Archive for September, 2012

Following up his masterful sophomore film The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Australian director Andrew Dominik returns with recession-era gangland tale Killing Them Softly. The film is more concerned with commentary than action, making for a potent yet troublesome modern gangster yarn.

Adapted for the present day from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly concerns hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he arrives in post-Katrina New Orleans to tackle the suspects behind a heist on a mob poker game. The perpetrators are Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of petty crooks who soon find themselves way out of their depth.

The film opens with a jarring credit sequence, which juxtaposes the ragged, windswept image of looser Frankie with a hopeful oration from Barak Obama. It is campaign time in the US, but this means nothing for the first rung of the criminal underworld. Frankie meets risible heroin addict Russell, who is engaging in a frivolous stint as a dog walker. While Obama’s optimism contradicts this image Dominik soon inserts a more recognizable reference, George W. Bush’s unsettling address about salvaging the fledgling economy.

Putting socioeconomic preoccupations aside momentarily, Killing Them Softly is an unconventional gangster film. The film is comprised almost entirely of two-handers. Cogan’s introduction takes the form of a short hop from car to car (set to Johnny Cash’s When The Man Comes Around), before a long conversation with a character identified as Driver portrayed by Richard Jenkins. Driver is a distant benefactor of the criminal underworld and he likes to keep his hands clean. He is slyly attempting to financially undercut Cogan as he carries out his hit list.

Along with gangster genre heavyweight Ray Liotta as ill-fated poker king Markie Trattman, James Gandolfini joins the cast as Cogan’s fellow hitman Mickey; he is an old pro turned alcoholic sex addict. Gandolfini’s presence makes for a number of undeniably hilarious exchanges with Pitt, yet his character becomes tiresome. Mickey’s response to the financial downturn is to become a misogynistic mess of a man and he is perhaps the most deserving of a sticky end.

While Dominik managed to maintain interest for almost three hours with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, he does not fare so well with Killing Them Softly. Running at around ninety minutes, the film surprisingly tests the patience more than its predecessor. This is largely down to the two-hander structure, wretched characters and relative lack of dramatic action.

When all is said and done however, Killing Them Softly is still an effective filmic statement. It is a biting commentary on how the capitalist structure affects the moral choices made by individuals, regardless of whether we are talking about the banks or the criminal underworld. The film grimly equates both worlds and Brad Pitt’s final monologue feels irrefutably on the money.

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The past is a foreign country. Never has novelist L P Hartley’s famous utterance been so relevant as it is to Miguel Gomes’ latest film, Tabu. Except this time, we are crossing continents in search of those elusive memories.

Split into two parts, the first in modern day Portugal, and the second in period colonial Africa, Gomes unravels the life of Aurora (Laura Soveral), a senile but lively woman. In the first section, we observe her being cared for in her small apartment by Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), her African maid. Gambling away her small fortune and plagued by the idea that Santa is practising voodoo on her, Aurora looks to her neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madrugal) for help. Pilar, a reserved, humble Christian woman, is left to deal with Aurora’s hysterical delusions, while trying to convince Santa that Aurora needs more intensive care. Amidst all this Pilar is struggling to come to terms with her own loneliness and lack of purpose in the world, embarking on farcical human rights protests.

The two ‘countries’ click into place with the discovery of Aurora’s past life on an unnamed African farm. An old acquaintance comes back into the picture, and begins to reveal Aurora’s secrets. At this point we move back into the past, where her life is depicted like a lost silent film. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), a stubborn tomboy, begins her life with her new husband and imminent child, but is shellshocked by the arrival of the dashing Ventura (Carloto Cotta). 

Tabu begins slowly and tentatively but its subtle charms begin to reel you in. It is an ode to silent film, the title a reference to F W Murnau’s own Tabu, but it never feels like Gomes is rehashing old ground for the sake of it. The whole film is shot in black and white, the grainy stock indicating which time period we are in. While the first half is conventionally audible, the African adventure does away with dialogue, but retains the sound of the environment. The two actors Moreira and Cotta look uncannily like silent film stars, complete with pencil moustaches, luminous eyes and expressive faces. If you wanted to read anything into this choice, perhaps you could say that Gomes is pointing to the way we tend to organise and direct memories in our head, chopping and cutting, fantasising, re-imagining.

Tabu is a film that could easily be dismissed as typical arthouse drudgery, but if you succumb to its whims you will find a memorable, funny, touching and at times magical ode to memory, silent film and love.

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Opening with a 3D credit sequence that would make Gaspar Noé proud, Dredd 3D announces its presence with artsy dynamism. Drum & bass and electro rock the soundtrack, slow motion invades our senses and the film confronts us with Nicholas Winding Refn’s staple cinematic materials: colour and violence. Could it be that director Pete Travis has graced us with a comic book reboot for the Drive generation?

