Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

Advertisements

Celeste and Jesse Forever


There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, Chris D’Elia, Will McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Shira Lazar, Matthias Steiner, Rebecca Dayan, Janel Parrish, Rich Sommer, Rafi Gavron, Mathew del Negro, Kris Pino, Rafi Gavron, Zoë Hall, Lauren Sanchez, Ashli Dowling. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Cinema of the Heart 2016

It is said that it usually isn’t clear when love begins, but it’s always obvious when it ends. Sometimes couples that seem to be made for each other don’t make it; staying in a relationship in the 21st century is no easy task and requires sometimes a lot more of ourselves than we’re willing to give.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) have been married for six years and they’re everybody’s favorite couple. Celeste is essentially the breadwinner, owning a trendy L.A. agency that has just landed Riley (Roberts), a brand new super-hot pop star. Jesse is an artist but doesn’t seem to have enough gumption to actually produce much in the way of art. Still, they clearly care for each other and share a great deal of love. Everything is perfect – except they’re getting divorced.

Their impending divorce is not terribly well-received by their friends, for whom they have been something of an icon; if these two can’t make it work, how can the rest of us? But most are puzzled by the way the two hang out together all the time, how Jesse lives in his artist studio shed in their back yard while Celeste sleeps in her own bed at night. Why don’t they hate each other? And why oh why are they breaking up in the first place?

However, this idyllic circumstance of two best friends begins to change as things inevitably do. Jesse, whose slacker existence was an issue for the more controlling Celeste suddenly finds himself in a situation that changes his outlook. Celeste is unable to handle the change in Jesse and suddenly finds herself adrift, not ready to move on as Jesse had not been ready to move on initially.  Now it is obvious that Celeste and Jesse aren’t forever.

Jones wrote the film with Will McCormack who has a supporting role as a pot dealing friend of the couple. The film has some smart writing, realistic dialogue (i.e. the characters say things real people actually say) and a hefty dose of heart. It also has a surfeit of indie cliches that definitely reduce my affection for a film that could easily have garnered more of it.

Jones and Samberg are at their best here; both are enormously likable actors who get roles here they can sink their teeth into. Samberg in particular comes off as a much more multi-dimensional performer than he had shown previously on SNL and the Adam Sandberg movies he had done. He has enormous star potential which he shows here and some of his Funny or Die clips. He’s one good role away from the A-list.

Jones has been one of those actresses who never seem to deliver a subpar performance. I’ve always thought her immensely talented and this is one of the first roles in which she really shows off her potential. Celeste is very complex and in some ways unlikable; one feels throughout the movie that Celeste is taking a good thing and tossing it in the waste basket but eventually we begin to see that things aren’t that simple and a lot of that has to do with Jones’ emotional performance.

The movie works when we get into Celeste’s head; Jesse seems to be mainly an instigator for the various things going on there. When the movie tries to be indie-hip, it drags – there is a mumblecore sensibility here that doesn’t quite jibe with the overall mood. When the film gets away from that sense, it works.

Some relationships are meant to be and others, not so much. It is how we handle the not-so-much that prepares us for the next ones down the line and makes us better partners. Not every relationship is forever even though we want them to be; letting go can often be the hardest thing we ever do.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones and Samberg make an engaging non-couple. Cute in a quiet sort of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times feels like there’s nothing going on. Overloaded with indie cuteness to the point of distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of bad language, plenty of sexual content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title was Jesse Loves Celeste before it was decided that the focus of the film was going to be on Celeste.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage and a Q&A from the premiere, and also footage of Chris Pine, whose tiny role was cut from this film before he went on to star as Captain Kirk.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an $840K production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Break-Up
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air

Devil


Devil

Joe Cobden admires the CGI buildings he can't see.

(Universal) Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Jacob Vargas, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca.  Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There are those that believe human beings are not basically evil; our evil comes from the choices we make. If that is the case, then the devil resides in our decisions.

It seems like an ordinary day, as five people board an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise; Sarah (Novakovic), an attractive young woman; Ben (Woodbine), a new temp working as a security guard on just his second day on the job; Vince (Arend), a slimy mattress salesman; Mrs. Tonjanovich (O’Hara), a matronly elderly woman and Tony (Marshall-Green), a former Marine just back from Afghanistan.

