THE FLORIDA PROJECT

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This unusual film about children running amok amongst several motels adjacent to Walt Disney World without any supervision appears to have been shot on a handheld camera and seemingly lacks any discernable script with which to assemble a premise of any sort.  If you like movies that open with kids somewhere around the age of seven swearing and hocking far too many loogies to count on parked cars, I suppose, then, that The Florida Project is for you.  Willem Dafoe in a supporting role says some lines, Caleb Landry Jones plays a character who doesn’t make me want to vomit and Lorne Balfe gets a soundtrack credit despite an apparent absence of any score whatsoever. 

I didn’t finish it.  Was The Florida Project even a movie?

LADY BIRD

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This plotless, slice of life tale of a girl in high school and her ambitions for the future doesn’t seem to go anywhere.  Below average writing, tepid performances and Greta Gerwig’s tedious direction has made me wonder how this film shot to the top of everyone’s lists this past year.  Saoirse Ronan as the titular character seems to have recently graduated from the Ellen Page School of Acting with an offbeat performance we’ve seen so many times before in much better films, while Laurie Metcalf as the mother with whom Lady Bird clashes in every other scene tries to convey an emotion seemingly akin to evil but never quite reaches anything more than casual anger.  Conversations between characters begin randomly, as if we’ve stumbled in halfway, not at all helped by the scattershot editing and overall script, which for some reason makes numerous attempts to reference the 2002 setting of the film that all seem out of place, to say the least.  Does it matter that one of the sorority sisters from 2016’s Neighbors sequel is in it?  It does not.

Thirty minutes in and I had to walk away.  I hear the new Paddington is worth a shot.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

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From directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and a slew of alt-rock music videos throughout the '90s, comes Battle of the Sexes, a movie that might cause one to jump up in celebratory relief were they able to make it all the way from start to finish.  An amazingly boring, slightly confusing first fifteen minutes offers nothing in terms of quality, while stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone lazily inhabit the roles of real-life dueling tennis champions Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.  Supporting roles are handled somewhat by Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman and Sarah Silverman, while the onscreen events that take place following said fifteen minutes will forever remain a mystery to me as I had no interest whatsoever in continuing.  At the very least, Battle of the Sexes does feature Elisabeth Shue as Riggs' wife, and any movie that casts the woman who once played Jennifer in the latter two Back to the Future entries does warrant something of a polite pat on the back. 

Moving on.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

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Following the success of last year's Arrival, one of 2016's critical and commercial triumphs, director Denis Villeneuve has taken the helm of Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner and ultimately a long, slow, beautiful film with little substance behind its attractive exterior.

As K, the titular Blade Runner, Ryan Gosling broods his way through the entire length of the film, while Harrison Ford's return as Rick Deckard again showcases how the man seems to get better at his craft the older he gets-his voice may have lost the droll affectation he once possessed, but the spirit is still there, giving one hope that he still has at least one more round as Indiana Jones left in him.  Supporting roles are handled aptly by Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis and Carla Juri, while Jared Leto, essentially inhabiting yet another glorified bad guy cameo, spouts off perplexing quotes in a vain attempts to sound sinister, but rather comes off as strange.  At least Barkhad Abdi, best known as the main villain from 2013's Captain Phillips, shows up for a moment, and I'm sincerely glad to see him still getting work.

The original Blade Runner theme, composed by Vangelis, makes a return in this follow-up, however core soundtrack duties are handled by Benjamin Willfisch and Hans Zimmer, taking over from Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson but still rich with many of the
characteristics heard in Arrival.  It's absolutely an integral part of the film, loaded with Moog sweeps, percussive blasts, and off-putting instrumental shrieks.  It's spooky and, in keeping with the rest of the film, atmospheric, though it is overly loud at points and unnecessarily placed in certain scenes, with Villeneuve trying to provide tension to moments that would otherwise have none.  For a slightly headache-inducing experience, see this in IMAX, as every pounding noise or pummeling piece of music is just that much more aggressive on the senses.

However, the visual effects and stunning cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins take center stage-every shot is rich in detail, ranging from gritty city streets to radiation-washed wastelands and cathedral-like buildings that seem extracted right out of Stargate.  The somewhat desolate future of 2049 is also reflected in the choice of weather-never do we see a gorgeous, sunny day, but rather grimy clouds and even snow that couldn't look less like a Robert Frost poem if it tried.  Though set on Earth, the planet has never looked quite as alien as it does here.

Much like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049's slow pace and near-three hour runtime make for a bit of a slog at points, one which no amounts of incredible FX or bombastic score can save.  Even the care Ford gives his character is but a small brownie point on a chart that lacks many.  In many ways, comparisons can be made to 2010's Tron: Legacy, another similarly great-looking film with a fantastic electronic soundtrack that's ultimately devoid of a truly compelling story.  At its heart, it's just another movie, and an overrated one at that.

The only running that took place was by me once the movie ended.  I really had to use the restroom.

THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD

If you ever wondered what manner of film would result from the teaming of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L.  Jackson, look no further than The Hitman's Bodyguard.  From Patrick Hughes, the man who most notably brought us yet another Expendables sequel a few years back, this is a solid buddy flick revolving around Reynolds' character needing to protect Jackson's as Jackson prepares to testify against a ruthless dictator played by the usually-reliable Gary Oldman.  Action ensues, hilarity is frequent, and the personalities of both leads are a near-perfect match.  Oldman, who normally inhabits his roles with the greatest of ease whether portraying friend or foe, adopts a terrible accent and a bad decision to play his character as exaggerated as possible, which may cause audiences to unintentionally chuckle at a rare example of Gary Oldman phoning it in.  Salma Hayek, however, as Jackson's love interest is something of a badass, and while not every intentionally foul line that escapes her lips sticks the landing, overall she does well, as does Elodie Yung as Reynolds' former lover/ally, though her  performance does occasionally dip into some fairly average waters and is, by all accounts, a lackluster follow-up role to her appearance as Elektra on Marvel's/Netflix's Daredevil.  I wouldn't know.  I haven't made it that far yet.  

At its heart, The Hitman's Bodyguard is a rather harmless movie, one which plays tribute to the great action classics that have preceded it before the turn of the millennium, rich with all the twisty backstabbing that unfortunately does become somewhat confusing at times, as well as ultimately very cliche. 

