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La La Land

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SISTER HELENA BURNS

Is the fêted "La La Land" really so great? Yes, if you like sheer escapist films and golden-era Hollywood films. Also, it's pretty much a quasi-musical. It doesn't try too hard, and is very tongue-in-cheek about what it purports to be, so it's an overall light and uplifting experience – definitely the "feel-good" film of the year. However, there are some challenging conversations toward the end, and it will be imperative that you decide what you would do in characters Mia's (the ever-effervescent Emma Stone) and Sebastian's (Ryan "Hey Girl" Gosling) places. The writer-director is Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash").

Hollywood loves films about Hollywood and the whole process of filmmaking (remember "The Artist" and, more recently, "Birdman"? Both Best Picture winners in their respective Oscar years). But why do most people enjoy dreaming with the silver screen?

Ah, this is one of the great draws of story and film. Just for a moment, just for a minute, we imagine and enter wonderful worlds and trip the light fantastic. As Berthold Auerbach said of music: "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." The music in question here is jazz (which I, for one, am wildly fond of). Sebastian is a classic-jazz piano player who dreams of opening his own club. But classic jazz is dying. Mia dreams of being a successful actress, but she's in the company of thousands and thousands. What are her chances of standing out?

The soundtrack, which is critical to many plot points, helps lend an old-timey feel to the whole film – jazz, 40's romantic ballads, magical Fantasia-esque orchestra with a generous helping of chimes, oboes, plucked strings and flutes. The music and the visuals carefully play with various Hollywood decades and we float seamlessly in and out of them, even though this is firmly a present-day setting. Dancing weaves effortlessly in at opportune moments: tap, ballroom and little bit of honky tonk. The music and dancing are not overused. The camera is having lots of whimsical fun, too, sashaying and spinning about. An element of nostalgia combined with unexpected story-turns is always lurking. “La La Land” evokes the kind of celluloid daydreaming and stargazing people used to "live for" and "live off of."

"La La Land" is a straightforward linear romance with no flashbacks or B stories – which is a bit of a relief in today's "Memento," toying-with-chronology-and-point-of-view" storytelling culture. LLL is a film about hope and wonder (the last film I saw about wonder was "Tree of Life." Wonder is a bit of a rarity as a film-subject, maybe it always was?)

Sebastian and Mia meet in the infamous L.A. traffic on a backed-up freeway on-ramp, and the movie starts off with a bang as people get out of their cars and begin dancing on them – synchronized and singing, of course – like so many commercials we've seen. Pure "fun" is the word that came to mind over and over. And charming. Definitely charming. Just as I was feeling like this was really a lovely throwback to a sweeter time (single girls living all together in an all-girl apartment! Girl roommates giggling over dates coming to pick them up!) – the filmmakers had to slip in a modern-day requisite, a fly in the ointment, a snake in the garden: hooking up and living together. Sigh. As though it were nothing. Sigh. Hooking up and co-habitation is really a blight on the whole enterprise with its terrible message of CONDITIONAL LOVE.

Will you agree with the ending? That it's a good ending, a "just" ending? At first I didn't totally agree, but then I realized it might have been a kind of "altruistic love" ending, almost an O. Henry "Gift of the Magi" type ending, but I mustn't say more than this, except that there's also a very clever alternative ending.

I would love to discuss the ending more, but it would be a big spoiler. One thing I think we have to ask ourselves in general is this: When do we have to "give up" dreams? We only get one life. Best we make it real and good and beautiful as it is. How? By rolling it all up in a unified ball of faithful glory.