Is working-class, Irish Catholic South Boston one of the most ubiquitous movie locales of the past decade or so? It's not hard to see why. Tribal loyalties, drugs and violence, an ethnic enclave slowly changing, and one of the best accents in the country. Add to the already crowded Southie team Ben Affleck's second directorial effort, The Town. It's a worthy addition to the field.
The Town is a perfect example of a really well-made genre movie. Its plot is fairly simple. A group of bank robbers (led by Doug, played by Ben Affleck) rob a bank and take a hostage during the robbery (Claire, played by Rebecca Hall). In order to make sure the hostage doesn't remember them, Doug checks up on Claire and they of course start a relationship. What elevates this story is some really great performances and some truly engaging chase and robbery scenes. I'm not usually a huge fan of Affleck's, but he was very strong in this movie. I think he could have used a bit more of a harder edge, but all in all I liked him. I absolutely love Rebecca Hall in everything she's done (especially Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Please Give), and she does a very nice job adding depth to a somewhat underwritten character (think Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting). The best performance in the movie is given by Jeremy Renner as Jem, the extremely violent and unpredictable friend to Affleck's character. Renner, who was so astonishing in The Hurt Locker, proves himself as an actor again. I wouldn't be surprised to see another Oscar nomination for him. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite are also terrific as always in limited roles as older members of the crime community.
So how does The Town stack up compared to its Boston forbears? It doesn't have the air of epic tragedy you got from Mystic River, nor the audacious violence and energy of The Departed, so I wouldn't put it in the company of those two great movies. I do think it's a bit stronger than Affleck's previous Boston movie, Gone Baby Gone, which I also liked but didnt' seem as cohesive. Affleck is a capable director who knows how to tell a good story and shoot a great action sequence. My biggest problem with the film is probably the ending. I loved the almost-ending (to avoid spoilers, I'll just say involving Rebecca Hall on the phone), but thought the scene after that was a bit hard to believe (Rebecca Hall in her garden plot).
In a year that's looking a little weak for 10 Best Picture nominees, I even think The Town, which has been a hit, has a chance at a Best Picture nomination. It's solid entertainment, and I'd recommend it to anyone.
If you asked me my favorite performance by an actress during the past decade, I'd probably say Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. If you asked me my favorite by an actor, Sean Penn's turns in Mystic River and Milk would certainly rank high. Give me a movie starring Watts and Penn, and I'm there.
Fair Game is the story of the Valarie Plame/Joe Wilson saga. For the first hour, the movie was terrific. It follows Plame's actions as a CIA agent, Wilson's trip to Niger to investigate uranium tubes, and how the Bush administration's thirst for war led to vicious backstabbing. The first hour of the movie is gripping, intense, and brings back the anger so many of us felt in the nation's rush to war.
The last 45 minutes of Fair Game deals more with the fallout from Plame's outing as a CIA agent, especially the effect on the couple's marriage. This material felt a little thin to me, and I don't think it lived up to the first hour. We still care about the characters, mostly because of the very strong performances.
Fair Game is the a movie that is engaging and highly watchable, but doesn't stand out as great. I don't see it playing much of a role in the Oscar race this year.