Tag Archives: Casey Affleck

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

We’re heading into Oscar season now, and everybody’s raving about Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Gangs of New York screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, apparently the current favourite to take home the gong for Best Actor next month (he already won at the Golden Globes).

I just watched it, and man, it’s quite an experience. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner working as a handyman-slash-janitor in Boston who is one day forced to return to his hometown following the passing of his brother, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). And unbeknownst to Lee, he was named in the will as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who is up for Best Supporting Actor), a regular but popular 16-year-old kid into sports and girls. They used to be close until Lee left, and must now find a way to get through this tragedy together.

The film features multiple flashbacks that come without warning — there are no captions or camera effects to let you know the time frame — but the storytelling is smart enough that it doesn’t take long to figure out what time period it is in. These flashbacks are important, because they help set up the characters and let you know who they are and who they used to be, and most importantly, reveal why Lee left his hometown and became the way he is. There’s also a surprising amount of subplots and minor characters played by recognizable names, including Michelle Williams (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick.

Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. Regular moviegoers might find the pacing a little slow, and damn does it have moments of incredible sadness will that threaten to rip your heart out. I have a heart of stone and I was very close to tears on numerous occasions. Yet, despite all the melancholy, there is a surprisingly amount of humour and tender moments, largely fleshed out by the amazing chemistry and performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The banter between the two feels authentic and heartfelt, even though they don’t always say what’s on their minds. Kudos also to Lonergan (up for Best Director and Best Screenplay) for being able to manage the tone of the film just right, especially by making the humour an organic part of the relationships and dialogue rather than something forced in to provide levity.

In fact, much of the film and Affleck’s masterful performance plays out in this very nuanced way. It’s a very controlled portrayal, one in which silence and facial expressions convey much more than words. It’s incredible how emotional the film is when there aren’t really any “Oscar-clip” scenes of people bawling and screaming and acting all hysterical. I haven’t seen all of the Best Actor performances yet, but Affleck definitely would be deserving — sexual harassment allegations controversy in real life notwithstanding — if he were to take home the award. Likewise for Hedges, who has come out of nowhere to snag just about every nomination there is for his performance in the film. Michelle Williams is also very good as always, but I honestly think she wasn’t in enough scenes to warrant a nomination this time around.

While acknowledging that some people would not like it (especially how it doesn’t tie things up neatly for the audience), I personally think Manchester by the Sea is a great film — about family, sorrow, regret, self-loathing and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking but tinged with hope and littered with the small joys of life, and I love the depth and subtlety of not only the performances but also the dialogue, direction and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best dramas of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Triple 9 (2016)

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Every now and then you get a movie with a cast that’s out of this world, and yet the movie itself doesn’t get much buzz. This raises two questions: one, why did so many big stars attach themselves to this project, and two, why didn’t the movie get more buzz? Triple 9 is one such movie.

The answer to the first question is probably director John Hillcoat, the master Aussie filmmaker who gave us The Proposition, The Road, and most recently Lawless. Although a bunch of actors such as Shia La Beouf, Charlie Hunnam, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, Triple 9 still ended up with a ridiculous ensemble cast featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelslon, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus and Teresa Palmer.

The answer to the second question is that the film, while finely made, doesn’t quite live up to the cast. It’s barely made back its US$20 million budget on paper (which means a loss in real terms), and that’s because it got neither much advertising nor hype through word of mouth.

Set in the summer heat of Atlanta, Georgia, Triple 9 is a fairly standard crime thriller/drama about a bunch of crooks and corrupt police officers who pull off a heist. Things start to unravel when the crime boss they work for, played by Kate Winslet in an uneven Russian accent, forces them into one final job, while a newly transferred police officer (Casey Affleck) starts to suspect there might be more to things than meets the eye.

In typical Hillcoat style, Triple 9 is bleak, uncompromising and gritty. There’s brutal violence and scary depictions of gang life and police corruption. It’s intense stuff, but really, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before — and arguably done better — in films like The Town, End of Watch, Training Day and so forth.

