La La Land

La La Land ★★★

"It's pretty strange that we keep running into each other." ~ Mia

Let me say some good things about this film before I drift off into my simmering rant. First. Emma Stone nailed her part. I really didn't know she had such range, and although her singing is weak, she did the old softshoe with flair and infused the character of wannabe actress Mia Dolan with real emotions and desires. I just loved her here.

Then there are the Broadway-style song and dance numbers. Writer-director Damien Chazelle had the services of the great Mandy Moore for choreography, and he really milked her talents, especially in the three "fantasy" productions -- the opening freeway boogie, the dance to the stars in the observatory and the finale which takes us back through all of the missed opportunities that could have led to a very different happy ending. The obvious references to old Hollywood musicals were well done, too.

So let me say this is a good film overall, and please don't be swayed too much by my following personal reactions, which I strongly feel the need to record ... beginning with my expectations being far too high.

This film had been on my radar since it played at TIFF in September and I started to see high praise appearing everywhere. Then, it won the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture and got seven Golden Globe nominations. Everybody's saying this will be the film to beat at the Oscars. The hype couldn't have been any higher.

Well the wait was finally over on December 16th when "La La" went into limited distribution at 200 U.S. theaters. Fortunately, two of those cinemas are in my town, so I had a choice, but then I learned the closer of the two venues wanted $15 a ticket and offered only a $1 discount for seniors. I checked out the other venue and found "economy" tickets for $6.60 on Tuesdays, so that made my choice easy. I was willing to ride public transport for 73 minutes for the savings.

Unfortunately, Tuesday started badly. I had an unused $10 Regal Entertainment Gift Card somewhere, but I'll be damned if I could find it, so I took a deep breath and resolved to pay cash. I felt a little better when my bus transfers worked perfectly and I arrived at my destination a full hour before the 4:05 start time, which meant waiting a while in the lobby, but I was the fifth person seated in the half-crowded theater.

I can't complain about my seat at all, but some nitwit in the row ahead of me and a few seats down kept checking his text messages on his cell phone every five minutes throughout the entire picture. It was annoying and distracting, but because he was just a bit too far away to reprimand without disturbing others, I resolved to try to ignore it. I'm certainly open to suggestions as to how to appropriately deal with such crass behavior. Comments welcome.

As you can tell, I wasn't in the perfect mood to watch this, but my hopes were raised by the freeway opening -- novel, energetic, humorous and beautifully choreographed, as I've mentioned. The letdown for me started with Ryan Gosling cast in the lead as jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder. Yeah, I know it's a sacrilege to say anything bad about the former Mouseketeer from Canada, but I didn't like his singing, his dancing or his character here, and I simply HATED his wardrobe, from the skinny ties and saddle shoes to the ugly brown suit he wears in his club. He's a creep. He rarely even smiles. And anyone who dares compare him to Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly had better be ready to step out back.

Then, to say the story here is derivative would be an understatement. Yeah, go ahead and try to defend Chazelle with the "Star is Born," "American in Paris," "paying homage to legends of the cinema" trope. I'm not having it. The narrative is neither fresh nor inventive. This guy created "Whiplash" (2014) fer gawd's sake. What happened to the intensity, the pathos, the originality?

The film also has severe pacing issues. Why do we need to wait almost forever to get Mia and Seb together? Three chance meetings before there's a click? And what's up with all the disappearing characters? What happened to the best friend who wanted to set Seb up? What happened to Mia's three roommates? Where did Keith (John Legend) go after Seb split? And what of Mia's parents in Boulder City? Chazelle conveniently leaps ahead five years to get to his (admittedly) clever conclusion and loses all of these pesky personal relationships in the bargain. Wow. Talk about pruning the tree!

So bottomline, it's a good movie, not a great movie. And if, as expected, it collects a whole bunch of awards other than Best Original Song ("City of Stars"), which it deserves, I predict it will go the way of "The Artist" (2011), a much honored film that nobody ever watches now. Modern cinema's indulgent mirror-gazing may delight critics and discerning audiences, but now I am so looking forward to seeing "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) to be entertained and wash this experience out of my mind.

Listed among Films Nominated for Best Picture

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