Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Major Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

What you may not have heard about Passengers is how good a premise it has, exploring some morally deep and heady stuff for a mainstream sci-fi picture starring the two biggest movie stars working right now. For a while, it really has something, with a script that does what the best in this genre demands, painting its characters into a corner and pushing their buttons in such a way that all the filmmakers had to do was step back and let the actors and story organically take us where we needed to go. Halfway to three quarters through, it seems that's exactly where we're headed, until it's abruptly abandoned in favor of sending audiences home happy. Or more accurately, insulting our intelligence.

While still leagues better than it's gotten credit for, what everyone will probably agree on is that the wrong decision was made for silly commercial reasons in the final act. This happens a lot. That the film still works really well despite its conclusion is a testament to all involved since I refuse to believe the ending resulted from anything but wrongheaded studio interference. You may as well post those studio notes right up there on the screen since it's unlikely anyone will be considering much else in the final minutes. Labeled and marketed as a "sci-fi romance" Passengers handles both the former and latter part of that equation exceptionally well with two incredibly likable, skilled actors, but it's the ethical predicament presented at the get-go that will spark arguments and conversation. Had they stuck with that all the way through there's no telling what we could have gotten.

As it stands, this is still a consistently engaging endeavor, featuring performances, production design, music and writing more than a few notches above the standard. Then it just throws its hands in the air and surrenders, doing a disservice to both these actors and the audience. Even worse, the most obvious and effective ending is just sitting there on a platter ready for the taking. Hopefully, there were re-shoots and those scenes are laying around somewhere other than the recesses of our imaginations. Until that sees the light of day, I'll continue to deny the existence of the one we got, even if what precedes it provides unexpected thrills.

The starship Avalon is on a 120 year journey to a new colony called Homestead II, with 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members all comfortably resting in their hibernation pods, set to be awakened a month prior to arrival. But when mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years early due to a pod malfunction, he discovers that aside from an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), he's the only passenger awake on the ship, and faces years of isolation until his eventual death.

Depressed, suicidal and having exhausted the few potential options available to him, Jim discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and through her video profile immediately falls for the funny, beautiful journalist. He then makes the controversial decision to awaken her for companionship, thereby dooming her to the same fate as he, dying on this ship years before the rest of the passengers and crew arrive at Homestead II.  Once Aurora is revived, the two grow close, as Jim continues to conceal the truth that her "accidental" awakening had nothing to do with a pod malfunction, Unfortunately, the ship is faces other, bigger problems that could threaten the entire journey.

Right out the gate, the scenario is immediately compelling yet still somewhat of a slow burn as we watch Pratt's character come to the realization that something went very wrong and he'll be spending the rest of his days in solitude.  Him trying to figure out the technicalities associated with that and his slow surrender to that fact that there's no way out are reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Matt Damon's protagonist in The Martian. But while certain problem-solving scenes are similar, there's a key difference that actually works in this film's favor: It isn't intercut with a bunch of muckety mucks goofing it up at NASA. He can't contact home at all so while Mark Watney's life may have been in immediate danger in ways Jim's isn't here, this at least treats its premise of isolation and loneliness dead seriously. So when Jim opens that pod to awaken his sleeping crush it really means something, throwing gasoline on the fire of an ethical dilemma that's already kind of jaw-dropping in its implications.

Those familiar with Chris Pratt's TV career know how good he is and how much more personality and dimension he's capable of showing when not pigeonholed by the action hero mold he's been shoved into thus far on the big screen. In the opening hour and slightly beyond we get a big glimpse of that talent again because he's handed worthwhile material, even if I'll contend it was a mistake to have his character initially come out of the pod looking like he just stepped out of Gold's Gym.
There seems to this push-pull going on with Pratt lately, and through this entire film, where Hollywood is desperate to turn him into the next huge action star under their terms when his skill set doesn't necessarily line up with that, at least in the boneheaded way they want it to. He's better than that.

Often, Pratt's a quirkier and more fun presence than what he's given and if not more selective in his choices he could end up in a similar situation to Tom Cruise, currently on acting auto-pilot in action roles into his 50's. And while it's easy to argue that there are far worse places to be than in Cruise's shoes, this battle with Pratt hasn't really bled it's way onto the screen until now, with this, his best big screen performance so far. While it's almost entirely undermined in the film's final third, the humor, empathy and subtly he brings to this part is matched only by his co-star.

Lawrence and Pratt are simply great together. That's at least partially why the ending is so disappointing. Nothing has to be written to manufacturer or further drive home the connection between Aurora and Jim. They just have it and from the second he opens her pod the two actors have an immediate chemistry that's completely believable, stacking the deck even more until the big reveal comes. And when she does find out the truth and that hammer comes down, does it ever come down, with Lawrence giving a tour de force, driving home to gravity of this lie, which should carry huge repercussions. We witness a few of those, until the movie travels another, less interesting route.

I have no problem with the script veering in a more action-oriented direction, but when it starts leaning more on sub-par, video game looking visual effects than Guy Hendrix Dyas' amazing, Oscar-nominated production design, the film suffers. And the unsatisfying resolution pushes aside the central moral dilemma, until it pops up again at the end in an unwelcome manner meant to give us the warm and fuzzies.

It's almost become a long-running joke in romantic comedies and dramas that in the next to last act the girl finds out a lie the guy has been telling and pushes him away, only to run back into his arms at the end for no good reason other than to put smiles on faces. But this isn't one of those kinds of lies. It's huge and intriguing, with far-reaching ethical concerns about how men and women treat each other, all of which stand as a big compliment to screenwriter Jon Spaihts. Up until then this script is so smart that there's little indication it will lazily fall back on that well-worn cliche. But it does. Both characters can survive. She can even eventually forgive what he does. The ship can arrive safely at its destination years later.  If all this happened under reasonable terms without our strings being pulled or the central premise being undermined, it would be fine. 

While I'm slightly overselling the ending's problems to make a larger point, kudos should go to the talented, if previously nondescript director Morten Tyldum for executing a thankless finale as efficiently as possible. But there is an alternate idea that's floated around for the finish that would have easily taken this to the level it belongs. At the risk of instead reviewing a movie we didn't get, having Jim die to save the ship and passengers on board in the final act seems only logical, with the real kicker being that Aurora is left alone in the same isolated predicament he was. In a Twilight Zone-like twist, she can contemplate awakening a male passenger for companionship, continuing the cycle as the screen cuts to black. That would work brilliantly, standing as a cruel coda on the loneliness and selfishness of human beings put in extreme circumstances. Something like that is certainly more in line with the film's existential tone.

