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La La Land, or: Hollywood Loves Itself Too Much, review by Ismael Santos

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I had been badgering my friends for an entire month, drinking the kool-aid buzz/hype for one film and one film only(mostly because of Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone’s great performances in other films); really, I just kept going on and on, a constant reminder of one thing and one thing only:  “We need to see La La Land.” Whatever plans they would start making, I’d chirp in with a “But what about La La Land?” One night, when my friends picked me up to head out somewhere, after two failed attempts at gathering people to see “La La Land”, I finally thought this would be the moment: turned out to be the wrong moment, as we were heading to an improv show in Wynwood, the arts district of Miami.

To my surprise, and a week or so after that improv show, the same group of friends took me to see La La Land…and that’s where the fun, exciting stuff stopped. Two hours later, and I didn’t feel really a thing, even though my emotions had been toyed by this film. Almost everything about the film was immediately forgotten, tossed aside in my head as we walked out to the parking garage, to head home (or to Shake Shack, in this case.)

As I keep thinking about the film, and keep looking at clips, trying to judge just why I felt deflated, I think I finally found a way to understand it: this movie is all hype, and little-to-no substance. Really, it’s a movie about nothing. Okay, maybe not “nothing” in the traditional sense (it’s not a camera pointed at a wall, recording two hours of paint drying, or something like that), but it’s still an empty film.

For a film that likes to pat itself on the back, there isn’t much of a musical to this whole film. In interviews,  as seen by Emma Stone’s speech for SAG award win, along with director Damien Chazelle’s speech celebrating his win, the topic of “oh, it was so unconventional making this film”, along with terms like  “radical” and “in the spirit of Singin’ in the Rain” are thrown around a lot, all to somehow try and validate what this film did not do: this film is not a musical. This is a film that is confused about what it wants to do: it wants to be an homage (of sorts) to classic Hollywood musicals, it wants to use jazz as a way to explore the arts (ala the director’s previous work Whiplash), it wants to be a love story (but not fully commit to it beyond some quick montages and one “cute” moment/dance together), it wants to be about following your dreams/passions (without any real substance as to why, and no real dramatic arc beyond “Oh, I’m taking you to your audition, and you’re going to like it!”), and so on.

This movie is weak, structurally, because there is nothing here. Many defending this film say that “it’s a movie first, not a musical-it’s an homage”-but that directly contradicts what the filmmaker and the stars of this film continually trot out. They say that “making a musical is so brazen, so radical, especially nowadays”, and act surprised when critics slobber over them with praise, and shower them with all the awards. I say this movie is structurally weak because, for two hours, nothing much happens beyond some font saying that time has passed, that the literal “seasons” have changed.

The story of La La Land is of an aspiring actress named Mia, played by Emma Stone, who is trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood, but finds no luck, and at the start of the film is serving coffee as a barista at a Warner Brothers studio lot coffee shop. Her character, beyond wanting to be “somebody in the movies”, is always talking about her “aunt”, about how she “loved watching classic movies, like Notorious and Casablanca.” That’s it for character development.

Sebastian, played Ryan Gosling, is a white dude who plays the piano a lot, wants to open a Jazz Club, and lives in messy apartment filled with boxes of records and random photographs of John Coltrane, along with a record player and a white piano right next to it.

That is about it for character development and really any writing for this film. There is no real structure beyond taking up images from “classic films” and then just depositing these ciphers pretending to be fully-formed characters into the fray.

To get the good out of the way, this film is beautifully shot, and the music, when it arrives at sparse moments, is just fine. There are certain scenes which work well for both Gosling and Stone to act in, particularly one quick scene of their characters meeting together at some pool party. After Ryan Gosling’s character has been introduced, not just as a jazz-obsessed hoarder, but also as a man who gets fired from his job because of the “free jazz” stuff he plays. After this (other) fateful meeting between the two principal characters, the structure of the story, of the way the plot is made to appear, is that these two will connect, and be together for however long the movie lasts.

But, in general, there is no real arc to this film, the structure is meandering, and the middle section is loaded with montages which offer images of “connection”, but no real lasting traces. The only scene that director Damien Chazelle seems interested in investing with any pathos or any sense of drama is the one scene near the end of the middle of the film: the dissolution of a relationship between the two characters. The camera in this scene, in this argument is focused on only close-up reverse shots of the two, taking its time capturing their emotions, letting the actors ply their craft in a meaningful manner, allowing the scene and the story to work for a moment with some dramatic depth.

