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

Run All Night


Liam Neeson's having a bad night.

Liam Neeson’s having a bad night.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Common, Lois Smith, Beau Knapp, Patricia Kalember, Daniel Stewart Sherman, James Martinez, Radivoje Bukvic, Tony Naumovski, Lisa Branch, Holt McCallany, Aubrey Joseph, Jessica Ecklund. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

No matter how low you sink, there is always family. Sure, occasionally there are those who sink so low that their family loses sight, maybe even give up on them but that doesn’t mean they don’t stop loving them – nor does it mean they wouldn’t do anything to help.

You can’t sink much lower than Jimmy Conlon (Neeson). Once one of the most feared assassins in the Irish Mob, he was known by his nickname of The Gravedigger. He worked for his childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Harris) until Shawn decided to go legitimate and divest himself of his illegal activities. Shawn keeps Jimmy around these days more out of a sense of loyalty.

Jimmy’s activities have cost him everything. His wife, from whom he was estranged at the time of her death and his son Michael (Kinnaman) who is trying to build himself a good, straight and narrow life with a pregnant wife (Rodriguez), a little girl and working two jobs; one as a boxing coach for underprivileged kids, the other as a limo driver to keep the bills paid.

Jimmy isn’t really getting his bills paid, although his buddy Shawn bails him out once in awhile. Jimmy has crawled into a bottle and looks to stay there; even Detective Harding (D’Onofrio) who’s been chasing him for decades has given up on Jimmy, although he still wheedles him for the names of those he’s murdered so that some closure might be brought.

Shawn’s son Danny (Holbrook) is the heir apparent to Shawn’s legitimate business concerns but Shawn is a drug addict and a hothead who wants to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps. He makes a deal with Albanian drug dealers to import some heroin into the U.S. and wants to bring his dad aboard to legitimize the deal but Shawn is having none of it.

This is a problem for Danny because the Albanians gave him money to make the deal with his dad. Now the deal has collapsed and the money has essentially gone up Danny’s nose. The Albanians, who have a certain amount of taste for the good life, take a limo to Danny’s house to collect. The only thing they end up collecting is a bunch of bullets from Danny’s gun.

Danny witnesses this and flees home. Shawn finds out about the debacle and asks Jimmy to talk to Michael and make sure he keeps what he saw to himself. He also orders his son Danny to stay put. Danny being Danny heads over to Michael’s house instead and is set to shoot dead his childhood friend. Instead Jimmy kills Danny before he can kill his son.

Shawn doesn’t take the news well. He assures Jimmy that he is going to go after Michael with everything he has and once Michael is dead, only then will he allow Jimmy to die. Jimmy tells Shawn that this is a very bad idea but Shawn won’t listen and so Jimmy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to help his son, who hasn’t talked to him in years, stay alive through the course of a very long and cold December New York City night.

This is pretty typical for Neeson’s recent action movies; lone wolf killer sort on the downward swing, protecting family, killing anyone and everyone who threatens said family even if they’re wearing a badge. Neeson has this kind of character down pat and even though he could play it in his sleep gives it a professional effort.

Collet-Serra has collaborated with Neeson on some of his better films, Unknown and Non-Stop, of his action era. This is a slickly produced and photographed action piece, with Collet-Serra using the lurid neon and dimly lit bars and pubs of New York as an expressive backdrop. Although Shawn is rich, his home is the residence of essentially a blue collar guy, the background from whence Shawn sprang. Jimmy’s apartment is the home of a drunk, the last place on earth anyone would want to live but Jimmy looks at home there. Details like that can elevate a mediocre film into a good one.

The story won’t set the world on fire; we’ve seen this sort of thing before but Collet-Serra does it as well as it can be done, at least thus far. There are some peripheral characters, chief among which is Andrew Price, a methodical and fastidious hit man played by rapper Common and done surprisingly well – he’s impressive in this brief role and shows the chops it takes to become a big time leading man which hopefully we’ll soon see him become.

I have to admit, I’m an Ed Harris fan. He’s one of those actors who seems to never phone in a performance, always giving a terrific performance no matter what the role or how good the movie it’s in. He elevates every movie he appears in and he’s no different here. Shawn clearly loves Jimmy as a brother but is heartbroken over the death of his boy, driven to unspeakable rage that will mean the obliteration of his friend and his family. There’s a Shakespearean component to the role in many ways.

