Thursday, 8 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel


Daphne du Maurier’s bleak novel, My Cousin Rachel, receives only its second cinematic adaptation since its 1951 publication, this 2017 retread serving as a long overdue update of a particularly enigmatic work. 

Directed by the ever reliable Roger Michell, the film features a stylish cast, elegant photography and an atmosphere of mystery that goes some way to making this a genuinely affecting slice of period noir. A week after Wonder Woman's noisy release, My Cousin Rachel is a fable of female power anchored firmly within themes of erotic desire and deep-seated male fear of the fairer gender.  

Set in the environs of coastal Cornwall, this centres not on its title character (Rachel Weisz) but on Sam Claflin's Philip Ashley, vigorous young master of a stately manor and orphaned ward of his beloved cousin, Ambrose (also Claflin).

When Ambrose dies during his convalescence in Florence, his widow, Rachel, ends up at Philip's door, beautiful, ghostly and entirely inscrutable. Given that in the cousins' correspondence Ambrose cast doubts on Rachel's intentions towards him, Philip is convinced that she hastened his death, a stance that soon softens when the grieving wife bewitches him.

The question of whether or not Rachel is a murderess
 – "Did she? Didn't she?" – comes and goes with Philip's mood, initially smitten, then possessive and, finally, again, suspicious. It drives the narrative, never far from the surface, Rachel's unknowable motivations always seeming to sit awkwardly with Philip's fumbling, entitled attempts to secure domestic bliss. 


At the core of the tale, Weisz inhabits her role with aplomb. Undoubtedly the most complex character on show, Rachel's primary countenance is one of refinement. She is delicate and grounded, funny and undemanding, yet Weisz manages to convey an instability beneath it all, a sense of oddball unpredictability. Her endgame constitutes an ambiguous strand and it is to the credit of both Michell and his leading lady that this should feel so unsettling. As Rachel cheerily concocts continental tisanes, viewed by the locals with barely contained bafflement, hints of danger nibble at the outer edge of this story. 

Claflin, on the other hand, fares less well. He carries off the haughty heir with minimal effort but misses in adding the layers necessary to compete with Weisz's enchantress. In painting Philip as the sort of breech-sporting youth unused to even the mere presence of women, Claflin comes off as smug, almost petulant. Where callowness is required, stupidity is the prevailing mood as he makes moves to sign over his fortune to a stranger. 

As far as the supporting cast is concerned, proceedings are consistently garlanded by the always excellent Iain Glen. He offers refinement and loyalty as Philip's wealthy godfather-cum-guardian, at first charmed, then watchful and perturbed by the developing situation. 
Simon Russell Beale, meanwhile, is wonderfully restrained in the role of the family solicitor, undemonstrative but upright, whose language ("That's my job, to stickle.") delights. Holliday Grainger, too, stands out, alongside Weisz, as Philip's would-be paramour. Her calm wisdom is at odds with his puppy-like devotion to the new lodger, though, refreshingly, neither woman is pitched as a rival of the other. 

If there exists a major sticking point, then it is in tone and setting. From Rebecca to the unerringly creepy Jamaica Inn, du Maurier's stories are grey and forbidding  hers is an oeuvre thick with ambience. It is puzzling, therefore, that Michell chooses to trade in those tropes for the rural idyll of Thomas Hardy. Instead of crashing waves and isolated moors, verdant pastures and forests ripe with bluebells flood the screen. Gorgeous as they are, such elements undermine the kernel of darkness so inherent to the du Maurier résumé.

More is the pity, for My Cousin Rachel is, on the surface, an accomplished picture. With a script delivering intense, occasionally earthy dialogue and no little style, Michell's film would have excelled if it had only focused on the tenets that made the source material soar. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Wonder Woman


As a competing counterweight to Marvel's limitless deluge of multi-platformed superhero derring-do, comic house DC's Extended Universe (an exercise in aping its rival's targeted, overarching mythology) has not fared well since birth.

