Monday, January 30, 2017

GOOD KILL HUNTING: a review of "The Accountant"

Screenplay Written by Bill Dubuque
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Deep into the irreverent, vulgar maelstrom that was Writer/Director Kevin Smith's "Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001), that film's titular duo arrive in Hollywood with the goal of double-handedly ceasing production of a film based upon themselves when they end up wandering onto a set of a new motion picture starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reprising their roles in Director Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting" (1997)

As Jay and Silent Bob are relegated to the back of the scene about to be filmed while serving as extras, they are witness to a moment from the upcoming sequel, improbably titled "Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season," during which working class Affleck's character is again being taunted by an unctuous college student only to be rescued by working class, math genius Damon's Will Hunting. Yet, for a moment, the tables begin to be turned as the college student begins to verbally humiliate Damon, seemingly achieving the upper hand as he utters the line, "Now, how do you like THEM apples?"  But then, Damon as Will Hunting pulls out a shotgun and blows the college student to the end of the set's back wall, after which, Affleck's character quips, "Applesauce, bitch!"

I bring about that sequence from that specific film because I am somehow wondering deeply within my heart of cinematic hearts if that is how the film "The Accountant"  happened upon its original idea. 

Honestly, dear readers, I'm joking...maybe. but that is entirely because Director Gavin O'Connor's "The Accountant," a two-fisted, multi-bulleted action thriller  whose hero happens to be an autistic assassin is precisely the type of movie that I would typically beat my head against a wall for having seen it due to plotlines that are overly convoluted yet house conceptual holes so vast that the entire movie theater audience could easily link arms and walk through them simultaneously. It is a film of astounding preposterousness on so many levels that would otherwise be completely unforgivable. Yet, in the case of this particular action thriller, Lord help me, I was enormously entertained and somehow found the film's many flaws as assets as they all enhanced the lunacy upon display and to which O'Connor and his cast and crew, led by Mr. Ben Affleck himself, held complete commitment. Even with all of my criticisms, the bottom line holds true--if the film is working, then it is working, completely implausible or not. And with that in mind Gavin O'Connor's "The Accountant" is highly implausible fun.

Ben Affleck stars in "The Accountant" as Christian Wolff, a  high functioning autistic CPA working in small town Illinois who actually makes his living as a uncooking the books for a myriad of criminal organizations around the world. And yes, he is also an expert and military trained marksman and martial artist (don't ask). 

As Wolff is being pursued by nearly retired (isn't that always the way?) Treasury Department agent Ray King (the great J.K. Simmons) and his new partner, the blackmailed data analyst (again, don 't ask) Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Wolff also is forced to evade the rising threat of a vicious hitman (Jon Bernthal) within a story that also houses a robotics corporation CEO (John Lithgow), a plucky corporate accountant/whistleblower (the always engaging Anna Kendrick), a mob crime family, an imprisoned money launderer turned government informant (Jeffrey Tambor), the nursery rhyme "Solomon Grundy," an original Jackson Pollack painting, mounting flashbacks, unbelievable revelations and an ever extending family drama plus whatever else O'Connor decided to throw at the wall to see if it woud stick.  

Gavin O'Connor's "The Accountant" is a film that really needs to be seen to be believed and in a cinematic year filled end-to-end with been their-done that features, what O'Connor achieved is indeed no small feat as his film flies highly mostly through being so straight-faced while existing as something purely ridiculous. I am not trying to suggest that what O'Connor has created in some sort of tongue in cheek film or a wink-wink, all knowing guilty pleasure. I really do think that O'Connor was aiming to make a strong action thriller and to an extent he did succeed as "The Accountant" boasts clean, efficient cinematography, skillfully handled action set pieces and very well choreographed fight sequences that will indeed keep your pulse pounding.

Even the performances are stronger than they have any right to be in a film of this sort, especially J.K. Simmons, who brandishes his specialized gravitas extremely well, making him impossible to take your eyes off of each time he appears within the film. I really enjoyed Jon Bernthal's hitman character who always appears to be just this side of world weary and even bemused with his aggressive role--that it is some how his lot in life to be a merciless, military trained enforcer. Anna Kendrick is truly the stand-in for the audience as her terrific expressions and reactions to the increasingly perilous situations she finds herself within as she is protected by The Accountant fully mirrored my own expressions and reactions. 

And then, there is Ben Affleck himself, who does indeed create a most interesting character to watch emerge and unfold over the course of the film. While I am not one to even begin to suggest that he provides a pitch perfect emulation of high functioning autism or not (complete with all manner of behavioral tics, predilection for mathematical genius, and absolutely bizarre nightly self -induced sensory overload/deprivation "therapy"), he does create a figure that stands fully outside of the world of every other character within "The Accountant" while also creating the action hero/anti-hero archetype: the lone soldier, isolated from the world but armed with a specific moral code (however psychotic) that informs his role as protector and avenging angel of sorts.  

