REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars

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REVIEW: The Lost City of Z

17 10 2016

New York Film Festival

In 2014, while still in the thralls of my passionate obsession with James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” I attended the Telluride Film Festival where, lo and behold, Gray himself was attending to present a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” (I won’t go into too much detail about how I choked on approach to chat with him outside a screening.) He also penned an essay for the festival’s program lavishing praise on Coppola’s masterpiece, writing, “The film poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and its profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic.”

Of course, this only popped into my mind about an hour of the way through Gray’s latest work, “The Lost City of Z.” The film’s jungle trek in search of a mythic destination, of course, bears many surface similarities to “Apocalypse Now.” Going deeper, however, little else in the Amazonian journey of Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett corresponds to the descent into madness of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Fawcett’s quest is one for pride, not shame. In his attempts to discover a lost civilization among the South Americans derided as “savages” by the Brits, he hopes to provide both a cultural corrective and a reputation restoration to his tarnished family name.

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There’s an earnestness to Fawcett’s trips (yes, plural, because it takes a trio of them) that feels entirely from before the moral malaise of “Apocalypse Now,” due in large part to Gray’s unabashed classicism. He’s even got his own match cut to pay winking homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet “The Lost City of Z” feels caught between two periods, the old-fashioned spectacle of the Hollywood cinematic epic and the more self-conscious, interrogative New Hollywood style. To return briefly to Gray’s own terminology, the film lacks some magic because its ambiguity exists within a structure that prefers resolution and triumph.

Gray always has a firm command of what’s happening on screen, and director of photography Darius Khondji captures it in luscious hues and sweeping movement. What exactly is meant by Fawcett’s multiple journeys, each of which test his commitment to his fellow explorers, country and family, is not always clear. Removed from the personal authenticity of Gray’s early work and the radical sincerity of “The Immigrant,” narrative resonance is somewhat lacking.

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Even so, “The Lost City of Z” is still a sumptuous delight of visual splendor. Thirty minutes could probably be trimmed to help sustain more momentum, though such cuts might sacrifice some of the delicate character arcs. As the film progresses, Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, playing his supporting role with the humility of a great character actor) gradually grows uncertain that their mission to locate their missing city can bear any fruit. At the same time, however, Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland, recalling his superb turn in “The Impossible“) moves from disenchantment with his father to full allegiance and companionship. Witnessing one rise as the other falls makes for a more unexpected journey within the film – and one of its few facets that’s not entirely straightforward. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Mississippi Grind

29 11 2015

Mississippi GrindEarly on in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind,” a small detail stood out to me. As Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry sits down on the can to relieve his bowels, he reaches for something to wipe – and realizes he’s at the end of the roll of toilet paper. While most films, admittedly, avoid portraying such activities in the first place, how many of them bother to include this kind of widely shared frustration?

Boden and Fleck’s film, which they both co-wrote and directed, has one of the most thoroughly lived-in feels of any recent film. The way they capture the loneliness of a locale like an Iowa bar with such specificity comes across as so effortless that it might go unnoticed. But those who know to look will find a highly considered setting for an entertaining story.

“Mississippi Grind” takes the familiar form of a road trip between two buddies, although the pair in this movie only meets when the narrative begins. Gerry has many years of gambling under his belt (and plenty more in debt) before Ryan Reynolds’ younger Curtis comes along and strikes up a chummy rapport. The two head off towards New Orleans for the least Hollywood-like bender of booze and betting.

The favored cliché when describing any road trip or travel story is “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” That may apply to many movies, though it rings especially true for “Mississippi Grind.” Boden and Fleck are not building towards any kind of giant showdown in The Big Easy. Rather, it’s just the natural end point for the duo. The joy of the film comes from watching their little side trips and micro moments, grappling with their troubled pasts and bracing for the uncertain future. B+3stars





REVIEW: Burnt

14 11 2015

BurntBradley Cooper is among the most interesting American actors working today, so it’s a shame that he chose such an uninteresting project like “Burnt” at perhaps the apex of his stardom. For the man who was a crucial part in powering the first non-tentpole film to the top of the yearly box office since 1998, such a conventional tale told with little panache cannot help but disappoint.

