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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Jackie (Movie); Manchester by the Sea (Movie); Arrival (Movie)

Jackie (Movie) written by Noah Oppenheim; directed by Pablo Larrain; starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Deborah Findlay.

If you’re going to see this movie, you have to ask yourself why. Do you want to refresh your impressions of a watershed moment in US history? Is it just a question of wanting to gorge yourself on celebrity gossip? Are you hoping to peek into the private lives of the rich and famous, as in the programs on Britain’s royal family that are so popular these days? Or is it simply a fascination with Jackie – wanting to know what that enigmatic woman was really like?

The movie – about Jackie Kennedy’s life in the days following the assassination of JFK – satisfies on most of those points, except for one, in which respect it disappoints in a big way.

You do get some informative glimpses of what was going on behind the headlines and the media photos. There’s Jackie (Natalie Portman), washing the blood off her face in the airplane bathroom while various officials are waiting for her so that Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in can take place. It’s interesting to note how Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) steps in and acts as intermediary between Jackie and everybody else. You see her assistant (Greta Gerwig) helping her to decide whether or not to wear a mantilla for the journey to the Capitol where JFK’s body will lie in state. Several scenes show discussions with various aides about issues such as whether Jackie is ready to appear before the press, whether her children will accompany her in certain public appearances.

The most crucial of those backroom discussions is the one about whether Jackie and other dignitaries will walk behind the coffin for the eight-block parade from the Capitol to the church where the funeral will take place. Jackie vacillates on this, first insisting on the walk, then balking when the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby convinces her that there’s serious danger lurking out there. Then she changes her mind again. (No spoiler alert required here, given that we know the end result.) Still, the Secret Service, not surprisingly, opposes Jackie’s decision. I found myself thinking: Is this all the dramatic conflict this movie can dredge up: an argument about whether to walk or not to walk?

And yet, when it comes to the actual event we realize how right Jackie’s decision was. Everybody has that vision engraved on their minds: the elegant woman veiled in black walking down the road, followed by a hundred and three heads of state from around the world. In that sense, the movie does make you feel the enormity of the occasion. And the flashbacks to the actual shooting – the intervention of the security staff to protect Jackie, her cradling that shattered skull in her lap, the rush to hospital – all that reminds you, in case you need reminding, that something truly terrible happened on that day in November of 1963.

Apart from those virtues, the movie fails miserably, in my opinion, because of its unsuccessful presentation of Jackie. Natalie Portman is a beautiful woman. You try to forgive her for not being much like Jackie, but ultimately you can’t. Probably no other woman could impersonate Jackie successfully. Ms. Portman was probably wise to make the decision not to try too hard, although she does capture the breathy drawl of the voice. But she has none of the charm, the mystique, the special allure of Jackie. Let’s face it, Jackie was a woman like no other.

Yes, this is a portrait of a First Lady whose husband has been assassinated; it’s a valid look at what her life might have been like in the immediate aftermath, but you have no assurance that Jackie would have been like this, acted this way. Much of the time, Ms. Portman seems petulant and sulky in a non-Jackie way. Those traits come out most strongly in a recurring scenario that acts as connecting thread through the movie: Jackie’s conversation with a reporter (Billy Crudup)who’s interviewing her at Hyannisport about a week after the assassination. This Jackie, the movie version, spews antagonism that doesn’t seem anything like the real Jackie. I’m not saying that Jackie was a pussycat. I’m sure she could tell people off with temper. But I think there would have been class and grace in the way she did it. She would have done it in a Jackie way, not a Natalie Portman way. How do I know? Was I a friend or associate of Jackie’s? No. I don’t know any more about Jackie than what I’ve seen or read in the media. For me, though, Ms. Portman doesn’t manage to make a convincing bridge from the public image of Jackie to the private person she might have been. Then why watch Ms. Portman? If you’re not getting Jackie, what’s the point?

