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.
The big-screen live-action adaptation mostly captures the look and feel of the ‘60s cartoon many of us grew up watching. It could have used a few more occurrences of our favorite line “Look out Speed! AH!” but oh well. As it goes Speed (Emile Hirsch) has grown up with motor oil pumping through his veins helping his Pops (John Goodman) make racecars and idolizing his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) a top-notch driver. Then tragedy strikes when Rex is seemingly killed in an accident. Heartbroken Speed is determined to take his place showing some serious skills on the track. His girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) thinks he’s the bomb as do his mom (Susan Sarandon) younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim. But Speed is soon in for a rude awakening when he is introduced to the corrupt world of auto racing forcing him to team up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) to make it right again. Go Speed go! The usually somber Hirsch--who is best known for his indie work in films such as Alpha Dog and Into the Wild--seems at first an odd choice to play Speed. But his seriousness works well against the campiness surrounding him especially in the more emotional moments. Same goes for Fox as the stoic Racer X. Still one can’t help but think of him as his Lost alter ego in a dark glasses and a mask. The rest of the cast just has way too much fun including Ricci as the cute-as-a-button-but-full-of-moxie Trixie Goodman as the blowhard Pops and especially young Litt as Spritle. Out of all Speed’s animated characters re-envisioned Litt does the best job capturing Spritle’s cartoon mischievousness. The monkey ain’t bad either. Chim-Chim AH! Oh those Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry). They sure do like to come up with as many inventive ways to visually stimulate you as they can don’t they? Their Matrix series set CGI on fire--and now Speed Racer which quite literally takes you inside a video game the Wii or Xbox could only dream of ever creating. The film is virtual eye candy from start to finish--a mixture of Tim Burton-esque colorful sets wild adrenaline-filled special effects and constant camera movements. They may actually need to post a warning for those who suffer from motion sickness. However Speed’s main problem which is the same problem the Matrix franchise suffered from is its tendency to overanalyze the plot. The Wachowskis love to preach turning a scene about the racing world’s corrupt beginning into a 15-minute diatribe. They try to combine the campiness of the animated TV series with serious undertones but it only weighs the film down. You can feel the kids in the audience tapping their feet waiting for more action. So let’s just give the kids what they want: fast-paced excitement wrapped up in a colorful package.
Lonesome doctor Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) must move out of the lake house she loves so much but leaves a letter for the new tenant in the mailbox with a forwarding address and a few pointers about the house. When Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) who’s father built the house moves in he finds things very different than Kate’s letter has revealed. After a few exchanges of questions and curiosities they realize they are living on the same day two years apart. Wondering how this could be happening (as are we) the mailbox suddenly becomes a conduit for their burgeoning love affair. But attempting to meet face to face is the challenge. Reeves is generally perceived as an action hero with Speed and The Matrix movies cementing his fate. So seeing him in romantic films such as Sweet November makes us cringe a little since he always looks like he’d rather be off chasing buses. While this still remains true in Lake House the stiffness actually works since the character doesn’t have much interaction with his object of affection. And of course pairing up with his Speed co-star is a plus. The emotion pours out of the two. Bullock’s slightly guarded character begins to open up to Reeves’ and the letters which turn into conversations throughout the movie depict the connection nicely. Inspired by the South Korean film Il Mare Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti handles The Lake House with a fine hand. It’s true the time-travel premise is more than a little confusing and riddled with plot holes but one has to keep in the back of their mind The Lake House is meant to take you on a journey of sorts. Agresti does an excellent job of doing this highlighting the scenic beauty and having the characters talk to each other through their words. If you just don’t think about the ridiculousness of it too much you’ll enjoy it.
