Friday, 17 March 2017

Kenneth Lonergan - Manchester by the Sea

New York born writer and film maker, Kenneth Lonergan has Directed four Oscar nominated acting performances in his three films to date, as well as receiving four nominations himself as either a Writer or Director. In both cases there have been one Oscar win, Casey Affleck for his stunning performance in Manchester by the Sea in 2017 and Lonergan for his poetic screenplay for the same astonishing film.

As well as helming the following three films (as at March 2017), he has also been the credited writer on Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002) as well as writing the screenplay for Martin Scorsese's multi Oscar winning epic Gangs of New York in 2002.

The following three films were all written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and as well as giving himself a small cameo in each film (a dead pan Priest, a distant Father and an angry passer by) he has also cast Matthew Broderick in each film.

In chronological order, from You Can Count On Me in 2000, to Margaret and then Manchester by the Sea in 2016, here are my brief, spoiler free appreciations of three incredibly distinctive films.

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming films but rather my purpose is to give a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these for you in any way. Moreover, my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations.

You Can Count On Me (2000)

"Remember what we used to say to each other when we were kids?"

Executive Produced by Martin Scorsese, Kenneth Lonergan's debut film was also the first film for which he received an Oscar nomination as well as a fully deserving first Oscar nomination for Laura Linney for an Actress in a Leading Role. Two more nominations would follow for Linney, in 2004's excellent "Kinsey" and "The Savages" in 2008 but in Lonergan's directorial bow she portrays single mother and banking loans manager "Sammy Prescott" brilliantly, juggling her busy working life in rural New York as well as parenting her eight year old son "Rudy Prescott" (Rory Culkin). Rudy yearns for his father, but Sammy is determined he will play no part in his life and fiercely resolves that this will always continue. They live in the same home owned by Sammy's parents who were cruelly killed in a road accident in the film's opening frames and with "Bob Steegerson" (Jon Tenney) an on/off boyfriend wanting to marry Sammy and settle down to a family life, Sammy's brother "Terry Prescott" (Mark Ruffalo) unexpectedly wishes to return home to visit his sister. 

Both leading roles, the sister and brother pairing of Linney and Ruffalo, propel the film's simple, linear narrative, but it's perhaps Ruffalo's more densely drawn character of Terry that draws the audience into the compelling story. Now an outsider from the small town in which he grew up, it's immediately apparent that he doesn't want to return as he awkwardly meets acquaintances of long ago before surreptitiously smoking a joint in an alleyway ahead of a long awaited meeting with his sister. Whereas he is jittery and uncomfortable, Sammy is excited to see her brother and so pleased he's returned home after such a long absence. As Terry pointedly admits "I'm not the guy you think I am" and as much as he does not feel at ease in his childhood hometown, Ruffalo's performance clearly displays he doesn't even feel at home inside his own skin, drifting from town to town and even a spell in prison, the news of which is the flame that sparks a heated public argument with a crestfallen Sammy at their reunion lunch. Terry has simply returned home in search of money and the baggage he's brought with him is angst and uncertainty. I've left Linney's role deliberately vague but with a rounded character arc that may surprise on first viewing, Linney was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in 2001 for her central performance as Sammy, never giving in and striving to keep those dearest to her safe and secure.

With a total cast of only 22 characters, 2 further roles are worthy of note. Director Lonergan plays a Priest named "Ron" in a deadpan cameo of straight forward authority, however a more substantial role falls to Matthew Broderick in the first of his three up coming collaborations with the Director. Broderick is excellent as a slightly unhinged, dull, officious and staid local bank manager "Brian Everett"

Living in a "dull narrow town full of dull narrow people", You Can Count On Me quickly develops into a tale of redemption, parental guidance and never giving up. Whilst more accomplished films were to follow from Lonergan this is an excellent debut film with some notable and pleasing scenes (a joyous game of pool and a fishing expedition particularly stand out) and combined with a typically tight Lonergan screenplay, a beautiful strings inspired musical soundtrack from Lesley Barber and four particularly impressive performances from Linney, Ruffalo, Culkin and Broderick, You Can Count On Me pleases if not totally convinces on repeat viewings.

