Patriots Day (2016) Review

Patriots Day (2016) Review

There’s a cynical way and an idealistic way to view Patriots Day. Is it exploitive or is it paying tribute?

At a post-screening Q&A last week, Mark Wahlberg said repeatedly that his goal as an actor and producer was to pay tribute to law enforcement and first-responders with his recreation of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. But given that it’s so soon after the actual events, and everyone involved is not only still around to tell the tale, but the tale is still fresh in their minds, the question becomes: why not just make a documentary? Make those involved the star of their own stories? Isn’t that a great way to pay tribute to them? Hell, the movie itself ends with five or so minutes of documentary-style interviews of the real-life people portrayed in the preceding movie. It’s like director Peter Berg himself agrees that his movie should’ve been a documentary.

Instead, Mark Wahlberg puts himself at the center of the action as a composite character, Sergeant Tommy Saunders, Boston PD. One way to view this decision is as Wahlberg trying to honor all the cops involved by playing one, and thus, as a symbol of all cops, he should be at the center of attention. The cynical view of this is that Wahlberg is inserting himself as the center of attention, taking focus away from the real people to whom he’s purporting to pay tribute. Under this lens, it becomes problematic that Sgt. Saunders finds himself at the center of every important event (at the finish line, at the FBI investigation headquarters, first responder when Dun Meng gets carjacked, involved in the shootout in Watertown, and he finds the friggin’ boat for God’s sake), because that makes his (alleged) glory-grab transparent and shameless.

It doesn’t help that his character is not only present for every major event, but often ham-handedly so. The FBI Special Agent in Charge (Kevin Bacon) calls Saunders at home so he can come in and help them remember which establishments at the bomb site have security cameras because Saunders “knows these streets” (because that’s apparently more efficient than, oh I don’t know, going to the scene and checking first-hand?). Eye roll. Wahlberg’s character actually utters the line “They messed with the wrong city”. Eye roll. He happens to be patrolling around Allston when Dun Meng escapes the Tsarnaev’s capture, so he can be the first responder. Eye roll. He happens to be around Watertown for the shootout, despite it being established earlier in the movie that Watertown has their own police force and a Boston PD Sergeant has no business there. Eye roll.

If you’re not cynical and none of the above bothers you, then there’s admittedly a lot to like in Patriots Day. The editing is Oscar-caliber during the bombing sequence and the Watertown shootout, particularly in capturing the utter chaos and panic of the bombing. The Tsarnaev brothers are (surprisingly) given their due; they’re not particularly complex but they’re at least human, which is more nuance than I would expect from an otherwise nuance-less movie. And while this may have been influenced by the fact that I saw the laborious Silence in the same week, the pacing of Patriots Day is great. The movie dedicates enough time to setting up the various pieces (there are several) and then wastes no time getting to the bombing. Though, some of these set-up pieces are only there to show bombing victims beforehand before disappearing for the entire movie, just so they can be tearfully reunited at the end while Wahlberg monologues a voiceover about — I shit you not — the power of love.

Have you rolled your eyes yet?

But I guess that’s the weird thing about subtlety that makes it hard to criticize. Most people’s barometer for too much or too little subtlety is solely based on their own perception: if you notice, it’s too obvious, if you don’t notice, it’s too obscure. So I can criticize (what I perceive as) the lack of subtlety in Wahlberg’s closing speech or other moments (like how much Berg lovingly hovers over a couple’s entangled legs the morning of the marathon — gee, I wonder what’s going to happen to them…), but maybe obviousness is relative.

If you have high tolerance for obviousness, Patriots Day is probably the best version of what a likely-too-soon movie about the Boston Marathon bombing could be (which, in all fairness, is pretty darn good). It just would’ve been better as a documentary. As I said, after the story ends but before the credits rolled, there are five-ish minutes of documentary footage interviewing the real-people who populated the movie we just saw. By that point, I had already begun forming my opinion of the movie, and to be honest, the documentary epilogue made me like it more. As did the Q&A after the screening featuring the real-life Boston Police Commissioner (played by John Goodman in the movie), the FBI Special Agent in Charge (played by Kevin Bacon), the Watertown Police Sergeant (JK Simmons), and Dun Meng (the Tsarnaev’s hostage who escaped and alerted authorities, played by Jimmy O. Yang). Yes. These people. Let me see more of them talk about it all, instead of Wahlberg playing hero.

