The U.K.'s Foreign Language Oscar entry, Metro Manila, dominated the British Independent Film Awards on Sunday (08Dec13), taking home three prizes, including Best Film. The crime movie set in the Philippines was given the top honour during the London ceremony, also earning the award for Best Achievement in Production and a Best Director win for Sean Ellis.
James McAvoy was named Best Actor for Filth and Lindsay Duncan for claimed Best Actress for Le Week-End, while the supporting actor accolades went to Ben Mendelsohn for Starred Up and Imogen Poots for her performance in The Look Of Love.
Best Documentary was awarded to the filmmakers behind Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer, about the Russian rockers jailed for hooliganism charges, and Best International Independent Film was given to controversial lesbian drama, Blue Is The Warmest Color.
Veteran actress Julie Walters was also presented with the prestigious Richard Harris Award to mark her contribution to the U.K. film industry, and Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass was honoured with the Variety honour, which recognises an actor, director, writer or producer who has helped to focus the international spotlight on the U.K.
With Killing Them Softly opening nationwide today, it’ll be the first time in five years that the words “Directed by Andrew Dominik” have appeared on an American movie screen. That delay is because the Australian director’s last film, his U.S. debut The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, only made back half of its $30 million production budget with its worldwide grosses. Even worse, it netted only $3.9 million in the States. When I ask him if he sees Killing Them Softly as a natural follow-up to Jesse James, Dominik, 45, merely says, “I guess I don’t really think that way. I’m not in exact control of what I do. This was just the project I could get going.” The fact then that the Weinstein Company is opening Killing Them Softly in 2,424 theaters shows just how much confidence they have in the film—and Dominik’s vision.
A razor-sharp thriller starring Brad Pitt as a philosophically-minded hitman hired by a mid-level boss (Richard Jenkins) to hunt down the brainless twerps (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who robbed a mob-protected card game, Killing Them Softly is also a not-so-subtle commentary on the intersection of criminality and capitalism. Though the George V. Higgins novel it’s based on, Cogan’s Trade, came out in 1974, Dominik set his plot in October 2008, right in the middle of the worst financial collapse the United States had faced since the Great Depression. As characters throughout the film discuss the power plays they hope will land them big bucks, TV monitors show George W. Bush and Barack Obama discussing the turmoil that had engulfed the economy four years ago. The implication is clear: the 2008 bailout that saved Wall Street despite its bad behavior isn’t that different from the windfalls awaiting several characters in the film who’ve proven that crime sometimes does pay. Near the end of Killing Them Softly, Pitt’s Jackie Cogan even says, “America is not a country. It’s just a business.” That speaks very much to a theme Dominik previously developed in Jesse James: that there’s a disparity between the way we see ourselves, as individuals and as a country, and the way we really are.
But don’t think this is all just political sturm und drang. Killing Them Softly is actually a comedy. One of the hoods who robs a cardgame has a Cruella De Vil-style get-rich-quick scheme to steal dogs. And James Gandolfini plays the anti-Tony Soprano as a hitman associate of Cogan’s who, to say the least, has lost his killer instinct. “If the film took itself seriously, I don’t think it would be much fun,” Dominik says. “It’d be like preaching to the choir or something.”
We asked the director to expound upon some of his film’s ideas, and Dominik was more than willing to oblige.
Hollywood.com: How do you think the comedic tone of the film appealed to the actors?
Andrew Dominik: Well, Brad signed on thirty minutes after I pitched Killing Them Softly to him, because we had worked together before obviously. I think it was Jim [Gandolfini] who really got into the whole comedy aspect. Jim is always just going to make his guy real. I wanted him because he’s such an intensely sensitive guy, and there’s a real sensitivity to everything that he does. I could imagine Jim playing this really f***ed-up character and caring about him. That was my motive for getting him.
HW: Gandolfini’s character in the film is almost like the burntout end-state of Tony Soprano. A once formidable player now rendered useless. I thought there was a great mix of comedy and pathos in that character. He could have been a cartoon but you end up feeling really sorry for him. I did, anyway.
AD: Yeah, me too. There’s a real sensitivity inside the guy, even though he’s so f***ed up.
HW: Even though the two films are very different stylistically, I feel there is kind of connection between Killing Them Softly and Jesse James thematically.
AD: I think that Killing Them Softly is a little more one-sided in its view--my view--and a little more pop-y. I think Jesse James tries to look at its characters in a little more balanced way, as two sides of the same coin.
HW: It’s interesting you decided to bring a George Higgins novel to the screen, considering that only one of his novels had been adapted as a movie [1970’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which became a 1973 film starring Robert Mitchum], but especially that you decided to update it and set it in 2008. What inspired that choice?
AD: I got Cogan’s Trade because I had seen and loved The Friends of Eddie Coyle. So I looked Higgins up and saw that this guy was like a treasure trove. He’d written a whole lot of stories that had a real sense of authenticity about them, since he’d been a prosecutor. This book is a really simple crime and punishment story, even though it takes place entirely in the criminal world. But when it really caught fire for me was when I realized it’s a story about an economic crisis, and how it paralleled what was going on in the world at the time. And so updating it really seemed like the thing to do.
