Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)

One of the biggest surprises of 2007 was the discovery of Ben Affleck as a serious filmmaker. Some would argue that much of the success of Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone was due to some fine acting and strong source material by Dennis Lehane, but Affleck was to be commended for eliciting those performances from his cast and finding the right tone and style for the material. Unfortunately, he can’t replicate this success with his follow-up film The Town. There are points in the film where he seems to be chasing after the same downbeat thriller vibe, but the magic never quite happens.

Part of the problem is that the source material just isn’t as rich as Gone Baby Gone. Whereas the earlier film distinguished itself by the way it dealt with the morality behind its characters’ actions, here he’s working with little more than a boilerplate heist movie, with all the off-the-shelf elements that genre implies. Hero who wants to escape his life? Check. Tenacious cop bearing down on our hero just as he’s trying to go straight? Yup. Loose-cannon best friend who becomes more of a liability as the story progresses? You betcha. Final big job to end all big jobs? Obviously.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a formulaic heist movie to be good. Hell, considering all the clich├ęs it embraces, Heat is pretty much the Love, Actually of the genre. But when the story elements are so familiar, the only way a heist movie can distinguish itself is with style and filmmaking brio. And Affleck just isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to sell this material in a way that makes it feel exciting. The characters in the film are either off-the-shelf (Jon Hamm’s all-business FBI agent, Jeremy Renner’s unstable crook, et al), or worse, unbelievable. This is especially true of Affleck’s character, a career criminal who comes off less like a hard-bitten townie than a secular saint, pining for his lost mother and forever looking for a way out of his life.
Personally, I think the romance between Affleck and Hall would have been more compelling had Affleck’s character been a more honest-to-goodness bad boy. Hall plays a bank manager whose life is shaken up when Affleck and his gang briefly take her hostage during a heist, and in the film she seems to respond primarily to Affleck’s goodness. However, I think the dynamic could have been thought-provoking if instead of showing her to be traumatized by the abduction, it could have kick-started a kind of hunger for danger that manifested itself in her going after dangerous men. It certainly would have felt less drippy than it feels in The Town, with the added bonus of not leading to the film’s almost laughable final minute.

I recently told a friend that I’ve gotten to the point in my life as a movie lover that I’d rather see a movie that people seem to either love or hate (but respond to strongly either way) than a movie about which most people seem to be fairly lukewarm. I wasn’t talking about The Town when I made this statement, but I could have been, since it’s a movie that falls resolutely into the latter category. It’s not bad, and certainly not offensive, but it’s so safe and middle-of-the-road that it doesn’t feel particularly necessary- even the climactic “big job” is underwhelming despite an intriguing setup. Most of the pleasures of The Town are borrowed pleasures, attributable more to the genre itself than anything special the film does. I never thought I’d say this a decade ago, but I honestly expected more from Ben Affleck.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wild Grass (2009, Alain Resnais)

Well, now that that’s out of the way… After the lovely and relatively straightforward Not on the Lips and Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais is back to the head-scratchers of old with his latest film, Wild Grass. I suppose that what really perplexed me about this is how little I was prepared for it. Perhaps it was the other recent Resnais works, or maybe it’s just my general experience with aged filmmakers, but I was blindsided how strange a moviegoing experience this was. What’s more, the opening minutes of the film do almost nothing to prepare one for the rest of it- the first couple of scenes, in which Resnais’ eternal flibbertigibbet-muse Sabine Azema heads to her favorite shoe boutique to buy new shoes for her oddly-shaped feet only to have her handbag swiped immediately after, could have led off any number of whimsical rom-coms.

From that point, Resnais only gradually reveals how odd things are in the film’s world, beginning with his use of voiceover narration to describe the sinister thoughts (fantasies? Memories?) of male lead Andre Dussolier. Eventually, Wild Grass reveals itself as one of the fou-est tales of l’amour to hit the screen in a long, long time. Most love stories between crazy people de-emphasize how deeply troubled they are in favor of warm-fuzzy sentiments about misunderstood loners finding each other, but Resnais isn’t interested in sentiment. Instead, he lets Dussolier’s actions become increasingly inappropriate (slashing her tires, for example) before he finally gets a tongue-lashing from the local police and goes back on good behavior. Then, all of a sudden, Azema decides she wants him too, and goes off her own deep end.

What to make of it? I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that I want to re-visit this movie more than damn near any other I’ve seen so far this year (that it’s bloody gorgeous helps too). Maybe what was needed was for me to sit through it that initial time, to wipe away whatever expectations I might have had for the film. And now that I know better what’s coming, up through that final shift in narrative direction, I should be able to better appreciated what Resnais does. Thus, the rating below should be considered even more provisional than usual.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

Is there any archetypal character with a higher mortality rate than that of the crook doing his last job? Once you know that, The American becomes a slow trudge to an inevitable end, complete with a Rififi-style last drive. Harsh? Perhaps. But though The American aspires to be a high-toned take on a stock genre premise, it feels fairly standard-issue. Oh sure, George Clooney manages to smuggle his trademark cool into the story. However, aside from some pretty but fairly uninspired images, there doesn’t seem to be much on the mind of former music video director Corbijn. Oh sure, there’s plenty of arthouse ponderousness and hearkening back to genre classics (some Melville here, a dash of Leone there), but this is a film with almost nothing to say. And for a while, Corbijn almost manages to make it work largely because he whittles down the story to almost nothing aside from Clooney immersing himself in the job.

The American ultimately loses its way by reverting to conventional plotting, in which the nature of Clooney’s job is revealed, a possibly risky dalliance with a local prostitute turns into the hero’s best hope to escape, and so on. The most glaring example of this comes in the form of Clooney’s handler Pavel, played by Johan Leysen, who exists in the movie solely to voice what little subtext there is (“you’re losing it”) and to set the plot in motion for the dunderheads in the audience. In the end, The American is a textbook 5, meaning it’s largely a near-miss but a diverting enough one, thanks to the expected Clooney coolness and plenty of welcome nudity from the luscious Violante Placido.

Rating: 5 out of 10.