Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, February 3, 2017

OSCARS 2017: La La Land (2016)

A little while, “Whiplash” was the little indie movie that could at the Oscars' that year. A small film with no big stars, it would win three Academy Awards: Two for its editing and one for J.K. Simmons' incredible supporting performance. Interestingly, the project was not director Damien Chazelle's first idea. Originally, he wanted to make a flashy throwback to golden age musicals called “La La Land.” “Whiplash's” success would give Chazelle the grounding he needed to make “La La Land.” And now that film is leading the 2017 Oscar nominations and is the favorite to win Best Picture, among other awards. Not bad for the co-writer of “The Last Exorcism Part II,” right?

Mia and Sebastian have come to Los Angeles with different dreams. Mia wants to become a movie star. Right now, she's working as a barista in a back lot coffee shop. Sebastian, meanwhile, is a jazz snob who endeavors to open his own club, bringing “real” jazz to the unwashed masses. They have two brisk encounters before meeting again at a party. A romance soon blossoms. Sebastian encourages Mia to pursue her dreams. Mia encourages Sebastian to let go of his snobbery and open up to people. Despite the music and dancing in their lives, their plans start to splinter apart.

What is most apparent about “La La Land,” from its opening minute, is that it's a brilliantly choreographed movie. I just don't mean the dance scenes. Though those too are shown off brilliantly in the opening number, a joyous dance over a gridlocked freeway. I'm referring to all the ways the movie is put together. Take that opening sequence, where Chazelle's camera brilliantly weaves in and out of the people and cars. As the dancers leap up into the air, the film's perspective follows them. That same, smooth direction is carried into other scenes. Even a simple sequence of Mia's friends dancing through her apartment is perfectly engineered. Chazelle's insures the film's editing and direction is as smooth and fast footed as the dance moves. Adding to this is the brilliant color, the primary tones popping out to the audience in fantastic ways.

While the film is a thrilling, enchanting ride just based on how it looks and moves, that's not what makes “La La Land” so charming. The two lead performances are magical. Emma Stone taps into all the giddy energy that makes her so lovable. She's gorgeous but down-to-earth, bubbly but sarcastic. She's perfect for the part, a dreamer who deflects her pain with snappy humor. Ryan Gosling has the hard job of playing an unrepentant snob and making him likable. He succeeds, partially because Gosling is so effortlessly likable but also because the script isn't afraid to judge him for his bad behavior. He's a good guy but there's room for improvement. Moreover, the two share such a genuine chemistry, their scenes being so light and airy. They make falling in love look so easy. Part of why “La La Land” is such an absolute joy is because watching Stone and Gosling play off each other is the purest kind of fun.

“La La Land” works great as a musical too. The songs are really good. Chazelle and his team also understand the need for individual songs to stand out. There's only eight true songs in the film, allowing the individual numbers to make an impression. Justin Hurwitz' jazzy, swift score connects the fibers. “Another Day of Sun” is a powerful opening burst of whimsy and upbeat energy. “Someone in the Crowd” is funny, about a trio of friends trying to perk up a moody Mia. “City of Stars,” a gorgeously low-key piece, focuses on the singer's voices and a simple, catchy melody. Two songs are clearly the stand-out pieces. “A Lovely Night” shows Mia and Sebastian falling in love in the tradition of a classic musical, their barbs matching each other as they dance the night away.  “Audition,” meanwhile, is a display for Emma Stone's surprisingly powerful voice, a piece devoted primarily to her singing her heart out, drowning each word in sincerity and strength.

If it was just a beautifully acted and assembled homage to golden age musicals, “La La Land” would probably still be a really good movie. Chazelle, however, finds a deeper meaning in the music. “La La Land” is about dreams, how they can be both a gift and a burden. When Mia and Sebastian have their break-up at the end of the second act – a required story beat for romantic-comedies – it's not for reasons that ring false. He's willing to sacrifice his dream so that she can achieve her's. Yet the struggle, the disappointments, are starting to mount in Mia's life. She's not sure she can take another a blow, one that Sebastian is pushing her towards. Ultimately, the love they form becomes a part of that dream too.

“La La Land” isn't just an uplifting surge of good feelings, best displayed in the scene where Mia and Sebastian dance up into the stars. These positive vibes are balanced by a subtle melancholy, a sense that stuff does go wrong sometimes. I honestly thought the film had made a misstep near the end, threatening to end on a downbeat note, the characters' lives going in a way that doesn't seem right. Instead, “La La Land” throws itself together for a pitch perfect climax. In a spellbinding ten minute sequence without dialogue, Sebastian and Mia's life play out like an idealized movie musical, full of dancing and perfect happy endings. Not only does this allow Chazelle to end the film on one hell of an exclamation mark, it also allows the movie to have it both ways. Here's your happy ending. Here's your bitter reality. Watch how they compliment each other.

Believe the hype. There has been quite a bit of backlash over “La La Land,” the movie's divisive reception becoming something of a meme itself. A lot of it centers around some belief that the film misappropriates jazz culture into something tidy and “white.” This seems to miss that Sebastian's jazz snobbery is supposed to be a negative quality, something he gets over throughout the story. I don't know, maybe I don't approach movies like that. To me, “La La land” is a brilliantly composed, fantastically acted, singing-dancing shot of good feelings right into your heart, an uplifting experience that – as cliché as it sounds – emphasizes the magic of movie making. [9/10]

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