Maybe I’m just cynical.

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Silence (2016) Review

Silence (2016) Review

A couple years ago, after watching Mark Cousins’ exhaustive 15-part documentary The Story of Film, I decided to dive headfirst into my blossoming cinephilia and begin exploring some of the titans of world cinema. At first, I mostly stuck to the handful of directors most-heavily featured over the documentary’s 15 hours (Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc), and I’ve since started to work my way through Sight & Sounds’ decennial lists of “Greatest Films of All Time”.

This is how I arrived at Andrei Rublev (1966). If you’ve ever seen Andrei Rublev, you’re probably a cinephile yourself (let’s hang out!) and therefore you probably liked it. Personally, I struggled with it. I didn’t mind that it was in Russian; I watch plenty of foreign films. I didn’t mind at all that it was in black-and-white; I’m confused as to why that bothers some people. I didn’t mind that it was made before 1970; once you’ve seen enough older movies, the stylistic divergences from modern movies stop bothering you. I didn’t really mind that the story centers around a medieval monk/painter (a life not exactly dripping with excitement); I’m fine with stately character pieces. But compound all those things over a deliberately paced three-and-a-half-hour run time? It begins to feel like a chore.

I don’t have enough of an ego to conclude that the vast majority of the film world is wrong about Andrei Rublev. While I may not have had a transcendent emotional response to the film, many people with more distinguished tastes have had such a response, and maybe if I gave it a second chance, I would be dazzled by things that I overlooked in my first viewing. When dealing with a renowned film like Andrei Rublev, the benefit of the doubt must be given (a topic I wrote 1,300 words on a few years ago).

Marty Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project, Silence, is similarly long and arduous; it’s similarly about a man of the cloth having his faith tested by the cruelty he sees in others; and I was similarly dissatisfied by it while recognizing that others may find it decidedly effective and powerful.

Adapted from the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence follows two 17th century Jesuit priests, Fathers Rorigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), as they travel to Japan in search of their former mentor, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had reportedly abandoned his Christian mission there and had apostatized (renounced Christianity). Despite Ferreira’s efforts (and, eventually, Rodrigues’ and Garupe’s), Christianity remains outlawed in Japan, and the Christians who assist the priests must do so under the cover of darkness and face imprisonment and torturous death for their faith. Rodrigues and Garupe, who initially refused to believe the reports that Ferreira had apostatized, begin to reconsider the possibility once they see the horrors that the Christians suffer.

I realize it’s a bit strange to claim “I didn’t particularly love this, but it’s certainly a great movie”. I suppose most people use their personal response to a movie as proof of its greatness or its shortcomings, no buts required. While my personal tastes may not be refined enough for me to really enjoy every great movie I see, I still recognize greatness when I see it. I didn’t care much for Catcher in the Rye the first time I read that either.

First of all, I haven’t been able to get the movie and the characters’ journeys out of my head in the days since I’ve seen it. Even as someone who doesn’t exactly prioritize spirituality, I’ve still found myself thinking in depth about Fr. Rodrigues’ faith, how he views God, how he believes God views us, about symbolic gestures of faith versus internal belief, sacrifice, the role of religion and missionary work in a civilized society. Even though I was checking my watch for a lot of Silence, even though the movie’s length is difficult for me to overlook, I can’t deny how much the enormous questions have stayed with me, and that in itself is proof of the movie’s power. Secondly, if anyone has earned the same benefit of the doubt that I was willing to give Tarkovsky for Andrei Rublev, it’s Martin Scorsese.*

*This will likely strike a lot of people as self-evident. To you young kids who have somehow avoided Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Mean Streets, his RottenTomatoes average for his twenty-four movies is 82%. His only “rotten” movie was 45 years ago. Forty. Five. Years ago.

