LA LA LAND (Summit/Lionsgate – December 2): No film arrived at Toronto this year with more hype to live up to than Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the follow-up to the filmmakers’s Oscar-winning Whiplash and the recipient of white-hot raves in Venice (where Emma Stone won the Best Actress award) and Telluride. Chazelle’s rapturous salute to movie musicals, both the classic Hollywood kind and the French films of the 1960s that paid them homage, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those who succumb to its glories will fall hard. And fast: the opening sequence alone, a full-scale musical number staged–in one shot!–on an LA freeway, is enough to earn Chazelle an Oscar nomination. All of that takes place before our enchanting leads even meet: aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). It’s unusual in today’s Hollywood for stars (outside of continuing franchises) to play opposite each other in multiple films, but Stone and Gosling have been working together since Crazy, Stupid, Love in 2011, and they fit the way romantic co-stars in the old studio days once did. Credit must be spread not just among Chazelle, Gosling and Stone, but composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, amazing cinematographer Linus Sandgren (who’s made Los Angeles look like a fantasy), production designer David Wasco and editor Tom Cross. In a perfect world, one might wish that Stone and Gosling’s singing voices were bigger (they do fine, but they can’t really belt songs out–although neither could Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire for that matter), or that supporting players like Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons and John Legend had more developed characters than glorified walk-ons. But Chazelle, who shot the film in Cinemascope and defied all the laws of modern filmmaking by letting musical numbers play out in full frame with minimal editing, so that you can actually see the performers’s bodies and how the characters are interacting with each other, has infused every shot with pure love and artistry. His film is a tune you won’t want to get out of your head.
DEEPWATER HORIZON (Summit/Lionsgate – September 30): Peter Berg’s film (from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand) has barely any interest in the environmental and economic catastrophe caused by the oil tanker explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, or even the legal issues. Its focus is far narrower, and so unambitious as to be reductive: the events of the day of the explosion, rendered as a disaster movie. Mark Wahlberg is (needless to say), the Everyman engineer who will act heroically when the time comes (he has an adoring wife played by Kate Hudson and a cute-as-a-button little girl), as will Kurt Russell and Gina Rodriguez. Meanwhile, we know who the evil BP executive is who caused the whole thing, because (a) he knows how to pronounce foreign words, and (b) he’s played by John Malkovich. Berg and the writers do a good job in the first half of setting out just what was going to go wrong and why, but are much less effective once the explosions begin, and it’s hard to tell where the character are and what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s a shame to see such an important true-life subject turned into a simpleminded adventure, but fans of brawny American heroism are likely to show up.
BRIMSTONE (no distrib): Martin Koolhaven’s baroquely violent western didn’t need to be anywhere near 148 minutes long. (An entire one of its four chapters could have been cut out with little ill effect.) It’s overwrought and not a little pretentious. Still, Brimstone has more vitality and dramatic heft than the far more expensive Magnificent Seven remake. Dakota Fanning, who had a very good festival between this and American Pastoral, plays a mute frontierswoman, and Guy Pearce is a preacher out of a Stephen King novel, a mortal man possessed of superhuman evil whose life is linked with Fanning’s. Horribly ugly things occur, but one can’t deny the power Koolhaven, Fanning and Pearce bring to them, or Koohaven’s visual skill (his cinematographer is Rogier Stoffers). There’s a terrific 100-minute piece of trash lurking inside the hulking Brimstone, and one isn’t sure whether or not to wish that Koolhaven finds it as his career continues.
WAKEFIELD (no distrib): One of the festival’s more curious films, based by Robin Swicord on a short story by E.L. Doctorow. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a seemingly ordinary attorney and suburban husband and father who tries to catch a foraging raccoon outside his house, following it into the attic of the garage that overlooks the house when he arrives home one night, and accidentally falls asleep there. And then doesn’t leave, as days turn into weeks and months. What begins as a sort of petty stunt (he enjoys watching his wife, played by Jennifer Garner, worry about his disappearance) becomes something existential, as he gradually becomes quasi-homeless despite the roof over his head, eating out of garbage pails and not washing. His relationship to his own life becomes that of an observer, and then almost another species. Considering that at least three-quarters of the lines spoken in the script are delivered either in voice-over or through Wakefield talking to himself, Swicord has kept things moving very well, and Cranston, whose Walter White is the modern model of the “ordinary” man who has darkness within, holds the screen. Garner, seen mostly through her husband’s eyes, is able to convey dimensions to her character nevertheless. Ultimately, though, there’s an unavoidable one-note quality to the story, and Swicord’s contrivances to stretch it to feature length become increasingly difficult to accept. It’s unlikely that many will want to lock themselves up with Howard Wakefield for an extended period of time.