Killing Them Softly – with bullets, though, not songs

It’s the perfect crime, isn’t it? Knock off the game run by the guy who everyone knows already knocked off his own game once before. Any dumb monkey could do it.

That is the basic premise of this post-millennium gangster flick. With an all-star cast headed up by Brad Pitt, along with James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Richard Jenkins (Burn After ReadingThe Visitor) and Ray Liotta. But Goodfellas this is not. Gone are the ‘Families’ and ‘Made Men’ of the Mob epics of yesteryear and so is the epic running time, Killing is a mere 97 minutes, but it is time well used and well spent, and who wants to sit through 2 and a half hours anyway.

The game in question, is a mob-protected poker game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta) and the ‘monkeys’ are recent parolee Frankie (Scoot McNairy, MonstersArgo) and permanently wasted puppy pincher, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, AustraliaThe Dark Knight Rises). The mob, understandably pissed at having their game ripped off, again, needs the mess cleaned up so they can reopen the games. Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), the mob enforcer entrusted with the delicate job of finding and removing those responsible.

This hour and a half or so is spent in the company of some varied, well constructed and well portrayed characters set against a backdrop of a rain soaked post-Katrina New Orleans, the growing economic crisis and the final days of the Bush administration. From Pitt’s jaded, cynical but well understated Jackie, to Gandolfini’s over-the-hill, washed-up hit-man, Mickey to McNairy’s in-over-his-head Frankie, Killing Them Softly is as much a study of this diverse collection of characters as it is about the unfolding of Pitt’s cleaning job, which punctuates the film with moments of violence as varied in their cinematic execution as the characters involved.

A bare-knuckle beating which forces the viewer into the position of the victim. A slow motion CGI ‘dance’ of bullets through brains. A there-one-instant-gone-the-next execution. While these moments are well executed (sorry for the pun), I’m not sure that this variety of visual style is particularly necessary given the substance of the interpersonal stories being played out around them and some even feel a little like gratuitous showing off. Cinematically, outside of these performance pieces, the rest of the movie is fairly standard fare, but it doesn’t need to be anything else.

And then, flowing just below the surface is the not so subtle allegory suggesting the mob is no different to Corporate America and even the government. The regular snippets from both Presidents Bush and Obama (then still a Senator) on the state of the nation and the economic climate, heard on radios and TVs throughout the film. These start as seemingly incidental background noise, gradually increasing in prominence until becoming virtually the centerpiece of the final scene between Jackie and Jenkins’s mob liaison  Driver, punctuated with Pitt’s closing line, “America isn’t a country, it’s a business. Now pay me my money!”. Liberal Hollywood ‘having a go’ at the Rupublican right-wingers? Maybe, the original book, George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, was written in 1974, so I’m not sure if this particular subtext has come from there. At least not in the same specifics.

In summary; Killing Them Softly is an enjoyable, albeit violent, watch with solid performances from a great cast. It’s not your average mob flick but I think it will still appeal to fans of such. Hardcore Republicans may find some cause for offence, though.

Killing Them Softly will be in (US) theaters, November 30th. Sorry, UK readers, I think it has already been and gone.

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Rango a worthy winner

I love that Rango won the best animation oscar. Finally a worthy winner! (no, I’m not bitter from this time last year). We managed to catch Chico and Rita   and Kung Fu Panda 2  as well as Rango in the last 3 days. Chico and Rita is worth seeing for the music alone; beautiful, soulful and so evocative of a period. Personally, it isn’t my favourite technique for animation, I prefer the more classic kind found in The Cat in Paris, another nominee. Or indeed, the great, passed-over-for-Toy-Story3!- The Illusionist . (I believe in this movie, our artists created something really beautiful, that I haven’t seen done so well in a long time, The Secret of the Kells, being another lovely example).

But Chico and Rita was not my favourite, neither was Kung Fu Panda, not because the animation wasn’t amazing, but in the latter case, the story just wasn’t original, too many set pieces – we’ve seen it before. The Cat in Paris is hard to find in the US, so I’ve not seen it, neither Puss in Boots, which appeals, but again, I think we’ve seen it before.

