Three good films

I’ve fallen behind on scribbling thoughts, so my apologies for this unwieldy lumping of three disparate films into a catch-all “worth seeing.” But they do share a central focus on character development and outstanding acting, and they all fall a few points shy of being outstanding–‘though still definitely worth your time. (Two of them are on dvd, and didn’t play far/wide in theaters; one of those didn’t, as best I can tell, play anywhere in the states.)

Ben Affleck’s The Town would be a bit better if it had a bit less running time, a bit less noodling build-up to its narrative collisions, and a bit less heroic Ben Affleck. More on that last in a second–first, it’s good. Half an hour goes by with general BAHst’n color, and the plot & plotters are all worryingly familiar — the team of robbers with one good soul ready to make a change and one bad boy always a short fuse away from exploding; an obsessed investigator; a misbegotten romance; daddy issues. The film seeks to ground itself in a rich Charlestown milieu, but aside from telling us often that Charlestown is a certain kind of town, the film seems uber-generic. But then there’s a scene where the characters POP — where two or three are thrown into a room, and given 5 or 10 minutes to rip into some gloriously juicy, tough dialogue. And these scenes keep recurring — Jeremy Renner (as resident hot-head) is Cagney-good kicking away at Affleck’s resolve; Jon Hamm relishes the chance to be not just a good-looking douche but a good-looking douche with a wicked sense of humor; Pete Postlethwaite plays the nasty Irish boss with real delight, as if it’d never been done before, and; Chris Cooper plays a jailed, taciturn dad, who unlike the others turns the volume knob way down and thus sells the intensity of his scene even better. Great acting — and these scenes are written as if by someone other than the competent hack who stitched together the overarching heist structure and the weak-ass romantic complications. The film’s two big flaws are: a) aforementioned weak-ass romantic complication. The film has two speaking parts for women, and both primarily vie for Affleck’s attention, and respond (e.g., cry, storm, sleep with) solely to him. It’s a textbook illustration of various elements of the Bechdel test, and a real waste of Rebecca Hall (but see below). Second flaw (b) is Affleck, who’s generally good–but that isn’t really what the role needs. Like my complaints about Eastwood in Gran Torino, the problem here is an actor who’s playing to the crowd rather than in the role — Affleck’s character is a real dick. He may be seeking redemption–I can live with that hackneyed center–but the performance ought to clarify how far he is from redemption. Affleck’s quasi-saintly from the start, a good thief rather than a good thief, and then when he’s given some tough-talk it comes off muted. His direction is quite solid, but I wish he wasn’t at the center of the film. Still, this is a decent iteration of ye olde boys ‘n’ crime film.

Hall pops up in Nicole Holofcener’s rather great Please Give. Flaw first: at heart the film is about wealthier, privileged people struggling with real personal issues… and trying to make sense of their privilege, too. But you never escape that narrow frame: rich(ish) people have problems, too. As Catherine Keener’s character sinks into guilt about what she has and others don’t, the film takes pains to illustrate the real generosity *and* the utter cluelessness of her guilt, but too often those being pitied (the old, the disabled, the homeless, the poor) remain primarily devices for better understanding the central privileged characters.

That’s a pretty big slap at the film, but let me say: I loved it. Holofcener’s dialogue is characteristically brutal and forgiving, pitch-perfect in capturing and corrosively scouring the ways people talk at (and around) one another. There’s a running fight between Keener and her 15-year-old daughter that is recognizable but is played with such realism — never any big moments for conflict or for healing, instead an on-going series of bruises and hugs. The film is also structured so precisely you could not notice how much is going on, and how effortlessly the subplots and multiple characters are juggled: Keener and husband Platt at home, a next-door elderly neighbor whose apartment they crave, that elderly woman’s granddaughters and their lives, including a romance subplot for g.d. Rebecca Hall (a mammogram technician at a clinic), a romance for Platt and the other g.d….. and so on. A lot happens, none of it catastrophic or even climactic — all of it catalytic. People change, and don’t, in ways that seem funny, sad, wise. This is a small film about adults with an understated plot, and its humor is more sly than side-splitting, and its tragedies equally mundane. So it could be easy to sidestep how well-crafted it is.

Finally, Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora is an intellectual thriller disguised as an historical epic. Set in Alexandria when things were rotten, we follow the superb Rachel Weisz (as Hypatia) in her teaching of natural philosophy, particularly a running question about the nature of planetary orbits, while the city is wracked by conflicts with the increasingly-vocal and -powerful sect, Christianity. The film is about faith, rationality, gender — and yet it’s also just a gripping three- (or four-)hander, Hypatia arguing and interacting with a Christian slave (an excellent Max Minghella) and two adulatory students (who become quite powerful in the local scene). I hadn’t heard a peep about this film. That’s a shame — it never quite soars, but it’s well-shot, always thrilling, smart… in other words, a lot better than much of what I’ve seen this year.

