It’s Showtime: “La La Land” Is My Film of the Year

Shoot, now you know what’s going to be at the top of the Pantheon in my 2016 Movie Power Rankings.

What I’ll always remember even when I’m fifty and drooling away on my deathbed (I peak early) is the audience as La La Land‘s ending credits rolled. There were a bunch of old people and some teenage girls; weekday screenings during the daytime usually have a demographic that reliably leans towards older folks and I can only assume teenage girls were there because Ryan Gosling is the pinnacle of human perfection.

In any case, after a heartbreaking epilogue that stabbed at our very souls over and over and over again, there was nothing left to do but sit in an emotional haze, valiantly blink away tears, sniffle like a bunch of crack addicts, and tell ourselves everything would be okay. I saw old ladies literally suffocating themselves with tissues because they were so overcome with angst while the teenage girls sitting next to me kept gasping and muttering “oh no” as this tremendous musical ended in maybe the most bittersweet way possible.

Visually La La Land is one of the warmest films you’ll see all year. It’s easy to get distracted by the catchy and original musical numbers, stunning cinematography, intimate yet grandiose production design, and phenomenal chemistry between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling). You wouldn’t necessarily think of cynicism for something like this.

Yet it’s there nearly the whole time.

Damien Chazelle does a fantastic job in only his third directorial entry, somehow exceeding 2014’s excellent Whiplash, which one could argue is a significantly more aggressive version of this film. At the core, both films are about making it to the top, although La La Land chooses to wrap that core with a layer of romance while Whiplash flips off romance in the name of utter dedication to the craft.

There was certainly a fair amount of cynicism involved in Whiplash but one could argue there’s twice the amount here. It surrounds Mia, an aspiring actress making ends meet as a barista, and Sebastian, a musician who is passionate about a dying genre. She left college early to pursue her dreams and six years later she has nothing to show for it. He can’t hold down a steady job because he loves jazz so much he can’t stop himself from playing it even if it’s not what his boss wants.

It’s not a spoiler to say these two folks get together and they just click. They keep running into each other, which is crazy in a city as vast as Los Angeles, and eventually they end up in a great relationship. But, now you have to ask yourself what sacrifices are you willing to make for your own future… but also the future of your partner. The seductive tendrils of your dreams don’t ever go away, although Mia and Sebastian both struggle to reconcile with the reality of their situations.

Chazelle is a fucking savage though, because his idea of a resolution to this problem is to give us the worst-case scenario (that doesn’t involve death). And that’s where the second avalanche of cynicism comes in, particularly in the aforementioned epilogue.

Mia is happy. Sebastian is happy. But for the audience?

It’s devastating.

The genius of the whole thing is that the epilogue is essentially a sweeping retelling of history, a glorious case of what-could’ve-been, and that’s what makes it hurt so much more.

The violent intensity of Whiplash turned a lot of people off. They said it wasn’t realistic. I would say in this case, La La Land is one of the most sharply realistic movies of the year. To generate that type of reaction from the same movie that features spontaneous singing and dancing on a highway overpass, a posh party in the Hills, and a sequence involving outer space (!!) is not an easy accomplishment.

But, it’s the themes surrounding the story that make it so. It’s about sacrifice and love. Those two usually go together – sometimes your sacrifice is letting go of something or someone you love. It’s an eternally relevant fairytale with a sobering message at the end and it’s expertly packaged in a gorgeous original musical that is often breathtaking.

You should never forget La La Land is more than a musical, but you should also never forget how making this a musical instead of a traditional romantic comedy is part of why this is so good. For its technical excellence combined with a deeply nuanced emotional storyline (and other reasons I’ve discussed above), I’m declaring this movie my personal favorite of the year.

“Birdman” Movie Review or (The Totally Expected Awesomeness of Michael Keaton)

Hey, that Michael Keaton guy is pretty good! And so is Birdman!

During the late eighties and early nineties, people considered Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks to be equal in both talent and potential. I know it seems egregious now, but it’s true. Keaton ended up portraying Batman in 1989 and 1992, but the nineties were clearly more favorable to Hanks. And that was really the end of “Keaton versus Hanks.”

Enter Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014. Keaton portrays an actor past his prime – an actor known for his role as an iconic superhero during his apex. The actor is trying to put on a Broadway play and the movie is essentially the week (or several weeks) before the first show.

