Friday, 23 November 2012

Ben Affleck 4 films for your consideration

Four films spanning nine years 
(2007-2016) my appreciation of these follow. 
However my first appreciation of Ben Affleck came in 1997 when, with then writing partner Matt Damon, they penned and starred in "Good Will Hunting" directed by the great Gus Van Sant. A masterpiece of a film, from two young writers and two incredibly talented aspiring actors.

As a fan of Kevin Smith movies I've been fortunate enough to see Affleck's growth in his acting talent, from stand out performances in "Chasing Amy" and "Jersey Girl", whilst playing an avenging angel in Smith's masterpiece "Dogma" in between! Sure there are major film choice criticisms along the way as I've watched the majority of his releases during his career but like this blog, we all have differing opinions, and these are very much mine.

As with all of my amateur film blogs I do not intend to provide spoilers as it's not my intention in any way of spoiling your enjoyment. Spoilers can be found elsewhere on the Internet, along with fact tracks, endless quotes and trivia. My blogs are intended as a taster for each film I review and I try where possible to give an alternative point of view, or an appraisal of a particular Act/Scene or segments that whilst there is an inevitable small amount of spoiler, it gives that flavour or essence for the film as a whole. 

These are also written from a perspective of a fan and in appreciation of the director's art and as with all my film blogs I may not necessarily like or indeed love every film my favourite Director's have released, however, as with Ben Affleck here, my primary aim is to catalogue their cinematic releases, appreciate them, critique them and enjoy them.
I hope you enjoy!

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

"You come round here again, and I'm gonna get discourteous on your ass"

Based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane and set in Boston with a screenplay from Director Affleck and Aaron Stockard, the scene is set for this thriller from the very beginning as "Patrick Kenzie" (Casey Affleck) narrates on local neighbourhood life and of belonging and growing up over the minimal opening credits. With a little girl missing, blanket television coverage and an impromptu press conference in the streets, the family approach Patrick and his Partner "Angie Gennaro" (Michelle Monaghan) as private detectives to help with the search.

What strikes me immediately on re-watching this film is how superb the story is told and the nuances of the story that are very much to the fore. It's a gritty tale that's very well told by first time Director Affleck, but a bleak, painful and stark story to unravel, with no apologies given throughout as we weave through a maze of corruption and sleazy, run down apartments and of broken characters trying to make a better life whilst seemingly destroying others.

Regarding the first time Director, Affleck provides a debut of real quality and promise. In retrospect, it could have been far easier to produce a glossy edited film, but has instead produced a stylised yet open and honest portrayal of the source material that moves along at a pace, and that delivers a truly fantastic film.

Also striking when re-watching is the acting talent on show and what remarkable performances they provide. The supporting and cameo cast are incredible, from Amy Madigan's heart breaking portrayal of "Bea McCready", Titus Welliver as "Lionel McCready" and John Ashton as "Nick Poole". Two larger supporting roles fall to Michelle Monaghan as "Angie Gennaro" and Morgan Freeman as "Jack Doyle", yet for this particular film I've chosen three even better performances to shine a light on.

Casey Affleck as investigator "Patrick Kenzie" dominates the screen throughout and is very much "our eyes" for the film. In the same year as starring and dominating the screen as Robert Ford in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford" and three years before another stellar performance in "The Killer Inside Me", this is Affleck's vehicle to shine and he does so with aplomb. A mature performance, so many times throughout the film the camera remains static on him, awaiting his response or reaction. Dialogue heavy, this is produced brilliantly and convincingly. A surprise performance on first watch, a joy when re-watched and with the benefit of hindsight.

Amy Ryan's portrayal of distressed Mother "Helene McCready" encapsulates everything about this film. Broken and desperate, seeking a better life and a chance of redemption. It's a frightening portrayal at times and fully deserving of her Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.
Ed Harris' performance as local Detective "Remy Bressant" befits the twists and turns of the film and is yet another star turn from a consummate actor. His interplay with every character delivers just a little more to the story every time and they almost become a stand off of wills. A thunderous performance at times.

For a first time Director, to achieve such a sublime film and performances of this magnitude with seemingly such a hands off approach and allowing the story to tell itself is quite a feat. Director of Photography John Toll deserves great credit for a crisp and dynamic picture throughout and veteran composer Harry Gregson-Williams similarly for a wonderful musical score befitting the film. The soundtrack to the film passes too, with a Guns'n'Roses staple "You're Crazy" and two tracks from Slaine, "Fallen Angels" and "Nature of the Beast". 

Writing this in retrospect after seeing the film again after a five year absence, I shouldn't be so surprised at what a joy of a film this is. A remarkable debut film and one that may surprise you at it's astounding quality.

