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Killing Them Softly

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What’s he gonna do, fold under questioning? If he does, they’ll kill him. If he doesn’t, they’ll figure he’s lying like last time and they’ll kill him. Either way, Markie’s dead. So why put the poor bastard through a beating? It’s a waste of time – not to mention a really unpleasant experience for Markie. Just put him out of his misery, poor bastard.

Ten years ago this is the kind of movie I would have adored. It has a great look to it. The actors in it are fantastic and each play distinctive people from the underworld. The story shows a bleak outlook for those types and includes a super cool assassin. Make Wong Kar Wei the director and this is an easy ****.

So this has Richard Jenkins as a guest star. My family’s movie club just discussed his classic The Visitor. Other than him there is vulgar screw up assassin James Gandolfini who is hunting the two screw up leads, the amazing Ben Mendelsohn—Director Krennic, Rogue One—and Scoot McNairy—always delightfully pathetic in Best Picture winners like Argo and 12 Years a Slave.

But Brad Pitt gets first billing because of course he does. With Andrew Dominik as the writer/director he strove for the amazing lyricism of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He did not completely get it. Still, sometimes it is better to go for something different and not totally pull it off, than to make the same old crap. ****

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12 Years a Slave

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*****

Because the law states that your liberties are undeniable? Because society deems it so? Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and Black alike.

Brad Pitt as Bass, 12 Years a Slave, © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox.

Brad Pitt as Bass, 12 Years a Slave, © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox.

We are truly blessed to live in a society in a time when the vast majority of us live without slavery and without the fear of impending death. I believe that we reached this point through the blood of patriots and innocents alike. At the same time, with each year removed from the passing of the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we increasingly take things for granted and allow myth to replace history. The great thing about this film is that its acumen made me feel like I was watching the true life tragedy of Solomon Northrup. It used art to reinvigorate history.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave.

I had the DVD from Netflix for this film for approximately 9 months before I finally watched it. As the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award, what kept me from putting in such an acclaimed film with a cast of actors whom I loved? You might expect me to say white guilt, but I do not think that was the deterrent. For me, watching depressing movies comes at the perceived cost of ruining my evening. In reality, great movies rarely prevent me from enjoying the rest of my night even as much as mundane technological failures do. But I never choose to have my iPhone start to break, or for Microsoft Word to crash, whereas I have to actually choose to wade into the chilly water to watch a tragedy. When I can jump into a pool—with people who want to watch it in a theater—that comes easier than cold water slowly splashing up my body. I am really enjoying this metaphor, so I will say that this film my body never adjusted to the temperature. In a way similar to The Hurt Locker, fear gripped me almost every scene . Even when conditions seemed non-life threatening, the anxiety was there. To call it paranoia would be inappropriate since the only one I knew would survive the film was Solomon Northrup—Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Operative from Serenity. But why should I feel his fear? I was safe on a couch in Albany, NY. Of course that is only 30 miles from Saratoga, where Northrup seemed safe too.

In addition to Ejiofor, every other actors was great. Well cast by Francine Maisler–The Usual Suspects–and directed by Steve McQueen, for which he was nominated by both the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press. Fassbender–great. Giamatti–awful as a human being, thus great. Cumberbatch–delightfully flawed and un-Holmesian. Sarah Paulson–believably wretched. Lupita Nyong’o–justifiably won the Oscar for best supporting actress. Even Paul Dano has stuck with me for his evil and his memorable singing voice.

Now if you will permit me a moment to play both social critic and soothsayer, I believe that some day there will be a film made about the awful prison conditions in our country. How we have overcrowded detention facilities that racist laws have filled to overflowing. All stemming from capitalists try to get rich off the suffering of the convicted. If our cinema stays true to itself, some old story will be used and the timing will make it seem like a commentary on current conditions, like the prior year’s Oscar best picture winner, Argo.

Moneyball

3 Comments

****

People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.

What kind of movie expects us to root for the Oakland Athletics? I mean, against the Yankees? As a Yankees fan, why would I be upset when the Yankees won the ALDS in 2001? Madness! So this is an uphill battle for me to care, but it is already the victor in the eyes of critics—SEVEN academy award nominations.

Brad Pitt for best actor: he is very, very good. He saw something in Billy Beane’s story that made him want to, or even need to, tell it. I think that hunger and passion came through in his performance.

Jonah Hill: I do not see what all the fuss is about his performance. He did a great job with an easy role. I think that Chris Pratt’s Scott Hatteberg deserves almost as much fan fare.

Best Picture: the little picture that could, about the little team that shouldn’t have. An enjoyable film.

Adapted Screenplay: This is a good story that is well told, but some of the speeches were too melodramatic, or too deep for the moment. I guess some screenwriters cannot resist it.

Film Editing/Sound Mixing: there are some interesting usage of silence in the film, which always showcases the sounds that you do hear. In fact, I liked the score better than the sound editing…whatever that means. Still, unless the movie is an adapted play that means it was well edited.

Lastly, it is incredibly difficult to create drama when the outcome is known. Yet, most people probably do not know or remember as much about baseball as I do, so I imagine that they enjoy the movie a little more than I did. Still, whose fault is that?

The Tree of Life

5 Comments

***

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

I hate movies where the director looks down on his audience. When the director thinks he is smarter than his audience or tries to play me, I have one finger for that person, Roland Emmerich. That said, there is something to be said for having too much respect for your audience. Terrence Malick respects the hell out of us, but to the extent that he shows 15 minutes straight of nature footage, of the cosmos, of microscopic organisms. He tells the story out of order and without identifying who the characters superficially are.

The film occasionally cuts to Sean Penn as the adult version of the youngest of three boys, whose parents provide the two world views for our child to wind up messed up from—Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain.  Sean Penn seems to love nature, yet live in Chicago. He looks at the angles of buildings and the film cuts to nature. In the end he is following his dead older brother and running into hundreds of people on a beach, even though the chronology is impossible. It reminded me of the end of the Emir Kustirica film Underground.

Underground this movie isn’t. While that movie checks in at three hours, this two hour fifteen minute opus drags after the midway point. Unlike Terrence Malick’s New World and The Thin Red Line, the ethereal and elegiac quality of the film overpowers the story and collapses like sand castle built on a cloud. If that sentence did not make sense to you, then this movie will not either. I still love Terrence Malick’s style, his editing, his musical selections, his casting—except for Sean Penn, but I am sure there are hours of footage on a cutting room floor that would redeem this choice—and his tone. I just did not love how he applied those skills here. Hopefully when his next movie comes out in 2017 it will be a return to form.