Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass. affection

The Town [****]

There are two Ben Afflecks on display in The Town, one is the poised visual stylist who in the space of two films manages to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of cinema's heavyweights. The other is the actor whose own rise and potential fall is echoed in that of his character, former hockey player and bank robbery mastermind Doug MacRay. MacRay like Affleck was raised in a single parent home, like Affleck enjoyed notoriety (Affleck as a screenwriter and actor, once upon a time, MacRay as a hockey player who blew two chances and now leads the fated life of a Townie-- a born and bred criminal) and through the love of a good woman and divine providence comes to a point where redemption seems the next obvious step. Affleck is enjoying his second life as an actor and receiving well deserved praise for his proficiency with a camera. He has also settled into the role of family man with a wife and two daughters, but both Affleck and his fictional counterpart play their roles with a tentativeness. As men who have had it all before and know what it's like to lose it all.

In many ways the ease with which Affleck has settled into being a director, a legitimately great one at that, has a way of calling attention to itself. If we can evoke comparisons to Michael Mann (The Town is Heat in Boston, after all) from a narrative standpoint and in the crisp, concise way he shoots action, for those reasons we can also draw upon Sam Peckinpah too. Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood for how quickly he established himself as a force to be reckoned with then we must acknowledge a debt to everything that has come before. Affleck the director can shoulder that burden, but Affleck the actor turns the film into a naked, emotional plea from an artist.

Most of The Town is spent with Affleck's character getting to know the woman he and his crew kidnapped during a bank robbery. She didn't see their faces, but knows one small detail that can send them all down the river. So post kidnapping he befriends her to assess the risk (which is fairly big as evidenced by the above sentence) and begins to fall in love with her. During one of their dates he cracks a joke about how all of his TV watching gives him insight into the mechanics of crime fighting. It's not the joke that matters so much that it's the first time Affleck has cracked a joke on film in seven years. His old charm and charisma begin to shine through, but it's self conscious, a tentative baby step towards the easygoing, confident Affleck of yore. The man is probably more loved now than he's ever been but now that you see his face it's probably easier to hold him accountable for the sins of the past so you don't let the smile linger too long, you remember that it's all a house of cards.

You might be wondering, how does his tentativeness translate into a plea? Well it's the first time he's joked on film in seven years and it's on a date. Saying the wrong thing could send everything crashing down, but he can't unsay it. It's out there to be accepted or rejected. The film's final image also offers up Doug MacRay as a character on the cusp of redemption. Affleck the director has a way with actors (including himself) and in the coda of his film he makes peace with who he was, but knows that what his audience thinks of him matters so he leaves it to his audience to unify the two halves.

But the part of Affleck that is liked and respected continues to flourish. Ben Affleck elicits flawless performances from everyone in his ensemble. Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Affleck and Rebecca Hall are all expectedly terrific. I also like the return of working class grit embodied by Slaine Jenkins as getaway driver Albert Maglone and Titus Welliver as a Charlestown bred FBI agent. His action scenes as previously stated are terrific. Crisp, concise, intelligible. Jeremy Renner's last stand with the police is evocative of Steve McQueen's shootout with the police in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. He's not anywhere near as stoic as McQueen or calculating but he goes for broke in a fairly hopeless situation and it's a thrilling sight.

When you get right down to it, The Town, more than being an exceptional acting showcase or action picture stripped down to it's bare essentials is a love letter. Ben Affleck has a way of framing his fair city in a way that gives it character, but also as the place that defines him as a performer and an individual.

If every city is drowning and all of it's inhabitants are just waiting to be saved Affleck is the benevolent God who will do so. Consider scenes from both of his directorial efforts: in "Gone Baby Gone" hero Patrick Kenzie has reunited a young girl with her drug addled mother and an uncertain future. By the letter of the law he has done the right thing and by the burden of Catholic guilt he has done the thing that lets him sleep at night. In his heart of hearts is it the right thing? Probably not, but it's an acceptable risk. Another hero is willing to make the same trade off with a similarly lifestyled mother in The Town and it speaks to Affleck's unconditional acceptance of the denizens of Boston and their myriad flaws.

