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Will You Go Ape for Kong: Skull Island?

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Expectations are funny things. I went into Kong: Skull Island with the lowest of them. I’ve never been a fan of the franchise — I walked out of Peter Jackson’s overlong 2005 reboot, skipped the ’70s version despite Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and was underwhelmed by the original’s primitive special effects. Yet the latest incarnation proves to be something entirely unexpected: a witty, well-acted and genuinely scary commentary on the Vietnam War, and by extension contemporary politics.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made an impressive small-scale debut with the little-seen coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer a few years ago, but nothing prepared me for the scale of what he’s put on screen here. Set in 1973, just as the U.S. is pulling out of Vietnam, the story follows a team of military men (led by a scary-good Samuel L. Jackson) and scientists, along with a tracker (Tom Hiddleston, the film’s weak link—he constantly looks like he’s posing for a perfume ad) and an “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson, an actress of preternatural gravitas). They travel to an uncharted island, ostensibly to map it, but it turns out to be part of a plot by a seeming crackpot (John Goodman) to prove the existence of monsters.

Upon arrival, the squad starts dropping bombs for bogus research purposes and awaken the sleeping giant, thus setting off a round of guerrilla — er, gorilla — warfare. A contrast is drawn between the no-win-situation Vietnam conflict (“We didn’t lose: We abandoned the war,” Jackson’s career soldier insists) and World War II via the discovery of a Pacific Theater vet (John C. Reilly, a welcome blast of comic relief) who’s been living in the jungles since 1945. “Did we win the war?” he asks, to which he’s answered, “Which one?” “Figures,” he says sardonically.

The real war turns out not to be between Kong and the humans but soldiers, who just want to blow the big guy away, and scientists, who realize he’s protecting the island’s native inhabitants from even worse monsters, including a truly terrifying species nicknamed “skull crawlers.” This conflict takes Kong: Skull Island from an evocative ’70s period piece, with sweeping visuals and a Creedence-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and turns it into a timely social satire. “It’s never been worse in Washington, D.C.” Goodman cracks in the opening scene, as Nixon resigns in the background. It’s a knowing joke that would be even funnier were it not for the real monster currently inhabiting the White House.

Vogt-Roberts populates his cast with top-notch actors, including Straight Outta Compton vets Jason Mitchell (as an endearing grunt) and Corey Hawkins (as a brainy scientist), Boardwalk Empire‘s consistently brilliant Shea Whigham, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s winningly off-kilter Thomas Mann, and The Job‘s expertly understated John Ortiz. Plus, the peerless Richard Jenkins makes an uncredited cameo as a world-weary U.S. Senator. The screenplay, co-written by Dan Gilroy, writer-director of the equally eerie media satire Nightcrawler, doles out clever dialogue to everyone, and only Hiddleston fumbles his lines.

Kong: Skull Island would be worth seeing for the locations alone; shot by ex-Lost cinematographer Larry Fong in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films in recent memory. And it’s worth staying until the very end; for once, a post-credits scene actually provides valuable information pertaining to where the franchise is headed, should it continue. I hope it does. These filmmakers are up to much more than monkey business.

Wolverine, Table 19 & Lego Batman—Get Out!

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Now that the 2017 Oscars are finally over (they are over, right?), it’s time to turn the spotlight—wait, that was last year’s winner… it’s time to turn the moonlight on 2017’s new releases. I’ll spare you a longer review of Fifty Shades Darker since it’s exactly what you’d expect: unintentionally funny and entirely unsexy. But I will share thoughts on six films, three of which transcend their genre, and the other three, not so much.

Let’s start with America’s No. 1 film: Logan. I’d all but sworn off superhero movies a few Iron Men ago, because I’d felt like I’d seen it all before. I did see Deadpool and found it moderately amusing (and only tolerable because Ryan Reynolds’ intolerably smug face is hidden by a mask for much of the movie). Like Deadpool, Logan is an R-rated Marvel movie, but this one’s actually mature as opposed to just “adult.”

Perhaps to set the tone, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine says the f-word about six times in the movie’s first five minutes, but the script (cowritten by Scott Frank, the gifted adapter of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight and Get Shorty) grows considerably more elegant than that. Wolvie’s on the run with an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart, stellar as always) and a seemingly mute mutant girl (Dafne Keen, a remarkable rookie) from evil scientists led by the magnetic Richard E. Grant and Boyd Holbrook.

