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Rhythm is what ties everything in this movie together. Rhythm defines Edgar Wright’s style.

Edgar Wright had a disappointing couple of years, I think. Getting over all that work he put into Ant-Man must have been rough but I’m so glad it meant that this movie, which Wright first developed in the 90’s, got to exist. As pointed out elsewhere, Wright might have a little Marvel still stuck in his teeth but ultimately I think everybody is going to agree that he hasn’t lost a step. Baby Driver is full of the inventive filmmaking and action he’s known for while also being vastly different from his other movies.

What most people are saying about Baby Driver is how fun and entertaining it is. I’ll echo that while also adding that it’s a surprisingly dark and consequence-laden movie. Wright has always been deft with tonal shifts and messing with genre conventions and while Baby Driver does balance a light-hearted romantic tone with some heavier elements, it’s actually kind of refreshingly straightforward when it comes to its genre. Wright has made his version of a Michael Mann film in a film where every character thinks they are in their own movie. Wright’s genius here is that he’s making all those movies by referencing, recycling, nodding, and reinventing parts of them.

I think Baby Driver is destined to be a crowd-pleaser. There’s too much to like about it and it’s kind of universally appealing, I think. Part of that is the really joyous way it uses music, and part of it is just that everybody loves a crime movie. If there are any complaints to be made, they’ll probably arise from the nuts and bolts mechanics of the story and its somewhat misleading structure. The last act will not fully work for everyone, but I think it’s not going to really damage anyone’s enjoyment of the movie overall. I’ll talk about these issues later, but I really think they are likely to end up being footnotes on a masterpiece.

SPOILERS RACING BY!

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Ah Ben Affleck, we’ve missed you.

There was never really a time where Affleck was one of the guys who “could do no wrong”. He enjoyed a bit of sway after Good Will Hunting and he’s very enjoyable in his earlier work but he’s never had the kind of ironclad trajectory that contemporaries like Matt Damon have had. Even though he made some piss-poor choices and ended up in some bad movies (Paycheck, Gigli, Jersey Girl, etc) he was never bad per se. When he was doing J-Lo and then Jennifer Garner right after, he was a tabloid target and seemed sunk for sure. I still liked the guy, personally, and considered him a draw not a deterrent. But I think I wasn’t exactly in the majority. When agreeing to billing in a movie where you die in the first five minutes and have your face used as a puppet by a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine is said to generate “some much-needed good will”, you know your career is probably in trouble.

Then along came the phenomenal Gone Baby Gone and all of the sudden Affleck had reinvented himself as a talented director. And seriously, that is a monumentally great film and probably one of the all-time great modern directorial debuts. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and GO FORTH. It is critically acclaimed and an audience darling, one of those increasingly rare films that have you arguing with your friends about “what you would do” afterward. Seeing it with my friend James Post is still one of my favorite theater experiences since I practically dragged him to it and he came out as thrilled and ready to discuss it as I was.

But anyway, this isn’t a review of Gone Baby Gone. It is, among other things apparently, a review of The Town.

What should be understood at the outset is that Affleck has not repeated himself. There was a lot of talk about his sticking with Boston as a setting and how the trailer and general feel of the film seemed in line with Gone Baby Gone and maybe not as a good thing. If you’re worried about that in the first place, you might be dumb but for the sake of argument I can tell you that it isn’t the case. The Town is a very different experience of Boston cops and criminals than was delivered in Affleck’s last effort much less the other recent big event Boston crime movie The Departed.

The Town has more in common with Michael Mann films (Heat, Thief, Collateral, etc) in the same genre than with anything else. It is fairly broad, with a small cast of characters whose lives and history are more implied than explored. This is a deft way to navigate the cliches that are rife in the material, the kind of stuff we’re so used to seeing in these kinds of movies that to use them even as a shorthand is to risk turning the audience off.

