Reviews & More: Oscar Hopefuls

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Michelle Williams (left) and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to see “Manchester By the Sea.” On second thought, I do know why: At the time it opened and for weeks afterward, all I kept hearing was what a downer it was, depressing, hard to watch, etc., and, frankly, I wasn’t up to it. This week, however, aware that my next column will be published just before the Oscars telecast and knowing I want to comment on nominated films, I knew it was time, whatever my mood. I saw it three nights ago and I’m so glad I did. Sad? Of course it is: Watching a man trying to not deal with a horrific tragedy by cutting himself off from all feeling — except when it explodes from him in drunken rages — is just plain heart-breaking. But the film is more than that. It is also a closely observed portrait on how family dynamics work, on loyalty and forgiveness, on where personal responsibility ends and painful self-sacrifice begins. Some have found it slow and too long. I did not. For me, the pacing was what was needed for the plot’s subtleties and the way humorous moments came along at just the right time to alleviate the tension. 

Kenneth Lonergan, the writer/director of “You Can Count on Me,” another finely nuanced film on difficult families and a personal favorite of mine, has done it again here. Especially admirable in the screenplay is the seamless use of flashbacks that never leave us wondering where we are in the story. As far as the acting, I thought Casey Affleck was fine as the main character, but I found myself more taken by the supporting cast, especially Michelle Williams (is she ever anything less than terrific?) as his unsettled and unsettling ex-wife, Kyle Chandler as the big brother we all want on our side and Lucas Hedges as his almost-but-not-quite-a-man nephew. “Manchester by the Sea” is gorgeous to watch, thanks to Jody Lee Lipes’ camerawork, and the sound track by Lesley Barber is sensitive and nonintrusive. I’m glad I saw it. The wait was worth it.

I love theater and I love film equally, but they really are two different experiences for an audience. Most plays don’t translate well to film because plays are all about monologues, dialogues and just plain words. Also, they are often performed on one or two static sets. This means that cutting some dialogue and “opening up” a play to make it cinematic too often feels artificial. Remember 2013’s much-honored play “August: Osage County” and how it became a clunker of a film? And so it is, for this reviewer at least, with August Wilson’s “Fences.” I have seen all but two of Wilson’s cycle plays depicting the black experience in the 20th century, including James Earl Jones starring in the role here played by Denzel Washington, that of a difficult-to-like, embittered former baseball player in the Negro Leagues. There is no comparison to be made between Jones and Washington — both are actors of immense talent and charisma — but this film of the play doesn’t take off and soar the way the play did. Wilson’s torrent of words are treated with reverence and that very faithfulness to the source weighs down the entire thing. As for “opening up” what is basically a one-set theater piece, only lip service is paid to the concept before we’re right back in the same small backyard. All that being said, Washington and Viola Davis — reprising their 2010 Broadway roles — are so damn good and the supporting cast is so solid, “Fences” is worth seeing for the acting alone.