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Last Summer

Posted : 3 weeks ago on 1 March 2017 04:03 (A review of Last Summer)

Mark Thiedeman may eventually prove a director worth watching, but he needs to learn when to edit things down. I firmly believe that Last Summer is a great short film stretched out to feature length, if only just barely qualifying as such. There’s no prosaic exposition apart from the opening scene which quickly lays out the entirety of the drama, but there is a most pleasing lyrical quality to the images.

 

But beautiful images will only get you so far in effectively telling a story. Last Summer’s plot can be summarized in one sentence: two gay teens are spending their last few days of idyllic teenage romance together before college will tear them apart. There’s little in the way of dialog, character development, but there’s plenty of stolen glances and quiet moments of emotional shorthand between longtime friends and lovers.

 

For all of the good in Last Summer, it eventually proves slightly tiresome in just how prolonged the inevitable feels. It doesn’t help that the performances also imbalance the romance, with Samuel Pettit providing a solid anchoring study while Sean Rose feels slightly awkward in conveying his character. We’re thrown tidbits of information about their stories, but none of it is deeply explored.

 

There is one moment of tenderness and heartbreak in Last Summer that the film needed more of. Rose’s Jonah, yearning to break out of their Arkansas small town life, asks Pettit’s Luke, content where he is at, to tell him to stay. Jonah’s afraid of not only leaving his home, but losing his emotional support and having to reorganize his life without Luke around. Luke refuses each time, and he knows that if he did ask him to stay that Jonah would and that this would probably become a point of contention between them. Love and growing up are hard, and losing your first love is an ache you never quite forget.

 

Last Summer explores this in a Terrence Malick-like manner, but it’s stretched too thin with too many pretentious diversions (like a soundtrack made up of classical pieces). A shorter running time would have fixed some of these problems, forcing Thiedeman to narrow his focus and make the emotional moments like the one mentioned above hit harder. There’s good here, but it all feels too inconsequential or too imbalanced or too lackadaisical to really bring it on in during the home stretch.



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The Red Turtle

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 28 February 2017 09:21 (A review of The Red Turtle)

Is this a dream, a fairy tale, a hallucination, or simply a story told with elements of magic realism? It doesn’t demand our attention with a complicated narrative or character development. It’s quiet and maintains our attention with the beauty of its animation, the stillness becoming something of a lulling and hypnotizing strength like the sound of the wind and waves on the soundtrack.

 

What exactly is The Red Turtle about? Well, it’s mainly a mood piece about man’s conflict with nature slowly transitioning into his love and peaceful cohabitation with it. He begins the narrative as a desperate player, trying in vain multiple times to flee the deserted island he’s found himself stuck upon. Each attempt finds his makeshift raft destroyed by an unseen force, a force later revealed to be a giant red turtle. The man later finds the turtle on the beach, where he strikes it, flips it over, and leaves it to die before his guilt causes him to run back to check on the poor creature.

 

Then the weird stuff really starts. The turtle’s shell cracks and a beautiful red-headed woman appears. They eventually fall in love, have a child, and the film continually jumps ahead to little episodes in the rest of their lives. When the man finally dies in old age, the woman turns back into the red turtle and crawls back into the ocean. In-between, there’s scenes of the man’s various dreams where the dead turtle’s body takes flight or he flies across the waves towards a bridge that leads to civilization.

 

The Red Turtle begins life as a Robinson Crusoe-like adventure story of survival and escape, then becomes another one of Studio Ghibli’s near spiritual meditations of man’s need to commune with nature and find a way to live with it harmoniously. The transition between these story points is smoothly done so the leaps between them are carried off. We see that the invisible force keeping him on the island is merely a benign presence with a curiosity that causes inadvertent strife. This is the easiest story beat to grasp, it’s the transition into magic realism and romance that could trip most of us up.

 

Luckily, The Red Turtle does the sense of discovery remarkably well, and this helps immeasurably in getting us to buy into the ecological messaging. We witness the turtle’s presence at the same moment the man does, and we watch the magical transition along with him. It’s the constant daydreams and fantasy sequences that prep us for the eventual twist, and then the return to lulling quietness and stillness of the animation and story that helps keep it from flying off the rails. There’s a beguiling no-frills approach at major work here, and The Red Turtle’s power abounds in the ways it transfixes us into a quasi-dream state while the animation hammers home the mystery and power of the dynamics in the fable.  



