What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
I watched both parts of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur over the weekend—a tale of three Muslim crime dynasties from around the East Indian city of Dhanbad, corrupted by greed and revenge over the span of several generations. The story repeats itself from father to son for five and a half hours, the child growing up with the parent’s sins, adapting to be more vicious and violent. There is a sort of dance that the movie performs around its depiction of the gang lifestyle, alternating fantasy and demystification. What I like is the way Kashyap conceives the archetypal gangster as a mimic; from the 1940s to the 2000s, successive generations of the Khans—the protagonists of Gangs Of Wasseypur—practice crime through imitation, adopting the names of famous bandits and the mannerisms of Bollywood villains, sliding further away from reality. But there is also the messiness: zip guns fashioned from spare truck parts that misfire in cramped shoot-outs, black-market pistols that jam during attempted hits.
Another gangster movie, this one American: Live By Night, with Ben Affleck draped in humongous suits as a Prohibition-era Boston tough guy who gets sent by the Italian mob to run its operations in Florida. My colleague Jesse Hassenger was too generous to this one, or maybe we just have different values. Adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane, Affleck (who also wrote and directed) has no clue what to do with the stylized and episodic narrative, which pits his hero, Joe Coughlin, against treacherous Irish mobsters, dim-witted Mafiosi, the KKK, tent revival preachers, Southern sheriffs, and every other variety of hypocrite. Coughlin himself has so little internal conflict that he builds a fucking orphanage at the end of the film. Affleck’s filmmaking is square and repetitive; his camera always crosses on a diagonal, and he directs dialogue by giving every actor a face-hugging, chin-to-forehead close-up. I’m not sure what Elle Fanning’s character is doing in this movie, though she gives the only quasi-believable performance. Miguel is in it, too; he looks good in a suit.
Patriots Day, seen not long after Live By Night, completes an inadvertent Night-Day beefy Bostonian double header. This is the duality of the Boston stereotype: hood and cop, Affleck and Wahlberg, crime and comeback. Patriots Day is pretty much what one would expect a Peter Berg movie about the Boston Marathon bombing to be: a muddy conglomeration of populist modes, successful in fits despite Berg’s shaky grasp of scale and intercutting. Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist suffers from an especially severe case of composite-character-itis, bearing witness to everything from the pressure-cooker blasts at the finish line to the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) in Watertown four days later. The climactic shoot-out between the Tsarnaev brothers and Watertown police is probably the best thing Berg has ever directed, but the rest is a mess; the film tries to play to a different type of audience sympathy with every scene. It will not age well.
By the way, have you seen Aliens recently? I rewatched it just this past week—still tremendous and thrilling and capable of turning a grown-ass critic into a 10-year-old boy. I don’t even remember the last time I saw it. The mid-2000s, maybe? Anyway, James Cameron can’t write believable dialogue or anything that might suggest that characters have offscreen lives to save his ass, but it really doesn’t matter, because the structure is exceptional. The first hour and change is so fast and elaborate that you almost forget that nothing is actually happening—and then, of course, all hell breaks loose and doesn’t let up. It surpasses even Blade Runner as the definitive sci-fi environment in movies, at once technically hyper-detailed and elemental—all of that over-designed, futuristic military tech wrecked and submerged in fire, fetid water, and slimy bio-mechanical horrors. But really, Ripley’s fighting body-related fears, right? Because her initial distrust of Bishop, the android, is as important to the symmetry of the film as the contrast of surrogate and perverted motherhood.