All posts by Nathaniel Nelson

Nathaniel Nelson is a Journalism and Film double major at Winona State University. He has written for The Winonan, Winona State University Blogs, Frozen River Film Festival, and has had works published in the Winona Daily News.

The Superhero Revisionism of Legion: Season One

It would have been easy to lean on the success of the psychedelic visuals and give a straightforward comic book tale, but that’s not what “Legion” is about. Its devotion to character and complex emotions is handled with grace and talent by Hawley, and the sheer audacity of its narrative is enough to get any viewer hooked.

Over the past two decades, superhero narratives have become synonymous with blockbuster filmmaking. Since “X-Men” blew the door open in 2000, the theaters have been packed with superpowered special effects extravaganzas on a yearly basis. Since “X-Men’s” release, there have been more than 70 large budget comic book releases, with almost 15 more coming over the next three years. The genre is at its peak. With the uptick in popularity comes a more pressing matter: Audience disinterest.

As with any other narrow genre, for example westerns or noir films, the evolution of genre narratives follow a very similar path. The first few years establish the basic tropes, like the origin story and the tragedy that follows, ultimate good versus ultimate evil, and an ultra destructive climax. Films stick fairly close to this framework for a while, until the genre hits market saturation and is forced to evolve or die. Noir is an example of a genre that died — though admittedly it was brought back to life in the mid-70s — and the western is one that evolved.

The films become both self-aware and unrestricted, now free to develop unconventional narratives and operate both outside of the boundaries while simultaneously bringing attention to them. This year’s “Logan” is a perfect example of that evolution, dealing with the morality and truthfulness of superhero stories while also being completely aware of its origins stemming back to the original “X-Men.” These evolutions lead to not only better cinema, but better stories as well.

This evolution is why FX’s “Legion” is one of the best superhero narratives ever put to film.

Told over the course of eight breathtaking episodes, “Legion” tells the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man in a mental hospital for schizophrenic delusions and hallucinations. He spends his days in therapy and complaining about the world with his close friend Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza) until he meets the girl of his dreams in Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller). Syd turns out to be a part of an agency of mutants who are looking for David due to his unnaturally strong powers, of which even David is unaware — He thinks he’s crazy.

Dan Stevens in “Legion”. (Michelle Faye/FX)

Showrunner Noah Hawley, hot off of his acclaimed run on FX’s  “Fargo,” went into the show hoping to craft a new take on the superhero narrative, and he nails it.

Superhero stories are nearly ubiquitously concerned with two things: superpowers and action. That’s where “Legion” separates itself from the rest of the pack. There is plenty of action, and superpowers left and right, but none of it is the focus. “Legion” is less a show about superheroes and more about people — individuals whose lives have been changed by forces outside of their control. Each character has their own quirks and foibles that make them relatable, approachable and more than anything, human.

David, whose comic book alias is the titular Legion, isn’t exactly your typical hero. His life consists of questions with no answers and tragedies with no cause. His schizophrenia diagnosis was the first truth he ever came across, but even that ends up being nothing more than a mistake. That confusion comes out throughout the series, thanks to Stevens’ absolutely magnificent performance. He prepped for the role by talking to mental health patients and physicians to truly understand his character, and it helped. Viewers feel his confusion, discomfort, anguish. H is an inherently optimistic character with desires. Part of this is Hawley’s fault, since he, along with the rest of the cast, intentionally hid large portions of the story as they filmed, so he would be unsure of what was actually happening. It was an odd tactic that ultimately paid off.

Rachel Keller in “Legion”. (Michelle Faye/FX)

Syd, as the other lead, is just as interesting. Keller’s breakout role in season two of “Fargo” was one of overt intensity and violence, a brooding villain in every aspect. Here, she plays the exact opposite, a subdued and introspective love interest for David. Syd’s power involves her being able to switch places with anyone she touches, trading her mind for theirs for a short period of time. As such, she’s not exactly a huge fan of touching, though David manages to change that once he discovers a way to bring her into his mind.

