The Town


By now, we all know that Ben Affleck is from Boston. His first film as director, “Gone Baby Gone”, is set there and he has now returned home for his second feature, “The Town”. The titular town in question is Charlestown, a town in Boston that has seen more bank robberies than apparently any other in the world. Personally, I would think twice about even opening a bank there with statistics like that, but people need their money and other people need to steal it. In “The Town”, Affleck gives us a delicate, albeit straightforward, balance between these people.

There is nothing particularly new and exciting about the premise. A group of four “townies”, including Affleck himself and new “It” boy Jeremy Renner, hold up a local bank and take the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage. Affleck stalks her a little afterward to make sure she doesn’t know anything that the FBI can use to find them, but then something unexpected happens; he falls for her. It isn’t really unexpected for us but rather for him. All he’s known his whole life is crime; even his father (Chris Cooper) is doing time and proud of it. I think what he didn’t expect was that he might want something else from life, something more stable and meaningful – something that you actually can’t steal but rather have to earn.

Affleck is quickly becoming a more relevant persona as a director than as an actor, but it is his lead performance in “The Town” that anchors the film. The supporting cast, including Jon Hamm without a cigarette hanging out of his mouth all the time, is stellar, but Affleck is the big winner here. He may not have found a way to inspire insight from his work as a filmmaker just yet but he knows how to control the story, command the audience’s attention and, most importantly, keep us entertained. My money says he is going to continue to grow on this path. I just won’t be putting that money in any townie bank any time soon.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Easy A


Olive: I used to be invisible. If Google Earth were a guy, he couldn’t find me if I were a ten-storey building.

What Ojai, California high school student Olive Penderghast has to go through in director Will Gluck’s “Easy A” to get her “A” cannot be described as anything remotely close to easy. That said, sitting back and watching everything she has to go through is one of the easiest things you’ll ever have to do. Not only does Glick make it easy for us to enjoy his second feature film, he makes sure we learn a thing or two while we’re in the midst of losing ourselves in hysterical laughter. Did I mention this is a teen comedy?

We are first introduced to Olive on her webcam. The lovely Emma Stone stares directly at us as Olive and tells us flat out that we are about to hear her side of a story, which she insists to us is in fact the right side of the story. She proceeds to tell us in incremental chapters about how one lie she told to her best friend in a bathroom about how she lost her virginity to a college boy over the weekend, spiraled out of control and ruined her life. She has a face you want to believe but we have no reason to trust her really. It is Stone’s conviction that ultimately sells it though; she is a sharp, young lady but her vulnerability is never disregarded and I can’t think of any reason why she would make any of this up.

“Easy A” is easily one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. The entire ensemble, from Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s ultra-open-minded parents to Thomas Haden Church as Olive’s favourite teacher, are hilarious and seem to be having the best of times in their roles. Essentially, the whole thing is infectious and leaves a lasting impression because it goes beyond the sharp, witty dialogue we’ve come to expect in any teen comedy effort to show us that intelligence and growth are not yet lost on the young.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

The Switch


Oh what a cynical, love starved world we live in today that a movie like “The Switch” can be called a romantic comedy. A) It is rarely, if ever, funny – not that is doesn’t make numerous, desperate attempts to be just that. And B) there is absolutely nothing romantic about two aging friends who are so caught up in their own self-imposed neurosis that they cannot see how easy it could all be if they just saw each other for who they really are. It’s like they’ve given up but yet they’re asking us not to.

Jennifer Aniston is Kassie and Kassie wants a baby. Kassie doesn’t have a boyfriend though; she just has a best friend named Wally (Jason Bateman), an aptly named wallower who has been in love with Kassie for years. Rather than go the clichéd route of trying to have babies between besties, Kassie takes the other now clichéd approach by having a baby with a baster – y’know, of the turkey variety – instead. She doesn’t need a man even though the one she wants is standing right in front of her but Wally will have none of this. In one of those drunk moments that no one ever remembers the next day, he accidentally ruins the sperm sample Kassie wanted to use and replaces it with his own so as not to get caught. It is essentially a horrible thing to do and an act that could end their friendship. Hilarity is supposed to ensue but what does is a drawn out delay between the actual act and the inevitable reveal – oh and a lot of moping and complaining in between.

