Kevin: Many deserving nominees will be gathered during this Sunday’s Oscar telecast hoping to hear their name called from the stage, and until recently Ben Affleck, Michael Keaton, and Mark Walhberg probably expected to be among them in some capacity. But for every out-of-nowhere surprise nominee like “Whiplash,” there is a film clearly set up for Oscar gold that didn’t even get an invite (hey there Sean Penn’s “All the King’s Men”). Today we look at three such shut-outs from this awards season, starting with the most misguided Oscar-wannabe in recent years: Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night.”
On paper “Live by Night” has all the typical attributes of an Oscar frontrunner: popular actor-director coming off a Best Picture win for “Argo,” glamorous period setting, cast filled with veteran actors. And on paper is where it should have probably stayed, because on film this movie is a goddamned mess. Like most Americans I missed it during its brief run in theaters, where it opened in four theaters on Christmas Day to qualify for awards eligibility before bombing in wide release in mid-January. I only caught up to it during a recent hotel stay, and maybe it’s due to the insanely inflated price I paid for the movie and the $12 Bud Light from the mini bar, but I’m still in shock by what I saw.
For one thing, if you didn’t know any better you would think this was Affleck’s first movie rather than his fourth. As a director Affleck will never be confused with Martin Scorsese, but if nothing else his films up to this point (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”, “Argo”) have been the kind of solid, well-made movies for grown-ups that the big studios have virtually abandoned. Playing a Boston gangster rising up during the Prohibition-era seems like it should have been a slam dunk for him, but dear lord nothing goes right in this film.
I’m sure at some point we’ll hear Affleck say in interviews that there is a great 4-hour version of “Live by Night” out there, because this has all the hallmarks of a would-be sprawling epic that got cut to shreds in the editing room, such as wall-to-wall narration intended to smooth over the subplots that either got cut or seriously condensed (this is the kind of film where you only know two people are passionately in love because the narrator tells you they are passionately in love). Events seem to take place over days even though it’s apparently supposed to be years, while character arcs seemingly occur off screen (near the end Affleck is described as being “the king of Tampa,” yet nothing we’ve seen up to this point would indicate this). Characters are introduced who seem like they will have a major impact on the plot, then are never seen again until in some cases the very end (nice seeing ya Vinnie from “Doogie Howser”!):
Or how about the fact that Affleck starts out the movie not wanting to be a gangster, then changes his mind so he can get revenge on a crime boss, a mission that he and the audience promptly forget about until literally the last 10 minutes of the movie. Or that Affleck delivers an impassioned and heroic on-the-nose speech defending the rights of the poor and minorities, all in the service of trying to get a sleazy casino built that will only enrich himself. Or that “Live by Night” features one of the most hilariously “tragic” endings since “Godfather III.” Or finally that it’s so un-self-aware that it doesn’t realize how similar the method for redeeming its hero is to the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.
If you didn’t know any better you would also assume the director of this movie actively hated his star, as Affleck looks horrible in this. It’s bad enough the mid-40s actor is playing someone 20 years younger at times, but his bloated appearance, suspiciously wrinkle-less forehead, and giant white ventriloquist dummy teeth don’t help, while for some reason Affleck keeps putting himself in big ill-fitting suits that make him look like David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense.”
Fortunately he keeps his shirt on during his various love scenes, sparing us a look at this unfortunate mid-life-crisis tattoo:
I could go on (and we will, as there is so much to unpack with “Live by Night” that we will have a more in-depth review when it arrives on video), but the truth is I don’t want to pile on Affleck anymore. While I find him kind of douchey, I can’t help but like the guy. He seems like one of the few Hollywood stars who’d actually be fun to hang out with, and I admire any A-lister willing to show up drunk on national TV to defend the honor of his favorite quarterback.
With Affleck getting cold feet about directing himself as Batman, I hope he is not letting the failure of “Live by Night” get in his head, because I truly do want to see what he does next. And I would love to see the 4-hour cut of the film if only to figure out why they at one point seem to hint that he is virtually impervious to injury (a la Bruce Willis in “Unbreakable”) and then once again THIS NEVER COMES UP AGAIN!
CJ: I love mobster movies and still found no motivation to see this. I think we should take the popular route and blame DC for this as well as everything else wrong in Ben’s life right now. On that note, can you just imagine what Marvel’s mobster movie would have been? Enter Joe “Smitty” Smith. He’s a loser in high school and none of the girls like him, but it’s ok because he’s really funny, as we find out through asides. Anyways, eventually Robert Downey Jr. makes him Spider-Man and this brings booze into Manhattan or something.
Kevin: Another Oscar-wannabe that got lost in the end-of-the-year prestige-movie stampede was “The Founder,” featuring Michael Keaton as the man responsible for turning McDonald’s into an American institution, for better or worse. This was another quality film that I wasn’t able to catch in theaters, and let me convey this message to Hollywood: Since you only make like 10 good movies for adults every year, how about you idiots don’t release them all between Christmas and mid-January and then wonder why people with jobs, kids, and other responsibilities can’t see all of them.
(Side note: “The Founder” was originally slated to open in August, but when the studio thought they had a real shot at some awards they moved it to the end of the year where it got buried. Meanwhile “Hell or High Water” did come out in August, and as the only serious adult alternative at the theaters at the time it played for weeks, made a ton of money, and is now an Oscar-contender.)
