La La Land

Posted on December 15, 2016 at 5:52 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 24, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTI1WAI

lalalandThe nickname for the California town whose literal translation is “City of Angels” comes from its initials: LA for Los Angeles. But “La La Land” also refers to the culture of its most notable industry, whether the reference is to the magic of its images of pretty people doing pretty things or to the instability of the various deals, relationships, and people behind them. The title of this exquisite film from writer/director Damien Chazelle refers to all of that and to the “la la” of music as well. Its bravura, breathtaking opening scene introduces us to the world of the story, with one of LA’s defining experiences — being stuck in traffic on a sunny day — transforming into a stunning, joyous, candy-colored musical number, with the camera swooping along as a part of the choreography in, apparently, one long shot.

Among the Angelenos on the 105 Freeway are barrista and aspiring actress Mia (Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone), rehearsing some dialog for an upcoming audition, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician with retro taste, as we can see from his watch, ring, and car. He honks the horn. She flips him the finger. They go their separate ways and we follow her to work at a coffee shop on a movie studio lot, near the window where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out as the Germans marched into Paris in “Casablanca.” The magic of movies — both the way they move and inspire us and the gulf between illusion and reality — shimmer throughout the film.

Mia and Sebastian bump into each other (once literally) a few more times, as we see each of them struggle. He wants to own a jazz club, but his business partner has betrayed him and he has had to take a job playing bland Christmas tunes in a restaurant for a demanding boss (played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for Chazelle’s first film, “Whiplash”). He can’t help himself, and seques into jazz, just as Mia wanders in and hears him. She is transfixed. He is fired.

They meet up again when he is playing another demeaning gig — an 80’s cover band performing at a party. And then, after another party, he chivalrously walks her to her car, and they begin to like each other — so much that they swing into a cheeky song and dance about how much they don’t. The song is “A Lovely Night,” and in the classic tradition of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tunes like “A Fine Romance.” The lyrics may suggest they have no interest in each other, but we and they know from the way their dance seems so effortless, that it is very much the contrary.

The story moves through the seasons (though of course the weather never changes) and soon Mia and Sebastian are happily living together and encouraging each other. But he feels pressure to take a job with an old friend (John Legend) that means good money but constant travel. And good intentions and true affection are sometimes not enough.

Chazelle’s deep and spacious romanticism includes the city and its dreamers and music and movies and love itself. There are dozens of sure-handed, thoughtful touches, from the imperfect perfection of the singing and dancing, which lends an intimate, accessible quality, to the telling glimpses of life in Hollywood — the brief glimpse of a big star or a scene being filmed, the humiliation of auditions, the people who get halfway through a pastry and then demand their money back because it is not gluten-free, the endless wait for the valet parking after a party, the way Mia’s clothes go from bright primary colors to patterns, subdued hues, and then black and white. The songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are captivating and evocative. Sebastian walks along the pier, whistling and then singing about whether he dares to hope. Mia and her roommates wear bright, primary-colored dresses and sing about going out to a party. And in one gorgeous number, the exhilaration of love is made literal as the couple dance up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory.

There are tributes/references to classic films like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” but this movie is not derivative. The storyline is deceptively simple, but the specificity of the detail, depth of understanding, and beautiful performances create true movie magic. “La La Land” is narratively ambitious and emotionally resonant, with a final ten minutes that are pure, wistful poetry. Chazelle and Hurwitz understand that some feelings are just so big they have to be sung and danced. And this movie made me so happy I wanted to create a musical number of my own. But I settled for watching this more two more times instead.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language and some emotional confrontations.

Family discussion: What did Mia and Sebastian learn from each other? How did their support for each other’s dreams change their careers? How did the music help tell the story?

If you like this, try: “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” — both inspirations for this film

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Musical Romance

Middleburg Film Festival: La La Land Director and Star

Posted on October 25, 2016 at 3:35 pm

The best film I saw at the Middleburg Film Festival was the lusciously romantic “La La Land,” a musical from writer/director Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Chazelle and Stone appeared after the film, interviewed by Middleburg Film Festival Advisory Board member John Horn.