I think animation Oscar winners should push the boundaries a bit, be exceptional in their technical ability, which all nominees were, but have that little bit extra, that bit that makes a movie resonate. Although Rango was predictable in one sense – a hero goes on a journey and eventually makes good – its dialogue, voice actors and storyline all brought that something extra special for me. And certainly, it kept my, Justin’s and Wee Man’s attention for 107 mins, which is a rare thing in our household and a huge feat for an animation production.

But all in all, it’s great to see  that there is a good variety of great animation being made, with 5 great movies being nominated, 2 of which weren’t from Hollywood, another great sign. Looking forward to what the next year brings.

The Adventures of Tin Tin: Best ‘Animated’ Film…But is it?

As many will no doubt have heard, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tin Tin walked away from the Golden Globes this week with the Best Animated Film award. Commonly, though not exclusively, this has meant that the film would be a shoe-in for the Oscar® of the same category. And, unsurprisingly, The Adventures of Tin Tin is currently campaigning for such consideration. However, I would like to protest this.

Now, I’m not making a comment on the film itself or whether or not it is good enough to win such awards. In fact, I have not even had the opportunity to watch it. I have been well-informed that it is a good movie and from what I have seen of it, it looks pretty good to me. No, I am actually commenting on whether or not the film should even be put up for consideration at all.

Last year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the awarders of the coveted, aforementioned Oscars®) published new rules governing the eligibility for consideration to the Best Animated Feature Film Award. These are unchanged for this year’s looming Awards and an extract can be read below:

Rule Seven: Special Rules for the Best Animated Feature Film Award

  1. DEFINITION: An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.  Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique.  In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time

The full rule can be read HERE

From what I understand, ‘ Tin Tin, in regard to the major characters at least, is performance (or motion) capture and, therefore, should not be eligible for consideration in the Best Animated Film category of the Oscars®.

However, from my research, it would appear that other major awards are not so specific on their requirements or definitions. The Golden Globes, as far as I can see, do not have any special rules or requirements covering animated films. The Annies, presented by The International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood are specifically for animation yet do not seem to have available a definition of animation but each award is given “in recognition of creative excellence in the art of animation.” Somewhat ambiguous but I would suggest that using the term art would suggest something more hand-crafted. The BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) state in their rule book, “17. ANIMATED FILM: A film will be classed as an animated feature film if it is primarily animated throughout the majority of the length of the film and has a significant number of animated major characters;”. More specific but, again, does not define the term animated, however, there is a heavy insinuation in the wording.

Tin Tin is scooping up Best Animated Film awards left, right and centre and, for the majority it would seem that, due to imprecise or lacking definitions and unspecific eligibility rules, its receipt of these cannot be contested beyond personal opinion. In the case of the Oscars®, though, I think the rules and definition are clear. The Adventures of Tin Tin is not eligible for consideration to the category of Best Animated Film, it quite clearly does not meet the requirements. Of course, the nominations are not out yet and it may prove that The Academy do not allow it, we will have to wait and see.

Finally, as something of a disclaimer, I am not against motion/performance capture as a tool and I have even worked with it in production. It has a wealth of value and any number of valid uses, including filmmaking. As an animator, however, I do feel that the two – animation and motion capture – ought to be separated. Animation is an art and a craft, whether it is 2D, 3D, stop-motion, traditional or digital. Motion-capture is a tool, a technology. Like I say, it has its place and value but it is not animation.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Cold War Whack-a-mole

In recent years we have not been short of spies; Bond, Bourne, TV’s Burn Notice and even Chuck. One theme common to all of these, action. Whether it’s a car chase, a fist fight or a shoot-out, most ‘spies’ these days are less secret agent, more agent of destruction. In the midst of all this adrenaline and gun-fire sits Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, conspicuous, not only by its stark lack of the aforementioned traits, but also by its deliberate and understated quality.

Directed by Swede, Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and with an all-star cast led by Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, Harry Potter etc. etc.), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Bridget Jones etc. etc.) and a veritable who’s who of British acting talent. Tinker, Tailor is a journey into the old-school of Cold War espionage, quiet phone calls, discrete meetings intercepting coded messages and passing secrets. No car chases, no kung-fu, no blowing up everything in site and only a handful of shots fired. It is also successfully transports us back to ’70s London in its full mundane drabness. It is a taupe flannel world filled with ugly brown cars and dreary, questionable home decorating.

