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What you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict. Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature. Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent. Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen. Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable time and again—in business and in love.  Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code. Leaving the cold Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa. And while revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price. (From Warner Bros.’ official synopsis)

 Live By Night
Following a decade or so at the butt of every joke about bad acting and ridiculous Hollywood relationships, culminating in the career devastating trilogy of Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl (2004), Mike Mitchell’s Surviving Christmas (2004), and, of course, Martin Brest’s Gigli (2003), Ben Affleck remodeled his Hollywood career as a director of very ordinary movies. If that wasn’t a good enough indication for you, let me verify that I don’t think Gone Baby Gone (2007), The Town (2010), or Argo (2012) are particularly compelling movies. They’re all just fine – well-made, neatly constructed, and entertaining in a serious, but not too serious manner. As a filmmaker, Affleck continuously demonstrates above average skill-set and knowledge base, but his work is too boilerplate. Even his best movie, Argo, succeeds due to its fascinating subject matter, not because he brings something stylistically or thematically spectacular to the table. So, while the majority of the critical world seems to be framing his latest film, Live By Night, as a possibly career-damning failure, it’s not really unlike all the other Ben Affleck movies. Moreover, it fits in neatly with other recent, mediocre-verging-on-genuinely-bad Prohibition/Depression era crime movies, like Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad (2013), Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), and John Hillcoat’s Lawless (2012).

Affleck’s screenplay is based on a book by author Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the books that Gone Baby Gone, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003), and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) were based on. More pertinent here, however, is the fact that Lehane was a writer and creative consultant on Terence Winter’s HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010 - 2014), itself an epic, somewhat fictionalized retelling of Prohibition era gang wars. The entire time I was watching Live By Night, I couldn’t help but constantly recall story arcs and character interactions from Boardwalk Empire, to the detriment of Affleck’s efforts. Not to imply that the show was the very best representation of crime in the era or that there isn’t room for more prohibition/depression gangster movies, but the comparison highlights Live by Night’s most obvious shortcomings – its lack of novelty, constantly dejected tone, and pacing issues. The first problem may be unavoidable, because all genres have their boilerplates and tropes. Gangster movies are generally slaves to type as well as historical precedent, since so many are based on actual events. But there’s no good reason that cliches need to be boring, nor should they flow quite so awkwardly.

 Live By Night
Affleck’s movies are typically mopey, but Argo proved he could overcame clunky exposition with a sense of humour. No such luck this time, or, at least none of the humour offers any actual levity. The pacing is a more unexpected issue as, again, structure and speed are two of Argo’s greatest strengths. Affleck does have a habit of drawing out narratives, but this rarely spoils his momentum. Here, his storytelling is broken down into overstuffed exposition dumps, poppy, but overly-hectic montages, and glacial, repetitive conversations between characters. The first half-hour is particularly off-tempo and this lack of rhythm makes it awfully difficult to really care about the more substantial second and third acts (or any of the characters, for that matter). The material clearly would’ve been better served by either a season of television (like Boardwalk Empire), where characters could be better developed and the episodic blueprint would make more sense. Barring that, it might’ve also worked as a pulpy, 90-minute thriller, where the excessive narration could’ve filled plot space between action scenes, instead of re-explaining the story to the audience. The hackneyed platitudes would’ve fit a Walter Hill-like pulp movie a bit better, as well. It’s not all bad news, though. Live by Night looks sharp, specifically where its smooth-running steadicam work and elaborate production design is concerned. The action sequences are also neatly constructed for maximum impact. Sadly, these seem proof Affleck probably could’ve made a pretty rousing Batman movie.

Video


As is the fashion these days, Live By Night fuses old-fashioned and new-fangled imagery to convey period. Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson used a combination of 65mm film and Red digital HD. Reportedly, Richardson was so into the idea of the large format that he had even planned on shooting with the same Ultra Panavision 70mm lenses Tarantino used for Hateful Eight (2015), but they had already been rented for use with Garth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016). Despite this adherence to the format, the footage has been graded in post-production to a degree that it looks like digital cinema, so I have no idea where the divide between film and Red cameras is (my best guess is that they used digital cameras for darker interiors). The final image isn’t nearly as severe as, say, the aforementioned Gangster Squad, but the colour timing leaves city exteriors with a cobalt sheen, countryside exteriors vaguely overcast and desaturated, and darker interiors with a brown/amber glow. Stylistic choices aside, this 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is quite impressive. The image is consistently clean with delicate gradations, soft highlights, and deep blacks that don’t completely absorb the colours and details around them. While this plush quality rarely generates a lot of harsh edges or fine textures, there is something to be said for the complexity of the patterns and clarity of the shading.

 Live By Night

Audio


Like many of Warner Bros’ major new releases, this Blu-ray comes fitted with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, though this review will pertain to the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 core track. The mix is usually subtle and dialogue-heavy, but keeps busy between car chases and shoot-outs with a soft, lively atmosphere. Then, when it’s time for action, the stereo and surround channels are fully engaged with enough crunching machinery and scattering bullets to give your sound system a proper workout. Gone Baby Gone and The Town composer Harry Gregson-Williams returned to work with Affleck after a short break that they took from each other during Argo. While the score isn’t immediately memorable, it is very well integrated into the mix, softly looming beneath the drama and bursting out of the action sequences with driving strings and throbbing bass. The more melancholy cues don’t work so well, but they aren’t as prevalent.

Extras


  • Commentary with director/star Ben Affleck, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and production designer Jess Gonchor – Affleck seems like a pleasant person and a talented guy, but, boy, oh boy, he’s awful at recording commentary tracks for his own movies. He’s typically low energy and mumbly while very slowly discussing the production. Richardson and Gonchor (who are not listed on the specs and introduced by their names only, so if you didn’t look up who they are, you’d never know) offer a bit more for him to bounce off of, leading to brief bouts of life and humour, but this track isn’t much good to anyone but those that are extremely interested in the locations, which are described in greater detail than anything else.
  • Angels with Dirty Faces: The Women of Live By Night (8:54, HD) – A fluffy look at the three lead actresses and their characters with the cast, crew, and author Dennis Lehane.
  • The Men of Live By Night (8:30, HD) – A companion piece featurette about the male leads.
  • Live By Night’s Prolific Author (6:53, HD) – Lehane talks about himself, his career as a writer, and the novels that connect to Live By Night (it was released between The Given Day in 2001 and World Gone By in 2015).
  • In Close Up: Creating a Classic Car Chase (7:35, HD) – A breakdown of the construction and filming of the impressive first act car chase.
  • Deleted scenes with optional Affleck commentary (15:56, HD)


 Live By Night

Overall


Live by Night isn’t very good at all, but, if Affleck recovers and finds a more interesting subject for his next movie as director, it might at least prove to be an interesting bump in the road. Still, the Warner Bros. Blu-ray looks sharp with only minor signs of compression and features a powerful Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The supplements are okay, but lean towards the fluffy EPK side of things.

 Live By Night

 Live By Night

 Live By Night
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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