By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Toronto Review: LA LA LAND

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When a movie like La La Land is so buzzed about and this heavily lauded, it can feel when you’re trying to write a review, you’re only chiming in rather than saying anything fresh or interesting. “It’s a Best Picture racehorse,” you’ll read; “It’s a prizewinner in any regard,” handicappers agree; “It’s an astounding, fantastic, emotionally overwhelming American m-o-v-i-e movie,” your musically-inclined movie-going friends (or parents) will sing. It’s great. It’s grand. I loved it. You will too.

And yet this Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical love-letter duet to creativity is not my favorite film at TIFF; it may not crack my top five of the year.

How can a film so intensely gorgeous and show-stopping as La La Land not find lodge in my mind? I keep forgetting I have seen it. In the days following the Toronto premiere of Damien Chazelle’s legitimately monumental effort, I find myself more drawn to thinking about the wispy, ethereal darkness of Nocturnal Animals and the study in subtlety of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. (Not to mention the three (!) masterpieces from earlier festivals, Paterson, Toni Erdmann, and Manchester by the Sea.) These movies may not stick around as long as La La Land (especially at the box-office) but they are certainly riskier in ways that resonate and register beyond my serotonin levels.

Maybe this isn’t fair. Unrelated comparisons suck as much as indiscriminate movie cynicism. La La Land’s energetic and vibrant pastiche of Old Hollywood practices and obsolete forms of expression result in an indelible movie. My face was warm throughout; I was out of breath at its emotional finale. It’s two hours of frisson, anchored by a wonderful Emma Stone performance that needs only two words (“I Ran!”) to demonstrate how truly fun and escapist it is.

The idea that a movie is faultless is crazy, because perfection is an intangible, untenable ideal. But 31-year-old Chazelle has managed to get near, arriving at an extremely close sweet spot of accessible depth and toe-tapping entertainment. If it survives the award-season onslaught of negative knee-jerking (just look at what became of The Artist), you can wave hello to a new American classic. If this is cotton candy, it’s woven from the clouds of movies beloved by millions.

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The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh

 

“I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.“

Agnes Varda