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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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The half-term school holiday is upon us once more, here in the UK, with the attendant jostling for space by films eager to snap up all that extra potential trade. Pole position is naturally held by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I note that Warner Brothers are wheeling out Wonder Woman this coming Thursday in order to take advantage of the last few days of the week. And, of course, there is the potential for counter-programming, which as far as family films go means smaller, quieter, more reserved fare, not backed by major corporations or fast-food tie-ins, films which the most bien-pensant sandal-wearing parents can take their tinies to see, even if those tinies are as yet too young to even understand a phrase as simple as ‘Stop kicking the back of my seat,’ even when it is said to them many, many times.

Doing quite well in my neck of the woods with this cute-but-exasperating crowd is Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, which is an animated Belgian-Japanese co-production (yes, I know what you’re thinking: oh no, not another one). The size and prominence of The Red Turtle‘s release is almost certainly due to the fact that the Japanese end of the deal is being handled by the legendary Studio Ghibli, beloved by art-house cinema proprietors up and down the country.

I have to say that for an organisation which announced it was ceasing operations nearly three years ago, Studio Ghibli is still cranking out movies with impressive frequency (although I understand this may be due to reports of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement proving to be exaggerated). Apparently, in this case, it was the Ghibli team who sought out Dudok de Wit with a view to collaborating, Miyazaki himself being impressed by one of his short films. Now that’s what I call getting the nod.

The Red Turtle is another one of those films seeking to get round the obstacle of not being made in English by not bothering to include any dialogue whatsoever – also known in these parts as the ‘boom-bang-a-bang’ theory of international cinema. The story, naturally enough, is a relatively simple one: the movie opens with a spectacular storm out at sea, at the heart of which a castaway is struggling to survive. Survive he does, and pitches up on a reasonably well-appointed desert island.

Having explored his new home and collected himself, the man decides to take his chances on a bid to return to civilisation, and builds himself a raft. However, shortly after leaving the island, he finds his fragile vessel deliberately smashed to pieces by an unseen force. This happens repeatedly, and our hero eventually discovers that the culprit is a large turtle of an unusual crimson hue. Angry and frustrated, the man returns to the island, and when one day he happens upon the turtle making its laborious way up the beach, he decides to eliminate the vindictive beast and the menace it poses to his liberty…

Now, here the story takes a rather startling and unpredictable left turn – unpredictable to anyone who isn’t a dyed in the wool fan of Ghibli movies, anyway. A lot of Ghibli movies look a bit trippy, in their own gorgeous way, but what it’s easy to forget is just how weird the stories virtually always are. Never mind being forced to work in a sauna for ghosts, there are films about juvenile starvation, aviation design, odd things you find in the bamboo, possible cases of sibling attraction syndrome, family ghost stories: the list goes on and on. Despite the fact it’s a co-production, the story of The Red Turtle stays proudly true to its Ghibli heritage by suddenly becoming exceedingly odd: the man and the turtle fall in love with each other.

This is not a euphemism or a metaphor or anything like that: the man and the turtle end up having a baby together (this sequence is quite delicately handled by the animators, thank God) – suffice to say the manly charms of our hero are sufficient to bring the turtle out of her shell (thanks everybody, I’m here all week). What can I say? I thought Gamera: Incomplete Struggle was the weirdest Japanese movie about a turtle with unusual faculties that I was ever likely to see, but of course I had reckoned without the supreme eccentricity of the Studio Ghibli script department.

Well, the story may be rather bizarre (and then some), but this is still a stunningly beautiful piece of animation. Quite what the Belgian creators are bringing to the mix is a little unclear – although I have to say all the human characters do look rather like Tintin the boy reporter – as this looks very much like any other Ghibli production you care to mention, incredibly naturalistic but also extremely beautiful and effortlessly charming (there are some very endearing crabs in this movie).

This is not some anthropomorphic fantasy, but a more measured piece about – I expect – the circle of life and the place of humanity in the world. There’s also a bit where someone nearly throws up while skinning a seal, which you don’t get in your typical Pixar movie. Does the story seem deceptively simple or is this just one of those movies which is operating on a number of levels? I’m not completely sure, but while I did find the story perhaps just a touch underpowered and by no means under-length at only 81 minutes, I found it very pleasant to watch throughout (once I’d recovered from how barking mad the central conceit is).

I suppose that in the end The Red Turtle is indeed a film which is a metaphor about life. You try to find your way through the turbulence of the world, perhaps a little haphazardly, and then you meet someone. You may not initially appreciate the connection you have with them. You may indeed find yourself moved to try and brain them with a chunk of wood and turn them into soup. But then the realisation dawns that you share a special bond, and one day the two of you slope off to some sleepy lagoon somewhere to fertilise some eggs together.  It’s the story H.P. Lovecraft would have written had he ever tried his hand at romantic fiction. Or maybe it’s just a metaphor suggesting that age-gap relationships can work out after all (turtles can live for over a century, after all). I’m not completely sure. This is an odd little film, but a superbly made and very relaxing one to watch.

