PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Town (A-)
U.S.; Ben Affleck, 2010, Warner Bros.
The Boston of Ben Affleck's The Town -- and of The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and other recent thrillers, Dennis Lehane-derived or not -- is decades away from the morally bent city of that great 1973 neo-noir The Friend of Eddie Coyle. But it has a similarly chilly temperature, the same clipped sense of smart-ass New England doom and Kennedy-accented cynicism welling up from the mean, sullen streets.
The Town, based on Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan (and scripted by Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig), is a more of a movie-movie than any of the others. It has three (count 'em) rock 'em sock 'em action heist set-pieces, each carefully spaced through the story, each increasingly violent, eye-blasting and showcase set-piecey, until the last one, a post-Heat busted heist and shootout at Fenway Park, with cops and crooks drenching each other with automatic gunfire, that all but smashes you, French Connection-like, out of your seat.
But it still seems like a real city, a real community soaking itself into the bones of the characters, seeping out through their casual, slangy patter.
The Town is set in Charlestown, a place where stickups are a sort of neighborhood tradition, passed on from father to son. Small wonder, then, that one of the main characters, Affleck's Doug MacRay, seems good at his job, yet morally dissonant from what should be the calloused feelings of the career robber he plays, Doug MacRay, while his psychopathic buddy Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker), is hard as a crushed fender, a born thief, and maybe a born killer too.
We first see Doug, Jem and their two regular accomplices holding up a bank, with casual ruthless organization and skill, leaping over barriers, forcing everyone to the floor, eerily wearing horror movie skull masks. (Later, in the second heist, even more eerily, they wear the masks of cadaverous nuns). Doug is hard-nosed, efficient, but strangely considerate, especially to the pretty bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who has to open the vault for him. Jem is vicious and unpredictable, repeatedly smashing one hapless banker on the floor, then deciding to kidnap Claire, then releasing her.
Jem is still worried though, that she'll screw them up somehow, especially since she actually lives in their area -- which is why Doug, to save them from committing an unnecessary rub-out, hooks up with Claire at the laundromat, and why he falls in love with her and she apparently with him. Jem, the voice of neo-noir and a buddy probably envious of his pal's conquests, is properly disgusted, acidly wondering, "You gonna fuck all the witnesses?"
From then on, it's partly the roller-coaster ride we expect, punctuated with shootouts, a mad speeding-Bullitt of a car chase and those regular, explosive heists -- and partly the more touching romantic/neighborhood drama that feeds our interest.
The style of the movie fits its characters. Affleck's visual plan is unsentimental, cool and clear, with the aches and twinges buried underneath, his timing in the drama scenes just slow and methodical enough to keep you hooked, and not too jumped up or aggravated, like the usual street western.
Affleck doesn't betray his material, but he doesn't transcend it either. He makes a good movie that does its job, and grips us, scares us, twists the emotional knife, and gives us something extra. That's enough for now.
Mother and Child (A-)
U.S.; Rodrigo Garcia, 2010, Sony Pictures Classics
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, motherhood was one of the great movie subjects -- reprised so insistently, that, in the '50s and '60s, an inevitable anti-maternal revisionism arose in great dark movies like Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate.
But they couldn't wipe poignant masterpieces like The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Make Way for Tomorrow, Wild River, Imitation of Life (both versions)-- or this wonderful little film called Mother and Child. It's a beautiful movie about three generations of mothers, all of whom pay dearly when the second among them, Karen, has a baby girl at 14, and is forced by her own mother, Nora, to put the girl up for adoption.
So Karen grows into a bitter, disillusioned, single woman (played in middle age by Annette Bening). She works at a hospital, sometimes rejecting coworkers who try to befriend her -- like all-too-patient therapist Paco (Jimmy Smits) -- still taking care at home of the elderly Nora (Eileen Ryan), but resentful of the way her life plunged so far off course. Unknown to Karen, a young woman and adopted daughter -- Naomi Watts as hotshot lawyer Elizabeth -- lives nearby, and is embarking on an affair of her own with her married boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson).
And another young woman, Lucy (Kerry Washington), unable to have a child with her quiet husband Joseph (David Ramsey), is trying to apopt a child from a local Catholic agency with the help of the nun in charge, Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones).
At first, it seems that these three interweaving stories may never meet, except in the most obvious way. But they all share large themes of parenthood and love, rejection and redemption -- and, as the movie progresses, they veer closer and closer. I suppose some jaded moviegoers may see the plot as sappy and schmaltzy. But Rodrigo, who directed another fine ensemble drama in Nine Lives, doesn't write and direct it in an obvious, preachy way, and the actors don't play it that way either.
