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Josh Reviews Live by Night

February 13th, 2017
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I first became a fan of Ben Affleck from his work in Kevin Smith’s early nineties films, and in particular his so-funny, good-natured participation in the DVD commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy (which are, seriously, among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded).  Mr. Affleck seemed like such a good guy in those commentary tracks that I stuck with him when his career went south, and I was happy when he was able to relaunch himself as a director.  As I have written about multiple times, Gone Baby Gone, which was Mr. Affleck’s directorial debut (and he also co-wrote the film!), is one of my all-time favorite movies.  It was a triumph, a dramatic assertion of Mr. Affleck’s talent as a writer and director.  (Remember also that Mr. Affleck had previously won an Oscar, with Matt Damon, for writing Good Will Hunting.)  I didn’t love The Town, but Argo was terrific.  And so I was hugely excited for Mr. Affleck’s fourth film as a director: Live by Night.  I loved the idea of Mr. Affleck once again adapting a Dennis Lehane novel (as he had done with such success with Gone Baby Gone), and the merging of Mr. Affleck’s fondness for Boston-based crime stories with a big-budget period-piece setting seemed like a terrific match.

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And so I was bummed that Live by Night left me somewhat cold.  The film looks gorgeous, and has a terrific cast.  There are lots of individual moments and sequences that are terrific.  But it doesn’t hang together as well as it should.  There is too much plot, too many characters, and not enough actual character development.

Mr. Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin.  Though his father (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain, Joe himself comes back from WWI to become a bank-robber.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of the head of Boston’s Irish mob.  That all comes crashing down on Joe’s head rather spectacularly.  After several years in prison, Joe goes to work for a rival Italian mobster and moves down to Florida, where he quickly becomes the head of the local bootlegging business.  Joe’s big plans for the end of prohibition soon put him in conflict with his new boss.

I like Mr. Affleck as an actor, but his Joe disappointingly remains a cypher throughout the film.  (This feels more like a script problem than a performance issue.)  I don’t feel I ever got to know or understand this character.  The film hints that his experiences in WWI brought him back to Boston a changed man, but the film never really allows us to understand what’s going on inside … [continued]

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News Around the Net

We’ve been getting some fun teases lately for Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2.  (Great title, by the way.)  This is a solid poster and the tag-line, “obviously”, is genius.  And then there is this tantalizing new trailer:

That hits all the right notes for me.  Love it.

After the release of a series of photos, we also got our first real look at the upcoming Wolverine solo film, titled Logan, with this trailer:

While this trailer squashes any hope I might have had for a more faithful adaptation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s brilliant comic book story Old Man Logan (something I really never should have even dared hope for, since this X-Men series, even when it is great, has never shown any interest in faithful adaptations of classic X-Men stories), I am very happy by what I see here.  It looks like they’ve taken some of the general ideas of Old Man Logan to craft an entirely new story, and I am impressed that they’ve chosen to jump into the future and leave the rest of the X-Men franchise behind.  Hugh Jackman (sporting a crazy Mel Gibson-like beard) and Patrick Stewart both seem as awesome as usual.  I am excited for this.  (My one quibble — one of the coolest ideas of Old Man Logan was that Logan had vowed never to unsheathe his claws again, and so they make you wait a long, long, long time before you finally get a “snikt.”  From this trailer, in which we see plenty of Logan’s claws, I guess the film is taking a different approach…)

Holy cow, is there really a new Martin Scorsese movie coming out next month??  Here’s a look at Silence:

Whoo, that looks harrowing.  I am very intrigued by that trailer.

This new look at Kong: Skull Island is… well… take a look:

This trailer really shows us a lot of the shape of the movie.  Most significantly, we see the real monsters/villains of the film other than Kong.  I was surprisingly taken by the goofy tone of the trailer.  Is this movie going to balance a war-movie aesthetic with a lot of humor as well as this trailer does?  We’ll see…

Cars is my least favorite of all the Pixar movies.  As a result, Cars 2 is the only Pixar movie I’ve never seen!  So I’m not really interested in a Cars 3, though I admit that my eyebrows were raised by this weird, grim teaser:

I’m not sure I understand Disney studio’s desire to seemingly create a live-action remake of every single one of their animated films, but this trailer for Beauty and the Beast is impressive:

That’s a spectacular cast and the … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: Gone Baby Gone (2007)

I immediately fell in love with Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the first time I saw it in theatres in 2007.  I’ve seen it several times since, and after watching it again a few months ago, I was surprised to realize I’d never written about the film on my site!

The film, adapted by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston).  A young private eye couple, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda McCready.  The first two-thirds of the film covers their investigation over the next several days, looking for Amanda.  Patrick and Angie eventually learn that Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), was involved in an attempt to scam drug money from a local drug lord named Cheese.  Working with the police detectives assigned to the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), Patrick and Angie set up up a meeting to trade the stolen money for the kidnapped Amanda.  But the deal goes badly, and the panicked criminals throw Amanda into the water, where she apparently drowns.

That feels like the end of the story, but in fact it’s all just set-up for the film’s third act, in which Patrick and Angie are faced with an impossible moral dilemma.

