Sunday, January 15, 2017

"LIVE BY NIGHT" : Affleck is not the auteur he thinks he is

Ben Affleck rebuilt his reputation mostly on the strength of his skills as an able and savvy director, having directed the successful and justifiably praised films “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and ‘Argo”, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. Affleck is a marginally good actor, good when the scripts and casting are on the moneythink of how wonderful John Wayne was in “ Red River” and how awful he was as Genghis Khan in “The Conquerorand his evolution , during his time off camera, into learning the craft of film direction (and the obligations of being a producer) seems to have given a sharp and canny sense of what kind of material he can be credible in as an actor and director. He’s been doing good work in films he hasn’t directed but starred in, such as “Gone Girl”, “The Accountant” and “Batman v Superman”; he has gotten praise from critic and fan both for his sharpened sense of the camera lens. As with Wayne and fellow actor-director Clint Eastwood, Affleck has learned to do fine work within his limited range as an actor.
But the 4th time is the charm, the warning, seen in his new period crime drama “Live by Night”,where we come across him as a petty criminal in 30s era Boston, finding himself caught between a war between the Irish and the Italian gangs that are vying for domination. Long story brutally abbreviated, our hero finds himself working for the Italians as he heads up their Miami rum running operation. What unfolds after that is a string of gangster movie cliches and hackneyed melodramatic plot turns that cannot fool you into thinking that what’s happening between the characters on screenwhether the premise is love, lust, betrayal, revenge or philosophical convictions that become endlessly compromised by real life complicationsis anything more than mere mechanics. The story is a machine running on the fuel of over familiar parts. The script, based on a novel by the estimable Dennis Lehanne, is credited to Affleck alone , and this where the blame for the film’s listless wade through lifeless plot turns must fall; he displays a tin ear for fresh dialogue and is unable, in this effort, to create anticipation, a sense that a viewer does not how any of this will end.
That I was able , many times, what was going to happen ten later in the picture based on the heavy-handed foreshadowing of both image and chatter doesn’t make me smart, only that “Live by Night” has the predictability of a sub-standard television cop-drama.(It may mean, also, that I spend too much time watching movie.)There are several plotlines that attempt to create an eventual ironic consequence that would cast the respectable coat of Tragedy around this production, but such elements and effects work only if the writing hand is subtle and nearly invisible in the laying out of the story elements that will eventually turned one’s assumptions about what’s happening on their head, elements that are seen, noted, and then nearly forgotten about until they emerge again and consequently change the tone and meaning of the story, unexpectedly but credibly. What the movie lacks in cogent transformation it makes up in plot demarcations being hit squarely (and without grace). 
Affleck’s writing and direction hasn’t the patience nor grace to make this work. Glaring as well is Affleck’s casting in the lead role. Affleck is too tall, too squared jawed, too muscular; he looks uncomfortable in the suits he’s put himself; worse, often times he appears about to burst out of them, Hulk style.And again, about Affleck’s acting limits come into play, which is to say that his facial expressions are not subtle nor do they lure you in to read the lines of his face or the shine or lack thereof in the eyes; Affleck seems to have fixed expressions for happy, sad, angry, raging, laughing, crying, mostly robotic and seeming unmotivated by the tragedies, murders and raging extremes happening around him. Much as I've defended Affleck in the past as an actor, this time he seems aware of only where he he is in relation to the camera. 


It’s worth noting that the praise for writing on Affleck’s other efforts as director“Gone Baby Gone”, The Town” and “Argo”were for efforts where there were collaborators in the scripting, in the persons of Chris Terrio, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig. The implication seems clear, that what the author scribes provided were a sensibilities that could carve Affleck’s contributions to the respective project’s line and and theme into something sharper, less obvious. The dispiriting stream of over used tropes in ‘Live by Night” is such that it blunts the efforts a fine cast , Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper in particular. This is cool professionalism from actors trying to eke out small moments of good craft from a script that gives  them no love.


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