Tag Archives: arthouse

Branded to Kill – Review

11 Jun

There are many film makers that create movies that leave me baffled. David Lynch and his fever dreams like Eraserhead and Inland Empire stand out, but who can forget the psychedelic nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre? A name that never really stood out to me was Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film makers that was actually blacklisted from directing because of the odd and unmarketable nature of his movies. One of, if not his most infamous creations is the 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill. This is a movie that takes genre conventions and blows them out of the water. Is this film just one giant narrative mess or is it a satirical, yet experimental, look at the gangster subgenre? That’s for the viewer to decide.

Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) has the honor of being the third ranked hit man in the Japanese underworld. He also has found a strange, and often unsettling, kind of love in his newly wedded wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa). Hanada is assigned many important missions by the yakuza, including the killing of three seemingly unrelated civilians. He is also approached by a mysterious woman with a death wish named Misako (Annu Mari), who hires Hanada to kill a foreigner that she will be seen with the following day. When this new mission goes wrong, Hanada is soon on the run and betrayed by almost everyone he knows, with the only possible exception of Misako. Things only get worse for Hanada when he finds out the mythic hitman, known only as Number One (Koji Nanbara) is gunning for him and will stop at nothing until he is dead.

Take that summary with a grain of salt since Branded to Kill was not the easiest movie to follow, and it took me a little while after finishing it to fully process what I saw. At it’s core, this movie tells a classic gangster noir tale about murder, love, femme fatales, and betrayal. What makes Suzuki’s film so odd is the way this simple story is told. There are jumps in time and location that is incredibly jarring and takes a while to get used to. This movie is only an hour and a half long, but it felt so much longer than that because time and space was played with so much. The story could take place over the span of a week or a couple of months. Telling a totally linear story was clearly not Suzuki’s intention. While I do very much appreciate the strangeness, the odd continuity, and all of the confusion that goes along with it, I’m not sure how this really fits with telling the story. What I mean is that I can’t really thematically see any reasoning for telling the story like this. The third act gets really out of whack, which is appropriate for the action, but I’m not sure about the other two acts.

Despite Branded to Kill being totally strange, it still has a classic noir vibe which I really like. The lighting is harsh and the violence is sudden, but definitely leaves an impression. Another great example of noir that pushes the boundaries is another Japanese film called Pale Flower, which I reviewed quite some time ago. Branded to Kill takes it to another level, however, and some of it genuinely shocked me. This film came out in 1967, which is still some years before exploitation cinema hit audiences internationally. This film almost pushes things to that exploitive level. Like it comes real close. There are things in this movie that would have made mainstream audiences in America at this time lose their minds. Hell, there’s some things that would make modern American audiences gasp. I have to give Suzuki credit for daring to go the extra mile.

This brashness and willingness to go places traditional films of the time went didn’t come without a price. This is one of those movies where the history kind of provides a good context as to how to look at an appreciate the film itself. Seijun Suzuki made 40 B-movies for the Nikkatsu Company. That’s a lot of time dedicated to working for a company, but it didn’t last forever. Nikkatsu was not pleased with the original script for Branded to Kill, so they had Suzuki rework it. Instead of keeping it the traditional gangster tale, he made it something completely different, which is the movie I’ve done my best to illustrate as a crazy, untraditional ride. Nikkatsu was even more upset with the end result, and this got Suzuki fired. Jokes on Nikkatsu. Over time, Branded to Kill has become something of a cult classic.

Branded to Kill is certainly not for everyone, and it even took me a little bit of time to fully wrap my head around what I just saw. It takes a gangster story with hints of noir and turns it into a dreamscape where time and logic are unimportant. Sometimes I felt like this worked against the film, but most of the time I was really into the weirdness. I have to give Seijun Suzuki credit for making a movie that no one else at the time seemed interested in making, even if it end with him getting fired from Nikkatsu. For any fan of off the wall kind of movies, I’d recommend Branded to Kill. Anyone looking for something easier to comprehend, you can find plenty of other great gangster stories out there.

