Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Live by Night and A Monster Calls

Despite a momentous start to his directing career, one that includes a Best Picture Oscar win for Argo, Ben Affleck's latest film hasn't even made it into the awards season discussion. His new endeavor, Live by Night, a gangster flick predominantly set during the Prohibition Era in Florida, represents a bitter free-fall for the previously unscathed filmmaker. Affleck offers nothing new to the genre and any hope that another adaptation from Dennis Lehane - who also penned the source material for Affleck's phenomenal 2007 debut, Gone Baby Gone - would be a reason for optimism, quickly falls by the wayside during the film's forgettable first act.

After a hidden romance with an Irish Mob boss' mistress (Sienna Miller) nearly end his life, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns and sells his soul the rival Italian Mob in order to exact revenge on his nemesis. Joe ventures to Florida during Prohibition where he monopolizes the Rum industry and falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a woman whose inside connections help build the empire. But as Prohibition becomes repealed, Joe's mismanagement of his supreme position makes him a vulnerable man in a dangerous industry.

Live by Night suffers immensely by writer, director and star, Ben Affleck's, arrogance and misguided vision. It's obvious that Affleck desires to deliver an ambitious gangster film reminiscent of classics such as The Godfather and White Heat. However, a bloated story continually introduces a wide assortment of characters without ever fully developing them. Therefore, once these flimsy characters meet their demise, empathy is never appropriately earned. Affleck's screenplay is riddled with flaws, but it still doesn't feel quite as problematic as the director's unforgivable decision to cast himself in the lead role. Either Affleck's perception of Joe Coughlin is remarkably off, or he isn't quite talented enough to pull-off the necessary performance. Whichever way you dissect it, the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. On the other hand, there are a few select moments of captured creativity and originality, yet they're swallowed-whole by an assortment of mightily flawed approaches. Notable supporting turns are offered by Chris Messina, who play's Joe's right hand man, and Zoe Saldana. But by the time the credits finally role - which follow a dull attempt at an emotionally-charged conclusion, Live by Night reveals itself as a sad and rapid decline for a once unblemished filmmaker.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Having given us one of the decades finest films in 2012's The Impossible, it's no exaggeration claiming J.A. Bayona as one of Hollywood's most overlooked filmmakers. Bayona returns in 2016 with the late-year release, A Monster Calls, a touching examination of the grieving process that's gone completely unnoticed during the awards season frenzy. But no matter how often and for how long the Globes and Oscars continue to ignore this man's exceptional work, Bayona continues to represent a unique voice within the industry.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor, a lonely boy struggling to come to grips with the painful reality of his mother's (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. One night at 12:07pm, the imaginative boy is visited by an enormous tree monster (voice of Liam Neeson) who promises to return on three separate occasions to tell him three different stories. These visits and their messages serve as metaphors to Conor's real-world experiences and help him confront the issues within his own life.

Visually masterful and superbly acted, A Monster Calls stands as another successful dramatic adaption from J.A. Bayona. Youngster Lewis MacDougall does a commendable job of carrying his first feature film, thanks in large part to a wide collection of supporting performances. Yet, it's the always brilliant Felicity Jones who commands the spotlight with her soulful turn as Conor's ill-stricken mother. Her omission from the awards season discussion in the Best Supporting Actress race is simply unfathomable, mainly because her quality of work refuses to go unnoticed. Structurally, there are a few contrived subplots sprinkled throughout the story, some of which unfold more effectively than others, but Bayona overcomes these flaws with sensational direction and eye-popping special effects. A Monster Calls isn't an upper echelon entry like the filmmaker's previous masterpiece, yet a clever and emotional finale allow the movie to stand as another formidable effort from an impressive filmmaker.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

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