Town, The

By , September 28, 2010 8:26 pm

The crew from "Good Will Hunting" is starting to look a little rough.

Reviewed by James Owen

“The Town” is Ben Affleck’s first triple threat as writer (along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), director, and lead actor. It’s a wonder to see Affleck hone his skills as a filmmaker. The screenplay is sharp enough to finally dismiss those rumors that surely SOMEONE more talented than Affleck and Matt Damon wrote “Good Will Hunting.” As a director, Affleck creates a more thrilling film than his first feature, “Gone Baby Gone.”  In that film, he nailed the look and tone of working-class Boston, but handcuffed himself to Dennis Lehane’s contrived and morally-questionable plot. Affleck directed his brother Casey, who apparently is busy creating half-baked performance art hoaxes. In “The Town,” as a leading actor, Affleck is as assured as he’s been since the pre-Bennifer days of headlining Kevin Smith films.

Rather than churn out a standard thriller genre movie, Affleck turns “The Town” into something more personal.  “The Town”’s template is a boilerplate cops-and-robbers plot, but with a quiet romance at its center—and a quasi-autobiographical piece. Seriously.  Let’s compare the character arc of protagonist Doug McRay to Ben Affleck.

Doug McRay: Doug was raised in a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood. His skills as an athlete offer early promise. A combination of fate and self-defeat lead Doug back to the old neighborhood for a life as a bank robber, offering a chance to use his skills and brains for easy money in a high-risk “profession.” He becomes a success, though Doug must report to local crime boss Fergus ‘Fergie’ Colm (Pete Postlethwaite). For affection, he gets by with hooking up with his crew member James Couglin’s (Jeremy Renner’s) skanky sister (Blake Lively). The stress and strain of this horrible life begin to sink in, and our very capable Doug begins to yearn for a more substantive, safer life. He’s further motivated by a new relationship with nice girl Claire (Rebecca Hall), a bank manager who may or may not be a witness to one of Doug’s jobs. But, when dangerous people make a fortune off your work, going straight isn’t easy. Dark forces (his crew and his boss) do everything in their power to hold Doug back, tethering him to this life—and threatening to kill his relationship, or maybe even him. The tension of the third act is whether Doug can get away after his last hit and trot into the sunset.

Ben Affleck: Ben was raised in a nice Boston neighborhood that borders a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood. His skills as an actor in films like “Good Will Hunting” and “Chasing Amy” offer early promise. A combination of fate and self-defeat lead Ben to Hollywood for a life of blockbusters, offering a chance to use his skills and brains for easy money in a high-risk “profession.” He becomes a success, though Ben must report to Bob and Harvey Weinstein and make movies like “Phantoms.”  For affection, he gets by with skanky superstar Jennifer Lopez. The stress and strain of this horrible life begin to sink in, and our very capable Ben begins to yearn for a more substantive, safer life.  He’s further motivated by a new relationship with nice girl Jennifer Garner, a less-famous actress who’d only witnessed Ben’s rehab years from afar. But, when dangerous people make a fortune off your work, going straight isn’t easy. Dark forces (Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer) do everything in their power to hold Doug back, tethering him in this life—and threatening to kill his relationship, or maybe even his career. The tension of the third act is whether Ben can get away after that proverbial “one last hit” and trot into the sunset.

With “The Town,” our hero shows that he may very well walk into the sunset with more gold statues.  Perhaps I am cherry-picking my plot points, a genre movie like “The Town” shouldn’t feel so intimate and personal.   In any film where the likable criminal wants “one last job” before turning straight, the likability of the criminal (and the performer) is of utmost importance.  Plus, unlike Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Boston isn’t so much a backdrop as a supporting character. The expansive shots give us a view of its beauty and history; Affleck focuses on the grimy streets and the coarse inhabitants to give the film a lived-in feel. Any native of any city can tell you what makes it unique, but a talented filmmaker shows you the details that make the city come alive. The intimacy between characters and setting is how a film comes alive.

There’s much more to like about “The Town. “  Its action sequences evoke Michael Mann’s “Heat” in their accuracy: Affleck understands Mann’s obsession for details, about shooting in a wide scope and framing mundane places like grocery store parking lots and garbage strewn alleys like sweeping vistas or vast ponderosas. This is the work of a confidence director: A nice example is a gun battle that takes place behind a large wall. Instead of remaining on the gun fight, Affleck places him cameras on those reacting on the outside. A daring point-of-view—all reaction with no action—but he makes it work.