Chazelle wrote this film before his acclaimed “Whiplash,” which won an Oscar for J.K. Simmons. But it was not until the critical and box office success of that film that he could get financing for a musical inspired in part by classic Hollywood and by the films of Jacques Demy. Music was an essential component in “Whiplash” as well. But “La La Land” is the kind of musical where people break into song and dance, even literally dancing on air. And they don’t really make films like that anymore. He wanted it to hark back to the musicals of the 40’s and 50’s but also feel modern. He wanted to cast people who had not been in a musical together before, so it would “not feel like a distanced endeavor. They can guide you through it even if you’re skeptical at first.”

What drew him to this idea was the way “your emotions can upend logic in a musical. If your emotions are powerful, a 90-piece orchestra will appear. You can make the unreal real.” It can convey “the craziness of falling in love.”

What drew Stone was two things. First, she said, was “the build to the ending. I’m a freak for endings.” Second was the passion of Chazelle’s vision. She loved the “hope and joy that can give you that last 10 minutes. It’s melancholy and heart-breaking but with hope…My favorite movies are where you find that full spectrum of emotion.”

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Actors

First Look at Emma Stone and Steve Carell in “Battle of the Sexes”

Posted on April 17, 2016 at 3:15 pm

In the fall of 1973, there was no biggest story in sports than the challenge from former tennis champ Bobby Riggs to women players. He claimed that at age 55, decades after he retired in 1951, he could still beat the best female players in the world. He had already beat Margaret Court when Billie Jean King accepted his challenge. Their game was watched by 90 million people, and it was known as “The Battle of the Sexes.” A movie based on that game, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, is now filming, directed by “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Carell and Stone played father and daughter in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

Here are Riggs and King at the press conference announcing the match, and Stone and Carell performing in that scene in the film.

Copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight
Copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight
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In Production

Aloha

Posted on May 28, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Copyright 2015 Columbia Pictures
Copyright 2015 Columbia Pictures
Writer/director Cameron Crowe presents us with an attractive and talented but messy and compromised hero in “Aloha,” and asks us to root for him. The problem is that the film itself is attractive, talent-filled, messy, and compromised, and harder to root for than the hero of the story.

That hero is Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), once an 11-year-old who loved the sky so much he wanted to identify everything in it. In a quick narrated recap that opens the film we learn that after he grew up things went well for him (in the military) and then not so well, and then badly. While working for a private contractor in Kabul, he was badly injured, and apparently not in the way that gets you a Purple Heart.

Brian arrives in Hawaii and needs to prove himself. His former employer, Carson Welch (Bill Murray) is one of the wealthiest men in the world, presiding over a telecommunications empire. He and the Air Force are working together on a big project that involves the development of land on the island that was a burial ground for the indigenous people. The Air Force assigns a “fast burner” named Sergeant Ng (Emma Stone) to work with get the cooperation of the King of the native population to build on that property, and to show that by performing a blessing ceremony. The King is played by real-life King Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, and he is one of the few from Brian’s past who seems to like him much. Welch does not. The Air Force General (Alec Baldwin, volcanically angry) does not. Then there is Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), now married to an Air Force pilot and the mother of two children.

It totally goes off the rails several times, with a plot that would daunt a Bond villain thwarted by a completely ridiculous hacking scene, plus a last-minute redemptive reconciliation that is so far off the mark of any known human response the characters would be just as likely to sprout feathers and levitate off the ground. While the Hawaiian natives and their struggle against what they see as American imperialism and colonialism are sympathetically portrayed, it is still a story that is about white people and their problems. And the casting of Emma Stone as bi-racial is insensitive at best.

But like its hero and its writer/director, it won me back with the crackle of its dialog and charm of its poetry, even in the hacking scene, and especially in a statement of romantic intent that is one of the best I’ve seen in many months. It is also very funny, with a wonderfully expressive performance from Krasinski as the taciturn Woody, and thoughtful work from Cooper, who keeps getting better at finding moments of surprising insight and nuance with every performance.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situation, paternity issue, references to war-related violence and injuries and to weapons of mass destruction, references to imperialism and colonialism, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why did Ng talk so much about being one-quarter Hawaiian? Why was the King the only person from Brian’s past who seemed to like him? What happens when billionaires make decisions that used to be made by government?

If you like this, try: “The Descendants,” and “Almost Famous”

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Comedy Drama Romance
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