a capacity to speak Manny displays a naivety about life and an ignorance of his previous life in the world of the living.

As if directing a child, Hank reveals to his all-purpose, interactive corpse friend the fundamental aspects of life, including behaviour to adopt in direct contact with the opposite sex. Often aimless, uncomfortably grim and just as regularly blackly humourous, Swiss Army Man (2016) is concerned with establishing the way in which the two form an intimate bond and unlikely alliance in forging onward, despite Hank’s misgivings, to get back to the world.

In a sense this instruction is as much about Hank’s need to re-educate himself about the life that he’s avoided but must inevitably return to. Having Manny as a wall to bounce off provides him with the necessary objectivity to untangle his own shortcomings and pierce the haze created by his unstable, dysfunctional perception of life. In the briefest of snippets we see Hank riding a bus and taking notice of a woman who becomes the focus of a fixation that will define him in strange, perturbing ways as his interaction with Manny takes on greater detail.

With stunning work from Paul Dano and a fine assist from Daniel Radcliffe – two actors increasingly unafraid to take creative chances in their careers – Swiss Army Man evolves into a deliciously strange, often bizarre cinematic experience which will earn your admiration for its devotion to a brazenly idiosyncratic point of view. A couple of montages in which an internal, yet interactive world – created by Hank using the detritus of tourists to fashion a bus, a stage, costumes and countless other things – comes to life, provide the film with its most loopily inspired moments. They also offer a brilliant overlapping of image and sound as the equally unconventional, off-kilter score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributes a strange magic of its own.

With a literal interpretation out of the question, there are multiple ways, obviously, to deduce the unfolding of the film’s narrative. It becomes clear, however, that Schienert and Kwan’s interest is in illuminating the often piercingly creative internal life of a damaged psyche. Through Hank we see something startling coming to life, offering genuine poignancy, especially as the slightly incongruent, not entirely successful, final scenes arrive. And as they do, a pervasive sadness, in which all of Hank’s inhibitions, anxieties and apprehensions about his life outside of Manny and the forest, are uncomfortably confirmed, is juxtaposed with an elusive, consolatory flash of liberation from the very same constrictions that prevented Hank from fulfilling any kind of destiny.

 

Sing Street

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At the dawn of the pop video era, Dublin teenager Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is riddled with typical teenage angst. A bully, Barry (Ian Kenny), has honed in on him at his new school, whilst at home the marriage of his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) is sitting on a knife’s edge amidst constant bickering. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) possesses a peerless knowledge of popular music but rarely leaves the house, wallowing in self-pity and the agony of musical dreams that he refused to chase down.

Then Conor spots a mysterious girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), in a building across the road from school. Looking far older than her years, with the poise and demeanour of a model waiting for discovery, he’s instantly smitten and attempting to impress his new mate Darren (Ben Carolan) he crosses the social divide and begins an awkward conversation. He invites her to be the star of his band’s next video clip. Only trouble is Conor doesn’t have a band. And so a rapid-fire recruitment kicks off, with rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) to first to be consulted; soon a makeshift bunch has been rounded up with Darren assigned cameraman duties.

Sing Street (2016), John Carney’s third straight musical feature is almost as good as his earlier two, the Oscar-winning Once (2007) and his American-set follow-up, the wholly underrated Begin Again (2013) which featured inspired, uninhibited performances from Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Sing Street fits comfortably into Carney’s CV but it’s a welcome, feel-good variation on a theme. The fondness for the era shines through, especially in constant references to the music of the mid-80’s like the explosion of British glam rock and the influential medium of the freshly utilised video clip.

Walsh-Peelo, in his first feature role, is incredibly assured and his naturalness on screen is a reflection of the young performer’s background in stage and television performances. His bandmates have all been cannily cast; each is given brilliant one-liners or physical gags that enhance their endearing, outsider status – the kind of status that many might reluctantly admit to feeling a recognisable affinity with. The glamourous Boynton has a genuine on-screen magnetism too. Raphina is a fascinating character, part ingénue, part tragic, revealing beauty mixed with a credibly deglamourized vulnerability as her emotional core is exposed by life’s bitter failings.

Carney’s themes are unoriginal ones but, attached to the lives of appealingly real characters, they’re not without resonance: ardently chase down your dreams, believe in a right time to take your chance in life or be condemned to carry the burden of regret forever. Stacked with hilarious asides, visual gags – the final footage of the band’s first, alley-shot clip is a side-splitting classic – and even some raw, 80’s inspired pop songs that believably bring this band’s spirit to life, Sing Street is wonderful entertainment of the purest sort, an uplifting tribute to heedless young love, rebelliousness, revelling in new experiences, and the music that matters to its generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Day

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Irony and hardship often arrive simultaneously, a fact that Aid Across Borders workers can fully appreciate in Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s sublimely crafted A Perfect Day (2015), his first English-language Spanish film. Working in a remote part of the Balkans to free a corpse from a well and thus eliminate the threat of water pollution for the locals are Sophie (Melanie Thierry), B (Tim Robbins) and their leader Mambru (Benicio Del Toro). They soon learn all about the incongruency of humour inflicted by a turmoil that you either laugh at or cry in the face of.

