by Steve Habrat
In early October, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama Gravity was on everyone’s lips as a shoe-in at the upcoming Oscars. It was king of the box office throughout the month and it seemed impossible to meet someone who wasn’t raving about how great the film is. In the past few weeks, the hype has cooled around Gravity and has begun to heat up around director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave, an unflinchingly graphic look at the horrors of slavery. Based on the autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the devastating story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was ripped from his family and sold into slavery. Impeccably acted from a cast of A-list talent and featuring some of the most handsome cinematography I’ve seen all year, 12 Years a Slave lives up to its reputation as being an emotional wrecking ball that shatters your heart. McQueen allows his camera to highlight the raw emotional anguish of his characters, but its also his refusal to pull the camera away through some of the more violent images that really brings the audience to their knees. The end results are unforgettable, guaranteed to haunt you for the rest of your days.
12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. He makes a good living as a prominent musician and he stands as a well-respected member of the community. One day, while out on a stroll, Solomon is approached by two men, Brown (played by Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (played by Taran Killam), who claim to be traveling artists looking to employ Solomon as one of their musicians. Solomon graciously accepts their offer over dinner and drinks, but the next day, Solomon wakes up in a dank cell with chains around his wrists. After enduring a savage beating, Solomon is told that he is being transported to New Orleans to be sold into slavery, despite his insistence that he is a free man. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Solomon is sold to William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a kindly plantation owner who is receptive to Solomon’s ideas and even gives him a violin after learning he is a muscian. After a nasty confrontation with Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a brutal plantation owner who enjoys relentlessly tormenting his slaves. Fearing for his safety, Solomon begins plotting a way to get away from Epps and to be reunited with his family.
Last year, Quentin Tarantino delved into the topic of slavery with his grindhouse revenge tale Django Unchained, a film that was accused of allowing one of the darkest chapters in American history to morph into a blood-splattered cartoon. Despite the attacks, I still thought that Django Unchained struck a chord with some of its material and it really sent a chill with the way it presented the seething racism of the time (It also topped my list of the best of 2012). While it’s undeniable that Tarantino padded portions of his film with dark humor and winking nods to obscure spaghetti westerns, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave never even considers softening on the viewer. He keeps his camera fixed on the weary faces of those forced to labor away in the hot sun, allowing the anguished cries of a woman separated from her two young children to slice our soul, and the souring hope in Solomon’s eyes etch itself into our brains for the rest of our days. When he pauses to show us the overkill brutality of a lashing, there is no eruption of candlewax blood that calls attention to the fact that you’re just watching a slice of escapism. It’s a bit too realistic, especially when the cries of pain jolt you in your seat. McQueen is careful not to exploit the graphic violence, refusing to give long glimpses of slashed skin or puffs of blood. He drives its impact through constantly allowing us to see the faces of those who are enduring the beating—something that is sure to cause certain audience members to break down in tears.
Further securing 12 Years a Slave’s place in cinematic history is the A-list talent, especially the barbaric Fassbender and the crushed Ejiofor. A good majority of Ejiofor’s performance is in his wide eyes as he constantly stares just past the camera or down at the dirt under his feet, attempting to make sense of his current situation. It seems like he is always holding back tears and reassuring himself that he will not bow to the cruel overseers that patrol around with guns and whips. His passion sucks the air out of the theater as he is beaten down in the jail cell, told repeatedly that he is bluffing about being a free man and that he is simply a runaway from Georgia. We feel his desperation, fear, confusion, and anger as he pleas to be unlocked from the chains that imprison him. On the plantations, its unbearable to see him forced into submission, the only bright spots coming when the impressed Ford realizes the potential in him. A sickening dread takes over in the second half of the film when he is sold to Fassbender’s Epps, an abusive monster that enjoys waking his slaves in the night, dragging them up to the main house, and forcing them to dance for his amusement. He never passes up the chance to humiliate them; giggling at their trembling anxiety while he weighs the amount of cotton they picked for him that day. He’s also consistently at odds with his lust for the frail slave girl Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who he awakens in the middle of the night to have his way with, only to give way to instant disgust in himself. You won’t believe your eyes as he drools down on her, choking and slapping the poor girl for no reason at all.