A similar skepticism is my reaction to some of the interpolated scenes that may or may not have happened. In the second half of the movie, we keep returning to a soulful discussion between Jackie and a priest with an Irish lilt to his voice (John Hurt). This encounter is obviously meant to provide some existential ballast to the movie but I seriously doubt that Jackie and any priest would have dealt in the clichs that crop up here: "God is cruel!" and "What did I do to deserve this?" Such banalities only emphasize the ersatz quality of the meeting. In any case, Jackie might have had good reason to doubt any advice this cleric had to offer. He seems confused about some basic matters of scriptural studies. When he’s taking about a healing by Jesus as reported in the New Testament (the blind man of Siloam, John 9: 1-11), the priest mistakenly refers to the incident as a parable. The parables were stories Jesus told to illustrate a point. This healing is something Jesus did, not a story he told.

The ominous music droning constantly hints at what may be the fundamental problem of the movie: it’s all so darn lugubrious. Not that we’d expect any laughs in this context, but the music makes you feel like you’re being hit over the head with unrelenting dreariness. The only significant brightness comes – incongruously – when Jackie, in her final words to the reporter, makes the famous reference to Camelot. Then we get flashbacks to happy balls in the Whitehouse, lighthearted dancing, glamour and glitter. We know Jackie did toss off that comment but, unfortunately, nobody now looks back on those days as Camelot. (Euphemistic reference is made to Jack’s not being "pefect.") That fairytale theme doesn’t fit with anything else in the movie. Until the ending, the Jackie in the movie never gives any sense that she saw their life that way. So it feels like a cheap sentimental ploy to send us home with Richard Burton’s piercing rendition of the theme song assaulting our sensibilities.

 

Manchester by the Sea (Movie) written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan; starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hodges, Ben O’Brien, Kyle Chandler, Matthew Broderick, Tom Kemp, Gretchen Mol

Kenneth Lonergan’s first movie, You Can Count on Me, made an unforgettable impression with its picture of ordinary, believable people in situations that were utterly truthful but never seen on screen before. (Mark Ruffalo was robbed by not being nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the movie.) In scene after scene, you found yourself encountering people whose genuine stories deserved to be told.

This new movie, however, strikes me as yet another film that’s best appreciated by people who know more or less what to expect because they’ve read up on it beforehand (something I usually avoid doing).

Manchester by the Sea is two hours and seventeen minutes long, but it takes about half of that time to establish the central dramatic issue of the story. Early on, we learn that Lee (Casey Affleck) is a caretaker for three old apartment buildings in Boston. He gets word that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has suddenly died in the village of Manchester by the Sea, about an hour-and-a-half away by road. Joe has left a sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hodges), whose mother, an alcoholic, has long since decamped. So it’s up to Lee to drop his caretaking duties for a while and rush to look after the funeral arrangements for Joe and to see about Patrick’s situation.

All this moves very slowly. Before any significant action happens, it takes several scenes to let us know about Lee’s life as a caretaker. Then we get a lot of flashbacks, sometimes in the form of memories, to fill us in on backstory. These episodes come suddenly, without any explanation, which means it can be difficult to catch the time switches until you twig to this style of the movie. The filmmaker has so much information to pass on to us that the movie wobbles a bit in trying to carry all the weight. People from Joe’s and Lee’s lives crop up without our having any idea who they are. In the midst of all the mourning, there’s what amounts, more or less, to slapstick comedy in the teenage Patrick’s attempts to accomplish intercourse with his girlfriends. Yet, there’s a kind of intensity hanging over the proceedings. It seems that there’s more at stake than is apparent. Regarding Lee, in particular, there’s some mystery; he appears to be notorious to the townspeople for some reason.

