Live By Night – a review

I misread the dress code...

I misread the dress code on the invite, OK…

The title of Ben Affleck‘s new gangster epic has about as much to do with the plot of the film as his character’s narrative arc has to do with a banana. Nothing. Live By Night is very good-looking, well dressed but clearly overrated. A bit like Affleck himself, unfortunately, as he gets lost swanning around in dozens of exquisitely contemporaneous costumes and forgets to, you know, actually tell a story.

The production design, cinematography and, in particular, the script are all really quite good, testament to Affleck as a writer, but perhaps he falls foul of the curse of biting off more than you can chew. Wearing the hats (Oh, he loves wearing hats in this movie) of writer, director AND lead actor is a tall order, even for someone as talented and experienced as he is, and maybe one too many as there is just something lacking here.

An excellent cast, including an always-full-of-scene-stealing-charisma Brendan Gleeson, veteran pathos from Chris Cooper, sustainable sass from Sienna Miller, New York chomping grit from Chris Messina, an underused balance of delicacy and unhinged fervour by Elle Fanning and a siren-like love interest from Zoe Saldana, can do nothing to elevate this supposedly ‘epic’ picture from the realm of valiant but failed attempt.

It’s a well enough put together film, like a decently complex jigsaw that’s finished with all the right pieces in place but the picture that it forms isn’t all that impressive considering all the work that went into making it. The feeling that Affleck was just having too much fun dressing up, playing gangsters, getting all the girls and forgot to act cannot be escaped. His character, despite attempts to set him up as a First World War veteran recovering from the horrors of battle and determined never to follow orders to kill again are blown out of the water when he starts working for a mob boss and killing people. To say his character and subsequently the film upon which it is based is garbled is to do a disservice to any honest hard-working garbler. This is simply just a narrative mess.

The various genre tropes that are carted out – non-linear storytelling, the rise and fall/rags to riches trajectory – all end up tasting stale and well past their sell-by-dates. Morally a more ambiguous, nay ambivalent, character you may never find. That and the considerable violence on display just feels gratuitous. There’s no reason for him to do any of what he does, other than selfish gain. In order for that to work you need to actually care about your protagonist but how can you be expected to care what happens to someone when they don’t seem to care about anything themselves?

If Argo was overrated, at least it was still a pretty compelling film. This suffers all the damage of the former without any waft of the latter. Maybe there wasn’t space for another take on the gangster epic, maybe it missed its window by a few years or maybe this just ain’t it. In any case, they say you can’t polish a turd, well, this one is quite shiny.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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A Monster Calls – a review

have you farted...?

have you farted…?

Director J.A. Bayona (best known for 2007’s The Orphanage) teams up with his long-time cinematographer and collaborator, Oscar Faura, to conjure a stunning and, if somewhat sentimental, moving Gothic fairy-tale in his latest offering, A Monster Calls.

lt has a lot going for it; a very strong cast, highly ornate and convincing special effects and a well written and intelligently crafted story. The latter owing to the work of author Patrick Ness, who penned the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name.

Sharing the production designer from Guillermo Del Toro‘s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as some of the team behind the special effects from that film, then although comparisons can and will be drawn between the two films, then the technical aesthetic that they share is largely where such comparison should begin and end. A Monster Calls is thematically similar, in that both films compose the coming-of-age story of a child seeking guidance from a somewhat frightening preternatural creature that emerges from nature (in Pan’s Labyrinth it’s a fawn, here a giant yew tree), but tonally the two are leagues apart.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, who is struggling with the reality of his single-mother’s terminal illness. And it’s a break-out role for the youngster, showing an admirable, albeit limited by his years, range in leading such a big movie whilst maintaining the essential vulnerability of youth that makes his performance so affective.

Felicity Jones, although limited on screen time, gives a warmth and reality to her situation albeit from the slightly idealised perspective of her adoring son. Apart from one moment when she says she’s ‘angry too’, you wouldn’t know it, as Jones is delicate and motherly, almost in a saintly way, rendering her unable to show the process she must be going through as her illness overtakes the efforts for treatment. Anyway, the film is crafted from Conor’s perspective, the journey, the rage, the sorrow, the self-discovery, the view of his mother, are all his and so ours too.

The bullies at school, the over-bearing ogre of a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the ever-absent father (Toby Kebbell) are all sub-plots that merely add tapestry to the core design. That of this young boy turning to his imagination to escape the harsh realities presented by his life. That imagination takes form in a giant yew tree, voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson, that comes to life and challenges him with stories from times gone by in a not-too-thinly veiled mechanism to subconsciously process his grief and turmoil.

Apart from Conor, the characters are largely vignettes and, yes, Weaver’s accent is a little dodgy, Jones a touch too ethereal, Kebbell restricted to charming failure, but they are extremely well-crafted ones and serve their purpose perfectly. Visually, it’s a tour de force with the watercolour realisations of the tree’s mythical tales beautifully complementing the darker world that Conor finds himself trapped in.

Technically, it’s a spectacle. Brilliantly helmed and with a stellar cast, A Monster Calls is a thoroughly enjoyable and moving tale.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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La La Land – a review

let's dance...

let’s dance…

A Technicolour melange of fantastical dreamlike musicality, Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land is a gorgeous, potent and moving love song to a bygone age of golden Hollywood movie-making magic and to the potential and power of human love. It will sing and dance its way into your heart before gently breaking it in a kaleidoscope of stunning imagery and foot-tapping choreography.

Electric chemistry between the two leads and a bittersweet romance swirl together to make Chazelle’s second feature just as awe inspiring as his first (Whiplash), albeit they couldn’t be further apart in style. His debut was all restrained intensity and immaculately tight editing to emphasise the obsession of its protagonist. La La Land is as creatively bold and expansive as they come, giving form to the stratospheric highs and soul-crushing lows of romantic entanglement, launching Chazelle’s vision literally into the stars. And it’s the film’s stars who make that vision sparkle.

Ryan Gosling has long now been one of Hollywood’s leading men, combining his sex symbol status with an, often overly, understated pathos. Recently he’s taken on roles with a more comedic bent and here we get to enjoy the fruits of that process, he rails wonderfully between hapless hero and stone-cold screen icon. If Gosling is a star then Emma Stone is a burning supernova. She simply dazzles. In the dance routines both are a joy to watch but it’s Stone who steals the show, as your eyes play ping-pong between the two you’ll find yours wanting to settle on her. And her audition scene will halt your breath.

Whilst Whiplash won Oscars for editing and sound mixing, along with supporting actor, expect La La Land to pretty well clean up this year, having already broken the record for most wins at the Golden Globes and no doubt BAFTA following suit. It’s the kind of film the industry love because it’s about, well, the industry.

A uniquely realised achievement, appealing to almost every demographic out there without compromising its quality or content in any way, maybe La La Land can go to the top of that category of films that are actually good, dare it be said, original, and make a lot of money too.

Quite simply, GO AND SEE IT. And then go again.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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