The action centers around Affleck playing Doug MacRay, a former NHL draft pick from a family of thieves who has had a long-gestating desire to get out of “the life” and leave Boston in his wake. Ah, that oft-employed criminal cliche. But here, Affleck shows his deftness and doesn’t dwell on MacRay’s motives or past, rather delivering info incidentally and taking that Doug wants out as a given. He’s just not quite violent enough or greedy enough for the life, and he really doesn’t like being co-opted by outside interests. Surrounding MacRay are various personalities who all seem to want something from him, and this is the implied reason he really wants out. Again, this is never explicit and is left for the audience to pick up from how people treat the guy, and in turn how he treats them.

Foremost among these is Jeremy Renner’s ferocious Jem Coughlin, a violent pit bull whose energy seems to stem from an erratic desire to make up for time lost in prison. Most people will think that Jem will “go Pesci” at some point in the film and while Pesci is sort of the model for characters like this, the interesting thing about Jem is that the chaos comes out frequently but is treated as just one more thing MacRay has to tolerate. Jem is no Waingro to be viciously set straight by MacRay, it’s just something to be factored into what they do and exploited where necessary (especially in one memorable scene where the two of them lay a beating on some thugs). Renner is unsurprisingly great and its roles like this that will allow him to capitalize on the notice he gained in The Hurt Locker. I’ve liked the guy in everything he’s done, though.

Jem’s sister (who inevitably dimes the crew out, a non-twist that even the film knows is telegraphed probably before it even begins to take shape) needs MacRay to escape from her own sad, fucked out life. She’s a “hot chick” drug addict, similar to Amy Ryan’s character in Gone Baby Gone except not as old and definitely with more goods to leverage. Krista is fiercely sexual and MacRay only begins to really fend her off with any heart when he finds someone he can really be with. Until that point it seems like the fucked up relationship he has with her is as daily a part of his life as the one he has with Jem.

The rest of the crew is barely there, which I think might be a flaw. It would have been nice to see the two other guys get more characterization. We don’t know anything about them, except a bit of work history and rap sheets discussed by the cops later on. I was happy to see that Slaine played one of them after I so enjoyed his Bubba Rugowski in Gone Baby Gone. Maybe Affleck will eventually have his own stable of supporting actors like so many other directors. If so, I hope Slaine sticks around. He has a sort of authentically sleazy charm that makes it easy to believe he’s the criminals he’s been playing for Affleck.

Anyway, the last thing MacRay needs to escape is the legacy of his imprisoned father (Chris Cooper) who was once a celebrated mastermind of the kinds of heists Doug himself has inherited. Like father, like son… and the aged “Florist” (Pete Postlethwaite) a local gangster who sets up jobs expects Doug to carry on the family business. It is in how the Florist presses him that we see the angry, violent side of MacRay and it is obvious that this is something he’d like to bury as much as any influence these types of people have on him.

In Rebecca Hall’s Claire Keesey, Doug might finally find the inspiration and support he needs to take that last step away. The situation is complicated, of course, by the fact that it is only because she was taken hostage during one of their jobs that he even knows she exists. Following her to make sure she doesn’t have anything on his crew, and to protect her from unpredictable Jem who took her in the first place, he makes contact and winds up fatally attracted to her. As the capable feds (a confident, dogged John Hamm and an unfortunately barely-there Titus Welliver) edge closer to the crew, getting into their lives, the budding romance on which MacRay is hinging everything from his friendships to his freedom is tested to the breaking point.

If you don’t buy Doug and Claire, the movie is kind of sunk. To hinge so much of even a simple (and not in a bad way) cops and robbers movie on an unlikely love affair is probably a bold move, but potentially misguided. That said, I think it works.

A lot of people will say this is Renner’s movie but Affleck is totally confident and in control of his performance, delivering what is probably a career best role if not because it’s his first starring role in a while then because he shows a willingness to give other actors the breathing room to establish a lot and sometimes with very little.