Run All Night is like many March movies in that it isn’t going to win any awards and is not likely to break box office records. It’s not going to wow many critics nor is it going to inspire legions of devoted fans. What it will do is provide consistent, solid entertainment for those who love action movies and Liam Neeson’s version of them in particular. Chances are you’ll get exactly what you expect you’ll get when you buy your ticket and you really can’t ask any more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does the hangdog action hero better than Neeson. Harris always lends credibility to any production he’s in.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays to Irish stereotypes. Somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Tons o’ violence, plenty of un-charming foul language, some drug use and lots of Irish temperament.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two young men in the film, the sons of Shawn and Jimmy respectively are named Danny and Michael, which are also the names of Liam Neeson’s sons in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk Among the Tombstones
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cinderella

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition(2002) Gangster Drama (DreamWorks) Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Darlow, Maureen Gallagher, Kevin Chamberlin, Doug Spinuzza, Duane Sharp, Diane Dorsey, Harry Groener, James Greene, Peggy Roeder, Lara Phillips, Mina Badie, Heidi Jayne Netzley. Directed by Sam Mendes

Waiting for Oscar

2003 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Supporting Actor – Paul Newman
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Dennis Gassner, Nancy Haigh
Best Sound – Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, John Pritchett
Best Sound Editing – Scott Hecker
Best Original Music Score – Thomas Newman
WINS – 1
Best Cinematography – Conrad L. Hall

Loyalty is a commodity that is very precious because it is so very, very rare. It’s been that way for a very long time – we are an inconstant species, truly. But then again, the earning of loyalty is a very difficult thing; we don’t give it easily for a reason. And for damn sure we don’t forgive when that loyalty is sundered.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a loving husband and father as 1931 dawns. His son Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) has an unusual relationship with him; the boy worships his father and yet there is a distance between them. Perhaps it’s because his dad does mysterious work for the jovial John Rooney (Newman), who seems to be one of the leading men in town.

But John Rooney is no ordinary businessman; he’s a gangster and Michael Sullivan is his main enforcer, known far and wide as the Angel of Death. Michael Sullivan Jr. doesn’t know this; he thinks his dad is a cop, or a superhero. So he stows away in the trunk of his dad’s car when he and Rooney’s son Connor (Craig) go to visit someone for a talk, and that talk gets out of hand and Connor kills a man in cold blood, forcing Michael to have to clean up the mess. Michael Jr. witnesses this and Connor, not being a trusting sort, decides to kill Michael Jr. and make it look like a random gang hit. Unfortunately, Connor is a bit of a screw-up and manages to kill Michael’s wife Annie (Leigh) and his other son Peter (Aiken).

This puts Rooney and his former enforcer at war and Michael goes on the run with his surviving son. He appeals to Frank Nitti (Tucci) of the Capone outfit in Chicago for justice and peace, but Nitti, not wanting to get in the middle, declines. In fact, Rooney has set the somewhat demented crime photographer/assassin Maguire (Law) on the two who decide to rob John of his ill-gotten gains and then strike out on their own. It is a time of father-son bonding in a wild era, on the run from everyone and beyond the law. But when one is known as the Angel of Death, you know that the Grim Reaper isn’t far away at any given time.

This was Mendes’ first film after his breakout success with American Beauty and Newman’s final on-screen appearance (he would do a voice role in Cars). Both of those events tend to overshadow the overall quality of the movie which was a lot higher than one might have expected.  The movie was based on a graphic novel by noted mystery writer Max Alan Collins and the dark tones and overall feel of that work ported over to the cinematic version nicely.

Hanks went way out of his comfort zone here for a role totally unlike any he has played before or since. While one can relate to his protective father side, the cold and brutal killer that the Angel of Death is completely comes out of left field for Hanks, who has more in common with Jimmy Stewart than Jimmy Cagney. Jude Law also has one of his better performances as the twisted killer and crime photographer who takes crime scene photos of his own crimes.

Newman makes a final performance that is a great one to exit on. His urbane gangster is generous and full of Irish charm on the surface but is as deadly as a snake below. The relationship between him and the Hanks character is spot-on, father-son type stuff which of course makes the real son of the gangster jealous which is part of what drives him to murder the family of Michael Sullivan. This is also a very different role for Craig in his pre-Bond days.

The depression-era Midwest is beautifully captured here and photographed adroitly by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, for whom this was his final feature as well (he passed away the following year after doing a short film). There are scenes of a confrontation between Michael Sullivan and John Rooney photographed at night in the rain which are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you’re not partial to gangster flicks, this is one of the best-looking and best-acted I’ve ever seen.

There are those who believe this is a good but not great movie and on that point I have to disagree. I think this will be thought of as a classic in the decades to come when the films of the 90s are discussed. At the end of the day, this is a movie that may be dark in tone but entertains nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it yet, this should be at or near the top of your must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances throughout, particularly from Hanks, Newman, Law and Tucci. Beautiful cinematography. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More somber than most funerals.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime scene photos in Maguire’s apartment are actual crime scene photos from the era, some of which were taken by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, the notorious photographer whom Maguire’s character was based on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD edition has very little other than a deleted scene that has Anthony LaPaglia’s performance as Al Capone that was eventually cut from the final version, but the Blu-Ray has two memorable featurettes worth getting – one explores the world of Road to Perdition in both the graphic novel it’s based on and the film, the other a retrospective on cinematographer Conrad Hall whose work helped make this film so memorable.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181.0M on an $80M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Bathgate
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: American Sniper