“…It’s Just A Business” – Anatomy of A Scene

“As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.”

“America is not a country, it’s just a business.”

‘Killing Them Softly’ is a 2012 movie that flew under the radar at the time of its release. It may seem on the surface as a movie about the mob regarding unpaid debts, illegal gambling rings, and retribution for those caught in the crossfire, but what makes this movie different is its allegory laid out in the film regarding its relation to the financial system. As the mafia tries to prop up its system of illegal gambling rings and extortion rackets by using different hired hitmen, there are radio and TV clips highlighting the role of different politicians trying to prop up the financial system in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To keep the system functioning, drastic measures are taken.

As the U.S. economy suffers, illegal activities flourish and there are those people who get caught up in resorting to crime to keep their head above water. When the illegal system malfunctions such as a Mafia protected card game gets robbed by criminals outside the system, Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt) is called upon as an enforcer hired to restore order to prevent the local criminal economy to collapse.

When any economy, illicit or legal, are ripped from its foundations, there will be enforcers or politicians who will need to clean up the mess left behind. While the allegory is not spelled out in the film, As Jackie is left to clean up the mess of the robbed card game by getting revenge on the small-time criminals who wanted to disrupt the system, many scenes highlight how the U.S. economy needs to be bailed out due to the irresponsible actions of the bankers and financial traders who got the country into this mess. While it may not be the most pertinent allegory, Jackie Cogan, is there to maintain order in their own local illegal gambling racket, similar to how leading politicians in government are called upon to maintain order when the national financial system is ready to crash.

Jackie Cogan is on his own throughout the movie and must rely upon himself to fix the mess left behind from the mob-protected robbed card game’s aftermath. He knows other mob enforcers who could help but they’re jaded, bitter, or too worse for wear having done Jackie’s job multiple times before to keep the mafia afloat. Above all else, Jackie is in it for himself to get paid and survive in an economic situation that is affecting everyone, criminal or civilian.

U.S. political leaders, similarly, were asked to intervene on behalf of the government, to step in to save a system that was being abused by financial firms, but also individuals, who made irresponsible decisions, and even illegal ones, which caused the national economy to crash. To prevent the system from collapsing, former Presidents, George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama had to step in to save the economy even though the system itself was at fault.

In the wake of the financial crisis that still resulted from the bad decisions and greedy actions of its players, when there’s a resulting increase in unemployment and poverty as the film depicts along with the collapse of some communities, some people will inevitably turn to criminal and illegal activities including gambling, extortion, and drug dealing. As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.

Without spoiling too much of the film, the ending scene takes place with Jackie and the mafia’s head accountant meeting at a bar to discuss his payment rendered for being an enforcer to keep the Mob card game running afloat after the perpetrators were punished for robbing it. Jackie, like the head Mafia accountant, are using each other for the money and stability of their own enterprises. Jackie Cogan is in it for himself as other enforcers were not able to do what he does, and he wants to be rewarded for it.

The Mob accountant is looking to make sure his illegal enterprise stays afloat without paying more than he needs to. In this scene, Jackie raises the rate of how much he charges for committing the hits on the people who robbed the card game due to the ‘recession.’ The mob accountant counters by saying that what they would him are the ‘recession’ prices and that he’s getting what another enforcer who couldn’t do the job would normally get.

“You know this business is a business of relationships.” The accountant tells Jackie that they want to keep the relationship with him going since every other enforcer is unavailable so he should not ask for more money given he might need to help them again. Jackie isn’t fooled by this plea to continue their ‘working’ relationship because at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid by them and they could not care less what happens to the enforcers who clean up the mob’s mess.

The accountant is listening to the 2008 election night acceptance speech by then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama imploring Americans to see each other as ‘one people’ and ‘out of many, we are one.’ Jackie doesn’t buy it given the circumstances for which he lives out his life in America. The accountant labels him as a ‘cynical’ person but he has reason to be as ends up cleaning up messes violently and criminally to keep the gravy train for others rolling.

Jackie sees even one of the founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson’ as a hypocrite because while he wanted freedom and liberty for all, he still owned slaves and wasn’t actually fighting for the ideals he espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Despite being known as an ‘American Saint’, Jackie believes Jefferson was out for himself and his own interests and that there are no unifying ideals that bind the country together besides the need for ‘money.’

“Don’t make me laugh…I’m living in America…and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business.” Jackie Cogan, after what he goes through in the film, is looking to get paid and survive at the end of the day. He is corrupted and evil but justifies his actions by telling himself and the audience that he’s on his own like many other people were in the financial crisis and must take this blood money from the mafia to make it in America.

When Jackie Cogan hears American politicians say that “we’re all in this together”, “we are one community, one nation”, he believes that no one is looking out for him, not even his mafia employers, and must fight for every dollar he can have because he would not survive otherwise. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is not just about a low-level mafia enforcer keeping a mob-run gambling ring going after doing contract kills on three people who robbed one of the games.

