‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ Still Deserves To Be a Holiday Tradition

Wow! This brings back so many memories! I still vividly remember watching these Peanuts specials when I was a kid. Sitting in front of the old Zenith television set in my pajamas, because I had to go straight to bed immediately after they ended, it was always a major event when Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang made an appearance in their latest animated special. Of course, you could always count on Snoopy to steal the show from everybody no matter what holiday was being celebrated.

Sadly, we can only dream of ever having a dog as cool as Snoopy in our lifetime. Can you think of another dog that can cook dinner, be as enraged as John McEnroe during a tennis match, drive a motorcycle, or fly a doghouse in pursuit of the nefarious Red Baron? Cujo comes to mind, but he would be too busy terrorizing humans.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” is one of those specials I had not seen in the longest time, but on Thanksgiving evening in 2008, the show was passed on to another generation as my brother and I got his daughter to watch it in all its animated glory. She was originally more interested in watching some show on Nickelodeon which looked infinitely lame if you ask me, but we successfully managed to wrestle the remote control from her and turned it to ABC. She got a big kick out of the episode, especially when Snoopy and Woodstock are fighting with each other over preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Then again, the three of us were in utter hysterics when a certain wooden chair began to attack Snoopy with a vengeance. It’s always great when people of all ages can appreciate the same material at the same level.

“A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” is sandwiched between two of the most famous Peanuts specials, “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” As a result, it tends to get lost in the shuffle of other specials, but is still somewhat easier to find on television than “It’s The Easter Beagle Charlie Brown” (until 2020 anyway). This special revolves around Charlie Brown having to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts for his friends before he has to go to his grandmother’s place to have a more traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Peppermint Patty has somehow invited herself and her friends, Marcie and Franklin (the lone African-American character in the Peanuts universe), over to Charlie’s place, expecting a huge Thanksgiving dinner in the space of about an hour or so, as if such a thing were even remotely possible! My dad spent at least eight hours preparing our most recent Thanksgiving feast. Who does Peppermint Patty think she is anyway?

It’s interesting to reflect on how I viewed this special as a kid, and of how I view it now as an adult. I remember feeling sorry for Charlie Brown because I thought he was doing the best he could under terribly difficult the circumstances. Besides, he had Snoopy to back him up, and Snoopy buttered the toast as if he were a blackjack dealer opening a fresh pack of playing cards (the sound effects pretty much gave that one away). These days, he reminds me of myself when I was a teenager. Self-pitying and often quite hopeless, Charlie Brown is his own worst enemy. Watching him give in to Peppermint Patty’s demands makes me want to shake him and tell him to grow some balls. Stand up to Peppermint Patty. She may kick your bald ass at baseball, but not in the kitchen. But when it comes to Peppermint Patty, I think Charlie said it best:

“You can’t explain anything to Peppermint Patty!”

Indeed, Peppermint Patty has a one-track mind and cannot be easily reasoned with if at all. When she wants something, she seems to get it no matter what. At the same time, she can be so rude and oblivious to things she like good manners. Where does she get off inviting herself to other people’s houses? Why does she expect everyone to serve her needs? Doesn’t she have a clue? Inviting yourself to someone else’s house threatens to be rude and inexcusably imposing among other things… Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize I was kind of like that as a kid. I did invite myself over to a friend’s house when I was 7 or 8. I wasn’t really thinking about how my friend might think. It’s kind of embarrassing to think about now. Well, judge not lest ye be judged!

Of course, you can always count on Linus to make everyone see the true meaning of the holidays. As in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he tells everyone how Thanksgiving Day came about when the Pilgrims and the Indians came together for a feast, and of how thankful they were for the strong friendship which formed between them. You have to be impressed with the amount of knowledge Linus had at his age. Maybe he had some sort of cheat sheet in that blue blanket he always carried with him. You don’t actually see his blanket here in this episode, but maybe Thanksgiving was one of his most favorite holidays to where he needed no reminding of what it was all about. Linus was always a great friend to Charlie Brown, and it was nice to see Charlie always had him as a friend who could help him through those tough times.

