Movie Review ~ Live by Night

live_by_night_ver2
The Facts
:

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Live By Night

live_by_night

Synopsis: Set in the roaring 1920s, when Prohibition hasn’t stopped the flow of booze in an underground network of gangster-run speakeasies, the opportunity to gain power and money is there for any man with enough ambition and nerve.

Release Date: January 13, 2017

Thoughts: Fall is here and the Oscar hopefuls are awakening from their summer slumber. Now that the big blockbusters of the year have beat their bombastic drums at the box office, the “prestige pictures” are gearing up for their glitzy season.  It’s still up in the air whether Ben Affleck’s fourth film will get a qualifying release to be considered for the 2016 Oscar race…but judging by the first trailer released for Live By Night Warner Brothers would be crazy not to put all their chips in on this one.  Affleck has proved three times already he knows how to deliver a strong film and his Oscar nomination snub for directing Argo in 2013 still stings. Adapted by Affleck (Gone Girl) from the novel by Dennis Lehane and co-starring Scott Eastwood (Texas Chainsaw 3D), Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furnace), and Brendan Gleeson (Song of the Sea), this looks marvelous and right up Affleck’s alley.

The Silver Bullet ~ High-Rise

highrise

Synopsis: A big screen adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel centered on a new residential tower where one man finds himself in the middle of mounting violence. Violence that he also finds emerging in himself.

Release Date:  March 18, 2016

Thoughts: I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t yet heard of director Ben Wheatley.  The Brit director isn’t well known in the states, having yet to make a commercial cross over hit that would get him the attention he deserves.  His 2011 film Kill List remains one of the most deeply frightening films I’ve ever seen and now he’s movin’ on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky with High-Rise.  A nicely done true teaser of a trailer, there’s lots to see but little explained…just like I like it.  I’ve a feeling the finished film will be less straight-forward than it appears but I’m trusting in Wheatley to lead me down a worthy less traveled path.  Starring Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), and Jeremy Irons (Beautiful Creatures), this is popping up first in England but should make its way to our coast sometime in 2016.

The Silver Bullet ~ Burnt

adam_jones_ver2

Synopsis: Adam Jones is a Chef who destroyed his career with drugs and diva behavior. He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can gain three Michelin stars.

Release Date:  October 23, 2015

Thoughts: Before Bradley Cooper was BRADLEY COOPER OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG he had a brief flirt with fame as the star of the much-touted by short-lived Fox show Kitchen Confidential, the small screen adaptation of infamous chef Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography.  While that show lasted only 13 episodes, it was enough to get Cooper the attention of big screen players, leading to roles in Wedding Crashers and Failure to Launch before officially hitting the big time with The Hangover.  Now a four time Oscar nominee (American Sniper {which he also produced}, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), Cooper has his pick of roles so it’s interesting that he chose to revisit the kitchen with Burnt.  He might be cooking with gas though because the film looks like a nice showcase not only for Cooper but several other stars, but veteran and rising.  Co-starring Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina), Uma Thurman, Omar Sy (Jurassic World),  and Cooper’s American Sniper co-star Sienna Miller, it’s a bit worrisome that it’s on its third proposed title and that it’s directed by John Wells who sluggishly oversaw August: Osage County…but never count-out Cooper’s ability to present a good dish.

Movie Review ~ American Sniper

american_sniper_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jonathan Groff, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Jake McDorman

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Including a spoiler alert here because while many are aware of elements about the subject of this film, I realize that some pieces may not be as well know. To avoid any angry claims I didn’t warn you…I just did.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in the press about American Sniper and the life of the man the movie is based on. Chris Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL honorably discharged from the Navy in 2009 who went on to write his autobiography that recently Oscar nominated screenwriter Jason Hall based this movie on. Accumulating 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in the Iraq War, he was thought to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It was only after he was gunned down in 2013 by another vet Kyle was helping cope with PTSD that the mysteries behind certain pieces of Kyle’s memoir started to come to light.

What you should know about the film is that while I haven’t read the source novel it was based off of, the disparities between Kyle’s account and what some would argue as the truth aren’t the focus of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film. I’m not going to speak to those that claim Kyle fabricated several sequences or events, I’m merely reporting out on the movie as it was presented to us. I did read an article recently detailing the false claims and I don’t recall any of these incidents being included in the movie.

Whether that was a conscious decision on Hall’s part, creative editing after the fact, or simply not the story Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) wanted to tell is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that Eastwood’s film is an edge-of-your-seat experience anchored strongly by Cooper’s revelatory performance as Chris Kyle.

Arguably the most pro-American movie you’re likely to see in some time, the film bleeds red white and blue from frame one. It’s clearly established who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys are and Eastwood makes no apologies for injecting some politicized grandstanding throughout. I can’t say it really bothered me because it didn’t really stray into that insufferable right wing territory.

Bulked up and burly, Cooper transformed himself from the sinewy muscled look of previous projects to an impressive built Navy SEAL that’s 100% believable. With his Texan twang in full drawl his performance is the most flesh and blood in his already impressive career. Cooper may have been nominated for an Oscar twice before (for Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook) but his nomination for American Sniper is his most warranted. He’s never been better.

Unlike December’s Unbroken, American Sniper doesn’t shy away from showing the after effects of war on the men, women, children, and families of veterans after they return home. A decent chunk of the movie is devoted to showing Kyle’s adjustment to life with his wife Taya (a stellar Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher), and young children. Responsible for so many fatalities, the film looks (but doesn’t press) into the psyche of those that have to live with themselves long after their service to our country ends.

To round the film out there’s a through line arc of Kyle’s multiple run-ins with a stealth sniper and while these war torn sequences are impressively staged they start to feel like a part of an action film rather than a human drama which is really what American Sniper is at its core. It’s no wonder that directors like Steven Spielberg and David O. Russell circled this project at one time or another, there’s some meat to the script and the chance to explore not just the destructive side of war but the healing piece as well.

Eastwood struck out earlier in 2014 with the disastrous Jersey Boys so I was hoping he’d redeem himself with this film and it’s nice to report he found his footing with American Sniper. The 84 year old director’s laid-back style could easily have worked against the overall momentum of the film but it’s as breathless and engaging as any film he’s made before.

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, American Sniper may not hit on the full scope of Chris Kyle’s life, but what’s told is a powerfully moving tale of service and sacrifice.

Movie Review ~ Foxcatcher

foxcatcher_ver4

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 ~ American Sniper

american_sniper

Synopsis: A Navy SEAL recounts his military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills.

Release Date:  January 16, 2015

Thoughts: I’ll be more than willing to forgive director Clint Eastwood for the musical tragedy of Jersey Boys earlier this summer if December’s American Sniper is as breathless as this first trailer.  Starring Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) as the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and based on Kyle’s book of the same name, this is the film that could once and for all seal Cooper’s Hollywood A-List status if he can carry it off.  I’ve always thought Cooper was an interesting actor but didn’t really take notice of his leading man potential until his Oscar nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook…so here’s hoping Eastwood’s laid-back style works for both the movie and his star.

The Silver Bullet ~ Foxcatcher

foxcatcher

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.