5 Films to Look For This Spring


1) The Place Beyond The Pines, Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine). Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta.

 

2) To The Wonder, Directed by Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line). Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem.

 

3) Mud, Directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories). Starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard.

 

4) Spring Breakers, Directed by Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers) Starring James Franco and Selena Gomez.

 

5) Upstream Color, Directed by Shane Carruth (Primer). Starring Amy Seimetz and Andrew Sensenig.

85th Academy Awards: My Picks for The 8 “Major” Categories

OSCARS-2013

Best Picture:
“Amour” Michael Haneke
“Argo” Ben Affleck
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Benh Zeitlin
“Django Unchained” Quentin Tarantino
“Les Misérables” Tom Hooper
“Life of Pi” Ang Lee
“Lincoln” Steven Spielberg
“Silver Linings Playbook” David O. Russell
“Zero Dark Thirty” Kathryn Bigelow

Best Director:
“Amour” Michael Haneke
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Benh Zeitlin
“Life of Pi” Ang Lee
“Lincoln” Steven Spielberg
“Silver Linings Playbook” David O. Russell

Best Actor:
Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”
Hugh Jackman in “Les Misérables”
Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master”
Denzel Washington in “Flight”

Best Actress:
Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty”
Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour”
Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Naomi Watts in “The Impossible”

Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin in “Argo”
Robert De Niro in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master”
Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln”
Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained”

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams in “The Master”
Sally Field in “Lincoln”
Anne Hathaway in “Les Misérables”
Helen Hunt in “The Sessions”
Jacki Weaver in “Silver Linings Playbook”

Best Original Screenplay:
“Amour” Written by Michael Haneke
“Django Unchained” Written by Quentin Tarantino
“Flight” Written by John Gatins
“Moonrise Kingdom” Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
“Zero Dark Thirty” Written by Mark Boal

Best Adapted Screenplay:
“Argo” Screenplay by Chris Terrio
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
“Life of Pi” Screenplay by David Magee
“Lincoln” Screenplay by Tony Kushner
“Silver Linings Playbook” Screenplay by David O. Russell

My Picks for the 5 Best Films of 2012

1. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

A full-throttle piece of Tarantino personified, the most inventive director of the past two decades brings us his latest bit of rich and outlandishly stylish filmmaking that is, in my opinion, his best since Pulp Fiction. Dr. King Schultz (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) unchains Django (Jamie Foxx) and the two set out on a blood-spattered journey of revenge through the savage antebellum South. The true essence of the film lies in its dialogue, though: it’s the stuff of dreams, and it carries this tall tale to its vengeful, quintessentially Tarantino finale. It’s a fun, impressive, violent, funny, bad ass masterpiece. It’s my pick for the best film of the year.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin

Newcomer Benh Zeitlin bursts onto the cinematic landscape with force in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s an impressionistic take on a post-Katrina enclave braced to withstand yet another oncoming storm. At the center is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) the young and self-determined girl who’s set to tackle it all and embrace the ramifications of her peculiar lot in life. It’s the most emotionally moving film I’ve seen all year.

3. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

This film marks a turning point in the careers of its two leads: Bradley Cooper (yes, Bradley Cooper) and Jennifer Lawrence. Their exceptionally strong performances carry this whirlwind new film from David O. Russell whose previous effort–The Fighter–underwhelmed me in ways that I still find agitating. This film, however, teeters on the brink of slight greatness. Lawrence and Cooper are two lost souls attempting to find, well, the silver lining in their current state of affairs. It’s strongly written, acted and directed. Robert DeNiro also gives one of his best performances in decades.

4. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow

This action packed, political thriller/drama is the latest from the mastermind behind 2010’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker (which, on a mentionable side note, was a great moment in modern American film. The win proved to be yet another welcomed setback for the opponents of the obnoxious 3D craze that was, and to a certain degree, still is gripping the highfalutin factions of the film industry). Though not as solid as its predecessor, Zero Dark Thirty delivers on its premise, air tight direction, and the solidly engrossing performance of its heroine, Jessica Chastain. It’s a good addition to the catalog of Kathryn Bigelow.

