Review: Manchester by the Sea

May 8th, 2021

I like movies a bunch. With this workaday world however I find I don’t have much time to see them. As a result, I keep a list of movies I hope to see. Sometimes I’ll see a movie quickly while some, like the original “Manchurian Candidate”, I still haven’t seen after nearly twenty years on the list. I thought I’d wanted to see “Manchester by the Sea”, but after viewing it I realized that it wasn’t on my list. The absence was a warning, I now realize.

“Manchester” is one of the newer movies in the growing line of crappy white Boston movies that are inexplicably well-regarded. You can find woofers like “Mystic River” and “Good Will Hunting” in this category. I happen to like Matt Damon, but found “Good Will Hunting” awful and self-indulgent. If you’ve seen “Hunting”, and somehow like it, how do you square your positive feelings with the “Do you like apples” scene? Robin Williams being good isn’t enough.

With the exception of “The Departed”, a fun but otherwise dumb movie, “Manchester” is the best of the lot. That’s not saying much. “Mystic River” bludgeons its viewers with cheap tragedies, hoping you’ll be too sad to notice terrible acting. “Good Will Hunting” has its pleasant, low-key moments but is fundamentally a conceited movie. Ooh Matt Damon is a janitor with super math powers! “Manchester” (produced by Matt Damon) has a protagonist that also happens to be a janitor. I’m not offended by low expectations of janitors in these movies but there’s a hollowness to punching down on such professions. You’re not a real person if you work in fast food, retail, or clean things.

Of Hollywood’s sins, fake accents are among the most unforgivable. It seems especially hard to fake Boston accents but that doesn’t stop movies like “The Departed” and of course “Manchester” from trying. My first trip to Boston was in 2003, and I was a touch surprised nobody sounded ridiculous. It’s safe to say if you’re trying to make a realistic movie you don’t need every single person to lay it on really thick. I’m from Virginia and live in Texas. The only time I have an accent is when I get pulled over. “I’m tarrably sorrah, sur. I suppose I may have bean going a touch fast.”

Casey Affleck is our janitor. Just in case you don’t look down on janitors, one of the Affleck’s clients confides to a friend that she thinks he’s cute. And he’s her janitor! How edgy! As our movie unfolds, we learn Affleck’s sorry state of affairs (again, just being a janitor) is due to tragedy, and now he has to make a choice of whether or not to take care of his late brother’s son Patrick. Patrick the cursed spawn, played by Lucas Hedges, is an unbearable, spoiled brat complete with a terrible accent. The movie cuts to scenes of young Patrick being well-loved and cared for by his extended family, yet he still manages to grow up to be a complete weenie.

There are two notable performances in this movie. Michelle Williams, barely in the film, steals the show. Her portrayal of tragedy and strained relationships is arresting. The other performance is Affleck’s. Yes he gets into stupid white Boston film fights, but there’s also real acting.

Other than two decent performances (among a slew of completely forgettable ones) there’s nothing to “Manchester”. People say the movie is depressing. No, it’s far worse. It’s pointless.

$Id: review_manchester_by_the_sea 607 2021-05-08 15:42:21Z x $


Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

February 15th, 2021

It’s 11:56am currently and 22.3 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Given that I grew up in Virginia, cold isn’t ordinarily a big deal. Now that I live in what’s described as a humid subtropical climate 22.3 degrees is rather dangerous. Ignoring the very real concerns of freezing problems with all of the dangerous infrastructure I live near, I also have fun new concerns about my own freezing pipes. My home concerns are compounded by the possibility of power outages and water shortages, which, as you might imagine, are all interconnected to everything I just mentioned in this paragraph.

It can be hard to sleep when you’re worried about whether you did enough to prepare your house. Should I have shut all of the water to the house as my neighbor suggested? Should I have filled a bathtub up for a water source if my main water is disconnected? How about letting the exterior faucets leak so they don’t freeze? While I did prepare my house, I didn’t do the previous suggestions. Fun things to wake up and ruminate about during the night, in addition to the 3am thunderstorm while it was sleeting.

Movies are a fun distraction, and I’d been wanting to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” since 2019. Pair good anecdotal testimonials with the fact that Marielle Heller is the director and I was sold. Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” from 2015 is one of the best movies I’d seen in years. While I’d like to suggest I’m bright enough to have seen such a movie by my own good taste, I’d been on travel in Lawrence Kansas and it was the best option at Lawrence’s arty Liberty Hall theater. I was the only person in the theater. Regardless, “Diary” is outstanding and it’s a shame nobody knows about it. While Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” (2017) has some similarities and well-deserved accolades, “Diary” is far better.

“Neighborhood” is the rare gem that lives up to its hype. I crave the lack of condescension that Heller’s direction provides. Both “Diary” and “Neighborhood” deal with some heavy issues, but they’re portrayed without cheap tear-jerking or what I call visual hyperbole. I’ll only reveal that the plot involves an outsider coming into the orbit of Fred Rogers, the mythical children’s television host. Tom Hanks is believable as Mr. Rogers, and Heller’s film manages to make Rogers both human and mythical. Like many amazing movies, the subject is illustrated more by his reflection on other characters. It’s a magnificent movie.

