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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Movie Review - La La Land

La La Land (2016)
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and Tom Everett Scott 
Directed by Damien Chazelle

A few years ago, a movie musical called The Muppets topped my list of Best Films of the Year by tapping into nostalgia and creating a flick that put a smile on my face the whole darn runtime.  "Leave your worries outside that theater door and enter a world of happiness and exuberance," so said Kermit and Miss Piggy.  Five years later, a new duo of stars in Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone asked me to do the same thing with a new and completely original movie musical and I obliged, albeit a little nervously as I was hesitant that the hype surrounding their film La La Land would hinder my enjoyment.  My fears were completely unfounded because once Stone and Gosling popped up onto the screen, that oddly euphoric feeling I felt during The Muppets popped up here as well.  Exquisitely directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land is a true cinematic musical treat that will get a second viewing by me to see if it can tick up that one level from "A-" land to the mystical world of the hard-to-get "A".

La La Land is certainly not reinventing the wheel in terms of plot.  It's a simple story of boy meets girl and the relationship that ensues after a meet-cute.  The boy -- Sebastian, in this case, played by Gosling -- is an aspiring jazz pianist who adores music icons of yore like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, but is finding the modern day crowd reticent to listen to that style of jazz.  It's a struggle to find his place in the music world of Los Angeles which is ready to leave him behind.  The girl is Mia (played by Stone), an aspiring actress who moved to LA from a small town in Nevada, but is finding herself working at a Hollywood studio coffee shop admiring the actresses who come in for a drink instead of actually being an actress herself.  Our boy and girl meet and eventually fall in love, pushing each other to pursue their dreams across a Los Angeles landscape that is pushing against them succeeding.

The simplicity of the story is enhanced twofold.  First, the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is incredibly palpable with the two radiating joy in nearly every scene.  The repartee between the two is utterly charming and often comedic, reminiscent of 1940s Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant flicks (Bringing Up Baby is even mentioned in the film).  Stone and Gosling have shown us their comedic chops and their chemistry before in the wonderful Crazy Stupid Love and the duo doesn't disappoint here.  They nail every emotional iteration their characters are supposed to experience and honestly as soon as they meet in the film, I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear whenever they were together onscreen.  This is essentially a two-charater piece (hence the lack of a Screen Actor's Guild ensemble nomination) and the duo succeed at every turn.  Their singing isn't too shabby either -- granted, neither would win American Idol, but that's part of the charm of the film.  We get more emotion from the lack of perfection in their voices than we ever would from a spot-on singer crooning these tunes.

Secondly, the simple tale is elevated by the glorious direction of Damien Chazelle -- he of the fantastic Whiplash two years ago.  Nothing in the intense and cinematographically dark Whiplash would've keyed me in that Chazelle had this old school-Hollywood romanticism in him, but with the exception of one four-letter word (and the use of cell phones and Priuses and other modern technology), La La Land feels like it could've been made in the golden era of Hollywood musicals.  Odes to Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (the latter not a Hollywood musical, but you get my drift) are everywhere as a rhapsody of Technicolor hues and stunningly gorgeous lighting are present in nearly every scene which are themselves filled with beautiful costumes and production design.  That aforementioned smile plastered on my face -- part of that was simply from the imagery and colors flashing across the screen.

Admittedly, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, where the film falls the tiniest bit short is in the "musical" aspect in part because there are really only six songs in its 130 minutes.  While the characters are certainly breaking into song, I couldn't help but want more.  I initially thought the film got a little slow in the middle, but upon reflection that was really only because of a lack of songs not because the film itself was actually slow per se.  The songs by Broadway songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are lovely, some soaringly exuberant and some achingly painful, but all (with the exception of an odd opening number that feels the tiniest bit out of place) are intrinsically helpful in advancing the plot.

Then again, the songs are just one key musical element of La La Land as Chazelle not only utilizes lyrics, but also some lovely dance sequences to enhance the musicality of the piece.  Incredibly reminiscent of the extended dances in the aforementioned Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris, Chazelle allows dance to advance his simplistic plot, elevating our character's emotions and feelings through this form of media which is obviously something the modern moviegoing audience doesn't see everyday.  Admittedly, these moments in the 1950s Hollywood films always fell flat for me (the titular ballet scene in An American in Paris puts me to sleep), but thanks to the dazzling original score by Justin Hurwitz which melds old Hollywood and jazz along with extended takes with few cuts and edits by Chazelle, I was onboard.

I was hoping that Damien Chazelle was a director to watch after the intensely exciting Whiplash, but with La La Land he shows us a completely different side of his aesthetic.  The romance, humor, and happiness that jumps off the screen allows us to leave any troubles outside the confines of the four walls of the theater and embrace an old school cinematic mentality that is far too uncommon in modern film.  The simplicity of the story elevates Chazelle's visuals, Gosling and Stone's chemistry, and the music itself in La La Land with all aspects melding into a gorgeous cinematic treat that I'll certainly be exploring again in the near future.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

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