Playing Catch-Up: Manchester By The Sea (dir by Kenneth Lonergan)


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Manchester By The Sea is the latest Oscar contender to be set in Massachusetts.  I’m not exactly sure why but it appears that if you want your film to get some sort of Oscar consideration, it’s always good idea to set it some place in New England.

Consider some of the films nominated for Best Picture since the 1992:

1992′ Scent of a Woman featured a New England prep school.

1994’s The Shawshank Redemption took place in Maine.

1997’s Good Will Hunting took place in Boston.

1999’s The Cider House Rules was set in Maine.

2001’s In The Bedroom took place in Maine.

2003’s Mystic River was set in Boston.

The 2006 winner The Departed was also a Boston-set film.

2010’s The Fighter also set in Boston.  For that matter, The Social Network started at Harvard.

2013’s Captain Phillips featured Tom Hanks speaking with Boston accent.

And, finally, last year’s Spotlight was as much a celebration of Boston as anything else.

As of this writing, it appears that Manchester By The Sea will continue the long tradition of New England-set films being nominated for best picture.  Interestingly, of all those films, Manchester By The Sea is probably the most low-key.  Though it’s a film that deals with death, it’s a natural death as opposed to the violent executions that dominated The Departed and Mystic River.  And though there are two bar fights, there’s very little violence to be found in Manchester By The Sea.  As opposed to Spotlight, Manchester By The Sea is not about moral crusaders battling against the corrupt establishment.

Instead, it’s the story of an intelligent but irresponsible man named Lee Chadler (Casey Affleck).  When Lee was a young man living in the town of Manchester-By-The-Sea, he was someone.  He was a high school hockey star.  He made an okay living, he had a lot of friends, and he was very close to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  He was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and he had two daughters.

And then he lost everything.  He lost his daughters, through a stupid accident for which he blamed himself.  Randi divorced him.  His friends abandoned him.  The only thing that prevented him from shooting himself was the intervention of Joe.  Lee eventually ended up in Quincy, Massachusetts, working as a maintenance man and keeping to himself.

And that’s probably what Lee would have done his entire life, if Joe hadn’t died.  Lee returns to Manchester-By-The-Sea and, to his shock, he discovers that he’s been named the guardian of Joe’s sixteen year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Still struggling with his own feelings of guilt, Lee now finds himself thrust into the role of being a father.

Patrick, of course, doesn’t think he needs a guardian and sometimes, it almost seems as if Patrick might be right.  At times, it’s hard not to feel that Patrick is a hundred times more mature than his uncle but occasionally, Patrick’s grown-up mask will slip.  When he learns that his father cannot be buried until the spring and the body will be kept in a freezer, Patrick stays calm until he opens up the freezer at home.  That’s when the reality of it all hits him and it’s an amazingly powerful moment.

Manchester By The Sea is not an easy film to describe.  There’s not much of a plot.  Instead, it’s just a portrait of people living from day-to-day, trying to juggle handling tragedy with handling everyday life.  Conditioned by previous films, audiences watch something like Manchester By The Sea and wait for some gigantic dramatic moment that will magically make sense of the human condition but, by design, that moment never comes.  That’s not what Manchester By The Sea is about.  If there is any great lesson to be found in Manchester By The Sea, it’s that life goes on.

Despite being full of funny lines, it’s a sad film but fortunately, it’s also a well-acted one.  I have to admit that I’m not as crazy about Manchester By The Sea as some of the critics who are currently declaring Manchester to be the best film of 2016 are but I can’t disagree with those who have praised Casey Affleck’s lead performance.  Lucas Hedges also does a good job as Patrick and Michelle Williams gets one revelatory scene in which she happens to randomly run into her ex-husband on the street.

As I said, I liked Manchester By The Sea but I didn’t quite love it.  It’s a well-made and well-acted film and, if it’s not as brilliant as some have claimed, it’s still worthy of respect.

Film Review: Joy (dir by David O. Russell)


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Hi there and welcome to 2016!

