Monday, 7 January 2013

Andrew Dominik - Three 21st Century Iconic films

Andrew Dominik's debut directing film "Chopper" has sat on my DVD shelf for many years unwatched. Not through any particular reason other than others have quickly jumped the queue ahead of it. Now watched and re-watched, in association with his other two cinematic releases, I'm pleased to present another in my film blog series of my favourite movie Directors. All three follow in chronological order and all three are vastly different, depicting different eras, times, locations and even political inferences. "Chopper" is a difficult to watch marvel with a virtuoso performance from Eric Bana that shocks on every viewing. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" has Brad Pitt on star turn duty, but out shined by a developing and highly talented Casey Affleck, and at nearly three hours in length is a purposely lengthy film. His third and most recent film again stars Brad Pitt in "Killing them Softly" which is flawed but very interesting and a very definite mirror to today's economic climate. It's a film that intrigues me, yet I do not love it, but a film that makes me question the central theme even when I'm not fully engaged or in love with particularly excites me. It's certainly an intriguing and interesting film!

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming three films, which are catalogued in chronological order of release date. Rather, my purpose is to give a flavour for the film as I do not want to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, this blog is an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Writer/Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations.

I've also tried to write these reviews/appraisals in a fresh, different way, by specialising on particular scenes or character or theme of the film, thereby negating the need for spoilers or a detailed narrative account of the film. I have written these reviews from a fan's perspective and hope you enjoy my "take" on them.

Chopper (2000)

"Humanity doesn't like me!"

Set across three very different timelines, but more importantly two very distinct and affecting Acts, this story of Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read begins with a telling "This film is a dramatisation in which narrative liberties have been taken. It is not a biography" but is based on the now best selling books written in prison by Read. Having not read any of his books I can only base an opinion upon the film itself, and what a film it is. At only 94 minutes in length and with the film's two predominant Acts being so alarmingly effective and engaging even on repeated watch, the film really tears through it's running time. Beginning and ending with a loop of the same interview, it's particularly interesting watching this back to back, watching the beginning again after the end of the film if you will, as the strange narcissism of "Chopper" (Eric Bana) is put into sharper context. His character (as I'll briefly outline below) is anything and everything, but the narcissism as depicted towards the end of the film is particularly striking.

The timelines of 1978, 1986 and 1991 are twisted but not so as to disorientate you, more a reference to Chopper's growing notoriety and the release of his book(s) but the timelines are very distinct from each other yet share many common themes. 1978 and prison life is shot through a tinge of blue/green, de-saturated of colour especially within the cells or common areas, the colour change is clearly visible when in the presence of Prison Guards, in their Quarters or outside of the prison. This is rare however as that timeline year is almost exclusively shot within the de-saturated coloured walls of the prison. The prison uniform too is blue/green with an argument to made that the prisoners themselves melt into the uniformity that surrounds them. The other key timeline year is 1986 and an all together brighter coloured, louder environment than that of 1978. Different settings such as night clubs, bars and houses are brilliantly depicted (Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Hayward deserve cinematography credit here) as does Paddy Reardon for Production Design. 1986 is also the only timeline whereby you as the audience are outside of the prison, however the unremitting violence, air of malcontent and anxiety remains regardless of the setting. The violence itself is in sporadic bursts of gratuitous, full on anger, bloody, and one particular early scene is particularly graphic and upsetting. Away from the violence, there is a constant pervading air of building anger which subsides, but quickly replaced again and this pattern continues throughout the film. It simply never relents.

Although a relatively small cast list, there are several stand out performances. Chopper's two closest friends are "Jimmy" (Simon Lyndon) and "Bluey" (Dan Wylie) and their screen time together perfectly depicting the madness that prevails inside a prison. Jimmy is the more dominant of the friends, however it's Bluey's ticks and nervousness that shines and brilliantly played by Wylie. David Field is excellent as the quirky "Keithy George", as is Kate Beahan as "Tanya". Her scenes with Chopper are particularly affecting, but more of that below. The final stand out performance is Vince Colosimo as "Neville Bartos" a fellow ex convict friend of Chopper's, his portrayal is a subtle mirror to that of Chopper's in many ways and a key narrative strand throughout. All of these characters however pale into insignificance when compared to Chopper, and to a virtuoso performance from Eric Bana.

