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Live by Night – Review

26 Jan

When it comes to movies he’s written and directed, Ben Affleck’s track record is one of the strongest in recent years. Movies like The TownGone Baby Gone, and Argo have enough intensity and depth to be remembered a hundred times over. When I saw his next project, Live by Night, was going to be a Prohibition era gangster movie, I was good to go. I’ve been looking forward to this movie after seeing the very first trailer for it months ago, and I felt even more hopeful when I saw that it was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel Gone Baby Gone. Now, while there are plenty of really great things in this movie that are worth mentioning and getting excited about, Live by Night is probably the weakest entry in Affleck’s directing filmography.

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Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who makes his small living through crime as a thief. He’s also madly in love with a woman named Emma (Sienna Miller), the wife of his boss and and head of the Irish Gang of Boston, Albert White (Robert Glenister). After this affair almost gets him killed and results in him losing Emma, Joe joins forces with Italian mafia boss and enemy of White Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe to the Ybor City in Florida to help run his rum importing business that is being threatened by White. While in Florida, Joe falls in love and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who is a major component of the importing business. Not everything goes smoothly however as rival factions, a tragic run in with the local sheriff and his daughter (Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning), and the looming danger of the Ku Klux Klan threaten this entire business, which forces Joe to become the violent man he never wanted to be again.

I have really mixed feelings about this movie that came up as I was writing the summary. It reminded me the biggest flaw that this movie has, and that is that there is so much crammed into a run time that barely has the ability to hold it all. There is around 3 and a half hours worth of material here that’s forced to fit in a movie that’s only a little bit over 2 hours. This makes for some weird pacing, plot lines that don’t get enough attention, and some characters that unfortunately lack enough development. Let’s start with the pacing of the movie. A lot of times when someone’s talking about the pace of a movie, they’re going to say how slow it felt. On the flip side of that, I felt like Live by Night went way too fast. There was a part in the middle where it slowed down to a crawl, but then picked up so fast I thought it was going to break my neck. This is what happens when there are at least five different main plots happening in a movie.

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Let’s look at the positives for a bit because this movie does have very cool elements. Affleck has shown us time and again that he is capable of filming a beautiful looking movie, and Live by Night holds up to that standard. The color pallets and sweeping camera work got the better of me at times and I just had to watch in awe at how amazing everything looked. This also a movie with incredible sound design. Every gunshot felt authentic and blasted through the theater’s sound system for optimal escapist effect. Speaking of sounds, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is absolutely fantastic. Finally, this movie handles violence in a very interesting way that I’ve been seeing more in movies as of late. The violence is strong but the scenes of it are few and far between. Instead of making the violence look cinematic and fake, there’s this realism to it that really hit me as I was watching it, and reminded me a lot of how Affleck handled it in The Town.

While that’s all well and good and does make the movie memorable in its own right, I still can’t help shake the fact that as time has gone on I’ve become less and less impressed by this movie. A big reason is because of the characterization and how the people in the movie develop. My biggest example of this is the relationship between Joe and Graciela. It has the potential to be a great cinematic romance, but it unfortunately isn’t explored enough and the events of their life jut kind of happen and then time moves on because there is so much left to cover. The same can be said about Joe’s partner in the movie. We briefly see him in the first third, then he’s reintroduced, but their relationship doesn’t really have a chance to go anywhere either.

I’ve been so excited for Live by Night, it kinda hurts to say that it disappointed me. It’s a beautiful looking movie with a great score and sound design. There’s also plenty of great actors giving quality performances. The problem is that so much is crammed into the movie that some plots are wasted and characters fail to develop fully which lessens the dramatic impacts of some scenes. I really wanted Live by Night to be great, but it’s a movie that fails to live to its fullest potential and I’m not sure I have any reason to see it again.

Final Grade: C+

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The Untouchables – Review

5 Oct

The 1930s was an interesting time in American history. The Great Depression hit in 1929 which forced many people to make money to provide for themselves by any means necessary. Since this was happening during the time of Prohibition, a lot of these people used the demand of alcohol to their advantage. One of the biggest names was Al Capone, who built an entire empire and was one of the forerunners of organized crime in the United States. This leads me into Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, based on a book of the same name and a television show from the 1950s. With source material like this, it’s no surprise that this film has become one of the most respected gangster movies of all time and, I think, Brian De Palma’s best film.

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In the early 1930s, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) practically runs the city of Chicago and makes millions of dollars through the illegal distribution of alcohol. He’s also a dangerous and violent criminal who uses intimidation and murder to force people into doing business with him. This causes the Bureau of Prohibition to create a task force just to bring him down and choose Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to be the head of this group. Ness finds working with a whole task force to be dangerous and nearly impossible, so he makes up a team all his own. They are beat cop Malone (Sean Connery), new recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia), and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). The group is soon nicknamed “The Untouchables,” but they soon realize that’s not true as the pressure they put on Capone force him to put the pressure back on them.

