Sunday, December 2, 2012

ABANDONED THEATER: Style Meets Substance, a review of Killing Them Softly and Anna Karenina.

With Breaking Dawn Part II, the box office domination goes to the sparkly vampires with their hyper-stylish outfits and their flea-ridden “frenemies.” The conversation on the film is about how much money this terrible movie made[i], while critics try to shift the conversation to actual good blockbusters—like Skyfall —because they recognize that most of the big critical darlings and Oscar contenders have either come out already or are coming out in the next month. These next two weeks are a little bare, until The Hobbit comes out (and Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and Les Miserables thereafter). Two movies did get wider releases this week, giving me an opportunity to see them, though they have been met with middling critical success instead of outright adoration: Andrew Dominik’s cynical Killing Them Softly and Joe Wright’s beautiful Anna Karenina.

The pitfalls of society act as the major themes to both films. This shared theme creates a strangely congruent double-feature out of them when they are viewed together. In Killing Them Softly, the mob business is affected by the dwindling economy of 2008. A symphony of C-SPAN news segments, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama all chattering away, with characters and the audience half-listening, is one of the most ingenious and irritating parts of the film, always filling up the background. No matter how much they want, the audience cannot escape politics, just as the characters cannot, creating an art-imitates-life argument.  In Anna Karenina, Anna (Keira Knightley) herself is stuck on a stage when she is in the city, always acting as the spectacle of upper-crust Imperial Russia. Joe Wright’s usage of the stage-metaphor, actually placing the action of the film on a meta-theatrical stage, is the film’s best feature, and this feature’s only weakness is that it is not used enough[ii].

Anna Karenina is torn between her pious husband, Alexei Karenin (an understated Jude Law), and the young, passionate Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As she battles within on which situation suits her, society around her notices and the extended-metaphor is earned in a climactic scene where Anna attends an opera and the entire theatre is watching Anna, whispering about her, judging her, putting the weight of their opinion on her. Vronsky can walk about the theatre without a soul judging him, but Anna, a woman, is seem more as an object, and an object of social ridicule, than the military officer. In Killing Them Softly, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) faces similar problems with society—he is a dinosaur in the mob game, acting as an old-school hitman from the days when mobsters had the balls to put a hit on someone without question. Cogan is valued less, used less, and paid less in the failing economy. Cogan acts as the charismatic and morally corrupt voice of reason. No, corrupt is not the right word, because his honesty in the face of new-age mobsters, who gamble away money without proper regulation, is refreshing and entirely heroic, all things considered. Cogan is the most cynical character, but he is also the most identifiable, even if the viewer disagrees with his final assessment of America (a business, not a country) in the film’s final scene.

Andrew Dominik directed the modern classic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Jesse James was a poetic masterpiece that has been reassessed by cinephiles everywhere in the last year or two, and it showed Dominik’s immense potential as a filmmaker. Killing Them Softly continues to show some of Dominik’s major influences, most namely being Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick[iii]. Cogan is reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s anti-hero character from Badlands, and the entire tone and theme of Killing Them Softly, from its first scenes until Pitt’s final lines, is similar to Kubrick’s The Killing, which also contained a great, cynical final line (“Let’ run!” “What’s the point?”) by the film’s protagonist. The way Cogan executes hits in Dominik’s film and the failed heist of Kubrick’s film are quite different, but both end in a manner that creates the perfect Feel-Bad Film of the Summer scenario.

But Joe Wright also wears his influences on his sleeve. Other than Leo Tolstoy, author of Anna Karenina, Wright relies on an unusual source for inspiration: director Federico Fellini. In Fellini’s seminal film 8 ½, a favorite of filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen, the Italian auteur creates a world where the circus of filmmaking is funneled through the point-of-view of a director. 8 ½’s protagonist imagines preposterous scenarios as he tries to make his science-fiction masterpiece, and the film ends with a live band walking through the scene, everyone grabs hands, and dances in a huge circle. It is quite stage-like, and the scene-setting is similar to the beginning of Wright’s Anna Karenina. As Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) walks through the stage and backstage and catwalks, to meet with Anna Karenina’s brother Oblonsky (played by the fantastically mustachioed Matthew Macfadyen[iv]),  the stagehands walk about, ignoring Levin completely, and even a live band with clown make-up, one of the more obvious Fellini references, jaunts by at one point. Instead of depicting the spectacle of filmmaking, Joe Wright depicts the spectacle of Russian classism, sexism, and paparazzism, and to wonderful results.

Both films have their weaknesses, especially Killing Them Softly. Both films are prone to style-over-substance arguments, especially with Killing Them Sofly’s beautiful slow-motion death scene and with Anna Karenina’s flashy production design, costume design, and score[v]. Both suffer from pacing/script issues, and both bash the audience over the head with their not-so-subtle messages. This hurts Dominik’s mob movie more than Wright’s stylish flare, but, again, both films could have used a little bit of a veil to make their films more all-encompassing. Killing Them Softly also contains too many side characters (even in such a small cast), with the point of investigating the whiney Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and disgusting Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). Both characters are funny and entertaining, but sometimes their stories meander. The same goes for a strong James Gandolfini performance. His character mirrors the theme of societal decay—he is an aging, fat hitman whomdrinks way too much, losing all of his reliability and, well, ability—but he enters and leaves the story in a very forced manner. Ray Liotta’s inclusion is far more successful, feeling well-earned since most of the plot revolves around his character’s gambling ring. Pitt and Richard Jenkins of course steal the show with their conversations over C-SPAN speeches. Greig Fraser’s flashy cinematography and Dominik’s genius direction cannot fully overcome Dominik’s all-over-the-place script that includes too many meandering conversations between these characters. The movie is a strong mess, though, with a great ending. This film is one worth seeing and discussing for hours and hours[vi].

