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Review – Live By Night

FILM REVIEWLIVE BY NIGHTWith Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper. Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 128 minutes.

As time goes by it’s becoming apparent that Ben Affleck is more of a character actor than a star, unlike his longtime friend Matt Damon or, increasingly, his brother Casey. However as a director he may prove to be the biggest star of all. With movies like “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and “Argo,” he has tackled complex stories and turned them into compelling films.

With LIVE BY NIGHT, he returns to Dennis Lehane territory (after “Gone Baby Gone”), with a tough-minded but ultimately sentimental gangster film set in the latter years of Prohibition. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns from Europe after World War I utterly disillusioned. Son of a high-ranking official (Brendan Gleeson) in the Boston Police Department, Coughlin is a self-styled “outlaw.” He has no desire to joins the organized mobs of Albert White (Robert Glenister) or Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), but pulls off robberies with his two buddies. Coughlin is living an especially risky life, as his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller) is White’s mistress.

The first act is set in Boston, and Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, has fun with the locations and matter-of-fact corruption of the era. A scene where his father bargains with a prosecutor (Clark Gregg in a cameo) speaks volumes on how getting what you want turns on learning what other people want kept hidden.

Coughlin ends up throwing in his lot with Pescatore, looking for vengeance against White, and is sent to Tampa to handle a rum-running operation. This is where the story echoes our time, as Coughlin navigates a world where Cuban emigrants control the rum, and the Ku Klux Klan hates Catholic Irish-Americans like him as much as blacks, Jews, and Hispanics. The corruption takes on a Southern patina as well. Local police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) makes it clear that as long as Coughlin keeps his business activities to a specific section of Tampa rarely patronized by respectable citizens, he’s willing to look the other way.

Indeed, this is the fine line that is walked not only by Figgis, but by Couglin himself and, subsequently Figgis’s daughter (Elle Fanning). Coughlin makes threats and payoffs, eventually having to kill, but he also wants to lead a “normal” life with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the strong-willed sister of his Cuban business partner. On one level, the movie is the journey of Coughlin’s moral education. As this is a gangster film, there will be a lot of bullet-ridden bodies along the way.

As director, Affleck keeps a steady pace, making sure to play fair with the audience by setting up the film’s twists without tipping his hand. He also gets some strong performances from his cast, particularly the film’s three female characters, each are mixtures of light and dark motives, which is to say, they’re recognizably complicated and human. As an actor, Affleck seems to have come to terms that he’s more of an “everyman” than a “star,” and has learned to let the people around him have the showy roles to which he gets to react.

“Live By Night” doesn’t so much break new ground in the gangster film as deepen explorations into areas opened by others. As such, it’s a solid entry for fans of the genre, and for those enjoying watching the flowering of Affleck’s directing career. •••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – War Dogs

With Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak. Written by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. 114 minutes.

If you look at films about World War II–particularly those made during the war–there’s a definite point of view. There’s no amibiguity as to who the good guys (us) and the bad guys (Germany, Japan) are whether the film is a drama or comedy, or it ends in victory or defeat. For filmgoers of that era, there was was no question as to why we were fighting.

In the decades since, those who led us into war–particularly in Vietnam or Iraq–could not convince Americans as to our goals. Stop the spread of Communism? Go after hidden caches of weapons? Spread democracy? The longer those wars went on, the less convincing the arguments were.

As a result, while the movies about these wars may ask us to “support the troops,” they are not about supporting the war effort itself. Instead, they are dark, often cynical movies, where lives are wasted and even the supposed good guys are flawed or, as in WAR DOGS corrupt. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, which is why for most of its running time, the film is sugar-coated as a comedy.

Based on a true story about two young Florida men who became arms merchants, it features Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, who enjoys easy money, drugs, and taking risks. He reconnects with an old school friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller) in 2005. He shows him how the government is letting people like him go after “the crumbs” of arms sales in Iraq and Afghanistan by putting their needs out to bid. David and his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) are expecting their first child, so the chance to make a lot more money than he was making as a masseuse is too good to pass up.

A goodly portion of the film is played for laughs. Efraim takes an order for Italian handguns for Iraq and then learns that Italy has passed a law forbidding exports to the country. When they ship the guns to Jordan–a neutral country–there’s still the problem of getting them to Iraq. In spite of the (brief) appearance of a dead body, the sequence plays like an action comedy. Even their interaction with big time arms dealer Henry Girard (a charmingly sinister Bradley Cooper) starts as a joke, as when he reveals he want to use them as middlemen because, inconveniently, he’s on a terrorist watch list.

