Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La B (Plus)

I was eager to see the movie La La Land for a variety of reasons. It's the newest film from Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of my favorite movie of the last several years, Whiplash. It's considered by many to be the front runner for this year's Best Picture Oscar. And it's an actual, original, non-animated, musical.

Though I did enjoy the movie, I almost certainly let my expectations build too high.

La La Land follows two people struggling to fulfill their dreams in Los Angeles: an actress trying to land a good part, and a jazz musician who wants to open his own club. Chance encounters push the two together into a couple, each trying to encourage the other.

The movie is at its strongest in the musical moments. The visuals are so beautiful, so carefully considered, that it's like watching a moving painting. Vivid colors abound as one striking image after another is presented. Long single takes are used throughout to accentuate emotion, evoke the feeling of a stage play, and recall the days of classic Hollywood musicals. Words seem short to convey how stunning it looks.

In large part, that's due to how ambitious it all is. These are not minor musical numbers. There's an opening set in a traffic jam, a tap routine on a mountain side at the "magic hour" of sunset, and more than one elaborate dream sequence. Most movies would be remembered for any one of these sequences; La La Land has them all.

And yet, contradictory as it may seem to say this, it doesn't have enough of these moments. Not the moments to dazzle and amaze, necessarily, but simply the musical numbers themselves. The movie is never as good as when it bursts out into song and dance, and the stretches between become awkwardly noticeable, particularly throughout the middle act.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are paired as the couple of the story. Though they are very likeable together, one definitely outshines the other in this movie. Emma Stone is given all the film's more demanding acting moments. Many critics have talked about "the audition scene," and for good reason. In the movie's longest single take, and she puts everything into taking you on a powerful, emotional journey. What's more, it's only one of several scenes in which Stone gives a transcendent performance. Ryan Gosling certainly trained on piano and can dance, but his singing doesn't stand up to Stone's, and his low-key performance, though authentic, sometimes feels too muted for a movie that calls for a more heightened mode.

La La Land has any number of scenes I'd hold up for best of the year. But as a whole, it's not as great as I was hoping for. Good still, for sure -- a B+. But the way my own best of the year list is shaping up, it's not looking like enough to crack the top 10.

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