A broken rope just as they near completion of lifting the bloated cadaver from the well leaves them exposed by their lack of resources. Attempting to procure another with the aid of their translator Damir (Fedja Stukan) turns into some ordeal as resentment and distrust from local communities keeps them at arm’s length. Along the way they encounter strategically placed dead cows in the middle of the road that may or may not be concealing explosives. They also pick up a young boy, Nikola (Eldar Residovic) who they save from bullies, and receive extra assistance from another Aid worker who also happens to be Mambru’s old flame, Katya (Olga Kurylenko).

Hypocrisy at higher levels of decision making and the often untenable separation of logic from a solution because of infernal reams of red tape form a significant part of the screenplay by Aranoa and Diego Farias, based on a novel by Paula Farias. But these become secondary to the characterisations which carry the film, providing it with texture, form and empathy in the shape of a fully fleshed out ensemble whose interactions are always dramatically engaging and often bleakly humorous. There are few dramatic flourishes or suspenseful moments or even a countdown to a major resolution. But A Perfect Day is no poorer in any way for this lack of attention to conventionality. It makes up for any superficial shortcomings with delicate, humourous interplay and a great deal of heart.

Aranoa’s lone dubious creative choice may be in saturating the soundtrack with a barrage of rock tracks though it’s hard to deny that certain choices, even if unsubtly deployed, prove effective. The acting is first-rate with the testy relationship between Mambru and Katya accounting for many of the film’s best scenes. Robbins has his best role in years as the carefree B, whilst Thierry is given a few memorable moments as the group’s newcomer, alternating between outrage, fright and bemusement at her co-workers’ often less than unorthodox methods of operation.

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

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A beloved society woman, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and patron of the arts is convinced of her ability to sing opera like the greats, an opinion that’s given credence by the abiding support of her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an actor who long ago abandoned his staunchest dreams of becoming an actor to be Florence’s tireless advocate and soul mate. Bayfield has never consummated his relationship with his wife – because of a long-endured medical condition of hers – and lives elsewhere in a small flat with his frustrated girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), an arrangement that naturally causes occasional complications.

All these characters, and many more, partake in an absurd but magnificently perpetuated sense of grand delusion. The admirable sustainability of such a delusion is, essentially, what the film boils down to, though other themes are scattered throughout – the championing of the spirit of participation, of fearlessly attempting to tackle your dreams and believe in your abilities, opinions to the contrary be damned. If this delusional grandiosity can be preserved for as long as it is thanks to a combination of wealth and industriousness on behalf of Bayfield, mostly, then so be it.

Director Stephen Frears’ latest is a meticulously crafted, thoroughly entertaining drama. It’s also side-splittingly funny at times, thanks to Nicolas Martin’s classy screenplay and Streep’s immense vocal talents. With deftness, and an exquisite awareness of the innate comedic potential at hand, she’s able to exaggerate Florence’s dodgy range in both her warm-ups with esteemed vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) – another who willingly perpetuates this notion of Florence actually possessing talent by keeping his weighty paycheques foremost in his mind – and on stage.

It’s during these moments, before a crowd, that the laughter at Florence’s ineptness gets drowned out by mocking, rapturous applause that transforms into admiration for the sheer bravura of her persistence and obliviousness. The press run with the positive angle, selling the myth of Florence’s talent; the esteem in which she’s held by the music community and its benefactors allows a buffer zone to form around her, protecting her from the truth. But for how long exactly?

Frears has long proven himself to be one of British cinema’s most prolific and versatile directors. Though he’s made the occasional misstep, his ever-expanding back-catalogue is marked by its remarkable consistency, including more recently, The Queen (2006), Philomena (2013).There have been occasional flirtations with greatness too, as in his early masterwork The Hit (1984) and beloved Nick Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity (2000). In general, he’s had a knack for acquiring projects that aspire to a very credible melding of commercial success and semi-arthouse prestige.

Is there really any point dragging out yet another string of plaudits for Streep? The woman is, simply put, a marvel, her immersion into characters of all types, from every walk of life, constantly surprising. She makes this lovable but occasionally absurd woman impossible to dislike and very easy to fall into – for the vastness of her delusion, for her soulfulness, for the hints of tragedy that have coloured her success and for her almost divine fortitude in outlasting the medical fraternity’s dire assessment of her infirmities.

Grant gives one of his finest performances as the extraordinarily devout Bayfield whose politeness, solemnity and diligence in being able to foresee and smooth over any cracks in Florence’s public façade allows for piercing moments of tenderness and poignancy to temper the drama’s lightness. Special mention must also be made of the contribution of Simon Helberg as Florence’s pianist of choice, Cosme McMoon, whose wild, hilarious assortment of facial distortions reflecting his rapture at getting the job and then astonishment and horror at first hearing Florence sing are worth the price of admission alone. For his part Frears’ handling of the narrative is exceptionally proficient, a totally professional job that will ensure that Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) ranks amongst his finest of recent years.

