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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: Live by Night


Live by Night is produced by, directed by and stars Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel. Set in the 1920s and 1930s Prohibition Era, we journey with Joe, the troubled and wayward son of a Boston police captain, who becomes involved in a life of organised crime. After serving a prison sentence he's relocated to the neighbourhood of Ybor City in Tampa, to take revenge and build a rum-running empire in balmy Florida.

The first thing you'll notice about Live by Night is its amazing cast and first-rate production values. Ben Affleck headlines a film of superb character actors including but not limited to: Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher and Robert Glenister. In front of camera, behind the camera, on the front page and behind-the-scenes, Live by Night is a labour of love for Ben Affleck. Wearing so many hats, you can understand why his performance is diffused, almost trying to sidestep the spotlight like a circus conductor.

He does this to his own detriment, distancing us from the character and preventing Live by Night from becoming a true gangster classic. While Affleck shies away from the limelight, he opens the stage for his supporting cast flourish. Brendan Gleeson is always immense, so much so that you wish they had made more of the father-son relationship. Live by Night is further complemented by a host of fascinating character performances. Sienna Miller is feisty and poisonous as a mob boss's girlfriend. Elle Fanning is haunting as a prodigal daughter in a role that is complex enough to warrant a spin-off film. Her police chief father, played by Chris Cooper, also deserved more unpacking in his attempt to rise above a sea of hypocrisy and moral ambiguity. Then Matthew Maher deserves a special mention for his malevolent and unpredictable role as a diabolical Ku Klux Klan "clown".

While the story has an old-fashioned air to it, the finishes are modern. We are immersed in Boston, where vintage cars line the streets and old world charm abounds in the form of fashion and pop culture from the time. Then, we're transported to the balmy panache of Ybor City. The details in the pageantry are quite exquisite and the film is beautiful to look at, also largely thanks to its hand-in-glove cinematography. It's a tip of the hat to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the '30s and '40s as we chronicle the life of a reluctant gangster in this handsomely mounted crime epic.

Live by Night

"I said... we'll always have Ybor!"

Live by Night slots in somewhere between Public Enemies and The Untouchables. It matches Public Enemies for machine gun action and star quality, but dwarfs this film with its scope as a saga. It's not quite as involved, meticulous or weighty as The Untouchables, but carries a similar prestige and grandeur in terms of its visual poetry and sense of importance. While flawed, it's one of the better Prohibition era crime dramas to emerge from Hollywood over the last two decades, enchanting us with a sprawling tale, gripping performances and a vicious elegance.

It's refreshing for Live by Night to tackle the Ku Klux Klan and racial prejudices of the time. Unfortunately, while it splays these social anomies wide open, it fails to truly grapple with the underlying tensions in the same way A Time to Kill managed to exploit them. As a chronicle of Joe Coughlin's life, these forces seem like a series of hurdles rather than protracted local tensions. While a little slow in places, it's free-ranging enough to keep us constantly entertained, distracted and hungry to link characters and outcomes. There are many powerful moments and quotable quotes, but Live by Night seems content to circle greatness.

While it has tremendous scale, Live by Night would have benefited from a sharper focus on Joe Coughlin's inner struggles. The story would have maximised its dramatic tension by dwelling a little longer on the unresolved father-son issues, the strife caused by racial prejudice, his projected daddy issues and the inner turmoil of a man trying to shield his heart from the shadows of his criminal enterprise. While passable, Ben Affleck and Zoe Saldana's on-screen chemistry seemed a little underwhelming given the circumstances.

All in all, Live by Night's top production values, sharp cast, fascinating supporting characters, entertaining storytelling and elegant cinematography make it a cut above your average gangster crime epic. While it's not in the same league as The Godfather, Goodfellas or Gangs of New York, it shows glimmers of brilliance and amounts to more of a missed opportunity than a misfire. While somewhat sporadic, it has enough fine qualities to lean back on, making it fleeting yet enjoyable for moviegoers wanting to immerse themselves in a haunting, swirling and violent magpie of a gangster picture.

The bottom line: Respectable


 
Movie Review: Collateral Beauty


Collateral Beauty had amazing potential. On paper, this film seemed destined to rank alongside the likes of Seven Pounds. Both films star Will Smith and you get the impression that director David Frankel was aiming to deliver something similar in terms of content and tone. While Will Smith certainly echoes this sentiment, he's not alone, playing a hollow lead to an ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights, including: Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris and Helen Mirren. "Hollow", because he's playing a husk of a man ravaged by grief and because most of the talking is done by the supporting cast.