5. The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson

Opaque and challenging, The Master is the latest installment from one of the most formidable directors in American film, Paul Thomas Anderson. Much like his 2007 feature There Will Be Blood, The Master is a far cry from directors’ earlier films. Abandoning his flashy, visual bravado for more carefully composed frames,  The Master chronicles the peculiar relationship between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The two give a masterclass in film acting, but Anderson’s gaze seems to lack the focus that’s prevalent in his previous films. Still, though, the film is beautiful and, above all, daring.

Django Unchained (2012)

Film-Django Unchained

★★★★★

All of the ongoing dialogue concerning the “moral bankruptcy” of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained needs to stop. Fuck that. In the world of Tarantino, plot, dialogue, and story arch are all instruments of outlandish fantasy lying readily at the fingertips of their incendiary movie man. His films are lavish tales–deeply rich in style–that exist outside of time and space, and, Django Unchained is certainly no exception. In them, violence is prevalent, but isn’t glorified. Since Reservoir Dogs, it has existed, and still exists as stylistic decoration but is not–as some have claimed–an endorsement of such things.

While on his press tour for the film, QT has been asked incessantly, without fail, about the correlation between violence in reality and violence in his movies, and he, also without fail, is no longer taking questions. I don’t blame him. If more people viewed and discussed his films in the manner in which they were meant to be viewed and discussed, our dialogue wouldn’t be so prevalent. When it comes to QT, we, collectively, have lost our perspective (not to mention the seedier side of our sense of humor, too).

And what of his “depiction” of slavery? I’ll get to that later.

Much like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is an extension of the aforementioned fantasy world of QT. This time, though, it’s in overdrive, if, in fact, such a thing exists for the man who envisioned the outrageous brilliance of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Basterds. While walking out of the theater, my mind was busy pondering a young Tarantino–the movie store clerk who, allegedly, spent countless hours eagerly consuming every film he could get his hands on: Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Exploitation,  Blaxploitation, Kung Fu, Drama. QT: the genre-soaking sponge that, nearly two decades later, has conceptualized a slam-bang genre mash up of the highest and–for lack of a better term–most kick ass order.

In order to sufficiently describe the entirety of Django’s plot, any movie critic/blogger would need more than enough space to bore their reader out of the review (not because the plot is at all boring, rather, it would be consuming and tedious to describe in detail). To do such a thing would be a complete, unnecessary (not to mention shitty) disservice to the reader, anyway. The beauty of a film like Django Unchained is not having its moments of unequivocal inventiveness ruined for you.

It’s the stuff of extravagant lore, and it all begins with Dr. Schultz’s (Christolph Waltz) wagon riding out of the darkest of fairy tale, pre-Civil War forests: “Somewhere in Texas.” Here, he runs across a group of white men escorting a group of shackled slaves. One of them is named Django (Jamie Foxx), and, Dr. Schultz is interested in the man. Django possess knowledge on the whereabouts of the Brittle brothers, a group of men with bounty’s on their head that Schultz–a bounty hunter disguised as a dentist–is eager to find and eliminate. Once Django becomes, well, unchained, Tarantino’s relentless revenge epic kicks into fifth gear.

Connecting the onscreen action from dot to dot is his dialogue–an instrument that permeates every one of Tarantino’s films. As far as movies go, it’s the stuff of unsurpassed prose. Like a modern day Mark Twain, Tarantino’s characters speak their lines as you would hear them in a dream, and, as Schultz and Django begin their search for the Brittle brothers, QT flies rapidly out of the gate, firing straight from the hip. What happens in the first part of the film, without the intentional attention paid to dialogue would, and could be captured in fifteen minutes. This is not, and never has been Tarantino’s intention, though: style, beyond all else, makes this man tick.

