Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bad Santa 2

The main problem with Bad Santa 2 is not really at the filmmaking level.  It's been competently made, and it's great to see most of the cast from the 2003 original back.  In particular, Billy Bob Thornton seems to be relishing the chance to return to his famous antihero role, and is clearly having a great time.  This would usually signal a great time for the audience as well, except for the fact that the movie can't shake the feeling that it's completely unnecessary.

There is no need for a continuation of the story of Willie Soke, the drunk and disheveled con artist who always seems to find his way into jobs where he has to pose as a street corner or mall Santa.  Everything that needed to be said about him and the people he interacts with was said memorably the first time around.  In a sequel, while it's great to see these characters again, it simply feels like a return visit that wasn't warranted.  There's also something more than a little off here.  The original was able to squeeze some very big laughs out of some highly uncomfortable situations.  This movie revels in bad taste and is often just as uncomfortable, if not more so, than the first.  But it has a harder time squeezing laughs out of the ideas it throws at us.  There are a few scenes that do deliver genuine laughs, but they are much scarcer this time around than before. 

We rejoin Willie at possibly the lowest point of his life, which is really saying something when you stop and think about it.  He's broke, suicidal and largely friendless, save for the simple-minded Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who has grown up physically, but not mentally since the last time we saw him when he was eight-years-old.  Willie is about ready to throw his life away, when he gets a visit from someone in his past he'd rather not see - his former partner in crime, Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox).  Willie and Marcus obviously did not end the last movie on the best terms, but Marcus is willing to leave their troubles in the past, and needs his help with a safe cracking job in Chicago.  It involves getting in the Santa suit again, and stealing from a charity organization.  The job promises big money, but it also promises more trouble for Willie, as it forces him to be reunited with his estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), who is the mastermind behind the heist.  Willie would rather drink poison than have to team up with these two people who have been a constant thorn in his side his entire life, but he desperately needs the money, and reluctantly agrees.

There have been a lot of people who have been waiting 13 years for a sequel to Bad Santa, and I guess for them, this continuation will be enough.  But I don't think it will have quite the impact that the original had.  It doesn't really advance the characters or the story, and more or less repeats the same arcs as the first, only with less style and humor.  What made the original work was not just its savage sense of humor, but the fact that we actually ended up caring for some of the characters by the end, despite the fact that they were generally terrible people.  There was an honesty to the film mixed with its pitch-dark humor.  Bad Santa 2 pretty much goes straight to the gutter in its humor and doesn't look back.  It doesn't want us to grow to like or even think about these characters.  It just wants to put them in one deplorable situation after another, and have us laugh at the depths that they will sink to.

For every scene that does work (there's a scene halfway through where Willie has to listen to what kids want for Christmas that's a riot), there are just as many that fall flat.  Dark comedy is a tricky genre to pull off, and I wonder if director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) wasn't just in a little bit over his head when he took the job.  Or maybe the first film's director, Terry Zwigoff, was just more skilled at handling the genre.  Whatever the case, this movie definitely has the "dark" aspect down, but seems to falter when it comes to the "comedy".  Instead of making us laugh at what's up on the screen, we just feel kind of scuzzy and wince at certain moments that we suspect are intended to be comical, but just aren't in any light. 

I would say that Bad Santa 2 is not the sequel the first movie needed, but in all honesty, it didn't need one in the first place.  It was a wonderfully self-contained film that turned the cliches of the feel-good Christmas comedy on its head, and gave us one of the more memorable antiheroes in recent cinematic memory.  And while this one does have its moments, all it makes us think is that the filmmakers should have just left well enough alone.

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Allied

Robert Zemeckis is a director who is known for pushing the limits of special effects in his films, such as the Back to the Future Trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump.  With Allied, he seems to be not so much concerned with pushing the envelope, but rather with telling a simple and effective old fashioned love story set against the backdrop of World War II.  Even though there is the occasional scene depicting an air bombing or a gunfight, the movie is much more focused on the lives and relationship of the two central characters.