With Rebecca Hall so vanished into Claire Keesey, we have a triumvirate of strong performances that anchor a film that could very easily have been lost in cliche. With a sure hand, Affleck confidently secures himself as a director to watch, showing that his first film was no fluke and without trying to make lightning strike twice. The Town is a lesser film if only because it is less urgent, less unique, and less intimate than Gone Baby Gone. Not because it doesn’t have the quality or confidence to be what it is, which is a first-class crime movie from a guy we didn’t know had one in him let alone two.

inception

I did see this incredible film opening weekend, but had to mull it over and talk about it a bit before tackling some kind of review. I also probably had to see it again, which I did, and now I think I’m ready to get into Inception.

First and foremost, if you haven’t seen this movie yet you should stop reading (SPOILERS AHEAD) and go see it. I’m serious and you’ll thank me. If you see any movie this year, it should probably be this. I’d like to say that about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World but I don’t know whether or not that’s going to break into the mainstream like Inception has. Once you’ve seen the movie and are bewildered trying to figure it out, come back here and I’ll toss a few ideas your way.

Second, I owe Devin Faraci quite a bit for influencing my analysis. If you’re interested in his take on the movie (and you should be), you can find it here:  http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/24477/1/NEVER-WAKE-UP-THE-MEANING-AND-SECRET-OF-INCEPTION/Page1.html

I will probably paraphrase him a bit, as I definitely agree with most of what he has to say but I think his analysis is worthwhile on its own.

Anyway, on to what I think!

The first question most people are going to ask themselves, and everyone around them, when the film ends is “wait, is he still dreaming?”. This leads to other questions, like “how much of what I just saw was a dream?”. It is tempting to think not only that the ending is a dream, but that the whole film is Cobb’s dream. Devin Faraci believes that the technology and dream-sharing stuff is all part of this guy’s dreamscape and it’s all very meta and geared to make the point that just because you’ve reached catharsis in a false reality, doesn’t mean that catharsis is itself false. While I may not go so far as to say that all of what we see is a dream, I definitely agree that there’s a theme about facing our psychological demons and working past them on a subconscious level and that however this battle is fought, and on whatever field, it’s real to us anyway. The masterstroke in relating this theme is that we don’t have to simply pluck it from the mechanism of the film, but that it is shown to us via Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his own dreamed catharsis with his father. That event never happened and it’s very likely that old man Fischer didn’t like his son much and died a bitter old man grasping at his empire. Fischer will awake barely understanding how he’s reached these conclusions about dismantling the company and “being his own man”, and within the Philosophy of Dreaming that Nolan is so carefully constructing, these conclusions are valid even if not rationally thought through or driven by a waking encounter. This is not only an example of what is probably happening to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a meta level, but is also a precursor to the catharsis he experiences with Mal (Marion Cotillard). That he’s conscious of reality at a higher level than Fischer is obvious to us, but we still have to ask ourselves by the end if that’s just one extra layer or two removed.

The film is pretty straightforward with no big twists. Even the ending is sort of playing out a question that should be growing in the viewers’ minds even as Cobb repeatedly doubts his own reality, spinning his totemic dredle and watching to see if it falls. I think this surprised a lot of people, who paid careful attention to dialogue and imagery so they could anticipate some kind of trickery. But this isn’t that kind of movie. With deliberate and masterful pacing, Nolan first uses Ariadne (Ellen Page) and later Fischer to explain the rules of the dream-sharing and how Extractors do their work. As these pieces connect, so does the bigger picture of the movie, culminating in one of the finest 3rd acts I’ve ever seen. The last 40 or so minutes is as tense, action-packed, smart, and rewarding as is deserved by all the excellence the precedes it.

Some of my friends have said it’s a bit underwhelming the second time through, or that there aren’t a lot of big moments that stick out. I think there are a lot of small moments that stand out and I’ll talk about a couple of those, but the reason I suspect that there aren’t so many big moments is because the movie is pretty understated until the colossal climax which is just big moment after big moment. I think one big one that will and ought to stick out is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his matter-of-fact Zero G fight sequence. That just sings on screen and is punctuated by his skill and quick-thinking when setting up a Kick for the dreamers afterward.

