Tag Archives: Ben Affleck

Love Is a Battlefield

Deep Water

by George Wolf

Adrian Lyne hasn’t directed a movie in twenty years. It’s been twice that long since the 1957 source novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has been adapted for the big screen.

They’re both back with a new vision for Deep Water, a sometimes frustrating erotic thriller that can never fully capitalize on all of its possibilities to be either erotic or thrilling.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) are living a life of luxury in New Orleans with their young daughter Trixie (the incredibly cute Grace Jenkins). Vic developed a computer chip used for drone warfare, so his days of early retirement are mainly filled with watching Melinda openly flaunt her affairs at parties.

When one of Melinda’s past lovers turns up dead, Vic lets her latest boy toy (Brendan Miller) know that he’s the murderer. But Vic is only trying to scare the kid away, right? Neighbor Don (Tracy Letts with another standout supporting turn) is suspicious early on, and when another of Melinda’s lovers (Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi) drowns at a pool party, plenty of others are looking at Vic as the prime suspect.

Screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson provide Lyne with undercurrents of subtext that are never fully explored. We assume Vic doesn’t want to subject Trixie or his finances to a messy divorce, but the deeper we dig, it’s clear this marital arrangement is feeding some need for both parties and fostering a concerning worldview for their child. Lyne showcases the aimless privilege of their daily lives to hint at a lesson on the rot of wealth, then pivots, often to Vic’s creepy but uneventful hobby of raising snails.

And though Lyne has made his name on the steamy sexual politics of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, there’s more smoke here than fire. And water, water everywhere.

You won’t notice grand chemistry between Affleck and de Armas, which is a credit to both. This is a marriage of psychological warfare, and it is Vic and Melinda’s contrasting plans of attack that keep us invested, especially in the early going. De Armas embodies the cruelly uninhibited as well as Affleck brings the condescending and calculated, which is a major reason the major twist to Highsmith’s original ending works as well as it does.

For these two, it feels right.

But only for a moment, because strangely, Lyne doesn’t let it linger. Instead, he quickly cuts from the credits to a performance from the adorable Jenkins singing along to a cheery pop ditty from the 1970s.

If it’s an attempt at chilling humor, it falls hard, becoming another anchor weighing down Deep Water just when it starts cruising.

Glass Half Empty

The Tender Bar

by George Wolf

Look past the tabloid fodder and you’ll see that onscreen, Ben Affleck is having a fine second act. Last year’s impressive turn in The Way Back showed him more than comfortable in his older skin, and his standout support in The Last Duel is generating some Oscar buzz for this year’s best supporting actor race.

This focus on substance over leading man style is a smart one, but while Affleck digs into his pivotal role in The Tender Bar, the film itself struggles to find anything truly relevant to say.

Based on J.R. Moehringer best-selling memoir, it’s an account of his journey from a poor, dysfunctional household to a Yale education and a career in writing. Guided by voiceover narration from adult JR (Ron Livingston), we’re introduced to little JR (Daniel Ranieri) when he and his mother (Lily Rabe) are moving back into the Manhasset, New York home of Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), Grandma (Sondra James) and Uncle Charlie (Affleck).

JR’s violent, alcoholic father (Max Martini) is a radio deejay who’s rarely around, so 11 year-old JR looks to Uncle Charlie as a role model, often soaking up life lessons found at “The Dickens,” the Long Island bar where Charlie works. Young adult JR (Tye Sheridan) continues the barstool education until it’s time for the Ivy League, new friends, and a hard-to-really-get new girlfriend (Briana Middleton).

Director George Clooney and screenwriter William Monahan craft a respectful and well-meaning adaptation, but it’s sadly lacking any hint of why they found the source material so moving. From Charlie’s advice to JR’s awakenings, the messages are broadly drawn, well worn and self-satisfied, too generic for even the Oscar-winning Monahan (The Departed) to polish into inspirational shape.