Anna Karenina masks many of its weakness with strong performances by its cast—namely a great award-worthy performance from Jude Law as Alexei Karenin. He is played with a well-mannered and understated cadence. Also, just as impressively, Matthew Macfadyen gives thoroughly entertaining, goofy, and charismatic Oblonsky. Keira Knightley gives a career-best performance, communicating the complexities of her character’s intelligence, emotions, and station in life. The overstating themes are forgiven by the film’s ability to reach higher highs than Killing Them Softly, namely in the dancing scene where Anna and Vronsky first make a public fuss and in the heart-pounding horse racing scene. Its classist themes are more subtle than Dominik’s, and are illustrated through Vronsky throwing money at those mourning a train worker killed at one point just to impress Anna.  But of course Anna identifies with the train worker, leading to the film’s ending[vii].  

These films are worth seeing, and continue a trend of 2012 films that are both ambitious and strong. It has been one hell of a year for movies.  

I give Killing Them Softly a Strong 7 out of 10.

I give Anna Karenina a Lite to Decent 8 out of 10.

[i] And a terrible movie it was. The Twlight Saga has been a continuous mugging of parents’ wallets[a] since 2000-whenever. They would have been perfect fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000[b] or similar riff track. Now, I should state, as a blogger/critic, I have only seen Twilight 1 and this, the fifth and final installment. I decided it was best for me to skip out on the rest of the series. The first Twilight is one of the worst films I have ever seen for these reasons: it was cheaply made knowing damn well that no matter how bad it was, it would make a ton of money. And the producers were not only being frugal with their money, they didn’t even make a good low-budget movie. They didn’t have to. They were not motivated to produce a quality product because there was no chance that Twilight would have failed, based off of the success of the adolescent book series. Twilight and Breaking Dawn Part 2 suffer from bad acting, forced character motivations, randomly introduced characters of little importance[c], and, the worst offense of all for a special-effects heavy blockbusters, terrible CGI effects. When vampires rip off other vampires’ heads, it should not sound nor look like mannequins having their heads removed—pop! But, oh well. Breaking Dawn 2 is an ever-so-slight step up from the terribleness that was Twilight. It is the worst movie I’ve seen this year, not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I demote these films to an endnote, as opposed to an actual review, because if producers are going to make cheap trash for consumers, I’m not giving them a fully-thought-out review.
[a] All of those who have experienced monetary violence at the hands of your children, please dial this helpline: 1-800-ADO-PTIO(N).

[b] What? THIS EXISTS? [1]

[1] Life of Pi was right. There is a God. [FDSAFASDF]

[FDSAFASDF] There we have it. This is exactly when my endnote fascination broke me. I have gone too far down the rabbit hole, and now I have lost my writerly focus and have become a parody of myself. What tangent was I on?  About Twilight, a movie I’m not really reviewing here? What was it that I was even reviewing. . . Wait, I see a glimpse of the truth, and of sanity. I see my way out. Follow me, dear reader, out of the rabbit hole.  Let us return to the task at hand: reviewing Killing Them Softly and Anna Karenina [i].

[i] But I need to rate Breaking Dawn 2. Here I go: I give The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II: Curse of the Sparkly Vampires and Long Title a Strong 1 to a Lite 2 out of 10.

[c] Rami Malek was a welcome addition as the weird Avatar: The Last Airbender homage. I kept thinking back to his role in The Master, as Lancaster Dodd’s son-in-law. I was hoping his powers would lead to an apocalyptic scenario, predicted by Lancaster Dodd himself, which would have caused the earth to swallow all of these one-dimensional characters into the earth. I ALMOST got my wish.

[ii] The less-interesting segments of Anna Karenina are when Anna is out of the public view. The only non-stage segment of the film that is entirely successful is the B-plot where Konstantin Levin is working in the fields. He is separated from the stage of Moscow, and while out reaping wheat, he can be himself.

[iii] Andrew Dominik’s 10Best Films List for Sight & Sound’s directors poll: Apocalypse Now (Coppola), Blue Velvet (Lynch), Mulholland Dr. (Lynch), Marnie (Hitchcock), The Night of the Hunter (Laughton), Raging Bull (Scorsese), Sunset Blvd (Wilder), The Tenant (Polanski), and, of course, Badlands (Malick) and Barry Lyndon (Kubrick).  

[iv] The Oscar for Best Mustache goes to Matthew Macfadyen for his depiction of Oblonsky, flamboyantly and thickly upper-lip-fuzzied brother to Anna Kareina’s. Meanwhile, Razzie for Worst Mustache goes to the thin, crooked caterpillar that tried to pass as a mustache in Taylor Johnson’s portrayal as Count Vronsky, lover to Anna Karenina. Also, nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie is Jude Law’s amazing and terrible neck beard.

[v] 3 Oscar wins? They’d be deserved.

[vi] Discuss Killing Them Softly with your like-minded friends, though. Or even debate it with your not-so-like-minded friends. But I recommend not bringing it up at Christmas to your grandma. Chances are, she will not be a fan.

[vii] No spoilers here. See the movie or read the book. 

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