Suicide Squad was a disaster and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice barely felt much better. Man of Steel, released in 2013, granted Superman new life, but, for all its style and grit, audiences were uninspired by a film that descended into convention. 

Interestingly, then, the latest step in the DC campaign arrives in a much more elegant form. Wonder Woman might seem like a campy antidote to the muscular glowering of all that has gone before, but, under the guidance of Monster director Patty Jenkins, this period tale occasionally succeeds where its predecessors have largely failed.

This is not Wonder Woman's first blockbuster appearance, of course. A major name in DC's stable, she appeared in Dawn of Justice and will fill out the cast of the upcoming Justice League, a riposte to the Avengers franchise – a signal that, regardless of the missteps, this is a movement in it for the long haul. By hiring a female director with indie sensibilities, however, mother studio Warner Bros has embraced a fresh approach, one that pays off more than it fails.

The set-up is vintage comic book lore. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the Amazon princess and scion of Olympus who spends her days on the mythical Themyscira, training under the watchful eye of her warrior aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), and learning the details of her heritage at the knee of Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), her mother.  

When an American pilot, Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, crash lands on the tropical paradise, Diana is quickly drawn into the Great War due to her belief that the Amazons' mortal enemy, bellicose god Ares, is behind the chaos. 



In the central role, Gadot is a believable demi-god-cum-moral-crusader. Jenkins places much of the movie's hefty action on her shoulders, a choice that proves wise given the leading lady's charisma. As with the other denizens of the all-female Themyscira, Diana exudes power and athleticism. Such is her presence that when the impressive action beats arrive, her skill in battle comes as no surprise. 

Gadot also possesses a sly funny streak. Her earnestness remains a gag throughout and the flirty interplay with Pine – reining in, though not abandoning, his engaging Captain Kirk shtick to good effect – serves as a major asset. Traditional roles are subverted by Diana being the stoic hero, Steve the smitten sidekick. Even Gadot's looks are mined for mirth, her exquisite beauty acting as a genuinely amusing object of fascination and distraction in grim wartime London.

When Diana is on screen, Wonder Woman is a satisfying, big-budget, unplug-your-brain blockbuster that recovers some of the mojo DC has lost over recent years. One central sequence sees her assault enemy lines on the Western Front, battering through hapless opponents, swatting away hails of bullets. Shot through with smoke, dirt and chaos, it is undoubtedly the film's most exhilarating set piece and as she reduces a church to smithereens, Diana is less the glamorous siren than a devastating weapon of war. 

Her dialogue is unlikely to bother the Academy but Gadot enjoys enough good material to imbue her character with steel-cored belief in right and wrong. When her naive beliefs about the nature of man start to fall away, Diana's sadness is clear. Just as welcome is her intolerance of patriarchy and the amusing fish-out-of-water experiences that fuel the early going are mostly centred on the tensions between Diana and the strictures of the era.

Wonder Woman's faults claw back a great deal of the progress, unfortunately. Those elements outside the Diana-Steve dynamic are dull at best. Two exposition-heavy sections, at the beginning and at the end, smack of laziness, even if the first is set against the backdrop of a stunningly visualised rendering of the Amazons' mythological roots. Danny Huston, meanwhile, careens around as a devilish German general trapped in the wrong conflict and hopped up on vials of blue magic. His dastardly plans have something to do with poisoned gas and his accomplice, Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), is little more than a cartoon goblin. 

A band of supporting players, including Ewen Bremner as a shot-shy Scottish sniper, verge on irritating, the weak attempts at backstories ringing very hollow indeed. Just as trying is the rubbery CGI-enhanced slo-mo that Jenkins insists on deploying every time fisticuffs are called for. Initially striking, the method is still flying around the screen by the time the bombastic finale arrives. That ending, ripped straight from almost every superhero chronicle of the last decade, feels generic, in spite of the moments of intimate emotional resonance poking through. 