A Month of Sundays

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A real estate agent is suffering through a mid-life crisis. And what – we’re supposed to care? Well, thanks to a beautifully understated performance by Anthony LaPaglia, returning to his home town of Adelaide, and the skill of writer-director Matthew Saville, A Month of Sundays (2016) does indeed achieve the near impossible, eliciting sympathy for a member of one of the most derided, disreputable professions on God’s green earth.

Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is wavering on the verge of a terminal fadeout. Having recently lost his mother, he’s become utterly listless, exhibiting little or no enthusiasm for his work. Going through the motions one evening after another blandly successful auction he couldn’t care less about, he receives a strange phone call from a woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who sounds eerily close to his mother and who addresses him as son. Disorientated, Frank loses himself in the moment and continues the surreal exchange before the truth finally comes to light. It’s a wrong number, a strange miscommunication. But Frank is intrigued by this woman and calls her again the next day before arranging a lunch engagement. Their initial meeting becomes a regular one during which more detailed aspects of their troubled lives come to light.

Saville’s two previous features both dealt with characters attached to the police force. His impressive debut Noise (2007) was followed by the equally noteworthy accident cover-up tale of Felony (2013) in which a trio of officers with very different agendas attempt to juggle damaging ethical compulsions with a hard-edged loyalty to their own kind. A Month of Sundays is impressive for many reasons but mostly because it strikes such a perfect balance between drama and a previously unrevealed vein of black humour, often interspersing scenes with Frank’s boss Philip Lang, played to perfection by John Clarke. The film often has a wonderfully pensive, slowed-down, unrushed feel to it as well. Most refreshingly, Saville allows, at times, real-world sounds and uncomfortable silences to carry scenes in which Frank is drawn into an internal examination of his troubles.

It’s an impressively crafted portrait and LaPaglia, with intuitive skills and a subduing of Frank’s emotional register, allows us a telling, often moving glimpse of his struggles with reasoning and inspiration. His interactions with his teenage son and ex-wife (Justine Clarke) occasionally hit upon the odd wrong note but at the core of A Month of Sundays is Frank’s tale and it’s one told with great conviction by an emerging young Australian filmmaker.

 

The Lady in the Van

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Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his own memoir is a bittersweet tale of how curiousness and mild affection transform a passing interaction with a stranger into a strangely evolving, burdensome 15 year relationship. In London’s Camden district, home to artists of all sorts, the cantankerous Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) becomes a familiar sight, usually seen ensconced in her easily identifiable van which seems to hone in a location in the street and then remain dormant for months at a time. The locals are chagrined, naturally, though they’re an admirably tolerant lot; they moan and complain half-heartedly but, more compelled by the pitiful human element of Miss Shepherd’s plight, they simply put up with her moaning, insolence and crotchety demeanor.

Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) tolerates her with more conviction, even allowing the lady in the van to take refuge in his driveway when new parking regulations put an end to her hopes of eternally revolving through the streets. Bennett is torn of course and one of the film’s cleverest conceits – skillfully handed by director Nicolas Hytner – is its physical portrayal of his creative divide, in which he’s represented by both sides of the instincts within. First, there’s the version of himself who appraises from afar, the writer, the fictionalist, searching for potent material to expand upon for his own purposes. Then there’s the ‘real’ Alan Bennett, doggedly passing through his own life alongside the tiresome, mundane realities of dealing with his creative flaws, the expectations and judgment of his friends, neighbours and peers and, most confrontingly, the grim reality of Miss Shepherd’s relentless permanency in his life.

It’s a strange attachment, and one he should, for all intents and purposes, be able to sever with ease, even if with a backward glance or two of remorse. But somehow, with the burden of his aged, ailing mother to contend with and lukewarm feedback from his recent plays weighing him down, he’s simply unable to take what would be increasingly drastic measures to legally move Miss Shepherd on. And on some level, he yearns to both dignify her and understand more about her past and the validity of her ‘story’ which, through conversational snippets, is as strewn about as the remaining detritus accumulated inside the stationary vessel that is her home.

Jennings embodies Bennett with a transformative role accompanied by a befitting accent and physically attuned nuances. Smith, too, is remarkable; hers is a brave performance as the ambiguous Miss Shepherd who makes every attempt to alienate every person or child who enters her periphery. Consequently she’s almost impossible to love but a yearning to make sense of her story means there’s a lingering intrigue as to how her unique journey unfolds and the role Bennett will play in generate moments of genuine human truth from sifting through what seems like a willfully arranged barrier to ensure self-preservation.

With Hytner’s regular composer George Fenton liberally borrowing from a classical catalogue to accentuate the drama’s droll, tender and absurd ebbs and flows, The Lady in the Van (2015) comes full circle, placing the film’s very first scene in context; we’re rewarded with a more levelly framed humanising of Miss Shepherd too whilst simultaneously being spared the usual, shallow appeal to a sentimental reflex.