It’s been popular to say about Ben Affleck that he reached his peak with his Oscar win for co-writing and co-starring in Good Will Hunting, and while his co-writer and co-star Matt Damon went on to an interesting career combining good commercial films (the Bourne trilogy) and interesting left turns (The Good Shepard), Affleck stranded himself among brain dead blockbusters. I can hardly count myself as an Affleck fan, and even I would say that view is quite reductive. True, Affleck hardly distinguished himself in movies like Armageddon, Daredevil, and Gigli, and letting his off-screen antics overwhelm his on-screen performances was never going to help his career. But he was a good collaborator with Kevin Smith (Mallrats and Jersey Girl notwithstanding), playing a more than credible romantic lead in Chasing Amy, a more than credible villain in Dogma, and had a lot of fun in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back. He was good in supporting roles in Shakespeare in Love and Boiler Room, and while he struggled with his parts in Bounce, Changing Lanes, and Paycheck, at least the movies themselves showed good taste in projects. And he came back in with his surprisingly affecting performance in Hollywoodland. Now, with Gone Baby Gone, he makes his directorial debut, and while he’s still got a ways to go, he may have a future behind the camera yet.
Affleck also co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, adapting the Dennis Lehane novel, the fourth of his series of novels about detectives Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who at this point are partners personally as well as professionally. When a little girl named Amanda goes missing, and her aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) appeals to them to join the police in helping find her, Kenzie and Gennaro are both reluctant to take the job, because they guess it would only end in heartbreak. And the police, headed by Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who runs a unit devoted to finding missing children, and detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), don’t want Kenzie’s help either. Finally, Kenzie is not encouraged by Amanda’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan), an alcoholic and crack addict who has a chip on her shoulder against the world. But Kenzie and Gennaro do end up taking the case, only to find as bad as they thought things would get, it actually is much worse.
Just as Good Will Hunting benefited from Affleck (and Damon) knowing the neighborhood of Boston so well, so does Gone Baby Gone. Affleck has cast many of the smaller parts with Boston natives, and he films the city well while avoiding the obvious landmarks (Fenway Park). However, he does lack a certain cinematic sense as a director, and as a writer (this may have been apparent in Good Will Hunting, but Gus Van Sant knew how to make that picture move). A good example comes early on in the movie, when Kenzie and Gennaro go to a bar Helene used to hang out in – if it wasn’t for the acting, you’d never know the scene was supposed to be tense (the patrons and bartender are decidedly hostile towards the detectives), because Affleck shoots it in such a plodding manner. The scenes between Kenzie and Gennaro also suffer here – Affleck spends too much time on their personal relationship, and not enough on their professional one, whereas Lehane gave equal time to both. I always thought Monaghan was a bit too wan for the role, but she might have been able to bring a grittiness to the role had Affleck allowed her to. Finally, I’m admittedly a big fan of the novel, but the movie often just seemed like a greatest hits version of the novel, with no flow to it. It doesn’t help Affleck and Stockard try to make the motive for what really happened to Amanda more of a mystery than it was in the novel; it cheapens it somehow.
Still, once the movie hits the halfway point, it does settle down into what made the novel so riveting. And except for Monaghan, Affleck gets great work from his cast. Harris, Freeman, Ashton, and Madigan are all playing parts they’ve played in the past, but they’re able to do their thing again in style. And as a fan of TV’s The Wire, I was thrilled to see Michael K. Williams in the small role of a cop who’s friendly with Kenzie (his role is bigger in the novel), even though I only saw it as Omar playing a cop. But the real surprises here are Ryan and Affleck’s brother Casey. I also mostly know Ryan from The Wire, as Beadie Russell, the dock officer who helps investigate the major case in Season 2. On the show, she was friendly with the dockworkers but quiet and unassuming with her colleagues, which cloaked her intelligence. As written, Helene could have been a one-dimensional white trash addict, but Ryan invests her with an anger against the world and a surprising vulnerability – when she finally realizes the enormity of her part in Amanda’s disappearance, and begs Kenzie to find her, you understand what makes Kenzie defend Helene’s fitness as a parent later to Gennaro. As for Casey Affleck, I wasn’t a fan of his in the Jesse James movie, and wasn’t looking forward to him here. He seemed a little young for the part as well. But he turns that into his advantage here, showing an inner toughness and a desire not to be pushed around or taken for granted. And, of course, he shows off Kenzie’s vulnerability as well. As the movie shows Ben’s possible future as a director, it also shows off Casey’s possible future as a leading man.