Affleck is also generous with his actors. Jon Hamm plays the antagonistic FBI agent not driven by some ill-defined back story, but because he has a bad-cop attitude and is good at his job. You don’t have to hate him not to like him very much. Jeremy Renner is dangerous, but with a streak of loyalty that makes his relationship with McRay believable—not unlike Jimmy Cagney in “Angels With Dirty Faces.” Hall and Lively make strong impressions amongst the testosterone. Hall isn’t much of a surprise (“Frost/Nixon,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona”), but Lively proves she may have life after Gossip Girl.

Whatever criticism Affleck has received is not without merit. But, as Doug McRay would point out, redemption is worth seeking and the potential rewards are great. Let’s just hope “The Town” is sure sign Affleck is on that track.

The Pitch:

2 Heat

2 Heat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Good Will Hunting

2 Good Will Hunting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 The Town

4 The Town

4 The Town

4 The Town

Devil

By , September 26, 2010 9:15 am

"I Want a Monster That Can Destroy Roger Ebert's Twitter Account"

Reviewed by James Owen

M. Night Shyamalan once boasted himself as “comparable to Hitchcock” and Newsweek dubbed him “the next Spielberg.” After nearly a decade of high profile bombs, M. Night has apparently downgraded his ambition to “the next Rod Serling” with “Devil”, a film he conceived and co-produced. Perhaps this is the beginning of Shyamalan’s “Presenter” career phase.

Based on the results, M. Night’s might be more shrewd than we thought.  “Devil” has the foreboding moodiness and effective creep-out vibe of his best work, without the heavy-handedness and pretension of his worst. Unfortunately, “Devil” also retains the simplistic Calvinism that Shyalamalan mistakes for deep spiritual philosophy.  Ultimately, that’s what holds back this crafty little chamber tale from reaching its full potential.

We are in Philadelphia, as almost all of M. Night’s non-airbending films are, where five nameless strangers are stranded on an elevator: Logan Marshall-Green as The Mechanic, Jenny O’Hara as The Old Woman, Bojana Novakovic as The Young Woman, Bokeem Woodbine as The Guard, and Geoffrey Arend as The Salesman.  They’re nameless because they represent the…Every(Bad)man (?), and one of them may very well be the eponymous character. There is, however, a purpose for why these five people are on this elevator—an otherworldly force. Could it be….SATAN?

That’s what the film seems to think (see the title), but the message is, ultimately, contradictory (more on that later). Point being these people are bad:  Not mere sinners but perpetually unpleasant, hurtful people. One by one, they suffer horrific deaths—in the dark and off-camera when the lights go off. In addition to a horrific demise, it sounds like someone is unpacking luggage.  How would that kill anyone?

All of this is being watched from ABOVE… by a pair of security guards.  True to the Shyamalan universe, there’s only two ways to see things: The Cynic (Matt Craven) and The Believer (Jacob Vargus).  The Believer “sees” what is really going on and has a habit of droning on about some story his grandmother told about The Devil. Of course, none of this is very settling to the people trapped in the high-rise elevator. Eventually, they are joined by Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) who is there investigating the suicide (or murder or accident) that opens the film. Turns out, he’s there for another reason that’s not revealed until the last few frames of the film spool out.

If you have even a passing acquaintance with the Shyamalan universe, this is not a spoiler.  Yes, we are back to the Twisty-Turvey endings necessary to the M. Night equation. But Shyamalan has more on his mind than just surprise. Without divulging too much (“Devil” is a modified “Signs”), the test of the third act is whether a mortal will confess his sins before facing eternal damnation. Which, from my view, seems like an easy answer. Of course, someone would do that when they are face-to-face with Satan. This inherently obvious point undercuts the film’s drama.

Furthermore, it seems odd that the last mortal standing gets a chance to confess when none of the previous victims get that same chance. This goes back to the notion of confession. The intended recipient of this confession is one of the characters watching. So…does that mean The Devil forces sinners to confess to their victims, or that the confession itself is some sort of torture to the victim? Don’t you seek salvation with God? Why would you confess to the Devil—presumably, he made you do it, right?

