Killing Them Softly

America is not a country. It’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me!

Cogan's Trade Movie

So ends the film, Killing Them Softly. I’m not going to tell you who said that line, or the circumstances surrounding it. What I will tell you is that Killing Them Softly opened last November 30th, and was directed by Andrew Dominick who also wrote the screenplay which was based on the George V. Higgins 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade.

Now Cogan’s Trade was set in Boston and in the 70’s. Dominick’s film is set in 2008 and in or near, an unnamed city, which as it turns out is New Orleans – but you’d never know it from the buildings, bars, or restaurants.

Dominick sets up a theme within the movie that is that the US economy was tanking in 2008 – we have Obama, Bush, and McCain telling us as much as we see and hear them on the TV’s which show up in all the bars throughout the movie.

While things were going south on Wall Street and Main Street – the same thing was happening within organized crime. Times were tough. One mobster, Markie Trattman played by Ray Liotta, was running a protected poker game. Which he decides to rob himself by bringing in two outsiders. We learn this in flashbacks.

Now no one would be dumb enough to take down a protected card game, so Trattman went undetected. He had to take a beating but basically he walked.

Top: As Johnny Squirrel Amato Bottom: As Johnny Sack Sacrimoni

Top: As Johnny Squirrel Amato
Bottom: As Johnny Sack Sacrimoni

Then, in the present, another underworld figure, Johnny ‘Squirrel’ Amato, played by Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack in the Sopranos) decides to take down another of Trattman’s poker games. He correctly figures that Trattman got away with it once, but would never ever be able to convince anyone that he wasn’t involved in the second heist. Only Amato hires two ex-cons who look like they lack the smarts to make it happen.But they do pull it off and get away clean.

The mob decides that something must be done. The mob’s middleman, called Driver and played by Richard Jenkins meets with the hired gun, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). His job will be to find the two mutts who pulled the job, and to get them to roll over on who sent them. But Jackie doesn’t want to do a double. So he calls in another gunman, Mickey, played by James Gandolfini, once known far and wide as Tony Soprano.

There’s your set up.

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Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Let’s start with a wealthy landowner/financier who we will call Harry Mandola, who imagines turning most of land in Mandola, a village (named after his family) in the state of Haryana, into a sprawling center of development including an industrial park, retail malls, and residential apartment towers also known as housing for the necessary labor and support business people. To accomplish this, the locals would have to sell their land to the government at decidedly bargain basement rates. If that fails, the government could acquire the land via foreclosures (which we shall call economic terrorism), or by underhanded activities such as scare tactics (which we shall call emotional terrorism), or outright criminal activities.

Once the corrupt state government has the deeds to the land, at the stroke of a pen, the land will be deemed a SEZ (Special Economic Zone) which is just another way of saying – we are now open for business. Then, via what will be almost assuredly be rigged bidding, Mandola will win the developmental rights, meaning he will put up the complex, over charge the government, and then kick back money to the corrupt State Minister.

The corrupt government official, Minister Devi, calls it progress for ‘the good of the country’, Mandola, the landowner/financier calls it a win-win. The rest of us call it coercion, extortion, and … white-collar thuggery, and we wonder if India has an equivalent to our own RICO statutes. That’s what’s going in Vishal Bharadwaj‘s film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola which opened world-wide on January 11th, 2013.

The title refers to the three principal characters of the film. Mandola is the crusty and crafty gazillionaire who likes money, and as we will find out – he really likes to drink. Matru is his man-friday, factotum, majordomo, and right hand man whose main function is to make sure that Mandola doesn’t wander too far off course while under the influence of the liquid spirits. Bijlee is Mandola’s daughter. She’s a New Delhi college graduate who also studied at Oxford, in the UK. And, in case you were wondering, she’s not only brainy, she’s also beautiful.