Today was the first day of a new year so, of course, I had to go down to the Alamo Drafthouse and see a movie.  What was the title of the first movie that I saw in a theater in 2016?

Joy.

Despite the fact that Joy has gotten some seriously mixed reviews, I had high hopes when I sat down in the Alamo.  After all, Joy represents the third collaboration between director David O. Russell and one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Lawrence.  (Their previous collaborations — Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — happen to be two of my favorite films of the past 5 years.)  Add to that, Joy has been advertised as being a tribute to a real-life, strong-willed woman and I figured that, at the very least, it would provide a nice alternative to the testosterone-crazed movies that I’ve recently sat through.  And finally, Joy had a great trailer!

Sure, there were a few less than positive signs about Joy.  As I mentioned before, the majority of the reviews had been mixed and the word of mouth was even worse.  (My friend, the sportswriter Jason Tarwater, used one word to describe the film to me: “Meh.”)  But what truly worried me was that Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily absolutely raved about the film on her site and that’s usually a bad sign.  Let’s not forget that this is the same Sasha Stone who claimed that Maps To The Stars was one of the best films ever made about Hollywood.

And, to be honest, I had much the same reaction to Joy that I had to Map To The Stars.  I really wanted to love Joy and, occasionally, there would be a clever bit of dialogue or an unexpected directorial choice and I would briefly perk up in my seat and think to myself, “Okay, this is the film that I wanted to see!”  But, for the most part, Joy is a disappointment.  It’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s just not particularly great.  For the most part, it’s just meh.

But let’s talk about what worked.  Overall, this may be one of Jennifer Lawrence’s lesser films but she gives a great performance, one that reminds us that she truly is one of the best actresses working today.  I’ve read some complaints that Lawrence was too young for the title role and, to be absolutely honest, she probably is.  She looks like she could easily go undercover at a high school and help Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum bust drug dealers.  But, at the same time, she projects the inner weariness of a survivor.  For lack of a better term, she has an old soul and it comes across in her films.

In Joy, she plays Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of two who lives in upstate New York.  Her mother (Virginia Madsen) lives with Joy and spends all of her time watching soap operas.  Joy ex-husband, a lounge singer named Tony (Edgar Ramirez), lives in the basement.  Meanwhile, her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who narrates the film) is always hovering in the background, offering Joy encouragement and optimism.  At the start of the film, Joy’s cantankerous father (Robert De Niro) has also moved into the house.  Joy, who was the valedictorian of her high school, has got a demeaning job working as a flight booker at the airport.

(“What’s your name?” one rude customer asks, “Joy?  You don’t seem very joyful to me…”)

How stressful is Joy’s life?  It’s so stressful that she has a reoccurring nightmare in which she’s trapped in her mother’s favorite soap opera and Susan Lucci (cleverly playing herself) tells her that she should just give up.

However, as difficult as life may get, Joy refuses to take Susan Lucci’s advise.  She invents a miraculous mop known as the miracle mop and eventually becomes a highly successful businesswoman.  Along the way, she makes her television debut on QVC and becomes a minor celebrity herself…

The film’s best scenes are the ones that deal with Joy and QVC.  These scenes, in which the inexperienced Joy proves herself to be a natural saleswoman, are the best in the film.  These scenes are filled with the spark that I was hoping would be present throughout the entire film.  Of course, it helps that these scenes also feature Bradley Cooper as a sympathetic television executive.  This is the third time that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have acted opposite each other and there’s an immediate chemistry between them.  In this case, it’s not a romantic chemistry (and one of the things that I did appreciate about Joy was that it didn’t try to force a predictable romance on the title character).  Instead, it’s the type of mutual respect that you rarely see between male and female characters in the movies.  It’s a lot of fun to watch, precisely because it is so real and unexpected.

But sadly, the QVC scenes only make up a relatively small part of Joy.  The rest of the film is something of a mess, with David O. Russell never settling on a consistent tone.  At times, Joy feels like a disorganized collection of themes from his previous films.  Just as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, we get the quirky and dysfunctional family.  Just as in American Hustle, we get the period detail, the Scorsese-lite soundtrack, and the moments of cynical humor.  There’s a lot going on in Joy and, at time, it doesn’t seem that Russell really knows what to do with all the theme and characters that he’s mixed into the movie.  I found myself wondering if he truly understood the story that he was trying to tell.

