Category Archives: Film and Television

Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

live_by_night_filmStrong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life. Read the rest of this entry

Miss Sloane: Anatomy of a Failure

misssloaneMiss Sloane (2016) stars Jessica Chastain as a high strung, pill-popping Washington DC lobbyist who takes on the Gun Lobby in this dead-on-arrival political thriller. Elizabeth Sloane is the most sought after and formidable lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but when her firm agrees to take on an effort to convince women to support the 2nd Amendment, she has a change of heart and joins a lobbying firm fighting for gun control.

According to IMDB.comMiss Sloane had a budget of $18 million and made an embarrassing $59,797 in its opening weekend. As of December 14, the movie had grossed $2.6 million. Ouch. All indications point to a decent film. Good pacing, unexpected plot twists, solid acting–so what went wrong? Well, audiences don’t really want to sit through a 132 minute commercial for gun control.

Let’s start there. It’s not surprising a political thriller would have a political message, but this film wears its bias on its sleeve. It is replete with left wing stereotypes of conservatives, who it portrays as elderly white men enthralled to the gun lobby. When confronted with a plan to create a pro-gun women’s group, Miss Sloane is flabbergasted, unable to believe any woman would support an originalist view of the 2nd Amendment. (Oops, those groups already exist, WAGC and AFA to name two.) Through Miss Sloane’s later exposition, the audience is actually treated to a point-by-point refutation of arguments against gun control, making you feel like you’re attending a lecture rather than watching a movie.

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The Witch: A New-England Folktale

the_witch_posterThe Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) is an entertaining, wonderfully atmospheric and historically accurate take on witch mythology in colonial New England.

Plenty of films claim historic accuracy, but you rarely see it. Mel Gibson is notorious for his pseudo historical (but highly entertaining) historical fiction movies. The Witch, though a semi-low budget horror film, puts those to shame. Listen to what the director says about his attention to detail.

“I am positive it is the most accurate portrayal of this period in American history on screen. We went to such lengths to make it so,” writer-director Robert Eggers told the LA Times earlier this year. “Everything with the farmstead that we built, everything that you see on-screen is made from the correct building materials that would have been used at the time. Most often we used the traditional tools and techniques to create these objects. And the clothing is hand stitched based on extant clothing.”

Ok, except the nails, which are round and not square like they would have been in the seventeenth century.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.

The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.

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The Edge of Seventeen

edge-of-seventeenIn The Edge of Seventeen (2016), 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) navigates the awkwardness of becoming an adult in her junior year of high school after her father dies of a heart attack. She reaches a crisis point when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with and begins dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Her relationship with her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), further deteriorates as Nadine vents her frustration on friends, family, and her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The cloud has a silver lining when she meets a similarly awkward young man, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

The film has some bright spots, and some genuinely funny or touching moments, but mostly it is just the same cliched teen movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. Not Another Teen Movie already satirized this film in 2001. It may have a deeper meaning, however, if what I perceived as a genuine portrayal of mental illness turns out to be accurate.

Critics loved this movie, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Molly Eichel at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The Edge of Seventeen is funny and tragic, but most of all it feels real in the same way John Hughes movies felt real. It’s not a candy-coated version of teenagedom. It’s harsh, and awkward, and funny, just like being a teenager.” Other critics called it “straight and sincere,” “smart and perceptive,” and “there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true.” Who paid them to write this nonsense?

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My Favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer Seasons

buffy1Few people remember the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer staring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, and Luke Perry, but the television show based on it would go on to become hugely popular. Buffy is one of my favorite horror comedies from the ’90s. Joss Whedon wrote it as a serious vampire film, but the studio turned it into a comedy. In a stroke of luck, he was able to return to his original vision when he created the TV series.

The series retained the essential elements of the film: a teenage “Valley Girl” destined to become the chosen slayer of vampires, her watcher, and an ancient evil that unleashes a plague of vampires on her hometown. The TV show occasionally references the events of the movie, but not explicitly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer the series starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan had a seven season run, from 1997 to 2003. It quickly gained a cult following. The following is a list of my favorite seasons, ranked from best to worst and why.

1. Season Six

buffy-season-6-review

Willow gets revenge

At the beginning of season six, Willow resurrects Buffy, who died at the end of season five. Although her friends believe they rescued her from Hell, Buffy had actually been in Heaven. This causes her to be depressed for most of the season, and leads to her giving in to Spike’s affections. Willow becomes addicted to magic, and a new set of antagonists, a group of nerds called “The Trio,” are introduced. When one of the Trio accidentally kills Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, Willow is consumed by revenge and rages out of control. She attempts to destroy the world to end everyone’s suffering. By reminding Willow of their friendship, Xander is the only one who can bring her back from the brink.

Season six is my favorite because I like Willow’s character and liked to see her progression over the course of the season. In past episodes, we caught a glimpse of what “evil Willow” might be like, and season six shows her as a formidable opponent. Of all characters on Buffy, Willow is the only one to undergo a significant evolution and the only one besides Buffy who ever had an entire season’s story arch devoted to her. In this season, Buffy and friends find their relationships tested like never before, which makes for great drama. In the end, Xander is the one who saves the day, not through great strength or magic, but simply through friendship, devotion, and love. Although I personally disliked the musical episode, “Once More, with Feeling,” it is a fan favorite.
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