Monday, January 23, 2017

La La Land (Film Review)

I saw La La Land just before New Year's with a friend who lives and works in L.A., and she was able to give me some insight into several properties.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie.  It was fun, visually appealing, and a delightful homage to the golden age of movie musicals.  That being said, there's a fair amount constructive criticism to be typed out.  Let's start with what we liked.

  • Diverse casting:  No, not in the leads; don't be silly.  Hollywood can't seem to handle that.  But in their "chorus," most notably in the opening number taking place during L.A. rush hour traffic, I was pleased to see people of all kinds of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes -- not just "typical musical theatre types" (y'know, lithe, wholesome-looking dancers in their 20s).  So that was nice.
  • So many colors!  The (mostly) primary colors of this film just pop all over the place making it visually appealing and sometimes downright stunning.  The color palette is part of what makes it such an homage to the movie musicals of yesterday (primary Singin' in the Rain, which I'll be referring to a lot during this review).  I was also pleased to see that Emma's four friends were all wearing different (though similarly styled) solid-color dresses -- a theatre standby to make it easy to find the characters on stage.  If we had seen them in any other numbers, I would have fully expected them to stay in their same color tones.  But look at this image and tell me you don't see the same?
"A Face in the Crowd," La La Land (2016)

From "Gotta Dance" Montage, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

  • The music -- wait, no, the jazz.  The score and orchestrations were lovely.  My date (who is much more versed in such things than I am) pointed out to me that the director of this film, Damien Chazzelle, is a jazz musician himself; the film Whiplash (2013) is his story.  So naturally he's going to pay special attention to the jazz; however, I think that may also be his blindspot, but we'll save that for the cons in a moment.
  • I enjoyed the dialogue and chemistry between Gosling and Stone:  "Can I borrow your outfit?  I have an audition later this week for a serious firefighter."
  • I particularly enjoyed all of the contemporary "interruptions."  Just when we'd find ourselves falling into "musical theatre territory," Chazzelle gives a delicious (modern) interruption:  car horns honking, a cell phone ringing, movie film breaking, et cetera.  Those touches keep the movie from becoming too saccharine.
  • The homages to older films, specifically movie musicals.  Here is another list/article by Aisha Harris at Slate of all of the tributes to those films of yore; I haven't read it yet because I didn't want it coloring my own initial thoughts, but I recommend it (and will be reading it shortly).  For La La Land, it starts with the "expansion" of the screen to the old "Cinemascope" logo (which only some people in the audience will get) and goes from there, including a swing around a lamp post a la Singin' in the Rain to the drive up to the Planetarium a la Rebel Without a Cause.
    • Sidenote:  I have seen some people claim the "dancing in the air" sequence was ridiculous/unbelievable/stupid, etc.  First off, if you are looking for reality in a musical -- any musical -- I'm afraid I have bad news for you.  Secondly, that dance sequence is an homage to many, many predecessors, including (but not limited to):
      • The "dream ballet" in Rogers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (or almost any R&H musical)
      • Part of the "Gotta Dance" montage in Singin' in the Rain -- which has a dream sequence within a montage within a "what if" scenario
      • Gene Kelly's dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (dancing with an animated mouse -- again, not looking for reality here).
      • "A Jolly Holiday" from Mary Poppins wherein they jump INTO a sidewalk chalk painting and dance with animated people...and penguins.
      • It even happens in non-musicals:  the dream/dance sequence in Susan Slept Here, starring Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell (1954).
Those were all things I enjoyed.  Now the things I did not:
  • The songs.  While the jazz and the score were both good, not one of those songs was memorable.  Not one of them made me want to run out and buy the soundtrack or (better still) buy the sheet music to learn them.  Not. One.
  • The singing.  This is caused in part in how it's recorded (and when it's so very obvious the people on screen are not singing there) and partly the lack of the vocal training of the (non-)singers themselves, but everything sounded the same:  the same volume, the tone, the same wimpy, breathy vocalizations that show lack of confidence and lack of breath support.  Songs shouldn't all sound the same, nor should you sing them all the same.  We should hear things like piano, forte, pianissimo, etc.  Unfortunately, all of these songs were done in that "Gosh, I hope I'm not wrong, so I'm going to sing/speak quietly" piano mode.  Listen to Sarah Michelle Gellar on the Buffy:  The Vampire Slayer musical episode, and you'll hear exactly what I'm talking about.  And this is why I think songs versus orchestrations may be Damien Chazzell's downfall; he may be so focused on the latter that he didn't realize how bland and/or poorly recorded the former were.
    • Part of the reason for this style of "singing" is that he didn't hire actual singers.  And while Ryan Gosling spent 3 months studying jazz piano (which is awesome!), at least as much time should have been spent on voice lessons.  Same with Emma Stone and, well, nearly everyone in the cast.
  • The dancing.  Again, it wasn't bad; much of it was very cute.  But it wasn't great.  And frankly, it wasn't perfect.  I have much higher standards for films than I do for live theatre because in a film you can take as many takes as you want to get it right.  Theatre's a lot harder because you rehearse, but for each audience, you only have that one moment to be right (which is part of the beauty of live theatre, but I digress).
    • Again, they didn't hire dancers (not for the leads).  So they could spend months training these talented actors, or they could, y'know, hire actual dancer/singer/actors!!!  It's a novel concept, I know, but I know those triple threats are out there.  In fact, I know some of them.
      Exhibit A:  look at their hands -- completely different!  INEXCUSABLE!!!
  • Some of the transitions felt a little long; overall, the movie itself felt long.  I was surprised when I got out of the theater to see it was under 2 hours.  That's not necessarily a good marker of a film:  that it feels longer than it is.
Overall, I did enjoy it because I enjoyed the movies it made me think of (and made me want to go watch).  I liked the chemistry and banter between the leads.  Now I would just like them to do it better.

