Killing Them Softly
(As the year comes to a close, I’d like to write about some films that I’ve seen that I didn’t get a chance to talk about. Currently there’s only two films in this series, so, maybe this’ll be short. Let’s get it going on the wrong foot, eh?)
First, I’d like to discuss how much I adore Andrew Dominik’s last feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was an expansive psychological exploration of American mythology. Each scene brought the audience deeper into the psyche of misguided American masculinity and isolationism.
With this in mind, I was very excited to see Killing Them Softly, a film that could perhaps bring a modern context to such questions. The trailer was compelling. The poster artwork was well done. Here is a tweet I sent following my first viewing of Killing Them Softly:
(IMAGE: Tweet that reads “Killing them softly is the second film I have walked out on. The other was Date Movie.”)
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I walked out with only fifteen minutes of the film remaining. I hate walking out on films. But, Killing Them Softly was easily one of the most frustrating movie going experiences that I have ever had. It’s points are belabored. It narrative is dull, a plot barely present.
I returned to Killing Them Softly to only find the film more laborious, tedious, and flat-out boring. The film begins boldly. The title sequence cuts back and forth between one of our main characters, Frankie, walking down a street through wildly blowing newspapers and audio from Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. It is dark and heavy. Powerful.
(This is the real main character! Not Brad Pitt! And, gosh, is this character annoying! Everyone is!)
Taking place around the climax of the 2008 US Presidential election and the 2008 fiscal recession, Killing Them Softly follows a set of mobsters that are in remarkably similar situations to that of the US government. Individuals overreaching their power, other individuals taking advantage of a weak economy. However, there are two major faults of this film.
The first fault of this film is that it is obvious. It is obvious what Andrew Dominik is trying to say with this film. Still, this does not stop him from inserting C-SPAN and radio stories about the elections and the economic collapse in every other scene. Dominik doesn’t trust the audience to put the pieces together. Or perhaps he’s believes he’s being clever. Instead, his themes are like lead pipes, falling on his audience repeatedly.
The second major fault of this film is that it fails to understand the issues at play in 2008 and the issues of American Capitalism at large. In Killing Them Softly, it is mobsters taking advantage of mobsters. Sure, everyone is pitted against themselves, but if you follow this allegory to its fullest extent, this film is talking about government eating itself alive. The characters that are at their lowest point are still a part of the institution. They are milking their game for what it is worth, passing money back and forth within the system. There is no issue outside of this, no understanding for how this affects those outside of the system. This is not the case with American capitalism.
The slickness with which Dominik directs the film also deters from what he attempts to convey with the film. Bloodshed is either graphic and unbearably queasy (Why must the audience go through this?), or slowed down to the point of operatic mastery. What purpose does this serve?
Finally, the writing of the film is atrocious. The film has the humor of a stereotypical pre-pubescent boy. There is one woman in the film, a prostitute, who spends her entire time on screen being insulted. The little bit of plot provided in the film feels forced at every angle.
In the end, we are left with a film that feels like a bunch of semi-executed mafia-movie tribute scenes. There are some excellent performances of stillness by Brad Pitt, but none of the actors in the film are given material to work with. They are left to wallow in the bottomless hole of expletives that is this film.
In the final scene, Brad Pitt’s character must repeat the point of the film one more time over the election night acceptance speech by Barack Obama. The scene would be clever, humorous, and enjoyable, if the film hadn’t already told us explicitly what Brad Pitt tells us in this scene. What could have been a powerful critique of American capitalism, as Pablo Villaça believes the film to be, is instead a horribly misguided allegory. Perhaps I’m supposed to feel this insulted by the film? I’m not interested in such a reward. But, perhaps, I feel that same way about economics. Perhaps there is credit due here.
In the end, I feel the film goes against its own aims and upholds a hyper-masculine mentality. One in which Dominik critiques in “Jesse James.” If there’s anything to learn from this film, it’s to not trust Andrew Dominik.
This, so far, has been my least favorite film I’ve seen of the year. What was your least favorite film released this year?
December 11, 2012
The Central Park Five (2012)
(TW for: Discussion of Rape, violence, racism)
In 1989, five teenagers, four black and one hispanic, were accused of beating and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. They were arrested, they were tried, they were convicted. In 2002, following the confession of imprisoned serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated.
The film, The Central Park Five, allows for the five wrongfully accused teenagers, now all in their 30s, to tell their side of the story. Over the course of two hours, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, explain how they were coerced by police to confessing to crimes that they did not commit, how the criminal justice system failed them at every single turn, and how the media and politicians presented them as villainous hoodlums. Villains who, while only teenagers, arguably deserved a death sentence. They were animals, a “wolf pack.”
They were innocent, and the only evidence that connected them to the crime were false confessions that police officers told them that they had to commit to paper, to video. Their stories did not match up. Yet, a jury found them guilty.
