The Town

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  ‘The Town’ boasts good directing, an involving story, and realistic action, which unfortunately doesn’t make up for some small but critical storytelling flaws.

Review: Ben Affleck is an actor I’ve always felt mixed about. Recently, though, he pulled a Clint Eastwood and became a shockingly competent director. I haven’t seen his debut, ‘Gone Baby Gone’, but his second feature, ‘The Town’, is a glossy, well-made thriller. The story is magnetic and tense, the visuals are of the garden variety but at least you can tell what’s going on, the performances are strong, and the action is top-notch. The result, though, is strangely unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s because the finale veers into clichéd territory and becomes far too predictable.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot here Affleck & Co can be proud of.  The premise itself is as old as dirt, but it’s executed deftly so we don’t notice.  A hardened criminal (Ben Affleck) falls in love and decides to quit after one last job.  What makes the premise seem fresh once again is the strong sense of identity possessed by the Charlestown thieves as a sort of family with ties deeper than blood.  This makes the protagonist’s struggle intensely deontological; it’s not about stealing, but duty and loyalty.  A key aspect in reinforcing this theme is the idea that, whatever their loyalty, people are still capable of good and evil in equal measure.  The FBI (led by Jon Hamm’s character) are practically ferocious and cruel in their pursuit of the Charlestown thieves.  We sympathize with both sides of the law.  Perhaps what makes the finale unsatisfying is that the sympathy we have for Jon Hamm’s character doesn’t survive, even though it’s at the end that we need it most.

Another annoying missed opportunity is Rebecca Hall’s character, Affleck’s love interest.  An often overlooked piece of the dramatic pie in crime dramas is the innocent victims in between the cops and the robbers.  The assistant bank manager with whom the protagonist falls in love is deeply shaken by the trauma of being robbed, but this thread kind of vanishes near the end, once again when it’s most needed.  They could’ve explored the relationship between criminals and their victims in-depth, but they screwed it up.  Well, not entirely, but it’s sad that they got so close without delivering on the cigar.

A major aspect that deserves praise is the action.  Most filmic violence is actually slapstick, with a very tenuous connection to real world physics.  ‘The Town’ has its fair share of straining credibility, but for the most part it’s a respectable attempt at realism.  Machine guns are actually used correctly, grenades don’t explode in the familiar Hollywood fireballs, bullets don’t magically hit the ground behind a running person’s feet, and cars don’t blow up when they crash or the gas tank gets shot.  It’s a step in the right direction.

‘The Town’ is a good film, and a solid sophomore effort from director Ben Affleck.

Short Film: Point A

Yet another short film from S&T Pictures, my (James’) tiny production outfit here in Indy. This is a silent, dreamlike thriller. Based on a nightmare I experienced as a child. Inspired by ‘Inception’ and the works of David Lynch. Shot in a week in August 2010. We had a lot of fun putting this together. It’s like a puzzle; every shot, sound, and object has meaning. You’ll need to see it more than once.

Short Film: Snap!

S&T Pictures, my (James’) small production company, is now in the business of churning out short films.  The most recently created is ‘Snap!’, a brief, slightly pythonesque comedy.  It was a lot of fun to make and took very little time, about seven hours in total. It’s got a little mild language and some brief adult humor. Watch for the layers; it’s a film that needs a second glance. The sound design, especially at the end, is important.

Patrick’s Top Five Villainesses

Usually the antagonists in films are men. But every so often, a women comes along in a film who’s so cruel, nasty, and just plain evil that you can’t help but say, “Wow, what a b****!” Anyways, here’s my pick for the best (worst) villainesses of all time.

5. Dr. Elsa Schneider – ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

She was such a sexy love-interest for ‘Indy. Too bad she was a double-crossing Nazi.

4. Rossa Klebb – ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)

By far the single most troublesome (and ugly) woman in James Bond’s life, she spends most of the film trying to kill him. Kuddos to the poison-tipped shoes though.

3. The Alien Queen – ‘Aliens’ (1986)

One ugly, disgusting creature. She’s got two mouths, a fifty-foot egg sack, and the ability to summon other aliens at her whim. Not only that, but she tries to kill the film’s little girl (gasp!). Thank goodness Ripley (and a military-grade power suit) was there to save the day.

2. The Wicked Witch of the West – ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

She’s a witch, she’s got an army of flying monkeys, she can wield fire, and she’s pure evil. Need I say more?

1. Mrs. Robinson – ‘The Graduate’ (1967)

She’s manipulative, creepy, and slightly insane. She seduces Dustin Hoffman only to turn psycho on him when he starts dating her daughter. She’s as deranged and frightening as they come, and there’s a look in her eyes that keeps me awake at night. No villainess has been more disturbing, conniving, or just plain evil.

Cult Classic: The Thing (1982)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Underappreciated yet highly effective sci-fi horror.

Review: There is something of an understood rule in GOOD horror movies, and that is not to overdo it on the violence. Too much killing and blood risks desensitizing the audience and can wind up becoming ridiculous and unintentionally comical. Case in point: well, a lot of films really. ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, and, more recently, ‘Saw’: these franchises have long since lost their credibility because of the carnage they use.  Typically, the seemingly best horror films are the ones that rely on suspense. After all, what the audience imagines is more frightening than anything a filmmaker could show them, and so often times a film is scarier the less it shows. Case in point: ‘Psycho’ or ‘Jaws.’

