La La Land. A New Golden Age?

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The Sloth’s two most hated films genres are: 1) Musicals 2) Romances. While the rest of the world swoons at the Golden Age of Hollywood, going gooey over Fred ’n’ Ginge, swishy dresses, big band ‘numbers’, you’ll find The Sloth revisiting the Trainspotting ‘Worst Toilet In Scotland’ scene. La La Land is a musical romance. Oh joy.

No prizes for guessing La La Land is set in LA.  It opens with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a somewhat precious jazz pianist and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, stuck in their cars in traffic on the freeway. But this isn’t any ordinary traffic jam. Drivers have emerged from their vehicles in a rainbow of brightly coloured outfits to burst into song and dance in what yes, is best described as a ‘number’.  Not sharing in the festivities, Sebastian honks his horn at Mia who glares frostily back at him.

A few days later Sebastian is grumpily playing Christmas songs to punters in a posh restaurant. Till he throws a hissy fit, launches into one of his own compositions and is promptly sacked, just as Mia walks in. Later still, they meet again at a party, Sebastian now grumpily playing keyboards in a cheesy 80’s covers band to Mia’s sarcastic delight.

No prizes for guessing they get together, united in their ambition to make it big in the City of Dreams. We follow the ups & downs of their relationship and careers as they suffer set backs and breaks in equal measure, sprinkled with a liberal dusting of song ’n’ dance numbers. And that is pretty much it.

We LOVED this film. Absolutely LOVED it. What should be a vomit-inducing cheese-fest is pitch perfect sweet, light and endearing, filled with guileless joie de vivre from start to finish. A lot of this is credit to the clever casting decision of taking leading actors who can sort of sing and sort of dance, making the whole thing feel altogether natural and not over-polished. Add in The Gosling’s recently discovered deadpan comic ability and you have an absolute winner. Role on awards season, it’s about time a proper good ‘un swept the board.

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Birdman. Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance

birdman-clickWhy are briefs such a comical undergarment when displayed on the male form? Put them on any man and they are instant shorthand for ‘pathetic’. A point not lost on the director of Birdman.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor. In his prime he starred as ‘Birdman’, a movie superhero popular with audiences but disparaged by critics. Like most Hollywood egos, Riggan’s is fragile and the years of critical condemnation have done their damage to his mental state. Depressed and prone to hearing the cantankerous, disembodied voice of his ‘Birdman’ alter ego, Riggan is attempting to claw back some credibility by directing and starring in a Broadway play.

For a successful play you need a great star so Riggan is hiring the preening, volatile, acclaimed method ac-tooor Mike (Edward Norton), plus needy supporting actresses Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Add to his plate a daughter Sam (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab and waspish theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who has the knives out for Riggan and you could say he’s feeling somewhat stressed. Can Riggan pull his cast, and himself, together to make sure it’s all right on the night? Frankly, it’s not looking good…

Set in the theatre in the run up to opening night, Birdman is a phenomenally clever piece of filmmaking. After a while (Sloths are slow animals…), we realised most of the film is evidently one long, continuous, real time tracking shot. The handheld camera wanders the theatre corridors, emerges onstage to capture a rehearsal, follows an actor exiting off stage, whirls around to enter a dressing room.  We simply couldn’t spot where (surely) one take ended and another began. But this is no realistic docu-drama, rather it’s surreal, darkly comic, satirical and often touching, largely down to Michael Keaton’s tremendous performance – it’s no stretch of imagination to spot the parallels between Riggan’s career and Keaton’s own. To take on a role partially satirising yourself must take courage.

Oh, and the briefs? At points both Ed Norton and Michael Keaton gamely parade themselves in their smalls and yes, both look pigeon-chested, bandy legged, scrawny limbed idiots.  Gentleman, for that alone, The Sloth salutes you.

UK release 1 January 2015

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