A well worn tool

A man aged around 60 with a face like burnt leather begins to sharpen his favourite pencil. Wearing a previously white apron that had now turned a curious shade of creamy brown, he wipes the black, sticky substance from his hands onto his knee. The block of wood is lined up in the vice and all is in place. Except for the markings.

The markings must be precise, for then the cut is easy. Simple. A bad mark would set the foundations for a bad cut. He squints at the top side of the wood and envisions the area where the mark will be made, brushes off some excess sawdust and fumbles and pats his apron pocket.

The tool in question, his favourite pencil, is in fact located behind his ear. If he wasn’t himself, he’d know this straight away, as it contrasted perfectly against his silver, short hair. A quick flick of his hand and he is reunited with his old friend.

The feel is natural. Ridges have formed in the exact shape of his fingertips where the wood has eroded under the pressure of his hold. The pencil has made many marks before, and so it was sure to make another now. It has been bitten, dropped, worn, sharpened, carved as well as drawn with. The colour has faded to bare wood with just a few, spaced-out specs of red and black dotted around.

He forces a knife against the blunt piece of lead that protrudes from the body. With each stroke and slice, the blade takes away a part of the pencil and in turn, reveals a new part. This is one of the many day-to-day moments which pleases Henry in his workshop, and he tries to savour every moment.

The new point of the led against the battered, redundant body of the pencil, brings a sense of renewal to Henry’s morning.

A quick check on the block with his fingers, and the pencil is lowered onto the edge to make the first mark.

Killing Them Softly

‘America I have given you all and now I’m nothing’ – Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg caught on pretty early, to the fact that America was a place that had fast become a superpower, but it’s people weren’t playing along. Andrew Dominik’s new film, ‘Killing Them Softly’, is a gritty, guts ‘n’ all, modern take on the underworld of American crime and the fall of a nation.

Set in an unnamed East coast town – probably Boston due to the strong accent from protagonist Frankie (Scoot McNairy) – the story kicks off with a couple of small-time crooks Frankie and Russell, the latter a sweaty, disgusting junkie that we are immediately supposed to detach ourselves from. They are being set up on a job to stick up a poker game by their contractor, ‘Squirrel’. These games are hosted by Markie Trattman, (Ray Liotta) and one recently got held-up. Unknowingly to the big-time players in attendance, this was Trattman’s doing, he pocketed the money and never got busted. These games are quite a regular occurrence, and a few months down the line, Trattman’s secret is revealed. With Trattman now the immediate suspect, the idea of busting his poker games now becomes wide open for all manner of small-time crooks.

Our two cowardly ‘protagonists’.

KTS is set sometime around the presidential election of 2008, with interlaced billboard shots, tv shows and radio broadcast snippets decorating the film. Yet stylistically this film looks like the 1970’s. Cadillacs, Capris and old beat up bars. The characters sport slimy faces and greased back hair, dirty parkas and leather jackets. Even Brad Pitt’s character ‘Jackie Cogan’ is a gentle, but obviously evil modern-day cowboy. Jackie’s unbuttoned shirt, gold rings, tinted sunglasses and goatee are straight from a time where disco, rock ‘n’ roll and sleaziness would fit right in. This touch may be a nod to the 70’s novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, upon which this film was based, it might also be a another sentiment of the careless America that does what it wants. Either way, it paints a bleak picture of the greasy, dirty underground life of small-town crooks.

You’ll find yourself getting angry that scenes like this could actually take place. Brilliant manipulative film making.

Dominik mastered diegetic sound perfectly in KTS. In a scene where two cars are meeting each other, one car is parked up, with the radio sounding out an election debate about the economy. As we see and hear this, a second car slowly creeps into the frame, also with the same radio station on. For a few seconds, the sounds play simultaneously, only slightly out of sync, then the first car turns the radio off and the second car continues the broadcast. This has to be seen – and heard – to be appreciated! This unique use of sound is continued throughout the production, including mumbling background conversations being slightly louder than they should be to create a sense of ultimate realism.

Use of unconventional, extended shots makes Killing Them Softly a unique experience.

A hidden gem in this film is James Gandolfini’s role as ‘New York Mickey’, an alcoholic, delusional sex addict who seems intensely afraid and jealous of a vaguely mentioned wife or girlfriend figure. Mickey is another character we love to hate, and just as he embodies the classic male afraid of a woman’s success and empowerment; he equally displays a reflection of America’s downfall due to man’s weakness of greed and power.

Any sympathy for emotionally damaged ‘New York Mickey’ is kept well at bay by his selfish, over-indulgent lifestyle.

This ultra-realist, gritty crime film is a fresh take on the over-cooked gangster genre; just make sure you get the chance to see this one while it’s still in cinemas.

The Lowdown on Lawless.

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There are two questions one must ask themselves when watching the summer Blockbuster ‘Lawless’, and they are ‘How many times can Shia Labeouf get punched in the face?’ and ‘How many times can Tom Hardy die and come back to life?’ The answer to both is: a lot.

This Prohibition-era, hill-billy hoe down is a tale of two brothers, (Forrest – Hardy, and Jack – LaBeouf) They are both moonshiners, who sell and export their drink to nearby villages, parties and small-time crooks. What basically happens is that they have a few run ins with criminals and the law, before stuff starts to get serious.

At this point, LaBeouf is being pounded like a ragamuffin, smacked in the face here, throw down some stairs there, all the while being rescued by his big brother Forrest, who proceeds to knock people’s faces off with his trusty knuckleduster.

The attention to detail on clothing, sets and the general realism of the characters is actually pretty damn good. If the story is lacking, the acting will allow you to not dwell too deep into that fact.

As Forrest and Jack plan to expand their business and production of the moonshine, the opposition (a combination unofficial, bent cops and gangsters), begins to get more serious on the pursuit. Charlie Rakes, (Guy Pearce puts in a great performance here), is a perfume wearing, hair slicked-back slime ball, obsessed with the idea of shutting down the brothers’ distillery. He proceeds to beat up Jack (LaBeouf) some more (naturally), and generally creeps his way into the brothers’ village every other day, making threats. He reminds me of when Christoph Waltz played Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, just not as good. That’s a compliment to Waltz not a knock to Pearce, the role was played brilliantly.

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Charlie: Time to get Even-Stevens on that boy. Again.

Now what I should mention here is the Tom Hardy death phenomenon. Hardy, as Forrest, gets his throat cut open from ear to ear and is left for dead by the crooks, he proceeds to hold together his throat and lay on the floor for about twenty minutes before he is rescued by Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and taken to the hospital. He sports a pretty massive scar with stitches for about 4 scenes and then it just disappears. He later gets shot about eight times in the body, which he obviously survives, and gets stabbed. On a flash forward to the forties, we see a drunken Forrest fall into an ice-cold lake through a sheet of ice. About time, we think, but no, Forrest survives this as well and shows that his invincibility lasts way into his old age.

It’s definitely worth a watch, just for the shock factor of the gory bits – some I’ve left out – and the realism. What I didn’t mention is that Jason Clarke puts in a good performance as the brother’s friend Howard, a sort of underdog character, who becomes likeable in the end.

For fans of: Boardwalk Empire, Inglorious Basterds, (and at times) The Village