CJ: I did manage to check out “The Founder” in theaters, and if nothing else it’s provided me with a good life plan going forward. In the film Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton (he of “Hidden Figures”/”Fences” controversy, or as the Klan calls it, Phase 1), is a loser milkshake salesman just trying to get by. He meets Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who show him how they might have revolutionized the fast-food industry, getting you your burger, fries, and drink almost instantly. Ray must have this.
Ray accomplishes his American Dream in two moves:
Step 1: He meets Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), realizes Harry is smarter than himself, and has enough self awareness to latch on to him. Ray learns that in buying the land under each McDonald’s, he essentially controls each location. After enough time, he owns enough land to force the McDonald brothers to sell the franchise to him for a few million. It’s kinda like Lex Luthor, except somehow smarter and minus an annoying Jesse Eisenberg.
What can we learn from this? It’s simple really. Chances are pretty good you’re not a super villain, so the key is to surround yourself with good people to help you build your own empire.
Step 2: While meeting with a potential franchisee in Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), Ray is introduced to Rollie’s wife, played by Linda Cardellini. Ray becomes smitten, wants her, and by the end of the movie has her.
This is key. What does this have to do with the American Dream? Well, if you don’t accomplish Step 1, but show up to your high school reunion with Linda Cardellini on your arm, who gives a shit about Step 1?
Kevin: I didn’t even realize Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini were in this. The commercials just make this seem like a movie where Michael Keaton cheats some nice guys out of their great idea, which is probably why audiences are not flocking to it. From what I’ve read though, the reality is that the childless McDonald brothers had no interest in expanding the McDonald’s name or leaving something to their heirs, were making more money on their one location than they knew what to do with, and honestly didn’t want to deal with the extra stress and work of moving to a higher tax bracket.
Any deviations from the real story will not be surprising considering director John Lee Hancock’s last movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” completely distorted how the author or “Mary Poppins” felt about allowing Disney to make a movie version of her book. His adaptation of “The Blind Side” also features a scene where Sandra Bullock sassily walks right up to some viscous drug dealers and gives them a finger-wagging lecture, something I’m pretty sure didn’t happen in real life, as the woman it was based on is still alive. Considering he also directed “The Alamo” with Billy Bob Thornton, I’m surprised it didn’t end with the Texans and Mexican soldiers locking arms and singing “We Are the World.”
Kevin: Finally, the most surprising film this awards season to strike out on both Oscar and box office gold was the Boston Marathon bombing depiction “Patriot’s Day,” which came in with a bankable movie star (Mark Walhberg), good buzz from the Toronto Film Festival, and a rare A CinemaScore audience rating. But after a mediocre opening weekend it sank like a stone and was basically out of theaters in a few weeks, without any major award nominations as a consolation prize.
Which is strange because the third collaboration between Walhberg and director Peter Berg after “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon” is exactly what you would expect based on the previous two: full of good actors who each get a moment to shine, some nice on-the-fly moments that give you a sense of the everyday lives of people you normally don’t see onscreen, a thoughtful depiction of a real-life tragedy, and somber but hopeful note at the end. It also had an action sequence worth the price of admission alone, with the cops and terrorist Tsarnaev brothers engaging in the kind of intense and visceral screen shootout that would make old-school Michael Mann proud.
Maybe the subject matter was too heavy for audiences, although that didn’t stop “Lone Survivor” from being a huge hit on the same opening weekend two years ago. Or maybe there were too many quality options at the time (hey did I remember to yell at Hollywood to not release all their good movies aimed at adults within a couple of weeks of each other?). Either way this is a really well-done tribute to the victims and first-responders on that day that will likely find the audience it deserves on video, and if nothing else it’s good to finally see Hollywood do a movie about Boston for a change. Go Pats!
CJ: “Patriot’s Day,” starring Big Papi. Whoops, spoiler alert!
I don’t really know that it would be ok to crack jokes given the subject matter, and sometimes we at TGD don’t want to be douches (Kevin: We don’t?). I will say that at first glance I thought this movie was going to be terrible, just pure “U-S-A!” manipulation. I was pleasantly surprised though; much like the equally underrated “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriot’s Day” is quite gripping and provides an interesting POV into the events that took place. What I also appreciated was how the actors didn’t overplay their hand, a problem I know Marky Mark can struggle with (not in “Transformers” though). The cast clearly ignored Hollywood and really just wanted to focus on the story instead of milking every line as the music swelled.
I did have one interesting moment when watching this movie though. There is a scene where the wife of one of the Tsarnaev brothers is being interrogated. At one point she mentions she has rights, to which the interrogator says, “You aint got shit sweetheart.” At that exact moment a man several rows in front of me let out a quick yelp and a clap. I’ve never seen a theater full of people all get simultaneously uncomfortable at once. All of us exchanging shifty eyes also didn’t help. (Kevin: Actually that might have been me, but in my defense I did have a few beers before the film.)
Ultimately though, give this movie a chance. I defy you to not get a little misty-eyed by the end. But beware, this film takes a pretty unforgivable liberty by having a scene at Fenway with thousands of Bostonians and they somehow don’t break out into a “Yankees Suck” chant.
Kevin: Going back to what you said at the beginning, I certainly did not expect David Ortiz to be such a major part of the climax of this film. But either way, yes I also defy anyone to not get a little teary-eyed before the credits. Actually now that I think about it, I teared up at the end of “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon” as well. Back when Peter Berg was being chased through television screens by demonic serial killer Horace Pinker in Wes Craven’s “Shocker,” who knew that he would someday be such an expert manipulator of emotions?