Thursday, January 26, 2017

Looking for gold in Indonesia

Matthew McConaughey headlines in a story about a major gold strike.

In the new movie The Founder, Michael Keaton reveals the character and personal drives of Ray Kroc, the businessman who turned McDonald's into a national phenomenon. Keaton gets to the core of the character without trying to physically transform himself into Kroc. In the new movie Gold, Matthew McConaughey takes a totally different tack, turning himself into a balding, paunchy warthog of a man who seeks to enrich himself with what's purported to be the world's biggest gold find.

I start here because I'm always a little suspicious of extreme physical transformations, mostly because they threaten to call as much attention to the transformation as to performance.

Gold begins by telling us that it was inspired by real events. I've read the movie was based on the Bre-X scandal. Bre-X, a Canadian group, in the 1990s reported that it had made a major gold find in Indonesia. I can't tell you the rest without revealing important plot points in Gold.

Know, though, that McConaughey's Kenny Wells is a fictitious character who joins forces with another character, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a geologist with a theory about where Indonesian gold can be found. Son of a successful businessman who specialized in looking for ore, Kenny wants to prove that he's as adept at prospecting as his old-school father.

McConaughey has given the character his all, which earns some respect, but the movie bogs down in familiar turf when Wells and Acosta take their story to Wall Street; predictably, the trappings of wealth dazzle Kenny, threatening his relationship with his loyal girlfriend, a convincing Bryce Dallas Howard.

Before striking gold, Kenny hits bottom; his dad's company -- Washoe Mining -- teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. A bereft Kenny travels to Indonesia in hopes that he can persuade Acosta to help him find the gold deposits that remain undiscovered.

Say this: McConaughey conveys the sheer joy Kenny experiences when he gains a foothold in the world of high finance. He woos an investment banker (Corey Stoll) and outsmarts a South African competitor (Bruce Greenwood). As if adhering to formula, Kenny's head is turned by a sophisticated woman (Rachael Taylor) from the world of finance.

Director Stephan Gaghan, who wrote and directed Syriana, keeps the movie moving -- even with a narration supplied by McConaughey, whose obviously speaking after the fact.

Hopscotching from Indonesia, where Kenny becomes deathly ill with malaria, to Reno and Wall Street, the movie offers visual diversity, and has fun with scenes in which Kenny allies himself with Indonesian leader Suharto's debauched billionaire son, although a bit in which Kenny must confront a tiger to prove his courage goes beyond far-fetched.

A major twist can't be revealed here, but Gold never quite strikes the vein for which it surely was digging. We've seen far too many stories about unbridled greed, ambition and dreams for Gold to register as much more than a showcase for McConaughey's transformative powers.

That transformation -- which required a weight gain of 40 pounds -- makes it difficult not to be aware that McConaughey willingly presents himself as the antithesis of the suave figure he plays in commercials for Lincoln.

It's a feat, I suppose, an actor who's like a runner who only knows how to sprint, but it's not enough to save a movie whose familiarity makes it feel as if much relevance has been lost.

A dog's search for meaning

A Dog's Purpose arrives amid controversy. The movie? It's no better than OK.

The other day, a friend told me that she had been looking forward to A Dog's Purpose as a welcome diversion from the cares of the day, which -- need I remind you -- are getting "yuger" by the minute. But she also had read that TMZ had shown a video in which a German shepherd resisted leaping into a water tank during filming. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for a boycott.

According to USA Today, the film's director, Lasse Hallstrom, called for an investigation. Producer Gavin Polone said he had reviewed the raw footage from that day and insisted that the TMZ release was misleading.

Obviously, I have no idea which side to take, but I have to admit that as a dog lover, any suggestion of the mistreatment of animals puts me on edge, and I certainly thought about the accusations when watching a scene in which a German shepherd, working as a police dog, leaps into swirling waters to save a girl who had been kidnapped.

Off-screen controversy aside, the movie -- based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron -- deals with a dog who's reincarnated multiple times. The dog, who narrates the film, retains the same consciousness as it moves from life to life, each time re-emerging as a new species of canine. Of course, that means that the dogs die, a process shot through gauzy, milk-white images that lead to the reappearance of an eager puppy.

To say that A Dog's Purpose steps into large piles of sentiment would be an understatement, but it's also true that the movie tries to temper its warm, huggy feeling with attempts at realism. A father in one episode turns out to be an abusive alcoholic, the shepherd's policeman owner is a lonely man who must watch his dog die from a gunshot wound, and a low-life owner abandons his incarnation of the dog near a railroad track.

The dog -- voiced by Josh Gad -- first appears as Bailey, a golden retriever puppy who's rescued by a boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Ethan's mom (Juliet Rylance) lobbies for Ethan to keep Bailey over the objections of the boy's dad (Luke Kirby).

