THE TOWN: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TOWN (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2010)

“From the acclaimed director of GONE BABY GONE” goes the trailers and TV spot for this new crime thriller that don’t happen to mention that Ben Affleck is that said acclaimed director. For despite the fact that he’s slowly been gaining respect and career clout over the last several years, Affleck is a name still associated with box office poison like GIGLI and PEARL HARBOR.

GONE BABY GONE was indeed a strong directorial debut, but this much larger production is even stronger. “The Town” is about a crew of expert thieves from a one-square-mile neighborhood in Boston that the opening titles tell us is “the bank robbery capitol of America.”

Affleck, Jeremy Renner (THE HURT LOCKER), Owen Burke, and Irish rapper Slaine make up the crew who we meet in creepy green Skeletor masks and dark hoods in action at a downtown Boston bank. They take an employee hostage (Rebecca Hall) as they make their getaway.

They release the blindfolded Hall not too long after with Renner taking her driver’s license and threatening her life if she talks to the FBI.

Which is exactly what she does – in a traumatized state to an agent played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). Hamm is determined to bring down Affleck’s crew: “This is a not-screwing-around crew, so find me something that looks like a print ‘cause this not-screwing-around thing is about to go both ways!” he exclaims.

The trigger-happy Renner wants to eliminate Hall since she is a potential witness that could bring them down, but there’s a little problem: Affleck may be falling in love with her.

That started with Affleck following Hall and talking to her at a laundromat. He couldn’t resist turning the charm and she almost immediately took to him.

Affleck, of course, wants out of the life of crime but don’t you know it – the crew + an elderly neighborhood florist who has Godfatherly powers (Peter Postlewaite) wants him to pull another major heist.

Everything comes to a head when…oh, I should stop with the spoilers because the best part is seeing how this all plays out. There is heavy artillery, many deaths, and a bunch of vehicles are wrecked if you want to know if it has plenty of action, but its concern for the characters is what drives it.

Even with a number of tough guy clichés and a certain percentage of implausibility in the last third, Affleck’s adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince Of Thieves” is a superb heist film with a compelling emotional core.

This is largely due to its cast who makes this material work. Affleck’s Boston accent is impressively un-annoying and he plays pathos much more convincingly than in the past.

Hamm hasn’t completely shed the skin of the smooth Don Draper, but his confidence in what could have been a standard by-the-book Fed role nicely contrasts with that of the attitude of the crew’s thug-like lo tech methods.

Hall does a lot with a very little of a character – the woman caught in the middle of a boys club’s row. She has cute chemistry with Affleck and the fearfulness is felt in her restrained shakiness. Renner is one note but he plays it well and it’s all that’s needed from him in this tightly plot.

Chris Cooper as Affleck’s prison lifer father is in one especially effective and necessary scene, and there’s also Blake Lively as a boozy bar floozy.

THE TOWN may not be another crime epic on the scale of HEAT or THE DEPARTED, but it’s a major work by a guy who next time – with hope – will have his name up front in the advertising.

More later…

Judging Mike Judge’s EXTRACT

EXTRACT (Dir. Mike Judge, 2009)

The filmography of Mike Judge is very small (just 4 films over 13 years) and very odd. Best known as the creator and voice of Beavis And Butt-head and King Of The Hill, his movies have a obvious bent towards working stiffs and the threat of stupidity taking over the world (see OFFICE SPACE and IDIOCRACY). EXTRACT is cut from the same cloth as Judge’s cult classic OFFICE SPACE but it’s a jagged uneven piece of that cloth. As the protagonist Jason Bateman is not just a cog in the system, he owns his own company – an extract manufacturing plant. A freak accident on the factory assembly line that leaves one of his employees (Clifton Collins Jr.) with only one testicle, leaves him with a huge lawsuit that could potentially ruin his company. Meanwhile on the home front Bateman isn’t getting any action from his wife (a blank slate Kristen Wiig from SNL) so he drowns his sorrows at a nearby hotel sports bar whining to his best friend – bartender Ben Affleck.

