Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Ben Affleck”

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Dawn of Justice is the much-anticipated battle between two super-heroes that I previously thought were both on our side, but in any event, frankly it’s less interesting watching them tussle than you’d think.

One is a demi-god with exceptionally good intentions whose inner conflict involves a utilitarian fight between saving the love of his life versus the rest of humankind; the other is a jaded, middle-aged billionaire whose chance of emotional happiness was destroyed the moment his parents were murdered. Whether congenital or constructed, each has the super-human capacity to wreak havoc and save lives. But somehow they wind up having to fight each other. And it takes a very noisy, overlong two and a half hours for one of them to win.

Director Zack Snyder picks up where his Man of Steel set down: Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is now living happily with Lois Lane but is still unrecognisable to his colleagues at the Daily Planet newspaper; Bruce Wayne (now played by Ben Affleck) continues to sleep around and attend lacklustre cocktail parties while his butler Alfred (a refreshing update on the role by Jeremy Irons) delivers a cynical commentary.

Initially, the cinematography (particularly stunning in Imax), Snyder’s typically grim production design and Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary soundtrack (it’s just as well I like my music sledgehammer subtle…) deliver plenty of thrills, and with the introduction of a hyperactive Jesse Eisenberg as Wayne’s new nemesis, things bode well. Batman, in particular, feels credible in his fatigue and pessimistic outlook, while Kent and Lane’s burgeoning relationship carries a comforting domestic tone.

But once the battle begins, it’s simply too loud and too long. If one were inclined towards subtext, the continual theistic allusions might be compelling: Luther despairs/delights in the battle he is orchestrating being between gods and devils, and certainly Superman is played like a Jesus figure once lauded then pilloried by the very populace he once swore to serve. An apposite Easter movie, perhaps, but in every other way Snyder’s attempt to deliver meaning is scuppered by his idolatry of empty bombast. The real injustice here is for the fans.

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Gone Girl

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 12th October 2014

A couple of years ago, Gone Girl was the book you couldn’t put down until its final, gasp-out-loud revelation – and then once you’d put it down, you were left thinking either “Golly, I’m lucky my partner is so wonderful” or “Yup – relationships suck”.

Gillian Flynn’s novel takes the “he said, she said” structure of alternating narrative voices to nasty extremes in its exploration of the tribulations of married life – in this instance, the world of Nick and Amy Dunne, two beautiful young people for whom the melodic opening bars of true love have started to ring flat. When Nick comes home one day to an empty house and signs that Amy has been abducted, he finds himself subject to the scrutiny of America. After all, in this age of reality crime shows and tabloid sensationalism, everybody knows the perpetrator is usually related to the victim – so as the police descend to make sense of the crime scene and put a Missing Persons investigation into motion, Nick finds himself dragged through the media wringer. But what’s really going on, who is to be believed, and where is Amy?

There is no one better to handle this often grim, regularly misanthropic subject matter than Oscar-nominated (and disgracefully rejected) director David Fincher. Having made his early career mark with the excoriating Se7en, he showed his gift for adapting tricky storylines to the screen with Fight Club, and latterly the “Hollywood” version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which in my view was much more watchable than the original). Here Fincher has wisely collaborated with Flynn herself to whittle the highly involved page-turner into a snappily-edited, well-paced indictment of both the evils of relationship malaise and the iniquity of media manipulation.

Gone Girl’s casting is a joy – from a “faithful to the book” perspective, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are so natural in their roles is feels like the story was written for them. But even putting aside preoccupations of adaptation for a moment, both actors are simply superb at conveying the layers of characterisation necessary for us to love/hate/love them and to believe these fallible human beings might just represent elements of each of us. Neil Patrick Harris is just the right side of slimy as Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi, while hitherto unknown actress Carrie Coon has graduated abruptly from three years in television to grab all the best lines of dialogue from Affleck and spit them back in his face. Mercifully, she also provides us with the blackest laughs.