I wish I could say more, but that's honestly all I can think of at the moment.  As a side note, I did once work with someone named Patrick Hughes, and I sincerely doubt this is the same person who directed The Hitman's Bodyguard.  I can't say for sure, but my guess is no.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

Here we are again-as has taken place numerous times prior over the course of the past fifteen years, yet another version of Spider-Man has swung into theaters with a new actor in the title role and a premise nearly identical to every superhero film as of late.  Did I enjoy it?

I suppose I did.  Tom Holland reprises Peter Parker once more following his debut in last year's Captain America: Civil War, again portraying the character with a wealth of high school-level awkwardness befitting Parker's age and the film's setting, while scenes of Spider-Man leaping into battle are fun, though much like in Civil War nothing all that new.  Michael Keaton, luckily, is an excellent villain, one you at times sympathize with and a nice follow-up to Kurt Russell's equally outstanding baddie in this year's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.  2, hinting that the MCU might have finally figured out its bad guy problem, while the supporting cast holds their own nicely.  Jon Favreau's return to the MCU as Happy Hogan is a welcome homecoming in and of itself, while Marisa Tomei as Aunt May does well, even if her performance, much like that of her onscreen nephew, doesn't necessarily break any new ground.  Furthermore, small parts are handled aptly by Hannibal Buress as Parker's gym teacher, Kenneth Choi as the descendent of Jim Morita, last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger and also played by Choi, Jennifer Connelly as Karen, Spider-Man's A. I.  and a simply adorable casting choice as husband Paul Bettany was the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., the A. I.  of Tony Stark/Iron Man, while Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson updates the character with enough of a spin to make him fit into 2017 high school culture while still coming off as a bullying jerk.  Donald Glover, who once campaigned to play the titular webslinger back in 2010, has been given a nice, albeit also-small role, and Zendaya as Parker's classmate/secret admirer (?) Michelle is just fine, if a little drab at points-on that same note, Laura Harrier in the role of Parker's love interest Liz is similarly bland.  However, it's Robert Downey Jr.'s co-starring appearance as Tony Stark/Iron Man who, much like his role in Civil War, delivers a performance that just plain looks easy, owing much to Downey Jr.'s natural-born ability to play the part and the fun he seems to be having.  If Civil War was the darkest Iron Man we've seen yet, this is the other side of the coin, and I love it.  Plus, Jacob Batalon as Parker's best friend Ned is a nice addition to the cast, with playing the perfect sidekick and usually delivering some of the film's best lines.

Director Jon Watts, using enough directorial skills as can be found in a Marvel Paint-By-Numbers coloring book, is as average as they come-neither good nor bad, rather playing it safe for the benefit of all.  A screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, though loaded with some decent stabs at humor and snappy dialogue, also feels somewhat run-of-the-mill, though score composer Michael Giacchino knocks it out of the park with a thrilling theme that might be just as rousing as Danny Elfman's work on the original Spider-Man trilogy that now can't help but feel an eternity removed from this new adaptation.  

I don't mean to come off as though this movie is a failure-far from it.  It simply lacks any truly memorable moments and almost presents one of comicdom's most legendary characters as, dare I say, somewhat tired.  Ho-hum direction and screenwriting don't help, nor do the terrible posters that comprised the bizarre pre-release marketing campaign, however Giacchino's score, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.  and even Jacob Batalon all help to save the day.  I'll still happily see future installments and look forward to Spider-Man's continued appearances in the MCU, but won't count down the minutes until they arrive.  I'll simply wait & hope that they're better in some way, and that, much like this film's subtitle, much like the character's official inclusion in the MCU and much like the eponymous dance that only comprises a small part of this film, they truly make me feel like our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has finally, truly, at long last come home.

BABY DRIVER

Edgar Wright has enjoyed a progression in his career the likes of which every aspiring director can only dream, having been able to kick off his success with the kind of quirky independent British comedies one might use to cultivate a rabid fanbase-his Cornetto trilogy of 2004's Shaun of the Dead, 2007's Hot Fuzz and 2013's The World's End helped to boost his profile and set him apart from the conventional world of filmmaking into which so many of his peers were readily settling.  Even a slight diversion into the world of comic book adaptation with 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs.  the World generated a cult following that drew even more attention to the rising director's career.

In recent years, however, some might say Wright has seen better days, as 2014 saw Wright exit the director's chair of Marvel's Ant-Man, a passion project he'd been working on for the better part of a decade and a departure stemming from the dreaded label of creative differences.  His desire to make a (mostly) stand-alone film that stood (mostly) independent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole while still integrating his trademark humor mixed with a heist premise ultimately didn't jive with Marvel's bigger plans, and in the wake of this parting one began to wonder what Wright's next move would be.

Luckily, that move turned out to be Baby Driver.

In handling both directing & writing duties once again, Wright returns to the silver screen with a film rich in all the elements one would expect from the man, with quick cuts, snappy dialogue and characters that compliment both each other & Wright's story with ease.  Scenes of action are effortlessly balanced by moments that allow the cast to develop-in the main role, a getaway driver who uses his skills to pay off a longstanding debt, Ansel Elgort successfully distances himself from his recent teen movie past with a character that's full of innocence, mystery and, despite physically looking like he only just yesterday learned to drive, handles himself behind the wheel like a true veteran of the cinematic car chase.  Kevin Spacey, as the man to whom said debt is owed, maintains a subtly villainous persona every time he appears onscreen, a common trait seen in many of his characters over the years and again showing how great of a bad guy he can be.  Rounding out the cast of criminals in need of our intrepid driver's services include the likes of Jon Hamm, Jaime Foxx and, in too brief of an appearance, Jon Bernthal, all of whom act as perfect fodder for Spacey’s ringleader while presenting their own distinct personalities, each of which know how to get under one’s skin in a way the right baddie should.  Hamm dances between likable and quietly menacing, while Foxx, from start to finish, quite terrifying in a suave manner that never feels like caricature.  A romance between a waitress played by Lily James and Elgort feels natural, again owing to the charisma of the actors, and the soundtrack is a character in and of itself, loaded with well-picked songs that often sync up with the action onscreen perfectly.  It’s a delight to watch, and help to elevate the film further into a realm far beyond that of average.

Baby Driver is Edgar Wright’s triumphant return, a film that sits comfortably amongst the other classics of his filmography and a fine addition to the world of film overall.  It’s charming, humorous, thrilling and full of actors completely committed to their roles.  With the addition of that outstanding soundtrack which the recently released Kong: Skull Island & Suicide Squad could only wish they had, the film feels timeless, one that deserves repeated viewings and an audience of people looking to have a good time.  

