Movie Reviews: 'La La Land,' 'Manchester by the Sea,' 'Hidden Figures'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in a scene from the movie "La La Land." Photo: CNS/Lionsgate Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in a scene from the movie "La La Land." Photo: CNS/Lionsgate

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service

La La Land

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Though it's set in present-day Los Angeles, the comedy-drama "La La Land" (Lionsgate) takes a spirited stab at reviving the musicals of Hollywood's golden age.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash") dreams big in this over-the-top fantasy where drivers exit their cars on a freeway overpass and burst into song, and lovers float in the air amid the projected stars in a planetarium.

Beautifully shot in widescreen CinemaScope, "La La Land" is a unique and self-indulgent film, to say the least. But it tends to lose its way when song and dance take over. Fortunately, that's largely made up for by Chazelle's engaging script, a cast of first-rate actors, and superb jazz music.

In the city where dreams are manufactured, two star-crossed lovers meet: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist. Each is driven toward a singular goal. Mia wants to be a movie star, while Sebastian hopes to open his own club.

Their gooey romance bubbles over into a series of numbers worthy of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. In this context, the corny dialogue is utterly appropriate, even charming:

"It's pretty strange that we keep running into each other," Mia tells Sebastian.

"Maybe it means something," he replies.

And how!

Needless to say, the path to success is rocky, and perseverance is sorely tested. Mia suffers one humiliating audition after another. Sebastian, broke, joins a rock band led by his newfound friend Keith (John Legend), and heads out on the road, sacrificing his craft for a paycheck.

Separation frays the relationship, and conflict ensues. As the music swells and Mia warbles tunes like "The Fools Who Dream," the power of love to conquer all seems momentarily in doubt.

The film contains an implied premarital relationship, a few rough terms and some crude language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck star in a scene from the movie "Manchester by the Sea." Photo: CNS/Roadside

Manchester by the Sea

By John P. McCarthy, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - At the center of filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan's drama "Manchester by the Sea" (Roadside) lays a crushed soul flawlessly embodied by actor Casey Affleck.

Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, is a janitor in several Boston-area apartment buildings. A terse yet proficient handyman, he has little interest in conversing with tenants or in social interaction of any kind. He seems numbed, almost to the point of appearing robotic. Even when he gets drunk and picks fights with random bar patrons, his belligerence is mechanical. Evidently, something terrible has prompted Lee to wall himself off from the world and other people.

The cause of his suffering isn't revealed until roughly halfway through this gently paced film, well after Lee is summoned to Manchester, his hometown on the coast of Massachusetts, where his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), the owner of a fishing boat, has succumbed to a heart attack. Joe's poor health was not a surprise, but Lee is startled to learn his brother has named him the guardian of his 15-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Although Lee's bond with Joe and Patrick has withstood his absence and the tragedy that precipitated it, he's reluctant to take responsibility for raising his nephew, not least because he dreads living in Manchester where everybody knows what transpired. Nevertheless, he takes his duty seriously and tries to do right by Patrick -- a popular, outgoing teen who plays hockey for his school and lead guitar in a rock 'n' roll band, in addition to juggling two girlfriends.

Employing a flashback structure, writer-director Lonergan ("You Can Count On Me") gradually doles out plot points and relevant information. This narrative technique is extremely effective at triggering wrenching emotional responses; and Lonergan's screenplay is flecked with dark humor, along with flashes of compassion and understanding. Against a lovely backdrop provided by the Cape Ann region of Massachusetts, a carefully manicured yet naturalistic portrait of a shattered individual emerges.

Lonergan also is able to elicit tremendous performances. As Patrick, Hedges holds his own opposite Affleck, who plumbs Lee's anguish without being showy or ever appearing to strain. Patrick's openness and youthful vitality are the perfect counterpoint to his uncle's hollowness and lethargy. The pathos Michelle Williams brings to the role of Lee's ex-wife, Randi, puts Lee's inability to express his feelings in stark relief.

"Manchester by the Sea" is suitable for adult moviegoers, many of whom will be put off by the amount of bad language and the movie's frank treatment of Patrick's love life. That said, the tone is never nasty, sordid or depraved.

Lee's failure to change or grow to an appreciable extent is a more interesting hurdle. Expecting his guardianship of Patrick to be a panacea is unrealistic. But the recognition that Lee ends up only slightly better off then when we first meet him leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. He remains incapacitated by guilt and an eviscerating sense of loss. When he declares, "I can't beat it," you believe him. For now at least, redemption is not in the cards.

This would be easier to accept, and the movie would be less wintry, if Lee took steps to improve his situation by, for instance, confronting his reliance on alcohol or by seeking counseling. There's something masochistic about how he continues to punish himself for making one, albeit grave, mistake. It means the healing process cannot begin.

The movie's major aesthetic deficiency parallels this aspect of Lee's psychology. Rather than create an inspirational metamorphosis for Lee, and thus a more optimistic sense of closure for the audience, Lonergan lets the story peter out and the dramatic urgency wane. As it becomes clear Lee's struggle to recover is just beginning, the picturesque shots of Manchester's harbor and environs that Lonergan inserts between scenes strike one as quaint distractions from the profound human issues being raised. Eschewing an implausibly upbeat ending is not the problem. It's the impression that Lonergan, daunted by the choices facing his characters, has gone into avoidance mode.

The film contains much rough language, some explicit banter, several fairly graphic adolescent sexual encounters, a suicide attempt, fistfights, and a partial glimpse of lower female nudity.

The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Janelle Monae stars in a scene from the movie "Hidden Figures." Photo: CNS/Fox

Hidden Figures

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The struggles of the civil rights era provide the backdrop for the appealing fact-based drama "Hidden Figures" (Fox 2000). Along with a personalized insight into the injustices that still prevailed in American society in the early 1960s, director Theodore Melfi's adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's book -- which centers on three extraordinarily gifted mathematicians working for NASA -- successfully re-creates the tension of the Cold War space race.

For all their genius, this trio of colleagues and close friends faced an uphill professional fight. That's because they were not only women in a field dominated by men, but African Americans living and working in pre-integration Virginia.

Their story is told primarily from the perspective of Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a "computer" (as the number crunchers were then known) whose career gets a boost when she's assigned to the prestigious unit tasked with working out the logistics of manned space flight. There she gradually wins the respect of her well-meaning but initially unenlightened boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).

Both of Katherine's pals, meanwhile, have challenges of their own to confront. Manager Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) does all the work of a department supervisor but enjoys neither the title nor the salary of that position. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) has set her sights on an engineering degree, but will have to obtain a court order to be allowed to take the necessary courses.

Besides the social changes slowly unfolding, and the suspense of the effort to catch up with the Russians post-Sputnik, "Hidden Figures" also gives viewers a glimpse of the early age of mechanical computers.

As representatives from IBM set up a massive device at NASA headquarters, Dorothy masters the programming language Fortran, already foreseeing that she and her co-workers will need to shift from making calculations on their own to entering data instead. (The textbook Dorothy uses to learn Fortran is purloined from a local library, but only because she's not allowed to take it out -- as a white person would be.)

Melfi uses scenes detailing the main characters' personal lives to showcase family values and Christian piety. He also works in some wholesome romance by chronicling widowed Katherine's blossoming relationship with National Guard Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Given the positive morality on display as well as the historical understanding to be gained from "Hidden Figures," many parents may consider it suitable for older teens, despite screenwriter Allison Schroeder's occasional resort to light swearing for rhetorical emphasis.

The film contains at least one use of profanity, several milder oaths and a vague sexual reference.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.