The film has two other characters of importance. The aforementioned government Minister, and her adult son, Baadal, who, in something that can only be called an arrangement, is engaged to Mandola’s daughter Bijlee. The underlying reasons for that merger, sorry … marriage, are that the Minister wants to her son to marry into the wealthy Mandola family especially since Bijlee is Mandola’s only heir. And Mandola himself, has made his own daughter available as the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ to make sure his business deal goes through.

So on the surface it looks like a win-win for all concerned. Except for the villagers. Except for Bijlee, who is any thing but the proper daughter.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

 Star Trek Into Darkness was directed by J.J. Abrams who not only already has, but will continue to attract deep pocket producers and studios for big budget film projects. By 2016, Abrams will have helmed 3 Star Trek movies, one Mission Impossible film, and the next Star Wars: Episode VII. So we can say his name and game are working.

Star Trek Into Darkness opened Wednesday night, and I caught the Thursday morning show here in Sarasota. I saw the 2D version rather than the more costly 3D IMAX Experience – but strictly speaking, that was more of a function of timing than expenses. I must tell you that the last Star Trek film I actually went to was Star Trek: The Voyage Home, released in 1986 – and that event happened because of a chance encounter with actress Catherine Hicks.

So let’s get it out there up front. I’m not a devotee of the original TV series or the Star Trek films. However I will admit to spending more time watching Deep Space Nine as well as Babylon 5 than I did Star Trek. But back to Into Darkness.

As the film opens – I was immediately thrown off by a chase which seemed to be lifted straight out of the original Indiana Jones – you know when Indy is racing through the jungle pursued by the locals wielding spears and blow-guns with poisoned darts. Only we weren’t on Earth, and the indigenous people chasing them looked like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, only with charcoal ash colored skin. While Captain Kirk and his crewman raced for their lives – Spock had some things to do inside an active volcano.

Yes – inside a working volcano. Hot, hot, hot it was, but Spock didn’t even get damp. Not to spoil anything, but this is just the first 10 minutes of the film so it all works out and that’s your opening which also included the USS Enterprise submerged on the bottom of the ocean like any atomic powered submarine.

I thought the Enterprise was a space ship – but hey, what do I know? From there we have no place else to go but up, both literally and figuratively.


And despite that somewhat less than awesome opening set piece, the film does markedly improve. The USS Enterprise hardware is great looking as are the CGI manifestations of London and San Francisco. The main players: Chris Pine as Kirk,

Zachary Quinto as Spock,


and Karl Urban as Bones looked and sounded very much like the originals. That means I give kudos for the writing and the casting, as well as the acting. Keep in mind that the looks are very much more suggestive than exact – but still; it is amazing when you see them in motion rather than just photo stills. Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty didn’t fare quite as well as the others.

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Baz Lurhmann’s Gatsby – It’s not History, It’s Art

Didion: American teenagers still get marched through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) early in their high school careers, told that this is a “classic.” I haven’t read it since then, so it was a revelation to find how much I remembered its contemplative mood. Gatsby is still as inscrutable, and Daisy as shadowy as I remember. It’s a beautiful, evasive book punctuated with moments of the most spectacular clarity of prose and insight — all the better for being so slim and accessible to high school kids.

Ask Jordan Baker to come up. I need to talk to her privately

Ask Jordan Baker to come up. I need to talk to her privately

Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Midwesterner whose job selling bonds has landed him a house out on the shores of Long Island Sound, the story fixates on Carraway’s fantastically wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Rumors fly about him: he might be an Oxford man, or a murderer, or perhaps just a liar. As if to cultivate those tales, Gatsby throws lavish parties and uses oddly unpopular expressions like “old sport.” But as we learn early on, part of this is a show for the benefit of Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives with her lout of a husband across a small bay from Nick and Gatsby, and who had a short romance with Gatsby years ago when he was a poor serviceman stationed in her hometown of St. Louis. Famously — memorably — Gatsby stands at the edge of his property in the evenings, gazing out across the water to the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ pier, longing for her and hoping that his new wealth and status might be enough to win her back.

