22 September 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012, US) – ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business…’

Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man 'Jackie Cogan'
'And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope...'         
- President Obama's acceptance speech, 2008
Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film's representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre. 

Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America's transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s. 

Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films. 

The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis. 

This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.

19 September 2012

PREMIUM RUSH (Dir. David Koepp, 2012, US) - From A to Z [spoilers ahead!]

Rising star: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Premium Rush is a fast paced action thriller that takes place on the summer streets of new York city. Film critic and academic David Bordwell has praised the film as one of the best mainstream narrative films of the year since it succeeds in achieving its cinematic goals in just eighty minutes of screen time. The film is set in the hyperkinetic world of bike couriers who dash around the city while incurring the wrath of most New Yorkers. The central character of Wilee (JGL) lives on his bike, defining his daily existence in the anonymous mass of New York. Bordwell does have a point - this is a film that doesn't waste any shots (offering an object lesson in narrative economy) yet still functions in a roughly identifiable genre(s). The plot involves the delivery of a package by Wilee into the hands of the Chinese mob but of course the relative straightforwardness of such a task is complicated by the obstacle in the form of a corrupt police detective who we gradually discover is not only a gambling addict but somewhat psychotic. The backstory involving a young Chinese student working three jobs so she can pay the Chinese mob to allow her son to immigrate to New York seemed a little heavy handed but director David Koepp never lets the plot supersede the devilishly clever narrative structure, fragmentation of time and visceral camerawork. Given the very nature of bike couriers in a city this was probably a logistically tricky film to shoot but I suspect much of it involves visual effects that are seamlessly integrated to sustain the conceit. The corrupt cop who doesn't seem to get a break invokes the fatalist psychology of noir films and such a genre element inevitably creeps into the film's construction. 

However, it is neither noir or the thriller elements that define this film. Rather it is more primitive narrative concepts. This is a film that returns to the earliest narrative form in American cinema, the chase film. It's easy to underrate the simplicity and leanness of the chase narrative since it has been integrated into the action genre as just another face of high concept filmmaking. By having the narrative events unfold in real time not only sustains dramatic tension but helps to continually foreground the chase through the streets of New York as the primary focal point for the spectator. Had this film been made in the studio era then surely the bikes and the city streets would have been horses and the wild west. Interestingly the western was one of the first film genres to integrate the chase narrative into their repertoire of elements so in many ways although the western remains dormant, many of its traditions particularly it's storytelling methods have been re-appropriated into popular Hollywood genres. In terms of narrative structure, the film jumps back and forth through a timeline that demands we adjust and re-adjust our perceptions of traditional narrative cinema such as a linear time frame with clearly signposted narrative markers related to a film's story and plot. Although the film does have its flaws in terms of poor characterisation, uneven dialogue and somewhat hackneyed ethnic representations, filmmaker David Koepp doesn't seem particularly interested in the wider ideological implications and chooses to maintain a sharper eye on narrative possibilities. What this means is that any traditional narrative interruptions are minimal thus producing a film that never stops breathing. 

1 September 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (Dir. Simon West, US, 2012) - Hard Body Ideologies

Veterans of the action film genre.
It is disappointing to hear that The Expendables 2 is likely to make less money at the box office than the first film. Could this be that the first film appealed to audiences as nothing more than a novelty, bringing together old school action heroes for a nostalgically hungry cinema audience disillusioned by the afterthoughts of yet more Twilight induced films. Nonetheless, Stallone and Lionsgate were wise in green-lighting a second film since it offers yet more juvenile violence and retro action schisms. Another wise decision was to pass over the directorial reigns to Simon West, a filmmaker who is a competent director of the action genre. Although the first film left audiences wanting for more, this second instalment builds on such a promise by adding new faces to the mix. Stallone and Schwarzenegger defined the hard body action image of the 1980s and both are busy at work making films that refuse to chase the habitually under challenged teen demographic. One of the most common ways of labelling a film like The Expendables is by maintaining a critical distance, snobbishly relegating such action entertainment to the satisfyingly innocuous category of filmic trash. I even find myself guilty of such a cinematically treasonous act yet the designation of a so-called trashiness limits the ways in which we could potentially interpret or read such a film. Perhaps such an argument could be applied to a good measure of low culture, not just action films. Action films extend from the chase narrative that was one of the earliest cinema of attractions for audiences. In turn the chase narrative was appropriated by numerous genres especially the western. The Expendables has been marketed as men on mission film but in many ways it could just easily be deemed an action western. Had the film been an outright western then the critical reception may have been markedly different since the western genre has attracted greater credibility unlike the action genre that continues to be in a perpetual mode of cryo-stasis. 

