by Philip Price
“Hidden Figures” could have easily been one of those films that plays things right down the middle. Mainstream to the max. A standard structure with a likeable cast delivering an uplifting and equally heartwarming story that inspires us all to live our lives in something of a better fashion and to many ends - it is exactly that. That may sound as if I'm coming out of the gate reducing the film to cliché via expectation, but it is how “Hidden Figures” both uses such identifiers to its advantage without reducing itself to those overused thoughts that make it charming while still routine. Exciting while ultimately a little obvious. It is a film with just the right amount of sass and just the right amount of authenticity to meet somewhere in the middle between a made for TV movie and that of a larger budget biopic, but this time with three central characters rather than just one formerly famous person. What “Hidden Figures” does so deftly is suggest how well-known its three protagonists should be rather than playing off how well known they clearly aren't. That their accomplishments are far greater than anything any musician or actor might be able to contribute to society, but due to the fact their profession is much less attractive (and their circumstances even less so) than performing on stage they seem fated to go down in history with little to no recognition. As these things tend to go though, Hollywood can't ignore a good underdog story, but when this is true in terms of something as large as the legacy of both the three individuals whose lives this film chronicles as well as all the women and women of color that these three stand to represent, such Hollywood reliabilities aren't always such a bad thing. From the director of the safe, but pleasing “St. Vincent” comes another competently made piece of cinema that exercises its big heart and sentimental streak in ways that are familiar, but that are executed so well and with such strong characters that it's impossible not to find yourself drawn to the satisfying journey “Hidden Figures” takes us on. Juggling three individual arcs with multiple facets within each and a scope that deals in the space race of the 1960s “Hidden Figures” is certainly a much more ambitious project than that of director Theodore Melfi's previous film, but one that he handles with assured grace as in only his second feature Melfi has proven he has the rare talent of crafting movies that are unabashedly feel-good while not allowing the saccharine aspects to overstep their boundaries forcing the story and the characters that craft that story to be as authentic as the beats are familiar.
In many ways, “Hidden Figures” opens as expected showing us the early beginnings of one Katherine Johnson in West Virginia in 1926. We are told outright that Katherine is a mathematical savant of sorts and that her parents are encouraged to do whatever it takes to get her the best opportunities they can grant her at this time considering she is a black female. Fast forward to 1961 where Katherine has grown up to look like Taraji P. Henson and we get the answer to the question of "seeing what she became." We are now in Hampton, Vir. as Katherine sits in a car with her books, her friend Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) works on their broken car and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) leans against the back touching up her make-up. These three women, as we are first introduced to each of their rather distinct personalities, form the basis of the film and its driving force despite the whole of the narrative centering on a task beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race. “Hidden Figures” is very much about the United States racing against Russia to put a man in space and the seemingly insurmountable odds that had to be overcome in order to do such, but obviously the hook here is how NASA found talent in places that most wouldn't have thought to look given the context of the time. Building toward the orbit around the earth taken by John Glenn (Glen Powell) the film integrates the roles both played and afforded the likes of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy and how each of their contributions not only allowed the program to feel safe in moving forward with the launch, but in aiding in the decision of whether or not they would be given the "go" at all. Katherine becomes a human computer for the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner); essentially a group of engineers tasked with managing America's manned spaceflight programs. Each of the three protagonists here worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of the Langley Research Center, but Dorothy had more or less become the supervisor and was looking for a promotion whereas Jackson would become what NASA would call the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field during the 1950s.
There is clearly a lot going on in “Hidden Figures” and much to balance, but it never feels as if the movie is having to juggle numerous plotlines or characters when in the midst of actually experiencing it. Rather, Melfi is able to create this atmosphere of ease despite the challenges the characters face and despite the inherent tension that is born out of the time period and the color of our group of protagonists' skin. Meaning, “Hidden Figures” is a film that one can sink down with and never feel the urge or need to get overly involved with as it more or less spells out the lessons it cares to discuss, maintains a solid entertainment factor, and satisfies on all levels we expect from the cinema. Of course, this lack of a feeling to sit up and want to participate when your film is chronicling something as socially relevant today as discrimination in reference to gender and racial profiling is undoubtedly what gives the film a more conventional artistry rather than the more ambitious type you'll see from superior films. That isn't to say “Hidden Figures” falls short as it does what it wants to do in fine form and there is plenty of things to compliment. The few shortcomings may ultimately lend the film a less "important" vibe than it deserves, but by virtue of the fact of whose story it's telling it automatically garners a portion of that "importance" factor and rightfully so. All of this is to say that Melfi handles himself well and conveys this inherently moving story with a broad appeal that won't exclude certain audiences because of its particular artistic ambitions, but rather and as stated before, “Hidden Figures” plays things right down the middle in "after school special" fashion while using its many contributing factors to allow it to be several levels more credible. Weaving its tale from Johnson and her dealings with her new office mates that are all white and mostly male in with the small, but critical details that make her day to day all the more strenuous on top of having to figure out calculations that the launch of Glenn depends to her personal life where she has been widowed and left to raise her daughters alone despite being courted by Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) and onto the butting of heads between Vaughn and her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) as well as Monáe's quest to get approved to take classes at an all-white college so that she might garner that title of engineer are each communicated in a smooth fashion allowing the product as a whole to feel largely just as flawless.