Final Grade: B

The Lobster – Review

21 Jun

Let’s go back to September of 2014 when I reviewed one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth. I remember feeling like I just saw a genuine work of art and also one of the most frustrating movies ever. That frustration came from the film’s desire to make the movie make the audience think for themselves’ and interpret the story in a way that would make them feel fulfilled. Now, here we are in 2016 and Lanthimos has brought us another puzzle of a movie with The Lobster. This is a two hour long movie with a thin plot and an overabundance of symbolism and themes and motifs that would keep anyone busy for a good long while. What’s also important is the use of pure and unfiltered imagination that comes along with it.

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In the not too distant future, more stock is put into relationships than ever before. In fact, it’s illegal not to be paired with someone and the punishment is absolutely absurd. This is the situation David (Colin Farrell) faces when his wife leaves him and he is forced to go to the Hotel. This is a place where all of the single people go where they have 45 days to find a partner, and if they fail to do so, they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing and be released into the Forest. As time passes for David, he finds his situation to be hopeless and escapes into the Forest where he meets the Loners, a group of single people hunted by the people at the Hotel. One of these Loners is a short sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) that immediately is taken with David, and the two begin an affair that is forbidden amongst the Loners and that can be met with another punishment most severe.

First and foremost, I have to bring the imagination of Yorgos Lanthimos to attention. Between what I witnessed in Dogtooth and now The Lobster, it’s clear to me that this guy has a lot going on inside his head and isn’t afraid to put his outlandish thoughts into action. This film at times felt like I was reading some odd, classic science fiction story written by someone who admired Kafka with an overwhelming passion. This is a really strange movie, but Lanthimos also made the future he created somewhat believable. At first everything seemed completely absurd, but as the rules of this world were iterated and reiterated, I started to give myself up to these guidelines and went along with everything that was being said. Considering the absurdist nature of The Lobster, it’s impressive that I got on board with things so quickly.

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It’s almost an impossible task to put this movie into any sort of genre, and part of that is because there are so many components to consider. The whole idea of changing people into animals using some kind of medical procedure is textbook science fiction. What’s interesting is that they decided to leave how it happens out of the story and instead just leave it a mystery. The important thing is that it happens, not how it happens. There’s also a pretty touching, if not slightly twisted, love story at the center of the movie. Just because the movie is completely outlandish doesn’t mean that there isn’t strong, touching moments of romance. What The Lobster really is for me, though, is a darkly funny satire. It takes modern society’s need for acceptance and love and looks at the worst qualities of it. The Hotel is like Tinder from hell. I also got a huge kick out of the hollow way people talked to each other, almost like they were reading from a script of socially acceptable things to say. That just adds to the sharp satire.

I do have to point out that while The Lobster is extremely creative and full of pitch black humor, it can sometimes feel like a chore to watch. I felt the same way with Dogtooth, so it must be the deliberate slow pace that Lanthimos uses in his movies. I won’t say that I was ever bored watching this movie, but it did tire me out. The plot moves at a snail’s pace over the two hour running time, which made it feel even longer than it actually was. The first half of the movie is significantly more entertaining than the second half, but the second half introduces a lot of new themes and ways of looking at the situation. While I wasn’t having as much fun in the second hour, there was a lot of new things to think about which kept everything interesting.

The Lobster is certainly one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a long time, and after anticipating it for so long I had very high expectations for it. It certainly did not disappoint in any department. It was funny, kind of sad, intelligent, and also full of imagination and originality. That being said, this movie is certainly not for everyone and if someone told me that they hated it, I would understand. It’s definitely something different, but it asks a lot of good questions and succeeds at immersing the viewer into a dystopian world of absurdity.

