Tag Archives: ***½

Mother! ***½|****

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

The new Darren Aronofsky movie mother! begins with a deceptively simple premise: we are introduced to a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) as she wakes one morning in an secluded country house and looks around for her husband (Javier Bardem). We learn that she spends most of her time cleaning and restoring their home, which recently was subject to a devastating fire, and he spends his days searching for inspiration in an effort to follow up his wildly successful book of poetry. Their seemingly peaceful existence is breached when a man (Ed Harris) who claims to be a fan of the poet and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up on their doorstep unannounced and request to stay the night.

From there, it’s safe to say that things spin wildly out of control and with masterworks like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan under his belt, there’s no storyteller that I trust more with a tale about a descent into madness than Aronofsky. The breakthrough with this film and what makes it stand out among the other titles in his filmography is how small the scope of the story is towards the beginning and just how much it encompasses by its conclusion. The film’s sole location, the couple’s home, cleverly follows this concept too, as we’re able to get our bearings on the size of each major room early on but with each escalation in the story, the house seems to expand in impossible proportions.

This is also fitting for a film that applies nightmare logic to near-perfect effect as it lulls us into a sense of security with establishing shots that feel like a dream and then slowly shifts the paradigm of reason to places that are unrecognizable and terrifying. Comparisons to Polanski (Repulsion in particular) are certainly apt in terms of mood while there seems to be echoes of Buñuelian absurdism (The Exterminating Angel especially) as the plot develops but the horror that it generates is unquestionably unique. It’s uncanny just how much tension Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique are able to establish by utilizing just three basic camera angles — close-up, point-of-view and over-the-shoulder — that all center around the central character.

It’s been dispiriting to watch a great young actress like Jennifer Lawrence commit herself to blockbuster franchises like The Hunger Games and the X-Men series over the past five years but I suppose it makes watching a great performance like the one she gives here even more satisfying. Her role is more reactive than we’re used to seeing from her in films like Winter’s Bone and American Hustle, so much so that some may even feel she’s miscast here, but the level of unease and discomfort that she’s able to convey lends yet another dimension to her acting chops. The interaction that she has with Harris and especially Pfeiffer is often loaded with buried emotion, from disgust to jealousy to rage, that manages to find its way to the surface in unexpected ways.

With loads of Biblical allusions and its commentary on humanity and our place in the universe, Aronofsky has crafted a bombastic and challenging work that has already inspired feverish analysis and debate and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. As this is a puzzle movie of sorts, I always come back to the same central question I ask myself when viewing others like it: even if I don’t have every aspect of the picture figured out, did what I see resonate enough with me that I’d find it worthwhile to dig deeper? Immediately after I saw mother!, I knew the answer was “yes” but the staying power that it’s had with me in the days following are an even better indication of its artistic merit.

Spider-Man: Homecoming ***½|****

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

After an auspicious cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man now has his own standalone feature in the MCU and and I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to the promise of his previous appearance. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third on-screen iteration of the illustrious web-slinger, as directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb previously had separate swings at the characters, but in many ways, this seems to be the first version that truly understands what makes the character unique and indispensible in the superhero realm. If Raimi’s trilogy exhibited an earnest campiness ripped straight from the comic book pages and Webb’s pair of films was brooding retort to the Dark Knight series, then this film casts a lively signature of its own that’s defined by soulful storytelling and perfectly pitched humor.

Tom Holland reprises his role as the young Peter Parker, who is desperate to become a full-time Avenger after the thrilling battle of Civil War but is told to lay low and not get into anything too perilous by his burgeoning father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Eager to help his community, he ignores the advice and crosses paths with arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who harvests the alien technology brought to Earth during The Avengers to create advanced weapons for criminals all around the city. Parker also must balance this new conflict with the everyday dilemmas of teenage life, including a best friend (Jacob Batalon) who accidentally learns of his secret identity and a new love interest (Laura Harrier) who challenges him on the academic decathlon team.

The film’s subtitle is a nod to the fact that Spider-Man has “come home” to Marvel Studios after 15 years of Sony hoarding the character rights but it’s actually more telling that it refers to the big homecoming dance at Parker’s high school, as the movie tends to play out more like a coming-of-age teen comedy than traditional superhero epic. As opposed to the high school scenes of previous Spider-Man movies that mainly consisted of “kids” in their late twenties sitting around in room made to look like a lunchtime cafeteria, Midtown High School actually feels like a believable setting complete with awkward gym classes and dreadful detention sessions (there’s even brief chess club shoutout, for good measure). Homecoming understands that the stakes of the story are established by Parker’s interpersonal conflicts and are not just defined by the big showdown with Spider-Man’s villain of the week.

