LIVE BY NIGHT. Up to this point, Ben Affleck's scorecard for directing is marked with three wins and zero losses: Gone Baby Gone (2007) used local color and emotional realism to take a taut little detective story down some literal and figurative dark alleys; The Town (2010), again using Boston as a backdrop, made tribute to the legacy of bank robbery cinema while also digging into the complex stuff of loyalty and the eventuality of violence in the outlaw life; Argo (2012) won a Best Picture Oscar and made good on the promise of those earlier works, turning a human drama about the 1979/80 Iran hostage crisis into a pacey adventure story/paean to the movies. That movie also became Affleck's biggest hit as a director, and apparently bought him the privilege of choosing whatever he wanted for his next project.
On the face of it, Live By Night seems like a compelling, even sensible selection. As with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck adapted the screenplay from a Dennis Lehane novel (though this marks his first solo writing credit), this one a crime saga charting the fortunes of a WWI veteran turned bootlegger as he moves from hometown Boston to the desolate low country of Tampa, Florida. It's rich material, full of double-crosses, lost love, divided loyalties, racism, religiosity and meditations on the mundanity and ugliness of violence. And therein lies the problem: there's a lot to cover and in trying to get to all of it, Affleck dilutes the potency of the material's themes, arriving finally at a movie that, despite its attributes, feels overlong and under-punctuated.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns home from the war intent on never taking orders from anybody, which, of course, means he becomes a stick-up kid. He and his little crew make a comfortable living ripping off card games and the like. Joe has to complicate things by carrying on an affair with the moll of one of the city's kingpins and then robbing said kingpin. In quick succession, said moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) informs on Joe to said kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister) and a bank robbery goes bad, leaving several policemen dead. Joe takes some literal and metaphorical beatings; his police superintendent father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), intervenes, coercing the right people so Joe only serves three years. Post-incarceration, Joe approaches White's rival Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) for a job. Maso sends Joe to Tampa to streamline the supply and production end of his liquor operation. This turns out to be a good fit: Joe boosts revenue, makes a name for himself in Ybor City, falls in love with the sultry Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and brokers a promising casino deal to ensure the fortunes of himself and his associates, come the end of Prohibition. Of course, he also runs afoul of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and gets embroiled in the family drama of the local sheriff (Chris Cooper) and his would-be-starlet-turned-heroin-addict-prostitute-turned-evangelical-preacher daughter (Elle Fanning). And that really only brings us to the middle of the second act.
Adapting a novel, particularly a well-crafted one, is a tricky enterprise: It requires an almost cruelly keen sense of economy and an understanding that what works on the page may not play on screen. Also, and this is more subjective, it demands its own, independent creative spark. The most successful adaptations draw structure and inspiration from the source material, but take on a life of their own, filtered as they are through another person's sensibility and set forth in an entirely different medium. Though I have to admit that I haven't read Lehane's novel, I can say that Live By Night feels like an attempt to get it all in, to truncate hundreds of pages of plot intricacies and character development into a two-hour movie. It's a valiant effort, and much of what comes through is successful: The created world is densely detailed, beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson and peopled by full-blooded, independently motivated (well-acted) characters. But in the end, it's just far too much. The pacing, so deliberate, even plodding in the early going, requires a sprint to the finish to address all the strands of plot previously laid out. And the violence, of which there is plenty, is staged in a curious, offhand, almost inconsequential way. I think the underlying idea is that violence and death are distasteful to our protagonist — unpleasant necessities that don't deserve much discussion. In the context of a movie, though, moments that seem like they should be more impactful feel under-developed and neglected. And that points to Live By Night's greater shortcoming: In striving to accomplish too much, it loses sight of the small things that could make the story resonate. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
PATRIOTS' DAY. Some could criticize Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg for making spectacle of tragedy. I suppose that's fair, but I think it requires some discussion. Their last two collaborations, Lone Survivor (2013) and Deepwater Horizon (2016) are indeed torn from the headlines, both male-centric action stories about small groups in crisis. Ditto Patriots' Day, which focuses on the effort to apprehend the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, told from a law enforcement perspective. To me, though, the experience of the art should come first, a political dissection of it second, if at all. And all three of these movies are compelling, well-crafted and seemingly heartfelt. Particularly after the lugubrious, over-burdened experience of Live By Night, Patriots' Day felt refreshingly brisk and focused. And, at least to my eyes, it effectively sidestepped the political quagmire of intent, focusing instead on the immediate human experience of those awful, chaotic days. R. 92m. FORTUNA.
