David Leitch, who directed the surprisingly enjoyable Hobbs & Shaw, delivers another surprisingly enjoyable action comedy. Bullet Train is set upon the eponymous Japanese train, which, for two hours, hosts an assortment of assassins getting into scraps and scrapes at the behest of their various employers. It’s stylish, funny, smart, and features a wonderful central comic presence from Brad Pitt, who seems to have relaxed into himself in recent years, his performances exhibiting a delightful spontaneity. Definitely worth a watch, and going on the trailers, Mike really didn’t think he’d be saying that.
A film that jogs memories for Mike, as in the process of revisiting Fight Club he realises what an impact it had on him as a teenager. David Fincher’s outrageously stylish and visceral story of a generation of dispossessed men finding purpose in violence has only increased in relevance in the twenty years since its release, drawing comparisons to incels and school shooters, but it also leads Mike to recall how it affected his interests and attitudes in his youth. José, who saw it on its release, was on the positive side of its mixed response and recalls trying to convince his friends of its greatness – and is proud to have been proven right in the years since, in which it rapidly became perhaps the defining cult hit.
Mike is surprised to discover a sexual dimension to it that he hadn’t quite realised was there – obviously, Tyler and Marla’s ceiling-shaking lovemaking sessions hadn’t escaped his attention, but it wasn’t until this screening that he saw Marla as desirable and human, rather than simply present and symbolic. She’s weary but hopeful, fiery and alive but constantly flirting with death, and with the benefit of knowing the film’s infamous twist, deeply sympathetic. Mike argues, too, for a strain of homoeroticism — Steve Erickson writes that Chuck Palahniuk came out as gay in 2004. The clues are everywhere both in his book and Fincher’s film — in the fighting and particularly in Brad Pitt’s appearance – more than powerful and intimidating, he’s attractive, the narrator’s ideal self (though we don’t, as José points out, see him topless and sweaty nearly as often as we might remember).
It’s not without its problems. The question of exactly what it says, and indeed how deliberately it says it, is dependant perhaps on the viewer’s mood and cultural context as much as anything. Fight Club wants to be thought of as a satire, that’s clear, but of what – and is it as much of a satire as it thinks it is? Mike suggests that much of what drives this problematic area of debate is the effectiveness with which the film brings us into the narrator’s mental state, conveying beautifully his attitudes, desires, repressions, regardless of whether we might think of them as positive or negative. Were the film more objective, more willing to offer judgement of its characters, these questions would be less troubling but the film would have none of its potency.
We agree that Fight Club is a considerable piece of work – José less enthusiastically, but it would be hard to be as turned on by it as Mike is. To have seen it on the big screen is a treat – every one of its compositions is electrifying, beautiful, considered and inventive – and the themes it explores have only grown in relevance since 1999. If it comes round, don’t hesitate to buy front row tickets. If it doesn’t, dig out the DVD, which you definitely own, and watch it again.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Ad Astra sees a withdrawn, isolated Brad Pitt take to the stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut in search of his father, and with him writer-director James Gray shows us stunning imagery and brings us brilliantly into McBride’s suppressed mental state. José is head over heels in love with the film’s epic feel, its exploration of universal human problems, the way in which it imagines a human race that, in spreading to and taming other planets and moons, brings its pre-existing problems with it, and the way in which Gray expresses McBride’s inner turmoil through action. Mike is less keen, particularly arguing for the weakness of the film’s first act, and asking questions of the film’s gender theming, but finds much to love too.
Ad Astra is a vast, careful, $100m art movie, the likes of which only Christopher Nolan normally gets to make. It’s very much worth your time. See it on the largest screen you can.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.
Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.
The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.
Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.
A very interesting article by Mark Olsen on the film´s ending can be found in the LA Times
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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.
It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it.Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).
Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.
Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is $190 million after tax breaks).
It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt) family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.
In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson, when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”
However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test: What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?
The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.
World War Z has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost. This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.
There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.
…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think we are; and also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.