Sean K. Cureton

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Youth in Oregon: The Problem of Pain

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 17, 2017 at 11:42 am
Youth in Oregon

Orion Pictures

Youth in Oregon (2017)
Directed by Joel David Moore
VOD Rating: Liked It

The task of articulating and presenting the case for the right to die is tricky to say the least. The legal quandaries that inevitably arise when the issue is raised in public or private has continued to be a spot of political and moral contention, resulting in a stalemate for those who wish to turn in a life of prolonged anguish for the final relief of death. Enter Youth in Oregon – the latest directorial outing from actor-turned-director Joel David Moore – as a cinematic apology for those on both sides of the continuing argument. Starring Frank Langella as the terminally ill octogenarian Raymond Engersol determined to make his way back to his estate in Oregon in order to secure legal euthanasia, Youth in Oregon is an inherently taut drama. Billy Crudup and Christina Applegate co-star as Raymond’s dissapproving son-in-law and daughter respectively, and through their emotional admonishment of assisted suicide the viewer is able to hear both sides of the issue.

By and large, Youth in Oregon goes a significant way towards advocating euthanasia to the mainstream. In a film that opens on the Engersol family in a state of mild disrepair, with Raymond having long since moved into his daughter’s family household following his initial diagnosis, Langella leads a life of emasculated indignity. With death knocking at his door, and current treatment methods quickly becoming more and more ineffective against his illness, Raymond ceremoniously announces to his immediate nuclear unit that he has decided to make the trip back to Oregon to secure the right to die. The road trip that shortly ensues is filled with humor, warmth, and passion, and the final destination – even as its details have been explicitly described and ascertained throughout – still manages to shock and awe in its implied ethereal significance. Avoiding any easy spiritual bypass towards alleviating the problem of pain, Youth in Oregon struggles with the meaning of life by way of the importance of the people that make up the only world that is quantifiably self-evident to the senses.

For some, Raymond’s disillusionment with continuing to live could be seen as a form of nihilism. For others, his bravery in the face of suffering may ring with the clarity of logic. It’s impossible to summon the pain of another human being as our own, and in Youth in Oregon that task is approached with sincerity and deference to the ones facing that problem head on. At the end of the third act, Youth in Oregon allows the viewer into an incredibly intimate sequence that sees Raymond visiting a dying friend on his death bed who has secured the right to assisted suicide. Moore thusly takes the viewer to death’s door, opens the lock, and lets the viewer decide how much further they themselves are willing to go, thus barring any arbitrary conclusion from being reached – albeit with the hinted certitude that Raymond will cross said threshold of his own volition.

Moore offers his viewers a lot of dense material to chew over in Youth in Oregon, and for the most part his latest film acts as a marvelous talking point for a complicated issue of civil rights. As an argument for the right to die, Youth in Oregon manages to present the issue as it might actually be faced in real life, resulting in a dramatic representation of how one might approach the issue as an active participant. It’s easy to make pronouncements regarding the legal and moral implications of taking one’s own life regardless of the personal circumstances, which is why a movie like Youth in Oregon is so refreshing in its ability to force the viewer to contend with the ethical quandary with respectful restraint. Moore might not state how he explicitly feels about euthanasia and the people who pursue the legal right to it, but Langella goes a long way in his performance towards making the realities of such a decision more immediately approachable. The idea of ending one’s own life is a harsh reality to contend with, but having a cinematic expression like Youth in Oregon with which to approach its thorny edges is a small blessing in a life filled with pockets of such intense human pain.

