La La Land

Contemporary Hollywood bears no trace of the charm, sophistication and passion of its Golden Age.  While American Theater has managed to retain a bit of its dignity, American Cinema is almost completely tainted by the smog of Channing Tatum’s spray tan.  Today’s stars feel self-conscious over the lack of impact they’ve had, they turn to pop-politics and share their eighth-grade level knowledge in a hundred and forty characters or less. They join a girl squad and frequent the late night circuit reassuring us how down to earth they are. And the magic is gone. That’s partly why this year’s return to Golden Age entertainment, both in style and subject matter, was so well received. Of course, I’m talking about La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s sincere, refreshing romance, set against a nostalgically presented present day L.A.

The musical masterpiece took me by surprise. Had I known many were considering it a piece of musical theater, I would have been more nervous going in, given my disinterest in contemporary musicals. But I’d venture to say La La Land isn’t so much a true musical – at least, it isn’t musical theater. Rather, it uses classic Hollywood style musical-numbers as a device. And it’s done very cleverly, always serving the film and never feeling indulgent or self celebratory.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his luck-jazz pianist trying to get on his feet after being ‘shanghaied.’ He pays the bills by playing keyboard in bad tribute bands and performing Christmas carols in restaurants. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, pounding the pavement, relentlessly auditioning when she isn’t working her job as a barista. After several failed meet-cutes, a romance finally ignites between the two over a tap dance atop the sparkling hills of LA. A whirlwind love story ensues, built upon dreams, passions and uncertain paths.

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As you can imagine, the music is the backbone of the film. Less obvious is Chazelle’s unique take on a musical. Instead of grafting musical numbers onto a less prioritized script – like most musicals do – he wrote a beautiful screenplay and employed his Whiplash collaborator to score the entire film, from the biggest of musical numbers to the smallest of cues. Then creatives brought in seasoned musical theater writers to provide lyrics to the numbers – and the tactic pays off. The score feels cohesive and relevant to the story – the melodic themes are as impactful as the cinematography itself. The music stays in its own lane and plays to its strengths. Movie musical are typically overstuffed, featuring five-too-many songs – not unlike my reviews. La La Land, conversely, sticks to the same few musical motifs and explores them fully.

The unorthodox take on musical numbers goes beyond their composition –  they benefit from a classic, less-is-more execution. Coming off of the painstakingly “raw and real” era of singing in movies, the return to “singing to track” and deft vocalizations is a breath of fresh air. In your average musical, the girls’ number at the beginning of film would have been a lightly veiled sing-off. Instead, with Chazelle at the helm, that particular number (and the rest of them for that matter) charm the audience and carry the movie forward.

The numbers set a mood and illustrate the characters idealistic view of both the city and the entertainment industry. The choreography is just as unassuming and modest as the singing – another rarity in the day and age of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, which, from what I understand does not feature dance, but rather showcases bodybuilding and figure skating tricks. Ironically, the choreographer, Mandy Moore (not the singer), has history with both of the above shows. But she leaves the tacky tricks at home and does a wonderful job, delivering classic choreography that relies on natural ease and musicality more than skill or intense showmanship.

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The Oscar-nominated performances are actually award worthy in this case. In fact, the  performances may very well be the driving force of the film; I don’t say that lightly, especially when a film succeeds across the board, from editing to costuming. But if you’re at all familiar with either Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they hit it out of the park. Both excel in most genres and contexts when they’re given equally strong content. I was taken back by how the pair manage to be consistently effective, whether in a big musical number or a more traditional scene of dialogue. And they both shine in definitively different ways.

Emma Stone has been steadily coming up in the film industry over the past ten years. While her first major film was Superbad, I was first introduced to her in the teen comedy, Easy A. At the tender age of 16 (14 in homeschool-years), I was instantly enamored. Even though it is one of the better teen comedies of the decade, it was still a goofy offering to the high school crowd – complete with a Gossip Girl hunk and a pre-meltdown Amanda Bynes (who, as it so happens, kills it). Even so, Stone stood out as a serious leading actress with a serious talent for comedy. But the most enchanting moments are undoubtedly the few dramatic scenes – a side of the actress that would come to fruition in later breakout roles in The Help, Birdman and, now, this topical Oscar-winner..

She very well might be the actress of her generation and if that’s the case, it’s understandable if you only glance at her credits. It’s interesting that she just happened to dabble in theater just before La La Land. And it wasn’t one of those new-fangled musicals where that guy raps and sounds like a missing voice actor from Dora the Explorer. Impressively, Stone took over the lead role in the most recent revival of the historical, award-winning musical Cabaret. It’s clear to me that this role prepared her immeasurably for her latest performance. Her dedication and respect for her art is evident – let’s just hope it stays that way. I’m already cringing over this “Cruella” movie she’s attached to.

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Ryan Gosling gives a performance equally strong as his co-star’s, even if it’s notably less impactful. Rather, his biggest accomplishment is his newly acquired and impressive talent on the piano – a skill he picked up over mere months of rehearsal, according to the director. His dancing is surprisingly strong, as well, displaying natural grace and ease with a countenance reminiscent of James Dean. It’s clear to me there’s a hundred times more artistry in his understated movement than the affronting, gymnastic-esque dancing we presently see on television and in modern dance concerts.