I know I did.

WONDER WOMAN

To quote Kate Bosworth's tepid Lois Lane in 2006's much-maligned Superman Returns

"Let's start with the big question".  

Does the DC Extended Universe's fourth entry succeed in areas where 2013's polarizing Man of Steel & last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, along with the dreadful Suicide Squad, did not?

After a viewing of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot's second appearance as the titular character following her well-received debut in Dawn of Justice, the answer is, without question, an enthusiastic yes.

Director Patty Jenkins, who once wisely passed on helming the 2013 misfire Thor: The Dark World for rival Marvel Studios, has done an outstanding job in telling an exciting story that takes some wildly different environments, characters & a splash of classic swashbuckling epics such as the Indiana Jones saga and brings them together in a way that, for the first time in the DCEU's existence, makes complete sense.  Any attempts by producer/DCEU resident director Zack Snyder to inject Wonder Woman with any signature Snyder-isms that have become laughable trademarks of his hit-or-miss career take a backseat to Jenkins' superb direction, which owes as much to the fine cast as anything else.

In the main role, Gal Gadot is given plenty of chances to bring her badassery front and center while also fleshing out her character beautifully-her scenes of exploring early 1900s society for the first time showcases her innocence, all the while being happily balanced by intense moments to show audiences why she's seemingly born to play the part when the action picks up.  Chris Pine as partner/love interest Steve Trevor may be playing a variation of his own Captain Kirk, but it's an adaptation that works well-the chemistry between he and Gadot is believable, with conversations between the two that feel natural, again owing as much to Gadot's charisma as Pine's.  

Every supporting part is handled beautifully, with each cast member making the most of their character while complimenting one another well-it's a balance that results in memorable performances, from Trevor's Howlin' Commandos-esque team of Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) & his secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) to Connie Nielsen & Robin Wright as Gadot's native family-even though the accents the latter two adopt may be shaky at best, their heart, as well as their nimble grace in some early fight scenes, are tremendously on full display.  David Thewlis, one of my favorite underrated actors, even shows up and, thankfully, once again performs admirably.  On the other side of the coin, the villans, which come in the form of Doctor Poison/Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) teeter from average to weak, once again demonstrating how superhero films as of late have a problem creating convincing baddies, though Anaya does manage to do ever so slightly better.

Behind the scenes, Jenkins has assembled a crew that has effortlessly created Wonder Woman's world of the early 1900s, from a thrilling World War I sequence in No Man's Land that must be seen to be appreciated to excellent special effects and a fine score courtesy of Rupert Gregson-Williams which again makes use of the Wonder Woman theme first heard in Dawn of Justice.

While admittedly not 100% perfect, Wonder Woman is still absolutely the DCEU's best work yet, due in no small part to Jenkins' direction, a committed cast & a team of writers/FX artists/cinematographers that have brought to screens a great entry into the theatrical world of superheroes, and film overall.  A sequel will inevitably see the light of day, but more importantly Wonder Woman has saved a studio that was in dire need of a hit, a league who's future was as yet uncertain, and a character who deserved a debut that hit all the right notes.  

It's wonderful.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Let’s cut right to the chase-Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.  2 is an excellent film, a vast improvement over the original in every way and one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best offerings yet.

It’s clear that the success of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy prompted Marvel to give director/writer James Gunn even more creative control, that which allowed for a follow-up that emits genuine emotion, hilarity, and some of the best special effects seen in an MCU film to this point.  Operating as a story that doesn’t completely require that the original needed to have been seen in order to understand the plot, Vol.  2 brings back the entire cast while introducing new ones, all of whom receive their own opportunities to shine in outstanding ways.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord is just as endearing as he was during the first go-round, as is Dave Bautista’s Drax, both of whom have plenty of moments to effortlessly produce comic relief along with a large dose of the feels.  Speaking of that, Michael Rooker returns as Yondu, in a far meatier role that allows him to hold his own against people like Pratt & Bautista while delivering one of the film’s best performances.  Zoe Saldana’s Gamora gets a nice sister story arc with Karen Gillan’s Nebula, the latter of whom absolutely manages to outshine the former, while Bradley Cooper again returns to voice Rocket which especially works when the film places him in an unlikely partnership with Rooker’s Yondu.  New characters Mantis and Kraglin are handled beautifully by Pom Klementieff and Sean Gunn, respectively, with both actors seemingly taking a lesson from the rest of the cast on how to easily inhabit a role while providing said roles with enough individuality so as to stand out from the pack, and you’d better believe that Baby Groot nearly steals the show in just about every scene he’s in-anyone who says they don’t want a toy Groot after seeing this film is lying, plain and simple.  Finally, Kurt Russell shines as a compelling character in Ego and a great performance overall.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.  2 succeeds on every level, with an unexpectedly touching story fueled by Tyler Bates’ score and some well-handled cameos I fully expect to see fleshed out in future installments.  With this film, Marvel has again given us another brilliant film, a sequel that far surpasses the original and can now exist comfortably alongside similar masterpieces as Iron Man, The Avengers and both Captain America sequels.  Though the MCU may stumble at times (Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, Doctor Strange), it’s clear that they not only know how to treat certain properties well, but elevate them past the level of the comic book film into the realm of Quality Cinema.  This is a fine movie, and I can’t wait to see it again.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Childhood was an amazing time, a period in which I developed my share of interests in many pop culture-related phenoms that still cling to my personality well into my adult years.  Legos were a common item amongst us younger Farvours, while superheroes like Batman & Superman were the first to capture my attention, with The Dark Knight coming out ahead thanks largely to repeated viewings of the campy Adam West-starring TV show, then in rerun status in the afternoons on Nickelodeon.  Upon the release of 1989’s Tim Burton-helmed, Michael Keaton-starring Batman, my love for Gotham City’s main man surged to unprecedented levels-this semi-origin story still exists as one of the finest superhero movies ever made, with Michael Keaton nailing the title role, Jack Nicholson as a perfect Joker only rivaled by Heath Ledger, Michael Gough as one of the best Alfreds captured to film and some of Danny Elfman's finest work as score composer.  This, truly, was the most ideal way imaginable to re-introduce Batman into a more modern era, and a beautiful kickoff to a series of films filled with plenty of ups (the Burton & Christopher Nolan eras), downs (the Joel Schumacher era) & now, with the release of The Lego Batman Movie, another welcome addition to the family has entered. 