Throughout the film, whether its news clips, radio segments, or the desperate actions of its characters, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is primarily about the larger and looming allegory for the larger failures of the economic system who could not protect many of its citizens from financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The effects of this past crisis reverberates even to this day, whose mess created such dire circumstances for people across the country to fend for themselves. While the small-town mafia and Wall Street can get propped up by those who intervene to save it, the film makes it a key point in this ending scene that for too many Americans, they believe they have been left behind by a financial system that does not work for them and for a culture where it’s “winner take all” and if you get left behind, nobody is going to be there to bail you out.

Movie Recommendations – Volume III

Movie Recommendations – November 2019

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‘Eastern Promises’ (2007) is an excellent film focusing on the role of a mysterious hitman / bodyguard for the Russian Mafia who is forced to be drawn into a situation which forces him to take drastic measures to hide his true intentions. He must do this while protecting a woman who cares for a baby born out of wedlock whose mother died of a heroin addiction after being forced into prostitution. The man must choose where his loyalties lie as he becomes more and more intertwined with his allegiance to the mafia and his affection for the woman caring for the baby and her family.

The man is Nikolai Luzhin, played by the brilliant Viggo Mortensen, whose Russian accent and tattoos make him as feared as he is believable as a Russian gangster caught in the middle between his obligations to his mafia superiors and those of to the British-Russian midwife, Anna Khitrova, played by the excellent Naomi Watts, who pleads for his help and assurance of safety, when she comes upon the newborn baby of mysterious origins. The film’s title says it all in many ways as both of the main characters struggle to hold on to the ‘Eastern Promises’ they are sworn to uphold either by allegiance or by a simple diary left by a dying woman who fears for the future of her baby.

From beginning to end, the film ‘Eastern Promises’ is unique in its subject matter, its portrayal of the inner workings of the Russian mafia, and for the dramatic storyline that leaves you in suspense until the final scene. There are a few plot twists that make the experience even more enriching along with the brutal and realistic fight scenes that are enthralling. Above all else, Viggo Mortensen gives a thrilling performance for someone who had to exert a lot of effort to play a Russian gangster with the tattoos and the accent to show for it. I highly recommend this film.


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‘Ad Astra’ (2019) was an underwhelming box office hit but it was critically acclaimed for a number of good reasons. There are a lot of well-done special effects, heavy themes, and good acting performances especially by the legendary Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones. While it has not gotten much press, I find it to be on par with other great science fiction movies about space that have come out in the past decade including Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian.

 ‘Ad Astra’ is unique compared to those other films in terms of its plot line and its themes. Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) is a decorated and distinguished major in the U.S. Space Command, who is emotionally detached yet very good at what he does regarding being an astronaut. He has both fame and notoriety as the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been gone by Earth for 16 years and last heard from near Neptune from the last transmission. While he does not have a close relationship with his father, a new threat emerging from that part of the Solar System may be related to ‘Project Lima’ that his father captained. Roy is looking for answers and that is why he enlists to find his father, help save the Earth from these electrical surges, and even discover if we are in fact alone in the universe or not.

Without spoiling too much, this film ‘Ad Astra’ does a good job of showing the likely outcome of interstellar space travel to how Moon bases would shape up to be and how Mars would be used for research purposes among other missions. It also shows the dark side of human nature with rogue scavengers carrying out attacks, overt commercialization coming from Earth-based companies to turn the Moon into a shopping mall / food court, as well as the desire to leave Earth to colonize other planets when the one planet we have has all we need in terms of family, nature, and our search for meaning.

Roy’s character transformation throughout the film is the best part of the movie and he is a reliable narrator to show how space travel may change the course of humanity, but it does not change human nature. At the end of the film, you may be asking, why should we be asking if there is life on other planets when we should be valuing the life, we have here on Planet Earth?


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‘Joker’ (2019). What more can I say about a film that has garnered extensive media coverage, been on the subject of many debates, and been both acclaimed and scrutinized for many different reasons? All there is left to say is that one should see it for themselves and cast their own judgment. Overall, the film is a remarkable tour de force with excellent acting, cinematography, and direction along with a brilliant and moving soundtrack. Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in for winning Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards and definitely deserves it. Any actor who can lose 60 pounds (32 kilograms) for a role, develop an insidious laugh, and show a huge range of emotions in all of one scene deserves huge praise and recognition.

I highly recommend seeing the film because it is more than just a movie about the world’s most famous fictional super villain. There are weighty themes that every audience member should think about such as the role of a society in producing a murderer and how we treat mental illness or the lack thereof. It is also about the gap between the rich and the poor as well as how we tend to live separate lives from each other based on our social status, which could lead to inevitable protests and unrest.

The film, in my opinion, does not condone the actions of Arthur Fleck or Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) but it holds a mirror up to the society that makes a man turn to madness and murder in that the very spot-on assumption that we too play a role in creating a monster like that. When certain people, especially the mentally ill, fall through the cracks, bad things can happen, and it is important to serve those people to get the help and care they need.