Boy and dog bond in the movie's longest episode, as the story follows young Ethan to high school where he's played by K.J. Apa. The teen-aged Ethan also acquires a girlfriend (Britt Robertson) who quickly becomes part of what Bailey calls his "pack."

An aging Bailey ultimately must be put down in a vet's office before reincarnating as a female working in the Chicago Police Department. John Ortiz portrays the cop who takes the dog -- now named Ellie -- under wing.

We next meet the dog as Tino, a Corgi adopted by a female student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who doesn't have much by way of a social life.

The dogs' many lives conclude with the appearance of Buddy, an Australian Shepherd/St. Bernard Mix who finds his way to the farm operated by the new-grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Buddy decides that it's his job to reunite Ethan with the now grown Hannah (Peggy Lipton).

The Swedish-born Hallstrom (Hachi, A Dog's Tale, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules) uses period music to let us know that the story is advancing from the '50s to the present. He includes some shots from the point of view of the movie's various dogs, and milks the emotional scenes for tears.

Because of some of its darker twists, I'm not sure about the age-appropriateness of the movie, which clearly is aimed at a family audience. And, yes, the dogs are cute and expressive in the way only dogs can be.

So what about a dog's purpose? In his various lives, our doggy narrator keeps wondering about the purpose of his life. Unable to enroll in a philosophy course or experience a religious epiphany, our reincarnated canine eventually concludes that his purpose is a simple one: Rather than posing unanswerable questions, he should simply "be here now."

It's not depicted, but can we assume that somewhere along the line, the dog has read Ram Dass? If you don't get the reference, you missed the '70s, and it's too late to go back.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

'La La Land' leads the Oscar pack

Let's get the details out of the way. If you're looking for a full list of Oscar nominees for the 89th edition of the Academy Awards, click here.

This year's nominations -- 14 for the likable but, in my view, overrated La La Land -- provide an antidote to last year's much maligned #OscarsSoWhite.

In the acting category alone, seven actors of color were nominated.

In the documentary feature category, four of the five nominated films were directed by black Americans.

Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight, was nominated in the best director category and his movie made Oscar's best-picture list.

Equally important, African-American Bradford Young received a best cinematography nomination for Arrival. He's the first African American ever nominated in that category.

Otherwise, the Oscars were notable for what's being hailed as Mel Gibson's re-acceptance by Hollywood. Gibson was nominated in the best director category for Hacksaw Ridge, which also received a best picture nod. The movie's lead, Andrew Garfield, made the best actor list. I'm not quite ready to cheer yet.

Notable snubs included Amy Adams, ignored for her work in Arrival, and Annette Bening, who seemed a shoo-in for playing a harried mother in 20th Century Women.

Some people thought the always reliable Tom Hanks would receive a best-actor nomination for his work in Sully. I would have given Hugh Grant a supporting actor nomination for his work in Florence Foster Jenkins, a movie that earned another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep.

Speaking of Streep, I wouldn't have been the least bit upset if Taraji P. Henson took Streep's place on the list. Henson was overlooked for her performance as a math whiz in Hidden Figures.

I'm a respectful detractor when it comes to Martin Scorsese's Silence, so I wasn't disappointed to see it nominated only in the best cinematography category.

I'm also no fan of Nocturnal Animals, but was happy to see Michael Shannon nominated for best supporting actor for his work as a dying lawman in that movie.

Denzel Washington received a best actor nomination for Fences, but not for directing the picture, which wound up on the best-picture list, a fairly typical anomaly when it comes to Oscar. Nine pictures were nominated for best picture; only five slots are available for best director. Someone is bound to be screwed.

Dev Patel received a best supporting actor nomination for Lion. Is it me or was the performance of Sunny Pawar, who played the younger version of Patel's character, better? If Pawar's performance doesn't work, the whole movie is down the drain.

Other things to celebrate:

-- Naomie Harris's terrifying performance as a crack-addicted mom in Moonlight. She's nominated for best supporting actress.

-- Isabelle Huppert's best actress nomination for her unusual portrayal of a woman who's raped in Elle.
-- Ruth Negga's best actress nod for her work in Loving should be cheered.

-- Viggo Mortensen turned up on the best actor list for playing an eccentric dad in Captain Fantastic. Not his best work, but he's a fine actor.

So should we just give La La Land the best picture Oscar now or will the movie clean-up in other categories while losing best picture to either Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea?

Let's face it, though. This year, more people will watch Oscar because of the expected political tilt to many speeches than for any suspense about who takes home a statue.

