Manchester by the Sea ***½|****

Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck gives a quietly devastating performance in the gripping new drama Manchester by the Sea, the third film in 16 years from acclaimed director Kenneth Lonergan. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a withdrawn Boston-based janitor who gets an unexpected call from a family friend in northern Massachusetts with the news that Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a major heart attack. After making the hour-long drive up the state, Lee arrives to the news that his brother passed away during the trip and that he’s now responsible for taking care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who lives close by in the city from which the film takes its title.

This raises a problem for Lee, not only because he feels estranged from Patrick after years of little to no contact with his family but also because looking after him would seem to require Lee to relocate to his hometown. As Patrick points out, Lee’s living situation is much more malleable as he lives in a small one bedroom apartment and handywork can be done anywhere but it’s not that simple. A tragedy in his past has made him a pariah in the community and the sight alone of his now re-married ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is almost too much for him to bear.

Lonergan uses a unique flashback structure to reveal the circumstances through which Lee was cast into a self-imposed exile, both in the physical and psychological sense. This is the first film of Lonergan’s that I’ve seen and it’s clear that he’s a very deliberate and precise filmmaker, one who trusts the audience to keep up with the artistic decisions (especially those involving the editing) that he’s making. He’s also a director that allows his actors to dig deep within the nuances of the writing (Lonergan also penned the original screenplay) and to create some truly stunning performances as a result.

Affleck has and will continue to receive praise for his work here (as well he should) but Hedges is every bit as revelatory in his role as a teenager who doesn’t quite know how to manage his reaction to the surprise death of his father. Life seems to go on, at least on the surface –he asks Lee if he can invite friends over and have pizza on the night of Joe’s passing — but it’s clear that his method of coping is in sharp contrast to Lee’s more insular approach. Patrick’s wicked sense of humor not only feels like a credible emotional response to such tragic events but it also gives this oppressively dour story a much-needed sense of relief.

Even with the jabs of dark comedy piercing through, Manchester is still a heavy sit and there will no doubt be some that find it more emotionally exhausting than traditionally “enjoyable”. The important thing is that it doesn’t feel like Lonergan is intentionally making these characters suffer endlessly for no reason; they feel like real people doing their best to battle valiantly with their grief. Bruising and resonant, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful piece that may deny conventional catharsis but does so on behalf of its richly authentic character work.

Rogue One ***|****

Felicity Jones in Rogue One

The Star Wars Anthology continues after last year’s Episode VII with Rogue One, which is technically a prequel to the 1977 original but also serves as a standalone film with a new slate of characters and settings. In some ways, it’s slavishly devoted to the mold created by its predecessors but it does take some creative leaps of its own and strives to get this artistic balance just right. Most importantly, this movie builds on the promise of The Force Awakens by providing more spectacular sequences of space battle that are as technologically ground-breaking today as the original trilogy was in its day.

The story here involves the covert Rebel operation to steal the plans for an impending weapon by the Empire called the Death Star, a mission which is led by the fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a soldier named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The crew is also comprised of an Imperial pilot now aligned with the Rebels (Riz Ahmed) and Andor’s droid assistant name K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who provides some comic relief to this often grim tale. Hot on the Rebels’ trail is Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is in charge of the Death Star’s initial weapons tests and whose research helped develop it as the Empire’s most powerful war machine.

Director Gareth Edwards, who headed up the 2014 Godzilla reboot, paces this film breathlessly, beginning with a cold open prologue from Erso’s childhood that segues into introductions to a dozen new faces across several planets within the first 15 minutes. It’s a lot to take in but once he finds his rhythm, the plot begins to unfold more naturally and the stakes are laid out very clearly. Newcomers should have their hands full just keeping track of the action but existing Star Wars buffs, especially those of A New Hope, should also be able to pick up on many bits of fan service scattered along the way, particularly towards the film’s stunning conclusion.

A significant way that Rogue One doesn’t quite stack up to The Force Awakens is in its handling of these new characters, as Erso doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out as Rey was in last year’s film and Andor doesn’t have nearly the personality of Finn or Poe. It also squanders the charisma of actors like Riz Ahmed, who doesn’t have nearly enough to do here, and Donnie Yen, who has some well-designed combat scenes but is mainly left murmuring a mantra about the Force again and again. While the script isn’t as strong on its character development, it does have an engaging political subtext that I wasn’t expecting and some incisive messages about the consequences of war.

Aside from these details, the big picture is really what matters most and this movie delivers on the basis of pure adrenaline action in a way that none of the other prequels have in the past. In fact, there are two major setpieces, those on the rainy planet of Eadu and the  Imperial base on Scarif, that could stack up even against some of the best action scenes from the original trilogy. Rogue One puts Disney at 2-for-2 since their acquisition of Lucasfilm and with the masterful Rian Johnson at the creative helm of Episode VIII, there should be plenty to make Star Wars fans excited for the future.

