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Random Review Time – La La Land

By | Hollie Williams, Lifestyle, TV/Film | No Comments

I think it’s time to take a break from my usual chat about disability and have what I have christened one of my HRRs, that is a Holly’s Random Review. This is when I use my blog to give my thoughts on a show, film or other piece of entertainment that I’ve seen. I do this normally when it’s been a big treat or something I have particularly enjoyed or just when I haven’t found a news story that had piqued my interest. So I have decided to give my opinion on the film I’ve just seen: La La Land

La La Land (PG-13)

This modern take on the classic 1940s Hollywood musicals follows the love story between frustrated jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) and waitress and wannabee actress Mia (Emma Stone) as they struggle to build and maintain their love affair while at the same time pursuing their individual careers in tinsel town. The movie has been showered with acclaim by critics who seem enraptured by director Damien Chazelle’s attempt to take the genre in new directions for the modern era but personally I found the work problematic. While the film starts of on a sunny, upbeat note with a number in which drivers stuck in traffic on the Los Angeles highway jump out of their cars to sing and dance, followed closely by another featuring our heroine getting ready for a night on the town with her girlfriends. The film quickly sags into a tone more fitting to an semi-serious examination of modern relationships with large periods of realistic dialogue and acting during which it is easy to forget you are watching a musical at all. I don’t have anything against realistic drama, though it is not a genre I particularly enjoy, nor am I against heightened realities on film as long as the hyped-up style is constant throughout the piece. But the two married together is very jarring for a watcher of modern musicals, who perhaps needs the cartoon burlesque factor of Chicago or Hairspray or the overblown melodrama of the screen versions of Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables to feel comfortable with characters bursting into song at any moment. It is almost too comical to have our leads exchanging natural dialogue about their lives and dreams one minute and then floating up to dance on the ceiling the next.

Of course Chazelle is trying to reference something great here, looking back to the great ‘put on a show’ shows of MGM such as Singin’ in the Rain or A Star Is Born. But while audiences of the time were happy to believe the puffed dream of Hollywood glamour, viewers in the 21st century are perhaps a little more savvy as to what goes on behind the silver screen, and trying to address this more sophisticated view on the world Chazelle perhaps loses something. Seb and Mia are very modern characters with all the flaws, hang-ups and ego drives of modern performers trying to be a success, they behave and are played like a hundred other romantic leads in other comedies and dramas. The performances by Gosling and Stone are subtle and not overblown so when they do suddenly burst into song out of the blue its seems frankly bizarre. Maybe if everything had been ramped up to ten with violent declarations of love and hysterical sobbing the addition of songs wouldn’t seem so out of place. But La La Land wants to have its cake and eat it, being both naturalistic for long stretches and then diving half-heartedly into fantasy when it remembers it isn’t simply a drama. The setting is very much a Hollywood version of Hollywood; back lots and palm trees, where the seedier side of struggle and failure is only hinted at, a Hollywood that perhaps did exist once upon a time but is unbelievable  in 2017.

The overall atmosphere of La La Land is that of a unenthusiastic smugness. The film gives the impression that its doing something deep and marvellous while in fact no-one seems to be trying that hard. The songs are melodic and hummable but easily forgettable once the credits roll which is bizarre as Gosling’s character is meant to have a passion for jazz. Likewise, Gosling himself does a passable job in the role. He can hold a tune but that’s no challenge as the melodies are so marshmallow light that they can be spoke-sung without much effort, although his whole demeanour gives of the air of someone who isn’t really comfortable as a song and dance man. Whenever he performs, you are given the distinct impression that he finds it all rather embarrassing and would be much happier if this was just a straight drama. As for Stone, the word to describe her, and so much else in this film is ‘nice’.  She looks very pretty crying in the close-ups and her voice is sugary and a lot better than some past actors and actresses roped into the rebirth of the big hit musical (see Richard Gere in Chicago). But what the film highlights is that these days a big name doesn’t guarantee the skills needed to carry off a musical performance and for those who have seen real singers and dancers who have to come up to scratch night after night on stage, the flaws show. This is especially the case with much of the dancing which seems lacklustre and walked-through, making you realise just how much effort and skill is put in to something like say Strictly. Because Chazelle has borrowed so much from the greats of the past; Astaire, Kelly, every number leaves you with the reminder that it’s all been done many years before and so much better.

What makes La La Land differ from those golden movies of the past is that it lacks heart. I don’t have a problem with it creating a highly false edifice so long as there are some true emotions behind it. The problem is the story of Mia and Seb’s very modern romance doesn’t seem to fit within the reality the film tries to create.