The most major of those contributing factors that allows for the film to feel like more than just a step by step tour through an acknowledgment of the actions of these women are the performances from our three leads. As Johnson, Henson takes on the role of the main character in which writer Allison Schroeder gives the most time to which makes sense given she is the most direct link to the cause and effect of why the launching of the first man into space may or may not happen, but in a funny twist of fate is also the most reserved of the three main characters. This only makes watching Henson as Johnson come out of her shell as she finds her footing in her new environment and the confidence to stand up to her superiors all the more satisfying given we know from the short prologue featuring Johnson as a child that she is likely smarter than anyone else in the room. Costner, it should be noted, is also superbly effective as a man who could care less about who's getting him the answers as long as someone is getting him what he needs in order to make his assignment happen. A running bit with Johnson having to sprint nearly a mile across the NASA campus to use the only "colored" bathroom culminates with a strong if not overly dramatic piece from Costner that he plays so perfectly it allows the viewer to gloss over the fact this was likely only added for said dramatic effect. Both the subtle and sometimes not so subtle prejudice Johnson has to face among her new co-workers is personified mostly in lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who it's easy to see views Johnson as a threat, but thankfully never devolves into the stereotype we all expect him to that might have derailed the movie down a path it never needed to travel. Rather, the narrative stays honed in on Johnson and the flowering of her abilities within this setting that would prefer nothing other than to see her fail and Henson encapsulates these small wins both through her small gestures and meaningful expressions. And though Monáe's Jackson and Spencer's Vaughn could have certainly warranted movies of their own it is easy to see why their bigger personalities were left to radiate the portions in between and in support of Johnson's tale. Monáe is a scene-stealer and can deliver a rousing speech like nobody's business whereas Spencer proves as compelling as usual bringing all the heart and soul one could hope for to a movie that without it might have simply played as informational rather than with the touches of poignancy it consistently provides.
by Philip Price
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) really just wants to matter. He wants to hold influence in an area that means something to him-that matters to him-and as he feels cheated out of such significance when it comes to professional baseball it seems his only way to relieve this need is to fence in all that is his domain and rule over it with an iron fist. Of course, what Troy doesn't realize or simply doesn't care to acknowledge is that he is poisoning that of which he draws his biggest sources of admiration. Whether it be in Rose (Viola Davis), his loyal wife, or their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who only aspires to impress and be like his father, but whom Troy cannot help but to hold back. Troy is a deeply flawed man; one who epitomizes passing the sins of the father to those of the following generations. What Troy experiences are more the effects of the sins of the father-some of which Troy couldn't help, original sin if you will, as he is simply a victim of circumstance who can't forgive the world for as much. One might say it was just as much Troy's choices within these circumstances that set him on the path in which he ends up, but there is certainly a right to some of his anger and resentment. It's where he unfolds that anger and resentment that we see his flaws. It is in the unraveling of who Maxson is and how the dynamics of his relationships with each member of his family inform this portrait of black culture in the 1950s that takes up much of the substance in Washington's third directorial effort. Adapted from a stage play by August Wilson, who also wrote the screenplay before his death in 2005, in which both Washington and co-star Davis starred in a revival of not five years ago “Fences,” the movie, in many ways feels like something of a safe bet for Washington to try his hand at next. It certainly meets the credentials of an awards contender and the material alone has already proven critic-proof and so what is there to do with such a property that might inspire new audiences to discover? Turns out Washington doesn't seem to feel the need to change or adapt too much at all as this feature version of Wilson's most popular play still very much feels like a play. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the fact Washington's directing still feels timid more so than it doesn't serve the material well. The dialogue can certainly stand on its own and when it has actors such as our two aforementioned leads delivering it it's hard to go wrong, but just because something is obviously of a high quality doesn't also automatically render it infinitely effective either.
