Underseen Movie: ‘The A-Team’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

The movie version of the 1980s television show “The A-Team” is one of those examples of how, as U2 put it in their song “Numb,” too much is not enough. The plot is razor thin, and the stunts defy all things we see as logically possible. And you know what? I didn’t care because I HAD SUCH A BLAST WATCHING IT!!! Many reviewers have been bemoaning how it was not what it could have been. I, on the other hand, prefer to see it for what it is, a highly entertaining film and the kind we usually expect to watch during the summer season.

After a prologue that shows how this team of Army rangers came together, we get thrust right into the action as we catch up with Hannibal, Faceman, B.A. Baracus, and the consistently insane Murdock as they are about to wrap up their tour of duty in Iraq. But before they can leave, they are given another mission to retrieve U.S. treasury plates that insurgents intend on using to make counterfeit money; the same kind of plates we would love to have in our possession as they would allow us to quit our day jobs. Without going into much detail, the plan goes awry, and they get set up to take the fall for something they are completely innocent of. The rest of the movie has them going on a mission to get the plates back and clear their names.

The director behind this unrestricted mayhem is Joe Carnahan. This is the same filmmaker who began his career with the $7,500 budgeted “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane” and later directed one of the best crime thrillers with “Narc.” Not once does he allow us to take the characters or what they are doing at all seriously, and it is clear from the get-go how he wants us to take joy in the utter insanity of everything going on. For those who think this movie could have been more serious and reality-based, you came into it with the wrong expectations.

Just look at the insane things these guys do here. They parachute out of a plane in a tank, and they are forced to steer it by firing the turret. There are other moments that defy simple description, and you just have to watch it without wondering too much over how they pulled this insanity off without a hitch. These are characters who prepare for their missions by doing the impossible, or so it would seem. While Carnahan at times gets caught up in the current trend of action film editing which features quick shots that leaves us a little confused as to what we are watching, he keeps us entertained throughout and even allows us to breathe when we need to. Not every filmmaker allows us to pause for a moment, so this is worth pointing out.

Seeing Liam Neeson here as John “Hannibal” Smith was great fun as it allows him to let loose in a way he doesn’t often. Typically, we see him as a mentor in movies like “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” and “Batman Begins,” but as Hannibal, he doesn’t have to be his old serious self. Once you see him pop a cigar into his mouth and light it up, you can see why Neeson was eager to join this project. The “Taken” actor wanted to have fun and lighten up for a change.

Bradley Cooper plays Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the Casanova of the group who, despite his womanizing ways, still has eyes for Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel). Cooper has come a long way from beating the crap out of Vince Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers,” and he manages to convince us of his various intentions and has us believing this despite all the craziness he keeps getting caught up in.

The part of B.A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus is played by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, former UFC Light-Heavyweight champion. I kept thinking that his nickname of “Rampage” won him the part. Taking on a part made famous by Mr. T could not have been an enviable position to be in, but Jackson pulls it off. Is this role a stretch for him? It doesn’t matter because he has us believing in Baracus, and that’s even when this character says he has become a pacifist. We all know that can’t last, and Jackson does surprisingly good work here and without the use of gold chains. Not one is he ever a fool we have to pity.

But the real scene stealer of “The A-Team” is Sharlto Copley who takes on the role of H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock. It is only when he slips back into his South African accent that you remember he was in one of the very best movies of 2009, “District 9.” Having said that, he actually pulls off a compelling southern accent here, showing us he is a far more talented actor than we first realized. Watching him go utterly nuts, be it jump-starting a car with a defibrillator or singing a Dead or Alive song while hanging onto a rotor blade of a helicopter had me in stitches.

Jessica Biel is on board as Faceman’s eternal love interest Charisa Sosa, and she makes for a convincing badass female soldier here. It’s in some ways the same kind of role she played in “Blade Trinity,” and it is nice to see her doing it again in an infinitely better movie.

For those of you wondering if the show’s famous theme song is at all featured, it is. While some say it is not in this movie enough, they should be happy it was included. The score was composed by Alan Silvestri, famous for writing the music for such classic movies like “Back to The Future” and “The Abyss.” Listening to his work here, it is great he still has it in him to create such rousing action scores to keep our adrenaline up and running.

“The A-Team” also proves what I have been saying about how the US military is treated in movies today; they are not anti-troop in the slightest, they are anti-mercenary. Whether it is “Rambo” or “The Hurt Locker” or “Green Zone” we are dealing with, troops are shown to be a dedicated bunch to their country. The main villains are mercenaries who don’t even try to hide the fact they make more in one day than an American soldier makes in a year. Now tell me, who do you think is more patriotic?

