POSTED ON DECEMBER 5, 2012:
Life, Sex, and Death
Two out of three ain't bad
America isn't a country, it's a business. Now fucking pay me," says Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan, a mafia hit man in director Andrew Dominick's gritty, violent and exciting new film, Killing Them Softly. That line isn't just some clichéd mob truism, either. Dominick is quite clear about making the financial collapse of 2008 and the nature of Republican protectionism of the "job creators" -- rescuing a small group of powerful criminals with a taxpayer shakedown -- into a brutal mafia allegory that's about as subtle as a baseball bat to the skull. And it's pretty great.
Frankie (Argo's Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, so slimy you can practically smell him) are two small-time crooks tapped by a an old-school, Boston criminal, Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to pull a heist on a mob-protected poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).
It's the kind of job that would normally be considered suicide -- but for Markie, who already heisted his own poker game once and was dumb enough to tell some friends about it. Everyone seems to like Markie, so it's let go. But if another of his games gets robbed, the line of logic goes, it will be assumed by the higher ups that Markie was behind it. He'll get killed while Johnny, Frankie, and Russell split the loot with no one being the wiser.
Fuck You, Pay Me. Brad Pitt plays a mobster in Killing Them Softly, about a poker game heist gone wrong.
Of course, like all best laid plans, things go awry when the smacked-out Russell -- who used his cut to buy a kilo of heroin -- tells another partner (while on a dognapping endeavor) about the heist, unaware that said partner is friends with Jackie Cogan (Pitt).
Called in by the Driver (Richard Jenkins, typically great), Cogan realizes that even though Markie was set up, he, along with everyone else involved, has to die in order to maintain consumer confidence.
Adapted from the mid-'70s crime novel Cogan's Trade, Killing Them Softly is a vigorously adept and flat-out cool bit of filmmaking -- to the point of delicious indulgence. Adapted and directed by Dominick -- whose debut film, Chopper is still one of my favorites -- Killing Them Softly is a violent, profane, visual feast that captures that American New Wave essence, though amped on steroids when the bodies start to drop. Dominick has always had a distinct, sometimes trippy visual signature that nevertheless feels organic; never taking the audience out of the narrative -- almost in the same way Radiohead uses effects to widen their aural palette without ever going over-the-top, preserving the core composition.
His adaptation is wonderfully economical -- a strong story that feels like the middle act of a three-act play, or a novella. There's no fat at all, and the propulsive pace melds perfectly with the characters, who are perfectly realized by the cast.
Pitt is on his game here, the confident enforcer in the trenches who knows no fear, while McNairy and Mendelsohn bring great charisma, redefining the idea of likeable bad guys -- they're just fun and oddly easy to root for. James Gandolfini even pops up as another hit man, who Cogan realizes has devolved into a drunken liability, bringing some derelict Tony Soprano menace -- and also making for a nice True Romance reunion.
Killing Them Softly captures a tone that falls nicely in line with the likes of Richard Stark's Parker novels, Ted Lewis's Get Carter and another Stark crime tale Point Blank and the film adaptations that they begat. Pitt might be better looking than Michael Caine or Lee Marvin but he's cut from the same cloth -- and a great noir tradition.
I have a rule: I don't read other people's reviews of a film that I'm going to write about until I write my own. Call it a fear of plagiarism. But, man, sometimes I wish I could let that go when I come across something like Holy Motors. Or at least, I wish I could have seen it with a group so we could argue about it afterward over coffee.
Genre-bending is certainly the name of the game as we follow Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) through his day, chauffeured by his assistant, Céline (Edith Scob) to various appointments in a huge stretch limo outfitted with a complete dressing room. The seeming actor has a full set of props, costumes and prosthetics that he employs for each stop -- though it's never clearly defined who is hiring him to do jobs that vary from donning a motion-capture suit to stage one of the weirder sex scenes ever put to film; dressing up like a demonic leprechaun -- literally rising from a graveyard -- to kidnap a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and eat her hair. Or when he becomes a Turkish hit man, killing a dude who looks just like him -- Mr. Oscar "dies" more than once. He finally finds himself in a musical tragedy as an old man who was in love with Kylie Minogue (playing multiple roles, as well) -- revealing that Mr. Oscar isn't the only employee of "The Agency" -- whatever that is.
Writer/director Leos Carax isn't interested in narrative realism at all, which is something of a boon for Holy Motors. If you're willing to let go of expectations and fall into the films elegant imagination then there is something rather thrilling about being at the mercy of Carax's strange, singularly French, vision -- which includes a rocking accordion band for a mid-film intermission, of course. It's a dream-like poetry of visual aesthetics, genre experimentation, deranged narrative sensibilities, and drug-induced surrealism that will either confound or exhilarate -- probably both. Your mileage may vary.
Regardless, Denis Lavant sports a compelling visage and an impressive boner in a performance that will make you wonder what the hell is wrong with Leos Carax. And the French.
Is it an unhinged fantasy that revels in its own self-referential art? Is it an absurdist comedy whose narrative train barrels through the cinematic townships of Stephen Soderbergh and the Davids Cronenberg and Lynch? Is it the self-indulgent work of a gauche film nerd who gives zero shits about who (if anyone) "gets it"? I'm still not sure. One thing I am sure of: Holy Motors is the weirdest movie of 2012.
Human beings are, first and foremost, sexual animals. Not in the truly animal sense -- we are, after all, sentient in a way most other animals are not. But we are still imbued with that inherent nature. We've just come up with vastly different criteria for getting laid. Are they cute, funny, ambitious, well-off, or possessed of a shared love of robots, gas masks, and Firefly? Are they just going to get drunk, screw and hopefully never meet again? We've made doing it simultaneously more and less complicated.
Eye of the Beholder. Helen Hunt helps John Hawkes explore the meaning of sexuality in The Sessions.
One thing that doesn't really change is physical aberration. In the human and animal kingdoms, the ugly, diseased and the obvious genetic dead-ends have a harder time getting some. That's evolution at work. Desperation is the only variable.
Based on the true story of a polio-stricken writer and poet, The Sessions tells the story of Mark O'Brien (an amazing John Hawkes, practically thanking the Academy already), who spends the majority of his time in an iron lung while he types out his work using a stylus clamped between his teeth -- his head being the only thing he can move.
Well, that, and his penis. Mark is pent up. While polio paralyzes, it does not deaden sensation and after 38 years of sponge baths he's desperate to do something besides pre-maturely ejaculate on his nurse (a fine Moon Bloodgood).
Being a pious man, after he learns of a sexual surrogate who specializes in bringing relief to the unfuckable (Helen Hunt) O'Brien consults a priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Upon hearing of O'Brien's plight (and being Catholic), Brendan assures him that Jesus will give him a pass on the whole matrimony thing.
And that's what I love most about writer/director Ben Lewin's funny, human, and utterly heart-warming adaptation of O'Brien's plight. It's rare that films about sex find a balance between frankness and comfort. Generally, the point is prurience, transgressive kink, and/or fetishism that drown the subject in seriousness at best and inspire juvenile giggles at worst. Treating such a basic need with maturity, both O'Brien and Lewin bring a light-hearted mellowness to the idea of sex as a basic human right.
It wouldn't work without this cast, particularly the brave Hawkes and Hunt, who both share a sweet, playful chemistry that blooms into sincerity and candor. Hawkes, who has been stealing movies in supporting roles for years now, knocks it out of the park with an effortlessness that defies the physical demands of his role. Macy is yet another beating heart, imbuing the film with one of many genuine performances.
The Sessions is a rarity -- a film about sex and pathos that engenders the human spirit.
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