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.
While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Yes it’s true. Although it reaped deserved accolades and an Oscar win for its star Philip Seymour Hoffman Capote keeps you somewhat at arm’s length as you watch Truman Capote go through his agonizing journey to writing his one and only masterpiece In Cold Blood. Infamous however wears its heart on its sleeve drawing you in immediately. When we first meet Capote (Toby Jones) it’s in New York. As the toast of the town and confidante to some of Manhattan’s elite grand dames including Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Slim Keith (Hope Davis) Capote’s mood is light and airy his antics hilarious. Then once Capote travels to Kansas to cover the grisly Cutter murders with his dear friend Nell Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) the frivolity is peeled away layer by layer. When he finally becomes so tortuously—and yes even romantically (it goes there)—entangled with killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) and the writing of his book hits its crescendo Capote emerges as a beaten-down and bitter man who ultimately can’t even be lifted by his high society friends. Infamous is infinitely more heartbreaking. It’s really hard to top Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote. He embodies the character with such exquisite and subtle suffering you don’t mind the fact he doesn’t look anything like the diminutive author. Toby Jones (Finding Neverland) however does look like Capote. A LOT like him and is just as capable at wringing out all of Capote’s brilliance and faults. But rather than dominate Jones’ eerie look-a-like characterization blends in more with Infamous’ scenery allowing some of the other colorful characters to step up to the plate. Weaver and Davis are effusive and catty as Capote’s Manhattan buddies who give hints on what’s to become of Capote later in his life when he finally goes too far and crosses these fine society ladies. Craig is also particularly effecting as Smith full of pathos and rage. But the real stand out is Bullock as Harper Lee. Her unassuming but quietly fierce take on the To Kill a Mockingbird author far outshines Catherine Keener’s Oscar-nominated performance in Capote. Bullock brings such an essence to the role that when watching Lee tell stories of when she and Truman were children you see the little girl Scout from Mockingbird so very clearly. Kudos all around. Director/writer Douglas McGrath has to got to be kicking himself. Seriously. Of course he’s going to say “Given the riveting contradictions in Capote’s character the rich range of people who made up his circle and the comic and dramatic turns that marked the period the real wonder is that there were only two scripts.” But the fact of the matter is Capote came first and furious getting all kinds of good strokes. Releasing another movie about the very same subject on its heels...well that movie is going to have a harder time. Period. And that’s a real shame. McGrath does some truly marvelous things with Infamous. He shows how a flamboyant gay writer spoiled chic who plays court jester to the very cream of New York society is set down in the wastelands of Kansas to write about a horrible crime. Capote’s antics at first are hilarious such as trying to wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat just to fit in. But then the shift into the dark side as Capote delves deeper and deeper into the psyche of the killers keeps you riveted. It might be the same but Infamous is just as worthy.