Ben Affleck

Live by Night

Bless his heart. Ben Affleck really tries, but he just doesn’t have it in him. The highest praise I can give him is to say that occasionally his films don’t disappoint (see Argo and The Town). He was serviceable in last year’s The Accountant, and he doesn’t bring an otherwise good movie down with his presence – but that’s about as complimentary as I can be. Live by Night looked to be a decent enough bit of escapism, but ultimately its mediocrity rendered it wholly ineffective.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a petty thief who finds himself unwittingly caught between two warring criminal factions in Prohibition era Boston. Irish boss Albert White and Italian kingpin Maso Pescatore are rival bootleggers who are at a virtual stalemate after mounting casualties on either side. Both men take a run at Joe, who prefers to remain neutral and above the fray. All along Joe has been having an affair with White’s girlfriend, his lover and accomplice. This never turns out well, and just as White closes in, Joe is nabbed on a botched heist, landing himself in prison on a three-year sentence.

He emerges from prison with a fresh mindset. Seeking to insulate himself from the lurking White, he aligns with Pescatore, agreeing to oversee his rum running operations down in Tampa. In Florida he meets Graciela (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), sister to a local bootlegger with whom he partners. Joe and his best friend Dion soon corner the market; not so much avoiding the war in Boston as moving it to a sunnier locale. Joe’s business isn’t built for longevity, and if his foes don’t bring about his demise, the changing political climate may prove just as fatal.

Live by Night had potential, but ultimately it was clichéd and derivative. Visually it was slick, with a lush, glamorous setting but there was little substance. I’ve seen better episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Magic City. Affleck wrote and directed the movie, and for the first time I can say that I think he’s had a misstep in those roles. The aforementioned Argo and The Town were very good, but the trend does not continue here. It felt like Affleck inserted obligatory elements gleaned from other films of the genre and time period, leaving us with something thoroughly unremarkable. Zoe Saldana’s indistinct accent faded in and out, a detail right on par with the rest of the movie. Not a horrible movie, but not really worth seeing in theaters either. Perfect for Redbox. Grade: C

The Accountant

In life, I’ve found that it’s fine to have preferences, but that you should remain open-minded. You just never know when your tastes may change. I used to prefer Matt Damon to Ben Affleck. Comparisons between the two have been inevitable, as they’re best friends who emerged on the Hollywood scene in tandem. Damon always seemed to be the superior actor, and I still think that holds true. However, I don’t like Matt Damon as much as I once did. And Affleck lately has just seemed…cooler. The Accountant looked like a smart action thriller, and I was drawn in by the titular character’s backstory. Unfortunately, it was just an average movie, and my mini-streak of duds continues.

Affleck (Batman v. Superman) stars as Christian Wolff, an accountant with the uncanny ability to crunch numbers better than a calculator. He has a beautiful mind, one that is suited perfectly for his chosen profession. Through flashback we learn that Christian was born with a high functioning form of autism that gifts him with amazing intellectual abilities while rendering him socially inept. His father refuses to coddle him, teaching him instead to defend himself to the literal death through relentless combat and martial arts training. His compulsive need to finish tasks lends itself well to this borderline abusive instruction. Fast forward to present day, and Christian’s unique upbringing and skill set have led to a lucrative career “uncooking” the books for some of the world’s most notorious criminal enterprises.

If you consort with international criminals, chances are you won’t go unnoticed for long. Eventually Christian draws the attention of Treasury Agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash) who pinpoints his identity with the help of junior agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Arrow). When Christian lands a high-level corporate client, the Feds become even more invested in his activities, and King and Medina turn up the heat. Working alongside young accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), Christian becomes entangled in a web of danger in the pursuit of millions of missing dollars for their mysterious new client. Soon their lives are in jeopardy, but who’s calling the shots?

