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La La Land


Damien Chazelle's enchanted musical comedy romance is a tonic for our times. It gladdens the heart that in 2016 you can still make an exuberant pastiche of classic musicals, but one that situates all that Old Hollywood artifice and fantasia squarely in the present. Chazelle pulls it off with flair, creating a CinemaScope movie as colorful and kinetic as his models. It's the wrong question to ask whether this movie is "as good as" MGM wonders like Stanley Donen's and Gene Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather, or French confections like Jacques Demy's and Michel Legrand's The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Rather, we may say that, in the same way they did, it gives us pleasure. 

In the past, Chazelle's direction has been criticized, not without cause, for being rather empty, showy and contrived. I'd be surprised, though, if La La Land doesn't make a convert of the suspicious, not least because here the form suits the content. Anyway, I say contemporary filmmaking is far too starved of filmmaking élan. Bobbing on a sea of handheld cameras desultorily following actors around, one grows hungry to see some old-fashioned bells-and-whistles direction. Chazelle sates that hunger. 

Whereas Martin Scorsese's New York, New York sought to subvert the conventions of Golden Age musicals by grafting them to New Hollywood realism, La La Land is in a lighter key. Yet that movie still seems a byword for this one, for a certain kind of emotional honesty.

Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a prickly jazz pianist, a musician's musician who dreams of opening his own club. Who can understand that, for him, music is a form of personal expression, when the world just wants him to play Christmas jingles?  Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista at a coffee shop on an old-fashioned Hollywood lot, pursuing the perennial L.A. dream: becoming an actress. There's an exuberant number, "Someone in the Crowd," where, dancing from room to room, her housemates cheer her up after a rough audition.

At first, the brusque pianist and the barista can't stand each other (of course they can't). They meet-cute in a great traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, where they annoy each other; their meeting is punctuated by one-finger salutes. They meet again at a pool party, where Sebastian has a gig playing synth in an 80s New Wave cover band. Mia has great fun mocking his Flock of Seagulls moves. She finds him obnoxious and pretentious. 

A love affair develops (of course it does), and the story of its development contains real melancholy charm. They move in together. For a time, Sebastian the purist is tempted by the pop life, securing a steady gig with a dynamic jazz-rock star (John Legend). He forgets the dream of the club. But the gig is not really him, and Mia counsels him to keep his eye on his dream even as their relationship is falling apart. In turn, when she gives up, decides she may not have any talent, it's Sebastian who won't let her dream die, even though it may mean they can't be together. In a kind of cadenza of the mind near the end, a sweeping vision flashes before Mia's eyes of a life that might have been.

Method man Gosling's touch here is surprisingly light, a comedy version of De Niro's Jimmy from New York, New York. Stone is inspired. She's every inch of our day, but she has Old Hollywood class. (When a successful actress like Stone plays someone who dreams, with no sure prospects, of being an actress, I like to watch meta realities show through the performance, such as the doubts that must have visited her along the way.)  

Chazelle's take on jazz is much more relaxed in La La Land than it was in his last feature, the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes overwrought Whiplash. There, he presented the music as a rather excruciating endurance sport, as if its highest values were disciplinarianism and machine-precision timing. It was a funny way to treat an art form he supposedly loved. As I wrote at the time, "There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here." Counter La La Land in which, after Mia confesses that she can't stand jazz, Sebastian takes her to a club where some great old cats are playing. He offers an impassioned, critical appreciation, allowing her (and us) to appreciate what he loves about this music. 

There's an exhilarating opening flourish which appears to be a six-minute unbroken shot of a traffic jam (as illusory, it turns out, as Hitchcock's "one-take" Rope). Suddenly, blocked motorists exit their vehicles and begin to sing and dance up and down the freeway to a number called "Another Day of Sun." It's as full of the life force as Chazelle's models, a feat of contrapuntal, layered movement and music. It's our first indication that it wasn't only a good idea to make an homage to the direction of Stanley Donen, Busby Berkely and Vincente Minnelli, but that this guy's probably going to pull it off. It even makes you laugh. I was borne up, rarely to come down afterwards.   

Los Angeles should be in the credits, but not exactly playing itself. This is the mythic movie-LA. After the couple goes to see Rebel Without a Cause, they make a pilgrimage to Griffith Observatory, which becomes a stage for more dreaming and dancing. 

Chazelle's script is modeled on Hepburn/Tracy movies, with their sparkling screenplays penned by the likes of Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon (Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (Woman of the Year). He's also thinking of the great musical-comedy screenplays of Comden and Green (Singin' in the Rain). Their words thrill; his made me smile.  

