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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Granger at the Movies: ‘Gold,’ ‘A Monster Calls,’ ‘Live By Night’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

As a critic, I’m often asked, “Do you really stay ‘till the end of a movie, even if you know it’s not very good?”

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The answer is “Yes,” because you never can tell what surprises may surface — and that certainly applies to “Gold,” a twisted tale, chronicling the effects of greed and friendship.

In 1988, paunchy, whiskey-guzzling Kenny Wells (almost unrecognizably balding Matthew McConaughey) inherited his family’s once-profitable Washoe Mining Corporation in Reno, Nevada.

But it’s failing, so Kenny works the telephones out of a local bar where his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a waitress.

Enter maverick geologist Michael Acosta (Venezuelan star Edgar Ramirez), who convinces Kenny that there’s gold, hidden deep in the steamy jungles of Borneo. Forming a handshake partnership, they set off for Indonesia, establishing an excavation site on the banks of a river, where Kenny comes close to dying of malaria.

When they find gold, perhaps the richest deposit of the 20th century, Washoe Mining stock soars. And if getting the gold was hard, keeping it proves to be even more difficult.

Suddenly, they’re pursued by a New York investment banker (Corey Stoll) and his competitor (Bruce Greenwood), along with a flirtatious financier (Rachael Taylor) and the Wells’ family’s previously-doubting banker (Stacy Keach). Everyone wants a piece of the action.

Adding to the chaos, there are complications with Indonesia’s corrupt Suharto regime.

Inspired by Canada’s 1990s Bre-X mining scandal, it’s superficially scripted by Patrick Massett& John Zinman and unevenly directed by Stephen Gaghan, who relies far too much on Kenny’s expository questioning by an FBI interviewer (Toby Kebbell).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gold” is a fraudulent 5, proving that following what glitters may have unintended consequences.

Dark, gothic fantasy abounds in “A Monster Calls,” Juan Antonio Bayona’s empathetic exploration of how an adolescent British lad faces the terminal illness of his beloved mother.

Bullied at school, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) suffers from a recurring nightmare about his ailing Mum (Felicity Jones), for whom various cancer treatments don’t seem to be working.

Her rapid decline may force Conor to move in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) or relocate to America with his re-married dad (Toby Kebbell), who has a new family there.

At exactly 12:07 a.m., Conor imagines that the enormous yew tree in a nearby church cemetery turns into a huge Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who stomps to his house, reaches into his bedroom window and grabs Conor, saying, “I have come to get you.”

The Monster will tell him three stories on three consecutive nights in exchange for Conor’s sharing — on the fourth night — the terrible truth about his own horrifically repetitive nightmare.

Each visually effective tale relates to what Conor has been experiencing, since his fiercely protective mother doesn’t want to admit what’s really happening to her — because it’s too much for either of them to bear. And each story teaches Conor about courage and faith.

Scripted by Patrick Ness from his own 2011 novel, this melodramatic fable about dealing with grief and anger is deftly directed by Spain’s J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible,” “The Orphanage”).

It’s also Patrick Ness’ tribute to his friend Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before being able to write it herself. Next for J.A. Bayona is the sequel to “Jurassic World,” scheduled for 2018.

On the Granger Gauge, “A Monster Calls” is a shivery, insightful 7 — and truly heartbreaking.

As a director — with “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” “Argo” and “Live By Night” to his credit — Ben Affleck is besotted by atmospheric authenticity, particularly in his hometown of Boston.

After W. W. I, disillusioned Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns to Prohibition-era Boston, vowing never to take orders from anyone again. Resisting all authority, he becomes a thief and an outlaw.

Unfortunately, he falls in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), the sassy, selfish mistress of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).

Badly beaten and believing that Emma is dead, Joe allies himself with Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), boss of the rival Italian Mafia, much to the chagrin of his law-abiding dad (Brendan Gleeson), a bigwig with the Boston police, who warns, “What you put out into the world will always come back to haunt you, but never how you predict.”

When Pescatore sends him to Tampa to run Florida’s rum-smuggling racket, Joe marries sultry Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), a black Cuban emigre, making him a target of the Ku Klux Klan leader (Matthew Maher), brother-in-law of the pious, pragmatic sheriff (Chris Cooper).

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s daughter (Elle Fanning) takes off for an ill-fated trip to Hollywood, eventually becoming a Bible-thumping evangelist who opposes Joe’s plans to open a casino.

Adapting Dennis Lehane’s pulpy 2012 crime novel, Affleck drowns in melodramatic subplots and extraneous characters, consistently choosing clichéd style-over-substance.

Sumptuously photographed by Robert Richardson, it’s dazzling — yet self-defeating. Like when Joe emerges from a bloodbath without a spot on his cream-colored suit and matching fedora.

Jess Conchor’s detailed production design and Jacqueline West’s glamorous costumes are often more riveting than the chaotic action.

And, as the romanticized gangster anti-hero, Affleck’s torn between decency and deception — and that contradictory uncertainty dilutes his already-stiff, stone-faced performance.

On the Granger Gauge, “Live By Night” is a fumbling, unfocused 4. It’s fatally flawed.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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