It is important to understand that “Fences” is a cultural story that means to break down the barriers of culture. Meaning that by painting a portrait of middle to lower class African-American life in the fifties Wilson could inexplicably fill his story with details and caveats particular to black culture while displaying in the broad strokes that we all deal with many of the same issues and struggles in our everyday lives. Granted, life for black people in the fifties was obviously much more difficult and much more challenging than it was for white people, but the point remains the same and still resonates today. At the onset of the narrative we are introduced to Maxson and friend/co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) who work together as garbage men; loading the trucks despite both men being older than the Caucasian driving the truck. Maxson has already created a stir, petitioning to get the promotion to driver himself through his union though that will seemingly still pale in comparison when his original dreams consisted of playing major league baseball. Of course, Troy's days of playing baseball came long before the days of Jackie Robinson when there was little to no hope his talent would ever pay off. This is the reason Maxson consistently denies Cory any acceptance or leniency when it comes to his aspiring football career. There might be a real shot for Cory considering a scout is coming to watch him play and wants to meet his mother and father, but even in the face of the changing world Maxson can't accept that he simply came along too early. This idea, this extension of being born into unjust circumstance rears its head in any scenario Maxson seems to encounter and he uses it as such-so much so that it becomes more of an excuse than an unavoidable fact. Davis' Rose is and seems to have always been all that a wife should be and yet their marriage has reached a point in which Rose more tolerates her husband than enjoys his company while Maxson feels the need to inform Bono on a regular basis that he attracts the attention of much younger women down at their drinking spot. All of this in an effort to convince himself that he matters more than he actually ever will. It's not that Maxson isn't aware of his actions or how they inevitably make him a more feared than respected figure, but he has to talk a big game in order to continue to exude that confidence despite he and everyone around him being aware of the fact it is just that: talk.
Speaking of talking, there is a lot of it in “Fences” and if you aren't ready to sit in attention and field both a large amount of baseball metaphors and/or philosophical meanderings then alter your expectations. As stated, “Fences” comes from a stage play and though this is indeed a more cinematic version of that same story the source format is still very evident in Washington's film. While the world of 1950s Pittsburgh is more fleshed out here than it could ever be on stage due simply to the practical limitations of theater it is in terms of interpreting the dialogue for film that Washington plays it safe. Rather than necessarily taking advantage of what can be accomplished on film that is impossible on stage this film version plays it right down the middle. On stage, everything must be stated-emotions that might otherwise be conveyed with a look or expression have to be put into words and rather than seeming to substitute some of the mountains of dialogue for these advantages the camera can offer Washington keeps the actors rather stationary and the action remaining mostly in the back yard of the Maxson's house where Troy is both literally and figuratively building a fence around what he can claim as his own. Of course, Washington has always been something of a practical director as his two previous efforts behind the camera, “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters,” are both stories dealing in race relations in ways that certain events lead to bigger discussions whereas Fences takes a more direct approach in that it's the constant discussions that lead to and determine how events play out. It isn't that Maxson is conflicted about being over 50 and only able to put a roof over his and his family's heads due to the fact his younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson in a solid turn), was shot in the head during the war, had to have a metal plate put on his skull, and hasn't been the same since resulting in a payment from the government that allowed Maxson to afford that roof, but more that Maxson isn't able to own that responsibility he owes his family despite the fact he's been working hard enough to do so for eighteen plus years. This responsibility that Maxson knows he owes to Rose, to Cory, to Gabriel, and to older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is something that is harped upon by our leading anti-hero time and time again, but rather than illustrate this through actions Washington simply keeps the camera trained on himself and his co-stars as they spout monologues that admittedly illustrate such ideas with a certain level of effectiveness. Given what a more intuitive hand behind the camera might have done with this material Fences, the movie, simply doesn't feel as moving or compelling as it could have.
