Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land


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.


Friday (Mostly) Fun Flick: Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect - poster

Pitch Perfect makes no pretense at any sort of originality.  You might generously call it a mashup of similar-genre films such as Bring It On, 8 Mile, and The House Bunny.  So we have a mashup movie full of mashup songs — a mashup squared if you like.  Not so generously, you could call it a straight but weak rip-off of Bring It On — just swap out cheerleading with a cappella singing and lower the directing skill and production value a few pegs.

Pitch Perfect begins by throwing you right into a singing competition, and rushes choppily forward.  In a way it’s refreshing, but there’s also a lack of narrative ability here.  Luckily, that’s not what this movie is about.  Though utterly contrived, Pitch Perfect admits it.  It knows what it’s about: fun singing performances and scattered light Pitch Perfect - text blockcomic moments, some better than others.  As a comedy it only half succeeds — largely based on the affection we have toward Anna Kendrick & Co., but whenever the actors sing, so does the movie.

So judging it strictly as a musical, Pitch Perfect is not nearly the success of Rock of Ages, but by spending enough of the running time in song, it succeeds.  Jersey Boys failed because it didn’t focus on the music.  Despite its narrative shortcomings, Pitch Perfect succeeds by knowing what it is: a musical.  Just wish it had been as completely entertaining as Kendrick’s “Cups” video.  Now available via iTunes rental.  6/10

Flashdance Flashback

Flashdance poster - medium

Sundance HD has been airing Flashdance (1983) recently, which certainly puts the iconic 80’s hit in a new light.  Though it was one of my favorite films when it came out, the best viewing I could muster in my formative years was via VHS tape and 19″ Sony Trinitron.  55″ HD makes a big difference.

I was so impressed with what I saw that I considered a “Cinematic Greats” post.  Then I watched a little more and realized how meaningless that category would become once I threw Flashdance in with the likes of Bound, Fargo, and After Dark, My Sweet.  There is obvious cheese in no short quantity here — including the watered-down, Rocky-based plot — and Michael Nouri as the male lead is an absolute hack.

But the spirited dance numbers, original music, and Jennifer Beals’ winsome performance push it into positive territory.  I agree with the criticism out there, but when I see a Tomatometer rating of 33% while Blade Runner sits at 91% and is considered by many to be among the greatest of all films, well, that’s backwards-world.

Despite its flaws, Flashdance holds its place in the pantheon of iconic 80’s pictures, and, as such, is highly recommended and essential viewing — just make sure to watch in HD, and with decent sound.

Once Is Enough

Once - poster large

ON AMERICAN IDOL THIS WEEK, I happened to catch a snippet of one of the hopeful singers performing a lovely song, and so kept tuned in long enough to recognize the source: an original piece from the Irish indie Once (2007), which I had just seen a couple nights prior.  Fortuitous I caught that, as this year’s Idol bored me out of the gate — it seems they’ve done away with the humorously awful tryouts that always made the first several episodes of the show so fun.  So I’ve done my best to avoid the show this season.

Why fortuitous?  Because it allowed me to reach a better understanding of this special little movie.  Upon watching it, I felt a little let down.  It’s basically a broke boy (“Guy”)-meets-broke immigrant girl (“Girl”) tale that we’ve all seen before, with the main storyline distinction being that the characters both have considerable musical talent, and are both tied away from each-other in such a way as to make difficult the development of any romance.

Once - still

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as “Guy” and “Girl”

The story is handled here and there in a contrived, clichéd way, and there are problems with some of the musical numbers sounding un-‘live’ — some of the supposedly live performances seemed to me like overt studio productions.  For example, a scene in which “Girl” walks down the street singing with headphones must have been recorded in studio; there is a sonic quality which does not mesh with the picture.  This problem I found distracting at times, though I imagine a lot of viewers might not notice the discord at all.  In fact, it may just be that the movie did not play well on my stereo — but that’s all I have to go by.  Another issue: I am generally very good at picking up on thick dialects, as long as the language is English.  But there were times in this film when I actually had to turn on captioning to figure out an important word here or there.

