Monthly Archives: January 2017

Senses and sensibility: a struck-dumb Mia is captivated by the sound and then the coloured-lit sight of Sebastian at the piano

It is life’s shadows which emerge amid the glare of the Golden State that give this award-winning musical its true colour


WERE IT NOT for the captioned seasons that introduce each segment of this song-filled Hollywood-set tale, we would barely know where we were. Beyond the sharp daylight and rare snow flurry, it is the Christmas tree in the flat of barista/actress Mia (Academy Award-winning Emma Stone, exemplary), and the baubles and lights strung around the bar where disillusioned pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) works that help mark time.

Trad jazz-mad Seb’s assigned set list is a cheesy Christmas medley including ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, ‘Jingle Bells’, and ‘Deck The Halls’. When he chooses to go off-piste – which mesmerises a just-happened-to-be-passing Mia into entering the club – Seb is sacked on-the-spot by his stern manager (Whiplash‘s J.K Simmons). ‘It’s Christmas!’, the young man protests. ‘Yes. I see the decorations,’ his now ex-boss fires back. ‘Good luck in the New Year.’ When Mia, a silent onlooker moves to let Seb know her appreciation, he barges past her and out of the club. It is not the first time their paths have crossed: he got irate with her on a car-jammed flyover. That was no ‘meet cute’either,

Dreams Cost – And This Is Where You Start Paying

If, especially in the current political climate, you’re in the mood for sunshine and starlight, romance, dancing and singing down the street. And coming out of the cinema whistling a happy tune, you need to watch The Muppets (2011). La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s second feature (after 2014’s similarly jazz-promoting acclaimed Whiplash) is certainly full of colour, romance, humour, and dancing, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a well-matched pair. But La La Land also captures the pain, sheer luck, heartache, and struggle and determination involved in creating Art. (I had tears streaming down my face during Stone’s stunning, shattering singing of ‘Here’s To The Ones Who Dream’.)

Until this movie, I had underestimated Emma Stone’s sheer acting chops. She has an incredibly expressive face and her auditions scenes are a tour-de-force. Yet notable about La La Land is how the clear and obvious talent of all the behind-the-scenes departments are blazing up on the screen, too. As much as this is a movie about Hollywood movies and beyond, (from Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to Casablanca (1943) to The Red Balloon (1956) and a myriad more, the references could act as a viewing primer for film students) it is also about the mechanics of how movies are made. Yet apart from a storming traffic-jammed song and dance number at the very top of the film, Stone & Goslings’ own song and dance numbers are pleasant rather than knock-out: their footwork is sweet but without much natural grace – though that might well be the point. For a real musical, nothing beats West Side Story (1961)

A Two-Forked Road that Divides Romance From Dreams

The pair’s growing romance is juxtaposed with the rollercoaster trajectory of their dream careers. Sebastian yearns for his own jazz club (Gosling’s piano-playing is notably accomplished), while Mia desires to be a film actress They both begin very much in the same place of hoping for a break. When Seb loses the job he doesn’t even really want, made worse by it being at Christmastime, it runs parallel with Mia’s string of failed auditions. Their shared end of year predicament is reminiscent of the account in award-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman (2012) of Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s releasing ‘Cause’ with its prophetic lyrics: ‘Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas’ just before he was dropped from his record company on the turning of the year. It is not just that nobody will be hiring anyone until January but December is supposed to be an upbeat jolly twinkly month of family and celebration, isn’t it?

These two support each other but their dreams and the path each is on comes into conflict with the other. Women are no longer prepared to simply support a man while he fights for his own success. As also suggested by his debut, Damien Chazelle does not appear to believe that the road to success can ultimately be accomplished without choosing solitude. For all the sweetness of the couple’s dancing together so often and tellingly in the neon and artificial light of Hollywood, their dreams of life and love conflict.

Dreaming of the road less travelled?: love might prove a missed opportunity for Seb

La La Land might appear a challenge to Hollywood’s usual happy-ever-after. The course of Mia and Sebastian’s true love never did run smooth: it became tangled, split in two and went off at completely different tangents! Instead, it is staying true to your one true dream that is presented as the alternative myth. That is, just another romantic Hollywood fantasy.

La La Land is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray


Out in the cold: Lee Chandler’s life is stalled by his frozen heart

A man entombed by the chill of grief, guilt and despair is warmed by the ordinary hometown love of friends and family in a humane and grounded film classic


SNOW SITS DEEP on the streets of the small waterside town where hunched Boston janitor, Lee Chandler (Academy Award-winning Casey Affleck) has returned to face his brother, Joe’s death. The rare Christmas wreaths visible in a number of front doors are notable by the fact that not one carries any decoration. And there are barely any inidcators of Christmas colour anywhere else either. This is a chilly, bleached out world encapsulating Lee’s glaciated interior. It is as if he carries the snow and ice with him. (There is also a burning rage behind his eyes that bursts out physically and uncontrollably in bar-room brawls and swearing at the tenants whose pipes he unblocks.)