That's why it's a little bit surprising and possibly disappointing that the two leads are not more fleshed out.  There's nothing wrong with the performances of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in the roles, as they have the right amount of screen chemistry to make them interesting to watch.  It's just that the movie kind of rushes through their relationship, as if screenwriter Steven Knight is anxious to get to the second half of the film, where their relationship is put to the test.  Zemeckis also seems to spend the first half of the film making more than a few nods to the film classic, Casablanca, even setting part of the action in an establishment that may as well have been called "Rick's Cafe".  It gets a little distracting, all the homages he fits in.  Fortunately, after a shaky first half hour, the movie finally finds its footing when it just focuses on the relationship of the two leads, as well as an eventual story of possible betrayal. 

The action kicks off when Canadian Intelligence Officer Max Vatan (Pitt) meets up with French Resistance Fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) for an undercover mission.  They are to pose as a married couple, and while supposedly enjoying their time together in the Moroccan city, secretly plot the assassination of a German Ambassador.  The tension of the situation, as well as the closeness of living together and trying to pass themselves off to everyone around them as a loving couple, sparks an actual romance between the two.  After the mission, he invites her to come with him to London, where he has a desk job with the military waiting for him.  The two marry and have a daughter, but complications soon arise.  The second half of the movie becomes a spy thriller, where it is discovered that someone in London is sending coded messages to the Germans, and it becomes Max's mission to track them down and execute them if necessary.

The trailers and ad campaign for Allied have already revealed that Marianne is the suspect that Max must investigate.  Zemeckis has long had a problem of revealing too much about his films with his trailers.  When he made Cast Away back in 2000, the ad campaign actually showed select scenes of Tom Hanks after he was rescued off the island.  Fortunately, the movie is able to still able to create enough tension even if you have advanced knowledge, and there are a few red herrings designed to throw the audience off the trail.  However, the mystery still manages to be fairly straight forward.  It's not really designed to be complicated, as it mostly deals with Max's torn emotions when he learns his wife may have been lying to him the entire time.  These are the moments that I found so effective.  There is genuine tension here, and like Max, we don't want to believe that this woman we've been watching the whole time is the guilty party.  As Max uncovers information during his own investigation, I found myself getting involved, and the movie started to work for me.

The film takes a personal and intimate approach to the spy story.  Aside from a few secondary characters, this is more or less a two-person film.  It never loses sight of the relationship between Max and Marianne, and by keeping it entirely in focus during the second half, it kind of adds to the tension it is trying to create.  While the movie kind of rushes through how they met and fell in love, the relationship they share and the betrayal that Max feels is very well established, and creates some genuine suspense.  And when the answers do come, the outcome is effective and appropriately powerful.  Allied may get off to a somewhat rocky start, but by the end, we are fully with these characters and feel for them.

This is not Zemeckis' best film, and I highly doubt it will be remembered come Award Time.  But, it is effective enough to work, and is well-made.  I also enjoyed the music score by Alan Silvestri, which is understated and does not overpower the action.  Allied is more than a little uneven, but it pulls itself together enough that I can say I'm glad I saw it.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Moana

Moana, the new Disney animated feature, doesn't have the sophistication or the social awareness of their last in-house effort, Zootopia.  What it does have are two extremely bright voice over performances by Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli’l Cravalho in the lead roles, as well as some catchy songs contributed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of the Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton

If Moana feels a bit small for a major animated event movie, I think it's intentional.  The film is basically intended to be a coming of age voyage for its titular heroine.  She faces a lot of obstacles along the way, but there's not really a character who could be considered a "villain", exactly.  Moana herself is voiced by Cravalho, a 16-year-old Hawaiian native who has never acted or sung outside of school and local productions, and was discovered literally at the tail-end of a massive talent search.  According to lead directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog), she was the last girl who auditioned for the role.  She's a real find, able to tackle the role with energy and determination, as well as having the singing prowess to perform Miranda's songs beautifully.  Dwayne Johnson lends his talents as her lead sidekick, a demigod named Maui.  Once again, he proves himself as being one of the most charming and charismatic actors working today, and just like in this past summer's Central Intelligence, he shows incredible comedic timing.  He hasn't done a lot of voice over work in the past (outside of playing his "The Rock" character in a string of wrestling video games), but he shows a real knack for it.

