Saturday, April 6, 2013

Movie Reviews-Killing Them Softly, GI Joe: Retaliation, Justified Season One, The Possession

Killing Them Softly
directed by Andrew Dominik
This is a quiet little gangster movie and can be completely enjoyed (or not enjoyed) on that level. It's inspired by the novel Cogan's Trade by noir novelist George Higgins. But if you scratch the surface a little bit (the story has been moved to take place during the 2008 financial crash) it's as much about capitalism, failing masculinity, corporate politics and just general bleakness as it is about stereotypical gangsters. President (then Senator) Obama's speeches are often used as ironic backdrop for the gangsters' conversations. Indeed the hoodlums themselves comment on what they're hearing. There's a claustrophobic desperate feel here , which strangely enough reminds me of Glengarry GlenRoss, probably because similar to that movie, this film has no female leads. In fact there are only one or two women who even speak in this movie, if memory serves me correctly. No this film depicts a man's world and a very dark ugly one.

You get the feeling watching this film that the characters are just going through the motions. There aren't necessarily explicit references to glory days long gone but the constant squabbling over small amounts of money and a few asides about how someone wouldn't normally do something, but you know, the economy, set the stage perfectly.

In New Orleans a small time hood named Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) decides that the time is right to set up a robbery of a mob affiliated poker game. He gets two other low level scrubs, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a junkie and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to perform the actual robbery since Squirrel thinks himself above such things and also is known to some of the people at the game.
When Frankie shares his doubts about the wisdom of robbing a game backed by the biggest sharks in the ocean so to speak, Squirrel tells him not to worry because everyone will assume that Markie (Ray Liotta) did it. Markie runs the game for the mob and some years ago set up a robbery of his own game. However, people liked Markie and though he admitted his crime in a moment of drunken candor, the powers that be pretended they didn't hear it and gave him a pass. But if the game is robbed again, well all bets will be off. Markie will be hit and Squirrel, Frankie and Russell will be in the clear. That's the plan anyway.

But stupid plans rarely work out because after all they're put together by stupid people. After the robbery Russell can't keep his mouth shut and a fixer for the mob named Driver (Richard Jenkins) arranges things with Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) a cynical, well read, well dressed and world weary hitter. In no short time Cogan knows everyone that was involved and knows what he has to do. I say he's cynical because even though Cogan knows that Markie didn't actually pull this job, he still votes thumbs down on Markie because everyone will assume Markie did it. And assumptions can be deadly. Look for James Gandolfini as an exhausted and out of shape hitman who would rather drink and bully prostitutes than do the work he no longer has the heart for. Pitt and Gandolfini play well off each other.

GI Joe: Retaliation
directed by John Chu
This was an amazingly silly movie. You can take that in either a good way or bad way. If you enjoy action movies you can turn your brain off and enjoy this. In fact you might not even wonder how Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) can lead all two of the remaining Joes (Lady Jaye-Adrianne Palicki even says to him "You're our leader now") but at the end he is still an enlisted man while Lady Jaye gets a promotion from Lieutenant to Captain. Uh, if she was already an officer why wasn't she leading the team? And if Roadblock was leading the team and he was, shouldn't that have been worth a battlefield promotion? But I'm no expert in military protocol.

This takes up where the last movie left off but drops any romance and most sex appeal. Adrianne Palicki is no Rachel Nichols or Sienna Miller and besides a brief appearance in an evening gown and short shorts is more or less one of the guys. There is no Ripcord (Marlon Wayans).

Cobra Commander (Rex Lewis) and Destro have been captured and put in a secret "black" prison. But their subordinate Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has successfully impersonated the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce). When a revolt in Pakistan raises the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non state actors Zartan sees an opportunity to get rid of the GI Joes. He orders them all in to secure the nukes. Led by Duke (Channing Tatum) the Joes do just that. Zartan then orders Cobra air strikes and ground troops in to kill all the Joes. Weeping crocodile tears Zartan goes to the airwaves to claim that the Joes were attempting a coup and thus he had to terminate them. Having tortured the President to find out where Cobra Commander is imprisoned, Zartan sends Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) to break the boss out. Destro is not so lucky. Walter Goggins plays the penitentiary warden with his typical flash.