You could complain about how absurd this movie version of “The A-Team” is, but Carnahan plays on what made the show so appealing back in the 1980s, and he pays homage to it without making a simple carbon copy of what many of us grew up on. Every once in a while, we need a movie that is brainless fun and does not require us to overthink everything going on. “The A-Team” succeeds on this front, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought it would.

Oh, by the way, be sure to stay through the end credits. You’ll see why. Like the average Marvel movie, it has some surprises up its sleeve.

Like Eddie Pence of “The Ralph Report,” I very much appreciated this cinematic adaptation of this 1980s television classic. What a shame it is that this movie never got a sequel.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Jackass 3D’ – The Hilariously Insane Stunts Take On Another Dimension

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010 when this film premiered.

I saw “Jackass 3D” on the same day I saw “Paranormal Activity 2.” Believe it or not, these two films have a lot in common. Sure, one is a comedy (and an extraordinarily painful one at that) while the other fits far more comfortably into the horror genre. Still, the differences are only skin deep. Both have you going in and knowing that what you are about to watch will be unsettling and far more disturbing than you can ever guess. You keep waiting for something awful to happen, and you are never sure if you can keep looking at the screen when it does. Long after leaving the theater, I still can’t figure out which one had a more visceral or unsettling impact on me.

“Jackass 3D” arrives at the tenth anniversary of this show which debuted on MTV back in 2000. After watching the stunts performed here and then re-watching them in slow motion, it’s astonishing these guys have survived for as long as they have. I have watched several episodes of the show and remember laughing so damn hard at the insane stunts these guys dared to pull off. For some bizarre reason, however, I have still not got around to watching the first two “Jackass” movies perhaps because I listened a little too much to the warnings of friends, one who told me point blank they contained scenes which no man should ever have to witness. But with the latest one being in 3D, I got sick of listening to my friends warning me and to me listening to them to begin with.

Just about everyone is back for this one: Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Ryan Dunn, Chris Pontius, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy, Dave England, and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña. All are here to prove that, after all these years, their sadomasochistic escapades are still as painful as much as they are fun. It makes me wonder how these guys spend their time when they are not on camera. At least they have a sense of humor about their work.

Basically, “Jackass 3D” is just like the show in that there’s no plot, just randomly placed stunts, some of which are beyond belief. I kept wondering, perhaps even hoping, CGI effects were utilized because man, these stunts looked seriously painful! There’s the High Five which has Knoxville body slamming unsuspecting cast and crew members with a giant plaster hand which gets released at quite a high velocity. Then you have the game of tetherball where the ball is filled with Africanized bees, and nobody lasts long in such a game. We also get to watch Knoxville trying to catch a football and eventually getting slammed to the Astroturf by football player Jared Allen who has at least 20 pounds on Knoxville. And then there are those stunts that need no explanation like the Lamborghini Tooth Pull. Seriously, the title says it all.

With its use of slow motion, this film is a hair-raising reminder of just how exquisitely painful those instant replays from football games can be. Does anyone remember when Tim Krumrie got one of his legs snapped in half during the Super Bowl between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers? Watching some of these guys landing on what looks like their necks inadvertently brought this painful memory to my attention quickly even after so many years.

But then there is the Sweatsuit Cocktail and the Poo Cocktail Supreme. Now these really need no explanation, but since I brought them up, I have to tell you the Sweatsuit Cocktail almost literally made me hurl. It involved one of the actors exercising on one of those stationary bikes, and the sweat coming off his body was collected in one of those plastic Dixie cups. Guess what Steve-O did with that cup… Man am I glad I didn’t eat lunch before seeing this!

So, what is different about this particular “Jackass” episode? I guess it’s that everyone is sober this time around. This was done to the benefit of Steve-O who went through some highly publicized substance abuse issues in recent years. When they started making “Jackass 3D,” he had been clean for two years. But seriously, if you were foolish enough to perform any stunts (and please don’t by the way), wouldn’t you want to be the least bit inebriated?

Not to worry though because those warnings of how these stunts are performed by professionals and that you should never attempt them on your own are on display at the beginning and the end of this film. But really, why would you even think of doing any of them? I’m not just talking about the Sweatsuit Cocktail, which I am fairly confident you will not tip the bartender for. Isn’t the whole point of the “Jackass” show and movies is to enjoy watching people do things you know you are never supposed to do? Is there another show you can think of where people like Knoxville get off on such exquisite pain and still have a good laugh about it?

For me, “Jackass 3D” is a mixed bag as there are a lot of insane moments you can’t help but combust in sheer laughter over, and then there are others where you have an immense urge to look away. But laughter does seem to win out for those willing to endure the more painful moments on display here, and there are more of them than you might expect. Movies that make me laugh as hard as this one did can never be easily dismissed.