2/5 Overhyped and boring. Nice background film for grandmas.

A man starring at a TV in a dark room

ABA isn’t Always the Way to Unlock Autism

By | Disability, Hollie Williams, Lifestyle, TV/Film | No Comments

BBC4 had a fascinating documentary this week on a new and controversial treatment for dealing with children with autism. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a system of teaching started in the 1960s which stems from a reward and punishment approach that was developed from experiments with animals. It claims to reduce unwanted traits in children with the condition through a system of drawing attention to good behaviour and ignoring or not responding to negative actions. While this approach simply sounds at first to be nothing more than good parenting, ABA has split the autistic community down the middle. Many parents who put their children through ABA programmes swear by its effectiveness. But those who believe that autism isn’t so much a disability but a different way of the brain working disagree.

Watching the two camps articulately argue their cases, it is hard not to fit them into the old opposing social versus medical model of disability and like always I can see real validation in both points of view. I do not claim to be an expert in autism, it is one of the disabilities I find hardest to understand, although ironically I am told by close family members that my personality shares many traits  recognised as symptoms of autism (I sometimes struggle with social cues and communication and am prone to obsessive thoughts and behaviours). I have friends who have been classed as being on the milder end of the autistic spectrum. What strikes me is that autism IS a spectrum of intensity of behaviour, just as Cerebral Palsy is a spectrum of physical and mental ability. No two people are the same.

I can fully understand the intense frustration for parents especially when they struggle to gain any meaningful communication from their children. It must be a very heart-breaking and lonely place to be, and the desperation to try anything that might work must be immense. But, as with the case of PETO in the treatment of those with disabilities in the 1980s, I would think it would be very hard to judge whether a child’s ability to develop skills such as language are indeed down to a course of intensive repetitive treatments, that can last for eight hours a day, or whether they would have picked up them naturally. Practitioners of ABA claim that the tantrums and adverse behaviour displayed by autistic children at the start of a programme when ‘unhelpful’ traits and habits are denied them will lessen over time as they no longer receive a response. But  the question has to be asked how long is it acceptable to leave a child in distress before they learn that their behaviour is getting them nowhere. We know now the autistic brain is wired differently; that the channels of perception of information from the outside world take in stimulus in a way that is different from a ‘normal’ brain. The filters that many of us take for granted to block out much of the data flooding into us every moment of every day simply aren’t there, and many of the repetitive ‘ticks’ and habits are a self-formed method of comforting  and a way of focusing the brain on one thing to form some sort of mental order in their world. It is many of these ticks that ABA works towards removing because they are seen by the wider society as unacceptable. I was struck when watching the programme by a scene that showed a young Swedish boy repetitively turning the pages of a book back and forth and his ABA therapist saying to camera this was not ‘productive behaviour’. While this maybe true, the question must be raised as to who does this behaviour actually hurt and whether, if the repetition gives the child comfort,  does it have a purpose beyond that which we can understand? Are we, as a society,  prepared to spend immense amounts of time and energy to mould autistic children’s minds into a set of pre-agreed social behaviours against their mental comfort and well-being? Is such behaviour on the part of adults a bit abusive when it is basically breaking someone’s will to make them become something they are fundamentally not? Many autistic adults gradually learn to lessen their ticks in public settings to conform but still maintain their way of seeing and reacting to the world as a fundamental part of who they are as a person. In fact, there are those who use their ability to focus and take in immense detail to achieve phenomenal feats in areas such as maths and art. Is it right to ‘cure’ such a way of thinking?

It is hard to knock ABA  when you see the case studies  in which it works. When you witness a child go through the programme and develop and improve you do feel good for not only them but for the relief seen in their parents. But any achievement comes at a cost. A cost of time and effort put in by parents, child and teachers to get the child to that goal and also the loss of seeing where the child’s autistic mind would naturally lead them. By making a child always have to submit to a behaviour decided by an adult in order to get approval and rewards rather than loving them for the person they are, you are perhaps leading them down a road of self doubt where they don’t develop the important ability to decide for themselves and say no.

MOTOWN: The Musical -A Review

By | Disability, Lifestyle, TV/Film | No Comments

 

 

Holly Williams

I like to keep things mixed up in this blog. Usually, I focus on disability issues but that can get a wee bit boring at times, at least for me if not for my audience. So as it was my birthday this past Wednesday and my parents were kind enough to treat me to one of my favourite things: a West End show,  I thought I’d try my hand at theatre reviewing and give my personal opinion on what we saw. If you are thinking of heading up to London and want a second opinion you might find it useful.

