LIVE BY NIGHT
I’ll admit, I was confused even by the title of this film, since most of the action takes place in sunny Florida. But as I got deeper into Live By Night, I began to get a sense that the title of the latest film starring, written, and directed by Ben Affleck—Gone Baby Gone (starring brother Casey), The Town, Argo—was referring more to how his character makes a living off vices (primarily drinking) that are often carried out at night, particularly during Prohibition. Although the film has issues with plotting and pacing, for the most part, it’s an above-average crime drama that does something few such films do—it more or less follows the entire criminal career of a single character.
Affleck’s Irish-American Joe Coughlin wasn’t born into the life, nor did he grow up on the mean streets of Boston in the early part of the 20th century. His father (Brendan Gleeson) was a loyal police officer, and Joe was a soldier during World War I. But when he came back from the war, having grown up around a certain criminal element, he decides to become what he refers to as an “outlaw,” someone outside the Irish and Italian mobs that rule ’20s Boston, who works with his own crew, including best friend Dion (a nice turn by Chris Messina), doing bank robberies or robbing local poker games. But his most dangerous activity is dating Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the main squeeze of the head of the Irish mob, Albert White (Robert Glenister).
After initially turning down an offer by the Italian mob to work for them, Joe gets his clock cleaned by White after he finds out about the affair, and he goes back to accept the Italian’s offer to run their rum-running trade out of Tampa, which has been faltering. Joe is looking for revenge against White in the process, but he also happens to have a good business sense and is usually the smartest guy in the room in any situation. The rest of the slightly overlong film settles into its Florida setting and examines the machinations of the bootlegging business, which I found mildly interesting, even with a few subplots that don’t pan out satisfactorily.
One thing author Dennis Lehane (on whose novel the film is based) always seems to get right is a sense of place in his stories, and both the Boston introduction and the lush Florida main setting are rife with wonderful period and location details (although I think most of the Tampa scenes were shot in Georgia and California). Affleck also has a gift for casting great faces, even if the actors wearing them aren’t always famous. But what I appreciated about the story is that it wasn’t in a hurry to get to the next shootout or other action sequence. Affleck constructs the moments leading up to the action, and it’s clear that Joe only wants to resort to violence or coercion when he absolutely has to. The film methodically builds a case for Joe’s every explosive moment.
While in Tampa, Joe falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban woman who, along with her brother, supplies rum to the Joe’s bosses up north. I would have loved to know a bit more about this character, but almost as soon as he takes an interest in her, she becomes a target for Joe’s enemies when they want to threaten him. Far more interesting is Joe’s relationship with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), who is happy to stand out of the way of his dealings as long as he keeps his business out of the areas of the community that he has an interest in (in other words, white neighborhoods). The sheriff’s sainted daughter, would-be actress Loretta (Elle Fanning), has a bizarre but utterly believable story arc that is intertwined with Joe’s interests in ways he could have never anticipated. The sheriff also has family members who are members of the KKK, and sadly, their response to an Irish-Catholic working for Roman Catholics and dating a Cuban woman in their (red)neck of the woods are all too predictable, but it does add yet another layer to illegal business being conducted in a place like this.
I’ve said this about Kevin Costner before, and I think it applies to Ben Affleck in Live By Night: it’s actually a fairly difficult acting experience to be the relatively calm center of a big film like this, surrounded by more interesting, colorful and often unstable characters. The job of a role like Joe Coughlin is to hold the rest of it together and be the linchpin holding it all together and helping it all make sense. Coughlin is not the type of criminal who attracts attention or trouble, but he conducts business in a place he isn’t wanted, so trouble eventually tracks him down.
Live By Night is not a non-stop actioner, and that’s a nice change. It’s a measured, leisurely stroll through an outlaw’s life that puts more value on character development than slinging lead. That being said, it doesn’t always succeed at making its characters any more interesting by giving them a bit more motivation and backstory, but I appreciate the effort. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but if you have patience and are in the mood for a different type of crime story, this one isn’t half bad.
