They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

Originality.  What is originality? For starters, it’s an idea.  A unique idea that tackles different subjects in a unique, personal way.  This year in particular has been a blessing to original movies such as Elle by Paul Verhoeven, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and even Everybody Wants Some!! by Richard Linklater.   We live in an age where indie movies rule the awards’ shows and rock the box office.  Manchester by the Sea, this year’s heartbreaker is racking up awards and it was produced by Amazon (!).  But I’m here to talk about a movie that has been on my mind ever since I saw it twice in the theater: LA LA LAND, ladies and gentlemen.  The best movie of 2016.  A movie so fresh, so vibrant, exciting and original that you just want to embrace it and kiss the screen.  At least, that was me when the credits rolled.  Should you see it? Yes. Don’t like musicals?  See it, won’t be a problem.  Why?  Here we go;

Musicals have shaped the way we understand music in cinema.  Musicals allowed viewers to contemplate beautiful set designs and jaw dropping dance sequences in movies such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Guys and Dolls.  Their favorite stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, were given the opportunity to showcase their full range of musical talent and when their movies hit the theaters it was a huge show.  But eventually the whole formula wore down by the end of the 60s.  Probably the last successful musical (and it was very unexpected at the time) was the best picture winner of 2002, Chicago.  Then everything felt silent until a couple of years ago with the release of the atrocious remake of Annie, which failed both critically and commercially.  Now, two years later, almost three, and La La Land is in pole position to win the Oscar for best picture of the year.  And why is that?  Why does all of a sudden a musical out of all the brilliant films that came out this year (Silence, Sully, Arrival, Moonlight, Hell or High Water, De Palma; Hail, Caesar! among many many more) come out on top with critical acclaim and financial success?  After all it’s Damian Chazelle’s only second feature film (after the thrilling and just as successful Whiplash) and it doesn’t contain a star studded cast like Chicago did.  Sure, the two protagonists are played by two of the biggest stars of modern day Hollywood but a musical by definition stays a musical and people nowadays are very reluctant toward such an ‘old fashioned’ genre. BUT don’t listen to them. La La Land is a film that uses the musical side in order to make the love story more profound. It doesn’t rely on it. It uses it. Music, in fact, is a perfect instrument, which, if used properly, can play a big role in the delivery of a movie’s message.  We all saw how brilliant Damian Chazelle was in using music in Whiplash as the centerpiece of the story without making it unbearable for us to cope with.  Music was the engine of Whiplash and the reason for the characters’ development.  It inspired and terrorized Andrew (Miles Teller) and eventually made of him an obsessed monster just as it had done years before that with the cruel Mr. Fletcher (JK Simmons).  Now, La La Land, as the title suggests, is a movie about dreams, about confronting fantasy with reality, and about the cost of love and the sacrifice that goes with it.  The two main characters, Mia and Sebastian, represent today’s hidden youth. I say hidden because these are authentic people, who have real interests, needs and ambitions.  They want to live and want to live their lives without anyone telling them as to what to do, something that is rarely seen among today’s young generation.  Music expresses their existence.

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Music is reason. A representation of life.

So why is it so fresh and exciting?  Because it is not a coming-of-age story, it is not a melodrama, it is not a chick-flick, and it is not a comedy.  It is an achievement built on pure love for cinema.  Chazelle, 32, and already one of the very best in the business with a bright future ahead of him, paints the screen with beautiful images that make us recall the old movies, the experience of seeing the film on color and sound, with a rich palette (shot on breathtaking Cinemascope lens), that ranges from dark purple to light red and an endless sea of blue.  It is a celebration of filmmaking. It opens with a musical piece accompanied by an astonishing tracking shot that covers an entire lane on the LA motorway with dancers and stuntmen giving it their all and setting the tone for the rest of the film.  It’s there and then that we meet both characters and we immediately understand what kind of people they are; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a young man who loves Jazz and demands the best out of himself, and then Mia (Emma Stone), a pretty and goofy girl who loves acting more than anything in the world.  They find themselves in similar situations; they are hungry not for success but for personal glory, the feeling of accomplishment, of doing something that they like and that sets them apart from the average Joe with a suitcase and a shirt and tie.  They want to prove themselves. Sebastian’s goal is to save Jazz and Mia’s desire is to express what she’s been bottling up her whole life.  And that is why the use of music is essential.  When the music takes over the true faces of these two young people appear before us and demand our attention.  Their dancing and singing is how they communicate and bond.  At first there isn’t much to their relationship but soon they become lovers of a whole new generation.  They are honest and they fight through a shitstorm of bureaucracy, rules and social norms. Together they become the modern day couple and as we follow them fall in love, we come to the point where we realize that their love is beautiful precisely because it comes at a price and decisions have to be made.  I won’t say much more than that.  Go see it.  All I can say is this; with two breathtaking performances given by two amazing actors, who remind us of the great pairings of the 50s such as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the direction of a young man who understands music, its power and significance not only in cinema but in real life too, and treats the history of the silver screen with maturity and respect, this musical tackles the subject of dreams, passion, desire and the fragility of love with incredible subtlety and experience.  It doesn’t push its message and it doesn’t try to sell it either.  It is similar to a painting; it allows you to see things only you can see in your own, personal way.

That’s originality.

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Love in motion and color.

A Bucket of Sorrow

Today’s topic: the death of the American Dream in O Brother Where Art Thou. There have been countless movies dedicated to the glorious understanding of the term “American Dream”, movies that won plenty of Oscars such as the legendary tale of a simple man who turns into an all star boxing champ in Rocky or even the story of greedy Wall Street businessmen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The audiences clearly from the very beginning wanted to envision something so distant, so unreachable for the most part of the public: rise from nothing and either win everything or end up in the gutter. This concept was already born back in the early 1950s: the age of making business, living in suburbs, driving your own car, having  preferably a four member family and breathing fresh air. So why isn’t Hollywood interested in showing that this “dream” is for the most part a simple illusion created by day-to-day advertisement, dirty politics and irrational thinking? Well, because Hollywood used to and still does up to this day produce what the public wants to see and believe. That’s why it takes a duo of brothers to abolish the idea that everyone loves. I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan.

