The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey(12/14/2012)

12-14-2012The HobbitAnUnexpectedJourney

When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to divide his big screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into three films instead of the two films that were originally announced there was a wave of backlash across the internet.  When I heard this plan it didn’t really change my feelings about the project at all because, frankly, I thought the whole idea of making a film of “The Hobbit” was misguided from the beginning.  Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was an astounding achievement, an instant classic which changed Hollywood filmmaking and delivered on almost every level.  Going back and making a prequel based on Tolkein’s generally insubstantial first novel seemed to serve no purpose other than to be an anti-climax incapable of matching up to what’s come before.  The whole thing just seemed like a waste of Peter Jackson’s time, audiences’ money, and the original trilogy’s reputation.  I strongly considered boycotting the film altogether, but as the film’s release approached my stance softened a little.  I began to think that maybe, just maybe, Jackson had something up his sleeve which would make this movie worthwhile after all, and with nothing better to do the day of the film’s release I took the plunge.

One of the reasons I was still curious to see the film was in order to check out the new format that was being used to display it in certain theaters: 48 FPS (frames per second) projection.  The format was supposed to improve the 3D experience and also to give a generally sharper picture by upping the frame rate, what they didn’t say was that it would make the characters on the screen actively move faster throughout the film.  For the entire film it looked like everything was moving in fast forward and I half expected their voices to sound like The Chipmunks.  On top of that, the presentation gave the whole movie a very soft, almost video-like look which made a lot of the visual effect (particularly the green-screen effects) look actively more fake in relation to the actors.  Before the film the audience was told by an usher that the presentation we were about to see was intentional and that our eyes were supposed to adjust to it after ten or fifteen minutes.  That wasn’t really true for me, the whole thing just made the film look downright bizarre, I absolutely hated it.

The one thing that the 48 FPS presentation did do as advertised was make the 3D look slightly better, at least on a technical level.  Most notably, the jitteriness that seemed to exist along the edges of 3D effect in most films was gone.  Is this slight improvement to the 3D worth all the side effects of the 48 FPS presentation?  Of course not.  I wouldn’t wish this presentation on any 3D movie, but to add insult to injury I found the 3D in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be particularly lackluster.  Jackson does little with his compositions to really take advantage of the 3D presentation other than add gratuitous dimensionality to some very busy shots that seem to have been composed for 2D.  It pales in comparison to what Ang Li was able to do with the format in Life of Pi and in general it just seemed like an unneeded imposition on the iconic visual style of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I implore anyone who’s thinking of seeing the film to see it in regular old 24 FPS 2D, and it’s a shame that I’ve had to waste so much space talking about all this nonsense rather than the movie itself which has more than enough problems of its own.

I’m not going to waste time summarizing The Hobbit, which is one of the more famous fantasy novels of all time.  I somewhat recall reading it when I was seven or eight, and do have some fond memories of it.  Seeing adapted now I remember just how different a story it is.  For one, the stakes are a lot lower in The Hobbit.  Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy there was a sense that the whole world depended on the mission at hand and that gave everything a whole lot of weight.  You could tell that trilogy was written after the life or death conflict which was World War II, and by contrast The Hobbit feels more akin to a light-hearted African safari conducted by entitled colonials.  It’s also got some really juvenile humor in it at times, particularly egregious is an early scene where the party of adventurers stumble upon a group of trolls and trick said troll into being turned to stone upon exposure to sunlight.  The scene fails firstly because it’s predicated on a precarious fairytale login in which sunlight-allergic trolls will try to slow cook a group of dwarves that close to sunrise and secondly because it trades in “humorous” moments like a troll blowing his nose onto a person.  Such material might have worked if this had being made to look like a light-hearted adventure distinct from The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t.  Instead it adopts many of the decisions that were made for the original trilogy and which are largely unsuited to this very different story.

Many will cite the fact that this project was split into three installments as the main reason for its downfall, but I think that’s overly simplistic, the problems here run a lot deeper than that.  However, the film’s padded nature is at least part of the problem.  For instance, there were many people disappointed that the character of Tom Bombadil wasn’t included in even the extended cut of The Fellowship of the Ring, but Peter Jackson was right to leave him out, that chapter of the book did nothing to advance the plot and was incongruous to the tone of those films; it had no business in the movie.  In this film Jackson not only fails to cut out a comparable character named Radagast, but actually expands the character’s role.  That and other additions wouldn’t have been so awkward if Jackson had found a truly seamless way to integrate it, but instead he jams it into the narrative through stories told by characters that turn into strange flashbacks.  On top of all that he fails to cut out such ephemera as the middle earth folk songs sung at certain intervals by the travelers and a cool looking but completely tangential encounter with a pair of rock giants.

