For a review of “Live By Night,”

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Ben Af­fleck is ap­par­ently at war with Ben Af­fleck.

It is rare to come across some­one with such gifts as both an ac­tor and a di­rec­tor who strug­gles so much when it comes to di­rect­ing him­self as an ac­tor. The new “Live by Night” finds him pulled in so many con­flict­ing di­rec­tions that what he ends up with is nei­ther el­e­gantly con­cise nor an epic sprawl but rather ly mis­shapen.

“Live by Night” finds Af­fleck wear­ing the hats of di­rec­tor, star, screen­writer and pro­ducer, and in this case those hats are the snappy fe­do­ras of a Pro­hi­bi­tion­era gang­ster pic­ture. An adap­ta­tion of a novel by Den­nis Le­hane, the movie is about a Bos­ton crim­i­nal sent to Florida to over­see a rum­run­ning en­ter­prise.

Af­fleck plays Joe Cough­lin, a self- iden­ti­fied out­law who af­ter the story’s early pas­sages in Bos­ton leaves for Tampa, partly as per­sonal ex­ile to es­cape mem­o­ries of a lost love ( Si­enna Miller) but also to move up the gang­ster’s lad­der of suc­cess. Aided by an old run­ning buddy ( Chris Messina), soon Joe is the king­pin of the lo­calun­der­world. He­takes up with a Cuban­woman ( Zoe Sal­dana) and works hard to keep his busi­ness grow­ing un­til his past comes back in un­ex­pected ways.

The movie is hand­somely mounted with up­scale pro­duc­tion val­ues, but it feels slug­gish and dis­jointed. The sto­ry­telling has an episodic qual­ity, as if one were binge­watch­ing some new tele­vi­sion se­ries rather than a sin­gle co­he­sive nar­ra­tive. The episode in Bos­ton? Pretty good, with quite a car chase. The one where he bat­tles the KKK in Florida? A bit corny. The spooky one about the fe­male tent- re­vival preacher? That one’s a fa­vorite.

An ad­di­tional front for the film’s in­ter­nal bat­tles is Af­fleck the screen­writer. The adap­tion of “Live by Night” is Af­fleck’s first solo screen­writ­ing credit, and he strug­gles to prop­erly blend the novel’s mix of char­ac­ter de­tail along­side the scope of its broader story. Af­feck dis­cards a sub­plot from the book on gun­run­ning for Cuban rebels, fo­cus­ing on the strictly gang­ster busi­ness of rob­bing, rum and gam­bling. There are hints at deeper cur­rents, those clashes with the lo­cal KKK and an on­go­ing sense that peo­ple are al­ways find­ing ways to keep them­selves apart, be it through race, re­li­gion or her­itage, but those ideas re­main on the fringes.

Af­fleck the ac­tor is tac­i­turn, com­ing across as nei­ther a rogu­ish charmer nor a bad- man an­ti­hero, so that the char­ac­ter feels un­nec­es­sar­ily re­mote and in­ac­ces­si­ble.

Elle Fan­ning gives a haunt­ing turn as a young woman who trans­forms her­self into a pi­ous re­vival preacher af­ter be­ing res­cued from a dis­as­trous time out­West, the sub­ject of the film’s most evoca­tive line: “She didn’t make it to Hol­ly­wood, she just made it to Los Angeles.”

Messina brings an en­thu­si­asm miss­ing else­where, and Miller makes a strong im­pres­sion with lit­tle screen time.

Although Sal­dana’s Cuban ac­cent can come and go, she pro­vides a calm coun­ter­point to the chaos of Joe’swork.

“Live by Night” is the first film Af­fleck has di­rected since mak­ing “Argo,” which won the Os­car for best pic­ture, and the new project’s ap­peal is un­der­stand­able. It has the trap­pings of a proper old - fash­ioned movie, although the clas­sic pic­tures its name in­vokes, like Ni­cholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” or Raoul Walsh’s “They Drive by Night,” were ac­tu­ally far grub­bier, tougher films than this.

With “Live by Night,” Af­fleck proves that some­times more re­ally can be less, as the film comes off as a half- hearted shrug rather than an am­bi­tious stretch. The most ob­vi­ous pre­de­ces­sor to Af­fleck’s com­bi­na­tion of di­rec­tor, ac­tor, pro­ducer, screen­writer and star­dom is War­ren Beatty. Yet Beatty has al­ways seemed to un­der­stand him­self, to bring the best out of him­self and also to en­joy him­self in ways that Af­fleck here sim­ply does not.

