Review: Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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I’m not into commercial blockbusters at all. I feel that films created with money as their sole purpose do not deserve my attention as they completely miss the point of the art of filmmaking. I haven’t seen a single Transformers film nor any Marvel film since the very first Avengers film in 2012. Having said that, I have always been fond of the Pirates of the Caribbean for some reason. I enjoyed all the first four films (yes, even the fourth one I thought was quite entertaining) and even if I ignored titles like The Fate of the FuriousWonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast without even watching a trailer, I was very enthusiastic about the latest Pirates film. Sadly, I was in for a big disappointment. By far the worst installment of the franchise is a big mess.

The story revolves around the legendary Poseidon’s Trident and the efforts of the main characters to find it and use it to break the curses of the seven seas. Johnny Depp reprises his role as Captain Jack Sparrow along with a few more returning characters like Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Jack Sparrow faces a new threat when Salazar (Javier Bardem), the captain of a crew of dead, gets released from his curse and comes to haunt the man that caused his doom. Jack’s only hope is finding the Trident that can make Salazar mortal again. In this search he is joined by Will Turner’s son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and a highly intelligent girl named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who both seek the Trident for their own different reasons.

One of the major disappointments concerns one of the most important aspects that made the films so popular, Jack Sparrow. Yes, Jack seemed like a dumb, careless man that is usually busy drinking, but at times he would show why he became such a legendary pirate. Not this time though. His only purpose is to try to make the audience laugh by acting silly with no avail most of the time. It’s not that Johnny Depp’s acting is bad, but it feels that even he himself is tired of this overused character, especially now that he appears more useless than ever. The rest of the cast is average. Rush and Bardem do a good job, but they don’t seem to have much to work with.

Then, we have the script which may be good for a 13-year old fan boy, but dumb for any self-respected cinephile. Apart from the part when Salazar recounts his first encounter with Sparrow, the story is shallow and completely devoid of any meaning. It doesn’t even try to be original, but rather recycles material from the original trilogy. I cannot know why the Rønning – Sandberg duo was chosen to direct this fifth installment, but they definitely failed to make the film live up to its expectations (which were not that high after On Stranger Tides). The film has some good points, the cinematographer did a good job and the special effects are great. Overall though, it’s just another pointless blockbuster especially when you think of the potential it seemed to have with Johnny Depp in one of his most renowned roles and Oscar winners Rush and Bardem in major roles. The franchise delivered some great moments, but even though this is not a befitting end, I really hope that the creators won’t release a sixth film.

3/10

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Review: Moonlight (2016)

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I actually watched Moonlight one day before it won this year’s Best Picture Oscar in the most twisting way in the history of the Academy Awards, but I only got to review it now. The way it turned out, this win was completely unexpected, but probably not undeserving at all. Moonlight is a sensational tale that explores human nature like few films do. It is not as an easy watch as the “Best Picture” frontrunner La La Land or in fact any of the other contenders for the prestigious award. Nevertheless, it makes for a breathtaking picture if the viewers allow themselves to take the enthralling trip it offers.

The story is split in three parts. The main character for all of them is Chiron, first as a young boy, then a teenager and finally a grown man. There’s no conventional timeline, the plot just jumps from one part to another skipping several years. Moonlight doesn’t try to tell a story, but rather showcase life with all its struggles and pains through the eyes of a black boy in a rough Miami neighbourhood. Chiron is a symbol for everyone growing up in a world they don’t understand but being unable to escape. He is different yes, but aren’t we all? Is it so difficult to find someone who really cares about you? Is it so bad to behave differently, to feel differently, to address sexuality differently? The film is as powerful as a film can get. Of course it is not for everyone, it doesn’t offer the kind of light entertainment a lot of people look for when going to the cinema, but it has the ability to affect deeply in an emotional level if one is patient.

