At the Movies: Cold Reality in 2012

killingthemsoftly1Although the biggest earner at the box office in 2012 was the tidy teamwork adventure of The Avengers, the year’s films were by and large afflicted with a grimmer worldview. This was as true of blockbusters like The Hunger Games to star vehicles like Killing Them Softly and micro-indies like Compliance.

My end-of-year wrap-up is at PopMatters:

The year’s most brutal indictment of this system comes in Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominick’s chilly, vaguely over-satisfied crime film is based on George V. Higgins’ profane novel of life and talk (and talk, and talk) amongst the underworld demimonde. Some hack crooks knock off a card game for what they think is easy money. Word gets back to the organization in charge of the game and Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hitman with a soft touch, is dispatched to relieve a few people of their lives….

The film’s steady march towards execution plays out against the sturm and drang of the 2008 US presidential election. A skittery title sequence jumbles up shots of a trash-strewn tunnel with audio of Obama’s soaring rhetoric—a road to nowhere. Asked whether he has room for friendships or loyalties, Jackie can only scoff, “Don’t make me laugh.” He nearly snarls the film’s last line, briefly agitated rather than utterly smoothly professional, as he’s been to this point. Now, he lays it out: “I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own.”

 

New on DVD: ‘Detropia’

Detropia-DVD-FThough it was on the Oscar documentary shortlist, the final selection of best documentary nominees shamefully overlooked the unforgettable Detropia, which finally hits DVD today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

“We are here at a critical time!” shouts a tent-revival preacher somewhere in the gloom of a rapidly downsizing Detroit. His is one of the many frightened, brave, saddened, still-fighting voices that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady include as a chorus of the forgotten in their tragedy-tinted but clear-eyed look at what happens when a city’s reason for being up and leaves…

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Not Fade Away’

not-fade-away-posterIt wasn’t the most obvious project for David Chase to take on after The Sopranos—many thought he should just do a crime movie—but his 1960s garage band comedy Not Fade Away has some of the same roots of the TV show (dysfunctional family, Jersey) while striking into new territory (a lighter, satirical touch).

My full review is at PopMatters:

If it weren’t for the playful sense of fantasy and satire that licks through Not Fade Away, the weight of its pop cultural nostalgia would be almost overpowering. Every TV seems to be playingThe Twilight Zone and most of the young people are listening to the circa 1960s brash new music or aping the mannerisms of the bands themselves. The walls of these suburban New Jersey homes feel like those of small prison cells. Everybody’s either resigned to living inside them forever or itching to bust out…

Not Fade Away opened in December and is now playing in most markets.

You can check out the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Gangster Squad’

Gangster-Squad-poster-wallpaper

The new year’s slate of movies is starting off with a bang…actually lots of bangs. The star-packed Gangster Squad (Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, and so on) was originally a fall 2012 release before getting bumped to mid-January. Its high-wattage cast and liberal gunplay would probably make sure that it would do decent business no matter what time of year it came roaring onto screens:

An internal Los Angeles Police Department report once counted the number of gangland killings in the city between 1900 and 1951: They came up with 57. Roughly that many people are rubbed out in less than two hours during Ruben Fleischer’s showboating, bullet-pocked, fist-to-the-face period gangster film. Former homicide detective Will Beall’s lunkish screenplay for Gangster Squad is nominally based on Paul Lieberman’s Los Angeles Times articles about the LAPD unit that spent the late-1940s and ’50s targeting East Coast mobsters with strictly off-the-books tactics. Taking them up to Mulholland Drive and putting a gun to their ear was a standard stratagem. But the film that Zombieland director Fleischer brings to the screen is more interested in gaping flesh wounds: This gangster squad puts bullets in nearly everything that moves…

Gangster Squad opens wide on Friday.

My full review is at Film Journal International.

You can watch the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

tolkien1

In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

tolkien1

In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

New on DVD: ‘Heaven’s Gate’

heavensgate-dvdIn the history of legendary cinematic disasters, there are flops and then there is Heaven’s Gate:

In his interview on the Criterion Collection release of the 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate, a craggy-looking Kris Kristofferson makes a strong appeal for the roundly maligned Western as being a potent work of political cinema. Kristofferson sticks up for Cimino’s indictment of Manifest Destiny and robber baron greed at the end of the 19th century. Of course, he did star in the thing. But still, this is the iconoclast’s take, and an unpopular coming after more than two decades of popular film history telling us that not only was Heaven’s Gate one of the greatest disasters in film history (it took in less than ten percent of the $40 million budget at the box office) but that it single-handedly ended the free-wheeling era of American filmmaking…

The Criterion Collection now offers Heaven’s Gate on DVD and Blu-ray, with plenty of the usual extras. My full review of the DVD edition is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer for the original film release here:

 

Department of Soap Operatics: ‘Downton Abbey’ and Decay

downton1

With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.

downton2It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)

James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.