The film is tremendous in many ways and that interesting twist involving Keaton’s personal life and the movie’s plot is just part of it. Naturally, people have been curious as to whether the movie was written with Keaton specifically in mind for the leading role, and the answer is a little bit more complicated than one might think.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, claims Keaton was the only one who could pull off the role. Keaton begs to differ, saying he doesn’t think it was specifically for him. Regardless, the relationship works beautifully.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence this movie fully shows Keaton’s acting prowess – something he’s only been able to do in supporting roles recently, like in The Other Guys and the unnecessary RoboCop remake. In Birdman, he takes center stage – literally – and joins the list of actors that can singlehandedly carry an audience’s attention through an extended monologue. Al Pacino, for example, is a member of that list; all you have to do is watch Scarface‘s classic scene where Pacino drunkenly drawls, “You need people like me.”

And who can forget his tirades on journalistic ethics and integrity in The Insider?

Going back to Keaton, he does a great job of conveying passion and angst – instability too – but he has an equally capable supporting cast working with him. Edward Norton portrays a fictional version of himself; his character is obnoxious, arrogant, and undoubtedly talented. When Keaton and Norton share the screen and often clash with each other, sparks violently bounce around their exchanges.

Zach Galifianakis takes on a serious role for once as Keaton’s lawyer/friend and is competent. Emma Stone is Keaton’s daughter and to be honest, she overdoes her acting here. She is a good actress in most cases, but she isn’t quite there yet. Instead, she resorts to doing the I’m-angry-so-my-eyes-will-ludicrously-bulge, which is too bad.

 

If there’s one injustice of acting in Birdman, it’s the underutilization of Naomi Watts. She doesn’t get much to work with; her highlight is probably a brief – but passionate – lesbian kiss with one of the play’s actresses (another quirky character in her own right). Why does it seem like Naomi Watts kisses a woman in every movie she’s in? It’s confounding, really.

One of the most hyped features of Birdman is the insane notion that the vast majority of the film is technically a long take; long takes are when the scene doesn’t change via camera cut, but instead continues with one camera adjusting accordingly. Long takes (or tracking shots) can be astonishing in their power and beauty – Children of Men from 2006 features an example of that.

As it happens, the director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki, who is responsible for Children of Men and its haunting, gritty visuals, as well as movies like Gravity and The Tree of Life. One of the negatives of tracking shots is the ache it can cause for viewers’ eyes. Camera cuts are like miniscule little breaks, giving the viewers a chance to rest on a subconscious level. If a tracking shot isn’t done right, it’s like looking at life through a lens followed by another lens – ouch. Fortunately, Lubezki adjusts admirably to the heavy demands of Birdman, and I suspect his work will not only get nominated for at least one Oscar, but win too.

One last thing about the cinematography: the lighting and the general mood is reminiscent of Los Angeles, particularly the vintage/retro hues of green and blue one gets from movies like Collateral and Drive. The film takes place in New York City, however, and the atmosphere takes on the role of dirtiness, which is almost synonymous with NYC. It’s an interesting contrast, where one set of criteria can mean different things depending on the context.

The movie’s music is just as clever as the visual effects, seamlessly being integrated within the movie’s plot. The soundtrack is almost completely based around percussion, which makes sense not only in relation to the visuals, but within the context of the scenes themselves. For example – and this may be a mild spoiler – at one point, we see that the music is actually being played by a street musician. It’s those nifty little tricks that make Birdman so refreshing and so great.

In the end, you have to ask one question: do those little tricks serve an actual purpose, or are they just gimmicks? It’s a fair question, but I believe their use was justified. Birdman does a great job of combining two different types of observers: the reliable and the unreliable. When Michael Keaton is on the screen, what we see is not necessarily the truth, especially as the movie progresses and Keaton’s mind continues to go nucking futs.

While the long takes aren’t used exclusively for Keaton’s scenes, they help distort time. The days before the play’s debut blend together and it’s more effective than the conventional method of filming and pacing. So yeah, they aren’t gimmicks.

Across the board, Birdman is solid or spectacular. The acting is anchored by Keaton and Norton and the aesthetics of this movie may go down in history as being particularly influential for future generations of moviemakers and movie viewers.