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The Weekly Round Up (Wed. Oct. 6th)

I got around to seeing The Town just over two weeks ago, but didn’t get a chance to start writing about it until this week.  This week’s movies include: The Town (2010); a 1980s drug-pic starring Michael J. Fox, Bright Lights, Big City (1988); a cutesy teen comedy, Some Kind of Wonderful (1987); and a gem of an indie film starring Peter Dinklage as a train-obsessed dwarf, The Station Agent (2003).

In other news, I checked out The Social Network on Monday night, and whoo boy, was that a hell of a ride.  It moves at the speed of a great thriller and showcases some really excellent performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield.  I’ll be jotting a few paragraphs about it soon.   Anyway, here’s the Weekly Round Up:

The Town (2010)

2010 has been one of the worst years in recent memory for movies and I can only hope that changes in the next several months with releases like Money Never Sleeps, a Coen Brothers interpretation of True Grit and The Social Network.  I find myself, for the first time since Inception, actually excited to go to a movie theatre again.  I’ve viewed three films–costly at $9 a pop with my expired college ID–on the big screen thus far in 2010: Crazy Heart, a 2009 flick which I absolutely adored; Inception, a killer mind-fuck that you couldn‘t possibly hate; and The Town.  All said, The Town’s been the weakest yet.  Of course, that doesn’t make it bad at all.  In fact, it’s quite good.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was one of the most interesting movies of 2007.  I adored it.  The Town is not in that league (the moral issues it raises are hardly as engrossing) though it is a very good crime drama, reminding us of great films like Michael Mann’s Heat or Scorsese’s The Departed.  The pic centers on a group of four guys who are, simply, bank robbers in a part of Boston where crime is passed down from father to son like a family Laundromat. As these men go through several robberies, they’re chased by FBI agent Adam Crawley, very well played by Jon Hamm and his crew.  Jeremy Renner, who was fabulous in 2009’s The Hurt Locker, plays a somewhat different sort of guy than he did in that pic; he’s a hothead who’s likely to shoot someone dead or take someone hostage during any robbery just out of pure hostility.

Strengths first.  The shootouts in The Town are spectacularly shot, especially the final one, and the car chase that occurs midway through is organically worked into the plot so that it doesn’t feel like something thrown in to distract us from the fact that the movie‘s run dry of ideas.  What’s even better is that it uses run-of-the-mill squad cars and a not-so-glamorous getaway vehicle to make things all the more intense.  It’s one of the best, if not the best, car chase sequences since To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and has a phenomenal last shot that’s certain to give everyone a big laugh.

If the final shooting spree in The Town is excellent, the one near the beginning isn’t quite as good.  The opening scene is strangely muddled–no doubt we‘re supposed to be watching something excessively loud and chaotic, but the use of hand-held cameras in the first few moments is very distracting.  Some of my friends really disagreed with me on this point, but I never got a firm grasp on what the fuck was actually happening.

While Affleck’s direction and Robert Elswit’s cinematography are spot on in nearly ever scene (the use of Steadicam is fabulous), the film suffers mostly because of several flaws in the screenplay.  That’s not to say the whole thing is a failure, but we end up watching a couple of scenes and checking our watches.  Consider most of the scenes between Affleck and Rebecca Hall, the bank manager Renner’s character took hostage during a robbery gone completely awry.  The premise is great–Affleck goes to sweet-talk the woman after the robbery, and both end up falling deeply in love.  Yet, the execution is just adequate.  I didn’t feel wrapped up in the relationship the way I should’ve.  While Hall has been very good (not to mention beautiful) in smaller roles (Frost/Nixon) and lead roles (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) alike, and she is decent here, it’s the writing that does her a serious disservice, making her more a distraction than a serious player.  Some scenes, with or without Hall, are clunky, and meander without enough direction from the script.

