Tuesday, July 11, 2017

2016 Best Picture Nominees...Part 2

Manchester By the Sea: (2016, Kenneth Lonergan): Before I saw Manchester by the Sea, I knew it would be devastating and expected it to be dour.  All the reviews alluded to a terrible tragedy at the center of the film.  I managed not to spoil myself so I won’t spoil you either but I will tell you that what Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts has gone through is actually worse than what I had guessed (and I am usually a very accurate guesser when it comes to movies, it’s one of my talents).  He works and he lives in a tiny, incredibly depressing  basement apartment, speaking to no one and for fun he goes to bars to pick fights.  When he finds out that his brother Joe, (Kyle Chandler) has finally died of his ongoing heart condition, Lee must return to his hometown, the Manchester of the title to care for Joe’s seventeen year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  

Casey Affleck is stunning as a character who wants to do the right thing, maybe even wants to move on, but literally can’t.  At first sight his performance is almost plain, as Lee in the present, he is numb, unemotive, he speaks with almost no cadence in his voice and barely moves his face. It’s as if there is not one moment where he isn’t caught in guilt, in mourning, in regret.  And we also see the contrast of Lee when was living in Manchester with his wife (Michelle Williams).  In the present, he wants to help his nephew, and part of him wants to stay in Manchester and restart a real life, but the weight of a mistake he made years earlier can’t allow him to.  I loved the relationship between Patrick and Lee, it was very natural and stilted at the same time, because these two people don’t know each other since Lee moved away.  Lonergan is always so wonderful at creating such human characters, that he makes it so easy to understand their motivations, to empathize with them completely.  Affleck uses his whole body to portray a man that is dead on the inside, but who still feels an obligation and love for his family, you feel his sadness in every single moment. 

Michelle Williams may be the most expressive and vulnerable actress working today and in both flashback and present day, her brief scenes with Affleck are wonderful.  All of the supporting roles, everyone from Kyle Chandler to Tate Donovan to C.J. Wilson as Joe’s business partner and friend are wonderful and just add such a layer of truthfulness to the film. It sounds weird with the description I just gave but the movie is actually laugh at loud funny at times.  Like life, there are moments of extreme levity, so even though its completely a story about grief and how it can be unrelenting and overwhelming, the movie doesn’t feel excessively bleak.  In fact, I put it on when I wrote this review and I was struck again at the perfect balance between extreme grief and humor.  The movie can seamlessly go from tragedy to comedy in moments and that is a really hard balance to strike.   If I had voted for Best Picture, this would have been my choice. 

La La Land: (2016, Damien Chazelle):  When I walked out of La La Land, I turned to K and said “I loved it”, I think I may have even had tears in my eyes.  And I did.  I loved the story of Mia, (Emma Stone) an aspiring actress and Seb (Ryan Gosling) an aspiring jazz musician.  They meet cute and fall in love. Mia has talent but she doesn’t have confidence.  Seb has talent but he can’t compromise his artistic visions. I loved Damien Chazelle’s confident direction and glossy presentation, just as much in love with Los Angeles as with the story he is telling.  The songs, especially “City of Stars” and “Audition” are charming and I thought that even though Stone and Gosling are not great singers, their charisma and real chemistry made it even more delightful.  

And I loved watching them fall in love, and its glorious and transporting.  I was entranced. La La Land manages to capture in an entirely artificial way the real feeling of falling in love, the magic moments when even though you are surrounded by the city you are all alone.    They meet and they hate each other, but really they love each other, and the viewer falls in love too.   And  I loved how Seb helps Mia gain confidence encouraging her to write a one woman show and quit her barista job. And Mia encourages Seb too, helping him hold onto his dream of opening a jazz club even as he joins a band that he has artistic reservations about.   

I was as enchanted with the film as they are with each other even when (here are the spoilers!) Mia lands her dream role and they say goodbye overlooking the Hollywood sign.  They tell each other poignantly that they will always love each other.  We skip forward five years and Chazelle presents us with both of our main characters, happy living their professional dreams but apart.  He then gives us a beautifully conceived dream ballet meets alternate reality sequence where Seb and Mia imagine their lives together.  It is filmed both as a fantasy musical number with beautiful homages to An American In Paris and Singing in the Rain and as a more realistic scene with home movie images of Mia and Seb living out their lives (a la The 25th Hour, which does it a million times better).

And in the moment, I was caught up, I had tears in my eyes and I was deeply moved.  But a few hours later even, I felt uneasy and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I felt manipulated.  I felt like the entire premise of La La Land was something that I just couldn’t stand behind in the end.  Chazellle, was trying to have it both ways, give us the happy ending but deny the couple being together.  And thats fine, some of the great screen romances end with couples apart.  Casablanca, Brief Encounter, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, even my beloved Before Sunrise ends with the characters parting and not knowing if they will ever see each other. But in the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which La La Land owes a lot to, the character’s choose not be together because of terrible circumstances (war, unplanned pregnancy), not just professional ambition.  If Mia are Set are supposed to be the great romance that La La Land presents, shouldn’t one of them or both of them compromise just a little to try and make it work?  And if they aren’t meant to be together and their relationship is just meant to teach them a lesson or helps them, why the heartbreaking sequence at the end?  In a movie like La La Land that doesn’t feel right.  It’s a musical, its a fantasy, it seemed counterintuitive to everything we’d seen.  At the end of Singin’ in the Rain, Don and Cathy don’t have to choose between success and love, they get both because it’s a movie, maybe? But La La Land is first and foremost a movie with a capital M.  And if Chazelle wanted to portray a more realistic version of a “Hollywood Romance”, he could have executed it less as an homage to classic musicals to the point of imitation. Weeks after watching a movie I thought I loved, I couldn’t help a nagging feeling that was creeping up on me, La La Land was all homage, all style: it felt false.

In the end La La Land left me with the narrative that professional ambition is more important than personal contentment.  That following your dream is number one, above everything and everyone. That you can’t have everything, but if you have to choose, career is over love. Mia and Seb chose the idea of the “dream” over the reality of their happiness.  But I wanted Mia and Seb to find something more important than the idea of their “dream”. I wanted to tell them that you can be still be an artist, and a success even if you compromise your “dream”.  You can be an actor without being a movie star, you can be a musician without owning a club.  That maybe the “dream” is each other, finding someone you can share your life with, that’s the thing you can’t ever give up. 


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