“Manchester By the Sea” Amazon Studios
Heartwrenching Family Drama with Excellent Performances
Manchester by the Sea is a movie wherein the more you discuss the great aspects of the film, the more it sounds like your worst nightmare. And by discussing the film, I do mean with someone that has seen it, as significant parts of the film should be left to unfold on their own. This genuine drama just may be the most realistic portrayal of full-blown paralyzing guilt to hit the big screen. Both Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams give stellar performances as they fight their personal battles with grief. Yep, sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not going to candy-coat this; it is. However, here’s the great news—Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of 2016.
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Actor Casey Affleck, filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, actor Lucas Hedges and actor/producer Matt Damon attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, 2000) and (Margaret 2011) is no stranger to crafting stories that are chock full of everyday dialog that succeeds in magnifying human nature while finding humor in the smallest of nuances. Those in the film business know that Margaret was held up for five years in court costs and lawyers fees due to differences between the studio and Lonergan’s final cut length. He was in serious financial debt when John Krasinski and Matt Damon, producer of the film, went to him with the original idea for Manchester by the Sea, and asked him to write the screenplay. The film has received eight nominations for our Critics Choice Awards, and Casey Affleck won Best Actor in a Film, Kenneth Lonergan won Best Screenplay, and Best Young Performer, Lucas Hedges. It received five nominations from the Golden Globes, and Casey Affleck won Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture.
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: Actor Casey Affleck, winner of Best Actor for ‘Manchester by the Sea’, poses in the press room during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
The main premise of the film focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner apartment handyman in Boston who has violent outbursts that lead to fistfights. When we first meet Lee, we know something isn’t quite right with him, as he appears to have a chip on his shoulder, although we aren’t sure if that’s even the problem. In contrast, during a flashback, we also see Lee on a fishing boat with his nephew Patrick, enjoying an afternoon on the sea with his family.
Onstage during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California.
Very shortly, we discover that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away and Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee grudgingly returns to his boyhood hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a strong-willed 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with his past that separated him from his wife Randi, (Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn, 2011).
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges Critics Choice Awards Santa Monica Hanger Dec. 11, 2016
Lee is obliged to step up to the plate and become somewhat of a father figure to his grieving nephew, Patrick. Neither is prepared for this awkward situation in which Patrick wants to continue his life as normally as possible. Lee, on the other hand, wants to move to Boston to resume his life away from Manchester where he’s still haunted by his personal tragic family memories. Read more…
La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films
Upbeat Musical with Beautiful Stars
Opening on a warm California winter’s day, we view a typical LA freeway traffic jam and an over-the-top atypical song and dance number; La La Land thus proclaims itself as a throwback to the energetic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. This deliberate brightly colored scene also sets up the cute or not-so-cute meet between the stars of the film Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a devoted jazz musician. Both Stone and Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love, 2011) give incredible performances that showcase their musical talents, offering us a film that is a pure cinematic joy.
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: Actress Emma Stone (L) and actor Ryan Gosling attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )
Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, who’s known for writing and directing Whiplash (2014), the dark, unnerving tale of a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) under the spell of his abusive/dictatorial jazz instructor (J.K. Simmons), who also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this film. What’s mind-boggling is the fact that La La Land is only Chazelle’s second full feature film; conversely, he stays the course by offering yet another musical-themed film. And what an enormous film this is. We’re talking hundreds of extras, large detailed set designs, delightfully spot-on choreographed dance numbers, distinctive costuming, original songs, a creative humorous yet touching script, and lead actors that shine. Chazelle gives us all of this and more. He’s accomplished a feel-good triumph that also sincerely explores the downside of the quest for fame and love in the all-too-often heartbreak city of Los Angeles.
There are so many things to love about this film, but for me, the highlight is watching the chemistry and talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They are mesmerizing on screen. As individuals, each can hold court in his or her unique way; together, the duo can only be described as enchanting.
Mia, a constantly auditioning actress, works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio backlot as a barista and Sebastian as a jazz pianist in an upscale restaurant with a manager (J.K. Simmons, The Accountant, 2016) that prefers he provide background similar to elevator music. No room for original songs here. Both are clearly miserable in the pursuit of their dreams.
Together, they take us all over LA, including the famous Griffith Observatory where we see more incredible cinematography and magic. Sebastian teaches Mia about jazz, and its undertones, and we are privy to their jaunts to check out the talent. John Legend (Soul Men, 2008) plays one such talent; he offers Sebastian a chance to be in his band that will begin touring all over the U.S. Read more…
James McAvoy in Split
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
James McAvoy helps save M. Night Shyamalan from himself in Split.
Like many others, I have been frustrated by M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Since I am a big fan of his first five movies—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs … and yes, even The Village and Lady in the Water—I was stunned by just how wooden and uninspired The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were. I didn’t see 2015’s The Visit because generally I cannot handle horror, but I know that it was the first time in thirteen years where a film of his wasn’t critically panned.
For the same reasons I didn’t see The Visit (read: because I’m a huge scaredy-cat), I was hesitant about watching Split. But I thought to myself, “Would James McAvoy really be involved with something horrible?” In my book, he hasn’t made a major career misstep yet. I was curious to see if this would be his first, and that curiosity overpowered any other qualms I had.
The good news is that for anyone else out there who doesn’t want to see a horror movie, Split is not a horror movie. Is it a thriller? Yes. Is it very scary in parts? Yes. Do blood and guts make an appearance? Only for a few seconds. But if this wimp can handle it, you can handle it—trust me.