When he sets his mind to it, director Peter Berg can tell a helluva story. And with his three consecutive collaborations with Mark Wahlberg (including Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor) all based on true events), Berg has found a partner who brings out some of the best qualities as a filmmaker and put to rest some of his more alpha-male inclinations, despite the fact that Wahlberg is portrayed as an absolute hero in all three. Based on the events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Patriots Day is easily their finest work together because it doesn’t attempt to be any more dramatic than the real-life events clearly were. Although Wahlberg is playing a fictional, composite character, he still manages to find the right note to represent the heart, soul and street smarts of the Boston police force in the city’s most trying days.
As much as the bombing has already been covered and analyzed a great deal since it occurred (including in a recent HBO documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing), Berg and his team of writers find a way of making things feel as if they’re unfolding before our eyes. Using various visual formats from standard movie camera, to surveillance footage (both real and staged), Patriots Day makes it clear from the start that it wants to tell the story not just of heroes but of ordinary citizens who found the courage to defy the two men that carried out the attack. Wahlberg’s Sgt. Tommy Saunders is established as a regular cop. He’s got a bum knee, is working off a mild punishment for injuring another officer in a fight, and is none too happy that he has to dress like a “clown” in a fluorescent green vest at the marathon’s finish line.
Patriots Day is constructed as parallel stories of some of the key players in these 100-plus-hour ordeal (Berg always tells us the time, place and number of hours after the bombing in each new scene). Some of the characters we follow, we know right away what their role is in this drama; others we don’t find out about until deep into the film, so instead we simply observe them going through the same time period living their normal, often mundane, lives. And then the bombing or bombers intersects with their lives, and things are never the same. There are victims of the blasts who lost limbs; there is an MIT campus police officer (Jake Picking) who has just asked out a grad student on a first date; there’s Chinese-born Dun Meng (the tremendous Jimmy O. Yang), who was carjacked and taken hostage by the bombers; and there’s Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), who faced off against the bombers in an inconceivable shootout on a quiet suburban street.
Berg also spends a surprising amount of time with his lens on the bombers, the younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) and older Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), and while he doesn’t dig deep into their personal politics, it’s clear that one is far more religiously motivated, while the other seems more in it for the thrill ride. The two are also sometimes accompanied by Tamerlan’s white convert wife Katherine (played by an almost unrecognizable Melissa Benoist (TV’s Supergirl), who provides one of the film’s most eerie moments near toward the end of the story.
The actual bombing re-creation happens about 30 minutes into this 130-minute film, so the bulk of the production focuses on the meticulous manhunt, led by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), aided by Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Superintendent Billy Evans (James Colby) and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach). With so much destruction (human and property), it’s almost impossible to fathom how the investigators collected and dissected so many clues, but Berg takes the time to map out the painstaking work all parties went through to make it happen, complete with false starts, infighting, and egos being trodden upon.
The screenplay always finds a way to keep Saunders in the mix and on the front lines of tracking the bombers down, but this seems like a small concession to make for a story told so authentically, thanks in large part due to cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler’s attention to detail, giving us a you-are-there feeling that only adds to the tension. Wahlberg gets a chance to tap into his emotional side when he stops home to change, bathe and rest briefly, and is overwhelmed with questions about the bombing from his wife’s family (she’s played by Michelle Monaghan). He has a quick cry, a fleeting dip in the tub, and he’s back on the job.
Another surprising misstep in Patriots Day is the unmemorable score by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl). When the bad guys are on screen, there’s a villainous theme; when they aren’t, it’s fairly standard-issue strains of nobility. It’s a detail made all the more noticeable by how much the film gets right, and it certainly doesn’t tank the film in the process.
Perhaps because I never really watched many police procedurals on television, I haven’t grown tired of seeing them on the big screen. Patriots Day certainly has the better-known facts of the case carefully reproduced, but it also provides details that I simply was never aware of or had completely forgotten. By simply allowing the events to unfold with little to no embellishment, Berg and his team have given us both a terrific docudrama and a tribute to every brand of hero that stepped up during these unsettling and horrifying days. If it’s not too soon for you to relive these moments, this one is well worth checking out.