Affleck, bearded and be-wigged and seemingly having a better time than anyone else in the movie, spouts out awful advice, and recommends pills as solutions. Bateman is attracted to a new intern (Mila Kunis) and confides to Affleck that he wouldn’t care if his wife cheated on him as long as he could get it on with Kunis. Affleck refers Bateman, heavily drugged, to a small time gigolo (Dusty Milligan) whom he hires to go to his house in the guise of a pool cleaner in order to seduce his wife.

Okay! This is where I give up on the plot summary as recounting it is almost as bad as it was watching it. What started out promisingly becomes a test of endurance. Instead of waiting for laughs I found myself anticipating the flimsy unpleasant premise to get even more flimsier and unpleasant. When Gene Simmons of Kiss showed up as a sleazy lawyer (one of the film’s most inspired notions actually) I expected him to make good on his threat to slam Bateman’s balls in the conference room door. Why not? It’s not like the film had any loftier aspirations.

There are a number of genuine laughs in EXTRACT, just not enough to add up to a great cutting comedy. Kunis’s character as a hottie grifter (no Spoilers there – that’s revealed in the opening scene) offers no surprises and no character is likable enough to care about – I’ve liked Bateman in just about everything I’ve seen him in (especially Arrested Development) but here he’s a pretty bland and not particularly sympathetic everyman. I cringed more than I laughed during this movie I’m sad to report. Judge’s previous works were indeed odd with a twisted yet likable affinity for those struggling to climb to another rung on the ladder of success. EXTRACT is just odd and twisted – which would be fine if it was just funnier.

More later…

STATE OF PLAY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Taking a break from the heat on my Vegas vacation I found a theater (United Artists Showcase 8) not too far from my hotel and decided to take in:

STATE OF PLAY (Dir. Kevin McDonald, 2009)

Literally hitting the ground running with a foot chase through a rain drenched Washington DC night resulting in multiple murder, this adaptation of the six part 2003 British miniseries never lets up from its riveting opening. In the cold light of the next day we are introduced to a scruffy haggard looking Russell Crowe as a ace old school reporter (the type who brags about using a 16 year old computer) who buys coffee to get info from the police and makes jaded quips like: “I’ll need to read a few blogs in order to form an opinion.” A nice timely touch is to then pair him up with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) for his newspaper’s online division. Crowe’s long time buddy, a congressman played surprisingly solidly by Ben Affleck, is exposed as having had an affair with one of the previous night’s victims (Maria Thayer – only seen in photos and cellphone footage) and, of course, something sinister lies in the shadows with an evil corporation possibly pulling the strings.

Yes, it’s a conspiracy movie with a “trust nobody” vibe that has many allusions to one of the all time greats, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN with its Washington DC backdrop, intense walks and talks, doors slammed in journalist’s faces, and even a shadowy parking garage sequence. The Watergate hotel gets more than just a visual shout out too. Crowe gets many terse tongue lashes from his English editor played beautifully by Helen Mirren in the cluttered newsroom of the fictional “The Washington Globe” (same typeface as The Washington Post in case one misses the connection) while he and McAdams go from lead to lead. For the up to par supporting cast we’ve got Robin Wright Penn as Affleck’s estranged wife, Jeff Daniels as a smarmy Senior Representative, Viola Davis (DOUBT) as a no nonsense pathologist, and a stand-out Jason Bateman as a bisexual fetish club promoter addicted to OxyContin.

There are contrivances and clichés galore but the movie moves so fast with such entertaining zeal that none of that matters. Crowe puts in a cantakerously crafted performance that’s strong enough to conceal that we are given virtually nothing of backstory of his character, while McAdams appealingly works those “dewey eyed cub reporter’s eyes” (as Mirren sneeringly calls them at one point) uping the ante from her previous one note roles like the love interest in WEDDING CRASHERS. There is spare but weighty commentary on the fate of print media in the era of the internets – particularly the likening of bloggers to bloodsuckers (ouch!). Through this all the supreme structure of the film is what really makes it tick. It’s played straight with a tightened pace that doesn’t ever fall out of focus. Maybe it’s not quite in the league of the classic 70’s political thrillers it pays ample homage to, but STATE OF PLAY is a worthy addition to the conspiracy cinema canon.

