A refreshing addition to the contract killer biopic genre, Ariel Vromen’s Friedkinesque dramatization of Richard Kuklinski’s rise and fall, via three decades of heinous crimes, is a doozy. Informed by Jim Thebaut’s HBO documentary series “The Iceman Interviews” — witness the “The Iceman’s” recreated bookend interviews — the film’s accomplishment rests squarely on Michael Shannon’s keen portrayal of Kuklinski as a pathologically divided individual. One-half devoted family man and one-half ruthless assassin; Richard Kuklinski occurs as a gift-wrapped bipolar subject for true-crime cinema. A qualified novice director and co-writer, Ariel Vromen tracks the film’s stylistic period references across generational shifts while keeping focus on Shannon’s Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. Essential details of costume and production design fall neatly into place.
During the late ‘50s Kuklinski works a barroom pool table not far from his day (and night) job pirating pornographic tapes. He’s a pool shark with no patience for sore losers. An offended dupe who puts up a fuss after being defeated, gets his throat cut from ear to ear as he prepares to drive away in his car. For Kuklinski, the kill is a quick, quiet, and efficient way to reconcile his well-defended ego. He’s a walking definition of “paranoid personality disorder.”
An uncomfortable visit by the Gambino-connected Mafia kingpin Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to Kuklinski’s porn lab makes a lasting impression on DeMeo. When one of his lackeys tries to pistol-whip Kuklinski, the hulking brute fights back and stands his ground in the face of probable death in the guise of the pistol pointed at his face. Fear evidently is not in his constitution. DeMeo takes note. The next day DeMeo gives Kuklinski a chance to earn his trust by knocking off a bum in broad daylight. DeMeo insures Kuklinski’s loyalty by holding on to the pistol with the “Polack’s” fingerprints forever stuck on it.
Having charmed Deborah (wonderfully played the underrated Winona Ryder), a self-effacing waitress at a New Jersey diner, Richard Kuklinski sets up house with his adoring wife. Whether or not Deborah believes him when he tells her he dubs voices for “Disney” cartoons is beside the point. Kuklinski plays the gentleman around her. She knows better than to ask questions. Years pass before Deborah gets a glimpse of her devoted husband’s other side.
A dramatically layered car-chase, with Deborah and the couple’s two daughters in the back seat, reveals Richard’s hair-trigger temper after he distractedly runs into a car in traffic. The suspense-laden episode unmasks cracks in the couple’s marriage, fissures that Richard Kuklinski soon fills in with enormous amounts of cash when he goes into a thriving partnership with Mr. Freezy (played by an unrecognizable Chris Evans). Freezy is a fellow contract killer with his own arsenal of tricks for offing people and disposing of corpses. He conceals his activities by operating an ice cream truck whose freezer makes for a convenient hold to deposit fresh kills. Freezy introduces Kuklinski to using powered cyanide as a covert method for delivering death, and to his preferred practice of freezing bodies for several years before disposing of them as though they were wrapped-up leftovers. Scenes of chainsaw-enabled dismemberment are graphic, and yet kept in check by the film’s dramatic tone, lighting, and tightly edited compositions.
Tempting though it might seem, the filmmakers manage to avoid stepping into the trap of exploitation genre. The subject is horrifying, but “The Iceman” is not a horror movie. The film’s character-study aspect takes up most of the narrative space. A terse prison scene between Richard and his incarcerated brother — who raped a 12-year-old girl — affords a wealth of backstory in a resourceful way. The scriptural language is dense but clear.
With so many substantial performances under his belt, it’s not accurate to term Michael Shannon’s exemplary work here as a “breakthrough performance.” It is nonetheless Oscar-worthy. Michael Shannon would have made a much more book-accurate version of Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise. Here, he creates a credible version of a serial killer credited with murdering somewhere between 100 and 250 men, many of whom were never found or identified. The effect is chilling.
Rated R. 93 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
STAND UP GUYS
“Stand Up Guys” is a respectable compact crime drama comedy about camaraderie among a passing generation of retired wiseguys. There’s still some honor among thieves. Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin play the film’s three mildly flamboyant leading characters with a tacit admission that the tongue-in-cheek movie at hand reflects the disappearance of their own group of iconic actors. Each player riffs on his own well-worn acting tics as if taking one last gulping spree from the fountain of youth. It’s easy to wax poetic about the pure cinematic joy of watching Arkin (78), Pacino (72), and Walken (69) poking fun at themselves on the big screen. These guys are national treasures. Seriousness also plays a part, but director Fisher Stevens keeps the tone light even if a bittersweet sense of melancholy moors the stream-of-consciousness action.
