(Crime thiller, R, 124 minutes)
"The Town" may not have quite the emotional heft of "Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck's startlingly assured 2007 directing debut. What it has instead, though, is a greater technical complexity, a larger scope, and the promise of a director who's well on his way to establishing a distinctive vision and voice.
Affleck also has a way with his actors - unsurprising, having been one himself for so long and not always getting the credit he deserves - and he's once again attracted some tremendous talent: Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm and Chris Cooper, who leaves his mark in just one powerful scene. Even Blake Lively is surprisingly good, playing against type as a damaged single mom.
But besides directing and co-writing the script with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck himself is at the center of the action in front of the camera, starring as the leader of a Boston bank-heist crew and giving the best leading performance of his career. (Yes, of course everyone enjoyed "Chasing Amy," but previously he'd stood out best as a supporting player in films like "Hollywoodland," "Extract," "Boiler Room" and "Shakespeare in Love.")
And so here he is, in a location he knows well surrounded by actors at the top of their game, making a movie that, like "Gone Baby Gone," oozes authenticity. Locals will split hairs, since Affleck is from Cambridge and the movie takes place in Charlestown - and there's even a thrillingly staged police chase on the narrow streets of the North End, not exactly the easiest place to flee quickly - but it's that kind of insularity that's crucial to the film's themes of secrecy and loyalty. And yes, everyone gets the accent right, something that can often go so horribly wrong in a movie set in New England.
Based on the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan, "The Town" focuses on a group of lifelong friends living in Charlestown, just across the Zakim Bridge from Boston. Having grown up poor amid the impenetrable cycle of crime and drugs, they haven't got much going for them - except their meticulous ability to rob banks and armored cars and get away clean. Affleck is their leader, Doug MacRay, whose father (Cooper) was a pretty legendary criminal in the neighborhood himself before being sent to prison for life.
Doug had a chance to leave Charlestown and forge a better future as a professional hockey player, but his temper cost him his big break. Now, along with his best friend Jem (Renner) and a couple of other guys, he pulls off these perfectly timed heists for the local crime boss, a surly Irish florist played by the always-welcome character actor Pete Postlethwaite.
During their latest crime, the volatile Jem takes a hostage of bank manager Claire Keesey (Hall), but when they realize later that she lives just a few blocks away in Charlestown, they check up on her to determine whether she might have seen anything. Doug treats her with unexpected kindness, then ends up befriending her, then falls for her - and she falls for him, too, not knowing she's getting involved with the thief who just turned her world upside-down.
Implausible? Too coincidental? Maybe. But if "The Town" is intended as modern-day pulp, full of shady characters and shoot-em-ups, the added drama of a romance makes sense. Plus it provides the film with some sweetness that's a nice counterbalance to the violence, and it allows an opportunity for Affleck's character to open up. The other relationship that reveals what Doug is made of is with Jem, and Renner is as riveting here as he was in "The Hurt Locker." Every time you see him, you know danger can't be far behind, but the unpredictability of what he might do is what makes his scenes exciting to watch.
Hamm has just as strong of a presence in a calmer, cooler way as the FBI agent in charge of investigating this string of robberies. He's quick, verbal and commanding and has one great, crackling showdown with Affleck in an interrogation room. The film's other major showdown takes place at Fenway Park, site of the crew's biggest job yet, and Affleck got intimate access to the cramped, ancient ballyard to shoot his tense climax.
Would a real fan try to steal millions from the Red Sox? Maybe not. But at least Affleck has the means and the talent to do it with style.
- Rating: Three stars out of four.
(Comedy, PG-13, 93 minutes)
"Easy A" offers an intriguing middle ground to the absolute of sexual abstinence: Don't sleep with anybody, but say you did. It's a funny, engaging comedy that takes the familiar but underrated Emma Stone and makes her, I believe, a star. Until actors are matched to the right role, we can never quite see them clearly.
Stone embodies Olive Penderghast, a girl nobody much notices at Ojai North High School. The biggest surprise about this school (apart from the fact that there is an Ojai North) is that it is scandalous to lose one's virginity in high school. I hesitate to generalize, but I suspect such a thing is not unheard of in Ojai North and elsewhere. I'm not recommending it. I only know what I'm told.
It is a rule with all comedies involving virginity, going back to Doris Day and long before, that enormous misunderstandings are involved and virginity miraculously survives at the end. In this case, Olive is simply embarrassed to admit she spent a whole weekend at home alone, and improvises a goofy story about having lost her virginity to a college boy. That seems safe; nobody in school would know him. But she's overheard by Miss Bryant (Amanda Bynes), a self-righteous religious type, who passes the story round as an object lesson to wayward girls: Don't become a fallen woman like Olive.
"Easy A" takes this misunderstanding and finds effortless comic variations in it. The news is taken with equanimity by Olive's parents, Dill and Rosemary (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), who join Juno's parents in the Pantheon of Parental Admirability. And at Ojai North High, Olive finds that in having lost one reputation, she has gained another. Previously no one noticed her at all (hard to believe about Emma Stone, but there you have it). Now she is imagined to be an experienced and daring adventuress, and it can be deduced that a great many in the student body envy her experience.
Olive puts her notoriety to use. She has a gay friend named Brandon (Dan Byrd), who has been hassled at school (hard to believe in Ojai but, again, there you have it). By allowing word to get out that she and Brandon have shared blissful congress, she is able to bring an end to the bullying (hard to believe no one in Ojai North has heard of a gay and a straight having sex, but this Ojai is one created specifically for the convenience of a movie comedy, and people believe what the plot requires them to believe).
Now that she has become established as the school authority, she begins issuing a sort of Olive's Seal of Approval on various outsiders, misfits and untouchables in the student body, outfitting them all with credentials of sexmanship. Does anybody wonder why she only sleeps with gays, nerds and college students? Why should they? Lots of people do.
"Easy A," like many good comedies, supplies us with a more or less conventional (movie) world in which one premise - Olive's transformation by gossip - is introduced. She becomes endowed overnight with a power to improve reputations, confer status and help the needy. Her new power might even work for adults, such as the teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and his estranged wife (Lisa Kudrow), the guidance counselor, who become entangled in embarrassments.
The movie works because it's funny, yes, but also because it's smart. When Olive begins wearing the Scarlet Letter "A" on her clothing, borrowing it from the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel they still read in Ojai North, she shows a level of irony that I'm afraid is lost on the student body, but not on us. I think it may always be necessary that we like the hero or heroine of a comedy. I certainly liked Olive. I'm pretty sure that's also how an actor becomes a movie star.
- Rating: Three and a half stars.