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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone delight in La La Land

Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival

La La Land (Photo: TIFF)
La La Land (Photo: TIFF)

Opening with a dance number set in a traffic jam and a gag lifted from The Girl Can’t Help It, La La Land (Grade: A- / B+) announces itself as a film both energized and limited by its commitment to movie musical tradition. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a spectacular and bittersweet crowd-pleaser, but it’s sometimes more concerned with synthesizing lost Hollywood magic than with making any of its own. (At 126 minutes, it’s also one or two musical numbers too long.) Yet the purity of Chazelle’s intentions shines through; taking happiness and fantasy (i.e., the things classic musicals are supposed to provide) as his themes, he’s created a heartfelt romance, set against the backdrop of an idyllic Los Angeles. It asks what the characters of a Cinemascope musical would have to dream about, and answers with a finale that lifts the film to a higher plane of wish fulfillment and melancholy.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make for a terrific pair of leads: she’s an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot, he’s a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas piano in a restaurant. Neither is an exceptional singer, but they fit in seamlessly in the buoyant and charming score by Chazelle’s longtime musical collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. (The two have made a musical before: Chazelle’s black-and-white 16mm debut, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, which La La Land echoes.) These are characters who live in a reality of movie references; if the projector breaks down during the planetarium scene at a screening of Rebel Without A Cause, they can just hop into a car and drive over to the Griffith Observatory themselves.

Chazelle’s filmmaking is energetic. But despite the ramped-up, colorful artificiality (almost every scene starts with a visual gag), Stone’s and Gosling’s performances become more characterizations as the film goes on, without ever sacrificing La La Land’s air of fairy tale. (Let’s just say the plot has some commonalities with Woody Allen’s recent Café Society.) A day after the press screening, what strikes me most is that this musical homage to the more perfect world of vintage Hollywood—where getting your car towed or being bored at a party can lead to a moment of bliss—is almost entirely about people wondering whether there’s something more.

A Quiet Passion (Photo: TIFF)

What does it say about Terence Davies that the closest he’s come to making a comedy is an Emily Dickinson biopic? To be fair, one of the central ideas of A Quiet Passion (Grade: B) is that the 19th century was a time when words mattered more than they do now—though that’s par for the course for Davies, whose movies (all of which have been period pieces) give the impression that whatever it is that they’re about was more important then. In keeping with Davies’ cinema of lost pastimes, the Dickinson clan and their neighbors contrive to end every exchange with a witticism or knowing remark, joking about books they haven’t read and places they’ll never go. In this modest life of lengthy absences, limited experiences, and untimely deaths (this is a Terence Davies movie, after all), with no art aside from the family portrait and very little music, words are the only consistent source of entertainment, vicarious pleasure, and humor.

Davies—who began his career as a master of autobiographical films but has since shifted to very personal literary adaptations like The House Of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea—has zero intention of bringing this world to life. After the melodramatic classicism of Sunset Song, he has retreated into a style that is even more deliberately stiff and alienating than usual. If there’s ingenuity to it, it’s the way it simultaneously conveys the feeling of a time when people could be scandalized by a reference or enraptured by a sermon and the fact that life was dull and often cruel. (It should be noted that protagonists of Davies’ latter-day fiction films have all been socially isolated women.) But though it boasts a couple of very fine performances from Cynthia Nixon (as Dickinson) and Keith Carradine (as her father), A Quiet Passion is hampered by being too long and repetitive. As in the sometimes impenetrable Sunset Song, Davies, the most interiorized of English filmmakers, shows his devotion through his fidelity to text, trying portray as much as he can of the poet’s sad but notoriously uneventful life.

Daguerrotype (Photo: TIFF)

A lever-operated manual elevator whisked me up to the mezzanine of the Winter Garden Theatre so I could make my screening of Daguerrotype (Grade: C+), the new film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese writer-director best known for Cure and Pulse, both classics of modern horror. It was a fitting way to enter the TIFF line-up’s other foray into interiorized 19th century influence. (A Quiet Passion actually has a neat and atypical sequence involving a daguerreotype photo studio.) A French-language production set mostly on a property on the outskirts of present-day Paris, Daguerrotype is something like a lesser gothic novel, possessed by its own backstory. It’s a shame that it turns so silly—devolving, as real 19th century stories often did, into a lengthy conflict over real estate—because its first hour carries so much suggestive potential. This is especially true of the way Kurosawa uses a modern-day attempt to recreate early photography as a metaphor for cinema: a painstaking and almost mystical process that it’s trying to recapture a long-lost sense of wonder.

A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim stars as an out-of-work nobody who answers an ad to become the assistant to a semi-retired fashion photographed (Olivier Gourmet) who lives in a creepy manor and is obsessed with taking life-sized daguerreotype photos of his strange and beautiful daughter (Constance Rousseau, whose nystagmus defines her character’s otherworldliness). A convoluted turn of events shifts the focus of the film to something that is both ludicrous and disappointingly easy to rationalize. I’m still mulling over the film and the grade isn’t permanent, in part because I found Kurosawa’s sense of mood (this is one of his most beautiful films, with a Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Grégoire Hetzel) so much more compelling than the narrative’s awkward mix of haunted house and noir conventions. For a movie that doesn’t really work, I’ve found myself recommending it to an awful lot of people.

Plus: It wasn’t until a conversation on the sidewalk outside the Scotiabank Theatre that it dawned on me that I’d already seen two films (Orly, Marseille) by Angela Schanelec, the German director of The Dreamed Path (Grade: D+). The funny thing is that I can’t remember why I’ve seen two of them (presumably, I must have been intrigued by one enough to try more), and this claptrap sure didn’t jog my memory. With its imitations of Robert Bresson close-ups, pointless references to European political change, actors talking about acting, junkies who are never seen doing drugs, “unexpected” pop songs, and deliberately obscured narrative (probably because—wait for it—it has the arc of a bad Victorian social novel), Schanelec’s studious bore seems intended for an audience of people who write film festival catalogue descriptions.

I’ve been trying to catch up on the short films playing in TIFF’s narrative and avant-garde programs, which I’ll go through in my final dispatch. For now, though, I’ll say that one I’d been looking forward to turned out to be a disappointment. A Funeral For Lightning (Grade: C+), the first narrative short by music video director Emily Kai Bock (“Oblivion,” “Afterlife”), depicts a young pregnant woman in Tennessee as she gets sweet-talked and strung along by her man, a country dance caller. Shot in a combination of 35mm and 70mm, this 25-minute film has its share of evocative rural and regional imagery, but it plays like a photo assignment in need of an editor and accompanying text.