In the end though, it becomes harder and harder to feel any type of sympathy for Troy Maxson as he ultimately isn't even a big enough man to honor the most respectable aspect of his life. That, of course, being Rose who after more than eighteen years of marriage and an unflinching loyalty is told everything she's given her husband still wasn't good enough. Holding a higher standard for others than he does himself Maxson doesn't even seem to realize others have wants and needs of their own. He is so wrapped up in his own failures that he doesn't realize Rose has been building a resentment for years as she's been stuck right along with him. Of course, as any rational person might have done under such circumstances-meaning in those times Rose didn't have much of a choice-she invested those wants and needs in her husband leading Maxson to not only disappoint himself, but all those that were willing and strong enough to love him. It is this sometimes befuddling, but always present bond between Troy and Rose that gives way to Fences most affecting moments. Watching the likes of Washington and Davis act the shit out of this material is reason enough to buy a ticket even if the culmination of their insightful and intelligently written dialogue doesn't leave us as shaken as Wilson might have imagined. Washington, as one might expect, is as commanding a presence as ever and he exudes this effort by Troy to project such a big presence that he leaves little room for anyone else and certainly not their ambitions or desires to be a part of his world. On the other side of the partnership Davis delivers lines with such impeccable timing and phrasing that the pain behind her eyes feels physically cutting. She embodies this regret that fills the entirety of her frame when learning that this man who has forced her to bend her life completely in favor of his has had the nerve to betray her. The performances across the board are generally great as this is a movie full of them-Adepo obviously standing out among the supporters given he holds his own when going toe to toe with Washington. In terms of movie making though, “Fences” boils tensions and anxieties for nearly an hour and a half before the whistle finally sounds and we get a respite from the onslaught of dialogue. Time passes, strides are made, but wounds don't necessarily heal and with an hour left to go it seems “Fences” is destined to kind of fizzle out, but in its final half hour Washington's third directorial effort proves it can finish as strong as it began with the inherently powerful material being enough to overcome the otherwise standard execution.
by Philip Price
Will Smith is the people's actor. He is a presence that radiates the kind of everyman persona that the actual everyman would like to envision themselves as. It's nearly impossible not to find the presence of Smith in any film he chooses to participate anything other than a force of genuine charisma, but not here. In director David Frankel's “Collateral Beauty,” Smith is relegated to looking as depressed as possible for the limited amount of time he actually appears on screen despite being touted as the lead of this ensemble piece. It's true -- the film’s wackadaisical plot hinges on the actions of Smith's Howard Inlet, but it doesn't ultimately pay that much attention to him. Still, given it is Smith, we care about this human being who is clearly and rightfully dealing with a tragedy on his own terms. Reeling from this great tragedy of losing a child we come to sympathize with Howard mostly thanks to the pain Smith conveys in his eyes that are constantly attempting to fight back both pain and tears. Still, we never become as invested in the character as it seems Frankel or screenwriter Allan Loeb (“The Switch,” “Here Comes the Boom”) imagined we might. Moreover, we are too shocked by what actually plays out in Loeb's screenplay as opposed to what type of movie the trailers sold this one to be. Going into “Collateral Beauty” there was a line of thinking that, being it was the holiday season, Loeb and the studio had intentionally written the story to take place at Christmas and released it around Christmas due to the similarities it seemingly shared with Charles Dickens' classic “A Christmas Carol.” While Smith's Howard is certainly no Scrooge it seemed Loeb had more or less reverse engineered the situation and played things out as if Bob Cratchit were the boss of his own ad agency and whom he moves forward enough that Tiny Tim does in fact pass away only to have the three ghosts that are this time incarnated as Love, Death and Time rather than Past, Present and Future come visit our protagonist revealing the secrets to happiness long thought to be lost. Loeb certainly could have played with a few different ideas and themes coming at the story from this new perspective, but ultimately “Collateral Beauty” was never brave enough to try and update and/or re-engineer that Christmas classic, but would rather be as deceptive about what it actually is the same way many of its characters are.
