Lady Snowblood (1973)

This was originally written for The Black List’s “Essential Martial Arts Films” series. See here

Born in a female prison on a snowy winter’s night, Yuki Kashima is told by her mother, “You will live your life carrying out my vendetta.” The child has no choice in the matter. It is her destiny. Stray snowflakes fall on baby Yuki’s cheeks and the screen becomes awash with red. Lady Snowblood is born.

Yuki grows up to be a relentless assassin bent on avenging the death of her family; a woman whose sole purpose in life is vengeance, pure and simple. But this bloody vendetta is elevated to the level of visual poetry by director Toshiya Fujita. He creatively employs sophisticated narratives and gorgeous expressionistic photography to produce an impeccable balance of violence and beauty.

Lady Snowblood is fantastically played by Meiko Kaji, an icon of ’70s Japanese cinema, whose enormous ebony eyes perfectly convey the quiet ferocity, ethereal beauty and tragic reluctance of her character. We first encounter Kaji walking alone in the snow, primly dressed and twirling an umbrella. However, hidden within her umbrella is a samurai sword (a marvelous visual metaphor for her character as a whole); and when forced to use that sword, her snowy, pristine exterior instantly becomes covered in the blood of her victims. For this is a film in which blood does not ooze, drip or seep. It sprays — like a garden hose. Bright scarlet streams gush from the torn throats and severed limbs of Yuki’s targets as she hunts down those responsible for her family’s death.

The violence in the film is beautifully balletic. But it’s also messy and ultimately shown to solve very little. Yuki’s desire — or, more accurately, her need — for revenge only results in an endless cycle of carnage; a cycle wherein the only possible escape is through death.

Sadly, LADY SNOWBLOOD is still vastly underseen here in the west. However, its influence can be found in many places; perhaps most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino — particularly his own Japanese revenge saga KILL BILL VOL. 1. The style, themes and even cinematography of KILL BILL owe an enormous debt to Fujita’s original. Even LADY SNOWBLOOD’s theme song “Shura No Hana” plays over the end credits of Tarantino’s film. And the similarities between Yuki and Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii are especially striking — not just in appearance, but also in a fondness for gory, violent showdowns in the snow.

LADY SNOWBLOOD is a terrific piece of high-minded pulp — a martial arts movie that perhaps leans more towards the “arts” than the “martial”. But that does not mean it is any less entertaining. So do seek out this little rhapsody of revenge. Seek it out and savor the tale of a woman forever forced to tread the line between life and death — a woman who immaculately embodies the carnage of karma.

A Tribute to Jonathan Demme (1944 – 2017)

This piece was originally written for The Thin Air.  See here.

Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked by Criterion, the American home video distribution company, which three directors had influenced him the most. Anderson replied, “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme.”

Demme was one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation; and certainly one of the most talented. Few directors could shift as effortlessly between filmmaking styles – and as naturally between genres – as Demme, who dabbled fluently in comedy, horror, indie, drama and documentary. But, as well as being incredibly prolific, Demme was also enormously experimental with the medium, pushing cinematic techniques to new levels of sophistication and intelligence. He enhanced methods pioneered by the likes of Hitchcock, such as the use of subjective camera in The Silence of the Lambs, and he experimented with the documentary-style drama to great effect in films like Rachel Getting Married.

Demme is perhaps best known for directing the Oscar-winning masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. The film was a sensation upon release and immediately established Anthony Hopkins as a movie star. It also proved that Jodie Foster was one of the best actors of her generation – the plucky, precious kid who spent years out-acting every other adolescent on the screen was now a fully-grown woman whose talent showed no sign of letting up.

The Silence of the Lambs is an exceptionally directed film. It’s a fascinating example of a filmmaker ushering his audience into the mind of a killer – or, more importantly, into the mind of its victim. Demme is forever playing with the audience, forcing them to see the world through differing perspectives, messing with our expectations and sometimes even forcing us to empathise with one of cinema’s greatest villains: Hannibal Lector. It’s a disturbing film; one that astutely depicts a world in which women are objectified in almost every aspect of life, highlighted again through Demme’s genius use of camera subjectivity and POV. (The shot of Clarice Starling in an elevator chalked-full of posturing, physically-dominating men is, in many ways, emblematic of the whole movie.)

Perhaps what made Demme such an inspired choice for directing The Silence of the Lambs was that he cut his teeth working with the exploitation schlock master, Roger Corman. Corman was an early mentor to Demme and imbued in him a profound work ethic and a tremendous respect for populism – one of Demme’s greatest attributes, incidentally; and one that so often gets overlooked when we assess the merits of an artist. His crowd-pleasing mentality, and experience working in low-budget constraints, paved the way for Demme’s indie sensibility of the 1980s – a host of films that mixed the screwball charm of classic ‘30s comedies with the darker, brasher tone of Reaganite America.

This early period of Demme’s career bore some of his best work. Bittersweet films like Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob showed that he was a filmmaker marked less by stylistic trademarks and more by a certain charitable spirit; a generosity that highlighted his warmness and humanity even when his films delved into darker, more sombre subjects. Something Wild is a great example of this, and to this day is still one of the most underrated films of the ‘80s. It stars Melanie Griffith as the freewheeling Lulu who takes an uptight banker (played by Jeff Daniels) away on a weekend adventure. But all their fun and games subside when Lulu’s husband (a pre-Goodfellas Ray Liotta) finds out what they’re up to. The film is, in essence, a madcap sex comedy – but one with a much darker edge, always delivering its laughs against a subtler, more emotional subtext.

