Manchester by the Sea

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Writer: Kenneth Lonergan


One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.

In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.

For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.

Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.

★★★★★

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Triple 9

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Matt Cook


Whenever I watch a film, the single most fundamental thing I require before I can regard it as a success is for the film to give me something that I can take away. Personally I don’t buy into the theory that film is a means of escaping reality. Instead I believe that film is a means of understanding reality. Even if the film in question is simply mindless entertainment, the very fact that I’m watching and enjoying it means that I need some mindless entertainment in my life. Therefore I need the film to actually give me something, whether it be entertainment, insight or emotion, that I can take with me into the real world. If I don’t feel like I’m actually getting anything from the film, then what’s the point of watching it? This is where Triple 9 let me down. Because I never felt attached to any of these characters, I found myself wholly indifferent to their fates. When it was all said and done then, I found the entire experience to be ultimately pointless.

After completing a major bank heist, a group of criminals are blackmailed by an incarcerated Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to carry out another job. This crew includes career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), computer whiz Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and also two corrupt cops called Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The crew decides to organise a plan that involves a Triple 9, which means sending out a distress call for a downed officer as a means of distracting the major police units. Marcus suggests using his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the victim, a cop who has recently started to notice something off about his partner and has started to ask too many questions. Things get complicated even further when Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a veteran detective, starts investigating the original heist.

While writing the above summary I was painstakingly reminded of how little I cared about the plot. Had I been unable to consult IMDb for information I would not have remembered half of the film’s plot points or characters. The only part of the story I can even remember with any real clarity was its wildly unsatisfying ending. Most of what came before in the build-up to that climax simply didn’t register with me. The film was so dense and hasty in its storytelling that I never found the time or the space to actually get drawn into what was happening. Characters were never introduced or established, they just appeared and would then disappear just as quickly. Right from the start the film drops us straight into the action without allowing us time to actually get a grip on what’s happening and allowing ourselves to get invested. It was a bit like taking a random book, abridging the first three or four chapters into half a dozen pages and then expecting the reader to make sense of whatever remains.

Keeping up with a haphazard story becomes even more problematic when you’re unable develop an attachment to any of the characters. The film provides little help in this regard by ensuring we learn as little as possible about any of them. Of the characters actually taking part in the heist, the only one who is revealed to have any sort of motivation is Michael, whose son is effectively being held hostage by Irina. Even then the film barely devotes any time towards defining or demonstrating their relationship. In truth the only reason I’m even able to remember any of these characters is by virtue of the actors playing them. I don’t remember the Welch brothers due to their arcs within the story, I remember them because they happen to be played by Darryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman. Apart from one terrific cameo by Michael Kenneth Williams (seriously, I would much rather watch a movie about his character than any other in this film), I cannot recall a single character that made this film worth watching.

There are some technically good things about this movie. The cast is made up of some very strong actors, the cinematography is fairly decent and there are some well-executed action scenes. Despite all that however, I’m giving this movie a one-star rating because it failed to do the single most important thing that a film needs to do. It failed to leave any sort of an impact on me. As soon as the film was over I felt nothing about what had transpired over the past two hours and had forgotten most of what happened by the time I got home. I don’t even dislike the film; even a negative reaction would still be a reaction. I feel nothing for this film. This film took two hours of my life and left me with nothing to show for it. Triple 9 may not be a terrible movie but, for me at least, it is worthless to the point that the distinction hardly even matters.

The Finest Hours

Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy


This is the kind of film that I’ve always found to be the most difficult to review. The Finest Hours is not a complicated film. It has a simple story that gets told in a straightforward manner. It is not an artistically ambitious film either nor does it tackle any challenging or difficult themes. Therefore, as far as deconstructing and interpreting the story goes, the film does not pose any particular challenge. It also isn’t a particularly surprising film and did not provoke any sort of a notable emotional reaction out of me. It is on the whole an adequate film with writing, directing and acting that is perfectly serviceable. That’s the problem. I have found this film to be so overwhelmingly average that I can hardly think of anything to write about it. Just about every element of this film that I can think of can be summarised by the word ‘fine’. It is difficult to write anything substantial on a subject that does not provoke any strong feelings from you whether they be positive or negative. For the sake of the word count though I’ll have to try.

The story is that of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, a real-life event that is still remembered today as the greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States Coast Guard. The SS Pendleton is torn in half during a fierce storm and the surviving crewmembers have to work out a plan to survive until the rescue crew can reach them. Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the ship’s engineer, uses his knowledge of the vessel to keep her afloat for as long as possible. Meanwhile the Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders that a rescue mission be carried out by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a young but talented coast guard still feeling the weight of his last failed mission. This operation requires Bernie and his crew, including the hardened seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) to cross a bar that is perilous and difficult to navigate even in the most ideal weather conditions. As Bernie embarks on what many consider to be a suicide mission, his fiancé Miriam (Holliday Grainger) prays for his safe return.

I wish there was more of substance I could offer to this review but there really isn’t much more to say. This movie is fine and that’s about it. The film hits the beats that it needs to, showing the stories of both the rescue team as they make their way to the ship and of the crewmembers in their struggle to remain alive. Characters and motivations are sufficiently established, the conflicts and tension are passable enough and the major plot points are all given the suitable amount of coverage required. It doesn’t offer anything new or surprising but it also isn’t exactly bland or substandard. I wasn’t actively invested in the fate of these characters or in the outcome of their mission but I also wasn’t wholly indifferent to them. The film goes where it needs to go and it does what it needs to do.

The cast does well for the most part. Chris Pine plays a different sort of character from his usual as this shy, quiet, unconfident who is basically everything that Captain Kirk is not. Holliday Grainger looks like she really belongs in the 50s setting and does well enough as a wilful and assertive woman tackling the dilemma of marrying a man whose job could very well kill him. Ben Foster gives what is probably the strongest performance in this film as this haggard sea veteran taking on a job that his gut tells him cannot be done. Even after seeing him in Six Feet Under and the National Theatre’s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I often forget how good he is at being brooding and intense. Eric Bana on the other hand gives the weakest performance playing what is by far the film’s most one-dimensional character. He is basically this uptight, inexpert authority figure who is an outsider to the community and doesn’t understand how this job is really done.

There really isn’t much more to say. The Finest Hours is an average film that did not leave any notable impression on me. It is a feel-good based-on-a-true-story film (the kind that your mum likes) that goes exactly where you think it will go. It is a decently executed film that manages to convey the feelings that it needs to convey but not much else. I enjoyed it while I was watching it and have barely thought about it since. Disney didn’t seem to have much faith in this movie and barely put any effort into advertising it, probably because they’re more focused on promoting movies like The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War. It seems like with all of these massive and highly publicised blockbusters in the works, this was essentially the movie that slipped between the cracks. For what it’s worth it is a decent picture, but the fact that Disney did not show any strong support for it doesn’t really surprise me.

★★★