Review: La La Land

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Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

Summary: Mia and Sebastian’s lives intersect as they both pursue their dreams living in Los Angeles. They fall in love amidst their successes and failures as Sebastian strives to open a jazz club and Mia works to be an actress.

On paper La La Land was made for me. It’s directed by Damien Chazelle who made Whiplash, one of my favorite movies of the last few years. I was confident that he would assemble a super talented team, so the Film Studies student in me was excited to see what he would produce. I’m a long-time fan of musical theater, both as a performer and a spectator. One of my favorite choreographers from So You Think You Can Dance was on board (Mandy Moore). I should love this movie.

But I don’t.
I’m actually not even sure I like it.
Yet, at the same time it’s also one of the most beautiful and innovative films I’ve ever seen. La La Land is impressive.
But I don’t need to see it again.

The only way I can rationalize how I feel about this film is to divide in half: the story/writing & everything else.

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Let’s start with the good. No, actually the GREAT. The fantastic. The jaw dropping. That opening scene on the freeway. WHAT!? That was nuts! This opening number has a huge cast and the camera is choreographed right in with the dancers. The camera swerves in between vehicles, pivots, turns, leaps from one vehicle to another – all while not breaking the shot. The scene is never cut. Watch that opening number closely, there’s never a point where they cut to a new shot. The camera is our eyes and somehow they were able to stage that so it looked seamless. That is truly incredible filmmaking – for that scene alone Damien Chazelle should be getting the Best Director Oscar.

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The camera moves fluidly and matches the pace of the score, which was incredible. Damien Chazelle has definitely demonstrated one thing: he knows how to film something musically. I don’t mean that in the sense of a literal musical, but he understands the beats and steps that the camera can take and the edits that need to be made to enhance the audience experience. It’s a way of taking you out of your seat and into the film. The crew that Damien assembled is very impressive.

  • The cinematography was ground breaking. Linus Sandgren was the cinematographer on this and this is the most beautifully framed film I’ve seen since The Revenant or Birdman. He had the camera keep pace with the score and moved fluidly with the characters on screen, like a third dance partner. Sandgren is right up there with Emmanuel Lubezki.
  • Justin Hurwitz did the score, which is perfect and present through the entire film, there is seldom a quiet moment.
  • The costume and production design (Mary Zophres and Austin Gorg) played a huge role in dictating the tone of a scene; bright, vibrant colors were carefully used in a way that invoked nostalgia for Cinemascope.
  • The editing is sharp and spot on. Tom Cross used his incredible skill in taking advantage of musical timing and applied it here with the added challenge of accommodating longer takes to fit the style of the classic movie musical. Brilliant work!

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are electric on screen. They sound good together, they look good together, and they move well together. La La Land was heavier on the choreography than the actual singing and they nailed their dance numbers. Ryan Gosling was very good, he played the part exactly the way that it needed to be played, but Emma Stone was really spectacular.  She’s a charming person in general so this kind of role is going to work well for her but she has a way of taking these little moments from films and delivering them with a huge emotional punch (i.e. Birdman).

lala8-copyAfter a big disappointment in her pursuit to become an actress Mia is having a moment of crisis while talking to Sebastian. Mia confesses to him that she worries “what if I’m not good enough?”. He insists that she is but in the back and forth between them Emma Stone reveals this incredibly honest moment of self-doubt and the consequences that doubt carries. It was the first time I truly felt connected to La La Land. It was the first moment of realism and honesty and that drew me in. As soon as that moment was there, it was gone, and it never really comes back.

Which brings me to my problem with La La Land.

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The story. I just…don’t care for the story. Actually, I have a really strong aversion to the story. I think some of this might come down to personality and personal preference, but I felt completely disconnected from the plot of this movie. I realized why I have a problem with La La Land when Emma Stone was accepting her Golden Globe. She said “this is a movie for dreamers”. I am not a dreamer. For better or worse, I have always been much more of a realist and I think that’s why La La Land didn’t charm me. I didn’t feel any connection to the characters or their motivations because this celebration of following your dreams is a little saccharine and unrealistic; but I think that’s what La La Land was trying to do.

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Some audiences see the theater as a place to escape from reality. If things are bad in their real life, they want to see a movie where they can enjoy themselves and feel good when they leave. If that’s how you operate I think that’s fantastic and you will love this movie. That’s just not how I experience the cinema; I watch a movie to connect, to feel something. So, when reality is a little dark and scary, I’m not going to gain any satisfaction from something that feels so far away from reality. Some people find an aspirational love story to be comforting but when it’s so distant from reality I find it a very isolating experience. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience other than my own, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others that found La La Land a little off-putting for the same reason.

Final Verdict: A 
I’m still incredibly conflicted about this. I want to applaud everything about La La Land except for the screenplay, but the tone of the film was so repellent to me that it almost spoiled those moments of technical filmmaking bliss.
In the end, La La Land accomplished exactly what it set out to do and made some beautiful art in the process. I just felt it was a little…hollow.


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Actor, Ryan Gosling
Best Actress, Emma Stone
Best Director
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Film Editing
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Original Score
Best Original Song – “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”
Best Original Song – “City of Stars”
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing

With 14 nominations, La La Land now ties Titanic and All About Eve for the most nominations ever received by a film. I’m befuddled about the Screenplay and Sound Editing nominations; Ryan Gosling was good but I’m not sure he was “Best Actor” good. However, every other nomination is well deserved. I’d advocate for La La Land as Best Original Score, Production Design, Film Editing, Cinematography, Director and Actress, I’d really like to see Emma Stone win Best Actress.

Won…
Best Actress, Emma Stone
Best Director
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Original Song – “City of Stars”

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