Manchester By The Sea – A Review

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Here’s a good rule of thumb – if Kyle Chandler shows up in a movie, it’s probably good. I’m sure that there are exceptions to this, but in general it holds up. Chandler is rarely the star – he always has a small but significant part – yet he has demonstrated pretty good taste in choosing the movies in which he appears after his role as Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Carol, Zero Dark Thirty, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Argo all have two things in common – Kyle Chandler turns up and all of them received Oscar nominations. The Spectacular Now was an indie darling. His presence is often a pleasant surprise; rarely do I go into a movie expecting to see Chandler, but like the harbinger of good things, I am always relieved to see his face. If it’s good enough for Kyle Chandler, it’s probably good enough for me.

So I was delighted when I discovered that Chandler has a role in Manchester By The Sea. I had gone into the movie knowing very little about the plot and while the film had a lot of positive buzz around it, I wasn’t fully sure what to expect. Enter Kyle Chandler stage right and I knew everything was going to be fine. Manchester By The Sea is a drama that is sad and tragic, but also occasionally has moments of humor and lightness. The story is simple, but the characters are incredibly complex; the actors that inhabit them give beautifully nuanced performances that leave an impression. At times, Manchester By The Sea can be unbearably sad. I cried many times while watching it in the theater and I really hate doing that. But there is beauty in that sadness, a compelling story about loss, grief, and family.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee is a loner and seems ready to lash out at the world, especially after he has been drinking. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee is surprised to discover that he has been named the guardian of his teenaged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking care of Patrick requires Lee to move back to Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he is forced to face his own tragic history, personified by his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee tries to help Patrick through his own grief while battling his own demons.

There is no doubt that Manchester By The Sea is a sad movie, but it also finds the humor in grief. There are a lot of humorous exchanges between Lee and Patrick as they explore the unchartered waters of their new reality. Patrick is a good kid, but he’s also a bit of a wiseass and both he and Lee are undoubtedly using comedy to help them deal with the death of Joe. This humor helps balance Manchester By The Sea out; the film can delve into some very dark territory but the viewer never feels like they are completely drowning in sadness because there is inevitable some laughs around the corner. They cut the tension and make Manchester a better movie.

Casey Affleck really delivers a powerhouse performance; as more facets are revealed of Lee’s past, Affleck plays the many different notes of his personality in a natural and understated way. There’s a lot going on with Lee and the film is not afraid to make him completely unlikable one minute and deeply sympathetic the next. Affleck really disappears into the role, inhabiting all the complex and conflicting attributes. Lee really is trying to be there for his nephew in this time of sorrow, but Lee also cannot outrun the past that he is forced to reckon with. There’s a lot going on in this role, but it always feels real and Affleck’s performance is lived in and natural. Casey often toils in the shadow of his more famous older brother, but Manchester is a tour de force performance that solidifies that the talent in the Affleck family runs pretty deep.

Newcomer Lucas Hedges holds his own in the film as well and deserves the critical recognition that he’s received. Hedges and Affleck have excellent on-screen rapport and Hedges feels like a real teenager – overwhelmed by grief, but also a little selfish and self-centered, focused on what everything means to him rather than anyone else. Michelle Williams, who is one of my personal favorites, doesn’t have a ton of screen time but makes the most of what limited time she has with a heartbreaking and devastating performance. There is a scene between her and Affleck toward the end of the movie that just destroyed me and made you feel the pain of both of these characters. They have dealt with their past in very different ways and though they share a history, they cannot seem to figure out a way to help each other without causing more heartache. If Viola Davis wasn’t submitting herself in the supporting actress category this year, I think Williams would have been the frontrunner to win. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve seen this movie, but her scene with Affleck is still the first thing I think about when I hear a reference to this movie. That’s how powerful it was.