Youth in Oregon is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

It Comes at Night: A Midnight Odyssey

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on June 10, 2017 at 9:54 am
It Comes at Night

A24

It Comes at Night
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
3 ½ out of 4 stars

It Comes at Night – the sophomore outing from American writer-director Trey Edward Shults – is a thoroughly satisfying art house genre feature. Shults’ latest motion picture production ensconces itself in the shroud of horror, only to pull the rug out from under the feet of an unsuspecting audience to reveal a more psychologically tuned drama. Ostensibly about a viral outbreak that has killed an unknown percentage of the human population, It Comes at Night builds upon the tension of its title while offering little in the way of explicit terror. Holed up in a house in the middle of the woods is a family of three, who soon find themselves playing reluctant hosts to another close-knit nuclear unit. What follows from this premise is a whole host of paranoid apparitions that operate in a surreal realm of tangible distrust and unease.

In the opening shot, Shults greets his audience with the face of a dying man named Bud – played by David Pendleton – who is soon revealed to be the grandfather to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah, herself the wife and mother of Joel Edgerton’s Paul and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis. Pallid and covered in dark spots, it’s quickly made apparent that Bud has become infected with a virulent virus of an untold contagion, and is swiftly taken out to the woods to be shot in the head before burial. Hinting towards the very best works of the zombie sub-genre, It Comes at Night borrows from some of the core narrative tropes of horror master classes like Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later, yet manages to surpass them in its unwillingness to exploit the walking dead. Instead of falling back on a host of shambling deadites to illicit an immediate sense of danger, Shults feels far more at home with the imagined horrors of the living. Forced to undergo varying states of cabin fever brought about by instinctual self-preservation turned hermitic isolation, It Comes at Night exhibits the hollowness of people living in the wake of the apocalypse.

Borrowing heavily from the themes and imagery of 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch – whose canvases of grotesque and decripit landscapes feature prominently during the film’s first act – It Comes at Night is a dark and twisted fantasy. Scrabbling for a hold in a world that doesn’t really seem to exist beyond an established set of routines and the bonds of one’s immediate family, belief in the good of mankind becomes an antiquated philosophy. When Christopher Abbot’s Will shows up at their door one night, Paul, Sarah, and Travis are reluctant to take in an unwanted visitor. And later, when Will and Paul go out to retrieve Will’s wife and son, Kim and Andrew – played in the film by Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner, respectively – the two fathers are attacked by another roving pair that bear an unsettling resemblance to themselves. Ostensibly having killed two people whose situation may not have been all that different from their own, Shults makes it apparent that Paul and Will live a disassociated existence.

In the film’s climactic third act, It Comes at Night retains a parabolic ambiguity. Refusing to offer any easy answers – or explain Travis’ strange nightmares and midnight odysseys – Shults spins an unforgettable yarn. The movie leaves viewers with an oddly compelling series of half-remembered shots and stolen glances that serve to give shape to its discomfiting form. Edgerton turns in another stirring performance that serves to ground the film in a world where assumptions inform a reality ruled by solipsism and mania. Fact and fiction are blurred in It Comes at Night in a way that serves to mirror the disorientation of its characters – and the viewer by proxy.

The Big Ask: Lost in the Desert

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on May 6, 2017 at 11:44 am
The Big Ask

Tribeca Film

The Big Ask (2013)
Directed by Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman
VOD Rating: Liked It

Centering on the relationship between three friends and their girlfriends, The Big Ask is a sensitive drama about grief and the means by which we cope with it. Starring David Krumholtz as Andrew – a reserved young man struggling to get over the tragic death of his mother – alongside Jason Ritter and Zachary Knighton as his closest confidants Owen and Dave respectively, the film’s desert landscape soon becomes riddled with the unasked questions and underlying anxieties that define the three best friends. After Andrew makes an indecent proposal of his two friends – namely the desire to sleep with their girlfriends Emily and Zoe, as played by Gillian Jacobs and Ahna O’Reilly – the film takes a turn into unfamiliar territory. To make matters worse, Owen quickly makes it apparent that he has eyes for Andrew’s girlfriend Hannah – as played by Melanie Lynskey. The way out of The Big Ask is thusly paved with intense emotional introspection that results in a psychological reconditioning of all six of the main characters’ basic understandings of themselves and each other, a task that the film is more than capable of tackling.