Attempting to describe the plot would be useless, as it’s far too scattershot to even begin to attempt-and this, believe me, is a very good thing.  Though a focus on Batman’s relationships with others drives the story forward, it merely serves to construct a sandbox in which The Dark Knight and his cronies can play, all the while referencing previous Batman films, shows, comics and other pieces of today’s society, all the while driven by an excellent soundtrack and score by Lorne Balfe that would feel right at home in any live-action Batman film since the Burton years.  One can find comparisons to The Lego Movie in terms of feel-good lessons-learned, it being a children’s movie at heart, but Batman purists will no doubt feel at home and adults will absolutely laugh at many jokes that should hopefully fly past youngsters for good reason.  Seeing Batman unwind after a night of fighting crime is a hysterical look at a the dichotomy of a superhero reconciling his adrenaline-filled job with a surprisingly boring set of household routines, and while none of the original songs-usually sung by Batman-reach a level of “Everything Is Awesome” memorability, they all still work in the context of the film, and are all quite funny in the own right.  Will Arnett reprises the title role last seen in The Lego Movie, reminding us all that he may very well be the best version of this character we've seen yet, while Michael Cera is plucked from obscurity as Dick Grayson/Robin, a role seemingly as tailor-made for him as the collection of outfits Grayson/Robin tries on at one point, much to Batman's dismay.  Zach Galifianakis is a perfectly acceptable Joker, playing him with enough over-the-top mania but knowing when to rein it in so as to avoid caricature, and though Rosario Dawson may be a bit average, even slightly irritating at times as Barbara Gordon, all is forgiven when The Lego Batman Movie starts to reference nearly every obscure villain Batman has faced over the decades-seriously, even Kite Man gets a mention.  And the credits, which features one of the film's better songs, is an upbeat dance-off at which everyone should at least crack even a small smile.
 
Chris McKay, who handles directing duties following Phil Lord & Christopher Miller's work on The Lego Movie, does a fine job, with writing assistance by Seth Grahame-Smith in an interesting move as the latter had once been attached to helm DC's live-action The Flash.  Even though I may not necessarily be as excited for the next big screen Lego universe installment, that being this fall's Lego Ninjago Movie, I hope to see further brick-based adventures of the Caped Crusader, as it feel as comfortable and natural as an afternoon building with those beloved toys back when I was young.

But hey, who am I to talk?  Let's ask my five-year old daughter what she thought.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

My history with the beast known as King Kong is somewhat limited-with the exception of an abridged novel given to me by my parents when I was young, one which gave me enough information about the legendary monster to understand who he was & what he was all about, I never laid eyes on anything else related to Kong as the years passed, which included any & all of his big screen iterations.  As a result, Kong: Skull Island is my first true, start-to-finish theatrical experience with one of history's most infamous fictional characters.

The human cast, filled with talent in the form of Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L.  Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell and even two N. W. A.  members from 2015's Straight Outta Compton (Corey Hawkins & Jason Mitchell), all do a decent job but can't help but play second fiddle to the titular ape.  John C.  Reilly, however, does deliver quite possibly the film's best performance as a pilot who's been stranded on Skull Island for decades, giving his character a wealth of quirk & humor, though not every joke that escapes his mouth sticks the landing.

As for the film itself, the effects on the various creatures, most notably Kong himself, are truly impressive, while the various monster battles erupt with intensity.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, last seen at the helm of 2013's underrated coming-of-age, surprisingly hilarious The Kings of Summer, gives Kong: Skull Island the look & feel of a 1970s-era war film, appropriate of the film's 1970s-era time period, the same era as the Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange-starring King Kong.  Unfortunately, the dialogue & soundtrack sometimes have a tendency to reference that decade a bit much, a slightly annoying, unnecessarily constant reminder that this film is most definitely not set in 2017.  The soundtrack in particular occasionally reaches Suicide Squad levels of jumpiness, with a different classic rock hit seemingly every few minutes, though the reliable Henry Jackman's score is, as always, well done.

Kong: Skull Island is the second entry into Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, following 2014's underwhelming Godzilla, and much like the issues present with that film it clearly shows that the studio knows how to bring these giants to life while completely disregarding the rest of the cast.  I only hope that future entries will either help develop the latter, or completely push our beloved monsters to the forefront as they should.  Kong: Skull Island is worth a view to see the titular ape in all his glory, and has just enough firepower to ensure I'll see whatever sequel, spinoff or Godzilla vs.  Kong (scheduled for release May 29, 2020) punchfest the studio will throw at me. 

I'm in.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

This may come as a surprise, but I still to this day have never seen Walt Disney’s 1967 animated masterpiece The Jungle Book-sure, I may be familiar with the film’s instantly recognizable tunes, but I've never seen more than a few frames of the film.  This is, more than likely, a large reason why it took me so long to finally check out director Jon Favreau’s live action adaptation of the cartoon classic, despite near-unanimous praise following its release last year. 

The movie itself is well made, with some of the best CG animals I've seen yet.  The star-studded voice cast (which includes Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Raimi and even the late Garry Shandling) performs well, and Neel Sethi as the sole human Mowgli delivers an impressive debut performance, one rich with range the likes of which I rarely see from young actors these days.  The only low marks I might give The Jungle Book are-and this is coming from a parent-the occasional intense moments, some of which I believe may be a bit too fierce for the young audience this film probably targets.  Plus, having grown up without the original a part of my childhood, I simply saw the movie as just another live-action Disney adaptation in a long line of previous entries (such as 2015's Cinderella), as well as soon-to-be-released films (such as 2018's Mulan and an eventual Favreau-helmed version of The Lion King) that really serve no purpose other than to showcase Disney's ability to bring these classic characters to life.  Furthermore, the two songs present in this film (Bare Necessities and Be Like You) pale in comparison to their beloved originals.  One could argue in The Jungle Book's defense that it probably contains some of the most beautiful jungle cinematography to date, however when one realizes that most of the film was in all likelihood shot with Sethi in front of a green screen, it does lose some luster in that department.