More year-end honors

And while we're on the subject of honors, here are the winner's of this year's Denver Film Critics Society awards:
Best Picture: Moonlight
Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Jackie
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
Best Animated Film: Zootopia
Best Science Fiction/Horror Film: Arrival
Best Comedy: Deadpool
Best Original Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Best Documentary: O.J.: Made in America
Best Visual Effects: Doctor Strange
Best Original Song: Drive It Like You Stole It from Sing Street
Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Best Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann

Thursday, January 19, 2017

He saw the future: It was hamburgers

Michael Keaton excels in The Founder, the story of how McDonald's became McDonald's.

Everyone knows McDonald's, the ubiquitous hamburger chain. Not everyone knows the story behind one of America's -- and now the world's -- premiere fast-food operations. Founded in 1940 in San Bernardino, Ca. by the McDonald brothers (Mac and Dick), the restaurant revolutionized the drive-in food business by doing away with car hops and anything else that might slow the delivery of burger to customer. The McDonald's slogan: Buy 'em by the bag.

After some meager attempts at franchising, the brothers decided to focus on perfecting their formula.

But in 1954, Ray Kroc entered the brothers' lives. It was Kroc who grew McDonald's into a national phenomenon through an increasingly slick franchise operation.

According to the new movie, The Founder, the brothers were a couple of burger nerds who brought a high ethical standard to their work. Kroc ... well ... not so much.

In The Founder, Michael Keaton gives a terrific performance as Kroc, a man who always seems to be calculating the odds. Kroc doesn't just have ideas; he has bursts of inspiration, and he prides himself on his persistence, which he regards as more important than talent.

Keaton registers Kroc's thoughts with the quickness of a pin ball bouncing off bumpers; he makes Kroc a burger evangelist who understood that no ambition is too grand, and who eventually wrested control of the company from the brothers.

In some other era, an epiphany was something spiritual; as the '50s turned to the '60s, an epiphany shrunk in size. It was the light that dawned in Kroc's eyes when he first saw the San Bernadino McDonald's with its 15 cent hamburgers. You almost can hear Keaton thinking Kroc's thoughts: This, by God, is the future.

At one point, Kroc tells the McDonalds -- beautifully played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch -- that he envisions McDonald's as part of a small-town trinity: Church (with its cross); town hall (with its flag) and McDonald's with its patented Golden Arches serving as a bridge between the secular and the holy.

Lively direction by John Lee Hancock takes us from Kroc's days selling milk-shake mixers to the peak of his corporate success, which -- of course -- left the McDonald brothers bobbing helplessly in its potent wake.

Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) understands that few of us go to movies for moral lessons, so he makes sure to entertain. A sequence in which the McDonald brothers perfect their fast-food assembly line by drawing various positions in the McDonald's food chain on a tennis court becomes exactly what one of the brothers calls it, "a burger ballet."

As Kroc ascends the ladder built by his dreams, his ruthlessness becomes clearer; he sheds his first wife (Laura Dern). Before that he meets the woman (Linda Cardellini) who'll become his next wife. Gradually, he grows into the image he has created for himself, and it's exciting to watch Keaton expand Kroc's ego to match his achievements.

In a powerful scene toward the movie's end, Kroc explains to the exasperated Dick McDonald that the thing he most wanted to appropriate from the brothers was their name. He figured McDonald had an all-American ring that forever would elude a man named Kroc. He wound up taking not only their burgers, but their identity.

I can't say that Hancock, working from a screenplay by Robert D. Siegel, has made the Citizen Kane of fast food, but he's made an entertaining movie with enough substance to give you pause.

Let me summarize with something that may sound familiar in these days of ascending Trumpism:
The McDonald brothers were about burgers; Kroc -- in what probably could have been an even tougher movie -- was about being hailed as a conqueror.

A look at women of the last century

Annette Bening occupies the center of a rich, anecdotal movie.

The house in Santa Barbara, Ca., constantly is being renovated. Its owner, a 55-year-old woman with a teen-age son, rents out rooms. The tenants include a mechanic who's a little long in the tooth to be called a hippie, a young woman recovering from cervical cancer, and a teen-age girl who occasionally slips into the house to sleep with the owner's son. By this I mean, she actually sleeps with the owner's son, forcing the boy to subdue his raging hormones as she looks for a safe place from her sometimes promiscuous exploits.

If you were around during the 70s, this all may have a vaguely familiar ring -- loosey-goosey social arrangements that approximate the intricacies of family: a single parent who often find herself at a loss when it comes to child rearing, sexual exploration and an overall sense of being too harried to search for deeper meaning.

Dad? He's not in the picture, having left for New York to start a new life.

That's the environment that director Mike Mills creates for 20th Century Women, a movie that manages to create a feeling for how life felt in 1979.