Lee is shocked to discover that, in his will, the chronically sick lone-parent, Joe (a contrastingly warm Kyle Chandler) assigned his brother the guardianship of his 16 year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is not in that place, and knows it. Yet, Joe’s beyond-the-freezer ‘gift’ (the Manchester ground is too hard yet to bury the body) forces Lee to take an adult responsibility that he rarely took years earlier – – and ultimately led to tragic consequences. Ever since, it has been as if Lee has been serving time until his own death.

Earthed Humanity That Is Not Afraid Of Life’s Loose Ends

Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature in 15 years (his output is as slow-burning as his films) follows the acclaimed You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011). All have in common sterling performances, especially from their leads (Anna Paquin was robbed of a Best Actress Academy Award nomination as Margaret); plus a determination to recognise real life’s knots, tangles and loose ends at the back of its supposed rich tapestry that conventional Hollywood movies would rather not admit. And a cameo by Matthew Broderick. (In Manchester By The Sea his slightly out-of-kilter smoothness in contrast to the rest of the cast sits perfectly in his role as Patrick’s Mom’s evangelical Christian fiancee.)

If Lonergan isn’t the tightest of editors (I would have been happy with Margaret ending an hour earlier, and there was a moment in Manchester By The Sea when I felt things were not going anywhere), it can also be read as his honest reflection of how life actually happens. The film’s soundtrack is heavy-handed at times, but Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is beautiful, and will undoubtedly draw visitors to the Massachusetts town.

There Is More To Life Than Life’s Body Blows

Interestingly, Manchester By The Sea happens to be the second film in the UK’s traditional ‘January Awards Season’ after A Monster Calls which has as its main theme the pain of living with heartbreak and deep grief. There is a moment in the England-set film where a divorced father admits to his son that rather than the fairy tale ending, ‘Most of us get messily ever after.’ It is the ‘messily ever after’ of real-life lived by ordinary people we could so easily be or encounter that is playwright/screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan’s concern.

Whereas A Monster Calls harks back to a pre-Christian spirituality that is literally earthed in Nature, a quiet all but unspoken Catholicism lies beneath Lee’s pain. It is as cultural as that of the Boston Globe reporters in last year’s Spotlight but there is a suggestion that it might be more than that. When Patrick, returning home from visiting his Born Again Mom (Gretchen Mol) and her fiancee dismisses them as being ‘Christian’, Lee reminds him: ‘We’re Christian, you know.’ He cannot stop looking at churches as he drives past them ,either. Lee’s belief seems like the hard-won thread than runs beneath all the harsh experiences and choices of Andrew Garfield’s Father Sebastian in Silence.

Hope And Lightness Accompany Life’s Nightmares

Lonergan doesn’t make life easy for his characters, but there is lightness and humour to be had too. He recognises that the loss of a child carries a lifelong grief but that that is not the end of the story. (The theme, too, of the 2016 Nick Cave documentary One More Time With Feeling.) Lee’s ex, Randi (Michelle Williams making a devastating impact in her short screen time) retains a broken heart yet has remarried and had a baby and carries deep remorse for how she treated Lee and forgiveness over the loss of their children. She can admit her love for him even while he remains devoid of any emotion.

So, when a sly smile breaks across Lee’s face as he learns to understand his nephew better, it is heartbreaking for us, the audience. In flashbacks throughout this often emotionally raw movie, we have learnt how much this new-found happiness, however fleeting, has cost him.

Brotherly love: In life, Joe’s enveloping compassion fails to break through Lee’s devastation (This still alone kills me.)

And when a small group of family and friends at last can gather around the newly dug graveside, and there remains a space on the family tombstone left for the broken son, the ring of love that never gave up on Lee is tangible. His healing is not yet over (whether it shall ever be this side of life), and he knows it is too painful to remain in Manchester, but Lee is not where he began, and he knows he is not alone.

Manchester By The Sea is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray

Into the wild: a growing lad must converse with an ancient natural force to face his future

Like George Bailey in Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), young Conor O’Malley cannot escape his limited fate so he must learn to live with it. And so grow.


FOR A 13 YEAR OLD boy, it seems like a dream. Conor’s Dad, Liam has just turned up from America where he lives with his new family, and is suggesting his son join him in L.A. The teenager (Lewis MacDougall) is excited. L.A sounds like sunshine, bright colours and a new life for the boy – and freedom from his washed-out English life where the sun barely shines; he is being mercilessly bullied at school; and is presently living with his too strict and seemingly unfeeling Grandmother (a miscast Sigourney Weaver). And, worst of all, his single Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of terminal cancer while assuring her aware son that she will get better. And then his Dad adds, ‘We were thinking over Christmas. That way, you could be back home in time for school.’ Conor’s heart sinks.