When we eventually find out why – around the mid-point of the movie – it’s understandable that he’s something of a marked man. Essentially, it’s Lee’s character that holds the movie together. From the outset, we see that he’s a taciturn guy who can turn truculent if prodded. He’s not articulate but he’s polite. A lot of the time, he has nothing to say but "Thanks" and "Sorry." But he has a tendency to get into bar fights quickly. One of the most vivid demonstrations of his character comes when his nephew, Patrick, finds out that his long-absent mom had tried to phone him. Patrick asks Uncle Lee why he hung up on her and why he didn’t tell Paddy about the call. Lee: "I hung up because I didn’t know what to say to her and I didn’t tell you about the call because I didn’t know what to say to you." (Not an exact quote but close.) As an afterthought, it strikes me that you don’t get much expression from Casey Affleck’s face. It’s not one of the ones that a camera reads a lot into. Still, Mr. Affleck conveys the full effect of the character’s bear-with-a-sore-paw quality. My only problem with him in the role is that he looks too young to be Joe’s brother and Patrick’s uncle.

The relationship between Lee and Patrick turns out to be the mainstay of the movie. In making comparisons to You Can Count on Me, one can’t help thinking that one of Kenneth Lonergan’s specialties is the awkward association between uncle and nephew. Here, it’s given a sparring, chippy treatment. Lucas Hodges personifies the ironic teen who’s too cool for words, but who has enough genuine moments to make you realize you don’t hate him as much as you might. Michelle Williams doesn’t have a major role as Lee’s ex-wife, but every time she appears she makes for a searing, emotionally-harrowing presence on screen. The scene where she shows up at Joe’s funeral, shown in slow motion and in silence (no dialogue), is an example of superb film-making.

 

Arrival (Movie) written by Eric Hessler and Ted Chiang; directed by Dennis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Mihael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Jadyn Malone

So the aliens have landed. Well, not quite landed: they’re hovering in a gigantic ovoid structure above a flat field in Montana. Eleven other craft like this are stationed over disparate spots on the planet. Nobody knows why. The military, feeling the need to take control of the situation, has pressed into service Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a brilliant linguistics prof, to try to make a communication breakthrough with these visitors before the human population goes berserk with fear.

There’s lots of excitement and intrigue as Professor Banks is picked up from her home by helicopter and rushed to the site. On arrival at the base camp, we’re entertained by the inevitable technical flim-flam, elaborate security measures and all that. It’s fun to see how the movie’s designers imagined how humans might get access to the ovoid spaceship. Lots of suspense leading up to the actual encounter with the aliens. Turns out they look something like giant octopi. They make noises like groaning thunder but their written language consists of inky projections from their tentacles. At first, the texts look like circles with a bit of ornamentation but Professor Banks and her cohorts gradually figure out that the little squiggles and curlicues adorning the circles constitute an elaborate linguistic system.

Amy Adams is a good choice for the role of Professor Banks, in that her innocent, angelic manner contrasts nicely with the hard-nosed attitude of the scientists and military types surrounding her. That difference leads to some of the first dramatic conflicts. Eventually – and necessarily – we build to a much more threatening crisis involving differences of opinion, with the Russians and the Chinese pitted against the Western nations, as to how these visitors should be treated. Looks like Armageddon may be in the offing.

I haven’t seen many sci-fi movies – hardly any, in fact – so it's not up to me to say how this one rates by comparison to notable examples of the genre. But I can say that Arrival is impressive. What surprises me is the movie’s relatively slow pace; there’s not a lot of hyped-up action. The discussion about linguistics is rather abstruse, after all. Which makes the great popularity of this movie something of a puzzle for me. Are mass audiences more sophisticated than I thought or is it just that people flock to any imaginative rendering of fantastic possibilities, no matter how difficult it may be to make sense of them?

And many aspects of this one are brain-teasers, believe me. Professor Banks makes the point that language shapes the way you think about reality. That means that these aliens, with a language that’s so unlike ours, have a different concept of time: it’s circular for them, not linear. And this enables Professor Banks’ mind to start jumping among past, present and future times. So does the movie. Mind-boggling. But that’s the point with sci-fi, isn’t it? Who cares whether or not you can understand it? It’s all about the Wow! factor (I gather).

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