Things are proceeding nicely from Cobra's point of view but unless you kill ALL the Joes you still have a problem. As mentioned Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) are still alive and just a tad bit upset. They make it back to the states and get in touch with Snake Eyes (Ray Park), who either wasn't on that last mission or who also escaped. I can't remember and it's not very important. Snake Eyes has been sent by his clan leader Blind Master (RZA) to capture Storm Shadow. The Joes aren't necessarily the sharpest knives in the kitchen drawer but they figure out that the President might not be who he says he is. They approach retired General Colton (Bruce Willis), the original GI Joe, for assistance.

Obviously lots of things get blown up, cities get destroyed, multitudes of people get shot and there are plenty of fights. Special effects are good. The standout scenes might be ninja swordfights on Himalayan mountains. The movie is loud but not devastatingly so. I'm not a huge GI Joe fan but I liked the first one better than this. That's not saying much though. Johnson did a good job with what he had here.

Justified: Season One
created by Graham Yost
This is an FX series that I had heard good things about. It's based on some stories by famous Detroit area crime novelist Elmore Leonard. I haven't watched it on TV but I did get the DVD for season one and two. Let's just get one thing straight upfront, this is not in any real way related to The Wire or The Sopranos, though there are definitely some characters who are shades of grey. This is set in Kentucky, a place to which I've never been and judging by this show probably wouldn't want to visit. Justified does play a bit fast and loose with stereotypes directed at the people known, fondly or not, as hillbillies. But all the same it also creates some strong interesting characters who will surprise you from time to time.

The outline of this season is that US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is assigned to the Miami office. In a tense showdown he shoots a Miami mobster, who he was assigned to bring in and who was trying to kill him. In a nod to the series title Raylan tells his office boss that the public shooting was justified. But his boss doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't hate Raylan but feels that Raylan just brings too much heat. Raylan has been involved in too many shootings. And bigger bosses feel the same way.

So Givens is unceremoniously sent packing back home to Kentucky. His new boss Art (Nick Searcy) is an old friend whose primary concern is just making it to retirement. Don't give him any problems (like lots of shootings) and he won't give you any problems. Although he will occasionally tear his subordinates a new one behind closed doors he zealously protects them from higher-ups or other agencies. Raylan doesn't like Kentucky. He's assigned to the Lexington office which has jurisdiction over Raylan's old stomping grounds of Harlan County.

Raylan really really really didn't want to go home. He's got history there and most of it's bad. It starts with his very close friend Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), a combat veteran who once worked with Givens in the mines and saved Givens' life. But now Boyd has become a white supremacist and fallen in with the rest of his criminal family. When he's not blowing up black churches or murdering possible snitches, he's making a play for criminal domination of Harlan County. Givens and Crowder have a love-hate relationship. If it comes to it they will kill each other but they would be damned before they let anyone else try. Ava Crowder (JoElle Carter) is Boyd's sister-in-law. She just killed Boyd's brother after a long string of abuse. Some of the other Crowders, possibly including Boyd's Daddy Bo Crowder (M.C. Gainey) feel that abuse or not, Ava might need to pay for that. Both Raylan and Boyd have complex (or maybe not so complex) feelings for the leggy Ava.

Raylan has a complicated relationship with his own father Arlo (Raymond Barry) who abused him as a child and was just generally a horrible parent, even absent the abuse. Arlo is a small time criminal who wasn't always as down and out as he is now. He may have some plans for a comeback. Arlo is now married to his former sister-in-law, Raylan's aunt. Raylan adores her but can barely speak civilly to his father. Raylan also runs into his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) who despite being remarried to a more financially stable and successful man can't seem to stop dropping by Raylan's office to tell him how much she doesn't miss him.
But even with all the new frustrations and challenges in Raylan's life the Miami Mob has not forgotten about him. And it's not that far from Florida to Kentucky. And of course there is plenty of criminal activity unrelated to Boyd or the Mob to keep Raylan busy.
Although Olyphant is the lead of the show I'd say the very strong second or possibly even co-star is Walter Goggins. He's a good actor and his Boyd has an incredible amount of charisma. You don't even know when he's acting. The show plays with this across the season as after a life changing event Boyd suddenly drops the racism and criminal behavior and finds God, leading an interracial group of men in good deeds and prayer. It is a source of constant frustration to Boyd that neither his family nor Raylan believe that he can change or has changed. And Bo Crowder might have some things to teach Tywin Lannister about cruelty.
I can't say if this show got Kentucky right or not but from what I can tell it did do a good job capturing some southern gentility, belligerence, faux politesse and general aversion to using contractions or short sentences when long flowery speeches are available. Boyd is a master of this. Lithe, soft spoken and extremely dangerous, Boyd is a man who uses language in a way which is simultaneously quite precise and abstruse.

