Sunday, December 18, 2016

Manchester by the Sea/Rogue One

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a notebook of memory, grief, and loss that in lesser hands would descend into sentimental nonsense but in fact is a masterpiece of temper and modulation. Lonergan was a playwright before he turned to writing and directing films, and his command of structure and economy is on full display from the moment that Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never better) descends in a hospital elevator to view the body of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lonergan cuts to a hospital scene from the brothers' past, the moment when Joe learns he suffers from congestive heart failure. In just a few moments we learn both what kind of man Joe was (Chandler gives him an essential kindness) and that the mouthy Lee isn't yet capable of understanding what the diagnosis means while Joe's wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) can't handle it at all. The roiling emotion on display is maintained throughout Manchester by the Sea, which follows Lee's unexpected assumption of the guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and Lee's own attempts to come to grips with the memories that Manchester evokes.

There is a big hook in Manchester by the Sea, one that yanks the film around a sharp bend and makes clear just why Lee is so anxious to get his nephew settled and get back to his unexceptional life as a janitor in Boston. Here Lonergan risks changing our empathy with Lee into judgment, but his attention to detail cuts short any sense of the film tipping into melodrama. We've seen the boisterous domestic life that Lee enjoys with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams in top form) and their children and in just one scene of the couple clowning around in their bedroom Lonergan conveys just how much love exists in the marriage. Michelle Williams creates a fully realized person in very little screen time. When we meet Randi again in the film's "present" her haircut in sharper and more chic but the same reserves of love remain just under the surface.

While Lonergan is engaged with deep emotions it must also be said how lively and funny Manchester by the Sea can feel at times, especially in the scenes between Lee and Patrick. Lucas Hedges, who was good as a brat in Moonrise Kingdom, is a very unactory performer and he's just the right person to play a 16-year old concerned with girls, bands, hockey, and finishing high school on his own terms. Patrick gives back as good as he gets in his exchanges with Lee, and the humor keeps the film's sadness from becoming overwhelming. Casey Affleck's performance as Lee will change how you think of him if you only know him from Good Will Hunting, that weird documentary with Joaquin Phoenix, or even his Oscar-nominated role in The Assassination of Jesse James..... Lee lives an empty life but not because it's all he can handle. The specificity of Affleck's performance reveals Lee as man very familiar with how the world works but unable to muster anything to fight it.

Manchester by the Sea is working at too high a level to offer its characters easy answers. Lonergan begins and ends the film on the water. The opening shot finds the brothers' boat out for a family fishing trip, with miles of Atlantic Ocean stretching out ahead. The final shot is tighter and offers only a little water in view. Our lives close in on us, Lonergan seems to say, but there's always something ahead.

Rogue One is a good action film and a pretty good Star Wars film too, though it's hard to watch without thinking about all the reports of tinkering involving cowriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy supposedly oversaw reshoots and the question of what the film we were going to get looked like is one we'll probably never answer. Officially credited to director Gareth Edwards, Rogue One is the story of the stolen Death Star plans that we find Princess Leia with at the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope. Felicity Jones brings unexpected swagger to the role of Jyn Erso, broken out of prison and tasked by the Rebels with gathering intelligence on the Empire's "Planet Killer". If you've watched trailers for Rogue One you know that Jyn has a specific motivation for joining the Rebel cause, and the storyline involving her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the most conventional part of the film. Can no one in this world do anything that doesn't involve their father. There's a crew to accompany Jyn, including a soldier (Diego Luna) with a competing agenda and a blind swordsman (Donnie Yen, who brings physical grace previously unseen in the franchise) who is the closest thing going to a Jedi. Yen's character uses The Force as a sort of mantra, and though The Force is mentioned by many characters it here fails to register as an idea for the first time in the Star wars series. This is a film about soldiers and war and it culminates in an extended battle scene that brings Darth Vader into the action. The most significant Imperial character is named Orson Krennic, who is played by Ben Mendelsohn with a frustration that middle managers in all galaxies will identify with. Rogue One is a fun watch thanks to Jones and the action scenes, but it strains to connect to earlier films in a way I'm not sure it had to. There's world-building and then there is completism, and here there's trying to have it both ways.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane would like you to know that lobbying is a blood sport, a winner-take-all affair in which tactics trump ideas and those who make a difference are the ones most skilled at outflanking their opponents. We learn all this in almost so many words from Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a high-end Washington lobbyist who in the opening scenes is being advised to plead the Fifth before Congress by her lawyer. Sloane has run afoul of a Senate committee chaired by Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) for her actions while lobbying on behalf of the government of Indonesia. Are we really about to watch a political drama in which characters fight over palm oil?