More perplexing is “Devil”’s belief that God or Satan will push individuals into a forced confessional solely to create this moment of personal redemption and forgiveness. While this makes for a nifty thriller, this “important” and “deep” theology is underbaked at best, ridiculous at worst.  In other words, pure M. Night Shyamalan.

Then again, “Devil” is a thriller and a good one. The claustrophobia of an elevator is an effective setting for a creepy morality tale: Its passengers only have the illusion of control over an ascending and descending confessional booth. The score and the cinematography are effectively dreadful. The film works at a quick place and really digs at the audience’s nerves. And hey, if you want some good religion, go to church. If you want something weird and creepy, head to the cinemas. Perhaps that’s good advice for M. Night before he presents something else.

The Pitch:

2 Phone Booth

2 Phone Booth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Signs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Devil

3 Devil

3 Devil

Get Low

By , September 24, 2010 8:40 am

"I Think You Would Look Better as a 'Terry Jones' than a 'Fred Phelps.'"

Reviewed by James Owen

Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low” is about endings. Literally, it is about the ending of reclusive, self-mythologizing codger Felix Bush’s (Robert Duvall) life and his intention to throw himself a funeral. While he may be crazy, there is a method to this madness. That leads us to the film’s take on spiritual endings—about Felix’s need to use the funeral as a cleansing of dark secrets and regrets.

At another level, “Get Low” is also about cinematic endings, particularly long endings designed to enhance the impact of the Big Revelation. The build-up to the Big Revelation is key. Here, “Get Low” employs quick visual hints that seem taken out of context. The audience knows it’s going to be something bad, yet hopes it’s something profound. Final, yet satisfying.

The problem is that “Get Low” is centered on a self-mythologizing character—there is no finality because the myth always lives on. “Get Low” sets this up is an enticingly simple way: Felix, feeling the pangs of mortality, mules it to the closest 1930’s Tennessee hamlet to meet with Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), a down-and-out funeral home director. Business is bad (“Everyone is dying, except for here”), and Quinn wonders how he will stay in business, let alone keep him and his associate Buddy (Lucas Black) afloat. When Felix walks in with a moldy wad of cash, thus appears the inexplicable answer to the business’ prayers. Then, when Felix demands that as many as possible be able to come speak about him, Frank and Buddy envision a publicity bonanza.

This portion of “Get Low” is a smart and funny look at how society has turned death into another form of mercantile (Trust me; dealing with death is part of my job). But the film’s satire dissipates because ego is NOT the reason Felix is throwing his own funeral: He has a heavy heart, something on his mind that caused him to lead a life of seclusion. 

The film lures the audience into believing “Get Low” will be a deconstruction of some folksy mythology: All these people will show up and reveal Felix for something he is truly not. Other than a few flashes of violence, all we hear are some ill-defined tall tales—mainly things of a Time-Life Books nature (“He’s so mean he shot a fella just for snoring,” that sort of deal).  If this guy is just kinda sad and not very shady, why should we care about this big secret we’re going to hear about?

Novice filmmaker Schneider thinks the mystery of Felix Bush is sufficient. Instead of focusing on the effective banter between Duvall, Murray, and Black, the film shifts to the relationship between Felix and Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek). We learn a little bit about their previous relationship, but there’s no spark between the two. We could blame the performers (particularly Spacek, who seems disengaged) or the dialogue that dances around the big revelation. Not only wouldn’t real people talk this way, but they’re not saying anything particularly dramatic.

Finally, once we get to the funeral itself, we are treated to a grand performance if not a grand reveal. At this point, the Big Deal isn’t a big deal to the audience. Still, Duvall makes it sad and tragic and panging at our collection sense of regret and longing. If this were a lesser actor (and that’s every other living actor), the material would not stand on its own. This being Duvall, the moment works well enough. But, had “Get Low” allowed us to understand this character better or, perhaps, not treasured its material so intensely, there might have been a genuine revelation. There isn’t.

Also, analogizing the funeral to a confessional is odd. I understand the need to cleanse the soul for the Afterlife, but that never actually happens at a “real” funeral.  “Get Low”’s initial concept offered something novel: Controlling the scene at our own funeral. Who would show up? What would they say? How would they act? That hook is the appeal of “Get Low.”  But simply watching someone ask for forgiveness feels too uninspired for such a good and, as it turns out, wasted concept.

