Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Shattered Politics #85: In the Loop (dir by Armando Iannucci)


In_the_Loop_poster

First released in 2009, In The Loop is one of the most brilliant political satires ever made.

The film opens in London, as a slightly ridiculous man named Toby (Chris Addison) starts his first day as the special assistant to the Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander).  And what a day to start!  Both the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister are eager to invade the Middle East and, during an interview the previous night, Simon accidentally announced that war was “unforseeable.”  This has led to people accidentally assuming that Simon is anti-war (Simon really doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other) but it also means that the Prime Minister’s compulsively profane assistant, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is now running around the office and threatening people.

(I doubt that there’s any way that I can do justice to Capaldi’s performance here.  You simply have to see him.  He is a force of nature, a tornado of nonstop profanity and aggression.)

Not every government official in the U.S. is enthusiastic about going to war.  Both Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her former lover, Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) are opposed to the war.  Karen’s assistant, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), has even written a paper that explains why a war in the Middle East could not be won.  Karen hopes to use Simon as a spokesman to keep the British out of the war and, therefore, America as well.

(Toby, meanwhile, just wants to have sex with Liza.)

However, there are a few factors that complicate things.  First off, Malcolm is determined to make sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants and if that means bullying and scaring everyone into supporting an unwinnable war, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  Secondly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State For Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) is eager enough to start a war that he’s actually started a secret committee to find a way to get into the war.  (The committee, of course, has been called the Committee For Future Planning.)  Third, and perhaps most importantly, Simon is an idiot.

Along with being both a satire of American-British relations (my favorite moment comes when a random American tourist tells Malcolm to stop cursing in public) and the lead-up to the Iraq War, In The Loop is also a devastating look at how government works.  In the Loop makes a good case that, for all the titles and the committee and the talk about doing what’s right, most government policy is the result of a combination of stupidity and needless aggression.  As played by Capaldi, Malcolm has no ideology or core beliefs.  He simply makes sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants.

And if that means going to war, then Malcolm will do whatever it takes to push Britain into war.

Director Armando Iannucci is probably best known for creating two political comedies, the Thick of It and Veep.  And while I’ve never seen The Thick Of It, I absolutely love Veep.  From what I’ve read, all three projects share the same fictional universe.  (Capaldi’s Malcolm was the main character on The Thick Of It.)

Though, actually, I think it’s debatable just how fictional that universe is.  Ultimately, In The Loop is probably one of the most plausible satires that I’ve ever seen.

Shattered Politics #59: Night Falls on Manhattan (dir by Sidney Lumet)


Night_falls_on_manhattan_poster

Oddly enough, right after I watched City Hall, I watched yet another 1997 film about politics and police corruption in New York.  And while Night Falls on Manhattan is definitely not one of Sidney Lumet’s best films, it’s still definitely an improvement on City Hall.

Night Falls on Manhattan tells the story of what happens when two veteran detectives — Liam Casey (Ian Holm) and Joey Allegreto (James Gandolfini) — attempt to arrest drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey).  Liam ends up getting shot multiple times before Jordan, disguised as a police officer, flees the scene.  As the cops search for Jordan, they accidentally shoot and kill one of their own.

In short, Manhattan has gone crazy and only the prompt capture and conviction of Jordan Washington will set things right.

However, the police don’t have to spend too much time searching for Jordan because, the very next day, he turns himself in.  He’s accompanied by a veteran radical lawyer named Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss).  Vigoda announces that yes, Jordan is a drug dealer and yes, he did shoot Liam Casey.  However, Vigoda claims that Jordan has been paying off the cops and that Liam and Joey weren’t actually trying to arrest him.  Instead, they were specifically looking for an excuse to execute him.

Flamboyant District Attorney Morganstern (Ron Leibman) know that his office has to convict Jordan.  And luckily, he has a secret weapon.  Liam’s son, Sean (Andy Garcia), just happens to be a former cop and an assistant district attorney.  He assigns Sean to handle Jordan’s prosecution.

