This Week In Movies – ‘The Town,’ ‘Jack Goes Boating,’ ‘Easy A,’ ‘Devil’

By Pete Hammond Ben Affleck has had a career of ups and downs but to his credit he hasn’t let critical brickbats or tabloid fodder derail him from living up to the promising talent he showed as an actor and writer in 1997’s Good Will Hunting which won Ben and buddy, Matt Damon a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Since then Ben has mixed success in big Hollywood projects like Armageddon (1998) , Pearl Harbor ( 2001) and The Sum Of All Fears (2002) with genuinely interesting acting turns in meatier material like the highly underrated Changing Lanes (2002) and Hollywoodland (2006). Unfortunately there was also his “Bennifer” phase when he and then -fiancée Jennifer Lopez were the talk of the tabs and their joint co-starring venture, Gigli (2003) crashed and burned. By that point most pundits had written off the early promise of Good Will Hunting and dismissed him until his feature directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007) showed that initial talent was just hitting it’s stride. This weekend’s critical acclaim and number one box office ranking for his latest writing/directing/acting achievement, The Town has quieted the doubters and clearly set Ben off on a new career path that buddy Matt Damon says will turn him into “the new Clint Eastwood”, meaning a triple threat talent that is one to watch. The common denominator between Good Will, Gone Baby Gone and The Town is the general location, Ben’s hometown of Boston. When I talked to him a couple of weeks ago he mentioned it was a concern that he get pidgeonholed as the “Boston” guy but that this material was just too tempting to pass up. With its estimated $23.8 million haul, The Town proved that decision to be the right one, beating pre-release predictions, drawing a solid B+ Cinemascore rating and an absolutely stellar 94% fresh score on the Rotten Tomatoes critics meter. What’s particularly heartening about all of this is that The Town falls into that endangered species known as ADULT DRAMA. It’s a time-honored genre that the big studios were thought to be abandoning. Warner Bros. is to be congratulated for a smart marketing and distribution strategy and Ben Affleck is back on top of the movie world with the first significant release of the more serious Fall season.

Speaking of actors-turned-directors, another Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman has also jumped behind the camera, turning the play he did off-Broadway, Jack Goes Boating into a feature film that Overture, through its new sugar daddy Relativity Media, just released over the weekend on four screens in LA and NY to a gross of about $30,000 and a somewhat disappointing per-screen average of just $7500.00. It did earn a nifty 68% fresh RT rating but just couldn’t light a box office fire, at least so far. The film in which Hoffman plays a schlubby lonely guy hooking up with a marginally-less schlubby lonely woman (Amy Ryan – directed to a 2007 Oscar nomination by none other than Ben Affleck in Gone Baby Gone) is very slight material and, as more than one critic has pointed out, is highly reminiscent of 1955’s Marty, which won Oscars as Best Picture and Ernest Borgnine as Best Actor in the title role. For his part Hoffman says he wasn’t aware of any similarity because, as he admitted to the packed preview crowd at West L.A.’s Landmark theatre last Monday during a post-screening Q&A, he’s never even seen that iconic movie. Gotta get out to the movies more often, Phil. You could say that taking on an actors showcase role like Jack by also directing the flick is a bit of a vanity project but as he revealed in the Q&A (moderated by good friend, director Paul Thomas Anderson) he wasn’t planning at all to star in the film and in fact had offered it to a name actor (he wouldn’t reveal the identity) whose own scheduling conflicts forced him to drop out just before shooting was to begin. In order to save the project from sinking altogether, Hoffman reluctantly stepped in and recreated his stage role. He says Jack Goes Boating may not be the last time he directs, but It will definitely be the last time he directs himself.

This weekend is certainly the launch of the Fall movie season even though technically it was the last official weekend of summer. Fall begins today. Don’t tell that to the film industry though. Their summer starts first week of May and is done by last week of August. Anyway among other films, the teen take on “The Scarlet A,” Easy A starring Emma Stone wowed the critics with an 84% fresh RT rating, an A- cinemascore ranking and a better-than-decent second place finish at the box office with $18.2 million, while Lionsgate’s kid 3D ‘toon Alpha And Omega came in 5th with an unexciting $9.2 million. Fox Searchlight’s specialty picture, Never Let Me Go looks promising with its per screen average of about $30,000 on 4 screens in LA and NY, much better than Jack Goes Boating and the quasi-documentary, Catfish which tricked enough moviegoers to drum up $21,000 per screen on 12. Of special interest was Universal’s largely unheralded (and for critics, unscreened ) Devil, a modest star-challenged vehicle from producer M. Night Shymalan but not directed by him. It’s the first of a series called “Night Chronicles” (get it?). They are spooky stories based on ideas of Shymalan but directed by others (in this case Drew and John Erick Dowdle). It came in 3rd with a middling $12.6 million, weak for the horror genre but to be honest I found this nifty little 80 minute exercise to be rather engrossing and certainly better than the last four films Night actually directed himself (at least since “Signs” in 2002. In other words Devil is not half-bad!

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About Pete Hammond

Pete Hammond is a writer, producer, movie critic and film expert whose commentary on the entertainment industry has appeared in numerous publications and on air interviews including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, OK Magazine, NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw, Evening News With Brian Williams on MSNBC, the CBC, BBC, Bravo, E!, AMC, Canada AM and the KTLA Morning Show.

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