LA LA LAND
A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, but fame and celebrity threaten to tear their relationship apart.
2016/USA/Lionsgate/128 mins/Drama, Musical, Comedy/12A
Release date: 13/01/2017
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K Simmons, John Legend
Whiplash director, Damien Chazelle, does it again! Well, if the vast amount of awards and nominations are anything to go by and, of course, the word of mouth which has spread like a Californian wildfire. Think ‘Singing in the Rain’ with a ladle of soupçon of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’ (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), a smidgen of ‘Fame’, and, for good measure, a ladle of ‘An American in Paris’ and you won’t even have to make the effort to go out and actually watch the film.
Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz musician and Mia (Emma Stone), is a gifted and aspiring actress – but only the audience appears to be aware of her talent. They first meet (without the requisite fireworks in tow) in the much-talked-about, opening scene which could have come straight out of Fame. Neither makes an impression on the other.
It takes two more encounters for them to ‘gel’ and then there is no stopping them. Slowly, but surely their romance takes off amidst a lot of musical set-pieces, with LA as a backdrop – especially, The Griffith Observatory.
Like all good romantic stories, however, things don’t always go according to plan …
Stone and Gosling are a film maker’s match made in heaven – their onscreen chemistry (like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) is a joy to watch. Although neither actor can sing, but they make the best of their limited range and the two songs which have been nominated for an Oscar are my favourites ie ‘Audition’ and ‘City of Stars’ which were written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Stone is witty, smart, and vulnerable and her audition scenes showcase her amazing talent; one in particular where she goes through a montage of characters and leaves you gasping for air.
As for Gosling, in my book, he rarely puts a foot wrong (no pun intended). He takes this role and makes it his own. He doesn’t try to impress us, but nevertheless, we are impressed. We know he can definitely act, has great comedic timing but who would have guessed that he could hold a tune (just about) and dance – ok, he would have been no competition for Gene Kelly, but then, who was? Apart from Fred, of course …
I first heard the whispers last Spring and couldn’t wait to see this film. I tried to get to a screening at the London Film Festival, but when I saw the press queue, which stretched from Picturehouse Central (Piccadilly) around the corner and down to Leicester Square, I decided life was too short, even for La La Land. Instead, I finally saw it at BAFTA at the beginning of December, which was a very long time to have waited and probably one that I regret. I don’t know about you, but the more you hear how wonderful something is and you have to have it, or you must watch it, etc. etc., expectations run high, only to be dashed somewhat since the object of your desire isn’t quite what you were led to believe.
However, I don’t mean to detract from what is essentially So far, it has garnered 7 Golden Globes, has been nominated for 11 Baftas and has received 14 nominations for the 89th Academy Awards – including Best Picture – which I fervently hope will not win in this category, since it would be a travesty of justice. The honour, in my opinion, should go to Moonlight.
However, I don’t want to malign or detract from what is essentially a musical for dreamers and the like. I did love the film and I came out of the screening feeling happy and seemingly floating on a little cloud, but not so much that it warrants all this attention. Perhaps I am missing something and what we all need is a little escapism, through a fanciful piece of nostalgia whereby we can immerse ourselves in order to carry us through the next four trying years of the Trump/May era. God Bless America and ‘Blighty’.
Twitch Factor: Sub, Sub, Zero
After President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy battles with her grief to regain her faith, console her children and define her husband’s historic legacy.
2016/USA/Entertainment One/99 mins/Biography, Drama/15
Release date: 20/01/2017
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Natalie Portman, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard
Everyone born pre-1953 can remember where they were and what they were doing on 22 November 1963, the day on which President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.
Jackie is the debut English-language film from the Chilean director Pablo Larraín and is told from Jackie’s point of view and centres on a fictionalised version of an interview given to a journalist, (Billy Crudup), in Hyannis Port, less than a week after her husband’s assassination.
We see a distraught Jackie coming to terms with her husband’s sudden, violent death and who appears all intents and purposes, to be totally alone in the world.
One unforgettable and surreal scene, shows Jackie watching her husband’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson being sworn into office on Air Force One, minutes after being trapped in the back of a limousine, holding her husband’s brain-dead body. Suddenly, she is jolted out of her trance-like state of mind when she hears Lady Bird Johnson being addressed as ‘Mrs President’ – bringing her predicament into perspective.
Whilst her mental state appears to be in the balance, her steely determination to take over her husband’s funeral arrangements’ leaves no-one in any doubt that this is her last stand and along with her husband, will maintain her place in American history.
Although, I cannot unequivocally say this is one of the best films I have seen this year and I don’t think this is one of Portman’s better roles, nevertheless it is watchable. Perhaps I was expecting something more, something which I cannot define. Portman’s mannered, breathy vowels which reminded me of Marilyn Monroe (minus the blonde hair, obvious curves and sexiness) were irritating. However, when I went online to listen to Jackie Kennedy, Portman’s portrayal was uncanny. So, like it or not, she did a fantastic job.
I was also mystified by the obvious lack of blood on her pink Chanel suit – head wounds are notoriously bloody and she would have been covered (literally) in blood and brain matter … Her wig was distracting – badly made and badly fitted. Also, the same evening as her husband’s assassination, she is shown in her bedroom, having presumably bathed, but she is fully made up and coiffed, with a beautiful silk nightdress and peignoir. I couldn’t quite come to terms with this, but then I have never been in that position (thank God) and everyone’s reaction to grief is individual.
