Manchester By the Sea ****
Manchester by the Sea, about a self-punishing, depressive loner (Casey Affleck) who slowly comes back to life after enduring a series of brutal losses, is the funniest movie about grief ever made. But that's far from the only remarkable thing about it. This film by playwright turned filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan contains multitudes of emotions, people and ideas, in such abundance that if you ask somebody to describe it, you should probably take a seat first.
It's a story about the complexity of forgiveness — not just forgiving other people who've caused you pain, but forgiving yourself for inflicting pain on others. It's a story about parenting, of the biological, foster and improvised kind. And it's a portrait of a tightly knit community that depends mainly on one industry, fishing, and that has evolved certain ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling. And — perhaps the biggest paradox in a movie filled with them — it's a full-blown melodrama, packed with the sorts of events that a silent filmmaker might hesitate to jam into one film for fear of being accused of overdoing it, and yet the characters are so emotionally guarded, at times emotionally constipated, that they rein the movie in and stop it from becoming too much.
Affleck, a specialist at playing reticent, somewhat mysterious men, plays Lee Chandler, a loner who lives in a cruddy basement apartment in Boston and works as a janitor. The death of his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in many generous flashbacks) saddles him with the unexpected responsibility of raising Joe's only son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Redford from Moonrise Kingdom). Patrick's mother Elise (Gretchen Mol, also introduced in flashbacks) is a drug addict who's been out of the family picture for a long time. Lee despises her and is annoyed to learn that Patrick talks to her regularly and holds no grudge against her.
Although Lee's affection for Patrick is well established, starting with the opening scene of grade school-aged Patrick clowning around with Lee on the deck of Joe's boat, it's a mystery to the community why Joe thought such a troubled man would be the ideal candidate to raise his only child. Lee is quiet, depressed, antisocial, a hard drinker, and inclined to fight strangers in bars. He hasn't seen his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) in years, and any time he ventures into Manchester, his old neighbors either whisper about him or glare at him.
While it's abundantly obvious that Lee is a devastated man still picking through the wreckage of a past life, the film takes its sweet time revealing the nature of the disaster that befell him. When we finally find out what it was, we recoil at the realization that it's even worse than we imagined, then understand why Lee not only resists the role his late brother assigned to him, but seems inclined to actively sabotage it.
On the surface this would all appear to be yet another twist on a familiar and often tedious Hollywood formula, the childish adult who's forced to grow up by being forced to take care of a minor. But Lonergan has too much respect for his characters, his audience, and perhaps reality itself to indulge such nonsense. Lee's backstory does confirm that he's essentially a masochist who has spent the last several years walling himself off from any chance at happiness out of guilt. But the same flashbacks that fill in the horrendous details of his past life also show that Lee has certain tendencies that have always been a part of his character and always will be. The movie acknowledges that if, in fact, Joe made him Patrick's guardian hoping to pull him out of his funk or somehow redeem him — and the film itself never makes this clear, preferring to let Joe's motives stay mysterious — then it was a bad call. Everyone, Lee included, seems to realize this.
Nevertheless, he tries the best he can, despite his limitations, out of loyalty to Joe. He navigates the unfamiliar, often infuriating experience of parenting a teenage boy, serving as grumbling chauffeur for Patrick's action-packed social calendar (he has a terrible rock band, plays on a hockey team, and bounces between two girlfriends, played by Anna Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail, and Moonrise Kingdom co-star Kara Hayward) and struggling to balance his work life with the home life he never imagined he'd have. This is hard enough for biological parents and children in non-grim circumstances. These two are partners in mourning, and even though they're too macho and sarcastic to discuss their bond openly, the wounds make themselves visible in other ways, most vividly in arguments about Patrick's complicated love life, the fate of Joe's beloved boat, and how best to dispose of Joe's remains (Patrick wants him buried, but it's a snowy winter and the ground is too hard, so they have to stash him in the freezer at the funeral parlor until spring).
Most of these details make the film sound unbearably dark, but while Manchester by the Sea does sometimes dive into pits of despair, most of the time it's a dry comedy. Lonergan has a fine eye for little indignities that turn tragedy into farce, as when emergency medical technicians repeatedly fail to collapse the legs of a gurney so that they can load it into the back of an ambulance. And his playwright's ear for deadpan exchanges is as keen as ever. Some of the most amusing bits in Manchester by the Sea take a moment to register because they aren't jokes, just records of people talking. "What happened to your hand?" Patrick asks Lee at the dinner table, noting a bloody bandage that Lee applied after smashing a window with his fist. "I cut it," Lee mutters. "Oh," Patrick says, barely looking up from his plate, "for a minute there, I didn't know what happened."
