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.
I’m not sure if last night’s episode of The Voice was particularly surreal, or if that was just a side effect of the massive dose of cold medicine I took right before it started. Either way, the fun is contagious (and the next time I’m tempted to make a terrible pun, I promise I’ll just cough on you instead).
For Team Blake, Nashville veteran Liz Davis battles Nicole Johnson, a less experienced country performer. Blake coyly assigns them “Baggage Claim” by Miranda Lambert (that is, Mrs. Shelton). The coach also offers a bizarrely intense commentary on 25-year-old Liz’s fading (?) career prospects: “This needs to happen now, if it’s ever going to.” He’s right, girl — hurry up before rigor mortis sets in.
The ladies ultimately turn in a polished duet, but Liz’s sultry, gritty edge wins her the battle. Backstage, poor Nicole tears up, but Blake chases her down with a comforting goodbye hug. D’aww.
Adam and mentor Mary J. Blige — by the way, the requisite footage of contestants reacting to how impressive their coaches and mentors are and oh my god what huge influences they’ve been has officially gotten old — pair performing arts student Alessandra Guercio and Kayla Nevarez, both 17. As they rehearse “Wide Awake,” it occurs to me that the girls kind of look alike, and also both look a little bit like Katy Perry — but don’t put too much stock in that, because it’s probably just the NyQuil talking.
Both singers are undeniably talented, but Kayla has — I can’t believe I’m saying this as compliment — a Disney quality to her, an ingénue sweetness that I find endearing. Despite Alessandra’s superior power, her performance feels artificial. My general impression of Guercio is a 37-year-old performing in a 17-year-old’s body.
It’s close, but Adam picks Kayla. After a confusing (if predictably narcissistic) digression about her time in the Mickey Mouse Club, Christina claims Alessandra — her first steal of the season!
A few excerpted battles flash by: Cee Lo’s Mycle Wastman knocks out Ben Taub on that song from the Internet Explorer commercials. On team Adam, Michelle Brooks-Thompson defeats Adanna Duru on “Crazy in Love” (how dare you play me only an abbreviated version of a Beyoncé song, producers — how dare you?). Christina pits married duo Beat Frequency against Latin pop singer Laura Vivas on “Poker Face.” Thankfully, Laura wins, but I’m disappointed we didn’t get to see more of my favorite freak show of a double act — plus, I would have been legitimately curious to witness the three-person rehearsal dynamic in action.
For the episode’s final battle, Cee Lo’s Emily Earle faces MacKenzie Bourg in a rare co-ed duet/romcom premise. If you’re reading this, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, give me a call.
With the pair’s “youthfulness and energy” in mind, Cee Lo asks them to perform Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time.” Emily stresses about leaving her country comfort zone, while MacKenzie is nervous to perform without an instrument to occupy his hands (the masturbation joke is almost too easy — on second thought, it’s just easy enough).
In rehearsal, MacKenzie dons a hideous “Navajo”-print polo, but soon outdoes himself with a pair of suspenders in the live performance. As much as hipster Harry Potter’s fashion sense irritates me, I really do like his voice — plus, Owl City perfectly suits his style. Emily’s performance is good, but sounds too much like a country artist’s novelty version of the song.
Resistance is futile — Cee Lo submits to the Borg. In the audience, MacKenzie’s bald, comically bro-y Dad turns out to be Hank Schrader, shouting “THAT’S MY BOY” at the top of his lungs. (MacKenzie doesn’t perform rock, dammit, but minerals.)
Tune in next Monday at 8 p.m. as The Voice’s battle round continues. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @mollyfitz.
[Image Credit: NBC]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
S2E1: When one door closes, another always opens up. Right after the Giants finished off the Pats in a sensational Super Bowl for the ages, another epic battle was underway on NBC with the season premiere of The Voice. At the end of the night, the tally has Christina Aguilera slightly leading the pack with two team members and the rest each trail behind with one. It is a refreshing change from shows like American Idol to only see the cream of the crop with one potential superstar after another. No William Hung types here. Last night marked the beginning of the blind auditions with Adam consistently gloating and trying to utilize last year’s win, Blake coughing insults under his breath and Cee-Lo making sexual references to contestants (which actually worked). Feels like Thanksgiving dinner at the Rothman household, except Carson Daily makes an appearance. Let the singing begin!