Normally, that might seem too narrow a gauge to hold our interest, but Mills has made a movie dominated by the shambling flow of the jangled lives of the women who populate it.

The result is rich, funny and warm -- although about three-quarters of the way through you may find yourself wondering whether Mills will be able to bring all these ingredients to some sort of a boil.

If that never happens, there are plenty of compensatory moments along the way: When the car of the owner of the house catches fire in a parking lot, she responds by inviting the firemen to dinner. And when her son points out that this is not exactly a normal response, she can't understand why her behavior might be considered odd.

Annette Bening gives the movie's anchor performance as Dorothea, a cigarette-smoking mother who winds up parenting a teen-age son (Lucas Jade Zumann) rather late in life. Unsure how to handle the young man, Dorothea seeks help from her cancer-conquering tenant (Greta Gerwig) and from Julie (Elle Fanning), the girl who becomes a near-constant visitor.

Supposedly based on Mills's own upbringing, 20th Century Women benefits from the actresses who grace it. Playing an aspiring photographer, Gerwig brings a mixture of confusion and vivaciousness to the movie, and Fanning perfectly captures the incipient world-weariness of a young woman whose sexual behavior has out-paced her emotional ability to deal with it. Fanning's character is a mass of contradictions; she's exploring her womanhood before even leaving the backpack stage.

Needless to say Dorothea's experiment doesn't entirely work. After Jamie goes clubbing with Gerwig's character, Dorothea wistfully muses that she'll never see that side of her son, a teen-ager trying to negotiate a separate social world for himself.

It's possible that the other actresses were inspired by the gifted Bening, whose Dorothea presides over the house, tries to maintain her composure and allow her son a degree of freedom he hasn't really sought.

In his best role in a long time, Billy Crudup plays a mechanic, the man in the house who tires to keep his poise. He, too, seems to be stuck in an emotional limbo.

Finding his way proves difficult for young Jamie, whose life is guided by three formidable but sometimes floundering women. We're told the story through Jamie's eyes.

Enjoyable in pieces -- and I don't mean that as a slam -- 20th Century Women makes a simple request: It asks us to spend some time with these appealing characters. They engage us in a series of gestures and responses that, like life itself, can charm, amuse and confound.

He has personalities to spare

James McAvoy helps give M. Night Shyamalan's Split its charge.

First things first. Apart from The Sixth Sense, I'm not much of an M. Night Shyamalan fan. Having said that, I also have to say that Shyamalan's latest qualifies as a better-than-average horror/thriller, a movie that at its best, exhibits a nightmarish intensity.

Mostly set in a basement occupied by a loner with Dissociative Identity Disorder; i.e., multiple personalities, Split provides actor James McAvoy with a dream vehicle.

McAvoy acts out a variety of his character's 23 different personalities -- all set around a situation in which McAvoy's Kevin abducts three high-school girls and holds them as prisoners. Kevin declares his hostages "sacred food," and, in one guise or another, administers to them or scares the daylights out of them.

The kick of the movie involves the way these young women (Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson and Anya Taylor-Joy) discover Kevin's various personalities, which include a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, a prissy schoolmarmish woman and a guy who seems to regard himself as the caretaker of Kevin's underground domain. The precise location of Kevin's lair is part of the movie's mystery.

When Kevin meets with his mostly sympathetic psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), he usually appears as Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. Buckley's character carries the burden of expanding the movie's reach. Her character believes that those suffering with D.I.D. may hold the key to a dimly understood form of human transformation.

Of the young women, only Taylor-Joy's Casey receives much by way of background; her story -- seen in flashback -- involves horrific experiences with an uncle who helped turn her into a dejected outsider.

None of this is to say that Split doesn't have exploitative elements: The girls all wear short skirts and sometimes less, the movie's climactic scenes probably push a little too hard and not all of Split proves credible.

Still, McAvoy, with shaved head and predatory grin, approaches his perverse task with obvious relish, and Shyamalan whips up plenty of tension -- even in the face of some predictable twists and turns.

January, of course, isn't known as prime territory for quality movies, but Split is creepy enough to satisfy the folks who like this sort of thing.

Stick around for the epilogue that begins during the end credits. It contains a surprise.

