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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Top Ten Sundance Grand Jury Winners

So today the Sundance Film Festival wraps up for another year, bringing forth a fine selection of movies that I look forward to catching later in the year and acting all snobbish when I know what that movie is about and who made it while everyone else is just hearing about it, but not quite as snobbish as the select few who attended the festival and saw said movie. Anyway, for over thirty years now the festival has provided a platform for independent filmmakers and like any festival is chooses a select few each year to present with an award.

For Sundance the most esteemed prize it can give is the Grand Jury Prize, honouring what the year’s jury deems to be the best film of the festival. In honour of that I thought I would provide a list of my ten favourite Grand Jury Prize winners in the history of the Sundance Festival. So without further ado, here it is.

10: Like Crazy
In case you needed reminding just what a tragedy Anton Yelchin’s death last year was, one of his finest roles came in this drama that impressed the 2011 Sundance Jury enough to take the top prize. The film tells the story of Anna played by Felicity Jones, a British exchange student who falls in love with an American student, Jacob (Yelchin), only to be separated from him when she is denied re-entry into the United States after staying in the country longer than her student visa allows. When taking their performances as they are, each actor is brilliant, sharing excellent chemistry and heart wrenching nuances when separate. But the story behind the films development makes you appreciate it even more, with director and co-writer Drake Doremus assembling a 50 page outline of the story in which Yelchin and Jones improvised almost all of their dialogue. It’s an extraordinary undertaking and makes for an emotionally resonant movie.

9: Poison
Before he went on to direct acclaimed features such as ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Carol’, Todd Haynes began his career with this provocative, three-part exploration of AIDS-era queer perceptions and subversions that established him as a formidable talent and figure of a new transgressive cinema. It is a remarkably strong and bold debut film, boasting a stylistically and conceptually audacious piece of filmmaking. Haynes manages to make each of his three stories distinct and unique in their visual style but links them with a strong thematic component that gives the film as a whole a strong impact. Haynes has continued to explore the themes he raised in ‘Poison’ and it served as the perfect platform from which to launch himself as a bold new voice in an ever changing world.

8: Welcome to the Dollhouse
Coming of age films are rarely as painfully hilarious as Todd Solondz’s surprise hit of 1996. It demonstrates the there are few forms of torment more cruel than the way unpopular kids are treated at school. Admittedly some may be inclined to disagree with me on that, but I’d challenge you to sit through ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ without wincing at the intense honesty with which Solondz recounts his story. It helps that Heather Matarazzo is fantastic in the lead role as Dawn, an outsider in all walks of life, tormented at school, excluded from social circles and ignored by her own family. Some storytellers would show some restraint and sugar coat the material but Solondz remains faithful to his tone and perseveres in his agonizingly funny feature.

7: Primer
‘Primer’ is one of those films where the audience became so pre-occupied with the mechanics of the plot (which are mind numbingly brilliant with its experimental plot and dense dialogue) that they forget to acknowledge the fantastic filmmaking that is on display. Its low budget does not restrict Shane Curreth at all, who uses his directorial skills to make every shot meaningful and weighty. It is dense and innovative in its structure, ‘Primer’ is sure to challenge viewers on an intellectual level like few other movies ever have. It is methodical and heavy on technical jargon, but for those willing to listen it rarely feels overwrought or overtly dense. Whether it infuriates you or connects with you, it is bound to start a discussion and that is what bold voices  

6: Fruitvale Station
Perhaps the best thing about Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is how it seems to put aside the political aftermath of the story of Oscar Grant in favour of telling a very personal and intimate portrait. While this story holds great weight in the discussion of race relations and the role of police officers, Coogler’s script allows us as an audience to simply hang out with Grant for a day. We witness his struggles, flaws, hopes, dreams and triumphs. We empathise with him on an itimate level, brought out more by Coogler’s delicate direction and a truly terrific performance by Michael B Jordan. This makes the ultimate, and all true tragedy all the more heart breaking. Just a few years on Coogler is fresh from his international acclaim after directing ‘Creed’ and is slated to helm Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, all thanks to this expertly crafted independent film.

5: You Can Count On Me
As we speak, numerous industry commentators are speculating on how many awards Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 drama ‘Manchester by the Sea’ will win. Sixteen years before his recent masterwork premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Longeran attended the festival with his directorial debut ‘You Can Count on Me’. Telling the story of Sammy, played by Laura Linney, a single mother living in a small town, and her complicated relationships with her brother Terry, played by a pre-Hulk Mark Ruffalo. Boasting two extraordinarily tender and heartfelt performances by Linney and Ruffalo its seemingly simple story is superbly crafted and extremely moving.

4: American Splendour
In an era when comic book movies reign supreme in almost every walk of movie life now, one film that seems to have been forgotten in the shuffle. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s biopic about Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comic book series. Pekar’s comic was autobiographical in itself, chronicling his daily life and frustrations that were to him, more exciting and invigorating than any superhero. It stunningly integrates Pekar’s art with his reality, with the script and direction combining the various elements of his life, all underpinned by an excellent performance by Pail Giamatti, into a strikingly stylish portrait.

3: Winter’s Bone
Jenifer Lawrence’s popularity may have skyrocketed since 2011 and though I’m a fan of most of her work since then, for me her high point and best performance can still be found in Debra Granik’s independent film. Lawrence plays a teenaged girl in the rural Ozarks of the central United States who, to protect her family from eviction, must find her missing father. It is bleak and haunting in both its visual style and its themes that deal with family ties, poverty and self-sufficiency as well as how all are changed next to the influence of the underworld methamphetamine labs. Lawrence in particular brings a poignant performance that is punctuated with the rawness and difficulty of the world she lives in but still retains a sense of hope and optimism that elevates the film even further.

2: Whiplash
It may be recent but I think I can safely say that Damien Chazelle’s intense drama will go down as one of the greatest films to ever screen at the Sundance Festival, let alone win its esteemed Grand Jury Prize. From the opening frame the psychological intensity and pulsating rhythm of the film are overtly obvious and maintained for its entirety, right up until that painstakingly brilliant finale that, dare I say it, stands as potentially the greatest ending in cinema history. It is easy to talk about ‘Whiplash’ and do nothing but discuss J.K Simmons frighteningly forceful yet infectiously charismatic performance that rightly won him an Oscar, but spare some thought for Miles Teller’s remarkably empathetic lead role. Then there is Chazelle’s masterful direction, which elevates the already watertight screenplay to the highest levels of perfection. Given he is now sweeping the awards circuit yet again with ‘La La Land’ it is not difficult to see why ‘Whiplash’ launched him onto the scene in such a powerful way.