Okay, it doesn’t sound like much of a story, but cowriter-director James Mangold is a genuinely versatile filmmaker in the mode of George Stevens, whose Western Shane is quoted both visually and verbally in Logan. Mangold has made everything from crime dramas like Cop Land to musical biopics like Walk the Line, and he uses Johnny Cash’s music over the closing credits, as well as in the trailer above, to great effect. The movie attains real emotional heft, giving the occasional bursts of Walking Dead-style gore more impact than mere shock value. Jackman’s dramatically muscular performance makes it even sadder that after Logan, he’ll be an ex-X-Man.

One of the standouts in Logan‘s supporting cast, Stephen Merchant (as an albino mutant-sniffer!), fares less well in another of this weekend’s new releases, Table 19. This movie seems to have greater ambitions than to just be yet another wedding-themed rom-com, but it ends up being just that. Perhaps the original script, by mumblecore auteurs Jay and Mark Duplass, wasn’t so formulaic, but as rewritten and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, it’s even less interesting than its “Breakfast Club for adults” elevator pitch: a gang of outcasts at the worst table at a wedding band together and learn valuable lessons about life.

Anna Kendrick, whose questionable taste in roles after her throwaway part in John Krasinski’s The Hollars seems even shakier now, has what it takes to play a charming romantic lead, but she’s mismatched with Wyatt Russell as her ex-boyfriend and the wedding’s best man. The rest of the ensemble—Merchant, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori, Nebraska‘s June Squibb, and the formidable comic duo of Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow—do what they can with their one-dimensional characters. But it’s all so depressingly predictable, you’ll wish these actors had divorced themselves from Table 19.

Back on the plus side, two films that deliver more than might’ve been expected continue to hold up well at the box office: Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out and The Batman Lego Movie. I’m generally not a fan of shockers or cartoons, but the intelligence behind these flicks elevates them above the pack. Get Out manages to be a razor-sharp satire of racist “liberals” with its inspired mashup of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. And Lego Batman captures the witty spirit of the ’60s TV series while vocally reuniting Arrested Development relatives Will Arnett and Michael Cera as the Caped Crusader and his trusty sidekick Robin. Holy Bluth!

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On the other hand, a pair of promising-on-paper movies that quietly made their debuts on VOD this weekend demonstrate the limitations of their creators’ imaginations. I was really hoping The Assignment would mark a return to form for Walter Hill, maker of such action classics as The Warriors and 48 Hrs. But its lurid premise—a diabolical surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) performs gender-reassignment surgery on a hood without his consent—is undercut by a ludicrous performance from Michelle Rodriguez, who’s neither convincing as a hit man nor as a hit woman.

Last and possibly least, even the feral Michael Shannon can’t redeem Wolves (not to be confused with Wolverine) from its pedestrian script by director Bart Freundlich (who’s still better known as Julianne Moore’s real-life husband than for any of his underwhelming films). Shannon plays a compulsive gambler whose debts threaten the future of his high-school basketball star son (American Crime‘s solid Taylor John Smith). Every time Wolves verges on becoming intriguing, like when the underused Carla Gugino seems attracted to her strapping son, it reverts to cliches straight out of better movies like The Gambler (the James Caan original, not the Mark Wahlberg abomination) and Hoosiers.

To put it in gambling terms, Logan, Get Out and The Lego Batman Movie are sure winners, each set to surpass $100 million in the U.S. alone, but Table 19, The Assignment and Wolves are losing bets. I’m speaking creatively, but that applies to the box office as well. Maybe the American moviegoing public is developing good taste? Then again, Fifty Shades Darker has grossed $110 million domestically. I guess there are still some gluttons for cinematic punishment.

Do “Gold” & “A Dog’s Purpose” Serve One?

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I saw two movies last night, Gold and A Dog’s Purpose, and before my friends from PETA jump all over me for supporting a film that allegedly allowed animal abuse, let me just say: I paid for only one of them and snuck into the other. Okay, so the one I paid for was A Dog’s Purpose, but I feel like I’ve already been punished for my transgression, as both films are — to put it in puppy parlance — ruff sits.

