Friday, January 27, 2017

'Gold,' Panned

This review originally appeared on

I'm so tired.

So tired of movies centered on morally bankrupt white men men who get rich off of the middle class, or the poor, or the backs of minority labor.

So tired of movies about ugly men with beautiful wives who are just there to be pretty and supportive when the story needs it, and then suddenly unsupportive and antagonistic when the male hero needs an excuse to fuck around on them.

So tired of movies using the "inspired" by true events moniker merely as a means to convince the audience that the story's absurdities should be believed.

So tired of movies using a rock-and-roll soundtrack, tricky camera shots, and anti-heroes because the director has seen one too many Martin Scorsese movies.

I am so tired of movies like Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey and his fake (?) bald head, fake snaggle tooth, and real pot belly, which actually looks completely fake because it's paired with his still-jacked biceps; guess he wasn't willing to give up arm day at the gym.

He stars as Kenny Wells, the last in a long line of gold prospectors, in 1980's Nevada. After his father (Craig T. Nelson) dies, the family business begins to fail, forcing Kenny to make one last-ditch effort to strike it rich by pairing up with geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), who is convinced there is gold to be found in the mountains of Indonesia.

After constant drilling and a near death from malaria, Kenny's trust in Acosta proves fruitful, and he returns to Nevada and the arms of his loving wife (Bryce Dallas Howard, to try to turn the strike into a billion-dollar venture.

A lot of boring business negotiation scenes follow, as Kenny's dreams turn into reality. Of course, along with success comes the hero's inevitable descent in excess and predictable failure. The only original thing about Gold is that none of its rags to riches to rags characters falls into a severe cocaine addiction.

In movies like this, the getting rich part is usually the most fun to watch. But despite its 1980s setting, Gold is so drab, filled with beige offices, dreary dive bars, ugly hotel rooms, and bad clothes, that none of it is enjoyable. One scene follows the next, with no real sense of progression. Until someone mentions a date near the end of the film, we really have no idea how much time the story has covered. It could be months or it could be years.

For about 90 minutes, Gold just plods along, an all too familiar morality play, until finally, something interesting happens... and then about 15 minutes later, the movie ends. But I will give it this: It's a rare film that manages to close with a final scene much better than anything in the two hours of movie that preceded it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Standard Girls-Trapped-In-A Basement Thriller 'Split' Isn't Weird Enough

This review originally appeared on

In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan returned to the horror genre with The Visit, a film that was his best in over a decade. Now he's back with Split, another horror flick that, while not quite as good as The Visit, is at least better than anything he did after 2004's The Village.

Split centers on Kevin (James McAvoy) a guy who, seemingly out of the blue, kidnaps three teenage girls after a birthday party and holds them captive in a basement room. But before too long, the girls realize they aren't just dealing with one guy. Sort of.

Kevin has dissociative identity disorder (DID), or, as it was known back in the 70's when Sally Field was starring in a movie about it, "split personalities." He reveals three of them to the girls: A nine-year-old boy named Hedwig; a strict English-woman named Patricia; and Dennis, the sadistic and fastidious man who kidnapped them.

We learn that Kevin is under the treatment of a Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, channeling her empathetic gym coach role from Carrie), who is convinced that DID is more than just a mental disorder, and can actually cause physical changes in those who have it.

As the three girls struggle to find a way out of the basement, the social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a focus, and it's revealed she has a past that might have prepared her well for just such a situation.

Taylor-Joy made her film debut in last year's The Witch, and Shyamalan films her in much the same way Witch director Robert Eggers did. There are a lot of shots of her looking directly into the camera, and her wide-set eyes manage to suck you right into the terror she's feeling.

I imagine someone with DID is an actor's dream role, and McAvoy certainly runs with it. While we learn that he harbors at least 23 different personalities, we're only shown about five of them for any length of time, and McAvoy is often able to let you know which one you're watching before he even speaks.

Shyamalan built his career on plot twists, which was both his blessing and his curse. At first he did them well (although I saw that Sixth Sense twist a mile away). But the problem with relying on gimmicks for so long is eventually, it becomes expected, and as it is with so many expectations, disappointment often follows. More than once, the twist just ended up being a sucky ending. And I don't mean to say the twist itself was badly written, or anything like that. I mean that having a bad ending literally was the twist.

But there's only one thing in Split that's really worthy of a spoiler alert, and it's not really a twist. (Just be sure to stick around a little while after the end credits start, lest you miss it.) The problem is, without any real surprises, what are we really watching? People-trapped-in-a-cellar-by-a-maniac is a horror plot that's been used countless times before. Just one year ago, there was a much more original take on the concept with 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Shyamalan doesn't do enough with the tired premise to make it truly memorable, not even bothering to give all three of the captive girls distinctive personalities of their own (couldn't Kevin have spared one?). The movie's structure mixes in flashbacks, visits to Dr. Fletcher, and scenes centered on the doctor's own life, which short-shrifts the girls and their captivity, draining their story of any real suspense. And while I would never wish for another eye-rolling Shyalaman plot twist, by the end I was missing the commitment he used to have to just stick to the weird, no matter how silly it may be.

Friday, January 13, 2017

'Live By Night' Spreads A Stiff Ben Affleck Too Thin

This review originally appeared on

Ben Affleck is a good director, but has yet to prove himself a great one. His first film, 2007's Gone Baby Gone, remains his best, and it is no coincidence it's also the only film he has directed in which he does not also have a major role. In 2012, his film Argo won an Oscar for Best Picture, and I enjoyed that one a lot, too, but that was despite his presence as its star, and not because of it.

Affleck the director and star is back with Live By Night, and once again he gives us a movie that's good — sometimes quite good — but never great.

Set in the 1920s and 30s, it's a gangster saga centered on Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a World War I veteran turned criminal who has no desire to join the Irish gang headed by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Despite his Irish heritage and penchant for crime, Coughlin's wary of pledging his allegiance to just one outfit...but does pledge his allegiance to White's moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), as they conduct an affair behind the mob boss's back until White gets wise and tries to kill them both.

After a stint in jail, Joe has revenge against White on his mind, and decides to side with the head of Boston's Italian gang, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe and his pal Dion (Chris Messina) down to Tampa, Florida, with the intent of crushing White's stronghold on the rum-running biz.

Once there, Joe teams up with a brother and sister team from Cuba, who supply the molasses needed to make the rum. He falls in love with the sister, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and as his empire grows he also must deal with the KKK and the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), who does his best to turn a blind eye to it all, until his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), is used as leverage.

While Affleck may be a bit blind when it comes to his own acting abilities, he does have a gift for directing others. Everyone in the film gives a great performance. Sienna Miller's moll has a refreshing lack of vanity, and isn't afraid to look or be ugly. Chris Cooper, who has mastered the strong, silent, lawman type, has some great moments when that facade breaks. And Chris Messina, who gained about 40 pounds for the role, is such a natural at the Italian mobster thing, I'm surprised he's avoided typecasting thus far.

But the best scene in the movie features Elle Fanning's born again preacher, Loretta, after she's proven herself a bigger foil to Joe than the gun-wielding thugs trying to topple his empire. As she and Joe talk in an empty diner, Affleck the director wisely focuses tight on her face and her eyes, which reveal more about her secrets than ten minutes of exposition ever could.

Alas, the stellar performances around Affleck only accentuate how hopelessly stiff he is, sometimes literally, as he stands around looking like the cut of his double-breasted suits are one size too small. Joe is supposed to be a mobster with a heart of gold, unwilling to do the real dirty work himself, until forced to. But Affleck is so blank, we never believe his passions, whether it be for the mobster's moll, the Cuban beauty, or for his big dreams of opening a casino.

And while the story is sprawling, covering a decade, and filled with beautiful settings, costumes, and stars, it just never comes together to be the kind of epic crime drama it's emulating. And once again I wonder, had Affleck stayed behind the camera and left the lead acting to someone else, might he have been able to put together a great movie at last?

Friday, January 6, 2017

'Paterson' Illustrates A Life Of Quiet Inspiration

This review originally appeared on

Henry David Thoreau wrote "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Some might see the life led by Paterson, the lead character in Jim Jarmusch's latest film, Paterson, and think that in its redundancy and routine, it could be nothing but a life of secret desperation. But Paterson is really about lives filled with quiet inspiration, and the fulfillment that can bring.

Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). He wakes up every week day around 6 a.m., has a bowl of cereal, and then walks to his job as a bus driver. Before he sets out on his route, he sits in the driver's seat and works on poems he writes in a notebook. At lunch, he does the same. He comes home from work around six, and hears what the artistically inclined Laura has been up to that day. It most often involves painting various things in the house in stark black and white colors and patterns. After dinner he walks their bulldog Marvin, and has a beer at the local bar, where he talks with the bartender, and sometimes the patrons. The whole week repeats much the same.

Paterson's favorite poet is William Carlos Williams, who also wrote a book of poems called... Paterson. These circular connections are at the heart of the movie. Twins, echoes, callbacks, and repeated phrases turn up a lot, illustrating that feeling, akin to deja vu, where something odd might be mentioned, and then you start noticing it everywhere. (And let's not overlook the fact that Adam Driver is playing a bus...driver.)

The redundancy of Paterson's life actually helps to illuminate all of its connections. He drives a circular bus route, and lives a circular life. But within that life he derives inspiration for his poems — an ode to books of matches they keep in their home turns into a love poem; a recollected dream about twins becomes a poem about dimensions, and existence. (The poems in the film were actually written by 74-year-old poet Ron Padgett.)

Paterson is a comforting movie, in many ways. While it's set now, it harkens back to a time when men could be bus drivers by day, poets by night, own a nice little house, and a wife could stay at home, pursuing her own fancies. Paterson doesn't even own a cell phone, and their house is filled with a mid-century aesthetic (painted black and white, of course). His routine, like many routines, is comforting to watch. In fact, the film's only bit of drama comes from Laura's urging Paterson to change his routine by making copies of his poems, which only exist in his one notebook.

Some of Jarmusch's previous slow and laconic films could be seen as comedies, but Paterson is a bit more serious. Which isn't to say it's a drama. Instead it uses its long stretches of quiet inaction not for laughs, but to help build up a feeling of reality. And reality, as we all know, can sometimes be pretty funny.

Casting Adam Driver — aside from the name bit — is, on the surface, a bit of an odd choice, since he's a very physical and verbal actor, and Paterson is really neither. Frankly, I never thought I'd see Driver in a role in which he could be so likable, since he plays jerks so epically well. He's really kind of perfect as Paterson, since our experience of Driver has us a little on edge, like he could blow at any moment. His Paterson is still water that runs deep.

If I have any complaint with the film it's that it doesn't seem to treat his girlfriend Laura's artistic inspirations as seriously as it does Paterson's poems. Granted, she seems to have a different idea every day; one day it's to become a baker; another, to become a country singer. But her enthusiasm for these things doesn't seem to be taken completely seriously by either Paterson the guy, or Paterson the movie. (In fact, she ends up being pretty adept at everything she attempts, and in the long run, I could see her being more successful at her artistic pursuits than Paterson!)

Paterson isn't a movie for everyone. If your preference is movies filled with action and conflict, it's going to be annoyingly inert. But in a certain way, watching Paterson's daily life is exciting. Who's going to get on the bus today? What will they talk about? Is that fighting couple from the bar last night going to be there again? Will they still be fighting? What will he have for dinner? Something new?

Even a seemingly boring life can be a poem. And you can't photocopy it at Kinko's.