Film Review: Live By Night (dir by Ben Affleck)


Remember Live By Night?

Released in December of 2016, Live By Night was one of those highly anticipated films that ended up bombing at the box office and leaving critics cold.  The anticipation was due to the fact that Live By Night was the first film that Ben Affleck had directed since Argo won best picture.  It was seen as Affleck’s next prestige picture, the one that would remind everyone that he was more than just the latest actor to be cast as Batman.  Live By Night was expected to be a huge Oscar contender.  As for why it bombed at the box office, that may have had something to do with the fact that Live By Night is not a very good film.

It’s a gangster film, one that takes place during prohibition.  Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the most boring gangster in Boston.  Or, at least, he is until he falls for the wrong woman and he ends up having to flee down to Tampa.  Once down there, Joe sets himself up as the most boring gangster in Florida.  There’s all sorts of themes running through Live By Night — racial themes, economic themes, even some heavy-handed religious themes — but ultimately, the main impression that one gets from the film’s story is that Joe Coughlin was a very boring gangster.

Anyway, Joe gets involved in all sorts of corruption and violence.  He brings down his friend, Dion (Chris Messina), to help him out.  Whereas Joe is rational and dull, Dion is violent and dull.  You spend the entire movie waiting for the moment when Dion will turn on Joe but it never happens.  I guess that’s a good thing since Joe and Dion are busy battling the Klan.  Joe may be a 1920s gangster but he’s got the political and cultural outlook of a 21st century movie star.

Joe knows that prohibition is going to end someday, so he hopes to make money through opening up a casino.  Standing in the way of the casino is a prostitute-turned-evangelist named Loretta (Elle Fanning).  Loretta is the daughter of the local police chief (Chris Cooper), with whom Joe has an uneasy friendship.  You keep expecting this plot to go somewhere but it really doesn’t.  Loretta’s just kinda there.  That said, we do get a hilarious shot of a tearful Chris Cooper repeating the word repent over and over again so there is that.

Zoe Saldana is also just kind of there, playing Joe’s Cuban wife.  Again, you expect a lot to happen with Saldana’s character but, for the most part, she’s mostly just a plot device who exists solely so that Joe can have some sort of motivation beyond simply wanting to get rich.

It’s a big, sprawling film that never quite feels like an epic.  A huge part of the problem is that Ben Affleck the director is let down by Ben Affleck the actor.  Regardless of what’s happening in the scene, Affleck always has the same grim look on his face.  At times, it seems as if he’s literally been chiseled out of a marble and you find yourself wondering if he’s actually capable of any facial expression beyond glum annoyance.  A gangster film like this need a bigger-than-life protagonist but, as played by Affleck, Joe always seems to be in danger of vanishing into the scenery.

I think part of the problem is that Affleck’s previous films all dealt with places and subjects that Affleck felt comfortable with, perhaps because he could relate their stories to his own personal experiences.  Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town both took place exclusively in Boston.  Argo dealt with the film industry.  Live By Night is a period piece set in the South and Affleck is obviously lost from the minute Joe arrives in Florida.

Live By Night, I think, could have been a good movie if it had been directed by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe if an actor like Colin Farrell played the role of Joe.  But, as it is, it’s just a rather stolid and uninspiring gangster film.

A Movie A Day #228: Johnny Be Good (1988, directed by Bud Smith)


Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) may be the best high school quarterback in the country but he has a difficult choice to make.  He promised his girlfriend, Georgia (Uma Thurman), that he would go to the local state college with her but every other university in the country wants him.  (Even legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell calls Johnny and advises him to go to an Ivy League college.)  As Johnny tours universities across the country, he faces every temptation.  By the time he makes his decision, will Johnny still be good?

The main problem with Johnny Be Good can be found in the first sentence of the above synopsis.  Anthony Michael Hall plays the best high school quarterback in the country.  By taking on the role of Johnny Walker, Hall was obviously attempting to prove that he was capable of more than just playing nerds for John Hughes.  But Hall is never convincing as a quarterback, much less the best in the country.  Though he bulked up for the role, it is impossible to imagine Hall in a huddle, coming up with the big play that wins the game.  It’s easier to imagine Johnny getting shoved in a locker and left there until the school year ends.  Hall seems to be lost in the role and the movie never seems to be sure who Johnny Walker is supposed to be.  (Two years later, Hall would again play a jock and give a far better performance in Edward Scissorhands.)

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Johnny’s teammate and best friend, is even less convincing as a football player than Hall.  In the 1980s, Downey could play a quirky sidekick in his sleep but not a wide receiver.  Paul Gleason also shows up in the movie, basically playing the same role that he played in The Breakfast Club.  Uma Thurman is sweet and pretty in her film debut but it’s a nothing role.  Fans of Cannon Picture will want to keep an eye out for Steve James, in a small role as a coach.

Poorly written and slackly directed with few laughs, Johnny Be Good fails to take its own advice.

Horror on TV: Tales From The Crypt 5.9 “Creep Course” (dir by Jeffrey Boam)


For tonight’s excursion into televised horror, how about a little mummy-related terror!?

That’s what you get this episode of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt!  From season 5, here is the ninth episode — Creep Course!  What happens when you mix the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the brain from the Breakfast Club with a mummy?  Mayhem!

This episode originally aired on November 10th, 1993.

Film Review: Foxcatcher (dir by Bennett Miller)


What a long and strange trip it has been for Foxcatcher.

Originally, Bennett Miller’s latest film was scheduled to be released at the end of 2013 and it was expected to be a major player in the 2013 Oscar race.  And then it was suddenly announced that Sony Pictures would, instead, wait an extra year to release the film.  Usually, this is a sign of a film that’s not expected to live up to expectations.  (Case in point: The Monuments Men.) But, in this case, it was seen as being the exact opposite.  Sony had such faith in the Oscar prospects of Foxcatcher that they were willing to hold off a year so it wouldn’t get lost in all of the attention that was being given to American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, and Wolf of Wall Street.

And, in many ways, it was a smart move.  Overnight, Foxcatcher went from being that weird movie with Steve Carell to being one of the most anticipated film of 2014.

Then, during the summer, Foxcatcher premiered at Cannes and was one of the hits of the festival.  With the notable exception of the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd, the reviewers at Cannes were rapturous in their praise of Foxcatcher.  And, though it failed to win the Palme d’Or, it did win best director for Bennett Miller and it cemented it’s status as the Oscar front-runner.

And then, something started to happen.

There was backlash against Foxcatcher.  As more and more critics saw the film, we started to hear more and more speculation that the film would fail to live up to all of the hype.  Critics generally praised the performers but many complained that the film was too cold and detached for its own good.  At first, it was easy to say that this was partially the result of unrealistically high expectations.  But, as more and more reviews came in, it became almost fashionable to speculate that Foxcatcher would be left out of the Oscar race.

Of course, most of us who were doing the speculating were doing so without actually having seen the film for ourselves.  After all, film critics and festival goers aren’t the ones who actually vote on what films will be nominated for and win Oscars.  One need only look at the nominations for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to realize that.

Well, Foxcatcher has finally been released and we’ve all finally gotten a chance to see it.  I saw it last week, while I was in Fort Worth for the Christmas holidays.  And my reaction…

Well, there’s a reason why it’s taken me nearly a week to write this review.

Ultimately, Foxcatcher is a good film.  In fact, on a purely technical level, it’s probably one of the best films of the year.  If it is nominated for best picture, the nomination will not necessarily be undeserved.  Bennett Miller comes up with some hauntingly chilly images.  Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo all give excellent performances.  It’s a film that stays with you, a powerful depiction of a true crime.

But it’s still not an easy film to enjoy.

Those critics who complained that Miller’s approach was too cold and detached have a point.  You watch the film with a sense of dread, knowing what’s going to eventually happen.  (Though I didn’t know anything about the murder of Dave Schultz before the film, I had read the reviews and I knew that eventually Mark Ruffalo’s kind-hearted family man would end up being gunned down in front of his family.)  But Miller always keeps the characters and the story at a distance.  You watch the characters and you struggle to understand them but, by the end of the film, you’re no closer to understanding why John E. du Pont (the eccentric millionaire turned murdered, played by Steve Carell) murdered Dave Schultz than you were at the beginning.

