The 48fps Hobbit morphs into Smaug

Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

I really like this movie’s poster! It sells, in a wonderfully vivid – yet brief – way, exactly what The Hobbit is about: a homebody, set in his ways, forced to confront the outside world, rising to the occasion as he does so. As books (and later, as movies)), I found the Lord of the Rings trilogy beautiful, yet also a little tedious as the interminable battle sequences ground on and on. The Hobbit had the great virtue of being a simpler story, without the grand ambition of its sequels. It was short and sweet.

Unfortunately, the movie of The Hobbit, itself, is not so brief. At 166 minutes, it’s a bit of a monster. If one considers that the book is not even 300 pages long, and that the director, Peter Jackson, has planned a total of three movies of equally great length as his adaptation, then the monster begins to grow ever more Smaug-like (for those of you who don’t know the story, Smaug is the dragon that the main characters are destined to confront at the end).

This Peter Corliss review in Time Magazine sums up much of how I feel. I’ll allow his review to speak for me, so that I can write . . . briefly . . . here.

I did not hate the movie. Far from it. There’s a lot of fine filmmaking on display. Jackson, after all, knows what he’s doing with the camera, with special effects, and with actors. Speaking of the latter, I very much enjoyed the actor playing Bilbo, Martin Freeman, as well as Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Combined, they almost make the epic length bearable.

Unfortunately, Jackson has chosen to film and project his overlong saga in a new 48 frames-per-second  format. What this does is to create an image that feels like a cross between a soap opera and a high-definition sporting event!  It’s both hyper-real and artificial. We have become used to 24fps, with its 180-degree shutter that leaves each individual frame up on the screen for just 1/48th of a second. The slight image stutter of which most viewers are not even conscious produces what we think of as the “magic” of movies. Take it away and replace it with the extra frames that produce a super-smooth glass-like interface , and that magic is gone. And yet . . . it probably seemed like a great idea, since you feel like you’re on set with the actors (and on set with the CGI, as well). As much as I did not like the new format, I nevertheless stopped thinking about it after an hour. And you never know, it could catch on, and if it does, then 20 years from now we’ll look back at the 24fps world as old-fashioned, and not understand how we could ever stand that stutter.

Back to the story – there is just so much here that is unnecessary. Here are just 5 that I can think of:

  • Opening with Frodo.
  • What is the point of Radogast? How does he help the story?
  • Orc king unnecessary.
  • Setting up Sauron for The Lord of the Rings – gets away from the small scale of The Hobbit book, though it does help explain the epic three-part movie saga that Jackson has planned.
  • Thunder gods!

As an added question: what, exactly, will happen in the second film? I can see what Jackson plans for film #3, but there doesn’t seem to be enough story to fill up the middle installment. I guess we’ll see.

How you react to this film (and its sequels) will depend on what you want out of a movie. Do you want spectacle? If so, then the sprawling story (like a long TV epic) will not bother you. More and more, the line between television series and movies have been blurring, anyway, as cable and the networks produce work that is more and cinematic, and as we watch more and more movies at home. I suspect many viewers will enjoy the slow pace of this Hobbit, as it will allow them more time to spend in that universe. It’s a little like “Game of Thrones“, after all.

Know thyself, therefore, dear reader, and you will be able to guess whether or not this film is for you.

What If Your Friends with Kids Met Your Sister’s Sister?

That’s what happened to me, anyway, this weekend.

Without realizing what I was doing, I rented two films that both feature the idea of two people who don’t love each other having sex that results (or might result) in a child, out of convenience. They also both feature best friends of the opposite sex. Interesting coincidence. And here are my brief reviews.

Friends with Kids

Friends with Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt, 2011)

Though this film’s imdb.com page lists its release date as 2011, it wasn’t actually released in the U.S. until March of 2012, and it has found its way onto at least one film critic’s top 10 list for this year. It has also garnered some less than stellar reviews, however, so the praise is not universal.

Jennifer Westfeldt, the writer/director and main actress of the movie, has two previous features under her belt as a writer: Kissing Jessica Stein (which I have seen, and thought was . . . OK) and Ira & Abby (which I have not). Friends with Kids is her debut as both writer and director, however, and she acquits herself nicely. She has a lovely way with the actors (one of whom, Jon Hamm, is her real-life partner), eliciting heartfelt, funny and poignant performances from all. If the movie has one significant flaw, it is that we know how it will end within the first 20 minutes or so, once the main dramatic conflict is set in motion. What follows, below, is a basic plot summary.

