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Column Fri Sep 17 2010
Say what you want about Ben Affleck the actor. I'm sure I have said some not-so-nice things myself about the guy. I think he's a solid performer, and that his biggest crime is just picking cruddy movies a little too often. But I will punch a person in the face who even dares to suggest the man can't direct. And with his second film behind the camera, The Town, we have the added bonus of Affleck drawing a fully-realized, well-played character for himself to inhabit in front of the camera as well. Stepping up the scope and scale from his first film as director, Gone Baby Gone, he's also secured one of the best ensemble casts of any film this year, making The Town stand out as one of the single finest crime dramas of the year.
Films that involve the "mean streets" of any city tend to be a variation of the same theme: brothers or friends since they were kids committing crimes and looking out for each other, while the cops spin their wheels trying to nail them. But their ever-present code of silence keeps everyone clean, until they aren't. Usually such movies are exercises in actors trying to out-badass each other, and the audience sits around waiting for some inevitable betrayal or tragedy. The Town (set in the criminal haven Boston neighborhood of Charlestown) has a few of those elements, but Affleck as his co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (adapted the book "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan) are smart enough to try something different and far more subtle even in the midst of elaborate heists, middle-of-the-street, broad-daylight shootouts, and a rousing, powerful performance by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner.
Affleck and Renner play Doug and Jem, two guys that have been friends since childhood who make up half of an unstoppable, impeccably planned armed robbery crew, and it's clear early on that Doug is the brains and Jem is the unstable brawn who went to jail for many years and never ratted out his friends. During one bank job, Jem feels the need to take the bank manager (Rebecca Hall as Claire) hostage to secure their escape. They let her go unharmed but become concerned that she might have seen or heard something that could identify them. Doug places himself in her life, and even meets her by accident in the laundromat. He finds out that she has talked to the FBI investigators (led by "Mad Men's" John Hamm and Titus Welliver), but hasn't given them anything useful as far as leads. And against all logic Doug starts to develop feelings for Claire and her slightly sophisticated manner (at least compared to Jem's trashy sister, played convincingly by Blake Lively, who Doug sticks it to every so often).
Doug desperately wants to get out of the game, but his backer (the brilliant Pete Postlethwaite) has a multi-million-dollar target in mind that is too clever to ruin here. Eventually, Doug agrees to this final job, but with the FBI hot on his trail after a near capture and Claire on the brink of finding out just who he is, nothing is guaranteed...nothing positive, at least. Every actor in this movie is varying degrees of great, but Renner robs every scene blind with his blazing intensity and ability to go from quiet, whispering conversation to nuclear meltdown in no time flat. He is violence in its rawest form, and when he comes on screen, you get anxious. And he manages to do all of this without coming across as overly showy. It's a fine line, and he dances right along it.
Affleck the actor gives us one of the best performances I've ever seen him give, and he too goes the subtle route and allows us to watch his gradual transformation from stalker to love interest; it's surprising how similar the two are. But The Town is truly a movie that is the total package. It's loaded with a very specific brand of Boston humor; there's an authentic feel to a lot of the scenes among the citizens; and the police procedural elements are compelling. Hamm and company do terrific work as the good guys that nobody in town likes. The set pieces surrounding the robberies are fantastic. I was especially engrossed by a lengthy car chase through the narrow Boston streets. And while it's true that Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo, he's also carving out such a nice career as a director that he could probably step away from acting for a time and become as highly regarded as he's ever been (even with that writing Oscar). And while he's got some interesting projects on the horizon, I'm most excited for whatever he selects as his next directing gig. Even if you don't need convincing that The Town is extremely well done, it's actually better than you might imagine. So, come out and see it if only for the Renner ride.
The Virginity Hit
I honestly don't have a whole lot to say about the latest from the writers of The Last Exorcism and the creepy Mail Order Wife, but I remain a fan of the false documentary format and this movie made me laugh a whole lot thanks to its wildly crude and vulgar ways. You're either going to be repulsed by this documentation of a teenagers' struggle to lose his virginity, or you're going to roll with laughter; there isn't a lot of room for middle ground. You've likely never heard of the actors playing the best-friend leads (Matt Bennett and Zack Pearlman), but they are fantastic together mostly improvising and free-styling the story of The Virginity Hit. And setting the film in and around New Orleans is especially chaotic and much fun.
Blurring the lines between reality and fiction is hardly new, but writers-directors Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko seems to excel at really selling it to the mainstream. There's an immediacy to this film that most comedies are simply lacking. That doesn't always mean it's funny, but usually it is. Sure, there's something sleazy about four friends tracking each other's virginity status and that they attempt to record Andrew momentous occasion with his longtime girlfriend. And when Andrew discovers that said lady friend may have cheated on him at a college party, he goes on tear and attempts to bed the first interested woman. And that's pretty much The Virginity Hit. I'll admit to being slightly disturbed by seeing characters that are high schoolers engaging in all variety of bad (often illegal) behaviors, but when those moments result is pretty substantial laughter, it's hard to resist.