Instead, Miller is more interested as looking at John du Pont as being an example of American exceptionalism gone crazy.  Throughout the film, characters frequently comment on the fact that the du Ponts are one of the oldest and richest families in America.  (Not coincidentally, we’re also told that they initially made their fortune by producing and selling gunpowder.)  Du Pont is an outspoken and proud American.  Along with training wrestlers on the grounds of his estate (the Foxcatcher of the title), he also frequently invites the police to use the grounds for target practice.  Though Miller couldn’t have realized it when the film was originally shot in 2013, the scenes of the obviously unstable du Pont hanging out with the cops take on an extra resonance in this time of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.

John du Pont frequently talks about how his plan to open a world-class wrestling training facility is, at heart, a patriotic act.  The world wrestling championship, du Pont believes, belongs in America and he’s going to make sure that it gets there.  In order to achieve this goal, he hires Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to be his wrestling coach.  Mark, who has always lived in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), jumps at the chance to establish his own identity.  At first, du Pont is like the father that Mark has never had.  They even become friends.  (Du Pont, at one point, talks about discovering that all of his childhood friends had been paid to be his friend.)  Mark shows du Pont some wrestling moves.  Du Pont introduces Mark to cocaine.

But, ultimately, it becomes apparent that du Pont’s friendship with Mark was really just a ruse to get Mark to convince his older brother to come work for du Pont.  When Dave finally does join Mark at Foxcatcher, it causes Mark to turn self-destructive and du Pont to eventually turn into a murderer.

And, as I said, it’s a powerful film.  Channing Tatum gives the performance of his career and Steve Carell is frighteningly believable as John du Pont.  (One minor complaint: Carell is being promoted for best actor, even though his performance was clearly a supporting one.)  Mark Ruffalo, as well, does great work as Dave and somehow manages to make innate human decency compelling.

But the film itself is so cold and detached that, ultimately, this is a film that you end up respecting more than you end up enjoying.

Foxcatcher

 

 

Back to School #51: Trojan War (dir by George Huang)


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The 1997 film Trojan War may be a bit obscure (and, in fact, I had never heard of it until I came across it On Demand two weeks ago) but it has earned a place in the Hollywood record books as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.  Made on a $15,000,000 budget, Trojan War was released into one theater, played for one week, and made a total of $309.

But, as far as simple-minded teen sex comedies, are concerned, it’s not that bad.

Brad Kimble (Will Friedle) is a nice but dorky high school student who, for years, has had a crush on an unattainable cheerleader, Brooke (Marley Shelton).  When Brad is invited over to Brooke’s house to tutor her in biology, he arrives just after Brooke has had a fight with her jock boyfriend, Kyle (Eric Balfour sans facial hair).  Soon, Brooke and Brad are making out.  Brooke asks Brad if he has a condom.  Of course, if Brad did have a condom, there wouldn’t be a movie.  The rest of the movie deals with Brad’s attempt to not only find a condom in California and but to also get back to Brooke.

(Apparently, in the 1990s, there was some sort of sudden condom shortage in California.  That’s all that I can guess after having seen Trojan War.)

Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds.  Brad’s car (actually, it’s his dad’s car) gets stolen.  Brad ends up having a run in with a crazy homeless man (David Patrick Kelly) who — in a rather obvious shout out to Better Off Dead — wants two dollars. Brad gets chased by a crazy dog.  Brad has to deal with a cameo appearance by a crazy Kathy Griffin.  Brad runs into a crazy bus driver (played by Anthony Michael Hall).  Brad ends up being pursued by a crazy police officer (Lee Majors).  And since the film itself is a bit of an unacknowledged remake of Some Kind of Wonderful, Brad is also pursued by his not crazy best friend, Leah (Jennifer Love Hewitt, who I’ve always liked because we’re both Texas girls and I share her struggle).  Leah is in love with Brad and Brad is in love with Leah.  He’s just not smart enough to realize it.

And indeed, that’s the key to understanding the plot of Trojan War.  Brad is just not that smart.  This is one of those films where the great majority of Brad’s problems could have been avoided if Brad just wasn’t a moron.  Fortunately, Brad is played by Will Friedle who was always the best part of Boy Meets World and who displays the unique ability to make stupidity cute.  Friedle is so likable as Brad that you’re willing to forgive the film for a lot.

