Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Did MAD MEN Sneakily Hint At What's To Come?

Spoilers for the latest episode of Mad Men follow.

This week's Mad Men was another terrific episode, ratcheting up the tension as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce seems to come apart at the seams. After having lost the Lucky Strike/American Tobacco account, which made up half of their billings, SCDP has been unable to find any new business, as companies want to wait and see if the agency can survive. Layoffs began and everything looked very bad. And then Don Draper did one of those ineffable Don Draper things, throwing a curveball into the whole situation - a curveball whose outcome still isn't clear. But maybe looking at history - history that the show slyly alluded to last night - can help us figure out where this is all going.

Don took out a full page ad in the New York Times explaining that he was happy to be rid of Lucky Strike and that SCDP is out of the tobacco business for good. See, he says, tobacco is a 'product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can't stop themselves from buying it, a product that never improves, causes illness and makes people unhappy. But there was money in it, a lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn't good for us, but we couldn't stop and then when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere I realized here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night because I know what I'm selling doesn't kill my customers, so as of today SCDP will no longer take tobacco accounts.'

This causes a major uproar, not just in SCDP but all across the advertising world and even in the media. When Don comes to the office the morning the letter is printed, Megan has a huge handful of calls that have come in. Among them, she says, is a call from a guy named Emerson Foote.

And here we come to the clue. See, Emerson Foote was a real guy. Emerson Foote was one of the titans of the advertising world in the middle 20th century. Emerson Foote had the Lucky Strike account, and he eventually took his own agency off of tobacco accounts. Don Draper has pulled an Emerson Foote.

Foote had been a vice president of McCann-Erickson (a name that will ring a bell for any Mad Men fan), and he resigned in 1964, just about a year before Don's stunt. Foote had been a lifelong chain smoker and found himself with a crisis of conscience; long concerned about his own cancer risks, Foote couldn't work for a company that peddled tobacco. He ended up working with the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health, writing slogans and doing campaigns. One of the slogans he wrote for them was 'Give to Conquer Cancer - Strike Back,' a not so thinly veiled poke at Lucky Strike, a company he made iconic. Foote worked with the American Cancer Society, and he served on the 1964 President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.

Foote didn't take out an ad when he left behind tobacco advertising, but he did take out an ad a year later when he wanted back in the ad game. Foote placed an ad in Ad Age, asking for another chance. He got over 100 replies. Foote ended up coming on board a small agency that had been crippled by a scandal and fine for false advertising - the first advertising agency to be held accountable for what it claimed. Foote took the struggling agency and turned it around.

Foote remained a tireless crusader against tobacco, and in the 70s supported a movement to have tobacco advertising banned. "I am always amused," he said, "by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products."

Like Don Draper, Foote came from humble beginnings - a small town in Alabama, and small time jobs that included working at an auto dealership. Foote's much older than Don - he was in advertising before Draper was even born - but as a major figure in creative, Foote seems to have influenced the character of Don Draper in no small way.

So whatever happened to Emerson Foote? He died in 1992, aged 85. I don't know that Don Draper will make it that long, but other elements of Foote's story seem likely to pop up in Mad Men. SCDP has already been approached by the American Cancer Society; might Don Draper end up writing that 'Strike Back' slogan? Could Don's move towards personal rehabilitation coincide with a period of public service? As the decade gets more political, it could be interesting to have Don himself getting a little political. And this could put him into contact with Henry Francis, Betty's dull new husband. 

Even if none of that is the case, I think that the Emerson Foote namedrop is a sign that things will get better at SCDP, although it may not be SCDP for long. In a 1967 profile of Foote, Time Magazine notes that the agency of Kastor Foote Hilton & Atherton has changed its name to just Emerson Foote, Inc. Maybe Don Draper, Inc is where SCDP is headed in the next season. Foote wasn't just a legend, he was resilient, and he came back on top after being counted out in 1964. Somehow I think Don Draper will do the same.

Thanks to Rian Johnson for linking to the Time Magazine piece mentioned above, starting this whole train of thought.

Monday, October 4, 2010

If Women Had Invented Facebook, They Would Have Invented Facebook

WARNING: I guess some of what follows is spoilery, but I think that concept, besides being generally dumb, is inapplicable to this film.

It's exciting to see serious discussion pop up around the number one movie in America. 2010 may have been a weak year for film, but with Inception creating a national internet discourse and now The Social Network not only coming in at the top of the charts but spurring lots and lots of talk about gender roles and equality, the year is shaping up as a good one for people getting on on the discussion.