1: Blood Simple
I am inclined to the argument that ‘Whiplash’ is the superior film out of these top two, in fact given a few more years where its legacy can further cement itself into our collective consciousness I might place it at the number one spot. But when it comes to demonstrating just how valuable the Sundance Film Festival is in providing new artists with a platform to launch their careers and go on to achieve greatness, then no other product of the festival has yet to match that of Joel and Ethan Coen, who arrived at the 1984 festival with their directorial debut. But even putting that aside ‘Blood Simple’ is still a truly fantastic movie. The neo-noir is packed with stylish directorial choices, excellent performances and a tense and thrilling plot that evokes the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Like many of the Coen’s films it is as darkly hilarious as it is brutally violent, balancing each contrasting element with a strikingly bold visual palette. It introduced the world to a new generation of filmmakers who have been crafting amazing films ever since.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

T2 Trainspotting


"Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares."

There is always an instinctive worry with making a sequel to a great movie. Even if it is released immediately afterwards there is a weight of expectation on its shoulders that it has to support, as well as stand on its own as a worthy successor. But when a film like ‘Trainspotting’ which has had over twenty years to build up a legacy and reputation as a generation defining film, then the pressure is most definitely on.

Twenty years have gone by since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) last saw his friends Spud (Ewen Bremmer), and Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) but when he returns to his home town of Edinburgh following a near death experience to try to make amends and put his past actions to rest. But he must also avoid the psychopathic and newly freed Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who is out for revenge.

I will immediately say that anyone who goes into ‘T2 Trainspotting’ looking for a repeat of the first film will be disappointed. This sequel never truly re-captures the magic of the first film, but therein lies its genius. As well as catching up on where these characters are and what they are doing, ‘T2 Trainspotting’ acknowledges that they are all searching for what they had in the past, but willingly acknowledges that deep down it can never be reached again.

It uses the 20 years that have passed since the first film as the main thematic driving point of the sequel. When Renton returns to his home he hopes that he can apologise to his friends and pick up where they left off, and though his friends are angry at him for what they did they welcome him with the same ambition. Throughout the film they look back on not only their own memories, but the past in general. The culture that spawned them and ‘Trainspotting’ itself from their favourite footballers of yesteryear to the infamous “Choose Life” campaign.

For this reason it may be a good idea to familiarise yourself with the original before going into ‘T2 Trainspotting’. Not just for the subtle visual nods that recall the first film, but also for its environment and location. As soon as Renton arrives in Scotland once more Boyle makes it obvious that the entire landscape around him has changed under his feet. Each of the characters reach, or have already come to, this conclusion over the course of the film, that they are merely relics of a time gone by and trying to recapture their lives twenty years ago simply is not possible now. In perhaps the most strikingly poignant line of the entire film Sick Boy tells Renton that he is “a tourist in your own youth”. Whatever enterprise or scheme the group undertakes here is just an excuse to try and re-live the glory days rather than moving forward with their lives and getting out of the rut they are all currently in.

That leads me onto the fact that not everyone may be pleased with where the characters have ended up, not just at the start of the film but also by its end. But it still feels true to those characters and to the kind of film both this and ‘Trainspotting’ were. Also, just like the original, the cast are all fantastic, perfectly sinking back into their roles not in an imitation but in a fully realised portrait of what each character would be doing twenty years on from when we last saw them. McGregor, Bremmer, Miller and Carlyle retain that excellent dynamic they had a group but also shine individually. Though I was initially disappointed that Kelly McDonald felt underused as Diane only re-appears for one extended scene, within the context of the film it makes perfect sense. Diane has moved on with her life, and is therefore no longer a part of the world that Renton seeks to recapture.

Like his cast, Danny Boyle has returned with just as much bravado as his original handling of Irvine Welsh’s writing. His camera still possesses the same manic energy and pulsating rhythm that ran through the first film. His stylistic choices are not only inventive as they were in the first one, but they even utilise modern technology to enhance them when necessary, creating some strikingly stylish visual set pieces that the original would never have been able to create.

I suppose the only area where the sequel really falls down is that it struggles to make itself feel necessary. True it is a joy to catch up with each character and see what has become of their lives, but at the same time ‘T2 Trainspotting’ doesn’t quite evoke a sense that I needed to see it. I suppose that is the inherent problem when following up such a singularly strong film as ‘Trainspotting’ but even when taking that into account the sequel feels like an accessory to the original rather than an essential addition. But as I said before, it takes that theme and uses it as a major crux of the film, questioning why we obsess over the past when we should be moving further forward.

Energetic and pulsating like the original, with a cast that are just as superb upon revisiting them. But at the heart of ‘T2 Trainspotting’ lies an emotionally resonant, sometimes painfully so, script.

Result: 8/10

Friday, 27 January 2017

Trainspotting: Forms of Addiction


Not only is Danny Boyle’s seminal masterpiece over twenty years old by now, but the sequel is right around the corner, quite literally for myself in fact. So it should come as no surprise that I want to look back on the 1996 film. It is easy to underestimate just how brilliant ‘Trainspotting’ is, one could see it as little more than an aimless story of junkies in the squalor of urban Edinburgh. But by adapting Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle tapped into a culture so perfectly and summarised an entire state of mind without fault that it is remarkable to experience it again today.

One question I’m always asked by people who have never seen the film is why it is called ‘Trainspotting’. If they don’t already know that the film is about heroin addiction they seem especially taken aback when I tell them that, at which point they just ask the same question those who do know what the film is about will say, “Why is it called ‘Trainspotting’?” Irvine Welsh has faced similar questioning concerning his original novel. He stated that trainspotting is seen as a boring and pointless hobby by almost anyone others than those who partake in it. Those who have never tried it can never see the point of it.

The script makes the same case for heroin. Unlike many other films of its era that tackle the same subject matter ‘Trainspotting’ made the bold decision to neither condemn nor condone drug use. It acknowledges the terrible, life crushing aftereffects of it. It can be degrading and dehumanizing on so many levels. The film never even gives an explicit reason as to why Mark Renton and his friends indulge in the poison, but as the main character himself proudly states at the start of the movie “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

To be fair that is not strictly true. Through its imagery and environments the film alludes to the deeper meaning behind drug use, the idea that through the squalor and decay lies the other side, the endless feeling of bliss. For the characters of ‘Trainspotting’ heroin is a tool from which to take the pain of life away, a means to cope with daily struggles and keep going until the next day. When Renton tries to wean himself off of heroin he still finds himself desperate for a hit in one way or another, whether it be through sex, alcohol or prescription drugs. Just one more hit to get him through the day.

