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Sunday
Dec182016

WHITE CHRISTMAS and THY FATHER'S CHAIR (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

For CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote up the Music Box's annual revival of WHITE CHRISTMAS, as well as an excellent new documentary, THY FATHER'S CHAIR, coming early in the new year. You may read these, along with a rerun of my LOVE ACTUALLY review, here

Wednesday
Dec142016

My Favorites of 2016

This year I read Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe's Éric Rohmer biography, perhaps 2016's most essential book about film. Musing on the great director, I fell to flipping through The Connoisseur's Guide to the Movies (1985) by James Monaco, a great Rohmer appreciator. Monaco writes of Pauline at the Beach (1983) that it is "infused with the same human intelligence that makes Rohmer's films taken together a unique and superior body of work. For twenty years he has been celebrating the better part of ourselves--our ability to think and act ethically and morally--while at the same time he gently parodies our excesses in this regard. His films are not only infectious comedies, they are also restorative tonics."
 
In the Age of Trump, we must somehow renew the spirit of human intelligence in Rohmer's work. Will we Americans hold on to our ability to think and act ethically and morally? Have we already lost it? Not all of my favorites of 2016 celebrate "the better part of ourselves." Quite the opposite in some cases, and in any event that isn't always the function of art. Not always. Still, I've a hunch that in the years to come, we'll need the ones that do celebrate the best in us more than ever.  
 
Here's my top 10 features of the year, followed by my top 10 documentaries, followed swiftly by a big ol' block of text where I give some love to a plethora of pleasing 2016 prospects.
 
(By the way, I wasn't able to make the critics' screening of Toni Erdmann. Wise friends tell me it's only the best movie of the year, and  I have every reason to suppose they're right.)
 
Top 10 Features
 
1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) Quite simply the finest American film of the year, it merits all the hosannas. Read my review here
 
2. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho) The legendary Sonia Braga gives one of the year's most indelible performances in Kleber Mendonça Filho's film. A vivacious 66, Braga plays a vibrant, prickly retired critic who is recalcitrant enough to refuse to give up her beloved apartment to placate an oleaginous young developer. She's the lone holdout insisting that generations lived and loved in her apartment, and it shouldn't be squandered for a fast buck. To what ends will the developer go to get her out? If cinema's the art of flitting between moments of human truth, this movie never misses them. And it has my favorite finale of the year.  
3. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) As it follows the stories of certain modern women in the great wide West, the film's feeling of emptiness and loneliness, the grays of those vast, barren spaces, seeps into your bones. There's some kind of quiet resilience at this movie's core. I'm haunted by the way Kristen Stewart looks at Lily Gladstone in that parking lot. A Reichardt film makes you realize how rarely we see people in movies who behave like, well, real people.
 4. The Handmaiden (Chan Wook-Park) Measured debauchery. I marveled at the intricate narrative and the handsome photography boasted by this erotic revenge-drama/period romance. Extended coyness builds to giddy sexual discovery as three devious characters, two women and a man, swindle each other in a sumptuous mansion in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the seemingly innocent Lady Hideko, Kim Min-hee gave the second of two fine performances this year (see Right Now, Wrong Then below). There's always a secret flitting about those eyes, that smile. Kim Tae-ri and Ha Jung-woo round up this cast of scoundrels.
 5. Aferim! (Radu Jude) From Romania comes an unforgettable vision from director Radu Jude: it's Wallachia, 1835, and the plague is on the land. Two comic characters--a blustering, pedantic constable and his pubescent son--cross the country on horseback, searching for a runaway Romani slave. The ending features an appalling act, but this was the only picture that did for me this year what Aleksei German's Hard To Be a God did last year: it created an entire world that somehow felt like an alien dimension even as it remained recognizable as a version of this one. 
6. A Bigger Splash Luca Guadagnino's darkly atmospheric film features unforgettable work from Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson as a group of more or less corrupt characters whose latent passions bubble dangerously on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. There's real joy in Fiennes' work as a dessicated rock 'n' roll manager. It's about food, sex, all that Italian stuff, as well as a certain kind of emotional larceny. "Environment is essential," Guadagnino told "T," the New York Times' style magazine. "I like anything that has to do with form and space. But I am also a humanist. That's the mixture." Even better than that, Guadagnino relates a great story. Years ago, when his dream of working with the sublime Swinton (long a personal favorite of mine, and his) came true, she said to him, "We are going to be partners in crime and the crime is cinema." Indeed! Here's some of the delicious fruit of that partnership. 
7. Elle (Paul Verhoeven) Funny: this was supposed to be controversial, yet it's been almost universally celebrated. This darkly satiric drama/thriller features a sly performance by the great Isabelle Huppert as a truly odd duck, a sadomasochistic rape victim who owns a company that makes video games involving loosely-veiled rape fantasies. Thinking about this movie's crazy sexual politics invites dialectical dizziness. Like nothing since the rape scene in Pulp Fiction, the film plays with shifts in power dynamics. By the end, this woman almost makes a writer want to put quotes around that word "victim." 
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo) For about an hour Hong Sang-soo tells a bittersweet story of a shy film director, in town a day early to speak at a rinky-dink film festival, who meets a girl (Kim Min-Hee, also tremendous as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden). They spend the day together, visiting her apartment to see her paintings, going to a diner, getting drunk and visiting friends. Then, Hong retells the story for about another hour, from a subtly different angle. It's a simple story about the complexity of want and the simplicity of pleasure. Like the cinema of Éric Rohmer, it's about the human heart. As in Rohmer, Hong's film reveals nuances of friendship and love. It's about the reach for closeness and the falling short.  
9. Cemetery of Splendor Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Zen dream surpasseth plot summary. If you like his work, you'll like this. You may have to be the kind of filmgoer who resonates with something "Joe" (the director's nickname from his days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) once said: "Sometimes you don't need to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty." Somehow, a line from Sjón's novel From the Mouth of the Whale comes to mind as a review: "How is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights, and run errands?"
 
