Reviews

'The Town' Is Ben Affleck's Best Work as Director, Writer and Actor

While not the Oscar bait it was being positioned as, The Town still remains an iron-clad testament to the surprising versatility of writer-director-star Ben Affleck.


The Town

Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively, Jeremy Renner, Pete Postlethwaite
Distributor: Warner
Rated: R
Year: 2010
Release date: 2010-12-17

In a year full of super-serious Oscar vehicles with a captial "O" (think The King's Speech, The Social Network, and/or True Grit) actor-writer-director Ben Affleck's The Town is something of an anomaly: a strong, smart, successful little movie that appeased both the critics and the public. Still, when the film began cropping up on the precursor awards circuit and began to be bandied about as yet another serious contender for the Best Picture race, The Town begat a small backlash. Critics wondered if such a film – with gorgeously choreographed heist sequences, taut action, and a decidedly hard-scrabble milieu – really deserved to be considered as an "Oscar movie" and effectively killed the film's chances in the major categories. Perhaps unfairly.

There are many positive elements to be pointed out in Affleck's second directorial endeavor, following his popular debut Gone Baby Gone (which propelled Amy Ryan into the Supporting Actress Oscar race back in 2007). First and foremost, one must dutifully consider the power of Affleck's commitment to the material and his steady execution of this vision. I would go so far as to say The Town is not only the hyphenate's best work as a director and a writer, but also his finest moment as an actor. Blending into the Boston surroundings effortlessly, it is obvious that Affleck feels perfectly at ease within these borders. He knows this city, he knows these people, and his treatment of these subjects never patronizes or caricatures as the other two films about blue-collar Massachusetts released in 2010 -- Conviction and The Fighter -- often threaten to. Where The Town succeeds is in showing a modern-day class struggle in a place where hope is cheap and success is both coveted and elusive.

Leading an all-around excellent cast through their dramatic paces, Affleck scores another success. Jeremy Renner, coming off the white hot success of last year's Oscar champion The Hurt Locker, for which he was nominated for Best Actor, was the only cast member from The Town to snag an individual Oscar nomination this year, as Best Supporting Actor, for playing James Coughlan, a nasty, plotting career criminal who is one part white trash Iago and one part Ratso Rizzo. As the torn, heroic golden boy soldier in Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq-set drama, Renner soared, and in Affleck's film, he truly stretches his legs as an actor and proves that his success last year was no fluke. Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), and the recently-departed Pete Postlethwaite (Oscar-nominated in 1993 for James Sheridan's In the Name of the Father) all add a touch of class to their key roles, Lively in particular deliciously shreds up the screen as a braying, plotting, distaff cinematic cousin of Ryan's Gone Baby Gone heavily-accented bad mother.

The single misstep in the solid cast is unfortunately made by Rebecca Hall, who has been hit or miss since Woody Allen's 2008 romp Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Hall does the best she can in a dreadfully-underwritten role that basically amounts to her being "the girl". While the actress was given a much better opportunity last year to showcase her low-key talents in Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, one can't help wondering what she might have been able to achieve had her character been more thoughtfully conceived by the original novel's author Chuck Hogan or by Affleck himself. Hall's Claire is a local bank teller who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Affleck's crew of Robin Hood-esque thieves come calling, who is kidnapped as security for the robbers' clean getaway. Blind-folded and left on the edge of the sea alone, Claire is clearly traumatized by her experience.

Things become complicated when Affleck's Doug seeks her out to determine whether or not she can identify anyone involved with the crime, and he begins to both woo her and stalk her. There is something very creepy about this part of the story, which finds a victimized woman falling in love with the man who is responsible for hurting her in the first place, but when the two characters embark on a relationship, and they wind up in bed with one another, Affleck makes a terrible choice to link Claire's sexual gratification with flashbacks of being blind-folded and left on the beach by her captors, as though she is getting off on the danger and the trauma. It just feels gross.

Despite that one clunky misstep, The Town is a shot of adrenaline to the arm, propulsive, slick, and quick. Grossing near one hundred million dollars at the box office, the film has obviously won the endorsement of the movie-going public, as well as from most critics, but is this a film that should have been given more serious consideration for the year-end awards that it was being so aggressively pushed for? While the answer is no – and that is not meant to diminish what is so great about the popular, entertaining film -- The Town, while not the Oscar bait it was being positioned as, still remains an iron-clad testament to the surprising versatility of Affleck, who is charismatic and competent, and who does a bang-up job in laying out his vision.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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