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My Life as a Zucchini

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 28 February 2017 07:39 (A review of My Life as a Zucchini)

An animated story about a group of orphans that looks like moving Play-Doh and is a co-production between France and Switzerland. Does this sound like something you’d be interested in watching? Well, it should be. My Life as a Zucchini is a bittersweet tale of dealing with trauma with quiet resolve and imagery to convey depths of sorrow or joy.

 

We meet Icare, dubbed Courgette (French for zucchini) by his alcoholic mother, in the first scene. His large eyes have deep blue circles around them to match his hair, and he’s generally somber and quiet, preferring to keep himself. His childhood ends abruptly when an accident leads to his mother’s death, and a kindly policeman takes him to an orphanage. My Life as a Zucchini is evenly split between Icare/Courgette’s growing relationships between his fellow orphans and the kindly policeman who brought him here.

 

Many of the young kids begin with the routines of social hierarchy and typical behaviors, then moments of grace and connection pop up. For instance, a red-headed bully quickly becomes a friend when he says that “there’s nobody left to love us,” and those words are delivered with a kind of just-so statement of fact. If the tone feels like anything, it’s the combination of charm and melancholy that Charles Schultz imbibed into Peanuts. But with a heavy French accent.

 

Despite only being a brief 66 minutes, My Life as a Zucchini feels like an epic portrait of kids trying to hold onto some semblance of normalcy despite heavy burdens and psychic scarring. It never feels bogged down in tragedy, and it always manages to shock in its charms and whimsy. Seek this one out.  



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20th Century Women

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 27 February 2017 09:46 (A review of 20th Century Women)

As with his prior film, Beginners, Mike Mills excels at telling stories in which the major drama is just the pains, sorrows, and growths of everyday life. There’s no overpowering personal crisis to overcome and grow out of, just the normal frustrations and aggressions of being a teenager and flailing about for your identity. 20th Century Women could play as the spiritual cousin or response to Beginners’ story of a father and son repairing their relationship and finding romantic partners.

 

We meet five specific characters, each of them fully realized and complete, each of them an absolute joy to spend two hours with. There’s Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening, never better), the chain-smoking single mother with the piercing gaze and yearning to connect with a teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), she doesn’t quite understand. There’s Julie (Elle Fanning), the troubled and depressed best friend of our main character, prone to sleeping in his bed (platonically) while forcing him to listen to her stories of sexual escapades. And Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a cherry red haired photographer overcoming cervical cancer who introduces Jamie to punk music and feminism. Also hovering around in the background is William (Billy Crudup), a leftover hippie that is helpful with household chores and generally directionless.

 

Centering all of these characters, I suppose you could call them quirky, is Jamie as he struggles to develop into manhood. By his own admission, he wants to be a good guy. By god, he means it, and I think he’ll turn out ok in the end. We believe in and root for these characters thanks to the strength of Mills script. He creates fully realized people, complete with their own eccentricities and failings. As 20th Century Women comes to a close, I wasn’t entirely ready to say goodbye to these characters, especially Dorothea who remains one of the most intriguing.

 

The backbone of the film is Dorothea’s realization that her presence alone may not be enough for Jamie’s development as he transitions into adulthood, and she asks each of the other characters to share their lives and thoughts with him to aide his growth. How exactly this will help him no one is quite sure, but they agree to it anyway. It’s this kind of tenderness and compassion that makes 20th Century Women such a wonderful experience. I also appreciate the subtle, and poetic, imagery of Dorothea’s, and by extension Jamie’s, house being permanently under repair and renovation, as if it too was trying to build itself into a better version of itself.

 

There’s a novelistic sense of character and history that pervades throughout Beginners and 20th Century Women. We could just as easily followed around Julie’s coming-of-age developments with Dorothea, Abbie, and Jamie playing supporting players while she experimented with sex and drugs as a rebellion against her therapist mother. We could have followed Abbie’s early punk days in the New York art scene where she got into a relationship with an older man and discovered the cancer that sent her back home. These characters are afforded the type of internal lives and behaviors that other films invest in only one or two. It’s operating on a level that could easily transpose itself into a documentary format.

 

Even better is how Mills weaves in the soundtrack into the frame of the narrative. 20th Century Women is something of a memory piece of Jamie’s, with each of the other characters narrating parts of their lives and their futures, so it makes sense that the soundtrack of his youth occupies such a large space. This also affords us the sight of Annette Bening listening to Black Flag with complete befuddlement before dancing around a bedroom with Billy Crudup to Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. It’s a tiny moment, but one that I treasure deeply for the way it expresses Dorothea’s anxiety about connection and understanding with her son.

