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

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Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters


This isn't your grandparents' Hansel and Gretel.

This isn’t your grandparents’ Hansel and Gretel.

(2013) Fantasy Action (MGM/Paramount) Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann, Pihla Viltala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Joanna Kulig, Rainer Bock, Bjorn Sundquist, Zoe Bell, Kathrin Kuhnel. Directed by Tommy Wirkola

Even after I outgrew them, I always loved fairy tales. You know, the sort in which brave heroes outwit fiendish foes, beautiful princesses await rescuing and fantastic creatures exist in a kind of idealized Renaissance Faire-like environment which is free of disease, the commoners were well-treated by their land-owning nobles and nobody starves, living a simple life in which everyone is basically good. You know, Fantasyland.

Certainly it never existed in real life. Still, we all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister who wandered into the woods to find a cottage made of candy – what child wouldn’t investigate that. But then they meet the owner of the cottage – a witch who uses the candy to attract children whom she imprisons, fattens up and then cooks. Sort of like Gordon Ramsay on estrogen. Of course the kids trick the witch and shove her into her own oven. And there the tale ends.

But in a marvelous idea of what-if, a 15-years older and wiser Hansel and Gretel are posited. They have evolved into professional witch hunters, travelling from village to village to rid them of the witch menace while collecting the bounties offered. Hansel (Renner) ate too much candy at the witch’s cottage and now must inject himself periodically or die. Think of it as fairy tale diabetes. Gretel (Arterton) is a kick-ass ninja who while beautiful and desirable doesn’t seem to have any takers. Hansel, on the other hand has attracted the comely Mina (Viltala) whom he rescued from being burned by the overzealous Sheriff (Stormare) who resents the bounty hunters incursion into his territory. It seems that children have been disappearing in great numbers in the village as of late.

Notwithstanding, the Mayor (Bock) insists so the pair go after the kids and find the witch responsible. Which happens to be Muriel (Janssen), who has it in her head to perform a ritual in a few days during the blood moon that will let her create a potion that will permanently make witches immune to fire. Muriel also has a connection to their late mother (Kuhnel) and Gretel herself has in turn a connection to this ritual.

So they need to stop this thing from happening but they will have to get past an angry sheriff (whose had his nose broken by the no-nonsense Gretel), a monstrous troll (Mears, voiced by Downes) and a coven of very nasty witches who have a broomstick up their butts about the whole thing.

Wirkola, best known for Dead Snow, the zombie Nazi ski resort horror film of a few years back, has a great concept to work with. Unfortunately, his writers (of which he is one) do nothing creative with it. This is a generic fantasy action film with nothing unusual to recommend it.

Oh, Renner is good. Renner is, in fact great. He has a kind of sardonic grin throughout as if he is saying to the audience “Yeah, I know it’s crap but it’s a paycheck and I’m gonna have a great time making it.” He’s a terrific action hero as he showed last summer with The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. He’s a star and time will tell how big he’ll be. This movie unfortunately won’t help.

It might help Arterton though. She’s had some pretty good performances in films that ranged from good (Tamara Drewe) to not-so-good (Prince of Persia) and here she continues that streak. She’s due a movie that is worthy of her talents and one in which she’ll get enough fans where she can be a star herself. She’s not quite there yet though.

As you might guess, there are a lot of effects here much of which have to do with witches getting eviscerated by Hansel and Gretel (a sentence which sounds kind of crazy on its own merits). There is the troll who is well realized with some very evocative facial expressions; there are also tons of fire effects some of which looks none too realistic. It’s pretty much hit and miss. The 3D incidentally is pretty miserable; there really isn’t much reason to have made this movie in 3D other than as a cash grab; that they pushed back the movie nearly a full year in order to retro-convert it is even worse.

This is a major disappointment. They had a great idea but could think of nothing good to do with it. There are some humorous bits – drawings of the missing children on the milk bottles for example but not enough of them. The anachronisms – the swearing, the machine guns, the magic bullets – simply don’t work. They remind you that you’re watching a movie instead of being part of a mysterious. The reason that a movie like this works is that you feel a part of the experience. The reason that it doesn’t is that you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t.

REASONS TO GO: Renner and Arterton are pretty damn good. Janssen makes an effective baddie. Edward the Troll is nicely realized.

REASONS TO STAY: A great concept poorly executed. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence albeit mostly of the fairy tale variety although there is a goodly amount of gore i.e. heads exploding, heads being hacked off, heads being stepped on etc. – this isn’t a good movie to be a head. There is also some brief nudity, a bit of sexuality and a lot of bad language – who knew there were so many f bombs in medieval Germany!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100; the reviews are miserable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Pearl Harbor