In 1930 Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) an American socialite in search of debt relief and a fresh start transfers to Amalfi Italy. Her reputation as an indiscriminant adulterer comes along and she’s quickly the talk of the small town. Amidst her misadventures with married men she stumbles upon Robert (Mark Umbers) and Meg (Scarlett Johansson) a young blissfully married couple from America. Robert immediately strikes up a relationship with the older temptress and it’s immediately assumed by the resident paparazzi—a.k.a. citizens with binoculars and nothing better to do—that he is the latest prey. Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is being courted by another wealthier man named Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) who can’t help but fall for her despite tepid interest on her end. When Meg learns of her husband’s rumored paramour she reacts hastily uncovering surprises that shock and affect all involved. The acting is where A Good Woman suffers. The female leads while both rightfully esteemed actresses are both miscast. Hunt’s Mrs. Erlynne has a world-wise and profound retort for every question thrown her way but her delivery just doesn’t fit her words; she seems uninspired but it’s much more likely her trying too hard. Johansson meanwhile is an anachronism in the film: She is an impossible sell for a reason having nothing to do with physical beauty or acting chops—she’s completely and simply at long last out of her element. But Wilkinson as always shines here as the pathetic yet adorable Tuppy. It’s perfectly plausible to see him in 1930s Italy—or any setting whatsoever. His eloquence befits the time and place and he makes his sad little man engaging funny and relatable even today. Director Mike Barker is charged with bringing A Good Woman adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan to the big screen. It’s a tall order to adapt someone as revered as Wilde especially on the heels of the widely lauded adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but Barker comes through for the most part. Luckily for him the lush mesmerizing scenery of the setting is at the forefront. And the director would’ve succeeded in transporting us back to the whole exotic pristine milieu had it not been for the aforementioned actresses’ inabilities to do the same. Nonetheless he holds up his end retelling a typically complex Wilde tale of love and narrow-mindedness without butchering or overstating the message.
About Schmidt is a curious slice of Americana. The film is really about ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives but the characters are so clearly drawn and the dialogue so rich you are immediately hooked. Somewhat reluctantly 66-year-old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires from his long-standing job as an insurance salesman. He wonders what he is going to do with his time now. His wife Helen (June Squibb) convinces him to buy a motor home so they can travel around the country together in their golden years. That would be great if Helen didn't bug Warren incessantly. He is also plagued by the fact his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying Randall (Dermot Mulroney) a dimwitted fellow Warren does not consider worthy of his daughter (and really isn't). Still Warren would go on living his life without any change indefinitely even if he wasn't very happy because darn it that's what you do. But suddenly things do change for Warren--Helen unexpectedly dies leaving him with a big empty house and his own nagging thoughts which he writes down in letters to the third-world foster child he sponsors in Africa for $22 a month. Finally one day he wakes up with a purpose in life--to stop Jeannie's marriage. He decides to drive the Winnebago across the country to convince her she's making a mistake but as with any good soul-searching journey he discovers more things about himself than anything else.
Oscar-winning Nicholson is one of those performers who continually surprises you. He may have that same maniacal grin and the unmistakable "Jack" voice but he is an actor of immeasurable talent--and he goes way out on a limb as Warren Schmidt. He plays all 66 years right up there on screen in vivid Technicolor--down to the gray hair wrinkles black socks and saggy boxer shorts. Nicholson lets his vanity go to epitomize the aging white Midwest American man. The process the actor uses to transform Warren from a cold and selfish man into a somewhat decent human being is mesmerizing. This is Jack's movie and he should almost certainly get an Oscar nod for this. But to give credit to the rest of the cast almost everyone in the film turns in gutsy performances. Davis (Hearts in Atlantis) downplays her good looks to play the mousy Jeannie who eventually stands up to her father. Mulroney's performance as the mullet-haired Randall is a far cry from his romantic leading man in My Best Friend's Wedding. The supporting role which stands out the most is Randall's New Age mom Roberta as played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates. She bares it all--literally and figuratively--and gives the spunky Roberta a wonderful very human twist. Her scene with Nicholson in a hot tub is one for the movie anthologies.
Much like his excellent films Election and Citizen Ruth writer/director Alexander Payne likes to paint a picture of true blue Americans perhaps somewhat exaggerated for the big screen but nonetheless real. Anyone who sees About Schmidt will know at least one Warren Schmidt in their lives--an uncle a friend but more than likely a father. Payne exquisitely details this man's life visually and with the spoken word. From the opening shots of the insurance building Schmidt works in to seeing Warren sitting in his empty office boxes packed waiting for the hour hand to hit 5:00 so he can leave to his less-than-happy retirement party you immediately understand what this character is all about. He lives his life by the book rarely venturing off the beaten path until at 66 he realizes he wants to break free. As soon as Warren starts his journey things unravel ruts are broken out of and even though Warren won't entirely change who he is he tries to be a better person. His toast to his daughter at her wedding reception is classic--you think at any moment he is going to ruin it for her and do something typically "Schmidt-like " but he ends up surprising you instead. There are only a few moments when the film drags a little but for the rest it is riveting.