La La Land

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

La La Land

It just doesn’t get better than this. Everything we have read about La La Land has been positive but it’s hard to find words to describe being transported by a movie that gets everything right – and then some. This one is all heart.

The opening scene takes us to a fabled Hollywood traffic jam where aspiring young actors abandon their stuck cars to sing and dance away their frustration in a wild burst of freedom. It’s a scene from a ‘40s musical brought to astonishing life by modern technology and wild freedom. The vivid colors of the cars and clothes are the blast off for what’s to come.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meet when she is drawn from the street by the sound of his piano in a club. Theirs becomes a love affair that deepens through their art and their understanding of what is important to both of them. Each wants to help the other to succeed in personal dreams.

For Sebastian, that dream is his own club where he can preserve old-fashioned jazz. For Mia it is to win acting parts through auditions. Each sees the flaws in the other’s imaginings, and with subtlety and affection they encourage each other to reexamine their goals. Nothing about their romance is fluffy or conventional.

If their ambitions are the theme, the magic is harder to describe. A big salute to Damien Chazelle who wrote and directed this gift of a picture that wraps up the year 2016 for Hollywood. Of all the mistakes waiting to happen, he made none.

If ordinary movie stars had been cast in Chazelle’s script, the movie would never have soared in such subtle ways. But here are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, not glamorous actors in the conventional sense, each willing and thoroughly able to show their own vulnerabilities and those of their characters. They express it all through thoughtful conversations. And then they dance. Have you ever watched two people fall in love while dancing in the sky?

What sets the fire is that their romance is rooted in deep respect for each other while their dancing expresses their magnetism. They are supported by a vast cast that enlivens the whole story from beginning to end. J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend and multiple dozens of extras who caught the mood set by director Chazelle.

Odd? A Hollywood musical with a gentle, serious story at its core? That didn’t happen seventy years ago. And yes, the singing and dancing by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is all theirs, no subs. Gosling, who already played jazz guitar, learned to play the piano for this role and played all the piano parts himself. Damien Chazelle imagined this magic, and with his extraordinary cast turned it into a rare film that moves an audience into the realm of pure joy. And if that sounds sentimental, just go, and see how you feel when the final credits roll.


Sing Street

A Summer Winner

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Sing Street

Every now and then a small stunner punctures the mediocrity of the movie summer. Here comes Sing Street, an Irish movie that grabs our hearts early and never lets go. If I tell you this is a movie about a 16-year-old high school student starting a band, nothing unusual about that. When I add that we’re talking here about a small group of boys from troubled families who start to dream of better lives it becomes a different tale.

John Carney – director and writer of script and songs – has crafted a jewel that builds gradually to an ending that is an inspired capstone to his movie. The story begins in the house where Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) hang out upstairs to avoid the constant fighting of their parents who announce that divorce is imminent and the family house will be sold. Conor must enroll at Christian Brothers, a school rooted in authoritarian bullying.

On the day Conor sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a lovely young girl standing gracefully on the steps near his school, he approaches her and invites her to be in a video of his band. Conor, of course, has no band. The balance of the story is his recruitment of schoolmates for the band he now must build as a vehicle for knowing Raphina who is an aspiring model.

The core of the movie is that it is about far more than building a band. It is about a group of young people from tough backgrounds who begin to dream of something better than the lives their parents live. Writer/director Carney avoids time worn solutions, opting instead for emotional confusion and gradual awakenings. He shuns easy wrap ups in favor of showing what can happen when young people use dreams as stepping stones out of a melancholy life. Terrific performances from the principals and their supporting cast make the story magical.

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor in a consistent tone of shy questioning. Can he approach the woman he fell in love with at first sight? Can he create a band? Are dreams possible without any kind of emotional support? Walsh-Peelo creates an innocent young dreamer who never loses his shyness or honesty. A perfectly cast Lucy Boynton makes Raphina a 17-year-old who is testing sophistication, loyalty, and ambition as possibilities but never quite loses her natural goodness. Conor: “Sometimes I want to cry just looking at her.”

Jack Reynor plays Conor’s much older brother who long ago surrendered to the family misery and sank into drink, drugs, and nothingness. In a scene so overwhelming that it reduces the audience to absolute silence, Brendan rises in sudden, strong emotional support of his younger brother’s dreams.

The characters created by these young Irish actors are consistently believable, never overdone, and deeply appealing in their confusion and shyness. And all of it is set to the beat of John Carney’s infectious score. You won’t forget this movie.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Sing Street
Word count : 498
Studio : The Weinstein Brothers
Running time : 497
Rating : PG-13