Nevertheless, I still regard Jon Favreau as a highly competent director, what with his work on ElfZathuraIron Man and Chef (I will politely ignore Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens) serving as standouts on his still-fairly short filmography.  There's no question he was able to blend CG with a live action character quite seamlessly, with a cast that holds their own even in the midst of a fairly average, assembly line-esque film in every other area.  Not only does The Jungle Book's box office success and rave reviews ensure that the future look bright for further live action Disney epics, but a sequel to The Jungle Book is already in production, with the same cast & team returning for another adventure that will no doubt devour the box office while slowly draping a rug over the audience's eyes, preventing them from seeing the useless nature that exists in so many of Disney's films these days.

Life goes on.

POWER RANGERS

Being as old as I currently am (which is to say, not young), I had unfortunately aged out of the demographic one probably should have occupied to have rode the wave of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers mania at its mid-1990s peak.  Nonetheless, I can still recall these teenage superheroes having been everywhere, bolstered by the immense popularity of their eponymous television series and line of toys, all targeted at children younger than I was at the time.  I can't help but feel that, were I born just a few years later than I had been, I might also have latched on to the world of Power Rangers bliss, one that revolved around five teenagers, plucked from their fairly average lives and equipped with identities/abilities matched to long-extinct animals, in the ongoing battle with the forces of evil.  Villains took the form of such tastily-named baddies as Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa, faceless goons called Putties threatened the Rangers during most episodes, and each 30-minute long slugfest-mixed-with-high-school-dramatics usually ended with the group summoning giant robots so as to construct a massive Jaeger-esque machine in order to fight another similarly-sized Monster Of The Day.  Tell me again, why exactly didn't I like this?

Despite my age, this didn't stop me from tuning in to witness the much-anticipated unveiling of the White Ranger, as well as promising my cousin Jimmy I would build for him a Green Ranger helmet he could wear to the inevitable excited cries of his jealous classmates.  Don't worry cousin, I'll finish it one day.

Power Rangers comes on the heels of the classic show, several mid-to-late '90s theatrical releases and even an ultra-dark short film from a few years back which attempted to ground the characters in realism.  Power Rangers seems to be taking a page from the latter, with a tone similar to 2012's Chronicle mixed with the show itself and a premise ever so slightly updated from the series.  The five relative unknowns cast as the titular Rangers are all decent in the most average way possible, and as Rita Repulsa, the underrated Elizabeth Banks plays her to the campiest extent one can imagine, a method that works in ways I can't describe.  She's silly, frightening, and overall representative of an actress completely committing to a role.  The great Bryan Cranston, who early in his career voiced several monsters on the show, returns to the franchise as Zordon, the Rangers' enigmatic advisor, and Bill Hader voices Alpha 5, Zordon's assistant.  Cranston, ever the outstanding talent that he is, plays Zordon with the greatest of ease, while Hader, who seems to have carved out a unique sub-career as a voice actor, is actually a perfect Alpha 5, the film's comic relief, even if the special effects used to bring Alpha 5 to life are fairly average at best.

Aside from Alpha 5, most of the remaining effects look good, and when the film shifts from origin story to the inevitable climactic battle scenes, the atmosphere shifts from somewhat dark to, essentially, a 2017 version of the show.  I could complain about the cheesiness present periodically throughout-the campfire scene, in particular, is a great example of this-but when the movie is viewed in the context of the original series, any cheese can be easily forgiven.  The score, composed by Brian Tyler, moves the film forward, though the dialogue does get a bit buried from time to time under Tyler's music-then again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  This ain't Shakespeare, folks.  However, when the infamous theme song kicks in at just the right moment, the audience I was with absolutely reacted with joy, and I myself couldn't help but smile.  Somehow, it works.

Overall, shortcomings in the screenplay, effects, acting or director Dean Israelite (2015's simiarily-themed found-footage bomb Project Almanac) shouldn't be hard to ignore-Power Rangers is great fun, a film one shouldn't think about for a second and one which should absolutely appeal to every adult who once clutched their favorite Ranger doll while curled up on their couch after school to tune in to the latest adventures from their favorite teenage superhero squad.  Even though I never had this experience, in watching this film I felt like I had, another reminder that my childhood is never far away and that films like this serve as the perfect reminder of simpler days gone by.  With plans for multiple sequels in the works, I find myself strangely excited for the next installment, one which should follow the same format as its predecessor if it wants to achieve the same level of nostalgia while setting up what could be a successful continuation of a beloved franchise.

Bring it on!

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

The Edge of Seventeen is yet another quirky teen dramedy for everyone who wanted a watered-down Juno.  I'd heard it having been compared to the works of the late great John Hughes, and while I can certainly see a few shades of the man in The Edge of Seventeen, usually in terms of dialogue, characters & the high school setting, such comparisons are short-lived and ultimately undeserving of a place alongside one of cinema's foremost voices when it comes to the teen film.

The premise is fairly simple-quirky girl develops a close friendship at a young age, quirky girl's father dies, friend of quirky girl starts dating quirky girl's older, more popular brother, quirky girl pursues a mysterious heartthrob while ignoring feelings from a similarly socially-awkward classmate, other things happen, movie eventually ends.

In the main role of Nadine, Hailee Steinfeld, a usually reliable actress with a pedigree that includes her star-making turn in 2010's remake of True Grit and a fine supporting role in 2013's Begin Again, tries desperately to give her Indie Girl trope some semblance of uniqueness, and while her performance isn't necessarily a bad one, it's nothing we haven't seen before played by so many other equally-capable actresses.  The supporting cast, which includes Woody Harrelson as her teacher Mr.  Bruner, Kyra Sedgwick as her widowed mom Mona, Haley Lu Richardson as her aforementioned friend Krista, Blake Jenner as her brother Darien and Hayden Szeto as her admirer Erwin all do an adequate job in their respective roles, though there are two standouts within this group, with Woody Harrelson truly stealing the show in yet another fantastic performance from someone I've respected since 1995's tremendously underrated Money Train.  Although his character's relationship with Nadine may be perceived as odd at best by confused people like myself, he effortlessly makes the most of his role and knocks it out of the part in the process.  The same can be said for Hayden Szeto as Nadine's classmate Erwin-I believe this may be one of his first movies, and if this is any indicator of what we can expect from him going forward, I eagerly await his next project.

In wearing the multiple hats of director/producer/writer, Kelly Fremon Craig (2009's forgettable Post Grad) does an average job, showing she at least knows how to perform the duties of someone in charge of a film while never once going above and beyond the call of duty into the world of great cinema she's clearly striving to reach-there's potential here, but it couldn't have fallen any shorter of the goal than it does in this case.  James L.  Brooks also lent a hand in producing, and I have to point out how odd it is to see the Gracie Films logo in any setting other than at the end of an episode of The Simpsons.