Chopper (Eric Bana) Heavily tattooed, chain smoking psychopath is a good place to start! Bana brilliantly depicts Chopper's fine line between smiling, joking and convivial man with flat out psychopathic tendencies absolutely wonderfully and absolutely frightening too. As per legend (and DVD extras) Bana spent some time with real life "Chopper" to hone his screen portrayal of him but regardless, it truly is a sublime and virtuoso performance. The prelude to, and aftermath of, every fight/killing or shooting is a thunderous mix of hilarity, dark stares, obscenities but more importantly a deep foreboding precariously balanced from open and gregarious to menacing psychopathy. This balance is a constant throughout the film but is particularly heightened and striking around the instances of pure unadulterated violence. Chopper's first fight in prison follows a mix of banter and jovial foreplay mixed with menace when discussing this privately with friends Jimmy and Bluey. The fight that ensues is bloody, ultra violence and graphic, as is the aftermath with his prey now soaked in blood and struggling for life. Nonchalantly lighting a cigarette, joking and smiling as he does so, he flicks the cigarette at the bloodied man, a look of menace returning, blaming the man for his own predicament and for Chopper's own actions. This psychopathic/schizophrenic balance is always prevalent, even with those closest around him, as his love then pure hatred for his girlfriend Tanya perfectly showcases (though thankfully this is mainly off camera), his interactions with the predominantly male cast of characters though is very much graphically depicted on camera and shockingly so.

Difficult to watch at times, Chopper's mannerisms as the air of tension surrounds his menace is madly schizophrenic but as noted at the beginning, there is also an air of wanting to be accepted, of wanting his narcissism and his actions to be thought of as just and right, despite the awful consequences. There is a hint at (maybe more) of a dubious connection with local Police and of helping them rid the streets of gangsters and drug dealers, but it's Bana's performance that will shock you as you're never able to settle whilst he is on screen. Front and centre for the majority of the film, this unsettling and pervasive air of brooding violence is difficult to watch at times, but Bana's portrayal, whilst shocking, is mesmerising.

With very little music to speak of in the entire film the stand out "Don't Fence Me In" from Frankie Laine over the opening credits is both apt and affecting, as is the surprisingly small amount of real life stock footage of the time. One TV interview is used, woven brilliantly into the narrative but it surprises me that more wasn't used of the era itself. Not a classic film by any means, but certainly one that has garnered a cult following since release. The film continues to age well despite occasional passages of clunking acting and stop/start dialogue. The Director could certainly have chosen an easier "project" for his directorial debut. Bana's portrayal is assured of that cult status and two further films have cemented the Director's standing of producing iconic, narrative driven films.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2007)

"I honestly believe I'm destined for great things Mr James"

Commencing in "Blue Cut, Missouri, September 7th 1881" and following a surreal and dreamlike sequence full of sepia tones and soft edged shots (accompanied by a diary like narration), the camera pans to, then zooms in on the star of this quiet and quite beautiful film. Forever standing on the periphery, a longing gaze captured by a long and lingering shot that never leaves his face, it is the "coward" and his portrayal by a rising star of an actor that captures the imagination here, and a performance of real maturity from one so young.

Robert Ford 
(Casey Affleck) A new recruit to Jesse James' gang, Affleck's portrayal of an outsider and an awkward loner always on the outside looking in is utterly mesmerising from start to finish. His nervous, shy ticks and traits are all present, but it's Affleck's looks and glimpses that steal the show, his eyes darting anywhere and everywhere to hide his shyness and his soft, trembling voice builds a picture of a young man desperately looking to impress his hero. A devoted reader of the now infamous annuals on the exploits of Jesse James and his family gang of bandits, Ford is desperate to ingratiate himself with the gang's famous leader and his lifelong hero. His desperation to be a part of the gang and close to his hero is set from the very beginning and his conversation with Jesse's older brother when he admits "Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression". Despite nincompoop being my favourite word, this in no way prejudices my scant choice of wonderful dialogue from this film. Oh ok, just a little! But the scene, and Affleck's portrayal, is set early on, and the young actor never relents until the final frame of the film. A fully deserved Oscar nomination soon followed this performance.

