Over the course of the past 20 years since Casey Affleck made his feature film debut in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” this disarmingly original actor has quietly put together a body of work worthy to represent the finest film actor of his generation, if not America’s most gifted actor. He’s in a class with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis. Ben may be the big earner, but Casey Affleck runs circles around his brother when it comes to creating character. Stanislavski would be impressed.
Casey Affleck came into his own with his outstanding performance as Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik’s underrated masterpiece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in 2007. Since then, his estimable work in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Killer Inside Me,” and “Out of the Furnace,” bares out Affleck’s ingenious ability to inhabit a range of characters with an unassailable attention to his craft. Where most film actors go from [dramatic] beat to beat, Casey harmonizes complex emotional overtones that create an otherworldly influence on the characters he interacts with, and also the larger social context of the material. This is as good as it gets. Don't bother looking for more, you'll find all dramatic truths at play in this incredible torch song of a film.
The proof of Affleck’s mastery arrives bare and exposed in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s momentous drama about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man whose emotional scars will never fully heal because he won’t allow himself the luxury of recovery. Told using precise time-flipping sequences, the film allows the audience to digest the human drama on display with a building sense of the last shred of integrity that Lee Chandler hangs on to.
Michelle Williams compliments the depth of Casey Affleck’s full embodiment of his role with her equally committed performance as Chandler’s wife Randi. There is a scene between Williams and Affleck that arrives late in the film that is as magnificently heartbreaking as any other in the history of Cinema. This is the model that Hollywood should be seeking and developing, rather than the endless stream of lowbrow pap the industry reflexively cranks out.
Notable too is relative newcomer Lucas Hedges’s inspired portrayal of teenaged Lee Chandler’s nephew Patrick. Here is an actor with a promising future ahead of him. Patrick is the narrative's solid symbol for a better future, and Hedges nails his determined character with a contrasting sense of goofy humor and steely irony.
This is a movie you need to discover with as little information as possible. It’s enough to know that Kenneth Lonergan’s poetically told tale of tragedy and emotional endurance is set in the New England town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. This is a movie to see as soon as it comes out, before you’ve heard anything about the story.
As is appropriate for a picture of such powerful emotional and gutsy substance, you might want a stiff belt after seeing it. One thing’s for certain; “Manchester by the Sea” is a film that makes you feel things deep to your singular human core. This is one of the top five films of 2016 alongside Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE, Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, and Barry Jenkins's MOONLIGHT.
Rated R. 135 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
The film corresponds to Stephane Brize’s “The Measure of a Man,” which played in competition at Cannes in 2015. That picture told of dire social conditions for France’s oppressed working-class. Naturally, Loach’s film (authored by his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty) is set in the modern day United Kingdom. Where “Measure” fell short of satisfactorily enunciating a conspiracy of unethical corporatized agencies whose clear purpose is to exile citizens to the fringes of society, Laverty’s obviously researched script delves deeper into the black market underground that people are forced into choosing.
We also witness the banal ways that modern bureaucracies conspire to abuse, humiliate, and weaken people’s daily lives. If you didn’t believe there was an international war on the working class before seeing this film, you will grasp that fact before the credits roll. “I, Daniel Blake” is a clarion call for the united sea change of social revolution represented by such humanitarian standard bearers as Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and Ralph Nader.
Using a cast of unknown (semi-professional) actors, Loach allows mundane social conditions that most of us are familiar with, to guide the escalating social drama. Colin Coombs gives a wonderfully contained performance as Daniel Blake, an experienced carpenter put out of his occupation due to a heart attack he suffered on the job. A man in his mid-50s, Blake’s unfamiliarity with using computers proves a major obstacle in traversing the UK's intentionally choppy bureaucratic waters to maintain his “Employment and Support Allowance” from the government. Every government agent he encounters uses corporate double-speak to abuse him. Frustrating hours spent on hold are only exacerbated when he finally gets someone on the phone. Daniel Blake is in danger of losing his benefits because an unseen “decision-maker” has denied Blake’s doctor’s diagnoses that he is unfit to work. The state forces him to spend 35 hours a week looking for work that he can’t accept if, or when, he gets a job offer.
While at the agency fighting for his benefits, Blake witnesses Katie (Hayley Squires), a mother with two children in tow, being refused service because she was late for her appointment. Blake speaks up in Katie’s defense when security guards attempt to eject her from the building. The two political outcasts strike up a meaningful friendship as Daniel comes to Katie's aid in helping repair conditions in her unheated apartment.