And where is the eye for vibrant period detail that helped bring Clooney that well-deserved directing nomination for Good Night and Good Luck? Here, soundtrack choices and costume design blur the stated timeline, while the young actor playing JR at 11 looks closer to 8 and shockingly unlike Sheridan. Even the “golden voice” we’re told that JR’s deejay dad possesses never materializes when he finally speaks.

A film such as this needs authenticity to resonate, but this true story never feels like one, and the chance for us to really connect with JR is derailed at multiple turns. While Affleck adds another fine showing to his current winning streak, there’s not much else in The Tender Bar to convince you the book was worth a big screen adaptation at all.

Neverending Story

The Last Duel

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

Take a look at the list of screenwriters on The Last Duel, and one name jumps out at you. There beside Oscar-winning writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck is Oscar nominee Nicole Holofcener. All three, along with director Ridley Scott, are also listed as producers, and while this project may seem out of character for Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Please Give, Enough Said, Lovely & Amazing) her insight proves indispensable,

Based on the 2004 book by Eric Jager, the film chronicles events leading to the last officially recognized judicial duel in France, a 1386 trial by combat between knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris.

Carrouges (Damon) accused Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife Marguerite (Jamie Comer). Unsatisfied with the lenient decision handed down by Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), Carrouges appealed directly to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), where Carrouges threw down the challenge that Le Gris accepted. 

Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design.

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often-debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Separated into three chapters, the film gives us the truth according to Carrouges, Le Gris, and then Marguerite, when the onscreen text holds a few extra beats on the phrase “the truth.” And while what changes with each new side of the story is vital, there’s equal importance to be found in the elements that don’t change.

One man’s crime is another’s entitlement, one man’s denial gets “the benefit of the clergy,” while one woman’s truth is disregarded among the power of men.

The ensemble cast is outstanding, led by Driver’s convincing cad, Damon’s gruff brute and Affeck’s delightful range as the shallow Count. But as Marguerite’s acerbic mother-in-law (a terrific Harriet Walter) dresses down her accusation with a pointed “You think you’re the only one?” Comer shoulders the courage that becomes the soul of the film. 

Her nuanced performance chapter to chapter tells us everything about the perspectives of the two men involved, and she carries Marguerite’s mindset with a weary bravery that depicts just how tiresome – even 600 years ago – it is to have to defend yourself after you’ve been raped.

It’s not just Comer, though. Scott’s camera lingers tellingly on the reactions of different women throughout the story as they silently respond to the charges.

Scott presents the climactic duel with the completely thrilling treatment it requires, but by then it’s clear why Holofcener’s contributions were so vital. As talented as Scott, Affleck and Damon are, making this film without the filmmaking perspective of an equally gifted woman would have amounted to more of the same: men telling us how rape is for women.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

Shame.

One Vision

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

by George Wolf

No matter what you thought of Justice League 1.0, the mere arrival of this “Snyder Cut” is fascinating on multiple levels.

It’s more than the Everest of fan service. There just isn’t any way Snyder’s DCEU epic – this version of it anyway – would exist without the Snyder/Whedon mashup mess of 2017.

It’s four freaking hours, people! You think Snyder’s gonna get that (and the extra millions for reshoots) without the whole hashtag campaign? But while the extended time and money giveth, they also taketh away, meaning that first JL debacle can take some ironic credit for all that’s better – and worse – about round two.

But it is indeed better.

More than anything, it’s a singular vision. The first was nothing if not a super-sized compromise, but this is Snyder unbound, no compromises. The 4:3 format is enriched with greatly improved CGI, specifically the “armor of scales” appearance of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), the underwater depths of Atlantis and the complete absence of Superman’s (Henry Cavill, again a perfect Clark Kent) distractingly altered upper lip.

The character development – as you would hope with this run time – is much more satisfying, especially with the two justice leaguers we know the least: Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

And while truly important moments (Superman’s death and rebirth, for example) get the extra time they need to resonate, Snyder can still linger too long (those mini music videos, ugh) when he could be moving on.

Ben Affleck reminds you he’s a fine grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets more badass moments and fewer leering camera angels, and at its core, the basic plot remains the same. Steppenwolf is seeking to unite the three “mother boxes” that will conquer another world for his master Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). But with the nurturing of return characters and the welcome appearance of new ones (like Darkseid), the chaptered storytelling feels more natural and complete.

