Wednesday, January 25, 2017

OVP: La La Land (2016)

Film: La La Land (2016)
Stars: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend
Director: Damien Chazelle
Oscar History: 14 nominations/5 wins (Best Picture, Director*, Actor-Ryan Gosling, Actress-Emma Stone*, Cinematography*, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Score*, Film Editing, Song-"City of Stars,"* Song-"Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," Production Design, Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Since it swept the Golden Globes, the only question I've received from pretty much any person I remotely bring up the movies with is "is La La Land really that good?"  While this is a reaction pretty much every year when people turn their heads away from television and toward the movies, I will admit this year it feels more pronounced than, say, The Artist or Birdman in years past.  La La Land, with its record-breaking Globes wins and record-tying Oscar nominations is surely one of the year's most important films, and seems destined to win double-digit victories at the Oscars, perhaps even supplanting Ben-Hur/Titanic/Return of the King as the all-time biggest victor.  But that question has remained on my mind for a while now-is the film actually any good?

(Spoilers Ahead) The film really only has time for two characters, who are central to the seasonal transitions of the story: Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz-loving guy who frequently finds himself down-on-his-luck and who dreams of opening his own club, and Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress who seems to find herself constantly on the losing end of auditions.  They meet in the opening scenes, with a nasty encounter during an LA traffic jam, but then slowly fall for each other as they realize that they have that whole "wayward dreamer" thing down pat.  As the film progresses, Sebastian encounters genuine success with his jazz group (that becomes more watered-down jazz and then eventually just pop, as is the wont of mainstream music today), and Mia nearly gives up on acting, then finding a major break in the waning moments of the film, causing the two of them to give up their romance to try and pursue their passions.  In the last ten minutes, we find they did just that-showing the bittersweet reality that they don't end up together (despite an extended daydream montage showing that they did), but did accomplish their occupational goals and are happy, just not in the way that the audience initially wanted them to be.

I'll start out by saying the film looks great.  The costumes are fun, and show a devotion to a specific color palette that has been flagrantly missing at the movies lately-you can already see the parodies and Halloween costumes coming this year, but it works.  And the cinematography is gorgeous, as first-time nominee Linus Sandgren correctly got nominated, particularly for some really wonderful uses of light in Los Angeles that somehow manages to feel like both the glow of sun-dappled Hollywood and the prevalent shadow of a tall backlot alley.  And I cannot deny that the music doesn't have its moments, particularly my favorite of the bunch "City of Stars," which is a wonderful melancholy ode in the center of the piece that catches the mood of the piece better than pretty much anything else.

But I need to confess I didn't like the movie, and there's a variety of things that factor into that assessment.  For starters, the sound in the film is so terrible it's off-putting.  I genuinely thought, during the opening number, that there was something wrong with the projector, but have since read enough reviews to realize it was like that in every theater, where the orchestral music in many times drowns out the singers.  This is true in nearly every number, but most obvious in a large group number because you're used to being able to hear the lyrics.  It doesn't help (at all) that no one in this film (save John Legend) is a particularly good singer-Stone and Gosling as main actors feel more like studio casting than choosing correctly for the role.  I spent a good chunk wondering what, say, Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick could have done with these leads.  I get that it might have been an intentional choice (showing that these two aren't any different than anyone else), but in a film that wants you to (regularly) go into flights of fancy, I don't buy that you can claim you need reality with the singing-that's having your cake and eating it too.  The singing wasn't good enough by-half for a musical of this scale, and I actually found myself hoping we'd just get back to regular acting in parts, something I don't know that I've ever said about a movie as I generally love musicals.

I also disliked the writing and direction.  I am a student of cinema enough to know that Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Funny Face, amongst others, all got homages throughout the movie, but there isn't enough winking to this in my opinion, and as a result it feels less like an homage and more like a remake or (at worst) a casual ripoff.  I think the best way to put it is that Chazelle feels like someone who copied off of a smarter kid's homework, and now we're expected to feel good that he gets the same grade.  The best parts of the movie feel wholly duplicative of Minnelli or Donen, and I can't help but think that Chazelle wanted to make an original musical because there's clearly been an opening for one, but didn't have a clue as to how to do it, but knew that critics would lap up a bunch of inside nods to their favorite movies.  As a result, I felt cheated out of an actual original musical-this is just borrowing from cues from the Golden Age, not giving us something meaningful or even something that compliments this era-it feels in a lot of ways like how I ended up disseminating my dislike of The Artist-a musical where people hope you've never seen another one, just like that film was for people who hadn't seen silent films and didn't know what a good one looked like.

So no, I don't think that La La Land deserved all of those nominations, and I'm going to be extremely bummed if it takes out three truly wonderful movies' records by taking a dozen trophies.  I'd be more comfortable with 2-4 nominations (Cinematography and Original Song for sure, maybe Costume and Art Direction depending on what the rest of the field looked like).  But I'm in the minority here and since discussing La La Land online is all the rage-what did you think?  Are you pro or against the likely Best Picture winner?  If you're in the middle (as so many are), is the crushing buzz helping or hurting your love?  Share below in the comments!

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