Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.

Passengers is sleek and polished on the surface but a muddled mess at its core

Passengers’ promising first act is let down by the avalanche of farce that proceeds it

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a boom lately, no doubt boosted by the power of new Star Wars movies and ever increasing ‘nerd culture.’ But sci-fi is often expensive, CGI heavy and cerebral. Meaning that it can be a difficult genre for a studio to simply cash in on: for every District 9 there are at least ten Battleships. So how can a studio ensure that a generic conglomeration of popular sci-fi tropes and unoriginal visuals makes a sensible profit? Why, of course, by sticking two of the biggest stars on the planet in a spaceship and ensuring that they fuck each other, so they can show it in the trailer. Unfortunately for desperate corporate ploys to capitalise on market research, Passengers has not been the breakout success that was hoped for.

Passengers is a film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers aboard The Avalon. The ship is taking 5000 paying customers to another planet to escape the husk that the Earth has become, the two wake up 90 years earlier than other passengers and cannot get themselves back into stasis, leaving them stranded on The Avalon together. One positive thing to say about Passengers is that it is at least an original story rather than a reboot or a sequel. However, a negative thing to say about Passengers is that there doesn’t seem to be many original ideas in it outside of its premise. The visuals are refined and clean but unfortunately seem to be almost entirely taken directly from previously successful sci-fi films; Alien, Prometheus and 2001: A Space Odyssey being the three main examples. References and inspiration can be a good thing but too many of them and the film just begins to feel like a stale rehash.

It is not only in the visuals that Passengers feels unoriginal. It also borrows several moments almost verbatim from recent films such as Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian. Now that is not to say that sci-fi has to be 100% original, in fact in most cases it is common to repeat successful movies’ motifs, but Passengers does this with so much frequency that it becomes a Frankenstein’s monster made up of mostly of other films dramatic beats.

The film is a tonal mess that appears to not know whether or not it should take itself seriously and when humour is appropriate. Starring Chris Pratt means that there will of course be comic elements but the film produces what seem like unintentional moments of comedy through strange editing choices and inappropriate dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora interrupts a sweet romantic moment by stopping mid-laughter and stating in the most deadpan way “for a minute I almost forgot my life is in ruins” and Aurora continues to be an incessant downer for the rest of the movie. The film contains comical pratfalls, facial expressions that would make the Wayan bros blush and a hilariously tactless robot doctor, none of which were intended to be funny. Unless they were, in which case the film should have just been a comedy.

What disappoints me so much about the film is that it is possible that there was at least one good film in there somewhere. There is a heavy theme of isolation a ’la The Shining, blatantly displayed by Michael Sheen’s android bartender, Arthur. This seems to be setting the film up as a psychodrama about a man lost in space slowly losing his sanity. The film jumps straight from this sort of heavy subject matter to a Risky Business/Home Alone style montage and immediately back into goofy comedy. Followed by the introduction of a genuinely tough moral choice and some significant character development the film fails to develop on the ideas and instead turns into a romance before turning back into the most generic sci-fi film possible. The film had set itself up as a combination of Moon and Misery which could have resulted in an interesting film. Instead the second half of the film falls into complete farce, sprinkled with plot holes, Deus-ex-Machina and hilariously bad writing.

Recommendation

There are parts of Passengers that are so bad that they are comical, but not enough to justify watching purely for its shortcomings. The film is a tonal mess with incredibly high production quality, unfortunately poor writing cannot be hidden behind CGI.

There are flashes of three disparate films in Passengers, one a moral dilemma based romance, the second a nervy psychodrama and the final is a by the numbers generic sci-fi. There is enough to like within the film but unfortunately there is way too much space in between it all.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.

