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: Carol

11 01 2016

CarolEarly in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” a group of young adults sits up in the projection booth a movie theater. As Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flickers on the screen, one astute observer sits taking notes while the others fool around. He remarks that he seeks to find “the correlation between what they [the characters] say and how they feel.”

Most people watching “Carol” will find themselves in a similar position. With the film’s gentle pace gradually yet methodically moving the action along, every moment becomes dissectible. Haynes, however, does not simply stop conveying the souls of his characters with words. (Neither, for that matter, did Wilder.) Each composition is a delicate painting, gracefully staged to emphasize, contradict or contextualize the action taking place within it.

The frames throughout “Carol” tell a rather perverse narrative. On the one hand, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) are given vast amounts of space to move about on screen. The surroundings do not seem to claustrophobically encase this pair of illicit lovers, though the pressures of a disapprovingly baffled society try their best to do just that. Yet, at the same time, both are given so much “headroom” at the top of the frame that they become minimized within it.

So free, but so small. This paradox resonates for both the 1950s setting of the film as well as the 2010s audience viewing it.

“Carol” finds Todd Haynes working once again in his sweet spot of recreating a photorealistic past while addressing entirely contemporary concerns. Though he has yet to make a film set in the present day, he continually finds ways to evoke a sense of immediacy with forms of storytelling otherwise regarded as outmoded and the disregarded. Working within the so-called “woman’s film,” the classical melodrama as well as the romance, Haynes finds rich emotionality in reorganizing various elements to focus on female experience and pleasure.

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REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

20 12 2012

If you asked me to do word associations for the subgenre procedural, I’d probably start with long, tedious, cold, and other such synonyms.  But I gladly say that none of these apply to director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the story of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Spoiler alert … he dies at the end.

Though I’m sure the pursuit was a lot messier than what we saw on the screen (and plenty took place in the shadows that we will never know), Boal makes the chase relatively easy to follow given all the leads and locations the CIA follows.  He perfectly strikes the delicate balance between capturing the fine details of the operation while also keeping the big picture squarely in focus.

And Bigelow matches his careful dance every step of the way.  Essentially, she takes the unbelievable suspense she was able to create in “The Hurt Locker” and puts it on a macro scale.  It’s not just Sgt. James anymore; it’s the United States of America.  It’s a goose chase so wild and riveting that the two and a half hours will feel like twenty minutes.

In the opening scenes of the film when the detainee program is yielding little to track down Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” had me at a distance, interested but not fully engaged.  Yet two hours later as Seal Team Six embarked on the raid that would ultimately take out the most wanted terrorist, I found myself on the edge of my seat with my heart racing at a million miles per hour.  And keep in mind, I knew what was going to happen!  Bigelow’s thriller is tightly constructed with not a moment wasted as it builds towards the inevitable payoff.

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