Movie Review ~ I Care A Lot

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A court-appointed legal guardian defrauds her older clients and traps them under her care. But her latest mark comes with some unexpected baggage.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Nicolas Logan, Kevin McCormick, Michael Malvesti, Liz Eng, Alicia Witt

Director: J. Blakeson

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A lot of good came out of 2014’s Gone Girl.  For one thing, after the cool reception of the big screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it gave director David Fincher an opportunity to bounce back with another hotly anticipated film based on a number one bestselling novel.  Then there was leading man Ben Affleck’s comeback story that was just kicking off after a Best Picture Oscar win for 2012’s Argo and the general feeling in Hollywood that he was robbed of a Best Director nomination.  Though he was soon to feel the heat from the comic book nerdom in the unwinnable battle of playing Batman for several films in the ill-fated DC Extended Universe, he was an interesting choice for the role but ultimately a smart move on Fincher’s part.

The real reason we’ll continue to talk about Gone Girl long after people have stopped debating the merits of the book vs. the movie is Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-nominated performance as a missing wife that may not be as missing as we’re led to believe.  Pike won critics and audiences over in how she brought this character that was so complex and unreliable on the page to life, adding in extra nuances the book wasn’t able to supply due to the limitations of its medium.  The character is unforgettable in so many ways and some of that is the collaboration between Pike, her director, and her co-star but it’s mostly Pike allowing an at times unlikable character to speak up and out, eventually burrowing under our skin to strangely become someone to cheer on.

After all the hoopla, you’d have expected there to be more to the Pike peak and while the actress had a solid resume before the film and nomination, her films over the last half decade have been slightly on the lackluster side.  Most have been supporting turns that haven’t allowed her the chance to shine like she could and when she does take center stage, like in 2020’s Radioactive, the films don’t quite rise up to meet her.  It’s a thrill to report, then, that right off the bat in 2021 Pike is back with I Care a Lot, the supremely entertaining new Netflix movie that premiered back in September 2020 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received a nice round of notices.  Even better, Pike’s character feels like a slight riff on her Gone Girl persona and while it doesn’t seek to repeat the same work she did there, you see similarities in the characters so much that you almost wonder if Pike wouldn’t consider Amy from Gone Girl and Marla from I Care a Lot kindred spirits.

Meet Marla Grayson, a court-appointed guardian for a number of elderly or at-risk adults that need her expertise.  According to the law, she has access to their finances and authority over where they live, their medical care, their routines, and what they eat.  Even if they have family that are living, as long as she can convince the court she is better suited to take on these adults as her ward, she’s in charge.  It’s a wicked little con, this predatory guardianship masquerading as elder care, and no one is doing it better than Marla Grayson.  Sadly a concept based in reality, predatory guardians search for seniors with a history of health issues and either get them to sign over their rights or have the courts make the final call.  Once the guardianship is in place, it’s hard to get it dissolved without the person under the care making a direct statement they are well enough to care for themselves.  Easier said than done considering how these elderly individuals are “cared for” with the types of treatment they are subjected to by their “guardians.”   With her razor-sharp bob, perfect make-up, and always on trend clothes, Marla (Pike) is the very picture of having her act together.  How could the court see her as anything but looking out for the best interest of her clients?

Working with her second in command and live-in lover Fran (Eiza González, Paradise Hills), Marla is always looking for that perfect mark, or ‘cherry’, someone with no immediate family or living relatives that could show up to get in her way or claim any inheritance monies at the time of death.  One day, that fruitful horse comes in for Marla in the form of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest, Let Them All Talk), a woman in her late ‘60s living alone in a big, beautiful house and sitting on a pile of cash.  Jennifer’s doctor is getting a kickback from Marla by tipping her off to patients that may be good targets for her type of service as is a local nursing home manager that can charge a lot of funds for his care services so all it takes is a stop in family court (without Jennifer present) and an emotional plea for Jennifer’s ‘safety’ and Marla has a new ward and what looks to be a big payday.  Before Jennifer knows it, her house is gone and her possessions have been auctioned off with Marla using the money from the sale to pay her own salary.  There’s just one rather large problem…this ward isn’t as alone in the world as Marla thinks.

Writer/director J. Blakeson wisely eschews the “based on true events” angle that could have been taken and opts instead for an original story that allows for a healthy helping of ice-cold bitterness traveling throughout a number of the characters.  In some films, this could become a real drag and stagnate into sameness fairly quickly but Blakeson’s film has such an energy to it that watching people take bites at one another only propels it forward with more adrenaline.  Marla is unapologetic in her mission to succeed and isn’t deterred by threats on a verbal or physical level.  While we don’t get much in the way of her backstory save for a brief (and telling) reference to her mother, an early confrontation between her and the son of a ward gives the impression she made a decision a number of years back to face all challenges head on and suffer any consequences as a result with open arms.

