Monthly Archives: July 2016

Drama Live By Night

“Live by Night” is barely breathing.

A slow, stubbornly serious period picture, it’s Ben Affleck’s attempt to bring back the old Warner Bros. gangster films, with him stepping in for Jimmy Cagney. It’s got Prohibition and speakeasies, flappers and Tommy guns.

It still shoots blanks.

Affleck, who also directed, plays the disgraced son of a Boston police chief. A strong-arm guy with a prison record, he takes it on the lam to Tampa, where he starts running rum for the Mafia.

And also takes up with a smuggler’s sister, while running afoul of a fire-and-brimstone lady preacher.

On paper, it sounds like there’s a lot going on here – “The Roaring Twenties” crossed with Al Pacino’s “Scarface” and a bit of “Elmer Gantry.”

On the screen, it’s a lot less.

Although Affleck’s been a decent director – capturing real local color in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” building tension nicely in “Argo” – his work here is dim and dull. “Live by Night” may be about rum, but the pacing is like molasses.

And as its glum leading man, the star never shines. He has none of the lethal charm – or dangerous unpredictability – that would make a character like this worth watching. Instead of a mobster clawing his way to the top he’s a district manager, trying to boost third-quarter profits.

The Tampa setting is a novel one at least, and although Zoe Saldana isn’t much more than decorative as a lady smuggler, Chris Cooper adds craggy authority as a mostly honest lawman. And Elle Fanning is excellent as that revival-tent preacher.

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal

They only come out at night.

Dirtbags, lowlifes, predators — they’re just some of the dangerous beasts that “Nocturnal Animals” focuses on.

But there are other things that live in the dark, too: self-doubt, nagging regret, the sense that somehow, somewhere, things went wrong.

And those can be even scarier monsters.

“Nocturnal Animals” is directed by the fashion designer Tom Ford and it looks beautiful in a way that glossy ads are. Jake Gyllenhaal is hunky (and, as usual, briefly shirtless). Amy Adams is as pretty and perfect as a doll.

She’s just as cold, though. And so is the film.

Because this is a movie about all the ways we hurt each other. And although sometimes it’s through vicious violence, sometimes it’s in subtler, nastier, icier ways.

And now Edward has a novel coming out, which he wants Susan to read. It’s a gruesome thriller about a too-nice guy who gets caught up in a carjacking, and sees his wife and child brutally abducted.

But why, after almost 20 years, did Edward send Susan this book? And why is it really dedicated to her?

Those are Susan’s first questions and they’ll be answered, eventually — although not in the way she wants.

But first we have to make our way through three interwoven stories — flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s life together, snapshots of Susan’s life now as she’s reading, and Edward’s book, acted out as a sort of movie-inside-the-movie, with rangy Michael Shannon as a Texas lawman.

It sounds a little too clever, but it’s not. It’s just clever enough.

Partly because, simply, Edward’s novel is good — an abduction/revenge story that has the gruesome, rural-horror feel of a ’70s exploitation flick. But also because Gyllenhaal plays not only Edward, but the hero in his own novel. And it forces us to think about the reasons he has for telling this story now. What’s it really about?

What does it mean to Susan — sitting there reading it, alone in her Los Angeles mansion, surrounded by everything except people?

With its wild swings between grimy crime and upscale angst, “Nocturnal Animals” can sound like an artsy experiment. (It certainly starts off like that, with a credits sequence full of old, fat naked cheerleaders — something even David Lynch would shrink from).

And, there’s something decidedly misogynistic in its story. It’s not just the criminals in Edward’s story who hate women; Edward’s carrying around a lot of anger, too, a grudge he’s been nursing like a 12-year-old scotch. And the movie takes his side.

But ultimately “Nocturnal Animals” is about more than that. It’s about how we hurt each other. It’s about how we fail each other. And it’s about how we think about all of it, over and over, late in the dark of the night.

Adam Driver a small treasure on movie reviews

“Paterson” is poetic.

Pardon the alliteration, but Jim Jarmusch’s film starring Adam Driver is an ode to the simplicity of everyday life. It also conjures the same dreamy quality of the verses penned by its titular bus driver, who shares a name with the New Jersey town he calls home.

The movie follows Paterson for a week as he wakes up every day to his beautiful wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), an unemployed artist, and his English bulldog, Marvin. He leaves his small house for work at the bus depot, where he jots down poems before he starts his route. In between, he hears pourings of woe from his miserable shift supervisor.

When Paterson writes, his words scrawl across the screen as Driver’s voiceover speaks the verses, lending them an ethereal quality. Ordinary conversations and chance encounters that fill Paterson’s days inform his poems — he finds beauty in the mundane.

Jarmusch invites viewers to do the same. Paterson’s routine, which includes nightly walks with Marvin to the neighborhood watering hole, borders on repetitive but remains captivating.

“Paterson” is filled with moments and interactions that seem like they’re headed toward drama but take a different route. And even though it’s set in the present day, Paterson’s quaint life evokes an earlier period, adding a thin layer of surrealism.