But it's weird to see so many people leap into the debate about women in The Social Network without actually taking the time to examine the movie itself. I'm reading lots of reactions online complaining about the lack of strong women in the film, but these seem like kneejerk responses and not thought-out critiques. I know there's a bit of a straw man argument going on here since I'm not responding to any particular complaints (although one screed from Jezebel is notable for being pointlessly shrill and without any seeming understanding of things like narrative, theme and subtext), but I believe that on a larger level The Social Network is actually about the things that people are decrying. Yes, Aaron Sorkin wrote a script totally intending to include lots of one dimensional, slutty women.

First it's important to understand what a movie that's based on a true story is. It's  not a documentary. It's not a fact by fact recitation of reality. It's an adaptation of reality, just as Spider-Man was an adaptation of a comic book. The reality gets, to some extent, molded and changed to fit not just the needs of drama but also the needs of the film's theme and meaning. There's a larger discussion to be had here about what's acceptable in these cases, but the fact is simple: The Social Network is a film that's a fictionalized account of a real story. And it's a fictionalized account intended to service Aaron Sorkin's vision not just of Mark Zuckerberg but of the modern world of internet boom billionaires and the meaning and context of social networking. 

So Sorkin takes facts and reality and bends them around a little bit to make points for himself. After all, he's just got two hours to tell not only an interesting story but also to explore themes and meanings behind that story. The big theme that drives the film is the concept of rejection as the fuel for ambition. The entire film is predicated on the concept that Mark Zuckerberg succeeds because he has been rejected. He starts Facemash because a girl has rejected him; when she rejects him a second time he throws himself deeper into his work to expand Facebook. He double crosses the Winklevosses because they represent everything that he views as rejecting him in society - handsome, athletic Aryans that come from money. And he pushes Facebook further because of his rejection by the final clubs, personified in his former best friend Eduardo. These are the things that motivate Zuckerberg, and they're the same things that motivate Sean Parker - the only person who doesn't reject Mark but rather brings him in. Parker started Napster because a girl he liked was dating someone else; later Facebook gets an important investment because Parker enlists Zuckerberg to give a fuck you to a venture capitalist who screwed him over. Again and again success is bred from rejection. 

It's important to note that The Social Network is bookmarked by two strong women, both of whom not only see through Zuckerberg, but who reject him entirely. The film leaves Zuckerberg a lonely Michael Corleone, with all the money and power in the world but unable to get the one thing he wants - Rooney Mara's character to like him. Rashida Jones's lawyer character and Rooney Mara's Erica Albright represent the women outside of Zuckerberg's world, and they're the women he yearns for but also sort of avoids. 

Yes, women are treated poorly in The Social Network, but that's on purpose. As Zuckerberg comes to the idea of Facemash, the site that is a precursor to Facebook, he considers comparing women to farm animals. That scene is intercut with shots of the Phoenix-  the prestigious final club to which the Winklevosses belong - busing women in to their party. They're literally transporting them like livestock, and that's how they're treated. The scenes of debauchery at the Phoenix party aren't meant to be titillating, they're meant to show the way that women are treated by these men. And the film posits that Zuckerberg shares the same feelings towards women - they're cattle - and only aspires to be let into the party where the women don't reject you anymore. 

And just in case you thought that the Phoenix was supposed to be taken seriously by you, the viewer, our intro to it is a frat boy telling the women how important the club is... while wearing a backwards baseball cap. The guy is a douchebag on sight, and it's obvious that his world is one of unqualified douchebaggery. Watching the scenes of women dancing and making out and thinking that the film is celebrating this business is a sign of an inability to read a film. The statements are clear, and the attitudes that men have towards women are clearer. They don't like women. 

Which leads to them surrounding themselves with sluts and bimbos. Sean Parker's womanizing isn't cool; in fact it's a touch desperate and sad, as he travels from bed to bed because he doesn't have a home. Parker not only surrounds himself with women he doesn't respect (look at how he treats the two bong hit girls in the Facebook house), he actually goes for younger, possibly underage girls. Parker is a creep. It would be actually weird if he had a strong woman at his side, or were interested in getting female programmers. This is the guy that Zuckerberg is drawn to because he sees Parker as the geek who has gotten bigger and cooler than the final clubs. 