That said, there exists sufficient quality here to save this latest DC offering from ignominy. Themes of female empowerment abound, of course, but they are as genuine as they are timely, more than a mere nod to the liberal-minded. Comic book adaptations lost their freshness many years ago, but Jenkins has made a sound fist of forging something new.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant


When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien mythology in 2012, he came armed with Prometheus, a beautiful, bold and often bewildering sci-fi blockbuster that felt far removed from the chapter that launched a wildly successful franchise. Alien was a trend-setter, of course, magnificent in its own lean and menacing way; Prometheus posed bigger questions, expensively assembled and wondrous to look at. 

Scott and his team were initially coy about the relationship between Prometheus and the wider canon, referring to shared DNA and obvious overlaps. Once the film opened, however, those doubts were cast aside. Prometheus may have trained its focus on other aspects of that universe – namely the mysterious Engineers and their part in the creation of both humankind and the iconic xenomorphs – but its ultimate trajectory was clear. 

There can be no pretence now. Alien: Covenant is every inch a descendant of its forebear. Yes, it is in effect a sequel to Prometheus, boasting the big-world milieu and direct timeline, but a grimy sense of dread, the weathered cosiness of its central crew and the spectre of that titular killer all appear strikingly familiar. Some of the series' enviable tension may well be lost in the opening up of time and place, but it nevertheless satisfies in scope and ambition.

It begins not with the standard motif of space explorers hurtling through the vastness of the cosmos (that will come later) but the sort of exquisite futuristic minimalism that underscored much of the Prometheus aesthetic. Flashing back to a day long before those of that picture, Michael Fassbender's watchful, quietly subversive android, David, fresh and still pliant, conjures Wagner on a piano in a blanched salon and discusses the meaning of existence with sire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the industrialist whose presence hovers in the background of the entire Alien landscape.

Cutting from there to the confines of the Covenant  a starship (featuring Alien's onboard computer, Mother) transporting over 3000 hyper-sleeping souls and human embryos, along with the team of spouses responsible for its passage, to the virgin colony of Origae-6 – Scott anchors his narrative in recognisable surroundings. 

When a random energy surge damages the ship, its awakened crew, which includes Walter, an updated model of David, must make repairs. In doing so, a faint communication is detected, the broken strains of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads drawing the Covenant to a nearby planet.

As he did with Prometheus, Scott introduces a desolate and Earth-like destination, all mighty valleys and mountain lakes, where obvious danger lurks from the moment the visitors touch down. He finds new ways to play on the icky fears that have always marked these films: infection, infestation, penetration, purging. Malevolent spores quickly invade ears and nasal canals; gestating fiends tear out of torsos and vomit from mouths with equal swiftness. As a means of revisiting the more recognisable aspects of the mythos, the director succeeds. Indeed, at its best, the franchise weaves a fabric comprising arresting savagery and an atmosphere of nightmarish terror. Early on, such a mix is never lacking. 



A middle section is slightly less assured, yet cannot be wholly faulted for crafting a grander tale. David resurfaces, his previous chronological contribution being alongside Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the end of Prometheus. Last seen shooting off for the homeworld of the Engineers, the pair reached their destination, though Covenant's weighty screenplay (penned by John Logan and Dante Harper) leaves a number of questions hanging, even as it explains the events between the two movies, as well as the genesis of the ravenous xenomorphs. 

In its latter stages, Covenant is surefooted enough to combine classic tropes (the alien bursting from its terrible womb; the adult form hunting in scarlet-lit corridors) and updated elements (one sequence involving a flying cargo lift is impressive, as is the scale of the Engineers' ghostly metropolis). The creature itself feels refreshed also, a sleek CG-rendered update on the shadow-cloaked original, complete with a point-of-view framing device straight from the mind of the beast. Where animatronics and men in suits once seemed to stunt the visualisation of the alien's full physical capabilities – though the same cannot be said of its terrifying impact – this present iteration is a thrilling, marauding apex predator.