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, doing his best Clint Eastwood impression) is a futuristic cop who acts as judge, jury and executioner out in the field. The problem arrives when he has to run a trial mission with rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a strangely attractive female mutant with a shockingly low IQ. The justification for her trial is that she is psychic and therefore worthy of a pop.

Dredd takes Anderson to Peach Trees, a notorious 200-story tower block run by an ex-prostitute, turned drug baron named Mama (Lena Headey). Mama is peddling a drug called ‘slow-mo’ which makes the brain experience time at one percent its normal speed. Everyone in Peach Trees is hooked and Mama is indulging in torture, murder and general dictatorship.

Recalling Robocop and The Terminator, Dredd 3D like Drive is a modern take on the kind of film they made best in the 80’s. It also recalls The Raid, the stunning Indonesian martial arts flick that will certainly be remembered as one of the best of 2012. Both The Raid and Dredd 3D involve an assault on a tower block in order to dismantle the criminal mastermind at the top. Sadly, Dredd 3D falls down (no pun intended) when it comes to the gravitational pull of basic sense.

Rookie Anderson is an utterly confusing character. She is a mutant, yet we never understand how or why this makes her psychic and we never encounter any other memorable mutants throughout the film. The notion that Anderson suffers from a deplorably poor IQ also comes across absurd, since she is pretty smart.

The film is smattered with satirical lines, yet there is no overall focus for parody. Where Robocop mocked the corporate culture of the Reagan eighties, Dredd 3D looks purely at itself as the subject of ridicule, allowing for some truly shocking exchanges to slip in. The worst moment sees a cornered Dredd tell his adversary to “wait” before shooting, which provokes a bizarre diatribe from his opponent about why, indeed should he wait.

The film also fails to address the ethics behind the role of judge, jury and executioner. The film’s conclusion plays out with a potentially reckless move from Dredd, yet instead of building tension and moral unease director Travis opts for coolly irrelevant spectacle.

The fact that Dredd 3D falls behind its potential is all the more disappointing, given the things it does right. Pete Travis and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle photograph key scenes with an irrefutable flare, using the high-rise geography to present impressive firefights. The film’s use of 3D is also superior to much of late, particularly when illustrating the effects of slow-mo.

Dredd 3D is a welcome, vibrant contribution to the detritus of recent 3D cinema, but there is a fundamental sense of disappointment due to its hit and miss construction. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will iron out the problems and make for a 3D actioner that is properly prepped for “Judgement Time.”

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Today the enfant terrible is a grand tradition in cinema. At age 26 Orson Welles wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, at age 24 Rainer Werner Fassbinder did the same with Love is Colder Than Death and at age 24 Harmony Korine wrote and directed Gummo.

Premiering at the Raindance Film Festival on the 28th September is Strings by Rob Savage. Making the aforementioned helmers look old, Savage began principle photography on his feature on his eighteenth birthday (whilst casually doubling up as cinematographer and editor). “Strings started life as a short film, inspired by the advent of university,” Savage remembers. “It was a pretty slight script, all set in one bedroom and made up of post-coital conversations.”

The teenage director brought a surprisingly mature perspective to his immediate youthful experiences, yet the film’s beginnings were not sheltered from teething problems. “I had started shooting on borrowed prosumer cameras. I was pretty happy with the film, but lost all the footage after a power surge fried my PC and everything on it. I tried to cheer myself up and bought a German drama called Requiem  – I remember feeling completely recharged after seeing it. To this day I count it as a film that epitomises what I would love to achieve as a filmmaker.”

So moved he was by the experience of Requiem, the aspiring director contacted the lead actress Sandra Hüller and before long they met in Munich. “She introduced me to a young actress who she had been mentoring: Philine Lembeck. I immediately began re-writing Strings into a feature with Philine in mind for the lead role, and we began shooting a year later.”

Referencing Fucking Åmål (1998), Red Road (2006), Somersault (2004), Breaking The Waves (1996), Better Things (2008) and Le Rayon Vert (1986), Savage’s list of influences betrays a savvy European cinephilia, while Strings exhibits a strong understanding of how to use cinematic style to emotional effect.

“I really wanted the visuals to capture those woozy, endless summers in all their boredom and excitement, as well as one’s first experiences of sex, sensuality and romance. Strings has a very loose structure and is punctuated by a series of scenes in which the characters dance – each signalling a different point in their journey. Visually, I referenced the cinematography of Robbie Ryan, Adam Arkapaw and Anthony Dodd Mantle, particularly his work with Lars Von Trier.”

Referencing styles frequently associated with low budgets allowed Savage to work effectively within a very tight budget, while crafting an artistically coherent production. “The film cost under £5000 to make, most of which went on flying our lead star from Germany. We begged, borrowed and stole kit and I wrote the script around locations that I knew we had access to.”