One of the most haunting images in The Town is an establishing shot of the prison that houses Doug MacRay's father. It's desolate, lonely and cold reminding us that we live in a city of ghosts, but that ghosts are the sum of our experience. That being said the coda of The Town offers us the chance to reconcile with the ghosts of our past and anyone who hasn't taken the opportunity to forgive Affleck the sins of 2003 would do well to offer him the grace he affords his characters.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Something Something Button Mash

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World [*]

I have to admit upfront that the previews for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World does pretty close to nothing for me. Michael Cera despite his infinite sameness can be charming, Edgar Wright because of his ability to understand our base, simple desires and affections and validate them with excellent motion pictures and a few actors gamely hamming it up could've/should've been the wild cards that make this film better than it looks. It doesn't work. Edgar Wright brings nothing short of his usual visual coherence and crisp editing to the film, but aside from one genuinely satisfying, pulse quickening sequence Wright is powerless despite what he brings to the table.

This might be the first Edgar Wright film to feel paced exactly like an evening with Michael Cera. It doesn't really move so much as mope, the narrative never gains any moment even as the stakes grow and the climax approaches. The film remains so evenly keeled and unenthusiastic. Speaking of which, a bored looking Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays pink haired Ramona Flowers. Scott's unrequited crush/ love interest/ Amazon delivery girl that literally travels through Scott's empty headspace that motivates him. Sure he'll fight for Ramona, but he'll also string along an immensely sweet and more likable seventeen year old girl with whom he is in a sexless non-relationship. But Scott only fights to be with Ramona (read: in Ramona), his struggles don't actually include any self improvement, at least, not in the way the film leads you to believe there will be.

So then comes a series of less than exciting battles against exes that employs the usual video game tropes of sixty-four hit combos, extra lives and people exploding into coins. Although to be fair, the one truly inspired set-piece involves Scott being "controlled" (gotta love the wordplay) by Ramona when he expresses his reluctance to fight her ex-girlfriend because, well, he doesn't hit girls. It's the only moment in which Scott displays a genuine awareness and concern for anyone not himself. I'm also a sucker for the other person as weapon and an inversion of the chivalrous idea of a man not hitting a woman and child (at the insistence of another woman of course).

The arched eyebrows and over enunciation of Chris Evans as action star Lucas Lee culminate in the movie's biggest missed opportunity and anti-climax (he rail grinds to his own doom) while Brandon Routh's super powered Vegan sub-plot offers up a delightful pair of cameos, but all inspiration remains but a blip on the map of Scott Pilgrim's world.

I've begun to consider the possibility, as I write this review, that the Scott Pilgrim source material is not meant to be affectionate in any way, I don't know how or why you pick video game loving, garage band hipster geeks as your target of derision(comic book lovers and film lovers, too, if we're considering all mediums the story is presented in). According to the IMDb page it is sometimes referred to as Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life which I have to take as derogatory. It says to me poor Scott Pilgrim, sharing a house and bed with his gay roomie, has a seventeen-year-old girl fawning all over him, is in a band called "Sex Bob-Omb" (also deeply sarcastic) and no means of visible income or support, man life is rough for this poor sap. I think the reason Scott's sister is always yelling at him is because he's a bum that life always seems to work out for and he's only motivated to fight for someone's vagina meanwhile she's ALWAYS working. I also think after the excellence of Up In The Air, Anna Kendrick is not so secretly frustrated with going back to being that one girl with a small part in a bad movie played by a one note actor.

