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PostPosted: Sat Dec 17, 2016 2:44 pm 
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EMMA STONE AND RYAN GOSLING IN LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle's homage to classic movie musicals

It would be churlish to knock the achievement of Damien Chazelle's great-looking and buoyant movie musical, La La Land. I'd like to see more of this kind of film - for the times to be suitably bland and the genre to be more current. The tech aspects of La La Land are terrific, the bright-colored Cinemascope, the pleasant music, the confident flow of the editing, the charm and energy of the two stars. It all leaves a very pleasant impression, enhanced by a stereotypical yet elegant vision of the Los Angeles urban landscape - a real "commercial for California" (Amy Nicholson). You walk out with a glow. But the story isn't up to the method of its delivery.

La La Land pretends it's going to be a full-on movie musical in the swift opening scene, where a multi-cultural gaggle of people immediately get out of their cars in a freeway traffic jam and start to dance and sing in a sequence all done in a single take. Is this how Angelinos get through rush hour? But it's really going to focus on two people. Right away Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) pass each other driving their separate cars, and exchange hostile gestures. It will take them a while to meet right, never mind cute, but it's their story, all the way. Though there's another long-take musical number at a party, Chazelle is going to give up emulating big-scale musicals even though he keeps alluding to them.

La La Land is about nostalgia, and frustrated ambition. Seb's a pianist who loves jazz, but he thinks it's "dying." That's a gloomy view, but he aims to save it by opening his own jazz club. At the moment he's stuck playing Christmas songs in a bar (on a Steinway!), and when he lapses from the house playlist into a flashy jazz riff once too often, he gets fired by house manager J.K. Simmons (no longer the sadist-in-chief as in Chazelle's overbearing, but admired, Whilplash). Mia walks up to congratulate Seb, dazzled by his playing, but, bummed out, he rebuffs her.

Mia is an aspiring actress who's been bombing out in auditions for years, sharing an apartment with similar aspirants. She just wants to break into a real acting career, but signals her own nostalgic bent, because not only is her group apartment full of movie posters, but she works as a coffee shop barista on the classic Warner Brothers lot that looks out on windows where Bergman and Bogart shot part of Casablanca.

Just as Seb keeps memorizing phrases from Thelonius Monk, this movie references movies like Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, A Star Is Born and Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle thinks movie musicals need saving, like jazz. But the bouncy, happy kind of musical isn't the kind we expect anymore. Of course retro musicals are a familiar genre now. But the new cutting edge is illustrated by Spring Awakening, with its story line of sexual and physical abuse, a fatal abortion, and attempted suicide. It sent you out of the theater feeling depressed. But it thrilled with the musical freshness of its rock score and the boldness of its adaptation from a surprisingly contemporary nineteenth-century German novel.

Here's the trouble: La La Land lives in limbo, trying to live in the present, but full of nostalgia for Fred and Ginger and happy dreams. It's fun seeing Seb and Mia float in the air over the Griffith Observatory, and do an old fashioned song and dance number on the edge of Los Angeles that's smooth and energetic without trying to compete with Astaire and partners. But the obsessive nostalgia gets in the way of any chemistry between the two actors, even though they had it five years ago in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

This time the story keeps sabotaging their romance. Emma Stone impresses more than Ryan, and gets the Oscar buzz (the movie plays more to the Academy than to the public). Her acting is mercurial - none more so than in some amazing auditions where Mia shines, but is ignored by the bored, casually cruel casting staff. But between her and Seb, there's not much kissing, and no sex. There are speeches about selling out, or not, about his dreams and her disenchantment. These certainly don't advance a relationship. They get in the way of it. Ryan Gosling plays the piano convincingly - though with intentional boredom when he joins a black jazz crossover band (led by John Legend) and tosses off lazy accompaniment on keyboards with one hand. The actor is a decent singer; Stone's voice is wispy, but that's already a familiar musical style, perhaps a safer one, since it doesn't seem to try. The very pretty music by Justin Hurwitz doesn't include any memorable songs.

The story line goes astray in the second half, making us long for the emotionally consistent moods of the opening sections, even though they were too retro to go anywhere. When the idealistic Seb gives up his stubbornly purist stand and takes the lucrative crossover band job led by Legend's character, it's paradoxically the practical, realistic Mia who fights him over this, mainly because it means he'll be away a lot. Mia's own change of fortune is a plot line that feels hastily thrown together. She hires a theater to play a one-person show she's written for herself, and after it is a total flop a casting director who was there calls her in and lets her try out for a dream role in which she will not only star in but write a movie. And then all of a sudden, after five "season" sections, we jump forward five years for a "what if" flashback that ends the story in sweet wistfulness. The only solidity that's left is in the characters of Mia and Seb, which may have been contradictory, but still made some basic sense. That's more than can really be said for the finale.

Critics have raved, ranking this the fifth best American movie of the year right now, and it's not hard to understand, even if there's a big element of wish fulfillment in the rating as in the movie itself. The title, La La Land, signals the unreality of Los Angeles, a place of dreams. Chazelle, at only 31, is something of a wunderkind, who only moved to the West Coast when his 2009 movie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench came out; he made it when he was still a student at Harvard. And then his exaggeratedly heightened autobiographical fantasy about being a drum student in high school, Whiplash, got three Oscars and won 80 other awards. Meanwhile he script-doctored for the screenplay of the clever sci-fi puzzle thriller 10 Cloverfield Land, also out in 2016. He seems able to handle pressure, and also be unspoiled by success.

La La Land, 128 mins. debuted at Venice Sept. 2016, where it won Best Actress and was nominated for best film. Eighteen other international festivals, including Telluride, Toronto, Mill Valley and London. . It won NY Film Critics Circle Best Film and is nominated for many other end of year US awards. Limited US theatrical release 9 Dec. 2016; wide, 16 Dec. UK 13 Jan. 2017, France 23 Jan.

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