Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Dominik’

2016 has been a strange year of film viewing for me (partly on account of getting married, which it turns out takes up a lot of time and energy.) I’m yet to watch a number of essentials (Toni Erdmann, PatersonSieranevada, I Am Not Your Negro, Elle), but I’ve also been plesantly suprised by films I might otherwise have missed. Here are the films that left an impression on me in this craziest of years.

1) ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, UK/FRANCE)

Of all the films I saw in 2016, none was more mesmerising than Andrew Dominik’s documentary following the recording process of Nick Cave’s excellent album Skeleton Tree. The film captures a terribly troubling time for the Cave family, following the loss of 15 year old Arthur Cave and this runs through the film making it feel like a painfully private affair. It is a testament to Dominik’s handling of the situation that the Cave family were willing to release the film and it is also the director’s best film next to sprawling epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

2) THE QUEEN OF KATWE (DIR. MIRA NAIR, USA)
Mira Nair’s The Queen of Katwe is a film that sneaks up on you with an emotional undercurrent that pays off extraordinary well by the final sequence. Telling the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Mira Nair casts newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the central role and surrounds her with established talent David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as numerous child actors. A potentially challenging production from Disney – shot on location with many non-actors – it succeeds thanks to the director’s talent for straddling different worlds of production. A big hearted film for all audiences.

3) INTO THE INFERNO (DIR. WERNER HERZOG, UK/GERMANY/CANADA)
Of the two documentaries released by Werner Herzog in 2016 (the other being internet doc Lo and Behold), Into The Inferno was the most cinematic and most truly Herzogian. In Inferno Herzog tackles volcanoes, not a new subject for him (see 1977’s La Soufrière), but here he expands the subject to explore North Korea, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Iceland. Along the way Herzog discovers some amazing civilisations and wonderfully eccentric characters, particularly the larger than life Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White. Herzog’s recent drone footage, as well as the archive of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft make for majestic, frightening scenes.

4) CHI-RAQ (DIR. SPIKE LEE, USA)
One hell of a Spike Lee joint! Chi-Raq is an adaptation co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek play in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting. While the film was criticised by some (including Samuel L. Jackson at the Dubai Film Festival) for not dealing with America’s gun violence in a direct fashion, it is none-the-less one that frequently represents Lee at the height of his polemical powers. Teyonah Parris is a forceful presence as Lysistrata and appearances from Sam Jackson & Wesley Snipes are welcome, alongside John Cusack as a fiery white pastor.

5) ALI, THE GOAT AND IBRAHIM (DIR. SHERIF EL BENDARY, EGYPT/FRANCE)
One of the most refreshing films I saw this year was this tragicomic feature debut from emerging Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary. Set in contemporary Egypt and telling the story of two friends with different afflictions (one loves a goat, the other hears excruciating noises), Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim takes us across Egypt to its major water bodies as the characters attempt to remedy their problems. What exactly the film says about life in contemporary Egypt is hard to define, but its mischievous absurdity is pitch perfect for this most unusual of years.

6) NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (DIR. TOM FORD, USA)
For those in doubt of Tom Ford’s credentials as a film director, Nocturnal Animals goes some way towards quelling those feelings. This is a meta thriller, which makes fantastic use of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon, to explore a failed relationship (the main thread) through a violent fictional narrative written by Adams’ character. I am rarely a fan of duel narratives such as these – as often the intended effect simply falls flat – but in this case Ford creates a compelling, disturbing tapestry which is thoroughly gripping and emotionally complete.

7) A UNITED KINGDOM (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, USA/UK/CZECH REPUBLIC)
Amma Asante’s follow up to 2013’s excellent Belle is a very moving rendering of the true story of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) – the first president of Botswana – and his English wife Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), as they struggled with family, apartheid and the British empire to assume power after Botswana’s independence. Although the supporting characters are more swiftly sketched in, the film finds power in two highly impressive, emotionally engaging central performances by Oyelowo and Pike. With carefully crafted period visuals – contrasting a moody noir-esque London with the sun-kissed plains of Botswana – the film is a pleasure to watch, making Asante’s next film Where Hands Touch highly anticipated viewing.