If they’re enjoyable enough, sometimes movies that don’t quite hang together can still be a better time than movies that are well crafted but empty. Such is the case with John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes, which finally came out in theaters last September after being on the shelf for two years due to studio trouble. Although Turturro has made a big leap from his first directing effort, the earnest but plodding Mac (I never saw his next effort, the theatrical movie Illuminata), he still has problems here; the movie takes a tragic turn in the last third that it doesn’t quite earn. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that next to Once, this was the best musical I saw at the movies last year. The story, like in most musicals, is pretty simple; Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a construction worker, is married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), a dressmaker, but is also involved with the sexy Tula (Kate Winslet), and when Kitty finds out and throws him out, Nick tries to win her back. What distinguishes the movie is the characters will often break into song – not into originals, but singing along to established songs. So Gandolfini belts out Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Man Without Love” (along with singing garbagemen), Sarandon (though her voice is dubbed) and a gospel choir rip through “Piece of my Heart,” Winslet sexes up Connie Francis’ “Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me,” and even Christopher Walken, as Kitty’s cousin Bo, gets into the act by crooning “Delilah” (as well as dancing, of course). This isn’t the only craziness Turturro throws in – Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro both play Nick’s daughters (Mandy Moore, who belts out “I Want Candy,” is the third daughter), even though they’re only a few years younger than Gandolfini in real life – but trust me, it all fits. I think it was Turturro who called this a working-class Dennis Potter musical, and the label fits because like Potter, Turturro knows how to use music to express his character’s feelings. And it’s definitely working class – the characters are unapologetically profane (the movie earns its R rating), but none of them are cartoonish (Tula actually loves Nick), and none of the performers condescend to their characters. True, there may be a touch of Ralph Kramden in Gandolfini’s performance, but that’s inevitable, and Gandolfini even sings well. And Sarandon and Winslet are as alluring as they’ve ever been. Along with Once, this was the only other musical I saw last year that never sacrifices feeling for form. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.
The problem with James Gray’s We Own the Night is not the fact the story is familiar – hell, There Will Be Blood, my favorite movie of last year, tells a very familiar story. The problem is Gray, who also wrote the film, tries to act like you’ve never seen this movie before. Once again, Gray turns to the twin poles of family conflict and crime. This time, the family members in conflict are Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub owner in 1980’s Brighton Beach, and his brother Joe Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), who, like their father Bert (Robert Duvall), is a cop. Bobby’s nightclub is owned by Russians who, as it turns out, do business with the Russian mob, which involves drug dealing. Bobby at first turns a blind eye to all of this, particularly because he and Joe don’t get along, but when mobsters try to kill Joe, Bobby agrees to work for the cops. Gray has certainly advanced stylistically – there’s a car chase in the rain that’s up there with the great ones, and the first look at the nightclub (to the tune of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”) is a tracking shot that doesn’t make you think of Scorsese. And there’s no fault with any of the performers; Phoenix, Wahlberg and Duvall may be tracking in familiar territory, but they go through their paces, and Eva Mendes is also good as Bobby’s girlfriend. But Gray is more concerned with punching up the portentous tone of the movie than bringing anything new to the table or at least finding a way to make the familiar more interesting.
For all of you who only know George of the Jungle from either the catchy theme song (“Watch out for that tree!”), or the energetic but ultimately bland Disney live-action movie version in 1997, you should check out the complete TV series, which is being released on DVD this week. As Jay Ward’s previous, and best-known, series Rocky & Bullwinkle spoofed serials and spy movies, George parodies Tarzan. And unlike the movie, which relied too much on physical humor, George at its best crackles with the verbal wit that characterizes Ward at his best – for example, George tells Ursula (his girlfriend) he knows a white hunter named Weevil has gone because “See no Weevil, hear no Weevil, speak no Weevil.” The DVD set also includes the two lesser-known and less funny segments that also aired on the show, Tom Slick, the race car driver, and the superhero Super Chicken, but it’s worth it just to watch George, Ursula (or is it Fella?), Shep the elephant dog, and the ape named Ape. Just watch out for that tree.