Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Town

The second directorial effort from Ben Affleck is a very interesting film and another in a recent spate of movies that I have found a challenge to review (I still haven't gotten around to "Machete" or "Animal Kingdom" and at this point too much time has passed for me to review them properly). It has so many elements we've seen before. It's a heist movie, it's cat and mouse between cops (the FBI in this case) and robbers, and it's a drama about a relationship that is steeped in lies. If a movie acknowledges that we have seen these things before but gives us interesting characters that we care about then that's perfectly okay. In a way, that's what "The Town" is. But in another way, it's a movie with scenes of such stark brutality that it demands to be taken seriously. This was the cause of the struggle I had with "The Town."
Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the leader of a crew of bank robbers from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, which we learn produces more bank robbers than anyplace else in America. When Doug, his best friend James (Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"), and two others take down an armored truck and a bank in one fell swoop, things don't go quite according to plan. They get the money and they're able to escape easily enough but the bank's manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, "The Prestige") has set off the silent alarm. They decide to take Claire hostage in case the police come after them. When it seems they're in the clear, they send her away blindfolded. Despite the fact they were wearing masks panic sets in when they learn that Claire lives only a few blocks from them.
The trigger happy James considers extreme measures when it comes to Claire. Doug however would rather handle things himself. To find out what she knows he bumps into her in public and after turning on the charm, asks her out on a date. The two become emotionally attached almost immediately. She confides in him that she is scared of what might happen to her if she talks to FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"). Frawley is determined to capture the crew responsible for the robbery and Claire's kidnapping. Matters are complicated further when James finds out that Doug has gotten close to Claire.
With a screenplay by Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard, "The Town" is a movie that asks us to sympathize with a career criminal who met the woman he supposedly loves by robbing, kidnapping her, and then letting her become involved with him without knowing the truth. Believe it or not this actually could work but despite the things that Doug goes through it still feels as though the movie lets him off the hook. There are many questions raised regarding character motivations or decisions, particularly at the end, which I won't spoil for you.
Despite some of the film's shortcomings and occasionally muddled nature, this is a well produced and mostly well acted movie. Being the director and a co-writer, Affleck seemed to have a good idea of what his strengths would be in playing Doug. The character is not a good man, but Affleck gets us to like him anyway. As I said though, the movie is too lenient on him. Just because he's yet another movie criminal who "doesn't shoot anyone," he's still a criminal brandishing a deadly weapon and who works alongside a guy who has no qualms with killing. I'm willing to let criminals off the hook in movies like "Ocean's Eleven," "Snatch," or "Grosse Point Blank," because we're not asked to take them seriously. They're comic fantasies that are either about harmless thieves having fun, a bunch of idiots who just end up killing each other, or a guy who's not as bad as Dan Aykroyd. "In Bruges" is a perfect example of a movie that manages to put its characters through the appropriate wringer. We genuinely like them but they're getting what they deserve and we know it.
Hall gives a good performance but Claire left me scratching my head on a few occasions. Renner, "Hurt Locker" aside, plays yet another character I spent most of the movie wanting to slap in the face. James is a thoroughly unlikeable hothead whose inability to keep his finger off the trigger does more harm for his crew than good. As James' sister and on again off again "girlfriend" of Doug's, Blake Lively ("Gossip Girl") demonstrates an inability to talk. Maybe that's just the character but it's not a very impressive performance. As Doug's main adversary, Hamm gives a solidly good performance. Affleck's direction seems confused in regards to the character however. It feels as though late in the game he decided that we shouldn't like Agent Frawley because we're supposed to be rooting for Doug. In the end, I still liked Frawley whether Affleck wanted me to or not.
"The Town" is a deeply flawed movie but all things considered a pretty good one. Even when it's frustrating it's still very watchable. 7/10.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The American