I don’t think it’s really Hillcoat’s fault — the issue is the unspectacular script by Matt Cook, which offers nothing truly fresh or intriguing. There aren’t many twists and turns, and the only surprises are from seeing all these big-name actors dying one by one in matter-of-fact fashion. But on the other hand, all these deaths mean there’s no real central protagonist. We know who the good guys and bad guys are, but we don’t really get a chance to genuinely care about any of them. Casey Affleck is supposed to be that guy, but he splits so much screen time with the rest of the cast that you never get the sense that he’s the lead.

On the whole, Triple 9 is a solid crime film due to Hillcoat’s skills and bolstered by a brilliant cast and strong performances all round. However, the boilerplate storyline — that does nothing to differentiate itself from other thrillers in the genre –severely limits how good the movie can be. It’s more of a good rental than a film you feel like you need to see at the cinema.

3 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Why the heck not?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s life outside of him ending apartheid in South Africa and his long prison term, which is why I was particularly interested drawn to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

I had previously seen Morgan Freeman (his Hollywood doppelganger) as Mandela in Invictusso I had my doubts when I discovered that in this film he’s portrayed by strapping British actor Idris Elba, best known as crime kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire and more recently in Pacific Rim.

While I was wrong about the casting of Elba, who turned out to be magnificent in the role despite being four inches taller than the real Mandela at 6’4″, Long Walk to Freedom turned out to be a disappointment, more a telemovie than the definitive adaptation of the great man’s life.

The film essentially begins with a fully-grown Mandela who is already a lawyer in South Africa and beginning to gain a broader interest in fighting for the rights of his people. From there, the film is a fairly straightforward blow-bu-blow account of his life, from organising protests to his imprisonment and eventual release. None of it is poorly executed or lacks subtlety, but at the same time the pulse of the film is so flat that it had trouble sustaining my interest. There, I said it: I was bored.

Thought I haven’t compared Elba and a young Mandela side by side, I believe there is some resemblance, or at least the performance is so good that it made me believe there is one. Far from a glorified hero, Elba portrays Mandela as a complex, flawed man who cheated on his wife and neglected his family for his cause. It’s still a respectful portrayal because you ultimately come to see his growth as a leader and person, and the remarkable change he brought to the world through his inspiring resolve and perseverance.

Another aspect that pleased me was the portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit Naomi Harris. We usually only hear about Mandela’s greatness but here we also learn about what an amazing woman Madikizela-Mandela is and her significant contributions to the plight of her people and especially South African women.

Unfortunately, two stellar performances weren’t quite enough to elevate Long Walk to Freedom into a superior biopic. A less conventional approach would have been welcome to give the film more layers and nuance. As it stands,  it’s still a passable Mandela flick, just not a great one.

3 stars out of 5

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

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Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was Australia capitalising on the torture porn era ushered in by the Saw and Hostel movies. I personally though it was overrated, but it did have a couple of things going for it: a very uniquely Australian villain played by John Jarratt, who is as amusing as he is terrifying, and the “based on a true story” tag thanks to Ivan Milat and the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio — which highlight the dangers of the vast Australian outback.

So eight years later, we have the obligatory low-budget sequel, which brings back Jarratt as maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor and a bunch of poor foreigners waiting to be tortured and slaughtered.

The film starts off as camp as can be, with Mick taking on a couple of cookie-cutter dickhead cops. It doesn’t make much sense but at least it sets the stage for the carnage that is yet to come. A film like this is always bound to contain gratuitous and over-the-top violence. Wolf Creek 2 embraces its destiny and just goes for it.

There’s not much by way of plot or character development. Mick picks up a German couple (one of them’s played by an Aussie) and then a Pom (also played by an Aussie, Ryan Corr of TV’s Packed to the Rafters fame). Be prepared for a lot of screaming, a lot of stupidity, and loads of visceral, extreme acts of violence.

Surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a torture porn horror, with moments that will make you cringe and others that challenge you not to look away. The tension is there, even though it doesn’t feel real and some suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

The original actually had plenty of what I call “filler” moments, which made it a bore to sit through. But Wolf Creek 2 disposes all the formalities to give viewers what they want almost straight away. As a motion picture it’s much rougher around the edges, but in terms of pure entertainment value it arguably trumps its predecessor.

Wolf Creek 2 is B-grade rubbish, all the way down to its laughable and cliched ending, but it knows what it is and at least tries to have a good time on its way to the dumpster.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

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Thanks for Sharing is a comedy about three very different men with sex addiction. There’s Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a spunky single guy who has no problem attracting the ladies but wants to start dating again after five very difficult years of self-restraint. There’s Mike (a silver-haired Tim Robbins), a veteran who believes he has turned the corner and acts as a big brother-type to the others at their support group, but doesn’t give much support at home to his drug-addict son. And thirdly, there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a tubby, sweaty sexual deviant who has banned himself from the subway so he’ll stop rubbing himself up against random women.

This is more or less what I expect from a comedy-drama about sex addiction. There are amusing observations and situations the protagonists have to deal with, but also a much darker side to their impulses which inevitably become more serious as the film progresses. It’s not exactly lighthearted but it’s not depressing either. Shame this is not.

The tone of the film actually reminds me of another Mark Ruffalo film I saw last year, The Kids Are All Right, about same sex parenting. As a comedy, however, Thank for Sharing is not in the same class. The majority of the laughs come from the awkwardness of Josh Gad’s character, who shoulders the load in that department, while the arcs of Ruffalo and in particular Tim Robbins are more heavy duty.

In addition to the solid performances of the three male leads, the film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, with the standouts being Gwyneth Paltrow as Ruffalo’s love interest and Pink (as Alecia Moore, her real name) as a female sex addict who befriends Gad’s character. Patrick Fugit, who plays Tim Robbin’s son, is also fantastic, as their explosive relationship is perhaps the most emotional and compelling in the entire movie.

Thanks for Sharing is an interesting take on sex addiction as it offers three perspectives from three very different characters. It’s lightly amusing and the drama is well-executed, but perhaps because the focus is split in so many directions it lacks the depth required to be an exceptional film on the subject. I enjoyed it as much as a film like this can be enjoyed — that is, a solid DVD rental, but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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If gritty, brooding crime dramas is your thing, then Out of the Furnace is just the film for you.

Produced by Ridley Scott and Leo DiCaprio and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the film stars chameleon Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a likable guy who seems to be on a friendly basis with everyone on both sides of the law. Like his dying father before him, Russell works at a steel mill in a small town and enjoys a steady relationship with his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana. Life for him would be stable if it weren’t for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran who has trouble coping with an uncertain future.

A tragic accident strikes, and Russell ends up incarcerated. In the meantime, Rodney becomes involved in the shady world of underground bare-knuckle fighting under the management of Willem Dafoe. Once Russell gets out (of the furnace, so to speak), he is immediately thrown into the proverbial fire when Rodney is linked up with violent hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and bites off more than he can chew.

At its heart, this is a film about family, regret and living with the consequences of one’s decisions. Some critics have been scathing about its masculinity and testosterone-filled violence, though personally I found it to be an intense, entertaining experience. The pace is a little too contemplative for my liking, but I liked the old-fashioned themes of redemption and thought the action was well-executed.

The biggest strength of the film still has to be the performances, which are sensational all round. Woody Harrelson, in particular, once again shows us what an underrated actor he is with a terrifying portrayal of a brutal redneck. The script does have a few holes in it, but I was hooked on the bleak tones, which reminded me a little of one of my favourite movies of 2011 (directed by Casey Affleck’s big brother), The Town. And like that film, this one turns a fairly run-of-the-mill plot into an engaging, engrossing drama with explosive sequences.

The result is a raw, in-your-face, uncompromising film that will probably divide viewers. It becomes more conventional as it progresses towards a painful, semi-ambiguous ending, and it does have the occasional clunky scene, though overall I thought it was awesome.

4 stars out of 5