Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

Hollywood makes a lot of movies about cops and robbers and elaborate heists. There are few though that truly break down a good heist, and a good criminal mind as well. Luckily, "The Town" has come to theaters. It proves that an actor who once showed little promise in front of the camera knows exactly what he's doing in the director's chair.

"The Town" is the sophomore effort from Ben Affleck. His debut, "Gone Baby Gone," was promising but flawed. "The Town" on the other hand is sleek and wildly entertaining. I can't call it a masterpiece, but I can say it has pretty much anything a good heist movie should have.

"The Town" is the latest in a long line of recent movies exploring Boston's criminal underworld. "The Town" refers to the Charlestown section of Boston, the bank robbery capitol of America.

One of the most infamous Charlestown gangs is led by Doug MacRay (Affleck) and includes the hot-headed James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) who have known nothing but crime their whole life. After one robbery, Doug falls in love with a witness, Claire (Rebecca Hall) and must find a way to balance his career with his new love. At the same time, FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) tries to bring Doug's crew down.

I wouldn't quite call "The Town" a love/hate letter to the city of Boston; it's more of a long note of tough love. Despite the pretty corrupt and negative spin on the city, parts of "The Town" made me realize that only someone who has lived in and really loves this city could ever make this film. Between the screaming and random gun fire there is also the occasional beautiful image of someone walking barefoot on a rocky beach and stepping into the calm surf. Affleck also captures everything from the accents to the mannerisms like only a true Bostonian could.

With "The Town," Affleck proved himself a skilled director for many reasons. Besides incorporating his own Bostonian knowledge, he also directs like a pro. The action sequences are some of the best I've seen all year. Some of the car chase scenes are as enthralling and suspenseful as anything you could ever see at the movies.

What's most interesting about Affleck's directing style is that he directs like an actor. There is a subtle, underlying humor throughout and a general sense of affection and understanding for every character no matter what side of the crime scene they're on.

Unlike say, "The Departed" (which this film is clearly trying to emulate), "The Town" is told almost entirely from the perspective of the criminal, and not the cop. It's an interesting spin, and it helps create an uneasiness of who to root for in the film. True, the feds may be trying to stop future crimes from happening, but haven't we stuck with the main character for long enough that it'd be nice to see him get away?

Affleck has begun to show more promise as a director than an actor. However, that is not to say his acting skills haven't improved. In the role he's convincing as being both tough and tender, funny and at other times dead serious. He's come a long way since "Gigli."

Also continuing to impress are Hamm and Renner. Hamm proves he can play characters beyond the Don Draper mentality (not to insult his role on "Mad Men" in anyway). Meanwhile, Renner shows that his Oscar nomination for "The Hurt Locker" wasn't for nothing. He has talent for playing men who constantly stick their middle finger out at society, and always want to be fighting someone.

During a time when studios are dumping their worst films into theaters, "The Town" feels like a classic piece of summer entertainment placed into the September doldrums. It's no groundbreaking masterpiece, but it's mixture of careful character observation, intricate plot detailing, and extremely well constructed action set pieces that's hard to come by nowadays. Affleck has found his calling on the opposite end of the camera. I guess there was some true meaning in the film's often repeated line: "See you on the other side."

If You Liked this Movie, You'll also Like: The Departed, Inside Man, Good Will Hunting, Dog Day Afternoon, Trainspotting

Friday, September 24, 2010

Movie Review: Straw Dogs

"This is where I live. This is me."

"Straw Dogs" begins with a shot from above and descends deep down below to a group of children dancing in a graveyard. This is only the beginning of the film's strange descent into hell on a deprived earth.

"Straw Dogs" is a thriller that could define the anger, alienation, and confusion of a generation in such an entertaining shell. It's not the thrill-a-minute thriller we usually get. Rather it's the wait patiently for the thrill kind of thriller.

"Straw Dogs" comes from the mind of Sam Peckinpah, director of some of the most brutal westerns ever made. It's something of a modern day western set in the British countryside. The outlaw in this case is the constantly working American professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman). He decides to escape to a quaint English town with his troubled wife Amy (Susan George). Amy grows constantly more troubled as Dave continues to ignore her for his blackboard of equations.

The rest of the film is less of a plot and more of a series of unfortunate events unfolding. As they encounter more of the whiskey chugging, Christ loving locals, the more trouble they get into. As David and Amy's marriage deteriorates, they fall into horrible events that involve rape and murder, and a final showdown with the townspeople.

"Straw Dogs" is one of those films that must be examined well below its surface to be truly appreciated. The film is well beyond some wild exploitation horror flick. Rather, it uses violence and sexual perversion to come to a larger point.

Peckinpah is a director who knows how to handle violence better than most others. I would say he was in the same range as Scorsese. When comparing "Straw Dogs" to his previous effort, "The Wild Bunch," one can find the common, slow-motion violence. This effect is not use to amplify or enjoy the violence, but rather to allow each audience member to truly understand the fact that a life is ending right before their eyes. Yet despite the slow-mo emphasis of every bullet, most of the violence happens so quickly and out of nowhere that you could miss it.

What was even more controversial in "Straw Dogs" than the violence is that infamous rape scene. Beyond its graphic nature, what makes it really so controversial is that little smile Amy cracks during it. Could she be enjoying the act? Or is she just strangely enjoying the attention she hasn't been getting from her own husband? Some will call it misogynistic, but I think a better word for it is flat out mysterious.