The Element of Crime – Review

15 May

Well, here we are again. I really can’t seem to stay away from the works of film making extraordinaire and 100% grade-A nutcase, Lars von Trier. This time, like I previously did with Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies, and videotape, I’m going to be looking at von Trier’s first effort at a feature film. While having done some short films before this, this is the one that introduced his odd style and uncomfortable atmosphere that would be present in most of his movies. So, let’s take a trip back to 1984 with The Element of Crime.

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While in Cairo, Detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) goes to see a psychiatrist due to completely losing the memory of his last case. While there, he undergoes hypnosis, which unlocks the part of his mind that is hiding the information he desires. This memory is of a dystopian Europe, where poverty, anarchy, and violence rule the streets. After visiting his mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight) and discussing his book on solving crime, he is called to investigate a murder perpetrated by the “Lotto Murderer.” In order to solve the case, Fisher employs the method that Osborne wrote in his book “The Element of Crime,” and that is to get into the head of the murderer until you finally understand them. As Fisher delves deeper into the case, he soon finds himself losing touch with himself and finding more in common with the murderer.

Like many of von Trier’s movies, The Element of Crime is very big on style. The only problem is that it lacks in just about every other department. The entire film is tinted yellow or orange, which gives it a very distinct look. What makes it even cooler is that there will be splashes of blue thrown in, whether it’s the static on the tv or the lights hanging overhead. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that looks like this one, and that’s still a pretty high complement when movies tend to look like other movies. The dystopian Europe is shown through such a horrific lens, that it will be hard to forget moments of this movie and its overall style. Still, that isn’t enough to make a movie great.

 

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I challenge anyone who’s watching this movie for the first time to tell me what’s really going on. If you can, than you’re a better person than I’ll ever be. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose goal is to confuse the audience, but there should always be some sort of payoff. The Element of Crime simply makes no sense. I get that it’s about a police detective that’s getting too deep into the mind of a killer, but that’s about all I really get. The acting is all fine and a lot of the dialogue is actually very smart, but it doesn’t really amount to anything much since I had no idea what was happening.

The Element of Crime is the first part of a thematic trilogy about dystopian Europe. The other two films are Epidemic and Europa, which I have previously reviewed. I haven’t seen Epidemic, but The Element of Crime is really nothing when standing up against Europa. Still, you have to give credit where credits due, and this debut film was important in showing what Lars von Trier was capable of creating, if even just giving a glimpse of it. It put him on the spotlight and since then, his style and skill have only been improving.

As far as debut films go, The Element of Crime certainly isn’t the best, and the reason why it’s included in the Criterion Collection sort of remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s just the fact that it’s the first feature film for von Trier, and they can’t really seem to stay away from him. In my opinion, this is a pretty shallow effort that looks gorgeous on the surface, but there’s not really anything backing it up. This is only a film to see if you’re a huge fan of Lars von Trier’s work, but even then I guarantee that you’re going to be disappointed.

Tokyo! – Review

29 Jul

Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho are all powerhouse directors in their own respects. Gondry has made dazzling films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and worked on multiple music videos. Carax has been working since the eighties with his most recent success being the critically acclaimed Holy Motors. Bong has also become a directing commodity in South Korea after his smash hit film The Host. All of these directors, wether you’re fans of their work or not, are all exceptional film makers with their own visions and styles. Their collaborative effort, Tokyo!, that consists of three shorts films directed by each film maker offers a trippy view of the city of Tokyo, but it also provides a dreamlike and inspiring cinematic experience.

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In Michel Gondry’s segment, Interior Design, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryō Kase) are a young couple who have graciously accepted an offer by their old friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) to stay in her small flat while they search for an apartment of their own. As time quickly passes, and Hiroko is having no luck in terms of employment and finding an apartment, she begins to feel completely worthless to herself and everyone. Things change in many different ways when an unbelievable physical transformation happens to Hiroko. In Leos Carax’s segment, a mysterious psycho from the sewers, referred to as Monsieur Merde (Denis Lavant) begins terrorizing the city of Tokyo until he is eventually arrested. A trial soon happens with a special lawyer (Jean-Françoise Balmer) brought in from Paris to represent Merde. During the trial Merde’s true intentions are discovered. In Bong Joon-ho’s segment, we see a shut in (Teruyuki Kagawa) who meets a woman during an earthquake who has buttons on her body that seem to control her functions and emotions. The shut in is then forced to leave his house and brave earthquakes in order to find this mysterious woman whom he has fallen in love with, even after spending ten years in his house.

