by Jeff Boam
Opening This Weekend
Killing Them Softly
Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta
Ever since giving a scene-stealing turn as a gigolo in Thelma and Louise, Brad Pitt has seen a steady rise to movie stardom. From blockbusting popcorn flicks (Interview with a Vampire, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Burn After Reading) to critic-pleasing award-winners (Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Tree of Life) to projects with some of cinema’s hottest auteurs (David Fincher, Fight Club; Guy Ritche, Snatch; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds), he’s pretty much done it all in Hollywood…oh, and he’s married to Angelina Jolie. Now, he’s reteaming with his The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik on Killing Them Softly. In this R-rated crime thriller, professional enforcer Jackie Coogan (Pitt) investigates a heist that went down at a mob-protected poker game. The Plus: The players. For Killing Them Softly, Pitt (Babel, Moneyball) headlines an amazing cast that also includes Liotta (Smokin’ Aces, Charlie St. Cloud) Richard Jenkins (Let Me In, The Cabin in the Woods), James Galdolfini (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, HBO’s The Sopranos), and Sam Shepard (Fair Game, Safe House). The Minus: The gamble. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was hailed by most critics as one of 2007’s best films (this critic included), but it only made back half of its budget at the domestic box office — a failure by Hollywood fiscal standards. Opening on its lonesome might help this flick’s prospects, but — keep in mind — last week’s new releases got bested by holdovers Twilight and Lincoln.
Life of Pi
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan
A slice of Life that’s pretty enough to eat, Pi gives up a heavenly bounty for filmgoers. At first glance, this film invites comparisons to everything from Castaway to Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s frankly better and much more higher minded than both. Granted, a great deal of this is due to the source material, Yann Martel’s long-thought-unadaptable spiritual rumination of the same name. Improbably, the film amounts to brain food, soul food, and brain candy in one singular vision. It takes a visionary, of course, and Life of Pi boasts a doozy who doles out both awe-striking aesthetics and thought-provoking drama where filmmakers M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t dare try. Their loss is surely filmgoers’ gain, however.
In this PG-rated rated adaptation, director Ang Lee brings filmgoers the story of an Indian boy named Pi (Sharma), a zookeeper’s son who finds himself in the company of a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger after a shipwreck sets them adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Even after giving filmgoers visual feast Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and intelligent romance Brokeback Mountain, Lee manages to put forth the best attributes of both in this, a brilliant story enhanced by technology rather than the norm, which amounts to bells, whistles, and little story. The colors pop like a Technicolor spectacular, the action ranks and raises like a Vista-Vision epic, and the 3D immerses like a modern Avatar marvel. Like a gift from the gods, this eye-popping dynamo of a film thankfully complements an excellently adapted tome, however. Bottom line: There’s always room for Pi.
Rise of the Guardians
Voices of Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman
Giving audiences a Rise more than an Avengers-sized adventure, Guardians keeps the faith for families even if it isn’t fated to become a holiday classic. Author William Joyce put the cart before the horse, coming up with the movie idea before writing the book series. In the hands of the studio that birthed Megamind and How to Train Your Dragon, it becomes an inspired but not entirely inspiring tale of humankind’s innate need to believe in something even in the face of life experience and cynicism. It’s a great lesson to learn and, thanks to near-photo-realistic animation, a slick way to present it. Still, the somewhat smart-alecky formulaic approach oftentimes fills moviegoers’ faith-based cavity with a sugar rush, not a full heart. It didn’t have to be theological, mind — just more spirited.
In this PG-rated animated family flick, the immortal Guardians — Santa Claus (Baldwin), Easter Bunny (Jackman), Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) — join forces to protect children from evil boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law). Even if the name cast is mainly here to fill a marquee, their celebrity pipes breathe amazing life into this veritable Juvy League of America. As inventive as the team-up of holiday icons proves, however, there is still that DreamWorks Animation Easy-Bake story of an untested outsider who must prove himself and help save the day (see: Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, etc.). Despite this mothballed structure, Guardians rises to a confectious occasion, presenting a fun-filled flick that’s the glitzy equivalent of maxing out a credit card on gifts rather than celebrating life and love. Bottom line: Run-of-Mill on 34th Street.
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston
Chronicling the production of a ridiculously bad Arabian Nights-aping sci-fi flick, Argo ironically ends up to be one of the most brilliant real-life dramas to come along in years. In this R-rated drama, a CIA exfiltration specialist (Affleck) invents a fake science-fiction film production to free six Americans from Iran. Pinioning the story synopsis around the titular failed Star Wars rip-off, however, is as short sighted as saying JFK is a film about the 35th president. Indeed, Argo plays hard, fast, and fair with a declassified CIA case involving the Iran Hostage Affair. The fact that the late ’70s/early, ’80s-set action looks, feels and plays out like an actual white knuckle ’70s thriller only helps matters — we’re talking All the President’s Men here. But Argo is its own logical animal, using a genius blending of humor amid the perfectly played terrifying historic touchstones. Bottom line: Rescue glee.
Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood
Despite a story set in dark waters, Robert Zemeckis’s Grade-A return to A-Game live action filmmaking flies sky high thanks to an A-list pilot and crew. In this R-rated drama, an airline pilot (Washington) miraculously saves a 747 flight from total devastation only to have the crash investigation bring to light his drug and alcohol use. Of course, filmgoers show up to a plane wreck … granted, it’s a beautifully lensed and directed plane wreck, but the subject matter is inarguably a bummer nonetheless. Still, Flight actually ends to be a tragic character study and not an Allen Irwin-style disaster drama. Scripted with a character-driven angle, the player is the thing and, thankfully, player Washington does his thing masterfully. After years of no-frills holding patterns for both he and Zemeckis, this film’s ultimate trajectory noses filmgoers into a scary but thought-provoking horizon. Bottom line: Plane awesome.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
A talky drama that speaks volumes to both history geeks and film geeks alike, Lincoln logs a vaulted place as an honest Abe bio-pic. In this PG-13-rated bio pic, screenwriter Tony Kushner telescopes in on the final years of President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis), from the Civil War and Abolition through suffering through personal demons. Granted, the film demonstrates director Steven Spielberg at his grandstanding best: push-ins in on slack-jawed reaction shots, etc. Still, these telltale filmmaking tics aren’t gratuitously on display because they fit so seamlessly into this true story. Seemingly lit by candlelight, gaslight, and an iridescent lead performance, the action plays out in cold dank offices much more than on sprawling battlefields. At times warm, witty, and explosive, this segment truly cuts to the marrow of the man — warts and all — and plays out like a political thriller in the process. Bottom line: Honestly great.
Daniel Craig, Judi Dench
Flying so sky high that it nearly touches the heavens, the 23rd James Bond flick marks one of the 50 year-old franchise’s highest points. In this PG-13-rated spy thriller, MI6 agent James Bond (Craig) finds his loyalty to direct superior M (Dench) tested after all of British Intelligence comes under attack from a cyber terrorist from her past (Javier Bardem). Perhaps, more than any other Bond movie, Skyfall manages to peel back the onion layers of this complex killing machine without spoiling the mystery of the mystery man. The movie proves to be a cross-section of the bone-crunching grit and spit that defined the last 2 post-9/11 007 missions and the wit-infused Union Jack swagger of the 20 other chapters that preceded them. Though not letter-perfect, it still ranks among Bond’s top flag-smashing adventures with an ace villain to boot. Bottom line: Double Oh Seventh Heaven.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2
Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson
More fallen night than heavenly shades, Twilight’s time has thankfully come to an end. More happens in this deuce than in all of the other chapters combined. In this PG-13-rated conclusion to the Saga, Edward (Pattinson) and his newly turned bloodsucker wife Bella (Stewart) gather vampire clans to confront an inquisition coming for their daughter. Unlike the first few movies in the alleged Saga, the vampires don’t glitter. Everything else impossibly does exactly this, however, from lingering close-ups of exquisitely lit beautiful people to sun-soaked forest shots blooming with impossibly lush greenery. Still, the script takes some daring steps toward liberating the story from its source material. It’s a deviation that will anger devoted readers, but makes the characters’ motivations clearer to the consensus of moviegoers. Hell, for this non-Twi-Hard, this change was finally making the series interesting. Bottom line: Breaking yawn.
Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman
Leaving a Tron Legacy that’s much cooler than, well, Tron Legacy, Kingly Ralph finally presents a video game flick that doesn’t completely byte. In this PG-rated animated family comedy, a lifelong video game villain (Reilly) sets out to become a hero, but his quest brings havoc to the whole video arcade world. This inventive candy-colored adrenaline shot isn’t based on a particular video game per se — just based in and around an arcade’s greatest hits and gamer’s paradise. More Super than Mario Bros., less Payne-ful than Max, more Princely than Persia, and more of a Hit than Hitman, Ralph powers-up the entertainment factor for gaming … in regards to cinema, at least. Despite being saddled with the tired and all-too-familar animated family flick moral of ‘being yourself,’ this frenetic joystick ride at least earns an Extra Life for the inevitable sequel. Bottom line: Wreck-It? Ralph’s so funny, he nearly kills it.