Mar 4, 2017

The Month in Movies: February 2017

Films Seen: 62
First Viewings: 44 

Best Film[s]
Summer With Monika / Moonlight

I saw a LOT of good films this month (honourable mentions go to Fidelio, Alice's Journey, We Are The Flesh, City of Hope and Miss Stevens), but these two stood out by some distance. Summer With Monika wasn't my first Bergman, nor the first I've loved (that was The Seventh Seal), but it was the first that has me desperate to see more, the first to make me sit up and say "THAT'S what everyone was on about". It had a head start, playing in to coming of age cinema, which has always been one of my main interests, but it was the brilliant, down to earth performances and the feel with which Bergman dramatises the slow realisation of his central teen couple that their rebellion simply isn't practical long term in the real world that stuck with me. There are many brilliant things here but two shots: Monika standing on the prow of a boat as it moves ever further into the distance and a long close up of Monika's face in the film's last ten minutes, are images that have been burned into my mind ever since this was screened for me.

Moonlight hasn't yet stood the test of time, but I can feel that it's going to be a film that we'll be talking about for many years to come and that its director, Barry Jenkins, has the potential to go on to become a major figure. While the dialogue is beautifully written and evocatively performed, Moonlight struck me as a film that was most powerful in its frequent and prolonged silences. Just as in my other favourite film of the month, there are close ups here that are burned into my brain, particularly the shot of Mahershala Ali at the end of the film's first part, as he silently sits at the dining table, processing the conversation he has just had with Little. Jenkins' perfect choice of shot and instinct for pacing, as well as subtle physical acting choices by the film's cast, are things that recur throughout the film, allowing its delicacy to be hard hitting. 

Worst Film[s]
Closed Circuit / 21 And Over / Fresh Horses
I can't see a unifying thread in this category this month. Closed Circuit promises interesting things, with Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall in a thriller/courtroom drama about the aftermath of a terrorist attack on Borough market. Unfortunately it manages to be  bland but also totally ludicrous, ping ponging between snooze inducing and laugh out loud bad.

21 and Over is basically The Hangover with college kids, and its exactly as obnoxious as that sounds. Miles Teller is especially unbearable as a character (and giving a performance) that manages to come off as notably awful in a genre that also includes the likes of Revenge of the Nerds. It's a painful watch; jaw-droppingly unfunny, horribly written and often out and out objectionable.

Fresh Horses was clearly a post Breakfast Club attempt by Molly Ringwald to break out of her high school princess persona. She's hilariously miscast as rebellious young girl from the wrong side of the tracks, secretly married to a dangerous guy (a young Viggo Mortensen) when yuppie in training Andrew McCarthy falls head over heels for her. An adaptation of a play, the actors struggle so much it's like sitting through the first read through.

Note: I stole these categories from my friend AJ, who used to ask us to fill them out at the Joblo forum each month. Only first time viewings are eligible.

Best Actor: Alex Hibbert / Ashton Sanders / Trevante Rhodes: Moonlight / Joe Morton: City of Hope
Best Actress: Ariane Labed: Fidelio, Alice's Journey / Harriet Andersson: Summer With Monika / Jean Gillie: Decoy
Best Supporting Performance: Sylvester Stallone: Creed / Mahershala Ali: Moonlight
Best Director: Ingmar Bergman: Summer With Monika / Barry Jenkins: Moonlight 
One to Watch: Lucie Borleteau [Writer/Director]: Fidelio, Alice's Journey 
Best Visuals: Summer With Monika / Moonlight  / We Are the Flesh
Biggest Surprise: Summer With Monika
Biggest Disappointment: Violette / The World of Kanako
I'm Pretty Sure No One Else Has Seen This: Coin Heist (they don't need to though)
Movie I Finally Got to See: Summer With Monika / They Live
Coolest Title: We Are the Flesh
Crush of the MonthHarriet Andersson: Summer With Monika

Jan 31, 2017

The Month in Movies: January 2017

Films Seen: 56
First Viewings: 47

Best Film[s]
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly / Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell / The Wild Bunch
You could see one of these films as an outlier, but at some level I think Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell - the conclusion to the six film series following samurai Itto Ogami and his young son - fits just as well into the Western tradition as either of my other picks for this month. The series seems especially influenced by Leone's Dollars trilogy, as it follows Ogami on a series of missions that share little connection to each other. The Western is a genre I've yet to really discover, but this month went a long way to addressing that, as I watched and loved these films as well as Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller and Ti West's In A Valley of Violence. I feel that I am beginning to see and appreciate some more of the genre's traditions and I hope to dig into more of it as 2017 goes on.

Worst Film[s]
Assassin's Creed / Beyond the Gates / Book of Love / Dorian Gray
You could say that two of these films share a theme, as Assassin's Creed and Beyond the Gates are both rubbish films about games. The first adapts a computer game, the second invents a board game, both are almost certainly less fun than playing said game would be. Otherwise, the unifying trend here is simply ineptitude. Book of Love sets out an impressive challenge for the title of worst teen movie of the 90s, while Dorian Gray casts Ben Barnes in the title part; an actor so expressionless I'm not sure they didn't just have a painting play the role. It's quite a feat to make film so bad that Colin Firth hamming it up in an evil beard and the late appearance of the ever wonderful Rebecca Hall can't save it.

Note: I stole these categories from my friend AJ, who used to ask us to fill them out at the Joblo forum each month. Only first time viewings are eligible.

