Manchester by the Sea (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 10/10

Synopsis

After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.

The Review

We deal with personal tragedy differently. We can be expressive and show to the world how hurt we are, hold it all in and let it kill us slowly inside, or just brush it aside and carry on with our lives. What it does is break off a piece of our heart. Something we can never mend again. “Manchester by the Sea” is a heart-breaking portrayal of the love and loss of people that have built you into who you are, driven by a central performance for the ages.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a secluded janitor living in Quincy, Massachusetts. He quietly goes through his days fixing peoples apartments and not getting the gratitude he deserves. He shovels the snow off his front porch every day for a tiny basement apartment he lives in, and gets into bar fights at nights if anyone looks at him differently. One day while shovelling the snow away off his porch once again, he gets a phone call from a friend of past times saying that his brother Joe has had a heart attack. He rushes to his aid but is too late, as he finds that he has passed away. The family lawyer informs Lee that his brother has left him as sole guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) making Lee reluctantly leave his job and come back to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of him; a town he’s a legend to the people who reside in (for all the wrong reasons)…a town he once thought he has truly escaped from.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright has written a tragedy littered with black comedy that makes the mundane things in life riveting. Like life, we don’t have perfect conversations with people. It’s never a simple back and forth but rather a conversation full of hesitations, awkward silences, or those one or two “umms” in between. Lonergan has written characters that are like people in real life, and that’s what makes Manchester so special. It captures those tragic moments where it’s heart-breaking and soul destroying, but at the same time it’s never played out the way you would think it would play out like all things in real life. For example, funerals aren’t always a sombre affair. There will always be that one person who makes that one inappropriate joke. Or if someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life-changing disease, it will always bring out the dysfunctionality of any family during that tough time. These moments captured on screen, all beautifully shot, make this a rather special film because there are moments in this film that make it relatable, and credit has to be given to him for writing such a human script.

None of this can be played out without his actors and there are three particular performances that need to be called out here. Michelle Williams plays the estranged divorced-wife to Lee. We see her mostly through Lee’s flashbacks; unravelling more about why he’s become the man he is. She’s her own woman and won’t take shit from anyone, but at the same time can shatter like glass with an instant tap. It’s another wonderful addition to a plethora of past performances from Williams. Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, is a future star in the making. Patrick has brushed off the death of his father like it was yesterday’s news and wants to carry on life like usual. He’s got other teenage problems to worry about, like girls and his band. He doesn’t want his uncle there to take care of him. He can take care of himself but doesn’t realise how much his uncle needs him to keep sane, and without Hedges, Affleck couldn’t give half of the performance that he gives in this film.

And what a performance. Back in October in 2016, when I first saw this with my brother at a gala screening in the BFI London Film Festival, we agreed that Casey Affleck should be rewarded with every acting accolade there possibly was for his performance as Lee Chandler (a role which Matt Damon was originally cast for). This is a masterclass in acting. He portrays a man who’s been in so much pain for such a long time, it’s become the armour of his life. He’s become someone who knows nothing else but sadness, so much so that his reaction to those moments are…well there is no reaction. He walks hunched like all the troubles in the world are on his shoulders. When people compliment him for doing something, he brushes it aside. Affleck and Lonergan unravel Lee through flashbacks, letting us understand more about the man who used to be the once heart of the town. When that big reveal happens of why Lee is like the man he is now, it’s a silent gut-wrenching and harrowing moment. And one scene that will surely be used in acting classes in years to come, the long overdue conversation between himself and his ex-wife is a tear-jerker, showcasing two actors at the top of their game.

Final Word

A film that portrays life and tragedy at its most genuine, and it’s most raw. Like life, it shows you can always find the funny side of things in those moments of sadness and heartbreak. Lonergan has created a film that will be studied for its purest portrayal of everyday life, with a flawless performance by Casey Affleck. It will make you cry (well it made two grown men cry).

La La Land (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 10/10

Synopsis

Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, La La Land tells the story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

The Review

2016 was to many people a terrible year. The political landscape changed (we don’t know if it was for better or worse just yet). Many of our role models that we grew up watching or listening to had passed away. For me it was 50/50: alright first half, amazing second half. Within that amazing second half, in the evening of Friday October 7th at the Odeon Leicester Square, I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to the headline gala screening of “La La Land” at the BFI London Film Festival. The seat was terrible (on the side and way up high) but I didn’t care. That was just a tiny footnote of the 130 minutes of what I had watched. Because what I watched wasn’t just a film, it was something special. And after 3 months since that evening, it has finally been released this week here in the UK, and what a way to kick off 2017. La La Land is a musical masterpiece. A joyous, modern classic. Be prepared to read a lot of gushing below.

Mia (Emma Stone) has moved to LA to become an aspiring actress. Her only form of income is working as a barista in a café located at a studio lot. She goes to audition after audition trying to get that big break. But she gets rejected…a lot. And it isn’t just a simple rejection. At times they are brutal. Can she carry on taking this rejection any longer and become the actress she dreams to be? Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented but struggling jazz pianist. A man who feels that the art of jazz is dying and it’s his mission to save it. But his only source of income is playing Christmas tunes at restaurants or being hired by cover bands to play at costume parties. Can he achieve his dream of being the manager of his own jazz club one day?