Together with following Robert Ford's view of the world, Director Andrew Dominik, together with the genius Director of Photography Roger Deakins capture his eyes brilliantly, focussing on them, following them and employing them as our eyes for the film. The film is almost shot through the prism of Affleck's eyes. Mid-way through the film is a crunching gear change that encapsulates this brilliantly. A late night family dinner and a simple scene shot around a dining room table introduces us to Brad Pitt's high mark in his portrayal of "Jesse James". Holding court as he does so, recounting stories of old in his bullish way, it is however Affleck's nuanced touches that impress. Teased mercilessly by the gathered family for his admiration of Jesse, Ford opens his heart on their character similarities and views on the world to which Jesse's mocking replies to again hold court and dominate the conversation crush Ford to the brink of tears. Again employing very long, lingering shots on both men, the Director brilliantly captures both Jesse James mocking dismissal but more importantly (and longer shots) of Ford's desperation not to break, cry or be seen to be affected. 

Together with the fandom and longing to be accepted, it's also clearly a love story of a younger man falling for the visage of the older man's experience and bravado. When together yet amongst other gang or family members, Ford's admiration of, and devotion to Jesse James is palpable. They also share eight joint scenes in the film, some are very brief and fleeting exchanges, four of which are briefly outlined below:

Ford: "I've already robbed a rail road train and I'm sitting in a rocking chair, chatting with none other than Jesse James"

James: "It's a wonderful world!"

The above picture is of the very end of this scene as it fades to a close, and brilliantly depicts the dichotomy of the scene itself. Both men have shared a cigar and many smiles yet with Ford so excited to be sharing a cigar with his hero and of sharing his love for the stories that surround Jesse James is cruelly cut short again, and looking crestfallen, the scene fades with a lingering look from James to his young protege'.

Looking wistfully through a frosted window at his hero playing in the garden with his snakes, Ford approaches a now sullen and paranoid Jesse James. His nervous laughter giving away his emotions, his look of pride as the scene ends tells you everything. All with a backdrop of an unseen lady singing "Amazing Grace".

Ford: "Used to be couldn't no-one sneak up on Jesse James"

James: "Now you think otherwise?"

Believing himself unseen, Ford stands in the doorway quieting watching Jesse in the bath. Following the above exchange, Jesse wonders aloud if Ford wishes to be like him, or actually him. The scene ends with an audible sigh from Ford and a longing, lingering glance.

A brilliantly lit scene of sepia toned yellow which is split into two segments by the intervention of Ford's brother Charley. The first segment is James outlining their next job to Ford but equally challenging his faith in him, the second segment is Brad Pitt at his maniacal best.

Jesse James (Brad Pitt). As the film grows so does Pitt's performance and whilst it is a superb performance and indeed portrayal, it is still overshadowed by his younger co-star. A still performance and one again shot through his eyes, as the early scenes depict a sparkly eyed alert Jesse James, his eyes piercing the screen, which later are replaced by duller, tired and more worn eyes. His cocksure, top of the world persona soon disintegrates into paranoia and of James' darker, sadistic and psychopathic side. Always in control, sitting in judgement and weighing every situation before he responds, the long pauses before he speaks are pure anticipation and a mark of Pitt's accomplished performance.

Supported by the wonderful (as always) Sam Rockwell as "Charley Ford", Jeremy Renner as "Wood Hite", Garret Dillahunt as "Ed Miller" and Paul Schneider as "Dick Liddil", this male dominated film also has fine support from Mary-Louise Parker as "Zee James" and Zooey Deschanel as "Dorothy Evans". There are also notable cameos from two of the giants of modern day cinema as Sam Shepard plays "Frank James" and the brilliant Michael Parks as "Henry Craig".

A Scott Free/Plan B Production, with Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Brad Pitt notable Producers or Executive Producers, a beautiful yet mournful musical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, unsurpassed cinematography from the genius Roger Deakins and wonderful costume design from Patricia Norris, Director Andrew Dominick deserves huge plaudits for bringing this film together with a spectacular subtlety. Seemingly those two words don't fit easily together, however after re-watching this gem they are a perfectly apt description. Relying heavily on the source material from the book of the same name by Ron Hansen, each character performance is a joy and even with a running time of 153 minutes, the film never feels that length, aided and abetted by the recurring dreamlike and surreal segues between scenes. Here, Director of Photography Deakins excels as the surreal flashbacks and flash forwards propel the film along quickly and interestingly so. The cinematography is a real stand out and Deakins was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his achievements. In a story of the life of Jesse James there is obviously violence, however it is surprisingly sparse and sporadic, and although graphically depicted is equally fleeting from the screen. To my eyes, this is clearly a love story of total devotion to another, of hero worship and the birth of celebrity mixed in the madness of late 19th Century life. A story of loss, regret and un-reciprocated love, and the death of an American icon. Far more than a standard Western adaptation, and a performance from Casey Affleck that astounds you every time.

