The finest films tend to engage fervently with their specific time and place; entertaining the bigger picture as well as those more effectively intimate spaces. For Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the solitary sad sack at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s devastatingly beautiful MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, the coastal Massachusetts town of the film’s namesake – which he is summoned to upon the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) – represents the abode of old bones, a wretched abyss from which he never truly escaped.

This painfully resonant examination of grief has the tendency to feel almost operatic – due in no small part to Lesley Barber’s unforgettably somber score – but it is perhaps even more indebted to the director’s history as a successful playwright. With this being his third feature at the helm, it would appear Lonergan has established a comfortable middle ground between naturalism and artifice; conversations and evocatively-lit interiors evoking the essence of a hang-out flick at times, but without the same redemptive tranquility, and the most ample truths are recouped from awkward silence.


Lee seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders from the moment he’s introduced, serving the unappreciative tenants of the apartment complex where he works as a janitor. On top of that, his relationship with the bottle proves somewhat detrimental, and agonizing flashbacks bleed into everyday reality so seamlessly, and constantly, that the transitions tend to appear rather subtle at first. It’s only when Lee returns to his home town and discovers that he is to become the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) that the most painful memories of all permeate his psyche once again.

This extended flashback is as close to a revelatory moment as the viewer is going to get, but granted a better understanding of Lee’s history, it’s much easier to empathize with his plight. He’s simply a man attempting to subvert his sins, stuck in his own moderately self-imposed limbo. For him, Manchester signifies suspicious stares, possibly seeing Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife who shares in his suffering, on the streets, and having to confront several decades worth of honest failures; it’s no longer just a picturesque setting.


One look into Affleck’s cold, inconsolable eyes inspires immediate compassion; everyone here is marvelous, but he’s never been better, and in less capable hands the character could have been a one trick pony. His world is a deeply disturbed one, and though there’s plenty of comic relief on the road to redemption, it remains a carefully crafted crescendo of melancholy. If it’s even there to begin with, the happy ending is well out of reach, but what Lonergan provides in its place is even more enduring. As a celebration of the little moments that can either make or break who we are – like, for instance, a panic attack brought on by frozen meat – and who we’re meant to be, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an invaluable testament to inordinate darkness giving way to understated wisdom as well as progress in its many, obscured forms.



It wouldn’t be impractical to compare ANTIBIRTH, the messy (in more ways than one) feature debut from accomplished visual artist Danny Perez, to the unexpectedly PCP-laced joint or to the scatter-brained B-side to a profoundly psychedelic experience. Indeed, it’s precisely this kind of abnormal out-of-body ambiance that the film aspires to; evoking heavy shades of David Lynch, Cronenberg and many others as it stretches its admittedly thin concept to grotesque, kaleidoscopic extremes.

Brimming with all sorts of hazy, shamelessly abrasive potential from frame one, this grungy yarn concerns the plight of wayward trouble-maker Lou (Natasha Lyonne), who wakes up one morning after a night of heavy hedonism to the most sickening sensations. These are later discovered – first, by Lou’s best friend Sadie (Chloe Sevigny) – to be the symptoms of pregnancy, but neither of the two can recall the events which transpired that previous evening.


There are at least a dozen movies attempting to co-exist here, but taking precedence over most others – at least for a while – is the hang out picture. The viewer assumes a sort of sleazy fly-on-the-wall perspective for roughly the first half of the surreal narrative, watching as Lou’s situation get worse and the she engages in mundane daily routine. Suddenly, disturbing visions of obscured memories begin to plague the poor party-goer’s mind, and upon the arrival of a peculiar old woman (Meg Tilly, delightfully bat-shit) in the small mid-west town, things take an unexpectedly twisted turn.

Perez is probably best known for his collaborations over the years with Animal Collective, in which he provided the band’s heady tunes with an appropriately imaginative visual companion (see the excellent and often overwhelmingly terrifying  “visual album” ODDSAC from 2010), so it’s no secret that his first foray into more grounded narrative work would be an ambitious one. Like that earlier film, ANTIBIRTH dabbles almost exclusively in gross body horror and Perez certainly has the means of dishing it out when the time comes, which is – rather unfortunately – too late in the game.


