Thursday, October 26, 2023

THE KILLER Contains Fassbender & Fincher's Icy Execution In Neo Noir

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all: 

THE KILLER (Dir. David Fincher, 2023)

A neo noir thriller about an unnamed professional contract hitman may seem a curious choice for David Fincher as a follow-up to MANK, his ode to old Hollywood, but it makes sense as an attempt for the filmmaker to scale down, and get back to basics. 


This globe-trotting series of chapters, each containing a different hit, is based on a 1998 French graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, features a stoic Michael Fassbender in the title role, who we get to know through his constant monologuing (or self-narration).


Right before Fassbender’s Killer takes aim, we hear his personal pep talk in voice-0ver: “Stick to the plan. Anticipate. Don’t improvise,” and “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” Problem is, the film opens with our anti-hero botching a hit, missing his target, and having to flea through the streets of Paris to allude the police, but with precise, and very entertaining maneuvering.


When he returns home to the Dominican Republican, he finds his lavish home has been broken into, and his wife (or girlfriend – we aren’t told which), played by Sophie Charlotte, has been attacked and is in the hospital on a respirator. 


Using aliases with the names of ‘70s, and ‘80s TV characters (Howard Cunningham, Lou Grant, Sam Malone, George Jefferson, etc.) Fletch-style, ‘The Killer’ travels to New Orleans, Florida, New York, and finally Chicago to visit, and off the likes of his handler, ‘The Lawyer,’ Hodges (Charles Parnell), ‘The Brute’ (Sala Baker), ‘The Expert’ (Tilda Swinton), and ‘The Client’ (Arliss Howard).


At the half-way mark, an amped-up fight sequence between Fassbender, and Baker that goes through several rooms and utilizes every item within reach the combatants can grab to use as weapons JOHN WICK-style shakes up the movie from its moody intensity. However, it could’ve been more captivating than it is as it’s shot in very dark interiors, and at times it’s hard to tell which silhouette is who.


Helping the narrative’s flow, provided by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously collaborated with Fincher on SE7EN, is our titular assassin’s constant listening to the Smiths through ear buds (the film features bits of over 1o of the British mope rock band’s tunes). Otherwise, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also Fincher veterans) superbly score up the rest of the (of course) dark, edgy soundtrack.


Fincher’s 12th film is engaging overall, and has a number of juicy moments - Fassbender’s restaurant sit-down with Swinton, in a delicately classy performance, as another contract killer being a stand-out – but ultimately it felt a bit empty as its lead, for all his weighty talk about being a superior being to most of the inhabitants of our planet, doesn’t feel like a fully fleshed-out persona. 


The Killer’s lack of back story, and his meticulously constructed methods that we aren’t given much insight into, make him feel as layered as a character in a video game. Fassbender does a fine job with Walker’s words, and convincingly hits his mark acting as well as action-wise, but the iciness of both his and Fincher’s execution made it hard for me to care. So while it’s a stylish exercise that has its merits, THE KILLER left me cold.

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2023)

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction novel, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, one can sense that this will be a film full of a lot of intense talk. This is apparent in the sit-down meeting between Leonardo DiCaprio as WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart, and Robert De Niro, and his uncle, William King Hale, a rich, revered cattle rancher.


Their conversation contains nothing surprising – it’s largely a set-up about what DiCaprio’s Ernest is going to do having come to Fairfax, Oklahoma to live, and work for his uncle in the early 1920s – but as an intro to these men, it’s a compellingly crafted scene that gives us a lot of hints via the advice of DeNiro’s King (as he wants to be called) as to not only what Ernest will face in the Osage community, but how he should and shouldn’t react.


But while that quiet scene sets the tone, and gives the audience plenty of foreshadowing; Scorsese aims to interject disturbing, stark shots depicting a number of the murders of the many Native Americans, killed because of the oil found beneath their land. 


We get to see their wealth being discovered in a stunning opening sequence, going back to 1897, that features several members of the Osage Nation dancing in celebration in slow motion as they shower in the bubblin’ crude from a burst oil well. Hard for a film buff not to recall THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but Scorsese’s distinct style keeps that thought from lingering very long.


Ernest works as a chauffeur for one of the rich Osage women, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), and before long he takes a shine to her. After a courtship with an eager Ernest attempting to charm a sly Mollie, they marry, but as the ominous music below the surface tells us, evil is afoot. 


The murder of Mollie’s sister Anna (a bawdy Cara Jade Myer) is one of the movie’s main mystery threads, alongside the mounting murders of the Osages, and who planted a bomb under the house of Mollie’s other sister, Rita (Janae Collins); all true episodes in what has been called the “Osage Reign of Terror.”


In their first film together under Scorsese (their first and only film together previous was Michael Caton-Jones’ THIS BOY’S LIFE in 1993), DiCaprio, and De Niro put in career-best performances. The desperation, and greed in Ernest is captured by Scorsese six-timer DiCaprio in his most unlikable, yet most engrossing character, a guy who only seems truly passionate when he’s talking about money.


De Niro, who has often been criticized for walking through movies, brings crusty, lived-in layers to King. The grand actor’s portrayal of this political boss’s power stands with his best work, and perfectly falls in line with his past collaborations with Scorsese, this being their tenth time together taking on toxic masculinity.

