The Town (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ben Affleck, 2010
The Boston, Massachusetts, of Ben Affleck‘s new movie The Town – and of The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and other recent thrillers, Dennis Lehane-derived or not — is decades away from the morally bent city of that great under-seen 1973 neo-noir The Friend of Eddie Coyle. But it has a similarly chilly temperature, the same clipped sense of smart-ass New England doom and Kennedy-accented cynicism welling up from the mean, sullen streets.
The Town, based on “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan (and scripted by Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig), is a more of a movie-movie than any of the others. It has three (count ’em) rock ’em sock ‘em action heist set-pieces, each carefully spaced through the story, each increasingly violent, eye-blasting and showcase set-piecey, until the last one, a post-Heat busted heist and shootout at Fenway Park, with cops and crooks drenching each other with automatic gunfire, that all but smashes you, French Connection-like, out of your seat.
But it still seems like a real city, a real community soaking itself into the bones of the characters, seeping out through their casual, slangy patter. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by the British thriller specialist Peter Yates, and featuring one of Robert Mitchum‘s best, least typical roles (as Coyle), was written by a Boston lawyer, George V. Higgins, and it feels as real as a fight across the street, with an ending that shreds naiveté like a fast gut-punch. The Town is an entertainment and a romance, which finishes the way you want a good entertaining movie to end. (A good tough-minded movie, not a clichéd one.) But the world it creates — thanks partly of course to the memories of director-co-writer-star and ex-New Englander Affleck — is as convincing as the drizzly Paris of Rififi, gray and grim, tough and soulful.
The Town is set in Charlestown (maybe that would have been a better title) — which, we’re told, produces more bank robbers per block than anywhere else in America, a place where stickups are a sort of neighborhood tradition, passed on from father to son. Small wonder then, that one of the main characters, Affleck’s Doug MacRay, seems so good at his job, yet so morally dissonant from what should be the calloussed feelings of the career robber he plays, Doug MacRay, while another, his psychopathic buddy Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker), is hard as a crushed fender, a born thief, and maybe a born killer too.
We first see Doug, Jem and their two regular accomplices, holding up a bank, with casual ruthless organization and skill, leaping over barriers, forcing everyone to the floor, eerily wearing horror movie skull masks. (Later, in the second heist, even more eerily, they wear the masks of cadaverous nuns). Doug is hard-nosed, efficient, but strangely considerate, especially to the pretty bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who has to open the vault for him. Jem is vicious and unpredictable, repeatedly smashing one hapless banker on the floor, then deciding to kidnap Claire, then releasing her.
Jem is still worried though, that she’ll screw them up somehow, especially since she actually lives in their area (the posher part) — which is why Doug, to save them from an unnecessary rub-out, hooks up with Claire at the Laundromat, and why (the sort of thing Higgins wouldn’t write), he falls in love with her and she apparently with him. Jem, the voice of neo-noir and a buddy probably envious of his pal‘s conquests, is properly disgusted, acidly wondering, “You gonna fuck all the witnesses?”
From then on, it’s partly the roller-coaster ride we expect, punctuated with shootouts, a mad speeding-Bullitt of a car chase (through packed streets) and those regular, explosive heists — and partly the more touching romantic/neighborhood drama that feeds our interest. There are two sets of villains here (not counting Jem): a couple of evil gang guys and robbery-facilitators who work in a florist shop (shades of Sternberg’s Underworld), including a dour chap named Fergie Colm, the meanest, scariest bastard Pete Postlethwaite has ever played (Colm has a voice like Irish metal chips, rattling together), and an urbane, amiably nasty young FBI agent, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who reminded me of Eddie Coyle‘s streetwise young cop Richard Jordan. (Hamm steals so many scenes, that, like Renner, he hints at Oscar nomination possibilities.)
On the movie’s other plot-strand, the star-crossed lovers track, Affleck and Hall suggest a couple who belong together, fit perfectly, a tall eye-catching credit to the neighborhood. (Their kids may be college basketball stars.) They’re terse and knowing, but passionate, and watching them –jealously, hurt — are Jem and Jem’s sister, Doug‘s hooker ex-squeeze, Christa (Blake Lively). That’s pretty much the dramatis personae, except for Doug’s unforgettably bitter jailbird dad Stephen (Chris Copper), who’s there to remind us what happens when life goes sour and the Charlestown bank party is over.
There’s not a role here that could have been played better, not an actor, including the much-dissed Ms. Lively, who could have been cast better (though, for old time’s sake, we might have liked to see Matt Damon as Jem). I think both this movie and the withering Gone, Baby, Gone (from Lehane) prove director Affleck loves his actors and tries to do his best by them. He’s also pretty damned smart about local color and atmosphere.
