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.