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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Magic Mike XXL


You're welcome, ladies.

You’re welcome, ladies.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Kevin Nash, Elizabeth Banks Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Michael Strahan, Donald Glover, Stephen Boss, Rhoda Griffis, Jane McNeill, Ann Hamilton, Mary Kraft, Kimberly Drummond, Carrie Anne Hunt. Directed by Gregory Jacobs

Sometimes a movie is only as good as the audience you view it with. I can’t imagine seeing Magic Mike XXL in a room full of dour, jaded critics. They would never get what this movie is about on their own. What I did see this movie with was a room full of screaming, hooting, hollering women who would have thrown dollar bills at the screen had they thought of it.

And that’s just how Magic Mike XXL should be experienced. Channing Tatum returns as the titular male entertainer, now having hung up his G-string with a custom-made furniture business. His girlfriend from Magic Mike has left him and while he is doing what he wanted to do in the first film, he kind of misses the life. When Tarzan (Nash) calls, Mike comes running. The remaining Kings of Tampa – Dallas (Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first film) having absconded to Europe with the Alex Pettyfer character – are ready to close out their careers with a bang, at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. So Mike piles in to a fro-yo van owned by Tito (Rodriguez) along with Ken (Bomer), Tobias (Iglesias) and Big Dick Richie (Manganiello) for a road trip for bros.

So this becomes a road trip movie, with a stop in Savannah to visit Rome, a private club run by Rome (Smith)  in which female members get up close and personal with a gaggle of strippers whose members include Augustus (Strahan), Andre (Glover) and Malik (Boss). With Tobias having been injured in a van accident, the Kings are in dire need of an M.C. and ask Rome who declines. She and Mike have a history y’see…

After a stop in house of randy older women including Nancy (MacDowell), the mother of Megan (Hunt) whom they met in a Jacksonville bar and whose buddy Zoe (Heard) is the new romantic interest of Mike, in a kind of non-threatening platonic way they run into Rome who has changed her mind and it’s on to Myrtle Beach, the Redneck Riviera, where the boys will go out with a bang.

This isn’t nearly as serious a movie as the first Magic Mike was. That movie’s director, Steven Soderbergh, is still behind the camera but as a cinematographer this time. What we have here is more of a road movie that doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. I will give you that the filmmakers understand their target audience as the women in our audience lost their minds nearly every time that the men started dancing or stripping. However, it was surprising to me that most of the women in the audience seemed to be fonder of Manganiello than of Tatum, although after one simulated sex/dance sequence featuring the star, one audience member exclaimed “I think I need a cigarette.”

\I will also say that the movie does look at the bond between men in a way not usual to Hollywood, which tends to view male bonding as a macho thing done over guns, cars and violence. The Kings of Tampa are all pretty sensitive guys who admire and respect women rather than viewing them as objects to be taken to bed as conquests and then cast aside. They view what they do as a kind of therapy, giving their clients something they need – not just a sexual release but adoration as well. I think most women’s fantasies are about guys like these, sensitive but sexy, handsome and hot as well. What woman wouldn’t want to be adored by guys like these?

The plot is kind of threadbare and I was left wondering if I’d seen this in a room full the aforementioned dour and jaded critics would I have liked this movie as much? Probably not. Because the women in the audience were having such a good time, I ended up having as good a time as well and that’s something to consider. The movie is in many ways not nearly as good as its predecessor but in many ways better – it gives its audience exactly what they want and that isn’t such a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Has heart as well as tush. We end up caring what happens to these guys.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely lightweight and disposable. More of an experience than a movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Language, male butt nudity, sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Finding Bliss

Magic Mike


Magic Mike

Matthew McConaughey practices pointing to the exits on the plane.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Mangianello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Camryn Grimes, Kate Easton. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

The world of the stripper is one that most of us have little understanding of. What would cause a person to want to take their clothes off publically, letting complete strangers stuff dollar bills in their g-strings? What does it take to maintain that kind of exhibitionism?

Mike (Tatum) is a busy guy. He owns a mobile detailing service and during the day installs roofs. Three nights a week, he is Magic Mike, a male exotic dancer – a stripper, if you will – for Xquisite, a male revue run by Dallas (McConaughey) who is fully aware that Mike is his star attraction. Dallas wants his show, which has to rent space in a Tampa nightclub, to have a permanent home in Miami, a much more lucrative market. He’s working on that very thing and will give Mike a percentage of ownership when it happens.