It is indeed the a conceit that is truly oddball. I mean--is the character of Christian Wolff designed to be some sort of autistic superhero? I mean--"The Accountant" does seem to function as an origin story, albeit one that includes a certain hysterical sadism and it would not surprise me if advocates for the special needs community would take offense with a film that presents autism as a mental condition which invariably leads to homicidal tendencies. But, it is all just so powerfully ridiculous that I think even the strictest advocates would laugh themselves silly. 

Gavin O'Connor's "The  Accountant" is truthfully a film that feels as if it were generated within the mind of an overactive imagination--or ore specifically, a child's over-active imagination--where the conceit of "...and then, this happens," is the order of the day. I do have to give screenwriter Bill Dubuque considerable credit for being as original as possible because he really did conceive of a story and screenplay where "...and then, this happens" functioned as a rule! 

Dear readers, "The Accountant" is practically bursting at the seams with plot, motivations and backstories as they are all shoe-horned into the film whether they make any discernible sense of not. And truthfully, by film's end, when the last bullets have been fired, you will definitely be left scratching your heads wondering just how any of all of that could have ever fit together in the first place. Additionally, "The Accountant" almost seems to be a parody of the type of film where a main character is either suffering from or afflicted with some sort of mental, psychological or psychological condition that is entirely obvious to the audience yet is NEVER mentioned within the world of the film itself--as with Director Craig Gillepsie's "Lars And The Real Girl" (2007) and definitely within Writer/Producer/Director James L. Brooks' rare misfire "Spanglish" (2004)

In "The Accountant," we are given scene after scene of characters attempting to interact with Christian Wolff, situations which are always awkward and end up people staring slack jawed at Wolff, wondering just what sort of strange eccentric they have mixed themselves up with. Now people, Christian Wolff is not non-verbal! While he is generally reticent, he speaks quite a bit actually so why not just tell people that he has high functioning autism? Because if he did so, then we couldn't have those aforementioned scenes and then, the overall running time would be shortened considerably. 

So, of course, I would not be out of line to wonder if you are all questioning just what was so wrong about "The Accountant" that somehow made everything so very much right. I guess what really struck me about the film and what exceedingly contributed to my pure enjoyment of the film was precisely the film's plot and storylines which are considerably overstuffed and seemingly exist solely to ensure that there's even a movie to watch at all. In fact, I do think the film will leave you laughing hard to yourselves as you will undoubtedly be filled with more questions than answers. 

For instance, there is Christian Wolff's upbringing to consider greatly. Without really delving into the plot, for I really think this film will play better for you by knowing as little as possible (those of you that have seen it--you know exactly of what I mean), um...why didn't Social Services arrive at any time? How could Wolff ever been allowed within the military in the first place? Why is J.K. Simmons' character so hell bent upon finding Wolff?  For the love of Pete, why does the John Lithgow character even hire Wolff at all, knowing from the jump that he is the accountant who will indeed find the missing 61 million dollars that Lithgow really does not wish to be found? I mean--why not just hire some flunky at H&R Block? It would have saved him the trouble and then some but again, the movie would be over and we can't have that, especially when we need to see Wolff mow down absolutely EVERYBODY!!

The bottom line is this: for all of its flaws, plot holes and the like, Gavin O'Connor's "The Accountant" was just a load of damn blasted FUN! Believe me, this film was more fun than even one minute within Director Zack Snyder's overblown and utterly joyless "Batman v. Superman:  Dawn Of Justice," and sometimes, just being fun is all you need from a film, especially one as vigorously well made as "The Accountant" happens to be. And you already know about me and sequels, prequels, reboots, re-imaginings and the like generally. With regards to "The Accountant," and I can't believe that I am about to say this, but I would easily see a new installment featuring this character over another Batman anything again. 

Yup, I said it. Preposterous, ridiculous, laugh out loud inducing but still entertaining and action packed to keep my attention riveted to the screen, Gavin O'Connor's "The Accountant" is more than enough in the black!!! And speaking of sequels, if I need to get Ben Affleck and Matt Damon back together on screen, how about a joint, team-up feature with The Accountant and...Jason Bourne???

Stranger films have happened...maybe I should try and see if I can get a hold of Kevin Smith.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Let the full coronation of "La La Land" begin.

Just as I predicted within my review of the film, "La La Land" completely swept the Oscar nominations, which were announced on the morning of Tuesday, January 24th, with a record tying amount of 14 nods, the equal of only two other films,  Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" (1950) and James Cameron's "Titanic" (1997).

With that in mind, regardless of whether you or I feel those nominations were deserved or not for Writer/Director Damien Chazelle's lavish throwback yet modern movie musical (I'm certain that you do--for me, not quite so much), what this signified to me about the full list of nominations overall was that a certain and unfortunate predictability was in place...all the way to having Meryl Streep nominated once again and apparently just for arriving upon the film set.