As far as its prey is concerned, the cast offers a mixed bag. In the role of terraformer Daniels, Katherine Waterston excels in conveying a woman who is much more than Ripley lite. Carrying a heavy burden, she is the voice of caution in a leadership pairing with Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a devotee of religion who confuses risk and faith. While the price he pays for switching destinations is steep, the resonance of his fate fails to land. 

He and his fellow travellers are largely drawn in broad strokes, with only Danny McBride's wisecracking pilot, Tennessee, escaping those limitations. McBride is more familiar to audiences as the boorish alpha idiot in any number of modern comedies but he turns in a layered performance here and places a lid on his goofy sensibilities. It is a display that should not be ignored. 

The show, however, ultimately belongs to Fassbender. David retains his ability to unsettle and it is a testament to Fassbender's ability as an actor that he can paint in so contrasting a fashion two characters sporting identical physical traits. David, fixating on creation and fond of quoting Byron, exhibits a human-like personality replete with curiosity but lacking even a hint of empathy. Walter is a gentler article, a straight shooter whose fondness for Daniels could be mistaken for love in any other context. Beautiful moments flickering between them throughout are distilled in the dying moments and put to darker use, arguably the most profound emotional moment in a film that does not shy away from the ties that bind.  

If there is an obvious flaw it is that Covenant opts for contemplation over hallmark ferocity. The onslaughts that characterised Alien and Aliens never arrive, shoved aside to placate Scott's desire for world building. That which emerges is worthy of a place in the pantheon, no doubt, but opportunities for greatness will need to wait for the scheduled next instalment. 






Friday, 10 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island


It is now 12 years since Peter Jackson stepped away from The Lord of the Rings to release King Kong, his respectful and suitably epic remake of RKO's 1933 classic. The film garnered positive critical reactions and an enormous box office take. While often overlooked on the Kiwi's résumé, given his various Oscar-winning forays into Middle Earth, King Kong was an accomplishment worthy of its acclaim. 


In 2017, Kong has returned. Kong: Skull Island is the second instalment in Legendary's 'MonsterVerse' series, the first being 2014's Godzilla. The duo will eventually meet in a cinematic donnybrook likely to send fictional insurance premiums spiking, but for the moment, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has deployed the giant ape in a middling blockbuster that constitutes a spectacle as breathtaking as it is ultimately vacuous.


As with Godzilla, Kong's latest outing offers a cacophonous CGI blitzkrieg anchored firmly in the no-expense-spared brand of modern studio wisdom. Fleetingly entertaining, Vogt-Roberts's mainstream debut fails to match its pulpy source material. Instead it sputters, cursed by tonal inconsistencies, anaemic plotting and a stellar cast fed on crumbs.


A product of Hollywood's golden age, Kong has now been relocated to the early seventies and the fading embers of the Vietnam conflict. Monster chaser William Randa (John Goodman) receives government approval to explore an uncharted South Pacific outcrop and enlists the help of Samuel L. Jackson's Preston Packer, an embittered cavalry badass whose band of elite chopper jockeys are loyal enough to follow their leader into obvious danger.


Also on the expedition: golden girl photojournalist Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson, stretching herself by brandishing a camera throughout) and urbane, elegant and briefly jaded SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddlestone, playing Tom Hiddlestone). No longer trudging through Vietnamese jungles on the QT for the Regiment, Conrad is now a mercenary and comes on board Randa's ramble as its tracker.


Initial scenes establish the usual clichés, few of which fit together: the disillusioned cynic (Conrad); the crusading reporter (Weaver); the believer seeking to heal his reputation (Randa); the hardened, haunted warrior (Packer); his band of wise-cracking, standard-issue grunts, few of whom appear particularly perturbed by the horrors of war in Asia.


As an event movie, few will best Skull Island for visual grandeur. It boasts lazy summer hues and golden sunsets. Cinematographer Larry Fong, responsible for the gorgeous aesthetics of 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen, paints the titular landmass as a tropical paradise, a rich, verdant idyll beyond the borders of man's knowledge. 


