Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - La La Land

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Produced by: Fred Berger
Jordan Horowitz
Gary Gilbert
Marc Platt

Screenplay by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Ryan Gosling
Emma Stone
John Legend
Rosemarie DeWitt

Music by: Justin Hurwitz

Cinematography by: Linus Sandgren

Editing by: Tom Cross

Studio(s): Summit Entertainment
Black Label Media
Impostor Pictures
Gilbert Films
Marc Platt Productions

Distributed by: Summit Entertainment

Release date(s): December 9, 2016 (United States, limited)
December 26, 2016 (United States, wide)
January 12, 2017 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 128 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $30 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $368, 960, 065

Today's movie up for review is La La Land, the latest film from Damien Chazelle and in my opinion the film that will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Following on from the success of his 2014 film, the superb Whiplash, Chazelle dived headlong into this passion project of his, for which he wrote the screenplay in 2010, but for a long time was unable to find a studio willing to finance the production. After Whiplash became a low-budget and rather profitable runaway hit, Summit Entertainment and Black Label Media agreed to finance and distribute the film, giving Chazelle a solid mid-range budget, but also virtual artistic autonomy with none of the studio-imposed changes suggested by past prospective investors (including changing the male lead into a rock musician). So, now we have La La Land, a musical starring Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, a struggling jazz pianist and an aspiring actress who whilst pursuing their respective dreams meet and fall in love in Los Angeles. Got it? Good! 

To start off with the good, I want to highlight the two central performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Now, it's obvious that the both of them are two highly talented actors who themselves are more than capable of pulling off great roles, but in this case I think it is important to discuss the both of them together. Not only are Gosling and Stone able to hit off the individual emotional beats for Sebastian and Mia in their solo scenes and numbers, but together they shine with the kind of onscreen chemistry that cannot be manufactured; it's a case of either you have it or you don't, and boy do these two have it. Throughout the duration of the film, they dance, both literally and metaphorically, la valse à mille temps, encapsulating within their interactions all of the heartbeats in a relationship, Stone's feisty, spirited and determined Mia bouncing off of Gosling's somewhat neurotic, aloof but nevertheless charming Sebastian bouncing off of one another as we move with them through their trials and tribulations, joys and jubilations in the pursuit of their respective dreams. Comparisons have of course been made between the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the excellence displayed by Gosling and Stone for their rapport as far as the musical numbers, and I don't think it's undue, because notwithstanding the superb choreography, the two dance and sing not only with the prowess of natural talent, but with a key understanding of their characters and how they're supposed to interact with one another. As I've iterated, individually they're superb performances, but together they elevate each other completely. I suppose that this being a musical, and a great one to boot, that Justin Hurwitz's score deserves mentioning. Who am I kidding, of course it deserve mentioning, it's bloody terrific! Hurwitz has created a musical ensemble of numbers which no doubt instantly earn the status of 'iconic,' and I don't use that term lightly either. Jazz is many ways the marmite of musical genres, in that people have a real love-hate kind of reaction to it. I for one am an admirer of jazz, it's theory and aesthetics, but I couldn't say that I'm a great enthusiast, truth be told, although I'm getting more into it the older I get. My mother on the other hand absolutely hates it, and around my household it is known as 'the four-letter j-word,' as though to utter it is an obscenity in her presence. However, she went completely with this film, and I think that is a testament to the dexterity of the music, in that it wasn't just jazz for jazz's sake, but that the instrumentation and song structure fit the emotional tone of what was going on with the characters in the story. When I'm reviewing films, I often listen to the music from them, not only because I'm sonically inspired and find it conducive for my writing in general, but also to conjure up the echoes my emotional reactions and instinctive gut feelings about a given work. Ultimately a review is a poor replicant to the real thing, but anywho, it's a method of mixed results which can be a chore in the case of a particularly bad film, but one that works, and in this case it makes expressing myself a pleasure. The music maintains the spirit and essence of jazz whilst also being incredibly catchy, fun, memorable and is a mirror that reflects the drama of what's going on with the story. Numbers like City Of Stars, Audition (The Fools Who Dream), Another Day Of Sun, Mia & Sebastian's Theme, heck, even John Legend's Start A Fire (a deft and subtle take on uninspired, emotional bland genre-crossover music aimed at a mainstream audience) are memorable. The whole thing is wonderful. Also worthy of mention is the mise-en-scene of the picture. The reason it has been nominated in so many categories at the Oscars is because it delivers a high standard in lots of different ways. The production design of the sets, the costumes and the make-up/hair, have a rich and varied colour palette, but as I have iterated throughout, are appropriate to the characters and the story. The cinematography and the editing are also finely-balanced. With the long takes, the cinematography highlights the extent of and the level involved in the sheer craft that comes with the film, both from the sense of the characters and those who have built up this world around them. Also, it is not without it's own stylistic flourishes. It's a beautifully lit film shot in CinemaScope, and the lighting and deft camera movements change in order to suit the alternating tone in a given scene. As regards to editing, Tom Cross has done a meticulous job of splicing together this work, ensuring that it maintains a grounded quality, that ultimately, while it is a stylistically brilliant film, it is also a film that remains an intimate mood piece that is in a state of flux; the way in which the whole thing is put together makes it seem alive, constantly moving, ever-changing. We are dancing with Sebastian and Mia throughout this living work of art. Knowing me I've probably left someone out, but the last person I need to flag up for praise is Damien Chazelle, the architect behind this piece. I'm so glad that Chazelle did not have to compromise his vision, that the years of sticking to his guns and going with what his heart told him have paid off. Obviously there's a thematic continuation of sorts from Whiplash, in that it's another film that uses Chazelle's beloved jazz as a foundational base to depict a relationship between two people, although unlike Whiplash's tempestuous mentor-student tete a tete of Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher here we have the romance of Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan. Once again, he has given us a dynamic duo, whose brilliant relationship will rightfully take it's place alongside the likes of Rick and Ilsa. This is a film worthy of mention alongside Casablanca when people talk about great Hollywood romances, and that is down to the storytelling prowess of Chazelle's heartfelt and timely screenplay. Also, as a director Chazelle excels, in that not only are there so many different factors to take into account here for him to keep control of, but Chazelle would also have had to have restrain himself. With the autonomy that he was granted here after the success of Whiplash, he could have made a massively self-indulgent picture that was designed for his own personal enjoyment, as opposed to a picture designed for the wider entertainment of audiences. It's happened to filmmakers before, just look at George Lucas, Michael Cimimo, M. Night Shymalan, Kevin Costner and different people behind great films who've made one work which had disastrous consequences for their career. This could have happened here, but instead he takes the ball and runs with it. At thirty-two years old, Chazelle is swimming gracefully with the sharks, and we are privileged to have a real artist in Hollywood who has the ability to pull off something like this. La La Land is a triumph and a phenomenon, and I loved it. 

