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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.





REVIEW: Certain Women

5 11 2016

certain-womenKelly Reichardt’s richly detailed cinematic canvases have changed little in composition in her two decades of filmmaking. The world in which that art gets displayed has grown increasingly fast-paced and task-oriented. Each successive Pacific Northwestern-set film with its unhurried pace and character (as opposed to action) driven story feels slightly more rebellious than the last.

An well-known dictum from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” often gets deployed when describing the kinds of people on screen in Reichardt’s latest film, “Certain Women.” As the great American wordsmith put it, “The mass of [wo]men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Each of the four primary characters in the film’s three segments appears calm and relatively nonplussed by their circumstances. But beneath the stillness, a river of malcontent flows.

We do not spend but a brief episode with each of them, though their silent struggles are wholly realized. “Certain Women” lingers in the dead space between two questions Stanislavsky says all actors must answer for their characters – “What do I want?” and “What do I do to get what I want?” Reichardt never plays a story with as vague an objective as happiness or contentment, either. Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer working with an obstinate and entitled male client, wants relief and understanding her trying scenario. Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, the yoga pants-clad mother and wife, wants the kind of satisfaction that can only come from swindling an elderly man into selling them sandstone at a cheap price.

In the most devastating portion of the triptych, the shy farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) desperate for connection makes feeble attempts to befriend a community college adjunct professor, Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis. For whatever reason, Beth has decided to take on an eight-hour roundtrip commute to teach a class which brings her no obvious intrinsic value or monetary gain. They share many a dinner but precious little of themselves.

While moving at a speed that many would compare to molasses, Jamie and Beth seem like they could use the kind of diuretic that “Certain Women” provides. By focusing on the small gestures, the simple systems governing our livelihoods, and the moments between moments, Reichardt creates a space to simply stop and live. Once you locate the rhythm of the film and arrive on its wavelength, the atmosphere of striving slowly amidst disappointment becomes gloriously overwhelming.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Oz the Great and Powerful

11 03 2015

Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is home to a number of very pleasant elements.  James Franco’s Oscar receives accompaniment a heartwarming and adorable CGI china doll with a broken leg voiced by Joey King as well as a flying monkey hilariously played by Zach Braff.  The conclusion (no spoilers) also pays a wonderful tribute to the magic and power of cinema.

And … that’s pretty much it that I can remember.

“Oz” mostly strands a talented cast of actors against recycled graphics from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Rabbit Hole,” mind you) have to tiptoe around the iconography of “The Wizard of Oz” since Disney does not own the 1939 classic film, which means they cannot gush about its timeless qualities or rejuvenate the brand.  So the whole thing just feels rather awkward in principle, and then the film itself does nothing to alleviate that sensation.

James Franco is a great actor, but he is unfortunately miscast as Oscar.  His moral ambiguity in the role means nothing without the kind of earnestness and goodness that make up the bedrock of a Disney protagonist.  The part just seems too simple for him, as strange as that sounds.

Meanwhile, among the witches in the Land of Oz, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz appear to be having some kind of competition to see who can overact the most and bring the movie down more.  Shockingly, it’s the Oscar-winner Weisz who might tank “Oz” to a greater extent.

And then there’s also Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch.  She’s very pleasant, too, I’m now remembering.  Williams brings the airy, gentle grace she endowed her Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn,” and it does make the film more bearable when she appears on screen.  That is hardly enough to salvage the whole movie, though, or make it fun and entertaining. C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 17, 2014)

17 01 2014

You’ve seen biopics of complex figures, but director Todd Haynes isn’t interested in presenting his portrait of musician and cultural icon Bob Dylan like anything else ever made.  His “I’m Not There” is a bold experiment, manifesting the fragmentation of Dylan’s persona by literally splitting him into six characters.  This iconoclasm pays off in a rewarding and challenging experience, leading me to name the movie my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

It’s not necessary to know Bob Dylan or his music really well to admire “I’m Not There.”  Rather, all it takes is a willingness to see the connection between the six pseudo-Dylans … or perhaps their incongruity.  The Dylans take many different shapes, including a young African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin), an older man (Richard Gere), a born-again folk singer (Christian Bale), and an actor attempting to get inside of him (Heath Ledger).  We float through each of their lives and struggles in bits and spurts.  Just when we think we get a grip on Dylan, he slips away.

Oddly enough, the one who looks the most like the Bob Dylan we know … is played by a woman.  Cate Blanchett is Jude, a raspy-voiced chain smoking folk musician.  Not unlike her work in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett disappears inside her character and makes us forget that aura of regality she so often conveys.

She captures all the frustration of misunderstood artistry along with all the pains of drug addiction.  Blanchett brilliantly fulfills the most frequently recognized Dylan iconography yet also breathes something deeply human into her character, something no amount of cameras or reporters could ever really capture.   She’s at once vulnerable and inaccessible.

Much like Jude, “I’m Not There” floats between all these contradictory lives of Dylan, back and forth with well-orchestrated indirection.  It never settles, never aims for some sort of absolute truth.  It’s like a fictionalization of the concepts brought up in a documentary like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”  We are many different things to many different people, and there is no fixed point from which to observe reality or memory.  Perhaps we just exist as the sum total of the masks we wear.





