‘La La Land’ Review: Here’s to the hearts who continue to dream

“I like to think we approach movies the same way we approach being members of the audience in that you just want to see something you have never seen before.” – Tom Hanks, [speaking of the magnanimous reaction to La La Land at the Toronto International Film Festival]

A friend of mine posted on my wall about being excited for this movie. Something new and original. I guess he’s never seen a musical before. I have, and I’ve never really fallen in love with one. La La Land flirts with getting me there, but leaves me to dream on.

There are two different ways to appreciate a good movie; entertainment value and craft. Either you like it because it feels good, or it is just very skillfully made. The apex of good filmmaking achieves both. These are subjective measures which differ from person to person depending on their filmgoing experience. Mine for La La Land, despite being a step up in visual quality from my last experience showed the importance of good sound technicians, and how lack of complete quality can be a real step down. My brother was one of the few who was first to praise the film, having watched it at TIFF. Here watching it for a second time he had to go complain to the Cineplex managers as the sound quality, similar to any time I’ve chosen a non-premium large format non-3D, AVX or IMAX gimmick felt a certain nerfing in sound quality. “It makes a ‘BIG’ difference” he said, and I can’t help but agree since that’s also what my film professors have been telling me all this time.

I assume a great number of people will enjoy La La Land to make it a big hit, perhaps inspiring more original musical non-broadway movies. For me, as much as my brother and many other critics will find it at the top of their year-end lists, all I can say is that it is just a well crafted, choreographed film which for me lacks, surprisingly in entertainment value.

I’ll begin my list of criticisms with an odd one that I have never levied before; the film format presented in Cinema Scope, is an odd fit that’s a bit too old-fashioned for proper tastes. The anamorphic lenses oddly stretch the environment empty creating wide faces and it blurs in motion. I believe that for a film about a couple following their dreams it should have been more intimate in scope or in this case aspect ratio. Furthermore, in another first and perhaps more legitimate, I think it’s finally time to drop the 24 frames per second as an industry standard and move up to thirty. There was simply too much blur from point to point which clouded the brisk camera movements and in an age of 4K was simply annoying.

Co-stars of ‘Crazy Stupid Love’ and ‘Gangster Squad’ reunite for a sometimes charming third time.

The bulk of the movie falls on the performances of two characters who true to musical form are given broad characterizations to play with and little in-depth. Ryan Gosling acquits himself nicely underplaying Sebastian. Starting with The Notebook, then Crazy, Stupid, Love (his first and best collaboration in chemistry with Emma Stone) and even in movies I don’t like; The Big Short or The Nice Guys Gosling remains a great screen partner. He never seems to overtake the scene he’s in. Unexpected for someone who apes to be an old Hollywood movie star.

It’s not often you see a film so clearly test the limits of what an actor is capable of. Emma Stone who has given lively performances in comedy and romance notably with Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love where their chemistry was used to greater effect, and even also in the Amazing Spider-man series (check out this scene) was at her best in the comedic Easy-A. Playing Mia, an actress I believe this is an Amy Adams American Hustle moment. We know she is at least a decent actress as seen in Birdman, but she needed to take a risk with something different here and failed in order to improve in the long form. Acting out of her range she can’t quite pull off her character’s big dramatic moment. Part of this blame also falls on director Damien Chazelle who doesn’t define her goals as clearly as he does her counterpart. A frequent hazard for writing the opposite sex. He should have played to her strengths as an actress and made Mia’s talent as an actress more seriously questionable. Doing so would add more dramatic conflict and would have made a more interesting statement about the Hollywood industry.

That is not to say Chazelle doesn’t know his characters. His solution for them makes complete sense and is one of stronger parts of the writing it just lands with a bit of a thud because you don’t feel your spending time with real people here. And it’s unclear at least to me if that was the idea or not. For my money I wish the film could say more about its characters because it would’ve wasted less of my time.

Oscar Winner John Legend demonstrates Damien Chazelle improving on diversity this time around.

I cannot deny that the music was excellent. ‘Another Day of Sun’, the number that opens the film is my pick for the year’s best original song. ‘Someone in the crowd’ is also good. I can’t tell if ‘Audition’ and ‘City of Stars’ are good or I’ve just heard them too much at this point that I’ve been beaten into submission. The problems that pervade musicals to me, being half loaded with winning songs and filler and too sluggish in their pacing in the second half comes through again here but comes off better than most films. You never know where the film’s going and it’s not in any rush, rathering you stay with its characters a while. It’s not always fun as it seems.

Sound mixing of course is excellent, Goslings efforts in performing musically as well as his costar John Legend (good in a small role) who both learned instruments are noted. Chazelle stages a number of scenes like the opening freeway and a jazz number in one take, the former with a CGI blending assist. And further directing trademarks are done well. A minor scene in a theatre shows the intimacy of touch between the two leads. A small touch employed previously before in Whiplash is suggestive Chazelle should dream deeper rather than bigger next time.

Visual flourish abound
Visual flourish abound.

Report Card:

I do try to make reviews for the masses here. This dissenting opinion will likely not become a common sentiment among the aggregate. Maybe or maybe not because of bad film presentation, I felt stuck with these boring characters and didn’t care for them because the music came regardless didn’t play much into the characters sentiments at all. There’s a few great songs but in delivering this ‘plot’ these composites could’ve just as easily been any other characters. In no major fault of the actors, its something the writer should focus on improving next time. They don’t have the effortless sweep down that so many musicals demand. 2.5/5

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Distributed by: Summit Entertainment
Runnning Time: 128 Minutes

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