The script was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins (who also directed it) and it was inspired by their memories and experiences as young black people growing up in Miami. Surprisingly, it is Jenkin’s only second feature film, the first being Medicine for Melancholy. His work in Moonlight is impressive. It is bold, aesthetic and clearly directed with careful attention to detail. The score and Mahershala Ali’s supporting role performance are the icing on the cake. It’s not that I predicted its surprising “Best Picture” win in the Oscars, but I really felt it was the only film that could rival La La Land. Overall, Moonlight is by all means a magnificent picture and I believe that the recognition it gained will give hope to many an ambitious filmmaker out there who’s not looking for Hollywood’s cliché formula.

9/10

Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

To see list – no.19

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Finally, I have started crossing titles off my list of essential films. I had a break from covering the Oscars nominees to revisit one of Kubrick’s classics, Paths of Glory. I’m a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut being among my all time favourite films so, I couldn’t miss this one. I wasn’t disappointed. Paths of Glory is an outstanding picture that goes beyond the conventional war films (which at the time were made mostly for the sake of propaganda) to explore greed, death and dehumanization.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave“. The title derived from this line of Thomas Grey’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“. Described as “a war film with an anti-war theme” the film stars Kirk Douglas as Dax, a colonel of the French army who is ordered to undertake an impossible attack on the enemy line during WWI. When his men fail to capture the enemy target and retreat, their furious general commands the arrest of three of them. The soldiers are facing death penalty and the only one who is  willing to defend them is Colonel Dax.

Paths of Glory works incredibly well in various aspects. It is I think Stanley Kubrick’s first study on dehumanization, a theme explored in several of his films. This is best showcased through the characters of Generals Mireau (George Macready) and Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). The first scene, which is overflowed by irony, is the epitome of human greed. General Broulard is given the order to attack Anthill, a very important strategic position held by the Germans. Knowing that the task is nothing less than impossible, he visits General Mireau trying to assign him the task. Mireau calls the idea ridiculous and boasts of how important his men’s lives are to him. However, he’s more than happy to attack once a promotion is hindered. The ingenious about this scene is that none of these points is given directly, but rather implied. The generals seem to legitimize and reason about all of their ideas and decisions. Stanley Kubrick leaves everything to the viewer although he makes sure that the message is given. The General who claims that the life of a single man is more important than any decoration, orders the execution of 10 men only a few days later. Anyone watching the film would start questioning the motives of war as well as the men who give the orders. Is the protection of people the reason a country enters war or just an excuse for ambition, fame and money?

Then, we have our main character, representing what is left of honour and solidarity. His struggle against authority that sadly proves too strong an enemy along with his attempts to demonstrate the absurdity of certain actions are exactly the anti-war points of the film. Kirk Douglas is amazing and though the film wasn’t much noticed back in 1957, it is now regarded as one of the best in Douglas’ filmography.

Stanley Kubrick was still evolving back then, still experimenting with anything about the motion-picture industry. He hadn’t reached his top form yet, but it was the first time that he managed to convey his ideas and opinions through a film.When I watched his previous film (The Killing, 1956), I couldn’t see his style anywhere. This wasn’t the case here. I would dare to say that Paths of Glory was the first “Kubrickian” film with its thought-provoking directing and exploration of human nature. The bittersweet ending is probably the best example.

“Give the men a few minutes more”

8/10

Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

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Last year, the Academy was boycotted by thousands for its lack of diversity. A lot of people expressed their disappointment for the absence of coloured actors from the Oscars nominations. It seems that the Academy have learned their lesson. This year all four acting categories feature colored actors/actresses names and three films featuring colored main characters are among the Best Picture contenders. One of them, Hidden Figures, showcases perfectly what discrimination and racism feels like by presenting the struggles that coloured women had to face in a white-men-driven America during the early 60s.

