The Arts

A Detour into danger

A Detour into danger

***

Detour

Gritty, hard-bitten and deeply cynical, writer/director Christopher Smith’s stylish Detour is deeply steeped in the trappings of film noir. For fans of the genre, this is a Detour worth taking.

Our hero, Harper (Tye Sheridan), is a law student who blames his wealthy stepfather (Stephen Moyer) for the accident that put his mother into a coma, and he drunkenly shares his suspicions with Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a hot-tempered, coke-snorting sociopath.

This, naturally, proves unwise, as Johnny Ray shows up the next morning on Harper’s doorstep with doe-eyed, hard-luck stripper Cherry (Bel Powley) in tow – eager and ready to exact revenge. The pricetag? $20,000.

Christopher Ross’ slick cinematography augments the proceedings, which twist and turn with assured confidence by Smith. The storyline initially seems to run in parallel directions, as if exploring different scenarios imagined by Harper. Then the narrative comes together in neat, nasty fashion – making Detour an altogether satisfying endeavor.

Sheridan and Powley contribute strong performances, but Cohen enjoys the flashiest role. He sounds a lot like Vince Vaughn, especially when bellowing – and he bellows a lot, especially when offering profane soliloquies and issuing threats. Moyer is smug and unctuous in his brief but pivotal role, and there’s an especially good turn by Gbenga Akinnagbe as a cop who’s not quite as smart as he thinks.

There are a lot of smart nods to noirs of yesteryear and more recent vintage, and a sardonic sense of humor and irony. Although this isn’t a remake of Edgar Ullmer’s 1945 B-classic of the same name, Smith proffers homage by having Kal Weber provide the voice of the physician tending Harper’s mother, one “Dr. Ulmer.”

20th Century Women a warm-hearted winner

***

In Beginners (2010), filmmaker Mike Mills paid homage to his father, and with 20th Century Women he extends the same courtesy to his mother.

Set in the 1970s, this bright, quirky and well-acted comedy/drama sees the divorced Dorothea (Annette Bening) raising impressionable son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with the help of assorted boarders and hangers-on including Abbie (Greta Gerwig), Julie (Elle Fanning), and William (Billy Crudup).

Each one is wise in their own way, each wounded in their own way, and each wandering in their own way – yet together they form the nucleus of an admittedly non-traditional, but unmistakably loving, family.

Much like Beginners, 20th Century Women is driven by its characters, some of whom occasionally provide narration – sometimes from the present perspective and sometimes from a future perspective. This could have been a hokey gimmick device, yet it works well in this context, adding a bittersweet layer to the proceedings.

The first-rate ensemble works beautifully together, with Bening’s neurotic Earth Mother bonding the group, and Gerwig (never better), Fanning, Crudup and Zumann providing the glue for this classy and appealing company.

Live by Night a major misfire

** 

Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane’s award-winning best-seller, is the fourth film Ben Affleck has directed, and although it has points of interest it is by far the least interesting of Affleck’s directorial efforts.

This epic crime saga, which occasionally recalls such classics as Coppola’s Godfather films, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), isn’t lacking in action or style (ace cinematographer Robert Richardson’s in top form), but comes up short in almost every other department.

Affleck brings grim, glum determination to the role of Joe Coughlin, World War I veteran and  bootlegger in Prohibition-era Boston, as well as the son of a respected police captain (the always welcome Brendan Gleeson), who tends to speak in platitudes and is none too thrilled by Joe’s vocation, nor by the company he keeps.

Affleck’s dry narration doesn’t help matters, and one of the major problems in Live by Night is that its characters aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting. These are familiar gangster-movie archetypes, be it the Italian mafioso (Remo Girone), who issues edicts while being measured for a new suit, the wise Southern sheriff (Chris Cooper) content to look the other way – for a time – who also tends to speak in platitudes, or Joe’s faithful, stalwart partner-in-crime (Chris Messina), basically a one-note sidekick.

From Boston the story moves to Tampa, where Joe’s attempts to build a casino result in a clash with the Ku Klux Klan, who aren’t so much irked by Joe’s criminal activities as his romance with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban immigrant who happens to be black.

There would seem to be more than enough material for a good film, but Live by Night is simply a  potboiler. It’s overwritten but feels undernourished, and there’s only so far the shoot-outs, tough talk and period detail go. The fine cast also includes Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Titus Welliver, Matthew Maher, Anthony Michael Hall, Clark Gregg and Robert Glenister, but none of them really makes much of an impression. Nor, for that matter, does the film as a whole.

   Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2017, Mark Burger

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