Friday, January 20, 2017

Live By Night

In Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Roaring Twenties’, the trenches of the First World War are the cauldron in which loyalty, rivalry and criminality are forged. In Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, a spiritual battle for the soul of the gangster is finally decided in an ambiguous closing scene. In Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’, the gangster is elevated to tragic hero, pursuing the attainment of the world entire at the cost of everything else.

Ben Affleck’s ‘Live By Night’ merges elements of all of these and more – surely it’s no coincidence that Dennis Lehane, on whose novel the film is based, picked the title for its evocation of Nicholas Ray’s hymn to the romanticism of the outlaw, ‘They Live By Night’ – as it strives to recreate the iconography of classic Warner Brothers gangster movies while engaging in a dialogue pertinent to a contemporary audience.

And to a certain degree the attempt is to Affleck’s credit. As the poet said: a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? However, in identifying Lehane’s fiction as a potent combination of propulsive genre narrative and intelligent social commentary – previously translated to the screen in fine style in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’ and Affleck’s own directorial debut ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, and to a slightly lesser degree in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ – Affleck makes two crucial mistakes.

But we’ll come to those later. For now, take my hand and we’ll waltz through a plot synopsis. Irish-American twenty-something Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes back from the war pissed off with taking orders and kowtowing to rank. He and some buddies carve out a minor living doing nickel and dime hold-ups until Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) recruits him under pressure. Coughlin, not wanting to be a part of any particular gang or organisation, accepts in the spirit of self-preservation and because it puts him closer to White’s flapper girl moll Emma (Sienna Miller, aurally defiling the movie with the worst Irish accent), with whom he’s conducting an affair. Meanwhile, Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to persuade Coughlin to assassinate White. His options running out, Coughlin plans one last job to fund his absconsion with Emma. It goes tits up. Meanwhile, a vindictive Pescatore puts the word out to White about Coughlin’s dalliance with Emma. The only thing that saves him from death at White’s hands is the intervention of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson, to whom Sienna Miller’s Irish accent owes an apology), and even then he still has to take a beating from Coughlin Snr’s cop buddies and do some jail time.

All of which would be enough material to fill a 90 minute feature and yet here is little more than an extended overture (one, moreover, that’s established and rushed through as inelegantly as a bull on steroids manoeuvring its way from the front entrance to the rear exit of an emporium dedicated to the crockery and figurines fashioned from the finest bone china). The main business of the story takes place post-prison sentence as Coughlin, grieving for Emma (presumed dead after her care plunges off a bridge) and burning for revenge against White, sells his soul to Pescatore and finds himself running the mobster’s rum smuggling operation in Tampa. Here, he partners up with Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), muscles White’s crew out of the game, and reaches an agreement with police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) whereby Coughlin and Bartolo restrict their dealings to specific socio-geographical locations and the cops turn a blind eye. While Coughlin establishes a profitable business relationship with rum distiller Estaban Suarez (Miguel), whose sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) he romances, Figgis’s impressionable daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to be a star but ends up addicted to heroin and forced to appear in skin flicks. When Figgis’s KKK-connected brother-in-law R.D. (Matthew Maher, stealing scenes like Rafferty stole jewels) takes against Coughlin on account of his relationship with the dusky-hued Graciela, Coughlin uses Loretta as leverage to convince Figgis to set R.D. up. Coughlin’s devious machinations are, however, not enough to avoid a full-scale conflagration between Klan and bootleggers.

There’s no doubt that this is the most effective part of the film, even if the pay-off is badly rushed, but again there’s material aplenty in this one plot strand for an entire feature. But Affleck isn’t done yet. With the Klan out of the way, the end of Prohibition looming and a fuckton of Pescatore’s profits sunk into a casino development, Coughlin then has to contend with Loretta’s post-rehab reappearance as a hellfire preacher (yes, Affleck casts the elfin Fanning as a hellfire preacher; yes, that decision works out exactly as you’d expect) and the cold-feet withdrawal of his legitimate business partners on account of the negative publicity Loretta’s anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-everything-but-God campaign has stirred up. And if that’s not enough, Pescatore has plans to retire Coughlin, it turns out that Emma might not be dead after all, and White has one last hand to play.

