Sunday, November 27, 2016

'Manchester' Expands Just Before Awards Start Dropping

As November winds to a close we find ourselves on the eve of awards season, which is even earlier than usual this year thanks to the National Board of Review's ridiculously premature awards announcement slated for Tuesday. Many of the titles we'll be hearing over the course of the next month from regional critics groups and the like won't even be available to the public until the last possible week of 2016, with presumed heavyweights La La Land, Fences and Silence all bowing at Christmas (or much later depending on where you live). Might this allow the established love for the marvelous Moonlight to shine through when Oscar balloting starts? One can only hope.
But another modest indie that might challenge Barry Jenkins' humanist portrait for the lion's share of critical prizes is Kenneth Lonergan's much-buzzed-about Sundance hit Manchester by the Sea, which began its gradual expansion this weekend. Much has been written about how emotionally devastating the picture is, made all the more palpable by its chilly New England environs, but audiences may be surprised to discover it's practically a comedy of manners built upon grief. Lonergan is less interested in telling a tight, tidy story than he is in simply sitting us down with these characters and trusting us to find fascination in the varied -- at times amusing -- ways they respond to tragedy (which of course, is never tight and tidy anyway).

In this respect, it's rather a courageous tone to strike, and if it succeeds it's on the strength of the performances alone. The whole principal cast is great, but mainly surefire Best Actor nominee Casey Affleck, whose face is like a living oil-on-canvas with textures in every corner that you'd want to spend hours examining.
That said, I found the filmmaking itself often jagged, and at times weirdly off-putting. The screenplay's overall lack of shape you could maybe pardon given its character-study concept, but the scene construction left something to be desired too. Some editorial and music decisions (and even cameos from Matthew Broderick and Lonergan himself) kept pulling me out of it. As Moonlight so deftly demonstrated, being thin on plot doesn't mean you have to be thin on structure.

It's still highly worthy of your time, and not just if (like me) you're an Oscar completist knowing that it's likely to figure into the conversation for several top categories, Best Picture included.

Quick thoughts on a pair of other late November screenings:

The Edge of Seventeen may not make a huge dent in the pantheon of high school movies (or in the box office, due to its unwise release date), but writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig announces herself as a fresh and promising voice. Her tragicomic tale of teenaged outsider Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) may show signs of first-feature patchiness, especially in the soap operatic third act that threatens to illegitimize the character's pain, but otherwise treads a fine line between comic jadedness and earned empathy. Steinfeld is the real reason to see it though. I'd call her a revelation had True Grit not already alerted us to her talent six years ago. She's truly come into her own with this complex comedic performance, tasked with the challenge of making us relate to and root for a character who is far from entirely likable. What she delivers is at once caustic and heartbreaking, knowing exactly when to play for laughs, play for tears, or both.
A Globes nomination is the least that she deserves.

If Arrival wasn't enough to satisfy your Amy-Adams-acting-by-herself cravings, you also have the option of checking out Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, but buyer beware. I admired Ford's 2009 debut A Single Man for more than just Colin Firth's performance, but found myself very mixed on this audacious follow-up. On the one hand, Ford is taking ambitious steps as a storyteller, playing with chronology and imagery to occasionally interesting effect. But much (if not most) of what we see also smacks of hollow provocation and empty style. The gaze he casts upon all his characters is cruel and nihilistic beyond reason at times. Aesthetically, it's a mixed bag as well. I dug McGarvey's cinematography and Korzeniowski's score, but a lot of editing choices baffle. Still, through all its stylish ugliness, it held me.

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