So, yeah. This is…this is all happening.
If, like me, you can’t stop watching the national trainwreck, it’s possible that it’s a little hard to go about the normal part of your day. That combined with a work schedule and a crop of films that it’s just a little hard to get myself out there to see (minus Elle and 20th Century Women which I’m going to do my best to get out there for) means that it’s been a little while since I’ve been out to see much.
Good news, there’s still a few things that I have a few thoughts on. I’ll try to keep things up and I’m sure once I’m revitalized by Lego Batman and John Wick: Chapter 2, the flow will return. But why not take a look at a few of the things I’ve been watching in the meantime?
Live By Night
Ben. Let’s talk, Ben. Look, Live by Night really isn’t that bad. Honest.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s stuffed to the brim and nowhere near long enough. It has one great idea for every two bad ones. Moreover, one great scene for every two bad ones. The performances are all over the place. It’s edited with a chainsaw. The dialogue is entirely tough guy platitudes. Just up and down…a lot of bad.
In an alternate world, Live by Night is the hottest HBO show running. It seems like there are so many ideas that could make for whole seasons or arcs. Gangsters vs. The KKK. A Boston ex-con establishing himself as a Miami Crime Lord. Bringing down the men who gave you a second chance. All of this needs so much room to breathe, but we flip through. Live by Night is like a gangster epic flipbook.
But there’s a surprising amount of charm to the film! It’s the kind of big mob flick that you have to admire for its ambition if not necessarily for its execution. Robert Richardson is a brilliant DP and this film is shot stunningly, helped along by some really fantastic production and costume design work. And Ben! You’re such a good director, that even the stuff that shouldn’t work totally does. There’s a shoot-out sequence you’ve clearly always wanted to make, some really handsomely put together action sequences, and when your material isn’t boring, it works.
But Ben…someone needs to tell you to quit casting yourself. Now, it seems that thanks to The Batman, you’re learning that lesson, do one or the other. And I do like you as an actor. But you’re an amazing director, the kind of simple, lean thriller director that I’ll come out for everytime. Find somebody to pair with. Do another movie with your brother. Or hey, here’s an idea: Start casting Jon Hamm in lead. You’ve worked with him before. Hamm gives you a guy who can pull off being morally complex while still looking like a Bogart-esque matinee idol, and you give Hamm a great meaty lead role that lets him flex his non-Don Draper wings.
Live By Night isn’t a total failure. But for a guy who’s kept the standards so high, I can definitely see why this felt like a nosedive. Hopefully this is the lesson that needs to be learned so Ben Affleck can really kick ass on the next one.
So, I’m pretty sure Denis Villeneuve is the next great semi-populist filmmaker. He seemed confined to a niche for a while, capable of making icy thrillers that mostly focused on the sort of emotional exhaustion they could put you through. But between the much warmer and more human Arrival and the…
Well, Enemy isn’t exactly those things, but it isn’t quite the thriller of Sicario or Prisoners. It’s a different beast entirely, more akin to an arthouse version of that original mode. Something deliberately ambiguous and difficult, to be pieced together and interpreted, never quite figured out.
This is more that I want to throw out my interpretation than actually review what’s going on here. I kind of throw in with the idea that Enemy is a film about creeping totalitarian control (gee, I wonder why I think that right now) and the ways in which we can so easily slide into it without realizing. The recurring motif of the spider, the way the webs appear in tragedy, the way it looms over the city, seems to point to this idea of this encroaching control, this encroaching presence. They don’t notice until it’s too late, even though Gylenhaal’s Adam is an expert in totalitarian control and the course of history. The double is removing his sense of individuality, it’s a distraction as the web slowly overtakes the city.
That final shot is when it’s undeniable, when the authoritarianism can’t be stopped. There’s a reason that Adam is the one to survive, and the one to stare it in the face.
The Good Place
You ever watch a show and wonder what the hell took you so long?
Yeah, that’s The Good Place. A high-concept comedy loaded with tons of weird comedic details starring a small but lovable cast? This is pretty much all I’d ever need, at least in the wake of Better Off Ted and Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation leaving me behind.
In fact coming to us from the creator of Parks and Recreation, The Good Place is about Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who accidentally wakes up in
Heaven The Good Place, a idyllic afterlife designed by whimsical heavenly architect Michael (Ted Danson). Eleanor has to figure out how she can keep herself here with the help of Chidi (William Harper), an ethics professor, and navigate the Place, which is now in chaos seemingly thanks to her arrival.
Everyone here is really great, special shout-outs need to be thrown to Ted Danson and William Harper, who own basically every bit of the show. Its production design is absolutely top-knotch, with background gags and weird details that rival The Simpsons at its best. It’s definitely more screwball than Parks and Rec was. Much of the comedic set-up is about getting the situations put into place and seeing them slowly unravel.
I have so much more to say, but none of it can be said for a little while. Watch this. Now.
The Young Pope
If I could ever be said to have “stories,” they would probably look something like The Young Pope. Yes, it’s indulging heavily in Paolo Sorrentino’s European art film mode of filmmaking. In fact, few shows have ever been so heavily auteurist like this one, so unbendingly owed to the visions and obsessions of a single voice. It’s a weird show, willing to go down whatever visual tangent it feels.
But why I think this is a “story” for me, something I’m really clinging onto, is that the show does have a surprisingly strong through-line that gets me (and other viewers) coming back week by week. This has been called the first show (unwittingly, it actually released in full last year) of the Donald Trump-era (because everything is these days), but I’ll admit that I see the argument. It’s a show about political intrigue and systems running up against a man who breaks those norms, who actively despises them. It’s an intriguing dive into power and the way we wield it, especially with your soul on the line.
Plus, Jude Law is giving an all-timer of a TV performance. A performance that’s absolutely aware of his perceptions as an actor and using them with all the camp he can muster, at least when he needs to. Law is owning this show, which is what he needs to be doing for this to work on any scale.
The Stage, Avenged Sevenfold
Yeah, I never really thought I’d have much to say about an Avenged Sevenfold album either.
Let’s recognize a band when they actually improve. Removing the hard-rock swagger/Metallica and Iron Maiden-ripping sound that’s defined them up until now, The Stage replaces all that with a sound that can be described as veering towards prog metal. If it wasn’t for that surprisingly distinctive guitar tone, I don’t know if you could have told me that this was an Avenged Sevenfold album. Especially considering there’s a diversion from the angsty/swaggering lyrics to more esoteric material, more God and Space and Universe whatnot. Again, very prog metal. The talent in the band has always been there, it’s just nice to see them get to flex their wings. M. Shadows or whatever ridiculous stage name he has continues to be the band’s weak spot, his vacuum cleaner voice works in the heavier material but is noticeably thin in the quieter sections. But I defend James LaBrie in Dream Theater, so I suppose I shouldn’t say anything here.
Yeah, Avenged Sevenfold. Good for you. Keep it up.
Near To The Wild Heart of Life, The Japandroids
I have nothing substantive to say except that this album rocks and you should go listen to it the first chance you get.