Once again, enough material for a whole film is shoehorned into half an hour, with melodrama and cliché piling up against each other. A fantastically staged and edited hotel shoot-out restores some genre kudos to the proceedings, but an extended coda in three acts drags things out that bit longer.

I said earlier that there were two problems with the film. The first is Affleck the writer, the second Affleck the actor. While there’s no doubt that he’s totally engaged with the material as director, he doesn’t yet have the skill as a scriptwriter to translate Lehane into the cinematic medium; and as an actor, he doesn’t deliver the complexity Coughlin’s character calls for, nor does he have any chemistry with Miller or Saldana. (His asexual relationship with Anna McKendrick’s character in ‘The Accountant’ generates more frisson!)

‘Live By Night’ wants to be a sweeping old-fashioned epic but one that turns a contemporary eye to questions of race, religion, politics, loyalty, rivalry, compromise and even social justice (Graciela is driven by restoring dignity and honour to the underclass of her native Cuba). There would have been two ways to do justice to the book: focus on about a fifth of the existing narrative, truncating the timeline and focusing on character interaction (a la Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’), or as a TV mini-series of about five hours. Affleck simply tries to cram too much into his 128-minute running time. Paradoxically, this results not in a frenetic narrative but a plodding and sometimes tiresome one.

That said, there are still things to appreciate. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, conjuring some eyeball-searing images: a burning police car sinking into a steely-grey lake; a motorboat slowly cleaving the waters of a lake sheened with the pink/gold of a fireball sun sinking into the horizon; a nocturnal shoot-out in front of the skeletal frame of a half-built casino, laths of timber creating frames within frames within frames. There is also a cluster of fantastic performance – Cooper, Messina, Maher, Glenister, Girone – although this comes at the cost of there not being a single decent role for a woman in the whole thing.

“You get out of this world what you put into it,” Coughlin’s father warns him at one point, “but not always how you might expect.” Coughlin was always going to be blasé about this truism; he was always going to be a compromised protagonist. That the film is equally compromised is the real disappointment.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Antagony and alternatives

When I first took to this platform to create The Agitation of the Mind in 2007, one of the first of Blogger's extended film community to champion the endeavour was Tim Brayton. His blog was Antagony & Ecstasy and it quickly became one of my top three resources for intelligent, trenchant and - best of all - witty film criticism. And I've remained a regular visitor (if, to my shame, an infrequent commenter) ever since.

As of yesterday, Antagony & Ecstasy closed its doors. After Brexit and Trump's election, that might have been enough to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies and sending me sprinting for the nearest insane asylum. But fortunately western civilisation is only two-thirds destroyed and Tim is simply reinventing Antagony as part of a collaborative endeavour. His new project, Alternate Ending, debuts tomorrow. Go here to follow this new chapter. Update your link lists.

Good luck, Tim.

Sunday, January 08, 2017


‘Sully’ is about many things: it’s about a cool-headed act of heroism executed under intense conditions and with no margin for error; it’s about how FAA investigators are basically witch-hunters but with corporate job titles; it’s about the different ways in which PTSD manifests; it’s about how a city claims heroes for itself; and most of all it’s about people doing their jobs.

Clint Eastwood’s direction acutely reflects this, to the point that even the villains of the piece – the soberly dressed men and women who do everything they can to prove an act of reckless endangerment on Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks)’s part – are just doing their job in the same way that Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were doing theirs, the Manhattan ferry operators who assist in getting the passengers ashore from the freezing waters of the Hudson were doing theirs, and the paramedics who tend to them were doing theirs.

