Thursday, December 29, 2016

La La Land

3/4

Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

Rated PG-13 for Some Language

With "La La Land," writer/director Damien Chazelle seeks to fuse the stylings of a musical that Gene Kelly would make to the modern age.  While the marriage isn't perfect, it's intriguing enough to be worth a look.

Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress.  Sebastian is an old soul who wants to open his own jazz club that plays "real" jazz, not the new pop hybrids.  Although their first encounters are anything but cordial, they form a bond and fall in love.  But each has their own dreams and desires, and they may not be compatible with each other.  Can their love for each other survive where their lives take them?

For a musical, it is ironic that the weakest element of the film is the music.  Not only are the songs not especially memorable, many of them don't fit and should have been excised.  The film would have stood well enough on its own.

Perhaps more importantly, is that tonally it doesn't work.  Based on the evidence, which is this film and "Whiplash," the indie hit that put him on the map, Chazelle does his best work when the material is dark.  "Whiplash" was a riveting and psychologically violent motion picture.  "La La Land" is lighter, especially in the first half.  That's when the film has trouble.  Chazelle tries to convey the levity of the old fashioned musical, but it doesn't work.  The film only hits its stride when it becomes more grounded.

Fortunately, Chazelle got the right actors for the parts.  Ryan Gosling is one of our best young actors, and while his singing skills are open to question, his dramatic skills are not.  In a not so strange way, I thought of "The Notebook" more than once during this movie.  True, Sebastian is a lot more complicated than Noah Calhoun, but there are similarities.  Emma Stone continues to mature as an actress.  Originating from comedy, she showed aptitude for drama with "Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance," for which she was awarded an (undeserved) Oscar nomination.  She'll likely get another here, and as of now she's the front runner.  She deserves all the accolades she's been getting.  Stone has never been better.  J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence and Rosemarie DeWitt have cameos.

"La La Land" is a tough call.  There's some good stuff here, but there's also plenty of material that doesn't land.  I have few misgivings about the second act, but I'll admit to checking my watch a few times during the opening hour.  Then there's the ending, which is, shall we say, open to interpretation.  It's the kind of thing that you want to talk about with someone after words.  It's not handled particularly well, but I applaud Chazelle's attempt.

It is clear that Damien Chazelle has no qualms about taking chances.  His skills as a filmmaker need fine-tuning, but I'm curious to see where his career will lead him next.

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