Saturday, December 24, 2016

“Live By Night”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Live By Night” starring Ben Affleck (who also wrote and directed). 


When a small-time thief joins forces with bootleggers during Prohibition, will he be able to survive when he finds he’s gotten in over his head?


During The Prohibition Era, Joe (Affleck) is trying to survive as a petty crook in his home town of Boston.  A veteran of World War I, he finds this an easier way to make a living than working for either the Italian or Irish mob as they battle each other in their respective bootlegging endeavors.  But Joe makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Albert White (Robert Glenister), the Irish mob boss; when White discovers Emma has been cheating on him, he gives Joe a severe beating, after which he brags that he’s going to kill Emma. 

Although Joe pulls through, he is now a changed man and wants to avenge Emma’s death.  To do this, he requests a job from Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the Italian mob boss, as a way to get back at White.  Pescatore informs Joe that White is now making inroads in Tampa by importing Cuban rum and selling it throughout Florida; as a result, Joe is dispatched to Tampa in order to divert the business from White to Pescatore.  Once this has been accomplished, he becomes aware of an opportunity where he and Pescatore can open a casino where they can both become wealthy.  Pescatore partners with Joe in this venture, but it turns out to be harder than it seems when Joe must battle the local KKK who insist on owning the casino outright. 

After defeating the Klan, Joe thinks he’s home free, but he soon learns of another obstacle in his way that may be more difficult to beat:  Loretta (Elle Fanning) is the daughter of the somewhat crooked local Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper).  Overcoming a troubled past, she becomes a popular evangelist who preaches against all types of sin and vices – including gambling.   With a large and growing enthusiastic following, Loretta denounces the new casino that Joe is trying to build and encourages the people of Tampa to speak out against it to prevent its opening.  When she succeeds, Pescatore is furious at Joe, who by now has taken up with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), the sister of the Cuban rum importer.  With Joe’s life now endangered, can he endure a confrontation with Pescatore’s men?  


In 2007, Ben Affleck directed the acclaimed film “Gone Baby Gone”, which was based on a Dennis Lehane novel.  Nearly a decade later and in desperate need of a hit since “Argo” in 2012, Affleck goes back to the well to adapt another Lehane novel.  This time, however, the results are considerably less stellar.  The main problem with “Live By Night” is the fact that story is rather murky – note that the screenplay is not called out specifically because the problem could be the source material itself (perhaps readers of the novel on which it is based can share some insight here). 

Although the movie is only about two hours in length, it feels longer in part because the forward momentum of the story is interrupted; this stop-and-start quality is due to taking so many detours (a luxury that novels have over films).  The other problem here is that it has what might be referred to as a “false ending”; just when you think the story has reached its resolution, it goes on considerably longer – as a result, with the audience psychologically believing that the motion picture has concluded, it’s actual ending feels interminable. 

Another area where novels differ from movies is with the number of characters involved.  In “Live By Night”, there are too many characters introduced whom you are given to understand are central to the plot, but in fact turn out to be rather secondary (perhaps less than that).  They are given too much weight – either in implied importance or screen time – and the viewer winds up feeling a bit misdirected.  Was this supposed to be Affleck’s attempt at a sprawling epic?  Instead of coming off like “The Godfather”, it feels more like a pale imitation of “Boardwalk Empire”. 

Live by Night (2016) on IMDb

Friday, December 23, 2016

“Fences”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Fences”, starring Denzel Washington (who also directed) and Viola Davis.


When a man’s disappointment in the outcome of his own life forces a wedge with his family, can their relationships be salvaged?


In 1950’s Pittsburgh, Troy (Washington) works as a garbage man to support his family – wife Rose (Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who returned from World War II mentally disabled.  Occasionally, he finds himself also supporting Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his adult – and illegitimate – son from a previous relationship.  While Troy yearns for a better life, he is simultaneously trapped in bitterness about his past; an athlete in his youth, he once played baseball in The Negro League.  Segregation in Major League Baseball at the time prevented him from playing on a team with the players famous nationwide where he could compete and show off his skills.  To this day, Troy still cannot shake off his anger about this. 

