It’s taken ten years but Marvel has finally branched out into films about heroes who aren’t white guys. Following last year’s Black Panther, Captain Marvel introduces Marvel’s first female protagonist, Carol Danvers, a young woman caught up in conflicts between worlds and the mystery of who she is.
José is enraptured by the film’s visual beauty, Mike by its cat. Its mid-90s setting is mined for tons of laughs, as is Samuel L. Jackson’s lively, witty performance. Neither of us is too convinced by Brie Larson, sadly, who lacks the charisma to truly sell her role, but the cast and storytelling that surround her more than compensate. Quite apart from the very obvious gender dynamics at play, other intelligent, interesting themes are brilliantly interwoven into the plot, giving the film real substance and emotional punch. It’s occasionally a little too transparently right-on, some moments of sisterhood rather unsubtle and even cringeworthy, but other scenes intended to inspire female empowerment truly soar.
It’s an intelligent, spectacular film that we hugely enjoyed, and definitely recommend.
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We argue about a film that neither of us can possibly claim is good, but in which one of us found things to like. Hot on the heels of watching Errol Flynn’s Technicolor classic a few weeks ago, we catch the latest telling of the Robin Hood folk tale, fittingly titled Robin Hood, a desaturated, guns and geezers-inflected version that transports us to a somewhat otherworldly, sci-fi-ish version of the medieval Midlands. Church and state are in cahoots, the poor are exploited – and it doesn’t look like they have much left to exploit anyway – and with Sherwood Forest nowhere to be seen, the only green thing around is Robin of Loxley.
We can both agree that no matter the intention, the film is poorly directed, though José would decry it more than Mike, who tries to look beneath the incoherent camerawork and dull set pieces to find areas of interest, such as the tangible sense of growing revolution and the charming Black Hawk Down version of the Third Crusade, complete with shoulder-mounted arrow bazookas, why not. We have good and bad words to say about the performances in equal measure, Jamies Foxx and Dornan standing out but Ben Mendelsohn and star Taron Egerton failing to meet expectations set by their previous performances. And Tim Minchin, with the best will in the world, isn’t an actor.
Mike takes issue with the film’s conception of Robin; a character learning to become the hero is one thing, but simply being nudged and told by everyone around him how to do so makes for poor character development. Little John is so significant he’s known here only as John, José speculating that as the biggest actor in the film, Jamie Foxx had the role improved at the expense of balance. We do find common ground in praising aspects of the world and visual design, but it’s always with the caveat that the direction generally works better to obscure than exhibit it.
All this and more in an edition packed with disagreement. Arguments and quibbles aplenty!
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
A chamber piece about history which looks like a combination of Rembrandt and an old photograph. In the podcast we discuss how Joe Wright might be getting short shrift as a director and the excellence of the performances:Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James are all marvellous. Mike mentions how the film is not the life of Churchill but a few defining weeks in the life of Churchill; how the film shows us nothing of Dunkirk, we merely see it on a map; and how wonderful a supercut of this and Dunkirk might be. Mike also highlights how the cemeteries of Belgium tell a very different story from the official one in relation to Britain’s ‘going it alone’ in the two World Wars. We discuss how the film’s emotional manipulations are cheap but how one finds oneself responding to the film’s jingoism. I would have enjoyed it more had the film been less of a Brexit film, whether the filmmakers intended it or not. I would really like to see a film with the same actors just focussing on the relationship between Clemmie and Winston, and there’s a wonderful volume of letters full of sketches of kitties and piggies called Speaking for Themselves that I wish someone would draw on for a film. Mike guardedly recommends the film and is instantly remorseful but agrees there are pleasures to be had from it. But…..
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.
Brad Pitt’s final monologue in Killing Them Softly, a kind of aria from a gangster that’s a brutal indictment of what America’s become, is absolutely great and is the film’s raison d’être. His last line, the last one in the film, is bound to become as famous as that of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn Leroy, USA, 1932), that iconic movie of the previous Great Depression where Paul Muni’s asked ‘ How do you live’ and the film ends with him responding from out of the darkness: ‘I steal’.
Pitt’s ‘Give me the money’ and Muni’s ‘I steal’ are almost the inverse of each other in terms of meaning: one an imperious public demand for services rendered; the other the furtive and clandestine theft survival requires from those who can’t get work. The juxtaposition of those lines, and indeed of the two films, is interesting in terms of what they tell us about America in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the economic meltdown of 2008, which along with the presidential elections that same year, are the key contexts for Killing Them Softly. Each film shows us the gap between an idea of what America should be and what it actually is. A comparison between what that difference is in 1932 and today, and the different ways in which each film condemns the actual in the light of the ideal is also not without interest.
