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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Gone Baby Gone


Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

(2007) Thriller (Miramax) Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael Kenneth Williams, Edi Gathegi, Mark Margolis, Madeline O’Brien, Slaine, Trudi Goodman, Matthew Maher, Jill Quigg, Sean Malone, Brian Scannell, Jay Giannone, William Lee, James LeBlanc, Fanshen Cox. Directed by Ben Affleck

The American Experience 2015

There is no worse nightmare for a parent than the disappearance of a child other than that child’s death. In some ways, it’s more wrenching not to know – is the child alive? Is it dead? Is it suffering? Where could it be? A parent will do just about anything to get their child back.

South Boston is in an uproar when the baby of Helene McCready (Ryan) is discovered missing. Nothing will put together a neighborhood, particularly one as tight-knit as Southie as a kid in trouble. Like most of Boston, private detectives Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) hear about the incident on the news, shake their heads and wonder about how bad times have turned, and move on.

That is, until they are awakened by a knock on the door. It’s Helene’s aunt and uncle, Bea (Madigan) and Lionel (Welliver). They’re desperate to get their nephew back and are willing to do whatever it takes. Being longtime residents of South Boston, they know that there are people who might talk to Kenzie and Gennaro who might not open up to the cops. The two private eyes protest; they’re reluctant to take the case on. They’re new at the game and most of their experience revolves around tracking down people who have skipped out on their payments for their jet skis. But Bea and Lionel have faith in them.

They approach the police and Captain Jack Doyle (Freeman), in charge of a task force devoted to crimes involving children, is sympathetic. He also knows that the McCready clan is right – it might not be a bad idea to have some guys helping out the cops that aren’t on the payroll. So he assigns the two inexperienced private eyes to Detectives Remy Bressant (Harris) and Nick Poole (Ashton).

Pretty soon, the addition of Gennaro and Kenzie pay dividends as they begin to get some of the area lowlifes to cough up information. However, the two are taken in directions they couldn’t possibly expect. They’re in way over their heads and they know it. The problem is that a child’s life is depending on them – and their own lives are hanging in the balance as well.

This is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and like all of Lehane’s novels, the plot is amazingly tight and well-constructed. Ben Affleck, who would go on to Oscar-worthy work and becoming one of Hollywood’s most promising directors, was working on his first feature here. He is remarkably self-assured in his direction; apparently all that time as a pretty boy actor paid off as he definitely seems to have made notes from the various directors he has worked for. Nothing here is extraneous, from the images to the dialogue.

It helps that Affleck has assembled a fantastic cast, beginning with his brother. Some eyebrows were raised when Casey was cast in the lead; nepotism, right? Wrong. Casey had been mostly relegated to supporting roles but the guy can act – he would receive an Oscar nomination the same year this came out for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this performance is at least as good. Kenzie is not as self-assured as most thriller heroes; he is only too aware of his limitations, but given the stakes soldiers on as best he can.

The supporting performances are solid as well. Freeman and Harris are two of the finest and most respected actors in Hollywood and given material like this, they can’t help but shine. Ryan, mostly known for her Broadway work, absolutely breaks out with a magnificent performance. Helene is a drug addicted, selfish and promiscuous woman, absolutely unworthy of being a mother. To her credit, Ryan portrays her without any sympathetic moments; we only feel contempt for Helene and that’s the way the plot needs it. Madigan, Welliver and Ashton are all superb as well.

Sadly, Michelle Monaghan – a fine actress – is given little to do other than stand by Affleck and look concerned, or nod in agreement. She is little more than window dressing, which as I recall is not the way Gennaro was in the novel. Sadly, it feels like the Hollywood powers that be felt little confidence in having a woman be an equal to a man in a detective thriller.