This emotionally grounded mentality extends not just to Parker but also to Toomes as well, whose evil plan isn’t to blow up the planet or take over the galaxy but rather to just stay under the radar peddling guns on the black market so that he can support his family. Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture (the Birdman jokes write themselves) is one that’s steeped in desperation and circumstance rather than sinister clichés that have infected many a Marvel villain in the past, which makes the character one of the more compelling examples in the category. When Spider-Man and Vulture do arrive at their final confrontation, the shared history between the two comes to the forefront and creates a poignancy that makes their airborne showdown that much more thrilling.

It may sound like serious business but believe me when I say that there are plenty of laughs along the way with loads of quick visual gags, ping-pong dialogue and some brilliantly conceived bits that reference other segments of this Universe (there’s a running joke featuring another MCUer that’s delightfully unexpected). Like The Lego Batman Movie, this is a film written by people who know how to get plenty of comedic mileage from riffing on aspects of their respective characters’ legacies but they do so respectfully, taking care to avoid mean-spirited jabs in the process. People are rightly skeptical of reboots, especially with franchises that have had as much recent activity as this one, but Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that a fresh vision on an existing property can sometimes have truly amazing results.

Menashe ***½|****

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe

Taking place entirely in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Menashe is a gentle and heart-warming family tale that places us in an insular world that many of us have never experienced and still finds a way to connect and make it genuinely relatable. The film is not only a showcase for the rarely depicted Hasidic community but it also utilizes Yiddish, a language that audiences likely aren’t accustomed to hearing at length, as its primary method of communication. Its inclusion of authentic locations and real Hasidic actors lends a credibility that crucial for a movie like this to succeed and even though the story is small in scale, it’s no less absorbing and poignant than more ambitious work that’s come before it.

The title character, played by Menashe Lustig, is, to borrow a Yiddish term, a bit of a putz and can’t seem to navigate through the obstacles that life has thrown in his direction. Following the loss of his wife, his teenage son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) is mandated not by the courts but by the head rabbi in their community to live with Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family. Without the presence of his son in his life, he left to reside in a depressing studio apartment and slave away at his unfulfilling job at the local market, waiting for things to turn in his favor.

Menashe tries to step up and rise above his circumstances in small and big ways throughout the story but for one reason or another, the struggle always ends up being more than he can handle by himself. He feels pressure to re-marry, in part for the partnership but mainly so he can create a fitting household for his son, but in a brutally humorous scene which depicts an arranged blind date that goes sour in a hurry, it’s clear that there may not be another woman out there for him. A planned memorial for his late wife seems to be another occasion where he can prove to Eizik and his judgmental friends that he’s on the path to mensch-dom but even a “bachelor-proof” kugel recipe proves too much for Menashe’s culinary capabilities.

First time writer/director Joshua Weinstein crafts the perfect combination of situations in which to place his main character so that we can take in such a thorough and tender portrait of a struggling widower. It’s hard not to be empathetic to someone whose hang-ups constantly seem to be getting the better of him, especially when the person in focus is such a gentle soul by nature, and Weinstein plays these day-to-day dilemmas with just the right mixture of comedy and tragedy. Lustig and Niborski also have a playful chemistry that had echoes of the father-son relationship in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, even though the stakes in this story are decidedly much lower.

The production is rounded out with some exceptional technical aspects, including simple but effective camerawork and editing that never takes its eye off of our harrowed protagonist. The spare but gorgeous score, which introduces a lovely melody on violin that flows out over a quartet of strings, is the perfect way to musically encapsulate Menashe and within the first minute of it playing over the opening scene, the hair on my arms stood on end and soon goosebumps followed. Menashe is a small delight of a film about standing out in a closed group that doesn’t reward individuality and finding one’s own slice of happiness away from the overbearing constraints of society.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ***½|****

Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a game-changing moment for Marvel Studios, when writer/director James Gunn took a ragtag superhero team who didn’t have the notoriety of characters like Iron Man and Captain America and scored larger box office numbers than just about every other comic book movie at the time of its release. While it offered some welcome contributions to the MCU by way of its cheeky humor and offbeat retro soundtrack, it was also saddled with a terribly bland cast of villains and a perfunctory plot that too often got in the way of the fun. Fortunately, Gunn has made good on the promising elements of this predecessor and made a sequel that is not only better than the original but is also one of the most emotionally rich and rewarding movies that Marvel has released so far.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reunites the titular group as they enlist themselves for interplanetary odd jobs like protecting valuable batteries from being eaten by a giant space squid but when one such mission goes south, they are saved by a mysterious figure who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell) and claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Upon traveling to Ego’s planet (aptly called Ego’s Planet), Quill is excited about the prospect of getting to know the father who was never a part of his childhood, while Drax (Dave Bautista) and Quill’s love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are more apprehensive about their circumstances. Meanwhile, the mouthy raccoon-hybrid Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tiny companion Baby Groot (a high-pitched Vin Diesel) repair the gang’s crashed ship while avoiding the Ravengers led by the menacing Yondu (Michael Rooker).

From a brilliant opening credit scene that is even more playful than that of the original to a poignant conclusion that feels fully earned, Guardians 2 throws plenty (admittedly, too much) out to its audience but delivers with such a high rate of consistency that its excess is often more virtue than vice. Whereas other guargantuan superhero movies have a tendency to ignore certain characters as the plot moves along, Gunn is careful not to turn his back on any of his heroes and is admirably thorough in giving a fleshed-out story arc to each of the five Guardians on top of the new additions to the cast. More importantly, these storylines don’t just correspond with how to get each player from one action setpiece to another; they expand on the emotional foundation laid out by the first film and give us more reason to care about the struggles of these characters.

None of this is to say that Gunn has lost his smart aleck brand of whip-smart humor in the process, as Guardians 2 offers loads of cartoonish visual gags, quotable one-liners and metatextual jokes to also make it one of the funniest films in the MCU lineup. I laughed loud and often throughout the movie, specifically during an extended sequence in which Baby Groot tries to help Rocket and Yondu break out of a prison by enthusiastically fetching various items that he deems critical to their success. In another scene that riffs on the diegetic soundtrack, Ego muses on the lyrics of the ’70s hit “Brandy” by Looking Glass with Quill in a way that would seem incredibly corny for a more conventional drama but in a knowing comedy like this one, the parallels between the song and the story somehow feel both comical and credible.

Beyond the clever writing, Gunn also steps up his directing game and contributes a great deal of visual flair to his space opera with a vibrant palette of neon-infused CG effects at his disposal that make DC’s efforts look even more dismal and drab by comparison. Credit cinematographer Henry Braham for not only providing action scenes that are easy to follow but for his compositional work on simpler shots like a close-up of Quill’s face in a key moment and a wide shot of Gamora sitting solitary admidst a sea of untouched desert. All of these details give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a leg up on the film that introduced these characters first and proves that sequels can correct the errors of an initial entry, especially when more creative control is given to the right people.

Their Finest ***½|****

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Based on the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, this delightful and often brilliant wartime drama stars Gemma Arterton as a Welsh secretary named Catrin who is recruited to be a part of a screenwriting team that specializes in propaganda movies intended to lift England’s spirits during the Battle of Britain. Her co-writer Tom (Sam Clafin) tells her that she was hired to write “slop” (or “girl talk”) to appeal to the female demographic but as she delves deeper into the writing process, it becomes evident that her skills stretch far past writing frivolous dialogue. After following a lead in a news article, she meets a pair of sisters who allegedly saved thousands of soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation and brings the story to her team as the foundation of their new film.

When the script is written, the studio moves forward with production by casting the aging British star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) in the lead role and the handsome American war pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy) as his counterpart, even though the disparity between their acting chops becomes clear once it comes time to shoot the movie. As issues pop up on set, Catrin and Tom are called to fix them with extensive re-writes that keep up on their respective typewriters through all hours of the evening. A playfully combative relationship develops between the two and soon they develop a true affection for one another, even though Catrin appears to be married to a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) back at home.

For a film that focuses so intently on screenwriters and the integral part that they play in the movie making process, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest strength of Their Finest is the excellent screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, whose previous credits include various BBC series but no feature films prior to this one. She effortlessly weaves all the movie-within-a-movie elements with the personal struggles and triumphs of each character into a script that’s crackling with loads of fresh dialogue (I imagine Catrin would admire it greatly). There are also resonant bits of philosophy about how can cinema affect us, as Tom paraphrases Hitchcock when referring to film as “real life with the boring bits cut out” and speaks to the comforts that films can give us, saying “when bad things happen [in movies], there’s a reason, unlike in life.”

The story is brought to life with wit and charm by a fantastic ensemble cast spearheaded by the lovely Gemma Arterton, who has previously starred in dispiriting dreck like Prince of Persia and Runner Runner but here finds a breakout role that’s worthy of her eminent talent. Her Catrin is smart, sassy and sensitive in equal measure and serves as a protagonist that’s nearly impossible to turn your back on, even when the story calls on her to make difficult decisions on behalf of herself and the studio producing the film. Every bit as excellent is Bill Nighy as the past-his-prime matinee idol who initially has an air of haughtiness that should make him insufferable but instead makes his rascally and unpredictable Ambrose one of the most watchable characters on screen.