That, and the scene where the two characters properly get introduced to one another, and enjoy each others company, is great stuff. A scene of connection, of movement between the characters making up for whatever the writing lets down, is  the scene of them dancing in the observatory, among the “stars”, dancing in the void of space-all the while this takes place in the same observatory that bookmarked the end of “Rebel without a Cause”, of James Dean fame. I mention that specifically because this is a film in love with making references to films (literally Emma Stone’s character name drops “Casablanca” and “Notorious” when talking about what inspired her to go to Hollywood), but just straight up deposits these characters in the well-worn trappings of Hollywood fame:

I mentioned on other scene that makes the film stand out, in the midst of two hours of the same old underdeveloped characters, and it’s a short scene, a quarter into the film, and it all revolves around the talent of Emma Stone’s comedy chops. This other great scene, which really only takes about a minute of screen time to develop and be executed, is Emma Stone’s character Mia having fun with Ryan Gosling/Seb’s character. He’s down on his luck, playing in an 80s cover band on a strapped-over keyboard. She requests a cover of “I Ran(So Far Away)”, and Emma Stone wins the scene over with the force of her comedic powers, giving almost a prime Jim Carrey performance in a minute-long scene.

This, along with the ending which really works the gambit of throwing all the film making tricks of the trade (edits, visuals, camera styles, soundtracks, choreography, acting, development), could have allowed the film to stay in my memory as a fun little romp through musical-land, an homage and a tribute and a love letter to Hollywood, and then quickly left up to the award shows and requisite “best of 2016” lists and all that jazz.

But it didn’t, because it’s a movie that doesn’t deserve it. A movie has to have more than beautiful cinematography and good-looking actors moving about to merit any consideration of artistic worth, let alone an actual good film.

This is not a musical, as montages substituting for character development in the middle section make that clear: there are only two real numbers in “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd”, along with one quick number (“Lonely Night”), and different renditions of one vanilla song (“City of Stars”) , there is not much music here to be able to categorize this as a musical. This is just a movie sprinkled with some last-minute choreographed music numbers, all too quick to really feel like anything.

There is a lot of talk about “acting” and “auditioning”, which we see Mia go through in a few montages, and we “hear” that she’s putting on a “one-woman show” (because if there’s nothing else that Damien Chazelle likes to do, from Whiplash to here, is the Obsessive-Delusional “Triumph” of the Individual, collaboration be damned) but don’t really see it: we “hear” others make fun of it, which drives Mia to some self-imposed hometown exile garbage that counts as “drama.” Sebastian “sells out” (even though he, the white dude on the piano, wanted to keep jazz “pure”, whatever that stupidity means), but drives out and then gets Mia back, and their dreams are fulfilled. There is no drama nor arc to these characters: they are simply play things that look good under shiny backdrops and in front of the newest film cameras.

Emma Stone’s character, Mia, makes little sense, and though Emma Stone powers through the final musical number “Audition”, and gives as much heart and emotion as can be, it still feel flat for the same reason everything else in this movie falls flat: there is nothing really that has developed Mia beyond “failing in her one-woman show”, and then coming back and doing an Audition. The ending of the movie itself, around ten minutes devoted to “What-If” scenarios with homages to musicals, has more written in it. Imagine that: a ten minute section of unrealized futures and possibilities, has actual more development than the two hours we spend on these personages.

Damien has one constant motif now, it seems: to use jazz. I say the keyword here is “USE” because he’s got no real love for it: if he did, he wouldn’t make the two leading characters of his film (Miles Teller in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling in La La Land) whiny and pretentious fools who think playing “jazz” is about obsessive individuality, forgetting it’s a team effort (literally, from bass to drums, to saxophone to trumpet to piano to fusion and beyond). Whereas Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash wanted to be like “Bird” aka Charlie Parker, to be “great” (which worked as a bit of storytelling in that film’s favor: the arc of obsession to be “great”, even at the expense of everything human around and in you). Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, is one-note: he likes jazz, that is all. His deal with jazz in this, however, is asinine, at best, and stupid, at worst. He goes up to the one black jazz player (played by John Legend) willing to give his unemployed ass a job, and tries going on about “purity of jazz” and kvetching about using electric instruments (apparently never hearing Miles Davis’s electric fusion stuff from the seventies) and is immediately shut down about how “jazz changes”, which is undeniably true. There isn’t much development to this, either, however, which leaves a bit of a random scene, not much to impact the rest of Sebastian’s development: ultimately, he gets what he dreamed about, and still plays jazz, but nothing else seems to have stuck to him.