Laura and Paterson’s light conversations in this slow burner are bright spots, and it’s hard not to smile when goofy Marvin’s on the screen (this dog is a true supporting actor). But no matter how much Paterson’s life looks like sunshine and roses, Jarmusch is grounded in reality. An unexpected conflict interrupts the rhythm to keep things in focus, and how Paterson copes adds to the film’s lyricism.

Best movie about crooning animals

Talking animals in animated movies is nothing new, so as the title suggests, expect these critters to do some singing.

Opening just before Christmas Day, “Sing” could very well take place in the same world as Disney’s “Zootopia,” except that British writer/director Garth Jennings (“Son of Rambow”) gives the humor in this comedy a very different sensibility. It looks and feels different even from Illumination Entertainment’s other movies like “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”

Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, the koala bear owner of a failing theater who needs to find a way to save it. He gets the brainstorm to hold an “American Idol” style singing competition. Due to a clerical error, the supposed $1,000 prize turns into $100,000, which gets the Moon Theater swarmed with suitable (and far less suitable) candidates entering Buster’s contest.

Rosita is a pig, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, and a housewife who has to care for 25 piglets while her husband brings home the bacon. Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant, has a beautiful voice, but is too shy to perform for others. Then there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton from “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), a gorilla with a soulful voice whose father wants him to take part in the family crime business, and porcupine punk rocker Ash (Scarlett Johansson), who ends up breaking up with her boyfriend and going solo in the competition. Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) voices Mike the mouse, an old-fashioned crooner who just wants the money so he can live the high life.

It’s how these creatures from different walks of life interact while being “trained” by Buster that makes the film so strange and funny. Lots of visual humor coming from Buster’s one-eyed lizard assistant Miss Crawley (voiced by Jennings) and Rosita’s exploits with her eclectic dance partner Gunter (Nick Kroll).

Liam Neeson branch out as a tree

Liam Neeson gives voice to a giant walking tree monster in “A Monster Calls,” an emotional and dark fairy tale from Spanish filmmaker Juan Bayona (“The Impossible”).

Adapted by Patrick Ness from his book based on an idea by his late author friend Siobhan Dowd, it’s the story of a young boy named Conor O’Malley, who is having a tough time. Plagued by nightmares, he’s being bullied in school and his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, which forces Conor to move in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who has very strict rules that just make things tougher for the lad. One night at exactly 12:07 AM, the giant tree that overlooks a distant church cemetery comes to life and offers Conor three stories in exchange for one of his own. Conor is not easily convinced, and understandably has other things on his mind.

If you were disappointed by Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” then “A Monster Calls” covers similar ground in a way far less targeted towards children. It has a similar storybook feel with each of the tree’s fairy tale stories illustrated by gorgeously vivid animation, as they’re told in Neeson’s gruff voice.

Despite the child protagonist and fantasy elements, “A Monster Calls” is a darker fairy tale clearly not meant for kids as much as it is meant to allow adults to experience trauma through a child’s point of view.

Lewis MacDougall is a decent young actor and another great find by Bayona, but if you’re one of those people who can’t sit through movies with a child protagonist front and center, it might be a tough watch. Conor makes for quite an underdog hero, and if you’ve ever had any sort of destructive tendencies, you’ll cheer for this angry young man as he trashes his compulsive grandmother’s prize drawing room. That bully gets what’s coming to him, too.

Even more impressive is Felicity Jones’ performance as Conor’s “Mum” with the make-up department doing a fantastic job making her appear as if she’s literally withering away.

The CG in creating the Neeson-voiced monster is equally impressive, as is the scale of Conor’s recurring nightmare, and each time the walking tree appears in Conor’s life, Bayona finds an interesting way to integrate the live action with CG. (Let’s just say that a certain “Jurassic” franchise is in good hands.)

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris on movie reviews

I don’t do spoilers. But “Passengers” spoils itself.

An expensive sci-fi romance, the movie stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as civilian space travelers. Off to help colonize a new world, they wake up accidentally, 90 years early, with only each other for company.

That’s the way the trailers sell it, anyway.

The facts of their wake-up calls, though, are a little different. Actually, a lot different. And when they’re revealed, half an hour in or so, they change everything, especially how we feel about one of the characters.

“Passengers” has been made with a great deal of care. Its shiny spaceship has an interesting shape — all half-circles and tubes. Its interior design mimics a gigantic cruise-ship’s — small cabins, theme restaurants, a shopping mall.

With such a limited cast, charisma is important — and present. Pratt draws on all his regular-bro charm. Lawrence invests a thinly written character with a lot of her own passion and anger and pain.

“Passengers” is also part of a good trend — a sci-fi movie about being smart. Like “Arrival,” “The Martian” and “Interstellar, it’s a story that sets up a problem — and then gets its drama out of people solving it. There isn’t a murderous alien or raygun in the whole thing.

But then there’s the movie’s own problem — the ugliness of that early, ill-advised twist.