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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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:

The Muppets: Communists my hand hole!

(Now I know this has been out for a while, but when you have a 2-year-old it can be difficult getting out to the movies. Especially when that 2-year-old won’t sit still for more 2 minutes.)

Some would have you believe that The Muppets is a liberal Hollywood tool to indoctrinate our children with a message of ‘money is evil’. Really?

In truth, The Muppets is 102 minutes of, for the grown-ups; reassurance that we aren’t remembering the classic 70’s characters through rose-tinted glasses, and for the kids; fun, entertainment and some great song-and-dance numbers (well mostly but we’ll get to that).

When I was growing up, one of the regular staples of my Saturday evenings was The Muppet Show. It was a show that was great for kids with bright colorful characters, crazy stunts, songs and decent message slotted in for good measure. But, as I have grown to learn as I have gotten older and watched the show back again, there was plenty in there for the parents who were watching along with their kids with topical gags and just a little irreverence and a knowing self-awareness to keep you engaged with the characters. And what characters they were.

What is great about this movie is that it hasn’t lost touch with its roots. It still has elements for both audiences except that now the grown-ups are the kids who used to watch the TV show. It is also self-aware enough so as to poke through the ‘fourth wall’ without knocking it down on top the audience.

The Muppets begins with an introduction to our main protagonists, Gary (Jason Segel – How I Met Your Mother) and his suspiciously Muppet-like brother, Walter. We watch as they grow up together and as they discover (and Walter develops a borderline obsession with) The Muppet Show. The film then begins in earnest as we discover Gary will be leaving his Smalltown home to take girlfriend of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams – Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Enchanted), to LA for their anniversary. But it’s ok, Walter is coming as well, and will finally get the chance to meet his Muppet idols. They arrive at falling apart Muppet Studios with no sign of any actual Muppets. While taking the official tour, Walter steals into Kermit’s old office where he overhears the plans of oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper – The Bourne Trilogy, American Beauty), to tear down the studio and drill for the oil beneath. Only one thing could stop him, if Kermit could raise $10m by midnight on Friday he can buy the studio back. And there is the plot for the rest of the movie. Walter, Gary and Mary then embark on a mission to find the Muppets, get them back together and put on a telethon to end all telethons to raise the money. Typical Muppet hi-jinx ensue with healthy dose of self-discovery, song-and-dance numbers and celebrity cameos.

Now, it’s not perfect. There are a few wrinkles in the felt. Firstly, a conspicuous lack of Henson in the credits, due to the long legal battle over ownership of the Henson properties resulting in Disney acquiring the Muppets and all associated materials while the Sesame Street properties going to Henson (ever wondered why you never see Kermit on the Street anymore?). Peculiarly a very similar situation makes an ironic appearance within Kermit’s ‘Standard Rich and Famous’ contract which is the anchor of the film’s plot, succinctly laid out for us by Statler and Waldorf.

Secondly, not only is Oil Tycoon, Richman the bad guy, he is also a bad rapper.

And finally, though to be honest this is the least of all, it is very Jason Segel heavy. Not too surprising as he is one of the film’s writers but, whereas in previous Muppet movies, and the TV show, the billing is very much ‘Starring The Muppets, co-starring *insert human actor celebrity here*’ The Muppets is much more ‘Starring Jason Segel, co-starring The Muppets’. Like I say, though, this is the least of my complaints. Segal is engaging and entertaining, has a very good singing voice, is not too shabby a dancer, and is able to hit all the performance points needed in such a film; serious, heart-felt and comedic. And with the latter he stands out with an understated, dry and often dead-pan delivery. He is not working for the joke but the joke just works.

The supporting cast of Cooper, Adams and, of course, the rest of The Muppets, perform very well, especially Adams who gets to showcase her sing and dancing talents. Jack Black is, well, Jack Black. Then there are the numerous celebrity cameos. Whether it is Selena Gomez expressing “I don’t really know who you guys are, my agent just told me to show up”, or Neil Patrick Harris answering the telethon phones with, “No, I don’t know why I’m not hosting this?”, all do what they are required to and no more, no-one tries to scene steal.

So, all-in-all, The Muppets is a worthwhile watch, whether you want to re-engage with your childhood, introduce your kids to your childhood or even if you’re just a raging Jason Segel fanatic, it’s all in there. Bring on the new Muppet Show.

4.5 / 5

The Muppets Trailer