Overall, The Edge of Seventeen has its moments, usually stemming from Mr.  Harrelson or Hayden Szeto, but said moments are unfortunately far too short-lived.  Every other area of the firm emits a run-of-the-mill stench we've smelled many times over, one which doesn't show any signs of lessening as time goes by and the genre continues to be fed films that try too hard to be uniquely different.  The Edge of Seventeen might be worth a viewing, or you could do something else instead.

PATRIOTS DAY

Patriots Day is the latest offering from Peter Berg, only a few months removed from his Also-Based-On-A-True-Story epic Deepwater Horizon.  Fans of that film will find plenty of similarities in this, a dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, especially in terms of the handheld shaky-cam cinematography and understated score courtesy of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.  Though the film starts off on a somewhat lively, upbeat note, packed with enough Boston clichés and near-constant reminders of the year in which the film takes place, when the actual event occurs, Patriots Day immediately shifts into an entirely different, understandably darker tone. 

Cast-wise, everyone does an acceptable job, with Mark Wahlberg again starring in a Peter Berg film once more rolling out that Boston accent which by now unfortunately just sounds like he’s playing his character from Ted over & over.  His character, a composite of several individuals from that fateful day, fits him perfectly, again showcasing his ability to play an everyman with the greatest of ease.  Michelle Monaghan as his wife is average at best, while John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and J.  K.   Simmons as law enforcement officials all bring a fair amount of gravitas to their performances as real-life individuals who helped in the post-bombing investigation (and subsequent manhunt).  Furthermore, let it be said that the bombing sequence, as well as the inevitable confrontation with the perpetrators that took place in Watertown, are filmed in a manner similar to Deepwater Horizon's climactic explosion-devoid of music and allowing the action to take center stage.  Both scenes are truly intense and not always for the faint-hearted.

Sure, the accents many of the characters sport don't always work, nor do the actors themselves commit to said accents 100% of the time.  Patriots Day is still a unique film, one that seems to accurately tell the story of that fateful time four years ago and the many people who helped save the day.  Seeing characters that had been previously separated from their loved ones during the event eventually reunite is as heartwarming as it sounds, while an epilogue featuring footage & interviews with many of the real-life individuals portrayed in the film offers a nice postscript to the story as well.  A true companion to Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg has proven to have a knack for bringing some of America's worst moments to the screen in a manner that helps to preserve history, while reminding us that humanity truly has the ability to come together when said moments rear their life-changing head.  This, I believe, is Berg's goal, and if that continues to remain his intentions, I welcome his movies as a Boston Marathon runner welcomes that sensation as they cross the finish line.  

This is Boston, this is America, this is us at our best.

BLEED FOR THIS

Let it be said that few films can hold a candle to a good movie about boxing.  At least, that's my opinion.

It's hard to understate the importance of a franchise like Rocky, a series of films I was fortunate to see over time as I aged into adulthood, at which point the genre continued to cement a place in my heart with outstanding entries such as Ron Howard’s 2005 effort Cinderella Man and David O.  Russell’s Oscar-winning 2010 masterpiece The Fighter.  Even 2015's underrated Southpaw deserves a spot thanks to a gritty, compelling performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Bleed for This, the latest entry in the genre, takes elements from every film I've mentioned, combines them with yet another true story and succeeds in proving how cinematic boxing films can be.  Director Ben Younger, largely not seen since 2000's underappreciated Boiler Room, tells the story of Vinny Pazienza, a talented, cocky Italian boxer with a championship title who suffers a debilitating setback following a devastating car accident that leaves him nearly paralyzed from the neck down and a determined wish/goal to re-enter the ring despite the concerns of nearly everyone around him.

Right from the start, the films I’ve mentioned quickly show their influence on Bleed for This, but this isn’t a bad thing-a true story such as this one can’t be helped if one can compare it to any number of boxing, sports or underdog films in existence.  Indeed, a story like Vinny’s seems tailor-made for film, and in the main role Miles Teller thankfully redeems himself after the average War Dogs with a performance that borrows from Sylvester Stallone in the most affectionate way possible.  Aaron Eckhart as his alcoholic coach may be riddled with cliché, but in committing himself fully to the role he delivers yet another great performance next to his surprisingly fine appearance in last year’s Also-True Sully.  Katy Segal as Vinny’s mother is decent, however Ciaran Hinds as Vinny’s father Angelo may cause many to take notice-he may come off as a prototypical Italian mobster-type in both looks & speech, but somehow manages to exude compassion and a wonderful relationship with his on-screen son.  An uplifting score by Julia Holter fits the action onscreen perfectly, and it should come as no surprise that Angelo Pizzo, the man behind such underdog sports epics as 1993’s Rudy & 1986’s Hoosiers, fittingly adapted the screenplay along with Younger.

As reliable as the genre from which it comes, Bleed for This hits every predictable mark and yet still manages to tell an engaging story boosted by a superb cast & Younger's direction.  The casual filmgoer may see it as just another boxing film, but for me, it delivers a punch that squarely hits the mark.  

DON'T THINK TWICE

As an active high school theatre participant, I was excited to learn my junior year that our drama circle would be subject to improv training, a spontaneous, script-less style of theatre that heavily utilizes comedy, games & audience participation.  After engaging in improv throughout the next two years, I did undertake a round of training at ComedySportz in Milwaukee, after which I found the time for a few scattered improv performances as time went by.  Unfortunately, around 2003 my local music involvement began to take over in a big way, at which point I ceased my association with this art form, essentially pounding the final nail into the coffin that was my theatrical career.  However, I continued to remain a silent fan of improv as the years went by, having been to my share of Saturday night ComedySportz performances as well as watching as friends formed their own improv groups (including the Milwaukee-based Mojo Dojo Comedy, Tall Boys Improv and the late Homegrown Electric Circus, among others).