“We had every technical, organisational and logistical problem you could imagine. One day, all of our lights exploded. During our concert set piece the lens adapter got elbowed by an enthusiastic dancer; we had to perform battlefield surgery on the camera mid take.“

Yet the young director attests to an atmosphere of “spontaneous creativity” on set, with a freewheeling approach to improvisation, based on the characters. “The fact that I was cinematographer and editor meant that I could shoot with a certain confidence. I never left a scene feeling that we hadn’t nailed it and without a rough edit already assembled in my head.”

In spite of his cinephilia and interest in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, Savage maintains his emotional focus as a director. “Strings is a film about the listlessness of being a teenager: it’s about the thrill of finding a connection and the long hours of boredom spent after you realise that “love” can’t solve everything.”

“Audiences should expect a naturalistic, painful and, hopefully, honest portrayal of teenage lives and relationships, without the sensationalism or sexualisation that other films have incorporated.”

Strings has really been the project that has allowed me to work professionally within the industry. The same team who made Strings worked with me on Sit in Silence, an entry for the Sci-Fi-London 48hour film challenge (which introduced the world to Gareth Edwards of Monsters fame), which came second place out of over 200 entries and won the BFI Future Film Award.

Strings also won Savage a place on the renowned Berlin Film Festival Talent Campus, “I was mentored by filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Mike Leigh.” His next gig is also a short film for Channel 4.

But what are his hopes for the future of Strings? “We’re hoping that the film will get picked up for distribution and will lead to bigger, brighter things for all involved. The cast are all exceptional in the film, so I’ll eat my hat if they aren’t immediately snapped up for larger roles. Following the news of the film’s nomination for Best Debut we have already received some exciting news for the film, which I’ll reveal after the press release has gone out.”

Prepping a sophomore feature, along with his numerous other projects, Rob Savage is an inspiring young director who knows not to rest on his laurels and stay true to his name. “Try something hugely ambitious, don’t wait for permission. If it seems like an impossible undertaking, you are probably underestimating yourself. Sometimes you need to trap yourself into a position where you have no alternative but to give it your all.”

Strings premiers at the Raindance Film Festival on the 28th of September. Book tickets here.

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In Wim Wenders’ 1984 melodrama Paris, Texas, a lost man appears from the desert, with little to identify himself, and embarks on a journey to reintegrate himself back into his all American family. In Bart Clayton’s new docu-thriller, a lost man appears from rural Spain, with little to identify himself, and embarks on a journey to reintegrate himself back into his all American family. The catch, this time, is that they’re not his family.  While The Imposter ends up taking a wholly different route, Clayton’s film shares the same themes of loss, identity and the overwhelming pull of the American dream.

The story begins in 1994; Nicholas Barclay, a Texan teen, disappears from his neighbourhood never to be seen again. Cut to three years later and a young man claiming to be Nicholas is found – but in rural Spain. The young man asserts he is Nicholas, and is swiftly reunited with the relieved Barclay family, thousands of miles away from where he was found. All good so far. But suspicions start to grow; didn’t Nicholas have blonde hair? Why does he now have a French accent? He doesn’t look like Nicholas. But the family, desperate to cling onto any shred of hope, take him into their household with open arms.

The film is told through a mix of reconstructions and interviews, including Carey, his sister, Beverley, his mother, and even ‘Nicholas’ himself. The interviews themselves are both horrifying and absurd, as we slowly begin to understand how such an incredible set of circumstances came about. Carey and Beverley are obviously distraught, even numbed, by the set of events, but it is ‘Nicholas’ who steals the show. During the screening, I was convinced I was watching an actors performance. Surely, surely that can’t be the real ‘Nicholas’? He is a remarkably candid, engaging interviewee, and one of the films triumphs is its ability to make us empathise with our subject, even at his lowest points.

The reconstructions are filmed with a measured eye for composition; Nicholas framed against a stormy grey mural, skulking under his protective hoody, or the frequent vista shots of the vast blue Texan skies, reminding us of Nicholas’ culture shock, and how far he has come in order to achieve his goal. If I was to point to one small niggle, it’s that the film as a whole is perhaps too polished. It seeks to be a piece of real cinema, which I think it achieves, but sometimes the rawness of the subject is lost. Dear Zachary, another docu-thriller from a few years ago, had possibly even more of a lasting punch to it, but with a rougher edge.

Is The Imposter a ‘must see’ film? Well, I wouldn’t quite stretch to that accolade. While the story is rather incredible to begin with, it loses its impact part way through the film when you realise the stakes aren’t going to be raised much further. The film makers make an attempt to bring a potentially very juicy plot thread through near the end, but you get the feeling this is a very cheeky and possibly even morally dubious piece of reportage.  But the film is generally gripping, the subject fascinating and beautifully shot. Perhaps there could have been a more in depth psychological analysis of Nicholas, but the film fares very well within its fast moving, lean narrative.

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