Gosling/Stone's homage to the singing and dancing of Astaire/Rogers and Kelly/Charisse is more earthbound than those stars in our skies, of course. It's in a more vernacular key. Its wink to a more innocent age is done in an insouciant, humble spirit, not a wised-up one. On a darkened street in the Hollywood hills, they break out into a bit of tap and Gosling swings from a streetlamp. Then, refreshingly for 2016, they move as one, and Chazelle films them in old-school full-body shots. They're a pleasure to watch.  
The music, combining jazz and full orchestra, is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It's an arrangement modeled on great composer-lyricist teams: Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer (You Were Never Lovelier with Astaire/Hayworth); George and Ira Gershwin (Shall We Dance with Astaire/Rogers); and Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's songs for Frank Sinatra. I reckon he they were also listening to folks like Cole Porter (High Society with Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; You'll Never Get Rich with Astaire/Hayworth), Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. There's some Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim in there, as well.
The most unforgettable song, "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," belted out live by Stone, is about Mia's aunt who liked to dance in the Seine. It's an ode to the ones with their heads in the clouds. I will say it made me recall, fondly, another musical: The Muppet Movie and "The Rainbow Connection." A Venn diagram of my movie sweet spot would find it located where funny and sad overlap. La La Land's dart finds the bullseye with great exuberance.  

La La Land opens in select Chicago-area theaters on December 16.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 



Movement Material: Camera/Dance Works by Jeremy Moss & Pamela Vail and BEING 17 (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

Over at CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about a couple of this week's recommended film-going prospects. I've reproduced my writeups below. 

Movement Material: Camera/Dance Works by Jeremy Moss & Pamela Vail (New Experimental)
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) - Wednesday, 7pm

A collaboration between filmmaker Jeremy Moss and dancer Pamela Vail, this exciting 60-minute program of non-narrative, abstract films upholds the fine tradition in experimental cinema of exploring the role of the camera. In approaching Vail's moving body, Moss uses the camera (and montage) to play with time, space and motion, much as his avowed influence, and inventor of "chore-cinema," Maya Deren did in works like A STUDY IN CHOREOGRAPHY FOR THE CAMERA. If film's strength is its ability to transcend the limitations of performance on the stage, which must take place in real time and space, and its weakness the lack of the physical presence of the dancer, then this program gives us the best of both worlds: Vail will be performing live. (Moss will be there, too.) THE SIGHT (2012) vibrates and speeds over shifting lines, forms and colors, a decomposing Abstract Expressionist painting in flux. We catch fleeting glimpses of "the real world"—forest meadows—amidst eerie, distorted choral music. The dazzling, kinetic CHROMA (2012), silent, is a strobing full-color light show, using flickering cutting to manically manipulate the structure and tempo of Vail's dancing. Chromium (2012) is Vail's six-minute live performance. CENTRE (2013) shows Vail dancing in a warehouse, as Moss' camera repeats and cuts across her movements from differing angles and distances. In THAT DIZZYING CREST (2014), Vail dances through shadows to Chopin preludes. Her body becomes a figure in a nocturnal zoetrope of the soul. Tinting and weathering his 16mm images, Moss plays with grain, negatives, and contrast. DUET TESTS (2016) is made up of ten short films born of a five-day improvisation between the artists. In this program's best moments, the ancient art (dance) and the modern one (film) electrify each other, creating a kind of visual music. (2012-16, 60 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) SP
More info at

André Téchiné's BEING 17 (New French)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

Septuagenarian André Téchiné, co-writing with Céline Sciamma (GIRLHOOD), has made an elegiac, honest coming-of-age film about two gay teenagers, set amidst the splendid changing seasons of the French Pyrenees. I can scarcely imagine an American film being this explicit and natural about teen gay sexuality. At first, though, the boys are at war at school, masking their fear of their own desire with hatred. Thomas (Corentin Fila) is a loner living on a farm in the mountains; the insecure Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives in the town below with his mom, a doctor (Sandrine Kiberlain, kind, frank, and merry). His father, an army pilot, is often away. On a house call, mom meets the farm boy's family and prescribes his pregnant mother a stay in the hospital in town. She invites Thomas to stay with herself and Damien in town, so he can be closer to his mother and to save him the two-hour walk to school through the valley, which he actually rather likes. (The valley is blue-white on a wintry eve, verdant in the summer sun.) As housemates, the volatile adolescents pummel each other while struggling to find the freedom to drop their defenses. The passionate young leads rarely hit a false note. Kiberlain brings to this film the same direct, very French matter-of-factness and humane compassion that made her such a memorable part of the ensemble in Alain Resnais' final film, LIFE OF RILEY. Precisely observant, getting physical with his characters' bodies, Téchiné at 73 still resonates with the life force and its joys and heartaches. (2016, 116 min, DCP Digital) SP

More info at


The Last Waltz (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I wrote about Martin Scorsese's joyous THE LAST WALTZ for CINE-FILE Chicago. Check it out under the "Also Recommended" section, here.


Disorder (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I recommended Alice Winocour's DISORDER over at CINE-FILE Chicago. You may read my capsule review, here.



