KILLING THEM SOFTLY. With this adaptation of George V. Higgins' novel, writer/director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) saved my weekend. The Collection put me in a pretty dark mood (see below), but then Dominik came along and shone a light -- a cynical, somber and brutal light, but an inspiring one nonetheless.
After some numbskulls knock over a high-stakes card game, a professional heavy named Jackie (Brad Pitt) is enlisted to clean up the mess. That's essentially the entire plot, but from the jarring editing of the opening sequence to the authoritative gavel-slam of a closing speech, Killing Them Softly is much, much more than its plot.
Gorgeous and inventive, the movie is filled with rich, velvety black tones, wood-grained interiors, rain-spattered windshields and tendrils of smoke against blasted skies. Almost everyone is disheveled and sweaty, with crassness and greed leaking out of every greasy pore. Sounds are everywhere, from buzzing fluorescent lights to creaking hinges. There isn't much hope in this world; regret, error and consequence don't leave much room for it.
The action takes place in 2008, and Dominik uses TV news and election coverage as a leitmotif throughout, cleverly linking that year's macroeconomic collapse with the fortunes of street-level criminal enterprise. Pitt's Jackie is the only real free agent in the mix, and he's consistently stymied by the rule-by-committee of his unseen employers, represented by a mid-level functionary (Richard Jenkins, never better).
Jackie's clarity of vision enables him to draw clear, hard conclusions about what is and what needs to be done. But everyone around him is weak, shortsighted or a victim of his own poor decision-making. Even one his most reliable contractors (James Gandolfini) has become a drunken, slovenly mess reciting a litany of his past mistakes.
Killing Them Softly projects a bleak, misanthropic worldview, and yet it's not depressing or lugubrious. Instead, the narrative swells contemplatively. Each scene breathes and moves with intention, building organically toward the dark, bloody climax. Nothing is rushed or out of place: Every element -- from costuming to camera movement to performance -- contributes perfectly to the pace and tone of the whole.
I should caution that this movie is decidedly not for everyone. My wife, who loves crime movies as much as anyone, couldn't stand the slow pace and general lack of action. And what action we get is some of the most graphically violent I've seen in some time. But at this moment, Killing Them Softly is my favorite movie of the year, for its darkly comic political satire as much as its beautiful depiction of ugly material. It contains some of the best acting, sound design, cinematography and direction in recent memory. I'd say it's just about perfect. R. 97m.
THE COLLECTION. I keep dragging myself to these stupid horror movies in the vain hope that one will surprise me with inventiveness or artful execution. This is the behavior of an insane person. Maybe now that I've hit rock bottom I'll have learned my lesson. And unless you're one of the three other people who watched this over the weekend, maybe you were lucky or smart enough to learn yours the easy way.
This sequel to The Collector (2009), which I'm thankful not to have seen, introduces us to 20-something Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick). A pointless flashback informs us that her mother died when Elena was quite young. She lives in a mansion with her father, played by the usually entertaining Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore, HBO's Boardwalk Empire).
One night a friend talks her into attending a top secret back alley rave. Unfortunately, a hulking weirdo in a turtleneck and a bag for a mask has the whole place rigged with Rube Goldberg knife contraptions. He kills several hundred people, then abducts Elena to add her to, you guessed it, The Collection. (He's apparently an entomologist as well as a psychopath and amateur surgeon, so he keeps a collection of people/mutilated corpses. As if they were insects. Subtle.)
The lone survivor of the first movie, a burglar named Arkin (Josh Stewart), escapes the carnage. But then he's conscripted by some low-rent mercenaries in the employ of Elena's father. He's the only man alive who knows the secrets of the Collector's lair, you see. It goes exactly as you'd expect from there: lots of entrails, impalings, screaming and grunting, etc. Oh, and plenty of slow-motion sequences and unnecessary insert shots to stretch the whole thing to a barely feature-length run time of 82 minutes.
I won't knock torture-porn: It's not my thing, and that's okay. But this is dull, sloppy, unimaginative moviemaking, and that I will complain about. I have no idea how anybody convinced costars Lee Tergesen (Oz, Wayne's World) and Andre Royo (The Wire) to participate, but that person should be ashamed. These guys deserve better. R. 82m.
--John J. Bennett
PLAYING FOR KEEPS. Scottish beefcake Gerard Butler stars as a retired soccer star who winds up coaching his son's team and being swarmed by googly-eyed suburban soccer moms, who are presumably the target audience here. PG13. 106m.
ANNA KARENINA. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) adapts Tolstoy's classic novel of romance, aristocracy and self-determination with a cast led by Keira Knightly, Jude Law and Matthew MacFadyen. R. 129m.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY MARATHON. One can only assume that the people who spend 13 hours and 32 minutes (counting previews and short breaks) watching the extended director's cuts of Peter Jackson's epic trilogy this Saturday at the Broadway or Mill Creek cinemas (starting at 10 a.m.) will emerge looking like Gollum. I mean, what will they eat, Whoppers and popcorn?
It's an eclectic week at the Arcata Theatre Lounge. This Thursday's Ocean Night will feature a documentary called Ikkatsu, which follows three sea kayakers as they paddle along Washington's Olympic Peninsula documenting flotsam from last year's Japanese tsunami. (The title, loosely translated from Japanese, means "all together.") The filmmakers will be on hand for Q & A. 6:30 p.m. Friday night brings a collection of short films set to the ethereal tracks on Valtari, the latest album by Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós. Hallucinogenics optional. 9 p.m. On Sunday, let Will Ferrell inject you with Christmas cheer via the deliciously goofy Elf (2003). 6 p.m. And finally, here's what you need to know about The Snow Creature (1954), showing at next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night: "Half man! Half monster! Terrorizes city, abducts women, annihilates men!" Doors at 6 p.m., movie at 7.
ARGO. Ben Affleck can direct! Here he helms and stars in a thrilling and surprisingly funny account of the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. R. 120m.
FLIGHT. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) goes into darker territory with this tale of a heroic but alcoholic commercial airline pilot (Denzel Washington). R. 138m.
LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.
LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.
RED DAWN. Yes, they remade that Patrick Swayze movie from the '80s. This time it's the North Koreans invading small-town America. PG13. 114m.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost team up to make kids believe in them again. PG. 97m.
SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films to date. PG13. 143m.
TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN PART 2. The fifth and final installment of the angsty vampire soap opera has arrived. In case you hadn't noticed. PG13. 115m.
WRECK-IT RALPH. A video game bad guy with a good heart sets out on an existential quest across the pixilated landscapes of Pac-Man, Street Fighter and the like. PG. 108m.