Movie Reviews: La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Live by Night

The winner of a record-breaking seven awards at the Golden Globe Awards, La La Land (PG) stars Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress and playwright who is working as a barista on a film studio lot when she meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist hoping for a big break.

Movie Reviews: La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Live by Night

As per all great romance stories, the path of true love does not run smooth: the effervescent Mia is an optimistic free spirit, whilst Sebastian is a rather dour conservative who considers it his personal mission to restore classic jazz to its former greatness.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land wears its heart on its sleeve, paying tribute to the great Hollywood musicals via several show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, the pick of the bunch being ‘What a waste of a lovely night’.

Don’t be fooled by the contemporary setting, either; this is a delightfully old-fashioned musical, one of those largely uncomplicated tales overflowing with style, charm and wit that are stitched into the fabric of Hollywood lore.

This is the third time Stone and Gosling have been cast together, and their chemistry fairly crackles as Stone’s ebullient turn as Mia dovetails beautifully with Gosling’s taciturn Sebastian.

Meanwhile, the catchy tunes and superb choreography are brilliantly framed by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who employs ravishing primary colours to dazzling effect.

All told, it’s a genuinely heart-warming experience, a veritable sunburst of optimism and joy that arrives just when we need it most: as we head into a potentially grim 2017, La La Land is utterly delicious escapism, and the first must-see movie of the year.

Manchester by the Sea

(15A) stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, who is handed the responsibility of rearing his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of degenerative heart disease.

Lee is horrified at the prospect of being forced to care for Patrick, not least because he is still mourning a previous tragedy that has left him with the proverbial heart of stone.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, this is a heart-wrenching tale driven by two excellent performances. Affleck turns in the best performance of his career to date as the haunted Lee, an understated but devastatingly nuanced take on emotional illiteracy that is at times almost unbearable to watch.

Hedges, meanwhile, offers a youthful variation the same theme as he struggles to process the loss of his father, his instinctive willingness to move on from death resulting in an abrasive (and frequently funny) relationship with his reluctant guardian.

Kenneth Lonergan directs with a sure touch, the story evolving through long, slow scenes that allow the actors the space and time to fully develop their characters, the naturalistic performances and realistically blunt (and frequently incoherent) dialogue achieving its heart-breaking apotheosis in the scene where Lee encounters his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Set against a backdrop of a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter, Manchester by the Sea is a gripping drama that eschews any kind of storytelling affectations to deliver a heart-searing exploration of grief.

Set during the Prohibition years, and adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, Live by Night

(15A) stars Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the wayward Irish-American son of police chief Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) who prefers the freedom of operating as an independent outlaw to aligning himself with either of the Boston’s leading gangsters, Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).

In between robbing banks and dodging bullets, Joe manages to make life even more difficult for himself by falling in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), the mistress of Albert White.

Adapted by Ben Affleck, who also directs, Live by Night is an elegantly constructed variation on the Roaring Twenties gangster flick as Joe Coughlin abandons Boston’s complications for the sunnier (but no less violently bloody) climes of Florida, where he sets about establishing an empire built on rum-smuggling.

Affleck the writer isn’t entirely persuasive as he charts Joe’s evolution from brash young thug into a more complex and thoughtful anti-hero, especially as Joe’s elevation to a more noble status is generally achieved courtesy of multiple murders, and particularly as the minor villains regularly dispatched in a hail of machine-gun fire tend to be cardboard cut-outs.

That said, Affleck the actor is in solid form as the square-jawed Joe Coughlin, and he gets strong support from Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper (playing an incorruptible chief of police), and Miller, who steals every scene she’s in as a refreshingly unrepentant gangster’s moll.

La La Land 5/5

Manchester by the Sea 5/5

Live By Night 4/5

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