Tag: ben affleck

Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Planning and executing a heist in order to steal over seventy-five million dollars from a drug lord in the middle of the Colombian jungle is only about a third of the fun in “Triple Frontier,” co-written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, an adrenaline-fueled and entertaining action picture saddled with occasional dialogue regarding guilt and morality. The attempt to humanize the characters, all of whom are former Special Forces, is appreciated, but the work is most enjoyable when guns are armed and the men must depart hurriedly before they are outnumbered and flanked by the enemy.

The star-studded cast is made up of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, and Garrett Hedlund. Each one is able to bring something special to the table, not relying simply on their looks or celebrity persona to cruise through the material. The screenwriters ensure to communicate why each member of the heist team is critical to the mission. Particularly important is why Santiago (Isaac) is the leader even though he is not the strongest, or smartest, or even the most technologically savvy. More generic action films tend to reduce team leaders as archetypes. Here, we are given a chance to appreciate specific moments when our central protagonist, for instance, is being pragmatic, weak, emotional, empathetic. He holds himself accountable when things go right and, perhaps more importantly, when things go south.

There is a wonderful rapport among the cast which makes us believe that the soldiers have shared a strong history. When they get together, although there is the expected hugging and patting on the back, we are able to capture recognition in their eyes. This is where Chandor’s direction comes into play. He gives time for the men acclimate to one another after years of separation instead of simply parading one breathless action piece right after another. It shows that we are in the hands of a patient filmmaker, the helmer of high caliber works—“All is Lost” being one of them.

Shoot ‘em up scenes command tension because we care for the soldiers who decide they now want a big piece of the pie after years of hardships yet not having much to show for it. Another reason is that suspense is allowed to build and swell until it can no longer be sustained. An excellent example is the well-planned robbery. There is far too much money to be put in bags but so little time. We can almost hear the clock ticking because every second counts. Every room entered that contains no money feels all the more disappointing. But when finally faced with stacks upon stacks of cash, the characters we think we know change almost instantaneously. It becomes one of those movies where the viewer is compelled to yell instructions at the screen—in a good way.

Another element that separates the work from other action flicks is its use of setting. Instead of relying on action scenes that take place indoors—a house, a building—it takes advantage of the beautiful South American landscapes: jungles, mountains, farms, beaches. In a way, doing so adds a level of thrill because being out in the open space constantly puts our protagonists at a disadvantage. They could be seen from afar and wouldn’t know it until a rain of bullets come flying.

Justice League

Justice League (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although not as polished, lean, and emotionally satisfying as Marvel films that have found strong footing in terms of establishing a specific tone while juggling a team where every member stands out, Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the most important change in this expansion of the DC universe is the decision to make room for moments of levity. What results is a superhero picture that is actually enjoyable rather than one that is drowning in its misery, grim look, and would-be philosophical musings about what it means to be a protector of mankind.

Fans of the genre will likely check in for the action, but I found that one of the film’s strengths is when two characters simply connect either by sharing memories or challenging one another’s ideals. An example of the former involves Lois Lane (Amy Adams) being visited by Martha Kent (Diane Lane) at the Daily Planet and eventually the two women touch upon how Clark Kent’s death (Henry Cavill) has changed their lives. Neither is as strong as she thought she would be or could be, making their grieving process believable and relatable. As for the latter, at one point Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) find themselves at odds in terms of how to use a powerful but dangerous technology. A clash of ethics turns personal real quick and suddenly we see them as Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince rather than their counterparts. It goes to show that with the right script exploring the right themes, this universe has a chance to become compelling.

The villain requires more work to be interesting, especially when it is a CGI character. Although the goal of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) is clear, hoping to reduce the planet to its primitive state by acquiring three energy-filled boxes hidden across the planet, it is yet another antagonist who wishes to end the world. It is a oft-tread path and at this day and age, having so many superhero films come and gone, it is not a good enough motivation. The best modern superhero films of the genre offer villains that function within the morally gray. The most recent example is Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) in Jon Watts’ earnest and energetic “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The man simply wishes to provide his family a good life. We relate to his goal; we may or may not relate to the path he chooses to take to get to that goal.