P.S.  I couldn't find a way to work it into this (very late) review, but go watch the 1955 movie version of Guys & Dolls (with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra).  It's similar in color and style to La La Land as well.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


For posterity.  In case I forget.  In case we're told not to...

"The fight is over reality itself. If people treat every fact as partisan, facts cease to be facts. In the confusion, the populist attacks opposition media for causing the confusion" (Melik Kaylan, Forbes, January 10, 2017).

January 21, 2017, Day #2 of Trump :
"'This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,' Spicer said, contradicting all available data."

"Spicer said, without any evidence, that some photos were "intentionally framed" to downplay Trump's crowd."
From "White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds" by Brian Stetler, CNN Money, January 21, 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Celluloid to Stage (A Review)

I have long said that most movies don't translate well to the stage.  I've been saying it pretty much ever since I saw/was in the stage version of Victor/Victoria where I discovered right up close that often the things that make the movie the piece of art that it is simply don't work on stage.  Sometimes it's a problem with screenplay to script to songs, but I strongly feel that it's trying to squeeze information from one medium to another.  And I could list several stage musicals that started as movies (musical and non) that are just awful, but I won't.  This post is about the show I saw last night, Finding Neverland.

I knew going in that this stage musical would be a hard sell for me because I absolutely love the film, and I love Johnny Depp in the film.  So I tried very hard to appreciate this stage musical for itself, as its own piece of art, and not judge it solely on "version of the movie."

TL;DR version:  is it a "bad" musical?  No, it is not.  Is it a "great" musical or something I'd want to see staged again?  No, it is not.

Musically, my date for the evening hit the nail on the head:  most of the songs sounded the same.  Some sounded so similar that I couldn't tell if it was a reprise of an earlier song or a new song entirely.  And it wasn't like there was a recurring musical theme woven in and out pieces as happens in some other musicals (Hamilton, Evita to name a couple); they just sounded alike.

She and I also agreed that there were some really compelling visuals happening during the show -- interesting choreography and just a lot of really awesome ensemble work so that no matter where you looked, something fascinating was going on, but it wasn't so predictable that we "knew" hey, people are going to pop out again!  The show made heavy use of projections (some animated/moving) during the performance.  Projections can be an interesting and also compelling visual aid -- the key word being "aid."  They should add to the performance but never take center stage.  At one point, during "Circus of Your Mind," I think, the projections were too forceful, too attention-grabbing, a bit like hitting the audience over the head with the merry-go-round theme of the music and lyrics rather than letting us figure it out (which wasn't hard to do given the above mentioned music and lyrics).

