This week: Brad Pitt earns forgiveness for that cringe-inducing Chanel commercial with Andrew Dominik's gangster thriller Killing Them Softly, plus uncomfortable-yet-poignant drama Starlet, which just picked up the Film Independent Spirit Awards' Robert Altman Award. Both films are reviewed below the jump.
Also! Check out my rundown on the Another Hole in the Head film festival, an annual event stuffed with catnip candy for fans of horror, sci-fi, and cinema du sick 'n' wrong. (If you love Franco Nero, John Saxon, Henry Silva, and guys with 1970s mustaches fighting in junkyards like I do, don't miss my top pick: Eurocrime!)
Other movies opening this week include period detective flick Dragon (it stars Donnie Yen, so you know what that means: sweet fight scenes); and Henry Jaglom's latest, family drama Just 45 Minutes to Broadway (at the Roxie).
Back to 1942 Multiple storylines wend through Feng Xiaogang's historical epic about a devastating drought that brought famine to China's Henan province. Abandoned by their government, millions of refugees would eventually die in a situation compounded by corrupt officials, the Chinese army's demands on the region's nonexistent grain stores, and looming Japanese troops. The scenes from the road are grim, on both small (a desperate family tries to trade their child for grain) and larger (Japanese bombing raids, cannibalism) scales — though there are moments of hope, as when rival families put aside their differences to help a pregnant daughter. (Hope doesn't last, though: when the baby is born, the half-dead mother mutters, "Kill it.") Meanwhile, an American journalist (Adrien Brody) chases the story with the help of a priest (Tim Robbins, working a distracting accent); after witnessing horrors in Henan, his reporting helps nudge the government into action, however slightly. It would take an exceptionally even hand to prevent this heavily tragic material from sliding face first into melodrama, something Back to 1942 doesn't even attempt to do. Whether you feel moved or manipulated is up to you. (2:26) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Collection As soon as you behold the neon sign “Hotel Argento” shining over the grim warehouse-cum-evil dead trap, you know exactly what you’re in for — a wink, and even a little bit of a horror superfan’s giggle. In other words, to tweak that killer Roach Motel tagline: kids check in, but they don’t check out. No need to see 2009's The Collector — the previous movie by director-cowriter Marcus Dunstan and writer Patrick Melton (winners of the third season of Project Greenlight, now with the screenplays for multiple Saw films beneath their collective belt) — the giallo fanboy and gorehound hallmarks are there for all to enjoy: tarantulas (straight from 1981's The Beyond), a factory kitted out as an elaborate murder machine, and end credits that capture characters’ last moments. Plus, there's plenty of fast-paced shocks and seemingly endless splatter, with a heavy sprinkle of wince-inducing compound fractures. The Collection ups the first film’s ante, as gamine Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) is lured to go dancing with her pals. Their underground party turns out to be way beyond the fringe, as the killer mows down the dance floor, literally, and gives the phrase “teen crush” a bloody new spin. Stumbling on The Collector’s antihero thief Arkin (Josh Stewart) locked in a box, Elena releases him but can’t prevent her own capture, so killer-bodyguard Lucello (Oz’s Lee Tergesen) snatches Arkin from the hospital and forces him to lead his team of toughs through a not-so-funhouse teeming with booby traps as well as victims-turned-insidious-weapons. All of which almost convinces you of nutty-nutball genius of the masked, dilated-pupiled Collector (here stuntman Randall Archer), who takes trendy taxidermy to icky extremes — even when his mechanism is threatened by a way smart last girl and a lock picker who’s adept at cracking building codes. Despite Dunstan’s obvious devotion to horror-movie landmarks, The Collection doesn’t turn out to be particularly original: rather, it attempts to stand on the shoulders — and arms and dismembered body parts — of others, in hopes of finding its place on a nonexistent drive-in bill. (1:23) (Kimberly Chun)
Killing Them Softly Lowest-level criminal fuckwits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob gambling den, a task which miraculously they fail to blow. Nevertheless, the repercussions are swift and harsh, as a middleman suit (Richard Jenkins) to the unseen bosses brings in one hitman (Brad Pitt), who brings in another (James Gandolfini) to figure out who the thieves are and administer extreme justice. Based on a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins, this latest collaboration by Pitt and director-scenarist Andrew Dominik would appear superficially to be a surer commercial bet after the box-office failure of their last, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford — one of the great films of the last decade. But if you're looking for action thrills or even Guy Ritchie-style swaggering mantalk (though there is some of that), you'll be disappointed to find Killing more in the abstracted crime drama arena of Drive (2011) or The American (2010), landing somewhere between the riveting former and the arid latter. This meticulously crafted tale is never less than compelling in imaginative direction and expert performance, but it still carries a certain unshakable air of so-what. Some may be turned off by just how vividly unpleasant Mendelsohn's junkie and Gandolfini's alchie are. Others will shrug at the wisdom of re-setting this story in the fall of 2008, with financial-infrastructure collapse and the hollow promise of President-elect Obama's "Change" providing ironical background noise. It's all a little too little, too soon. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Starlet Fresh off the bus from Florida, Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of the perennially undervalued Mariel) is living an indolent existence in the San Fernando Valley — it takes a while for us to realize she even has a job, albeit a pretty irregular and undemanding one. (Hint: What movie industry is largely based in the Valley? Second hint: It's not the non-porn one.) Most of the time she just hangs about with her equally immature, similarly employed housemates, tanning and playing with her little dog. When a chance find at a yard sale yields a stash of hidden cash, Jane goes on a brief spending spree, then guiltily tries to return the remaining cash to Sadie (Besedka Johnson). The latter is an extra-cranky elderly woman who has no idea she's missing any money and slams the door in Jane's face before she can explain. Undaunted, perhaps needing some semblance of family in her vapid new life, Jane basically forces her friendship on the old lady, with eventual success albeit a few speed bumps. Sean Baker's film is often an uncomfortable watch, because the dynamic between lead characters is so frequently awkward and discordant. (And also because the other major figures, Jane's housemates played by Stella Maeve and James Ransome, are so completely obnoxious.) But its resistance to easy odd-couple sentimentality ultimately works to Starlet's favor, making the low key (like everything else here) close unexpectedly poignant. Real-life adult entertainment stars Manuel Ferrara and Asa Akira appear as themselves. (1:59) (Dennis Harvey)