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Film Review: La La Land

La La Land – Insipid But Entertaining

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This 2016 Academy Award nominated musical (a record tying 14 nominations), written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the wunderkind creator of the astonishing Whiplash) is this year’s can-do-no-wrong romantic comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

La La Land is a bold resurrection of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1940-50s musical with a blend of nostalgia (using filtered-lens cinematography and period costumes) mixed with the novelty of contemporary millennial life in Los Angeles.  A flip-book of competing images of vintage and modern L.A. with twirling skirts and old-fashioned dancing, La La Land is all about dreaming for the big break in Hollywood.

An undeniable paean to the joy and ecstasy of following your passions, this film also touches upon the sacrifices to one’s personal life, to missed connections and to other dreams that will never come true.  Part “Never-Never Land” and part “Singing in the Rain.”  However, the conventional storyline – love versus ambition – never rises above being forgettable.

Perhaps the most interesting interlude in the film, however, is Mia and Seb’s friend, Keith (John Legend) whose relaxed approach to the commercial aspects of being a musician challenge Seb’s dogmatic “purist” views of selling out to music venues.  The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and La La Land is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise.  I loved this observation.

The cinematography and special effects are the best part of this movie.  Except for the song “City of Stars,” the music is more competent than dazzling.  You’re more likely to remember what you saw than what you heard.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Where is La La Land going?  Is this Hollywood couple going to make it after all?  Should we care?  The film suffers from what it is supposed to parody:  Hollywood’s addiction to artifice and self-congratulation.  (Amen, sister!  – Ed.)  By the end, La La Land is an imperfect film that entertains, partly because it is a pleasant surprise to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

Sometimes a movie comes along that is entertaining and refreshingly light when we desire that intensely.  Right for this moment, viewers can forgive La La Land for being a not very good but deliciously tasty confection of sound and color.  I expected more given all the awards and accolades.

Diana Y. Paul

Diana Y. Paul is a retired Stanford professor, an expert on Buddhism and an author (Things Unsaid: A Novel).  You can read more of her reviews at the Unhealed Wound blog:

http://www.unhealedwound.com/

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Lean On Me

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Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

In this extraordinary – at times harrowing – memoir we see the Lesser family deal with the impending death of Maggie, the high-spirited hummingbird in the family. Maggie needs a bone marrow transplant and her older sister Liz is the perfect match. The other two sisters remain outliers (not by choice), intensifying the family conflict.

Intense, raw, and brutally honest, Liz and Maggie are forced to communicate in a way that had eluded them growing up. Things unsaid were embedded in the family’s core and, through acts of bravery, the “wounded healing” begins.

While “marrow” refers to the painful transplant Liz undergoes in an attempt to save Maggie’s life, “marrow” is more frequently and powerfully used as a metaphor for the core of the sisters’ relationship — where the “stem cells of life” originate and the sisters’ assumptions about each other are often distortions and lies. Each sister tells a different story of her childhood, viewing the family dynamics though a different lens.

“We will dig for our goodness and harvest the marrow of ourselves for each other…” the two sisters promise each other as they consent to therapy and spiritual approaches to death and dying. The author mingles Buddhist meditation, philosophy and literary allusions sometimes successfully (and sometimes not) in seeking meaning not only for Maggie’s premature and terminal illness but also for human connection. At the end there is only the feeling of being “helpless with love” and a lesson for us all in facing the death of loved ones – and our own death.

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Marrow is a deeply affecting trigger to the heart about love, family and learning to let go. This memoir is for those who can face a narrative about trauma in life without getting depressed or angry. I highly recommend it!

Diana Y. Paul

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on September 20, 2016.

Diana Y. Paul, a retired Stanford professor, is the author of three books on Buddhism and Things Unsaid: A Novel (She Writes Press). You can read her reviews of films and art at: http://www.unhealedwound.com/.

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Sounding the Alarm

tolling of mercedes bell

The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

In the style and spirit of P.D. James, author Jennifer Dwight captures the tough terrain of a psychological thriller. Presented through an unflinching panoramic vision, the reader soon is pulled into the harrowing six-year journey of Mercedes Bell, a thirty-four-year-old paralegal; a recent widow with a four-year-old daughter. She soon finds what she believes is her dream come true. This award winning book novel lays the groundwork for its shocking, blood-curdling climax with a careful, meticulously crafted build-up of subtle clues.

After the midpoint in the narrative, when the plot reaches a crescendo following an accumulation of very subtle descriptions foreshadowing doom, we are still treated to vivid emotional imagery:

she was trapped into a reality, as if she had stepped into an Escher illustration where the stairs that seemed to go up really went down; where the doors that seemed to open to the outside really opened inward, into dark places of suspicion and fear.

