La La Land is Fun, but Overrated

LA LA LAND (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Summit Entertainment, 128 minutes, PG-13.

La La Land has gained loads of praise. Some have hailed it a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. What this really tells us, though, is that current films are so desultory that anything with a heartbeat gets a rave. Sorry to disappoint. La La Land does indeed have its heart in the right place, but it's a total WTLD film (Wanted to Love. Didn't.)

I won't be a total curmudgeon—many parts of the La La Land are well done and lots of it is fun. Especially crisp is the opening dance sequence, which runs before the credits roll. It's MTV-meets-Glee in its flashy-on-the-border-of-trashy style, but it's also a shit-kicking prelude. There is also a very amazing Butterfly Effect montage toward the end. The choreography is wonderful, the sets are lush, the editing is top drawer, Justin Hurwitz's score is terrific, and the camera work is stellar. As classic song-and-dance films go, however, this one is decidedly second tier because of a weak script and unwise casting.

I mention the opening and closing sequences because they are miles better than the movie's body, which too often sags and drags. La La land is essentially Cinderella reimagined–the story of a cute but struggling actress, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) who works in a big Hollywood studio–as a barista, not on the sets. She's treated like dirt by her supervisor, snooty customers, and distracted casting agents; call them wicked stepsister substitutes. Then she literally slams into a potential Prince Charming, brilliant jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling). Let's toss in a touch of Snow White, as there's a poisoned apple lurking: obsession-level ambition. Mia is at the now-or-never stage of her career and Sebastian is so principled about his music that he's a snob–a "huge pain in the ass," as his jazz buddy Keith (John Legend) puts it. Some might recognize director Damien Chazelle for his work on Whiplash, which was also about passion, ambition, and jazz. Alas, whereas Whiplash was a diamond, La La Land is cubic zirconia. First, we already got the idea from Whiplash that Chazelle is devoted to jazz, and making Sebastian his pigheaded (and lecture-prone) mouthpiece for "real" jazz pushes Chazelle toward Woody Allen-like annoyance levels on the subject. A subtheme of the film–uttered several times–is that "jazz is dying." Yes it is, but I doubt Chazelle's full-court propaganda press will change that. What it means in the movie is that jazz drives the script, not the central Sebastian/Mia relationship. Forget Los Angeles; it takes just a New York minute to realize that Sebastian is, at best, a flawed Prince Charming and it's not just music getting in the way. Much of La La Land has severe tonal problems. It's frothy rom-com musical at one moment, didactic the next, then it brings us down, seeks to perk us up, and brings us back down. Rinse and repeat.

But even had the script been tighter, there's no escaping the fact that La La Land is poorly cast. Stone and Gosling are physically appealing and look like the ideal musical couple but that's where the similarities end. Their dancing is passable–especially when they are thrust into big production numbers–but neither of them can be said to be more than adequate as singers (and in Gosling's case, that's a charitable remark). They're certainly not Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds–the Singin' in the Rain homage notwithstanding. Alas, there is very little chemistry between them at all, which means that scenes aiming to heighten emotional drama flutter rather than soar. Stone is mostly convincing as a vulnerable ingénue, but Gosling is becoming a bore on the screen. Have we seen him do anything other than play a brooding can't-commit ageing Millennial with a four-day stubble? It's not good news when neither of your leads can carry the film and it's worse when they are so wooden together that they suck the magic from the musical. John Legend is the only one who seems comfortable in his skin and that, of course, is because he is a musician.

To be clear, this film isn't a turkey. Fans of musicals will be entertained by nods to old musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singin' in the Rain, and Broadway Melody of 1940. Movie buffs will find winks less obvious than the clips from Rebel without a Cause, and nostalgia nuts will revel over the very look of the film. Maybe the twelve people who think Los Angeles deserves a love letter will convince themselves it's as romantic as Paris. I suspect Oscar will hand out loads of nominations as well. Among the deserving: cinematographer Linus Sandgren, choreographer Mandy Moore, editor Tom Cross, and composer Justin Hurwitz. But if Oscar gets anywhere near Stone, Gosling, or Chazelle, shoot your television!

Go see La La Land for escapist fun, but remember that it's a WTLD movie, not a classic film.