Co-directed by first-time writer-director duo Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, The Big Ask takes a familiar premise and turns it on its side in the service of an emotionally fueled romantic drama. As Andrew, Krumholtz plays the role of the improbable suitor sans swagger, exuding excessive amounts of discomfort with himself and those around him. In response, the rest of the cast reacts to Andrew’s presumed mental breakdown contrastingly according to temparment and personal history. In short order, Lynskey as Hannah rages against the prison of Andrew’s fragility, Ritter as Owen makes passes at Hannah, Knighton as Dave and O’Reilly as Zoe begin to understand their respective intentions towards monogamy together, and Jacobs as Emily finds herself drawn to Andrew’s selfless transparency. None of the characters are ever right or wrong, but by following each one’s path individually they all arrive at the same devastating destination.

Andrew may be the instigator of all the drama in The Big Ask, but as the film progresses it becomes quickly apparent that each character has their own part to play in the dissatisfaction of their own lives. Krumholtz may be the most wayward among them, but in Ritter and Knighton there are commensurate traces of listlessness and indecision. Andrew may be the one trying to sleep with his best friends’ girlfriends, but Owen and Dave are equally responsible for pushing themselves further from loving arms. Without explicitly formulating any kind of profound question or a making grand statement, The Big Ask provokes the kind of deep thinking on the part of the viewer that can be most closely associated with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are no sign posts or designated in paths out of the desert in The Big Ask, reminding the viewer that not all those who wander are lost.

Watching Krumholtz stumble through grief and personal torment throughout The Big Ask feels almost like trespassing on someone else’s most deeply held emotional secrets. Akin to the kinds of feelings stirred by a solitary walk, The Big Ask is a thoroughly subjective viewing experience. It’s hard to imagine each and every viewer coming away with the same rhetorical response to its dramatic intent, as it is doubly hard to imagine each and every viewer feeling the same way about its characters. Some may find themselves relating wholeheartedly to Andrew’s uncomfortable plight, while others may run towards the conventional perspectives offered by his companions. Either way, The Big Ask is an exceptionally original drama that shouldn’t be missed among the shuffle of other higher profile options vying for your attention.

The Big Ask is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Logan: A Bittersweet Ode

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on March 18, 2017 at 11:07 am
Logan

20th Century Fox

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
3 out of 4 stars

Hugh Jackman is among the most notable screen actors of the past twenty years, and a lot of that appeal has to do with his starring role in the X-Men feature franchise. After teaming up with Bryan Singer at the dawn of the 21st century in the making of the first installment in the series, Jackman has become iconoclastically equated with the bulking, bruising, side burn sporting superhero, Wolverine. Over the course of eight theatrical releases, the infamous Canadian anti-hero has leaped from the comic book panels that gave him birth only to find a whole new life as the marketing centerpiece of a wildly lucrative action blockbuster property. Aided by supporting performances from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Jackman has taken what his character derisively calls, “Ice cream for bedwetters,” and turned it into a bastion of hope and integrity for millions of superhero fans and devoted moviegoers. And with Logan – which is primed to feature the final onscreen performance from Jackman as the titular protagonist – that legacy sees itself eulogizing its own cultural significance.

Focusing on an aging James “Logan” Howlett eking out a meager existence in hermitic isolation while caring for a severely disabled Professor Charles Xavier, director James Mangold makes good on a lot of the promise previously entertained in his The Wolverine from 2013. Granted, a lot of the onscreen action, mayhem, and R-rated carnage depicted in Logan is beholden to a lot of the same frenetic incoherence that has plagued big budget superhero movies in general. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is rooted in a whole set of understated lead performances from Jackman, Stewart, and newcomer Stephen Merchant – in addition to the scene stealing supporting turn from child actor Dafne Keen as the young mutant-on-the-run, Laura. Living in a world where mutants have largely become an extinct sub-species whose vitality has been scrubbed out by an anti-mutant, genocidal temperament beholden to the world at large, Wolverine is forced to grapple with the idea that maybe mutants were, “God’s mistake,” and not the next stage in human evolution. This kind of grandiose melancholy persists throughout Jackman’s final big screen turn as Wolverine, and turns Logan into the bittersweet ode to the character’s undying popularity that fans are sure to adore.

