Gone Baby Gone


Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

(2007) Thriller (Miramax) Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael Kenneth Williams, Edi Gathegi, Mark Margolis, Madeline O’Brien, Slaine, Trudi Goodman, Matthew Maher, Jill Quigg, Sean Malone, Brian Scannell, Jay Giannone, William Lee, James LeBlanc, Fanshen Cox. Directed by Ben Affleck

The American Experience 2015

There is no worse nightmare for a parent than the disappearance of a child other than that child’s death. In some ways, it’s more wrenching not to know – is the child alive? Is it dead? Is it suffering? Where could it be? A parent will do just about anything to get their child back.

South Boston is in an uproar when the baby of Helene McCready (Ryan) is discovered missing. Nothing will put together a neighborhood, particularly one as tight-knit as Southie as a kid in trouble. Like most of Boston, private detectives Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) hear about the incident on the news, shake their heads and wonder about how bad times have turned, and move on.

That is, until they are awakened by a knock on the door. It’s Helene’s aunt and uncle, Bea (Madigan) and Lionel (Welliver). They’re desperate to get their nephew back and are willing to do whatever it takes. Being longtime residents of South Boston, they know that there are people who might talk to Kenzie and Gennaro who might not open up to the cops. The two private eyes protest; they’re reluctant to take the case on. They’re new at the game and most of their experience revolves around tracking down people who have skipped out on their payments for their jet skis. But Bea and Lionel have faith in them.

They approach the police and Captain Jack Doyle (Freeman), in charge of a task force devoted to crimes involving children, is sympathetic. He also knows that the McCready clan is right – it might not be a bad idea to have some guys helping out the cops that aren’t on the payroll. So he assigns the two inexperienced private eyes to Detectives Remy Bressant (Harris) and Nick Poole (Ashton).

Pretty soon, the addition of Gennaro and Kenzie pay dividends as they begin to get some of the area lowlifes to cough up information. However, the two are taken in directions they couldn’t possibly expect. They’re in way over their heads and they know it. The problem is that a child’s life is depending on them – and their own lives are hanging in the balance as well.

This is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and like all of Lehane’s novels, the plot is amazingly tight and well-constructed. Ben Affleck, who would go on to Oscar-worthy work and becoming one of Hollywood’s most promising directors, was working on his first feature here. He is remarkably self-assured in his direction; apparently all that time as a pretty boy actor paid off as he definitely seems to have made notes from the various directors he has worked for. Nothing here is extraneous, from the images to the dialogue.

It helps that Affleck has assembled a fantastic cast, beginning with his brother. Some eyebrows were raised when Casey was cast in the lead; nepotism, right? Wrong. Casey had been mostly relegated to supporting roles but the guy can act – he would receive an Oscar nomination the same year this came out for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this performance is at least as good. Kenzie is not as self-assured as most thriller heroes; he is only too aware of his limitations, but given the stakes soldiers on as best he can.

The supporting performances are solid as well. Freeman and Harris are two of the finest and most respected actors in Hollywood and given material like this, they can’t help but shine. Ryan, mostly known for her Broadway work, absolutely breaks out with a magnificent performance. Helene is a drug addicted, selfish and promiscuous woman, absolutely unworthy of being a mother. To her credit, Ryan portrays her without any sympathetic moments; we only feel contempt for Helene and that’s the way the plot needs it. Madigan, Welliver and Ashton are all superb as well.

Sadly, Michelle Monaghan – a fine actress – is given little to do other than stand by Affleck and look concerned, or nod in agreement. She is little more than window dressing, which as I recall is not the way Gennaro was in the novel. Sadly, it feels like the Hollywood powers that be felt little confidence in having a woman be an equal to a man in a detective thriller.

Affleck had been in the middle of a slow spot in his acting career when this came out; he not only established himself as a director to be respected, but shortly afterwards resurrected his acting career as well. These days, he is much in demand in both capacities. Gone Baby Gone is the kind of movie that will punch you in the gut repeatedly until you’re breathless and wiped out. Some may find the tension unbearable, particularly in terms of having a child at risk. This was a sleeper critical hit when it came out and remains one of those hidden gems that not very many people think about in terms of movies they want to revisit – but it is worth doing that very thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellently written thriller. Fine performances throughout. Realistic heroes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Monaghan given little to do. May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of foul language, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amy Ryan’s Boston accent was so convincing that security guards refused to let her on the set because they thought she was a local trying to get in. It was only when a producer noticed her on the wrong side of the barricade that she was allowed on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette detailing the thoughts behind the casting and how it was accomplished.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.6M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Inside Out

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Uncle John


Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

(2015) Suspense/Romance (Self-Released) John Ashton, Alex Moffatt, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Don Forston, Laurent Soucie, Gary Houston, Tim Decker, Mark Piebenga, Janet Glimme, Michael Sassone, Matt Kozlowski, Eli Rix, Carol Sekorky, Charles Stransky, Andy Cameron, Ian Pfaff (voice), Donna Steele, Tammy Newsome, Adria Dawn, Ashleigh LaThrop. Directed by Steven Piet

Florida Film Festival 2015

Most of us have some sort of secret or another; few people are completely transparent. Maybe it’s a secret crush we harbor for someone we work with or maybe it’s a dark deed done in the heat of passion. Maybe it’s just how we feel about the man who raised us.

