Whiplash (2014)

whip1I thought this film was terrifying. Seriously, I shrug off and laugh in the face of the grisliest of horror films (to be fair, they are often all just dafter the gorier they get) but this film about a young jazz-drummer wannabe being terrorised and bullied by his music teacher was absolutely horrifying. I still get uneasy chills thinking back to J K Simmons’ monstrous Terence Fletcher. His performance really got under my skin, so much so that thinking back on the film feels like a panic attack in itself. I can’t explain it, I feel nervous just writing this down. Scariest. Film. Ever. Its like one of those anxiety dreams that just intensifies as it progresses, my dream-self increasingly losing control as it descends into nightmare. While the film does unfortunately descend into exploitation territory at moments, possibly inevitably so really, considering what it depicts, nonetheless it is such a shocking exercise in relentless tension.  

Disturbingly, when Fletcher confides his reasoning to our unravelling hero Andrew (Miles Teller) “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’” he grunts, one almost has to applaud him. He believes that praise and nurture are ultimately defeating, only from great suffering can one create a genius and Great Art. Those that fail (and he has destroyed the lives of students before) were simply unworthy, easily forgotten, and although he not yet managed to discover and bully a student capable of legendary greatness, at least he can say he tried. The sheer bloody hubris of the monster: he has the simplicity and perfection of Giger’s Alien. 

I’ve come to this film rather late, as the director Damien Chazelle went on to La La Land and First Man afterwards, films which I both enjoyed, and I’m not certain why it took me so long to get around to it-  Whiplash was clearly well-regarded, so its not like I was not curious. Maybe I knew deep down that it would get under my skin. Its a pretty amazing film, although I’m cautious regards stating that I really enjoyed it, it seemed such an ordeal in tension and I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered. 

 

Cold War (2018)

cold1Here’s a love story like few others I’ve seen in film- in the grandest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Casablanca (a film Cold War always seems to nod to with its 4:3 Academy-ratio, beautiful black and white photography) these two characters -Wiktor and Zula, star-crossed lovers caught in postwar Europe- are deeply in love but destined to repeatedly fall apart, the same chemistry that brings them together always pushing against them. In just the same way as La la Land told us that not even the greatest of love affairs always end well, so Cold War also casts a cautionary spell, and reminds movie lovers that maybe it’s the saddest love stories that are the best.

Its 1949, and musicologists Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) roam the countryside of Poland recording folk songs as if trying to preserve a way of life before it is lost forever, but their efforts to maintain the music and culture of the common people through a showcase troupe of dancers and singers is increasingly pressed upon by the authorities to also sing the praises of Stalin and communist reforms. Wiktor is smitten by one of the ensemble- Zula (Joanna Kulig), a mysterious young woman who killed her own father  (“He mistook me for my mother”, she tells Wiktor, “so I used a knife to show him the difference”). While their secret affair continues the troupe becomes increasingly popular, culminating in an engagement in Berlin in 1952 that offers Wiktor a chance to defect to the West. He urges Zula to join him, but ultimately has to go alone. But of course, that’s not the end of the story, as the years pass and the two lovers inevitably meet again, and part again, and meet and part…

Kulig is pretty astonishing here- I’ve never seen her before and she is simply remarkable in this, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She has this magnetic charisma with the camera, its like watching a movie star of old. Her character is beautiful and talented, but restless and conflicted, a fascinating creation. You just don’t see performances/roles like this very often,

Of course part of the beauty of the film is its gorgeous photography and evocation of a postwar Europe increasingly fracturing between East and West, and the relentless sense that wherever the two lovers are, they never seem to be home, as if ‘home’, that old Poland and its folk songs of impossible loves doesn’t really exist anymore. Forever out of place, their solace together is always temporary.

The frustrations of this film is in this sense of truth- in its unattainable peace, thwarted desires, aching passions there is a feeling of reality and disaster. Its episodic format across the years leaves many questions unanswered, glimpses of the years between hinting at things we can only wonder about. The shades of grey in the exquisite photography is mirrored in the editing and the story, and it is distinctly European, failing to contain any of the platitudes and fairytales a Hollywood love story might have tried to fool us with.  Instead, it feels real, and is all the more painful because of it.

 

 

Where I lose all my self-respect and admit to enjoying La La Land…

lal2017.55: La La Land (2016)

The cynic in me should hate this film, one of the most patronising and condescending essays on self-worth, validation and success I have ever seen, an almost religiously reverential glorification of the myth of Hollywood. A fantasy-land devoid of poverty or drugs or crime, where monsters like Harvey Weinstein never existed and scandals such as now encompassing Kevin Spacey and others never happened. Here people just want to make music, act, write, create, as if the act were enough, as if they would do it for free, as if it’s nothing to do with self-aggrandising massive egos or becoming famous or grotesquely rich. Never in La La Land is it about a $50 million paycheck, never is it about being an arsehole to everyone around you because you can afford to, or buying a luxury yacht or private jet plane or exulting in being ‘somebody’, being adored, being a ‘star’.

This isn’t the real Hollywood. This is a fantasy writ large, accentuated by it being a musical, with grand songs and dance numbers. Its an ode to the impossible myth that surely no-one buys anymore in this enlightened cynical age. La La Land is a fuzzy fable, something from some other era entirely. This film should not exist, it’s another Blade Runner 2049… wait, it even stars the same actor, Ryan Gosling. What’s going on?

Indeed, the biggest wonder that strikes me about it is that it even got made. I mean sure, Hollywood loves to make movies about itself, especially sophisticated ones like this full of lovely beautiful people living lovely beautiful lives in the lovely beautiful city of Los Angeles that doesn’t need any police or even litter bins. But a musical? Musicals haven’t ‘worked’ for years, as a genre it’s akin to the dodo, surely, or decent NIcholas Cage movies.

And yet…

lal2

And yet the dreamer in me loved it. From the slightly WTF opening sequence on the freeway to the intellectually-satisfying ending, complete with it ripping your heart out, La La Land is the ultimate guilty-secret movie. I feel dirty liking it, almost. It’s wrong, I know. I shouldn’t succumb to its charms. But I really enjoyed it, marvelled at it.

That ending seals the deal though. That last ten/fifteen minutes added a strange sense of pathos to the fluffy adventure that quite surprised me, suddenly taking a detour into Some Other Movie- I love movies that do that. You know where it’s going and you really don’t want it do that but you love it for doing it.

There is something almost irrepressible about this film for anyone who loves movies, or particularly grew up watching the old movie fantasies of the 1940s and 1950 replaying on tv during childhood, all those MGM musicals etc. Hollywood was, clearly,  never the innocent tinseltown it would like to pretend it is, its image has surely been tarnished over the years to the point at which it can be polished no more, and yet La La Land exists.

The Oscars are not about deserving people winning deserved awards, it’s about politics and money and setting up future deals and greed and narcissistic super-egos of the super-rich. The real La La Land I’m sure is a frankly horrible place that destroys many poor souls up before it pauses for breakfast. But it always throws amazing dreams onto screens with abandon, cinematic flights of fantasy that appeal to dreamers the world over. That we pour over over and over. I love movies (well, good movies, at any rate) and the creativity of the visual arts.  I mean, in the cold light of day La La Land is horrible and manipulative. But aren’t all films manipulative? The beauty of this film at least is that it recognises, in this era of muzak soundtracks, ambient scores that all sound the same, the power and importance of music in a movie, that as a tool it has been discarded in the garden shed for too long.

But anyway, I enjoyed it. Don’t punish me for it, I feel bad enough about it as it is.