Dear readers, the movie year of 2016 in its entirety was not a particularly good one and I will delve into my opinions about this subject once I get my annual Savage Scorecard series underway. But, in short, it was a year that displayed an enormous lack of originality, surprise and the types of personal visions that make going to the movies such a treasured and even transcendent experience for me. To that end, even the big budget crowd pleasers were mostly underwhelming with too many sequels, prequels, reboots, re-imaginings and so forth running the day and truth be told, even the ones that I did like are even beginning to find neutral safe-grounds that do not do anything to advance what has been started, potentially stagnating films that initially showed such promise.

Furthermore, there were too many films that I either did not see or even chose not to see this year, either out of complete disinterest or more often than not, I inadvertently did not see certain films because the window to screen typically smaller, independent films theatrically has grown that much tighter, making it impossible for me to see all that I would normally wish.

With regards to this year's Oscar nominations, the films chosen for the top nine Best Picture contestants were (mostly) unsurprising to me even though I have only seen four of the films. Yes, I was surprised to see Theodore Melfi's unexpected hit "Hidden Figures" (which I have not yet seen) relegated to the top tier of the year's films, mostly because it was just released widely this month. But aside from that, as well as Garth Davis' "Lion" and for goodness sakes, Mel  Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge" (more on that later) it would not have been hard pressed for anyone to predict that films such as Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival," Denzel Washington's "Fences," Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea" and David Mackenzie's "Hell Or High Water" would have been part of the pack to sit alongside "La La Land" as they were all some of the best reviewed films of the year.

Regardless of any sense of predictability, I am always thrilled to see great work find deserving recognition and for my money, all of the nominations bestowed upon the extraordinary "Moonlight" (Writer/Director Barry Jenkins, actors Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali, Composer Nicholas Breitell and Cinematographer James Laxton) made me the happiest by far. Additionally, to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis' work in "Fences," Natalie Portman's stellar performance plus Composer Mica Levi's innovative, disturbing score in "Jackie," and Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges' respectively heartbreakingly honest work in "Manchester By The Sea" all represented with nominations made me smile. Perhaps the nod that gave my my highest shout of joy was within the Best Original Screenplay category which found Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou nominated for writing "The Lobster," easily the most ORIGINAL screenplay of the year without question.

But then, of course there were the inevitable head scratchers including Meryl Streep's 20th nomination for "Florence Foster Jenkins," a film that was not widely seen by audiences and not nearly that well embraced by critics, giving further proof of the Academy's insistence on continuing to keeping her status as Hollywood royalty alive and vibrantly kicking at the expense of other actresses who really did deliver award worthy work. Most notably, I am thinking of Amy Adams, who was shockingly not nominated for her starring work in "Arrival" (yet, another film that I have not yet seen). Also, with the love shown to "Hidden Figures," why was that film's star Taraji P. Henson not nominated either?

And then, there was Mel Gibson.

Everyone knows that Hollywood loves a comeback story, a tale of redemption and after landing himself in Hollywood jail and exile ever since he made a barrage of  drunken anti-Semitic and sexist remarks not even ten years ago, Gibson returned with "Hacksaw Ridge," his first directorial feature in 10 years (which I have not and do not plan on seeing--I don't forgive as easily as Hollywood regarding these matters). With the nominations for his film, including one specifically for him in the Best Director category, shutting out the likes of Denzel Washington and even Martin Scorsese, whose "Silence" was completely snubbed save for cinematography, it appears that all has been inexplicably forgiven.

And yet, with Gibson's nomination, there appears to be a certain double standard at work, especially considering this Casey Affleck's Best Actor nomination despite his alleged sexual harassment charges and the complete box office failure and Academy snub of Writer/Director/Producer/Actor Nate Parker's Nat Turner slave rebellion passion project "The Birth Of A Nation," most likely due to the alleged rape charges made against him years ago. I'll let you ruminate ver that one for a spell...

Regarding the #OscarSoWhite controversy of the past couple of years, at first look at the new nominations for this year, I guess we can say...#OscarsLessWhite. Look, I am more than happy that several actors, writers and directors of color were nominated this year but to really see if the Academy is truly going to cast its nomination net more truthfully, we need to keep focused upon the nominations over the next few years to see if this year was a one time occurrence as eyes are fixated upon them or not. We shall see but this is indeed a start.

And with that, I am feeling that it will ultimately be an evening devoted to "La La Land," which unfortunately doesn't make for that exciting of a broadcast, especially if you happened to be as soft upon the film as I was. But, who knows, maybe there will be some sense of surprise and besides, I wouldn't miss the show for the world.

I'll see you to the 89th annual Academy Awards telecast on Sunday February 26th!!!!! 


Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Ever since his cinematic breakthrough with "The Sixth Sense" (1999), Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan has spent the last 18 years being crowned nothing less than "The Next Spielberg" or "The Next Hitchcock" to rapidly free falling into becoming a Hollywood punchline due to the deteriorating quality of his work. As for me, I never really gave up on Shyamalan as he possessed a certain filmmaking aesthetic that appealed to my particular sensibilities greatly--especially as I am not a fan of horror films. His more psychological, atmospheric and multi-themed style has made his specialized brand more than scary movies with a requisite plot twist.