Like a chorus line for whenever they meet, Liam (Tony Kebbell) will assure Conor that he will be ‘going to come to L.A for Christmas’. (It often occurs at the pier, a place of fun and joy for a Dad and his boy but also suggests that Liam s trying too hard to reconnect.) Except Conor has listened to his father and seen through such promise. ‘In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,’ he spits out, throwing his Dad’s excuse that he couldn’t stay in the United States for ever right back at him. He is also adamant that he does not want to leave his sick Mum on her own in England for the festivities, presumably snce he fears she might die in the meantime.

A Lost Boy Finds Hope In The Wild

Sunshine and Christmas seem a New World away. Conor is essentially ‘stateless’ while his Mum is ill in hospital – and the unsaid question is where he will live should she die. He certainly does not want to remain with his grandmother. He’d feel an entirely lost boy were it not for the unexpected appearance of a huge leafy giant who has emerged from the ancient yew tree that stands in the cemetery on the hill. He sounds exactly like Liam Neeson (which is reassuring since he is also Aslan and Qui-Gon Jinn. On the other hand, Neeson is the assassin known for declaring: ‘I will find you. And I will kill you.‘ And, currently featuring in Scorsese’s Silence (2016) as a Jesuit missionary to Japan who denied Christ. The rotter!)

Which makes Neeson’s casting hugely appropriate. Whenever this Monster appears at 12.07, day or night, although he clearly delights in rolling the name’Conor O’Malley‘ around his mouth, we are never quite sure whether he has the teenager’s best interests at heart as he ‘encourages’ the boy to smash up property and people. He is a truthteller and a truthseeker, weaving a series of three tales for Conor and challenging him to reveal his own truth cum nightmare for the fourth tale. As with the ghost tales for Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) it is by facing the darkness of his heart that Conor shall be set free to live, however painful that might be.

An Ancient Spirituality Primed For Our Time

Patrick Ness, author of the acclaimed YA novel on which A Monster Calls is based (Ness also wrote the film’s screenplay), faced criticism for his apparent lack of imagination in reprising ‘A Christmas Carol’s three-stories-within-a-story style. On the contrary. That and Liam’s overplayed reference to Christmas ironically emphasises what Ness’s story is not. And by doing so, focuses on a very contemporary strand of English spirituality.

The beautifully animated tales in earthy reds and browns the Monster weaves, emerge from a time of kings and farmers’ daughters, knights and dragons, apothecaries and priests. The stunning watercolour washes bring to mind the 1930s children’s hymn, ‘When A Knight Won His Spurs’, which, interestingly ends with the couplet: ‘And let me set free with the sword of my youth, From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.‘. Which is *exactly* what the Monster is endeavouring to help Conor to do. He is thousands of years’ old which suggests an attractive pre-CHristian sensiblity of an ‘original England’ reaching out to Conor’s post-industrial world.

Fairy Tales With Very Human Endings

The Monster’s stories, based on his own experiences, rather than have conventional happy endings with a clear sense of who is good and who is evil, are far more interesting and thought-provoking than that. He show humans to be conflicted beasts, a mix of right and wrong, with a contradiction at the heart of so much of our behaviour. By the third tale, the Monster is telling of Conor’s own invisibility that will burst into visibility with too much force. But destructiveness can be positive too, revealing dark truths that once confronted enable new life. And Conor must hug his mother as tightly as possible in order to let her go.

As kids we need fantasy to understand reality,’ director J.A. Bayona has explained. ‘This is what fairy tales were written for. Using fairy tales we can understand very complex emotions and thoughts that, the other way around, we wouldn’t be able to process as kids. So I think fantasy is more effective in telling a better comprehension of life and life itself.‘ [1] At one point, hearing of his parents’ failed marriage, Conor will say to his Dad, ‘So you did’nt get ‘happy ever after’?‘ ‘Most of us get ‘messily ever after,‘ is Liam’s very honest, true and lived experience of an answer.

A Modern Mythical Tale Of A Boy’s Bereavement

A Monster Calls celebrates the value of storytelling as well as the manual treasure that is drawing and painting from the heart. The Monster – himself perhaps the embodiment of the mythical ‘Green Man’ – has witnessed the origins of fairy tales before they were sanitised. That he provides ‘hope in the wild’ (as the poster strapline goes) with a ‘manchild’ is the continuance of a 2016 cinematic trend via films including The Legend of Tarzan, Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Captain Fantastic, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and even Revenant and Room where the natural world is where ‘home’ is found away from the troubling contemporary world.

it is to J.A Bayona’s credit that his use of a range of animation techniques including blue-screen and digital does not detract from a very earthed and undoubtedly English tale. An incredible and terrifying sequence in a graveyard also emphasises the quality of young MacDougall’s acting, while underscoring Bayona’s real gift as a director of teenage boys. (Tom Holland’s superb appearance in The Impossible (2012) was reminiscent of Christian Bale’s debut in Empire Of The Sun (1987) – and he makes a hidden appearance in A Monster Calls too.)

It is only January, but A Monster Calls is already a shoe-in for one of the films of 2017.


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