Monday 15 May 2017

La La Land, XX, and Get Me Roger Stone: Your Week In Film (May 15-21)

Dancing with the stars: Gosling and Stone hoof it up in La La Land

This week's UK home entertainment highlights. All films available to buy, stream or watch now, unless otherwise stated...  

A few years ago, weak-sauce horror anthologies, such as V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death, nearly put me off the portmanteau format for life. But I was intrigued enough by XX (DVD and VOD) WWW – four shorts, all written and directed by women – to dip my toe back into the piranha pool and am certainly glad I did.

Jovanka Vuckovic's The Box – the tale of a young boy who stops eating after peeking into a mysterious gift-box on the New York subway – is as intriguing and elusive as it is bleak. Seemingly cursed by something supernatural, soon the boy's disorder spreads like a virus through his family, proceedings becoming ever more disturbing and uncomfortable. Vuckovic doesn't serve up a conventional twist, which makes this even better, and keeps her cards close to her chest when it comes to explaining exactly what is going on. I haven't read the Jack Ketchum short story her segment is based upon but did wonder if The Box was really about anorexia, although it could just as easily be concerned with the powerlessness of a mother to protect her family from a brutal and arbitrary world. 

In stark contrast is the grimly amusing slapstick comedy of Annie Clark (aka pop star St Vincent)'s The Birthday Party, which she co-wrote with Roxanne Benjamin. It stars the excellent Melanie Lynskey (I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore) as a frantic mother trying to hide her recently-deceased husband's corpse so as not to spoil her young daughter's birthday costume party. It's a low-key delight that throws up more questions than answers, with a smartly delivered denouement that made me laugh out loud.

Don't Fall is the weakest of the four stories, although it perhaps deserves kudos for being the only one here that doesn't tackle the theme of motherhood. A group of friends discover a set of weird cave paintings while out scaling rocks in the desert. In the black of night they are menaced by a savage supernatural creature identical to the one in the artwork, perhaps attracted by the fear of heights one member of the group has exhibited earlier in the story. It lacked a strong premise or twist and is probably the only segment that may have worked better as a full-blown feature. Rather better is the final story, Her Only Living Son, a "reimagining" of the events that take place after Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Written and directed by Karyn Kusama (who helmed last year's excellent The Invitation), it's a clever and unusual way of talking about single mums, difficult kids and absent fathers, although 'I Was A Teenage Antichrist' may have been a better title for it.

One final thing: be careful if you're searching for XX on Amazon – you're going to have to wade through quite a bit of porn before you find it, including Anal Debauchery 3 and Orange Is The New Rack (I'm not making this up). I fear that title – XX as in kisses but also the female sex chromosome – may be a little too clever for its own good!

Nasty women: XX is an all-female horror anthology

From the knockabout humour in the trailer, I'd assumed Get Me Roger Stone (Netflix) WWW was a mockumentary about an outrageous but fictional member of Donald Trump's inner circle – part Frank Underwood, part Malcolm Tucker perhaps. Five minutes into the actual film, however, I realised Stone was all too horribly real and had been spinning his webs and spreading his poison for a variety of Republican politicians (including ex-Presidents Nixon, Reagan and both Bush's) for many decades. 

Stone, who is now 64, has to be seen to be believed. A body builder who dresses like a dandyish villain straight out of Batman, he is nevertheless a terrifyingly ruthless operator who never seems remotely perturbed by the wreckage – human and political – his dirty tricks leave behind him. Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme's film follows Stone in the lead up to last year's US presidential election, filling in his jaw-dropping history as it goes. A friend of Trump's from way back, Stone admits he saw something in The Donald in 1988 and was just waiting for the right moment to launch him on the path to the White House ("I was a jockey looking for a horse... and Trump was a prime piece of political horse flesh").

The problem is that, despite his genuine, 24-carat awfulness, there is something almost likeable about Stone. He's a self-confessed libertarian – pro gay marriage, pro choice, all for legalising marijuana – and also incredibly self aware. He knows he's a dick and rejoices in it. There's a brilliant moment here when we see him at home. Oh look, there's a portrait of him on the wall as Napoleon and here's his 91-year-old mum, who he describes as being like the mother from The Sopranos (if I remember correctly, she tried to have Tony Soprano whacked at the end of season one). He also has a large tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, and was chased out of Washington DC in the mid-90s after a sex scandal (he and his wife Nydia advertised themselves in a swingers' magazine, their ad reading: "no smokers, fatties, or phonies"). He's lived a fascinating life and some of it is not only outrageous but bloody funny too.

Writer/directors Bank, DiMauro and Pehme keep their distance. They just point their camera at the titular character and a parade of talking heads (including Trump, investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, and Fox News arsehole Tucker Carlson) and let the story unfold. There's no need to try and paint Stone in a bad light, he's totally open about the innumerable manipulations and slights of hand he has pulled in the course of his political life.

