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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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American Sniper – Review

17 Feb

When told right, a war movie can really make you think and try desperately to understand what soldiers all over the world have to face everyday when they wake up in hostile territory, but also how they react back home far away from the battlefield. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see Fury, which worked very well as a thought provoking war film, and now I’ve finally gotten the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s Oscar contender American Sniper. The biggest thought I have in my mind is that if the Academy really needed a war movie for a nomination, why couldn’t it have just been Fury?

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After seeing coverage of the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) decides that it’s his duty as an American to enlist in the military to do what he can to protect his country. After the 9/11 attacks, he is deployed to the Middle East where his talents as a sniper become quite apparent to the rest of his brothers in arms and also the enemy. Each time he comes home to his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children, it becomes more and more clear to Kyle that he belongs in battle alongside his fellow soldiers, but he also feels the need to be at home with his family. As the these conflicts become more intense, and more of his friends are killed, Kyle’s stability becomes more and more fragile, encouraging him to do something before it reaches the point of no return.

I know I’m probably a minority in my opinions about this movie, and excuse me for saying this, but I really can’t get behind this movie or all of the praise it’s getting. Everything from Bradley Cooper’s performance to the way director Clint Eastwood handles the complicated subject material is getting way too much positive attention in my honest opinion. The basic formula of this movie has been done before and done a lot better, especially with Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional psychological war film The Hurt Locker. This film, on the other hand, follows the formula step by step and fails to bring anything new or particularly thoughtful to the table. I can’t say that American Sniper is a “bad” movie but I can definitely say that it is bland, generic, and boring.

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When I first saw trailers for this movie, I was really all about it. I couldn’t wait to see it. The scenes showed in the trailer looked like some of the most intense shit ever, and that’s what I really wanted to see. Think about it. A whole war film seen through the eyes of a sniper, the man who’s far away from the action but holds the lives of the squad in the palm of his hand. One wrong decision could be fatal. Thank goodness I got at least two intense scenes out of this movie. The rest of the war scenes were really nothing special. The time he spent at home where the effects of the war could be examined were completely underutilized and the editing between the two was so sloppy and jarring I couldn’t really believe they got away with it. I don’t want to keep comparing this movie to The Hurt Locker, but I can’t help it. That movie just did it so much better.

Bradley Cooper has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood recently through his comedic efforts in The Hangover movies but also his more dramatic roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Now he’s nominated for Best Actor for the third year in a row for his performance in American Sniper and I just am left to sit here and wonder how. For most of the movie, he just grumbled his dialogue in a typical tough guy manner. It was just annoying to listen to, and the movie didn’t spend enough time developing his relationships to other characters to make their interactions really amount to anything.

All I can really say about American Sniper is that it’s a missed opportunity. I love war movies and respect all of the work that goes into making one, but this was just too formulaic and bland. There were definitely some really great scenes in the movie, but other than those few moments, nothing in this movie ever really amounted to anything much. It pains me to say this, but American Sniper is a big disappointment of 2014 and a Clint Eastwood movie that I’ll do my best to never have to watch again.