Out on Friday 13 January
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone knock your socks off. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams deliver some home truths. Ben Affleck serves up a hit and rum.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Live by Night, The Young Offenders, Irreplaceable, and Underworld: Blood Wars.
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La La Land
Long regarded as quaint at best, obsolete at worst, the musical nonetheless refuses to curl up its twinkle toes and die. The likes of Evita, Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, the Pitch Perfect movies and TV’s Glee have all hitched sudden breaths to interrupt the decades-long death rattle. And now, wunderkind Damien Chazelle follows up his breakout hit Whiplash with the vivacious La La Land.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, this glorious throwback to both the MGM musicals of the ’40s and ’50s (such as Singin’ in the Rain and An American In Paris) plus Jacques Demy’s sublime, bittersweet French fancies of the ’60s (such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort) kicks off with cinema’s most memorable traffic jam since Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. It’s captured in a freewheeling tracking shot to rival the opening gambits of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Robert Altman’s The Player.
La La Land is that kind of movie – in love with other movies. Swooping, pirouetting, the camera picks out drivers on a gridlocked flyover as they spring from their vehicles for a synchronised song-and-dance number that grows ever more elaborate and elated until viewers’ hearts can’t help but join in with all this cartwheeling.
What follows never demonstrates quite the same jazz-hands pizazz, but that’s no bad thing. Instead we’re treated to something altogether more tender and melancholy. The journey begins as we follow wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) to a party and later, all alone, into a bar, lured by sad, sweet piano music.
It would make for a gorgeous meet-cute if the pianist didn’t barge past her as she approaches, and if they hadn’t crossed paths already, their cars jammed end to end on that clogged freeway, where they flipped each other the bird.
The pianist is Seb (Ryan Gosling), and Chazelle rewinds from the moment he bursts past Mia to show us just how he got from the flyover to this point, making us privy to his dream of one day opening his own jazz club. Fate determines that Seb and Mia will meet again, and tumble into love. But that’s the easy part…
No lesser talents than Francis Ford Coppola (One From the Heart) and Scorsese (New York, New York) have been here before, freighting Golden Era-style musicals with anguish, resentment and failure. But for all their joys (and sorrows), those films didn’t have Justin Hurwitz’s numbers, by turns buoyant, bombastic, flirtatious, nostalgic and mournful.
They also didn’t have a career-best Stone, with eyes bigger than a Studio Ghibli heroine. Or an A-game Gosling, summoning all of his chronic cool, sardonic smirks and heart-melting charm, then tossing in the goofball humour he found on The Nice Guys for good measure. In Crazy Stupid, Love these stars’ chemistry was palpable; here it damn near knocks your socks off.
Both Stone and Gosling can carry a tune (rather sickeningly, given all their other gifts), with any splinters in their voices only adding to the ardour and fragility. They also dance beautifully, making up in style and elegance what their choreographed routines lack in complexity. Like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, this is a musical about feeling, not finish, and a magic-hour soft-shoe shuffle backdropped by the glimmering lights of LA is impossibly romantic.
With its vivid lensing, colour-coded costumes and striking production design that glides from pepped-up naturalism to Technicolor soundstage spectacle, La La Land brims with such indelible moments. Like his protagonists, Chazelle shoots for the stars, at one point even allowing Mia and Seb to shake off gravity as they visit Griffith Observatory so they can dance amid dazzling constellations.
And yet this is also a movie that serves up slanging matches, heartache and, for Mia, a soul-baring audition to match Naomi Watts’ unforgettable showcase in Mulholland Drive. It also never loses sight of the sacrifices that go into attaining a dream. In this sense, La La Land complements Whiplash. While the intensity is dialled back from that movie’s incessant verbal volleys and occasional physical abuse, there is real emotional punishment on display.
Already the darling of the Venice, Toronto and London Film Festivals, it remains to be seen if La La Land can similarly dazzle multiplex audiences and make good on its early favourite status at the 2017 Oscars. Let’s hope so – it’s a sophisticated, fervent movie, at once old and new, joyous and heartbreaking, personal and universal. Sing it from the rooftops.
THE VERDICT: Could have been a grand folly but instead it’s just grand. Will make audiences break into grins like its characters break into song.
Director: Damien Chazelle; Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Callie Hernandez, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017
Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in a 16-year career offers further proof of his ear for dialogue and eye for the messiness of life. Like 2000’s You Can Count on Me and, especially, 2011’s Margaret, Manchester by the Sea refuses to sugarcoat or simplify, instead letting the drama sprawl and overspill until a 360-degree portrait of a man, a family and a community drifts into focus.
Boston janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) returns to the titular town in Massachusetts when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack. A morose, taciturn loner given to communicating with his fists after too many beers, Lee is horrified to find that he has been named legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose ties to Manchester-by-the-Sea – hockey team, rock band, two girlfriends – mean Lee will need to stick around his hometown for a good while to come.