Best Actor: Ethan Hawke: In a Valley of Violence / Robert Ryan: Act of Violence / The Wild Bunch
Best Actress: Michelle Williams: Manchester by the Sea
Best Director: Sergio Leone: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly / Sam Peckinpah: The Wild Bunch
One to Watch: Oz Perkins, Director: February [a.k.a. The Blackcoat's Daughter]
Best Visuals: Mirror
Best Scene: Itto Ogami vs 100 samurai on skis: Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell / “My heart was broken”: Manchester by the Sea
Biggest Surprise: Rocky Balboa / What We Do in the Shadows
Biggest Disappointment: Beyond the Gates / The Lost Boys
I'm Pretty Sure No One Else Has Seen This: Mind's Eye / Book of Love
Movie I Finally Got to See: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly / The Wild Bunch
Coolest Title: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key
Crush of the Month: Mackenzie Davis: Bad Turn Worse

Jan 15, 2017

Live By Night [15]

Dir: Ben Affleck
As a director, one of the main jobs you have to master is getting all of your talent in the right place; casting the right actors for each role, helping to hone the screenplay, assembling and guiding the technical teams who are bringing your film to life. With Live By Night, his fourth film as a director, Ben Affleck shows that he's able to get a lot of these things right, but the one or two he gets wrong are big problems that ultimately hobble his film.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (author of the source book for Affleck's directorial début, Gone Baby Gone, as well as Mystic River and Shutter Island), the film tells the story of Joe Coughlin (Affleck), who returns from World War One determined never to follow orders again and chooses a life of crime. Following a heist gone bad, and under threat from the head of the Irish mob, Coughlin lends his services to the Italians, who send him to Florida to run their rum operation and work on building a huge casino.

Ben Affleck is a perfectly solid actor, but he's a better director and here his biggest mistake is in casting himself as leading man. For one thing, at 44, he's more than a little old for the character in the film's first act. Here Coughlin is a young man (it's never specified how young, but context suggests late 20's) coming up in the underworld. Yes, the story spans a long period (again it's not specified how long, but seven years seems a fair estimate, at least before the coda), but we never get a sense of a young man growing to fill ever larger shoes, which we might have with a younger actor. I wonder if Affleck recognises this, because early in the film he does look surprisingly fresh faced, whether through good lighting, make up work or perhaps a little CGI assist.

However, age is not the only problem. Affleck has said this was a passion project, the one he picked when he could essentially have decided to do anything, so it is truly bizarre that his performance is so low energy throughout. He's clearly going for sense of underplayed menace but maybe he's too successful at underplaying. There is a sense of Affleck giving the sort of performance he'd give while off camera even when he's on camera; it's barely inflected most of the time, and robs the relationships with Coughlin's lovers (Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana) and his right hand man (Chris Messina) of any charge. His off camera work is even less energised, resulting in the most reluctant sounding voiceover since Harrison Ford's in Blade Runner.

Affleck leaves the focus closely on himself (he's in practically every shot), and in doing so he shortchanges many other characters, especially the women. Sienna Miller has fun in a ten minute turn as a gangster's moll embroiled in a dangerous affair with Danny, but she's little more than a walking talking cliché. Still, that's more than can be said for Zoe Saldana, who should be an interesting character. When she meets Danny she, along with her brother (Miguel), is running much of the rum trafficking in South Florida. Within a couple of scenes she's Danny's Girl and from there on all she has to do is be hot (check) and look concerned.

Similarly shortchanged in terms of screentime, but able to make much more of the little she has to do is Elle Fanning. A great actor can take a part of any size and make you want the whole film to be about that person, that's what Fanning does here. Her character - the daughter of a cop (Chis Cooper) that Danny has to get the nod from in order to do business - is a failed actress who (offscreen) falls into sexual exploitation and drug addiction, only to come home, become a preacher, and speak against Danny's casino application. There's a film in that character, and thanks to Fanning's typically nuanced work it's one I'd pay good money to see. The material she's working with is unexceptional, and what she does with it is purely a testament to her talent.

The rest of the supporting cast have similar problems, trying to make the best of roles that are either underwritten despite extensive screentime (Chris Messina, who does a good job with what he has), underwritten because of lack of screentime (Chris Cooper, Max Casella as a thuggish relative of Danny's boss) or laughably broad caricatures (Matthew Maher as RD, a KKK member who shoots up Danny's speakeasys in protest at his relationship with a black woman). You get the feeling that Affleck, whether at screenplay level or in the editing room, is feeling the need to get things done, at least for the theatrical cut, within two hours. It all feels rushed, thin and over familiar.

Courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson, Live By Night often looks good, but again, some of Richardson's work is undermined by his director's choices. But for a couple of brief moments - a shot from behind of Elle Fanning preaching, arms outstretched, for instance - Affleck's glossy framing throws up few memorable images, and never feels especially authentic. Perhaps it's the crisp digital sheen of the thing, but there is an overwhelming feeling here of watching people play dress up, rather than being sucked in to the mid to late 1920s. This incongruity hit me right from the start, when the studio logos came up sepia toned and with superimposed CGI film scratches. It all felt so transparently fake, and I never shook that feeling.

Ultimately, Live By Night wants to pay tribute to the classic gangster films of the 30s and 40s, but while Affleck has the budget to have all the trappings of those films, he shows little understanding of how they worked. The profane dialogue has little of the snap of the best of Warner's gangster films. The images, while technically strong, don't evoke the feeling of either the films or the period and the film as a whole feels long despite also clearly having gaping holes in characterisation, which are surely filled by things sitting on the cutting room floor. It's a pity, because Affleck is a capable filmmaker, but perhaps all the freedom that Argo has afforded him meant that nobody was able or willing to tell him that there were decisions he should have reconsidered on this project.