A movie that squanders a strong start

For a while The Ardennes plays like a hard-boiled movie that wants to take us into the world of two brothers locked in conflict. With his debut feature, Belgian director Robin Pront begins as if he might want to follow in the footsteps of two other Belgian directors, the estimable Dardenne brothers, filmmakers whose work (The Promise and Rosetta) is known for its uncompromising authenticity. Opening with a robbery that goes wrong, Pront quickly establishes that Kenny (Kevin Janssens) will take the fall for his girlfriend (Veerle Baetens) and his younger brother (Jeroen Perceval). During Kenny's four years in stir, Perceval's Dave and Baetens's Sylvie have become lovers. They're trying their best to go straight, and worry about how they're going to deal with the newly released Kenny, a brute with a volatile temper and a king-sized stock of prejudices. Grit and tension keep the movie percolating until an ending that seems more contrived than anything that preceded it. What has been a credible story makes room for weird characters, grisly violence and bizarre twists that make it seem as if Pront is trying way too hard to give his movie a feeling of pulp novelty. Too bad because Baetens, Perceval and Janssen clearly were capable of more than The Ardennes ultimately delivers. Note: The movie is named for the forest where the Battle of the Bulge was fought because that's where Kenny and Dave wind up finding the story's overstated and violent conclusion.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A bus driver who writes poetry

Jim Jarmusch's Paterson proves quietly affecting.

Jim Jarmusch's Paterson might be viewed as an attempt to connect with a frayed piece of a romanticized blue-collar past. Set in Paterson, N.J., and populated by a main character with the same name as the town, the movie walks in the shadow of some of the city's more renowned sons: Lou Costello, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams to name three.

On it surface, Paterson brings us into the life of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who writes poetry and whose live-in lover (Golshifteh Farahani) makes cupcakes, designs draperies and dreams of being a country singer.

Jarmusch takes us through a week in Paterson's life; at first, it may seem as if Paterson's art is not to be taken seriously, but it grows as the movie progresses in typical Jarmusch deadpan fashion, part meditation, part reverie, part fantasy portrait of a lumpen world where art lives without any trace of pretension.

Paterson is the kind of quiet movie in which a meeting between Paterson and a young poet (Sterling Jerins), proves stirring, an impromptu connection between artists. We also see Paterson driving his bus, listening to the conversations of passengers, two working men exchanging boastful stories about women or two kids talking about Halloween costumes.

Every night, Paterson takes his bulldog Marvin for a walk; he stops at the local bar for a beer and listens to the various travails of the customers, the most pointed of which is a story of scorned love. William Jackson Harper plays a man who doesn't seem to know how to take "no" for an answer.

Of course, the bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley) keeps pictures of some of Paterson's more famous residents on the wall behind the bar, his own hall of fame.

The movie gives both Paterson and Laura artistic lives; she dreams of having a Tammy Wynette brand of success. Her ambitions are cockeyed and outward. Paterson doesn't really seem to have dreams. He just does his thing, yet it's Paterson's poems that really seem to matter in the flow of things.

There's a sweet softness to Paterson, which -- I suppose -- can be taken as a near ode to the grace in ordinary lives, a grace that's disrupted when Paterson and Laura attend a movie, and Marvin eats most of Paterson's poetry notebook.

Has the art battle finally been lost?

Paterson probably is inconceivable without Driver, who adapts to Jarmusch's style with spectacular ease -- and without totally suppressing his personality. There's sincerity, but also a bit of wry irony to Paterson -- and that's all thanks to Driver.

The poems Paterson writes are the work of Ron Padgett, including an ode to Ohio Blue Tip matches. Early on, Paterson stops by the Great Falls, a Paterson landmark, to finish writing a poem. Jarmsuch superimposes images of the falls on Paterson as he sits and writes. Words of his poem appear on the screen. Perhaps the inexorable flow of water and the writing of a poem are really the same thing. Or maybe we're just watching a guy who's stopping for a quiet lunch.

After Paterson's notebook is lost, a Japanese visitor (Masatoshi Nagase) tries to bring a dejected Paterson back to his art. It may sound a bit trite, but every loss also opens a new blank page. Do we, the movie may be asking, have the courage to face the opportunity it presents?

A gangster epic that falls short

Ben Affleck tries his hand at a large-scale, Prohibition era movie.

In Live By Night -- Affleck's second adaptation of a novel by author Dennis Lahane after 2007's Gone Baby Gone -- the director broadens his reach with a gangster story that begins with crime in Boston and moves to Prohibition rum-running in Florida.

But once Live By Night leaves Boston for Tampa, Fla., the movie goes South, as well, losing both focus and authenticity. Put another way, Live By Night represents a step backward from Affleck's work in both The Town and in Argo.

In look and in scope, Live by Night qualifies as a big, rambling gangster movie with Affleck at its center. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, an ordinary guy who returned from World War I determined never to be bossed around again. As a result, Joe becomes an outlaw, probably not the occupation his police official father (Brendan Gleeson) had in mind for his son.