While working on a roofing job one day, Mike meets Adam (Pettyfer), a somewhat lackluster roofer and a bit of a screw-up who is accused of stealing a can of Pepsi and quits. Adam, who once had a football scholarship to a major Division I school, had gotten in a fight with his coach on the first day of practice and lost his scholarship; now he sleeps on the couch of Brooke (Horn), his sister.

Mike takes a liking to him against all odds and brings him around Xquisite to do some menial work. When Tarzan (Nash), one of the strippers, is unable to perform, Mike herds Adam – whom he bestows the stage name of The Kid on – onstage and while Adam shows a distinct lack of technique, he has a certain raw sexuality and great instincts, enough so that Dallas is impressed enough to take him on as a dancer.

Mike and Adam become close friends. As Adam becomes more proficient a dancer, his popularity grows. Mike is okay with this because he has a plan – he wants to own his own custom furniture business, and just needs a bank loan to do it in but sadly, his credit is undesirable to banks. His frustration begins to grow in that his life isn’t turning out the way he wants but he develops a kind of love-hate relationship with Brooke who recognizes that he is a decent sort but is concerned about the lifestyle of non-stop sex, partying and drugs which are beginning to take over Adam’s life. As Adam becomes more popular, he begins to change and Mike realizes that he can’t be Magic Mike forever.

I admit to being a little bit surprised by this one. A movie about male strippers starring Channing Tatum? I don’t think so. But a funny thing happened on the way back home from the theater; I found myself actually liking the movie. How unlikely was that? As unlikely as a performance of emotional depth from Channing Tatum. Wait a minute, we got that too.

Tatum has been an actor that I’ve never particularly cared for. He always seemed to be kind of flat, emotionally; he’s certainly got the good looks but he never connected with me – until now. For the first time ever, I saw something that indicated to me that he has the ability to be a big star instead of just a matinee idol for action films and romantic comedies, which is what he’s been to my mind up to now. The audience gets a sense that there is much more depth to him, as well as to Magic Mike. You see the regrets and frustrations that are boiling over in him. As the movie opens he’s easy-going, sexy and really not too deep but as it progresses we see the layers. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance by any means – but it could very well be the kind of work that lands him some more challenging roles that might get him there someday.

McConaughey who is well known for being shirtless anyway shows a lot more off than his chest (in fact most of the actors who play strippers do, as well as a number of the women that play their girlfriends/partners for the evening). Dallas is a manipulative, conniving bastard and McConaughey, an easy-going East Texan by nature, has done those types of roles and done them well throughout his career. This is some of his best work yet.

In earlier films like I Am Number Four Pettyfer showed some promise but has since stumbled. Once again, he shows a great deal of presence and raw talent; it’s not enough to catapult him into the next level quite yet but certainly shows that he could go a long way if he gets the right roles. This is the kind of thing that really stretched him from the previous work I’d seen him in and he does credibly well. Like Tatum, we might well be seeing him top-billed for years to come.

This is much more than just guys strutting themselves onstage. There is a surprising look at the cost of stripping when it comes to the lives of those who are engaged in it. It’s a great big party, yes, but in many ways ultimately an empty escapade. My understanding is that many actual strippers are gay, but we don’t see any of that in the film, possibly to keep the fantasy of the potential straight female audience intact. Still, it might have been nice if the filmmakers had given the potential gay male audience a bit more than they did as well.

I have to admit that I am not too familiar with live male exotic dancing shows or of the behavior of women who attend them but I got a glimpse at the theater I saw this in. The women in the audience (who were quite frankly the vast majority of the audience, arriving in groups of three and four, generally without boyfriends or husbands) were cheering and screaming and at times watching with rapt attention, sighing audibly when someone’s naked butt came into view. Gentlemen, if you want to rev your ladies up for a night of romance…no, might as well say it – for hardcore sex, this movie makes some pretty prime foreplay.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of bare skin and abs for the ladies. Tatum shows surprising depth.

REASONS TO STAY: Definitely geared more towards the ladies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of sexuality and plenty of nudity, both male and female. There’s all sorts of foul language and some drug use here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The current Warner Brothers opening sequence is not used here; they use instead the Saul Bass-designed sequence from the 1970s, somewhat modified.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are surprisingly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Showgirls

MALE EXOTIC DANCE LOVERS: While most of the actors have no game whatsoever, Tatum – who has a background in it – actually performs in a fairly spectacular manner.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life