Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Manchester By The Sea

“Hacksaw Ridge,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “Bad Santa 2” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The ancient Greeks and Shakespeare had a notion that tragedy is something that befell those in the upper echelons of society, like kings, queens—the ruling elite. Arthur Miller made a pretty good case with “Death of a Salesman” that tragedy can also happen to the common man. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan works in Miller’s milieu with his beautifully written, superbly directed, and powerfully acted masterpiece, “Manchester By The Sea.”

The tragic hero at the center of the movie is Lee Chandler, played with gritty emotional acumen by Casey Affleck (who won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and is nominated for a Best Actor Oscar). Lee works as a janitor and handyman at an apartment complex in Boston. The tenants he has to put up with are invariably rude, obnoxious, and inappropriate in one way or the other—the very types of people who made it so the term “Masshole” entered into the lexicon of the northeast United States—but there is something else there. Something with Lee. He has an intense rage burning just under the surface. He tells off a tenant who is clearly a crazy bitch. He could have taken the high road, but instead sinks down to her level. Worse, all a guy at a bar has to do is look at him wrong or accidentally brush against him and the next thing anyone knows, Lee has started a fist fight. Something is definitely wrong with Lee to cause him to be so unhinged.

Lee finds out his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) died suddenly from heart failure and he is left in charge of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). In flashbacks we see that when Patrick was a little kid (and played by Ben O'Brien), he, his father, and his Uncle Lee were a happy trio, taking a boat out fishing. Now, his father is dead, his estranged uncle is called from Boston to the town of Manchester By The Sea, from which the movie’s name is derived, and the boat is in disrepair. Patrick has a tragic past with his mother and some anger issues of his own. His three outlets to deal with the anger are hockey, loud rock music, and sex. Much like drugs, these outlets only provide him with a temporary fix. Once the good feelings wear off, he is stuck dealing with reality again.

The fact that Lee and Patrick are two peas in a pod in terms of having tragic pasts and pent up anger make it no wonder that they get on each other’s nerves so easily. They are too similar. Given that each of these two has a large amount of self-loathing that they carry with them, to be with someone who reminds them of themselves drives them up the wall. Lee spends much of the movie thinking of ways to get out of being Patrick’s guardian. Patrick spends most of the movie getting his way with Lee, who treats him more like a buddy than a guardian. At the same time, these two are the only close family that each one has left, and they’d lose family altogether if they lost each other.

What about the women? Patrick does have a mother (Gretchen Mol) who is an ex-alcoholic and is now married to a very devout Christian named Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick). We see how she was as a mom in various flashbacks, and how she contributed to Patrick’s emotional issues. She’s not much better for him in present day—but in a different way.

Then there’s Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife and father of his children. The two share a history in Manchester By The Sea. Part of Lee’s reluctance to move back to that town is in the fact that he can’t get over what happened there years earlier. The townspeople talk in quiet whispers about him, and he hasn’t forgiven himself. In one of the movie’s best, most powerful scenes, Randi and Lee happen into each other on the street and deal with the emotional baggage of their past. It’s powerful stuff.

As I write this, “Manchester By The Sea” is a six-time Oscar nominee. There is some great competition this year, so the likelihood of this taking home everything it is nominated for is very low. However, the movie has a great chance for Affleck to get a Best Actor Oscar, as well as Original Screenplay by Lonergan. The director and picture awards are longer shots, but still within the realm of possibility, and I would not object at all to seeing this movie win those awards. Beautiful and tragic filmmaking such as this should be awarded, and even if it isn’t, it should certainly be appreciated. Buy it on Amazon: Manchester By The Sea [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital]

Also New This Week

Hacksaw Ridge

“Hacksaw Ridge” is the story of a war hero who never fired a weapon. The man’s name is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a real-life conscientious objector and World War II Medal of Honor recipient. He struggles with reconciling his anti-killing religious views, his father’s (Hugo Weaving) objection to the war (he saw the horrors of World War I and did not want that for his sons), and his need to do his part and serve his country. His reasonable solution is to enlist as a medic. That way, he can serve his country and help the fight without having to do any of the actual fighting.

It’s a complex issue, to be sure. The script by writers Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, guided by the steady, measured hand of director Mel Gibson, tackles it from all angles. Doss is so anti-violence that he won’t even fire his rifle at paper targets. This of course gets Army Brass in a tizzy, but their point of view is well heard and taken seriously. After all, if everyone in the country thought like Doss, who would actually do the fighting? His ways are dangerous to the military’s core purpose—to fight and defend. At the same time, there should be room for people like Doss, who do not want to harm, but rather heal.

