Killing Them Softly (2012)

k12016.69: Killing Them Softly (Film Four HD)

There’s a relentless melancholy running throughout Killing Them Softly that I can only assume comes from director Andrew Dominik, who previously directed the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, one of my favourite films of the last twenty years, with which it shares a similar sense of doom and finality. Curiously Killing Them Softly also alludes to the financial crisis spotlighted in The Big Short which I watched a few weeks ago- everybody, it seems, is suffering hard times, even the  mobsters and organised crime. There is a running commentary in the background concerning the financial crisis, the fracturing code of conduct of crime bosses being compared to the fracturing code of conduct of financial bosses and the political elite. Juxtaposed with the urban decay of the streets of America (and in this film the locations are as much a character as any actor), there is a feel of the End Of Times, of things falling apart. Things just ain’t what they used to be and never will be.

After two small-time criminals hired by an aggrieved crime boss/crooked business man to hit the popular (albeit illegal) card game of mafia man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to track down the two criminals and the rogue boss who hired them, bringing stability and the crime-world’s particular sense of justice into play. Jackie discovers he knows one of the three targets and prefers a distant, businesslike approach compared to anything as personal as ‘offing’ someone you know, so hires in a fellow gun for hire, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to assist him. Unfortunately when Mickey turns up, Jackie realises Mickey is all washed-up and worn out by his own troubles, and gets distracted looking after him before Jackie is forced to finish the contract alone after all. Trattman, though a genuinely innocent victim this time, has previous form regards his card games getting ‘hit’, as he engineered one some years ago to get out of money trouble and later admitted to it when drunk. Lightning having struck twice, Trattman joins Jackies’ hitlist. You’ve got to have standards, after all.

Killing Them Softly is an indie film posing as a Tarantino flick- there’s nothing wrong with that, but the film may suffer from viewers expecting the Goodfellas-cum-Pulp Fiction that the trailer promises and finding out its something else. Maybe that’s a problem the marketing boys have to answer for? The casting of heavyweights like Pitt and Gandolfini probably doesn’t help regards that, but they are very, very good. Pitt brings his screen persona and shadow of past roles to inform the larger-than-life  rep that Jackie carries around with him as an infamous enforcer. Gandolfini has a roguish swagger to the troubled soul of end-of-the-line Mickey (Gandolfini is so good he almost steals the movie in this, one of his last roles, a poignant reminder of what we lost with his untimely passing).

k2Carefully, the film refuses to paint these bad guys as heroes, counter to what the casting would suggest. They are villains, bad people- Pitt has an air of calm authority, of almost respectability, and is rather disarmingly likeable until the film suddenly switches to brutal violence and he reminds us he really isn’t a nice guy at all. It rather makes the violence in the film quite shocking and very effective.

The film is really more a good character piece than mafia thriller, a story of people having very little real control of their lives and seeing what little control they did have slipping through their fingers. It’s a broken world, and the center cannot hold- yes it’s a dark modern film noir and eerily effective as such.I really quite liked it.

 

True Detective Season 2 (2015)

true12016.5: True Detective Season Two (Blu ray)

Season Two makes the unforgivable (in some eyes) sin of not being True Detective Season One. I think it’s a shame people were so intent on getting more of the same and were so appalled when faced with something else. Me, I’ve no problem with it being different- that’s the genius of these anthology-format shows, each season offers something different, a fresh take on the basic format. It worked for the second season of Fargo and had mixed results with American Horror Story, but I think it worked very well for True Detective.

Season Two is a great piece of work. Its a hard-boiled, pulp-paperback film noir crime drama. Its an urban nightmare of characters trapped in a concrete, neon-drenched world they cannot fully understand and certainly cannot control. Its confusing, its contradictory, its fascinating, its full of incredible performances.

I seem to be in the minority though- a lot of people really REALLY disliked this season. I find that interesting.

Maybe people were made uncomfortable by this season because it wasn’t easy to disseminate; the plot was confusing, yes, but so is real life, and yes, by the series finale some of the good guys died and some of the bad guys prospered, but that’s like real life too. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending- in fact I think it could be argued that by series end, there isn’t a happy ending for anybody but the bad/corrupt people. That frustrates, I know. And yes it is rather labyrinthine over the eight episodes- even though I loved it, I can’t say I fully understood the complicated web of plot and subplot- but that’s such perfect noir, or maybe Hollywood Noir in this case and I’m fine with that.

It would be argued by some that, on the basis of expectations from the first series, the show should simply be a mystery, about a murder to solve. In season two, the murder and the establishment of the task force to solve it is almost incidental, it’s not really what the series is ultimately about. That may have been a step too far for many and evidently upset plenty of fans from season one. While it was certainly a brave move by HBO and the programme makers to make a show that distanced itself so much from the first series, unfortunately the negativity can’t help but impact on an eventual third season. I guess a return to something more akin to the first season is inevitable next time around.