At least Passengers, even at its worst, gives us something meaningful to chew on, which is more than I expected given the brutal reviews and poor box office. That this was a decision or two away from greatness is what makes it so infuriating. Ultimately rescuing it is the pairing of Lawrence and Pratt, its ideas and how this world is so thoroughly realized on a desolate spaceship through the impeccable production design. It has a unique vision, and while some may be bothered by how it casually borrows elements from films like Kubrick's The Shining in the bar scenes, it never hurts to lift from the best, and there's little debate Sheen makes that character all his own.

Unlike last year's 10 Cloverfield Lane, at least it's final minutes don't hinge on a big reveal, the result of which makes or breaks the entire picture. In fact, none of what happens is much of a secret at all, given the studio's questionable call to have the film's advertising essentially spoil the ethical dilemma at its center. Whether it showed a lack of faith in the product or represented a desperate attempt to get potential moviegoers into seats, it may have been an unintentionally shrewd move. That scenario is what it has most going for it, inspiring enough thought and conversation to overcome a poorly realized ending that comes close to undoing the good that came before. That it still can't is reason enough reason to respect Passengers' intentions, while still wondering what could have been.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"I don't know if we ever figure our lives out and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."

If you had told me in advance that one of the very best films of the past year was titled 20th Century Women, I'd probably laugh. Because, let's face it, many things pop into your head upon hearing or reading a title like that. None of them are favorable, so I can only say I went into it primarily because of the favorable reviews, promising cast and an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination few know it even received. On paper, there are certainly worse choices out there, but that title. Is it a chick flick? Romantic comedy? A historical drama? A period piece?  After actually viewing, or rather experiencing it, and realizing it's none of those things at all, I've determined its admittedly artsy and somewhat pretentious title, while a nightmare for marketing purposes, is nearly as perfect as the film itself. Not to mention it's a real chore trying to come up with a better alternative.

It's difficult to fully articulate what 20th Century Women is "about" since it doesn't have what we're trained to recognize as a conventional movie plot or narrative. It's more of a memory of a specific time and place its characters will never have an opportunity to visit again. Yes, it's a coming-of-age film, on a surface level invoking comparisons to Almost Famous, American Beauty, The Wonder Years, and even a dash of The Ice Storm. And yet it's still kind of the opposite of those, as those comparisons fail to properly convey what Mike Mills creates, or rather maybe recreates here, in simultaneously depicting a watershed year in his adolescence while paying tribute to the life of his late mother without judgment or sentimentality. The title implies a focus on women, and there definitely is that, but what it's really about this young boy becoming a man in a world surrounded by women.

Despite its screenplay nomination, this isn't a "writer's movie" because it's doing too many other things exceptionally well to pigeonhole it. Flashbacks, voiceover narration, title cards, newsreel footage are so seamlessly infused into the narrative it's a small miracle we even know it's there, presenting them in ways both invisible and revolutionary. And then there's the music, which can't be discussed as merely a separate element of the film, but as the foundation on which it's built.
Name a character and chances are you'd likely be able associate them with a song since music isn't just on the soundtrack, but discussed, picked apart and analyzed at many points as a reflection of their lives. And none of this feels forced in any way, instead organically mirroring the generation gap at the story's core.

Santa Barbara, California. 1979. 15-year-old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in a boarding house that she runs. Her tenants include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-obsessed photographer from New York being treated for cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a carpenter and mechanic who once spent time on a hippie commune. A frequent visitor is Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17 year-old who climbs through his bedroom window to spend the night but won't have sex with him because she thinks it'll ruin their friendship.

Confused by Jamie's non-conformist behavior and finding it increasingly hard to connect with her teen son on any level, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie to help unofficially raise him. In doing that, she gets more than she bargained for, learning more about her son and even herself than was intended. And perhaps in the end, maybe learning nothing at all, as their complicated mother-son bond fades into the past and becomes a memory, stored alongside the time they spent with these wildly different personalities living under the same roof.

When the title card indicating the setting and year appears on screen and we see a kid coming up over the hills on a skateboard as composer Ryan Neill's ambient, Brian Eno-inspired 70's score kicks in, you just know to expect something special. And no, this isn't one of those indies full of quirky characters doing zany things. While they all have their idiosyncrasies, they're often steeped in a painful realism, its specificity carrying a universality that should ring true to anyone, regardless of age or era.

Having grown up during the Great Depression and even flown planes in her youth,  the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Dorothea rarely pulls any punches in her frank assessments of both her tenants and son, even if that brutal honesty rarely extends to her own shortcomings. She had Jamie when she was into her forties and is now faced with the unenviable task of raising a teen boy alone after her unseen husband walked out. That one of the first images we see is his car catching fire in a parking lot speaks volumes about that exit and its repercussions.

Due to her age, the distance in taste and values between Dorothea and Jamie is probably greater than it otherwise would be, so without a male figure in his life, it makes sense in her mind to lean on the two other women in the house to school him on how to treat women. Of course, it's also kind of a terrible idea for obvious reasons, least among the fact that Abbie and Julie don't have themselves completely worked out yet either.  Mills lets us know these characters by framing them within a specific context, their backstories occasionally dispensed via emotionally detached voiceovers from them or maybe even another character, or sometimes documentary-style footage depicting the era through which they've lived.

Books like Sisterhood is Powerful and historical events such as Jimmy Carter's famous "Crisis of Confidence" make their presence known, maybe without warning, but certainly not without purpose. Everything here has a purpose, and with all the tricks Mills has up his sleeve, his greatest one is using all these devices to create this sinking feeling of the passage of time. And as specific as all these people are to the place and period in which they reside, their stay there feels fleeting. It's sad and scary, the magnitude of how short not really felt until the film's final minutes, which emotionally hits like a oncoming train.

Played by Greta Gerwig in a brilliant performance very much unlike the optimistic, free-spirit she's played so naturally in various indies through the years, Abbie's a little deeper, darker and rough around the edges, but unquestionably has her heart in the right place. With her Bowie-like hair she serves as Talking Heads' fan Jamie's entrance into the punk music and their scenes together very much recall the even younger protagonist's discovery of his sister's record collection in Almost Famous, only without the warm, fuzzy feelings accompanying it and substituting The Raincoats for Simon and Garfunkel. But it's through her medical crisis that she and Jamie form their strongest bond, despite Dorothea's eventual objections of Abbie schooling him on the feminist movement, to which she can't relate to at all. Or if she can, came from a generation where putting a label on it would seem ridiculous.