I cannot figure out how it took two directors to put this film together. This is especially true when novice filmmakers, Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“Blades of Glory”) don’t seem to have any clear direction between the two of them as to what they’re trying to say. There is only one thing that makes “The Switch” watchable and that is Jason Bateman. As incredibly dry and uninspired as the whole thing is, Bateman manages to bring subtlety and humanity when there is none to be found. We might know Wally; we may have even been him at some point in our lives. We also probably don’t enjoy spending too much time with him either because he just drags us down. Subsequently, so does “The Switch”.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Step Up 3D


“Maybe we’re all plugged in to the same song”

I am not a dancer but I know enough of them and I’ve seen enough episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance” at this point to know that they are some of the hardest working and most passionate artists out there. Like one of the greatest dancers in history once sang jubilantly while he kicked his heels in the air, dancers just gotta dance. (That would be Gene Kelly in case you weren’t aware.) The street kids of Jon Chu’s “Step Up 3D” start their journey with us by expressing this passion in testimonials to the camera and I thought for a moment that this might be that something unique that captures that particular passion perfectly. It only took about two minutes though to see that this was going to be nothing more than just another dance movie after all.

I have also seen enough dance movies to know that they don’t change that much from one to the next. Before a single move is busted, we meet Moose (Adam G. Sevani), a scrawny engineering geek who is just starting college and has to leave his passion for dance behind him. It’s time to be a man and get with the real world of course. He ends up in some NYC park dance-off, as I’m sure those happen daily, when Luke (Rick Malambri), the leader of a group of mismatched dancers called The Pirates, plucks him up as if he is his own personal fairy god-dancer, and makes him the newest member of his troupe. Moose doesn’t really have a say in the matter either. He does have school but this is the dance capital of the world; this is New York City! (Naturally, I know this because Alicia Keys is singing “Empire State of Mind” as we montage over the city.) Luke and company now have to win some major dance contest in order to keep the house they call home from being repossessed, forcing them on to the street. You knew that already though; that’s how they always go.

Having seen enough dance movies, I also know that ultimately, it is about the dancing. With routines ranging from breaking and hip-hop to tango and parkour, “Step Up 3” definitely steps up the dance factor. (I’ve not caught the first two films in the series so I cannot say if it is any better this time out.) It is also the first film to be originally shot in 3D since all those blue people ran amok last year. Some of the dancing pops a little harder but today’s dance films need to be so choppy in order for the intended audience to grab on to them, that the dancing itself sometimes gets lost in the editing. The “Mickey Mouse” 3D here barely seems able to keep up with the dancer’s movements and could be be ringing in a new wave of extremely commercialized 3D films. Sloppy college kids walking off the screen and toward me in packs is not cool; it’s just a frightening sign of things to come. But damn those new Nikes look good on all those pretty young people’s feet.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Salt


Evelyn Salt: I’m not who you think I am.

The tagline for “Salt” poses the question, “Who is Salt?” and after sitting through the incredibly fast-paced spy thriller, I can honestly say that I have no idea who this Salt chick is really. I can say that the movie that is named for her is riddled with plot holes but, when the heroine is as hot and adept at avoiding those holes as Angelina Jolie is, I don’t think it really matters.

When I see a Jolie action film, I’m not looking for anything particularly challenging in terms of depth. This bodes well for “Salt” as what little depth director Philip Noyce tries to infuse into the film is shaky at best. Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who has done incredible things for her country in her time with the agency. As to what country’s interests she actually serves, well, her loyalties are a little gray there. When a Russian defector walks into the CIA building and announces that a Russian operative named Evelyn Salt is going to kill the Russian president, her credibility is shot despite her achievements. She couldn’t possibly be a Russian spy, right? Wrong. She could actually be part of a decades-old Russian project that trained spies as children and then implanted them into the United States to lie dormant until the time came years later for them to do what they were always programmed to do. Like I said earlier, as long as Jolie is running around, being her bad-ass, awesome self and narrowly avoiding defeat while she jumps from one moving vehicle to the next, I can accept a plot as insipid as this one.

Jolie makes “Salt”. She doesn’t make it into any sort of masterpiece but her commitment to the character, from the numerous stunts she is reported to carry out herself to her intoxicating Russian accent, elevates what would have certainly been a tired rehash of the “Bourne” films into a similar franchise for the ladies.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Despicable Me


Gru: Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite … because there are literally thousands of them … and there’s probably something in your closet too.

You’ve gotta love an imagined world where there are evil super villains lurking around stealing things like pyramids and what not right from under the world’s noses. Arguably, super villains exist in our world but the consequences of their dastardly plots are little too real for me. Someone who wants to shrink the moon and hold it ransom though so he can be the biggest, baddest super villain in the world though – now that’s my kinda guy. Or at least he would be if he weren’t trapped in such a predictable, hollow plot and bogged down by such tired, unfunny dialogue.

Gru is despicable. As he is the center of his own universe, from his point of view, he is “Despicable Me”. Voiced with a pretty sturdy Russian American accent by Steve Carrell, Gru is so evil he pops kids’ balloons after he blows them up for them (gasp!) and freezes the long line of people waiting for their lattes at a local coffee shop so he can go to the front of the line. I’m shaking in fear here. What he does next is actually pretty gross when you think about it. He adopts three little girls so that they can bring a shipment of cookies to his new nemesis, Vector, who is evil with “both direction and magnitude” and voiced delightfully by Jason Segel. The cookies are really robots though and are designed to steal the shrink ray Gru needs for his moon heist.

In a not at all surprising turn of events, Gru, a man who is supposed to embody evil, finds himself caring for these adorable little girls. When the girls’ dance recital poses a conflict with his moon heist, you can almost piece together every little lesson still to be learned. Family films do not have to be complex or present a true face of evil to make their point but they have to try a little harder than this to remain original. Instead, “Despicable Me” almost ends up living up to its name and leaves you with little more than a few funny moments and some pretty awesome little minion characters. Those guys made the movie! Too bad it wasn’t about them.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Cyrus


John: I know you’re not supposed to say this but I really like you. Is it crazy for me to say I want it to work out?

Love is tricky to figure out, to piece together so that it actually works out for all parties involved. Love is particularly tricky when you’re middle-aged, have been single for seven years, you’re not really so impressive on paper or in person and the object of your affections is in something of an unhealthy relationship with her 22-year-old-son. Yes, this is what makes love tricky in our modern existence but it is also what makes love oh so rewarding if you manage to get through it. Furthermore, in this particular case, it makes for the perfect comedic setup for the new Duplass brothers movie, “Cyrus”, the summer’s first great indie-comedy.

John C. Reilly makes a fine return to the screen in a more complex, character-based role than he has played in recent memory. John, which is his name in the film and not a casual form of address for the actor, is seven years divorced and still hanging on to that relationship. As a result, he doesn’t do much outside of the house and dating is about as foreign a concept to him as a single sit-up must be given the state of his physique. Without wasting any time on showing us scene after scene to prove what a lonely loser John really is, writers/directors, Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, introduce John to Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party his soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife (Catherine Keener) drags him to. They hit it off instantly which begs the question, what’s wrong with this girl?

As it turns out, she is quite lovely and she and John fall for each just like that. Just because she’s lovely though doesn’t mean she isn’t hiding plenty of ugly behind your back. The ugly I’m talking about here is Jonah Hill. I’m kidding; the actual ugly is the unhealthily close relationship she has with her son, Cyrus, played by the also lovely, Hill. Seriously, I actually think he’s hilarious. I’m not sure I wanted to see Hill or Reilly in so many high definition close-ups but it does help you see that they are not so dissimilar. This might be one good explanation why Cyrus makes it his personal mission to ensure John and Molly do not succeed as a couple despite the fact that they are both so much happier now that they’ve met.