It is nearly impossible to discuss the film without spoiling what the movie is actually about and so, if you don't care about “Collateral Beauty” or care about being legitimately shocked by a few twists and turns the plot takes, then go ahead and read on, but consider this fair warning. SPOILERS: Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley and Jacob Latimore are not actual incarnations of Death, Love and Time (or are they?). Rather, Howard is the co-founder of a successful ad agency with Whit (Edward Norton) who coincidentally owns 60 percent of the company due to Howard allowing Whit to trade a few shares in exchange for financial assistance when going through his divorce (which is a precursor to a whole other plotline). In the two years since Howard's daughter's death though Howard has never recovered and the relationships he built with clients are beginning to fall apart -- the company inevitably failing as well. Whit, along with fellow company higher-ups in Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) have an offer on the table from a company who is willing to buy them out at $16 a share, but which they are unable to win the vote on due to the fact Howard controls that 60 percent. And so, Whit, Claire and Simon have to come up with a way to prove Howard isn't in the right state of mind to be running a company and thus hatch a plan to do so not by having a counselor come in and report their findings to the court, but rather by hatching a cruel plan they tell themselves might help Howard work through his pain. After hiring the private detective who caught Whit cheating on his wife to spy on Howard, Whit, Claire and Simon discover Howard is writing letters to such abstract concepts as Love, Death and Time. And so, Whit hires three actors in Mirren, Knightley and Latimore to embody these concepts and approach Howard so that they can video it, scrub out the actors and make Howard look crazy enough to overrule. Not enough? On top of that, Loeb weaves in storylines for Simon who grows close with Mirren's Death, Claire who learns a little something from Latimore's Time and Whit who incessantly hits on Knightley's Love only to realize that if he'd put as much effort into showing his daughter such love she may not hate him so much. This is without even mentioning the fact Howard begins attending meetings for parents who have lost children that are conducted by the beautiful Madeleine (Naomie Harris) with which he seems to share an inexplicable bond.
All of this taken into consideration the question still remains as to how such material is executed and if it is done so in an effective manner? Admittedly, “Collateral Beauty” can sometimes be persuasive, even moving. Granted, this is typically when Smith or Mirren is on screen, but that isn't to say it's completely devoid of genuine human emotion or aspiration otherwise. “Collateral Beauty” is a strangely curious piece of work in terms of the fact it is desperate to be some kind of life-affirming Hallmark movie made more credible by the presence of A-list actors and yet it can't help but come off as inherently cynical through the actions of the majority of its characters. It is a film that is undoubtedly designed to make viewers cry as well as simply cramming too much into its narrative and furthermore, trying to be too clever for its own good. Sure, the three co-leads in Norton, Winslet and Peña can have their own lives to worry about-that inherently makes the situation more layered and human, but for them to also be dealing with life-altering situations only tends to make the presence of the film as a whole feel that much more manipulative. In short, it is a mixed bag of both authentic emotions people really do feel brought to the surface through strangely concocted scenarios that are far too convoluted in their execution to ever be truly believable. Life is complicated, no doubt, but the movies are supposed to communicate such small truths about life in simple ways that audiences might understand such complex facets by seeing them broken down into a simple analysis. Rather than attempting to simply analyze what type of incomprehensible grief a parent deals with at the loss of a child and the delicate ways in which others must assist in bringing them back to the world, “Collateral Beauty” wants to bake that cake and a handful of others as well. It's not looking to concentrate its effort on a single, breathtaking piece of cake, but rather on cooking up as many as possible even if they only end up half-baked. That is ultimately the best way to describe what the finished product that is “Collateral Beauty” feels like in that it is a bag of half-baked ideas thrown together in hopes viewers might not notice just how half-baked the individual ideas are due to the fact it is throwing so many at us at once. The fact the film tackles something as truly devastating as the loss of a child makes it only feel all the more cheap and all the more wrong, but hey, that cast is still pretty incredible …
This brings us to the most baffling aspect of this most baffling film -- how in the world did so many seemingly intelligent and talented people decide this was a good idea? Is it purely out of desperation (there's that word again) or the state of the industry that actors of this pedigree are forced to resign their talents to this type of movie if they wish to star in big-budget original dramas or did they genuinely believe this was a solid story? It is hard to decipher the line as each individual cast member is certainly giving it their all, but outside of Mirren and Smith the film is spread so thin by subplots and trying to explain how its main plot somehow makes sense that it leaves little to no room for characterization. I know a critic should be able to review a film without detailing every plot point and that critics should not review the movie they wanted to see, but the one they saw and those points are more than valid. But when the film in question garners as much talent and potential as “Collateral Beauty” has on its hands and its biggest issue comes not from the production design (Christmas in New York City looks as photogenic as ever), the acting (everyone is selling the mess out of their greeting card dialogue) or even the rather traditional score from Theodore Shapiro (Jack Black's character in “The Holiday” would be proud), but from the fact the narrative itself doesn't allow any of these factors to do it any favors, it is difficult not to complain. It's not even that “Collateral Beauty” is a complete mess or straight-up bad movie, but more that its intentions are clearly to make viewers cry rather than to enlighten them to certain aspects of the human experience they may not have considered before. It is this that turns the narrative from one of enlightenment to that of pure machination. Not only is what the characters of Whit, Claire and Simon do in “Collateral Beauty” morally wrong, but it is wrong in the sense that it kind of deserves condemnation. Unfortunately, it is the movie these characters exist within that will be condemned instead and despite having a few shining moments that condemnation is not wholly unearned. If we might have simply had a character study concerning Smith's Howard and his relationship with Harris' Madeleine, “Collateral Beauty” might have delivered something more sincere. But with all the plot that tends to get in the way, this is a film that can't let the tears flow where they may, but that must force them from your eyeballs with a thousand OneRepublic choruses.
