Catharsis: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

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Some people argue that movies are supposed to provide entertainment or escape. That’s true of some movies. But film is first and foremost art, and the purpose of art is to illustrate (or demonstrate) what it is to be human. Pick any of the superhero movies – those are escape, because it’s human to fantasize what it would be like to be something other than boring old human. Then of course there’s the flip side, the movies that remind us what it is to be human. What it is to feel.

The film features an idea by Jon Krasinski and Matt Damon turned into a 137-minute meditation on grief by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan. It’s a story about a handyman living a banal life, who is summoned home to take care of his nephew following his brother’s death. He left his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea to run away from something, which is revealed during the course of his story. After the movie, I characterize Casey Affleck’s character Lee Chandler as a man that’s unable to find his catharsis.

I picked the poster above for a reason. Michelle Williams, who plays Affleck’s ex-wife Randi, has a total screen time of maybe ten minutes but serves an important purpose. In a pivotal scene towards the end she becomes a mirror against which we can hold Lee up to. Some people can find their catharsis, move past traumatic events and continue to live life. Randi has, Lee has not.

I believe that this is the key element of the movie that the people who rate it highly appreciate. They see the humanity in the characters, particularly Lee, maybe Randi, and this reminds them of their own losses, their own grief and journeys towards catharsis. Perhaps viewing the film even serves as a moment of catharsis for some, which may explain the people who cry upon viewing the movie. Such is the power of art.

Here’s to the Fools Who Dream

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“She told me
A bit of madness is key
to give us new colours to see.
Who knows where it will lead us?


And that’s why they need us.
So bring on the rebels,
The ripples from pebbles,
The painters, and poets, and plays.


And here’s to the fools who dream;
Crazy, as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that break.
Here’s to the mess we make.”

Breathtaking, colourful, exhilarating, melancholy, hopeful. La La Land is a movie for anyone with a streak of art in their soul. You root for the protagonists to make it, both in the entertainment business and in their own hearts. The file harkens back to a time when the movie musical was king, when films like Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris were the greatest things on the silver screen. But what gave the film life were the performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the vision and skill of writer and director Damien Chazelle. I thought Whiplash was a triumph. I believe that La La Land is a landmark film for this century. You owe it to yourself to see it, if you haven’t yet.

One with the Force

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Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia Organa
October 21, 1956 – December 27, 2016
She drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

The most ubiquitous picture of Carrie Fisher is that of her as Leia Organa, clad in a golden bikini, laying at the feet of Jabba the Hutt. The second most ubiquitous picture of her has Leia with a blaster in hand. Thus, Carrie Fisher was the original Star Wars princess, that was adept at both harnessing her appeal without a sex scene, as well as taking out the bad guys. She was succeeded by Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala, Daisy Ridley’s Rey Skywalker (wink) and Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso. I suppose it’s unfortunate that it all begins with the iconic golden bikini, but everything that follows is Carrie Fisher’s legacy. She played Leia with strength, courage and wit, and was not the typical damsel in distress of the 1970’s. While a legion of young boys worshipped her for her looks, a legion of young girls worshipped her because she kicked ass just as much as Luke and Han.

Of course Carrie Fisher grew out of the Princess Leia role, and as evidenced by the work she’s done in the past forty years that had nothing to do with Star Wars. It’s a full circle moment though that she had just completed her work on Episode VIII of the new post-Lucas trilogy before her death from a heart attack. Gone at 60 years old, far too young for the greatest Princess of my generation, the Star Wars generation.

She is one with the Force, the Force is with her.

Lights, Camera, Action

It was 1977. I was six years old. My mom was an occasional movie reviewer for a niche publication, so she got free passes to movies. I’d been with her to a few, but I couldn’t really recall seeing any of them until that one.

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Back then you got a ticket, found a seat in the theater, and could stay there as long as you liked. I remember pleading to see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star again. I got to see “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” twice on that day. I was hooked on movies. There were two more films in 1977 that I can recall seeing at the theater. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Rescuers. After each one, I remember asking “who made that movie”? So at six years old, I knew that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney made movies. (It’s ok mom, at that time no one would have easily known that John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Art Stevens were credited as co-directors of the Disney classic. You didn’t have IMDB!)

The director is the auteur of a film, superseding even the writer. Sure, the actors are the stars and make the most money, but the director is the single person that you can point to as being the one that “made” the movie. He controls everything: the perspective, the mood, the characters’ point of view and demeanor, the pacing, the sequence of events, every detail is within his jurisdiction. In most cases he can even rewrite, add or delete scenes of films where he didn’t write the screenplay (often ending up with a co-writing credit under the rules of the SGA).