I enjoyed the sight of Affleck stomping his way through would-be foes shocked that a pencil pusher was kicking their ass. However, the plot was a muddled mess. My need for things to make sense wouldn’t let me ignore the seemingly pointless series of events that were strung together and called a storyline. Although the plot strengthened the film in its establishment of Christian’s backstory, it faltered miserably as the movie wore on, and any “twists” fell woefully short. Affleck was effective for the most part, though his performance could easily be panned as a caricature. Jon Bernthal (Sicario) makes an appearance, and though his presence usually enhances a film, here it was just more evidence of a poor storyline. Wait for this one on Redbox. Grade: C+

Suicide Squad

It’s become trendy on social media, and on Twitter especially, to refer to any and everything as “trash” if you dislike it. When word spread online that Suicide Squad was “trash,” I was disappointed that the highly anticipated DC Comics film hadn’t lived up to expectations – but I needed to see for myself. And I’m glad that I didn’t heed the naysayers. Although the movie was not without its flaws, it was far from the disaster everyone described.

The movie is built on an intriguing premise: What if Superman were bad? Who would stop him? This essential question is what drives Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Lila & Eve), a high-level national security advisor who ascribes to the old adage that you fight fire with fire. She assembles a team of badass miscreants to keep on standby for any kamikaze mission, should the need arise. If things go south, this band of ragtag criminals and “meta-humans” will be easy to disavow. The Suicide Squad is comprised of Deadshot (Will Smith, Concussion), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Concussion), Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Insurgent), Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms), and Slipknot (Adam Beach, Diablo).

Dr. Harley Quinn was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, where she treated The Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club). She fell in love with the charming psychopath, and the pair unleashed a reign of terror across Gotham until Batman (Ben Affleck, Batman v. Superman) nabbed her, splitting the demented couple apart. Batman also reeled in Deadshot, an assassin whose pinpoint accuracy netted top dollar amongst underworld figures. Harley, Deadshot, Croc and Diablo share a prison, while Boomerang and Slipshot are apprehended later, rounding out the Squad.

Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnamon, Run All Night) is Amanda Waller’s second in command, tasked with corralling the Squad as they did her bidding. He is in love with Dr. June Moon, an archaeologist whose body and spirit have become inhabited by a witch dubbed Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Pan). Moon’s altar ego unleashes a sinister force, spurring Waller to call the Suicide Squad into action. I’ll end the plot summation here, as the storyline is perhaps the weakest aspect of the movie. The details of the Squad’s mission were muddled, and writer/director David Ayer (Fury) seemed to take an ad hoc approach to the storyline’s structure. The movie’s strength lies in the chemistry of its titular ensemble cast, namely Harley Quinn and Deadshot.

Robbie and Smith have undeniable chemistry, evidenced by their previous work in last year’s Focus, and again here. Robbie clearly relished the role, embodying the beautifully batty Harley with an endearing air of likability. I watched the Batman cartoon as a kid, and I remember Harley as an adoring nuisance to the Joker, a smitten pest. Here, she was every bit his equal and true love interest. Regarding Joker, there will be inevitable comparisons to Heath Ledger’s portrayal, but I encourage you to let each interpretation stand on its own. Leto did a fine job with the role, putting his own spin on it while maintaining the evil eccentricity we’ve come to expect.

The entire cast was excellent, but Smith and Robbie were the standouts. To put it simply, Deadshot is a bad ass MF. Smith is charismatic enough to carry his own Deadshot movie, and I hope DC is at least considering the notion. Viola Davis couldn’t turn in a bad performance if she tried, and she shone brightly in what could have been an average role. She was formidable in her own right, which was befitting of a character charged with keeping such a group in line. Was this the best comic book movie ever? No. In fact, I can understand why someone wouldn’t love it. But the disdain is totally overblown. Bolstered by the chemistry of its cast and the sheer amount of fun they seemed to be having at every moment, Suicide Squad made for a good time at the movies. Grade: B

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ever since Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was announced as the next iteration of the Caped Crusader, movie buffs and fan boys alike have been waiting with baited breath to behold this epic clash of titans in Batman v. Superman. Most fans have maligned Affleck’s selection, but I reserved judgment. Affleck’s career experienced a brief downturn during the J-Lo era, but I thought he rebounded nicely as early as 2006 with Hollywoodland. I like Ben Affleck and if anyone tells you he’s what’s wrong with this film – they are mistaken.

I looked forward to this, cautiously optimistic about what director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) would do with the franchise after taking the helm over from Christopher and Jon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). Batman v. Superman begins with the familiar exposition of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. We then move forward to the recent past, and the inception of Batman and Superman’s mutual disdain. When one of Superman’s epic battles leaves an avalanche of destruction in its wake, including the decimation of one of Wayne Enterprises’ properties, Bruce is furious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, The Man From UNCLE) is none too fond of Batman, bristling at the cavalier vigilante who has won Gotham’s heart by taking the law into his own hands. To be clear, Batman doesn’t trust an alien with god-like abilities; conversely Superman thinks the billionaire is reckless and should be contained.