Of course, this early period of Demme’s work also helped establish his marvellous gift for music. Demme was a cinematic shapeshifter – a trait common among classic Hollywood directors of the studio era. Demme’s style, approach and technique continually transformed throughout his eclectic career. However, his remarkable ear for music was perhaps the one factor that remained a constant.

Music was to Demme’s films what suspense was to Hitchcock’s. It was indelible. It was inherent. And it was utterly indispensable. Demme and music simply went hand-in-hand. But this musicality was far from exclusive to his fictional work. Instead it extended all the way into documentary where it flourished to an extraordinary degree. In fact, as this Slate piece by Sam Adams argues, Jonathan Demme was perhaps our greatest director of concert films (although Martin Scorsese is surely in the mix as well). Justin Timberlake + the Tennesse Kids and Neil Young: Heart of Gold are both wonderful examples of Demme’s ability to deconstruct the concert movie and reassemble it into something new; something fresh – something wild.

But Demme’s greatest achievement in this genre (and maybe his greatest achievement altogether) was Stop Making Sense, a concert film about The Talking Heads. Were it not for Prince’s Sign O the Times or Scorsese’s The Last Waltz it might just be the greatest concert movie ever made. The movie opens with David Byrne on stage with an acoustic guitar while members of the band slowly assemble around him, as if props in a movie or pieces of set dressing – again, Demme here being very much interested deconstruction; stripping the band bare and then rebuilding it before our eyes. In a way, this deconstruction was similar to the approach The Talking Heads were taking with regard to their own musical influences around the same time.

After the back-to-back success of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme turned to television, documentaries and shorts – smaller, more intimate projects, generally, although his 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a notable exception. Like so many films of Demme’s career, Beloved is vastly underrated. It’s an admirable adaptation of a book that, like most genius works of literature, does not automatically appear to lend itself easily to the screen. But Demme here does a fine job, injecting the film full of gorgeously powerful images that help bring the novel’s beating pulse to the screen.

“Underrated” is a word that always crops up in a conversation surrounding Jonathan Demme. It’s a testament to his talent and body of work that, despite all of his acclaim and admiration, many of us still feel that a lot of his work is underappreciated. Late-period Demme is a prime example of this. Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering alcoholic who is desperately trying to make it through her sister’s wedding without going insane. The film features perhaps Anne Hathaway’s best performance to date, and the film’s aesthetic was very much inspired by Denmark’s Dogma 95 movement. The film is full of anxiety and distress, but, in typical Demme style, in its final reels it turns into a musical celebration; one wherein its characters find opportunity to dance away the dark. It’s a marvellous film, and one that deserves a larger audience and a wider acclaim.

Rachel Getting Married bears somewhat of a resemblance to Demme’s final fictional feature, Ricki and the Flash: a film about an aging wannabe rock star (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep), who attempts to reconnect with the family she once left behind to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dream. It’s a sharp, funny and surprisingly touching film that features great live music performances from its actors and a fantastic performance from Mamie Gummer as Julie, Ricki’s daughter (and Streep’s actual daughter in real-life). Like many of Demme’s films, the characters by the end are forced to reconcile with each other; to accept one another’s faults and perhaps find redemption therein. They have to face up to themselves and to each other – and, being a Jonathan Demme movie, that means having to face the music and dance.

Sweet Charity (1969)

This entry was originally written for The Black List as part of their “Essential Musicals” series. See here.

No director had a greater influence on ’70s musicals than Bob Fosse. When people think of Fosse they immediately picture Sally Bowles perched on a wooden chair with a bowler hat, showing off her long legs and her even longer lashes. But few, however, think of Shirley MacLaine dancing on a rooftop to the tune of “There’s Gotta Be Somewhere Better Than This.” All of which is a shame because this number, from his directorial debut Sweet Charity is an absolutely blissful slice of movie magic. And the film itself is one of the most underrated musicals you’re likely to see — worthy to be thought of alongside Fosse’s other musical masterpieces, Cabaret and All That Jazz.

Sweet Charity is an adaption of the stage musical of the same name — a show based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 masterwork Nights of Cabiria. Admittedly it’s an unusual premise for a musical. But, then again, many great musicals are based on things that seem to be — at least at first — a little unusual. (A hip hop musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, anyone?) Still, Sweet Charity is one of the most pleasurable musicals ever made. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s joyous, and it’s completely and utterly charming. And, on top of all that, it boasts a fantastic performance by the wondrous Shirley MacLaine as Charity, a ridiculously adorable dancer-for-hire who’s looking for nothing more than a little love and affection.

Every minute Charity is on screen, the film glistens. And MacLaine’s smile is one of the most infectious in all of cinema. (I dare you not to smile back at least once during this film. I double dare you.) Fosse is at the top of his game here, too — using practically every cinematic tool at his disposal to make a two and a half hour-long film feel as brisk as one of his own dance routines. Rarely has a first-time director exploded onto the scene with such vivre and panache. And rarely has a musical felt this fresh and alive. The cinematography, editing and choreography are all thrillingly experimental and give the film a truly exciting cinematic charm. For proof of this, check out the gorgeously composed Swinging Sixties number “Rich Man’s Frug.” It’s about as inventive as anything Busby Berkeley choreographed at the height of his career.

Sweet Charity deserves a wider audience. It deserves a wider acclaim. And it deserves to be in your life. So if you’re interested in Fosse — or just interested in musicals period — then I urge you to seek it out.

Go on… Be generous to yourself. A little Charity can go a long way.

