La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

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New Releases for the Week of December 16, 2016


Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

(Disney) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits. Directed by Gareth Edwards

The first stand-alone theatrical film in the Star Wars universe concerns the plans of the Death Star. How did the Rebels acquire them? It was only a couple of lines about how many died getting those plans to the Alliance. Now we can see the story of how it happened. Expect this to be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) box office hits of the year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)

Collateral Beauty

(New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet. After a successful advertising executive on Madison Avenue suffers an incalculable tragedy, he retreats from life, trying to find answers. In his suffering, he writes letters to Love, Time and Death. What he doesn’t expect is to get personal answers.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)

Jackie

(Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. The story of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, one of America’s most iconic figures of the 20th century, at one of the defining points in American history – the assassination of her husband. Portman’s performance is considered the strong favorite to take the Oscar for Best Actress this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (opens on Wednesday)

Rating: R (for brief strong violence and some language)

La La Land

(Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt. An actress and a musician, both struggling, are drawn together by their passion for their art and eventually that passion is amplfied  for each other. However as they each begin to achieve success they are forced to make choices between their relationship and their careers which threaten both.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village (expanding Christmas Day)

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence and language throughout)

We Are X

(Drafthouse) Yoshiki, Gene Simmons, Toshi, Pata. In America, the band X are punk legends, but this isn’t about them. This is about the Japanese band X, one of the most accomplished metal bands in the world.  Their story isn’t well-known in America nor is their music but that should change once people see this documentary, part of the Music Mondays series at the Enzian. This is a band that may be considered rock gods but that doesn’t mean they’ve had it easy.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Monday only)

Rating: R (for some language)

Soul Men


Soul Men

The show must go on, even in THOSE suits.

(MGM) Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Hayes, Sharon Leal, Isaac Hayes, Jennifer Coolidge, John Legend, Affion Crockett, Adam Herschman, Fatso Fasano, Jackie Long. Directed by Malcolm Lee

Bernie Mac was one of those rare talents who was not only a great comedian but was widely praised for being one of the genuinely nice guys in the business. He’s the sort who would take his sister’s kids in and raise them as his own while she battled drug addiction. The world lost a great one when he passed away.

Marcus Hooks (Legend) was one of the great ones in soul music. Starting out with the Memphis R&B sensations Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, he moved on to solo super-stardom. His former backing singers, the Real Deal, went on to obscurity, with Floyd Henderson (Mac) moving on to success in the business world, while Louis Hinds (Jackson) went on to a life of crime. They haven’t seen each other in the twenty years since the band broke up amid great acrimony, having generated one charting single in the post-Marcus Hooks era.

Now Hooks has died and the music industry is falling all over itself to pay tribute to the man who generated so much cash. A tribute show has been set for the Apollo Theater, and the Real Deal has been invited. Floyd, who’s been forced into retirement by his son-in-law, wants to do the show not so much for the money but as a means of showing he’s not ready to be put out to pasture. Louis is much less inclined to do the show; he’s done his jail time and is working in obscurity at an auto repair shop; he’s finally talked into it but it’s clear that the issue that tore the band apart – a woman, as it turns out – is still on Louis’ mind.

Since Louis has a fear of flying (although he would never admit to it), the two must travel from the West Coast to the East in Floyd’s vintage Caddy. Along the way they’ll meet Cleo (Leal), the daughter of the woman who split them apart and a real talent in her own right and Phillip (Herschman), a hero-worshipping intern at the record company who yearns to manage the legendary pair, who bicker like an old married couple. Floyd wants the two to do some shows on the road by way of rehearsal for the big tribute, which could be their ticket back into the big time but given the incendiary nature of the two, it remains to be seen if they can get over being their own worst enemies and make it to the show on time.

The movie’s central crux is the relationship between Floyd and Louis, and fortunately, the chemistry is there. Mac and Jackson (who were friends before the movie) banter back and forth comfortably and you can sense the bond that’s there. The two also do a credible job of singing and dancing in the movie; they don’t have to be great, since they’re depicting two performers past their prime, but they have to be at least good and the two are that.

Those who love the Stax/Volt music of the mid-60s through the late-70s are going to love the soundtrack here. The filmmakers wisely don’t spoof the sound but rather pay tribute to it, and in a graceful move, employ many of the original Stax/Volt backing musicians of the era on the soundtrack. That lends an authenticity to the music that you just couldn’t duplicate or even approximate.

I do wish that the movie had been a bit less formula. Some of the comedy doesn’t work nearly as well as you’d expect with a giant like Bernie Mac in the equation and the plot is contrived with twists that are telegraphed a mile down the highway, even in a vintage Cadillac. I suppose that there is a certain comfort factor to that; while the movie felt a little familiar, I would have liked a little more edge to it but that’s just me.

This would be the last movie not only for Bernie Mac but for soul legend Isaac Hayes, who has an extended cameo as himself, as well – the two men died within a day of each other in August 2008. It’s hard to say if this is a fitting tribute to two giants of the entertainment industry but it will have to do.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Mac and Jackson is first rate. Musical numbers are credible old school Stax/Volt soul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The laughs can get a bit forced in places and talent of this caliber deserved a better script.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough for most children and there is a bit of nudity; it should be fine for mature teenagers however.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s narrator is Randy Jackson of “American Idol” fame.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some nice tribute features to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, and a nice featurettes on the friendship between Mac and Jackson that existed before the movie did.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Best Friend’s Girl