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The Death and Life of Otto Bloom

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Otto Bloom (Xavier Samuel) is a man like no other – he perceives time in reverse, remembering what we think of as the future but unable to perceive what we know to be the past. Through archival footage and talking head interviews we follow the course of his unusual life as he becomes a cult figure in the public eye, entrancing the masses and earning the love of the neurologist (Rachel Ward in the interviews, her daughter Matilda Brown in flashback footage) tasked with seeing if he’s on the level.

The debut feature from writer/director Cris Jones is certainly clever – the very idea of dealing with twists in time as perceptual rather than physical reality means that Jones is able to realise his vision on a comparatively low budget while keeping his premise fairly watertight – the film’s internal logic is rigorous and well-realised.

Thanks to the mockumentary structure we’re kept at arm’s length from Bloom’s subjective experiences, and that’s probably for the best; it’s one thing to be told that someone experiences time backwards, it’s another to try and get the audience to feel it. Samuel affects a strange kind of ethereal blankness for the role, a knowing innocence that lends credence to the notion that he’s seeing things in a way we can’t. There’s something Bowie-esque in his mannerism and the adoration his fans hold him in, and that’s certainly no mistake – The Man Who Fell to Earth is definitely a touchstone here.

For all that Bloom is the film’s philosophical and narrative focus, Ada, the character played by Ward and Brown, is its emotional centre, and it’s the notably strong performances the two bring to the party that really engage. It’s particularly great to see Ward on screen again (it’s been nine years between drinks) as she almost effortlessly embodies a wistful, philosophical sadness and regret as she narrates her relationship with the film’s central enigma.

Still, Otto Bloom isn’t faultless; there are times when you can see the budgetary seams straining even with Jones’ thoughtful compositions and scene construction (and if you know your way around the University of Melbourne, some of the exterior scenes are bound to look familiar). There’s a tendency towards pretension at times, which is perhaps unavoidable when you’re navigating this kind of conceptual territory, plus a habit of over-explaining some of the core metaphysical concepts that shows a lack of faith in the audience’s ability to pick up what the film is putting down.

Those are fairly forgivable lapses, though, especially for a first feature. The Life and Death of Otto Bloom is an astute, ambitious offering that understands that, while production value may be expensive, ideas are free, and it certainly doubles down on the latter. Cris Jones is going to be worth remembering in the future.

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Beauty and the Beast

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Disney fans have long anticipated the live action remake of the classic 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast, and they will not be disappointed. It comes at a time when stories such as Cinderella and The Lion King are being made for a new generation of audiences. Both the die-hards and newbies will appreciate the more nuanced complexities about the price of vanity at the core of the tale.

Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Gods & Monsters, Dreamgirls) has assembled an all-star ensemble cast led by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (TV’s Legion), along with Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad and Audra McDonald.

Belle is as headstrong as ever. She retains similar aesthetics, in what is surely a tribute to the animated classic, but takes on more of a rebellious, direct rejection of the advances of conceited suitor and war hero Gaston (Luke Evans). Her thirst for knowledge coupled with her determination to escape the confines of her quaint 18th century town immediately place her at odds with the expectation that she will settle down into a demure, French housewife.

“Perhaps you haven’t met the right man?” Gaston gallantly suggests, to which Belle replies “It’s a small town. I’ve met them all.”

Fawning over Gaston in Belle’s place and in explicitly homoerotic fashion is the crowd pleasing lackey LeFou (Josh Gad), who is also something of a quasi-moral compass. His role is more fleshed out in this version, with the major arc being his adoration for his idol that threatens to cloud his good judgement of the true character of Gaston.

Our Beast (Dan Stevens) is reviled and takes on a more captive persona, but when exposition reveals a childhood that is beset with loss, he becomes a fallen aristocrat who is not entirely to blame for his selfish nature. Brooding and mysterious, his savage nature is unmasked when he realises that he and Belle are worldly characters who are ahead of their time and isolated by their sense of peculiarity.