Sean, it turns out, has political ambitions of his own and, by prosecuting Jordan, he not only gets revenge for the shooting of his father but he also furthers his own career.  (He also gets a girlfriend, in this case an associate of Vigoda’s who is played by Lena Olin.)  When Morganstern has a heart attack, Sean suddenly finds himself being mentioned as a candidate to replace him in the upcoming election.

However, even as Sean appears to be shoo-in to be the next district attorney, he also discovers that neither Liam nor Joey were as innocent as he originally assumed..

Night Falls In Manhattan is an occasionally diverting legal and political thriller.  As a director, Sidney Lumet had an obvious feel for New York culture and, as a result, the film feels authentic even when the plot occasionally veers into melodrama.  As opposed to City Hall, you never doubt the plausibility of Night Falls On Manhattan.  Though Andy Garcia is a bit an odd choice to play an Irish-American (and it’s particularly difficult to imagine him being, in any way, related to Ian Holm), the rest of the film is well-cast.  Fans of The Sopranos will enjoy a chance to see James Gandolfini playing someone who, because he’s on the “right” side o the law, is actually more dangerous than Tony Soprano and Rob Leibman is thoroughly believable as a bullying crusader against crime.

After I watched Night Falls on Manhattan, I did some checking online and I was surprised to discover that the film is apparently not better known than it is.  While it definitely uneven, Night Falls On Manhattan is an interesting look at crime, ethics, and urban politics.

Here’s The Trailer for James Gandolfini’s Final Film


The DropEarlier this year, I was one of my many people to be surprised by the fact that James Gandolfini did not receive a posthumous Oscar nomination for his performance in Enough Said.  After all, Gandolfini was a talented and popular actor who died far too early and his performance in Enough Said showed that he was capable of playing a lot more than just Tony Soprano or other gangster types in films like Killing Them Softly.

Judging from this recently released trailer, The Drop will features Gandolfini in the type of role that he was best known for.  Along with Gandolfini, The Drop features Tom Hardy and the only girl with the dragon tattoo who matters, Noomi Rapace.  Perhaps best of all, it was written by Dennis Lehane, whose books have inspired superior crime films like Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone.

Here Are The 2013 SAG Nominations!


This morning the SAG Award nominees were announced and, perhaps not surprisingly, the story is less who was nominated and more who was snubbed.  For instance, Oscar front-runner Robert Redford’s performance in All Is Lost was ignored while Forest Whitaker’s rather one-note turn in The Butler was nominated.  Tom Hanks was not nominated for Saving Mr. Banks but the late and missed James Gandolfini picked up a nomination for Enough Said. Myself, I’m more surprised that Octavia Spenser was not nominated for her performance in Fruitvale Station.

As has been pointed out over at Goldderby, the SAG Awards are no longer the fool-proof Oscar prediction tool that they used to be.  Getting a SAG nomination no longer guarantees you an Oscar nomination and, by that same standard, getting snubbed is no longer an automatic cause for concern.

That said, the SAG winners do typically end up receiving an Oscar nomination in January.

The film nominees can be found below:

BEST FILM ENSEMBLE
“12 Years a Slave”
“American Hustle”
“August: Osage County”
“The Butler”
“Dallas Buyers Club”

BEST FILM ACTOR
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Forest Whitaker, “The Butler”

BEST FILM ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

BEST FILM SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

BEST FILM SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”

BEST FILM STUNT ENSEMBLE*
“All is Lost”
“Fast & Furious 6”
“Lone Survivor”
“Rush”
“The Wolverine”

The full list of nominees can be found here.

—-

* Isn’t it about time that stunt performers get an Oscar category all their own?

12 Years A Slave Wins In Boston


The Boston Society Of Film Critics voted earlier today and 12 Years A Slave — which, so far, has been underperforming with the critics’ groups — swept the awards.  The Wolf of Wall Street came in second for most of the major awards.