Margaret (2011)

"We are not the fascinating characters in the story of your life"

The myths and legends surrounding the creation and eventual release of Kenneth Lonergan's second film are long and well worn. Briefly, Margaret was filmed in 2005 and scheduled for a 2007 release but Lonergan refused to bow to studio demands for the film to be significantly under the three hour epic envisaged by the Director. Over six years passed before in 2011 the film was finally released at a slightly leaner run time of 2 hours and 30 minutes. Multiple legal disputes later, critics were polarised between the film being the first bona fide Kenneth Lonergan masterpiece or an elongated, overly wrought and directionless failure. I was only vaguely aware of the six year delay when I first watched Margaret in 2011 but had completely forgotten this by the time I re-watched this classic again recently for the purposes of this blog, so it's interesting to note that some of my scribblings for this review contained criticisms such as some scenes are far too long, too exposition heavy and clearly needed editing. These were noted in relation to some of the classroom scenes and a particularly long and directionless meeting with a local lawyer. However, whilst these were my genuine reactions and criticisms, these were the only instances of negativity of a film that I do regard as Lonergan's first cinematic masterpiece. 

Set in downtown New York, the opening credits set the tone as through slow motion we are immediately amongst the heaving throng of a busy, commuter filled New York street and to use a long established cinema stereotype, the bustling city itself becomes the film's first character. Deliberately hyperbolic? Perhaps, but then again, so is the film's main protagonist "Lisa Cohen". Anna Paquin turns in a sublime performance as the late teen Lisa, infusing her with a rebellious and free spirited nature that hides many underlying truths. Beautiful and popular at school with her sexuality overtly developing, she is also somewhat of an attention seeker who misses her Father "Karl" (another deadpan cameo from Director Lonergan) and is in a constant toxic relationship with her successful Broadway actress Mother "Joan Cohen" (J Smith Cameron). As her Mother is effusive and dramatic on stage, so is daughter Lisa on her particular "stage". "All life's a stage" once wrote William Shakespeare and this is in sharp focus for an angst ridden Lisa here as we gradually see her teenage life filled with demonstrative classroom arguments, aloof and destructive behaviour and overly dramatic reactions to the most benign of situations. Soon she is caught in a web of moral dilemma and this only heightens her maybe naive representation of the world around her but equally her need for solace in the dramatic and as the tagline quote I've chosen for this film aptly demonstrates (and brilliantly written by Lonergan) she awkwardly sees the people around her as merely actors in her drama filled life. After witnessing a horrific road traffic accident, Lisa is central to her own drama now and with absent parental guidance her teenage exploration turns radically in the direction of reckless behaviour.

Anna Paquin's central performance is a mighty one and brilliantly mirrored by J Smith Cameron in her role as her sympathetic yet distant mother Joan. Following the bloody and graphic road accident Lisa becomes friends with "Emily Smith" and Jeannie Berlin rounds off a trio of excellent female lead roles in this film with her worldly wise portrayal set against Lisa's teenage naivety. There are many key central through lines in the film, from the Theatre to the Opera, the road traffic accident through to Lisa's school and it's here that three of the strongest male cameos appear with Matt Damon excelling as another awkwardly sympathetic character in Lisa's life as Mathematics Teacher "Aaron Caije", John Gallagher as "Darren Rodifer", the shy teenager trying to date Lisa and Matthew Broderick as  English Literature Teacher "John Andrew Van Tassel". Keeping spoilers to a bare minimum but two further male characters have far larger roles in the film and are intrinsic to both the story and to Lisa's life, with both providing brilliantly different performances. Mark Ruffalo returns to a Kenneth Lonergan film for the second time as bus driver "Gerald Maretti" but it's to Jean Reno that we turn to for the film's innocent heart and verve as "Ramon Cameron". In a film that is somewhat dry and angst ridden, Reno's warm and smiling persona lightens the film and provides much needed warmth and release and even in a cameo role (and a film of such length that even I wanted it edited!), I would have liked to have seen more of his character development and interactions. 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving 
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! ás the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you wíll weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It ís the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for. 

The title of the film derives from the above poem "Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins and after six years of legal wrangling over the running time and a final cut of the final that Director Lonergan was pleased with (there is a further 3 hour cut of the film on DVD), where does this leave the appreciation of the 2011 release of the film? To my mind, Margaret is a beautiful if often melancholic masterpiece, piecing together the fragments of a drama filled teenage life and setting this against the modern day dramas that we may all be familiar with, those of growing up, familial disputes or an anxiety of a future that we simply cannot control despite our wish to do so. Margaret also shines a light on a city that is only ten years hence from the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks and inhabitants that are keenly aware of the impact on their country's folly wars of Iraq, Afghanistan and their support of Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine. 

A moral dilemma? Teenage angst? A need for recognition and the security of loved ones? Margaret is all this and so much more and brilliantly directed by Lonergan. My criticisms aside, just watch and appreciate the slow motion shots of Lisa striding along the New York streets, the differing angles adopted by Lonergan here and immerse yourself in an intriguing tale that is rightly viewed as a beautiful masterpiece of a film. 

