Before I briefly chat about what I’ve been up to on the storytelling front, here are reviews of two movies I endured this weekend.
Live by Night – Where shall I start? This is a terrible movie. It looks great, and I wanted to like it – it’s full of old cars and lots of cool wardrobe and art direction, just the kind of production values I’d like to see lavished on a Nate Heller movie. Unfortunately, this is the kind of lavish dud that will make it hard to get a Nate Heller movie made, because the Hollywood boys and girls will remind me how poorly Live by Night did at the box-office.
I’m not a Ben Affleck basher. He’s done some very good things, like Argo and The Town, and…well, like Argo and The Town. He’s a pretty fair Batman, too. Here he is a multiple threat, and I do mean threat, as actor, director and writer. I have no idea whether the source novel by Dennis Lahane is any good – I don’t read him. Some pretty fair movies have been made from his stuff, like The Drop and Gone Baby Gone, though I disliked both Shutter Island and the hammy Mystic River. My hunch is that the novel here is likely better, which would not make it good.
Clearly the novel was longer, because this has so much expository voiceover, the telling outweighs the showing. No characters take hold, no scenes develop sufficiently, and the stupidity of the plotting is at times mind-boggling.
For example. Affleck is secretly having an affair with the top gangster in Boston’s moll; when the gangster goes out of town, however, Affleck openly cavorts with the moll in public, and then is surprised when the gangster finds out. For example. When the film lurches into a Florida setting, a dumb-ass KKK leader is bombing Affleck’s nightclubs and wantonly killing people in the process; Affleck asks the dumb-ass to meet with him at Affleck’s own casino construction site, and then the dumb-ass is shocked when Affleck’s men pour out and kill him and his own goons. There are half a dozen scenes with set-ups that moronic.
The best moments are throwaways, as after the dumb-ass-gets-killed sequence when Affleck argues with a crony about who accidentally shot him. Only then does Affleck himself (and the movie) come to life. Elsewhere he goes beyond underplaying into a sort of mobile coma. He wears lots of hats, and I don’t mean director/writer/star, I mean hats – tan fedoras, gray fedoras, white fedoras, yellow fedoras, purple fedoras. I see a drinking game coming!
Two women are at the center of the story – the Bonnie Parker-type moll whose betrayal sends Affleck scurrying to Florida to avoid the wrath of the Boston mob boss – and a Cuban girl whose brother is in the rackets with Affleck. Though the latter is portrayed by Uhura herself, Zoe Saldana, and the former by usually reliable Sienna Miller, neither character makes a dent in the proceedings…and they are the two motivators in sleepy Affleck’s life. Elle Fanning as a nice-girl-turned-drug-addict-turned-evangelist, does better, but her role is so fragmented that it too never quite adds up, though its importance is also key to what little story we perceive.
The moral seems to be: when you’re making a movie, don’t wear too many hats, literally and figuratively. Also, when you’re doing a period piece about the twenties, don’t sing a snippet of “Sugartime,” a song from the late fifties. But it’s almost worth seeing for a howler about Hitler that comes very late in the proceedings: “Some little guy in Germany,” he says in voiceover, “was gettin’ people all excited. But they weren’t gonna go to war over him. No percentage in it.”
The Edge of Seventeen – This is a tricky one. It’s very well-made and nicely acted. The dialogue is frequently witty. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93% Fresh. But there’s nothing very fresh about the story, which is that a nerdy girl (Hailee Steinfeld) has a crush on a bad boy and doesn’t realize the nice smart guy who sits next to her in class is a better prospect. As if that wasn’t enough, the nerdy girl is portrayed by a lovely young actress, more likely to be prom queen than an outcast. On the other hand, she does behave like an asshole throughout, which doesn’t help us like her as a protagonist. Nor does the fact that she lives a privileged, cushy upper-middle-class life. Also, after she accidentally sends the bad boy an explicit text about wanting sex with him, she is surprised that, when they go out parking, he expects to have sex with her.
Additionally, she still doesn’t see the nice boy as a prospect even after he turns out to be very, very rich (he even has a bigger swimming pool than she does) (see how hard she has it?).
The secondary central conflict is rooted in her asshole-ishness: her nerdy outcast best-and-only friend (also portrayed by a lovely young woman) starts dating our heroine’s hunky brother, and this our heroine cannot abide! She is a flaming bitch to both throughout most of the film. Don’t you feel sorry for her? This is interspersed with occasional Breakfast Club self-exploratory soliloquies (as when her hunky brother reveals his life is also very hard, because he has to keep an eye on their emotionally troubled single mom, who by the way has a very, very good job, despite being an emotional wreck). Of course, she comes around to the worthy boy…after he invites her to a film festival where his incredibly professional animated “student” film unspools…and is about her!
How is this twaddle 93% Fresh? How is this a story that touches an average girl’s heart when the central character is a spoiled beautiful upper-middle-class brat?
The writer/director, Kelly Fremon Craig, does a professional job and some nice moments do happen, most with the Woody Harrelson teacher character. The producer is James L. Brooks, whose TV work (The Simpsons, Lou Grant) has often been stellar but whose movies (often acclaimed) have consistently missed me, and I include Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment.
So your mileage may vary.
This flurry of reviews lately – all positive last week, remember? – does not negate the fact that I genuinely dislike writing bad reviews. They are the easiest kind of thing to write, often filled with cheap shots (see above). For a long time I stopped writing them. I learned from my own indie movies just how hard the process is – that even making a bad movie is a tough, tough thing. I resigned from my movie column at Mystery Scene because of that. Then I wrote mostly good reviews at Asian Cult Cinema for several years.
Now, like a drunk falling off the wagon, I find myself writing bad reviews again. Why? It reflects a level of frustration that I feel as someone who loves movies, and who goes to a lot more of them than most people. Because I’m in Muscatine, Iowa, I often miss the art movies that are highly touted, but often when I see those, I am no more happy than when I see Hollywood’s standard fare. Art movies, indies, have become a kind of genre in themselves; that includes a lot of European stuff.
I am older now, and harder to please. I have quoted several times what the beautiful and wise Barb said when, as we watched a lousy Italian western at home, whether we would have stayed through the entire movie in the theater, back in “the day” (the ‘70s or ‘80s). As I shut off the Blu-ray player, she said, “Yes, but we had our whole lives ahead of us then.”
I am working on a Quarry graphic novel, which Titan will publish in four issues and then collect. Don’t know the artist yet, though I approved several based on samples.
It’s very, very hard. I have been away from this format for a while, and the story takes place partly in Vietnam in 1969 and then back in the America of 1972. Providing visual reference for the artist has been a dizzying, daunting task. A 22-page script runs to 60 pages with panel descriptions and links to reference photos.
I doubt I will do many more such projects. Prose is far less taxing.
Here’s info on the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD of the Quarry TV series.