Sunday, January 15, 2017
La La Land/Live by Night
Damien Chazelle's La La Land was written before the writer/director made the Oscar-winning Whiplash, and indeed La La Land has the markings of an early, youthful work in which emotion trumps ideas and what themes there are come at us in a loud, declamatory style. La La Land is the story of the love affair between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an actress and a musician who meet in Los Angeles and begin a relationship with each other after half the film is over. Both Mia and Sebastian are trying to ignore the fact that their dreams are headed for a reckoning. Mia, who by day serves coffee on a studio lot, is growing tired of auditions that lead nowhere while Sebastian can't sacrifice his ideals about jazz long enough to open the old-fashioned club he imagines. Yes, jazz. If you saw Whiplash you may remember that Chazelle's idea of becoming a true artist involves the mastery of old forms. We see Sebastian playing along to old records and dragging Mia to a club, but it isn't clear that he has much drive to make new music that deviates from a kind of 1950's-'60's idea of good jazz. In other words, Sebastian could have been played by Ken Burns.
La La Land is strangely conservative in its idea of how people become successful or influential in creative fields. Sebastian is challenged on his musical principles by a friend (John Legend) who hires him for a slick fusion project that becomes improbably successful. The argument that Legend's character makes is that being too devoted to the past makes it harder to change the future, and he's right. There is no chance that Sebastian will "save" jazz just by opening a club, and I'm not sure La La Land is really a "musical" just because its characters sometimes burst into song. The two large-scale opening numbers testify to the glory and possibility of Los Angeles; they have some energy but after that none of the songs feel necessary and neither Gosling nor Stone is confident enough in what they're doing to make them work on personality alone. Ryan Gosling is a particular disappointment if you enjoyed his work in The Big Short or The Nice Guys, because the framework of the film doesn't allow for the wicked comedy that Gosling is capable of. Emma Stone fares somewhat better and she's really what makes La La Land worth sitting through if anything does. There isn't anyone in movies I'd rather watch ironic-dance to a Flock of Seagulls song, and Mia is the more active of the two main characters. She writes a one-woman show for herself that no one comes to and she seems to at least have an idea of what she is and isn't capable of relative to the business she's in. Stone is just as tentative as Gosling in performing the songs though, and that tentative quality is matched by the songs themselves because they provide insight into the characters in only the most general terms.
The climax of La La Land is a dance sequence that imagines an alternate future for the characters. It's visually inventive and stylized in a way the rest of the film isn't, save for a number at the Griffith Observatory that would have been more delightful were it not an explicit Rebel Without a Cause homage. Even though I don't think La La Land works - it's paced much too slowly, for another thing - this final sequence demonstrates that Chazelle might have a musical in him if he can dream bigger and get other forms of music out of the way for a second. In other words, don't make a jazzical. La La Land looks set set to receive a number of awards in days to come, but like Sebastian's jazz it's only an imitation of something brighter.
Ben Affleck's dull Live by Night spends a great deal of time explaining how a thief named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes to be the enemy of an Irish gangster (Robert Glenister) and the ally of an Italian gangster (Remo Girone) in 1920's Boston. Most of the film - adapted by Affleck from a Dennis Lehane novel - actually takes place in Florida, where Joe becomes a rum kingpin as an agent of the Italian crime syndicate. The central idea at play is that Joe secretly wants to be punished for his crimes, but the script and Affleck's performance never really lets us into Joe's head to find out. (Affleck as Joe provides an on-the-nose narration.) When trouble comes it comes in the form of characters played by Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher, and Elle Fanning, who as a teenaged evangelist has one great scene of self-awareness. I don't know what to make of the fact these characters are all members of one family, but the plot winds on and actors like Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, and Chris Messina (who seems to have based his performance on characters in older gangster movies) are introduced and then put on the sidelines. Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's first Lehane adaptation, suffered from plot issues but had energy and pace. Live by Night feels like a step backward; it's a musty museum piece that is never more than what's right in front of us.