What’s interesting about these two is the love story is not a slow burn like most shows and films. Within the first episode, “Legion” establishes their connection and makes their relationship one foundation of the story. The two play off each other’s weaknesses and help one another overcome emotional problems, which is a nice change of pace from the usual “woman as reward” stereotype.

Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller in “Legion.” (Michelle Faye/FX)

The real star of the show, however, is Plaza’s Lenny. The character actually dies in the first episode, before becoming a part of David’s constantly growing mental hellscape. Lenny, in fact, was originally written as a middle-aged man, so her dialogue is often crass and off kilter, but Plaza pulls it off with vigor. She channels a bit of her trademark “Parks and Recreation” humor. The varied ways her character is used let her shine in an unconventional role. Revealing too much about her role in the plot would be spoiling some of the biggest plot twists of the season, but I will say her arc is delightful.

Aubrey Plaza in “Legion.” (Michelle Faye/FX)

Superhero shows, like “The Flash” and “Arrow,” typically follow the same framework. Each season has one big villain, which drives the season along, and each episode features a smaller baddie for the hero to fight. Essentially, they become episodic monster-of-the-week shows, which are entertaining of course, but they don’t draw much emotion from the audience.

“Legion” is completely different. It is essentially an eight-hour film, with a slowly boiling story that draws on the strengths of its characterization and mystery. It could  be described as a character study, if not for the constant superpowers and trippy fight sequences.

There are traces of superhero tropes all over the place, but that’s never the focus. There’s a major villain lurking in the shadows, a government organization intending to use David as a weapon, big set pieces and fight scenes and plenty of superpowered antics. Yet, the show does something very television specific: it never shows its hand.

“Legion” is a show focused more on the internal than the external, a narrative built around confusion and distress. The conflict ramps up incrementally, as David slowly understands his origins and what is truly going on. Equal parts psychological thriller and mystery, the show thrives off themes of self-identification and reflection. Entire episodes take place within David’s memories and his mind, with the penultimate episode involving the entire cast trapped inside the maze that is David’s brain. It’s constantly surprising and evolving, with a tacit approach that lets the viewers in on its secrets, but hiding the truth behind layers of intrigue and complications. That internal focus reverberates down to the action itself. It takes a psychological approach to telepathic combat, lucid internal battles fought through dialogue and psychedelic disorder.

When I say lucid, I mean it literally. “Legion” is an absolute beauty to watch, with a visual style so good it hurts. The closest way I can describe it would be as a neo-futuristic version of the 1960s, or the TV equivalent of a Pink Floyd album after a bit too much LSD. It sheds all of the bombast and overdone CGI synonymous with the superhero genre in favor of a unique aesthetic that coats every inch of the frame in ultramodern psychedelic simplicity. Everything from the costume design, to the architecture and  the hairstyles are quintessentially 60s, with a nice 21st century vibe layered on top.

Katie Aselton in “Legion.”  (Michelle Faye/FX)

And that’s saying nothing for the filmmaking itself. Every episode is shot with the delicacy of a sculptor and the panache of an auteur ahead of his time. Inside David’s mind, the shots feel claustrophobic and ominous, smothered in discomfort. Out in the real world, fluid pans and exquisite framing give every image a life of its own. It is a master work of cinematic style and flair, with some of the finest lighting and color work television has ever seen. By paying close attention to every minor detail, Hawley and company build an ethereal environment that is as surreal as it is comforting.

It would have been easy to lean on the success of the visuals and give a straightforward comic book tale, but that’s not what “Legion” is about. Its devotion to character and complex emotions is handled with grace and talent by Hawley, and the sheer audacity of its narrative is enough to get any viewer hooked. It shakes the genre down to its foundation and restructures it into something new. “Legion” succeeds in every way possible, easily becoming a masterpiece of the superhero storytelling.

One can only hope the second season will live up to expectations.

Academy Awards Shift Toward Diversity

The 89th Academy Awards, which took place on Feb. 27, 2017, were one of the most diverse in history. Breaking multiple records, including the amount of black Oscar winners and the first Muslim actor win, the show is being hailed as a huge step forward for Hollywood diversity.

“Compared to last year, it’s such a huge change. I think going forward, it’s going to open the doors to something more positive,” Bekah Bailey said.