I have spent much of this review saying bad things about the film.  But I have not come to bury “Get Low,” but to praise it. Duvall and Murray are exceptional. Black turns in a heartfelt and dignified performance that should finally turn this guy into a star. Supporting actors Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, and Lori Beth Edgeman give small but nice performances. The look and tone of the film captures the rich feel of Southern literature. These are things that make “Get Low,” ultimately, worth watching. These parts don’t up the whole, but I did want to give the reader an ending they could feel good about.  I think Felix would understand.

The Pitch:

2 The Apostle

2 The Apostle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Meet Joe Black

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Get Low

3 Get Low

3 Get Low

Cancer is Taking Hitchens’ Voice When We Need it Most

By , September 13, 2010 6:54 am

I was particularly saddened to hear that Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the preeminent contrarian writer in the English-speaking world, was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. The sheer volume of Hitchens’ work amazes—I have tried several times to figure out where he gets the time to write so lucidly and live as hard as he does, but there are only a few truly great ones.  Besides, what other intellectual can break off a line like this:  “Glenn Beck’s rally was large, vague, moist, and undirected—the Waterworld of white self-pity.”  More importantly, at a time when the American mind is closing into camps of ideological groupthink, we’re losing one of the true independent and unabashedly intellectual voices of the modern era.

Hitchens once wrote me a lengthy response to my review of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.  Actually, the piece was a review of Hitchens’ review of the film, and I tried to let both of them have it.  Hitchens called F 9/11 “sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness” and “a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.”  I wholeheartedly agree, but then I went after Hitchens’ blind-spot in his pro-war arguments, mostly revolving around his dismissal and ignoring of key facts about the conduct of the Bush Administration that, in themselves, made the prosecution of the war an empire-toppling fool’s errand. 

More than that, I tried to pull a Hitchens on Hitchens by hitting him in the hypocrisy.  Hitchens claims not to be the heir to Orwell’s legacy, but I think it’s hard to get away from.  Hitch even wrote a tough-minded essay Why Orwell Matters and an introduction to a recent edition of 1984 and Animal Farm. So I did the natural thing:  Accuse Hitchens of Doublethink in his defense of the Iraq War.  And quoted Why Orwell Matters to accuse Hitchens of “betraying his craft.”  And accused Hitchens of being ignorant to the kind of permanent state of war that Orwell warned of in 1984.

This is the kind of stuff you can get away with on the internet when you think your targets aren’t listening.  Who’s going to call you out, other than message-board trolling political geeks—and who cares about them anyway?  Writing online to relatively small audiences can be liberating and frustrating—if your blog is updated in the digital forest, does it make a sound?  Though our hit count at Flak Magazine was really high, and Jim Norton and crew put out years of great writing, I never really thought any of my criticism or praise reached the source (other than Louie C.K., who once wrote me to say that I was the only critic to understand Pootie Tang).  Mostly, this was self-entertainment. 

Then one morning I opened my email, and there’s a letter from…wait for it…Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens had just returned from Afghanistan and had my article sent to him by Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy.  Hitchens wrote me a nearly thousand word response to my article, thanking me for the “high and rare seriousness” of the article and wishing that “yours was the standard by which debate was conducted these days.”

I won’t go through the rest of the letter because that’s not the point (and besides, Hitchens hammered me a bit).  But the point is that such a brilliant and prolific writer took time to write a lengthy response to a blogger —simply because he thrilled to the fight.  Hitchens discovered a worthy adversary in this article, and he engaged it seriously.  To Hitchens, sloppy thinking, wherever it may be, is the enemy.  Or, as Hitchens wrote in Why Orwell Matters:  “It’s not what you think, but how you think—‘views’ don’t really count, but principles do.”  He is the opposite of what most plagues us today:  The epistemic closure that has closed off debate between the right and the left.  Why else take the time to write such a well-considered response to unpaid internet essayist?

To that point, Hitchens completely pegged the weakest part of my thinking: “the great fault of attempted even-handedness.”  Hitchens advised, “in my curmudgeonly way that you can’t hope to make the best use of your obvious talent if you spend so much time splitting the difference and trying to accomodate everyone.”

Hitchens is absolutely right.  Too many smart people—especially center-leftists like me—spend too much time trying not to be “crazy.”  We try to combat Limbaughism with a kind of polite post-modernism in which everybody’s wrong.  But, Lefties need to learn to take firm stands without sounding like Ed Schultz.  The only way you do that is by knowing the facts, sharpening your arguments, and most importantly, thrilling to the fight.  When we don’t do that, we leave a vacuum that gets filled by Death Panels, 9/11 Mosques, Socialism, and all the rest.  As Chief Justice Roberts might say, the only way to fight epistemic closure is to fight epistemic closure.