I'll just come right out and say it. This is a difficult film to review. Not a complaint, just the truth. It's a quiet, intentionally slow-paced, character driven thriller. There aren't many of those, at least not after the 1970s and while some will find it absolutely absorbing others will complain about it being "like really boring, yo." This is one of those cases where I hear the valid arguments on both sides.
Jack or Edward (we don't know his real name but he's played by George Clooney) is a master craftsman with the construction and use of any and all types of gun. His life as an assassin has made him exceedingly paranoid and he is of the kill first, ask questions later mindset. With the life wearing him down he is sent on a mission to Rome, where he's told he "won't even have to pull the trigger." This actually does little to make him feel better. He does want to find a sense of peace for himself however, and strives towards it by forming a friendship with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and by entering into a relationship with local prostitute Carla (Violante Placido).
Jack/Edward's inability to trust anyone makes what would be peaceful moments all the more intense. The job, which is to provide a weapon and ammunition for younger assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, "In Bruges") is simple for him. He knows what he's doing and his hands are well versed in every step of the process. It's his spirit that is failing him, he knows it, and he wants out as soon as this job is over. He just isn't sure that it's not already too late.
Written by Rowan Joffe and directed by Anton Corbijn ("Control"), "The American" is a beautifully shot, very well-made movie that is maddening for almost half of its running time. The early part of the film contains several scenes that come one after another with seemingly no connection to one another. One moment he's assembling a gun, the next he's in a brothel, and it's as though we're just seeing his daily routine.
While I certainly don't need or want a movie to show me exactly where it's going from the very beginning, there should be a sense that it is actually going somewhere. It's not the slow pace that's the problem, it's the thought that what I'm seeing is just meant to build atmosphere when this movie has more than enough already. Eventually the seemingly disparate elements do come together but it takes far too long to feel that the movie is gelling. It makes "The American" difficult to get into and by the time I really did it was well past the halfway point. A second viewing might reveal a great or near great movie and as it is it's good, but I can't say by any stretch that I loved or even liked it that much.
Clooney gives the sort of performance we've become accustomed to, which isn't a bad thing. He plays Jack/Edward with the suitable sense of paranoia that makes a picnic a terrifying experience. Bonacelli and Placido are quite good as well, Bonacelli even providing some much needed levity.
If you can watch "The American" trusting that everything you're seeing actually will come together to form something (and it does) and you don't mind a generally slow paced movie with brief spurts of action, then this is worth checking out. Anyone with an interest in photography should see it simply for the work of cinematographer Martin Ruhe, which is breathtaking. 7/10.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Cemetery Junction

(This movie was inexplicably not released in theaters in the US and is already available on DVD and Blu-ray.)

The men responsible for two of the finest TV shows of the past decade (the UK "Office" and "Extras"), Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, have re-teamed for their first movie together. The result, while quite good, smacks of a strange sort of disappointment. This goes beyond the feeling of anticipation however. Regardless of who made it or any preconceived notions about it, "Cemetery Junction" is a problematic good movie.
It's 1973 and Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) is a young man in the British industrial city of Reading. Unlike his two closest friends, Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan), Freddie is working somewhere that can provide him a promising future. He's the newest salesman for Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) at a life insurance firm. Kendrick has future son-in-law Mike (Matthew Goode) show him how the job is done and in an early scene we witness Freddie's discomfort with Mike's unsavory sales tactics. As it turns out, Mike is engaged to Julie (Felicity Jones), who's not only Kendrick's daughter but a childhood friend of Freddie's. Not having seen her for years, Freddie realizes the feelings he once had for her haven't disappeared.
When he's not struggling to make sales Freddie spends his time getting into mischief with smooth talking but short tempered Bruce and the dimwitted but loveable Snork. Bruce has been talking about getting out of Reading for years but the only places he ever ends up going are the local pub and jail after a night of fighting. Snork meanwhile, spends his spare time designing awful tattoos for himself. Freddie loves his friends but desperately hopes to make something of himself that he suspects they never will. Meanwhile, he falls more and more for Julie every day.
"Cemetery Junction" is a coming of age film that follows the genre's formula practically to the letter. It works because the characters are as well developed as they are. Still, as previously mentioned it's problematic. The actions of these characters, particularly what each one does at film's end, all make sense. We understand why they choose the paths they end up choosing. The reason it's problematic is that those actions are exactly what we've seen so many times before. Nothing is a surprise so the mixture of melancholy and exhilaration that Gervais and Merchant are attempting doesn't have the impact that it should. Still, it's a good movie with some really outstanding little moments. Kendrick's backhanded tribute to an employee he's "putting out to pasture" is one of the most effecting moments in a movie I've seen in some time.
Gervais and Merchant get the most from their actors here, particularly Cooke and Hughes, who gives Bruce a kind of rock star presence. Every scene between Bruce and his father (Francis Magee) is heartbreaking. Fiennes and Emily Watson are both excellent as always and Gervais has some very funny scenes as Freddie's father. "Cemetery Junction" is a good film. But not great. 7.5/10.