Servants of the Castle wait on us as comic relief and buffers between the romantic tension of the leads, and they are even hinted as being somewhat accountable for their own fate as walking and talking antiques. It is questionable why candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) seems to be the single character in this movie of blended British and American dialects with a circumflex French accent, but his playful agility and professional relationship with major-domo Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) allow for an effective contrast of optimism and cynicism that is akin to a Bert and Ernie dynamic.

Self-referential humour abounds. Belle attempts to talk to an inanimate hairbrush, Gaston acknowledges that no self-respecting woman would throw themselves at him, and Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson) addresses the elephant in the room by confirming that no, she is not teacup Chip’s grandmother.

Stylistically, the musical cues open and close like a Broadway number at times, with almost a metaphysical curtain that signifies the end. Be Our Guest is a fun dinner-and-a-show cabaret, as if coordinated by Busby Berkeley, and the title song Beauty and the Beast has a harpsichord French Renaissance ballroom atmosphere with impressive vocals by Thompson.

Emma Watson shines in the leading role, following naturally from her previous fierce females in The Perks of Being A Wallflower and the Harry Potter series.

A flourishing tale with joy and enough jabs to satisfy.

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Kong: Skull Island

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Comparing Kong: Skull Island to Apocalypse Now is starting to feel lazy but, holy hell, you’d be ignoring a whopping great elephant in the room by refusing to note that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (the under-seen Kings of Summer) milks his 1972 SE Asia setting for all its worth. Coppola’s classic is his chief visual, if not tonal, touchstone (And it’s no coincidence we have characters called Conrad and Marlowe), but really the film is pulling from all kinds of Vietnam-era (And WWII – Hell in the Pacific gets a nod early on) media, giving us a cool soundtrack, some gnarly hardware and a crew of ass-in-the-grass grunts for the various beasties to chew on.

It makes a cool kind of story sense, too, the period being recent enough to not seem alien, but far enough back that modern technology doesn’t make its “lost world” sense complete ridiculous. Thus we have a built-in amount of buy-in when, after newfangled satellite imagery reveals an uncharted island hidden behind a perennial swirling stormfront, John Goodman’s government spook hastily pulls together an expedition to scout it out before the Russkies get there first. Along for the ride: Tom Hiddleston’s coolly professional ex-SAS tracker and Brie Larson’s “anti” war photographer, with Samuel L. Jackson’s air cavalry helicopter unit supplying military support. Of course, we as viewers know what’s waiting for them on that ominously-named isle: a giant friggin’ ape.

Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate: Kong: Skull Island is huge fun. It knows what it is: a big, brassy monster romp, populated with archetypal characters and a plethora of impressively-rendered critters. Chief among them, of course is the titular King, in this iteration rendered as a more humanoid-seeming beast-man in contrast to Peter Jackson’s biological fidelity. Everything leading up to the full reveal of the towering Kong is a complete blast, with Vogt and his screenwriters, Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein, balancing fun, tension and sheer cool pretty much perfectly.

That the back half of the film never quite matches the sublime build is more an almost inescapable function of the genre, as our protagonists, once Kong has decimated their helicopter squadron (no spoiler, that – it’s in the trailer), split up and forced to make their way across the bizarre landscape towards hoped-for rescue. Of course, by this stage Jackson’s chopper commander has gone full Ahab, while extra complication crops up in the form of scene-stealing John C. Reilly’s crazy WWII castaway, living among the friendly natives lo these many years and on hand to drop reams of exposition in a a pretty entertaining way. Things get episodic as we cut between a number of groups and their various, almost invariably fatal to some degree, animal encounters. It’s consistently entertaining, but there’s not much sense of forward momentum or urgency.