John (Ashton) is an aging man who lives on a Wisconsin farm he inherited from his dad but is no longer a working farm. He has managed to keep the land but has turned his skills to carpentry, where he installs and repairs cabinets or builds furniture in the small town near his farm. Generally his social life involves hanging out in a diner with his friends, men he’s known and hung out with likely since childhood. They’re all old men now, chattering about gossip like you’d expect from old women. The main source of gossip is the disappearance of Dutch (Soucie), a former roustabout who had found Jesus and was trying to make amends to everyone he’d wronged which was a fairly sizable list.

Ben (Moffatt) is a young man working for a digital animation studio in Chicago that handles a lot of advertising accounts. He works long hours and doesn’t have much time for a social life. His latest project has a new producer, Kate (Lyng) who is a very attractive young woman. Ben is instantly attracted, and it soon becomes clear that the feelings are mutual but both are aware that office romances can be career killing things, so they keep things cordial but the fire is clearly smoldering. The two are forced to spend a lot of hours working together and naturally begin hanging out after work, a post-work cocktail here, a late dinner of Thai food there. Even though Kate is trying to get Ben laid with hook-ups at their local bar, Ben bicycles home late at night with Kate on his mind.

When the client for the project that Ben and Kate are working for demand some late changes, a weekend work session begins to take its toll. Ben suggests some pastries at the best bakery he knows – in the small Wisconsin town he grew up in. Kate is all in and they take a road trip to visit Ben’s Uncle John, the man who raised him after his parents passed away.

In the meantime Dutch’s brother Danny (Blevins) is certain that his brother is dead despite the fact that no corpse has been found. He is also certain that his brother has been murdered, even though signs point to a fishing accident. His suspicions land on John, whose behavior arouses Danny’s instincts and while the genial John denies it, Danny is certain he knows a lot more about the situation than John is letting on. With Ben and Kate arriving for a visit, both stories begin to swirl towards the inevitable; will Kate and Ben give in to their feelings for each other and will Danny confront John with the violence that is clearly bubbling beneath his surface?

Piet is attempting the rather ambitious task of filming two different stories in two disparate genres and then entwining them together in a single movie. The effect is not unlike switching channels on broadcast television between two different movies whenever a commercial interruption occurs. It’s an intriguing notion on paper.

For the most part, Piet does achieve what he seems to be aiming for – the two stories make their way through the course he lays out for them. It’s like they’re both swirling down a drain as they reach a denouement, moving faster and faster towards their conclusions before joining and merging at the bottom of the drain. Some of the best moments in the movie occur when all four of the main characters are together.

Oddly, Piet then chooses to separate the stories again with Ben and Kate in the house and John and Danny out in John’s workshop across the yard in a converted barn. The sex/death metaphor is a bit hoary for the most part but effective as the two stories reach their conclusions and the questions outlined earlier are answered. We end up very much full circle in a lot of ways.

Ashton, who most know as the by-the-book Sgt. Taggert in Beverly Hills Cop, does some of the best work of his long career here. John is a pillar of the community sort who seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s a widower and lives alone, even though there’s at least one woman in the community who wouldn’t mind a little canoodling with him. However, his affection for his nephew seems very genuine and the chemistry between Ashton and Moffatt is really the adhesive that binds the film together.

How well the movie works for you is going to depend first of all on how patient you are as the two stories move closer and closer together. As I sat through the film, I found myself wondering if there was going to be some sort of destination but the swirling around the drain metaphor is apt; the further into the movie we go, the faster the two stories seem to get towards merging into a single story. The two stories are pretty compelling with a slight edge towards the suspense story of John and Danny – there are too many awkward courtship moments in the Ben-Kate romance for my liking. Still, if you stick with it, the reward here is worth the effort. I admire the audacity of the filmmakers to purposely make two stories that seem as different as can be and then attempt to join them seamlessly together; it’s not 100% successful in that venture but it is close enough to it that I think this is worth keeping an eye out for on your local film festival circuit. Hopefully the movie will get some distribution and also bring back Ashton’s career as he has been absent from the screen for far too long.

REASONS TO GO: Ballsy move, incorporating two disparate stories. Ashton delivers a fine performance and has good chemistry with Moffatt.
REASONS TO STAY: Two stories merge and yet stay separate. Takes maybe too long in delivering payoff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moffatt is a past member of Chicago’s esteemed Second City troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rope
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Instinct


Instinct

Cuba Gooding Jr. marvels at Anthony Hopkins hair growth after a wild weekend.

(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.

¬†Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.

At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.

The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins Рperhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today Рgiving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John  Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.

The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.

Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.

Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.

FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Skin