La La Land and the Winter Blockbuster

la-la-landI decided to hold off on writing up the last of my New York trip to discuss the movies, especially after seeing La La Land last Sunday night.

December is usually a crowded month as many directors pursue an Academy Award. Most of these films aren’t even that memorable; often flawlessly acted but without compelling scripts or interesting cinematography. Anything between science fiction and fantasy, or based on comics or pulp, rarely escape the technical awards category.

The most common winners (or high-reaching nominees) tend to fall into two categories. The first are the period dramas or the “based on true events” winners such as The King’s Speech, SpotlightArgo and 12 Years a Slaveas though Hollywood were trying to do important work by recording their vision of history. 

The second type however, is anything involving the struggling artist. In the last six years: The ArtistHugoBirdmanBlack Swan, and arguably Damien Chazelle’s prior film Whiplash. You can guess under which category this film falls.

Hence there’s little question that La La Land is a contender. Probably even the winner unless Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea are better than we realize (admittedly I’ve yet to see them), or if the academy finally feels this is the year to break ranks and put sci-fi film Arrival forward (unlikely but one can dream).

Like the Now Kiss! meme, producers have seen fit to pair Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling again (prior pairings include Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) in a love letter to the whimsy of old movies, musicals and dance numbers. Gosling is Sebastian, a musician determined to reclaim his Jazz club after his last venture failed. Mia, portrayed by Stone, is a barista and aspiring actress who has yet to find her first big break.

Because it’s determined to pay respects to many facets of these gone-but-not-forgotten era performance pieces, La La Land stays away from any mundane formulas. Sometimes you get a tap dance routine almost out of the blue, sometimes it’s more a solo that tells a/the story in real time, while duet numbers tend to be these flights of fantasy that stretch a few seconds into three minutes of daydreams. As you can imagine, the latter category lends itself to romantic scenes of Venetian waltzes across the stars or fast paced montages through Paris and what could be. Cinematic care was taken to ease the audience into these moments: too long and the film risked going well over its two-hour length, too fast and it risked being jarring or unintentionally hilarious.

The former point about its running time was probably a factor in its somewhat abrupt leap to the ending. The movie would have been ripe to have been split into two parts (not sequels), as I felt somewhat cheated in this investment in the characters as a pair. The storyteller in me wants the whole.

But there’s no denying that this is an exceptional piece of movie making that everyone should see, even if musicals aren’t their normal fare. Damien Chazelle put genuine, hard effort into La La Land where as most other directors feel like they’re just doing the rounds; creating what they think the academy wants, relying heavily on the skills of their actors while crossing their fingers and hoping that the rest of the competition isn’t trying.

But the funny thing is, I’m not certain as many directors and studios followed that formula this year at all, with a dearth of dramatic movies and more “Winter Blockbusters.”

Doctor Strangerogue-one, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Assassin’s Creed and of course Rogue One (no spoilers, I have yet to see it). The strange thing is there were signs that maybe audiences preferred more action and adventure films in the colder months as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I suspect Hollywood dismissed the sign because of the existing popularity of Tolkien’s magnum opus. At least until one Mr. Eastwood made a movie about one American Sniperand Hollywood took notice of both the critical respectability and financial success that was.

And indeed, while most of these movies are franchises, they were still considered moderate risks: no one was exactly clamoring Marvel for Doctor Strange before, but we quickly loved it afterwards. Fantastic Beasts finally escapes the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort to tell its own great story. Assassin’s Creed is based on a video game (and reviews suggest it will fare no better than usual) while Rogue One is the first Star Wars film independent of the regular episodes.

But the numbers certainly suggest we could use hot action in the colder months. Maybe January of 2018 will see more interesting films than the first month of the year often gets.

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