Thursday, February 16, 2017

La La Land

**** out of ****

I may have said this before, but my regard for musicals is the same as my regard for science fiction films: When it doesn't work, it plummets into an abyss of unwanted awfulness. When it does work, it's the most wonderful thing that I could ask for.

La La Land is a dazzling escape for those who like to dream and a sobering wakeup for a genre that normally promises dreamers that they can have their cake and eat it too.

Its status as a Best Picture contender at this year's Academy Awards (among thirteen other nominations) raises questions sparked by Mark Harris' book, Pictures at a Revolution, which chronicled the making, release and Best Picture nominations of five movies released in 1967 and what significance each film held for the cultural changes that reshaped Hollywood.

I haven't always applied the question of cultural relevance to the biggest category at the Oscars, but we are living in an increasingly divisive point in history.

This year we're looking at several movies which were all made before Donald Trump even came close to taking office due to the support of many Americans who were clearly upset about one thing or another. Naturally, I look at these nominees and look for hints of what was coming.

It might be fair to say that Hell or High Water was unconsciously a movie about Trump's America. Arrival was almost timeless in its theme of communication and still felt relevant as ever given our world's difficulty at moving forward to survive as a species.

I have many things to say about the other nominees, but I'll jump back to the film I'm reviewing, which may be the most culturally irrelevant film nominated. La La Land is an escapist movie that is almost about looking backward -something one of the two main characters is criticized of doing. 

It's a big callback to classic dance numbers, old Hollywood, jazz music and innocent idealism -all captured on vibrant colorful celluloid. It's a make-movies-great-again experience and had it not subverted a few common genre expectations, it would have very little to say as a new movie.    

Its writer/director, Damien Chazelle, is toying with nostalgia that wins my sympathy and is evading reality in the same way that has allowed Woody Allen to thrive for years by giving filmgoers a world where no one dresses like a jackass and even the characters' idea of "bad music" is pretty catchy compared to the abominable dog shit I overhear on today's Top 40 radio.

Comparing his work to Allen's is appropriate since Allen is one of the few auteurs I can think of who made a film similar to this one [See Everyone Says I Love You]. However, Chazelle is a lot more cinematically ambitious. The aesthetics in this movie reminded me a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson's careful compositions and creative ways of silhouetting characters in Punch-Drunk Love

The movie is essentially a story of two artists in Hollywood trying to catch a break. Ryan Gosling is an anal-retentive jazz pianist who can't find gigs that allow him to play his compositions and Emma Stone is an aspiring actress bouncing between auditions while getting by as a studio backlot barista. After the two collide with one another enough times, they recognize each other's passion which binds them until the prospect of success down their respectively different paths threatens to tear them apart. The film's conclusion to this issue is refreshing, if not bittersweet and all of it being put in the context of a classic musical works.

This is a movie of few surprises, but it delivers the kind of feeling that I crave when light hits a big screen. The only sad feeling that comes when a movie like this ends, is that I can't escape reality forever. Knowing that is, I suppose, a good quality as a filmgoer.

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