Bekah Bailey is a theater student at Winona State University and an avid activist for the rights of the disenfranchised. She is a part of the WSU Student Senate, Full Spectrum, FORGE and the KEAP council, and is involved in the majority of campus events regarding diversity.

Though it is too early to call it a trend, Bailey said, society is shifting in favor of the marginalized.

“More so than ever, there are people and groups that are vocal about it not being fair and equal necessarily,” Bailey said. “Even though there is a lot of room for improvement, obviously, I think slowly but surely we’re seeing some sort of change.”

One of the more recent and visible movements was the #OscarsSoWhite campaign from several years ago, which focused on showcasing the disproportionate amount of white nominees and winners at the Academy Awards.

This year’s Academy Awards featured the most black winners in the show’s history and multiple other firsts.

Mahershala Ali poses with his award after the 89th Academy Awards. He was the first Muslim actor to win an Oscars. (ABC/Tyler Golden)

The best picture winner, “Moonlight,” was a story about a young gay African American male and his search for understanding. It is the first LGBT film to ever receive the top honors.


J. Paul Johnson, a professor of film studies at Winona State, said while the film’s win is a significant moment for the Oscars, this is not the first time a shift has seemingly occurred.

“We might, of course, celebrate the fact that a film, an artistic, aesthetically significant film could examine a young black male’s search for definition of his own masculinity and sexuality,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, there have been other moments in history where people may have thought we were on the cusp of a watershed moment.”

Bailey said diversity issues stem from two main sections: The lack of drive from those not affected, and lack of accessibility.

Shifting an industry takes unilateral effort, Bailey said, and that change won’t occur without having everyone involve. It also involves bringing new artists to the forefront, but for many artists those opportunities either are nonexistent or overly difficult to achieve.

Accessibility for these creators is integral to the future of the industry, Bailey said. When an industry shows itself as unequal, some marginalized creators will see it as too difficult to enter and stop trying, she added.

Mary Jo Klinker, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Winona State, argued the inherent white male centricity of the industry leads to the continuation of diversity issues.

In any narrative art form, a large part of the writing stems from the artist’s life experiences. While there are always going to be outliers, the lack of diverse writers and creators leads to less diverse stories, Klinker said.

In a study titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” research at the University of Southern California found 21.8 percent of leading characters in films were of an underrepresented race. In terms of creators, it’s even smaller: Only 12.7 percent of film directors were underrepresented.

The gender disparity occurs en masse at the creation level. According to San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up seven percent of all directors on the top 250 highest grossing films for 2016. In 2015, that proportion was at nine percent.

Fig. 1-3. Percentages of women in three fields. Figure 1 is based on data from the US Census. Figure 2 is based on the data of top 250 grossing films of 2016, including the positions of Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Writer and Editor. Figure 3 is based on the Academy Awards.

“Whose stories are told? Who gets to tell these stories?” Klinker said. We live in what feminist scholar and media critic Bell Hooks refers to as a ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,’ when films are produced in this culture, it often reflects those values.”

Johnson said Hollywood’s problems with those values stem back to the beginning.

“The history of Hollywood is very much one of people of privilege and means creating depictions of others as lesser, as evil, as savage, as perverted, as sissies, etc,” Johnson said. “They are, at the same time, reflections of broader cultural thinkings and assumptions about those groups as well.”

Films are products of their time and culture in most cases, Johnson said, which is why diversity problems often come to the forefront. Even in the early days of cinema, when directors like D.W. Griffith were making major advancements to the medium, virulent racism was a common occurrence.

“It should be no surprise when films do represent and exhibit traits of their cultures including both positive and negative ones like inherent racism and prejudice,” Johnson said.

This, Klinker said, leads to the oft-cited “white savior” trope, involving a white character who arrives to save a marginalized people. Released last week, “Marvel’s Iron Fist” was criticized for that exact trope, with a white main character who becomes the guardian and hero of a Himalayan monastery.

In regards to casting choices, Bailey said, the most important aspect to consider is the theme of the film itself.

As a theater major, Bailey has worked on multiple shows during her time at Winona State University. According to her, plays are often easier for casting due to their universal nature. There are exceptions, like the black-oriented story of “Fences,” but for the most part these stories can be shifted to accommodate different races. As long as the casting doesn’t take away from any other group of people, then the question of justifiability can be ignored, she said.

Movies, Bailey said, are a bit more complicated.

“A movie is so often going to be specifically about a direct atmosphere in regards to who the plot is about,” she said. “More often than not movies aren’t universal so it is important to pay attention to who you’re casting.”

“Ghost in the Shell” is a recent film that has met with intense backlash. Starring Scarlett Johansson, the film is an American adaptation of the 1995 animated film by Mamoru Oshii. The original film and subsequent TV series were set in a futuristic cyberpunk version of Japan involves a counter-cyberterrorism group led by Major Motoko Kusanagi.

Johansson plays Major in the new adaptation, which has resulted in backlash on social media. Many protesters argue casting a white actor in a role that was originally Japanese ruins the themes of the original story, and while there hasn’t been as much backlash in Japan, Klinker said it is an indicator of a larger problem.

“A media term that is helpful for understanding this issue is “symbolic annihilation,” which is a way of upholding social inequality by misrepresenting or erasing a group of people in the media,” Klinker said.

Symbolic annihilation weaves its way into filmmaking in a number of forms, Klinker said. Whitewashing is the most predominant, where a white actor or actress is cast in a minority role. “Doctor Strange” and “Marvel’s Iron Fist” both were met with harsh criticism in this regard, placing white actors into roles that were either originally Asian or based on Asian culture.

Danny Rand (Finn Jones) in “Marvel’s Iron Fist” has received backlash for its use of cultural appropriation. (Netflix)

Some other forms include “crip drag,” which involves placing an able-bodied actor into disabled roles, and ciswashing, or having cisgender – those who identify as their original gender – actors play transgender roles.

“For this reason, I think it’s important to hear what marginalized communities have to say about this casting and the way it impacts access to see themselves in cultural productions and media, which dictates a large portion of our social views,” Klinker said.

A few of the more problematic depictions Bailey described included the angry black woman, unstable relationships between persons of color and disabled character used as plot devices for the main character’s progression.

Money has always been a driving aspect of the film industry, which leads to occasionally problematic casting and narratives.

“Films are simultaneously aesthetic and economic ventures, and filmmakers need to take into consideration the box office draw of their actors in the films as they create and pitch in order to secure funding for their films,” Johnson said.

Bailey said while money is something to take into account, studios should begin to take risks on unproven actors of color. According to Bailey, letting those actors grow in their art will lead to more diverse plots and films overall.

Klinker made a similar point, suggesting the industry must change to accommodate more people and more sources for stories. By allowing people with diverse experiences to get into the industry, more of those narratives will be told.

“It is financially prohibitive for most people to tell their stories, which ensures further symbolic annihilation. The success of “Hidden Figures” made clear that audiences want to hear these stories,” Klinker said.

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA get astronauts into space in the early days of the United States space program. The film was both a commercial and critical success, with a box office gross of over $206.1 million.

Both “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” performed well during the awards circuit, culminating in a best picture win for the latter.

Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, and Barry Jenkins, the producer of “Moonlight”, pose with their award. “Moonlight” took home Best picture, a first for an LGBT film. (ABC/Tyler Golden)

While it failed to win awards at last month’s show, “Hidden Figures” had one of the more prominent and important sections of the broadcast. The cast of the film brought out one of the mathematicians the film was based on, to rousing applause.

“This was a year of many firsts for the Oscars; however, a number of representations are still erased. Few films with Asian American and Latino casts were nominated.,” Klinker said. “The Black/White binary of racial representations in Hollywood further impacts racial erasure in media.“

Bailey also discussed the black/white binary in the film industry, but added that the focus is justified to a degree.

“Right now, in regards to paying attention to marginalized people, a lot of our attention is appropriately on black people,” Bailey said. “‘Moonlight’ was something that had to win in order for us to continue thinking of other groups when we think of marginalized groups.”
Though the Oscars were a high point for many diversity movements, Klinker said it is not to be taken as a trend quite yet. According to Klinker, the government itself will have an impact on film diversity.