Hitchens’ advice is also the most important critical thinking skill I try to teach my students:  You have to take a stand.  This doesn’t mean the world is made up of either/or fallacies, but the process of critical thinking involves marshalling the facts, sorting out the ideas, evaluating the options, and coming to your own conclusions.  So, Hitch, if this somehow makes it to you, know that when you’re gone, in the very least your example will continue to guide about one hundred high school Catholic school students every day.  I’m not quite sure what you’d think of that, but I’ll bet you think it’s worth more than prayers.

Elena Kagan Jim Joyce’s Her Call on the Ridiculous Umpires/Judges Analogy

By , September 12, 2010 1:21 pm

With most of us on the couch furiously yahoo-ing through our fantasy football scores, let’s not forget there’s another season that’s upon us:  Supreme Court Season!  With a new term coming in October, I’ve got three articles in the queue that take stock of where we’re at with the Court.  For now, let’s review the key moment, for this Court watcher, from confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan.  And do an NFL tie-in.  Because it’s Red Friday  in Kansas City.

And re-link to my Zapruder Film breakdown of my lawyer-and-umpire’s perspective on why Jim Joyce blew the perfect game call.  Let’s give newly-minted Justice Elena Kagan credit for taking a few shots at the flank of Justice Roberts’ stupid and intentionally misleading analogy that Supreme Court justices are like baseball umpires.  Kagan answers Senator Klobuchar’s question in three parts. First, Kagan says the umpire analogy works only as far as it means neutrality.  We can all agree on that, I’d hope.  Second, she says that judges should realize they’re not the most “important” people in government, which I take to mean that judges should have a certain modesty in public appearances that befits the decorum of the court.  That I agree with too—though this shouldn’t conflict with Justice Roberts’ wise and right commitment to creating more transparency in the Court’s proceedings.  If she means that certain justices don’t do the Court any favors by writing score-settling screeds or delivering Sicilian flip-offs in church, sure, I’m with that too. (Bonus points would have been awarded for calling Scalia the Joe West of the Supreme Court).

On her third point, though, Kagan doesn’t deliver the heavy artillery.  She begins her attack by saying that the analogy confuses judging with the robotic enterprise of making calls, that judging requires “judgment.”  I’m not going to get into a discussion of the difference between “judging” and “adjudging” a call, but I will say that in some trial court settings, judging is like calling ball and strikes with the Federal Rules of Evidence. 

More importantly, she follows this line by asserting that judges apply the law:  “It’s law all the way down,” and just in case any activist judge haters out there missed it…”law, and only at law.” She talks about applying text, structure, history, precedent, etc., which, yeah, is what judges do.  But Kagan wants to be appointed, so she stops here.  She says that only law matters, which, again, just isn’t true at the Supreme Court level.  Kagan says political and personal preferences don’t matter—but as I’ve discussed before, this simply isn’t true.  Supreme Court justices make law because they interpret the Constitution.  How can philosophy, politics, and personal preferences not matter? 

This is not to say that philosophy and politics are dispositive—justices are bound by text, precedent, and all those things—but they matter.  Interpretation is a philosophical exercise, so it can’t be “law all the way down” all the time.  The making of law has to start someplace, and in our system of government, much of it starts with the Supreme Court’s reading of the Constitution.  The sooner we admit this in open forums without being smeared as Founding Father-hating communists, the sooner we can have mature, adult conversations about what our founding document means.  Again, I present to you the NFL Competition Committee model of Supreme Court jurisprudence.  Future nominees, if you use this argument to absolutely dumbfound Judicial Committee Ranking Minority  (and U. of Alabama Law graduate) Senator Jeff Sessions, then I expect a clerkship.  Thank you.

Machete

By , September 8, 2010 9:08 pm

And You Thought YOU Looked Rough in the Morning.

