#280. Brad Pitt

How does an actor become a household name? Most of the time, this occurs not because of their acting, but because of the things they do off-screen. This is a bit of a Catch-22 because, in order to be notable for their off-screen activities, they need to have some semblance of on-screen success. Perhaps it’s the schadenfreude in us all that attracts us to the personal lives of movie stars, because deep down we want them to fail. We want to see them come back down to our level. This would explain the almost constant attention that tabloids give to actors like Tom Cruise, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt. That’s not to say they aren’t successful actors, it’s more that our society makes them household names because of the notoriety of their personal lives. An added benefit to this is increased attendance at their films. This week’s two films look at the work of a household name actor: Brad Pitt.

Se7enSe7en
Year: 1995
Rating: R
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours

One of the draws that Brad Pitt utilized in his early career was that of his sex-appeal. The “pretty boy” used his looks in such films as Thelma & Louise (1991) and Interview with the Vampire (1994), both of which did not necessarily showcase his acting talent. Almost all at once, Pitt started to flex his acting muscle, showing the depth of his talent in such films as Se7en (1994) and 12 Monkeys (1995). While the latter of these two films earned him his first acting nomination (for Best Supporting Actor), the former was the first in a series of collaborations with director David Fincher. After Se7en, Pitt starred in Fight Club (1999), further proving his commitment to these grittier roles. By this point in his career, most people had heard of Brad Pitt, but he still had many more years to refine his craft from there.

Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) has just moved to a new town with his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). As part of his transfer, he’s been assigned to work with aging detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman). While the two detectives have drastically different methods for investigating cases, they’ve nevertheless been placed together to find a mysterious killer who is using the seven deadly sins as themes for his murders. Following this thread, they find a suspect in John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who runs away upon their first meeting. The two detectives arrive moments too late to stop two more murders, but now John has given himself up and offers to lead them to the final two murders. Along the way, Doe admits that he’s jealous of David’s wife, egging him on to become the penultimate “wrath” in his string of serial murders.

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 166 minutes / 2.77 hours

Action and comedy worked well for Brad Pitt in the years after Fight Club. From the Ocean’s Eleven (2001) trilogy to Troy (2004) and from Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) to Inglorious Basterds (2009), Pitt proved that he could run the gamut in a variety of roles. Joining up with David Fincher again, he earned his first nomination for Best Actor with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). This was followed by his second nomination in 2011 for Moneyball. By this point in his career, he had turned to producing films, earning him three Best Picture nominations for Moneyball (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and The Big Short (2016), all three of which gave him small acting roles (but only 12 Years a Slave earning him his first Oscar). If people don’t know who Brad Pitt is by now, they haven’t been paying attention.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born near the turn of the 20th century as an old man. As time passed normally for the rest of the world, Benjamin aged in reverse. Once he was young enough to walk again, Benjamin ran across a seven-year-old girl by the name of Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Becoming younger and stronger, Benjamin takes to sea and is involved in World War II on a tugboat that comes across a sunken military boat, as well as a German U-Boat. Returning home, Benjamin meets up with Daisy, who has a successful career as a dancer. After an accident ends Daisy’s career, she is frustrated with Benjamin’s decreasing age, as well as her own limitations. Years later, when they both arrive at close to the same age, they finally start a life together. Unfortunately, as Benjamin becomes younger, they end their relationship. Eventually, the elderly Daisy cares for Benjamin as he reaches the “start” of his life.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 of the best Brad Pitt roles

Bacon #: 1 (Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

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#089. Mr. Smith

Perhaps the most generic surname in America is “Smith”. While most do not practice the craft of blacksmithing from which the name originates, it remains a popular name. There are many reasons that people chose this last name, foremost of which is to blend in with their surroundings. If your last name was something unique, you’d be easier to remember, but also easier to harass. By taking the name of Smith, many just wanted to blend in and be one of a crowd: accepted and therefore ignored. Of course, this becomes somewhat cliché when it comes to spies and their generic names like “John Smith” and “Jane Doe”. And yet, somehow we can relate to the Smiths in that they represent the “ every-man” that holds our beliefs and ideals. This week’s two films look at two very different Smiths.

Mr. & Mrs. SmithMr. & Mrs. Smith
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 120 minutes / 2.0 hours

A certain amount of anonymity goes along with the name “Smith”. Often, it is used by government agents who cannot reveal their real name. Or, it is used as a cover-all for agents like Agent Smith in The Matrix. Even further to the point is the addition of the first name “John” to the equation. “John Smith” is such a common name, that if it was truly offered as someone’s moniker, one would almost immediately ask if that was really their name. Most of the time, “John Smith” is the go-to made up name if you don’t want someone to really know who you are, and any conspiracy theories linked to the name are merely wild speculations. Nevertheless, the trope of “John Smith”, along with its female counterpart, “Jane Smith”, remains a staple of any spy-related media.