As the film opens, Moana is living an idyllic existence on a tropical island, the daughter of the Chief of her people (Temeura Morrison) and his wife (Nicole Scherzinger).  Moana is an adventurous girl who longs to explore what lies out on the open sea, but her father forbids any thoughts.  Her grandmother (Rachel House) tells tales of how her people used to be voyagers of the sea, but those days are behind them, and her people seem content to stay put on the island.  But when their lifestyle on the island is suddenly threatened, Moana has no choice but to board her own makeshift raft, and go beyond the reef.  Her mission is to track down the legendary demigod, Maui, and restore the stone-like heart that he once stole from an Island Goddess to its rightful place.  In order to accomplish this, both Moana and Maui will have to venture into the Realm of Monsters to retrieve his magical hook, as well as face down some strange coconut-like creatures who act kind of like they stepped out of a Mad Max film.

Moana is essentially an old fashioned adventure story, and a fairly simple one at that.  There is no romantic subplot, and aside from some encounters with some unfriendly creatures like a giant crab in the Monster Realm, nothing that can be considered a huge threat until the climax of the film.  The journey of self discovery that its heroine takes is the main emphasis here, and it's told with a lot of heart and humor.  The humor here is provided not just by Maui, who gets the best one-liners in the film, but also by her animal sidekick - a chicken named Heihei (voice effects provided by Alan Tudyk) who is so incredibly stupid, he could make Dopey from Snow White apply for membership in Mensa.  This is not a plot-driven movie, as it's the characters and the songs that are supposed to drive the film.

Fortunately, the filmmakers have been successful in both aspects.  Moana is a confident, likable and intelligent girl who sets about solving her own problems without waiting for someone to help her, while Maui comes across as one of the better comic sidekicks to come out of Disney in quite a while.  The look of the film is obviously gorgeous, with some wide water shots that rival some of the stuff we saw last summer in Pixar's Finding Dory.  There are also some inventive touches to the film's look.  I particularly liked how one of the tattoos on Maui's body is a tiny caricature of himself who can come to life and act as a silent commentator on the action.  As for the songs, there's nothing here that will dominate the airwaves like "Let it Go" from Frozen (which I'm sure will be a relief to many parents), but the songs are still memorable, with Moana's anthem "How Far I'll Go" and Maui's introductory number "You're Welcome" being the highlights.

There's no denying that Moana is a throwback to a somewhat simpler time of animated storytelling, but it's still highly entertaining, and has more than enough energy for just about anyone in the audience to enjoy it.  The characters are bright and personable (well, except for Heihei), it's lovely to watch, and it's just highly appealing.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

Even though the film has been given an R-rating (mostly for some four letter words that are used throughout the dialogue), I think The Edge of Seventeen should be required viewing for any girl between the ages of 13 and 16, as I'm sure they could learn a lot from it.  Boys of that same age could probably learn from it, also.  This comedic drama about the confusion of adolescence not only has a lot of whip-smart humor and truths, but a lot of bittersweet heart.  I can easily see this becoming a staple for many young viewers when it hits DVD.

What writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig does is hit a lot of familiar teen film notes.  There's the unobtainable guy whom the heroine longs for, the slightly nerdier guy who is friends with the heroine and obviously is the perfect match for her, the teen parties, and of course, the narcissistic idea that all teens have about how everything that happens to them is important, and that popularity and what happens in high school will somehow determine the rest of their lives.  But Craig does all of this with a level of sophistication we seldom see in these kind of movies.  She's looking back at these years with wit and intelligence, and knows how to update these characters in way so that they may not exactly be fresh, but they are a lot more interesting than the norm.  The situations may be familiar, and so are the emotions, but they have been written so well, we don't mind seeing them again.