BEST PICTURE
“12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

BEST DIRECTOR
Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Runner-up: Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

BEST ACTOR
Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”)
Runner-up: Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”)
Runner-up: Judi Dench (“Philomena”)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
James Gandolfini (“Enough Said”)
Runner-ups:
Barkhad Abdi (“Capt. Phillips”) and Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) tie for second.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
June Squibb (“Nebraska”)
Runner-up:
Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”)

BEST SCREENPLAY
Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”)
Runner-up:
“The Wolf of Wall Street”

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
“Wadjda”
Runner-up: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

BEST DOCUMENTARY
“The Act of Killing,” Josh Oppenheimer
Runner-ups:
“Blackfish,” “Leviathan,” “At Berkeley,” “Crash Reel,” “20 Feet from Stardom ”

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
“The Wind Rises,” Hayao Miyazaki
Runner-up:
“Frozen”

BEST NEW FILMMAKER
Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
Runner-up: Josh Oppenheimer (“Act of Killing”)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”)
Runner-up:
Phillippe Le Sourd (“The Grandmaster”)

BEST EDITING
Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill (“Rush”)
Runner-up: Thelma Schoonmaker (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

BEST USE OF MUSIC IN A FILM
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Runner-up: “Nebraska”

It’s The 2014 Independent Spirit Nominations!


46-frances-ha

The nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards were announced earlier today.  While the Spirit noms aren’t exactly the most accurate of Oscar precursors (and the rules of Indie Spirit Awards are pretty much specifically designed to honor the type of low-budget films that are often ignored by the Academy), more than a few of the Spirit nominees are usually remembered when the Oscar nominations are announced.

The winners will be announced, by Patton Oswalt, on March 1st.

Myself, I’m just happy to see Frances Ha and Upstream Color’s Shane Carruth nominated.

Best Feature:
“12 Years a Slave”
“All Is Lost”
“Frances Ha”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Nebraska”

Best Director:
Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color”
J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Jeff Nichols, “Mud”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

Best Screenplay:
Woody Allen, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight”
Nicole Holofcener, “Enough Said”
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, “The Spectacular Now”
John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Female Lead:
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
Gaby Hoffman, “Crystal Fairy”
Brie Larson, “Short Term 12″
Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now”

Best Male Lead:
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Supporting Female:
Melonie Diaz, “Fruitvale Station”
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Yolonda Ross, “Go for Sisters”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Best Supporting Male:
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Will Forte, “Nebraska”
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”

Best First Feature:
“Blue Caprice”
“Concussion”
“Fruitvale Station”
“Una Noche”
“Wadjda”

Best First Screenplay:
“In a World,” Lake Bell
“Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt
“Nebraska,” Bob Nelson
“Afternoon Delight,” Jill Soloway
“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” Michael Starrbury

John Cassavetes Award:
“Computer Chess”
“Crystal Fairy”
“Museum Hours”
“Pit Stop”
“This Is Martin Bonner”

Best Cinematography:
Sean Bobbit, “12 Years a Slave”
Benoit Debie, “Spring Breakers”
Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Frank G. DeMarco, “All Is Lost”
Matthias Grunsky, “Computer Chess”

Best Editing:
Shane Carruth & David Lowery, “Upstream Color”
Jem Cohen & Marc Vives, “Museum Hours”
Jennifer Lame, “Frances Ha”
Cindy Lee, “Una Noche”
Nat Sanders, “Short Term 12”

Best Documentary:
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“After Tiller”
“Gideon’s Army”
“The Act of Killing”
“The Square”

Best International Film:
“A Touch of Sin”
“Blue Is the Warmest Color”
“Gloria”
“The Great Beauty”
“The Hunt”

Robert Altman Award (given to a film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)
“Mud”

Piaget Producers Award:
Toby Halbrooks & James M. Johnston
Jacob Jaffke
Andrea Roa
Frederick Thornton

Someone to Watch Award:
“My Sister’s Quinceanera,” Aaron Douglas Johnston
“Newlyweeds,” Shake King
“The Foxy Merkins,” Madeline Olnek

Truer Than Fiction Award:
“A River Changes Course,” Kalvanee Mam
“Let the Fire Burn,” Jason Osder
“Manakamana,” Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Quick Review: Zero Dark Thirty (dir. by Kathryn Bigelow)


zero-dark-thirty-releases-a-uk-poster-121641-00-1000-100I’m hoping this won’t be the only review for Zero Dark Thirty. I just happened to view it earlier, and these are my thoughts. As other reviews come in, they will more than likely be in depth.

