Debuts Blogathon: Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Debuts Blogathon

Another day, another great post in the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, this time courtesy of Ruth from FlixChatter. If it’s quality you’re  looking for, look no further than this great site. Each and every post is infused with great insights, as well as Ruth’s unique, conversational style. She brings that style to this analysis of Ben Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone. I thoroughly recommend that you visit Ruth’s site (if you haven’t already of course) and see what I’m talking about.

Ben Affleck

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When I first heard about this Blogathon, I was initially going to do The Usual Suspects as I thought it was Bryan Singer’s debut, but I ended up settling with Ben Affleck’s first film instead, which I think is still the top one out of the three excellent feature films he’s done. This is his directorial debut in a major motion picture, although he did direct two other movies that never made it to the big screen.

Gone Baby GoneI saw this crime drama/mystery quite a while ago, but I remember being quite affected by it. Set in Affleck’s hometown of Boston and starring his kid brother Casey, the story centres on an investigation into a little girl’s kidnapping, which turns out to become a professional and personal crisis for the two detectives involved. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (who also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island), this film has a strong cast that elevates the complex story and gripped me from start to finish.

Casey Affleck, who I think is the better actor of the Affleck brothers, plays private investigator Patrick Kenzie. He opens the story with a monologue as we get a glimpse of the neighborhood where he’s lived his whole life: “I’ve always believed it’s the thing you don’t choose that made you who you are…” It’s an effective opening montage that establishes Casey’s character and puts the grim kidnapping scenario into context.

Gone Baby GoneI’m not going to go into the plot as I feel that if you haven’t seen the film, the little you know about this film the better. What I can tell you is that, initially, you might think the film is about one thing, but slowly but surely, as details unfold it becomes even more devastating than what you think it is. Another missing person case in the second half of the film inexorably shines a light to a darker world of corruption within the force. It’s not something new that we see stories about police corruption; how those who’re sworn to protect us end up betraying that trust, but the way things play out here certainly makes you stop and pause. Despite some hints along the way, the ending managed to still hit me out of left field. It’s such a simple scene, but once you see it in context, Casey’s expression in that scene is just so gut-wrenching. In fact, as I re-watched it recently, it hit me how much of an emotional roller coaster this film was.

What makes this a worthy debut?

Gone Baby GoneIt’s quite a bold choice for Ben to tackle as his first film, considering how complex, twisty and morally-ambiguous Lehane’s novel is. This film stays with me for quite a long time after the end credits roll. It left me speechless as I pondered: ‘OMG! What would I have done? Would I have chosen to do the right thing? And what is really the right thing?’ What if the people you consider ‘righteous’ do unthinkable things because they believe they’re doing something for the greater good? Does that justify the act? Things aren’t always so black and white in our world and this film certainly made a good case for that.

The way he filmed the underbelly of Boston feels authentic and raw; it’s not the typical glamorous-but-impersonal shot of the city. It turns out that the people in the backgrounds in a lot of the scenes are real local Boston actors and members of the local town. Ben made a deliberate choice not to cast professional extras for authenticity and it certainly worked. It’s clearly a personal project for Ben all round, as Gone Baby Gone is also his favorite novel. Now, that doesn’t automatically translate into a good film, but Ben has quite a keen eye behind the camera and he certainly has a way of getting great performances out of his actors.

Gone Baby GoneI love how layered the characters are, beautifully realised by Casey and the stellar supporting cast, especially Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan and the oh-so-underrated Ed Harris. Ryan was Oscar-nominated, but I think Casey and Harris were both robbed that year.

What I admire about this film, and it’s become a signature of sort in Ben’s direction, is the lengthy dialogue. They can be as thrilling and tense as any action scenes, in this case, the well-written script is fully realised by the terrific performances of the cast. The conversation between Casey Affleck and Ed Harris in this clip is a great example, take a look:

Ben Affleck – the auteur?

Ok, so maybe he hasn’t earned that label yet, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with as a director. It’s interesting to note that Ben was at a low point in his career a few years before this, starring in forgettable-to-downright awful films likePaycheck, Jersey Girl, Gigli and Surviving Christmas. He did ok in Hollywoodland, but his career wasn’t exactly in the up and up. I think Ben made the right choice to not star in this film and just focus on his work behind the camera. He did work on the screenplay, which is his first screenwriting credit since his Oscar win with his BFF Matt Damon inGood Will Hunting.

Gone Baby GoneI’ve seen all three of his feature films and all of them are excellent. I think if I were to rate his films, I’d go Gone Baby Gone, Argo and The Town in that order. Yes, I know Argo won Best Film at the Oscars last year and I’m good with that, but in the degree of how a film affects me, I think his first film still tops it for me.

That said, Ben’s work has improved over time as he’s become more confident behind the camera, and I like that he still maintains a certain degree of intimacy in the way he shoots his films. They don’t become ‘Hollywood-ized’ for lack of a better term, as his films are always story and character-driven. I hope he continues that trend in the future. I like how he chose characters who are caught in situations out of their depth; they certainly make for an intriguing protagonists. Though the budgets he’s worked with have gone up steadily from the $19m he got for this film, his films are still relatively small. The Town was only $37m, while Argo had a $44m budget.

