Saturday, 14 January 2017

La La Land review

It's the first review of 2017! And, coincidentally, one of the most anticipated films of the year (having been hailed as the best of 2016 in many American publications where it launched on December 6th). Hit the jump to check out my thoughts on Damien Chazelle's retro musical romance!
Ah, remember 'Whiplash'? It was pretty spectacular, but landed at the exact time of 'Birdman' - which also dealt with a particular brand of New York showmanship. Of course, this engineered nothing short of all out war between the two, with audiences cast as the fraught middle-man. To my mind, Inarritu's film was far superior - using its cinematography and cannily chosen actors to meta-out the situation; as well as providing the more imaginative, powerful, and distinctive piece (if not necessarily the most emotional). How strange, then, to find that for his next film, Chazelle had A) not only casted one of the leads of 'Birdman' (Emma Stone), but also B) aped the 'single-take' style for a lot of his shots. Hell, he's even quoting the movie as a source of ideas; perhaps the micro-war had provided some alternative inspiration. 

Ah, a cinema. How meta....
In any case, 'La La Land' arrives on the cold shores of the UK with much anticipation. Its been called 'the best film of 2016', given five star rave reviews by many distinguished critics; and has been thrust into the Oscar race for any number of awards. Of course, it's a snug fit: the only thing the Academy likes as much as guilt film-making (the awful '12 Years a Slave'); or actor suffering ('The Revenant'); is itself. One need only look back to 2013's (superb) 'The Artist' to see that Hollywood would like to be revered as the dream factory it once was, and could still well be.

We open on a bustling freeway: horns honking, windows open; radios duelling with their programming as if creatures in battle. An interesting metaphor given the film's frequent comment on genre-relations. Suddenly, inexplicably, one driver bursts into song – quickly followed by some one hundred (or more) others. Chazelle’s lens dances around these performers, never stopping to blink or to disrupt the organic flow. For those viewers who tend to stoop towards cynicism (myself included), this may seem a little grating. After all, there’s a reason why cinematic tastes have swerved from endless optimism towards a certain type of heartless nihilism. Yet, like it or loathe it, it’s a tonal watermark for the rest of 'La La Land'. If you give into it and go with the flow, you’re sure to have a much better time.

OG Jazz...
As this opening number fades out, we first set eyes  on our two magnetic leads – flipping the bird at each other in a traffic jam. Just one of the few flourishes (car models, decor, that PG-13 'fuck') that we're supposed to take as evidence of modernization in the world - removed from the 1940s and 50s pieces that Chazelle is clearly enamored with. Of course, by way of tradition, these two characters are destined to cross paths seemingly at random.

Gosling's Seb is a disillusioned, somewhat antisocial, and obsessive jazz musician - with unfulfilled dreams of opening his own club (seemingly to safeguard the medium). As expected, he's the perfect fit for the role: charismatic, enigmatic, and evocative of a certain Hollywood je ne sais quoi that fits like a lost jigsaw piece into Chazelle's narrative. At times, he approaches the depths that he reached in Refn's 'Drive' and 'Only God Forgives' - with a haunting stare that construes emotion quite unlike anyone else working in the industry today. Working in a dead-end job at a cheap bar; Seb prefers to listen and play free-jazz (as much as his boss JK Simmons would prefer Christmas muzak); but seems trapped in a cycle of poverty and cheap 80's cover bands. His true struggle isn't really to get by, but in making the choice over whether to pursue his risky dream, or go with his friend's (John Legend playing himself) tacky but incredibly popular pop-soul outfit.

No, this image is not doctored.
Similarly marred by LA society is Emma Stone's Mia - the 'aspiring actress' type who just can't seem to crack the movie biz. She may indeed be a walking cliche, but then again, I think we can all agree that cliche's are cliches for a reason. The funny thing about this (as Mark Kermode has similarly noted) is that her auditions are truly stand-out performances. In one particularly memorable scene, she stages a breakdown in front of her audience, before being shrugged off - although her skill is clearly greater than half of the actors working in the industry right now. In any case, Mia's problem is finding somebody to believe in her, and to catch the break that she needs.

Two dreamers, drifting through the smog and chaos of LA life. Living in the artificial environments of studios and piano bars: to all extents, perfect for each other.

Ah, young love.
And so, the odyssey that is 'La La Land' begins. We follow an emotional roller-coaster of ups and downs (mostly downs) that chart the course of this relationship. And, indeed, despite its beauty and hopeful tone; there's a distinctly melancholy edge to the picture that lingers long after the credits roll. Is it the loss of the glamour and excitement of the 40s? Or is it the constant little reminders that we so rarely are able to achieve our dreams? Or perhaps it's the fact that we just cant see this relationship from working out. Chazelle peppers his film with little indicators of negative modernisation: a cinema where the two watch 'Rebel Without a Cause' is shown to be derelict and closed but a few weeks later.

In any case, suffice to say, this movie is nigh on perfect. The lead performances are spot on; the color palate is exciting and primary (a dance scene set over a sunset is particularly memorable); and the narrative wraps itself up into a neat little gift, that is promptly ripped open to reveal a great den of cinematic and aural delights in the final five minutes. For those of you who have viewed the trailer, all of the experimentation with film stock, ageing, and colouring technique occurs in these final moments - and it seems a perfect digestif to an exemplary experience that was filled with incredible cinematography (symmetry and luxurious wide shots abound) anyway.

Stunning cinematography
The musical numbers themselves, although they suffice, are by no means exemplary. Perhaps 'City of Stars'; or 'Someone in the Crowd' approach catchy/memorable status - but the rest of the musical endeavors (whilst by no means bad) have little spark. Which makes sense, to be honest, as Chazelle travels down the 'Whiplash' template of intimate jazz - and often instrumental pieces prove to be just as important as the big numbers. In truth, we never really witness anything on the scale of the opening number - despite being a rather lavish production, 'La La Land' feels anything but distanced - and perhaps the toned-down musicality, coupled with the sparse pacing of numbers (there's maybe 6 maximum in the movie) has helped with this.

Of course, aside from the jazz which we already knew he could do, Chazelle really had his work cut out in trying to pay tribute to the medium of film - with the picture set in LA and focusing on a wannabe actress. And, I have to say, from the style of the credits, to the use of locations such as those from 'Casablanca' and 'Rebel Without a Cause', to the old-fashioned mannerisms, he does a really damn good job. And, I guess, that's the thing that makes it a shoe-in for the Oscar. The drifting sunsets stand out clear, as if in poster-technicolor, as the natural neon rebounds from the players faces, splashing into the lens and rebounding in rainbow flares across the screen. What we're witnessing here is nothing short of magic: akin to those audiences who sat and marveled at color 'talkies' as a kitsch novelty. Except, this time, we look backwards as Orpheus did, rather than forwards towards a bright future.

Palate wise, we verve from the brightest rainbow-ranges in the day time (everything is pristine and poster-colored on the sets) to a magical purple hue in the evening, with stars penetrating the sky (despite this being perhaps unrealistic in the smoggy city) and magic in the air. In fact, at times, a dose of magical realism is employed to show the couple floating or flying through the air.

By the time the credits roll, things haven't necessarily turned out the way that we had hoped, or expected, but there's a tangible sense of optimism in the air: beckoning you through the theater doors and into the moonlight with a spring in your step. At the start of 2017, after a long, hard year, 'La La Land' provides that exact dose of optimism and escapism that audiences are craving. It's two whole hours of spine chills and cathartic pleasure. Sure, shit happens, but life is beautiful beyond imagination. I didn't know whether to clap or cry.

'La La Land' gets 5 stars!

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