Joe quickly gets crosswise with Albert White (Robert Glenister), the head of the Boston's Irish mob. How could it be otherwise? Joe has been carrying on an affair with one of the mobster's mistresses (Sienna Miller). Joe's in love with Miller's Emma Gould. Let's just say she's more pragmatic about the relationship.

After a stint in jail, Joe winds up in Tampa where he takes over the rum-running business for the head of the Boston Italian mob, one Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe has two ambitions: to support himself and to avenge himself on Albert White, who also has moved to Florida.

Back in Boston, White not only nearly beat Joe to death; he also took out his rage on Emma.

Joe's romantic life moves on when he falls for the sister of a Cuban rum runner (Zoe Salanda). His crime dealings also put him in contact with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), a man who claims to be incorruptible but who ignores the criminals who thrive in his midst, as well as the local chapter of the KKK, which is lead by a sneering sadist named RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher).

In all matters violent, Joe receives help from his pal Dion (a bulked up Chris Messina).

If all this weren't enough, an additional subplot introduces the sheriff's daughter (Elle Fanning), a young woman who's corrupted before turning to evangelism.

Affleck loads up on gangster glamor, vintage cars and a variety of locations that create the impression that the movie wants to enter the big-time gangster pantheon.

Affleck also doesn't skimp on gun play and harsh violence, which he punctuates with double-barreled blasts of portentous dialogue about fate, justice and the way things tend to come back to haunt a person in unexpected ways.

As Joe, Affleck appears in nearly every frame, but this is one of his more subdued performances, maybe because he's also overseeing the logistics of a large-scale production with a big cast and tons of atmosphere, much of it confined to a crime-riddled section of Tampa during the 1930s.

Intermittently intriguing, Live by Night doesn't pack the intended wallop. Its ideas seem to grow artificially from a story that badly needed paring down. In the end, Live By Night feels more like a well-appointed imitation of a gangster epic rather than the real thing.

Heroism on a bad day in Boston

Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg reunite for a look at the Boston Marathon bombing.

Patriots Day reunites director Peter Berg with actor Mark Wahlberg for a look at the horrible April day during which the 2013 Boston Marathon was disrupted by terrorist bombings.

Berg, who directed Wahlberg in Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, approaches the story from two mostly compatible directions: On one hand, he's writing an ode to the city of Boston. He's celebrating the strength and good will of the city's ordinary residents. He supplements that ode to Boston with a police procedural about the frantic search to find the two bombers, who fled the scene of their foul handiwork.

Tense and well-edited, Patriots Day focuses mainly on a slightly disaffected Boston sergeant (Wahlberg) who, at the picture's opening, receives a kind of punishment assignment: He must serve in uniform at the finish line of the marathon, a job he regards as the equivalent of penance. He refers to his uniform -- not usually part of his detective's garb -- as a "clown suit."

Naturally, Wahlberg's Tommy Saunders gets more than he bargained for when a couple of bombs, planted in pressure cookers, turn a day of celebration into a day of bloodshed and grief.

In this case, Wahlberg portrays a character whose personal struggles really don't amount to much; Tommy grumbles about drawing uniformed duty, but he's basically a good-natured policeman who loves his city and his wife (Michelle Monaghan). Wahlberg certainly knows this character, and inhabits him with ease.

We also meet a variety of other characters. Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent heading the hunt for the bombers from a Boston warehouse; John Goodman portrays the city's police commissioner.

We also meet a young couple (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea) who become victims of the bombers, as does an MIT security guard (Jake Picking) and a young Chinese app designer (Jimmy O. Yang), whose car is hijacked by the bombers while they're on the run.

Khandi Alexander has a brief, but entirely compelling, scene as the woman who interrogates the wife of one of the bombers (Melissa Benoist). Why Alexander doesn't find work in more movies remains a mystery to me. She's terrific here.

Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons suffers from no such shortage of exposure; here, he portrays a Watertown police sergeant who winds up with one of the bombers hiding in a boat in a Watertown driveway.

Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff portray the two brothers who carried out this monstrous act, setting off a tidal wave of heartbreak in what should have been a day of pure excitement.

Berg focuses on the chaos and impromptu heroism that arose along with the professionalism that it took to keep the situation under control.

If you're looking for nuance, it's probably best to look elsewhere. Patriots Day offers straightforward storytelling with an emphasis on down-to-earth patriotism.

But the real point here, I think, is to salute the working people of Boston as the heart and soul of a badly wounded city. Put another way, you might summarize the whole of Patriots Day by noting that Berg seems to be bringing us one simple message: "This is what we mean by Boston Strong."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Two priests suffer in 17th century Japan

Martin Scorsese takes his long-awaited crack at a novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo..

If director Martin Scorsese chooses to grapple with questions of doubt and faith, he should at minimum be commended for the singularity and intensity of an interest that seems to have marked much of his cinematic career, perhaps his entire life.