Cory shares both his father’s interest in sports and athleticism – he’s a star player on his high school football team.  Delighted to learn that a scout from a major college has been following his progress and wants to recruit him to play for the school’s team upon graduation, Cory believes he has a future in professional sports.  However, when Troy learns of this, he refuses to even meet with the scout, much less sign the necessary paperwork that will give Cory the permission to play college ball.  Instead, Troy encourages Cory to quit the football team and learn a trade so he can have sufficient skills to have a steady job. 

Troy and Rose are now experiencing a bit of a rough patch in their own relationship as well; it turns out that for quite some time now, Troy has been cheating on his wife – something which she wasn’t aware of until one day he is forced to admit to her that his long-time girlfriend is now pregnant and he is the father of the child.  Understandably, things grow increasingly distant between Troy and Rose during the pregnancy and when his girlfriend winds up dying in childbirth, Troy asks Rose to take care of the baby.  Reluctantly, she agrees, but things are now quite different between Rose and Troy.  With his family seemingly falling apart, can Troy do anything to somehow repair the relationship between himself and his wife and son?


Perhaps the movie “Fences” would be the perfect example of the term “Oscar Bait”; it is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play and boasts a killer cast of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (both of whom won Tony Awards for the play’s revival back in 2010).  Playwright August Wilson wrote the screen adaptation of his own play – and arguably, therein lies the problem.  Wilson wrote the screenplay before his death over a decade ago, but the film only got made now, likely because of the fact that Denzel Washington was attached to it as both star and director. 

Where Wilson’s screenplay collapses is that his so-called “adaptation” is nothing more than a copy and paste of his stage play script broken up by a few Interior and Exterior locations thrown in just for good measure.  Unfortunately, this puts the director (and star) Washington at something of a disadvantage because he is now forced to creatively envision visual methods in which to make this more filmic and his efforts frequently appear as forced.  Washington’s Troy is left giving monologue after monologue under the guise of relating tales (in fact, one character tells him, “You have more stories than the devil has sinners” – ain’t that the truth!). 

As far as the performances are concerned, the no-brainer casting of these powerhouse talents yield the expected results; both Washington and Davis have heavy lifting to do here – Washington with long stretches of dialog and Davis with visceral reactions to Washington’s deeds.  This begins to wear down the viewer when Washington as director must rely on close-ups (and many of them) in order to convey the emotional impact.  There is also action that occurs off-screen; between that and the florid dialog carried over from the stage play, one is again reminded that we are watching an adaptation.  While it seems sacrilegious to criticize a movie like “Fences”, it must be stated clearly that in this case, the Emperor wears no clothes.

Fences (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, December 15, 2016

“Julieta”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new drama “Julieta”, directed by Pedo Almodovar. 


When a widow is abruptly abandoned by her adult daughter, will she try to locate her after learning the daughter doesn’t want to be found?


Looking forward to leaving her Madrid apartment to live with her boyfriend in Portugal, Julieta must abruptly alter her plans when she discovers her estranged adult daughter Antía was in touch with a former childhood friend.  This new information releases a flood of memories for Julieta, who anxiously documents her past in a letter—which soon expands into more of a journal – that she wishes to somehow get into Antía’s hands at some point so her daughter will get her side of the story about their rift.   However, the more Julieta is forced to revisit her past, the deeper she sinks into depression. 

As a young substitute teacher, Julieta met Xoan, a fisherman, during a long train ride.  After their trip, they kept in touch, even though she knew he was married; following his wife’s death, Julieta visited Xoan to pursue their relationship, which results in the birth of their only child, Antía.  Over time, Julieta finds Ava, Xoan’s long-time friend, was having an affair with him while his wife was sick; Julieta worries that Ava and Xoan are continuing their trysts.  One summer while Antía is at camp, Julieta and Xoan argue over Ava; Julieta storms out while Xoan goes to work fishing.  By the time Julieta returns, a major storm moves in and Xoan has not come home; soon, the police inform her that Xoan’s fishing boat was caught in a squall and he perished. 