The stage is set for battle, after a young Lex Luthor (played by a terribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) pits the two against one another. Luthor and LexCorp have weaponized kryptonite, in the event that Superman ever needs to be neutralized. After Congress denies his request for government approval, he moves forward with another plan, hoping that the two heroes will take each other out. The plot was a little thin, and I was never emotionally invested in any outcome for either hero. When Batman and Superman finally square off, it is laughably apparent just how overmatched Batman (a mere mortal) is when facing a real superhero with powers beyond a utility belt. Only with the tried and true trick of kryptonite can he keep pace with Superman. Affleck clearly bulked up for the part, which makes sense – but why was he a slow, lumbering oaf with little agility and quickness? It looked as if even the likes of Daredevil could handily dispatch Batman.

I thought the movie was just ok. It wasn’t as horrible as the blogosphere is making it out to be, but it was rather underwhelming, plagued by poor casting and an underdeveloped, nonsensical plot. Eisenberg was miscast as Luthor. Instead of a criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor seemed like a bratty, petulant teen – hardly a worthy foe to a much more mature Batman or Superman. Batman seemed slow, and the fight sequence wasn’t as jaw dropping as I expected. One scene involves Superman 1) retrieving some kryptonite and 2) using it to kill something; how is this even possible?! There were some cool, entertaining moments, but they were few and far between. Moreover, I don’t really like the way Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Triple 9) was incorporated. The character wasn’t properly integrated in the storyline. Perhaps she was supposed to be mysterious, but I never felt like I understood her motivations or history.

Lastly, I just can’t get the Nolan’s interpretation of Batman out of my head. It was just a superior trilogy, and I don’t particularly care for what Snyder has done thus far. I’m still curious to see what Ben Affleck can do in the role, whenever he gets a solo Batman film. I thought he looked the part, but I would like to see more in the future. Superman is just a boring character to me, and Henry Cavill didn’t do much to change that opinion. Superman has all the power and none of the personality, easily distracted like a simp when Lois Lane (Amy Adams, American Hustle) is in danger. Corny! The cinematic edge still goes to Marvel, and all this movie did was make me anticipate Captain America: Civil War even more. Grade: C

Gone Girl

Movies provide a familiar comfort for me, even if the subject matter isn’t warm and fuzzy. Thrillers in particular give me a nice buzz of excitement, and they’re my favorite. When I saw the trailer for Gone Girl, I was drawn in by the promise of a suspenseful thriller and thought: my kind of movie. David Fincher has been one of my favorite directors for a long time. From Se7en and Panic Room to his remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has proven time and again that he’s a 21st century master of suspense – no disrespect to the late great Alfred Hitchcock. With Gone Girl, he’s simply outdone himself.

I hadn’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, and I went in to the movie ‘cold.’ My opinions are solely based on Fincher’s dramatic interpretation and Flynn’s adapted screenplay. Fincher masterfully manipulated the viewer’s emotions by crafting a very specific perception of the main characters and in the sequential narrative he wanted to tell. The movie opens with no pretense, quickly establishing the essential plot. It’s the day after Independence Day, and Nick Dunne’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike, The World’s End) has gone missing. Nick (Ben Affleck, Runner Runner) and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon, The Leftovers) don’t seem too broken up about her disappearance, though people admittedly express grief and anxiety in different ways. Nick does the “right” things after noticing signs of a struggle at their home by informing the authorities, and he co-operates with their investigation, at least initially.

As the film unfolds, my opinion of Nick began to shift – and this was a testament to an outstanding screenplay from Flynn and flawless direction from Fincher. While people grieve differently, at some point the shock wears off and real emotions come out. That never happened with Nick, and I assumed that he must’ve had something to do with his wife’s disappearance. Circumstantial evidence mounted, and it was apparent from minute one that Nick and Amy weren’t happy. Juxtaposed with current happenings were narrative excerpts from Amy’s diary, and these musings were dramatized through flashbacks. We see how Nick and Amy first met, and witness the undeniable chemistry they once shared. We know that something changed along the way, but for the longest time we don’t know how or when. Nick sure looks guilty, but things aren’t always what they seem.