Jack Clayton’s 1974 film with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston emphasized the gauzy, sun-lit aspects of the tale, and the grandeur of Gatsby’s house, but critics generally felt the film was better at conveying the surface appearance of the tale than the book’s melancholy soul.. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby famously complained that “the sets and costumes and most of the performances are exceptionally good, but the movie itself is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.” It may have got the 1920s/ Jazz Age look right, but it failed to capture the classic Americanness of this story.

The song Isn't It Romantic? by Rodgers & hart didn't come along until 1932

The song Isn’t It Romantic? by Rodgers & Hart didn’t come along until 1932, so it is not in the film

All the more reason for a new interpretation. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire in the three core roles, does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film achieve what Clayton’s could not?

You must tell Tom that you never loved him...

You must tell Tom that you never loved him…

JMM: Great question, Didion. Upon publication in 1925, the book sales were tepid: about 20,000 copies sold in the 1st year following publication. In contrast, the book has sold about 405,000 copies in the first three months of this year. And that number would not include the copy I bought late in April, after not being able to acquire one from my nearest public library.

But before we launch into a discussion of the film, I’d like to point out that the budget/cost of this film was in the West Egg-ish neighborhood of $127,000,000. One would have to be quite creative to spend that much money on a movie. And just think of the clothing and accessories tie-ins with Prada, Tiffany & Co, and Brooks Brothers. I don’t think I’ll be trotting off to Brooks Brothers to pick up a straw boater at $198 a pop. How about you? Will you be going in for the 1920’s look?

Didion: As long as I can score a new tiara, I’ll be all set. You know how us professors get paid so lavishly that a visit to Tiffany is, like, yawn.

So I’m curious, JMM — tell me your thoughts about the relationship between book and film. Obviously, literary adaptations are always tricky; directors want to make films that anyone can see, from big fans of the book to those who’ve never read it. Do you think Luhrmann succeeds?

All that glitters may not be gold, but it will be Gatsby

All that glitters may not be gold, but it will be Gatsby

JMM: Yes, he succeeds. As you said above, the book and its titular character Gatsby are inscrutable which to me means that it is subject to many interpretations — almost as many as the number of bits of confetti and streamers that fell during the Gatsby soirees.

I think the transfer of the literary to the screen was well done. Especially if you consider that the charm of the book is less the story, and more the excellence of the writing.

Didion: I agree with you in part. I felt Luhrmann succeeded with the overall look and the vividness of the characters — no one is going to say, as Canby did about the previous version, that this is lifeless — but I disliked the hyperactive melodrama of the film. It missed, to me, the book’s soul: its narrator’s desire for something real behind all that glitz.

JMM: Yeah, in the film, the Carraway character was either in awe, or watching with stunned amazement – or busy twirling a glass in his hand – but isn’t that what makes the book so difficult to film – the charms of Nick are all his internal discoveries rather than something he actually does?

Nick to Gatsby: [you're better] than the whole damned bunch together

Nick to Gatsby: [you’re better] than the whole damned bunch together

Didion: That’s exactly right. Nick wants to believe that Gatsby really is “worth the whole damn bunch altogether,” as he shouts to Gatsby across the lawn. But the film doesn’t quite show us that Gatsby is anything more than an imperfect invention. Luhrmann couldn’t quite commit: are we supposed to attach to Gatsby? or are we supposed to see through him, and thus become aware of Nick’s naivete?

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Directed by Gilles Bourdos, the film Renoir is set in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France, where famed French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent the summer of 1915. He’s already an old man, wheelchair bound, and suffering greatly from rheumatoid arthritis. His home and studio (atelier) is set there in the south of France, and Renoir is supported by a staff of women who take care of him and his young teenage son. Renoir’s wife had passed away recently.