Thankfully the answer is no. The hearing which bookends the movie is a function of Sloane's actions working in favor of a gun control bill. Sloane is first approached to work for the gun industry, but to the surprise of her boss (Sam Waterston) she leaves her job and takes her team to a smaller firm run by the idealistic Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Schmidt's firm is working against great odds to pass the bill and for a time it looks as though Sloane's aggressive tactics might secure the 60 votes required to beat a filibuster in the Senate. The battle to get those votes is the bulk of Miss Sloane, but if you're hoping that battle involves a large tote board with names of Senators and people erasing numbers then you won't be disappointed.

It is always a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain act, and as Elizabeth Sloane she is by turns indomitable and vulnerable in a way that's never less than arresting. It's a good thing that director John Madden was able to cast an actor as Elizabeth whose personality is so forceful, because the script by Jonathan Perera doesn't give much Chastain much of a character. Elizabeth is Type A and never seems to sleep - the movie gives her an addiction to amphetamines and then forgets about it - and her only personal interactions are regular appointments with an escort (Jake Lacy) who's a little too interested in learning about her career. We never know how Elizabeth got to this point in her life or career or what motivates her to do things like have a Senator followed by a parade float sized rat or out her colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on television as a survivor of gun violence. Miss Sloane contains a number of scenes in which someone asks Elizabeth "Why are you like this?", but we never really know.

One shouldn't go into Miss Sloane expecting a Sorkinesque political romp. Elizabeth shares a walk-and-talk with her assistant (Alison Pill) and some zippy byplay with a peer (Michael Stuhlbarg) when we first meet her, but Perera's script isn't taking place in a world where everyone operates with good intentions. The film is weirdly concerned with the place where ideals and tactics meet, and it seems to argue that Sloane's methods are justified by the fact that she believes in her cause. This belief makes her a "conviction lobbyist" in the film's parlance, while Waterston and Stuhlbarg's characters are merely paid flacks. The script is on the nose on this point, and Sloane's team repeatedly tells their new co-workers that sometimes it's necessary to get dirty to do some good. It all leads to a hearing room scene that's a tumble of revelations and witnesses, and we learn just why Sloane is so good at anticipating every variable. It all means much less than it might have. Jessica Chastain almost saves Miss Sloane from collapsing on itself, but this house of cards wasn't built to last.

Sunday, December 04, 2016


Allied concerns a woman who may be masquerading as someone else, and the new film directed by Robert Zemeckis is indeed one type of story pretending to be another. The central action scene, in which Allied agents Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco in 1942, comes early and is on full display in the trailer. The scene is the culmination of the first act of Steven Knight's script, in which Max and Marianne are thrown together in Casablanca; playing at being husband and wife turns to love and the couple go to London, marry, and have a daughter. (Again, this is all in the trailer.) Max learns a year later that Marianne may be a German spy. This is a promising setup, but it's also a smokescreen. Zemeckis and Knight aren't really telling a spy story. Max and Marianne love each other deeply, and Allied is in fact an investigation of whether their love will survive the chance that Marianne is a traitor.

For a film set in the world of espionage Allied contains remarkably little tradecraft after the story returns to London. Max, a Canadian military officer, has some kind of job working under a stodgy British commander (Jared Harris), but until Marianne's loyalty is called into question all we see him do is put on a uniform and joke around with colleagues. Marianne, who we're told is an agent of exceptional boldness, seems to lose all interest in work after becoming pregnant. If the problem with the not boring but still uninvolving Allied had to be summed up in a sentence then it is that it's a film about characters and not about people. Knight's script doesn't give his stars room to maneuver, and even their minor interactions are weighed down by plot implications. Brad Pitt is unaccountably stiff in the Casablanca scenes and then has little to do but fret and worry. It's a dull performance and the filmmakers seem to have misunderstood what we want from Pitt. It doesn't help Max has no one to talk to. Lizzy Caplan is badly miscast as Max's sister, barely concealing her lesbian affair in a way that doesn't seem quite right for the period.

The end of Allied is a flurry of activity. Max has caused one soldier's death by investigating Marianne against orders, and he risks more lives on an unlikely mission to occupied France. Allied wants to keep a revelation up its sleeve as long as possible and that means Marion Cotillard can only sit and wait, being a devoted wife and mother all the while. The filmmakers only seem interested in Max's point of view, and Marianne becomes a more passive character as Allied goes on. Given the setting and stars involved Allied should have been at a minimum much more fun, but this overthought film doesn't know what to do with its ration of promise.