— John J. Bennett
*Updated Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna listings were not available at press time. For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
ELLE. French film about a video game company executive (Isabelle Huppert) hunting down her rapist, who may or may not be one of the men she knows, with revenge in mind. R. 130m. MINOR.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN. Annette Bening stars as a single mother raising a teenage boy (Lucas Jase Zumann) in late 1970s Santa Barbara, recruiting his friends to help her understand him. R. 137m. MINOR.
NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984). Hayao Miyazaki's animated dystopian fantasy about a princess trying to save her people and an already environmentally ravaged Earth from war. PG. 117m. MINOR.
THE BYE BYE MAN. Teens stumble upon a murderous urban legend who, like your ex, is summoned whenever someone says or thinks his name. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS. Documentary about a 13-year-old Mongolian girl on a quest to become the first female in her nomadic tribe to master its tradition of hunting with a golden eagle. G. 127m. MINOR.
HIDDEN FIGURES. Indelible performances Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer carry this compelling story about the black women whose calculations were vital to the space race. Still, it lacks style and scenes of daily racism and sexism amid the Civil Rights movement come off as mild and toothless. PG. 127m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HUNTER GATHERER. A newly released ex-con (Andre Royo) tries to pick up his former life, including the ex who no longer wants him. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX.
LA LA LAND. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make real movie magic in this lush, candy-colored and sublimely giddy musical about an aspiring actress and jazz-loving pianist in Los Angeles. PG13. 128m. BROADWAY.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. A man with a past (Casey Affleck, fittingly) returns to his hometown to look after his dead brother's kid. With Michelle Williams. R. 137m. MINOR.
MOANA. A young navigator (actual Hawaiian Auli'I Cravalho) enlists the reluctant aid of a demigod (actual demigod Dwayne Johnson) on a sea voyage to save her home from destruction in this Disney animated feature. PG. 113m. BROADWAY.
A MONSTER CALLS. A boy (Lewis MacDougall) with a terminally ill mother (Sigourney Weaver) finds solace and aid with an enormous tree monster. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MONSTER TRUCKS. A teen junkyard tinkerer (Lucas Till) finds a monster and, you know, puts it in his truck. (It can't all be Moonlight, people.) PG. 104m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PASSENGERS. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play a pair of space travelers who, like a holiday traveler without Ambien/cash for the drink cart, wake up way too early in the flight and find themselves in trouble. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. This Death Star-era prequel about a young rebel and her motley crew features character complexity yet unseen in the Star Wars universe, plus a stellar cast, impeccably choreographed battle sequences, good jokes and the best droid yet. PG13. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SEASONS. This nature documentary tells the history of Europe, starting with the ice age, from the perspective of animals. R. 91m. MINIPLEX.
SING. A koala trying to save his theater holds a singing competition with a menagerie of hopefuls in this animated musical. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 108m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SLEEPLESS. Jamie Foxx stars as a dirty cop on the hunt for his kidnapped son. With Michelle Monaghan as the Internal Affairs officer investigating him. PG. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
TANNA. This Aussie film uses tribal actors to tell a love story in the shadow of a volcano on a remote island. NR. 100m. MINIPLEX.
TICKLED. A documentary about competitive tickling takes a dark turn when it reveals a big-money underworld and online blackmail. Who knew? R. 92m. MINIPLEX.
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS. Kate Beckinsdale throws a parka over her shiny catsuit and amps up her vampire powers to stop a monster-on-monster war. R. 91m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
WHY HIM? Bryan Cranston plays a father out to oust his daughter's (Zoey Deutch) wildly inappropriate boyfriend (James Franco). R. 111m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill