Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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With Killing Them Softly opening nationwide today, it’ll be the first time in five years that the words “Directed by Andrew Dominik” have appeared on an American movie screen. That delay is because the Australian director’s last film, his U.S. debut The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, only made back half of its $30 million production budget with its worldwide grosses. Even worse, it netted only $3.9 million in the States. When I ask him if he sees Killing Them Softly as a natural follow-up to Jesse James, Dominik, 45, merely says, “I guess I don’t really think that way. I’m not in exact control of what I do. This was just the project I could get going.” The fact then that the Weinstein Company is opening Killing Them Softly in 2,424 theaters shows just how much confidence they have in the film—and Dominik’s vision.
A razor-sharp thriller starring Brad Pitt as a philosophically-minded hitman hired by a mid-level boss (Richard Jenkins) to hunt down the brainless twerps (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who robbed a mob-protected card game, Killing Them Softly is also a not-so-subtle commentary on the intersection of criminality and capitalism. Though the George V. Higgins novel it’s based on, Cogan’s Trade, came out in 1974, Dominik set his plot in October 2008, right in the middle of the worst financial collapse the United States had faced since the Great Depression. As characters throughout the film discuss the power plays they hope will land them big bucks, TV monitors show George W. Bush and Barack Obama discussing the turmoil that had engulfed the economy four years ago. The implication is clear: the 2008 bailout that saved Wall Street despite its bad behavior isn’t that different from the windfalls awaiting several characters in the film who’ve proven that crime sometimes does pay. Near the end of Killing Them Softly, Pitt’s Jackie Cogan even says, “America is not a country. It’s just a business.” That speaks very much to a theme Dominik previously developed in Jesse James: that there’s a disparity between the way we see ourselves, as individuals and as a country, and the way we really are.
But don’t think this is all just political sturm und drang. Killing Them Softly is actually a comedy. One of the hoods who robs a cardgame has a Cruella De Vil-style get-rich-quick scheme to steal dogs. And James Gandolfini plays the anti-Tony Soprano as a hitman associate of Cogan’s who, to say the least, has lost his killer instinct. “If the film took itself seriously, I don’t think it would be much fun,” Dominik says. “It’d be like preaching to the choir or something.”
We asked the director to expound upon some of his film’s ideas, and Dominik was more than willing to oblige.
Hollywood.com: How do you think the comedic tone of the film appealed to the actors?
Andrew Dominik: Well, Brad signed on thirty minutes after I pitched Killing Them Softly to him, because we had worked together before obviously. I think it was Jim [Gandolfini] who really got into the whole comedy aspect. Jim is always just going to make his guy real. I wanted him because he’s such an intensely sensitive guy, and there’s a real sensitivity to everything that he does. I could imagine Jim playing this really f***ed-up character and caring about him. That was my motive for getting him.
HW: Gandolfini’s character in the film is almost like the burntout end-state of Tony Soprano. A once formidable player now rendered useless. I thought there was a great mix of comedy and pathos in that character. He could have been a cartoon but you end up feeling really sorry for him. I did, anyway.
AD: Yeah, me too. There’s a real sensitivity inside the guy, even though he’s so f***ed up.
HW: Even though the two films are very different stylistically, I feel there is kind of connection between Killing Them Softly and Jesse James thematically.
AD: I think that Killing Them Softly is a little more one-sided in its view--my view--and a little more pop-y. I think Jesse James tries to look at its characters in a little more balanced way, as two sides of the same coin.
HW: It’s interesting you decided to bring a George Higgins novel to the screen, considering that only one of his novels had been adapted as a movie [1970’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which became a 1973 film starring Robert Mitchum], but especially that you decided to update it and set it in 2008. What inspired that choice?
AD: I got Cogan’s Trade because I had seen and loved The Friends of Eddie Coyle. So I looked Higgins up and saw that this guy was like a treasure trove. He’d written a whole lot of stories that had a real sense of authenticity about them, since he’d been a prosecutor. This book is a really simple crime and punishment story, even though it takes place entirely in the criminal world. But when it really caught fire for me was when I realized it’s a story about an economic crisis, and how it paralleled what was going on in the world at the time. And so updating it really seemed like the thing to do.
CB: There’s a lot of political commentary in this film, usually conveyed when we hear speeches from George W. Bush and Barack Obama talking about the financial collapse on the background. Were you trying to present this story as a microcosm for what was happening in the country at large?
AD: Yes, very much so. I think the attraction of crime movies is that they are little stories about capitalism. This is the genre in which the capitalist ideal is presented upfront. It’s the one genre in which it’s completely acceptable for characters to care about money, and maybe that’s the appeal of it. In some ways I find the people in crime films much more recognizable, much more like the people I meet in real life, than I do, say, characters in romantic comedies or other movies that on some level are concerned with reaffirming family values. Also, my experience of America, approaching it as an outsider, is just how much of life in this country is based around the dollar. This is a really, really capitalist country. And to me it seems there’s a similarity between the way criminals operate and the way everybody else does. I don’t know whether crime is dictating business or business is dictating crime.
CB: Do you feel that the criminal characters in your film are more honest, or at least less hypocritical, about capitalism than legitimate businessmen?
AD: Maybe. Maybe yes and maybe no. A guy like Obama has to persuade people to get what he wants. Obviously a power player in a criminal organization doesn’t have to persuade anyone. He can just do what he wants. So criminals don’t have the same problems that a president might. However, the president—or the government in general—have to engage in marketing in order to persuade people, engage in marketing to sell them on an idea. Obama’s great at singing a song of togetherness, but the American idea of freedom is really just the freedom to compete.
CB: In showing clips of both Bush and Obama, I think you’re one of the few to indicate that perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. As different as people would like to think they are, they represent the same system and are subject to its faults and failings as much as anybody, regardless of all the Hope and Change rhetoric.
AD: To me, regardless of who’s in office, the government is strangled by business. And the government’s priorities are dictated by business. I mean, why does America, even after healthcare reform, still not have free universal healthcare? I’m sure it has something to do with the insurance lobby.
CB: In fact, that’s one of the final lines of the film when Brad Pitt’s Jackie says “America’s not a country, it’s a business.” Was that you speaking through that character?
AD: I suppose so, but it’s only one half of the story. America used to be a fantastical place, you could get everything here. And everything was produced here. In some ways I think it’s more like cronyism than capitalism that’s brought the whole thing down. This is the country where the lightbulb was invented and the movie camera and the telephone, just about every f***ing thing you can imagine was invented in this melting pot. This was a place where so many ideas came together and innovation was encouraged. But it seems like the corporations have a stranglehold on everything now. America’s moved so much of its production and manufacturing offshore, it’s become a nation of middlemen.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]
Hollywood.com’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ Movie Review
Brad Pitt is The Great American Gangster in ‘Killing Them Softly’—TRAILER
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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 first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Liotta made a name for himself starring as mobster Henry Hill in the 1990 Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas, and he's set to head back to the criminal underworld in the new film, which is based on George V. Higgins' 1974 book.
Pitt will play an enforcer investigating a heist during a poker game, while Liotta plays the organiser of the illegal game.
The movie will also star Sopranos actor James Gandolfini, as well as Javier Bardem, Sam Rockwell, Casey Affleck and Mark Ruffalo.
UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter also confirms that Goodfellas star Ray Liotta has also signed up for the ensemble picture, making Cogan's Trade a virtual who's who of gangster shit.
EARLIER: Johnny Sack's life didn't turn out too grand by the time The Sopranos ended its legendary run, but for Vincent Curatola, who played the New York crime boss on the multiple-award-winning drama, the fun is just starting. The actor just signed on to co-star in Andrew Dominik's new film Cogan's Trade, opposite Brad Pitt and a great ensemble cast, as a middle-aged man recently released from jail who seeks revenge on those who sent him to prison.
The project, which is based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, follows a mob enforcer (Pitt) investigating a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game in the seedy side of Boston. Javier Bardem, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Richard Jenkins and Bella Heathcoate are all locked into parts, but the most exciting prospect about Curatola's addition is an on-screen reunion with his Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini, who will also occupy a (rather large) space in the film.
Production is set to begin by the end of the month while the film may see an early 2012 release from The Weinstein Company.
Sam Rockwell -- known best for talking to himself on the moon -- just joined Cogan's Trade, a new comedy-crime film already starring Brad Pitt. Deadline reports that the movie is an ensemble film and Rockwell doesn't have a specified role yet, but is committed to the project. The script was adapted by writer-director Andrew Dominik from George V. Higgins' novel and rumors have Casey Affleck also taking part in the picture. All four players worked together on the 2007 western drama The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
In the film, Pitt will play Jackie Cogan, a professional enforcer who's investigating a mob-sponsored high stakes poker game. As stated, Rockwell's role isn't set yet, so all we can do is speculate about his place in the film. He'll either: a.) balance Pitt's character's craziness (because he'll no doubt be insane) or b.) since it's a mob movie, he'll be the one who goes all-in only to lose on the river card so he goes to the bathroom, does a whole buncha coke, comes out with a shotgun and kills everyone.