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MOTOWN: The Musical -A Walk Down Memory Lane But You Might Get Deja Vu

The hits of Motown are the latest catalogue to get the Juke Box musical treatment following such massive successes as Mamma Mia! and The Jersey Boys. It’s rich pickings too with well-loved tunes such as Baby Love and My Girl guaranteed to bring back the fondest memories for anyone who lived through the 60s and 70s as well as those too young to remember but love a classic, well-written pop song.  Musically-wise this show will not disappoint, packed full as it is with the glossiest and classiest that Berry Gordy’s music factory churned out in its heyday.

Indeed , the man behind such iconic stars as Smokey  Robinson and Diana Ross and the Supremes steps from behind the boardroom table to take centre stage in this showcase of his finest work. Not only is this a celebration of classic black American Rhythm and Blues from its birth into main-stream, previously predominately white popular music, it is also a bio of the man who gave those early black artists a shot at showing their writing and singing talents to the world, Berry Gordy, ably played by American lead Cedric Neal. But while Neal is along with the rest of the cast, more than vocally capable of handling the classic catalogue, the truth remains that the plot woven around Gordy’s life is fairly thin and doesn’t show him as a very likable character. A bizarre fact as the real Gordy wrote the book for the show himself which makes you wonder how on earth did he want to portray his time at the top. Bio-shows like this and Jersey Boys always suffer from cutting both the full length of certain numbers and the details of their subject’s lives to fit a three hour runtime, but while Jersey Boys did give you a sense of Valli’s friendships and personal life, the ultimate focus of MOTOWN is Gordy’s business success. He comes across as a person who was determined to succeed in whatever field he went into, if it hadn’t been music, he would have made it to the top in another area. While that can-do attitude is admirable in real life, the lack of true passion for music in a main character of a show like this robs the heart of the story, no matter how engaging the songs are. It’s difficult to spend the three hours with a protagonist you simply don’t like and who you feel is less interested in issues of black and white and more concerned with all matters green.

Of course, any show set in this period of American history has to deal with the mountainous political issues around race and the cultural upheaval happening at the time. In fact, with MOTOWN being a company who were pushing black artists by a black label, it should have been at the core of the story’s motivation. But while references to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s death are sprinkled liberally around the main plot, you never get the feeling that Gordy truly was engaged in such matters that were vital to his community, leaving such points as empty window dressing which lack the gravity they perhaps deserve. One could argue that such matters weren’t the subject of MOTOWN, that the focus is Gordy’s life and the music he produced. But with other shows like Memphis and, dare I say it, even Hairspray handling Americans of different colour coming together through the love of arguably some of the best music in the past century and still managing not to let the message crush the very songs involved, MOTOWN is left feeling clunky, even disrespectful. So by the time the cast closes Act 1  with What’s Going On? I was left feeling the answer was ‘why should I care? I don’t think Berry Gordy does!’

What Gordy DID clearly care about, apart from the good old dollar, was his muse and lover Diana Ross and much of the run time is devoted to their troubled affair. But even that seemed somehow, well, bland and I can’t say really why. Perhaps it is because Gordy’s character is lacking in charisma or that Lucy St Louis seems to be struggling to fill Ross’s glittering shoes. She gives it her all, no doubt, and her voice is pleasant and strong enough to belt out Ross’s hits. It just seems like to become an iconic diva like Ross she is having to go SO big, her manner SO affected, that the more intimate moments of what was a difficult love/business affair gets lost. But perhaps the real blame lies not with Neal or St Louis but in the fact that the ups and downs of the Gordy/Ross romance has been already expertly played  out in fiction in the Oscar winning ‘Dream Girls’. Knowing that the real Gordy wrote the book for this version makes it impossible  to watch him lovingly ‘guide’ her career without wondering how much freedom Ross really had.

But despite all the criticism, MOTOWN is very enjoyable, mainly due to the golden soundtrack performed by the talented cast. Greats such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder are capably portrayed, although their interesting characters and lives are not given anywhere near enough focus, belting out the hits that helped the studio rise to its iconic status. I particularly enjoyed the acapella reprise of My Girl towards the end  of Act 1 while Act 2 is packed with all the satiny gloss and funk of the 1970s. No, musically MOTOWN can’t be faulted and is definitely worth the ticket price for someone who is a fan of this era of pop and soul. I just question whether the songs and performers would have been better fitted to a straight tribute show without the unengaging frame of Gordy’s autobiography.

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