Now, just for sake of argument, even though the film is (drumroll, please... thank you!) a masterpiece, there are as usual a thing or two I've to flag up. he one thing I could say that might be challenging to some is the fact that the film is a musical, which believe it or not is off-putting to some people. Me, I love them, Singin' In The Rain and some of the Laurel and Hardy films being among my favourites, but my Dad was put off by the prospect of La La Land completely on the basis that it wasn't "his cup of tea." It had no impact on my personal opinion, but little things like this are always worth considering. In the case of masterpieces, as always, I find it hard enough to differentiate and decided between them in terms of which I prefer. Of the films I've seen and reviewed so far from 2016 (there's a whole glut and my best and worst of the year to come), La La Land is the third (after The Witch and Victoria). Ranking the three, I thought that La La Land was better than The Witch, and on any other year it might have been my best film, but I thought it was just marginally inferior to Victoria. Very marginally in fact, but when I put the two up against each, it more often swings in favour of Victoria. That's not a knock on the film itself, but that's just where I stand on this one.

Well, there you have it. Despite the fact that I think some people might be put off on the basis of it being a musical and that I found it to be marginally inferior to Victoria, La La Land is a masterpiece. Featuring two superb lead performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, it delivers a high standard of excellence in nearly every regard, from the brilliant musical numbers by Justin Hurwitz to the splendidly-realised mise-en-scene to Linus Sandgren's beautifully lit cinematography, which highlights the choreography, performances and design aspects, the stitching together of it all by editor Tom Cross, writer-director Damien Chazelle has given us something really special. It's a dazzling depiction of the pursuit of dreams, a classical Hollywood romance and a melancholy mood piece with all of the grandeur of the great musicals of old. It's a throwback, and yet Chazelle is forward-looking enough to see the bigger picture, and through his story give us something new in the process. It is just a wonderful, wonderful piece of work, and I hope it has great success at the Academy Awards, because to see legitimately great films do so well on a big stage is important to all of cinema.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Busy (there's never enough time in a day to fit in all the things that you'd like to get done, is there?)

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