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Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Film Review: Arrival

Arrival

Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.

Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.

In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.

The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film,  we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.

Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.

And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.

By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.

Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.

Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.

Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.

Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.

Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Nocturnal Animals – BFI London Film Festival

nocturnal-animals

Tom Ford is known for making incredibly beautiful things, and his first foray into film-making, A Single Man, managed to combine style and substance to great acclaim. His second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which premiered at the London Film Festival, takes his work in a slightly different direction, adding a somewhat grisly, high-stakes thriller element that contrasts with the beautiful world of a prosperous gallery owner played by Amy Adams.

Insomniac Susan is a rich and renowned art dealer whose latest blockbuster show opens the film – which we see in the opening credits as a warped homage to Bond’s gyrating ladies. But despite her success it’s clear her outwardly perfect life has plenty of cracks; her handsome second husband has failed to attend the opening and rushes off on yet another “business” trip with his mistress, while a growing sense of unreality and emptiness begins to trouble Susan’s quieter moments. Out of the blue her novelist ex-husband sends her the manuscript of his first book, dedicated to her and fulfilling the potential she saw in him during their brief student marriage. But as Susan begins to read, the disturbing morality tale Edward has sent her takes hold and changes her perspective on the past.

Ford’s film is all about the rottenness that exists beneath the surface of things and how people can never escape the consequences of bad choices. In many ways it is a classic revenge tale that takes the audience into three worlds; the first dealing with Susan’s current life, the second the world of the book, and finally Susan’s memories of her first marriage evoked by the story she encounters. Complex as it sounds Ford interweaves the narratives convincingly, creating a film that’s not just a beautiful object but one that aptly reflects its subject matter by being tense, dark and uncomfortable beneath the surface.

Multi-narrative films can be difficult to pull-off but when it works well, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, each piece acts like a jigsaw adding depth and meaning to the rest. Here, our protagonist is Susan who, much like the central character in A Single Man, lives in one of those stunning one level, waterside houses that are all glass and extensive space, the type of home that speaks volumes about the lifestyle of the people inside. We also see her in her perfect white-walled gallery, an almost antiseptic environment that is all about surface suggestions of achievement but never seem to actually touch Susan’s inner life.

Amy Adams is superb as Susan, who, with surprisingly little dialogue, is required to convey a detachment from her day-to-day life, a lack of meaning and growing wish to reconnect with an earlier time of purer emotion. Heavily made up as a career woman, as we flit between the present and her student past, we see her former more honest appearance, understanding instantly, as Ford would like us to, that she has become someone that only exists on the surface of herself rather than the creative thinker she once was. The arrival of Edward’s book and her shocked, fearful and perplexed reactions to it are something that wakes her up to herself, which Adams conveys effortlessly.

The second narrative dramatises the plot of the novel Susan is reading about a family forced off the road by some reckless young men while driving along a lonely stretch of Texan desert one night. It’s a classic suspense opener as the family – husband Tony (Jake Gyllehaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – discuss the decision to drive all night to their destination rather than break the journey. Soon they are engaged in a frightening confrontation with another car that harasses them for some miles before forcing them to pull over. The way in which Ford controls the tension here is fascinating, and has much in common with Spielberg’s first movie Duel, in which a faceless lorry driver pursues and attempts to kill a car driver for no apparent reason.

The tension only ratchets up from here on as the family are tormented further by their assailants before a series of dreadful crimes take place. This story, which eventually stretches over several months becomes an almost Shakespearean revenge tragedy in which the inevitability of destruction for all in involved is palpable. Cutting tightly between this and Susan’s reactions, often to a throbbing beat, creates strong associations between the two and it’s no coincidence that Edward’s female characters and his ex-wife have the same shade of red hair.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very affecting as a man set on an unexpected path after a random encounter that changes his life irreparably. Tony’s initial devastation grows into an anxiety for justice that eventually curdles into a thirst for brutal revenge at any cost, which Gyllenhaal convincingly plays. But what makes this section so engaging is the dangerous unpredictability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray, who leads the gang of attackers. Ray is essentially your worst nightmare, someone who initially appears outwardly helpful but with an overconfidence brimming with treacherous intent. He is absolutely in control of every situation and orchestrates the separation of the family with cold-hearted perfection. Remorseless, calculating and even proud of his crimes, Taylor-Johnson’s performance is one of the best portrayals of mercenary mercilessness you’ll see this year.

