La La Land is a destination worth the journey

Hot damn, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. Whiplash, the best movie of 2014, ended with one hell of a bang, a rebellious drumming extravaganza that hit an insane number of climactic character beats while also working incredibly well of sheer spectacle alone. Chazelle’s latest, La La Land, similarly sticks the landing, and its final ten minutes left me an absolute wreck. In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo. If you subscribe to the school of moments-make-a-movie, La La Land is probably the best picture of the year. But while the rest of the movie builds beautifully to that last hurrah, its less engaging than one might expect, with most of the musical numbers working just well enough and the plot mechanics feeling all too familiar.

La La Land opens with a big musical number, as commuters hop out of their cars in L.A. to sing a sunny ditty about their dreams to make it big, putting a smile on their professional anxiety. It’s a fun sequence, if not a bit over-hyped, but after that and an opening number for Stone at a Hollywood party, La La Land turns into much less of a theatrical musical than advertised. It wouldn’t be a Chazelle film without a reliance on music, but only on four or so occasions throughout does it call on its characters to sing (at least in a non-diegetic fashion; on a related note, word of the day: Diegesis). This might disappoint some of the musical theater fans out there, but it works for the film. In their first real meeting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get to connect through singing in an adorable and adorably rickety meet-cute (they aren’t quite Rogers and Astaire). But their second big coupley moment is entirely instrumental, and finds Chazelle at his most directorially creative. And it works perfectly for Gosling and Stone, who have an immediate chemistry that the entire film is built around. Stone in particular fleshes out a familiar character type in interesting ways, becoming the true beating heart of the film. Even though the title portends to be about Hollywood as a whole, the film is intimately focused on these two characters, to the point where the third-billed actor has maybe two minutes of screen time. The tight focus helps, as even when the movie loses its grip here and there, the core relationship at the centre is always believable and worth rooting for.

La La Land is nakedly in love with the past, and some of its more interesting moments come from mixing old-fashioned tropes with the new (such as key fob woes translating to spontaneous tap dancing). Chazelle also has occasional unromanticized streaks, letting his camera focus on the cracked sidewalks that could come from anywhere in the world (and, you know, that whole traffic jam musical number). But this is a movie where an attempt to modernize jazz is mocked (if not utterly dismissed), and Chazelle seems to take that sentiment to heart. While it modernizes some old tropes, it doesn’t reinvent them, and comes up a bit short of a revolution (which is a lot to ask of any movie, but the buzz around La La Land earns the request). It takes more time in the middle than it should, and by the end, maybe believes in the dream of Hollywood a bit too much itself. While not as optimistic as its cast of commuters, this is certainly a less cynical film than Whiplash was. But, once again, I keep coming back to that final act in my head. Even if its a bit of an uneven journey, the destination is an absolute triumph.

B+

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La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

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La La Land is a destination worth the journey

Weiner is a timely, cringy political time capsule

Joe Biden summed up the general opinion of the left when it was revealed that Anthony Weiner was somehow involved with the re-opening of the Clinton email scandal in the waning days of the never-ending 2016 US election with a muttered, resigned “oh god,” which I’m sure we can all mentally complete with a “not this guy again.” That feeling persists when confronted with Weiner the documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at his attempted comeback, running for Mayor of New York after a sexting scandal caused him to resign from US Congress. Weiner smartly opens with a highlight reel of Weiner the congressman, a loud, brash individual who visibly gave a damn. It gives us a good enough reason to root for his comeback, even though we know its for not. When the second scandal breaks, it breaks us for two reasons, both related to the fact that it doesn’t really say anything that wasn’t part of the first scandal aside from adding the name “Carlos Danger” to the mix. There’s a part of it that’s incredibly unfair to Weiner himself, and it also damns journalism and particularly comedy journalism for making big issues out of personal dramedy. As hilarious as the Weiner scandal is from an outside perspective, its much less humorous to Weiner and his wife/political superstar Huma Abedin. But it also is incredibly difficult to watch a recreation of a time just three years ago where a man’s political career was ended by salacious but consensual acts, while another man’s political career managed to survive after bragging about sexual assault. Weiner would be uncomfortable to watch were the political climate unchanged since 2013, but in a modern lens, its hard not to sympathize with Weiner’s situation as unfair, regardless of whether he deserved the second chance or not. It’s timely, but almost too timely, like cringe humour that goes a step too far. Weiner’s situation is too unfair to elicit schadenfreude, but Weiner himself is a bit too much of a weiner to be the posterboy for media suffering.