Dramatically understated, and yet precisely composed, "I, Daniel Blake" breathes with authenticity and unaffected emotion. While some critics have a tendency to be dismissive of Ken Loach for his constancy of purpose, I would argue that it is this exact trait that makes his films so compelling. It takes a special filmmaker to maintain such constancy of purpose. Long live Ken Loach.
A palm-sweating love letter to the Twin Towers, Robert Zemeckis’s meaningfully 3D-embellished telling of Philippe Petit’s journey to stepping on a cable strung more than 110 stories above Manhattan’s ground is at once thrilling, moving, and larger-than-life. Indeed, your palms will sweat, and many tears will spill. The film’s confidently employed 3D effects support Petit’s heartfelt narrative with jolts of visual authenticity. Be prepared for a couple of window-breaking scenes that could make you recoil in your seat to get out of their way. High angle shots, looking down from above the towers, provide a dizzying context for Petit's incredible achievement.
Based on Petit’s 2002 memoir (“The Reach the Clouds: My Highwire Walk between the Twin Towers”), this wildly entertaining film switches between presentational and representational approaches that function surprisingly well for the subject. You can’t help but be swept up by it. By the standards of Hollywood big-spectacle movies, none come close to packing this much emotional juice. “The Walk” is a TKO you don’t see coming.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt impeccably inhabits the ambitious, if fanatical, French tightrope walker with a spot-on Parisian accent and demanding physical skills born of the eight-days that the gifted actor spent training with Petit in order to walk on a wire. Though executed with Green Screen visual effects, and with the help of a stunt-double, Gordon-Levitt was required to perform on a tightrope 12-feet from the ground.
Philippe Petit speaks directly to the audience from his elevated perch on the Statue of Liberty’s torch overlooking the Twin Towers. Again and again the film returns to Petit’s fourth-wall-breaking narration on the Hudson River to bring the audience inside his intimate story via an effectively pronounced passion for something that most of us have a tough time getting our heads around, namely walking on a cable strung between the World Trade Center in 1974. When the “walk” does occur, it carries with it a profound sense of social and personal fulfillment. The inspirational power of Petit’s death-defying walk makes sense for the human scale of his performance, and its historical context. The film exists as an elucidating cinematic document of how Petit’s rebellious act transcends more things than anyone could imagine at the time that he did it.
Early on, Zemeckis uses evocative black-and-white sequences of Petit developing his act on the streets of Paris. Splashes of color enter in. A baguette, which the unicycling Petit steals from a sidewalk café, takes on its true color against the somber gray urban background. Such visual flourishes of detail-oriented expression consistently connect to characters’ actions with a seamless fluency.
Zemickis and co-screenwriter keep Petit’s personal history moving with a lean editing style that satisfies any audience expectation before you know what that anticipation might be.
Ben Kingsley brings his ineffable signature charm to bear as Petit’s wire-walking mentor Papa Rudy, with whom Philippe shares a contentious but respectful relationship. Kingsley’s wonderful supporting performance is every bit as Oscar worthy as Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal is for a leading role. This is a movie that you will never forget. Take the family, and enjoy.
Rated PG. 123 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Above and Beyond
John Boorman Follows up His Masterpiece
There aren’t too many 81-year-old directors still making movies. There are even fewer of John Boorman’s magnitude contributing such nuanced delights as “Queen and Country.” As evidenced here, the director behind such cinematic gems as “Point Blank” (1967), “Deliverance” (1972), and “The General” (1998) still has something to offer contemporary audiences.
This sequel to Boorman’s career-defining autobiographical World War II era masterwork “Hope and Glory” (about his childhood growing up in bombed out London) is a nostalgic but frank retelling of his life during two years of conscripted service in the British Army after the war’s end. The genial yet irreverent tone that Boorman sustains throughout “Queen and Country” softens the freely expressed [frequently opposing] political and social views that swirl between the picture’s alternately familial and military base settings.
The romanticized narrative picks up where “Hope and Glory” left off. The year is 1952. John Boorman’s now-18-year-old alter ego Bill Rohan (played by the charismatic Callum Turner) hopes that his family’s isolated household on Pharaoh’s Island, River Thames, might prevent the Army from finding him. The family doesn’t even have a phone. His home’s remote location sits adjacent to the now-famous Shepperton film studios. Inspiration lurks. Bill witnesses motion pictures being made in his own backyard, or dockside river as it were. Throughout the film’s naturalistic dialogue, Boorman drops a stream of references to the films of his youth, such as Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” to provide a chorus of historic reference points to his early muses. If you’re a film lover, you can’t help but be charmed.
