Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'La La Land' review

Hype can really kill a movie. When you've heard nothing but great things about a film for months, seeing the final product for yourself can lead to inevitable disappointment. I've had this happen many times before, and whenever I see a hotly-anticipated festival title or a movie that I've been looking forward to for a long time, the potential for a letdown weighs on the back of my mind. For me, Damien Chazelle's La La Land was a perfect storm of anticipation. I absolutely adore Whiplash, Chazelle's first feature, I love both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the idea of a throwback to the Technicolor musical classics of the 1950s is inherently appealing to me. Going into 2016, I was already pretty excited for La La Land. Then came the reviews. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival before going to Telluride and Toronto, and at all three festivals, La La Land received almost unanimous raves. Critics and audiences alike hailed it as a monumental achievement, a blast from the past that could revitalize a dying genre and send shockwaves through the industry. Within days, the film was at the top of every prognosticator's list for the Best Picture Oscar. My excitement only grew, and it increased even more with the release of several top-notch trailers. I expected a masterpiece, an instant classic, one for the ages, etc. But was there any way that this movie could ever come close to reaching my lofty, wild expectations?

After months of hype, La La Land still managed to completely and totally blow me away. For starters, yes, it's a musical that looks back fondly at the old days of cinema, where movie stars, glorious colors, and beautiful dreams graced the screen and transported viewers to a different world. It's a truly magical film, with sequences that will go down as all time classics and moments that will slap a big smile on your face. It's invigorating and full of joyful life, a beautiful ode to Los Angeles and the dreamers that live there. Its energy is infectious- I wanted to dance and sing for the rest of the day. La La Land is a colorful, happy musical that will be beloved by pretty much everybody. But it's more than that. I overheard a conversation when I was at the Toronto International Film Festival about this film, from some people who presumably had yet to see the film. "Yeah, yknow, it's gonna be this year's version of The Artist," said one of the men, as the others in the group nodded in agreement. "It's a musical for people who've never seen a musical, just like The Artist was a silent movie for people who'd never seen a silent movie," he concluded, as the conversation shifted to other topics. 

This stuck in my mind, and part of me firmly expected La La Land to purely be an exercise in nostalgia. Some critics had said that it was more than that, so I kept my hopes high. But if it had just been a fun, somewhat slight throwback musical, I would have been fine with that as well. Thankfully, Chazelle has more on his mind than old-school theatrics. La La Land is a sneakily profound film, a movie that further encapsulates Chazelle's favorite themes as a filmmaker and showcases them on a heartbreaking, thoroughly romantic scale. If Whiplash was about a man so violently driven by his passion that cutting off all connections and destroying his humanity was like second nature to him, then La La Land is about two people conflicted by their love for each other and their love for their art. With that idea in mind, Chazelle has created one of the greatest love stories ever, one of those instantly iconic romances that dreams are made of. La La Land is as magical and dazzling and gorgeously made as you've heard, a hopelessly romantic musical that will send audiences over the moon. It's everything you could want it to possibly be and more.

It's another hot, sweaty, traffic-filled day in Los Angeles, the city where dreams go to die. Or if you're the characters in La La Land, it's just "Another Day of Sun." As the traffic piles up on the interstate, tons of colorfully dressed Californians hop out of their cars, singing and dancing in the hot sun to celebrate the place where anything is possible. After this splendid opening number, we meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who's on her way to an audition. She's trying to study lines, and she's holding up traffic. A car zooms by and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, stares her down and honks his horn. She gives him the finger and the two move on with their day. This is just the first of many encounters between Mia and Sebastian, two artists caught in the web of the Los Angeles talent machine. Her audition doesn't go spectacularly well, while he is fired later in the day by a boss (J.K. Simmons) that doesn't appreciate his jazzy freestyles. They're both stuck, clinging to dreams that seem more and more distant by the day.

Cut to several months later and the two run into each other again, this time at a pool party. After a coffee date, a walk around the Warner Bros. lot, and a dance in the sparkling moonlight of L.A., it's clear that Mia and Sebastian are beginning to fall for each other. Their storybook romance begins, and it's clear that their love for one another is quite strong. However, their relationship will be tested by their own personal dreams. Sebastian finds a great opportunity to raise money for club through an old friend's band, while Mia is left to work on her one-woman show. As the two slowly begin to see their dreams shift and crumble and grow, the question is raised- can they be together and realize their dreams at the same time? Through lyrical sequences of joyous musical poetry, La La Land gives us a bold tribute to the ones who dream and the sacrifices that are made along the way.

Damien Chazelle was always too smart of a filmmaker to make a movie that was just a throwback to a bygone era, and La La Land is no pure nostalgia trip. Chazelle clearly has a deep sense of adoration for the musicals of the MGM days, but he's also a writer and director who has some heavy stuff weighing on his mind. Whiplash was about obsession and the pursuit of success, and La La Land takes those ideas and applies them to one of the most lovely big screen romances we've seen in a long time. It's a wondrous, spectacular film that somehow manages to be grounded in a painful, truthful sense of reality. Most of all, La La Land is a movie about dreams. The magical Los Angeles in the film is shining home of the dreamers, a place where even the most hopeless, broken dreams can come true. It's relentlessly optimistic, but deeply real.

Success comes at a personal cost, which is a motif that seems to constantly be on Chazelle's mind. In the pursuit of dreams, people will sacrifice their well-being, their friendships, and even the people they love most to achieve their passion. La La Land focuses on the latter, and there's such a strange sense of cold, hard truth in this marvelous, colorful universe. Chazelle is infatuated with the idea of the glamour, beauty, and magic of old Hollywood, but he recognizes that it's all a fantasy. In the movies, you achieve fame beyond your wildest dreams and you get to be with the love of your life. But in the real world, that doesn't happen. Things get in the way- jobs, tours, recording sessions, rehearsals, auditions, performances, the list goes on. At some point, you have to make a choice. That choice isn't easy and it may leave you wondering what would have happened had you chosen another route, but it's one that has to be made. La La Land is a movie about making an impossible choice between two things that you love. It's a shining, remarkable musical about love, success, and the heartbreak that comes when those two mix together.

With that whirlwind of ideas in mind, Chazelle has made a movie that will send your heart soaring into the clouds before bringing tears to your eyes with one of the best cinematic endings I've ever seen. His movie is an astonishing feat of filmmaking that blends his adoration for the magic of movies with his keen eye for humanity and emotion. Chazelle hasn't just imitated the classic musicals of the olden days- he's taken the style and made it his own, injecting it with so much love, passion, and vibrant energy that you'll probably have a hard time sitting still for the rest of the day. La La Land's sense of fun is contagious, and its craft is even more sensational. It will fill you with the sense of pure joy that only the great movies can, a testament to Chazelle's talent as a filmmaker and the sheer power of this story. It's the kind of movie that can be both quiet and lively, poetic and electrifying. To quote Ryan Gosling's Sebastian: "It's very, very exciting."

La La Land certainly fits into the musical genre, but it's better defined as a musical romance. All musicals have at least a dash of romance to them, yet this film just takes it to a different level. Love stories have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mostly due to the dominance of John Green and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. They're often sappy and incompetent, filled with weepy endings and ham-fisted, "tragic" subplots. That's not what this genre was founded on, and it's the reason why genuine, heartfelt romance films like Silver Linings Playbook and (500) Days of Summer have connected in recent years. La La Land towers over them all, which is possibly due to the blending of music and dreamy visuals. Chazelle has crafted a film about love that is refreshingly free of cynicism and extraordinarily honest and sincere. You will fall in love with Mia and Sebastian- there's no question about it. In a movie firmly based in the world of the classic Hollywood couples of the golden age, it's a delightful twist of irony that Chazelle has created an iconic duo of his own.