The Town (2010)

"One blue collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere else in the world"

Opening with the above quote and quickly followed by two further quotes from a FBI Agent and a neighbourhood local, we're quickly introduced to Charlestown, a violent suburb of Boston and the setting for Ben Affleck's "The Town". With an overhead wide pan shot of the city (used throughout the film as a segue between scenes) and a narration from "Doug MacRay" (Ben Affleck) which merges to a close up of him speaking directly to his team of would be bank robbers and his directing of procedures for the coming robbery. His team includes "James Coughlin" (Jeremy Renner) and "Albert McGloan" (Slaine), all dressed in the exact same attire of all black with a skeleton mask hiding their faces. Following a violent, bloody and successful robbery they take the bank manager as a hostage and release her unharmed with a simple instruction, to walk ahead until she feels the water.

Based on the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan with a screenplay again penned by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, they are also joined on the screenplay writing team for this film by Peter Craig. With a number of violent bank robberies and violent aggression away from the robberies themselves, it would be easy to paint this film as purely an aggressive film of robbers and gangsters from a Boston neighbourhood. However the film is much more than that. It's about lifelong friendships, honour and respect, of loss and, at it's centre, love. With a minimal musical score from David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams, brilliant editing from Dylan Tichenor, wonderful (if a little overused) crane shots and cinematography from Robert Elswit and helmed by Affleck in his second cinematic release, the film struggles a little for pace early on. However this is more than made up for as the film gathers momentum towards the end of Act One. The soundtrack is again dominated by Slaine as they do Affleck's previous film, with two stand out tracks "99 Bottles" and "Run It". There's also a version of "Jolene" by Ray Lamontagne.

In supporting roles, Jeremy Renner plays borderline psychopath and hardened criminal James 'Gem' Coughlin brilliantly, his sister "Krista Coughlin", an alcoholic and drug dependant sees Blake Lively on excellent form, as is Jon Hamm, in a stand out performance as FBI Special Agent "Adam Frawley". Two of Hollywood's greats also star in short cameos, Pete Postlethwaite as "Fergus Colm" and Chris Cooper as "Stephen MacRay".

However the film's centre is the burgeoning love affair between Affleck's character Doug MacRay and a stellar performance from Rebecca Hall as "Claire Keesey". Suffice to say, their alliance is a strange one but through a series of dual scenes the layers are revealed slowly and beautifully against a backdrop of bank robberies and tests of friendship, family and trust. Affleck, perhaps with more of a director's eye takes more of a backseat as Rebecca Hall excels in their developing relationship.

The Town is a well told story, frenetically edited at times and not the gangster, bank robbery genre perhaps so closely associated with it. Again set in Boston and the city most associated with Affleck, it's clearly another deeply personal story, with a closing credits dedication to the town itself. Not without its flaws (too many overhead crane shot segues and a little underdevelopment of otherwise key characters), it's a film that may charm and surprise you.

Argo (2012)

"Brace yourself. It's like talking to those 2 old fucks on The Muppets"

With no opening credits to speak of, we are straight into a peculiar mix of real life pictures and images of the day merged with cartoon style depictions of a brief Iranian back history, dating back to 1953 which, dare I say it, lifts the lid on the so called "Western Influence" of legal and illegal manoeuvres, of clandestine CIA operations to remove and install Shah's and it's consequences for both Iran and for the world. So long the domain of conspiracy theorists, this is both refreshing to see and an early insight into the film, giving a true historical perspective on the overthrows/installation of Western sanctioned Shah's over whom the USA/West can wield their sphere of influence. The somewhat bizarre mixing of real life and cartoon style imagery is also a perfect introduction to the film, as despite being a political thriller (and a very good one at that) it's also very funny in places, and darkly funny in others.

As such, my appraisal will reflect this, concentrating both on the dark opening ten minute scene and the lighter, funnier moments, but first, a very brief premise: Six USA Embassy diplomatic employees have been forced to take refuge in secret with the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. Tensions between USA and Iran are at an all time high and with the hostage crisis escalating, the answer to releasing the hostages is down to one man, and the creation of a fake film called Argo. Based on a screenplay by Chris Terrio, the book "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J Mendez and an article entitled "Escape from Tehran" by Joshuah Bearman.

US Embassy, Iran - 14th November 1979

"Based on a true story": The opening ten minutes is a tour de force, mixing old stock footage of the day's actual events with filmed re-creations, the first example of which is a burning Star and Stripes flag amid an angry crowd outside the Embassy. Cutting to concerned staff inside, quickly amongst all present, then back to the angry crowd now breaching the Embassy gates. Constant cutting between four narratives now drive the story, the angry crowd as they approach the Embassy, CCTV footage and security staff preparing to use tear gas, to the staff themselves now frantically burning and shredding documents. Still mixing stock footage from the day and weaving the four strands, the Embassy now breached and with power failing in the building, the six diplomats have to evacuate.

