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.

The Nice Guys Finish First

Scott Tobias, NPR, mostly gets it:

With The Nice Guys, his wildly entertaining new detective comedy, Black visits the smog-choked, libertine Los Angeles of the mid- to late 1970s, a few years and a few miles removed from private eyes like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye or Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Only, The Nice Guys doesn’t linger in the haze. It has the byzantine plot of an LA noir, but races through it with the breathless energy of Black’s other work. From a simple missing-person case, the film opens up a full-to-bursting array of running jokes, ornate action set pieces, municipal schemes, and twists large and small. The only trouble is keeping up with it.

A few critics speak to a confusing or multi-layered plot, but I’m not sure what they’re talking about.  I found the story quite straightforward, even simple —  if not especially robust.  But the film does move along well, with lots of fun scenes The Nice Guys - text blockmoving quickly from one to the next.  “Wildly entertaining” is overselling it a bit, however.  Toward the end, The Nice Guys devolves into a sort of fermented corn-and-cheese mixture: the “ornate action set piece” finale I found trite, an obvious take-off on the much better opening sequence of the second Indiana Jones picture.

With its several significant flaws, The Nice Guys nonetheless has more in its favor than against it.  It’s mostly a lot of fun.  The squandered opportunities which yielded American Hustle and Inherent Vice were making me think that no-one could produce a decent ’70s-set movie in this vein, but The Nice Guys comes out on top of this heap.  On the low end of 7/10.

Comparison Notes (all recommended, and more accurately “wildly entertaining”): Chinatown, Catch Me If You Can, Trainspotting, Hail, Caesar!

Film Brief: The Big Short

The Big Short - poster

The Big Short follows three parties who fail to intersect while chasing the novel idea of shorting the housing market.  It’s good strong material muted, which is to say mishandled, by the maker of Anchorman, and you can see what I thought of the last Anchorman movie.  The director Adam McKay employed a trite ‘wink and a nod,’ talking into the camera shtick which didn’t do the film any favors, a further sign of the filmmaker’s lack of skill in weaving his yarn.

So The Big Short is borderline thumbs-down, but it projected a lively spirit, the performances were well crafted, and it wasn’t boring, so 6/10.

Comparison Notes: Recommended better options: Wall Street, American Psycho, Glengarry Glen Ross; Not Recommended: The Wolf of Wall Street

Ryan Gosling Movies on Netflix

After I posted yesterday on Blue Valentine, I was surprised to find out that it is available  via streaming on Netflix, which is like having a free rental if you already have the subscription.  A quick follow-up revealed that three more Gosling pictures are available: Lars and the Real Girl, Drive [prior post], and All Good Things (with Kirsten Dunst).  I recommend all of these, but Lars and the Real Girl was my introduction to Gosling and is an utterly charming, delightful picture.  When I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love. a couple years later, I had forgot that this sophisticated ladies man was the same actor who played Lars, a character that Ebert described as:

a painfully shy young man who can barely stand the touch of another human being. He functions in the world and has an office job, but in the evening, he sits alone in a cabin in the back yard of his family home.

When I connected the disparate Crazy, Stupid and Lars roles to the same actor, I was struck by the range of Gosling.  Mixing in his other performances, you’d be hard pressed to make a case for another actor who’s any better.

All Good Things - click for trailer

All Good Things – click for trailer

Be Mine, Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine Poster

When I saw the trailer for Blue Valentine (below), I knew I had to see this movie.  I wasn’t disappointed, and you won’t be either.  But don’t expect a happy-go-lucky rom-com; this isn’t that.  The trailer had me thinking this would be a more upbeat movie, so I was taken aback a little at its downbeat nature.  But it has stuck in my head since I saw it a year or so ago.  The lasting impact reminds me how good it was.  Roger Ebert brilliantly wrote:

Derek Cianfrance, the film’s writer and director, observes with great exactitude the birth and decay of a relationship. This film is alive in its details. Toward the end of the six years, when Cindy is hardly able to remember why she wanted to marry Dean, Cianfrance observes the physical and mental exhaustion that has overcome her. And the way that Dean seems hardly to care — just so long as Cindy remains his wife and his watcher, which in his mind was the deal. Dean thinks marriage is the station. Cindy thought it was the train.

Recommended for anyone who wants to see a powerful love story played by the two best actors of their generation in exceptionally intimate roles.  9/10

Drive-in Movie

Drive Screenshot IMDb

The best actor of his generation

Drive starts with probably the best getaway/chase scene ever depicted on film. It’s good because it’s intelligent — a chase sequence you feel could really happen, not cars flipping and exploding left and right.  The driver is a quiet, confident, intelligent Ryan Gosling — a seething intensity worked by the best actor of his generation.  Drive is a prime example of how Gosling can hold a frame; how he compels you to keep watching.

As great as Gosling is, Drive also has a terrific storyline.  Early on I remember thinking, this guy (Gosling’s character) has really got a lot of irons in the fire.  It progresses in very strong fashion for a large portion of the picture before the plot runs into a little pat territory that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the picture, but Drive is good enough to stand as an intriguing and compelling, and even great film.