(On Cable TV, September 2017) I will always be receptive to a good old-school Hollywood musical, and La La Land does get started with a terrific freeway dance number that clearly sets the tone for what follows—a classic musical paying homage to Hollywood dreams without being bound to strict realism. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as star-crossed artists who struggle to achieve their personal vision. Charming and likable like golden-era Hollywood stars, Gosling and Stone couldn’t be more suited for their roles as eager upstarts. Still, the real star here is writer/director Damien Chazelle, orchestrating a big musical with enough modern sensibilities to feel both timeless and contemporary. The dusk musical number (the film’s second-best highlight following the freeway opening number) is spectacular enough that I could have sworn it had been shot in-studio and heavily post-processed, but it turns out it was actually captured on location in few takes. More daringly, the film not only goes for a bittersweet ending in which our characters don’t necessarily end up together—but also shows us an alternate montage depicting what would have happened otherwise. I’m impressed but not entirely satisfied by that choice, something that is also true for the rest of the film: for all the crowd-pleasing moments, there are also odd choices and obsessions elsewhere. I’m getting too old and jaded to be swayed much by idealistic appeals to artistic purity, so a chunk of La La Land’s thematic appeal feels a bit jejune. But it is a film about ideals, and musicals don’t do well with pure realism (hence my ambivalence about the ending), so let’s enjoy the colours and the bounciness and the Hollywood satire and the idea that we’ve got such a film to tide us over in dour bleak 2017.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Anyone could be forgiven, after reading a short summary of Whiplash’s plot (“Student Jazz Musician tries to prove himself to demanding teacher”) that this would be a relatively sedate and dull affair, somewhere along the lines of a musical Good Will Hunting. But that would be a terrible mistake, because Whiplash tells a musical coming-of-age drama with the tempo of an action movie. Miles Teller is pretty good as the student willing to sacrifice just about everything in order to become a great musician, but J.K. Simmons is stellar as his nemesis, a teacher who thinks that developing a great musician or worth the worst methods imaginable. His performance is Whiplash’s biggest special effect – a blend of meanness, bad temper, outright machiavelism and unapologetic righteousness. Much of his character’s complexity is reflected elsewhere in the tight script, which delivers a deceptive triumph of an ending with implications that aren’t as triumphant as you may think. Otherwise, the music sounds great even to untrained jazz listeners, the editing is spectacularly good and Damien Chazelle’s direction is effective without being showy. The ending is terrific and caps off a film with very little padding. (In fact, as the mystery of the missing folder suggests, it may even miss a bit of connective narrative.) Whiplash, in other words, is a surprisingly good film, a more-than-worthy Oscar nominee, and a memorable viewing experience. Who knew you could care so much about a drum solo?