The style of the movie fits its characters, and though this is a savvy genre piece, it’s also a strong character show. Affleck‘s visual plan is unsentimental, cool and clear, with the aches and twinges buried underneath, his timing in the drama scenes just slow and methodical enough to keep you hooked, and not too jumped up or aggravated, like the usual Street Western.
Watching The Town, I rarely felt a step going false, a note out of place. (Of course, I never lived in Boston, though I almost took a job there once, at the old Real Paper.) And I enjoyed the action scenes, even if they kept going increasingly over-the-edge. If the characters are deep enough, the story compelling enough, the action can get crazy and you‘ll buy it, or at least ride through it (as you can’t, for example, in a crock like Takers). And there’s something about those automatic rifles, raking across a row of cars, about two guys just standing up and shooting away, about all hell exploding by Fenway Park, that maybe brings out the mean N.R.A. boy in us. It’s fun to watch.
But The Town didn’t kill me at the end, and maybe that was because Affleck is trying hard here not just to make a good movie, but a commercially successful one. (That was Clint Eastwood’s strategy for much of his career, and Eastwood‘s is a name/comparison some critics have dropped here.) Affleck doesn’t betray his material. But he doesn’t transcend it either. He makes a good movie that does its job, and grips us, scares us, twists the emotional knife, and gives us something extra. That’s enough for now. Charlestown should be proud. Matt Damon should be proud. Casey Affleck should be proud. And, by the way, never buy any flowers from Pete Postlethwaite.
Easy A (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Will Gluck, 2010
Emma Stone, the star of Easy A has the kind of sharp camera sense, acting smarts, knowing eye action, and willowy bod that make her a camera magnet, plus a brainy delivery that belies much of her material. I’m afraid, for me, it belied Easy A too — which is a high school variation on Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s “The Scarlet Letter” that seems to be obsessed with being both Clueless (a high school variation on Jane Austen‘s “Emma”) and Juno (a high school “Catcher in the Rye”-ish show with a pregnant Holden Caulfield).
The plot is obvious, but a little goofy. Stone plays Olive, a virginal but tart-mouthed teen at East Ojai High, who accidentally gets overheard in the john by the school bible-thumping bitch Marianne (Amanda Byrnes), while Olive tells her best friend a juicy lie about her sex life. For reasons never very clear or very plausible to me, Olive decides then to keep up the pretense of being a slut (though she has the rep and the notoriety anyway), and soon she’s peddling lucrative fibs about putting out, lies paid for by a lot of virginal local boys, including one gay guy and a lot of dweebs, the ones who also want a rep for what they’re not doing.
This bizarre pretense reaches its first climax, sort of, at a party where Emma and a client pretend to be doing it, moaning, carrying on and jumping on the springs in a bedroom, with a lot of the rest of the party-goers, ears pressed to the door, kibitzing on the other side. Sure.
Soon, Olive has plastered a big red A on her top and the sham is reaching epic proportions. Pulled into the fray are Olive’s favorite teacher and his hot-pants guidance counsellor wife (Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow, both tantalizing but wasted), the smirking principal (Malcolm McDowell, t. but w. too), the school team Woodchuck mascot (t. but w.c.) and everybody else within a cell-phone of the rumors.
Puzzlingly unconcerned are Olive’s unsquare parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, though it‘s explained that Olive’s mom led a wild life. (Remember, Clarkson got part of her start dating Dirty Harry in The Dead Pool.) Olive herself never gets to be a female Holden Caulfield, though Stone could have managed it. (Remember , the name Holden Caulfield probably comes from William Holden, Joan Caulfield and Dear Ruth. And don’t get me started on the movies, or My Foolish Heart.)
Actually, very little of Easy A made any sense to me at all. (It has great titles though.) Most of the cast, tantalizing or not, seemed wasted, or at least too cutesy. (except the wonderful Ms. Stone.) The dialogue was all smarty-pants rib-nudging stuff. The sexy plot twists seemed to me inexplicable. At that high school party, for example, I would have guessed that the people on the other side of the door would have busted it open and piled on the bed, and not just because I‘ve been brainwashed by Judd Apatow. Furthermore, why is everybody keeping did-she-or-didn’t-she secrets like this — especially high school guys, who, no matter how much money they’ve shelled out, usually can’t keep secrets about sex at all? Why does Olive make her best friend her enemy and vice versa? Is East Ojai High really this sexually retarded? Why didn’t Church and Kudrow and Tucci and Clarkson just forget all this, find another script and break out a bottle of pinot noir with Paul Giamatti and Emma? Cheers!