In a movie with lesser actors, things might not have played out quite as well as they do here.  But in The Town, we’re watching a group of class-A actors put on an amazing show.  There’s a fierce bond of loyalty between the men in this picture, especially between Affleck and Renner, and the actors make that very clear.  Even if there are some loose ends, they generally become afterthoughts by the end of Affleck’s second outing.

For a crime drama, The Town has a surprising amount of humor, too.  You’ll catch yourself laughing at some of Jeremy Renner’s over-the-top antics from time to time, in between the blazing guns and screeching tires.  It also boasts excellent performances, most notably from Affleck, Hamm and Blake Lively.  Hamm, best known for his role as Don Draper on the TV series “Mad Men,” is all he’s asked to be–competent, occasionally profane, and, in some ways, every bit as crooked (and intelligent) as the criminals he’s chasing.  Lively, who is an absolutely gorgeous actress with limited range, puts on a slutty outfit, deals drugs, and plays the hell out of a smaller part that I initially thought she would play poorly.  As for Affleck, let’s put it this way: we forgive him his sins from Gigli and Bounce.  Definitely give this one a shot.  It’s better than 95% of the shit in multiplexes this year.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

Bright Lights, Big City, a film about the party scene in Manhattan during the drug-crazed 1980s, sounds like a typical movie glamorizing drug abuse.

It isn’t.

It’s not a perfect interpretation of Jay McInerney’s novel of the same name, and it’s ending is far too perfunctory, but for much of it’s running length, it’s an interesting and depressing portrait of a good mind cluttered by the endless desire for booze and cocaine.

In the first moments there’s a certain awesomeness to the way protagonist Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) stays out all night, does a ton of coke, dances to great tunes with beautiful, stick-figure women and trades drug lingo with his buddy Tad (Kiefer Sutherland).  We regard him conversing and snorting with shallow twenty-somethings, models and aspiring actresses and daughters of oil tycoons.  We watch as he hails a cab drunk and coked up at 4:30 on a Thursday morning (the sun is barely rising) knowing he should be in the office in less than five hours.

Then, we realize our initial interpretation was wrong when we see him arrive at work with his sunglasses still perched on his nose, trying desperately to push through a hungover day at a New Yorker-esque magazine, making almost inaudible small talk with the three people who work in his cramped office space.  The fact that he can knot his ties every morning should be, to the sober audience, a complete mystery.

His semi-yuppie reality, fueled by late-night parties and coke binges, is becoming impossible to sustain.  He’s unbearably bad at his job as a fact checker–so bad, in fact, that he should’ve been fired weeks before for showing up to work late and rolling to the bathroom to audibly do drugs shortly thereafter.

And when we find out he used to be married, we’re surprised.  His ex-wife, played in glimpses by Phoebe Cates, decided to stay in Paris after a modeling shoot and never came home.

When we find out about Jamie’s mother, played very well in a bit part by Dianne Wiest, and her struggle with cancer, we understand his pain just a little bit more.

With these troubles plaguing his every waking moment, his entire existence has become a series of self-destructive benders.  We watch in the opening scenes as he sits at a bar, staring at the mirror behind the bartender’s back.  And when Jamie orders another double vodka, its Fox’s cheery voice we hear, but its coupled with the weary eyes of a latter day Bogart.

Fox’s performance is, for the most of the film, some kind of revelation.  It’s gritty and entertaining and often very funny.  After watching MJF sail through Back to the Future effortlessly and struggle through awful ‘80s pics like The Story of My Success, it was refreshing to watch him take a chance with this role.  Watching the usually gregarious Fox in this manner, as he wakes up every morning to the sound of a buzzing telephone on top of his covers, drenched in sweat, is extremely unsettling.  

If Fox’s performance is the pic’s major strength, the film’s lack of other three-dimensional characters for him to play off of is it’s weakness.  His boss is a chilly witch with no redeeming qualities, John Houseman plays a role that has absolutely no bearing on the script, and Jamie’s wife, Amanda, is barely a character at all.