Some people have objected to Eduardo's girlfriend, the crazy jealous Asian girl Christy. I suspect that her nationality is a nod to the fact that nerds simply love Asian women and culture, as well as a nod to the fact that Zuckerberg's real life girlfriend is Asian. But more than that, the character is a piece of subtext personified - she's a metaphor. Eduardo's story has him getting nothing but grief and pain from the cool thing that he started. Everything that comes from Facebook is poisoned, including his relationship - and it's all poisoned from the start, but he doesn't know it. Giving Christy more dimensions would utterly sabotage the point of the character, and totally undermine the thematic elements. Like the president of Harvard or Zuckerberg's roommates, the girlfriend is tertiary at best, and has a specific role to fulfill - a role that doesn't include a completely fleshed out life. The president of Harvard is just as cartoonish, but there are no school administrators getting up in arms about him. He exists to illustrate the way that everything in the Winklevosses lives is turning against them, and he fulfills that function and moves out of the film. 

The secret to The Social Network is that it's Revenge on the Nerds. Following a decade of geek chic, this film deconstructs our current nerd plutarchs and restores the most basic geek stereotypes. Zuckerberg and company aren't aspirational, they're pathetic. They're driven by pettiness and insecurity. They're socially retarded, and they surround themselves with lesser people they can dominate. Zuckerberg and Parker are creating the frat house they could never enter, and they're changing the rules of exclusivity so that it's all about being a coder and a hacker. They're not overcoming the establishment, they're becoming it. And in the end it leaves them unfulfilled and unhappy and alone and fucked up. The tragedy for Zuckerberg is that he secretly knows it; it's why the film has him ignoring all the sluts and skanks around him and only really being interested in the two strong women. Even the blowjob that he gets in the bathroom is completely upstaged by the simple sight of Erica Albright. This is all on purpose, and not an accident. Sorkin put the second Albright scene right after the bathroom blowjob to make a very specific point.

I haven't read The Accidental Billionaires or researched a ton about the real story of Mark Zuckerberg, so maybe there are strong women who were integral to the founding of Facebook. I would be interested in finding out about them, if they exist, but knowing what I do about computer programmers and nerds, I suspect that they sort of don't. There probably were other women in Zuckerberg's circle (he had met his current girlfriend by the time the film covers, although I don't know if he was actually dating her then), and there were probably gay people and more black people and even Indians who weren't angry little twerps, but filmmaking isn't about checking off inclusion boxes. Art is not about making sure the full spectrum of humanity is displayed. It's about telling a story and getting across ideas. Aaron Sorkin, for whatever reason, is attracted to boy's club atmospheres - the White House, sports TV, the military - but he almost always finds room to include strong women into his stories. The Social Network is no different. And it's important to note that since the film is told entirely in deposition flashback, that only Rashida Jones' character exists outside the influence of differing viewpoints. If there's any single character who speaks for the filmmakers, it is her, and her final judgment on Zuckerberg is clearly meant to be theirs.

(Thanks to the strong woman in my life, Lindsay Maher, for helping connect the dots between Facemash and the Phoenix club bus)

Monday, September 20, 2010

EASY A review

This is a perverse thing to say, but I'd like Emma Stone to get a TV show. It's perverse because in a handful of roles Stone has begun really establishing herself as a movie star, and wishing her away to the boob tube seems counterintuitive. But the thing about Stone that I like best is her natural charisma and charm, and I'd be incredibly happy to visit with her every single week. Easy A has some rough patches, but every single one of them is smoothed over by the simple presence of Emma Stone.

Easy A is one of those teen movies where you're asked to believe that a fairly gorgeous young woman is anonymous at her high school. Jump over that hurdle and you find that Stone plays the ultimate crush-worthy character - she's beautiful, she's smart, she's funny, she's laid back, she comes from money. Quite simply it's the strongest young female role in years that Joss Whedon didn't write. 

Into this adorable life falls one white lie; in an attempt to beg out of a camping trip with her annoying best friend, Stone's Olive pretends to have a date. Following up on that fib she makes the mistake of saying that she went all the way with the imaginary boy, a lie that is overheard by her high school's Jesus freak prom queen. Olive sees her reputation go from anonymous to infamous and begins taking advantage of it; first she pretends to sleep with a gay kid to help him deal with the endless torment he receives at school and then she begins fake sleeping with other boys in exchange for gift cards. But Olive soon learns that reputations are double edged - while the boys find their social ranks elevated, she ends up being branded the school harlot. 