Gladstone provides a stoic, knowing persona for Mollie, who gives us another quietly unnerving presence in a film full of them. It's being labeled a breakout performance, and I agree. The actress has been acting in film for over a decade in such films as FIRST COW, CERTAIN WOMEN, and THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY (which she co-wrote), but the strength of her acting here will undoubtedly put her on the movie map.

As in many Scorsese films, there are too speaking parts to give proper shout outs to, but Jesse Plemmons, who was also in the Director's last work, THE IRISHMAN, as a gruff, humorless FBI guy does a good job, and there are interesting turns by Jon Lithgow, Scott Shepherd, and Brendan Frasier, as well as notable cameos by musicians Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Pete Yorn.


Scorsese’s KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON joins David Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER in my forming best films of 2023 list. Both share the similarities of being historically themed epics with challenging running times (OPPENHEIMER is 3 hours; KILLERS is 26 minutes longer), but both justify what many might consider punishing lengths with their immersive pacing, and absorbing storylines. 


Scorsese’s latest isn’t as visually flashy as Nolan’s, but cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the film a sepia-tone look that gives it authentic look. I also must mention the superbly subtle, bluesy score by the late, great Robbie Robertson (his 12th collaboration with the Director), and the use of ‘20s popular music, the perfect placing of such is a Scorsese trademark.


One of my only complaints with this immaculate masterwork is that the subtitles for the Osage language aren’t consistent. The film begins with captioning being present for a character speaking the language, but in other scenes it doesn’t appear. In one crucial moment, De Niro’s King makes a declaration to a crowd in Osage - seemed like that should be subtitled. 


That’s a small quibble as Scorsese’s 26th dramatic feature is a profoundly powerful picture well worth your three and a half hours. At age 80, Scorsese proves again that he’s still what it takes to make movies of vivid vitality. The excitement of seeing the legendary filmmaker bringing together his two biggest leading men to give us this magnificent piece of pure cinema is what going to the movies is all about. So don’t wait for streaming, go to it – you’ll be glad you did.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

60 Years Ago Today, The Twilight Zone’s Nightmare At 20,000 Feet Made Pop Culture History

Sixty years ago today, the third episode of the fifth season of CBS’s wildly popular anthology show, The Twilight Zone, aired featuring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, and a premise that has become a historic part of pop culture.

The episode was entitled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with Shatner playing Robert Wilson, an airline passenger who was just released from a sanatorium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown as Rod Serling’s opening narration tells us. This makes the difference from many other TZ installments as usually the protagonists have no mental health baggage so when Wilson yells about there being something on the wing of the plane, people have plenty reason not to believe him.


That something that Shatner’s Wilson determines is a gremlin, jumps away whenever he tries to get anyone to see him, so he goes crazier and crazier until he actually steals a gun from a sleeping policeman to kill the creature to keep it from tearing apart the engines.

It’s an effectively scary story with some of Shatner’s best acting, sharp direction by Richard Donner, who would go on to helm SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, THE GOONIES, and the LETHAL WEAPON series; and a superb script by Richard Matheson, who wrote many TZs, and notable works such as THE OMEGA MAN (remade later as I AM LEGEND), SOMEWHERE IN TIME, and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.

In a 2016 interview with The Aquarian, Shatner talked about the episode with Brian Reesman:

“So this guy on the airplane was actually a Czechoslovakian acrobat * in a furry suit like you would buy for your child to go to a Halloween party, but nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how stupid it is that at 500 miles an hour the guy is not aerodynamic. They just accept what this little suit means, which is, I guess, fear of flying.”

* Actor/stunt performer Nick Kravat

20 years after Shatner’s ill-fated flight, the episode was remade for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (released June 24, 1983) by George Miller (MAD MAX) with John Lithgow in Shatner’s shoes, although his character is renamed John Valentine, and there’s no mention of a mental hospital stay – he’s simply crazy scared of flying.

The segment, which is the fourth in the film following TZ efforts by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante; is much edgier, and more amped up than the original, but it doesn’t top it – it co-exists as another worthy adaptation of Matheson’s original short story that appeared in the anthology, Alone by Night (1961).


The parodies of “Nightmare of 20,000 Feet” are too numerous to mention (the Wikipedia page for the episode lists about a dozen) as every comedy show from The Simpsons to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to, of course, Saturday Night Live has taken it on. Here’s SNL’s from 2010 with Jude Law in the Shatner role, and a hilarious Bobby Moynihan as the gremlin (somehow they even work musical guest Pearl Jam in there too):

Jordan Peele’s 2019 TZ reboot had an episode that might be best considered a re-imagining entitled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the new-fangled take, written by Marco Ramirez (from a story by Peele, Simon Kinberg, and Ramirez), Adam Scott plays passenger Justin Sanderson who this time is spooked by a podcast about a missing plane that makes him think the flight is doomed unless he saves it. It’s good stuff like the rest of Peele’s TZ run, which sadly ran only two seasons.

But the best capper to celebrate the anniversary of this legendary TZ episode is from the sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, which starred Lithgow as alien masquerading as a college professor. In the 1999 episode, “Dick’s Big Giant Headache Part 1,” Lithgow’s Dick Solomon meets his superior, The Big Giant Head (portrayed by a drunk-acting Shatner), at an airport. When asked how his flight was, Shatner’s character replies, “Horrifying at first, I looked out the window, and there was something on the wing of the plane!” Lithgow’s Dick responds, “The same thing happened to me!”

And that, my friends, is one of the best meta moments in TV history. So heres to sixty years of there being something on the wing of the plane that nobody but you can see.

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