La La Land (2016)

2018 #10
Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

La La Land

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
14 nominations — 6 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

Watching the best picture...

La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.


Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

5 out of 5

The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

La La Land placed 4th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Grand Piano (2013)

2016 #34
Eugenio Mira | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Spain & USA / English | 15 / R

Written by Damien “Whiplash” Chazelle, Grand Piano is “Phone Booth with a piano”. Elijah Wood plays a nerve-ridden musical wunderkind about to make his comeback when he receives a phone call ordering him to play an impossible piece of music perfectly or else his loved ones get it. Is he up to the challenge? Can he uncover and defeat his telephonic terroriser whilst also giving a piano performance to a packed house?

Running under 80 minutes before the credits roll, Grand Piano is a brisk thriller that barely has time to be anything less than engrossing. It relies on keeping you entertained with its series of quick reveals, twists, and sequences of tension, rather than meaningful themes or considered characters (though look out for some perhaps-familiar faces in supporting roles nonetheless). Director Eugenio Mira keeps things relatively classy, rather than descending into meaningless shaky-cam antics — this is a movie set at a classical music recital, after all.

The storyline is utterly preposterous, of course, though it amuses me that some people criticise it for that. I mean, it’s a genre picture — no genre picture is not preposterous. The veneer of truth they present varies, but rare is the genre movie that crafts a genuinely plausible version of real life. Die Hard would never, ever happen, but it’s still a great action movie. I’m not claiming Grand Piano is of Die Hard quality, but criticising its plot for being preposterous? It’s not so preposterous that it breaks the ‘rules’ of the thriller genre. Either you’re on board with that, or maybe you shouldn’t watch this kind of movie.

Really, there’s not much more to Grand Piano than its well-made creation of tension and thrills, and so I don’t find myself with much more to say about it. I enjoyed it very much, though.

4 out of 5

Whiplash (2014)

2015 #84
Damien Chazelle | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay.

WhiplashMr Fantastic dates Supergirl and is taught the drums by J. Jonah Jameson in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning music drama.

In reality, the story concerns Andrew (Miles Teller of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot), a drumming student at a prestigious music college where everyone wants to be in the ensemble run by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy). When Andrew makes it in, he soon discovers what a hard taskmaster Fletcher is; some would say abusive. Is Andrew prepared to give up everything, including his burgeoning relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist of the forthcoming Supergirl series), to impress? How far will he go to be the best?

Chazelle’s screenplay is admirable in its psychological complexity here, particularly as it’s contained in a straightforward-seeming master/pupil, abuser/abusee drama that also functions as a surface-level dramatic thriller. The extra levels come from these exact characters and their exact relationship. Fletcher is striving for true excellence, which means he has to push his students… but is he pushing them too far? Andrew wants to be truly excellent, which means a certain amount of dedication… but is he investing too much? Is the relationship that grows between them mutually beneficial, or mutually destructive… or only destructive to Andrew? Whiplash may look like a drama about a music student, but the twists and turns grip more like a thriller, while the questions it raises are not given easy answers. The ending in particular is deliberately ambiguous, and different people have certainly made different assumptions about its intended meaning.

Not a happy chappySimmons’ Oscar is well earnt as the unpredictable Fletcher. If you’ve seen clips and trailers you might imagine it’s a fairly one-note turn, the Angry Teacher who possibly reveals a Heart Of Gold either just in time for the third act or at the very end. But no, there’s more to it than that, and Simmons negotiates every facet and nuance with the expertise of an experienced character actor. Commendations to both Chazelle and Simmons for wrong-footing me on what was actually going on with him more than once.

If the rest of the cast exist in his shadow, it’s because everyone’s giving appropriately restrained performances. Teller actually offers a very strong turn as the lead, who we are of course invited to like and identify with at the start, but who goes so far that it distances the viewer. This is a tricky feat to pull off — many a film has faced accusations of failure because our relationship with the hero was severed when they did something the viewer disapproved of. Andrew isn’t the hero, though; not exactly. He’s the main character, certainly, and we are following his journey and the battle for his future — his soul, if you want to be poetic about it — but that doesn’t mean we like everywhere he goes, or will approve of his eventual destination.

Really, the film is about Andrew and Fletcher. If there’s one serious criticism that could be levelled at the film, it’s that the Nicole subplot is slightly underdeveloped. Personally, I'd choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any dayThat thread could do with a boost in the middle, to give their relationship a little more weight when we reach the decisions Andrew must make about it later on. (Personally, I’d choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any day, but I don’t think that’s the point…) The same could be said of Andrew’s relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), though that’s actually given more screen time and is consequently more impactful.

These are mere niggles, though, in a film that appears quite simple but actually contains quite a lot of power. It’s certainly more thrilling than you might expect from a character drama about someone learning to play drums, as well as more psychologically complex, and definitely more thought-provoking. There are no easy answers here, just real life; but, unlike most films you’d say that about, Whiplash thoroughly entertains.

5 out of 5

The aforementioned Fantastic Four is in cinemas from Thursday.