A brief prologue suggests the inevitable change of tone that’s coming, but even when things go bad for David, the film maintains his essential goodness, even as Efraim is revealed to be a sleaze. Hill plays Efraim as larger than life, betraying everyone around him including his “best friend” David and the Jewish businessman (Kevin Pollak) who is bankrolling him because he has been led to believe it’s in support of Israel. David is seen as just another victim. Indeed, the real David Packouz even gets a cameo in the film (as an entertainer at an old age home). See? War can be fun.

By treating this is as a caper movie, “War Dogs” provides the requisite action and laughs. Yet it glosses over both the actual impact of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the moral implication of the actions of Ephraim and David, other than engaging in fraud in the deal that finally brings them down. Indeed the final scene of the movie leaves us wondering if we’re to be happy for David and his family, or chilled at what was left in the wake of his business dealings. American troops may be risking their lives in both countries going well into a second decade, but movies like this make it clear we still don’t know how to think about it, if we think about it at all.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Florence Foster Jenkins

With Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Allan Corduner. Written by Nicholas Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. 110 minutes.

If FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was the story of a clueless socialite’s public humiliation, there would be little reason to tell this story. Instead, like “Ed Wood” (1994), it’s a movie in which love of art and kindness of heart triumphs over lack of talent. And, ironically, the title character is played by the most gifted actress of her generation.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a real person who in 1940s New York was a patron of the arts and occassionally burst forth in song herself. The problem was that she could not carry a tune in the proverbial handbasket. In a word, she was awful. That didn’t stop her though. Those around her either pretended not to notice–hard as that might be–or really couldn’t tell. Her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) protected her by making sure only the right people were permitted to attend her performances, which is to say, those who wouldn’t mock her.

In the hands of Meryl Streep, with Stephen Frears directing (from a script by British TV writer Nicholas Martin), Jenkins is a lovably dotty figure. Over the course of the film, we come first to sympathize and then respect the path she has carved out for herself. She is not deterred by negativity, and wins over even those who are skeptical. We learn just how badly stacked the deck is against her–it’s not just a singing voice akin to fingernails on a chalkboard–and how she perservered in spite of it all.

Her marriage may seem peculiar, especially when we meet St. Clair’s girlfriend Katherine (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he lives, but like Jenkins, he is also not what he seems at first glance. Grant has played his share of cads, but that’s not who St. Clair is, and he navigates the tricky role with aplomb.

Thrown into this situation is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), a classically trained pianist hired to be her accompanist, including at her climactic concert at Carnegie Hall. He can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into but he, too, falls under the peculiar spell of Jenkins.

What is it about her utter lack of talent that is so endearing? Part of it is her sincere love for the music she’s mangling and her desire to share that love with the world. Those who conspire to keep the truth from her might see it as telling a child there is no Santa Claus. Who is she harming, after all? It is that childlike innocence, combined with her strong will to put herself out there–first in a recording, then at Carnegie Hall–that makes her the heroine rather than the patsy of this story. How many of us let self-doubt prevent us from doing the things we really want to do?

Florence Foster Jenkins” is the triumphant story of a woman who had multiple opportunities to give up, and refused to take them.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Southpaw

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence,
Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent. Written by Kurt Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for language throughout, and some violence. 123 minutes.

SOUTHPAW is a story we’ve seen many times before, but it’s acted with such heart and directed with such skill that it’s hard to resist. It’s a boxing story about redemption (see “Rocky”) with the bond between parent and child (see “The Champ”) at its core. Credit a solid cast and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) for keeping things taut despite a two-hour running time.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undefeated light heavyweight champ, and he has a habit of taking a terrific beating before coming back for the win. He’s had a tough life but seems to be in a good place now. Having grown up in an orphanage, he’s married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another orphan he met there. They live an idyllic life with their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Without going into details, Billy–who has relied on Maureen and his manager (50 Cent) to handle the details of his life–loses everything. Like a modern day Job, he finds himself stripped of his relationships, possessions, and his boxing career. Hitting rock bottom, he goes to a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming his life.

As a story it’s melodramatic. However Jake Gyllenhaal–who gave a brilliant and underrated performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler”–makes Billy more than an inarticulate lug. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he appreciates what he had in terms of personal relationships and support and never pretends he did it all on his own. He has to get beyond the feelings of loss and humiliation if he’s going to get his life back.

McAdams swiftly sketches in a character whose bond to Billy comes as much from their shared background as their current success. Whitaker’s character is equally complex, trying to keep Billy at arm’s length while trying to instill a sense of pride in the poor kids working and learning at his gym. Good as they are– and they’ve very good–the amazing performance here is that of young Oona Laurence as Leila. The character’s relationship with her father evolves over the course of the story, and Laurence is never less than believable as the pre-teen reeling from the mess her life has become.

Fuqua’s direction goes from the personal to the pugilistic with ease. The boxing scenes are brutal. Where early on non-boxing fans (such as this reviewer) may view the scenes as barbarous, things change when Billy comes under Tick’s guidance. It may not change your mind about real-life boxing, but Tick’s argument that boxing is more about strategy than brute force becomes clear in the final bout, bloody though it is.

As an entry in the venerable boxing film genre, “Southpaw” is simply a modern evocation of tried-and-true plot points and characters. What it loses on lack of originality it more than makes up for in execution, making this one of the unexpected surprises of the summer movie season.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Burying The Ex

With Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, Alexandra Daddario, Oliver Cooper, Dick Miller. Written by Alan Trezza . Directed by Joe Dante. Rated R for sexual content, partial nudity, some horror violence, and language. 89 minutes.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, director Joe Dante had a string of major hits like “Gremlins,” and “Innerspace,” but then his star faded and he drifted into television. (Some of his TV work has been quite memorable, such as “The Homecoming” episode of “Masters of Horror.”) His latest film, BURYING THE EX, hearkens back to his very early work (“Piranha,” “The Howling”). This is a cheesy, modestly budgeted horror comedy that should find its niche audience. Anyone looking for a romantic comedy involving zombies should check it out.

Max (Anton Yelchin) is a twenty-something with a knockout girlfriend named Evelyn (Ashley Greene). She’s ready and willing in bed, but she’s also very controlling in other aspects of their lives. She has no respect for his ambitions to open his own horror memorabilia shop and takes down his movie posters to put up bins for recycling. His half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) is an annoying and self-indulgent slob whom Evelyn treats with utter contempt.

For twenty minutes or so, you may wonder where all this is going, but then Evelyn dies in a tragic accident just as Max was ready to break it off with her. He subsequently connects with Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) who not only shares his love of all things horror, but operates her own ice cream parlor where all the flavors are monster-inspired. And that’s when Evelyn emerges from the grave, ready to resume her relationship with Max.

It’s a thin premise, but Dante brings in some comic and horrific effects (such as Evelyn vomiting embalming fluid) and scatters a variety of clips and movie references throughout the film. There’s even an appearance by legendary character actor Dick Miller–a regular in Dante’s films and a veteran of their shared background with Roger Corman–still going strong at 86. There’s also a macabre scene where people are watching an outdoor screening of “Night of the Living Dead” at a cemetery, which gets Max and Olivia so turned on they run off to her car.

The young cast is game with Yelchin, best known for playing Chekhov in the “Star Trek” reboots, playing a likable everydude. Greene’s slow transformation into the brain-craving zombie we’ve been expecting is fun, and Daddario is engaging as the woman obviously so right for Max. As for Cooper (“Californication”), it’s a matter of taste, as the aggressively stupid, vulgar, and insensitive character has become a staple of contemporary comedy. It’s become futile to complain about it. Even viewers who find his portrayal annoying (such as this reviewer) are likely to be won over by the end.

“Burying The Ex” is not getting a major theatrical release and will be available to most through iTunes and Video on Demand. Dante’s glory days may be behind him, but those who remember his work fondly will be glad he’s working, and getting the chance to bring his unique blend of comedy and horror together again.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Pitch Perfect 2

With Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld.
John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks. Written by Kay Cannon. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. Rated PG-13 for innuendo and language. 115 minutes.

For those of you who missed “Pitch Perfect” (2012), figuring it was some sort of teen musical about a capella singing groups, you missed out on one of the funniest, off-the-wall comedies of that year. Now the singing Bellas are back in PITCH PERFECT 2, and they’re zanier than ever.