The beauty of “Cyrus”, and there is a lot of it, is the natural way in which the Duplass brothers bring everything together perfectly. A sharp, subtle script, in which Cyrus and John battle intelligently instead of declaring war on each other in some farcical sense, is embodied seamlessly by a pitch perfect cast. Safe for a fairly conventional conclusion, the Dulplass brothers prove that real situations can be shown for the difficult messes they are and still be incredibly funny at the same time.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Winter’s Bone


Ree Dolly: Never ask for what ought to be offered.

“Winter’s Bone” tells you immediately what tone to expect for the duration of your journey. Two young children bounce up and down on a trampoline that sits outside a dilapidated wood cottage that is surrounded by discarded playthings and car parts. A folk waltz about Missouri plays over the soundtrack and, as a teenage girl takes down the laundry and plays with the kids she so clearly looks after, it seems to me that Missouri might as well be misery. These are the Ozark Mountains. This is an America that is not often seen in film – an America that has nothing, trusts no one and doesn’t stand a chance. This is the America that America would rather forget.

The girl is Ree Dolly (relative unknown and inevitable awards season breakout Jennifer Lawrence). She is sixteen years old and she cannot join the army like she wants because she must take care of her two younger siblings and her mentally unstable mother. At an age when the concept of responsibility is only freshly coming into existence for most, Ree must embody it so that her family doesn’t fall apart. And as if chopping the firewood, preparing dinner and making sure the children know both their math lessons and firearm safety weren’t enough for her to shoulder, she must now also find her estranged father. His latest battle with the law over his career as a meth manufacturer has put her home in jeopardy. Her father owns the home and he needed something to put up for bail so if he misses his court date, her family loses everything they have. Their only hope is this young girl.

Lawrence fought hard for this role. It was thought that she was too pretty for the part and, while she is definitely a pretty girl, her performance is about as raw and ugly as they come. Each character she meets greets her with trepidation and aggression and yet each of these people is somehow related to her in some distant fashion. They know her plight and you can see that most yearn to help but that it always stops there because no one dares get involved out of fear for their own person. Lawrence is fearless in the face of these challenges. She relentlessly hunts down her father to secure her family’s basic need for shelter. This is strife; this is suffering. This is survival in the truest sense of the word.

An American flag still hangs outside the Dolly home. It does not fly proudly but rather it just droops, defeated and tired. “Winter’s Bone”, directed with grace and respect by Debra Granik, and based on a brilliantly bare screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, is a visceral experience that makes its points frankly and strongly. It speaks sharply to the dated gender roles, commonplace drug usage and extreme poverty that flood these parts without anyone knowing or caring and it does so in a soft voice that allows the audience to see how dire it is with their own eyes. Even this America will not go down without a fight.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Toy Story 3


Hamm: C’mon, let’s go see how much we’re going for on EBay.

There comes a point in every boy’s life when he has to grow up. Ok, fine. There are many points in a boy’s life when he must do this but going off to college is certainly an undeniable turning point. You leave behind your family, your friends and the only home you know, including a chunk of everything you own. For young Andy, a boy we first met when he was just eight years old, leaving for college means putting away all the toys that brought him so many hours of enjoyment back in his day. And so he throws Buzz, Rex, Slink and the rest of them in a bag destined for the attic. Some have said that after sitting in their own attic, the people at Pixar should have left their very first success, “Toy Story”, exactly where they left it eleven years ago. Fortunately for all of us though, the people at Pixar will never fully grow up. The toys are out of the attic and they’re better than ever!