New faces of the team—The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—are given moments to shine outside of their specific personalities. Although none of them are fully realized characters yet, they command enough intrigue that I wish know more about them in future installments. Out of the three, Miller is most surprising given my knowledge that the performer specializes in playing extreme characters: people who are psychologically out there, some of them downright disturbed. For Miller to deliver a character that is fun and someone with whom one wants to be friends with, Barry Allen is a most welcome addition to his oeuvre. I can’t wait to see where he will take the character.

“Justice League” offers just enough entertaining action sequences. Although they tend to suffer from diminishing returns, especially because the giant CGI bugs are utilized too often (all of them looking the same with zero personality does not help), these scenes create a steady, accessible rhythm with enough camera acrobatics to create some level of urgency. A fresh perspective is that although Batman is the leader of the pack, he is perhaps the most vulnerable physically since he has zero superpower. The material milks a couple of jokes out of this curious situation.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The greatest hindrance of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” written by Chris Terri and David S. Goyer, from becoming great piece of work is its inability to iron out the main story and the accompanying subplots in such a way that all of them, by end of its running time of one hundred fifty minutes, feel complete and thoroughly satisfying. Instead, what results is at least three movies—potentially good ones—compacted into one rushed film. One feels the pressure the studio puts on itself to release a product—including other movies planned to stem from it—instead of focusing on the assignment at hand.

Action sequences become underwhelming eventually because the grim-faced tone does not change even on a subtle level. For instance, the hand-to-hand combat between The Dark Knight (Ben Affleck) and the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill), are certainly well-choreographed, but there is no personality and there is a lack of genuine ingenuity to how they fight. Thus, tension does not build during their confrontation. The battle is built up to be the centerpiece of the film but the result is so pedestrian that one is left in disbelief.

There is a tendency for characters to explain themselves constantly. Expositions lead up to more unnecessary expositions and platitudes so the material barely takes off. Superior pictures, regardless of the genre, are written, executed, and acted in such a way that inner turmoil is felt and understood without relying on voicing out feelings and thoughts on a constant basis. A litmus test of superhero movies: Does the work still function as an engaging dramatic piece when superhero elements are taken away?

Two new characters stand out but deserve more screen time. Initially, I found Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor to be a major miscalculation. My mind kept telling me that he would better off as The Riddler or some villain of that sort. But looking closely at his performance, he milks every moment of snark and intelligent lines. There is always something behind the eyes. In every scene, I could not help but pay attention to this interpretation of Lex Luthor and wonder what he might be up to. Although arguably miscast, Eisenberg’s commitment to the role won me over.

A more effortless but equally magnetic performance is delivered by Gal Gadot. Her interpretation of Diana Prince, whose secret identity is Wonder Woman, is sultry, mysterious, full of presence. She commands the screen even during moments when only half of her face is showing. The picture comes closest to being playful during Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne’s repartee, so for a few minutes the movie comes alive. Their allure and chemistry together is so strong that one smiles at the possibility of a movie with just the two of them together.

Directed by Zack Snyder, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a dark, brooding, and tonally flat transition to an expansion of a franchise. Although its ambition is admirable and it does offer a few positive qualities to offer, it is neither a film that is easily likable nor one that inspires the viewer to see it more than once. Since many details of the story are either unfocused or not explored under the most rigorous standards, the work offers no compelling message, or messages, about power, sacrifice, and mercy.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel and screenplay by Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl” is a mystery-thriller that gets under the skin and into the bone, at times tickling the brain with its twists and turns alongside occasionally amusing one-liners, which makes the two-hour-and-thirty-minute peek into the lives of a suburban Missourian couple worthwhile. It is like watching a “Best Of” episodes of Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” only the film is directed by David Fincher which means darker elements are amplified and the ironic touches concentrated.