The spectacularly ill-conceived A Dog’s Purpose (based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-seller and adapted for the screen by him along with four other credited co-writers ranging from The Truth About Cats and Dogs‘ Audrey Wells to Infinitely Polar Bear‘s Maya Forbes) follows one canine’s soul through five lives. That’s right, a movie that has been marketed squarely to kids makes you watch adorable doggies DIE FIVE TIMES. It’s as if Disney remade Bambi but just kept replaying the scene of the deer’s mother getting fatally shot over and over again.

That’s not the only inappropriate aspect of A Dog’s Purpose, directed by Lasse Hallström, who must’ve felt like his Collie-esque first name has damned him to a destiny of making dog movies of decreasing quality, from the Oscar-nominated My Life as a Dog to Richard Gere’s shaggy-dog story Hachi: A Dog’s Tale to this mutt. He gives his cast way too long of a leash, allowing Luke Kirby (a fittingly heavy presence in Sundance TV’s slow-moving, serious masterpiece Rectify) to depict the alcoholic father of the dog’s first owner way too realistically, particularly in contrast to Josh Gad’s gag-inducingly cutesy voiceovers of the furball’s internal dialogue.

Good actors who get stranded in this wet sack of dog crap include Ray Donovan‘s aptly named Pooch Hall (sporting a tragic Jeri-Curl in an ’80s sequence), The Job‘s John Ortiz as a Chicago cop whose K-9 companion gets SHOT AND KILLED IN THE LINE OF DUTY, and Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton, who don’t show up until the film’s last 20 minutes. As remarkably well-preserved as Mod Squad vet Lipton is, it’s still shocking to see an age-appropriate love interest for the craggy Quaid, especially given that he’s dating a 30-year-old model in real life.

Were the makers of A Dog’s Purpose cruel to animals? I can’t answer that, but I do know they were cruel to human beings for expelling this flaming turd into theaters.

Gold, by contrast, is a precious commodity, as it marks the official end of the McConaissance. By now, you all know the story of Matthew McConaughey, who grew tired of making empty rom-coms like Fool’s Gold and threw himself into a series of gonzo roles, most notably losing 40 pounds (and winning an Oscar) as an AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club. For Gold, he gained them back and then some, packing on the lbs. in inverse proportion to his receding hairline to play a fictionalized version of a prospector who repeatedly got rich and lost it all during the go-go ’80s.

The trouble is, the more McConaughey tries to stretch himself into alter egos as far from his good-looking, good-‘ol-boy real-life persona, the more he resembles… Matthew McConaughey: seemingly inebriated and prone to irritatingly rhyme-y catchphrases (“Make it happen, cap’n!” “Let’s make the dolla holla!”) as well as occasional bird sounds. We’ve seen him pull these tricks in previous films like The Wolf of Wall Street, to which Gold owes a major debt.

It’s the fool’s gold version of a Scorsese flick. In this case the fool is director Stephen Gaghan (screenwriter of Traffic), who strands such stellar supporting actors as Corey Stoll, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bill Camp and Stacy Keach in one-dimensional roles as he allows McConaughey to chew the scenery, among other things, and Hands of Stone‘s Edgar Ramirez to give another stolidly dull turn as his business partner.

There might be a good movie hiding somewhere in Gold‘s hills, but this Weinstein Co. wouldn’t-be Oscar contender feels like it’s got the fingerprints of Harvey Scissorhands all over it. It seems to start in the middle — Craig T. Nelson, in a crucial role as McConaughey’s dad, dies before the opening credits — and there’s so much narration explaining the plot that you wonder if it’s not just summarizing scenes that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe that’s where they should’ve left the whole movie, right atop the droppings of A Dog’s Purpose. To para-catchphrase McConaughey, I wanted to JKL: Just Keep Leavin’!

Split & XXX: The Bald & the Boo-tiful

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It’s Larry David’s dream come true: This weekend’s two biggest movies star bald men: XXX: The Return of Xander Cage‘s Vin Diesel and Split‘s James McAvoy. No such luck for The Founder‘s Michael Keaton, who sadly receded from the top 10.

The shaven-head stars aren’t the only things XXX and Split have in common: Both also boast “surprise” encore cameos of characters from earlier films: Darius Stone (Ice Cube), who stepped in for Cage in the Diesel-free 2005 sequel XXX: State of the Union, and SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Glass (Bruce Willis) from Split auteur M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 cult-favorite superhero movie Unbreakable.