One early standout sequence features Packer's squad plunging their Hueys through the roiling blackness of a thunderstorm. Later, Kong's great reveal, a savage meeting of kaiju and machine, will dazzle, his mighty frame (large enough to withstand Godzilla) drawing upwards against against a shimmering sunset.


Throughout these moments, laced with a wild kineticism, the excitement is undeniable. Vogt-Roberts has eschewed the usual building-destroying, skyscraper-scaling landmarks of this genre, introducing, instead, a cool retro vibe and a soundtrack to match. 




The narrative thrust, however, singularly fails to match the glitz and sheen. This is a picture that desperately wants to come at Kong from a different angle, yet is plagued by a coterie of players each as hollow as the next. A limited plot sees Conrad, Weaver, et al racing to escape the island's perils, but such is the dullness of the characters that their fates never illicit sympathy. Hiddlestone is a spare wheel, his swift transformation from money-seeking, cold-eyed Sandhurst cut-out to a barely plausible hero being propped up by a tight shirt, the ability to remain posh under pressure and one ridiculous motif involving a gas mask and a samurai sword. 


Elsewhere, Larson is little more than a spikier version of the damsel required for any King Kong film. Hers is a meaningless presence. Samuel L. Jackson, too, is a conundrum. Spewing Pulp Fiction-like verse as he rides his war machine into hell's eye, this is a man for whom warfare equals life. That the genesis of this rage remains murky 
— though it is hinted at, clumsily, throughout — seems rather typical of the overall attitude to storytelling.

Only John C. Reilly emerges unscathed. He balances crazed, eccentric and avuncular with a glint in his eye, gladly embracing his role as the jester of the piece and hitting the comedy beats otherwise missed by his co-stars. Introduced in the opening moments during a brilliant prologue, Reilly's Hank Marlow is undoubtedly the most rounded person on screen. 


But what of the King himself? On the one hand, Kong is magnificent. Played, via motion capture, by Toby Kebbell (who also appears in a truly pointless role), he is imbued with a scale and power that feels impressive, conveying menace in the defence of his own patch and a singular purpose in simply wishing to exist. There are delicate moments (his nighttime gazing at the southern lights is quite at odds with the prevailing bombast) as well as points of awesome power. 


Unfortunately, in spite of a potentially interesting history and relationship with the silent natives, Kong is rendered a mystery, his brutality the main defining characteristic. Peter Jackson's primate, presented with little backstory, lacked the scale of this new version but it was an infinitely more soulful, nuanced beast. 


Kong's nemeses are the 'skull crawlers', a gang of apex predator lizards who come and go without context or motivation (a strange anomaly given their obvious villainy). A final face-off is expensively assembled, but cannot escape the sense that this kind of third-act meeting has been done before, with superior results. 


Beautiful but bloated, undemanding but undernourished, Kong: Skull Island is a film asking little and delivering about as much in return. 








Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Patriots Day


The 2013 Boston marathon bombing forms the backdrop of Patriots Day, the third collaboration between the Lone Survivor-Deepwater Horizon duo of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. The director's latest big-budget, ground-level take on serious real-world events, Berg's preference for building the action around ordinary people forms the core of this sprawling, forensic thriller.

Few movie stars can pull off as convincing a baffled-everyman-facing-mighty-challenges act as Wahlberg and it serves him well, his plucky cop caught up in a savage act of terrorism and its immediate fallout. Portraying homicide detective Tommy Saunders – hobbled by a barely explained knee injury and in the dog house for an unspecified infraction – Wahlberg channels the admirable spirit of his native city, displaying with brio its grit and willingness to weather even the most towering of challenges. 


Berg's schtick is well established at this stage of his career and the obligatory mix of shaky, intimate camera work, blue-collar dialogue and calming post-rock melodies is in place almost from the beginning. This overlays the careful construction of the disparate circumstances leading to the detonation of two homemade bombs at the finish line of Boston's biggest annual community gathering.


