Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

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Captain Ron (1992)

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Some day Marty will do something worth writing about. Chicago businessman Martin Harvey (Martin Short) is leading a humdrum life with his wife Katherine (Mary Kay Place), trampy teenage daughter Caroline (Meadow Sisto) and little boy Ben (Benjamin Salisbury) until he inherits a yacht formerly owned by Clark Gable from his late uncle, last seen in  the US in 1962. They head off to the island of St Pomme de Terre (Saint Potato) in the West Indies to do it up and sell it through yacht broker Paul Anka (!) and inadvertently hire an eye-patched pirate type – the titular Ron (Kurt Russell) –  to lead them through tranquil aquarmarine waters as they venture through the islands cleaning up what turns out to be a wreck. Marty doesn’t trust Ron one iota but learns to trust in himself as his kids and wife become their truly adventurous selves – Place in particular has a whale of a time. There are no pirates in the Caribbean, says Marty. Then they give guerillas a lift from island to island and have their boat stolen by pirates and take their raft to Cuba -where the yacht is docked… Critics slated this for obvious reasons – why on earth was brilliant comic Short cast in the role of straight man in this twist on the Yuppies in Peril strand so popular in the early 90s? There are compensations, principally in some of the setups and the cinematography. The midlife crisis narrative of course has a twist – that’s in the narration by Marty and in the ending, when Ron doesn’t have a glass eye in his new job:  pirate tales are all in the telling, after all. Colourful and amusing. Written by John Dwyer and directed by Thom Eberhardt.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

Crash and Burn (2016)

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Irishman Tommy Byrne is a legend in the motor racing world – the extravagantly talented driver who screwed around, screwed up and threw it all away, is how the story goes. He raced in F3, pissed off a lot of people like Van Diemen teammate Ayrton Senna, himself the subject of an even more ultimately tragic film, and aroused the ire of rivals like Keke Rosberg who used to hit him on the head in passing and whom Byrne openly calls ‘a dick.’ He got to drive for F1’s McLaren team at a time when they had the best car going but his attitude annoyed Ron Dennis. His lifestyle had a major question mark over it, with no money to pay his way into the sport, he took forms of sponsorship which led to his socialising in extremely dodgy company. His car was switched and he lost his drive, in every sense of the term. Instead of hanging around in Europe as Eddie Jordan suggests he should have done, he decamped to the US where he was top driver in his class and seconds away from seizing the 1989 triple crown and getting a free ride into IndyCars, another driver crashed into him and his dream was over: he lost the $80,000 winnings and his marriage hit the skids. He went to Mexico where he consorted with more gangsters, did drugs and whores and messed up all over as he drove his career into the ground. His sponsor was found dead in a swimming pool. Byrne spent a long time drinking, smoking weed and collecting ferns for a living while living in a trailer. It took years for him to get back in the driving world where he works training young up and coming champions. He could have been a contender. He should have been winning in F1. But he’s alive to tell the tale.  His current wife says she believes the sadness is still with him. Produced by David Burke and directed by Sean O’Cualain, this is just an amazing story, compellingly told, with a cast of interviewees known to every petrolhead and there’s the charismatic Byrne himself in the middle of the action, supplying VHS archives of the glory days.

Adaptation (2002)

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Sometime in the late 90s I picked up a very pretty looking little hardback called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The New York-based writer told the story of a man in Florida who was obsessional about the flower and recounted some crazy escapades. This Charlie Kaufman screenplay is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, a semi-fictional creation, and his floundering attempts to adapt the Orlean book with a parallel version of some events from the book with added romance.  Talk about meta! This offers a plenitude of pleasures, an intelligent, constantly surprising and witty take on filmmaking, storytelling, genre, writerliness, being crazy, having deadlines you can’t meet, writer’s block, the fad for screenwriting seminars (hello Robert McKee! played by Brian Cox here) and what happens when Charlie’s identical twin brother Donald goes to one and finds the way to adapt the story so that it has plot and action and sex and violence and not just, y’know, flowers. Nicolas Cage plays the identical twins, Meryl Streep is Orlean and Chris Cooper is the madman in Florida, always looking for the next perfect bud. The (real) Kaufman said:  “The emotions that Charlie is going through [in the film] are real and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script. Of course there are specific things that have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes. Part of the experience of watching this movie is the experience of seeing that Donald Kaufman is credited as the co-screenwriter. It’s part of the movie, it’s part of the story.” Brilliant and satisfying postmodernism in full flower, as it were bringing everyone together inventively and surreally. With a cameo by John Malkovich (did you have to ask?!) Written by Donald Kaufman! And directed by Spike Jonze.