As far as the secondary performers are concerned, Cumberbatch’s Ford is a gentle individual who hasn’t blinded himself to the fractured humanity in the men and women before him. Paul Dano’s John Tibeats is a stringy racist who forces the new slaves to clap their hands while he cheerily sings a menacing song about a runaway slave being caught and severely punished. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly as Theophilus Freeman, the man in charge of selling these petrified souls to leering plantation owners who act as though they are purchasing livestock rather than a human being. Brad Pitt gives a small but pivotal performance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian who is sympathetic to the cowering individuals aiding him in his construction. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam will earn your disgust as Brown and Hamilton, the two men responsible for kidnapping Solomon and selling him into a world of constant suffering. Nyong’o is fantastic as Patsey, Epps’ favored slave who is loathed by his wife, Mary. Sarah Paulson brings Mary Epps to life with plenty of terrifying gusto. Don’t be fooled by her glimmers of kindness, as cruelty is always close behind it.
As far as some of the technical aspects are concerned, the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt offers us some natural beauty in between some of the more disquieting moments of the film. Also worthy of mention is the score from Hans Zimmer, who trades in the pounding drums of The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel for a much more intimate score that captures the film’s wounded spirit. In the film’s darker sequences, the tranquility is traded for wailing strings that will make the hair on your arms stand up. One complaint I have with the film is that I would have liked to have seen just a little bit more of Solomon’s life before he was sentenced to the fields. We get a handful of flashbacks that get the job done, but considering the length of the film, I was left wanting just a bit more than I got. Overall, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a searing experience that is elegantly shot, sharply written, courageously realistic, and superbly acted by all involved. This is an emotionally taxing and startlingly powerful film that sends you away at a loss for words. I find it difficult to believe that there will be another film this year that challenges its status as the best of 2013.
by Steve Habrat
In 1968, Duane Jones and a rag-tag group of desperate and confused survivors holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse as undead cannibals roamed the yard waiting for their meals to emerge from their boarded up safe-haven. The survivors, who were armed with only a rusty rifle and a handful of bullets, were almost completely oblivious to what was happening a mile away from where they were hiding, their only source of information being messy and almost skeptical reports from spooked news anchors. The television flickered images of flustered government officials dashing to a car and mentioning something about radiation from space causing all the chaos in America’s streets. There was also the hollow reassurance from local authorities that the situation was under control even though you got the uneasy feeling that these events were going to get worse before they got better. Other than that, the survivors of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were on their own, with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. Forty-five years later, we have director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s vast World War Z, which is based on the globetrotting novel by Max Brooks. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead preyed upon the viewer’s fear of being confined into a tight space by a horror that lacked clear-cut explanation. As far as scope is concerned, Forster’s World War Z is the polar opposite of Romero’s vision, presenting the audience with sprawling shots of zombie mayhem from all over the world and much to this viewer’s surprise, it is actually a pretty effective zombie blockbuster.
World War Z begins with former UN employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt), his wife, Karin (played by Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel (played by Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (played by Sterling Jerins) caught in a nasty Philadelphia traffic jam. On the radio, a fuzzy news report talks of a rabies outbreak that has apparently spread internationally. Overhead, helicopters roar and ambulance sirens echo through the buildings. Suddenly, there is an explosion just up the road and panic erupts as zombies charge through the bumper-to-bumper maze. Gerry and his family manage to escape to an apartment complex where they are to be extracted by a helicopter sent by Gerry’s former UN colleague, Thierry (played by Fana Mokoena). The Lane’s are taken to a US Navy ship that is just off the coast of New York City. On board, Gerry learns that the president is dead, the vice president is missing, and that the world is going to Hell in the blink of an eye. Thierry and the ship’s naval commander soon approach Gerry about accompanying virologist Dr. Fassbach (played by Elyes Gabel) on a mission to find the source of the outbreak. Gerry reluctantly accepts the mission and the two men set out towards South Korea, but as the investigation deepens, their dangerous journey also takes them to Jerusalem and Cardiff.