But here’s where the movies start to diverge: The lean and mean $9 million-budgeted Split is a hit, expected to draw $35 million over its first three days, while the overblown XXX will be lucky to scrape up $20 million against its $85 million price tag.

I didn’t see the first two XXXs, yet I had no problem following the plot, such as it is. The presumed-dead Cage gets back into action after his mentor, NSA agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons, is apparently killed by a terrorist . That’s a shame, since Samuel L. Jackson (Willis’ Unbreakable co-star—the connections continue!) plays Gibbons, and he gives by far the most fun performance in the movie. And if you really believe Gibbons is dead, you’re dumber than F. Scott Frazier, the presumably pseudonymous screenwriter who penned with this lame-brained script.

Diesel tries so hard to be cool, he’s ice-cold (not to be confused with Ice Cube, who is genuinely cool). The rest of the rainbow-coalition cast, clearly put together to appeal to the international audience who will need to redeem this dud at the box office, includes Rogue One scene-stealer Donnie Yen, Orange is the New Black‘s androgynous Ruby Rose, her fellow Aussie Toni Collette, Bollywood model Deepika Padukone, Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu, Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, British UFC brute Michael Bisping, and ex-NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez (whose cinematic charisma rivals Stone Cold’s Brian Bosworth’s). Oh, and The Vampire Diaries‘ drop-dead gorgeous Nina Dobrev plays a computer nerd—we know that because she wears glasses.

That shows you the level of subtlety to XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Split isn’t exactly nuanced, either, but McAvoy does deliver a twisted tour de force as a man with 23 different personalities, including a 9-year-old boy and an animalistic creature known only as “the Beast.” He kidnaps a trio of nubile teenage girls and holds them captive as he toggles among his personae and eventually reveals his nefarious plans.

The movie demonizes mental illness and borders on torture porn at times as it lingers over the images of its three damsels in distress in varying stages of undress. Still, Anya Taylor-Joy, the enchanting star of last year’s horror sleeper The Witch, manages to turn her victim into a real flesh-and-blood character, even with her own distasteful “twist” (there are more, as that has long been Shyamalan’s shock-in-trade). And Eight is Enough‘s Betty Buckley contributes her usual solid work as McAvoy’s shrink.

But it’s the bald dudes (including Willis and Jackson) who rule both movies. We live in a deeply divided nation, but we seem to have finally conquered baldism. There may be hope for George Costanza yet.

Five Ways McDonald’s Predicted the Donald


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I doubt it’s a coincidence that the Weinstein Co. — savvy marketers that they are — delayed the release date of The Founder from last August until Inauguration Day. The biopic of McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc seems like the perfect film for the Trump Era. That’s not a qualitative judgment: The movie itself, although strangely slow for a story about fast food, ultimately gains momentum after it initially founders, and it features a career-best performance from Michael Keaton (and that’s really saying something) as Kroc and a tasty supporting cast including Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald’s brothers, owners of the original restaurant that Kroc turned into a worldwide franchise.

What’s most striking about The Founder (and its sharp script by The Wrestler‘s Robert Siegel) is how many ways Kroc’s rise to wealth and power parallels our new President’s. Let me count them.

  1. The Founder is the story of a ruthless businessman who becomes a billionaire by being a bully and gobbling up real estate. Once Kroc, a struggling milkshake-machine salesman who’s gone bust with a number of get-rich-quick schemes, infiltrates the McDonalds’ business, he proceeds to intimidate them into getting his way, even though he has a contract giving them approval over any changes to the company. Once he’s rich and powerful enough, he threatens the small-time San Bernadino, Calif. restaurateurs to sue him for breaking their contract, promising to bury them in legal fees they can’t afford. And after they eventually capitulate and sell him the business, he promises them (on a handshake!) to give them 1 percent of the profits in perpetuity but never delivers. A tycoon who stiffs the little guys? McDonald’s dictator sounds a lot like the Donald. the-founder-4_161208-1
  2. Kroc wraps himself in the American flag just as tightly as McDonald’s employees wrap their burgers in disposable paper. When he’s trying to convince the McDonalds to give him his way, he tells them to “Do it for America. Do it for your country.” Later he delivers a monologue about how much he loves the name McDonald’s because he knows it would sell more burgers than a place named Kroc’s (although that might sell a lot of shoes): “It sounds like… America.” It also sounds like, “Make America Great Again.”
  3. He makes sweeping promises, then delivers an inferior product that’s not good for you. Although Kroc sets out to serve healthy food at a fair price, once he realizes how little profit he’s making, he cuts corners by cutting the milk out of McDonald’s milkshakes. By using powdered water and no actual milk, he can make a killing. A milkshake with no milk = Obamacare with no care? And they both could kill you.