Weiner the documentary deserves credit for staunchly taking the viewpoint that the second sex scandal was unfair, but not necessarily coming down on an entirely pro-Weiner viewpoint. Weiner is directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the former of whom was an employee of Weiner-as-congressman, explaining the almost unbelievable access they had to the campaign; in one moment, Weiner asks everyone but Abedin to clear the room, but allows the camera to stay. While they include things like Weiner speaking with flair on New York issues, putting his competition to task on the issues, and waving a whole lot of flags, they also get access to things like Weiner watching footage of himself yelling in an interview with a shit-eating grin. In the best moment of the film, we get a behind-the-scenes look at an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, which O’Donnell opens by pointedly asking Weiner “What’s wrong with you?” The directors cut back and forth between the broadcast footage and Weiner mic’d up and talking to O’Donnell over satellite, but visually talking to no one at all. While O’Donnell provoked Weiner’s outraged response, it’s framed as Weiner trying to justify himself to God, and it’s implied that just maybe he should try justifying it himself. He may not have been a useless political figure, but his well-intentioned narcissism brought him down time and time again. The film finds time to show him happy with his family, and does not bring up the recent third sexting scandal (for which Abedin did leave him). It paints the picture of someone who should have been given a second chance, but should have known to find a less public way to do it (a suggestion that Abedin run instead is glossed over), and couldn’t see past himself to see his defeat. Life is unfair, but instead of adapting, Weiner flamed out. It’s an interesting and open question exactly how much of that was deserved.

B+

weiner

Weiner (2016)
Directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman
Featuring Anthony Weine, Huma Abedin, and Sydney Leathers
Rotten Tomatoes (97%)

Weiner is a timely, cringy political time capsule

Keanu is alright, I guess

It’s just OK. Like, it’s fine, it passes the time well enough. It has a couple good jokes, there’s a bit of energy here there, and its got a cute cat. But it just never kicks into gear the way a Key and Peele skit usually does. The action scenes aren’t as lovingly made as something like MacGruber, the side characters aren’t as colorful as they need to be (except a game Will Forte), and it just kinda stalls for the middle act. It feels like Key and Peele knew they had to make a movie and tried to stretch a skit idea, rather than had an idea for a skit that turned out to be better suited for a movie. Given the talent of the leads, Keanu could never be a complete a waste of time, but is not the cult classic I might have expected.

C

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Keanu (2016)
Directed by Peter Atencio
Starring Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, and Method Mad
Rotten Tomatoes (76%)

Keanu is alright, I guess

My Top Songs of 2016

(There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom if you want to skip ahead)

2016 has been pretty universally panned as a year of despair, and if any industry other than the political landscape has something to mourn, it’s the music business. Sure, people die every year, but the loss of Leonard Cohen is major particularly in Canada, and the loss of Bowie seems so utterly world shifting that I’m sure it’s a sign of the apocalypse. As such, it ended up being an overall downbeat year for music, with no clear heir to hey-everything-is-great radio throne of last year’s agreeable Uptown Funk (on one hand, maybe Cake by the Ocean, but on the other hand, ughhh). But there were some great songs out there, and some absolutely fantastic albums. Listing them would be pretty arbitrary, but here are ten that really stood out for me this year, in no particular order except for the following Song of the Year:

Song of the Year

John K. SamsonPostdoc Blues [from Winter Wheat]

John K. Samson has made songs about modern academic struggles before, but Postdoc Blues pulls off the impressive feat of making it all sound natural despite lyrics about PowerPoint presentations and dongle trouble. Having been through it himself, Samson brings keen insights to the mindset that keeps one in the academic circuit in the final verse, how one can convince themselves that their work has importance beyond reality (“Recommit yourself to the healing of the world”). “Pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart,” he encourages at the end, at odds with the rest of the verse. Admittedly, I’m biased towards this song given that I’m starting my first postdoc at the start of 2017, but Samson has created a sad, hopeful, and relatable anthem for the over-educated masses.