What happens when you fall in love while bearing a secret identity? While the easiest solution would be to tell the truth, if the truth would compromise your livelihood, the best option is to maintain the ruse, even after marriage. Of course, if your spouse ever found out that you’d been lying for years, things wouldn’t end well. By the same fashion, what if you found out your spouse had married you under the false pretenses of an assumed name? How would you react? John (Brad Pitt) and Jane (Angelina Jolie) Smith, are in just such a situation, albeit both are using the assumed name for cover while they work as assassins. And yet, their secret life together soon becomes known by their employers, who want the problem fixed the only way they know how: hits placed on both Smiths.

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonMr. Smith Goes to Washington
Year: 1939
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

The name of “Smith” is nearly as American as apple pie, baseball, and freedom. For some reason, we inherently trust the name as if we have known the person our whole lives. Some of this mystique probably comes from 1950’s idealism, which placed the wholesome image of an American dream in our cultural consciousness. “If you can’t trust your neighbor, Mr. Smith, then who can you trust?” The name evokes a sense of the average American, to whom we can all relate to in some fashion. Since the name is almost eponymous with America, we cheer the idea of a Smith standing up for the Constitution and fighting against corruption, especially in Washington D.C.  After all, what’s more American than standing up for American ideals?

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) has been chosen to fill an empty seat in the U.S. Senate after the death of a Senator in his home state. While he has no political experience, since he’s only known for being a leader of the local Boy Rangers (an obvious attempt to not be sued by the Boy Scouts of America), his naivete causes him to be an easy target. As it turns out, corruption runs thick through the Senate. Even though Smith just wants to help his constituents, he tries to pass a law that will financially benefit some of the unscrupulous Senators. As it the case in most political battles, things get ugly fast. Smith’s opponents sling mud like there’s no tomorrow, spreading rumors and lies about the honest Senator, whose only recourse at this point is to launch into an unending filibuster.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Smith stories

#088. Assassins

One person consciously killing another is not that uncommon. In fact, there are over 15,000 cases of murder each year in the United States. This means that around every 30 minutes, someone is murdered. Of course, let’s not get into the statistics involved with militaries and wars, but stay on a strictly local level here. And yet, some people are trained to kill (oftentimes in a military setting) and are hired to kill because of this training. A lot of this training involves removing your emotions from the equation, but occasionally the skills required to kill are needed to overcome high levels of security. After all, people wouldn’t hire assassins if they could just do the job themselves. However, sometimes the hired assassin is needed to protect their employer from any legal issues involved with the murder. This is why an assassin is needed. This week’s two films highlight some professional assassins.

Léon: The ProfessionalLéon: The Professional
Year: 1994
Rating: R
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

In the simplest terms, a professional is someone who is paid to do something. If we want to take this definition one step further, a professional is someone who makes a living off of a certain skill. While I consider myself a writer, I would not consider myself a professional writer, despite the fact that I have been paid for it. And yet, even if you can make your living as an assassin, the better you are at it, the more money you will make in the end. According to Léon, the best assassins kill in the closest ranges without being seen or detected. Rifles are for amateurs, knives are for pros. This makes sense, since almost anyone can be a sniper, but it takes an incredibly skilled individual to slit someone’s throat. Now, how would you train a child to be an assassin, even if you don’t really want to?

Léon (Jean Reno) lives a very simple life with a very dangerous job. While he spends his time working as an assassin for hire, in his spare time he enjoys some basic botany and a tall glass of milk. Of course, because his job is what it is, he always sleeps with one eye open. However, fate has thrown Léon a curveball when his neighbors in the next apartment over are murdered, leaving him with the choice of whether or not to help the remaining survivor: a girl by the name of Mathilda (Natalie Portman). By letting her into the safety of his apartment, he has now become involved in something bigger than both of them. Now Mathilda wants to learn to be an assassin to avenge her family’s death. Léon begrudgingly agrees to teach her, but takes the responsibility of revenge upon himself.

Mr. & Mrs. SmithMr. & Mrs. Smith
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 120 minutes / 2.0 hours

Today’s workforce is incredibly diverse. Jobs that once went only to men are now being successfully accomplished by women too. The glass ceiling has broken for many occupations, not the least of which is assassination. Of course, in today’s “work hard” environment, there is little room for a personal life outside of work. Perhaps this is why many people find their spouse through work: they spend so much time there that there are few opportunities to meet anyone else outside of work. If there’s one occupation that consumes their workforce, it has to be assassination. So, then what are the chances of two assassins meeting up, falling in love, and eventually getting married? While not a traditional “family business”, assassination does have a lot of benefits, not the least of which is money.

After being married for half a decade, John (Brad Pitt) and Jane (Angelina Jolie) have lost the spark of their marriage. They’d like to get back to the halcyon days of their first encounter in Colombia, but it just seems like they spend too much time at work. Of course, neither knows what the other does all day, but when they are both sent on a mission to assassinate a prisoner in transit, they soon find out that they both work the same kind of job, merely for different agencies. This leads to their respective agencies pitting John and Jane against each other due to the botched hit from earlier. After destroying their house in an incredible action sequence, they decide to team up and go after those who want them both dead. As it turns out, the spark that was missing from their marriage was the pure bliss of working together.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 deadly duos