Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) – The wealthy person who employs a coterie of hangers-on to prop up their illusions is a familiar figure in film: what’s novel about Stephen Frears’ movie is that it presents these relationships as loving rather than parasitical. Like Hugh Grant’s character, Frears has become the self-effacing facilitator of star performances; Grant gives a career-best performance as the husband who subordinates his life to his wife’s delusions. The film takes its time orienting us: it’s not clear how the relationships function. This complicates our response to Meryl Streep as Jenkins: there’s something monstrous about the way she commandeers the lives of the people around her, the way she feels entitled to flattering attention. At the same time, straining for the notes, her singing exposes her physical frailty (Streep’s recent roles have all explored mortality): we understand why people are protective of her, even as we grimace at the sounds she produces. ***

La La Land (2016) – More than other movie genres, the musical depends on stars – on their talent, their electrifying presence. Like Robert Wise’s West Side Story, Damien Chazelle’s film is a directorial showcase that feels a bit hollow because of the humans at its centre. Chazelle’s camera is almost sentient, another character: it takes us by the elbow, directing our gaze, while carefully choreographed points of interest pop up, like the animatronics on a theme park ride. At one point it leaps into a swimming pool. But the tour guide is more engaging than the view. When Ryan Gosling tells Emma Stone that she should “write something as interesting as you are,” he seems to be talking about someone else; when Stone gives up on her dream and moves home, it seems a realistic acceptance of her limitations. The bad grace with which Gosling accepts his paying gigs is deeply unattractive, especially when his precious private expression is a simple, sentimental piano figure. (He’s the second Chazelle hero in a row to want to be a ‘jazz genius’.) I was left wondering if Chazelle made his people so ordinary so that his direction could be the star. **

Moana (2016) – The set up – a young tribal leader butts heads with her father because she wants to do things differently – feels like a retread of How To Train Your Dragon, but fortunately the film wastes little time in launching its heroine upon her quest. The movie takes advantage of the quest narrative’s freedom to go anywhere, and the adversaries Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) encounters are pleasantly random, from a marauding horde of coconuts (which have a Miyazaki feel) to a gold-encrusted crab. There’s a cute meta moment kidding Disney’s princess formula, and this represents a satisfying renovation of that formula: this story does not make an issue of the heroine’s gender, nor does it saddle her with a prince. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs communicate context and character with typical precision; the singing voices are strong without that cloying Broadway calculation of effect. The heart of the movie is in Moana’s interactions with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a braggart in the Gaston tradition: in the close confines of the boat, their interactions play out with a theatrical crispness, like actors on a stage. Another worthy entry in Disney’s current hot streak. ***

New York, New York (1977) – In outline, this is very similar to La La Land, and there are sequences – like Liza Minnelli fighting her way through a crowd at Robert De Niro’s gig, or the jazz club he opens at the end – that were clearly an influence on the later film. The effect, however, is completely different. Partly, it’s the improvisatory approach: driven by the actors, the scenes take forever getting anywhere. Sometimes, as in the scene where Minnelli and De Niro both try to direct their big band, this pays dividends; more often, as with De Niro’s interminable attempts to pick Minnelli up at the outset, it’s a drag. Crucially, though, both stars suggest artistic temperament, and talent that demands expression; what Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters in La La Land so singularly lack. That being said, it’s not really a satisfying movie: muddy, with the visual imagination mainly confined to the stylised sets. De Niro’s come-ons are not as charming as they’re meant to be, and there’s a curious break in Minnelli’s performance. In the big band era, she sings controlled, carefully phrased standards; when she gets to the Kander and Ebb stuff she’s bombastic, all fortissimo, arms flailing. She’s a completely different singer, with no hint of one in the other. **