Manchester by the Sea

Not exactly a feel good film for the Christmas Holiday, but an impressive family film about the ties that bind us and the fact that they do so in multiple ways. There are many, many things to admire about this film, from the sterling performances to the complex way in which the story unfolds and most especially for the ambiguous ending that resolves only an immediate issue but not the deeper needs of the main character. Manchester bu the Sea is a well made film that is worth the pain that you sometimes have to get through to be able to understand the characters.

Casey Affleck has been a solid actor for years. His side kick roles in the Ocean’s 11 films show that he can be comedic when called upon, but he also has serious dramatic chops. Earlier this year he was quietly heroic in “The Finest Hours“.  In this film he is also quiet, but in a much different style of performance. His character “Lee”, has a tragic background that follows him wherever he goes but most especially in his hometown. He is forced to return to “Manchester By the Sea” for another tragic passage in his life, and the confluence of the two events are enough to give anyone a depression that would feel overwhelming. That his character is able to cope to some degree is the one outward sign of inner strength. Affleck doesn’t really raise his voice often, he is not bitingly sarcastic but the audience can see that he is masking turmoil which makes it nearly impossible for him to manage the family obligation he finds himself in.

 

I have not seen director Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature but his first was the affecting and slow moving “You Can Count on Me”, which came out sixteen years ago. This movie does seem to fit into his sweet-spot, a family drama with imperfect people, taking their time to try and work out their problems.  There are several wordless moments in the film where the actors perform in an almost classic silent film manner. Watching Afflect’s face conveys ninety percent of what we need to know in most scenes. There are instances where you can see his self loathing percolating to the surface just before the bubble pops and a moment of catharsis, which is even more damaging to him, takes over. The will it takes to hold things together is substantial. There is plenty of angst to go around but there are also moments of human connection that are heartfelt and sometimes amusing. The contentious relationship Lee has with his nephew Patrick is punctuated by love and off beat humor. Lucas Hedges plays Patrick as a self confident but needy adolescent. Sometimes he needs to be smothered with attention and other times he needs to be left alone. Of course Lee usually chooses wrong, but when he does get it right, there is a sense of hopefulness that lingers long enough to make the story bearable.

The structure of the film is similar to a second film I will be commenting on today. There are contemporary events and then there are several flashbacks that occur in no particular order which trace back the history of our characters. Lee’s guilt cannot allow him to move forward but moving forward is what is needed for Patrick. I never found the narrative confusing and the jumps back and forth in the story often set the tone for an upcoming incident in a way that would have required a huge amount of exposition if the story were told differently. This is a film without a clear ending, but it does let us know that the path to the future is not entirely bleak.

There are some secondary characters that intrude on the story and did little to advance the plot such as it is. Patrick’s estranged Mother briefly returns to his life but it is a dead end that only shows how essential Lee is to getting things right for Patrick. The uncomfortable lunch that Patrick and his Mother and her new boyfriend share, is an emotional dry well. On the other had, the scenes with Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, are in fact heart breaking. She wants him to find the forgiveness that he cannot give himself and her own spirit is limited because he can’t. Every family has bumps in the road, some derail the family entirely, this is a film about two of those kinds of events and how they intertwine. This is a great movie that is hard to experience but has at it’s core an honest portrayal of the sort of depression that is based on real life and not just on manufactured emotions as you will sometimes find in other films.

The Finest Hours

There may be films that deserve their box office fate. I have yet to see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” so I can’t say it does not earn it’s economic failure. I can say I’ve seen a number of films over the years that should have been more successful and popular than they turned out to be. Unfortunately, this film looks like it will fall into that second category; an excellent film that will not connect with the audience for some reason. It is difficult for me to fathom why that is the case, since it features a young popular actor in the lead, terrific special effects, and a dramatic story that is worth telling. Maybe the January release date or the sobering real life drama are scaring people awy. Or maybe we have finally gotten to the point where adult films don’t draw anyone in if they don’t feature blood, sex, violence and language that would put an old time sailor to shame.

The Coast Guard is a misunderstood and sometimes overlooked part of our military, but their action contribute on a daily basis to our security and even more important to safety on the seas. This is a true story about the efforts of a small Coast Guard crew, in an undersized boat, fighting the elements to save a large group of men in a maritime disaster. I have always appreciated when movies show competent people doing their jobs and managing to make the world better. The engineers at NASA are a good example but so are the teachers in our schools and the hospital staffs that try to help us. They are not always perfect, but when everyone does their best, then the results are rewarding, That’s really what this film is about. Not just the Coast Guard crew but the men who survived the break up of their ship in hurricane like conditions, but managed to give themselves enough time to allow help to arrive.

As old fashioned as a salute to the flag or a boy scout troop, “The Finest Hours” is very straightforward in it’s story telling. There is a small back story about the man who led the rescue and his future bride, and hints of a failed previous rescue,but other than that the movie sticks to a straight narrative of the events, following the Coast Guard process and in a parallel narrative, the efforts of the crew of the Pendelton, the sinking ship, to save themselves. There is not an ironic view of the events, or any social commentary offered, it is simply a rescue story, well told both visually and in the narrative. Certainly some events may have been enhanced for the film but nothing untoward happens from a cinematic perspective. Maybe modern audience won’t get chocked up by the way the sailors volunteered for what is essentially a suicide mission, but I know I did. These men signed up for the purpose of making a difference and they did not shirk their responsibility, even when it was a threat to their survival.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webster, (at one time described as a bosom’s mate. I don’t know the ranks well enough to say, but he captains the rescue boat. Pine in the early scenes is portrayed as an uncertain innocent. He even has to have his girlfriend ask him to marry him. He does not seem like the decision making leader, but rather a stalwart man, capable of doing a job, but reluctant to assert himself. The post war setting in Massachusetts looked very authentic to me. The women wore dresses and the men wore collared shirts and they dance and drive like real people, not like the cartoon caricatures of people we see in movies today. Casey Afflect plays the chief engineer of the broken tanker and he is equally quiet but needs to step up if the men on his ship are to survive. There was not a lot of melodrama in the ship side story, just the usual stress that a life threatening experience is likely to produce. The land based drama is a bit thicker but it never overwhelms the basic story.

There are heroic moments and close calls and a number of lucky breaks depicted in the film. At one point it looked like Eric Bana’s  Commander Cluff was going to be a bad guy in the story, instead he turns out to simply be the level headed military structure that the system depends on. He has to make tough choices and they are not always correct, but there was never any level of malevolence in those orders. Holliday Granger is the pretty girl that Pine leaves at home but serves as our surrogate for worry during the adventure. Everyone looks great in the period costumes and they all carry off those northeaster accents admirably. Ben Foster is a sturdy number two on the rescue boat, and he has become a very solid character actor, especially in these military based stories. Everyone was excellent, and I noticed that Carter Burwell did the music for this. He was able to better serve this film than the other weekend film I saw on which he also worked, yesterday’s disappointing “Hail, Caesar!”  I would strongly recommend this film to all of you who don’t mind an old fashioned drama, brought together by competent pros.