Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.
The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).
A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.
Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.
The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.
While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of 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.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.
If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.
The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.
Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.
Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.
Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.
The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.
Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.
The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.
You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.
When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.
Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.
You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.
The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.