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.
It's easy to hate on the Twilight movies. They're the epitome of indulgent fan-servicing filmmaking alienating anyone on the outside of their cultish fanbase. With consistent navel-gazing screenplays by series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (adapted from the equally shallow source material from author Stephanie Meyers) there's little reason to think future installments could ever transcend their predecessors.
But whereas Twilight New Moon and Eclipse contently burrowed themselves under the forlorn faces and over-dramatic moping of stars Kristen Stewart Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls Kinsey Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh) unearths a saving grace in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1: pure insanity from which blossoms color comedy and scares. The movie is one giant wink to the camera—and it serves the melodrama of Twilight tremendously.
The first half of the not-quite-epic Twilight conclusion kicks off with the wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) a long-awaited event Condon manages to spin into an authentically nerve-wracking and touching sequence. Finally a Twilight movie with an obvious purpose—Bella and Edward have been waiting since Movie One to consummate their relationship (waiting until marriage) but lingering at the end of every daydream every loving gaze every sweet nothing is the gut-wrenching fact that Bella will give up her humanity. Breaking Dawn - Part 1 confronts this dead on with an overtness absent from the previous movies.
While the script is still committed to visualizing Bella Edward and Jacob's uncinematic inner monologues Condon peppers every scene with the zest of ridiculousness saving Breaking Dawn from ever dragging. Edward cracking a bed in half during his first sexual experience is just the beginning—the movie features everything from demon-fearing Brazilian housekeepers to body horror straight out of a Cronenberg film to corny CSI-esque shots of vampire venom jetting through bloodstreams. In one scene Jacob (Lautner) morphs into canine form to telepathically declare (in Lautner's brooding "tough guy" voice) that he is the true Alpha Male of the pack. The moment's hammy and trite but Condon shoots it with all the over-the-top machismo exuding from the wolfpack. Subtle no. Fun yes.
Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is far and away the best of the Twilight series. Sexy silly scary and stupid the movie's tonal balancing act amounts to an Evil Dead for tween romantics. There's gravity to the events we're witnessing on screen (Pattinson and Stewart even have a tense argument that results in an explosion of their previously-presumed non-existent emotions) but a self-reflexive lens keeps the normally-idiotic confessions of love and hushed prophetic warnings of the Cullen family in check. The operatic tale crescendos with buckets of blood and "tragedy" straight out of a high school Shakespeare production—completely in tune with the outlandish plot and a satisfying cliffhanger for Part 2. The movie is weighed down by the baggage that comes with a Twilight movie but the formula is shaken up just enough to inject the undead franchise with a little life.
As devourers of pop culture we're quick to categorize our entertainment for our own safety. Comedy drama thriller sci-fi horror—everything we have the chance to consume has a label to ensure that we know exactly what we're getting.
Occasionally a movie defies classification. While not a revolutionary piece of cinema 50/50 is especially gratifying simply because of its abandonment of genre and the baggage that comes with owning one. The movie starts with a simple inciting incident: one day 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that he has a life-threatening tumor growing on his spine. Of course the news doesn't sit well with the public radio producer who's in the middle of work on an exciting piece for his station just adjusting to living with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and sees his life as a lengthy exciting prospect. Adam never smokes he waits to cross the street he always tucks his shirts in and keeps his sweater vests tidy—what did he do to deserve this?
But Adam doesn't go on a quest to find his true self or spend days writing a bucket list. He lives his life—and its friends and family who feel the tremors of his disease. Rachael quickly finds herself off balance and unable to cope with Adam's situation while his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) tries to coddle him finding a new opportunity she never found with her Alzheimer's-stricken husband. His co-workers throw him a guilt-induced party.
At a total loss Adam finds comfort in his pal Kyle (Seth Rogen essentially playing himself) who uplifts his spirits through dedication marijuana and loose women. Nothing seems to out-weigh the punch-in-the-gut feeling of losing his hair to chemotherapy or barely being able to walk around his house without feeling winded but Adam stays afloat thanks to Kyle's incessant goofiness and a newfound friendship in his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Equally out of water in her new job the two bond over their discovery of humanism in the scientific process of beating cancer and while the growth of their relationship is one of the few things in the film that feels remotely contrived it gives Adam hope in the face of his possibly-fatal surgery.
50/50 isn't sugar sweet nor is it stone cold serious. Director Jonathan Levine allows the events to unfold in a unique and reserved realism allowing the movie to bounce from laugh-out-loud funny (thanks in a large part to Rogen's star talent in a supporting role) to tearjerker drama without any broad segues. Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of modern cinema's best watchers the type of actor who can float through a picture without making too much a ruckus but who's identifiable and helps us understand his surroundings. But he fits right in to the Apatow-style comedy Rogen and Levine conjure up throughout the movie. In one scene Adam chows down on some pot brownies courtesy of his elderly chemo-mates (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) leading him to groove around the hospital hall spaced out and loving it. It's an uproarious moment but poignant too—finally Adam can let go of a bit of his grief.
Providing a foundation for 50/50's minimalist tactics are the supporting cast. Howard once again proves her versatility turning an unsympathetic character into a dimensionalized presence. What Rachael does in the film isn't admirable but thanks to Howard's performance not entirely unreasonable. Huston and Kendrick are strong and grounded enough that when Adam begins to check out of life as surgery looms they don't disappear from the film. But it's Rogen who really steals the show perhaps because his friend and 50/50 writer Will Reiser based the movie on their real life experiences but the comedy-first actor steps up later in the film when the weight of reality starts to bring everyone down.
50/50 isn't a comedy or a drama but a portrait of real people surviving real hardships. Shedding a few tears over the course of the film is perfectly acceptable—the jokes are that funny and the emotion that powerful.