Considering how laid back and flaky Dorothea seems at times, she's often stuck-up, judgy and unpredictably offended at certain things that mark her not as an inconsistently written character, but a richly developed one full contradictions that make her more real and relatable. Bening has to keep flipping that switch between empathy and shattering directness draped in comic sarcasm.  Few others could do it, and while I was never much on board with all the complaining about Bening's continued lack of an Oscar, that she missed out on even just a nomination for this, her most complex work, feels like the cruelest snub yet. Just watch the scene when Jamie accurately sums his mother up by reading a book excerpt and how Bening handles Dorothea's reaction. Cold and true to life, but not entirely unfair. And maybe right.

A less complicated character, but compelling just the same, is Elle Fanning's Julie, who has Jamie befuddled at why her recent promiscuity seems to exclude him, despite them sharing a bed every night. The daughter of a psychiatrist, she thinks she has it all figured out at 17 and isn't shy about providing a free diagnosis for everyone. Of course, this all masks the fact that she doesn't know much of anything and her outdated view of masculinity and advice to Jamie seems so outdated even by 70's standards that it's actually come back around again. Of everyone, she carried the most risk of coming off as one-dimensional given her age and purpose in the story for the protagonist, or so it seems. But created by Mills as a composite of various friends and ex-girlfriends from his youth, and delicately brought to life by Fanning (who owns 2016 with this and the Neon Demon) , she becomes more than just the memory or unrequited crush of a 15-year-old boy. Or more accurately, she's exactly that and all the pain that comes with it, which is why this all works so well.

Initially, it would seem we're meant to root for Jamie and somehow see Julie as a villain for withholding sex, but the movie's too smart for such simplistic shading. They're actually using each other to some extent, with him allowing this to go on with expectations of more, even as she uses him as a therapist's couch for all her problems knowing full well his feelings run deeper. But as one character bluntly tells Jamie, it's his job to put an end to it. She's not presented as a narrative construct who will "rescue" him from the doldrums of adolescence as would occur in a lesser script, but instead as a frustratingly real, unpredictable and not entirely likable girl he'll never end up with. 

It's easy to snicker at the casting of Billy Crudup as William given the nature of his iconic role in Almost Famous, only this character isn't there as a friend or role model to Jamie. It's made clear pretty early on that Dorothea discounts him as a male figure who could connect with her son, mainly because he seems like such a space cadet. But like most of the other characters he defies type or description, with Mills depicting him as kind of a male slut who women use and promptly throw away without getting to know him. It's neat gender reversal, but like everyone else, he's desperate for any kind of human connection, while also amounting to both more and less than he appears on the surface. Unsurprisingly, he's most in tune with older generational outcast Dorothea and the scene where they attempt to "understand" the music Jamie listens to is one of the film's finest.

The late 70's probably wouldn't top many fans or critics' lists as one of the greatest eras in music, but what Mills gets is that your favorite is whatever era you grew up in or associate with your strongest memories. And for what it's worth, he makes as good a case as any for this period with the song choices he makes, which are entirely reflective of not just the characters, but the tone and mood of the picture right up until the closing minutes when two songs are juxtaposed from entirely different eras you'd never expect to hear on the same soundtrack. And that right there is the movie, as different people with unique personalities and at various stages in life all randomly converge in this time and place. The saddest part is that they may never see each other again, as is often the case with the most important, influential people in our lives. They're here, make their impact and then, just as quickly, they're gone.

The semi-autobiographical events Mills recounts all took place the year I was born and it's kind of eye-opening since no one ever tends to know much about the events of their birth year. It's often just a set of numbers with little context since all the major milestones occur within the following decade and beyond. He assigns meaning to that number and to objects and possessions, alerting us to what a turning point in time this was for those who lived through it. From then on, things changed for them and couldn't possibly return to how they were. Sometimes the most important important questions to ask when a movie concludes is whether you'll miss the characters when they're gone and whether you care what happens to them after the credits roll. We do actually find out what their futures hold beyond that, even as we're still willing to give anything for an extra minute with all of them.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A few important attributes set Kong: Skull Island apart from your typical spring blockbuster, while still entirely managing to entertain and enthrall as if it is one. For starters, it's a period piece, which is completely unfamiliar territory for an action franchise. It's not everyday critics and audiences would describe a Kong movie by referencing Vietnam or discussing a compilation of rock's greatest hits from the era on the soundtrack. That's not to say all of this works, or is even that groundbreaking, but it serves as icing on the cake, enhancing what's already a surprisingly well crafted production that feels less like a desperate cash grab than any other recent action vehicle or franchise reboot of the past few years. You may as well call it Apocalypse Kong, in not only its obvious allusions to that war classic, but the fact that there's some artistic value on display here that earns some of those comparisons. It's actually well directed, branded with a visual stamp that isn't easily forgettable, bringing to life a screenplay that gets the job done in successfully reintroducing an iconic character with a mixed on screen track record.

It's almost become a running joke how studios have been cherry-picking little known, critically acclaimed young, indie directors to helm these gigantic tentpole franchises. Why? They're relatively cheap, grateful for the opportunity to make the kind of awe-inspiring spectacle they grew up watching, and are more often than not willing to be pushed around a little (sometimes a lot) by the studio. Of course, using these filmmakers as a vessel to cram their vision down unsuspecting audiences throats doesn't come without risks since some directors will inevitably acclimate better than others. But for every Fantastic Four horror story, there's a Jurassic World or Godzilla, which is more than enough for them to justify continuing the approach. And as cynical as that all seems, sometimes a happy balance comes out of this that manages to satisfy both commercial and creative concerns.

In 2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts wrote and directed a little movie called The Kings of Summer, and you can somehow tell the same person made this, despite it being over ten times the budget and scope. His vision successfully seeps through, proving he's one of the few indie filmmakers capable of mastering this sort of thing. We can't call him a sell-out, or at least if he is, does a good enough job hiding it, carefully threading that needle between mainstream acceptance and critical respect so many of his peers can't. And he does it in under two hours, thumbing his nose at the constant barrage of pointlessly overlong two and a half action spectacles we endure each year. Of course, we still get one of those universe-building post-credit sequence plugs. A brief, if unnecessary, reminder that no matter how well this worked, certain things will never change.

It's 1973 and with the U.S. just pulling out of Vietnam, senior government official with the Monarch organization, Bill Randa (John Goodman), seeks funding for an expedition to map out a mysterious location in the South Pacific cryptically known as "Skull Island" After meeting some initial resistance, he gets clearance to assemble a team, recruiting former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Vietnam helicopter squadron as a military escort, backed by right-hand men Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham).