Julie and Jason have been platonic best friends since college. They do everything together – except sleep with each other. Neither seems capable of commitment with other partners, however. Now both in the second half of their 30’s, they decide to have a kid together after their other (coupled) friends start having children, rather than wait until they find “the one.” They figure, get the kid out of the way, start raising him/her with someone they genuinely like (without romantic complications), and then continue searching for Mr. and Ms. Romantic Right. Well, you can probably figure out how this plan goes wrong.

What works in the film is the writing of the interactions between Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) – both likeable performers – and the development of their relationship and that of their friends, played by Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd (Edward Burns and Megan Fox round out the cast). The dialogue is funny and sometimes sharp, and some minor plot details are unexpected, even if the main story arc is not.

So – best film of the year? No. A decent fairly well written by a capable director, filled with good actors? Yes. Take it for what it is, and enjoy.

Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, 2011)

I think the poster says it all. It looks like a mediocre SitCom, no? The film is actually better than its advertising would suggest, but it’s not great, and the ending feels as forced as the awkward poses on the poster. There is some decent writing, direction, and acting, however, and if you like Emily Blunt as much as I do, then this film just might be worth watching.

Your Sister’s Sister comes out of the mumblecore indie film movement, which for me is a distinct minus. I do not generally enjoy the navel-gazing fixation of so many of this movement’s directors. Too often we are asked to share in the plaintive wailings of whiny people who just aren’t that interesting. Some people like this. I generally do not.

Still, Shelton does a fine job photographing the Washington state locations, and the beauty of the cinematography goes a long way towards lending the film some sense of importance. so, too, do the fine performances from both Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, as her sister. Mark Duplass doesn’t ruin it for me, but he does not succeed in making me understand why Emily Blunt’s character would find him interesting.

Duplass plays Jack, a man still grieving over the death of his brother one year prior. This brother had once dated Iris (Blunt), who has been Jack’s best friend since college (just like in Friends with Kids . . .). Iris decides to pack Jack off to her father’s house on an island somewhere in Puget Sound so he can clear his head with some alone time. Only problem is, once he gets to that house, Iris’s half-sister Hannah (DeWitt) is already in the house, also looking for some alone time. Jack and Hannah get drunk, stuff happens, Iris then arrives the next day, and the rest of the film sees the three of them wrestling with the (earth-shattering!) consequences of that one drunken night.

If intimate dramas like this, sprinkled with comedy – a dramedy – are your thing, that you might really enjoy the film. If you like movies where a lot of things happen, then you’ll probably hate it.

But after watching this, I would definitely give Shelton another look. She’s good with the performers, and knows what to do with the camera, mumblecore roots notwithstanding. A mixed bag, for sure, but not terrible, either.

Holy Motors: A Cinematic Reverie That Enchants and Frustrates

holy_motors_ver4

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Though I have long been tempted, I have never managed to catch a film by the French provocateur, Leos Carax (real name Alexandre Oscar Dupont). Both The Lovers on the Bridge (“Les amants du Pont-Neuf”) and Pola X have been on my radar since they came out, yet somehow I never got around to seeing them. Even though I did not love Holy Motors, there was enough in the movie that intrigued me that I would willingly sit down and watch another one of Carax’s works. It’s always nice to encounter an artist with innovative and unique ideas, and Carax is most definitely such an artist.

However, he also appears to be an artist who resists traditional plot narratives, and watching his latest film can be a challenging experience. If you can let yourself go, and just enjoy the beautiful images and imaginative scenes, you will emerge from Holy Motors as if from a strangely compelling dream that attracts and repels simultaneously. If you enjoy spending long hours interpreting meaning in opaque texts, you will love this film. If you like a clear three-act structure, you will hate it. If, like me, you are somewhere in between (depending on your mood), then you will be enchanted and frustrated, both.

The film opens majestically, with great wit, as the director himself plays a man magically transported from a hotel room to a cinema hall, where he gazes down upon an audience enraptured by moving images from the 1890s. Different dogs appear on the floor and slowly saunter down the aisle. We will never return to this scene again, though we will see brief glimpses of the same 1890s movies at a later point. What does this scene signify? That the director is launching us on a strange journey through his own version of film history? Perhaps.