Finally, at the end of the film, Joy visits a business rival in Dallas, Texas.  Let’s just say that the film’s version of Dallas looks nothing like the city that I know.  (The minute that the scene cut from her ex-husband discovering that Joy had left to a close-up of a Bar-B-Q sign, I let out an exasperated, “Oh, come on!”)  I suppose I should be happy that Russell didn’t have huge mountains in the background of the Dallas scenes but seriously, would it have killed anyone to do a little research or maybe hop on a plane and spend a day or two filming on location?

(After all, if Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson decided to set a movie in David O. Russell’s home state of Massachusetts, I doubt that they would film the Boston scenes in El Paso….)

Joy features great work from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and it tells a story that has the potential to be very empowering.  But, when it comes to the overall film … meh.

Sorry Jen

Film Review: Black Mass (dir by Scott Cooper)


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You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you’re happy because you know it’s a good movie but, at the same time, you end up feeling slightly disappointed because, as good as it may be, it never quite becomes the great movie that you were hoping for?

That was kind of my reaction to Black Mass.

Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled the Boston underworld from the late 70s to the mid-90s.  Bulger was both famous and feared for his ruthless brutality and his willingness to murder just about anyone.  Bulger was also famous for being the brother of Billy Bulger, a powerful Democratic politician.  When it appeared that Whitey was finally on the verge of being indicted, he vanished into thin air and, for 2 decades, remained missing until he was finally captured in Florida.  Whitey Bulger is now serving two life sentences.

Black Mass is a solid gangster film.  We watch as Whitey (Johnny Depp) takes over Boston and essentially murders anyone who gets on his nerves.  Helping Whitey out is a local FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in South Boston with the Bulger brothers.  While Connolly originally only appears to be using Whitey as an informant to help take down the Italian mob, it quickly becomes obvious that Connolly envies the power and influence of both Whitey and Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Soon, Connolly has become something of a Bulger groupie and is protecting Whitey from prosecution and even leaking him the names of anyone who attempts to inform on Bulger’s crime.

Indeed, the film’s best scenes are the ones in which it is shown how the FBI’s determination to take down the Mafia allowed the far more violent Bulger to move into their place.  Bulger was a criminal who worked for and was protected by the U.S. government and, as such, his story serves as a metaphor for a lot of what is currently messed up about America.  While I appreciated the time that Black Mass devoted to exploring Whitey’s relationship with the FBI, I do wish it had spent more time exploring his relationship with his brother, Billy.  The film places most of the blame for Whitey’s reign of terror on the FBI but it defies common sense not to assume that Whitey was also protected by his well-connected, politically powerful brother.

Black Mass contains all of the usual gangster film tropes.  There are sudden and violent executions.  There are drug addicted criminals who turn out to be less than trustworthy.  (Poor Peter Sarsgaard.)  There’s the usual talk of honor and respect.  Beefy men with pockmarked faces stand in the shadows and shout random insults at each other until someone finally snaps.  And, of course, we get the countless scenes where Bulger’s demeanor goes from friendly to threatening and we’re left wondering if he’s going to smile or if he’s going to kill someone.  It may all be a little bit familiar but director Scott Cooper handles it all well and keeps things watchable.

In this 122-minute film, there are exactly two scenes in which Whitey is in any way sympathetic.  In one scene, he breaks down after the death of his son and, in the other, he deals with the death of his mother.  These are the only two scenes in which Whitey shows any hint of humanity.  Otherwise, Bulger is presented as being almost pure evil.  He’s no Michael Corleone, trying to go straight and making excuses for the family business.  Nor does he possess the enjoyable flamboyance of Scareface‘s Tony Montana or The Departed‘s Frank Costello.  Instead, he’s a pure sociopath and  the film’s most effective shots are the ones that focus on Whitey’s expressionless gaze.  They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and one only has to look into Bulger’s to see that they are windows without a view.