What makes the film’s length particularly jarring is that Jackson never utilizes the extra time he’s given in order to better establish his characters.  I can barely differentiate any of the thirteen dwarves that make up the quest party aside from Thorin, and even he is only noteworthy for being the band’s leader. By contrast, we felt a much closer kinship to the fellowship members in The Fellowship of the Ring and did so in significantly less time.  Even Gandalf seems much less interesting than he did in the previous films and his powers seem increasingly dues ex machina-like in its ability to get the group out of any situation at the last minute.  In retrospect I better understand why he was supposedly killed off in Fellowship, somewhat de-powered in Towers, and at least separated from the ring bearers in Return.  Beyond that we get a lot of walk-on appearances by actors from the previous films like Ian Holme, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, but all of these seem more like pandering cameos than legitimate additions to the story.  Bilbo himself fares slightly better than his supporting players, and Martin Freeman gives the characters some degree of charm, but he’s still nowhere near as interesting as Frodo and he would have probably benefited great from the addition of a second hobbit companion along the lines of a Sam Gamgee.

Those who are more interested in seeing an effects driven action vehicle may or may not be more impressed than those looking for an epic adventure, but even in that department this generally feels second rate when compared to the original trilogy.  Peter Jackson does occasionally bring a sly touch to the proceedings like a goblin king with a beard of blubber, and the film’s opening prologue/battle scene is at least conceptually sound.  Otherwise the battles here seem overlong and a little cartoonish, almost like something you’d expect to see in a Pirates of the Caribbean film rather than a prestige action film from an A-list action director.  To be fair, I might have enjoyed these scenes more if they hadn’t been in that ridiculous 48fps format, in fact that terrible presentation may have damped my experience with the entire film.  Still, I feel like there’s no technical presentation in the world which can completely ruin a film that’s truly solid to begin with and ultimately it’s Peter Jackson’s own fault that the film was presented that way in the first place.

All in all, I think this film comes down to the same problem that every other franchise seems to run into when it concludes a main trilogy but then can’t help but find a way to keep going long after it had reached a logical conclusion.  George Lucas waited fifteen and nineteen years respectively in order to make disappointing fourth installments to his Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises and if Peter Jackson did anything right in this whole ordeal it’s that he only waited nine years to do the same.  That people weren’t eagerly anticipating this for decades is pretty much the only the only reason that this won’t be received with the same level of bile.  Like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull before it, this doesn’t necessarily exude horribleness but it comes with a distinct whiff of the “why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?”

** out of Four


DVD Catch-Up: Brave(12/27/2012)


While I’ve come to avoid doing full reviews of the films as I catch up with them on DVD, I felt that given my history of writing about Pixar movies that their latest film deserved a little more than a short capsule review.  While I don’t regret my “Finding Pixar” series at all, it really seems like a distant memory only a year later and to some extent Pixar only has itself to blame for the fact that I haven’t been inspired to keep up with their output.  I had and have zero interest in checking out Cars 2 (which currently has a 38% on RT and seems to have a worse reputation than even Dreamworks’ laziest efforts), and while Brave looked a little more promising it still had a lot going against it.  The film only inspired a 78% on RT, which is good but hardly comparable to the off-the-scales reception that most of the studio’s titles seem to get.  Beyond that, few of the people who liked the film seemed overly enthusiastic, it hasn’t been nominated for any major awards and it has barely cracked any critic’s top ten list.  Between that and an uninspiring trailer with a fart joke in it, it was pretty easy for the movie to just slip under my radar.  Still, after methodically seeing all eleven of the studio’s first features over the course of 2011, I felt like it was worth at least giving their latest film a chance.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I completely understand why the response to the film has felt so… underwhelming.  This is definitely not the worst film Pixar has ever made, but it’s easily the least Pixar-like.  If anything this feels more like something that Disney-proper would have made.  The film obviously has a lot in common with that company’s Princess line, and I thought Pixar would do something to elevate that formula but they really don’t.  The idea of making a princess into a strong and independent tomboy that isn’t interested in finding a prince might have been a bold move sometime around 1993, but such superficial concessions to feminism have been pretty routine in cartoons for decades.  Outside of the cartoon world this “mother wants daughter to get married, daughter doesn’t” storyline has been clichéd since the days of Jane Austin.   Beyond that, the film seems a lot more slapstick oriented than I remembered most of Pixar’s films having been.  Before the studio would confine most of its dumb jokes to a single character like Dory in Finding Nemo or the dinosaur in the Toy Story, but here pretty much everyone aside from the protagonist and her mother seems like comic relief, especially the king, the nanny, the suitors, and the triplets.