Sisters (2015)

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Unresolved Sisterly Tension is a pretty good motif for any movie … then comes the thorny issue of plot. ‘How can one person have two colonoscopy stories?’ asks Tina Fey of sister Amy Poehler (I have three, but that’s for another kind of blog.) That’s what happens when you have a house party to commemorate the end of your life in the house where you grew up … twenty-five years later and you’re in your forties and you’ve lost your job (Tina), you’re divorced (Amy) and the folks (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are finally downsizing to somewhere smaller in the Orlando area. So it’s time to clear out their rooms. Unfair! The ladies go back and read their vastly differing old diaries, get on ‘social’ media and call up their fellow loser buds to PARTY! Waster Tina agrees to be Sober Party Mom so busybody divorcee Amy can have the kind of night she couldn’t allow herself to have as the good sister and get laid by the handyman James selling his dead folks’ house next door. The moms and dads show up, the saddos show up, the Koreans show up, the drug dealers show up but it takes the Lesbians to play big choons for everyone to let loose and there’s foam and paint and chimney-climbing and sex … while James is impaled on a ballerina music box (see, that colonoscopy idea never goes far from writer Paula Pell’s references). The plot twist happens when drunken Tina (she succumbs) finds Amy’s phone and realises her daughter has been hiding in Amy’s house for months and the climax is catalysed …  There’s some astonishingly lazy writing here by Pell (who wrote for SNL) and some scenes just seem like improv central – yet we love these ladies don’t we?! Hell yeah!

War Dogs (2016)

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Comic auteur Todd (Hangover) Phillips doing a serious analysis of arms dealing in the Iraq conflict? Well … not so much. Arms and the Dudes was a Rolling Stone story about two supposedly clueless twentysomethings out of Miami who vacuumed up the crumbs of the US Army’s defence contracts and made a mint until their attempts to cover up ammo from China (literally – by rebagging them) caught them out when their Albanian contractor called the State Dept after their infighting left him without a payroll. Miles Teller is David, a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend under pressure to earn more money than his private massages yield. Jonah Hill is his old friend and aspiring wheeler-dealer Efraim who needs help exploiting a gap in the defence market by the expedient of watching an Army provisions website. The story is set up like a comedy but with Scarface references (it’s the poster over Efraim’s desk and his drug intake is Montana-prodigious). There is a very funny sequence when they have to go to the Triangle of Death in Iraq to get their first delivery to its intended destination. This is expertly done with the amount of threat, humour and action you know Phillips delivers well. When they want to land a life-changing contract they head to Vegas (where else would arms dealers meet?) and encounter a very familiar figure (I was surprised, not having read any spoiler reviews) who can give them everything they need but he’s on a watchlist and they have to go to Albania to carry it through. The story is fatally wounded by David’s narration which is done as a serious commentary instead of a self-deprecating series of enlightening witticisms. (Teller was presumably cast to appeal to the youth market. Bad move. He’s about as funny as a funeral and his naif act is not a patch on Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.) His girlfriend is a wuss. The baby sentimentalises things too. So although this is a satisfying exercise in many ways we needed more fun, less moralising: when Efraim fires a machinegun in Albania like a gangster, that’s the real deal. And with this much money around and Efraim involved, you know there’s a stitch up on the cards. Jonah Hill is really good.  If this had had the courage of its convictions and weaponised the facts, it might have been great.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.

Miami Rhapsody (1995)

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When this was released theatrically I dragged my best male friend along – a psychiatrist who had to concede it was indeed possible to make a female Woody Allen movie even if he really didn’t buy into Sarah Jessica Parker. (And also claimed that Mia Farrow was the spawn of the devil because of what she said about the Woodster – we agreed to disagree!)  I, on the other hand, had been a fan of SJP since Square Pegs and was also incredibly impressed that she had been the long-term galpal of Robert Downey Jr. This was in fact a kind of rehearsal for Sex and the City – writer/director David Frankel worked on the show and costumier Patricia Field first worked with SJP right here. There’s a real lesson in screenplay construction here – since it’s all about marriage. SJP is ad writer Gwyn, who is engaged to zoologist Matt (Gil Bellows) and wants a marriage just like her parents (Mia Farrow and Paul Mazursky). Except her mother confesses her adultery to her with Antonio Banderas, her invalided mother’s nurse, and her father is in a longterm romance with his travel agent. Her newly married sister (Carla Gugino) cheats on her cheapskate footballer husband with her high school ex (Jeremy Piven) and her horndog brother Jordan (Kevin Pollak) hates being deprived of sex by his pregnant wife (Barbara Garrick) so he also confesses his adulterous liaisons to his little sister. Gwyn comes to her difficult decision as everyone around her tells her how disastrous their marriage is … and tries to escape her own commitment by agreeing to try writing a screenplay for a dreadful comedy pilot, dragging Antonio along for support. Needless to say, there is somewhat of an unexpected ending. A great ensemble works very well with a witty script, a guest spot by supermodel Naomi Campbell and superb Florida locations. Great fun – made in those halcyon days when intelligent movies didn’t have to be made on crazy budgets and people could make insightful statements about how to get on with the mundane issue of living with a soupcon of wit.