“I’m already irritated because I know Adam is going to say over and over again ‘I won last year.’” – Blake
Oh, Blake. How right you were. But Mr. Shelton spoke too soon, because he took the early lead by grabbing the first singer in RaeLynn, a 17-year-old blonde country vixen who warmed up to Blake by singing his wife Miranda Lambert’s “Hell on Heels.” Adam jumped on RaeLynn first (that came out wrong) but never stood a chance. Competition was amped right from the start as Blake and Adam went back and forth with low blows, especially coming from the Maroon 5 frontman. “Why would you just want to be a country star? ... you’re more than that,” Adam barked. Come on man, you are more than that, and I don’t even like country music.
Blake was the center of attention again, realizing he was a “dumbass” (his words not mine) for being the last to buzz in for our next contestant Jesse Campbell, a single father who admitted to sleeping in his car with his daughter before getting back on his feet. He was the first to get all four judges on his side. He had Cee-Lo yelling “Yes!” and Christina raising her arms in the air during his performance of “A Song For You.” Cee-Lo tried to use his smooth dialect and choice words like “brother” but Christina was having none of it. The best line of the night came next as Cee-Lo said, “Everybody is the same color with the lights off,” alluding to his obvious playing of the race card. Jesse picked the “Fighter” herself: Christina, who said she would bring it for this touching story.
“Christina Aguilera is one of the best singers on earth, but I can assure you that she is not one of the best coaches.” – Adam
Damn, Adam. The claws came out early and often but this did come on the heels of Christina calling Adam a used car salesman. The next contestant chosen was tattooed rocker Juliet Simms, who sounded like a young Joan Jett. Even though she wasn’t high on my list, her unique sound caught the eye of Cee, Adam and Christina. The coaches said her voice had a unique “dirt” to it but I think this was the first time of many more to come, where our Fantastic Four let the contest get the best of them. You could just see the itchy trigger finger on both Cee and Adam waiting for the other to buzz in first. Cee-Lo followed the little tiff between Adam and Christina by simply telling Juliet that she turned him on with her performance. She quickly chose him, nuff said.
Chris Mann was another contestant and story you absolutely have to root for unless you have no soul. Mann braved the judges and national TV even though his mother is battling pancreatic cancer. He was also the most unique performer of the night busting out an opera “Because We Believe”. Has The Voice gone Italian? Well, it has now with this rendition and it rocked. This boy has pipes and Adam literally mouthed “Wow!” during the performance. Christina even went as far as to say Mann epitomized a competition with a namesake like The Voice. Pipes picked pipes as he chose to go with Christina, her second of the night.
“Please, please, for the love of God, pick me.” – Adam
You wanted him, you got him and this is my (very, very) early pick to possibly win it all. If not, someone “please, please for the love of god” sign this man to a record deal. Tony Lucca, a vet of the Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Christina back in the day, chose a tough song with Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble” and nailed it. Even Ray would be proud as he earned an “I Want You” from all four coaches. Christina was dead-on by saying that Tony had a silky tone to his voice, later followed by realizing it was her old friend from the Mouse Club. Then, backstage Aguilera let it slip that Britney Spears once had a crush on Lucca (I think he dodged a bullet there). But if he sang like this as a teen, I would have a crush on him too.
By the end of the night The Voice had whet all our appetites for tonight’s two-hour special, where we get to see our four superstars performing Prince classics. Usually, I am against back to back episodes to avoid a show from getting stale but The Voice is unique and had me excited to see who will be added to the teams. With opera added into the mix, the slots REALLY are up for grabs and the contestants better bring it!
What did you think of the season premier? Do you like who was chosen for the teams? Are the coaches getting a little too personal with the comments back and forth? Let us know with some comments below and find me on Twitter @TheRealRothman.
I saw Disney’s TRON: Legacy last week and had a very middling reaction toward the science fiction spectacular. It is without question a visually stunning roller coaster, but lacks compelling characters to navigate its rather unfulfilling narrative, except for one minor player. Michael Sheen always brings class and complexity to his work, making him a filmmaker’s dream candidate for just about any role one can create.