Actually, the main difference about this particular “Jackass” is the fact it was shot in 3D. This ends up giving the stunts more dimensions than anyone in the cast. Now pay attention: it was not reformatted into 3D; it was actually shot in this format. The effects here are actually very good in putting you right into the action, perhaps closer than you would ever be humanly comfortable. It’s not full of cheap 3D effects where things are just hurled at you on the big screen just because they can be. That is, except for the dildo shot out of a cannon and made to look like it is flying around the world until it smashes into some guy’s head.

I also got to tell you, male full-frontal nudity continues to make a comeback long after Jason Segel unveiled in his throbbing python of love in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It’s not the first thing you would think of to hit a baseball with, but hey, this is “Jackass” for crying out loud! All the same, I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail over the Helicockter as it is as painful as it sounds. Then again, I would prefer it to the model town getting covered by a sudden explosion of excrement.

So anyway, you have been warned. “Jackass 3D” is by no means meant to be watched on a full stomach unless you wanna take bets over who’s going to purge first after your collective visit to the Cheesecake Factory. This one had me laughing like crazy, and I was on the edge of my seat every bit as much when I was watching “Paranormal Activity 2.” Perhaps it was even more terrifying than “Paranormal Activity 2,” but with “Jackass 3D,” no detail is spared and nothing is left to the imagination (not completely anyway).

Once again, you have been warned…

* * * out of * * * *

The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Soundtrack Review: ‘Music From The Big House’

Bruce McDonald’s documentary “Music from the Big House” has blues singer Rita Chiarelli visiting Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary (a.k.a. Angola Prison) where she puts on a concert with the inmates there. What results is a tale of spiritual uplift and redemption as these prisoners serving sentences of ten years to life show a love of music which helps get them out of the dark place they were once stuck in. On top of that, it produces a fantastic soundtrack which is a must buy even for those who have not seen this documentary. Whether you are a fan of blues music or not, this soundtrack will have you up on your feet and clapping along with the rhythm.

Starting off this album is a piece of the film score by Christopher Guglick called “Rita’s Journey” which illustrates the solemn nature hovering over her visit to a prison once known as the bloodiest in all of America. Before we get inside the prison walls, we get a good luck at the surrounding area, and the music Guglick creates captures the stark and sad nature surrounding this penitentiary which reeks of death even on the outside. Another piece entitled “Convicted” illustrates the emotional nature of the crimes these convicts have committed and which put them behind bars. This piece also marks the first time we get specifics on what they had done.

For those not familiar with Chiarelli, she has been called the “Goddess of Canadian blues” and her passion is thrilling to take in here. Her first song on this soundtrack is “These Four Walls” which she wrote after making this documentary. It illustrates deeply the time she spent with these convicts and the bleak nature of life in prison. She wails like few others do, and you will be pinned back in your seat at how powerful of a singer she is. Listening to her will make you wonder why more people don’t know about her in America.

The music featured here, however, is not restricted solely to the blues as there are bits of church and country music to be found throughout. One standout band is The Jazzmen who will get you all riled up with their rendition of “Mississippi Boy” which is just boundless in its energy and joy. Among the other bands performing here are Pure Heart Messenger who bring the house down on “Glory Glory” and “Rain on Me” which has lyrics speaking to the salvation these inmates have found through music.

I also enjoyed the prison yard rehearsals featured here as Chiarelli works on getting the harmonizing just right. The tracks “Rest My Bones” and “Rain on Me” show how serious they all take this music and I am a sucker for all the melodies they come up with.

Like any great soundtrack to a musical documentary or concert movie, “Music from the Big House” really makes you feel like you’re in the room with these musicians as they perform their hearts out. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to see this great documentary, you owe it to yourself to buy the soundtrack which is as powerful as any which came out in 2012.

NOTE: Part of the proceeds from the purchase of this soundtrack will go to the Angola Prison Music Program so that they can buy the equipment they need. It does not go directly to the inmates as this is not allowed.

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s ‘The Ward’ – His First Film in a Decade, and Maybe His Last

Master John Carpenter described “The Ward,” his first feature length movie in ten years, best through a video message at the Toronto International Film Festival:

“’The Ward’ is an old school horror movie made by an old school director.”

It’s good to know this going in as Carpenter is not trying to reinvent the wheel or outdo all other horror releases out now. The plot of “The Ward” is as old fashioned as they come, and it allows Mr. Carpenter to exercise the skills he has perfected for many years. It’s not on a par with “The Thing” or “Halloween,” but in the end I didn’t care. For me it was an absorbing movie which kept me entertained throughout its running time, and it was far more entertaining than those summer blockbusters duds “Green Lantern” or “Bad Teacher.”

