Making its way to Seattle last week for an unheralded run at the Pacific Place, then quickly dropped to a single show in town and shunted off to Tukwila’s Parkway Plaza was the latest film from the most singular artist working in mainstream American film today. As with every Terrence Malick film since his reemergence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Song to Song has been met with baffled derision by much of what passes for the Hollywood intelligentsia, that dense Ouroboros of movie reviewers, Oscar bloggers and self-appointed box office gurus that pass as journalists in our debased world. The complaints are familiar, cheap and lazy, ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick doesn’t make movies like They expect movies to be made. Unable to conceive of possibilities beyond their narrow imaginations, his refusal to conform is viewed alternately as pretension or incompetence (see for example Christopher Plummer’s whining about Malick during The Tree of Life‘s Oscar campaign that Malick didn’t know how to edit films, a complaint (I believe, perhaps uncharitably) ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick cut out most of Plummer’s performance in The New World). Malick doesn’t make conventional movies, and it’s easier to snark about twirling and poetry (the nerve!) than it is to wrestle with what he does make.
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It begins with a joke and ends with glances. Perhaps this is the best way to describe the odd maturation of La La Land that occurs before the viewer’s very eyes, a movement from flashy kitsch to a fount of true human emotion wrapped up in dreams, that most Hollywood of ideas. Damien Chazelle and company certainly can’t be accused of insincerity, but they only seem to catch fire in the last twenty minutes, leaving the rest of the film to wallow in a strange mixing pot of playful cynicism at modern society and faint stabs at a genuinely compelling romance.
La La Land wears its influences on its sleeve, from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to Jacques Demy, but the movie often struggles to even come close to the kind of magic that those triumphs exuded. This comes from a myriad of reasons—for one, the songs, catchy as they are, lack a strong sense of momentum—but perhaps most importantly, he uses the traditions of those movies without truly embodying them or conveying what made them sing. Much of this feeling is due to a certain semblence of grandstanding that begins from the opening number, a grandiose, celebratory affair set over an entire traffic-jammed highway, all done in a single hyperactive shot to boot. Chazelle rarely lets up from there, extensively using the Steadicam to add a swooping flair to even the most mundane scenes in a way that feels intrusive in a strange way. The aesthetic feels misapplied, hyper-concentrated and suffocating instead of free and lithe like the classics Chazelle tries to imitate.
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