I wasn’t sure what to expect from Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the opening night presentation for the Chicago International Film Festival. I like its stars—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are great in just about everything they’re in; in fact, they both have the rare ability to elevate even superb material. I adore Los Angeles, too. I figured at worst, I’d have some decent eye candy and some lovely scenery to take in.
Thankfully, La La Land is far better than the worst case scenario I imagined: it’s glossy, colorful, and pretty, even if it’s not Moulin Rouge. It starts out strong with a vibrant dance number that takes place in a traffic jam on a freeway, probably the 101. The scene reminds me of a more exuberant version of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video. Attention grabbed! This is where our heroes meet, one flipping the bird at the other.
We soon learn that both Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) are trying to make it, she as an actress and he as a jazz pianist. She puts herself out there; he doesn’t. They cross paths over the course of nearly a year, flirting and pulling back then flirting some more. Some of their interactions are hilarious, like Sebastian’s stint in an ’80s cover band playing at a party that Mia happens to attend. They finally click; it’s exciting to watch them come together. They have a real chemistry. They also have dreams and goals that require sacrifice. Sadly, nothing is what it’s built up be—neither dreams coming true, fame, nor love. At its heart, La La Land is a relationship film, and a tragically decent one at that.
Undeniably well-done, La La Land definitely has a certain magic to it. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is gorgeously eye popping; of all the films I’ve seen that came out this year, it’s second only to Hell or High Water. Some songs are better than others, but the acting all around makes up for it. John Legend has a role that turns out to be more than a cameo, and he’s actually pretty good. Essentially a love letter to Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of romantic moments here, not the least of which takes place floating midair under the stars at Griffith Observatory after closing time. Or in a movie theater for Mia and Sebastian’s first kiss.
The story is an emotional roller coaster that pulled me along through its ups and downs. The final scene got to me in a way that no film has in awhile—it actually fucking hurt. So in that sense, La La Land surely stands on its own. I question how memorable it will ultimately prove to be, though. I can’t put my finger on exactly what, but it lacks that extra element that would make it a truly great film. Perhaps its story is conventional, or perhaps its execution is too restrained and not over the top enough. I don’t know. As much as I enjoyed it, I can think of other movies the actors have done that are better. Time will tell where this one lands, but for now it’s worth the investment to see it.
“I’ve been working here since 19 and 87. Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout. We ain’t got no goddamned trout.”
—T-Bone Diner waitress
I must admit: I got good and liquored up before I saw Hell or High Water. Fortunately, my buzz did not ruin the movie—or vice versa.
Hell or High Water is a richly layered, rather cerebral Western heist film. Two brothers, cool and brooding Toby (Chris Pine) and impulsive ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), systematically hold up various branches of Texas Midland, a bank in rural west Texas. Initially, the series of robberies comes off as a mindless crime spree for two punk cowboys in ski masks and a shitty car. It turns out to be much more complicated: Toby has a week to come up with thousands of dollars to pay off the mortgage on the family ranch, or shady Texas Midland will foreclose on it. The brothers attract the attention of sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who follow their trail patiently and methodically with good old-fashioned horse sense.
Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is thoughtfully tight and complex, loaded with plot turns and moral questions. He raises provocative points about capitalism and the American finance system. All of his characters are flawed but sympathetic, making Hell or High Water more than a simple good-versus-evil story. There is no real hero here. Director David Mackenzie maintains a really nice balance of tension, drama, and humor without relying on gunfire and chases (though both of those are in the film). The acting is superb—I can’t think of a single performance that isn’t stellar. The multitude of minor characters—waitresses (Margaret Bowman and Debrianna Mansini), townsfolk, bank employees (Dale Dickey and Joe Berryman)—give the film its color. Hell or High Water has a major Coen Brothers vibe to it—think Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men. The pace is painfully slow at points, but it works. Giles Nuttgens’s sunbleached cinematography is nothing short of stunning, and it beautifully captures the ominously vast and barren landscape that seems to suffocate everyone in it.