By: Kevin Jordan
But only during the day.
There’s a throwaway line early in Live by Night when Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is lying in bed with his girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and Emma says something to the effect of “work by day…” She intentionally leaves off the second part of that phrase – live by night – in order to allow the viewer to automatically fill it in mentally, then go “oooh. I see what you did there.” The only problem is nearly the entire movie takes place during the day. I know – weird, right? This attention to detail is the kind of thing one might miss when one directs, produces, writes, and stars in one’s movie while also starring in Batman v Superman, The Accountant, and trying to write a kick-ass screenplay for a standalone Batman movie. Sorry Ben, you can’t do everything. You’re Batman, not Superman.
To be fair, he was only adapting a screenplay for Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel Live by Night. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lehane is also responsible for Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as the short story The Drop was based on, which he also wrote the screenplay for. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, Google “nearest library.” Yes, we still have those things around.
Live by Night is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, who does gangster things for 129 minutes. Those 129 minutes cover a few years of Joe’s life during the Prohibition Era and includes bank robberies, two girlfriends, a lot of bootlegging rum, two mob bosses, Joe getting his ass kicked, car chases, some KKK assholes, a lot of dead people, and Elle Fanning. Oh, and all of this happens in Boston, then Tampa. If that sounds like too much for a movie, that’s because it is. But only if you care that much about plot.
(Some SPOILERS ahead unless you read the book. Yeah, I laughed a little too as I typed that.)
You know how drunk people sometimes think they’re being stealthy?
Maybe the book is better, but the film was very scattershot (no pun intended). The first act of the film covers everything you saw in the preview and that’s not a good thing because the rest of the movie is basically a different movie. Emma is the blond woman you saw, but the movie isn’t about Joe and Emma. Emma is cheating with Joe on her mob boss boyfriend, Albert White (Robert Glenister), then sells out Joe to Albert just as they are running away together. This is never adequately explained beyond one of Albert’s goons seeing them, but Joe and Emma were barely trying to hide it. At one point, they are having dinner together in a busy, fancy restaurant (they would hook up when Albert was out of town). And, besides, wouldn’t Albert have one of his men escorting her around since his competition would probably be interested in kidnapping her for leverage? Sorry, I’m caring too much about the plot.
Joe is beaten within an inch of his life and only survives because his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson) just happens to show up in the alley where they’re about to kill Joe. Joe wakes up a few days later in a prison hospital and spends three years in jail for armed robbery. Once out, the new story begins. Joe joins the Italian mob in order to exact revenge on Albert for killing Emma (Albert wasn’t about to forgive the cheating). His new boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends him to Tampa to take over his rum-running business there while simultaneously muscling Albert out of Tampa. On the surface, this seems like the logical road for a broken-hearted lover to take, but avenging Emma is soon forgotten when Joe meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) and falls in love with her. At that point, Joe is just acting like a standard mob guy and we never actually see Albert until the end of the film. I won’t spoil the why, but it’s pretty dumb. And Joe verbalizes how dumb it is. Then bullets start to fly and bodies pile up as the movie climaxes, then we get three endings because Ben couldn’t decide how to actually end the film.
Her name was Elizabeth. No, Angela. No, something starting with M.
Like I said, there are parts of this movie that are good. The climax scene is very well done and Batman kicks some ass in that scene. There are good moments between characters, especially a diner scene between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the Tampa police captain (Chris Cooper). Unfortunately, Loretta is one of the side plots that becomes the main plot for a time. At this point in the film, Joe has rid Tampa of Albert, and Joe is focused on getting a casino built. Loretta is preaching about the evils of gambling and drinking, and Joe doesn’t want to kill her. Later, the Ku Klux Klan show up because black people also drink rum and the movie becomes about racial history. It’s like if Batman was Forrest Gump, but made and sold hooch for the Italian mob.
And one Elle Fanning.
If the movie had stuck with a single plot like the love story (this could have spanned the entire film with the rum wars between the mobs woven in), it would have been a much tighter film. Then, Emma’s betrayal might have meant something to the audience rather than just being a forgotten plot device. They also could have spent more time developing the rivalry between Albert and Maso rather than trying to convince us of the animosity through occasional ethnic slurs. Even Loretta could have been a more important character (perhaps being played by both sides) rather than being an amusing anecdote in Joe’s life. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes less is more. Live by Night is an average, but uneven movie that suffers from Ben Affleck trying prove that Batman is better than Superman. Or something like that.
Rating: Ask for half your money back. If Joe did any living by night, we never saw it.
By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)
Nothing can stop Marvel.
Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated. I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them. But, Guardians of the Galaxy? Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me. I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie. My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it. Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.
Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it. That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie. Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable. In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia. But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.
The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former). Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie. In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron. I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is. For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.
The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film. If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people. That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.
(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now? There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)
Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action. The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something. In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets. Simple, right? The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take. There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical. In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it. Simple, right?
On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer. For one thing, the movie is aware of itself. Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself. What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie. Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight. The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise). Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get. That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.
Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad. There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story. There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters. Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?
The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either. It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself. I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.