Rogue One shines when it’s not being dreary and uninteresting

The new Star Wars is let down by weak writing and uninteresting characters

Where to start when it comes to Star Wars? The subject is so wide ranging, controversial and comprehensive that there really isn’t any point summing anything up, if you’re reading this then you are already familiar with Star Wars. Rogue One is a spin off and Disney’s first big swing at diversifying the Star Wars cinematic universe, something which up until now has had a very strict structure applied to it. Rogue One is the first of three semi related side projects designed to be released in between the episodic features that are the mainstay for the franchise. We’re halfway to Episode 8 so it’s time to remind everyone what Star Wars is about… In case they forgot.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Rogue One is merely a cash grab designed to fan the flames of fans and to sell merchandise. In a sense this does come through the screen but merchandise, fan service and Star Wars are so interwoven at this point it is hard to tell where Star Wars ends and where the vertical integration begins.

For this review, I would like to put aside merchandise. I would like to put aside Storm Trooper redesigns and the fact that there is a melee weapon that turns into a crossbow just like my old Power Rangers toy used to. Let’s put aside the new hype for Episode 8 and let’s shut the hell up about diversification of races and genders in Star Wars. Let’s look at Rogue One on its own merits as “A Star Wars Story.”

Rogue One follows the team of rebels and their journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. The team is made up of six characters of which we are introduced to over the first hour. The characters then spend five minutes talking to each other and fighting Storm Troopers before deciding to band together to fight for the rebellion.

Where Rogue One succeeds is in its battle sequences. The magic of Star Wars is the ability to retell any story with a fantastical gloss over it and some scenes in Rogue One really feel like they are embracing that. One battle scene is set in a middle eastern looking market town and has a rougher, grittier feel to it than Star Wars usually does, as insurgents rush a Storm Trooper tank and throw explosives.The Battle of Scarif is a great sequence, although it must once again recycle A New Hope’s style, it does feature some great visuals and fun additions. The Skyhammer is a welcome addition, a space ship designed to crash into and push other ships, which creates the most visually marvellous moment of the movie. What is unique to Rogue One is that it embraces a soldiering aesthetic for large portions of its battles. At times the film looks like it is taking place in war town Iraq and towards the end could be ripped right from a Vietnam movie; only with space ships and lasers. For short periods, Rogue One is everything Star Wars can be.

However the tone is inconsistent and the soldiering allusions come out of nowhere. The film is not set up in a way where the final confrontation seems to meld with the introduction. The first twenty minutes of the film is nothing but long drawn out exposition, yet it fails to deliver the essential emotional connection to the character of Jyn Erso. Without her doing anything remotely likeable or cool or funny or resourceful or smart there is no reason to side with her or care about her. She is an amazingly flat character played with zero charisma. At least four planets are visited within the first twenty minutes of the film and character names are thrown out like confetti. I understand that world building is nuanced but Rogue One essentially vomits out a glossary of words as soon as it can get away with it and loses valuable time that could be spent on making us care about its characters.

Star Wars has always been a kid friendly series, it is a way to channel your inner child and have fun watching what you can only imagine, yet Rogue One is consistently let down by its characters who are so unbelievably drab and two dimensional it borders on offensive. The scenes that link together the action scenes are slogs pieced together by basic dialogue delivered in monotones by actors with no expressions. I had the same thought while watching Batman Vs Superman; any kids watching will be bored out of their mind by everything but the fight sequences. The only source of levity in the film is the mechanical sidekick K-2SO. K-2SO is a robot that has had his inhibitions removed and so is capable of insurmountable levels of sass. He is the source for 100% of the films comedy and does well to carry the entire cast. Yet his jokes and remarks are completely ignored by the entire cast, there is zero chemistry between the six leads, but at least K-2SO is trying to lighten the mood.

Recommendation

If you still get shivers when you hear a lightsabre turning on; If you love space battles and AT-ATs and Darth Vader; If you want to see tie ins and cameos and spot hidden references; If you just want more Star Wars, then this is the film for you. If you are fully on board with the film’s premise from the get-go, you’ll probably enjoy it.

It looks fantastic, the designs of the cities and robots and characters are magnificently rendered. It is soiled by bad acting and awkward pacing and never really feels independent of its franchise. Rogue One is a passable appetizer for a 40-year-old main course.

