Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Company Men

It didn’t find an audience in the US but this drama is a thoughtful depiction of the American workplace during the current recession.

Exploring the contemporary economic malaise through the lens of a fictional Massachusetts company GTX, the story focuses on various employees as they gradually feel the effects of corporate downsizing.

The principle focus is on a cocksure sales guy (Ben Affleck) in his late 30s; his veteran colleague (Chris Cooper) and the company’s co-founder (Tommy Lee Jones) as they all try to deal with the pressures applied by their cost-cutting CEO (Craig T Nelson).

As they have to deal with the soul destroying effects of losing their white-collar livelihoods, they all struggle to cope with unemployment and its impact on their personal and professional lives.

Director John Wells has had an illustrious career in television with megahits like ER and The West Wing, and like those shows his debut feature deals with white-collar workers and contemporary social issues.

Some will criticise the film for not dealing with those lower down the economic food chain, but it is arguably more daring to examine the soured dreams of the American middle class.

Although by no means perfect, it is a restrained but compelling portrait of people coming to terms with the uncertainty and despair following the financial collapse of 2008.

Wells has assembled an excellent ensemble cast: Affleck convincingly displays the arc of a complacent man gradually humbled by circumstance; Rosemary DeWitt is an effective voice of reason and love as his wife; Jones brings a wise, grizzled anger to his part whilst Cooper paints a haunting portrait of an older worker in despair.

The supporting turns are also of a high standard: Nelson makes for a ruthlessly logical boss; Maria Bello is his conflicted hatchet woman; whilst Kevin Costner has his best role in some time as Affleck’s blue-collar brother-in-law who offers him work.

Set in sterile corporate offices or suburban houses, the hiring Roger Deakins as cinematographer was a master stroke: not only does he light these environments with his customary skill and taste, but he also brings a visual elegance to the film which is so well executed you barely notice it.

This is not a film with especially earth shattering revelations, as anyone with a brain can deduce that unemployment leads to misery and despair.

But the screenplay, based on extensive interviews and research, is filled with painfully accurate touches: the outplacement seminars designed to help laid off workers; the corporate obsession with the stock market; the quiet agony of trying to get re-employed, the effects on loved ones and the struggle to re-establish an identity defined by a job.

Coming at time when America and Europe is only just coming to terms with the scope of the late 2000s recession, the film is powerful reminder of the Capitalism gone horribly wrong.

No doubt that is why audiences have largely stayed away from the film, as this is a raw subject, perhaps too close to home for many individuals and families affected by job losses.

There are times when the screenplay and guitar-inflected score reach for sentimental uplift, but overall the message throughout is fairly subversive for a mainstream American film.

Not only does it point out the callow nature of corporate America but also highlights the emptiness of material possessions and shallow thinking that played a part in inflating the sub-prime mortgage bubble.

An unusually bold film, it deserves credit for confronting an issue that will unfortunately be around for some time to come.

> Official site
> Reviews of The Company Men at Metacritic
> Find out more about the late-2000s recession at Wikipedia

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Town

Ben Affleck’s second film as director is a satisfyingly lean crime drama about bank robbers in Boston.

The town of the title refers to the Charlestown district of Boston which provides the setting and, as an opening title informs us, has produced generations of thieves.

Adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’, the story sees Affleck plays the leader of a gang who play cat and mouse with a local FBI agent (Jon Hamm) keen to bring them to justice.

After a heist goes slightly wrong, they fear that a hostage (Rebecca Hall) may have recognised one of them behind their masks. To complicate matters further, Affleck’s character soon falls for her which creates tensions with his fellow gang member and friend (Jeremy Renner).

Whilst not as strong as Affleck’s first outing as director, the quietly brilliant Gone Baby Gone, it nonetheless establishes him as a confident storyteller who can get draw compelling performances from his actors.

Affleck’s acting performance is also solid, cutting a likeable but anguished figure in the lead role whilst Renner has a scene-stealing supporting turn as an unpleasant, edgy sidekick.

Hamm is good value as the driven FBI agent. Even though at times his character feels a little too close to his Mad Men persona, he gives his role here a sense of gravitas and bite as he pursues Affleck’s gang.

The female parts are a little undercooked, as is often the case in male dominated crime dramas, although Hall does her best in an underwritten role and Blake Lively manages a major transformation for those that know her from the television show Gossip Girl.

The script – co-written by Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig – feels like it has been forged in a good deal of research.

The local slang the characters frequently use and the little details of the robberies all add help to paint a convincing world, even if a couple of major plot points stretch that credibility.

Affleck has also cannily recruited some first-rate talent behind the camera: cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots contemporary Boston with a gritty but vibrant look, whilst editor Dylan Tichenor gives the pacing an extra snap and crackle during the set pieces (it is worth noting that both regularly work with Paul Thomas Anderson).

The score by Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley also adds to the overall mood, with the strings and piano giving certain scenes an extra emotional kick and at times it is reminiscent of the excellent Gone Baby Gone score.