Val (Pacino) gets released from the big house after serving a 28-year sentence for a murder that occurred during a shootout. He steps lightly into the loving arms of his old buddy Doc (Walken). Val never ratted out any of his cohorts, but the local kingpin doesn’t want him around — it was his son that died in the shootout. Doc’s pressing assignment is to kill his pal. Val senses what’s coming. However, Val and Doc have much business to tend to first. They’re not about to let a little thing like the looming sword of Damocles prevent them from celebrating the time they have together. Besides, Doc has to figure out exactly how and when to take out Val. The clock ticks. Strains of Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (which starred Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) play across the narrative. There’s a refreshing earthiness to the urban drama that resonates with the ‘70s era movie environment where Arkin, Walken, and Pacino ruled the Hollywood roost. Remember “Freebie and the Bean” or “The Deer Hunter”? Classics.
The episodic story transpires over a 24-hour-period. A visit to the old local cathouse is a top priority. Lucy Punch gets in a few comic digs as Wendy, the madam of the house. Drinks and pills are on the menu. Slapstick humor pops when Val suffers the symptoms of a Viagra overdose that sends him to the hospital where the daughter of his old getaway driver pal Hirsh (Arkin) works. Al Pacino’s knack for comic timing pushes through — so to speak.
Newbie scriptwriter Noah Haidle struggles at times with tempo. He also doesn’t dig deeply enough into the dramatic potential of some scenes. Still, there’s an upside to the bare-bones script that gives its talented ensemble room to groove. A car chase sequence with Hirsh behind the wheel, surges with a euphoric sense of youthful joy among old guys who are still just boys at heart. Fisher Stevens’s direction is solid, even if it doesn’t arrive with most inspired execution considering the quality of talent in front of the camera.
An emotional-hook subplot involving a waitress at the diner Val and Doc keep coming back to, gives Walken and Pacino a chance to spill a few drops of passion without resorting to sappiness.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s One-Movie Revolution Comes Calling
One of the ten best films of 2012, Andrew Dominik’s cold-blooded satire of American corporate-political-capitalism cuts through its subject like a freshly sharpened guillotine blade. Fortunately someone still wants retribution for the $7.77 trillion that Bush and Obama handed out to criminal banksters while ordinary Americans sank into poverty. Justice, however, has to wait. Until then: allegory.
The New Zealand auteur responsible for the magnificent neo-western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” manipulates the crime drama genre with an irrefutable cinematic panache. Economic metaphors big and small fill the narrative about gangster vengeance set in 2008. Dominik based the script on a George V. Higgins novel — see Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
Every greasy hoodlum character here represents a stratum of economic influence. Lowlife Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) brings home the nothing-to-lose emigrant faction. When Russell’s fellow immoral pal Frankie (Scoot McNairy) tries to land a card-game hold-up job from a slimy smalltime kingpin named Johnny Amato — a.k.a. Squirrel — Russell is quick to set his would-be boss man straight as to just who is doing whom a favor. Speaking truth to power comes with a thick dose of irreverent irony. The fact that Russell is a junkie with not much more on his mind than where his next fix or lay is coming from is beside the point. Russell is on the lowest rung of society’s ladder but that doesn’t prevent him from maintaining self-respect along with his hedonistic priorities.
The successful heist that follows requires a visit from a corporate-minded honcho known only as the Driver (Richard Jenkins). From his mobile office the Driver hires professional hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to settle the score. The men who orchestrated and executed the heist have to pay. No crime goes unpaid. If you’ve ever wondered about what it would look like for the banker bastards who ruined America’s economy to have to make penance with their own flesh, the filmmakers deliver a beautifully brutal vision of such a comeuppance.
