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Sometimes critics mean what they say

Musings and new movies: Manchester by the Sea, The Similars, and more

Manchester by the Sea: It ain’t easy being ginger.
Manchester by the Sea: It ain’t easy being ginger.
Movie

Moonlight *

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Best suited for those who found brilliance in <em>Beasts of the Southern Wild</em>, here comes a hackneyed tale of a young black man’s passage from childhood to maturity in a tough Miami neighborhood. Bullying, poverty, closeted sexuality, drug abuse, and racial strife combine to form an overworked agenda of cultural woes that’s more concerned with rubber-stamping issues than telling an original story. Suffocating close-ups, rocking-chair camerawork, and a few unnecessary 360-degree pans lifted from the Christopher Nolan playbook do little to elevate the visual storytelling, while the script — based on the life of playwright Tarell McCraney — is content to churn out one cliché after another. The three actors who share the lead are all first-rate, while Mahershala Ali actually manages to breathe new life into the character of a good-natured drug dealer. That’s more than can be said of Naomie Harris’s standard-issue hysterical crack mom. Here’s just what liberal-minded, visually challenged Academy voters need to make up for last year’s lily-white ceremony. I predict Oscars all around. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

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Duncan Shepherd had it easy. When he slammed a movie, people would accuse him of being elitist or of hating anything that wasn’t foreign (Eastwood and the Coens excepted). Sometimes they would accuse him of hating movies altogether. But even that was a complaint about his aesthetic sensibility. It attacked the film critic insofar as he was a film critic.

Movie

Manchester by the Sea ****

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Some films you watch to escape from the frequently painful and/or difficult reality of life. <em>Pacific Rim</em>, perhaps. Some films you watch to impose a satisfactory narrative onto the seemingly random chaos of life. <em>Casablanca</em>, maybe. And some films you watch to enter more deeply into life — the difficulty, the chaos, all of it. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful <em>Manchester by the Sea</em>, which tells the story of a penitent exile who is asked to give up both his penance and his exile, falls into the third category. And it does so without a hint of bravado or flourish, except perhaps for a single devastating scene between the exile (Casey Affleck) and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). But even there, everything is earned and nothing is wasted in service to anything beyond the characters themselves. Williams’ is only one of the outstanding performances surrounding Affleck; Lucas Hedges also merits mention for his portrayal of a teenager who remains recognizably human — and what’s more, recognizably himself — in the midst of adolescent grief. But it’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken. (It’s tempting to add, “Until the marble angel standing atop a tombstone is once more a man,” but that’s precisely the sort of high-flown hooey that Lonergan avoids.)

Find showtimes

I didn’t much care for Arrival. The general consensus among the people who bothered to comment: besides being dumb, I’m an attention whore who is much more interested in website traffic than truth. (It’s a charge that’s getting drearily familiar.) And once I wear the label, dismissing me is easy. It’s a pity; I really enjoyed my back and forth with the one guy who stuck around because we both got to make our positions more clear as we went along. But discussion isn’t really the Spirit of the Internet, is it?

Scott Marks didn’t much care for Moonlight. For this, he was branded a conservative. Brutal. I wonder what those same folks would make of his take on Being 17? I didn’t care for Moana. The first response: “Or you could just be someone that hates brown people?” (Um, no?) And so on.

There is surely some worth in considering an artist’s or a critic’s motives for writing what they do. But before plunging into subtext, might it be worth pausing a moment to engage with the text? To take in what the art or review actually says before wondering what’s behind it?

I think it’s great when fans of a film go to Rotten Tomatoes and click on the negative reviews; it shows a healthy intellectual curiosity: I loved this. What did other people see or not see that led them to dislike it? It’s not so great when fans of a film click on a negative review in order to convince themselves that they are correct by finding a reason why they can dismiss those who disagree with them.

Movie

Man Down *

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Three intersecting plot threads barely hang together in this soldier’s story of a Marine who brings the war in Afghanistan home with him. The basic training and combat footage are strictly standard issue, ditto the reverse-angle grilling military counselor Gary Oldman gives returning vet, Shia LaBeouf. (Lucky Oldman never leaves his chair.) But it’s the audience that takes a bullet in the form of a contrived PTSD video game fantasy that finds LaBeouf searching for his missing son. Turns out the biggest enemy is lighting cameraman Shelly Johnson. Not wanting to shed light on the situation, characters spend their daylight hours feeling around in stylized darkness. Turn on a light! Worthy of note among naysayers, with this and American Honey, LaBeouf is finally transforming into an actor worth watching. Shame on director-co-writer Dito Montiel for ending a purported anti-war film on a sentimental note. With Kate Mara providing strong support as Mrs. LeBeouf.

Find showtimes

All that said, I thought Manchester by the Sea was an exquisite small-scale drama. Scott Marks did not. Clearly he is a Celtophobe who reflexively dismisses depictions of the Irish-American struggle. (Well, usually.) Though I suspect even he would grant that it was better than the hackerful Anonymous.

While we’re on the subject of Scott, it was nice of him to find multiple virtues in The Similars. (His review makes it sound scary the way Eyes of My Mother is scary — I’ll be reviewing that one next week.) And he even found something to enjoy in Man Down — and that something was Shia LaBeouf! Matthew McConaughey got a McConaissance after Dallas Buyers Club and Mud. I’m thinking this and American Honey may inspire a ReBeouf.