“Current US budget proposals put art last in priorities,” Klinker said, “This will impact who can be an artist, who has access to art, and thereby impact film culture too.”

Johnson echoed this sentiment, adding that no single moment is enough to show full progress. Progress takes time, he said.

“Let’s hope that’s the case, that these successes make Hollywood executives realize that there is probably a wider prospect for marketability in films like these than they might have previously thought,” Johnson said. “But like I said, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Postmodern Violence in “John Wick: Chapter 2”

By shattering conventions left and right while sticking to what made the first film so breathtaking, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a stream-of-consciousness arthouse action film where the story, visuals and character blend together in visceral ambience.

It’s not often a film comes around that feels unique to the core, especially when looking at action flicks. After years of bland matinee-tier films like “Taken” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” American action films have become somewhat of an anomaly in the cinematic world.

Thankfully, there’s John Wick. With style to spare, a minimalistic plot, and some of the most beautifully directed fight scenes ever put to celluloid, “John Wick: Chapter 2” proves without a doubt that arthouse action is still alive and well.

Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick” was one of 2014’s most surprising releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Starring Keanu Reeves during a relative career slump, with first-time directors and a February release date, expectations were low.

When it was finally released, the film caught many a critic off guard. Instead of a campy and low quality cash grab, audiences were given an ultra-modern, neon-drenched and fluid action masterpiece.

For the sequel, Reeves reteamed with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad to double down on the first film’s successes and blow the world of John Wick wide open.

The first film established John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as an emotional and relatable character, but it did so through his backstory and psyche. Typically, the best action heroes are the ones that audiences can project themselves onto. John McClane in the original “Die Hard” is a perfect example; a charismatic hero who acts based on understandable reasoning and who is shown to be both physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Wick, on the other hand, is a brooding hurricane of an action hero, tearing through endless waves of enemies like an untouchable force of nature.

Unlike many action stars, Reeves’ acting style is simplistic, understated and borderline emotionless. While this would normally be a death sentence in the genre, “John Wick” thrives on it. Wick’s deadpan stares and subtle humor mesh well with how the series is developing, more reminiscent of characters like Ryan Gosling’s refined roles in “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” than the boisterous and grizzled protagonists of modern blockbusters. Like much of the rest of the film, Reeves performance is minimalistic yet thoroughly impactful. As Reeves’ former stunt double, Stahelski knows how to push him to his limits, and by focusing on the unconventional, Reeves is given a chance to shine once again.

Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

This destruction of stereotypical tropes and techniques plays into the style of the film as well. For one, “John Wick: Chapter 2” borrows a great deal from the recent neon noir film movement, with a visual style similar to films like the aforementioned “Drive,” “Only God Forgives,” “The Guest” and even a bit of “Blade Runner. Eminently modern, the film plays with stark contrasts between its grimy underworld and the crisp refined lighting of New York City, a dichotomy illuminated through visuals.

There are some homages to other flicks as well, particularly Japanese New Wave pieces like “Tokyo Drifter.” There are connections to its predecessor, of course, but Stahelski seems to have found his groove for where this franchise is heading, both in storytelling and visual flair. The clearly established stylization gives the film its own unique identity, which is always welcome.

Ruby Rose stars as ‘Ares’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a master class in cinematic composition. The combat is manic and rapid, but it has a smooth sense of style. There’s no uncomfortable Bourne-esque shaky cam or Matrix-style slow motion to be found here. Instead, the film is shot in a fluid, borderline ethereal manner. Every punch and broken bone is visceral and impactful, with each motion fusing together like a kinetic symphony. One sequence, filmed in a gallery of mirrors ala “Enter the Dragon,” smashes all normal action cinematic conventions, abusing the perspective of both the audience and Wick himself.

For all the neck snapping and pencil stabbing the film delivers, there are a few small quirks. Some of the fistfights play very similar to one another, with one in particular dragging on far too long, and Wick’s seemingly super-powered fighting style could be played down a bit to give some real tension and worry for viewers. That said, Wick feels markedly more at risk this time around, and the vast majority of the fights are filled with visual splendor.