And then there’s John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’… a film that somehow manages to combine suspense and extreme, extreme gore in an inconceivably effective way.

The film tells the story of a shape-shifting alien attacking a small team of scientists in Antarctica. The creature is capable of absorbing and imitating any life form it comes into contact with, a sort of extraterrestrial wolf in sheep’s clothing. The only catch is that during the absorption process, it tends to turn itself inside out in a display of gore and high-tech puppetry that has not yet been matched. Seriously though, the special effects in this film are mind-blowing and a true testament to pre-CGI effects.

And boy is it frightening. It is one of the few times that an image meant to scare me actually HAS scared me. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a boxer winning by blunt-force trauma. The transformation scenes are so grotesque and disturbing that they actually are horrifying, and that is a true accomplishment.

Granted, if this film were mostly composed of these scenes, it wouldn’t be as effective as it is. The reason that it can get away with such moments is because they are built around a strong narrative that tackles the breakdown of trust. Though often taken for granted, trust is a human necessity. Our survival in this world is dependent upon it. Without it we are left alone and unprotected against danger, and the scientists in the film find this out the hard way. Fear and paranoia set in. No one knows who is real and who isn’t. The isolation of the Antarctic doesn’t help matters. Insanity and chaos loom ever closer…

It’s the suspense-ridden plot mixed with truly terrorizing monster scenes that makes this film a horror masterpiece. Thanks to the Internet, this film, not initially a success upon its release in 1982, has reached a wider audience, and younger people like myself have taken notice. For a truly great scare, check this film out.

Buy It From Amazon: The Thing [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Yojimbo

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An incredibly well made action film that set the bedrock for others to come.

Review: It wasn’t long after first viewing ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ that I found out that the landmark spaghetti-western was, in fact, a remake of a Japanese film made just a few years earlier. The film was 1961’s ‘Yojimbo’, directed by the master himself, Akira Kurosawa, and it is every bit as good as its western counterpart.

If you’ve seen ‘Fistful’, you know the plot of ‘Yojimbo’. A skilled warrior wanders into a small town engulfed in civil war and sets out to return peace in his own violent way. Most of the scenes, too, match up almost perfectly. The only major change is where the films take place. ‘Fistful’, obviously, was set in the Old West, while Yojimbo takes place some time during the lengthy samurai-period of Japan. Where Yojimbo truly differs is in its main character. He has all the skill, intelligence, and pure machismo of the Man With No Name, yet he comes across as more human. He’s more humorous and more prone to outbursts. I find him more entertaining, if not quite so iconic.

This film features great fight choreography, an impressive villain, and, what was then a fairly unique premise. It’s a smart and well-directed film with beautiful cinematography and an impressive score. I can think of few action films of this quality. It is a must see for fans of samurai films, action films, spaghetti-westerns, or just films in general. Akira Kurosawa proves once again in ‘Yojimbo’ that he is the master, plain and simple.

Buy It From Amazon: Yojimbo (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Cult Classic: Bottle Rocket

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A hilarious and humanistic coming-of-age story.

Review: If Frank Capra and Quentin Tarantino were kidnapped by a time-travelling Vincent Price and spliced into a single director, that entity would be known as Wes Anderson. In ‘Bottle Rocket’, his first feature film, which he co-wrote with lifelong friend Owen Wilson, he crafts an audacious and humanistic comedy.  When a filmmaker really loves the story he or she is telling, it shines through, illuminating all the premise’s cracks and corners.  This is one such work of love, bearing marks that have come to define Wes Anderson as a real auteur, a creator with a distinct voice.

‘Bottle Rocket’ is about three young men who sort of nonchalantly decide to become thieves.  The twist is, unlike most films with similar ideas, the trio aren’t what we’d call bad people.  In fact, despite comic indiscretion, they’re brighter, more optimistic and more ambitious than most young guys I know.  Their chief flaw is that they don’t really understand the problem with theft.  To them, it’s just another cool entrepreneurial venture.  In a lesser film, such a quirk might sink the narrative, but the writers are savvy enough to turn it around for their benefit.  By freeing the story from overt self-criticism, we’re able to spend more time experiencing the story from the characters’ perspectives.

This is basically a coming-of-age story.  The trio all find ways to define themselves in the end, though it takes time and the temerity to overcome an inevitable series of disasters.  One of the young men finds love with an uncommon maid at a motel, and their courtship is my personal favorite onscreen romance.  The film’s philosophical bent is towards a healthy humanism; in short, people are good. It’s common in the western world, due to Western Christianity’s influence, to forget this simple truth in pursuit of moral excellence.  Whether conscious or not, ‘Bottle Rocket’ makes for a good counterattack.  This idea of human normalcy being extraordinarily good in itself spills into the cinematography.  The compositions are great, filled with all the colors of the rainbow, well-arranged and brimming with good humor.

The film’s also pretty accessible.  The only hiccup is the language, which is occasionally very vulgar.  There is a “sex scene”, but I put that in quotes because it is not intended to titillate (it tastefully lacks nudity or any footage of the act), just to beautifully culminate the relationship.  It’s not about carnal passion, but joy, and that kind of emotion is rarely, if ever, employed for sex scenes in film.  I was pleasantly surprised by Wes Anderson’s discretion.

I highly recommend this film for young men on the cusp of adulthood.  It’s hilarious and packed with insight.

Buy It From Amazon!: Bottle Rocket: The (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]