What I didn’t like about “Manchester by the Sea”

While I’m being a film critic I’d like to say something belatedly about Manchester by the Sea.  I can’t quarrel with the acting or the direction.  I have my usual nits to pick about Boston accents and local goofs–what’s a convenience store doing selling beer at two in the morning?  But I left the movie feeling annoyed and frustrated, and it took me a while to figure out why.

The point of the movie, it seems to me, is that the Casey Affleck character doesn’t change, because he cannot change; he’s too deeply damaged.  So he ends the movie back where he started, more or less–living by himself, working at a menial job.  He doesn’t get back together with his wife; he basically gives away his nephew.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But that means that nothing happens in the movie.  Well, stuff happens, but it’s like real life–one damn thing after another, without form or meaning.  No one really changes; we all just end up in a different spot because time has passed.

I have pondered this a bit, because I do appreciate that the movie didn’t go in for a soft-edged Hollywood ending.  In that sort of ending, the responsibility of parenting his nephew would change Affleck, help him come to terms with his grief.  Meh.  But there could be perhaps a glimmer of hope for redemption.  Or, if not, it could be a tragedy.  Just not utter stasis.

Also, that scene in the convenience store really annoyed me.

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The best way to watch “Love Actually”

You guys don’t care about John Donne.  The first Facebook comment about my previous post was: “But what about Love Actually?”  Philistines.

Assuming that one has to watch “Love Actually” every year at this time, and most of us do, whether we want to or not, how does one survive the ordeal?  The answer, we have decided, is to fast-forward through the awful parts.  For example, none of this Liam Neeson and his stepson crap:

Skip the boring unfunny porn-star-stand-in scenes with Martin Freeman:

And most especially ax the dreary Laura Linney and her crazy brother subplot:

What you’re left with are the Hugh Grant scenes, which are pretty funny; the Colin Firth scenes, which are moderately funny; the Keira Knightley scenes (which aren’t funny but, you know, Keira Knightley); the Brit-goes-to-America scenes, which are stupid but kind of funny; and the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson scenes — because, you know, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  Also the Rowan Atkinson scene, which is priceless.

This results in a tolerable movie that is less than 90 minutes long.

I still don’t know how to cope with my wife pointing out all the many unbelievable things that happen in the course of those 90 minutes: “Alan Rickman would never bring the necklace for his girlfriend home where Emma Thompson can find it.”  “The Prime Minister would never come through Heathrow arrivals with everyone else.”  “No school would have a Christmas play on Christmas Eve.”

I know all this.  It’s your idea to watch the thing.  Every year.  It doesn’t become more plausible with the passage of time.

Now I’ll shut up until next year.

Update: No, I won’t shut up.  Turns out that in my general befuddlement I forgot the best part of the movie: the Bill Nighy aging pop-star subplot.  You can actually skip everything else (except maybe Keira Knightley) and just watch that.  Here’s my favorite quote from Billy Mack:

Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!

And his final line to his manager on Christmas Eve: “Now let’s get pissed and watch porn.”

Always good advice!

Writers in the movies: “Trumbo”

One more in an apparently very occasional series.

Trumbo, of course, is the movie about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who wrote Roman HolidaySpartacus, and other major movies.  The film mostly focuses on his time on the blacklist, when he had to cobble together a living by writing scripts anonymously, with the screen credit going to fronts.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Trumbo, and I guess he deserved his Oscar nomination, but Trumbo struck me as being a very bland movie.  Trumbo is presented as a secular saint, with his opponents–Hedda Hopper, John Wayne–presented as purely evil.  The only flaw we see in Trumbo is when he gets cranky with his kids for not wanting to deliver some of his rewrites to a movie set–but he quickly repents and goes off to apologize to his daughter, who, like him, is devoted to the cause of justice for the downtrodden.  Couldn’t we at least have had a scene where he explains why he’s still a communist despite what was then known about Stalin?  Life and politics in the 1950s were more complex than this movie lets on.

If Trumbo soft-pedals its hero’s politics, it pretty much ignores his writing.  We see a scene from Roman Holiday and another from Spartacus, and we learn that Trumbo likes to write in the bathtub, but there’s virtually nothing about the craft itself.  Well, there is a scene where he and a blacklisted co-writer (played by Louis CK) discuss the plotting for a quickie called “The Alien and the Farmgirl”.  Why does the alien fall for the farmgirl?  Because he reminds him of his girl back home.  OK, then.

Too bad.  Trumbo seems like an interesting guy, and the blacklist is certainly an interesting subject.  They deserve a better movie.

Boston accent

I have started watching season 3 of “Ray Donovan,” which brings to mind again the current rage for Boston accents in the media.  Here is Seth Myers’ trailer for “Boston Accent”, the movie — directed by Ben Affleck, probably.