Twelve More Picks

AJJ – Small Red Boy [from The Bible 2]

AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad) have always been an introspective band, but rarely have they married that tendency with storytelling. Small Red Boy, from the fantastic The Bible 2, is the perfect marriage of the two, telling a parable of caring for your own inner demons with vivid imagery (“His tongue became a staircase/His uvula the knocker”), building to a powerful ending. At the end, singer Sean Bonnette proclaims “No more shame/No more fear/No more dread,” accepting his demons as part of himself and encouraging us to do the same, releasing his emotions and reclaiming his self-esteem. And it’s a hell of a crescendo.

Car Seat Headrest – The Ballad of the Costa Concordia [from Teens of Denial]

For the uninitiated, Vincent or Fill in the Blank make for better Car Seat Headrest introductions, but his 11-minute epic The Ballad of the Costa Concordia is the magnum opus of his latest album, Teens of Denial. Its one hell of an ambitious track, using the failure of the captain of the Costa Concordia (which cost 32 people their lives) as a metaphor for failing to grow up perfectly. The song changes structure at least four times over its runtime, but follows the many ways we try to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions, most notably in its extended breakdown (“How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself” morphs into “How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”). He even manages to find a way to interpolate Dido’s White Flag, changing the hopeful “I’m in love and always will be” to a confused “I am lost, and always will be.” As a person, aren’t we all, but as a crafter of songs, Car Seat Headrest is perfectly in control.

Desiigner – Panda [from New English]

The first time I heard Panda, as a sample in Kanye West’s  Pt. 2, I really thought the hook was “Legacies/Family”, not “Black X6/Phantom.” While Panda isn’t the rumination on immortality I initially took it to be, it’s fucking fierce. The beat took over the world over the summer, and Desiigner’s unmistakable flow announces himself as a talent to watch (even though he’s only 18 years old). It’s the most memorable pure jam of the year.

DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels – Nobody Speak [from The Mountain Will Fall]

While the sudden release of RTJ3 in the waning days of the year was more than welcome, I’m having a hard time picking a favorite track from it (its something of an embarrassment of riches). Maybe its the distinctness of their early-year collaboration with DJ Shadow that makes it stand out, replacing El-P’s normal scratches and mixes with guitar scales and trumpets. It’s a very different sound for an RTJ track, but El-P and Killer Mike make the most of it, trading verses back and forth every four bars and laying in some of their best absurd boasting in careers full of it (“I will walk into court while erect, Screaming yes/motherfuckers, I am guilty, I am death” and “I don’t work for free/I am barely giving a fuck away” stand out). Even outside their home zone, Run the Jewels are still killing it.

EL VY – Are These My Jets? [from 30 Days, 30 Songs]

The terrifying rise of Donald Trump dominated the conversation in 2016, and maybe its too early to go back to enjoying culture that assumed he would never win. EL VY’s Are These My Jets? clearly didn’t think a Trump presidency was in the cards, portraying Trump as aloof and a bit ineffectual. The barbs are there, and they are potent (“I like to mix ladies’ drinks with my fingers” and “I was rocking back and forth/feeding on the fear, of course”), but it occasionally ascribes a Dubya-esque sympathy to the person, painting as someone incapable of understanding the damage he’s causing (“I like to tell him my stories from college/And how I was so lonely”). But this song, and the others from the 30 Days 30 Songs project, will serve as cultural artifacts of the esteem in which the majority of Americans held their future president, and is buoyed by the soothing delivery of Matt Berninger (most famously of The National) and the absurd and hilarious references to walrus dick jewelry. Yes, it’s a real thing.

Greg Laswell – Play That One Again [from Everyone Thinks I Dodged A Bullet]

This is the maybe saddest song ever made, a meditation on the passing of time and the ever-growing remove from the past, with all the joy it once held. Listen to it and weep, for we all are mortal saps.