10. The Witch (Robert Eggers) With its Faustian themes, the movie touches on anxieties rooted deep in gothic-fable haunted, Puritan-based America. It's a nightmare about a budding girl in 17th-century, sin-fearing, Scarlet Letter-era New England. Witches and Satan ride with each other in the night, scuttling through the haunted woods. The young woman's nascent sexuality and power blooms through the cracks of her girlhood. Will she sign her name in Satan's book? A deal with the devil is the dream of being free. "Wouldst though like to live deliciously?"  
 Top 10 Documentaries
 
1. No Home Movie
The final work from the great Chantal Akerman is about her lifelong quest for identity. Though no one ever truly knows why someone else commits suicide, as Akerman apparently did, we can surmise she never found a place where she could truly be comfortable in her skin. The film interweaves interviews with her dying mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, with footage of the undulating hillocks of the desert of Israel, taken from a train. "Mommy, tell me a story," Akerman says, by way of attempting to get her mother to stay awake. Her very long takes study the geography of her mother's apartment. She is interested in spatial and rhythmic tensions, and in visual and aural textures--hard reflective surfaces, the blacks and splashes of color found in shadows and windows, the way walls and other vertical forms create masking effects. It's quite a sensual experience. I think of the roar of the wind in the desert rushing over her mic, the hum of the seashore, the thrum of the train.
 
2. In Transit
The final film co-directed by legendary "direct cinema" pioneer Albert Maysles. It takes us aboard the Empire Builder train on its three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. We roll across the country in a kind of dream state, where time and space are suspended. Moving quietly between intimate moments of truth, Maysles' camera weaves a tapestry of Americans at turning points in their lives.
 
3. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog's meditative documentary on "one of the biggest revolutions we as human beings are experiencing": The Internet. Evolution or devolution? A flare from the sun, a hurricane, cyberwar: all could wreak havoc with the Internet, pitching civilization into chaos. Still, Herzog remains cheerful. After all, a company called Spacex is working on building ships to move humans to Mars. In my favorite moment, Herzog casts his eye across the beautiful skyline of Chicago. Noting that it appears "devoid of inhabitants," he muses that we must assume that everyone has left for Mars. Then, looking back on the city from the lakeside walkway leading to Adler Planetarium, he finds himself amongst "stragglers left behind": a group of monks in their orange robes, all gazing into their cell phones, as Elvis sings "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on the soundtrack.
 
