Friday: The Town
Ben Affleck’s The Town uses Charlestown, Massachusetts, as a refreshingly new location, with Bunker Hill Monument and the rundown streets of this blue collar neighborhood as backdrops. Achieving something very challenging these days, it even delivers a rather gripping car chase. As Bullitt uses the hills of San Francisco to pump up its chase, The Town uses the narrow colonial streets of Charlestown, many of them one way and choked with parked cars, all of them terminating in a tight turn onto a perpendicular street, and none of them going anywhere that makes sense.
But after bank robber Doug MacRay (Affleck) establishes a rather unlikely romantic liaison with a traumatized robbery witness/bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the film fills out the rest of its length by borrowing from Michael Mann’s Heat to a shameful extent: the tight-knit gang that pulls off heists like clockwork and leaves no evidence; the dogged FBI agent obsessed with nabbing the bad guys; the woman in love with the gang leader who is shocked by the truth but willing to forgive; the surveillance shots of the gang members relaxing and funning at a family dinner; the single mother (wonderfully played by Blake Lively as a busty, dope-head sleaze) whose custody of her child is threatened by the FBI to force her to sell out the gang; and even the pulsating musical notes that accompany the massive gun battle in the streets – that starts in the same way with a desperate gang member blazing away at the SWAT team.
In The Town the energy and the choreography of its set piece gun battle inside and outside Fenway Park delivers some gripping moments, but ultimately it's an overblown attempt to outdo Heat that fails to achieve the same intensity.
Throughout the film, Ben Affleck offers a creditable performance as the ambivalent heir to a bank-robbing dynasty who would like to do his last job and run away to Florida with the bank manager he traumatized. Affleck has his handsome good looks to get in the way of portraying a hardass from the mean streets, but there is something about the pale skin around his wan eyes that achieves believability though his monologues about his horrid childhood are overlong and too manipulative of our sympathies. As Doug’s mean little right-hand man James "Jem" Coughlin, Jeremy Renner invests himself wholly in an intense performance, assuming a scrappy James Cagney persona that carries many of the scenes.
Along with the monologues depicting his sordid upbringing and how hard little Dougie’s life has been, the film is blatant in its contrived manipulation of Affleck’s Doug MacRay, the bad guy who has pulled off a number of armored car heists and bank robberies, the good bad guy we are supposed to like. In a lengthy stretch of believability, the film is careful to show that despite all the shots Doug sprays from an automatic weapon in the full scale battle at the end, he never kills anyone.
Finally, I can forgive a film its likeness to another film, its contrived manipulations, and its lapses in logic if it serves up a special moment or two. In one nicely tense moment, Doug notices that all the concession stand delivery guys are suddenly gone from the nether regions of Fenway Park and this brilliant moment of silence introduces the big bad gun battle. In addition, I really enjoyed the car chase, in an era of many boring car chases.
SPOILER AHEAD – BUT MY FAVORITE MOMENT IN THE FILM:
In my favorite moment in the whole film, Renner, as Jem Coughlin in a true James Cagney moment, is cornered behind a newspaper vendor by countless Feds and cops. He tells them all to go to fuck themselves, loads his guns, and gets ready to go down in a blaze of bullets. Then he sees a discarded paper drinking cup and straw in the gutter, rolls over to get it, and sucks down its contents. Brilliant! Fear induces intense thirst, and the thirst felt during a gun battle must be doubly intense. We already know that from the wonderful scene in Hurt Locker when the soldiers desperately suck on juice bags during the ambush scene. Renner was there too! I wonder if the Coke in the gutter was his idea.
Saturday: Easy A
The talented Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombie Nation) carries a mostly delightful teenage morality tale about a high school girl named Olive whose lie that she lost her virginity burgeons into a rumor that she’s a slut. She strengthens the rumor by pretending that she slept with a homosexual classmate in order to deliver him from peer persecution. This leads to a whole industry of lies intended as acts of mercy, with payment by gift cards, that only gets Olive into a deeper mess. When no one will believe the truth about her, she decides to act the part, wearing tight clothing and sewing a scarlet A over her breast, emulating Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
This well-paced tale provides laughs for all us English teachers. Olive’s favorite teacher is her English teacher, played by Thomas Haden Church, and the movie provides fun jokes on the relationship between Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn as well as a warning for all students who watch the movie instead of reading the book that the only faithful movie version of The Scarlet Letter is the silent version, and that the Demi Moore version takes “a liberal adaptation” to a ridiculous extent.
In addition, part of the fun of Easy A is in the language of some of its dialogue. Olive is well read and articulate, and some of the verbal back and forth between Olive’s unrealistically funny, intelligent, and oh-so-understanding and trusting parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, is nonetheless rich with innuendo, irony, pun, and what plays as enthusiastic improvisation that ranges from the clever to the somewhat irritating. Here, Tucci and Clarkson never portray real people, but they are mostly funny.
Although Amanda Bynes as Marianne, the school’s head Jesus freak who leads the hue and cry against Olive, comes off as a troubled little witch, she is ultimately comical in comparison with the rather disturbing performance by Lisa Kudrow as a much more troubled guidance counselor who sleeps with a student and gives him an STD, and then turns around and coerces Olive into taking the rap.
That Olive gets herself into deep trouble by compassionately agreeing to deliver her gay friend from persecution by acting out an outrageous sex act during a party is a clear note that this film sides with admirable virtues and clearly points out the terrible consequences of a lie. Meanwhile, some jokes about homosexuality, STDs, and sexuality are not always funny. But the delight and intelligence that come through Stone’s performance ensure that the film’s tone doesn’t wander too long into meanness, which was my biggest reservation about the widely praised Mean Girls, which this film resembles.
From producer M. Night Shyamalan comes Devil, a taut, well-written and smoothly performed little thriller. Introduced as “The Night Chronicles – Number 1,” this movie seems to be the first in a series of Shyamalan-produced tales of the macabre in the tradition of The Twilight Zone, or in the tradition of Shyamalan’s more successful tales, and the fact that Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle, is ten times more gripping and entertaining than Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender put together is clear indication that good things happen when M. Night leaves the writing and directing to others.
Devil does a nice twist on that ubiquitous opening credits aerial sweep over the tops of a city’s skyscrapers. In this case the city is seen upside down, and the accompaniment of a thrilling theme reminiscent of James Newton Howard’s Shyamalan scores achieves a very eerie effect.
Weird things happen right away. A suicide jumps from the same building where five disparate characters – Mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), Salesman (Geoffrey Arend), Old Woman (Jenny O’Hara), Young Woman (Bojana Novakovic), and Guard (Bokeem Woodbine) – end up stuck in an elevator. When the lights go out and one of them gets stabbed with a shard of glass, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that one of the four remaining persons must be the murderer. Or is it the devil? That’s what the devoutly Christian security guard thinks as he watches the whole thing by means of security camera. Murderer or devil, it’s left to Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), a man still grieving the hit-and-run deaths of wife and son, to figure out, as firemen try to break through a wall to get to the elevator before the devil or whoever kills again.
Dispensing with gratuitous gore and cheap starts announced by musical blasts, Devil builds some nice tension, ponders the existence of God and the devil, and delivers some classic Twilight Zone twists and turns. Good producing job, M. Night. I’m looking forward to Number 2 in the Night Chronicles.