Gyllenhaal’s weakness as Tony is contrasted with a few interspersed scenes as his ‘real-life’ alter-ego Edward whose young relationship with Susan contrasts, in her mind at least, with the complicated and sullied world she now lives in with the man she left him for. Here Gyllenhaal brings a freshness and ardent youth to Edward’s early dreams to be a novelist, while we get the first hints that he doesn’t deal well with criticism. Ford doesn’t linger too long on these sections but these fragments of memory are just enough to reveal Susan’s mind.

This hankering for simpler, purer times pervades the film and while the novel sections focus on the cost of revenge, it serves to reopen Susan’s mind about her past and the choices she made. But Ford also feeds this through the movie in other ways, particularly in one of the film’s wonderfully comic scenes in the gallery as Susan, facing a woman on her team with ridiculous plastic surgery, talks about a less-is-more ethos, a biting satire of the world Ford sees around him.

Much like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is then a film about loss of self, about hankering for a happier time and the inability to ever go back. Ford handles the transition between stories with great confidence, nicely adding to the escalating tension and drama. The storytelling is somewhat linear and for the most part it goes where you expect it to, but Ford creates investment in his leads – and despite the crime story being a meta fiction within a fiction – the rising intensity and the contrast of sleek and gritty styles keep the audience’s attention nonetheless. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film, but it is a masterclass in taking a fairly straightforward plot and creating a suspenseful, sleek, beautiful, dark and gripping experience.

Nocturnal Animals was premiered at the London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 4 November in the UK and 18th November – 9 December in the US. More reviews from the Festival will follow as films as released in cinemas.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


American Honey – BFI London Film Festival

american-honey

No one makes films like Andrea Arnold and as her latest, American Honey, receives its premiere at the London Film Festival it’s hard to believe it’s only her fourth, so firmly has she carved her niche as a creator of beautifully-made stories of real working class life. Unlike so many ‘Hollywood-ised’ versions of urban poverty, there’s no sheen of glamour on the people Arnold focuses on, no designer dirt, just an honest account of what you would see in millions of homes, brought to the screen predominantly by a cast of unknown actors who bring a raw vitality to Arnold’s work.

Back in 2009, Arnold burst onto our radar with the astonishing Fish Tank, one of those rare occasions when a film unexpectedly knocks you sideways and lingers in your consciousness. Her tale of a feisty yet vulnerable teenager, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who dreams of becoming a dancer but fettered by her Essex council estate upbringing gets involved with her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor, who ambiguously sits somewhere between a father-figure and a predator (Michael Fassbender). It is an extraordinary film about the particular difficulties of being a young girl growing-up thinking she’s an adult but still a child in many ways, of the vulnerability and invincibility of being a teenager, and finding out who you are.

In her first US-based film, Arnold’s American Honey covers similar themes but with an equally absorbing and epic examination of the challenges of growing up with deprivation and want. At its heart is an exceptional performance by newcomer Sasha Lane who’s kind-hearted, yet strong protagonist Star exposes her vulnerability through a series of reckless escapades. Abandoning her home where she is the primary carer for her much younger sister and brother, while enduring the groping attentions of her step-father, Star spontaneously choses a life on the road with a rag-tag bunch of fellow teens selling magazine-subscriptions for a shady operator named Krystal. Along the way Star falls for senior seller, and Krystal’s supposed lover, Jake, while taking crazy risks to ensure she doesn’t get left behind.

Arnold’s film is a near three hour marathon that, after a brief scene-setting section about Star’s life, follows the group as they move around the south trying to find new markets to offload their wares. As ever with Arnold, the surroundings are pretty grim as the characters move from sleazy motel to sleazy motel, mixing with truckers, Christian middle class home-owners and oil plantation workers in a vision of small-town America that feels real and visceral. It’s never preachy though and like Fish Tank before it, American Honey takes an almost documentary approach to cataloguing the way in which people live, from grimy bedrooms strewn with trashy clothes to homes years-deep in grease and urban decay.

Yet the tone of the film is actually quite optimistic, hopeful and at times even aspirational as Star and her new friends enjoy a sense of freedom being on the road and a wide-eyed enjoyment of the constant newness of the world they experience by being part of this group. By drawing attention to these lives Arnold is actually reminding us that for all the media condescension both in the US and the UK, working class lives are as rich and filled with the same kinds of humanity as any other. Seeing this story through Star’s eyes allows the audience to experience these emotions with her, recognising how normal and rounded they are – from the pain of first love, to the fear of striking out alone and the satisfaction of beginning to find a way forward. And while it may be a long journey, Arnold’s intimate film uses this epic scale to show us that experiences are relative, and vary in personal significance.

Sasha Lane was one of Arnold’s random discoveries and her performance reveals how close to her real life upbringing American Honey is. In a sense, it picks up where Fish Tank finished to consider the consequences of a young girl abandoning the safe and familiar for a life of unknown self-reliance – in essence a coming-of-age tale. Star is a fascinating mix of contradictions, as many 18 year olds are, and having partially raised her siblings, she has a caring and responsible streak that becomes important as the story unfolds. Frequently we see her rescuing and releasing trapped insects – a nice metaphor for her own character situation – offering them a freedom she also craves. But this sense of right is often concealing an enormous vulnerability that allows others to take advantage of her. It is testament to Lane’s layered and impressive performance that Star is seemingly unaware of her own weakness, often recklessly going off with strangers so certain is she that she’ll make a sale, but with little regard for her physical safety. That idea of teenage invincibility is convincingly played and spending three hours with her the audience becomes convinced that, like Mia, she will always be fine.

Arnold also specialises in highly ambiguous male characters, and even at the end you’re never quite sure whether Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is a good guy or not. The only major star name in the film, Jake is Krystal’s number 2, training the new recruits and possibly sleeping with the boss. What develops between Jake and Star is initially a tender love story, as the old-hand is drawn both to her innocence and her willingness to criticise his sales technique. Yet at every turn, Arnold throws obstacles in the way to subvert expectation, never letting Star or us know whether Jake genuinely wants her, or is casually taking advantage. We hear repeatedly from Krystal that he’s also sleeping with her, but Arnold never visually confirms this either way, allowing us to understand Star’s confusion. LaBeouf keeps us guessing and his famous presence never overwhelms or detracts from the freshness of the remaining cast which is a valuable achievement.

The wider group are also a mix of newcomers and famous grandchildren (including Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) but their numerous scenes in the van have the comradely and frustrating feel of endless journeys, as they sing along to music the cast selected themselves, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally have a good time. And while none of them are drawn distinctly, in many ways this is a group of strays, like the random pets they acquire along the way, unwanted and unloved, clinging together for solidarity. Their leader Krystal is superbly played by Riley Keough who ruthlessly recruits and uses lost kids to make money for her scheme, much of which she appears to spend on clothes and beauty products while her exploited team sleep in one room and are forced to fight each other if they generate the least sales. Keough, a little older than her charges, is a brutal presence, happy to sell an idea of their flesh if it will make money and intent on keeping them down, while, as a warped mother-figure, ensuring they look to her for sustenance.

While much of the film takes us through cities and towns, the contrast of these urban environments with nature is ever-present. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lingers on shots of butterflies on flowers, or vast open fields swaying in the breeze, while the way he captures light gives everything a vibrancy that is beautiful and engaging. Throughout the soundtrack is a mix of thumping rap beats with more introspective sounds that add poignancy, joy and sensitivity at crucial points.

As I said at the start, no one makes films like Andrea Arnold, and American Honey is a phenomenal piece of work that leaves an impact long after the credits role. It will remind you of the pain of growing up and how difficult that transition to adulthood was, while emphasising that everyone feels that way regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Some may grumble at the length, but despite momentary lapses it is a compelling and beautifully told account of lives we still so rarely see on screen.

American Honey was previewed at the BFI London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 14 October in the UK. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


La La Land – BFI London Film Festival

la-la-land

The London Film Festival is now well underway, and La La Land is one of the most anticipated films being previewed here, having already won huge acclaim and prizes at the Venice and Toronto Festivals, as well as plenty of Oscar buzz. And all of that praise is absolutely spot on, because it is a film that beautifully combines the dazzle and flair of 1950s musicals that you watch with a smile on your face, with the moving intimate drama of a relationship that cannot work in which its central couple, an aspiring jazz pianist and an wannabe actress fall in love and then fall apart.

Director Damien Chazelle’s film is a constant conversation between past and future, where styles, themes and visual effects don’t just merge seamlessly but violently collide together to create a vibrant and engaging spectacle of a film that is at the same time full of heart; in short a love letter to a different kind of LA. As Chazelle explained during the Q&A which accompanied the UK Premiere of this film, he actively wanted to showcase less shiny areas of LA, which burst onto the screen immediately with an opening song that takes place in a huge motorway traffic jam as shiny-faced hopefuls queue not just to get into town but for their shot at fame. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the contrasting hyper-real style and mundane locations but it’s soon utterly absorbing.

