Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

01/04/2017

Manchester by the Sea

By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — At the centre of filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s drama “Manchester by the Sea” (Roadside) lays a crushed soul flawlessly embodied by actor Casey Affleck.

Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, is a janitor in several Boston-area apartment buildings. A terse yet proficient handyman, he has little interest in conversing with tenants or in social interaction of any kind. He seems numbed, almost to the point of appearing robotic. Even when he gets drunk and picks fights with random bar patrons, his belligerence is mechanical. Evidently, something terrible has prompted Lee to wall himself off from the world and other people.

The cause of his suffering isn’t revealed until roughly halfway through this gently paced film, well after Lee is summoned to Manchester, his hometown on the coast of Massachusetts, where his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), the owner of a fishing boat, has succumbed to a heart attack. Joe’s poor health was not a surprise, but Lee is startled to learn his brother has named him the guardian of his 15-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Although Lee’s bond with Joe and Patrick has withstood his absence and the tragedy that precipitated it, he’s reluctant to take responsibility for raising his nephew, not least because he dreads living in Manchester where everybody knows what transpired. Nevertheless, he takes his duty seriously and tries to do right by Patrick — a popular, outgoing teen who plays hockey for his school and lead guitar in a rock band, in addition to juggling two girlfriends.

Employing a flashback structure, writer-director Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”) gradually doles out plot points and relevant information. This narrative technique is extremely effective at triggering wrenching emotional responses; and Lonergan’s screenplay is flecked with dark humour, along with flashes of compassion and understanding. Against a lovely backdrop provided by the Cape Ann region of Massachusetts, a carefully manicured yet naturalistic portrait of a shattered individual emerges.

Lonergan also is able to elicit tremendous performances. As Patrick, Hedges holds his own opposite Affleck, who plumbs Lee’s anguish without being showy or ever appearing to strain. Patrick’s openness and youthful vitality are the perfect counterpoint to his uncle’s hollowness and lethargy. The pathos Michelle Williams brings to the role of Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, puts Lee’s inability to express his feelings in stark relief.

“Manchester by the Sea” is suitable for adult moviegoers, many of whom will be put off by the amount of bad language and the movie’s frank treatment of Patrick’s love life. That said, the tone is never nasty, sordid or depraved.

Lee’s failure to change or grow to an appreciable extent is a more interesting hurdle. Expecting his guardianship of Patrick to be a panacea is unrealistic. But the recognition that Lee ends up only slightly better off then when we first meet him leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. He remains incapacitated by guilt and an eviscerating sense of loss. When he declares, “I can’t beat it,” you believe him. For now at least, redemption is not in the cards.

This would be easier to accept, and the movie would be less wintry, if Lee took steps to improve his situation by, for instance, confronting his reliance on alcohol or by seeking counselling. There’s something masochistic about how he continues to punish himself for making one, albeit grave, mistake. It means the healing process cannot begin.

The movie’s major aesthetic deficiency parallels this aspect of Lee’s psychology. Rather than create an inspirational metamorphosis for Lee, and thus a more optimistic sense of closure for the audience, Lonergan lets the story peter out and the dramatic urgency wane. As it becomes clear Lee’s struggle to recover is just beginning, the picturesque shots of Manchester’s harbour and environs that Lonergan inserts between scenes strike one as quaint distractions from the profound human issues being raised. Eschewing an implausibly upbeat ending is not the problem. It’s the impression that Lonergan, daunted by the choices facing his characters, has gone into avoidance mode.

The film contains much rough language, some explicit banter, several fairly graphic adolescent sexual encounters, a suicide attempt, fistfights, and a partial glimpse of lower female nudity. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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Silence

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Directed and co-written (with Jay Cocks) by Martin Scorsese, “Silence” (Paramount) is a dramatically powerful but theologically complex work best suited to viewers who come to the multiplex prepared to engage with serious issues.

Those willing to make such an intellectual investment, however, will find themselves richly rewarded.