The crowd scenes are particularly intense with a constantly moving camera right in the middle of the chaos, often providing a real blur and on some occasions a completely distorted picture. They seem the longest shown of the four narrative strands, hectic and claustrophobic. Key throughout is the use of stock footage, but not of the crowd, more President Jimmy Carter's addresses to the nation and radio commentaries and TV "specials" of the day. 

Balancing this thriller is a real heart centred and extremely funny at times end to Act One, and an introduction to three key players in the film. "Tony Mendez" (Ben Affleck) a CIA consultant and ex filtration specialist has the final go ahead to create this fake film but in order to so must create the very real illusion of a real, bona fide film being made. In doing so he recruits the help of "John Chambers" (John Goodman), a Hollywood make up artist and "Lester Siegel" (Alan Arkin), a Hollywood Producer. This narrative strand runs through the remainder of the film, however to reduce spoilers to a minimum I'll concentrate solely on when two or all three of these characters share screen time as it's the most openly funny segments of the film, and some of the most affecting. Meeting in John's chaotic trailer for the first time, Tony lays out his proposal to the incredulity of a bemused yet supportive John. Goodman here is subtly brilliant (as always) with his facial responses painting a thousand stories and ideas. One of my burgeoning cast of favourite actors, he ends the short scene with both a moniker and metaphor for the film itself: "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot and do nothing? You'll fit right in". Quickly we move to their next get together, another short scene in a restaurant:

More playful wisecracking and in jokes, culminating in a self deprecating jibe at Director Affleck:

Mendez: "Make me a Producer"

Chambers: "No, you're associate producer at best"

What follows is a short scene introducing the great Alan Arkin as Hollywood Producer Lester Siegel and a stand out scene whereby Arkin dominates with a pop culture referenced side swipe at the project and a subtle endorsement. Two cameras, one on Arkin, the other on a smiling Goodman, it's a simple yet effective scene and darkly funny.

Mendez: "Fade in on a starship landing, an exotic middle eastern vibe. Women gather offering ecstatic libations to the Sky Gods. Argo - a science, fantasy adventure"

Siegel: "It's a turnaround. It's dog shit!"

A brilliant short scene, two main cameras cutting between the two as their fake film is the furthest thing from their minds and their intimate discussion.

The final joint scene between the three occurs during a script read through, a bizarre, darkly funny and surreal scene which is inter cut throughout with more real life stock footage of the day.

Both Director and Actor Ben Affleck excel throughout this fantastic film. No doubt tipped for Oscars success, a film similar in many ways to "Syriana" (highly recommended) starring George Clooney, who also Produces Argo here. Both share a tension, an unknowing, a fragile state that could at any minute trap it's protagonists. Far funnier than Syriana, aside from the in jokes and knowing nods and smiles is a darkly rooted comedy which compliments the tense thriller. 

The Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto is also deserving of special praise as many of the film's set pieces are brilliantly depicted and brought to life. Scenes such as inside the Turkish citadel, the hostages claustrophobic living space and scenes together in general, and especially the longer scenes inside Iran. All framed and lit brilliantly, it falls to Affleck's direction and William Goldenberg's editing to propel the film. All scenes feel short, punchy and driven to tell the story, complicated though that is with interweaving narratives and stock footage. Rarely are there "standard" shots, the camera is always moving, zooming, focusing on inanimate objects before adjusting it's focus on the actors. The moving camera is particularly noticeable, especially within the confines of the CIA office and Affleck's first introduction to the film, but similarly within the crowd scenes and again especially within the latter scenes in Iran.

With a frightening mirror to today's world (the Westernisation of Iraq/Iran/Syria/Egypt, references to the war in Afghanistan and Patriots stating the case for more overseas wars), and Lester's telling exclamation at the constantly shown news coverage "Bad news. Bad news. Even when it's good news, it's bad news", this is Affleck's most mature and assured film to date. Combined with Alexandre Desplat's brilliant musical score and a stand out use of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks", it's a thorough joy of a film, thought provoking, funny and a suspense filled piece of cinema. Highly recommended.

Oh, and by the way "Argo Fuck Yourself!"

Live by Night (2016)

"I left home a soldier. I came home an outlaw"

Upon leaving the dark confines of my local picture house after watching Ben Affleck's fourth directorial effort, my immediate reaction was how beautiful and stylish this film was. This is not to damn this film with faint praise or even denigrate it as Live By Night is far more impressive than it's limp box office showing hence far and the critical panning it has received. But what immediately struck me and stayed with me throughout this Boston based, between the wars gangster tale, was how stylishly it was created by Director Affleck and how majestically lit and framed the film is by Director of Photography Robert Richardson. Triple Oscar winner Richardson has been the latter day go to man for Quentin Tarantino but as well as collaborating with this cinematic genius he also has cinematography credits on films across the past four decades of cinema, from Born on the Fourth of July in the late 1980's, JFK in the early 1990's, A Few Good Men and Casino throughout the 1990's and The Aviator, Shutter Island and Hugo following the turn of the century.