I was also disappointed to see that the studio’s animation hadn’t improved a whole lot since I last left them.  Specifically, I’m still really disappointed about the stagnancy in their human models.  The characters here feel more like walking caricatures than realistic humans; they have long and skinny necks, exaggerated features, and fake looking skin.  The one thing they have put a lot of work into is the protagonist’s hair, which is indeed amazing, but it looks king of jarring firstly because it doesn’t match the otherwise fake looking character model and secondly because the protagonist is the only character they bothered to give realistic hair to.  Beyond that, I thought all of the characters and elements in the film seemed oddly disconnected from their environments.  I think this might be a side effect of the film being calibrated for 3D presentations and for whatever reason this process doesn’t flatten back to 2D as well as it does for live action films.

Having said all that, I don’t want it to sound like I think this is an incompetent movie, because it isn’t, in fact it seems to be more than passable by the standards of most animated family movies.  That said, this was way too average for a film coming from the studio which is supposed to be the elite vanguard of animation.  Somehow I feel like Disney is at least partially responsible for how this film ended up.  Could it be that Pixar had planned to launch a more pointed attack at the notion of the “princess movie” only to have their corporate overlords stop them in order to protect the golden goose that is the “Disney Princesses” product line?  Or maybe Disney is simply trying to sabotage Pixar in order to make their own films look better?  I don’t know, maybe the studio is just running out of ideas.  Either way, this doesn’t really excite me about the studio’s future, especially when you consider that their upcoming docket appears to be a parade of sequels.  Maybe I should have just let my Pixar journey end at Toy Story 3.

*** out of Four

Life of Pi(12/14/2012)


Of all the high profile “awards” movies set for release this year, the one I’ve most dreaded having to see and analyze has been Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.  I’ve liked pretty much every movie that Ang Lee has ever made and this latest film in his cannon has been said to have a lot of technical merits, but in the back of my head I kept hearing a little voice tell me “this is going to be some new age hippie bullshit.”  I’ve felt that way about Yann Martel’s novel ever since I read its back cover back in 2001 when it was a super-trendy novel and I felt that way again whenever I heard someone was trying to turn it into a film (and there have been at least three such someones including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet).  The “unfilmable” label had been widely slapped on the book and this seemed to have all the makings of a mess of a film.  Secretly I may well have wanted it to be just that so I’d have an excuse to skip it and never worry about having to turn a review of the film into so be referendum on whether or not I could get behind a work that was as fervently pro-religion as this story was alleged to be.  Low and behold, the damn thing ended up being one of the year’s best reviewed and buzzed about films, something that was simply too big to be ignored and I had to weigh in.

As the title would suggest, the film is about a guy named Piscine Molitor Patel, who opts to go by the name “Pi” at a young age when other kids began deliberately pronouncing is given name as “pissing.”  We first meet Pi while he’s an adult living in Montreal (and played by Irfan Khan).   Here he meets with an author played by Rafe Spall who has sought out Pi because he’s been told that Pi has a story which will make the author believe in God.  From here we flashback to Pi’s childhood (at this stage played by Gautam Belur and then Ayush Tandon) and learn that he grew up in India where his family owned a zoo.  As a young boy Pi was highly curious about religion and declared himself a simultaneous believer in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, much to the confusion of his parents.  Later, when Pi is a teenager (finally played by Suraj Sharma), his family decides to move to Canada and pack all their animals onto a Japanese freighter headed across the Pacific.  Along the way the ship hits a massive storm and sinks, and Pi finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the Ocean along with the Zoo’s famous Bengal tiger.