What was only heard about and distantly felt in Night of the Living Dead is shown to the viewer in full CGI glory in the rocky opening moments of World War Z. Forster assaults the viewer with blurry images of panicked citizens running for their lives as cars smash into one another, buildings blow up, and snapping zombies jump through the air like banshees. Unlike Romero’s shuffling ghouls, Forster’s zombies are more in the vein of the cannibals found in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. These zombies have cloudy white eyes that bulge out of their head and they twitch, spaz out, and when they spot their prey, dash wildly towards their meal. They hurl themselves off of buildings towards spinning helicopters and when they hear a noise on the other side of the massive wall that protects Jerusalem, they pile on top of each other like ants to reach their victims. While the initial glimpses of the ghouls in the World War Z trailers were a little corny, the finished product is pretty impressive, especially when viewed in long intervals from above. While these overhead shots are here to wow, they also allow Forster to conceal some of the gut munching that is taking place in the streets. Considering World War Z is rated PG-13, Forster is forced to really cut back on the violence that has become a staple of the zombie subgenre. He keeps the violence largely off screen but there are still more than a few moments that will make you wince. Be warned, zombie fanatics, there is none of the intestine spewing carnage that Romero is known for.
It was no secret that there was quite a bit of off-screen drama surrounding World War Z, both before and during production. Before the cameras rolled on the $200 million dollar project, there was a massive bidding war for the rights between Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment. Pitt wasn’t content on just having the rights to the film—he also stars in this epic zombie beast. Pitt is the only A-list star billed in World War Z and he gives his all in his performance. He is a loving family man before the violence comes crashing down and he is a driven investigator racing to save the human race when the zombies charge towards him. The action allows Pitt to be tough-guy hero in certain places, but some of the scenes are plagued by action movie clichés that will just have you shaking your head. As far as the supporting acts go (which is everyone else), Enos is asked to just hover around a cell phone and wait for Gerry to call and reassure her that he hasn’t become an all-you-can eat buffet. Gabel is given a small and brief role as Dr. Fassbach, who is convinced he can find a way to beat the virus. Mokoena shuffles around the Navy ship and is simply asked to explain how bad the situation is to Pitt. Unknown actress Daniella Kertesz is here as a shoot-first-as-questions-later Israeli soldier named Segen, who joins up with Pitt in Jerusalem. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Matthew Fox (Alex Cross) a Navy SEAL operative and a small, scene-stealing appearance by David Morse (The Green Mile) as a former CIA operative with a nasty story to tell about North Korea’s approach to containing the zombie outbreak.
Considering that World War Z is a zombie movie, there is no doubt that you are wondering if it is actually scary. While there is quite a bit more emphasis on the 10-miles-wide action, World War Z offers up its fair share of nail-biting suspense, especially in the smartly claustrophobic climax that subtly winks at Romero’s 1968 game changer. Initially, I was unsure if I cared for this drastic shift in vision (those gliding God’s-eye-views are really something), but I’ve warmed to it in the hours since I’ve seen the film. What ultimately holds World War Z back from being a great zombie blockbuster is the number of clichés that you’ll find throughout its runtime. It seems that every place that Pitt’s Gerry steps, zombies manage to conveniently come barging in right when he gets a lead and you’ll highly doubt that he could survive a specific fiery plane crash. Oh well, he’s clearly having a good time playing a he-man action hero and I’m certainly not going to rain on his parade. Overall, World War Z gets off to an awkward start, but once it finds its groove, the film morphs into fun-but-flawed apocalyptic journey. It proves that there is still some wild-eyed life in the zombie subgenre and what Romero couldn’t afford to show us in Night of the Living Dead is actually pretty chilling stuff.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
For the second week in a row, there are some new Blu-rays that just have to be in your growing movie collection. First up, we have Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking Lincoln, a biopic that resists all the trappings of the biopic genre. While it is a must-own for the Academy Award winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, grab up the four disc set which includes such features as a Making Of documentary, a look at how Daniel Day Lewis jumped into the role of Honest Abe, and a look at the marvelous period detail of the film, to name a few. In addition to Lincoln, we also have the brutal gangster thriller Killing Them Softly, one of the most underrated films of 2012. While the political commentary may have turned most viewers off, this a seriously startling and unforgettable piece of filmmaking that made my list of the 10 best films of 2012 (Lincoln was also on there!). The Blu-ray of Killing Them Softly comes with a handful of deleted scenes and a Making Of documentary. If you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Lincoln, click