But the film is let down a bit by its unusual and ultimately ineffective casting of some supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris sticks out like a sore thumb as a former flame of Amy (Rosamund Pike) who may or may not have something to do with her sudden disappearance. Although Harris attempts a mix of danger, desperation, and coy—as if his character were in on some joke—I found his interpretation of the character to be quite distracting. Because there is a lack of an effective marriage between the performer and his character, just about every time he is on screen, I felt as though I was on the outside looking in rather than being cocooned in an increasingly complex and suffocating mystery.

Another misstep in terms of casting is Casey Wilson as the self-reported best friend of the woman who has gone missing. Although she is on screen fewer times than Harris, her interpretation of the character gives the impression that Noelle is supposed to be on a set of a comedy television show but somehow has gotten lost and ended up here. Granted, Noelle is, in part, supposed to be the “village idiot” but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character was written dumb but played smart? Contradiction, after all, is what makes the film function on a cerebral and, to an extent, a visceral level.

Fincher allows the mystery to unspool without the expected red herrings that usually come with the mystery-thriller genre. Instead, he employs his not unfamiliar signature of summoning basic elements of a dramatic film—in this case, a marriage drama—to elevate the tension during the exposition just enough and then eventually adding a number of jigsaw pieces onto his canvas in order to arouse our suspicions and inspire us to look a bit closer. In other words, he makes movies that slowly come to life and those willing to stick through the transformation are rewarded.

Ben Affleck is spot-on as Nick, the husband who becomes a curious specimen under the media’s microscope. Nick acts strangely because although his wife has disappeared, possibly dead, he does not know how to behave when the spotlight is on him. For instance, when photographers ask him to pose and smile in front of a missing person poster, he doesn’t even think twice about following through with the request—and what it might mean for him once the one perfect snapshot is published all over the papers and shown on national television. Thus, he gives the impression that either he does not care or he is a direct culprit. Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) certainly have their suspicions.

“Gone Girl” is a true cousin of Fincher’s other thrillers like “Se7en,” “The Game,” and “Zodiac.” Although never as dark as any of them, all four engage the viewers on a high level—to question not only what is really going on but also whether the final answer, or answers, is something that we really want to know. And just when we are convinced that the final layer has been peeled off completely, a movie as alive as this is already growing another stratum of skin cells, ready to be picked off.

To the Wonder

To the Wonder (2012)
★ / ★★★★

As a director I admire for taking his time to really helm a picture and consistently push the boundaries of what the cinematic medium can bring to us, it is most disappointing that Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” does not offer anything refreshing or new. It is closest to “The Tree of Life” in style but, as a whole, it comes off excruciatingly dull, almost as if the writer-director’s name is slapped onto the end credits but is actually made by an ardent but ultimately talentless impostor.

The figures on screen talk in a whispery, raspy tone to the point where it is so unnatural, clearly they are trying too hard to sound thought-provoking. Couple their bits of dialogue with would-be contemplative classical music and occasional utilization of narration to add a glimmer of context, the work ends up artificial, too controlled for what should be an enveloping experience of how it is like to be so wrapped up in being romantically involved with another. I did not feel for any of the models on screen.

Though negligible, the basic premise is this: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris and move to Oklahoma. When Marina’s visa expires, she is forced to leave the country. While Marina is overseas, Neil reconnects with a woman in his past, Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose farm is on the verge of bankruptcy. To its credit, while the set-up sounds like a sort of a love triangle, it is not.

It is not the actors’ fault that the material is so dry. The screenplay is so self-indulgent, it leaves very little wiggle room for the performers to interpret their characters in meaningful ways. I wondered why they were cast in the first place. Get an unknown face to play Affleck’s role and it would not have made a significant difference.

