Brad Pitt kills, 'Anna Karenina' thrills, and Demme's Talking Heads doc shows at Liberty Hall

The best crime movies are able to strike that tricky balance between a tense plotting and solid character building. "Dog Day Afternoon," "Chinatown," and "L.A. Confidential" spend equal time building suspense and getting inside the heads of their unlucky protagonists. Even "Pulp Fiction," which deconstructs the genre in the most thrilling of ways, spends lots of time allowing its gangsters to prosthelytize on all kinds of mundane subjects before doing their dirty work.

"Killing Them Softly," on the other hand, favors the character side of things way more heavily. It's all the more complex and interesting for it, but calling this movie a thriller at all is a bit of a stretch. Director Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "Chopper") dissects the criminal psyche with loads of conversation between lowlifes, all during the 2008 economic crisis and first election of President Obama.

Essentially, "Killing Them Softly" is an ensemble piece, but Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan (who used to be the title character in the book "Cogan's Trade" by George V. Higgins from which the movie is adapted), a hitman-enforcer type who cleans up other people's messes. When a couple of scuzzy, heroin-addled dum-dums (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a mob card game, Cogan hires another professional killer (James Gandolfini) to help him take the losers out and nothing goes as planned.

Dominik indulges his curiosity often with close-ups on nasty, sweaty men who have backed themselves into all kinds of tight corners. All the while, Dominik is seemingly ignoring whatever plot development might seem important at the time. His fetish for the banality of their lives makes up the bulk of "Killing Them Softly." The dialogue is equally crude, disgusting, and revealing while the political overtones come off more and more heavy-handed as the movie progresses.

But "Killing Them Softly" finds its own rhythm and eventually its own way of building dread, punctuated by bravura cinematic moments that won't soon be forgotten -- like a graphic slo-motion murder and a hazy, drugged conversation that switches POV and slips in and out of consciousness.

The trailer makes it seem like a fast-moving story with lots of punchlines, but it doesn't unfold that way. Dominik takes his time and is operating strictly art-house machinery. It's a bleakly funny movie too, with Pitt providing the film's final, wicked punchline in the only moment where his pulse seems to be raised above normal.

Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner both agreed that Leo Tolstoy's 1870s serial novel "Anna Karenina" is one of the greatest love stories in world literature. It has been adapted into a film at least eleven times and is the modern template for any tragic romance set against a historical backdrop.

The familiarity of the story comes from the fact that so many movies and books have borrowed so much of "Anna Karenina" in the 20th century. So when director Joe Wright ("Atonement," "Pride and Prejudice") set out to adapt "Anna Karenina," showing at Liberty Hall, with his muse Keira Knightley again in the lead role, he knew he had to do something drastic to make it seem fresh again.

His strategy has paid off handsomely in this new "Anna Karenina," which combines the most creative elements of theatrical staging with clever filmic transitions that echo the moods of its characters. Besides the aesthetic pleasures of the production design and costuming, Wright's camera movements and unique staging (which has characters moving sets around in a theater for much of the time) add another layer of narrative to an already densely plotted movie.

Set against the backdrop of late-19th-century Russian high society, "Anna Karenina" paints a portrait of adultery and idealistic love with a broad set of characters. Knightley is in the title role, Jude Law is her spurned husband, and a whole host of supporting actors acquit themselves admirably, but Wright's storytelling is front and center here. Aided by a literate but approachable screenplay from Tom Stoppard, "Anna Karenina" thrills even when its plot elements seem ordinary.

Also at Liberty Hall is a one-time-only showing of Jonathan Demme's landmark concert documentary "Stop Making Sense," which culls performances from three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theater to approximate one live performance from the Talking Heads.

On Thursday December 6 at 7 p.m., Liberty Hall will screen the film and encourage the floor to be a dance party. As David Byrne dances around in his larger-than-life suit, the staff will encourage filmgoers to do the same in this "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity. After the movie, the screen will give way to the main stage, where libations will continue to be served and the show becomes an all-out Karaoke party!


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