Reviewed By James Owen

Three years ago, before being wooed from the Internet by the bright lights of a teevee gig in a Top 80 market, I was so smitten with the Quintin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez (whom I proudly dubbed “Shake N’ Bake” at the time) bomb “Grindhouse” that I saw  fit to write TWO reviews:  One for the features “Planet Terror” and “Death-Proof,” and one about the four fake trailers before and between the two main films. Here’s what I said about “Machete”, directed by Rodriguez, in 2007:

The Grindhouse experience starts out with the Rodriguez-directed Machete. The director has stated that he actually wants to turn this premise into his next film; by the time he gets around to directing his next El Mariachi, Antonio Banderas will be as old and as rough-looking as Danny Trejo himself. Of course, Trejo plays the titular character, a south-of-the-border roughian contracted by the federal government to do their dirty business. This includes assassinating unpopular politicians when they turn on him and leave him for dead (and wow, does this sound like The Shooter or what?), he turns to Father Cheech Marin (“God may have mercy, but I DON’T!”) to exact revenge. Rodriguez, in promotional interviews, has said he based this concept on rumors that the DEA hires thugs from Mexico to “take care of” gang leaders in border towns. Rumor or true, this is ripe with fascinating material. What’s interesting is that the style of the trailer in presentation and look resembles the blax-ploitation features so prominently displayed in those grindhouse films; Rodriguez has created the “Mex-ploitation film (I like that. Rodriguez should pay me for this phrase.) perhaps at the right time in history. Back when Melvin Van Peebles invented blax-ploitation right after the civil rights movement when African-Americans were still dealing with the anger built during the 50’s and 60’s. With the border issue and illegal immigration all over the nation’s conscience, then perhaps Rodriguez could create some interesting social message with a full-length version of Machete.”This time, they (f#@%ed) with the wrong Mexican,” excitedly intones the trailer’s narrator. Has there been a more perfect line in a movie this year?

Now Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis have taken on the unique task of making that “fake” trailer into a “real” movie, I am not sure there is more to add. There some updates: Rodriguez has also used the phrase “Mex-ploitation” to describe his body of work with Entertainment Weekly. Coincidence? Must be, because I haven’t seen my check.

As for “Machete”’s social commentary, Rodriguez lays it on thick—almost to the detriment of the film. The story of Machete’s path of vengeance isn’t so much focused on illegal immigration, but rather immigration exploitation. The assassination attempt of the anti-Mexican politician (Robert DeNiro) is part of a larger scheme to build an electric fence across the border, controlled by powerful forces to dictate who and what will cross. The point “Machete” makes is that there are forces—specifically, wealthy Anglos and Mexican drug lords—who cannot afford to completely shut off the flow of illegal workers. The film smartly points out that illegal immigration will not ever be seriously tackled because there’s too much money to be lost. Of course, this does not keep politicians like DeNiro’s character from using voter’s racism to hold office. This is an interesting take on the whole “finish the danged fence” debate that goes roundly ignored by the mainstream media.

Of course, “Machete” ain’t hosted by Christiane Amanpour; it’s about a dude who chops bad guys up with a big knife. So let’s look at the entertainment value. Here the film falters a bit. “Machete” is effectively made and presents its action swiftly—Rodriguez uses a lot of footage not used in the trailer he filmed some time ago with his editor collaborator filling in the blanks. But, Rodriguez’s films tend to veer to the ridiculous without necessarily being funny or, at the very least, ironic. Other than the sheer visceral thrill of watching freshly-ripped intestines used as a bungee cord, or seeing how creative a naked woman can get in concealing a cell phone, there’s nothing to get the low-brow film geek jazzed up.

The primary problem is the casting. Danny Trejo is one bad dude. He is a great character actor when you need a hardened criminal or a seasoned vice detective. What he is not is a leading man. He can be a bad-ass, but he cannot be charming or seductive or versatile. Trejo gets some funny line (“Machete don’t text”, was a favorite), but doesn’t do much else, other than effectively handle his weapon of choice. Perhaps Rodriguez should have pulled a “Desperado” and got frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas to step in for the feature. The core of the film would have held up better.

The supporting cast is hurt more by the script than the performers. As the film’s bad guys, DeNiro, Don Johnson and Steven Seagal have a lot of fun growling their cheesy lines. Seagal might grab a career second wind if he fixed his Bela Lugosi hair and lost 100 pounds.  The female cast has the worst of it: Jessica Alba’s federal agent gets an abrupt-face in the third act for the script’s convenience. Michelle Rodriguez plays a taco-truck driver/revolutionary not given enough to do, especially based on this outstanding dual resume. Pity poor Lindsey Lohan, in desperate need of a comeback, placed in an inconsequential role here for the “goof” of dressing her up in a nun’s costume. Despite her soap opera dramatics and some embarrassing flops, Lohan has acting talent and deserves better.

