Movie reviews: La La Land, a story of dreamers, could win Best Picture at Oscars

An ex-convict faces prejudice in A Yellow Bird, two entertainers fall in love in La La Land and a boxer risks his life to fight again in Bleed For This

This week's films offer a study in contrasts: A trawl through Singapore's lowest social stratas so raw you will never enter a nature reserve again without worrying about stumbling on a jungle brothel.

This is followed by a musical that is lighter than air, which is then capped off by another bruiser of a movie, a biopic about a boxer risking his life to make a return after a horrific injury.

Don't be fooled by the romantic- sounding name. A Yellow Bird(M18, 111 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) - a symbol of freedom and hope - is a rare creature indeed in this story from Singaporean writer-director K. Rajagopal (with co-writing credit going to producer Jeremy Chua).

Ex-convict Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is the pugnacious anti-hero, a man frustrated at every turn by bureaucracy, petty criminality and prejudice.

He is a raging bull out to discover the address of his runaway wife, who has taken his daughter.

His mother, played with stoic dignity by notable Indian actress Seema Biswas, has let out his room to Chinese migrants, another indignity in a life already overflowing with them.

The inarticulate, seething Siva dons the frilly costume of the funeral band player to earn a few dollars. No paymaster here wants to give him his hard-earned cash without an insult or threat.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in La La Land. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

He meets overstayer Chen Chen (Huang Lu). Their bond is not quite romantic - he needs money, she needs a protector.

Rajagopal's first feature, selected for the International Critics' Week at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is pure expression, free of pandering or pretension. The film-maker doesn't sugarcoat his message about the strangling bonds that hold down non-conformists.

His rebuke of society, though, is universal, not specifically Singaporean, though racial epithets against Siva come thick and fast through the lips of the rough types he is forced to consort with.

Other critics have pointed out the film's missteps - the idea of Siva as an unlikely lothario, the clunky theatricality of some framing devices and scenes, and Siva's one-note sullenness - but at its heart, this is an arresting piece of work, undiluted by an appeal to arthouse sensibilities.

La La Land(PG13, 126 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars) is probably going to win Best Picture at next year's Oscars.

Unlike A Yellow Bird, this movie conforms to every genre trope, in this case of the MGM musical, but re-imagines them in fresh ways.

This story of dreamers dares to fuse dance, songs and a romance. It's a schmaltzy recipe that writer-director Damien Chazelle cuts with the astringency seen in his Oscar-winning Whiplash (2014).

Ryan Gosling as aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian and Emma Stone as struggling actress Mia meet and fall in love as their careers seem to take one step forward and two steps back.

Boxer Vinny Pazienza (played by Miles Teller) tries to make a comeback from serious injury.
Boxer Vinny Pazienza (played by Miles Teller) tries to make a comeback from serious injury. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Magical realism takes over when things go well - the couple float skywards, roofs disappear, a chorus line forms, backed by the prettiest music in recent memory (written by Justin Hurwitz, another Oscar contender).

But when reality bites, it bites hard. Mia's thread is the more powerful of the two and her audition scenes are awe-inspiring for the talent Stone the actress displays. Sebastian, on the other hand, comes across as the petulant purist.

Miles Teller starred as the student drummer in Chazelle's Whiplash. Those hands, bloodied from bashing drum skins in that film, are red and raw from bashing faces in Bleed For This (NC16, 117 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars).

Teller lives out the true story of Vinny Pazienza, a middleweight boxing champion from Rhode Island with a fondness for cards and women.

Director Ben Younger, who helmed the sharp Wall Street drama Boiler Room (2000), treats the story as a work of body horror.

After a car wreck breaks his neck, Vinny has to don a "halo", a steel cage protecting the head.

Actor and director work hand in hand to make this road to recovery as harrowing as possible- you will feel every bite of the screws bored into Vinny's skull.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'From raw to romantic to real'. Print Edition | Subscribe