LA LA LAND. There was a moment of breath-holding, a couple of years ago, after Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014) had finished taking the world by storm, leaving the great J.K. Simmons holding an Oscar and, likely, more than a few drum sets gathering dust in garages and back bedrooms. That movie — so competent, so focused and self-assured — felt like it signaled the arrival of a distinct and original creative voice, someone with something to say and the skills necessary to make that something heard. Perhaps more to the point, Whiplash felt fully formed: refined but raw when it needed to be, stylish without pretense, percussive and propulsive, but also painfully authentic, with just enough hope and redemption showing at the edges. In other words, it didn't feel like a first effort. (In fairness, I suppose it wasn't, as Chazelle adapted it from his own short of the same title, but you get the point.) And whenever a writer/director bursts forth with such an accomplished, successful debut, questions arise. Did s/he run the creative tank dry in the race to finish the first feature? Was it a fluke, or a miraculous confluence of cast and crew? Did a landslide of accolades obscure the movie's flaws, or is it as good as it seemed? Behind all of it is the Creator, the mind behind the story and the blood-and-bones person who came to the set every day and coaxed the vision on the page into life. To make one genuinely good feature-length movie is an accomplishment in itself; for one's first feature to succeed artistically, commercially and in the eyes of one's peers is unicorn rare. In addition to the attendant stresses of making the thing in the first place, of weathering the inevitable criticism and disingenuous praise and invasive attention, such success leaves the now-vaunted Creator in the unenviable position of figuring out What To Do Next. Not everybody survives this stage of success, creatively or literally. Chazelle, though, has moved forward with a degree of composure that belies his relative youth and, hopefully, speaks to the notion that he may well be an Important New Voice.
As he did with jazz in Whiplash, Chazelle again innovates by digging into what might be considered an arcane medium. If you had asked me, even a month ago, I would likely have told you that the Hollywood musical had died in some sad bungalow in the hills, coughing delicately into a monogrammed silk handkerchief, alone and unwanted, decades ago. As usual, this pronouncement speaks as much (more) to my general dislike of the form as to its inevitable decline in popularity. As it turns out, though, the problem with the musical wasn't the form but, as in most things, a lack of creativity. La La Land lifts up all the exciting visual and theatrical elements, supports them with emotional authenticity and fearless performance and proves: 1) maybe musicals aren't so bad, after all; 2) Chazelle really does have something to say.
In a candy-colored, wintertime alternate Los Angeles, Mia (Emma Stone) serves coffee on the Warner Bros. back lot, happy to just be in the environs of cinematic history but hopeful that she'll make it as an actress. (The cruelties of the audition process are revealed in a brief, punishing scene.) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) laments the shuttering of his favorite jazz club, struggling to toe the line and play standards as an invisible cocktail lounge pianist. He, too, harbors dreams — of opening his own club and fostering real jazz in the heart of LA. After a series of near-misses, Mia and Sebastian connect for a song and dance routine against the setting sun and eventually begin a romance that nourishes each of them, psychically and creatively. So far, so good, so boilerplate; but La La Land takes a turn here that not only makes the movie ring true emotionally but serves to elevate the movie beyond the simple strictures of format. Our protagonists' dreams come true but not in a doves flying, chorus swelling, tied up in ribbons kind of a way. Instead, Chazelle subverts the expected, infusing the third act with the sort of emotional difficulty created by making real-life choices.
Granted, I would watch a two-hour cat food commercial if it starred Stone and Gosling. My bias notwithstanding, La La Land really is as good as everyone has been saying. The leads (triple threats, both of them, and Gosling learned to play piano for the role) are irreplaceable and riveting, the look is lush and gorgeous and enveloping, and the song-and-dance numbers simultaneously subvert and uphold reality in a sublimely giddy fashion; it's movie magic and that's for real. PG13. 128m. BROADWAY.
HIDDEN FIGURES. So yeah, I teared up in this one. Again. There may be something wrong with me. But were it not for indelible performances by leads Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, and buoyant original songs by Pharrell Williams, I don't think it would have left much of an impression.