“Live by Night,” aWarner Bros. Pic­tures re­lease, is rated R for strong vi­o­lence, lan­guage through­out and some sex­u­al­ity/ nu­dity. Run­ning time: 128 min­utes.

“Fences”

“Fences,” di­rected by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, ar­rives borne of pres­ti­gious ori­gins. The screen­play is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize win­ning play by the late play­wright Au­gust Wilson, and the 2010 Broadway re­vival star red Wash­ing­ton and Vi­ola Davis in the roles they play in the film, with each earn­ing a Tony Award for Best Ac­tor and Ac­tress. The per­for­mances are some of the best to be seen on film in this or any year.

Wash­ing­ton hews closely to the play in the film adap­ta­tion, cut­ting hardly any­thing, which makes the film a chal­leng­ing watch — it’s a densely packed and wordy two and a half hours. Due to its stage- bound gen­e­sis, it’s con­tained to the home of Troy ( Wash­ing­ton) and wife Rose ( Davis), and the back­yard is where Troy spins his yarns and the great­est fa­mil­ial dra­mas play out. Wash­ing­ton­makes sub­tle cin­e­matic choices that lib­er­ate the script from its theatri­cal DNA. The cam­era slowly tracks in on Troy as he rat­tles off an­other tall tale, anec­dote, or rant. The cam­era of­ten an­gled slightly below him, he be­comes the larger- than- life char­ac­ter that he sees him­self as— an over- con­fi­dent racon­teur with a big chip on his shoul­der.

roy is the son of a share­crop­per who ran away from home as a teenager, found him­self in jail for rob­bery, tried to play ma­jor league base­ball and ended up a Pitts­burgh trash col­lec­tor. He sees the world as out to get him, and as a black man in the early 20th cen­tury, these are plain facts. He has been sub­ject to pow­er­ful so­ci­o­log­i­cal forces that have held him back in life, which he sees with open, cyn­i­cal eyes — start­ing with his open­ing salvo, a com­plaint that black men are not em­ployed as garbage truck driv­ers, only col­lec­tors. He fears the same treat­ment for his sons, Lyons ( Russell Hornsby) and Cory ( Jo­van Adepo), who have en­joyed the fruits of his la­bor, and are pur­su­ing their pas­sions of mu­sic and foot­ball.

Wash­ing­ton hur­tles onto the screen in a ty­phoon of words; it’s ob­vi­ous that as a per­former, he de­lights in­Wil­son’s col­lo­quial, ex­pres­sive lan­guage. It’s al­most too much to take in as a viewer, but af­terWash­ing­ton firmly es­tab­lishes Troy as a char­ac­ter — his per­sonal his­tory and re­la­tion­ship with Rose, his em­bit­tered world view, as well as his own flaws and vices — he al­lows the film to un­fold vis­ually.

Against Wash­ing­ton’s force of na­ture per­for­mance, Davis qui­etly creeps in and steals the whole show ( it seems he’s happy to have her do so). As the stead­fast, be­mused wife who pa­tiently en­dures such a big per­son­al­ity for a hus­band, she fi­nally reaches a break­ing point, and Davis’ sheer raw emo­tion on screen is vividly riv­et­ing, and es­tab­lishes what we al­ready knew: that she’s one of the great­est per­form­ers of her gen­er­a­tion.

It’s a proud film — cel­e­brat­ing the work of one of the great­est African- Amer­i­can play­wrights and two of the most his­tory- mak­ing African- Amer­i­can ac­tors of our time, while wrestling with the of­ten com­pli­cated evo­lu­tion of black men in Amer­ica, who have had to rec­on­cile in­di­vid­ual choices against un­fair hi­er­ar­chi­cal sys­tems, racism and prej­u­dice. In con­text, it’s a re­mark­able piece, a deft ex­plo­ration of race and so­ci­ety through a per­sonal story. Fur­ther­more, the two lead per­for­mances are stun­ningly com­plex and deeply hu­man achieve­ments from two of the finest ac­tors work­ing to­day.

“Fences,” a Paramount Pic­tures re­lease, is rated PG- 13 for the­matic el­e­ments, lan­guage and some sug­ges­tive ref­er­ences. Run­ning time: 138 min­utes.

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Den­zel Wash­ing­ton and Vi­ola Davis star in “Fences.”

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