Riccardo Scamarcio stars as ‘Santino D’Antonio’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

In storytelling, this film gets a bit tricky. Shying away from the more personal and emotionally driven story of the first film, “John Wick: Chapter 2” feels like a postmodern version of an action film, with the story taking a back seat to the technical and choreographed marvels of the film’s exquisite action sequences. There is a plot, with John Wick on another quest for vengeance after he is forced back into the world that he strives to leave, but it’s barebones at best.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad instead uses small clues in the environment and additions to the lore to expand the world of the film tenfold. The first film laid the groundwork for John Wick’s world, introducing a secret society of assassins governed by a “code,” but not much was explained. Here, that statement still rings true, with a caveat.

Instead of going out of his way to explain everything about the inner working of the shadow government, Kolstad gives audiences more questions to ponder. For instance, who is the high council? What is the marker and why are they used? Who really runs the show? One moment, Wick is fighting in a crowded train as passengers look on in uncanny relaxation, as if this is just par for the course. The next, he’s running through an empty New York City street. Everything feels slightly off and unbelievable, but there’s a definite sense something bigger is going on that still has to be revealed.

This approach to storytelling and world building is unique, but it may be lost on some viewers. Plot holes abound, but it feels as though the points are absent to make audiences think and try to piece together what’s really going on. It is narrative postmodernism, abandoning all notions of concrete storytelling to instead create an ambient world of mystery and questions. While some may find it jarring and underdeveloped, I argue “John Wick: Chapter 2”’s stylistic identity owes everything to its minimalism; a stream-of-consciousness film where the story, visuals and character blend together in visceral ambience.

Santino Di’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio) and Ares (Ruby Rose) in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

This leads to another important point. While the first film was a self-contained piece, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is an exercise in expansion. Midway through the film, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) puts out a massive contract on Wick and sets the stage for an assassin Battle Royale. However, this plot point is only acted on once, and then pushed to the wayside for the climactic showdown between Wick and D’Antonio. The gravity of the contract lingers, and you’re left wondering when all these assassins will take their shots.

Luckily, the final scene shows Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the New York City Continental Hotel, demonstrating his influence over the assassins as they turn silently, in full knowledge of what is to come. It sets the stage for the final chapter, which may be the biggest one yet.

That comes at a cost to the film at hand. Franchise films are known to have one foot in the future and one in the present, constantly clashing between future set-ups and the current narrative. “John Wick: Chapter 2” suffers from this flaw, with the main narrative acting more as a means to an end than a self-contained plot.

That’s also what makes the film unique. The story falls into the background to let audiences feel the world this time around, as the veil slowly lifts on the world’s mysteries.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is the kind of unexpected masterpiece that helps the film industry grow. By shattering conventions left and right, and instead focusing on both narrative and minimalism, Stahelski and company have proved their mastery for modern art-house action.

A vast circulatory mélange of movement and sound composed with deft hands, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is a postmodern masterpiece of action filmmaking.

The Effervescent Joy of “La La Land”

A gorgeous love letter to Hollywood and the dreams that keep the industry alive, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.

If there is one thing that defined the early years of Hollywood, it would be the movie musical. After the advent of sound technology, film studios embraced the new development to produce some of history’s most acclaimed musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris” and “42nd Street.”

Now, in the 21st century, director Damien Chazelle has crafted a new film that can be added to the list. “La La Land” is more than just another musical. Chazelle’s film modernizes the genre while, with its sweeping musical numbers and breathtaking final sequence, keeps in line with its roots. It is a gorgeous love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles and the dreams that keep the industry alive. Effervescent and engrossing, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.

The film begins on a vast highway of deadlocked traffic, as a young woman in a bright yellow dress breaks out into song. The camera swings through the organized chaos of the dance number as drivers and passengers jubilate and twirl across the screen. Colors shine amid the frenzy, with stark reds, blues and yellows weaving a bright tapestry of visual splendor.

The cast of LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

As the cast sings “Another Day of Sun,” the first of many fantastic musical pieces in the film, “La La Land” telegraphs what is to come. It draws viewers into this escapist world of song and light while showing the dichotomy of the city itself. Even these drivers, amidst crammed unmoving cars, see the potential for beauty and success in the City of Stars. In essence, that’s what the film is about.