by Philip Price
What is worth more? Where does ambition measure when compared to reflection? Or...how does one know when to quit? When that ambition outweighs or cannot be met by the pure skill or natural talent possessed? “La La Land” is a movie about Hollywood and the Hollywood system and how it all flows in and out of making and breaking stars, but “La La Land” is also a movie about dreams and the ugly side of those dreams no one likes to talk about when they tell you to chase them-compromise. Compromise is what must be obtained if one is hoping to have their cake and eat it too. There is compromise in life no matter what professional or personal route one may choose to take, but when dreams are big enough to take you around the world and on extended stays in places away from home that require long or odd hours such as, say, when someone is a musician or film actor-compromises are unavoidable and typically made by the half of the relationship not actively participating in such a career. With “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle follows up his Academy Award-nominated feature debut “Whiplash” with an out and out musical in the vein of those golden age Hollywood musicals from the ‘40s and early ‘50s that personified stardom, celebrity and a certain type of lifestyle most could only hope to obtain. This goes well with the plight of the story as we follow two young aspiring artists - the girl an actress and the guy a jazz pianist-as they navigate modern Los Angeles in hopes of achieving their dreams even if the odds seem stacked against them and despite their closest friends and family not exactly holding out hope for success to find them. The standard structure of boy meets girl combined with that of a few song and dance numbers that pay homage to those golden days of Hollywood aren't enough for Chazelle though. The writer/director isn't simply looking to recreate images and feelings afforded him during his youth as he watched Gene Kelly dance across the screen, but more he is interested in exploring the consequences of having such aspirations; the dark side of fame that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with addiction or other harmful habit forming activities, but more with the decisions such individuals have to make without knowing the answer as to what they'll regret more 20 years down the road. Can I be the person I want with the person I want? Is it worth more to make a life as I so desire or with the one I desire? “La La Land” doesn't prescribe to know the answers to these heavy questions, but its musings on the subject are infectious and reaffirming in that they capture the struggle one in a handful experiencing the film will have come face to face with at some point in their past.
From the opening shot of “La La Land” it is clear this is a movie like nothing else you will experience in the theater this year. On a packed freeway in Los Angeles in the sunny season of winter, cars sit bumper to bumper each pumping different genres of music from their speakers. It is a simple yet magical device that immediately immerses the audience in a beat. It is strangely impossible to not begin tapping your foot, appreciating the different styles as the camera whizzes through the stalled vehicles before landing on a young woman in a bright yellow dress who begins singing as if nothing strange is happening. She opens her car door, others around her not questioning such an action on an interstate bridge, but rather following suit and joining in on a choreographed number as the girl in the yellow dress leads a charge in song and dance. The girl in yellow is ultimately unable to keep up with Chazelle's camera as, in a single take, we are guided through a barrage of different dancers and singers each giving us anecdotes concerning their daily struggles living in LA and the hopes of finding that audition or individual who might allow them their big break. It is enough to make a viewer want to stand up and cheer and just as quickly fall in love with everything Chazelle accomplishes in the first three minutes while understanding exactly what he is going for with the project as a whole. As soon as this initial, full cast production hits its final note and the title card appears across the screen it seems improbable that every viewer isn't at full attention and on the edge of their seat waiting for what is to come next. And so, what does come next? We are first introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress who serves lattes to movie stars on the Warner Bros. lot in between auditions. She is a native Nevada girl whose aunt was an actress and who was responsible for giving Mia the acting bug. Mia was one of those girls who was seemingly always involved in high school theatre and unwilling to be patient with college, leaving for LA after her second year at school. When we come to meet Mia she is several years into her stint in LA and rooming with three other girls who share the same dream as she. Then there is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the jazz musician, who scrapes by playing cocktail parties and bars, but who dreams of owning his own club where he can determine his own set list and create his own atmosphere. It is the chronicling of these two souls coming together, falling in love, and having to decide whether their ambitions can co-exist with their love for one another that “La La Land” finds its home.