I really enjoyed Manchester By The Sea, at least as much as you can enjoy a film with this subject matter. The acting is strong across the board and while the story is emotionally challenging, it is told in a beautiful and artistic way. Casey Affleck is currently the frontrunner for Best Actor at the Oscars and while his personal history may (rightly) jeopardize that, on a purely artistic level this is perhaps the best performance of his career. Manchester By The Sea is chock full of realistic depictions of grief and what happens when running away from your demons is no longer an option. The characters feel real and their journeys are authentic; while they are all impacted by their ordeal, they are not completely transformed. This is a heavy movie that is tempered by its interludes of lightness. It’s a film that has stuck with me, which is one reason that it took me so long to review as I struggled to articulate why it was so captivating. And, for the record, in his limited screen time, Kyle Chandler is, as always, aces.

Manchester By The Sea is currently in theaters.

 

 

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Back to School edition

In this part of country today is the first day of school, which has little direct impact on my except that I had to avoid school buses during my morning commute and that my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of my friends’ offspring heading off to their institutions of learning. It’s still weird to me to not have a first day of school anymore; when you are a student and teacher continuously from the age of 4 to 32, you get used to such things. I do miss back to school shopping. I may have to buy myself some highlighters and folders just for old time’s sake. Best of luck to all the kiddos and teachers out there for a productive and educational school year and congratulations to all the parents in weathering another summer (and a special shout out to those of you who now have all your children in school and no longer have to pay for day care – the nightmare is over!).

In honor of the first day of school, allow me to educate you on all the pop culture stories that you might have missed while you were looking for the school prescribed type of scissors or haggling over first day of school outfits. Kick back and enjoy the beginning of Fall with your biweekly pop culture roundup:

  • Someone at HBO has been listening to me – next season of True Blood will be the series’ last. They are proving to be smarter than the books.
  • The new cast of Dancing with the Stars was revealed. I knew it was only a matter of time until Snookie turned up, though I wouldn’t have predicted Bill Nye the Science Guy,

 

  • Official Comedy looks at what would happen if Mark Wahlberg got his wish and became Iron Man:

 

  • Clint Eastwood and his wife have separated (I called this when she got her own reality show).
  • This dude made a homemade version of KITT from Knight Rider:

 

  • Here’s a photo of Peter Dinklage hula-hooping at a gay bar in Canada. If this doesn’t make you smile, you have no heart:

dinklage-hula

He was joined by his Game of Throne’s sister Lena Headey. Say what you will about the Lannisters – these people know how to have a good time.

  • This parody site offers suggestions for Robin Thicke for “what rhymes with hug me.”
  • This weekend we had a debate about what kind of tattoos we would get (neither of us got tatted up in college with all our friends). I’ve considered a lot of options, but somehow a Minion tattoo never crossed my mind.
  • Michelle Williams (the actress, not the Destiny’s Child singer) will make her Broadway debut in Cabaret. In other news, someone needs to get me tickets to Cabaret.
  • Aaron Paul continues his general tour of awesomeness with this napkin that he left for a server that he found out was a Breaking Bad fan:

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  • Watch a trailer for the 4th season of Downton Abbey:

 

  • Also on Thursday, Fiona Apple stormed off stage. Seriously – was there a full moon?
  • David Schwimmer angered his neighbors by tearing down a townhouse in NYC that was one year away from receiving landmark status. Their passive aggressive response is outstanding:
Did anyone think he was?

Did anyone think he was?

  • Jay Pharoah does a fantastic Kanye impersonation in his parody of West’s “I Am A God” (NSFW):

 

  • This is ONLY A RUMOR, but Benedict Cumberbatch may join the cast of the new Star Wars film.
  • The director of the Academy Award winning animated short Paperman has left Disney. Best of luck to him in his future endeavors – I loved his film.
  • Internet sensations Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub met for the first time at the Internet Cat Festival in Minneapolis. Yeah – you read that last part correctly.
  • The role of Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones has been recast. Because it isn’t hard enough already to keep all those characters straight when they are played continuously by the same actor.
  • Speaking of parent/child switcheroos, this tweet made me literally laugh out loud:

funnytweeter.com

 

  • This guy definitely sounds like a legit doctor – a dentist who bought John Lennon’s molar at an auction wants to use it to clone the Beatle. Yup – that’s not at all creepy.
  • Damn you to hell, Chase Utley. I have been perfectly content to hate you and your stupid hair since 2009 and then you had to go and do something relatively awesome like answer Mac’s fan letter from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

 

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  • Kyle Chandler isn’t particularly interested in a Friday Night Lights movie (based on the TV show, obviously, since there already is a Friday Night Lights movie in existence). I still need to get around to watching season 5.
  • Muhammad Ali and Liberace once performed together. No, seriously:

 

  • I love this video of a guy dressed up as Spiderman, schooling people on the basketball court:

That was twice as entertaining as The Amazing Spiderman.