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As we are carried from one dot to another, stylishly, with intent, Django and Schultz begin making their way through the savage and bigoted Antebellum South, killing wanted men while Django finds satisfactory vengeance of his own: savagely beating white men to a bloody pulp. Before killing the Brittle brothers, the two men come to an agreement: upon successfully locating and eliminating them, Schultz will free Django, and take him on as an associate in his bounty hunting business. After a successful winter, the two set out to find Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington)– the estranged wife of Django–and to free her from the tyrannical inhumanity of Candie Land.

As we’re whisked along to the next dot, we find ourselves in the first of Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation homes. Django and Schultz have decided to pose as men interested in Mandingo fighting: Django is the expert, Schultz is the man with the cash, and, Candie is the man with the Mandigos. It’s with this scene that QT again delves deeply into his grab bag of dialogue tricks, suspending a series of scenes almost completely in the literary. During the Mandingo fighting scene itself–which also happens to be one of the films’ most gratuitously violent–the three men begin to ostentatiously parle in the way that only Tarantino’s characters can. I won’t give away specifics here. Again, to do so would rid one the joy of watching it all unfold.

After Calvin’s interest is peaked in a tempting asking price for one of his fighters, Schultz and Django are invited to Candie Land’s interior, where a majority of the remainder of the film takes place. Again, Tarantino utilizes style over substance as his characters humorously, hastily, tensely interact. The most memorable scene of the film occurs around such interplay, and,if you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly which scene I’m referring to before reading the next sentence. After Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)–Candie’s house slave–becomes privy to the fact that Django and Schultz are after Broomhilda instead of Mandingos, Calvin presents one of the most formidable, bone-chilling soliloquies in modern film.

Even though Calvin harbors an anger-laced disgust in the face of being played, he sells Broomhilda, but, of course, none of this will come to pass without a little good ol’ fashioned bloodshed, Tarantino style. Boy, will there be blood. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson should have sold the title of his 2008 oil epic to Tarantino. It would have been fitting. In what transpires as one of the most ludicrous (and awesome) shootouts in recent cinema, a lot of people die, and, the walls of Candie Land mansion are, quite literally, painted with blood. Django escapes, but, not without a price. He’s escorted from Candie Land but returns, in all his vengeful might, to wreak havoc on all of the white (and black) men (and women) who have wronged him, then rides Justice Obtained into the darkest of pre-Civil War forests–the same kind of forest that the bringer of good will, Dr. Schultz–emerged from in the films’ opening sequence.

So, what of Tarantino’s “depiction” of slavery and the films’ other hooplas? Django Unchained is no more a “depiction” of slavery than Inglourious Basterds is “about” World War II. Don’t get me wrong, though. Many scenes depict the brutality of the institution, but, Tarantino’s main objective is to use slavery as a device to drive his vengeful tale.

This brings me to the “gratuitous” use of the “n word.” If you think that entitled white men in the Antebellum South, on a constant basis, didn’t refer to slaves and other black people as “n words,” I have some beautiful beachfront property in Maui that I’ll sell you for five cents an acre. And, if you don’t think that word wasn’t uttered less than three times in a sentence when discussing a slave or any other “man of color,” I’ll lower my asking price to a penny. Anything more, which there is, is Tarantino pandering to the exploitation of your sensibilities. What, again, was that genre he began soaking up and became so enamored with as a young movie store clerk?

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Perhaps you were offended at the end of it all, but why? Peering through the rich dialogue and exorbitant style is the ever-pervasive dark sense of humor in all of QT’s films. In 1994, during an interview with Roger Ebert at Cannes, Tarantino said:

“When I’m writing a movie, … I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? ‘Pulp Fiction’ has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for ‘Dogs’ just as much as ‘Pulp,’ is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh.”

So, to be offended and only offended is to experience Django Unchained myopically. Fuck all of the hoopla. This is storytelling at its finest. If we desired our best stories to be inoffensive, lackluster in conviction and meek in style, they wouldn’t be our best stories. It would be asking Mark Twain to not be Mark Twain. I don’t know about, you, but, asking Tarantino to not be Tarantino would be fatally detrimental to the culture of American cinema.