Joining them for the ride is Monarch's seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and fesity, opinionated "anti-war" photojournalist Mason Weaver (Academy Award Winner Brie Larson). But immediately upon their arrival, it's clear this won't just be any expedition, as Packard's men begin dropping bombs that awaken a very angry Kong, who kills many of his men, leaving the remainder of the crew stranded and scattered on the island. But the giant ape may not be their biggest worry, with a more malevolent threat intent on making sure they never make it home.

Making its intentions clear early, the film's overall strategy stands in stark contrast to previous cinematic takes on the giant beast: Show Kong early and often. With little build-up other than brief introductions to the various characters and a few minutes designated to the assembly of the team, it's off to the island. There's no teasing here as Kong's impact is felt immediately, and once we lay eyes on him, it's obvious why they skipped the formalities and wanted to show him off.

A combination of CGI and motion capture performance, the monster (supposedly designed to invoke the 1930's version) looks as good as he ever has, instantly recognizable without really resembling the incarnation we saw in Peter Jackson's 2005 version, which also boasted fine effects work. It would be easy to call this design better, but it's probably more accurate to describe it as a little more expressive and distinctive enough for this reboot needed to step out from the shadows of its predecessors. As far as the creatively inspired call to set the story in the post-Vietnam, Nixon-era 1970's, it does give the narrative some thematic legs it wouldn't otherwise have, both in regard to certain characters' motivations and many of the aesthetic choices made. And it's those decisions, which to a point give this a look and feel similar to films from that period, is far and away the most captivating aspect of the entire production.

Ironically, an overstuffed soundtrack compilation of 60's and 70's hits do more to hurt that feeling than help since the plot and visuals were already doing a fine enough job. Calling this a great soundtrack wouldn't necessarily be wrong in terms of song choices, but it does beg the question whether it's possible to have too much of a good thing. A more conservative placement of music at carefully curated key moments probably would have been far more effective and impactful than drenching the first third of the picture in every famous classic rock song the studio was able to get their hands on. Henry Jackman's psychedelic, period-specific score goes a longer way in invoking the mood they're going for, and proves less distracting.

And since the priority is showing Kong as early as possible, the characters at first seem thinly drawn, at least until all hell breaks loose on the island and we find out who's made of what. Billed as the lead, Tom Hiddleston probably has the least developed character of the bunch, playing a one-dimensional heroic character who doesn't necessarily do anything heroic enough to stand out in any way. It's through no fault of his own that the screenplay is more interested in those who have a direct emotional connection to Kong. As Packard, Samuel L. Jackson returns to the same angry agitator that's been his stock in trade since the 90's, but this is actually one of his better performances since there's at least some motivation behind it, and as detestable as he is, the intentions behind his villainous behavior fit.

When Packard's obsession with downing Kong careens out of control,  the most dissenting voice is that of awesomely named photographer Mason Weaver, who's played by Brie Larson in her first post-Oscar role. In many ways she's the film's true focal point, with her character representing one of the biggest deviations from Kong's long outdated "damsel in distress" mythology. Unlike Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts, she isn't window dressing or set up as a love interest for the ape as we've seen in the past. It's of little surprise she's even great in something like this, with one particular scene providing what's sure to go down as the the film's most memorable visual. And to top it off, she looks like a total badass shooting a flare gun, squashing any concerns about her playing a screen hero, super or otherwise.

Skull Island works best when taking itself dead seriously, faltering only when it pauses for jokes. It's not as guilty as something like The Martian in that regard, but there's a time and place for that so it isn't unfair to wish the writers were more judicious in picking their spots. The only time it really works is whenever John C. Reilly's wisecracking Hank Marlow appears, a World War II lieutenant who crash landed on the island almost thirty years prior and makes it his mission to get this crew home.  That has more to do with the fact that it's Reilly playing him but there's no denying it's the strongest sub-plot, rightfully taking center stage at the end.

While most franchise movies die a slow, painful death near the two hour mark and limp for another thirty minutes to the finish line, this one not only avoids overstaying its welcome, but actually picks up steam. And because everything is so well directed and it looks and feels like the work of a real visual artist, it's almost impossible not to get greedy and wish for even more from the script. Or more accurately, less. As a franchise action movie with compelling action sequences, you also can't help but wonder how much of a difference it would make if this were a hard 'R' and they really went for the jugular, forgoing commercial concerns altogether. It may or may not have been as fun, but it's hard to take issue with what we get, which successfully signals that the iconic Kong is back with a vengeance. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield,
Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

At what cost? That question runs through Oliver Stone's Snowden, and the controversial figure around which his film revolves, government whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 infamously leaked to the media classified information on mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency. Such a hot-button topic would seem ideal for Stone, the maverick director and Vietnam vet who's made a career of tackling socially and politically charged material with an "in your face" style in films like JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. But that Oliver Stone is gone. Already showing signs of it with his relatively fair, if even somewhat sympathetic, treatment of President George W. Bush in 2008's underrated W., Stone's interest in pushing buttons has diminished considerably in recent years. On one hand, it's a shame since it's never been more necessary, but on another, it's easy to argue he's earned the right and can't be expected to keep repeating himself. A straightforward but exceptionally well made biopic, Snowden represents more of this new, slicker, mainstream Stone uninterested in courting "controversy."

What this does contain is ideas and a sense of urgency surrounding an issue that shouldn't really be all that controversial on paper. It's pretty simple and boils down to whether you feel the moral price of our security is worth the cost of giving up a certain amount of our constitutional freedom. But where you stand on that issue may determine not only to your personal feelings on Snowden and his actions, but perhaps even which side of the political fence you fall. In that sense, it's touchy, and the film does a compelling job dramatizing both sides of that ethical dilemma, even in scenes you wouldn't expect. It also contains a romantic subplot that doesn't feel like one, less a throwaway than a natural and pertinent extension of the main plot, featuring characters whose futures we care about despite our familiarity with the outcome.

As tame as Stone's become, anyone expecting complete impartiality won't get it, with the screenplay clearly showing an allegiance to Snowden, played by a scarily well cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as kind of a tragic antihero to be revered and celebrated for his sacrifices. Make of Stone's stance what you will, but anyone that shocked or even offended the government has these capabilities probably have their heads buried in the sand. Snowden wasn't telling us anything we really shouldn't have assumed already. The real question was whether he had the right to do it and the potentially dangerous precedent that's set when someone does.

