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La La Land •••

la_la_land_filmStarring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Comedy/Drama/Musical, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2016


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Well Scott, are you Ga Ga over La La Land?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

La La Land was definitely not doo doo and much better than so so. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to bright and emerging actress Mia (Emma Stone). She is trying out for a number of movies and has big dreams of becoming a movie star. But first she must work in the movie studio’s coffee shop as a barista. She goes to a restaurant at Christmastime where she hears a young Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing a piano. Things aren’t going so well for young Sebastian as he is summarily fired for not playing holiday standards.

Mia and Sebastian’s paths keep crossing. Eventually they go out, enjoy great chemistry together, and fall in love. Sebastian meets an old friend and bandmate who invites Sebastian to join his band. The offer is lucrative, and Sebastian accepts but is dismayed to discover that the band’s music is uninteresting and a total sell-out. Meanwhile, Mia’s one-woman play is a total bust, sending Mia home to live with her parents in Nevada.

The opening scene of La La Land is a massive production number where all the (young) drivers in Los Angeles’ gridlock get out of their cars and sing and dance. This is a promise that we’re in for a classic musical ala the 1940’s. But it is a promise that will soon be broken as the leads in this story really don’t sing or dance very much. And when they do it is the minimum necessary. La La Land is a huge disappointment.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if that were the only flaw. But this movie fails on every level. Musical: the songs are abandoned at about the 25% point. Dance: Stone and Gosling barely perform – I’ve seen better work on TV’s Dancing with the stars. Plot: This is a hackneyed story that has little depth. Jazz: Gosling’s thing is that he wants everyone to love Jazz. And by the end of the story we don’t care one wit about Jazz. It’s a story full of promises that are never delivered upon.

I disagree, Greg. Yes, La La Land is lightweight fun but it is fun nonetheless. The film is packed with visual and emotional appeal. At the visual level, we are treated to delightful cinematography capturing the spirit of the southern California lifestyle and the glamor of the entertainment industry. At an emotional level, we fall in love with the idea of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling falling in love. There is a palpable spark between them, made more poignant by their professional struggles.

The heroes of the story are the romantic duo of Mia and Sebastian. We can tell they are destined to fall in love because they dislike each other at the outset. La La Land is clever in its introduction to our heroes. There is a minor road rage incident, a snub at a nightclub, and an annoying party song request. Each hero hits a low point; his is at the beginning, hers is toward the end. There are no villains, other than the difficult entertainment industry in which they work. The journey consists of them helping each other succeed, and the adventurous storyline exudes fun, energy, wit, and charm.

I had no problem with these characters as the leads – except that there was nothing particularly interesting about them. Gosling did a good job as the jazz pianist – apparently playing the piano himself in scenes that required it. Aside from one scene where he explains jazz to Mia, we don’t really get to see his passion. And when Mia encourages him to try out for a band, he resists at first, then joins up. Apparently he had personality conflicts with the leader (played by John Legend). But we never really see these conflicts. And our hero seems to genuinely enjoy playing the “new jazz.” So it’s a bit of a surprise when he claims he only joined because Mia exhorted him to.

Likewise with Mia’s talents. Sebastian encourages Mia to stop auditioning and work on her one-woman show. Which she does and when only a handful of people show up, she decides to quit acting altogether. But then a casting agent saw the show and wants to cast Mia in a major feature. And we have the same problem again – we never saw the one-woman show. So we have no idea whether she was any good in it. The only real example of Mia’s acting we get is a monologue where she reminisces about an aunt who got a passing mention in an earlier scene. It’s truly a touching moment – possibly the only one in the film.

So I’m pretty unenthusiastic about this romantic hero pairing. There’s a lot of talk about their relative passions, but very little of it is on-screen. We just have to take their word for it. So I’ll go back to the old saw about writing – “show, don’t tell.”

They showed plenty to me. Sebastian’s passion for jazz jumped off the screen for me, and inspired me (a disliker of jazz) to actually enjoy the music I heard in this movie. It was all “show” and very little “tell”. And thank God they didn’t show Mia’s one-woman show; what a waste that would have been. We witnessed her talent big-time during her failed auditions, where she was jinxed time and again.

This year we’ve explored the important role of mentoring in the movies, and this movie could serve as an example of a story that works just fine without mentoring. The reason is that our two heroes help each other transform — a type of peer assisted transformation. Mia helps Sebastian learn to follow his dream, a conceptual transformation for him. In turn, he helps her by getting her to the movie audition — a mechanical transformation. That’s more black-and-white than it really is, but the point is that any mentoring they received happened earlier in their lives, with Sebastian getting great keyboard training and Mia some impressive acting lessons.

Once again, as with so much in this film, the mentoring is off-camera. There was so much that was off-camera in this film I felt that I didn’t really need to be in the theater.

La La Land is a film that promised much and delivered little. Even it’s opening scrawl promised it would be a Cinemascope classic. But it pales in comparison to such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and Top Hat. Those films, even with their limited plotlines, delivered amazing songs and dance routines. “I’ve watched theatrical musicals. I met theatrical movies. Theatrical movies have been friends of mine. La La Land – you’re no theatrical musical!” I give La La Land just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this film are flimsy and uninteresting. They scarcely have an arc that I could detect. The one saving grace is the last scene which was a “what could have been” montage. That was a welcome diversion from an otherwise ho-hum hero’s journey. I give the heroes in this film just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the mentoring was non-existent save for the owner of Mia’s coffee shop. 1 Mentor for her.

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La La Land is a spirited visual and musical spectacle that will keep your toes tapping and your heart singing long after you leave the theater. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone enjoy a sizzling romance that struggles to bloom and then lights up the big screen. I fell in love with the idea of them falling in love, and I wasn’t disappointed at all by the clever, realistic ending that showed them in different places yet forever changed by each other. La La Land falls just shy of earning all 5 points but does merit a festive 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two star-crossed lovers win our hearts with their sweet intentions, winning dispositions, and boundless talent. Ryan Gosling always amazes me by portraying characters whom I shouldn’t like but nevertheless find myself rooting for. Emma Stone remains one of the most mega-talented actors in Hollywood, and together these two stars make magic in the theater. Their hero’s journeys are textbook and I enjoyed watching them help each other transform into entertainers who achieve their full potential. They easily earn 4 Hero points out of 5.

There is no mentoring per se in this movie, at least not on-screen, but this is a film that doesn’t require mentoring to be effective. So no worries at all (from me) in assigning 1 single measly Mentor point out of 5.

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