Killing them Softly (2012)

"America's not a country. It's just a business"

The opening 15 minutes of this latest Andrew Dominik feature is a bizarre, surreal and odd mix that purposely sets the scene for this flawed yet deeply interesting and intriguing thriller. The opening credits themselves are quickly edited amongst the opening scene of an obscured man walking to the entrance of a tunnel, captured in slow motion, the mouth of the tunnel is more in focus, and of the rubbish strewn all over the floor and in the distance, fluttering on the breeze. Accompanying this dark opening is a similarly dark and foreboding musical score scattered amongst the similarly scattered scenes (and indeed the rubbish) which is eerily similar in tone to the score from Ben Wheatley's brilliant "Kill List". Barely one minute into the film, and the scene has been well and truly set.

Also scattered amongst the very early scenes is a speech from yet to be installed USA President Barack Obama, crudely spliced amongst the rubbish and opening credits and our as yet unseen male figure. This is also very much a scene setter as throughout the film, in every vehicle, every bar, on every television there is a seeming running commentary from either Barack Obama, George Bush or political commentators discussing the financial plight of the United States of America. This also sets the timeline for the film at the handover between Presidents Bush and Obama of 2008/9 but even more significant in line with recent events (I am writing this on Saturday 5th January 2013) is the parallel between today's events and the continual mooting of a "Fiscal Cliff" and the real life events as depicted and shown in every bar, heard on every television in the film, of the financial crisis that happened just four years ago. Then, as with now, the country stood at a precipice, or a cliff to use today's anaemic language. Then, Bush is warning about banks being unable to open and of full scale financial panic unless they are bailed out. Today, the situation is similar and in my opinion, gravely worse.

The cynic in me suggests this will happen again in another four years, and another four years, for that is the circle of life, of history repeating itself, the repeating actions of nations spiralling out of control, debt ridden and desperate. And therein lies a huge metaphor for this film. Whilst the country itself is spiralling out of control, unable to control debt or spending, or social welfare or even dare I say it, the most basic of human compassion, that is reflected back in some of it's citizens. Not the majority but the marginalised and desperate. The film draws a compelling argument for this throughout, as the film continues with a running background commentary from the outgoing and incoming Presidents, and of the financial challenges ahead.

The end to the opening scene encapsulates all of this and more perfectly. Now with a full on zoom camera on the face of the still unnamed man, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and looking dishevelled and dirty, the camera slows to a slow motion shot of him, the rubbish still fluttering on the breeze around him and a billboard above his head of John McCain "Keeping America Strong" next to Barack Obama and his eponymous, vacuous "Change". It's apt, scene setting and mood evoking.

The unnamed man is "Frankie" (Scoot McNairy) and accompanied by his best friend "Russell" (Ben Mendelsohn) they are offered an opportunity of "doing a job" for "Johnny Amato" (Vincent Curatola), however Johnny is far from impressed by Russell's appearance and demeanour. Russell is equally as dishevelled and dirty as his best friend Frankie but the teasing foreplay and banter between the three is eventually broken by a frustrated Russell "I thought he wanted to do us a favour! Is that the straight shit squirrel? You trying to do us a favour?". This simple three character scene is reprised later when further details are given of the job itself, to "knock over" or steal the cash from a cash game of cards run by "Markie Trattman" (Ray Liotta). Sandwiched in the middle is a further bizarre and surreal scene of the two best friends meeting to discuss the offer from Johnny Amato. With a rolling camera we follow Russell, still dirty and dishevelled, walking his dog and eating an ice cream seemingly alone. The background of dilapidated houses, depression and litter everywhere mirrors that of the foreground and Russell's continued walk. Still with a rolling camera but now from a slightly different and wider angle we see his friend Frankie awaiting him, bizarrely and randomly standing on top of a disused bar stool, cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth. Once together, a simple scene ensues of minimal cameras, with a zoom on each character as their conversation veers from the job, drugs, sex and dogs. It's a random, awkward conversation, all with a backdrop of another Obama campaign poster over the shoulder of Russell, but just out of focus, with the scene ending as bizarre as the scene itself with the two friends walking away from each in opposite directions captured on a longer distance camera shot that remains long after the characters have departed, fully depicting the decrepit surrounds in which they've had this exchange.

