La La Land is Many Places


by James Davies

[Spoilers ahead]


Finest Picture, for All Mankind

9. Arrival
Starts off promisingly, with a nice establishing of the story and visual appeal. Continues its success slowly-but-surely up through Amy Adams’s character, super-refreshingly, declaring it is/has to be a “non-zero-sum-game.” Then the ending destroys the whole film. A child-focused part is initially used respectfully, groundedly, and connectedly, but then is turned into a Terrible Thing Fulcrum (TTF) on top of a magical-mystical deus ex machina containing the false core of “reproduction is what (most) makes us human–what gives us our fullest realization as individuals and a species.” (Related to its POV)

8. Moonlight
Too much of a hyperconstructed, inorganic-organic, leaden work. It’s a critic’s darling like Boyhood was in that way. Maybe they feel that kind of construction flatters criticism and thus them? There seems to be a class convergence between professional film critics and these kinds of films. The characters never much feel like fresh-and-blood people, and at worse are walking stereotypes.

7. Hidden Figures
The story is compelling enough, but something is lost from the page to the screen. It might be too slick and (inadvertently) rendering things more inevitable than they were.

6. Lion
“You kept telling me how little I am, but look how clever I am.” … “It’s magic.” … “I can lift anything.” … “You’ve come very far, haven’t you? And one day you’ll tell me all about it.” Establishes at the outset that it’s about going through dark tunnels, yelling in them, and coming out on the other side. Much of it is sheer set-up for the ending and the ending is powerful. The scenes with the young Brierley do draw you in, but the adult-Brierley scenes are rather flat until the end.

5. Hacksaw Ridge
I can see some of what thethirdrevelation is saying and think some of those criticisms can be answered by the historical and biographical accuracy. I might describe the first part as kind of hokey–but even in that vein, Vince Vaughan works well as a caricature of a military sergeant who’s then softened-up/epiphanied by Doss. I think it makes a nice leap to the last 2/3. The war scenes alone gave it a high floor for me. The film actually under-depicts the abuse Doss took from his unit. They do compress the saving of lives he does from a span of like three weeks to two days, but still, I was moved. It automatically gets several bags of popcorn for the “principles” message and for how graphic, realistic, and sobering-stirring the war scenes are.

4. Manchester by the Sea
Didn’t like it as much as I wanted to, nor near its level of critical reception, but maintains a pretty high floor. It’s not like I can think of many better portraits of grief. Ultimately, though, it relies too much on the TTF to bear its (emotional) weight. Upstream Color is an example of a film that uses its TTF probably just right, namely, doesn’t overuse it and has color and shape and life outside of the fulcrum, even if the fulcrum can be said to always be there. Manchester doesn’t really do anything else wrong though, and does contain several powerful scenes. Those and the very good acting throughout help it maintain that high floor. Good use of region and locations.

3. Fences
I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Fences, which now sits alongside Doubt as a quality play-to-screen adaptation. Denzel does a lot of taut lifting of hegemonic hypermasculinity and Viola Davis is solid as long-suffering sounding board, then bell. They develop a believable push-pull chemistry.

2. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water grew on me a fair amount as I compared it to the other Best Picture nominees. It’s a good genre film (neo-Western chase / cops n’ robbers), but also transcends it. It’s message and lessons about economic dislocation, pride, and justice are timely and reverberate loudly. Good casting, including Ben Foster at his manic best.