That doesn’t mean that Trojan War is necessarily a good movie.  It’s likable but it’s never really good.  For every joke that works, there’s one that doesn’t.  I could have really done without the extended sequence where Brad gets lost over on the bad side of town and the movie suddenly trots out every negative Latino stereotype imaginable.  But, when the movie just concentrates on Will Friedle and Jennifer Love Hewitt, it’s likable enough to waste 90 minutes on.

If nothing else, it’s certainly more entertaining than most movies that made less than 400 dollars at the box office.

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Back to School #39: The Breakfast Club (dir by John Hughes)


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Dear Mr Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.

Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club.

— Brian’s essay from The Breakfast Club (1985)

 That’s one thing that has always bothered me about The Breakfast Club.  The film, of course, is famous for being about five different high school students who are forced to spend a Saturday in detention with each other.  Over the course of the day, they start off as antagonists, separated by their own preconceived notions of who they are.  But, as the day progresses, they talk and they bond and they discover that they all have more in common than they might think.  And, at the end of the film, “basket case” Allison (Ally Sheedy) pairs off with “athlete” Andy (Emilio Estevez) and “criminal” Bender (Judd Nelson) pairs off with “princess” Claire (Molly Ringwald).  And while Claire is busy giving Allison a makeover and Bender is thinking about how iconic he’ll look when he raises his fist while leaving the school, “brain” Brian gets to write everyone’s essay.

Originally, all five of them were supposed to spend their time in detention writing individual essays about how they’re going to be better students and citizens.  But, in the end, only one essay is turned in and Brian is the one who writes it.  It’s always seemed a bit unfair to me that, while everyone else was getting to reveal a new side of his or herself, Brian was basically doing everyone’s schoolwork.  I know it can be argued that this shows that the other students finally appreciate Brian’s intelligence but everyone already knew he was smart.  In the end, Brian is the one who articulated what they all discovered during that Saturday detention but he also seems to be the one who gained the least from the experience.

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But, at heart, The Breakfast Club is a deeply ambiguous movie.  That’s one reason why, despite the fact that it was initially released the same year that I was born, the film still feels relevant today and why it remains one of the most popular high school films ever made.  Everyone can relate to at least one of the five students and I imagine that when most people watch it, they wonder how they would react to an aggressive character like John Bender or how they would handle the horrific story that Andy tells when asked what he did to get sentenced to detention.  And, at the end of the film, everyone wonders if any of the new friendships and relationships would actually last longer than a weekend.  When Bender asks Claire how she’s going to act if Brian approaches her on Monday, we all know what will probably actually happen if he does.  At the end of the film, you’re happy that they got that Saturday together because you know that, once Monday comes, it’s going to be like it never happened.

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I’ve watched The Breakfast Club a handful of times.  Whether I relate the most to Claire or to Allison usually depends on my mood. I think that a lot of people want to relate to Allison because, for much of the movie, Claire is unapologetically selfish and spoiled.  But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we’re all a lot more like Claire than any of us want to admit.

It’s also easy to relate to Allison because she’s not really a very well-drawn character.  While the other characters all come from an easily identifiable group, Allison is just there.  She’s a collection of strange quirks that don’t always have a clear motivation and, in the end, the only reason Allison works as a character is because Sheedy does such a good job playing her.  At the end of the film, Claire gives Allison a makeover and I have to admit that it always kind of breaks my heart to see how Allison goes from being strange to being very conventional.

Makeover

(In Susannah Gora’s excellent book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, Sheedy is quoted as saying that she didn’t feel very happy about it either.  According to her — and she’s correct — the only thing that really redeems this scene is the fact that Allison doesn’t quite pull off her new look.  She’s still a little awkward and you realize that she may have just been humoring Claire.)

As for the males, Anthony Michael Hall gets a lot of the laughs and Judd Nelson gets the best lines but Emilio Estevez gives the best performance.  We already know that Brian is insecure despite being intelligent and we expect that Bender is angry because he’s got an abusive father.  But when Andy explains why he, an otherwise nice and likable guy, committed a horrific act of bullying, it’s an amazing scene and Estevez plays it perfectly.