The Danish director Lone Scherfig tells this tale with all the whimsy that it deserves but she also doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life during war in a region where air strikes were often a brutal daily occurrence that could claim bystanders at any minute. Prolific film composer Rachel Portman ties the movie together with a plucky and sentimental musical accompaniment that never calls attention to itself, a trait that seems to be diminishing among most of the scores coming out of Hollywood these days. Their Finest is enchanting historical fiction that will give Americans different perspective on the Second World War but it also may give all audiences a brand new reason to fall in love with the movies all over again.

Free Fire ***½|****

Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy in Free Fire
English director Ben Wheatley follows his dreadfully boring and self-serious High-Rise with a film that recaptures the unbridled madness and idiosyncratic style of his previous effort but puts it to much better use this time around. Free Fire recalls the quippy banter of Guy Ritchie fare like Snatch along with the cartoonish violence of Shoot ‘Em Up and hosts an 85-minute wall-to-wall shootout that justifies its runtime with a bracing fusion of absurd comedy and innovative gunplay. Its apt tagline promises “All guns. No control.” and it ably delivers the goods in a wickedly enjoyable package that left me with wide eyes and a goofy smile on my face.

It’s 1978 and an arms deal, brokered by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) between IRA soldier Chris (Cillian Murphy) and flashy gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), is taking place in an abandoned warehouse in Boston. The meeting goes smoothly enough at the outset with members of each party introducing themselves to one another but after a pair of misunderstandings (one business related and one much more personal), the deal goes sour and everyone involved is soon scrambling towards the nearest available firearm and taking cover. Negotiations for the remaining ammo and money play out as characters parlay loudly over the sound of errant bullets whizzing through the air.

Keeping track of the stakes and “who’s who” of Free Fire can be a tricky proposition –one character even admits he doesn’t know who he’s aiming for at one point — but the craftsmanship behind the choreography and camerawork is far from haphazard. Some may fault the claustrophobic cinematography that lacks establishing shots that might better outline the terrain but as these are characters who spontaneously find themselves in a volatile situation, I appreciated that Wheatley tends to keep us in the trenches as opposed to giving us the privilege of bird-eye perspectives. He also isn’t opposed to the occasional visual flourish to give some extra flare, like the point-of-view shot of a crosshair as it’s quickly being raised up to the shooter’s eye.

As much as this film has to offer on the visual side of the coin, the sound design is even more impressive when you break down the technical components of making an action movie like this. Not only do each of the weapons that the characters fire have their own unique sonic properties but the sounds of the competing gunfire create a sort of “chatter” of its own kind apart from the actual dialogue that’s spoken. It’s also important that the words don’t get drown out by the gunplay and the voices have just enough clarity to them while still sounding like they’re being spoken in the natural environment; I imagine most of the lines were recorded with ADR but they don’t have that “vocal booth” sterility to them.

The banter that’s spoken between the members of this all-star cast could have been cheeky or a bit too on-the-nose but the screenplay, written by Wheatley with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, is irreverent and playful in all the right ways. It also doesn’t introduce major contrivances to help move the bare bones narrative along; developments arise naturally from the reckless action (or inaction) of its characters and tension is distilled from the fact that they’re primarily stuck in this one location for the entire incident. Free Fire may not aim high with its cinematic ambitions but as the lean and mean action indie that it is, it does the job exceedingly well.

The Lego Batman Movie ***½|****

Will Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Movie was one of 2014’s biggest cinematic surprise hits with both audiences and critics (it even made my top ten list that year), so Warner Brothers wisely chose to follow up with a spinoff of one of the film’s most memorable characters. Just as its predecessor did, the hilarious The Lego Batman Movie picks away at the mythos of the Caped Crusader (and the superhero genre as a whole) in a way that’s fresh, cheeky and exceedingly clever without being mean-spirited in the process. It’s the kind of comedy that you want to immediately watch again after first viewing, not only enjoy it once more but to pick out the jokes and visual gags that you may have originally missed.

