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26.2.11

For Your Consideration: 'The Town' and 'Rabbit Hole'

After Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck has written and directed another Boston crime film, this time with himself in the lead role instead of his younger brother. The Town is set in the rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, an adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves by Affleck (with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard). Doug MacRay, played by Affleck, is the head of a hard-nosed bank robbery gang, with enough smarts to stay one step ahead of the law. On their most recent heist, they take a bank manager (Rebecca Hall, of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon) hostage to ensure their escape: while trying to determine if she has spoken with the FBI (she has), MacRay falls in love with her. It is almost beside the point to say that this plot twist is so improbable that it belongs in a soap opera.

It's a perfectly watchable film, not least for fine supporting work from Jon Hamm (Mad Men), who plays the FBI special agent trying to hunt down MacRay and his crew, and Chris Cooper as MacRay's father, serving a life sentence in prison. There are car chases, funny robber masks, lots of guns, and ingenious plots, all the things that make for an entertaining caper film. Jeremy Renner even managed to pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the Academy Awards for his role as James Coughlin, MacRay's best friend and partner in crime. Renner is a talented actor, known especially for much better work in The Hurt Locker last year, for which he also received a Best Actor nomination. It's possible that this nomination was intended as a sort of consolation prize, but the recognition for this role seems misplaced.


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One of the glaring omissions in this year's Academy Award nominations was Rabbit Hole, the latest film from John Cameron Mitchell, with a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (another Boston connection), based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Nicole Kidman did receive a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Kidman's company bought the movie rights to the play, and she is also credited as producer), for her portrayal of Becca, a woman who is struggling to bear the worst loss imaginable: her young son ran into the street in front of their house, chasing his dog, and was struck by a car. Kidman's performance is the strongest of the nominees for the award (with Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine also in the running), but the media attention paid to Black Swan is likely to swing the voting to Natalie Portman (that Kidman has already won the award, for The Hours, is another contributing factor). No less moving is Aaron Eckhart as Becca's husband, Howie, who helplessly watches his wife retreat into a Stepford Wife-like coldness and is tempted by a kindred spirit (Sandra Oh) at their support group. Finally, there is the screenplay, which plays its cards so subtly and with so few cliches that it would be a shame to spoil any of its details. The film certainly deserved one of the ten nominations for Best Film more than Black Swan, Inception, Toy Story 3, or 127 Hours.

Who could have expected such a film from the maker of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, that unclassifiable movie about a transsexual punk rocker, which John Cameron Mitchell both starred in and directed? In only other film since, the navel-gazing Shortbus in 2006, Mitchell went in a somewhat similar direction, but in Rabbit Hole there is only an undercurrent of the weird, a whimsical sense of humor that lightens -- but never cheapens -- what could be, but is not, a very dreary film. Much of the success is due to the supporting cast, especially the perfectly pitched Dianne Wiest as Becca's mother, who has also lost a child -- Becca's brother who died as an adult of a drug overdose, a comparison that rankles Becca. Also strong is Tammy Blanchard (Cadillac Records) as Becca's black sheep sister, who announces that she is about to have a baby with her boyfriend, Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito, in an embarrassment of riches).


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Searching for the talisman that will allow them to emerge from the darkness of grief, Becca and Howie settle on different paths, with Becca obsessing over Jason, the slightly strange teenager driving the car that hit their son, played with awkward guilt by newcomer Miles Teller. Elements of the character are reminiscent of Donnie Darko, including a fascination with alternate universes and the mysterious pathways among them -- the eponymous rabbit holes depicted in a comic book offered by Jason to Becca. It is a harmless fantasy that pleases them both, a tunnel to a world where he did not turn down her street, where they had not brought home a dog for their son, where Becca is something other than sad.

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