here, and if you wish to check out the Killing Them Softly review, click here. If you want to see where each fell on the 10 best films of 2012 list, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I can’t really say that I’ve ever left a crime thriller with my stomach in a knot. I didn’t know it was possible for the crime thriller genre, which seems to be stuck on repeat and incapable of surprises, was fully capable of coming up with something that would truly shake me to my core. Well, along comes director Andrew Dominik’s black-as-night Killing Them Softly, a darkly comedic and politically charged look at the underbelly of society. Set against the economic meltdown of 2008 and hanging its head while John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush utter reassurances that America will get back on track, Killing Them Softly possess an icy apocalyptic feel as the camera pans across abandoned strip malls, rotting homes, and trigger happy ghettos. It certainly is the ugliest crime thriller ever made and a rabid dog of a movie, one that is furiously chewing through the leash that is containing it to the point where its gums are bleeding. Yet for all the savagery on display, Killing Them Softly has some chilling moments of rich character development, especially in Brad Pitt’s cool-as-a-cucumber Jackie Cogan, a hitman who seethes as McCain, Bush, and Obama reassure us all that America is one community. With an ensemble cast, a doomed atmosphere, razor sharp humor, and one of the coolest soundtracks around (a jaw-dropping beating is followed up by the cheery ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra), Killing Them Softly will make you feel like you’re sitting on a block of ice.
Set in 2008, Killing Them Softly picks up with three low-level thugs, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Played by Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Played by Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), robbing a mob controlled poker game that is watched over by hot shot gangster Markie Trattman (Played by Ray Liotta). It turns out that a few years earlier, Markie set up an inside job, robbed his own poker game, and then drunkenly admitted to doing it in front of a room full of gangsters. Since Markie is so well liked, the thugs decided to laugh it off and forgive him. Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell spot an opportunity to pull the robbery off in the hope that the mob will just blame it all on Markie. The plan appears to work for a small stretch of time but the mob isn’t so eager to let this one go. They bring in cool and calculating hitman Jackie Cogan (Played by Brad Pitt), who quickly determines that Markie wasn’t the one behind the robbery. He convinces the mob’s lawyer Driver (Played by Richard Jenkins) to allow him to bring in another bitter and unhinged hitman known as Mickey (Played by James Gandolfini) to help him smoke out the amateurs behind the job. When not dealing with personal demons, Jackie and Mickey slowly get to the bottom of the robbery and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is about as character driven as they come. There are drawn out moments of dialogue as these scumbags sit around in cluttered offices and smoky hotel rooms sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, shooting junk, and droning on about their failed love lives, why they detest feelings, and, yes, sexual intercourse with animals. It’s all very gross, pathetic, and profanity laced but Dominik cleverly writes it and he manages to get a few chuckles even if you are rolling your eyes in disgust. When the conversations turn to murder, things get really tense and prickly, with an unshakable sense of realism that almost shellshocks the viewer. Driver explains that they don’t want one of their guys hurt, just roughed up a little so he’ll talk. Pitt’s numbed Cogan laughs in his face and tells him the mob has gotten soft and then wonders allowed about what has happened to America. It’s in these moments that Killing Them Softly really takes hold of the viewer, churning the stomachs of those who thought they had been desensitized to this sort of material. Hell, I thought I was but I was scared stiff when Pitt explains that he hates killing up close because of the emotion. Trust me, it’s a conversation that settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach.
Then again, maybe it is Pitt who is just really good at selling this chillingly bleak cynicism. He is a man who stares out at a boarded up America wasting away in the shadow of an Obama “Change” billboard, blowing cigarette smoke at it almost like mockery. He faintly grins as President Bush nervously rambles on about the financial situation in America and ponders how it should be dealt with. Pitt’s Cogan is angry, fed up, and driven simply by money. He is so detached that he doesn’t even flinch when he stops his car in a rough part of town and overhears a group of street thugs arguing and fighting over territory. He doesn’t jump when gunshots ring out and one of them falls to the ground in a heap. He is almost like a plague in a muscle car; spreading his searing and sobering philosophy that America isn’t one community that is in this situation together, but just a business where everyone is on their own. He’s a cynical force with his hand out for the money he was promised and God help the person who doesn’t pay up. If he isn’t careful, he may wind up with a Best Actor Oscar for that earth shaking speech he gives in the closing moments of the film. It’s honestly a performance I couldn’t pull away from and that I won’t soon forget. Pitt is THAT good!
While Pitt steals the movie, the other performers do their best to keep up. Liotta is absolutely fantastic as Trattman, a man who is silky smooth during his poker games but a whimpering, bloody mess when he has the tar kicked and beaten out of him in a rainstorm. This particular sequence where two mob enforcers rough him up has to rank as one of the most violent and startlingly beatings I have ever seen in a motion picture (Those with a weak stomach may want to shut your eyes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). Jenkins is a brooding force as he tries to reason with Pitt’s Cogan. They share a number of conversations that point out that times are tough for mobsters too. Gandolfini shows up as the bitter Mickey, an overweight hitman who sucks down martinis and beers like he may never get another one in his life and verbally abuses hookers who shrug him off. He may be able to intimidate a waiter but is unable to stand up to his wife who is constantly threatening him with a divorce. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is all nervous gulps as he slowly realizes that he may not make it out of this situation alive and Ben Mendelsohn is on point as the sweaty junkie Russell, who is constantly stumbling around in a junk-induced haze.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is a barebones film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. It’s shockingly pessimistic as it wears its frustrations on its blood soaked sleeve. At times, the sound bites of Bush, McCain, and Obama are a bit distracting and heavy handed, leaving the viewer wishing for a much more subtle approach to the politics. The film also has some incredibly unnerving and ironic use of music. I think I was the only person in the audience who laughed when Dominik follows up Liotta’s savage beating with ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ and Pitt guns down a poor gangster to Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters.’ While I can see many being disappointed with Killing Them Softly, walking away wondering just what the big deal was, I just so rattled by the whole experience and how real it truly felt. It never felt sensationalized and it lacked the typical gloss that Hollywood applies to films as gritty as this. It doesn’t go down easy and I really admired that. Approach Killing Them Softly, one of the strongest motion pictures of 2012, with extreme caution.
by Steve Habrat
The Tree of Life is the first film from reclusive director Terrence Malick that I have had the pleasure of seeing. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone who has studied film has yet to see a film from the acclaimed and beloved director. It’s not that I have objected to seeing one of his films, I’ve just never been presented with the opportunity. I have finally had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life, the divisive and perplexing cosmic offering from Malick. I’m sure you heard about this how this film makes absolutely no sense and how it was met with mixed reviews at Cannes Film Festival despite the immense hype from the art house crowd. Most who see The Tree of Life walk away either loving the film, praising its visual artistry and contemplating the questions of life, nature, grace, and how we got here or hating the film, feeling cheated, confused, and rejecting its disjointed narrative. I fall on the side of loving the film, admiring its beauty still in the hours after I have seen it and my mind still trying to wrap itself around the point of the film.
The Tree of Life has three main plots. The first plot is the creation of the universe that is utterly breathtaking to watch. The second is set in the 1950s and follows the O’Brien family. We voyeuristically watch their upbringing of Jack (Played by Hunter McCracken) and his two younger brothers. Malick then focuses on the boy’s relations with their placid and naive mother Mrs. O’Brien (Played by Jessica Chastain) and their stern and forceful father Mr. O’Brien (Played by Brad Pitt). Early on in the film, we happen to learn that one of Jack’s younger brothers dies when he is when he is nineteen in the 1960s. The third plot is adult Jack (Played by Sean Penn) reminiscing about his days growing up and his deceased brother.
Boasting cinematography that practically knocks you out, The Tree of Life dazzles us, like many other films this year, with images and expressions over hollow CGI. Even if you find yourself loathing the film, there is still much to admire in the images. I marveled at the creation sequence and was chilled to my core by the glimpses of the afterlife. I was wrapped up in the time spent with the O’Brien’s, feeling like an invisible, otherworldly visitor floating around their home. But while the images scorch the viewer, there are also sequences that were immensely powerful in their subject matter. Jack and his friends go on a trek through nature, setting off firecrackers in a bird’s nest and tying a frog to a rocket. A scene when Mr. O’Brien lashes out at two of his sons, sending the third to his mother’s arms, sobbing and terrified is one you’ll never forget. Adult Jack reuniting with his father in the afterlife is warm and overwhelming despite their thorny relationship.
