Ben Affleck’s critically acclaimed, Boston-set caper drama The Town has three crackerjack heist sequences, and many have pinpointed the climactic Fenway Park robbery (and subsequent shoot-out) as the film’s action high point. But the bank job that opens the film is haunting, terrifying, and thrilling, setting the multiple wheels of the picture (crime story, love story, portrait of a strained friendship) in motion seamlessly without drawing attention to them. Robert Elswitt’s cold, gun-metal photography is tremendous; editor Dylan Tichenor jolts the audience with occasional cuts to security-camera footage, pulling out all of the sound and artifice to give the scene a starling shot of reality.
Elle Fanning does some skating, Somewhere
Critics and audiences are coming out sharply divided on Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere — some find it a stylish and thoughtful examination of movie-star ennui, while others find Coppola’s stand-offish direction and, shall we say, patient sense of pace downright tedious. But wherever you stand, there’s no denying the power of Elle Fanning’s figure skating. Early in the film, film actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) takes his 11-year-old daughter Cleo to her skating lesson. As he sits in the bleachers, checking his BlackBerry and biding his time, he watches her execute a full routine to the strains of Gwen Stefani; this being Somewhere, we watch the routine in its entirety as well. But our attention does not wander (as it does often does elsewhere in the picture), because a) Fanning is a genuinely talented performer (she rehearsed the routine every day for three months before shooting), and b) the scene is about more than her lovely skating, but about how she is becoming a young woman of poise and skill. “You’re really good,” he tells her in the following scene. “When did you learn how to ice skate?” “I’ve been going for three years,” she replies, and for just a moment, he begins to see exactly what he’s been missing — the subtle thread upon which the rest of the tale hangs.
Mike Birbiglia is your waiter, Going the Distance
Going the Distance, the late-summer dirty-talk romantic comedy starring real-life paramours Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, is — to put it charitably — an uneven film. Though the leads have charm to spare, the film’s sparks are mainly provided by the supporting actors (like Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis) and day players, including Flight of the Conchords‘ Kristen Schaal and comic/author/This American Life regular Mike Birbiglia, who shambles in for one scene around the 25-minute mark and damn near steals the whole thing. He’s a waiter at the low-rent Italian restaurant where Long and Barrymore are spending a fancy night out before she returns to California. Long asks for the wine list; Birbiglia informs him that “we just have the one, the jug of wine? It’s a Sunshine Harbor, it’s the house wine.” Asked for his opinion of the “Sunshine Harbor,” Birbiglia volunteers, “It’s okay, you know?” When asked the year of the wine, he responds, “Uh, this!” Okay, it ain’t Sorkin, but Birbiglia’s low-key charm makes it a winning little scene; when he wanders off-screen, you want the movie to follow him.
Chloe Grace Moretz gets her revenge, Kick-Ass
Matthew Vaughn’s superhero comedy Kick-Ass is full of problems — the performances are wildly uneven and the tone is all over the place — but Chloe Grace Moretz, as pint-size superhero Hit Girl, is not one of them; the picture brightens up whenever she and her father, Big Daddy (ably played by Nicolas Cage) enter it, thanks in equal proportion to her giddily energetic playing and Vaughn’s wily way with action. Late in the film (spoiler alert), after villainous crime boss Frank D’Amico takes out Big Daddy, Hit Girl resolves to exact revenge on the gangster, and his gang, single-handedly. Entering the lobby teary-eyed in her schoolgirl uniform, Hit Girl dispatches the building guards with ease; upstairs, now in her Hit Girl garb, she engages the rest of his men in a knife-fight and shoot-out that recalls vintage John Woo. Not every director can get away with dropping in a Morricone cue; with Moretz, there’s no other choice. (Honorable mention: Scarlett Johansson’s big hand- to-hand combat scene as Black Widow in Iron Man 2.)
James Franco loses an arm, 127 Hours
It was the most-talked about scene in Danny Boyle’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, the scene that reportedly had people fainting in screenings, the scene that was the whole reason the picture was made: the inevitable moment when, as hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) realized he really had no hope of getting himself out from under a boulder deep in a hidden canyon, he went ahead and just cut off the arm that was keeping him there. To put it mildly, the sequence is not for the squeamish; the blood is plentiful and the editing cuts to the bone (literally), particularly in the use of a flat guitar string to lend sound to the moment when — never mind, it gives me shivers to even talk about it. But it’s not just a gore sequence (though it works as one); our identification with Franco’s Ralston, and sympathy for him, gives every stab and saw a personal dimension, and we’ve spent so much time in his brain that the amputation feels not like torture, but like release.
Charlotte Rampling picks up Ciran Hinds, Life During Wartime
Director Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, a semi-sequel to his controversial 1998 effort Happiness, was (for the most part) a tired re-heating of that film’s purposefully shocking themes and mannered bad behavior. It only jolts to life once, but the current is strong enough to jump-start the picture (albeit briefly). Ciran Hinds, as the pedophile father recently released from prison, is approached in a bar by a married woman, played by Charlotte Rampling. She shoots straight with him, painfully straight, spitting out her dialogue with both venom and weariness; she takes him to bed, then wakes to find him going through her purse. And that’s when she really lets him have it. Rampling, who is even more unkindly photographed than the rest of the cast, storms the movie in her five minutes (maybe less) of screen time; she puts across enough anger and pain to put the rest of the movie to shame.
Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis get it on, Black Swan
In the months leading up to the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the blogs were abuzz about the big girl-on-girl sex scene between stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Now that the film is out, getting rave reviews and Oscar chatter, not much mention is being made of the sapphic overtones; it’s a serious movie, you see, so no need to drag it into the gutter. But one of the many marvels of Black Swan is its duality — it is a film both campy and artistic, both high-minded and low-brow, and the Portman/Kunis love scene is both exploitatively gratuitous and entirely organic, both erotic and terrifying. It’s a turn-on, yes, but it’s also scary and riveting, a culmination of the narrative’s psychological unrest and aesthetic indulgences. (Honorable mention: Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried’s equally sensuous roll in the hay in Chloe.)
Amy Adams meets Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter
Most of the ink spilled over The Fighter has gone towards praising Christian Bale’s supporting turn as the titular character’s crackhead brother, and with good reason — it’s a haunting, bottomless performance. But Bale isn’t even in the film’s best scene, which comes early, as Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward approaches Amy Adams’ Charlene at the neighborhood bar where she works. He tries to make chit-chat, but she’s guarded and a bit of a ball-buster — presumably a requirement of the job. But as he spends more time standing there, first smacking around a barfly who “disrespects” her, then explaining how he’ll fight his next opponent, she starts to listen to him. Director David O. Russell makes an unconventional but wise editing decision: as Wahlberg lays out his strategy (“I’m gonna go head, body, head, body”), Russell keeps the camera on Adams, showing how she is slowly, subtly starting to soften to the big lug. It’s a warm, intimate, perfect little moment.