“Gone Baby Gone is pretty damn good too, even if it is directed by Ben Affleck”
One should never quote oneself, I’m sure somebody once said that but appreciating the implied irony, decided to let their wisdom remain anonymous, uncredited and therefore a little more post-modern. The above words are the closing lines from last week’s article, which was titled Glory Days, Glory Bound or Gone Baby Gone? The article pondered the death of public protest while considering films linked one way or another to the 60s-folk music & peace protest movement. I added the phrase ‘gone baby gone’ to the article’s title because it fit the mood I was in; as far as the United States is concerned I think that ship has long since sailed and is therefore ‘gone baby gone’. However, my wife pulled me up on the closing lines; “you liked that movie,” she said, “and you thought Affleck did a really good job directing it, so why the smart ass line at his expense?”
Why? Because at the time it was, and still is, absolutely true. Gone Baby Gone was released in 2007. The year before that, Affleck had appeared in Smokin’ Aces, Hollywoodland, and, Clerks II; all good movies that I really enjoyed but small pieces that flew steadily under most radars. Prior to that, Affleck had gone on a run of Surviving Christmas, Jersey Girl, Paycheck, Daredevil, Gigli, and that most popular of theme-park rides, the J-Lo boyfriend experience, not to mention earlier outings in Pearl Harbour, Bounce, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, need I go on. Most of them big paydays and each one a turkey big enough to feed any number of starved pilgrims, so when Affleck made Gone Baby Gone in 2006-2007, he was basically running on fumes.
He went back to what had first set him on the road to success, fruit cups and writing a good screenplay, and from that he collected the funds to make his film but, perhaps no longer confident in his relationship with the viewing public, cast his brother Casey in the lead role. Gone Baby Gone is well adapted (by Affleck) from its source novel and skillfully made (by Affleck) thanks to an excellent cast given room to move and breathe within their complex roles.
All of which bought back a little respect for Ben and the idea that maybe there was more to him than a jawline and an odd atttraction for girls called Jennifer; but Gone Baby Gone was just one movie, one also considered a slam dunk due to the strength of Dennis Lehane’s source novel. Popular opinion was that nobody, not even Affleck, could mess up with material this good; just sit back and let the actors get on with it, the rest would fall into place. And so it did, unless you were watching Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of that other popular Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island. Now I am not about to take a free pot at one of the fatted cows of modern cinema but let me at least say this. The first time I saw the trailer for Shutter Island I twigged the ‘twist’ within 10 seconds; without seeing the movie, without reading the book, without even knowing there was a twist.
I proceeded to quickly read the book before seeing the movie and loved it, Dennis Lehane’s is a talent worth queuing for but the twist was of course already ruined because I had seen that stupid trailer. My wife also read Shutter Island, just in time for the movie to hit the screens, and she loved the book too. Then we saw the movie, and at times I almost laughed, in case I might cry. Everything down to the colour palette screamed ‘psychological twist at the end folks’, and if that is not bad enough, the direction of DiCaprio’s sidekick, Mark Ruffalo, was so telegraphed that even Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872) got the hint.
Scorsese has made some great movies, especially when Paul Schrader does the writing for him, but he is not without his mis-steps (New York, New York, The Colour of Money, Cape Fear). Showy lead characters often paper over these movies’ deficiencies (Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Colour of Money, De Niro in Cape Fear, Day Lewis in Gangs of New York) but when a ‘lesser’ Scorsese movie calls for a quieter, more nuanced performance (as per the always excellent Di Caprio in Shutter Island) we begin to appreciate the stress fractures that appear at the edges and in the shadows. But as I said, this is not to bash the inimitable Marty, more to demonstrate that Affleck could easily have made a mess of Gone Baby Gone, but didn’t. So kudos to Ben.
Then last Wednesday, in one of those funny little twists of timing, I arrived at Affleck’s next directorial offering, The Town. And boy was this an odd experience. First off, let me say that The Town was one of the more popular screenings at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and that reviews have been almost universally positive if not gushing. We missed The Town’s run at the multiplexes but were delighted to see it advertised in our local cinema, The Fox. A word about The Fox for a moment. Located less than 15 minutes walk from our house, the Fox is essentially an arthouse, Mom & Pop, labour of love one screen cinema that shows blockbusters that have finished their run elsewhere, European – foreign language films that are shunned by multiplexes, and smaller indie movies and seasonal programmes such as horror marathons at Halloween or great summer programs like the ‘best of the 80s’. So when The Town was advertised for 1:30 last Wednesday afternoon I realized that if I really wanted to see it, and this did represent my last chance before DVD, I would have to go to the ‘Movies for Mommies’ screening.
‘Movies for Mommies’ does exactly what it says on the tin. It screens a movie early in the afternoon for mommies who are otherwise stuck at home with baby. There are changing facilities for poopy diapers, the lights do not dim to full darkness and the volume is slightly reduced to protect little ears and delicate ear drums. I had never before attended a ‘Movies for Mommies’ screening but my wife and I thought what the hell, we want to see this movie and here is an opportunity for a new experience to boot.