Affleck had been in the middle of a slow spot in his acting career when this came out; he not only established himself as a director to be respected, but shortly afterwards resurrected his acting career as well. These days, he is much in demand in both capacities. Gone Baby Gone is the kind of movie that will punch you in the gut repeatedly until you’re breathless and wiped out. Some may find the tension unbearable, particularly in terms of having a child at risk. This was a sleeper critical hit when it came out and remains one of those hidden gems that not very many people think about in terms of movies they want to revisit – but it is worth doing that very thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellently written thriller. Fine performances throughout. Realistic heroes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Monaghan given little to do. May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of foul language, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amy Ryan’s Boston accent was so convincing that security guards refused to let her on the set because they thought she was a local trying to get in. It was only when a producer noticed her on the wrong side of the barricade that she was allowed on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette detailing the thoughts behind the casting and how it was accomplished.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.6M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Inside Out

Transformers: Age of Extinction


Never mess with Mark Wahlberg's car.

Never mess with Mark Wahlberg’s car.

(2014) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Charles Parnell, Erika Fong, Mike Collins, Geng Han, Zou Shiming, Richard Riehle, Peter Cullen (voice), Patrick Bristow, Cleo King, Jessica Gomes, Melanie Specht, Abigail Klein. Directed by Michael Bay

After the Transformers trilogy had come to an end, the thought was that the series would continue with an all-new cast and a new director. Well, only half of that equation turned out to come true – but could Bay sustain the same popcorn momentum he had delivered with the first trilogy?

Five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon devastated Chicago, the CIA has a special task force led by the overly macho James Savoy (Welliver) hunting down what Decepticons are left. Except there are none left and now he is hunting Autobots, with the full blessing of his CIA liaison Harold Attinger (Grammer). Seems a pretty harsh way to treat the guys who basically saved our bacon in Chicago.

Meanwhile, out in Texas, would-be inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is basically at the end of his financial rope. Eking out a living repairing electronic devices, most of his inventions are a circuit shy of a load. With his hottie daughter Tessa (Peltz) ready to go to college and in need of pants that aren’t Daisy Dukes (who wears short shorts? Tessa do!) not to mention in a date-free state until she graduates from high school, Cade is fending off real estate agents who are ready to sell his home out from under him and pretty much behind on every bill he can be behind in. Oddly enough for a Texan, he doesn’t seem to be blaming Obama for his situation.

While a movie theater owner has him repairing some vintage projectors, he discovers an old beat-up truck – not a pick-up but a semi – he gleefully figures he can scrap the thing for parts and make enough to get his daughter a down payment on her college tuition, but as he and his buddy Lucas (Miller) find out, this is not an ordinary truck. Being that this is a Transformers movie, you know what it is. In fact, it’s not even just any Autobot – it’s Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself.

Once the government figures out that this is Optimus himself, Attinger sends out Savoy with his strike team’s secret weapon – a mechanical creature named Lockdown who is a bounty hunter with a particular yen to capture Optimus Prime and bring him back to the Creators of the Autobots and Decepticons to become slave labor for them once again. And the rest of the Autobots will be broken down and melted, their metal – called Transformium – some of which remains on Earth in small amounts – used to create a new mechanical race that is under human control, specifically under the control of billionaire industrialist Joshua Joyce (Tucci).

This pits the few remaining Autobots – including Bumblebee, Hound, Drift and Ratchet – against the might of the American government, the new automaton named Galvatron who turns out to have the mechanical DNA of a familiar foe, and the might of Lockdown with his advanced weapons and his space ship. However, they will find new allies from the distant past in an ancient place.

The movie rips across Texas, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong and levels a lot of real estate in the process which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this franchise. As the second half of the movie ensues, the human actors are less participants than dodgers of falling masonry and their dialogue is mostly cries of “OPTIMUS!” and “Look out!” or things along those lines. Other than the voices of Optimus and Galvatron, not one actor returns from the previous trilogy. This has been characterized as a reboot but it isn’t really but a continuation along the same road with different actors.