Many images are recycled from past Malick pictures. There is a recurring theme involving water, which symbolizes life and sustenance (in this case, of a relationship), in which similar figures, including angling and duration, can be seen in “The Tree of Life” and “The New World”–characters step in the water and their sense of being is renewed. Another involves people running or walking through wheat fields and grass, summoning “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” These are symbols of freedom, an out of body experience, and being one with nature–living things that grow directly because of the sun.

In addition, the images are repetitive. How many times must we endure looking at a man and a woman kissing, caressing, and holding hands? They are shot so slowly that it borders on fetishistic. For the lack of a better term, I found the whole thing to be sickening. Since the subject of marriage is brought up, especially from the standpoint of religion, I felt as though the writer-director has created a work with an underlying message: that in the eyes of God marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.

“To the Wonder” is suffocatingly, maddeningly esoteric. It will test anyone’s patience. There are beautiful people on screen but close to nothing is communicated. Actually, what I got from this film is less than nothing. It stole two hours of my life. And that is something I would never have imagined saying about a Malick film.


Argo (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While talking with his son over telephone and watching J. Lee Thompson’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets an idea on how to extract six Americans, working for the United States embassy, who are stuck in Tehran. It is a near impossible task given that the city is in utter upheaval because the Iranians want the U.S. government to extradite Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to his home country so that he can answer for the crimes he has committed to his people. Mendez suggests that he and the six men and women can disguise themselves as a film crew scouting for a location to shoot the latest science fiction picture called “Argo.” But before Mendez goes to Tehran, the fake movie needs to be as realistic as possible–a script, a poster, storyboards, and the whole shebang–because it is certain that suspicions will arise.

“Argo,” based on the screenplay by Chris Terrio, has the template of a slick caper flick, dramatic gravity of a grim political thriller, and a small but proper dosage of humor that pokes fun of the eccentricities of those who work in Hollywood. Although it succeeds in maintaining a high level of intensity, I could only image how the real extraction must have been like given that most of it is based on true events.

The picture benefits from being shot with confidence. Even though not many of us, including yours truly, may be familiar with the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the film places us into the situation without spelling out everything that is happening. It does so by thrusting us into a mood of urgency, the camera jumping back and forth between the anger building up to rabid rage outside the walls and the paralyzing panic circulating inside. The images of common, sweaty people climbing over walls while chanting in unison is complemented by people in professional dresses and suits desperate to burn and shred files. Those coming from the outside know that they will get inside eventually and those inside know that there is nothing they can do to stop the trespassers. The opening scene, edited by William Goldernberg, makes a highly compelling watch.

The funny moments occur between Mendez and those who work in Hollywood: Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a movie producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist. We get to see how much both men take pride in their work. Though Arkin and Goodman do not have much time on screen, we get a sense of who their characters are right away. The irony cannot be any more beautiful: a man required to perform his business in secret is working with men who create work that are not exactly inconspicuous. This a wacky combination but somehow they manage to work with one another.

The picture is about twenty minutes too long. Halfway through, there are several scenes where the six Americans hiding in the home of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) complain about the plan of their extraction. While it should be shown that anyone has the right to doubt a course of action especially if lives are on the line, it is so slowly paced. Some of the concerns expressed even sound annoying. I took comfort in the fact that at least one of them voices out that they have no choice but to go with it because they do not exactly have any other options to get out of the country. Lastly, the sequences of Mendez looking solemn while alone in a dark room are not exactly subtle. We already have an understanding of the seriousness of the situation without having to be reminded constantly.

“Argo” is an engaging experience divorced from its inspirations, what it is based on, and what is true or what is exaggerated. Strictly as a film, under Ben Affleck’s direction, it makes us root for innocent people, regardless of their nationality, to escape and recapture the chance to live their lives. It is not a history lesson but a lesson on how more thrillers with an intelligent script and eye for detail should be made.

The Town

The Town (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.