Upon returning from camp, Julieta breaks the news to Antía about her father; by now, Antía has formed a very close friendship with Bea, whom she met at camp – the two become increasingly inseparable as Antía deals with her loss.  As time moves on, Julieta falls into a deep depression and a now teenage Antía must care for her, with Bea’s help.  By the time Antía  becomes a legal adult, she decides to attend a religious retreat –but just as she is scheduled to return, the operator of the retreat informs Julieta that Antía is gone, leaving word only that the religious awakening she experienced at the retreat has caused her to take a new direction in life without any contact from Julieta.  But when Julieta then becomes obsessed with tracking down her only offspring, will the effort be fruitful or will she be consumed by this for the rest of her days? 


While “Julieta” could be characterized as a deeply moving story, it’s a little unclear whether it is life-affirming or simply depressing.  Part of the reason for that is the movie suffers from being severely melodramatic, to the point that a viewer might have to wonder how realistic some of these situations could truly be.  Sometimes, it feels like Iron Man might be more believable than a few of the events in “Julieta”, so extraordinary and overwrought are they.  All of this happening to one woman – or even a single family – is really fairly fantastic. 

Perhaps it is better left to experts like psychologists and sociologists to account for why some of the richest movies about women are frequently made by directors who happen to be gay men.  Certainly, Almodovar has a history of this and once again he seems to succeed in plumbing the depths of women’s emotions in “Julieta” – here, largely, grief and guilt.  He treats his subjects with respect, wonder and admiration but manages to avoid making the men in their life appear as nothing more than physically appealing cads.  Almodovar’s women are taken seriously – but in the case of “Julieta”, perhaps a little too seriously as they tend to come across as humorless. 

Almodovar’s latest is neither a complete fail nor an utter success; it lies somewhere in the middle.  Among the highlights are the visuals; the director seems to take extreme glee in framing shots cleverly.  The first shot looks like a red curtain, but we soon learn it is merely Julieta’s dress.  There is another scene where Julieta is rifling through a wastebasket she has put atop a table; the composition of the shot looks like the painting on the nearby wall – a large picture of a man’s face – may be either looking at Julieta frantically searching through the garbage or simply peering into the basket with her.  Possibly the best visual is that of nature itself; Almodovar has treated us with a couple of scenes in the mountainous Spanish countryside which are breathtaking.   

Julieta (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

“Collateral Beauty”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Collateral Beauty” starring Will Smith and Edward Norton.


When a successful advertising executive suffers a personal tragedy that also impacts his professional life, will it cause him to lose both his friends and his business?


As recently as three years ago, Howard (Smith) seemed to have it all.  A co-owner of a rising advertising agency, he saw a bright future for his partner Whit (Norton) and his executive team Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña).  But a year later, he lost his six year old daughter; devastated, he was unable to recover and has allowed his business to suffer as a result.  Two years after his daughter’s death, Howard is still mourning her; Whit and the executives are concerned about the solvency of their agency.

With Howard’s erratic behavior undermining the company, Whit hires a private detective to investigate him.  It turns out that Howard is conducting a somewhat unorthodox form of therapy by mailing letters to Love, Death and Time; the content of the letters basically condemns all three so he can express the pain he has been feeling.  This causes Whit to hatch a scheme:  since the only way to save the business is by selling it to another company, he must be able to prove to The Board Of Directors that majority-owner Howard is not of sound mind to sign-off on the deal. 

To assist him in this plan, Whit hires three actors:  Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore), each of whom will confront Howard as the three abstractions to which he wrote.  Brigitte will be Death, Amy portrays Love and Raffi is Time.  As they individually engage Howard and make an attempt to answer his letters, Whit orders the private investigator to make videos of these encounters, believing that when the videos are shown to the agency’s Board, it will be unequivocal proof that Howard is no longer of sound mind.  But will Whit be able to bring Howard to his senses and get him to sign the deal or will he be forced to show these embarrassing videos to their Board of Directors?