Yes it is dark and brooding, and this League may hold the mother lode of daddy issues, but it never becomes tedious. And while you can’t quite call it fun, it is super, and heroic, and sometimes thrilling.

The stinger (actually an epilogue)? It’s a humdinger (nothing rhymes with epilogue), one that will more than satisfy the die hards while setting a major hook for more justice, darkly served.

Strike a Pose

Justice League

by George Wolf

Fair or foul, each new superhero film release spurs a check of the scorecards: Marvel vs. DC. Last year, Wonder Woman finally put a solid check in the DC column, one that Justice League only leaves frustrated and alone.

Nearly every facet of the film not only betrays a few promising avenues left undeveloped, but also its basic superhero tenets that are bettered by similar films (including the underrated Batman v. Superman). These friends aren’t super, they’re awkwardly forced and often helpless against some distracting CGI.

Perhaps even more than superpowers, big screen heroes need memorable villains, and the newly formed Justice League offers none. Instead, they have Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf is a mass of weak computer graphics (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), born to be wild but currently in search of the three “mother boxes” he needs to unleash “the end of worlds” and send everyone back to the Dark Ages.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit the surly Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the young Flash (Ezra Miller) and the brooding Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to join the cause.

They have the bodies. What they don’t have are characters worthy of investment.

Director Zack Snyder has them pose, trade overly dramatic declarations, and then do some additional posing while you may be checking your watch.

Comparisons to the first Avengers film are inevitable, especially with Joss Whedon on board as a co-writer, but Justice League just cannot get any resonance from the darker tone of the DC franchise. The push to be heavy and meaningful is an empty suit, despite well-meaning lip service to refugees and the importance of science.

Ironically, as the Marvel films continue to lean more comedic, the humorous moments in Justice League, usually courtesy of Miller and Mamoa, are among the film’s best. Rather than undercutting any dramatic tension, the humor here feels more logical and organic, similar to the highly effective funny bone in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming.

And, with Gadot back on board, the difference in Wonder Woman through a male director’s lens is hard to miss. Yes, she gets some bad ass moments that she’s more than earned, but she also gets a more sexualized, less earnest presentation.

There are two extra “stinger” scenes to send you out discussing who the JL is fighting next, but perhaps the lasting impression of Justice League is just how behind-the-curve it all looks. Steppenwolf seems lifted from an old gaming commercial you might find on that VHS tape still lurking in your basement, while Cavill’s digitally-altered mouth (to remove a contractually obligated porn ‘stache he had during reshoots) sits there proudly like a new zit on prom night.

There is substance to be gleaned from DC, Wonder Woman was proof of that. But for now, Justice League is two tired steps back.

 





Cruel to be Kind

Live by Night

by George Wolf

The jury on Ben Affleck’s skills as a filmmaker came in about one and a half films ago. After Gone Baby Gone and halfway through The Town, it was clear this guy can direct. Argo hammered that point home but good. And don’t forget that Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting.

But after all that’s good about Live by Night, seeing Leonardo DiCaprio’s name in the producer credits instantly makes you wonder how much more effective he might have been in the lead role.

Instead, Affleck casts himself as Joe Coughlin, an “outlaw” in prohibition-era Boston who runs afoul of the local crime boss after getting cozy with the wrong dame (Sienna Miller). A few years and double-crosses later, Irish Joe is working Florida for the Italian mob, cornering the rum market and laying complicated groundwork for a sprawling casino.

Give Affleck credit for challenging himself with a big slice of genre filmmaking, and he comes close to pulling it off. In adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone), Affleck pens a smart script that’s full of juicy twists, satisfying callbacks and requisite noir touchstones that never feel overdone (though the questionable voiceover pushes it). We also get consistently interesting characters brought to life by a stellar supporting cast. Through Brendan Gleeson and Zoe Saldana to Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and beyond, we see soul after soul facing serious moral compromises, and, to the film’s detriment, all resonate more deeply than Affleck.

