La La Land

(USA 2016)

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.

128 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

The Nice Guys

(USA 2016)

Last year’s Inherent Vice disappointed me; I dug its ’70s Venice Beach vibe, but I found the story choppy and its execution ultimately lackluster—unforgivable for a film with arguably the best all-star cast in years. Little did I know walking into the theater that Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is exactly what I hoped for with Inherent Vice: an unapologetically dippy and fun action retro-comedy with stylish sets, cool clothes, and a rad soundtrack. Shallow? Maybe. But I enjoyed The Nice Guys a lot more; like old MTV, it’s a fluffy guilty pleasure.

Los Angeles, 1977: Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a detective—the world’s worst, by his own admission—down on his luck. Amid jobs like the senile widow looking for her missing husband—his ashes are in an urn on the mantle—March is hired by the aunt (Lois Smith) of a dead porn actress, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio); she claims her niece just visited her, and she wants him to find her. After a run-in with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and a trail that leads to a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) and an “experimental” skin flick called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy, March joins forces with Healy to solve a mystery that brings them right to the heart of the porn and auto industries.

The Nice Guys is a treat all around. No one thing carries this film; it’s a successful combination of multiple elements. The story and tone—a mix of the aforementioned Inherent Vice, Lethal Weapon (also by Black), and Boogie Nights with a whiff of Scooby Doo—is surprisingly cohesive, absorbing, and entertaining. Where Lethal Weapon‘s Martin and Roger are buddies, March and Healy are “frienemies:” the former is as drunkenly and sweetly inept as the latter is soberly and brutally efficient. It works; Gosling and Crowe, who looks like John Goodman these days, have a solid chemistry. It’s fun to see them both in something light, and they seem to have a good time here. I never thought of Gosling as a comedic actor, but his timing is great—my favorite scene is Healy busting into the men’s room stall on him. March gets by thanks in large part to his teenaged daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who serves as a voice of reason even as he corrects her grammar. Matt Bomer makes a brief, creepy, and violent cameo as John Boy, a hitman with a big mole on his face—anyone familiar with The Waltons no doubt will get the reference right away. Kim Basinger is a welcome surprise as a hard, all-business federal agent. The whole thing ends in a crazy choreograped sequence involving a film canister.

Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is snappy, with vivid colors that shine though even during the night scenes. The Nice Guys depicts a sleazy era of Los Angeles in a cheeky, over-the-top way—a time I would have loved to have seen it. This is not a film that takes itself seriously—it seems to revel in its frivolity. Seeing it over Memorial Day weekend was a great way to kick off the summer movie season. Indulge, I say.

116 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) B-

The Big Short

(USA 2015)

I’m no economist, and, well…math is hard. I get that lax lending practices led to the housing market collapse in 2008, but I sure as hell don’t have a firm grasp on what else contributed to the financial meltdown. With The Big Short, writer and director Adam McKay takes on the courageous and potentially suicidal task of explaining it all, Schoolhouse Rock style—only hopped up on Adderall.

Based on the nonfiction exposé The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, The Big Short follows the intertwined stories of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept Metallica-blaring doctor-turned-hedge fund-manager with Asperger’s, a glass eye, and a cyst on his face that bummed me out every time I saw him; douchebag Wall Street trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who doubles as narrator; cynical, boorish, and fictitious Chicken Little hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team; newbie investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who’s got no love for the business. In one way or another, they all aim to profit from mass calamity—and they succeed. The standouts here easily are Gosling and Carell, who have a natural chemistry and seem to have fun with their parts. Pitt, who plays psychos and goofballs better than anyone (e.g., True Romance, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch—need I say more?), has a secondary role, but he’s awesome; I didn’t recognize him right away. Bale, on the other hand, is a bit much—to the point of being a downer.

The story involves dry, technical, and boring financial concepts, usually abbreviations: credit default swaps (CDS), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), NINJA loans—not the stuff that typically generates emotion or drama. McKay uses a number of offbeat but smart gimmicks to explain the basics: celebrity cameos (Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, to name two), demonstrations (a la Jenga), breaking character, songs and graphics. His approach does the trick, and it’s entertaining. Very much so. However, it’s not perfect: the pacing, though not as frenetic as Wolves of Wall Street, still wore me out by the end. Some questions remain in my mind—like how you can bet against something like the economy. It’s also still unclear how it all happened. To quote the movie, though, “[t]he truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry;” I think that’s the essence. One thing is certain: McKay is outraged; by showing us that the nonsense continues, he wants us to be, too.

(AMC River East) B-