Moana is a classic Disney story in a fresh world

Polynesia provides an interesting backdrop for a straightforward Disney fairy tale

In 2013 Walt Disney Animation released Frozen, a movie which found the type of mainstream success and cultural impact that had not been created by the company in decades. In the 90’s Disney animated features dominated children’s entertainment. Movies such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin still live on in pop culture twenty years later. Whether this is due to Disney’s monopolisation of the animation industry, their marketing clout or their ability to crush its opposition is up for debate, but the dip in popularity after 2000 cannot be ignored.

But now it is 2016 and Disney owns Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel and is re-emerging as the leading powerhouse of children’s entertainment. It is currently on a streak of four well received, successful and profitable animated features (Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia) and it appears that Moana may be a continuation of this recent trend.

The film is a tale inspired by Polynesian myths of Demi-God Maui. The titular character, Maona, is a chieftain of an island tribe that is chosen by the ocean to seek out the Demi-God and force him to restore the heart of island goddess Te Fiti to bring balance back to nature. It is a classic hero’s journey that is totally in line with the most successful of Disney’s features. Moana’s grandmother plays her wise mentor figure while doing a toned down Rafiki impression, Moana is warned from travelling beyond the horizon like Simba is told not to venture into the shadows, and of course the film’s subject is a Demi-God amongst mortals, ala Hercules. The film is a formulaic mish mash of multiple features that have brought success to Disney in the past and the film knows this. At one point Maona denies being a princess to which Maui responds “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you are a princess,” it is a joke which Disney have made before and will make again as their product becomes more self-aware and nostalgia plays a larger part in their films. People cannot watch Disney films in a vacuum.

Yet despite the repeating themes and beats Maona still feels oddly fresh. As with the most lasting Disney films the strength of Maona is in its musical numbers, which blend an upbeat poppy aesthetic with splashes of world music, in much the same way that the Lion King sprinkled Africana into its tunes. Critics may argue against ‘cultural appropriation’ but the strength of Disney films is their ability to place familiar tales in unfamiliar locales and to introduce a new culture in a non-threatening way, Moana succeeds in this greatly.

It is through the blending and synergy between music and visuals that Maona creates its most lasting moments. The opening number which introduces the island is incredibly efficient at establishing the narrative drive of our lead and creating a sense of community. Maui’s first and only song is accompanied by a blend of 3D animation and 2D papercraft that is beautifully created and unique in the scale of the film, the Demi-God’s tattoos also providing a 2D canvas for additional storytelling. The animation is beautifully crisp and the details shine through in the textures of the rocks and wood grain of ships, the world is fully realised within its limited pallete of locations.

Jermaine Clement voices Tamatoa, a bejewelled crab monster who breaks out into a musical number that comes across as a mix between Dr Frank N Furter and Bowie. The sequence is excellent fun and provides a vividly stylised deep sea, neon coloured boss battle as Maona and Maui attempt to retrieve a magical weapon from Tamatoa’s back. The scene has the same conceit of the giant skeleton scene from a film earlier in the year, Kubo and The Two Strings. However, whereas Kubo approaches its subject matter with a horror aesthetic, Maona creates a lavish, colourful, highly expressive scene that shines and bounces with a kid friendly energy that is fun but somewhat removes any dramatic tension.

The film’s structure is surprisingly straightforward and its plotting as basic as can be but is largely effective at creating emotional reactions and character beats that work. Maona is a head strong and tenacious character and Maui is a charismatic, loveable egomaniac. HeiHei, the simple chicken is a comically effective animal sidekick that is used just enough to get tiresome. The film advances logically and reaches a satisfying conclusion following a battle with a well-designed, but simple lava monster and it is peppered throughout with swelling music and refrains that tug at heartstrings.

Recommendation

It is hard not to smile throughout the film but it is harder to convince yourself that the film offers anything more than a fun and simple story.

The jokes in the film are few and far between and never stand out particularly well, but the style and story and beautiful score more than make up for that. The film is not the next Frozen, but can certainly hold its own next to other Disney heavyweights.