First off; ‘Movies for Mommies’ is not a local thing, it’s a nationwide sponsored event with websites, surveys, chatrooms, the works. Secondly, it cost me more than usual to see this movie. Usually, Fox membership gets you into a movie for seven bucks (unheard of these days) but this one cost me $9.50 ‘cos I’m not a member of ‘Movies for Mommies’. Once inside I settled into my seat and a few things struck me; women were speaking to each other openly and freely across seats, rows and aisles, even if meeting for the first time and mostly because of the social lubrication provided by the tiny bundles of pooping, parping, perfection plopped perkily on their knees (I resisted the word patellae here). These were not young children at the movies with Mommy, these were babies and infants and that’s why I think I felt suspect and out of place. I myself had no real reason to be there, who comes to a screening like this to see the film? My heart sank as I settled down for two hours of crying, chatting, tooting and toxic fumes but then the strangest thing happened. The movie started, the babies cooed and gurgled but the mommies watched the movie, and so did I. I couldn’t care less about the gurgling and crying because, well, they couldn’t help it, they’re frickin’ babies. If a man behind me had started talking on his phone I wouldn’t have shushed him, such was the mollification wafting through the room. In addition, because of the south Boston setting for The Town and Affleck’s meticulous attention to accent and intonation (as well as the slightly reduced volume) significant parts of the dialogue were rendered meaningless. Guess what? So what. This is not My Dinner With Andre people, so I got over myself and enjoyed the movie as well as the experience. And in so doing I learned two things. One, The Town is a pretty good film. Two, babies are mollified by gunfire; in the same way that my masculine multiplex aggression was calmed by their dribbling dulcet tones, the first moment of complete silence came after a period of sustained gunfire, and the silence lasted for ages. I have heard many solutions for soothing a screaming babe but removing the silencer is a new one. I’m not telling y’all how to live your lives or shit, I’m just planting seeds folks.
And let this be my final seed for the week. The Town, first and foremost, is a pretty good film. It is well written, well acted, and yes, well made. The precision of the opening scene bank robbery is meticulously planned and precisely executed by both director and fictional protagonists. It puts you in mind of those fabulous scenes in Heat where four well prepared men can take down twenty or more with the right training and a quick readiness to flip the switch to kill should circumstances call for it. The opening scene of The Dark Knight, where the clown-faced bank robbers waltz through the job like the result is already decided, gives off this same feeling of cold, calculated, beautiful precision like the hunting of doomed prey in a nature documentary. Affleck spent a lot of his childhood in Boston, though not in the tough townie parts he so lovingly depicts in Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, so his attention to detail is mostly admirable but also a little affectatious, and this is where we should all slow down and get a little perspective. The film itself is not without its missteps and when these are taken they are usually in Ben’s shoes. Placing himself in the lead role, he has obviously overcome the inferiority complex that arose circa 2003-2004, but with the vanquishing of one complex can come the eruption of another.
In The Town, we are supposed to believe that a traumatised woman who breaks down in the laundromat will cheerfully pass the rest of the day in multiple locations around town with the handsome stranger who approaches her and asks her why she is crying. Think about it for a minute when you watch the film, then think about the real world, after all this film is praised for its authenticity. Later, the unravelling of a job is not down to the recklessness of an unreliable member of the group but instead comes from an on again – off again fuck buddy who can’t handle being dumped once too often; no matter how wronged they may be, Townies do not talk to the cops, that was the entire premise of Gone Baby Gone which was set amongst the exact same people in the exact same neighbourhoods. On such fevered egos was many a shaky house built; Ben is once again getting above his station and a ten second work-out scene shows Ben in all his lean but muscled glory; in other words, ‘I might be a Dad but I’m still a dude; bending the truth and breaking the hearts’. All of which leaves me thinking that with every miraculous recovery comes the born again bullshit but in this case the bullshit needs to be born out. Ben Affleck may indeed be reborn but he is no Jason Bourne.
The Town is a good movie, a well made piece of diverting entertainment, even if it is directed by Ben Affleck, but in case you think I am being too harsh I will leave you with these two thoughts. First, almost all reviews have been favourable but every last one has made multiple references to Heat, this is no accident. Second; the only really bad review I have so far read was in The Guardian which described a scene in which Affleck and Jeremy Renner, disguised as police officers (see above), ‘come striding down the corridor in their smoked sunglasses and jaunty caps, with their legs apart and their shoulders swinging, like a pair of strippers en route to a hen night.’ Words that are devastating but ring absolutely true, he is still playing to all the girls who wouldn’t love him when he was chubby. Ben Affleck has now directed two good films but so too has George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and, Good Night and Good Luck). Methinks there is still room in Ben’s swagger for a little less ass and a little more class. Like many things, myself included, I expect him to get better with age. I will know when that time has arrived because I will be miraculously cured of my evenifitis.