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This is a wonderful page-turner, with a number of of unpredictable subplots. I loved even the dastardly characters because I felt I could understand their insecurities and fears! In summary, this is a wonderful and astonishing page-turner and debut novel.

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on May 3, 2016.

Diana Y. Paul is the author of Things Unsaid: A Novel. You can read more of her entertainment and cultural reviews at the Unhealed Wound blog:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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“Brooklyn” – New World versus Old

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“Brooklyn,” which was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best picture in a list of much more intensely themed dramas, is an easy movie to fall in love with. A classic boy-meets-girl coming-of-age film, set in the early 50s and reminiscent of movies of that era. Two young immigrants meet in Brooklyn and fall in love, yet the young woman still yearns for the country and home she left behind. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same title (screenplay by Nick Hornby), “Brooklyn” conveys a specific historical time and worldview but the wounds and dilemmas are universal.

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Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, a young Irish woman who has few options back home in the Green Isle. Adventurous but devoted to her widowed mother and sister, she feels unanchored, desperate to find a more welcoming environment in which to navigate her adulthood. Tenderhearted, gentle, and hesitant in speech, Ellis soon falls in love with a young Italian immigrant whose culture is every bit as new to her as living in Brooklyn.

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The film “Brooklyn” is much more than a simple coming-of-age tale, however. It is a story of choosing between the family one grows up in and the one created as an adult. Brooklyn – the location – symbolizes new frontiers of freedom and opportunity with little regard for the economic decisions Ellis must make. Ellis must find her own identity while choosing between two value systems and two futures.

Ronan, who was nominated for Best Actress (and cast in “Attonement,” “Lovely Bones,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), gives a stunning performance as the innocence-lost maiden who has to understand what truly is the nature of home. Her moral choices are somewhat predictable but the dilemma is a universal one – choosing another’s happiness over one’s own, deciding on one’s own future first, or trying to have both. This young twenty-two year old actress is a pleasure to watch as she gains confidence one small victory at a time.

The overarching theme is one of possibility (which can be frightening) and independence (which can be depressing and isolating) versus the tradition and comfort of family. The known versus the unknown. Many have to make the decision of which path to take in life. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we typically see in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate or determine fates.

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“Brooklyn” is classic! Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

To see more reviews and articles by Diana Paul, go to:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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Film Review: Trainwreck

Trainwreck – A Comic Collision

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Trainwreck is the best and funniest rom-com since Bridesmaids, another hilarious quasi-feminist film by Judd Aptow, known also for bro-coms like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. And like previous Aptow productions Bridesmaids and Girls, Trainwreck is both funny and a little sad. The scenes that are the most memorable and vivid, however, are comic fireworks. Written by and starring Amy Schumer, the humor is raunchy, pushes the boundaries of conventional one-liners, and is as sexually explicit as Schumer’s Comedy Central TV series.

Amy Townshend (Schumer) is the daughter of a cantankerous, alcoholic dad (Colin Quinn) with infidelity and commitment issues. Amy naturally follows in his footsteps. Disagreements with her younger sister about Dad’s assisted living expenses become a key indicator of Amy’s attitude toward the deeply unsympathetic man who helped shape the mess she’s become. And it’s all too clear that Amy’s commitment-phobia, compulsive drinking, and pot smoking are masking deeper wounds. As a staff writer for a low brow men’s magazine, Amy gets assigned to interview Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor to the elite like LeBron James (who surprises with impeccable comic timing). The reason for the assignment: she hates sports.

Schumer and Hader have unbelievable chemistry together. Hader’s goofy Mr. Nice Guy channels Tom Hanks early on in his career. And he plays perfectly to Schumer’s fear of intimacy and seeming invulnerability. That’s the basic theme here: rejecting those we desire before they have a chance to reject us. The why-try-if-we-know-how-it-will-end syndrome.

And what a comic team Schumer and Hader make! Funny or serious, they approach every scene without skipping a beat in timing. Open, fearless, undefended, masterful. The supporting cast (Tilda Swinton, Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Brie Larson) also delivers hilarious and moving performances. What every great comedy requires!

Some of the comedy in this film may not appeal to all, but Schumer’s a juggernaut for women in comedy just as much as her predecessors: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Lena Dunahm, most of whom have been supported by Apatow. Beat for beat, Trainwreck is one of Aptow’s most consistently funny and charming films ever.

I want to see more of Amy Schumer!

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

This review was first posted on the Unhealed Wound blog:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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