The film begins and ends with Obama talking in the soundtrack. ‘America’ Obama says at the beginning as the film chops up the soundtrack so that the words seem cut and spliced, as if from different speeches, ‘I say to the people of America (Cut to ominous music) ….This moment is our chance to (more cut-up sound over a visual track ostentatiously edited to seem fragmented, almost broken before settling on the word ‘Killing)..(‘Them’).. enough..(Softly) to make of our own lives what we will…/the American promise is alive…/…that promise that is always setting this country apart/ it’s a promise that each of us has a chance to make of our own lives what we want. ’ The way these phrases are broken up and the particular images, also chpped-up by editing, that they accompany begin a critique of America, a condemnation.
The first few shots are abruptly cut, drawing attention to Obama’s voice but with a new way of seeing and understanding and with a different, a changing, context for it. They instantly alert you to a new perspective. In the beginning of the film, Obama’s voice is heard first over a square of light surrounded by darkness, the square of light getting larger as the camera moves first towards and then through it, following Frankie (Scott McNairy), a small-time crook through what looks like floating paper flotsam from the election campaign. We then see wide shots of derelict buildings, of badly dressed individuals across lonely de-peopled streets; of election posters.
Obama’s oration, that in America each has a chance to shape their lives, is the claim the film will dramatise and investigate, what we will see Frankie and his mate Russell (Mendhelsohn) attempt and fail at. At the end of the film, we hear Obama’s voice again, this time as cue to a gangster asking for his pay in a bar, and as background to Pitt’s aria. In between, the film takes us on a journey where politicians’ empty promises are background to the lives of another set of gangsters; where politicians use flowery patriotism to throw money at bankers whilst people are killed in the streets of the worst neighbourhoods in a manner that seem almost ordinary if not quite banal. Killing Them Softly has to be one of the most cynical films ever made.
The actors, really good ones such as James Gandolfini, Ben Mendehlson, Ray Liotta, and Brad Pitt, are given great dialogue; and they riff on it; they come alive as they give it life; they bring poetry to the meaning. The sight of Gandolfini, laid to waste like Welles in Touch of Evil, his layers of fat unable to hide the despair and loneliness that brought him there, is one to behold. It’s magical acting, a kind of alchemy great actors bring to parts that enables them to evoke both a real person living a recognizable situation, one that is both immediately transparent and understandable but also evanescent, that seems to resist reason as soon as it’s emotionally grasped whilst also making of the character a symbol for a situation. I can’t remember Gandolfini better and I can’t remember anybody better than Gandolfini is here.
Much of the attention has focused on Pitt and he is very good as the hitman who’s professional to his fingertips but whose very professionalism is a means of making money. He’s like an inverse Hawksian character. But Pitt has been at least as good if not better in other films (most recently Moneyball). Here, his acting is all externals. You get the sense of who this man is by what he wears, how he walks, smokes, the way he speaks and from what he says. When he’s told not to kill, he exclaims in exasperation, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake! Whose fucking running the show…The country’s fucked!’ Yet, he can’t stand feelings. He has to kill a particular way, softly, because he doesn’t want to be involved in all the begging pleading etc that goes on with a more direct approach. He’s a person who finds it easy to kill but hard to get emotionally involved. Yet with Pitt, the performance remains external, you never really get a sense of what’s going on in his character’s head and heart.
Gandolfini and Mendehlson, as the heroine addict, are a class apart. The great tragic performance though is Gandolfini’s. His gangster has menace, he could easily cut up the prostitute as he hints is his pleasure, but he is also so in love with his wife that the thought of her leaving him is derailing him; his love, self-destruction, violence, all seem to appear simultaneously as a smear of damp.
Mendehlson brings a goofy joy to his character; why can’t the world just let him do his drugs and leave him happily to his own devices? He makes us understand, enjoy, feel for that person. The playing between Mendehlson and McNairy, particularly when they get to glide on such brilliant dialogue, is sublime: it’s what dirty straight boys talk about when women are out of earshot; and women won’t like it. The only woman in Killing Them Softly is a black prostitute who’s lucky to leave Gandolfini’s room alive. Women exist in this film, barely, as the cause of men’s ruination or for sex, and even worse, only that aspect of sex that has exchange value.
The film has a wonderful look with wide-angle shots of urban decay. I loved the sensuous, intermittently panicky, somewhat sleepy depiction of Mendehlson coming in and out of his high. The moment towards the end when Pitt walks, seemingly through fireworks, to demand his pay is also very striking. The film feels almost episodic; each scene clearly delineated, little chapters, but fabulous visually. Special note needs to be taken of the music which some have accused of being used too literally (Lour Reed’s ‘Heroin’ over shots of Mendehsohn taking heroin or the use of ‘Money primarily for its lyrics: ‘They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. I need money. That’s what I want’; but to me, the songs seem to be a mourning for an American way of life, with the key songs being Great Depression classics such as ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, and perhaps more significantly, (It’s only a) Paper Moon: ‘‘It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, as phony as it can be’
This obviously relates to Obama’s campaign promises and people have found this aspect of the film heavy-handed and facile. Perhaps they’re right. Certainly the film was not a hit. When I saw it, the audience gasped at the violence, which is sometimes startling, sometimes funny in a quasi-Tarantino-esque way, but too raw to dismiss as cartoony: it induces audience recoil in a way that has become unusual. Three girls left mid-screening clearly conscious that they were in the wrong Pitt movie but also poking fun of the rest of the audience’s clear enrapturement by that which they dismiss.