Make no mistake, though, “Machete” is a fun film that will satisfy the b-movie audience’s bloodlust. Some may think its politics are too overt, but this should be more of a compliment for such a mainstream film. On that front, “Machete” would make Van Peebles proud. Much like the tradition of the cruddy “grindhouse” films, though, the ideas aren’t fully developed and good performers are let down by the script. Rodriguez could have and should have corrected this when expounding on his “funny little trailer” way back in the day.

The Pitch:

2 El Mariachi

2 El Mariachi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Born in East LA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Machete

3 Machete

3 Machete

American, The

By , September 7, 2010 10:04 am

Clooney Prepares for his Interview with Bill O'Reilly

Reviewed by James Owen

Anton Corbijn’s “The American” is not the rock-em, sock-em hit-man thriller portrayed in its domestic marketing. It is a slow, methodical situational study of a dour killer (George Clooney) who faces a point in life that is either a dangerous trap or a pensive midlife crisis. It is to the film’s credit (or detriment) that the audience can’t tell the difference. Clooney plays a man impervious to bullets and bombers but not to the confines of the human heart. If that seems hopelessly poetic, such sentiment is not out of place in discussing “The American”. It is dramatic without being very wordy or busy. The film does not do much but wind its tension from small details; it sees more danger in the warm embrace of a lover in a vacant alley than at the end of a gun barrel held by a sworn enemy. Such a film can madden its audience with relying on tried-but-true cliches but anyone patient enough can enjoy a story that soaks in its environment and a leading man who can do more with a look than most actors can do with a monologue.

Clooney plays an assassin. He is Jack or Edward, depending on the portion of the film, so let’s just call him The American. This distinction derives from a conversation with an Italian priest who notes, “Just like an American, you thinks you can ignore history.” Snotty European sentiment or an accurate description of the unraveling character development; I will go for the latter. The film starts in the winter-scape of Sweden where The American lets his guard down for some romance. This almost gets him killed. Feeling the heat, his boss relocates him to a rural village in Italy in preparation for his next hit. Italy is beautifully filmed and one wonders if the film’s shooting location’s proximity to Clooney’s beloved Lake Como had anything to do with his selection in the script. I mean, we’ve all watched plenty of films where it’s obvious the actors picked scenery over substance in their pick. Did any actor do “Couple’s Retreat” because of the script or because they could film the piece of garbage for three months in Tahiti?

Then I digress. The American buys gun parts, builds his silencer (which I’ve never seen a character do in a film before and seems very technical), does target practice, rendezvouses with his co-hort Mathilda (Thekla Reuten), and has panicky phone conversations with his supervisor. With the exception of some small, well-choreographed action sequences, that’s about the extend of the film. Just making the gun for this hit seems like an endless task. But that’s the point “The American” is trying to make: Even something as dangerous and deadly can be pointless and draining. Such an emotional toll makes the moral conundrum of the job far worse. All we can do is wait to see if The American will learn his lessons or fall victim to the prescient observation at the beginning of the film.

Such dilemmas are punctuated by the cinematography filled with vast emptiness and a lead performer who is deft with expressing emotion not with dialogue but with physicality and facial expressions. Clooney has proven to make his age a commodity rather than hiding it. His face is creased like a road map and his eyes are sunken. But he emits a confidence; a confidence punctuated by the lack of dialogue moments of inaction. This is not simply telling of the performance but of the performer. He does get some back-and-forth with a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who acts as a conduit between our lead sinner and the Eternal Afterlife he is only a misstep away from entering. While perhaps an obvious relationship for such mortal examination, both actors make the relationship feel fresh and interesting.

While trying to sort his life out as a paid killer and where such consequences lead, The American falls in love with a local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido, who is a complete knock-out). Yes, the Soul-Searching Killer gets smitten with the Hooker-with-a-Heart-of-Gold. Of all the conventions found in here, this is the most tiresome. Then again, this leads to the revelation that this hit will be The Last Job. One can justify such tired conventions because it leads to the film’s ultimate theory about the feeble soul’s inability to escape instabilities; about our inability to break free from our own personal history. 