Gondry really has an amazing artistic eye but also a strange sense of humor and design that always makes his movies interesting. With his segment in Tokyo!, he has to pack all of that style and storytelling into a short film. What we get is a moving examination on young adult life and also a theme of self worth, which is told in the most unique way I’ve ever seen. Props have to go to Gabrielle Bell who wrote the short story comic that this is based off of, Cecil and Jordan in New York. For most of the segment, it’s a story about a young couple trying to really get their lives started, but it ends with a fairy tale ending of transformation that left me practically speechless. Gondry got his point across easily without being derivative, and this is easily the best segment of the entire film.

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Carax’s segment brought me back to the night that I watched Holy Motors and the mixed feelings I had about it. Luckily with his part of the movie, I got to see the first time Carax used his character Monsieur Merde, who also had a scene in Holy Motors. This is a strange story, possibly even as strange as Gondry’s, but completely different. I’m not entirely sure what this part is about, but Carax said that he simply got the idea of some sort of creature coming out of the sewers and killing people, so it might be a bit much to try and dig into it to find some deeper meaning. If I had to I’d say it would be about the ugliness of bigotry and hatred, but this could also just be a cartoonish entry that is meant to highlight the character that Carax created. Either way, this was entertaining as all hell and Denis Lavant showed me yet again that he is an underused and excellent actor.

Finally, we come to Bong Joon-ho’s segment, which I think is the weakest of the entire film, but that’s not really belittling it since the first two were so over the top and awesome. This is a much quieter and human story with some really touching depictions of loneliness and love, even with a strange fantastical, almost science fiction twist. I kind of wish that this idea was expanded a little more because the buttons used to activate the woman’s emotions and actions was a cool idea. This is still a beautifully shot short film that shows the talent Bong has behind the camera as well as in writing. Compared to the other two, however, if could have a been a little stronger.

Tokyo! was an excellent film that had strong entries by each of its three talented directors. I feel like a central theme that can be seen weaved throughout all of these unique tales is a theme of being alone in a city that is dense with millions of people who are going on about their own business, and not paying you any mind unless you give them reason to. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the uneven film that I heard it was. In fact, this film surprised me on many levels and I can highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

 

Europa – Review

24 Dec

In the past, I’ve talked about my admiration for Lars von Trier. I understand that I should never take social lessons from the guy, in fact, that would be the last thing I ever do, but it can’t be denied that he makes exceptional movies. The most recent one that I have seen of his is Europa, which is a very strange, but very beautiful movie. It’s hard to talk about this one because it’s so unconventional and almost defies all rules of genre, but it would be a cinematic sin to not give this movie its due.

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Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American who moves to Germany at the end of World War II to work as a sleeping car conductor for the Zentropa railway. His uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) begins training him for the rigorous test that must be taken to be an official conductor for Zentropa.  Meanwhile, Kessler meets Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), whose father founded Zentropa, and they soon fall in love and begin a relationship. Because of the political unrest of Germany at the time, the American Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) enlists the help of Kessler to spy on the Hartmanns out of fear they may be working for German terrorists. As Kessler’s life continues being pulled in all these different directions, it is only a matter of time before he breaks down and loses control of the entire situation.