Yet a lot of the fan service to the franchise begins to ring a little hollow after the first two acts of the film are over. Once Stewart is killed – in an unceremonious and callously brutal manner, at that – Jackman and Keen are left to their own devices to rebuild their world out of the very same wild flights of fantasy that have propelled the X-Men movies thus far. Except in Logan the comic books upon which the prior movies in the series have been based are revealed to be the very same kinds of romantic fictions that moviegoers have always known them to be. Thematically dissonant and irreverent towards any sense of continuity with what has come before in movies past starring Jackman as Wolverine, Logan uncomfortably seeks to establish new territory for itself at the very fringes of the likes of last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. If you want to go along for the ride, you’ll undoubtedly have a good time, but it’s hard to come away from Logan without admitting to yourself that perhaps the underlying drama might have been better served by a PG-13 rating.

Jackman is a Hollywood icon, and his tenure as Wolverine in the X-Men feature franchise will likely continue to influence subsequent films in the series. As a tentative final chapter to the story of Weapon X on the big screen, Logan manages to wed sentimentalism to an action blockbuster that largely succeeds as far as pleasing its immediate audience is concerned. There have been better movie in the series, and likely more will follow – good and bad – but Logan will undoubtedly remain a high water mark for subsequent productions to look up to for some time to come. But for all of its bluster and mature themes shuffling towards annihilation and death, Logan is another predictable chapter in the larger superhero phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping or taking itself less seriously. That approach works well enough for Jackman in Logan, but it will be disappointing when more filmmakers inevitably begin to further grossly misappropriate the same tone in even more movies starring super-powered men and women in tights.

David Brent: Life on the Road: He’s Back

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on February 25, 2017 at 12:55 pm
David Brent: Life on the Road

Entertainment One

David Brent: Life on the Road (2017)
Directed by Ricky Gervais
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Based in part on the cult-classic mockumentary comedy series The Office – as originally cast, produced, and broadcast on BBC Two from 2001 to 2003 – David Brent has become something of an icon to many a disaffected white collar worker. Prior to NBC adapting the series to a fit a softer, more romantically idealistic demographic in the United States, lead performer and prolific series creator Ricky Gervais personified the worst boss on television. Stereotypically buffoonish, Brent’s antics could range anywhere from the banal to the offensive, leaving a wake of justifiably miffed-to-outraged employees in his tyrannical wake. On The Office, poor middle management resulted in a deluge of painfully rendered moments of unmitigated human callousness, and the joke was often placed on the head of the comically oblivious Brent. When the show made its way to American audiences, some of that harsh realism was surrendered over to a cast of performers possessed with an innate sense of empathetic camaraderie, though Brent’s obtrusive shadow continued to cast an influential shadow on the franchise.

Ten and a half years later, David Brent: Life on the Road seeks to revisit Gervais as Brent to see where life has taken the social malcontent since his starring turn on the original The Office. Picking up where the original BBC sitcom left off, viewers find Brent demoted to a position of a local sales representative for yet another mid-size, non-descript corporation. The moments that find Brent being alternatively abused and coddled by his co-workers make for some of the best moments of the film, and ultimately serve as a launching pad for one of the funniest road movies since This Is Spinal Tap. Disillusioned by a waking life dominated by the demeaning nature of his job, Brent pools all of his money into a last ditch effort to become the rock and roll icon that he has always dreamed of being. Predictably, his self-funded tour is a bust, his hired session musicians don’t want to have anything to do with him, and his only friend and reluctant confidant is constantly overshadowed by Brent’s narcissistic ego.