All the Fincher hallmarks are present and accounted for, from the yellow tinged photography to the new age industrial soundtrack created, as usual, by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and co-scorer Atticus Ross. As omnipresent as the music is (some may consider this an over-egging), it certainly ensures your stomach stays knotted throughout the two and a quarter hour running time, while you watch the threads of the story start to fray.

Gone Girl is an unsettling yet gripping book, and Fincher’s excellent film delivers the same schadenfreudian thrill.

Murder, media, military and Malick

This post was first published on http://www.stuff.co.nz on 31st July 2013

When I lived in London, my mobile phone message told callers I was probably in a tunnel or a cinema. Having seen more than 20 films in the last week and half, I find that life feels very much the same way now.

So I took it easy over the weekend, entering the darkness only to see Hitchcock’s wonderful Dial M for Murder on Saturday night – in 3D, no less, which is a technological advance I’d naively not realised was around back in his day. I loved it. The relentless dialogue (something I’m quite partial to if well written, which this is) keeps the momentum up for a snappy 106 minutes, as a married man suspects his cheating wife and devises an ingenious plot to get rid of her. Golly, that Hitchcock was one smart fellow I’d not have wanted to live with. The plotting is suspenseful as the supposedly perfect crime starts to unravel. Far from having knives and flailing arms jump out of the screen at you, the 3D merely adds depth of field. What a perfect film.

Dirty Wars

Back to the world of serious documentaries, I joined a large crowd next day for Dirty Wars. Clearly New Zealanders love a movie about Evil America killing innocent civilians in foreign lands. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill goes to great lengths to uncover military wrongdoing in an Afghan village whose people died in a botched US raid. It’s harrowing stuff as we watch mobile phone footage of a family dancing in celebration who, within hours, will be rendered lifeless, their bodies butchered. Scahill’s particular feat is in crafting his non-fiction story more like the latest Hollywood thrillers, which in turn adopt a documentary-like shooting style. Though he eschews reconstructions, Scahill still manages to take us right into the heart of the problem. It’s fascinating, gripping, and deeply troubling.

Just as disturbing is the more first world problem of privacy on the internet. How apposite that while our country is protesting at the Government’s intention to bring in privacy-slashing legislation, I watched another US documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply. How many of us read the terms when clicking into a new app, website or update? I’ve always foolishly assumed that there couldn’t possibly be anything bad in them, and it turns out most people are the same. Plus, I don’t have a spare year in my life to read all that fine print.

Well, more fool me. And you. This deeply alarming film does a Michael Moore on social media, the Googles and Amazons, and on various phone companies (admittedly in the States – but it’s all just a template for the rest of the world). Far from being dry or obvious, filmmaker Cullen Hoback manages to inform (i.e. perturb) and entertain. Did you know Facebook employs 25 people solely to work on US agency surveillance applications? The axiom “I have nothing to hide” no longer applies.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters

After all this non-fiction, a few “normal” narrative-driven tales were in order. 2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a gentle little French romcom with a distinctly Amelieesque taste. Thirty-three-year-old Arman talks directly to camera in recounting the trials of his latest love affair. His tale is interspersed with comment from the girlfriend in question, ironically named Amelie, and their two friends. It’s sweet, it’s witty; there are pop references and quirky supporting characters. The charm of the film, divided into opaquely entitled chapters, started to wear thin as it went on, but there is delight to be had in the beautiful aesthetic and the dulcet tones of the French language.

Much more gritty and for me more fulfilling, What Richard Did poses the titular question and keeps you on edge until it is answered. Richard is a well-adjusted, parentally-loved and popular Dublin lad. Beloved by his friends and rugby team-mates, his 18-year-old life seems assured. When tragedy calls, the situation is as devastating for its plausibility as its narrative impact. The film’s triumph is Jack Reynor’s portrayal of Richard – in such a story you need a protagonist you can understand, admire, and ultimately root for even if with reservations. Reynor manages all this, flawlessly embodying the lad who had it all, his future now horribly in peril.

To cap off a few days’ gentle viewing, a jaunt into Terrence Malick territory for To the Wonder. One wonders how many people in the audience chose it for “the movie with Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and that chick from Oblivion.” They should have learnt their lesson from last year’s “Brad Pitt movie”, Tree of Life.

