Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

la-la-land-poster

I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

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Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

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Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon

Maybe think of The Neon Demon as a models’ Black Swan crossed with Maps to the Stars.  Or not.  The Times called it “ridiculous and puerile.”  The only thing ridiculous there is calling it “puerile” — clearly, The Neon Demon went over that reviewer’s head.  One who probably didn’t think The Shallows was ridiculous.

The Neon Demon - text blockScott Tobias of NPR, on the other hand, understands what the director of Drive was doing.  His review, titled “Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ Paints Hollywood In Garish, Gorgeous, Gory Colors”:

In the shimmering Tinseltown gothic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, beauty is a commodity both precious and volatile, subject to runway trends and the ravages of age, with just a blemish, a wrinkle, or a sliver of fat separating today’s “It Girl” from tomorrow’s bus back to Indiana.

…the mesmeric pull of The Neon Demon cannot be denied. It lures you in for the kill.

There were a couple big plot problems I had with this movie, which is too bad.  Luckily they happen, unusually enough for plot problems, in the first half of the film.  They’re a little frustrating because they could be easily re-written to lift The Neon Demon to one of the best of the year.  But the visual pull of this film is undeniable.  7/10

Comparison Notes (each recommended and better): Sleeping Beauty, Electrick Children, Mulholland Drive

Note: Though the Times slammed The Neon Demon as “puerile,” they contradicted themselves by featuring an “Anatomy of a Scene,” which I include below along with the trailer.

The Neon Demon - Anatomy of a Scene

ALL HAIL, CAESAR!

Hail, Caesar! - poster alt

Not to sound lame-brained, but Hail, Caesar! is the most literal example of a FEEL GOOD MOVIE in recent memory.  I was loathe to go see it, based on the ads & trailers.  I made avoiding it something of a quest, Coens be damned!  Plus I had this running theory of Clooney + Coens = STAY AWAY!  But it seemed to have legs.  After a month or so something snapped; I broke down and headed with great gusto to the cinema.

Hail, Caesar! - text blockAnd wow do the Coens know how to put together a movie.  Hail, Caesar! is a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously gorgeous picture made by absolutely consummate filmmakers at the top of their game.  My only fault was a lack of any real dramatic peril: this is not Fargo or No Country for Old Men.  Otherwise we’d be talking 9-territory; as it is, on the high end of 8/10.

Sit close to the big screen for this one — it’s a visual treat, I found much more so than even The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Comparison Notes: Recommended: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Chinatown, Mulholland Dr.; Not recommended: Inherent Vice, L.A. Confidential

Film Brief: Maps to the Stars [updated]

Maps to the Stars - poster

Sometimes when watching a movie, I get the feeling that I am seeing a series of scenes strung together with little or no cohesion binding them together.  I’ll often throw out the word “disjointed” to describe such a film.  It’s another Maps to the Stars - text blockway of saying the film lacks a strong narrative thrust; the first two-thirds or so of Maps to the Stars suffered in this way.

It’s a sort of heartless, anti-Grand Canyon, or perhaps a weak cross of The UninvitedMulholland Dr. and The Player.  Inherent Vice kept running through my mind as well.  I found Maps to the Stars driving me, but ultimately it’s a broken picture that can’t put a spark to the kindling it has assembled.  Very much on the fence with this one, because there was a lot I did like.  A marginal thumbs-down; 5/10.

Note: I saw this film in-theater, but it is also available via VOD.

Updated 3/9/15: upgraded to 6/10

Altman Biopic on Epix + Color Nebraska

Altman poster - medium

As someone who pays through the nose for cable TV, yet does not receive any of the “premium” movie channels such as HBO, Epix is one of the few channels that offers uncut HD movies.  Sundance and IFC used to, before becoming trash-hounds, so it’s down to little more than Epix and TCM.

Which is not the worst thing, since both offer good programming on occasion.  I caught some of the Epix-exclusive biography Altman the other night.  I think Robert Altman was very much a hit-or-miss director, making such essentials as M*A*S*H and The Player [prior post], but also the forgettable, horribly overrated Gosford Park.  I’ve not seen most of his work, but his filmography — including TV shows and shorts going back to the early ’50s — is impressive to say the least.

Certainly this documentary reminds us that he was a prolific director heavily involved with movie production over the span of six decades, and as such a leading and prominent figure in Hollywood.  From what I saw, I recommend Altman for those interested in film production, Robert Altman’s movies or the man himself.

Nebraska in color - text block

In other Epix-related news, the network Sunday night aired last year’s Nebraska in color.  Didn’t we learn a lesson with the Ted Turner colorization efforts?  I caught some of it, and must say: what a disaster.  It’s remarkable how much you lose by adding color.

A check reveals this interesting tidbit from Variety:

[The director Alexander] Payne had previously said that a color version had been made for specific television outlets in countries such as Moldova and Sierra Leone in which television deals had “only color” stipulations, though he had hoped that no one would ever see it.

That’s a good one.  Moldova and Sierra Leone.  God forbid we offend the audience’s expectations in Moldova or Sierra Leone.

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On an absolute scale, Nebraska still works in color, especially with the muted palette employed by Payne.  But having seen it in its original contrasty black & white, I have to ask, why?  Epix claims on their Facebook page that airing of the color version was a one-time event.  Let’s hope so.

Something unexpected came out of all this: seeing a bit of the movie (even in color) reminded me of its staying power, and made me realize that I have a fondness for it that did not come to me upon my initial viewing.  I then stated:

… it was reaching for the kind a philosophical depth that came easily to the Lynch feature [The Straight Story].  I have to believe filming in black & white was also part of this strategy, and these attempts seem a bit forced.  The film mostly fails to achieve that extra dimension it desires.

I think I was a little too harsh.  Nebraska is an understated, charming little movie with memorable performances and a storyline just punchy enough to fit its players and theme.  As such, I am upgrading my 6/10 rating to 7/10.  Which is to say, just outside of the Top Ten of 2013, and about on par with Dallas Buyers Club.  Just make sure you watch it in black & white.

Nebraska - trailer screen capture

2014 — The Year of the Blockbuster

Does it seem like there are more big (as in big budget) movies this year?  It occurred to me watching trailers a while back that this year if filled with one giant production after another.  I remember when each year would welcome three or four big-budget, special effects-laden movies.  Not the case any more, it seems.

There’s the Scarlett Johansson movie Lucy.  Written and directed by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element), I’m pulling for it.  Now start adding on: Godzilla, Captain AmericaX-Men sequel, Transformers sequel, Spider-Man sequel, Edge of Tomorrow, Johnny Depp’s movie Transcendence, Expendables III, Planet of the Apes sequel, Hercules, Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowski brothers return to sci-fi), Guardians of Blockbuster movies post - text blockthe Galaxy, and for good measure a Twister remake, Into the Storm.

Now add on the Age of Antiquity films I wrote about: Pompeii, the 300 sequel and Noah.  At Christmas is coming Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Now that is one HELL OF A LOT of big-budget movies.  Complete saturation.  And I am quite certain I am leaving a few big ones out.  So what’s my point?

I heard a news flash a few weeks ago that box office revenue is up this year, but somehow I doubt enough to keep up with all the spending, which begs the question: have these studios learned nothing?  I refer to my post Big Movies Go Bust — from just last summer.  I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see if all the expensive projects this year translate into profits, because all I see is Hollywood quadrupling-down on the blockbuster.