More importantly, all of the characters were....flattened...from their original selves in the film.  I wish I could say they had been distilled instead.  Distillation would mean the purest version of their selves; like cologne instead of eau de cologne, so strong that it can only come in small doses.  Flattened means they were simply made one-dimensional, reduced to the lowest common denominator.  Examples:

  • I could tell from her first appearance during the opening number that Barrie's wife, Mary, was a flattened, one-dimensional version of herself.  She's been made into a grasping, materialistic caricature of a villain rather than an early twentieth-century woman struggling to do what society has instructed her to do:  to be a good and proper wife with all of the good and proper trappings of that position.
    • She is accompanied by 3 foppish caricatures of servants; more on them later.
  • Barrie's producer, Charles Frohman, has also been turned into a blustering, yelling "villain" type, shouting at Barrie about budgets and costs and schedules.  Dustin Hoffman's Frohman had the same worries, but he never lost faith in Barrie (and he certainly didn't yell).  While they did finally allow Frohman to say one of my favorite lines in the film1, it was far too late for any type of character redemption.
  • Speaking of Frohman,....while having him double as Captain Hook (a bit that looks like it may have been taken from the movie's first concept) seems like an ingenious bit of casting, Captain Hook is now Barrie's alter-ego?!?  Wow.  I find that,...let's say "problematic" for a couple of reasons:
    • In the film (yes, I know I'm doing it again), the inspiration for Captain Hook comes not from Frohman but from Mrs. Emma du Marier (the Sylvia Llewelyn Davies' mother).  The bit of tech in the stage show that shows the inspiration coming from Frohman is fun visual pun -- don't get me wrong -- but making this change takes away from Mrs. du Marier's agency as a female character.
    • It also changes the trajectory/arc of Barrie's character.  In a lot of ways.  He is no longer given inspiration for a children's "villain," but instead is battling his own id/ego/super-ego for recognition as, what?  A man (Hook is certainly masculine in this manifestation, also reinforced by his appearance during the "romantic" scene/love song between Barrie and Sylvia)?  A free agent (now that we've taken it away from Mrs. du Marier)?  In the stage show itself, this number is the Act I finale, and it is something to be seen, indeed.  I'm just don't agree with the character and story line changes it necessitates.
  • Barrie himself is a lesser version than he is in the film.  Again, while they did include one of my favorite lines/scenes2, its emotional impact was completely lost.  And speaking of his relationship with Sylvia Davies (mentioned above), they made the mistake of making them an overt romance.  One of the things the film does (and however much of it is true, I couldn't say) is that the two of them are never explicitly romantic; that's part of what makes their situation so complicated -- it has no name or definition.
Things we liked:  besides the movement/choreography, there was some gasping during the end sequence.  My date gave a small gasp when the handful of glitter was thrown in the air, and I may  have gobbed (that's a gasp plus a small sob) when they added Mrs. Davies' wrap to the swirling air.
....and then, because my brain is crazy, I immediately start thinking How long do they have to wait?  How long is it supposed to swirl?  Is it supposed to be carried away and disappear entirely?  How long do they wait if that doesn't happen?

Conclusion:  I think the overarching issue with this movie to stage translation is that they attempted to turn Finding Neverland into a musical comedy.  One need to look no further than the caricarature of the servants -- fairly unnecessary characters to be added, let alone to be stealing focus by the continual scenery-chewing.  Even Mrs. Barrie's later intended (Mr. Cannan) is turned into a cheap joke of a character.  Finding Neverland (the film) is not a comedy; it's a drama with some funny (and touching, endearing) moments, and that's what got lost in translation.

1Frohman: "You know what happened, James, they changed it."
Barrie: "They changed what?"
Frohman: "The critics, they made it important... hm, what's it called? What's it called?"
Barrie: "Play."
Charles Frohman: "Play."

2 "What a horrible, candle-snuffing word -- 'just.'"