Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Killing Them Softly

The story begins with a minor gangster, Johnny Amata (Vincent Curatola) outlining his ‘perfect’ heist, an attack on another gangster’s card game for whom a ready-made stooge already exists to take the blame, to Frankie (Scoot McNair), a street hoodlum and very small fish. Some years before, Markie (Ray Liotta) ran a game that was turned over, and he later admitted that he’d arranged it himself. Though forgiven, it has marked him as unreliable and, were the same thing to happen again, Johnny is confident that Markie will take the rap.

Scoot recruits a fellow low-life, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and the heist goes according to plan, initially, though Johnny, Frankie and (especially) Russell are such losers, that a meltdown is always on the cards.

The local gang-lords bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dispense punishment to Markie and Jackie, though perfectly aware that this bears all the hallmarks of a setup, prepares to do so, bringing in an old friend, Mickey (James Gandolfini), to do the job, not wanting to get too close to Johnny, who he already knows, and unaware that Mickey is not quite the ruthless assassin he used to be…

As is the way of these things (at least in film), things don’t go to plan and there are several complications. Set against the last US election and the Wall Street crisis, an ongoing backdrop of TV news makes ironic comment about the need to provide ‘confidence’ in the market, even if the means of doing so are, ultimately, irrational, and the comparison between gangsterism and finance/politics cuts both ways. No-one comes out looking good in this movie (this is a compliment to the storytelling rather than a complaint about cinematography!) and I found it compelling from the start. A couple of fellow filmgoers seemed to judge it differently, leaving after 10 – 15 minutes, which I honestly found bewildering as we were still in the set-up phase of the film and it would be hard to see, given the general quality of writing and acting on display, what was so offensive at that point that would cause anyone to give up hope of entertainment further in.


Dredd 3D (Pete Travis, 2012)

Doing a fine job of erasing the nasty taste of the Stallone stinker, this is a solid sci-fi actioner which remains faithful to the spirit of the 2000 AD comic character – at least the early ones, which I read from issue 1 when they first came out and for a good couple of years after.

For anyone unaware of the comics (and I’d not suggest anyone take the previous film version as a primer), Dredd’s world is a post-apocalyptic one, in which the majority of the earth is a radioactive wasteland with humanity restricted to a few, vast, “Megacities”. Megacity 1, the scene of these stories, centres around New York and is vast, a world to itself. These cities rely for order on the Judges, fascistic policemen who not only enforce the law but also decide sentence and dispense punishment, on the spot, and this tends towards the fierce and severe, with capital punishment frequently used. All this is given in a voice-over primer in the first couple of minutes of the film, a bit clumsy perhaps but it does allow us to get pretty much straight into the action.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is not the most senior in nominal authority, and is a character simple in nature but complex in storytelling, neither clearly hero nor antihero but an ambivalent figure. He is rigidly authoritarian, with almost no flexibility whatsoever in his dispensation of summary “justice” and has even less sympathy for “perps”. He is a totally impersonal figure with almost no personality (a famed cock-up of the Stallone version was that he took the helmet off, letting us see his face, something that the comics, and this version, never allowed). Yet this approach to lawmaking is shown to be required in a future dystopia on the very edge of a collapse into total anarchy and destruction, and Dredd is, far and away, the most successful of all the Judges, inspiring awe and fear in colleagues and opponents alike. When the Chief Judge has a new rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who needs testing, she turns to Dredd to instruct and test her because Anderson is special. Normally not sufficiently high-scoring to qualify for Judge training, Anderson has psi powers and the Chief Judge wants to see if Anderson’s gift can be utilised effectively.

On their first outing, they visit the sweetly-named “Peach Trees”, a hellish urban ghetto tower block, run by ex-prostitute and now drug-lord gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who has just dispensed some “justice” of her own, skinning malefactors before flinging them from on high, having first given them the drug she controls, “slo-mo”, to give them a lifetime of torture and fear before they hit the ground. As Dredd and Anderson investigate, they find themselves isolated and at war with Ma-Ma’s drug gangs.