Many fans of The Office will undoubtedly remember Brent’s penchant for reminiscing about his halcyon days spent as the front man of a band. Recursively recalling that solipsistic fantasy, David Brent: Life on the Road establishes itself as a spin-off to the former series while capitalizing predominantly on Brent’s appeal to a wider audience. It’s always fun to watch an idiot behave stupidly, and Brent has always been a comic character capable of that feat in spades. Accordingly, Brent’s invasive personality constantly finds its way to the center of numerous moments of tension alleviated by the inspired nuances of Gervais’ performance and writing. Instead of merely catering to the most devoted fans of the character, David Brent: Life on the Road operates on its own terms and may be seen as a piece of narrative entirely separate from The Office.

There is plenty of interpersonal confrontation to go around throughout David Brent: Life on the Road, and if you were a fan of the antagonistic aesthetic of the original The Office, there’s plenty more of that sort of comedy to be found in Gervais’ latest theatrical outing. But what many might be surprised by is how emotionally cutting a lot of the comedy insists on being. Brent has always been an ass, but in David Brent: Life on the Road Gervais brings all of the empathy that he miraculously conjured up in his underrated mockumentary series Derek to a bear on a character study that reveals more about Brent than even the most devoted fan could have possibly imagined. Going into the movie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone expecting to sympathize with Brent’s plight, but by the end of the movie it’s hard not to get a little emotional about the titular misanthrope’s unexpected emotional longings. Like Christopher Guest, Gervais has come a long way in regards to how he approaches the mockumentary sub-genre, and David Brent: Life on the Road might be his most sympathetic comedy yet.

David Brent: Life on the Road is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Paterson: Rhyme, Meter, & Verse

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on February 4, 2017 at 11:39 am
Paterson

Amazon Studios

Paterson
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
3 out of 4 stars

Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker who has made movies on his own terms. Heralded for his early work in black and white, including his directorial debut Permanent Vacation, it’s immediate follow-up Stranger Than Paradise, and Down by Law, Jarmusch is a filmmaker who revels in the mundane and the eccentric. His filmography is peppered with big name Hollywood talent and countercultural icons alike, with turns from the likes of Bill Murray and several key members of the Wu-Tang Clan frequently occupying the same narrative space. In later works like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has toyed with broader ideas and conceits, but it will be for his smaller works populated by stranger characters like Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes that most cinephiles will continue to refer to him. Continuing in that tradition, Paterson sees Jarmsuch at his most laid back, self-reflective, and concerned with the tedium of day-to-day life.

On first glance, Paterson is a far more intellectual exercise than many viewers might have been anticipating. Despite running behind a theatrical trailer that made Paterson out to be a feel good romantic comedy, the actual film is devoid of much in the way of volatile activity or inactivity. As a NJ Transit bus driver and aspiring poet named Paterson, living in Paterson, NJ, who habitually reads Paterson as written by the late resident poet William Carlos Williams, the circuitous nature of the film’s thematic tone can be a little inaccessible. And the means by which Jarmusch constructs drama out of the banal can be frustrating. For the greater part of the movie’s 120 minute runtime, nothing really happens and the viewer is left in a state of peace, calm, and tranquility that is a true rarity in a day and age where big budget blockbusters rein a schizophrenic assault on the senses of the contemporary moviegoer.

But within Paterson there is a visual attention given to detailing every minute facet and vagary that is a welcome respite for those looking for something more mindful of humanitarian interests. If you’re willing to indulge Jarmusch and the rest of his cast and crew in the telling of an essentially anti-dramatic tone poem, than chances are you’ll find yourself loving Paterson despite yourself. The movie proceeds with a languid pace that feels too slow in certain moments, and not slow enough in others, and before you know it lead actor Adam Driver has become the conduit of human emotion and poetry. It’s easy to begin losing yourself in the hyper-reality of Jarmusch’s carefully articulated romanticism, and you begin to feel at home in Paterson to an extent that is unusual for most films. Paterson sets out to evoke the structure of poetry in terms of content, theme, and structure, and succeeds on all three counts.