The likely lad gets a break when he avoids being shipped off to Korea after being assigned to train new recruits to type and read maps in the company of Percy Hapgood, his new best friend and fellow soldier. Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) is an inveterate prankster and womanizer who takes more umbrage than Bill at their constant abuse under Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), a humorless stickler for the Army rulebook. Percy’s exaggerated desire to kill Bradley, or at least cause him to self-destruct, veers into extended flights from sanity. Stealing an illustrious Company clock to get Bradley’s goat escalates into much more than a dirty little prank.
Brilliant set piece sequences where Sgt. Major Bradley brings his snotty subordinates up for reprimand before Richard E. Grant’s alcohol-fueled Major Cross, create divine moments of hilarity. You can see the tremendous fun these two towering British actors share riffing off one another. You’ll wish every British movie featured Richard E. Grant and David Thewlis playing scenes together.
Percy may be more daring and experienced with women, but Bill is easily excited into bold action when the situation calls for it. A chance meeting between Bill and an elusive blonde (Tasmin Egerton), whom Bill dubs “Ophelia,” sets off a romantic journey. Sparks fly when Bill’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) exhibits more than average sibling affection for her brother during a family visit that Ophelia attends.
Boorman doesn’t overstate the relationship, but it seems on face value that his sister was more than a little sweet on him in their youth. Boorman’s unfussy approach to his youthful past creates a warm sense of familiarity with the characters he presents, however quirky their motivations may be. It is a tidy slice-of-life movie about a bygone era of pomp and circumstance where boys could grow into idealistic men even if after being court-marshaled for “seducing a soldier from his duties,” as Bill is before his time in the Army is complete. Women don’t get as much latitude. Bill still harbors resentments toward his mother (Sinead Cusack) for an affair she had with a neighbor with whom she waves at from across the river every day. Bill, it seems, still has some growing up to do.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
America’s Most Promising Director
JC Chandor Hits a Trifecta
Writer-director JC Chandor’s first three films (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost,” and “A Most Violent Year”) reveal a masterful auteur building a singular filmmaking career that overshadows Hollywood’s relentless barrage of garbage. Considered together, Chandor’s movies reflect his energizing depth of dramatic sensitivity and concentration of stylistic variation. Over a period of four short years JC Chandor has come into his own as an individualistic filmmaker, whose fully-formed ideas about cinema resound with greater clarity than most of his American peers. He’s a director to whom talented actors flock.
As with “Margin Call” (2011) and “All is Lost” (2013), Chandor’s latest is a detailed study of complex characters responding to extreme pressures — personal, social, and physical. The film’s violent setting is 1981 New York when the city was ravaged by exploitation.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is on the verge of purchasing a large Jewish-owned riverside facility for the fuel-heating company he purchased from his wife Anna’s mob-connected father while working his way up through the family business. By the way, Jessica Chastain’s fiery performance as Anna is smashing.
Ambitious immigrant Abel worked for years as a driver for the company, so he has the skills necessary to poach clients from his competition, something that has earned him his share of enemies. Being honest, determined, and proficient in your chosen field isn’t always a good thing in the land of the free.
One of the film’s many powerful scenes has Abel instructing three recently hired employees in the precise methods they need to employ in order to close deals with potential customers. Abel instructs the young upstarts about on how long to study an oil-stained rag before looking up to stare into the eyes of the potential client before speaking.
“Hold their attention longer than you should.”
“If they offer coffee or tea, say tea.”
Oscar Isaac’s bravura performance during this sequence, and throughout the film, smolders with resolute intent. There is no finer film actor.
Abel is a hard-working man who takes great pride in his work and in his approach to everyone he comes in contact with. So, it is especially disturbing to Isaac’s character that federal authorities (led by David Lyelowo’s character) have been busy building a case against him for the past two years.
He has other serious problems. An unknown group of thieves has been hijacking Abel’s fuel trucks and stealing the his oil. Drivers have been getting hurt to the point that there is pressure on Abel to arm them, something he staunchly refuses to do. Abel sees the trap of “war” that outside forces want to draw him into. Herein lies one of the film’s central themes, that war is a trap; participating in any kind of violence is a ruinous proposition. The premise is never overstated, but it is perfectly clear.
