Month: January, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

 

mbtsIt’s Oscar season and the nominated films are being released thick and fast.  One of the contenders, Manchester by the Sea, is the third feature film by director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret), who was originally best known for his work as a playwright.  Here, Lonergan has brought to the big screen a heartbreaking tale of social tragedy.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor working in Boston. He is extremely withdrawn and clearly carries unexplained baggage from his past that periodically bubbles to the surface with outbursts of anger.  When his brother dies he is reluctantly dragged back into his dark past, both emotionally and physically, to the town where he grew up, Manchester (yep, it’s by the sea).  He is forced to face his demons and become intimately connected to the people he had previously withdrawn from.

Structurally the film presents two timelines; the present day Lee who is quiet, withdrawn, and unsure of himself as he deals with the weighty issues surrounding the custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) and relationship with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).  In contrast, this is intertwined with flashbacks of his confident and outgoing past self. As the film progresses, both personas gravitate towards one another on a collision course that generates a burning curiosity regarding the reason for his regression, but it also comes with a foreboding sense of dread.

Some of its most harrowing moments are contrasted against the comically absurd and mundane details of everyday life. The crucial and distressing scene that explains Lee’s torment is comically offset by ambulance officers struggling with a jammed stretcher. Such moments allow for humorous relief but also serve to flesh out the gravity of Lee’s personal struggles.

One of the film’s great strengths are the performances.  Michelle Williams makes wonderful use of her limited screen time, and Casey Affleck’s nuanced portrayal of isolation and withdrawal is a tour de force of onscreen acting.  His ability to show a maelstrom of rage and despair bubbling just beneath a thin veneer of control is riveting to watch — and all within a frame that eschews closeups. It’s no surprise he landed the Golden Globe and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get the Oscar nod too.

Despite a couple of minor false steps (Michelle William’s character had too little screen time, and I had some reservations over the musical score), Manchester by the Sea is a wonderfully haunting portrayal of grief and regret — worth seeing if none-other than for Affleck’s performance alone.

Rating: 4 suppressed feelings out of 5

You can see the published review here.

The Country Doctor

tcdDoctor turned Director Thomas Lilti can at least claim to know his material.  Topically similar to his last directorial outing (Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor), The Country Doctor is a gently observational piece that takes a slice of rural French life and lets a discordant zephyr blow through its fields. As they say, Doctors never make the best patients, but in this instance they do make quite good Directors.

Dustin Hoffman lookalike Francois Cluzet, plays Jean-Pierre, a doctor practicing in rural Normandy. When Jean-Pierre falls ill he reluctantly enlists help in the form of a female student doctor called Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt).  There is immediate conflict between them as Jean-Pierre, whose ironically misanthropic nature towards his peers puts him at odds with the inexperienced Nathalie.  Cluzet has a wonderful way of conveying emotion through subtle expression, allowing for appropriate moods of light and shade. Thankfully, Cluzet’s skills are not lost on Director Lilti, who elevates this further by letting the camera sit with his performance for long periods. Lilti’s restraint only serves to enhance this character driven film — it is a restraint that is concerned more with development of character than driving the plot.  The lack of a substantial plot might understandably concern some, but when it is offset by such a rich array of characters, all is forgiven.

The collision of vastly different backgrounds in Jean-Pierre as an experienced rural doctor, and Nathalie as an inexperienced city doctor, provides fertile ground for the film to explore its thematic concerns of vocation and location.  Furthermore, their relationship allows the film to bristle with humour throughout, and with such a focus on its two protagonists, it is a relief that the chemistry between Cluzet and Denicourt is one that successfully elevates the film rather than drags it down.

The Country Doctor presents nothing groundbreaking; it is what I would coin a delightfully forgettable film — one that won’t stick in the memory for long but is a delight to watch at the time.  Nonetheless, it is all the better for its reserve and operates amicably within its bounds at a pace that matches its rural setting. Despite some cliches and melodramatic interludes, The Country Doctor is a warm and inviting film that avoids being side tracked by any weighty concerns.

Rating: 3.5 appointments out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Moonlight

 

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Photo by David Bornfriend

“Who is you, man?” — a question posed to the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ latest feature film, Moonlight.  Issues of “identity” are often explored in film, but few offer such a fresh and unique take on the topic as Moonlight.  Jenkins both directed and adapted the screenplay from Tarell McCraney’s original story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”.  It’s a shame they changed the title because it succinctly sums up the central metaphor to this film — that is, how you are perceived through the critical lens of others. More-so, how others will always try to define you.

The film is presented in three acts spanning the formative years of Chiron, an African-American, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood, his journey of self-discovery deals with universal themes of identity, sexuality, family, and most of all, masculinity. He discovers from an early age that certain feelings have no place in the hostile environment he lives in, and finds himself constantly on the outer. Chiron struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world, all the while managing his drug addled mother (played by Naomie Harris).

Although such environments and topics often lend themselves to gritty social realism, Jenkins has instead opted to tell Chiron’s story with a vivid impressionistic style. The result is more akin to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and presents a very visual film that is striking but also utilises quiet moments and an economy of dialogue. Cinematographer James Laxton has done a wonderful job of getting his camera to tell Chiron’s story.  Skin tones are exquisitely lit and the beats of camera movement match the incredible musical score by Nicholas Britell (Whiplash, 12 Years a Slave).  The result is a sensory experience that had me spellbound.

