For a review of “Live By Night,”
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,” 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.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis star in “Fences.”