So it's no surprise that after 30 years of trying, Scorsese finally has taken a crack at the Japanese novel Silence in what some are calling the third in his trilogy of overtly "religious" films. The first two being The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.

Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese, the movie takes place in 17th century Japan at time when the country is being purged of its burgeoning Catholic population. The Japanese authorities are intent on staving off this first salvo of encroachment from the West.

Working from a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, Cocks and Scorsese create a grim world of suffering. The Japanese use a mixture of rigorously polite cajoling and brutal torture to persuade Christians to renounce their faith.

The most common form of renunciation involves stepping on a bronze tile or fumie that has been engraved with a religious image, thus marking an outward and incontrovertible sign of rejection of an abhorred western theology.

Silence weaves a story around its many torture sequences. Two Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to find their mentor Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They can't believe what they've been told: Ferreira has renounced his faith and taken a Japanese wife. He lives contentedly in Nagasaki.

Before they leave for Japan, their superior (Ciaran Hinds) warns the two priests that Catholics are being tortured and killed in Japan. He cautions them against what surely will be a life-threatening journey, but they insist on proving that their mentor didn't betray his faith, a task that's doubly important for them because they took their faith cues from Ferreira.

Visually, Garfield and Driver couldn't be more different. Looking increasingly Christ-like or at least like a movie version of Christ, Garfield's Rodriguez has doubts, expressed by his inner voice and prayers. His experiences in Japan test his faith, and he posses the questions that are supposed to drive the movie.

These questions are stated -- often whispered by Garfield as queries about why God doesn't seem to hear the cries of the suffering faithful -- but they don't animate the movie or give it a sense of urgent, necessary life. Some of that may result from Garfield's inability to penetrate the depths of Rodriguez's tortured soul.

Driver, who's less seen because the two priests eventually split up, is an unusual looking actor, but here, he's been given the face of a gargoyle, otherworldly and strange.

Now, when it comes to torture, the Japanese are portrayed as adept and serious. They drip boiling water on bare flesh; they tie people to ocean-side posts and let them drown as the tide crashes in; they behead people; and they wrap people in straw and set them on fire. As a kind of piece de resistance, Christians are hanged upside down, their heads stuffed into holes in the dirt. Small incisions are made on their necks so that their blood slowly drains out of them.

The Japanese characters are strangely problematic, sometimes cartoonish. The Inquisitor who engineers all this torture (Issey Ogata) has a caricatured look. I've seen Ogata's performance described as comic. It's certainly weird and unexpected.

At one point, he hears disconcerting news and his body nearly deflates, something in the manner of air released from a balloon. Very strange.

Yosuke Kubozuka plays Kitchijiro, a self-confessed sinner who sometimes guides the priests and who has become something of an expert on what it means to renounce one's faith. He's a repeat offender.

Oddly, the movie lacks an exalting climax. I can't say more about this without revealing what should be discovered in a theater, but I'll also say that the issues Scorsese takes from Endo aren't general issues of faith in the face of terrible suffering, but issues pertinent to Catholic ideas about faith, martyrdom and apostasy as Endo (and subsequently Scorsese) interpret them.

Torture, of course, is an obviously condemnable form of coercion and watching it is appropriately appalling, but I don't know why we should be more interested in this particular part of Japanese history than we are, say, in the Spanish Inquisition that preceded it by several centuries.

Still, this is where Scorsese has landed to make a film that has been bracingly shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Preieto, whose images have staying power and depth.

It's not easy to reach a solid conclusion about Silence. As intellectually fraught as the movie can be, it also can be boring and stilted. At 161 minutes, it may seem nearly interminable to those who aren't caught in its sway.

For a movie that seems to want to explore questions about the nature and obligations of faith, Silence feels as if it has veered off into an exotic and foreign territory from which it has excavated a story full of gruesome sights and narrowly focused preoccupations.

Like the character Garfield plays, Silence too often feels like it's living in a world of its own and talking mostly to itself.

A monster calls, a boy listens

A 12-year-old struggles with the looming death of his mother.
Few movies deal with what happens when a child must confront the death of a loved one. Fair to say, then, that A Monster Calls musters considerable courage in taking on a difficult subject by telling the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a 12-year-old boy who's losing his mother (Felicity Jones) to cancer.

Adapted from a YA novel by Patrick Ness, who based his story on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, another YA novelist who really did die of cancer, A Monster Calls plumbs young Conor's imagination by introducing him to a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who guides the boy through what may turn out to be the worst period of his life.

The monster follows a tough love approach, reinforced by Neeson's fine voice performance. The monster doesn't coddle Conor, but informs him that he'll be told three stories (beautifully animated set pieces within the movie) before learning the most important truth pertaining to his situation.

