Thursday, January 5, 2017

Nosh 47: 'La La Land,' Best 16 of '16

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Review of La La Land

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”
                               – Noel Coward, Private Lives.
Also extraordinary: that the old Hollywood goo still spins from the taffy machine. This past year alone, the Coen Bros. spun a funny gob with Hail, Caesar! Woody Allen massaged, unconvincingly, movie nostalgia in Café Society. And Warren Beatty achieved witty variations of retro satire in Rules Don’t Apply. Beatty barely won a shrug for his bravura effort, but a hosanna buzz is building pre-Oscar for La La Land, a seductive vamp from writer and director Damien Chazelle.

Maybe not since Jean-Jacques Beineix hit the critical gong with Diva (1981) has a talent been so praised for licking his cream while whipping it. But Chazelle’s fantasy is more snugly rooted in the oldest appeal: boy meets girl, with both lovers hooked on L.A. as the nectar Mecca of their ambition. Hooked also, Chazelle is a gazelle cropping very lush grass. He skims Los Angeles for fabled sites, stages a simplified Astaire-Rodgers dance on a skyline road, hangs around Warner Bros., highlights murals and posters, enshrines live jazz. He even snuggles into a retro showing of Rebel Without a Cause, stops it, then lifts it higher at the great Griffith Park Observatory. This is not a sardonic hipster take on fading Hollywood myth, like The Long Goodbye. It is a $30 million swoon, a color-drunk overhaul of the nostalgia so sweetly served in duotone in The Artist (big kudos now for cinematographer Linus Sandgren and his lighting team, also the designers).

Emma Stone is Mia, a big-eyed adorable hoping to break into acting. Even when rejected she glows like a moon ripe to be a star. Sebastian, a pianist and jazz purist who craves his own club, is played with blithe charm and face fuzz by Ryan Gosling. They meet cutely several times, then splurge their lusty desire mostly on wispy but darling choreography and OK songs (composer Justin Hurwitz has a shy winner with “City of Stars,” and uses terrific instrumentation). Stone and Gosling float through this gossamer rapture, scooping stardust, though they could use more time to simply romance (and act). They are almost stampeded by the glowing nostalgia clichés, which remind us that L.A. has always theme-parked itself without apology.

You can crit-snip and say the first pool scene was better done in I Am Cuba and the second one better in Boogie Nights, and snark about the story being book-ended by images of Ingrid Bergman (a touch unfair to Stone, who is more peachy than fabulous). And yet, why not lick the cream and purr? The gleaming cat’s saucer is L.A., though only one sequence (the first, on a freeway ramp) really seems like the living city more than memory. There was more improvised flair and rooted, unified texture in Richard Wong’s Colma: The Musical (2006), with its gifted teen amateurs and tiny-budget savvy about Bay Area locations. But Chazelle achieves a deluxe echo of classic Hollywood, and he never hogs into mere kitsch (he’s beyond Baz Luhrmann).

I didn’t care for Chazelle’s Whiplash – the ear-banger drumming and J.K. Simmons’s macho screaming became bores. And yet Chazelle is a canny showman. He gets the essence of Casablanca, that it’s not just about a great love, but about one sadly lost and then briefly re-kindled. And so he delves into that for the grand climax, an escalating, bittersweet daydream at a jazz club, with tasty nods to Gene Kelly’s topping “ballet” in An American in Paris. They don’t make such musicals anymore, and this isn’t one. But La La Land can levitate your spirits as we enter a difficult year.

