Andrew Dominik was born in Wellington but shipped out at the age of two for Australia. We really need to claim him back as he’s one of the most intriguing directors currently working. Perhaps that should be “rarely working” as his latest, Killing Them Softly, is only his third feature credit in 12 years. Chopper turned heads in 2000 and got him to Hollywood. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was an elegiac adaptation of a great novel, the screen version echoing great late-period westerns like Heaven’s Gate and The Long Riders.
In Killing Them Softly, Dominik remains in genre territory but again he is transcending and subverting it. It’s a gangster flick featuring a bunch of familiar figures – James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom). You see those names on the cast list and you think you know what you’re going to get, but here they stretch out in suprising directions, revealing layers of humanity no less ugly than the clichéd bang-bang we are used to, but truer, sadder and ultimately more trenchant.
The romantic comedy is moribund. The first traces of its demise can be dated to the turn of the millenium, when Hugh Grant decided that he didn’t really want to be the floppy-haired object of middle-class women’s affections. Since then, the genre has been a reliable producer of tired and cynical “battles of the sexes” or grown-up fables in which a self-centred man-child discovers unlikely love via a woman who is palpably too good for him. Earlier this year The Ugly Truth scraped the bottom of that barrel by trying to merge both forms and has yet to be surpassed as worst film of the year.
So, if ever there was a genre ripe for reboot (like Star Trek earlier this year) it is the romantic comedy and, because nature abhors a vacuum, we now get one. It’s called (500) Days of Summer and it may well be one of the best films of the year.
The time is present day Los Angeles (a street-level Los Angeles not a million miles away from the charming In Search of a Midnight Kiss earlier this year) and our hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young visionary who no longer believes in himself: an architect stuck in a dead-end job writing greeting cards. He meets his boss’s beautiful new assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and they bond over The Smiths. He is besotted. She, not so much, but they start an affair.
One of the Film Society highlights in recent years was the special screening (on lustrous 35mm) of the 70s classic thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three about the hijacking of a New York subway train. It was a wonderful experience for many different reasons – a cynical love letter to a decrepit, bankrupt and graffiti-covered city; an ordinary guy hero that audiences these days would never be allowed to accept (played by grizzled old Walter Matthau) and Robert Shaw (from Jaws and The Sting) chewing the scenery as the villain holding a city to ransom.
Thus my heart sank when the remake was announced, particularly the choice of stylist (over substance) Tony Scott as director. His recent films like Domino and Déjà Vu have been full of music video fanciness, giving his actors no room to breathe – he’s the Scott you get when you can’t have his brother Ridley.