At the center of the film's success is Hailee Steinfeld, who gave one of the best child performances in recent years with her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010's True Grit, and now delivers probably her best work since then.  She plays Nadine, a girl who is smart in just about everything, except in how to socialize with other people.  Nadine has spent years battling social awkwardness, and we feel it's been a losing battle for a long time, and she's starting to wear down.  At home, things are not much better.  Her dad, who was the glue that held the family together, suffered a heart attack a few years ago.  Ever since then her mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), has been doing her best trying to keep the home running, but often struggles with the responsibility of family and work.  And her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some!) is the obnoxiously perfect type who is not only handsome and popular, but also seems to succeed at whatever he tries with little effort.

Nadine's sole friend and ally in her battle has been Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has been by her side since the Second Grade.  They've been through so much together that it completely shakes Nadine's world when she discovers that, after the two spent the night drinking while Nadine's mom was out of town for the weekend, Krista not only is attracted to her brother Darian, but also slept with him while Nadine was recovering from a hangover.  Nadine sees this as a total betrayal on the part of her friend.  They want her to be happy for them, but she just won't accept it.  She halfheartedly attends a party with them, but quickly bails, and breaks off her friendship with Krista not long after that.  Alone, she turns to the only person who will not only listen to her, but can match her in terms of withering put downs and sarcasm.  That would be her History teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, wonderfully and comically deadpan here), who acts like he doesn't care about Nadine's problems much, but is usually the one who is always there for her when she needs him.

She finds another ally in Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow student with a not-so secret crush on Nadine, and a passion for making student animated films.  Of the cast, Szeto is the real find here.  I haven't noticed him in anything before, but he immediately grabs your attention with his sweet, funny and charming performance.  He starts out as kind of the nerdy and desperate friend (he dances for joy when Nadine says she will come to his house), but by the end of the film, the screenplay makes him out to be a slightly more confident and strong male figure that Nadine needs in her life.  Naturally, there is also an attractive, unobtainable bad boy that Nadine crushes over, but it is a credit to the movie that it does not hinge on this potential romantic triangle.  And when it does, writer-director Craig does so in a way that feels honest and not gimmicky.

The Edge of Seventeen is often very smart and funny, but it doesn't feel overly so.  This isn't one of those movies where the teenagers are smarter than the adults, and always have some witty one liner to throw out.  The humor comes from the frustration that Nadine feels about the things going on in her life, and how she reacts to them.  I also enjoyed that the movie is more than willing to explore Nadine's faults as well as her positive aspects.  She is wrong a lot in this movie, or can be mean and rude, and the film never seems to be laughing at her.  Instead, it allows us to sympathize with her, and laugh out of recognition of situations we all have been in our youth.  The film's dramatic touches are also well handled, and don't feel like they're manufactured crises.  This is a movie that speaks from experience, but doesn't overdramatize or simplify.

This is a rare instance where I kind of wish the filmmakers had edited the movie down to a PG-13, and just taken out a few curse words that weren't really needed.  I'm afraid the rating will prevent the film from reaching the audience that needs to watch it.  At any rate, this is a great little movie about the awkward adolescent years, and probably one of the better ones to come along in a while.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bleed for This

By all accounts, Bleed for This should be a highly emotional film.  However, as told by co-writer and director Ben Younger, the story of boxer Vinny Pazienza (known in the ring as "the Pazmanian Devil") feels overly familiar, featuring stock characters and cliched writing that seems like it was designed to be used as inspirational sound bites in the trailer.  Much like the last inspirational boxing movie we got, Hands of Stone, the movie is well made but lacks emotional impact due to the routine path it takes in telling the story.

The story of how Pazienza came back to fighting after suffering a broken back and paralysis from a near-fatal car crash sounds like the kind of story Hollywood dreams of.  I'm actually surprised it's taken this long for his story to reach the big screen, as this story happened back in the 90s.  I can easily see an emotional drama being made from the struggle he must have gone through.  But, the approach taken here is far too simplistic, and has no real impact.  It just sort of happens by account of Vinny's determination.  I'm sure that was a big part of it, but I also have a hunch it took a lot more.  Inspirational movies such as this don't really work if the main character never seems to be faced with much hardship.  Sure, there are a couple struggles, but the road to recovery for Vinny just seems to be played off as if it were nothing.  We don't get to see as much hardship as we expect.

