Category Archives: 60 Second Reviews

The Town (2010)

60 Second Reviews

The night after my viewing of The Town, I had a dream that Jon Hamm was after me. It wasn’t a complex dream and I’ve mostly forgotten it, but I woke up feeling particularly tense. That dread feeling is what Ben Affleck‘s strongest film to date does so well; tension and anxiety and excitement, all are relevant adjectives for The Town, and all are present throughout. While Affleck may be a bit up-and-down as an actor, he seems to be finding a real niche as a director.

Ben Affleck is Doug MacRay, the leader of a professional foursome of thieves. Their heists are flawlessly executed, even on the occasion when MacRay’s partner James (Jeremy Renner) loses his head. In hot pursuit of Doug and his boys is Special Agent Adam Frawley (Hamm). Despite his better judgment, and a glimpse at a future with the charming Claire (Rebecca Hall), MacRay can’t get clear of the claws of local don The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), or the depth of his Charlestown roots.

With his nomination, I assumed Jeremy Renner would be a scene-stealer, but the film’s biggest achievement is its ensemble. Renner is, as always, fabulous. He has a persistent restraint, a remarkable way of playing intense scenes at a slow-burn, and not just discharging his anger. Renner though, is hardly the key performance. Jon Hamm takes what could have been a rote “good guy” antagonist, and makes him a genuine villain. His Frawley is interested solely in bringing justice, and seems capable of literally anything to get at it. Meanwhile, plenty of smaller parts are delivered maximally. Blake Lively gets well outside of her comfort zone as a slutty addict; Postlethwaite is, as ever, a supreme talent and ominous creep; and Chris Cooper shows up for all of two minutes to steal a scene. As it turns out though, Affleck is perhaps the biggest surprise. Something about his performance here suggests he is finally coming into himself. A decade ago Affleck’s Doug MacRay would have been louder and sillier and more melodramatic, but here he is disciplined and subtle, and in complete ownership of one of his best roles.

After The Town, it’s clear that Ben Affleck is on the rise. Though perhaps a bit long in coming, maturity seems to have arrived in time to make him a genuinely exciting filmmaker.

Animal Kingdom (2010)

60 Second Reviews

What Animal Kingdom does best is shock you. The violence of Director David Michôd‘s Australian gangster film is mostly sudden and stark. It comes out of nowhere, and once it has passed the film returns to an even-keeled plod, as though nothing has happened. This is certainly intentional, and the pie piece that makes Animal Kingdom worth watching.

Newcomer James Frecheville plays Josh “J” Cody, the nephew of the notorious Cody brothers; bank robbers, drug dealers, nice guy villains. As the local law close in on the Cody family, J finds himself caught in the middle, despite being essentially nonexistent in every interaction he has. Frecheville, presumably at the direction of Michôd, plays J with precisely the kind of permeating detachment you expect from a teenager. While this is an excellent theoretical choice for the tone of the film, it ends up leaving J a hard character to care about.

As J’s eerily manipulative Grandma Janine and the matriarch of this nuclear crime syndicate, Jacki Weaver has leapt out with an Oscar nomination as the most notable member of this cast. Certainly her performance is strong, though it takes awhile to get going, and even once she hits her stride it feels like equal parts performance and direction. A standout nonetheless, Weaver is not the only one in this performance-heavy composition. Guy Pearce, in one of his many recent minimal appearances, is as intriguing as ever. His Detective Leckie seems the only one in opposition to the Codys who has some idea of what’s going on. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn as J’s Uncle Pope Cody is haunting and shadowy. Pope is the family’s active leader (behind its Oz-like grandmother) and his persistent mania keeps him unchallenged. The film’s one chief weakness is how much the story hinges on its final moment. Without revealing anything, this is a slow-paced film with a huge payoff. Without said payoff, it’s not much of a film at all.

Animal Kingdom is a relatively straight-forward genre film, with pacing deliberate and measured, and more than one career-defining performance.

Restrepo (2010)

60 Second Reviews

Restrepo-titled after the documentary’s pivotal outpost, which is named for PFC Juan Restrepo, a casualty of the war–tells the story of the armed forces men stationed in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan and their agonizing day-to-day. The Korangal has been called the deadliest place on earth, and while filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger don’t shy away from the awful reality, it’s the human side of a serviceman’s life that ends up being documented most effectively.

As documentaries go, Restrepo is unique, if not terribly complex. Unlike so many documentaries that tell a story by editing together footage and interviews for the most compelling result, here the chronology drives the story. Like any war hero recounting a tale, the story moves in a straight line, from beginning to end. Along with the directors’ hands-off approach to the editing of plot, they employ an interview style that allows the interviewees a remarkable amount of freedom. These men aren’t giving an account of events as much as they’re giving an account of their emotional and mental journeys. This flexibility of topic means the men spend as much time talking about each other and their lives back home as they do the war itself and life in the Korangal.

We’ve all heard stories of disturbed vets; men unable to extract themselves from war without massive mental trauma. These are those men. The soldiers from the Korangal have seen death in war, and have killed, and trying to return to a life that doesn’t account for these two extremes seems to be as draining as the war itself. What Restrepo does so well is let the men tell their own stories without interfering. While the film does take a stance, it doesn’t manufacture one, and perhaps that is more impressive then anything else about it.

A beautifully heartbreaking and wholly true story, Retrespo is shocking in both its content and its lack of manipulation.

The Beach (2000)

60 Second Reviews

Despite the fact that its two leads-Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Boyle-have been such significant and consistent contributors to the film culture, The Beach is simply not a very good movie. It’s familiar as Boyle’s work, but untidy, and DiCaprio is getting in his very last performance as a precocious kid before Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can made his adulthood official.

