Movie Review ~ Live by Night

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the completion and the Klu Klux Klan.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Ben Affleck

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not going to go into the strange vitriol directed at March’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice but will say that had Live by Night received a larger release in 2016, it would have been the second most mis-understood Ben Affleck film of the year.

There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like this movie and maybe for good reason.  It’s an uneven throwback picture that feels comfortable in its gangster era trappings and broadly drawn characters several tiny degrees removed from Dick Tracy-esque caricatures.  It has about twelve endings with only the first three being the least bit satisfying and its director/star traipses around in an array of unintentionally humorous XXL zoot suits and wide brimmed fedoras locking lips with two very different broads.  Pushing the limits of two hours, it’s slow (but steady) and a far cry from the slow burn films Affleck has directed previously.

So why the moderately high score, you may ask?  Gosh…I just liked it…flaws and all.  I’m a big believer in just going with your gut and not letting films like these stew too long in the brain.  My advice would be to catch Live by Night when you’re in a forgiving mood and aren’t looking to have your socks totally knocked off.  Had Affleck (Gone Girl) not directed as well as starred in this and had it arrived three or four years ago this might have gone down a bit better because the expectations wouldn’t be quite so high.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (an author Affleck has adapted before in Gone Baby Gone), it’s a relatively straight-forward tale of a Depression era small-time crook lured by love into a war between an Irish gangster and an Italian Mafioso.  Overseeing a rum-running business during Prohibition, Affleck balances making his boss a mountain of cash while plotting revenge on his enemy for a betrayal years earlier.  Oh…and there’s a minor subplot involving the KKK that feels judiciously lifted from another Lehane tome.

With its big budget and handsome production, there’s little question the movie should have been better but what’s there isn’t anything to cry over, either.  Affleck doesn’t quite have the emotional well the role calls for but he gives it, as usual, his best effort.  It’s Chris Messina (Cake), with fuzzy eyebrows and gnarled up teeth as Affleck’s short fused sidekick, that kept me wondering how the movie would have been had Messina been given the chance to star.  Alas, from all accounts this was Affleck’s passion project and we’re too far along into the picture when we realize the casting snafu.

The supporting cast fares better than our leading man, though.  Brendan Gleeson (Edge of Tomorrow) finds several nice moments as Affleck’s law enforcing father and as Affleck’s love interest, Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furance) feels like an equal match to her partner.  Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep) and Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) are father and daughter, and while both eventually find some focus they struggle mightily with the tone of the picture for most of the film.  Surprisingly, it’s Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) that leaves the most lasting impact…but I’m not totally convinced it wasn’t her robust Irish brogue or her unnerving porcelain doll make-up in her final scene that caused her to remain so prominent in my memory.

Bound to come and go with so many other films for grown-ups building on the strong word of mouth this one isn’t destined to gather, Live by Night may be a minor infraction on Affleck’s so far so good resume but it’s not a totally wasted effort.

Movie Review ~ Foxcatcher

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher lead by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul – a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

Stars: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Delayed by nearly a year when Sony Pictures Classics decided to pull its release to avoid going up against a late 2013 onslaught of award-worthy films, Foxcatcher finally arrived in 2014 and proved that SPC was right to wait and that the wait was most certainly worth it.  True crime dramas don’t get much better than this impressive examination of personal and professional obsession.

I knew next to nothing about the crime at the center of Foxcatcher’s tale and for the sake of my spoiler-free nature I’m going to assume you don’t either and will keep the various turns concealed for you to discover on your own.  In short, the film follows the late 80s relationship of Olympic wrestlers David and Mark Schultz with their eccentric sponsor John du Pont.

Driven by a desire to win and acquire a celebrated status based more in fantasy than reality, du Pont (Steve Carell, Hope Springs, capped with a putty nose from the Nicole Kidman/Virgina Woolf collection) first engages the more impressionable and equally desperate Mark (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) before bringing the more accomplished brother (Mark Ruffalo, Thanks for Sharing) into his inner sanctum.  These three men form a triangle that becomes more problematic as time goes by; brother is pitted against brother and du Pont is at the apex of it all.

Though free from the sordid feel of a tell-all crime tale, there’s a sinister edge lurking around every corner in Bennett Miller’s film.  The script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye doesn’t shy away from awkward moments that turn into real nail-biters, without ever showing their hand as to what lies in store.

In only his third film as a director, Miller has once again achieved a high bar of accomplishment.  In Capote and Moneyball he guided actors to Oscar nominations (and one win) and the same seems likely here.  Carell looked like an early front-runner for taking home Best Actor and while his performance is an austere departure from his comedic ways, the buzz seems to have faded a bit.  I personally felt Tatum was the important performance of note with the actor showing heretofore unseen depths in his work but the tide seems to be turning for Ruffalo to bag a nomination.