We are suddenly transported to a new location, where a man named “Monsieur Oscar,” played by the physically and emotionally versatile Denis Lavant (a Carax regular), walks away from a palatial home surrounded by bodyguards, waves goodbye to his children, and steps into a white stretch limo driven by a woman named Céline. For the next 100 minutes or so, Monsieur Oscar is drive around Paris by Céline, where he assumes 7 different identities, all of which he inhabits through sometimes elaborate disguises. Is he an actor? Is he an angel? To what purpose does he bite off the fingers of a photographer’s assistant in one of his incarnations, before kidnapping the photographer’s model? I’m not sure, but I was fascinated. My favorite of the characters he plays is an early one, for which he dons a motion capture suit and enters a visual effects studio, where he performs stunts and eventually simulates sexual intercourse with a similarly attired woman (shown in the poster, above). If nothing else, the dance between glowing-dot-covered man and woman is so unearthly beautiful that it is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Still, by the end of the film, this does all begin to grow tiresome. True, one of the scenes features a singing Kylie Minogue – always a plus – who plays a female counterpart to Monsieur Oscar, but the constant shifting of narrative focus begins to feel as gimmicky as it is intriguing. When the film finally draws to a conclusion, after Céline drops Oscar off at his last assignment of the day – not to spoil the fun, but it involves chimpanzees! – we find ourselves in a garage filled with stretch limos. It turns out that they have all been busy conveying different strange actors around Paris all day. The name of this garage? Why, “Holy Motors,” bien sûr. 

I was never bored, and I spent 115 minutes fascinated by a series of great performances by an actor – Denis Lavant – whom I barely knew before this. I am sure that I could come up with an explanation of the meaning of the film. But would this explanation be meaningful to anyone one but me? Perhaps Carax is making a statement about how the private and personal cinematic experience intersect. We all come together to watch a work of art, yet each of us interprets in our way, and increasingly even that shared viewing experience of yore is diminishing in importance. Perhaps we are all trapped in our own stretch limos, forever doomed to re-enact our favorite scenes from our own lives for an audience of one – ourselves.

Or maybe the film is just a series of beautiful pictures that have no resonance beyond their brief projection. What do you think?

A final note – I find it interesting that a film such as this one, which pays homage to the cinema of the past, was shot on the RED camera in a purely digital format. New technologies, old ideas.

 

A Little Bit of Impish Fun: A Review of “Hitchcock”

hitchcock

Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

I had no idea who Sacha Gervasi was before watching this film the other night, but I had previously seen two movies on which he had collaborated as a writer: The Terminal and Henry’s Crime. Both were . . . OK. They entertained in vague sorts of ways, but were weak on plot structure.

Hitchcock, however, is more than OK. There have been some negative reviews, such as this one in the New York Times and this one in the Baltimore City Paper, but I think those reviewers are missing the point. I think the film is meant to be more about Hitchcock-the-fabulist than Hitchcock-the-man, and whatever vision of Hitchcock is presented is best interpreted as an extension of the persona he projected than the real person underneath. Given that this film starts right away on a note that combines the macabre with the impish, in a scene where Ed Gein – the inspiration for Norman Bates – kills his brother while Hitchcock (who was not present at the actual crime scene) looks on, it is clear that the filmmaker is out to give us a good ride rather than to actually probe the depths of the great director’s psyche. If we take the film on those terms, then it’s all great fun.

I laughed throughout, and thoroughly enjoyed all of the performances: Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock; Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville; Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh; an unrecognizable Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s secretary, Peggy Robertson; James D’Arcy doing an uncanny imitation of Anthony Perkins; and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. While the film is nominally about Hitchcock’s search for his next project after the enormously successful North by Northwest, it’s really about the mystique – and deconstruction of that mystique – of movie production at the tail end of the studio era.

So watch, enjoy, and don’t get caught up in whether or not this or that is strictly true. When Hitchcock-the-narrator shows up again at the conclusion, take that as a sign that you really have been just watching a movie, which is what the master would have wanted.

A Few Words About “The Queen of Versailles”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just published its list of the 15 Documentaries from which it will choose the 5 Oscar™ nominees. I have seen very few of them, although I have now made it my mission to watch as many of them as are currently available on DVD or through Netflix’s instant queue. Next week I will get to see The House I Live In at a special “Friends of the Maryland Film Festival” screening, hosted by former mayor Kurt Schmoke, which should be great.

But right now I am just a little confused as to why The Queen of Versailles did not make it on to the shortlist. Was it because of the lawsuit filed against the filmmaker by one of its subjects? Who knows?! In any case, it is too bad. There are other films on the list that are, I am sure, quite good, but this just happened to be one of the best documentaries I have seen in a while.

queen_of_versailles

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

This is a film about David and Jackie Siegel. He is the founder and owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world (according to its own PR), and she is his gregarious free-spending wife. When the director, Lauren Greenfield, began filming the couple, in 2007, their lives were more than secure and comfortable: they were living the American dream. But then the financial crisis hit us in 2008, and their fortunes took a decided turn for the worse. Their troubles are a filmmaker’s boon – the movie is a fascinating portrait of the downside of opulence.