Allowing for a better understanding of his past work, one might get the sense that Perez is more interested in exceedingly strange ideas and imagery than he is in people. This doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but when the anti-heroine of the director’s abstracted world is one-dimensional at best and insufferable at worst, and those around her aren’t much better off, a gory good time then becomes an unnecessary struggle to locate anything of genuine substance. One could argue that the film’s indifferent attitude is embedded in its punk DNA, but when it accumulates to something as frequently unfunny, off-putting and shoddily constructed as this, it can be best chocked up to sheer ineptitude.

As expected, Perez is able to cook up some spectacular moments throughout – the idea of a quiet Michigan town teeming with experimental military activity and extraterrestrial conspiracy is an enticing one, and that sound design is pretty neat – but his stylistic flourishes end up being more debilitating – and, dare I say, amateurish – than exhilarating (the sequences set in the “Fun Zone”, a family-friendly pizzeria seemingly converted from an aging dive bar, are a fine example of this). Where it clearly wants to revel in oddity and excess, the film remains stagnant and can barely stay afloat, meandering on an already fairly weak foundation. It’s a leisurely, sedated, albeit colorful descent to whatever lies beneath the bottom of the barrel; you’re free to take that as you will, but the effort it requires to find something even vaguely inspiring isn’t really worth it.



UNDER THE SHADOW, the eerie slow-burn chiller that marks the directorial debut of Babak Anvari, indulges in a particularly dangerous dance. It’s a dance of many genres, many aspirations, and many roadblocks, and to be fair, Anvari almost gets us to a point where everything comes together to initiate a satisfying whole. In this sense, he’s already ahead of the game, even if the Iranian-born filmmaker doesn’t always seem content to be playing the field.

Set in post-revolution Tehran during the 1980’s, this macabre tale begins as former medical student Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is denied the opportunity to continue her studies as a result of being involved with Leftist activists in the past. At home, Shideh has plenty to worry about as it is – her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor, tends to openly undermine his wife’s achievements and their daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), often retreats to a fantasy world that she believes in a bit too much – while the war rages on outside.


Iraj’s medical assistance is needed in the heart of the combat zone and he must leave his family in the city for an extended period of time. Soon after his departure, a missile lands on the apartment directly above theirs, resulting in the death of one of its elderly tenants. Following the incident, Dorsa’s behavior becomes slightly erratic. She loses her favorite doll and constantly searches for it inside and outside of the apartment, believing that its disappearance is linked to a malicious spirit known as a “Djinn”, which may have possessed their home.

Shideh’s initial reaction is to chalk it up to an over-active imagination, but then terrifying visions begin to plague her fragile psyche during both night and day alike, and she finds herself, much like her child, no longer able to discern reality from fantasy. Anvari handles her struggle to reclaim individual strength and identity with grace, crafting an at times clever and never less than engaging feminist parable. In terms of social-political context, it uses its monster as an obvious metaphor for the ramifications of war, and it’s in this realm of lingering, impactful terror that UNDER THE SHADOW exceeds.


It’s also here that it tends to stumble. The film is at its brooding best when embracing the power of implication, patience, and silence all at once, but its alternating concepts of fear seem, at times, contradictory. On one hand, it makes a conscious effort to be intelligent genre fare, seldom resorting to cheap shock tactics and utilizing the widescreen compositions to their maximum, anxiety-ridden potential; but there are also far too many instances in which initially effective sequences amount to little more than underwhelming jump scares. It’s as if whenever Anvari has something beautiful he feels the need to destroy it. This unfortunately also goes for the (thankfully few) glimpses the viewer is granted of the “Djinn” itself, which – mostly due to some pretty lame CG effects – are more ridiculous than blood-curdling, save for a genuinely ominous moment involving an old man and the colossal cracks in the apartment ceiling.

This isn’t a bad film, in fact it’s mostly a pretty good one, but it clearly wants to be so much more than that and there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be. It’s well made, performed, conceived, overall well-intentioned but one can’t shake the feeling that it’s the work of a director caught up in certain contemporary genre trappings, the kind that tend to obscure a poignant message. Anvari wants to have his cake and eat it too, which doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. It’s a sign of clear ambition and, especially in his case, talent. But next time he’d be best to count his blessings and roll with them rather than drive himself into such a dark, discouraged corner as this.