It’s as beautifully shot as we’ve come to expect from Scorsese, just don’t come looking for the frenetic, spirited camerawork of Goodfellas, as it is (appropriately) much more restrained and measured. As much as I can appreciate the splendor of Scorsese’s camerawork — and the performances from Garfield, Driver, and Neeson (in his limited role) — I still struggled with the long run time and glacial pacing. But that may be the part of the point; Rodrigues spends much of the run time in prison, psychologically tortured by his inability to help the people being physically tortured for their Christianity just beyond his reach from behind bars — maybe being frustrated with how long things are taking is exactly how Scorsese meant for me to feel.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning my hypothesize that my (lack of) personal faith diminished my enjoyment of the film, at least a little. Some of the impossible choices the characters are forced to make become very simple choices if you don’t have enormous respect for religious idols, or if you personally believe that internal faith is more important than (literally) symbolic gestures. Scorsese himself nearly entered the priesthood before becoming a filmmaker; it makes sense his movie and his characters are reverently devout (perhaps to a fault, ultimately). Scorsese has always been good at turning a character’s strengths against them.

If you’re not turned off by an unhurried pace on a long, taxing journey (or by anything else I’ve said here), Silence may be your favorite movie of the year. As much as I’m in no hurry to sit down with it again, I have no doubts others will see immediate greatness.

Even as I struggled through Andrei Rublev, I was glad I was seeing it. I was eating my vegetables, in that I may not have enjoyed it but it was good for me, good for my film education. While I’m sure Silence will not ultimately be as revered as Rublev, I think it similarly falls into vegetable territory.

And hey, a lot of people love vegetables.

The Handmaiden (2016) Review

The Handmaiden (2016) Review

Way back in late September, I was in line at the Hollywood Arclight on Sunset, hoping to get a seat for an advanced screening of The Birth of a Nation, which wasn’t due out in theaters for more than a week. Particularly in Los Angeles, signing up for the right email distribution list will alert you to free advanced screenings year-round, but because they overbook to ensure a full house, the screening pass in my pocket didn’t guarantee me entry. I’ve been turned away from movies like The Hateful 8, Kubo and the Two Strings, Steve Jobs, Arrival, and plenty of others. This wasn’t an unusual situation I found myself in, standing in line, checking my watch, gauging how many people were left in front of me and making guesses as to how many seats were left in the theater.

What made it unusual was a young woman walking up and down and the line of people handing out (or at least attempting to hand out) free tickets to a different movie, something called The Handmaiden. It was close enough to the start time and we were far back enough in line that most of us knew we weren’t getting into Birth of a Nation, but even so, few took her up on the offer for an alternative. I would have, but by the time they told us the screening was officially full, The Handmaiden had already started. In hindsight, I should’ve jumped ship on the line and just taken the Handmaiden ticket from the promotions woman — I knew I wasn’t getting into Birth of a Nation — but I guess the possibility of getting in, however bleak, was enough to keep me and most everyone else in line and away from The Handmaiden. Once I was officially turned away, I saw Hell or High Water instead.

Hell or High Water was great. The Birth of a Nation (which I saw a week later) wasn’t so great. As I’m now catching up on some 2016 movies that I missed, I finally got to The Handmaiden.

And this is why we need time machines.

The dozens of people in that line, myself included, chose to delusionally wait in the hopes of seeing (what turned out to be) a mediocre disappointment instead of taking a chance on (what turned out to be) one of the best movies of the year.

In Japan-occupied Korea, a conman going by the name Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) enlists the help of a low-level pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), to help him weasel a sizable inheritance away from a mysterious Japanese heiress, Lady Heiko (Min-hee Kim). His plan is to send Sook-Hee in as a handmaiden to the secluded heiress and use her access and influence to convince Lady Heiko to marry him, at which time he intends to have Heiko committed at an asylum so he can take her wealth. However, in the course of convincing Heiko of Fujiwara’s charm, Sook-Hee finds herself falling for Heiko, complicating their gas lighting scheme.