Bert V Royal's script is way smarter than it needs to be; the film hangs Olive's experiences on a class-assigned reading of The Scarlet Letterand in classic How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days fashion that should be enough. But Royal really hammers home the unfair divide between the ways that perceived promiscuity impact men and women, and it does so with a remarkable lack of bitterness. Sadly the film fumbles in the final minutes, unable to follow through on the observations and yet deliver a rousing happy Hollywood ending. 

In fact Easy A feels like it truly screws things up by the end, where it starts to create a moral equivalency between the lies that Olive allows to spread (her entire deal with the boys is that she simply won't deny sleeping with/screwing around with/making out with them) and the reactions that she gets. Yes, lying is bad, but what's worse is deciding that a sexually assured woman is bad while the guys with whom she sleeps are good. By eschewing bitterness the film denies the guys any comeuppance -even the horrible fat kid who essentially deserves prison rape by the end of the movie. You can almost feel the movie hitting the third act and panicking, not quite knowing how the hell to wrap everything up.

I can give some of that a pass based on the vicious way the film treats pious, holier than thou Christians. I don't know the last time I saw a mainstream massmarket film like Easy A really go after this group, not even presenting one positive portrayal of a person of faith. The entirety of Olive's problem comes from gossiping, hateful, deceitful, boorish, homophobic Christians - who of course end up being just as sexually promiscuous as everybody else (the film opts to not take the easy shot of making one of the Christians gay. That's become too cliche in real life at this point). I loved every second of their evisceration.

While Emma Stone is the draw for the movie, the real stars may be Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, playing the most amazing parents in cinema history. Chill, funny and trusting, they drag the film up a level with every one of their scenes. Director Will Gluck has a savvy eye for casting, and he allows his actors to just go with it. Tucci and Clarkson seem to just be having a blast, while Stone is often incredible, managing to be funny and light while also turning on a dime and bringing true emotion to the table. She has a couple of sweet, heartbreaking moments at the end that hint at great possibilities for the actress.

As always is the case with regular movies, I couldn't help but obsess on a weird tendency I found within Easy A. Besides being a meta reworking of The Scarlet Letter, the film is also a meta love letter to the films of John Hughes. To the extent that Olive talks about those films in voice over, shows clips from them and then ends on a visual reference to them that was telegraphed forty five minutes earlier. This stuff is weird because Easy A is already meta, so it doesn't need this layer of meta. On top of that, John Hughes movies have generally nothing to do with the thematic interests of the film. All that this did was make me think about the way that Olive is part of the remix generation, a whole generational cohort that is rarely creating anything new or blazing any new trails but rather messing around with what came before. There's value in that, but Easy A feels like it encapsulates the entirety of that generation, taking meaning in something that was created before and just jamming it in to your new creation to give cheap and simple resonance. It's strange that a movie as otherwise smart, witty and even wise as Easy A stoops to a montage of John Hughes films, but it does. It reminded me of (500) Days of Summer's bullshit hip signifier of The Smiths - a shoehorned reference that means nothing but is guaranteed to elicit a specific response from the desired audience. 

I really liked Easy A. It's not a great film although I think there's a damn good film lurking within it; it is a fun film, a smart film and a good excuse to hang around Emma Stone for 90 minutes. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Everything you've heard about A Serbian Film is true. All the depravity and the sexual torture and the gore and the far beyond the edge of reason violence against children. It's all true. But somehow it's not as shocking as you might expect, possibly because the film is so slick and professional and well put together that there's no verisimilitude on display. I have a boring old refrain about classic exploitation pictures, and what makes the best of them truly effective - you believe that the director is capable of the acts that you're seeing on screen. You feel like the filmmakers are making this movie because the alternative would be acting out the violence they're filming, that the artistic process is a release valve for deeply disturbed people. Some big time directors can pull that off - David Cronenberg is excellent at still coming across as perverse even in his most mainstream work - but while A Serbian Film is undeniably extreme, it never feels dangerous.

Usually when a movie is as well made as A Serbian Film while also being as over the top as A Serbian Film there's a sense of juvenile envelope pushing - like the filmmakers are simply giggling at the idea of showing something more extreme than what has been shown before. Transgression is serious business when done right, and while I didn't find A Serbian Film to be completely effective, I'm happy to report that director Srdjan Spasojevic is doing his transgression right. A Serbian Film is about stuff, not just about being the movie that gorehounds use to test themselves (although it's certainly become that). Unfortunately the deeper issues might fly right over the heads of Westerners, rendering A Serbian Film nothing more than a softcore gore porn. 

