There’s a reason why Moonlight (2016) won last night at the Oscars, even after the result was fudged up by Faye Dunaway and her old pal Warren Beatty did their best during the biggest blunder of the ceremonies 89 year history. Even before the result was corrected on the stage that saw the award go to La La Land (2016) I knew in my heart that it should have gone to admittedly the stronger of the two films – Moonlight. I’d like to use this as my argument for why it should and rightly so have been awarded Best Picture.
At first I wasn’t really fussed by seeing the film, know it was something special. It took reading and listening reviews for me to change my mind and check it out. A 3 act film that follows one Black guy from child to manhood, not so different on the surface they have been urban films before, but none that tackle homosexuality and so sensitively too. A social urban film that doesn’t play up to the stereotypes of African-Americans for a white audiences. Its story is ultimately human which has allowed it to transcend the barrier of colour. The humanity in La La Land’s restricted within the confines of a couple who are striving for their own dreams. Far more selfish than most those in Moonlight. Maybe it’s that we follow Chiron played by three different actors allowing us to spend so much time with him, it’s far more intimate.
La La Land is essentially a love letter to Hollywood by the machine that produced it, a musical that loves musicals. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, however it feels constructed with the intent to win votes for last night. I know that’s not the case, with a release and campaign doing that job for the film. With Moonlight the love is for the a hard-won emotion that Chiron who begins his journey with us under 10 as Little (Alex R. Hibbert) a cute and shy kid who has far more on his mind than most kids. Picked on for being different, but why is he different, at his tender age he begins to look in on himself to consider he maybe gay. Supported ironically by drug lord come mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) (who rightly won best supporting) who is the cause of Little’s mum Paula’s addiction. Herself played by a dazzling Naomie Harris who filmed her scenes in 3 days in between promotion for the latest Bond film.
You feel nothing but sympathy for Little’s struggle on the street, at school, at home and with his own identity. Finding strength in his young friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) who we follow also throughout Chiron’s life. All you want to do is reach into the screen and hug the little man who has so much to deal with and nowhere to turn. Juan is the only father figure in his life, who is not wanted by Paula as we later learn.
Moving onto high-school and we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes) the teenage Chiron whose grown slightly in confidence, yet still painfully shy. Still friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who will play a pivotal role in Black’s sexuality and future. As we have seen before in film, high-schools harsh world for some, filled with social pressures to conform as you leave childhood to become adult. You really get a sense of the angst that has been building up before it explodes after a fight on the playground that pits friends against each other. It’s nothing short of being a painful watch for the audience. In a way you see it coming, all the pent-up rage being unleashed after a moment of tenderness’s matched with one of betrayal before violence follows.
The final act sees an incredible transformation for Chiron (Ashton Sanders) who is now a drug dealer, beefed up and wearing bling to suit the life he has fallen into. On the surface it gives him power and confidence on the streets, no one questions him, the fear he can incite into those below him. It takes a few minutes to realise this is the same guy who we saw only moments ago. We are also bang-up-to-date in terms of period. La La Land does have a character transformation with that clever and controversial twist. Here in Streets of Atlanta, Georgia you could say Chiron has come full circle, taking on the role of his once father figure who took him under his wing. Yet its all a facade that takes one phone call and two visits to his mother and Kevin.
The last third sees everything come to a close, making sense of what has just happened, he’s come so far yet has not developed emotionally to have a romantic relationship, too insecure, too damaged by his past and his position prevents him from being truly happy. Very different to Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) who made personal sacrifices to fulfill the creative ambitions, their dreams come true at great cost to each other. In Miami and Georgia reality is against Chiron, his economic, family, social and sexual background are not in his favor. Its a much richer, human drama that wipes the floor with La La Land, which is a completely different film.
Now does this show a change in Oscar voting and ultimately American films, or is it simply a fluke that 3 Black films had prominent nominations in multiple catergories. For me, its a good start to see a much more varied mix of films to enjoy and celebrate, different stories to tell and share with audiences. It’s really too early to tell if this progress is here to stay or just simply lip service, lets hope this year sees more progress, more diversity whilst still exciting stories to
To put this film into perspective, the hype and buzz around La La Land (2016) which I caught last night at The Phoenix in Leicester, we decided to book ahead and eat before we went in to see the film, my first cinema outing of the year. My friends and family have grown towards this independent cinema in recent years because it’s a better atmosphere, different films that you wouldn’t get less than a mile away at the multiplex. Probably the busiest night at The Phoenix and we weren’t the only ones to say that. We had to queue for food, that’s before being told of the 40 minute wait for it to arrive. We had to sit on separate table for a time, yes it was that busy it was grab or share table. I can’t fault the staff, some of whom I know, which took it all their stride and carried on, it was just another night, but it wasn’t, this was next to possible Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) proportions, it was packed in that little two screen cinema that delivered the food just before the film was to begin, assured that we wouldn’t miss the film before the end of the adverts, which shows how confident they are at The Phoenix. In short I was impressed with how this big film on opening night was handled by my local independent. We had our dinner down and only missed a few minutes of adverts before going into a packed screening of one of the most uplifting films in a long time.
We begin in a traffic jam of one our L.A.’s busy highways, nothing unusual there until the camera stops on one of the drivers, whose already singing, the tones being set here in this first number, it’s both light carefree and uplifting, taking us away from the world for if only a 2 hours. The dancers are full of life and the Eastern sunshine, yes I’m comfortable, ready to be taken along for the journey. I also noticed an older couple, not so nimble on their feet, that didn’t stop them from also being part of this random event on the highway. We stay there for one quick scene where we meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) memorizing some lines for an audition, lost in her own little world, even as the traffic eases and drivers move on, she’s still there lost in the lines. Before being interrupted by Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who honks his horn, a motif he uses much like an instrument to alert her to his impatient. They meet only briefly from passing cars, it’s too early to say if they have chemistry or they will ever meet again.
I was sold this film as a musical about musicals, and a love letter to the genre I’m not so sure its the former, it does however celebrate the classic spirit of the genre, its light and carefree at times, whilst also very contemporary, one of the few films still shot in Hollywood, supporting their local economy, instead of shipping production to the U.K. with all the tax breaks. In the trailer the image of celebration and what comes images that reference An American in Paris (1951) (which I will get to later), gave me a slightly different impression of the film – that’s trailers for you. I gave up trying to find references to past films, which I was more successful with for The Artist (2011). Here I just sat back and soaked up the film.
Taking it as a love letter to the genre as these two dreamers who over the course of 5 seasons Winter to Winter meet, fall in love and pursue their dreams. They want to live the Hollywood dream. Jazz pianist Sebastian passion for the music blinds him to staying in a job for more than a few nights. A night at a bar where he was previously fired, has to stick to a set list of Christmas numbers before the need to go freestyle on the ivories compels him to let rip before he’s given the boot. Whilst Mia the barista aspiring actress has just been to the latest in a string of clichéd auditions, we’ve seen them all before, all treated with a light touch, as Mia takes them seriously Stone can see the funny side, probably drawing from her own past on the audition circuit. She’s the one we’re supposed to identify with, the dreamer, who takes every opportunity to get a step closer to living the Hollywood dream. She knows her world inside out, even pointing out the window from Casablanca (1942)
Whilst Sebastian has the drive, the passion but can’t get close to his dream because he has let go of what is important to support himself to get to fulfilling the dream. As his old friend Keith (John Legend) reminds him that he’s living in the past whilst he needs to look to the future. There’s a re-opened bar as a Samba-Tapas, not one or the other, a combination which offends the traditionalist Sebastian who knows Jazz like the back of his hand, he breathes the music, if only he could be supported by it
It’s not your standard boy meets girl in a musical, it’s by chance and handled with a light touch, Mia starts the ball rolling in Spring when we meet them again before their first number together. Both are not naturals to the all dancing singing routines but seem to have really taken to it well. They are no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who had a dynamic which can’t easily be replicated. Instead we have a youthful energy which collides with sexual energy exerted through innocent dance. La La Land doesn’t claim or aspire to be a classic MGM musical filmed on the back-lot. It’s more natural – as a musical can be, breaking out into a number. The two leads have a natural screen chemistry that allows us to move through Summer and Autumn with noticing the seasons have changed.