I absolutely adore this film.  It’s extremely well-made.  The story by Dennis Lehane is extraordinarily compelling, and Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard have crafted a phenomenal adaptation, one that is sharp in all the right ways.  I can’t believe that this film is the work of a first-time director, as Gone Baby Gone looks like it was crafted by someone extremely confident in their abilities.  The movie is tense from start to finish, and Mr. Affleck brings a rich emotional depth and a taut narrative intensity to the whole film, both the scenes of action and violence and the scenes of conversation.  The film is gorgeous, with a rich color palette and beautifully composed shots.  More than that, the story is put together with exquisite skill, as Mr. Affleck takes us through both a complex narrative and a deeply-felt, emotionally harrowing journey without ever losing complete control over his audience, what we are thinking and feeling.  And then, at the end, he leaves us to ponder the film’s ending and to make our own decisions, rather than directing us to what he wants us to think.  I’ll talk more about the film’s powerhouse of an ending in a moment, but for now I’ll just say that it couldn’t have been pulled off by anything less than an exceptional … [continued]

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Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11.  Now, onward!

10. Looper In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe.  Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime.  One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis.  Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there.  Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well.  I loved watching these two play off of one another.  Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles.  This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure.  At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance.  Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story.  He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard.  The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum).  The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Argo!

I’ve been a fan of Ben Affleck’s ever since I first listened to his hilarious and endearing contribution to the raucous DVD commentary track for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. (Seriously, track it down and give it a listen — it’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, second only to the track that same gang recorded for the original Criterion Collection DVD of Kevin Smith’s follow-up film, Chasing Amy.) I’ve always found Mr. Affleck to be an earnest, engaging performer, capable of nimbly balancing comedy and drama.  Yes, he appeared in quite a number of terrible, terrible films, but that’s more a critique of his choices rather than his skills.  But whereas Mr. Affleck has, in my opinion, always been a strong actor, he has proven to be a truly spectacular director.  His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is a phenomenal film, one of my favorites of the last decade.  I wasn’t quite as taken with The Town (click here for my review), but with the stunningly magnificent Argo, Mr. Affleck has solidified his reputation as one of the strongest directors working today.  I do not believe I am exaggerating.

Based on the true story, declassified by President Clinton in the late nineties, Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis.  Unbeknownst to the Iranians (but, to quote Spaceballs, knownst to us), six American embassy staff-members were able to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  After months in hiding, the Iranians are beginning to close in on them.  C.I.A. “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to find a way to safely bring the six Americans out of Iran.  He concocts a loony-sounding scheme in which he will enter Iran and then help the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. Using their new covers, the plan is for Mendez and the six to walk, in broad daylight, right into the Iranian airport and fly out of the country to safety.  It’s an crazy, insane story, all the more crazy and insane because the whole thing is true.

The film is riveting, and Mr. Affleck’s direction (ably assisted by a tight screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) is fantastic.  It’s great to see Mr. Affleck moving out of the Boston location that was so central to his first two films, and I was extremely impressed with the way the he and his team were able to recreate 1970’s Iran, Washington, DC, and Hollywood.

The film’s opening immediately sets the stage for the story, and the intense tone for this true-life tale.  In the opening … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Town

October 22nd, 2010
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I was blown away by Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and so I was of course eager to see his second film: The Town.  While I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as Gone Baby Gone, The Town is as an engaging and confident sophomore effort from Mr. Affleck, and definitely worth your time.

As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town is set in Boston (in this case, specifically, Charlestown).  In both films, one of Mr. Affleck’s primary accomplishments has been in bringing that Boston setting to life to the degree that the film’s story is indelibly linked with the Boston location.  By shooting in Boston, by casting naturalistic actors (as well as a variety of local non-actors), and by a million other details that Mr. Affleck and his team get just right, the streets of Boston become the film’s beating heart.

In addition to directing and co-writing the film (“It’s going to be awfully tough to walk away from this one,” Mr. Affleck told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last month, referring to his triple-threat role), Mr. Affleck stars as Doug, a hardened young man who works for a sand and gravel company breaking rocks — that is, when he’s not robbing Charlestown banks with his crew.  In the heist that opens the film, Doug’s close friend (the two are practically brothers) Jem briefly takes the young bank manager, Claire, hostage in order to have some insurance in case the cops show up earlier than expected.  They let her go, but Jem worries that she could incriminate them, so Doug agrees to discreetly find out what she knows.  He arranges to accidentally bump into her at the laundromat, but quickly finds himself drawn to this young woman who, to Doug, represents his idealized vision of a life outside of The Town.

That doesn’t stike me as a terribly original hook for a film (troubled guy falls for a girl who makes him, you know, want to be a better man), and nothing in the narrative of The Town feels especially surprising.  This, to me, is the main reason why I didn’t find The Town to be nearly as gripping as the edge-of-your-seat, where-the-heck-is-this-all-going narrative of Gone Baby Gone.  I haven’t read Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves, on which The Town is based, but I can’t imagine it’s as strong a source material as was the novel by Dennis Lehane that was adapted for Gone Baby Gone.

But, OK, though The Town isn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, it’s still a very well-made and entertaining thriller.

Mr. Affleck is a way better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and … [continued]