Milos is a retired Serbian porn star; he now has a beautiful wife and a lovely young son, and is quite happy. But money is running out, and maybe he misses the old days just a little bit, so when a mysterious filmmaker approaches him to get back in the game for one last large-paying gig, Milos takes the job. The set up is odd from the start; the filmmaker tells Milos that he's making a reality-based art film, and that rather than have a script or a premise Milos must simply walk into scenes and react to what's going on. The camera men are bruisers, looking more like secret police interrogators than cinematographers. And the scenes are weird, and they keep getting weirder. Children are involved. S&M is involved. And then things go really over the top. And then there's women getting their heads cut off while being fucked and children being anally raped and cockicide and, in the film's signature moment, a newborn baby being fucked by a hulking beast of a man.

The first half of A Serbian Film is fairly straightforward exposition; the sexy stuff, such as it is, really occurs right up front. Then in the last act as things get out of control and as the sex gets horrifying Spasojevic decides to show us what happens in a series of flashbacks. Milos is drugged with cattle aphrodisiac and wakes up, covered in blood, days later. As he retraces his steps he finds corpses and semen and video tapes of just what went down.

The plot of the porn film Milos is making involves the daughter of a dead war hero; the Bosnian War and the Serbian genocide hang heavy over the film. Part of what's happening here is about Serbia dealing with a national guilt hangover; the ugly things in the film are reflections of events in the mid-to-late 90s. But there's also something reactionary in A Serbian Film. Milos is just as much of a victim as the woman who is suffocated by a dick, and part of the point of the porn being made is to allow overseas viewers to wallow in the misery. There's a guilt hangover, but there's also a feeling of resentment that Serbia was put through such shit - by corrupt and evil leaders - in such a public view. Milos ends up technically complicit in some truly horrifying crimes, but he's being controlled by others. Whatever the reason for his actions, they're all caught on tape, just like the genocide of Muslims.

Again, I think a lot of the historical and cultural context will fly over the heads of viewers; A Serbian Film certainly sent me packing to Wikipedia to fill in my gaps in recent history. Smarter, more tuned in viewers will pick some things up, but I do wonder what reactions Serbs have to the political subtext of the movie. Still, I think that Spasojevic has filled A Serbian Film with enough weight that even the most clueless viewer will understand that there are issues under discussion here. This isn't just Amateur Porn Star Killer, trying to get a reaction out of viewers. Spasojevic has something to say.

There's something I keep coming back to with the film, and I don't know how much of this is intentional. Some minor spoilers ahead. The already infamous newborn porn scene intrigued me not because of what I was seeing - the filmed image couldn't match up with what I had built up in my head - but in the fact that the scene is only shown in A Serbian Film as a movie clip. Milos is forced to watch the sequence while being slipped a mickey. What got me really interested was the idea that there was no newborn porn - that what Milos was seeing was trickery. God knows it was filmed 'demurely' enough - there's no visible penetration. As the third act kicked in, with Milos discovering the events of the past few days only through video playback, I began to wonder if the reality of all of this was in question, if A Serbian Film wasn't commenting on the line between our desire to see horrors and our ability to inflict them, but that ends up not being the case. The film feels somewhat smaller as a result, and I couldn't help but wonder what David Cronenberg would do with material like this. Videodrome was heavily on my mind when A Serbian Film ended.

A Serbian Film isn't for most people; it will only appeal to those most willing to wade into the darkest, ugliest corners of the world. But the truth is that there's nothing in the film you couldn't seen for real after an a few hours on 4chan. I think that film as shock tactic has been overshadowed by internet clips; for a film to truly shock it has to first get under the audience's skin. A Serbian Film never quite does that; Milos' home life and family didn't grab me, and actor Srdjan Todorovic has a greasy sort of weasel aspect that kept me from truly empathizing with him. Milos looks less like a retired porn star and more like a porn star who needs to dry out. But Spasovejic gets points for trying; he understands that if he doesn't build some characters we won't care about the pain inflicted upon them. Again, A Serbian Film isn't always effective, but it always tries.