At the heart of Paterson, beyond its lackadaisical pace and absence of any real source of tension, anxiety, or conflict, Driver delivers one of the most heartwarming lead roles from the past year. It’s unlikely that many will be willing to go along for what is an undoubtedly inconsequential ride through the dilapidated urban sprawl of Jarmusch’s imagination, but for those that do there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Instead of offering a true dramatic climax, towards the final quarter of the film a string of small moments between the many characters that make up the world of Paterson occur that provide a minor sense of catharsis. A jilted Romeo questions the point of the universe without love, Paterson’s girlfriend finds success at a local farmer’s market, and another poet makes a brief appearance signifying the spiritual renewal to be found through creativity in the face of even the most devastating of personal setbacks. Paterson, in its unassuming non-demands on the viewer’s attention, casts a spell on those willing to give in to its idiosyncratic spirit and be swept up in its communally minded rhyme scheme, meter, and verse.

Little Sister: Gothic Pathos

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on January 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm
Little Sister

Forager Films

Little Sister (2016)
Directed by Zach Clark
VOD Rating: Liked It

It’s hard to represent all of the emotional idiosyncrasies inherent to any one socio-cultural subset. The 21st century alone has seen the rise of the Millennial, and with it a cultural focus on the self-involved, sheltered, and precocious spiritual and political leanings of an epochal generation that has been derisively labeled as Generation Me. Intellectually equated with of the ever irksome hipster aesthetic, Millennials have become the butt of every joke regarding the recurrent aimlessness of youth. But just twenty years prior to the dawn of the Millennial, the Goth movement was far more pervasive in its influence upon young minds. Little Sister sees director Zack Clark approach Goths as a narrative conceit, but instead of marginalizing them for their affinity towards garish makeup and abrasive music, his film seeks to discover the humanitarian ethos that persists across generations regardless of the tone and content of each and every subsequent youth in rebellion.

Centering on a young nun in training named Colleen Lunsford (Addison Tomlin), Little Sister goes about divulging the innermost traits of its characters in a roundabout manner. Rather than openly admitting to his film being about a pair of former teen Goths coming back home to deal with the past, their dysfunctional parents, and the lingering horrors of the Iraq War, Clark means for his audience to see his protagonists as people first. Upon entering her childhood home for the first time after spending several years in self-inflicted excommunication, Colleen immediately begins coming across all of the various personal mementos from her time spent as a Goth. An inverted cross greets the viewer when Colleen makes her way to her old bedroom, which is ethereally tinged with an otherworldly glow amid the shadows and black painted décor. All of this back-story is implicitly accessible to the viewer, and goes a long way towards representing what is a far more realistic and unsensational version of what could have been a broad comedy in the wrong hands.

Tomlin brings an undeniable compassion to her role that results in Little Sister being among the more somber and reflective movie going experiences from this past year. Where Barry Jenkins sought to viscerally propel his viewers through his respective coming of age drama in the critically heralded, Best Picture nominee Moonlight, Clark takes a page from fellow contemporary Jeff Nichols and allows his characters to reveal as much about themselves as the viewer is willing to receive. When Colleen’s older brother Jacob Lunsford (Keith Poulson) is revealed for the first time, there is no remark to be made about the deformity that he brought back with him from the Iraq War. Instead, Colleen seeks to urge her brother out of hermitic isolation by indulging their shared love for the hardcore punk band GWAR. Her pantomimed performance that serves as the cornerstone of the entire production reveals far more about the viewer than it does about either Colleen or Jacob, as Clark means for this instigation of old passions to reflect a shared sense of creative vitality that is the lifeblood of humanity as a whole.