Vinny is portrayed in the film by Miles Teller, who obviously bulked up considerably for the role.  The first hour or so of the film is devoted to his rise, and how he became a champ in three different weight classes.  But then he takes that fateful car ride with a friend, and after the ensuing accident, the doctors tell him that he will have to go through spinal fusion surgery if he ever wants to walk again someday.  Vinny dismisses this, and becomes determined that he will not only walk again on his own, but also fight again.  This becomes a common thread throughout the film.  Someone tells Vinny he can't do it, he tells them off, and then he goes and does it, usually during the span of a montage.  He wears a device called a "halo", which kind of looks like a medieval torture device, and covers his head in order to his broken neck together.  Its screws and bolts are even inserted into his skull.  Despite all this, he keeps on training with the aid of his coach, Kevin Rooney (played by Aaron Eckhart, unrecognizable with a pot belly and a balding head).

Teller does a great job playing the cocky and brash Rhode Island fighter, and easily is the highlight of the film.  And while the rest of the cast is played by talented actors, nobody gets as much screentime as Teller, so they kind of fade into the background.  One of the key problems of Bleed for This is that we never get a sense for the people in Vinny's life.  They're usually seen sitting at the dinner table, or watching one of his fights on TV.  The closest the movie gets to creating a genuine character is Vinny's father, played here by Ciaran Hinds.  He's always pushed Vinny to fight, and when the accident happens, he blames himself for having encouraged him to fight.  He is effective in his scenes, but at the same time, you wish the screenplay (also by Younger) would give him more to do.  Same goes for Eckhart, whose Rooney seems to have his own demons to battle concerning alcoholism, but it's never fully explored.

The lives of these people are largely unexplored.  We don't really know who they are, or what drives them.  Even Vinny seems somewhat of a mystery, as we never know what drives him to push himself so hard to recover.  The movie as a whole lacks urgency, and almost seems to be going through the anticipated motions, rather than really giving us something to feel.  Even the scenes within the boxing ring seem curiously muted and not very exciting.  This is one of those movies that really should work, but it doesn't, and you sit there wondering why you're not as involved as you feel you should be.  The actors and performances do what they can to lift this material, but you feel like they're doing all the work.  The material should be working with them, instead of forcing them to struggle to hold our attention.

Bleed for This comes across as a hollow exercise in inspirational storytelling, as we learn so little about the drive and feelings of its subject matter.  There is a good and probably great movie to be made off of this story, and Ben Younger has not made it.  He has given us the barest essentials, and nothing more.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

A Street Cat Named Bob

Based on the true story of James Bowen, a former drug addict who had his life changed around by the presence of a stray cat who became his constant companion, A Street Cat Named Bob avoids the trap of being your typical "cute cat" movie.  While it does have more than its share of moments that will draw admiration from cat lovers, the movie is wise not to sand off the harder edges of James' story.  This is ultimately a story of redemption from addiction, and one that is ultimately uplifting and heartwarming without being cloying.

We first see Bowen (played effectively by Luke Treadaway) down on his luck.  He's homeless and has little money, and is in the early stages of trying to kick his addiction to heroin.  He doesn't seem to have much success early on, as he nearly overdoses when a friend and fellow user offers him a hit.  Fortunately, his counselor (Joanne Froggatt from Downton Abbey) is not willing to give up on him.  She sets James on a methadone program to help kick his addiction, and even is able to find him a tiny apartment, which after weeks of living on the street and searching garbage cans for food, seems like a palace to him.  To help make money, James grabs his beat up old guitar, and begins performing for tourists at Covent Garden in London.  It's a rough start, but given James' current life, any kind of start is a promising one.

One night, a stray orange tabby manages to sneak into his apartment through an open window.  Thinking it must belong to someone, James tries to find its original owner, without much success.  He sends the cat off on its own, but it comes back to him a couple days later.  To his dismay, James discovers that the cat has been hurt in some kind of fight, perhaps.  Using his last bit of money, he takes it to the local vet, and begins to bond with the feline, whom he names Bob at the suggestion of his female neighbor and potential love interest (a very likable Ruta Gedmintas).  Before long, little Bob is following James everywhere he goes, riding on his shoulders, and even following him on the bus that takes him to Covent Garden.  Bob not only soon becomes part of James' musical act, but also helps him turn his life around, even helping him connect with his estranged father who turned his back on him years ago (Anthony Head).