If it were just an exercise in schadenfreude, however, the film would not be that exceptional. What I loved about this movie is that Greenfield takes the time to build complex portraits of both David and Jackie, even though they both could easily devolve into caricature. After all, David is a man who claims to have singlehandedly stolen the election for George Bush in Florida in 2000, and Jackie is a woman who, when renting a car for the first time in years, asks what her driver’s name is (there is no driver provided at airport rental outlets, in case you were wondering).

But Greenfield shows us the Siegel’s humanity, too. Jackie has a genuine love of life, and can be generous (if also self-indulgent). She loves her kids, even if raising them without a nanny poses a challenge. She has even taken in a niece whose parents abandoned her. When that niece accidentally starves a pet lizard to death, you sense Jackie’s real horror (and see what a metaphor it is for their down-spiraling fortunes). As a woman who started from modest means and only later married rich, Jackie has at least managed to avoid looking down on others less fortunate than herself.

David’s no prince, but he’s likewise presented as a flesh-and-blood man, conservative to the core, often selfish, but also capable of real feeling. I would never want to know him in real life, but I didn’t hate him as I watched the film.

In fact, the real strength of the film is the way in which the filmmaker presents the Siegels as so ordinary in their tastes and extravagances that they could really be any of us, if we were likewise given the opportunity. True, I wouldn’t build a Versailles replica, but who is to say that my own excesses wouldn’t be equally as repulsive to others.

The film is a true testament to our simultaneously gilded and spoiled age.

Twilight – Forever!

Breaking Dawn, Part 2

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

Twilight Saga, The: New Moon (Chris Weitz, 2009)

Twilight Saga, The: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010)

Twilight Saga, The: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011)

Twilight Saga, The: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (Bill Condon, 2012)

This past week, I decided to watch the first four Twilight films at home, on DVD, so that I could then see the final film, Breaking Dawn – Part 2, in the cinema before my next appearance on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show – on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station – on Friday, December 7. I knew that I would probably hate the movies, and I hadn’t read the books, but given the tremendous box office success of the franchise, and of this last film, in particular, I thought it would be irresponsible of me not to make the effort.

But effort it was. I won’t waste more of my time writing reviews for the films. Much (too much) has already been written about them, and I’m not sure I could really add anything new to the discussion.

If you want reviews – both positive and negative (though mainly negative) – let me point you to the Rotten Tomatoes pages for each of the films (as opposed to the imdb.com links, above):

Twilight

Twilight Saga, The: New Moon

Twilight Saga, The: Eclipse

Twilight Saga, The: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Twilight Saga, The: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

Let me also direct you to two other links, which reflect some of my feelings about the series:

“MORE TWILIGHT” — A Bad Lip Reading of The Twilight Saga (my thanks to my friend David Etkin – a vampire – for pointing me to this site)

&

Why Team Jacob always has to lose in Twilight

I would like to specify that I understand that I am far from being the target demographic for either the books or the movies, and that I may just not “get” the series. I have also spoken to a number of (adult) friends of mine who have read the books and insist that they are better (that would not be hard).

What I don’t understand, however, is how the films could be as bad as they are, from a pure filmmaking standpoint. These are not all bad directors. Catherine Hardwicke has made some decent films: 13 and Lords of Dogtown, for example. Before becoming a director, she was a Production Designer, and worked on films such as Three Kings and Vanilla Sky. Yet even she delivers dreck. Bill Condon, the director of the final two Twilight movies, made two very watchable previous films: Gods and Monsters and Kinsey. But his contributions are also terrible. So what gives? I want to know.

Kristen Stewart was an actress that I found unobjectionable and even kind of interesting in both Into the Wild and Snow White and the Huntsman. In the Twilight saga she is deadening, with no sense of line delivery, no presence, and with the affect of an unsophisticated California valley girl. Robert Pattinson was fine in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Water for Elephants, and I’ve heard good things about his performance in Cosmopolis. But he is close to unwatchable here.

I had never seen Taylor Lautner before these movies, and the irony is that he is the one I actually don’t think is that bad. Perhaps I’m just partial to werewolves.