With Saunders and his wife, Carol (an underused Michelle Monaghan), at its centre, Patriots Day's jigsaw comes together: the terrorist Tsarnaev siblings (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), sucking in radicalism amongst their domestic clutter; Jimmy Yang's jolly entrepreneur pursuing the tangible benefits of the American dream; veteran copper Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons turning in a elegantly understated performance) observing terror from the safety of his sleepy suburb; Jake Picking's MIT policeman courting the girl he's sworn to watch over.



Each strand – and there are more beyond – feels real, an honest depiction of non-fictional characters, each with hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is to Berg's credit, then, that when the fires come, and carnage descends, that we experience their pain and despair. Interestingly, the director does not linger on the actual bombings. From a technical standpoint, they are stunningly violently, yet, with a nod to the obvious reality that many wounds will remain raw, the explosions avoid coming off as a cheap spectacle.

In their immediate wake, Berg conveys the slick efficiency of American law enforcement. Alongside civic leaders, the FBI is instantly in control, headed up by Richard DesLauriers, played by Kevin Bacon, a rottweiler of an investigator as quick to fasten onto the minutiae of a crime scene as he is to address the toilet shortage in his makeshift HQ. With Wahlberg's shaken eyewitness serving as an expert on the lie of the land, the investigators pursue their quarry. 


A relentless pace, even in these procedural moments, holds the attention. As the Tsarnaevs are identified, traced and located, the narrative paints their own experiences over those days, stitched together from the testimonies that eventually brought the younger brother, Dzhokhar, to his current residence on death row. There is no shying away from the savagery of those actions and concluding gun fight on the streets of small-town America is terrifying in its intensity. That said, the obvious bond between the pair will test sympathies. 


Some of the film's more considered trappings succeed, some do not. The intermittent image of a state trooper standing watch over a dead child is beautifully understated, while at the other end of the scale Yang's sweary condemnation of the Tsarnaevs after they hijack his car is little more than a shot of gauche Americana.

As a chronicle of an attack that signalled to America the very real threat of domestic radicalisation, Patriots Day is stylish and worthy. It shouldn't be missed. 




Thursday, 16 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2


When co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch released John Wick, their debut feature, in 2014 fleeting initial impressions might not have been particularly hopeful. As expensive and hyperactive as it looked, revenge tales starring sullen loners do not scream originality. 

What a pleasant surprise, then, that John Wick  was so outstanding, a neon-drenched action fable both knowing and surprisingly fresh. With Keanu Reeves on form as the eponymous avenging angel – the kind of apex predator none of us should ever aspire to provoke – the picture thrilled critics and raked in enough at the box office to justify a sequel. 

That follow-up has now arrived in the form of John Wick: Chapter 2 (a spare title at odds with the mayhem that garlands much of the 122-minute running time). Stahelski, now alone at the helm, has fine tuned his original work and conjured a vision that feels like a heightened, refined version of its progenitor. The film is far from perfect, lacking John Wick's rage and scorching momentum, but the world is expanded, feeling significantly more dangerous.

It picks up where the first instalment left off. Having taken revenge on his former Russian mob employers for stealing his car and killing his dog, former-not-so-former hitman Wick infiltrates the bad guys' HQ and reclaims the purloined motor. As the fearful kingpin (a cameoing Peter Stormare) assures his underling, stories of Wick's capabilities have been watered down. 

Later, having re-settled into his peaceful domestic life for a matter of hours, Wick – the villains' boogeyman – is visited by Riccardo Scamarcio's elegant Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, the man who facilitated Wick's withdrawal from the underworld but now holds a promise to kill on instruction over his head. Wick, predictably, refuses, so D'Antonio torches his debtor's homestead. Realising he has no choice, Wick must hunt down D'Antonio's sister, a newly crowned member of the gangsters' 'high table'. That mission is complicated, however, when D'Antonio sends his mute, outrageously beautiful enforcer, Ares (Ruby Rose), to tie up the Keanu-shaped loose end. 