It’s a pretty simple romantic story of two struggling performers who end up having a chance meeting one evening, and together aspire each other to follow their dreams and never give up. What’s so special about that? You and I have seen that a million times on screen. But if it’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the man who wrote and directed the sublime “Whiplash” (a film which is in the complete opposite spectrum to La La Land), and something he has been trying to get made for 6 years, you know there’s going to be a twist. From the moment the film opens to the moment it ends, it’s like watching a beautiful painting. The screen is full of gorgeous colours, the set designs are eye-popping, and Los Angeles has never looked so sun-soaked stunning on film. It’s a modern film but Chazelle pays so much homage to the golden era of Hollywood in the 30s’, 40s’ and 50s’ it feels nostalgic. The time when Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers were dancing and singing their way into the hearts of viewers with films like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Top Hat”. But its most notable influence is “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by Jacques Demy, given the fusion of realism and dream like sequences in both.

Now in their third film together, Stone and Gosling are definitely this generation’s classic film couple. I couldn’t think of anyone else more suitable to play the role of Mia and Sebastian. It’s their career-defining performances, especially from Emma Stone. Gosling is funny and charming throughout the film, but Stone gives us the rainbow of acting as her character goes through everything a person does to try to make their dreams come true. Of course we see them singing and dancing throughout the film but they’re not the best singers and dancers in the world. And they’re not supposed to be. These characters are people who are trying to achieve their dreams, their falling in love, and going through heart break like all of us are every day in our lives. Chazelle makes sure he wants the viewers to feel that this is realistic and something that they could see themselves being in and not be unfathomable, but also at the same time concoct up something so extravagant to express how they feel in particular moments. For example, the moment you fall in love feels like you’re literally dancing in the stars, or when you feel lost, the world around you literally feels like it’s stopped. It’s breath-taking to watch (credit needs to also be given to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross) but at only 31, Chazelle has stamped his mark on Hollywood as one of the best visionary directors out there.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the key component of the film, the music. Justin Hurwitz has written and composed a beautiful soundtrack with some of the catchiest songs you could find in a musical. From elaborate orchestrations to just a simple piano solo, it weaves its way through your ears, winning your heart instantly. It’s got big production numbers and ballads that any classic musical would have but enough that wouldn’t put you off. It’s perfect for the (at times insane) choreographed dance numbers this film has (bravo Mandy Moore!), and has two sequences both at the start and the end of the films that should be preserved in the historical vaults of the best moments from film that has ever graced our screens. They pay for the ticket price alone as it’s unlike anything you have ever seen.

Final Word

It will make you smile. It will make you cry. It will make you believe in Hollywood making great musicals again. It will make people who hate musicals start loving them. But above all else, it will make you a believer. Make you believe that you can achieve your dreams. This is for the hopeful. This is for the imaginers. This is a love letter for the era gone by. La La Land is a masterpiece that everyone should watch…again…and again…and again.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 9/10

Synopsis

From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

The Review

If you’re a Star Wars fan like I am, you already knew the ending to Rogue One before you had gone to the cinema to watch it. It was in the second paragraph of the opening crawl to “A New Hope”: During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. Director Gareth Edwards, with a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and screenplay from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, set out to show how a brave few from the Rebel Alliance went on a mission to successfully steal the plans of the Death Star, which ended up fuelling the story of Episode 4 which came out 39 years ago. With such sacred ground to tread on, Disney/Lucasfilm definitely require this to be a success, as it is the first of three spin-off Star Wars films ( or “Star Wars Anthology” to give the correct term) which are away from the core saga story fuelling this series. Is this “experiment” a success? Did the much-publicised re-shoots after the film originally completed show gaping holes? Well…welcome to the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back”.

The film sees our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), not a Rebel Alliance member but a criminal, held captive in an Imperial prison. She is quickly broken out and rescued by Rebels and taken to the rebel base where Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), the Rebel Leader, asks her help to track down her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) in exchange for her freedom. Galen Erso is a renowned scientist who has been forced by the Imperial Army into working on building a super weapon, a planet-killer which must be stopped from completing. And so begins Jyn’s journey. With the help of intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a re-programmed Imperial Droid in the name of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), they will go on to meet the rest of their crew (Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)) who will ultimately define the future of the galaxy.

Like all the films that had preceded it, it opens with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and you already feel you’re gonna be watching a Star Wars film. But that relaxed consistent feel you have from one of these movies is taken away from you straight away during the opening of the film. This isn’t your “standard” Star Wars film. There is no opening crawl, which the series has become famous for. You go straight into a view of space, a space ship, a planet, and the film is set. There are flashbacks and flash forwards, never before seen in the seven films that came before it. The Storm Troopers feel like the ruthless soldiers they should be. The Death Star has never been such a threat as it has in this film. The force is more of a tool of faith, hope, and religion than cool Jedi tricks. This is a dark, gritty, unforgiving Star Wars world we’ve never seen on the big screen. A welcome change to what we’re used to as a viewer but on the flip side, makes this a bigger threat to our heroes.