There's no denying that A Street Cat Named Bob can be a bit strong in its sentimentality, but director Roger Spottiswoode (who back in 1988 made a very different animal movie, the Tom Hanks comedy Turner and Hooch) knows how to use the sentiment to the film's advantage.  It feels earned, because we like the relationship that James and Bob have.  This is a heartfelt movie, but one that knows how to keep its heart in check when it is necessary.  We see James fighting and falling when it comes to his addiction, and we see some aspects of his former life that routinely haunt him, such as friends from the old days who are not fairing as well as he is.  I wouldn't exactly call this movie gritty or dark, but it at least doesn't let us forget where James came from.  It certainly helps get the audience in his corner, and make us want to see him succeed in conquering his demons.

And then there is Bob himself, who is probably the biggest and most personable feline to hit the big screen since Keanu.  The fact that Bob the cat himself was used for much of the movie does add a bit of authenticity.  But, his greatest addition to the film is how he almost gives a penetrating glare, almost as if he himself is worried the movie might get a little too cute at times.  Still, it's easy to see why James fell for the little guy, and why he's become such a celebrity to cat lovers everywhere.  He has a great little personality, and is constantly charming throughout the movie.  Luke Treadaway as James may get all the big dramatic scenes, but it is definitely Bob who rightfully steals all the scenes.  In fact, the scenes the two share together have more honesty than the ones Treadway shares with Anthony Head as his father, which often seem a bit forced and sentimental.


A Street Cat Named Bob is a U.K. production, and is basically getting buried in a tiny release in the U.S.  I honestly can't see why.  The book about Bowen's story was a best seller here, and the movie is certain to charm any animal lover with its message of how the pets we rescue sometimes have the power to rescue us.  Just like Bob, the movie is impossible to resist and is thoroughly charming.

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Manchester by the Sea

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has only three films under his belt, with the other two being 2000's You Can Count on Me and 2011's criminally underappreciated Margaret.  All of his films are smart, honest looks at personal loss, and the effect it has on people, but Manchester by the Sea may be his best attempt yet.  Anchored by a sure-to-be-remembered performance by Casey Affleck, this is a film that works both as a devastating human drama, as well as a dry and often very droll comedy. 

At its heart, the film is about forgiveness.  It covers both sides, dealing with forgiving yourself as well as others.  It's a movie about guarded characters, who keep to themselves in a tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's secrets.  It's also a movie about parenting and taking responsibility.  But Lonergan finds a way to not only make these ideas seem fresh again, but to also add his own personal spin.  He's a writer and filmmaker who can bring out incredible emotion (the fact that all of his films have contained the themes of death and personal tragedy can tell you that much), but can also make you laugh harder than at any over-hyped Hollywood comedy.  He knows how to balance the pain and joy in his films, and always gives his audience a memorable experience.  But his true secret weapon this time is Casey Affleck, delivering some of the best work of his career.

Affleck is Lee Chandler, a closed off loner who works as a janitor for an apartment complex, and lives in a shabby Boston apartment.  He's mostly silent, though he's not against mouthing off at some of the tenants he works for if they get on his nerves.  We learn early on that Lee's older brother, Joe (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler), suffered from a heart condition most of his life that has recently killed him.  Now, Lee has been unexpectedly tasked with the responsibility of raising Joe's teenaged son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges from Moonrise Kingdom).  Lee seems to be the only option, as Patrick's mother (Gretchen Moll) is a drug addict who's been out of the family for years.  However, not only is Lee not in the place in his current life to raise a child, but he has more than a few secrets of his own in his past.