I think the way I watched it may well helped, but that’s the beauty of binge-watching tv boxsets- in this case, two episodes per night over four consecutive nights, the series unfolding like the chapters of a novel. Perhaps weekly airings would have frustrated, weakened its impact; it calls into question how such programmes are aired and consumed by its audience these days. That said, I think this series was so different to season one that part of that audience would never like it however they watched it.

true3The acting is universally excellent- even Vince Vaughn delivers. But Colin Farrell is amazing in this show. Strange to think I was only watching him in the dismal Total Recall remake last week and here he is in such incredible form. I guess its all in the material. There is a scene late in the series -I hesitate to go into detail so as to not spoil anything- when the camera dwells on his face in silence as he reacts to a revelation about something from his past; in his changing expression you can see his mind racing, disintegrating as he feels his world unravelling about him. Its a great performance throughout the season but this moment is a highlight.

Rachel McAdams, too, is pretty amazing. Her character, like the others, is haunted by an event in her past which she cannot escape from without self-destructive action. It puts her in awful danger in one incredibly gripping scene, when she gets herself into a depraved sex party where the rich and powerful use and abuse women, and she has to try escape it and rescue someone (in a final irony typical of this show, that someone didn’t even want saving). Like  the event from her past, the experience is something that will haunt her,  another stone to carry, another weight on her forever. All of the leading characters seem to have seen things or done things that they cannot escape from. Again, that’s just perfect noir.

true2The cinematography is great- its a beautiful show to look at. Crushed blacks, hot reds, deep greens, it’s all those gaudy pulp-paperback covers brought to vivid life. The music is just as dark, reminding me of Twin Peaks at times. Indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if next year’s Twin Peaks revival looks and sounds a lot like True Detective Season Two. As a fan of Twin Peaks, maybe that’s why I enjoyed this season so much.

I love Film Noir and I think as an homage to that genre, True Detective Season Two absolutely nailed it.  It’s a modern day Chinatown, a story in which the place and the events within it dwarf the characters, a place full of bent politicians and corrupt cops, and pasts that return to haunt and destroy the protagonists. I think it’s great, remarkable television. I think this was a great series, and I look forward to watching it again.

Out of the Past (1947)

out2Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has spent the past three years running a gas station in the small Californian town of Bridgeport, where he dates a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) to the disapproval of her parents and the local sheriff who is sweet on her. Its a quiet, small-town life, one broken when someone from Jeff’s past turns up in town, pulling him back into his old life and the troubles he thought he had left behind. The only person Jeff can confide in is Ann, so on a late-night drive to a rendezvous with his past, Jeff relates his story to Ann. Jeff’s real name is Jeff Markham, and he was once a private eye in New York. He was hired by gangster Whit Sterling (a charmingly threatening Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in the definitive femme fatale role). Kathie had shot Will and left with $40,000 of his money- Will wasn’t bothered about the money though, he just wanted Kathie back; “when you see her, you’ll understand better” Will told Jeff. And when he does see her, he does understand. And at that point, he’s doomed.

out1Out of the Past is one of the very best film noir, but deceptively so- indeed, it starts like any other 1940s melodrama, so much so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie, with bright scenery of the sierras and idyllic small-town life, complete with gentle music score. Its quite the opposite of, say, Double Indemnity, another classic noir that instead wears its noir credentials from the very first titles.  Its only when Jeff relates to Ann the truth of his past that the film’s visuals turn towards the traditional nightmare dark of noir, as it relates in flashback the events that led to Jeff hiding away in Bridgeport. When we finally first see Kathie, as Jeff tracks her down to Mexico, she just looks like any beautiful woman, maybe even an innocent victim. There is a subtle ambiguity to her- when some noirs would frame her in shadows immediately revealing her true nature, Out of the Past prefers to suggest she may indeed be a victim. We have no idea, just like Jeff, that this woman will be his doom. Greer is simply astonishing as Kathie; beautiful, exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time, Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.

out3Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as Jeff- I’m not a big fan of Mitchum, but his real-life laconic, laid-back reputation bleeds into his onscreen persona well here, ignorant of the trouble he is in, always thinking he has a way out, a trick to play, yet always falling back into the mistakes that ultimately seal his fate. When he falls for Kathie he thinks he’s in control. His over-confidence is in his eyes, his smile.  At the end he realises he has no escape, his character finally reaching the stature of noir hero. What starts as a simple romantic melodrama slowly darkens into a labyrinthine plot of lies and double-crosses and deceit and murder; its fascinating to see this film turn from romantic melodrama into a completely different movie and earn its reputation as a classic film noir. Out of the Past is a very, very good movie. How strange to think I’d never seen it until now. Looks like that unwatched pile still has plenty of surprises…

 

Tell the truth: Ace In The Hole (1951)

aceWell, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc),  were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.

When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away,  its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.

ace2Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter  whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.

A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped  longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff  assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.

Ace4Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.

Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably.  The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.

Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason,  it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.