Those anxiously awaiting that perfect Christmastime dead baby movie, then “Collateral Beauty” may be the balm for your soul.  If, on the other hand, you seek something considerably less mawkish, then be advised to look elsewhere.  This is a film that is more heart than head and preys on those susceptible to spirituality, especially during the holiday season.  Others who tend to be more grounded in reality should probably take a pass.  Whatever messages it may have regarding life and parenting are sabotaged by a script that lays it on pretty thick and is considerably inelegant when it comes to exposition.

With any film, if you buy the premise, you’ll likely hang in there until the end.  “Collateral Beauty” has the self-induced problem of daring the audience to buy into its premise from the beginning.  At the outset, Howard is introduced as a people-person and yet years after his loss, tragic though it may be, he cannot get passed it and as a result negatively impacting the livelihood of those around him; he comes across as self-pitying and narcissistic because he cannot (or will not) pull himself together for the sake of his colleagues and employees. 

While the main plot focuses on Smith’s character, the movie is filled out with various subplots of Howard’s colleagues facing challenges of their own.  Norton’s character is desperately trying to repair a fractured relationship with his daughter following a divorce; career woman Winslet is mourning her decision not to have a family of her own; as Simon, Peña is concerned with his family’s welfare when he suspects he may be terminally ill.  Obviously, the theme that is supposed to resonate is that of family in whatever forms it may take.   Its overbearing sentimentality causes it to ring hollow.

Collateral Beauty (2016) on IMDb

Friday, December 09, 2016

“Office Christmas Party”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new comedy “Office Christmas Party”, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. 


When a corporate CEO decides to close the branch run by her brother, he decides to throw a Christmas Party to please a potential client – but will doing so save his job or serve to seal his fate?


With the impending holidays, the employees of Zenotek’s Chicago office are looking forward to their company’s modest party.  Unknown to them, though, this may be their farewell party.  After her father’s recent death, Carol (Aniston) has been named interim CEO and with the branch under-performing in revenue, she is going to close it, putting all of the employees out of work – including her own brother Clay (T.J. Miller), who is the branch manager.  This being the case, Carol orders the party cancelled, but Clay wants to hold it anyway to reward his workers. 

Given everyone’s jobs are in jeopardy, Clay gets an idea:  if he can land a big client, he can keep the branch open and everyone can remain employed.  Instead of cancelling the party, Clay decides to make it even more elaborate, including spending considerably to enhance the festivities with an excessive amount of alcohol.  Clay invites the prospective client to the party and things get out of hand when everyone gets drunk.  When they all have a good time, it seems that Clay may have won the new business – but when it turns out that this is not the case, he must face the consequences.    

This is where Josh (Batemen) steps up.  As the company’s Chief Technical Officer, he urges his Senior Software Architect Tracey (Olivia Munn) to resume working on her latest idea, which could save the branch.  As it turns out, Tracey is encountering challenges trying to finish her proof-of-concept in order to give a demonstration.  Meanwhile, when it is discovered that Clay is now broke because spent all of his own money on the party, Josh and Carol must set out to try to find him after he got drunk and disappeared.  But even if they can locate Clay, will Tracey be able to complete her project in time to ensure the future of the Chicago office?  


With such a great cast – and unsurprisingly, Kate McKinnon from “Saturday Night Live” gives the funniest performance – it would be understandable to have high hopes for “Office Christmas Party”.  Unfortunately, it’s a very uneven comedy; many of the jokes fail to deliver the impact they intend, mostly because they’re already quite familiar to us.  “Office Christmas Party” tries to combine the magic of “Horrible Bosses” and “The Hangover” and winds up being a pale imitation of the two.  If you make it through the entire film, the end credits contain outtakes.  Déjà vu?

Aside from McKinnon, there are other good comic performances including her SNL cohort Vanessa Bayer as a recently separated single mom looking for a new love at the office and Rob Corddry as an employee fed up with the company’s overbearing rules as enforced by the Human Resources department.  Aniston’s role is reminiscent of the aforementioned “Horrible Bosses” in that she is a downright unpleasant and soulless executive, but her Carol is far from the other movie’s nymphomaniacal dentist.  As Clay, T. J. Miller seems like a natural fit cast as the irresponsible younger brother of Carol.    