The cast are great, modified by how much they’re given to work with. Hiddleston does what he can with his straight man action hero role, but he’s kind of overshadowed by veteran scenery chewers Jackson and Goodman. Oscar winner Larson is actually given precious little to do – in fact, her presence on the trip is a bit of an unanswered question, but hey, Brie Larson – never not good.

And that’s the thing about Kong – it’s never not fun, even when you can feel the reins of the big budget behemoth slip away from indie helmer Vogt-Roberts from time to time, even when the climax inevitably escalates to two giant piles of pixels smacking the crap out of each other, even when the inevitable sequel hook is deployed in the post-credits stinger. It’s a blast, and that’s good enough.

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The Salesman

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The Salesman, the latest film from Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) gathered a certain amount of buzz following news that its Iranian director would be unable to attend this year’s Oscar ceremony due to Trump’s travel ban. It then pipped favourite Toni Erdmann (and local favourite Tanna) to win Best Foreign Language Film.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a young couple who appear together onstage regularly for a local theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Forced to move out of their apartment due to construction faults, the two end up renting another place from a fellow thespian. Whilst they manage to settle in quickly, a moment’s force of habit leads to Rana being assaulted in their new home, whilst Emad is shopping.

Farhadi follows the couple as they continue to play their parts on stage, whilst dealing with much more complex emotions behind the curtain (often Miller’s scenes echo in the lives of our couple). Hosseini confidently rides the crest of repressed anger as Emad seeks retribution for what has happened to his wife. However, it’s never clear whether he wants it for her, or for him; chastising himself for failing to protect his other. Alidoosti is heartbreakingly believable as someone who tries to own their tragedy with as much dignity as they can muster, whilst drowning in it all the same. She refuses police involvement and, when pressed by a frustrated Emad, claims to remember little of what happened to her. As we watch the couple deep in thought whilst preparing for their roles as Willy and Linda Loman, their powdered white hair and painted-on crow lines signpost that the results of their actions will echo for a long time.

The Salesman is an uncomfortable watch, but it’s also a powerful dissection of couple dynamics that resonates broadly outside of its Iranian homeland.

We previosuly reviewed The Salesman here.

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With Logan, director James Mangold and actor Hugh Jackman make the boldest choice possible with the saga that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men back in 2000 – they end it.

That’s an almost heretical choice in this age of endless franchises. Indeed, there certainly will be more X-Men movies going into the future (never let good taste or appropriateness get in the way of a cash cow, right?). But make no mistake, the pair’s statement of intent going in, that they would tell the final, definitive screen Wolverine story before Jackman voluntarily hung up his claws, was not just hot air. This is The Last Ride of James Howlett.

Summarily excising the tangled mess of X-Men continuity, along with most of the characters and, indeed, all but the most necessary comic book trappings, Logan sets its scene in the southern US border states, circa 2029. There we find an alcoholic Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), aka James Howlett, aka Logan (we’ll stick with that one for simplicity’s sake) working as a chauffeur and drinking to numb the pain, both physical and emotional, that he carries with every limping step. He’s a shadow of his former self, his healing factor is barely keeping him together – he’s a lean, haunted, scarecrow of a man.

He keeps it together only because he has a dream of escape with his two remaining friends, the ancient psychic, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart),  and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), the albino mutant who helps Logan care for him. In his dotage, Xavier’s powerful brain is failing him and he is prone to “seizures” that unleash psychic havoc; Logan has resorted to keeping the old man sedated in a derelict compound across the Mexican border. It’s a pathetic, hardscrabble existence, but the three of them have a dream to shoot for: raise enough money to buy a boat, and spend their final days on the open ocean.

It’s a sad little life – the boat is basically the rabbit farm in Of Mice and Men – and it’s certainly no retirement for former heroes. Mangold sketches the sorry state of the world and our protagonists efficiently and effectively. This brown and ochre desert world we’re in isn’t quite post-apocalyptic; like Mad Max, it’s a world in the middle of collapse. There are no more mutants, we’re told, and the fates of the rest of the X-Men are darkly hinted at but never made explicit. The world has moved on, and there’s no room in it for clawed ronin and their silly ideals of honour and loyalty.

