La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.

★★★★★

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Manchester by the Sea

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Writer: Kenneth Lonergan


One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.

In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.

For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.

Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.

★★★★★

Assassin’s Creed

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage


Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?

In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.

Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.

The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.

This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.