The plot revolves around Kevin (McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder—which was once called multiple personality disorder. Four of those personalities are most prominent during the film: Dennis, a not-so-nice guy with OCD; Patricia, a polite and proper British woman; Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy; and Barry, an effeminate clothing designer. Dennis abducts three teenage girls—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—and is keeping them prisoner in a windowless and locked room. Some of his personalities know this is wrong and are trying to reach Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also starred in The Happening), a psychiatrist who has gotten to know Barry and some of the other personalities well over the past decade. However, as days pass, the situation grows more desperate for all involved, and Dr. Fletcher begins to suspect that Kevin’s more volatile personalities are gaining the upper hand and planning something awful.
Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman in Patriots Day
Photo Credit: Karen Ballard, AP
Patriots Day is a powerful reminder of this country at its best.
As I left for the Patriots Day screening, my husband asked me to remind him what I was seeing. After I told him, he replied, “Seems like it’s too soon for that.” Other friends had made similar comments—either about the timing of the film, or whether it was right to make a movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing at all. I walked into the theater unsure of whether I wanted to see the tragedy unfold once again. This wasn’t going to be like Sully, where there was a happy ending for everyone. I lived in Boston for two years, and while I wasn’t there for that marathon, once you’ve called a city home—or if it’s always been your home—local tragedies obviously hit harder. I also remembered how one of the bombing victims was a child, which made me especially nauseous. I had read several articles, even recently, about survivors who had lost their limbs. But to be honest, I had forgotten much of the rest of the story, even though—like the rest of the United States—I had been glued to my screen during the four-day hunt for the bombers.
The memories started flowing back as director Peter Berg introduced his main character, Sergeant Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, representing a composite of several real policemen), a hotheaded officer who’s recovering from a knee injury and griping about being stationed at the race’s finish line. In the hours leading up to the marathon, we see what several other people are doing in addition to Saunders. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), police sergeant of nearby Watertown, picks up a muffin for his wife. (Anyone from Boston knows there had to be a Dunkin’ Donuts shout-out in this movie, and there it was). A young couple exchanges work stories from the day before. A teenager from China who’s at school in Boston video chats with his parents and flirts with a restaurant worker. A young MIT campus patrol officer scores a concert date with a student. A family leaves home with their toddler to go cheer on the runners. And brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) watch TV, play with Tamerlan’s infant daughter … and then begin to pack up homemade bombs to transport in backpacks to the city. The older Tamerlan is clearly a psychopath. Dzhokhar comes off like a shallow, bratty follower. Both actors had tall orders to fill in representing these evil terrorists, and their performances are as commendable as they are chilling.
Barry Jenkins read Tarell Alvin McCraney’s piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” and adapted that into the screenplay of “Moonlight.”
Raw Emotion Strikes a Chord with Universal Themes
Superficially, one might sum up Moonlight by declaring that it presents three chapters of a gay black Miami man’s life. However, the film delves much deeper than that. It’s about growing up in poverty, the struggles of being raised by a crack-addict single mother, the exposures to racism, the need for love, and finally overcoming the complications of having a different sexual orientation than the majority of your peers. Yes, Moonlight is all of this and more. I must admit that it took my undivided attention along with a second viewing to truly internalize all of its beautiful qualities. I adore this film.
The screenplay is written by Barry Jenkins – who also directs – and is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s always ambitious in a film to cross over into different time spans; here we see Chiron, the main character, as a child, teen, and adult.
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Actors Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris, winners of Best Acting Ensemble for ‘Moonlight’, pose in the press room during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Part 1 is named “Little” and introduces us to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a shy, small-for-his-age, loner elementary school child along with crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), with whom he finds solace. His mother, Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris, known as Moneypenny from the recent Bond films) is usually drugged up and shows little love or affection towards Chiron.
Barry Jenkins and Alex R. Hibbert attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California.
In structure along with tone, Moonlight has an indie feel as we follow Chiron by use of a hand-held camera through his daily life. Thankfully, he has adult friends who take him under their wings and try to help him. In the best scene in the film, he’s taught to swim by Juan, seen here as a metaphor for a cleansing and/or baptism. It is a beautiful cinematographically filmed sequence; you may even experience goose bumps. This simple skill of learning to swim becomes the unique bond that holds both man and child together, with cementing each other’s trust at its core.
“Moonlight” film still. Photo Credit: Plan B
Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by Night
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Ben Affleck’s really weird gangster film is a dud.
“What. Is. Happening?!?”
While watching Live by Night, I turned to the person next to me and asked this question several times. She was equally perplexed. It’s not that the film is hard to follow, it’s just that writer-director-star Ben Affleck took the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to telling the two-hour-plus story of fictional mobster Joe Coughlin, and it didn’t work. Which is quite a monumental failure considering the cast includes Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson, among other top-notch talent; the screenplay was based on an award-winning novel by bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River); and the action spans several tumultuous years in U.S. history.
When we first meet WWI vet Coughlin (Affleck) in Prohibition-era Boston, he’s a not a full-blown gangster just yet, but he is the mastermind behind several high-profile robberies and has fallen for an Irish mob boss’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller). The two lovebirds decide to escape Boston so that they can be together. However, at the end of one of many unmemorable shoot-‘em-up sequences, it appears that Emma didn’t make it. So Coughlin heads south to Florida with a new plan that involves building an empire that will eventually help him to take down the mobster he blames for Emma’s death.