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Home comes to the Big Screen

I’ve been interested in the film Manchester by the Sea, titled after and set within my hometown in Massachusetts, since it was first announced around two years ago. Originally planned to star Matt Damon, the film had an immediate air of prestige coming from acclaimed playwright and somewhat embattled filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, known for works including This is Our Youth and You Can Count on Me. As it turned out, Damon was not able to star in the film, but remained as a producer, and recruited his longtime friend Casey Affleck to take over the lead role. I would have liked to have been back on the North Shore to observe when they shot the film during the winter of 2015, which was exceptionally snowy and cold.

With this anticipation in place I was very excited when the film appeared on this year’s Windsor Film Festival schedule across the border in Canada, and thus made plans to attend a screening yesterday, creating an amusing irony of having to go out of the country in order to go home. This was perhaps doubly ironic as I was in Manchester itself just four weeks ago and enjoyed a more leisurely visit than my past couple of times being back, which had been just quick drive-throughs.

img_8431In general the film lives up to its pre-release and festival generated acclaim as a somber drama that isn’t afraid to go into more depth than other stories it might be similar to. The detailed tone is apparent from the opening scenes, when character beats are held just a second or two too long and/or a character says something they might be thinking but not say in a “conventional” setting. Affleck is on screen in nearly every scene and anchors the film with exceptional pathos; his character motivations are initially shrouded but gradually become clearer as the story goes back and forth in different time frames.

As a native of the area, it’s inevitably both amusing and irritating to see how Manchester itself is represented in the story, with a to be expected range of minor to moderate geographic implausibilities sprinkled in the narrative, along with a few glaring omissions or character choices that made it obvious the writer did not have roots in the area. However, the pleasure of seeing familiar locations and landmarks on screen (especially while watching it in Canada) goes without saying! Since it’s fun for me to examine, I’ll outline some of the film vs. reality impressions here.

  1. There’s not really a PC way to say this, but it’s doubtful (while not impossible) that a “working class” family as depicted in this story would actually live in Manchester, which has the highest household income of the North Shore area and is known for having large houses and estates and corresponding financial security. I continue to feel that the story ought to have been set in the neighboring and better-known town of Gloucester, which has a more diverse range of inhabitants and a closer connection to the art of the sea. Indeed, the film’s opening shot jumped back and forth between Manchester and Gloucester harbors in order to set the mood of the story. A key scene between two characters late in the film is also filmed in Gloucester, though the dialogue implies they are still in Manchester.
  2. When Affleck first arrives back on the North Shore, a scene takes place in the neighboring town of Beverly. He then says he has to “go up” to Manchester, which no one would say about the next town over. However, the statement makes sense when his character mindset is considered, having driven up from a town south of Boston on short notice.
  3. Subsequently, when Affleck first enters Manchester, where he’s meant to have grown up, he drives away from the town center and several well-known gathering places are not seen at all during the film including the town market and train station. A few other scenes in the film feature him driving around to make trips that would be more likely accomplished on foot.
  4. The town’s crown jewel Singing Beach is not seen in the film nor referenced in any of the dialogue.
  5. While the choice to have most of the characters use “Boston” accents fits in to the dynamic of the story, such accents are rarely heard in this part of the North Shore, and Hollywood in general still has not learned that those accents are very tightly concentrated to inner-ring towns around and some sections within Boston itself.

OK, continuing with the film itself. As Affleck’s character Lee experiences the story, he is tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. This character offers a very well-drawn depiction of mid-teenage years (he’s meant to be 16) and the delicate dance of making choices that relate to your family vs. your own personal journey and desires. Patrick’s arc also contains unexpected humor that enlivens the story, while the character also brings it back down to earth/the reality of the situation at a few surprise moments that add to the dynamic of the uncle/nephew relationship. The process of honesty and being “real” that is established early in the film is most sharply seen in the scenes with Patrick, and actor Hedges rises to the challenge with a strongly committed and revelatory performance. The film toys with sending Lee and Patrick’s relationship into “buddy/odd couple” comedy mode, and there are indeed several humorous moments, but then it comes back to reality with the empathy for both characters strongly intact. On the whole, the dynamic between both male characters made me notice that the film isn’t shy of going in-depth with masculine feeling and emotion, often glossed over in storytelling and popular culture, and that choice likely contributes to the richness of the drama.

Of the supporting cast, Michelle Williams is the obvious stand-out in a few strong scenes as Lee’s ex-wife. While her “Boston” accent is likely the most distracting of the cast (at least Affleck’s is authentic), she also carries the reality of the story and the challenge of character choices in context of the narrative.

I would see the film again, and you should too when it comes to general release and likely Academy Awards season acclaim at the end of this year.

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London Cinema becomes a Sneak Preview Opportunity

My time in London is now in the rearview mirror and I hope to be back there again soon. Or at least sooner than 7 years from now!

As befitting a world class cultural center, my visit allowed for taking in of two films not yet released in the USA.

The first, Ex Machina, was an excellent and positive example of mismarketing. I recall the film’s trailer promising an explosive and somewhat action packed adventure and suggesting that the movie would be a familiar “rise of the machines” type action drama.

But the real film turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and provocative drama, with a few traces of action, that asks timely questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. While the debate between man and machine is also covered along the lines of Blade Runner or some other of its cinematic cousins, this film also adds a gendered element where the machine is considered a female, while (her) observers and makers are male. In its use of an artificial or foreign female protagonist, the film recalls last year’s Under the Skin and could be seen as a continuation of that same story.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as a young prodigy seemingly randomly picked to spend a week at the secluded lab of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is a senior ranking member of his unnamed software and computer development company. The film drops us right in to the arrival and meeting of the minds, and wastes little time on unnecessary exposition. What follows stays in the realm of eerie plausibility as Gleeson meets Isaac’s latest artificial intelligence creation, the mysterious and inquisitive Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava presents as female, leading to an eventual attraction between the two characters.