8) HIGH-RISE (DIR. BEN WHEATLEY,  UK/BELGIUM)
Ben Wheatley’s most ambitious film so far is one that – once again – harks back to the psychedelic British cinema of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, perhaps more overtly than any other he has made. Taking JG Ballard’s original text and adapting it into a relatively plotless, decadent extravaganza, Wheatley gives us a film of surreal delights in which Tom James Bond Hiddlestone glides through sequences that would look at home in the films of Russell and Fellini. Wheatley’s body of work is one that feels organic, developing, never perfect, but always alive; more please.

9) THE HATEFUL EIGHT (DIR. QUENTIN TARANTINO, USA)
A troubling film. When I emerged from watching The Hateful Eight at the start of 2016, I didn’t know what to think, but I certainly felt pretty dirty. A parlour game in which nefarious characters engage with one another in the most base of terms; the film is an old style exploitation flick and Sergio Corbucci would surely be proud. Each scene plays out at a snails pace, the drama brimming with racism and women hating. It is the most disturbing film of Tarantino’s career. Now at the end of 2016 – having witnessing the politics of the last 12 months – I think I understand The Hateful Eight a bit more and I still feel dirty.

10) ONLY MEN GO TO THE GRAVE (DIR. ABDULLA AL KAABI, UAE/IRAN)
An intriguing discovery from the 2016 Dubai Film Festival: Abdulla Al Kaabi’s arthouse melodrama Only Men Go To The Grave is a film that evokes the genre works of Almodovar, Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk (a big influence on the Emirati director.) Telling the story of a group of women, struggling to deal with an undisclosed secret of their late mother, Al Kaabi uses the film as a vehicle to deal with taboos present in his culture and unite unlikely artistic collaborators from Iran, Iraq & the UAE. The film’s constantly inventive shooting style and compelling acting signpost Al Kaabi as a talent to watch in 2017.

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1) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

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While Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous offerings left this viewer a little apathetic, his new film adds a new found steeliness to bring to the vivid landscapes and existential angst. Following a troop of detectives and police officers as they seek to find the victim of their recent arrest, the film explores the idea of machismo in a sensitive and penetrating manner. Ceylan paints a portrait of a group of men all stumbling through the darkness, each trying to find a peace of mind in the Anatolian foothills. The serious nature of the crime lends the drama a mournful gravitas, while the landscapes are haunting and beautiful.

2) THE MASTER (DIR. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, USA)

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When it was announced PTA was making a film based around Scientology, many expected a scathing, incisive assassination of the cult. However, the director has foregone that route for a looser, relationship based drama; Joaquin Pheonix’s vagrant loner pitched off against Phillip Seymour Hoffmann’s dapper, cultured leader. The film is a bit of a curiosity- there is no real character arc to speak of for either characters, just a few minor lessons learned, and the mixture of exotic images and elliptical editing gives it an elusive, distant air. It’s the two central performances which elevate it to a higher level, and Pheonix will surely struggle to top this. His twitchy, desperate portrayal of a man too restless to know what he really desires will linger long after the credits have finished.

3) AMOUR (DIR. MICHAEL HANEKE, FRANCE)

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Michael Haneke is now so sure of his craft that he can almost turn his devastating gaze onto any taboo subject and nail it in one. This time he has chosen to focus on the ageing process and what that does to our basic human values. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the elderly couple, two ex-musicians, in their Parisian apartment, as they struggle to deal with Riva’s loss of mental and physical capabilities. Haneke pulls no punches in his depiction, and it is not an easy watch, but there are moments of hope and compassion that break through the Austrian auteurs notoriously bleak world view.