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has enjoyed a highly successful career via his one-man show/album/book/movie Sleepwalk with Me, along with a slew of guest spots on television & film, and with Don’t Think Twice he again handles most of the behind-the-scenes duties while also playing one of the main roles.  The premise is simple-a New York City-based improv troupe (seemingly modeled on The Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade) known as The Commune has served as a breeding ground for comedians to transition into more successful career opportunities, one of the highest of which involves being cast on the Saturday Night Live-modeled Weekend Live.  The six members of The Commune all come from different backgrounds, and seem to have different life goals as well-Birbiglia’s washed-up troupe leader Miles harbors dreams of one day having another stab at Weekend Live following a failed audition over a decade earlier, Keegan-Michael Key’s Jack possesses a tendency to showboat onstage & a ravenous desire to make Weekend Live as well, Tami Sagher’s Lindsay seems content to continue drifting through life thanks to wealthy, supportive parents, while Kate Micucci’s Allison & Chris Gethard’s Bill enjoy being members of The Commune but equally enjoy collaborating on outside creative projects together.  Meanwhile, Gillian Jacobs as Sam, undoubtedly the most talented member of the group (and Jack’s girlfriend), must figure out where her future lies, especially when she and Jack are offered the chance to tryout for the prestigious Weekend Live, thus causing a semi-rift in the group and setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Don’t Think Twice is probably a better effort from Birbiglia than the slightly unfocused Sleepwalk with Me, though it does still suffer from elements that may cause audience interest to wander from time to time.  Every cast member has moments where they don’t fully commit to their character, and Birbiglia’s tendency to load the film with scenes in which characters talk over one another does display an honest effort at portraying realism but will usually result in people like myself straining to understand what any one person is saying at times.  The realism also takes shape during the many scenes where people such as Key and Jacobs prepare their impersonations for their Weekend Live auditions, as well as the many actual moments when The Commune takes the stage, but said moments usually only produce groan-worthy laughs and the aforementioned preparation scenes by Key & Jacobs do get fairly annoying.

That all being said, if one were to step back and look at Don’t Think Twice as a whole, one will see a fantastic look at growing up, a movie that differs itself from coming-of-age films that focus on younger generations and instead profiles grown adults who still need to find their paths through life.  The movie honestly contains some truly heartfelt moments, ones which do deliver in the emotion department, accentuated by a beautiful score courtesy of Roger Neill.  Key and Jacobs, despite their few shortcomings at times, in particular do a fine job, and the rest of the cast help balance out the story extremely well.  A subplot involving Bill’s dying father does tend to teeter between compelling and useless, but eventually feels right at home within Don’t Think Twice and even ends up producing some unexpected humor that helps elevate what is ultimately a very sad arc.  Even a cameo by Ben Stiller manages to eke out a few chuckles thanks to Stiller’s genuinely honest demeanor-it oddly may be one of his best performances in years.

Don’t Think Twice is far from perfect, but does serve to showcase Birbiglia’s potential for even better work as well as the up-and-coming talent from a diverse cast.  It’s clear that, with each successive film, Birbiglia is learning more about how to tighten up his writing, as well as how to bring about excellent performances from his actors, even if it’s not always on point here.  As someone who continues to struggle with wondering what to do with my career, I deeply connected with the story, recognizing similar feelings as were produced by Richard Linklater’s ambitious, excellent Boyhood.  I don’t need to think twice about how much I enjoyed this film, and know that, much like a promising improv troupe, his next effort will be even better.

THE FOUNDER

In The Founder, a severely watered-down The Social Network or There Will Be Blood paired with mass-produced fast food, Michael Keaton does a decent job in playing Ray Kroc, the ambitious man who ushered the McDonald’s brand into a world of blockbuster success, though at the end of the day his performance is nothing all that memorable and comes with a curious, oft-slurred accent that makes me wonder how anyone was ever able to understand what the real Kroc was saying at any given time.  The lack of chemistry he and the rest of the cast have with one another only further solidifies the film’s average quality-Laura Dern as Kroc’s wife Ethel brings little to the table, though Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch give their McDonald brother characters individually defining traits (Offerman eschews Ron Swanson-esque stoic-ness, while Lynch is slightly more playful in a vain attempt to try and claw his way back into prominent films).  Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini as husband-and-wife McDonald’s franchisees do what they can with the material they’re given, and B.  J.  Novak, returning to the Hancock camp following 2013’s drab Saving Mr.  Banks, tries to give his tiny role a bit of gee-whiz ‘50s energy but ultimately ends up coming off as Ryan Howard all over again.  Plus, let it be said that Nick Offerman without facial hair doesn’t work well at all.

One might expect more from director John Lee Hancock, although to be honest I have personally never truly loved any of his films, which also includes the supremely run-of-the-mill 2002 sports effort The Rookie and 2009’s overrated The Blind Side.  However, it is disappointing to know that Robert Siegel, the writer of 2008’s outstanding The Wrestler and who also directed 2010’s Big Fan, scripted The Founder-the man can, and has done, much better.  If anything, this film should serve to make one realize how terrible of a person Ray Kroc was, and may even dissuade future visits to any of the many restaurants he helped develop into the culinary mainstay they are today.

Overall, the quality in terms of Filmmaking 101 isn’t terrible, but that still doesn’t mean The Founder is a great movie.  See it if you will.  Much like a trip to a real McDonald’s, it’ll be out of your system soon.

WAR DOGS

Todd Phillips, several years removed from directorial duties on the third, exhaustive final entry in his Hangover trilogy, has brought about a film that tries to take a semi-serious stab at topical events with mixed results.  In something of a transition from comedy to drama-comedy that mirrors director Adam McKay’s work a year earlier on The Big Short, Phillips has created something that does attempt to distance itself from his previous work and, though it succeeds in some ways, can’t help but still feel awash in shades of the crude humor trademark of his filmography up to this point. 

But that’s only one issue.  There are many others.

The true story of two ambitious twentysomething arms dealers played by Miles Teller & Jonah Hill, War Dogs is a fairly straightforward look at their less-than-scrupulous business activities filled with enough two-man backstabbing, blackmailing and the like to make any fan of 2010’s similarly-themed The Social Network at least somewhat interested.  Unfortunately, though neither actor delivers particularly bad performances, neither actor seems to commit 100% to their respective roles as well, which is a disappointment considering their pedigree in recent Oscar nominated entries over the past few years (Hill in 2011’s Moneyball and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Teller with Whiplash).  Hill, in particular, gives his character an unusual laugh and seems to be adopting characteristics stolen from his Wolf of Wall Street lead Leonardo DiCaprio, as the drug-fueled head of the weapons company he and Teller establish.  The film even features scenes seemingly lifted directly from the DiCaprio masterpiece, such as a moment where Hill fires an innocent employee at his arms company in an explosive fit of rage.  He probably exists as the film’s antagonist, and at least in that regard he’s somewhat decent.  Teller largely phones in his portrayal, and a generic subplot involving dishonesty towards his family with regards to his profession seems both cliché and slightly out of place.  At least both actors know how to shoot angry looks towards one another, which Phillips uses to his advantage numerous times.  I suppose most of these shortcomings can be blamed on the dull screenplay, also co-written by Phillips himself, but even an invested cast member will know how to take a lackluster script and do their best.  It is here that talent is born, but ultimately Phillips seems content to let the two leads do what they wish before the cameras without so much as a suggestion of how to make their scenes even a bit more compelling.