Hidden Figures

NASA prides itself on showcasing the brightest boffins the world has to offer, all working together to push human endeavour beyond what was once thought possible. In “Hidden Figures”, the task is to put a man into orbit – something never before attempted – and then bring him safely back to Earth (the latter part proving to be the trickiest). But this is not the only task that NASA faces in “Hidden Figures”, which is based on the true story of the contribution African-American women made to the 1960s U.S. space programme. NASA also has to realise the corrosive effects of segregation and discrimination, and realise the enormous benefits – both moral and scientific – of giving women and people of colour a seat at the briefing table. From this, everyone benefits: women, men and science. And yet, no matter how daunting the task of safely putting a man into space is, solving institutional discrimination back on Earth sadly appears every bit as arduous – if not even more so.

This is partly what makes “Hidden Figures” such an interesting movie. It’s a candied (but candid) story of three African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s. They are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – all geniuses in their respective fields, continually having to work twice as hard for half the credit. NASA’s goal is to send a man into space before the Russians, which accounts for the dramatic stakes of the movie. As everyone knows, however, America loses this race – at least the first part of it. The Russians win the first leg by sending Yuri Gargarin into orbit in 1961, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Sadly, this won’t be the only time the Russians undercut an in-office Democratic president.

What’s interesting is that Russia in the early ‘60s was ahead of the United States not just in aeronautical terms, but also in giving women a chance to shine. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. America wouldn’t get round to sending Sally Ride into space for another 20 years. In Russia between the years 1962 and 1964, women accounted for 40 percent of all PhDs awarded in chemistry. Meanwhile back in the United States, that statistic was only at five percent. The irony of NASA’s endeavour becomes clear in “Hidden Figures”. NASA’s vision, as stated on its website, is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown”, claiming it does so “for the benefit of mankind.” Except, as “Hidden Figures” shows, in its formative years NASA did so by neglecting more than half of it.

As a film, “Hidden Figures” is a bit of a contraction; at least in its presentation. On the one hand it’s a very “Hollywood” movie. It hits all the feel-good beats, is a bit too formulaic and cheesy, but ends up being a really enjoyable, wonderfully rousing crowd-pleaser. But then, contradictorily, it also couldn’t be further from a typical “Hollywood” movie. The reason being, of course, that Hollywood rarely has black women at the centre of its films; let alone three smart, extremely capable black female scientists. What’s more, not only do we see these women as chalkboard superheroes and numerical ninjas, constantly displaying their mathematical prowess, but we also see them simply hang out, flirt and be themselves. They also do not engage in any stereotypical bitchy rivalry that a movie, such as this, would often necessitate. They are friends and they are supportive of each other’s progress; and we as audience members love being in their company.

The three central performances are all terrific. And each of the characters could easily have warranted their own standalone movie. They are an excellent on-screen trio, bouncing off one another’s distinguishing characteristics. The script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodor Melfi, however, is not striving for originality or artistic inventiveness. Therefore to criticise it for failing to do so seems harsh. Instead, “Hidden Figures” simply sets out to tell a remarkable story in a clean, entertaining fashion. And there’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a well-told story with a clear moral centre and a strong emotional payoff.

The second scene of the film is a great example of its crisp efficiency. It’s the scene where we first meet our three central characters. (In the first scene we see Katherine as a child prodigy, but this is the first time we see her as Taraji P. Henson.) The three women are by the side of the road after their car has broken down. We see Dorothy underneath the car, screwdriver in hand, trying to fix it. The rapport between the three women is immediately evident. They have wonderful chemistry together and the scene unfolds with a police car pulling up behind them, introducing tension (black women, white cop, the 1960s, the American South – not a welcoming combination). Not only does this scene brilliantly and efficiently establish these three characters – their mannerisms, their friendship, their differing personalities – but it also sets up many of the film’s themes as well. The three women use their talents to persevere in spite of their unfortunate circumstances. By the end, things are moving in the right direction and the women have gained enormous respect (albeit from those whose opinion on such racial and gendered issues matter a great deal less). As a visual metaphor, however, it’s clever storytelling; and it neatly encapsulates the film.

But there are moments when “Hidden Figures” feels like it goes too far. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, Director of NASA’s Space Task Group. He’s the sort of guy that doesn’t seem to care if you’re a man or woman, black or white. All he wants is for you to crunch the numbers and crunch them on time. But this leads to plot points that, although structurally significant, seem pretty implausible. For instance, Katherine has to endure endless belittling treatment from the Space Task Group: constant patronising, measly “coloured” coffee, and 40 minute bathroom breaks on account of the “coloured” bathrooms being half a mile away. Having stayed silent for so long, she finally speaks out. And, in doing so, gives Costner his big moment. Costner righteously grabs a crowbar (yes, a crowbar) and repeatedly whacks the “coloured bathroom’s” sign until it comes tumbling down… Couldn’t you have gotten the janitor, Kevin?

The film is full of little moments like this, although perhaps not quite as extreme – moments punctuated by the film’s sometimes annoyingly jovial soundtrack. Towards the end of the film, the creative licensing starts to creep in again for dramatic effect. But again, it feels too forced. There are too many characters running around with folders pressed to their chest trying desperately to pass them on to the right people before take-off. In reality, this wasn’t exactly the case. But then again, it’s a Hollywood movie… What’d you expect?