The stories gradually run together, like streams feeding a great, rushing river. The images, lit by cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet like little poems, are bathed in sunlight or shadow. Mother and Child is about the pain of motherhood, the difficulties of having children. But it's about the joy as well. And the characters, and the actors playing them, are convincing enough that we feel, almost constantly, both that anguish and that happiness.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Despicable Me (B)
U.S.; Pierre Coffin/Chris Renaud, 2010, Universal Studios
Despicable Me -- a cartoon about a plot to steal the moon, a cad who redeems himself and the three little cuties who redeem him -- is a movie that at times irresistibly amuses, and, at times, pushes too hard. It also gives Steve Carell, the Despicable Me of the title, one of his best recent movie roles.
But mostly, it gives us adults another good time at the movies that are supposedly being made for our children. The very fact that this movie puts a word like "despicable" in its title shows that it's not afraid of stretching boundaries. And even if Despicable Me, done by Illumination and the French house Mac Guff Ligne, falls down a bit at the end, it's still a pretty good show.
Carell here plays Gru, a fat, sinister little chap who looks like an Edward Gorey drawing on steroids. Gru, who's bossed around by his busybody Mom (Julie Andrews), is also the suburban czar of a bunch of bulbous, skittering, insanely helpful little yellow beings called Minions, aiding him in his ambitious villainy.
Gru is concerned that his reputation for spectacular crime is being outshone by a new, lippy super-miscreant named Vector (Jason Segel of I Love You, Man), who has just swiped the Egyptian Pyramids and replaced them with huge, inflatable Egyptian Pyramid balloons -- a spectacular crime if there ever was one.
Not to be outdone, Gru shoves ahead with his own grand scheme to shrink and steal the moon, aided by his own equivalent for James Bond's gadget-master Q, Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand). But Vector proves an unscrupulous and obnoxious foe, just as Gru's banker proves to be another greedy banker-jerk. To facilitate his moon-grab scheme, Gru is forced, he thinks, to adopt thee little girls from the local orphanage -- the adorable Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) -- and to enlist them and their expertise at cookie selling, to win the duel with cookie fiend Vector. Can he remain despicable in the face of such cuteness in triplicate? Can ice melt in June on a Riviera beach?
All of this leads up, of course, to a race to the moon. But it doesn't move or end quite as you'd expect. Even if you can guess everything that will happen, the sprightly animation, the witty script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and the deft voice-acting by Carell, Segel and Brand -- and by Kristen Wiig as the orphanage meanie-mistress Miss Hattie -- keep it light and funny.
Like many French, or French-derived cartoons -- including those recent modern classics by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) or Michel Ocelot (the Kirikou movies) -- Despicable Me has a delicious, dark little twist to its images. Pixar, very typically American, presents a world of good and evil, locked in combat. The better French animation, a touch more urbane, often mixes good with evil.
Carell is one of those comic actors, like Peter Sellers, who excels at playing self-deluded, self-centered phonies. But Carell can tease the human element in too, as he does here. Working without his body, or rather working with Gru's plump, creepy animated physique, Carell creates an unusually complex, sometimes explosive character -- as the great Mel Blanc always did for Looney Tunes.
Despicable Me disappointed me a little. But it's full of sly little hooks, floating gags, burst of whimsy. And, of course, it has, despicably and wonderfully, Steve Carell, to be its Blanc.
The A-Team (C)
U.S.; Joe Carnahan, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Some movies are so fast and choppy and violent they become almost boring, and for me, The A-Team slipped over the line time and again. A would-be-bang-up movie version of the 1983-86 Stephen Cannell TV Show -- which was about four ex-Vietnam special forces fugitives, led by cigar-chomping wise-cracker John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), who hire themselves out as freelance commandos -- the movie crashes and smashes and keeps blowing up in our faces.
The A-Team commandos and their combatants defy all laws of physics and sanity as that destroy trucks, blast each other with machine guns, chase each other through raging infernos, crash and drop out of skyscraper windows, turn a tank around as it falls out of an airplane, and, at one point, accidentally set fire to millions of dollars and watch it burn. (A symbol for the movie itself?)
What's going on? It's a plot, hatched by mercenaries in Iraq and other miscreants, to steal U.S. treasury plates and forge billions of dollars -- jam-packed with CGI and elaborate action sequences that spare no expense and often don't make a lick of sense.
The movie opens with the introduction of the new A-Team, the four characters we remember from TV, recast: sage plan man Hannibal (Liam Neeson), horny con artist Face (Bradley Cooper), crazy pilot "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and the ferocious mohawk-haired driver/gunner B. A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), the guy who, as played by Mr. T. on TV, liked to say "I pity the fool." They're all Army rangers here, this time starting off in Iraq instead of Vietnam -- darlings of the U.S. military, who get framed for the messed-up robbery of those money plates, and sent to the slammer (or, in "Howling Mad's" case, the Cuckoo's Nest). Then, as before, they break out, this time in order to save their reputations and retrieve the plates from the evil mercenary, Pike (played by co-writer Brian Bloom), one of those slick fiends who likes to taunt you before he kills you. From then on, it's the business as usual, double-crosses and hell breaking loose every ten minutes or so.
