Friday, September 17, 2010

Movie Rear-view: The Town

(Note: Occasionally, I'll delve into topics other than the Bruins. This is one of those times.)

In his second directorial effort, after the well-received “Gone Baby Gone”, Cantabrigian Ben Affleck completes his big screen Boston Irish trifecta with “The Town”, a pretty-good-but-not-great movie about a crew of Charlestown stick-up guys being stalked by an Eliot Ness-like FBI Special Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) while one of the guys (Affleck’s Doug MacRay) falls for a hostage taken in the opening Harvard Square heist scene. The movie is the bastard son of 1973’s quintessential Boston wise guy flick “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and Denis Leary’s underappreciated “Monument Ave.” ----it gets its bank robber DNA from the former and its shamrock-stamped insight into Townies from the latter.

Boasting an impressive and perfectly-timed cast (Hamm, Jeremy Renner, and Blake Lively have all gotten hot since getting the call), “The Town” held its red carpet premiere Tuesday night at the scene of its nail biting climax, Fenway Park, for about 1,500 locals, crew members, and extras enjoying free beer and popcorn (yes, free beer at Fenway).

Affleck addressed the crowd prior to the screening, thanking the many who helped transform Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” into the film and dedicating it to “the good people of Charlestown” (these sentiments are echoed at the film’s conclusion).

The film kicks off with a sweet aerial shot of that iconic C-town symbol, the Bunker Hill Monument, and lets us know that the history-soaked one-square mile neighborhood has produced more bank/armored car robbers than anywhere else on the planet. It then gives an example of their ‘craft’, simultaneously showing the planning and execution of a hybrid score---the armored car driver actually gets herded into the bank so I don’t know how the FBI scores that one.

The Rasta skeleton-masked thieves make sure to check for dye packs, clean any prints, and destroy the CC video---aspects of the script Affleck likely got from his many sit-downs with real Townie bank job guys, though none would certainly ever use such a mask. But Jem (Jeremy Renner), the hothead of the crew, decides to take the bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall ) hostage, presumably to facilitate their escape, but leaves her unharmed at what appears to be the Lagoon down Castle Island (it most definitely was not East Boston as the Globe asserted). Of course when he finds out she lives in the neighborhood, he wants to off her until MacRay says he’ll handle it. By ‘handle it’, he means ‘put the moves on her’.

Meanwhile, Agent Frawley is heated and on the prowl for the ‘Not Fucking Around Crew’. Much like the real life FBI and robbery heyday the movie is presumably set in (early-to-mid 90s), the feds have a pretty good idea of who is to blame but can’t pin it on them; if the feds didn’t catch you within an hour of the score, there was a good chance they never would unless they got somebody who sang the tune they wanted to hear. As much as I love Don Draper, it was nice to see the affable Hamm show off some of his other chops and grab the role by the balls.

But Frawley doesn’t deter the gang from continuing to find work, as they next bang out a North End score that is far from clean and concludes with a priceless, laugh-out-loud scene that I wouldn’t doubt for a second actually happened.

From there, the FBI intensifies its efforts to snare MacRay, who himself is falling for the bank manager he terrorized while trying to grease the skids for his departure from Krista (a comely Blake Lively), his banged-up girlfriend who is also Jem’s sister. MacRay also meets with his life-serving father (Chris Cooper), butts heads with Jem, and has to answer to a brogue-speaking local crime boss (Peter Postlethwaite). It all leads up to a thrilling, “Heat”-like shootout inside Fenway and on and around Yawkey Way, though “The Town” doesn’t quite reach that movie’s level. Ironically, the crew uses a M.O. virtually unheard of in the Townie underworld and can be chalked up, much like the creepy nun get-ups, to creative liberty. But Affleck makes the most of the carte blanche that the Red Sox gave him (but hopefully doesn’t inspire any copycat shit now that people know there’s a “Casino”-like cash room in the bowels of the shined up dinosaur).