It's clear that Lee has affection for Patrick, as we witness in the film's opening scene - a flashback of the two together on a boat when Patrick was a boy.  But he is also sullen, hard drinking, frequently depressed, and often gets in fights with random strangers when he goes out to the bar.  He has an ex-wife (Michelle Williams) whom he seems to have a particularly stormy past with over something that happened a long time ago.  And when he returns to his hometown of Manchester, people frequently stare and whisper.  When we do finally learn the truth behind Lee's past, it is truly one of the most heartbreaking and terrifying scenes of any film you're likely to see this year.  Now that Lee has his brother's son in his life and is responsible for him, he must not only confront his past demons, but learn to get over them so he can be something resembling a proper father.

Manchester by the Sea is a movie that takes its time, and keeps certain things hidden from us.  We never exactly learn the reason why Joe entrusted Patrick to Lee, and the reveal of Lee's past is in no rush to come forth.  But this is not a movie that toys with its audience.  Lonergan instead lets us grow to be involved with these people and their world, and the end result is a movie that truly makes us feel for everyone involved in the story.  There is an honesty to the film in that it is not built so much around Lee and Patrick having staged life-changing conversations, but rather around the fact that Lee must now revolve his life around driving Patrick about to different places as part of his active social life, such as a garage rock band, hockey practice, and two different girlfriends.  These are both men in grieving, and they choose to handle it in different ways.  Lee retreats within himself, while Patrick tries to keep himself as busy as possible. 

This can often be a heart wrenching and emotional drama, but Lonergan again adds an unexpected layer of humor to the story.  Everybody is allowed to at least have some kind of dry, sarcastic wit that seems appropriate sometimes when dealing with the issues these characters are.  Sometimes the humor is small, such as the way Lee and Patrick wander aimlessly around while having a conversation, trying to remember where Lee parked the car.  And sometimes, it's flat out hilarious in its dialogue.  Lonergan started out as a playwright, and his ear for dialogue is on display here, as sometimes his humor isn't evident right away.  You have to stop and think about what the characters have just said.  This alone is a rarity in movies today, but it's certainly a welcome change of pace from what we usually get.

This is a film of tremendous emotion, and it's not always the characters who are doing the emoting.  The music score, using select pieces of classical, soul and rock often adds to the emotion of the scene without spelling out exactly how the audience is supposed to be feeling.  In his portrayal of Lee, Casey Affleck often has to be guarded and sullen, but he still manages to bring out the emotion in his performance when it is necessary, without going into melodrama.  He often comes across as if he doesn't know how to react and feel, which is exactly the way the character should be.  As Patrick, Hedges has to be torn between his grief, and wanting to lead a normal life.  The way the two performances play off of each other, and the relationship that grows between them is a small cinematic miracle.  You can never take your eyes off of them, and the emotions they bring are some of the most memorable scenes at the movies this year.

Manchester by the Sea is a movie that's earned a lot of hype from film festivals, and is a rare instance where it deserves each and every one.  This is one of the finer films of 2016, and hopefully will get the honors it deserves at Award Time early next year.  After seeing this, you kind of want Lonergan to make movies more often, but at the same time, you don't want him to turn into an assembly line filmmaker, just pushing out one film after another.  At the rate he's going, he can take all the time he wants to.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

It's hard not to be just a little bit cynical about the idea behind Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  When the last Harry Potter movie came out back in the summer of 2011, Warner Bros. was kind of in a tight spot, as they didn't really have a huge franchise anymore.  And so far, their attempts to create a cinematic Universe out of the D.C. Comics line that rivals the one Marvel is enjoying has not exactly been going according to plan.  They needed Potter to come back in some way, and once original author J.K. Rowling came on board to not just plan out the new story but also write the screenplay, it must have seemed like a can't miss winning opportunity for the studio.

Despite the obvious corporate mindset behind the movie's existence, Fantastic Beasts does end up being a highly entertaining spin off that never once comes across as the crass attempt to squeeze more money out of the material that it easily could have been.  It works very well as a stand-alone entry, has a few fun nods to the earlier franchise that spawned it (without going so far as to alienate potential new audience members), and the cast seems to be having a lot of fun with the material.  Where the movie seems to be on somewhat less stable ground is the idea of this launching a franchise that is as big as Potter.  Supposedly, five films are planned in this new series, and at least at this point, there doesn't seem to be a lot of potential to grow a series that large.  But, we will see.  I trust that Rowling has dreamed up enough ideas, and knows where this story is going to go.  It's just hard to tell at the present.  She also does a great job of transporting her world and stories from the modern day U.K., to the mid 1920s New York City with this new story, all without missing a beat.