LoganThis depressing dustbowl tableau is disrupted by the arrival of three figures – a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) on the run with a mysterious little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), and Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg mercenary in pursuit of them. Laura, as it turns out, is perhaps the last mutant in the world, a clone of Logan experimented on by a shadowy corporation and imbued with an adamantium skeleton and claws, just like him – in effect, his daughter. The pair want to hire Logan to take them north to the Canadian border and safety. Logan will have none of it, but events soon conspire to put him, Laura and Xavier on the road, with Pierce and his cyborg PMC army in pursuit. And we’re off.

It’s unsurprising that Mangold, director of 3.10 to Yuma, would dress Logan in the iconography and narrative tropes of the Western, but it’s impressive how well it fits the material. The obvious touchstone here is Unforgiven, with its retired gunfighter taking up arms once more and its meditations on violence and morality, and Shane is repeatedly referenced. There’s even a touch of Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in its sweaty desperation – and in its violence. Logan certainly doesn’t waste its restrictive rating – right out of the gate, claws are popping and severed limbs are flying. Every action sequence is carnage, and Logan’s failing healing factor means he carries the increasingly heavy cost as the film progresses, his body barely holding together under the near-constant rain of punishment.

Yet almost none of it feels gratuitous – it’s all in service to the film’s themes. The cost of violence is heavy, and in Laura we see how violence perpetuates down through the generations. Yes, it’s hugely cathartic when she unleashes her fury on her oppressors, slicing femoral arteries and jamming claws into eye sockets, but it’s disturbing as well – as it should be. We and Logan are forced to look at this murderous miniature version of him and wonder what dreadful future this world has in store for her – and whether it can be averted.

Keen is incredible, by the way; her Laura is an odd-looking, intense, silent child, almost feral, yet desperate for familial love. Indeed, it’s the misshapen family of choice that she forms with Logan and Xavier that gives the film its considerable heart. For all the slaughter and the darkness, Logan lives in its small moments of warmth and humour, of which there are many – it’s a stern individual who refuses to crack a smile at Patrick Stewart swearing. The film also digs deep into Xavier and Logan’s relationship; there’s a quiet point in the film where the three have to pretend to be an actual family and Logan refers to Xavier as “Dad”. It’s incredibly moving, and all the more impressive in that it feels a part of the film’s texture and not forced.

We’ll drift into heavy spoiler territory if we push forward much further. Logan‘s story is simple, but its themes are dense and varied. The climax takes them all and twists them together in a scene of action and catharsis that will leave you breathless. Logan is not just a great superhero film – and easily the best of the X-Men stable by an incredibly long chalk – it’s a great film, period. The Wolverine story has moved in fits and starts over the past 16 years, with a few highs and plenty of risible lows but, by God, does it go out with a bang.

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T2 Trainspotting

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The impact of the original Trainspotting should never be underestimated. The 1996 black comedy was a stylish, darkly hilarious and incendiary film that propelled its director, Danny Boyle and lead actor, Ewan McGregor to international acclaim and influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. Not a bad effort for a low budget film about heroin addicts living in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The idea of a sequel has been floating about for years, and the book’s author, Irvine Welsh, wrote a literary sequel Porno to mixed results. Two decades and change later Boyle, McGregor and crew have decided to go back to the well and the results work, for the most part.

T2 Trainspotting picks up the story 20 years after the original ended with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) memorably ripping off his mates, Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy aka Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) to the tune of Underworld’s iconic club banger, Born Slippy. Mark returns to Edinburgh and finds some things have changed but much has stayed the same.

Simon is still the sleazy manipulator, Begbie (fortuitously behind bars) is still a shark-eyed rage monster and Spud, poor hapless Spud, is still an addict and bumbling pathos machine. As the story bops along to a uniformly excellent soundtrack we see that Mark isn’t quite the “local boy made good” that he tries to present himself as and can’t help but be affected by the memories of his home town, good and bad.