LISTFUL THINKING: 10 Performers Who Will Win Oscars in the Next 10 Years

26 02 2013

Before it’s too late and no longer topical, I wanted to share a list that has been floating in my mind for a while.  On Sunday night, the Academy welcomed Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway into their club.  Now, they can join Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz in adding the phrase “Oscar Winner” before their name is mentioned.

But within the next 10 years, who will join them in the pantheon of acting?  I have a few suggestions…

Male

Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio
3 Oscar nominations
9 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
8 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  The question isn’t “if.”  It’s “when.”  And that could be as early as this year.

JGL

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
2 Golden Globe nominations
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  With the boy-next-door turning into a renaissance man as he heads behind the director’s chair, JGL is headed towards golden child status.  Now it’s just time for the Oscars to catch up.

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling
1 Oscar nomination
4 Golden Globe nominations
2 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  I don’t really think I need to elaborate here as Gosling is one of the emerging Hollywood leading men.  The only thing keeping him from an Oscar, in my mind, is his eclectic role selection.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

Brad Pitt
4 Oscar nominations (3 as actor)
5 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
5 SAG Award nominations, 1 win

COMMENTARY:  As one of the highest-wattage stars of the past decade moves into a slower, more retrospective phase of his career, the role that will land Brad Pitt his Oscar should materialize.

George Clooney

George Clooney
8 Oscar nominations (4 for acting), 2 wins (1 for acting)
12 Golden Globe nominations (8 for acting), 3 wins
13 SAG Award nominations, 4 wins

COMMENTARY:  Yes, Clooney has already won his Oscar(s).  But I am convinced he will win his trophy for a leading role as he is such a prominent leading man in Hollywood.

Female

Amy Adams

Amy Adams
4 Oscar nominations
4 Golden Globe nominations
5 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: 4 nominations in 7 years.  That’s impressive.  It’s going to happen, soon.  Perhaps the first time she gets a big leading role?

Linney

Laura Linney
3 Oscar nominations
6 Golden Globe nominations, 2 wins
4 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
4 Primetime Emmy nominations, 3 wins

COMMENTARY:  Though as of late Linney has been more television oriented, I still don’t think the cinematic community is done paying its dues to this talented actress.

Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right

Julianne Moore
4 Oscar nominations
7 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
10 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
1 Primetime Emmy win

COMMENTARY: If “Game Change” had been released in theaters and not on HBO, Moore would have her Oscar.  It’s been over a decade now since her last nomination, but I don’t think that means the impetus to give her award has disappeared.

10 for '10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

Emma Stone
1 Golden Globe nomination
1 SAG Award win

COMMENTARY: She’s a new Hollywood “It” girl.  Once she lands the big and flashy role, she will get an Oscar.  (Heck, they had her announce the nominations this year, something usually reserved for prior winners/nominees.)  She’s a beloved figure with all the charm and accessibility of Jennifer Lawrence with a little more polish and refinement.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams
3 Oscar nominations
3 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: Williams showed she had some serious range in “My Week with Marilyn.”  Not that her mopey characters weren’t good, but now we know she’s the real deal.

What do YOU think?  Who else is destined for Oscar glory in the next decade?





REVIEW: Take This Waltz

6 08 2012

Michelle Williams, fresh off a Best Actress nomination for “My Week With Marilyn,” disappointingly dials down the charm back down to “Blue Valentine” levels for her latest film, “Take This Waltz.”  It’s a return, though not necessarily a regression, to the familiarly frumpy, downtrodden women who prefer to express their thoughts by gazing at the ground rather than through words.  Williams is a fantastic actress, and she pulls it off so well time after time – but I think it’s time to start expecting more from her.

Her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe was far more than a caricature or an impersonation; it was spirited, sexy, and oh so soulful.  It was definitely outside Williams’ comfort zone, yet she totally nailed it!  I think “My Week With Marilyn” is hardly her limit, and the longer she dwells in her pre-Marilyn state of mind, the more disappoint her post-Marilyn films are going to feel.   (Yes, “Take This Waltz” was filmed first, but virtually no one saw it first.)

Perhaps it’s less the archetype I’m frustrated with and more her character in Sarah Polley’s sauntering drama.  As a sullen Toronto-dweller bored in her marriage, she begins to ponder an affair with the literal boy next door … well, down the street.  Daniel, a shyly passionate artist as well as rickshaw for money, is the man who will indulge her deepest sensual passions and go through the Kama Sutra with her.

But she’s married to the sweet, good-hearted poultry chef Lou, played with good-natured charm by Seth Rogen.  He has moments where perhaps he seems content to let the spark go out of their marriage, although it’s always clear that he’s the man we should be rooting for because he does care for her and will always love her deeply.

The decision is overwrought and strung out over nearly two hours when it could have easily been compressed to 90 minutes.  Sarah Polley’s camera does dazzle more than the usual quiet indie drama.  However, the story those images serves to complement is little more than a segment from “He’s Just Not That Into You” that fashions itself to be a drama.  C+