There isn’t a great deal of visually interesting storytelling going on in “Hidden Figures” – which is a shame considering how effective the rest of the storytelling is. However, one visual touch that works rather brilliantly (aside from Janelle Monáe’s killer outfits) is the way the film shows how out of place these three women are with respect to their surroundings. Almost everyone working at the high end of NASA is male. And they are all white. They all look white, and they all dress in white – that traditional mid-century office look of white short-sleeved shirt and tie. As a result, everyone at NASA looks the same. They all blend into one big white establishment. And the colour scheme of the interiors is also deliberately very muted and grey.

Now cue Taraji P. Henson entering this environment. She is a black woman, colourfully dressed, entering into a white male world. This immediately makes her the most striking thing on-screen. And every white head turns as she walks by. In doing so, her conflict at NASA is directly represented by the conflicting colours on-screen.

Most of the film revolves around Katherine’s point of view. However, Janelle Monáe risks walking away with the movie. Her character Mary was the first black female engineer at NASA, and shines every time she’s on-screen. However, Octavia Spencer has perhaps the hardest part to play among the three women. Her character Dorothy does not have the big emotional scenes that Katherine and Mary have. Hers are much more nuanced. But the relationship between Dorothy and supervisor Vivian Michael (played brilliantly – as one would expect – by Kirsten Dunst) is the most interesting relationship in the whole movie. It’s remarkably delicate given the film’s fairly unsubtle approach.

Vivian is a bigot. But Dorothy never lectures her or gets any big “movie moment” to set her straight. Instead their relationship plays out much more authentically; something which feels a lot closer to reality than any crowbar-swinging from Costner. One of the best scenes in the film is when Vivian looks Dorothy in the eye and earnestly says, “Despite what you think, I have nothing against y’all.” As has been evident throughout though, this obviously not true. But Dorothy does not lose her temper. Instead, she quietly and respectfully replies, “I know… I know you probably believe that.” It’s a brilliant, underplayed exchange – one that’s sadly still relevant to today as it was back then.

Despite its sugary delivery, “Hidden Figures” still manages to be wonderful entertainment. But what elevates it above most films of this sort is that it sheds light on a much larger issue. Not just in terms of Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans, but in terms of its representation of women too. When people think of NASA during the ‘60s, most do not picture black women contributing to its cause. Yet they did – significantly so. “Hidden Figures” is celebratory in tone, yet its lasting impression is to make one ask the question: How many more hidden figures are out there? How many more stories have yet to be told? How many more women that made significant contributions to science were forgotten or overlooked because of institutional sexism. The answer is, of course, plenty: women like Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burell, Lise Meitner and countless others – all of whom endured discrimination simply for being a woman; all having to put up with men exclusively being awarded for discoveries they were absolutely integral to.

“That’s just the way things are.” This line is heard over and over again in “Hidden Figures”, and is always directed towards black women by white people to justify racism. But the movie shows that accepting “the way things are” flies in the face of true scientific endeavour. For instance: man cannot travel to space. For millennia, that was just the way things were. But science challenges that notion. And “Hidden Figures” shows that that restrictive way of thinking benefits neither science nor the voices it chooses to neglect. NASA’s ultimate vision is to benefit all of mankind. But believing “that’s just the way things are” in situations involving blatant discrimination means that, no matter how many small steps man takes, mankind will never take a giant leap forward.

The Importance of Being Ernst

This week sees the 125th birthday of director Ernst Lubitsch. If you don’t know who that is, here’s why I think you should:

“Germans aren’t funny.” You hear this cheap crack all the time. A bunch of ruthlessly efficient, incredibly rational hardworking pragmatists – but ask them to tell you a knock-knock joke and you might as well be watching an Adam Sandler movie. In 2011, a poll was conducted in which more than 30,000 people from 15 different countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humour. Germany came out on top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it), thus furthering the stereotype that many countries appear to believe: that German comedy is no laughing matter.

Except that, like most stereotypes, it’s completely and utterly bogus.

I give you Exhibit A: Ernst Lubitsch – the man that, according to no less than Jean Renoir, “invented the modern Hollywood.” Lubitsch was a comic genius, an artist, a maverick, a sophisticate, and yes: a German. He was truly a man of infinite jest. And he made films of infinite zest.

The writing process can be a punishing one. Lots of writing can create lots of writhing. To aid this process, and act as a constant source of inspiration, the great Billy Wilder had a saying. While working on a given project, be it a film noir or a screwball comedy, he often asked himself the same question. So imperative was this question to his screenwriting process that he, in fact, had it mounted above his office door. It simply read, “How would Lubitsch have done it?”

Lubitsch was Wilder’s hero. Wilder once said that Lubitsch “could do more with a closed door than most directors could do with an open fly.” For Lubitsch, as Wilder well knew, was a supreme craftsman; and one that also enjoyed great commercial success in his day. He was the golden boy of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And his gilded sheen never dulled. Lubitsch specialised in witty, sophisticated comedies; often poking fun at the upper classes and those in power. As a director, he had an incredibly deft hand. His style was nimble and unexpected; sharp and refined; it was instantly recognisable, and always very funny. As a result of this gentle filmmaking flourish, his films were often marketed as having “the Lubitsch touch”.

The Lubitsch touch is a touch of class. It’s easy to appreciate; impossible to replicate. Instead, one can only bask in its sizzling, sunlit perfection: the subtle touch of an off-screen master. This can be found all over films like “Trouble in Paradise”, “Design for a Living”, “To Be or Not to Be”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, “Heaven Can Wait” and “Ninotchka” – all of which are some of the greatest American films ever made. And I believe Mr. Billy Wilder would thoroughly agree. (Speaking of Wilder, here he is talking about “The Lubitsch Touch” at the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar in 1976. Unsurprisingly, he explains it brilliantly.)

