Tower Heist (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street kingpin and the owner of a posh high-rise condominium, was arrested for fraud which left Josh (Ben Stiller), the building manager, and the rest of his staff shocked and angry. It turned out that Shaw invested their pensions in various schemes and lost it all. Eventually, though, an idea scurried into Josh’s head. There was a safe in Shaw’s penthouse which contained about twenty million dollars. With the help of Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’ brother-in-law, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), one of the residents who was recently bankrupt, Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), the establishment’s recent hire, and Slide (Eddie Murphy), one of Josh’ neighbor with a criminal background, they could purloin the money and distribute it to the staff. “Tower Heist,” directed by Brett Ratner, was uneven in tone and pacing with strong but often inconsistent laughs. The exposition was slow but necessary because it allowed us to see Josh’ pride in his work. As a building manager, he was more than a guy in a suit who bossed people around. He was determined to perform his job well. In order to be successful in his occupation, he needed to be liked which meant that he was required to get to know the residents beyond their superficial needs and to have a certain insight in terms of his co-workers’ personal lives. Since he was familiar to details and habits, when he did eventually decide to plot the heist, we were able to believe that he could succeed. The funniest parts of the picture were found in the middle prior to the actual break-in. In one of the scenes, Slide was not convinced that Josh and his friends would be able to go through with the heist. In order to be convinced, he assigned the tyro thieves to shoplift fifty dollars worth of items at the mall. There was joy and energy in the way each of the characters had to summon the courage to take something without paying for it. I just lost it when the store attendant walked away to get a catalogue and Charlie tried to pick up a pair of earrings with his mouth. I’ve never stolen anything from a store so I think that if I was dared to do it, I’d make a mess of things out of anxiety. Another very funny scene was a discussion about lesbians and why their breasts were better than heterosexual women’s. Just when I expected that the screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson might turn mean-spirited, I was surprised that there was always a light-heartedness in the material. What didn’t work for me were the more serious scenes. In a more solemn movie about a person losing his entire savings, Lester (Stephen Henderson), the hotel’s doorkeeper, walking toward a moving train and trying to jump in front of it would have had more emotional impact. When the picture attempted to be more serious, it felt rather cheap. Like the most engaging heist movies, getting to the object of interest was the easy part. There was a running theme about playing chess. When Josh and company broke into the building, I thought it was more like watching people playing checkers–while some strategy was involved, it was straightforward. I was underwhelmed. The nearly impossible task was getting away with it. It was the point where, finally, I felt like I was watching a chess game. There were always unforeseen forces that threatened to destroy the operation. I wish there were more scenes of Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), one of the hotel’s cleaning ladies, being sassy and having her way with men. “Tower Heist” gave a few laugh-out-loud moments but it could have been more snarky, therefore funnier. Poke fun of the more improbable physics employed, for instance. By being a step ahead of the audience who think they know better, the picture can appear smarter and get the last laugh.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The man with the scorpion jacket had three part-time jobs, not one of which fully described his isolated existence in the City of Angels. By day, he was a stuntman for action movies and a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man who gave him a job when he didn’t have any. By night, he was a getaway driver for criminals who needed the money for their own reasons. Driver (Ryan Gosling) only had one rule when it came to the heists: his clients had exactly five minutes to ransack the place and get back into the car. Whatever happened within the five-minute window, he was on their side no matter what. However, once the allotted time ran out, he was just another person in the street who kept his head down. “Drive,” based on a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was similar to Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” despite sporting vastly different milieus, for its control of visual style to highlight the bubbling disposition of a seemingly unemotional and reticent protagonist, punctuated use of violence, and sublime characterization through critical decision-making. When Driver met Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos), her son, who lived a couple of steps from his apartment, something inside him couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Driver and Irene eventually got closer through small gestures but what they had was more friendship than romance. Driver hoped to change that. On the way to a dinner date, Irene revealed that her husband (Oscar Isaac) was about to be released from prison. As they pulled over to a stoplight, the emanated red light covered Driver’s face. Though he remained emotionless, as if the husband’s presence was no real threat to what he, Irene, and Benicio could have, the red, acting like a black light, revealed what he attempted to cover up. The return of the husband could’ve taken the picture on a cheaply maddening route by allowing Driver and Standard to become rivals, sneering at each other and testing one another’s masculinity when Irene wasn’t looking. There was none of such sitcom-like set-up. Their relationship, as tenuous as it was, surprised me because Standard seemed to really appreciate what Driver had done for his family. And he should. But his freedom had a price which thrusted the film into bloody violence. Although the violence was mesmerizing, almost having a poetic lyricism feel to it, there was an understated sadness in having to inflict pain on others for the sake for information and, if necessary, take their lives. Hossein Amini’s screenplay was admirably paradoxical. Although Driver’s motivation was to protect Irene and her son from crooks, it seemed that with each kill, he grew further from his dream of being with them rather than toward. Thus, the violence, though necessary, did not feel at all glamorous. The violence was ugly and Gosling’s angelic face, coldly calculating at times, provided an excellent contrasting template. Lastly, I admired the film’s elegance in connecting every character. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Shannon’s longtime pal, and Nino (Ron Perlman) were allowed to shine in the latter half. Unlike the masked bandits that hired Driver at night, their motivations were more than just about money. Like Driver, they fought for what they considered to be very important to them. And that made them as lethal as scorpions.
The Town (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.