“La La Land”: A Modern Musical Masterpiece

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance the night away in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. (Source: Esquire)

Musicals have been extremely popular ever since the Great Depression leading to Hollywood’s Golden Age. They have the power to transport viewers to a light, whimsical world as a way to forget the harsh reality for awhile. The films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, including Top Hat and Swing Time, had everyone smiling as the two stars danced as if they were weightless. After the Depression, more musical stars, such as Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris), Frank Sinatra (On the Town, High Society), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born), danced and sang their ways to the top. With West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Grease being some of the most popular musicals of the past century, only ten of them have ever taken home an Oscar for Best Picture. Most musicals of the 21st century–Across the Universe, High School Musical, and Mamma Mia!–are often harmless, but tend to be lousy and forgettable.

Enter Damien Chazelle. A 33-year-old Harvard graduate from Providence, Rhode Island, made his directorial debut with 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the black-and-white indie film he made in college following a jazz trumpeter falling for a shy girl in modern-day Boston. Following the marvelously dark story of a drummer’s road to becoming the greatest in Whiplash (2014), he would eventually use the same concept of his first film about star-crossed lovers making ends meet in La La Land (2016), winner of 6 Oscars including Best Director for Chazelle (becoming the youngest person to win such an award). However, it lost to Moonlight for Best Picture after a shocking mix-up.

One of those rare musicals not based on a novel or a famous play, the movie is rich in originality while paying tribute to musicals of the past–from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the all-American classics mentioned above. Not only that, it stars two of the most gorgeous people working today: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

As the late Roger Ebert once said in one of his reviews, “The first time seeing the movie, I focused on the foreground, and liked it. The second time I focused on the background, too, and loved it!”

That’s the case of me seeing La La Land five times in theaters (plus many more to come). I always catch what I missed from before. It gets better with each viewing.

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Stone, who won an Oscar for her role) is an aspiring actress working at a cafe in the Warner Brothers lot. She attempts to earn a big break, despite the numerous failed auditions she goes to. One night, after attending a party with her roommates, she goes to a nightclub and sees pianist Sebastian Wilder (Gosling), who also has dreams of his own of opening his own jazz club (“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”). Eventually, they fall in love.

We see how their storylines unfold leading up to their first encounter at the jazz club, owned by the fiery Bill (J.K. Simmons, in a small yet effective role). Spotlights shine down on one another as Sebastian plays a beautiful piano piece that would make Frédéric Chopin blush.

Yes, Ryan Gosling is actually playing the piano here. Prior to filming, he would practice two hours each day for three months to learn the music by heart. He wouldn’t play any other song on the piano other than the songs Sebastian plays in the movie. One thing that’s impressive about Chazelle as a director is he never uses doubles or CGI for the actor whenever they are playing a musical instrument. There isn’t a single second where any of the hard work Gosling had to endure felt wasted.

Chazelle’s collaborator and college roommate Justin Hurwitz joins the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin providing a marvelous score and memorable music numbers. In a film rich in color, it pays homage to Los Angeles. Like the Oscar-winning song “City of Stars”, it’s a city filled with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The opening music number, “Another Day of Sun”, resembles the hopes of success despite the many challenges that have yet to be faced. Set during a traffic jam on a busy highway consisting of one six-minute long take (one of many continuous, long shots in the movie), the dancers start getting out of their cars and break into song and dance, singing a chorus that goes, “Climb these hills, I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine, and when they let you down, you’ll get up off the ground, ‘cause morning rolls around, and it’s another day of sun.”

In another beautifully-choreographed music number, “A Lovely Night”, we see the two lovebirds walking the Hollywood Hills on a gorgeous spring evening after a pool party (one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Mia dances and lip-syncs to a cover of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” after encountering Sebastian–no wonder why she dominated “Lip Sync Battle” on the Tonight Show back in 2014). While they confessed they don’t have a connection, they begin teasing with each other until they put on their tap shoes and pull off a dance routine reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers. It’s entirely difficult not to smile and giggle during these scenes when they are together.

Jazz might be a dead genre, but Hurwitz brings it to pure light. Sebastian introduces Mia to his world of the genre after Mia discusses how her love for classic movies made her want to pursue acting. He mentions jazz is not just for listening, it has to be felt. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s new every night,” he says. “It’s brand new every night. It’s very, very exciting!”

When Seb’s old buddy, Keith (John Legend), offers him to be in his band, he reluctantly accepts to be a part of his company. However, it conflicts his relationship with Mia (more on that later). Seb is taken aback by the contemporary, electronic style of jazz while he prefers the old-fashioned style of jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. “How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks him after rehearsal. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Another part of La La Land’s brilliance is the pure optimism these characters–especially Mia and Seb–have of going far and beyond, even though they get frustrated on how it might turn out at first.