Frankel directed The Devil Wears Prada, which probably makes him more adept at dealing with sleek, high-flying office dramas. Collateral Beauty tells the story of a visionary advertising agency director who retreats within himself after a tragedy and starts writing letters to Love, Time and Death as a catharsis. This is only the beginning as the drama revolves around his partners and their feigned "concern" for him and the well-being of the company. Resorting to a ridiculous scheme in an attempt to seize a controlling interest of the company over Christmas, they are forced to confront their own projections.

Collateral Beauty just goes to show that if your script is fundamentally flawed, even the best of intentions and an all-star cast can't save your film from nosediving. While we're introduced to Will Smith's character, we never assimilate a full picture of what the man was like before the tragedy, leaving him something of a mystery. While his domino-building art and reclusive status certainly keep him interesting amid antisocial grunts and distant gazes, we never get a chance to latch onto the subject of all this "collateral beauty". Alienated from the lead, our only point of entry is through his conniving associates, whose ulterior motives make them cold and unlikeable.

Collateral Beauty

"Well, who did you expect... Oprah?"

The Christmas miracle theme help soften the line between reality and fantasy, however if anything Collateral Beauty needed to be more geared towards magic realism. Frankel never really gets the balance right, tending towards chocolate box sentimentalism and melodrama, when the film needed to go 21 Grams serious or August Rush elemental. Instead of picking a side, we navigate the grey area like a cheesy holiday movie ensemble piece, believing the best based on the esteem and quality of the actors.

It all seems rather misguided, turning what should have been a high concept dark comedy into an airy fairy tearjerker. Apart from a few heartstring plucks, almost every moment rings false... moving forth with pomp like the naked Emperor, contrived and preposterous. Stumbling onto and intercepting his letters, conveniently cottoning on to an over-the-top gameplay and never truly testing the thinly veiled scheme, we're forced to simply accept everything blindly. It's as if David Frankel has tried to stuff a Gary Marshall holiday movie into Seven Pounds Christmas stocking without you noticing.

It's difficult to come to terms with just how flawed a movie starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Naomie Harris could possibly be. Collateral Beauty's not aggressively bad, just fatally flawed, forcing us to lean on the charm of the dedicated ensemble and the heartwarming intentions of the filmmakers, as unintentionally funny and ludicrous as it gets. Collateral Beauty is a bit late for Christmas, but will undoubtedly flummox everyone who gets a whiff of the wealth of acting talent.

The bottom line: Ludicrous

 
Movie Review: Road to the Well


Road to the Well is a low-budget dark comedy thriller from the mind of writer-director, Jon Cvack, and stars Micah Parker, Laurence Fuller and Marshall R. Teague. The film journeys with Jack, a drifter who meets up with his old friend Frank, whose desk-bound job and down-on-his-luck relationship status leave him vulnerable. After Frank gets involved with a woman at the bar, he reaches out to Jack for help when he wakes up after a brutal attack only to find the woman's body in the trunk of his car. The cool, calm and collected Jack spearheads the mission to get rid of the body as the friends embark on a road trip with many twists and turns.

Road to the Well is reminiscent of mystery thrillers such as Don't Breathe, Mud and Funny Games. While it starts with a tip of the hat to television series The Office with an offbeat and awkward sense of humour, it quickly ushers in a sense of dread as our co-leads find themselves on the run. While the age-old question of "would you help your best friend bury a body?" comes into play, the filmmakers add an extra layer of tension to proceedings with an inside angle. Offering breadcrumbs along the way like the story of Hansel & Gretel than Jack & Jill, each character's motives become distressingly clear.

This film is at its best when Parker and Fuller, Jack and Frank respectively, come into contact with Marshall R. Teague as Dale. While a pivotal scene, it's a pity that they didn't make this dynamic the focal point of the film. Teague's performance is immense and his character's complexity makes him seem worthy of a spin-off. While Teague steals these scenes, Parker and Fuller are compelling and despicably charming as buddy movie co-leads. Then, Barak Hardley's laid-back and annoyed performance adds to the comedic slant. The shifting power plays and set up have some parallels with Don't Breathe and the tension becomes more palpable as morality themes are expounded upon and a critical stand-off ensues.