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Johnny Depp deserves all the credit in the world for making Whitey into a compelling character.  Wisely, Depp underplays Whitey’s most threatening scenes.  He rarely raises his voice and the only time he loses control of his emotions is when he’s confronted with something — like the death of his son — that even he can’t change.  Otherwise, Depp plays Whitey as always being in control.  (It’s mentioned, at one point, that Whitey was the subject of 50 LSD experiments while serving time in prison and Depp plays Whitey as if he’s always staring at something that nobody else can see.)  It’s his confidence that makes Whitey Bulger an interesting character.  You may not like him but you can’t look away because you know that he’s literally capable of anything.  Ever since the trailer for Black Mass was first released, Depp has been at the center of awards speculation.  Having seen the film, I can say that the Oscar talk is more than deserved.  He’s even better than people like me thought he would be.

Depp is so good that he overshadows the rest of the cast.  There’s a lot of good actors in this film, including Kevin Bacon, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane.  But few of them get as much of a chance to make an impression as Johnny Depp.  Much as Whitey dominated Boston, Depp dominates this film.  Joel Edgerton has several great moments as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Connolly but even he is thoroughly overshadowed by Depp’s performance.  (That said, I did appreciate the fact that Edgerton’s too-eager-to-please Connolly came across like he might be a cousin to The Gift‘s Gordo the Weirdo.)

As I said at the beginning of this review, Black Mass is good but it was never quite as great as I was hoping it would be.  There’s a few too many scenes where you get the feeling that Scott Cooper woke up the day of shooting and said, “Let’s Scorsese the shit out of this scene.”  As a result, Black Mass sometimes struggles to escape from the shadow cast by Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, American Gangster, and the countless other mob films that have been released over the past few decades.  Black Mass is well-made and will forever be remembered for Johnny Depp’s amazing lead performance but it never quite reaches the status of a classic.

Finally, on a personal note, I did enjoy the fact that Black Mass dealt with the Irish mob.  I’m a little bit torn in my loyalties because I’m Irish-Italian but, if I ever had to pick a mob to which to serve as a cheerleader, I would go Irish Mafia all the way!

Sláinte!

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Trailer #2: Black Mass


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One of this year’s most-anticipated films (well, at least when it comes to award season) has a new trailer.

Black Mass stars Johnny Depp in the role of the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger who, as the film’s tagline states, became the most notorious gansgter in U.S. history. This is bold claim considering other gangsters in U.S. history such as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese and Meyer Lansky to name a few.

What makes this film so interesting is the fact that we finally get to see Depp return to acting real, complex characters instead of just acting like a character these past decade. Plus, have you seen this cast supporting Depp: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll and Jesse Plemons just for starters.

Black Mass is set for a September 18, 2015 release date.

Shattered Politics #93: American Hustle (dir by David O. Russell)


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“Some of this actually happened.”

— Opening Title of American Hustle (2013)

I have always been surprised by how much some people hate the 2013 best picture nominee, American Hustle.  Even two years after the film was first released, you’ll still find people whining that the film felt like David O. Russell’s attempt to remake Goodfellas (yes, I have actually seen more than a few people online making this idiotic claim) or claiming that the movie was overrated or that there wasn’t anyone in the film that they could root for.  While every film has its detractors, I’m always a little bit taken aback by just how passionately some people dislike this film.

Some of it, of course, is because the film that beat American Hustle for best picture was the universally acclaimed 12 Years A Slave.  As hard as it may seem to believe now, there were a lot of people who thought that American Hustle might actually beat 12 Years A Slave.  Strangely enough, a lot of online film bloggers tend to take a Manichaen approach to the Oscars, viewing each year’s race in terms of good and evil. The film that they want to win represents good and, therefore, every competing film must represent evil.  It’s a pretty stupid and immature way of looking at things but, then again, the stupid and immature approach has worked pretty well for Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams over at AwardsDaily.com so who am I to criticize?