“The American” is not designed as escapist action fare as one might expect or some Paul Greengrass-style political screed as one might fear. It is a simple, elegant look at a man and his life, a life and its inevitable end. Plus, Italy is awfully gorgeous. Who could blame Clooney for wanting to stick around?

The Pitch:

2 The Professional

2 The Professional

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Clooney's Lake Como Villa

1 1/2 Clooney's Lake Como Villa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 The American

3 1/2 The American

3 1/2 The American

3 1/2 The American

Last Exorcism, The

By , September 6, 2010 7:41 am

Bristol Palin Preps for Dancing With the Stars

Reviewed by James Owen

Most exorcism films reek of misogyny. First, has there ever been a movie about a male possessed by a demon? None of any note…unless “Constantine” is notable. Oh, Keanu movies don’t count? Fair enough.

So, the misogyny.  Movie demons typically possess three kinds of girls:  those entering puberty (William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”), high school girls with emotional problems (John Boorman’s “Exorcist II”), or college students getting her first crush (Scott Derrickson’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”).   Can you name an exorcism film directed by a female? Or an exorcist portrayed by a female actress?  Really, when hasn’t the demon represented the hormonal woman tamed by a religious authoritarian? As a friend once put it, the exorcist film is really the male nightmare of the menstrual cycle. Seems about right, doesn’t it?  Something has freaked these guys out.

Daniel Stamm’s “The Last Exorcism” lacks the overt sexual politics of the usual exorcism movie. In fact, the possessed really doesn’t factor all that much into the film. This micro-budgeted flick begins as a satirical religious mockumentary. The faux documentary crew takes their digital cameras to follow exorcist Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) in the backwoods of Louisiana. Cotton opens up to the cameras for two reasons: To explain why people believe in exorcisms and to explain how people like him exploit those beliefs. As they drive through bayou country, Cotton explains how this area has oddly combined Catholic dogma and voodoo. This is done with a laugh, as if “Catholic voodoo” were the perfect synergy for snake oil salesmen like him to make a quick buck at the expense of people at their most desperate and vulnerable.

Desperate and vulnerable like Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), whose farm animals are mysteriously meeting rather grisly demises. He believes his teen-aged daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), or whatever is controlling her soul, is to blame. Cotton driving into the swamp lands of Louisiana comes off as creepy descent into this Great Reveal. It’s not just the ominous warnings of young Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) or the folks whose eyes are too close to one another. Stamm contrasts the bright, blaring sun of the bayou with the darkened shadows cast by the canvass of the Tupelo trees and the thick brush. The idyllic silence of the garden-like setting will certainly be shattered by what’s facing them at the end of the dusty gravel road.

Cotton, however, believes he can perform his magic and its psychosomatic powers will cure all ails. The audience must assume that our anti-hero has never come across something as real as Nell because, once the show is over, she is much worse. Cotton breaks character to inject some logic and science: Perhaps she needs a therapist or some medicine. But, why oh why, would “the exorcist” desperately recommend such “secular” remedies? This does not sit well with any true believers involved. Clearly, Cotton’s manipulation of faith will lead to some explosive consequences.

“The Last Exorcism” would not be the first exorcist movie to pit a lack of faith against pure evil. But it could the first to put pure evil up against not a weakness in belief, but a complete absence of it. Rather than following this idea, though, Stamm gets distracted by creating a despairing visual style. Stylistically, Stamm creates effectively creepy tone, but he loses the opportunity to make a unique exorcism film—until the last scene of the film.

No spoilers are forthcoming, but suffice to say that audience members who took Cinema Score surveys (“Exorcist” got a D) said that the ending is why they hated the movie.  The critic for the Associated Press said—without explanation—the final five minutes “ruined the film”. If anything, the ending revealed a darker, nastier plot—perhaps better than the one I just watched—about how the emotionally taxed will turn to almost anything to relieve their spiritual pain.

Certainly a film cannot be judged on what it is not. To its credit, “The Last Exorcism” is not another exercise in woman-bashing, and it was not an exploration of the dangerous faith in the backwaters of Louisiana. It is a well-done, but not ultimately hollow horror flick. At the end of August, anything not offending my intelligence or my sensibility is worth the time.

The Pitch:

2 Carrie

2 Carrie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Paranormal Activity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Last Exorcism

3 The Last Exorcism

3 The Last Exorcism

Panorama theme by Themocracy