The fictional drug, which slows down perception (though not necessarily reaction) allows some wonderfull slow-motion 3D effects – this is by far the most effective use of 3D I’ve seen so far, with a dreamy, hypnotic, almost psychadelic mood produced, even on the most violent and disturbing scenes. And it is very violent. For most of the film, you’d not be surprised to see it rated as suitable for children (with supervision). Yet, at intervals, the violence is extreme and very graphic, which seems odd – I’m not sure the filmmakers have done themselves a favour with this. You’d think they’d at least want to bring in the 15 year olds.

Still, a very creditable stab at recreating the comic feel, creating a world both brighter and grubbier than I imagined and I’d be both surprised and disappointed if there were not a sequel, if not a series, preferably with a higher budget and wider scope. A trek into the Cursed Earth, perhaps?

Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012)

Firstly, just to say that I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I mis-timed a visit to the cinema to watch Dredd &, faced with a 2-hour wait for the next screening or a 1-hour wait for a train home, settled on the only other offering I’d not already seen or really didn’t want to watch at all.

The background is a mountainous and wooded region of prohibition-era Virginia (beautifully rendered, though shot in Georgia), where the three Bondurant brothers are operating a moonshine business, selling to the big-city gangsters, though living pretty basically themselves, paying off lawmen with a share of the moonshine. Into this world comes the corrupt special agent Rakes, played with pantomime panache by Guy Pearce, who intends taking over all the local producers and running it for a local crooked politician. The eldest Bondurant brother, Forrest, is determined not to work for anybody and takes an immediate dislike to Rakes, making clear that there will be no compromise, and battle lines are drawn up.

Tom Hardy, as Forrest, puts in a terrific performance, full of stillness, menace and power. Jason Clarke’s Howard, the second brother, is more overtly violent but is a little underdrawn, and Shia Labouef’s youngest brother, Jack, the narrater and ostensible lead character is perfectly decent, if a little overshadowed by Hardy. With Mia Wasikowska as love interest for Jack and Jessica Chastain, serenely beautiful as the ex-dancer who falls for Forrest, providing a little characterisation beyond the fraternal, and a minor role for Gary Oldman as big-city gangster Floyd Banner, the film rattles along happily. There are a couple of moments of violence, and a little bit of nudity, though I’m surprised at the “18” (UK) certificate. This is a very rose-tinted view of prohibition America, even if it is based on a true-life memoir, and the hackneyed “gangsters are the good guys, lawmakers are the real bad guys” is a bit too black and white to ring true.

Still, if you just take it as a bit of escapist fluff, it’s fine fun.

Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)

Las Acacias
This has to be the quietest, most sedate movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a film for those people who find films like Lost in Translation* too hectic and ‘action driven’. That certainly isn’t too say I didn’t like it. Far from it.

A trucker (German de Silva) sets off in an articulated lorry, transporting logs from virgin forest. En route, he stops at a car park and waits outside his cab, looking pensive. A woman approaches and asks if he is Ruben (he is). He has been paid to transport her from Paraguay to Buonos Aires. She has a little baby with her, who Ruben was not told about and seems unhappy about. The woman, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and her baby Anahi are not initially named and the few initial discussions between them are terse and tentative, few in words or obvious import, anything resembling personal discussion being cut off before it really gets going.

There really isn’t much more to say, in terms of plot. When, early on, we saw the reflection of the truck in its own mirror, we were impressed with the beauty of the shot, how realistic it was, and the use of reflections both in the mirrors and in the window-glass behind the characters’ heads is a lovely touch, adding a touch of rarely-seen reality to the scenes. The acting of the two leads, and indeed baby Anahi, is beautifully understated and naturalistic, with plot and characterisation being assisted by lingeringly slow shots, revealing so much in the slow and gradual evolution of an expression. Over the course of the film, we seem to learn a lot about both leads but much is left unsaid and what we do learn is intuited rather than explicitly stated – there is almost nothing in the way of clumsy exposition here.

This really is a lovely film, sweet and gentle.

*and I loved Lost in Translation, too.