Tag Archives: Carl Schultz

Review: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is phenomenal

By CARL SCHULTZ

Occasionally it seems as if we’ve become disillusioned as a society, so bereft of self-esteem that to find heroes we need to turn to film adaptations of comic books. In the absence of authentic, real-life examples of moral integrity, we instead need to measure ourselves against characters who leap tall buildings at a single bound, harness genetic distinctions to vanquish otherworldly despots or sweep through outer space in futuristic fighter jets to liberate oppressed civilizations in galaxies far, far away.

We sometimes need to be reminded that those people who toil quietly day after day in lives of common decency — obeying society’s rules, working unspectacular professions, providing for their families, supporting their friends, envisioning modest dreams of a better life ahead — are the genuine Supermen and Wonder Women of our world.

One movie which recognizes that essential truth — and gets it right, and celebrates it — is the new release “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan and distributed by Amazon Studios, a subsidiary of the popular online retailer of books, games and movies.

In “Manchester by the Sea,” a man on the worn edge of youth lives out a solitary and humorless existence as a custodian in a Boston apartment building. Played by actor Casey Affleck, Lee Chandler regards the world through wary, guarded eyes and keeps humanity at arm’s length, drawing no more or less satisfaction from a cold beer after work than from unclogging a tenant’s stopped toilet during his workday.

One afternoon while shoveling snow, Lee receives a telephone call: His brother has suffered a heart attack, and has been taken in critical condition to the hospital in the nearby town of Manchester by the Sea. Lee displays no outward emotion at the news — he quietly assures the caller he’ll leave for the hospital immediately. Manchester by the Sea is Lee’s hometown, we are told. He left there years earlier under unknown circumstances.

Arriving at the hospital, Lee learns his brother has died, and that he needs to assume a measure of family responsibility and attend to the brother’s unresolved business and final arrangements. In the process he’ll need to interact with friends and family members he hasn’t seen or spoken with in a number of years.

From that point forward, “Manchester by the Sea” departs from a traditional narrative structure. As the estranged Lee begins to somberly address his burdens, he draws upon memories of the past, presented to the viewer in the form of flashbacks.

Little by little, we learn about Lee’s family and his background. And as we eventually discover the unspeakable tragedy which devastated the laconic custodian’s life and drove him away, we realize what a selfless and heroic gesture he’s undertaken by returning home to assume his brother’s responsibilities.

Actor Casey Affleck has at times during his career seemed almost to court audience indifference. Often regarded as the less-flamboyant younger brother of Academy Award-winning superstar Ben Affleck — the older Affleck’s buddy and occasional collaborator Matt Damon is one of the producers of “Manchester by the Sea” — possibly Casey Affleck’s most memorable role prior to this picture was as Bob Ford in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” in which the actor inhabited the character of a man reviled by history and damned in folklore — not exactly superstar material. Casey Affleck is one actor who’s resisted donning the spandex uniform and cape of a comic book superhero.

The highest accolade for both “Manchester by the Sea,” and for Affleck’s performance in it, is that is seems as if writer/director Lonergan conspired with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes to simply camouflage the camera and capture life itself, in all its emotional pageantry. Like film ancestors such as 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and 1980’s “Ordinary People,” this picture actually seem natural enough to enforce the notion that we’re eavesdropping on actual occurrences, or viewing another family’s home movies.

We learn that Lee’s brother Joe, a charter boat owner, has always guided him and tried to shield him from life’s unfairnesses. And that in either one final lesson in responsibility or a cardinal gesture of confidence — we’re not quite sure which — the now-deceased brother has entrusted Lee with the custody of his 16-year-old son.

Playing Joe in flashbacks is Kyle Chandler, an actor whose movie star good looks belie his range and effectiveness in the roles he plays. Late of television’s critically acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” — he played the coach — Chandler has also contributed quietly authoritative and eminently persuasive supporting performances in such pictures as Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the 2011 Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams collaboration “Super 8.”

In one telling flashback episode of “Manchester by the Sea,” Lee and Joe and Joe’s young son arrive home to discover Joe’s fragile and neurotic wife passed out on the couch, nude, in an alcoholic stupor. Wordlessly, automatically, the two brothers with practiced nonchalance move together to protect the young son from the sight of his mom’s shame — obviously this has happened before.

As Lee swiftly spirits the boy from the room, Joe lingers for a moment, considers, and then in an act of gentle decency covers his wife with a blanket. There’s no anger, contempt or bitterness in his eyes, only infinite disappointment and sadness. Not many actors could pull off that delicacy of emotion as effectively, especially without dialogue. Chandler does.