At the centre of this London is the Secret Intelligence Service (commonly referenced as MI6). At the centre of the SIS is The Circus and at the centre of The Circus, so we are led to believe by its head, Control (John Hurt), is a Soviet mole. So sure is he that the mole is real that he authorises an off-the-books liaison with an informant in Hungary. A meet that goes wrong and results in the agent (Mark Strong) being shot and Control’s removal from The Circus and the SIS. With Control, senior Circus member George Smiley (Oldman) is forced into retirement and the rest of The Circus are left to continue running Operation Witchcraft, a covert operation centred around a mysterious informant, supplying Soviet intelligence.

After a phone call from rogue agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception), a government minister, both involved and suspicious of Operation Witchcraft, brings Smiley back out of retirement to re-initiate Control’s mole hunt. We then follow Smiley as he deftly weaves his way though the web of secrets and deceit, ably assisted by a handful of inside and outside men. The web is intricately spun and we are kept guessing to very last with plenty of surprises and twists along the way*. Every suspect, namely the members of The Circus, including Smiley, are open to scrutiny and suspicion right up to the final discovery and arrest of the mole. (*provided you haven’t read the book or seen the 1979 BBC mini-series).

Much of the twistiness and plot weaving is likely due, in no small part, to Le Carre’s writing but credit must be given to Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan who have done a fantastic job of condensing the book into a shade over two hours. The performances of all the cast are extremely well played, many suitably understated. And with such bright and starry cast, no one, even Oldman, steals a scene, nobody overshadows their cast-mates, everyone fits into their role and the performances and performers compliment each other perfectly. And then there is the look and feel of this film. I have already nodded at the art direction but the cinematography and editing combine to make this film, already entertaining to the mind, a pleasure for the eyes as well.

A wonderfully written, directed, performed and shot film that satisfies on all levels. A must see and easily my stand out of 2011.

Still in theaters in the US and released in the UK on DVD January 30th 2012.

Zombieland: A Christmas Delight

As I’m sure most people do, I found myself sat in front of the TV watching movies over our recent holiday season. Unlike most people, I’m sure, who end up watching the likes of Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, or even Elf, I found myself enjoying the 2009 classic, Zombieland.

Now, this isn’t really a review. I do recommend the film, though. It’s a must for all you zombie fans out there (but I’m guessing you already ticked it off your lists). It is well worth visiting if you are simply a fan of comedy horror and in general it is just a satisfying watch. Well written and well performed by the main cast of Woody Harelson (Cheers, No Country For Old Men), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Emma Stone (The Help) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), not to mention a wonderful performance from Bill Murray as himself.

I better get on, before I fail to hit my point.

I am something of a titles junkie. Meaning I can find myself being as critical of the title sequence of a film as the film itself. I won’t get into that here either but some worth noting include Panic Room, Catch Me if You Can and Th13teen Ghosts (2001).  So, yes, titles. They won’t exactly make or break a film, but they can definitely enhance or detract from that period, especially if they are integrated with the on-screen action.

With Zombieland, not only did I find some wonderfully integrated opening credit graphics, fully interacting with the action surrounding them, but the graphical element was extended into the storytelling. For those of you who have not seen the film, Columbia (Eisenberg) has set down a 31 rules to help him survive the new world he now lives in (he adds a 32nd part way through). We do not find out all of these but those we are let in on are presented both in context with the action and with accompanying graphic titles. What I enjoyed most about these particular enhancements is just that, they are enhancements. They could have just put some plain white text on the screen but they chose to take it one step further and created graphics the were a part of the shot and even the action. Text that gets splattered with blood, text that gets shattered by the body that runs through it or text that has the actor’s shadow cast on it. And every one was different, including the rules we see multiple times. All in a very good film that appealed to both the film-goer and the motion graphics artist in me.

So, here are the Rules of Zombieland to enjoy for yourself: