Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review: La La Land

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Damien Chazelle's visually sumptuous, snappy, funny and romantic "La La Land" is a love letter to Los Angeles, musicals, Hollywood, those who dream big and love itself. Aiming to recapture the magic of classic American musicals, but grounded in a modern day L.A., the film may have a time honored story, but the strength of its performances, liveliness of musical numbers, colorful visuals that pop and an infectious love of music and film make it one of the year's best.

The picture opens with a bang - its finest musical number, in my opinion - during which pissed off denizens of Los Angeles suffer through a massive traffic jam (as a former resident of the city many years ago, trust me, I feel their pain), but suddenly decide to get out of their cars and take part in an impromptu number titled "Another Day of Sun." Participants slide across hoods, stand on dividers and leap through the air. The sequence finishes with an astounding long shot of the traffic jam and the singers and dancers standing on their vehicles.

One of the film's funniest jokes - the first of several title cards - follows shortly thereafter. Also stuck in the traffic jam are the film's two leads - Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress who wants to be a movie star, but would secretly prefer to make it as a playwright, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a difficult jazz piano player who dreams of opening a nightclub that would act as the last bastion in town for the art form, but is stuck playing Christmas tunes during gigs at restaurants.

Their introduction is hardly a meet cute - as such things are often called in these types of movies - and their second meeting is hardly any better. But the pair finally bump into each other at a party in the Hollywood Hills - you know, the type with low level lighting and a pool in the background - and Sebastian walks Mia to her car, a gesture that we later learn is more gentlemanly that it might first appear. But before that happens, they take part in the picture's second best song and dance number, "A Lovely Night," which features a great backdrop of the city at night and some startlingly good moves by Gosling and Stone.

As for story, "La La Land" follows a familiar trajectory - both characters see minor successes, but struggle with fulfilling their dreams and keeping a relationship going. Sebastian eventually gets hired as a piano player for a pop jazz band fronted by John Legend, which involves a fair amount of time on the road, and Mia mostly just struggles, writing a one-woman play and attempting to land acting jobs. Her audition sequences are among the best - and include some of the film's funniest moments - since Naomi Watts blew us away in "Mulholland Drive."

Chazelle's is a romantic film, although it's ultimately a bittersweet one. The scene most likely to make you swoon is one during which Mia and Sebastian dance among the stars at the city's iconic Griffith Observatory, which naturally takes place after they attend a screening of "Rebel Without a Cause," which featured scenes at the L.A. landmark.

All three of Chazelle's films - the low budget "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," the intense Oscar winner "Whiplash" and, now, this one - revolve around the world of music and it's clear that the director knows how to film stories about music.

But he's also good with setting - while "Whiplash" made some decent use of New York City, "La La Land" could ultimately become one of the quintessential films about L.A. and the choreography makes great use of the landscape - people dancing on cars, lovers twirling and tapping with gorgeous views of the skyline as vistas and people diving into pools during a scene that calls to attention another great L.A. movie ("Boogie Nights," which mined that scene from the classic Russian film, "I Am Cuba") as well as captures the almost melancholy vibe of low lit bars on lonely roads in tucked away corners of the metropolis (again, as a once-upon-a-time Angelino, you're bound to end up at one of these at least once).

"La La Land" is a visual and sonic feast, but it also features two terrific lead performances. Gosling, who's known for his intense performances, makes a convincing and funny romantic lead, while Stone gives what could be her finest performance to date. Both can also convincingly sing and dance. This is a lovely movie that tells a timeworn story in the most inventive ways.

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