Up Today: Life Itself and Killing Them Softly
Quick Take: Inspired by Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself is an imperfect but profoundly affecting bio-documentary that pays tribute to a fitting subject (and to the power of film) while touching on love, loss, and just about everything in between. On the other hand, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is a disappointing crime drama that’s too heavy-handed and too hollow to amount to much more than a (rather bleak) opportunity to appreciate how attractive Brad Pitt’s face is.
Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
Watched on Apr 22
Life Itself (which takes its title from Roger Ebert’s memoir) is an inspiring and devastating documentary that is, first and foremost, a tribute to its subject and to his love of movies.
The film opens with audio of Ebert stating the following: “We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.“
In a certain sense, Life Itself is an exercise in confirming Ebert’s idea that film is “a machine that generates empathy.” It is, by nature, and incredibly emotional film. Even though those in the film don’t shed many tears, there is an intense sense of tragedy pervading it. (I cried, and I cried a lot.)
This is not to say that Life Itself is terribly sad and nothing more—at times, it’s informative, uplifting, stirring, and amusing—but the powerful way in which the film conveys a sense of loss, of sorrow, and of tragedy is one of the primary means by which it demonstrates the general power of film that Ebert describes in the quote above.
The footage of Ebert in the hospital near the end of this life is difficult to watch, but it’s also crucial to the film. While it is emotionally challenging to look at a jawless man who has lost his ability to speak normally, it is also worth it to do so. It’s important. No story is complete without its ending and no life is complete without a certain measure of pain and death. Besides, as the quote that opens Life Itself tells us, we are better off for watching a films, precisely because they give us a fuller picture of what it means to be human.
Ebert was not a perfect person, and the film does give viewers an indication of this. Still, the film is also a tribute to a man who is no longer here and who changed in many positive ways over the course of his lifetime. As such, it doesn’t really try to be objective. It’s affectionate, but (for the most part) it doesn’t claim to be anything else either.
The film features cameos from a number of Ebert’s acquaintances, a variety of film critics, and a number of directors (including Scorsese, Herzog, and DuVernay). Each of these figures is there to praise Ebert, and they do. In doing so, they also add depth to the film’s portrait of Ebert, of his criticism, and of this relationship with film. Chaz (who married Ebert in 1992) is also an important presence in the film. Her love for Ebert is, clear and the scenes in which she appears are some of the most inspiring and the most touching in Life Itself.
My main complaint concerning Life Itself (and it’s not really much of one) is that its structure is decidedly conventional and that its pacing is a little off. While the parts of the film do amount to an emotionally fulfilling and rather memorable whole, Life Itself‘s overall story arc is rather linear and somewhat flat.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Watched on Apr 28
Given how little time I have to watch movies lately, I get pretty pissed when I sit through one that doesn’t cut it (especially when a quick google search could have saved me from such frustration and disappointment).
On paper, Killing Them Softly looks like it should be fantastic. Not only was it directed by Andrew Dominik (whose The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is incredible), but it also stars Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy, and James Gandolfini. It’s also a crime drama set against the background of the 2008 recession (which could have been quite interesting). Despite all of that, Dominik’s latest winds up falling quite flat. Killing Them Softly features some decent performances, but the script doesn’t live up to them, and in its 97 minutes, it manages to say very little (though the characters do talk quite a lot).
When the film begins, one of Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches can be heard non-diegetically. This speech provides context for the film and is juxtaposed with images of garbage, desolation, and poverty that fill the screen. While such an opening could have led to an thought-provoking film that examines the various ways in which American politics, capitalism, and crime are intertwined, it doesn’t; with its frequent use of Bush and Obama soundbites, and with all the talk about money, Killing Them Softly clearly wants viewers to think that it has something plenty of interesting things to say about such topics, but that doesn’t mean that it does.
As I was watching Killing Them Softly, I kept waiting for it to “get good”; it never quite did. While I do appreciate the film’s last line—”America’s not a country. It’s a business“—it’s too little too late (and, like most of the film, not particularly subtle). Dominik’s latest has its moments. But they simply aren’t enough to make up for its many missed opportunities.
Dominik does make some interesting visual choices in the film, and its depiction of violence is often as bleak and as brutal as one might hope. In fact, there are even 1 or 2 (violent) scenes that I might go as far as to call ”inspired” or “memorable.” Still, there is not enough substance to these aspects of the film overall. Perhaps the best example of this is the scene in which Russell (Mendelsohn) shoots up heroin while talking to Frankie (McNairy). In an attempt to render the mental effects of the drug visible, the film includes a number of strange shots—shots of bright light, fades to black, and closeups on parts of Russell’s face. The problem is, viewers don’t need such shots to understand that Russell is in a fog, nor to the shots actually enhance the viewing experience; instead, because they are used in such a repetitive manner and for such a long duration, such shots amount to nothing more than a (somewhat gimmicky) distraction.
The film also seems to suffer from Too Many Characters, Not Enough Characterization Syndrome, which is a shame, especially since a number of the figures in the film have the potential to be quite interesting. Some may argue that the fact that the film doesn’t convince viewers to give a shit about any of the characters it portrays, could be seen as an artistic success (after all, it does claim that “in America, you’re on your own“), but the film’s numerous missteps make it hard for me to take its side.
As hitman/enforcer Jackie Cogan, Pitt manages to give a decent performance, and he should probably be credited with keeping the film more or less watchable. Mendelsohn and Liotta also do a fine job with what they are given, but neither of them is has much screen time. It may have wanted to present a profound and brutal examination of America, but Killing Them Softly is much more successful at reminding us that talented (and even well-established) actors aren’t nearly enough to make a truly worthwhile film.
Until Next Time
Thanks for reading!
ps: I saw Ex Machina last weekend (it’s mostly quite good), so expect a review of that to show up here soon.