While the “forbidden love” aspect that made Brokeback Mountain (or, ya know, Romeo & Juliet) so great is certainly present here, there’s a lot more going on. You might think you have a grasp of where the story is headed, but the movie takes a hard right turn about an hour in, then it takes a hard left turn before the final credits roll. This is no Carol, and I can promise that it’s not remotely what you’re expecting.

The twists and turns of the story keep you guessing on a superficial plot-level, but the hidden character motivations also challenge cultural expectations regarding the assumed innocence and submissiveness of women (Asian women in particular). There’s an exceptionally graphic lesbian sex scene, but it’s far from exploitative; the entire point is to challenge the straight-male fetishization of lesbian sex (both in the movie and in real life). And this is all to say nothing of the beautiful cinematography, one of my favorites scores of the year, and the gorgeous production design and costumes (but, crucially, the costumes aren’t the whole point of the movie, like in so much of Keira Knightley’s filmography).

I’m sure The Handmaiden will pass by mostly unnoticed, but for what it’s worth, it’s directed by Chan-wook Park, who also made Oldboy (one of few Korean movies that’s managed to find an American audience). Don’t be like me and the rest of the people in line in front of the Arclight. If someone hands you a free ticket to The Handmaiden, take it.

Fences (2016) Review

Fences (2016) Review

Your opinion of Denzel Washington’s Fences may very well depend on your feelings about what movies are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. Are they supposed to simply tell a story, period amen, even if that means nothing more than setting up a camera in a room to document a conversation (which was basically the purpose served by the very first moving pictures in the late 1890s)? Is it a requirement that they utilize their format to bring interesting imagery to the screen in addition to the words and conversations?

Roundhay Garden Scene, 1888. Riveting stuff.

If you didn’t know already — and you couldn’t tell from my leading questions in the above paragraph — Fences began life as an August Wilson stage play, a part of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, and that shows in Washington’s film adaptation. By my count, just three short scenes take place away from the family home or yard (and when I say “short scenes”, I mean three minutes or shorter, in a movie where other scenes go on for 20+ minutes). And yet, despite my constant insistence that story and visuals are inextricable parts of a visual medium, this lack of cinematic oomph doesn’t actually bother me when it comes to Fences. The claustrophobia induced by the tight setting is purposeful in the thought-provoking story; the capital-A Acting is top-to-bottom some of the best of the year; and the pace and rhythm of the 1950s African-American dialogue sings (which pleases me as a devoted Sorkinite).

In 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) works as a trash collector, bringing his weekly paycheck home to his devoted wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and son, Corey (Jovan Adepo). He drinks once a week with his best friend and coworker, reluctantly loans money to his grown son from another marriage, and occasionally must corral his wandering, mentally-disabled brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson, a.k.a. Bubba from Forrest Gump). A proud but bitter man, Troy laments his meager pay and general lack of opportunities he’s had in his life, notably that he never got a shot at the Major Leagues despite being a standout in the Negro Leagues as a younger man. For this reason, he balks at his son’s college football recruitment and NFL dreams.

If anything, the play/movie (and, I assume, a lot of Wilson’s other work) highlights how unfair life can be. Troy believes — accurately, I imagine — that he was and is held back by racial inequality. His brother sustained a head injury fighting in World War II — the source of his disability — and was given a handshake and $3000 for his troubles (which he didn’t even get to keep, as Troy used it to buy his house). Rose devotes her life to being the best wife she can be to Troy, and he repays her in compoundingly shitty ways that I won’t reveal (because the trailers don’t). Corey gets good grades, works an after school job, and excels on the football field, and even that’s not enough for Troy (for several complex reasons).

