Film

They Don't Make 'em Like 'La La Land', Anymore

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land (2016)

Peppy, smart, and almost intolerably romantic, this is the finest movie musical since John Carney's Once.


La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Finn Witrock
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate Films
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-12-09 (General release)
UK date: 2017-01-13 (General release)
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It starts joyously, on a car-choked freeway, and ends in Hollywood, with a kind of heartbreak. In between those moments, Damien Chazelle's La La Land conjures up the Golden Era of musicals. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel constricted by the rules of those old studio vehicles, but instead, stretches their possibilities. Chazelle uses the formula as a springboard for a fresh take on movie romance. Rather than offering a retro exercise, like The Artist, La La Land is its own story, about a guy and a gal trying to make it in the City of Angels.

As Mia, the big-eyed and big-hearted girl from Nowheresville, Nevada, now working in a movie lot coffee shop and going on auditions, Emma Stone plays the same spunky gamine that she’s been specializing in for years now, plus singing and dancing. Similarly, Ryan Gosling’s take on Sebastian, the rebellious jazz pianist, is a close relative to the arrogant yet charming types he’s played in movies from Crazy, Stupid, Love to The Nice Guys.

Sebastian and Mia don't quite meet cute in La La Land's first scene. Dozens of other drivers in the traffic jam exit their cars to sing “Another Day of Sun", rhapsodizing about the glories of life in Southern California as they dance, dance, dance. The camera cranes through and over the stalled vehicles with exquisite Jacques Demy-inspired choreography, hitting unexpected peaks, such as when the back of a delivery van is opened to reveal a band just waiting to jump into the number, before craning up to see the line of cars and dancers seemingly stretching off into forever. Mia and Sebastian’s roles here are less exuberant: the camera catches them in their cars, late and distracted and not moving. Irritated when he finds himself stuck behind her, Sebastian zips past and Mia flips him off.

As we come to know these two, we know they'll get together. Both are dreamers in the classic cinematic sense, but they take different routes to success. Mia is the plucky striver, going to one audition after the other, taking rejection like a sock to the chin. Sebastian’s tenacious insistence on nothing but traditional jazz hurts not only his shot at steady employment (offered by John Legend as Keith, a deadpan cool R&B-jazz fusion cat), but also his ambition to open his own nightclub. While it would have been nice if the film had reversed the usual gender split and made Mia the tortured creative soul and Sebastian the insecure performer, Stone and Gosling play their parts as though there isn’t a cliché in sight.


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At the same time, Chazelle navigates the ebb and flow of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship using some standard rom-com tropes, both heartfelt and tricked out in cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s exhilarating Pop colors. But it’s the song-and-dance numbers that launch the film into a realm of its own. Justin Hurwitz’s swooningly sweeping score, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s thoughtfully heartsick lyrics, and Mandy Moore’s flighty choreography, are all visibly influenced by American postwar musicals. We see nods to Singin’ in the Rain in ways both specific (Sebastian hops onto a lamppost when he gets carried away by the song) and general (a knowing and industry-attuned tension between authenticity and success). But between yearning numbers like “Someone in the Crowd” and the surprisingly catchy recurring tune “City of Stars”, the rhythms and emotional cadences are La La Land's own.

At first glance, none of this seems like natural material for Chazelle. Remember, he was last spotted with Whiplash. There, J.K. Simmons’ sadist drill instructor of a music teacher grinds Miles Teller through multiple circles of bloody-fingered hell. But underneath that film’s glinting surface and punishing theatrics, there was an undercurrent that raised many of the same questions that roil through La La Land. Namely, what price perfection and authenticity?

A delight in just about every way, La La Land deserves the praise being hurled its way. Hopefully, though, it won’t end up on Broadway as so many other recent music-centered films. There’s stardust here, but it has more to do with the twinkle in Stone’s eyes and the bashfulness of Gosling’s downward grin than the raw material of Hurwitz’s occasionally so-so compositions. It would be best for La La Land to stay in its lane and be considered no more than what it is.

We always hear that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. That's true. But in considering Chazelle’s ingenious creation, we can see too that they never really did make ‘em like this to begin with. And maybe never will again.

Editor's note: see PopMatters' interview with director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz here.

9
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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