The documentary, directed by Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and Ken Burns, relies heavily on interviews with the wrongfully accused men that are conducted by the filmmakers. In a typical Ken Burns film, Burns highlights how events in our world are deeply connected to the way that society works and how we as a community fail and succeed. Certainly, if there is a message at the core of The Central Park Five, it is that we are not good people and we often fail one another (and the film will tell you this).
However, for a film that could discuss racism and racial coding in the media, racist institutional systems, the racial and socioeconomic issues at hand in 1989 New York, the way in which media portrays certain kinds of violence, the film only hints at all of these issues. The filmmakers don’t ask hard questions, even when they interview Ed Koch, who had been recorded during the original trail sarcastically stating that people had to be “innocent until proven guilty,” claiming that these five boys should be put in jail without question.
This is not a good documentary, yet it is still a powerful and important one. It is depressingly timely, especially concerning problematic ways in which violence is reported in the media. There is a too brief moment where the film discusses how the media and society view particular forms of violence. This in part led to the intensity and speed with which The Central Park Five were accused and tried. The violence committed towards people of color is frequently underreported and certainly reported with a different tone, with a different level of importance, than violence committed to white persons, or interracial violence.
There is a power to hearing Antron, Kevin, Raymond, Kharey, and Yusef tell their side of the story. Institutions continue to fail us. Media problematically frames stories in order to sell themselves to their audience. We as a community should not stand for these things.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is an audio recording of Matias Reyes’ confession, played over footage of the Central Park Five. They appear weary, tired, broken from nearly twenty years of wrongfully spent time. It is a convicted rapist that clears their name. This is what freed these men. Our systems our broken. What can we do?
September 17, 2012
Yorgos Lanthimos: Critiquing the Mechanics of our World
There is only one: Aphasia.
Aphasia: loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. (Oxford American Dictionaries).
When I’ve watched Dogtooth with others (TW: for Graphic Violence, Incest, Problematic Consent Dynamics, abuse of just about every capacity), it feels as if everyone watching the film experiences aphasia. I felt as if I did, too, the first time I watched the film. Alone, I was left shocked. I was also angry. The cinematography was unforgiving. How soulless, I thought. Unsympathetic. Later, I would discover that my mind had not been made up.
September 14, 2011
Kim Ki-duk, Auteurism, and Violence in Cinema
From a feminist perspective, it is indeed problematic that the male-focalized class warfare is waged over the bodies of middle-class women in such films as Crocodile, Bad Guy, and 3-Iron. However, Kim’s oeuvre, which constitutes a visceral, bottom-to-top critique of social stratification in South Korea, cannot be fully grasped from a feminist perspective alone.
This is an excerpt from an article by Hye Seung Chung from the Journal of Film and Video titled Beyond “Extreme”: Rereading Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment, which I found incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, I can’t really argue much about Ki-duk’s films, having only recently watched Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring. Having only seen this particular Kim Ki-duk film, I can’t speak at all to his extreme imagery of violence, and the controversy surrounding what many call his misogynistic films. Spring is a fairly slow, tame film, with the exception of its sex scene and the violence that takes place off camera.
Chung’s piece is largely a defense of Ki-duk’s films, discussing the inherent issue of discussing Korean cinema through the perspective of Western audiences (which is how almost all national cinemas are discussed). Largely, she looks to Ki-duk’s personal background and experiences, while constantly citing him as an Auteur (and discussing his films as such), in order to defend and reinterpret the violent imagery in his films.
This brings me to a question I frequently have: In the case of such violent imagery, should it matter who is creating the images? How important is this? Can Auteurism be used as a way to defend offensive material? I ask this because knowing Ki-duk’s background is almost certainly priviledged information: while access to the internet makes such information more accessible, it is still not universal knowledge when viewing a film. Does knowing a director’s background help understand all film? Does it make graphic depictions of violence and assault acceptable?
Speaking about film itself, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with auteur studies. Focusing on one individual who helped create a film, when there are typically many many more people involved, seems a little unfair and reductive.
The issue of the violence in Ki-duk’s films being too intense for middle class South Koreans, and arguing that such “turning away” from his films is turning away to the struggles of alienated citizens in an unfair society, is an interesting one. And, in the end, perhaps this comes down to how responsible filmmakers should be for understanding what an audience can handle-perhaps this truthfully isn’t important at all. It’s something that I personally struggle with, so I find the discussion compelling.
But, again, considering I know very little about Kim Ki-duk’s films, I’d love to hear from others on this subject.
September 2, 2011
August 2, 2011
Coen Bros & Bechdel: Fargo
This is it! This is the end! The final Coen Brothers and Bechdel post.
Fargo. The Coen’s classic. Minnesota, North Dakota. Modernism, isolation.
Let’s get on it.