Based on two non-fiction books covering the events, the film picks up in 2013, with Ed Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) hauled up in a Hong Kong hotel room secretly meeting with documentarian and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskell (Tom Wilkinson). Preparing to spill his guts to them while simultaneously releasing of the NSA's top secret surveillance data to the media, flashbacks paint a complicated picture of Snowden, an antisocial conservative who finds himself working for the cyberwarfare arm of the CIA after being discharged from the Army.

Snowden picks up the intricacies quickly, becoming a star student of  Deputy Director Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) before moving on to the NSA and making some disturbing discoveries about how the government is acquiring data and potentially violating citizens' rights. As his disillusionment grows, the only constant is free-spirited girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), an Obama-supporting liberal who tolerates his opposing political beliefs up to the point where even he starts to doubt them, the stress of his job eventually threatening his health and that of their relationship. Armed with incriminating evidence that can shake the U.S. government to its core, Snowden makes a fateful decision, insuring that his life will never be the same again.

A lot of information is dispensed about Snowden's background and what there is to glean of his personality, which can best be described as "robotic." It's an adjective he's even assigned to himself, as he often comes across as someone suffering from some kind of anti-social disorder, demonstrating behaviors that don't seem all that dissimilar from Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. While lacking that character's worst narcissistic tendencies, Snowden's intelligence is undeniably his worst enemy at times, as well as his most dangerous weapon. Holding political beliefs in direct opposition to what he eventually does, his time in the CIA and NSA trenches establish him as an important cog in the government's machine, his cyber skills essential in their burgeoning electronic surveillance program. But as his climbs the ranks, the more he sees, and the more his anxiety and guilt grow.

This isn't an easy role to play as far as real-life public figures go, or even otherwise, as in the place of a distinctive personality, Snowden is imbued with a rote, mechanical sense of duty that's eventually shaken. Lowering an already deep voice a few octaves lower, JGL has the flat affect and emotionless verbal delivery down pat and looks enough like his subject, but where he really excels in capturing Snowden's inner struggle. The government's actions contradict everything he signed on for but risking the comfort and security his occupation provides Lindsay and himself in the name of "doing what's right" may not be worth the price.

It's a credit to Stone and Kieran Fitzgerld's screenplay that Edward's relationship with Lindsay isn't treated as an afterthought with the latter having thoughts, complaints and opinions worth listening to and fighting about, as an impressive Woodley confidently sidesteps the trap that too often marginalizes girlfriend characters in male-driven biopics. Strong in a role she seems ideal for, audiences will undoubtedly draw parallels between the actress and the idealistic hippie she portrays. The presentation of Snowden as a selfish, thoughtless boyfriend consumed by his job could be viewed as the director's conscious effort to pacify potential critics of the character's fairly reverent treatment throughout. Or it could just simply be true.       

The action doesn't necessarily move at a breakneck pace and we aren't marveling at the editing as we would with Stone's classic 80's and 90's offerings. And while crisply photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, you'd be hard-pressed to find supporters championing it for a spot in the top tier of the director's best looking films. It speaks volumes that even Nicolas Cage's virtual cameo (as a U.S. Intelligence official) isn't crazy at all, perfectly serving its function like most of the other moving parts in the story. And that's completely fine. Stone trusts the extraordinary subject do most of the work, recounting events presumably as they happened with little space for editorializing.

Toward its third act, it fully evolves into this gripping thriller, culminating in a jarring transition that melds real life and movies in a way you've never quite seen before in a biopic, making you appreciate the lead performance that much more. Controversy isn't everything when it can be just as effective taking a logically straightforward approach to telling an exceptional story. With Snowden it rings especially true, as the scariest part of it all is just how flawed and relatable the protagonist is, offering up the very real possibility that anyone placed into similar circumstances are capable of making the choices he did.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2012

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


It's back.  After going on a mini-hiatus while I focused on the Academy Awards, the second half of 10 for 10 project resumes with 2012, and as you can tell by how the list below turned out, it's definitely a turning point. The two films I expected would have the strongest showings (Silver Linings Playbook and Looper) didn't chart nearly that high. In the case of the former, it seems to continue a trend that's been developing since this series began. The films with the most substance and don't have any edges shaved in order to commercially entertain are looming larger in my mind the further way from their release date they get.

As for Looper, you could say this continues another trend of sci-fi cracking the top ten without really breaking through to the top tier. It's entirely possible we make it to 2015 without either a romantic comedy or sci-fi entry in the number one position. But on the off-shot it does occur, I'll at least know it's of a special breed. This isn't to say these aforementioned films don't still represent high-water marks for their respective directors and wouldn't be a worthy top choice in any year.

2012 also marks the strongest showing yet for independent cinema, with a few lesser known titles like Compliance, Take This Waltz and, most surprisingly, the Canadian sci-fi mind-bender, Beyond The Black Rainbow (more known now thanks to its similarities to Netflix's Stranger Things) making a big, lasting impact. The former two came dangerously close to the top, with Waltz being the highest-ranked unreviewed film from any of these Top 10's so far, finally offering me the opportunity to praise a woefully overlooked effort containing Michelle Williams' greatest, yet still least seen, performance.

While it might be a cliche to call 2012 kind of a breakthrough year for actresses, it's impossible to ignore that three of the decade's finest lead performances, of any gender, reside on this list, with the first female-lead (and directed) picture nabbing the top spot. You'd think I'd be politicized out but Zero Dark Thirty is just that great and gripping, marking the rare time my number one identically matches most of the critical consensus. And those who think it's at all political are simply reading into something that thankfully isn't there. It's too smart for that. And what an ending. 

Somehow, again, Paul Thomas Anderson makes a film that doesn't land in my top position, but boy did his odd and idiosyncratic pseudo-Scientology biopic The Master come close, only further bolstered by it featuring one the last (and career-defining) performances of a true acting master, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And it still feels wrong and oddly unsettling typing the word "late" before his name, as if it hasn't completely sunk in.

Rounding out the rest are a somewhat underrated Best Picture winner in Argo and Tarantino squeezing his way in yet again with Django Unchained. My wildly unpopular opinion that The Dark Knight Rises is twice the film its predecessor is still holds, even as it barely cracks the list. A sure sign that the era of the superhero movie ended for me right then and there. With this much competition it really isn't a much of wonder why SLP and Looper couldn't hold on up top.

The depth of this year really becomes apparent when considering runners-up that barely missed, all of which could easily be plugged in at a second's notice. They include Searching For Sugar Man, Bernie, Moonrise Kingdom, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rust and Bone, Life of Pi, The Imposter, Flight, Smashed, Skyfall, 21 Jump Street, Sound of My Voice, Haywire, Hit and Run and The Grey. 