But you have got to love Snoopy in this animated special. He saves the day by making a Thanksgiving dinner of popcorn, buttered toast and pretzel sticks among other things. He also inhabits the funniest scenes as he and Woodstock have to get a table and chairs together for all the guests, and they get caught up in playing table tennis, something Snoopy fares much better in than real tennis, until Linus reminds them they have work to do. Then Snoopy ends up getting into a fight with a rouge folding chair which seems to have a life of its own. They fight each other over which way the chair should be set, and the fact that the chair wins is not a surprise.

There’s one other thing I have to point out in this special. At the end, Snoopy and Woodstock are left alone at Charlie Brown’s house as everyone else goes to grandma’s house, and this is despite the fact Snoopy seemed every bit as excited about going as well. Snoopy goes into his doghouse and constructs a wooden table and chairs for him and Woodstock, and he manages to cook a Thanksgiving turkey (why he didn’t do this earlier is best left unanswered) for the two of them, and they both sit down to eat it and even break a wishbone. Now here’s the thing; a turkey is a bird, and Woodstock is a bird as well. So, by eating the turkey, doesn’t this in fact make Woodstock a cannibal? I mean, he is eating his own kind! Doesn’t Woodstock even take this into account? What would his parents think? Plus, how does he get the better half of the wishbone? How can a little bird manage to overpower a beagle’s strength when he does not have as much to work with? This is the world of animation for you! Making the impossible seem possible even if it defies reasonable logic.

As I write this in 2020, the networks decided not to air “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for the first time in decades. This seemed sacrilegious to many, and after a major uproar from millions of people, both specials are now being aired on Apple TV and PBS. It would be unthinkable for either of these animated specials to not be broadcast for all to see. Then again, they are available on DVD, Blu-ray and assorted digital formats, so they are never easily out of our reach.

With “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” I remembered of how certain things from childhood can remain ever so innocent from one generation to the next. Even if the Thanksgiving holiday is now seen much differently than before as people believe the Pilgrims laid waste to the Indians or instead observe this holiday as one where Native Americans (the Indians, mind you) fed a group of undocumented illegal aliens (the Pilgrims), this is still a celebrated time when families come together for a great feast. It’s all about togetherness, and this is one of the many things “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” preaches to great effect. Be sure to give this animated special another look when you get the chance. I don’t care how many times you have watched it because it is always worth watching again.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Mist’ Deals With the Fear of the Unknown and of Reality

There was a time when Frank Darabont created the most effective cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels. He gave us one of the all-time great adaptations of King’s works with “The Shawshank Redemption,” a classic which you can still catch it on TBS or TNT every other week. Darabont also directed “The Green Mile” which was very good and left its audience in tears at its humbling conclusion. These days, Mike Flanagan has become the King adaptation master of choice with his takes on “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep,” both of which proved to be wonderfully unnerving. Before this, however, was Darabont’s adaptation of King’s “The Mist,” and it represented his first time dealing with one of King’s full out horror stories. Having said this, he still brings this particular King horror tale to life in way few other filmmakers ever could.

“The Mist” takes place, as many of King’s works do, in the state of Maine. We see our main character, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), doing his work as a graphic artist on something which appears to be right out of “The Dark Tower,” and it establishes what David does while simultaneously establishing the kind of movie we are about to see. It is a motion picture which deals with people whom we recognize from the real world we inhabit and the small towns we grew up in. This is not often the case as many horror films deal with stock characters we cannot wait to see done away with.

One day, there is a storm which hurls a tree into David’s work studio, and he ends up going into town with his son the next day to pick up supplies. In the process, he also ends up taking along his next-door neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) regardless of the fact Brent’s tree fell down on David’s boathouse and completely destroyed it. But while at the market, a mist starts to blanket the town to where there is zero visibility. A local townsman named Dan ends up rushing into the store crying out, “There’s something in the mist!”

From there, everyone is trapped in the supermarket as the thought of stepping outside its doors is far too fearful an action. This is largely the result of there being something in the mist which quickly proves to be anything but human, and this creates divisions between everyone trapped in the store. This division is primarily brought about by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Haden), a fervent believer in the word of the bible who believes judgment day is upon us and that the end is indeed very near.

Watching “The Mist,” you can recognize the familiar types of characters which occupy the average Stephen King story; the man who doesn’t want to be the hero but ends up being one even if it is not by his own doing, the religious fanatic who will not allow themself be torn away from they believe to be the truth, and townspeople who appear to be brave on the outside but terrified on the inside. What I really liked about this film is how Darabont never lets them become just mere stereotypical characters. While these characters may appear to be just that, it is a credit to the writing and acting that everyone involved in this film’s production rose above the genre’s conventions to give us something more human than we typically expect.

