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Movie Reviews by Reel People: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and ‘Fences’ nominated Best Picture of the Year

By Ron and Leigh Martel, Columnists, The Friday Flyer


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This week's Best Picture nominees are dialog driven features about miserable people who can't be fixed; how they got that way, and lifestyles not that familiar to most.

"Manchester by the Sea:" Serious movie audiences agree this is the most masterfully written, directed and acted picture of the year. Critics and the Academy rave how it explores emotional reclamation, depth of the human spirit, and death's devastating impact on relationships. Okay, Reel People aren't very serious movie viewers.

Sure, we understand how the story could be well received, but not so universally acclaimed. We just didn't like it, a lot. Casey Affleck is brilliant in his one note brooding performance. But, one note does not make a song. Along the way we learn of the horrifying circumstances at the source of his knee-jerk reactions (often without the knee) while staring at his shoes and mumbling his discontent. The guy is compelled to make everyone in the film and audience suffer with as much pain and guilt as he.

Set on the coast, north of Boston, Lee Chandler (Affleck), a short-tempered and anti-social handyman, learns he has been named legal guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his 16-year old nephew. With a chip on his shoulder, Lee can't comprehend how his recently deceased brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) could put him in such a situation.

Through a series of poorly edited flashbacks, we learn of a happier day with friends and family, until a cataclysmic event changed them all forever. Lee quietly struggles with his inner demons, but is quick to unleash them on whoever is in his path at the time. Even his former wife (Michelle Williams) cannot pierce his protective armor.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a long 137 minutes and rated R for language and sexual content. This is not so much a story as a series of random vignettes. We are not really supposed to like the characters (we didn't), we simply tolerated them. These walking wounded are not hopeful or hopeless, they just exist. The movie starts off slow and then tapers off. Then, there is no conclusion; it just fades out, by the sea. The end.

Ron's Rating: D Leigh's Rating: D

Fences: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis might be two of the most remarkable actors in the business. “Fences” provides every opportunity to demonstrate their depth of skills, salvaging another set of dismal characters. Directed by Washington, his character, Troy Maxson, dominates the story with a prolonged monolog telling tall tales, reciting his list of grievances, and defining his view of a wretched society.

Troy was unable to break the major league color barrier. Then, when baseball began admitting black athletes, age had passed him by. In the mid-'50's, Troy became a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, but still riding in the "back of the bus." His bitterness of racial injustice and bad breaks is rightly justified, but the man has even more issues.

Based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Troy's saving grace is best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) and devoted wife Rose (Davis). But, sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby) suffer at the hand of Troy's refusal to recognize a changing world. In this period piece, the actors reprise their Broadway roles of selected African-American experiences fully intended to make the audience uncomfortable.

Troy is a proud and sometimes-responsible husband, not so loving father and wounded bully, tired of being kicked around. Exasperated, he declares, "It's not easy for me to admit I've been standing in the same place for eighteen years!" Rose counters, "Well, I've been standing with you! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!" Washington is a remarkable performer but Davis cuts right to your very soul.

“Fences” is 139 minutes and rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. Adapted from the stage, it's still more of a play than a movie. It's grueling to watch such painful and tragic lives led by a larger than life protagonist with minimal redeeming qualities. This is not our type of movie, but the script is so powerfully expressive, while the acting so intensely passionate, they turn misery and heartbreak into raw urban poetry.

Ron's Rating: B Leigh's Rating: B