(On Cable TV, August 2017) As frustrating as it can be to write this, Live by Night should be a much better movie than it is. From afar, it looks like a solid crime epic, spanning years and going from Boston to Florida as a gangster juggles love, crime, social prejudices and warring crime lords. The historical recreation of 1920s Boston and Sarasota is often mesmerizing, Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director and the film can rely on good supporting performers like Elle Fanning, Zoë Saldaña and Chris Cooper. In bits and moments, Live by Night works well: There are a few very good sequences as the bullet start to fly and antique cars go crashing down dirt roads. Seeing criminals sock it to KKK Klansmen is also a sure crowd pleaser. But as a whole, it doesn’t click. It feels long and occasionally meandering, as it tries to bring together a crime story with various other items than don’t necessarily flow well together. Has Affleck gone back once too often to crime drama? Or was the source novel by Dennis Lehane too sprawling to adapt to the screen? I’m not sure, but the frustrating result does no one any favours—especially not Affleck, who gets a dud after three back-to-back successes. Here’s hoping that his next project will be better.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) “Jason Bourne meets Rain Man” is just about the laziest way to describe The Accountant, but it sort-of-works at explaining the high concept at the heart of the movie—an autistic man officially working as a top-notch accountant who happens to be unusually skilled at assassination. Cue the complications. Ben Affleck is surprisingly effective as the titular character—it takes a lot of charisma to make an affectless character sympathetic, and it works for him. Anna Kendrick is cute enough in a generic role, but the film sort of loses interest in her character after a while, leaving her more or less out of the third act and never making her a love interest. There is a quirkiness to The Accountant that’s not to be dismissed—after all, how many movies manage to make forensics accounting seem thrilling? But as an action thriller, it’s more or less forgettable once we’re back to the action classics of guys shooting at each other. The distinctiveness of the film is found in their quieter moments, even though the treatment of autism is old-hat by now. There are a few plausibility problems in how a wandering assassin (ready to move away at a moment’s notice) could sustain a living in a profession such as accounting, but never mind—from the premise on, it’s obvious that The Accountant isn’t meant to take place in reality. It does offer a new (ish) kind of hero, though, and that’s already more than most other big-budget thrillers these days.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Hmm. As much as I’d like to be the well-meaning optimist who thinks that there shouldn’t be a Marvel-vs-DC movie rivalry and that great movies are good for everyone, I must confess that lately, DC’s artistic choices (i.e.; handing over the series to Zack Snyder, going for angst-and-gloom, kick-starting a shared universe without building the groundwork) have led me to see them as the incompetent villains to Marvel’s generally competent spectacle factory. As much as I would have liked Batman v Superman to prove me wrong, it ends up confirming what a lot of reviewers are saying to DC: “Gaaah, what are you thinking?” The thing is, I like some of what they’re doing. The idea of building upon Man of Steel’s ruins (literally) and presenting a glum vision of how Superman would be received in a more realistic context is not bad. Snyder is often a gifted visual stylist with an eye for arresting images. Introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character before her big film is pretty good. Ben Affleck is great as a grizzled Batman, Jesse Eisenberg has a promising take on Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot makes us look forward to Wonder-Woman, while Henry Cavill is picture-perfect as Superman. But the blend of those elements together proves to be weaker than expected, harmed by bad editing, a lack of flow and ponderous pacing. By the time in the opening credits it takes five (or ten?) seconds for the slow-motion gun to tear through Martha Wayne’s pearls, it’s obvious that Batman v. Superman is going to have severe pacing issues, spending forever on trivial details, while fast-forwarding through the plot. The grimness of the tone is unrelenting, and the confusion between subplots makes the extended dream/prophecy/time-travel sequence looks far weaker than expected. It all amounts to an operatic carnival of sound a fury, signifying not much besides setting up another instalment in the series: By now, we’ve come so accustomed to those calculations that the death of a major character seems more like perfunctory fake drama than anything worth taking seriously. So it goes in the DC superhero movie mould: “Just wait for the next movies (or the director’s cut)! We’ll swear it’ll be better!” Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll see it anyway when it hits cable TV. I just won’t look forward to it.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) While I like director David Fincher’s first movies more than his last few ones (Seven, The Game and Fight Club are classics; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake less so), the world at large seems to disagree, his stature having grown steadily since the beginning of his career. With Gone Girl, though, it looks as if I’m re-joining the critical consensus: It’s a terrific thriller, unsentimental and merciless with a lot of depth along the way. It starts innocently enough, as a man reports the suspicious disappearance of his wife. As the plot unspools, twists appear. Many twists, eventually leaving characters as aghast as viewers. Saying more would be a disservice, except to praise both Ben Affleck and especially Rosamund Pike for performances that play off their existing persona (in Affleck’s case) or their lack of it (in Pike’s case). Fincher directs the film with quasi-alien precision, which feels just about right when Gone Girl reveals itself to be an acid commentary on marriage. A genre-aware script by Gillian Flynn (based on her own novel) makes Gone Girl a terrific thriller, but nearly everyone involved in the film bring their best work: In smaller roles, Tyler Perry delivers a memorable turn as a mesmerizing defense lawyer, while Carrie Coon transforms a small confidante role into something far more interesting. Still, it’s director Fincher who remains the star of the show, effectively presenting his set-pieces with a lot of technical polish. Gone Girl may not be a pleasant film, but it’s almost impossible to stop watching from its intriguing opening to its nightmarish conclusion. It’s just not (really not) a date movie.
