La-La Land (2016) (Review)

I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle.  The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar.  After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land.  But why?

La-La Land is a good movie.  It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one.  The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things.  Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?”  The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”

La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie.  That isn’t nothing.  Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics.  The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?

One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down.  The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it.  Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors.  Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type.  The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly.  The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.

In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film.  It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either.  It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all.  It just missed the mark a bit.

You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.

You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe


Into the Woods

Directed by Rob Marshall, U.S., 2014

It seems that Hollywood has two or three big budget musical adaptations in them a year these days.  Into the Woods is the third such film in 2014, and a far superior effort to Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (which I saw but couldn’t be bothered to review – what does that tell you?) and by all accounts (I haven’t seen it) the remake of Annie.

It should be noted that Into the Woods should be looked at with an understanding of what musical films are today.  To compare a film like Into the Woods to, say, West Side Story (1961) is unfair and not very helpful.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2002’s Chicago but it’s certainly up there with 2007’s Sweeney Todd in the top percentile of recent musical films.

Into the Woods is certainly faithful to its source material, and the performances are quite effective.  Meryl Streep got another Oscar nod for her role as the witch. Emily Blunt, James Corden and Anna Kendrick are compelling as the co-leads. Finally, Chris Pine does his best J. Peterman impression as Prince Charming.

Into the Woods is a fun movie if you like musicals, especially Stephen Sondheim’s.  What I suppose I’m struggling with is what this adaptation adds to the stage production.  The production design is conservative enough that it could be easily matched by a modern, Broadway revival.  Then again, this isn’t necessarily a knock on the film itself, depending on your perspective.

Even if it doesn’t seem to have much purpose beyond what a stage production would provide, Into the Woods is the equal to modern theatrical production without the modern theatrical prices.  The fact that it doesn’t add to or comment on its source material is quite irrelevant to enjoying this version of the story if you liked the stage production.

You might like Into the Woods if: You love Sondheim and haven’t been to a revival showing in quite some time.

You might not like Into the Woods if: You prefer that your Hollywood musical adaptation add to or comment on their source material.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe


Frozen (2013)


Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013, U.S.

The other of day’s two back-reviews is Frozen (2013).  Let’s consider this my first Oscar preview article, since Frozen is the lead candidate for Best Animated Film.  In fact, in my opinion it could have been nominated for Best Picture in general, joining Beauty and Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) as the only animated films nominated for Best Picture.

How good is Frozen?  It’s certainly up there with Disney’s best animated films, and is an unexpected callback to what is now called “The Disney Renaissance.”  The Disney Renaissance generally refers to Disney’s winning streak between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Tarzan (1999), or more specifically before the main Disney animation studio handed the baton to Pixar as the main focus of Disney’s animation efforts.

Frozen’s success comes from its ability to challenge well established Disney conventions, but flawlessly execute some of those conventions when it needs to.  Like many classic Disney fare, it is loosely based on a classic story, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The dark, heavily religious story is completely transformed.  What sets this apart other Disney films that “Disneyfy” dark fairy tales is that the changes don’t feel forced.

This is mainly due to the film’s focus on the relationship between Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) as sisters rather than it being a romantic love story in the conventional sense.  There is a romantic subplot, but it stays as a subplot instead of overtaking the entire film.  The focus of the film, and its ending, change what could have been a standard, someday-my-prince-will-come, Disney-phoning-it-in, story into something that deeply connects with its target audience.

As noted above, Frozen’s other strength is that it doesn’t throw the mouse out with the bathwater.  Like the classic or renaissance Disney films, the music is fantastic.  There is also the obligatory fantasy creature for comic relief, and what could easily have been a cheesy or juvenile element hits on all cylinders.  Olaf, the talking snowman (Josh Gad), is one of the funniest characters in this or any film.

Frozen is the unlikeliest of films, in that it takes a well worn shoe and makes it new again.  Or in this case, two large, yellow well worn shoes.

You might like Frozen if: You ever liked any classic or renaissance Disney film, you have kids, you like animation, or you like comedies.

You might not like Frozen if: The only films you want to see about Scandinavia are bleak and existential.  In this case I would recommend “Let the Right One In” (2004), where the real vampire is the vampire within.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe