Film Review: “Live By Night”

Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Warner Bros

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

If you don’t include the 1930s and 40s, the list of good gangster films is pretty short. Off the top of my head, I consider “The Godfather” trilogy, “Goodfellas,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Road to Perdition” and “Miller’s Crossing” to be among the best of the genre. I’m guessing that Ben Affleck also agrees with my list as his latest directorial effort, “Live by Night,” samples a little bit of all of them.

After serving his country in World War I, Joe Couglin (Affleck, who not only directed the film but adapted it’s screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane) decides he’s not going to take orders from anyone any longer. Wanting to “sleep during the day and live by night,” he decides to pursue a life of crime with two pals from the neighborhood. He doesn’t want to be a gangster. He just wants to be.

Of course, things never go according to plan and Joe soon finds himself in love with the boss’ girl, Emma (Miller). The boss finds out and, after a pretty good beating, Joe lucks himself into the hospital, where he plots his revenge. A revenge that’s not best served cold but one that emanates from the sunny prohibition streets of Tampa.

Directed with an obvious love for the genre, “Live By Night” is a stylish – man did they know how to dress back then – film that overcomes some obvious errors with a first rate cast. Affleck does fine as Joe and I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched the film, if he wouldn’t be perfect if they ever did a bio pic about Gene Kelly. He has the chin and he can certainly wear the clothes. Miller also excels as a girl who seems to be hiding a secret. As Joe’s rum-running partner and later wife, Saldana rises above what could have been a stereotypical “black woman in the south” caricature and makes her Gabriella a strong and equal partner. Other notable performances are turned in by Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson and Chris Messina.

Technically the film is quite faithful to the Tampa of the times and, as a Tampa native who once lived at Nebraska on 26th Street, I couldn’t help but swell with pride when I learned that Joe was selling his rum as far north as Nebraska and 27th Street. Not sure if I like rum – I’m not much of a drinker – but it’s nice to know that in the early 1930s I would have been able to have a drink every now and then!

TFF Film Review: “High-Rise”

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Late in the chaos that engulfs Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) welcomes a woman into his paint splattered flat exclaiming “I think I finally found the right tone!” Against all odds, he may as well be describing the film itself. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel that was long thought unfilmable (producer Jeremy Thomas tried 30 years ago), Wheatley and Co. have managed to create a wonderfully anarchic microcosm of a society breaking down as it builds upwards. If the social commentary–the hazards of worshiping material wealth, the “1%” literally living it up on the top floors–is simplistic, Wheatley’s production team offers it up in the most absurdly beautiful ways. From the brutalist production design to a stunning score by Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), High-Rise is a darkly humorous, sexy, and oftentimes grotesque cinematic experience.

The film opens with a bearded, bedraggled Laing foraging for supplies in the corpse-strewn detritus of his high-rise apartment building. “For all its inconveniences,” a civilized sounding Hiddleston narrates, “Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.” Laing then rotisserie roasts a dog for supper. As one does. From here we go back to simpler times three months ago, when Laing was just moving into the shiny new development. At floor 25 out of 40, the good doctor quickly learns the strict class divide of the upper and lower residents between which he sits–or, nude sunbathes actually–nearly smack in the middle. Laing is welcomed into the upper echelons by Charlotte Melville (Miller) as she dallies with lower-leveled married man Richard Wilder (Evans). Laing’s even invited to the penthouse occupied by mysterious architect Royal (Jeremy Irons, regal in all white). Royal views what he has wrought, one tower in a series of five, as a “crucible for change” while brain surgeon Laing pleases Royal when he describes it more as a “diagram of an unconscious psychic event.” Royal is so impressed with Laing he attempts to invite him to a decadent fancy dress party thrown by his wife. Laing is roundly rejected by Royal’s peers and experiences the first of many power outages from within an elevator he’s been unceremoniously shoved into. The honeymoon is over.

These early sequences of life in the High-Rise had me enthralled. Laing’s exploration of the tower is paired perfectly with Clint Mansell’s driving orchestra music, which manages to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the shiny all inclusive tower while suggesting the underlying tensions of the residents pulsing through the structure. One tiny inconvenience is enough to upset this flow and set everyone off into rage. To top it off, everyone is impeccably tailored. Meanwhile, from his place in the middle, Laing is able to interact with all levels of residents who can’t seem to grasp which ‘slot’ he is meant to fill.

Hiddleston’s Laing is a hard one to pin down and makes for a fascinating entry into the film’s madness. He initially tells Charlotte he doesn’t think he can change (he’s speaking of getting into a swimsuit but the line, like so many in Amy Jump’s script, is delivered with more weight than that) and for a while that’s true. Laing seems a neutral character, claiming he desires a blank slate in the wake of his sister’s death. When confronted with quarreling residents, he seeks to pacify the tensions between lower floor residents, the maintenance man and the architect who has accepted him. But the longer he’s in the building the more Laing’s crueler tendencies come to light. Mouthing off at a child, casually implying a deathly prognosis to a social rival–Laing’s mean streak is comparatively subtle in the shadow of Evans’s aptly named Wilder but Hiddleston is quietly menacing throughout. And his desperate need to keep his dress shirt and tie on is a nice touch.

As the tower devolves into darkness, murder and crammed garbage shoots, your enjoyment of the latter half of the film may depend upon whether you buy into the notion that the residents do not run screaming to the authorities. After all there is an outside world to this tower, this isn’t Snowpiercer. However Wheatley crams enough absurdist humor into these late stages that I, like the looney residents drolly contemplating lobotomizing their rivals, surrendered to a logic more powerful than reason. Or just damn stylish film making.

This film received its New York premiere at last week’s Tribeca Film Fest and is available to rent now onDemand, Amazon and iTunes–though for the best experience, hold out for its theatrical release May 13th!