Some of those prescription drugs are stolen from his own mother, with Renton noting that “she, in a more socially acceptable way, is also a drug addict”. ‘Trainspotting’ acknowledges the fact that everyone is an addict in some shape or form. The only thing that separates him from the public is that society does not frown upon their addictions. It shows us the alternatives in the form of Begbie, who lectures Renton about the evils of his addiction, but his own temperament and aggression serve as his addiction. He starts fights only to brag to his friends about them, this is his idea of a hit. Another example is in Tommy and the way that with his girlfriend, Lizzie, he seems content to live a drug free life. But when she leaves him he descends into heroin addiction like the others, replacing one hit with another. Even Sick Boy seeks solace in his admiration of Sean Connery, but it all leads back to the heroin.

As with all forms of addiction there is a severe down turn for each stimulant. When Tommy, Renton and Spud go looking for sex and find it there is a drawback for all of them. Spud is too intoxicated to actually have intercourse and then…..well you know the rest. Tommy and Lizzie end up arguing over a misplaced sex-tape and as for Mark. Well he discovers the woman he picked up and had sex with is actually a fifteen year old schoolgirl who then proceeds to blackmail him into seeing her again.

If anything, the life these characters lead is only punctuated by a series of highs and lows. No matter how often it seems that they have reached a high point and are free of their misery, something pulls them back to reality and they are right back where they started. The film itself seems almost plotless, with little to no narrative drive or straightforward arc, but when looks closer it is easy to find. Everyone wants to get high, even if it’s just for a little bit.

The remarkable thing is that even with this commentary it would still be easy for ‘Trainspotting’ to look down upon its characters, to reassure the audience that they are different from us and deserve to be separate. But it never does. It marks them out as fully realised people and by replicating iconic cultural images like Nirvana albums and Beatles covers, but inserting his own characters into them, Boyle has placed Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie within our own society and make them a part of us. We are no longer mere observers, and the way Boyle incorporates pop culture into his story provides a connection to our world as well as a way to invigorate us. We are wired into the psyches of the characters, feeling their bliss, excitement, longing, pain and heartbreak through the films use of music.

It also helps that the cast are superb on all fronts. If the film has any moral code it is Renton, played to perfection by Ewan McGregor. His manic and wild performance is underpinned with an air of sadness, especially in the films quieter moments. It makes us realise that Mark understands the futility of his current existence, but where most people would turn to other forms of refuge, he takes heroin. McGregor makes us see Mark’s position in between societies, blocked by the rest of the world but not ready to give in and succumb to the abys as his friends do. Robert Carlisle brings such an urgent energy to Begbie that you can immediately sense his presence and his personality before he even throws his first punch. Ewen Bremmer and Johnny Lee Miller round off the quartet of friends, and both bring a unique personality to their respective characters, but at the same time they are both linked by the common oppression of their addictions.

But the most valuable player of all may be Danny Boyle himself. When ‘Trainspotting’ was first released Boyle earned comparisons to the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino, and in my opinion he is certainly worthy of such praise. He directs ‘Trainspotting’ with a sense of energy that few other directors could bring to the material. His camera is vibrant and ever moving, capturing the raw intensity and urgency of how these characters are living their lives. His wide angles, vivid colours and perfect compositions all draw us deeper into the pulse pounding rollercoaster, more expressionistic than realistic at times as he renders the internal as external. But at the same time he lets us see the deeper themes of his movie.

Danny Boyle did far more than just tap into a popular culture by making ‘Trainspotting’. With his cast and equally powerful source material he sought to inject a dose of reality straight into his audience and he did so in the most effective way he could. Through ‘Trainspotting’ Boyle is not just taking us for a ride, he wants us to see the big picture, however fleeting or hopeless it may be.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Bye Bye Man


"Don't say it, don't think it."

We saw some truly fantastic horror movies in 2016, from the visceral, heart pounding thrills of ‘Green Room’ to the quiet and haunting atmosphere of ‘The Witch’. I was hoping that the acclaim both movies received would inspire the big studio horror movies to put a little more effort into their picture, strive to do better and achieve a greater sense of artistic merit. But why on earth would they do that when dumpster fires like ‘The Bye Bye Man’ are already made?

When three college friends stumble upon the horrific origins of the Bye Bye Man, they discover that there is only one way to avoid his curse: don't think it, don't say it. But as events continue to spiral out of control and the dreaded curse grows ever nearer they find it all the more difficult to avoid falling into certain doom.

‘The Bye Bye Man’ is a terrible film. I need to say that straight away because there is no hiding it, no skirting around it and no dressing up of the final verdict. This is an awful, horribly made, poorly acted, uneventful piece of garbage. It is assembled of components that are shamelessly ripped from other horror films and is ultimately too idiotic to come anywhere near effective horror, but too banal and boring to be unintentionally hilarious. You know you are in trouble when even the most basic premise of your film fails to make sense, but at the very least you could attempt to give some explanation or amount of detail concerning said premise.

The backstory makes about as much sense as anything else in the movie, and even then the titular Bye Bye Man never felt like an opposing threat. It’s just like any other faceless entity that has to hunt down a group of idiotic teenagers. There is nothing unique, innovative or even mildly interesting about it. The best horror movies establish the stakes and narrative thrust as quickly as they can, but ‘The Bye Bye Man’ never comes remotely close to establishing either of these aspects. The most basic of storytelling elements are abandoned right out of the gate in favour of paper thin characters, clichéd plot devices and so many terrible, predictable, infuriating jump scares.

The fact that the plot lacks any sense of cohesion is made even worse by the movie being clearly chopped down to a PG-13 rating. The editing is so raw and choppy that even the most basic of scenes become difficult to map out and when something does actually happen I was genuinely concerned that the director had just dropped a camera down a flight of stairs to mimic a sense of panic.

It is unbelievably inept, and baffling to think that multiple people looked at this movie and thought “we can release this, this is good enough for public consumption”. It’s writing manages to be overly expositional to a woeful degree, but also so mind numbingly empty of details of logic that I found myself questioning what was happening literally seconds from the films end. The dialogue is virtually non-existent as it might as well be stage directions to the audience in terms of how they could salvage some sense of meaning from this train wreck.