Three brilliant coloured women – Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe) – manage to get a job in NASA. Shamefully enough, almost one century after the end of Civil War, segregation hasn’t ceased. The situation for these three women and every other woman of their ethnic group is, at the very least, derogatory. They are not allowed to go to white people’s toilets, they get much fewer opportunities and Katherine cannot even use the same coffee pot as her colleagues. As these weren’t enough, the pressure and work load they have to face in NASA is huge. The year is 1961 and the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States is more intense than ever. Things get even worse when news of Russia sending the first man into space reach the world. However, we’re not talking about any women. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are determined to overcome any difficulties and show the world what they are made of.

The film tells a story that most of us were unaware of. We’ve seen dozens of American films that take place in the early 60s. There are films about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War, Elvis Presley, the British Invasion bands, and so many other topics. However, we rarely see a film that focuses on people of those days and especially the racial minorities. Among all that technological advancement, humanity was cast aside. It was 1961 and people of colour were still treated as lesser beings. Hidden Figures recounts the events in a particularly touching way. While speaking of the huge achievements of NASA in the space race, it subtly emphasizes on the effort of the people who were responsible for them and particularly the three women who set an example for thousands of others. The cast delivered an amazing performance and the result was an emotional and didactic story that pays true homage to the real people.

Of course, the film has its drawbacks. It suffers from a defect found in many biographical films. They tend to glamorize their characters to the extent of portraying them as infallible supporting them with minor characters who by now have become too cliché. Katherine, Mary and Dorothy have absolutely no faults whereas Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parson’s characters are unlikable from the very first moment. By the time the happy ending comes, everyone’s problems seem to have disappeared and the main characters are now loved by everyone. This is the reason I rarely find a biographical film to amaze me. Apart from that though, every aspect of the film was masterfully dealt with. In general, it makes for a great and quite informative viewing.

7/10

Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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When confronted with the word “hero”, different people picture different men in their minds. Some think of superheroes, some think of immensely strong and fearless soldiers and some think of remarkable generals and leaders. We seem to forget that the key aspects of a true hero are bravery and selflessness. Mel Gibson’s first film in over a decade is the biography of such a hero, a man who wasn’t particularly strong or skilled, but was ready to risk his life to save others. Hacksaw Ridge is an inspiring story based on true events although at times it seems too romanticized.

The story begins with Desmond Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) childhood in Lynchbourg, Virginia. Desmond and his brother Hal grow up with their religious mother (Rachel Griffiths) and their troubled father (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic who is still haunted by his WWI demons. When the United States entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Desmund and his brother decide to enlist for the army as most people in their age did. Desmund joins the 77th division and starts his training, but has a hard time there as he refuses to even touch a gun. Killing another man, even in a war, is against his deep-rooted beliefs and his only purpose is to serve as a medic, saving people instead of killing them. The film then moves forward to 1945 and the battle of Okinawa where amidst a living hell, Desmund Doss saves numerous lives and shows what he’s made of.

I had read and heard about how good this film was and since it was one of the most nodded in the Oscars I had high expectations. I have to say that watching the first part was quite disappointing. Everything about Desmond’s life before he enlisted seemed too Hollywood-esque. He appears as the perfect man, even though he had a difficult childhood growing up with an alcoholic father (which is not true for the real Desmond Doss’ father), he falls in love with first sight with a beautiful girl and after two days he makes her fall in love with him too. It’s like the screen writer preferred to please the audience rather than telling the true story. Fortunately, there was Hugo Weaving’s performance to redeem me. Such an underrated actor, I really felt that he should have got at least a nomination for this season’s awards. Everything got better after Desmond goes to the training camp, but still I could see nothing great about the picture.

Much to the film’s credit, I forgot everything when the battle scene started. The scene was breathtaking! The pace was excellent, the sound and directing kept me in the edge of my seat, the cinematography and costumes were perfect. I didn’t know the historical details so I had no idea what the result would be and the film kept me guessing until the end sustaining suspense to the highest level. Desmond’s heroic act was masterfully showcased and the footage in the end made for the perfect epilogue.

