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Monthly Archives: September 2010

Ten Word or Less Review:  It’s Heat.  With Boston accents.
Ben Affleck has done a pretty thorough job of scrubbing away the sickly residue of his earlier movie career.  Most of us have forgotten the days of crappy star vehicles like Paycheck, Jersey Girl or worse, Gigli.  Affleck has reinvented himself as a director of Beantown dramas about crime amongst the lower working class.  The Town, his second directorial effort, is proof that Affleck has the chops to shoot and put together a classy and stylish caper flick and get good performances from an involved cast.  It’s just too damn bad that we’ve seen nearly every beat of this story before in nearly every other cops and robbers flick ever made.
Town kicks off as four guys wearing freaky skeleton masks storm a Boston bank.  Then to protect themselves when the alarm is tripped, they take the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage.  They quickly release her but the damage has been done and the plot is in motion.  The group’s most dangerous member (Jeremy Renner) wants to know if the manager can ID any of them and if so, kill her.  Affleck, being more levelheaded than his trigger happy chum, takes on the surveillance task and in tried and true fashion, falls for the fetching lass.  It’s all conventional but sturdy stuff.  There’s a tough-talking FBI agent played by Jon Hamm out to nab the bandits and say gritty dialogue while he does it.  A flowershop owner/mob boss played by Pete Postelwaite removes rose thornes with unsettling verve.  Chris Cooper is here as Affleck’s prison bound pop.  In short, it’s a great cast on hand to perform well for a well worn genre exercise.
Affleck has become a more believable leading man with time.  He’s well past looking like an over-preened yuppy hanging out in the drama class to meet girls.  His face now has some life worn into it and he’s learned how to project more with less.  His good-hearted charm doesn’t feel like a superficial put on.  He’s not a bad director either, as his first effort Gone Baby Gone proved, but here he feels like a bit of a copycat.  He’s cribbing from the Nolan/Mann/Greengrass playbook and doing it well.  There’s a chase through tiny back alley Boston streets that’s pretty top notch and the action and pacing are very decent.  But Town just doesn’t have that element it needs to make it its own thing.  Too many story beats feel like forgone conclusions and too many scenes echo from too many other sources.  His wise decision to stock his movie with grade A talent helps alleviate the ‘been here, seen this before’ vibe that’s always threatening to bring the movie to a tired stand still.
Not the subtle piece of homo-eroticism that was Point Break, nor the macho epic of Heat by Michael Mann, The Town is ultimately a good enough robbers and cops piece that needs more of its own identity to stand above, or even beside, other stalwarts of the genre.  Giving everyone Boston accents and robbing Fenway Park simply changes the window dressing.  Most will likely like Town just fine.  But expect a strong sense of deja vu while you watch it.

Ten Word or Less Review: It’s awful, but you’ll remember it.

“Greenburg” the movie is an ordeal to sit through because Greenburg the character is an asshole.  Though he’s had some kind of mental break down and spent a little time in an institution, none of that feels important because regardless of this past, Greenburg is just an asshole, plain and simple.  It’s great to see a filmmaker, Noah Baumbach, and a risk aversion actor, Ben Stiller, taking a chance on material as prickly as this, but the end result still begs this question.  Why do you make a movie about an unlikable, unfunny, sorehead prick who dislikes everyone and everything around him?

Stiller’s Greenburg is straight faced version of his well worn comedic personas.  Stiller specializes creating humor from situational discomfort and faux outrage.  His characters often squirm with anxiety because they’ve backed themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape.  He also makes it a habit to put on a show of fake macho gestures.  He’ll be pushy and in your face, but you don’t believe it for a second.  These are the staples of a Stiller performance.  In “Greenburg” these traits are on display but the comedic element is gone and only the discomfort in mistreating people remain.  Stiller’s character specializes in saying uncomfortable things to people with no tact.  He’s a man with no radar for other peoples feelings and he often lashes out at his friends with, at best, marginal provocation.  He hates the world in general as well, spending his ample amounts of free time writing letters of complaint to corporations and newspapers.  We can assume this festering dislike for all things is at the root of his break down, but that’s about all were given to go on.

Making things even harder to watch is the decision to surround this soul poisoned central character with friends who have meager, damaged personalities and poor defense systems.  First is Florence, played by Greta Gerwig.  She’s the house assistant to Greenburg’s brother and a lost and battered soul to boot.  Greenburg doesn’t seem to like her in any obvious way and his blunted affections for her seem sinister and lecherous.  It’s as if he can sense a weakness in her, an inability to defend herself against him, so he forces himself into her life.  She’s not his intellectual equal and he throws this in her face more than once.  They establish a very strange vibe between each other which flirts with emotional abuse and is punctuated by a couple of icky sex scenes.  These fleeting moments of psuedo-lust feel akin to watching two completely different species trying to mate.  The two have one of the most awkward relationships ever put in a mainstream movie.

Second to Gerwig is Rhys Ifans playing Greenburg’s milquetoast best friend and it’s hard to fathom why the guy would continue to talk to Greenburg after a just few minutes.  Stiller’s character is pushy, rude and condescending towards him at every turn yet Ifans character keeps showing up for more.  Any sensible person would tell Greenburg to go to Hell and never look back.  But sensible people don’t exist in this film.

All of this amounts to what is supposed to be a journey of self-discovery and betterment, but the journey is painful and the rewards are meek.  Maybe that’s life and that’s what “Greenberg’s” creators were after, a harsh reminder that life is full of misery and suckiness and we shouldn’t delude ourselves otherwise.  But Greenberg is a poor vessel to deliver this bleak message and the character seems deserving of misfortune.  Many of Greenberg’s observations about life and the world are on the nose and there’s not a lack of truth in the material, but spending time with this withered ass is a chore.  You can salute the filmmakers for having the where with all to follow through with their character to the end.  They don’t soften the character or wimp out in some pointed, please the audience kind of way.  But Greenburg’s gains, as well as ours, our minimal.  This is a film for people who…..I have no idea who this movie is for.  Maybe just cranky film critics.