I don’t know how they pulled of the rotating environment much less the liquid grace displayed by Levitt as he propels himself wall to ceiling to wall, out-maneuvering his only slightly less skillful opponent. It’s one of the coolest scenes in ever and is the first big “whoa, that just happened” inventive fight since The Matrix. There are other big action moments, including Eames (Tom Hardy) brazenly taking out an entire army of projections in the fortified hospital layer of the dream. Watching him take guys out with all his characteristic cheek is great fun, but he’s no superman and is forced to rely on luck. What makes this bit so good is that it’s basically a centerpiece heroic battle in any other film, but played out in Inception by a secondary character in the midst of a huge and stunning climax. Taken in context, it should stand out as one of the best action sequences of the year, putting pseudo-military action movies like The Losers and A-Team to shame already. An earlier scene that stands out for different reasons features Cobb stealthily taking out guards by catching the shell casings from his silenced pistol and then dashing forward to catch his victims as they fall. It was a brief but assured scene, showing a confidence in action filmmaking that Nolan hasn’t earned until now (say what you will about Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but neither is remarkable for the action sequences).

While I can talk all day about the great action in Inception, the moments that really stood out for me, both big and small, were character moments. In a cast where everyone is firing on all cylinders, I may have a bias for Joseph-Gordon Levitt who is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actors. His banter with Tom Hardy’s Eames is great and illuminates both characters, but it’s his slow and subtle attraction to Ariadne that pays off in one of the best little character moments in the movie. Otherwise, Saito (Ken Watanabe) getting taken in by Eames forgery of a hot blonde, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) forcing rain by needing a piss, and testing the sedative compound on Arthur by tipping him out of his chair are all favorite little bits.

My favorite bigger character moments though? How about Cobb’s stunned expression as he wakes up on the plane, exchanging glances with Arthur and Ariadne and finally Saito, in whom Ken Watanabe infuses the silent and haunted awe and gratitude for Cobb’s efforts to find him in Limbo. I think that might be one of my very favorite little scenes, the expression on Saito’s face and then he snaps out of it and picks up the phone to honor the arrangement. But before that, the strange and dreamlike (har har) scenes where Cobb faces him in Limbo are spine-tingling and charged with yet another layer of catharsis. As they share the code-like phrases Saito left Cobb with before embarking on this adventure, we don’t need to see the gunshots that bring them back to the world because we’re already being carried on the swell of the performances, music, and realization of what the movie effortlessly convinces us is a miraculous accomplishment.

But is the ending that follows a dream? Does it matter? There are clues, like the totem not falling or the fact that the kids are wearing the same clothes and ages as in his memories. There are clues even earlier that Cobb is wrapped in layers of dreaming reality. What Nolan is trying to say with Cobb’s journey is that it doesn’t matter if it’s all a dream, the catharsis is real. Even if what we see or learn about Cobb’s situation is just a metaphor for blaming himself for his wife’s death and being unable to face his children, he has still settled his issues by the end of the film. Even if he doesn’t go home and beat murder charges thanks to Saito, he wakes up the next morning able to look his children in the face and let his wife go.

Devin Faraci also explains that the characters and their jobs, much less the mechanics of making dreams and creating fictions for subjects is an allegory of the players and processes of filmmaking and is thus in a sense autobiographical of Christopher Nolan’s philosophy about filmmaking, storytelling, much less his philosophy of dreams, closure, and catharsis in the substrata of life.

I have to agree with this, and then marvel even more at what Nolan has accomplished. A $200 million dollar scifi-action movie filmed in 6 countries with an all-star cast giving career-best performances that also happens to be a comment and exploration of filmmaking? Jesus.

Inception is just that much of a counter-punch to the usual cynically commercial, undercooked nonsense we normally accept as summer blockbusters and tentpole movies. And it’s not a sequel, or an adaptation, or a fucking remake. It’s an original work of monumental skill, care, and craft.

As Cobb says: “Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places.”

If it isn’t the best movie of the year, 2010 is going to be a good fucking year.


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