(Video on-demand, January 2014) I may not have any measurable interest for gambling in my own personal life, but I’m certainly a sucker for films that revolve around the subject. So it is that even a disappointing thriller like Runner Runner can get me smiling even as its shortcomings are obvious. Justin Timberlake stars (and doesn’t do badly) as a bright young man who gets sucked into the seductive lifestyle of an online casino operation headquartered in sunny Costa Rica: the initial allure of his new job quickly turn sour when he discovers the web of secrets masterminded by the business’ shady owner (Ben Affleck, in a role that could have been played better by many other actors). The narration-heavy script is initially pretty good with the details, but those get scarcer as the film advances and accelerates, much to the audience’s detriment: As the protagonist’s life-saving machinations get more intense, our glimpse into what’s happening gets narrower and narrower, and the rhythm of the film seems to push aside much of the detail that initially makes Runner Runner so interesting. It also runs roughshod over some of the essential connective tissue of the story: The romance between our hero and the initially-unattainable heroine (Gemma Arterton, looking good but stuck without much to say) is developed without depth, to a point where no one really cares if she’s truly loyal to the protagonist or not. Timberlake isn’t too bad as the lead, but it’s Anthony Mackie who gets the most of his supporting role as an FBI agent, with a few good monologues to project an adequate amount of menace. (Mackie’s been seen in a few supporting roles so far, and he usually manages to impress in them.) Director Brad Furman doesn’t have as good a script as the one he had for his previous film The Lincoln Lawyer, and if the result may be a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, Runner Runner is not quite as interesting as it should have been.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) This Iranian-hostage thriller annoyed me for several reasons: Never mind the last few lines that so generously allow Canada to take credit for a CIA operation, or the selective political context, or the way that a Hollywood production self-importantly suggests that Hollywood can be important on the geopolitical stage (no wonder it won the Oscar…): the way real-life facts are tortured until they end up with the kind of breathless thriller in which a departing plane is followed by jeeps filled with would-be killers is enough to make your eyes roll waaay back. Shamelessly rearranging history to suit the purposes of crowd-friendly entertainment, Argo practically demonstrates how bad Hollywood can be in distorting reality. But the real surprise is that despite all of those flaws… the film is actually quite enjoyable. Director Ben Affleck manages a third solid film in as many attempts, even through Argo is a bit more ambitious in its historical setting than the Bostonian crime dramas of either Gone Baby Gone or The Town. The rhythm of the film is steadily engrossing, and the Hollywood interludes (featuring a splendid Alan Arkin) bring a bit of levity to a premise that naturally lends itself to a somber tone. Argo arguably becomes more interesting as it deviates further and further away from reality, as the CIA agent goes rogue in refusing an order to abort the operation, as the fake film-crew takes unjustifiable risks, as the Iranian security forces get closer and closer to the fleeing fugitives. By the time the jeeps are chasing the departing plane on the airport tarmac, it’s practically an unintentional comedy. It’s hard to deny that Argo is splendidly entertaining, and that’s a significant edge over the not-dissimilar Zero Dark Thirty. Still, as a Canadian I feel a duty to tut-tut this film over its historical inaccuracies. You should still see it for its craft… but follow it up with a documentary such as Our Man in Tehran for a more thorough overview of the real events.
(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas? Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs. Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life. It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors. Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent. The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems. The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely. More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure. The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy. No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.
(In theaters, April 2004) Ouch. While it’s not fair to begrudge writer/director Kevin Smith’s desire to grow up after five raucous comedies, it’s not poor efforts like Jersey Girl that will demonstrate anything. What’s nearly unbearable, though, is the dawning realization that the film’s problems stem from one source: The writing. The direction is surprisingly unremarkable for a Smith film (it looks like just about any cookie-cutter romance, which is a step up for Smith’s notoriously static style) and all of the actors do really good work, from Ben Affleck’s uneasy blue-collar worker to Elizabeth Castro’s adorable kid character. (Heck, even Liv Tyler has never looked hotter; it’s the glasses, I swear!) But the stuff that comes out of their mouth… eeew. Smith’s writing has always been the chief attraction of his films, but he completely (and repeatedly) misses the mark here: He brings to romantic drama the same sledge-hammer quality so obvious in his comedy and the result is a disaster. Characters spout off “on-the-nose” monologues to sleeping infants, react in broad and obvious ways that have no equivalent in the real world and engage in conversations that feel more like dramatic check-lists. Yikes. To add insult to injury, whatever comedy writing is in the film falls flat and feels forced. All in all, it’s not Smith’s new intentions that are at fault (despite everything, you can still sense the heart-felt bond between father and daughter) but his inept execution. Too bad.