“The Ward” stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman whom we first see her indulging in a little pyromania, and not the kind Def Leppard made an album about. The police pick Kristen up after she burns down an abandoned farmhouse, and she gets sent straight to the ward of the movie’s title. Her fellow patients are not necessarily the “Girl, Interrupted” type, and Angelina Jolie is nowhere to be found. The intentions of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) appear ambiguous at best, and dealing with the chief orderly and Nurse Lundt, both who are deadly serious, is no picnic.

Actually, let me segue here for a moment; Nurse Lundt’s name seems to rhyme with a certain derogatory word. Which one you say? Well… You can just figure that out on your own. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, or perhaps it is just the name of someone they knew from way back. Well, whatever the case, Lundt certainly gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money in the seriously mean category, but her voice is not as lovely as Louise Fletcher’s was.

Now this being a psychiatric ward, it is mandatory that a ghost is roaming the halls. Kristen first sees it while taking a shower and, of course, everyone says she’s a nut which is redundant considering she’s staying in a mental institution. Then again, the patients may know more about what’s going on than they initially admit. I hate to think they’ve spent all their time there without seeing at least one ghost, you know? Anyway, patients start to disappear one by one, and Kristen aims to find out what happened to them on top of escaping the ward before it claims her as its next victim.

Now whatever you think of Carpenter’s directorial skills these days, his efforts in generating suspense are still strong. Carpenter is smart to not reveal all the important plot details right away, and he holds you within his grasp throughout as he leaves you guessing or imagining what’s really going on. Even if you see the ending coming from a mile away, the journey to it was an entertaining one for me.

I was skimming through another review of “The Ward” online which said Heard was as believable a mental patient as Charlize Theron was a mine worker in “North Country.” Now what is that supposed to mean? That she’s too good looking to be in a psychiatric ward? Give me a break! Heard does good work here portraying a strong-willed protagonist you want to root for. She’s engaging and believable, and while others may see her as being miscast, I did not. By the way, I thought Theron was great in “North Country” and I utterly accepted her as a mine worker. And in case that one reviewer didn’t notice, both actresses were in “North Country” and played different versions of the same character.

Lyndsy Fonseca is very good as Iris, the first girl to befriend Kristen. She appears to be the most emotionally balanced of the patients, and Fonseca makes her character’s awareness all the more convincing. Mamie Gummer gives a good performance as Emily, and she gives Emily a complexity she might otherwise not have had. Danielle Panabaker makes her character Sarah the epitome of Carly Simon’s classic tune “You’re So Vain,” and she’s a kick to watch. And Laura Leigh rounds out this strong group of actresses by making Zoey a convincingly traumatized person whose escape from reality consists of her acting like a little girl.

In terms of horror, Carpenter still makes effective use of cheap scares. While they have been used to death by dozens of filmmakers, he always makes them count. This is especially the case with “The Ward’s” final scene which truly took me by surprise. I should warn you though that the movie has one of those pull out the rug from under you kind of endings which I am really sick of. However, Carpenter doesn’t telegraph the ending to us like others typically do, so I’m willing to let it pass this time.

If there’s anything missing from “The Ward,” it’s Carpenter’s music which I am a big fan of, and his unique sounds were missed. Not that I want to knock Mark Kilian’s work here as he gives the film an appropriately atmospheric score which works very well, and it does have a bit of that Carpenter sound to it. Still, I yearn for a new score from Carpenter or even his son Cody who did amazing work on “Masters of Horror.”

Am I being too forgiving to “The Ward?” Perhaps. I’ve always been a big admirer of Carpenter’s work, and I even have good things to say about “Ghosts of Mars.” Many have expressed their big disappointment with “The Ward” as they want it to be on a par with “Halloween” and “The Thing.” Others found it not gory enough, but then again Carpenter’s strongest films don’t always rely on it like the “Saw” movies do. Personally, I don’t want to spend time comparing “The Ward” to his best movies because to do so would just be asking us to hate it before the opening credits even begin. You can only let an artist remain in the shadow of their past work for so long until you realize your spoiling the experience for yourself.

With “The Ward,” Carpenter was looking for a movie with a tight schedule and a limited location which didn’t require him to stay for a long time or get completely exhausted after shooting only half of it. With the limited resources he had, he made “The Ward” worth watching, and I got very involved in the plights of the characters. There’s nothing original on display here, and it may very well remind you of a gazillion other movies like it, but I’m glad the master finally directed a feature film again after so long. I just hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for Carpenter’s next film. And if there’s anyway Kurt Russell can star in it, you can sure bet I will be watching it on opening day!

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ten Years Later, ‘The Town’ Remains a Riveting Crime Thriller

I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”

While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”

“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”

Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.

Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.

Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.

Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.

Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.

The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.

You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!

Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:

“Ask me anything you want.”

“I won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”

Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.

* * * * out of * * * *