La La Land tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist who fall in love while also trying to make their dreams come true in Hollywood. As Mia struggles to land good parts as an actress, balancing auditions with her job as a barista, Sebastian tries to save up to open his own jazz club in an effort to “save” jazz from its slow death. The film uses musical numbers and fantasy sequences to pay homage to the golden era of the Hollywood musical and to wax romantic about the role of dreamers.
My mother practically raised me on musicals, and I enjoyed the visual tribute La La Land pays to some of the greats of the genre. The film is beautifully crafted and scored, and I would be satisfied if it picked up a big handful of the Academy Awards for technical work. Right down to the costumes, which play with primary colors and vintage silhouettes, La La Land is made in a way that at once elicits deep feelings of nostalgia and has a more modern sensibility about love and sacrifice. My favorite part of the movie was a closing montage that serves as an epilogue that is reminiscent of An American in Paris and the “Broadway Melody” sequence of Singin’ in the Rain and takes a storytelling leap that I found delightful.
Although Emma Stone’s acting is spectacular, particularly in the somewhat meta moments that require her to act as an actress. She cannot really sing beyond a comfortable range of four of five notes, however, and although I found the breathy quality of her voice charming sometimes, I think in the old days they would have dubbed her singing. Her voice was like Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s rather than the more powerful singing in My Fair Lady. I wonder if the film wouldn’t have been stronger had they cast an unknown who could sing. Similarly, aside from his proven chemistry with Stone, I do not quite get the casting of Ryan Gosling. He does not sing any better than Stone, and the character of a cranky white jazz pianist trying to save jazz history seemed a little cliched. A little too-hipster. When John Legend shows up later as a bandleader who works with Sebastian, I didn’t really understand why they did not just cast him in the lead role. I wanted to love La La Land, but all-in-all, I thought it could have been stronger—more than just pretty and romantic—if it had taken more chances in the casting. 3.5/5 stars
La La Land was written and directed by Damien Chazelle and is rated PG-13. It runs 2 hours and 8 minutes.
Based on a true story, Hidden Figures presents the history of a group of African American mathematicians who helped NASA with the mathematical data needed for the first successful missions during the Space Race. While Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) helps calculate launch and landing trajectories for manned missions to space, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) works to save her team of calculators’ jobs from the arrival of an IBM that can do the calculations in a fraction of the time. Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) struggles to become the first African American engineer at NASA.
I appreciated that Hidden Figures did not use an overly sentimental tone about the Space Race, although it does reference the patriotism that surrounded NASA in the 1960s. The film also does a great job of portraying the repeated little knocks of institutional racism that made life harder for people on top of the bigger issues of segregation and the violence against the Civil Rights Movement. The film stops short, however, of giving its white characters such as Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) big epiphanies. Instead, roadblocks like segregated bathrooms get pushed aside because there’s simply not time for the pettiness. In addition to phenomenal acting by the lead actresses, I was impressed by the nuance with which the film handled the intersections between racism and sexism in the women’s lives, while still infusing the story with joy and humor. 4/5 stars
Hidden Figures was written by Alison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, who directed, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It is rated PG and runs 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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