Skip to main content

Uncle Lee, are you fundamentally unsound?

Manchester by the Sea
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Unlike his soporific brother, Best Actor Oscar winner Casey Affleck doesn’t really suit playing normal people. Or especially likeable people, come to that. He isn’t an actor you tend to feel much in the way of empathy for, which makes his performance in Manchester by the Sea all the more impressive. Lee Chandler’s is entirely shutdown, his emotional facility so deeply buried that he can no longer connect to it.


Does that mean Affleck deserved the win? Aside from Brie Larson being unconvinced? In terms of the art, sure (as to whether the allegations against him should have seen him excommunicated, à la the now-welcomed-back-into-the-fold Mel, the Dolby Theatre would be pretty empty if every insalubrious Hollywood type was held to account). But he’s drawing as much on his own natural performance disposition towards the interior as Denzel (the other main contender) is towards stagecraft in Fences, so you can pick and choose. They’re different ends of the scale (some might say, designed for different mediums, which might be the rub).


I can’t imagine Matt Damon, who originally had the part lined up, being as appropriate to the place Lee finds himself in. Although, conversely, he’d be more at home with the domestic (not quite) bliss of the earlier, more contented times we see in flashbacks. Notably, the premise was Damon and John Krasinski’s, pitched to director Kenneth Lonergan to write for Damon to direct as his debut.


Manchester by the Sea’s a slow-burn, which is evidently the way Lonergan likes it, but he’s careful to install a fully-functioning motor propelling the mostly low-key dramatics; like an earlier Oscar winner (albeit, much less melodramatically), Ordinary People, Manchester carries with it a pertinent mystery (at least, during the first half of its running time). Namely, what it is that led to Lee’s current withdrawn status.


When we first meet him, he’s taciturn in the extreme, abrasive (but quite funny with it) towards the tenants he fixes plumbing for, resistant to emotional contact but prone to bouts of violence. Various possibilities propose themselves: that he may be on meds, may be repressing his sexuality, may simply be emotionally stunted. It’s only through the refraction of his interaction with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whom Lee moves in with when his brother Kyle Chandler (playing Joe Chandler – I guess it would have been plain mean to turn him down at audition) dies, that we begin to receive insights in Lee’s inner turmoil.


The relationship also enables Lee to inhabit a more mature position, one that Affleck, despite being in his 40s, doesn’t naturally give off. The pulse of many scenes is his verbal sparring with Hedges (also deservedly Oscar nominated, and previously very impressive in the underseen The Zero Theorem), introduced in an altercation on the hockey ice but who, rather than being an angry young man, is shown revealed as sensitive and more comprehending than many of his elders. There’s a continual tension between Lee’s reluctance to inhabit a parental role and his desire to do right by his nephew. It isn’t simply the pull of responsibility; it’s the ghosts of the past in his home town that claw at his stoic exterior.


Lee never actually gives voice to what has happened, a masterstroke on Lonergan’s part. As much as he can ever say is “I can’t beat it” to his nephew, who being an empathic guy, doesn’t need to push it further. The picture’s pivotal scene finds Lee bumping into his ex, Randi (Michelle Williams), on the street, she desiring to express regret for all the things she said to him, and he simply unable to go to a place where he can broach the subject. Both actors are outstanding here, but Williams is particularly extraordinary, and it’s abundantly clear why she deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination; it’s in the Anthony Hopkins class of limited screen time having an enormous impact.


CJ Wilson also deserves mention as best friend George, a rock in a sea of distress, as does Gretchen Mol as the mentally-on-a-knife-edge mother of Patrick, and Broderick as her Jesus freak fiancé. The scene where Patrick attends a reunion dinner with his estranged ma is superbly pitched in its palpable awkwardness. 


There’s also the occasional choice I wasn’t entirely sure about. Lonergan indulges liberal helpings of classical music on the soundtrack, most of which work to underline the picture’s canvas (small in setting but dealing with the biggest themes), but comes perilously close to distractingly overbearing in the use of Adagio in G Minor by Albinoni for the replay of the fateful evening, as it has become almost a cliché for tragedy by this point.


It’s heartening to see that Manchester by the Sea has performed so well, a picture eschewing easy narrative strokes or a cathartic ending, and it’s to Amazon Studios’ credit (Amazon had to come up trumps somewhere artistically eventually, if they threw enough money that way, I guess) that they’re investing so consistently in filmmakers the big studios aren’t offering a look-in, from Whit Stillman to Nicholas Winding Refn, to Woody Allen, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Park Chan-wook, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes and (yes!) Terry Gilliam. For Amazon, it’s probably enough that they can now boast access to awards ceremonies, even if the picture was pushed out of most top laurels by showier contenders. One thing they got dead right, though; debate may rage about the appropriate of Affleck winning, but it’s hard to argue that Manchester by the Sea didn’t fully deserve the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

You’re going to make me drop a donkey.

Encanto (2021) (SPOILERS) By my estimation, Disney brand pictures are currently edging ahead of the Pixars. Not that there’s a whole lot in it, since neither have been at full wattage for a few years now. Raya and the Last Dragon and now Encanto are collectively just about superior to Soul and Luca . Generally, the animation arm’s attempts to take in as much cultural representation as they possibly can, to make up for their historic lack of woke quotas, has – ironically – had the effect of homogenising the product to whole new levels. So here we have Colombia, renowned the world over for the US’s benign intervention in their region, not to mention providing the CIA with subsistence income, beneficently showered with gifts from the US’s greatest artistic benefactor.