But even the most basic components of filmmaking, such as lighting, camera angles, staging and location all seem so horribly off. There seems to be no limit to its incompetence as it seeps into every solitary aspect of the film and all of this is simply on a technical level. When you take into account how pitifully uneventful the film is, with each boring section only punctuated by the occasional outburst of bloodless violence it becomes even worse.

It must be difficult for any actor in a film this awful, to be given such clichéd, uninteresting and unmotivated characters and be expected to somehow bring them to life. But even then there is no accounting for how unbelievably terrible the actors in ‘The Bye Bye Man’ are. It’s not even that they are hilariously bad, but they are so bland and forgettable that I could not recall a single instance during the entire film that they genuinely convinced me of the emotions or events that I was being told were taking place on screen. In the middle of this confusing mess appears the legendary Faye Dunaway, but even she seems incapable of acting properly. Having starred in some of the greatest films of all time like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Network’ even she can’t escape the all-consuming incompetence of ‘The Bye Bye Man’.

By far the scariest thing about ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is the idea that 2017 might herald a movie that could be worse than this.

Result: 1/10

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Split


"An individual with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with their thoughts."

Few directors have managed to turn their names into box office poison like M Night Shyamalan. His spectacular fall from one of the hottest creative commodities in Hollywood to a studio fighting tooth and nail to make sure his name makes no appearance on any film he is working on (you would have had to employ a detective agency to find out he directed ‘After Earth’ from the marketing). With such catastrophic disasters as ‘The Happening’, ‘The Village’, ‘Lady in the Water’, ‘The Last Airbender’ and the already mentioned ‘After Earth’ is there any hope left for Shyamalan?

Beneath his relatively normal appearance, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) harbours 23 different personalities due to a severe split personality disorder. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him as well as everyone around him as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.

Just to get this out of the way right from the start, ‘Split’ is genuinely a good film. That is not a joke, a red herring or a piece of sarcasm. Despite all laws of the world suggesting otherwise, from the unintentionally hilarious trailer from the fact that it’s from the director who hasn’t made a good film in seventeen years, ‘Split’ is a good movie. It is not perfect by any means, it has its flaws. But making a good movie is a big step up from making films that are fundamentally broken on every conceivable level. Before anyone brings it up, no I did not like ‘The Visit’.

What is particularly remarkable about ‘Split’ is how well shot it is. Again it’s not mind bindingly spectacular but given that Shyamalan spent the best part of two decades failing to compose a single provocative, elegant or meaningful shot in his films then ‘Split’ marks a very welcome return to form. The shots were intriguingly constructed, being expertly framed and containing a slow, creeping movement to them, adding to the levels of suspense and tension that permeated the film and ultimately elevating them.

It is surprising how palpable the tension is and how well it is raised just from the direction alone. I have to commend Shyamalan (wow it feels weird saying that) for grappling the essence of his screenplay and using his skill as a director to translate the nuances of that screenplay on a visual level. Not only that but the way the film is shot actually makes the initial concept seem less ridiculous. While it could easily venture into unintentional hilariousness, Shyamalan’s direction plays a big part in making the concept feel grounded and believable in regards to how he approaches it.

That being said, the biggest attribute of the movie and the key to its success is James McAvoy’s lead performance. It cements just what a talented actor McAvoy is and I truly believe that with any less talented artist this film simply would not work. To balance so many different personalities is a challenge for any actor, but to unite them with an undercurrent of similarities that cement them as being from the same source is something that is very worthy of praise. It’s also good to see that McAvoy fully commits to the role, conveying each new side of Kevin through his tone of voice, facial expressions, his very physicality, they all help distinguish the different characters as separate entities. Once again it is an idea that could so easily have been laughable but McAvoy employs just the right amount of gravitas to feel threatening at all times, even Kevin’s calmer personalities have a chilling air to them due to how innocent they seem in contrast to the brutality of his other personalities.

Though McAvoy is fantastic I can’t say the same for the three actresses portraying his victims. Naturally their performances would seem lesser in comparison due to the sheer scale of McAvoy’s task. But even when taken on their own Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula rarely expressed the urgency of their situation, namely being kidnapped by an insane person with multiple personalities. On a few occasions they detracted from a scene just from the way they were reacting to McAvoy. Luckily Betty Buckley is much more capable as Kevin’s psychiatrist and their conversations are perhaps the film’s most intriguing scenes. Or at least they would be were it not for how awkwardly paced a few of them were. The way their interactions were edited sometimes felt needlessly overthought and lacked any natural flow or progression.

That being said the screenplay rarely falters as badly. When taken on its own the way ‘Split’ is written is surprisingly watertight as well, save for some contrived reasoning, some on the nose dialogue and awkward transitions. I felt invested within the situation and was swept up in the narrative flow, characters had established motivations that drove their actions later in the film and those character in question even have a surprising amount of depth to them.

A new Shyamalan movie and, what a twist, it’s actually good.

Result: 7/10

Monday, 23 January 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage


"It feels good to be back."

So, anyone else excited for a threequel that comes more than a decade after it was originally supposed to be produced, featuring the leading man who starred in the first and declined to return for the second film leading to the sequel flopping at the box office and proving detrimental to the plans of the third film only to now have said leading man return for the third film? This is the world we now live in.

After coming out of self-imposed exile, daredevil operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) must race against time to recover a sinister weapon known as Pandora's Box, a device that controls every military satellite in the world (don’t you just hate it when governments do that?). Recruiting a new group of thrill-seeking cohorts, Xander finds himself entangled in a deadly conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of government.

As far as ridiculous titles go, ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ is up there. Firstly in regards to putting XXX in the title of your film you may attract the wrong sort of crowd. Secondly who is Xander Cage and why should I even care about him? Third, who the hell calls someone Xander? But putting all that aside what is there to be found in ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ (wow, that title really does not get any less moronic no matter how many times I say it). Overall, not much.

There is a certain art to making big, dumb action movies. It’s about never pretending that your movie is smarter, more serious or more dramatic than it really is. Sadly, ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ has all of the components of a dumb action film from its clichéd plot, overly extravagant action set pieces, ludicrously thin characters and requiring the audience to have quite a large suspension of disbelief. You may have seen an action film receive praise from critics because “it knows what it is”. When critics say that what they mean is that the tone remains balanced and consistent throughout the movie. Does the plot of ‘Face/Off’ make one lick of sense? No. But this is a world in which doves spontaneously fly across the screen during every action scene and someone put John Travolta in a position of authority, clearly nothing in the movie’s world has any sense to it.