When Shyamalan operated at his best, which featured selections like his finest film "Unbreakable" (2000) as well as the strong "Signs" (2002) and--I still stand firmly by this one--"The Village" (2004), I thoroughly enjoyed how he mastered the art of establishing a mood and palpable tension without bludgeoning the audience in violence, overactive cinematography and audio/visual shock tactics while always delivering characters and story at the forefront.

Even with his noble misfires like his weird bedtime story "The Lady In The Water" (2006) and the goofy yet thoughtful ecological thriller "The Happening" (2008), I continued to defend him even knowing full well he was not operating at his peak--in fact, he may have been possibly trying too hard to live up to a title that had been bestowed upon him, whether honestly or arrogantly. Yet, by the time of the truly awful "The Last Airbender" (2010), Shyamalan crashed and burned so badly for me that I never even bothered to see the films that even Hollywood did not even wish to advertise his name upon. As previously stated, I hadn't fully given up on him but I had figured that perhaps his time had maybe come and gone, his best work behind him. Maybe his talents had dried up. No harm, no foul. I wouldn't ridicule him but I figured that there just wouldn't be much to look forward to either.

And then, he made "The Visit" (2015).

"The Visit," a small, quiet little potboiler featuring two young siblings spending a week within the presence of their increasingly bizarre Grandparents presented M. Night Shyamalan in a scrappier and therefore, more creatively risky, if not fully fearless, position. Frankly, the film, while not a full return to form by any means, did indeed work well, demonstrating a feeling that Shyamalan was having fun again by making a delicate thriller that merged the personal with the quirky, scary and even a bit humorously nasty.

Now, with his latest feature, the psychological thriller "Split," M. Night Shyamalan has rebounded tremendously, arriving with his finest work since his heyday and for my money, left me with a reaction that I have not felt from any film of his since "Unbreakable." Who knows? Maybe he needed to get knocked down back to Earth. Maybe he needed to get some of the stuffing kicked out of him where the only expectation anyone could have from him were to not have any at all. The pressure was off and he could devise a hell of a sneak attack for audiences and with "Split," he has succeeded greatly with yet another scrappy yet elegantly mounted production that finds the filmmaker having a blast as he is working at the near fullness of his powers weaving a dark spell that is intense, harrowing, high-flying, undeniably thoughtful and by film's end, delivers a final moment that made me want to see it all over again. Welcome back!

"Split" begins with whiplash nightmare efficiency as three teenage girls--Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outcast Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy)--are all abducted from a shopping mall and imprisoned in an unknown subterranean locale by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), an individual whose mind and body has been overtaken by 23 differing personalities.

As the threesome attempt to survive by navigating through Kevin's dominating personalities of the taciturn, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," the sinister and strictly prim "Brenda," the more affable "Barry" and the 9-year-old "Hedwig," the film also stars Betty Buckley as Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher who believes that all of the different psychological states of the personalities can possibly manifest themselves further into physical transformations--which in Kevin's case is the emerging 24th personality known as "The Beast" to whom all three girls are meant to be sacrificed.

M. Night Shyamalan's "Split" finds the filmmaker returning to near the very top of his game with a newfound confidence and joy of cinematic storytelling which has ultimately produced an experience of genuine terror, intensity, empathy, wicked humor and the very level of surprise that is lacking in most films as well as the type of surprise that made audiences fans in the first place. Additionally, I am compelled to continue sending great credit to Shyamalan for again not succumbing to a barrage of overblown CGI special effects but instead relying upon the stunning cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, the turbulent, growling score by Composer West Dylan Thordson and most definitely, the terrific sound design, where every creak and squeak of Kevin's underground lair goes a long way in building the suspense and peril of the story.

What is certainly evident to me while watching the film is that Shyamalan is clearly having a grand time just being lost in the throes of creation, and this time his inspiration and skills have not failed him as he unfurls strong characters, dialogue, and flashback sequences while carefully building up motivations as well as a creeping doom that ignites exceedingly well. Yes, the film does fly into the world of surreal lunacy--at moments, it reminded me of Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981) or even Kevin Smith's "Tusk" (2014)--but Shyamalan remains grounded just enough to keep the horror tangible always reminding us that the danger for the three girls is terrifyingly real--kind of like Smith's exceedingly grim "Red State" (2011) or Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" (2015).

Now, at this time, I do have to reiterate how I am not a fan of horror films generally as I have never enjoyed the sensation of being scared and I often feel that the genre is more interested in ways to create gut churning visual effects and truly reprehensible torture porn rather than just creating strong stories to tell. The tactic of having women in jeopardy is also something that I have long had difficulties with as they often tend to reveal a certain sadism on the part of the filmmakers and it has long been explored within film criticism of how women exploring or expressing a certain sexuality are the ones who are punished mercilessly within the horror genre.

