Sunday, September 19, 2010

Film Review #235: The Town
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite

Quick: how many movies can you name that depict the crook’s decision to go straight after this one last job, one last run, one last fight or race? Sometimes he’s not the bad guy, but what he does is usually really dangerous and makes him a loner. Usually there is somebody in the story who’s not letting him go gently. Often some new connection that will be outside his grasp unless he does change has inspired this. Sometimes, he is even a she. Anyway, faulting Ben Affleck’s The Town for being “formulaic” is short-sighted and misses the point. Of course we know what’s coming. But we’re interested, again and again, in how it arrives, and in this titillating notion that one might, as Affleck’s Doug MacRay says gutturally, groping for words for this new idea, “make a change.” The Town opened in wide release last Friday and went right to first place at the box office, so apparently quite a few of us still wonder enough about this to pay the ever steeper ticket price.

The Town opens shortly after another similar film, Dutch director Anton Corbijn’s The American with George Clooney in the title role as the assassin Jack. Affleck began his later-in-life debut as director with Gone Baby Gone and The American is also Corbijn’s second feature film, following his formidable 2007 debut, Control, about the band Joy Division and their lead singer, Ian Curtis, who hung himself on the eve of the band’s big American break.

The American and The Town are radically different in some ways on the surface. Jack lives anonymously, traveling where he’s told by his Rome-based handler, his few incipient attachments a dangerous weakness. When attacked, he erupts with icy, unhesitating ferocity, chasing down and killing his enemies. Previously a photographer, Corbijn places Jack against vast landscapes – first a frozen Swedish lake beside a brooding forest and then the sparse Italian hill country – and proceeds to disrupt American expectations of this genre by long, patient, often largely quiet blocks of story. Granting Jack a lovely young woman who agrees to go away with him, Corbijn has Jack give her an instruction utterly out of character for its sheer logistical improbability – Jack’s nothing if not coolly strategic – when Jack tells her to meet him “by the river,” all for the sake of returning Jack to their private Eden for his last breath.

Clooney’s an absurd figure in a fragmented world where the center does not hold, but Affleck’s bank-robber Dougie MacRay is so rooted in his working-class Irish enclave that he can’t get free to turn around. Lifelong resident of Charlestown, just across the bridge from Boston proper, MacRay’s never been out of this metro area except for one ill-fated trip to hockey camp – he blew that picking fights – and trips to visit his father (Chris Cooper) in prison. No quiet, lingering pans of vast hillside in The Town – ough there are some sweeping pans of metro Boston - it’s fast and tight, fully urbanth, and fully orchestrated. Doug lives with fellow robber Jem (Jeremy Renner), whose family took him in as a kid after his mother disappeared, and Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively). Unlike Jack, Doug prefers not to kill, his reluctance framed against the constant menace of Jem’s jittery, tightly coiled violence. (Intriguingly, Jon Hamm’s special FBI agent is not far from Jem in his own edge of menace.) Both Jem and Krista expect Doug to stay – according to “the rules we grew up with,” says Jem – as does local boss Fergie (Irish actor Pete Postlethwaite).

Here is a point of overlap: Jack’s handler and Doug MacRay’s handler are equally business-minded and merciless. Another: Doug and his girl – the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), who’s kidnapped in the first robbery and stalked by Doug to the local laundromat, where romance ensues – also have a sort of Eden, though this time it’s a community garden. And then there’s the scene in each movie of the star doing his calisthenics – derided as vanity – but that comes right out of Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), and surely before: the body as weapon, not temple.

You can make these lists all day – what we expect of any genre and how somebody making a movie goes against it. Even if The American does go off the rails, I still want to see what Corbijn does next and it’s nice to see Clooney try this stretch as an actor. But Affleck has a winner, populated with one terrific performance after another, all of them wrestling with whether we could change – and get away with it.