Also contributing a memorable characterization to the picture is the superb Michelle Williams, who enhances and enriches seemingly every film in which she chooses to appear, from the title role as Marilyn Monroe in the acclaimed “My Week with Marilyn,” to “Brokeback Mountain” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” As Lee’s former wife, Williams etches another memorable characterization in a resume as one of the finest performers in American film, although her role in this picture is not as large as her billing suggests.

But a real revelation in “Manchester by the Sea” is the performance of Lucas Hedges as Joe’s emotionally orphaned son, Patrick. Alternately outgoing and guarded, aggressive and vulnerable, manipulative and trusting, Hedges’ Patrick persuasively invests the character of the wounded teenager with all the qualities found in real life.

Like two virtuosos playing dueling solos, the scenes between the brash Hedges and the laconic Affleck are the highlight of the picture. Plainly Lucas Hedges is one young actor who’s going places.

Appropriately, the music soundtrack for the picture, composed by Lesley Barber, is strongly reminiscent of symphonic passages and tone poems, with a particular similarity to the intricate and exacting works of Antonio Vivaldi. As with the best of the romantic classics, not a note is wasted. And in this movie as with an orchestral performance, even the members of the ensemble with the smallest parts are essential to the overall quality of the piece.

Near the end of the picture is a brief episode which takes place on the deceased Joe Chandler’s charter boat. The scene is set in the present, after Joe’s burial, and onboard to test the craft’s seaworthiness are Lee, Patrick and Patrick’s girlfriend. The boy is piloting the boat around the harbor.

Impulsively, Patrick invites his girlfriend to take the wheel for a moment and steer the boat. Nervous, she simultaneously accelerates and turns the craft sharply — a deadly combination. But Lee, in the back of the boat, never flinches or reaches out to steady himself. Instead, he just flexes his hips and knees and rolls with the lurch of the boat — a balanced man, living with confidence for possibly the first time in his life.

But the real denouement of the scene is the expression we see in that moment on Affleck’s face: His brow, until now darkened and knotted with anxiety, is bright with confidence and optimism, and his guarded face is melted into a broad smile of ease and happiness. For the first time in the picture there’s love and affection in his eyes. It’s a family moment, and at long last Lee has assumed a place in his family dynamic, tasting responsibility and liking it, making decisions on behalf of others — good or bad, right or wrong — but prepared to live with the consequences.

It’s an important moment, not only in the picture but also likely among all the films of the year: It is in that moment that we behold a flawed and fallible character embrace maturity, and begin to grow and more forward.

“Manchester by the Sea” is the rare motion picture which invites us to invest in its characters, and walk along with them. Even at 137 minutes the film leaves us wanting more. It enlightens us as it entertains us, and leaves us with an impression of humanity we sense might remain with us long into the future.

Currently the picture is playing in the smaller auditoriums of local multiplexes. But when Academy Award nominations are revealed in a few weeks, “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the titles we’ll surely be hearing announced.

Review: ‘Fences’ remains relevant, powerful

By CARL SCHULTZ

Probably there’s not a man or woman on the face of the earth who doesn’t sometimes feel as if fate — or circumstances, or politics, or society — has cheated him out of a better life. Whether we dream of fame or riches, power or affluence, most of us entertain at least occasionally a notion that that life could’ve been vastly better, if only . . .

That feeling is one of the demons Troy Maxton is wrestling in “Fences,” Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious motion picture release of the Christmas season. “Fences” is the long-awaited film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama by Pittsburgh-based playwright August Wilson.

In “Fences,” Troy Maxton is a middle-aged trash collector living in mid-1950s Pittsburgh with his wife, Rose, and their high school-aged son, Cory. Revealed through conversations between Troy and his best friend and co-worker Jim Bono is the knowledge that Maxton was once a baseball player of some promise in the pre-World War II Negro League.

Unfortunately, the color barrier was not broken in major league baseball until Maxton’s prime had already passed . . . although a 13-year stretch in prison for an accidental murder also undoubtedly contributed to Troy’s failure to reach the big leagues.

As the picture begins, Troy’s thoughts are occupied with a confrontation he recently initiated with his employer over an essential unfairness: The relatively-menial task of garbage collection is being performed by black employees, while the less-strenuous and higher-paying position of driving the garbage trucks is assigned to whites. On their walk home from work, Troy vows that he intends to pursue the resolution of the unfairness, even if it costs him his job.

Arriving home, however, Troy is also surprised by his wife with the information that their son Cory is being scouted by a major university, with the intention of recruiting him for a football scholarship —rewarding the son with a free education in exchange for his athletic abilities.