Let’s not be so sensitive, and, let us, collectively, welcome back the seedier side of our sense of humor, too.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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★★★★

There comes a moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty where Maya (Jessica Chastain) figuratively shifts her gaze. It’s a crucial moment; one that guides the film–directionally–toward its intended purpose. When we first meet her she is docile, slightly squeamish, and, to a certain extent, hesitant. She is one of Washington’s top shelf CIA intelligence specialists–a woman refined, diligent and skilled. When faced with the task of tracking down the most wanted man in United States history, we assume that she has accepted her assignment with relative, but dutiful purpose. Said purpose, however, adamantly shifts to steadfast determination upon the sizing up of her prey: the stubbornly elusive Osama bin Laden, and, with eager anticipation, we become bystanders among Maya’s plight: the intensely purpose-driven task of finding, catching and killing the mastermind behind 2001’s darkest day.

Don’t be fooled, though. The films’ backdrop may be the decade long task of finding and eliminating “UBL,” but, this is Maya’s film. Zero Dark Thirty opens with a series of gut-wrenching interrogation scenes showing her as a passive, but inquisitive observer. She is shaken but not deplored. She is, at first, noticeably phased by her assignment. With this, Bigelow has made a key thematic decision: Maya becomes the lens through which we view the film, and, it’s from here that we watch the transformation of a skilled operative to that of the films’ headstrong, hopelessly determined hero.

We’re first introduced to Maya in a curiously conspicuous way. She enters the film suddenly and without a back story. At first, this plays as an off-putting decision, but, with time, we realize that it’s intentional, and, in a large way, essential to Bigelow’s intent. A high level operative such as Maya, by nature of her profession, is a woman of secrecy and personal information withheld. Any previous character development, given the story, would be a misstep.

From here, we go. Maya, assigned to track the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, dives head first into a sea of intelligence bearing leads, detainees and countless piles of surveillance tape. Bigelow often regards her hunched over her desk, buried by droves of files and VHS tapes, her face sunken, her hand a kickstand for her weary head. Hampered by high-level bureaucracy, she sifts, elbows and engineers her way through bin Laden’s whereabouts via a hunch that, ultimately, with time and personal due diligence, pays off.

That hunch is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the trusted courier of Osama bin Laden. Through years of diligent guesswork, analysis, knowing the right people and the seamless, skilled movements of her intelligence chess pieces, Maya finds her smoking gun: a direct link to the compound housing UBL. However hot it may in fact be, though, said gun doesn’t present itself as an unmitigated freebie. Throughout her nine year manhunt, she is aided and altered by a rigmarole of cataclysmic people and events, and, sometimes the combinations of both end in realities that bare the weight of heavier, more costly ramifications.

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Take, for example, Maya’s colleague and confidant, Jessica. At Forward Operating Base Chapman, a key CIA facility in Afghanistan, she falls victim to a car bomb attack. This is a direct result of her decision to help Maya legitimize her goal. Hunting the country’s most wanted is a dangerous game indeed.

Through and through, Zero Dark Thirty remains a solidly engrossing political thriller. At times, the high-octane jargon on display in Mark Boal’s screenplay becomes tedious, but not in a way that toyed negatively with my attention span. With that said, though, these annoyances remain relatively moot when considering the bigger picture: Bigelow’s directorial choices and Boal’s writing are set pieces for a study of one woman’s eternal, unbending will, and how the enormity of her experience has altered her steel framed psyche.

Consider the last scene of the film. The raid on the compound has been successfully completed, and Maya gets personal proof that she’s thrown a bulls eye. It opens with the rear plank lowering on a military aircraft, revealing a giant, empty plane. Maya steps into it exhausted, consumed by its empty space. She exits the film just as she entered: alone, quiet and contemplative. The only difference here is that a decade has passed between these two Maya’s. By the end of the film, she has asserted her will, lost and regained hope, and now the only thing left to do, is cry. As we watch the final static shot of her face, her back against the interior wall of the plane, she does so, and, it is in this shot that we, along with Maya, reflect on the enormity of such an all-consuming undertaking.

Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film, but not a great one. Many critics and cinephiles have touted its “greatness” and are already considering it one of the decade’s best. I am not so sure of its greatness. Like Bigelow’s previous effort, the Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker–the study of a man who is seemingly impervious to combat-induced fear–Zero Dark Thirty is a highly functional character study that effectively utilizes the elements of a political thriller. The Hurt Locker, however, felt like a more complete film, and is, in my opinion, a great one.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

(L-R) JENNIFER LAWRENCE and BRADLEY COOPER star in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

★★★★ 1/2

Unexpected catharsis must be a welcomed circumstance, especially for two troubled souls plagued by compulsive behavior and troublesome pasts. Such is the case for the two leads in Silver Linings Playbook, the latest and best film to date of David O. Russell’s directorial career. As did his previous feature–The Fighter–Russell’s latest film explores, along with other things, the volatile dynamic of a family on the brink of becoming unhinged. Scratch that. So it was, and, has remained for the Solitano family, month in and month out. For years. Especially since Pat (Bradley Cooper), the son of obsessive compulsive and tempramental Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), has been released from a Baltimore mental hospital. The apple, with all of its baggage, hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

We first see Pat’s erratic behavior on display upon his arrival to his parent’s home. During a humorous series of scenes involving an unusually brisk reading of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”–a book that his sister is teaching to her English class–Pat, a fellow intellectual and educator, is determined to extract the worth from such a decision, a curious choice that serves as a keen examination of his troubled temprament. Baffled by “irrationalities” in Hemingway’s plot, he takes his complaints to his parents bedroom at four o’clock in the morning in a humorously irrational display of discontent, a scene that, quite concisely, encapsulates the compulsive and volatile state of his behavior. Afterall, Pat is the son of a man who has been banned from Lincoln Financial Field for incessant fighting. Ah, that apple.

Pat, to his detriment, lacks any formidable connection with emotion. He’s lost his wife, no longer has a house, a job, a phone or a car. He’s starting over again from a clean slate. He has returned home to his parents; Pat Sr. is an overly-obsessed Eagles fan whose game day rituals include curious superstitions (pointing remotes at arbitrary angles on the intable, etc.). One would be remissed to mess with the juju, and, every football fan knows you absolutely mustn’t. His mother, Delores (Jacki Weaver), is a warm-hearted, casual observer of the capricious household dynamic. She loves her son unconditionally, and is seasoned at handling the behavior that the men in her life possess. Pat remains steadfast in his determination to win back his wife, Nikki, whom, rather coincidentally, is the reason he was placed in the hospital in the first place.

After returning home one evening, Pat found his wedding song playing on the hallway boombox. His wife’s panties were left haphazardly on the hallway floor. The last he remembers is brutally beating a fellow teacher in the shower beside his naked wife, and, now he’s forced to face his demons and return to a state of normality. In order to maintain a sense of clarity and purpose, he takes up jogging and getting into shape in an attempt to better himself for his return to Nikki, but, as these things oftentimes do, it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Excelsior!

Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a down-and-out widow who happens to be just as imbalanced as Pat. The two meet at a dinner set up by Pat’s longtime friend, Ronnie. Veronica, Ronnie’s wife has invited her sister, the depressed, vulnerable and emotionally unstable Tiffany to what pans out to be a disconsolately funny meet cute. And so begins Russell’s tightly constructed balancing act; set forth onto the backdrop of an observant examination of a discordant family is the unlikely relationship of dependence and mutual catharsis between two troubled souls in need of validation. Russell makes no bones about where his leads will end up at the end of the film. It’s lust at first sight, but, only… at first. A unique bond of necessity forms for our main characters, and they are–albeit unwittingly in the beginning–falling madly in love. So it goes, and, the key to the films’ overwhelming success lies in how we’re guided to this welcomed, but expected end.