SALAD (A List)
Here are My Top 16 of ’16, as numbered by my taste (what else?) and previously noshed in this column. Eugene isn’t L.A. or Paris, but we get plenty of quality. We are still waiting for the two new gifts from Pablo Larrain (Jackie and Neruda) and for Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. The film's director and Nosh number are included, so just scroll down for more prose:

1. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Nosh 6) – An engulfing and timeless film, a stunningly internal, personal vision of a Hungarian death camp in the Nazi terror. 2. Rules Don’t Apply (Warren Beatty, Nosh 43) – Using Howard Hughes, Beatty sums up his times, town and stardom, with plush, impudent wit and a fresh discovery: Lily Collins. 3. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonca, Nosh 42) – An angry but lyrical view of hard urban change in Recife, Brazil, as defined by a lovely old building and Sonia Braga’s career topping performance. 4. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, Nosh 26) – A  wee but deep wonder about girls, dance, puberty and a strange psychic plague, all alive on screen with mysterious subtlety. 5. Miss Hokusai (Keiichi Hara, Nosh 38) – A totally Japanese, surreal salute to the talented daughter of a great painter, animated exquisitely. 6. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, this Nosh). 7. Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, Nosh 28) – Amazing documentary about Owen Suskind, who found escape from autism through his joy in Disney animation; this is so not a plug! 8. Sully (Clint Eastwood, Nosh 32) – Spot-on salute to the pilot who crash-landed the right way, his heroic cool delineated by Tom Hanks with just the facts, no preening. Further …

9. Moana (Disney, Nosh 45) – With its radiant Polynesian mariners, critters and ocean vistas, Disney’s finest animation in years (also funny). 10. Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, Nosh 17) – The Russian visionary’s dreamy-smart meditation on the culture cult of the Louvre, Paris, art and historical memory. 11. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca, Nosh 3) – The Brazilian master’s unfaltering docu-dramatic scan of Recife in all its shifting, shimmering layers, astonishingly beautiful. 12. Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, Nosh 13) – As far into weird genius Miles Davis as a fearless speculation film is likely to go; nakedly strong acting and direction by Cheadle. 13. Southside With You (Richard Tanne, Nosh 32) – An intimately charming portrait of the great First Couple before they became that, on their initial date in Chicago, with Parker Sawyers a superb Barack, cocky but nervously facing Tika Sumpter’s fine Michelle. 14. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, Nosh 14) – The lucid Arkansas wiz of actors and atmosphere does a sharp, unsettling take on the alien invasion and cover-up tropes, with a swell cast. 15. A Bigger Splash (Luca Gudagnino, Nosh 18 ) – Not the Hockney doc but a comedy of absurdist lust on an island, best served by Tilda Swinton and lewd satyr Ralph Fiennes. 16. Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears, Nosh 29) – She sang terribly, yet heard herself as great. Meryl Streep nails Flo’s diva delusion with humor and movingly tender dignity, wonderfully supported by Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg.

Other viewings to value: Bad Santa 2 (Nosh 44), Dark Horse (21), Deepwater Horizon (35), The Eagle Huntress (45), Eye in the Sky (10), 45 Years (4), Free State of Jones (22), Genius (23), Hail Caesar! (2), The Infiltrator (25), The Jungle Book (15), Little Men (33), My Golden Days (11), Our Little Sister (34), Race (5) and Weiner (20).

(In memory: in 2016 we lost Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, dead at 76 on July 4, and Poland’s Andrzej Wajda, dead at 90 on Oct. 9, both absolute masters of film and brave protest under long, oppressive regimes. Sorry, Debbie and Carrie, but you have to take seats behind them – but do share some jokes.)

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson decided to take this Nosh off.  He went to Pink’s in L.A. for hot dogs, with a vintage bottle of Paul Masson.

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“For writer David Campany, Funny Face ‘never quite suppresses the creepy undertones of manipulation that is perhaps always implicit in the power relations of the fashion industry,’ But can retrospective layering of modern political correctness possibly be fair? This gauzy Cinderella dream is neither feminist nor sexist, neither intellectual nor pea-brained. Its only ‘agenda’ favors grace, beauty, fun, fashion, song, dance, romance and Paris. Let those not grateful go soak themselves in Half a Sixpence, Song of Norway and Mamma Mia!” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, found on Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Geza Rohrig plays a Jewish worker in Nazi Hungarian hell in Son of Saul (Sony Pictures Classics, 2015; director Laszlo Nemes, cinematographer Matyas Erdely).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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