Ought to win: La La Land
Easily my favorite-best of the year, so I’m glad it’s the odds-on favorite for the big win. A lot of it is sheer set-up for the ending–about the same ratio Lion has–but boy what an ending. When you deliver one on par with Casablanca’s, your work is done here, with credit to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. My initial thought about it coming out of the theater was that Chazelle knew he had made a good enough film–had enough quality and craft laid down–to merit and support that ending. He slots it in there with confidence and panache; he is clear-eyed and full-hearted. That being said, I probably would’ve given it Best Picture right off as a riposte to the snobs criticizing the dancing and singing. Save your plastic pantomime, junkies. It’s been criticized for supposed nostalgia, but I think it’s more subversive than not on that front, and I agree with Charles Turner that “The making of modernity has sought to provide a defence of nostalgia as a critical tool of analysis. In this respect the nostalgic imagination may be a defensible, and at least an intelligent response to the end of the social.”* Relatedly, it exists rather independently of its Hollywood trappings and jazz parts, and is more universal than some critics are acknowledging. For one, New Englander Chazelle almost set in in Boston (he borrowed heavily from his own Boston-set film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench). It’s very explicit and knowing about this, like with the use of the on-lot coffee shop–going from “reality” to “dreamland” just so; the movers moving the picture of California orange groves; the cartoon depiction of Mia’s audition. This is all explicit attention to and a deconstruction of the artificiality, symbolism, and tropes here. It’s a meta-commentary. Maybe that’s an annoying self-innoculating move by Chazelle, but I think it works overall and I appreciated it. Other criticisms also seem rather misplaced, shading into the over-cynical. Gosling and Stone’s characters have been criticized as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and as “narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest.” Saying they’re both Manic Pixie Dreamers for each other seems to negate itself, and I’m pretty sure that criticism is incompatible with the second one. There may be some (Manic) Pixie Dream dust, but not a lot I don’t think–their characters are too independent. Also, I’m with the coiner of the term, Nathan Rabin, who has since renounced it in saying that “nuanced characters cannot be classified in such a restricted nature.”** I still think it can be a useful term in a narrow sense, but maybe at its sloppiest goes to Zoe Kazan’s charges of it being “reductive, diminutive, and misogynistic.” I also believe there can be manic pixie dream aspects alongside an equality between characters, and that seems to be the case here. Regarding the supposed narcissism and self-interest, I think that would have to overlook what is arguably the plot fulcrum of the whole movie, where Sebastian misunderstands/misinterprets a conversation Mia is having with her mother. From that overhear, he thinks she wants him to go the John Legend & Co. route. He thinks he’s pleasing her, which is the opposite of narcissism. That being said, the scene where they argue about it is frustrating. It seems artificially strained and too much of a shortcut. Finally, Seb is not some white savior of jazz. He doesn’t like the Legend Tour, but his purism and stubbornness is directly corrected by John Legend’s character, and I think the ultimate dream suggested, shared by Mia, is to have his own club that, if anything, is fusion and pluralist or whatever. It’s part of his evolution. I mean, his look at the end? That’s pure subjectivity.

Will win: La La Land

Bill Paxton in Terminator

Bill Paxton in The Terminator

Supportive Women in Cinema
5. Nicole Kidman
4. Octavia Spencer
3. Michelle Williams
2. Viola Davis
“Anything he can’t understand he wanna call it the devil.”
Ought to win: Naomie Harris
Does a lot with what little she’s given. Really hits those emotional high notes. “I just thought at the start of my career, I’m gonna make it my mission—or the criteria in which I choose roles—is gonna ensure that I’m representing positive images of women. So initially I had huge reservations about taking on the role, and it wasn’t until [director] Barry [Jenkins] explained to me that this was based on his own mother, you know, and that’s what really touched me, and I thought ‘Here is somebody who has a vested interest in ensuring that this character doesn’t become reduced to being a stereotype.”  “No Small Parts
Will win: Davis

Natalie Portman: Yeah, ‘cause there are, like, particular cultures in different towns and—
Michelle Williams: There were [?] and they were so particular about that. When I went up to this area there’s these towns that all abut each other…but they’re so distinct, you know, and like you go to Beverly and they’re like “Don’t you dare make it sound like Gloucester,” and you go to Gloucester and they’re like “We are nothing like Manchester-by-the-Sea’ and you’re like “Oh, God, I hope that you guys—I hope that it’s okay!”  “Natalie Portman & Michelle Williams — Actors on Actors” (Variety)