In 1961, a young NASA struggles to catch up with the Soviets in the space race. Into the closed-room, male whiteness (gross) of the organization steps Katerine Goble (Henson), a gifted mathematician who may be the only person capable of the computations required to put an American astronaut into orbit. Alongside her stand fledgling engineer Mary Jackson (Monae) and born leader Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer). Drawing strength from each other, the three women work to surmount the not insubstantial obstacles before them, all the while contributing mightily to the greater national effort.
Hidden Figures tells a compelling and vital story, but in its style-less, guile-less treatment of it, something is lost. The struggles these women faced come off as mild, toothless; even the violence of the Civil Rights movement playing out in the background hardly makes an impact. Still, I am heartened to see a movie about women of color succeeding so resoundingly at the box office. PG. 127m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
ALIENS (1986). Director James Cameron's sequel to the original Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver. R. 137m.
THE BYE BYE MAN. Teens stumble upon a murderous urban legend who, like your ex, is summoned whenever someone says or thinks his name. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
HUNTER GATHERER. A newly released ex-con (Andre Royo) tries to pick up his former life, including the ex who no longer wants him. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX.
LIVE BY NIGHT. Ben Affleck stars and directs his adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel about a rising Prohibition-era thug in Boston. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
A MONSTER CALLS. A boy (Lewis MacDougall) with a terminally ill mother (Sigourney Weaver) finds solace and aid with an enormous tree monster. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MONSTER TRUCKS. A teen junkyard tinkerer (Lucas Till) finds a monster and, you know, puts it in his truck. (It can't all be Moonlight, people.) PG. 104m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PATRIOTS DAY. Director Peter Berg's retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing, emergency response and ensuing manhunt. Starring Mark Wahlberg. R. 92m. FORTUNA
SLEEPLESS. Jamie Foxx stars as a dirty cop on the hunt for his kidnapped son. With Michelle Monaghan as the Internal Affairs officer investigating him. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
ARRIVAL. Denis Villeneuve's movie about scholars and soldiers trying to determine the threat level of visiting aliens is exquisitely crafted and acted, and suffused with sadness, hope and joy. Starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. PG13. 116m. MINOR.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS. Documentary about a 13-year-old Mongolian girl on a quest to become the first female in her nomadic tribe to master its tradition of hunting with a golden eagle. G. 127m. MINOR.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. A man with a past (Casey Affleck, fittingly) returns to his hometown to look after his dead brother's kid. With Michelle Williams. R. 137m. MINOR.
MOANA. A young navigator (actual Hawaiian Auli'I Cravalho) enlists the reluctant aid of a demigod (actual demigod Dwayne Johnson) on a sea voyage to save her home from destruction in this Disney animated feature. PG. 113m. BROADWAY.
PASSENGERS. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play a pair of space travelers who, like a holiday traveler without Ambien/cash for the drink cart, wake up way too early in the flight and find themselves in trouble. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. This Death Star-era prequel about a young rebel and her motley crew features character complexity yet unseen in the Star Wars universe, plus a stellar cast, impeccably choreographed battle sequences, good jokes and the best droid yet. PG13. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
SEASONS. This nature documentary tells the history of Europe, starting with the ice age, from the perspective of animals. R. 91m. MINIPLEX.
SING. A koala trying to save his theater holds a singing competition with a menagerie of hopefuls in this animated musical. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 108m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
TANNA. This Aussie film uses tribal actors to tell a love story in the shadow of a volcano on a remote island. NR. 100m. MINIPLEX.
TICKLED. A documentary about competitive tickling takes a dark turn when it reveals a big-money underworld and online blackmail. Who knew? R. 92m. MINIPLEX.
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS. Kate Beckinsdale throws a parka over her shiny catsuit and amps up her vampire powers to stop a monster-on-monster war. R. 91m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
WHY HIM? Ryan Cranston plays a father out to oust his daughter's (Zoey Deutch) wildly inappropriate boyfriend (James Franco). R. 111m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill