Thursday, September 30, 2010

Easy A: The Making of a Star

Easy A, the latest flavor of the month in the teen comedy genre, is a sassy gem, that knowingly touches on the topic of adolescent sexuality.  The pic can be afforded some distinction, for being the only pubsecent comedy in memory that dares to hang a lantern on a group of teens who actually aren't ready to have sex.  As a result, instead of horny, promiscuous, frat boys and sorority sisters we're presented with reconizably human characters that the movie makes us care about.  Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal probably won't win any Oscars for this subtle perspective shift, but it is cause for minor applause in our current market of gross-out comedies. 

The story follows Olive (Emma Stone), an easily recognizable girl-next-door, who goes to elaborate lengths to conceal her virginity.  In the process of weaving lies about her vainglorious sexual exploits, circumstances compound to make her the most popular and also the most reviled member of her high school.  It's only when Olive realizes how much she's sacrificed for her reputation, that she begin to understand who she really is.  The script is loosely inspired by Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter," but cleverness and source material aside, what really makes the movie worth talking about is Emma Stone. 

None of her past roles in projects like Superbad, The House Bunny, and Zombieland could prepare us for the performance she delivers here.  I was mystified. Surely there must have been a prolific career in Danish television or some other remote corner of the world, that I know nothing about. But no, she has simply arrived.  After several character roles performed in relative anonymity, Emma Stone has arrived.   This is a star-making performance, embodied with equal parts charisma, sass and vulnerability.  Even as her character suffers through a spectacular series of humiliations, Stone maintains that aura of mystery, confidence and unpredictability that characterizes a star.  Without her the movie would fail and she brings us onboard instantly.    Emma Stone will be someone to watch in the future.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Toonie Plays a Townie ***

This year the thriller genre has been ressurected, with pictures like The Ghost WriterShutter Island and Inception, upstaging larger CGI-driven movies by placing an emphasis on story and psychology and using practical effects to enhance the narrative.  Now we can add The Town to this list.  Ben Affleck's sophomore directing effort is a taut, canny, thriller in the tradition of the old Warner Bros gangster films that starred James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 30's and 40's...and it is absolutely riveting.

The story concerns a crew of armed robbers in Boston's Charlestown projects, who live by an unspoken code, cultivating love and family when they aren't sticking people up.  Despite their brilliant tactics, it doesn't take long before the law catches on to them in the form of stalwart, mercenary, John Hamm, who is one in a cast of standout performances that bring the story to life.  Affleck himself, who has often strained to be credible gives a tough, assured performance as the thief who hungers for redemption and finds it in the person of Rebecca Hall, a hostage that his crew abducts during their inaugural bank heist.  Despite his better judgment, Affleck falls for his former prey.  He is a townie and she is a "toonie" (a word the locals use to slander encroaching yuppies) and this (as they say) is where the plot thickens.

Affleck himself is the ultimate toonie by local standards, based on his success and yet the movie feels like it was directed by an insider.  It's pulpy material to be sure and the story doesn't earn points for originality, but in Affleck's capable hands it does what the best thrillers do: explore the moral implications of crime.  The FBI is personified as a vigilant, but largely unscrupulous force, while the thieves have a backwards sense of ghetto duty.  Yes, the villains are romanticized at times, but Affleck never shies away from the violence of the story or the impact it has on the innocent bystanders who are unwittingly embroiled in it.  It is a world in which anyone can turn a corner into darkness, but once they do they're more or less shackled by their choices.

We sense that many of these neighborhood thugs would have thrown in the towel long ago, if only they could extricate themselves from the bonds they formed along the way.  The friends they needed to rise up are now the very same people holding them back.  In a sense the movie reads like an anagram to Michael Mann's Heat, which was all about avoiding the kind of relationships that Affleck's characters readily embrace.  Ultimately, The Town can't stand up to the best in the genre.  You may find yourself longing for the virtuoso cinematic derring-do of old Hollywood, as visually it resembles virtually any TV police procedural of the moment.  But Affleck makes up for what he lacks in style with genuine grit and authenticity.  I would be lying if I didn't admit that for most of this very tense ride I was sitting in the theater, squeezing my fists and wondering if it might just stick with me a year from now.