In the great last scene as Obama is praising ‘The enduring power of our ideals, democracy, liberty, opportunity, an unyielding hope’ and speaking of community, Pitt as the professional killer responds, ‘Jefferson is an American Saint because he wrote the words ‘all men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits; so, yeah, he wrote some lovely words so he could rouse the rabble so they could go and die for his words whilst he laid back and drunk his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.’
What the film’s been showing us throughout is that America is not a country, that it is just a business; that appearance affects business more than actions; and that the key to American business running smoothly is murder. Pitt’s last aria is a set of ideas rarely heard in popular American cinema: they’re great words to a great ending to another movie that is a superb critique of America in this new not-so-great Depression.
Addendum: I was interested to read in Anne Thompsons’s The $11 Billion Dollar Year, From Sundance to the Oscars that Killing Them Softly was classified as a ‘Recouper’, which she describes as films of various budgets that break even or come close to doing so. According to her data, the film had an estimated production budget of 15 million and grossed 38 million at the box office. So it seems there might be a market for this type of film, at least in world terms.
The Place Beyond the Pines
(Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)
When the movie finished, I overheard various people saying, ‘I read that it’s not one movie but three and it’s true’. It’s not. But when I first saw it, I did think The Place Beyond the Pines was a movie of three sections that didn’t quite cohere; with the first part being as great as contemporary cinema gets; and the other two, whilst very good indeed, not quite living up to the extraordinary beauty and depth of feeling of the first; the Ryan Gosling section seemed like poetry, the other two simply suffered in comparison.
A subsequent viewing convinced me that I was mistaken: the film now seems to need the last two sections. The themes of broken families, absent fathers, residual racial tensions, freedom vs. responsibility, they’re set up in the first part but unfold throughout the movie in a way that deepens the exploration of its themes and adds intersecting ones — the privileges and abuses of class, the corruption of social institutions, what the sins of the fathers do to the sons. And it does this in interesting ways: that photograph from the beginning reappears in newly meaningful ways that nonetheless do not fully disclose the occasion it was taken to memorialize; that ice-cream offered so as to instill an imprint of love reappears but gets displaced onto another father-son relationship; those shades a baby grasps at in a photograph will be his father’s only legacy to him. The Place Beyond the Pines seems to grow and deepen the more we watch and think about it.
We hear the movie before we see it: a sigh? A steadying out-take of breath? That sounds sets the tone for the movie. It turns out to emanate from Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny daredevil, just before he rides into a ball-cage with two other bikers so that the crowds can gawp and thrill as the trio race inside the ball itself. The audience does too, not only because it does seem to be Ryan Gosling performing that stunt but because the whole extraordinary sequence is done in one marvelous sustained long take, a showstopper of a start and a shot that will establish a tone and style for the rest of the film: a searching, hand-held camera following the protagonists from behind before settling on a context, an action, a scene; our view, at least at the start always behind that of the protagonists, who know what they’re doing but not what they’re heading into: they know what their immediate actions will be, but are not necessarily aware of the repercussions of those actions.
The first section contains filmmaking as beautiful and moving as any I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling looks like a tattooed choirboy, a kind of fallen angel, the tear already inked in his face for all that he has suffered and all that he will sacrifice; the shape of the tear both a warning and a prayer (is it a dagger dropping blood or a crucifix?); his tattooed body, our first view of him, a history of the life he’s led (the Holy Bible tattooed on his hand), the life he expects (the struggle and fight conveyed by the two boxers tattooed on his biceps), the kind of attention he has gotten (heartthrob tattooed around his neck, the witty ‘hand’ which coupled with the questioning ‘some’ makes for a cheekily self-aware proclamation on the fingers of each hand) and a demand for the attention and the respect he seeks (which includes that of being an ‘outsider’). When Luke says to Romina (Eva Mendes),’don’t talk down to me’, you get the feeling that he speaks from a lifelong experience of being talked down to in just that way; and that he speaks not only for himself but for a whole sector of society if not for a whole class.
