Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: "Live By Night" is a by-the-numbers gangster tale.

Live By Night Review
Ben Affleck has quickly rose to be one of my very favorite directors. I have always been a little shocked that he never got into film making until much later in his career. I mean, it was usually a guessing as to when he'd be in a good or a bad movie for most of his career. But he co-wrote "Good Will Hunting," one of the absolute best films of the 1990's, and when I first heard that, I couldn't believe my ears. Then ten years later, he directs "Gone Baby Gone," which felt like a bomb going off. Then came "The Town" and "Argo" and it seemed more and more than Ben Affleck was going to be next big director. It seemed really cool that he had a 3 and 0 record as a director, a perfect score.

But that doesn't mean he's infallible. We are all human. Every director, even the great ones, stumble from time to time. It seems Ben Affleck is suffering from his first stumble. Truth be told, "Live By Night" is not a horrible movie. This isn't the sudden fall from grace that M. Night Shymalan experienced. "Live By Night" is filled with things I really enjoy, that makes my heart ache with excitement. But its equally filled with things I didn't quite care for, making it a well-polished mixed bag than anything else. But if you were to watch his previous work stacked against "Live By Night," it would feel like an overwhelmingly abysmal experience.

The plot isn't hard to get through, because its a fairly simple story. Ben Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War One veteran who comes home to Boston and begins a life of bank robbing. He falls in love with a girl named Emma (Sienna Miller) and eventually gets caught up in the middle of the Irish and Italian mafia wars. The Italians blackmail Joe to kill the leader of the Irish Mob, he refuses, he gets in trouble with the Irish Mob, then wants revenge so he goes to work with the Italians. Its kind of an odd story as things are going along, but once Ben was in Tampa Florida running rum for the Italians, I figured the movie was finally off and running.

I will say this positive about Affleck, he sure knows how to write juicy crime dialogue. If you enjoyed the word play in "The Town," you will equally love the word play here. Affleck has proven time and time again, that he can write one hell of a screenplay. He even does a sensational job in the lead the role. He fills his picture with great actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Clark Gregg, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Titus Welliver and even Anthony Michael Hall. Its well-acted and well-written. 

Well, I should say mostly well-written. The dialogue and characters is written well, but the there are character beats that just plain absurd. After things fall apart with Emma, Joe is in Florida and he falls in love with Graciela (Saldana). She's barely in the movie, but apparently they have as strong love connection. But when something bad happens to her at the end, its supposed to summon a tremendous emotional crescendo that is just not there. Their relationship and Saldana's character are never given the time or the depth to become believable. I never buy a single moment of it. I also couldn't get over how easy everything is for Joe. Once Joe is down in Florida, he comes into to conflict with rival gangs and even the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, the entire movie, he's an invulnerable superhero. He gets out of every dangerous situation with genuine ease. Sure, there are shootouts here, but they feel like a video game. There is no excitement in the movie. There is no tension in the movie. There is certainly very little drama in the movie. While I liked Elle Fanning, her entire character and backstory could have been omitted from the film completely. For a movie to slog in at over two hours and it seems barely anything happens and we learn very little about a huge host of characters, I'd call that a red flag.

What's weird is that I don't expect this from Ben Affleck. His juicy dialogue usually matches with his juicy characters. He usually gives his films time to breathe and become something. His movies are usually filled with depth, tension and even excitement. For some reason, most of those things escape him this time out. I can't believe I am saying this, but "Live By Night" is the least interesting gangster movie I have seen in an incredibly long time. If this was hack work by a bland hack director, I probably wouldn't care as much. But this is Ben Affleck, and I just can't put my finger on what went wrong here. There are good performances and some good key images, but it doesn't add up to a satisfying whole. I don't know if I will ever own this, but if I do, it will be the first Affleck movie I return to the least for pleasure.

But hey, even the mighty of them fall at times. What's important now is how he picks himself up after this. Its not a disaster, but its a radical shift in effort compared to what we usually see from Affleck. I have my fingers crossed that he learns from this experience and gets back on track.


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