That is where Xander Cage and his crew of thrill seeking cohorts wipe out. The movie tries so desperately for the audience to become invested in the story or characters when it is so blatantly clear that will never happen. This is not to say an action movie can’t reach achieve this but here, where people jump from skyscrapers and land unscathed, where the plot is so generic and repetitive that it feels like it was written on the back of a napkin and where the characters are so paper thin that I simply identified them as “the ones that aren’t Vin Diesel or Donnie Yen”, it doesn’t work.

It should come as little surprise that Yen is by far and away the best part of the film. If this movie serves no other purpose than to give Donnie Yen another platform from which to be embraced by mainstream audiences (though after ‘Rogue One’ I doubt he will need another) then I can at least find one way to justify its existence. His stunt work elevates any action scene he is a part of and his charisma makes his character much more likable compared to the rest of the cast. They are all equally shallow and predictable as far as characters go, but at least Yen puts on a good show whereas the rest of the cast, well let’s be kind and just say that they don’t.

That being said though, was anyone expecting otherwise? If you are a fan of this first two films it is not as if you are going to be attentive to the richness of the plot or the complexity of the characters. Which is just as well because Xander Cage isn’t exactly the most likable or involving of characters. Vin Diesel is a lot of things but he is not nuanced or a vehicle for exposition, so why the filmmakers decided to make Xander Cage both of these things is beyond me. He also isn’t the bets at delivering one liners, of which there are plenty of and the results are fairly disastrous.  What makes it even worse is how the movie constantly tried to convince me how brilliant he was by having people praise him non-stop, have women throw themselves at him and adversaries shaking in fear because Xander Cage has returned. It is a textbook example of show don’t tell.

The action itself is decently directed, mainly because most of them are staged in an interesting environment. D. J. Caruso is competent enough behind the camera and manages to make the action a pleasant bit of escapism rather than in incomprehensible mess of shaky cam and quick edits. But the plot that takes us from one action scene to the next is such a thinly veiled and contrived form of transport, and the film itself demands that we take it so seriously, that it almost becomes impossible to even remotely care.

A totally inconsistent, stylistically bland pile of nonsense.

Result: 3/10

Saturday, 21 January 2017

2017: The Year Ahead


So, 2017 is upon us and it is already shaping up to be a very promising year. At least as far as movies go that is, as for the rest of the world then I’m afraid I can’t really help you there. But even if the world tears itself apart around us at least we’ll have some amazing movies to watch while it is happening. Bearing that in mind here are my choices of what to look out for in 2017. This is not a definitive list of all the films that are coming out, just the ones that I am most intrigued by, excited for and eager to see.

Blockbusters

Logan

When Hugh Jackman announced he would be stepping down from the role of Wolverine we knew he would be bowing out with a swansong of some kind. What we did not expect was something as brutally poignant as ‘Logan’ is shaping up to be. Looking less like a superhero film and more like a classic western that pits weary warriors against their own morality, ‘Logan’ joins ‘Deadpool’ as an R-rated edition to the X-Men franchise, promising something unique and strikingly ruthless. The first trailer is a haunting peak at what is to come and if the film can deliver then we could be looking at the first superhero film since ‘The Dark Knight’ to truly transcend its genre.

Ghost in the Shell

White-washing controversies aside, I still find myself intrigued by the upcoming remake of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. The anime classic left a lasting influence on science fiction cinema, it was unique, artful and deeply philosophical as well as thrilling and viscerally haunting. Translating that to live action was never going to be an easy task, but for better or worse Rupert Sanders’ film looks unique in its visual style and distinct in its themes, so it has my attention.

Alien: Covenant

Remember when Neil Blomkamp was going to direct the next ‘Alien’ movie? It seems remarkable that in little over a year Ridley Scott made his triumphant return to form, Blomkamp went down in a burst of flames and we can look forward to this strikingly composed feature. Scott’s film promises to reconnect with what made the original ‘Alien’ the masterpiece that it was, doing away with the philosophical jargon that bogged down ‘Prometheus’ in favour of a tighter, character driven script which combined with Scott’s brilliant direction (because for all its faults ‘Prometheus’ was stunningly made on a technical level) could deliver something very special.

War of the Planet of the Apes

How did Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis make an ape one of the most endearing characters of modern cinema? With ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ rebooting the franchise with bold intentions and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ developing those ideas further, it sets the stage for the third instalment to be the best one yet with Reeves and Serkis returning and newcomers like Woody Harrelson looking very promising. Will it stick the landing and make it a great trilogy, or will it fall under the curse of dreaded threequels like ‘Alien 3’, ‘X-Men 3’, ‘Godfather Part 3’ ‘Spider-Man 3’, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, ‘Blade Trinity’, ‘Terminator 3’, ‘Jurassic Park 3’, ‘Superman 3’ yeah I think I’ve made my point.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan, and that basically covers why I’m excited for ‘Dunkirk’. But if I have to elaborate then the fact that Nolan is now reaching out with a very different genre of film shows that his ambition as a storyteller goes far beyond complicated, time bending, reality altering epics.  When a director makes a film like ‘Dunkirk’ that is where his true greatness shines through, the ability to tell a more conventional story but use your skills as a filmmaker to create something endearing and remarkable. The man who brought us ‘Memento’, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’ now wants to venture into new territory and I can’t wait to see how it goes.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

With three upcoming MCU films I could not bring myself to choose only one, so I went for all three. After his brilliant debut in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ Tom Holland is looking to make a big impression as the web-slinger in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, the fact that they brought Michael Keaton along for the ride only makes it even better. James Gunn looks set to continue his character driven space saga with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2’, for which the soundtrack alone is making me excited. Finally I don’t know what to expect from ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, especially with Taika Waititi in the director’s chair. But it’s for that very reason that I’m eager to see it.

Star Wars Episode 8

No trailers, no clips, not even a title and yet you’d still struggle to find someone who is not excited for this film. That is the unique power of ‘Star Wars’ at its best. But what we do know is that Rian Johnson is set to take up the directing duties of this instalment, continuing what JJ Abrams started with ‘The Force Awakens’. Johnson is a filmmaker who takes risks, goes in new directions and challenges his audience. Having directed ‘Brick’, ‘Looper’ and the finale of ‘Breaking Bad’ I’m excited to see where he will take the galaxy far, far away.