This is Joe’s journey, rife with sin, judgement, hypocrisy and redemption, but Affleck never makes Joe worthy of being the center of all this gravity. Though the character isn’t that far removed from the outlaw Affleck played effectively in The Town, his move to genre actor, classic jawline aside, is clearly unnatural.

The film often looks fantastic, with nifty period details, sweeping panoramas, nicely backlit interiors and exciting shootouts, but Affleck’s incessantly gradual pace eventually takes a toll. In reaching for a sweeping gangster saga, Affleck includes too much plodding exposition that makes the film’s just-over two hour running time feel a good bit longer.

Though Affleck makes sure his film pushes all the genre buttons, Live by Night ranks as an ambitious overreach, never quite finding the right mix to make it truly memorable.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Bottom Line Business

The Accountant

by Hope Madden

For a middling thriller, The Accountant offers a handful of worthy items.

Its central character Christian (Ben Affleck) is an unusual choice for a hero. He’s a mathematical genius on the autism spectrum whose youth was spent learning to function in society, and developing mad mercenary skills. Why the second? Never really clear.

Affleck is a proven director. He doesn’t direct The Accountant, but recent roles suggest he’s become savvier with his acting choices as well. He seems to recognize what the rest of us have known for a while – he lacks range.

What better character for him, then, than a man who struggles to show the slightest emotion?

The film also boasts – much thanks to Affleck’s performance – humor. Rather than an amalgam of stereotypes and contrivances, Affleck’s bean counter comes off as a relatable human.

Another item of note: director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) choreographs the impeccable action sequences with the kind of clarity and efficiency that reflect the film’s protagonist. Even as that sounds potentially dull, the result is quite the opposite. These are some of the clearest and most interesting action pieces of the year, actually.

O’Connor’s direction and Affleck’s performance are subtle with Christian’s tics, focusing our attention instead on slight changes in the character that make him more provocative. By pairing him with Anna Kendrick’s corporate CPA Dana – a sweet, jovial type – O’Connor explores the social awkwardness in all of us.

Now for the problems.

These fall mostly to the script, penned by Bill Dubuque, whose triad of storylines climaxes in a clean and witty shootout. Too bad every intentional surprise has long-since been guessed, leaving only those inconsistencies in the plot that are probably not supposed to have been noticed, either.

Christian, drawn to puzzles and possessing a super human knack for math, often works with disreputable clients. He’s taken a legit client – a robotics firm that makes prosthetics for the medical industry. But this isn’t as it seems, and brings Christian in contact with a corporate hitman who wants him silenced.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department is finally piecing together Christian’s whereabouts and may be onto him. Why now? Another mystery.

The criss-crossing, flash-backing, money-following and head-scratching don’t pay off because, at its core, the thriller is just exploiting a gimmick. But Affleck and O’Connor are not, which is why the film turns out as well as it does.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmKtb-Pvpf4





The Darkest Knight

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

by George Wolf

Just how dark do you like your superheroes?

With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder battles his own penchant for excess while combining the Marvel formula of assembly with the damaged psyche of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. And while Snyder is dealing with a few less avengers, his film makes Nolan look downright drunk on human kindness.

Utilizing an ambitious script from Chris Terri (Argo) and David S. Goyer (all three of Nolan’s Batman films), Snyder is not shy with metaphor or message.  As spectacular events unfold in Metropolis and Gotham, we’re given an unflinching rumination on how 9/11 has changed us.

Terrorism, paranoia, torture, and toothless media are woven into more standard superhero tenets. This is a battle between God and man, and the film also has plenty of moments worthy of a classic Greek tragedy.

So there’s a lot going on here? Sometimes too much. Ideas are plentiful and often repeated, as are dream sequences and Snyder’s patented wide angle slow-motion set pieces. And really, do we need another ‘young Bruce Wayne watches his parents get shot’ sequence?

