Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

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Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!

Ordinary People (1980)

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Ordinary people played by extraordinary actors directed by 70s superstar Robert Redford in his debut behind the camera. All in cripplingly good taste, said the critics, who certainly weren’t happy that he won Best Director at the Academy Awards and the film picked up Best Picture. The Judith Guest novel was adapted by Alvin Sargent and it concerns the upper middle class Jarrett family after suicidal son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) returns from a mental hospital. Turns out he’s guilty about the death of his older and favoured brother in a boating accident. He’s sent to psychiatrist Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch) for help while Mom (Mary Tyler Moore) gradually reveals the true character behind that brittle facade as Dad (Donald Sutherland) tells her how tough she is when he pays a visit to the shrink himself. Seeing TV’s much-loved MTM as a tough cookie who seems to wish it was her younger son who died is a revelation. However it’s hard to pick out the best performance among the ensemble, which also includes Elizabeth McGovern, better known from TV’s Downton Abbey nowadays. Hutton also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and he offers a perceptive and touching characterisation. It feels like an autumnal sonata, in a minor key.

A Note for Oscar Hopes

On the eve of the Academy Awards ceremony, one can only sit back and wait for the inevitable. Voting closed last Tuesday evening and is now conducted virtually, for those of the ageing Academy who can understand such  technological advances. While there are regular gripes about the winning films and performers in the main categories and loud murmurs about the expensive press campaigns and the use of screener dvds (which should not help the hopes of the incredible 3D production that is Gravity) it is worth bearing in mind that this is American cinema and studio chicanery at its finest. 12 Years a Slave is rated ‘important’ since it is both historical and socially relevant yet its episodic structure – another year, another brutal slave owner, another beating – is frustrating and heavy-handed and eventually numbing. Its claim to originality is found wanting since it was revealed that the great Gordon Parks directed an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story for American Playhouse some 30 years ago. However its worthiness is not in question but Alfonso Cuaron should at least take the directing award. Since my personal favourite performances by Tom Hanks in both Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks weren’t even nominated and Robert Redford’s finest screen appearance was similarly ignored in All Is Lost, it remains for the chips to fall where they will. The bookies favour Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club but Leonardo Di Caprio is simply great in Wolf of Wall Street, another brilliant collaboration with Martin Scorsese and a project the actor personally shepherded for years. Cate Blanchett seems a shoo-in for Best Actress in Blue Jasmine, a role in which she mainly talks to herself in what might be a gloss on Mia Farrow, according to a recent Vanity Fair article (which probably started the anti-Woody tide of op-eds led by his adopted daughter’s repeated claim of molestation following the Golden Globes tribute). Sandra Bullock’s role was certainly far more physically challenging, but she too spends an entire film talking to herself. Original screenplay-wise the odds are on American Hustle, mainly because it consists of four shysters talking to each other in a way that most capitalists understand – about money – but it would be a shame to overlook Her, an ingenious and contemporary take on the eternal oscillations of love and machinery. The Adapted category has its chief contenders in the aforementioned Wolf … and 12 Years … and while the former is simply astonishing the latter has more politically correct connotations, to put it mildly. The occasional inelegance of the ceremony itself is honed by its historicism and lack of pretention, save in the Foreign Film category, which, if there is justice, should go to Paolo Sorrentino’s majestic The Great Beauty. This is an industry event, which goes some way towards explaining why people’s favourite films almost never win – Psycho, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – and why you will almost certainly never watch Crash again, if you’ve had the misfortune to have seen  it once. But, oh, what larks! Let the games commence.