That’s not to say that “Burnt” is empty of any merit or entertainment, though. In fact, it plays at around the same register as “Aloha,” Cooper’s unfairly savaged starring vehicle from earlier in 2015. John Wells’ film and Steven Knight’s script produce modest results from a modest effort, where Cameron Crowe went all out only to wind up with a mixed bag of failures and successes. Either way, the fact that Bradley Cooper can emerge from these two movies untarnished by their narrative struggles further attests to his place in the pantheon of his generation’s finest actors.

Perhaps someone could psychoanalyze Bradley Cooper to determine what keeps bringing him back to these stories of redemption. In 2005, he starred in an ill-fated TV comedy called “Kitchen Confidential” as a star chef seeking a comeback after personal issues put his career in jeopardy. In 2012, he changed the way most audiences in “Silver Linings Playbook” as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man seeking to put his life back together after a meltdown gets him institutionalized.

Four Oscar nominations later, in 2015, Cooper still seems to feel some need to prove himself through the character of Adam Jones in “Burnt,” a chef seeking a coveted third Michelin star in London after drug and alcohol abuse wrecked his last restaurant. (Sound familiar?) Jones is loud, brash and kind of a nightmare to handle. But he swaggers about with such authority that a crack team of cooks with global roots lines up to endure his abuse and work with him.

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REVIEW: High-Rise

27 10 2015

Fantastic Fest

If Ben Wheatley’s achievement in High-Rise were likened to anything, it might have to be juggling fire.  Not merely content to cautiously play with fire, he lights a few torches and tosses them back and forth into the air.  Having perfect form seems almost beside the point as execution gets subjugated by the power of sheer ambition.  The mere ability to keep so many dangerous objects in orbit without self-immolating inspires wonder.

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Wheatley’s cinematic iteration of J.G. Ballard’s novel, adapted for the screen by his wife Amy Jump, is the kind of filmmaking so outlandish and ballsy that it might even be illegal in some parts. The film lingered in development hell for four decades but arrives at the perfect time both socially and artistically.  For a story that deals heavily with class conflict and economic inequality, High-Rise has only become more topical with each passing year.  Furthermore, all its idiosyncrasies make Wheatley’s gonzo style a perfect match of director with material.

The film uses its titular structure, a Brutalist skyscraper containing all the necessary supplies for a self-sustaining community, as a microcosm of our stratified social strata.  But where many stories obliquely commenting on the de facto arrangements that organize our world opt for obvious allegory, Wheatley finds a more satisfying film by exploring the realm of the metaphorical.  Not everything in High-Rise corresponds directly to a recognizable counterpart in the real world, which allows Wheatley the ability to operate at higher levels of ambiguity.

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Over the course of nearly two hours, the film takes its audience on a thrill ride akin to the Tower of Terror at Disneyland as it goes back and forth between the Caligula-esque exploits of the top floors’ wealthy residents and the grunge of the working class who dwell towards the bottom.  The closest thing the film has to an entry point is Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing, a doctor who seems to fall somewhere between the two divisions.

Laing is more often witness to the proceedings than an active participant in the war that breaks out, yet in a way, that makes him all the more ideal to experience the escalating absurdity through.  Calling him a blank slate does a disservice to Hiddleston’s captivating performance, though he does serve that function ins some part.

When someone roasts a dog or bludgeons their enemy with a BAFTA trophy – both of which happen in ­High-Rise – there is something rather refreshing about not being told precisely how to feel.  Many events that take place come with no obvious response, and Wheatley allows us the chance to react as we feel appropriate.  But be it laughter, fear, shock or disgust, our mouths are wide open in awe regardless.  And since the ideas come flying fast and furious, with a new thought arriving before the last one has a chance to settle in, there is simply no choice but to see High-Rise again. B+3stars





REVIEW: American Sniper

16 01 2015

Towards the beginning of “American Sniper,” Bradley Cooper’s cowboy turned Navy SEAL Chris Kyle receives the instruction to make pulling a trigger an unconscious effort.  Director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall, however, ensure that the audience watching Kyle’s exploits are very conscious of the rationale and logic behind the dispatch of every bullet.  No kill feels sensationalized to satisfy bloodlust, even when that sentiment disguises itself as patriotism.