4. Fire at Sea
A unique documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, a quiet work of humanism and a storehouse of powerful imagery. It's set on Lampedusa, an ancient, tiny Italian fishing island, which for years has been the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Syria and points beyond.
 
5. Francofonia
The word “documentary” feels too prosaic for Alexander Sokurov's elegant French phantasmagoria about the Louvre and war.
 
6. The Illinois Parables In 11 sections, Deborah Stratman's experimental, cryptic essay limns a kind of imaginative atlas of Illinois cultural history. It's loosely organized around the theme of exodus. Much of it surveys the Southern tip of the state, casting a bird's eye view over all that flat wheat prairie land. Street signs now read "Trail of Tears," marking the road down which Native Americans were removed to the west of the Mississippi. In Golconda, Illinois we see a mural at the Trail of Tears' Ohio River crossing. (This, incidentally--or not--was also the border where Jim Crow once began and ended: a black person crossing the Ohio River into Cairo, Illinois was now in a "free" country). In Nauvoo, Illinois we visit the starting point of the Mormon Trail, over which Brigham Young led the exodus of his people to Salt Lake City in 1846. Demonic organ plays over a painting of the burning Mormon temple, then we cut to a shot of the rebuilt building today. We see headlines about mysterious fires in Macomb, Illinois, and a young woman burns a hole in the wall with her eyes. On the soundtrack, readings from Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson's letter to President Van Buren float by. Expressionless men in suits illustrate audio from a press conference about the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police, using hand gestures as if they're in an airline PSA about buckling up. This segment is shot in the style of old black and white TV news footage, and the men move through a kind of stage-set blueprint of Hampton's apartment, constructed in a locker room. From the skies, newsreel footage surveys the endless destruction and terror wrought by the tornado of 1925 which devastated Southern Illinois--the deadliest tornado in U.S. history. We visit a field that was once a nuclear research site where sits, abandoned, "a graphite cake filled with uranium raisins." The mood is wintry and sad. 
 
7. 13TH A powerfuly organized, cogently and devastatingly argued profile of the history of the criminalization of African-Americans in America. It unsparingly analyses a society that doubles down on its "war on crime," "war on drugs," and more and more prisons. Counter the European approach on just about every issue and you'll see how things are done in sane societies run in the interests of the people, as opposed to the wealthy and the powerful. But then, the prison-industrial complex and the obsessively race-based crimininalization of American life has been very, very good for the latter. Urgent viewing.
 
8. The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger 
A stimulating, moving four-part essay by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz about John Berger, whose book Ways of Seeing changed our relationship with art and culture. Berger is an art critic, drawer, storyteller, and, in the words of his great friend Swinton, radical humanist in the tradition of Spinoza. (He also co-wrote a film I treasure, Alain Tanner's 1975 comedy drama JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000.) This documentary takes place in Quincy, a peasant village in a valley of the French Alps where he moved in 1973 with his wife, Beverly. There is a vision of "the good life" here—of physical work and the intimate harmony of man and nature.
 
9. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise This inspiring film complicates Angelou beyond the courtly figure we know. Her poetry readings can be emotionally overwhelming. Written across her visage is fathomless pain. Then the storm breaks and, like the sun coming out, she flashes that great grin, toothy and defiant. The filmmakers shape often-riveting rare footage with an eye for the untold story, the telling image. What emerges is a portrait of someone who loved to laugh and was deeply serious at the same time. If at times its burnished approach threatens to immobilize its subject in amber, Angelou herself—so soulful, and, really, such a pip—never lets that happen.
 
10. Kate Plays Christine A thought-provoking (and just plain provoking) work of art by Robert Greene featuring actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play Christine Chubbuck, the newscaster who shot herself to death on live TV in 1974. It's an intensely ruminative process for Sheil. The movie is about people who choose a career in front of cameras, and their drive to be seen and recognized. It's a provocation that means to put us on the spot--not just us in the audience, but even Greene himself. The ground where fiction and nonfiction blur and overlap is such a rich vein for cinema, and Greene is doing it as provocatively as anyone.
 