There is very little in ‘Sully’ that isn’t about the minutiae of getting on with one’s job of work. Just as ‘Deepwater Horizon’ invested a sizeable chunk of its running time in explaining how an oil rig works and what the various people who work on it are individually responsible for, and only gets down to the big disaster movie set pieces once all the necessary exposition has been delivered, so ‘Sully’ spends more time with its eminently professional and quietly understated protagonists as they go about their day-to-day (albeit a day-to-day that involves smug people in suits trying to blame them for deep-sixing an aeroplane and never mind that they saved every single passenger) than it does in said plane when it finally puts down on the Hudson.

In fact, Eastwood almost teases the audience with several iterations of the water landing (as Sully coolly corrects an investigator who refers to it as a “crash”). We first see it as Sully’s nightmare in the immediate aftermath; then in part as Sully almost seems to doubt his own judgement during a conversation with his wife (an underused but still effective Laura Linney). It’s very late in the film before Eastwood shows the whole thing, and his aesthetic is austere and realistic. What many directors would stage as a cathartic, even rousing, set-piece is here a jolting and immersive piece of visceral filmmaking. Notwithstanding that everyone knows the outcome – everyone survived – Eastwood communicates the urgency of the forced landing, the against-the-clock necessity of getting everyone off the plane before it sank, and the hypothermia-inducing temperature of the river.

To reiterate: ‘Sully’ is a damned fine film when it concentrates on, and offers up an unsentimental hymn to, the importance of professionals doing their job and trusting their instincts. Its footing is less sure elsewhere, though. The vignettes that introduce a handful of the passengers are lazy to the point of stereotypical. A scene in a bar where an overly garrulous bartender and two drunks are so overwhelmed to meet Sully that their effusiveness embarrasses him is staged like a particularly unfunny outtake from ‘Cheers’. Two other nags: Eastwood’s commitment to an austere aesthetic bleeds the film of any visual distinction; and the editing is fussy and sometimes distracting.

What can’t be denied, though, is that ‘Sully’ communicates its key points simply and with clarity. Hanks and Eckhart do sterling work, both actors bringing lightly-worn gravitas to the roles, and playing off each other in a wry and ironic style. I’d even suggest that, in Tom Hanks’s refusal to make his characterisation of Chesley Sullenberger a performance, he gives the performance of his career.

Friday, January 06, 2017


‘Passengers’ is the most amiable 12A rated film that ought to be a solid 18 rated exploitationer that I’ve seen in a long time. And there’s no way I can talk about it in a remotely useful way without flinging SPOILERS out left, right and centre.

Okay, I’m exaggerating: there’s only one spoiler that I need to fling out, and I’m not sure that it even constitutes that much of a spoiler, but let’s assume – and it’s a fairly safe and logical assumption – that most movie-goers base their movie-going on trailers and proceed from there.

The trailer for ‘Passengers’ has it that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are in suspended hibernation on a long-haul space flight only they wake up 90 years before the ship is due to make landfall (planetfall?) and all kind of shenanigans ensure including matey banter with Michael Sheen’s android barman, falling in lurve, and a desperate attempt at something or other when the ship goes tits up in the IT department and shuts down.

So far, so mainstream: soft sci-fi romantic drama starring to extremely attractive people. Let’s face, you could be of any sexual persuasion and abjectly loathe science-fiction and you’d probably still go and see ‘Passengers’ because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence and you’d swing either way in that particular dynamic and say thank you afterwards.

But what the trailer doesn’t imply – what the trailer in fact goes to great lengths to keep off the radar – is that it’s only Pratt, playing a character whose name I had to look up on IMDb no less than an hour after watching the movie, that’s how fucking disinterested in characterisation the film is, who is awakened thirty years into a 120-year flight after his pod malfunctions and spends the first fifteen minutes or so of the film engaged in the following activities: trying to find out what happened and repair the fault; flipping out because he can’t; yakking it up with the bartender (who’s kind of like the bartender in ‘The Shining’ only he never “corrects” anyone); abusing the ship’s online entertainment system; and, after a year of solitude, getting so utterly drunk and depressed that he finds himself with only two choices: commit suicide or wake somebody up for companionship.