In adapting Catholic author Shusaku Endo’s 1966 fact-based historical novel, a project in the works since the late 1980s, Scorsese finds himself in what might be called Graham Greene territory. As fans of that British novelist know, he had a fondness for stretching and twisting fundamental issues of faith and morality, and Endo’s plot shows the same tendency. So this is also not a film for the poorly catechized.

The movie’s primary setting is 17th-century Japan, where persecution is raging against the previously tolerated Christian community.

Shocked by rumours that Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), their mentor in the priesthood, has renounced the faith under torture, two of his fellow Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), volunteer to leave the safety of Europe for the perils of the Land of the Rising Sun. Their twin goals are to find their role model and to minister to the underground Japanese church.

What follows is a long, sometimes harrowing battle between doubt and human frailty on the one hand and fidelity on the other. Earthly compassion is set against faithfulness and an eternal perspective, with both divine and human silence contributing to the appropriateness of the title.

Scorsese has crafted an often visually striking drama that’s also deeply thought-provoking and emotionally gripping. And the performances are remarkable all around. But the paradoxes of the narrative demand careful sifting by mature moviegoers well-grounded in their beliefs.

Those lacking such a foundation could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin. While Catholics who are blessed with the freedom to practice their faith in peace are hardly in a position to judge those facing martyrdom, the principle that circumstances can mitigate guilt but not transform wrong into right remains universally valid.

In the end, “Silence” movingly vindicates a certain form of constancy. That may, in a roundabout way, match the historical record: There is edifying, though inconclusive, evidence that the real person behind one of the three main characters in the picture not only rejected his previous apostasy, but ultimately surrendered his life for the faith.

The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, much violence, including scenes of gruesome torture and a brutal, gory execution, as well as rear and partial nudity. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

Fences

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Suffering is a leitmotif in any of August Wilson’s plays, but there’s also brutal honesty and joy in unexpected moments — as well as the musical cadence of his language to enjoy.

That’s what enlivens “Fences” (Paramount), the film adaptation of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1983. Moral decisions, and the consequences of immoral ones, lurk at every turn in the plot as well.

Denzel Washington, who also directed (from Wilson’s own screenplay, finished before his 2005 death), plays Troy Maxson, an embittered ex-ballplayer, ex-convict and self-centred Pittsburgh garbage collector.

It’s the mid-1950s, and Troy has constructed a respectable, almost-middle-class existence for himself and wife Rose (Viola Davis). Partly that’s the result of his unyielding labour, but Troy also takes advantage of brother Gabe’s (Mykelti Williamson) disability payout from brain damage suffered in Second World War combat.

Troy is bold enough to have become the city’s first black garbage-truck driver simply by asking his supervisor why Pittsburgh had no such drivers. He takes pride in being the noisy and coarse family patriarch, even if he is often a monster who takes no pleasure in the accomplishments of his children.

Older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), the offspring of a previous marriage, lives outside the home, supports himself as a jazz musician, and sometimes stops by for a short-term loan just to demonstrate to his father that he can repay it.

Younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo) has a chance to attend college on a football scholarship. But Troy interferes with that, insisting, “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.”

Troy also likes to drink and trade boasts with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

Churchgoing Rose is the compassionate and understanding moral centre. She’s on the receiving end of everyone’s decisions for most of the story until she encounters Troy’s cruelest betrayal. Even in the face of that, she sacrifices her own happiness to carry on.

While both sons have lives circumscribed by racism, hard luck and sometimes Troy’s selfishness, they’re also unrelentingly stoic and accepting.

The toughest stretches for viewers will be the long speeches characteristic of Wilson’s style.

Although they tend to show actors to good advantage — here Davis is particularly fine — Wilson’s dramas are not in the least cinematic, and Washington hasn’t found a way to solve that problem. “Fences,” accordingly, requires a committed attention span.

The title refers to Troy’s plan to build a high wooden fence in his backyard so he can keep death at bay: “I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me.”

