Sunday, February 5, 2017

New Releases (Oscar Catchup Edition): Manchester by the Sea (2016) and La La Land (2016)

It's Oscar time, with nominations being released in late January. This is always the time that I scramble to see the major nominees that I missed through the year, so here we go. (No spoilers for any movies)

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

An absolutely astounding movie that finds the true drama in a very real, very human kind of tragedy and an attempt at some form of healing and redemption.

The story is that of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who tends to several apartment buildings in the Boston area. He lives a solitary life in a tiny apartment, and he keeps his distance from other people. Although quiet, there is clearly an inner rage burning inside Lee, as evidenced by a violence that emerges when he drinks too much. This loner is thrown out of his routine, however, when he learns that his brother has passed away back in his coastal hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. When he returns, many of the things which Lee tried to escape a number of years previous start to creep their way back into his life, forcing him to reckon with them. One of the primary elements of this is his nephew, Patrick, a 16-year-old who has had little to no interaction with his uncle since some unspoken tragedy parted them. Patrick is a rather typical modern Boston Irish-Catholic teen - witty, charming, sarcastic, and alternately self-absorbed and caring.

My wife and I were blown away with just how powerful, effective, and often even enjoyable this movie was. At its heart there is a brutal tragedy that would normally torpedo any enjoyment one could take from such a story. Here, however, it is not allowed to suck all of the life and humor out of the tale. With dry, gallows humor and their feet firmly planted in reality, the characters force Lee and us viewers to accept that life moves on. In some ways, this is a good thing, but in others it is painful. For those looking for nice, tidy, and pleasant endings to their dramas, this will likely not be satisfying. It is, however, an extremely thoughtful and touchingly humanistic tale.

The setting and characters create an impressive sense of place. Though some viewers may be a bit burned out by the relatively steady stream of prominent "Boston area" movies that have hit the screens in the last twenty or so years, starting with Good Will Hunting in 1997 and most recently seen in last year's Spotlight, Manchester by the Sea is not using its setting simply for panache. There is a very particular culture at work here - that of the traditional, Northeastern Irish Catholics - that plays heavily into Lee's dealings with his own pain and the members of his family. Perhaps it is easy for me to relate and connect, being the son of Irish Catholic parents, one of whom was born and raised in Queens, New York, but I feel that the movie has a more universal appeal in that it touches on ways that men traditionally retreat to stoicism as a way to deal with emotional pain.

Patrick and his uncle Lee. The reserved and traumatized Lee
is forced out of the protective shell that he's created for
himself by his wiseass nephew. Their interactions are an
amazing blend of dry humor and stirring emotion.
In terms of narrative, the movie is masterful. Using occasional flashbacks, we get to see Lee as he was several years before the current story, and the difference is drastic. This initially sets up the question of what caused such an obvious shift in demeanor, and it leads us right into Lee's current conflict with himself, his hometown, and the family members and former friends who live there. Non-linear narratives can often become mere novelty tricks, but this movie uses it to enhance its' tale immensely.

As of my writing this, I've only seen four out of the nine Oscar Best Picture nominees. But Manchester by the Sea is my current leader in the clubhouse for the best. Whether it wins or not is another story, but this movie is outstanding drama, all around.

La La Land (2016)

Director: Damien Chazelle

A good movie, though one that I think is a bit overhyped, given its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and virtually unanimous, insanely positive critical reception.

Using the now-rarely seen genre of the musical film, La La Land tells the story of two aspiring artists - jazz musician Sebastian and actress Mia - who are trying to make it in Los Angeles. After a rocky first couple of interactions, the two fall in love. However, trouble emerges when Sebastian compromises his own strict artistic integrity and takes a lucrative job as a pianist for a pop jazz band, putting pressure on his relationship with Mia.

Full disclosure: I don't like musicals. I've seen many of the classics and even a handful of modern ones considered the best in the genre, but I quite simply am not a fan of the approach. For the most part, I've always found musicals a bit too saccharine and superficial, in terms of the plots and characters. While I can appreciate the talent and effort that goes into making a good musical, I've always preferred a more straightforward style of narrative. With all of that in mind, I'll say that La La Land does a nice job of what it sets out to do, and it adds a bit more modern sophistication and humor to the proceedings in terms of acting and the non-musical dialogue.

But it is still a musical. Though director Damien Chazelle does a commendable job weaving the song and dance numbers into the story more smoothly than many musicals, they are still a distraction. Fortunately, there are some dazzling visuals sprinkled into the carefully-constructed sets, scenes, and costume layouts, making for a film that is as easy on the eyes as they come. The issue is, though, that I found almost none of the songs partcicularly memorable or catchy, in terms of either the lyrics or the tunes. And while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent actors with great comic chops (just see them together in Crazy, Stupid Love), they aren't top-rate singers or dancers. They're fine. In Stone's case, even good. But they aren't going to rank among the best song-and-dance duos in movie history any time soon. And this is what I need from such movies. One of the few musicals I like is the classic Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, because those two were world-class dancers who could hypnotize us with their supremely elegant moves on the dance floor. Gosling and Stone simply aren't anywhere near that class, so their "musical" skills are not a particular reason to see the movie.

Stone and Gosling do fine with the song and dance numbers,
but they don't even come close to the level of the best singers
or dancers in the history of the musical genre.
I did enjoy the comedy in the film, thanks to Gosling and Stone's abilities to deliver humor even when the script may not have been particularly sharp. And the ending of the movie is truly creative and moving. Ultimately, though, this was not a musical that won over a person like me - one who can count on one hand the number of musicals that they enjoy.

This leads me to wonder about why the film has received a record-tying number of Oscar nominations. My personal theory is that movie critics and industry insiders, even more than movie aficionados, have a massive bias towards the legacy of movies (almost as much as movies about movies). The musical is a nearly extinct form of film, and I suspect that the Academy and other film award organization were just thrilled to see any form of well-done musical (only Les Miserable from 2013 had been nominated in the last 14 years. Before that, it was Chicago in 2002). Whatever the case, I think that the other three Best Picture nominees which I've seen - Arrival, Hell or High Water, and Manchester by the Sea - are all superior to La La Land