MOVIE BUFF-ET: Jackie proves unsettling; Live By Night fails to live up to mob pedigree

Fox Searchlight

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, is one of those tragic moments in which Americans mark time. Ask anyone alive at the time, and most can tell you exactly where they were, what they thought, and how they felt.

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For those of us not old enough to remember, director Pablo Larraín’s film Jackie gives us just a taste of that moment as well as the four days following the assassination leading up to Kennedy’s funeral. The story, written by Noah Oppenheim, plays through the prism of First Lady Jackie Kennedy as she deals with the trauma of not only losing her husband and the father of her children but also her very identity.

The film has a surrealist quality with flashbacks as Jackie sits for an interview where she re-accounts her experiences shortly before, during an after the assignation. She tell the unvarnished story to a reporter played by Billy Crudup but deems much of the information off the record.

Critics have lauded Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie; however, it left me with mixed feelings. In a sense, Portman plays two roles, the public persona of the First Lady and the real “Jackie” behind the scenes.

In both roles Portman affects an accent. I found the public voice and demeanor of Jackie almost plastic and maybe a bit robotic. That, of course, may have been a bold choice by Portman to shine an emphasis on the difference between the public veneer of a public figure and who they actually are.

That choice obviously worked for some, but I found it off-putting. It took me out of the movie from the very beginning.

Portman’s portrayal of Jackie behind the scenes — on Air Force One, at the White House, and at the Kennedy estate — is organic and quite raw. Jackie is a woman in shock. Those scenes did reel me back into the movie.

Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig offer strong support as Robert Kennedy and Jackie’s aide Nancy Tuckerman respectively, but the movie rests squarely on Portman’s performance, and all things considered she shoulders the burden well.

The film is as haunting and uncomfortable as the subject matter. It’s watching someone in their most vulnerable and worst moments as Jackie runs the gamut of emotions for her and the nation’s loss.

Jackie is a good film, maybe even great. However, for me, it might be too effective. I don’t recommend it for everyone, but if you were inclined to see it, I wouldn’t dissuade you. Just know going in that it is a jarring film.

(R) 1 hr. 40 min.
Grade: B+

Live By Night

Warner Bros. Pictures

Screenwriter, director, and star Ben Affleck swings for the fence in his latest production Live By Night which is based on a Dennis Lehane novel, but the film ultimately proves to be a ground-rule double rather than a home run.

Affleck portrays a World War I veteran of Irish descent anmed Joe Coughlin. After returning from the war, Joe strays from the straight-and-narrow path walked by his police captain father (Brendan Gleason). When a hold-up goes awry, Joe’s forced to join the Italian mob after a short stretch in prison. He is sent south to Florida to run the illegal rum trade during prohibition.

The film details his rise to power and his somewhat benevolent ways with his illegal proceeds. It details the ups and downs of organized crime and the wages it costs for Coughlin, his subordinates, and those willing to stand in his way.

Affleck has become an accomplished filmmaker in recent years, directing Gone Baby Gone, and directing and starring in The Town and Argo, the latter of which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2013. While a solid-enough film, Live By Night suffers from the weight of greater crime and gangster films that roam in our collective consciousness. Though Affleck no doubt wanted it to be, Live By Night has more in common with The Godfather III than it does with the vastly superior The Godfather or the Godfather Part II.

I suspect most that see the film will enjoy it to a degree, but it’s not a great movie and fails to live up to its mob pedigree. The film wraps up too tidy and too quickly to be fully satisfying.

(R) 2 hr. 9 min.
Grade: B-

Classic Corner

The Greatest Show on Earth

With the news this week that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus is shutting down after entertaining its patrons for 146 years, there might not be a better time than now to look back at the Cecil B. DeMille circus spectacle The Greatest Show on Earth.

Described as lust under the big top and melodrama on the midway, the 1952 Technicolor film stared Betty Hutton and Cornell Wilde as trapeze artist’s who competed for top billing in the circus managed by Charlton Heston. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Story in 1952, but many feel those awards were given in an effort to honor DeMille’s long career that stretched back into the silent era rather than on merit. Considering that High Noon, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Quiet Man were produced in the same year, there’s probably something to the rumors.

Even if The Greatest Show on Earth didn’t deserve the awards, the film is entertaining. There are rivalries, feuds, plots, affairs, injuries, a train crash and all many of entanglements including a clown on the run from a murder charge.

Jimmy Stewart plays a secondary role with all the charm and skill that made him one of the best and most beloved actors that Hollywood has produced.

The movie as shot with the cooperation of Ringling Bros., and many of its acts, performers and crew made it on to the silver screen.

The film didn’t exactly make Heston the star that he would become, but it was his first work with DeMille, who would cast him as Moses in DeMille’s 1956 remake of the biblical epic The Ten Commandments. Now, that film probably did deserve a Best Picture Oscar.