So, obviously the big draw of “La La Land” is that it is this throwback to the musicals of yesteryear, but this may prove to be the most disappointing factor of the film for those going in expecting something in line with the works of that aforementioned song and dance man in Kelly. “Singin' in the Rain” and/or “An American in Paris” this is not, but this is part of the point of the film as it looks to, as John Legend's character phrases it, "revolutionize while being a traditionalist." Sure, “La La Land” draws its inspirations and many of its choices from those movie musicals of the past, but this is a film very much steeped in a modern environment with modern characters that are dealing in the same struggles of nostalgia as the rest of our culture right now. The question of how do we have anything new or innovative that our children might one day feel nostalgic about if all we do now is recycle what we're nostalgic for is of key importance in the moving forward of our protagonists. Sebastian is a man so in love with jazz and the rich history of the music that he can't help but to steep himself in the practices and techniques of those that came before him even going so far as to not being willing to open his club in a location besides the one where one of LA's most popular jazz clubs once resided. On the other hand, there is Mia who naturally wants to realize her dreams of big or small screen stardom, but without knowing the right people can't seem to catch a break. She is in a thankless relationship with someone she seems required to be with (Finn Wittrock) and in meeting Sebastian finds a fellow artist who she could see herself striving with forever. As these things go, these dreamers reach points where reality comes crashing down and it can't help but feel as if life is telling them to show up or grow up. The two come at this from different directions, Sebastian joins old friend Keith (Legend) in his band The Messengers as they need someone on the keys and offer solid pay. Mia begins writing her own, one-woman show in which she plans to self-produce. The means don't yet justify the ends they want, but they'll get there eventually - they have to believe they will. And it is from here, after the films wildly pleasant and enjoyable first hour that it begins to beg questions concerning artistic ambition and not just when do we reach a breaking point, but is there a value in the art these characters are so hell-bent on creating? Chazelle seems to want to argue that dreamers are necessary to our fabric as a human race and that if it weren't for such fools we'd never know just how far we could push ourselves or just how much we are capable of creating.
It's ambitious of Chazelle to want to make a musical in the first place much less make it about something as potentially disheartening as reality cancelling out hopes and dreams and how one depends on what outcome another decides to doll out. Many will question why there can't come to be a mutual respect or attempt in such situations-that if two characters were to love one another enough that they could make anything work, but it is in the final moments of “La La Land” that Chazelle, his writing, and his editors make it clear as to why folks very rarely balance their own dreams with the dreams of others. Not dreams that tend to be as big as Sebastian and Mia's anyway. It is in this delicate space of the current reality that “La La Land” is steeped in and the kind of otherworldly romance that it flirts with when breaking into song that allows for the final sequences of the film to really bring the viewer down to a level playing field. Never has there been a film that simultaneously feels just as honest as it does manufactured. Manufactured by virtue of the fact characters break into song and dance at certain moments throughout the film, but honest in its approach to many of the same themes and ideas that were present in “Whiplash.” Beyond what the film has on its mind though, but be warned it is nothing to scoff at and can't simply be glossed over in favor of the songs or the attractiveness of the cast, but beyond the questions and contemplations the film has on its mind it effortlessly glides through so many other facets that the shortcomings feel too sparse and too minimal in comparison to all its gets right to complain at all. The biggest detractors are the fact there isn't more original music throughout the film despite the fact what we do receive is bound to end up resonating and becoming even more rousing on second and third viewings. It is also easy to say that while Gosling and Stone certainly don't possess the chops or rhythm to necessarily keep up with those who made careers out of starring in such pictures-they are fine enough. The songs are catchy without being too challenging, the dancing is adequate, and the chemistry is of course palpable as this marks the third time these co-stars have shared the screen together, but what easily makes “La La Land” one of the best and most appealing films of the year is that it exudes a joy in its creation, an affection for all that have come before, and a genuine feeling of empathy for its subjects that extends past the genre classification and into the realm of understanding dreams and reality don't often go hand in hand, but that when they do they still might not be all they were imagined to be.