LA LA LAND
After rave reviews and the Golden Globes there’s now an Oscar/Bafta buzz attached to La La Land. Sorry to rain on the big parade but I was not blown away. Yes, there’s some charm here with all the homage to the Golden Age of romantic musicals, and Ryan Gosling remains the most charismatic of today’s young stars, but the music simply isn’t musical enough. Gosling and Emma Stone can just about carry a song and do a bit of amateur hoofing, but really the singing is nearly as ragged as it was in the screen version of Les Miserables and the dancing is about as far from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as the first round of ‘Dancing With the Stars’.
OK, Kelly and Astaire (and Ginger Rogers and other co-stars of theirs) did not have great singing voices, but they were fantastic dancers and the song-and-dance numbers in their movies were never less than dazzling. The closest La La Land comes to dazzling is in the final routine, a low-rent tribute to An American in Paris, but it just doesn’t have enough dazzle. As musicals go, fings ain't what they used to be.
The jazz club scenes hit the only high spots. Gosling really looks as if he’s creating magic on the piano, but there’s no magic in his singing or his dancing – nor in Stone’s, who alas doesn’t have her co-star’s redeeming charisma. The love-story has a certain amount of charm but, like the music, it could do with a bit more 'zing'.
The Golden Age nostalgia also extends to a clunky tribute to Rebel Without a Cause. But nostalgia just isn’t enough and there’s too much clunkiness on display here. They say there isn’t the money to create great musicals like we had in MGM’s heyday. Surely it would take only a fraction of the budget for a CGI-heavy action movie or space opera to hire some first-rate dancers and singers who can act - or, if we must, actors who can sing (or mime to a better singer)? Singin' in the Rain cannot have been a big-budget production, but it's still the greatest of the greats.
The critics have been a tad underwhelmed by this space opera, but I liked it. It’s a love story with a few echoes of 2013’s Gravity, including seriously stunning CGI, but there is better chemistry (and more gorgeousness - sorry, George!) between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt than there was between Ms Bullock and Mr Clooney.
There’s not a lot of plot: Chris and Jennifer wake from hibernation 80 years earlier than they should do on their universe-crossing starship and then have to cope with mechanical problems that threaten the vessel’s survival. The pace is a bit slow until things start to go wrong with the nuclear reactor and with Michael Sheen, an android barman whom I found more than a little tiresome. The 'epilogue' is cringe-making but kinda charming.
A part of me kept hoping for something out of the Alien franchise to bust in and liven things up, but no, this is just a slightly soppy story about a pair of galaxy-crossed lovers and – I’ll say it again – I liked it.
My first movie of 2017 is a fairly challenging one – Martin Scorcese’s ‘treatise’ on Faith and Apostasy in 17th-century Japan. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests who travel to the Orient to look for a missing predecessor (Liam Neeson) and to bring comfort and sacramental rites to Catholic converts who are being persecuted and tortured by Samurai inquisitors.
Interesting to discover that Buddhism, which most of us think of as a pacifist, contemplative religion, has a history as dark and violent as that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The silence at the heart of the movie is the silence of God: does He hear the prayers of the persecuted; and does He mind if people stamp on an image of Christ to save their lives?
Apart from the harrowing scenes of torture and brutal execution, much of the film is shot in darkened rooms and daytime fogs. There are many long scenes – too many, too long – of dialogue between Garfield and the Inquisitor. There are a couple of clunky moments which attempt to echo Christ’s Passion, and a Japanese ‘Judas’ pops into the story a little too often. Garfield gives a performance that reminded me of Montgomery Clift – that sense of tension waiting to be uncoiled. Driver’s role is more physical, more heroic, less subtle. Liam Neeson relies too much on the gravitas of his presence. The last chapter in the story undermines much of the film’s intensity and the final frame feels like something added as a ‘sop’ to today's evangelists.
Inevitably you find yourself comparing Silence to Roland Joffe’s 1986 epic The Mission. Scorcese’s movie arguably has more depth and definitely more debate, but The Mission had a ‘magnificence’ which Silence has less of – and Joffe’s movie had that resonating Morricone score. Silence deserves points for nobility of purpose and Mr Scorcese is clearly a man of huge integrity.