I for one think its time for a return to entertainment that showcases a variety of talent – acting, singing, dancing. Leave the solo dancing and singing and acting to the professionals: which, if you ask me, is limited to professional ballet dancers, Adele and Judy Dench. Besides those exceptions, I don’t want to watch a movie musical where a boarding school trained tenor screlts his songs into the camera (looking at you, Jeremy Jordan) with feeble acting ability that should have stayed on the theme-park stage. I digress.

Gosling’s voice is nice, though nothing special, which is perfectly fine; it called to mind the leading man, Tommy Sands, in the old Disney classic, Babes In Toyland. A leading man’s acting ability, presence and good looks will always carry more weight than a trained voice. Stone’s voice is in the same camp, that’s to say, it’s really nothing special. But it does the job and charms inexhaustibly. The only time the movie really wades into musical theater territory is when it coincidingly shows its musical vulnerability, wether that be Ryan Goslings bared singing of the City of Stars, winner of Best Song, or Stone’s intimately sung number. Unexpectedly, the biggest production numbers are the least musical theater evoking, and, rather, solidify the film’s commentary on and admiration for golden-age Hollywood.

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This masterpiece is unquestionably the result of expert curation of a vision by a brilliant team of creators, namely Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz. The duo had already proven themselves with Whiplash, so to that end, La La Land really shouldn’t have been such a surprising success. The costumes are breathtaking, the musical numbers are awe-inspiring and the performances are soul-piercing – but of course they are, because that’s what old Hollywood was about and that’s what Chazelle set out to celebrate and successfully accomplished, thanks to his innovative mind. Celebration of something bigger than oneself will always reach further and wider than the all-too-common aim for self-glorification that seems to becoming more identifiable in the movies.

A final thought: having stared at a series of drafts of this review for weeks now, it’s clear to me that the more passionate you are about something, the harder it is to do. There’s a misconception that if you’re passionate about something, it will be easier to accomplish. But the truth is passion directly correlates with struggle. The more passionate you are about something, the more you’ll struggle with it – because anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easily. But still, the more passionate you are about something, the more certain you can be that it’s what you’re meant to do. And even then, there will be times when we need help remembering why we’re struggling for our passions. And those who help us stay the path are as important as the passion itself. And that’s exactly what La La Land is about.

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Big Little Lies

Self-important women clad in Lulu lemon picking their kids up from chakra therapy: a sign of the end times or maybe just the pinnacle of gen-X living. HBO seemed to be trying to tackle a certain demographic with its latest mini-series, Big Little Lies. If Girls is an ode to the college-grad who works as a dog walker and writes bad, sexually explicit haikus and yells at her parents about gentrification before asking them to venmo her some money for vegan lunch, then Big Little Lies is a love letter to the halfway college grad who opted to marry the doughy college boyfriend who got a job in silicon valley with whom she has two back-talking kids named Atticus and Hamilton. Or so it would seem.

I’m always fascinated by a product that appeals to a broad audience, especially when I enjoy it myself – it makes me question my own taste. Embarrassingly, I associate the widely lauded with lesser quality, and the lesser known with untainted artistry – a rookie mistake. Of course, sometimes untainted artistry is appreciated widely, and that makes it no less inspired and true. This is the case with Reese Witherspoon’s latest project, an adaption of Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, which shares similarities with two of Witherspoon’s recent projects, Gone Girl and Wild, the latter sharing a director and co-star with the HBO series. It has the artistic vision and elevated style of the latter, undoubtedly the work of director Jean-Marc Vallée, and shares the crime-thriller genre of the former, which apparently draws a large audience.

I typical avoid media revolving around crime on the basis of not wanting to hear about made up terrors when there’re enough non-fictional atrocities affronting me on the daily. So I was glad to discover that Big Little Lies doesn’t seem to relish crime as much as Gone Girl, but rather use it as a juxtaposed medium to contrast complicated characters. I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The seven episode mini-series centers on five women in present day Monterey, California, which means yoga, questionable parenting, wine, and since it’s HBO, shower nudity. The fifteen-second-skip-ahead was made for prudes like myself.

Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) holds an unofficial, influential role in her tight-knit community, a societal position mirrored by her young, wise-cracking daughter, Chloe, who has similar influence over her fellow first graders. Everything is set into motion when Jane (Shailene Woodley) moves to the area and extends a hand of friendship to Madeline, who in turn welcomes her into her inner circle – which really only extends to her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Jane’s new friends soon become lifelines when she and her son, Ziggy, fall victim to primary school politics, gossip and slander on the very first day of school. A murky accusation pits Jane against Madeline’s frenemy, Renata (Laura Dern), adding further fuel to an established rivalry. The line is drawn in the sand, sides are picked and the hoard of mothers have new drama to sink their teeth into.