Little Sister approaches its characters without any contextualizing tone, which might make its intentions not entirely easy to read all the time. But for those viewers who are willing to suspend their need for concussive narrative exposition, Clark’s latest directorial effort signals the rise of a filmmaker whose past and future work should be sought after with a renewed vigor. Taking a cue from the Mumblecore film movement, Little Sister offers one of the most irreverent independent film experiences since Garden State, though Clark is a far more tactful storyteller than Zach Braff could ever hope to be. Adolescence is a wellspring of creative inspiration that everyone will continue to draw from as more people come forward to tell their own stories of youthful rebellion, and Clark has added another indispensable entry into that canon with Little Sister. Teeming with pathos and earned dramatic catharsis, Little Sister is a truly exceptional movie that slipped through the cracks of mainstream attention due to its unobtrusive tenderness.

Little Sister is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

La La Land: Daydream & Despair

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on January 7, 2017 at 1:18 pm
La La Land

Summit Entertainment

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
3 out of 4 stars

Damien Chazelle is a clear frontrunner for the current awards season, and his sophomore feature length motion picture La La Land is an exceptionally effective Hollywood musical throwback. Brimming with bright lights, big dreams, and starring two of the greatest young talents working today, Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated drama Whiplash is a definitive crowd pleaser. Centering around the aspirations of two young artists in Los Angeles – one an aspiring starlet of the sliver screen, and the other a struggling jazz musician forced to play Christmas carols in a local tapas bar – La La Land blends childish daydream into a potpourri of waking despair offset by a number of willfully romantic musical compositions. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone manage to walk the high wire act of making a contemporary Hollywood musical that finds its way into the current pantheon of mainstream cinema. And despite its obvious self-indulgence, La La Land is a modest hit that might pave the way for even greater original musical movie productions in the near future.

Throughout Chazelle’s latest feature length endeavor, the director’s penchant for exploring the unwieldy capacities of jazz, both in terms of composition and performance, lends to a multitude of conflicting emotions and thematic idiosyncrasies that simultaneously vie for the viewer’s attention. As Sebastian Wilder, Gosling exudes a temperamental prickliness that erupts in spare moments of antagonism. Thankfully, Stone as Mia Dolan, aided by her character’s respective abundance of blind optimism, breaks through to the core of the movie’s overarching creative rebellion. Like the classic Hollywood drama Rebel Without a Cause that serves as an archetypal frame of reference for the two young lovers whirlwind affair, Sebastian and Mia seek artistic fulfillment in La La Land despite the odds, and emerge victorious by the grace of their respective talents alone. Los Angeles is a “City of Stars” in Sebastian and Mia’s eyes, even if the brightness of subjective ambition proves to bright for the dueling protagonists to see one another clearly and often enough.

Prior to La La Land, Whiplash saw Chazelle exploring the depths to which artists might lose themselves in the pursuit of technical mastery. In that film, Miles Teller plays the young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman as a monomaniacal sycophant to his own historical idols. Like Sebastian and Mia, Andrew shrugs off the affections of his father, extended family, and girlfriend for the cold embrace of his disciplinarian instructor. La La Land offers a few of the same bitter returns for its heroes, as Sebastian and Mia are forced to fall out of love with one another in order to reach the dazzling heights of celebrity and sub-cultural renown. Creativity is a double-edged sword in Chazelle’s hands, as its finely pointed aim consistently reaches its mark while obliterating all ancillary pleasures and desires in its single-minded pursuit.

La La Land may not offer the same kind of heartwarming narrative of the classic studio musical, but in our current day and age its cynical view of human nature feels more accurate in describing the guarded sympathies of 21st century Hollywood. Movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon from the 1950s allowed its heroes to fall and stay in love because they were made a by a culture that still strove to believe in the virtues of ethically binding monogamy. Over fifty years later, those same beliefs have become mere reminders of a retrospectively quaint philosophy, and monogamy a social stricture dictated by objective law alone. Sebastian and Mia are narcissistic performers dressed up like 1950s Hollywood musical players whose inability to find a happy ending together is the only logical conclusion that a movie like La La Land could reach in 2016. There is a lot of pain behind Gosling and Stone’s eyes in La La Land, but not much hope for a better future than the one they’ve blindly built in their own image.