Live By Night – a review

I misread the dress code...

I misread the dress code on the invite, OK…

The title of Ben Affleck‘s new gangster epic has about as much to do with the plot of the film as his character’s narrative arc has to do with a banana. Nothing. Live By Night is very good-looking, well dressed but clearly overrated. A bit like Affleck himself, unfortunately, as he gets lost swanning around in dozens of exquisitely contemporaneous costumes and forgets to, you know, actually tell a story.

The production design, cinematography and, in particular, the script are all really quite good, testament to Affleck as a writer, but perhaps he falls foul of the curse of biting off more than you can chew. Wearing the hats (Oh, he loves wearing hats in this movie) of writer, director AND lead actor is a tall order, even for someone as talented and experienced as he is, and maybe one too many as there is just something lacking here.

An excellent cast, including an always-full-of-scene-stealing-charisma Brendan Gleeson, veteran pathos from Chris Cooper, sustainable sass from Sienna Miller, New York chomping grit from Chris Messina, an underused balance of delicacy and unhinged fervour by Elle Fanning and a siren-like love interest from Zoe Saldana, can do nothing to elevate this supposedly ‘epic’ picture from the realm of valiant but failed attempt.

It’s a well enough put together film, like a decently complex jigsaw that’s finished with all the right pieces in place but the picture that it forms isn’t all that impressive considering all the work that went into making it. The feeling that Affleck was just having too much fun dressing up, playing gangsters, getting all the girls and forgot to act cannot be escaped. His character, despite attempts to set him up as a First World War veteran recovering from the horrors of battle and determined never to follow orders to kill again are blown out of the water when he starts working for a mob boss and killing people. To say his character and subsequently the film upon which it is based is garbled is to do a disservice to any honest hard-working garbler. This is simply just a narrative mess.

The various genre tropes that are carted out – non-linear storytelling, the rise and fall/rags to riches trajectory – all end up tasting stale and well past their sell-by-dates. Morally a more ambiguous, nay ambivalent, character you may never find. That and the considerable violence on display just feels gratuitous. There’s no reason for him to do any of what he does, other than selfish gain. In order for that to work you need to actually care about your protagonist but how can you be expected to care what happens to someone when they don’t seem to care about anything themselves?

If Argo was overrated, at least it was still a pretty compelling film. This suffers all the damage of the former without any waft of the latter. Maybe there wasn’t space for another take on the gangster epic, maybe it missed its window by a few years or maybe this just ain’t it. In any case, they say you can’t polish a turd, well, this one is quite shiny.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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Out of the Furnace – a review

outofthefurnace

Christian Bale leads an all-star cast in Out of the Furnacea gritty drama centred on the lives of two brothers, Russell and Rodney Baze, living in small town America and struggling to find meaning in their lives following the death of their father.

Bale’s Russell is trying to make an honest living but following a tragic accident is imprisoned and whilst inside loses his girlfriend to police chief Forest WhitakerCasey Affleck plays his younger brother, Rodney, an Iraq veteran plagued by the horrors of war and unable to find peace upon returning home. When Rodney suddenly goes missing, Russell will stop at nothing to uncover his whereabouts.

The grimy aesthetic of this tough corner of America and the hard working lives of its inhabitants is expertly brought to life by director Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. Helped dramatically by the fact it was shot beautifully on 35mm film, giving a deep and real texture to the story. The production design, art direction and make-up also deserve special mention in their contribution towards the film’s authenticity.

The stellar cast deliver top-of-their-game turns and in so doing create an understated and affecting story of the hardships of war, violence and loss. Although some of the film’s bigger themes are perhaps only alluded to and not given enough screen time then that lends to the realism of the picture, as the performances are steeped in naturalism and grit rather than showy emotion. One scene between Affleck and Bale in particular explodes out of the screen and resonates throughout the cinema, with the former stealing the show with a moment of brute brilliance.

David Rosenbloom‘s editing works wonderfully to gently roll the story together, subtly accentuating the differences between these two brothers. One sequence in particular (possibly an homage to The Deer Hunter) is stitched together to highlight Russell’s inability to take a life, following his experience of the accident and prison, against Rodney’s burning rage to keep fighting anyone in his way after the trauma he suffered in service of his country.

The only gripe, but sadly it’s one that doesn’t go away, it would’ve been more interesting to delve further into the troubled relationship of these two brothers and explore that dynamic without all the revenge / ‘baddie’ stuff (although the baddie is superbly embodied by Woody Harrelson). Still, a proper film. And you don’t get too many of them these days.

first published on filmjuice.com

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