We will come to learn that Renoir’s staff is composed of women who were hired on originally as models and stayed on to become maids, or hired as maids and then became models. Renoir had two older sons both of whom were currently engaged as participants in World War I which raged on further to the north in France.

Enter a beautiful young woman, Andrée (called Dedee) and played by the stunning Christa Theret.She’s smart, she’s calculating, she’s aggressive and Renoir is impressed. She not only becomes his model, but she also becomes his muse or inspiration.


That’s the end of Act I.

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The Company You Keep


Robert Redford has assembled a stellar cast of well known actors for his new film The Company You Keep. Once more we have Redford starring in a film about the search for the truth. Only this time, unlike the classic 1976 film All The President’s Men, Redford is not portraying an intrepid reporter. He is instead the person that everyone is looking for.

Rather than having two reporters, like Woodward and Bernstein, we have just one reporter, a Ben Shepard, played by Shia LaBoeuf. Shepard works for the Albany Sun Times instead of the Washington Post, and when we meet him, he is being reamed out by his editor Ray Fuller, played by the always great Stanley Tucci, for missing a story of national importance that happened nearby.

Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) has been apprehended by the FBI. She has been wanted for more than thirty years as a suspect in a bank robbery that went bad, resulting in a by-stander being killed. At the time, Solarz was a part of the Weather Underground, a radical off shoot of the SDS.

Solarz and other members of the bank robbers went off the grid and were never captured. They assumed new identities and basically had hid in plain sight for the last 30 plus years. Since the nearest FBI office was in Albany, Shepard was sent by his editor to get the story and Solarz agreed to an interview.

And that sets the story in motion. Solarz was never in favor of violence, and now that her own children were adults, and her own parents had passed on, she felt it was time to turn herself in. Shepard digs away and discovers that another suspect in the same bank robbery, one Nick Sloan, had taken on the identity of Jim Grant, a practicing attorney in the Albany area.

And that sets Redford’s character in motion.

In setting up the story, that’s about all you need to know.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez Khan: Why are they harassing my family?
Bobby Lincoln: I don’t speak for the authorities, but it seems safe to assume – you’ve become a person of interest.
Changez Khan: And they make these assumptions based on what evidence? How do I… how do I become … uninteresting?

The above is one of the key dialogues and questions offered for your consideration in the brand new film from Director Mira Nair called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A young man from Lahore, Pakistan comes to America to study in the mid-late 1990’s. He’s successful at Princeton and is later hired as a financial analyst by Underwood Sampson – a job described as one of the most desired in the entire world.

You have 20 minutes to convince me why you belong at Underwood Sampson

You have 20 minutes to convince me why you belong at Underwood Sampson

Changez Khan embraced and loved America. As he put it to Jim Cross played by Kiefer Sutherland at his recruitment interview while still at Princeton, In America, I get an equal chance to win. And whether you hire me or not, JimI am going to win. He meant of course the American dream – a successful career, a beautiful trophy wife, tons of money and everything else that came with it.

Gangez: Whether you hire me or not JIm, I am going to win. Jim: Good fucking answer.

Changez: Whether you hire me or not Jim, I am going to win.
Jim: Good fucking answer.

And he was well on his way. His career at Underwood Sampson was fast-tracked. His girl friend Erica (Kate Hudson) was the niece of the head of the firm. Then came 9-11. Changez was off in Manila on a business trip with his colleagues when those unforgettable events happened. He learned of them while watching TV in his hotel room that very night.

After that, things changed. It’s not like Changez Khan’s star fell out of the sky, and crashed and burned. No, it was nothing as dramatic as that. But when the Underwood Sampson team returned from Manila later that month, it was Khan who was culled from the disembarking group.

Immigration Official: Are you an American citizen or a foreign national?
Changez Khan: A foreign national.
Immigration Official: May I see your passport please?
Immigration Official [looking at the Pakistan passport] Step over here…
Changez Khan: Is there a problem?
Immigration Official: Follow me please…

Which led to a full body search. And that was only the beginning.

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