THE BYE BYE MAN
The Bye Bye Man is a dumb horror movie—let’s just get that out of the way right now. It’s not particularly scary either, which also makes it an especially bad horror movie. If that’s all you need to know, feel free to move on to something else while I continue doing my job. But honestly, in this resurgence of smart, original, character-driven scare films—almost too numerous to mention—you sometimes forget that there are still filmmakers and distributors putting out junk as well, most of which never even makes it onto theater screens.
In addition to being dumb and not scary, The Bye Bye Man is also reductive. You can actually feel director Stacy Title (The Las Supper, Hood of Horror) and screenwriter Jonathan Penner (working from the short story “The Bridge to Body Island” by Robert Damon Schneck) dumbing down the plot and doing everything in their power to plow through this leaden, nonsensical plot to get to the film’s one worthy aspect—Guillermo del Toro favorite Doug Jones’s portrayal as the boogeyman-lite title character, and even those fleeting moments are undercut by the presence of a CG hellhound of some sort who slinks around BBM’s feet and that’s about it.
The film opens with its best moment, and the reason that it’s the best moment is that it reminds us of better, recent films—It Follows being the most obvious. The setting is 1969 Madison, Wisconsin (because where else would the root of all evil stem from?), and a man is racing through his neighborhood mumbling “Don’t Say It, Don’t Think It” while attempting to find out which of his friendly neighbors knows the story about a mysterious figure in the vicinity, and if they told anybody else about it. If they confess that they did, he shoots them dead and eventually then takes his own life, in what was clearly a protective measure and not because he’s simply a crazy killer.
Jump ahead to the present, when three college students rent a house to share as off-campus housing. Elliot (Douglas Smith) is the ringleader, and he’s moving in with his oldest friend John (Lucien Laviscount) and girlfriend Sasha (newcomer Cressida Bonas), so what could possibly go wrong? If I’ve figured out the rules correctly, if you so much as speak the Bye Bye Man’s name once, he’ll hear it from wherever he is and come to you to do…well, this is where it gets tricky.
From what I could see, he doesn’t kill you outright. He infects your brain, makes you see things that aren’t there, and not see things that are right in front of you. He seems to play off your fears, and eventually you kill an imaginary threat (who turns out to be someone else who has heard the Bye Bye Man’s name) or perhaps you’ll kill yourself to keep you from infecting other people with his name. I guess my point is, after a while you stop being scared of the admittedly creepy-looking Bye Bye Man because he’s not the real danger. And as experience has proven, nothing is more effective in horror films that NOT being afraid of your central monster.
But if director Title had even bothered to make her film atmospheric, pleasant to look at, or eerie in a unique way, I might have given it points for trying. Instead what we get is typical spook-house production design that adds nothing to the film’s ambiance or scares. Also, please explain this to me: we have three college-educated, presumably smart adults who figure out what’s going on fairly quickly, yet every time they are confronted with a vision that clearly couldn’t be real, or at least should be the subject of some degree of skepticism, they go full stupid and believe everything put before them.
I tend not to go after specific performers in terms of their talent, but I’m compelled to single out Bonas, because she’s a terrible actor. Not to imply that Smith or Laviscount leave her in the dust in terms of her performance, but she has a handful of cringe-worthy, achingly bad scenes in which she’s clearly attempting to emote outside of her skill capabilities, and by the end, the audience I saw the film with was howling with laughter every time she spoke. And that before head-scratching cameos by the likes of Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Anne Moss occur. The Bye Bye Man is weird for so many reasons that don’t enhance the terror.
The Bye Bye Man is an endurance test. I left it feeling exhausted and vexed, frustrated that I lost track so early of all of the missed opportunities to do something original and exciting. Instead, the film is underwritten, overplayed, illogical, while grossly misjudging what it takes to scare people. Allow me to introduce to you the first truly terrible horror movie of 2017. And now that we’ve cleared our throats of this ball of phlegm, let’s move on to something more worthy of our attention.