The most bothersome scene to do with jazz, at least for my review, is not the random concert scene that counts as a musical number “Start A Fire”, which throws around what is supposed to be, I suppose, “bad jazz” with a lot of autotune and dancers or something along those lines: in fact it’s not that bad, because John Legend actually knows how to sing and to play decent stuff for this vanilla film. No, the most bothersome scene is where Sebastian takes Mia to a jazz club, to specifically hear jazz, because apparently for her jazz is just something she doesn’t like: “it’s elevator music back where I come from.” There has been a lot written about the “mansplaining” of this scene, which I can understand, but also you could make up an excuse as to why Ryan Gosling, the jazz pianist, needs to explain to Mia, the one who doesn’t care about jazz, whatever he knows about the genre.

That’s all well and good (if just more shoddy writing from a shoddy director like Damien Chazelle), but it’s the fact that he’s explaining Jazz, OVER JAZZ MUSICIANS, the only black musicians in this film beyond John Legend, who are playing great, but can barely be heard because of loud-as-can-be, obnoxious Sebastian wanting to explain something that he’s purposefully ignoring. This is dumb writing, dumb directing, dumb editing, dumb everything.  It’s the perfect encapsulation of a film that wants to pat itself on the back for liking different things, and ripping these same genres of (Hollywood musicals and Jazz), but not even bothering to do anything with it except use them as placeholders for the melodrama of two boring, underwritten, uninteresting characters in a garbage dramatic “arc.”

If you must watch this film, just rent it. It’s not the worst film ever, but it’s one I do not ever need to see again.

 

Lucy, Review by Ismael Santos

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There’s not much to say about Lucy, and I should have written this sooner, but for a movie that, at first, has so much potential, only to focus on the wrong things, and to offer a ride so short that when the lights came back on, and the credits started, the audience didn’t applaud or boo, but just sat there. Shocked that a movie with so much hype, potential, and A-list casting, could only horse along to about 89 minutes or so.

I don’t even feel a need to bash this movie, but, in retrospect, what a misstep: it went from Luc Besson’s best chance at a La Femme Nikita-like action movie, to some middling, rambling pseudoscience-look at someone unlocking “100 percent of their brain”, which they love repeating, and repeating, to the point where, intercutting Scarlett Johansson/Lucy’s drug mule kidnapping and Thai Gangster woes, was Morgan Freeman’s character, a professor who lectures/theorizes about what would happen if someone unlocked “100 percent of their brain.” This goes on for the first twenty minutes, and Luc Besson just can’t help himself from repeating this mantra, to the detriment of the hard work of the cast, and the great visuals onscreen.

This isn’t a bad film due to casting or visual motifs or acting-wise, this misses the mark, and the point of why moviegoers would want to go see it in the first place: people didn’t come to see yet another film parroting a scientific myth, they wanted to see Scarlett Johansson wreak havoc on Thai gangsters with superpowers. Simple as that, and any action movie that can deliver that basic need to the audience can work form there. But, Luc Besson is twiddling his thumbs, and the movie, whenever it comes back to the “100 percent of the brain” sections, which are numerous and obtrusive,  that it breaks off all of the visual-tonal-sound rhythms that it’s trying to build: it shoves down the mind-numbing concept, again and again, to the point where you’re hoping for the action to hurry up.

The action scenes, by and large, are few and limited to the end, beyond an escape scene and a car chase/hospital massacre. The best part of the film, the one that should be focused in on, is at the end of the film, and it is a mindbending visual tour-de-force, breaking down Time barriers in the film and actually foregoing the whole “100 percent” flawed premise for a look at humanity, through evolution and fantastic visuals. Beyond this, there is so much that is screwed up in the film that it downplays some fantastic performances.

Morgan Freeman as the always consistent character lending gravitas and some humanity to the film, Choi Min-sik as the villain is terrifying and frightening, with a silent menace that is a great counterpoint to the star of the film.

Without Scarlett Johansson, this film fails. She has to power the movie on her performance alone, transforming from a simple human in the beginning to an omnipotent powerful being at the end, and Scarlett gives it her all, and she is the glue here. Without her, this film would be an utter failure.

Rent this film once, and enjoy the ending sequence and Scarlett’s performance, as a whole, but don’t hold any expectations: another Luc Besson misfire.

 

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