Andrew Garfield was very good in this film and the supporting cast was solid. It’s a great return for Mel Gibson who got his first Academy Award nomination since 1996 when he won two Oscars for Braveheart. Although it’s not the masterpiece some people had me believe, it’s still makes for a great war film which can both affect you with its touching story and thrill you with astonishing action moments.

7/10

Review: Arrival (2016)

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“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”. You may have come across this question before but never has it been so relevant as in Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi film, an exciting picture that explores a wide variety of topics including time-travel, extra-terrestrial life and linguistics. Arrival aims to inspire and challenge the audience and it does so very well.

Eric Heisserer had been trying for years to adapt the Nubella winner novella “Story of your life” by Ted Chiang. As of 2012, he had almost given up and the screenplay found its way in “The Black List”, a collection of the best unproduced screenplays. Fortunately for all of us, Denis Villeneuve got an interest in it and the result was one of the best director/writer pairings of the year. The main character is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who is hired by the US military who are trying to translate the language of some unidentifiable beings that have apparently come from another place in the universe in twelve mysterious spacecrafts.Political tension grows all over the planet as the aliens’ purpose is unknown and their only way of communicating is an incomprehensible writing. Teamed up with physics professor Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise must find a way to decipher the bewildering writing before the situation gets out of hand as nations all over the world start to face the spacecrafts with hostility.

Denis Villeneuve proves again that he is one of the most exciting directors working now in Hollywood. The directing is top-notch and combined with Bradford Young’s cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score we have an excellently paced, visually stunning and deeply affecting feature. To top it all, Amy Adams gives an extraordinary performance. The absence of her name in the Best Leading actress Oscar nominations is probably the single most shocking snub of the year. She is absolutely stunning in this one. I could almost feel nausea myself when I first saw her in that suit. 

The reason why Arrival works is that it tackles so many matters without offering a specific take on them. Everything is left to the audience. How should humanity tackle a possible alien approach? How important is language in our way of perceiving our nature? What would we change if we knew the future? I don’t even dare to put myself in Louise’s place. I can’t tell if she made the right or wrong decision and the film won’t tell you either. What else is remarkable about Arrival is how thoroughly it was researched scientifically. Several scientists, especially linguists, were approached to give their consult and this is what gives the film a realistic tone and solid background. If there is one thing that I didn’t like was the confrontation with the “Bootstrap Paradox”. This is when a future and a present action are both caused by one another without a logical explanation of how this cycle started. It’s actually common among sci-fi films that deal with time travel, but it always feels irritating to me. Interstellar, Minority Report and Donnie Darko are just some of the titles. The paradox even has its own film titled Predestination. Fortunately, it’s not so important in the plot of this film.

In summary, Arrival is an outstanding picture and I was delighted to know that it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. I repeat it’s a shame Amy Adams was snubbed. It’s good to know that films like these are produced in Hollywood and can’t wait to see Villeneuve’s next feature, the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. He has showcased better than ever what he is capable of with Arrival and I really hope he continues to do what he knows best.

8/10

Review: La La Land (2016)

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Finally, I got to see La La Land and finally I understood what all the fuss was about. I’m not much into romantic films and so I had my doubts about it. I couldn’t be more wrong! I don’t know if it’s the best film of 2016 (I still have a lot to watch), but it certainly is one of the most amazing and memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, follows Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they’re both trying to fulfill their ambitious dreams in the city of Los Angeles. Mia, currently working in a coffee shop, wants to become a famous actress while Sebastian dreams of revitalizing the jazz scene by creating his own jazz club. They fall in love with each other and together try to achieve their goals. For a while everything seems perfect, but the challenges they face test their faith in both their relationship and their visions.

The film has won a record-breaking 7 Golden Globe Awards and received a record-tying 14 Academy Awards nominations. Surely, you can’t always trust the Academy on deciding which is the best picture of the year, but this many accolades cannot be overlooked. So what is it that makes La La Land so special. Well, first of all, it is technically flawless. Cinematography, editing, costumes and acting are top-notch. Emma Stone is one of my favourite actresses and she is absolutely dazzling. However, two other things are what make the film stand out.