The film’s evocative title stretches across the narrative like a transparent satin sheet. Brad Pitt’s character is methodical and cynical, yet he’s fully aware of the emotional burden of his deadly occupation. He says of his profession that he likes to kill from a distance; predator drones come to mind. Jackie goes so far as to ask for the assistance of a hit man he worked with several years earlier. James Gandolfini’s Mickey isn’t as together as he used to be. He’s turned into a raging alcoholic with an addiction to prostitutes. If Jackie represents a self-protective mercenary, Mickey is a cautionary vision of where Jackie could be headed if he isn’t careful. Everyone gets corrupted. It’s just a matter of time and opportunity.
“Killing Them Softly” is a stylish crime drama made up of piercing monologues and canny dialogue that reverberates with social implications. Nothing is wasted. People and places are appropriately ugly. Every performance is spot-on. That the film so effectively lashes out at economic hypocrisy in America is truly rewarding. Here is a one-movie revolution against all of the corporate-controlled two-party bullshit that has turned America into a third-world dictatorship. Brilliant is too soft a word to describe it.
Rated R. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Inflected with the same gritty appreciation for brutal violence that director John Hillcoat applied to his Australian-set period Western “The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a Depression era bootleg gangster fantasy baked in booze, blood, and grime. Based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 fictionalized account of his grandfather’s moonshine-running exploits (“The Wettest County in the World”) in Franklin County, Virginia, singer-songwriter Nick Cave takes up screenwriting and musical composition duties. The result is an entertaining crime drama embellished with various cartoonish plot and character elements. Cave’s deconstructed blues version of Lou Reed’s “White Light / White Heat” thoughtfully accents the action.
Ardent sincerity from a talented ensemble obfuscates the film’s more risible aspects. Guy Pearce’s shrill portrayal of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a corrupt Chicago lawman on a mission to eradicate Franklin County of its many bootleg still operations, is laughable nevertheless. Rakes is a sexually conflicted dandy right out of J. Edgar Hoover’s playbook. The character may as well have a “V” for villain stitched across his chest.
The height of Prohibition, circa 1931, makes a profitable living possible for a cloistered community of backwoods “hillbillies” who would otherwise have no way to thrive. Moonshine stills light up the side of a mountain like “lights on a Christmas tree.” Benoit Delhomme’s evocative cinematography captures a timeless quality that registers as Virginia although the movie was filmed in Georgia.
The Bondurant brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) — have a widespread reputation as the most feared clan of moonshiners in the region. Forrest has a way with brass knuckles. As with most of the characters Tom Hardy creates, Forrest has a presence that resonates throughout even when the character isn’t onscreen. The notorious siblings even sell their famously potent jars of white lightening to local good ole boy police officers until the fey Charlie Rakes arrives with his own crew of “law” enforcers to take a cut of the local economic pie. Every other moonshiner might be willing to play ball with Deputy Rakes, but the Bondurants refuse to share. The battle lines are drawn. Much blood will be spilled.
Gary Oldman chews his limited share of the scenery as Floyd Banner, a big time Chicago mobster that Shia LaBoeuf’s Jack does business with after narrowly avoiding a premature burial. Oldman’s character is crucial to the story because Floyd Banner represents an urban version of the outlaw that Jack aspires to be like. Jack inches out Forrest as the story’s main protagonist. He starts out as a wimp that finds inner strength through his latent ambition. While not the best casting choice for the role, LaBoeuf delivers a competent performance.
Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska cast glows of womanly perspective as objectives of desire for Forrest and Jack, respectively. Chastain especially adds dimension to the film for her character Maggie’s bold resolve to work for the gang at the gas station they own, and romantically align herself with the stoic Forrest. The slight allusion to Bonnie and Clyde is unmistakable.
“Lawless” never pretends to be anything more than a revved up period-piece gangster movie. If the movie takes a few too many liberties regarding the survivability of its invincible leading characters, the trespass is forgivable.
Rated R. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Oliver Stone revs up the crime thriller genre with an energetic video-nasty that keeps up with modern sensibilities regarding sex, drugs, and violence. A cozy ménage a trois is at the heart of a kidnap story that bounces between Southern California and Mexico. Too much voice-over exposition from Blake Lively’s center-of-attraction character “O” — she was named after Ofelia, not the subject of “The Story of O” — mars the flow of action. O is the mutual girlfriend to war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and to his stoner best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon is the alpha to Ben’s beta. As O describes them, Chon is the Earth, while Ben is the soul of the threesome. Chon gives O orgasms. She gives him “wargasms.” Ben, on the other hand, makes love to her. As Salma Hayek’s villainous drug queenpin Elena describes them, Chon and Ben love each other more than they care for O, or else they wouldn’t be able to share her. And share her they do.
