La La Land

Seb is a struggling musician… and a bit of a jerk. Mia is an aspiring actress who looks exactly like Emma Stone and is just as lovely. After a couple of inauspicious encounters they finally get to know each other and fall in love. Each encourages the other to pursue their dreams. But unfortunately the very pursuit of those dreams threatens to tear them apart.

The story may be slight, but the way La La Land tells it is nothing short of exquisite. It revives the Hollywood musical format in a way not seen in decades – particularly if one overlooks, as one should, the execrable movie version of Chicago. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are as lovely a central couple as have ever graced the silver screen. But there is something that seems grounded about their characters, almost ordinary, that makes them easy to relate to.

Like Singing in the Rain, La La Land is a movie about the makers of art. But there is something perhaps more universal to it. As well as the enormous joie de vivre of the film’s comedic exchanges and its glorious song and dance the movie takes seriously Beckett’s admonition: “Ever try? Ever fail? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I am generally not one for musicals, but I left the cinema wondering if La La Land had just stolen a place in my all time movie top 10. It is a lovely tonic in these bleak times, celebrating art and artists just as the storm clouds gather again on Europe and the United States. Just like the Women’s Marches across the world in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, La La Land reminds us of the importance of getting up after getting knocked down. It is perhaps the perfect movie for our times.

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Free State of Jones: film review

Free State of Jones, got rather mixed reviews when it was released. Having finally watched it I cannot really understand why that should be. Perhaps, paradoxically, because it is a serious movie which tells an important story that eschews many of the normal Hollywood cliches?

The movie focuses on a little known aspect of the American Civil War in which a guerrilla army of former slaves and deserters, drove the Confederacy out of a portion of Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays the guerrilla leader, Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter disgusted by the pointless brutality of the civil war who decides he is no longer going to fight for a system that he does not believe in. What begins initially as a flight from the authorities in which he finds refuge with a small group of runaway slaves slowly grows into a rebellion against the brutal and corrupt Confederacy as Knight begins to transform his small group of fugitives into an increasingly potent army.

The climax of their military campaign, as depicted in the film, was the capture of the town of Ellisville, after which they haul down the flag of the racist Confederacy that is flying over the Jones County courthouse, and raise the Stars and Stripes instead. That’s the bit that made me cry. I found it a particularly poignant moment given the intent of so many of Donald Trump’s acolytes to figuratively and literally replace the US flag with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy instead.

One would normally expect the movie to end there on that triumphant note. But it does not. Instead it follows the characters through the post Civil War betrayals of their dreams of justice, and the resurgence, through Ku Klux Klan terrorism and federal government failures, of the systems of segregation which replaced the systems of slavery.

It might be the most honest movie yet about the Civil War and its aftermath. In short it is a sombre and downbeat movie about the betrayal of brave patriots who deserved much better from those they fought for.

But for all that the movie is not without hope: the love and friendship between the central characters played with great subtlety and conviction by McConaughey, the always sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell, is something, the film asserts, that the world will finally recognise as shaming the the corrupt and the racist.

It is a fine movie that deserves to be recognised as an important one and seen by many more people. Whether that happens or not it will remain a rich credit to everyone involved in its making.

Muhammed Ali

When We Were Kings, by Leon Gast
The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, by Mark Kram
The Tao of Muhammed Ali, by Davis Miller 

img_0912My first proper memory of Muhammed Ali was waking up to the news of his victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. I watched the BBC Sports film of the fight the next evening. It was  awe-inspiring.

This fight is the principle subject of Leon Gast’s electrifying documentary When We Were Kings. The bloody, thieving, murderous dictator of Zaire, Mobuto, had decided that the world heavyweight title fight would help put Zaire on the world stage. Gast’s movie is an account of the extraordinary circus that resulted. It intercuts documentary and news footage from the time with illuminating interviews with, among others,  George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, on the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fight, and on the phenomenal fight itself.

When We Were Kings is a great introduction to Ali, both as a cultural and political figure and as a boxer. His victory is beautifully explained as one not just of his technical fighting skills, but of his strategic thinking skills.

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Rope-a-dope

Years later George Foreman described the devastation of having been beaten by someone so “braggadocio”. This is but a hint of the darkness that is frequently ignored in discussions of Ali. This comes much more to the fore in the Ghosts of Manila, an account of the rivalry between Ali and the great Joe Frazier. Frazier had been a supporter of Ali in the wilderness years when Ali had been stripped of his licence to box because of his courageous refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got not quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!” he said by way of explanation.

However this was no protection to Frazier from Ali’s often cruel and lacerating invective. Frazier came to detest Ali and their brutal fight in Manila in 1975 has become a thing of legend.

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Manila

Both fighters inflicted incredible damage on each other in dreadful heat, displaying incredible levels of endurance and courage just to keep up with each other. However by Kram’s account Frazier had effectively won the fight by rendering Ali unable to take the ring for the 15th and final round. All Frazier needed to do was to stand up. Then his manager, without consulting Frazier, threw in the towel, appalled at the damage that Frazier himself had already sustained in the fight. Frazier never forgave his manager and this extraordinary stroke of luck for Ali became a fundamental element in his legend.

But brutal fights such as Manila and the necessity to fight on almost to middle age that resulted from the loss of his license in his peak years, took their toll on Ali’s body and resulted in the Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted his final years. Davis Miller had met Ali at the peak of his career but became friends with him in these years. The Tao of Mohammed Ali is about a number of things including this friendship, writing, boxing, and perhaps most poignantly about Miller’s relationship with his own father. It is a fine and moving book that describes beautifully what Ali meant to ordinary fans, millions of who are today bereft at the news of his death.

