DVD REVIEWS: Unique crime mythology

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (MA)

AUSTRALIAN director Andrew Dominik makes very different kinds of movies about crime and mythology, violence and the everyday: first Chopper, and then the fine, underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Killing Them Softly, which was in official competition at Cannes last  year, continues the tradition. It is adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was filmed in 1973 with an excellent Robert Mitchum in the title role.

The film is a smart and leisurely depiction of the epic and the inefficient – funny, episodic, meandering, overreaching, yet also brisk and oddly truncated. The performances are strong and there are a couple of memorable set-pieces of violence. At times, it also feels as if narrative threads have been abandoned or omitted.

Killing Them Softly is set in New Orleans during the McCain-Obama presidential race, in a criminal milieu that is almost exclusively male. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is recruited by an old friend and contact, Johnny (Vincent Curatola), to hold up a mob poker game. It’s a risky business, stealing from criminals.

Frankie has a buddy, a loud and cantankerous Australian, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), whom he wants to enlist in the heist. Russell is noisily unco-operative at first but agrees to come on board. And so the story unfolds, messily – although things don’t go awry in the ways you might expect.

Dominik’s films provide great opportunities for actors. Here, McNairy and Mendelsohn are a perfectly tuned chaotic double act; Ray Liotta has the blustering weariness of a man fighting against the realisation he is running out of luck; James Gandolfini, as an emotional hit man, is a pleasure to watch; and Richard Jenkins, as the intermediary between straight and crooked worlds, has a magnificently unsettling air of normality.

Presiding over it all is Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, who represents himself as a man with an overview, a criminal with a smart, professional approach and an answer for everything.

Yet he is also, as it turns out, a little reluctant to engage. He doesn’t like to deal with emotional responses from doomed men. He prefers, he says, ‘‘killing them softly, from a distance’’. And that, in this instance, is why matters don’t work out as he planned, when he outsources a job to an old friend.

Dominik enjoys display, and there are a couple of bravura scenes, including a slow-motion tracking the impact of a bullet. (It’s striking and a little overpowering, the kind of representation you can imagine inspiring rapture in sports commentators.)

The film gestures towards greater context, a familiar move in the genre, most memorably in The Godfather, Coppola’s vision of criminal enterprise as a microcosm of America, bound up in and comparable to the relationships that exist in business, government and family. The world and the underworld operate in the same way.

Killing Them Softly tackles this notion slightly differently, pointing – a little too obviously – to the gap between the dream and reality of America. The recurring glimpses of political campaigns on bar-room television sets drive the point home with a certain lack of subtlety.

Yet, as a perverse portrait of management issues and the challenges of  ‘‘getting the job done’’, it is sure-footed, dark and comic.

Rating: ★★★ 

– Philippa Hawker

CREATIVE MINDS (M), 6 x 40min, SBS

THIS is a thoroughly captivating series of six interviews with leading Australian creative artists.

The in-depth interviews conducted by Robin Hughes cover nearly every aspect of the professional development and philosophy of talents that include Bill Henson, Geoffrey Rush, Kate Grenville, Stephen Page, Elena Kats-Chernin and Robyn Archer.

Clearly the artists are at ease with Hughes, dealing with tough questions and career issues with thoughtful and often illuminating responses.

The Henson piece is outstanding, filled with images of his work from his long career. He does not flinch, or dodge any questions.

The visual element of this production makes it much more than a series of interviews.

Rating: ★★★★

– Jim Kellar

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (M), 91 mins

AI WeiWei is a Chinese artist whose every waking moment, whether creating art or not, can be read as a protest against the government of his country.

This documentary on WeiWei by foreign correspondent Alison Klayman gives an extraordinary insight into the workings of this strange and forbidding country.

Before watching this, all I knew about WeiWei was his problems with the authorities and his circumventing their suppression by taking to Twitter and other social media to get his message out.

Early on in the film, I began to wonder if he wasn’t a charlatan, a Chinese version of British shock merchant Damien Hirst, whose animal corpses in tanks of formaldehyde sell for millions of dollars a throw.

He no longer does his own art. Teams of anonymous technicians turn his ideas into reality. But his ideas and concepts are bold, striking and relevant. He believes in art as a force for social change and lives his life as a political statement. Cameras record everything. He and his supporters film their view of things, and the police film theirs. Closed circuit TV cameras are trained on his house and studio. As he moves around China, police follow close behind, filming him wherever he goes.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and it shows just how repressive a hardline communist state must be. But it also shows just how powerful social media can be, and how the smart phone, rather than the gun, may be the best hope for reform in China.

Rating: ★★★★

– Ian Kirkwood 

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