No Concessions: Fall Report Card
With my preschooler in the clear from her teachers (except for the swearing) I feel it’s time to evaluate the crop of current releases. From a business perspective, it’s a solid A out there, given a robust Thanksgiving season. That will likely decline to a C, or worse, this weekend, as the doggiest of dog days hits back hard.
Worse than mid-April, worse than late August, the “session” after turkey day is when the numbers deflate, as sure as the Macy’s balloons. Stepping into this dead zone is Killing Them Softly, which The Weinstein Company is selling as a Tarantino-ish romp. It isn’t. Like writer-director Andrew Dominik’s prior film with star Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), it’s an intensely (too intensely) stylized deconstruction of a genre and American ideals, and about as much fun as staring into an open sewer for 97 minutes.
Casting about for his next project after his attractive, if mostly inert, Western, the New Zealand-born Dominik swooned for the out-of-print crime novels by George V. Higgins, one of which was successfully adapted by director Peter Yates for the 1973 cult film The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik has taken Higgins’ Watergate-era set Cogan’s Trade and transposed it to the similarly hungover fall of 2008 for Killing Them Softly. Cogan, a hitman who prefers to work from a discreet distance (killing his victims “softly”), and played by Pitt with minimal Chanel No. 5 foofiness, is introduced after a set of machinations in a decaying urban underbelly. Markie (Ray Liotta), who deals cards at a mob-protected game, once ripped off the gangmembers, narrowly got away with it, but has bragged about the deed. From his lips to the ears of Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sack from The Sopranos), who decides to rob the same game, figuring Markie will take the fall. He hires Frankie (rising young character actor Scoot McNairy, from Argo and Monsters) and the dissolute Australian dognapper Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) for the caper, which they manage to pull off, in a bravura sequence sure to fool you into thinking there are thrills ahead.
Enter Cogan, who is entrusted to enforce law among the lawless and look beyond the obvious tie to Markie, who is played as sympathetically as possible under the grimy circumstances by Liotta. But closing the loop is no easy task, as the unseen bigwigs pressure Cogan’s g0-between, known simply as Driver (Richard Jenkins), with contradictory demands, and his cohort, Mickey (James Gandolfini), goes to hell on booze and hookers. Cogan is obliged to get more personally involved in his work, as the white noise of the election plays in the background. A hopey-changey thing Killing Them Softly is not.
Nor is it a particularly involving experience. I go for this type of movie, but the pungent dialogue is too often suffocated by the showoffy flash of DP Greig Fraser and editor Brian A. Kates. Like I said, the overall torpor is cut by some pulse-quickening passages, including a car crash to rival the one Fraser shot for Let Me In, a symphony of steel and glass. But the movie, filmed as anonymously as can be in New Orleans, tries way too hard for an atmosphere of decline and degeneration, with dreary, waiting room colors and an all-too-obvious soundtrack as underscore. (Blue Velvet retired “Love Letters,” and no film will use Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” as effectively as the Dawn of the Dead remake.) Dominik is right to love The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which, like his film, has a fine cast (headed by Robert Mitchum in one of his last great roles), an unblinking view of human relations–and the good sense to leave “atmosphere” out of it.
A termite’s-view alternative to the 1% horror stories of Artbitrage and Cosmopolis, with women as either conniving whores or non-existent, Killing Them Softly posits the criminal economy as a dog-brutalize-dog microcosm of the economy at large, as if this were something new. With two stars of The Sopranos in the cast, that isn’t the case, and name-checking Obama doesn’t make it any fresher. Forty-five years after Le Samourai and Point Blank, adding an existential frame to the story is as old hat as reviving “Love Letters” for a scene of mayhem. Killing Them Softly chases respect, and the huffing and puffing to get it is tiring.