  • Further proof that Charlie Hunnam will do just fine in the Fifty Shades of Grey lead – he already basically played the other lead role on Queer as Folk.
  • According to Entertainment Weekly the greatest boy band of all time is……The Backstreet Boys.
  • Someone figured out how to play “Get Lucky” on Mario Paint:

 

  • Simon Pegg and Nick Frost actually do a decent cover of the song as well:

 

As always, we end with the mashups and shupercuts

  • A supercut of near kisses in movies:

 

  • People on The Newsroom sure like to shout:

 

  • Every time Leonardo DiCaprio says “old sport” in The Great Gatsby:

 

  • The new season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia starts tonight on FXX. Watch clips from the show re-cut as a trailer for a psychological thriller:

 

  • Kill Him – the supercut:

 

  •  I was forced to watch a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine while babysitting a dreadful little boy while I was in grad school, so I took particular joy in this mash-up:

 

  • And finally, a fan already cut together a trailer for Man of Steel 2, adding the rumored Brian Cranston as Lex Luthor for good measure:

Oz the Great and Powerful – A Review

The last six weeks have been kind of rough for movie fans; the annual dump of movies that the studios don’t have a lot of faith in has seemed particularly prolonged. After a wonderful few months when I liked almost everything that I went to see in the theater, my last few movie outings have resulted in quite a few clunkers. I’ve been looking forward to the release of some real movies and not just the mistakes and missteps that are being burned off in January and February. Oz the Great Powerful is a hopeful sign; while I didn’t love this movie, it is definitely a step toward movies that are actually fun to watch. Hopefully we have turned a corner and some better movies are on the horizon.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz and tells the story of how a Kansas carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs becomes the leader of the mythical Land of Oz The movie has good intensions and makes several nods to the original film, but fails to capture the sweetness and warmness of the first trip to Oz. A miscast lead results in a movie that is closer to Oz the Enjoyable but Mediocre.

Visually, this is a beautiful movie. The crisp colors and lush imagery makes Oz a pretty spectacular sight for the eyes. With all the technological advances since The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, it is no surprise that this newest installment is the slicker and more polished of the movies. We opted to no see the film in 3-D, but I imagine some of the scenes would look pretty spectacular. Even in boring old 2-D, it was a gorgeous film. There are several computer generated characters in this movie and they are all well done; as someone who was totally freaked out by the flying monkeys as a kid, I somehow found the less human-like monkeys to be much less intimidating even though visually they were much creepier.

 

New Flying monkeys from Disney

New Flying monkeys from Disney

 

Actually, if you had told my younger self that a flying monkey would be one of my favorite characters in an Oz film, I would have thought you were nuts. But in Oz the Great and Powerful, not all of the winged monkeys are bad guys. In my opinion, Zack Braff often steals the show as Oscar’s faithful sidekick Finley. Dear Lord that little guy is adorable:

 

Finley the Monkey

Finley the Monkey

He is effectively deployed as comic relief; the audience was often laughing so loudly at his lines that you would miss the next few seconds of dialogue. Some may find the persona a little grating after a while, but I found him hilarious. I would totally watch a spinoff starring Finley and his adventures.