Troy carries the bitterness from his own life into his parenting. He is harsh (or unfair, depending on your point of view) with his son because he knows the world will be too. Rose sees that inevitability as all the more reason to show her son love and support. While small Civil Rights progress was happening by the late 50s — and Corey has slightly fewer barriers than Troy had — Troy either doesn’t see the progress or actively ignores it, because acknowledging it would only make the past injustice he had suffered harder to swallow.

As little more than a filmed version of the 2010 Broadway revival (in which both Washington and Davis starred and for which both won Tony’s), the performances shine above all else. You can already begin etching Viola Davis’ name onto the Best Supporting Actress statue (which would put her three-quarters’ of the way towards an EGOT) and expect Denzel Washington to battle Casey Affleck for what would be his third Oscar.

One of August Wilson’s stated goals for his plays was to offer white Americans a look at black Americans in a way that they weren’t used to seeing. In the case of Fences, he wanted to show the depth and complexity, the tragedy and the beauty, the richness of the life of a simple black garbageman, “a person (white Americans) don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day.”

Whatever you ultimately think of Troy Maxson when the credits finally roll in Fences, his story is undoubtedly worth the look.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

Almost exactly a year ago, I was the guy who excitedly pulled up the live stream of The Force Awakens red carpet premiere, grinning like a stupid little kid as Anthony Daniels and Oscar Isaac answered Star Wars trivia. I was the guy who had bought his Thursday-night opening-weekend ticket for the movie months in advance. I was the guy who strongly considered trekking to Hollywood Blvd to get as close as I legally could to the Chinese Theater, just to glimpse the majesty of the event in person (I ultimately decided against it, instead opting for the live stream). I was the guy doing the mental math adding 2 hours 15 minutes to the slated start-time for the premiere, so I would know just when to start refreshing twitter to get Patton Oswalt’s first reaction to the movie. I was that guy.

Clearly, I was swept up in the euphoria of ‘more Star Wars’, something that I had known was coming for four years but didn’t quite feel real until that night just over a year ago. As I said in my review for the film, there was a ton at stake with The Force Awakens, including and especially audiences’ enormous expectations for ‘more Star Wars’. What wasn’t clear to me a year ago (but is clear to me now) is that the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the more accurate representation of what ‘more Star Wars’ means in the practical sense. The third trilogy commenced by The Force Awakens is all well and good, but Episode VII is something that has always been (at the very least) plausible since 1983. A stand-alone movie (a designation for which Rogue One barely qualifies) is both uncharted territory and also looks to be the new norm of this franchise.

This is what ‘more Star Wars’ looks like. And it looks… promising I guess?

By way of plot summary, given that it’s a Star Wars movie, I think it’s safest to go with the simplest of broad strokes. It’s the story of how the Rebels came into possession of the plans that set the story in motion in the original Star Wars. If you know what I’m talking about, then that’s enough of a plot summary for you. If you have no idea what I’m talking about… hang in there.

Therefore, anyone who’s seen Star Wars (or even the first ten minutes of Star Wars) knows how Rogue One ends in a big-picture sense, so it’s remarkable that the final moments of Rogue One are by far its most thrilling (and offers further proof that the new Star Wars movies are really good at leaning on the Original Trilogy, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing). And damn are they thrilling final moments.

And I realize the ending is thrilling in part because it was properly built up to (and thus it’s unreasonable to expect the entire movie to deliver at that high level), but the final moments just make me wish the rest of the movie was nearly as good as the final half hour. The first hour jumps around far too much and takes a long while to set things up, peppered with a handful of action set-pieces that feel like obligatory pacing check marks as opposed to necessary or thrilling (save for anytime Donnie Yen is on screen…damn). And yet, throughout the extensive set-up, the movie manages to spend precious little of this time giving our characters personality or interesting back stories or satisfying emotional connections.

Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and my boy Riz Ahmed (have you watched The Night Of yet?) all do fine with what they’re given, but the characters are disappointingly forgettable (and given the talent involved, it’s hard to blame the actors more than the writers). Here’s a fun game after watching it: compare the personalities and complexities of Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Wakens to those of Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi in Rogue One. I’m not saying Rogue One has to measure to up the last movie in every way, but that helps illustrate how flat these characters are. That said, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic, while no Kylo Ren, actually gives a pretty great performances as one of the movie’s most interesting characters (he also made the first season of Bloodline watchable, if you’re looking for more Bendelsohn). And regardless of how underused Mads Mikkelsen is as Galen Erso, an architect of the Death Star (for all of two scenes), it’s still Mads Mikkelsen.

As I alluded, even before the lights go down in the theater and the Lucasfilm logo appears on screen, Rogue One exists as a litmus test. The very idea of it is a litmus test. Disney dipping their toe into the Star Wars universe outside of the three-trilogy boundary lines drawn by George Lucas, testing audiences’ passion (and patience) for the minutia of this epic story. I’m not the first one to make this observation, so pick your favorite hot take and read that.

Interestingly, the ultimate execution of Rogue One is perfectly in keeping with the idea that the film is a litmus test. It’s not quite a home run (like I thought The Force Awakens was) and it’s certainly not a dud (pick your favorite prequel for your chosen ‘dud’ example); it’s a solid B+ that takes too long to get where it’s going and doesn’t satisfactorily develop its characters, but is still at times thrilling and remarkable in ways that just make you wish the rest of the movie was better. Basically, Rogue One is appropriately adequate. It’s not so good or so bad to be an anomaly and thus an unreliable barometer for how audiences will respond to Star Wars movies released with ever-increasing frequency (e.g. there will be no “Well, this one was amazing/shitty, but how will the next one be??”).

If Disney makes enough of these stand-alone Star Wars movies (there are currently two in development, with more promised), I’m sure there will be home runs and duds, but I think the reception to the ‘pretty good’ ones will be the most telling. In the case of Rogue One, some viewers will surely be bored by its drawn-out set-up and will be left cold by its action set-pieces (save for the last one) and lack of character arcs, others will find the climax more than worth the set-up and will be tickled by the plethora of nods to A New Hope, rewarding those paying close (or even not-so-close) attention.

And that’s probably how it will go until Disney stops making these. A “good enough” movie with the right amount of Star Wars-y stuff will be good enough for some, and not enough for others.

But honestly, the ending is amazing. See it for the last half hour. See it because it’s a Star Wars movie. That still means something for now.

La La Land (2016) Review

La La Land (2016) Review

I said in my review for Moonlight that 2016 has been a pretty great year for movies (of which I still believe Moonlight is the best) despite being a pretty shitty year otherwise. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is emphatic proof of the former and yet is admittedly elevated by the latter. It’s cathartic to unwind with a bright, colorful, relatively light-hearted (yet consequential) musical to round out a rough year, but what’s more cathartic is that the movie is great.

It begins with a gorgeous opening dance number, where the rhythms of the various car horns and car radios in an LA traffic jam melt together into a staccato piano. Three shots are sneakily spliced together into one impressive long take (I thought it was one shot until I read otherwise), mostly tight close ups, with the camera climbing over cars and medians as much as the dozens of dancers. Chazelle said he used the long takes in the dance numbers to turn up their realism as much as he could, hoping to minimize the divide between a bygone style and a modern audience. In a Q&A with Scott Mantz in front of a packed West Los Angeles theater, Chazelle used the metaphor of boiling a frog to prod musical-averse audiences to buy-in (in that, if you do it gradually enough, they won’t notice that it’s happening). If the end result is the fantastic opening number and a 6-minute unbroken take in a Singin’ In The Rain-inspired sequence in front of a colorful magic-hour sky, then go ahead and boil me, Mr. Chazelle.

One of the drivers stuck in traffic is Mia (Emma Stone), living the cliched-because-it’s-true life of a struggling actress. Her chosen day job (just until her big break of course) is barista, but on the Warner Brother lot, getting as close as she can to her old Hollywood dreams. In the car behind her is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a broke jazz pianist degrading himself playing Jingle Bells for disinterested restaurantgoers to make ends meet. Seb (as he’s called) honking at Mia is the first of three chance encounters that leads to their romance, culminating in the utterly charming magic-hour dance sequence mentioned above. These repeated chance encounters show that, among the film’s observations of the parallels between love and art, chance is crucial to the success of either as much as compromise and the choices we make.