Now that being said, this is M. Night Shyamalan we're talking about and I do believe that the "contract" that he has placed with me and audiences in general informed me that he would have more on his mind than cheap, mean spirited thrills. For instance, Shyamalan gives us several sequences within the film exist as more cerebral matches between Kevin's personalities and his therapist--sequences that provide "Split" with a different layer of tension while also giving the audience room to breathe from the imprisoned girls. And yes, the film is indeed rated PG 13 (although, I will say that Shyamalan does take the film just to the edge of an R rating).

Having "Split" centered around three young girls in serious life-threatening danger is something that did give me a bit of a pause, but Shyamalan is clever enough to understand the history and trappings of having such a conceit and he has utilized the sick cliches of the genre to in fact comment upon them. Where some sort of sexualized history, emergence or trauma is actually treated with great sensitivity and empathy and also armed with a certain strength, ingenuity and survivalist tendency. In some ways, Shyamalan also possesses a certain empathy for Kevin and his mental illness, we can also see how he is also a victim of imprisonment but honestly, I really shouldn't say any more than that!

What I should tell you about is the sensational leading performance(s) by James McAvoy, an actor whom I have always admired but also have felt a certain sense of restraint. Well..with "Split," McAvoy is OFF THE CHAIN and he is clearly relishing the opportunity to completely let his freak flag fly high and proudly. With his shaved, eggshell like skull, McAvoy does a tremendous job personifying all of the various personalities with skill, agility and a certain sense of sinister bewilderment and tongue in check humor as well. I just marveled at his ability to switch from accents and even the subtlest of body language to signify each interior alteration of the character's increasingly unhinged mind and the effect is magnetic to regard as well as deeply frightening the longer the film continues.

James McAvoy's collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan simply fit like a hand in glove and you could easily feel each of these individuals being completely jazzed to be playing off of each other as actor and filmmaker, each inspiring the other to blaze forwards, taking "Split" to its full and stellar conclusion, which again, left me slack jawed in audible amazement. Now, I will say that while the full ending of "Split," which of course, I would never even dream to reveal, does not necessarily upend everything prior to it--we're just more clearly informed. And just as when Shyamalan accomplished his brilliant sleigh of hand with"The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," he again lays out all of his cards directly in front of you but it is with the way he lays them out--that is when he becomes a cinematic magician.

Who knows if this achievement will represent a full resurgence for M. Night Shyamalan but I am hoping that it proves to be just so for this idiosyncratic filmmaker who clearly possesses more than enough talent but seriously lost his footing for far too long. With "Split," Shyamalan stands tall once again with an exceptional thriller that legitimately excites, involves and makes you look over your shoulder more than once.

Monday, January 16, 2017

THE BACKUP: a review of "Manchester By The Sea"

Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In this age of the often mentioned and eve lamented sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings, and reboots, it has become increasingly and so sadly rare to find films that represent a semblance of life as it is honestly lived. No hyperbole. No manufactured manipulation. Just fierce attention to honest storytelling and the honest empathy and drama it can naturally convey. This is precisely what makes Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan a cinematic necessity.

Lonergan, who made a strong first impression with his critically and awards season acclaimed debut directorial feature "You Can Count On Me" (2000), yet stumbled greatly with the turbulent production of his second film "Margaret" (2011), has rebounded and returned powerfully with his third feature "Manchester By The Sea," a drama of patient, aching tragedy that never for one moment strikes a false note. While I was not as over the moon for this film as most critics have been, especially as we head straight into the new awards season, what Kenneth Lonergan has greatly accomplished cannot be denied whatsoever, as he has indeed crafted an adult film, with adult issues and emotions that houses perceptive, nuanced viewpoints for its entire cast of characters, again asking of us to spend some time in their shoes with the hopes of not being judgmental but understanding. "Manchester By The Sea" is a sobering, humane work of superb gravity.

In keeping in the spirit of the film's own trailers, I will keep my plot description of the film brief. "Manchester By The Sea" stars a fully grounded, and never better Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a reticent janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. Upon hearing word of his brother Joe's (Kyle Chandler) heart attack, Lee returns to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to then learn of Joe's subsequent death.

After breaking the news to the Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe's sixteen year old son and therefore, his nephew, Lee is further stunned to learn that Joe had named him as Patrick's guardian, a role Lee feels to be seismically unequipped to handle. The film also stars Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi and Gretchen Mol as Joe's wife, Elise.

Much has already been written about how Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea" is a sad film, sad to the point of being depressing. I will indeed inform you that the film is unquestionably sad as Lonergan has created a work that explores a family tragedy with all of the emotions of loss, mourning, anger, rage, futility, failings and all of the stages of grief contained therein. Yet, a depressing film? I would argue not quite as Lonergan has also created a slice-of-life film which honors the trials of simply living, of finding strength to take that next step into a new day, and to that, it is also a film of great, ribald, foulmouthed humor that never calls attention to itself bu tit also presented with the same perceptiveness to its collective of working class characters and the environment in which they all reside.

