Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND

Movie Review & Reflection:  LA LA LAND

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND?  Yes and No.  YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy.   YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures.  YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.)  Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical.  But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So.  If you answered YES to all the above: GO!  If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home.  But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.

LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake.  These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural.  Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes:  Don’t leave everything to the professionals!    Sing a little, dance a little.  Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.”  (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)

The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter.   Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset.  (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.)  Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.”  (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?)  But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes.  Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more.  The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable.  I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent.  (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)

LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture.  As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
  2. Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
  3. Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
  4. Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it?  Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
  5. No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.”  Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND?  Sebastian or Mia?  Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?

 

 

 

Film Review: Florence Foster Jenkins Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

The film Florence Jenkins is not a comedy, although it has comedic elements.  It’s the story of a woman filled with romantic ideals and the finances to indulge them.  A passionate philanthropist showering the 1940’s Manhattan classical music scene with gifts and grants, Florence wants to belong, to participate in ways far beyond her means.  Not her monetary means. Her treasuries are overflowing.  No, she longs to belong as a member of the artists’ circle, to be known, to be loved not for her money but as a celebrated operatic soprano.  At last, in her waning years, she hopes to command the attention and praise she never received as a child nor as wife in her first marriage to a philandering yet fortuitously wealthy-now- deceased husband.  Poor, wealthy Ms. Jenkins.  She aspires to become one of the great sopranos in the exacting and starry heights of the opera world without a trace of talent or a wisp of capacity for self-scrutiny.  She is a wealthy version of Mama Rose from the musical fable GYPSY (by the way, was Madame Rose’s talent real or imaginary?)  and, even more so, DON QUIXOTE all rolled into one. And, like, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mom and Cervantes whose presence is everywhere felt throughout his early 17th century novel, Mrs. Foster Jenkins is a real, historical person.  Quite a centerpiece for any movie; quite a role for any actress.  And in this version, the actress is Meryl Streep offering a formidable incarnation of the complex and contradictory nature of dreamers and the tragedy of anyone who loses touch with reality.  Ms. Streep gives an honest, exquisite performance.

 

The relationship to GYPSY notwithstanding, director Stephen Frears has chosen to emphasize the DON QUIXOTE aspects of the story, focusing on its “illusion version reality” dynamic. He gives the film a sense of balance by attending equally to the two men who support Florence Jenkins as he does to the woman herself.   In that, the screenwriter Nicholas Martin brought his heroine to light in the same way Cervantes conveyed insights into his “knight of the woeful countenance” through the characters that interact with him.  In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, one of these persons is purposefully overindulgent, the other reluctant but ultimately resigned.  And, as in Don Quixote, others in the fine supporting cast are simply cruel.

 

Hugh Grant plays Mrs. Jenkins boyfriends and platonic lover St. Clair Bayfield as the willing Sancho Panza with heartbreaking panache and Simon Helberg embodies the pianist / accompanist Cosmé McMoon with a kooky but nuanced performance that truly engages us as he transcends his disgust over Mrs. Jenkins performances and learns to love the woman despite her desperate games of make-believe.  Streep, Grant and Helberg are all excellent.  The sum total of the performances, period design and costumes (wonderful Production Design by Alan MacDonald and Costumes by Consolata Boyle), and overall direction makes this film well worthwhile even though, to be honest, the plot sags in energy from time to time.

 

In essence, the movie FLORENE FOSTER JENKINS is a love story with edge.  It poses a question that certainly will benefit all who are willing to address it: What is the best relationship between Truth, Beauty and Love?  There is, of course, no one-size-fits all balanced response to such a query, but this movie brings to mind Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “So, faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

 

More than “Mind over Matter”

Mind over Matter is only part of the human reality.  Circumstances, Health, Relationships, Opportunities (and genuine lack thereof) and I daresay “Providence” also need to be part of the equation.  As noted in this NYTIMES Op-Ed: “equality, justice, truth and ethics” must compliment the American Dream.  If everyone continues to buy into the self-empowered “Superman / Superwoman”  ideology – that ever-present  Nietzsche (1844-1900)  concept –  to the exclusion of other realities that comprise the human experience, will there be room for Love, Peace, for learning about others beyond the confines of our self-empowered “little worlds?”

Interested in this topic?  Read Carl Cederstrom’s OP-Ed in today’s New York Times. 

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/18/the-dangers-of-happiness/?ref=opinion

Also related: T. M. Luhrman on “The Anxious Americans”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/opinion/sunday/the-anxious-americans.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

THE AVENGERS: ULTRON a brief commentary

I saw THE AVENGERS: Ultron last night.  It is a riff on Noah and the Ark!  In this case Ultron plays God who is fed up with humanity and wants to start over.  It reminds me of how we need to read the Noah epic differently than the ways our ancestors did.  NOAH expresses how humanity often has the urge to “start over,” and wipe out the past. It is far more human centered story than an exploration of God. So, too, Ultron, though a robot, is a simplistic expression of human’ nature’s shadow side. Not a bad story, nor a bad movie.  This time the Hulk and Black Widow have the greater focus.   Enjoyable but with a couple battle scenes too many.

Love You As You Are

I must call your attention to David Brooks again. Every parent MUST read this! Plus every believing adult must know that true Faith offers a God with Unconditional LOVE that is NOT based on what we do but for the unique individuals that God created. Think of those times when you simply LOVE BEING YOU when you are not doing or achieving anything. Like waking up in the morning or having your coffee or comfortably drifting off to sleep at night. GOD LOVES YOU!

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/opinion/david-brooks-love-and-merit.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article

Forthcoming biography of playwright Tennessee Williams

American playwright Tennessee Williams whose great plays THE GLASS MENAGERIE, STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA highlighted the tragedy of human vulnerability to the point of despair, was a man of sorrow who either found little comfort in and/or was unable to surrender to the ways faith can transform sensitivity from tragedy to grace. That said, I have to note that CAT and IGUANA probably came as close as possible to grace-filled resolutions. Agree?

I am writing about Williams today as the NYTIMES features an excellent article about John Lahr’s upcoming bio on Williams that looks like it will be well worth the purchase for those of us who love the theatre and it’s potential to explore our meaning and purpose. John Lahr (son of the actor Burt Lahr, know for The Wizard of Oz on film and WAITING FOR GODOT on stage plus LAYS Potato Chips commercials in the 1960s) is one excellent and insightful writer and drama critic. Here’s the article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/books/john-lahrs-biography-of-tennessee-williams.html?hpw&rref=arts&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpHedThumbWell&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well