More later…

New Release Drama DVD Round-Up

When it comes to Netflix I’m what is considered “a heavy user”. I view many DVDs and often send them back the same day I get them writing about them as I go. Since I realized that most of what I’ve seen lately have been dramas I decided to round ’em up for this post. I also noticed that all of these movies have funerals in them but that would make for a pretty depressing blog post title so I’m going with the drama angle. Okay! Let’s get to ’em:

GONE BABY GONE (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2007)

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is everything his run aspiring to A-list leading man status (in such blockbuster wannabes as PEARL HARBOR, PAYCHECK, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS and DAREDEVIL) wasn’t – it’s assured, multi-layered and extremely entertaining. Affleck doesn’t appear on camera here *, which is surprising considering his many bit cameos throughout the years, and yes it would be easy to take a pot shot by commending him for that alone but the weight and power of his Boston based crime drama cancels that immediately out. Brother Casey Affleck does the protagonist duty as a small scale private detective who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) out of a tiny Boston apartment. When the young daughter of some neighborhood low-lifes goes missing and a media circus ensues, they are hired by the girl’s Aunt (Amy Madigan) to help find her.

The police (particularly Ed Harris as a police detective) are skeptical of the inexperienced but intrepid couple and the dangerous battered barfolk they encounter when they go snooping are little help as well but C. Affleck and Monaghan plug away. Morgan Freeman as a police Captain lends his reliable folksy demeanor (glad he’s not narrating for once) also talks down to our heroes – indeed it is often pointed out how young and green Casey Affleck appears: “he just looks young” Monaghan remarks to Freeman’s scolding. As you should know by now I’ll give no further spoilers but I bet you can see how the couple gets in other their head in a world where nobody can be trusted – Man, that ought to be the tagline!

Hate to call them twists because they are displayed with more class than in many standard thrillers but the turns of the second act are surprisingly successful because of the refreshing lack of gloss or flash. A tad high in melodrama maybe but GONE BABY GONE doesn’t overreach. The supporting cast all bring it – Harris and Madigan (who are husband and wife in real life) both have some standout scenes and John Ashton (who many will remember as a cop in the BEVERLY HILLS COP series) gets in some good gruff gestures. Amy Ryan as the lost girl’s mother plays a messed up “skeezer”, as one drug dealer character calls her, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and she’s pretty dead on but some of her line readings seem a bit forced so I’ll be pretty shocked if she wins it. Casey Affleck really should have been nominated for this performance over his part in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES…, as much as I liked him in that flick, because he really gets it right in his manner and tone here. On the cinematic chopping block MYSTIC RIVER comparisons are inevitable but Ben Affleck’s moving film makes a case that Clint Eastwood doesn’t own the terrain – I believe a new up and coming director dog has just marked his territory.

* Actually Affleck can be seen moving through a shot in a dark bar but you could blink and miss him. On the DVD commentary co-writer Aaron Stockard calls it his “Hitchcock moment”.

WE OWN THE NIGHT (Dir. James Gray, 2007)

The opening with black and white archive photos (by still photographer Leonard Fried) of 80’s era New York cops brings to mind the grainy real-life riot footage that opened THE DEPARTED. Scorsese’s Best Picture winning crime classic again rears its head as once again we have a premise resembling a good cop/bad cop scenario and Mark Wahlberg as the blunt good cop doesn’t call foul on such accusations. But let’s get past that and see what we’ve really got here in James Gray’s period-piece police Vs. Russian mobsters flick that slipped through the cracks in its release last Fall. With Wahlberg we’ve got Joaquin Phoenix as his druggie nightclub managing brother and Robert Duvall as their grizzled police chief father trying to recruit Phoenix to be a mole. Duvall is one of the few actors that can convincingly pull off such a cliched line as “Sooner or later, either you’re gonna be with us or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers”. Phoenix is indifferent to his Pop’s war on drugs plight as he posits himself as a future “king of New York”. His club El Caribe is obviously modeled on Studio 54 with its clientele selected by bouncers, scantily clad dancing girls on the bar, and non-stop Blondie blaring on the sound system.

