La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.

★★★★★

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Top 10 Films of 2016

Now that January has ended and I’ve had a chance to see some of the USA’s awards contenders, I’m ready to publish my Top 10 list. The sad truth is that I haven’t had a chance to watch every film I wanted to see this year and there are some, like Moonlight, that haven’t even had a nation-wide release in the UK yet. Still, I’ve seen enough great films this year to make a list with which I’m happy. One trend I’ve noticed with these films is that many of them display an element of nostalgia, harkening back to lost eras and happier, simpler times. Many of these films also carry messages of hope and inspiration, entreating people to try harder and to dream bigger and to believe in greater possibilities. Still, there are some dark and brutal movies in there as well; the kind which remind us that life isn’t some fairy-tale musical. 2016 was a frightful and terrible year for many people and it’s just as important for art to reflect that as it is to counteract it. So, without further ado, here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of 2016.

10. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch

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Paterson is a film that feels both authentic and fantastic at once. Like the poetry that inspired it, Paterson isn’t trying to tell a story, it’s trying to capture a tone, a feeling. It is a subdued and contemplative film that finds beauty and profundity in the ordinary and mundane. Like poetry, Paterson is shaped less by its plot and characters than it is by its mood and structure. The film flows beautifully and there is a remarkable air of tranquillity that is seldom seen in movies. There is no obstacle that must be overcome, no foe to be defeated and no arc that must be fulfilled. It’s just a glimpse of life in a small town with a rich history and culture and an observation of the everyday things that become the subjects of Paterson’s poems. The poems are simple, plainspoken and honest, and so is this film. Review here.

9. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie

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Like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, Hell or High Water is a Western set a long, long time after the Western era came to an end. It has the usual tropes of the classic cowboy films, the bank robberies, the shootouts, the men with badges, but none of the romance or mythos. The age of the cowboy is long gone and the old Texan way of life is either dead or dying. What we have here is just a couple of brothers trying to steal just enough to pay off their late-mother’s mortgage and a grizzled ranger getting one last job done before settling down to a dull, aimless life of retirement. Each character, from the main roles to the background players, is memorable. The rustic landscape is shot beautifully. The screenplay brings a wealth of life and colour to an otherwise familiar concept and amounts to a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating film. Review here.

8. Jackie – Pablo Lerraín

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This film is both a compelling character study of a brave, remarkable woman going through an unimaginable crisis and a moving portrait of grief, loneliness and loss. The First Lady must confront the sorrow, anguish and pain she feels over the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and must reconcile her own private feelings towards her husband with that of the nation. After dedicating her entire life towards her husband’s work and calling, Jackie has no idea who she is supposed to be now that he’s gone. Even without him in her life, she cannot be her own person. She has a duty to perform, a promise to keep and a legacy to define and preserve. This complicated mixture of sorrow, anger, ambivalence, shock, uncertainty, isolation and endurance is captured by Portman in an exceptionally heartbreaking performance. After a life of being defined by her husband, Jackie is a film that seeks to view Jacqueline Kennedy on her own terms and it does an excellent job of doing so. Review here.

7. La La Land – Damien Chazelle

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Made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musicals, La La Land is a film that captures that same sensation previously encapsulated by the likes of Gene Kelly and Astaire & Rogers. The look of the film is gorgeous, the style is irresistible and the musical numbers are spectacular. The movie is a fantasy set in a whimsical city of dreamers where two romantic idealists find love. There is so much charm, glamour and bravado to this film that it isn’t hard to understand why it has become the smash hit that it is. Much of this is creditable to Chazelle whose inventive and dynamic direction gave the film its fervent energy and masterful command over different styles and genres. Also essential were Gosling and Stone who, despite not being particularly great singers, brought so much heart to their performances that their voices didn’t really matter all that much. It isn’t my favourite film (or even musical) of the year but, if it does sweep the Oscars like it almost certainly will, it won’t be unearned. Review here.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight

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2016 was a strong year for animation but, for me, Kubo and the Two Strings was easily the best of them. The animation is stupendous (as confirmed by a well-deserved Oscar nomination for visual effects), the characters are wonderful and the story is both exciting and affective. Like all the best children’s films, Kubo takes it audience seriously and seeks to both challenge and astound them. The movie is dark, scary and complex, but it is also silly, moving and thrilling. At its heart is the most classic of all stories, the hero’s journey, that unfolds into an epic tale of love, loss, melancholy, courage, resilience and salvation. It is a film that believes in the power of stories to move, commemorate and redeem and ends on a staggeringly profound note. This film is a landmark achievement not just for Laika but for animation as a genre. Review here.

5. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford

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No other film this year has confounded me the way Nocturnal Animals has. It is sinister, yet beautiful. It is unbearable, yet captivating. It is a difficult film to categorise because it has no clear resolution and is constantly jumping between different stories and genres. At times it is a melancholic tale of misery and regret. Sometimes it is twisted fable of vengeance with elements of the Western mixed in. At other times it is a melodramatic story of an idealistic but doomed romance. The film is meticulously crafted and exquisitely shot, making expert use of its colours, staging and music. The film also makes excellent use of its ensemble, featuring particularly great performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon and an unrecognisable Taylor-Johnson. Nocturnal Animals is a gut-wrenching and at times downright unpleasant film to watch, but not once does it cease to be fascinating. Review here.

4. Sing Street – John Carney

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Sing Street does not have the incredible production value, the gorgeous style or the frantic energy of La La Land, and yet it is still my favourite movie musical of the year. This is because, for me at least, Sing Street had more heart to it. It shares similar ideas of love, dreams and fantasy, but it also has a layer of kitchen-sink realism that I feel lends it more authenticity. This coming-of-age story about an Irish lad starting his own band to win the heart of a pretty, young model is just teeming with tenderness, sorrow and humour. The moments of sadness hit hard, which means that the moments of joy and triumph are all the more elated and earned. The film also boasts of a marvellous soundtrack and that it wasn’t even nominated in the Oscar category for Best Song is a crime. Review here.

3. Silence – Martin Scorsese

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Few directors, especially living directors, can claim to have crafted a body of work as consistent, as influential and as brilliant as Martin Scorsese and Silence is one of his finest. Decades in the making and quite clearly a passion project for him; the film underscores many of the themes featured throughout Scorsese’s filmography such as sin, perdition and deliverance. Two Jesuit priests come to feudal Japan in search of their lost mentor and are subjected to unendurable forms of pain, anguish and despair. One could suspect that Scorsese did some soul-searching in the making of this film as he raises challenging questions that cannot possibly be answered. How much suffering can a man endure for his faith and how much should he have to endure? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others suffer or to renounce it to save them? However cruel and brutal their methods, are the Japanese right to view Christianity as corruptive to their culture? Silence is an utterly gut-wrenching yet profoundly enigmatic work of cinema crafted by one of the great masters of our time. Review here.

2. I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach

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Ken Loach has demonstrated better than any other British filmmaker film’s power as a political and social vehicle. With I, Daniel Blake he has continued his crusade for the downtrodden and forgotten underdogs of the UK by highlighting a system of “conscious cruelty” in action. Daniel Blake, a man who has been deemed physically unfit to work, is forced to meet a series of inane, superfluous regulations in order to qualify for a benefit, only to be confounded at every turn by a pitiless system that cares only for the bottom line. Whether or not you agree with Loach’s politics or whether the benefits system really is as cruel as it portrayed is inconsequential. This is a great film because it succeeds brilliantly in conveying the desperation and frustration of Daniel’s dilemma, as well as the misery and helplessness of Katie’s situation, to the extent that it feels gut-wrenchingly authentic. Review here.

1. Arrival – Denis Villeneuve

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For me, this was the most stimulating, fulfilling and moving film of the year. The characters of Arrival are faced with an ambiguous and potentially foreboding situation that could spell doom if handled negligently or indelicately. And yet, with the threat of global war hanging in the balance, it is thought, empathy and cooperation that triumph. It is a masterfully crafted film with an astounding, thought-provoking story that raises compelling questions about time, language and humanity. Villeneuve’s wonderfully skilled and subtle direction is matched only by Adams’ stunning performance as a linguist seeking to form a connection with an alien people and finding that her very perception of reality has been altered. No other film this year has captivated, astounded and inspired me the way this one has. I hope to see more films in the future that can match Arrival in its sophistication, depth and optimism. Review here.

Now here are my five least favourite films of the year.

5. Mother’s Day – Another entry in the series of holiday films characterised by weak jokes, cheap morals and wasted talent. The movie is bland, forgettable and has absolutely nothing of value to offer on the subject of motherhood. Review here.

4. Independence Day: Resurgence – There is no reason for this film to exist. It had no momentum, no pull and no purpose. Just another stale attempt to cash in on an old favourite. Review here.

3. The Huntsman: Winter’s War – This film has even less reason to exist because its predecessor wasn’t even that popular to begin with. This was a film without appeal or focus; it had absolutely nothing to offer whatsoever. Review here.

2. Alice Through the Looking Glass – The continuation of a butchering of a classic. This film, just like the one before it, misses everything that was strange and wonderful about the Lewis Carroll books and instead turned in something banal and dull. Review here.

1. Dirty Grandpa – It wasn’t even close. This is one of the vilest, most hateful films I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The mere thought of its despicable humour, vile characters and debasement of a cinematic legend still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Review here.