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a movie you particularly want to see (for example, Logan), sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film you think you ought to see (for example, Moonlight, which I’m expecting to see this week), and sometimes you go to the cinema just because you fancy going to the cinema, not least because the pub next door does a good Sunday lunch (and a good job it was next door, given the horrendous torrential rain and hailstorms we had to put up with today). So it was that I ended up seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, yet more evidence that British film-makers (and, presumably, audiences) are endlessly fascinated by India, both historical and modern. This is a film with a rather anodyne title, belying the fact it deals with some reasonably heavy material.

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The main thrust of the story is focused on Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), nephew of the last Tsar, cousin of the Queen, war hero, and all around good egg. As things get underway Mountbatten is flying to India to take up the post of viceroy and oversee the transition to local rule. With him is his wife (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter (Pamela Travers). Mountbatten is a little upset because he had been hoping to go to Florida and become the (wait for it) Miami viceroy (ha! ha! oh, my sides).

The path to Indian independence is set to be a rocky one, given the cultural and religious divisions that the British have stoked up (one character observes that British Imperial policy seems to be divide-and-conquer, then divide-and-leave), and the country’s Muslim minority, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are agitating for their own state, Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh majority, led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), are set against this, and violence between adherents of the different faiths looms. Luckily, the Mountbattens have no time for this kind of intolerance, and indeed they happily include members of all religions amongst the legions of servants who wait on them hand-and-foot within the viceroy’s house (come on, guys, it’s more like a palace).

Now, you can’t these days make a film about the partition of India which is told solely from the point of view of upper-class Brits, and so the local side of the story is represented by the tale of young lovers Aalia and Jeet, played by Huma Qureshi and Manish Dayal (I guess Dev Patel must have been busy making Lion). She is a Muslim, he is a Hindu, and quite apart from the fact that she’s engaged to someone else, the difference in their religions is bound to cause them trouble.

All right, so there’s some interesting historical material here, but Viceroy’s House cops out of addressing it with any genuine rigour. ‘History is written by the victors’ is the first line of the film, which it goes on to disprove by depriving the Indians who won independence for their country of any meaningful role in the story. Even the terms of reference are suspect: ‘the British have been in India for three hundred years’ a caption informs us, making it sound rather like they’ve been enjoying an extended backpacking holiday rather than engaging in a military occupation. ‘You’re giving a nation back to its people!’ Mountbatten is told, the question of who actually took it away from them in the first place being rather skipped over. The British decision to leave is presented as an act of magnanimity, or possibly a consequence of the sacrifices made during the Second World War, rather than anything to do with the Indian independence movement.

Instead, we just get Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who are both thoroughly decent, working their absolute hardest to see the Indian people get the best possible treatment in a thoroughly inclusive way – Lady Mountbatten sacks her secretary for being a bit racist, then announces there will be more local food on the menu at official engagements from now on. (‘I spend all my life learning to make European food, and now she asks me for curry!’ cries the sous chef, periphrastically.) We are practically instructed to like these people, and feel for them when it all threatens to get a bit too much and their upper lips go a bit wobbly. (The last film I saw which went on about stiff upper lips as much as this one was Carry On Up the Khyber, not the kind of association I suspect the makers of Viceroy’s House were aiming for.)

The political aspect is not gone into in any depth, and even while watching the film you’re aware that complex historical matters are being whizzed through in a pretty facile way. The film’s overall position seems to be that partition was something of a historical tragedy (good luck on getting your film released in Islamabad!), brought about by devious British geo-political machinations, but even here it is painstaking in expunging the Mountbattens of any blame (like that really matters). There’s some strong stuff here (the man given about a month to decide on the border between India and Pakistan, played here by Simon Callow, had never set foot in India before, for instance) but it is not explored in any real detail.

Rather than this, the film opts to follow the Jeet-Aalia romance, which – in true Bollywood style – largely consists of long, longing looks, and the odd dance routine. To say this plotline is chocolate-boxey doesn’t begin to do justice to just how hackneyed and sentimental it seems, redeemed only partly by a fine performance from the late Om Puri as Aalia’s father. By the end of the film it has simply become cheesy, and almost absurdly so.

I was in the restroom after the film, attending to some pressing personal business, when I overheard a couple of other people discussing Viceroy’s House. ‘Very sanitised,’ said one of them, cheerily. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘but then as soon as I saw the director’s name I understood why, ha ha.’ I would love to think this was a reference to Chadha’s track record making fairly soft-centred crowd-pleasers such as Bend It Like Beckham, but I fear it was not the case. You still can’t beat a little casual racism, it seems, even when it doesn’t actually make sense – for while Viceroy’s House is indeed a true-story film which has had all the chewy historical bits sieved out of it, the real beneficiaries of this are the British characters, not the Indian ones.

There are a lot of good actors doing their best in Viceroy’s House, and the script does contain many amusing and interesting moments, and I can imagine this film will do rather well with audiences looking for a mixture of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown. I do think, though, that it’s trying much too hard to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, because the history at the heart of the story is grossly short-changed and over-simplified as a result. It is a hard film to dislike, but I’m not sure that means you shouldn’t try.

 

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Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.

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All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

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We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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