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Monday, 14 February 2011

Ben Affleck....And Other Surprises

Isn't it a strange, terrific buzz when you get to experience something, not just in film but in any sphere, that you genuinely were not expecting, something that completely knocks you sideways because you did not see it coming?  An example might be Justin Timberlake successfully making the crossover from music to film, and becoming a serious actor with a potential future, most recently portraying Sean Parker in "The Social Network" with some panache.  Another, Robin Williams portraying the killer in "Insomnia", or achieving the highest level of creepiness in "One Hour Photo", whilst in both cases keeping them completely earthed and human.  People are concerned about the supposed casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in the next "Batman" film, but quite apart from the fact that when doing something worthwhile Hathaway is perfectly fine, have they already forgotten that the last time Chris Nolan made an unusual casting choice, it stunned every naysayer into shocked silence?  I would like to talk a little about another couple of people whose best work is of unprecedented quality, and yet almost unrecognised!  I'd like to start with Ben Affleck.....yes, I did just say that name.

Apart from winning the writing award with friend Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting", it is no surprise that Affleck's early career is viewed lightly, even as a joke by harsher critics; not a good actor, a man who kinda plays himself a lot, and in roles that never really amounted to much.  For the most part he either got on your nerves, or at best you simply did not care for him a great deal.  In fact he has recently been overshadowed, on the acting front, by his little brother Casey, whose performance in "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" (doesn't it just flow off the tongue, eh?) won him overnight attention, an early success he has strangely been unable to least for now, as it is by no means because it was a fluke, he really is that good.  We had seen the guy in roles before, even alongside Ben in the aforementioned "Good Will Hunting", but he's that guy who, now looking back you say, "Oh yes, there he is!"

I had actually recognised Casey's ability in a film I had seen before "The Assassination....", and it is the film that also highlighted for me the directing talent of.....Ben Affleck!  "Gone Baby Gone" is his first feature, and given his reputation at the time, you can imagine what one would expect, for his first time directing to be just as wobbly as everything else, right?  Well, apparently our Ben had been hiding his talent under a bushel; after seeing "Gone Baby Gone" I found myself genuinely hoping he would stop wasting his time in front of the camera, and get his arse behind it more.  I am not exaggerating, if you have not seen this film, check it out; this applies all the more if you are a fan of Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River" and "Shutter Island"), as it is once again a morally challenging, exciting piece of writing.  Affleck managed to get together a stunner of a cast (Casey, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, as well as numerous other familiar and superb character actors) and put together an intelligent, well-shot, well-paced, very mature film that does not let you down; from the opening scene to the closing moments it is completely gripping.  It retains the thoughtfulness of the book; it is divisive and controversial, and it completely blew me away.  If you did not know you were watching Ben's first feature film, it is not an exaggeration to suggest you would place it happily alongside the work of Eastwood or Scorsese.

Affleck followed this up recently with a second Boston based film (he really hates the place!), and this time one that is completely of his own making.  This probably explains why "The Town" is not on the same level as his debut (he is no Dennis Lehane), but I must say that although you have seen it all before and it is a pure "nuts and bolts crime thriller" (although there is an interesting love story element to it that creates a "Heat"-like playoff between the criminal and the man), for what it is he still displays great talent; Ben can write, shoot, and put a film together well.  "The Town" even managed to get a BAFTA and Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner in the category "Actor In A Supporting Role".  On top of this, Ben steps back in front of the camera to lead on this one as well.  This could have been a big mistake, but to my shock, he seems to have re-invented himself in this regard also; gone are any of the traits that annoyed us, gone is any lack of conviction.  What he has shown me with his two films so far is not only that he is a very efficient film maker, but now a good, strong actor.  It might be a while before we see him up on that Academy stage in the capacity of director, but I have to admit....I would not put it past him to be there one day!

Next up, Colin Firth, an actor we all have a fairly solid view of, and who has recently garnered much deserved attention for his role in "The King's Speech".  What is interesting is how people are talking about his acting being knockout, and the role being so different from his usual performance, and so surprisingly good.  I take objection to this; yes the acting is knockout, but why do they say it with such surprise, as though Colin Firth is somehow a better actor now than he was before?  I have always known he was great and it didn't shock me one bit that he turned in remarkable work here.  So, good yes, surprising not at all!  As for being different, is it really that much different?  He's British, socially disabled, awkward and of high class....being royal, of course.  I am not taking away from the study he must have put in, nor am I trying to detract anything from his success; I am merely making the point that he really only did what any leading British actor would have done.  Yes, leading British actor.  Not totally convinced about Firth's abilities by "The King's Speech"?  Let me tell you about a film that was recently recommended to me, in the same way and for the same reason I am now going to do so to you.  It is a 2005 film from Marc Evans ("My Little Eye" and "Snow Cake") called "Trauma"!

"Trauma" is about Ben, a man who suffers a car accident with his wife Elisa, and upon emerging from his coma, discovers she is dead. His accident coincides with the death of the famous singer Lauren Parris, who we discover was connected to Elisa. Ben moves back to his apartment, is befriended by a neighbour named Charlotte, and proceeds to try to get on with his life with the aid of sessions with a psychiatrist. Unfortunately he is haunted by visions and a growing feeling that there is something wrong, that he is missing a huge piece of a puzzle he seems to be part of.

This is a film that suffers from various problems: a rather unremarkable turn from Mena Suvari (American Beauty) as Charlotte, Naomie Harris and Brenda Fricker being given fairly little to do, and a sense that Richard Smith, the writer, was so intent on telling a strange story, he perhaps lost his way with some of the finer details. All that said, Marc Evans brings it in at 90 minutes, and manages to create a tense, exciting experience, if not a wholly satisfying one. It seems to be an issue for a lot of people that there are more questions than answers, and that the film is unnecessarily confusing. The thing is, though I do agree it is flawed and certainly not technically on the level of Evans's previous work, I don't think the direction is as unruly and ill-disciplined as these people believe.

"Trauma" is not supposed to be a story with a beginning, middle, and an end where you get all the answers; it is not a story where everything is crystal clear, which once finished you can then forget about. To me, it became clear that it was Evans' intention to tell a very subjective story, through the eyes of our protagonist. The hook of it is exactly that question of doubt about Ben, and the questions you have to ask, some of them questions that even he has himself: Is he a victim of some game, is he really missing a bigger picture, is he paranoid, is he losing his mind through grief, is he schizophrenic? Evans's use of tone, editing, and pacing, and his ability to blur the line between reality and delusion really do put you in the piece with Ben. You are not supposed to go away fully understanding it all, but rather having experienced the character's fears and possible delusion for yourself, having been dragged through the film, regularly as confused as Ben is. In this regard I would draw a comparison to David Cronenberg's "Spider", though this does play out as a thriller rather than a drama.

Anyway, back to the original point.  Whether this sounds like your sort of thing or not, there is one reason above all else to watch "Trauma", and that is Colin Firth! He said himself the film jumped out immediately; amidst the numerous proposals landing on his mat to play the next romantic lead, it is easy to see how.  "Trauma" is your rare chance to see him playing a man who is dangerously damaged; it is a performance that goes to a shockingly dark place; it is surreal to see him as closer to Norman Bates than Mr Darcy, but if anyone needs convincing that Firth has range as an actor, this would most certainly be it. The film was completely overlooked, but see it; his performance alone makes it a worthwhile experience.  

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