Rob Weir


Emma Cline's Chilling Reimagining of Those who Followed Charles Manson

THE GIRLS (2016)
By Emma Cline
Random House, 355 pages

Emma Cline pulls off a remarkable literary feat in The Girls: she makes us keep turning the pages though the story's ending is preordained and known. That's because it's based on the real-life 1969 Tate-LaBiana cult murders orchestrated by Charles Manson. Names are changed, dialogue is invented, and a 14-year-old protagonist is interjected, but Cline isn't trying to fool anyone; were this a movie, we'd call parts of it a shot-by-shot remake. Still, Cline's small shifts of focus give us tremendous insight into things such as cult recruiting, obsession, fatal attraction, and evil.

Cults have now undergone so much sociological analysis that their recruitment patterns are well known. Cult members approach those with outward signs of alienation–scruffy travelers, stressed students, street people, stoners, and loners. First befriend them, and then immerse them in the group through a technique known as "love bombing." Cline's victim is 14-year-old Evie Boyd, the product of a broken home who lives with her mother and her string of short-time inappropriate boyfriends. Add Ms. Cline's novel to those that eviscerate the soullessness of middle-class suburbia. Evie grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, but now lives in the Bay Area 'burb of Petaluma, which was, in 1969, a few years behind the calendar on the Excitement Scale. Evie has little to do but ride her bike through the sterile town, parks, and environs. She can pretty much do as she wishes as she's always been a 'good' girl, and her mom is too ineffectual to question obvious lies or notice money lifted from her purse. In short, Evie is bored and lonely­–her former BFF has moved on to others who share her emergent girly ideals.

In such a scenario, even rank dumpster divers can seem appealing–if draped in brightly colored garb and decked in headbands, costume jewelry, and sandals. Evie is especially drawn to Suzanne (who is patterned on Manson member Susan Adkins), on whom she develops a serious (and erotic) girl crush. Soon she is drawn into Suzanne's inner circle of women, all of whom serve Russell, the Svengali-like rooster around whom the flock swoons. The "girls" support him through theft, ego-stroking, cooking, attending to his sexual desires, and assuring him he's a musical genius who deserves support from hanger-on Mitch (patterned on Dennis Wilson) in his quest to release an LP. Evie is desperate to prove her worthiness to belong to a family that seems miles better than the one she has.

Cline is brilliant at getting inside the 14-year-old mind. You probably recoiled at the above paragraph but think of your 14-year-old self. Were you too craving any sort of acceptance? What would you have done to hold onto what you then identified as "love?" Cline takes us inside Evie's mind through memory scraps, small incidents, and sense impressions. At her best, Cline makes us smell the sourness of unwashed bodies, feel the stickiness of jism, and experience the frisson of living dangerously. Her style is a skillful reordering of stream-of-consciousness writing that is subtly structured for coherence's sake.

Cline tells Evie's story through the now-familiar technique of flashback/flash forward. We also meet middle-aged Evie, though her story is less compelling. This may be due to the fact that Cline was just 27 when she wrote this novel–which puts her closer to 14-year-old Evie than to a future woman carrying baggage a bit heavier than regret. (A curse?) This Evie forever bears the stigma of having been "one" of the women who knew the Monster, though her middle-aged self seems about as fearsome and forceful as a bag of Wonder Bread. She does provoke thought, though. How would any of us react decades later if we once flirted with something unspeakably awful? Speaking for myself, I sometimes wonder about youthful moments in which I weaved one way instead of another. How would my life today be different if I had made decision X instead of Y?

As for Ms. Cline's novel, there is a dramatic tonal shift when writing about middle-aged Evie. Is this verisimilitude, or inconsistency? I can't decide, but I will say that you will have a hard time putting down this book–even though you know the fate of Manson and his closest minions. Showing this through 14-year-old eyes is, I think, the closest we'll get to a new perspective on Manson. If it makes us more aware of how charlatans and demagogues recruit, that's all to the good. You can be forgiven, though, if you just find The Girls a compulsive read.

Rob Weir


Best and Worst of 2016

Best and Worst of 2016

2016 isn't likely to go down as the best year of anyone's life–not even for the smarmy racists who can't wait for Trump to take power. Wait until they get a load of what he really has in store for peons like themselves! In the "mixed bag at best" spirit of things, here's my short list of the Best and Worst of 2016.


It was a pretty good year for art–one enhanced by a relative dearth of "blockbuster" shows. I'm a big fan of smaller exhibits–especially those that expose us to the works of those likely to get lost in the hype of "big" art events.

Two shows stand out as, simply, a whole lot of fun. There was, first of all, one devoted to quirky Maine artist Bernard Langlais that I saw at the Ogunquit Museum of Modern Art last spring. The other is at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May of 2017: an exhibit devoted to Hanna-Barbera cartoons. (Watch the blog for an upcoming review.) 

