Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

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Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.

Rogue One shines when it’s not being dreary and uninteresting

The new Star Wars is let down by weak writing and uninteresting characters

Where to start when it comes to Star Wars? The subject is so wide ranging, controversial and comprehensive that there really isn’t any point summing anything up, if you’re reading this then you are already familiar with Star Wars. Rogue One is a spin off and Disney’s first big swing at diversifying the Star Wars cinematic universe, something which up until now has had a very strict structure applied to it. Rogue One is the first of three semi related side projects designed to be released in between the episodic features that are the mainstay for the franchise. We’re halfway to Episode 8 so it’s time to remind everyone what Star Wars is about… In case they forgot.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Rogue One is merely a cash grab designed to fan the flames of fans and to sell merchandise. In a sense this does come through the screen but merchandise, fan service and Star Wars are so interwoven at this point it is hard to tell where Star Wars ends and where the vertical integration begins.

For this review, I would like to put aside merchandise. I would like to put aside Storm Trooper redesigns and the fact that there is a melee weapon that turns into a crossbow just like my old Power Rangers toy used to. Let’s put aside the new hype for Episode 8 and let’s shut the hell up about diversification of races and genders in Star Wars. Let’s look at Rogue One on its own merits as “A Star Wars Story.”

Rogue One follows the team of rebels and their journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. The team is made up of six characters of which we are introduced to over the first hour. The characters then spend five minutes talking to each other and fighting Storm Troopers before deciding to band together to fight for the rebellion.

Where Rogue One succeeds is in its battle sequences. The magic of Star Wars is the ability to retell any story with a fantastical gloss over it and some scenes in Rogue One really feel like they are embracing that. One battle scene is set in a middle eastern looking market town and has a rougher, grittier feel to it than Star Wars usually does, as insurgents rush a Storm Trooper tank and throw explosives.The Battle of Scarif is a great sequence, although it must once again recycle A New Hope’s style, it does feature some great visuals and fun additions. The Skyhammer is a welcome addition, a space ship designed to crash into and push other ships, which creates the most visually marvellous moment of the movie. What is unique to Rogue One is that it embraces a soldiering aesthetic for large portions of its battles. At times the film looks like it is taking place in war town Iraq and towards the end could be ripped right from a Vietnam movie; only with space ships and lasers. For short periods, Rogue One is everything Star Wars can be.

However the tone is inconsistent and the soldiering allusions come out of nowhere. The film is not set up in a way where the final confrontation seems to meld with the introduction. The first twenty minutes of the film is nothing but long drawn out exposition, yet it fails to deliver the essential emotional connection to the character of Jyn Erso. Without her doing anything remotely likeable or cool or funny or resourceful or smart there is no reason to side with her or care about her. She is an amazingly flat character played with zero charisma. At least four planets are visited within the first twenty minutes of the film and character names are thrown out like confetti. I understand that world building is nuanced but Rogue One essentially vomits out a glossary of words as soon as it can get away with it and loses valuable time that could be spent on making us care about its characters.

Star Wars has always been a kid friendly series, it is a way to channel your inner child and have fun watching what you can only imagine, yet Rogue One is consistently let down by its characters who are so unbelievably drab and two dimensional it borders on offensive. The scenes that link together the action scenes are slogs pieced together by basic dialogue delivered in monotones by actors with no expressions. I had the same thought while watching Batman Vs Superman; any kids watching will be bored out of their mind by everything but the fight sequences. The only source of levity in the film is the mechanical sidekick K-2SO. K-2SO is a robot that has had his inhibitions removed and so is capable of insurmountable levels of sass. He is the source for 100% of the films comedy and does well to carry the entire cast. Yet his jokes and remarks are completely ignored by the entire cast, there is zero chemistry between the six leads, but at least K-2SO is trying to lighten the mood.

Recommendation

If you still get shivers when you hear a lightsabre turning on; If you love space battles and AT-ATs and Darth Vader; If you want to see tie ins and cameos and spot hidden references; If you just want more Star Wars, then this is the film for you. If you are fully on board with the film’s premise from the get-go, you’ll probably enjoy it.

It looks fantastic, the designs of the cities and robots and characters are magnificently rendered. It is soiled by bad acting and awkward pacing and never really feels independent of its franchise. Rogue One is a passable appetizer for a 40-year-old main course.