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 Namely, what it is that led to Lee’s current withdrawn status.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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm Mary Poppins, y'all.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Most of the time, we’ll settle for a solid, satisfying sequel, even if we’re naturally going to be rooting for a superlative one. Filmmakers are currently so used to invoking the impossible standard of The Empire Strikes Back/The Wrath of Khan, of advancing character and situation, going darker and encountering sacrifice, that expectations are inevitably tempered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is indebted to at least some of those sequel tropes, although it’s arguably no darker than its predecessor, if more invested in character development. Indeed, for a series far more rooted (grooted?) in gags than any other in the Marvel wheelhouse, it’s ironic that its characterisations thus far have been consistently more satisfyingly realised than in any of their other properties.

Perhaps the most significant aspect writer-director James Gunn is clearly struggling with here is how to keep things fresh knowing he’s developed an instantly satisfyin…

Courage is no match for an unfriendly shoe, Countess…

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.1: Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer
(aka The Silver Jug) Season Two of Jeeves and Wooster continues the high standard of the previous year’s last two episodes, appropriately since it takes after its literary precedent; Season One ended with a two-part adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves, which PG Wodehouse followed four years later with The Code of the Woosters. Published in 1938, it was the third full-length outing for Bertie and his genius gentleman’s gentleman, and the first time Plum visited Totleigh Towers, home of imperious nerve specialist Sir Watykn Bassett. If I say “Spode”, and add “Eulalie”, its classic status in the canon will no doubt come flooding back to you.

Sir Watkyn has already graced our screens, of course, in the very first episode, adapting Bertram Wilberforce’s recollection from this very The Code of the Woosters of his policeman’s hat-stealing incident, and for the most part, like the season finale before it, Clive Exton recognises a good thing when he …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I liked animals. And then I discovered I liked killing people even more.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Alien: Covenant (2017)
(SPOILERS) In tandem with the release of increasingly generic-looking promotional material for Alien: Covenant, a curious, almost-rehabilitation of its predecessor’s rocky legacy seemed to occur, as some of its many naysayers were given to observe, “Well, at least Prometheus was trying something different”. It seems Sir Ridders can’t win: damned if he breaks new ground, damned if he charts a familiar course. The result is a compromise, and boy, does Covenant feel burdened by that at times. Still, those worried it would renege on Prometheus can relax in at least one important regard: Covenant is at least as stupid in terms of character motivation. And, for this reviewer, in another respect: I liked it a lot, or rather, I liked a lot of it, despite myself.

Screenwriter John Logan persuaded Scott to follow the path of more trad-Alien antics, so it would be interesting to learn how different things might have been before that course reset (he told Scott “Look, I love…

Jeeves, you really are the specific dream rabbit.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.2: A Plan for Gussie  (aka The Bassetts’ Fancy Dress Ball)
The cow creamer business dispatched, the second part of this The Code of the Woosters adaptation preoccupies itself with further Gussie scrapes, and the continuing machinations of Stiffy. Fortunately, Spode is still about to make things extra unpleasant.

Sir Roderick delivers more of his winning policies (“the Right to be issued with a British bicycle and an honest, British-made umbrella”) and some remarkably plausible-sounding nonsense political soundbites (“Nothing stands between us and victory except our defeat!”, “Tomorrow is a new day; the future lies ahead!”) while Jeeves curtly dismisses Spode trying to tag him as one of the working masses. It’s in Spode’s ability to crush skulls that we’re interested, though, and it looks as if his powers have deserted him at the start.

Jeeves has given Gussie a pep-talk in how to get over his terror of Spode (“We don’t fear those we despise… fill one’s mind with scorn…