As the cinematography of Richardson and Direction from Affleck struck so many chords with me I'll begin my review of this particular film with a brief appraisal of their striking work, starting with Richardson's cinematography which, whether in the early scenes set in a restaurant, or "Joe Coughlin" (Ben Affleck) initial meeting with Italian crime boss "Maso Pescatore" (Remo Girone) in a tailors shop or Coughlin's father "Thomas Coughlin" (Brendan Gleeson) sitting home alone, all are impeccably lit by candlelight and incredibly pleasing to the eye. Similarly the riverboat ride to a riverside Cuban bar is beautifully shot and whilst there are many more to be thrilled by as we progress, the burning car upended in the river has a dramatic pay off at the end of a thrilling car chase. The car chase between Joe Coughlin's band of renegades and outlaws and the Police is one of a number of set pieces that litter the film and is a real highlight alongside the film's climactic shoot out. The touches from Affleck the Director though are often more subtle, but no less commendable, as with his numerous slow tracking shots or slow zooms on himself as he sits in a car awaiting his outlaw friends before a heist or a beautiful from on high zoom of himself as he enters a party to make his get away with his lover "Emma Gould" (Sienna Miller) who is ostensibly the gangster's moll girlfriend of "Albert White" (Robert Glenister) who controls half of the city of Boston. There are numerous similar tracking and zoom shots throughout the film, notably again on Affleck as he grieves beside a city graveside whilst other more standard shots also please the eye with Joe Coughlin arriving at Ybor City and catching his first glance of "Graciela" (Zoe Saldana) and his second encounter with her and her brother "Esteban Suarez" (Miguel) in his office above a lively Cuban Bar and beautifully realised with a slow swirling tracking shot capturing everyone present in the office as well as the ambience and opulence enjoyed by the Suarez family. As we approach the film's climatic denouement among a hail of gangsters bullets one further brief scene is worthy of note, a quiet scene in a tea shop whereby Joe Coughlin enjoys a short interlude with "Loretta Figgis" (Elle Fanning) and daughter of local Sheriff "Chief Figgis" (Chris Cooper). Employing two maybe three camera angles, Affleck the Director captures the intimacy of the scene very well with close ups on both characters and a brief distant angle covering them both as recent events are brought into context and through warm smiles, Coughlin admits a grudging respect for his drinking companion.

With the main characters introduced, spoilers avoided and an opinion established as to the stylish nature of the film, what of the film itself?  

Based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane and adapted for the screen by Director Affleck, this is the second adaptation of a Lehane novel and follows Affleck's previous adaptation in his impressive directorial bow with Gone Baby Gone in 2007. Rooted in prohibition Boston between the Wars (both of which are established in the narrative as Joe Coughlin returns from the First World War whilst the Second looms on the horizon at the film's end), Coughlin returns to Boston not wanting to be a "gangster" but is quickly embroiled in the centre of a feud between the city's two dominant bosses, with Maso Pescatore running the Italian crime family while facing off against his Irish competitor, Albert White. With Coughlin now in the centre of a long running battle for control of the city he has a self appointed "inside man" despite proclaiming "I ain't a gangster. I've done enough killing in this life", but with events outside of his control he grasps an opportunity for a new life and a revitalised outlook on that life in Tampa, Florida and slowly but surely dominating the market for Cuban imported rum.

Stylistic verve aside, there is rather more substance than some sniffy critics have given it credit for. A straight forward narrative maybe, but equally there are at least two twists that spoilers won't allow for and equally may have been missed or unappreciated during it's initial release critical panning. With nods to The Godfather (especially so towards the end of the film) and with hints of Michael Mann's 2009 film Public Enemies, the film as a whole is well served by a stellar cast, especially Zoe Saldana as her character Graciela exudes vitality and sensuality in a heavily male dominated film and two further acting performances not yet noted, those of the wise cracking, quick talking "Dion Bartolo" (a brilliant Chris Messina) and "RD Pruitt". RD is an unhinged, repugnant and repulsive individual and superbly brought to the screen by Matthew Maher. 

Live by Night may live in the shadows of Ben's previous film Argo, but this is more than a worthy addition to his cannon of directorial work to date, with an admirable balance struck between the dry and dirty gangster life intertwined with the joyous, fun loving Cuban style of living set against a tale of love, loss, betrayal and human friendships.

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