There are aspects of the movie that remain indelible: Gosling’s tears at his child’s baptism, and how he conveys the complete sadness of somebody who is not even worth being told he’s a father; the extraordinary beauty of Mendes in some shots; the two of them foregrounded against an out-of-focus but dreamily lit Ferris Wheel, an ideal of sub-prole romance; the sound of The Crying Shames’ ‘Don’t Go, Please Stay’ over a low-angle shot of Gosling riding into the night; the charge the film elicits when the stepfather, the actual parent of the child Gosling is allowed to father only biologically, is shown to be black (the camera holds back outside the door so as to theatrically reveal it) — that still signifies in American culture today, a frisson the film plays with when it deploys it again; though this time it’s Bradley Cooper’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) who conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer: his reaction is what the film expects the audience’s to be earlier on and which it now condemns in AJ.
In the first part, sequences are often linked by dissolves, as if the situation presented melts into its inevitable and pre-destined fate. There are other scenes where Gosling is kept in focus but everything else around him races past in a way that can’t be digested or gripped, headlong into uncontainable frustration and unavoidable destiny. Luke wants to do the right thing, provide for his girl and his kid, it’s his job to do so, he says, and he thinks it’s everyman’s right to get his own girl and kid if he wants them. But in the America Luke inhabits you can’t do your moral or ethical job if you have a minimum wage job like he does. So when Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) points him towards bank robbery, he doesn’t resist for long. In this film’s America, one’s got to go outside the law to claim one’s basic right to a family. Everything about the film, the lights of the Ferris Wheel, the way Gosling and Mendes look, the movement of the camera, the type of editing, help to convey this contrast between what society promises, the purity, beauty and modesty of the protagonist’s wants, and society’s inability to meet them. America is no longer a place which creates wants, meets them and convinces people they live in the best of all possible worlds. Or at least Luke and Ro don’t think so in The Place Beyond the Pines
The other two sections of the film are not only good but necessary: Avery, who appears in all three sections, is the film’s conscience and the core of the narrative. The second section, the central section of The Place Beyond the Pines, shift the focus from Ryan Gosling’s Luke and onto Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross. It is not merely a continuation but a comparison, a juxtaposition that uses rhyming but different scenarios to accrue meaning. Avery Cross, like Luke, is a young man who wants to do the right thing but one who’s got his wife and kid and a job that can support them. However, Avery is not just on the other side of the law, he’s kind of slumming as a cop: his father, he’s got one, one he thinks of as a kind of superhero, is a judge. Avery’s got an expensive education, a law degree, and his wants and expectations are not as modest as Luke’s. But unlike Luke, by the time the film starts to focus on his story we’ve already been shown how this fundamentally decent man is also a liar and a killer; and unlike Luke, when he gets into trouble he’s got a very solid support system, institutional, therapeutic, medical, familiar to advise; and when they can’t help, Avery’s got a father.
In a way, the film is about how America treats these very nice men who want to do the right thing but end up making a few mistakes. One ends up dead; the other, after initially becoming a prisoner of a situation he’s caused and can’t find his way out of (when he ends up in the evidence stock room Avery is shot against a steel blue background only a little darker than his eyes, completely enmeshed in bars and fencing,), is freed from it, if not his own guilt from it, by his father. Luke cried because he wasn’t deemed worthy of being a father; guilt-ridden Avery can’t stand the sight of his own son, and feels even more guilt. But liberal guilt is no barrier to Avery’s ambition: he sells out his colleagues, loses his family but rises to the top. The contrast is rendered more vivid by the casting. In the latter parts of the film, Bradley Cooper’s open face wonderfully evokes a well-fed idealism. Later we see guilt and disappointment that follows the inevitable corruption of his fight against it; and later still the masked smile, so familiar to us from TV coverage of politicians, as he urges us to ‘Cross Over into the Future’ with Avery Cross on his election night.
The last part of the film features their sons, two stoners from two different classes: one rich, one poor; one part of a contemporary multi-cultural family, the other a child of divorce; one with a loving stepfather, the other with a father who feels guilt everytime he sees him. When Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, takes Avery to that place beyond the pines, forces him on his knees, and is about to pull the trigger to avenge his father’s death, it is only Avery’s first threatening, begging, pleading to find out what happened to his son and then saying ‘I’m sorry’ for what he did to Jason’s father that saves him then and might yet save them both later.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful and poetic sighing for America, one that yearns for its ideal whilst mourning for its reality, that gap between what everyone wants it to be and what it has really become. When the film ends, AJ is right next to his father on an election platform, crossing right to his future on his father’s coattails; but the last shot begins with Jason, riding into his future off to the side of the frame into the unknown; and the camera stays focused on a tiny American flag, slightly out of focus, but smack-dead in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the pastoral barns, silos and landscape so familiar and so potent a symbol of an idea of America, one dear to cinema and indeed to filmgoers, and both like and unlike what the film has shown us. And then the first notes of Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves (Act I and II) start and we hear the lyric ‘someday my pain, will mark you’ and the eyes lightly well up just as they did with Ryan Gosling in church and one thinks ‘This is a truly great movie’.