It’s not surprising that a mainstream film critic such as the ever-safe Peter Bradshaw awards The Avengers film four stars whereas The Expendables gets just two. This choice may be personal but in fact it has to do with the inflated higher cultural capital of Whedon and Marvel. Yet again the demarcation between low and high culture is a matter of critical taste tied to zeitgeist concerns. If Stallone’s lazy reputation as a filmmaker has been cultivated by a prejudiced critical consensus then the recent mixed critical response to The Expendables 2 has their origin in a similar critical disposition of obtuse categorisation. When it comes to the action genre, critics generally tend to steer away from ideological discussion preferring to condemn or celebrate action films on the level of originality demonstrated by the set pieces. If Stallone’s action films from the 1980s and the hard body image manifested Reaganite ideology then surely there needs to be a continuation of such contextualised ideological readings? Unfortunately, ideological discussions are somewhat eclipsed by arguments to do with nostalgic, retro inspired filmmaking. If nostalgia has replaced ideology when it comes to the recent films of Stallone then perhaps this also has to do with the way in which democratic American governments offer limited contextual political landscapes when compared to the regressive, reactionary and often fascist overtones cultivated by Republican governments. After all, Stallone’s hard body image was forged and repeatedly hijacked by era of right wing Republican political dogma articulated by film star leaders such as Ronald Reagan. A superficial ideological reading of The Expendables rubbishes claims of nostalgic postmodern reflexivity. Although such notions are readily evident, a superficial ideological reading posits the way such action films are perhaps deliberately rendered apolitical since this would mean having to invalidate the low and high culture debate. 

The Expendables are a band of mercenaries who seem to be available to hire on the global market. This makes them a capitalist commodity operating in a vacuum of geopolitical immunity. As a group they don’t seem affiliated with any particular government but their relationship with the CIA could be regarded as a hegemonic extension of the way America fights wars by proxy today. While Stallone as Barney is coerced by the CIA he also harbours wider reservations of the way his men are seen as cogs in a much bigger military machine. Such mistrust over the CIA and establishments in general echoes John Rambo who questions his position in the system and ultimately rebels (certainly in the first film) to become a survivalist of pity, pain and detachment. John Rambo seemed to get progressively less angry in the films (although he returned with a vengeance in the fourth film) but he viewed his role as mechanical rather than political. Although it would be difficult to label Rambo as anti establishment especially given the jingoism on display in the second film, his marginalised status (made emphatically clear by the motif of having him walk away at the end of each film like a mythical warrior and also recalling Ethan Edward’s actions at the end of The Searchers) resurrects the cowboy loner myth. Barney is essentially a ghostly mirror image of Rambo but in this instance old age presents us with a reflexive postmodern hero who is aware of his fading stardom. Perhaps the most significant departure in terms of male heroism is that the men in The Expendables lack the social and political indignation of having been betrayed by those at the top shown in action films such as First Blood & Predator. The dissipation of anger may reflect old age and their respective status as veterans. Such apolitical politics also supports the argument that contemporary cinema is largely devoid of ideological engagement having reached a point of irreversible creative exhaustion. However, ultimately this is a deeply reflexive postmodern action film that lives and breathes the memories of populist action films such as Rambo First Blood Part 2. Ironically, the once muscular hard body of Stallone is nothing more than a rubbery elasticated one that exists purely to pleasure us falsely with dreams of our own immortality. Here's a mainstream summer film that won't make you leave the cinema feeling short changed; it simply delivers on what it promises.