As one of maybe ten people on the planet that has yet to watch Game of Thrones, I can’t say I’ve yet joined the Peter Dinkalge (Three Christs) fan club based on the films I’ve seen him in so far, yet his co-starring role in I Care a Lot is likely the most I’ve enjoyed him from start to finish.  His first appearance is long after the tone of the film has been set by Pike and Blakeson, so he struggles with some adjustment at first and even if he arguably never fully gets that balance right, he makes a nice foil for Pike and a worthy sparring partner in several scenes near the end of the picture.  I only wish he wasn’t always trying to be a ‘character’ instead of just letting his acting happen naturally…he consistently appears to be working harder than everyone else for no real reason and it winds up shining the wrong spotlight on him.

It’s Pike’s picture all the way no matter how you spin it and it’s a shame there likely isn’t room for her on the Oscar ballot this year because here’s another complicated female role that deserves recognition.  Far from a decent human, insanely stubborn, and comically driven to succeed by stepping over anyone and anything without saying ‘excuse me’, Marla will still earn your admiration in spite of all her behavior.  That’s says a lot not just about Blakeson’s screenplay but in how Pike has layered Marla to have more to her than we originally see.  It’s not a softer side, per se, but it is someone that just wants to be taken seriously and to play by the rules…even if the rules may not ultimately be fair.  Movies that walk an edge like this and make an anti-hero the star of the show can be a turn-off for people but I appreciated that Blakeson saw Marla’s character through to the uncompromising end…her hard shell exterior isn’t an act so don’t waste your time waiting for her to break.

Regrettably faltering right when it needs to fly the highest, I Care a Lot almost makes it to the finish line maintaining the high level of entertainment it kept up pace with for its run time…and that’s too bad because it gets so close.  Take that as a minor quibble if you will but it nagged at me, especially seeing that Blakeson seemed to have everything so snappy and under control.  All said, this is one of the best Netflix offerings in recent memory and makes for an all-around crackling watch.  Don’t miss it.

Movie Review ~ The Secrets We Keep


The Facts
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Synopsis: In post-World War II America, a woman, rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband, kidnaps her neighbor and seeks vengeance for the heinous war crimes she believes he committed against her.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo, Ritchie Montgomery

Director: Yuval Adler

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In 1990, playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a charged play titled Death and The Maiden which centered on a former political prisoner that has started a new life with her husband in a remote part of the world.  Though it’s been years since her torture and rape at the hands of brutal guards, she remains haunted by her memories. When she believes she has run into one of her former captors by chance, she kidnaps him and enacts revenge…even though she isn’t totally sure he is the man who assaulted her those many years ago.  The play was a hit in London and Broadway before being turned into a 1994 movie from Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver.

I was reminded of Death and the Maiden often while watching the new drama The Secrets We Keep because it shares many plot points with Dorfman’s earlier work.  Though it strays from the 1990 piece is several key areas, it almost feels like a slinky remake, albeit with less of a politicized edge than Dorfman implied and Polanski capitalized on.  Director and co-screenwriter Yuval Adler and his screenwriter collaborator Ryan Covington actually wind up treading on a lot of familiar ground here, producing a film that has a meaningful message at its core but is hampered by a clumsy delivery system.  Instead of truly delving into the dark areas it hints at, it opts to keep the night light on and avoid confronting anything seriously horrific.

Adler sets the film in 1959 anytown USA where housewife Maja (Noomi Rapace, Dead Man Down) lives with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina, Live by Night) and son Patrick (Jackson Dean Vincent).  Their idyllic, post WWII town is thriving with a local refinery in full bore and an influx of returning veterans expanding their families.  The film has barely caught its breath when Maja hears a familiar whistle while lounging in the park with her son and follows the sound to a man that stirs a repressed memory.  A Romanian, Maja’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis and she was raped, along with her sister, by a gang of soldiers before escaping…the survivors guilt she harbors has been crippling and it all returns with that one whistle.

