Just another bloody day in the underworld

Everyone is out to kill everyone else in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. It rains blood. But professional hitman Brad Pitt has qualms. “You ever killed anyone? It can get touchy-feely,” he muses to mob fixer Richard Jenkins. Here is another Australian director tackling American gangsterism – two weeks ago it was John Hillcoat’s Lawless – and Down Under guest artists like to turn things upside down. Pitt played a sympathetic true-life outlaw in Dominik’s last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Here again he is the maniac every mother loves.

So, implies Dominik, is the US. It just will be reckless, violent and daringly naughty. The film’s cynical message, teased or possibly tortured from George V. Higgins’s 1970s source novel, is that the country is a business first, a democracy second, never mind what Obama babbles about on television. The updated year is 2008, election time. (We are also still in the meltdown aftermath, receiving TV bulletins from an outgoing George W. Bush).

We can only hope for decent, level-headed crooks and killers like Pitt – good capitalists in satirical mirror reversal – and not sleazy former card-game thief Ray Liotta (brutally smacked and later set up to be whacked), or underworld flakes such as Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, small-time robbers and hitters whose incompetence brings in Pitt to houseclean. Injudiciously Pitt then, feeling touchy-feely, brings in James Gandolfini, debauched and hilarious as a master assassin coming to town more for the broads and booze than the bloodletting. Sighs Pitt finally: you just have to do everything yourself ...

The film increasingly resembles Hamlet in cockle-headed collision with The Sopranos. According to your take and taste it is either wittily predicated on, or worryingly compromised by, Pitt’s casting. We cannot hate a Pitt character any more than we can hate the Danish prince, though you could argue that the “something rotten” in Dominik’s unnamed US city, as in Denmark, is the main man himself. In addition, everyone keeps stealing scenes from Pitt, just as the gravedigger, Polonius and company keep stealing scenes from Hamlet. Gandolfini is especially mesmerising: a human tub of lard, greasy with venality, bubbling with lust, liquefactious with self-pity. Killing Them Softly is less a unified movie, more a giant sampler menu of gangster film possibilities. They are all rich and tasty, even if at the close some of us leave feeling, “What was that we just ate? ... ”

Everyone is out to kill everyone else in Oliver Stone’s Savages. The action pans dementedly between Central America and California, addressing issues of vice, sex, murder and multiple decapitation. Adapting a bestselling novel by Don Winslow, Stone seems to think he is screenwriting Scarface again. A ton of gore; lots of torture. Much of it happens to Laguna Beach love threesome Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and “O” (Blake Lively), who takes her name from “that bipolar basket case Ophelia”. (Hamlet again: that bourn from which no traveller returns empty-handed).

The Ben, Chon and O ménage has as much believability – almost none – as the berserk antics of Salma Hayek’s Elena, a drugs diva and kidnapper controlling the plot from Mexico. Elena abducts “O” when Ben and Chon decline to join her narcotics syndicate. A pale and grimy Benicio del Toro, resembling the exhumed corpse of Che Guevara, plays Elena’s henchman and torturer. John Travolta, strident and bullet-headed, is a corrupt DEA officer. The story’s long flight to nowhere goes on and on. During the bumpy moments you want to bail out, but you find Stone standing by the emergency doors playing Brahms. Yes, truly. The music for two climactic bloodbaths is from the Hamburg master’s First Symphony. You could barely fantasise it, though with Stone, we should know by now, anything is possible. Al Pacino as Brahms, fist-stomping at the piano (“Say hello to my leedle friend!”), in the director’s next? ...

Al Pacino would be welcome in Untouchable, though come to think of it the actor starred Oscar-winningly in the similarly soft-centred Scent of a Woman, another tale of a handicapped middle-ager opening up to “life”. In bad cinema “life” means a fatuous photogenic joie de vivre, force-fed to us in montage sequences. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s comedy-weepie is the highest-earning French film ever made, overtaking Amélie. No one got rich, said the sage, overestimating popular taste. If you needed a sickbag for Amélie, you need a stomach pump here. How else to dispel the queasiness created by the tale – truth-based (sickly tales often are) – of wheelchaired millionaire Philippe (François Cluzet), victim of a paragliding accident, restored to happiness and self-fulfilment by African-born carer/manservant Driss (Omar Sy)?

In the movie everything conforms to classist and racist cliché. The white man listens in solitary refinement to classical music; the black man bops to Earth, Wind & Fire. (The Left Bank mansion’s servants have seen nothing like it.) Cluzet reads books and knows about paintings. Sy picks up a brush and daubs a primitive abstract. When it is sold for €11,000, we practically see the movie’s think-bubble: “No brains, but what natural intuition!” It is typical of Nakache/Toledano’s depth of thought that the painter assigned to symbolise art’s profundity in the film is Salvador Dalí. Melting clocks. They should be the movie’s coat of arms. For some happy audiences time will melt away. For others, time, place and reality are liquefied to make a roman glutineux masquerading as an éducation sentimentale.

Hysteria is a history lesson customised as a costume comedy. Did a 19th-century English doctor called Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) really invent the vibrator? Apparently. Director Tanya Wexler propels the fictionalised plot along like a girl with a hoop: if it stays upright, never mind a little wobbling. Fun will be had even if the film is never quite hilarious, nor ever quite as heart-liftingly feminist as it seems to hope, for all that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s silver-tongued suffragette shares centre screen with Dancy. Best in show: Rupert Everett as an epicene, aphoristic inventor, clearly limbering up for Oscar Wilde.

Big Boys Gone Bananas! is a sweetly quixotic documentary about the justice sought by a Swedish film-maker after Dole, the fruit-tinning company, tried to ban his earlier documentary about pesticide-poisoned banana pickers in Nicaragua. The Los Angeles Film Festival pulled that movie, then cautiously put it back in the schedule, drawing canning-company wrath. Fredrik Gertten fought Dole on the LA beaches, then in the Swedish media. In front of his own camera he is a likeable presence: low-key, non-BS in his utterances, and looking like Dustin Hoffman after being delicately dragged through a hedge. Will this David conquer his Goliath? Watch and see.

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