One of Lubitsch’s finest films is “Trouble in Paradise”, a delightfully dazzling Pre-Code rom-com about a gentlemanly thief (Herbert Marshall) and a crafty pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) that decide to con the famous perfume manufacturer, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). It is an extraordinarily flirtatious film. Its characters candidly flirt with one another for practically the entire running time. And the film candidly flirts with perfection. Like so many of Lubitsch’s films, it is crisp, breezy, superbly sophisticated, and every bit as exquisite as the day it was made.

Another Lubitsch masterpiece is “To Be or Not to Be”, a movie about a group of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw that get caught up in a plot to track down a German spy. The film stars Jack Benny as the star of a Polish theatre company, alongside Carole Lombard who plays his wife. Lombard was one of the century’s greatest comic actors, and this was sadly her last movie before her tragic untimely death. But Lombard’s death wasn’t the only thing seen as untimely. Released in 1942, the film, too, was greeted with cries of “Too soon!” The New York Times wrote that the film was “callous and macabre”, and it performed terribly at the box office. But today, “To Be or Not to Be” is seen as one of Lubitsch’s best works. And rightly so. It is easily one of the funniest films ever made and true testament to the genius of its director.

What made Lubitsch so special, among many things, was his sense of mischief. His films are littered with adult themes, hinted at through sly visual humour and witty, playful gags. But his films never ventured into smuttiness. If there is such a line that divides smut from genius, Lubitsch never crossed it. But, especially with the advent of the Hays Code, he did sometimes walk it. And for that, I will always love him.

So why does nobody talk about Lubitsch anymore? Is it so hard to acknowledge that a German is responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest comedies? German comedy is some of the greatest in the world. (Critical darling “Toni Erdmann” is one of the most acclaimed comedies in recent memory. And guess what – German.) Ernst Lubitsch was one of the most famous directors of the 1930s, yet today very few have even heard of him. It’s such a shame. Or, as the Tangerine Tyrant would say, “Sad!”

So this week, in honour of his 125th birthday on Sunday, stick on an Ernst Lubitsch movie. Stick it on and marvel at his German genius, his wicked wit, his supreme sophistication and, of course, that gloriously gifted, tremendously talented touch.

Ooh, La La

Warning: This contains some spoilers of “La La Land” and is best read after seeing the film.

Disclosure: I really, really like musicals. I love their Technicolor splendour; I love their gorgeous artistry; I love their unabashed joy and their heightened sense of tragedy. I love the costumes, the dance numbers, the elaborate set designs and the smart, witty dialogue. I get a ridiculous kick out of watching Fred and Ginger hoofing all over Art Deco sets, and I swoon like nobody’s business over Cyd Charisse using her legs the way a painter uses a brush. And the music – Ah, the music!

I La- La- love it.

The collaboration of song, dance and narrative storytelling amounts to a near perfect form of entertainment. And, in terms of cinema, musicals allow for the communication of a character’s internal thoughts – a genius way of getting around one of cinema’s biggest constraints, allowing characters to express feelings that dialogue never can. The songs, too, have the difficult task of having to propel the story, define characters and establish motivations; as well as being catchy and altogether musically interesting. In other words, it’s not easy. But when done well, there are few things like it.

And so, with that in mind, I come to “La La Land”, the new glitzy, glamourous musical from writer-director – and all-round whiz kid – Damien Chazelle. And if I’d fallen any harder for this film I’d probably have gotten a concussion. “La La Land” feels like it was made especially for me – every beat, every note, every nod, every frame. Remember that scene in “Sherlock Jr.” where Buster Keaton walks up to the screen in a movie theatre and literally falls into the movie? That’s exactly what I wanted to do while watching “La La Land”. I so desperately wanted to jump into the picture and dance in the purple-orange twilight with its stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

What can I say? I’m gaga for “La La”. It’s a gorgeous love letter to Old Hollywood, written in beautiful longhand and signed off with a ruby-red lipstick-marked kiss. It’s an ode to those that dare to dream – as foolish as they may sometimes seem. It’s a song to the hearts that ache; a raised glass to the messes we make. To the dreamers, the risk-takers, the romantic fools and the starry-eyed artists – here’s to them all. But “La La Land” is also a truly remarkable example of pure cinema – a trait shared by all great on-screen musicals. Many of the great movie musicals strike a balance between simplicity and complexity. And “La La Land” is a very simple story made with impeccable craft and extreme technical sophistication; but never so much so that it feels like it’s favouring technique over story.

Mia (played brilliantly by Emma Stone) is a young aspiring actress hoping to get her big break in Hollywood. But, due to the cruel nature of Hollywood auditions, we start to wonder what will happen first: will Mia break into the movies, or will the movies break Mia? After a string of cute encounters in which the pair start off hating each other (a little nod to the old Astaire and Rogers movies of the ‘30s), Mia eventually falls in love with Sebastian (charmingly played by Ryan Gosling): a gifted, if slightly snobbish, jazz pianist who dreams of running his own club. These may seem like characters from dozens of other musicals (and in a sense they are), but that’s partly the point. “La La Land” plays with traditional musical tropes and audience expectations; in a sense deconstructing “the musical” whilst always paying homage to it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have never been better than they are here. Their chemistry is undeniable. They feel like an Old Hollywood pairing. Sure, their dancing is not going to trouble the legacy of classic hoofers like Gene Kelly or Eleanor Powell, and their singing isn’t exactly Marni Nixon or Ethel Merman, but it’s not supposed to be. “La La Land” is trying for something different; something more authentic and “real” than pitch-perfect vocals and immaculately executed tap dancing. Their far-from-perfect skills highlight the pair’s adorable, bumbling humanity – ordinary people set against extraordinary backdrops.