From here, the film turns into a decidedly above-average survival story.  We find out how Pi is able to co-exist with the tiger while also developing some fairly believable survival strategies.  The CGI used to render this tiger is not quite perfect and there are a couple of questionable shots, but for the most part it fits well into the slightly fantastical tone of all the flashbacks.  Beyond that, the film is a genuine visual treat.  I’ve always loved Ang Lee’s filmmaking, which feels very relaxed compared to the rhythms of Hollywood cinema while always being very accessible and never dipping into the realm of the boring.  This film is no exception and you can tell it right from the opening credits, which are leisurely doled out over images of animals from Pi’s family zoo.

All of this is done in some of the most impressive 3D photography I’ve seen to date.  Technologically speaking, there’s nothing new about the 3D technology on display here, but Lee seems to have put a lot more attention into his shot compositions and how they’ll play out in three dimensions than most filmmakers have.  Lee’s generally mellow style also seems to play into the format, as does the fact that this is a story about a single character isolated on a flat ocean.  I’m still definitely a 3D skeptic and believe it’s inappropriate 95% of the time, but this is definitely a case from the Hugo file of films that use the format for artful rather than crassly commercial reasons.

From here we must dip into the film’s message and why, in the end I found it a lot more palatable than I expected it to be.  To be clear, my anti-religious sentiments run deep, and pretty much the only thing that seems stupider to me than religion is ecumenical religion.  Ecumenical religion is the goofy hippie notion that all religions are equally true (even though most of them directly contradict one another).  It’s a notion that people seem to accept less out of any actual belief than out of a desire to avoid conflict while still clinging to the notion of a greater power.  As the film opens it seems like it’s advocating this belief system, but that sort of falls by the wayside after Pi is finally shipwrecked.  From here the film seems to be trying to make good on its claim that it’s “telling a story that will make you believe in god” simply by presenting a miraculous tale of survival and then attributing said survival to god, a message that would seem rather flimsy on its face.

However, at the eleventh hour the film introduces a twist which makes the audience re-consider everything they’ve seen thus far, and it’s with this twist that the film becomes infinitely more fascinating.  When Pi finishes his story (and I will be entering spoiler territory from here on in) he reveals that most of what he’s been saying is in fact bullshit, a fable he created in order to cope with the pain of what happened as he escaped from the shipwreck and that the tiger was a metaphor for the violent side of Pi’s personality.  Pi willfully chooses to believe the fantastical version of the story rather than the cold reality of the situation and adds “And so it goes with God.”  The implication here is that religion itself is in fact a willful delusion conjured up by people in order to make sense of everything bad in the world and that, when presented vividly, people will go along with such a story even though it is on its face ridiculous.  Where I and the film differ is that the film presents this willful delusion as a positive thing which ultimately helps those who partake in it while I prefer to see the world as it is rather than build my life around a lie.  Still, this is a surprisingly honest stance for a film like this to take and it’s far removed from the saccharine new age bullshit I was expecting.

And so, inexplicably, this film which I’ve dreaded having to tackle has turned out to be one of the more positive experiences I’ve had seeing a film this year.  Truth be told, I should have known better than to assume that Ang Lee would make a film that was as simplistic as the one I had envisioned.  It’s not a perfect film.  Elements of the prologue seem a bit pointless in retrospect, and as important as the frame story is to the film’s overall message, it’s not overly well put together.  Instead the film gives us great visuals attached to a though provoking and mostly engaging story.  If nothing else it’s very interesting to see a all the tools of a summer blockbuster being used in order to make a film that isn’t about fighting, fighting, and more fighting.  It’s not really a film made for people with my tastes and worldview, at all, but for what it is I can respect it.  If anything the fact that Lee found a way to bring people like myself on beard speaks very highly of the film.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 12/20/2012

Sound of my Voice (12/6/2012)


When talking about his first film, Dark Star, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon once said (and I’m paraphrasing) “it got out of hand… it went from being the most impressive student film ever made and turned into the least impressive professional films ever.”  I can’t help but think that the same happens to a lot of the films that make a stir at Sundance and get a lot of rather undeserved buzz.  Sound of My Voice is a great example of this.  It was clearly made by people who had a lot of “moxy” and it probably looked pretty good when surrounded by other productions that were even more desperate, but as it went to theaters alongside the bigger and better independent films it becomes all the more clear that this is a film that looks like it was made in somebody’s basement.  In fact this seems even more trite and amateurish than this film making collective’s previous film, Another Earth.  There are a couple decent moments and ideas (I particularly liked a moment involving The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and the ending is at least somewhat intriguing), but at the same time it seems almost criminal that this film has somehow been given the same commercial opportunities as Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is a vastly superior exploration of a cult lifestyle made on a similarly low budget.