Other noteworthy features:
* Wiener-Dog Todd Solondz (HappinessStorytellingPalindromes) is a purveyor of singularly dark comedies which he insists have a "moral center" even as "the act of laughing becomes a moral dilemma." His droll Wiener-Dog is one of his best. His perambulating little Wiener-Dog takes life as it comes, just like Robert Bresson's soulful donkey did in Au Hasard Balthazar. An innocent animal throws humanity's flaws and weaknesses into relief; The Family Fang Directed by Jason Bateman, this is an autumnal, bittersweet comedy about a sister and brother in middle-age, and the bond forged between them in the crucible of being raised by radical performance artists. Even as seniors, their parents still wage war-by-prank on the complacencies of capitalist/consumer society, though the culture has long since absorbed all such resistance. The Family Fang has a mystery plot, but it's wise enough to know that the real mystery is the human beings we love, who shaped our lives in ways too complicated to untangle; La La Land Damien Chazelle's musical romantic comedy means to be a joy, and is; Little Men It's about two boys' friendship against the backdrop of their parents' feud over gentrification in a New York neighborhood. Director Ira Sachs cited influences like Pialat and Ozu's "kids on strike" pictures; Under the Shadow Classic haunted-house movie tropes take on cultural specificity in Babak Anvari's Iranian horror film, in which Narges Rashidi's eyes telegraph bone-deep anxiety, fear and weariness; Wondrous Boccaccio This was Paoli Taviani and Vittorio Taviani's playful, vivid adaptation of a handful of tales from the Decameron. It’s Florence in 1348, the days of the Black Death. A group of young men and women hole up and, to pass the time, they tell each other stories. Some are comic, some tragic, and some just dirty jokes (in fact, this could use a bit more of the ribaldry of the Pasolini version). We humans don’t change fundamentally down the centuries, and this film is forgiving of what we are. My favorite line could also be its motto: "Try and enjoy yourselves as much as you can."; Swiss Army Man What a strange, jejune, original, exuberant movie from "the Daniels" (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). It's a magic-realist comedy/adventure about two guys trying to survive on a deserted island--only one of them's already a corpse. Positing a boner as the life force, the movie feels like it was made for the personal amusement of the people working on it, without worrying much about whether audiences would come along for the ride. For me, one of the year's unforgettable images is Hank (Paul Dano) riding Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) through the water like a jet ski, propelled by Manny's farts; L'Attessa Piero Messina's moving film boasted a fine performance by Juliette Binoche and made spine-tinglingly good use of Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for a Miracle"; Sunset Song Terence Davies was on a role, making two beautiful films this year. This was his exquisite, soulful, painful adaptation of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with Agyness Deyn as the warm-blooded, reflective, gangly daughter of a monstrous farmer. The scene in which she sings a wedding song was one of the year's most enchanted. Next year will see the release of his A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon is the fiercely agnostic, independent Emily Dickinson. It's another film of charged quiet and candelit interiors where worlds of inner emotion swim. Believe it or not, its really funny as well, its bon mots truly bonHunt for the Wilderpeople Taika Waititi's tale of unlikely folk heroes. Chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "real bad egg," in the opinion of the evil social-services agent who dumps him at his foster home on the edge of the New Zealand bush. Soon, he's trying to outrun a manhunt with his foster dad Hec (a crusty, laconic Sam Neill, salty and great). I saw this three times in 2016 and it was just as fresh and funny every time. Splendid use of Nina Simone"s "Sinnerman" and dramatic deployment of Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan"; Sing Street To restore your faith in humanity, see John Carney's joyful coming-of-age romance about aspiring teenage singer/songwriters in the Dublin of 1985. A 16-year-old boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms a band with his friend (Mark McKenna), who likes to carry a bunny, and woos "the girl with mysterious eyes" (Kelly Thornton) against a backdrop of various forms of adult abuse and neglect. His hero, mentor and guiding cultural critic is his troubled older brother (Jack Reynor). I can't think of a film that made Karolyn and me happier this yearLemonade (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Kahlil Joseph, 2016) Beyoncé made a striking experimental "visual album" with political synedoches and imagery seemingly influenced by the likes of Matthew Barney, Stanley Kubrick, Julie Dash and Terrence Malick; Everybody Wants Some!! I'm not sure it would make my top 10 Richard Linklater films (okay, maybe just), but it's still warm, funny and smart; Green Room Jeremy Saulnier's nightmare, in which a young band finds itself trapped in a Nazi punk nightclub takes us into the belly of the "alt-right" white-supremacist culture energized by the rise of Donald Trump; The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki Juho Kuosmanen's first feature, touching and true, wise and warm, is a naturalistic, verité style black-and-white boxing film/love story. It's the story of the lead-up to Olli Mäki's (Jarkko Lahti) fight against Davey Moore in Helsinki in 1962 for the world featherweight championship. The American was defending his title; the modest, scrappy Olli was Finland's rather reluctant contender, with no appetite for the hype of himself as a national hero. The radiant Oona Airola is the heart of the film as the good-humored, playful woman with whom he falls in love. It's about image construction and the true meaning of happiness; The Conjuring 2 A smart, humanistic horror picture. Ghosts torment a family in a  working-class suburb of London. Its heart is the relationship of real-life couple the Warrens, a "demonologist" (Patrick Wilson) and a seer (Vera Farmiga). Director James Wan portrays them as utterly sincere and guileless. (In other words, he believes that they actually believe in ghosts.) These ghostbusters show what a marriage looks like as a partnership of equals. The fact that they're middle-American and Christian, as well as resourceful and intelligent, makes them, in a way, the rare Hollywood sympathetic portrait of Red State-types. You can also enjoy it for the way Wan moves the camera, his negotiation of tension and release, and how good he is with space. Things to Come Mia Hansen-Løve's wise film with Isabelle Huppert is all about questions of how to think and act ethically and morally. She's a tough-minded, well-liked philosophy professor of a certain age, exploring the silver linings of being cut loose.
 
