Tag Archives: Ryan Gosling

Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2017

La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2012

Half Nelson In Consideration

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have been collaborating on films for years.  Their most highly regarded film to date (Fleck and Boden share writing credits, but Fleck directs while Boden produces) is their 2006 feature Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, and Anthony Mackie.

Ryan Gosling as Half NelsonHalf Nelson follows the journeys of Dan Dunn (Gosling) and his student Drey (Epps) as their lives interconnect, and each becomes essential to the survival of the other.  This rather formulaic scenario is derivative of that which was popularized by Martin Brest’s film Scent Of A Woman (1992).  Brest’s film, a sentimental remake of an Italian film from 1976, is primarily concerned with the relationship and co-dependency of two archetypal characters, the older mentor and the young student.  The variation of the relationship in Scent Of A Woman involving America’s own educational system first reached a critical status with a pair of films by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000).   Half Nelson employs the same beats and narrative structure of Gus Van Sant’s films, but manages to raise the stakes so that the drama within the formula becomes far more urgent.

Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester feature protagonists who are much more mature than those in Half Nelson.  The mentors in either of Gus Van Sant’s films (played by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester) are well into their fifties or older, and have forgotten how to “live”, which in both cases means to partake and cherish new experiences.  Gosling’s Dunn is the much younger and inexperienced mentor to a thirteen-year-old Drey.  Unlike the Williams or Connery characters, Dunn has not given up on life out of frustration at an old age, but because his dependency on crack prevents him from living a more ideal life.  The circumstances of Dunn’s position as the mentor in this formula allow his condition and his struggle to imbue the film with an urgency that was absent in Gus Van Sant’s films.  The same could be said of Drey, who is not only female, but also five years younger than the youngest of her male counterparts in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester.  Her youth and her sex makes Dunn’s dependency on her all the more awkward and seemingly dangerous, just as her dependency upon him is jeopardized by his drug abuse.

The topical nature of Dunn’s afflictions coupled with the film’s cinematographic style elevate Half Nelson from the cushy sentimentality of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, so that the ideas and narrative arcs of the film appear fresh.  Photographed by Andrij Parekh, Half Nelson utilizes a cinematic style that is kinetic, both in the speed of its moving shots and in the rapidity of its focus pulling.  These style choices work as signifiers to the audience, cueing them to recall the cinema verite documentarians of the sixties and seventies.  The affiliation to documentary style in Half Nelson allows the fiction of the film to pass for fact during its duration.

Adhering to the classical modes of realist filmmaking, Half Nelson also makes use of an open-ended resolution (a tactic popularized in the films of Jerry Schatzberg).  Neither Dunn nor Drey actually solve their problems, but recognize them at the film’s conclusion.  The film offers no speculation or clues as to the trajectory of either character’s lives.  As far as the audience can discern, Dunn could just as easily do crack in the next scene as he could never do crack again.  Though such a conclusion is one of the mainstays in American realism, its appearance in a film like Half Nelson is refreshing, and indicates a sort of fluency in genre blending on the part of the filmmakers.

The single greatest innovation of Half Nelson comes neither from its roots in archetypal character portraiture or in neo-classicist realism.  The defining innovation comes from how the filmmakers mark the passing of time in the film.  To indicate a week has passed, the film cuts to one of Dunn’s middle school students giving an excerpt from an oral report to the class, which is accompanied by a montage of newsreel footage.  These brief scenes not only indicate Dunn’s proficiency as an unorthodox and charismatic history teacher, but the passing of a section in his curriculum.  These oral reports range in topics from the Attica prison riots to the CIA involvement in the taking of power of Pinochet.  Not one of the topics on which a report is given is featured in the standard curriculum of an American public school, a fact that both reinforces Dunn’s passion for what he does and helps illustrate why the faculty perceive him as a sort of outsider.

Drey and Dunn

But what Half Nelson is really about is returning the classic American story of the “underdog” to the people of today.  The problems characters face in Gus Van Sant’s films are exaggerated for melodrama, while those exhibited in Half Nelson have become commonplace in urban America.  Drey comes very close to following her brother’s path in the film, a path that ultimately landed him in jail, when she begins running drugs for her brother’s friend Frank (Mackie).   One of the people Drey sells too is her friend and teacher Mr. Dunn, whom she first became friendly with when she discovered him smoking crack in the locker room while she was waiting for a ride.  Though the events in Half Nelson are indeed melodramatic as well as topical, they appear as neither because the scenes are not underscored by music or Oscar worthy monologues.  Instead, Half Nelson relies on its film technique and its strong cast to transcend the boundaries of formula to become a film that is a clear reflection of America today.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2012