Anyway, here are just a few thoughts I have about the films. I have kept them in short note format, typed up from my jottings as I watched the movies, since I’m kind of done trying to think deep thoughts about all this. I didn’t start taking notes until the third film, so we’ll begin there.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

The more I watch, the more nauseating it all becomes. Stewart’s voiceovers sound so un-performed. This is the main problem with Kristen Stewart here. She has no training as an actor, and it shows. Her cadence and articulation are gratingly amateurish.

There is something so sick & deranged in Bella that she would choose to be a vampire and leave her parents. We are never shown how she is such damaged goods or what about Edward is so attractive to her (she falls for him right away in the first film). I mean, it’s tragic what she is going to do to her parents (and she doesn’t hate them, so why?).

Ok – at the end of the movie, she sort of fumbles through explanation of why she is a misfit, but it’s weak. Telling, not showing.

Men protecting women and choosing for them. That is the aesthetic here. Very Pretty Woman-esque.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Still hate voiceover. Really hate voiceover. Kristen Stewart is so un-poised. Which would not be so bad, in and of itself, if she were romancing a fellow normal teen. But she is supposed to be, somehow, incredibly attractive to this immortal who has seen and done a lot and therefore should be way more sophisticated.

The sunlight factor makes no sense. Sometimes the scenes look sunny, yet it is still supposed to be overcast, since the vampires’ skins aren’t glowing.

Stewart is passive, even at her own wedding.

Everything moves at such a glacial pace!

If I have to watch Stewart and Pattinson kiss some more, I think I’ll be sick!

The worst part of using the DVD subtitles as I watch (hard to understand what they’re saying since they mumble so much) is that I am told what song is playing on the soundtrack at what moment, and get to share in the lyrics. The songs are meant to tell the story for the filmmaker. Right now it’s happening as Edward awaits Bella in the ocean. Why couldn’t they put this song on the soundtrack?

Stewart does not give good close-up, as her face is vacant.

How does a vampire even have sex, without internal blood flow?

It’s really just another fantasy about an older rich guy who makes fantasies come true. Where did all of the money come from, by the way . . .?

Racial politics – let the Brazilian housekeepers clean up the broken bed! Nice!

Just think of all the good that ultra-powerful people, who need no sleep, could do in the world. Instead, they spend all of their time worrying about a self-involved, uninteresting girl named Bella.

I thought that at least the werewolves were free from some of the ick factor, but it turns out that when push comes to shove, aristocracy counts for them, too, as witnessed by Jacob’s sudden insistence that he is descended from chiefs. I guess that fits in with the whole superman (as in Nazi, not comic character) aesthetic of the series.

This stupid, stubborn and uninteresting girl causes all of this unnecessary mischief. Why do they all put up with it?

The fact that Jacob imprints on the baby is completely gross (another older man thing waiting to happen).

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

[best part about the evening? good trailer for Jack Reacher]

The Amazonian vampires in “tribal garb?” Seriously? The Irish with caps? Seriously? This is racial and ethnic stereotyping that would make even some studio-era filmmakers blush (though maybe not silent-era directors like D.W. Griffith).

The tagline “Forever,” on poster, which is emphasized in use of book pages at end of film, goes a long way towards explaining the entire raison d’être of the series. If this entire exercise is about fulfilling the fantasies of teenage girls, allowing them to vicariously find the perfect loving and protective mate who will love them forever, then a vampire, indeed, makes sense.

Finally – the series’ greatest action scene – the epic battle between the Cullens and the Volturi – is pretty cool, heating up the glacial pace. But then, it all turns out to just be Alice’s vision. People around me in the theater blurted out, “Oh, my God! You’ve got to be kidding!” Exactly what I felt.

The end-credit sequence, with each actor from the entire 5-part series getting his/her own title card with their own footage, reinforces the TV series aesthetic of the entire “saga.”

So the big question is – what does the phenomenal success of this movie franchise say about us? I think we’re doomed!

Killing the Guardians Softly As They Rise

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey, 2012)

This enjoyable children’s fantasy from DreamWorks has a plot that makes, at times, very little sense and that only really works for Christians or people who don’t care about the deeply Christian roots of Christmas and Easter. If you can get over that, then it’s harmless and kind of fun. But in 2012, I will admit that I, for one, have outgrown my sense of how lovely and universal the great Christian holidays are. If you’re making a film about how the world is threatened by fear and how children all over the world need to believe in something, then perhaps it’s time to jettison Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – convenient obfuscators of Christ’s role in these holidays though they may be – and find heroes that are believably global. I write this as a huge fan of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion marvels of my youth, like The Year Without a Santa Claus (which this movie resembles). But hey, it’s a multicultural world, folks, and I’m not a little kid anymore.