The story this time focuses on British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, boyishly likable here), who arrives in New York at Ellis Island as the film opens.  His only possession is a battered old brown leather suitcase, which is secretly a portal to another world where he stores the various fantastic beasts of the wizard's world that he has been collecting for years, studying, and is hoping to write a full book on all the mystical and often mischievous creatures that make up the hidden world of magic.  Mere moments after arriving, an accident occurs that causes some of his creatures to escape, so he must now go on a city-wide hunt for the escapees.  Along the way, he is joined up by a "No-Mag" (the American word for "Muggle") named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who starts out simply wanting a loan in order to open up a bakery, but instead gets drawn into Newt's quest and the world of wizards.  He is also joined by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an agent for the Magical Congress of the United States of America.  She originally wants to charge him for bringing unauthorized magical creatures into New York, but quickly ends up joining his cause. 

Of course, there is a new magical threat that seems to be lurking in the shadows, as well as an anti-magic zealot who is convinced witches and wizards exist in the world, and uses cruel means to keep her followers in line.  There's also Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security, who is trying to keep the magical world hidden from the real world, but may have some ulterior motives of his own.  All of this is supposed to set up the future movies, I suppose, but they're honestly the least memorable part of Fantastic Beasts.  The best scenes belong to the Beasts themselves, and Newt and Jacob's attempts to recapture them.  The creatures that Rowling has created are wide and diverse, and include a mole-like animal with the habits of a kleptomaniac, a creature about the size of an elephant who just happens to be in heat and is looking for its mate, a winged snake, and perhaps most difficult of all to find, a creature that has the ability to turn itself invisible at will.  The fact that the scenes involving the capture of these animals take place in New York landmarks like Central Park and Macy's Department Store adds another layer of fun to the proceedings.

The change in setting from modern day England to early 20th Century New York also adds a lot to the film, as it allows director David Yates (who helmed the last four Harry Potter films) to create a new world of magic that we did not get to see in the earlier films.  Of course, we hear mention of Hogwarts and Dumbledore at certain moments, but this is largely intended to be a new story that can be enjoyed by fans of the books or earlier films, or newcomers who want to get in.  The sets and costumes are also richly designed, and bring to mind the feel of a different time.  Really, the only one area that does come up just a little bit short is the plot that I think is supposed to be setting up future movies.  When the film is focused on the world itself and the titular Fantastic Beasts, the film is often charming and a lot of fun.  Then the plot will occasionally get in the way, and kind of slow things down just a little, but not enough for us to lose interest.  I sincerely hope Rowling can make this aspect more interesting in the planned future entries, as right now, I found very little to get excited about outside of what was happening in this particular movie.  With no ideas to engage of what can happen in the sequel, I had to kind of wonder if this would be better off as a one-off film.

But none of that really matters while you're watching the film, and enjoying the lively performances.  Redmayne makes for a welcome addition to the Potter Universe, and is immediately likable here.  He's not only a lot of fun to watch, but he has wonderful chemistry with all of his co-stars.  The scenes he shares with Katherine Waterson (who seems to be a future possible love interest for his character) have a lot of charm, and the scenes that he shares with Fogler as his comic relief sidekick work wonderfully and deliver some big laughs.  As a writer, Rowling clearly has a gift for a small group of odd heroes, and having their personalities play off of each other, and she displays it beautifully here.  And while the villains don't get as much screentime, they are still intimidating.  I just hope they get to be more interesting in the future.

I have no doubt that Fantastic Beasts will be successful enough to spawn the franchise that Warner Bros. is dreaming of.  The real question is will the fans continue to support it, and grow to love these characters the way they grew to love Harry, Ron and Hermione.  For now, all we can hope is that this is merely the kick off to something truly grand.  I'm sure Rowling wouldn't have it any other way.

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