Titling a column “Fall Report Card,” as the season droops into December, leaves you expecting a beatdown or two. But Killing Me Softly is the only disagreeable movie I’ve seen in weeks, and I’m not averse to watching it again on Blu-ray in a few months to see if it sank in any. I’ve had other “wavelength” issues–other than its inspired acting team-up of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who suggest an imaginary meeting of an old ham like Lionel Barrymore and a talented young cuss like James Dean in a Frankenstein-ish story of identity issues, The Master left me cold, even in 70mm, and fell fast off the lofty cliff some film critics perched it. (Still, props to 26-year-old producer Megan Ellison for getting difficult, or maybe more difficult than need be, movies like this and Killing Them Softly off the ground with her software fortune.) Looper has a severe third act problem involving telekinesis, which doesn’t invalidate the earlier twists and turns or blow its moral compass off course. And any problem I had with Helen Hunt’s severely unlined forehead vanished as she and the fine John Hawkes harmonized in The Sessions, which treats disability, sexual surrogacy, and religion is such an uplifting, blue-state way it might have been presented by the Obama administration.
A few films deserve special mention. Lincoln is a solid A, with Steven Spielberg, directing his third movie in less than a year, mustering his considerable strengths to get living history onto celluloid in what is something like a continuation of the uneven Amistad (1997). (Will Django Unchained be its evil twin? Or triplet, after the vampire hunting incarnation?) A blue-chip cast (encompassing even the bad kid from Chronicle in the first scene) gets to run with Tony Kushner’s lucid, humor-seasoned dialogue, not least Sally Field, who goes toe-to-toe with the formidable Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. In her big scene with the latter is the subtext her getting back at him for an allegedly unhappy pairing in 1981’s Back Roads? He certainly looked abashed beyond the call of scripting.
After a decade behind the workstation Robert Zemeckis gets back to humankind with Flight, a movie that’s lost altitude since its New York Film Festival debut, as soon as audiences realized that it was an addiction melodrama and not a disaster movie (though the near-miss, which sets off a jaundiced view of the “miracle on the Hudson” and other acts of heroism, is vividly rendered). Still, watching Denzel Washington stir himself and really sink his teeth into a juicy role is a spectacle in itself (where will he go now that his special relationship with Tony Scott has been severed?) and the acting flies first class, including a scene-stealing John Goodman as a Dr. Feelgood out of Lebowski-land.
With an assist from Alan Arkin, Goodman also swipes Argo, as makeup ace John Chambers. Its main fault is making too much of a footnote to the Iranian hostage crisis, with hoary suspense devices like ringing telephones undercutting the tension. But Ben Affleck, who continues to grow as a director, has the Hollywood chicanery and the period down pat, right down to his own Bee Gee look and the sallow “malaise” colors. In the era before the 24-hour news cycle the hostage crisis really was on TV as much as it is in the film, as the Carter administration dribbled away. The movie’s grace note is giving the former president the last word during the closing credits.
“This is the end,” croons Adele in her title song for Skyfall. And it is the end, to some extent capping the Daniel Craig era (and cutting its tie to Pierce Brosnan’s tenure) while rebooting the series to square one. It’s a lot for a Bond fan to take in, and I haven’t decided yet if that’s a bold move on the part of the franchise or a chickening out, as if afraid of going too far with the 50-year-old character as he suddenly absorbs a lot of brilliantly underplayed backstory. I certainly liked the movie, which overcomes a far-fetched revenge scenario (a conveniently passenger-less train dropped on Bond’s head at just that moment?) with abundant style (the gorgeous Shanghai sequence is another one for DP Roger Deakins’ reel) and that unusual onrush of feeling. (This pissed me off no end, when it was reposted in the comments section of an Atlantic blog entry–talk about a gross and willful misreading of a movie.)
Bonus points, too, for the wry Ben Whishaw and the scary Javier Bardem, who made my wife scream when his lower jaw practically fell off–I mean, c’mon, his distinguishing characteristic couldn’t be that shock of blond hair, could it? Yet I’m undecided, and not quite willing to place it in my Top Five if it means losing my beloved Spy Who Loved Me. I’m turning it over. (In an echo of the Moore epoch, this is the first Bond in ages to have cockeyed reaction shots to Bond behavior by passers-by.)
If you’ve picked the right movies, now is a good time to be going, with a strong slate and more to look forward to. All pass and not much fail is a happy circumstance. You’ll have the theaters to yourself this weekend, so why not beat the Christmas rush?