 

As 20th Century Women closes, with Dorothea driving and Jamie holding onto the car while he skateboards, it reveals as a love letter to these extraordinary women who molded him. Memories can easily tilt into neurotic acts of self-mythology or molding, but Mills finds the perfect balance to keep everything feeling grounded and real. There were bigger movies that dominated the Oscar season this year, but many of them will be forgotten in short order while something as quiet and lovable as this will hopefully outlive them to find the bigger audience it deserves.



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Elle

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 27 February 2017 08:36 (A review of Elle)

The thorniest, iciest character study I’ve seen in quite some time, and that isn’t a criticism. Elle is provocative material played with intelligence and chilling lack of emotional pity or yearning for sympathy. Talking about it feels like trying to navigate a minefield.

 

Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a woman who refuses to be defined by the men in her life, or the tragedies and traumas that they inflect upon her. It begins with her father committing a mass murder when she was ten-years-old, and how she refuses to even acknowledge his existence or allow his presence, his crimes, or the trauma he thrust upon her as defining characteristics of her life. It follows up with the opening sexual assault, and her eventual twisted relationship and revenge games with her attacker.

 

Violence and sexuality are deeply intertwined throughout Elle, and only pity can be seen as a hindrance to Michèle’s agency as a character. She refuses to report her assault to the police, a leftover jaundiced reaction to the familial tragedy and insanity of her father’s killing spree, and brushes off her friends shock and horror when she casually drops the bomb in the middle of a dinner. Then she returns to her attacker, agreeing to play his sick sexual fantasies as some form of therapeutic self-healing and blood-soaked revenge.

 

The fact that any of this works rests entirely on the work of director Paul Verhoeven and star Isabelle Huppert. Verhoeven has tamed his more lurid instincts from his Basic Instinct days, and keeps the material on a lighter, more respectful vibe to Michèle’s particular psyche and responses to a dehumanizing event. Michèle seems nearly unconvinced or unbothered, take your pick, with the typicality of society’s morality. Her self-possession and iron-clad dominance could break even so mythic a grand dame diva as Joan Crawford with her deflating release of “oh,” or arching of an eyebrow, or the pursing of her lips. Verhoeven frames Huppert’s face as a defining example of condescension and luxurious aggression.

 

Elle knows that it’s playing with dangerous ground, and Huppert is practically gleeful in excavating the terrain. As an actress, Huppert seems drawn to the dark side and in revealing the twisted humanity of her monstrous women. Think of her impressive and terrifying work in The Piano Teacher for reference, and know that Michèle is a queen among vipers that could stare down any sociopath and make them blush. Her origin for a yearning of self-injury is rendered by Huppert as a near throwaway aside with unsettling indifference to just how insane what she’s saying sounds.

 

Even more disturbing is the casualness of the rapist’s eventual revelation. Prior to this moment, we had been treated to a seemingly never-ending parade of possible candidates, it basically boils down to just about every man she encounters in her everyday life including an ex-husband and several employees at her video game company. Elle treats this initial rape, and Michèle’s reaction, is a mere point-of-fact in navigating misogyny’s ugly commonality and routine occurrence.

 

If this all sounds like some crazy intellectual exercise, then you’re probably on the right track in navigating Elle. It’s a film about a female protagonist who turns into a morally ambivalent character by engaging her darkest, wildest, most disturbed desires, and then turns them on their head. She transforms the tools of her own dehumanization into a sexual release, regains her own agency, and the entire thing feels like some strange, audacious feminist screed. Risky and dangerous sexual encounters and desires are nothing new, but Elle feels dangerous and bold thanks to Huppert’s difficult, unnerving performance.



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Fences

Posted : 3 weeks, 5 days ago on 24 February 2017 08:04 (A review of Fences)

Fences is a triumph of acting and for bringing the great August Wilson onto a larger stage. Wilson’s dialog and poetic sense of drama shake the screen and thunder down on you. It’s an absorbing experience of watching working class black characters struggle and the heft of tragedy you’d normally find the works of someone like Arthur Miller. These are the unseen workers that help keep society flowing, but Wilson gives them a chance to say how and why they matter, to express their angers and dreams, to take center stage in the fabric of American storytelling.

 

For all of these strengths, Fences is still slightly unsatisfying as a piece of cinema. The reason for this is simple, Denzel Washington is perhaps too in awe of the material and merely points a camera at his fellow actors. Fences is a case of shooting the play exactly as it exists onstage with little-to-no opening of the material. This is a hermetically sealed world consistently primarily of a house and backyard where Washington’s sanitation worker can express his stifled dreams and trap his family in his pent-up poison.