    Laura Dern in THE FOUNDER

    Laura Dern in THE FOUNDER

  4. He trades “up” for a younger, hotter wife. Kroc’s long-suffering yet supportive spouse (a thankless role well-played by Laura Dern) gets cast aside for a hot blonde, Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of his franchisees (Patrick Wilson). She seduces him with the fake-milkshake idea, and director John Lee Hancock misses a golden opportunity to set the scene to the tune of “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard,” as anachronistic as that may be. Do I even need to draw the parallels to Marla Maples and Melania? One can only hope that Melania in the not-too-distant future takes a cue from Joan and donates a huge portion of her late husband’s fortune to charity—and millions to NPR.

    Linda Cardellini in THE FOUNDER

    Linda Cardellini in THE FOUNDER

  5. Kroc personifies fast food. He eventually dubs himself the company’s “founder,” even though he essentially stole it from the titular brothers. and he ultimately builds an empire that feeds 1% of the world’s population daily. That includes Trump, who has admitted to a love of fast food (hence his less-than-svelte figure). Finally, is it a coincidence Ronald McDonald is the company’s mascot and Trump is a clown? I think not. So if you’re fed up with the guy who keeps trying to force-feed us Whoppers—sorry, wrong fast-food joint!—you deserve a break from the news today, so get up and get away to The Founder.

Does America Need “Patriots Day”?

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about “the movie America needs right now, ” i.e. in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. I’ve used the phrase myself, in my review of La La Land, sensing that an escapist musical fantasy could unite our deeply divided country (and so far, the box office and awards shows seem to be bearing me out). I’ve also seen the description aptly applied to Lion, Loving and Moonlight, worthy tales of tolerance and cross-cultural connection that could help heal moviegoers’ souls.

But there’s one film that’s been labeled with this appellation and doesn’t deserve it: Patriots Day. Not that this docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is terrible. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) skillfully stages action sequences, and the cast—led by Mark Wahlberg as a Boston cop—does what they can with an unfocused script (credited to five writers) that brings nothing new to the story.

Yet the characters are doled out only one dimension each. Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders (or “Tawmy Sawnders,” as most of the actors pronounce it in their painfully corny Masshole accents) hurts his knee kicking down a door, so he spends the rest of the movie limping. But it’s really the film that limps along, running 133 minutes and feeling like it takes place in real time over the 90+ hours it depicts. J.K. Simmons, as the police chief of a neighboring town, smokes incessantly, leading to one of several jarring laugh lines (“I’ve gotta quit smoking,” he quips after chasing down one of the terrorists). Michelle Monaghan, as Saunders’ wife, worries, and John Goodman, as the Boston police commissioner… well, he just seems like John Goodman with a bad Boston brogue.

Every Beantown cliché under the sun gets trotted out: Simmons runs on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; one local victim (the bland Christopher O’Shea) tries to teach his out-of-town girlfriend (Manhattan‘s Rachel Brosnahan, utterly wasted) the proper way to pronounce “Red Sawx”; everyone says “Jesus Fucking Christ” a lot.

The good guys, including Kevin Bacon as a straight-arrow FBI agent, are just as cardboard as the bad guys, the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), whose cloudy motivation seems to be mainly that they’re Muslim. One interesting character, a Muslim interrogator arrestingly played by Khandi Alexander, briefly appears and just as quickly departs.

The film ends with a mini-documentary, in which the real people portrayed by the actors tell their stories in their own words. There’s more genuine emotion and insight in those few minutes than in the rest of the brutally overlong Patriots Day. This isn’t the movie America needs right now; it’s a movie that didn’t need to be made at all.

How DOA is Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night”?

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The brilliant Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales once wrote of a short-lived show, “The Gangster Chronicles is so DOA, it makes doornails look frisky.” (I know, because as a 14-year-old, I clipped out his review, underlined that sentence, and kept it in a box under my bed, dreaming that someday I, too, would turn a phrase that beautifully.) Well, Live By Night makes The Gangster Chronicles look like The Godfather.