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Tiffany is at once abrasive and brash, yet remains vulnerable. Her internal scarring is outwardly visible, and she’s gotten used to being used. Pat is blinded by his own sense of bloated self-worth. He’s selfish, book smart, and usually speaks long before thinking. Pat and Tiffany’s interplay spans the entirety of the film, and in order to save what makes the film special, I won’t release specifics. There are scenes of immense power that emerge from their tumultuous process of getting to know one another. These scenes are, as well, too special to give away here, but, one of note takes place in a diner over Raisin Bran and hot tea. Most of the others arise out of comedy, again illuminating the delicate balance that Russell successfully juggles throughout his films’ entirety. Many scenes hinge around Pat’s desire to deliver a letter to his estranged wife about his progress, and, the best way to execute such a plan would be through Tiffany; her sister is Nikki’s best friend. But, there’s a catch. Tiffany’s become exhausted by being used, and demands a favor in return. If I were to tell you that this involved dancing, you wouldn’t believe me. And, you certainly wouldn’t believe me if I told you that the films’ conclusion centered around a dance competition and the outcome of a Cowboys/Eagles game. Spoiler alert: it does, and it works, believe it or not, almost seamlessly.

At the center of Silver Linings Playbook is a screenplay laden with such velocity that it works a frenetic, powerful whirlwind around us.  Left to execute its insightful wit are performers reaching new heights in their game. Jennifer Lawrence, since her breakout role in Winter’s Bone, has slimmed and is noticably more attractive. To have existed as a virtual unknown until three years ago, and to now be on the Oscar radar is remarkable. Not only is the talent exhibited here remarkable, it’s undeniable. And, who knew Bradley Cooper had such depth? He was good in those “moronic” comedies: notably Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, but he has delivered something substantially more immense here, and does so like a seasoned veteran–much like his co-star–Robert DeNiro has been doing for decades. What astounded me most about these performances was that fact that, after a while, I forgot that I was watching actors. I love performers who can take their material to such a level; it allows our emotional investment in their plight to flourish.

The way in which Russell weaves his story in and out of shifting genres is a testament to his skill. I haven’t been particularly fond of any of his previous films. The Fighter aimed high, but underdelivered on its thematic material. I Heart Huckabees was unfocused and pretentious. The only downside to Silver Linings Playbook is that, in the end, it leans toward conforming to our conventional expectations of how we believe romance pieces end. But, with this film, that doesn’t matter; we’ve become so emotionally invested in the characters that we’re not concerned with said conventions. If a  movie has the power to overcome these aspects and still deliver, it’s one hell of a fine film.

Silver Linings Playbook is a frantic, anxious, heartbreaking and, ultimately, joyous and fantastic experience. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll wince, but, you certainly won’t regret taking two hours out of your day to see this movie. This year, at the end, it will be one of the best that 2012 had to offer.

On second thought, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on many of the “decade’s best” lists .

Killing Them Softly (2012)

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★★ 1/2

Caught squarely in the center of this seasons’ prime Oscar contenders, Andrew Dominik’s latest feature, Killing Them Softly, is a highly stylized, pseudo-noir gang banger that, as if palpably, begs to be more substantive than it leads us on to be. With that said, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t stand up to its fellow bunkmates currently jockeying for preeminence in the early winter’s Awards Season surge, but it does, however, contain enough pizazz to be an entertaining 97 minutes of tough guy, wannabe Pulp Fiction-meets-Goodfellas. As the film opens, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is tailed by a slow motion tracking shot that’s interspersed with barely-discernible sound bites of Barack Obama. As he emerges into the daylight, he descends onto a post-Katrina New Orleans landscape littered with desolation–images we’ve become eerily accustomed to since the atrocity occurred in 2005. This, however, is not 2005. It is 2008, just as the devastating financial crises descends upon the country. It is with this backdrop that Dominik tells the rest of his story and, this decision, to me, remains a rather curious one. At first, his film suavely flaunts its combination of darkly comedic, hard-hitting dialogue and wince-a-minute violence. Then, it’s as if Dominik begins hastily chomping at the bit to take right turns: becoming intertwined in this volatile atmosphere is the heavy handed berating of perpetual, not-so-sparsely placed political overtones–a decision that creates a frustratingly unfocused feel for the remainder of the film.