To terrific effect, Lonergan wisely eschews with all cinematic flourishes and keep the entirety of the proceedings as real and as raw as life, so much so, the film might at times appear to be a documentary if not for the fact that we already know several of the actors from previous movies. That being said, every single performance feels to be as authentic to the story and locations and as lived in as the communities presented, from the ones you can find populating the fishing boats, bars, businesses and hospitals. In fact, there were quite a number of instances where I wondered if some supporting players in various scenes were indeed local residents and not actors at all, so true the film looked and felt to me.

Yet, in regards to the film's primary performances, Casey Affleck is a quiet storm, hugely effective especially as his character is essentially a more internalized one due to the circumstances of his character's life, his occupation and why he departed his home town for Quincy in the first place. In many ways, "Manchester By The Sea" is yet another film in a sub-category of the prodigal son/daughter returning to their long departed home town due to some family tragedy. In so many cases, those films are rampant with cliches and such false impressions about how families and even small towns operate and exist. On the contrary, Lonergan avoids every single cliche and conceptual trapping richly, often beautifully and always armed with a strict attention to the subtleties of every character's internal life, which results in people that areas three dimensional as the ones we all know in the real world day to day.

I do realize that I am being purposefully cagey concerning some of the more major plot element of 'Manchester By The Sea" and it is not necessarily due to any plot twists for this is not that sort of film. I am being more reticent myself concerning some story elements, because I think the wayLonergan lays out the events of the Chandler family, and specifically Lee Chandler at times through some non-linear flashback sequences, every moment works wonders in detailing exactly who Lee Chandler is and why he feels insufficient to properly become Patrick's guardian.

Casey Affleck is tremendously equal to every moment and situation that Lonergan tosses at him, revealing a somber poignancy and anguish that allows him, and us in the audience, to explore not only our failings but our very limitations when dealing with life's obstacles. Lee may make some final decisions that you may disagree with but for me, I could fully understand and empathize with every single one. Casey Affleck has indeed given the performance of his career thus far.

In what is essentially a cinematic duet of sorts, I have to give considerable mention to Lucas Hedges whose portrayal of Patrick is indeed Affleck's equal for he gives at good as he receives and individually, he crafts the full psychological and emotional palate of a teenage boy dealing with a life altering experience, or better yet, the latest in a series of life altering experiences.

Patrick Chandler is a figure with a full life at school, with friends, his rock band, his role on the school hockey team, two girlfriends and the raging hormones that keep being stifled by the consistent presence of one of his girlfriend's Mother (well played by Heather Burns) as well as the joy he has received from his family's fishing boat. Lee potentially becoming his guardian carries its own amount of stresses for Patrick as well as he wonders if he has to leave the life he has known completely behind for Quincy or not and if Lee refuses his familial obligation, what would become of him in the long run.

The dance set in motion by Joe's death takes the relationship between Lee and Patrick, two figures who have loved each other tremendously, upon a more turbulent and tentative evolution as we regard two men being forced to grow up much faster than either of them are prepared to undertake. This is not to say that  "Manchester By The Sea" is another film revolving around male arrested development. Kenneth Lonergan has created a film that deals with the profound pain of immediate, forced change and how one chooses or is even able to adjust to that forced change or not. And again, I stress to you how non-judgmental the film is from end to end, as Lonergan has achieved a work where we in the audience can easily ask of ourselves what we would do if presented with the exact same situation.

What are our strengths and in turn, our limitations when it comes to our own individualized expectations of ourselves? Would we live up to ourselves when presented with forced change or would we falter,perceiving of ourselves as failure when in actuality, we just did the very best we could possibly do given the circumstances?  Kenneth Lonergan asks of us those very questions, the ones every character within his film "Manchester By The Sea" is asking of themselves. To witness the characters' collective journey throughout and completely devoid of histrionic, manufactured melodrama or more stylized operatics may prove to be somewhat uncomfortable viewing for those audiences members just wishing to head to the movies for an escape.

But even so, I urge you to not be deterred by the intense, palpable sadness for Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By The Sea" is stirring, deeply satisfying drama powerfully connected to the struggles and strains of the human condition.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A WIDOW CULTIVATES A LEGACY: a review of "Jackie"

Screenplay Written by Noah Oppenheim
Directed by Pablo Larrain
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Early into my afternoon screening of Director Pablo Larrain's captivating, unorthodox "Jackie," I quickly realized that I have never heard the sound of former First Lady, the late Jackie Kennedy's speaking voice.

This was a most intriguing discovery wile viewing a most intriguing film because this particular revelation made me ponder precisely other prominent to the point of being iconic world figures that seem so familiar but are indeed so terribly remote that it is as if you never knew them whatsoever--only the persona you had created for yourself.

