Pitt’s Somber Killer; Ginger Baker Clocks Director: Film

'Killing Them Softly'
Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in "Killing Them Softly." The film is a mopey thriller in which thieves knock over a mob-sponsored card game, and the mob sends enforcers to punish them. Photographer: Melinda Sue Gordon/Cogan's Productions via Bloomberg

In 1975, David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo” used three foul-mouthed lowlifes planning a petty theft to portray the sordid state of the American soul. It had a huge influence on the vernacular of theater and film in the decades following.

Sometimes I find it hard to be grateful -- while sitting, for example, through “Killing Them Softly,” a mopey thriller in which thieves knock over a mob-sponsored card game and the mob sends enforcers to punish them.

The action takes place during the 2008 presidential campaign, and the voices of Barack Obama and George W. Bush are used on the soundtrack to suggest that these crimes are a metaphor for the national condition.

But in case it isn’t clear, the writer-director, Andrew Dominik (working from “Cogan’s Trade,” a 1974 George V. Higgins novel), gives the chief enforcer a climactic epigram: “America’s not a country -- it’s just a business.”

The speaker is a sleazy-looking Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini plays a second killer who turns out to be an ineffectual lush. Richard Jenkins brings them instructions from an unknown Them at the top.

They’re all good actors, but they’re overwhelmed by the picture’s moroseness, and so was I. Nor was I convinced that it had anything new to report about the American soul.

My main reaction, though, was: How long do I have to spend with these creeps?

“Killing Them Softly,” from the Weinstein Company, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ** (Seligman)

Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, one of rock’s great wild-man drummers, demonstrates his prowess with a stick in the first scene of Jay Bulger’s wily new documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.”

He bloodies the filmmaker’s nose with a cane.

The encounter, prompted by Bulger’s decision to interview the drummer’s old compadres in Cream and Blind Faith, captures an aged rock legend’s anger, ego and self-sabotaging impulses better than any anecdote his estranged friends might summon.

With its assemblage of fresh interviews, concert footage and the odd dash of animation, “Beware of Mr. Baker” presents an artist slipping not so quietly away.

Sucking Air

From the looks of him, it won’t be a long trip. After decades of substance abuse, hard living and combative relationships with just about everyone, the arthritic Baker, sucking on oxygen or a cigarette, seems here to be taking one last rim shot at the world.

“I’m talking to a block of wood,” he grumbles to (and about) Bulger, whose off-screen questions Baker barely tolerates.

His once wild tangle of red hair now white and thinned, Baker, 73, had retreated to the obscurity of his South African farm when Bulger tracked him down for a Rolling Stone profile.

That article led to this documentary, and the frail, irascible Baker’s participation says as much about his own tenacity as Bulger’s.

“I find him quite hard to be around for any length of time,” says old pal Eric Clapton, who disbanded the hugely successful Cream after only two years because of the perfectionist Baker’s constant fighting with singer/bassist Jack Bruce.

Baker was no easier on his wives and children.

Kid Coke

“He left my mum for my first boyfriend’s sister,” recalls one daughter -- and that’s not even as off-putting as the story his son tells of being introduced by dad to cocaine at 15.

“Mr. Baker,” though, is convinced and convincing of Baker’s artistry, both as a powerhouse rock pounder and a more than credible jazz drummer. The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and the Police’s Stewart Copeland are among the drummers paying tribute.

Clapton all but scoffs when Bulger compares Baker to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and the Who’s Keith Moon.

“No, no, no,” Clapton says. “Ginger was nothing like those players. He’s a fully formed musician.”

“Beware of Mr. Baker” -- the title is taken from a sign at the entrance of the drummer’s farm -- ponders the sacrifices made in the name of art. And not just by the artist himself.

“Beware of Mr. Baker,” from SnagFilms/Insurgent Media, is playing in New York, with a national release on January 25. Rating: **** (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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