TIFF Dispatch: La La Land, (Re) Assignment, Colossal

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his widely appraised and subsequently backlashedWhiplash is La La Land, a charming and spry musical based in Los Angeles, which pays homage to a variety of artistic traditions—mostly the snazzy, colorful classic Hollywood musical—through a nostalgic lens that also acknowledges the sacrifices and passion required to “make it” as an artist. Being a musical, the film is ultimately a love story, between jazz-pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who wants to own his own jazz club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). The two have quite possibly one of the best meet-cutes in the history of cinema for reasons I don’t want to spoil here but let’s just say it’s one of the most memorable scenes and devices I’ve seen at TIFF this year. Sebastian is defined by his stubbornness—he doesn’t want to just own any old jazz club, it has to be a specific club that was once a jazz cornerstone and which now specializes in samba and tapas. Mia’s less cocksure and more flexible an actress, mostly because that’s demanded of her as an actress; one of the great things about this movie is how it doesn’t conflate their artistic professions as the same thing. It’s a lot easier for Sebastian to make a living off being a musician than it is for Mia to land a role that will actually transform her career. Sebastian’s confidence rubs off on Mia and she creates her own one-woman show, but between all the auditions and rehearsals and Sebastian’s touring, their relationship, which got them through so many struggles, becomes something of a deal breaker. La La Land flows with exactly the right number of musical numbers in a perfectly designed replica of Los Angeles that make the smog-infested city seem as radiant and romantic as New York or Paris. Chazelle explores the same kinds of ideas about artistic integrity and endurance as he did in Whiplash, but those ideas are married together more compelling and charmingly here—you won’t be able to stop yourself from falling helplessly in love with this over-the-top rom-com.


Walter Hill’s noir-like revenge story Re (Assignment), between Dr. Kay, an evil mastermind plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver), and Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), the male assassin on whom Dr. Kay forced gender-reassignment surgery is deliciously cheesy, pulpy, and trashy in all the right ways. It has a very silly premise: After Frank kills Dr. Kay’s brother (on assignment—pun intended, of course), the doctor tracks him down through a mob boss (played by Anthony LaPaglia) to exact her revenge, and Frank goes from being a swarthy, macho hitman to, well, a woman. Frank quickly adjusts to his new body (not too quickly as to undermine the seriousness of the surgery and its effects on Frank’s identity), and it isn’t long before he’s seeking out revenge of his own. The tale is told in narrated flashback by Dr. Kay to her doctor, Dr. Ralph (Tony Shalhoub), in a maximum security facility where she’s deemed so dangerous she’s straitjacketed. Her intelligence is branded as Hannibal Lecter-level and the dry, outsmarting-each-other repartee between the two doctors is a little reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs. The film overuses certain noir/comic-book conventions, like providing an unnecessary amount of location details at the commencement of each scene, and also flashing forward and backward in time in such a way that it seems to even know that it’s a hacky device. The over-the-top accents and cold, calculating temperaments of its two leads is a little schlocky, too, but that’s kind of the point in a film like this. Of course, the film tackles some difficult subject matter, and it will be interesting to see how the portrayal of gender-reassignment surgery will be interpreted by the trans community (many are already calling it transphobic). Many more will find this film offensive on aesthetic levels, but they’re likely missing the point behind (Re) Assignment: The schlock is there to be ridiculed, not taken seriously.


Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is kind of a spiritual brother to (Re) Assignment, in that it also cheekily plays with genre. But where (Re) Assignment is another conventional pulp that benefits from its gimmick, Colossal makes its gimmick the entire story, thereby creating something totally new. It’s hard to explain without ruining it, but basically, protagonist Gloria (Anne Hathaway) may be directly responsible for a monster attack happening thousands of miles away-in Seoul, South Korea. After being kicked out of her boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment for her alcoholism, she moves back to her hometown and inhabits her deceased parents’ old house. But Gloria finds help in the very normal, plaid-wearing dude she went to elementary school with: Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). He gives her a job at his bar, donates a ton of furniture in her parents’ empty house, and basically becomes her only friend. You think he’s going to save her, but when he becomes complicit in her inexplicable connection to the Seoul attacks, the film begins two different streams of ideas simultaneously. The first is using the very strange narrative as a metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable effect that alcoholism wreaks on a person’s life, with the monster being the more literal idea in the metaphor, and another element displaying the disease’s similarities to being in an abusive relationship. The second stream is to turn the absurd premise into a funny sort of competition between its characters where the stakes keep getting higher and higher. This lightens the load of the subject matter considerably. This may be a film about alcoholism, but it’s only present in the most superficial of ways (take, for example, Hathaway’s reaction when offered a drink at the end of the film, possibly the best concluding facial expression in cinema). That’s okay, though: Colossal is so beguiling in its strangeness that it still works, even though it’s relying heavily on its comedy to make everything work. Don’t think too hard about this one, lest you find the many plot holes.