Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Jackie, Elle Reviews

Manchester by the Sea
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
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The log line for Manchester by the Sea seems to be: "Grief-stricken Boston janitor is sad for 2.5 hours." While it's true that this film deals with heavy subjects like death and grief, and has several of the most tragic gut-punches in a movie this year, the real reason why it's so great is that it's actually hilarious! Manchester by the Sea works because it doesn't stick to a single melancholic groove - its characters experience life as it really happens, with both its unfathomably, almost operatically terrible moments as well as its small funny details. This film feels so natural and authentic to the human experience that it's hard to think of a comparison. It's a tough watch at points, but Manchester by the Sea is a fantastic character study and one of the best dramas of the year.

The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an irritable loner and Boston handyman who's more likely to start a brawl in a pub than go out with the girl flirting with him. We meet Lee as a broken man, and we slowly discover why as he's faced with even more tragedy when he's summoned to return home after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). The unlikeliest of guardians, Lee is then named the primary caregiver to his 16-year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Between his brother's death, his going-nowhere job, this new kid he has to take care of, and the trauma he has to revisit when he comes back home, Lee's story is fertile ground for an emotional roller coaster, and Affleck deftly manages to splice humor into his grief which keeps the film from wallowing in its own self-pity. It's one of the best performances of the year.

While Manchester is pretty much the "Lee Show," the ensemble surrounding him is incredibly strong as well. Lucas Hedges is also fantastic and similarly somber, but not a complete deadpan sad sack (which a lesser film would make him out to be). Despite the death of his father, he keeps on being a teenager, rehearsing with his band, repairing his family's boat, and trying to get some action with one of his two girlfriends. He's imperfect, says and does the wrong things, and you definitely get the sense that the same "blood" is in Lee and Patrick, who both seem destined to fade into their blue collar surroundings. Michelle Williams, playing Lee's estranged ex-wife in a few short, but powerhouse scenes seems destined to earn a Supporting Actress nomination. Kenneth Lonergan very much feels like an "actor's director"; like his lovable but deeply flawed characters in You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea is populated with people you know exist, even if you've never met anyone like them.

Manchester by the Sea was beautifully shot around the North Shore area, and having grown up in New England I felt a particular kind of connection with this movie. Although I can't relate to the sheer level of tragedy Lee goes through, the drama was expertly expressed and it's tough not to be moved by it. There were a few touches here and there I wasn't a fan of (the overuse of bombastic classical music during emotional scenes seemed to jut into the realistic tone they were going for), but overall, Manchester by the Sea is a fantastic drama capturing lives that feel lived beyond the opening and closing credits.

Rating: A-

Nocturnal Animals
Dir. Tom Ford
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Note: Before writing this review, I've seen this movie 1.5 times! The first time I went to see it, my movie theater was evacuated due to a fire happening practically next door. I enjoyed the movie enough to make time to see it the next day. Keeping that in mind, I just want to add that this is definitely a movie that rewards repeat viewings!

As soon as the opening credits start for Nocturnal Animals, you know you're in for something a little bit crazy. I won't give it away, but it was certainly one of the most striking and audacious openings to a film I've ever seen and immediately sucked me into its bizarro, dream-like pulpy world.

The film itself follows a successful LA art gallery owner, Susan (Amy Adams), whose "idyllic" life with her constantly-traveling handsome second husband (Armie Hammer) feels about as flat as one of her paintings. One day, while he's away, she receives a manuscript from her long-unseen first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), titled "Nocturnal Animals." The narrative of the film then switches between three distinct timelines: the real world happening now, Edward's novel about a father bent on revenge, and flashbacks to Susan's past with Edward. The result is an interlinking tapestry of high drama, intense action, Hitchcockian suspense, and even touches of Italian horror. In other words: all things that cater to my movie-watching sensibilities.

Nocturnal Animals feels like Tom Ford channeling David Lynch; it's weird, intense, emotional, beautifully shot, has a stunning musical score, and every actor in the ensemble is working at the top of their game. If only it wasn't such a crowded year Gyllenhaal should be nominated for an Oscar (especially after his snub for Nightcrawler)! It's one of those movies that you may not completely "get" the first time around, but it's not pretentious or abstruse, it's just operating on a different level than your typical revenge thriller.

Rating: A-

Dir. Pablo Larraín
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Few other movies this year have an Oscar in their headlights more than Pablo Larraín's Jackie. Natalie Portman's gunning for that statue again in this historical drama detailing the days following the assassination of JFK from the perspective of Jacqueline Kennedy.

As you can imagine, this movie is filled with grief and trauma, and nearly the entire time the camera is practically breathing into Portman's face to capture every little actorly nuance she brings to her portrayal of the former first lady. And of course she hits it out of the park. She looks and sounds just like Jackie O, to both good and bad effect - I never felt like I could escape the fact that she was doing an impression. But maybe that's the point; Jackie and John were known was the "beautiful" and "cool" politicians in town, the first to really represent the presidency as a kind of pageantry, and Jackie's voice is appropriately full of this wispy affectation that gives off a "Marilyn Monroe" sheen of glamour to her role as First Lady.

However, despite Portman's great performance, watching this woman break down during the worst parts of her life - from picking up pieces of her husband's shattered skull off a car to telling her children that "Daddy's gone to heaven" - wasn't exactly a fun experience. I applaud all involved with this film for making a well-crafted, intimate portrait of this historical figure, but by the end I felt exhausted and beaten down by the movie's depressing, one-note tone.

Rating: B-

Dir. Paul Verhoeven
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I hate that feeling whenever I end up not liking a film that's received tons of critical praise - I always feel like I'm the idiot for not understanding its brilliance - but I'm getting those same movie-related hot flashes with Elle.

This is Paul Verhoeven's first movie in ten years, the director best known for RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, all three of which were philosophically complicated films masquerading as exploitation flicks. Elle is in that same ballpark - it's essentially about the CEO of a video game software company, Michelle (Isabelle Huppert), who is assaulted at her home by an unknown stalker. Unlike most people, though, she doesn't let this attack alter her life whatsoever, and nonchalantly proceeds with her daily life as if nothing happened. However, this is not the last of her experiences with her masked assailant, and Elle presents a confusing cat and mouse game where, to me, Michelle's motives and decision-making made little sense.

I don't want to give much away in the plot for those that want to see it, but Michelle as a character is kind of despicable. Huppert is a great actress and makes us like her despite her ridiculous flaws, but the character itself is strange and practically unreadable. Even after learning more about her backstory and family dynamics throughout the film, I still don't understand why Michelle didn't immediately take action. I have no idea what Verhoeven is ultimately trying to say about the topic of rape with this film - I just know that it was disappointingly amateurish and unclear in its execution of those ideas, trying to be "provocative" without really saying anything.

Rating: C

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