Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saturday Movie Madness! (Ben Affleck's THE TOWN & Will Gluck's EASY A)

Back again I am with two new movies witness with my own eyes this day!  Probably not so exciting to some out there who eat movies for breakfast-lunch-dinner, but today it's also two new movies out in theaters and very likely vying for the top spot at the box-office.  Which one won out in the end?  By the end of this blog if you have to ask... you probably didn't read it, maybe, or not thoroughly enough.

(dir: Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck has turned his career from (almost) lemons into (near) masterpiece lemonade.  His reputation has never been bad, though he's been in some bad movies, which Affleck himself admits.  But with two films, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and this new film, he's revealed himself as a truly commendable director.  He still needs a little more time to break into a style as director that is fully recognizable - his style, as with some of Clint Eastwood's procedurals, is no-funny-business professionalism, including transitions that show the city-skyline, which isn't a bad thing, just expected - but he knows acting and he knows characterizations.  If you want to have a movie out right now that has a) good actors un-fussily on camera doing their thing, and b) delivering dialog that is believable, almost in spite of the situations, this is it.

It's about bank-and-or-armored-truck robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, a couple of others), and at their first big robbery (done like smooth operating professionals without a misstep), they have one little complication: Affleck's Doug MacCray takes a momentary hostage with bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall).  He lets her go right after the robbery, but he also finds out she is a neighborhood girl in the town Charlestown.  That it's the "Bank Robbery Capital" of the US makes it a little obvious how much crime should happen, but I digress, it happens, and it's a whole environment of cops-robbers-mafia (or in Departed-style, Irish Mafia).  This is why it mucks up things when Doug, not by accident, meets Claire at a laundromat, and falls for her, hard.

We should see where this is going, and in a way we really do.  But it's how Affleck doles out the information, for example a tattoo that Renner's Jem character has on the back of his neck (this, more than any car chase or moment of gun battling, is better than anything else in the film when the suspense goes as Jem and Claire meet by surprise).  The 'types' are here, but, in his own way like a Scorsese or, going back again, Eastwood, the 'types' are imbued with motivation that matters, dialog that is natural and not forced into cliche, and delivered by actors who know the dimensions and the stakes that their characters are in.  There are good reasons for why things happen here, even with what happens to the score taken from a big heist at one point in the film.

It's hard to point out an actor that really shines here.  Affleck especially is up there as one of the best here, once more like Eastwood knowing how to get the best out of himself in a particular scene.  He's been tough in movies before, and had the Boston-area accent down (i.e. Good Will Hunting), but his character has so much going on as to wonder what will happen with him.  This is unusual considering how his background- near-orphan in a crime-ridden neighborhood, tried to get out as a hockey player, back as a prime bank robbing master- but it may be one of his rare triumphs as an actor.

He also casts around him so wonderfully: Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner give, I might believe in the typical guessing game, Awards-worthy supporting performances.  One is the tough, no-bullshit cop who knows how big the stakes are with such high-level professionals, and Hamm delivers on that.  Renner, somewhat akin to his character in The Hurt Locker, is on as a kind of loose-cannon (though, arguably, less professional and more anti-authoritarian).  Pete Postelthwaite has only a few scenes, but matters so much in them that his character, true street-side evil, astounds with his quiet ferocity.  And with less to do, Chris Cooper is amazing.  Only Rebecca Hall is only 'okay', but it may just be in comparison to the other female presence, Blake Lively, as the local floozie who is close to Affleck's character but may also be the "weak link" without spoiling too much.

I mention these performances so much as they are paramount to what makes the film work.  It's not one of the best films of the year, but it is one of the films of the season that should warrant attention by its cast and by its hard-edge to its action.  This, too, like some of the story, is familiar.  But again Affleck gives attention to what's going on by how no-frills it is, and with a couple of twists.  One may have read Roger Ebert's take on the film's chase and action scenes.  For the latter, I can see where he comes from with his assessment.  For the former, I would argue one point: despite the trope of so many cops chasing a car full of criminals and not getting anything done in terms of "oh SHIT!" circumstances, the physical space of the chase gives a little more of a thrill.  As someone who has visited Boston, one has to note how narrow the streets are.  For at least half or two-thirds of this car chase in the streets, there was a little on-the-edge-of-my-seat.  And that's something.