Kanye West – Wolves [from The Life of Pablo]

The Life of Pablo was a bit of a mess, and Kanye West’s tour to support it certainly hasn’t gone as planned. But he’s still capable of putting together a killer track, whether it be the amazing soul drop on Famous, the Madlib-backed frenetic rapping on No More Parties in LA, or the downbeat majesty of Wolves. The beat is enticing, the Kanye verse is full of Kanye-isms (“You left your fridge open/Somebody just took a sandwich” and “What is Mary was in the club/Before she met Joseph/With hella thugs?”), and Sia and Vic Mensa add just enough flavour to the proceedings. It ends with a grainy, ear-piercing howl, relieved by (in the original mix) a lullaby from Frank Ocean, proclaiming “Life is precious, we found out,” ending the album with maybe more poignancy than it deserves, but its fitting for Wolves itself.

The Lemon Twigs – As Long As We’re Together [from Do Hollywood]

While it starts of a bit jangly and off-the-cuff, As Long As We’re Together builds into the type of garage jam that makes you want to stand on the nearest table and shout along. It’s kinda sweetly romantic, even if it really seems to end up being about falling in love too quickly (“We’ve only ever talked/For what seemed like an hour”), and its chorus riff and synth breakdown are Beatles-esque in the best possible way. And as long as it sounds this good, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker [from You Want It Darker]

The title track of what turned out to be Cohen’s final album made it crystal clear that he know the end was near (“I’m ready, my lord,” the refrain of the song goes). With the knowledge of the end in hand, Cohen addresses a potential God with wonder and criticism. In response to the world’s atrocities, he sneers “I didn’t know I had permission/To murder and to maim”. In response to fighting against a God, he yields “If you are the dealer/I’m out of the game”. Is it regret that plays into the line “If thine is the glory/Mine must be the shame”? Cohen’s last music is as thoughtful as it ever was, and his voice is as deep and potent as his younger days, with a perfectly minimalist accompaniment. His loss is a tragic one, but he left the world with a fantastic parting gift.

Mitski – Your Best American Girl [from Puberty 2]

Your Best American Girl is a deeply emotional song with a wallop of a drop in the chorus. Mitski unburdens her soul, discussing the difficulty connecting with men given a different cultural background, and her difficulty in accepting those differences in herself (“Your mother wouldn’t approve/Of how my mother raised me/But I do/I think I do” is the best line of the year, hands down). The raw honesty of the lyrics is mirrored in the pared-down verses and the wall-of-noise guitar in the chorus, showing that you can effectively communicate internal strife in a non-sardonic manner while still making one of the best damn rock songs of the year.

Sharon Van Etten – Not Myself

There are a lot of sad songs in the top group, it seems. A non-album single, Not Myself was released by Van Etten as a charity single in wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting. “I haven’t been this overwhelmed with sadness and disbelief in a long time,” Van Etten said of the song, and that melancholy is precisely conveyed through her near-wailing delivery, and her solidarity in lines like “I want you to be yourself around me.” It’s the kind of song that makes you stare off into the distance and, however briefly, consider the strife of others, and while its not always comfortable, its a cathartic listen.

Weezer – Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori [from The White Album]

The White Album was a big return to form for Weezer, and Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori stands as its best and most fun track. Its a straightforward jam, but has the old Weezer self-deprecating charm and a solo right from the best parts of the late 90s, and even sneaks in an obligatory lyrical oddity in “I feel it in my molecules.” It plays nicely into the album’s summer-romance theme (“You made me believe in God/When I finally awake/Both girls are gone”), and as a bonus, is the subject of the hands-down best episode of Song Exploder.

Rounding Out the Top 30ish

 

Album of the Year

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Teens of Denial made the guitar fun again. Over 12 often-long, often-meandering tracks, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo has created a stone-cold classic, injecting navel-gazing lyrics with soaring chorus and character. There’s not a stinker on the album, from the rocking opener Fill in the Blank, the dreamlike Vincent, the earnest Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, or the heartbreaking 1937 State Park (“I didn’t want you to hear/That shake in my voice/My pain is my own”). This is Toledo’s thirteenth album, and he’s only 24; I’m excited to see what he comes out with next, but he’s already created a masterpiece.

Runners Up: AJJ’s The Bible 2, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Run the Jewels’ RTJ3

My Top Songs of 2016