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.

Jan 3, 2017

Assassin's Creed [12A] [2D]

Dir: Justin Kurzel
I often find myself asking "what's wrong with mainstream Hollywood cinema right now"? The answer is complex and multi-faceted, but I think I can now boil it down to two words: Assassin's Creed. This borderline unwatchable film epitomises so many of the problems I have with mainstream cinema right now that it almost seems to have been made as a how not to guide for other filmmakers. It is as fundamentally broken as any film I've seen recently, and yet its most frustrating aspect is how easy it is to see how it could be at least partially fixed.

Full disclosure, I've not played any of the Assassin's Creed games, so I don't know how accurately the film represents them, but even if it is extremely unfaithful to the series that, I'm confident, is the very least of the film's problems. One of the larger problems is the screenplay, which manages a trick you would imagine was difficult, but which is all too often achieved; being insanely intricate and complicated, but also  dumber than a box of rocks.

Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a death row prisoner who wakes up from his 'execution' to find that he's in a facility where scientists led by Marion Cotillard's Sofia want to plug him into a machine called the Animus. Using this machine they will allow (read force) Cal to experience the memories of his ancestor, an assassin named Aguilar, in order to find the Apple of Eden, which supposedly contains the genetic code that will allow control of humanity's free will. How will this genetic code actually be used? Here are some keys, watch them jingle. The intricacies of this plot dictate that roughly 97% of the dialogue is unspeakable technobabble. The other 3% is the phrase "Apple of Eden" and no, it never sounds any less silly.

Fassbender and Cotillard are merely the tip of an overqualified iceberg when it comes to casting. Other unfortunates chewing their way through the dialogue include The Babadook's Essie Davis, brilliant French/Greek actress Ariane Labed, Michael K. Williams, Brendan Gleeson, Denis Ménochet and Charlotte Rampling. Every single one of them is totally wasted on a screenplay that has no time for such niceties as characterisation, indeed in the case of the people Cal is imprisoned with at the facility it actively avoids giving them any life, rendering the third act totally inert. Outside the action scenes, Fassbender couldn't seem any less engaged, but he qualifies as one of the film's harder workers, Rampling and Cotillard often seem slightly perturbed to have been woken for their scenes. It's a particular shame to see Ariane Labed, one of the most interesting young actors in European cinema, given so little to play. She has a few lines (all in Spanish), but mostly just has to look stern. She does it well enough, but I wanted so much more for her in her first big budget film.

I could forgive many of the film's sins if the action were better. To be fair, Fassbender and Labed (who plays a female assassin working alongside Aguilar) each get a couple of extended moments to show that they did at least some of their own action. The rest, however, seems heavily doubled, is largely shot with shakycam and often cut to ribbons. It's just not very involving, because you can seldom see a single action all the way through. It's also hamstrung by the 12A certificate, which means that a climactic slashed throat can hardly be seen to bleed. Adam Arkapaw's cinematography, accomplished as it is, also creates problems for the action. Arkapaw and director Justin Kurzel's frames are, in the 1492 set action scenes, so dusty and misty that it's often tough to see much of what's going on, even before the camera motion and editing become an issue.

To be fair to the screenplay, it has a beginning and a middle. Unfortunately what it lack is an end. After about 110 minutes the film appears to decide that it, just as we have, has had enough of this crap and it stops. To say that it ends wouldn't be true, that would suggest that there was some sort of climax or resolution. It stops, as abruptly as if the projector had broken, inviting a sequel we'll almost certainly never see. 

However, I've saved the film's biggest problem, its figurative raised middle finger to the audience, for last. It's one line of dialogue. Introducing Cal to the Animus, Sofia tells him that while he's experiencing Aguilar's memories "you can't change anything". This is a calamitously stupid idea for the film. It means that for a full third of the running time we're watching a foregone conclusion. Yes, we keep cutting back to Cal, going through the actions we see Aguilar doing, but because his actions have no bearing on the action scene, what it amounts to is watching a man get overly animated in his involvemet with a video game cut scene. The other problem with cutting frequently back to Cal is that it seems to happen every time the action threatens to develop some sense of flow. Another great decision there.

When the action scenes finally move to the present day, with Cal actually doing something, it is no more involving, because the people fighting alongside him are total non-entities. Michael K. Williams has said a few lines, but the rest are just bodies, occasionally glimpsed in the background. The stakes are non-existent, the plan they're trying to stop is so vague despite having been discussed endlessly, and the final action scene is a total anti-climax. It doesn't even manage to have the coolest moves in the film (those belong to Ariane Labed in one of the 1492 sequences).

I said that I could see an easy way to fix Assassin's Creed, at least to some degree. It's this: set the whole film in 1492. Immediately the action is more involving, you lose the impenetrable technobabble and reduce the film down to a focused conflict between good (Assassins) and bad (Templars). This would also mean there would be more space to develop the relationships, especially between Aguilar and Labed's Maria, adding weight to the action scenes. I don't know if that would make the film more or less faithful to the games, but I do know it would make it a better film. It might even mean it could have an ending.

Justin Kurzel began his career with the brilliant true crime tale Snowtown. A film that gave us  3 dimensional, portraits of a range of often terrifying characters, a film that told a complete and horribly compelling story, a film that stuck with you. I'm not sure what he and his cast saw in this material, but he certainly doesn't deliver on whatever promise he felt there was here. The film doesn't look bad, but it's not got any imagery that will stick in my mind either. I hope this is just a blip for Kurzel and Arkapaw, who are much more talented than this dreadful, boring and very, very stupid film suggests.