9 thoughts on “Three good films”

  1. this is one of the few occasions when i’m grateful for this site. i had entirely forgotten about the new holofcenerr film and it wasn’t on my radar screen at all (or on my netflix recommendations screen! you suck, netflix!). thanks, mike.

  2. just finished watching the holofcener film and wow, i found it so perfect that i am not even bothered by mike’s one-flaw criticism. i know people who are a bit like the keener character in that respect (but then, aren’t we all, in our own little way?), and i want to say in their (and my) defense that it is DAMN HARD to step out of the frame of privilege. privilege warps perspective in a unique and rather impossible-to-fight way. holofcener and keener have this fact front and center in their respective writing/directing/acting, so i say, good for them. it’s interesting that keener never gets around to volunteering, and instead keeps skimping on those $200 jeans her miserable daughter really, really needs.

    but then holofcener explores this theme in all of her films — or at least in Friends with Money — and since it’s such an important theme to explore (see the compassion fatigue/guilt that, if you are like me, is particularly tearing at us in these nationally and internationally sorrowful times), i love her for it. it’s a crucial first-world, white, middle class theme, and if we tell ourselves we are not affected by it we are either selfish/clueless or self-deceitful.

    and god i love women directors who are, you know, women directors. these characters are so refreshingly different — especially the men — and so dignified in spite of their nastiness/pettiness/silliness, the film is a delight to watch. finally, i agree with mike on this: “The film is also structured so precisely you could not notice how much is going on, and how effortlessly the subplots and multiple characters are juggled.” i am watching this film and thinking about one of those novels that enchant because nothing much happens yet hearts and souls and moral dilemmas and relationships are plumbed — delicately, noiselessly, undramatically — and changes are explored, not big changes but the changes that make us carry on and deal with the world a little bit better.

    *** SPOILER ***

    it’s really wise and skillful, i think, that holofcener sidesteps the whole issue of the husband’s affair. there are a couple of moments in which you (the educated, canny movie-viewer) expect the shit to hit the fan because he or someone else gives him away. but the shit doesn’t hit anything and holofcener resists the temptation of the grand scene and the grand drama. good stuff.

  3. Agree with you 100% on the spoiler, Gio–the movie isn’t about big moments of crisis, drama, revelation. I like the similar approach to the two sisters dealing with their grandmother; Amanda Peet is “mean”…. but not really, and not in a way she gets punished for, and not in a way that she learns her way out of. That’s kind of who she is, and all of the characters–and the movie–don’t give her a pass but they also don’t pass judgment.

    I watched the (short) season of an HBO comedy, Bored to Death, about three goofy men (Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galiafanaikis, and the sublime Ted Danson)–and Holofcener directed an episode, and you see some of her trademark delight in pungent off-kilter character-driven comedy. The show has one great episode, and the rest of amiable. (…’though it might not be your cup of tea, G.)

  4. I have to say that Agora left me underwhelmed. Its strength was certainly putting Hypatia at the center of the film, an island of rationality in an ocean of insanity. And I am always happy to see Christianity portrayed in a negative light. But too much of this film was made up of scenes of mobs of wild-eyed men rampaging through narrow streets, accompanied by a intrusive, bombasic musical score. I’m as pro-rationality/anti-superstition as the next academic, but the religious leaders and their followers were never more than cartoons in this film; I kept thinking of Life of Brian. At the end of the day, for me, this film never got the balance right between the quietude of Hypatia’s musings on the cosmos, and the blood lust of the mob.

  5. The best that I can say for The Town is that it is watchable (in a predictable, middlebrow, wanna-be-compared-to-the-Seventies kind a way). It was like watching a pastiche of a pastiche. Mike gives it a lot more love than it deserves, and I am clueless as to the love it has received elsewhere and beyond (Oscar nominations?!?). Still, I didn’t fast-forward through parts of it.

  6. i’m with jeff: the town is shit. which would be okay, except it’s shit that thinks it’s smart and weighty. it’s terribly written, all of it. i often complain about actors ACTING, this was full of WRITING. pete postlethwaite emerges from his scenes with his dignity intact (the one bright spot in this film) but everything else is either hackneyed or trite or portentous or all three at once. i knew i should have watched machete instead.

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