For instance, when Diana, Princess Of Wales died from her car crash in 1997 and footage from her life began flooding the new s airwaves, it was that moment when I realized that I had never heard her voice before. And for that matter, I hadn't heard Prince Charles' voice either. It was fascinating to me how international figures so present, so ubiquitous, so known, so to speak, were truthfully so unknown. Therefore, how could time and history regard people such as these figures? Would they be real or just interpretations based upon the perceptions of the public and have nothing to do with the individual's actual state of being?

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" provides a compelling window into its iconic subject matter but not through anything resembling a stately biopic. In a fashion like Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" (2014), which focused upon two periods in the life of Brian Wilson and Don Cheadle's defiantly unorthodox "Miles Ahead" from earlier in 2016, which focused on one turbulent period in the life of Miles Davis, Larrain's "Jackie" utilizes the short period after President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination as a leaping off point to explore the inner world of Jackie Kennedy and her attempts to secure and ultimately cultivate the public and therefore, historical legacy of her husband as well as herself and completely under her own terms.

Truth be told, considering the subject matter, I really did not think that this film would be of any interest to me. But thankfully, after hearing some strong reviews on the radio, I took the risk and was exceedingly impressed with this unusual yet superbly haunting presentation which carries another startling, complete performance by Natalie Portman as the titular figure. Trust me, dear readers. I know that technicolor musicals and return trips to a galaxy far, far away are taking up nearly all of the attention but as with Denzel Washington's excellent "Fences," here is yet another decidedly adult feature filled with insightful, compelling, and provocative performances and concepts that is more than demanding of your attention and valuable. I gently urge you to carve out a space to see this particularly gripping film.

As previously stated, "Jackie" stars Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady, reeling from her nightmarishly front row seat to her husband's assassination and the moments, minutes, hours and days and short time thereafter that followed where she not only tends to plan her husband's funeral, procession and burial, console her two young children, vacate the White House to make room for the impending Johnson administration but to also utilize this tragedy as her starting point in solidifying the legacy which the couple had begun as the nation's First Family. Working within a non-linear narrative, the film possesses the central focal point of an interview between Jackie Kennedy and an unnamed journalist (portrayed by Billy Crudup) for an unnamed publication (although this piece of the film is supposedly based upon political journalist Theodore H.White's interview with Kennedy for LIFE magazine).

Pablo Larrain's"Jackie" takes the unquestionable national tragedy and its aftermath and transforms it into an intimate, psychologically complex film that explores the nature of public and private personalities and personas and the greater concepts of who is allowed to lay claim to your story in its creation, execution and longevity. This is an unconventional film (Composer Mica Levi's disturbing score deserves a most special mention), a film that is peculiar and ornate yet decidedly sharp and savvy. One where the epic is interior, a veritable hall of mirrors (perhaps signifying Larrain's distinct motif of having the film's Jackie Kennedy often facing her reflection) as our own memories and impressions of the real Jackie Kennedy and therefore, our notions of celebrity are reflected back towards us to a sometimes disturbing degree.

At the outset of this review, mentioned that I realized that I had no idea of what Jackie Kennedy even sounded like. All I have ever had to go n regarding her history has been her image, so pristine, obviously attractive, so fashionable with that pillbox hat all the while merged with her climbing towards the hood of her car in that horrific motorcade. I really had never carried any real impression of who she may have been and therefore, I have harbored no real connection. Jackie Kennedy has solely been an American cultural figure, an untouchable, unknowable image that perhaps even the idea of her having a signature sound to her voice felt equally unattainable.

And right away, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy began to speak and I was instantly struck with the strange sounding timbre. So breathy and fragile with that almost weird sounding and downright untraceable accent. Did the real woman really sound like that? Did anyone ever really sound like that? I have to say that upon returning home from the film, I went straight to You Tube to see if I would be able to locate any archived footage and sure enough, there it was: "A Tour Of The White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy" which ran as a television special in 1962. Within mere moments, I heard the real voice of Jackie Kennedy and I was thunderstruck at how perfectly Portman captured a sound that still just felt so alien. Believe me, in this regard, Natalie Portman completely nailed it!

That being said, Natalie Portman's full performance is by no means solely an exercise in imitation. On the contrary, she delves as deeply psychologically as she did with her towering, harrowing work in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (2010), but this time  her performances is a complex myriad of subtle shadings rather than existing as something operatic or overtly unhinged. Again, I return to the sound of the voice as Portman's Jackie Kennedy is depicted as one who deftly utilized her voice in a variety of fashions depending upon with whom she was speaking. On the aforementioned television special (which is lavishly re-created within Larrain's film), Jackie Kennedy is coy and coquettish. Yet, when dealing with the rapidly ongoing and even mounting political pressures of Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), JFK's successor President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and political consultant Jack Valenti (Max Casella), that soft spoken timbre remains yet she is formidable in presence and force.