On May 1st, 2011, news spread around the United States as President Barack Obama announced that a successful operation was completed that resulted in Osama Bin Laden’s death. Academy Award Winning Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the events leading up to that operation. This is by far one of the trickiest reviews I’ve ever had to write, considering this isn’t a fictional tale, but one based on actual events. Additionally, in trying to tell you about this, even though you know what happens, I’m leaving out tons of details so that the audience can be surprised. In short, Zero Dark Thirty is easily my front runner for Best Picture and Director this year (and this is coming from someone who enjoyed Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook this year). I enjoyed it so much that right after seeing it today, I went back in for a 2nd showing.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t apologize for anything that occurs in the film. There are actions that may have viewers wincing or possibly questioning the motives behind them. At the same time, it doesn’t really try to glorify anyone either. There are no congratulatory celebrations like you’d find in a Michael Bay film. There’s no one approving of nor condemning in this. There’s just a target, and the people are who are – by whatever means they can – trying to eliminate that target, no sugar coating required. I like to think it takes a bit of courage to throw that up there for audiences. I’m not really certain there’s any other way they could have told it without causing some kind of upset. Unlike Act of Valor, which favored the Military Forces presented on screen, Zero Dark Thirty kind of showcases Seal Team 6 as just a group of guys that need to go in and do a job. It may be considered the safe road in having the distance there, but I felt it worked over all.

Jessica Chastain carries the film as Maya, a CIA Operative who makes it her mission to get UBL. I’ve never seen Chastain’s other films, but she comes across with such ferocity in this movie as it process as it’s hard to ignore her and I’ll probably keep an eye out for her other work. Jason Clarke (Brotherhood) also plays an operative who works with her. Zero Dark Thirty has a great ensemble cast that includes Mark Strong (Green Lantern), James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Chris Pratt (Wanted), Jennifer Ehle (Contagion), Edgar Ramirez (The Bourne Ultimatum), among others. It didn’t feel like anyone missed a beat on this.

The movie moves at an even pace. It felt long the first time I watched it, but considerably shorter the second time. Mark Boal’s script is pretty lean, moving from scene to scene with ease, which may actually be more to Bigelow’s credit. The first audience I saw the film with gave it tons of applause at the climax of the film – the actual raid done in a mixture of night time shots and night vision camera shots –  and at the end credits. The second group only clapped at the end credits. I imagine there’s going to be mixed responses all around.

Zero Dark Thirty is getting some serious praise from Hollywood and condemnation from political officials, from what I’m seeing online. Yes, the movie does contain scenes of torture, but perhaps my having seen too many horror films, I didn’t quite feel that what was displayed was really that bad.  As I saw the film without knowing any of the historical background of the actual events, the movie worked for me as a tense drama. It’s altogether possible that others may feel differently when viewing it, and that’s okay.

Overall, if you’re able to find a theatre that’s playing the film during this preview period, it’s worth seeing. The movie will open in wide release on January 11.

Film Review: Killing Them Softly (dir. by Andrew Dominik)


Killing Them Softly is perhaps the most unpleasant film of 2012.

Taking place in 2008, Killing Them Softly tells the story of how a poker game got robbed in New Orleans and how that robbery led to a lot of people getting killed.  The poker game is run by Markie (Ray Liotta), a likable and well-meaning gangster who made a big mistake in the past.  A few years  previously, Markie arranged for one of his poker games to get robbed.  Though everyone knew that Markie was guilty, nobody could prove it and Markie continued to claim his innocence even while being tortured by a legendary hitman named Dillon (Sam Shepard).  So, years later, three small-time crooks figure that if they rob another one of Markie’s games, the Mafia will automatically blame Markie and hold him responsible.