Over the course of the story JC Chandor methodically peels away onion layers of Abel’s resilient persona reveal who this man really is. That Abel is an immigrant American citizen being bullied, threatened, and attacked from all sides of society is only part of the story. “A Most Violent Year” is essential viewing for film -lovers and for the people least likely to see it.
Rated R. 125 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Reese Witherspoon Stumbles
Cheryl Strayed, and So Did This Movie
“Wild” is an unsatisfying self-help drama that exposes the limitations of Reese Witherspoon’s range. If her performance here were your first time seeing the Oscar-winner’s work, you’d never guess that Reese Witherspoon has what it takes to be a leading lady. Adapted by Nick Hornby (from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found of the Pacific Crest Trail”), the story is “Into the Wild” lite — albeit dorky-proto-feminist-style.
The death of her 45-year-old mother (Laura Dern), from lung cancer, sends the 22-year-old Cheryl Nyland on a slippery downhill trajectory. Serial adulterer and junkie, Cheryl decides to hike the 2,663 mile-long length of the “PCT” after being divorced by her thoroughly humiliated husband. Cheryl is just as quick to have sex with multiple unfamiliar men in an alleyway, as she is to leave civilization behind without proper planning for a hike that tests even the most skilled hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada, although Cheryl starts her summer of 1995 trek in the Mojave Desert, and finishes at the Oregon-Washington border.
Our reliably fickle heroine gets an a-ha moment when she lays belly-up on her hotel room floor, unable to stand up because her pack is too heavy. The scene is played for comedy, but the tone is all wrong. The joke fails miserably.
Shortly after hitting the trail, Cheryl realizes that she is unable to cook the many packets of food she lugs around because she brought the wrong fuel for her stove. It’s one thing to have an unsympathetic leading character, but it’s a whole different matter to have one who is willfully ignorant to the point of being cavalier.
Sheryl has the insufferable habit of writing quotes from great authors on the trail’s sign-in sheets, and then signing her own name as a co-author. Emily Dickinson is rolling over in her grave.
“Wild” commits a cardinal sin of character development during its opening scene, from which the film can never recover. Cheryl “Strayed” (that’s the name she gives herself after her divorce) sits on the side of a reasonably high mountain she has just ascended. The weary traveller takes off her hiking boots to tend to her hurt foot. We see the set-up from a mile away. Cheryl isn’t paying attention to where she set her boots. Bonk, and she knocks one of the heavy-duty shoes that make hiking possible, down the steep mountainside at her feet. If the subconsciously driven mistake weren’t offensive enough, Cheryl responds to her self-inflicted dilemma by chucking the other boot down the ravine. Ah yes, Cheryl Strayed is a keeper if you like your protagonists not too classy and dumb.
The movie takes an advertising detour for REI during a product-placement sequence that serves as nothing more than an extended commercial for the adventure wear company. I wonder if REI will send me a gift card for mentioning them in my review. Well, I don’t really wonder about that.
The cinema of 2014 is all about how we are all bad people leaning toward suicide as an almost respectable response to our self-loathing. The predominant thematic trend shows up in films such as “Two Days One Night,” “The Homesman,” “The Skeleton Twins,” the upcoming remake of “The Gambler,” “Bridman,” “Force Majeure,” “Wetlands,” and even in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” Perhaps a symptom of having our privacy stripped from us by the NSA and Google is a preemptive suicide that will jam any kind of possible public humiliation we might suffer.
Jean-Marc Vallée (the director on “Dallas Buyers Club”) could never have made lemonade from the lemon-source-material that he undertook with “Wild.” Nick Horby’s script doesn’t have the right stuff.
The fact that Reese Witherspoon co-produced “Wild” speaks to the dearth of roles for actresses. For her part, Witherspoon works plenty but hasn’t been in a good movie since “Mud” (2012), and even there her subplot was one of that film’s weaker links. Her upcoming performance in “Inherent Vice” is notable only because the movie stinks so much. “Don’t Mess With Texas” is an upcoming comedy directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip”) that could pan out well for Witherspoon because she has Sofia Vergara to play opposite in a humorous context. Based on the misstep that is “Wild,” perhaps Reese Witherspoon is better off in a co-lead comedic role.
Rated R. 115 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)