Of course, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of American Hustle‘s most strident online critics have been male.  I imagine that they watched the film and, in Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, they saw every unresolved crush of their adolescence.  When Amy Adams successfully fooled Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, these critics saw themselves being fooled.  When Jennifer Lawrence called Bale a “sick son of a bitch,” these critics felt that they were being called a sick son of a bitch.  American Hustle is a film about men who don’t know how to talk to women and that probably struck a little too close to home for a lot of those online critics.

(I imagine that the majority of online American Hustle haters probably preferred Rooney Mara’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Noomi Rapace’s.)

Of course, the truth of the matter is that American Hustle was one of the best films of a very good year.  Of all the films nominated for best picture of 2013, American Hustle was my personal favorite.

Based, very loosely, on true story, American Hustle is a period piece.  It takes place in the late 70s, which of course means that we get a lot of great music, a scene in a disco, and clothes that are both somehow ludicrous and to die for at the same time.  It’s a glamorous film about glamorous people doing glamorous and not-so-glamorous things and how can you not love that?

Irving (Christian Bale, giving a brave performance) is a generally nice guy who also happens to be a con artist.  His unlikely partner is Sydney (Amy Adams), a former stripper turned Cosmo intern.  When Sydney is working with Irving, she takes on a totally different identity and tells people that she’s Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat who has international banking connections.  When Sydney plays Edith, she speaks in a posh British accent and what’s interesting is that her accent is often (deliberately) inconsistent.  However, as Irving points out, it doesn’t matter whether her accent is a 100% convincing or not.  What’s important is that people want her to be Lady Edith Greensly and people will make excuses for almost anything as long as it confirms what they want to believe.

Eventually, Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious and highly strung FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie, who spends a good deal of the film with curlers in his hair, lives with his mother and has a boring fiancée who he doesn’t seem to like very much.  (Richie is also briefly seen sniffing coke, which might explain a lot of his more extreme behavior.)  Richie wants to make a name for himself and he views Irving and Sydney as his way to do so.  He blackmails them into helping him set up and arrest crooked politicians and businessmen.  Richie also finds himself growing obsessed with Sydney, who he believes to be English even after she tells him that she isn’t.

All of this eventually leads to Irving and Richie setting up the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito, who may be corrupt but who also seems to sincerely care about helping the citizens of his town, wants to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City.  Irving and Richie introduce him to FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena), who is disguised as Sheik Abdullah and who they claim is interested in investing in Carmine’s plans.  This, of course, leads to a meeting both with a local Mafia don (Robert De Niro) and with several politicians who agree to help out the Sheik out in exchange for money.

(And no, the film did not lie.  This is based on a true story, believe it or not.)

Complicating things is the fact that Irving himself comes to truly like the generous and big-hearted Carmine and how can you not?  When the film was first released, Jeremy Renner was a bit overshadowed by Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence.  However, Renner gives the best performance in the film, playing Carmine with a disarming mix of innocence and shrewdness.  He’s the type of guy who is smart enough to walk out on the first meeting with the fake sheik’s associates but who is still naive enough that he can be charmed by Irving.  When the fake sheik gives Carmine an equally fake knife as a gift, the look of genuine honor on Carmine’s face is heart-breaking.

The other big complication is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).  Rosalyn is jealous, unstable, unpredictable, and, in her own way, one of the smarter people in the film.  She’s also a bit of pyromaniac and, when she accidentally blows up a new microwave, you’re really not surprised.  (And, when Rosalyn starts to obsessively clean the house while singing Live and Let Die at the top of her lungs, I felt like I was watching a blonde version of myself.)  When Rosalyn starts to have an affair of her own, it leads to American Hustle‘s satisfying and twisty conclusion.

(Again, a lot of the same online toadsuckers who irrationally hate American Hustle seem to hold a particular contempt to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in this film, as if to acknowledge that Lawrence — as always — kicks ass would somehow be a betrayal of Lupita Nyong’o’s award-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave.)

Don’t listen to the haters.  American Hustle is a great film, a stylish and frequently funny look at politics, corruption, and the ways that people con themselves into believing what they want and need to be true.