Conor isn't entirely captivated by the stories, which the monster concludes with some observations that probably are too directly expressed: People occupy various places on the moral spectrum at various times; few are entirely good or irredeemably bad; sometimes bad deeds have positive outcomes.

Aside from his mother's condition, Conor has other worries. He's bullied at school, and he dreads the prospect of living with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) after his mother dies. Conor's dad (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America, and has started a new family.

Director J.A. Bayona does a fine job mixing the movie's live action, animation and effects-driven scenes, so much so that the movie's somber mood may remind you of something that another Spanish director (Guillermo del Toro) might have rendered -- albeit in even more ominous fashion.

The performances are all good; it's particularly refreshing that MacDougall isn't a generically cute movie kid.

It's also touching that Conor and his mom are soulmates in the world of the imagination. Both have artistic inclinations. Perhaps that's how Conor learned to use his imagination both to cope with and escape from a situation he doesn't want to face.

I could go on, but let me say the most important thing: The movie put a lump in my throat, even as I wondered whether adults will want to see what can be construed as a kids' movie -- even if it really isn't a kids' movie of standard-issue variety. It's possible that A Monster Calls is more a movie about a kid than a movie for kids, particularly younger ones.

And some of the scenes may challenge parents to do some explaining, notably one in which a furious Conor destroys his grandmother's living room, an instance in which Conor vents his darker impulses.

Despite such cautions, Bayona and company have managed to make a movie that doesn't shrink from a difficult subject. Good for them -- and good for those viewers willing to give it a try.

After all, it's worth remembering that not everything that happens in childhood qualifies as kid stuff.

Race, not space, the final frontier

A little-known story about the black women who helped make the space program fly.

The old adage constantly seems to be proven wrong. What we don't know usually does hurt us -- or at least makes us intellectually and spiritually poorer.

Consider that while watching Hidden Figures, a movie about the little-known role played by a group of black women in the space program during the 1960s. Director Theodore Melfi deals with a story that has remained as hidden from most Americans as the women who inspired it.

Melfi delineates the racism experienced by black women employed by NASA in a pre-computer world in which humans did the necessary calculations for space missions, confirming the trajectories of rockets, for example. The sophisticated mathematical work conducted by these women was an essential part of NASA's operations.

The story focuses on three women played by a talented trio of actresses: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.

Henson's Katherine Johnson receives the most attention. Johnson, a math whiz, is selected to leave the anonymity of the computation squad and work with the big boys in NASA's Space Task Group during a variety of important missions. Hell, in those days, all the missions seemed important.

Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan quickly realizes that computers eventually would replace the humans who did the calculating. So she learned about computers, and made her charges learn about them, as well. As a result, the women of the black computation pool were fully prepared to continue working when NASA began automating things that previously were done by hand.

It's interesting to recall a time when computers were room-sized; the one purchased by NASA didn't fit through the door to the room where it eventually was housed.

Finally, Monae's Mary Jackson pursues her ambitions by making the transition to a full-fledged engineer, a route that required defiance of Virginia norms in segregated education.

Melfi (St. Vincent) brings upbeat energy to his adaptation of Margot Lee Shatterly's book Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. The movie's star trio is more than equal to the task of showing us the inequities these women faced and the determination it took to overcome them.

We're talking about a time when bathrooms for the races were separate, when educated white engineers had difficulty believing black women possibly could be their equals, and when segregation was so ingrained that Johnson's white co-workers insisted that she drink from her own coffee pot.

Kirsten Dunst portrays an aloof supervisor who refuses to acknowledge that Spencer's Vaughan is doing the work of a supervisor -- work that Dunst's character couldn't begin to tackle. Still, Vaughn receives no extra pay.

Kevin Costner plays the gruff but understanding white guy who focuses on the mission to the exclusion of everything else, including race. Costner's Al Harrison insists that Johnson advance in the hierarchy by joining the Space Task Group. Johnson's skills in analytic geometry are better than anyone else's in the group, he realizes. End of story.

Jim Parsons takes the role of the opposition, a white engineer who has no interest in seeing black women enter a domain previously reserved for white men.

Too few of us know the story of these women, so Hidden Figures instantly qualifies as a revelation. Beyond that Henson, Spencer and Monae are playing women who succeed for reasons that most movie characters -- men and women included -- seldom do: They're smart.

For a movie about math wizards, the story is pretty much told by the numbers, but a talented cast gives Hidden Figures enough freshness to overcome its formulaic moments.

Besides, it's worth remembering that while sophisticated scientists and engineers were trying to reach the stars, social conditions at home didn't always reflect an equal amount of intelligence and daring.