The journey they take is violent and dangerous, and with Gareth Edwards’ direction it truly is astonishing to watch. Rogue One was originally pitched as a heist movie when it was first announced a few years ago. This is not a heist movie, this is a war movie. This is a world where our heroes will have to do questionable things if they want to gain the upper hand over the Imperial Empire. This is a world where none of the main characters is safe. The film has a running time of over 2 hours but it never feels like that. Yes it is slow at the beginning, but it’s needed if you’re having to introduce so many new characters, give them back stories, and make the viewers like them all in the space of the first 45 minutes. If we look at Rogue One in three acts, the first two acts do tremendously well with those introductions, setting up the story, and why we should really care about the mission. When the third act begins in the planet Scarif, the last 45 minutes is the most awe-inspiring thing you will see on screen this whole year; a proper “war” within Star Wars and ranking up there as one of the best war sequences period. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who has made this film beautiful to look at) have definitely taken inspirations from other films to show the merciless acts within wars of the past shown on screen, such as the beach invading sequence in Saving Private Ryan as an example. The camera work is guerrilla-style, making you feel like a soldier on the ground with the rest of the characters on the tropical beaches of Scarif, a member of the public caught within a fight between the two factions on the dirty streets of Jedha, or a passenger on the X-Wing fighting above the skies and in space against Tie-Fighters. Its dizzying and wonderful, and you just can’t help but smile like a little kid at times. To top that, we have the most jaw-dropping two minute sequence near the end of the film which in my opinion should be equally ranked as the greatest Star Wars scene with the Vader/Luke moment from Empire.

Felicity Jones has the added-on pressure of carrying this stand alone film on her shoulders. I mean her face is the most prominent feature on the posters of this film. Even though the Star Wars universe is male-dominated, what it can do well is provide strong female characters like Princess Leia and Rey. Well, Jones can definitely have that sigh of relief because she makes Jyn Erso so fascinating to watch. She made me root for her from the moment she was on screen. Jones makes Jyn strong, lethal, someone who will not take s**t from anyone, but at the same time so vulnerable and lost in deciding her true calling. Luna is charismatic as Cassian and a great male lead to bounce off of Jones, and Wen is great as a no-nonsense mercenary. But the true standouts and the characters which I see will become fan favourites in the future are Chirrut and K-2SO, played by Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk respectively. Chirrut is a blind warrior who is the most Jedi-like character within the film because of his strong devotion of the force and the way he can fend for himself. He is the most rational and human of all our heroes and Yen delivers that presence with ease. Tudyk is down-right hilarious as the motion-captured K-2SO, making his blunt deliveries so funny and instantly quotable. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the villain of the film, owns it as a classic Star Wars Imperial villain: hungry for power and will do anything to climb the ranks in the fleet. The other biggie, the much talked about return of Darth Vader (voiced with gravitas again by James Earl Jones) has very little screen time, but the screen time he is given is so effective and shocking, there is no questioning on why he is the greatest screen villain of all time.

Rogue One isn’t by all means perfect. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi is not fully fleshed out on why he defected from the Imperial ranks which made it hard to fully invest in him. Forrest Whitaker’s very over-the-top acting as Clone Wars veteran-turned-extremist Saw Gerrera is extremely annoying to the point its laughable. After watching the film twice now and listening to the score on Spotify, Michael Giacchino’s score is not memorable at all. In every Star Wars film, there is a stand-out piece, whether its “Duel of the Fates” in Episode One, or “The Imperial March” from Episode Five, or even Rey’s Theme from last year’s Force Awakens, but there really isn’t one here at all. But kudos has to be given to him for a) trying to followup John Williams’ masterful pieces, and b) creating a score within four weeks after the original composer of the film was let go.

ILM should be given every technical plaudit there is come awards season because the work they do in this film is stunning. There are times where I am questioning what is practical and what is CGI, especially with K-2SO. And there are a few moments within this film, which I will not spoil here, that truly astounds you on how far the world has come with computer generated effects. As a side note, I’ve watched this in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D brings nothing to the table other than the standard unwelcome dark filter once you put on those glasses.

Final Word

The big question before the film was released was whether any casual film goer can watch this, or whether it’s solely aimed for the fans? To me, it has the right balance. The fan service in here is so pleasing, hardcore fans will be smiling with joy with the amazing easter eggs laid out throughout the film (many from “A New Hope” and surprisingly, the cartoon series Star Wars Rebels). But for anyone wanting to see a film with the right balance of joy and heartbreak, wonder and spectacle, Rogue One does it well…really well, and gives me faith with the other spin-offs planned, justifying why we are getting a Star Wars film every year now for the next four years. What a way to end 2016!