Though he’s wonderful as a lead actor in films like Frost/Nixon and The Damn United, he excels at taking small roles and doing big things with them. That’s why Tim Burton used him in Alice In Wonderland as the White Rabbit and why Joseph Kosinski cast him as the eccentric club guru Castor in TRON. He was my favorite part of the movie; undeniably charismatic and infinitely watchable, but he’s not the first supporting player to steal a film’s glory. Take a look at a few other cases of small roles with a big impact:
Lambert Wilson in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a massive hit not just because it was a mind-bending, genre-defying blockbuster for the new millennium, but also because it was a fun ride. In the bloated sequel everyone – from Keanu Reeves to the Wachowski’s – was wound up and super-serious about the material, leaving precious little breathing room. Enter the Merovingian, an eccentric, aristocratic asshole holding The Keymaker in captivity. Lambert Wilson’s blase portrayal of this pompous program was the gust of fresh air that Reloaded desperately needed and was the best of all the additions to the franchise.
Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s contribution to this saddening film is colossal. His character says the things that we, the audience, want to say to Frank and April Wheeler when their marriage begins to unravel. He is the voice of reason in a society caught up in consumerism and upward mobility, pleading with the couple to follow their hearts instead of their wants. He maximizes his screen time with a raw, uninhibited performance that overshadows the films prestigious stars.
Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused (1993)
I bet you can’t name more than five people who appeared in this classic comedy. Whether you can or can’t, I’m positive that one of those people would be McConaughey, who steals every moment of the movie with pitch-perfect delivery of his hilarious lines. Oozing charm and a delightful disregard for authority, he followed a long line of cinematic rebels that includes James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and Sean Penn (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and is as cool as any of them.
Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Though some may disagree, I find this rendition of Robin Hood to be one of the most enjoyable. Director Kevin Reynolds assembled an all-star cast and created some memorable action sequences to tell the age-old story of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but Connery ends the film on a high note with a rousing cameo as Richard the Lionheart while giving a nod to his own cinematic past (he played the adventurous archer in 1976’s Robin and Marian).
Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island (2010)
Every bit the twisted mind-bender it was supposed to be, Shutter Island’s best moment was an informative standoff between Haley and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The former child actor sells the primal terror that the patients experience almost as well as director Martin Scorsese, but does so in less than ten minutes. In that time he reveals the entire plot of the movie – backstory, conclusion and all – but sandwiches it so well between layers of emotion you’re not entirely sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s masterful exposition and a riveting sequence thanks to Haley’s tremendous talent.
Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille (2007)
O’Toole personified every chef’s worst nightmare as an imposing food critic in this heartwarming animated comedy. With just the power of his voice, he gave Anton Ego the presence of a Roman gladiator and the attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. His character's enlightenment doubles as the moral of the story; not an easy task for someone taking on a minor role in a film of this size, but O’Toole makes it look easy and fun.
Matt Damon in EuroTrip (2004)
This by-the-books teen comedy isn’t all that great, but is fun enough to warrant repeat viewings. The ace up its sleeve is Damon’s tattooed bandleader Donny, who ridicules protagonist Scottie by sleeping with his girlfriend and then singing about it. The comedy is born from the absurdity of seeing the generally dramatic Damon in full frat-boy mode. Silly? Yes, but it’s a welcome surprise that never gets stale, even if the film itself has.
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Had Murray’s brief appearance in this surprise hit never happened the trajectory of its awesomeness wouldn’t have changed. Looking at the film in hindsight, however, I find myself counting down the minutes and seconds until Bill chimes in. The timing of his cameo within the narrative is perfect and his self-deprecating humor plays so well off of the film’s central characters it’s practically a comedy short all on its own.
Elijah Wood in Sin City (2005)
In a film populated by creepy characters, Wood is exceptionally crazy as Kevin the cannibal. Without any words he managed to scare the pants off of most moviegoers with one of the weirdest characters in modern movie history (next to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter, of course). His performance recalls the work of Max Schreck and other silent film stars while providing Mickey Rourke’s Marv with a polar-opposite nemesis who’s equally as deadly.
Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark neo-noir features many great monologues and cameos, but none is quite as affecting as Walken’s. He delivers little Butch’s entire genealogy in less than ten minutes, but laces it with so much detail you feel as though you were in the trenches of Hanoi with him. His comical delivery makes it go down smooth and turns a somber moment into one of the funniest in the film. [Click here to view]