Other noteworthy documentaries: Bill Evans/Time Remembered (Bruce Spiegel's stirring, haunting homage to the great pianist/composer); Weiner; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail; Miss Sharon Jones!; Sonita; Hooligan Sparrow; Two Trains Runnin'; Journey Through French Cinema; From This Day Forward; Ingrid Bergman: In Her own Words; Life, Animated 

Best Blu-ray release: Pioneers of African-American Cinema 
Kino/Lorber's box set curated by Jacqueline Stewart, a professor at the University of Chicago, is one of the cultural events of our time. 
 
Sunday
Dec112016

Love Actually (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I did a writeup for CINE-FILE Chicago on how I learned to stop worrying and love Richard Curtis' LOVE ACTUALLY. Check it out here, under Also Recommended.

Friday
Dec092016

La La Land

 

Damien Chazelle's enchanted musical comedy romance is a tonic for our times. It gladdens the heart that in 2016 you can still make an exuberant pastiche of classic musicals, but one that situates all that Old Hollywood artifice and fantasia squarely in the present. Chazelle pulls it off with flair, creating a CinemaScope movie as colorful and kinetic as his models. It's the wrong question to ask whether this movie is "as good as" MGM wonders like Stanley Donen's and Gene Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather, or French confections like Jacques Demy's and Michel Legrand's The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Rather, we may say that, in the same way they did, it gives us pleasure. 

In the past, Chazelle's direction has been criticized, not without cause, for being rather empty, showy and contrived. I'd be surprised, though, if La La Land doesn't make a convert of the suspicious, not least because here the form suits the content. Anyway, I say contemporary filmmaking is far too starved of filmmaking élan. Bobbing on a sea of handheld cameras desultorily following actors around, one grows hungry to see some old-fashioned bells-and-whistles direction. Chazelle sates that hunger. 

Whereas Martin Scorsese's New York, New York sought to subvert the conventions of Golden Age musicals by grafting them to New Hollywood realism, La La Land is in a lighter key. Yet that movie still seems a byword for this one, for a certain kind of emotional honesty.

Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a prickly jazz pianist, a musician's musician who dreams of opening his own club. Who can understand that, for him, music is a form of personal expression, when the world just wants him to play Christmas jingles?  Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista at a coffee shop on an old-fashioned Hollywood lot, pursuing the perennial L.A. dream: becoming an actress. There's an exuberant number, "Someone in the Crowd," where, dancing from room to room, her housemates cheer her up after a rough audition.

At first, the brusque pianist and the barista can't stand each other (of course they can't). They meet-cute in a great traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, where they annoy each other; their meeting is punctuated by one-finger salutes. They meet again at a pool party, where Sebastian has a gig playing synth in an 80s New Wave cover band. Mia has great fun mocking his Flock of Seagulls moves. She finds him obnoxious and pretentious. 

A love affair develops (of course it does), and the story of its development contains real melancholy charm. They move in together. For a time, Sebastian the purist is tempted by the pop life, securing a steady gig with a dynamic jazz-rock star (John Legend). He forgets the dream of the club. But the gig is not really him, and Mia counsels him to keep his eye on his dream even as their relationship is falling apart. In turn, when she gives up, decides she may not have any talent, it's Sebastian who won't let her dream die, even though it may mean they can't be together. In a kind of cadenza of the mind near the end, a sweeping vision flashes before Mia's eyes of a life that might have been.

Method man Gosling's touch here is surprisingly light, a comedy version of De Niro's Jimmy from New York, New York. Stone is inspired. She's every inch of our day, but she has Old Hollywood class. (When a successful actress like Stone plays someone who dreams, with no sure prospects, of being an actress, I like to watch meta realities show through the performance, such as the doubts that must have visited her along the way.)  

Chazelle's take on jazz is much more relaxed in La La Land than it was in his last feature, the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes overwrought Whiplash. There, he presented the music as a rather excruciating endurance sport, as if its highest values were disciplinarianism and machine-precision timing. It was a funny way to treat an art form he supposedly loved. As I wrote at the time, "There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here." Counter La La Land in which, after Mia confesses that she can't stand jazz, Sebastian takes her to a club where some great old cats are playing. He offers an impassioned, critical appreciation, allowing her (and us) to appreciate what he loves about this music. 

There's an exhilarating opening flourish which appears to be a six-minute unbroken shot of a traffic jam (as illusory, it turns out, as Hitchcock's "one-take" Rope). Suddenly, blocked motorists exit their vehicles and begin to sing and dance up and down the freeway to a number called "Another Day of Sun." It's as full of the life force as Chazelle's models, a feat of contrapuntal, layered movement and music. It's our first indication that it wasn't only a good idea to make an homage to the direction of Stanley Donen, Busby Berkely and Vincente Minnelli, but that this guy's probably going to pull it off. It even makes you laugh. I was borne up, rarely to come down afterwards.   

Los Angeles should be in the credits, but not exactly playing itself. This is the mythic movie-LA. After the couple goes to see Rebel Without a Cause, they make a pilgrimage to Griffith Observatory, which becomes a stage for more dreaming and dancing. 

Chazelle's script is modeled on Hepburn/Tracy movies, with their sparkling screenplays penned by the likes of Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon (Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (Woman of the Year). He's also thinking of the great musical-comedy screenplays of Comden and Green (Singin' in the Rain). Their words thrill; his made me smile.  

Gosling/Stone's homage to the singing and dancing of Astaire/Rogers and Kelly/Charisse is more earthbound than those stars in our skies, of course. It's in a more vernacular key. Its wink to a more innocent age is done in an insouciant, humble spirit, not a wised-up one. On a darkened street in the Hollywood hills, they break out into a bit of tap and Gosling swings from a streetlamp. Then, refreshingly for 2016, they move as one, and Chazelle films them in old-school full-body shots. They're a pleasure to watch.  
 
The music, combining jazz and full orchestra, is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It's an arrangement modeled on great composer-lyricist teams: Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer (You Were Never Lovelier with Astaire/Hayworth); George and Ira Gershwin (Shall We Dance with Astaire/Rogers); and Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's songs for Frank Sinatra. I reckon he they were also listening to folks like Cole Porter (High Society with Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; You'll Never Get Rich with Astaire/Hayworth), Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. There's some Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim in there, as well.
 