Creepy seems like a bit too simple of a term to put on the film but that’s exactly what it is…creepy.  That overall sense of something not being right seeps through the proceedings but doesn’t make it bottom-heavy to the point of being slushy.  It hums with the fear of what’s to come and the pot boils over at precisely the right moment, though a rather perfunctory climax lessens the impact a bit.

The strong performances would be worth a recommendation alone, but the skilled deployment of story coupled with a compelling structure make it very worthy of your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Foxcatcher

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler whose relationship with mentor John du Pont and brother Dave Schultz would lead to unlikely circumstances.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: It came as somewhat of a shock that this film was moved from its late 2013 release to almost a year later thanks in no small part to crowded fall slate of Oscar contenders. Who knows what impressive films 2014 will bring but this first look at Foxcatcher leads me to believe Sony made the right call. Building on good buzz for Steve Carell (The Way Way Back) and featuring a formidable supporting cast with the likes of Channing Tatum (Side Effects), Mark Ruffalo (), and Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) this looks like a compelling piece of filmmaking. One of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year.

Down From the Shelf ~ Sixteen Candles

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl’s sixteenth birthday becomes anything but special as she suffers from every embarrassment possible.

Stars: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Schoeffling, Justin Henry, Carlin Glynn, Haviland Morris, Gedde Watanabe, Paul Dooley

Director: John Hughes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Few films that are about a specific time and place can truly stand the test of time. Changing ideals and styles have a way of making movies into cinematic time capsules of a landscape long since forgotten and it takes something special to make a movie truly timeless. Sixteen Candles is a great example of how a film can stay relevant and entertaining decades after it was originally released.

Celebrating its 30th birthday in May of 2014, Sixteen Candles couldn’t be more early 80s if it tried. From stereotypical insensitivity that was barely scoffed at at the time to jokes about floppy disks and a soundtrack that could be released as a I Love the 80s compilation CD, the film from writer/director John Hughes should be on display in the National History Museum if they were to do an exhibit on 80’s entertainment. Yet it remains deeply funny and, yes, timeless, especially to this reviewer that’s seen it dozens of times.

The first of only eight films that Hughes directed himself, it would serve as a launching pad to his mini-monopoly of the teen genre with now-classic 80s films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and my personal fave, the underappreciated Some Kind of Wonderful. After scripting Mr. Mom and National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes got the greenlight to bring his script about a teen girl having the worst sixteenth birthday she could imagine to the screen. Written specifically for rising star Molly Ringwald (whom Hughes had never met), it’s about so much more than having a bad birthday as it centers around two days in the life of Samantha Baker and her eccentric family and friends.

Capturing the life of a teenager from 1984 complete with the awkward self-doubt, the embarrassing notes passed in class, the terrifying prospect of having no one to slow dance with, and that unrequited love that plagues our upbringing, Hughes really showed a sensitivity to his audience in the way he represented what teenagers actually sounded like. In much the same way that Diablo Cody’s unique voice came through in her screenplay for Juno, Hughes proved right away that he had a magical “in” to this teen world.

Aside from the appealing performance of Ringwald, Hughes has a dynamite cast of older and younger talent that helps to make the film all the more memorable. There’s Anthony Michael Hall as a notorious freshman geek fixated first on getting into sophomore Ringwald’s pants only to wind up helping her connect with her senior crush Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling, Mermaids). Schoeffling is appropriately dreamy as Jake but over the years a shallowness to the performance becomes more evident. Carlin Glynn, Paul Dooley, Blanche Baker, and Justin Henry have nice moments as Ringwald’s family, not to mention the four established actors that play her dotty/doting grandparents.

Though in theory Gedde Watanabe’s (Gung Ho) efforts as exchange student Long Duk Dong (insert laugh here) are admirable, it’s difficult to not cringe often in the way Hughes approaches this character. With some very un-PC references (not only to this characters but with the multiple gay slurs) and a penchant for a gong sound effect to follow every time someone utters the name Long Duk Dong, it’s the one part of the film that hasn’t aged well.

In 1984 the PG-13 rating hadn’t yet been invented and with the f-bomb dropped before the opening title and some surprising nudity early on, it’s a wonder Sixteen Candles snagged a PG rating rather than the R Hughes would receive for his next film, The Breakfast Club. Both films are more in the PG-13 category but it’s fairly amazing Sixteen Candles skated by with merely a PG.

Thirty years after it was released Sixteen Candles still holds a canny replay factor that keeps me coming back. While the slapsticky final 20 minutes aren’t nearly as strong as the previous 70, it’s not enough to keep me away from sitting through the film any time I catch it on TV. It remains a smart representation of teen life, delivered with style by one of the gatekeepers of the genre.