Indies

T2: Trainspotting 2

More than twenty years after Danny Boyle broke into the mainstream with his 1996 masterpiece ‘Trainspotting’ he and the original cast return for the long awaited sequel. It may be unprecedented for an independent film like ‘Trainspotting’ to receive the sequel treatment this long after its release and I can understand that there may be fears of it falling short of its predecessor, but with a wide range of source material to borrow from and its cast and director still as strong as ever, one should be ready for anything.

Get Out

Following their 2016 film ‘Keanu’, the comedy due Key and Peele went their separate ways on different cinematic ventures. Key starred in the critically acclaimed ‘Don’t Think Twice’ while Jordan Peele wrote and directed what looks to be a bold and socially relevant horror film. Described by Peele as “a horror movie” with “a satirical premise” it stands as an intriguing entry in this year’s movie line up.

Free Fire

If there was one premise that singlehandedly sold me on a film that was coming up in 2017 it was this one. It’s the 1970s, a bunch of gangsters meet up in a warehouse for an arms deal, things go askew and everyone spends the rest of the movie fighting for their lives in a feature length, self-contained, ensemble gun fight. But then you take into account that it is directed by ben Wheatly one of the most exciting and innovative filmmakers working today, a terrific cast that includes Brie Larson (yes, academy award winner soon to be Captain Marvel, Brie Larson) and Cillian Murphy, then it’s something to look forward to.

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright has finally returned to direct another movie. That’s all there really is to say about why I’m looking forward to this.

Wonderstruck

Todd Haynes has always possessed a great ability to balance the experimental with the prestige. From his unconventional Bob Dylan biopic ‘I’m Not There’ to his convention pushing love story ‘Carol’, he’s never been one to sacrifice artistic integrity to get on the good side of an awards jury. His next offering looks to be very much the same, telling two intertwined stories of different time periods (one of which is completely silent) and re-teaming the director with Juliane Moore.  

Annihilation

Following the acclaim he received for his directorial debut, ‘Ex Machina’ it is no surprise that Alex Garland has swiftly moved into production on his next project. Like his previous effort it a small scale work of science fiction that promises to be as impactful as it is innovative, one that raises deep thinking themes and disturbing insights into human nature.

The Detroit Riots

It’s been too long since Kathryn Bigelow lent her talents to creating another culturally relevant, impeccably directed, viscerally thrilling piece of cinema. But 2017 sees her make a welcome return to helm a historical crime drama about the 1967 Detroit Riots, with John Boyega in the lead role.

Untitled PT Anderson Project

I know next to nothing about this apart from three distinct aspects. The first is (as you may have guessed) it is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who with ‘Boogie Nights’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘Punch Drunk Love’, ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Master’ has directed five of the greatest films of the last 25 years. The second is that it is set in the 1950s fashion industry but that factor is almost irrelevant when you learn what the third aspect is. It stars Daniel Day Lewis in the lead role. Given that this marks his first on screen role since his Oscar winning turn in 2012’s ‘Lincoln’ as well as the fact that the last time Anderson and Lewis were paired together they produced the undisputed masterpiece that is ‘There Will be Blood’ there’s good reason to be excited for this movie that is yet to even receive a title.

Blade Runner 2049

This is the big one, the one film that I would sacrifice an entire year’s worth of cinema in exchange for seeing it. While it is easy to be nervous over a sequel to one of the greatest films in the history of cinema the creative team behind it is formidable enough to give me confidence. A cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto and the returning Harrison Ford with the always great Roger Deakins on hand as cinematographer. But all of this pales in comparison to its director, Denis Villeneuve. The director of ‘Polytechnique’, ‘Incendies’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘Enemy’, ‘Sicario’ and ‘Arrival’ has yet to make a film that cannot be labelled as a masterwork but nothing will be a greater test of his filmmaking ability than living up to Ridley Scott’s milestone of cinema. It is a bold venture that I would trust to very few filmmakers. Villeneuve is, for my money, the finest director of this decade and if anyone can succeed here, he might.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Top Ten Films of 2016


2016 was a great year for films, granted we had to slog it through a crushingly disappointing summer of one mediocre blockbuster after another (with a few bright spots that I’ll address later) and several outright disasters. But leave it to the indies, foreign movies and awards contenders to pick up the slack and deliver some truly exceptional entries in the cinematic year. We saw new talents like Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins cement themselves as voices to watch out for, while directors like Denis Villeneuve and Jim Jarmusch proved they are still at the height of their creative powers. There was even room for a few old masters like Scorsese himself to prove his best days are far from behind him. But before all that, as ever I have to name a few honourable mentions and for this year in particular there are a great deal to recognise.

I saw a few films that were, for better or worse so completely committed to their bold and unique style that I have to praise them for that. ‘High-Rise’ by Ben Wheatley and ‘Swiss Army Man’ by The Daniels both mark their makers out as creative forces to watch out for. As does Taika Waititi’s oddly endearing ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, especially as the New Zealand director will be moving to the lofty heights of Marvel Studios nest year. ‘Tower’ tackled its subject with such an innovative style that I can imagine numerous imitators following soon.

We saw many strikingly magnificent horror films this year as well, almost restoring my faith that modern horror movies can be artful and brilliant once more. ‘Under the Shadow’ and ‘The Witch’ were terrifically unnerving and carried social weight with them, but for pure and utter chaos executed to perfection one cannot overlook ‘Green Room’, which stands as one of the last entries in a career tragically cut short but at least Anton Yelchin’s oeuvre speaks for itself.

Every year Cannes delivers a group of films that are more than worthy of praise. While you are likely to see a few entries from the festival later in this list, for now I will shine a light on ‘Julieta’ and ‘Toni Erdmann’ which stand on complete opposite ends of the scale of emotive resonance but are both equally impactful.

But of course there is also the entertainment factor. While I had great enjoyment with ‘Deadpool’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and ‘Rogue One’ I have to say that the movie that brought me the most joy, the film that I have re-watched the most and enjoyed it just as much every time I’ve seen it is Shane Black’s ‘The Nice Guys’, criminally underrated at the box office but praised by virtually all who saw it, ‘The Nice Guys’ is a callback to classic comedy capers and low budget action films all polished with Black’s usual brilliance.

