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THE TOWN

***1/2

Is it safe to assume the Gigli wisecracks are permanently behind us? Granted, Ben Affleck's professional dalliances with Jennifer Lopez -- specifically, Gigli and Jersey Girl -- didn't exactly aid a career lull further bogged down by the likes of Surviving Christmas and Paycheck. But a better selection of roles as well as a stunning directorial debut with 2007's Gone Baby Gone have led to a resuscitation that continues with The Town, his second eye-catching effort as writer-director.

While The Town doesn't quite match the giddy pleasures of Gone Baby Gone (which, after all, was second only to No Country for Old Men on my 10 Best list for '07), it aptly illustrates that Affleck won't have to contend with either the label of "beginner's luck" or "sophomore jinx." A crackling drama with a fine sense of both spacial relationships (thank Affleck the director) and character relationships (thank Affleck the writer), this adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves (co-scripted by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) is set in a section of Boston known for producing more bank robbers than anywhere else in the country.

One of these heist-happy fellows is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who leads his three accomplices (the most volatile played by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner) on a caper that results in the masked bandits briefly taking a hostage, bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Electing to keep tabs on Claire to insure she doesn't get too chummy with the FBI (repped by Mad Men's Jon Hamm) and reveal anything that might incriminate the gang, Doug strikes up a friendship with the unsuspecting woman, a camaraderie that quickly turns into love.

A genre flick like this can't avoid all the clichés, but it manages to sidestep some of the biggest ones. At any rate, it's the little moments that make this stand out, whether it's a cop looking the other way or a final sip from a soft drink resting on the ground. The film can quickly shift from funny (as when Claire tells Doug that she'd be able to recognize her kidnappers' voices if she ever heard them again) to frightening (Pete Postlethwaite's wiry frame and low voice belie his demonic disposition), and it plays out in ways not entirely expected.

Exhibiting a complete command of his craft, Affleck sets The Town on fire, and his career behind the camera should only continue to heat up.

EASY A

**1/2

Heathers in the 1980s. Clueless in the '90s. Mean Girls in the noughts. It seems like every decade insists on giving audiences a razor-sharp high school satire centered around the travails of a brainy and likable female protagonist. Easy A appears to be this new decade's first entry in the sweepstakes, and while it can't quite compare to its enduring predecessors, it will do just fine until something more permanent comes along.

Borrowing from the '80s oeuvre of high school flicks - and not always gracefully (any film that uses the Breakfast Club anthem "Don't You (Forget About Me)" for a crowd-pleasing finale is definitely cutting corners) -- Easy A casts Emma Stone in a potential star-making performance as Olive, a virginal wallflower who, through convoluted means, ends up being tagged as the biggest slut at her California high school. Her best friend (Alyson Michalka) wants to dump her, the resident Jesus freak (Amanda Bynes) wants to alternately save or condemn her, and various nerds want to score with her.

Soon, Olive is likening her situation to Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and rather than fight the rumors, she starts parading around the campus grounds wearing tight-fitting clothes accentuated by a red letter "A."

The Hawthorne comparisons are often clumsy, and Olive's friends and tormentors are a rather nondescript lot (most invisible of all is Penn Badgley as the only guy who treats her decently). But there's still much to enjoy: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the Coolest Parents Ever; Thomas Haden Church wearing sensitivity well as a congenial teacher; Lisa Kudrow in a welcome appearance as a shallow guidance counselor; and no shortage of clever retorts penned by debuting scripter Bert V. Royal. Easy A may be about the kids, but aside from Stone's contribution, it mostly benefits from all the adult supervision.

 

 

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