While we see his ex-wife in flashbacks, we get no hint as to why they’re together.  The back half of the movie addresses the question of his wife with more language, but nothing substantive emerges.  I think director James Bridges made this choice consciously, though it only partially works–at one moment we see, in flashbacks, that they’re in love.  Five minutes later, she’s in Paris.  Then, she’s back in New York, and we’ve barely heard her speak three lines.

We learn about Amanda mostly through Fox‘s voiceovers and dialogue, which are only intermittently informative.  In a vastly entertaining drunken monologue with an older woman (Swoozie Kurtz) from his department, Fox spills his guts: how he met his wife, what attracted them to each other, why she left.  He parades around the room with a bottle of red wine constantly in hand, pouring glass after glass, talking rapidly without clear direction. We know less than Jamie does about his own existence, but he doesn’t seem to know much either, and that keeps our eyes glued to the screen.

Perhaps that is the point–Jamie is utterly confused as to why he’s married, why he lives in Manhattan, and we’re supposed to feel about the same.

While these moments stick in the memory, some of the later scenes are poorly handled.  Besides one hilarious slapstick scene between Jamie, Tad and a rodent, the film ends on a shallow note.  Fox turns against his best friend with little warning or reason, almost seeming to blame his drug addiction on the man who‘s always been there for him.  I want to say this is normal behavior for a cocaine addict who wants desperately to go straight, but the whole event, at a ritzy Manhattan loft no less, feels contrived.

Jamie’s self-righteousness near the end contrasts lamely with his dark sense of humor in the earlier sequences.  Even the semblance of clarity he displayed in boozy voiceovers early on is way more interesting.

In fact, when his character softens in the last fifteen minutes, we lose sight of a great performance.  I felt like I was watching Marty McFly kick drugs.  Though Fox is a great actor, and he can read earnest dialogue like no one’s business, his charm works against him when the film softens in the final fifteen minutes.

Recently, I actually read Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City.   It is a deeply scary, funny and moving book.  Though the movie ends similarly to the book, it fails to capture any of the same desperation in the final scenes.  Again, the word earnest comes to mind.  McInerney’s work, even with a hopeful ending, is hard-edged and a tad sickening.  Bridges’ film misses the mark in the final scenes, and his movie suffers as a result.

Still, Bright Lights, Big City is worth viewing for Fox’s performance, and for it’s mostly stark presentation of a corrupted American Dream in 1980s Manhattan.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

I never lose faith in the movies, and I think that’s why I gave Some Kind of Wonderful a shot.  On paper, this movie looked like it’d be an extraordinarily dull teen comedy.

Though it is in some ways a very cliché flick, I was never bored by the film or any of the performances in it.  It was quite a pleasant surprise.

Written by John Hughes, obviously one of my favorite screenwriters/directors, and helmed by Howard Deutch, who isn’t exactly known for his filmmaking prowess, this is a sweet, touching, funny movie.  The writing, for the most part, is good–it isn’t Hughes best work, and his script doesn’t top anything from Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club.

But at least we realize about five minutes into the pic we’re looking at flesh-and-blood characters with interesting romantic issues.  The ending, while it’s fairytale to the max, feels mostly earned (i.e., not phony).

Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) is your standard kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  He works as an auto mechanic part-time and his dad (John Ashton, in a very good performance) sells tires for a living.  His family is cookie-cutter blue collar, with arguing siblings, dinners at the kitchen table at 5:30 every night and constant dissonance between father and son.  His old man only dreams of the day when his son will take advantage of opportunities he never had and get a business degree.  Keith, because convention demands it, is a painter, and his best friend is the tomboy-ish character Watts, played phenomenally by Mary Stuart Masterson.

While it’s clear from frame one that Watts and Keith really belong together because they’re such interesting, attractive outsiders, Keith still pines for the most popular girl in school, Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson).  He envisions that she’s “different” than all the other pretty girls and that she’ll eventually come to her senses, dump her boyfriend, a slimy, cheating prick, and fall for him.