Nocturnal Animals **½|****

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford follows his moving debut A Single Man with this ambitious and multi-layered thriller that contains some thought-provoking story elements but can’t find a way to tie them together in a meaningful way. Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, uses its story-within-a-story structure to tell a dark tale of betrayal and revenge that has a sumptuous sense of visual flair, even when the plot doesn’t always add up. It’s comprised of three separate narrative threads, each of which are well-acted and beautifully photographed but only two of which kept me engaged the entire time.

The one that didn’t could be described as the “main” storyline, which involves an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript for Nocturnal Animals, a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he has dedicated to her. Troubled by her failing marriage with the unfaithful Hutton (Armie Hammer), Susan becomes obsessed with the story and stays up throughout the night tearing through page after page of the manuscript. She becomes desperate to find meaning within its tragic and violent contents, which spurs both flashbacks to her early days of happy marriage with Edward and a dramatized version of the novel.

It tells the story of family man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter as they travel across a largely vacant highway in West Texas during the middle of the night. Following a run-in on the road with a band of troublemakers led by their devious driver (a triumphantly creepy Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the group kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter and leaves him abandoned in the desert. After Tony makes he way back into town, he partners with a no-nonsense detective (Michael Shannon, doing some excellent scene-chewing) to find the criminals and bring about justice at any cost.

This segment of the film is the most straight-forward and engrossing from a narrative perspective but it can sometimes feel at odds with the more conventional “present day” and flashback storylines. Part of this likely has to do with the seedy West Texas setting in contrast to the highbrow art scene of Los Angeles but the tone of the “fictional” passage is also much darker and more disturbing than the rest of the film. The lurid details of the story at the center of the film may be too much for some audiences but I found this core story to be more involving than off-putting.

What I expect more people to find off-putting are the bizarre and inexplicable opening credits, which depict numerous severely overweight women dancing in slow motion with sparklers, all while completely naked. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a provocative opening sequence in a film but if it doesn’t properly set the tone for the rest of the story and if the context given for it later on is unsatisfying, it just doesn’t do much good for the movie as a whole. Tom Ford clearly has some artistic instincts that can lead to some truly groundbreaking storytelling but Nocturnal Animals could have worked much better if he had reined in his vision a bit more.

Moana ***½|****

Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho in Moana
Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho in Moana

Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements are known for some of Disney’s most magical and memorable musicals (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) and they’ve found success again with this exceedingly charming and gorgeous new computer-animated film. Moana is an example of the Disney “formula” working at its highest level, pairing original music that’s both clever and catchy with a story that is sophisticated enough to keep adults involved but also moves along at a pitch-perfect pace so as to not throw off any of the youngsters too. Also packed with loads of good natured humor, it’s a breezy and vibrant work sure to put a smile on the face of all who encounter it.

Set on the Polynesian island of Motunui, our heroine Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is next in line to be chosen as the chief of her village but it seems that the ocean has larger plans in store for her. After receiving an ancient stone that is said to be the heart of a goddess, she learns of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and seeks his help in returning the stone to its rightful owner. Moana and Maui’s adventures on the sea pit them against numerous adversaries like the coconut-shaped pirates called the Kakamora and an oversized crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), who looks like a bedazzled version of Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.

It’s no surprise that there’s an unmistakable Flight of the Conchords vibe to the crab’s slippery funk musical number “Shiny” and Dwayne Johnson gets some big laughs out of his equally conceited “You’re Welcome” but it’s not just the humorous songs that stand out. Rich and empowering group numbers like “Where You Are” and “We Know The Way” work as great character introductions and also move the plot along in a satisfying way. But it’s Moana’s signature tune “How Far I’ll Go” that will likely be competing for Best Original Song next Feburary and while it may not have the instant, chart-topping appeal of Frozen‘s “Let It Go”, it’s every bit as heartfelt and compelling.

Moana is Musker and Clements’ first CGI film and while the traditional hand-drawn animation of their previous work is no doubt admirable on its own terms, this is by leaps and bounds their best looking movie. The endless dazzling blue ocean, which not only serves as a beautiful backdrop for the action but also becomes a personified character in the story, is captured with the kind of lush precision that may not have been possible even 10 or 15 years ago. Other natural elements of fire and earth are invoked in similarly striking manner, especially in the climactic battle that pits our heroes against a molten monster who hurls fireballs that kindle the night’s sky.

What makes this film stand out most against its predecessors, though, is the progressive nature of its narrative, which eschews the tired Disney Princess cycle and instead portrays a female protagonist who isn’t searching for true love or a man to complete her life. This is a heroine who is smart, capable and clearly qualified enough to run her entire village, whose journey is one of self-discovery rather than societal obligation. It’s just one right step in a movie that takes many correct ones and after a year of one box office smash after another, Disney may have saved its best for last with the resounding achievement that is Moana.