What interests Darabont here is not so much the monsters on the outside, but instead the monsters which lurk deep in our psyches. How we would possibly react when all the things we depend on in our life are suddenly taken away from us? No easy answer is given, but it is clear we are left with our instincts for survival at any cost. Darabont does excellent work in creating an inescapably claustrophobic environment where escape is easier said than done and trust can easily become a disposable commodity.

Leading the cast is Thomas Jane who first has made an unforgettable impression when he co-starred in “Boogie Nights.” He then went on to do “Deep Blue Sea” which more or less typecast him as the hardened hero who shows more courage than anyone around him. But here, he is simply an ordinary man caught up in an unimaginable situation, and he is struggling to maintain his sanity in an increasingly desperate situation.

“The Mist” is filled with many fine actors who fully humanize their roles and succeed in avoiding the mistake of making these characters seem stereotypical and easily disposable. It is great to see Andre Braugher here as the disbelieving neighbor/lawyer who makes the idiotic assumption he is being setup for a practical joke. In any other movie, we would simply just hate his character Brent for not believing the protagonists, but Braugher succeeds in making us believe why he might see how Brent could not see the inherent danger everyone is caught up in. As an audience, we of course know better of what is really going on, but it makes you think of how people would normally react in a horrifying situation like this. Could we easily believe in such things? Wouldn’t we be skeptical of what others tell us? Aren’t some us sick and tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes?

Also in the cast is Toby Jones who is a wonderful presence here as Ollie, a supermarket employee who turns out to be very handy with a gun. Then we have other character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn who plays Dan Miller, and William Sadler who plays Jim Grondin. Frances Sternhagen is also on board as a friendly schoolteacher named Irene and has some of the best and most memorable of moments in this movie. You also have Lauren Holden as Amanda Dunprey, a new school teacher who befriends David and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble).

All of these actors do a great job of making the characters all the more real to us so that we don’t simply laugh them off the screen for doing stupid things that horror movie characters usually do. You get the sense that if this were written and directed by anyone other than Darabont, it would look like just about any other horror movie we have seem hundreds of times already. But there is going with the story of this movie that makes it more than your typical horror movie.

But the best performance comes from Marcia Gay Harden who plays the seemingly crazed Mrs. Carmody. A religious zealot if there ever was one, Carmody can be easily compared to Carrie Wright’s mother from “Carrie” as both are hopelessly devoted to God and the Bible even though their belief structure has long since been corrupted. Harden is a brilliant actress, and she makes Mrs. Carmody far scarier than the monsters which constantly threaten to infiltrate the overcrowded supermarket everyone is stuck in. She also makes you believe how people would end up following her when the fate of the world continues to descend down on them all. Her crazy beliefs end up making believers out of others, and a mob mentality quickly forms a sharp division between the characters stuck in the store which threatens to bring out the worst in everyone. Harden’s portrayal of such a frightening individual has long since stayed with me after watching this film when it came out in 2007.

Not everything about “The Mist” is perfect. The monsters, when they do appear, are effectively creepy and eerie, but they are also clearly CGI, and this takes away from what we are shown. Darabont ends up creating more of an intense effect when we don’t see the monsters up close, but instead from a distance. When they are shrouded by weather they inhabit, they seem infinitely more terrifying as a result. If you have a fear of creepy crawlers like spiders, you may want to think twice about checking this movie out.

The ending of “The Mist” is different from King’s book, and King himself was quick to point this out to everyone who bothered to listen. What I can tell you about the ending is that it is both uncompromising and devastating in its impact. It makes you look back at everything which happened to where you realize the line between good people and bad people, protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains can be ever so easily blurred. The people we end up fearing the most are ourselves and of what we are capable of. We can easily descend into craziness and insanity when all the things we need most in life are suddenly taken away from us. The moment we give up on life and accept its horrifying fate is the moment when we all become less than human, and considering the times we are currently living through, this seems more pertinent than ever before.

I walked out of “The Mist” completely shaken and unable to speak. It contains a shattering ending which is unlike any we usually from any film we typically watch. What makes it all the more unsettling is that we cannot help but think of what we would do in the same situation. There are many who cannot bear to think of the answer such a question, but there are those whose drive to survive is impossible to ignore.