Under grey skies clogged with pellets of snow, the drama inches along, with flashbacks revealing that Lee was once married to Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in the area. True, withholding the source of Lee’s emotional shutdown for a late reveal is something you expect from a thriller rather than a sombre character study. But such is the authenticity on display elsewhere, it doesn’t feel schematic.
Viewed another way, holding it back could even be seen as an act of courage on Lonergan’s part, denying viewers an easy means to empathise with such a closed-mouthed, locked-up character. One thing’s for sure though: the flashback hits you like a freight train when it finally arrives.
Manchester by the Sea is not an easy film to watch. Not everyone will get on with its loose (but still controlled) storytelling, comprising baggy conversations and non-events that other movies would deem unnecessary.
Meanwhile, its hard-packed, wintry setting is enough to make viewers’ joints throb. Even sharper is the pain to the heart: Affleck’s committed turn as a man calcified by grief is harrowing to watch. Williams, meanwhile, haunts the periphery of the picture before stepping front and centre to inhabit a scene so raw and uncompromising it stings like a slap to the face on an ice-cold day.
If it’s thrills or cheer you’re after, you’re in the wrong place. Lonergan doesn’t do zip and zest, though he does still appreciate the importance of humour in the direst of circumstances. Yet Manchester by the Sea offers its own particular joys, going places that few movies dare to consider these days.
The film also favours truth over trite resolutions, a courageous choice that will likely deflate its chances with the uplift-seeking Academy. No matter. It’s a triumph. And Lonergan cements his reputation as one of the most vital voices in US cinema.
THE VERDICT: If ever there was a film that epitomised the saying ‘no pain, no gain’, this is it. Packs a real wallop.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan; Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017
Live by Night
Served up for Oscar delectation, Ben Affleck’s third polymath drama certainly looks like the kind of picture that could win gongs on production values alone. Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s superior crime noir novel, Live by Night follows the fortunes of Boston bad boy Joe Coughlin (Affleck) as he trifles with powerful mobster Albert (Robert Glenister) by getting with his girl, Emma (Sienna Miller, standout).
As good as dead in Beantown and having hardened during a stint in prison, Coughlin moves to Florida’s Ybor City to run rival gangster Pescatore’s (Remo Girone) rum-running op, carve out an empire and look great in period costume against a mangrove backdrop.
Violent, thematically weighty (prostitution, the Ku Klux Klan, religious revivalism and miscegenation all get screen time) and pertinent to current events (a speech to a bank manager about the working man is on the nose), Affleck’s elegant paean to Hollywood classics recalls The Night of the Hunter in brooding atmosphere and The Untouchables in scope and swagger.
With Robert Richardson’s beautiful lensing and Jess Gonchor’s sumptuous production design nailing the period and steamy sense of place, it looks as rich as the molasses in Pescatore’s sills. Yet despite various beautifully orchestrated set-pieces, narratively the whole thing feels as oddly empty as a prohibition liquor bottle.
THE VERDICT: A handsome prestige pic that’s gorgeous and evocative yet curiously cold. So hard-boiled it’s emotional impenetrable.
Director: Ben Affleck; Starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017
The Young Offenders
Name-to-watch Peter Foott’s rib-tickling story of two teens who cycle from Cork to Kerry in search of a washed-up bale of cocaine is as potty as its premise and as endearing as its leads.
It’s also unexpectedly touching, the bond between Conor (Alex Murphy) and single mum Mairead (Hilary Rose) proving as crucial as that between him and his bestie Jock (Chris Walley).
Director: Peter Foott; Starring: Alex Murphy, Chris Walley, Hilary Rose, Dominic MacHale; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017
Doctor-turned-director Thomas Lilti was César-nominated for his last film, hospital drama Hippocrates, so it’s no surprise he’s stuck with what he knows for his third feature. Set in rural France, Irreplaceable sees Dr. Jean-Pierre Werner (François Cluzet, a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman) discovering he has a serious illness that threatens to rob him of his job as a small town’s revered carer.
With the arrival of big-city doctor Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt), Lilti’s drama skirts away from romcom clichés to deliver an affectionate and deeply moving portrait of two people attempting to do right in very different ways.
Director: Thomas Lilti; Starring: François Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt, Christophe Odent; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017
Underworld: Blood Wars
The fifth entry in the vampires vs. werewolves saga sees Selene (Kate Beckinsale) attempting to end the feud as all parties hunger for the power of her daughter’s blood.
Charles Dance lends gravitas and Tobias Menzies is effective as new Lycan leader Marius, but monotony soon sinks in thanks to side-tracking flashbacks, trite dialogue and snigger-inducing seriousness.
Director: Anne Foerster; Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies, Bradley James, James Faulkner, Charles Dance; Theatrical release: January 13, 2017