Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 07/02/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThis time of year is a good occasion for Americans to take stock of their country, and, in most cases, we should feel a patriotic appreciation for the freedoms which we enjoy and rely upon.  But, at other times, such introspection can reveal darker sides to our country.

Take KILLING THEM SOFTLY, a gritty and downbeat, quirky and idiosyncratic trip through the underbelly of America, directed and adapted (from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins) by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt, which was released late last year to general indifference at the box office. Here was a noir-ish gangster film with more talk than action, more subtext about the economy and politics than violence, and an ending startlingly anticlimactic: sins of the genre sufficient to send the devotees of Don Corleone running for the exits. The terrain here may look familiar but this is clearly no ordinary gangster movie.

The action, taking place in and around a barren and scarred Boston landscape—though, in a bit of cognitive dissonance, actually filmed in New Orleans!—begins when a pair of low-level hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), are employed by Johnny the “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) to rip off a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  By framing Markie, who had robbed his own game some years before, they relax, believing that they have gotten away scot-free. Meanwhile, however, a shadowy representative of the Mafia named Driver (Richard Jenkins) meets with a hit man named Jackie Cogan (Pitt)—whose preference for dispatching targets quickly and quietly lends the film its title—as they begin to search for those responsible.  They, in turn, call in Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini), another hit man from New York who happens to have an unending appetite for women and booze. It does not take them long to find the culprits but they move slowly, more concerned as they are with restoring order to the criminal economy and regaining the confidence of their associates, even as the events of the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election play out ominously in the background.

This is the sort of film that was destined to be under-appreciated: Though it features a rich soundtrack throughout and a taut, beautifully-edited heist sequence early on there is little action and much talk afterwards.  What violence there is is of a slightly shocking nature, similar to that of the films of Paul Verhoeven: it turns your stomach a little bit, both drawing attention to and de-glamorizing the actions themselves.

But the satire is cogent and the dialogue, though heavy at times, pays handsome dividends, partly because the cast is so extraordinary. Pitt is excellent, cast against type as the merciless Jackie, the stone-cold  heart of this fable, whose methods of dealing with his victims are as succinct as his stark observations on the American condition. Liotta is good, also a little against-type, playing a pathetic, low-rung hanger-on. Mendelsohn is wonderful playing a deranged, disheveled dog-napper and heroin addict (he is also good in the recent PLACE BEYOND THE PINES). And, of course, the late, great Gandolfini as the fatalistic Mickey, sparring with Jackie—a sort of Old America vs. New—forced to defend a way of life even as it quickly slips away. Mickey is a man who has outlived his moment and is seemingly out-of-place with the strange tenor of the present, a dinosaur headed for certain extinction.

The cinematography, by Greig Fraser (responsible for the recent ZERO DARK THIRTY), is beautifully lensed, depicting a stark, faded American landscape. The film begins with a dissonant collage of sounds and images and ends with a fantastic monologue by Pitt’s Jackie—alone worth the price of admission—culminating in some of the most stunningly cynical lines in recent movie history: you have to hear it to believe it! Lost in the clutter, Killing Them Softly proves itself to be a remarkably cold and assured slice of American noir with a lot to say about the times that we are living in.

Dominik’s writing and directing debut was CHOPPER (2000), an audacious and stylish crime comedy/drama starring a hulking and hilarious Eric Bana playing the real-life title character, a convict and author famed in his native Australia for his books detailing his own criminal exploits. In 2007, Dominik directed THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, an epic imagining of the myth-making process which lies at the heart of the Old West and, in this case, one of its core figures. The film was partly notable for eliciting excellent performances from Brad Pitt, as Jesse James, and, especially, Casey Affleck as the moody and neurotic, desperate-for-fame-and-attention Robert Ford. Dominik, a New Zealand native, seems to be intent, for the time being, on reconfiguring classic American genres (for more on the “foreign perspective’ in Hollywood see last week’s review of STOKER): by all early indications he seems to be the right man for the job.

Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are both available in our Best-of-the-Best section.  For another film adapted from the work of the Beantown-Noir specialist George V. Higgins check out the classic THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum, available in Best Crime and Gangster!

Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 06/25/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picks

Rob Harmon

A fascinating trend in the history of American filmmaking is that many excellent filmmakers (and some not so much) have come here from other countries in order to make movies. While Hollywood exercises enormous influence on the world cinema scene just think of how much the outsider-perspectives of F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE or Alex Cox’s REPO MAN or the bodies of works by Lubitsch and Wilder have affected our film culture.

STOKER should be regarded in this light: It is the first English-language film of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who came into prominence in the early 2000’s with his gritty “Revenge” trilogy (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE), as well as the taut military thriller JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA. Park developed a reputation for infusing lofty, almost Shakespearean themes with a violent genre sensibility. He was embraced by critics as well as by fans of “extreme” cinema for his bloody, baroque meditations on violence and revenge and their effects on the human psyche.

Like many of Park’s previous efforts Stoker is a thriller, and an effective, gruesome one at that. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and is a friendless outcast in high school. To make matters worse her father and best friend in the world (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car accident on her birthday, while her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, the character’s name a clever nod to Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT), whom she never even knew existed, shows up at the palatial Stoker home announcing that he will stay, to the delight of India’s unstable, sexually-frustrated mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). India is more skeptical about Charlie, though, and his urbane, world-traveling exploits. When a number of people—the housekeeper, an aunt—begin to disappear, it may be that Charlie is behind it, as well as a number of other dark family secrets.  The Stokers are an unusual bunch, each of them more-than-capable of stoking this story along: India in her virginal white outfits but with an unusual taste for bird hunting; Evie with her pent-up sexuality and mid-life crisis; and Charlie, almost too-perfectly handsome, just couldn’t be a murderer… or could he?