This, I feel, is because the film is pitched somewhere between a classic MGM-style musical from the ‘50s and a more melancholic Jacques Demy musical from the ‘60s. This balancing act is also reflected by the film’s structure. The first half is very MGM. The second half is very Demy. Together they complement each other beautifully, wonderfully setting up the film’s finale – a stunning “An American in Paris”-style dream sequence that is, quite simply, one of the most rapturous pieces of modern American cinema I’ve seen in a long time.

The film owes an enormous debt Demy; particularly his masterpiece, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: a sumptuous, vividly coloured French operetta – and a film that boasts the best wallpaper in cinema history. No really, it does. But there’s also a little bit of “The Young Girls of Rochefort” in there too. (If you haven’t seen these two Demy films, incidentally, I urge you to check them out – particularly if you enjoyed “La La Land”. They really are spectacular.)

What “La La Land” manages to do so well – and why it works so well as a piece of cinema – is that it makes the camera (and, by extension, the audience) another dancer in the movie. Mandy Moore’s choreography is deliberately designed with the camera in mind. It gives the film a sophisticated fluidity that many modern musical films lack. In other words, it’s a film made by people who love and understand musicals – primarily Chazelle, a man that clearly adores Old Hollywood; evident by his littering of the film’s background with nods and references to (and even iconic faces of) classic American cinema. But, as represented by the closing of the Rialto cinema, and all the talk surrounding the death of jazz in the film, Chazelle is also keenly aware that the worlds of Humphrey Bogart and John Coltrane are sadly fading away.

The film’s cinematography, by Swedish DP Linus Sandgren, is exquisite. Almost all films are shot in colour these days. But very few films actually use colour to help tell their story. The colour palette of “La La Land” is beautiful, and is begging to be appreciated on the big screen. It was shot on 35mm, giving it that rich scintillating quality that only good old-fashioned celluloid can provide. And, coupled with the film’s ample use of the “magic hour” to capture L.A.’s famous dusky glow, it makes for a genuinely magnificent visual experience.

Colour is also an important aspect of wardrobe, of course. And the costumes in “La La Land” are glorious. Emma Stone’s beautiful flapper girl-style dresses change in accordance with the seasons. The changing seasons provide the structure of the film, but they also cleverly reflect the changes in Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. In winter, when they first meet, it’s a cute, but cold, encounter (lots of car horns and middle fingers). In the spring, however, their relationship takes root and starts to grow. In the summer, it is in full blossom. But come autumn, it starts to fall apart.

The irony of a seasonal structure is not lost on Chazelle, given that the film is set in L.A. – where sunshine is as common as palm trees and Priuses. This is delightfully addressed in the film’s spectacular “Winter” opening number, entitled “Another Day of Sun”: a stunning, one-take dance routine wherein the camera swoops and swirls all over a Los Angeles freeway. The film pokes fun at L.A. by incorporating the one thing all of its residents associate with the city – traffic. It takes one of the most famously irritating aspects of L.A. and turns it into a mesmerising, intricately staged singsong. I would call it a showstopper were it not for the fact that the show’s just getting started.

However, all of my soppy gushing over “La La Land” is probably best ignored if you don’t like musicals. The film is most certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste. In fact, due to all the adulation it’s been receiving, the inevitable “back La- La- lash” is starting to gain traction. Some of the complaints labelled against “La La Land” are worth noting, however; particularly this well-argued piece by Morgan Leigh Davies for L.A. Review of Books. And although I agree with many of the criticisms brought up, I still cannot, and will not, deny the giddy internal flutter I felt the whole way through this film.

As they say in “Guys and Dolls”: “So sue me.”

There’s a scene in the film where Mia is discussing her one-woman play with Sebastian and she’s worried that people mightn’t take to it. “It feels really nostalgic to me.” “That’s the point” says Sebastian. “Are people going to like it?” Mia asks. Sebastian looks her in the eye, grins and says “Fuck ‘em!” And with that, Chazelle is effectively telling his audience the same thing. If they’re not on board with the film, if they think it’s too nostalgic, too indebted to the past, or too sentimental, then, well, fuck ‘em.

And to be honest, when it comes to musicals, I’m siding with Chazelle on this. I tend to have zero time for people that don’t like musicals. If you’re the kind of person that watches “Singin’ in the Rain” and doesn’t feel like “laughing at clouds” by the end of the picture, or doesn’t “walk down the lane in a happy refrain” whenever the lights come back up, then I have nothing more to say to you.

People who don’t like musicals? Ugh – If I may slightly tweak a quote from Lina Lamont, “I cayn’t stand ‘em.”

There’s a moment in “La La Land”, not far into the film, where Mia and Sebastian are strolling through a film studio backlot discussing acting and jazz. They stumble across a movie set, beautifully lit and gorgeously arranged. Mia smiles blissfully, turns, and walks out of the frame. As she does so she lets out a nostalgic sigh: “Ah, I love it.” That tiny, beautiful little moment is how I felt the whole way through “La La Land”. You know… The sort of feeling that makes you want to grab an umbrella, leap on a lamp post and belt out “What glorious feeling; I’m happy again.”

