REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea

12 12 2016

manchester-by-the-seaEarlier this year, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” concluded an earnest moment of connection (slight spoilers – as much as that movie can be spoiled) with the protagonist, Blake Jenner’s Jake Bradford, describing his college essay’s reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In his mind, the Sisyphean task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, was not merely cosmic punishment. His eternal recurrence was instead an unintended cosmic gift that gives him a chance to find meaning and purpose.

No such solace or comfort can be found in the more straightforward Sisyphean tale told by Kenneth Lonergan in “Manchester by the Sea.” We meet his central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, going through a series of repetitive toils in his work as an apartment complex’s janitor. Going from unit to unit, he fixes problems that residents could either fix themselves or avoid entirely. When not waiting hand and foot on tenants, Lee shovels the snow off the walkway to his basement dwelling, and the snow never seems to stay clear.

Lee Chandler is a modern Sisyphus of Massachusetts, a fate made even more distressing because he appears to have resigned himself to it. His percolating wit and acerbic banter with the people he must serve indicates an intellect far superior than the average sanitation engineer. If there is any upside to this situation, Lee willingly blinds himself to it.

As time passes and tragedy strikes the Chandler family tree with the young death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), we come to possess a deeper understanding of Lee’s self-imposed exile. He is the ultimate embodiment of Catholic guilt, responding to a perceived lack of divine justice against a life-changing mistake by taking the role of punisher away from a seemingly absent authority. He enters into an existence of almost complete asceticism, not because he hopes to earn redemption but because he wishes never to escape the burden of his misdeeds.

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REVIEW: Margaret

30 04 2013

MargaretIt’s hard to talk about authorial intent in “Margaret” when the studio interference on the project was so insane.  Long story short for those who don’t know: the movie was supposed to be released in 2007, but Kenneth Lonergan failed to lock in a cut to Fox Searchlight’s satisfaction.  Ultimately, they quietly dumped a version of “Margaret” into the theaters that was much shorter that Lonergan would have liked.

And indeed, what I saw in the theatrical cut (sorry, folks, did not drop the money to watch the director’s cut) was a little messy.  But for whatever reason, that didn’t bother me.  I was along for the ride with “Margaret” the whole way through, drawn in to the story by its imperfections.

There’s something very fascinating about knowing that a movie’s flaws are not something invented in your head.  And in such a realization, you can start to find the diamond in the rough by peeling away the layers of sloppiness you observe.  “Margaret” in its very journey to the screen is not about the drudgery of life but rather the painful process of art.  There’s a little bit of magic in getting to find your “Margaret” inside of what Fox Searchlight and Lonergan slapped together for us to avoid litigation.

My “Margaret” is a compelling drama of post-9/11 guilt and anger unfolding in New York City, told from the perspective of an ordinary girl, Anna Paquin’s Margaret.  On just any old day walking, she observes the death of innocence at the hands of a vast piece of machinery.  No, I’m not talking about the planes flying into the World Trade Center; I’m talking about a sweet old lady being struck and killed by a bus.

I don’t want to overload the allegory, though, but it’s impossible not to feel the legacy of the tragic day looming over all the proceedings.  On a human scale, it’s an affecting tale of a mother (J. Smith-Cameron’s powerfully acted Joan) and daughter, a teacher (Matt Damon’s earnest Mr. Aaron) and a student, as well as victims, perpetrators, and observers.  And that’s the beauty of watching the imperfect “Margaret” – doing your own internal rack focusing is not just encouraged.  It’s practically required to make sense of the events.  B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 4, 2010)

4 06 2010

The “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – for those who needed a refresher) of the Week will return to some dark and hard-hitting material next week, but I will ease the transition from comedy to tragedy with something a little bit in between.  “You Can Count on Me,” one of the movies on my bucket list of Oscar nominees from the past decade, really grabbed my interest a few weeks ago.  It’s a smart, witty dramedy that treads on the familiar grounds of family issues but never feels contrived or recycled in the slightest.

There’s two reasons for that.  The first is Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s director and writer.  His script is insightful and sensitive, and it gives an authentic look at the ripple effect of a self-destructive brother’s return home to his distraught sister.  It lets the events play out in a way that is both touching and devastating.  We really come to know and care for these characters through their triumphs and their mistakes – and there are plenty of both.

But the second reason is the main reason for the movie’s success: leading lady Laura Linney (alliteration fully intended).  She plays emotional and tense women often, but she plays them with such conviction and strength that I can’t find it in me to be bothered by it.  Here, she uses her incredible energy to bring Sammy, the single mother and bank employee, to vibrant life.  Already collapsing under the weight of single parenthood, Sammy is forced to take on responsibility for her troubled brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) who seems to be incapable of controlling himself.  With a new boss (Matthew Broderick) at the bank, she is forced to devote herself more fully to her job.  This leaves her child (Rory Culkin) under the care and influence of Terry, who exposes him to new ideas and heightens his curiosity about his father.  Linney perfectly animates Sammy’s inner conflict: doing what is best for the two people who need her or doing what makes her happy.

But there’s more good things about “You Can Count on Me” other than its two Academy Award-nominated facets.  Mark Ruffalo delivers a fascinating and astonishing performance.  He’s always trying to do what is right, but his moral compass often leads him in the wrong direction to do it.  Matthew Broderick is comic gold as the demanding and borderline obsessive-compulsive bank manager; he is equal parts charm and repulsion, and it’s always fun to watch him.  On the surface, this may be a movie about ordinary people living ordinary lives.  But thanks to a powerful narrative and compelling characters, it really is extraordinary.