Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land

What a unique and joyous film this is! I wasn't that aware of La La Land until the first trailer came out a few months ago, but I was instantly intrigued by the concept. It's been a long time since we've seen an original musical made for the big screen, and with these two fantastic leads (both of whom shined in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love) I knew it had the potential to be something special. Throw into that mix Damien Chazelle's directorial follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Whiplash, and it was clear that this had Oscar contender written all over it. So does it live up to this tremendous potential?

Mia is a struggling aspiring actress, working in a cafe on the Warner Bro's studio lot in Hollywood and consistently getting passed over for every role for which she auditions. Meanwhile, Sebastian is a talented jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own Jazz bar where he wouldn't be beholden to the pandering demands of the general public. Working odd gigs to make ends meet, Sebastian keeps bumping into Mia (sometimes literally), and in order to escape an awkward situation, she finds herself wandering a deserted LA street to find her parked Prius, joined by Sebastian, and the two begin to discover a growing spark between them...

I've already seen this movie twice, and I had very different (though equally enjoyable) experiences each time. There's a lot to take in here, but the story is simple enough for each viewer to get as much out of it as necessary. While it's fairly familiar on the surface, there are nuances and flourishes that you just can't absorb in a single viewing. La La Land brandishes such a confident artistry that you can't help but marvel at what's on the screen. The production design is impeccable and calls back to the golden age of Hollywood without being too heavy-handed with its references. There hasn't been a movie like this in decades, but the drama and the emotion stands heads-and-shoulders above its predecessors.

These are top-tier artists at the absolute peak of their craft, from the director, to the cinematographer, to the composer, to the extraordinary lead actors. There have rarely been two actors with as much screen chemistry as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and their love story is so expertly told that even the most cynical viewer can't help but root for their relationship to succeed. Stone has the perfect blend of insecurity and strength, with a healthy dose of larger-than-life personality and charisma. The sheer difficulty of the role is formidable to say the least, requiring her to act like an aspiring actress portraying real emotions in an audition that gets unceremoniously interrupted in the middle of a crying scene by utterly ambivalent casting directors, but Stone absolutely nails it.

No less impressive is Gosling, who always portrays a subtle, underplayed humor that I really gravitate towards. Sebastian's emotions aren't as apparent as Mia's, which makes sense given their different career paths, but his passion for his music infected me in the audience, let alone the other characters on screen. He does a tremendous job of internalizing a complex set of conflicting emotions, while also providing levity at all of the perfect moments. Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that Gosling trained to actually perform all of the piano pieces in this film himself. They both learned to tap dance as well, and though I'm sure the numbers are fairly rudimentary, their dance scenes are pretty magical to watch.

There is so much more to discuss, but in order to preserve the experience I'll leave it there for now. I will say this movie is surely going to surprise a lot of people. It's more thought-provoking and hits emotional depths that may not be expected from a musical, and the ending will definitely challenge the viewer in a unique way. The film's title certainly eludes to its function as an incredible love letter to the culture of Los Angeles, but also hints to the pains, the triumphs, the thrill and the heartbreak of pursuing your dreams. It's a beautiful work of cinematic art that is destined to be a classic, and I really hope the Academy Awards show it the love it deserves. I recommend La La Land to everyone, and therefore give it the year's strongest of four star ratings. Go see it immediately!

LA LA LAND is rated PG-13 for some language