RISE OF THE GUARDIANS
There appears to be a certain amount of bafflement, among those who track such things, as to why Rise of the Guardians has failed to make its expected dent on the late-autumn box office. Did the action comedy open too soon after the release of the similarly animated Wreck-It Ralph, thereby splintering its audience? Was the casting of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy as makeshift superheroes an idea deemed too juvenile for viewers over the age of three? Was the film's title generic and confusing, leading potential crowds to expect the arrival of the owls of Ga'Hoole?
If I may, I'd like to posit a different, simpler theory: The movie just sucks.
Sure, sure, this alternately hyperactive and maudlin outing, directed by Peter Ramsey, boasts frequently spectacular animation, particularly whenever the movie's Sandman character - who strongly resembles a mute, troll-doll version of Wallace Shawn - creates whirling gusts of glittering golden dream dust, or something. But nowadays, are the eye-popping visuals in animated works even worth mentioning? Wouldn't it be a bigger story if a modern family entertainment boasted crappy animation? Because if you take its impressive design as a given, what you're left with in Rise of the Guardians is a drearily plotted, desperately unfunny, and dishearteningly cynical entertainment that pays lip service to preserving the innocence and wonder of childhood while doing everything in its power to keep innocence and wonder at bay. This is a movie in which a brutish Santa Claus, sporting a "comically" thick Russian accent courtesy of Alec Baldwin, joins his dream-protector brethren in battle with a pair of swords and the words "naughty" and "nice" tattooed on his forearms. Merry freakin' Christmas.
Beginning with the decision to make the movie's hero Jack Frost - a character that few young children could conceivably care about, or even know about, anymore - everything about Ramsey's offering feels either spectacularly misguided or blatantly derivative. Why is there so little danger in the evil machinations of the film's bogeyman (voiced by Jude Law), whose ultimate goal for world domination is unsatisfying and vague? Why give Jack such a tortured backstory only to dismiss it so casually? Why so much weak slapstick involving Santa's team of diminutive, mildly amusing elf minions when their antics only make us wish we were instead watching Despicable Me's actual Minions? Why hire lauded playwright David Lindsay-Abaire to adapt William Joyce's book if the dialogue and situations are going to be this forgettable? (Could it be because the film showcases Hugh Jackman's Easter Bunny, and Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole?) And seriously, why Santa's Russian accent? Was Baldwin hoping for a post-30 Rock gig as a Bond villain? Before the release of Rise of the Guardians, it was generally presumed that the movie would be a likely front-runner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It might be smarter, now, for its publicists to instead shoot for a Razzie.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
No scuzzy, verbose, violent thriller starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta - with Sam Shepard appearing for a one-line, 10-second cameo! - can be all bad, which is to the considerable good fortune of Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik's adaptation of an acclaimed George V. Higgins crime novel (and the writer/director's long-awaited follow-up to 2007's marvelous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Yet while Dominick stages a number of sequences, especially the threat-filled, sotto voce exchanges between warring lowlifes, with exceptional skill, the film is also one of the more depressingly ponderous, self-conscious offerings of it's type I've seen in years. As it tries, and fails, to equate its petty dealings among low-rent mobsters with the 2008 economic meltdown - a point obsessively pushed in the many disruptive and portentous sound bites heard on-screen from (then-)President Bush and President-elect Obama - the movie inflates its enjoyably pungent little narrative with so much faux Importance and Meaning that the results are less stinging than silly. And Dominick really could've used an editor willing to help him curtail his more languid impulses; the scene in which Ben Mendelsohn's drugged-out thief wafts in and out of a heroin-fueled stupor goes on for so long, with so little visual variety, that I felt I needed heroin just to endure it. The actors, especially Scoot McNairy as a twitchy, whiny thug, all perform beyond serviceably, and some of its tough-guy banter is so polished that it gleams. But Killing Them Softly remains a distinct, disappointing bummer from a fine director, a movie so seemingly pleased with its own relevance that it can't see how irrelevant, entertainment-wise, it actually is.
Director Marcus Dunstan's The Collection is a grim, senseless, incoherent, offensive, mind-numbingly boring piece of torture-porn banality, and is being proudly advertised as a work by "the twisted writers of Saw IV, V, VI, and VII." So nice to see them stretch.