Movie Reviews: LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016) and ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I have been a dedicated year-round volunteer for TIFF since 2012. The first year I volunteered for the festival I was still in university…in Ottawa. I completed all of my required volunteer shifts and never missed a class. How did I do that? Well, I became very familiar with the Friday night train from Ottawa to Toronto and the Sunday night train from Toronto to Ottawa.

Over the years, my involvement with TIFF has progressed. I have volunteered in a wide array of roles and departments. For your viewing pleasure, here is my TIFF Volunteer History Snapshot*:


  • Theatre Volunteer (Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and Jackman Hall)
  • Box Office Volunteer (internal office)


  • Marketing Volunteer
  • Theatre Volunteer (Bloor Hot Docs Cinema)


After two years, I was asked by various members of the TIFF Volunteer & Intern team if I would be interested in being a Captain, a Docent, and a Special Events team volunteer. My typical response: Challenge accepted.

  • Captain (Festival Box Office and Bloor Hot Docs Cinema)
  • Docent, Festival Village
  • Special Events team


  • Captain (Industry Team – CBC Glenn Gould and Festival Box Office)
  • Docent, Festival Village
  • Special Events team

*This does not include my volunteering with TIFF Kids and year-round TIFF shifts.

2016 is noticeably absent from this list. That’s because this was the first year since 2011 that I was not volunteering with the festival. Initially, I was disappointed. However, I focused on the fact that this would be MY year to see as many films as I could and enjoy the festival as a guest! My family was behind me 100%. They had witnessed first-hand how hard I had worked as a Volunteer for TIFF and many other organizations over the years. My boyfriend surprised me with a bundle of gala premiere tickets and my Mom surprised me with tickets to the gala premiere of LA LA LAND. They know how much cinema and TIFF mean to me. They felt I deserved to enjoy the films after working so hard as a volunteer for the past few years. I am SO grateful for their generosity and thoughtfulness.

I had never been to a TIFF gala that I wasn’t working at. On the first Monday of this year’s festival, I had back-to-back hotly anticipated premiers: LA LA LAND and ARRIVAL!

An Old Hollywood-style musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling? Um, yes please?!

When I heard that LA LA LAND was an extravagant musical paying homage to the films of yesteryear, I knew I had to see it. Once I found out that it was directed by Damien Chazelle, the director of WHIPLASH (my favourite film of 2014) I was downright salivating. Then I was made aware that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were the leads. Okay, LA LA LAND could not come fast enough.

I was so excited for LA LA LAND, not only because it throws back to the grand Hollywood pictures of the 1930s-1950s and the European musicals of the 1960s, although that is true. I was even more excited because my Mom was going with me. My Mom had never been to a TIFF film before. Yet, she loves and supports film and creativity. She has always been the biggest supporter of my passion for film. She has shuttled me around at all hours of the day and night so that I can devote myself to volunteering and working in Toronto’s arts community. She always encouraged and fostered my love of film. She herself is an expert on classic Hollywood cinema. I was so excited for her to experience her first TIFF film – and with LA LA LAND no less!

The cast and crew of LA LA LAND, including director Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and John Legend.

We sat in the plush, red seats of the beautiful balcony in the Princess of Wales theatre, ready to be immersed in a world of dreams. And so we were…but not quietly. LA LA LAND opens with a burst of song, dance, colour, and energy. The opening sequence alone was enough to win me over. The story follows two artists, an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a jaded jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), struggling to realize their dreams in a world that places a price on everything. LA LA LAND blends modern wit with the magic of the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s, and the whimsy of the European musicals of the 1960s. Emma Stone’s performance in the leading role of Mia is a breathless triumph. Stone steals the show in every sense of the word.

LA LA LAND isn’t just about dreams coming true. It’s about the dreams we choose to work for, the dreams we set aside, and finding the beauty in those choices. With LA LA LAND, Chazelle continues to prove himself as a bright spark within Hollywood. The magic of LA LA LAND reminds us why we go to the movies.

The cast and crew of LA LA LAND. (Left to Right) John Legend is the second from the left. Ryan Gosling is the fourth from the right. Emma (third from the right) is beside him in the yellow dress. Damien Chazelle is the second from the right.
The cast and crew of LA LA Land stand on a stage with the TIFF Infinite Views logo projected on a screen behind them.
The cast and crew of LA LA Land during the Q&A.

Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, and more of the cast and crew were on hand for the Q&A after the film. Oh, but not before the extended standing ovation they received.

