Two holiday movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

La La Land

Aside from Disney musicals, the Hollywood musical is a rare thing these days. La La Land proves an even rarer bird because it is an original musical made for the movies. More often, Hollywood musicals begin on Broadway. It aspires and succeeds in recalling the musicals of sixty or more years earlier, with stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Neither Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) nor Emma Stone (Mia) are quite up to Fred and Ginger’s effortless dancing. In fact, both actors had to be taught how to dance. Neither are particularly good singers either, but this is rarely a problem in Hollywood. With enough voice coaching, pretty much any actor can render an acceptable performance. Nor is there a huge amount of chemistry between Gosling and Stone in this movie, but there is enough to allow you to suspend disbelief. Sebastian is an erstwhile jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club, in Los Angeles of all places where old is out. Emma simply wants to land her first professional acting gig and chases debilitating auditions while selling coffee inside a Hollywood movie lot. After six years of trying to make a breakthrough in Hollywood, things are beginning to look bleak for her.

Of course they are fated to meet. Mia hears Sebastian at the piano passing a club where he has a Christmas gig, and is immediately mesmerized. When she tries to compliment him, the just-fired Sebastian literally gives her the cold soldier as he storms out of the café. Of course in the insular world of Hollywood they manage to pass paths again, and begin a somewhat begrudging courtship.

There is a lot of music in La La Land but not a whole lot of dance numbers. It starts out terrifically with an amazingly choreographed scene (“Another Day of Sun”) on a stopped Hollywood expressway. La La Land shines mostly with its peppy and integrated music, the flowing direction by Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone’s performance as Mia. Emma Stone’s huge eyes are kind of mesmerizing, but she’s also quite an accomplished actor. It’s a movie musical with a fair amount of soul, a boy-meets-girl plot where both try to buck up each other’s spirits and potential. In doing so though they will stress their own relationship.

If there is disappointment in this movie, it’s that its ending probably won’t satisfy you. But it is a movie with heart, soul, romance and moments of breathtaking fun. In spots it’s hard to sit in your seat; you’d rather be dancing in the aisles. A scene filmed against the backdrop of a Los Angeles sunset is particularly mesmerizing. It’s definitely worth seeing and it’s nice to know that the talent for doing a first-class Hollywood musical is still around. More please.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Passengers

Between playing Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the second of which will be released soon), Chris Pratt found time for another science fiction movie now in theaters: Passengers.

Here he plays Jim Preston, one of five thousand or so passengers in deep hibernation on an interstellar voyage between star systems. During this 120-year voyage though he gets an unexpected wakeup call. He awakens thinking he is four months from their destination on this one-way voyage, when in reality they are only thirty years out. Moreover, he is the only human awake. The only companion available is the android kind, a bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who spends his years endlessly cleaning bar glasses for non-existent customers in the ship’s watering hole.

It soon becomes clear that his premature awakening is a mistake. Their ship though is a neat place to hang out, a sort of Hilton on steroids. Indeed this spaceship is something of a character itself, with a fascinating fusion reactor that propels the ship and deflector shields that push obstacles out of its path, all automatically. Eventually the lack of human companionship proves too much for Jim, so he wakens Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) whose biography fascinates him. At least Jim is not a creep. Their relationship develops slowly, with ups and downs, and one big down when Aurora finally learns that Jim had awaken her simply for companionship. For once you go into hibernation, there’s no way to go back. Both are destined to spend their years together and to die long before the ship makes landfall, with only Arthur and each other for company.

If La La Land does not quite follow where the audience wants it to go, Passengers does eventually go where you want it to go. Fortunately both Jim and Aurora find plenty of stuff to do, as the fusion reactor is breaking down, not to mention other systems. This supposedly self-healing spaceship can’t fix itself this time so the only humans awake have to engineer a solution somehow just to survive. It’s fortunate that Jim is something of a mechanic but this task seems well beyond both of them.

What I liked about Passengers was the plausible way it renders travel between star systems. Both Jim and Aurora are likeable, in spite of their differences, and Arthur is great fun as a bartender. Except for a bit part by Laurence Fishburne, it’s basically a three-character movie that manages to sustain itself and our interest through almost two hours. In spite of its outer space setting, it’s really a tight character driven movie with some original plot threads made possible by the unusual premise of interstellar travel. It rates high on my inner satisfaction index, even if the premise wears a bit thin by the end of the movie.

3.3 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

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