The key to The Virginity Hit is the friendships. I believed that these four guys were buddies, each pushing the others to fouler and more grotesque heights (or is that lows?). I might even be convinced to admit that I was a part of such an organization long, long ago if you plied me with enough alcohol. If you are in possession of a misspent youth, this movie will launch you into a series of memorial flashbacks that will make your head spin. There is something both innocent and utterly guilty about the characters and their behavior, the improvisation is solid, and the situations will make you squirm and perhaps dry heave a bit. But it's so utterly worth it for the laughs. Wear sunglasses if you must, so no one recognizes you, but check this one out.
If this French comedy isn't remade by an American studio sometime in the next five years, I'd be shocked. Of course, the remake of Heartbreaker--about a man hired to break up couples by seducing the woman just enough to realize she can do better--will miss the point of this story entirely and erase its darker edges, and thus will suck, but I don't see how Hollywood will be able to resist. One of my favorite French actors, Romain Duris (known for his more serious roles in L'auberge espagnole, Le divorce, Russian Dolls, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) plays Alex, who works with his sister and her husband to find clients, track their movements, and spot the weaknesses in their relationships. He has rules, including the biggest, which is that he won't break up a couple that appear genuinely happy. But with a light amount of appealing to his target's taste in music, movies, and other things about a man that move them (such as Alex posing as a doctor helping sick children in a third-world nation), he gets the job done without actually going beyond kissing these women. It's kind of marvelous to behold.
Alex's greatest challenge comes when a rich father hires him ten days before his heiress daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis, Girl on the Bridge), is set to get married to what appears to be the perfect man. Posing as her bodyguard and with no time to prepare, the heartbreaker and his team dive in and engage in a lot of improvisation and some of the most clever deceit tactics I've been fortunate to witness. Naturally, the more he gets to know Juliette, the more he starts to admire and fall for her; and she starts to develop a soft spot for him, especially when she finds out (by design) that Dirty Dancing is his favorite movie and that Wham! is his favorite musical act. While there is more than its fair share of whimsy, Heartbreaker has an undercurrent of sadness to it, just enough to bring what could have been stock characters to life and add a dimension to them to make their dilemma slightly more real.
Of course, some of the trickery the heartbreak team come up with a outrageous, but the ultimate goal her is laughter. And the key here is that, for most of its running time, we actually see this relationship develop through actual conversation and interaction, and not with a music montage or two. There is something wonderfully, genuinely romantic about this pair and they've earned that. This is something American romantic comedies, for the most part, fail at achieving with alarming regularity. Director Pascal Chaumeil, who is known mostly for TV work in France, does a nice job of dialing the cheese factor down and pushing real human emotion into this admittedly light-hearted affair. I'm guessing even the most hard hearted of you will likely fall for this fun and touching story. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Jumping from lighter fare into a genuinely heavy and tragic French love affair, director Stephane Brize's Mademoiselle Chambon is the story of Jean (Vincent Lindon), who realizes how stuck in his standard-issue life he is when he meets his young son's shy teacher, Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain). Jean is a contractor and seems fairly comfortable in his family life, but when the teacher recruits him to talk to her class about his job, she asks if he can come to her place to replace a drafty window. I'm making her sound like the ultimate seductress, I know, but nothing could be further from the truth. Véronique is reserved, graceful, and a talented violin player--everything Jean is unfamiliar with, and he is utterly drawn into her world, and she into his.
My guess is that married women are really going to hate this movie because it taps into their greatest fear that men don't leave because they're unhappy; they just like the idea of something different, which is probably closer to the truth. We see Jean at home, and his wife is lovely and they work well together. But the attraction between Jean and Véronique is undeniable, and while for most of the film they avoid going beyond kissing, the slow-burn passion is palpable. Lindon is a terrific actor known for playing angst-ridden men, and he truly outdoes himself in Mademoiselle Chambon, and I like the way the film doesn't really care if you like Jean or not. Odds are you won't agree or support most of the decisions he's making in the film. But people do ill-advised things all the time, and it's actually rare that we see potentially unlikeable characters as the protagonists in films about love affairs. I realize this sounds like a tough sell, but I think you'll appreciate (if not agree with) the journey these people take and the decisions they make. And the lead actors do such a great job selling the heat between them that it's difficult not to get caught up in the sexual tension. And who doesn't want that? Mademoiselle Chambon opens today at the Music Box Theatre.