Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review: La La Land

Well Mr. Drinan and I have finally both seen La La Land, the new musical that's getting all kinds of award buzz (along with a host of awards).  Did it live up to the hype?  Mike and I will break it down a little for ya.  ***SPOILERS AHEAD*** 

Justin: Alright let's get into this.  What did you think of La La Land?

Mike: Over. Rated. I don't think it's a bad movie, it's just okay. However, the amount of praise being heaped on this movie, I feel, is undeserved and overblown. It seems like Hollywood is falling over itself because this movie is about Hollywood and LA and plus, it's a musical! Hooray. Okay great, it's a musical, but it's nothing different than what's already been done. Everything about this film is drenched in nostalgia and tribute. I couldn't count how many old time movie posters were hanging on the wall during Emma Stone's number before the ladies went out on the town. Is LA really covered with lamp posts from the 1950s on every corner? Ryan Gosling's wardrobe was also old timey with the wing-tipped shoes. I thought this movie was going to be a modern take on the musical and all I got was a movie that had the 1940s and 50s written all over it.

I found the plot to be generic and boring. What was the plot? Two white people are having a tough time breaking into show business. **Yaaaawn**  No one needs a two-hour musical to realize that show business is tough to break into, so spare me the pity party. Also, the characters barely have any backstory and the script makes them uninteresting to the point that I don't care about them or feel invested in whatever happens to them. All movie long I was waiting for something to happen and nothing ever did. I was bored to tears over this movie.

Now, the music was the best part of this film for me even though I didn't think it was all that great. In fact, there were only two songs in the film that I felt lent anything to the story. The first was "City of Stars." I loved how it was the recurring song throughout the film. The other was Emma Stone's "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)." Other than those two, the film didn't benefit from any of the other musical numbers, they were just spectacle. The opening number made me feel as if I was watching an Old Navy commercial. Plus, there was a long stretch in the middle of the film that didn't have any musical numbers at all. I even wondered to myself, "Wait, is this still a musical?" before the music started up again. It was almost as if the film itself forgot it was a musical at that point.

This film was straight out of the "Old Hollywood" playbook. It was so formulaic and obvious. Again, okay movie but undeserving of all the praise it's getting.

Justin: I tend to agree with most of this.  After seeing this film I'm pretty baffled by the unanimously enthusiastic praise it's gotten.  Let me preface this by saying I'm generally not a huge fan of musicals, but when they're well done (West Side Story and Singin' in the Rain for example), I'm all-in.  But La La Land left me feeling....well, nothing at all.  It was a competently made film starring two actors with strong chemistry, who both delivered convincing performances.  Beyond that though I didn't see the overwhelming appeal.  The love story, as with most musicals, was fairly rushed and contrived; I never got the sense that these two characters were intensely attracted to each other - they became a couple simply because the script needed them to.  Each of them was given minimal backstory - Seb is a floundering jazz pianist who dreams of opening a jazz club and reinvigorating the genre, while Mia is a struggling actress looking for her breakthrough role (or really any role).  And that's it.  We don't get a sense of who these people are, beyond their occupations.  Initially they don't particularly like each other, and then for no real reason other than "This movie is a love story," they fall in love and each try to find success in Tinseltown.

Now most of this is pretty worked-over fluff, and like many musicals it's not really about presenting an intricate, novel storyline.  It's about style and dance and music.  Unfortunately though, La La Land doesn't really have any great songs ("City of Stars" is the only one I could sing for you now, and only because Ryan Gosling sings it about a hundred times in this movie), and precious few at that.  The film goes so long in between musical interludes it hardly even qualifies as a musical.  As for dance?  There are two complex dance numbers and they both occur in the first fifteen minutes.  The opening number on the freeway felt totally out of place here, while the dance number at the party was so claustrophobically photographed most of the complex choreography was missed.  Other than that we get a couple scenes of the two leads dancing together, which only serve to remind the audience that neither of them is a dancer by trade.

As for the visual aspect (a major strength of most musicals), nothing about this film really stood out to me from a visual standpoint.  I found the realistic, grounded Whiplash much more visually engaging.  In that film Chazelle was able to convey mood and grit.  In this film I didn't find any of it much fun to look at.  The scene where they end up dancing among the stars seemed hackneyed to me.

