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

Big Night


Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

(1996) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Susan Floyd, Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber, Pasquale Cajano, Gene Canfield, Andre Belgrader, Caroline Aaron, Larry Block, Peter McRobbie, Peter Appel, Karen Shallo, Robert W. Castle, Tamar Kotoske, Alaveta Guess, Dina Spybey. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Films For Foodies

A good movie can make you care about the story or the characters. A very good movie can make you care about both. A great movie will make you feel you lived in the story with those characters and want to then revisit that movie again and again. Big Night is just such a movie.

In the late 50s, a pair of brothers recently come to America from their native Italy have opened an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Called Paradise, the brothers intended for the restaurant to stand out from the mamma mia spaghetti and meatball joints that were what passed for Italian in that era, like the huge successful restaurant down the street from theirs that was run by Pascal (Holm).

The brothers divided their labors thusly; Primo (Shalhoub), the eldest, ran the kitchen and he was a culinary genius before we knew such things existed. He made an astounding risotto but all anyone ever wanted was – you guessed it – spaghetti and meatballs. When one somewhat ignorant customer (Aaron) asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto, Primo nearly hits the roof. “How about I give her a side of mashed potatoes with that,” he explodes, nearly refusing to give the customer a starch to go with her starch.

Secondo (Tucci), the younger, runs front of house and the business side of things and only he knows what desperate straits the restaurant is in. Behind in their mortgage payments, the bank is about to foreclose. He argues with his brother on his rigid high standards but deep down, he supports them because that is the kind of restaurant he dreams of running.

Their love lives aren’t in much better shape. Primo has a thing for the local florist (Janney) but is far too shy to tell her how he feels. Secondo has a girlfriend, the ever-patient Phyllis (Driver) who waits for him to propose but is losing that patience rapidly. He also has a mistress, the straight-shooting and sexy Gabriella (Rossellini) who is also Pascal’s mistress. She gets around.

Secondo approaches Pascal about a loan which the penurious Pascal is loathe to do, but he will do the brothers a solid – it so happens that famed Italian crooner Louis Prima and his band are going to be in town the following week. He happens to know Louis and will invite him and his band to a dinner at Paradise. The accompanying press and notices may be what’s needed to save the Paradise.

Secondo and Primo set to preparing the restaurant for the biggest night of their lives. With Phyllis helping out as well as their put-upon kitchen boy Cristiano (Anthony), it promises to be a night to remember but will Primo’s stubbornness and Secondo’s love life torpedo everything the brothers have worked for and drive an irreparable wedge between them? Either way, you know that the meal that they serve on this big night will be one that will be absolutely unforgettable.

Tucci, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to co-starring in it, was just beginning to get his career going when this was made. He has since become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors with a variety of roles in which he mostly plays oily slimeballs. In fact, writing this movie was an effort to write a part for himself that wasn’t the sort he usually got cast in. In fact, there are plenty of well-known names and faces in this movie who were just starting their careers out. Schreiber has a blink and you’ll miss it role as the doorman at Pascal’s joint, while Driver was a year away from her breakout roles in Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.

You become entwined in the story of the struggling restaurant and the sibling squabbling that goes on will feel familiar to anyone who has a brother or a sister. So will the struggles of the brothers appeal to anyone who has ever owned or worked in a small business. In fact, all of the characters have something about them that will speak to you; they may not necessarily be someone you know but there will be something familiar nonetheless…in many ways Primo and Secondo are the brothers I never had.

This is one of those movies that will get under your skin and stay there; you’ll want to see it more than once. Sadly, the home video edition has no extra features other than the original trailer. I’d love to see interviews with the cast now nearly 20 years after the fact about this great little movie that stands the test of time. Even so, the movie is well worth getting. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get an inescapable craving for Italian food by the time it ends.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written with terrific performances throughout. Captures ambience and era perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit ambiguous on the ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot over a period of just 35 days. Tucci and Shalhoub would work together many times following this film, including in the film The Imposters as well as on Shalhoub’s hit TV show Monk.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.0M on a $4.1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)


Broken Embraces

An embrace to take them away from the hideousness of the decor, at least for a little while.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portilla, Tamar Novas, Kiti Manver, Jose Luis Garcia, Chus Lampreave, Lola Duenas, Angela Molina, Ruben Ochandiano. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

We are all of us the sum total of all the people we have been in our lives. That which we are is a direct result of that which we were. In some cases, what we were is so far from what we are now that they are almost different lives.