If Trainspotting was mostly concerned with the high and trip up, then T2 Trainspotting is about the comedown and facing the consequences and is a much more sombre affair because of that. The scenes where Mark and Simon relive their misspent 20s over lines of cocaine to the bemused stares of mutual love interest, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) are funny, sad and feel very true. The pair soon embark on a series of scams, including an uproarious theft at a conservative 1690 Club, and fall back into bad habits, using both drugs and other people for their own selfish ends. Of course, everything changes when Begbie gets out of prison and wants to pay his old friend a visit…

The entire cast of  T2 Trainspotting is in fine form. From Ewan McGregor’s dangerously charming Renton to Robert Carlyle’s just plain dangerous Begbie, however, it’s Ewen Bremner who steals the show, elevating Spud from the butt of jokes to a genuinely loveable, fully-realised character, and possibly the only relatively innocent man in a group of opportunistic bastards. Danny Boyle’s direction is frenetic and stylish, casting everything we see in an appropriate layer of grime, and he clearly relishes returning to the town and characters that made him famous.

Ultimately T2 Trainspotting is a worthy endeavour. It’s not the jaw-dropping, out-of-nowhere assault on the senses of the original (because how could it be?) but it presents a slower, more emotionally resonant chapter in the lives of these flawed but fascinating characters. The story groans a little under the levels of contrivance required to get everyone back together and a couple of the twists are heavily telegraphed, but for those who grew up alongside these characters – who also got fucked up in clubs and did bad things with worse people during misguided adventures in hedonism, it seems nostalgia can be almost as potent a drug as heroin.

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Fifty Shades Darker

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A film for which the phrase “universally derided” could have been coined, Fifty Shades Darker squelches into cinemas, as dumb as an inbred cocker spaniel, and as erotic as finding half a frog in your ice cream cone. It’s an across-the-board embarrassment for almost all concerned, and certainly marks the nadir of director James Foley’s career.

There’s a story here, in the broadest and most sketchy of terms. Following the events of the previous film, nascent submissive Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) tries to move on with her life, but it isn’t long before she’s back in the arms of billionaire BDSM aficionado, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Things happen in order to give the illusion of tension or stakes, but with no rhyme or reason: one of Grey’s exes (Bella Heathcote) turns up to wave a gun around, Ana’s new boss (Eric Johnson) is a bit of a sleaze, an old flame (Kim Basinger, whose 9 1/2 Weeks covered similar territory so much better 30 years ago) makes a few cryptic comments – oh yeah, and there’s a helicopter crash out of the blue. None of these are in any way organically connected to the narrative; they’re just discrete incidents peppered randomly through the film’s running time (“plot” is too kind a word for what’s happening here).

Perhaps all this narrative ineptitude would be forgivable if this thing was even remotely sexy, but Fifty Shades Darker fails to fulfill even its most basic remit – the bloody thing only managed to rate an MA15+, for crying out loud. We get a few limp sex scenes, one instance of elevator frottage, and that’s about it. The featured sex toy is a spreader bar, which is about as exotic as a ping pong paddle. It’s not transgressive, provocative, or challenging – it’s a snooze.

That’s the thing about this series – it’s not the subject matter, it’s the execution. This film fails at its genre, like an actioner with poorly executed fight sequences, or a musical with terrible songs. Fifty Shades isn’t bad because it’s erotica; it’s bad because it’s bad erotica. There’s a lot of noise about the problematic nature of the Ana/Grey relationship, but that’s missing the point entirely – human sexuality being what it is, people will fantasise about things that are inherently unhealthy, and perhaps the best way to exercise those desires is in the realm of fiction. But holy heck, it should at least be good fiction.

The cinematography is quite nice, but that’s the kindest thing that can said about this appalling mess of a film. The most perverse thing about Fifty Shades Darker is the notion that anyone anywhere ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.

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Legion Chapter 1

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Another day, another Marvel series, or so it seems. This one is actually coming to us courtesy of Fox, screen rights holders for all things mutant, and showrunner Noah Hawley, who gave us the exemplary TV iteration of Fargo. It’s his involvement that makes us prick up our ears, promising something a little different from the usual sturm und drang superhero angst and action.

Meet David Haller (Dan Stevens of The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), long time mental illness sufferer and recent suicide attempt, currently confined to the Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital. He has a best friend, the substance-abusing, sardonic Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, great) but he doesn’t have a girlfriend – that is until a new inmate, the mysterious Syd (Rachel Keller) comes along, and David falls hard. Syd doesn’t like to be touched, and David is fine with that rule, up until Syd gets discharged and…

…well, that would be telling, but something catastrophic happens, resulting in the bulk of the episode being narrated by David under interrogation by a mysterious agent (Hamish Linklater) while nervous SWAT-types stand guard, guns at the ready. As it turns out, David’s visions and delusions of power may not just be symptoms of a troubled mind – or at least, not only that, and there are serious people who would much rather he not figure that out.

The subjectivity of experience seems to be the central thesis of Legion. Syd (whose last name is the rather-on-the-nose Barrett) states it plainly at one point: “What if your problems aren’t all in your head? What if they’re not even problems?” Or, more plainly, what if what makes you special is the same thing that makes you broken – a provocative, potentially dangerous area of exploration that is nonetheless tantalising to anyone who toils in the arts.

We spend a lot of time right in David’s head with him, and that invites the viewer to try and parse what is real and what isn’t, a mode heightened by the episode’s use of a fractured timeline and repeating frightening visions and (presumably) real displays of superhuman power. For a while there the jury is even out on whether Syd is a figment of David’s imagination (the smart money is on No, unless this show is playing a very long and interesting game). There’s more than a touch of Terry Gilliam going on here, with David’s eventual embracing of what could be, by the show’s own lights, insanity, reminiscent of Brazil, and the psychiatric hospital echoing 12 Monkeys. Indeed, that second point of reference is a bit of a problem; the show’s aesthetic edges right up to the precipice of “unbearably precious”, frequently stunningly imaginative in its compositions and colours, but flirting with “twee” a little too often. That this is part of Legion‘s depiction of mental illness is sure to grate on some – a well delivered cliche is still a cliche, and culturally we’re right in the middle of renegotiating how we perceive mental issues – it’d be nice if Legion was the first of the new guard in that respect, not the last of the old.

Thankfully we have some sterling performances to carry us through, chiefly Dan Stevens as Haller, who manages to combine charm, humour, self doubt, fear, keen intelligence and a certain level of outright intimidating power in one package. It’s really a bravura performance – even when the episode is over-egging the pudding with its choices, Stevens is there to anchor it.

Legion falters when it cleaves too closely to the expectations of the superhero/comic book genre. A big rescue/action setpiece closes out the episode, and it’s easily the weakest few minutes so far; we’ve seen this sort of TV-budget action a thousand times before and besides, we know how this is going to end up – the stakes are incredibly low. Our first hour and change in the company of David Haller sees him and us hooked up with a mysterious mentor figure (Jean Smart) and her team of armed and superpowered accomplices – easily the most obvious place for us to land, and a bit of a shame considering what has gone before. Legion isn’t perfect, but it shows a hell of a lot of promise. Hopefully the more workaday genre elements will fall away as we move forward, and we’re left with something really new and unique. We shall see.


