Live by Night (2016)

2018 #113
Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Live by Night

Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

3 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.

Guess Who (2005)

2010 #66
Kevin Rodney Sullivan | 101 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

Readers may remember that I opened my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner review with a joke about how the film might be ruined if its premise was being made today. Cue reactions along the lines of ho ho ho, wouldn’t it be dreadful, thank God that’s not happened, etc.

Except, as was helpfully pointed out to me on Twitter, it has.

Here, the situation is reversed: nice black girl brings home white guy to meet parents. White guy isn’t Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler, as I suggested, but Ashton Kutcher, who more or less falls into the same category. The family being visited is still rich, albeit black, but rather than Sidney Poitier’s Surprisingly Respectable black man, Kutcher is a recently-jobless white man. I’m sure there’s some further table-turning to be read into this, but, look, it’s a film starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher — it’s not going to be a race relations paean, is it?

Indeed, Guess Who is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The plot isn’t a direct copy of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, preferring to take the gist of the concept and a few of the story beats and surround them with a bunch of Funny Situations. I won’t bother you with details; suffice to say, the film does manage the odd laugh or smile, increasingly so as it goes on (though this may be because I was getting increasingly inebriated, it’s a tough call). The ending is suitably lovey-dovey, sentimental, and, I think many would add, hogwash. Should you be a sucker for a (modern-style) rom-com it may well be up your street; most viewers need not apply.

Mac and Kutcher play the roles they always play— No, actually, in fairness, I can’t say that: I think I’ve only seen Mac in the three Ocean’s films and I can’t think of anything I’ve seen Kutcher in (was he in The Butterfly Effect, or was that someone else equally interchangeable?) So, they play the roles I’ve always assumed they play, which is at least as bad. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, seems to have a magic ability to raise the quality of almost every scene she’s in — even Mac and, to a higher level, Kutcher benefit from her skills to inject some genuine emotion into a film otherwise dependent on familiar or predictable gags.

The race debate is cursory. Maybe that’s a good thing — one could argue it shouldn’t be allowed to be relevant today, even if it still is — but occasionally there’s the sense that the filmmakers are actually trying to do more with the issue. Suffice to say, they don’t succeed. The gap is filled with additional comic interludes and mishandled subplots — in the latter camp, Kutcher’s hunt for a new job, and issues with the father who abandoned him — but they do little to make up for it. They’re certainly not a direct replacement, but nor do they offer an adequate alternative, particularly as they go begging for any kind of relevant point.

One scene, in which Mac goads Kutcher into telling racist black jokes at the dinner table, comes close to tackling the awkwardness of the issue. It’s ceaselessly predictable, naturally, but it also makes overtures at the issue of whether these jokes are funny, racist, or both. Most of the rest, however, is “father doesn’t approve of daughter’s boyfriend” schtick that has nothing to do with race. It’s as recognisable from TV sitcoms — Friends did it with Bruce Willis, for just the first example that comes to mind — as it is from movies. Again, maybe ignoring the race factor here is a good thing; but if you’re going to foreground it in your concept and promotion, you ought to be dealing with it, not using it as a way in to familiar sequences.

Though it takes a while to settle in, Guess Who does seem to improve as it goes on. Even though it more or less abandons the race issue, and many of the setups are familiar, it has its moments. Still, it never hits comedic heights, and doesn’t even attempt serious dramatic ones, and it’s not even close to being a patch on the original. The pros aren’t enough to make the film worth your time, but at least they stop it being a total disaster.

2 out of 5

Guess Who is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 9th, at 6:55pm.
The inspiration for this, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is on BBC Two tomorrow (Sunday 3rd August 2014) at 2:40pm.