Grand Jury Prize - ‘O.J: Made in America’

It is still disputed whether or not ‘O.J: Made in America’ counts as a movie or a miniseries. Though it was made with the intention of being a seven hour long movie and was shown in that format in a few selected cinemas many people (including myself) saw it in its serialised format. So rather than make up my mind I’m leaving it here with a special mention. But even if I could decide what it was, is almost seems unfair to rank ordinary movies against something like ‘O.J: Made in America’. What director Ezra Edelman has achieved here is not just a hauntingly complex character study that so intricately sows the seeds for its subject’s path to self-destruction that it feels like a Shakespearean tragedy. What he achieved with this film was to capture an entire chapter of American culture, for its triumphs, failings and conflicts that all coincided with the downfall of one damaged individual. It analyses everything from a factual standpoint but once you have finished watching it you feel as if it’s asking whether Simpson was the product of his environment, or did he shape his own environment. They seem so intertwined that it has to be one or the other.

10: The Edge of Seventeen

Many have compared the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig to the work of John Hughes and though that may be a worthy comparison I want to briefly look at the film in its own light. Craig’s film is painfully hilarious portrayal of high school life and its hardships, cutting through the falseness of other teen comedies to create something much more truthful and more poignant as a result. But for all its teachings on what it means to be young it also offers a broader statement on grief and loss that can resonate with anyone. The script renders its characters as fully realised individuals and embraces them for their faults as well as their attributes. Boasting a career best performance from Hailee Steinfeld and a wonderful supporting role by Woody Harrelson, it never fails to feel authentic and truthful. But at the same time that never stops it from being wondrously profound and humorous.

9: Manchester by the Sea

The most emotionally draining, soul crushing, heart-breaking and exhausting film of the year. Make no mistake when I say ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is not an easy film to watch, but where Kenneth Lonergam succeeds so brilliantly is how he takes those moments of anguish and weaves them into a continuously flowing story that balances its humour, character moments and heartfelt drama perfectly. Its characters are full bodied and excellently realised by the superb cast with Casey Affleck delivering a truly remarkable performance. Affleck takes an emotionally despondent character and turns him into one of the most empathetic sights of the year, always maintaining an internal performance but never leaving you at a loss for what he is feeling. The supporting cast of Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler are equally brilliant, making excellent components that make ‘Manchester by the Sea’ worth far more than just the sum of its parts.

8: Paterson

There is beauty within simplicity, and few filmmakers understand that more than Jim Jarmusch. At a glance his latest film ‘Paterson’ lacks all plot and meaning, but therein lies both its plot and meaning. It is a film concerned with celebrating the simplicity of average lives, the daily routines its titular character undergoes and how much joy it brings him. Without even realising it, we too are absorbed into this perfectly average world, gradually picking up on the patterns and poetry that surround Paterson and his bus journey every day. In the lead role Adam Driver is simply superb, bringing a performance that matches the film perfectly, quietly existential and keenly observant, but also inspiringly poignant when it wants to be and somehow knowing on a deep level. When you add Jarmusch’s keen eye for visual splendour then ‘Paterson’ becomes a delight.

7: Moonlight

It feels as if there is little to say about Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ that has not been said already following its universal acclaim. I can say that it is unique in almost every aspect of its construction, its screenplay, style and subject matter are all innovative and ground breaking works of art. It is a film that speaks volumes about how our environments shape us while acting as an intriguingly staged character study, that becomes astonishingly intimate through its story told in three chapters. Of course this is all well and good but the strongest aspect of ‘Moonlight’ may well be its brilliant performances. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are all equally terrific but for very different reasons as the lead character at three different stages of his life, along with great supporting roles from Naomi Harris and Mahershala Ali.

6: Arrival

Every year I have to write the same sentence about how Denis Villeneuve has further cemented his reputation as quite possibly the finest director of this decade. I could place ‘Arrival’ on this list for its ambition and scope alone, the way it tackled huge existential questions and never supplied easy answers for its audience. But at the same time its epic scale is anchored by its intimately drawn characters, a plot that revolves around simple communication and heavily emotional undertones. Amy Adams turns in a brilliant performance that ensures that for all its stunning set pieces, existential minefields and visual eye candy the film has a beating and deeply emotional heart. Ranking Villeneuve’s filmography is an exercise in futility, they are all masterworks. But for what it is worth with ‘Arrival’ he has delivered a science fiction masterpiece for the ages.

5: Silence

The subject of faith has long been a thematic anchor of Martin Scorsese’s career, driving his characters and their decisions for decades on the silver screen. It should come as no surprise that ‘Silence’ embraces that theme as well, but what is surprising is just how committed Scorsese is to realising his epic vision on the screen while also taking his themes to unexplored territory, pushing them further than he ever has before. It examines how much someone can endure in the name of their faith and questions whether their unwavering belief is the salvation or detriment of them. As ever Scorsese is surrounded by a hugely talented cast in the form of Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. ‘Silence’ bears the unmistakable mark of a master filmmaker working at the height of his creative talent, a truly monumental piece of cinema.   

4: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ is a rare film that seems to become all the more intriguing and remarkable the more I watch it. Its structure and intricately layered plot may seem meditative at first, but as the story spirals out of control it establishes, subverts and outright destroys your expectations several times over. It is tense and thrilling put also quiet and artful all at once. The plot is structured to intrigue the viewer and then emotionally involve them in such a way that you will find yourself increasingly desperate to know where the plot will turn next. But hopefully the viewer will not overlook Chan-wook’s exquisite production design that is gorgeously detailed. His impeccable compositions and synchronistic framing gives the isolated environments a sense of entrapment that can reflect his characters own personal issues. ‘The Handmaiden’ is viscerally unnerving but also quietly moving as well as absolutely enthralling.

3: Elle

Leave it to Paul Veerhoven to make a film of such extremes that it has to be brilliant. ‘Elle’ is a layered and complex piece of cinema that does not shy away from the brutally disturbing aspects of its story, becoming an intricate study of abuse and obsession as well as delicate character study. It examines why we tolerate abuse in a society, why we take so long to heal from it and how projecting abuse onto others can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle that destroys can lives, and even more tragically, define them. The titular character is so brilliantly realised by Isabelle Huppert, creating what I can say without doubt is the best performance of the year. Huppert displays such an intense range in the film with the ability to be helpless, powerful, manipulative, terrifying and even funny at various points throughout the narrative, but always with an underlying sense of consistency that never makes you doubt that you’re watching the same strong character. ‘Elle’ is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

2: La La Land

Movies like ‘La La Land’ are why I love movies. It is empathetic, complex, thoughtful, artistic and wonderfully entertaining. Damien Chazelle revives the movie musical so brilliantly and thoroughly, with each musical set piece enforcing the characters and story, reinforcing the films substance at ever turn. Chazelle’s direction is equally fantastic though, with his camera moving in such an active and vibrant way that invigorates the whole film with a pulsating energy, but then when it is time for a quitter and more intimate moment Chazelle masters that as well. It is a dazzling spectacle to behold, but what makes it even more engaging are the brilliant performances being turned in by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who are equally magnificent when together and when separate. It is a love letter to classic cinema, but also to life itself for all its wonder and joy, its pain and heartbreak, its hopes and dreams.

