Killing the Guardians Softly As They Rise

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey, 2012)

This enjoyable children’s fantasy from DreamWorks has a plot that makes, at times, very little sense and that only really works for Christians or people who don’t care about the deeply Christian roots of Christmas and Easter. If you can get over that, then it’s harmless and kind of fun. But in 2012, I will admit that I, for one, have outgrown my sense of how lovely and universal the great Christian holidays are. If you’re making a film about how the world is threatened by fear and how children all over the world need to believe in something, then perhaps it’s time to jettison Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – convenient obfuscators of Christ’s role in these holidays though they may be – and find heroes that are believably global. I write this as a huge fan of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion marvels of my youth, like The Year Without a Santa Claus (which this movie resembles). But hey, it’s a multicultural world, folks, and I’m not a little kid anymore.

That said, I thought the portraits of Santa and the Easter Bunny were delightful and highly inventive. The voice talents of Alec Baldwin and Hugh Jackman, respectively, were well used in those roles, as were the voices of Isla Fisher as the Tooth Fairy, Chris Pine as Jack Frost, and Jude Law as Pitch Black (the bad guy – when will we stop using the language of “dark” and “black” to represent evil?).  It’s a perfect family film for the season, unless you – like me – are ready for a 21st century beyond-religion fable. I saw it in 3D, and the animation is top-notch.

I very much liked the spine of the story. The movie starts with the creation of Jack Frost, 300 years ago. The Man in the Moon raises him from a frozen pond and gives him a staff with which he can shoot ice and snow. A seemingly fun-loving fellow, Jack seeks out the nearest town, where he is horrified to see that he is invisible to all.  Depressed, he nevertheless spends the next 300 years causing ice and snow falls that make mischief yet little harm. He loves to spread joy, and loves children. When we meet him in the present day, he has just made it snow in a small town, leading to a day off from school, which delights the local kids.

We also meet the 4 current “Guardians” of the title – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy – whose job it is to protect the children. With the arrival of Pitch Black, a villain who aims to destroy hope and spread fear, the Guardians turn to the Man in the Moon (their supreme deity), who designates Jack Frost as an additional Guardian for them to recruit. For Jack’s entire existence, he has wanted to be believed in by children, the way they believe in the other Guardians, and this is his chance to achieve that dream.

The rest of the film follows the traditional Joseph Campbell mythic hero journey. Jack Frost, though at first reluctant to accept the responsibility thrust upon him, nevertheless evolves and triumphs (I hope I’m not giving away too much . . .). If you like these kinds of stories, then you will like this one.

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)

The best part about this film was that I saw two excellent trailers before it started: Zero Dark Thirty and Broken City.  I really wish that one of those films had been playing in the theater in which I sat, miserable, watching Killing Them Softly. Alas! ‘Twas not to be.

I very much enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the previous feature made by Andrew Dominik. It was overly stylish (at the expense of story) and dragged quite a bit, but the overall effect on me, the viewer, was of total immersion in the time and place of Jesse James’s last days. The performances – especially that of Casey Affleck as the “coward” Robert Ford – were all excellent. I was completely engaged, and though I found plenty to not like in the film, I had a pretty good time watching it.

But this new film is a sadistic little nightmare. Dominik has taken the wrong lessons from the career of Quentin Tarantino, and focused on writing overly detailed (and unbelievable) dialogue and on staging grotesquely explicit beatings and assassinations. He places all of it inside the framework of audio and video from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches, as if this will somehow help it all make sense. It doesn’t. Instead, I felt as if I were watching a film made by a 14-year-old boy enamored of his own precocious filmmaking talent, yet with no story to tell. A different director might have resorted to inserting passages from Shakespeare to create the illusion of depth through literary allusion. Here, it’s Obama. You get points for that originality, bub, but not much else.

Adding to the general unpleasantness of the film is a performance by Scoot McNairy, whom I liked in both Monsters and Argo, in which he seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, only with a Boston accent (I think). Speaking of which, where the hell are we supposed to be? I see palm trees, but everyone talks as if they’re from Northern states. Is that intentional, or is it just part of Dominik’s general incompetence?

The story is not worth summarizing. Suffice it to say that it’s about some petty gangsters who rob the wrong outfit, and then get the s*** kicked out of them, or worse, in retaliation. The lead kicker is a very decent Brad Pitt. But even he cannot raise the overall quality, nor make up for a strange sidebar involving James Gandolfini (not bad, either, but wasted).

I knew I was in real trouble in the first car scene, which is one of the worst driving scenes I have ever seen. While there are lights moving out of the back window to fake movement, the lights on the actors’ faces never change, and I in no way believed that their car was in motion. After that, I started drifting, never to come back. By the time we got to the restaurant scene between Pitt and Gandolfini, where the director and crew couldn’t even master the continuity of the liquids in the glasses from shot to shot, I was out.

On a general note about films like this: I want a moratorium on “hip music” in movie soundtracks, which try to establish mood in lieu of actual filmmaking.

Blah. Stay away. If “America’s just a business,” as Pitt’s character cynically announces at the end, then let the box office for this film deliver a brutal message to Andrew Dominik: make a real movie next time.

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