** out of Four

The Queen of Versailles

It must have been some kind of cosmic coincidence that inspired Jackie Siegal, wife of the time-share mogul David Siegal, to name the outlandish house that she was building after the palace where Marie Antoinette once lived.  Antoinette has gone down as a universal symbol of the clueless callousness of extreme wealth and in the Siegals director Lauren Greenfield seems to have stumbled upon a modern American equivalent.  That this film shows the relative downfall of the Siegals (who’s wealth appears to have been based on a lot of very tenuous business practices which crumbled like a house of cards during the recession) seems like richly deserved justice made all the better because they never get to finish building their ridiculous monument to incredible hubris.  Later we see them forced to adjust to the lifestyle of the rich rather than the filthy rich, and see Jackie Siegal have a number of “let them eat cake” moments.  It’s interesting to see the decadent lifestyle of these people and to see their utter inability to function outside of their bubble of wealth.  These are people who are getting exactly what they deserve.  However, the documentary does perhaps run a bit longer than it needed to.  I sort of got the idea pretty quickly, and yet it kept on going.  I might have preferred this if it ran about seventy or eighty minutes rather than a hundred.

*** out of Four


Snow White and the Huntsman (12/15/2012)

12-15-2012SnowWhiteandtheHuntsman The producers of Snow White and the Huntsman are probably lucky that they managed to release their film early in the “effects driven fairy-tale action movie” trend, because it probably would have looked pretty ridiculous if it had come out after the upcoming Wizard of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk movies instead of before.  I was surprised to see that this thing actually followed the original story of Snow White really closely, pretty much the only thing that really differentiates it from the Disney versions are its effects and its attitude.  To be fair, some of the film’s visuals really were pretty cool, especially the magic mirror and some of the creepy details of how the wicked queen (played here by Charlize Theron) manages to stay so young.  Still, Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth are both extremely bland in the main roles and otherwise the whole film just feels really bland and mediocre.

**1/2 out of Four


The Island President (12/16/2012)

While there seem to be a very large people who are willing to turn their lives into the subject of a documentary, it’s not all that often we see one made with the full cooperation of a sitting national president.  That is what we get in The Island President, a film about Mohamed Nasheed, the president of an island chain called The Maldives.  The Maldives have become a point of global attention because they could end up submerged by the ocean if global warming continues unchecked and this documentary is mostly about Nasheed’s struggles on that subject.  To me, the primary point of interest in this film is that it gives a behind the scenes look at international diplomacy: the dinners with foreign ambassadors, the negotiations at conferences, and the attempts to get the interest of important people at parties.  On top of that, Nasheed comes off as a very likable guy you want to root for.  However, I would have liked to learn more about what it’s like to govern over a chain of islands and I’m also a little put off by the film’s silence about some of that nation’s less savory elements (namely it’s religious repression).

*** out of Four


Alps (12/20/2012)

12-20-2012Alps Yorgos Lanthimos broke onto the international cinema scene in a big way with Dogtooth, which was weird, bold, audacious, smart, and entertaining.  His follow up film is mostly just weird.   That’s not to say it’s badly made, in fact it generally feels like it was made by a more skilled and mature hand, but it seems to have lost something along the way.  The concept, that there’s an organization which assigns actors to play the part of dead people for bereaved families, is interesting but not as interesting as the concept in Dogtooth and it also doesn’t go in as many interesting directions as the story in Dogtooth.  Maybe the film is unfairly hurt by all these comparisons to Dogtooth, but frankly I doubt too many people would have seen this film in the first place if it wasn’t the follow-up to that earlier film so I don’t feel to guilty about judging it in relation to that earlier effort.  I still think Lanthimos has some good movies in him, so hopefully this is just a sophomore slump.