Mystery is one of the strongest elements of "Straw Dogs," and something that continues to make it so fascinating to this day. The best parts of the movie are its many open-ended questions. The most interesting question lies in the film's hero-villain complex. An obvious answer could be that the townspeople are the villains. But the even more interesting one is that it's truly David. Even though he's the protagonist, and in the end siege we seem to be rooting for him, he is no kind soul. He's abusive and ignorant of the feelings of others. Not to mention he could be seen as self and, well, a little crazy deep down. This is also perhaps the film's most disturbing element: this is a world where there is no clear hero to root for. Everyone might as well be the villain.

The hero-villain complex might not have worked out well here without the always amazing work from Dustin Hoffman. He begins the film with his typical, uptight Ben Braddock character and then transforms into something he's never played before. Just as Hoffman doesn't seem capable of playing a killer, David doesn't seem capable of becoming one.

"Straw Dogs" is truly a product of the greatest era in American filmmaking. It comes from a time when directors still had control over what their projects would look like in the end. It was a time when boundaries were still looking to be broken down.

"Straw Dogs" contains a narrative structure commonplace at the time, though has been unfortunately abandoned today. Peckinpah is a filmmaker like Coppola and De Palma who doesn't like to rush their stories. The siege, which seems like it could've been the film's main plot, doesn't occur until the film's way end. Until that point, there is a lot of buildup. While some might find that time being introduced to characters grueling, it is absolutely necessary. Every little object we see, every person we meet, plays an essential role in that incredible finale. "Straw Dogs" is a film that embraces its tiny little details, and never abandons them.

"Straw Dogs" can be looked at as a bold thriller, and a time capsule. Without making a single political statement, the audience is exposed to a generation trying to escape reality while struggling to find and embrace identity. Its influence can be seen in everything from "Taxi Driver" to "Inglourious Basterds."

When one thinks of a great film, they usually don't pair it with slow pace and acts of horrible dehumanization. "Straw Dogs" proves that great films don't have to conform to the audience's idea of a great film in order to be truly great.

If You Liked this Movie, You'll also Like: Five Easy Pieces, The Wild Bunch, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Badlands, Inglourious Basters, Blood Simple, A Clockwork Orange, Carrie

Friday, September 3, 2010

Movie Review: Machete

One of the most controversial social issues of the day deserves to be Mexploited. Well, I guess there was no one else who could complete this task better than Robert Rodriguez, with the opening of his highly awaited "Machete."

"Machete" first existed as the trailer that opened up 2007's "Grindhouse." It was a satirical, B-movie idea so perfect for a trailer, and even more promising for a full length feature. This can be seen pretty much as a passion project for Rodriguez. It combines everything he's loved throughout his career: westerns, Mexicans, samurais, and Danny Trejo.

The titular Machete, played by Trejo, was once Mexico's hardest yet most honest federal agent. After losing his wife to drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal), Machete flees to America and works as a day laborer.

One day, Machete is chosen by a mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill the xenophobic Texas state Senator McLaughlin, who's attempting to launch a campaign to keep all Mexicans out of America.

After a setup and a few more unfortunate events, Machete joins forces with an underground network and a cop (Jessica Alba) for a very bloody culture war.

"Machete" is one of those movies that's made for the kind of people who like to do nothing but watch movies. Look closely and you'll spot the occasional Mexican standoff, or blood spurting out only like it would've in "Shogun Assassin." The score defies genre, as it switches between horror and action at times.

Mostly though, "Machete" is Rodriguez's second movie that embodies the grindhouse feeling. The grainy, cut up frames add a strange authentic value to every shot of the film. "Machete" is grindhouse in both look and feeling. It is constantly over-the-top and ridiculous on purpose. "Machete" is also the kind of movie that truly revels in shock value. Pretty much anything is turned into a weapon in this movie. That doesn't exclude someone's intestines. I won't say more than that though. Good shock value should stay shocking through surprise.

I think Rodriguez should continue making films that aim low. Why? Because that's the kind of filmmaker he is. He famously made his feature debut, "El Mariachi" with just $7,000. He has a unique talent of making trashy seem classy.

While he is certainly one of those filmmakers who draws so heavily on his influences, his substance still can't match his style. The storyline of "Machete" lacked some of the fluidity of those of his best features, including "Planet Terror" and "Sin City." "Machete" has three different bad guys, yet it is continually confusing who is truly the worst and who is really in charge. Rodriguez may be paying tribute to shoddy storytelling, but some of the plot holes here simply can't be excused by that notion.

Something I wasn't expecting from "Machete" was how heavy of a satire it was going to be. It likely wasn't meant to be that way when the story was first thought up but once the immigration debate reignited, I guess it was impossible to ignore. The satire is relevant and most effective when it isn't so overt. The political ads randomly placed throughout the film might be off pace, but they're certainly hilarious. Though I wish the movie could've balanced trashiness with smart satire about race and social issues like last year's "Black Dynamite" did. Both films were tributes to exploitation films of the past.

I will try not to spend too much time criticizing. After all, "Machete" does contain the first instance of Robert De Niro actually acting in years. Trejo is also about as entertaining an action star as Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis in their prime. At 66-years-old, some of the stunts he can pull off were truly impressive.

Also, when "Machete" isn't trying so hard to have an actual plot, it has moments of genuine entertainment and hilarity. I just think it should've put less time into being relevant and more time into being a B-movie.

If anyone is to see "Machete," it must be said that it is definitely one worth seeing in theaters with the biggest audience possible. Like the true grindhouse experience, "Machete" is more entertaining when seeing how the audience feels and reacts to everything going on on the screen. If everyone laughs at Cheech Marin as a gun wielding priest or Machete texting someone "You've just f**ked with the wrong Mexican," than you'll know you've picked the right showing.