Estevez

In fact,  both Estevez and Sheedy are so good that I’ve decided that Andy and Allison did stay together after detention.  Eventually they got married and, right now, they’re living in a pretty house in the suburbs of Chicago.  Bender and Claire, however — there’s no way that lasted!

But, regardless of what happened on Monday, there’s no way your heart can’t soar a little when Bender lifts that fist above his head.

Bender and his fist

Back to School #35: Sixteen Candles (dir by John Hughes)


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The 80s are often considered to be the golden age of teen films and that’s largely due to the work of one man, John Hughes. A  former advertising copywriter and a contributor to National Lampoon, Hughes went on to direct and write some of the most influential films of all time.  By deftly mixing comedy with themes of alienation, rebellion, and youthful disillusionment, Hughes changed the way that teenagers were portrayed onscreen and his influence is still felt today, in everything from Juno to Superbad to Easy A to … well, just about any other recent film starring Michael Cera.

(Okay, I know Michael Cera was not in Easy A but it really seems like he should have been…)

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, a comedy about love, birthdays, and weddings set in an upper class suburb of Chicago.  (I have to admit that, much like with My Tutor, one reason that I like this film is because I like seeing where everyone lives.)  As the film opens, Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is not having a particularly good time.  For one thing, everyone is so wrapped up in her older sister’s wedding that they’ve forgotten about Sam’s sixteenth birthday.  Her house is full of wacky grandparents (and one foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong).  At school, Sam is in the unenviable position of being neither popular enough nor unpopular enough to actually be noticed by anyone.  Instead, she’s just there.  She has a crush on Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) but is convinced that Jake doesn’t even know that she’s alive.  (Of course, she’s wrong.)  She’s also being pursued by a character who is occasionally referred to as being “Farmer Ted” but is listed in the end credits as simply being “The Geek.”  (I’m going to refer to him as “The Geek” because Farmer Ted makes him sound like he should be killing people in a SyFy original movie.)  As played by Anthony Michael Hall, The Geek isn’t your typical high movie nerd.  Instead, he’s the outspoken and confident king of the nerds and he’s proud of it.  The Geek is madly pursuing Sam and has made a bet with his friends (including John Cusack) that he’ll not only have sex with her but he’ll prove it by bringing them her panties.  (BAD GEEK! — but fortunately, Anthony Michael Hall gives such an energetic and likable performance that you can forgive him.)

There are parts of Sixteen Candles that have not aged well.  And, by that, I’m mostly referring to the character of Long Duk Dong, who is so well-played by Gedde Watanabe that it’s tempting to ignore just how racist the portrayal of his character really is.  As well, I know that a lot of my more erudite friends would probably only briefly look away from their copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The 21st Century, just long enough to pronounce that Sixteen Candles is essentially a film about “first world problems.”

Well, maybe it is.  But I don’t care.  I like it.  John Hughes’s script is full of classic lines and funny characters, Anthony Michael Hall is likable as the Geek, and, as played by Michael Schoeffling, Jake Ryan is the epitome of the perfect guy.  If your heart doesn’t melt a little when he says that he’s looking for true love, it can only be because you don’t have a heart.  And finally, Sam remains a character that we can all relate to.  As played by Molly Ringwald, she’s the perfect sullen everygirl.

Of course, an undeniable part of the charm of Sixteen Candles comes from the fact that it really is a film that could not be made today.  Sixteen Candles may take place in an entirely different world from films like The Pom Pom Girls and Suburbia, but it’s still just as much of a time capsule.

First off, there’s about a thousand apps out there that will make sure that you never forget anyone’s birthday.  If the film was made today, Sam’s parents would have checked their e-mail and found a message from Facebook telling them that “Samantha Baker has a birthday this week!”  They could have just written “Happy birthday to a wonderful daughter!” on her wall and half of Sam’s problems would have been solved.

Secondly, it’s doubtful that, if the film was made today, the Geek would be able to get away with just showing everyone’s Sam’s panties.  Instead, they would have demanded nude pics, which would have then been posted on the internet for the entire world to see.  And let’s be honest: “Can I send my friends naked pics of you?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?”

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*And, no, I haven’t read Piketty’s tome.  I have a life to live and movies to see.