When Wahlberg gets shot and Duvall’s life is threatened by the drug running gangsters, Phoenix changes his tune and starts singing like a canary. He even agrees to be wired in order to lead the cops to the bad guy’s lair. Phoenix’s girlfriend (Eva Mendes – looking like a supermodel in a magazine photo spread) is a possible target too but she is disapproving of Phoenix’s new law enforcement involvement. The dialogue is repetitive and too often spells out every action. The story is full of predictable rote elements and the villains appear to be sent by central casting. It is set in the 80’s not for any interesting premise reasons like the opening implies but possibly because the filmmakers knew they were unable to write any cool modern cellphone trickery plotpoints. Which once again brings up the inferiority of this to Marty’s previously mentioned movie. So yeah, when it comes right down to it – skip this slickly produced pap and watch THE DEPARTED again. Wish I did.

ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (Dir. John Turturro, 2005)

This is a very odd movie. Co-produced by the Coen brothers and made 3 years ago but only now making it to DVD, possibly because the studio didn’t know how to handle it, Turturro with what he calls “a down and dirty musical comedy” is another actor turned director who made a movie that didn’t really catch on. James Gandolfini is an adulterous NYC construction worker whose wife (Susan Sarandon) knows about his mistress (Kate Winslet). They have three daughters (who all look too old to be believable as Gandolfini and Sarandon’s offspring) – Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, and Aida Turturro who have a riot grrl punk band and are constantly banging away for their piece of the soundtrack. Then throw in Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, and a strangely subdued Eddie Izzard and you’ve got a faultless cast but a weird musical mix. I did mention it was a musical, right? That’s what makes it so odd – the cast members sometimes lip synche to classic songs and sometimes sing on top of them; rarely does the song feature the actor’s voice alone. When it does have Gandolfini or Sarandon or Winslet sing by themselves it seems to be to make a particular point. I just couldn’t figure out what that point was.

I really couldn’t for the life of me really get into this movie but I did appreciate quite a few moments. Gandolfini and Sarandon have a great scene, done in one take, sitting at their dinner table where he admits to her for some reason that he never liked Ethel Merman with her “foghorn of a voice”. He excuses Ernest Borgnine’s abuse of Merman in their marriage that only lasted one week back in the day by concluding “‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’ would drive any man crazy.” Somehow this amounts to one of the only warm exchanges between the couple. Winslet really goes at her role with gusto especially in her introductory dancing scene wearing a scorching red dress in the window of a burning building. She and Sarandon have a ferocious cat-fight while Walken sings along in the background to Bruce Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman”. See what I mean? Weird.

Turturro’s directional sense does comes through – a shot of cigarette butts littered all over a patch of snow is exceptional and it is obvious he has a good collaborating relationship with everybody in this movie; it may have been a mistake to cast his sister Aida though – she just ends up recalling her Sopranos character Janice. Mary Louise-Parker appears again in a movie she is barely used in – this is a shame as anybody who has seen Weeds knows, she can do better. At one point Gandolfini says when trying to reconcile with his wife: “Maybe I don’t know how to show it like they do in the movies or in books but I love. I have love to give.” Maybe Turturro doesn’t know how to show it either but this film if nothing else is definitely a work of love. Just why did it have to be love of the weird variety?

SHOOT THE MOON (Dir. Alan Parker, 1981)

It’s easy to forget that in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a genre that held its own against the science-fiction blockbusters that dominated that era – the divorce drama. KRAMER VS. KRAMER, of course, was the leader of the pack but close behind were such families getting torn apart tangents like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, TWICE IN A LIFETIME, and ORDINARY PEOPLE. Long out of circulation but now newly re-issued on DVD is a pivotal player from those ranks – SHOOT THE MOON which features Albert Finney leaving wife Diane Keaton for a younger woman (Karen Allen). As the film opens we are introduced to the couple with their four daughters (Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers) and their creaky old house on the outskirts of Marin County in California (many misty shots of the house and valley are throughout the film). We see as acclaimed novelist Finney and his former student now wife Keaton prepare for an evening at an awards ceremony that their marriage is on the outs. Finney calls his lover and the oldest daughter (Hill) picks up the phone to eavesdrop. On their ride there and back to the televised event their car is full of tension as we realize the gravity of what’s not being said and strongly feel the giant gap between the tortured pair. The next morning Keaton confronts Finney, while doing dishes mind you, and he responds not by owning up to his affair but by leaving with a bag that she had already packed in anticipation.