$Id: a_beautiful_day_in_the_neighborhood 599 2021-02-15 18:35:44Z x $


Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

February 15th, 2021

I’ve just reviewed the stunning “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, but I figure I’d take a few moments to review a far inferior waste of time, “The Broken Circle Breakdown”. “Broken Circle” is a 2012 Belgian film about something. That something is beyond me because the movie tries a few things that fail miserably. If the movie had any redeeming qualities, you could say this review contains spoilers.

“Broken Circle” is the latest in what’s becoming a pattern for me, watching awful but highly-regarded movies on makes it really easy for me to start and resume movies. I have another streaming service but logging in is a pain, and I tend to wait until I’m really committed to seeing a movie before using it. I still use a laptop and web browser to see movies. Yes, it would be easier if I used a tablet or a “smart” television, but I don’t swing that way.

When I mentioned that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” dealt with heavy issues but didn’t engage in tear-jerking or hyperbole, I was thinking of awful movies like “Broken Circle”. While I’m still uncertain about the point of “Broken Circle”, the story begins with harrowing hospital scenes of a child dying in a hospital. Don’t worry, the audience is exposed to the horrors of treatment and false hopes of recovery. Only after we’re shown quite well-acted misery, we’ll go ahead and cut back in time to the child’s parents meeting and falling in love. But since you know what’s coming, you never lose yourself in the courtship. Worst of all for those of us that are musicians, the couple is in a band. So now we have to see distracting live music scenes with pre-recorded audio. The music is fine if not good (and was performed by the actors), but there is no energy whatsoever. A hint for such movies, use as real an audience as possible and don’t overlay over-produced studio audio. Live music isn’t perfect. That’s part of what’s good about it.

Suffice to say the kid dies and the couple fights but continues playing in the band. “Broken Circle” doesn’t respect its audience enough for nuance. Distracting cuts substitute for characters, and cheap shots like dying kids are plot devices meant to provoke a response. Most ludicrous of all, the final scene is a deathbed where the band plays to another dying character. In a hospital. Complete with “yee haws!”

$Id: the_broken_circle_breakdown 602 2021-02-15 19:12:22Z x $


Review: Melancholia

December 13th, 2020

Despite having great movies that I could either watch again or see for the first time, I decided to watch “Melancholia” from 2011. I did so based solely on the advice of a podcast I was barely listening to while either eating dinner or doing dishes. “Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s too long exploitation of good actors and bad taste. One of the more fashionable movies that are either well-made garbage or of the “it keeps getting worse” genre. Pick two.

“Melancholia” stars Kirsten Dunst alongside other quite talented actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg and John Hurt in a wedding/apocalypse film. Charlotte Rampling makes an appearance as well, pointlessly cast as a bitter mother dispensing sad-trombones all over her daughter’s wedding. Rampling also starred in the equally ridiculous “Swimming Pool” from 2003, which I saw in Boston while on tour in a punk band. “Swimming Pool” was an exploitation film disguised as an annoying-kid-turned-murderer movie, while, just kidding, it was all a joke. My hosts in Boston said we should rather see “Whale Rider”, an outstanding movie I’d eventually see nearly two decades later.

So what’s the point of “Melancholia”? Great actors moping around. The film opens with some arty shots then cuts to pointless vignettes of Dunst’s wedding. Everyone is mean, Dunst is erratic and hopeless. The reception is gorgeous and expensive yet everyone finds ways to be condescending. That’s the hour of “part one”. “Part two” is a lead up to apocalypse, masterfully acted but poorly constrained by Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Gainsbourg’s husband and scold. Sutherland is filthy rich despite being some kind of astronomer. Swimming in cash, those.

Worst of all, “Melancholia” has a constant camera shake. I suppose the hope is that you’re too nauseous to realize how much of your life you’re wasting.

While accurately portraying depression, there’s no anchor in a movie of privileged misery. If there’s nothing to figure out, no character to sympathize with, what’s the point? Beautiful crap is still crap. A far better movie is Jeff Nicols’s “Take Shelter” from the same year.

Should you wish to subject yourself to “Melancholia”, it’s available currently at

$Id: melancholia 597 2020-12-13 22:42:32Z x $


Review: The Virgin Suicides

August 2nd, 2020

I’m not trying to just write reviews. There are other things to write about but reviews are a way of silencing the inner critic, by being critical. So today the inner critic is silenced by “The Virgin Suicides” from 1999, a sometimes light drama about youth, Catholicism, and, well, suicide.

I recommend this movie. I prefer to know next to nothing about movies before I see them, so I don’t want to tell you much. You should know, however, how finely crafted the film is.

“The Virgin Suicides” was written and directed by Sophia Coppola, based on the novel of the same name. Kirsten Dunst stars alongside James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Dunst’s character occupies a mixture of both real and imagined qualities, with harsh reality handled skillfully by Woods and Turner. I’ve enjoyed Woods most often as a voice actor in “The Simpsons”, “Family Guy”, and even “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”. Here we see a slightly aloof father that further retreats into bookishness as life becomes more difficult. Turner embodies tragedy with what she doesn’t say, clinging to an idea of family that doesn’t exist.

