This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives. It’s a masculine melodrama that doubles as a fable of social catastrophe. Lee, Joe and their friends would never define themselves as privileged. They have proletarian tastes and sensibilities. But they also have paid-up houses and boats, kids on track for college, decent medical care and an ironclad entitlement to the benefit of the doubt. (Observe what happens to Lee in the Manchester police station and you’ll see what I mean.) Their main problems come from women, who spoil the parties, don’t get the jokes and sometimes can’t control their drinking or keep their pants on. Some are good moms or good sports, and anyway, a man can always steal away to the boat or the basement with the guys and some beers.2
Cast out of this working man’s paradise, Lee is also exiled from the prerogatives of whiteness. He lives in a basement room, earning minimum wage, answering to an African-American boss and accepting a tip from a black tenant whose toilet he has cleaned and repaired. He doesn’t complain, but it is also clear that he has chosen these conditions as a form of self-abasement, as punishment for his sins.
Maybe its sounds like I’m over-reading, or making an accusation. But to deny that “Manchester by the Sea” has a racial dimension is to underestimate its honesty and overlook its difficult relevance. Lee is guilty and angry, half-convinced that what happened was not his fault and half-certain that it was, unable to apologize or to accept apologies, paralyzed by grief and stung by a sense of grievance. He’s broken, and he’s also smart enough to realize — and Mr. Lonergan is wise and generous enough to allow him to understand — that nothing will make him whole again.
In his approach to work, Seb is a proud purist, perpetually oppressed and affronted by the prospect of compromise. To pay the rent, he is obliged to take what he regards as demeaning gigs: tickling out Christmas carols and show tunes at a restaurant (the manager is J. K. Simmons, the fearsome Oscar-winner from “Whiplash”); doing ’80s pop hits with a knowingly cheesy cover band; touring with a combo fronted by an old friend who has made it big.3
That friend, Keith, is played by the real-life R&B star John Legend, whose affable participation presents an interesting challenge to Seb’s dogmatic traditionalism. It seems doubtful that Mr. Legend would have shown up to perform music that he thought was bad, and Keith’s unapologetic commercialism is less a strawman for Seb’s high-mindedness than a plausible counterargument. The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise.
This is especially true in Mia’s case. She works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros.’ lot, dashing off to audition for small roles in dubious films and television shows. But, of course, the line between art and junk is also blurry, partly because to qualify for the junk you must be absolutely dedicated to your art. Which Mia is, in a way that magnifies Ms. Stone’s extraordinary discipline, poise and naturalness.
The real tension in “La La Land” is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict. A cynical but not inaccurate way to put this would be to describe it as a careerist movie about careerism. But that would be to slight Mr. Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.
Other than some fanciful nonsense that dribbles out of Bobby Kennedy (Mr. Sarsgaard), the film mostly avoids presidential politics and policies, as well as the grim scandals, sex parties and popped pills. Instead, it explores the fantasy that becomes that scandalous house’s own double: Camelot, as Mrs. Kennedy christened it. The idea of the Kennedy years as Camelot became an enduring trope and, for some, a maddening lie. In a 2011 essay in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens took a whack at Jacqueline Kennedy, arguing that her “winsome innocence,” as he put it, was “a soft cover for a specific sort of knowingness and calculation.” This knowingness seemed to repulse him; it galvanizes “Jackie.”4
The film takes Jackie’s cunning and dissimulations as much for granted as it does her elegance and love of couture. Put differently, it takes her personhood for granted, which may be why Mr. Larraín shows all the snot, tears and blood, all the desperate bodily mess. In “Jackie,” Kennedy’s body — the object of obsessive inquiries — is replaced by hers in a kind of symbolic transfiguration as she assumes the role of his dignified representative, the guardian of a shining legacy. The assassination was a national and personal tragedy, one which she answered with a myth which was an act of radical will and sovereignty. She married John F. Kennedy; she also helped invent him.
Peluchonneau is a tragically constricted soul, but not an entirely unsympathetic character. Neruda is a heroic figure — comic and Dionysian, brilliant and naughty — but his personal Javert is in some ways the film’s protagonist. Neruda is annoyed and sometimes amused by the detective’s doggedness, but Peluchonneau is haunted by the poet’s mystique, and by a growing sense of his own incompleteness. A curious symbiosis develops between them, a dynamic more complex and strange than the simple conflict of good and evil.Playwrights are scriptwriters more now than in the past. The author of the autobiographical story that became the basis for Moonlight is the new head of playwrighting at Yale. He'd already won a MacArthur. The man behind Penny Dreadful is the author of Red. I google one of the scriptwriters of Gotham on a hunch.
Mr. Larraín is a master of moral ambiguity. His previous films about Chile — “Tony Manero,” “No” (which also starred Mr. Bernal) and “The Club” — are interested in collaboration as well as resistance, in the inner lives of the corrupt as well as the actions of the virtuous. Those movies, in particular “Tony Manero,” set during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, and “The Club,” about a group of disgraced priests, are studies in claustrophobia, with cloudy cinematography and grubby behavior.
“Neruda” has a looser story, richer colors and a more buoyant spirit. It is less abrasive than Mr. Larraín’s Chilean trilogy, and less intensely focused than “Jackie,” his new English-language film about Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. But like that unorthodox foray into history, this one approaches political issues from an oblique angle, looking for the idiosyncrasies and ironies that humanize the pursuit of ideals and the exercise of power.
The period details cast a romantic glow over Neruda’s flight, which feels more swashbuckling than desperate. But the film casts a shadow forward in time, into the darkness of Chile’s later, bloodier period of military rule, and beyond that into the political uncertainties of the present, in Latin America and elsewhere. Mr. Larraín invites us to believe that history is on the side of the poets and the humanists, and that art will make fools of politicians and policemen. But he is also aware, as Pablo Neruda was, that history sometimes has other plans.
NY Times, November, 2010
Craig Wright, who has written and produced for shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Lost” and “Brothers and Sisters,” said working in television has made him a better playwright. His new comic drama “Mistakes Were Made,” now at the Barrow Street Theater, is a taut work in which Michael Shannon plays an opportunistic Broadway producer, loosely based on the multiple Tony-winner Kevin McCollum. That it’s a sympathetic portrait of the usually demonized producer, Mr. Wright says, is partly because of his work in Hollywood. “One of the things you experience creating television,” he said, “is that there’s this fake vanity sometimes on the part of the writers who still labor under this old idea that the writers are Artists with a capital A, and the producers and studio executives are businessmen who just want to make a buck.”This extends from the UK model. Joe Orton's first play began as a radio play. Mike Leigh started in theater and then made television plays. I've said before that the UK did television better than film; that TV was visually uninteresting because of the format; film is pictorial, and English is a literary culture. Widescreen changes things but not that much; long form TV is still visual prose. Film now sometimes risks becoming pictorial formalism