I also can't help but wonder if Edgar Wright's participation is some sort of a warning that he's done with the clever/affectionate geek out shit. I know he has respect for genre films, video games (as evidenced by his UK series Spaced) and comic books and that he approached the film with the utmost professionalism, but it has also been eleven years since Spaced and from what I can tell everybody in all of Wright's other work may have had arrested development and simple pleasures but they were adults with jobs who tried so they deserved a little bit of a fantastical respite when life got too much for them to bear. Scott Pilgrim is five years out of high school, unemployed and sees life through the prism of a video game which puts him well within the realm of needing to grow the hell up.

As someone who is probably in the minority in disliking this film I'd like to point out something to its champions: the film's Universal logo is down in the 8-bit graphic style smacking anybody with an affection for video games square in the nostalgia bone. But I believe it betrays the integrity of that love by having Scott initially lose to the final boss and before activiating his extra life for a do-over all of Scott's mistakes are explicitly spelled out and he is told what lessons he needs to learn. Part of the sense of accomplishment, appeal and fun of those games was the earned ending. We made our own mistakes, figured them out for ourselves and corrected them. What happens to Scott Pilgrim is tantamount to having a cheat code for life and, maybe even, the simplest and most undemanding existence of all.

What I'm saying in the most explicit way possible is that you have all been mocked. Anybody who has dared to take an interest in the story no matter the medium has been mocked. If you don't believe you're being made fun of then understand that you are at least encouraging the most dishonest movie of the year to spread more poison.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cutting Kind

Machete [***1/2]

Robert Rodriguez's Machete comes dangerously close to being the first wholly successful competitor in the recent throwback sweepstakes that has beset cinema since mid-August. First, Stallone took the can't lose premise and casting of The Expendables and made a mediocre disjointed mess. Next, Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3-D saddled us with its most boring characters for the biggest chunk of its running time then almost made up for it with a full-on blood bath and great Christopher Lloyd appearances. Sure there were boobs (and good ones), but that doesn't make up for the wealth of Jerry O'Connell the movie gives us. Then along comes Robert Rodriguez's finally feature-length Machete. The first theatrical trailer didn't quite have the trash appeal of the original, but I was hoping for the best and largely it delivers.

The plot such as it is concerns Danny Trejo as the titular ex-Federale betrayed by his boss and displaced to America after a drug lord murders his wife. He becomes the patsy of a conservative senator's advisor (Jeff Fahey) in an attempt to assassinate said senator so that his chances at election rise exponentially and his border closing initiative can begin. The initiative stands to greatly benefit the aforementioned drug lord (Steven Seagal) and this betrayal greatly benefits Machete because it puts everybody who needs Machete's blade up their ass right in his path.

Machete ends up becoming allied with an ICE agent (Jessica Alba) and a mysterious woman named She (like Che (Michelle Rodriguez)) to help him fight his war. Machete is a big bad ass who really doesn't need help with the physical stuff but the scope of betrayal necessitates that he make friends whether he likes it or not. She runs a group called the Network that helps illegals find jobs, feeds them when they have no work and helps them escape from hitmen in a crowded hospital.

Danny Trejo has been around since the days of Desperado and with his first starring role it's nice to see that Trejo really has talent and charisma rather than just a look that Rodriguez finds gives his films character. He's a really authentic part of the Rodriguez verse, he's got pretty good deadpan comic timing and when he says the classic "you just fucked with the wrong Mexican" line you believe it. The guy's wife was killed right in front of him, bosses, beautiful ladies and politicians betray him and now he's used somebody's guts as a rope. I'd say the entire ordeal is starting to wear on him. He's also pretty good with machetes, blows people's brains out with relative ease too. He's pretty much who I want Antonio Banderas to grow up to be. Most of the other questionable casting actually works out pretty well. Big gambles were made on Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan and they actually pay off. Lohan's character is saddled with a lot of the same real life baggage she has (i.e. someone in serious need of rehab with a possibly perverted father and skanky mother) and while I won't say it makes her performance raw or honest I think it made it easier for her to come to work prepared. Jessica Alba might be too pretty to be plausible but ever since she got her face pummeled in by Casey Affleck I'm more willing to give her and her work a chance. I think one of these days somebody is honestly going to figure out what purpose she best serves in a movie and give her the right role.