Wahlberg is the movie’s secret weapon; he makes a much better hero than Shia LaBeouf did as the neurotic Sam Witwicky. My complaint is that they make Wahlberg something of a clownish inventor and then once they get out of Texas, there’s almost none of his skills utilized as an inventor. He may as well have been a car mechanic or an X-ray technician or a data entry clerk. We spend a good deal of time in the first third of the movie establishing Cade as a hapless inventor whose inventions generally don’t work and then they do nothing with it the rest of the way. It’s a waste of the filmmakers time as well as the audience. I call it “wasted exposition.”

The action sequences, particularly the robot CGI are the best yet. We see much more detail on the Autobots and their foes, and they look banged up like ‘bots that have been in a good deal of battle. Those, like my son, who are all about robots battling will be very happy because there is a lot of that here. And yes, there are Dinobots as well – which is bound to put old fans of the original series in a happy place.

The movie is nearly three hours long and feels it. Some movies go that long and you barely notice and are sad when the movie finally ends; this one has you checking your watch at the two hour mark. Easily a good 45 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed without hurting the movie overly much. Plus there is a kind of sameness here – if you’ve seen the first three movies, nothing here should be overly surprising to you. Nothing really surpasses the battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon either.

So while this still remains a summer popcorn movie, it isn’t as good as the last one in the series to my mind. I was pretty numb by the end of the movie rather than exhilarated. This is said to be the first of a new trilogy with Wahlberg in the lead but frankly, I’d be just as happy if the franchise called it a day after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty action sequences. Wahlberg an improvement over Shia LaBeouf.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long – like waaaaay overly long. Lacks energy. Story not particularly much of a change from other installments in the series.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, occasionally foul language (but not too foul) and some sexual innuendo,

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bay was originally planning to pass on the franchise to another director and remain on in only a producer’s capacity. After visiting the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood however, after seeing the enthusiastic long lines for the attraction he came to the realization that he wasn’t quite done with the series yet and elected to remain on for the fourth film with an entirely new cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Promised Land


Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

(2012) Drama (Focus) Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Tim Guinee, Terry Kinney, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Gerri Bumbaugh, Frank Conforti, Joanne Jeffers. Directed by Gus Van Sant

Rural America is often depicted as an idyllic place. Small towns where everyone not only knows one another but cares for one another as well. A place populated by hard-working folk who have farms that go back generations in the same family, a place untroubled by the bustle and stress of city life.

But that life is largely dying. Family farms are becoming an endangered species as agribusiness crowds them out of the marketplace. Many family farms require subsidies to get by. People in desperate situations are often vulnerable to any suggestion that might well save them from financial catastrophe.

Steve Butler (Damon) works for Global, a natural gas company, and he’s very good at what he does. What he does is go into small towns where Global wants to drill and secures contract granting drilling rights to their land. He and his partner Sue Thomasson (McDormand) are successful more than their peers by triple digits in terms of percentages. He is up for an executive position and the company has sent him to a small Pennsylvania town which Global wants to be the beachhead for their penetration into the Keystone State.

Normally, Steve is in and out of a town like this in a matter of days. He grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa and speaks the language of these people. He knows what buttons to push. But there is a science teacher, a retired engineer by the name of Frank Yates (Holbrook) who raises some questions at the town hall meeting about the natural gas drilling. He brings up fracking, the technique of breaking up shale and releasing the gas by creating cracks in the rock with huge drills and by forcing water, sand and chemicals into the shale to speed up the process. He’s read some pretty disturbing stuff on the internet and Steve, who had tied one on the night before, wasn’t in any shape to deliver answers.

To make matters worse, an idealistic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) blows into town to ally himself with Frank. He disseminates all sorts of information on the effects of the chemicals seeping up into the groundwater, with graphic photos of dead cows, brown land, dreams of five generations of farmers withered up and dead in a matter of months.

Things turn into a war of wills between Dustin and Steve. Dustin seems to have the upper hand – including with a teacher named Alice (DeWitt) who Steve has become sweet on. But for the battle of the hearts and minds of the town, Steve and Sue are losing the battle until a turning point comes. However, that moment of victory turns to ashes when Steve comes to a terrible realization that turns his viewpoint on what he has worked so hard to accomplish on its ear.