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Manchester by the Sea: It ain’t easy being ginger.
Manchester by the Sea: It ain’t easy being ginger.
Movie

Moonlight *

thumbnail

Best suited for those who found brilliance in <em>Beasts of the Southern Wild</em>, here comes a hackneyed tale of a young black man’s passage from childhood to maturity in a tough Miami neighborhood. Bullying, poverty, closeted sexuality, drug abuse, and racial strife combine to form an overworked agenda of cultural woes that’s more concerned with rubber-stamping issues than telling an original story. Suffocating close-ups, rocking-chair camerawork, and a few unnecessary 360-degree pans lifted from the Christopher Nolan playbook do little to elevate the visual storytelling, while the script — based on the life of playwright Tarell McCraney — is content to churn out one cliché after another. The three actors who share the lead are all first-rate, while Mahershala Ali actually manages to breathe new life into the character of a good-natured drug dealer. That’s more than can be said of Naomie Harris’s standard-issue hysterical crack mom. Here’s just what liberal-minded, visually challenged Academy voters need to make up for last year’s lily-white ceremony. I predict Oscars all around. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

Find showtimes

Duncan Shepherd had it easy. When he slammed a movie, people would accuse him of being elitist or of hating anything that wasn’t foreign (Eastwood and the Coens excepted). Sometimes they would accuse him of hating movies altogether. But even that was a complaint about his aesthetic sensibility. It attacked the film critic insofar as he was a film critic.

Movie

Manchester by the Sea ****

thumbnail

Some films you watch to escape from the frequently painful and/or difficult reality of life. <em>Pacific Rim</em>, perhaps. Some films you watch to impose a satisfactory narrative onto the seemingly random chaos of life. <em>Casablanca</em>, maybe. And some films you watch to enter more deeply into life — the difficulty, the chaos, all of it. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful <em>Manchester by the Sea</em>, which tells the story of a penitent exile who is asked to give up both his penance and his exile, falls into the third category. And it does so without a hint of bravado or flourish, except perhaps for a single devastating scene between the exile (Casey Affleck) and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). But even there, everything is earned and nothing is wasted in service to anything beyond the characters themselves. Williams’ is only one of the outstanding performances surrounding Affleck; Lucas Hedges also merits mention for his portrayal of a teenager who remains recognizably human — and what’s more, recognizably himself — in the midst of adolescent grief. But it’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken. (It’s tempting to add, “Until the marble angel standing atop a tombstone is once more a man,” but that’s precisely the sort of high-flown hooey that Lonergan avoids.)

Find showtimes

I didn’t much care for Arrival. The general consensus among the people who bothered to comment: besides being dumb, I’m an attention whore who is much more interested in website traffic than truth. (It’s a charge that’s getting drearily familiar.) And once I wear the label, dismissing me is easy. It’s a pity; I really enjoyed my back and forth with the one guy who stuck around because we both got to make our positions more clear as we went along. But discussion isn’t really the Spirit of the Internet, is it?

Scott Marks didn’t much care for Moonlight. For this, he was branded a conservative. Brutal. I wonder what those same folks would make of his take on Being 17? I didn’t care for Moana. The first response: “Or you could just be someone that hates brown people?” (Um, no?) And so on.

There is surely some worth in considering an artist’s or a critic’s motives for writing what they do. But before plunging into subtext, might it be worth pausing a moment to engage with the text? To take in what the art or review actually says before wondering what’s behind it?

I think it’s great when fans of a film go to Rotten Tomatoes and click on the negative reviews; it shows a healthy intellectual curiosity: I loved this. What did other people see or not see that led them to dislike it? It’s not so great when fans of a film click on a negative review in order to convince themselves that they are correct by finding a reason why they can dismiss those who disagree with them.

Movie

Man Down *

thumbnail

Three intersecting plot threads barely hang together in this soldier’s story of a Marine who brings the war in Afghanistan home with him. The basic training and combat footage are strictly standard issue, ditto the reverse-angle grilling military counselor Gary Oldman gives returning vet, Shia LaBeouf. (Lucky Oldman never leaves his chair.) But it’s the audience that takes a bullet in the form of a contrived PTSD video game fantasy that finds LaBeouf searching for his missing son. Turns out the biggest enemy is lighting cameraman Shelly Johnson. Not wanting to shed light on the situation, characters spend their daylight hours feeling around in stylized darkness. Turn on a light! Worthy of note among naysayers, with this and American Honey, LaBeouf is finally transforming into an actor worth watching. Shame on director-co-writer Dito Montiel for ending a purported anti-war film on a sentimental note. With Kate Mara providing strong support as Mrs. LeBeouf.

Find showtimes

All that said, I thought Manchester by the Sea was an exquisite small-scale drama. Scott Marks did not. Clearly he is a Celtophobe who reflexively dismisses depictions of the Irish-American struggle. (Well, usually.) Though I suspect even he would grant that it was better than the hackerful Anonymous.

While we’re on the subject of Scott, it was nice of him to find multiple virtues in The Similars. (His review makes it sound scary the way Eyes of My Mother is scary — I’ll be reviewing that one next week.) And he even found something to enjoy in Man Down — and that something was Shia LaBeouf! Matthew McConaughey got a McConaissance after Dallas Buyers Club and Mud. I’m thinking this and American Honey may inspire a ReBeouf.

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