They’re on the express elevator but partway up the elevator comes to a bumpy and startling halt. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but what is strange about it is that every circuit appears to point to the elevator being perfectly fine. It should be traveling up and down the shaft instead of being stuck there, halfway between here and there. Two security guards, Lustig (Craven) and Ramirez (Vargas) are monitoring the situation via closed circuit cameras, but another strange thing – the audio is only working one way. The trapped people in the elevator can hear the security guards just fine, but the guards cannot hear them.

At first it seems just a minor inconvenience, but a time drags on and the building engineer (Cobden) can’t get the elevator to budge with no explanation as to why the elevator is stuck in the first place, the lights flicker out. When they come back on, Sarah is bleeding from a fairly impressive wound in the middle of her back that look uncomfortably like something bit her. Realizing that the wound was no accident, the guards call the police.

Conveniently enough, the police are already there; Detective Bowden (Messina) and his partner Detective Markowitz (Peace) were there investigating a suicide from the very same building. They try to reassure the increasingly panicked passengers (what doesn’t help matters is that Ben is claustrophobic, and Vince is something of an asshole), but the lights flicker out once again. When they come back on, one of the passengers is dead. It becomes apparent to everyone that something sinister is going on and as the body count piles up both inside the elevator and out, Ramirez realizes that one of the passengers is not who they seem to be and that what was happening in the elevator may be far worse than anyone realizes.

Director Dowdle (and his brother Drew, who co-produces his film) is an up and coming star in the horror genre, with Quarantine and the criminally under-appreciated The Poughkeepsie Tapes to his credit. This one is the most high-profile release yet, and he shows some real talent.

Most of the murders take place in complete darkness, allowing the imaginations of the audience to work for them. Dowdle relies on mood and tension to create the horror; while the supernatural element is certainly in the forefront, there aren’t as many special effects needed and in fact, there are really very few shots that make use of special effects (in something of an irony, there are more SFX shots establishing the cityscape than there are of the horrific).

Messina makes for a decent enough hero, a tormented man who is grieving an intolerable loss and whose back story is woven inexlorably into the fabric of the film. The cast is largely unknown and solid in their roles, with an occasional lapse into overacting from time to time.

Part of the film’s problem is the over-reliance on the voice-over narration to advance the plot. Ramirez, the film’s narrator, bases the events on a story his grandmother told him. As the movie progresses, the narration tends to mostly emphasize how each event being seen onscreen relates to a specific element to the story Ramirez’ grandmother told him. After awhile, it seems a lazy way to tell the story; in fact, the Ramirez character mostly exists to narrate and occasionally react with superstitious fear. For my two cents worth, I think the movie would have worked better without it.

That said, I must applaud Dowdle’s use of sound and darkness to deliver the scares. It’s very effective, especially in a large theater with a grand sound system that surrounds the viewer. I jumped several times during the movie and Da Queen, who is not fond of horror films, not only had a death grip on my hand during much of the movie but about pulled my arm out of the socket putting it between her and the screen, as if something were going to leap out and she would be protected by whatever it was devouring my arm first.

This is a solid horror movie with some pretty slick scares. I suspect that the connection with M. Night Shyamalan might hurt the movie, which is a crying shame. While I agree that Shyamalan of late has delivered some fairly mediocre films, there has been a backlash against him amongst internet fanboys who find it fashionable to flame the Pennsylvania-based director unmercifully. Unfortunately, very few of those who dictate opinion on the net actually take the time to base their opinions on the actual movie; it’s far more important for them to appear hip and funny.

That’s the crap part of net film review; the tendency for critics to go for the one-line zinger over genuine examination of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This is far from being a classic of the horror genre, but it isn’t a complete waste of time either. Those who like a good scare flick will be well-served to check this out.

REASONS TO GO: The movie makes great use of darkness and sound to play head games with the audience. Some genuinely powerful scares and a nifty concept make this worth your while.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie relies far too much on voice-over narration to tell you what’s going on and the Ramirez character seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images, as well as some frightening images and sounds. Keep the kids at home for this one although the movie is suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a projected series of films that director M. Night Shyamalan will produce and conceptualize, but not direct. During the opening credit, the Night Chronicles logo morphs into the number one.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly, the movie needs the big sound system to make some of the scares work properly, even though the movie is mostly set in an elevator.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist