Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hometown Team

Ben Affleck might have finally discovered his calling. In recent years, Boston has become a haven for crime movies, from 2003's Mystic River to 2006's The Departed to little-seen 2008's What Doesn't Kill You, Hollywood seems to have become entranced by Boston's criminal history and the kinds of stories that affords. Affleck even got in on the act, making his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, overseeing a stellar cast including Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, and little brother Casey Affleck. As director, Affleck drew on his experiences growing up in Boston to tell the story to the best of his ability, using the same instincts that made him such a star in the first place. Just the latest part of his Hollywood reboot after failing for so many years to be taken seriously by movie audiences, it's almost as though retreating to his roots is what finally saved his career.

Don't look don't look don't look, aw crap
When I first saw the trailer for The Town I was spellbound, my mind still processing what it had seen through my eyes. Not only was the film based in my home city, but in areas I was actually familiar with, as filming had taken place mere minutes from my apartment. On top of that, the film looked AMAZING, with another all-star cast and crew stepping up and putting together one of the more anticipated films this year.

Ben's about to put a beat-down on ya
Based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Massachusetts native Chuck Hogan, The Town introduces us to former pro-hockey prospect and lifetime criminal Doug MacRay, played by Ben Affleck, right as he and his crew of ne'erdowells begin their robbery of a bank in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts (in an area, Harvard Square, that I often frequent). After completely catching everyone by surprise, the gang is methodical in their execution of this endeavor; They almost routinely secure the bank employees, destroy the security footage, and calmly disable the guards while getting the bank's manager (Rebecca Hall) to open the safe so they can loot the contents. Afterwards, in a move not normally carried out by their crew, Jem (Jeremy Renner) decides to take the manager hostage to guarantee their escape, and the crew eventually drops her off when they are sure they've gotten away safely. The crew, despite being upset with Jem for taking such an unnecessary risk, believes they've gotten off scot free. The FBI has no leads, the manager didn't see anything to identify them, and they're already getting ready for the next job. But when the crew discovers that Claire, the manager, lives mere blocks away from their native Charlestown homes, Doug volunteers to get close to her to find out whether she knows enough to finger them for the crime.

Let's talk about Lucky Strikes...
What the film probably does best is in the use of it's rich characters. Doug is a lifetime petty criminal who once had a chance to get out of this town of malcontents when he was drafted to the NHL, but frittered away that opportunity. Now he's pretty much stuck in a perpetual rut, looking for a way out of this criminal career before he ends up like his father (Chris Cooper), a permanent resident of federal prison. After his mother left when Doug was a child, he's really had no choice but to follow the example of the few authority figures in his life: his father, lifelong friend Jem (whose family took him in when Doug's father was pinched), and local mobster Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite) who's at least partially based on real-life Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. Jem is also a great character, a sociopathic thug with little to no morals outside of his closest friends who will shoot anyone who gives him or his family (blood or otherwise) a hard time. And many of the others are well thought out deep characters, no mere cliches of personalities.

Stop it! Your name is NOT Serena!
As the two friends, Affleck and Renner have amazing chemistry. Though Affleck would probably be run out of town if he couldn't pull off a local accent, but he's also charming and disarming as Doug, who falls head over heels for his target and wants more than ever to get out of this livelihood. Renner is the real prize, however, a local with no ambitions to leave his current situation, a thug of the highest order who seems to get a rush out of a successful heist. What's best about the character is his obvious concern for Doug, who he practically considers a brother. It allows you to connect and feel sympathetic with this character, who otherwise might be a simple bad guy. Speaking of bad guys, the obvious villains in this drama are the FBI investigating the string of bank and armored car heists carried out by this crew. Out in front is Special Agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm), who acts as the main antagonist to Doug's potential freedom. Hamm is quite engaging here, and here manages to maintain a relative sloppiness in comparison to his Mad Men character. There's not so much grace to Frawley, with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow and a hangdog look to his eyes that suggests years of futility and frustration. He's one surprise in the cast based on his limited work elsewhere, the other is Blake Lively as Jem's sister, an oxy-addicted single mother stuck in Charlestown and also with romantic aspirations with Doug. This is no Gossip Girl variation, she plays a character different from any she's played before, and does it WELL, which is probably more than anyone expected of her. Cooper is good, though his role is limited to a couple of small scenes. His character is based on the no-snitch people you read about, the ones who refuse to rat out their buddies to avoid jail time. Hall is good but it's sad to think that her role is almost nonessential come the second act of the film. She does play a part, but the story becomes more a three-way Doug-Jem-Frawley battle for supremacy and while Hall's character is supposed to be in the middle, it doesn't always feel that way. She does do a good job conveying the psychological side of someone who's survived mental trauma, and she's so many light years ahead of her performance in the largely overrated Vicky Christina Barcelona that the London actress finally seems to be making a name for herself as a legitimate actress.

Is another Oscar nomination far in this man's future?
The story is rife with thrills and suspense. There's no real MYSTERY to this tale, only to how Doug will finally escape Charlestown and the same fate as his father. It is very compelling, though, as you find yourself rooting for Doug to not get caught, to be with Claire, to escape Frawley and Jem and Fergie and the whole mess that comes with the territory. On top of that, as a Boston resident I was thrilled with every scene where I recognized the locale from my own strolls down these streets. Any local must feel something different when a film is shot and based in Boston, as sometimes based in Boston means shot in Toronto. But the Boston location means so much more to me, and means I'm even more into what's happening perhaps than people who don't live here, or haven't grown up here. It's simply a thrill and privilege to think my city contributed in some way to this story being told.

"Yeah, I've been knocking over banks for years."
The Town, despite being poorly-named, is an amazing film with great characters holding the story together. Perfectly captured by one of Boston's own, it's one of the best Boston-based films. More down to earth than The Departed and with better characters than Gone Baby Gone, The Town is subtle, nuanced, smart, edgy, and thrilling, and totally deserving to be my new #3 for the 2010. After all these years, Affleck has learned how to do good, and he came home to do it. He makes this town proud.
Yeah, you don't want to be on their bad side

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