Lonergan has made two other classics, You Can Count on Me and Margaret; the latter was released to theaters in a butchered though still compelling version, so if you haven't seen it yet, watch the expanded cut, which is available on DVD and online. His first film was a compact, perfectly shaped, poignant and hilarious movie about a brother and sister (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney). Margaret, starring Anna Paquin as a young woman who accidentally causes a bus driver (Ruffalo) to kill a pedestrian, is a much grander, messier, more ambitious work, a film of statements as well as poetry, mingling gallows humor, suffering, introspection and hope. If you could somehow extract the experimental structure and darker moments of the second film and merge them with the compassion and wit of You Can Count on Me, you might end up with something like Manchester by the Sea, which carries itself like a traditional, even old fashioned drama set in the real world, but takes all sorts of liberties in arranging its characters and distributing its most crucial bits of plot information. Not every cut, transition or rhythmic gamble works, but it doesn't matter. The movie is so filled with life in all its splendor and awfulness that you're always more interested in finding out what's around the next bend than judging the effectiveness of whatever just happened.
Most of the film's scenes are short. A few clock in at less than 30 seconds. Lonergan and his editor Jennifer Lame stitch them together with an intuitive grace. But mosaic is not the film's only mode. Manchester packs its first half with audaciously placed, surprisingly long flashbacks (some repeatedly interrupting a very brief physical action, such as a character exiting an office), and stocks its second half with boldly theatrical moments of confession and confrontation that are likewise allowed to play out as long as they need to. A conversation between two characters on a street corner in the story's final stretch becomes a duet of mortification and mercy that stacks up with the best of Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies). It goes on for several minutes and consists of nothing more than alternating shots of the characters, but the feelings expressed within it are ratcheted up as expertly as the sense of dread you experience when watching a great horror movie. When the scene pivots and becomes something else entirely, the effect is cathartic.
At times the snowbound or saltwater-blasted images of the town and the soundtrack of soaring classical music, old soul, American songbook standards and jukebox rock seem to be joining forces to express feelings that the characters can't or won't express themselves. One of the film's most devastating moments is captured entirely from the opposite side of a hockey rink; you can't hear anything the characters are saying to each other, but it's fine because their body language tells the story. The contrast between the characters' poker faces and small gestures and Lonergan's sea-etched panoramas turns drama into comedy and vice-versa. It's the kind of movie you'll want to see a second time with someone who hasn't seen it yet, to remember what it was like to watch it for the first time.
Hacksaw Ridge ***
Hacksaw Ridge opens by introducing us to two brothers — the wild and competitive Desmond and Howard Doss. (Strangely, this relationship, which initially appears to be a cornerstone of the film, is largely ignored after the first 15 minutes.) The boys’ father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic World War I veteran who, some 15 years after the 1918 armistice, suffers from a combination of PTSD and survivor’s guilt, is prone to violent outbursts. Following Pearl Harbor, both Desmond (played as an adult by Andrew Garfield) and Howard decide to enlist — a move the drives a wedge between them and Tom, who doesn’t want them serving. While Howard opts for a conventional enlistment, Desmond enters the army as a Conscientious Objector, intending to be a medic. Meanwhile, he woos Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), his Florence Nightingale, and promises to marry her on his first leave.
The next segment of the film could be called the "An Officer and a Gentleman piece." It’s a generic basic training episode, complete with a gruff commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), some hazing, and a little macho bonding. Desmond doesn’t fit in because he won’t touch a gun. This earns him the label of a "coward", the ire of some of his fellows, and a Court-Martial. Eventually, with an assist from his estranged father, he gains the right to stay in the army as a Conscientious Objector and, when he arrives on Okinawa and participates in the attack on Hacksaw Ridge — a 400 foot high escarpment — he proves his worth.
As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson has often been drawn to stories of heroism and self-sacrifice and he has never shied from unvarnished depictions of violence. (His The Passion of the Christ was criticized in some circles for its R-rated interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion.) Although the first half of Hacksaw Ridge is unremarkable — a workmanlike but not spectacular establishing of characters, situations, and relationships — the movie hits its stride when the men of the 1st Battalion start their assault. The battle scenes are reminiscent of the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan. They hold nothing back with the horrors of combat being presented unflinchingly. Gibson expertly choreographs each sequence so that, although we get a sense of the bloody chaos that accompanies the fog of war, we are never confused about how the engagements unfold.