The couple attempts to sort out the rubble and move on with their lives but they keep on hitting emotional roadblocks. Finney moves in with Allen, who except for one signature scene basically has little to do but stand around looking pretty, while Keaton takes up with a contractor played with just the right tone by Peter Weller (ROBOCOP!) that she hired to put in a tennis court on her (actually legally still her and her separated husband’s) property. The film seethes with energy that explodes from underneath in a few surprisingly violent scenes. Finney is compelling as always as he stalks the screen in a manner exposing his stage roots and Keaton displays that the keen quality she can bring to dramatic roles is equal to the comedic skills she is better known for. Dana Hill (who died in 1996 from complications due to diabetes) has perfect poise as the oldest wisest daughter who knows her parents’ faults as well as their habits – she knows her mother smokes pot for example – and she has a great scene in the third act that among other things explains the movies title. It’s interesting to see Tina Yothers and Tracey Gould as sisters for as students of pop culture know they went on to be daughters in competing 80’s TV sitcom families – Yothers in Family Ties and Gould in Growing Pains respectively. A flawed but stirring drama with an absolutely shocking ending, Alan Parker’s SHOOT THE MOON is an oft overlooked film that deserves a place in your Netflix queue.

More later…


“So many social engagements, so little time.”
– Gale (John Goodman) RAISING ARIZONA (Dir. Joel Coen 1987)

Yeah – lots going on. Recent theatrical releases, new releases on video, and some notable music DVDs need to be blogged ’bout but this time out I’ll just deal with the last few movies I saw at the theater :

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (Dir. Michael Gondry) Many many movies have been about earnest yet clumsily romantic young artists who live fuller in their dreams than in reality. Gael Garcia Bernal fills the part with wide eyed likeability though unfortunately the flimsy sitcom premise doesn’t sustain the big picture. The wonderfully fluid dream sequences will no doubt make this a cult favorite in years to come but it feels like a rough draft. The relationship between Stephane (Bernal) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsburg) doesn’t sparkle and the uneven narrative doesn’t help – I feel like a good 20-30 minutes could be edited out and the flow would improve greatly. Still, with the amount of unadventurous crap out there, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed by film babblers like me – visually it is a beautiful film, so I’ll conclude : flawed but worthwhile.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Dir. Neil Burger) Based on the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist. However, I heard Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton) through the accents sound like ‘Asinine’ as if thats what the characters name would be in a crude Mad magazine satire. Not that this flick is asinine – no its a fairly entertaining period piece mildly marred from unecessary and purposely unexplained special effects and a twist ending right out of THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Norton puts in a stoic and strangely unenergetic performance and Paul Giamatti chews scenery as a Chief Inspector intent on figuring out Eisenheim’s tricks while Jessica Biel provides the elusive love interest. Maybe the real illusion the movie pulls off is that it is better than mediocre – it’s not but at times you’ll think it is.

HOLLYWOODLAND (Dir. Allen Coulter) If I were still in quick quotable blurb mode like in my last post I might be tempted to just write “Hollywoodbland!” but that, like the Asinine the Illusionist in the review above is just silly non-criticism and definitively inaccurate. While I agree with the Onion AV Club that this feels like an HBO original movie and concur with the New York Times that it “tells several stories, one of them reasonably well”, I enjoyed the performances and bought into the boulevard of broken dreams pathos. Having watched the reruns of ’50’s TV Superman starring George Reeves as a kid I appreciated that they nailed the look and style in the recreations. Adrian Brody does solid work as the gumshoe hired to solve the mystery of Reeves headline making suicide and we switch back and forth in time from him to Ben Affleck’s surprisingly note-perfect portrayal of Reeves in the events leading up to his death. If not remarkable HOLLYWOODLAND is a decent pointed period piece, I’m not sure if I’m on board with the film’s implications in it’s conclusion – involving mistress Diane Lane and her jealous studio boss husband Bob Hoskins but that doesn’t make it ring hollow.

Hmmm, I’m sensing a trend here – I mean I just babbled ’bout 3 movies that were neither great nor awful just decent. I hope we’re just in summer to fall transition and the movies will get much better or at least more interesting. We’ve got some possibilities coming with THE DEPARTED, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, STRANGER THAN FICTION, and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, but no breath holding here.

Some more babble ’bout some concert films and a notable documentary when film babble returns…

More later…