The trio of women who play the witches in the film (of varying degrees of wickedness) are all very good. Mila Kunis is so stunningly beautiful that she can’t help but be the focus of every scene that she is in; you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Her character has the greatest transformation in the film and Kunis handles the changes in Theodora very smoothy, though I do think she is more effective in the earlier part of the film. Rachel Weisz isn’t given as much to do and her character isn’t as fully developed, but she does a nice job in playing the evil and manipulative Evanora. Michelle Willaims is luminous as the younger version of Glinda the Good – she provides the heart of this movie and expands Glinda from the original story with a fuller backstory, while still giving a performance that pretty seamlessly leads into Billie Burke’s role in the Wizard of Oz. Williams gets the tone just right and continues to prove that there really isn’t much that she can’t do as an actress.

And then there is James Franco. Sigh. I like Franco and think he can be an excellent actor, but I don’t think he is ultimately right for the part of Oz. Franco never seems 100% comfortable in the role and while he excels when Oz is in the con man mode, he fumbles a bit when he is asked to do the more emotional scenes or do comedy. He isn’t bad, but he just doesn’t quite work. Franco has a tendency to smirk and seem less than sincere in scenes that require totally sincerity and earnestness. He just doesn’t have the lightness required for this lead and there are a few scenes where I flashed back to his disastrous Academy Award hosting performance. There are moments when his attempts do land – the original scene with the China Doll in particular stand out – but most of the time he just doesn’t quite stick the landing and the result is a lot of mugging and what appears to be some overacting. Whether it is intentional or not, you occasionally get the feeling that Franco thinks this material is a little below him. I think this would have been a better film if there was a better match between lead actor and the material; Robert Downey, Jr. was originally attached to the role of Oz and I couldn’t help thinking that he would have been better suited for the performance. Franco is more than serviceable, but his performance did ultimately impact my overall enjoyment of the film.

I also think that the pacing of the story was a bit on the slow side; this is a 2 hour movie, but it felt like I was sitting in the theater for a lot longer than that. There is a lot to unpack in this movie, but they do so at a glacial pace. I felt like they could have moved things forward a little more quickly. There weren’t a lot of kids at our screening, so it was hard to tell if they were as bored as I was in some parts.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • We joked on Friday night that I was slumming it by going to see the movie opening night like a regular person, rather than my advanced screenings or the midnight shows that I favor. This was the first time in forever that I can remember going to the movies with a large group of people and it definitely enhanced the experience. I’ll have to slum it more often (Thanks for the invite Heather, Michael and Shaun!).
  • The group seemed to like the movie much more than I did, so perhaps I am just a curmudgeon.
  • It’s kind of sad that when there was a Henry Gale reference, my first thought was of Lost and not The Wizard of Oz.
  • The munchkins do in fact make an appearance, as does the Yellow Brick Road. No ruby slippers though (those belong to Warner Brothers). The singing is kept to a minimum.
  • There is a joke in the film involving one of the sign posts on the Yellow Brick Road that actually works twice – once when you initially see it and then a second time when you realize the actual reference. It was amusing to listen to people in the audience realizing the second meaning of the joke. Some people were a lot quicker than others.
  • For whatever other problems the film has, the last act is one of the strongest parts of the movie. Lots of action helps and Franco does some of his best work.
  • They are going to have to use more make-up to make Kunis look unattractive; even when she is supposed to look ugly, she probably looked better than I do when I first wake up in the morning.
  • Disney has already okayed  a sequel for Oz the Great and Powerful. It appears that most of the leads are all signed up, so Franco will probably be reprising his role as Oz, for better or for worse.  This isn’t too surprising since the film had a pretty great opening weekend – it took in $80.3 million domestically.
  • This film has nothing in common with the more famous Wizard of Oz prequel, Wicked. This film is solidly placed in the L. Frank  Baum world of Oz.
  • This cracked me up – Vulture compares the Land of Oz to the prison from Oz on HBO.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a fine movie that unsurprisingly suffers in comparison to the original Judy Garland film. It is visually dazzling and is helped by the outstanding performances by the women and the comedy stylings of Zack Braff’s computer generated monkey, but some slow pacing and an uneven performance from Franco holds the film back a bit. There is much to enjoy in this film and you can’t help smiling to yourself in several moments, but despite the title the film is merely slightly above average. It certainly isn’t great or powerful.

Oz the Great and Powerful opened nationwide on Friday.