LA LA LAND (USA/PG/128mins) Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons THE PLOT: Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own nightclub, fall in love after they cross one another’s paths time and again. As their dreams become ever closer, their aspirations begin to pull them apart. THE VERDICT: Directed by Damien Chazelle, ‘La La Land’ is a complete change of pace from the director’s first feature length film ‘Whiplash’. ‘La La Land’ is a beautiful and gentle love story that captures the romantic feel of old Hollywood musicals, as Gosling and Stone sing and dance their way through their romance and their careers.
Emma Stone is luminous in the leading role as Mia; there is an old Hollywood feel to Stone and her character, and she inhabits Mia, making her feel real and utterly relatable as she tries to juggle everything she ever wanted as it all lands in her lap at the wrong time. Ryan Gosling fares less well, since he is trying to keep up with the glittering Stone, but his singing voice is beautiful, and he makes Sebastian the right kind of romantic as he struggles to make the choice between what’s easy and what he actually wants. The rest of the cast features J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt, and John Legend.
Damien Chazelle’s screenplay for ‘La La Land’ has been a labour of love for the writer/director as he spent years trying to convince studios that the musical is not as dead as once thought. The love story between Mia and Sebastian feels light and airy, and the struggles Chazelle went through to get the film made have obviously been poured into the characters on screen. The original songs created for the film capture the feeling of new love, in all its excitement and joy, and Gosling and Stone’s voices work beautifully together and alone. The dialogue for the film is strong, but there are times when the story becomes tangled in what it is trying to convey, leaving the film feeling drawn out and unfocused. The film manages to recover, but this does mean that the film can feel drawn out and much longer than its 128 minute running time.
As director Damien Chazelle casts the Hollywood studio system as a character in the film, making it both the thing that draws the two characters together and pulls them apart. The film has an old-fashioned feel in the best possible way, feeling both like a Gene Kelly musical of the past, and a modern love story. The songs are evenly spread throughout the film, which never feels as though it is laden with music at the expense of story or honest conversations. There are times when the pacing struggles with the time frame of the story, and untangling story threads means the film feels sluggish. It is a delight to spend time with Sebastian and Mia, but the film often feels way longer than it actually is.
In all, ‘La La Land’ is beautifully old-fashioned, while breathing fresh air into the musical genre, which of late seems to be populated with jukebox musicals and stage shows being dragged onto the screen. Gosling and Stone are wonderful together, and make the characters feel real, and their connection strong. Chazelle’s script and songs are strong, but there are times when the story trips over itself, and the pacing grinds to a halt. ‘La La Land’ is something special, however, and Gosling and Stone get this love story singing. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (USA/15A/137mins) Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Ben O’Brien, Kyle Chandler, Mary Mallen THE PLOT: Lee (Casey Affleck) is a Boston handyman who does odd jobs for local tenants. He is a quiet fellow who internalises his guilt but lashes out with his anger, sometimes at the tenants – much to the chagrin of his boss. Lee has a close relationship with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and occasionally spends time with his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in the seaside town of Manchester By The Sea. However, Joe dies of heart problems so Lee is called back to look after Patrick. This is when he finds out that Joe has assigned guardianship rights to him. Unprepared for this level of responsibility, Lee tries to adjust to looking after Patrick until he is old enough. Patrick is a busy guy though with two demanding girlfriends. Being back in Manchester By The Sea brings past memories to the surface for Lee, including memories of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and a tragedy that befell them… THE VERDICT: ‘Manchester By The Sea’ is just Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in 17 years. He first made quite an impression with ‘You Can Count On Me’ in 2000. This was followed by the overlong, troubled production Margaret. After the fraught editing room battle over that film, Lonergan could be forgiven for hanging up his director’s megaphone. However, he has returned with quiet confidence for a film that is both funny and moving in equal measures.
Originally approached by Matt Damon to write the script for which Damon would also direct and star, Lonergan has crafted a beautifully-written character piece about how the past influences the present, dealing with grief and how it affects the lives of people in many different ways. Lonergan is just the right director for this material, as he knows how to delicately balance the happy / sad nature of life, with all its ups, downs and sideways turns. Despite what seems like an initially heavy-going film about loss, the film is more amusing than it appears. It is warmly funny throughout, rather than throwing in an occasional joke to lighten the mood. The contrasting banter between the world-weary Lee and the younger, naive Patrick is a highlight.
Affleck is a revelation here, thoroughly deserving of his recent Best Actor Golden Globe. He has often been an under-rated actor who falls under the shadow of his more famous older brother. He deftly guides us through Lee’s malaise and sense of dissatisfaction in life. He is drifting and needs a purpose, an anchor for his life. He is ably supported by Hedges and the heart-breaking Williams, as well as a fine supporting cast – even the smaller roles like Broderick’s stepfather get a chance to shine.