Speaking of Master Wayne…after all the uproar, Ben Affleck makes a fine caped crusader, as the hero’s square-jawed intensity fits perfectly into Affleck’s low-emotion comfort zone. The great Jeremy Irons brings some welcome badassed-ness to the role of Alfred, effortlessly stealing scenes and laying claim to the film’s most surprisingly interesting character.

In the other corner, Henry Cavill continues to impress as Clark Kent/Superman, finding a subtle nuance in the role that makes his ache for humanity ring true. Amy Adams gives us a Lois Lane that is smarter and sexier than ever, and her chemistry with Cavill brings a new depth to the iconic super couple.

To the delight of arch villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, over the top), the Dark Knight and Man of Steel finally come to blows, and it is glorious. In fact, their battle makes the film’s final act feel a bit superfluous, save for the cheer-inducing entrance of the new Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).

The ironic twist to her slightly-more-appropriate-for-crime-fighting outfit is the instant reminder of just how masculine the entire superhero universe remains. Still, there is enough mystery here to hold out hope that Wonder Woman’s upcoming stand alone film will be one of overdue substance.

After the rubble finally settles, Dawn of Justice is just that, as we get glimpses of the other “meta-humans” that will take their places in the upcoming Justice League franchise. Batman v Superman wanders, but it’s enough of an epic to make following it worthwhile.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Crime Dramas For Your Queue

Butts did not fill seats when Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini’s small time mobster flick The Drop screened theatrically, which is a shame. But the film releases today for home consumption, so eat up, people! The two play cousins running a bar used to launder Chechan mob money, with Hardy adding layers and layers to a fascinating, maybe simple bartender. Shady characters, double crosses, symbolism and meager redemption keep your attention, plus there’s an incredibly cute dog. It’s worth a look.

The Drop writer Dennis Lehane has penned a number of Boston-based crime dramas, including Shutter Island and Mystic River, but the best of the bunch is Gone Baby Gone. The film that shocked us all with the knowledge that Ben Affleck is a genuinely talented director follows two private investigators working a missing kid case. Morally complicated, brilliantly filmed and boasting a career-best turn from Amy Ryan, this is a surprisingly great crime drama.





Real, Real Gone

Gone Girl

by Hope Madden

David Fincher makes a lot of good films, but in his best films, he seems to be having wicked fun. Such is the case with Gone Girl.

Don’t let the trailers fool you. This is not a dour whodunit tragedy. It’s a brightly crafted melodrama that embraces its pulpy center as lovingly as its razor sharp edges. Infused with acerbic wit and delivered with stellar performances, Gone Girl is an absorbing twist-and-turn-athon and a ton of fun.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, suspect #1 in the disappearance of his beautiful wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), and he’s never been better. That’s not such a strong statement, because in general his performances are blandly likeable, but here he’s able to channel his inner douchiness and it works wonders. He’s the exact mix of endearing everyman and disappointing schmuck the film needs to work.

But Pike is the reason to watch this movie. It’s easy to see why every heavy hitter in Hollywood – including the film’s producer Reese Witherspoon – banged on Fincher’s door in search of this role. Amy Dunne is a hell of a character and Rosamund Pike gives a hell of a performance – fluid enough to meet the high, constantly changing demands.

Fincher’s casting throughout is slyly wonderful, with unexpected faces in exactly the right roles. Tyler Perry is a hoot as Nick’s high-powered ambulance chaser and Neil Patrick Harris is just as unconventionally cast and just as enjoyably spot-on.

Fincher takes aim at current American culture – tragedy groupies, local law enforcement, the media and Nancy Grace-style “news” programs, in particular – and scores bull’s eyes every time. It gives the film an air of self-satisfaction, sure, but the barbs are so very precise and relevant that any smugness can be forgiven.

Fincher’s craft is on full display here, dreamily weaving multiple points of view and saturating the mystery with wit and tension. What feels stilted and flat in early scenes evolves into a series of “aha!” moments for viewers.

Gone Girl is not a heavy, thoughtful awards season drama. At its heart, it’s paperback trash, and in Fincher’s exceedingly capable hands, that’s all it needs to be to amount to a memorable, satisfying, constantly surprising movie.

Verdict-4-0-Stars