Sadly, though, Machete still performs a major misstep. As the film goes on and gains momentum it isn't simply about revenge it becomes a film about the immigration issue. As Machete pursues his quest for revenge the myth of himself grows and he starts to represent the downtrodden masses caught between the worlds of their nightmares and their dreams. Machete's allies take up arms alongside him and this leads to an all-out actual war. Machete's personal revenge is given short shrift and the movie's politics take center stage. I don't have any grievances with what the film has to say on the issue of immigration. When Lindsay Lohan's character comes gunning for DeNiro's uber-conservative senator and then, upon achieving her goal, literally shoots the guns from the hand of every man fighting to help along the movie's climax I appreciated what was being said: another war isn't going to solve this problem. On the other hand, in a damning way, I think it was also being suggested that without a personal stake in the fight we should just walk away. Perhaps leaving the border fence question as an eternally debatable one is better than turning it into an avoidable tragedy.

The issue seems too big for this particular movie, not that the movie doesn't have the right to address it, but the importance of this particular discussion is too much for the movie to bear. On the one hand I look like I don't care about the larger themes of the film, but I do. I also wanted the satisfaction of a revenge film and I don't quite get that. It's a double edged sword this film.

However, if we're going to get the two promised Machete sequels I'll take him in whatever strength we get him: avenger, superman, folk hero. But whatever evolution he undergoes I hope the ending of this film serves as a reminder that every transition can only bear so much weight on its shoulders.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

To the limit

The American [***]

Control director Anton Corbijn's second picture as director, The American evokes memories of yet another picture about control, the aptly titled Limits of Control by Jim Jarmusch. Both are films that unfold at a speed roughly the pace of a Sunday drive (that probably sounds like a negative when phrased in such a way, but it is actually a pretty high compliment), both films feature a leading man whose expressionless face could bore holes through stone, they love espresso and often find themselves in the company of a beautiful naked woman (although only the hero of Jarmusch's film has the capacity to resist urges of any kind). What makes both films smashing successes is the way the hero is often left alone with his own thoughts. As a hitman how often do you contemplate, in your loneliness, your own death? Do you ever wonder if the only other guy who knows where you are is conspiring against you? That's how a movie in which nothing much happens is able to pull you in. It gives you time to think about the aforementioned questions, but also given the right actor you can see past the stone-pokerfacedness and watch those introspective gears turn. It's a way of knowing that we're asking ourselves the right question as an audience.

Admittedly, The American is a fairly typical George Clooney role. An equal in tone and pacing to Michael Clayton in which his character, a consummate and unflappable bad ass in his chosen profession, who comes to the late in the game realization that he's been working for the wrong side all along. And if he has always known that fact, and let's assume that he is smart enough to be aware of this, the movie is usually about the final job in a line of work that threatens to destroy his soul entirely.

Clooney has always had an understated world weariness to him and he uses it to great effect here as he typically does. I like best the smaller moments that let us see the constantly engaged hitman's brain in action. When visiting a local mechanic he quickly scans the shed for the parts he'll need to build a sound suppressor for a rifle. It's a deftly edited sequence that shows a man quick on his feet, a contrast to the slightly frazzled trigger man we see in the film's opening. Editing aside, Clooney brings a keen sense of awareness to the proceedings. He's constantly calling his boss and delaying the job because he's starting to grapple, perhaps for the first time ever, with an inability to detach himself from his work. If his work is to be in Italy he will, of course, fall in love with someone. He also becomes friends with a priest, both are ways of passively and aggressively searching for an avenue out of his life of crime.

The American is not a typically breathlessly paced Hollywood thriller but a slow burner that examines the consequences of a certain kind of life with a certain amount of speed and care. It is also another worthy addition to the typical George Clooney character pantheon.