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“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+

Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-

No. 3: “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”
~~Verbal Kint

Most films are more about what leads up to the finale than the finale itself — the how, not the what. Nobody ever told Bryan Singer that, and so he directed “The Usual Suspects,” a labyrinthine teeth-kicker of a crime thriller where the end is what matters. Everything else is window dressing … but it so happens that Singer is one very fine interior decorator.

There’s no sense letting slip even one more peep about that ending, except to say that it does NOT inspire lukewarm reactions. (Think shock, uncontrollable rage, humiliation, disgust, abject hopelessness and self-pity — a veritable font of negative human emotions.) Best to defer to the Fight Club rulebook when it comes to those last five minutes of “The Usual Suspects”; in fact, don’t let anyone talk about any part of the movie in your presence, since there’s no such thing as an “insignificant detail” in this one. The less you know, the better. Understood?

With Act 3 off the docket, what’s left to discuss? Well, plenty, thanks to Singer’s remarkable eye for details and Christopher McQuarrie’s twisty, smarter-than-smart script. Herein lies the paradox: Although the end is paramount, the lead-up is where all the fun is. If you can call murder, mayhem and utter befuddlement “fun.” (Note: I do.) Have a chew of the setup, explained brilliantly by the movie’s tagline: “Five criminals. One lineup. No coincidence.” When a truck is hijacked, New York police haul in five familiar faces: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the loose cannon con; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner; Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked ex-cop whose cool facade hides his ruthless nature; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), who has two interests: money and himself; and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), a short con operator with cerebal palsy. The five decide to exact some sweet revenge on the cops, but the plan leads to an entanglement with Keyser Soze, a mythic, faceless figure with limitless power and unfathomable influence. Pulled in to investigate the revenge plot’s spiraling aftermath is U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a smug man quite certain he’s in control of everything who’s none too happy to discover he knows absolutely nothing. He’s just a poor, clueless schmuck like the rest of us.

If this all sounds very high concept, that’s because, uh, it is, and arrogantly so. McQuarrie’s shooting for the ionosphere with this script, which contains so many turns that it takes multiple viewings to sort them out (and maybe not even then). The concept of linear action? Ha! Constant vigilence and attention to detail are requirements, not suggestions, just to follow along. But that’s hardly a flaw, since directors rarely assume this level of intelligence of their audiences.

Yet don’t go thinking Singer’s going to reward all this effort. If anything, his interest lies in teasing us, playing Chesire Cat to our Alice. He gives us no pieces, then the wrong ones (which sometimes turn out to be right), then the right ones (at the wrong time), then all of them tossed together like some crazy jumbled puzzle salad. It might be maddening if “The Usual Suspects” weren’t so darn cool-looking. The cinematography, with its looming darkness and shaded-just-so corners that conceal key details, adds to the tension beautifully. 

That whole “cool-looking” idea extends to the actors, who are cherry-picked. There was a time before Stephen Baldwin started boardin’ for the Lord and filed for bankruptcy. That time was 1995, and since then he has not come close to topping McManus. Benicio del Toro plays Fenster as something of a comedian, sporting an inexplicable accent that ends up being the film’s funniest running gag. Byrne, who’s never had to try very hard to be the coolest cat in the room, works the seething pit of inner rage angle perfectly, while Palminteri acts as a mirror for the viewers. And all take a backseat to Spacey, who turns in a mindhole-blowing performance as Verbal Kint. He reminds us that we must never, ever understimate him.

Make that mistake with “The Usual Suspects” and see how far it gets you.