Death, of course, is on its inevitable path, but Wilson refuses to give it the last word, instead choosing to display the resiliency of the human soul.

The movie’s focus on ideas and their consequences makes it acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains references to adultery, frequent use of the n-word and a single instance each of profanity and rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

Passengers

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Science fiction becomes the springboard for a study of selfishness, sin and the possibility of forgiveness in “Passengers” (Sony). While this tale about a transgression born of desperation will resonate with romantics, it may leave others cold.

Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is one of more than 5,000 passengers on a spaceship bound for a distant colony planet. Since the journey will take 120 years, Jim — along with everyone else on board — has been put into suspended animation.

Instead of waking up shortly before arrival, however, Jim comes to 90 years prematurely. After discovering that there is no way to get back into hibernation, Jim faces the prospect of living out the rest of his life in solitude — his only real companion on the vessel is Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender.

Jim’s loneliness eventually becomes so extreme that he awakens Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), an author whose background and writing he has studied and for whom he has fallen.

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts and director Morten Tyldum take a big risk by having their protagonist essentially ruin the life of the woman he loves, then try to keep that fact a secret. But at least some viewers will appreciate the complicated emotions to which this situation gives rise and the skill with which both leads convey them.

Suspense is thrown into the mix as well since the malfunction that victimized Jim turns out not to be an isolated incident.

Predictably, Jim and Aurora’s relationship turns sexual long before we discover whether they will end up walking into the sunset together. And, in a scene played for laughs, Jim takes advantage of his isolation, pre-Aurora, to walk down the hallways with a towel covering him in front but not behind.

On a deeper level, though, opinions will be divided over Jim’s irrevocable trespass against Aurora. While “Passengers” plays out the consequences intriguingly and warmheartedly, at least some viewers will reject its premise from the start. Moviegoers of faith will have to determine whether the principle that there is no offence too grave to be forgiven, provided the wrongdoer is genuinely repentant, applies on the big screen as well as in real life.

The film contains two premarital encounters, one of them semi-graphic, a couple of glimpses of rear nudity in a nonsexual context, a pair of mild oaths and a single crass term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

Assassin’s Creed

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Though the mayhem that pervades “Assassin’s Creed” (Fox), director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of a popular series of video games, is mostly bloodless, other more unusual problems render it unacceptable for all. 

That becomes clear from the moment the eponymous affirmation first pops up in the dialogue. “Nothing is true,” so it informs us, “everything is permitted.”

Fortunately, the alternate history by which this nugget is surrounded is so outlandish — and the action adventure those committed to it get themselves involved in so dull — that even ethically indifferent viewers may stay away from the film in droves.

After being unexpectedly saved from execution by a secretive organization — Marion Cotillard plays Sofia, one of its officials — sullen Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) gets filled in, along with the audience, on the Dan Brown-like back story. It seems that there has been an age-old feud between the Knights Templar and the Assassins.

(This sounds unlikely, given that the Templars were very thoroughly suppressed as long ago as the early 1300s. But whatever.)

The power-hungry Templars aim to eradicate free will. And they’re on the trail of an artifact, the Apple of Eden, that will enable them to do so.

For reasons best known to them, Sofia and her colleagues have decided that the optimal way to stop the Templars is to use a time-travel machine called the Animus to send Lynch — or at least his consciousness — back to 15th-century Spain. There he will control the body of an ancestor of his who was in the thick of every battle.

So Lynch gets strapped into the Animus and commences to thrash around in the manner of a sleepwalker having a post-traumatic nightmare.

Tedium turns to annoyance as Lynch pauses from his Spanish dust-ups long enough to witnesses the work of the Templar-backed Inquisition. He even manages to spoil an otherwise perfectly nice auto-da-fe presided over by none other than Torquemada himself (Javier Gutierrez).

Tainted by a dumbed-down vision of the past, and of the church, Kurzel’s preposterous brew only continues to curdle from there.

The film contains false values, anti-Catholicism, sometimes harsh but rarely gory combat violence and at least one instance each of rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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