The Best Films of 2016

2016 sucked. “I know it. You know it. We all know it”, as the Orange Menace said. Prince died, Brexit happened, and a petulant 70 year-old man-baby won the U.S. presidential election by lying, harassing women and gluing his finger and thumb together when he spoke. Beneath this man-baby’s (very) thin skin lies another, smaller, version of himself. And another one beneath that. And another. And another… It’s a common trait among Russian toys.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”. God. Remember last year when it was literally an emoji with tears of joy? Those were the days. Now it’s Samsung’s screaming emoji with a ghost flying out of its mouth.

In our new post-truth world, experts are seen as “elitist”, Nazis are called the “alt-right”, and the dissemination of fake news is a legitimate, real-life problem and not just some ominous plotline from a George Orwell novel. (The latter case being partly due to many red baseball cap enthusiasts getting their “news” from – shall we say – non-traditional sources? You know… renowned sites like batshitcrazyrightwingpropaganda.com and hillaryclintonisthedevil-nolikeliterallythedevilwithhornsatailandeverything.org.)

But that’s 2016 for you. It may perhaps become short-hand for “terrible” for years to come: “Dear God, the Greek salad over at Trump Grill was just awful. I mean it was, like, 2016-bad.”

Movie-wise, this year was a little better. Although I don’t think it was an especially stellar year. Sure, there were good films here and there, but, rather aptly, many of the best films I’d seen this year were in fact originally released last year. They just didn’t get round to opening in the U.K. until this year. And, in the strange, elusive tradition of movie distribution, most of the films that critics are calling the best of 2016 won’t come out over here until… yes, 2017. Among them are “Moonlight”, “La La Land”, “Silence”, “Toni Erdmann”, “Elle”, “Jackie”, “Manchester by the Sea”, “I Am Not Your Negro”, “Cameraperson”, “The Fits” and “The Handmaiden”. All of which I haven’t seen. And it’s killing me.

To be honest, movie culture in general was a bit up and down this year. Well mostly down. Sort of like the pound ever since 23rd June. Back in January there was anger at the Oscar nominations for being whiter than Donald Trump’s electorate. Then, in the spring, a bunch of sad, moaning misogynists started bitching about talented women starring in a “Ghostbusters” remake. ‘It’s just that “Ghostbusters” was such an important part of my childhood,’ they cried, failing to see that they were still living it, having never actually grown up.

The summer didn’t fare too well either this year. The U.K.’s economy started plummeting, Theresa May became Prime Minister, and people started to wonder whether they’ll soon have to add the word “Supremacist” in between the words “White” and “House”.

Annoyingly, however, the summer movies weren’t much of a saviour. Sadly they were really rather poor – so poor in fact that, along with meagre box office turnouts, it prompted many to ask the question that gets mandatorily chucked around every couple of years or so: “Are movies dead?” Well I, for one, sincerely hope not. But then again, what with all the nifty work Death has been doing with celebrities these days, one cannot be too sure.

Nevertheless, that all isn’t to say that there weren’t some wonderful films over the past twelve months. There were; each one, in its own way, reminding me why I adore the movies. And there were one or two films that proved to be simply sensational. Here are a few films released in the U.K. and Ireland this year (in alphabetical order) that, for me, made 2016 a little more bearable and a little less rotten.

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A Bigger Splash

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Sunshine, rock ‘n’ roll, sex and booze. Set in a picturesque volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, “A Bigger Splash” is about a mute rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Matthias Schoenaerts) having to entertain two unexpected guests in their Italian resort. The guests: a very loquacious Ralph Fiennes and a very salacious Dakota Johnson. Swinton commands the screen with her raspy whispering and cool-as-hell eye shadow, while Fiennes frolics about naked and never shuts up. The scene in which he dances in the sun to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” is a particular highlight. It’s a cool, seductive quasi-thriller that reeks of the cool, seductive sensibilities of 1960s European cinema.

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Anomalisa

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is a master. He’s a sort of geographer of the mind. He explores the human condition like no other filmmaker and presents it on-screen in the most lyrical, idiosyncratic way imaginable. “Anomalisa” is his latest project – and it’s another treasure. It’s a bitter-sweet tale of loneliness and the banality of existence gorgeously brought to life by incredible, intricate puppetry and sophisticated computer trickery. It’s both deeply moving and very, very human. And any film that references “My Man Godfrey” with as much wit as Kaufman does here is a win in my books.

Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq

Dir: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is one of the most original – and one of the most daring – films of the year. It’s a messy, sprawling update of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”, re-appropriated to Chicago’s modern-day violent south side – with dialogue almost exclusively in verse. It’s a commentary on gang violence in America, but also on the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and feminism. It’s been a while since a Spike Lee joint was this bold, this boisterious, this sexy, and this urgent. (For full review, see here.)

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Creed

Dir: Ryan Coogler

“Creed” is a rousing reboot/sequel/spin-off of the Rocky franchise. Coogler’s film comes out fighting, throwing all the right japs and landing every punch. It’s a brilliantly directed and wonderfully acted film; but one that’s thoroughly and unashamedly a “Rocky” movie. It boasts all the boxing clichés (the training montage, the step climbing, the “I gotta prove myself” narrative) but it does them all so incredibly well that it never matters. It’s old school storytelling done with contemporary style. And it’ll stir your emotions like few other films this year.

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De Palma

Dir: Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

This documentary about filmmaker Brian De Palma – the enfant terrible of the ‘70s Movie Brats – proved to be one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences of 2016. I spent most of the doc simply swooning over De Palma’s craft, thinking to myself, “God, movies used to look like this.” How can you not when you’re greeted with clips of “Carrie”, “Blow Out” and “Carlito’s Way”? (Not to mention the Hitchcock films that inspired him.) This is a rare opportunity to see the man himself discuss his work. And he and his career make a strongly compelling subject. Essential viewing for movie nerds.