Three criminals on their way to stardom.
Three criminals on their way to stardom.

The brothers from Minnesota are part of the last generation of writer-directors independent from the Hollywood way of filmmaking; they have their own style, their own set of rules and ideas, their own language and tone and something that is extremely rare in today’s movies – originality. Their voices resonate in a world where everything must obey someone or something. With the Coens the viewer never really knows what he’s about to watch – be it the story of a husband who plans to kidnap his wife for ransom money in Fargo or the story of a pacifist stoner who investigates the disappearance of a millionaire’s wife in The Big Lebowski, the two writer-directors have never stayed on the same track. The same thing happens when we watch O Brother Where Art Thou, the tale of three prisoners trying to find their way to a hidden treasure in 1930s Mississippi. In this 2003 Oscar nominated picture, we’re given all the realities of the American South, and not only. The brothers intend to present us the main problems revolving around race, money, corruption, the musical scene and human intellect that are still relevant up to this day and age on a worldwide scale.

Chances come and go.
Chances come and go.

Labeled as a comedy, the film starts off with the sound of hammers beating on rocks, the voices of black prisoners chanting; we open up to a chain-gang. Hundreds of prisoners slamming their hammers against the dusty ground, guarded by armed deputies, under the heavy sunlight, dressed in plain striped uniforms, singing. The sepia cinematography by  master Roger Deakins is used here to make us reflect on the whole situation right from the opening: prisoners, guards, in colour they’re all the same, it’s the politics that divide them. One holds a sledgehammer, the other a loaded rifle.

The contradictions.
The contradictions.

When the three protagonists – Everett, Delmar and Pete – escape the chain-gang and manage to find shelter at Pete’s cousin’s house we’re presented with another problem; poverty. The three feast on a tasty dinner made of delicious horse stew – only problem is Pete’s cousin couldn’t afford anything else than the corpse of his rotting dead horse. And when the law enforcement comes looking for the three ex-cons, Pete’s cousin rats them out. Poverty, in a world where only the supreme and powerful have a say, leads to betrayal. Anything for money, for a hot plate, a cup of coffee, anything. Even your own cousin’s life. But that’s not the end of it. The boys, after successfully escaping a wave of other mishappenings, stumble into Baby Face Nelson (one of the most ruthless gangsters of the 30s America). They witness  the madman driving a fast running car, shooting whatever his eyes catch – be it police cars or cows. And yet, when the day comes to an end, and the four men find themselves around a bonfire, resting, Baby Face Nelson melts down; from a murderous criminal he turns into a frightened child. And like that, he says goodbye to the gang and walks away, looking down, almost crying. The Coens write their characters with the highest number of contradictions they can come up with, and yet they still manage to leave these characters with a sense of humanity, and make them as realistic as possible; because they know, unlike most directors and screenwriters today, that people are not one dimensional. Even a feared gangster can still be a man deep down his soul, since there is no such thing as a lost cause in the Coens’ book, anything’s possible.

There are no straight paths.
There are no straight paths.

When Delmar and Pete jump into the river to wash away their sins, we get a taste of human naivety and innocence. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, chanting “Oh brother let’s go down! Let’s go down to the river!” make their way through the thick bushes and twisted forest branches, finally stepping into the cold water of the Mississippi. It’s as if we’re witnessing a passage from the Holy Book, and indeed we witness a religious procession; salvation. Everett watches in disbelief as his two pals run to the priest, who helps them wash away their sins. The two prisoners believe it, the other hundred members believe it, a whole nation believes it. Or maybe they just wish they could believe it. The Coens want the audience to question the different point of views: who’s right? Everett for despising the religious act of salvation? Or Delmar and Pete for being so naive as to think that their criminal past could be forgotten with a simple splash of water? We even get to judge their choices when they’re confronted by a trio of beautiful sirens; like in Homer’s Odyssey, the gorgeous creatures lead the men to lose sight of their objective, slowing down the gang’s mission.

Fantasies can easily seduce you.
Fantasies can easily seduce you.

No worries. The Coen bros move when they know the territory. Who other than the Coens would have the guts and brains to write a State Governor candidate as the prime member of the local Ku Klux Klan? It’s a kick in the face to all those who think politics can be run honestly, all those who think that a good man can be a rich man. Fairy tales are for children. Here, the candidate running for Governor’s office organizes a private lynching of a black folk musician. The very man who wishes to run one of the largest states in the US hums to the drum roll’s rhythm, lights a crucifix and reaches out with a rope in his hand. If you think about it, the Coens’ crazy fantasy can be considered terrifying reality. Food for thought.

Governor's ball.
Governor’s ball.

The music. The music is the movie. Be it swing, country, folk, jazz, work songs, the music in O Brother tells the journey of the characters. The songs contain countless stories of spoiled politicians, prisoners having to work all day long, struggling musicians, devoted believers and starving farmers. The Coen brothers use music as a flashlight for the viewer, for him to find his way out of this messy, bizarre tale of men seeking a fortune… that in the end is not the fortune they seek. Their music describes the pain and suffering of a whole world, which keeps on dreaming, believing fantasies and apparitions. There is no American Dream within this music, nor within this life. And like that, with a simple comedy we’re taught what we’ve been always ignoring.

Be your own shepard. Dream later.

Finding the right track.
Finding the right track.