Reality hits them late on, as Sebastian is finding success, the principled Gene Kelly type who take an opportunity at the cost of his dreams, to be loved and adored is easier to come by. Whilst Mia is putting it all on the line to make her dreams a reality. Both dreamers in their own ways, both escapists, only one a realist when it matters. Leading me back to the only real homage that is to An American in Paris, I noticed weeks ago the minimalist design and the Parisian references, it could only mean they have reworked the ballet sequence, a 13 minute scene that melts time to a halt as you are taken into this romanticised world of the studio where dreams are created. We are told in a near dialogue free sequence what happened after the love affair, how we have reached this conclusion.
I can’t finish this review without touching on the music, some of which is throwaway, whilst other numbers have stayed with me. I guess repeat viewings and a growing love for the film, I will be buying a few tracks to listen at leisure. I also have to mention the sometimes jarring cinematography that sees the camera panning that blurs to the extreme until we stop at either Mia or Sebastian, It’s a style which when sitting at the front of the screen is too much, it can be forgiven slightly as I understand the intention of sweeping past/through the crowd. A small negative among a heap of positives that leave you feeling light and care-free.
I think I would have enjoyed Birdman (2014) if I hadn’t seen a trailer for Whiplash (2014) with all the drumming I wouldn’t be thinking of that instead of enjoying this fascinating fast-moving film about a washed up superhero film star trying to find relevance and meaning in his life. Still that’s more down to the trailers that were shown. It’s hard to say that it didn’t hinder of only a smidgen.
Putting that aside I was lost inside this backstage world of hopes and desires. I was drawn by the cinematography that was constantly moving. seamlessly moving from scene to scene with no real cut. Each scene blends into another with only the transition. A single camera follows the cast around like a fly on the wall capturing these actors at their most vulnerable. Placing a washed up Hollywood actor at the centre with a superhero past that he just can’t shake.
Unlike Michael Keaton whose own past roles only built up his reputation in varying roles from Batman (1989) and Beetlejuice (1988) a career that has seen his own high and lows, coming back to prominence more recently, especially with this role as Riggan that has seen undefinable actor back into the limelight. I don’t think that Keaton hears the voice of his past roles haunt him at his most vulnerable moments as he prepares for his Broadway debut. Birdman a past role mirroring Batman even in the voice he takes on for his superhero alter-ego.
Also backstage are a band of actors who are getting to grips with Riggan’s play, an adaptation of a classic. At the beginning they need a new actor to step in at the last-minute, enter Mike (Edward Norton) an all or nothing method actor who is all or nothing as we see over the film, a Marlon Brando you could say needing realism on stage. Unlike his personal life and relationship with actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is making her own Broadway debut, there’s a lot on the line. Whilst manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is holding everything altogether, without him nothing would happen, everyone relies on him as he pulls his own hair out. One of Galifianakis best roles, toning down his usual comedy to fit into this dark comedy drama that can’t stand still. Whilst the other actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) has is having a fractured relationship Riggan who is fighting his demons.
It’s all about Riggan with the other actors around the side, more so Mike and Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) not long out of rehab. I have never seen Keaton in such a meaty role, usually being in a supporting role more recently, as if he’s taking what he can get to pay the bills. That’s not to say he’s desperate there’s a nervous exciting energy almost weird which comes alive here. We don’t know what we will get from scene to scene in Birdman, his past role has a supernatural hold over the acting who can;t seem to escape his past. A role that made him is almost killing his career. Working opposite a stage actor who he is in awe with yet cannot control. A critic who threatens to crush his dreams, the odds are stacked against him.
There are moments of disbelieve towards the end of the film that leave you guessing, wondering if we have left reality altogether. Has he given into his past, embracing it and forgetting the consequences, we leave reality to a world of fantasy where could all go. His delusions takeover, nothing makes sense, leaving the audience in a sense of sheer confusion and wonder.
A very strong film, focusing the vulnerable world of the actor, trying to make it big, to break out and start over again. Hearts and careers are on the line, which is built up in the drums in the background, the beat of the street, the pressure is made real. Something that could have been lessened at times for the sake of tension. I’ve read a few times that this film is not original, the soul of an actor laid bare, the dreaded comeback, maybe its the new superhero spin that makes it’s compelling to watch, more relevant and fresh, with all the superhero films being pumped out every year, schedules running into the next decade almost, some actors careers are secured. Whilst older actors live on past glories they cannot shake, becoming typecast, something most hate to happen. Also the fresh cinematography keeps the film moving and the pace too, moving between reality and those surreal and brave moments, to me it’s fresh.