The first is the music. The score of Justin Hurwitz (who also composed the music for Damien Chazelle’s two previous features) is utterly enchanting. Hurwitz also wrote most of the songs with two of those being nominated for an Oscar. It really felt that the songs were woven together, like every song was just another verse of a bigger song. The second thing was its thought-provoking ending. I’m not going to spoil it (you can find my interpretation of it here), I just want to say that I spend days trying to figure out what it meant and what message was the film trying to transmit to the audience. It came out unexpectedly to distinguish the film from the average romance film that, satisfying as it may be for teenage girls, lacks any significant substance.

For these reasons, I believe La La Land will be remembered for years and years to come and I wouldn’t be surprised if it broke the Academy Awards record. Overall, an unforgettable masterpiece!

9/10

Review: Rosemary’s baby (1968)

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I’m not a fan of the horror genre and I have to admit that I get scared easily. There are some films though that I just couldn’t miss and Rosemary’s Baby is one of them. Watching it made me realize once again how big is the gap between our days and the 60’s. The film has nothing to do with horror movies released in the 21st century and actually it isn’t that scary. That’s not to say it isn’t good. On the contrary, it’s a great psychological thriller that keeps you wondering until the very end.

Set in New York City, the story starts with a young couple, Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes respectively), recently married as it seems, who are looking to buy an appartment. They eventually settle in the “Bramford” dismissing their friend Hutch’s (Maurice Evans) scary stories about infamous incidents that happened there. They soon get befriended by the wealthy old couple that lives next to them, Minnie and Roman (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer respectively). When under strange circumstances Rosemary gets pregnant, Minnie and Roman offer their help. Minnie arranges for her to have one of the best obstetricians in the city and prepares a herbal drink for her every day. As the day of delivery comes closer mysterious events start to occur that cause Rosemary to be suspicious of everyone around her.

Roman Polanski proves his immerse talent in this film which is actually his first book adaptation ever. Supposedly, he was unaware that directors often adjusted book stories to make their films, resulting in Rosemary’s Baby  being the most faithful adaptation ever according to the author Ira Levin. Polanski (or maybe we should say Levin) effectively manipulates the audience from the beginning of the film. We are first presented with ominous events and rumours so to get a feeling that something terrible is going to happen. However, as we move on, despite Rosemary’s fears and suspicions, there’s hardly any proof for her outrageous allegations. She suspects her neighbours, but all they do is provide her with a herbal drink. She suspects her obstetrician, but he is one of the most renowned in the city, respected even by people that she trusts like Hutch and Dr. Hill. So, since we only follow the events from her point of view, we begin to doubt her. I mean, it’s only natural for a mother to worry too much for her unborn child. What if all these are just in her imagination and the 2-3 unfortunate events are just coincidences? Unfortunately, the film’s reputation precedes it. I knew something was going to happen from the beginning. It must have been a great experience back in 1968 when the audience was completely unaware of it. It still makes for an exhilarating picture though. The most impressive thing about the film, and the one that differentiates it so much from modern horror films, is that we never see anything visually scary. We don’t see any gory scenes or scary satanic rituals or jump scares. We don’t even get to see a single glimpse of the baby! It’s all in the mind.

Technically, Rosemary’s Baby is flawless. Roman Polanski did an excellent job. The acting is solid and it’s no surprise that Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of the sinister Minnie Castevet won an Oscar. The score is the icing on the cake and the mesmerizing lullaby sung by Mia Farrow at the beginning and end of the film is one of the most memorable and haunting elements of the feature. What else is needed to say when the film is still discussed and analyzed today almost 50 years later? Even the reclusive Stanley Kubrick was reportedly impressed by it. An amazing picture altogether.