Movies and books are different enough mediums that, when someone does a half-assed job of adapting a book into a screenplay, it can be terribly evident; The Beach‘s most glaring issue. There’s way too much happening here for the story to feel cohesive. There are suggestions of a love story and attempts at comedy. There’s blood and mania enough that it could even be called a psychological thriller. I can’t say if I would rather a film have too much going on or not enough, but in either case it’s not a minor trouble. It gives you the persistent feeling of having missed something vital, and once you realize that’s just the nature of the film, you’re more frustrated then you were before.

At it’s core the story is about hedonism, and hedonism needing limits; an admirable sentiment, but the film’s handling of this notion leaves much to be desired. The hedonists themselves are a collection of dogmatic hippies who bound around like they’re at summer camp. Frankly, you don’t have to subtly convince me not to like these people. Still, taking it for granted that this is the filmmakers intent, the consequences simply don’t make sense. Moving into the third act Leo’s Richard, separated from the beach people, suddenly begins a rapid descent into jungle madness, a consequence of his mistakes. But are two or three days of solitude enough to drive a person insane? Only if you’re rushing to get to the point.

The Beach is an interesting moment in the careers of these two giants, and though at the time it must have seemed a passion project, it has now become a dated mess.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

60 Second Review

Being surprised by a film happens less and less these days, with trailers and film blogs and the rest. Even with all the good things I had heard about Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, all I really knew about it or expected was another non-Pixar CG kids film. And so, Cloudy‘s abundance of humor and visual spectacle caught me off-guard in the best way possible.

Visually, Cloudy is as good as any of the best Pixar films, which have become the gold-standard. The characters are cartoons to be sure, but in a lively way, with elastic features and dinner-plate eyes. And the film’s action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in an animated film. What’s exciting about animation is the limitless space these films have to work with, and Cloudy takes full advantage of that space. The scale of some of these scenes is genuinely staggering and the scenes themselves are an absolute blast to watch.

Still, despite being a treat for the eyes, it’s Cloudy‘s humor that surprised me the most. The standard for kid’s films these days is to show the whole family a good time, with jokes for kids and parents, but the humor in this script isn’t typical. Though Toy Story 3 or Shrek have their share of well-constructed jokes, Cloudy‘s sense of humor is much more inherent. Surely the casting helps, with nearly all the main performances coming from established comedians: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, and Andy Samberg. What’s most evident though is that this is a script devoted to humor first and foremost, and written by people who are surely funny in real life. While Pixar may have the market cornered on touching our hearts, perhaps Sony Pictures Animation can focus on our funny bones.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is, in addition to being a total blast for the family, a bona fide comedy and an indication that great computer-animated films aren’t the exclusive precinct of Pixar anymore.

Moon (2009)

60 Second Review

It took me too long to see Moon, and the Sam Rockwell/Duncan Jones project ended up suffering for it. Though I was able to remark on the genuine craft of the film, the many conversations I had had prior to this viewing gave me all sorts of ideas as to what it probably was or could be. The real problem though is that this seems to be the way the film is set up: to give audiences ahead of time the notion that there will be a grand reveal. But when the film’s grand reveal comes about halfway through, you spend the rest of the time wondering if there’s going to be another one or if the tone of the film has simply shifted for good.

A truly inspired piece of Moon is the photography. The surface of the moon is dark and industrial, set like a beautifully still version of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And Sam Rockwell’s contribution can’t be understated, as he more or less carries the film from beginning to end.

To get briefly into SPOILERS, ahem-

It turns out that Sam Rockwell is not an individual human man on a solo moon mission, but one of an endless number of clones. Watching two very different versions of the same man bicker and (attempt to) relate, recalls not only Rockwell’s range but some of his better and less notable roles: The Green Mile‘s Wild Bill or Chuck in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He’s as good in Moon as he’s ever been, and that’s saying something. As for Duncan Jones, his first film is certainly a memorable experience and ardently made. If it occasionally lacks thematic cohesion, it’s a good example of filmmaking with heart. And the future? Source Code is next, and we’ll see if it carries any momentum from Duncan Jones’ lead off.

Despite the miscues, Jones and Rockwell seem personally and passionately invested in Moon, and this more than any of its faults is the residue left over at the film’s completion.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

60 Second Review

There are two kinds of movies. Movies that exist in the present, that you can consider and weigh and appraise impartially, and movies from your childhood; movies that have been a part of you since as far back as you can remember. Beauty and the Beast is squarely with the latter, insomuch as I don’t feel confident I can even have an objective response to it. This isn’t exclusively because I grew up with it, though that plays a huge role. Nearly as important is Disney’s masterful wielding of nostalgia. All of their films, even the ones you’re seeing for the first time, contain that magical schmaltz of childhood. Though every so often you get the feeling you’re being just a little bit manipulated, it’s easy enough to just go with it.

Beauty and the Beast really is a lovely little film, in spite of it’s tonally guiding hand. The music is as strong as any of Disney’s best films of that era, and the animation represents their highest tier work. Likewise the breakdown of characters is as solid a collection as any, with a hero and a villain and a beautiful princess who is, in fact, not a princess. If there’s a negative aspect to the film that has made itself more evident since childhood, it’s got to be the one-dimensionality of the characters. As with many Disney films, the secondary characters tend to have more personality then the primaries, and the starker the contrast between those two groups, the harder it is to ignore. Belle is boringly refined and and the Beast is more of an overgrown child then anything; certainly effective character types, but they don’t seem to grow in any other way than towards each other.

Nonetheless this is a fine entry into the Disney canon, and a more than vital contribution to their utter dominance of the nineties.