That said, I thought the portraits of Santa and the Easter Bunny were delightful and highly inventive. The voice talents of Alec Baldwin and Hugh Jackman, respectively, were well used in those roles, as were the voices of Isla Fisher as the Tooth Fairy, Chris Pine as Jack Frost, and Jude Law as Pitch Black (the bad guy – when will we stop using the language of “dark” and “black” to represent evil?).  It’s a perfect family film for the season, unless you – like me – are ready for a 21st century beyond-religion fable. I saw it in 3D, and the animation is top-notch.

I very much liked the spine of the story. The movie starts with the creation of Jack Frost, 300 years ago. The Man in the Moon raises him from a frozen pond and gives him a staff with which he can shoot ice and snow. A seemingly fun-loving fellow, Jack seeks out the nearest town, where he is horrified to see that he is invisible to all.  Depressed, he nevertheless spends the next 300 years causing ice and snow falls that make mischief yet little harm. He loves to spread joy, and loves children. When we meet him in the present day, he has just made it snow in a small town, leading to a day off from school, which delights the local kids.

We also meet the 4 current “Guardians” of the title – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy – whose job it is to protect the children. With the arrival of Pitch Black, a villain who aims to destroy hope and spread fear, the Guardians turn to the Man in the Moon (their supreme deity), who designates Jack Frost as an additional Guardian for them to recruit. For Jack’s entire existence, he has wanted to be believed in by children, the way they believe in the other Guardians, and this is his chance to achieve that dream.

The rest of the film follows the traditional Joseph Campbell mythic hero journey. Jack Frost, though at first reluctant to accept the responsibility thrust upon him, nevertheless evolves and triumphs (I hope I’m not giving away too much . . .). If you like these kinds of stories, then you will like this one.

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)

The best part about this film was that I saw two excellent trailers before it started: Zero Dark Thirty and Broken City.  I really wish that one of those films had been playing in the theater in which I sat, miserable, watching Killing Them Softly. Alas! ‘Twas not to be.

I very much enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the previous feature made by Andrew Dominik. It was overly stylish (at the expense of story) and dragged quite a bit, but the overall effect on me, the viewer, was of total immersion in the time and place of Jesse James’s last days. The performances – especially that of Casey Affleck as the “coward” Robert Ford – were all excellent. I was completely engaged, and though I found plenty to not like in the film, I had a pretty good time watching it.

But this new film is a sadistic little nightmare. Dominik has taken the wrong lessons from the career of Quentin Tarantino, and focused on writing overly detailed (and unbelievable) dialogue and on staging grotesquely explicit beatings and assassinations. He places all of it inside the framework of audio and video from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches, as if this will somehow help it all make sense. It doesn’t. Instead, I felt as if I were watching a film made by a 14-year-old boy enamored of his own precocious filmmaking talent, yet with no story to tell. A different director might have resorted to inserting passages from Shakespeare to create the illusion of depth through literary allusion. Here, it’s Obama. You get points for that originality, bub, but not much else.

Adding to the general unpleasantness of the film is a performance by Scoot McNairy, whom I liked in both Monsters and Argo, in which he seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, only with a Boston accent (I think). Speaking of which, where the hell are we supposed to be? I see palm trees, but everyone talks as if they’re from Northern states. Is that intentional, or is it just part of Dominik’s general incompetence?

The story is not worth summarizing. Suffice it to say that it’s about some petty gangsters who rob the wrong outfit, and then get the s*** kicked out of them, or worse, in retaliation. The lead kicker is a very decent Brad Pitt. But even he cannot raise the overall quality, nor make up for a strange sidebar involving James Gandolfini (not bad, either, but wasted).

I knew I was in real trouble in the first car scene, which is one of the worst driving scenes I have ever seen. While there are lights moving out of the back window to fake movement, the lights on the actors’ faces never change, and I in no way believed that their car was in motion. After that, I started drifting, never to come back. By the time we got to the restaurant scene between Pitt and Gandolfini, where the director and crew couldn’t even master the continuity of the liquids in the glasses from shot to shot, I was out.

On a general note about films like this: I want a moratorium on “hip music” in movie soundtracks, which try to establish mood in lieu of actual filmmaking.

Blah. Stay away. If “America’s just a business,” as Pitt’s character cynically announces at the end, then let the box office for this film deliver a brutal message to Andrew Dominik: make a real movie next time.