One night, at the absentminded orders of Johnny Amato, Frankie and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a local mob-hosted card game being managed by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The amateurs escape with an abundance of cash (stowed away ever-so officially in metallic suitcases that only mobsters seem to possess), but, it’s not so squeaky clean, and, from here, it all bounces around familiarly, like something we’ve seen ten times before in the ruthless gangster genre.  Markie, who has stuck up one of his own games before, is blamed again during the second go around. He isn’t “stupid” and, hasn’t, of course, done it again (would someone actually be so ignorant?). The mob, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with the truth–business has been disrupted again, and somebody has to pay. Business, as we all know, is business.

Enter Driver (Richard Jenkins), a middleman messenger for a currency-laden something-or-other that’s investing in the high stakes poker games. He’s requested to meet with Jackie (Brad Pitt) to discuss a three man hit–a final, fatal solution to the problem of disrupted business. Throughout the film, the two meet under abandoned overpasses in some far-flung corner of deserted New Orleans, an ample framing opportunity for Dominik that offers the feel of seedy, whispered proceedings in a far away, unknown enclave. It is decided, through several sequences of admittedly witty banter (mostly spoken by Pitt and punctuated by Jenkins’ facial expressions) that Jackie will make the hit on Frankie, two fellow comrades will, almost to death, “rough up” Markie while mob boss Mickey (played by James Gandolfini, who, it seems, directly re-assumes the role of Tony Soprano) will make a hit on Russell–the one that Jackie doesn’t know.

At the conclusion, everyone who is expected to meet their demise does. What did we expect? It was foretold from the beginning and, there does, rather savagely, remain an abundance of violence and inexorable killing throughout the films’ duration to guide us to this outcome, but, to what end? If its purpose is to show us how merciless the killer and the act of killing can be, there are films that do so in a more thorough and emotionally impactful manner. One of those films is Gomorrah. The other, of course, is Goodfellas. Dominik’s film also revolves around intermittent scenes of witty dialogue to punctuate it with sardonic, black humor. Some of it makes for grin cracking, but there are films known for notoriously utilizing this device more effectively (Pulp Fiction). And, on another interesting point of curiousity: do gang bangers ride around all day incessantly listening to political news? Do they really sit around drinking in bars and playing cards while CSPAN loops on television sets? This, in effect, is the way in which Dominik attempts to hit a larger, more encompassing point home, yet fails. By doing this, he makes a conscious effort to lace the action with political heavy handedness–a stylistic choice that makes Killing Them Softly seem like it’s aiming to exist as a some sort of failed sociopolitical profundity rather than a seamless and suave gangster flick.

While the film does swing and miss repeatedly, there are noticeable bright spots. Dominik, as he proved with his previous feature, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, has a knack for style. The slow motion shots during Jackie’s drive by murder of Markie are particularly flashy and well-composed. Instead of the sprawling vastness of the untamed wilderness (as in The Assassination), Dominik shoots the New Orleans underbelly in dark, muted tones–a technique that effectively portrays the darkness of the characters’ lives. While Pitt turns out yet another strong performance, Ben Mendolsohn (as Russell) nearly steals the show. Much like his role in Animal Kingdom, he exudes a squalid eeriness that’s underscored by a total lack of compassion or human understanding. Pitt’s Jackie is calmly self-asserting. There’s latent savagery behind his cool reserve; it only surfaces at the precise moment of its necessity.

After it has all come to pass, Killing Them Softly tends to favor style over substance, and tries at once to exist as two distinctly different things. Is it commentary on the gauntlet of merciless killing found in organized crime, or is it a tale of the supposed moral and political corruption of America? If somehow, it is in fact the latter, one must ask: is that necessarily a profound observation? Isn’t it a commonly held opinion that American capitalism functions like the businesses it produces? I digress. If you’re looking for 97 minutes of relatively hard-hitting entertainment, knock yourself out. If, though, you’re looking for something a bit more satisfying and substantive, find Dominik’s second feature, The Assassination–it’s a much better film, and, too boot, is one of the best of 2007.