“The Mist” may not as good as “The Shawshank Redemption,” but it is still an effectively made motion picture with excellent performances and an ever-growing intensity. It is also one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King novel in years, and it keeps itself from sinking into the clichés of the average horror movie.

Whether or not you believe in extra-terrestrials is beside the point. We end up fearing ourselves more than anything else, and this fear can easily cripple us from doing what we want to do in our lives.

The tagline of “The Mist” was right: Fear changes everything…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Eddie Pence: The (Un)special Comedy Special’ is Endlessly Funny

Sooner or later, every standup comedian gets their own comedy special captured on film, digital or whatever else people are using these days. Richard Pryor performed one of his most famous standup specials on the Sunset Strip at the Comedy Store, George Carlin performed many unforgettable specials on HBO, Kevin Hart got to perform to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, and Dave Chapelle has remained a comedic force to be reckoned with on Netflix along with others like Amy Schumer and John Mulaney.

And then there is Eddie Pence. You haven’t heard of him? Well, you clearly have not been paying attention like you should. Eddie has been a stand-up comic for many years in Southern California, has appeared on many different shows, and he is also the vice host of “The Ralph Report” with Ralph Garman. Still, he has not achieved the crazy level of fame others in his field have. But like many in this day and age, he has been busy fundraising in an effort to create his own comedy special, and it has finally arrived and been given the unique title, “Eddie Pence: The (Un)special Comedy Special.” What results is a solid hour of hysterics from a self-deprecating individual who is better at performing than he thinks.

With this comedy special, which Pence filmed in his hometown of Washington, D.C., he wisely sets himself up as an underdog. When rushing towards the camera in the opening moments, he is knocked over by a pedestrian who will not even allow him to say the title of this special which Comedy Dynamics took a little too long to release. As he attempts to give out free tickets to his show, he is greeted by one who mistakenly believes he is a blood relative to a certain Vice President who was recently upstaged by a housefly during a debate. Upon arriving at his appointed venue, the D.C. Comedy Loft, he is informed that the main room is hosting a comedy class on how to tell a joke, and it costs only $10 to attend. As a result, he is forced to perform in the venue’s Cellar room which I imagine is the equivalent of the Belly Room at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Pence is so determined to jump onto the stage to give us what he has got, and he is so pumped up to where he doesn’t realize his comedy set will not start for another two hours.

The set of the Cellar is very simplistic as it features a red wallpapered wall with bland white Christmas lights adorning it. If those lights were blinking constantly, it may have looked more like the seedy bar Laura Palmer visited in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” But while Pence may not have the spectacular sets which adorned Carlin’s HBO specials, he is not about to let his sparse set affect his comedy set, and it quickly proves to be endlessly hilarious.

Right from the start, I could see Pence has had a lot of experience as a stand-up comedian, and he shows a lot of confidence as he goes from one joke to the next with what seems like relative ease. As he points out how strippers are doing the Lord’s work or how no one can half-ass streaking, it is clear he has long since found his own unique style of performing and trusts his own point of view implicitly. Even I have never taken into account how strippers are doing the Lord’s work.

What I also admired about Pence is how he goes from one topic to another with the understanding of not staying on the same subject for too long. He is also aided by his director, Dustin Jacobs, who keeps the proceedings moving at a steady pace. Stand-up comedy specials usually have spots where things begin to drag to where you find yourself checking your watch or looking how much time is left before the end, but this special is never undone by such problems. Everything feels smooth and I never felt my attention wavering throughout even when Pence talks about how hamsters make the worse pets.

And like all great comedians, Pence saves his best material for last. His jokes about “Star Wars” are more than welcome, and he comes up with stuff even Kevin Smith did not include in “Clerks.” Pence’s biggest jabs, however, are at “The Empire Strikes Back,” still the greatest “Star Wars” ever made. The penultimate scene in which Princess Leia tells Han Solo she loves him before he is frozen in carbonite, and he tells her “I know” remains one of the most memorable moments in a “Star Wars” film, let alone any other film in cinematic history. But in the process, Pence provides us with definitive proof of how a similar situation will never play out as well in real life. In fact, anyone with a DNR order will find their wishes completely voided if those two words are the last thing they say to their spouse.