It must’ve looked great on paper: Ben Affleck, fresh off the Oscar-winning success of Argo,  directs his own adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just as he did with his hugely promising debut as a filmmaker, Gone Baby Gone (starring his brother Casey, who’s having a much better year, winning every award under the sun for Manchester by the Sea, than Ben is having with Batman v. Superman and this dud). The story starts in Boston, Ben’s old Good Will Hunting turf as well as the setting for Gone Baby Gone and its solid followup The Town. Affleck remains a gifted visual stylist; working with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he stages a bank robbery/car chase and shootout that crackle with electricity. But they’re stand-alone sequences, and soon as they’re over, the story comes to a screeching halt.

So where did it all go wrong? Where to begin? Where movies always begin, with the script. The story of a World War I vet, Joe Dougherty (Affleck), who returns to Beantown and goes against the wishes of his honest-cop father (Brendan Gleeson) to live a life of crime, is quite simply full of beans. Affleck attempts to capture Lehane’s hard-boiled dialogue, but the result is soft-headed. One character is described as “dumb as a grape.” Live By Night is as dumb as a bunch of them. A similar story of Prohibition Era gangsters was told in an infinitely better fashion on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Live By Night should’ve been prohibited.

Gleeson gives the film’s only credible performance, and—SPOILER ALERT—he dies, off-screen, within the first half-hour. The rest of the cast seem to be competing in a bad-acting-off. Chris Messina channels Chico Marx as Joe’s goombah sidekick. The usually great Chris Cooper seems to be parodying his own performance in American Beauty as a corrupt yet self-righteous Tampa sheriff. Two shockingly nondescript actors, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone, are cast in the pivotal roles of warring mob dons, one Irish and one Italian, who fight for what’s left of Joe’s soul. An even more anonymous performer, Matthew Maher (who also appeared in The Town), portrays a Klansman with an apparent hare-lip, and he unintentionally conjures the memory of Elmer Fudd. You half-expect him to say, “Be vewwwy quiet. We’re hunting minorities!”

The women’s roles in the film are as insultingly written as they are poorly executed. Sienna Miller fatally overplays the femme fatale; she’s a moll who double-crosses Joe and sets him up to be killed by the Irish kingpin, yet we’re supposed to believe Joe’s so in love with her that he instantly forgives her, even though we see no traces of genuine affection between them. Zoe Saldana is saddled with the good-wife role; she’s a Black Cuban rum-runner who becomes Joe’s spouse when he relocates to Florida to try and open a casino, and the minute they get together, she becomes a paragon of virtue (once again, we never understand why these two are attracted to each other or what they have in common—we’re just supposed to take Affleck’s word for it that they’re deeply in love). The real doozy, however, is Elle Fanning in a part that is literally both a Madonna and a whore. She’s Cooper’s daughter, who heads to Hollywood seeking stardom and ends up doing porn and heroin. Then she returns home and is whipped by her dad in a scene so twisted it plays like daddy-daughter porn, if there is such a thing (and I’m afraid to find out but there must be). So she becomes an evangelist, showing off her track marks as if they were stigmata, and singlehandedly shuts down Joe’s plans for a gambling empire with her supposedly rabble-rousing tent-revival speeches. Problem is, Fanning is so low-energy (pardon my Trumpism), she barely seems able to keep her eyes open, muchless whip a flock of parishioners into a holy-rolling frenzy.

But the winner of the bad-acting-off, by a mile, is Affleck himself. He barely seems able to keep a straight face when he’s delivering ridiculous lines like, “I have no beef with you, but I don’t truck with gangsters.” Just behind his eyes, you can see a little boy’s glee that he’s getting to do a gangster movie like the ones he grew up watching. Can you imagine Al Pacino in The Godfather or Ray Liotta in GoodFellas delivering such transparently awful work? No, because Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wouldn’t allow it. But Affleck’s his own director — and his own worst enemy.

There’s a scene in the film when Joe gets kicked so hard in the groin, he instantly vomits. That’s how I felt watching Live by Night. “I’d like to think there’s a God, and He’s kind,” Fanning’s Bible-thumper tells Joe. “Wouldn’t that be swell?” Sure it would, but if there is a God, why would He or She allow such a mortal sin against cinema?