Harry Caine – a clever play of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime (The Third Man) and Citizen Kane – is the pseudonym that Mateo Blanco (Homar) has taken. Blanco was once one of the world’s leading film directors, but a tragic auto accident robbed him of his sight. He is still a successful screenwriter, living in a Madrid apartment cared for by longtime personal assistant Judit Garcia (Portilla) and her sweet son Diego (Novas). Judit has deeper feelings for Mateo than just being his assistant, incidentally. This is neither here nor there in terms of the plot; it’s just the way it is.

Mateo although middle aged and blind, is still a bit of a playa – he just uses his disability to help get attractive women in the sack. He has evidently always been a ladies’ man. One day, while Judit is out of town on business, Mateo is approached by a young man calling himself Ray X (Ochandiano) who wants Mateo to write a film with a very specific plot. Mateo is intrigued until he realizes who Ray X is – and what he really wants. Diego, who hasn’t a clue, asks Mateo to tell him. Mateo gives him a story, the defining story of his life and of the last movie he ever directed, “Girls and Suitcases.”

It was the early 90s and Mateo was on top of his game. One of his producers, Ernesto Martel (Gomez), a wealthy industrialist arranges to have his mistress Lena (Cruz) granted a screen test. Mateo isn’t expecting much but does it to keep his investor happy. Instead, he is completely entranced by this beautiful woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

Soon, Martel begins to suspect that his mistress is cheating on him and sics his son on them to film everything they do, ostensibly in the mask of a documentary filmmaker capturing the making of the movie. And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Martel’s son is none other than Ray X. Soon, the tension begins to escalate and Martel begins to show signs that he is willing to do anything to keep his mistress as his own – up to and including murder.

This isn’t typical of an Almodovar movie. For one thing, the story is told much more conventionally than in most of his films. However, his fondness for combining genres – in this case suspense, romance, film noir and even comedy – is very much in evidence here. This is the most Hitchcock-like of Almodovar’s movies; I can certainly see the master of suspense making a movie like that were he alive today, although knowing Hitchcock he’d have cast a blonde (someone like Naomi Watts) in the lead role.

Almodovar always seems to bring out the best in Penelope Cruz and this emerges as another great performance by the Spanish actress. She is certainly a victim in many ways in this movie, but she is also a victimizer, one who wraps men around her small fingers and uses her sexuality to get what she wants. When she finally finds a soulmate, she finds herself in a dilemma of her own making; only she knows what Martel is capable of and she is absolutely terrified.

I also like Homar, a veteran Catalonian actor from Barcelona (and who previously worked with Almodovar on Bad Education) who bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer here. He has two different roles to play; one the confident director, the other the embittered blind writer. The differences are subtle, but Homar pulls it off nicely.

Almodovar is fond of bright colors, and there are a whole lot of them here – apparently to his mind the Spain of the 1990s looked a lot like the Britain of the 1970s. There are a lot of reds in the movie and I don’t mean commies or retired assassins. I mean the shade of red; it is noticeable in nearly every scene.

People looking for Almodovar here will see glimpses of him but this is perhaps his most mainstream movie ever. People looking for a conventional suspense movie will finds glimpses of one but this is a bit on the art house side. I can say it is compellingly written, with well-drawn characters and an ending that while it doesn’t come from left field, at least is satisfactory enough. I’ve never been Almodovar’s biggest fan, but if you’re like me you might find this movie a bit more palatable than some of his other films which tend to be quirkier than this.

WHY RENT THIS: A very well-made thriller, not to Hitchcock-like standards but certainly in the style thereof. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very different from Almodovar’s other movies; his fans may not care for it as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, drugs and a little bit of rock and roll. There’s also some off-camera spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fabulous feature that simply captures Almodovar directing Cruz and how the two have developed a kind of cinematic shorthand in their working relationship. There is also a short film ostensibly directed by Mateo Blanco.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 127 Hours

Nine


Nine

As you can see, film directors really do have a God complex.