Is “Eddie Pence: The (Un)special Comedy Special” one of the greatest stand-up comedy specials ever made? Oh please, do not go into this needlessly comparing this one to others. Simply let it stand on its own and enjoy for what it is. Besides, all these lists get everything in the wrong order. There was one which even dared to put “Bill Cosby Himself” at a much higher position than “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” Blasphemy! That’s like saying John Carpenter’s “Ghost of Mars” is a better motion picture than his remake of “The Thing!”

Anyway, I digress. Pence proves to be a durable stand up comedian who generates many laughs for the most enthusiastic of audiences, and his “(Un)special Comedy Special” will present viewers with a nice diversion from the apocalyptic world we have been forced to endure this past year. But by the end of 2020, I hope to have an answer as to which comedy is funnier: this or “Trump Card.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Bad Education’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Bad Education” is the kind of film that would have worked very well in theaters if not for the current Covid-19 pandemic based on the star power of its two leads, Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. As a reviewer, however, I’m happy to watch it on any platform.  As usual, HBO delivers quality programming which stands out from the pack.  When it comes to delivering the goods, Jackman gives his best performance, in my opinion, as Dr. Frank Tassone. 

When the audience first meets Dr. Tassone, he comes across as probably the nicest, most caring, and thoughtful superintendent known to mankind. He goes above and beyond for his students, the parents, and everyone who works for him.  He is the definition of the first one in the building and the last one to leave.  He’s also very particular about his weight, appearance, and presentation.  But beneath all of this, there is a very dark side to him that is sociopathic, cunning, and very conniving.  I can’t imagine too many actors would have been able to handle the juggling act of playing everyone’s favorite superintendent one minute and a conman behind closed doors the next as well as Jackman.  Thanks to his hard work and the efforts of Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the Roslyn Union Free School District on Long Island is rapidly growing. The numbers are good, people are making money, and everyone is happy.

However, when it comes to handling success and money, all it takes is one slip up for everything to be exposed to the public.  “Bad Education” is based on a true story, and it makes you, as an audience member, wonder how this could have happened and why it got so out of hand.  I won’t spoil any of the details for you in terms of what happens to Pam Gluckin and Frank Tassone, but as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.  This is a film I would have gladly paid money to watch on the big screen.  There are moments of dark comedy in this adult drama, and they work perfectly. What makes it even more surreal is the fact their empire was brought down by a young journalism student played by promising young actress, Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers,” “Miracle Workers”).  There is also great supporting work from Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal and Ray Romano.

However, there are two major reasons this film is such a success.  One of the reasons is the performances from Janney and Jackman.  Let’s focus on Janney first here, as she delivers a tough, no-nonsense performance.  Pam is unapologetic about what she is doing, and Janney portrays this perfectly.  Even when Pam is at her worst and it seems like the cards are stacked against her, Janney shows off a side of her that is not going to go down without a fight.  Jackman gives a meticulous and detailed performance which does not have a single false note.   Much like his character, every single aspect of his performance is well-thought out and serves a purpose. As mentioned earlier, it is the best Jackman performance I’ve ever seen.  He can really do it all as an actor.

It was mentioned in the review that, as an audience member, you wonder how this successful school district allowed themselves to get so over-the-top with their own personal needs and financial gain. As noted on the back of the Blu-ray, it was the largest public-school embezzlement in U.S. history.  The fact the characters are so fleshed out, and the story is told in such a smart, entertaining, and unique way just adds to your enjoyment level of this film.  If you don’t have HBO, or even if you do, this is a film that is worth owning on Blu-Ray.  It’s dramatic, sad, funny, and shocking.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Bad Education” comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It is also available on DVD as well.  “Bad Education” has a running time of 109 minutes and is not rated.

Video Info: The film is released on 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.  While I was very happy to be able to watch and review this film on Blu-Ray, I must admit it is not a perfect Blu-Ray. During random scenes, there are moments of splotches and grainy images.  While it is disappointing, Blu-ray is always my preferred method of viewing a film as opposed to DVD, so I was able to overlook it.  For the most part, it is a stellar looking Blu-ray with minor flaws.

Audio Info: “Bad Education” comes on a DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1 soundtrack with subtitles in English.  The audio is superb on this release.

Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with three special features: “Based on a True Story,” “The Perception of Perfect,” and “Hugh Jackman & Allison Janney – Virtual Conversation.”  My only problem with these special features is they are all under five minutes. I would have liked if they were a little bit longer as this is such a unique and compelling true story.

Should You Buy It?

“Bad Education” is a film I’ve been telling friends to see ever since I watched its debut on HBO a few months back.  On a second viewing, I received even more enjoyment out of this film.  As they say, the devil is the details, and this film touches on something that was completely unknown to me before watching it.  After watching the film, it made me want to learn more about the true story behind it.  If you are looking for a smart, funny and well-crafted adult drama with a lot of bite to it, you will enjoy the hell out of “Bad Education.”  This is the type of smart entertainment HBO is known for, and they deliver the goods with this movie.  I can’t say enough great things about the performances by the two leads, especially Jackman. At times, I felt sorry for Dr. Tassone, even though he is selfish, as Jackman brings a humanity to this character.  This film is definitely worth owning and picking up on Blu-ray.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-Ray copy of this film from Warner Archive to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Gone Baby Gone’ – Ben Affleck’s Directorial Debut

Gone Baby Gone” marked the feature film directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. Back in 2003, another Lehane novel was turned into a great movie by Clint Eastwood called “Mystic River,” but I would actually put “Gone Baby Gone” right ahead of it, and this is saying a lot. It is a completely absorbing and emotionally devastating film involving the abduction of a child whom several individuals are desperate to see returned home safely. Their search for the child will test their levels of morality, and it will change their concepts of right and wrong forever.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play two Boston private detectives who are hired by relatives of the baby’s mother to help assist in the investigation. During this process, they come to work with two detectives (played by Ed Harris and John Ashton) to bring the child back home. As they continue their investigation, the story ends up coming with more twists and turns than you would ever expect.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut here should be labeled as astonishing, but his success here should have seemed like a big surprise. He has been a Boston native all his life, so he is a natural to direct a movie like this. He perfectly captures the feel of Boston and of the people who live there. He sucks you right into the atmosphere of the town and never lets you go. He also brilliantly succeeds in generating strong tension, and it quickly becomes one of those movies where you feel the gunshots that go off. I found myself ducking in my seat in certain scenes. Yes, it is that intense.

In addition, Ben also succeeds in getting great performances from every single actor here. What a great feeling it is to see a movie which does not contain single bad performance in it. At the top of the list is Amy Ryan who gives an utterly believable and fearless performance as a drug addicted mother who at first does not seem to care at all about her child. She is a fiend and cannot hide it, but she shows cracks in that rough façade of hers to show a mother who desperately wants her daughter back. It is an utterly realistic performance which earned Ryan a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Ben took a big risk casting his younger brother Casey in the lead role of Patrick Kenzie. It could have been a very bad case of Hollywood nepotism, something which pisses of my closest friends to no end. But Casey has proven to be a very strong actor in his own right, and he handles what is very difficult role here with a very strong performance. Casey has really gone beyond his brother’s shadow to do some great work in movies like “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and he truly deserved the Best Actor he won for “Manchester By the Sea.” He has shown that he is an actor who has taken many risks back when he was acting opposite his big brother in “Good Will Hunting,” and he continues to gives us one memorable performance after another

There is also great work done here by Ed Harris who portrays Remy Bressant, a good cop who is always trying to do the right thing. But Casey’s character sees the cracks in Remy’s façade, and Remy is indeed not all he appears to be. Harris has given one great performance after another, and this is one more great performance that he can add to a resume filled with them.

It is also great to see John Ashton here as Remy’s partner, Detective Nick Poole. We all remember him best as Sgt. Taggart from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies and, when I first watched “Gone Baby Gone,” it felt like it has been way too long since I last saw him in anything. Ashton is, of course, very believable as a cop who has seen it all, but still won’t give up in finding that little girl.

And else can be said about Morgan Freeman which has not been said already? We see him often as a major force of morality in just about every movie he appears in, but “Gone Baby Gone” definitely puts this to the test as his character, Captain Jack Doyle, tries to give balance to a situation which threatens to go completely out of control, and the revelation made about Jack near the film’s end will hit you like a ton of bricks.

