Killing Them Softly


Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

(2012) Crime Dramedy (Weinstein) Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Bella Heathcote, Linara Washington. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Tough economic times make people a little harder. They grow skittish at any sign of trouble; they are unforgiving of mistakes, even those not of your making. When people get scared, their tendency is to go into self-preservation mode with most decisions made on pure self-interest.

In an indeterminate American city (but looks somewhat like New Orleans), a poker game gets robbed by two masked men. These things happen, even while the 2008 Presidential election rages and speechifyin’ is underway from candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, while President George W. Bush tries to calm people down as the economic meltdown strikes, crippling our nation and casting doubt on our future.

Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate. You see, this poker game wasn’t just a poker game; it was run by the Mob and they don’t take kindly to being robbed. Driver (Jenkins), the go-between for the committee that runs the Mob in New Orleans and Jackie, is glum. Examples must be made but a bloodbath isn’t necessarily welcome.

It soon turns out that there are four people involved in the robbery; Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Curatola), the dry-cleaner and low-level thug who masterminded it, Frankie (McNairy) – who is Squirrel’s choice to execute the robbery (yes, Frankie and Johnny – cute, no?) – Russell (Mendelsohn), the Aussie heroin addict that Frankie brings in to assist and Markie Trattman (Liotta) who runs the game.

Now Markie is completely innocent; his problem is that five years earlier he had arranged to rob his own game. This is common knowledge and even though he had nothing to do with this robbery, the clientele think he does and they don’t want to play anymore. While the mobsters in charge would be satisfied with a beat down of Markie (and a fine beating is administered to him), Jackie contends that Markie has to be whacked. With all due haste.

Jackie is not keen on getting all of these hits done himself so he brings in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hitman who is having some personal issues not the least of which is alcoholism and sex addiction. He proves to be worthless so Jackie is on his own, having to carry out all the hits himself.

The movie is based on a book by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade which was set in Boston in 1974. Dominik chose to bring the action to New Orleans in 2008 and there are some compelling reasons to do that – the economic hardship thread is one of the main issues in the movie. I haven’t read the book to be honest so I don’t know if that’s something that was part of the original novel (it may well could have been) but it certainly is something that the filmmakers hit you in the face with quite regularly.

This is a fine cast and Pitt does a pretty good job with the enigmatic Jackie Cogan. I like that you don’t get a sense that Jackie is invincible and smarter than everybody else. He makes mistakes. He screws things up. However, he thinks quickly on his feet and takes care of business and is ruthless as they come.

Gandolfini, a fine actor who tends to be cast in roles that aren’t dissimilar from his Tony Soprano role, has a couple of really nice scenes here. Jenkins and Liotta are essentially wasted in roles that they shouldn’t have accepted (yes, further career advice to professional actors from a blog critic – just what they needed).

The big problem here though is Dominik. He consistently throughout the film reminds you that there is a director and that he has an Artistic Sense. From the most annoying opening credits ever through a slow-mo death scene of which Sam Peckinpah would have said “Didn’t I do that already?” in scene after scene you are given odd camera angles, unnecessary montages, and other little tricks which is a director inserting himself into the film. Word of advice to any aspiring directors out there – stay the heck out of your movie. If you must insert yourself, do a cameo. Or cast yourself in a role. Otherwise, let your actors and crew do their jobs and trust them to tell the story without your help.

This is frankly quite a mess. It is destined to be Pitt’s lowest grossing movie of his career to date and for good reason; this is the kind of film that people walk out on, as several folks did at the screening we attended. Da Queen and I hung in there but we were frankly dissatisfied when we left. I like a good neo-noir as much as the next guy but sometimes, simpler is better.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt gamely does his best. There are a couple of terrific action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: A fatal case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a ton of bad language,  a surfeit of drug use, plenty of violence and gore as well as a few sexual references; fun for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Richard Jenkins character is never seen standing up in the movie. He is always seated in a car or at a bar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are surprisingly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burn After Reading

BARACK OBAMA LOVERS: .The film is set during the 2008 Presidential Election and features a number of speeches by the recently re-elected President.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: Color Me Kubrick

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass

Capitalism: A Love Story


Michael Moore is sounding a call to arms but is anybody listening?

Michael Moore is sounding a call to arms but is anybody listening?