My vote for the worst was Milton Avery in Vermont at the Bennington Museum of Art. It wasn't horrible—simply minor work that didn't justify the hype. 


This was another stellar year in fiction, but one would be hard-pressed to read anything more magical than Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She'sSorry. Is it Shakespeare? Who cares!

Margaret Atwood surprisingly takes the booby prize for worst novel of the year with her The Heart Goes Last. Maybe it does, but I've seldom seen a great writer–and Atwood falls into that category–so completely lose control of a narrative. The last third of this book is an embarrassment.


So many wonderful things came out last year, but two stayed with me: Ten Strings and a Goat Skin kicked up a mighty Celtic ruckus on Après du Poêle and Carrie Newcomer scored with earnest, honest, transcendence on The Beautiful Not Yet.

The worst? Not much turned me off, though Louise Goffin, the daughter of Bernie Goffin and Carole King reminded me on The Essential Louise Goffin that chips often fall pretty far from the block.


Mediocrity ruled in 2016–so much so that it's no longer silly to contemplate whether Hollywood has a future. Sequels, video games made into features, and f/x that can't disguise the essential vacuousness of scripts have become Hollywood's stock-in-trade.

My best American film of the year is Hell or High Water, which came out earlier in the year and probably won't win any big awards come Oscar time, but it has more soul and humanity than most of what's on offer. And, as is always the case this time of the year—Oscar front-runners won't be released in most of the country until around February 1. 

Rams, an Icelandic gem, was the best foreign film of the year. 

The worst? So many choices, but I found Anomalisa creepy in a disturbing way. I also thought  A Bigger Splash was awful in just about every way it could be.


I'm supposed to say the Cubs winning the World Series, right? Actually, I was more thrilled to see the Cleveland Indians get that far. I've long said there was no excuse for a team as rich as the Cubs to have sucked as long as they did, so let's show some love for the champions from the postindustrial shores of Lake Erie.

Worst: The NationalFootball League. It makes me want to vomit—not just because people my neck of the woods worship Yuppie scum Tom Brady, but because the NFL is an entire industry supported by taxpayer dollars that lines the pockets of owners that ignore concussion syndrome. Is there anything more vile than literally killing young men for a gladiator spectacle? In a just world, football would be banned–like dog fighting and bear-baiting.


Was there anything good? Barack Obama got nothing done in his final year in office, lacked the courage to fight for his Supreme Court nominee, and began easing out of town after selling out Israel without making any demands that Palestinian terrorism cease. Ugh!

But the shining moment—and alas! It was just a moment–was the campaign of Bernie Sanders. For a shining moment we actually discussed the importance of class and imagined a world remade. Young people were engaged and excited, Wall Street was quaking in its collective boots, and the Democratic Establishment was wringing its hands. I cherish those memories, as I doubt their like will come again in my lifetime.

The worst? Of course it's impending racist, neo-fascism regime of Donald Trump. But my runner-up low light was the bankruptcy of liberalism. Liberals are just as responsible as the Tea Party for Trump's victory. What a crock of bullshit they tried to peddle. That Hillary was a progressive. That she who only ever won a single political race in her life was more "experienced" than Sanders. That everything that happened to her was due to sexism or some other external unfairness. That she cared about ordinary Americans. That "only she" could beat Trump. I'd gloat—except that Trump is too dangerous to allow that. But dammit! Liberals got what they deserved. Those who fail to dream never wake up. I'm honestly not sure the Democratic Party can be salvaged. Or if it should be.

Alkibar Junior; Sandaraa; Amira Medunjanin

There are few more eye-opening experiences than a trip abroad. But if you got a little bit of cash for the holidays and don't have either enough of it or the time to hop a plane right now, a global musical journey is as close as a few mouse clicks and as cheap as a few bucks. Here are a three wonderful examples.

