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Feb 26/17

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: La La Land (Movie); Toni Erdmann (Movie)

Toni Erdmann (Movie) written and directed by Maren Ade; starring Sandra Hller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Ptter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewich Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol

A delivery man arrives at a door with a package and rings the bell. The door is opened by a guy who says that the package is for his brother who, as it happens, has just finished serving a prison sentence for sending mail parcel bombs. Then the guy who opened the door steps inside, coming back after a moment with a wig and a set of prosthetic teeth, pretending to be the brother. When ominous beeps are heard, the guy assures the delivery man that they’re not coming from the package but from his blood pressure monitor. You can’t blame the delivery man for being a bit disconcerted.

As are we, the audience members, on our introduction to Winfried. A German in late middle age, he turns out to be quite the jokester. The story that develops, in the context of his on-going pranks, is that he travels to Bucharest to visit his daughter, a business consultant who’s in the process of trying to close an important deal. Father/Daughter communication doesn’t go all that well – they love each other, apparently, but they’re not able to express affection or to be comfortable in each other’s company – so Winfried leaves Bucharest.

Or pretends to. Thereafter, in the guise of a kook named Toni Erdmann, he keeps popping up in various situations and bumping into his daughter. You might say he’s stalking her. Always with that ragged wig and those horrible teeth. He keeps embarrassing her and creating awkward situations, until she starts to play along, pretending to accept him for the enigmatic stranger he’s posing as. In one case, for example, he presents himself to a group of her acquaintances as the German Ambassador to Romania.

And so it goes, for nearly three hours. This is certainly one of the most original studies of the Father/Daughter relationship. A far cry from the works on that subject by Giuseppe Verdi and William Shakespeare. Here, nobody launches into any arias or engages in any profound dialogue that explores the issue of how fathers and daughters feel about each other. But we can accept the lack of eloquence as probably more real for many people these days than the classical dramas would be.

In spite of Toni’s being willing to look like a fool, there’s ultimately a sadness about him, a quality that goes with a lot of the great clowning roles.There’s no plot, other than that he seems to be trying to break through his daughter’s reserve. In a way, this strikes an achingly true note. We all know how difficult it can be sometimes for parents to connect in a meaningful way with their adult offspring. Peter Simonischek is affecting and poignant as the shambling dad and Sandra Hller deserves a special award for responding to all his provocations with a heroic attempt at sangfroid that, nevertheless, doesn’t deny an underlying loyalty.

A lot of people see this, in spite of the pervasive melancholy, as a hilarious comedy. I can’t help wondering if that sort of response is a way of congratulating themselves for liking something that’s so non-Hollywood. If it is a comedy, though, it’s definitely a one-joke movie. The dad’s antics go on and on, with no development or resolution. In that respect, the movie amounts to something of a shaggy dog story. We keep wondering when we’re going to get to the point, if there is one.

Apart from the father/daughter subject, the movie touches on other issues. Some bizarre sexual stuff appears to be thrown in for no reason other than to show that this aspect of life, just like the rest of it, is devoid of any purpose or reason. In its depiction of the daughter’s working world, the movie does offer some social commentary in the way it highlights the vapidity and the insincerity of the cocktail parties, the schmoozing, the presentations and team-building exercises. Sometimes, though, we’re drawn too deeply into the daughter’s business negotiations that can be difficult to follow. Is this, too, meant to make us realize that a person’s working life can be as shallow and irrelevant as everything else?

In the end, the movie does make a tiny bit of a statement, tosses out just a hint of meaning, but did it need to take so long to get that kernel of truth? Do you need to subject viewers to so much tediousness and meaninglessness in order to show how tedious and meaningless life is?

 

La La Land (Movie) written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Here’s the opening scene of this movie:

A traffic jam on the freeway in Los Angeles. A long line of immobile cars. So what do all the frustrated drivers do? Why, of course, everybody gets out and starts singing and dancing on the hoods of their cars. And, by the way, they’re all under thirty, in excellent shape, and good looking.

Gimme a break!

How is a curmudgeonly geezer supposed to react to this???

Well, he could sit tight and learn that Hollywood has discovered that a good romance, lots of great choreography, catchy songs, colourful costumes, flair and pizzazz can make a movie that will entertain even a curmudgeonly geezer.

It helps, of course, if your two stars are oozing charm, as these two are (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). And there’s great chemistry between them. Their first duet is one of those classic I-don’t-like-anything-about-you-and-I’m-not-attracted-to-you things. The movie hits several of the other touchtones for great musicals, most notably the climactic Climb-Every-Mountain aria, how you’ve got to follow your dream, fight the good fight and all that.

The plot is thinner than a strand of spaghetti. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) wants to be a jazz pianist in the purist tradition but, for the sake of the money, he has taken a job with a hugely successful but schlocky band that does a sort of pop jazz. Meanwhile, Mia is getting fed up with humiliating auditions that aren’t getting her any closer to her hopes of an acting career, so she’s settling for a barista job. The big dramatic conflict that eventually comes is predictable and simplistic. Still, the stars make it gripping by throwing themselves into it with gusto. When Mr. Gosling yells at Ms. Stone for giving up on her dream, it makes you sit up straighter in your seat.

But the movie’s not about plot. It’s about glamour, fun and romance. What might be called surrealistic or magical touches – things that I dislike usually – enhance this movie’s appeal. When Mia and Sebastian visit a planetarium, they start dancing and, next thing you know, they’ve levitated and they’re cavorting – to wondrous effect – among the stars.

Whether or not this movie will win the Oscar for best film, I can’t say, but it deserves to win for no other reason than that it’s such a glorious example of the kind of thing Hollywood does best: escape entertainment. It deserves special credit for an ending that boosts the movie into a meaningful realm of art not often reached by the typical musical. It’s difficult to say much about that ending without spoiling it. Let’s just say it’s realistic and believable in a particularly contemporary way. One of the most memorable moments in the movies of recent years comes near the end of La La Land where Mr. Gosling leans into a microphone and purrs: "Welcome to Seb’s." He gives those three simple words enough irony and pathos to send you home reeling.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com