But it is a film of two halves, the first the pure Hollywood romance of dreams and aspiration, and the second half the melancholy decline of love as careers takes precedence. Having encountered each other briefly on the motorway, we initially follow Mia’s story (Emma Stone), working in a coffee shop on a Studio lot serving the famous people she hopes to become, while running off to auditions, or attending parties with her 3 female flatmates. Everything in her world is full of hope, and in homage to the classic musicals, it is a Technicolor dream of jewel colours and blurred parties. Suddenly a piano refrain cuts through this extraneous noise and everything slows as she hears Sebastian playing in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Sebastian’s world is somewhere much darker, a rundown flat, jobs he hates and dreams to open his own pure jazz club that he cannot fulfill. A surly young man in the model of James Dean – a Rebel Without a Cause is one of the films repeatedly referenced – he is disconnected from the world and having encountered the more enthusiastic Mia a few times, he’s sure they wouldn’t fit together. But in one of the film’s more enchanting scenes, one magical night after a party they tap dance their way into each other’s hearts as they contemplate the sunset over LA.

A series of fairy-tale dates follow including a trip to the Griffith Observatory where they find themselves on cloud nine, dreamily dancing among the stars. One of the joys of Chazelle’s work here is how seamlessly these set-piece moments are integrated into the main story, and unlike the 50s musical, characters don’t just burst randomly into song, these sequences either explain the emotions of the protagonists or represent the fantasy world of their relationship.

But that’s only half the story and while Sebastian and Mia may be perfect for one another, they both have dreams that begin to drive a wedge between them. Again Chazelle manages the tone change perfectly and it is in this section that as an audience you begin to realise quite how much you’ve invested in these characters, and watching them moving in different directions becomes quite affecting. By the end of the film as you discover what happens to them and their dreams of ‘making-it’, the whole thing you realise is both an elegy to the people they were, and, in a magnificent alternative reality sequence – right out of the fantasy moment in Singing in the Rain and others – to the people they didn’t become.

These are first rate performances from Stone and Gosling, who have probably never been better, and have a particular fizz on screen. Stone’s Mia in some ways is her usual loveable slightly goofy heroine, but here she adds a considerable understanding of the old Hollywood style. In particular there are two key places where she uses a single look to convey a great deal of information; first when she hears Sebastian’s tune in the restaurant, Stone shows not just the weariness of her current life and appreciation of this new music, but also you see her enchantment with him. This is beautifully mirrored later in the film when she’s in the crowd at Sebastian’s concert, hearing his new band for the first time, and realising he has sold-out, her face falls as she tries to contain her disappointment both for him and herself, which signals the shift in their relationship.

Gosling too is excellent as the perhaps less idealistic Sebastian, who, in his relationship with Mia, finds both encouragement to pursue his own dreams and a pressure to reroute them to be the man she deserves. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the compromises he is forced to make to achieve a form of stardom far from who he wanted to be, and what this has to say about the Hollywood machine. It questions what the price of fame is worth, and for Sebastian it may cost him both his integrity and his relationship. Yet, it is clear how much he loves Mia and while his choices may stifle him and take him away, he makes them for her which means their pain is all the more poignant for the audience.

Chazelle’s film is an extraordinary clash of past and future explored in several ways throughout the film. Not just the merging of 50s musical styles and imagination with grittier visuals from modern LA where beautiful old cinemas and clubs are left to rot, but of the purity of Sebastian’s love of jazz ‘infected’ by new styles of music, and how the personal past and future of the characters plays out. I referred to it earlier as a violent collision of styles and Chazelle keeps control of these elements very nicely often allowing a fairly hum drum moment to erupt into a beautiful fantasy sequence, or conversely punctuating too much dreaminess with intrusive blasts of car horns or fire alarms, forcing reality to come between Mia and Sebastian once more.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography gloriously emphasises this clash of styles and he’s given each of the leading characters their own visual tone – a simpler, washed out look for Sebastian, to emphasise the life he’s living in his small and plain apartment, while Mia gets vibrant jewel colours and plenty of soft Hollywood glow around the leading lady. Some of the best work is of course in the stunning musical sequences, whether imagining the life they could have had or an emotional Sebastian walking along the pier at sunset still forming that tune that would become his signature, Sandgren has painted incredible pictures that will make you smile.

La La Land is then a film about fate and destiny, bringing people together for a time and then understanding that love is not always enough; they may only be able to really fulfil their dreams apart. We learn later in the film, that destiny would always bring the two of them to certain places at certain times, but the sadness lies in what happened in between. Justin Hurwitz’s music manages to be a whole extra character adding just the right balance of romance and melancholy while being a celebration of the soundstage musical. Sublime, moving, delightful, exquisite and joyous, if la la land is a fantasy place for dreamers and fools, then in Chazelle’s magical film it is a place you long to be.

La La Land was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 7 October after screenings at Venice and Toronto. It will be released in the US on 16 December and in UK on 13 January 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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