This review appears in the September 23, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is playing in wide release and so is Anton Corbijn’s “The American” with George Clooney.
Film Review #234: Winter's Bone
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

“Oh, lord!” mutters the girl under her breath. She climbs out of the pick-up with a suddenly impatient sigh, using the same inflection as innumerable, usually much older women before her who have followed their men, their fathers, their sons – this one is her uncle – into some dive to haul them out. Once inside, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is already practiced at the right balance between deference – she locates him across the crowded, smokey room and stays far enough away that she’s not interrupting – and no-nonsense demand – one jerk of her head toward the door. Pausing a single beat to show he’s the one deciding, Teardrop (John Hawkes) follows her outside.

One of our best character actors, John Hawkes is easily matched in every scene they share by Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence, about whom you’ll be hearing a lot and, if there’s any justice, part of that will include an Oscar nomination. Ree and Teardrop were supposed to be looking for her father, Jessup Dolly, who’s vanished, missing his court date. Teardrop doesn’t get much farther than she does. We never see Jessup, except in an old photo album snap with Ree’s mother, taken when they were kids themselves and Ree’s mother is almost unrecognizable as the vacant-eyed woman Ree now gently tends.

Jessup is a meth cooker, “known for,” as Ree tells a neighbor who tries to convince her Jessup burned up in a meth lab explosion, “knowing what he’s doing and not making any bad batches.” His disappearance has put his place – a rickety log cabin accessorized with a great deal of plastic and what must have been an expensive trampoline in the yard for the kids – along with his 100-year-old timberlands, at risk for bail forfeiture. At this point in the story where she retrieves Teardrop from the tavern, Ree is pretty sure her father’s dead, but she has to prove that in order to stave off the bail bondsman. Eventually she retrieves the proof from a fetid pond, with the help of a chainsaw and two crones right out of MacBeth.

Women grow old fast in the raggedy backwoods of southwestern Missouri, the region we know as the Ozarks. Ree has a little sister named Ashley Dawn, 6, and a 12-year-old brother named Sonny – like many of the cast, drawn from the local people during the on-location shoot – to whom she’s teaching survival skills equally. So they both learn how to shoot a gun, hunt squirrels and skin and gut them and make a stew. (This scene, in which Ree tells Sonny there are things he’ll have to get over when he balks at gutting the squirrel, nicely foreshadows what the two crones’ insist she must get over too.) But Ree’s friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), who’s already got a baby and doesn’t ask her husband why when he won’t let her take the truck, tells Ree, “It’s different when you’re married.” Writer-director Debra Granik, who adopted this film from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same title, avoids adding melodrama about how it is that Gail shows up with Baby Ned and the truck one day at Ree’s cabin, having left the husband and his head-banger music, but it’s easy to imagine there was some. Ree’s own single attempt to get away is demolished by a patient, practical Army recruiter who explains, in unusually knowing terms, that it will actually be braver for Ree to remain at home.

Lest we start thinking about the people in Winter’s Bone in terms overly mythic or picturesque, I should say that this film is as good a study as you’re likely to find of how come most kids into drugs most anyplace and right here in Syracuse too aren’t about to snitch, and how come whole communities remain implacably against the law’s perceived intrusion. When Teardrop tells Thump, a distantly-related patriarch – played by another non-actor who goes by the nickname “Stray Dog” and evidently got to wear his own biker vest for the part – that Jessup “went against our ways,” he’s not talking about Jessup’s illegal activities. And when Teardrop, in one of the final scenes, suddenly says he knows who killed his little brother, about the only people you don’t suspect – outside Jessup’s own household – are the musicians at a house-party Ree visits, who provide much of the film’s marvelous Ozark music.

Marideth Sisco, whose own busy summer festival schedule probably has rivaled the director’s, is the singer at this house-party with her band, the Davis Creek Rounders. Sisco also sings many of the songs in the film – “High on a Mountain,” “Farther Along,” “Fair and Tender Maidens,” “Missouri Waltz,” and “Teardrop’s Ballad: Bred and Buttered.” Twice Ree reminds the sheriff that she’s “a Dolly, bred and buttered,” indicating a depth of loyalty and identity that we learn as the tale unfolds can go either way.