As I was watching this movie, I found myself becoming bored often. It’s not an easy watch in terms of entertainment. There’s a lot of dry dialogue and some of the acting is more than shoddy. Jean-Marc Barr delivers some of his lines like this is his first acting gig. The story, itself, can get confusing and muddled with all of the characters and their conflicting dialogue being thrown around. It all gets pretty jumbled really fast. These problems really drag the movie out and make it feel a lot longer than it actually is. Luckily, there’s a lot of positives to Europa that save it from being a pretentiously boring effort by Von Trier.

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In 1993, Steven Spielberg released a little movie called Schindler’s List, where there was a scene with a  girl in a red jacket in a sea of black and white. Von Trier beat Spielberg by two years by using the same stylistic choice in this film. The way that the process is done is a lot different than it is in Schindler’s List, but this movie is very different in a lot of ways. The tricks with color amongst the black and white photography is done a lot by having a subject shot in color that is being filmed in front of a projector that is playing previously shot black and white footage. A lot of cool trickery is done with projectors in the background and a subject in the foreground that gives Europa a really unique style.
Europa is also very interesting when it comes to genre. There are a lot of different ones that I see here from noir to a World War II espionage thriller to a good old fashioned romance. The way all of these different genres are pulling against each other reflects the way that the different characters are pulling Barr’s character in many different directions. All of this, along with the symbolism and metaphors that I don’t think I can quite explain, makes for a very interesting movie, but it’s still pretty jumbled and overstuffed.
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Europa is much more interesting than it is entertaining. It’s a film to watch to appreciate how it’s made and the innovations that Lars Von Trier put into it. It works as an experimental film, a noir thriller, and a romance. The story is interesting enough, but the execution feels messy at times and the I lost track of the plot from time to time. If it wasn’t as boring as it was, I’d say it would be an amazing movie, but because of these detractions all I can say is that I appreciate it for the work of art that it is, but I don’t need to see it again any time soon.

Trance – Review

29 Apr

Hypnotherapy is a pretty crazy concept if you really stop and think about it. If you believe in all of it, the patient is pretty much allowing the therapist to pick the lock of the subconscious in order to help the patient figure something out. Danny Boyle and his writers, Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, tackle this subject using the narrative push of a complex auction house robbery. This brings about some triply scenes and an unbelievable head game that will leave the viewer desperate for answers by the end of the movie.

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Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer who is the victim of a heist in which the target is an unbelievably expensive painting, Francesco Goya’s “Witches in the Air.” During the heist, Simon gets hit in the head by Franck (Vincent Cassel), who is participating in the robbery. To Franck’s surprise, Simon has already hidden the painting, but the whack on the head has made him forgot where he hid it.  Through a series of revelations and twists, the crew of robbers and Simon hire Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist, to tap into Simon’s mind and find out where the painting is hidden. What they all find in his subconscious is a multilayered story that connects all of the players and will bring some to their ends.

This is a trippy movie that makes the viewer literally feel like they are being thrust into Simon’s troubled mind. The story at a point becomes very nonlinear and will trick you a number of times. There came a point where I really couldn’t discern what was real and what was not. This seems like a term that is thrown around a lot, but this truly applies to Trance. While McAvoy’s character acts more as just a simple protagonist than a defined narrator, it is his mind we are tapping into making him, I would consider, a very unreliable narrator. Sound and visual trickery become very important to the storytelling, and never felt overwhelming.

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If one were to just look at the surface aesthetics, I feel like this would be considered a masterpiece. There’s almost a visual thematic element to be seen in Trance. One thing that I really noticed was how symmetrical everything appeared to be. One shot showed a building in the dead center of the frame with train tracks on both sides. Another memorable shot was a blown out scene on a balcony in which Simon peeks his head out of the glass door. The sun makes his reflection on the door very defined which makes a really neat sort of mirror effect. Of course a lot of these beautiful shots were done through clever editing, they are still something to marvel at. Another scene on a highway splashes many different colors that appear to be moving on the character’s faces. This reminded me of a living, talking Impressionist painting. As for the sound, the music is what stands out the most. When something serious was about to go down, the thumping electronic score would boost the intensity and pull the viewer deeper into the surreal atmosphere.