(You can see where this is going, can’t you?)

Credit where it’s due, Pratt’s character – let’s call him Hunky Mechanic Dude – opts for suicide as a first choice. Pussies out, though. Then he goes all “big moral debate” on the waking someone up thing, right down to interrogating the passenger manifest and accessing the records of his fellow passengers (information governance, anyone?), very quickly fixating on Jennifer Lawrence’s character, whose first name was Aurora because, y’know, stars and shit. So, after much browbeating and agonising – … oh, who the fuck am I kidding? – after about five seconds flat Hunky Mechanic Dude decides to reawaken the Hottest Blonde Chick On The Entire Fucking Spaceship. And then let her think that her pod malfunctioned the same way his did. And then dissuade her from engaging with a solution to the problem. And then allow a sexual relationship to develop between them.

Which pretty much turns Hunky Mechanic Dude into Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude. Not that Jon Spaihts’ screenplay doesn’t do its almost damnedest to rationalise HMD (a.k.a. SSR-b-D)’s behaviour. He reads Aurora’s file before waking her, discovers she’s a writer, samples some of her work and is impressed by her intelligence. (Nope: still a skeazy rapist-by-default.) Post-awakening, he “gives her space” before he makes his move. (Nope: see above.) When the fucked-up-IT-shit hits the fan, he embarks on a course of action that could end his life in order to save the lives of the 5000 or so other sleepers. (Nope: still a scumbag, albeit a fairly brave one.)

Oh, and regarding that saving-the-lives-of-everyone-else business? Said narrative arc is introduced immediately after the Aurora (understandably) wigs out big time about Hunky Mechanic Dude being Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude, and serves purely to get them back together. The way this boy-rapes-girl-by-default-girl-finds-out-boy-gets-girl-back obstacle is hurdled comes by way of a third individual reawakening after their pod malfunctions – in this case, a senior crew member who has access to various protocol levels (not to mention a tendency to dump exposition like a chemical company dumping waste) and who conveniently expires shortly after giving Weirdly Back On Romantic Hero Duties Dude all the information he needs to save the day.

After which How The Fuck Am I Supposed To Feel About This Dude Dude saves the day.

This is the truly weird thing about ‘Passengers’: you could take the entire film, cut out the bit where Chris Pratt is basically a skeazy stalker/rapist by default, drop in the briefest of scenes where Aurora’s pod malfunctions at the same time as his, and the rest of the film (absent, of course, the Aurora-finds-out scene) would play out exactly as written without imbalancing the film in any way, and actually giving us a romantic hero who would actually tick both of those boxes. Indeed, the raising-the-stakes finale would play better as the relationship would be genuinely and there would be infinitely more to lose for both protagonists.

Granted, there are plenty of other minor issues: Pratt’s character, as a lower grade passenger, can’t get a cappuccino or a full English in the automated breakfast bar, yet seems to have an open account at all of the ship’s restaurants and manages to rewire some circuitry so that he has access to the best quarters available; he’s a mechanic, but he wants to start a new life on a new planet so he can build a house (a mechanic is not an architect, builder, carpenter, plumber or electrician; try building a house without any of those guys); the way the ship creates its own gravity is scrupulously established then immediately forgotten about the moment the script needs to generate some tension.

On the plus side, the production design is a thing of beauty (the last time I wanted to live in a sci-fi environment was Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s cloud base in ‘Oblivion’), Sheen is terrific, the hour-forty-eight minute running time doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the leads are mighty attractive (even if both give awful performances). Everything considered, ‘Passengers’ emerges as watchable fare: it’s just weird to the point of perverse that it purposefully made the one narrative decision that robs of it of being the slick, enjoyable piece of escapism it unequivocally should have been.