Archive for September 2010

Secrets and Lies

September 27, 2010

In spite of the fact that his bracingly dark and occasionally jarringly violent Naked is one of my all-time favorite films, I’m still generally unfamiliar with Mike Leigh’s work. Leigh continues to work in the British “kitchen sink drama” style of the late 50s and 60s (see Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar) depicting the dramas present in the lives of Britain’s working class – unglamorous and unromantic but unusually moving portraits of the individual joys and sadness everyday people.

Leigh’s films are an example of those “artsy” and “slow” films many film-goers have a hard time with because the dramas are small and idiosyncratic, the characters lives often sad and bleak, the narrative following it’s own pace and lack of much “action” in the Hollywood sense. Yet this is not to say they are not absolutely filled with drama, but most of the drama is internal and psychological. Leigh famously utilizes copious improvised rehearsals, fleshing out the characters, dialogue and story that eventually appear on screen. Leigh gives his actors character and bare bones back story and has them develop full histories and act out the character’s past – situations that are never designed to appear on the screen. This technique allows all his actors to truly inhabit their characters psyches long before the camera rolls. Leigh’s films address the complex internal lives of the characters and the strained relationships between families and friends struggling under the weight of the past and the present. His unique directorial style has resulted in some breathtaking performances – David Thewlis’ portrayal of the nihlistic “Johnny” in Naked is absolutely the most astounding performance I’ve ever seen in film.

Leigh’s Secrets and Lies is a triumph. A small story about a family, somewhat estranged and weighed down with the discomfort of the titular lies and secrets they keep from each other. A mid-20s adopted woman’s pursuit of her birth mother brings to the surface the profound guilt and closely-held secret histories that plague the family. This film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1996 and Brenda Blethlyn’s devastating performance is the true centerpiece of this film. The sympathy Leigh shows towards these unhappily flawed people is more like his recent Happy Go Lucky than the cold eye of Naked and the transformative power of the family dealing with their shared histories and coming clean about their mistakes, failures and deception is extremely affecting. Secrets and Lies was one of the best two and a half hours of cinema I’ve seen in a long time.

5 out of 5 stars

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The Town

September 20, 2010

Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort (he also stars) is yet another film about the working-class and criminal underbelly he has probably never really associated with from a neighborhood (last time Dorchester, this time Charlestown) in a city (Boston) that he grew up next to but definitely did not grow up in (growing up middle class in Cambridge, you may as well be a hundred miles from the grittier sections of the larger city across the river.) But I’m not hating on The Town – maybe it says more about the quality of the cinema released in the US so far this year but it was one of the best I’ve seen in 2010.

What works: Affleck proved himself a very competent director of car chase and shoot-out sequences. The film avoided the million miles an hour cut style, the chase sequences were comprehensible and impressively non-disorienting. The acting is quality all around but especially that of Jeremy Renner who disappears into the menace and “nothing left to lose” abandon of his otherwise stock character wonderfully and Chris Cooper, the old jailbird whose sins appear to have been visited upon his son. Sadly Jon Hamm’s character comes off as Don Draper playing an FBI agent – it’s too bad he lacks the range to branch out more. Pete Postlethwaite, as always, raises the quality level of everything he’s in and comes off pretty well as the local strong man who is the brains behind the scenes. Blake Liveley transformed well into an OC addicted young mother wearing too much blue eyeshadow and too few clothes.

What doesn’t work: The final shot is laughably corny and sentimental. The sex scene between Affleck and Lively is unintentionally funny simply because of Affleck’s weird self-consciously put-on grunts. The romance between Rebecca Hall and Affleck is never believable. The story is full of plot holes. Most blantantly:

!!!!!!SPOLIERS BELOW!!!!!!!!

1) There is no good explanation for why the bank robbery gang kidnaps Rebecca Hall (the action that drives the plot of the rest of the film.) They did not need to kidnap anybody.

2) There’s no way Rebecca Hall’s yuppie bank manager character knows how to effectively launder enough of the money Affleck’s robber leaves her at the end to donate enough for a new ice rink at the Boys and Girls Club without the FBI busting her ass.

3) How does Affleck’s character know exactly who harassed Hall’s character as she walked through the projects. Moreover what was the point of he and Renner giving them a beat down without explaining why – to the victims of the attack it looks just like random violence.

Nonetheless I like Affleck’s two films thus far, warts and all. For the scenes when Town stops trying to be a romance/drama it is the best action movie I’ve seen this year.