Trance‘s narrative is definitely good, but compared to the visuals and music, it doesn’t quite stand on the same level. For one thing, it may be a little difficult for some viewer to really buy into the idea of hypnotherapy and amnesia. It is a little contrived, but the whole movie has an otherworldly feel that serves to remind the viewer that, yes, this is a movie. The acting is great all across the board, with Vincent Cassel’s performance standing out. But, then again, I’ve been pretty biased towards Cassel ever since Black Swan.

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Danny Boyle has once again shown that he is an exceptional film maker, just in case the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics wasn’t enough of a clue. I didn’t find any problem with the movie, personally, although I can see how some people may be turned off by the entire plot of the movie and the highly stylized approach. Trance was a huge treat in a time of final projects, exams, and papers. It’s bursting with creativity and an artist’s love that you can’t always find in thriller films. I definitely recommend Trance.

Killing them Softly – Review

15 Apr

I have preconceptions of what a “gangster” movie is going to be like, even though maybe I’m making a mistake with that. This isn’t a negative thing, because most narratives in film have a pretty traditional narrative arc with archetypal characters. What’s the best thing about Killing the Softly is that it takes all these expectations that you have about these crime/gangster films and completely throws it out the window. This is a completely unique film that is both ridiculously entertaining and a new inspiration to my work that I do.

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Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) has an idea that involved two small time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The plan is for these crooks to rob Trattman’s game, with all the blame being placed on Trattman due to his history with these games. The heist itself goes off without a hitch, but the shockwave the results is anything but favorable. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who specializes cleaning up particularly messy situations. Now no one involved in this heist is safe, and Cogan is not about to show any mercy. It might get in the way of his paycheck.

From the get go, this doesn’t feel like an average gangster film. All of the tough talking dialogue is there, but it was so unique that it almost reminded me of early Tarantino. The conversations about sex, violence, drugs, and life are so convincing and at the same time, seem so foreign. These dialogue scenes aren’t quick little moments either. Be prepared for some very long and drawn out scenes of two people talking in a bar or in a car. What saves this is that the dialogue and the delivery are so great and different that I couldn’t help but be sucked in.

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When I first started seeing previews for this movie, I thought that it was a pretty strange cast. First of all, I never heard of Scoot McNairy before this movie, but I hope to see him a lot more. His boyish naïvety masked by a false sense of confidence was so much fun to watch. Ray Liotta takes the whole idea of what a gangster should be, tough and raw, and turns him into a whiny little brat who is full of bad decisions. Some of my favorite scenes, however, involve Brad Pitt talking to James Gandolfini, who like Liotta’s character, is anything but traditional. This strange combination of characters and actors makes for very original interactions and situations.

I’m going to combine the violence and the themes into one paragraph because they go hand in hand. Killing them Softly is not a subtle movie in any way. It leaves nothing to the imagination and the message is clearly stated. This may put some people off, but I was able to easily decipher the real world metaphors and comparisons. By playing sounds of governmental speeches and gripes about the economy over scenes of violence and crime is simple but brilliant. Now we come to the violence. There isn’t a lot of it. 90% of this movie is talking, talking, talking. When there is a burst of violence, it is very unapologetic and in your face. It’s almost like Andrew Dominik, the writer/director, was saying “LOOK LOOK!” There is one flashy scene, which I really enjoy, but the ones that just show brutality at its most human are sublime.

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Different. This is the best way to describe Killing them Softly. As a mainstream release, it didn’t do to well in the box office. I feel like a major contributing factor to this may be the fact that it is a borderline art house film complete with unconventional camera angles that are made to jar the viewer, uncomfortable violence, and lengthy dialogue. This isn’t a movie that serves only to entertain. It’s a political allegory, a journey into the philosophy of crime, and an artistic piece of brilliant film making.  Know what you’re getting into before watching this, but it is a wild ride that I don’t just recommend, but require.