 

Think of the best examples of films made from famous plays, and think of how they interpreted the material for the screen. Washington thinks that his cast and the book are enough, and in many ways they are. But there’s a tedium that sinks in to the shots and it all starts to feel like an episode of Great Performances. An episode of Great Performances that could also double as a master class in acting.

 

Washington is, of course, one of our great charismatic movie stars. He turns that natural charisma and likability into a man that pops with ingenuity for oratory self-mythologizing. He charms us like he charms his friends and family members before slowly revealing the poison and resentment lurking underneath. This man is not a winking or likable devil by the time the film ends, but a complicated, nasty bastard who can turn on the charm when he finds it expedient. If he wins his third Oscar for his work here, it’ll be a well-earned victory for the ways he sears into Wilson’s juicy monologues while releasing complicated emotional detours in-between his words.

 

Viola Davis not only holds her own against Washington, no small feat, but emerge as the soul and heart of the piece. She goes about the business of keeping everything in her household operating and moving smoothly, displaying a lived-in grace and bone-deep tiredness that preps you for the bigger moments. Everyone will know the big moment, where she chastises Washington, her face covered in snot and tears, but it’s the quieter moments that linger with you. It’s nearly jarring how exhaustive and honest her portrayal is. Davis is one of our greatest working actresses, and the first black actress to reach Oscar nominations. Fences may just end up being the peak of her career.

 

While I firmly believe another director, like Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, or Ava DuVernay would have taken a less hagiographic treatment of the material, Washington’s Fences cannot be thrown out. The acting is too great, the torrents of words too poetic and beautiful, too coiled and angry to completely say that Fences is not worth the trip. Maybe Fences will be the vessel to bring August Wilson’s work to the largest audience possible. All of this makes it impossible to outright dismiss, no matter how frustratingly banal or flawed it can be in spots.



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Moana

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 23 February 2017 04:29 (A review of Moana)

Disney’s Neo-Renaissance just keeps rolling one with their second outing of 2016, Moana. While still a very strong effort, it takes much longer to warm-up when compared to the immediately off-and-running gags and heart of Zootopia. Moana’s introductory scenes feel like retreads of practically any of the dozens of princess properties put out by the studio over the decades, and then it finally takes a clearer, better shape once she’s out in the sea and adventuring. That’s when Moana, both the character and film, exhibit tons of personality and verve.

 

The sluggish beginning finds us getting a background mythology info-dump then a montage of our heroine’s innate desires being suppressed. These sequences are gorgeously animated, one can rarely if ever fault Disney on this front, but they feel like a film working on pure formula. How many rebellious princess suppressed by well-meaning if overbearing parents has Disney thrown our way by this point? Then something funny happens once Moana hits the water, the film shakes off the confines of the formula and decides to go full-tilt bonkers with the Polynesian culture, including demigods, strange monsters, and more down-to-earth aspects like tattoos and seafaring.

 

This is the power of and primary reason that we return to animation. It can quite simply do things that live action films cannot. A demigod with a gigantic fishhook battling a humongous coconut crab during a musical? Yeah, you try to get that done in a traditional summer blockbuster and see what happens. This moments of culturally specific monsters and beautiful earth goddesses are another reason that we return to animation, it gives life to the mythology of the world. Disney’s cultural diversity pushes, going back to the 90s Renaissance era, have produced some of the best films in the studio’s output, look no further than the Shakespeare-meets-Africa tragedy of The Lion King or lovable United Colors of Benetton science geeks in Big Hero 6. Moana happily joins these ranks.

 

While the animation is top-notch, the specificity of Moana’s body movements and Maui’s semi-sentient tattoos are simply wonderful, Moana’s face does suffer from Disney’s typical heroine face. You know what I’m talking about, like how Tangled and Frozen have female characters that look nearly like clones of each other. Well, Moana just has a slightly wider nose, but she’s got the same basic face shape. Look Disney, if you can make all of the other characters look like individual characters and you can provide Moana with her own agency and personality, why couldn’t something more original be done with her face?