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Malick is masterful at collating images (the photography is frame-by-frame sensational) and an incredible soundtrack, with maybe a spot of narrative but very little dialogue. The script here, amounting to surely no more than a page, consists of whispery voiceovers in French, Italian and Spanish, while Affleck drifts in and out of frame only to convey he’s not very good at communication, or possibly commitment, either. Meanwhile, Olga Kurylenko and McAdams get to swoon over him in different unspoken ways.

The incessant pirouetting and childlike fascination expressed by the lovely Kurylenko starts to irritate eventually, but if you suspend your cynicism and let Malick do his magic, To the Wonder will deliver a very affecting cinematic experience.

Argo

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 21st October 2012

Argo is one of those brilliant, “We couldn’t tell you this at the time”, true stories which has been released from one of no doubt hundreds of secret CIA files hidden away in a dusty basement in Langley, Virginia.

In 1980, the United States Embassy in Tehran was hijacked by Iranian protesters, and the hostages were holed up for many months. Six Americans escaped but had to go into hiding elsewhere in the city. The CIA devised a way to bust them out of Iran by creating an unlikely false cover story: engaging real film producers, they made up a sci-fi movie and told the Iranian authorities they wanted access to scout for locations with their “crew”.

At the helm of both story and movie is Ben Affleck, who directs and also stars as real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez. It’s a tribute to Affleck’s restraint that he plays Mendez as an understated hero, letting Bryan Cranston and the other brown-suited bureaucrats carry the screentime – and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and an ebullient John Goldman steal all the scenes. Look carefully and you’ll recognise the wiry chap behind the massive glasses and ridiculous moustache as up-and-comer Scoot McNairy, currently in Killing Them Softly.

As my old boss would say, be sceptical but don’t be cynical: Ben Affleck isn’t just the star of no one’s favourite World War II drama and Jennifer Lopez’s ex-fiance. If you cast your mind back to 1998, two bright-eyed young chaps leapt on stage to receive their Oscar for best screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Ben and Matt Damon have gone on to carve out serious acting careers, and it’s Ben who has impressed further with his directorial outings.

Gone Baby Gone saw him cast brother Casey as a cop investigating the kidnapping of a little girl, and proved he does good noir. Then in 2010, Affleck produced an excellent heist movie, The Town, showing the darker side of his native Boston and cementing Jeremy Renner as a compelling leading man. This man has directing chops.

Argo leaps into action in the opening scene, then skips nimbly between two threads: the serious business of saving lives, which produces nail-bitingly tense action, and the delicious concept of devising the fake movie, delivering welcome moments of levity. Arkin dismisses Affleck’s concern about personifying a movie director with “You can teach a monkey to be a director in a day”, and the pretend movie’s irreverent catchphrase peppers the script. Reminiscent of Munich in theme but more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in design, the cinematography interposes archive newsreel with carefully calibrated period footage (Affleck says he’ll shoot on film until the day it dies). It looks spot-on, right down to the ghastly costuming (beards and bowl-cuts abound). The music used in the film’s denouement is borrowed from Tony Scott’s underrated hostage drama Spy Game and there are bursts of 70s and 80s pop hits.

It all contributes to the immersive effect of this fascinating and often exhilarating trip back into history.

The Company Men

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 3rd July 2011

In these times of global financial strife, watching someone being made redundant may discomfit some viewers.  There is no doubt The Company Men seeks to be a message for our times, hitting nerves and ensuring we empathise with its protagonists – a group of middle class, white, corporate men in America whose lives are adversely affected by the economic downturn.  No boardroom fat-cats throwing themselves from penthouses, nor poor people suffering by having to take on a third or fourth job (we already know poor people are suffering, right?).  This is about the everyman – and how he, too, is having a rough time.

