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Thursday, October 14, 2010

JUST THE PERFECT KINSHIP: Reviews of the Town and The Social Network

There came a time when many British films, especially those that concerned the working classes, were subtitled so that audience might be able to better understand what was being said. Upon seeing the Town, in which many of the characters are natives of a certain neighborhood in Boston, one has to wonder whether we’ll have to start doing the same thing in the states as there were times when the Boston brogue tended to obscure what was being said in this gritty, urban thriller. In talking with my friend Beriau, I stated I preferred The Town’s approach, authenticity, over the somewhat unskilled accent of say, a Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness; Beriau wasn’t so sure, especially because of that one scene where Jeremy Renner (terrific here as a sociopathic thug) was talking about someone he killed and the reasons for it. It seemed an important scene, but I had no idea what he said. The Town is a story about a group of bank robbers who have great tastes in masks and disguises. The movie is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Aaron Stockard also wrote another Ben Affleck movie, Gone, Baby, Gone, and the two of them seem to have an aptitude for working class grit. Affleck comes off a bit better than Stockard this time round. With The Town, Affleck demonstrates that he is probably a better director than actor, or at least a better director than romantic or heroic lead. The action scenes have a slam bang feel to them (though they often are the sort where no one can ever seem to shoot someone except when it’s convenient for the screenwriter); the neighborhoods have a certain down and dirty bleakness to them; and the romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall has a certain sweetness to it. The Town is never less than entertaining, especially whenever Renner is on screen, stealing the show as only a good sociopath can; he’s the main reason to see it. The rest of the movie is a bit dicey at times. The bank robberies here are too good, too clever, too artistically brilliant to be realistic. They’re enjoyable and fascinating, but one does come away from them thinking they’re the sort of thing one only sees in movies. They also suggest that Affleck’s character’s main problem is not so much his criminal background as a lack of career counseling; this guy shouldn’t be robbing banks, he should be running them. Though Renner is the top of the food acting chain, Affleck and Hall are also affective. But the others didn’t really thrill me all that much. Chris Cooper, as Affleck’s father, isn’t really given anything to do and he proceeds not to do it. Pete Postlethwaite also seems wasted in the role of the gang’s go to guy for money laundering. Jon Hamm is actually rather bland as the FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. This blandness is perfect for his role as the man in the grey flannel suit on Mad Men, but it’s uncertain how far this can take him in the movies. The plot itself also has some issues. Part of it is personal. The older I get, the less empathy I automatically have for crooks and thugs and the authors don’t really give me any strong reason for rooting for Affleck here. I also wasn’t convinced that Postlethwaite had enough power to get Affleck to go on that oldest of clich├ęs of heist movies, the last job. And once Renner kills some policemen, I have no sympathy for Affleck at all; he may not have shot them himself, but he’s equally culpable. At the end, in a voice over, Affleck states that everyone has to pay for what he’s done in life. The only problem is that he hasn’t closely begun to pay. He got away with the money; the affection of the girl, with the possibility of them being together again; and he’s living in what looks like, even if it’s not to my taste, a rather nice house with a great view of a river (this almost feels like an ending come up with in committee or via focus groups). It’s too idyllic to come across as any sort of punishment. I mean, I should have it so lucky if I’m responsible for the death of a couple of cops.


A critic once described the dialog in the movie All About Eve as some of the best staircase wit in the movies. I couldn’t help but think of that remark in watching The Social Network in which the writer Aaron Sorkin gives his actors one witty line after another; in fact, wholesale paragraphs of witty lines, all delivered with the speed and dead on intensity of a SWAT member taking out a bad guy. But isn’t that one of the things movies can be for: to have people say what they should have said, not necessarily what they did say? If only we could all live in the wisecracking world of His Gal Friday. The Social Network seems like one of those movie marriages of writer and director made in heaven. While Sorkin parcels out his flashes of spoken lightning, director David Fincher plays every scene for what it’s worth. In another reference to All About Eve, he grabs you like the dogs nipping at your rear end and doesn’t let go. With this and Zodiac, Fincher seems to be showing a skill at somehow keeping a movie ship afloat even if it has a somewhat unwieldy structure (I’m not using unwieldy here in a negative term; but in The Social Network and Zodiac, so much information has to be covered and dramatized effectively even if the story doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional Hollywood structural guidelines as taught in film schools or as found in various how to books). For some reason Zodiac didn’t connect to the audience (I loved it); maybe because it’s structure was just a bit too unwieldy for general consumption. Here, Sorkin has used a somewhat familiar approach by providing the story with a linking narrative, the various depositions Mark Zuckerberg, the central character, had to participate in, allowing the rest of the story to be filled in with flashbacks. And this probably did help give the story a bit more focus. Zuckerberg is played with ferociousness by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg should probably be flattered. From his various appearances on TV and The Simpsons (where he was portrayed as always speaking through his Facebook account), ferociousness is not his strong point when he talks. In fact, he comes across as the almost stereotypical geek who almost seems to have some trace of Asperger’s syndrome. Eisenberg plays him as a lion who lives his life pacing a cage. And to a certain degree that does seem to be what is driving Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, someone who is trapped in a cage of isolation because he doesn’t have the right pedigree to be invited to the best parties or the right fraternities. He’s the person who hates people not because they look down on him, but because he is not one of them looking down on others. How shallow this psychology is is probably a matter of personal opinion, but it does work. Zuckerberg would do anything to humiliate those who refuse to recognize his worth and is quick to take slights where none are intended (the fact that they aren’t intended is even worse; it means they slighted him without even acknowledging his existence). He created Facebook not just to do something brilliant, but to prove that he’s a superior human being to the upper crust snobs, the Winklevoss twins, who can’t let him in their frat house any farther than the bike room and when they offer him a sandwich, they give him a store bought one ensconced in cellophane. Zuckerberg starts distancing himself from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield with a first rate American accent), pelting him with passive/aggressive insults because Eduardo is invited to join a fraternity. Instead, his alpha male hero becomes Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (almost as sociopathic as Jeremy Renner’s tour de force in The Town), the founder of Napster, who also stuck it to the man. But when Zuckerberg realizes that Parker is too sociopathic, and has a way with partying and women that Zuckerberg could never hope to achieve, he drops him, too. It’s possible that as good as everyone is here, Timberlake actually gives the best performance; or is it something about sociopath’s that we can’t take our eyes off of them. Oddly enough, both Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Ben Affleck’s bank robber have the same ending: isolated, but having basically gotten away with everything. The difference is that I wasn’t really asked to feel that sorry for Zuckerberg. Some, yes, but Sorkin’s attitude seemed to be Zuckerberg dug his own grave. If only those involved in The Town had felt the same way.

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