Myers spent a chunk of his childhood in Bedford, New Hampshire, so he knows a bit about the accent.  The thing he gets wrong in the trailer, though, is making fun of Brits who try to do the accent.  In “Ray Donovan,” Eddie Marsan, who plays Terry, is from London, and he has a pretty good accent.  Paula Malcomson, who plays Abby, is from Belfast, and I’d swear she was from Southie.  (I love the way she calls her son Conor “Cawn-uh”.)  Maybe it’s so foreign to them, they know they have to work at it.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a post about “Love Actually”

See here and here and here for examples in this genre.

The most tear-jerky part of Love Actually is its ending, a sequence of joyous reunions at Heathrow’s International Arrivals Terminal, set to the Beach Boys’ glorious “God Only Knows”.   Like so:

So, we had a joyous reunion with our son the other day at the International Arrivals Terminal of Boston’s Logan Airport, coming home to the States after a couple of years in the Middle East.  And my lovely wife got it in her head that this arrival should also be accompanied by the “God Only Knows” soundtrack, playing it on a speaker attached to her iPhone.

This was a pretty good idea.  Except, you know, for the part where her son would hate it.  He goes over and hugs her, and at the same time disconnects the cord, stopping the soundtrack.  And here is the photographic record of the wonderful reunion, my son beaming at the camera and his mother desperately trying to figure out how to get the music playing again:

2015-12-18 19.33.24

No matter — life is better than any movie.  Welcome home, James!  And happy holidays, everyone.

Spotlight

Spotlight is the new movie about the Boston Globe’s expose of the the Boston Archdiocese’s coverup of extensive child abuse by its priests.  It expanded to wide distribution this weekend, and it seems to be doing reasonably well, if the near-sellout showing I attended on a Sunday afternoon in my little town is any indication.  That’s good, because every Catholic in America should see this movie (and everyone else should see it as well, if they want to see a great movie).

Of course, my little town has reason to be interested in the movie — an ex-pastor of one of its two Catholic churches (the church where my kids had their First Communion) is now serving life in prison for molesting little boys.  It happened here, but it also happened pretty much everywhere, in the Archdiocese of Boston and around the world.  (The movie ends by showing a seemingly endless list of the places where abuse by Catholic priests has been uncovered since the Globe broke the story.)

It also happened at the high school I attended. B.C. High. (My brothers and one of my sons also went there.) B.C. High figures prominently in the movie even though, as a Jesuit institution, it was at most a sidebar to the main story of the institutional failings of the Boston Archdiocese.  The main character, Michael Keaton, attended the school, and it’s right across the street from the Globe–that’s probably why they wanted to feature it, even though, by all accounts, the Jesuits handled their scandal far better than Cardinal Law.  The scene that takes place at B.C. High is almost ridiculously person to me.  The B.C. High principal portrayed was still the principal when my son attended the school.  Paul Guilfoyle, the actor who plays an archdiocesan big-wig in the scene, went to B.C. High with me, and I acted in a couple of plays with him; he’s had a nice Hollywood career as a character actor.  (It’s interesting and sad that another character in that scene, a B.C. High trustee named Jack Dunn, is devastated by his portrayal in the movie–apparently it didn’t get everything right.)

One thing the movie brought back to me was how soon after 9/11 the Globe broke this story–its reporters were pulled off the investigation to join in the 9/11 coverage; they then refocused on the story and published it in January 2002.  In retrospect, this was a watershed moment for religion in America; it certainly was a watershed moment for me.  You could no longer believe (or pretend to believe) that religion was primarily a force for good in the world; you could no longer be a cultural Catholic who went to Mass occasionally without worrying too much about the consequences of the Church’s beliefs and institutional practices.  The Church has done little since the story broke to change my mind.

One of many things the movie gets right, I think, is to not oversell the heroism of the intrepid Globe reporters and editors.  This story had been sitting under the Globe’s nose for literally decades, and somehow it never paid attention.  But at least the Globe finally did; and at least we now have a movie that does the story justice.

Writers in movies: A Walk in the Woods

Another in a random series.

A Walk in the Woods, a film based on Bill Bryson’s travel book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, seems to be a small-scale hit.  At the showing we went to, the median age was about 70, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  The reviews have not been kind, though, and the reviews are correct.  The scenery is great, but the movie tries too hard to be zany and wacky and crazy, and the result is disjointed and just not very funny.  Also, what’s up with casting Emma Thompson as the wife of a guy in his seventies?

The main character, of course, is a writer.  In real life, Bryson was a middle-aged guy who took on  the Appalachian Trail mainly because he had a book contract.  That’s motivation enough!  In the movie, he’s an old man who is taking on this challenge because he’s facing the reality of sickness and death.  And the movie actually has a motif of Nick Nolte saying something like “Don’t put that in your book!” whenever something embarrassing happens, and Redford responding “I’m not writing a book!”  He has a notebook, but the only thing we seem hi put into it is a note to his wife when they’re in a bit of trouble.  Only at the very end, when Nolte seems to tacitly give him permission to write about their adventures, do we see Redford start the book.

In other words, because this is mild middle-of-the-road entertainment (and it stars Robert Redford!), they chose to downplay the fact that the main character is supposed to be a working professional writer, in favor of a vague Everyman schtick.  The result is amiable but empty.  And Emma Thompson needs better roles!