I’ll take a detour to talk about Catholicism in the film. There’s a lot of privilege in Catholicism, both financially and a difficult to describe privilege of piety. You’re always wrong for something, and if you transgress it’s up to you to figure it out. You’ll be given the silent treatment until you do. 2017’s also excellent “Ladybird” touches on this as well. How do you imagine people react when they’re made to feel that they’re wrong or different?

Fans of 1998’s “Rushmore” will enjoy this film’s confident humor and strong acting. Movies involving young people can easily get insipid like “American Pie”, or far too heavy like 1986’s “Lucas”. What a horrid, horrid movie “Lucas” is. “Virgin Suicides” is crafted with a more mature and skillful hand, letting actors and dialogue exist without hyperbole or fancy edits. I haven’t told you much, but this is an outstanding movie you shouldn’t wait years to see.

As of today, “The Virgin Suicides” is available freely on

$Id: review_virgin_suicides 575 2020-08-02 15:38:12Z x $


Review: Street Smart

July 26th, 2020 maintains a list[0] of movies you can watch for free. Quite a few of them are awful, like “Dogtooth”. Others like “I Am Not Your Negro” are spectacular. “Dogtooth” was so wretchedly terrible and overrated that I plan to spend more time thinking and writing about it merely to have something positive result from so scarring an experience. If there is any doubt that evil exists in the world, keep in mind someone made “Dogtooth”. is a free, Linux-friendly site that offers a decent selection of shows and movies. You’ll find the repugnant “Dogtooth” here, but also some actual movies that don’t make you hate humanity. Tubi has “Street Smart” as part of their Spotlight category. I’d never heard of “Street Smart” but I’ve liked some Morgan Freeman movies, or at least “Shawshank”. There’s a global pandemic, so what the hey?

“Street Smart” was released in 1987 and stars Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman. There’s a time-capsule aspect to watching portrayals of stars, cities, and interiors from the late eighties. I was a kid when the movie was released, and it’s interesting to see old soft drink logos and cars. Who my age doesn’t remember Reeve as Superman and think about how hard he tried to have a dignified life after injury?

Reeve is a magazine writer back in the days when people read things. Magazines even. Reeve has committed to writing about a pimp but is completely incapable of finding one. He’s clearly not cut out for the world he hopes to cover. In other words, no street smarts. So he just makes something up. Fiction passed as truth would have seemed bad in the eighties but would hardly raise an eyebrow now. I don’t want to portray journalism as bad. It’s more important than ever. I’m sure we all miss the outrage over manufactured truth.

Reeve’s story is the talk of the town, because it was the eighties and people read things. Trouble begins when Reeve is questioned about his source and just how this Harvard-educated fella could have been given so much access? Worse still is that the phony story hews awfully close that of a real pimp played by Freeman. The local district attorney believes Reeve wrote about Freeman, while Freeman’s defense attorney senses an opportunity to have the case muddled enough to result in acquittal.

This movie has the ingredients of a zany comedy, where aw shucks, this is all just one goofy mix up. “Street Smart” is better, and quite serious. Reeve becomes more successful, landing a regular television spot where he provides a safe, voyeuristic view into small crimes like graffiti and taxi fraud. Taxis. Remember those? Reeve starts to lose his sense of self and falls further into both his lie and the world it steals from.

The genius of the movie is that Freeman quickly senses and capitalizes on Reeve’s naivete. The two meet, and it’s not long before Freeman shows what his world is really like. Violent, unforgiving, predatory. The movie does a good job of illustrating the kind of tourism the privileged can engage in with regard to the poor and minorities. Freeman knows this, and uses it to his advantage. The movie makes the point explicit, but not in a hyperbolic way. Why is Reeve picking on the poor?

“Street Smart” was Freeman’s breakout role, earning him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Freeman provides his villain with dignity of sorts, fluctuating between harsh violence and a type of paternalism for those he controls. We’re shown a human with both mercy and uncertainty, instead of cartoonish fantasy that patronizes the viewer.

The movie is effective social commentary that is more relevant today than it was in the eighties. Everyone including Reeve seems corrupt. Truth only matters when there’s not profit to worry about. The district attorney, Reeve’s long-suffering girlfriend, and a prostitute Reeve befriends are not corrupt and show how vulnerable the good can be in a terrible world. The movie is quite strong here and makes me wonder why more haven’t seen it.

I’m reminded of the 2001 movie that everyone has seen: “Training Day”. If you liked “Training Day” there’s something wrong with you, or you haven’t seen far superior movies like “Street Smart”. Denzel Washington is amazing in “Training Day” but the movie is quite poorly strung together. The borrowed premise is similar. A privileged, white outsider doesn’t belong in the world he finds himself in while showing the audience that this underworld is filled with real human beings trying to survive.

“Street Smart” is quite a good movie that misses its chance to be a great. Despite all the careful commentary and willingness to show the brutality of life, we get a far more typical Hollywood ending. In one sense the ending shows us what typically happens to those with fewer means. Reeve isn’t a hero and great movie would have haunted us with that.


$Id: review_street_smart 569 2020-07-26 14:26:01Z x $