La La Land originally starred Miles Teller and Emma Watson, a pairing that just doesn't work in retrospect. I love Teller as an actor, but he has a presence of arrogance and bravado that doesn't work for Sebastian. On the other hand, Watson doesn't have the sense of melancholy desperation that haunts Mia at all times, and I just don't see her pulling off a difficult role. Chazelle replaced Teller before production and Watson passed to star in Beauty and the Beast, two decisions that shaped the fate of this film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the perfect actors to play these two characters. No other actors would have sufficed- it had to be them. Stone's performance is getting more attention (deservedly so), but I don't think Ryan Gosling's contribution to this movie can be valued enough. Gosling is a versatile, talented actor, able to be the romantic lead (The Notebook), the comic relief (The Nice Guys), or the steely tough guy (anything with Nicolas Winding Refn) with ease. Here, he's the charismatic, endearing center of La La Land's universe. Sebastian is a smooth-talker, driven, funny, and committed to his success. But there's an underlying sadness, a passionate sense of love and sorrow that bubbles under the surface. Gosling can convey this with a simple look, which is why he's in contention for Best Actor.

Nonetheless, this is Emma Stone's movie through and through. She's radiant and breathtaking, a career best performance by a country mile. She's been a superstar since 2010's Easy A, making it odd that her performance in La La Land feels like such a revelation. Maybe it's just the nature of the part- the role of Mia is very much a "Star is Born" kind of role. However, chalking it up as that diminishes how excellent Stone is in this film, which requires her to put so much on her shoulders. When we first meet Mia, she's a down-on-her-luck actress, memorizing lines in a car as she races to an audition- but it doesn't stay that way for long. The transformation of Mia from failed actress to Hollywood's chosen one is genuinely incredible to watch, and Stone injects her character with so much raw emotion and empathy that you can't help but fall in love. Her audition scene near the end of the film is one of the best scenes of the year, a powerful rendition of "The Fools Who Dream" that will send chills through your body and send your jaw straight to the floor. It's one of those movie moments that will endure forever.

Oh, and did I mention the music? It's perfect. There's not another word I could use to describe it. Every song, written by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Pasek and Paul, is truly magnificent. Chazelle's masterful orchestration of the musical sequences is equally stunning, and each scene stands on its own. Some songs are hautning, some are exuberant, but all of them are utterly terrific. When Lionsgate finally releases the soundtrack, you can guarantee that "Another Day of Sun" will be playing on repeat on my phone for days. On top of the music, the performances, and the wizardry of Chazelle, La La Land is just a masterpiece of cinematic composition. The techincal work by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, production designer David Wasco, and costumer designer Mary Zophres cannot possibly be commended enough, and there's no doubt in my mind that Oscars will be coming their way very soon. Editor Tom Cross, who won an Oscar for Whiplash, does dynamite work here again, creating the jazzy beat of the film and ensuring that each scene has a pulse of its own. La La Land unfolds meticulously, but with an energy that most films simply cannot match. Its structure is astounding, building the film to an emotional crescendo in the final minutes that will leave you in a breathless daze.

La La Land isn't the kind of movie that you just watch and enjoy. It's not the kind of film that will leave your mind the moment you exit the theater. It's a film that you fall in love with. It's the kind of unforgettable, unparalleled masterpiece that we simply don't see anymore. It's a buoyant, splashy celebration of Los Angeles and the magic of cinema, and it's a heartbreaking romance about the personal price of success. It cements Damien Chazelle's status as a world-class director and it puts Emma Stone in the conversation as one of the best actresses on the planet. Watching La La Land gives you a pure sense of elation, like you've lifted off the ground and ascended to the stars, much like Gosling and Stone do in one of the film's centerpieces. If you don't feel like singing and dancing through the rest of the day, you're doing it wrong.

Give into the magic, and brace yourselves for one of the best films to come around in a long time. Believe the hype. La La Land is the real deal and then some.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

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