The developing micro-scandal turns out to be a sort of crucible, bringing long dormant secrets to the surface and welding the women together inseparably. Madeline seems to be losing the passion in her marriage, control over her kids, and influence at her job. Jane is losing her peace of mind, wondering where she’s going and if the past she eluded is as far behind her as it seems. And Celeste is starting to question the life she’s built for herself with her kids and seemingly perfect husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a marriage that has its own precarious imbalance of passion.

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The creative team did a remarkable job of creating seven episodes that are as strong on their own as they are together. Each episode is a cohesive piece of the puzzle while still being independently entertaining as well as a cohesive part of a puzzle that enriches the episodes that precedes and proceeds it. And I think that speaks to the usefulness of the “mini-series” as a medium of story telling, both generally and specifically with this story.

I haven’t read the book, but between marathoning the series, twice now, and my rain-man-esque, obsessive attention to detail, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the story. I don’t think a feature film would have worked; neither would a regular TV series. There was too much story to fit into 120 minutes and network television would’ve stretched the plot beyond recognition for profit. I’m even glad it was broadcast on HBO, a more esoteric alternative to Netflix. Had it been shown on netflix, it would have been like selling artisan coffee at 711.

As I mentioned before, Big Little Lies is the epitome of quality television. That’s largely thanks to the direction by Vallée, whose previous credits include Wild and Dallas Buyer’s Club. He masterfully curates the work of his inspired creative team, giving the series a distinct, evocative aesthetic that’s both brooding and full of breath. The production design is immaculately tasteful, with exquisite shades of muted blues and greens that draws you in with siren-like allure. The design and breathtaking locations are pure art as captured by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who might have super-hero abilities when it comes to using natural light.

Vallée also outdid himself directing his cast. The series has been praised for its strong performances, and for good reason. Reese Witherspoon is a force, giving her best performance since her Oscar winning role in 2005’s Walk the Line – and that’s saying something, as she’s had multiple outstanding performances since then. I was most impressed with the ease in which she switches between comedic and dramatic delivery. I found her character to be the most compelling, both as written and as performed; partly because in any other hands the character’s unbecoming traits would have been exaggerated to the point of villainy, or worse, her shortcomings would have been celebrated to the point of parody. Instead, we get a complex and winsome character played artfully.

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Between Nicole Kidman’s brilliant performance in last year’s Lion and her role in this series, the past year has made me a major fan. Most of the word-of-mouth I’ve heard about Big Little Lies has been about to her compelling performance. In many ways, she had the hardest job; her character is arguably the most layered and is at the crux of most of the biggest twists and turns. Kidman plays them with the subtlety and instinct that can only come from a rare talent, reminiscent of golden-age movie stars. Again, in other hands, these dramatic moments would have been cringe-inducingly over-performed and enjoyed only by the YA readers and Buzzfeeders. Excuse the searing cynicism.

Really, the smart acting choices and trope-avoidance isn’t much of a surprise, not only because of the caliber of the actresses, but also because of who’s at the helm. Vallée is unmatched in his ability to direct resonating and true depictions of mental and emotional anguish. This is wonderfully illustrated in Shailene Woodley’s performance, which is no doubt at the same caliber of her more vetted costars, in case you were wondering. A minor spoiler alert – her character’s storyline deals with past, traumatic assault. I’ve never seen this subject matter handled so compellingly. This is no doubt the result of a partnership between an equally gifted and perfectly matched actress and directer.

I couldn’t, in good conscience, finish my review without mentioning the incredible Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård and Zoë Kravitz. They all add immense depth and sincerity to the character-rich series. The story prevalently features the children of the characters, and the young actors who play them are the best young actors I’ve seen, particularly the boy playing Ziggy. The only disappointments for me as far as performances go, are those by Adam Scott and Jeffrey Nordling – but it’s inscrutable if the graining performances are a problem of creative direction, unimpressive acting, or not a problem at all but, rather, intentional.  Either way – woof.

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Finally, what impresses me the most about the series is the brilliant editing and incorporation of music. I’m often curious how much of the final cut of a film is shaped by decisions made on the page – the script, behind the camera or during the editing process. Especially with Mysteries, which rely heavily on the timing of when pieces of information are revealed, editing is everything. And this is unequivocally the best editing I’ve seen. Whether it’s mostly the work of the editors or some credit is due to the director or screenwriter (David E. Kelly), it’s an impressive achievement. And it seems that the brilliant choices in music, from supervisor Susan Jacobs, go hand in hand with the editing. The musicality exhibited in the editing is rare and the song choices themselves are fantastic. This is exemplified in the end of the each of the episodes, all of which have enormous impact, thanks to the musicality. Jacobs is brilliant.

In the end, Big Little Lies is not what it seems, which is fitting for a mystery series. Instead of the hoighty-toighty, scripted-version of Real Housewives-meets-Gone Girl that some of us expected (guilty), we get an impeccably produced, outstandingly performed, and deeply resonant masterpiece. Or whatever the television equivalent is to a masterpiece. If anything, I’ve taken away a new appreciation for the mini-series as a medium. And a renewed resolution to never underestimate Reese Witherspoon.