REVIEW: Landline

18 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” prominently features a 1995 speech where Hillary Clinton claims, “However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us.” Unlike many time capsule items in the film — CD listening stations at music stores, Blockbuster Video, payphones, floppy disks — 5this line doesn’t feel like it’s just been lifted out of a BuzzFeed listicle about “25 Things You’d Only Know If You Were Alive in 1995.” It’s a dictum simple to say yet difficult to practice, as shown by the family in the film.

Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm craft an indelible portrait of the women in the Jacobs family, each at different life stages yet all struggling to feel the love with important companions. Matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) puts so much effort into maintaining family structure and function that her relationships have frayed with everyone, especially her charming but wishy-washy husband Alan (John Turturro). Adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) waffles on a marital commitment to fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), even going to the extent of acting out an alter ego named “Bedelia” that indulges her pent-up desires. Teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) takes to surrounding herself with drugs and dancing to dull her disinterest with the traditional roadmap laid out ahead of her.

If “Obvious Child” showcased that Robespierre could helm a character study, then “Landline” exhibits her talent with an ensemble piece. There are many complicated relationships to juggle in the film, each of which she handles with specificity and tenacity. (On a personal note, I found the tension between Dana and Ali spot on; as someone with a much younger sibling, Dana’s negotiation between being a quasi-parent and friend resonated tremendously.)

Robespierre is not afraid to have the tough, awkward conversations – and then dwell in the messy resolution, or lack thereof. For all the times I worried in the first 30 minutes that the film would be little more than a nostalgia-dripping scrapbook, she met them with incisive observations about how difficult it can be to connect with the people closest to us. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.

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REVIEW: La La Land

24 12 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.

But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.

If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.

Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.

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