The film is well directed by Pablo Larraín and Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is very good and well-rounded. Mica Levi’s score is stunning and unsettling and deserves its Oscar nomination.
There is a strong supporting cast with Peter Sarsgaard as Jackie’s brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy; John Hurt as Jackie’s spiritual adviser and confidante and Richard E Grant, William Edwin Walton who was a journalist as well as an abstract expressionist painted. Greta Gerwig brings a much-needed touch of warmth to her role as the Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman.
The film has had a myriad of nominations and Natalie Portman has won quite a few of the various Film Critics’ Awards. There are three nominations for both the Baftas and Oscars ie Best Actress in a Leading Role, Costume Design and Musical Score – all will be revealed by the end of the month, but don’t hold your breath for ‘Best Actress’ … I think that will definitely go to Emma Stone.
To quote Jackie herself in the Life Magazine interview; “There’ll be great presidents again … but there’ll never be another Camelot.”
Twitch Factor: Sub Zero
In the 1960s, a team of women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.
2016/USA/20th Century Fox/126 mins/Drama/PG
Release date: 24/2/2017
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner
This seems to be the year for true stories and this film is one of the best. It tells the untold story of three, brilliantly talented black women who dared to cross gender, race and professions, to change the way they were perceived and in doing so, helped to pioneer space travel.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) was from West Virginia and started high school at the grand old age of 10, who subsequently graduated with degrees in Mathematics and French at 18 years of age. She became one of the first students to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University, starting at Langley in 1953. Whilst working for NASA, she was a single mother, raising three children.
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) was born in Kansas City, Missouri and graduated college at 19. She taught Mathematics prior to joining Langley in 1943 where she was soon promoted to Head of the West Computing Group.
Mary Jackson, (Janelle Monáe) was a local from Hampton, Virginia who had degrees in Physical Science and Mathematics. After joining Langley in 1953, she rose to Aerospace Engineer, specialising in wind tunnel experiments and aircraft data.
We are transported to a time when segregation is rife in the US, so it is incomprehensible to us what these women had to go through in order to prove themselves, not only because they chose to work in a male domain, but also had the biggest disadvantage of being black.
We see the extent of racism in the work place when Jackson is moved from the West Computing Building (where all the black women work) and is given a position under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). She immediately is ignored by her male co-workers and we learn that every time she needs a ‘bladder break’, she cannot use the bathroom facilities since they are designated ‘White Only’ and, therefore, It takes a 40 minute round trip from her desk back to the West building (all this accompanied by Pharrell Williams track called ‘Runnin’). However, as soon as Harrison learns of her plight, he marches to the bathroom and proceeds to knock down the segregated sign and declares; “At NASA we all pee the same colour.”
The journey for each woman is long and hard but, ultimately, they achieve all that they set out to do. It is a big lesson in adversity, as well as faith in the human spirit.
The lead performances are ‘pitch perfect’ and very winning; I cannot imagine any other actors playing this feisty trio of women. The audience is rooting for them from beginning to end.
This is a film which not only celebrates women, but is also a defining moment in American history with the evolving fight for Civil Rights; the battle to win the Cold War – without unleashing nuclear weaponry – and at the same time trying to win the space race.
Great soundtrack – especially if you are a fan of Pharrell Williams.
At the time of writing, Hidden Figures has won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and also a Satellite Award for Best Ensemble – Motion Picture. It also has been nominated in three Oscar categories; Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Twitch Factor: Sub, Sub, Sub, Zero
The story of a young man, Owen Suskind, who was unable to speak until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate using Disney animations.
2016/UK/Dogwoof Pictures/89mins/Documentary, Animation, Drama/PG
Release date: 9/12/2016
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Cast: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Walter Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt
Director, Roger Ross Williams, is to be congratulated on this amazing, life affirming, coming-of age-documentary which is based on Ron Suskind’s bestselling book, ‘Life, Animated: A story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism’ who just happens to be Owen’s father and a Pulitzer-winning journalist. The film is poignant, uplifting, and an homage to a wonderful family who saw past their son’s autism and resolved to help him achieve as normal a life as possible, where previously no hope appeared to be in sight.
Owen was born ‘normal’ but at the age of three, this energetic, lively and chatty child, with no apparent reason, ceased to speak and ‘disappeared’ into a world of autism. His only interaction with the outside world was through Disney films. Since he seemed to be fascinated with these characters, his father decided to try communicating with him, through one of his puppet toys, Iago – Jafar’s sidekick from Aladdin. Ron ‘became’ Iago and Owen responded in like, quoting directly from the film. From that day forwards, with the help of his parents and Walter, his older brother, (whom he hero-worships), his life slowly changes. He begins to forge a path towards communicating and making sense of the world around him and takes progressive steps to move beyond his world of Disney characters and to deal with the real challenges which lie ahead.
I am so happy that this has been recognised by members of AMPAS (who vote for the Oscar nominations) whereas no Best Documentary nomination has been forthcoming from BAFTA. Shame on them, especially when I see that ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years’ has been nominated in this category – don’t get me wrong, I loved it and reviewed it in November 2016, but it just cannot be compared to ‘Life, Animated’.
Twitch Factor: Sub, Sub, Sub Zero
City of Tiny Lights (reviewed in December 2016) has now been given a release date of 27 April 2017.