9/10

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Agatha Christie, Sidney Lumet, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, what could possibly go wrong? Well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. I haven’t read the book, but I have the feeling that the story is too complex to be translated into a 2-hour theatrical release. It’s still a great whodunnit though and one of the most well-known adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books.

The story starts by informing us about a tragic incident in 1930. A young girl was kidnapped and then found murdered even though ransom for her life was paid. Five years later, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express to London accompanied by all sorts of interesting people. While travelling through Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is found murdered and in the meantime, the train stops because of a snowstorm. Poirot takes over investigation and is determined to find who is the killer among the passengers.The story is as challenging  and intriguing as it can possibly be. Everyone is a suspect, but who had the means and the motive to commit the murder? As Poirot questions passenger after passenger, it seems that many of them had a motive and connections with the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong 5 years ago make things even more complex.

Of course, we have Agatha Christie to thank for the story, but what about the rest of the film? What about acting, directing, cinematography and music? Well, unfortunately, none of these is as expected. The cast consists of some of the greatest actors of the time, but Albert Finney seems unconvincing as Poirot. I’m struggling to understand how he got an Oscar nomination. Ingrid Bergman is good, but still not good enough for the Oscar she won. If there is one that stands out for me, this is Lauren Bacall as the intolerable Mrs. Hubbard. Anthony Perkins is very good too. Murder on the Orient Express, is far from Sidney Lumet’s best pictures (12 Angry Men, Network). I got tired of seeing the train moving on after each scene. The screenplay has its flaws too. For several suspects, Poirot seems to arrive at conclusions without sufficient evidence yet nobody argues with him. Surely, as I said above, it wasn’t an easy task to adapt such a novel. It’s still a very easy watch, that keeps you thinking until the final moments when the quite unexpected events concerning the murder are revealed.

6/10

Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film is an insightful study of how people deal with loss, grief and trauma. A very powerful movie indeed that aims to show us that love can be healing and hope is always present. The story is unfolded slowly and requires our patience, but by the time it’s over, we realize that it has taught us many a lesson.

Our main character is Lee (Casey Affleck), an ordinary working man who lives in Boston. At the beginning, he seems like a normal single man who carries his everyday job with no flaws, no complains and most notably, no smiles. Until someday, he learns that his brother is dead, which forces him to go back to his hometown, Manchester, Minnesota, and take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mother has left the family. Meanwhile, we get to see flashbacks of Lee’s former life in Manchester. There is a striking difference between the past and the present: Lee used to be happy. He had a wife (Michelle Williams), three children, his friends, his brother. So what happened? Well, a tragic mistake has cost him everything and continues to haunt him. Combined with all the memories he has to face in his hometown now, Lee is a wreck. 

Surprisingly, what seems to be a heavy burden, becomes his salvation. Lee is reluctant to become Patrick’s guardian, but as it turns out, their relationship becomes his redemption. It seems that he has forgotten how it is to care for someone. It seems that he has finally a reason to live, something that he lacked for some time. He is not expressive, not at all. However, you can see that his life with Patrick does him good. It is obvious when in the last scene he does something he hasn’t done in quite a while: he smiles. Not just a smirk or a movement of his lips, but a true, heartfelt smile.

The film is powerful and filled with emotion and it’s impressive how Kenneth Lonergan can transmit so many feelings through a character so self-contained. Casey Affleck delivers the performance of his life with the rest of the cast doing an excellent job as well. What I loved the most was how beautiful the picture was both visually and aurally. I was surprised when I noticed that although the film was nominated for a lot of awards, it got no nominations for the score apart from a Satellite award. I hope that next month’s Oscars will not overlook it. If there is something missing from Manchester by the Sea, it is a climax. Every scene seems like another day in the life, nothing too memorable. This is the only drawback (if you can call it a drawback) I could note. I’m afraid this may result in the film being forgotten in the near future, so you’d better go watch it now.

8/10