Letting go, dealing with new realities, distancing yourself so as to avoid ever getting hurt – these are just a few of the touching themes that are subtly told in “Toy Story 3”. The Academy Award winning writer of “Little Miss Sunshine”, Michael Arndt, follows up his first success with what could very likely net him another trophy. Arndt understands that adventure can be subjective – that what might seem small and unimportant to some is the biggest challenge others will ever face. He also understands that adventure is made perilous when those involved have much to lose. For our favourite toys, the loss is particularly significant – they are about to lose their reason for being. Being relegated to the attic means that these toys will no longer be played with, that they will no longer be able to bring joy to their favourite guy, Andy. So as Andy lets go of them, they must learn to let go of him as well.

Toys passing the time in the attic might not make for a very exciting film though. (Mind you, if anyone could make it exciting, it would be these guys.) Instead, the toys find themselves donated to a nursery school. Well, most of them anyway; our man Woody (Tom Hanks) was selected to go off to college with Andy but, as luck would have it, Woody seems to have found himself lost and on the loose once again. While Woody tries to make his way home alone, his pals are stuck in nursery hell, where kids play with you for hours, sure, but they also have no regard for these toys because they just aren’t their own. First time full-fledged Pixar director Lee Unkrich (he previously co-directed “Finding Nemo”, “Monsters, Inc.” and the second “Toy Story” film) ties these two storylines together seamlessly and charges the entire picture with an intensity that never lets up and culminates in a climax so dire that it catches the viewer off guard and triggers an emotional response that cannot be contained. Just ask the guy sitting next to me.

“Toy Story 3” is triumphant! It carries the depth and hilarity that one has come to expect from Pixar and then carries it even further still. Even though I say it again and again when I review their films, they are constantly outdoing themselves. Here, they’ve achieved the extremely rare feat of making threequel a decade after the last installment that actually surpasses both films that came before it. Even though they’re playing with toys, their maturity continues to expand and their visual mastery continues to break their own barriers. Their films work because they have soul. The spirit of “Toy Story” lives in that special bond between a boy and his toys. Back when life was simple, they were all we needed and, according to Pixar, we were all they needed too. And by taking these toys out of the attic and doing right by them one more time, Pixar incites that rare and wonderful feeling of nostalgic warmth that one gets all over their body when find themselves unexpectedly playing again with their favourite toys.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Get Him to the Greek


In director, Nicolas Stoller’s first film, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, North American audiences were formally introduced to Russell Brand, a British comedic sensation. Brand played rocker Aldous Snow, the man responsible for stealing the title character from leading man Jason Segel. You are supposed to hate this guy considering what he did to our quite lovable protagonist but there is just something about him that keeps you from ever getting there. Maybe it’s the seemingly uncontrollable vulgarity that flows from his mouth every time he opens it or maybe it’s just the way he struts around in his sister’s skinny jeans as if he were some sort of hyper-sexualized chicken. Whatever it is, it works.

It works so well that Stoller decided to focus his second directorial effort, “Get Him to the Greek”, with Brand’s Aldous as the central character. Aldous is now completely washed up and off the wagon once again. There is still hope though. Young music biz keener Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) has decided to restage a famous concert Aldous once put on at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in order to miraculously awaken a dying music industry and save Aldous’s career. Both are a pretty tall order but anything is possible in the crazy world of rock ‘n’ roll and Stoller is banking on you knowing that in order to buy his movie. Aaron must get Aldous to the Greek on time but somehow, things go awry.

As comedic as Brand and Hill are together (complimented perfectly by refreshing turns from Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss and Diddy himself, Sean Combs), “Get Him to the Greek” is far too stepped in convention to be truly raucous. The jokes are crass and definitely funny but Stoller tries too hard to come up with the most outlandish rock star obstacles possible to deter them from their destination. When they’re crazy, it’s crazy. When they have lulls though, so do we. With this kind of set up, you should never want the twosome to get where they’re going. In this case, I wanted them to get there a good day earlier than they were supposed to.

Review by Joseph Bélanger