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You might think by all I’ve said that I didn’t like Once, but that’s not at all the case.  The obvious comparison here is last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis [prior post], which did not have any issues with sound recording.  So why is Once such a better movie?  One key element is the music.  Whether or not the songs had an occasional unwarranted ‘studio’ sound, it was nonetheless lovely, original, compelling music.  The music of Once is what really sets it apart — indeed, its theme song won the Oscar that year.

The budding, yearning romantic friendship, portrayed with excellent acting by all involved, is the other strength of this movie.  I wish more had been done with the story — at a brief 86 minutes, this is one of the few times I would have liked to have seen a longer film — but what is there is golden.  There is undeniable chemistry between “Guy” and “Girl”, and watching it play out on screen was a pleasure.  7/10

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Comparison Notes: Recommended: Les Misérables, Walk The Line, Rock of Ages, Shine, Ever AfterSearching for Sugar Man, Crazy HeartMy Name Is JoeBlue Valentine (street scene with guitar); Not Recommended: Inside Llewyn Davis

Cinematic Greats: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi poster

Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio (1982) was important in my early development as a film enthusiast — along with 2001 and The Right Stuff, it captured my imagination for how great movies could be.  I tried in vain to find the Leonard Maltin review, but this from Mike Garrett will do:

If there is one film which absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen with stereo surround sound, it is Godfrey Reggio’s remarkable Koyaanisqatsi. This is a totally unconventional film without plot, actors or dialogue, which mesmerises us with time-lapse and slow-motion photography of civilization and nature, presenting our familiar world from an otherworldly perspective. The powerful soundtrack by Philip Glass is as moving as the imagery, and quite integral to the spellbinding effect. Cinematography is by Ron Fricke, who did Baraka in the same style.

Koyaanisqatsi - still Vegas large“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian word for “life out of balance”, and much of the film deals with not just the emergent beauty, but also the discordance of life in the modern world. This is a little overplayed, with not too subtle H-bomb detonations contrasting the many beautiful shots, nevertheless it is a moving and historically important film that you shouldn’t miss if you have an interest in cinema. Or in being entertained, even.

Originally released in 1983, the Nova is showing a new 35mm print, which really is the only way to experience it. I’ll give Leonard Maltin the last word on this: “So rich in beauty and detail that with each viewing it becomes a new and different film. Should be seen in a theatre for maximum impact.” What more could you want from a film?

Growing up with this movie, I never viewed it as “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind,” as Roger Ebert claimed.  I was simply mesmerized by the picture — and that from watching on an old 19 inch Sony Trinitron, either on VHS tape or from broadcasts of it (I believe PBS showed it a couple times).  So forget about all the politics when watching it, just sit back for an audiovisual treat.  It is not available for streaming, but one may purchase the entire Qatsi trilogy on Blu-Ray.  You might be also able to find a DVD at the local library or video shop, and it occasionally is shown at various events.  Koyaanisqatsi is essential viewing and worth hunting down.

Friday Fun Flick: Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta in Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta in Rock of Ages

How about some ROCKIN’ FUN for Friday?!  On my Best of 2012 list, I had tied the two very different musicals Les Misérables and Rock of Ages, giving both an 8/10.   Despite the title, this is not a voyage through the history of rock and roll.  This is all about 80’s rock.  Wikipedia:

The film stars country singer Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta leading an ensemble cast that includes Russell BrandPaul GiamattiCatherine Zeta-JonesMalin ÅkermanMary J. BligeBryan CranstonAlec Baldwin, and Tom Cruise. The film features the music of several 1980s rock artists including Def LeppardJourneyScorpionsPoisonForeignerGuns N’ RosesPat BenatarJoan JettBon JoviDavid Lee RothTwisted SisterWhitesnake, and others.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, go for it — you won’t be disappointed.  With good singing performances all around and a sustaining storyline, Rock of Ages is pure fun with just the right amount of camp.  And you can’t help but love Julianne Hough.

I’ve read a little of the negative press on this film, and disagree.  I think you have to take this movie for what it is.  If you do, it will exceed your expectations and you’ll have a good time.  Just make sure you do the music justice, and set your sound system on MAXX!