“Gone Baby Gone” is a very complex film which examines what we think are the right and wrong choices in any given situation. As it goes on, we discover there is a very thin line between what is right and wrong. All these characters spend their time doing what they feel is the right thing, but it does come with its own set of consequences. Nothing will ever come out quite the way we want it to, and there is a negative for every positive.

This is a truly haunting and devastating film on many levels. It is skillfully written and is devoid of clichés and characters that are types more than human beings. It is messy in the way they deal with certain situations, and it shows how even good choices come with severe consequences. Who truly knows if they are making the right choices in life? Can we ever be truly certain of this?

This old expression keeps playing in my head of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Not all these characters end up in hell, but many of them find the outcome they want is not what is best for everyone around them. One tagline for this film is that everyone wants the truth until they find it. That is very true for these characters here. For every positive, there is a negative; and the negative can have a far greater impact than the positive. You leave thinking about this constantly. Did the right thing happen? Is everything going to be alright? In this world, I guess we can never really know.

“Gone Baby Gone” was one of the best films of 2007, a year which featured one great motion picture after another. It proved to be a great achievement for Ben Affleck who took a of crap over the years for what even he has to admit were some bad career choices. But ever since his award-winning performance in “Hollywoodland,” things have been changed for him quite significantly, and he earned his place on the Oscar stage when “Argo” won Best Picture. Yes, there was “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but enough about that one already. He still gave us “The Town,” right?

* * * * out of * * * *

Ten Years Later, ‘The Town’ Remains a Riveting Crime Thriller

I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”

While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”

“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”

Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.

Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.

Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.

Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.

Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.

The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.

You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!

Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:

“Ask me anything you want.”

“I won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”

Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ben Affleck Talks About Directing ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘The Town’

WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011, not long after “The Town” was released in movie theaters everywhere.

Ben Affleck arrived amid throngs of fans and paparazzi at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a Q&A of his directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone.” Both films have received tremendous praise and given him a second wind to his career which at the time was in lousy shape. Upon being introduced to a standing ovation, he remarked, “This is nice! People are still in the seats! It’s always cool when people stay through the end credits!”

So why did Affleck want to direct? Having worked for some time as an actor, he said he was lucky to work with many gifted people, but he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction films he starred in went. Realizing film is a director’s medium, he decided it was time to give it a shot. With “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck said he was determined to fail on his merits and succeed on them as well. He described his previous directorial experience as being comprised of “horrible college movies” which made him happy YouTube was not around when he worked on them.

“Gone Baby Gone” does feel like the work of a confident director, but Affleck said he felt “failure was around the corner” when he made it. He found shooting utterly difficult as he struggled to find things which worked, and he was forced to shoot take after take to bring the actors to a state of relaxation. The whole process apparently made him feel like jumping off a roof. Still, this film does mean a great deal to him as it allowed him to go after the core philosophy of what he called “acting making the movie.” It also dealt with themes he wanted to explore such as children paying for the sins of their parents and of how strong moral ideals are not always rewarded.

With “The Town,” Affleck succeeded in making both a genre film and a character driven motion picture by taking a drama and, as he said, “wrapping it inside the shell of a traditional action movie.” That it was set in Boston was appealing to him as well. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” served as an inspiration for “The Town,” and Affleck said he wanted to make a modern film noir which felt real to where your brain was not telling you that it wasn’t. Editing it was painful though as the assembly cut was four hours long and he was unsure of what to take out. Test audiences did not help either as he remarked, “They liked the action. They didn’t like the talking!”

Affleck also talked about the Pete Postlethwaite who co-starred in “The Town” and passed away before the movie was released. Postlethwaite was sick during shooting, but Affleck said he still did the movie and came to work each day with a great attitude. Despite him playing such an unsavory character, Affleck said it was always wonderful to be in Postlethwaite’s presence.

With directing, Affleck said it gave him the appreciation he did not always have for what others did on set. He also confessed he had absolutely no idea of what the crew did to make movies a reality, and that actors always believed film sets revolve around them. Considering what he has been through before and after starring in “Gigli,” he considers himself “remarkably sane for winning an Oscar” back in his 20’s.

We have seen Ben Affleck go from making good movies to truly awful ones (even he admits this), but he still describes himself as being a “late bloomer” which is tricky if you have success early on in life. We all thank him for coming by the Aero Theatre on this particular evening, and he left us with this unforgettable piece of advice for all aspiring filmmakers:

“Don’t make any movies with your girlfriend.”