At the film’s opening, the three-time national champions are performing before none other than President and Michelle Obama when Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has a very unfortunate accident. It leads to them being suspended from competition or recruiting new members, and the only way they can redeem themselves is by winning the world competition. This, they are told, is impossible, since everyone hates America.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense out of the plot. It’s the usual “slobs vs. snobs” comedy they’ve been making for years. What makes this work are the loopy characters and the unexpected situations and dialogue. Every time the action shifts to commentators Gail (Elizabeth Banks, who makes her feature film directing debut here) and John (John Michael Higgins), there’s no telling what’s going to come out of their mouths.

The center of the story is Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is interning for a music producer and looking to become one herself, while feeling guilty that she’s neglecting her sisters in the group. There is some romantic interest here, but the focus is on the competition, and especially the snide “Das Sound Machine,” the German group that takes every opportunity to belittle the Bellas.

The musical numbers are fun, but have their own comic edge, including an unexpected showdown featuring cameos by, among others, “Daily Show” alumni John Hodgson and Jason Jones. There’s also Katey Sagal as a Bella alumna dropping off her daughter Emily (Haillee Steinfeld), who becomes a Bella “legacy” (and also the potential means to continue the series if they want).

The two movies are what you might imagine would happen if “Animal House” was remade focusing on a female singing group rather than a bunch of frat boys. Broad slapstick and cartoonish characters are mixed with witty zingers and solid production values. Banks knows what made the first film work but doesn’t just go through the motions here. When the group goes off to a retreat to try to reconnect, the silliness of some of the more surreal characters is mixed with some feeling for a bunch of college kids who know they’re about to enter the real world. There’s been some carping about stereotyping, but the plain fact is that the movie makes fun of everyone, and none of the barbs draw blood.

“Pitch Perfect 2” isn’t the movie of the year or even the movie of the season. It is, however a very, very funny movie that shows strong, quirky, independent women working together and going after what they want without apology. As with the first film, this is a movie that will make you laugh out loud without feeling stupid.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Home

With the voices of Rihanna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones. Written by Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember. Directed by Tim Johnson. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. 94 minutes

HOME isn’t likely to be an Oscar contender in the animation category next year, but it is a charming entertainment for children that should amuse the adults that have to accompany them. Reminiscent of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” it is about the growing friendship between a human girl and a space alien as they deal a variety of issues that place the entire Earth in jeopardy.

Oh (voice of Jim Parsons) is a happy-go-lucky member of the Boov, an alien race whose chief trait seems to be running away. Deathly afraid of the Gorg, they flee from planet to planet, looking for some place to be safe. Unfortunately for humans, they take a very paternalistic attitude towards a planet’s native inhabitants, summarily removing all humans from around the globe and relocating them to Australia.

Due to a mistake, young Tip (Rihanna) has been left behind, separated from her mother (Jennifer Lopez) and living with her cat named Pig. Oh, unlike the other Boov, is very friendly, and invited everyone to a housewarming party–including, unfortunately, the Gorg. Now everyone is after Oh so they can get his password to rescind the invitation, and Captain Smek (Steve Martin) has ordered him “erased.” So Tip and Oh are on the run, Tip to find her mother and Oh to escape erasure.

The humor comes from the expected sources, but that doesn’t mean it’s not often fun. Oh and Tip have much to learn about each other’s species and ways, as when Oh asks if Tip keeps the cat for meat or milk, or is startled when he spontaneously starts tapping his (four) feet to her favorite music. As befits a movie based on a book geared to pre-teens (Adam Rex’s “The True Meaning of Smekday”) there’s a lot silliness, from Oh repairing Tip’s car with a frozen slush machine, to his experiences in human bathrooms.

Besides the clever script, the film’s visuals are appealing, from the Boov invasion of Earth to the aliens changing colors depending on their moods. The film also offers a number of positive messages including the importance of friends being honest with each other, and the bond between mother and daughter. The surprise showdown with the Gorg ties into these themes as well.

With pop stars Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez in the voice cast (and Rihanna offering several songs on the soundtrack), and comedy icons Steve Martin and Jim Parsons (the latter of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), there’s plenty of talent on hand to keep this simple story moving in an engaging fashion. Ultimately “Home” is about the importance of home and family, and how finding a place where you belong doesn’t always turn out as you might expect. It’s a message that should resonate with both young viewers and their families.•••

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.