It's easy to dismiss those on the Republican right as fools and idiots but that view gets you precisely nowhere with someone as savvy and sharp as Stone. His astonishing takedown of the Reform Party and their presidential candidate Pat Buchanan (using Trump as a stalking horse) in 2000 proves that beyond any doubt. In fact, it's probably why Al Gore never became president. I'd call him the Darth Vader of politics but Stone was never corrupted by the dark side, he was its willing pupil from day one. This is a guy even Machiavelli would beg to dial it down a notch.

Unfortunately, the end game of Stone's decades of deceit and weapons-grade cynicism has resulted in the alt-right mob winning the keys to the White House with him – their Dick Dastardly of dirty tricks – on the inside. I'm still naive enough to believe people go into politics to do a bit of good but if you're palling around with frothing conspiracy loon Alex Jones and accusing Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim born in Kenya, there's no moral high ground for you to occupy. "I revel in your hatred because, if I wasn't effective, you wouldn't hate me," he says at the end of the film in a message to his numerous detractors. After this, I suspect he'll have plenty more.

Heart of Stone: Political dirty trickster Roger

The first time I saw La La Land (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW½ – one Saturday morning last October at the London Film Festival – it already had a good bit of critical momentum behind it and that all-important 'Oscar buzz'. I doubt anyone could have foreseen, though, just how much of a cultural phenomenon Damien Chazelle's musical would become. Has there been a more pored over, analysed or dissected movie in the last 12 months or so? Not even Moonlight – the film that beat it to the Best Picture Oscar in farcical circumstances – comes close.

Unfortunately, rather a lot of what was written about La La Land was utter hogwash. Sure, some interesting stuff entered the conversation about its appropriation of black and gay culture that sparked off valuable discussions, but otherwise it was desperate writers looking for clickbait far too much of the time. Yes, the two lead characters are self-obsessed – one's a musician, the other's a wannabe actress, they live in Los Angeles, so what do you expect? No, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can't dance nearly as well as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, well spotted. Yep, director Chazelle does homage several other movies in the course of his film, but so what? And no, it isn't as important or powerful a film as Moonlight but, other than the Oscars snafu, the pair have little to nothing in common so why are we even having this conversation for the hundredth time?

With all that in mind I was rather worried that the negativity and naysaying would spoil my enjoyment when I settled down to see La La Land again, seven months on. I needn't have worried, though, because Chazelle's follow up to Whiplash is every bit as adorable as it was the first time. 

Mia (Stone) is a wannabe actress working as a barista on the Warner Brothers movie lot. She auditions for roles in terrible TV shows ("No, Jamal. You be trippin'.") and gets nowhere. Seb (Gosling) is a formidable jazz pianist, playing Christmas carols for chump change at seedy bars while dreaming of owning his own classy music venue. They meet, they bicker, they sing and dance, and eventually their love for each other acts as rocket fuel for their ambition and self belief. But it's a double-edged sword because the pair's suddenly improved circumstances puts huge pressure on their relationship. They begin to grow apart...

Big, brassy and bold, La La Land was never quite the scrappy little movie Chazelle wanted us to believe it was. In fact, it feels like an event – something grand and significant, even though it's really just a handsomely staged love story with maddeningly catchy songs, some passable dancing and one or two heart-warming gags. The film may be two hours long but feels like half that. It has the pace of a tornado. Bang, bang, bang – scene follows song follows set-piece like a breathless stage musical. My own personal highlights are the brilliant opener Another Day Of Sun, which sees dozens of motorists abandoning their cars to dance across an LA freeway, and a bravura segment towards the end consisting of a 'what if?' version of the entire movie. 

If I have one criticism it's that Stone and Gosling's central relationship is slightly odd. Mia and Seb's is hardly an affair of torrid passion. In fact, apart from the occasional snog, there appears to be little physical between them at all. Some have suggested the leads lack chemistry but I don't think that's true – rather, I suspect Chazelle wanted his protagonists to have a relationship that was sweet and tender rather than overtly sexual. Unfortunately, I think it comes out weirdly chaste instead.

Ultimately, though, La La Land is a love letter to jazz, to old Hollywood, to movie musicals, and to love itself. If you have a romantic bone in your body, you can't help but fall under its spell.

Date night: Will love blossom or wilt in La La Land?

Two other movies worth checking out this week are Manchester By The Sea (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWWW, which I bombarded with effusive praise in a lengthy review here, and The Levelling (VOD and cinemas) WWW½, a British film from first-time director Hope Dickson Leach, which I'm going to try and find time to talk about properly on here later in the week.

This week's UK TV highlights
1. Adulthood (Tonight, Channel 5, 12.15am)
2. Things To Come (Wednesday, Sky Cinema Premiere, 10.10pm)
3. The Heat (Saturday, Channel 4, 9pm)
4. Insomnia (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
5.The Homesman (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

What I shall be watching this week: Off to the cinema to catch Miss Sloane and Alien: Covenant

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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