Friday, December 30, 2016

La La Land movie review.

Sharing something of the same trajectory as the Western, the Movie Musical was once one of the proudest genres Hollywood had to offer. Whether Gene Kelly was Singin' in the Rain, or Fred Astaire was dancing cheek to cheek, or Julie Andrews exclaimed precocious gibberish words, the enchanting and feathery-light genre was a beacon of spectacular entertainment for decades. But in later years, such popularity eventually waned, soon making way for the blockbuster fare that would become a staple of modern cinema.

In my opinion, the musical never truly "died" (just look at the Disney Renaissance), but not until Moulin Rouge! or Chicago did audiences begin taking more notice of the once proud "pure" musical. Which brings us to 2016, and the release of La La Land, an enchanting ode to that bygone era of 50's musicals, and as far as I'm concerned, the film likely to remain the very best of the year.

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) longs for a career of stardom, but being stuck in a thankless cashier's position at a backlot coffee shop, and being outright snubbed from every audition she takes, her pipe dream slowly begins to get crushed. By chance, various times in her LA home, she comes across another disillusioned dreamer, talented jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a man desperate to get out of his dead-end side jobs, and open his own jazz club. It sets up a classic story of seeming opposites, but what starts as chance meetings soon become more affectionate and romantic, striking up a relationship, but as the two begin taking new risks in order to achieve their goals, will the two manage to stick together through the heartache and shattered expectations?

Dying art forms are in no way unfamiliar territory to director Damien Chazelle, fresh off his blistering music drama Whiplash, that had a similar focus on young dreamers hoping to accomplish their ultimate goals through hard work, being based around a heavily jazz-centric musical atmosphere, although with far more sinister and psychologically damaging results in Whiplash. While in many ways similar to Chazelle's goals with Whiplash, La La Land is a tonal antithesis to the damaging cruelty exhibited in his previous film, a film brimming with infectiously charming flare, and lacking any sense of cynicism without sacrificing depth or poignancy. From the moment that the film begins, observing the LA drivers caught in a traffic jam getting out of their cars and belting out their finest singing voices, it's hard not to have a huge smile plastered on your face.

Just as in many of the musicals Chazelle is taking influence from, where the movie thrives is based on the talent of their leading stars. Particularly owning the film is the effervescent Emma Stone. Herself one of the most charismatic talents of this century, feeling as if she could have easily come from that nostalgic era of films, she exudes a natural confidence and tremendous screen presence in the role, slipping into the skin of the character with a symbiotic ease, including embodying all the deep-rooted heartache that lives in Mia. It's an electrifying turn where Stone is able to smoothly transition from bubbly and enthusiastic, to letting loose her pent up distress through every inch of her facial expressions. After a while, those auditions she takes seem less like gigs, and more as a way to lay her heart and soul bare, coming to a heated boil in the standout character piece near the film's end. Stone is not only at her career best, but her performance is sure to go down as one of the year's greatest.

But she's not alone, joined in her third collaboration with Ryan Gosling (himself having a banner year with The Nice Guys also to his credit). Gosling's is the more harder-edged performance of the bunch, a pure traditionalist in jazz music barely scraping by with tribute bands at parties, and lousy renditions of Christmas Carols for tips (and bossed around by JK Simmons, in a hilarious bit of 180 meta-casting following Whiplash). He's a very intriguing contrast to Mia, as she is one to embrace the new, but Seb is far more resistant to make those progressions, and even if he does, like when joining with John Legend's Keith for a modernized style of jazz, it's done so with obvious disdain.

Individually the two are utterly captivating, but together (clearly having developed strong ties following their previous two outings), they form an absolutely alluring and infectious pairing worthy of joining Astaire and Rogers. But they're not the only ones working wonders on the screen, with Chazelle infusing every inch of the film with a painterly touch recalling classic cinema, intentionally flying in the face of the modern day setting with a retro charm and attention to set design, with Linus Sandgren's photography filled with numerous astonishing and lush tracking shots and lighting filters. But because any musical wouldn't be complete without great tunes, Chazelle's composer of choice Justin Hurwitz creates half a dozen instantly memorable and hummable melodies, with lovely and deeply felt lyrical accompaniment by Pasek and Paul, each contributing to Chazelle's incredible sense of flash.

But if that flash makes La La Land feel more style over substance, please know this is all done with a greater sense of purpose. Much like Fletcher's lament of jazz music slowly decaying in Whiplash, La La Land takes a very similar look at how the worlds of not only jazz, but especially cinema are seemingly fading out as new ways of presentation take their hold. It's been no secret that with the rise of home theater systems and Netflix, as well as an admitted rise in pricey ticket sales, that many now see home viewing the preferable option to theaters, derided for their uncleanliness and distraction, even though it's been my personal experience that the former allows for far greater distraction. As Mia runs through her auditions, with her uncaring casting directors more interested in their lunches and smart phones, and as Mia and Seb's relationship begins taking more hits, La La Land says a great deal about how numb viewers have come to be in regards to the cinema. We live in a very troubled world with a great deal of cynicism behind it, where films based around whimsical settings like La La Land are seen as a fantasy to wake up from.

But at the same time, one has to wonder: What's wrong with embracing that fantasy sometimes?

While film may have started out as a means of business and a financial goldmine, and soon after became a great sandbox of artistic expression and pushing boundaries, it was a place that mainly existed as a means of escapism. Film has always been an illusion, and we knew it was an illusion, but for those two hours that we let the mood of a film wash over us, we didn't care. The cinema was like a safe haven for us, a means of being allowed to shrug away the fears and pressures of a cruel world, and share in the imagined adventures of others. We wanted to be moved, we wanted to feel young at heart, and until the projector finally stopped and the curtains closed, we felt at home. We would indeed have to wake up and continue facing those outside pressures, but the beauty of the theater was and still is its magical ability to transport, to blur the lines between fictional and real, and even if only momentarily, bring a smile to someone's face. It's much of what has enabled the cinematic experience to linger on as long as it has, and why the medium still enchants viewers decade after decade, musical or non-musical. For all those reasons and more, in case it hasn't been glaringly obvious since the start, I adored La La Land from start to finish, and so I can't give it anything less than a perfect grade...

***** / *****

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