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Divines

Dir: Uda Benyamina

This fiery French flick from director Uda Benyamina concerns two Muslim teenage girls that start selling drugs for a local gangster to escape the horrors of poverty and the emptiness of school. The girls, Dounia and Maimouna (fantastically played by Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena), are a pair of defiant, determined rebels from the Parisian slums – rebels that dream of living the high-life. They are often seen swaying, flicking imaginary bills from their palms, shouting “Money, money, money!” Together they make the sweetest, most heartfelt on-screen duo of the year. The film will charm you, move you, and devastate you.

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Green Room

Dir: Jeremy Saulnier

I saw this film at the Belfast Film Festival way back in April. I saw it with a packed audience, all geared up and eager to see what Jeremy Saulnier’s latest has in store. Would it pack a punch? Would it be as gripping as “Blue Ruin”? How is Patrick Stewart going to fare playing a neo-Nazi (ahem, sorry – “member of the alt-right” blah, blah, blah)? The answers were as follows: “Yes”, “Yes” and “With terrifying effectiveness.” “Green Room” is a smart, gnarly film about a rock band battling a gang of white supremacist punks in the American Northwest. It grimly depicts a world where neo-Nazis emerge from the shadows and take up arms for battle – in hindsight, a sad, prophetic signal of political things to come.

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The Hateful Eight

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

This sprawling, claustrophobic western from Tarantino proves that he’s still one of the best filmmakers around. It’s a great example of a modern director understanding and exercising sheer cinematic craft. Aside from your Spielbergs and your Scorseses – who are maybe the best in the world at it – more often than not you have to look to the Far East for contemporary examples stellar craft (see Wong Kar-wai, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho). But Tarantino can hold his own. His camera becomes another character in his films. And, in “The Hateful Eight”, his camera follows a group of resentful, despicable characters all cooped up in a tavern during a bitter snowstorm. But duplicity and (inevitably) bloodshed are on the horizon.

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The Invitation

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Possibly the most disturbing film of the year. Karyn Kusama’s brilliantly pessimistic film about a dinner party gone wrong has remarkable parallels with today’s political climate – and not in a fluffy, everything’s-going-to-be-all-right kind of way. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay is smart, darkly funny and extremely tense. It wonderfully captures the aching sense of paranoia in a way that only the best screenwriting can. It also contains one of the most memorable final shots of any American film in years.

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The Neon Demon

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

This hypnotic, gorgeously shot feature from Nicolas Winding Refn stars Elle Fanning as an aspiring model looking to break into the L.A. fashion scene. But, being a Refn film, the plot isn’t important. Visual metaphors and vividly rendered symbolism are where his interests lie. And boy is it vividly rendered. Argentine cinematographer Natasha Braier frequently captures her subjects bathed in a devilish neon light – deliberately aloof characters that stiffly stare into space like shop window dummies, revelling in their own icy narcissism. It’s convulsive, it’s pulsating – it’s part satire, part black comedy – and the whole thing feels like a particularly beautiful (but also particularly horrible) dream.

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Sing Street

Dir: John Carney

An unabashedly joyous film from Irish writer-director John Carney, the man who brought us the 2006 indie musical “Once”. “Sing Street” revolves around a 14 year-old kid in 1980s Dublin who forms a band to escape the miseries of school life and the splitting up of his parents. But it’s also to impress a girl. (Actually, it’s mainly to impress a girl.) The songs are glorious little pop records, incorrigibly accompanied by the band’s amateur attempts at making their own music videos. If this film doesn’t leave you smiling, you have no heart. It’s that simple.

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13th

Dir: Ava DuVernay

This DuVernay documentary draws fascinating parallels between the mass incarcerations of African-Americans in the U.S. to the 13th Amendment of the nation’s Constitution. More specifically, it argues that a clause within the 13th Amendment (which prohibits slavery in the U.S.) stating “except as punishment for a crime” allowed for the lawful continuation of slavery into the 21st Century. The doc forces us to take a deep look – or rather, a long, hard stare – at the history of the American prison system, and how it is – and has always been – a direct reflection of the country’s history of racial discrimination.

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Victoria

Dir: Sebastian Schipper

The tagline of this film pretty much sums it up: “One girl. One city. One night. One take.” The girl is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who gets involved with a few local guys on a night out. The city is Berlin. The night is one in which the boys are told they must commit a bank robbery to appease a local crime boss – and Victoria slowly gets sucked in. The one take is a gimmick, but it’s pulled off with incredible skill and becomes remarkably effective. It’s employed because the story necessitates it, making the film more than just an impressive technical achievement.

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World of Tomorrow

Dir: Don Hertzfeldt

This animated short became available on Vimeo back in January, roughly the same time it became available to stream on Netflix in the U.K. It’s about a little toddler, Emily Prime, who is taken on a tour of her own distant future by Emily, a future version of herself. It’s barely 17-minutes long, yet it packs more creativity, more insightfulness and more laughs into those 17 minutes than pretty much any other film this year. Developed by the wickedly talented Don Hertzfeldt, it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a true marvel of animation. It may be slight, but, for me, it’s probably the film of the year.

A couple more certainly worth checking out: “The Nice Guys”, “Don’t Breathe”, “Love and Friendship”, “Hail, Caesar!”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, “Hell or High Water”, “The Witch”.