Review: The Town (2010)

Director: Ben Affleck

***

After the success of Gone Baby Gone, Hollywood waited with baited breath to see what former J-Lo accessory Ben Affleck would churn out next. He (along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) set about adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’, about a gang of bank robbers operating out of Boston’s notorious Charlestown district. Intrigue was increased by the casting, as a line-up of fresh faces (Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively) met with old hands (Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper) to shoot it out on the streets of Boston.

Thus, we arrive in The Town. Affleck’s second film as a director boasts all the energy of his first, but has to carry a lot more narrative flab. Affleck himself stars as Doug MacRay, the leader of a bank-robbing mob whose latest robbery (which opens the film) leaves their hostage, bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), traumatised. Afraid she may know too much, MacRay sizes her up to see what she knows, but ends up falling in love with her. Meanwhile, the FBI are on the gang’s tail, and S.A. Adam Frawley (‘Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) is determined to catch MacRay dead or alive. As the gang continue to rob, the noose around them tightens, leading to VERY LOUD gun battles in Charlestown.

Heat was made 15 years before The Town, but its influence is felt in almost every cops-n-robbers movie made since. The Town is so indebted to Michael Mann’s masterpiece that it borrows heavily from it and in the process forgets to do anything that marks it out as original. Affleck’s gun battles are as loud and as exciting as Mann’s, but the characterization lets him down badly. MacRay is the focus of the story, and Affleck does well in the role but it’s hard to empathize when he falls in love with the one person who could give him up to the FBI. A little stupid, no? His friend and fellow robber Coughlin (the excellent Jeremy Renner) certainly thinks so, and he and MacRay exchange hard banter and blows. Hall and Lively (as MacRay’s floozie ex) impress, and Postlethwaite and Cooper (as MacRay’s boss and father respectively) do much with underwritten roles. Hamm is the standout, however, as his hard-as-nails Fed chews the scenery with apoplectic aplomb.

The characters, as well inhabited as they are by the cast, are clichés. Mann beefed them up in Heat, but Affleck struggles to make them seem interesting here. Affleck and Hamm don’t have the spark of De Niro and Pacino, and you can probably guess what’ll happen to each character long before the end. The Town is 135 minutes long and yet feels rushed, with an ending that tries too hard to wrap up loose ends satisfactorily. It’s a sufficiently entertaining and well-acted ride, but the evidence suggests Affleck may be a more talented director than he is a writer. There’s not enough originality in the script to back up his directorial verve.

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Review: Howl (2010)

Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

***

Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.
– Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation defined itself by free expression emotionally, sexually and in a literary sense. Encapsulating the freedoms and liberated ideals that the Beatniks stood for, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ became a defining piece of work for this generation from the moment it was first published in 1956. Other defining works of the period have either already made it to the screen (Naked Lunch) or are on the way (On The Road), but how to adapt a poem like ‘Howl’ for celluloid?

Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s approach is to examine how ‘Howl’ came to be. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met in a mental institution, the three-part epic poem is a treatise on the devaluation of the post-war generation. Its stark sexual references (particularly the overtly homosexual references) led to the publishers of ‘Howl’ being tried for obscenity in 1957. Howl divides its time between the obscenity trial, interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and Franco reading the poem aloud. Following on from 127 Hours, Franco delivers another engaging performance, investing all his natural charisma in Ginsberg and effectively capturing his laid-back charm.

The three-pronged narrative approach taken by Epstein and Friedman is both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, it could be argued that Howl lacks a clear focus. The focus on the obscenity trial could be scene as an excuse for injecting a little salaciousness to proceedings, as state prosecutor McIntosh (David Strathairn) is reduced to uttering ‘obscenities’ to illustrate his argument whilst smooth defence lawyer Ehrlich (Jon Hamm, in full Don Draper mode) looks on. Howl may be a treatise on the poem, but the courtroom scenes feel dropped in to serve as a reminder that it’s full of naughty words!! Still, it does give Strathairn and Hamm a chance to flex their muscle, as well as drop in some neat cameos (from the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels). The sections featuring the reading of the poem are accompanied by vivid animations, but they serve equally to illustrate and distract from the poem. Surely the words are enough to make a point. Still, there’s no shortage of visual beauty here, and the whole film, whether in bright Technicolor or black-and-white is beautifully shot by Edward Lachman.

Like Ginsberg himself, Howl boasts a distinct sense of mischief. However, despite Franco’s best efforts, the film periodically forgets that there’s meaning beneath the profanity. Howl brings the style of Ginsberg’s work to the screen, if not quite all the substance.

Review: Bridesmaids (2011)

Director: Paul Feig

****

It would be easy to market Bridesmaids as a kind of hen party to counteract The Hangover’s testosterone, but unlike that raunchfest (or its unfortunate sequel), Bridesmaids is a more affectionate and friendly affair. One might be tempted to say it’s more feminine, but then come the drunken antics and disgusting pratfalls, and that description just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

The most apparent difference between Bridesmaids and The Hangover is that while the latter involved idiots setting out to do stupid things, Bridesmaids sees Annie (Kristen Wiig) become maid of honour for her best friend Lilian’s (Maya Rudolph) impending nuptials. Wiig has one of those adorable faces that elicits sympathy, so when this lovelorn little Bambi encounters resistance/competition from Lilian’s wealthier, snobbier friend Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie must do all she can to make the wedding build-up all the more memorable. Considering the other bridesmaids she has to work with, surely memorability wouldn’t require that much effort. Wendi McLendon-Covey’s bitter housewife and Ellie Kemper’s newlywed innocent have their moments, but Melissa McCarthy threatens to hijack the entire film as Megan, Lilian’s sister-in-law to be, and a farting, swearing disaster area. For all its niceties, Bridesmaids isn’t subtle. There’s shouting, tears and all manner of situations held hostage by OTT bodily functions (a dress fitting being a particular highlight). However, isn’t that to be expected? Judd Apatow is a producer on Bridesmaids, and his template of life lessons being learned over awkward sex/farting/other bodily functions is a proven winner. Annie tries her best but between the wedding planning, a shaky relationship with a traffic cop (Chris O’Dowd) and her dissatisfaction with work, she’s bound to see them all come crashing down. How will she ever recover?! Well, this is rom-com land, so take a guess.

If it doesn’t win points for originality, Bridesmaids more than gets by being simply hilarious. Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s script fizzes with bitchy asides and simple but snigger-inducing setups. From a bizarre opening sex montage with Annie and her jackass sex buddy (Jon Hamm, brilliant as always) to a disastrous flight to Vegas to the climactic bridal shower, Bridesmaids is consistently funny. Veteran TV director Paul Feig (Arrested Development, The Office) leaves the OTT flourishes to the characters. Indeed, what makes Bridesmaids stand out is not just how outrageous these characters can be, but how likeable they are, even when they’re doing less-than-ladylike things. Annie may be a screw-up, but she’s an adorable screw-up. This is Wiig’s first feature script and her first lead role. In both cases, let’s hope it’s not her last, because Bridesmaids is a hoot.