I hate it when critics use the word “captivating” to describe a movie. It’s such a cheesy adjective and I simply don’t like it, but allow me to be a hypocrite just this once. The Untouchables is a captivating movie. Everything just comes together so well to make a movie that reminds me why I love movies so much in the first place. Normally I hate when a movie is based off true events and is completely inaccurate, but David Mamet’s screenplay makes me forget all that and just enjoy the story that he put together. With Mamet’s screenplay, Brian De Palma’s expert hand at directing, the cast, and Ennio Morricone’s note perfect and unique score, The Untouchables was practically sculpted by the gods.

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There’s a lot of great actors attached to this movie like Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia. While everyone does a fine job, there are a few stand out performances that exceed great and wind up in the territory of excellence. These exceptions are Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Now, De Niro isn’t really surprising, but I never really looked at Connery as a great actor. He can act fine, but his performance in The Untouchables is the highlight of his talent. He brings humor and the right amount of sincerity and drama to the role of Malone, which makes this movie worth watching just to see him act. D Niro, on the other hand, while not being in the movie all that much, makes every scene that he’s in memorable. He plays Al Capone with viciousness, slime, and makes him a very entertaining person to watch.

Like I said before, this movie is pretty far from being accurate. For example, Eliot Ness and Al Capone never actually met face to face during the whole ordeal, and Capone never actually violently attacked back. Also, Frank Nitti wasn’t involved in things like he was in this movie. But, this movie presents a stylized version of reality that makes it so hard to look away. Brian De Palma is known for making highly stylized, but not over the top films. There are scenes in this movie that will be remembered until the day I die, like the shootout on the bridge and the slow motion gunfight in the train station. These scenes combined with Morricone’s score just get to me in ways that movies should.

Brian De Palma’s filmography has had some rough patches, but also some that define film making perfectly. I love Scarface just as much as the next guy, but when it comes to mob movies that De Palma has done, my favorite has to be The Untouchables. It tells a story so perfectly with characters and their arcs so defined, that it’s easy to care about what happens to all of them. It also is reality through a stylish looking glass that shows a world like our own, but somehow just a little different. That’s the magic of the movies, and that’s why this film is a must see.

Lawless – Review

24 Jul

In the year 1920, the United States government thought it would be a good idea to ban alcohol in all of out fifty states. While in theory, that sounds like an awful idea, many people found way to use the Prohibition to their advantage. Bootleggers and moonshiners began cropping up all over the country, and three of the most interesting examples are the Bondurant brothers who worked out of the Virginia Piedmont. Nick Cave based his screenplay off of Matt Bondurant’s (one of their grandsons) The Wettest County in the World and director John Hillcoat collaborated to create the excellent crime drama that is Lawless.

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Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) and his brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are moonshiners who provide for a small town in Virginia. Amongst the respect and gratitude they get from their friends and neighbors comes an other worldly legend that Forrest is immortal. That immortality is put to the test when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce) arrives in town and demands a cut of the action for the new Virginia commonwealth attorney. Forrest and his brother whole heartedly refuse and soon become the targets of Rakes’ wrath. Meanwhile, Forrest hires and quickly falls for a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) and Jack meets and begins courting local girl Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) and begins doing business with big time gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). With liquor sales sky rocketing, the Bondurant brothers really do seem invincible until Charlie Rakes brings his war far too close to the Bondurant home.

I was a huge fan of the previous collaboration between screenwriter/composer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat, The Proposition. Not only did I think it was beautifully shot, but the writing and the pacing as well as the outstanding soundtrack made for one hell of a modern western. Lawless plays out like a western but it also has roots in the gangster and crime genre as well. There’s Tommy guns and pinstripe wearing gangsters, but the Bondurant boys and the showdowns that they get into are very much like western characteristics. At one point, Rakes even asks Forrest if he is going to “draw on him” which is a western cliche through and through. I don’t want to say that this movie uses and abundance of cliches because there were a lot of things that happened in the story that were completely unexpected.

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What’s great about this story is how it uses tropes from the aforementioned genres, but then also manipulates the viewer into thinking we know what’s going to happen, but then ends up surprising us with the actual outcome. That’s smart screenwriting, and I respect that. Another important thing is that I care about all of the characters and I care even more about what happens to them. I was actually sort of surprised at the feelings I had towards all of them, and not all of the feelings were good. But if a characters was hurt or even killed, it really resonated throughout the rest of the film, and amongst all of the brutal violence it was good to see that I actually care about the characters and not just the action.

Lawless wouldn’t be the success that it is if it wasn’t for the incredibly talented cast of actors that makes up the ensemble. A lot of people give Shia LaBeouf shit for his acting, but you can’t just think of him as that guy from the Transformers movies. He proves in this movie that he really does have the skill to make it in dramatic movies. Tom Hardy owns every scene he’s in, even though he doesn’t have all that much to say. His screen presence alone does the job just fine. Guy Pierce is the real scene stealer though as the unbelievably creepy and psychotic Charlie Rakes. His look, his voice, and his posture was enough for me to want to go into the movie and beat him up myself. He’s definitely one of the best villains to come around in a long time.

In conclusion, I was in no way disappointed by Lawless and it has even given me some inspiration to start working on my own projects again. This film works as a western film, a gangster film, and family drama film. There’s so much to enjoy about this movie I had to watch it a second time the day after I watched it for the first time. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen a while and may be one of my new favorites. Check this movie out if you haven’t already!