More than just a cheap bit of nastiness but not quite successful at being a truly disturbing bit of filmmaking, A Serbian Film is stuck in an interesting middle ground. It's a movie worth checking out (for those who can stomach it), but not necessarily a movie worth getting crazy over.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

DEVIL review

I normally hate saying this, but Devil is very good... for what it is. I think that saying 'for what it is' is a cheap bit of snobbery most of the time, but it feels like it fits here. Devil has a strong premise, and it's well done, but the direction that screenwriter Brian Nelson (writing from a story by modern titan M Night Shyamalan) takes that premise is very different from where I would have taken it. So for what it is - ie, not the movie I would have made (me also being a modern titan) - Devil is quite good.

The set up is simple. Five strangers are trapped in an elevator. One of them, we are told via a goofy narration, is the devil. They begin dying. Meanwhile, a troubled cop is trying to get them out of the elevator and to save whoever can still be saved, even as they get mysteriously knocked off one at a time. There's a twisty ending - sort of - but it's not some head-snapper of a twist. What Devil is most like is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone - weird, semi-supernatural (until it goes full-blown supernatural) and really a heavy duty morality tale. But like the best work that Rod Serling did, the morality tale isn't a simple 'Be good' message; there's an interesting examination of the nature of guilt and evil and forgiveness that will actually get the God crowd cheering (the real God crowd that is - the people who follow the teachings of Christ. Not the hateful, racist, homophobic Tea Party types who make up the Christian right in America today). 

Director John Erick Dowd does some fairly incredible work inside the elevator, where about 70% of the film takes place. In the beginning he really emphasizes the tightness of the space with disturbing close-ups; as the bodies hit the floor he opens up the space, making the elevator almost impossibly big. Most of all he keeps that cramped space visually interesting, playing with the lighting and setting up the camera in different ways to make what should be a boring, routine setting contain subtle and restrained menace. 

Devil is a fairly minor film - none of the performances soar, although many are more than serviceable, and the movie is filled with 'That Guys' (That Guy is from Undeclared! That Girl was in Drag Me To Hell! That Guy is Bokeem Woodbine!) - but it's solid. I've found myself thinking about solid films, about the fact that the movie spectrum includes more than just SUCKS and ROCKS, and Devil is a film that truly falls into the middle ground. It's generally well-crafted, and its goals are small. Not every film has to have ambitions on a hundred million dollar scale, and sometimes a smaller movie that tells a crackerjack story is all you need. For some people the high cost of moviegoing means everything has to be a blockbuster or a game changer to be worth their 12 bucks; Devil is neither, but it's a really good little movie that does everything it sets out to do. It's got good jump scares, it's got excellent tension, and it's got a central storyline that will keep you guessing right up to the last minutes. 

Some people have criticized Devil as feeling like the pilot of an anthology series called The Night Chronicles... but it sort of is, so what's the complaint? I'd be happy to see two or three films like this a year; small, intriguing, generally smart tales of fear and suspense. Maybe M. Night Shyamalan has blown it as a writer and director, but as the guiding force behind a low budget series of chillers, I think he's got it going on. I understand why people laughed at the Devil trailer when Night's name came on the screen, but I hope that doesn't keep them from seeing a highly effective little film.

As for what kind of a movie I would have made with that same premise... well, semi-spoilers ahead: I think a very great version of Devil could have been much less supernatural and much more about the nature of five people trapped in an enclosed space with a sense of mortal danger hovering over them. The real devil, I think, would do less murder by twisting people's heads around and more letting the evils in the assembled hearts get out of hand. But that isn't the movie that was made here, and as a more overtly supernatural take on that premise, I think Devil works.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Ben Affleck has been unfairly maligned - often by his own career. The guy has talent, but he rarely gets a chance to prove it. He did so a couple of years back with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a really terrific crime film starring his baby brother and set in the seedier parts of his hometown, Boston. People were sort of skeptical, but after Gone Baby Gone they realize that Ben has some chops. They then promptly forgot about that, and his new film, The Town, has been met in advance with some small amount of incredulity. Maybe it's because The Town is a bigger movie than Gone Baby Gone, and people who didn't see that film are now being made aware of Affleck's new career as director. I hope those people get into theaters this weekend, because Matt Damon's one-time life partner has made another solid crime film more than worthy of your movie dollars.