One good thing about any film with Hughes’ name on it is that, even if point A and point B are of no surprise, the journey between both poles is almost always interesting.  Hughes and Deutch manage, in SKOW, to populate the story with three interesting main players and a few smaller characters that add welcome comic relief.

Stoltz is a little too good looking to convincingly embody the “outsider artist“ type, but he plays the part very well, especially in a scene where he argues with his father over their divergent expectations. (He wants to be an artist, his father wants him to get the typical four-year degree.  You may scream “cliche,” but I assure this is as true-to-life as movie arguments come.)

Lea Thompson, who played Marty McFly’s mother/love interest in Back to the Future and Tom Cruise’s girlfriend in All The Right Moves, handles her part with a delicacy that we don’t often see from actresses playing “popular” girls.  She’s as intelligent and almost as devoid of self confidence as someone like Keith, which makes their scenes together more compelling.  What’s nice is that she hardly ever seems snobby or irritated with Keith–just mildly scared of what her friends will think of her if she dates such a strange guy.

Masterson, who steals the pic in every scene with her beauty and wit, is playing a “type,” but never lets her character get boring, up until the bitter end when she chauffeurs Keith and Amanda on a date.  In one teary scene, she tells him point-blank about how much she cares about him and how naïve he is for chasing the most popular girl in school.  Stoltz, who could be completely shallow in this part, simply regards her sadly, torn between wanting the beautiful girl and staying true to his (also beautiful) friend.

Her work in SKOW is unmatched by the other actors.  She’s so cute that, when watching her tear up, you feel almost as bad as that one time you made your girlfriend cry back in 11th grade.

When Keith and Amanda finally go out, the conversations they have aren’t banal they way we‘re used to.  Hughes shows his skill as a screenwriter once again, leaving us thinking “that’s exactly how that scene would’ve turned out in real life.”  They argue, laugh, argue, come to a series of agreements.  The film doesn’t insist on taking the easy way out, showing how the “artist” is not always the morally superior character and that he cannot always teach the popular girl how to find herself.  She’s self-aware and more than capable of coming to her own conclusions about her personality.  This allows both teens in the pic to find some common ground in their conversations, and gives the audience a sense that we’re watching intelligent people on the screen, not just ookie-cutter drones.

If there is a weakness with the picture, it‘s that we cannot understand how Keith would ever be attracted to Amanda when Watts is cleary way awesome-er.  While it takes us until the final 20 minutes to get to know Thompson’s character better, we meet Watts, the cigarette smoking, drumming tomboy right off the bat and watch her react emotionally to Keith‘s obsessive talking about Amanda.  Watts is so adorable and likable that it’s hard to believe someone as intelligent as Keith would ignore her beauty for so long.  Yet, when they do end up together, it’s transcendent.  His quote at this point is second-to-none.

Some Kind of Wonderful isn’t a groundbreaking movie, but it toys with the ’80s teen formula enough to make it a worthwhile watch.   I’ve seen my share of ‘80s movies and have even really dug a lot of bad ones.  Yet, John Hughes’ movies seem different in many ways.  He casts good actors in lead parts, populates his films with funny secondary characters and writes dialogue that doesn’t sound like it came off the rom-com assembly line. This is about all we can ask from a teen film director, and seeing how there have been a dearth of good movies about high-schoolers since Superbad (2007), SKOW is something to savor, if only for 94 minutes.

The Station Agent (2003)

The Station Agent stars Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson in three standout performances.  Dinklage, a dwarf, plays a guy (named Finbar McBride) obsessed with trains–he’s not just into fucking around with model trains, but literally lives right near the train tracks in a small town staring at locomotives pass by several times a day.  He knows everything there is to know about trains to the point of gross obsession.  Joe (Cannavale) owns a food cart in town that attracts the bare minimum of customers.  And Olivia (Clarkson) is an artist and recent divorcee torn up over the loss of her son.