During its 99 lean minutes, Stoker conjures up a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale-like atmosphere, one where blood-and-guts and hints of eroticism are the engines of grandiose storytelling. There is a great deal of psycho-sexual tension at work in this family and Park and his screenwriter (first-timer Wentworth Miller, better known as an actor until now) are wise enough to never reveal too much of their hand, subtle enough to leave a lot to the imagination. Stoker proves that—similarly to CARRIE—in a story about a young girl’s pubescent awakening to the cruel realities of the world, blood-letting can be a remarkably effective metaphor. Though highly stylized, this film never loses it grounding and its heart: the family unit, grotesque though it may be.

Many of Park Chan-wook’s films are available for rental in our Korean section, including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, JSA: Joint Security Area and Thirst.

(The other) Hank’s Recommendations 04/30/13

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebBest Video’s other Hank—Hank Hoffman—here with this week’s recommendation. Hank Paper will return with a new recommendation next week.

Released just months after the end of World War II, the Warner Brothers thriller CONFIDENTIAL AGENT seethes with pre-war menace. Based on a book by Graham Greene, it tells the story of Luis Denard, an agent of the Spanish republican government (played by Charles Boyer) who travels to England hoping to cut a deal with British mining interests to buy coal during the Spanish Civil War.

Playing the romantic foil to Boyer is Lauren Bacall, who had made her name the previous year starring opposite Humphrey Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Bacall was savaged for her performance in reviews at the time and, in truth, she doesn’t make a very convincing upper class English heiress. Still, she has an undeniable presence.

Boyer’s performance is convincing and he is ably supported by Katina Paxinou, Peter Lorre and particularly Wanda Hendrix as a young servant girl employed in the dingy hotel in which Boyer stays. But perhaps the real star is cinematographer James Wong Howe. The atmosphere is bleak with foreboding—the London streets (actually a Warner Brothers set) are thick with dark fog.

This is a smart story, skillfully told, a worthy blend of espionage yarn and film noir.

Hank Recommendations 02/19/13

BEN AND OSCAR

hank_paperBen Affleck’s ARGO has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but not an Oscar for Best Director. This is unusual in Oscar history. The former award is usually accompanied by the second. Affleck has somewhat been compensated by the Golden Globes and, more importantly, the Directors Guild who both gave him the Best Director nod for Argo. The Golden Globes—foreign journalists all—are more critically honest, telling it like it is, and the Directors Guild directors know their film history in order to know how to make their own films effective.

The Oscars are about money, glamour and politics. An Oscar Nomination and, especially, Winner, is money in the bank at the box office. While critical acumen is thin in Hollywood, what’s layered on thick is media publicity and people voting en bloc for their own studio or film company or a person voting for the next director or star they are going to work with in order to heighten their own profile. Sentiment also plays a role in people voting for a certain issue or person (LINCOLN and Daniel Day-Lewis anyone?).

In my opinion, in nominating Argo for Best Picture, and yet not Best Director, Oscar got it backward. Here’s why:

This true-life entertaining thriller takes place in 1979. Six US embassy employees in Tehran barely escape to the Canadian Embassy as sixty of their colleagues are taken hostage by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Stateside, the CIA asks: How do we get them out in the short time before they are discovered and, most likely, tortured and executed?

Ben Affleck not only directed this film but also stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfil,” i.e. someone specializing in getting people out of hostile or enemy countries.

Listening in Washington to a panicky array of ill conceived escape plans, he tells the State Department emergency gathering: “Exfils are like abortions. You don’t wanna need one…but when you do, you don’t wanna do it yourself.” His own idea is hatched when he happens to see a scene from PLANET OF THE APES on TV: enter Iran as a Canadian film company making a science fiction movie in Tehran and spirit the six out as part of the film crew. As he later tells an incredulous and slack jawed State Department official:

“There are only bad options…it’s about finding the best one.”

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?”

“This is the best bad idea we have so far.”

And, in fact, the film really takes off in Hollywood, where Affleck recruits a wizened and sardonic semi-retired producer and a prosthetic special effects designer, respectively played by Alan Arkin (deservedly nominated as Best Supporting Actor) and John Goodman. Here the wit flies fast and furious with knowing jokes about and often at the expense of Hollywood. What then ensues is clever chicanery and white-knuckle suspense as the faux film is credibly concocted and the escape plan goes into action.

This is a interesting subject for a film that is complexly directed by Affleck. Taking place in Tehran, Washington and Hollywood, it alternates quick cutting among crowd scenes with intimate one on one or ensemble encounters that heighten the initial confusion and then gradually ratchet up the stakes and finally the suspense. The noose for the six escapees tightens as the focus grows tight on the actual escape attempt.

In short, this is a Hollywood blockbuster, an entertaining thriller, and definitely a good movie. But it does not have the substance or depth, the gravitas, of a Best Picture Oscar (Lincoln, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR anyone?) On this score, better than Argo is Ben Affleck’s earlier film GONE BABY GONE (which, in fact, we screened last night in Blu ray on our 120” screen in the Performance Space).

So Oscar got it wrong. But you’ll certainly get it right by directing yourself to watch this film for the good, well-directed movie it is.