La la la, la la la la la, la la la…

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I mean, how else to start this ramble?

No, I know it’s almost been a year since I wrote anything here, but it’s been a terribly long and not particularly pleasant one, and if you don’t have anything good to say, sometimes it’s okay not to write thousands of words across the internet.

But I have a few good things to say. Mostly because I’ve started going to the cinema again, after Odeon finally decided they would introduce the Unlimited thing that Cineworld did for so long, and I could justify going to see films that weren’t necessarily going to be £15-good (what, realistically, can ever be that good?!).

I have two films to talk about. 1. LaLaLand. 2. Assassin’s Creed.

1. Now, I am not at all sure that LaLaLand is deserving of 14 Oscar nominations (certainly not those two songs – if any song in the film was good enough to be up there it was the John Legend one, that was decent), but I am very glad I went to see it in the cinema.

I’m just not quite sure I saw the same film as everybody else. Mind, I increasingly feel like my experience of life is not quite the same as everybody else, so at least it was consistent in that.

I thought it was beautiful. Really, truly beautiful and fascinating, but not at all beautiful because it was colourful, or because it was “like 1940’s coloured-in cinema”. At best, it was a cold pastiche of that, a wonky, bitter, tired pastiche of it. The song and dance routines, such as they were, owed as much to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they did to any Singin’ in the Rain, and trust me, no trust me, nobody has seen the Buffy musical more than I have.

Midway through Gosling and Stone’s first big number together, I got the image of Xander and Anya’s “I’ll Never Tell” in my head, and from thereon in, it was rather difficult to shake off. Same moves, same tone, same we’re-not-professionals-here thing; same influences, quite possibly, but that’s a lot of similarity.

And the relationship was very similar, too – it’s not healthy, it’s not positive, and these are not good people in any real sense of the word, but they each get something out of it.

One thing I felt very clearly about: the film hates Gosling’s character. Hates him. He’s called Sebastian, for starters, and Sebastians are rarely heroes (is the lobster one a hero? Is Sebastian a lobster? I’m trying to make a Little Mermaid reference but I’m too much of a snowflake to watch Little Mermaid so I’m falling flat on my own joke), and he is straight up awful, hideous, vile, from the moment we meet him, to the moment we leave him. I do not, cannot understand why anyone would find him to be a romantic lead. He’s a nightmare. But a useful one.

Mia, too, is a nightmare. Mia (the name of every secondary school student’s drama exam character) is tired and jaded and she’s probably a really good actress but we don’t really see or know enough of her to know, and I like Emma Stone’s voice but a lot of people don’t so it doesn’t really matter. She doesn’t really like Sebastian but he’s interesting, and interesting is enough, sometimes, because she isn’t really relying on him until she is because she wasn’t paying attention, and then that’s what happens sometimes in life: you fall into things that aren’t good for you in the long term…but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good for you eventually.

The thing I particularly like is that both Sebastian and Mia are pretty grim. Sebastian is objectively and excessively so, from the white-boy saviour of the jazz that is quite ready to save itself aspect, to the fact that he has textual experience of stalking women and insisting they will like him, because the way Sebastians live in this world is to say things are so until they are. He has precisely zero redeeming features, but Gosling is a brilliant actor of such difficult stuff, and therefore he is, somehow, still watchable.

Neither Sebastian nor Mia are intentionally, significantly awful to each other. Sebastian is self-centred and doesn’t pay attention to dates. He walks into her and doesn’t go to her play, but in his head, there are reasons for both that add up well enough. She is past caring about anything much, and doesn’t pay attention to dates, and she doesn’t like it when Sebastian seems like he might drop the one thing that kept him interesting – which is not, incidentally, his unsuccessfulness, but is instead his resolute intent to experience life at its most miserable. It is not that he makes her feel better about being unsuccessful, it is that he makes striving for the dream look a little more like the dream than it has done in a while.

It’s not particularly romantic. It’s not a great love story. It is a wonderful piece of story-telling about paths crossing at a crucial time in life, about how even the worst people can, whilst being awful, sometimes give you just what you need, and about how sometimes, you give them that too. And that, really, is fine.

Honestly. It’s fine. He doesn’t save her. She doesn’t save him. They kick each other, metaphorically, up the artistic arse, at their last chance to have done so.

That end bit, that rehashing of what it would have been like if they really had been a romantic couple, how it could have been…I look at the way they come out of that and see two characters who are not sorry that it did not pan out that way. It would not have been roses. It would not have been better. Seb wouldn’t have had his club, and would never have been a successful hanger-on; Mia wouldn’t have been able to give herself to her craft, nor to find herself again, her old self, who, I like to presume, was happy with the relationship she wound up with, even if, for a moment in time, it was not what she thought she had wanted.

That, then, is my lengthy how-I-read-this, and it may be that I have spent a lot of my life trying, on and off, to variously achieve dreams, serve coffee, and be interesting that it resonated so much for me, but I think this is a lot more snide and pushy and sarcastic a film than all the glowing reviews I see.

I’m here for dislikeable characters and difficult conversations and I don’t need to root for anyone to enjoy a film. I didn’t feel that was a musical; I felt like jazz thrived despite Sebastian, rather than because of him, and I would totally go and see The Messengers because the keyboards were pretty cool and I liked that song more than most of the rest of them. And there we have it.

2. Assassin’s Creed. And so to a film made, as they say, specifically to delight me. I mean, really. What a joy, what an absolute joy and delight. I would have thought this anyway, but there were two things that consolidated this. a) The fact that Michael Fassbender spends a good chunk of the tail end of the film shirtless FOR NO REASON and b) the fact that they spoke Spanish in Spain and that all the past was subtitled. Note, I say these consolidated my conviction it was made for me – I probably would’ve enjoyed it anyway.

