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.

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