“The first time I saw Moonlight, the character of Paula felt like a misstep. In such a personal movie, to find what felt like an overburdened stock trope of black poverty was a disappointment. Then I saw the movie again. And I kept my eye on Harris: how she closes her eyes, warily, after a strange man brings her son home; how she barrels, spindly and unpredictably, toward Chiron when she’s locked out of the house; how her hand shakes while lighting a cigarette after years of being sober. As much as Moonlight is a movie about a time in a boy’s life, it’s also about the same time in his mother’s life. It’s advertised as a triptych tracing three distinct moments in Chiron’s journey. Telling that story means becoming a three-part series of snapshots of all the characters, including Chiron’s mother, whose life plays out as a nascent struggle with crack that becomes a full-blown addiction before finally evening out on the road to recovery. Paula is a supporting role, but a primary force, so much so that Harris is the only actor to appear in all three parts of the movie. The movie is very much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) in that sense: shifts in the mother’s life loom so large in the story that she at times feels like a colead.”  “Naomie Harris’s Voice Is a Secret Weapon in ‘Moonlight’

Bill Paxton, Near Dark

Bill Paxton, Near Dark

Most Supportive Man
5. Dev Patel
4. Mahershala Ali
3. Michael Shannon
2. Jeff Bridges
Ought to win: Lucas Hedges
Will win: M.Ali

Our Man Michael Shan: I read that Christmas monologue, about that guy who hates Christmas. … I got the script in the mail, I read it, I thought, “Wow this is really bleak, I don’t know if this is for me.” … We [Shannon and Tom Ford] talked for a little while, I was like “This guy’s super smart. I bet he’ll make a good movie,” so I said yes; but I like the character Bobby because I’m really into those Jim Thompson books…so for me Bobby…could’ve been a character out of that genre. You know, playin’ a detective is fun, and all that.
Adam Driver: You ever seen Fishing with John?
Shannon: No, I haven’t seen that show.
Driver: They’re really funny.
Shannon: People love that.
Driver: Yeah.
Shannon: Let me ask you somethin’: TV, stage, film–what do you prefer?
Driver: I don’t have a preference, do you?
Shannon: Theater.
Driver: Really?
Shannon: Yeah.
Driver: Why?
Shannon: There’s just less interference. There’s less people in your business, you know? You just get to go out there and nobody walks up and starts, like, touchin’ your face. [Driver laughs] You just go out there and say your lines and when you’re done, you’re done–you know?; and you can really–I just feel like it’s easier to get momentum on stage.
Shannon: I don’t want to get in a litigious situation here, but it wasn’t safe.”

Queen of the Castle!
5. Meryl Streep
4. Ruth Negga
3. Isabelle Huppert
2. Natalie Portman
“A woman should be allowed to be whole range of things, and just a complete human being on screen—the way men are portrayed.”  “Natalie Portman argues that ‘Jackie’ goes beyond ‘strong woman’ stereotypes
Ought to win: Emma Stone
Will win: Stone

“In an aptly exhaustive examination of the actor’s approach, Alex Abad-Santos over at Vox breaks down the historical significance of Jackie’s accent with the help of several linguistic experts. Not quite transatlantic and not quite New York, Kennedy’s accent was a product of her wealthy upbringing along with a childhood split between Southampton and Long Island. The driving force of her accent, though, came from her years in school in Manhattan. At this time, well-to-do students, much like Kennedy herself, were taught a mixture of American English with British English in order to encourage a seemingly posh dialect. Usually this was seen in the dropping of “r”s, referred to as non-rhotic affectation. Natalie Portman’s portrayal is rooted in a historical context, which is what makes aspects of her performance feel so unfamiliar. Jackie’s accent is not only an odd mixture of varied sources, inconsistent in the way only humans can be, but her accent exists in a time completely foreign to most people of a younger generation.”  “Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ Accent May Sound Strange, But History Backs It Up

“Before the Oscars ceremony kicked off, Emma Stone had already cemented her place on the evening’s best dressed lists in an Oscar-gold old Hollywood gown. But her most noteworthy accessory was in service of a cause: a small golden pin in the shape of Planned Parenthood’s logo. Stone was not the only star who made a subtle political statement on the red carpet. Dakota Johnson sported Planned Parenthood’s logo on her clutch, and several stars —including nominees Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Negga—wore blue ribbons in support of the American Civil Liberties Union.”  “Emma Stone Made a Political Statement With Her Accessories Before the Oscars Even Began

Bill Paxton and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies

Bill Paxton and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies

Best Baby Boy
5. Ryan Gosling
4. Andrew Garfield
3. Casey Affleck
2. Denzel Washington
“Death ain’t nothin’ but a fastball on the outside of the plate.”
Ought to win: Viggo Mortensen
“Are they sick? Everyone’s so fat!” Mortensen is the Reluctant-but-Happy Warrior-Driver of an alternative schoolbus of a film that is propelled by supreme feeling and heart. As he usually does in roles, I love how he delivers such feeling, impact, and high stakes so quietly. He’s an actor’s actor.
Will win: Denzel

Bill Paxton in Aliens

Bill Paxton in Aliens

Finest Direction, in a Filmic Sense
5. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
4. Dennis Villeneuve, Arrival
3. Melly Gibs, Hacksaw Ridge
2. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Ought to win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Will win: Chazelle

“The longevity and relevance of Gibson’s career up until 2006 was almost unparalleled. From his beginnings in 1979’s ‘Mad Max’ to the ‘Lethal Weapon’ franchise to his five ‘Braveheart’ Oscars that included best picture and director, the Australian-raised, devout Roman Catholic seemed to defy the career slumps that rendered many of his peers obsolete over the years. He has a particular gift for themes of redemption through violence and suffering; ‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ which has already been described as an ‘inspirational’ comeback and a ‘miracle’ for his career, follows that template. In the World War II drama about an army medic who also happened to be a Seventh Day Adventist and pacifist, a man’s faith is tested, he’s nearly destroyed, he repents, he’s exonerated. … When asked what he might tell his younger self if given the opportunity, Gibson answered: ‘Don’t be so caught up in the little things; take advantage of all the gifts the world has to offer; and live every day to the fullest.’ Then he added: ‘I’d also tell my younger self to shut the f— up.”  “Mel Gibson goes from most hated man in Hollywood to receiving a standing ovation

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton in Tombstone

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton in Tombstone

Topmost Writing That Now Has a Second (Lease On) Life, Which You May or May Not Have Seen Coming
5. Arrival
4. Moonlight
3. Lion
2. Hidden Figures
Should win: Fences
Will win: Moonlight

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13

Writing Newly Born, Already Superlative
5. Hell or High Water
4. La La Land
3. Manchester by the Sea
2. 20th Century Women
Ought to win: The Lobster
Will win: Manchester

Bill Paxton in Weird Science

Bill Paxton in Weird Science

Film Editing
5. Hell or High Water
4. Moonlight
3. Arrival
2. Hacksaw Ridge
Ought to win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land

“After suggesting that a civil war would be the only way to prevent Trump from assuming the highest office in the land, Shannon asserts that if you feel okay about supporting his presidency, it’s probably time for you to just die already. ‘There’s a lot of old people who need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on,’ Shannon said. ‘Because they’re the ones who go out and vote for these assholes. If you look at the young people, between 18 and 25, if it was up to them, Hillary would have been president. No offense to the seniors out there. My mom’s a senior citizen. But if you’re voting for Trump, it’s time for the urn.’ And if your parents voted for Trump? ‘Fuck ’em. You’re an orphan now. Don’t go home. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Don’t talk to them at all. Silence speaks volumes.’ Despite being from the red state of Kentucky, Shannon says that no one in his immediate family ‘would ever remotely consider voting for Trump.’ So, it sounds like no one around his holiday hearth will have to sit frozen in terror as he stares them down with his severely threatening gaze.” Jordan Crucchiola, “Michael Shannon Tells Trump Supporters It’s Their Time to Die Now” Vulture, 11-17-16

*Charles Turner, “Sacred sociology: the life and times of Phillip Rieff” Theory, Culture and Society, 28(3): 80-105 (2011), as cited in Sociological Noir: Irruptions and the Darkness of Modernity (2016)

**From TV Tropes: “Unfortunately, the term ended up being misused to describe simply quirky female characters, with many who are actually well-rounded being given this label. Rabin would later disown the term, because instead of creating awareness of the ‘lack of independent goals in female characters’, the concept instead accidentally ended up suggesting that ALL quirky and fun women automatically merited this trope, whether they actually fit in or not. Despite all that (or because of all that), there are ways of utilizing this trope without falling into that pitfall.”




Yale’s smart choice in renaming Calhoun College


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