The thing with Assassin’s Creed was that it understood the source material to the extent that you both are and are not the central character. You look good as Michael Fassbender, or it’s good to look at Michael Fassbender. You don’t know who you trust, until the story decides otherwise. You’re learning as you go along.

I thought the balance between past and present was perfect for upping the genre to something slightly more sci-fi, slightly less appropriated history. I thought it danced fairly neatly past all the usual issues with large blockbuster films – not least because, and once I started looking for it, I looked for it a lot and always found it, wherever there were men in positions of power or authority, there were also women, and the gender balance was spot on. I am less of the person to make this comment, but in some senses, it was also a far more racially diverse film than I am used to seeing from the big-budget, game-adapted genre.

Marion Cotillard was as good as I’ve ever had the opportunity to see her, but never better than during the sequence where, having consistently worn only flat shoes, her character suddenly dons a pair of wedges for the denouement. Cotillard is a grade A red carpet-walker and I’ve seen her master many heels flawlessly, but she acted “oh crikey these shoes are annoying” in the most subtle of ways that likely escaped anyone who’s never experienced it, but brought a real touch of insight and authenticity to her character.

The female roles were never ~female, and the father-daughter relationship was pleasingly written – never exactly subversive, but with an edge of interest that is often missing, for there was content aplenty, here. Indeed, the characters from major to minor all had their own characters and motivations, their own stories and lives – a conversation between two characters was two lives intersecting, and that meant there was far more weight to just about everything.

Indeed, I think that’s what I loved about the film. In many ways, the content was nonsense, and the plot was tenuous. It barely held together, but I was enjoying it so much for depth and range of character, and for sheer pacey spectacle, that I went with it. I had a small epiphany on leaving, which was that, in blockbusters which feature Megan Fox eschewing outerwear, most internet critics are happy to go along with things and will leave feeling relatively entertained. Now, I don’t know whether or not I would have been quite as delighted as I was if Fassbender had remained fully suited throughout, but I like to think that there was still enough substance. What didn’t happen, though, was any female character less than fully and appropriately clothed, so perhaps a certain demographic drifted off, and perhaps the plot wasn’t tight enough for the serious story enthusiast. But. But.

My hope is that the target demographic has shifted somewhat, and that just maybe, I am it, and that there are more like me out there, who can greatly enjoy a decent bit of cinema that makes just enough effort to subvert expectations by firmly meeting my own.

And so it’s been a lovely week in the cinema, for me! I wonder what other film-based joys 2017 has in store? It’s about the only area of things I’m particularly looking forward to. Next on my list of things to be specifically excited by is Hidden Figures, which I feel I have had to wait forever for already…

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because, Labyrinth.

If you didn’t see Labyrinth, starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie before the age of five, you missed a thing.

If you were a girl in the 1980s and you didn’t see it, you missed your chance for the best female inspiration in cinema, the most imagination-awakening piece of joyful abandon, and the most…David Bowie in tights.

I did see it though. It was raining, and one of our teachers had a grainy VHS copy of it from who-knows-where, and it was lunchtime and we sat in the school hall and stared at it, silently, in awe and wonder. We were five, so figuring out the riddles was impossible. I was an only child, so I had no conception of ‘having a brother’, step- or otherwise. The puppets were familiar, because Muppets, yet scary, because Jim Henson. And the setting was otherly and glorious and the end of another world.

In my head, it mixes with Knightmare, and Charn (from The Magician’s Nephew) and Cities of Gold, and other things I came to precociously young and enthusiastic.

And then there’s David Bowie, infinitely responsible, it seems, for my unerring adoration of blond, tall, slender men, preferably curiously-clad and able to sing strange and fantastic songs in curious, low tones.

The songs are brilliant, the puppets are incredible, the sets are amazing, everything is perfect. It’s a perfect film.

Watching it back, I wonder how few great heroines we’ve had in cinema since. Certainly, for the age group Labyrinth might have been aimed at. Indeed, was it aimed? Who was it aimed at? Did they worry about that kind of thing then? Labyrinth was an epic flop on its release, yet there aren’t many things I love more in the world of cinema, nor that I’ve watched so consistently, and with such glee.

It made me so, so happy when Jennifer Connelly grew up to be such a successful actress, and to marry a man so attractive and talented as Paul Bettany. She’s never stopped being a woman I admire and hope to, in some way, emulate, and it’s a testament to the strong and wise character she played that she still means so much to a generation of women.

Sarah remains a brilliant character. She makes the best of what she’s got: she takes responsibility for what she’s done, uses her brain and the context to do everything she can to move forwards at every opportunity. She figures out riddles, listens and learns, wants to see the best, isn’t discouraged by the appearance of failure, wants to see the best in people, is loyal and kind and good, and basically always wins, even when it looks like she’s failing.

This film is the gift I’d want to give any girl under twelve; it’s the part of my childhood that I’d defend to the utmost because it’s so strong and inspirational and beautiful. It’s the bit of the eighties I treasure more than anything, and it looked like something I thought I would grow up to see so much more of. Strong female character unashamedly doing her best in the most trying of circumstances. Sensibly dressed, in flat shoes, no superpowers, just loyalty and endeavour. Maybe one day something else will measure up. I look forward to that day.

(This post sparked by the conversation: if they *had* to remake Labyrinth right now: who would be David Bowie? And we thought, Patrick Wolf, for he is the only person who could pull this off. And then we thought, if they *had* to remake this like that, with Patrick, wouldn’t that at least be a bit wonderful?!)