If there is a message in the film, it is that people have the capacity to change, if they want to of course. Awkwardness is a theme running throughout the film too – nobody quite knows what to say in some scenes. That is the imperfectness of life. The overall impression of ‘Manchester By The Sea is’ that it is a genuine, sensitively written drama about how people cope with loss and change. That is something we can all relate to. Welcome back, Mr Lonergan. RATING: 4/5 Review by Gareth O’Connor
LIVE BY NIGHT (USA/15A/128mins) Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper THE PLOT: After fighting the Huns in France, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) returns to Prohibition-Era Boston, swearing never to follow orders again. After starting out as an outlaw, Coughlin relocates to Florida – after a stint in prison – to work with the Italian mob family under Maso Pescatore in taking down the leader of the Irish mob. While in Florida, Coughlin makes the Pescatore family a lot of money, but runs into trouble with the KKK and the devoutly religious. THE VERDICT: After ‘Gone Baby Gone’, ‘Live by Night’ is the second Ben Affleck directed film to be based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. The good news is that Affleck has rounded up an impressive cast for his fourth film as director, but the not so good news is that ‘Live By Night’ is messy, bloated and sincerely lacks relatable characters.
The cast of the film is made up of Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Scott Eastwood, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Michael Hall. While this cast boasts some impressive names, not many of these normally strong actors get a lot to do; Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning have some lovely moments throughout the film, but Chris Messina just lurks in the background, Sienna Miller fumbles her way through an Irish accent, Brendan Gleeson has a small, almost insignificant role, and Affleck himself fails to make the outlaw and general law breaker Joe Coughlin a rounded, emotional character, and Coughlin is certainly not one that the audience can root for.
As screenwriter, Ben Affleck spends both too much and too little time on the set up of the story, with Coughlin’s shifting loyalties barely being examined throughout the script. The lead character is drawn as a wooden and emotionless man who is good at intimidation and seducing beautiful women, but has little else in the way of charm. The women in the film are catalysts rather than characters, and none of the characters are given enough motivation or emotion to make them seem real. The pieces are all there for ‘Live by Night’ to be a great film, but since Affleck has explored this type of underworld before, it seems his heart is not in it, making ‘Live by Night’ a whole lot less than the sum of its parts.
As director, Affleck seems to have lost the skill for punchy, humorous and tense films that he has displayed in the past with ‘Argo’, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘The Town’, and seems happy to allow ‘Live by Night’ to drift through its meandering storyline with nary a set piece to at least break up the action. None of the supporting cast truly get a moment to shine throughout the film, and choosing to put the emotional heart and soul of the film on his own shoulders means that the film lives – or more appropriately, dies – at the hands of Affleck’s strangely wooden performance.
In all, ‘Live by Night’ is not the exciting gangster revenge flick we hoped it would be. Affleck seems to have lost his golden touch as both actor and director, and although the film looks great, it is hard to find a character to root for in the film, much less one who goes through a true emotional journey. ‘Live by Night’ could have been a great gangster caper, but as it stands it is dull, bland and emotionless. RATING: 2/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (USA/16/91mins) Directed by Anna Foerester. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Charles Dance, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies THE PLOT: The war between the vampires and the Lycans shows no signs of dying out, with both sides now searching for Selene’s (Kate Beckinsale) daughter Even, a vampire / Lycan hybrid. Selene has hidden Eve away for her own safety, and doesn’t even know where her daughter is, but this does not stop both sides coming for her and her allies. THE VERDICT:It is hard to believe that after five films and almost 14 years, the ‘Underworld’ film franchise is still going. Kate Beckinsale is back and doing her best Victoria Beckham impression as Selene the renegade vampire, and although steps were made in the previous film ‘Underworld: Awakening’ to diversify the story and bring in the rest of the world, this seems to have been abandoned in the muddled, dark and dank ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’.
Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as the outcast Selene, enemy of both the vampires and the Lycans, and has squeezed herself back into her pleather catsuit and corset in order to kick some bad guy ass. Lara Pulver hams it up in an assortment of ballgowns as Semira, a vampire with her own agenda, Charles Dance tries to bring some seriousness to proceedings as the head vampire Thomas, but is fighting a losing battle. Theo James plays David, Clementine Nicholson plays Lena and Daisy Head plays Alexia. None of the performances are particularly memorable or subtle, but they manage to fit the over the top and ridiculously heightened feel of the film.
Screenwriter Cory Goodman seems to have forgotten the laws of the ‘Underworld’ franchise, and the stories that have been told in the past films of the franchise. The film feels as though it is a much smaller story than the ones that have gone before, and although there are times when the film does feel as though it is telling a life and death story, since this is the fifth film in the franchise there is little time given to developing characters or allowing the audience to remember what has gone before.
As director Anna Foerster keeps ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ dark, murky and, although it seems as though the story is drawn out and makes no sense, rattling along at a breakneck speed without ever trying to develop characters, fit with the film that has gone before or create a story that the audience can find something to root for. The action scenes are shrouded in darkness, and it is often difficult to tell who, among the dark haired black clad characters, is who. Add to this some dodgy CGI, vampiric wire fu and a distinct lack of fun, and ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ goes from brainless but fun action film to dull darkness that lacks any kind of characterisation.
In all, ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ is a small story told in a massive way, albeit dark, murky and dank. There is no time given to allow the audience to get to know these characters again, and since everyone is so vampiric and cold, no-one to truly root for. Still, those who enjoy a vampiric steampunkian pleather clad action film will have fun, everyone else should steer clear. RATING: 1/5 Review by Brogen Hayes