When it comes to the fundamentals, The Town is a highly watchable and pleasingly old-fashioned piece of work. There is no CGI, no pandering to the geek crowd and the characters, dialogue and action are all executed without bluster or excess.

That said, this is very familiar territory for anyone who has seen crime dramas such as The Departed (2006) and Heat (1995).

In fact the parallels with Michael Mann’s film are striking to the point of distraction: a head to head battle between a cop and a thief; bank robberies involving automatic weapons; romantic entanglements; a protagonist struggling to escape his past; and the now-familiar ‘one last job’.

It doesn’t detract from the overall qualities on display, but for viewers familiar with Mann’s film, it lingers like a ghost over stretches of the material.

That said The Town still has many qualities to admire. Even if it isn’t especially groundbreaking, it holds the attention and is packaged with skill and efficiency.

Affleck has certainly had his fair share of ups and downs as an actor, but on the evidence of his first two films, he is quickly maturing in to a very fine director.

The Town opens in the US today and in the UK on Friday 24th September

> Official site
> Reviews of The Town at Metacritic
> Find out more about Charlestown at Wikipedia
> NPR interview with Jon Hamm about The Town and Mad Men

DVD & Blu-ray dvd pick

DVD Pick: Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is the highly accomplished adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s novel about the investigation into the disappearance of a young girl in Boston.

The film’s UK release was postponed due to the (entirely coincidental) similarities with the Madeleine McCann case and despite critical acclaim and some award nominations it probably didn’t get the recognition or box office it deserved.

It marks the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, a high profile actor who’s career had become recently mired in less-than-successful work like GigliPaycheck and Surviving Christmas.

However, here he shows considerable promise as a director, not only through the intelligent script he co-wrote Aaron Stockard, but in how he has put together many different elements to create a serious and absorbing crime drama.

He has had the sense to hire a slew of accomplished actors (Ed HarrisMorgan FreemanAmy Madigan) in key supporting roles but also entrusted the two key roles to younger actors with their careers now firmly on the rise.

Amy Ryan deservedly received an Oscar nomination as the mother of the missing girl, whilst Casey Affleck is highly assured in the lead role as the investigator hired to assist the police in the case.

The technical contributions are all excellent with the cinematography of John Toll and music by Harry Gregson-Williams being particular stand outs.  

Perhaps what is most impressive about the film is the way Affleck has refused to romanticise his hometown – he doesn’t flinch from showing the dark complexities of a modern American city, a place where morals and motivations can get easily blurred. 

The extras on the disc are solid without being spectacular and include the following:

  • Going Home: Behind the Scenes with Ben Affleck (7:05): A 6 minuted EPK-style featurette with on set interviews with cast and crew, intercut with scenes from the film.
  • Capturing Authenticity: Casting Gone Baby Gone (8:56): A featurette on the casting, which is one of the major strengths of the film. 
  • Audio Commentary: Ben Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard make an informative and engaging duo as they discuss various aspects of the film and production. One sound point they note early on is that given the nature of the plot, it is a film that repays repeated viewings in order to see the how it unfolds. As a first time director Affleck points out a lot of the technical apsects of how certain scenes worked, describing certain shots, reshoots and various other things of note. One nice touch was the use of non-actors who were recruited from the surrounding areas of Dorchester – it is a credit to the main cast that they blend in so well.
  • Deleted Scenes (with audio commentary): Affleck and Stockard also provide commentary on six deleted scenes, all letter boxed, including extended opening and closing scenes. The longer opening (8:20) shows Kenzie working a case and the “eye-opening extended ending” (3:44) is really basically the same thing we see in the film except with an added voice over from Kenzie to match his narration at the beginning and middle of the movie. Four more deleted scenes are included, all lasting less than 2 minutes, so are relatively minor. The decisions Affleck ultimately made regarding what went in the movie and what didn’t are representative of the keen judgment he showed as director.

Overall, although the extras are good, this is worth getting for the film itself – one of the best dramas to be released this year.

Gone Baby Gone is out now on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment [Cert 15]

* Listen to our intervew with Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck about the film *

> Buy the DVD from Amazon UK or get the Blu-ray version
> Gone Baby Gone at the IMDb 
Official UK site for the film
Check out the trailer for the film
Read reviews of the film at Metacritic
Q&A with author Dennis Lehane at his official website

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck on Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is a new film based on the Dennis Lehane novel about the search for a young girl who has been kidnapped in an area of Boston.

Ben Affleck makes his debut as director and his younger brother Casey Affleck stars as the private investigator who is asked to help out on the case.

It also stars Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, John Ashton and Amy Madigan.

I recently spoke to Ben and Casey about the film and you can listen to the interviews here:

Or you can listen to the older version here:


Gone Baby Gone is out at UK cinemas this Friday

> Download the interviews as an MP3 file
> Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck at the IMDb
> Official UK site for the film
> Check out the trailer for the film
> Read reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Q&A with author Dennis Lehane at his official website