Living the Dream, Living the Nightmare

The beginning of a new year is often a flurry of frenzied activity. Time to make those appointments you never got around to last year. Time to assign yourself some tasks for the year ahead. Time to catch up on all those things you swore you'd get to. That applies to the entertainment world as well; a new year is often accompanied by a burst of well-meaning attempts to whittle down the Netflix queue or see some likely Oscar contenders.

2017 is no exception. The year has hardly begun, and I've already knocked out a couple of movies. They couldn't be more different from one another. One is 2016's La La Land, a rainbow of bright colors and music that follows a young couple trying to make it in the highly-competitive Los Angeles entertainment industry. The other was 2014's It Follows, a dull-colored horror, set in the crumbling suburbs of Detroit. And despite their differences in production design and tone, they both were rousing successes.

La La Land seemed at first to be tailor-made to my tastes. It's set in the present, but its aesthetic is very Old Hollywood. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) keeps running into disaffected jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as their fledgling relationship grows, they are faced with some difficult decisions about just how much they're willing to sacrifice for their dreams of success. If that sounds like a weighty story, it has one hell of a leavening agent, in that it's also a musical, complete with large-scale song and dance numbers. This movie has been landing on a lot of best-of lists, but if I had to single someone out to recognize, it would be the production designer. This is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, and actually does the trick of making Los Angeles seem like a magical land of dreams.

Stone and Gosling are both excellent in their roles, and I enjoyed the music as well. But for a movie that practically shows up on my doorstep with an engraved invitation, something was missing. Or rather, something was added; a pair of gigantic Deus Ex Successicas. The movie goes to a great deal of trouble to depict the hardships and obstacles Mia and Sebastian must overcome in order to further their careers, but just winds up waving a magic wand over them. However, the film does do something very interesting with the ending that I'm still chewing over in my mind, and made me appreciate it a lot more. Though it didn't quite meet the expectations I had built up for it, La La Land is still a pretty great movie, and definitely worth your time. Once Oscar season is behind us, I'll likely watch it again to see what I can pick up on a second viewing.

I will not be gracing It Follows with a second viewing, but that's nothing against the movie. I am emphatically not a fan of the horror genre, so filmmakers have to do something pretty interesting story-wise to pull me in, while simultaneously not driving me away with large amounts of gore. It's a fine line to walk, and it's no wonder that it's really difficult to find movies that fit the bill. When It Follows got some pretty rapturous reviews, and continually stayed on my radar, I had some friends do a gore check for me. It turns out that I only had to turn my ahead away for a couple of brief moments. The rest of the movie is psychological horror, rather than a slasher.

The movie centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty young college student who lives a pretty standard life in the Michigan suburbs. After a couple of dates with a guy, she has a sexual fling with him that winds up having severe consequences. He temporarily kidnaps her, but not to hurt her. He just wants to explain that he's passed on a demon of sorts. This entity will follow and kill its victims, but will move on to the next person if the intended target has sex with someone. If it kills someone, it will revert back to the last person in the chain. It can appear in any human form, and always approaches in a silent, steady walk. So yeah, it's basically an STD in the form of a supernatural killer. Sounds so weird, right?

It's actually a really deep and thoughtful movie. Jay has to deal not only with the assault and betrayal of someone she thought she really liked, but now has to contend with an unkillable, invisible-to-others stalker. Should she constantly go on the run? Can she trust anything she sees? Can she morally justify passing it on in order to secure some sort of safety? What does all this mean in regards to the the movie's position on hookup culture? Watching Jay try to work through these issues while evading her pursuer was really fascinating. If more horror movies were like It Follows, the genre would have a new devotee.

La La Land: B+
It Follows: B+


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