La La Land contains the most realistic portrayal of love than any other romance film in recent memory. It also contains fantasy elements thrown into the mix, which is also a breath of fresh air. There are two spectacular sequences that contain no dialogue, and feel as if they are something out of a ballet. One is where Mia and Sebastian sneak into the Griffith Observatory planetarium after hours. They begin floating in the air and dance in the stars. It serves as a metaphor for their emotional connection with each other.

The other is the epilogue reminiscent to the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence at the end of An American in Paris. It shows what would happen if Mia and Sebastian actually ended up together. They go through numerous luscious set pieces–all painted by hand, no less!–as if they have both stepped into a dream. With Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous cinematography, this movie is like a painting in motion!

After winning audience’s hearts in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, Gosling and Stone are dynamite as the two lovers. While they wear gorgeous clothes (Gosling in a variety of suits, and Stone in a variety of dresses), their romance is filled with so much charm and humor. Not only can they dance, they can also sing well. No one can play a better dynamic duo than these two!

While Moonlight might have deserved its award for Best Picture of 2016 over this movie, La La Land will be a musical that will be discussed for years to come. It’s hard not to love an old-fashioned musical set in the present day. I hope Damien Chazelle will direct hundreds of movies after his upcoming film First Man, starring Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to ever set foot on the moon. La La Land is easily one of the best musicals of the century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is adapted into a Broadway musical in the coming years. Mia’s song, “The Fools Who Dream”, sums Los Angeles’ portrayal perfectly:

“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.”

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My Thoughts on the 89th Oscars Ceremony

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Mahershala Ali accepting his award for Moonlight at last night’s Oscars ceremony. (Source: FOX News)

Oh man–what a night!

It was actually a fun Oscars ceremony! One of the funniest things host Jimmy Kimmel does on his talk show is trash talking Matt Damon (it’s kind of a long story). When he walked on the stage, he cracked jokes about the nominees (including Meryl Streep receiving her 20th Best Actress and starring in hundreds of “mediocre movies”), politics (not to mention references to Donald Trump), and, of course, his feud with Damon mentioning that he backed out of playing the lead in Manchester by the Sea to star in The Great Wall, one of the biggest box-office bombs of 2017 so far.

Another one of my favorite segments Kimmel does on his show is “Mean Tweets”. This is where celebrities read their mean tweets. Some of them are really funny, while some of them are just horrible. I was so proud he did it last night during the ceremony! There were a lot of montages, and I loved how we get to see actors talking about their experiences with some of their favorite movies and falling in love with a certain actor from that film, and having them present on stage. Charlize Theron and Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Seth Rogen and Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future), and Javier Bardem and Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County).

A lot of people boycotted last year’s Oscars due to the lack of diversity in the nominations. The president of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs made a wonderful speech proving that “Art has no borders.” Meaning, the nominations will be more diverse in the coming years. Denzel Washington became the first African-American to receive the most Best Actor nominations (5). African-Americans Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Viola Davis (Fences) both won their Oscars for their wonderful performances in supporting roles, and definitely well-deserved!

A lot of you know that La La Land was my pick for the best movie of 2016, and the movie I’ve seen the most times in the theaters (a total of FIVE TIMES; you can tell I’m downright obsessed with it). I, along with many others, wanted it to win big Best Picture. The movie did set some records. Nominated for 14 Oscars, it tied with Titanic for receiving the most nominations including Best Picture, and Damien Chazelle being the youngest person to win Best Director, at 32 years old. And also, it won the most awards—taking home six. Emma Stone, who took everyone’s breath away with her golden vintage-style gown (just WOW!), won a well-deserved Best Actress for her performance as an aspiring actress trying to make ends meet in Los Angeles. I’m proud to see Casey Affleck, who looks like a Bostonian Jesus with the beard (I mean that as a compliment), deserved his win for Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea.

Last night had a fair share of surprises. When Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land won Best Picture, I have never been happier since the New England Patriots won this year’s Super Bowl. Then, there was commotion up on stage. I wondered, “What’s going on?” Jordan Horowitz, one of the producers of La La Land said, “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture! This is not a joke!” My joy quickly transitioned to a state of shock.

What happened with that mix-up was that Beatty and Dunaway got the wrong envelope. Someone backstage even said so. Then, Beatty realized he was holding the envelope for Best Actress instead of Best Picture. I have nothing against Moonlight (which took home two more nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali and Best Adapted Screenplay) because it’s a beautiful movie about a young African-American man trying to find who he really is. However, I thought it was a big joke that La La Land gave up their Best Picture to Moonlight. Unfortunately, Horowitz was right. It wasn’t a joke. Director M. Night Shyamalan hilariously tweeted about the shocker saying, “I wrote the ending of the academy awards 2017. Jimmy Kimmel, we really got them!” I woke up this morning to that, and I certainly got a good kick out of it.

But hey–look on the bright side. Moonlight became the first film by A24 to win Best Picture. Here’s to a dozen more!

This has been one of the better ceremonies in quite some time (the one where Seth MacFarlane was the host will always be one of the biggest mistakes the Academy ever made). Congratulations to everyone who won their awards!