Although Isaac’s role could easily descend into a Dr. Frankenstein – ish extreme, his subtle portrayal, with several modern touches, ensures that the audience continues to think of him as an equal and not maniacal player in the equation between the central trio. Sonoya Mizuno also joins the fray in a minimalistic supporting turn, with one great out of left field moment.

The film eventually forces itself into a dramatic denouement along the lines of what one might suspect as the story goes on. But it never loses its initial air of intrigue and thoughtful (and somewhat plausible) integrity.

My Rating: ***1/2

The second film, I Am Michael, has attracted modest attention in the US press, from what I have seen, and seems to be awaiting an official release date as it slowly makes the festival rounds. It features a trio of well – known actors in the leading roles, with James Franco tackling the central role – and real person – Michael Glatze, a former gay activist who dramatically renounced his homosexuality and instead turned to a life as a Christian pastor in Wyoming, complete with bible school education. Zachary Quinto costars as Glatze’s long-term partner, with Emma Roberts appearing late in the film as a woman who becomes Glatze’s heterosexual partner.

I was not familiar with Glatze’s story, which was described in a New York Times article a few years back that served as the basis for this film. At some point I learned that Glatze had spent time at a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado where I have also spent time, and I might have met him, so that curiosity drew me in to see the film.

Franco appears to renounce his recent run of comedic (self-parodying) performances, which likely reached its peak or nadir with the Christmas spectacle The Interview, in this role. Instead of a smirking and self-satisfied attempt to channel a person, I again saw a real acting performance, with close attention paid to conveying Glatze’s internal struggle of how to define himself in the world.

Though Roberts and Qunito’s screen time is limited, both actors maintain the drama of the story arc. I haven’t seen much of Roberts’ work in other films, but did feel that she was particularly successful here in playing a more adult-oriented character, also presumably based on a real person.

The Buddhist connection that made me curious about the film is given limited exploration, and features primarily in a section of the film that feels like it rushes through what happens next in Glatze’s life after he breaks from his gay lifestyle. Veteran actress Daryl Hannah, who seems to have disappeared from films in recent years, appears briefly as the mediation center’s director.

The integrity and commitment of the performers felt somewhat let down by a poorly thought out script, which drew several (presumably) unintentional laughs from the audience in response to multiple instances of cliched dialogue. It seems inevitable that biopics also devolve into a run of greatest hits of the particular person’s lives.

Nonetheless, I hope this film finds an audience when it does reach the USA, if only for a closer look at several hardworking actors and a dramatic look at sexual identity, which remains a topic that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

My Rating: ***

An unlikely pair in a meta-drama

The Windsor Film Festival began yesterday on the other side of the river from Detroit. I was pleased to be in the audience for one of the first films screened, and hope to go back to see at least 1 – 2 more before the festival concludes a week from today.

Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging French actress who is invited to perform in a revival of a play she became well – known for earlier in her career. This time, Maria is slotted in to the older woman role, with a younger ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) taking over her lead performance. Many complications come with Maria’s agreement to perform the part: the playwright has recently died, she has to confront the memories of her previous work and the actors associated with it, and she has to re-learn the script, from a different character’s point of view, with the help of her loyal younger assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

I just outlined the plot, but the plot really isn’t the point of this film. It’s structured into a three act motif, with title cards delineating each section.

The film’s first third could be seen as unnecessary in retrospect, but captivates the viewer with an emphasis on dark, moody European location photography and characters moving in and out of the crowded frame. The initial sequence of Binoche and Stewart traveling on a (presumably real) European train is a masterclass on how to film in a constrained environment. Director Olivier Assayas and associates put us right there in the tight confines of the train, moving in and out of tunnels and heightening the tension as Stewart’s managerial efforts are laid out.

At least two-thirds of the film (the middle section) zeroes in on just Binoche and Stewart, residing at a remote Swiss mountain house, learning the lines for the play but also blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and the actresses’ individual careers. In a manner similar to Binoche’s earlier film Certified Copy, the film begins to surprise and delight as the viewer doesn’t know what’s “real” and what is not for the characters, or where they are going with the story.

The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry. The French actress performs primarily in English for the part, but is allowed a few scenes in French with a markedly different vocal pacing and physicality.

The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart. Shedding the notorious vapidity of her Twilight role, the actress instantly commits to a serious yet relatable and believable character. In her increasing power play with Binoche over the course of the film, Stewart holds her own with integrity and surprising grace. Recalling (her personal mentor) Jodie Foster at points with her character’s level of commitment and natural relatability, Stewart is the soul of the film.

Moretz is talked about throughout the movie and finally appears late in the game. The much-in-demand actress channels some of her more TMZ-focused contemporaries in her role. Her few scenes are conveyed with unexpected ease, showing wide potential for more dramatic roles in her future.

This is easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year. Director Assayas embraces his actresses but loses focus towards the end of the film, with several overly ponderous nods to the titular clouds and a starkness that doesn’t register. The changes don’t diminish the film’s broad effect, though.

IMDB says the film isn’t slated to hit US screens until next March. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a look. The trailer is embedded at the end of this post.

(For another and more in – depth take on Stewart’s current career, check out this piece.)