Unfortunately, one of the crooks (played by Ben Mendelsohn, who was so good in Animal Kingdom) is also a heroin addict and something of an idiot.  He talks to the wrong people and soon the Mafia knows who was actually responsible.  Since Dillon is in the hospital, his protegé Jackie (Brad Pitt) is sent down to New Orleans to take care of the situation.  As Jackie explains to the mob’s representative (played by Richard Jenkins who gives a very Richard Jenkinsy performance here), not only do the three criminals have to die but Markie has to die as well.  It’s all strictly business.

Speaking of business, this entire story plays out against the backdrop of the 2008 elections.  For some reason, all of these sleazy criminals seem to be obsessed with watching CNN.  As a result, nearly every scene features either George W. Bush or Barack Obama speaking in the background.  At one point, Jackie says, “This is America,” just in case you couldn’t figure out that the film’s plot is supposed to be allegorical.

Killing Them Softly is an odd film, a well-made film that never quite convinces us that its story needs to be told.  Brad Pitt is miscast as Jackie and James Gandolfini has a truly annoying cameo as an alcoholic killer but otherwise, the film is perfectly cast.  Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are believable as two of the stupidest criminals to ever appear on-screen and Ray Liotta is likable and sympathetic as the tragic Markie.  Director Andrew Dominik makes good use of the New Orleans locations and the film has a few genuinely suspenseful moments.  That said, the film’s graphic and brutal violence quickly goes from being shocking to just being tedious.

If for no other reason, I did appreciate the fact that Killing Them Softly was brave enough to lump Barack Obama in with every other politician whose words are used to punctuate the film’s action.  Here in America, filmmakers tend to be very hypocritical when it comes to criticizing the government, going to almost ridiculous lengths to excuse Obama for following the same policies that they previously spent eight years attacking George W. Bush for instituting.  Instead of attempting to promote any partisan position, Killing Them Softly argues that the business of America will remains the same regardless of who is in charge.  Normally, that would seem to be a pretty obvious point but, in today’s cult-like political climate, it’s practically revolutionary.

Critics have been mixed on Killing Them Softly but, judging on both the film’s anemic box office and a lot of the comments that have been left online, audiences seem to absolutely loathe this film.  This isn’t particularly surprising because Killing Them Softly, with its constant emphasis on everything that’s ugly and dirty about life, seems to be a film that was specifically made to annoy audiences.  Even the film’s strengths ultimately serve to alienate the viewer.  I suspect that was Andrew Dominik’s ultimate goal and, on that count, he definitely succeeded.

Ultimately, I guess that’s why I ended up developing a strange sort of respect for Killing Them Softly, even though I found it impossible to enjoy the film itself and I would rather visit my gynecologist than ever have to sit through it again.  This is a film that stays true to itself, even at the risk of becoming unwatchable as a result.

Film Review: Welcome To The Rileys (dir. by Jake Scott)


Last weekend, I went down to one of my favorite movie theaters, the wonderful Plano Angelika, and I saw one of the best — if unheralded — independent films of 2010, Welcome To The Rileys.

Kristen Stewart plays Alison, a 16 year-old runaway who, as the movie opens, is working as a stripper and prostitute in New Orleans.  One day, while at work, she meets a middle-aged businessman named Doug Riley (James Gandolfini).  Doug is in New Orleans attending a convention and he reluctantly accepts Alison’s offer of a private dance.  As soon as they’re alone together, Alison immediately offers to have sex with Doug for money.  Doug turns her down, Alison angrily accuses him of being an undercover cop, and a flustered Doug leaves the club.  Later that night, Doug happens to run into Alison again and, looking to make amends with her, he gives her a ride back to her “home,” which turns out to be an apparently abandoned and condemned row house.  Doug ends up sleeping over at the house (though again, he refuses to have sex with Alison).  The next day, Doug offers to pay Alison a hundred dollars a day if he can stay in her house while he’s in New Orleans.  Alison, who is always on the look out for extra money, agrees.  After a rough start, Doug and Alison settle into a bizarre sort of domesticity with the paternalistic Doug teaching Alison how to make a bed and Alison calling on Doug when one of her clients refuses to pay her for her services.