Technically, there's never a dull moment. But often it seems dull, because the moments don't string together that well -- and because the director (Joe Carnahan) and his editors (Roger Barton and Jim May), seem incapable of holding onto a shot longer than a second or two.
Watching nothing but a barrage of one-second-long shots, even if Kurosawa, or Sergei Eisenstein or Sam Peckinpah could do it and make it work, can actually play havoc with your concentration, conjuring up a disposable world where anything can happen, but nothing matters. Now I think I know why Sam Peckinpah inserted those slow-motion scenes, in between his fusillades of short shots. He needed them to keep the right rhythm, and to temporarily relax his audience. We never really relax in A Team.
The Other Guys (C+)
U.S.; Adam McKay, 2010, Sony Pictures
The Other Guys -- a rip-roaring buddy-police satire in which Will Ferrell and Mark Walhberg play mismatched desk-jockey cops who get their chance to shine on the street -- is a funny movie, no arguments.
It's a fast, slick, exciting action show, full of slam-bang chases and gunfight razzmatazz, and enough pop-culture in-jokes to gag a Quentin Tarantino wannabe, plus red-hot Eva Mendes as Ferrell's hot-doc wife. At its best, The Other Guys is what it wants to be: Lethal Weapon crossed with The Odd Couple and Saturday Night Live, an exploding whiz-bang celebrity-packed nonstop rama-lama-ding-dong of a rampaging homoerotic street thriller comedy. At its worst, it's still funny. But shallow.
It's not, in the end, a show that wipes you out. And with all that firepower -- including extended muscle-flexing cameos by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the celebrity Supercops whom the deskbound Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg) sort of replace -- it really should have.
Director-co-writer Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) has dreamed up, a would-be high-concept super-show in which two reigning supercops exit, and the hyperbolic Hoitz, who hates his desk job, and the ultra-anal Gamble, who loves his, get their shot at some Die Hard With a Vengeance action -- even though Hoitz keeps throwing fits, and fellow cop Damon Wayans keeps sneering at them, and their wise ass boss, Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton, named here for a baseball manager in-joke) won't trust Gamble with anything but a wooden gun.
The new guys' target is a financial scam run by dithering money czar David Ehrson (Steve Coogan), a greed-crazed weasel with a Ponzi in his pants, whose hard-assed Irish torpedo Roger Wesley (Ray Stevenson) eats supercops for lunch.
Comedy is often best when it sneaks up on us or drops out of the sky. And here, the comedy keeps crashing though the wall, and pushing the pedal to the metal. This movie pretty much hits its marks. But that's all it does.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (C+)
U.S.; Zack Snyder, 2010, Warner Home Video
A no-holds-barred adaptation by the energetic Zack Snyder of a Tolkien-ish children's animal adventure series by Kathryn Lasky, all about warring owls, and two young birds Soren and Kludd (voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten) torn between the good owls, the Guardians, and the bad ones, the Pure Ones.
This movie struck me as beautiful and exciting, even dazzling, but also somewhat incoherent and hard to follow. There's certainly a lot of amazing animation, and one hell of a last battle -- and two terrific voice characterizations by Geoffrey Rush as the grizzled good owl Ezylryb and Helen Mirren, as an ivory-faced femmey bad one, Nyra. But owls have generally similar, and often non-expressive faces. It's actually hard to tell one from another, unless you hear a voice like Rush's or Mirren's. And the movie didn't reach me, didn't kill me.
Nanny McPhee Returns (C+)
U.S.; Susanna White, 2010, Universal Pictures
I love Emma Thompson, even snaggle-toothed and warty. And this Thompson-written, Thompson-starring way-beyond-Mary-Poppins World War II-era film of the Matilda books of Christianna Brand, who also wrote that wonderful World War II-set thriller Green for Danger (which became one of Alistair Sim's finest hours) -- is a little loud, but pretty sunny, pretty chipper, pretty good.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, as mommy Green, and Rhys Ifans as Phil's-your-uncle Green-for-Danger, are snappy. Eros Vlahos, as Cyril, may grow into a silly, sunny British snob to match any Monty Python or even Hugh Grant. Ralph Fiennes is getting typed as the cloud that covers the sun. Great little flying piggies in this movie. Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey, I'm sorry, take a hike. Nanny is not really supercallifragilist-whatever. But sweet Emma rocks.