La La Land (2016)

Of all the films that could be considered divisive, you would think that a film like La La Land would be the last one could expect to draw any sort of backlash, but it’s inevitable for popular films to attract pushback, and believe it or not, we live in such divisive times that some people managed to find a way to put people into two basic camps over this. Some people say it’s fantastic and it should have one the Best Picture award, and some think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a Trump rally (trust me, sites like Salon and Newsweek actually wrote reviews of that kind). I meanwhile would prefer not to insert my political agenda and judge this fluffy, light-hearted musical for its merits, being that some critics have completely abdicated that role.

The film is essentially a story about a struggling jazz pianist named Sebastian, whose career was going nowhere until he meets an aspiring actress and playwright named Mia. They meet and fall in love soon after, and they have the habit of affecting each other’s careers, all of set to abundant song and dance numbers.

Musicals seem to baffle me in a bit of an irksome way. They’re always to campy and over-the-top, and let’s not forget to address the fundamental question about the genre. When in real life would you see people randomly breaking into song and dance, and then everyone joins in, and they somehow know the rest of the song? The idea seems to me like of the so-called “golden age of Hollywood”, but with La La Land, I suppose that’s the idea, and if that’s true then the film is a bit sharper than you might think. After all, the film’s title is a rather apt description of the nonsensical song and dance world the writers have constructed.

The acting was quite good, but I personally can’t connect with any of the characters, probably because they are typically unrealistic Hollywood characters, perhaps facets of Damien Chazelle’s fantasy. It would be insane for me to try and argue that the characters have no personality. They certainly do, and the people playing them are certainly capable actors (except for John Legend, who I think was hired for the sake of hiring a contemporary singer), but they don’t have much charm. I do however think there was a good attempt at creating chemistry between the two main characters.

Honestly, the film’s main strength is the way it presents itself. It opens with old style title sequence, and although that’s as close to truly retro as it gets, the rest of the film looked and sounded pretty good. The musical numbers are surprisingly well done, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like musicals. Even though I’ve heard time and again that the film is a call back to early 20th century musicals, there are a few nods to the 80’s, and I found myself enjoying the scene with the 80’s cover band.

All in all, I don’t think La La Land is a bad film. I don’t normally watch “normie films” as I call them, but this is what happens when some people in the media make too much of a big deal over it. The film is basically inoffensive entertainment, and that’s the point. In times where people are tired of hearing about how we’re “more divided” and how everything is supposedly going to hell, you kind of need films like this, and in that regard La La Land certainly succeeds as light entertainment, but it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Score: 67%
  • Grade: C

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

original_rocky_horror_picture_show_posterIn a way, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good example of a cult film that garnered mainstream appeal. Largely dismissed when it was first released (because let’s face it, mainstream film critics were always morons), it quickly became a huge enough hit that people would dress up as the characters (ladies and gentlemen, the birth of cosplay as we know it), and now every year the film is shown close to Halloween, which I guess is why I’ve picked this film. I saw a more recent performance of the play this film was based on (specifically the 40th Anniversary broadcast on Sky Arts), and at that point I didn’t see the film yet, and then wanted to see it more than ever, and when I finally did see it, I liked it, even though I wasn’t entirely surprised by how unapologetically campy it is.

The film’s plot is essentially a silver screen re-enactment of the musical, narrated by a criminologist. The story sees a couple – Brad Majors and Janet Weiss – who find themselves lost in the woods one rainy evening, and stumble on a nearby manor, wherein they assume they can find a phone they can use to call for help. Discovering a cavalcade of strange people with bizarre costumes, they are greeted by Dr. Frank N. Furter, a crazy scientist who, by his own admission, is an alien transvestite from a faraway planet, and apparently he is creating a superhuman beef cake that he wants to have sex with, while simultaneously seducing both Brad and Janet, who find themselves caught in a series of bizarre, goofy horrors set to upbeat music.

The story is in equal parts a B-movie parody and a glam rock opera, and it moves at a rather frenetic, yet enjoyably upbeat pace. It’s mainly the musical numbers that move the plot forward (this literally being an on-screen translation of the original musical), and it’s a pretty effective way to bring attention to the plot, and advantage that Rocky Horror has over the plethora of cheesy sci-fi and horror movies the filmmakers lovingly satirise.

The acting is one area where your mileage may vary, mainly because the acting is very campy. If you hate musicals you might not like it, but it seems to me that the actors perform better when they’re singing rather than simply speaking. I’m probably not the only one who’ll say that Tim Curry is the best performer in the film. I prefer his character to all the others, mainly because of his outlandish and deliciously devious performance. I’m also of the opinion that Tim Curry was the best possible choice for the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter. I’ve seen the trailer for the TV reboot (which looks pretty bad), and I’m sure Laverne Cox isn’t a bad choice, but let’s face it, there’s no beating Tim Curry.

Stylistically, the film has all the ingredients of a film that serves as both a parody and a loving tribute to the Hammer Horror films of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, a number of props and set pieces, including the Oakley Estate (which was used as the setting for The Frankenstein Place), a frequent filming location in older Hammer films. Many of the costumes instantly remind me of the often equally outlandish glam rock scene of the time, but some of the other elements, including dyed hair and ripped fishnets, remind me of the punk movement (where they found a home after the film was released). Of course, I can’t go without mentioning the actual songs, and the songs are actually quite good, though a select few are truly memorable (nobody who’s seen the film can actually forget “The Time Warp”, “Dammit Janet”, or “Sweet Transvestite”).

It’s probably not for everyone, but if you want a wild, unapologetically fun film, then The Rocky Horror Picture Show is certainly for you. It looks, feels and sounds very much like a film of its time, but amazingly enough, its bold, unabashed appeal still holds up today.

  • Score: 75%
  • Grade: B