KILLING THEM SOFTLY: 3 ½ STARS

The storyline of "Killing Them Softly" sounds like something straight out of Martin Scorsese's playbook but it is the execution (pun intended) that makes it a singular experience. The title may recall the name of Roberta Flack's most famous song, but instead of being about metaphorical love, the movie is a cynical anti-thriller allegory about America's economic crisis.

Set in the waning days of George W. Bush's presidency, just as he passed the baton to Barack Obama in 2008, the movie begins with two small time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) hired by crime boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a secret, high-stakes poker game overseen by low level mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The criminal corporation responsible for the game suspects Trattman, but brings in no-nonsense enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to get to the bottom of the situation

"Killing Them, Softly" isn't your godfather's gangster movie. Talky, deliberate and willfully obtuse, it is less a crime thriller than it is a wordy mediation on recession-era life in the underworld and beyond. The movie's point-of-view is reinforced by wild sound news broadcasts that pepper the soundtrack and long conversations between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mouthpiece for the criminal organization who seems to be terminally tied up by red tape.   

Their scenes and back-and-forth are the film's most entertaining moments. The humdrum tone belies their conversation's deadly subject matter and is played to great effect. And that is the beauty of this movie.  

Director Andrew "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" Dominik's visual flair keeps things interesting-a druggy conversation between Frankie and Russell is masterfully represented-but it is the actors who provide the spark.

Liotta brings real pathos to Markie the unfortunate scapegoat and McNairy and Mendelsohn both have a small time reek about them but as strong as they are, its Pitt, Jenkins and James Gandolfini who will linger in your memory.

Jenkins is an anonymous bureaucrat, a cog in the wheel that helps his criminal organization go round, and underplays the role beautifully. The temptation may have been to dirty the character up a bit, but Jenkins plays him straight as a man whose business dirty, but a business nonetheless.

Gandolfini is as wild as Jenkins is buttoned-down. A hitman for hire, he's more interested in call girls and booze than killing people. It's hard not to see echoes of Tony Soprano in this troubled killer, but Gandolfini is too skilled to repeat himself. His menace is tempered by self-doubt, and his scenes with Pitt shine.

At the helm, however, is Pitt. Heralded to screen by Johnny Cash's "When The Man Comes Around,"-"There's a man going round taking names / And he decides who to free and who to blame."-he's a pragmatic psychopath, a ruthless killer who doesn't like the up-close-and-personal stuff. "I like to kill them softly," he says. "From a distance; not close enough for feelings." It's a complex character, one defined in this movie by his words and not his actions, and Pitt handles it effortlessly.

"Killing Them Softly" won't be for everyone. More brains than brawn it is about the tension of knowing what's coming next, and while it does deliver in its violent scenes, it is a film that values ideas more than action. It's edgy stuff, well handled by Dominik-although using the Velvet Underground song "Heroin" to intro an injection scene seems too standard for a movie like this-but will leave many viewers wondering when Brad Pitt will lose the art house pretentions and get back into the blockbuster business.  



ANNA KARENINA: 4 ½ STARS

How do you breath life into the withered lungs of a period piece that has been told time and time again? If you're "Anna Karenina" director Joe Wright you honor Leo Tolstoy's book while staging the story of deception, honor and love at the intersection where reality and fantasy cross.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy's classic story of love, honor and deceit in 1974 Imperialist Russia begins with a family in tatters because of marital transgression. St. Petersburg aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) travels to Moscow to visit her womanizing brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his long-suffering wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Her council saves their marriage but the trip proves to be the undoing of hers. She becomes smitten with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome military man and begins a torrid affair. Soon, however, she discovers that her indiscretion isn't as easily dismissed as her brother's.

The story itself is rather simple and has been told many times, what distinguishes this version, aside from the cast (more on that later), is the sumptuous staging. Every frame of the film drips with beauty, from the sets to the clothes to Knightley's cheekbones. But that's to be expected from a big retelling of the story. What really captures the eye--and the mind--is the unconventional way Wright has chosen to tell the tale.

The film opens on what appears to be a stage production of "Anna Karenina." We see musicians, dancing and backstage activity. To further blur the line between reality and illusory we see Anna, Oblonsky and others going about their day. Imagine watching the "Anna Karenina" opera and you get the idea.

It is a brilliant piece of staging for a story that has enough passion and tragedy for two operas. More importantly the style doesn't overwhelm the substance. The baroque tone established early on sets the stage, literally, for screenwriter Tom Stoppard's sweeping story of betrayal, forgiveness and death. It is an epic but human story about the best and worst of behavior.

Leading the cast Knightley proves a natural for period pieces. She has a face meant to be framed by fur hats and veils but apart from looking the part she carefully modulates Anna's descent from socialite to outcast with grace and dignity while allowing notes of frustration and misery to seep through.

Knightley has the showiest role but Jude Law also makes an impression despite showing considerable restraint in his take on Anna's beleaguered husband Alexei Karenin.

Decked out in blonde curly hair Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognizable from his best known role, playing John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy," but as Count Vronsky he convincingly plays a confident man who allows self-gratification to ruin his life and Anna's.  

A lighter note is supplied by Matthew Macfadyen, whose élan and rakish charm turns the womanizing Oblonsky into one of the film's high spots.

"Anna Karenina" is a grand film, both in story and style.  



A LATE QUARTET: 4 STARS

Lately we've grown used to seeing Christopher Walken in comedic roles-almost veering into self-parody-so it is refreshing to see him not rely on tricks and produce a layered, heartfelt and emotionally rich work. In "A Late Quartet" he delivers his most poignant performance in years.

Walken is Peter Mitchell, cellist and senior member of The Fugue, a world famous string quartet. For twenty-fives years and 3000 performances he has helped to define chamber music with first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) on viola. When Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and decides to hang up his cello, the Fugue friends are thrown into turmoil.

Walken's illness and retirement are the catalyst for the film's look at how people deal with change, but it also provides the heart. Many of the situations are melodramatic-an affair, an inappropriate romance among them-but it isn't so much about the events themselves as it is about how change affects people.

Each of the three remaining musicians become different people once they have been cut loose from the watchful eye of their friend and mentor. The overall effect is more interesting than the mechanisms of it. The affair and the plot machinery that keeps the story going are there simply to serve great performances from a powerhouse cast.

Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir and Imogen Poots as Robert and Juliette's college-age daughter Alexandra are uniformly strong, but the maestro here is Walken.

Subtle, nuanced and heartbreaking, his portrayal of a man confronting old age and an uncertain future is first class, a virtuoso turn.

"A Late Quartet" could have been a downer film about classical music and mortality, but instead it's funny, melancholy and touching.