I adore African music and Jamal, a new release from the Malian band Alkibar Junior, is one of my favorite releases of 2016. A quick lesson for those less familiar with African music: In the West, melody and instrumental solos are usually dominant, with bass and percussion providing scaffolding. Much of West African music is the opposite. Singer Sekou Touré anchors this album. (Don't confuse him with the deceased Guinean dictator of that name. Touré is a common surname in West Africa.) Touré hails from the same commune in Timbuktu as the famed Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) and several members of the latter's band appear on Jamal, an album of praise songs dedicated to those who guided northern Mali through recent political and economic crises. What a recording! On "Suka," Sekou Touré's voice mesmerizes and calms; on "Tjmi" he opens with a vocal blast, then settles into a groove in which all the voices, instruments, and percussion blend into a soupy mix. The overall effect is akin to having been forcibly hurled into a stream then deciding to just float along with the current. Instruments are played skillfully, but not in that look-at-me individual style of Western music. "Djugal" has a meaty bass part that opens the song, but it's just a start/stop/go framing device; "Kori" is like an electrified lullaby in which Diadie Bocum's guitar, Touré, and the backup singers rock us to serenity. And then there's the soulful and meditative "Daou," which is the kind of song that conjures Deadheads of a bygone era in a drifting circular dance, heads titled back, and eyes closed. The songs are mostly in Songhai, but you won't need translation—joy and tranquility transcend language. (PS: CD song titles and those on the download version don't always match, but I think they're the same tracks.)

The first question that occur when you hear Sandaraa is geographical. Is this a Middle Eastern band? South Asian? Balkan? A klezmer ensemble? The answer is "yes." It is Lahore-meets-Brooklyn in conception, a collaboration between Pakistani singer Zebunnisa Bangash and metro New York clarinet master Michael Winograd. The fiddler, guitarist, bass player, accordionist, and percussionist are also based in Brooklyn, though several of them have deep ethnic roots and none of them seem to be constrained by any particular national border when they pick up their instruments. Ms. Bangash is a marvel. We listen to her undulations, staccato cadences, and elides duel with Winograd's clarinet on a song like "Jegi Jegi" and hear klezmer strained through a world music filter. Nothing is hurried on their self-titled EP. There is the trance-meets-keening of "Mana Nele" clocking in at 7:20, and the trippy "Bibi Sanem Janem" at 5:40. The latter song is typical of how Sandaraa build compositions. It opens with a soulful clarinet solo and eases into swaying rhythms that explain why this ensemble's 2013 founding was partly underwritten by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. "Dilbrake Nazinin" is a particularly lovely piece that unfolds to guitarist Yoshie Fructer bending the strings as if he were wielding a sitar and he commands the first minute and a half before Bangash sings. She stays quiet and wistful until the 3:50 mark when the song leaps into higher gear–only to have Ms. Bangash settle it back to a more contemplative level. I call this the feather-hammer-feather effect. The EP's final track, "Haatera Taiyga" spotlights tin-pan-style percussion from Richie Barshay that frames several instrumental surges bordering on wildness–but there is always Bangash's voice that invokes an angel standing pacific in the middle of hot oil. Sandaraa often reminded me of a South Asian version of Pentangle. That's a good thing–a very good thing.

Amira Medunjanin is a Bosnian singer from Sarajevo and is considered by many to be the world's finest interpreter of Sevdah, which doesn't have an easy English translation. Oddly, to get it, it's helpful to think of ancient Greek medicine. The Greeks thought there were four basic elements: air, water, fire, and earth. These corresponded to four bodily "humors:" blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Sevdah derives from the last of these, the least plentiful humor in the body, but the animating force connected with melancholy, pensiveness, pragmatism, and pessimism. If you get the idea that Medunjanin's latest CD, Damar, is layered with dark tones, you're on the mark. One reviewer called her the "Bosnian Billie Holiday." I get that, but to my ear,  fado legend Amalia Rodrigues is a better match. Sevdah is a music of sorrow–like fado or a less ribald version of Greek rebetika. Why would you wish to hear such music? Because Ms. Medunjanin's vice will freeze you in your tracks; because her songs will stir things in your soul. And because you had no idea that darkness came in so many shades. On Damar she works with jazz pianist Bojan Z and guitarist Boŝko Jovíc, the first of whom sets new moods with a single note or pause, and the latter of whom is steeped flamenco fingering. This album demands more that you feel what Medunjanin sings rather than understand the lyrics. I don't know any Croatian, but even good translation software struggles with titles such as "Pjevat cemo sta nam srce zna." (My best guess: "Sing What the Heart Knows.") I can tell you, though, that it's a soulful mid-tempo song in which Medunjanin's mildly operatic quaver oozes emotion. I can also tell you that "Tvojte ociLeno mori" is a Macedonian folk song that feels as if it were sung by a sad madrigal, and that "Ah sto cemo Ljubav Kriti" ("Oh, Why Should We Hide Our Love?") is a traditional Herzegovina song that unfolds deliberately and mournfully. I can also tell you that the title track demonstrates the literal depths of Medunjanin's range, as she dips down to smoky tones reminiscent of the husk of Marlene Dietrich. Pain has seldom sounded so good.

Rob Weir