Wednesday 28 June 2017

Film review: La La Land - an all-singing, all-dancing love letter to classier times

Cert: 12A; Now showing

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land

Be gone, 2016, and with you the ills of falling stars and rising monsters you gave us. 2017 kicks off with something delirious in its romantic wonderment that has just steam-rolled the Golden Globes with a record haul of seven wins.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Like The Artist (2011), La La Land is an all-singing, all-dancing love letter to classier times. Damien Chazelle’s rendering of Los Angeles takes the lighter notes of digital-era melancholy and washes them in Golden-Age pizazz and old-school values. Like Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014), jazz provides the beat while technology is a distant buzzkill. Into these comely confines waltz picture-perfect Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third screen outing together, after Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love). Just detectable over Justin Hurwitz’s lush score are the Academy silverbacks already swooning.

Once the hysterical — and slightly off-putting — opening extravaganza is done, things settle down. Stone is Mia, a struggling actress working in a film-studio cafe. Sebastian (Gosling) is a pianist whose passion won’t be tempered by shifts as a restaurant ivory-tinkler.

The two Cinderellas cross paths via colourful coincidences before love blossoms to the sound of tapping feet and charming duets. Love, alas, is just another dream to vie with Mia’s big-screen ambitions and Sebastian’s goal to open a jazz club. 

While better than anything from his recent run of so-so performances, Gosling is still largely acted off the screen by Stone who doesn’t put a figurative or literal foot wrong.

Despite being such a stylised venture, Chazelle aims to conjure an adorable, pungent and bittersweet universe, and hits his target.

★★★★

Hilary A White

Underworld:  Blood Wars

Cert: 16; Now showing

Kate Beckinsale's career is a strange scattershot thing, largely made up of films that range from mediocre to full on bad. It is usually the films that are weak, not her performance.

But sometimes there have been great films, and indeed last year in Love & Friendship, Beckinsale gave the performance of that strangely scattershot career. Now, however, she is back in the role for which she will be best remembered, in the fourth film in 14 years in the Underworld franchise.

Set in the (under)world of vampires and Lycans, the film sees Beckinsale again play Selene. A death dealer once held in high esteem by her vampire brethren, events of previous films, recapped in narration fairly extensively over the opening credits, have left her isolated, hunted by vampire and Lycan alike. She has lost the will to live. The reason Selene is in such demand is also the source of her greatest sadness; her estranged daughter Eve, a unique hybrid child whose pure blood offers extra power.

Vampire leader Semira (Lara Pulver) persuades her community, living in fear of attack from the Lycans under powerful new leader Marius (Tobias Menzies), that their best course of action is to rehabilitate Selene.

But all is not what it seems, and the stylised violence that has characterised the franchise so far begins with a vengeance.

Underworld first timers, director Anna Foerster and screenwriter Cory Goodman, deliver on brand what is a formulaic film that will preach mostly to the converted.

★★

Aine O'Connor

Manchester By The Sea

Cert: 15A. Now showing

A welcome return for director Kenneth Lonergan, who has not been seen near the auditorium since his ambitious 2011 drama Margaret. The antithesis to La La Land's soft-focused jazz hands, Manchester By The Sea screams "January", what with its tragic protagonist (a morose Casey Affleck) and overcast skies, not to mention its awards-season release timing (Affleck is already a Best Actor front-runner).

Affleck is janitor Lee Chandler, a bruised puddle of a man living in Boston. He is sucked into a previous life up the coast in the titular seaside town after the death of his brother. Once there, Lee discovers his brother's will stipulates he is to be guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Run-ins with Michelle Williams's ex also force him to face a grisly past trauma.

Lonergan's screenplay shovels on the pathos when it wants to, so brace yourself. However, a sophisticated, mesmeric and haunting film, one filled with subtle frequencies and exceptional visual editing, awaits you on the other side.

★★★★

Hilary A White

Live By Night

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Following on from his Oscar for Argo in 2012, Ben Affleck had carte blanche and he decided to go big, for the first time starring, directing and screenwriting (he had a co-writer on The Town).

He also chose a risky genre, the Gangster Movie. The reviews so far will perhaps bruise an ego said to be already smarting from the (exaggerated) mauling given to Batman v Superman. But, while Live By Night is unquestionably flawed, it is very enjoyable and extremely watchable.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin who returns from the trenches of WW1 disenchanted with the country that sent him to war. His father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) is a police chief in Boston but Joe operates on the other side of the law. When he runs foul of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) thanks to their mutual girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller) Joe takes up with Italian gangsters and moves to Florida. There's a gorgeous Cuban rum magnate (Zoe Saldhana), a flinty sheriff (Chris Cooper) and his starlet-turned-preacher daughter (Elle Fanning) and that is only a very rough outline.

One of the criticisms levelled at the film is that there is too much going on, and there is. Affleck is also a bit too keen to whitewash a character who is essentially a thug.

The smaller roles are much better written, and often acted, than the main one. Affleck isn't bad but those supporting performances make the film. There's a blunt but timely lesson about capitalism and it looks great. As a work of art it is flawed, as a night out there is much to enjoy.

★★★

Aine O'Connor

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