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Live By Night

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Live By Night begins with a flashback sequence and a lengthy voiceover jam-packed with exposition – not exactly an indication of a filmmaker in control of their material. And so, after three tightly primed, perfectly constructed films as director (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo), Ben Affleck finally gets caught up in the narrative tripwires with his fourth, which sees him shoot high, but not quite get there. That’s certainly not to say that Live By Night isn’t enjoyable, but there’s a flailing, uncertain quality to the storytelling that thankfully doesn’t carry over into the richly assured visuals. It draws you in and keeps you there, but when it’s all said and done, you’ll likely be asking yourself what it was all about.

Joe Coughlin (a swaggering Affleck) is a WW1 veteran turned stick-up man (“I went away a soldier and came back an outlaw,” he says in voiceover, locating the horrors of war and his subsequent distaste with authority as the instigators for his life of return-home crime) in Prohibition-era Boston. With the Irish and Italian mobs doing battle around him, Coughlin wants to stay independent, but is eventually drawn into the gangland war, taking on the Florida operations of the Italians, and instantly facing off against the KKK and other local criminal players in his fight for ultimate power.

On paper (the film is based on a book by Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River author, Dennis Lehane), Live By Night sounds like a trope-heavy rise-of-a-crime-boss tale, but the narrative  takes so many detours that it continually loses sight of the main road. While the array of supporting characters (Sienna Miller’s tough talking gangster’s moll; Zoe Saldana’s Cuban émigré; Chris Cooper’s religious sheriff; Chris Messina’s old school crim; Elle Fanning’s little girl lost) is consistently fascinating and strongly performed, their stories range from the under-developed (Saldana barely registers) to the flat-out strange (Fanning’s character trajectory feels like it’s been funneled in from a Flannery O’Connor story), and they constantly threaten to tip the film over. Live By Night looks great (the visuals come courtesy of genius lense-man, Robert Richardson) and feels right, but it’s ultimately akin to an elaborate Southern mansion built on swampland: it’s grand, stylish, and impressive, but its weak foundations lead to a lot of creaking and undue swaying.

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Director M. Night Shyamalan’s previous film, The Visit (2015) was such a charming return to form one couldn’t help but feel a sense of cautious optimism for his next effort. Apparently this hope was not unfounded and Night’s creative second wind (or Shyamalaissance if you will) continues with Split, a dark, Hitchcockian thriller with a sting in its tail.

Split’s premise is a simple one. After a supervised birthday party, three teenage girls are kidnapped in broad daylight. Popular girls and friends, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and twitchy loner only-invited-out-of-sympathy, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) all find themselves at the mercy of Kevin (James McAvoy), who imprisons them together in a windowless room in an unknown location. It soon becomes clear to the trio of unfortunates that their captor suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) aka multiple personalities, and they literally don’t know who they’ll be talking to from moment to moment.

The use of DID as a plot device is a hoary old thriller trope that has been trotted out in Psycho, Raising Cain and a slew of lesser films, and in clumsier hands could have come off as silly or exploitative. Happily, Night’s direction combined with a stunning performance from James McAvoy makes Kevin and his 22 other personalities simultaneously an intimidating threat and a source of genuine pathos. Kevin’s personas range from a bespectacled neat freak, to a sensual femme fatale, to a confused nine-year-old boy and more, and they all talk of the coming of dark new personality known only as “the beast”.

It would be doing the film a disservice to elaborate further on the narrative, but needless to say there are plenty of tense moments and genuine surprises. While the film loses a little momentum in the second act, the final third is spectacular, and takes the story in new directions without relying on a gimmicky twist. Night’s direction is minimalist and moody, and the central performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (who was similarly fabulous in The Witch) and Betty Buckley (who plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s shrink) ground the more unlikely story elements. Ultimately, though, this is McAvoy’s film and the 37-year-old Scottish actor absolutely kills in this role, giving it everything he has and creating an unforgettable cinematic villain.

Split is a low budget, B-grade thriller elevated by taut, suspenseful direction and a stunning lead performance. Its treatment of mental illness is unlikely to win fans in the medical community, but as engaging, compelling escapism it’s a wild ride worth taking.