The best part of the LA LA LAND Q&A was when Ryan Gosling said that he thinks Emma Stone is secretly Canadian (I’d happily vouch for her as a citizen). What makes her worthy of such praise? She’s “wildly apologetic” quipped Gosling.

Chazelle, who clearly has a penchant for jazz seeing as how WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND both feature male leads with a relentless passion for the genre and its idols, was a charming speaker. He always gave respect and credit to his crew, particularly the sound and music team. He intimated that he had wanted to make a film like this since film school. I am so glad he did.

A la Cinderella (and probably the only time I’ve ever come close to being a Disney princess in my entire life) I had to dash from the Princess of Wales theatre to Roy Thomson Hall for the premiere of ARRIVAL.

ARRIVAL is the newest film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I always keep an eye on Mr. Villeneuve’s work. He has become one of my favourite Canadian directors as of late. His films often contain an element of darkness. They often focus on the confused, twisted underbelly of the human psyche. From the grittiness of POLYTECHNIQUE and INCENDIES to the blockbuster appeal of PRISONERS and SICARIO, to the art-house-y ENEMY, Villeneuve is not afraid to tackle harrowing human stories from a multitude of lenses.

I was fortunate to see Mr. Villeneuve and his muse (Villeneuve’s own word) Jake Gyllenhaal in conversation at the TIFF BellLightbox a few years prior. They both struck me as humanistic and compassionate people. When it was remarked that Villeneuve often makes films with very dark subject matter, Gyllenhaal, without any hesitation, explained that Villeneuve is a peaceful and happy person. He posited: perhaps because Villeneuve is so filled with light, he is able to explore the dark. To this day that remains one of my favourite moments between an actor and a director that I have ever witnessed.

Piers Handling introduced ARRIVAL. Villeneuve was not able to make it…but Handling described why. He did so by reading a letter from Mr. Villeneuve. Villeneuve explained his absence by saying that Ryan Gosling had locked him in a hotel room in Europe (was he joking? we may never know…)

The letter denoted Villeneuve’s humorous and heartfelt side. Following the letter, the cast and crew were welcomed to the stage, including stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

The cast and crew of ARRIVAL exit a stage, with the TIFF logo projected on the screen behind them.
The cast and crew of ARRIVAL (there’s Amy Adams in a beautiful red gown at the far left)!

ARRIVAL may be an “alien invasion” film, but it’s not about an alien invasion. ARRIVAL poses questions to all who come to it. Questions about love, loss, identity, and humanity. If you knew that choosing to live with love, would mean to live with loss, would you? In ARRIVAL, one brave woman does.

When ominous extraterrestrial spacecrafts come to Earth, the world’s leading nations race to be the first to establish contact with the visitors. Of course, the one question everyone is asking is “why are they here?”

The US military puts together an elite team of experts to aid them in their quest to communicate with the extraterrestrials. Professors of Linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is hand picked for the team. When Louise first meets the extraterrestrials, she adeptly creates a system of communication between extraterrestrials and the humans. She quickly becomes the main human communicator with the visitors. As answers prove difficult to attain, one nation after another disconnects itself from the global conversation. When global war seems imminent, Louise takes matters into her own hands.

Time out: The main character is a professor of Linguistics who also happens to be a single woman. Which is awesome. Amy Adams is well cast in the role.

ARRIVAL examines humanity’s fear surrounding our purpose. ARRIVAL challenges our sense of humanity, and at once breathes life into it. It is expansive and grand. It’s stunning. But its beauty does not detract from its affecting and life-affirming strength. Indeed, it enhances it. We all left the cinema humbled and inspired. One of us (for once it wasn’t me) even had tears in her tears as we left.

Outside of the Ritz-Carlton

After ARRIVAL, we made our way to the Ritz-Carlton for drinks (because every TIFF premiere deserves a good cocktail).

On the Ritz-Carlton patio with cocktail firmly in hand

Did you see LA LA LAND or ARRIVAL at TIFF? What were your thoughts on the films? What films are you looking forward to this holiday season? I will definitely be seeing both again!

4 thoughts on “Movie Reviews: LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016) and ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

    1. YAS! I always pay attention to what Villeneuve is working on. Let me know when you’re seeing it and we can all go on a movie date! I am excited for MOONLIGHT, LOVING, HIDDEN FIGURES, PASSENGERS, and (of course) FANTASTIC BEASTS. I am sure there are more that I am forgetting at the moment.


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