Today, directors are recognizable from their imprint on the films they make. It can be as simple as Michael Bay’s gratuitous explosions, George Lucas’s campy dialogue or Paul Verhoeven’s gratuitous sex scenes. It can be as technical as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s long, seemingly cutless tracking shots, or Tim Burton’s signature surreal fantasyscapes. And that’s just the mainstream. (I consider old masters like Hitchcock and Kurosawa as reasonably “mainstream”.)

I used to buy DVD as much for the features as for the movies themselves. Expansive material as was seen on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy DVDs kept me awake nights, marveling at the ludicrous amount of work that they lovingly put into those movies. I listen to director commentaries, enjoying their explanations of why they chose to shoot from certain angles, or why certain scenes were cut out, or why they went with the particular take of a particular scene, or why the musical score is the way it is, or how they shot a scene in the middle of a storm or blizzard.

It’s all amazing to me. The director is a conductor of a massive orchestra, that keeps playing rain or shine over months or even years. I can see myself doing that.

Here’s an interview with Cameron Crowe, director and writer of Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies. It’s about an amazing scene, where the main characters are on a bus and spontaneously start singing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. He talks about how they approached shooting the scene, how important it was to both the story and the directory, and how Elton reacted to it after seeing the movie.

I’ve wanted to be a film director since I was six. Almost forty years later I still do.


This post is a response to the Daily Prompt of March 30, 2015.

If you were involved in a movie, would you rather be the director, the producer, or the lead performer? (Note: you can’t be the writer!).

 

Artificial Stupidity

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. “

My title doesn’t reference my feelings for Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. I quite enjoyed it, having had some familiarity with Alan Turing both from a WWII standpoint, and from an artificial intelligence standpoint. I had some issues with the jumping around in time, which interfered with the narrative, but overall the film adequately delivered its story. Cumberbatch, Knightley and Goode were all effective. It was a pleasure to see Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance, continuing to spit fire.

Oh, right, the title. It’s my favorite element of the Turing Test. Sometimes you can tell what’s human from what isn’t by searching for the little mistaeks that we make every day.

Scarlett Serenade

“Let’s assume we do, in fact, use only 10% of our brain. If you could unlock the remaining 90%, what would you do with it?”

Become one with the universe.

On the way, I might as well take the time to eliminate the crime lords that made me a drug mule.

“We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible. We’ve created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale.”

Three Films from 2014

Due to travelling more than usual in 2014, I had the opportunity to see a more movies and TV shows than usual. I carry my iPad loaded with things to watch, and when I don’t have to work on the plane or in the hotel, I fire up something to watch before falling asleep. Goes pretty well with a couple of glasses of whiskey or wine.

I picked the three best films and TV series that I tore through in 2014. These are the movies. The TV shows will appear in a succeeding post.

Begin Again – Written and directed by John Carney

It’s a movie about the music business, the people who make the music, music in general and, well, people. My favorite scene is when Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Greta (Keira Knightley) plug an earphone splitter into an iPod and roam the streets of New York to an eclectic playlist. It comes across as poignant and natural, and the relationship of the characters and the music shine through. Also, Keira can actually sing, which is a revelation.

Edge of Tomorrow – Written by Chris McQuarrie and Jeb & John Butterworth, directed by Doug Liman

A shockingly massive box-office bust, this film is an adaptation of the Japanese novel/manga オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (“All You Need is Kill”) by 桜坂 洋 Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Tom Cruise apparently no longer can carry a film with his presence alone. It’s a shame, because the screenplay is smart, the direction is effective, and the editing keeps the gimmick from getting stale. It’s still the movie on this list that most people are likely to have seen. Finally, Fieldwork’s “This Is Not The End” was a fantastic choice for this film’s trailer, and I’m really not an electronica person either.

Fury – Written and directed by David Ayer

Fury is my film of 2014. I like me a good war movie, and this is one of the best since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The perspective of the war from the inside of a tank is unexplored territory, and the cast that inhabits the tank delivers a textured, believable performance. It’s usually a curse to have the well-known faces of Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf, but the two actors manage to overcome their star power (LaBeouf more than Pitt, who still kind of comes across as indestructible). The visuals are compelling, and the whole project earns its spot in a WW2 film pantheon of great films.