Magical qualities are consistently present in all three performances of Chiron’s character, despite being played by three actors of different age and body shape. Director Jenkins explains that during the process of auditions he focussed on expression through the eyes; “find the eyes and you’ll see the soul, and if the soul is the same, then the audience will follow the character”. In actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes he found the same soul through three sets of eyes.  And indeed, I did follow their journey as one.

Moonlight is one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step. It is an astounding piece of cinema that compassionately taps into a facet of American life that is not often explored.

Rating: 5 perfect eyes

You can see the published review here

Lion

Grab Cut Insert Cut F:PHOTOMediaFactory ActionsRequests DropBox46593#weinsteinlion_markrogers-3472_(1)_lg.jpgLion is directed by a relative newcomer to the feature film set, Garth Davis, who has taken the reins of bringing the seemly impossible true story of Saroo Brierley to the big screen. Adapted from the book A Long Way Home (written by Saroo himself), Davis has brought about a film that is harrowing, tragic, beautiful, and thought provoking.

It begins by introducing Saroo (who is superbly played by young Sunny Pawar) in his home village, beautifully sketching out village life from the perspective of a five-year-old. From the loving relationship with his brother and mother to the playful nature of his walk home, his world is wonderfully captured through the lens of master cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright StarKilling Them Softly). Tragically, while waiting at a train station for his brother to return, Saroo inadvertently wanders onto a train bound for Calcutta hundreds of miles away. Search hard enough and many of us can remember brief times as a child of accidental separation from our parents and the fleeting but undiluted feeling horror that ensued. This feeling is conveyed in gut-wrenching scenes that capture impoverished India in all its Slumdog-esque filth, colour, and chaos. The tragedy of an innocent five-year-old lost among it all, while being beset upon by the denizens of unscrupulous intent, is difficult to watch.

Fortunately pockets of humanity lift little Saroo out of his desperate situation to where he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (played by Nicole Kidman and David Denham).

Twenty-five years on and Saroo (Dev Patel with an unwavering Aussie accent), who is now firmly ensconced in the Australian way of life, begins to recall flashes of his early life. This triggers what becomes the obsessive task of piecing together his own origins based on the unreliable memories of his five-year-old self. The obsession puts a strain on the relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and his adopted family. There is a scene where Saroo remonstrates his mum over her selflessness and unswerving commitment and love for her adopted children. It is a short but powerful scene where Sue Brierley’s anguish is caught in one wonderfully acted moment by Nicole Kidman, demonstrating in her limited screen time what a class actor she is.

If I had one quibble, it concerns the chemistry between Patel and Mara. Both are good actors in their own right and yet their on-screen combination felt a little forced and over drawn. Despite this, Lion is a beautiful and moving film made all the more compelling because it is a true story … make sure to bring your tissues.

Rating: 4 jalebis out of 5.

You can see the published review here

Finally got to see La La Land

If anyone says “they don’t make films like they used to” take them to see La La Land.  So good to see a nicely tempered film sticking to its guns and not giving us a crescendo at every turn. Wonderful stuff.

Assassin’s Creed

 

acBased on the hugely successful video game series of the same name, Assassin’s Creed is another attempt by a studio to transfer onto the bigger screen the success of its gaming origins. Although other efforts (such as Warcraft) have been met with critically tepid responses, there is no doubt that the sheer size of the video gaming industry means a ready-made market for box office success. Yes, I am one of the many who have played Assassin’s Creed … well, at least one of the nine releases within the franchise, which puts me in better stead at knowing the film’s labyrinthine mythology than its star, Michael Fassbender, who hadn’t even heard of the game prior to being approached for the role.  To his credit however, he heavily involved himself in the production and went to significant lengths to canvas Australian Justin Kurzel to direct the film. They had previously worked together, along with Marion Cotillard, on the visually arresting Macbeth.

Set in the present, Callum (Fassbender), with the help of Sofia (Cotillard) explores the genetic memories of his 15th Century Italian ancestor Aguilar by plugging himself into the Animus — a scientific invention that taps the genetic memory of its subject and projects them like a futuristic Playstation Virtual Reality headset (… hmm, there’s a billion dollar idea in there somewhere).  In doing so, Callum’s newfound skills garner information that unwittingly helps the present day Templars to locate the whereabouts of the mysterious Apple of Eden — an object that will eradicate violence by removing the free will of humanity.

There is a lot to like about the visual style of Assassin’s Creed, and it was good to see plenty of practical effects and stunts that lent a great deal of heft and physicality. The film would have been worse off had it been tempted by a heavier diet of vaporous computer generated hullabaloo, as there was enough of this already. This physicality extended to the painstakingly handmade costumes and intricately constructed sets, filmed on location in Malta and Spain.  Such visual grandeur and stunning set pieces might have won me over, but unfortunately they were overshadowed by a narrative that was in desperate need of livening up. This was in part due to a necessity to explain the film’s mythology which bogged proceedings down a bit, and also due to some overdrawn action sequences. These quibbles aside, Assassin’s Creed operates as an adequate summer blockbuster, and is perfectly serviceable for fans of the video game series.

3 stars out of 5

You can see the published review here