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Calm and crazy: (l-r) Affleck and Renner in The Town.

Prime Crime

By Laura Leon

The Town

Directed by Ben Affleck

 

Whether or not it’s true that Charlestown, a suburb of Boston, has spawned more bank robbers than any place else is open to debate, but it sure makes for a nifty introduction to The Town, Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial outing. As if this movie needed an eye opener: It begins with a shocking daytime bank robbery in which Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, and his three partners in crime burst into the place wearing freakish skeleton masks and fright wigs. The ferocity of their invasion blends seamlessly with the near-balletic grace in which one of the robbers vaults the counter. Assistant bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) is a bundle of nerves as she tries repeatedly to steady her shaking hand enough to open the safe, and while Jem (Jeremy Renner), the gang’s most mercurial member, wants to open fire, the still-masked, and saner, Doug talks her through her panic. Everything about the heist is fast, yet it’s obvious that these criminals are experts at what they do.

The fallout from the robbery includes what Jem sees as a loose end, namely, Claire, whom he kidnaps briefly and sets free, blindfolded. But he’s taken her license, and he knows she actually lives in Charlestown, she’s practically a neighbor, and so he determines that her presence should be obliterated. Doug persuades Jem to let him handle the assignment, which leads the rather incredible (in real life) but acceptable (in a well-written script) meet cute at the Laundromat and subsequent romance between the two. It helps that Claire is suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, so questions that might otherwise pop into her head, like what’s a well-educated and seemingly middle-class girl like herself doing dating a townie, don’t. It also helps that Affleck, one of those rare actors who can look matinee-idol gorgeous one minute, and rough the next, makes us believe that for all Doug’s criminal tendencies, he’s also capable of thought, even sensitivity.

Following its smash-up opening, The Town rarely settles down, except for a few quiet but purposeful scenes in which Doug and Claire get to know each other. Hot on the gang’s trail is FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm, proving that, yes, he smolders even on the big screen and wearing Dockers), who is as canny a sleuth as Doug is a planner. The tense back-and-forth between Frawley and Doug, and later Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Jem’s Oxycontin-addicted sis Krista (Blake Lively), reveals layers of class animosity. It nearly makes the Jewish-Palestinian impasse seem quaint in comparison, and I offered up a silent prayer of gratitude that there are people out there willing to take on the bad guys, even if they are played with such élan as they are here.

In addition to a few other edge-of-your-seat heists and chases, there are some really good moments that embroider the edges of the story and, more importantly, the town (small “t”) from which Doug and his pals have sprung. In one, Doug visits his imprisoned father (Chris Cooper) in a scene which should be used by drama coaches to demonstrate how to effectively steal a movie in your one and only scene. But beyond stunning acting, the scene provides tantalizing clues to past actions and startling insights into present psyches. Also chilling is Pete Postlethwaite as Charlestown’s local crime boss Fergie, who quietly dethorns roses in much the same manner we’d imagine him slicing into victims hapless enough to stand up to him.

In Claire, Doug thinks he’s found a reason to get out of the game for good, but as anybody who’s ever seen any crime movie knows, that’s a dog that just won’t hunt. Still, he plans for escape, much to Jem’s utter contempt. In The Hurt Locker, Renner was a macho cowboy, a cocksure expert in his chosen field, impervious to dangers that would send most people running for cover, and yet hopelessly inept in what we think of as real-world situations. We got this right off the bat, in the way Renner strode onto the scene, the way he carried his compact body. In The Town, Renner has transformed into an edgier, whippet-like personification of TNT. He’s ripping to get into it, whether it’s a shootout or a gang fight, anything to act. When Doug asks him to help him with an undisclosed problem, there’s barely a pause before Jem says, “Whose car we taking?” Sitting around between heists, he seems about to explode with pent-up anger and energy. He’s the little punk who just loved waiting around after school for anybody to beat up, but he’s also the type of wacko who has Doug’s back. Throughout The Town, Renner reminded me of the kind of raw edge and sheer physicality, the coexisting gracefulness and bottled rage, of James Cagney. I want more. And for that matter, I’d like more of The Town, which I just might see a second time.

Who? Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Who Gives a Hoot?

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Directed by Zack Snyder

Though it was adapted from the young-adult novels by Kathryn Lasky, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole doesn’t seem to be geared for either youngsters or adults. It starts out cutesy—a hatchling is dismayed by an involuntary regurgitation of a mouse pellet, a moment of childish gross-out humor—and builds to a climactic battle that is far too intense for the younger audiences who might’ve been charmed by (impressively) wide-eyed baby owlets in bad situations. One of them, Glyfie (Emily Barclay), accompanies Soren (voice by Jim Surgess) on his quest to find the guardian owls he knows only from his father’s storytelling. And if Zack Snyder, director of the ultra-violent, CGI comic-flicks 300 and Watchmen, seems an unlikely choice to helm a tween adventure story, well, he is, and the most enjoyable sequences are created solely by his digital mastery, such as a spectacular flight through an ice storm.

The film’s pivotal conflict begins with a flying lesson for Soren and his domineering brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). The novice flyers are soon snatched away to the dank cavern of the Pure Ones, where owlets from kingdoms far and wide are recruited as soldiers or relegated to slave labor. The troops are kept in tyranny by vicious Nyra (an outstandingly sinister Helen Mirren) and her mysterious husband, the owl in the iron mask. At this point, the lack of diversity in the avian population is especially noticeable, and it’s curious that the film doesn’t include more bird characters. A lone bluebird, used for target practice, is a welcome splash of color (especially in 3D). Yet the matronly snake who acts as the owlets’ devoted nanny disrupts the realism with her candy-pink scales, and isn’t comic enough to overcome the aesthetic limitations of her snakiness. Later, the script’s sense of characterization bogs down with an addled ground owl named Digger and his companion, a troubadour who sings badly and strums a tree-branch mandolin.

Upon reaching the fantastical tree land of Ga’Hoole, Soren and his companions join forces with the Guardians, and Soren bonds with the film’s most fully realized owl, a grizzled old warrior (Sam Neill) who might’ve flown in from The Secret Of NIMH.

Yet during roundtable discussions lifted from the scripts of Star Wars, the dialogue oddly shifts from all-too-human utterances to mythic catchphrases. It’s also dismaying to see the Guardians suit up with helmets and scythe-like metal talons similar to the battle gear of the Pure Ones, who use a metal alloy to disrupt the gizzards (for owls, gizzards are both their symbolic heart and navigational system) of their enemies. When the Guardians launch their attack, the resulting treachery, bravery, and sorcery mimics a feathered Lord of the Rings. Soren’s little sister is diabolically “moonblinked,” a practice that’s a little creepy for little ones (same goes for the legion of vampire bats), while the marvelously detailed aerial battle that follows may be unexpectedly violent for fans of the novels.

—Ann Morrow


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