And so begins an inversion of Wick's previous tale. No longer the hunter but the prey, he is pursued through a bevvy of atmospheric locations by myriad assassins, all keen to cash in on the bounty. From the Roman catacombs to the New York subway, Wick must desperately fight off each new adversary. A series of hectic scenes depict him at his best. Punching, stabbing, shooting; he occasionally accomplishes all three in a single movement. 

His methods range from comic (he and Common's icy killer, Cassian, trade secretive silenced gunshots across a crowd concourse) to unbelievably brutal (never underestimate pencils again). He even seeks the aid of Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne – a rumpled beggar king – in the quest to cut off the head of a snake that stalks him. Boxed in by a house of mirrors, one late sequence involving automatic weapons and beards in sharp suits is beautiful as it is ruthless.

Like Reeves's other great thriller, Speed, Chapter 2's pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build a sense of Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane arbiter can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Live by Night


Ben Affleck returns to the work of Dennis Lehane by adapting Live By Night, one third of a period trilogy within the author's wider, masterful collection of flinty Boston-noir tomes that has given rise to the likes of Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. 


The latter was the basis of Affleck's directorial debut, setting the stage for two further efforts – both featuring himself in the lead role – with the Oscar-winning Argo and The Town, a terrifically muscular heist drama mining much from the Beantown milieu so familiar to fans of Lehane's work. 


A sleeker beast than The Given Day, its mammoth prequel, Live By Night centres on the adventures of Affleck's Boston outlaw Joe Coughlin (a child in the first novel). Coughlin is a relatively low-level thief – though he springs from an ostensibly respectable family and wears the sheen of a Catholic education – who, as is the way of these tales, falls in with the wrong girl (Sienna Miller) and then, of course, ends up on the bad side of her crime boss lover, Albert White (Robert Glenister).


Finding himself in prison, Coughlin vows revenge and upon his release entreats Remo Girone's mafia don, Maso Pescatore, to back him in his bid for retribution against White. Coughlin is swiftly dispatched to fortify Pescatore's rum operation in prohibition-era Florida, next to old stickup partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina on crackling form), and quickly establishes himself as a giant in the South's criminal underworld.




Or so he says. As passable as Live By Night is in many respects, the film makes the fatal decision to tell and not do. Affleck's flat Boston twang narrates events by way of exposition, overlaying significant periods of time that are barely explored or depicted solely via brief montages. In just over two hours, the director covers the better part of a decade; it feels like barely ten minutes. 

While the question of Coughlin's innate goodness constitutes a major strand of the narrative, the violence of his occupation – referenced in the occasionally earnest dialogue more than once  seems abstract. When it does flare up, such as during the closing hotel-set firefight, the savagery would appear almost casual and, strangely for a picture aiming itself firmly at the gangster genre's heart, out of place. It is almost as if Affleck has committed to making so lovely a piece of cinema (this is, undoubtedly, a beautifully rendered, assuredly acted film) that the darker elements have been neglected. 


Consequently, a host of themes end up competing for time: faith and family (personified by Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper's tortured zealots), race and prejudice, vengeance and murder, corruption and criminality. Each rears its head as the overarching message; all fail to emerge victorious. In concert, the effect is a somewhat untidy lack of focus. The movie could be compelling, though it is ultimately distracted by its own diverging ambitions. 


Affleck has not produced an utter disaster by any means and there are enough flourishes to impress – an early car chase involving roaring Model Ts and coppers wielding tommy guns registers as particularly excellent. His nod to the multi-ethnic composition of 1920s Tampa is also interesting and Coughlin's Celtic outsider is often cast as the exotic flower in the garden. 

Nevertheless, a finale that accomplishes the rare feat of rushing and crawling to its conclusion is clumsily handled, carrying the weariness of a party that really wants to end.