Meet Bobby, the square-jawed Ben Affleck, who has an unconditionally supportive wife, great kids, and a beautiful house at stake.  It’s hard to feel too sad as his Porsche gets repossessed, but we may at least spare a thought as he endures the humiliation of life coaching and knockbacks from job interviews.  Perhaps he needs a good, honest day’s manual labour with his abrasive brother-in-law (Kevin Costner, thorn-in-side and our intended moral compass).  Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is taking solace in the arms of his nubile mistress, an example of male filmmaker wish fulfilment that makes his malaise difficult to appreciate.

This is an earnest film, about serious subject matter, and to its credit it tries to take a different path from much more enjoyable but frivolous fare such as Up in the Air and even Jerry Maguire.  Say what you like about Tom Cruise, though – at least he has charisma.  Affleck, Jones and the usually terrific Chris Cooper mope through this film with thinly disguised desperation, and the heavyweight cast is frequently undermined by a featherweight script.  Others may like it, but it didn’t complete me.

 

My kind of town

The Town

I like a good heist movie.  Readers will know by now that Heat features very high up my all-time-greatest-films list, and rightly or wrongly has become something of a benchmark for films of the genre.  The bank robbery scene and ensuing escape across central city LA are superb, and Michael Mann oft-applauded for his accomplishment.  As it happens, Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up to the terrific Gone Baby Gone (which set his brother Casey up as an extremely fine acting talent to watch – don’t get me started swooning over the exquisite The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…) evokes plenty of Heat, as well as elements of Inside Man, and even Enemy of the State.  Given Spike Lee and Tony Scott brought us the latter films, Affleck can consider himself in good company.

Afflect casts himself as the protagonist, Doug MacRay, son of an imprisoned bank robber (a brief piece of Chris Cooper) who is carrying on the family business.  Along with his best friend Jimmy (a hardened Jeremy Renner, plausibly sociopathic and alarmingly unpredictable) and a couple of other mates, they subscribe to the tradition that has rendered their native Charlestown the real-life bank robbery capital of America.  With that kind of expectation, what other lifestyle choice is a guy to make?

As in so many bad-guy movies, Doug meets a nice girl and wants out.  One last job, then a flight to Florida and (presumably) a crime-free, guilt-free life sipping cocktails with little umbrellas.  How often have we heard criminals talk wistfully of this very thing?  Robert De Niro tried to hang up his SIG P220 in Heat, and again in The Score, and we know it usually ends in tears.

Doug’s girl in this instance is the bank manager of their first job, still suffering from PTSD when he “meets” her in the laundromat and persuades her to go out for a drink.  This is where the film suffers a little in its unrealism – Doug’s charisma must be potent off screen, because Rebecca Hall’s Claire opens up to this stranger immediately, convenient since he initially just wants to know what she’s told the police, but soon he’s sharing deep, painful childhood memories with her and, uh oh, falling in love with her for real.  (Again, this is similar to Neil McCauley meeting the lonely Edie in Heat, and needless to say there are echoes of the trajectory of their doomed romance.)  Add to this Doug’s inability to simply say “I quit”, and you have a genuinely frightening dilemma at the heart of the second act.

The Town has strengths in many areas: cinematically and directorially it is a fine piece of work, with some exciting camera moves (a particular favourite being to circle the actors in the middle of the street as they have some sort of revelation) and uniformly good performances.  Blake Lively (from TV’s “Gossip Girl”) does a good job of playing the skanky ho (if you’ll forgive the parlance), which admittedly is probably an easier role to inject life into than staid bank manager, Claire.  Jon Hamm, everybody’s favourite Mad Man, plays the hunter FBI agent without a hint of parody, and Pete Postlethwaite clearly relishes his role as the head-honcho Irish criminal who sends the boys out on their jobs.

One could criticise the slightly predictable plot and dialogue, but there are clever moments and the various heist scenes are gripping and well-executed.  I do feel that if Doug and the boys had watched Heat as many times as I have, they might have avoided some fundamental errors (Plan your escape route! Don’t rob a bank in a tiny, narrow backstreet that it’ll be hard to drive away from!) – but mostly they did an excellent job.  And despite the disclaimer at the end of the credits assuring the audience that Charlestown is actually full of decent, law-abiding citizens, the film still makes Boston my kind of town.

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