**1/2 out of Four

Holy Motors(12/8/2012)


Not too long ago I read an article (I don’t recall the author or publication) about last year’s award season in which a pop culture analyst said something along the lines of “it’s too bad that the stuffy old Academy keeps overlooking popular movies like Transformers 3 in favor of arty movies like The King’s Speech.”  As an experienced film buff I can’t help but laugh when I read stuff like that.  It’s hilarious because calling The King’s Speech “arty” is like the cinematic equivalent of calling The Olive Garden a gourmet restaurant.  The people who say things like that have more than likely never seen a real “arty” movie, and if they ever did they probably wouldn’t know how to process them.  To be fair to that writer, the film culture at large hasn’t done a lot to expose wider audiences to real “art films,” instead every year it creates this moment of buzz where movies like The King’s Speech are held up as the absolute height of sophistication.  It’s only when you do watch real “art films” like the new Leos Carax film Holy Motors that you’re reminded just how far from the cutting edge the annual crop of “awards movies” really are.

The film’s main story begins with an old man, who will later be called Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaves his home and gets into a limousine which drives off seemingly to take him to work.  Then, as the limo heads into Paris he takes a wig and makeup off, revealing that he is in fact younger than he appeared and changes into some old clothes and puts on makeup to make himself look more disheveled than he really is.   The limo drops him off at a street corner; he walks about a block, and then starts panhandling on the street.  Once this is complete he returns to the limo, changes into a mocap suit, and is dropped off at his next “appointment” where he performs a bunch of acrobatics at a soundstage.  Once he’s done with that he returns to the limo, changes into yet another costume and performs yet another one of these elaborate performance art pieces in public and so on and so forth for much of the duration of the film.  It’s almost never clear to the audience why he’s doing all of this or who is giving him these “jobs” to do.  In fact, as the movie goes on we begin to wonder if the man is even human, and if all the other people in the film are “in” on all the shenanigans.

If that description didn’t make it clear, this movie is pretty “out there.”  It’s movie that’s only for the most open minded of film-goers, the kind of people who are open to the many eccentricities of French art films and who aren’t going to freak out at unconventional storytelling and unclear symbolism.  However, this is not one of those art-house movies where “nothing happens,” on the contrary, this is a film where (strange) things are almost always happening.  In its own peculiar way it’s extremely entertaining.  Denis Lavant gives an extremely physical performance in the film which requires him to constantly shift costumes and makeups.  The performance is almost reminiscent of silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the way that it’s just fun to watch and almost the entire focus of the film.  There’s also something very fascinating about the way the film subtly drops hints about how big the operation that the main character in involved in gets.

The film opens with a rather surreal sequence in a movie theater and it also frequently intercuts clips from Eadweard Muybridge zoopraxiscope reels (which are among the first moving picture images of the human form ever created), and this makes it clear that Holy Motors is among the ranks of “films about film.”  In fact, many of the main character’s performance art excursions seem to represent various film genres in various off-beat ways.  For instance, that early scene in a mocap stage that seems to represent modern effects-driven action films.  Elsewhere we see takes on horror films, crime films, musicals, melodramas and everything in-between.  The effect is kaleidoscopic, but what does it all mean?  Is it some kind of how hard it is on performers to for from identity to identity?  Maybe, I don’t know.  That’s what’s ultimately going to keep me from fully embracing the film as some kind of classic.  I might “get it” more on repeat viewing, but at the moment most of what I like about it is all on a surface level, and maybe that’s how its supposed to be.  It’s a film that probably is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed, at least on the first viewing.  And what an experience it is.

***1/2 out of Four

Killing Them Softly(12/4/2012)


In retrospect, it’s only natural that the careers of directors John Hillcoat and Andrew Dominik would be linked.  Both filmmakers hail from Australia, both deal with issues of violence, and both seem fascinated with the United States and specifically the Wild West.  The link finally solidified in 2012 when both filmmakers debuted crime epics financed by the Weinstein Company at the same Cannes Film Festival, and both saw their respective films receive lukewarm receptions.  John Hillcoat at least had the dignity of seeing his flawed crime film, Lawless, released in early September where it was able to at least get some attention as the one decent release that week.  Andrew Dominik’s project, Killing Them Softly, has instead been unceremoniously dumped without any marketing or attention in the middle of award season when there are dozens of other projects stealing its spotlight.  Does Dominik’s film deserve this fate?  Certainly not, it’s an interesting film any way you cut it, but is it interesting enough?