10. Django Unchained

"Whereas Inglourious Basterds mostly played it straight until its third act, morphing into an alternate history revenge fantasy flick, Django is a revenge fantasy through and through, from the opening credits onward. It's also a spaghetti Western, a blaxploitation picture and a buddy film.The biggest surprise is in how it starts as an action comedy not too far removed from something like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and slowly morphs into something darker, calling the country out on its own shamefully racist past as the title character steps up to take ownership of his own story. When analyzing Tarantino's films, the popular approach is always to compare them, not to other works, but his own, which is unusual considering how many influences and inspirations he incorporates. Maybe it's finally time to admit he's more original than we give him credit for." - 5/30/13 

9. Beyond The Black Rainbow

"The basic plot of Beyond The Black Rainbow is easy to buy into if taken on its own twisted, psychedelic terms. Something about a crazed scientist named Dr. Barry Nyle (a creepy Michael Rogers) conducting experiments on a young telepathic girl, Elena, (Eva Allen) at a New Age research facility in 1984. And it's all beside the point amidst its avalanche of trippy visuals and existential dread. What can't be believed is that writer/director Panos Cosmatos made a film that looks this good on a budget this small and goes many steps further than merely setting it in 1984, but channeling the very year itself in its entire DNA. From the synths to the production design, nothing about it feels contemporary. There's such a thing as an "homage,"  and then there's what Cosmatos does here, transposing all his VHS cover childhood nightmares into a merciless concoction of mushroom-tripping originality. Most sci-fi feels the need to explain, looking silly as a result. This knows it job. Simply show and amaze, overloading your senses until your mind feels beaten into submission."

8. The Dark Knight Rises

"A palpable sense of fear and tension comes from sensing everything's up for grabs and anything can happen. And it mostly does. There seems to be no rules, but within that framework, Nolan still manages to create something structurally sound and airtight, free of filler and flaws. Nearly three hours breeze by without a minute wasted. Of course, there's no performance like Ledger's, but there shouldn't be. In fact, it wouldn't even fit here. What's delivered instead is a more ambitious threat both terrifyingly physical and deliberately planned, as well as two tour-de-force supporting turns that steal the film outright. The results on screen don't lie. But the real story isn't how much better this is than Nolan's previous Batman outings, or anything else in the genre. It's that it isn't even close."  - 7/27/12

7. Argo

"It's almost too obvious to compare Affleck's creative transformation to Clooney's, so it might be more accurate to point out that he's simply completed his transformation into Ben Affleck, fulfilling (if not exceeding) his full potential as a director and actor. After this, the sky really seems to be the limit in terms of what he can do, having gone even a step further than Clooney in not only taking inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 70's, but actually setting one in that time period based on actual events. To call this his Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck. wouldn't be far off, except it's better realized, taking what could have come off as a dry history lecture in lesser hands and molding and shaping it into suspenseful, first-class entertainment." - 12/9/12

6. Looper

"(Director Rian) Johnson has all the cards lined up so we accept (Willis) in the role immediately and without question. In one of the film's most thrilling sequence, we see a montage depicting the evolution from Young Joe into Old Joe and the events that eventually send him back to meet his younger self. It could have been such a mess, but it's done in under 10 minutes, visually mapped out with no dialogue. But the real turning point comes when the two Joes come face to face during a diner conversation. There's almost a father-son dynamic at work between them, as the older, more experienced Joe tries to lecture his younger counterpart, who he sees as really just a young punk who hasn't lived yet. Unfortunately, Old Joe's clock is running out and the only person truly in control of his destiny is sitting across the table from him." - 1/9/13

5. Silver Linings Playbook

"It's one of those tiny miracles that sometimes happen after you've cast a movie and realize all the actors attached dropped out for a reason and the cards aligned as such so that we could see these two stars appear together on screen, with a comic rhythm and energy that's unmatched. It's obvious from the characters' first awkwardly hilarious meeting, continuing into each succeeding scene. There's beauty in seeing a standard set-up being taken places we've never seen before because of the conviction of the performances and pitch-perfect direction.The film often alternates wildly between emotional displays of anger and depression and flat-out hysterical comedy without missing a beat, often within a single scene. And Lawrence and Cooper are there with it the entire time, hitting just the right notes." - 1/24/13

4. Take This Waltz

"In not only asking audiences to examine why people cheat, but actually giving what amounts to an almost embarrassingly real and ugly concrete answer, writer/director Sarah Polley centers her story around a woman almost too clumsily unsure of herself to commit adultry and betray milquetoast husband Lou (a never better Seth Rogen). Cast completely against type, Michelle Williams constantly surprises as Margot, a flighty, carefree manic pixie whose inhibitions get stripped away as the script digs deeper, traveling down more introspective avenues than expected. It builds and simmers until she finally breaks, culminating in one of the most expertly staged and filmed sex scenes of the decade, as much of a tension release for viewers as it is for the characters. Often the fake stand-in for movie cities, Polley can actually claim the Toronto setting plays itself here, and beautifully. So does The Buggles' 1979 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star," reintroduced to the world with a melancholic resonance, subtly underlining the lengths we go to try to fix problems that don't exist anywhere but in ourselves."

3. Compliance

"It's easy to come out of this blaming one character but nearly everyone on screen is somewhat responsible, or at least "compliant," in what transpires. And it's worth noting what it takes to end the ordeal, hinting that only someone completely removed from such a dire situation can objectively assess it. Zobel goes further still with an epilogue that asks the same big questions we do of the characters, concluding in a final scene that strangely reminded me of Fargo, conveying that the most deplorable crimes can seem that much worse when committed by small town people you see at the grocery store, go to church with or even get served by at your local fast-food restaurant. Compliance  sparked a certain degree of outrage among a vocal minority who have seen it but not because they feel it couldn't happen. It's because they know it can, and did. Admitting that is tough, especially when the events could so easily involve any one of us." - 3/2/13

2. The Master

"There's this expectation that the film is building toward some kind of climactic showdown between the Dodd and Freddie, similar to the final violent bowling alley scene between Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. But this isn't that kind of a relationship, and the more we want to see Freddie break away and become Dodd's nemesis, the further PTA seems to tug in the opposite direction. The battle taking place is within themselves and it each needs the other to help fight it. The movie builds and builds before fading away into the distance, leaving the viewer to consider the possibility that some people just might be incapable of change, hardwired to sabotage their own happiness." - 9/29/12

1. Zero Dark Thirty

"At its core, this is about a woman who's beyond exceptional at her job, steadfastly refusing to take 'no' for an answer. Wherever there's red tape, she walks through it. When superiors are in her way, she plows right over them. Operating with an emotionless, laser-like focus and precision, it's impossible for anyone to deter her from her main objective: Finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. In many respects she's the most patriotic, inspirational protagonist we've seen on screen in some time, but Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (again corroborating with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal) won't let us get all warm and fuzzy about it. In fact, she hardly even gives us a moment to come up for air." - 1/31/13

My Top 10 Films of 2012
1. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
2. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. Compliance (dir. Craig Zobel)
4. Take This Waltz (dir. Sarah Polley)
5. Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)
6. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
7. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
8. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
9. Beyond The Black Rainbow (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
10. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

While watching Arrival, it was hard not to be reminded of that classic Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man," in which aliens arrive on Earth and there's some miscommunication as to what meaning is intended by their use of the word "serve." Of course, we were too trusting and paid for it with a final twist revealing the episode title to actually be the name of a cookbook. What happens in Arrival could be described as practically the inverse of this, as well as a reflection of just how much has  changed since that episode aired in 1962. While the use of a skilled linguist like the protagonist at this film's center could have easily prevented that mishap, there's no protection against the cynicism, xenophobia and paranoia that surely would take over once the aliens arrive. If such an event were to occur and they were here to do us harm, there's a decent enough chance we'd destroy each other before having a chance at destroying them. There's no mistaking that everyone's default setting would now be one of fear and resistance.

Those are some of the many elements director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer get right with their cerebral adaptation of Ted Chiang's 1998 novella "Story of Your Life." It spends so much of its running time knee-deep in science and laying out a fairly plausible scenario that it's almost a shock that its final third is devoted to to huge metaphysical and spiritual questioning. But it shouldn't be, since recent sci-fi seems to have fallen in love with the emotional side of the equation, often to these films' detriments. The cynic in me suspects it's a monetarily driven, heart-tugging device used to get families into the theater. In Gravity, it was the memory of a deceased daughter. In Interstellar, it was the bond between father and daughter that broke the boundaries of time and space.

In Arrival, it's again the memory of a deceased daughter that figures heavily into the narrative, but doesn't quite hurt the film to the point of those other two. It's at least organically factored into the story in a way that it inspires thought, even if, like those aforementioned titles, it lays it on a little thick at the end. But it's really at its best when asking the big question: What are their intentions? In other words, to serve man or to serve man? Or maybe it's something else. Tourists just stopping by for a visit? Villeneuve deliberately goes about answering this in a cold, clinical style before opening the floodgates (and for some the tear ducts) in the final third to ask an even bigger, but not entirely unrelated questions about time, determinism and free will. But of the sci-fi films to attempt it, this proves most successful in at least having the brains and patience to satisfyingly follow through on those ideas.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist teaching at a local university who's frequently distracted by memories of her deceased adolescent daughter, who at some point succumbed to cancer. One of her classes comes to an abrupt end when news reports confirm that twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared to land in various locations across Earth. She's paid a visit by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who's recruiting her and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to head a team in deciphering the language of these multi-limbed visitors, referred to as "heptapods."  Despite Louise's initial hesitation, she and Ian are shuttled off to a military camp near one of the spacecrafts in Montana where they'll board and attempt to make sense of a very unfamiliar language, primarily consisting of complicated circular symbols.

For all the headway Louise and Ian make in communicating with these interlopers, the beaurucratic red tape and political unrest between nations make their jobs nearly impossible. Discovering an explanation of the aliens' motives and purpose on Earth proves challenging, unless all the countries' governments can selflessly get on the same page. Louise must also still wrestle with those very fresh, painfully vivid memories of her own daughter, whose life and death seems intrinsically tied to what's happening right now.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say the film has a set-up that's both narratively and technically masterful, not to mention eerily restrained and realistic. From the moment these mysterious crafts make landfall, there's genuine suspense generated as to its contents, what the aliens look will look like and why  they're here. The story's entire framework is heady, relying heavily on visuals and sound effects once the action shifts into the investigation of the ship itself and possible means of communication. Those expecting another Independence Day will either be disappointed or elated that this shares absolutely nothing in common with an action-oriented project like that, more clearly taking its inspiration from more spiritually-minded SF like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And unless you count the familial themes of the former and inherent chilliness of the latter, it's still unfair to claim it closely resembles either of those.

There's real doubt as to how the emotionally fragile Louise will hold up under the physical and psychological pressures of the situation, and at least initially, these concerns are well founded. Heisserer's script makes no bones about the fact that she's a complete mess due to personal tragedy, which seems to be a common, if increasingly tired, affliction affecting female protagonists in sci-fi films. This at least bothers to put somewhat of a new spin on it in the third act, and Adams, the busiest and possibly most over-exposed actress working today gives one of her better internalized performances as Louise in a role that requires quite a bit from her since this isn't an actor's film by any stretch. In fact, the role's kind of subtle, flatlined quality could help explain how the Academy somehow excluded her in the glut of awards season.

Once communication is established to even a minimal extent, the film really soars, offering up fascinating revelations about not only how we'd decipher language in an unusual situation like this, but how we communicate with each other. And Villeneuve believably does all of this step-by-step. Taking a position of empathy and patience with these visitors, Louise fights an uphill battle with Whitaker's hard nosed Col. Weber who wants answer to their motives yesterday, ignoring the fact that charging ahead without the proper preparation and research could have potentially disastrous consequences. There are even points when you wonder why he hired her since he'll clearly do whatever he wishes regardless. Renner's Ian mostly provides a sounding board for Louise's ideas and moral support, until the exact nature of his involvement evolves considerably toward the final act.

This is French-Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve's biggest project yet, having previously directed the well-received Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. It's also unquestionably his most ambitious, working on a grander scale than we're used to seeing him receive and Jóhann Jóhannsson's buzzing, eerily Kubrickian musical score combined with Bradford Young's creepy, atmospheric cinematography and the Oscar-winning sound design help combine to create an experience that likely puts it a notch above most of his previous efforts, at least technically.

