Friday, December 30, 2016


Life-sized human dilemmas fuel poignant Manchester by the Sea

We think of the movies as a medium of action and image. So it's kind of audacious that most of the drama is internal in Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast.

These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.   

Lonergan is best known for You Can Count On Me, another look at uneasy, but fierce family dynamics. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the taciturn protagonist in Manchester by the Sea has no means of expressing his inner demons, not even to himself.

But Lonergan tells his story through judicious use of flashbacks, and in the ways he interacts with people around him, whether fighting, swearing, or joking around. (Indeed, for a movie whose plot turns on so many tragic elements, the dialogue can be surprisingly funny.)

Affleck and Hedges: new reality
Lee works as handyman and super at a small apartment building outside of Boston. He doesn't say much beyond what the job requires, and reacts with the same apparent indifference, whether he overhears a tenant telling her girlfriend on the phone she has a crush on him, or a tenant cusses him out over a plumbing malfunction.

But when his older brother, Joe, dies suddenly, Lee has to return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, on Cape Ann. Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks) was a divorced commercial fisherman raising a son, Patrick, on his own.

Casey Affleck: stuck in Purgatory
Although the brothers were close, nothing breaks through Lee's tight-lipped impassivity — until he hears that Joe has named him the legal guardian of 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

As Lee and Patrick cope, Lee's memories play an ever more crucial role in the storytelling. The story of how Lee got stuck in his own haunted purgatory is revealed in small, heartbreaking increments, in counterpoint to the larger story of Lee and Patrick learning to navigate their strange new reality.

Affleck offers up shading in the smallest of gestures. His scenes with Hedges give the film its backbone. Michelle Williams provides fire and grace in her few scenes.

This is a life-sized story about recognizably human characters whose dilemmas stay with us.

Friday, December 23, 2016


You've probably seen these two dueling phones ads by now. (Especially if you go to the Nickelodeon as often as I do.)

The first is unabashedly holiday-oriented, and because I'm such an easy mark, I always tear up. An old guy in shabby clothes with an aura of Frankenstein's monster about him shuffles into a village square populated by holiday revelers.

It's nighttime, and he pulls out two light bulbs, one red, one green, and screws them into the bolts in his neck.

When they light up, he hits a button on his iPhone to start the music, and begins to tentatively warble the first line of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays."

But then, one of the bulbs goes out, and he flounders to a halt with embarrassment.

Until — a small, delicate, utterly adorable little girl, a live-action Cindy Lou Who, stretches up to screw the errant bulb back in, and then sings the second line of  the song. Then the entire square full of people join in to complete the verse.

The old guy is not quite homeless; we see him receiving the bulbs in a mailbox at his remote shack in the snow. But it's understood he's some kind of outcast or at least an outsider; parents sweep up their kids and back away slightly at his approach. But when he gets there, he's not panhandling. He's just trying to share a little holiday spirit.

That they not only "let" him participate, but join in with such warmth and gusto sends a very affecting message — especially in these dark and cold political times. The tagline is "Open your heart to everyone."

The sponsor is the Apple iPhone, of course. But what they're really selling is a narrative about community and inclusiveness.

The other spot begins well, with an image of hats viewed from above. In the middle, a yellow beret with a black puff ball tilts up to reveal the face of the woman wearing it. She sings one note and lowers her face again; other hats tilt up to reveal other faces singing more notes in an intricate, a cappella pattern.

The image gradually expands into a phone-shaped rectangle, which tilts up on end, with the Google logo below it. Who's the sponsor? The Google Pixel phone. What are they singing? "Just The Two Of Us."

Wait, what? Although the tagline reads "Together by you." ("Phone by Google"), what they really seem to be selling is isolation and exclusiveness. Me and my phone, just the two of us. Who needs real-life interaction? It's us against the world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Movie musical reborn in glorious joyride La La Land

It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. Once a genre unto itself, usually a romantic story expressed in song and dance numbers ("All singing! All dancing!" the ads used to scream), the movie musical has been devalued in the age of irony.

Audiences who readily lap up zombies, vampires, and skyscraper-sized aliens are unable to suspend their disbelief for people breaking into song in the middle of their daily lives.

Only in Disney Princess cartoons do characters sing their hearts out onscreen (which is okay, because they're not, you know, real), or in the occasional film set in a musical milieu, like Once, where the characters bond through performing together.
Stone, Gosling: twilight

But Damien Chazelle's masterful La La Land makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing chops, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.

The stars are capable and appealing, the locations all around greater Los Angeles County (including my home town of Hermosa Beach) look as magical as any film set, and Chazelle finds exciting new ways to reinvent the genre at every turn.

Gosling: piano man
Chazelle was smart enough to commission an original musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which gives the movie its own upbeat and modern identity.

