La La Land (2016)

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****1/2

“Here’s to the one’s that dream”, Emma Stone’s Mia sings in her final audition. This one line is the essence of Damian Chazelle’s La La Land. In it, we see the aforementioned Mia, a barista on a movie lot, time and time again pursue her dream of becoming an actress through auditions that even the casting agents don’t want to be at. We follow Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, through various music ventures, from playing holiday tunes surrounded by uninterested diners to playing synth in an ultra-contemporary jazz band just so he can one day open his own jazz club. These are the dreams and La La Land is the story of pursuit.

The reality of this pursuit is tampered with, somewhat, by Chazelle who employs Justin Hurwitz’s wonderful score to elevate the mundanity of life to something ethereal. Whether it is making a party invitation the potential to super stardom or a walk to the car a possibility for budding romance, the light and playful colours employed are matched by the airy tunes and funny lyrics. Anyone who has ever been to Los Angeles will know that it has never looked better than when Mia and Sebastian are singing.

I believe it was Scott Tobias on Filmspotting who said that La La Land was a musical made for film. From the opening sequence of hope whilst commuters are stuck on one of the many Los Angeles freeways to Sebastian escorting Mia back to her car, invoking Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the exquisite dream sequence at the end, the film employs tracking shots and long takes whilst moving through scenery. These scenes are pure joy and though Gosling and Stone aren’t the world’s best singers (Stone comfortably plays Gosling off a break though), they add unique touches to each moment that gives the film even more warmth. Gosling, in particular, is honing his comedic skills even further (I hope Chazelle wasn’t one of the directors Stone was referring to here).

For all the joy and fun this film has, it is still grounded in the very real notion that dreams require sacrifice. Chazelle could have taken an easy path to the finish, but he chose to take one of meaning, which elevates the film to something more than your ordinary musical. It has laughs, it has catchy tunes and it will have you singing “Here’s to the one’s that dream” when it’s all over.

PS: It has been well documented recently that Hollywood has a problem with diversity and lacking diverse voices. This is a criticism of the industry itself but a few critics have taken this as justification to relegate Chazelle’s view of jazz to the bench. Yes, jazz is heavily influenced by black culture and it would be wonderful to have more black voices making films but Chazelle can’t be expected to not make a film because he falls into the majority. Also, the argument that Sebastian, a white man, is saving jazz is best summed up by Scott Tobias (again): “He’s not trying to save jazz, he’s opening a fucking club.” Sebastian has an ideal of what he thinks jazz is but I don’t feel like John Legend’s character is shown as a sell-out. He has one of the deeper lines when discussing Sebastian’s hang-ups with old jazz (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) and the photo shoot only portrays the photographer as a naff, not the band. It shows that Sebastian isn’t comfortable in that situation. It’s not his dream.

The Equalizer (2014)

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∗∗∗

Antoine Fuqua has added another run of the mill action film to the one man wrecking ball genre with The Equalizer. There is very little to differentiate the film thematically or stylistically with similar films such as the Liam Neeson-starring Taken series.

For such films, plot is never the draw card so, naturally, it doesn’t see a lot of development. Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), an ex-black ops agent now working at a hardware store, becomes involved with the Russian mafia through their abuse of a young prostitute (Chloe Grace-Moretz) who frequents the same cafe that McCall does at night. We follow McCall as he works his way through the mafia, leaving a trail of destruction and violence behind whilst employing a number of signature traits such as his time keeping ability and his eagerness to help out friends with their personal issues.

It is this destruction and violence, for better or worse, that the audience comes to see. However, there is nothing nuanced or new about what Fuqua delivers in this aspect. We’ve seen it done just as well in a number of films before. In the aspect where The Equalizer should be standing out from the rest, it is happy to take a seat and settle for similarity.

The one draw card that makes this film at least enjoyable, even if it is mindlessly so, is Denzel Washington in the lead as the meticulous ex-black ops agent. It is always fun to see Denzel give a strong performance no matter which film it fits into. We buy into most of what Denzel is doing with the usual suspension of reality when it comes to vigilantes taking down masses of armed men. We feel his kindness when he wants to help people and this sets up why he is so willing to take on an entire mafia. Although, I choose to believe he also enjoys what he does as well. It makes the character more believable, especially when we see some of the more creative methods he employs to dispatch his enemies.

The Equalizer is a film for the ages in the sense that you could have watched it when it came out, now or watch it in 20 years’ time and what you take away won’t change. It isn’t political about the Russian mafia, choosing to accept that it exists without reasoning. It doesn’t condemn prostitution or even comment on it, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind on what is a relative side note. The only thing it was saying in 2014, now and will say in the future is that it’s fun to watch one guy, who is sentimentally motivated, kill a bunch of two dimensional throw away bad guys in various graphic ways of violence. For this, The Equalizer will only be remembered as a film that mildly entertains.