There are some political ramifications to the film and we might as well get those out of the way first. Detractors have proclaimed this a hatchet job on the natural gas industry, using fear tactics to unfairly portray fracking as being far more dangerous than it is, and using sensationalism and exaggerated cases to make its point. They also point to the participation of ImageNation as a producer. ImageNation is a production company based in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates which is of course an oil-producing region who would have a vested interest in creating a hatchet job on the production of U.S.-based natural gas.

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers have taken a stance of being against fracking and have used twisted the facts somewhat. While it is true that fracking has been connected with groundwater pollution and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it must be said that the kind of destruction depicted by the Dustin Noble character has yet to be determined to be a product of fracking exclusively (ordinary drilling for ground water well can also lead to methane gas release) and while I think it’s safe to say that there is some room for discussion as to the long-term effects of fracking on the environment and human health, it certainly isn’t the problem it is made out to be here, at least not in a way that could be proven in a court of law – at least not yet.

So keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary and as such there are some things to recommend it. Damon is so darn likable that you end up rooting for him even though you know the company he works for are a bunch of jerks. He believes in his company with almost child-like faith; they wouldn’t lie to him and they certainly wouldn’t do anything immoral or wrong.

Damon has a strong supporting cast behind him. McDormand plays Sue with laconic strength and a sense of big sisterness that creates an appealing chemistry between the two. Sue does most of her parenting via Skype and being a city girl, has less connection to the people she’s dealing with than Steve does which makes it easier for her to separate herself. Krasinski gets Dustin’s character down note-perfect while Holbrook could do the sage/oracle role in his sleep but nonetheless does it here like a pro. Welliver does some of the best work of the veteran character actor’s  career as the proprietor of a general store who becomes sweet on Sue.

Van Sant enlists cinematographer Linus Sandgren to deliver some really pretty shots of the rural countryside. There’s often a misty quality adding to the allure. It’s all calculated to deliver to audiences the most nostalgic of visuals. In a sense, it becomes a special effect.

I will say that in an effort to show how dastardly and ruthless that corporate America will go the filmmakers go to absurd lengths. I think keeping things in the realm of reality would have been far more effective. Big corporations have been guilty of plenty of abuses to make them look villainous without having them resort to what they do here.

This is a decent enough movie as long as you go in realizing that they adhere to a specific point of view. Liberals may well embrace the doctrine here while conservatives may decry it. I’m on the fence about fracking; I certainly think there’s enough evidence warranting further study into the practice and maybe looking into ways to making it more safe. While I realize that in most instances fracking has caused zero environmental damage, there have been instances where it has not.

This is one of those movies where your political leanings may well determine how much you appreciate the movie. In all honesty the movie isn’t really stirring – at least not in the way that a great film is – nor is it so well-made that you can overlook the manipulative nature of the script. However the performances are such that you’ll forgive a lot of sins assuming you can get past your views on the environment.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic cinematography. Damon plays his natural likability to a “T.” Welliver, McDormand, DeWitt, Holbrook and Krasinski deliver solid performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Stretches believability. Takes a controversial subject and turns it banal.

FAMILY VALUES:  There was enough foul language to net this an R rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon was originally slated to direct the movie but had to pull out because of time constraints and creative differences. He did remain aboard as an actor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty darn mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up in the Air

MINIATURE HORSE LOVERS: Hal Holbrook’s Frank Yates character raises them and they make several appearance, often puzzling Steve and Sue as they see them in the field.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Game

Argo


Argo

I just wish Ben Affleck had shed this much light upon his character.

(2012) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

In late 1979, a group of Iranian “students,” angered over the United States giving shelter to the dying former Shah (with some justification – the despotic Shah had many, many atrocities committed in his name) had taken over the U.S. Embassy (without justification – this was a violation of International law and was almost universally condemned) and held some 52 Americans for what would turn out to be a total of 444 days, accusing them of being spies rather than diplomats. Depending on your perspective, they had some justification for thinking that as the coup d’état that had placed the Shah in power in the first place had been organized by the British and American espionage agencies and had used the U.S. Embassy as something of a headquarters.