Appropriately enough, for a movie set in LA, the story begins on a freeway during a traffic jam. As horns blare, and traffic slows to a halt, the overhead camera zeroes in on one woman driver who starts singing. She emerges from her car and starts dancing, with other motorists of all ages, shapes, and colors (just like the population of LA) climbing out of their cars and join in.

It's a massive production number ("Another Day of Sun") that not only makes brilliant use of the freeway structure and immobilized cars as dancing props, it shows us just how much fun this movie is going to be.

When traffic starts up again Mia (Stone) has a fleeting, rude encounter with Sebastian (Gosling). She's an aspiring actress on her way to work at a coffeeshop on a movie studio backlot, where she can be close to the auditions she's always running off to. She shares an apartment with three other hopeful actresses in an old Art Deco building; after they drag her off to a party, she's on her way home when she wanders into a piano bar where Seb is playing.

Dancing with the stars: Griffith Observatory

Now the movie switches over to Sebastian's story after the freeway incident. He's a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas carols in the bar (it's winter, when the story begins) to fund his dream of opening his own jazz club one day. (J. K. Simmons — co-star of Chazelle's last film, Whiplash —cameos as Seb's deadpan boss.)

Mia is drawn to a particularly hypnotic refrain Seb is playing, that echoes throughout the story. But even though their second encounter does not go well, they begin circling into each other's orbits and their relationship blossoms.

The rest of the story is best left to the viewer to experience. The themes are universal—pursuing dreams; staying true to oneself — but the storytelling is fresh. Mandy Moore's choreography is outstanding, from that huge freeway number to Mia and Seb's lovely tap duet as they start to fall in love, on a ridge overlooking LA at twilight. In a fabulous fantasy duet, they rise up into the starmap of the interior dome of Griffith Park Observatory — literally dancing with the stars.

Stone and Gosling: to the Lighthouse
Both Stone and Gosling have musical experience — she starred in a Cabaret revival on Broadway a couple if years ago, and he played multiple instruments (including piano) in an indie rock band. Chazelle chose to shoot their duets the old-fashioned way — in Cinemascope, in one take — and both performers are up to the challenge; their dancing is fluid and relaxed.   

Using iconic LA landmarks and neighborhoods —the venerable Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa (and the beachfront and pier); Watts Towers; The Grand Cenral Market; the vintage Rialto Theatre, the Angel's Flight cable car — Chazelle creates a visual reverie on the City of Dreams, an LA that may only exist in the imagination.

And while he stays true in spirit to classic musicals, Chazelle's wistful, and poignant finale gives the movie an unexpected edge. La La Land is a virtuoso production that gives us all something to sing (and dance) about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Girl defies tradition in soaring Eagle Huntress

The best girl-power stories are true. Fiction can inspire, but what better validation can there be for girls in the audience than a young woman who beats the odds in real life to excel at some traditionally male-dominated activity that she loves?

Someone like Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of the stunningly beautiful documentary The Eagle Huntress, a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles.

Directed by first-timer Otto Bell, the film was shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people. Nomadic families move out into the grasslands with their yurts to graze their sheep during the warm weather, but band together in their village of stone bunkers when winter comes.

Aisholpan's father is distinguished among the villagers as an eagle hunter, a skill learned from his own father. Indeed, the men in their family have been eagle hunters for twelve generations.

Like father, like daughter
Anyone bred into the brotherhood learns to capture his own baby eaglet from an untended nest, bond with the bird he trains to respond to his commands, and hunt the small game the nomads need to provide fur lining for their winter clothes. At the end of seven years of service, the hunter returns his bird to the wild with a ceremony of thanks.

It's always been a skill handed down from father to son, but Aisholpan has been fascinated by her father's birds from a very young age. He's taught her to feed and handle the bird, and to wear the forearm cuff on which the eagle perches.

Eagle hunting is "a calling," he says, "it has to be in your blood." So when his daughter wants to train to be an eagle hunter, he encourages her — and the filmmakers are there every step of the way.

Aisholpan and her eagle: bonded
Her father takes Aisholpan out into the mountains where she must "earn an eagle of her own," by scrambling down a cliff to snatch a female eaglet out of a nest. We see her feeding and cuddling with her eagle (a juvenile, yes, but still an enormous bird), and teaching her bird to respond to her particular voice commands.

Aisholpan is the youngest and the first-ever female to compete at a festival for eagle hunters from around the region. But the real test comes when she and her father take their shaggy ponies and their birds out into the mountains in deep winter to hunt for real.

The movie came about after Niblett heard about an eagle hunter teaching his craft to his daughter and took a series of still photographs of them. Director Bell signed on to make their story into a film, with Niblett as cinematographer, and when they showed their early footage to Star Wars franchise heroine Daisy Ridley, she begged to be involved, as both narrator and co-producer.

 Aisholpan's story in this soaring film inspires that kind of devotion.