What Alison doesn’t know is that Doug has a wife in Indiana.  Lois Riley (played by Melissa Leo) hasn’t stepped outside of their suburban home in years.  Ever since the tragic death of their 16 year-old daughter, Lois has cut herself off from the world and her husband (even to the extent of tolerating Doug’s affair with a local waitress).  However, when Doug calls her from New Orleans and announces that he won’t be coming home for a while, Lois forces herself to leave the house.  While Doug is busy trying to escape from reality, Lois is driving down to New Orleans to try to bring him back.

When Lois reaches New Orleans, Doug introduces her to Alison and, to his surprise, the two of them almost immediately start to bond.  Lois tells Alison about how their daughter and Alison responds by telling the story (which, the film hints, might not be true) of how her own mother also died in a car accident.  Soon, both Doug and Lois have — for all intents and purposes — adopted Lois as their own daughter.  However, what neither has considered is that Alison might not want to a part of the Riley family…

Welcome To The Rileys is ultimately a touching and low-key exploration of grief, guilt, and the struggle to accept the occasionally unpleasant realities of life.  It’s also a portrait of three lost souls struggling to connect with the existence around them.  Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s direction is properly low-key and manages to be affecting without indulging in any of the obvious tricks that one might expect to see in a film like this.  However, what makes this film ultimately work is a strong trio of lead performances from Gandolfini, Leo, and Stewart.

Playing Doug (a character that both I and the film had mixed feelings about), James Gandolfini gives a performance that’s so good that I never once found myself tempted to make any “Soproano”-related asides under my breath.  Though his Southern accent comes and goes, Gandolfini brings the perfect combination of warmth, concern, self-pity, and stubbornness to his role and he makes Doug an understandable and sympathetic — if not always likable — character.  A part of me feels that the film’s screenplay is a bit too quick to let Doug off the hook for some of his actions but, as an actor, Gandolfini never makes the same mistake.

Playing Alison, Kristen Stewart proves that it’s time to forgive her for starring in Twilight.  Her performances in Into The Wild and The Runaways provided hints that she’s actually a very talented actress but her performance here proves it.  She not only captures Alison’s sadness but, even more importantly, she doesn’t shy away from the anger that feeds off that sadness.  She never sentimentalizes her performance, there’s no moment where she pauses to let the audience know that she’s a good girl at heart.  Instead, she dares us to reject her while revealing just enough of her inner pain to make it impossible for us to do so.

However, for me, the film really belongs to Melissa Leo.  Whether she’s struggling to figure out how to drive her husband’s car or primly introducing herself to Alison (who, at the time, is dressed for work), Leo is simply amazing.  When Lois first appeared in the film, I was worried because it felt as if the filmmakers were using her agorophobia to justify Doug’s adultery.  However, Melissa Leo subtly and surely starts to peel away the layers of Lois’ outward repression until, by the end of the movie, Lois is the most vibrant character in the film.  Just check out the scene where Lois responds to a flirtatious man in a truck stop with a combination of pride, amusement, and surprise and you’ll see what great acting is all about. 

When Lois finally ends up in New Orleans, she seems to bring a whole new life to the movie.  What previously seemed to simply be a meditation on loss and sadness is instead revealed to be a celebration of life and love.  For a film that originally seemed to be about an errant husband and an angry runaway, Welcome To The Rileys eventually turns out to be a tribute to one woman who turns out to be far stronger than anyone gave her credit for.

With all the current Oscar hype surrounding films like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right, Welcome To The Rileys is the type of low-key, subtle movie that will probably be forgotten in the rush to jump on all the more obvious bandwagons.  That’s a shame because it’s one of the best films of 2010 and one that deserves to be seen over the years to come.