The film simply portrays one man’s experience during four tours in the post-9/11 Middle East, opting not for any anti-military statement (like “Green Zone“) nor for a chest-thumping jingoism (like “The Kingdom”).  Since Kyle is the protagonist and the eyes through which the viewer watches the film, of course “American Sniper” tilts in his favor.  But he is not celebrated merely because of his record 160 kills; the film lionizes Kyle because of the value he placed on leadership and loyalty.

At this stage in the cinema’s grappling with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, just telling stories from over there seems important.  And that basically sums up the extent of what “American Sniper” is: a presentation of Chris Kyle’s narrative.  Eastwood and Hall never fully commit to either showing the full terror of combating terrorism (a la “Lone Survivor“) or the grueling mental experience of the soldiers (in the vein of “The Hurt Locker“).  They pull elements from each effectively, yet they never really advance a thesis or a broader takeaway.

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REVIEW: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

13 08 2009

I will admit that I deliberately postponed this review a few days.  After writing “Mindless Moviegoing” in which I claim that there is hope for teens to look beyond the blockbuster, I would have felt like a hypocrite if the first movie I reviewed had been one.  That being said, I took my little brother to see “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” the morning after I finished the column.  He was begging, and so I just bit the bullet and took him.  Weary after the last disaster based on a Hasbro toy line, I decided I would judge the movie on two grounds: if it had some sort of understandable plot and if there was more to the movie than just explosions and fighting.  Did it pass?  Yes, but barely.  The movie isn’t highly ambitious, but it does attempt to provide a decent story and give its characters some depth (although it might help if the cast wasn’t all models to play this depth).  It provides bearable escapist entertainment, and it scores with the demographic that it targets because my brother now claims this to be his second-favorite movie ever (at least his favorite is “The Dark Knight”).

The movie revolves around a set of four warheads containing nanomites, a new technology with the strength to destroy cities.  They are developed by James McCullen, who sells them to NATO but intends to recapture them for his own use to achieve world domination.  He creates a team of warriors called Cobras that are fearless in the face of danger and virtually invincible.  Fighting these villains is G.I. Joe, an special forces unit comprised of elite soldiers from dozens of countries.  Duke (Channing Tatum, “Step Up”) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans, “Scary Movie”) are the U.S. soldiers assigned to protect the warheads and, as good soldiers do, refuse to release command until their mission has been completed.  They train and ultimately become a part of G.I. Joe as they attempt to stop the dastardly McCullen from destroying the world.

The acting is sub-par, which can be expected when the cast is comprised mainly of ex-models like Channing Tatum and the gorgeous Sienna Miller.  The comedian of the bunch, Marlon Wayans, doesn’t really provide any laughs.  Instead, the movie lets some corny lines and ridiculous acting take care of that.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt strangely follows up the amazing “(500) Days of Summer” with this.  Although I don’t fault him for maybe wanting to take a trip out of indie world, this seems like a curious movie to choose.  He has a kind of boy-next-door feel, and I didn’t really dig this villainous role for him.  However, I am thrilled that he wants to expand his repertoire.  What really boggles me is how Dennis Quaid chooses movies like this when he could be in any movie he wants.

My main comparison to “G.I. Joe” was the latest “Transformers,” and this is light years better.  It is much easier to digest and entertaining.  The movie makes a fair attempt to bring up some serious themes, such as emotion vs. logic, facing fear, and having a conscience about killing.  However, they are undeveloped and ultimately miss the mark.  If you are looking for escapist and mindless entertainment, this a decent choice.  It provides some cool, fast-paced action that will be fun for kids or the kid in you.  C+ / 2stars