This review appears in the September 9, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Winter’s Bone” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Friday, September 10. Both the DVD and the soundtrack come out on October 26.
Film Review #233: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Per Oscrasson

“I used to live in that city!” exclaimed one of my companions as Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) arrives in Göteborg on Sweden’s southwest coast, having driven the 250 miles or so from one side of the country – the capital city of Stockholm in the east – to the other through the night, in search of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who’s made the same journey a few hours ahead of him. “And I made that same drive every week I was there,” she added.

Most US audiences watching The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second of the Swedish screen versions of the late Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy novels, won’t have that advantage, or even know that the filmmakers actually shot the Göteborg scenes on location (even IMDB gets that wrong). But Swedish audiences will know that, especially those who actually live in and around Göteborg, where the film had a special screening at that city’s international film festival in January.

I mention this because there’s been some grumbling about this film and you should not let it keep you away. This installment retains key cast members – the remarkable Rapace as fugitive computer-hacker Salander and Nyqvist as Millennium magazine publisher Blomkvist; also Lena Endre as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s editor-with-benefits, and Peter Andersson as Salander’s slimy legal guardian, Nils Bjurman – and also wisely kept on Jacob Groth to provide the understated but hugely effective, disturbing score. (A word about US-tailored promotion: the image on the movie poster appears nowhere in this film and the trailer’s generic thriller music may come from some movie but not this one.) But this film has switched directors (from the virtuoso Niels Arden Oplev to the more workman-like Daniel Alfredson) and cinematographers (from Jens Fischer and Erik Kress to Peter Mokrosinski, whose look is considerably more workmanlike and sometimes out of focus for no discernibly good reason). And you might spend some time objecting to both. But – proof of the pudding – this film is over two hours long, and I didn’t wonder once how soon we’d get there, especially during the rising dread of the second half.

In Played with Fire, crusading publisher Blomkvist hasn’t seen Salander for a year. (The first film ended with hints – a glimpse of her exiting an expensive car, dressed with uncharacteristic elegance, at some clearly exclusive tropical resort – though this new film neglects her sojourn there, which occupies a significant section of the novel, cutting to the chase of her Stockholm return.) Instead a breaking story about a sex-trafficking ring occupies Blomkvist, until the young couple who’ve researched that turn up executed and the police blame Salander. Sure that she’ll contact him, he sets about solving the murders and her connection, as his Millennium editorial staff set about finishing and publishing the story. Along the way – the reason for that cross-country dash – Salander finds her long-lost father (Georgi Staykov), determined to finish with an axe what she started as a child with a match and a gas can.

What carries this film is the intriguing, increasingly layered and unconventional relationship between Blomkvist and Salander (those in turn carried by wonderful lead performances – I particularly recommend Rapace’s extended scene of reunion with her father). In a story about how we know the truth about anyone else, it’s worth thinking about how they have come to utterly trust one another. They don’t physically share a single scene until the end, but the film extends their virtual relationship with convincing immediacy; in one scene Salander turns off a door alarm with three seconds to go – watching Blomkvist remotely on a security camera – from the other side of Sweden. And amidst much deeply sordid behavior, Blomkvist isn’t the only good man here; there’s the young free-lancer Dag, Salander’s old advocate Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson, from the 1966 classic Hunger), and a promising cop named Bublanski. I’m more than ready to see where #3 goes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo packed Manlius Cinema in April. Nat Tobin is pretty sure he’ll keep Played with Fire around a couple weeks anyway, and reminded Friday night’s crowd that the finale – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – has a mid-October US release. He’s also arranged for a one-time screening at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday, the 31st, of the documentary Millennium, about the book-to-movie project with Larsson’s novels. That screens at Manlius Library (in the Village Center plaza, past Little Cesar’s Pizza).

This review appears in the August 26, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is screening locally at Manlius Art Cinema. Next Tuesday, August 31st, at 6:30 p.m. you can also see the documentary “Millennium,” about Steig Larson and the Millennium Trilogy novels, at Manlius Library.