(On Cable TV, September 2013) After seeing many comedies so grounded in realism that they only qualified for the genre label by virtue of not killing off anyone, it’s almost refreshing to see a comedy so unapologetically dedicated to letting big laughs as Ted. From the high-concept opening (boy wishes for his stuffed bear to become alive; bear obliges), Ted is shameless in trying for the maximum number of laughs in the time it has. Alas, this usually means going for the lowest common denominator, so don’t be surprised at the film’s crass and unsubtle humor: Much of Ted is about seeing a cute teddy bear swear and behave badly, and while that works for a while, it’s a strategy with limited potential. Mark Wahlberg is quite good as an ordinary guy trying to find a way between adult life and the remnants of his childhood, with a good voice performance by writer/director Seth MacFarlane and a fine supporting performance by Mila Kunis. (Nora Jones’ cameo is also pretty funny.) Some of the jokes work well (ie; the hotel room fight), and when they don’t (ie; much of the specific pop-culture references –who else can be so fascinated by Flash Gordon?) there’s usually another mildly-funny gag a few seconds later. Boston also has a nice role playing itself, with enough picturesque checkmarks to make the local tourist board happy. Still, this is a film aimed at blue collar guys, and those with low tolerance for penile jokes (some of them bordering on homophobia and others on misogyny) may want to lower their expectations. While Ted definitely has some thematic potential in the way it literalizes the process letting go of one’s immaturity, it’s not in itself mature enough to commit to a satisfying conclusion: I was actually disappointed at the feel-good no-changes conclusion, mostly because the film demands otherwise (and tries to have it both ways as well.) While Ted is well-made enough, and occasionally charming in its relentless attempt to be funny, it’s not quite the film it could have been with just a bit more wit and depth.
(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas? Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs. Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life. It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors. Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent. The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems. The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely. More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure. The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy. No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.
(On DVD, December 2009) After years of hearing about The Boondock Saints’s cult popularity on DVD (it never received a proper theatrical run, which explains why I missed it in the first place), I took the release of a sequel as a good reason to finally watch the film and see what the fuss was about. It turns out that the cult appeal of the film’s success is partly based on the material itself: the story of two catholic Boston brothers taking on the city’s organized crime, The Boondock Saints often feels like an extended apologia for vigilante justice and gunfight sequences. But writer/director Troy Duffy is a bit more self-aware than most: The ending (in which the villain is murdered) is reprehensible in the way most American action films are, but it assumes this blood-thirstiness. What’s a bit more disturbing is the way the film actually feels fun and cool: The pacing is right, the action beats are interesting, and the dialogue has good moments. Despite some puzzling moments (which you can either blame on a first script or a very low budget), the non-linear structure of the script works well and showcases its lead actors in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The standout performance here belongs to Willem Dafoe, who plays an ultra-competent FBI agent with gusto. (The sequences in which his mind meshes with the crime he’s investigating are as good as this film gets.) There’s also quite a bit of intriguing directing, with judicious use of hand-held and slow-motion cinematography. Otherwise, well, The Boondock Saints is a mixture of crime, comedy and violence and action that finds resonance in the works of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, certainly not as fully mastered as them, but definitely aiming at the same targets. I’m a bit sorry I only saw it ten years after it came out. The DVD contains a sympathetic commentary by writer/director Duffy and another one by Billy Connolly.
(In theatres, September 2009) It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that the best movies make you think. But it’s a less-acknowledged universal truth that even bad movies can lead one to conclusions. In this case, Surrogates is the kind of hit-and-miss film that makes one think that film really isn’t the ideal medium for idea-driven Science Fiction. On a surface level, some things work well: Bruce Willis is his usual dependable self as a cop investigating unusual murders, Boston makes a great backdrop to the action, and director Jonathan Mostow has kept his eye for good action sequences and efficient storytelling –although, frankly, I would have liked longer cuts during the chase scenes. The idea of a future where “surrogates” effectively allow one to decouple body from mind is rich in thematic possibilities, and the film does investigate a few of them. If nothing else, Surrogates is a decent way to spend an hour and a half; at least it’s a bit more ambitious than most other movies at the theatre. Alas, that’s not saying much, and the credibility problems with the film start with the first few frames. In flagrant violation of market economics, human nature, bandwidth limitations and just plain logic, this is a film that depends on 98% of the (Boston? American? Human?) population relying on highly advanced and presumably expensive equipment just 14 years in the future. Never mind that some people don’t even have cell phone today: Surrogates rushes into the bad clichés of a Manichean monolithic society in which everyone has and enjoys a surrogate, except for the easily-dismissible hillbillies and weirdoes who apparently choose to live in technology-free reserves. Never mind that the world is usually a great deal more complex and that the kind of technological breakthrough that surrogates represents could lead to a world where the very concept of incarnation would be abandoned: Surrogates simplifies issues to the point where anyone with half a working brain will cringe at the way the film ignores possibilities and takes refuge in cheap movie mechanics. The ending is particularly frustrating, as it all boils down to “press this button to save a billion lives!!!” That a lot of those issues were present in Robert Vendetti’s script for the original underwhelming graphic novel isn’t much of an excuse when the film takes such liberties with the source material. (If anything, Surrogates owes more to the I, Robot film than the graphic novel, down to James Cromwell in near-identical roles) The contrast between Surrogates and thoughtful written SF is strong enough to make one suspect they’re barely in the same genre. (Compare and contrast with Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon for a particularly enlightening experience.)