Malick’s pet project relies on its unforgettable imagery to carry it but if it weren’t for the flesh and blood performances, The Tree of Life would be nothing. This is Pitt’s film from the first frame to the last and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He puts the fear of God in the viewer in the way he lashes out at his children. His character has so many layers; multiple viewing will be needed to pull them all away. He is a cynical man who gave up on his dreams and doesn’t fully appreciate what surrounds him. He is intimidating and stern, putting you on the edge of your seat in the way he commands Jack to return to the screen door and shut it properly several times as punishment for slamming it. Then there is Jessica Chastian’s Mrs. O’Brien, a woman in awe of everything around her and bursting with affection for her children. She preaches a message of love to her children and whispers about the sky being where God lives. When she has to convey the devastation of losing a child, there are no words to describe what Chastain pulls off. She’s a delicate flower to Pitt’s whirlwind force of nature.
And what about Sean Penn and the cosmic opening sequence? Yes, they are all there too. Penn isn’t given much to do by Malick and that is one of the downsides to the film. He wanders around in a city staring up at the sky, skyscrapers, and then in visions, he wanders the desert in a suit. For the most part, he sits around and broods. Penn really gets to flex his acting muscles when he is reunited in the afterlife with his family. The opening cosmic sequence and the closing end-of-the-world montage are sublime and feel like something ripped from a planetarium. You have to see it in HD to really get the exhaustive effect. Malick even gives us a few dinosaurs! But what do these scenes of creation have to do with the story of the O’Briens? Malick mirrors the creation sequence with the progression of the O’Brien family. The family grows, matures, evolves, and experiences overwhelming devastation just like the universe itself.
The Tree of Life takes some contemplation and it is certainly not for casual moviegoers. The film is like a Rorschach test to the viewer with Malick being the one asking us what we see. I feel that anyone who sees The Tree of Life is going to emerge with a different viewpoint on the film, but I suppose I can offer up what I thought the film was trying to convey. The film pits evolution against creationism but it never seems to ask us which side we fall on. In fact, it seems like Malick points these two theories out to us and then asks: does it really matter how we got here? He instructs us to stop, take a breath, and just look around at, as Mr. O’Brien calls it, “the glory” around us. Things will happen that disrupt our existence (anger, heartbreak, pain, grief, loss), but those should not distract us from living and loving. There was a beginning and there will be an ending but with that ending comes a reuniting. Is that reuniting spiritual or natural? That is up for you to decide. Either way, I was immersed in the cosmic voyage that Malick took me on and I will never forget it the eye-opening splendor it presents.
The Tree of Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Believe it or not, I really enjoy sports films. Sports films usually follow a character that is completely engulfed in their art. Yes, I consider sports an art form. The athletes are there to entertain and often times inspire you. Sports lure out all different types of emotions from the athletes themselves, be it soaring happiness or the lowest form of defeat. Yet I always find myself in awe over their dedication to whatever it is they perform. There is also something about rooting for the underdog in these films, which usually borrow from real life events. It allows the viewers to believe in the idea of miracles and prove to us that hard work pays off. To some, it could suggest a higher power looking over the little guy or gal. These athletes will sacrifice their personal life, love, their sanity, and even their own sanctuaries—their bodies, all in the name of their art. I guess I can relate because I dedicate myself to movies completely. I will go to great lengths to see a movie I am infinitely excited about to the point where I will practically be collapsing from exhaustion at work the next day. I just had to see that midnight showing. I love it when people are overcome with a dedication to what they love. It to me means that they stand for something. For athletes and the people behind the scenes of the specific sport, they are dedicated to winning and an ultimate triumph. The victory symbolically wipes away any defeat they have suffered in the past.