(Weinstein) Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Ricky Tognazzi, Giuseppe Cederna, Elio Germano, Andrea di Stefano. Directed by Rob Marshall

The creative process is a tricky one. The moment you put pen to paper, image to film, something dies a little bit. It is not a pleasant process; it is violent sometimes, turning savagely on the artist.

Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is one of the most acclaimed film directors in the world, certainly in the Italy of the mid-1960s. Referred to affectionately as “Maestro,” he has been on a bit of a cold streak of late, his last two movies having been as he put it “flops.” His latest, Italia, starring his regular leading lady Claudia Schaeffer (Kidman), is meant to put him back in the drivers’ seat. At least, his producer (Tognazzi) hopes so.

Guido, on the other hand, is falling apart both personally and professionally. He is suffering from an excruciating case of writer’s block and has been unable to write down a single word or idea about the movie with filming set to begin in only ten days. He is under enormous pressure from his producers, the studio and the press; after another banal press conference at his home base of Cinecitta Studios in Rome, he flees to a spa on the Italian coast. 

There his personal shortcomings begin to catch up to him. Guido is a charming womanizer; he married Luisa (Cotillard), his first leading lady and is having an affair with Carla (Cruz), who is also married. He confesses his anxieties to his friend and therapist of a sort Lilli (Dench) the costume designer. All of them show up at the spa, throwing his marriage into disarray – where it was heading anyway. He is having flashbacks of his late mother (Loren) and Saraghina (Ferguson), a prostitute he had known in his youth. To make matters even more complicated, an American reporter (Hudson) with a passion for his style makes it clear she wouldn’t mind sharing his bed. What’s an artiste to do?

Director Marshall won an Oscar for Best Picture for Chicago and no doubt the producers were hoping that lightning would strike twice. After all, this was a Tony-winning musical based on the great Italian director Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2. Unfortunately, this musical simply doesn’t measure up to Chicago. Whereas Chicago didn’t take itself terribly seriously in many ways, Nine certainly does, full of sequences that take place in Guido’s tortured mind that come off as self-indulgent. Perhaps that is as well, since Guido clearly is guilty of that particular sin.

My issue is that if you’re going to have a musical, the music should be memorable, no? Unfortunately, there are no songs here that are going to make you rush out and buy the soundtrack. The closest number that comes to it is ”Be Italian” as sung by Fergie – who knew that she would be one of the best features of this movie – and even that number is sabotaged by an egregious misuse of sand. Clearly the movie would have benefitted from an Andrew Lloyd Weber who, for all his detractions, definitely knows how to write a song that will stick with you.

When the musical numbers are the weakest part of your musical, you know you’re in trouble. The movie is saved by the depiction of Fellini’s Rome, taking you back to an era of Vespas, skinny ties, sophisticated women in cocktail dresses and cool Ray-Bans on the faces of suave men. Also, any opportunity to see Sophia Loren is worth taking. Ms. Loren is in her seventies now, but she still grabs your attention every time she’s onscreen. Modern movie goddesses like Kidman and Cruz simply can’t compete.

Because the musical numbers take place in the sexually-obsessive Guido’s mind, most of the women are clad in lingerie during them. Normally I don’t object to that kind of thing but you eventually come to a point of overload and quite frankly while I admire Judi Dench as the great actress she is and believe she is a beautiful woman, seeing her in a bustier trailing a feather boa the length of a Winnebago behind her was just disconcerting.

Even so, I enjoyed myself somewhat despite the many failings of the movie, which I guess is damning it with faint praise. If the music had been better, perhaps Marshall might have had something here but quite frankly, he was sunk before he even rolled cameras. I think Guido might have understood that completely.

REASONS TO GO: Recreates Fellini’s Rome very nicely. Sophia Loren is the epitome of Italian glamour and worth seeing alone. Day-Lewis does a credible job in a role he probably shouldn’t have taken.

REASONS TO STAY: The musical numbers are not terribly memorable, despite all the glitz and lingerie. Too over-the-top in places.  

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of lingerie, incessant smoking and a lot of sexuality make this not a kid-friendly musical.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The late Raul Julia originated the role of Guido Contini on Broadway.

HOME OR THEATER: In order to more closely replicate the Broadway experience I recommend you see it on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination 3