Killing The Softly (US, 2012)

Just business

Director Andrew Dominik’s first two films Chopper (Aus, 2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (US, 2007) were brilliant so hopes were high, especially as the film was trailed by favourable reviews. I guess you know what I’m going to write next.

It is a good film, characterised by excellent performances including Pitt in the lead, as the ‘cool’ assassin. James Gadolfini is particularly impressive as the ‘washed up’ killer. However, it tries a little too hard for profundity with the 2008 US election highlighted on the soundtrack. The film’s paralleling the business practice of the gangsters with American politics, an absolutely valid comparison of course however has the weight of The Godfather (US, 1971) hovering over it (if such metaphors can be mixed). The film’s an adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1970s novel Cogan’s Trade.

One assassination is shot particularly spectacularly in super slow motion but I did wonder, whilst marveling at what shattered glass looks like, what the point was. There’s a great punchline however, spoken by Pitt, that almost nails the political subtext. Good see A list actors using their star wattage to support independent cinema.

In a Better World (Hævnen, Denmark-Sweden, 2010)

A normal psycho

This Oscar winner (best foreign language) is an absolute belter if you like your melodrama.  Two ordinary bourgeois families coming to terms with marital strife and the death of a mother, respectively. The teenage boys struggle at school to deal with the everyday thuggery of bullies: one is passive (he’s Swedish so is victim of Danish racism) the other, the superbly named Christian… well I won’t spoil.

The Swede’s father works intermittently as a surgeon in Africa; doing ‘good’ in extreme circumstances. He has to deal with the morality of treating a ‘warlord’, who is guilty of extreme violence, and the bullying when he’s at home (one of the bullies is superbly played by Kim Bodnia, Martin in The Bridge). Christian’s dad seems to be a distant businessman who cannot connect with his son.

This is one to catch on Blu-ray, if you can. The cinematography of Africa is absolutely stunning and Bier’s direction is constantly engaging, also using the Danish settings well. It investigates middle class morality by placing the characters, and the audience, into a moral maze where the right answer might not exist.

Anna Karenina (UK, 2012)

Fabulous sets

Period drama is not one of my favourite genres; it’s often shot staidly and we are merely invited to look at the ‘wonderful’ period detail and ‘classical’ British acting. Joe Wright does things differently. I enjoyed his Pride and Prejudice (France-UK-USA, 2005), where the steadicam roamed through Austen’s tasteful plotting and dialogue. He’s even more ambitious in Anna Karenina by deciding, after failing to find suitable locations (or budget), to shoot much of the film in a theatre.

It isn’t presented as a real theatre, and there’s no attempt to root the narrative in theatrical terms (as if it were all a performance), instead he uses the artifice of theatre to offer tour de force set design and transitions between scenes. In doing so he heightens the melodrama so, for example, the horse race that takes place on stage seems to threaten the onlookers even more as such races don’t occur indoors. The waltz, when Karenina (a suitably haughty Keira Knightley) falls for Vronsky (an insipid Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is dazzling in its virtuosity (I have no idea whether those hand movements are authentic but they looked great).

Jude Law, against type as the cuckold, is excellent and the other standout for me was Domhnall Gleeson, who represented true love amongst the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.

I hope the film does the ‘biz’ at the box office (£5m in the UK isn’t great) because it’s a superb attempt at an ambitious British film with a wide appeal. That need encouraging.