La La Land

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The opening and closing of this movie are so brilliant, it’s a bit disappointing that things bog down during parts in the middle. Certainly the two stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (in their third movie together), have chemistry. We root for them. They do a tremendous job making us think of old-school Hollywood musicals. You can’t possibly watch this and not feel uplifted. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be knocked. A few of the tunes aren’t so memorable, and when I go to a musical, that’s something I’m looking for. After I saw Chicago, a week later, I went out and bought the soundtrack. This movie musical will make you think of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Cabaret, Singin’ in the Rain, and even a touch of A Star is Born. But, you won’t be whistling these tunes or trying to rid yourself of any earworms.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who I recently spent a few minutes talking to at the Critics’ Choice Awards, gave us the award winning Whiplash a few years ago. This is a solid follow up. The colors are vivid, and some of the set pieces gorgeous (a few of the set pieces needed to be a bit more dazzling, though).

Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, working as a barista on a studio lot. That means she is sometimes showing up to auditions with coffee on her shirt. Sometimes she’s at an audition crying her eyes out, only to have a casting director take a phone call and ruin the vibe (a story inserted in the movie after Ryan Gosling said that happened to him). Those are always fun scenes for audiences. I loved when Swingers had Vince Vaughn telling a story about going to an audition and crying, making the director cry too, only to be told the character they needed was 12-years-old, not 28.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is trying to make it as a jazz musician. After crossing paths a few times, the couple finally connects over his incredible rendition of the Flock of Seagulls tune “I Ran.” It’s a meet-cute (after several “meet-hate” moments) at a Hollywood pool party. They have a nice rapport with each other, and it reminded me of one of the things I didn’t care for about the main characters in Cafe Society. They felt forced. Mia and Sebastian seem to naturally work well together, and we look forward to watching this romance blossom.

A few terrific actors aren’t given enough to do. That would be J.K. Simmons, so great as the sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, playing a grumpy club owner that wants Sebastian to only play Christmas tunes.

There’s Rosemarie DeWitt, the sister trying to get Sebastian out of his funk and to give up his pipe dreams.

John Legend plays a jazz legend that has sold out, but offers Sebastian a chance to make good money playing music he doesn’t love.

At the San Diego Film Critics’ Society, we had one critic complain about these two characters not being the best singers and dancers. That might be true, but it made it more endearing. Just as the actors in Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You didn’t sing so well.

Heck, John Travolta sings horribly, but we all loved Grease, right?

Oh, and speaking of Woody Allen, he did a lot of movies that were love letters to New York. This is a love letter to L.A., and old time musicals. How can you not want such a whimsical picture to be part of your holiday viewing?

That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect movie. It’s a bit uneven. It’s a bit derivative. I wish Mia would’ve been a more interesting and fleshed out character; but the whole thing is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes and heart, and that’s something I wish more movies would be.

It gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.