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"LA LA LAND"
(2016) (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: An aspiring actress and a jazz musician fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles.
PLOT:
Mia Dolan (EMMA STONE) has been in Los Angeles for a number of years, hoping to get her big break and land an acting gig, but so far the closest she's gotten to that is working as a barista in the Warner Bros. studio coffee shop. Sebastian Wilder (RYAN GOSLING) is a jazz traditionalist who wants to open his own jazz club to keep that form of music alive, but so far he must take gigs he feels are below him -- playing Christmas songs in a restaurant and being part of a retro '80s new wave cover band -- to make ends meet.

When the two meet, sparks fly, but of the wrong kind, something that carries over to their second meeting months later. But they eventually sense kindred spirits in one another and soon a romance develops between the two. That gives her confidence to start writing her own one-woman stage play, while he finally agrees to join fellow jazz magician Keith (JOHN LEGEND) and perform in his band that's trying to modernize jazz in order to bring it to a younger audience.

But as the two pursue their dreams, those quests eventually mean ever more time apart, all of which puts a strain on their relationship. From that point on, they try to figure out what to do and weigh the pros and cons of continuing on their quests, particularly as related to how that will affect them as a couple going forward.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
I distinctly remember seeing "Grease" with my sister, older cousin and her boyfriend when it first hit theaters back in 1978. I was a young teenager and was blown away by the music, chemistry between the leads, and, yes, the sight of Olivia Newton-John at the end in skintight leather pants.

I also recall being excited for my parents to see the film when it finally arrived on broadcast TV, only to have my mother state that my father did not like musicals (although being a fan of Ms. Newton-John, I'm sure he didn't mind too much). My mom explained that my dad didn't enjoy having characters suddenly break into song and dance. And if you really think about it, it is sort of goofy and, from what I've witnessed over fifty-two laps around the sun, not something you see in normal, everyday life.

Even so, and when done just right, musicals can be a great deal of fun and highly entertaining. That is, as long as the songs are good, the dancing is top-notch, the chemistry is believable and the charm is exuded without undue effort. Such is the case with "La La Land," a terrific modern day musical that often feels like and certainly harkens back to such genre pics of old.

We get that impression right from the get-go with an old, 1940s or so era studio logo looking card followed by the screen widening out to inform us we're watching this in Cinemascope. Of course, we aren't really (at least in the old true version of that film format), but musicals rarely are about reality and that ties into the themes here of people who travel to Los Angeles -- a.k.a. La La Land -- with dreams of making it big in some fashion in the entertainment industry (which also ties into the title with "La-la-la" being synonymous with ignoring what's staring you in the eye, namely the long odds of making it in Tinseltown).

Our heroine, Mia (a radiating Emma Stone), certainly knows that, what with marking her sixth year away from home trying to make her childhood dreams come true. Nonetheless, she keeps plugging away at auditions that ultimately are interrupted or shortchanged in the rudest of ways, and the fact that she works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio backlot makes that all the more cruel as she gets to see and sometimes serve those who have made it.

Her initial antagonist (who we know will obviously become her eventual love interest and vice-versa) is Sebastian, a serious musician who'd rather starve than play anything but traditional jazz piano. Of course, hunger has a nasty way of pushing itself to the forefront of one's attention, and thus our traditionalist has to make a living playing Christmas songs (for J.K. Simmons, no less, in a fun cameo) or one of those over your shoulder electronic keyboards in an '80s new wave music cover band.

After the movie gets off on the right foot (a sprawling, toe-tapping and giddiness-inducing musical number -- "Another Day of Sun" -- that takes place on an L.A. freeway overpass) our two leads get off on the wrong one when she flips him the bird after he lays on his horn to get her moving from a standstill traffic jam.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash") then briefly follows Mia's day before rewinding and showing Sebastian's and then has them meet again. They're still somewhat antagonistic, but that changes during the musical number "A Lovely Night" where the performers show they're just as apt at doing more than a convincing job of creating an old-fashioned song and dance number as they are at acting. That's followed by a date at a theater showing "Rebel Without a Cause" where it's charming to watch the slow process of finally getting around to holding hands and the near kiss that, natch, gets interrupted (a bit of symbolism about how "Hollywood" will try to come between them later on).

The rest of the film then shows the happy couple, pursuing their dreams with newfound gusto, and, yes, having a third act falling out. None of that should likely come as much of a surprise to anyone who's seen any romance based musical (or romantic comedy, or romantic drama), but the predictability doesn't ruin any of the fun. That said, and while a romance on the rocks doesn't (and probably shouldn't) bring lively and entertaining songs to mind, I did find the second half of the film lacking a bit in memorable songs as compared to the first (beyond rehashing those already heard, such as the simple but haunting "City of Stars").

Notwithstanding that slight issue, Chazelle's script is terrific, as is his direction that's aided, no doubt, by Linus Sandgren's cinematography, Tom Cross' editing, Justin Hurwitz's score and the rest of the tech credits that are terrific across the board. But what really makes the film fly and be so gosh darn fun to watch are the performances by Stone and Gosling and their chemistry together (even in the rough patches).

And a sequence near the end -- that I won't give away -- actually had me gasp (in a good way, and both times I've seen the film) as things conclude in a highly entertaining if uber-poignant way. My second favorite film of the year and one that's already racking up award nominations and wins, and should be well-represented come Oscar time, "La La Land" rates as a big 8 out of 10.




Reviewed November 29, 2016 / Posted December 16, 2016


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