Both leads have artistic aspirations (to star in films and to open a jazz club), and both are struggling to get there, but the movie is a romance first and foremost. Both characters eventually find varied levels of success in their respective arts (both with their fair share of compromise), but the success comes suddenly for the most part. It doesn’t feel like the movie is building to whether or not they’ll make it as artists (i.e. that’s not what the movie’s about); it instead builds to how their art can coexist with their relationship.

If Whiplash was about sacrifice for greatness, then La La Land is about compromise. The compromises Mia and Seb are willing to make in their relationship for their art and what compromises they’re willing to make in their art for their relationship. This emphasis on the choices we make (for our dreams and for our relationships) sets the stage for one of the most incredible endings I’ve seen in a romance.

While it’s refreshing to see Gosling in something that’s more-or-less the exact opposite of mumblecore and the minimalistic style where Gosling has cut his teeth, Emma Stone is the star of the show. It’s technically a dual-protagonist story, but she is the more active protagonist, and when the movie focuses on the individuals rather than on the couple, her solo story gets more screen time. And honestly, she’s marvelous. So heart-breaking and sincere in her auditions, it makes us sympathize with her even more when no one ever gives her a second look. While Stone and Gosling are both perfectly passable dancers, it’s clear they’re not professionals, but that just seems to add to the realism (and the frog’s water gets hotter).

Even if you don’t think you like musicals (I’ve said less than flattering things over the years), at the very least, you have to appreciate the craft and the infectious tone. Not only is it beautifully shot throughout, it’s bright, colorful, bubbly, but still meaningful, with none of the camp but all of the sincerity. The dialogue is great, whether the leads are flirting, discussing their respective passions, or having a blowout fight about their relationship. Eventually, they both have to make impactful choices about their relationship and their art, and crucially, neither choice is really right or wrong, and in their blowout fight, neither Mia nor Seb is really right or wrong. They’re both just doing their best and their actions and points of view are entirely defensible (Hey, look! Nuance!).

While Gosling and Stone are great and their characters are interesting enough, they’re really the only characters in the movie. John Legend appears as an old friend of Seb’s, offering a high-paying, high-profile gig in a band that plays jazz-infused pop music and calls it jazz, but his sole purpose for existence is to provide Seb the opportunity to sell out. Mia has roommates that disappear after about five minutes and parents that appear but don’t speak. You get the picture. The story really is just two people.

But that’s enough. On the strength of its two leads and its undeniable charm, La La Land is a delight. And as a literal ode to dreamers, it’s a welcome dose of hopefulness to end the year.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) Review

Manchester by the Sea (2016) Review

Manchester by the Sea is a masterfully-crafted misdirect.

Judging from the trailers (or any of the marketing), it clearly presents itself a certain way and establishes certain audience expectations, namely that it will be an emotionally-taxing, grief-stricken journey that ultimately proves to be uplifting(ish) if not a little bitter sweet. And while those expectations are certainly met and the movie takes you to the emotional places you think it will take you, the journey it takes getting there is not what you’re expecting.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a custodian/handyman living a secluded life in Boston. One day, he gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died, and Lee must return home to the eponymous Manchester-by-the-Sea to see to Joe’s funeral arrangements. While there, Lee learns that he’s been named the legal guardian of his now fatherless nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), which he believes he’s ill-suited for. The arrangement also presents the logistical problem of either uprooting Patrick’s life by moving him to Boston or uprooting Lee’s life with a permanent return to Manchester, where he’s forced to confront his troubled past.