Needless to say to anyone who has seen the poster art for “Hacksaw Ridge,” a solution is found and Doss makes his way to the fight in the Pacific. Gibson shows us the Battle of Okinawa in gory, graphic detail, but not to be exploitative—to be accurate. He makes very clear the devastation that weapons of war have on the human body, and why the name “Hacksaw Ridge” for the area where they’re fighting is so appropriate. By doing so, it’s clear why and how someone such as Doss, a non-violent participant with something to prove, was instrumental in saving so many lives. You may not agree with Doss or his beliefs, but this is an amazing story that is very well told. “Hacksaw Ridge” is another Best Picture Oscar nominee that deserves to be seen and appreciated. Buy it on Amazon: Hacksaw Ridge [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital]

Nocturnal Animals

Here’s the main reason to see “Nocturnal Animals,” summed up in a name: Jake Gyllenhaal. His performance is one of such raw, blindingly emotional intensity that it can even be a bit hard to watch at times. I mean that as a good thing, because he is that great in this movie.

“Nocturnal Animals” is director Tom Ford’s reflection on how we all find subjective meaning in art. Take for example the opening credit sequence, which features fully naked, morbidly obese women striking poses on a stage in an art gallery. Right off the bat we’re made aware that Ford is going to challenge our notions of subjectivity—that our reaction to art comes from within. It comes from who we are. Some will be repulsed. Some will be intrigued. I daresay a few will even be turned on. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Unhappily married woman and owner of the aforementioned art gallery, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), is sent a manuscript from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (played by Gyllenhaal in flashbacks). It is titled “Nocturnal Animals”—a nickname he had for her when they were married—and it is about a man whose wife and daughter are assaulted by low class hooligans, and his subsequent regret and revenge on the perpetrators.

Something interesting happens as Susan envisions the story in the manuscript. She pictures the wife of the story, Laura Hastings, as someone other than herself—Laura is played by Isla Fisher. There is also the daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), lowlifes Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman), and Carlos (Michael Sheen), as well as the detective assigned to the Hastings case (Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Michael Shannon). None of these people are seen in Susan’s real life, except one, briefly, but there is a question mark around it. Why is it then that when she envisions that husband/father of the story, Tony, she pictures him to look like Edward? Indeed, Tony is also played by Gyllenhaal. That is an interesting choice on Susan’s part.

This is how “Nocturnal Animals” is so complex and intriguing. We’re seeing Susan’s subjective interpretation of a work of art. In turn, we can also draw our own conclusions about what we see. For example, is the story in the manuscript a thinly veiled revenge tale? Or is it Sheffield’s way of cathartically releasing his past and moving on with his life? At one point, Susan makes a phone call to someone we only see once. What was the meaning? Did it even really happen? Based on the ending of this movie, I question whether it did, and whether the emails and text messages between herself and Edward were real. Maybe they were all in her head, or maybe they weren’t. You decide. Then you can debate and discuss. That is what good art does—it challenges and gets people talking. I am sure that after watching “Nocturnal Animals,” there will be no shortage of that. Buy it on Amazon: Nocturnal Animals (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)

Bad Santa 2

I will admit that there are times when I set the bar pretty low for a movie based on expectations. Going into “Bad Santa 2,” which is a comedy, I only had one requirement: Make me laugh. It did.

Having said that, is the story an uplifting one full of good cheer, with protagonists I can relate to and root for them to win? No, and I don’t care--I’m not asking for that. As a matter of fact, the main trio of the movie, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), and mastermind Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox), is one of the nastiest, most negative group of malcontents ever put on screen. But they’re nasty and negative to each other, or those that deserve it by virtue of the way they behave. It actually helps that I don’t particularly like anyone on this movie. It makes it easier to laugh at them when they get ripped apart by mean-spirited jokes. If those jokes were targeted at good, wholesome, nice people, it would be a huge problem. But since these folks are all such scumbags, I don’t really care. Let them tear each other down—and be funny doing it.

Even the nicest, most naïve and innocent person in the movie, the now grown up Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), is such a mouth breathing annoyance that I didn’t really care about him either. All I did was sit back, watch the rips and take downs fly fast and furious from one character to the other, and laugh right along with it. It may be cheap humor with little to offer except ugly barbs being tossed about, but it’s funny. And for me, that’s what counts. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Black Widows,” dark comedy about three women who set out to get revenge on a rapist and wind up killing their lovers as events spiral out of control.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.