A rowdy, raunchy, raucous comedy can be quite the welcome relief during the sometimes stressful holiday season; it’s just too bad that “Office Christmas Party” is nowhere near as clever as it would like to believe it is.  The film winds up as rather routine fare with the exception of some entertaining moments.  If you’re not attending your own office holiday party this year – or even if you did and it didn’t turn out to be much fun – then maybe “Office Christmas Party” is worth a try.  It could cheer you up, assuming you’re not asking very much from the movie because we’ve seen it all before.   

Office Christmas Party (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

“The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a Sneak Preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new horror movie, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”, directed by André Øvredal and starring Brian Cox. 


When father and son coroners must perform an autopsy on a mysterious woman, will they be able to determine both the cause of her death and her identity?


The police in a small Virginia town have quite a bit on their hands:  recently, an entire family was massacred in their own home and there are few clues as to how it happened or who committed the crime.  Amid this gruesome tableau, their most interesting discovery is in the basement where they discover the nude body of a young woman buried in a shallow grave beneath the house.  Although she cannot be identified, they do know that she was not a member of the family that was murdered; members of that family have been known to locals for decades. 

That night, they deliver this young woman’s corpse – which is referred to as “Jane Doe” since she cannot be identified – to The Tilden Morgue and Crematorium, where Tommy (Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) serve as coroners.  They are instructed to perform an autopsy on the body and provide the authorities with as much information as possible first thing the next morning – even if they have to stay up all night in order to complete their examination.  The father and son immediately get to work and find unusual and deeply troubling information upon initial inspection.        

As the two delve more deeply into their work, things become rather suspicious and unnerving; the closer Tommy and Austin get to finding the truth, the more they are aware that their lives may be endangered.  When outrageous events unfold, it eventually becomes evident that this young woman’s corpse may not be entirely what they thought it was – that she may in fact still be alive somehow and trying to interfere with their autopsy.  Upon trying to escape from their underground offices, they find themselves trapped when the electricity goes out and their back-up generator isn’t powerful enough to move the elevator.  Without any way to flee, can they survive the various threats when under relentless attack by paranormal forces?  


At times, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” seems to cross genres being not only a horror story, but also a story about the supernatural as well.  In its biblical references to Leviticus 20:27 and allusions to The 17th Century Salem Witch Trials, it contains potentially subversive hints regarding the alleged worthiness of religious beliefs.  Just as the classic Arthur Miller play “The Crucible” is seen as an allegory to the rampant McCarthyism of the 1950’s, so may “Jane Doe” with its similar Witch Trials plot points be compared to the paranoia of today’s pervasive Islamophobia that partially helped to elect Donald Trump. 

But what “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” mostly appears to be about is forgiveness – specifically, forgiveness of family members who themselves may ultimately be forced to admit to their own imperfections.  Redemption, it seems to suggest, may only be possible once we recognize and acknowledge our human frailties.  Although Tommy and Austin seem to be close as father and son, there is an overriding feeling of tension between them; on some level, Austin blames his father for the suicide of his mother just two years ago.  Neither has yet gotten over her death, and just as Austin thinks his father is somewhat guilty of enabling it, so Tommy feels partially responsible as well.

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the two stars, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, and director André Øvredal.   Øvredal said that while actress Olwen Kelly played Jane Doe, a dummy was also used to substitute for her in certain scenes; he estimated that Kelly was before the camera 80% of the time while the dummy was in only about 20% of the shots.  Cox also marveled at Kelly’s performance throughout the shoot; while it may be true she didn’t have much dialog to memorize, he remarked she was able to perfect a shallow breathing technique so subtle it could not be picked up on camera.  Hirsch agreed that Kelly’s job was particularly difficult – not only was she nude all of the time, she had to lie still on a cold marble slab during most of her scenes.   

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) on IMDb