Take Moneyball, the casual and self-assured new true-story sports film not about athletes themselves, but about the individuals who build baseball teams. Moneyball is about the ones who give themselves over completely to deliver wins and leave a legacy. We see countless scenes where characters sit around television screens and discuss a player’s form. They sit around tables and debate about what player has the ideal appearance for America’s favorite pastime. They fight with each other, feelings are hurt, and lessons are learned. It’s all in the name of what these men love. At the heart of all of it is Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt), who seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation behind a protruding bottom lip that is filled with chewing tobacco, sagging eyes, and a face that shows traces of Benicio del Toro. Beane is the GM (General Manager) of the Oakland A’s, who are in a scramble to rebuild their crumbling team after a crushing loss to the Yankees. They can’t compete with the salaries of teams like the New York Yankees, but boy, do they have heart and passion for their team. Beane travels to Cleveland, Ohio to discuss player trades with the Indians and during the meeting, notices a bright young number cruncher/player analyst named Peter Brand (Played by Jonah Hill, in one hell of a dramatic turn) who picks favorite players based on mathematics and science over form and physical appearance. Impressed by the young Peter, Billy hires him to devise a system to pick up gifted athletes without shelling out a huge sum of cash. As Beane tries to reinvent the scouting system and stacks his team with a group of misfit players, the experiment is met with criticism from those around Beane. As the experiment falls apart, Beane begins to reflect on decisions he made and grapples with the fact that he may loose his career over the gamble.
I’d be bluffing if I said I understood every word of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s well-spoken script. It fires off more sports vocabulary and trivia than I could keep up with. Sometimes, it sounded like Greek. It had the two friends I saw it with giddy by the little nods to sports history and player cameos (I should clarify that it is players depicted by actors. They knew instantly who they were. I just shook my head and smiled.). I was there for the story and I can say that I walked away satisfied, like Zaillian and Sorkin treated me with respect. They didn’t dumb the film down for viewers like me, which I extol. This is a sports fan movie. This is also a warm film, one that made me feel like I was sitting in on these conversations that were taking place. I felt like I was sitting in the room with them. The men stick chew in their lips, spit into cups, shift nervously and uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes stumble through their dialogue like a real individual would. Everything seems so spontaneous. Never like it has been memorized. When Oscar comes calling, I hope it remembers Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill. The dialogue flows from their lips with ease to the point where they ceased being Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and morphed into Billy and Peter. I loved it.
Much of Moneyball’s success rests on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller, who always makes the film disarming, even when it suffers from a few editing problems and a disregarded climax that feels barely there and insignificant. The film builds up to this one moment, and it quickly passes with weird fade-outs, and glum voice-overs from sports commentaries. Miller can construct a scene, but sometimes the editing stubs an emotional moment. His pacing is superb and he had my undivided attention, even if the film runs a bit too long. He also builds suspense nicely; especially during a ballgame sequence that will leave you feeling like one of the fans on the day the real game was played.
Moneyball boasts an A-list cast of seasoned vets who punch in some phenomenal acting. I could not get enough of Pitt’s Beane, whose love of baseball outweighs a rocky past of humiliation and regret. His past starts to bite him in the ass, and we can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow. It’s quite possibly his most humanistic performance, where for once he shakes off the viewer’s perception of him. Every film he is in, no matter whom he plays I always think “Hey! That’s Brad Pitt!” Not to say he is not a talented actor (the man plays some seriously eccentric chaps), but here he seems approachable and on our ordinary level. Hill gives one of the finest performances of his career, playing the diffident Peter who drools over every pitch thrown. I honestly bought his love for the game. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where he approaches the A’s stadium. Some of the stadium employees are pulling down hulking banners of their beloved players who have left the team. He stares up at the theater in amazement. Peter is bewitched by game. The music is quiet strums on an electric guitar as he gazes lovingly upon his new home. It’s such a magnificent scene. There is also the welcome presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s beer bellied coach who casts icy glares at Beane and goes against him at every turn to save his career. He’s a background character, but it is now Oscar season so it makes sense he would pop up in this, an Oscar contender.
Moneyball is just shy of greatness. For someone who is on the outside of sports, it’s one heck of a story. It also is an eye-opening encounter, as I never knew what went in to scouting baseball players. Like all sports films, it does try to tug the heartstrings with its underdog traits. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a dragging run time and a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s great to see a celebration of passion and dedication. A testament to those who will risk their reputation to stand by what they love. I just can’t help but smile when Beane admits that he does not do what he does because of money. In the end, it’s Pitt and Hill who become the MVPs of the film. They hit a few home runs, but I wish that the film would have stepped up and delivered a grand slam. Grade: B+