This time Affleck stars as well as directs. I don't know what impact that has; Affleck is an okay actor, but he's a much better director, and I probably would have been okay seeing someone else in the onscreen pole position here. But whatever - Affleck the director really has it going on with The Town. Like the better actors-turned-directors out there, Affleck knows how to get strong performances from his players, but he has more skills than that. As in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck creates a palpable sense of place that makes Boston - and specifically the neighborhood of Charlestown - feel like a character in  the film (this is a film review cliche I cannot get enough of, it turns out). In The Town he shows that he has a bigger skillset, and he stages some truly terrific action sequences; while the final Heat-esque gunfight at Fenway Park feels a touch too big for this particular story, it's staged with professional mastery. 

The story of The Town is a new twist on a cliched concept; Affleck is a bank robber with a heart of gold who just wants to get out of the business and out of town. When a robbery goes slightly awry the hot head in the crew - played by The Hurt Locker himself, Jeremy Renner - takes a hostage (the lovely Rebecca Hall, who floored me in Vicki Christina Barcelona). In the days after the robbery Affleck keeps tabs on the released hostage to see if she's in any position to give the crew up. While trailing her around he falls in love, and then she falls in love with him. Meanwhile FBI man Jon Hamm is desperate to get his mitts on this crew, Renner is getting crazier and wants to do more jobs, and the forbidden love blooms and threatens to get very out of hand.

There's a retro feel to The Town, but it's retro in a way that is very modern. Too many films look back at the 70s and ape the stylizations of those films; Affleck looks at the 70s and figures out what the feel of those films are. In a lot of ways The Town is a story that could have come from a 1930s gangster film, told with the small character feel of a 70s movie. Add those two decades together and you get yourself a bona fide 00s film. There's nothing groundbreaking about the story (which, to be honest, is the weakest link in the film), but it's a tale well-told. 

Here's a secret about The Town: it's kind of a chick flick. The movie has handsome Affleck, in recovery from drug addiction, tortured by his life, but decent and humane and romantic. He falls in love with a pretty girl from outside of his social circle - he's a Townie, while she's a Toonie, the local slang for a yuppie - and while he's rough and has violence he never brings that to her. In fact, he channels his violence against guys who give her a hard time, and while no woman will admit it, there's something endlessly romantic about that. But what The Town really taps into is the current wave of abstinence chic; Affleck and Hall don't sleep together for what seems like weeks and instead eat at cute outdoor restaurants and talk about their personal tragedies and even go gardening (!). This is romantic, yeah, but it's also a great storytelling choice. Too often in modern films the leads fall into bed as soon as they fall into love, and it's hard to suss out if it's the heart or the boner that's making decisions. Here it's obvious that Affleck's rough and tumble yet gentle and smart bank robber is really in love with the upper class bank manager. 

Jeremy Renner has a fairly thankless role; he's essentially playing the same angry impetuous best buddy we've seen in every crime film the last few decades, and Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci perfected that role in perfect Martin Scorsese movies. Still, Renner brings a subhuman creepiness to the role that feels fresh. I'm sure the actor wouldn't agree, but there's something emptier in his James Coughlin than what we saw in Johnny Boy - who was a big, violent child - or in Tommy DeVito - who was deeply wounded in ways that even he didn't understand. There's something scarier and more fatalistic about Coughlin than those iconic bad-news-best-friends.

Hamm, meanwhile, gets down and dirty as the FBI guy. Whenever Hamm is playing someone large and in charge he's going to come across like Don Draper (just how it goes), but here he gets to relish being even dickier than Draper, who can be a pretty big dick. There's no question that Affleck is the good guy when the face of the law is so douchey. It isn't that Hamm's character is a bad guy or does bad things, it's just that his attitude is kind of obnoxious. And I love it. It makes the FBI a more formidable opponent in the long run.

The film's acting crux is really Rebecca Hall; everything hangs on how much you believe her. She has to be vulnerable but not a victim, and she has to be imperiled but not helpless. Her chemistry with Affleck is flawless, but so is her strength. She's a woman dealing with a terrifying incident, but dealing with strength. It helps that Hall is beautiful in a real world way; she's the prettiest bank manager you've seen in a long time, but not so pretty that you don't believe she's a bank manager. 

The Town isn't one of the best movies of the year and it isn't a film that redefines the genre. It's a solid movie that takes the trappings of a programmer and puts them on a character piece. I think that with a stronger script - why are the other two members of the robbery gang never fleshed out at all? - this could have been in another league, but for the league in which it's playing The Town is a solid triple. I'll tell you that my first thought walking out of the movie was that I'd be happy to see Ben Affleck, director, returning to this town and this genre again and again and again.