At the end of the day, it’s a quality ‘one last score’ heist movie with a love story as its moral heartbeat that’s worth seeing. The Oscar buzz may fade due to the full slate of Oscar bait on tap for fall/winter. But I can see a Best Supporting Actor nod in there, either for Affleck, Renner, or Hamm.

Grade: B+

A few more buds for your Bunker Hill bowl…

*Affleck doesn’t really dig into the why and how these guys came to be professional, proficient bank robbers (though we’re to believe MacRay’s father essentially passed the gig down to him). They just are and that’s what they do when the movie kicks off. Exploring those themes may have given the viewers more insight into the characters and some scenes more emotional heft. But the movie sticks to the crime formula.

*After about 35 years of media maligning, many in the neighborhood are understandably sensitive about how it’s portrayed to the rest of the world (much like its South Boston cousin). But other than the crew and their affiliates, Affleck didn’t paint locals as dolts as some feared would happen. In fact, he ditched a lot of the local-infused scenes and concentrated on the male principals. Even Lively seemed like she got minimal screen time. Bottom line is it’s a fictional movie based on a book which itself is rooted in fact (C-town being the breeding ground for an inordinate # of guys who do scores). If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to.

*Local rapper Slaine (from Southie, JP, or Rossie depending on which article you read) and first time actor Owen Burke did solid work in limited roles as wheelmen. Burke got his golden ticket by showing up at a cattle call and getting the nod after Affleck was unable to land his first pick. Local comedian Tony V shows up as a phone company worker as well.

*The script made a nod to the former Charlestown State Prison when one character makes a reference to the “electric chair” being “brought back to Charlestown”. Older Townies still remember lights going dim when the Commonwealth walked prisoners down the green mile. Lively’s character also offers MacRay a “snappa”---local parlance for the devil’s dandruff, cocaine.

*I saw NBA-approved use of Celtics logos, MLB’s permission was obviously granted as the 3rd act was virtually a bullet-riddled Sox ad, Anheuser-Busch products were freely guzzled onscreen and even Levi’s were noticeable, though nobody wore them or the wristbands that Jem sported. But which major company was apparently the only one who wouldn’t grant permission to have their product featured in violent, R-rated movie? None other than the violent, R-rated National Hockey League, as evidenced by MacRay’s Building 19-style Bruins jacket (similar to the one he sported in “Good Will Hunting”). I don’t know if Warner Bros. approached the NHL or not. But given their track record, I’m going to assume the studio reached out to them but was turned away by the short-sighted league. Because that’s just what they do, they blow opportunities.

*Reading the national and international reviews has been a hoot. They’ve butchered more easily found Boston facts than should be allowed by so-called journalists. The AP referred to Charlestown as “just across the Zakim Bridge from Boston”. The A.V. Club said it took place in the “blue-collar suburban [sic] of Jamestown”. EW referred to “Gone Baby Gone” as a Southie movie (it wasn’t despite the Murphy’s Law scenes). Jesus, clean it up people.

*It wouldn’t be a Boston movie if the accents weren’t brought up. But I thought everybody pretty much nailed it, particularly Renner. There will certainly be nobody joining Bebe Neuwirth, Diane Lane, Julianne Moore, and Kevin Costner in the ‘Awful Boston Accent Hall of Shame’.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I did one day’s worth of extra/background work on the film (I was the “cook” in the barroom scene with Lively and Hamm, blink and you’ll miss me in the mirror behind them). I spent the day in a dank and filthy dive in the city of sin. But I also got to see how a movie set gets run in a very tight, intimate environment and as a movie buff, it was quite a thrill and interesting as hell to be a fly on the wall. It also amazes me that a near 12 hour day produced about a minute of screen time.

*Based on good reviews and action-heavy trailers that got ample play, I'll say the movie rakes $24.8M in its first weekend. But more wouldn't surprise me.

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