Andrew Garfield, whose star has dimmed as a result of his association with the ill-fated Spider-Man reboots, is solid as Desmond. Teresa Palmer has the thankless "love interest" role. She doesn’t do much beyond providing Desmond with a reason to come home. Casting Vince Vaughn in the R. Lee Ermy/Lou Gossett Jr. role initially seems like a mistake — he’s a little too smug and lightweight during the "basic training" scenes — but he grows into the part and is actually quite good once he gets onto Hacksaw Ridge. Other participants include Sam Worthington as Captain Glover, an officer who initially berates Doss, and Hugo Weaving in a limited-but-affecting performance as the troubled elder Doss.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on a true story. Desmond Doss became the first Conscientious Objector to win the United States Congressional Medal of Honor. The screenplay, credited to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, sticks as close to the historical record as the limitations of a two-hour movie allow. At the end, snippets of a 2006 interview with the real-life Doss (who died later that year) are shown. We are given an opportunity to hear his account of some of the events whose dramatization we have just witnessed.
The movie’s verisimilitude is strong, although it’s more emphatic on the battlefield than away from it. Those scenes anchor Hacksaw Ridge in a specific time and place. One of the reasons why Teresa Palmer’s role is so limited is because, in the context of male-dominated combat, there’s no room for a woman. As a result, she appears only in the "home front" sequences.
Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t have any rousing moments to rival those in Braveheart. That’s understandable because the heroism depicted here is of a more subtle kind. It’s about saving lives rather than taking them. It’s about avoiding fire rather than returning it. Viewers should be warned, however, that, like Saving Private Ryan, this movie doesn’t shy from showing what happens when high velocity round meets soft flesh. There’s more gore here than in an average horror movie. It’s not gratuitous but it is graphic.
Perhaps this movie season is devoted to biopics of real life heroes. Hacksaw Ridge joins Deepwater Horizon and Sully in that category. (Depending on one’s perspective, The Birth of a Nation could also be considered.) Gibson has employed his considerable skills as a filmmaker not only to re-create one of World War II’s bloodiest battles but to highlight one person’s acts of selflessness that, although they may not have changed the tide of the war, resulted in many families being reunited with fathers, brothers, and sons instead of having to bury them.
Nocturnal Animals **½
As shot by the gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals is beautiful — or at least arresting — every minute, and it sure isn’t boring. But it’s unclear exactly what Ford is trying to say, though it’s clear he’s trying hard to say something. And that’s the most frustrating thing about this picture: There seems to be some nuance here — something that is possibly very meaningful to Ford — that just can’t break through the movie’s glassy surface.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a sleek and seemingly successful Los Angeles gallery owner who wears lots of chic dark clothes and way too much sooty eye makeup for a fair-skinned redhead. This is our first clue that she’s a woman who has made all the wrong choices: Her hyper-handsome husband (played by hyper-handsome Armie Hammer) has made some bad business deals and lost much of the couple's money. It’s revealed that Susan hates what she does for a living. (The movie’s opening credits feature what we learn later is part of her gallery’s most recent installation, a video series featuring a group of garishly made up, overweight women who are mostly naked except for a few over-the-top red, white and blue majorette accessories. They’re shot so that every lump, bump and jiggle is exaggerated. This is the initial "Just what are you trying to say, Tom Ford?" prompt, the first of many.) And suddenly, a box has landed on Susan's kitchen counter: It contains a novel written by the ex-husband she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. She sits down to read it, and it shakes her to the core.
That part is easy to understand: The novel, dramatized as a mini movie within the bigger one, tells the story of a Texas man, Tony (Gyllenhaal), who sets out on a road trip to Marfa with his wife and teenage daughter, both of whom look markedly like Susan. (They’re played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, respectively.) Tony's plan is to drive all night, but on the deserted highway, he ends up in a terrible, and ultimately tragic, game of cat-and-mouse with a bunch of rednecks. This sequence is the best in the film, tense and beautifully sustained, a suggestion that Ford knows how to shoot action even though he generally favors gorgeously arranged inaction.
Tony is clearly a stand-in for Susan’s ex, Edward, and the novel is his cry of anguish over the death of their relationship. He wants Susan to understand the pain she's caused him, and she gets the message. Nocturnal Animals is a movie about regret, among many other things: Susan reflects on the poor choices she’s made, decisions that have led to true unhappiness. Edward is using his fictional counterpart, Tony, as an expression of anguished, human helplessness (and its subset, anguished male helplessness). Adams and Gyllenhaal do some real acting here: Their characters’ pain feels genuine, even in the midst of all the careful art direction.
If Nocturnal Animals succeeds as anything, it works as a glossy, stylish noir, with elements of vigilante revenge (as well as elements of Michael Shannon, who shows up as an inscrutable, drawling Texas lawman). But there are too many times when Ford’s vision leans dangerously close to self-parody. At the gallery, Susan has a conversation with one of her underlings, Jena Malone, who, being an art-gallery person, has slicked-back hair and is wearing a total-fashion-victim white blouse and leather harness getup. She shows Susan how she watches her newborn all day long via a cellphone app — she’s more entranced with the app than with the baby.