What I liked most about the film, besides Dinklage’s performance, is the way it fooled me in the opening scenes.  I was prepared for a hyper self-conscious exercise where each person’s quirky background and career (Olivia makes weird art, Finbar watches trains endlessly, Joe owns a food cart in a practically abandoned Jersey town) would drive the plot of the movie.  People would exchange witticisms and end up in bed together, right?  The dwarf would find love with the weird artist woman, right?

My initial reservations about this film were proven wrong almost immediately.  The Station Agent isn’t cutesy in the slightest.  While each character is epically bizarre, their obsessions don’t come to define them.  They serve as building blocks.  I got extremely caught up in the tentative friendship these characters forged and listened intently to all of their conversations.  I also liked that the movie didn’t bore me with needless drama.  Even if the characters all seem to “go off the rails” (lol) at one point or another, the script always hints at exactly why these things are happening.  It doesn’t bombard us with contrivance.

Then again, there are touching, but hysterically funny scenes.  In one short scene, Finbar and Joe drive his food cart along a train track chasing a steam engine at rapid speeds like storm chasers.  They giggle manically the whole time, and when I watched this, I couldn’t shake the grin from my face.  Whenever Joe speaks, in fact, we’re laughing–he’s such a supremely gregarious, likeable person.

But, even when the movie‘s funny, few scenes are played strictly for laughs.  It is ultimately about lonely people who have problems relating to anyone else, but somehow find comfort in each other‘s company.  Even as Finbar tries to get everyone to leave him alone, we understand he is really looking for companionship.  While Finbar is a textbook example of an introvert, Joe is just as lonely, though he’s outgoing, always talking, almost looking to fill up the emptiness of his life with constant conversation.  Clarkson’s wonderful performance as Olivia is essential to the movie as well, not necessarily as a love interest for either male character, but as a person who, try as she may to remain a loner, needs both men very much.  It’s not often we see three strange, somewhat depressed characters share the screen and do it so engagingly and humorously.

The film has a host of supporting characters, but none of them much matter in the face of these three talented actors.  Most of them (with perhaps one exception) serve antagonistic purposes–they make fun of Joe for hanging out with the weird dwarf in town, and they regularly mock Finbar when he enters the local bar.  In one scene near the end, perhaps the finest in the movie, Dinklage, feeling super-depressed, enters a saloon, drinks several shots and regards the faces in the crowd around him.  They seem cowardly compared to him, even as they regard him with these “superior” looks of pity and scorn.

Then again, what do you say to a dwarf drinking alone?  I thought the same thing myself: how would I behave in this situation?  Would I be wrong to stare or laugh?  Would I even be able to turn away?  Half of the characters seem to be a heartbeat from laughing at him while the others view him as a freak of nature, glancing back and forth between their bourbons and his tiny stature, trying desperately not to stare.  Though no one says a word to him, his very vocal reaction to the tangibly uncomfortable situation is intense and one-hundred percent on-point.

While Dinklage and Clarkson play characters with evident emotional issues, Cannavale helps provide a center to The Station Agent as a man who hurts inside, but constantly puts on a happy face.  Out of the three, he is the sanest and the most willing to reach out to these people.  Like Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club (a stretch, I know), he is alienated, but strangely a catalyst for important human interaction.

And best of all, after watching the picture, I felt caught up in these peoples’ lives and their struggles.  I was happy that director Thomas McCarthy didn’t use these people’s sad backgrounds as a central plot point, but rather as the basis for friendship, or at least relieve from isolation.

The Station Agent is a warm and funny movie that receives my highest praises.  It’s terrible to watch all the shitty pictures in the last couple of years capture the “hearts” (and paychecks) of so many people, while this pic has gone generally unnoticed for almost a decade.  As Roger Ebert noted in his review of another great movie, High Fidelity (2000), “movies this…likeable hardly ever get made…I had the feeling I could walk out of the theatre and meet the same people on the street–and want to.” That’s well said, not just about High Fidelity‘s characters, but about The Station Agent‘s as well.  I’d gladly spend a day, a week or a month with people like Finbar, Joe and Olivia, even in a ho-hum New Jersey town.

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