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Entries in Ben Affleck (2)

Friday
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep172010

The Town

A few short years ago, hating Ben Affleck was the cool thing to do. Gigli, Daredevil and an astoundingly bad performance in Pearl Harbor all provided enough ammunition for Affleck haters to spread their contempt for the man. But in 2007, he released his first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, an intense, dramatic and wonderful little gem that should have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Although questions remained about his talent in front of the camera, he showed he was more than capable behind it. Now three years later he releases his sophomore effort, The Town, which, though flawed, should dispel any remaining doubt.

The film takes place in Boston, the bank robbery capital of America (at least according to the opening text). Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is one of the reasons why. Along with his partners James (Jeremy Renner), Desmond (Owen Burke) and Albert (played by rapper Slaine), Doug is a professional thief and he is on his way to rob a bank. Although he hopes to do it swiftly and safely, they run into a snag and are forced to take a hostage named Claire (Rebecca Hall). After they get away, they let her go thinking she saw nothing, but as Doug gets closer to her, eventually developing a romantic relationship, he learns that she has seen more than she lets on. To make matters worse, local FBI agent Adam (Jon Hamm) is on their trail and is doing everything he can to bring them down.

It is now evident. Ben Affleck is multi-talented. He can write, he can act and he can direct and he gives a terrific performance here while honing his craft behind the camera. Direction wise, The Town is a step up from Gone Baby Gone, but its effect is, unfortunately, a bit flat. Its story isn’t as interesting—coming off as a bit derivative of other heist movies—while the thought provoking, morally ambiguous ending of Gone Baby Gone is replaced with a silly, overly dramatic one. At over two hours, The Town runs out of steam and by the time the out-of-place ending arrives you’ll find yourself slightly disappointed.

That, however, is not an indication of its overall quality. It’s not one of the best movies of the year as many will hope, but it’s still solid, anchored by a stellar cast and fluid writing. While the pacing is a bit off, awkwardly transitioning from heavy laden scenes of dialogue to slam bang action scenes, it’s that dialogue that keeps it afloat. The authentic exchanges between the characters coupled with spot on Boston dialects from the actors makes for an engaging experience. The dialogue is well written and believable and is hampered only by a few too many long, overwrought speeches on the characters’ seemingly irrelevant histories.

In fact, only one of those history speeches ever plays a major part in the movie, and even then its inclusion can be argued. A scene partway through shows Doug as he goes to visit his father Stephen (Chris Cooper), who is serving a life sentence for executing two people. Some may relate this scene to the opening text that explains how the business of felons is passed down through generations, but it felt like filler to me. It’s an emotional scene where you sense that Doug is disappointed in his father, as if Doug is a perfect example of an upstanding citizen.

And that may be the film’s biggest problem. These are bad men. There have been movies that depict bad men while still giving the viewer something to latch onto, but The Town isn't among them. There’s no reason to care for them or fear for their plight. They are established almost as antiheroes, but they don’t do enough good to warrant that label. Still, even with all of that taken into consideration, The Town is a worthy movie, even if it does fail to realize its own potential.

The Town receives 3.5/5