LFF Day 3: La La Land & Manchester By The Sea

Day 3

Rhapsodic Hollywood dreaming and glacial Massachusetts misery on London Film Festival Day 3.

 

4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone soar in Damien Chazelle’s radiant love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals and those who dare to follow their dreams in the City of Angels.

From the moment the screen unfolds from standard ratio into full and glorious CinemaScope, any film fan in the audience knows they’re in for a treat. More than just a glossy throwback, though, La La Land also reflects the hope and heartbreak of all would-be artists.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are Sebastian and Mia. He’s a jobbing pianist who’s uptight about the future of jazz and dreams of one day running his own club; she’s an aspiring actress who ekes out a living from day-to-day in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. back-lot.

Their first passing encounter takes place on a gridlocked freeway shortly after the film’s joyous, single-take, big-band opener. In true Singin’ In The Rain-style, they don’t immediately click. Gosling and Stone’s chemistry is undeniable, though, and no matter how they try to deny it, we know they belong together — that’s if their respective dreams will allow for it.

All wistful refrains and pastel-coloured skies, and late-night excursions to Griffith Observatory, the film is romanticism embodied, which is not to say naïve. There’s a touch of playful cynicism – as in “A Lovely Night”, wherein the couple feign mutual disinterest against the backdrop of an incandescent dawn – and sincere idealism – which comes to the fore in the film’s own “I Dreamed A Dream”, Stone’s show-stopping “Audition”, and should, as with Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, practically guarantee her an Oscar nom. Both of these help tether the film and prevent it from permanently floating off into the starry firmament or slipping into pure homage — at least until the wondrous flight-of-fantasy final reel.

Linus Sandgren’s vivid, delicate cinematography, though seemingly influenced by the work of Jacques Demy, presents us with an L.A. different, perhaps, to any we have ever seen. It is, in its own way, the perfect companion piece to 2014’s glaring Nightcrawler.

Crucially, too, Justin Hurwitz’s score and Benj Pasek-Justin Paul’s lyrics are both catchy and heart-achingly poignant. The film could hold down the whole Best Song category of any awards ceremony single-handedly. In any case, it’ll likely be the second consecutive film John Legend’s involved in to have won — here he plays Keith, a highly successful former associate of Sebastian who offers him security at a cost to his integrity.

La La Land, refined and airy, is cotton candy to the astringent black coffee of Chazelle’s breakout, Whiplash (my favorite film of 2014 and, which, to be totally churlish, I prefer). J.K. Simmons even makes an amusing cameo as Sebastian’s hard-ass night-club-owner boss, who, ironically, has him playing easy-listening Christmas jingles to the cocktail set.

While lacking the impact of its predecessor’s hard-won arc and percussive climax, the film captures with utter certainty what it means to be alone in, the hands at the piano, the figure in the spotlight, with nothing but your talent and your conviction as darkness gathers round.

If Whiplash was a deterrent to ever approaching an instrument again then La La Land may just convince you to make another go of it.

 

5 Stars (5 / 5)

In Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck gives a career-best performance as Lee Chandler, a native of the North Shore left emotionally desolate by guilt and grief.

When his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, but not unexpectedly, of congestive heart failure, the Boston-based Lee puts his lonely life as an overworked janitor on hold to return to his hometown of Manchester By The Sea and take care of the burial. His teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a well-liked smart-ass for whom Lee is shocked to discover — in the absence of Patrick’s alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), or any local relatives — he is now legal guardian.

Lee is a man defined by a guarded equivocation. He’s capable enough when it comes to basic plumbing or making arrangements on the phone, but he’s seemingly without wants or needs of his own, without desire. An offer of food or a drink by a concerned neighbor will sure enough be met, with an apparently sincere, “No, I’m fine, thank you.” Small talk is utterly beyond him. Any attempt to engage with Lee on more than the most perfunctory level is the social equivalent of shoveling snow.

While a lesser actor might simply have lobotomized Lee, hollowed him out completely, Affleck, with his alert gaze and almost hostile smile, takes us inside the head of a man who is, at best, frozen, left landlocked by some past trauma; at worst, completely burnt out, simply going through the motions. Lonergan’s greatest achievement with the film is in his refusal to offer a simple, if any, solution, to Lee’s all-pervading depression.

Flashbacks, which hit us with the suddenness of memory, introduce us to the now absent Joe, described as “personable”; to the vanished Elise, currently out there somewhere; and to Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s estranged wife, as well as a happier, more sociable, if equally heavy drinking, Lee. These scenes serve to illuminate his current state of being, as well as revealing exactly how things have reached this point.

For instance, Joe’s shipping boat, on which the film opens, is the setting of some of Lee’s most idyllic memories and now a point of conflict with Patrick now he’s charged with the boy’s financial upkeep.

Sturdily, if inelegantly constructed, Manchester By The Sea is also a study of one man’s place, or lack thereof, in a community that is equal parts closed— and open-hearted. Joe’s beardy, well-meaning best mate, George (C.J. Wilson) helps out as best he can; even rescuing Lee from one of the bar fights he occasionally provokes. Those who don’t know Lee as well are understandably less tolerant of his antisocial tendencies.

A scene in which an outwardly vulnerable Randi tries to get a recalcitrant Lee to confront his own pain may well be the most affecting in any film this year — so truthful and unadorned a portrayal it is of two people who should be united in shared loss and yet are divided by it. Another in a police station veers towards further tragedy with gut-shot abruptness.

There are also moments of unexpected humor, such as when Joe, laid up in hospital, confronted with his own mortality, and surrounded by bickering family, disbelievingly yelps out, “I’m in fucking hospital here!”.

Jodie Lee Lipes’ sharp cinematography makes the most of the film’s chilly locale — you can almost feel the wind chill coming in off the bay — and Lesley Barber’s classically-themed choral score provides a bleak emotional uplift when no words that can be spoken are worth the listening.

Its detachment may be off-putting to some, but get on its wavelength and Manchester By The Sea promises to make for unforgettable viewing.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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