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

"My heart was broken. It's always gonna be broken and I know yours is broken too"

Winner of two Oscars in 2017, this is Kenneth Lonergan's most accomplished and moving cinematic feature to date, from his Oscar winning screenplay perfectly accompanied by Lesley Barber's beautiful and masterful musical score highlighted by her daughter's singing of a mournful aria, through to some incredible supporting performances from Oscar nominated Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams, all supporting a phenomenal and Oscar winning performance from Casey Affleck.

"Lee Chandler" 
(Casey Affleck) It's been 20 years since I first saw Casey Affleck star in a film, his off kilter and bizarre portrayal in his brother's Oscar winning debut film Good Will Hunting. It was an innocent role (in more ways than one) but one that always strikes me whenever I re-watch the Gus Van Sant directed classic of 1997. Minor roles would follow in the Oceans 11 on going franchise but in 2007 Affleck produced two superb performances in Gone, Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that really propelled him into the mainstream. Particularly the role of Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik's masterful film, where his quiet, watchful performance was often overlooked and eerily shadowed here in Manchester by the Sea ten years later. For me, it's not the towering outbursts of anger that pepper his role here as Lee but rather the quiet, awkward looks, hunched shoulders and nuances of a man simply broken, in mind, body and spirit by events that have shaped his life and which bring him back to Manchester from his new home in Quincy, near Boston. Life has gone on but not for Lee, grief stricken and unable to fully comprehend the events we see in crunching flashbacks throughout the film, "I can't beat it. I can't beat it. I'm sorry".

Following the death of his brother Joe he is thrown into another situation that he is simply ill equipped and unable to deal with, that of the guardian to his nephew "Patrick" (Lucas Hedges). In another Oscar nominated performance, Hedges excels as the angst filled teenager dealing with the loss of his Father and the estrangement from his absent Mother "Elise Chandler" (Gretchen Mol). Hedges portrayal in many ways matches that of Affleck's as they both slowly come to terms with the distressing events of Joe's death and Patrick's quiet yet growing anxiety for the future, mirrored again by Lee as he always believed himself to be simply "a back up" for Patrick and never a full time guardian. In a film with ostensibly a linear narrative of the present day and with Lee returning to Manchester in the wake of his brother's death, the film is littered with flashbacks which, in the main, are short, punchy and brilliantly inserted and juxtaposed against the present day story. There is one harrowing exception to this rule but in the main these brief flashbacks show Lee as an exuberant, gregarious and loved family man, husband, father, brother and crucially uncle to Patrick, with whom he shares so much time on the family fishing boat. Throughout both the linear narrative and the flashbacks, a rich supporting cast are introduced as being integral to Lee's life and which cleverly heightens the angst and grief he feels in present day Manchester. As well as seeing his tender embraces with a younger Patrick, we are now presented with a Patrick struggling to deal with his Father's death and now a difficult, self interested teenager and Hedges truly deserved his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Patrick in 2017. Michelle Williams stars in an almost underused cameo role as Lee's ex wife "Randi Chandler" who despite her minimal screen time propelled this into another Oscar nomination for a supporting role. Her exchange with Lee towards the denouement of the film is truly heartbreaking, yet cleverly written to again bring Lee face to face with the past he simply cannot deal with. As well as a third cameo role for Director Lonergan as an angry passer by during a street argument, there is a third appearance in a Lonergan film for Matthew Broderick as "Jeffrey" and a brilliant cameo from CJ Wilson as "George", a family friend of the Chandler's. 

In a rich and moving screenplay from Lonergan, Lee's simple refrain of "Do we have to talk about this now?" is perhaps wholly indicative of his constant state of mind and grief ridden angst. Together with his almost continual inability to look anyone in the eye and withdrawn manner, Affleck's superb performance draws sympathy from the audience and puts us at the heart and soul of a difficult story with an almost silent scream of rage. We often take from films what we bring to them from our experiences and Manchester by the Sea affected me deeply and brought tears to my eyes on more occasions than I care to admit, none more so than with a simple scene towards the end of the film with Lee and Patrick simply strolling quietly together and bouncing an old tennis ball back and forth between them. I did something similar many times with my very own Patrick and this, as well as so many other scenes resonated with me and continue to do so on every re-watch of this magnificent film. Dry, melancholic and a true portrayal of the simple human emotion of grief and moving on, Manchester by the Sea may not be an easy watch at times but I cannot recommend this highly enough. Don't expect a catharsis because it won't arrive, but this film may live with you far longer than after the final credits have rolled.

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