Gone Baby GoneIt’s interesting that after the film came out, “…[it] was perceived either as a fluke or too dark to make Affleck a candidate for bigger films”, according to an interview piece Affleck did with The Hollywood Reporter. Affleck states in the interview that only Warner Bros executive Jeff Robinov pursued him with absolute conviction despite the lack of financial success: “… Robinov brought me into his office and said: ‘I think you’re a hell of a filmmaker, actor. What do you want to do? Tell us, and we’ll do it.’ And I wasn’t having those meetings with every studio”. He settled on doing The Town, which ended up earning nearly three times its budget.

I’m looking forward to Ben’s next directorial effort. It’s listed that he’s doing another Lehane adaptation, Live By Night, where he’s going to direct and star. Not sure what’ll happen to that project now that he’s been contracted to play Batman/Bruce Wayne in multiple films. I do think he’ll always be a better director than actor, but really, that’s really not a bad place to be in.

So yeah, if you haven’t seen this film yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I think it stands as one of the best directorial debut by a young director. We’ll see if one day Ben Affleck would indeed earn his status as an auteur.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, it’s the turn of Nika from The Running Reel. Nika covers Sam Mendes’ multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow, I’m thrilled to welcome Tyson from Head in a Vice, who’ll be covering a biggie; it’s Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. You won’t want to miss it.

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Review – Pain & Gain

The American Dream gets a serious steroid pump in Michael Bay’s black comedy based on a true story as knuckle-headed as its protagonists.

Pain & Gain Poster

In many ways, Pain & Gain is the perfect vehicle for Bay’s testosterone-fuelled style. However, following an unnecessarily long 129 minutes you’re left wondering what another director with more vision and discipline and less bombast would have done with such promising material

Hardly the most well-respected director to ever step behind the camera, Bay’s reputation in recent years has sunk to uncharted depths with the mind-numbing Transformers movies. Ahead of the fourth installment of a franchise that’s about as hotly anticipated as an axe to the head, he’s knocked out Pain & Gain, his cheapest film since his 1995 debut Bad Boys.

The wheels come off for disgruntled bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain

The wheels come off for disgruntled bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain

As slick as it is amoral, Pain & Gain has the look and feel of a 1990s Tony Scott film, wherein ultra-ambitious bodybuilder and Sun Gym staffer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) teams up with fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) and ex-con and recovering cocaine addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap obnoxious businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his considerable wealth to them. However, they don’t count on wily private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) sniffing around, while greed gets the better of them when they decide to go after another target.

Ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) gets himself in hot water in Pain & Gain

Ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) gets himself in hot water in Pain & Gain

As is the way with most films ‘based’ on a true story, Pain & Gain plays fast and loose with the real life events that took place in Miami more than 15 years ago and adopts an exploitative tone all-too familiar in Bay’s films.

Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) consults flirty nurse Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson) in Pain & Gain

Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) consults flirty nurse Robin Peck (Rebel Wilson) in Pain & Gain

Billed as an action comedy, the film can’t seem to decide where its sympathies lie. It portrays Lugo as a meathead with delusions of criminal intelligence and a sense of entitlement to what he sees as the American Dream (ie having lots of cash), but Wahlberg’s likeably wide-eyed performance is such that you find yourself siding with him in spite of the murderous chain of events he sets off.

Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) live it up in Pain & Gain

Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Doorbal (Anthony Mackey) live it up in Pain & Gain

There’s no doubt that as an experience it’s head and shoulders above the lowest common denominator flatulence of Transformers, but Bay is too one-dimensional a director not to throw in big-breasted babes and violence-for-laughs when he can.

It’s a shame too, as Pain & Gain has moments that really spark, not least of which the sequence in Doorbal’s house in which Bay shows the wheels coming off for the gang by inventively gliding the camera back and forth between Lugo losing it in one room and Doyle and Doorbal getting increasingly out of control in the other.

Private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) on the case in Pain & Gain

Private detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) on the case in Pain & Gain

Wahlberg has one of those faces that lends itself to playing normal working class guys and he does what he does best here as the naive ringleader Lugo. Mackay plays dumb without winking to the audience as Doorbal; a willing participant in Lugo’s scheme who’s too cowardly and greedy to escape when things get out of hand. There’s an amusing irony in the fact the steroids he’s abused to artificially pump up his body have given him erectile dysfunction, although it doesn’t seem to bother flirty nurse Robin (a great turn by Rebel Wilson).

Sun Gym owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) in Pain & Gain

Sun Gym owner John Mese (Rob Corddry) in Pain & Gain

The star of the show, though, is Johnson as the simple-minded Doyle. Originally pegged as a Schwarzenegger wannabe, Johnson has shown himself to be an actor with a lot more range than he’s often given credit for and here finds the right balance between gentleness and psychosis without ever going too big.

The supporting turns are also largely excellent, from Harris’ kind-hearted detective (bringing to mind Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson) to Shalhoub’s deeply unpleasant victim (“you know who invented salads? Poor people”) and Rob Corddry’s pathetic Sun Gym owner John Mese.

In many ways, Pain & Gain is the perfect vehicle for Bay’s testosterone-fuelled style. However, following an unnecessarily long 129 minutes you’re left wondering what another director with more vision and discipline and less bombast would have done with such promising material.