Six Americans escaped the embassy takeover – a fact that I’d forgotten and I consider myself a student of history – and hid in the residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and immigration officer John Shearsdown (although Shearsdown’s part in the affair is left out completely in the movie). Their ordeal is captured here.

The six Americans – Robert Anders (Donovan), Joe Stafford (McNairy), his wife Kathy (Bishe), Mark Lijek (Denham), his wife Cora (DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Cochrane) see the writing on the wall as the angry mob chants for blood outside the doors of the Embassy. Because they are in a side office with direct access to the street and lacking any sort of directive, they make a run for it. They wind up at Taylor’s (Garber) home after being refused safe harbor at the British and New Zealand embassies which in fact was untrue – that was a bit of license taken by the filmmakers to give a sense that the Americans had nowhere else to go to.

Back in the United States, the State Department is in an uproar over the hostage crisis. They feel, correctly, that the 52 hostages in the embassy are reasonably safe as they are in the public eye but the six who have been separated are in far more danger, and their presence is putting Canada in an awkward diplomatic position. CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) has brought in exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) into a meeting in which the State Department is exploring ways to get the six out safely but the ideas they come up with are ludicrous to say the least.

While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television, he hits upon the idea of giving the six cover stories as being part of a Canadian film crew doing a cheesy Star Wars rip-off movie using Iran as an exotic location. In order to add plausibility to the story, he enlists Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) to help create a production company. To lend credibility, producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) is also brought aboard. They stage a publicity event in which actors perform a reading of the script which gets enough press coverage that give credence to this being a “real” film.

Mendez enters Iran posing as a producer for the film and makes contact with the refugees. At first, there is some skepticism that this idea will even work – and Joe Stafford in particular has some trust issues for Mendez. Still, all of them realize that it is only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities realize that there are Americans missing from the embassy and once that happens, only a matter of time before they are found and that once they are found, their deaths will be extraordinarily bad.

As I said earlier, I’d let this incident – known as the Canadian Caper – fall into the recesses of my mind and I suspect most people my age are going to find the same effect. Younger audiences may not have any recollection of the incident at all and may know the hostage crisis as something they read about in modern American history or saw on the Discovery channel.

Affleck has really come into his own as a director; while The Town served notice of his skills both as a lead actor and director, Argo is likely to net him some serious Oscar consideration in the latter category. This is a movie that has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and even if you remember the incident in question, you’ll still be right there. He also captures not only the look of the United States and Iran circa 1980 but also the feel of both; it is an era when disco still reigns and America is beginning to grow bloated and ineffectual. Still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and a moribund economy, there is a feeling that our country had lost its relevance and in fact, its cojones.

There are some strong performances here. Garber always carries himself with a certain grace and as the courageous Canadian ambassador that’s in evidence a ‘plenty here. The Emmy-winning Cranston continues to make his presence felt in supporting roles in films; now that his “Breaking Bad” run is over he no doubt will be getting lots of feature roles thrown at him and here he has some really good moments. On the Hollywood side, Arkin and Goodman are pros that can be relied upon to deliver solid at worst and spectacular at best performances and both are more towards their best here.

Strangely, the one performance I found less than compelling was Affleck’s. There is a little distance in him; Mendez clearly cares very much about the fate of the six and this spurs him to actions he might ordinarily not have taken. Still, Affleck doesn’t show us very much about the man Tony Mendez is/was and that’s puzzling since the real Mendez was available for him to study from; it’s possible that Mendez himself is this hard to know as well.

Still, this is likely to wind up on some end of the year lists and quite deservedly so. This is one of the Fall’s must-see films and if you haven’t already caught it, you really should before it gets pushed out by all the Thanksgiving blockbusters that are already making their way into the multiplex. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the hostage crisis, you’ll appreciate one of the great thrillers of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly. Puts you on the edge of the seat even if you know how the affair concluded.