 

I pick on this because of how breathtaking and unique so many of the other creations of the film are. Like the strange little coconut pirate monsters that provide a humorous interlude, a mystical stingray covered in tribal tattoos, or the epic showdown between Maui, Moana, and Te Kā, a living lava monster guarding an island. These moments soar to dazzlingly heights of technical skill and personality-heavy animation. Maui seriously steals the movie outright with his endearing condescension and fourth-wall breaking humor. I personally loved Maui calling Moana a princess because she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick, essentially providing a moment for Disney to riff on its own tropes with gently acerbic self-reflection.

 

Then there’s the strong score, much of it courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which bests the dominating one from Frozen. At first, I found Moana’s “I want” song, “How Far I’ll Go,” a tradition of Disney characters, a bit underwhelming, but I’ve found myself humming the massive chorus since then, so there’s that. Even better though are the character songs, like Maui’s “You’re Welcome,” which feels tailored made for Dwayne Johnson’s natural charisma and charm, and Tamatoa’s “Shiny,” which finds Jemaine Clement doing a solid David Bowie impression while riffing on the wonders of his golden trinket covered shell.

 

What Moana lacks in narrative originality, you can guess every nuance of the relationship between her and Maui from frame one and her animal sidekick is a new low for dumb animal friends, it makes up for in visual depth and beauty. There’s a specificity to character, personality, place, and culture that is most welcome and quite refreshing. Here is a warm, inviting movie, and more of this from Disney and less live-action retreads of their animated classics is what I would like to see.



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Hell or High Water

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 23 February 2017 03:32 (A review of Hell or High Water)

Strongly made genre films are worth praising for the simple fact that they’re harder to make than they would initially appear. A dusty neo-western about a pair of brothers who rob banks in the mid-Texas area while being cashed by a gruff lawman? I’m sure you’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again. Doesn’t change the fact that Hell or High Water is one of the stronger recent entries, a solidly entertaining and engaging crime saga that proves the western isn’t down on the mat just yet.

 

The strongest thing about Hell or High Water is a penchant for evading the obvious scenes of gun fights and carnage in favor of quiet, contemplative moments of character study. Not that there’s no gun fights, it just saves those for the very end when the characters are finally painted into a corner with no other recourse. Prior to the brutal climax, Hell or High Water shows us the forces and desperation causing these brothers to rob a particular banking branch, and where exactly all of that money will eventually be laundered.

 

Hounding the brothers throughout this ordeal is a US Marshall a few weeks away from retirement. Jeff Bridges has played gruff before, but here he sounds like talking dip that makes several casually racist jokes at an astonishing per-minute clip. Bridges is a veteran performer with a litany of strong, entertaining performances, and his work here is no different. Yet it’s the sense of begrudging respect he feels towards these robbers and the complicated sense of comradery with his partner that give his work more life, texture, and grit than they would otherwise.

 

Yet his strong showing throughout awards season and the absence of Chris Pine lends credence towards sloppy favoritism in lieu of letting in new blood. Pine plays his role with a bone deep wariness that shockingly brand new for the actor. Bridges and Ben Foster as his twitchy, aggressive brother get the flashier roles, but Pine is the strong center of Hell or High Water. Without his tortured, somber work, seriously, he brings waves and waves of pathos in a scene where he sits alone at a bar, Hell or High Water wouldn’t work. If recent years could find room for Eddie Redmayne to flutter and twitch (The Danish Girl), Andrew Garfield to do a religious Huckleberry Hound caricature (Hacksaw Ridge), and Benedict Cumberbatch to essentially play the same role he always does (The Imitation Game), then why couldn’t we find any room for Pine’s weary, desperate work here?

 

The focus on characters keeps the violence at bay for much of Hell or High Water, until it must rupture and disturb the ramshackle order keeping everything in place. A robbery goes violent, and so in the true manner of a western, further blood must be spilled to retain a stasis or semblance of peace and order. When the bullets stop ringing out, we see a climatic meeting between Bridges and Pine where they stare each other down and promise that there will be no peace for either of them, they will be forever haunted by what has transpired. Does this ending promise more violence to come off-screen in another reunion, or is it simply an elliptical ending that refuses to a traditional payoff for the audience? There’s no clear answer, but the delicate balancing act of civilized society has been stripped away to leak out some of the chaos and ugliness circling underneath.



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Arrival

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 22 February 2017 09:03 (A review of Arrival)

Some of the best films in more typically obtuse and loud genres are the ones that strive for something a little bit deeper. Look no further than the recent spate of films like Interstellar or Gravity, messy or imperfect as they may be, that have been immensely satisfying and immersive as personal stories wrapped up in science-fiction dressing. Joining them, and my personal favorite of the three, is Arrival, a fantastic story about alien life interacting with humanity that really boils down to a mother retelling her life story to her dying daughter.