Bert V. Royal’s script reminded me uncomfortably of all those ‘60’s Doris Day-Rock Hudson, Norman Krasna/Stanley Shapiro sort of gelded sex comedy scripts, those phony-promiscuous shows where people were supposed to be screwing but weren‘t, or the gal was supposed to be doing it but wasn’t, or the guy was supposed to be gay but wasn’t, and nothing was really going on, but the supporting actors, or at least Tony Randall and Paul Lynde, were constantly leering over everything.
I accept the fact that I just don’t understand the younger generation, or at least this version of it. (Or the older generation too, apparently. Or sex. Or woodchucks.) And though I never laughed once at Easy A, a lot of people around me were chuckling, tittering, having a ball. Aw, they were easy.
Never Let Me Go (Two and Half Stars)
U.K.; Mark Romanek, 2010
This adaptation of an austere, melancholy science fiction novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (who wrote the book from which Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala made the splendid Remains of the Day) gives us a world where test tube babies are bred to become organ donors for the terminally ill. Icy premise, awful world. In scenes well-written by Andrew Garfield, well-directed by Mark Romanek (who made the 1985 sleeper Static), and very well-acted by all, we follow three of the donors-to-be — big-hearted Kathy (Carey Mulligan), her howling great love Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and her sexy over-competitive friend, and Tommy’s seducer, Ruth (Keira Knightley) — through lively but troubling school years (Charlotte Rampling is their cool headmistress), with broken hearts haunted by a cassette with Helen Monheit singing, pleading Never Let Me Go, to a mournful adulthood, full of recurring, cloudy ocean-side beach scenes where a somber sky is spread above abandoned sands, and waves lap, lap the shore.
I confess I am one of those viewers who finds this very well-made movie somewhat unaffected and even alienating because nobody makes a break for it — because we never even seem to hear a false rumor of revolt, but instead watch these sympathetic people walk placidly, inexorably, toward what’s called completion. Is it a Holocaust analogue? Is it programmed cloning? Is it the worst example of the secret psychic chains of the old British class system? Is it some warped desire not to be accused of excessive melodrama by upper-class British literary critics? Is it incomplete writing?
END OF SPOILER
Whatever, it inhibits empathy. For me, at least. And as someone who would have liked very much to donate a kidney to his dying mother, I find health care nightmares devastating.
Mademoiselle Chambon (Three Stars)
France; Stephane Brize, 2009
Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been. So says the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. So perhaps, for much of Mademoiselle Chambon, says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this Brief Encounter-ish tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls in love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartstruck when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.
Lindon and Kiberlain, both exemplary actors, are an interesting couple — she’s brainy, wispy and interested, he‘s brawny, good with his hands and shy. And this adaptation by Brize and co-writer Florence Vignon of Eric Holder‘s novel, wrings as many drops of erotic tension, as many moony stares and averted eyes, pregnant silences and yearning almost-touches, as it can. Most of the passion is sub-surface, as it was in David Lean and Noel Coward’s postwar classic of Rachmaninoff-drenched repression. (See above). The visual style is chaste too. When young, smart-ass media neo-conservatives bitch about French movies, this may be part of what bothers them. Sex mixed with principles isn‘t their cuppa, and neither are movies that take romance seriously.
But in many great love stories, it’s the difficulties that make the drama, the frustrations that feed the passion. And that‘s the case here, too. Thanks to Lindon and Kiberlain, we feel again what it means to suffer, silently. Chambon is not great, but its certainly good. Wispy, but good. (French, with English subtitles.)
Catfish (Three Stars)
U.S.; Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman, 2010
Time is running out. So it’s a relief to be faced with a movie, where it’s best that I tell you absolutely nothing about what happens in it — except this. Catfish is a super-indie mini-budget movie shot by young filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost about their N. Y. roommate, and Ariel’s brother, photographer Yaniv (Nev) Schulman, and his Facebook relationship with Abby Pierce, an 8-year-old artist living in Minnesota, her teen sister Meg, and their remarkable mother Angela.
Or is it?
Watch it. Trust me. Trust us all. The movie is riveting. The people are (sometimes) irritating and (often) fascinating. The end-credits are killers. The world is changing, and this film is a document of that change — witty, scary, sad. And though there are rumors that this is one of those I’m Still Here deals, by Ben Affleck’s brother Casey, where much of it may be fictional and faked, all I can say is: If these guys made up this story and executed it like this, then their talent is even more impressive.