Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Town

Week 1. The Town, directed by Ben Affleck, is smart. We know this because the hardened bank robbers who make short work of those banks and armored cars in Cambridge, the North End, and other Boston-area locations pay attention to detail. In the opening bank robbery, the cell phones of everyone in the bank are collected, dumped into a candy bowl, and covered with water. It’s that kind of detail that needs paying attention to, because today’s movie audience for a bank robbery, a hatchet murder, a quirky romance, high tech corporate espionage, or a comic book adaptation knows all the answers already. So a good director won’t give the audience a reason to ask questions, or time to think of them.

The Town is isn’t quite short, shrewd, or fast enough not to give the audience time or reason to ask, but it’s a sturdy, enjoyable ride, and refreshing in the way that The Friends of Eddie Coyle was probably a blast of something new almost forty years ago. The Town is nothing new, but you don’t always recognize the used parts, and that’s good.

Ben Affleck plays Doug, a recovering alcoholic, working stiff from Charlestown, MA., and bank robber. It’s in his blood. His father (gravitas: supplied by Chris Cooper) is doing some time up in a New Hampshire prison for robbing banks, but before he went away he passed his knowledge to Doug.

Doug seems like a good guy. He’s relatively smart, or at least knows smart when he sees it. He’s shagging the town pump and family friend, Krista, played by TV actress Blake Lively (in a performance that made me forget I’ve seen her someplace before—and announces a new Ellen Barkin for 2010). On Doug’s team is Krista’s brother, Jim, effectively played by Jeremy Renner. Jim’s quick with a gun and would rather not leave witnesses, but what are you gonna do? Shoot everyone? Rounding out the team are two other guys, one an electronics expert who learned his stuff working for local phone company Vericom. Replace com with zon and you’ve Massachusetts phone company Verizon.

During the robbery that opens the movie, the gang takes a hostage and gets away with the loot. The hostage is a beautiful bank teller, Claire, played by the lovely Rebecca Hall who brings an understated naturalness to the role. After the gang lets her go (she’s blind folded the whole time), Jim insists on cleaning up this loose end, thinking she'll somehow give away their identities. Doug tails her, makes contact, and falls for her. Meanwhile, the Boston branch of the FBI, manifested by Jon Hamm (sans any Boston accent -- and that’s a good thing) uses Claire to finally get close enough to try to take the gang down.

Doug wants different life away from the streets of The Town. He'll take down one last score (or two, but who’s counting?) and leave town with Claire. I never forget I’m watching Ben Affleck, but that’s okay because he’s fun to watch, inherently likeable. But as director and star, Affleck gives all the showy moments to Jeremy Renner, who really plays a menacing character well. Renner does what he can, saddled with a character who “can’t go back to prison” after doing nine years for killing a man (for the sake of Doug—thanks for nothing).

There’s an armored car robbery and subsequent high speed chase through the streets of the North End that is impressive, and the final shootout/showdown underneath and outside of Fenway Park is pretty breathless. But the action scenes were shot as if from across the street, where Affleck’s direction must have been “Zoom in. No zoom out.” Lots of movement but no real pace or logic. Which seems to be the way chase/action scenes have been shot for the past 10-15 years.

William Friedkin shot one of the best chase scenes for The French Connection, where the camera was put in the front seat of the car, and out on the street and sidewalk—where you’re either driving or about to get hit. Then George Miller amped it up in Mad Max, put the camera down by the bumper and drove cars as fast as they could, so now you’re a neighboring car angling for supremacy, or you’re a poor slob wrapped around a bumper. For today’s movies it seems like the cameras get a lot of coverage (or, maybe not enough) and these action scenes are literally created in post-production, with the result generally an unintelligible mess. Film is a language--learn it.

Pete Postlethwaite shows up as the gang’s boss, the guy who Doug’s father worked for back in the day. Pete is an actor who just needs to show up for things to get real. He’s got a great face, and he’s always pissed off. And you do not want Pete Postlethwaite mad at you.

Doug (ben’s character) possesses, if not the smarts, at least the knowledge about robbing banks. But the jobs these guys pull off are so slick and professional, I just don’t buy that these four neighborhood guys could pull it together to make these heists. Do these kinds of sophisticated, coordinated jobs really go down in Boston? Anywhere? Charlestown, MA. apparently breeds more bank robbers than anyplace else in the country, yet most of the robberies on the local news involve extremely dimwitted young men who can barely find the exit when they’re done playing stick-up.

It would have been nice if the Doug character showed more intellect, more—hell I’ll say it—more Good Will Hunting savantness for me to believe he’s the ringleader and the brains behind this operation. Even if Pete Postlethwaite’s pulling the strings, somebody has to execute the plan, and I just don’t see these guys doing it.

Oddly distracting for me were the exterior scenes shot in Boston. Especially in the beginning when the gang rob a bank in Harvard Square. I couldn’t help but try to recognize the locations. That’s part of the fun of living near Boston where many movies have been shot in the past decade thanks to tax breaks. And the location shooting adds a layer of authenticity that a movie like this needs. Adding to the local connection, the movie is an adaptation of local author Chuck Hogan's book Prince of Thieves

If you miss the crime dramas of the ‘70s, then I recommend The Town.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase. Saturday afternoon matinee. Price: 8.50. Viewed solo.

Coming Attractions:

The Company Men. Another Ben Affleck movie with Chris Cooper, along with Maria Bello, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner. More Boston locations. About white collar workers who lose their jobs and learn some wit and wisdom from blue collar nimrod Costner. Looks pretty good, although, like many trailers, appears to show the entire arc of the story.

The Fighter. Shot in Lowell, so of course I’ll be seeing this one. About Mickey Ward, the boxer from our mean streets. Story seems very conventional, following the sports underdog template: athlete has potential, has personal problems, loses his first shot, overcomes adversity, gets a second shot. On the plus side it's directed by David O. Russell.

Next Katherine Heigel flop. This movie releases this Friday I think, yet I’ve seen previews for it so many times I feel like it’s already hit theaters, tanked, and is now getting a quick-turnaround DVD-release.

Cat Fish. I hadn’t been interested in this documentary until I saw the trailer. Now I’m intrigued.


Liz's Mom said...

You hit just the right note for a lively and entertaining movie review, with your wonderful attention to detail, and surprising conclusions.

Kerry Hawkins said...

great review and food for thought. I plan to see this movie. With so many Boston locations that is fun in itself

Neil Everett said...

So stoked that you are going to be talking about movies! I hope 'Catfish' doesn't end up being staged like 'I'm Still Here'. It looks pretty interesting.

Dell Smith said...

Boston's got so many great areas, it could be a standin for most cities.
I heard Catfish may be a little suspect in the non-fiction dept. May be a rental.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Now I want to see this movie, sounds pretty good. I enjoyed movie review #1 of 52. :)

Muriel said...

The huge movie theater in Manhattan that you mentioned in one of your blogs was Radio City Music Hall. You were a little tyke then, maybe only 3 or 4.

Laurie said...

Okay, you got me. I'm going to see this movie! Looking forward to the next review. By the way, I sneak in my own candy or my version of trail mix...chocolate chips, nuts, and raisins.

Dell Smith said...

Radio City! That makes sense. I'm glad you remembered.

Laurie, I usually bring my own snacks too. Especially since food at the movies is so expensive. I guess they have to make their money somehow.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I was remembering it was Radio City Music Hall where we saw that movie, but I wasn't certain. I think I was 11 or 12 during that trip. :)