When I left the film I was instantly ready to say it reminded me of a 1973 film called The Friends of Eddie Coyle in its tone and worldview.  Then I went online and learned that the film was based on a novel called “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, who as it turns out was also the author of the novel upon which The Friends of Eddie Coyle was based.  Like that film, this appears to be set in Boston (although the film was shot in New Orleans and is deliberately vague about this setting) and inhabits the world of mid-level criminals.  The film opens with a couple of crooks named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) conspiring with an older crime figure named Johnny “The Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob an underground card game, knowing that the criminals at the game were likely to blame the game’s overseer Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who they know has had games like this robbed before.  They go through with their plot, and it sends the underworld into chaos.  Knowing that they need restore order, the mafia (who speak through a frustrated delegate played by Richard Jenkins) decide to call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is a “fixer” in the tradition of Pulp Fiction’s “The Wolf” in order to straighten things out with deadly efficiency.

It would seem that the criminals within the fiction of George V. Higgins are the polar opposites of the loyal “code-following” gangsters that inhabit the rest of crime fiction.  In his work the outlaws are vicious scumbags who you wouldn’t want to spend a minute with in real life and who will most likely sell you out for a nickel.  If there was anything to be learned from The Friends of Eddie Coyle it’s that the concept of “friendship” among criminals is a joke.  People in the underworld may claim that they’re your friend, but when the chips are down they’ll sell you out in a minute and if you trust in their loyalty you’re a fool.  That’s very true in Killing Them Softly as well, but here Andrew Dominick has extended this worldview beyond the underclass of obvious hoodlums and into the wider confines of American society.

He’s done this by setting all of the film’s action against the backdrop of the 2008 stock market crisis and the following election.  Throughout the movie we hear news reports from that period playing in the background of almost every major scene and between the action we hear some of the gangsters give their two cents about the various issues.  Meanwhile, elements of the story seem to mirror the economic crisis in certain ways.  Most notably in that it’s a story about a crisis within a financially driven (albeit illegal) community and the characters in the film are more interested in punishing a handful of scapegoats than they are in correcting the underlying issues that led to the crisis in the first place.  Absolutely none of this political material is even a little bit subtle, most of it is discussed right out in the open and that is going to be a sticking point for many viewers.  I’m not even sure how I felt about all of it either, but I am glad that Andrew Dominik at least tried to make a sort of grand statement with the film and he easily could have bungled it a lot worse than he did.

All the modern political parallels also hopefully won’t distract from how well the film works as a straightforward throwback to 1970s crime cinema.  Aside from one interesting but somewhat out of place slow motion shooting, all the violence here is quick and brutal, certainly not for the squeamish.  What’s even more shocking at times is just how unpleasant many of the film’s characters can be.  The script is filled with interesting conversations that really just have you glued to the screen.  The highlight is probably a pair of long scenes where Cogan meets with an out of town hitman named Mickey (James Gandolfini) and has a couple of long conversations which barely advance the plot but which go to show just how corrupt and decadent the underworld has become, it seems like a domain that has been rotting from within for decades.  Dominick also gets really strong performances out of lesser known actors like Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, but I’m not so thrilled with his decision to cast Brad Pitt in the film’s central role of Jackie Cogan.  On paper, Cogan is as much a scumbag as everyone else in the film, but as played by Brad Pitt he’s larger than life; he dresses slick, has a well groomed goatee, and he walks with confidence.  In short, he behaves like a movie star, and it seems jarringly incongruous in the rough and gritty world of the film.

Killing Them Softly is a tough film to assess.  I liked almost every scene in the movie and love its tone and what it’s trying to do overall, and yet I also can’t really say that all these strong elements ever really congeal into a fully formed film.  I admire that it swung for the bleachers and tried to paint an incredibly cynical portrait of America rather than function as a mere caper, but I can’t say that all of its political aspirations really came together either.  Yet for all the film’s over reaching and all its flaws, it still works.  I really enjoyed watching Killing Them Softly and would certainly rather watch it than some random generic Hollywood crime film, but I don’t think I can really call it a true success.  In a way it may even be for the best that the film isn’t really finding its audience right away.  This really just isn’t the kind of film that’s meant to take over the world on its opening weekend.  Rather, it feels like the kind of film that will slowly build as its audience discovers it at the bottom of bargain bins and in late night premium cable airings.

*** out of Four