Troy’s reaction is surprising. The elder Maxton is mistrusting: Nothing, he claims, is ever given away for free, and the son is better off where he is — finishing school and keeping his job working weekends at the nearby A&P grocery market. It is suggested that Troy resists the son’s college scholarship because he fears the son exceeding his own modest accomplishments.

Also members of the Maxtons’ extended family are Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel, and Troy’s older son, Lyons. Gabriel is a World War II veteran who sustained a disabling combat wound, and is now mentally disabled and living on a veteran’s pension. Approximately $3,000 paid to Gabriel by the U.S. government for his wound was used by Troy to purchase the Maxtons’ home, with the understanding that Troy and his family would be Gabriel’s caregivers, although as the picture begins Gabriel has recently moved into the home of a woman in the neighborhood, to whom the Maxtons pay a monthly rent.

Troy’s adult son, Lyons, a musician in local bars and jazz clubs, is the result of a relationship in which Troy engaged previous to his meeting Rose. Lyons is resented by his father for his lack of responsibility — the elder son is perpetually short on cash and borrowing from Troy, either unable or unwilling to toil in a more responsible profession.

Troy’s primary pursuit during evenings and weekends is the construction of a wooden fence around the perimeter of the backyard of the Maxton home. The reason for the fence is variously suggested as a means of protecting the family from the outside world, isolating the family in a domain where Troy is their sole provider, or as a means of keeping death — the Grim Reaper — away from Troy.

In this manner, the angel of death becomes almost an unseen member of the picture’s cast. The fence also is symbolic of the barriers Troy has erected between himself and his sons.

Originally produced in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, “Fences” went on to a respectable run on Broadway in 1987 and 1988 at the 46th Street Theatre, with actor James Earl Jones performing the role of Troy Maxton. “Fences” won Tony Awards for Best Play, and an Outstanding Actor award for Jones.

A limited 13-week revival of Fences was staged in April of 2010 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, and won three Tony Awards — for Washington and Davis as Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Actress, and for Best Revival of a Play.

The movie is directed by star Denzel Washington, who’s also guided the dramas “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007. And Washington the director serves the source material of Fences well . . . possibly a little too well. Although August Wilson died in October of 2005, prior even to the acclaimed Broadway revival of “Fences,” Wilson is credited appropriately as the author of the picture’s screenplay, “based upon his play.”

And with very few exceptions, a filmed version of the Broadway play is what we see with Washington’s motion picture version. The play itself serves as the movie’s screenplay — there’s virtually no attempt expand the drama into locations beyond the Maxton home. Most of the cast — Washington and Davis, Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono — also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. And after certain key scenes, Washington the director even allows the screen to fade to black — for the viewer, it’s impossible to not imagine the curtain descending in a stage production, to provide a break between scenes.

But staginess aside, “Fences” as a movie is an honor to watch, if not precisely a pleasure. This is not a happy picture, and family patriarch Troy Maxton is revealed throughout the drama as a deeply flawed individual. But the production is remarkably well-crafted, almost flawless, making superb use of its filming locations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, although the exteriors are seen in only a few shots. Backgrounds are digitally modified showing 1950s-era steel mill smokestacks. And the production design is nearly perfect — even the garbage collected by Troy and Bono looks authentic, although the laundry Rose hangs on the clothesline in the backyards sometimes looks like it’s already been dried and pressed.

And the acting is uniformly superb by all cast members. At age 62, Denzel Washington has become something of our national actor, nearly a force of nature, and plainly in “Fences” he’s never been better or more effective. The sight of Washington opening a window during a rainstorm to bellow in rage at the angel of death reminds the viewer that film acting just doesn’t get any better than this.

Matching Washington eyeball-to-eyeball, if not scene-to-scene, is the excellence — almost saintliness — of Viola Davis as Rose. Davis’ performance is a revelation, nearly an epiphany, and makes the viewer wish her gift as a performer could be used in more motion picture productions beyond the supporting roles she’s played in other, more inferior films. This is not a supporting role — Rose could easily be promoted as the primary character in Fences.

The first productions of “Fences” during the 1980s took place nearly 30 years after the timeframe of the play. And the motion picture version of the play is being released now, some 30 years following the original Broadway production. Partly for this reason, audiences expecting, or fearing, a rumination on racial relations might be disappointed, although the picture plainly is based upon the African-American experience during a time of change, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But “Fences” the motion picture is also a work in which time has caught up with the artistic intentions and expressions of author August Wilson.

Is “Fences” still relevant, 30 years after its stage debut? Absolutely. More than age or affluence, inequality, generations, unfairness, politics, or even race, “Fences” is a movie about American life.