This is only Chazelle’s second feature, and it showcases his personal style and ideals. His first film, 2014’s “Whiplash,” became a quick critical darling and, in this reviewer’s opinion, was the best film that year. An intimate flick involving a young drummer and the constant struggle to better oneself, “Whiplash” cemented Chazelle as a lover of jazz, the lives of artists and the language of cinema.

“La La Land” doubles down on those concepts, beginning with the existential conflict of the artist’s dilemma. At its core, the film is both a tale of love between two struggling artists and how dreams are meant to be chased, even amid constant setbacks.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are the living embodiment of the Hollywood dream, but not entirely in the sense one would expect. Unlike the quick success expected among the Los Angeles crowd, the two keep failing in their own right. To put it simply, they’re relatably human.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Sebastian is a self-taught jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple songs as a restaurant musician, and Mia is just another ambitious actress amidst a sea of seemingly identical actresses. Both have dreams they strive to realize, with Sebastian hoping to open his own jazz cafe and bring jazz back into the forefront, while Mia wishes to act on the big screen. Yet, dreams are often easier said than done, even for people with incredible talent.

Their struggles and eventual romance are enchanting and relatable, acting as a surprisingly unglamorous backbone to a story many would associate with fame and celebrity. They fail like us, try like us and change like us. “La La Land” tells a story of real people and how their lives can come together and just as easily fall apart.

Shedding the clichés of films like “The Notebook,” Gosling has come into his own lately with stellar roles in “Drive,” “Blue Valentine” and “Place Beyond the Pines.” Here, however, he falls back to his romance roots while proving his development over the years. Perhaps his acting is a little predictable at times, but he displays great aptitude for grounding what could have been a cheesy and insufferable role.

Emma Stone, on the other hand, turns in one of her finest performances to date, which has been recognized by everything from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Stone is constantly evocative and dynamic, yet she channels a sort of blissful simplicity that feels both fresh and wholly nostalgic.

The only problem with “La La Land” involves its supporting cast. Keith (John Legend) is the only side character who is even close to developed, with everyone else serving as either one-off plot devices or extra flair in the background.

That said, “La La Land” doesn’t try to tell us the story of a community, but of two people, and that is more than enough.

“La La Land” is proving itself with a record 14 Oscar nominations – a feat accomplished only by “Titanic” and “All About Eve” –  but not just for acting and plot. This production was made for people who love films. From visuals down to music, the film oozes style.

Figure 1: “La La Land” was awarded 14 Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, more than any other 2016 film.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren delivers the best work of his career in “La La Land.” The color work is astounding, with splashes of light and hues bouncing off one another in every way imaginable. Several sequences take on a more stage-musical style, as Sebastian and Mia dance and sing in front of vast painted backdrops and emotive dance ensembles.  Every shot pops off of the screen.

Of course, visuals aren’t enough for this kind of film. Musicals live and die by their music, and composer Justin Hurwitz delivers. Hurwitz previously partnered with Chazelle on “Whiplash,” bringing classic jazz back into the forefront of cinema. Here, that style is expanded and improved, blending the trademarks of musicals and even a bit of pop sentimentality. Trumpets blare, drums crack and the audience is sent through a renaissance of improvisational jazz compositions.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

The most important distinction “La La Land” deserves comes from Chazelle’s flawless balancing act between realism and escapism. While breaking out into song and dancing through clouds is rarely associated with realism, the film feels like it exists in our world. The set pieces and extensive montages give a luminous and fantasy-laden look into the minds of Mia and Sebastian. It’s a modern musical through and through, set in an era of smartphones and electric cars, which it handles by being both grounded and eclectic.

Chazelle’s film is more than just one of the best movies of the year; it’s the beginning of something fresh. “La La Land” is not just a modernization of the movie musical, but a modernization of the love story itself. It’s a fantastic and relatable tale of the volatility of human life and love, and the ability for one’s passions and ambitions to shape them. With its masterful approach to music and visual language, “La La Land” is a film for the ages.