The first half of the movie took an inordinate amount of time to get going, especially considering how little sexual or romantic tension there was between these two, and while I enjoyed the second half pretty well it didn't have the emotional punch it should have, because it didn't feel earned.  The scenes concerning Mia and Seb's disintegrating relationship came seemingly out of nowhere, thus Stone and Gosling's strong performances here didn't grab me by the throat like they could have.

Another thing that bothered me - Mia's longtime dream was to write a one-woman show.  It's what she's always wanted to do, but never found the time or courage.  But she finally does so, and presents it to Seb, who considers it a work of genius.  This is the role that's presumably going to get her noticed in Hollywood; the role that will change her life.  And do we see any of it?  Nope.  The screenplay skips over all that to merely show us that her life's work is a commercial flop, and moreover her boyfriend missed the performance.  So what was so genius about it?

I read a negative review of La La Land that brought up a pretty great point: This film is about dreamers, singers, dancers, all those actors and performers just trying to get their big break.  But instead of casting two such people in the lead roles, for whom La La Land could've been just that, the filmmakers went with two safe, proven box office draws.  Does this strike anyone else as fairly ironic?

To anyone inclined to dismiss my opinion as coming from a musicals non-enthusiast, my wife, an avid lover of musicals, had this to say: "Whenever I watch a good musical I'm jealous of the actors and performers on the screen.  Not once did I feel that way while watching this movie."

Mike: I love Stone and Gosling together, they have great chemistry on screen and I typically enjoy watching the both of them, but you're right, everything felt forced. From the characters meeting to fighting to falling apart, it just felt too scripted.

Visually I was also unimpressed and agree that Whiplash more visually appealing than La La Land. Chazelle seemed to throw in a bunch of vibrant colors in the wardrobe, the set designs and various props that tried to compensate for the overall lack of visuals and for me it all fell short. The only scene that I liked, from a visually aesthetic standpoint, was at the planetarium and even that felt a little weak.

Yeah, we never got to see what made Mia's play so genius. Another thing that they didn't really follow through with is Sebastian's financial troubles. In the beginning, after his sister leaves his apartment, he flips through his mail with "Late Notice" stamped all over the envelopes, but the film never hints at this being a motive for him joining John Legend's band and making music he doesn't want to make or believe in. They chalk it up to Mia making an off hand comment to her mother about him not having a steady job.

Even the statements this movie tried to make were all over the place. Most critics have said this is a love letter to LA and I found that to be the opposite. This film does not hold a great depiction of that city. There's even a song that had the lyric about how the view of LA wasn't good and the characters had seen better. Even Sebastian railed against LA and Hollywood's business as usual take on casting and financing the same old unoriginal and uninspired projects. However, when the movie was finished, it felt as if the movie was saying "Keep putting up with the rejections, Hollywood will eventually come calling." which is such bullshit.

I'm not a fan of musicals either. West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Chicago were the only musicals that I really enjoyed. My wife, who also loves musicals, was bored with this movie. As soon as the credits began to roll she said, "Thank god that's over."

Justin: Yeah I'm not sure what the takeaway was supposed to be.  "Follow your dreams and eventually you'll succeed?"  "Don't settle for a paid gig that doesn't fulfill you artistically?"  "You can either have a career OR be with the love of your life?"  "Hollywood used to be much more fun?"  I wouldn't have paid much attention to the mixed messages had the characters, music, and/or story been more interesting.  This movie did contain a similar theme as Whiplash, the relationship vs. career struggle.  I'm guessing Chazelle's passion for filmmaking has cost him a love interest or two.

Anyway, all told I'd give this a solid thumbs in the middle - nowhere near the Oscar-worthy classic people are making it out to be.  I haven't seen many films yet from 2016, but La La Land doesn't even place in my top five so far.  I'll be very upset if it wins Best Picture.

My rating is **1/2 out of ****.

Mike: Yeah, he's clearly been snubbed by a girl in some fashion. There's some bitterness there for sure.

This movie doesn't rank in my top 5 of the year either. For me, Moonlight was the best movie I've seen this year and it angers me to know that La La Land will be in the running for Best Picture along with it. The praise it's been getting is just preposterous.

My rating is ** out of ****.

That's our take on La La Land.  Comment below with your thoughts, and thanks for reading!

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