On a more positive note, the soundtrack is quite good, if a bit scattershot at times in a pseudo-Suicide Squad sort of way.  Furthermore, Bradley Cooper, who also helped produce the film and returns to the Phillips camp following his star-making turn in the aforementioned Hangover saga, somehow manages to play a legendary dealer who assists our intrepid leads in their biggest deal yet quite effortlessly, once again putting that trademark Cooper charm on full display while giving his character enough of an edge to throw audiences off somewhat in terms of line delivery and the manner with which he carries his character in his interactions, usually involving Teller.  He’s smooth, terrifying, sympathetic and absolutely the most interesting character in the film.  Shots of various international locales look excellent and are infused with the right amount of hoo-rah patriotism, even if I highly doubt any of those scenes were filmed on location.  The movie even has an interesting ending, proving that War Dogs does get better as it goes along, but not by much.

Though I commend Todd Phillips for something of an about-face in the wake of The Hangover Part III, and though War Dogs is a step in the right direction, it is ultimately a small one.  However, I feel there’s still good work left in him-his focus should be not only on tighter writing going forward, but also a cast that genuinely seem to want to be on set, something which The Hangover trilogy surprisingly seemed to have in abundance.  I can recommend War Dogs for a one-time viewing or as something to watch if nothing else seems interesting, but even then one might be better off watching any number of documentaries on the actual figures portrayed in this film.  It is interesting to note that the real individual Teller plays has a cameo early in the film playing guitar and singing at a nursing home-oddly enough, he looks to be having a great time, and when you compare the joy in his brief appearance to the rest of the downtrodden cast, that’s just plain sad.

Sigh.

LIVE BY NIGHT

Right off the bat, full disclosure-I can’t begin to describe to you the premise of this film.  Obviously, this is not a good thing in any way.

It’s a shame, because on paper Ben Affleck’s mob epic Live By Night had all the ingredients that could have potentially produced an outstanding piece of art.  Mr.  Affleck, back behind the camera following successful directorial efforts including 2010’s The Town and 2012’s Oscar-winning Argo, also starred in and adapted the screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the man who, among other works, wrote the book upon which Argo was based.  Furthermore, on a personal level I’ll always appreciate a well-crafted mob film, from more recent classics like 1990’s outstanding Martin Scorsese masterpiece Goodfellas, 1997’s Donnie Brasco & even AMC's docuseries The Making of the Mob, while the 1920s/1930s-era Prohibition setting, also present in 1987’s incredible The Untouchables, just so happens to be one of my favorite historical eras.

So, where exactly did Live By Night go wrong?  Nearly every element of this film suffers greatly at one point or another, especially when it comes to the script, which truly can’t decide what type of movie this should be.  Gangsters, family issues, betrayal, revenge, bootleggers-all things that could have potentially come together successfully end up working instead on a level reserved for oil & water, burying one another along with components like a soundtrack I believe was present somewhere in the mix but doesn’t stand out in any way.  Twists in the "story" fail to pack the punch they should possess, largely due to an overall “story” that fails to build a crescendo as all great movies should.  It even has a surprisingly tearful, somewhat out-of-place Road to Perdition-esque ending, one which only adds to the overall confusion of this ridiculous film.

The cast, despite overflowing with promise, is another tremendous letdown, especially considering the talent involved-every individual may be given brief flashes of greatness from time to time, but those moments are fleeting and quickly return said individual to the bland, underwhelming soup they occupy for the reminder of the film.  Ben Affleck spends the majority of Live By Night wearing a sullen look on his heavily made up face while sauntering around in ill-fitting period suits, though Chris Messina as his sidekick fares a bit better by bringing some much-needed levity to his character’s lines.  Zoe Saldana & Sienna Miller sport less-than-convincing accents and a complete lack of chemistry as Affleck’s lovers, Chris Cooper phones in another gravelly performance as some sort of cop who assists Affleck in his criminal empire, and Elle Fanning as Cooper’s daughter goes from innocent to something reminiscent of Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, a strange portrayal that teeters somewhere between watchable & wildly overdramatic.  Luckily, her eventual transition into that of a broken woman, one that bookends her character’s arc, may very well be one of Live By Night’s better scenes.  Furthermore, though small roles are handled by Scott Eastwood, frequent Affleck collaborator Titus Welliver, Clark “It’s Very Difficult For Me To Play A Character That Isn’t Agent Coulson” Gregg & a forgettable appearance by Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s father, seeing ‘80s icons like Anthony Michael Hall & even Doogie Howser’s buddy Max Casella as an orange-eating greaseball bring about a vision of the casting director throwing darts at a list of has-beens with a maniacal cackle escaping his crusty lips.  He too is confused.

That all said, the movie isn’t a complete loss-gunfights are executed well, and the set work/cinematography is phenomenal, nailing the intended atmosphere in a similar manner as 2009’s also-disappointing Public Enemies was able to achieve.  However, even these technical components aren’t anywhere close to saving what should have been a home run for Ben Affleck, armed with more credibility, money and studio backing in the wake of the previous successes the man has helmed.

It’s been mentioned that Live By Night could mark the death of the mob film, and I have to wonder if that may be true.  As I left the AMC Mayfair on a chilly Monday night in January of 2017, I couldn’t help but immediately feel a complete lack of interest in future output from the genre, along with a sense of sorrow for Affleck following a rough year for the actor kicked off by the widely reviled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I have to hope that the remainder of 2017 treats him better, what with the presumably also-Affleck-heavy Justice League in the studio’s pipeline, but if that film suffers from the same script & cast issues as Live By Night, it will naturally be regarded in comparable fashion-forgettable and bad, though to truly use the word bad would be to describe a film I could, at the very least, understand enough to label as such.

In the case of Live By Night, I could not.