Killing Them Softly Starring Brad Pitt. Directed by Andrew Dominik. R16. ★★★★
Frankenweenie Voices by Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau. Directed by Tim Burton. PG. ★★★★
Actions might speak louder than words, but dialogue is the foundation from which all drama, violence and dark humour develop in the gritty crime thriller Killing Them Softly.
Characters talk a lot and this noir comedy-drama's script at times seems inspired by the movies of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) or David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog), with the criminal underbelly setting recalling Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Goodfellas.
But the movie is actually an adaptation by New Zealand-born Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) of the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by the late George V Higgins.
Higgins, like Elmore Leonard, effectively uses dialogue to tell his stories. So it goes here, with outbursts of action arising from long-winded, often crude and rambling conversations which Dominik employs to patiently extend scenes and create menace and tension.
Bleakly atmospheric, compelling and tense, Killing Them Softly is set against a rain-and-litter-swept, impoverished, anonymous landscape, where a local mobster (Vincent Curatoia) enlists two dimwits, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his volatile buddy, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to rob a Mob-protected, high-stakes poker game, knowing suspicion will fall on the game's operator (Ray Liotta), who stupidly has bragged about having once robbed his own game.
To ensure the heist doesn't discourage such gambling, the Mob, as regulator, responds by bringing in hired gun Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to restore investor confidence.
Liaising with a Mob middleman (Richard Jenkins), Jackie needs to call in the help of another hitman (James Gandolfini).
Dominik gives his actors time to develop characters and the appreciative ensemble cast responds with fine performances, with three standouts. Mendelsohn adds another loathsome scumbag to the killer he played in Animal Kingdom, with his sweaty, slovenly, foul-mouthed Aussie giving new meaning to lowlife. Gandolfini has only a few scenes, but becomes a conflicted presence as a man worrying about going back to prison and losing his wife.
But it's Pitt who cements all the elements together. His Jackie - introduced with Johnny Cash's song The Man Comes Around - is a pragmatic professional and a ruthlessly efficient sociopath who likes to kill "softly", or from a distance, as victims often become too "touchy-feely" when up close and personal.
Killing Them Softly doesn't shy away from jarring violence, with Dominik graphically portraying a savage beating or using slow-motion for a gunshot killing from a bullet being fired to brains being blown out, the latter to the song Love Letters. Dominik has also updated Higgins' novel to turn it into a none-too-subtle caustic metaphor for America in 2008, a year of a hallmark presidential election campaign and political rhetoric as well as an economic meltdown, which ultimately recalls a famous quote from the great crime movie The Godfather: "It's not personal, just business."
Frankenweenie - the latest stop-motion animated macabre movie from Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas) - is a nostalgic homage to horror movies of yesteryear.
An expanded remake of Burton's 1984 live-action short film, it is obviously inspired by Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and James Whale's 1931 movie based on it, but it also has several allusions to other horror flicks, ranging from Godzilla to Gremlins.
The screenplay for its heartfelt boy-and-a-dog story comes from Burton-collaborator John August (Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
It tells how young Victor Frankenstein (voice by Charlie Tahan) reanimates his recently deceased and beloved pet dog, Sparky, as part of a school science contest run by a cadaverous teacher (Martin Landau), who looks like Vincent Price.
Havoc ensues when competitive classmates, including an Igor-like hunchback boy with a voice like Peter Lorre and another resembling an adolescent Boris Karloff, try to do the same with a cat, a rat, a tortoise, sea monkeys and a pet called Colossus.
The art direction is gothic and ghoulish and Danny Elfman provides an enhancing melodramatic musical score.
Appropriately shot in black and white but also in 3-D, Frankenweenie is strange but beguiling, dark yet sweet - a film more aimed at older children, teenagers and adults.
Certainly it has messages to appeal to them all - from "science is not good or bad but can be used both ways" to "you can never lose what you love" to, maybe for the first time in a movie, parents sometimes not knowing what they're talking about.
- © Fairfax NZ News