 Following a series of narrated flashbacks (including a fantastic yet brief Ray Liotta plays madman scene!), the opening 15 minutes draws to a close following yet another surreal and bizarre conversation between Frankie and Russell as they drive towards the job they have now accepted. Reprising their earlier conversation in many ways, this particular conversation is even more grotesque than their previous one, but does narratively give far more flavour for both their backgrounds, their future intentions and many nods to their predicaments both past, present and future. The conversation veers toward darkly comedic which the film needs at this point and once arrived at their destination and checking their poorly thought out equipment for the job, Frankie tellingly states "We're gonna look like a bunch of fucking amateurs". They enter a dark, dank and drab tunnel towards a disused building to begin their job.

Aside from the aforementioned talented cast, there are four further important roles of note. Sam Shepard plays a short cameo as "Dillon", as does the brilliant Richard Jenkins as "The Driver". James Gandolfini plays "Mickey" with more than a touch of the absurd and frankly bizarre, but the performance is pitch perfect and all the better for Gandolfini's bizarre portrayal. There is one further important role of note, however before I appraise this more fully below it is perhaps prescient to return to the characters mentioned in the opening fifteen minutes. The four key roles are split, with Ray Liotta and Vincent Curatola purely supporting those of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. In support, Liotta is superb as the risk taking, on edge Markie Trattman. His brief "madman" scene is pure Liotta at his best, over the top and scene stealing best. Curatola dominates as the job giving boss, however it's Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn who really shine. Both on edge, living day to day, their individual desperate needs almost melt into each other, mirroring the other's personality both for good and bad. Both performances are simply stunning. But the marquee name is of course Brad Pitt.

 Jackie (Brad Pitt) Entering the film to the strains of Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around", this is brilliantly used as Jackie is in effect in town to "close" issues, sweep up problems, collect his money and move on. A gun for hire to protect Mafia interests and silence critics. A matter of fact enforcer, Jackie dominates every conversation with a constant detachment, totally in control of every situation yet equally distant from it. Prophesying perhaps "There's a plague coming" the analogy itself is not lost. Jackie is well aware of the world, his place in it and how he can prosper. Not Pitt's strongest performance but he does dominate the screen well, if a little "coasting" at times.

With a constant, recurring and obvious analogy of societal and financial breakdown in America, this is clearly a critique, and one could argue a very firm critique, of monetary capitalism in America. The film is soaked in this theme of financial despair and anxiety, of a political system that preaches togetherness, one large inclusive for all society, and of "Change". Even the unseen Mafia are described as a "Corporate" body now! The Director's camera work here is sublime at times, with long twisting shots, moving cameras and some fantastic slow motion cameras capturing "Bullet time" if you will, many exchanges and conversations (a drug induced hazy and bizarre conversation and a balletic style assassination are two fantastic examples). In a film where a good proportion of the scenes are simple talking heads scenes (especially within the confines of a cramped car), the Director's camera work and the many oblique angles and frames used are the real highlight as they really catch the eye.

Darkly comedic at times and all the better for it, the violence is prolonged, very graphic, brutal and very zoomed in at times. There are hints at or obvious examples of heavy drug use at times, with the above referenced scene a disturbingly funny joy to watch. Greig Fraser (Director of Photography) and Brian Kates (Editing) deserve special praise however there is no Musical Director noted, so unable to note the special praise deserved here, for the soundtrack is a joy all on it's own. From Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" to "Life is a bowl of cherries", "Love Letters" and two from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. An eclectic, yet brilliant mix. The soundtrack is highly recommended!

As is the film. Not flawless, but 97 minutes of dark intrigue, shocking violence and a brutal attack on disaster capitalism. A film very much of it's time.

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