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His troubled past is presented in a series of flashbacks to when Joe was still alive and Lee was still married to Randi (Michelle Williams). In general, I think flashbacks are both overused and misused, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well (if you don’t believe me, read a handful of amateur screenplays…). So when flashbacks are so seamlessly woven into a narrative the way these are, and when they’re as substantive and illuminating as these are, it’s all the more impressive and remarkable. The flashbacks are presented as answers to narrative questions raised in the main story line. Sometimes that means an immediate answer to an immediate question – like when it flashes back to tell us that Joe had a rare heart condition, making his death not quite as sudden as we may have initially assumed. Sometimes that means more drawn-out answers to more nuanced questions – like how Lee went from a happily-married life in Manchester to a disgruntled life in a one-room basement apartment in Boston.

So while the story is centered around the fallout of a family tragedy, it’s not really the focus you might expect. Joe’s death is obviously the impetus of the story, but it’s – surprisingly – not much more than the impetus. Minus one or two scenes, Patrick actually seems pretty at peace with his father’s passing, and he doesn’t need much consolation. Lee doesn’t even seem all that concerned about how Patrick would fare with Lee as his guardian. Patrick’s already 16 and reasonably self-sufficient, and he doesn’t appear to need Lee to “raise him” or anything (mostly just to drive him to his girlfriend’s house). The places where you expect the most conflict and drama are fairly drama-less.

The drama is instead found in Lee’s homecoming and in his seemingly-inexplicable resistance to returning to Manchester (and, eventually, in his very explicable resistance to the same). Despite how it presents itself, it’s less a movie about dealing with the loss of a brother and father and more about coming home, confronting your past, and making peace with who you were and what you’ve done. It’s a movie about forgiveness, self- or otherwise. And if that sounds more tame than dealing with concrete loss (like losing a brother/father), I promise you that it’s not.

There’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife towards the end that I’ve been referring to as “the scene” (because it’s featured heavily in the trailers, because it’s one of only four-ish scenes that Michele Williams appears in and yet it’s going to get her a fourth Oscar nomination, and because it’s the clearest manifestation of this forgiveness theme). There’s a distinction to be made between earned emotional moments and unearned emotional moments, and “the scene” is a textbook example of the former. Lonergan puts in work to get us here, and even if you hate the rest of the movie (not sure how you could…), the scene itself is worth the price of admission. In other years, I might call it the most moving scene of the year, but unfortunately for this movie, Moonlight came out this year.

In addition to the well-deserved praise heaped onto Michelle Williams (limited screen time aside), there have also been Oscar whispers for Casey Affleck since the film premiered at Sundance eleven months ago. With the huge caveat that I haven’t yet seen Andrew Garfield in Silence or Denzel Washington in Fences, I’m confident in calling Affleck’s performance the best I’ve seen from any actor this year: from the way his early scenes hint at buried rage and repressed heartbreak, to the way that these things are slowly brought to the surface, to the way that he ultimately succumbs to emotional vulnerability.

Newcomer Lucas Hedges does well with what he’s given, but as I alluded, his performance is far less demanding than Affleck’s or Williams’ just by the nature of his character. That actually might be for the best, because if Patty had been emotionally traumatized and really needed Lee’s care and support, then the overlap with Good Will Hunting would become excessive.

And while I know that Matt Damon’s producer role, the Massachusetts setting, and the presence of an Affleck at center stage all invite comparisons to Good Will Hunting (to say nothing of Hedges’ creepily-close resemblance to a young Matt Damon), it really does feel like a spiritual sequel in a lot of ways.

Wicked hahd to tell them apaht
Wicked hahd to tell them apaht

Both movies center around characters keeping themselves hidden from the world in order to protect themselves from heartbreak (by working as a janitor in Boston, no less). Both main characters project a rough exterior to mask immense pain (unsuccessfully, in the end). Both movies’ central relationship is an older mentor and younger mentee trying to get used to each other. Throw out the Will-is-a-genius-for-some-reason plot line and the audience-friendly love story, and Manchester By The Sea is basically Good Will Hunting from the point of view of Robin Williams’ character, a man trying to tend to the well-being of his young associate while also being crippled by his inability to move on from his past marriage.

I wonder if Sean Maguire would have any advice for Lee…

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