The Possession
directed by Ole Bornedal
Look the only reason I bothered to watch this movie was because Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) produced it AND it had Jeffrey Dean Morgan aka John Winchester from the Supernatural tv series. Morgan was playing a version of that character. Unfortunately he didn't have much to play against in this movie. I got bored with it very quickly. I kept waiting for him to say "I need my boys" and make a phone call. Then Sam and Dean Winchester would show up in their (his) 67' Impala ready to kick some spirit a$$ for Dad. Well unfortunately that didn't happen. No, I'm afraid John Winchester Clyde Brenek was on his own in this movie. Clyde is recently divorced from his wife Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick). He and his ex share custody over their two daughters Em (Natasha Callis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport). Stephanie is a bit of a stick in the mud whose primary complaint seems to be that Clyde was working too hard (he's a high school basketball coach) instead of listening to her screech about whatever was running thru her head at the moment. Ok, that might be a little harsh but geez just about every time the two talked, Stephanie eventually went into full "Everything's your fault and you're an d***!!!" mode. So it's probably a good thing they aren't living or sleeping together any more. I think this could have been slightly better written. Presumably Stephanie was the party that initiated the divorce. She's kept the house. And she hasn't wasted any time into moving the oleaginous Brett (Grant Show) into her life, her home and her bed. As you might imagine Clyde isn't overly fond of Brett, who is apparently more financially successful than Clyde. Clyde still carries a torch for Stephanie. I imagine that would be a bit of a pain having to watch another man raise your children and touch your wife places that used to be off limits to anyone except you. Just ask Seal.

Anyway, either being a high school basketball coach must pay better than you think or old Clyde had some funds that weren't found by Stephanie's divorce team because he's just bought a new home that is just a tad smaller than his old one. And it's his turn to have his daughters. He brings them over for pizza and fun. But Dad and daughters stop at a garage sale where Em is able to get her Daddy to buy her an old box with Hebraic lettering. Now the viewer already knows this box is bad news because in the opening segment a woman tried and failed to destroy it. And just to make sure we get the point the woman, who can no longer talk, sees Em with the box and tries to warn her against it.
Of course the box turns out to.. well heck it's not much of a spoiler. This IS a horror movie. What do you do with boxes? You put things in them. And what was put into this box is something that never ever should be let out. Of course there's no movie if the box is not opened and Em does just that. And I'll give you one guess who gets possessed.

In many of these types of films it's usually the Catholic Church who is presumed to have the inside info on demonology. I don't know why that is. Several religions and mythologies have stories of malign supernatural entities who roam around looking for ways to harm humans. In this film it's not Catholics who will be the experts but rather Jews. The expert in this case is Tzadok (the reggae singer Matisyahu who in a nice little nod to his real life career is shown listening to reggae and rap).  Unfortunately as an actor, Matisyahu is a great musician. Also the demon or rather dybbuk isn't quite malevolent or creepy enough for my tastes. When Clyde starts saying there's something wrong with Em and hinting at supernatural events Stephanie and Brett get restraining orders. But with the exception of a late night confrontation in the kitchen between Stephanie and the being wearing Em, I just didn't get a real feeling of danger from the dybbuk. I thought it would have been more effective if for example, we saw the dybbuk DO something to someone or had one of the parents wake up in the middle of the night and have the dybbuk looking at them or... (see the movie Orphan for more creepy dangerous kids.)

Scenes of bodily mutilation and general weirdness abound along with insect plagues that come out of nowhere but all in all this just wasn't a scary movie to me.
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