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 Namely, what it is that led to Lee’s current withdrawn status.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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.