Monday, January 16, 2017

Director Series: BEN AFFLECK

Ben Affleck is a man of many talents. We were all introduced to Ben Affleck as an actor. Going all the way back to School Ties and Dazed and Confused, Affleck has been in our pop culture lexicon. Then, in 1995, we learned of his brilliant talents as a writer when he won his first Academy Award as a screenwriter (alongside frequent collaborator and friend Matt Damon) for Good Will Hunting (at least those of us who believed he really did co-write that script learned that). Then, in 2007, when Affleck released his first directorial feature, Gone Baby Gone, (which he also wrote) we all learned that Good Will Hunting was no fluke.

Today, Affleck is, without question, a superstar director. With the recent release of Live By Night, he has directed four feature films. Three of these were massively critically acclaimed, and one which reached the absolute zenith by winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Even the mixed reviews given to Live By Night represent a respect for Affleck’s directorial vision.

Affleck’s directorial stardom has been predominantly in the crime/noir genre with three films in the area (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Live By Night). He has shown an incredibly unique talent of capturing a gritty realism in these films that make them captivating to watch. Each of these films has also centered around (or at least featured) Affleck’s childhood home of Boston (and its surrounding towns) which Affleck captures with immense skill. There are a decent number of films set in Boston, but few feel like Boston in the ways Affleck’s films do. They all have this sense of place that is really tangible and, if you’re from Boston, so true to life that you can fully invest in the story he is telling. The work in the writer’s room on each of these films has also showcased his talent in that area and his ability to get really sharp and engaging dialogue that most films sorely lack.

And then there’s Argo. Argo is the outlier film for Affleck’s career, in a way, as it is the only one he hasn’t written (or co-written), that does not feature Boston, and that isn’t a crime movie. Yet, his subtle stylistic choices come through in his direction and his ability to build immense tension is put on full display as a scene going through customs at an airport will have you white-knuckled with an elevated heart-rate like nothing you’ve ever seen. Although I don’t personally think it’s his best work (in fact, I think both The Town and Gone Baby Gone are better films), it isn’t hard to see why he was awarded as a director by the Directors Guild of America (though, strangely not even nominated by the Academy) and awarded as a film at the Academy Awards.

Since the release of Argo in 2012, Affleck’s career has taken off and become more tumultuous in many respects. The recent release of Live By Night represents Affleck’s first critical failure. This adaptation was a major passion project for Affleck and was arguably rushed to cinemas for a variety of reasons beyond the filmmaking alone. Although the film certainly has its proponents, this reviewer among them, few would argue that it is his weakest directorial effort. He has also been fairly busy as an actor. This year he also starred, or was featured, in four major releases (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, The Accountant, and Live By Night) three of which received mixed to negative reception critically.

Affleck’s involvement with the DC Extended Universe puts him on the precipice of either truly joining the community of elite directors or erasing Gigli, Paycheck, Daredevil, and Reindeer Games as the biggest disappointments on his resume. Batman is, without a doubt, the most popular superhero of all time and Affleck’s solid performances as the character in front of the camera, coupled with the massive critical and financial success of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, has put the anticipation for the Affleck directed Batman film at an absolute fever-pitch. The lack of clear release details and the previous troubled productions with the early DCEU films have only added to the pressure cooker surrounding this film and Affleck is seemingly feeling that pressure as well.

I, for one, could not be more excited for The Batman (a title I sincerely hope they keep). Affleck’s work in the crime/noir genre, coupled with the work he’s already done in front of the camera, coupled further with the aggressive, high-impact characterization Zack Snyder has lent the character makes me feel like I am going to get the film I have always wanted to see as a massive fan of the caped crusader. If he brings his noir sensibilities from Gone Baby Gone and his gritty but flashy crime sensibilities from The Town to this film, I think this could be a very special film (much like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was some eight and a half years ago).

Although I think that The Batman will be the proving ground for Affleck’s elite status, one would be foolish to deny his skill. Attaching his name as a director will always draw me into the theater. We need more talent like Ben Affleck in Hollywood today. Reviewing his filmography has been an absolute delight and everyone should check out his films as soon as they can!

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