singin’ in the sun

Fair warning – i am going to use the word ‘magic’ a lot in this post. Not going to apologise for it.

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Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is such a bundle of joy, glamour and heartbreak, that you can’t help but soak in every moment of the sheer magic that is transpiring on the big screen. There are fireworks, there is tap dancing, a riveting jazz score, a Technicolor palette that brightens up every frame, the sparkling chemistry between its gorgeous leads, and their tussle with their hopes and ambitions. Heck, at one point, the two leads are gliding and dancing in the air, dancing perfectly like two figurines in those old music boxes. Only in the movies, huh?

The first half is all about the heady charm of falling in Love (not just ‘love’, mind you.). Mia, a struggling actress, bumps into Seb, a struggling jazz pianist, and they live the romance that Hollywood has sold us in the movies of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. So much of the film is left to the mellow music by Justin Hurwitz and the painted sunsets of LA, that not much dialogue is needed. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance in various pretty spots around Los Angeles, and you sit there, with a goofy smile on your face, and you feel like singing and dancing along with them.

But as their love collides with their dreams, reality kicks in. Seb, a pianist whose music is firmly rooted in the past, struggles with his successful new band, whose music he doesn’t identify with. Mia is trying to still hit her big break. The two must confront the possibility that their relationship may not be able to coexist with their personal ambitions. Success comes at a price – and that price is not spending the rest of their lives together. The montage at the end of the film, with the alternate ending to Seb and Mia’s story, is rendered in a gorgeous montage, that is a treat to the eyes and ears.

Visually, the film is a stunning achievement. Chazelle goes all out to depict the magic of the movies, and you stare in wide-eyed wonder, because it has been a very long time since you saw something like this. The limelight falls on the lead when he or she is singing, while the lights dim in the rest of the room, because in that moment, it is only that lead who exists, pouring his or her heart out in song. The dances are choreographed beautifully, not a step out of line. You step out of the hall, gliding, like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, a big smile on your face. The music is soothing, a great relief from the repetitive hooks in today’s pop music. All you want to do when you get home, is put on Sidney Bechet, and melt your Sunday blues away.

My only gripe with the film, was the abrupt difference in the mood between the first half and the second half. At some points, you do feel that the dialogue walks a predictable path, and you wish that the writing could have offered something newer. The story of two beautiful people falling in love and fighting with their true desires, is not exactly a new story.

Again, that may be because, La La Land is supposed to be seen as a homage to the great old musicals and love stories of yesterday. In a cold, cynical present, we look to the past for comfort, for in our memories, the past is always tinged with a little sunshine, a little more colour, a little more sparkle. La La Land is escapism at its best, and that is what makes it a film that should not be missed.

man versus machine

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Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) is a triumph of the imagination. It makes you reconsider your definition of love, the value of human interaction, and tests boundaries of relationships like none else.

Set in near-future LA, Theodore Twombly (played affectingly by Joaquin Phoenix) writes personal letters for other people, people he has never met. Going through a divorce, he’s upset, lonely, and loveless. He purchases an intelligent operating system to help him get organised, and so meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice of the OS. Samantha talks like a human being, programmed to respond to all of Theodore’s needs. Wary at first, Theodore soon starts talking easily and intelligently to Samantha. During the brilliant first 45 minutes of the film, the two crack jokes, hang out, and he shares his feelings with her, realising that he can truly be himself around her, and the two fall in love.

Can one fall in love with artificial intelligence? Isn’t Samantha just a projection of terabytes of information and patterns of human behaviour, and so is just responding to Theodore’s cues? How can Theodore explain this relationship to his friends? Won’t this relationship jeopardise his present human ones? Does Theodore fall in love with Samantha because it’s easier than actually living with another person? How will Theodore sustain this relationship with what is just a voice, and not someone with a corporeal existence? Or does such physical existence not matter all? Is love then, artificial, and capable of replication? And so, does human interaction not matter at all?

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore with misery, pity, and deep sympathy, someone just hungry for a fulfilling relationship, no matter where that comes from. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha so well, that strangely enough, you don’t miss her physical presence onscreen. Yet the two have crackling, palpable chemistry, when essentially, Phoenix is just talking to a gadget. Scarlett Johansson plays Samantha so, that it’s difficult not to fall in love with her. Their chats running late into the night, them hanging out on the beach, and Samantha’s poignant farewell, are the highlights of the film.

Amy Adams is the human face of the film, as Theodore’s friend, maintaining a supportive view of the matter. Though on screen for very short, intermittent periods, she is the one we most easily relate to. Rooney Mara plays Theodore’s ex-wife, and realises exactly what he’s doing. And Theodore’s short, unsuccessful date with Olivia Wilde’s character mirrors his real-life failed loves. One thing that struck me personally, in that scene, is how Wilde thinks that Theodore looking her up on the internet (basically stalking her) is romantic and cute. This is what technology is going to do to us in the near future, folks. Another stray observation; the multitude of strong female characters, and no male ones. What does that say for Theodore?

The film is written hauntingly, beautifully by Spike Jonze, who has also directed several critically-acclaimed films like Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). Look out for the letters that Theodore dictates, and Samantha’s farewell to him. His success, i think, is in helping us entertain the idea that what Theodore and Samantha have, could be love. That is a triumph of brilliant writing and imagination indeed. The soundtrack is courtesy of Arcade Fire, consisting of dream pop and electronica, which heighten the sun-soaked atmosphere of the film. The film itself is shot in bright colours, and – i shall state this contritely – felt like it was captured in Instagram.

Yet, for all its preoccupation with artificial intelligence, i found Her to be a life-affirming film. That love is possible, even in places where we least expect it to be, or in places we have suspected all along.

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