In a recent issue of The New Yorker, critic Emily Nussbaum, writing about the TV show Atlanta, observed, "Black masculinity is a set of poses that everyone imitates, including black men." Barry Jenkins' lyrical, sensual drama Moonlight, the best American film I've seen this year, plays a bit like the embodiment of that idea, or like a bell hooks treatise on the patriarchy transformed into drama. And yet it as far removed from a thesis film as can be. No, its acting and writing are far too natural and alive for that. This is a work of art, and a great one. Three chapters trace the identity formation of a shy, gay male at ages nine, 16 and 26, growing up bullied amidst Miami's deadly drug economy. Male tenderness is a casualty of the burden of maintaining the masculine front. Jenkins based his screenplay upon Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and the movie's palette, as rendered by cinematographer James Laxton, is as evocative of the beauty of bodies and nature as that title.  

There is a moment in the first chapter, entitled "Little," when the awkward nine-year-old boy (Alex Hibbert), whose real name is Chiron but whom everyone calls by that titular sobriquet, asks a man what the word "faggot" means. The man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood kingpin, a drug dealer who found the abused, neglected Little in one of his "dope holes," taking refuge from bullies. (Little's friend Kevin occasionally tries to toughen him up by teaching him to fight, but it never takes). We might expect we know how he will respond: a faggot is a weak man, a punk. Instead, he carefully explains that "faggot" is a word used to make gay people feel bad. When the boy then asks him if he sells drugs, Juan hesitates. He doesn't want to let Little down--he's become his father figure (just as, as the film progresses, his kind girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe, becomes a mother of sorts). Finally, he answers honestly, and Ali makes us feel Juan's shame. We get the sense that while "drug dealer" is the role he ended up playing, it's not "him." Never once does he teach Little to be strong and violent. Quite the opposite: he drops the "hard" mask and shows him vulnerability and love.

Little's actual mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is addicted to the very crack Juan sells. This role--the crack-addicted mother--could have been a cliché. However, as with every character in the film, Paula is granted her full humanity. In Harris' hands, she is a woman with an illness. During a confrontation with Juan in the street while high, she rhetorically asks him to guess why they bully Little, executing a mocking, limp-wristed caricature of her own prepubescent son. It's scary, heartless. She's got the devil in her eyes. From Little's point of view, she sometimes appears as something out of a horror movie. 

In the second chapter, "Chiron," it is seven years later, and the skinny 16-year-old is played with haunted eyes by Chicago's own Ashton Sanders. Juan is dead, we learn. Chiron is still bullied, particularly ruthlessly by one tormentor. Paula has gotten worse. Stumbling towards him one morning, she looks like a zombie, and we'd be surprised if she lived another day.

Kevin is played as a teenager by Jharrel Jerome in a very funny performance, spewing out a rap about his sexual conquests that's so over-the-top and sexist that you just about know he's overcompensating for something. He's always calling Chiron "Black," a nickname the latter doesn't much like. On the beach, they blaze a "J" and talk about how good it feels when a breeze from the water blows through the hood. In a moment that surprises both of them, Kevin, the big-talking ladykiller, gives Chiron his first sexual experience. Afterwards, there's no shame, no regrets. We see a spark of hope in Chiron's eyes. Unfortunately, his chief tormentor at school divines their secret. This ringleader orders Kevin to declare his allegiance--sexually, politically--by beating up Chiron in the schoolyard. In a humiliating, heartbreaking scene, Kevin repeatedly hits an unresisting Chiron, as hands that gave private pleasure inflict public pain. Gentle Chiron keeps getting back up ("stay down," Kevin implores). Later, in a fateful tracking shot, we follow Chiron as he stalks the school corridor, on his way to performing the act that will end this chapter of his life: barging into a classroom and sucker-smashing a chair over the ringleader's back.  

In the movie's third act, "Black," Chiron is not little anymore. He's 26, and even his muscles have muscles. The boy has grown up to be a drug boss with a gold grille. Calling himself "Black," adopting Kevin's once-shunned nickname, he's finally performing the pose of masculinity. At first we don't even recognize him. Then the actor, Trevante Rhodes, does something remarkable: he makes you see the scared, scarred, quiet boy in this big, ripped man. In a moving scene, he visits Paula in a rehab clinic. Her demons finally seem quiet. 

Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland), calls to offer a meandering apology for what happened 10 years before. He's a cook now, he says. Later, Black gets in his car and drives all night to surprise Kevin at the diner. These final scenes, in which Kevin feeds Black and then takes him back to his home, are so alive with risk, laughter, relief, and regret, that I can only describe them as being touched by grace. Kevin, we see, is now a truly happy man, having dropped the front himself years ago. He's deeply content with his modest, workaday life. He's survived some rough patches. He calls Black out on the whole pose he's affected, and, while Black says very little--he was always shy--we can see him thinking, imagining. In the quiet way he regards Kevin, his eyes speak volumes, and what they say is this: I loved you, even though you hurt me. And: this isn't me. It was never me. Our gentle Little is still there. He's just buried beneath layers of hurt.