I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

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“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

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What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading

Yes, Virginia, Season Two of True Detective was Better than Season One

…but there is no Santa Claus.  If I’m gonna be controversial, might as well go whole hog.

Umm…obviously there are spoilers here, so if you didn’t watch all of Season Two yet, go watch it, and then come back and read and share your thoughts with The Spin.

True Detective Season 2 Highways

With the finale of True Detective’s Season Two now in the books, everyone is playing Monday morning quarterback.  Some, like Vox Culture’s marginally clueless Todd VanDerWerff, have gone as far as saying the whole season (finale included) was an utter disaster.  I have to ask what the hell he was watching?  While he does make a few fair points (that he then overstates), his point #3 that, “The plot was way, way too complicated” is utter hogwash.  Complaining that a noir detective series has a plot that is too complicated is like ordering a burger topped with a fried egg and complaining that the yolk got all over the meat.  The general consensus, however, is that it paled in comparison to Season One and for the most part (despite some intriguing individual sequences, like the shoot-out cluster-f*** or the much ballyhooed orgy party) was a mess.  Well, if it was a mess (and by some measures it was, especially in the early going), then it was one helluva entertaining mess: a sprawling, dark, lurid, occasionally brilliant, always fascinating, mess that was more twisted than the LA area highways crosscutting the seedy badlands (and fictional Vinci) where our characters lived and died.  Many complained throughout the season that the most intriguing character on the show was the LA highway system.  It was one of the characters, and like, hello, it was also symbolic. And, sure, the symbolism on the show hit ya with a sledgehammer sometimes.  But at least it had the brains to be symbolic.

Though it lacked the singular cohesion that director Cary Fukunaga brought the eight episodes of Season One, this new season still brought much of the same in tone and style (from the freaky opening credits done this time to the creepy Leonard Cohen dirge “Nervermind,” to the great music both in terms of score and Lera Lynn’s haunting bar tunes, to the stunning cinematography).  Sadly, “much of the same” is seemingly all most fans wanted, and even though creator, writer and producer Nic Pizzolatto made it very clear this was an anthology series where the seasons would all be stand alone self-contained stories with a fresh cast playing all new characters each time, people lamented the absence of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson), whose chemistry, banter, philosophizing and ultimate bromance turned them into mythic pop culture characters.

Yes, here in Season Two we had more characters with more complications and a convoluted plot involving crooked cops, secret identities, repression, sex, politics, drug lords and cover-ups that made viewers work for the payoff.  And while the season started off confusing and meandering, all those twisted highways and plot points converged in a finale that brought everything to a rousing close.  Continue reading

Nightcrawler or How to Start Your Own Business

Nightcrawler

Wow…what a scathing satire Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler would’ve been in say…1994 or 1995 on the heels of the OJ Simpson “White Bronco Chase” that was ushering in a new age of television reporting.  What a horrific view of what was to come…a prescient prediction of how bad it could get (and did get) if we continued down that road.  Instead, it’s 2014, and Nightcrawler crashes into screens, oddly anachronistic, taking place in some bizarro-world where local nightly news still matters and no one seems to be aware of YouTube and social media.  Honestly, who was this film made for?  Scared senior citizens without computers who still watch the nightly news?

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man with no back story who claims to have learned everything on the internet (this, along with his use of the GPS on his phone are the only things that hint at this being a present-day set story), happens by accident upon an accident late one night on the LA streets and is mesmerized by the free-lance film crew (headed by Bill Paxton) capturing video they plan to sell to Channel 6 (whose cool red-lit antenna atop their studios evokes 666…wow…subtle).  Very quickly Lou applies all of that self-help, business 101, go-getter bullshit he read on the internet and begins to crawl the nights searching for anything that bleeds to sell to the Channel 6 news director (Rene Russo).  It’s not long before things escalate and Lou begins to take drastic measures, where he skirts the law and common decency to turn the stories and events he captures into more sensationalistic leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal, thankfully, takes full control of the film.  His performance is what makes Nightcrawler worth watching.  Continue reading

Let’s Go for a Drive

Just your typical afternoon Drive...

What are you going to do?

Hey, Ryan Gosling!  Here’s the scoop, friend.  You’re a low-rent stunt driver for Hollywood.  When not flipping over cars, you’re working in a body shop for that old guy (Bryan Cranston) who’s helped you out like you were his own son.  You moonlight for criminals (giving them five minutes and five minutes only) driving getaway cars under strict rules that keep your record clean.
 
In step some shady characters looking to invest in drag racing.  There’s the Jewish Pizza shop guy (Ron Perlman – thuggishly good) and Mr. Money Bags (Albert Brooks – slow to menace).  Hey, slow down, here’s the deal.  The old guy builds and sells them a custom car – and, that’s right – you just might get to be the driver.  This might be your ticket out!
 
But then you meet a swell gal (Carey Mulligan – cute as a button and donning a hairstyle that would fit Naomi Watts circa Mulholland Drive) who turns out to be your neighbor, a waitress, and single mom to a neat kid (Kaden Leos) who knows a bad guy when he sees ’em.  Turns out her hubbie (Oscar Isaac) is in jail.  Just as she’s gettin’ all sweet on ya, he gets out.  But guess what?  He’s actually a nice guy just hard on his luck.  You wanna be his friend – for her – for the kid’s sake.
 
Your new friend has some bad guys after him – looking to shake him down for protection they gave him while in the slammer.  Continue reading