Further still, in the interview sequences between herself and the journalist, Jackie remains soft spoken, yes. But these sequences are tense, quietly combative and politely contentious, as there exists a certain power struggle that speaks to the hands of journalism slowly relinquishing its control in pursuit of the scoop (especially with the rising presence and influence of television) whereas for Jackie Kennedy, it is entirely about controlling the public perceptions rather than having it controlled and ultimately, personally erecting and directing the legacy set in motion by her husband and herself. I particularly loved the moment when Jackie challenges her interviewer by proclaiming that she already knows precisely why he is at her Massachusetts abode for this particular interview--he wants to capture what it was like for he to hear the bullet hitting her husband's skull while riding in the motorcade. He attempts to suggest otherwise and then, Jackie begins to slowly, evocatively and tearfully spill her deepest emotions concerning those fateful moments upon November 22, 1963. Yet, once finished, her tone turns icy when she states with finality, "You don't expect me to let you print that do you?"

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" and Natalie Portman's performance in particular is a riveting examination of perceptions both public and private with that signature voice also alerting the audience to her state of mind plus her overall intentions depending upon whom she was surrounded by, from her inner circle to the eyes and ears of the nation itself, or even those seemingly rare moments when she was entirely alone surrounded by the fractured solitude of her own consciousness.

One could never really know the complete inner world of Jackie Kennedy other than the woman herself but Larrain performs a striking task by depicting several sequence when Jackie Kennedy is indeed alone and we indeed are forced to infer what could possibly be fueling her drive, propelling her to continue when so many of us would crumble on the spot. Scenes where she is washing the blood of her husband from her skin. Or when she is disrobing from the blood and brain stained clothes of that day. Or another sequence when she is packing her belongings from the White House while inexplicably listening to a cast album recording of the Richard Burton starring "Camelot" (released December 12, 1960) of all things. Or also taking in a White House performance while wearing a completely impenetrable visage.

Yes...that is the word to describe the characterization of Jackie Kennedy that I witnessed in Larrain's film: Impenetrable. Yet, trust me dear readers, it is not impenetrable to a frustrating or even to a pointless degree.  I think what Pablo Larrain and definitely Natalie Portman have tried to achieve and convey is a portrait of a figure who was indeed impenetrable as she was forced into existing as a variety of different people as different people all the while being housed inside of one woman, who incidentally happened to not only be the First Lady but the third youngest woman at that time to have ever held that title.

Jackie Kennedy was indeed a woman caught in the throes of an unthinkable experience and yet, Larrain argues with his film, she was steadfast, formidable and perhaps even just that unhinged enough to move forwards while refusing to reveal her cards, to fully give herself away personally or psychologically. To think, here she was literally holding her husband's skull together and metaphorically holding the lives of her family and I would gather her sanity together single-handedly while creating the lasting record before someone else did it for her.

How does one even exist in that specialized of a fishbowl? Who is allowed to write the story of one's life when you happen to be an extraordinary public figure? With that question in mind, what is indeed the truth? All of those concepts regarding the nature of the truth, especially with the rise of television, should speak volumes in the 21st century as we are now existing in what is being referred to by some as a "post-truth" era in the dawn of Donald Trump, where reality is whatever you wish for it to be within any given moment, logic, reason and facts be damned.

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" speaks directly to those themes plus the nature of celebrity, controversy and even the elaborate designs of legacies and myth making. Is Larrain arguing that Jackie Kennedy herself bought into the mythology of her family's perception as American royalty or did she assist greatly in its original conception, all the while playing puppet master over the populace and the press?

"Jackie" is mesmerizing filmmaking and storytelling. Absolutely fascinating to ponder and often exquisitely gripping to view.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


Happy New Year to you once again!!!

I will try to keep this initial posting of the new year short and sweet, especially considering how January tends to be a quieter month for new film releases. As always, I will be playing a bit of catch up with a couple of films I just did not have the time to see in  December as well as some 2016 releases will finally receive a full nationwide release during the month.

1. I had not originally planned to see "Jackie" starring Natalie Portman as the subject matter did not grab my initial interest. Yet, it was due to a couple of glowing, intriguing reviews I heard over the radio that made me re-think my original view. Hopefully, I can catch it tomorrow...
2.  Every time Martin Scorsese releases a new film, it is an event as far as I am concerned so getting myself to "Silence" joyously inevitable!
3. I am certain that you are all wondering just why oh why I would be remotely interested in anything M. Night Shyamalan would be up to and yes, seeing a new film release in January is not a good sign. But still, I pull for the guy and the initial trailers for his latest thriller "Split" starring James McAvoy were indeed effective. So, we'll see....

In addition to those films and my strong desire to try and see "Rogue One" again, my annual four part Savage Scorecard Series compiling my favorite and least favorite films of 2016 will also be upon my personal docket.  So, as always,  think good thoughts and wish me luck...

...and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!