CB: There’s a lot of political commentary in this film, usually conveyed when we hear speeches from George W. Bush and Barack Obama talking about the financial collapse on the background. Were you trying to present this story as a microcosm for what was happening in the country at large?
AD: Yes, very much so. I think the attraction of crime movies is that they are little stories about capitalism. This is the genre in which the capitalist ideal is presented upfront. It’s the one genre in which it’s completely acceptable for characters to care about money, and maybe that’s the appeal of it. In some ways I find the people in crime films much more recognizable, much more like the people I meet in real life, than I do, say, characters in romantic comedies or other movies that on some level are concerned with reaffirming family values. Also, my experience of America, approaching it as an outsider, is just how much of life in this country is based around the dollar. This is a really, really capitalist country. And to me it seems there’s a similarity between the way criminals operate and the way everybody else does. I don’t know whether crime is dictating business or business is dictating crime.
CB: Do you feel that the criminal characters in your film are more honest, or at least less hypocritical, about capitalism than legitimate businessmen?
AD: Maybe. Maybe yes and maybe no. A guy like Obama has to persuade people to get what he wants. Obviously a power player in a criminal organization doesn’t have to persuade anyone. He can just do what he wants. So criminals don’t have the same problems that a president might. However, the president—or the government in general—have to engage in marketing in order to persuade people, engage in marketing to sell them on an idea. Obama’s great at singing a song of togetherness, but the American idea of freedom is really just the freedom to compete.
CB: In showing clips of both Bush and Obama, I think you’re one of the few to indicate that perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. As different as people would like to think they are, they represent the same system and are subject to its faults and failings as much as anybody, regardless of all the Hope and Change rhetoric.
AD: To me, regardless of who’s in office, the government is strangled by business. And the government’s priorities are dictated by business. I mean, why does America, even after healthcare reform, still not have free universal healthcare? I’m sure it has something to do with the insurance lobby.
CB: In fact, that’s one of the final lines of the film when Brad Pitt’s Jackie says “America’s not a country, it’s a business.” Was that you speaking through that character?
AD: I suppose so, but it’s only one half of the story. America used to be a fantastical place, you could get everything here. And everything was produced here. In some ways I think it’s more like cronyism than capitalism that’s brought the whole thing down. This is the country where the lightbulb was invented and the movie camera and the telephone, just about every f***ing thing you can imagine was invented in this melting pot. This was a place where so many ideas came together and innovation was encouraged. But it seems like the corporations have a stranglehold on everything now. America’s moved so much of its production and manufacturing offshore, it’s become a nation of middlemen.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]
Hollywood.com’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ Movie Review
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Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In the late '50s a group of elementary students put futuristic drawings in a time capsule that is then buried on school grounds. One overly obsessed kid Lucinda goes her own way by writing hundreds of mysterious seemingly non-sensical numbers on her entry. Fifty years later it’s dug up and comes into the possession of Caleb the young son of John Koestler a recent widower and astro-physics professor who becomes obsessed with the papers Caleb has brought home from class. He soon discovers the random digits are actually not-so-thinly disguised dates (including 91101 of course) for “future” disasters and there are clearly three of those dates yet to come. Although nobody believes his ramblings about this code for impending doom a nearby plane crash proves he is on to something so ominous the fate of the world could be in jeopardy. With all hell about to break loose the prof takes matters into his own hands.
WHO’S IN IT?
Just a couple of years ago Nicolas Cage starred in Next as a magician who could see into the future and had to prevent a nuclear attack. Now he’s at it again as an MIT professor who also has clues to future catastrophes and also is out to prevent the inevitable. And of course in the National Treasure films he latched on to maps that had contained similarly dark deeply held secrets. Nic clearly likes “knowing” stuff before the rest of us and he’s quite believable even if some of the circumstances in his latest sci-fi adventure are really out there -- literally. Cage somehow makes you buy into this stuff which is key to the ultimate success of the flick. As the key kids Chandler Canterbury as Caleb and Lara Robinson as Lucinda (and later Abby Lucinda’s granddaughter) are properly eerie and haunted-looking. Rose Byrne is also along for the ride as Lucinda’s grown daughter who is able to provide goosebump-inducing information that the numbers alone can’t. There’s also some dead-on creepy emoting from D.G. Maloney as a quietly foreboding stranger who seems to be following Caleb.
Unlike some recent movies of this type with nothing on the agenda but pure mayhem “Knowing” delves into the bigger issues of why we are all here providing something other than just big explosions to talk about on the way home from the multiplex. Director Alex Proyas (I Robot Dark City The Crow) certainly knows how to pull off complex action set-pieces but he and his screenwriters also seem to be genuinely interested in exploring the meaning behind the madness.
Some of the more pedantic dialogue Cage is given can be groan-inducing but since he plays John as a total believer we can forgive it. Also the film falls victim to a final act that veers into typical disaster movie territory and isn’t as compelling as the first two thirds which try to keep the premise at least marginally credible. At two hours it probably could have been tightened anyway.
The rain-soaked plane crash sequence with its gritty hand-held photography is riveting to watch and one of the most frightening depictions of a jetliner disaster put on film yet.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
If you are really squeamish it might be worth "knowing" that you should take breaks in the big disaster sequences as the CGI effects can get pretty violent and graphic particularly for a PG-13 movie.