Reactions to the emotional territory it veers into will vary, but without giving too much away, the notion of time becomes a key component, or more specifically our perception of it. By daring to ask the question of whether it's worth forging forward with a happy, fulfilling life as planned knowing certain tragedy awaits, the screenplay cleverly subverts our initial expectations, forcing us to place ourselves in the protagonist's shoes. Of course, in doing so, it can't help but get a little mushy, veering away from the scientific angle that initially made the scenario so compelling. Still, it's impossible to deny that Arrival provokes serious thought and rises above most other entries in the genre by primarily relying on emotion and ideas rather than computer-generated theatrics.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Manchester By The Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick
Running Time: 137 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Bleak and almost relentlessly dour, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea will undoubtedly be a trying watch for anyone with an aversion to large helpings of depression and hopelessness in their cinematic diet. At over two hours and two tragedies later, you'll be reminded it's Oscar season again, if it wasn't already obvious. It's about real people struggling with real problems, but the plot doesn't always take the easy way out by connecting the dots between point A and point B or offering up a pat resolution. For the character Casey Affleck inhabits, there's no possible resolution available that could redeem him or allow him to look in the mirror in the morning without hating the man he sees. It's clear early on that he was involved in something, but even before we're filled in entirely, it's a given it was catastrophic, not only changing the course of his life, but everyone around him. At first he's quite and unassuming, prone to occasional bouts of rage that only intensify upon discovering the amount of responsibility he'll soon take on. He's not ready for it and may never be, but he's the only option left in a sea of bad choices.

While there's no mistaking that Affleck's lead turn is the big draw here, everyone else isn't just merely tagging along for a ride that can best be described as melancholy. Like the tortured protagonist at its center, it's introspective in a way likely to turn off mainstream audiences looking to escape to the movies for a good time. Usually, I'd scoff at the categorization of any film as being "for critics" but this comes closest to fitting the bill with a loose, free-flowing narrative sure to frustrate some. But unrelenting in its fleshing out of emotional pain, it's also intelligent and observant, taking its time telling a story about grief sure to touch, and possibly disturb, anyone forced to go through something even remotely similar, and the many more who haven't.    

Withdrawn, reserved handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck) is working in Quincy, Massachusetts, arguing with tenants by day while drinking and starting bar fights at night. But when Lee gets word from family friend, George (C.J. Wilson) that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffered a heart attack, he rushes up to his hometown of Manchester, only to discover he's passed away. Staying a few days to handle funeral arrangements and break the news to Joe's teen son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee's informed by a lawyer that he's been named by Joe as the boy's guardian.

Unwilling to move back to Manchester and refusing to let Patrick stay with his estranged alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), Lee's insistence on uprooting the teen from his current life and dragging him back to Boston with him causes a contentious rift between the two. Making matters worse is Lee's penchant for acting out and starting trouble, frequently revealing a violent side that clashes with his outwardly quiet nature. Flashbacks to his once happy life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children in Manchester reveal a horrifying tragedy that both explains his refusal to return and the sad, bitter man he's now become. Through Patrick comes the opportunity to reconnect with someone who could use a friend and an uncle, as well as possibly reclaim at least a small piece of himself he lost years ago.

Reading only a description of the two main characters, it would probably be difficult to tell the adult from the child in the picture, at least when based exclusively on their behavior. Taking a somewhat different turn from what's expected, Patrick isn't an angry, rebellious kid acting out in the wake of his father's death. If anything, it's the exact opposite, as he's a really good kid who's surprisingly well adjusted and takes the news of his dad's passing as you'd imagine an understandably devastated but mature person would. Most people would probably be lining up to be this kid's guardian, realizing they could easily do far worse. Unfortunately, Lee's a complete wreck and the thought of him raising any child, even if it's just until he turns 18 in couple of years, is scary proposition given his current emotional state.

Lonergan builds up a good deal of suspense by slowly revealing through flashbacks drips and drabs of Lee's previous, more fulfilling life, all leading up to the incident that destroys everything.  Initially, we're given a peek into his relationship with his brother and nephew during happier times, perhaps providing evidence that he was at one point the ideal choice to look after Patrick should something happen to the long ailing Joe. But then it happens. The accident. Without giving too much away, it's just about the worst possible tragedy that could happen, with responsibility for it laying squarely at Lee's feet.

We already have a general idea what the event is, but once we actually find out, everything about his behavior starts more clearly coming into focus. It's a miracle he can even get up in the morning, much less function at all. And often he can't. Every interaction he has with another human being is strained in some way, with the possibility hovering that he could explode at any moment. There's a flashback scene at the police station following the event that's so difficult to get through it's almost unreal, as Affleck plays Lee as being in such a shocked trance that he's barely present. That is until he gets one piece of information that sends him flying off the deep end, as the realization hits that they'll be no one to punish him for his horrifying mistake but him. And if need be, he'll spend the rest of his sad, miserable days doing so. Calling what Affleck does in the film a "performance" nearly fails to do it justice, as this could more accurately be described as a compulsive study of human behavior in the throes of extreme grief.

With a hangdog expression permanently etched on his face, you can literally sense and feel Lee's pain with each exasperated line of dialogue. You're on edge the whole time, wondering when he'll snap next. Lee's truly given up, which is why his relationship with Patrick, is so crucial to both of them. There's the legitimate risk Lee could drag him down the same rabbit hole of grief and depression, if not for the fact Patrick processes things far differently, sharing few of his uncle's worst inclinations. Lucas Hedges brilliantly downplays what would have been your stereotypical "angry teen," understandably saddened and rattled by his father's death and frustrated by his uncle's inability to compromise on any level. Their interactions provide what might be the only levity and humor in the film, as does Pat's attempts at juggling his two girlfriends, Sylvie (Kara Hayward) and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), with Lee in the house.

What initially appears to be extreme selfishness on Lee's part gives way to the truth that he'll never be able to live in Manchester with the specter of that life-destroying event hovering over him. In his own words, he just "can't beat it," and as much as he wants to make that sacrifice for his nephew, the guilt's too consuming, swallowing him up from the inside out. When he finally comes face-to face with ex-wife Randi, the result is the film's most emotionally brutal scene, with Affleck and Michelle Williams putting on a clinic of frustration, forgiveness and outrage as their two characters talk and scream over each other, completing each other's sentences and reading minds in the messy way that only two people who have been through what they have could do. While the scene lasts only a couple of minutes it feels like something that's been slowly simmering from the beginning with the payoff proving to be worth the wait, only further solidifying what we've now long known about the level of Williams' talent. 

A script-driven project if there ever was one, Manchester by the Sea is all about the writing and performances, with everything else falling into place to support that, except for maybe a musical score that seems unnecessarily obtrusive at times. Despite not being from the New England area, Lonergan clearly understands the setting and how its chilly, grey atmosphere enhances the visual storytelling, providing the ideal stage for complex characters who make realistic choices that don't seem to hinge on contrivances or obvious creative force pulling their strings. Spending this much time with characters and a subject that's as dark as it gets, it's somewhat of a miracle that it's this engaging. By no means an easy movie to wrap your arms around or even rewatch, it's ultimately a rewarding one, anchored in no small part by Casey Affleck's most complex, nuanced work to date.