 

The film’s story expanse is global, but its soul and precision-like focus is on a deeply felt personal one. Amy Adams, one of our greatest working and most versatile actresses currently working, leads Arrival with an empathetic, confident performance that gives the film its grace and brains. She digs deep into Louise, a linguistics professor that gets called into service by the US government when 12 UFOs land on Earth. She’s not the first person brought in to try and establish communication, but she’s able to develop a strange symbiosis with them and eventually cracks their language’s complicated code.

 

Much of the success and lingering power of Arrival rests on Adams’ performance, particularly the numerous close-ups of her face. Director Denis Villeneuve diverts attention away from the CGI aliens, they look like gigantic cephalopods made of fine leather, and onto the more grounded, human work of his actress. The amount of trust he places in Adams’ prowess reminds me of the golden age film-makers who simply lit an actress of great power and let her rip. As the multiple timelines converge and shift around there is Adams’ face holding the center.

 

Even better is how the film places an equally strong emphasis less on reactionary politicking and explosions and far more on the power of science and building bridges between cultures. Much like Spotlight could make investigative journalism feel like high-tension superspy thrills, Arrival can transform linguistics into the heady stuff of action-film spectacle. Who knew trying to decipher strange inky circular blobs could be so enthralling?

 

If there’s any true negative to level against Arrival it’s a pervading sense that the film tends towards the antiseptic, even at points when the emotions are supposed to pull the rug out from under us. I find this forgivable, and even that it made a certain bit of logical sense once we figure out what these strange flash-forwards and diversions to an idyllic home life are in service towards. I’d happily sacrifice Meryl Streep’s record-breaking nomination or Emma Stone’s serviceable (and soon-to-be anointed) work in favor of nominating Amy Adams’ work here. I’d happily split up the tech categories in this film’s favor. I’d happily throw more love at Arrival then it’ll probably walk away with come Oscar night. I just really loved this film.



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Manchester by the Sea

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 22 February 2017 05:55 (A review of Manchester by the Sea)

This is a weird one for me to talk about. Manchester by the Sea strikes all the right poses, hits all of the story beats, but there’s a strange sense of detachment. The characters are submerged by grief, and any development they exhibit is so minor as to wonder if the seeds have been harvested.

 

It’s not boring or tedious, and I don’t mind the quaintness of the film, but Manchester by the Sea kept me at a remove at all points. Maybe it’s that it takes a very long time to go nowhere in particular. Not paying off as the audience demands is fine and all, but we end with a few of these characters left in the same or highly similar positions that we found them in. And there’s a few too many situations where the symbolism is too neat and tidy, or the dialog is too poetic, and several scenes of Casey Affleck staring off into the middle distance in a bar before picking a fight.

 

The slowly thawing winter is a solid metaphor for grief and the ways we can deal with it in, say, a novel, but it’s harder to balance it out in a film. Especially one that insists on running for two-and-a-half hours, without enough story to really fill out that demanding running time. Manchester by the Sea is best when it zeroes in on mournful, hard moments of everyday life in the wake of tragedy. Think of an awkward reunion between Lucas Hedges’ Patrick and his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol), or the quietly devastating reunion between Affleck’s Lee and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). These moments hammer home with emotional complexity and brutal truths delivered without a bit of sugar to make the bitter go down.

 

Much of the film rests on Affleck’s Lee becoming the guardian of Hedges’ Patrick after the death of Patrick’s father (Kyle Chandler), Lee’s brother. But Lee’s grief from an accident years earlier that caused him to flee Manchester-by-the-Sea, and dissolved his marriage, keeps him prison and incapable of taking care of anyone, even himself, or making deeper connections with anyone. Patrick, for his part, seems incapable of understanding just how much his life has changed, and will continue to do so. He’s a teen looking for guidance from a man with as much warmth and emotional availability as a glacier.

 

Lee and Patrick do have several scenes of comedy to alleviate some of the encroaching despair. Most of it just involves them screaming “fuck you” at each other in harsh New Englander tones, but it’s often a nice change of pace. I see why both of them (and Williams) were nominated this year, and, frankly, they deserve it. Hell, if all three of the players manage to sneak out wins they will be richly deserved. Affleck, Hedges, and Williams create fully realized people that are deeply damaged and trying to do their best to keep their heads above water. Manchester by the Sea finds them drowning more often than not, but the film reminds us that healing is not always a zero-sum game.



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