Overture) Michael Moore, Wallace Shawn, William Black, Marcy Kaptur, Elizabeth Warren, Baron Hill, Elijah Cummings, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Robert Powell, Sarah Palin, John McCain. Directed by Michael Moore

Shortly before the Presidential elections of 2008, the economy of America went through a meltdown. Greedy banks, whose regulatory agencies were hamstrung and de-clawed, had written mortgages that almost guaranteed that the homeowners would default. Even though the FBI had warned of an epidemic of fraudulent loans, nobody paid heed until it was far too late.

Filmmaker Michael Moore is often described as a gadfly, but here he is a crusader, going after the very heart of American wealth – the capitalist system. He skewers it mercilessly on the lance of logic and fact, showing indisputably how the system was set up to maximize the ability of the rich to increase their share of the wealth, and how those who should have been protecting the interests of average Americans were profiting by assisting those fat cats in pillaging our country.

20 years after Roger and Me, Moore again takes on the captains of industry but he has widened his scope. No longer confined to the misery of Flint, Michigan, he shows how the elite of our banking and political institutions have conspired to turn the entire country into Flint. He shows hardworking families being forced to leave their homes because they can no longer afford to pay mortgages at the outrageous interest rates the banks were charging in their Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM).

He shows blue chip companies taking out life insurance policies on their workers so that they might profit should they die unexpectedly – without the knowledge of the families of those workers. He talks to congressmen who were bullied and railroaded into passing the bailout of the banks three weeks before they were up for re-election without giving them time to study the ramifications of these bailouts – and without knowing that the Treasury Secretary had inserted a clause that protected those banks from any sort of oversight or court challenge. That’s your tax dollars at work – paying the bonuses of executives at A.I.G. and Bank of America, and buying luxury private planes for Goldman-Sachs.

He shows how Goldman-Sachs essentially staged a coup d’état after their executives were appointed to key positions in the White House, and then sent out hundreds of billions of tax dollars to preferred corporate recipients.

It’s enough to make you want to pick up a pitchfork and a torch and lead an angry mob to a corporate headquarters. However, Moore also shows instances of people standing up united and defying injustice masquerading as government authority. He shows the Republic Glass and Window Company’s workers refusing to leave the building after being massively laid off and not paid the money due them. They staged a sit-in there in late 2008 and refused to leave until they got the money they were owed. Although some media coverage is shown, quite frankly I don’t remember the story at all.

A few people come off as heroes; Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur from Ohio, who from the House of Representatives floor urged people not to leave their homes if evicted and demand that the evictors show them a copy of their mortgage which they would be unlikely to have. Whistle-blower Bill Black, who helped bring the Charles Keating S&L scandal to light 20 years ago, weighs in on the current crisis as well.

Moore’s sympathies are certainly with the working class, and he tends to focus in on how the crisis is affecting them. He does spend some time with a few middle class folk, but largely it is those who work blue collar jobs that get his attention. Also, as Moore is prone to doing, he grandstands an awful lot, going to various financial institutions trying to make citizens arrests of their CEO’s for fraud, placing crime scene tape around the stock exchange and so on.

Moore has a wicked sense of humor and it comes through in unexpected places. I was laughing out loud at some of his cracks, as well as the judicious editing that juxtaposes ancient Rome with modern America.

This is a serious subject that has rippled through the lives of virtually every American. Some of the material here will make you want to go and string up a few of these arrogant pricks by their genitals. It should be required viewing for every high school senior and college student in order to understand how economics work…or don’t work, to be more to the point.

Moore definitely has an agenda and a political stance, and he makes no bones about it. Right-wingers are going to absolutely hate this movie, especially since he characterizes capitalism as evil and urges that we drop it as an economic system. Capitalism is a sacred cow that we have been brought up to revere as the centerpiece of our American freedoms, and it isn’t lightly that we would consider such an act, but given the abuses that we have seen with our own eyes and are portrayed here, that kind of consideration may just be warranted.

REASONS TO GO: A marvelous indictment of the modern political and economic system in America. Well-reasoned, it explains exactly how we got into this mess and also illustrates very clearly how we can get out of it.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who disagree with Moore’s politics aren’t going to like this at all. While he doesn’t say it overtly, he tacitly advocates socialism over capitalism which might not go over well with the Christian right.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language issues and some difficult adult subjects. Should be required viewing for all high school seniors and college students.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Detroit premiere of the movie was in a theater located in the same building that houses the World Headquarters of General Motors. Moore was initially denied entrance to his own premiere until he came in without cameras or press hours later.

HOME OR THEATER: This has no epic scope other than that it is all about the issues that face every one of us. Conceptually, it should be seen on the big screen but from a sheer viewing standpoint, home video is fine.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day