A movie rife with mystery and twists such as this needn’t be spoiled, so I’ll leave the plot synopsis where it stands. I’ve lauded the writing and direction, but the performances were similarly excellent. For whatever reason (maybe it’s the memory of J. Lo and Gigli), most people don’t think much of Ben Affleck. But I think he’s extremely talented behind the camera (The Town) and in front of it as well. His initial aloofness was contemptible, but as the plot unfolded he became a sympathetic character, and his performance was unwavering. But the real linchpin of this movie was Pike, whose veneer of warmth belied an icy core. Her versatility and depth were impeccably nuanced, and she was a revelation. Even Tyler Perry was impressive as Nick’s shrewd defense attorney. Carrie Coon also made the most of her supporting role, and the entire cast was perfect, from top to bottom. I’ve talked to a couple of people who didn’t like the ending, but for me – a resolution doesn’t have to be popular to be effective. What more can I say? Make this the next movie you see. Grade: A

Argo

Some things just lend themselves to cinematic visualization.  You’re probably familiar with the expression “stranger than fiction,” a phrase describing the fantastic things that occur in real life, but are so unbelievable they seem like the stuff of fantasy.  We see so many amazing things in movies, most of which is fiction.  How cool is it when the unbelievable shit you see in a movie actually really happened?  Ben Affleck (most recently of The Town) brilliantly depicted the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 in Argo, demonstrating that he could be the next Clint Eastwood one day – a popular actor whose directorial efforts rival his thespian pursuits.

In 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran was taken over by protestors who were outraged that the United States had granted amnesty to its recently ousted Shah.  In an effort to minimize the security threat of the takeover, the diplomats began destroying classified material before it could be seized, including passport plates and personnel files.  During the siege, six diplomats escaped, taking refuge at the nearby Canadian Embassy.  Back at the American Embassy the dissidents would eventually begin making the hostages painstakingly reassemble the shredded documents, which included personnel files identifying the escaped diplomats.  There were also neighborhood searches of private residences to ensure that no locals were harboring anyone.  Obviously, any American separate and apart from the Embassy would be in grave danger, at risk for public execution as an example to the West.  The escaped diplomats included four men and two women, with two married couples in that number.  Getting the six out of Iran alive would prove a most daunting task, setting the stage for a nail-biting chain of events.

Back on American soil, the CIA hatches a plan to extract the diplomats, and this is where things really get fun and interesting.  Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an operative whose specialty lies in such creative recovery missions.  The crisis presented a unique conundrum for the Agency, as any ruse to rescue the diplomats must be executed perfectly.  Mendez gets the idea to pose as a Canadian film crew, complete with a fictional script and Hollywood producers.  He plans to prep each diplomat with a cover story that they will have to memorize.  As explained by Mendez’ superior, the scheme is “the best bad idea” they could come up with.  Argo was the name of the movie, a sci-fi flick set against a desert landscape.  The phony film crew is supposedly in Iran scouting potential film locations.  Authenticity was important, so the idea was based on a real script that had been submitted to a studio.  There was even a fake cast lined up!  Throughout the movie I was riveted, marveling the whole time that this actually happened.  Stranger than fiction, indeed.

Quite simply, Argo is a fantastic movie.  It kept pace throughout, beginning with a brief history lesson to let the audience know the circumstances giving rise to the conflict.  This could have been boring, but it was fascinating and insightful.  The scenes in Iran were wrought with tension, and I was on the edge of my seat as if I didn’t know how the story ends.  The tense atmosphere was balanced perfectly by the funny scenes involving the Agency’s formulation of the rescue mission.  Shout out to the veteran Alan Arkin (recently of The Change-Up) in his amusing turn as the film’s producer, Lester Siegel.  I’m also very impressed by Ben Affleck, who wonderfully conveyed the complexity of a character with the weight of the world on his shoulders.  It was Mendez who had to enter Iran and physically escort the diplomats out of the country, relying on his wits and preparation to see him through.  Affleck is three for three in the director’s chair, by my count.  Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo prove that this burgeoning new facet of his career has yielded great results thus far.  I’d go as far as to say Argo was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year – a must-see for sure.  Grade: A.