Convinced she has found one of the men that committed that heinous crime against her, she quickly puts together a plan to kidnap him and force him into confessing.  Turns out, Maja is quite resourceful and nabbing the unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and getting him set-up in her basement isn’t all that difficult…but getting him to admit who he is will be.  With Lewis involved and her desperation to get the truth becoming more important than ever, Maja will resort to anything to uncover the truth.  Yet the question lingers, has Maja accused the wrong man?  Hints at psychiatric trauma and recent therapeutic sessions suggest there’s maybe a reason to doubt her recall of the events or call into question her judgement where her family is concerned.

Though the film is filled with numerous moments of supposed tension hinging on the discovery of a man trapped in the basement of this otherwise picturesque couple, I was surprised at how little energy the movie spends to create any kind of spark in anyone or anything.  There’s this general somber tone throughout and a drained-out color scheme that makes everything feel it’s either just coming back to life or about to take its last breath.  Rapace in particular looks so suspicious, you’d think she was hiding an entire football team and their grandmothers in her basement…she always looks rattled.  When she befriends the wife of the man (played by She Dies Tomorrow director Amy Seimetz with the kind of interesting mystery the entire film needed  more of) I kept waiting for the wife to ask her to blink twice if she needed help at home.

While the production design is solid and the costumes are more than just your usual pencil skits and trousers look, everything else just seems to tow the line…and that’s too bad because there’s an important story here waiting to be told.  Messina seems to be the one that’s hopped on the right train and knows where he’s headed and Kinnaman does too, for a bit, until the character has a shift that doesn’t get to be explored fully.  I always want to like Rapace more in films but possibly with the exception of 2012’s Prometheus she’s just never been as good or well represented as she was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden that made her famous.  While she’s well suited for the role, it ultimately proves to be another wrong fit for the actress.

The atrocious crimes committed by German Nazis against Jews and other marginalized Europeans during WWII have been explored and exploited by the entertainment industry for years by now.  It’s gotten to the point that the horrific rapes and murders depicted in the flashbacks seen in The Secrets We Keep are easy to chalk up alongside everyday crimes we’ve been desensitized to by the television and movies we watch.  I say that not to condemn the filmmakers of this film or any other with similar themes but to put into perspective how commonplace the acts portrayed within seem to have become…and make sure we never truly forget the real lives that were affected.  That’s one key area where the film succeeds, in detailing how this trauma can infest your entire life and the lives of others if not dealt with.

Movie Review ~ She Dies Tomorrow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s conviction that she will die tomorrow spreads like a contagion through a town.

Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michelle Rodriguez, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard

Director: Amy Seimetz

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In theater, there are a number of urban legends about productions or performances that were so bad the audience began to turn on the actors onstage.  There is the long-held rumor (that I don’t quite believe) of the matinee crowd attempting to sing above Sheena Easton in a Broadway production of Man of La Mancha to overcome her off key warbling.  The granddaddy of them all, though, is the tale meant to send a shiver down the spine of every theater nerd that dared overact and provide hearty laughter to everyone else.  Yes, it’s the one revolving around a troupe’s noble effort in a staging of The Diary of Anne Frank that had such poor acting it had one fed-up patron proclaim loudly “They’re in the attic!!!”

I couldn’t help but think of that particular anecdote shortly after She Dies Tomorrow began…because it’s around that time I blurted out “Is it tomorrow yet?” and then spent the next 75 minutes waiting for that moment to arrive.  Though it boasts a nifty poster and an appealing premise that appears tailor-made to the self-contained uncertainty we find ourselves living in, this incessantly grating bit of delirium shouldn’t have waited to put anyone (least of all us , the viewers) out of its misery.  Thus, it ends up being exactly the kind of messy dreck that gives indie films good street cred by those that seek out obscure titles to fawn over but is a complete dud for anyone else.

Though she’s recently moved into a new apartment and appears to have a semblance of a decent life, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil, You’re Next) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  That’s it…that’s basically the entire premise of the movie that gets repeated over and over again within actress turned writer/director Amy Seimetz’s (2019’s Pet Sematary) languid script.  Actually, there’s a supposed bit of intrigue as to how Amy’s belief of her impending doom infects everyone she comes in contact with and how they in turn spread that paranoia onward.  Her friend (Jane Adams, Poltergeist, a kooky bright spot at times) passes it to her brother (Chris Messina, Cake), his wife (Kate Aselton, Bombshell), and their friends (Tunde Adebimpe, Marriage Story and Jennifer Kim, Spider-Man: Homecoming) before handing it over to a few other familiar faces that must have owed Seimetz a favor.  How this extended circle deals copes with their purported demise runs the gamut from the cruel to the criminal — not the kind of material that’s exciting to watch or that gives the usually talented performers much to work with.