4) HOLY MOTORS (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE)

Maverick director Carax comes back from the wilderness with this anarchic, mind boggling oddity. The film stars his regular conspirator Denis Lavant as a man whose job is to be driven around in a limo to various locations and using different disguises, inhabit a melee of obscure roles, from leprechaun to ninja. There seems to be no obvious reasoning to his exploits, and months after seeing it, I am still befuddled by it, but there are hints of Carax’s masterplan; all of his films have been to some degree been excited by the idea of performance and theatre, so this film has a lineage. But to analyse it too deeply is to miss the cerebral pleasures of the film, from the triumphant accordion band in the church to the beguiling neon ninja.

5) KILLING THEM SOFTLY (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, USA)

Australian Andrew Dominik had a lot to live up to after his last effort The Assassination of Jesse James…, but his latest work can hold its own against that masterpiece. Dominik seems to be one of the few directors who can get the best out of Brad Pitt and they strike up their fruitful collaboration again here. Pitt plays a hitman hired to take out two lowlife criminals who have bungled a card game robbery. Killing Them Softly works brilliantly as a piece of genre cinema; there are the lowlifes, the gangsters, the shootouts, the double crossings and a barrel full of tension, but what elevates this from your standard gangster fare is a sense of contemplation, a workmanlike depiction of the trade. Dominik draws shrewd parallels between the US recession and the underworld; the unrelenting desire for money and profit and the fall guys who suffer when it all comes tumbling down.

6) SHAME (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, UK/USA)

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Steve McQueen’s follow up to Hunger was a similarly icy, visually striking drama, this time honing in on sex addiction. Michael Fassbender plays a wealthy corporate drone in upscale New York struggling to deal with deep seated intimacy issues, burying himself in pornography and meaningless flings. The arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, brings his problems to the foreground as they both seek to exorcise their demons. Shame is not a warm, emotional drama, but an unflinching, sterile work that nonetheless brings a difficult issue to the wider public. Fassbender and Mulligan give uncompromising performances as the troubled siblings.

7) TABU (DIR. MIGUEL GOMES, PORTUGAL)

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Alternating between modern day Portugal and an unnamed colonial era African country, this Portuguese arthouse fantasy drama was one of the smaller gems from this year. An elderly Portuguese woman, Aurora, is doted on by her maid and next door neighbour, with hints of her exotic past life gradually emerging. In the second half of the film, we see a young Aurora living with her husband and expecting, on a colonial farm in Africa. A dashing neighbour arrives to break up the monotony of her homelife and soon she has a decision to make. Tabu, named after the FW Murnau silent film, is both a tribute to the silent era and an exploration of place and memory. Gomes injects the film with a sense of childlike wonder and mystery, leaving the viewer enchanted by the travails of the doomed love triangle.

8) LE HAVRE (DIR. AKI KAURISMAKI, FINLAND)

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to really capture a culture, and here deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki expertly observes both French community and its troubles with immigration. Andre Wilms plays an ageing shoeshiner who takes in a African stowaway who miraculously crosses his path. The film includes Kaurismaki’s customary kitsch mise en scene and dry humour, but the director is reinvigorated by the new locales. There is a genuine sense of local community running through the film, which makes it one of the most upbeat and optimistic of the year.

9) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR.WERNER HERZOG, USA)

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The capital punishment system in the US has often been scrutinised, but this time Werner Herzog brings his inimitable ‘truth’ to the subject. This austere, often harrowing documentary, follows various inmates as they recount their crimes and tell their life stories. Herzog steps back from the camera, allowing the tragedies to unfurl themselves, while families of the victims and the law authorities throw their voices into the ring. The mindlessness of the crimes and the inherent violence in the landscape are the two points of the film that will linger in the mind.

10) RUST AND BONE (JACQUES AUDIARD, FRANCE)

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Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard deliver knockout performances in this character driven drama by Jacques Audiard. Following up his successes in A Beat That My Heart Skipped  and A ProphetAudiard continues his theme of flawed characters with a burning passion; Cotillard is a devoted whale trainer and Schoenaerts a brutal amateur fighter. When their lives are turned upside down, they find solace in their outsider statuses. An offbeat, raw drama.

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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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