I think the main lesson of the film can also be that it is important to always do your best to treat others with kindness and respect because you do not know what is going on in their lives. While the ‘Joker’ is a monster and commits heinous acts worthy of severe punishment, this origin story shines a light on a society that fosters a man like him to turn to crime and murder to feel meaning and purpose. While ‘Joker’ is the one who pulls the trigger, it’s clear that had he gotten the help and support he needs as ‘Arthur Fleck’, there would be no ‘Joker’ to begin with.

Anatomy of a Scene – The Letter

“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. You can make the best or worst of it, and I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sometimes, you can watch an entire movie and not feel moved by it. Whether it’s a stirring of your emotions or being introspective about your feelings, few movies will touch the viewer personally. Luckily, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an exception to the rule, especially when it comes to the scene where the main character, Benjamin Button, writes a letter to his daughter, whom he barely knew in life.
With her mother on her death bed, the daughter finally opens and retrieves many letters from a father whom she barely knew and is startled to have a keepsake from someone who was rarely in her life.

Benjamin Button has a unique condition where instead of getting older like he the rest of us as he goes through life, the opposite happens to him and he gets younger and younger allowing him to experience life backwards. Still, despite this inconvenience he can live a full life and that is what this movie scene so special because he encourages his daughter to do the same. While he is not around to see her have her own adventures, he wants the best for her and wants to her to “live a life that she’s proud of.”

When we first are introduced to this scene, we see that Benjamin’s daughter realizes that he went to India and many other places years ago based on the kind of parchment that his letters are written on. There are many letters addressed to her from the time she was two years old and onward when he was not around to be with her. Despite the sadness and disappointed associated with that, she is relieved that he was writing to her and thought of her even when he was far away. For him to think of her while writing ‘the letter’ in such faraway places show that despite his curious condition, he loved her dearly and wanted to express that even after he passed away.

This movie scene is brilliant because it shows Benjamin travelling around India while narrating to his daughter that he wants her to ‘be whoever you want to be’ whether that’s a traveler or a janitor or a toll booth manager. You can make the ‘best or the worst of it’ as he states to her depending on your perspective on life, but he wants her to make the ‘best of it’ as he did. A father imparting this important message on to his daughter that it’s okay to ‘start over’ again in life is important for her to hear but also for the audience to understand.

If you find that you are not ‘living a life that you’re proud of’, then there is nothing wrong with changing it in order to finally be proud of. While he did a lot of travelling, there is still the humdrum of daily life involved such as cleaning your clothes, talking with the locals, and even drinking from a water hose. “There are no rules to this thing.” Sometimes, we tend to think of life as a narrow path when really there are going to be numerous zigs or zags, and when you become an adult, you have to make the rules for how you want to live, what is important to you, and what to care about.

“I hope you see things that startle you, I hope you feel things that you’ve never felt before…” This part of the scene is brilliant in showing the beauty of Benjamin’s travels and how he would sleep, brush his teeth, and move around by motorbike through beautiful mountain passes and rivers. Benjamin wanted his daughter to experience the world and for her to enjoy what it had to offer in her own life. Part of doing just that is adapting to the places you visit and to seek out the adventures yourself in order to make the most of it.

“I hope you meet people with a different point of view…” Benjamin encourages his daughter also to get to know other people, whether from another city or another country, and how it’s necessary to be open to them and to be kind. The locals help Benjamin fix his motorbike as he drives through their village on one of his journeys.
“I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” Benjamin’s last words to his daughter ask of her to be strong in not being afraid to change your life or decide that you want to live it a different way than before. The mother imparts at the end of the scene that “he had been gone a long time…”

Unfortunately, this scene shows both the beauty and tragedy of life in that sometimes, we can’t be there for the people we love but are with them in spirit. Benjamin could not be with his daughter in life but he wished that he had been there to wish her a happy birthday, to kiss her goodnight, to take her to her first day of school, to teach her to play piano, to chase away boys, and to be her Father. “Nothing he ever did would replace that.” Even after all the adventures that Benjamin had, the most important role he ever had was being her father and he wanted to make sure she knew that by leaving her with his diary.

Even in his absence, this scene shows us the power of a father’s love for his daughter and how he wanted the best for her and to live a life that would yield happiness and fulfillment for her. In one minute, this scene in ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ has more of an emotional impact than many movies do in more than two hours. Breaking down this narrative and the beautiful cinematography and filmmaking of travelling at its most challenging yet most rewarding was quite an achievement by the film’s director and crew. Not only would this movie scene have an impact on Benjamin’s daughter by also on the rest of us watching in the movie theater or at home. If you have a chance, watch this scene to appreciate the scenery, the message, and the power of love between a father and a daughter. A powerful movie scene worth a watch and a couple of re-watches as well.

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