KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Writer-director Andrew Dominick, whose epic Western The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford made my 10 Best list for 2007, stumbles badly with this yarn (based on George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade) in which a professional killer (Brad Pitt) is tasked with locating and eliminating the low-level crooks who were dumb enough to rob a Mob-enforced card game.
Pitt is merely in "cool movie star" mode here, with the best performance coming from Scoot McNairy (star of the unseen gem In Search of a Midnight Kiss and currently appearing in Argo) as one of the hapless thieves.
For the most part, this is a generic crime flick that comes with the usual trimmings of Tarantino-inspired exchanges (only dull instead of exhilarating), loving attention to all the beatings and shootings (a bullet ripping through a cheek, a kicked rib cage cracking, etc.) and the entire female population being represented by a hooker (billed as, yes, "Hooker" rather than a name in the end credits) who's only on hand to be insulted by James Gandolfini's boozy hitman (when she asks for a tip, he replies, "Here's a tip: Learn how to put the condom on with your mouth").
But add the ill-advised attempt to make a meaningful statement and what's left is particularly unbearable. Set in 2008, with both the presidential election and the financial collapse the hot news items of the day, the film constantly places its characters in settings where TVs or billboards are constantly featuring Obama, Bush or McCain. It's the movie's way of saying that the crime underworld is no different than the real world, what with its bureaucratic blunders, corporate structuring, capitalist tendencies and dog-eat-dog mentality. At one point, Pitt's character even says, "America isn't a country; it's a business." Great, but mob movies have been making similar parallels at least since The Godfather 40 years ago.
Killing Them Softly positions itself as a heady piece of entertainment, but it's ultimately no more intelligent than The Pet Goat.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS
Earth's mightiest heroes manage to put their bickering aside long enough to stop a black-hearted villain with a silky British accent from inflicting his will on innocent people. That synopsis can be used to describe the summer blockbuster The Avengers or the new feature Rise of the Guardians - take your pick.
In this animated outing, the evil Pitch (voiced by Jude Law) plots to make children stop believing in such iconic figures as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny; by doing so, all magic will fade, and he will be able to unleash his nightmares on unsuspecting tots everywhere. In other words, the good guys have their work cut out for them.
So with the reluctant help of novice guardian Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the heavily tattooed Santa (Alec Baldwin), the combat-ready Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the cheerful Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the mute Sandman and various minions (including Santa's elves, obviously patterned after the Minions from Despicable Me) wage a global battle to protect the dreams, toys, teeth and eggs of the world's wee ones.
Based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series, Rise of the Guardians is one of those cluttered toon flicks that's ultimately more exhausting than exciting, with the added debit of actors who were recruited more for name value than for what they bring to their roles (although Baldwin is mildly amusing as the Russian St. Nick - or should that be St. Nikolai?). Still, the animation (especially the detailed backdrops) is exemplary, the worthy notion of fighting to protect childhood innocence is presented boldly rather than sappily, and there are enough amusing gags to prevent on-the-fence viewers - and critics - from going full Scrooge on the final product.