REASONS TO STAY: Affleck’s performance is a bit distant; I left the movie wondering who Tony Mendez was. Plays fast and loose with the facts.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is pretty rough in places and there are some disturbing images, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and Kyle Chandler who played him in the movie were both graduates of the University of Georgia.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

JIMMY CARTER LOVERS: The former President makes several appearances in the movie via archival footage.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Imposter

Man on a Ledge


Man on a Ledge

Sam Worthington hopes that Elizabeth Banks isn't watching his career plummet over the precipice.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Edward Burns, Titus Welliver, Genesis Rodriguez, Kyra Sedgwick, Felix Solis, Bill Sadler, Robert Clohessy, Afton Williamson, Pooja Kumar, Frank Pando. Directed by Asger Leth

 

There are a lot of reasons why people climb out on the ledge of a tall building. It could be financial ruin, or a failed love affair. It could be a result of clinical depression, or drug use. Sometimes, the reasons aren’t all that obvious.

Nick Cassidy (Worthington) is standing out on the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. Traffic has been diverted and the cops are everywhere. A police negotiator named Jack Dougherty (Burns) is assigned the case but Nick wants a woman – Lydia Mercer (Banks) to be exact. She’s been under a cloud recently ever since she lost a jumper on the Brooklyn Bridge who happened to be a cop.

He’s not just any guy; he’s an ex-cop who escaped from prison only a week prior. He had been accused of stealing (and selling) a $40 million diamond belonging to David Englander (Harris), a cutthroat Wall Street sort who has all sorts of people on his payroll. Nick is being aided by his brother Joey (Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Rodriguez) in proving that Nick is innocent and that David still has the diamond – by stealing it.

The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, and Leth tries to keep it that way. While there are several feints and twists as befits any heist movie (and the heist is a central part of the film) for the most part it doesn’t veer too much from the main concept and that’s a plus that many more veteran filmmakers sometimes miss.

Worthington has had great success in the fantasy and science fiction action realms, although he hasn’t quite achieved the stardom you’d expect with movies like Avatar and Clash of the Titans under his belt. He won’t move much farther in that direction with his performance here; he’s a bit wooden and the charisma he showed in those two movies isn’t as much in evidence although to be fair he spends most of the movie standing on a ledge talking to Elizabeth Banks. Nothing wrong with that mind you – just not a lot to work with there.

Rodriguez who plays the sassy girlfriend of his brother adds much needed sparkle, not only visually (she’s quite gorgeous) but also in providing an emotional boost. She provides comic relief but seems to be having the most fun of anyone here and she lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. She has stardom written all over her.

The problem here is that there are a lot of logical missteps. For example one of the stunts has someone leaping off of a 21-story-building and landing safely on one of those air-inflatable stunt mattresses which in real life would have a person-sized hole in it if someone were to do that. Also the brother is supposed to be working class but he has all these sophisticated devices to help him get into the vault. Doesn’t make sense.

Also the film misses out on capitalizing on its location. New York is one of the world’s most recognizable and photogenic cities but the movie could just as well be taking place in Pittsburgh or Toledo, anywhere where there’s a suitable high rise. You never get a sense that they’re in New York – and they freaking’ filmed there! That’s a big no-no in my book.

The movie isn’t all that bad but it isn’t particularly good either. You get a sense that you’ve seen it before and done better throughout. It makes for a decent enough diversion but if you’re going to spend your hard-earned dollars at the box office there are plenty of much better films in theaters right now than this, even at this time of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Solid jobs by most of the cast. Rodriguez is nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Premise is a bit “been there done that” and there are some logical holes that subvert the plot here and there. Misses on capturing the essence of New York.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Asger Leth is best known for Ghosts of Cite Soleil.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are on the low side of mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth

HEIST LOVERS: The heist sequences are pretty well thought-out and while not super-original, were enjoyable to watch.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Gothika

Handsome Harry


Handsome Harry

Steve Buscemi wishes he could be as Handsome as Harry.