Will Arnett returns with Ron Burgundy levels of arrogance to a version of Batman who is treated like a rock star by the citizens of Gotham City but once his crime-fighting is done, it’s revealed that he’s actually quite lonely and unable to form any meaningful relationships with those around him. His inability to commit is even distressing to his arch-nemesis The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who considers himself the Dark Knight’s greatest foe but Batman refuses to put a label on things (as he puts it, “he likes to fight around.”) To prove his importance to Batman, The Joker unleashes his wildest plan yet on Gotham City, which forces Batman to team up with his long-suffering butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Bruce Wayne’s accidentally adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) to save the day together.

The laughs come early and often in The Lego Batman Movie, as Batman chimes in with voiceover commentary before the first frame of the opening credits and even regards DC as “the house that Batman built” when the company’s logo appears on the screen. Within the first five minutes, there are in-jokes and visual citations not only from the most recent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films but from every iteration of the Caped Crusader thus far, even going back to his early comic book roots in the 1940s. Even if you’re not privy to some of the more obscure references to Batman mythology (you’d be forgiven for not recalling Condiment King as one of Batman’s enemies), there is still plenty of humor to be had in the fast-paced slapstick and silly banter.

Director Chris McKay is known for his work on Adult Swim’s stop-motion series Robot Chicken, which has also lovingly lampooned fan favorites like Star Wars and many others for years, although the format here is obviously more family-friendly and not quite as irreverent. He and his five screenwriters have crafted a superhero movie that’s not only funny but also has a surprising amount of pathos and more moral fiber than most other entries in the genre. The virtues of teamwork and togetherness have been touted before but when the movie does slow down enough to give these subjects credence, it’s often thoughtful and touching in a way that I didn’t expect.

Even more than The Lego Movie, the story pacing and animation style goes at breakneck speed and some people will no doubt be overwhelmed with how much this movie throws out during a 105 minute runtime that goes by in a flash. Still, it’s hard not to admire a comedy that’s bursting at the seams with creativity and energy when there are so many comparatively lifeless and brain-dead options around, even if that means viewing it can feel like having the fast-forward button on your remote accidentally pressed to 1.5x speed. My hope is that the good-natured laughs and carefree style of The Lego Batman Movie will influence the pervasive doom and gloom that has infected the DC’s live-action features up to this point and help elevate it to a worthy competitor to the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios.

The Handmaiden ***½|****

Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden

South Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known for his blood-spattered revenge opus Oldboy, is back with another wickedly entertaining piece of pulpy perfection. The Handmaiden is an engaging love story, a constantly revolving mystery and an intense psychological thriller all in one but above all, it’s a bold shot of uncompromised vivacity into the often lifeless landscape of world cinema. It’s possible that its 1930s setting paired with the two foreign languages that comprise the spoken material along with its lengthy runtime may cause some to view the film as a “challenge” to watch but thankfully, I found the total opposite to be the case instead.

We are introduced to a young Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she meets another con artist who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and has a potentially profitable proposal in mind. He schemes to bring Sook-hee on as a maid for the wealthy and withdrawn Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as a part of his plot to marry and then institutionalize the heiress to subsequently inherit her fortune. Plans go awry, however, when Sook-hee’s time with Hideko eventually manifests a passionate romance between the two and the roots of Sook-hee’s ruse slowly rot away.

The story, an adaptation of the Victorian Era-set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is split into three distinct sections that each encapsulate the mindset of one of the film’s three main characters. This cleverly allows the audience to experience an event from an individual’s limited perspective and then reveal greater context to that same event later on through the eyes of a different character, which is even more integral to a movie that revolves around deception and romantic intrigue. Where Oldboy hinged its story on one central mystery and its eventual reveal, The Handmaiden is steeped in more nuanced storytelling that embeds bits of meaning throughout instead of pulling the rug out from under us with one fell swoop.

Chan-wook serves up his twisted and twisty narrative with a verve and vigor that’s equal parts playful and perverse, as bits of lighthearted physical comedy and shocking scenes of bold eroticism are interspersed with little advance warning. His high attention to detail is carried out at every level of production, from each ornate prop that’s utilized to the dazzling selection of vibrant costumes to the sumptuous sets that draw you in more at every turn. This meticulousness even applies to the performances as well: the manner in which a character eats her rice in one sequence, for instance, speaks to her exacting nature and with just that gesture, suggests that their may be even more to learn about her later in the story.

Late in the film, one of the characters — himself a storyteller of sorts — facetiously remarks “the story is all about the journey” but no one has a greater affinity for this concept than Park Chan-wook. He crafts his films with layers and details that may not always be detectable within a first viewing but multiple visits tend to reveal greater depths and thus become more impressive over time. I have little doubt that The Handmaiden will perfectly fit within his pantheon of expertly crafted works that richly reward those who take the time to seek them out.

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.

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.