1: Nocturnal Animals

My favourite film of 2016 is perhaps the boldest, most intricately crafted and stunningly realised feature of them all, Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’. Some have deemed the film too cold and clinical, but the boldest of cinema demands empathy, not sympathy. The beating heart of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a visceral, awe inspiring one that weaves themes of grief, guilt, fear, revenge and loss. It frames a story of literal revenge within a story of symbolic revenge, contrasting the sleek world of high class L.A and the rustic brutality of the Texan landscape. Ford merges each layer masterfully, creating a tale of awe inspiring complexity and deep thematic layers. Its ensemble cast are all terrific, from Amy Adams icy observer, Michael Shannon’s cold eeriness and Aaron Taylor Johnson untapped insanity with Jake Gyllenhaal handling two separate roles excellently. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is evocative and challenging, but also inspiring in its construction, a masterwork of layered storytelling and exquisite direction that will enthral anyone from start to finish. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Manchester by the Sea


"No one can appreciate what you've been through, and if you really feel you can't take this on then that's your right."

It is odd how sometimes conventional stories can be elevated to higher standards simply in their execution and added details. Take the story of Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film ‘Manchester by the Sea’ for instance, a story a death in a family and the resulting fallout. We have seen this kind of subject tackled many times before, but Lonergam’s boldness of vision, clarity of storytelling and multiple layers of depth turn it into something more profound and infinitely more devastating.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), is a quiet and reserved janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. One morning he receives a message that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack. When Lee travels to Joe’s home in Manchester by the Sea for his funeral, he is shocked to discover that he has been named the guardian of Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Most of the praise directed towards ‘Manchester by the Sea’ has gone to the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, and with good reason. But one should never underestimate just how rich the material he has to work with is. Kenneth Lonergan’s script is a masterfully detailed and complex study of grief. It piles tension and drama onto characters in such a way that is builds into a crescendo of emotional weight, making it hugely impactful. It helps that rather than reveal each characters backstory and motivations in a linear fashion, Lonergan structures his film so that the audience receives hints of information at a time as we delve into the past. This method ensures that when we finally do discover the terrible truth it casts said character in such a drastically different light that the emotional contrast alone is enough to be impactful.

It all sounds very melodramatic but Lonergan ensures that his characters are written to be so emotionally guarded that they reel the film in and ground it with a sense of realism. Their internal conflict is obvious and when they do open up it only makes the moment all the more powerful as we know how out of character this is for said character. What also helps is that the script trusts the viewer’s intelligence, never pointing out the obvious or shoving them down a certain path. In fact on a few occasions it may take a while to even realise you are watching a flashback as it is never overtly spelled out for you. The viewer has to piece the story together as it moves along and through doing so you draw connections between the grief a character is currently feeling and the trauma they have experienced in their life up to this point.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the screenplay is just how funny it is. As odd as that sounds I honestly can’t think of another movie that handles grief in such a humorous yet heart-breaking way. It does not simply pile on one soul crushingly sad revelation after another, it gives the characters room to breathe and shows them at their best as well as their lowest points. Humour is known to be a good coping mechanism and it is peppered throughout this story in order to make the characters feel more relatable and down to earth.

It also provides the actors with a little variation in how to present their characters. Rather than one endless cycle of depression each performer is allowed to display a range of emotions and reactions to the stories events. Casey Affleck in particular deserves praise for his performance, one that is a masterclass in internalised acting. He plays Lee as such a subdued and damaged persona that the performance in itself builds up tension regarding what terrible pain he bears, let alone the glares he gets from the community upon returning home. His own self destructive tendencies originate from a terrible sense of guilt, and they reach every aspect of his life from his career and wellbeing to his failed marriage.

Affleck’s role never requires a big moment of flashy melodrama and the film as a whole is all the better for it. It feels as if Affleck and the screenplay created a fully fleshed out, acutely developed and strikingly complex character without ever telling the audience specifically who Lee was. The multiple levels of the story allow Lee’s character to shine through and slowly be pieced together as the story unfolds. You can also piece him together by reading between the lines of his performance, from the way he hunches his shoulders, the movement of his eyes and even when he is doing nothing but reacting to others, it all tells a story, a tragic and unflinchingly harsh story.

The same can be said for almost every actor in the film. Michelle Williams may have a limited time on screen but she uses her time to such a devastating effect. Like her on screen ex-husband she clearly carries a great amount of pain with her, an aspect that is always clear and excruciatingly so. Even in her more casual conversations one can witness the underlying danger of how emotionally unstable she is due to the tragedy that befell her and Lee, destroying their marriage in the process. Kyle Chandler is in a similar position as Joe, wherein his limited screen time does not stop him delivering a compelling performance. After spending just a few minutes with him we can already get a sense that the loss of a man like Joe must have on those closest to him.

The only person I can single out as being a cut below the rest is sadly, Lucas Hedges. That is not to say Hedges is bad and I do feel somewhat guilty about punishing a young actor who shouldered a very complex role that he handles competently for the most part. It is just that he cannot quite maintain the level of quitter reserved bravado that those around him achieve. Though this may seem harsh I remind you that this year alone we have seen ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ use young actors to terrific effect. In a conventional drama Hedges’ performance might hold up much better, but when he’s surrounded by so many quietly brilliant performances it loses some of its edge.

Lonergan clearly knows the level of talent he is working with here because his direction keeps the camera firmly planted on the actors. On more than one occasion I would find myself wishing the camera would turn away so to end the barrage of grief and pain.  The way Lonergan structures his film plays into this as well. Rather than any kind of conventional three act structure the story almost flows without hesitation, as if one aspect bleeds into one another until we end up with this continuous stream of events. In the way that the film tries to not only paint a picture of real life and grounded characters as well as an entire community in general, it succeeds brilliantly.

A compelling and endlessly endearing portrait of grief, while it can be difficult to watch at times, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is always engaging and always emotionally resonant, backed up by some astonishing performances.

Result: 9/10