(2009) Mystery (Paladin) Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Maryann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young, Jayne Atkinson, Rutanya Alda, Bill Sage, Emily Donahoe, Asher Grodman, Andrew Dolan. Directed by Bette Gordon

 

That which we do in our past often doesn’t remain there. There are things that we do that can haunt us or influence us from the moment it happens all the way until this very moment and all the way to the future. Reconciling ourselves with those events sometimes is the only way to find peace.

Harry Sweeney (Sheridan) is, as the title proclaims, a good looking man who has gone gracefully into middle age. He’s one of those charming Irish guys who strides into a bar and everybody knows him. The ladies adore him and the men want to be like him.

Harry’s son (Grodman) is distinctly different in that sense. He and his father have a relationship that is strained to put it mildly, although why it is so is never really explained. Perhaps it’s just the way of fathers and their grown sons. Harry has been a mechanic most of his life, ever since he got back from Vietnam and the Navy in which he served.

When he gets a call from his Navy buddy Thomas Kelly (Buscemi) to let Harry know he needs to talk to him, Harry is a bit reluctant – he has ambivalent feelings about his military years. However when Kelly tells him that he’s on his deathbed and won’t be around much longer, Harry knows he has to go.

Kelly reminds him of an incident in the Navy in which five men, including Kelly and Harry, beat up a sixth and maimed him. Kelly wants to find the maimed man and apologize. At first Harry doesn’t want to do it; he would much rather say his farewells to Kelly and move on but when Kelly passes away, Harry knows the right thing to do is to find the victim of their attack and try to make amends.

To do so, he first needs to visit the other men involved in the beating and not all of them want to be reminded of it. There’s Peter Rheems (Savage), a wealthy blowhard who’s become an abusive husband to Judy (Mayberry), who takes quite a liking to Harry. There’s Professor Porter (Quinn), who pretends not to know Harry or have been in the Navy. There’s Gebhardt (Welliver), another wealthy man who has a love for golf but not so much for Harry.  All of this will lead to Harry’s face-to-face with David Kagan (Scott), whose potential career as a concert pianist was ruined and whose life was forever changed by the attack on him.

Gordon has directed a couple of indie films over the past 15 years – you wouldn’t exactly call her prolific – but this certainly has the look and feel of an assured hand on the tiller. The movie is on the uneven side but the good does outnumber the bad pretty much.

Let’s start with Sheridan. He can be very charismatic (as he was in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand in which he played Randall Flagg), and while he mostly does television and mostly supporting roles, he shows the ability to carry a movie here. He has that easy charm that translates well to the screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Buscemi, Savage, Quinn and Scott are all capable actors who rarely give poor performances and the quartet of them don’t disappoint here. Buscemi in particular has become a regular on the indie circuit, although his critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-winning performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” might bring him some meatier roles in mainstream films.

The writing is a bit uneven. Harry’s character doesn’t always act according to his own nature, going from pacifist in one scene to brawler in the next (and no, I’m not talking about the flashbacks either). There is also a feeling that the malaise that hangs over Harry’s life was hanging over the film as well; there are times it lacks energy.

Still, most films that depict middle aged regret in men show the men to be down and out losers who have drank, drugged or otherwise messed up their lives in almost incalculable ways and require some kind of redemption. Here you don’t get that sense; Harry is not after redemption so much as forgiveness, and the way that it is given is actually one of the film’s highlights.

Gordon never allows Harry to be completely forgiven – after all, the act that was committed by all five men was heinous and there need to be consequences for that and those consequences appear in very subtle ways. There is a lot to like here but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work and so the recommendation is a mild one I’m afraid.

WHY RENT THIS: Middle aged regret is rarely portrayed as well as it is here. Sheridan does a great job. Terrific supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing can be uneven; certain changes in Harry’s behavior take place that seem a mite extreme.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words sprinkled here and there, as well as a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Handsome Harry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,500 on a $1M production budget; undoubtedly this lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Innkeepers