(dir: Will Gluck)

I wish I could put a lot of the "credit" of the Easy A's success on its director, Will Gluck, or its writer, Bert V. Royal (the latter's first produced screenplay, the former's follow-up to purportedly lackluster teen comedy Fired Up).  But much of the film rests on the shoulders of Emma Stone.  It's the kind of project, similar maybe to Mean Girls or Heathers, that would appear to be a vehicle made for its female lead to be propelled into the public consciousness.  It's not that we didn't know who Lindsay Lohan, Winona Ryder or Stone were before this.  However at least in this case Stone is given such a smart (if not always wise) character that one can't help but think she's set for at least the next five years just from her work here.

I would like to credit her, because the rest of the film is a little bit more of a mixed bag.  Not so much that  it is un-recommendable.  Far from that level.  There's a lot of thought that was put into this sort-of (or sometimes VERY direct) homage to to John Hughes 80's comedies, about an ordinary girl, Olive Predegast, who makes up a fib to her nosey (aka bitchy) friend about not hanging out one weekend; she spent her time with a college-aged boy.  The fib turns into rumor, out-spread in the school, and then this turns into something else when Olive starts to like the quasi-superior feeling of being, well, noticed, even in the "bad" way of seeming "available".  This includes a gay friend, Brandon, who wants to look cool-and-or-straight to the other guys at school, and so she does a "sex" scene in a bedroom full of over-the-top sounds and voices and grunts at a party.

That scene is very funny, because the filmmakers, and Stone and the actor, are just having a lot of fun.  The movie is fun, in general.  They take types, such as Amanda Bynes' super-Christian character Marianne, and make them amusing.  Are they very deep?  Not really much at all.  Even characters that I did enjoy, such as the parents of Olive (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), are only on-the-surface characters who make so many sarcastic comments as to try to be coolest-parents-ever, and there's little else to them except for maybe one scene between daughter and mother.  That may be a big problem with the film: watching it, it doesn't always feel so false, but once it ends character connections and why one is with the other for so long or wanting another make less sense then, say, why Olive can dress so scantily-clad at her school for so long (albeit with the Scarlet Letter 'A' on her person).

Take Olive's friend, Rhiannon, the one who initially spreads the gossip about Olive's weekend with her boyfriend (in some part, Marianne is also there, but I digress), and then keeps on believing that other things have happened with Olive that didn't happen but she keeps going with anyway.  Not once did I really believe how they could be friends for so long; many out there know what it's like to have friends, or just one close friend, one is close to but don't always get along with.  But this friendship- perhaps then why something happens midway that split them apart- rings false.  As does the attraction Olive has for the hunky guy, Todd, who is the mascot on the team.  While a crush for years could be believable, why this guy?  There's no personality given to him- neither with the actor playing him who is mostly wooden, nor Todd himself- and he is more like a cypher for Oliver to fulfill some kind of John Hughes movie inspired dream.

Easy A works much better when we're given better characters with better actors, even in small roles.  Thomas Hayden Church gets some really good screen-time as a wise teacher who has really good one-liners, but is also likable.  Malcolm McDowell gets a very good, funny scene, though he could have been used more.  Lisa Kudrow's guidance counselor... should have been introduced in the movie sooner, as she becomes an important character, indeed one that is deeply involved with what in screenwriting is called the '3rd-act plot twist'.  It's strange to suddenly be writing this review and finding more I disliked about the film than liked, or rather finding more flaws or character inconsistencies.

This is, perhaps, because it is a funny movie, and smart about what it's trying to do.  It's a mix of smart, satirical comedy on teenage sex and gossip and (occasionally) religion, and a mainstream teen movie that can be dumbed down or a little stupid/thin.  Its main character, and the performance, remain intact and stable and enjoyable throughout (that is, arguably, except for a big music number near the end that rings false), and its in fact a break-out role for Stone.  Everything else is at least, usually, amusing, right down to the Predergast's adopted black child who is used more as a punchline than as a character.  But there's a lot that could have been written or constructed better, or made more sense.  It feels like a first-time screenplay, both the good and witty and not so good and witty.

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