The most unforgettable song, "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," belted out live by Stone, is about Mia's aunt who liked to dance in the Seine. It's an ode to the ones with their heads in the clouds. I will say it made me recall, fondly, another musical: The Muppet Movie and "The Rainbow Connection." A Venn diagram of my movie sweet spot would find it located where funny and sad overlap. La La Land's dart finds the bullseye with great exuberance.  

La La Land opens in select Chicago-area theaters on December 16.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

 

Saturday
Dec032016

Movement Material: Camera/Dance Works by Jeremy Moss & Pamela Vail and BEING 17 (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

Over at CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about a couple of this week's recommended film-going prospects. I've reproduced my writeups below. 

Movement Material: Camera/Dance Works by Jeremy Moss & Pamela Vail (New Experimental)
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) - Wednesday, 7pm

A collaboration between filmmaker Jeremy Moss and dancer Pamela Vail, this exciting 60-minute program of non-narrative, abstract films upholds the fine tradition in experimental cinema of exploring the role of the camera. In approaching Vail's moving body, Moss uses the camera (and montage) to play with time, space and motion, much as his avowed influence, and inventor of "chore-cinema," Maya Deren did in works like A STUDY IN CHOREOGRAPHY FOR THE CAMERA. If film's strength is its ability to transcend the limitations of performance on the stage, which must take place in real time and space, and its weakness the lack of the physical presence of the dancer, then this program gives us the best of both worlds: Vail will be performing live. (Moss will be there, too.) THE SIGHT (2012) vibrates and speeds over shifting lines, forms and colors, a decomposing Abstract Expressionist painting in flux. We catch fleeting glimpses of "the real world"—forest meadows—amidst eerie, distorted choral music. The dazzling, kinetic CHROMA (2012), silent, is a strobing full-color light show, using flickering cutting to manically manipulate the structure and tempo of Vail's dancing. Chromium (2012) is Vail's six-minute live performance. CENTRE (2013) shows Vail dancing in a warehouse, as Moss' camera repeats and cuts across her movements from differing angles and distances. In THAT DIZZYING CREST (2014), Vail dances through shadows to Chopin preludes. Her body becomes a figure in a nocturnal zoetrope of the soul. Tinting and weathering his 16mm images, Moss plays with grain, negatives, and contrast. DUET TESTS (2016) is made up of ten short films born of a five-day improvisation between the artists. In this program's best moments, the ancient art (dance) and the modern one (film) electrify each other, creating a kind of visual music. (2012-16, 60 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) SP
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More info at http://nightingalecinema.org.

André Téchiné's BEING 17 (New French)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

Septuagenarian André Téchiné, co-writing with Céline Sciamma (GIRLHOOD), has made an elegiac, honest coming-of-age film about two gay teenagers, set amidst the splendid changing seasons of the French Pyrenees. I can scarcely imagine an American film being this explicit and natural about teen gay sexuality. At first, though, the boys are at war at school, masking their fear of their own desire with hatred. Thomas (Corentin Fila) is a loner living on a farm in the mountains; the insecure Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives in the town below with his mom, a doctor (Sandrine Kiberlain, kind, frank, and merry). His father, an army pilot, is often away. On a house call, mom meets the farm boy's family and prescribes his pregnant mother a stay in the hospital in town. She invites Thomas to stay with herself and Damien in town, so he can be closer to his mother and to save him the two-hour walk to school through the valley, which he actually rather likes. (The valley is blue-white on a wintry eve, verdant in the summer sun.) As housemates, the volatile adolescents pummel each other while struggling to find the freedom to drop their defenses. The passionate young leads rarely hit a false note. Kiberlain brings to this film the same direct, very French matter-of-factness and humane compassion that made her such a memorable part of the ensemble in Alain Resnais' final film, LIFE OF RILEY. Precisely observant, getting physical with his characters' bodies, Téchiné at 73 still resonates with the life force and its joys and heartaches. (2016, 116 min, DCP Digital) SP

More info at www.siskelfilmcenter.org.

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