2015 Summer Movie Review: Aloha

Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone try their best in Cameron Crowe's

Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone try their best in Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha”

If you hire A-list actors and your movie has a great soundtrack, it must be Cameron Crowe. He’s the director who made the famous Tom Cruise say the most famous line, “Show me the money!” in Jerry Maguire, and eventually collaborated with him again in the enigmatic Vanilla Sky. This decade, he made Matt Damon and his family live on a zoo in the decent albeit likeable We Bought a Zoo. In his latest, Aloha, he captures his actors going on vacation in Hawaii. It’s refreshing to have a movie without any overblown effects every once in a while. Unfortunately, it’s not the case with this movie. I don’t know what the hell Cameron Crowe was thinking.

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor who used to work in Afghanistan. He’s now working for a wealthy industrialist (Bill Murray). His task is to launch a satellite into space. He immediately becomes attracted to a fast-talking, energetic Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone), who is one-quarter Hawaiian (don’t ask). However, Gilcrest tries to reconnect with his old girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), but she’s married to a mute Air Force pilot (John Krasinski), who Gilcrest has an amusing conversation with near the end of the movie with their thoughts and gestures.

One of the biggest problems with Aloha is the direction. It has no idea what it wants to be. It goes from being a “romance” between Cooper and Stone to a family drama with Cooper getting along with one of McAdams’ children who has an obsession with Hawaiian Gods and carrying a video camera. Then, there’s a subplot with a satellite launch. If the actors share no chemistry whatsoever, that’s also a major problem. It’s not funny, not romantic, and not surprising. Thank God this movie flopped.

1/4

Movie Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton gives the performance of a lifetime in "Birdman"

Michael Keaton gives the performance of a lifetime in “Birdman”

Nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) reminds us why movies are made. People want to see something new, something rather out of the ordinary, and something that will be talked about for many years. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity) make a technically ambitious movie using various film and editing techniques to make it look like it’s shot in one continuous take (similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope). Michael Keaton is brilliant as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who used to play an iconic superhero called “Birdman” trying to make it big on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Days leading up to opening day, he fights for his career, ego, and most importantly, himself. The scene where he holds a grudge on a New York Times theatre critic who is going to give his play a negative review before opening day proves that his performance might win the Oscar. Leading an all-star cast including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galafianakis, this is a movie that is funny, satirical, strange, philosophical, and moving.

4/4

2014 Summer Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Andrew Garfield suits up as America's iconic superhero to swing into more web-swinging action in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Andrew Garfield suits up as America’s iconic superhero to swing into more web-swinging action in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

One of the common themes in Spider-Man is “with great power comes great responsibility”. When Peter Parker became the hero we all know and love, he realizes it is his responsibility to risk everything he has to save the people of New York City. Not only is Spider-Man a hero, but he is a symbol of America. When trouble occurs, he swings from building to building by shooting webs and comes in to save our butts. We all wish this iconic superhero was here in real life. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the underrated The Amazing Spider-Man, there would always be hope.

For Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), being Spider-Man is his all-time favorite hobby. Now that he has just graduated from high school, he wants to pursue living his dream of being the hero. Despite dealing with the loss of his parents (mainly his father Richard Parker) and Uncle Ben, he feels comfortable about his life. He has a great affection for his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) that he would never leave her. Everything about Peter’s life seems to be downright perfect.

That is until an incident happens at Oscorp involving an electrical engineer (Jamie Foxx) getting electrocuted and dropped into a pool of electrical eels. He gets exposed by electricity and erupts as he calls himself of Electro. Meanwhile, Peter must fight his inner demons in order to save the city once again.

Like with the last film, Andrew Garfield delivers a much better portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire. Although I do like Maguire a lot, I think Garfield felt more human; acting more like a real teenager with a scientific knowledge. He’s everything that I want in a superhero; funny, charismatic, caring, intelligent, mature, and (most importantly) heroic. His relationship with Gwen Stacy (well-played by the beautiful Emma Stone) might be too lovey-dovey at times. Nevertheless, their romance is better portrayed than by Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.

Dane DeHaan – of Chronicle fame – is a good choice as Harry Osborn, Peter’s old friend who is the heir of Oscorp Industries. He brings in an evil persona into his role that makes James Franco’s portrayal look rather bland. His green eyes makes him look rather creepy. Jamie Foxx started off rather bland; playing a stereotypical geeky electrical engineer of Oscorp who is obsessed with Spider-Man after he saved his life. When he becomes the villainous Electro, he definitely puts on a show!

Running at 2 hours and 22 minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is quite a drag, but it never bored my eyes out at all. It’s sugarcoated with too many subplots, too many villains, and some underdeveloped characters. However, the special effects and the action sequences are beyond impressive. Especially when Electro uses his shocking powers (pun intended) to cut the entire power of NYC. My jaw literally dropped to the floor because it was so cool on the big screen. Whenever Spider-Man is swing from building to building, it feels like you are on a roller coaster ride at Walt Disney World. It’s breathtaking!

3/4