"We're all dying... some of us are just impatient."

The co-leads and their dirty secret, set against the urban sprawl leading to Northern California echoes aspects from Mud. While mostly shot at night, the uneasy atmosphere, natural setting and unpredictable air of misadventure give it some similarities as their history catches up with them. The psychotic undertones, lack of empathy and almost playful gamesmanship echo moments from Funny Games, as the filmmakers employ similar off-screen tactics when it comes to representing violence. These dark elements are reinforced by the Lynchland lighting and foreboding, relentless soundtrack.

Road to the Well is a cleverly composed film, making full use of its resources and opting for some thoughtful and lingering shots. Scenes involving a car lighter, the burial and round table discussion show great promise for Cvack's debut. While the balance between comedy and thriller genres is difficult to establish, he manages to keep us on the hook. It's compelling and sharp, but Road to the Well could have used a bit more polish. There could have been more extrapolation around Jack and his telltale motives, and the dark comedy would've worked better with a few awkward situations around the corpse in the boot.

All in all, it's a solid indie low budget comedy thriller with a promising concept and enough substance to keep you invested. The lead performances steady the character balancing act with a noteworthy turn from Teague. The offbeat comedy and dark thriller clash keep us curious, while the writing and delivery make it artful and thoroughly entertaining.

The bottom line: Compelling


 
Movie Review: Patriots Day


Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg are onto a winning formula. Having worked together on Lone Survivor and followed up with Deepwater Horizon, the pairing found themselves working on Patriots Day. Each of these films has stars Mark Wahlberg, deals with an aspect of American history, is based on true stories and are deeply inspirational. In Patriots Day, Berg chronicles the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that ensued from the perspective of police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, played by Wahlberg.

Much like Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day is more of a docudrama and is much broader, functioning like an ensemble drama with Wahlberg as curator. It's got a comprehensive feel to it, logging times and places in the buildup to the bombing, delivering the story in a chronological and straightforward manner. Berg covers the story from both sides of the law, introducing the bombers as people, refusing to resort to faceless one-dimensional villains. We follow the lives of several critical people in the hours that followed the bombing, getting a slice of Boston life and culture in the process.

Patriots Day has similarities with Zero Dark Thirty, chronicling and covering a terrorist manhunt with unflinching determination. The recreation of the Boston Marathon bombing is authentic and harrowing as real and recreated film footage merge almost seamlessly. This realism and urgency is carried into the rest of the film as the manhunt intensifies. Berg manages to recover many of the missing puzzle pieces to give a much fuller and clearer rendition of the events that transpired. We see the commitment on the part of the Boston Police Department, the lengths to which the FBI analysed the act of terrorism and witness some thrilling moments in the resolution to the manhunt.

Patriots Day

"We're takin' it to the streets..."

Mark Wahlberg continues to play the "everyman" as Police Sergeant, Tommy Saunders. He may not be quite as talented as Tom Hanks but is known for his generosity as an actor, allowing everyone to shine, sometimes to his own detriment. He is relatable, grounded enough to flatten his ego and accessible enough to make you feel that you could grab a beer with him. This makes him likeable, easy to rally behind and even easier to believe as "that guy". As curator of Patriots Day, he's always putting himself on the frontline and racing to keep up with the action.

He's supported by a stellar lineup including: Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and JK Simmons. While relegated to smaller supporting roles based on the sheer size of the ensemble, their experience and presence is vital. Monaghan plays Wahlberg's dependable and loving wife, Carol, Bacon leads the FBI investigation in a restrained performance as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Goodman gets in everyone's grill as Commissioner Ed Davis while JK Simmons brings experience and bravery as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff also deserve a special mention as the prime suspects, adding a layer of complexity to their performances.

Patriots Day is a thrilling film but it's also heartfelt, serving as something of a tribute in much the same way as Sully did for New York servicemen following the Hudson River landing. However, this film isn't just about the rescuers but also about the way the city of Boston pull together to stay Boston Strong. Interviews with the victims show hope for the future as one diabolical act of terrorism serves to unify instead of divide. Bridging the reality of the tragic event, it's difficult not to be moved by the beauty of the humanity in the face of such hatred.

The bottom line: Stirring


 
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