The world is a duller, smaller place with Ali gone. But in many ways it is a better one in part because of what he did and what he stood up for. We will never see his like again.

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Ali delivers the coup de grace on Foreman (Plimpton and Mailer look on – bottom right)

 

The Greatest Game Ever Played – A movie even for those who, quite rightly, hate golf

imageAs I write Shia LaBoeuf is, as a work of performance art, watching all his movies, back-to-back, in reverse chronological order. Which means that towards the end of this marathon feat of endurance through his sometimes terrible ouvere, he is rewarded with at least one good movie – The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Directed by the actor Bill Paxton, The Greatest Game Ever Played, is based on the true story of the of the 1913 US golf open. But it is a film that is about much more than an extra-ordinary game of golf. The film also deals directly with the class tensions of the early twentieth century and touches upon the profound anti-Catholic prejudices of both the British and American establishments. But at heart the film is about that perennial favourite of triumph against the odds.

imageThe acting is exemplary throughout. Stephen Dillane is excellent as usual as the great British golfer Harry Vardane. Josh Flitter, as a ten year old caddy, steals every scene in which he appears. But the revelation of the movie is Shia LaBoeuf: After a career which to that point had been principally marked by his slap-stick performances in the children’s programme “Even Stevens”, and which subsequently has been marked with poor movie choices and increased eccentricity, LaBoeuf delivers a disciplined, dignified and highly sympathetic performance as a working class Franco-Irish kid fighting his way through the prejudices of the New England WASP establishment.

An old fashioned movie in the best sense of the word: fine acting, clear directing and a great story that grips to the end – the final scene an affectionate nod to Casablanca is just one of the many pleasures that fill a great movie.

Perhaps, as he watches this, Shia LaBoeuf may reflect on the considerable promise he showed as a younger actor, and reflect that it is never too late to be what you might have been.

One of the all time great westerns: Bad Day at Blackrock

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McCready (Tracy) arrives to Blackrock

There is a story that the head of the studio that made this film wanted to pull the plug on it because he thought it subversive.

He was right. It subverts a number of genres: it is a western without any horses; a Second World War story set thousands of miles from the front line; a thriller like a ghost story; a film noir set in the desert. But most subversive of all, at the core of the film it is about the consequences of racism, most specifically anti-Japanese racism, and how racism is often dressed up as patriotism.

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Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan

The film takes the form, popular in US and Japanese cinema, of the stranger arriving into town as a catalyst for the unfolding story. Spencer Tracy is the one-armed stranger, McCready, who shows up in remote Blackrock to deliver a medal to the father of the Japanese-American soldier who died saving his life. The father is elusive and the townsfolk seem dangerously unsettled by McCready’s questions.

Spencer Tracy delivers one of his most iconic performances in this role. McCready is a brave man, but one who has seen too much violence already not to appreciate that, when faced with insurmountable odds, discretion is the better part of valour. Robert Ryan is brilliantly terrifying as the charming thug who dominates the town. Walter Brennan provides some light relief as the town undertaker and vet in the midst of a spare and nightmarish story.

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Tracy and Ernest Borgnine

For the lovers of trivia: Bad Day at Black Rock is said to be the first American film to portray the use of eastern martial arts when Tracy’s character comes to a point at which he is driven to fight in self-defence, and displays a surprising propensity for karate, the Japanese martial art.

The film must still be regarded as deeply subversive to those “heartland” Americans for whom ignorance and provincialism are regarded as virtues. The outsider played by Tracy asserts a different sort of Americanism, a cosmopolitan, progressive and principled one, and is hated and feared as a result. Perhaps one day the film will be remade, set in the early 21st century, about an injured US veteran looking for the father of the Muslim-American soldier who saved his life.

 

Waltz with Bashir: a startlingly courageous Israeli exploration of that country’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre

Ari Folman in Beirut, from Waltz with Bashir

Ari Folman in Beirut, from Waltz with Bashir

Twenty years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, of which he was a participant, the writer and director Ari Folman realized that he had little memory of his time there. This included being stationed a few hundred metres from the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila during the three days in which the Phalangist militia massacred the population there.

Waltz with Bashir recounts how, with the help of others who had been there, including fellow soldiers, he began to recover his memory of the events. The result is this extraordinary “animated documentary”,

Palestinians and Lebanese have no voice in this film. Nevertheless it still represents some of the best impulses in Israeli society, documenting how an ordinary Israeli faces the truth of a particularly vile episode in his nation’s history in which he himself was directly implicated.

The massacre in Sabra and Shatila has echoes through history: one Israeli journalist, Ron Ben-Yishai a distinguished war correspondent who was the first journalist to witness and report on the massacre, and personally informed the then Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon of the massacre as it was occurring in a bid to get it stopped, recounts how the scene in the camps reminded him of the images of the Warsaw Ghetto.

There are other echoes in Middle Eastern history. One not mentioned in the film is how in 1268, on capturing the city of Antioch, the Sultan Baybars immediately locked the city gates to stop the escape of any of the town’s inhabitants as he proceeded to massacre them. Folman argues with this film that the role of the Israeli army during the massacre was the equivalent to Baybars’ locking of the gates. This allowed Israel’s Phalangist allies, Israeli-equipped and in the full knowledge of the highest Israeli military commanders, security to carry out the slaughter, safe in the knowledge that the civilians they were killing could not escape through Israeli lines. While the film may provide only a narrow perspective on the Lebanese invasion, it is a startlingly brave and humane one, showing how an ordinary individual human can take responsibility for himself and the best ideals of his country even in the face of racist atrocity and overwhelming historical events.