‘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 * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston on the Making of ‘Fort Bliss’

Fort Bliss movie poster

Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her much. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart yet again.

Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production, so there wasn’t much time for anyone to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew sets up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.

“There’s something really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”

“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.

“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.

Again, I imagine some actors would have preferred to have more time to prepare for the roles, but they don’t always have that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.

“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”

One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home from Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved than we realized.

“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands, and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”

“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be, and nothing is ever that simple.

You can also check out this video interview I did with Monaghan and Livingston which I did for the website We Got This Covered.