It all comes back to Amy, though, and while Seimetz attempts to give an origin story to the fear that drives Amy to panic it’s covered in so much heavy-handed missteps in eye-crossing cinematography drowned out by an often ear-plugging score that you can barely pay attention.  So whatever larger message Seimetz is trying to convey gets lost amidst a clamor of her own making.  The same goes for the performances which range from the zombified (Sheil) to the whacked-out (Michelle Rodriguez, Widows) and in the end it’s Adams who likely comes out the best because the entire utterly bizarre film plays right into her wheelhouse of strange characters moving through this earthly plane.  Reportedly Seimetz used her salary from Pet Sematary to fund this picture and you wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent on an actual cemetery for pets instead of this eye-rolling folderol.

I can already see this being heralded a triumph by those bored on the straight-forward offerings available these past few months, but I saw no real artistry on display, unfortunately.  I felt like I should have responded differently but whatever takeaway I was meant to be left with vanishes among the punishing noise.  Even looking at the movie as metaphor for anxiety or grappling with the inner monologue of one’s own mortality lets the film off a hook it deserves to be hitched to.  So it’s not as if the intent wasn’t clear…it’s the execution that left me completely at odds with nearly everything else the film brought to the table, rendering it unwatchable in my book.  Its impenetrable notions of gloom and doom may send you scrambling toward your cure-all for the blues but it makes you wonder…when life is already so tenuous, why add more inexplicable horror to your plate if you don’t have to?  She Dies Tomorrow but pick something else today.

Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

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 ~ Cake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Claire becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Adriana Barraza, Chris Messina, William H. Macy. Britt Robertson

Director: Daniel Barnz

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though she’s getting a lot of recognition for her dramatic turn in Cake, I’m wondering if the masses have forgotten that this isn’t Jennifer Aniston’s first trip to the non-comedic side of films…but it may be her best. OK…so maybe films like The Good Girl and Derailed didn’t afford Aniston to truly carry a film with some weight behind it but they did show that there was more to her than that 90s show she was on and her twice yearly visits to the multiplex with a romantic comedy in tow.

Where Aniston seems to excel (and thrive) is with roles that are the exact opposite of how people see her. With other actors, that can come off as merely trying to pull a fast one on fans in a display of false supposed dexterity but in Aniston’s case you get the sense that she has real depth waiting to be tapped.

As Claire, Aniston (Wanderlust, We’re the Millers) finds that raw edge and runs with it, elevating the film in the process. For a movie about suicide, chronic illness, divorce, substance abuse, loss of a child, and depression there’s often the relief of a welcome promise of redemption around every corner. True, Claire fails to recognize these moments and continues on in pain and cynicism but as time goes on we see that she’s coming around.

Opening with a support group for chronic pain discussing the recent suicide of a member (Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods), Claire seems to be the only one unwilling to play along with the namby-pamby kumbaya-ness of the exercise. Obviously considering suicide once or twice herself, Claire becomes interested in the family the young mother left behind, particularly the husband (Sam Worthington, Man on a Ledge) that hasn’t dealt with his grief. Between popping pills and discouraging her well-meaning housekeeper (Adriana Barraza, Thor) from interfering with her wallowing, Claire gains a new perspective on where her life is taking her.

Though the premise of the film seems simple, there are a lot of complexities into the relationships featured onscreen. Barely able to stand up straight for long periods of time, Claire finds solace in random encounters with handymen and calls on her UCLA-trained law education to sweet-talk her doctor into yet another prescription of the pain meds she downs like candy. Worthington and Aniston have a nice rapport as they both flesh out characters in different stages of the acceptance of loss of a loved one.

The film is best, however, in its scenes between Aniston and Barraza. Oscar nominated for her work in Babel, Barraza quietly steals the majority of her scenes right out from under Aniston. For all of the Academy Award buzz surrounding Aniston’s work here, it’s really Barraza that was snubbed for more widespread recognition. There’s an empathy Barraza displays for Aniston’s character suggesting a mother/child relationship more than an employee/employer one. Though they bicker frequently, when push comes to shove both women stand up for one another in moving displays of emotional support.

I usually walk into these types of movies with the knowledge from experience that someone will start off one way and be a changed individual by the time of the final fadeout but with Cake I was never sure where it would all end. Of course we know how it should end but do we really want everything wrapped up in a ribbon as we head to our cars and into the world outside the movie theater?   A slice of life film that’s fairly filling, Cake may not have snagged an Oscar nom for Aniston (though she did get SAG and Golden Globe nominations) but it reaffirmed that she’s an actress worthy of more of these types of roles.