This character is obviously a cartoon, a satirical jab at the way we live now, at least when we live with money. But Ford also makes many of these fancy trappings — Susan’s gorgeously tailored coat and luxe boots, her big, fashionably minimalist glass-box house, or the curvaceous John Currin nude that hangs above her desk — look really nice, like things a person ostensibly might want to own. Does Ford hate these things or love them? How does he want us to feel about them? The signals they send in the context of the story are unclear, no matter how lovingly they’re filmed. In the end, Nocturnal Animals barely feels like a film made by a human being. You could just dub it a "stylish exercise" and call it a day. But I just can’t shake the fact that Ford somehow wants it to be more. The movie feels glazed and remote, a surface with all the identifying fingerprints polished off. What would it look like if Ford had left them on?
Bad Santa 2 *
The best gag in the film might be the first one. As we left Willie in a hail of bullets at the end of Bad Santa, it’s a shock to see him groomed and confident behind the wheel of a Mustang convertible. Did he get to keep the cash at the end of that botched heist? Then he’s distracted by a woman and a rear-end collision (ahem) brings him and us into reality. He’s just lost another Phoenix job, this one parking cars. The overweight oaf of a kid (Brett Kelly) is now legally an adult, still slow, still thinking of Willie as his personal "Santa." But the return of the treacherous dwarf-crook Marcus (Tony Cox) pulls Willie out of Arizona and into Chicago. Marcus talks him into another heist — this one at a holiday bell-ringing charity in the snowy/Windy City. "Why are you even out of the joint anyway? You know, they used to sterilize guys like you, to keep the world from becoming some negro Land of Oz."
But once the early insults are out of the way, the third partner makes herself known. That would be Sunny, Willie’s long-estranged ex-con mom, played with filth, verve and a covering of tattoos by Oscar winner Kathy Bates.
The mark is this charity run by a rich couple (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men), but to get access to that cash, first the trio has to dress up in red and white and ring a lot of bells. Their cash take on street corners isn’t all that, as they swap gruesome insults about every patron who passes — especially the ones with ugly babies. ("Guess that abortion didn’t take.")
Hendricks gets to play a moral crusader with an inner (sexual) freak, Marcus has to court a plus-sized guard (Jenny Zigrino) with an allegedly open mind, Willie has to work out some nasty mommy issues and the slow kid has to follow Willie from sunny Arizona to snowy Chicago without the good sense to wear long pants.
Director Mark Waters is a long way from Mean Girls, and the one thing he could have brought to this that surprised was talking his Freaky Friday/Mean Girls muse Lindsay Lohan into a cameo. Instead, Octavia Spencer, who has won an Oscar since playing a lowdown and dirty hooker in Bad Santa comes back, and brings her own enema. She remembers Willie’s sexual predilections.
Hendricks’ sex-in-the-alley cat doesn’t have the "Wait, is that a Gilmore Girl getting her Santa freak on?" zing of Lauren Graham’s turn in the first film. We’d expect no less from the busty Mad Men bad girl. Thornton and Cox can still manage those long raunchy riffs that deliver laughs. But Thornton doesn’t let Willie’s desperation show this time. He’s too groomed, too fussy about his hair. Willie’s unlikely sex appeal is a little less absurd. Bates brings little extra or fresh to the table, and the film sorely misses the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac, who played the foils to Willie and Marcus and their schemes. The "villains" here are too lame to name, and will not be putting this on their resume reel.
But the take-away impression from Bad Santa 2 is that the vulgar world has passed it by, that it’s power to shock has dissipated by all that’s been said and done and elected in the intervening years. A drunken, swearing, whoring St. Nick? That’s all you’ve got?
This week’s other new releases
Blood on the Mountain *** By observing the struggle of the miner with a mix of resignation and resolve, the movie hints that this struggle is the struggle of every worker.
Seasons **½ A gorgeous movie that is exceedingly strange — not necessarily in the story it tells, but in the way it tells it.
Speed Sisters **½ Doesn’t ever quite hit the high octane levels as its petrol head subjects but it is nevertheless a very unusual and encouraging representation of social change, defiance and self-determination.
Sophie and the Rising Sun ** It’s a timid, tired but a tender warm-hearted wartime romance that should have more edge than its subject promises.
Marinoni: The Fire in the Frame *½ A slapdash tribute too humdrum to ever whip up a truly inspirational froth.
No stars Abysmal