Chon and Ben run a most profitable pot business from their posh Malibu seaside home. Using high-octane pot seeds Chon shipped over from his tour in Afghanistan, the boys have created a wicked weed that packs an unheard of “33% THC” punch. Elena’s Mexican drug cartel wants in on Chon’s and Ben’s business model. Not even John Travolta’s corrupt FBI official Dennis is much use to his pot-slinging buddies in the face of Elena and her brutal crew. Benicio Del Toro burns up the screen as Elena’s number-one enforcer Lado. From the looks of it, Del Toro has more fun chewing up scenery than nearly anyone else in the movie.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel, the story takes its time getting into gear. Ben and Chon would rather go off the grid in Indonesia than play ball with Elena and her bloodthirsty thugs, who are known for decapitating people and blowing out brains. Savages they are. This is not a movie for moviegoers with weak stomachs. Much blood is spilled. Ben and Chon take a day too long to get out of town. Elena’s boys kidnap O before laying down the law about how business will run for the next three-years — the first of which O will spend as a hostage. Naturally, Chon and Ben have a few ideas about how to rescue O.
Oliver Stone keeps politics largely out of the picture, but the subtext is written on the wall about things such as, the planned obsolescence of corporations, and America’s shifting attitudes toward sex and marijuana. Still, “Savages” is more willing to pull punches in the bedroom than it is in the arena of torture and murder. For all of the film’s outrageous violence, the tone is almost jocular. Oliver Stone could easily have gone heavier on the sex to balance out the bloodshed.
Rated R. 129 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A flawed, melodramatic riff on the "Bad Lieutenant" corrupt cop theme that Abel Ferrara so eloquently nailed down in 1992, "Rampart" is the result of a partnership between writer/director Oren Moverman and crime novelist James Ellroy. A lot of thought clearly went into creating Woody Harrelson's hyper-articulate, reprehensible police officer. Harrelson's lunatic white cop prototype is formalized within an inch of its life; all the writing mechanics show. Harrelson does a bang-up job, spitting out every line of faulty logic and well-defended-by-the-book alibis the 24-year-veteran Officer Dave Brown uses to justify his illegal acts. Harrelson's sociopathic cop is notoriously nicknamed "Date Rape" for allegedly killing a violent sexual predator _an event he neither confirms nor denies. And yet, by design, the story overreaches. You keep waiting. But it never comes to life.
Brown’s gleeful intimidation of Jane (Stella Schnabel), a minority female police trainee he insultingly calls cowboy, segues into a nasty traffic accident--a civilian T-bones Brown's squad car. Jane ‘s promise as a significant supporting character falls by the wayside in favor of other, less satisfying, narrative detours. (Our unreliable protagonist responds to the car wreck by beating the shit out of the driver--naturally it's all captured on videotape, à la Rodney King, for the media to chew on like dogs tearing meat from a 300-pound carcass. All is business as usual for a cop whose resentful teenaged daughter Helen (Brie Larson) calls him by his cop-buddy moniker when he returns home in the evenings. His younger daughter (by Helen’s-mom’s-sister) has a burning question: are she and her sister inbred? The improbable cop’s female-dominated home life matches in artificiality everything that follows with an adulterous affair involving Linda, a prosecuting attorney played by Robin Wright. Linda likes to announce her love of "sucking cock." You can almost hear the screenwriters yucking it up in the background. Harrelson’s bad-boy cop lives with his wife and ex-wife (siblings played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, requiring even more suspension of disbelief).
Superficially based on corruption involving Los Angeles’s notorious “Rampart” police precinct scandal, the movie is a brief examination of the toxic mindset of corrupt individuals working in a cynical system incapable of managing its sociopathic employees. On patrol Officer Brown firmly believes he is participating in a military occupation. Laws are flexible ideas that work better turned upside-down.
That the film hardly rings with any meaningful editorial impact is a testament to society’s tacit approval of extremist police corruption and brutality. There’s no need for unethical cops to hide behind the legendary blue curtain anymore. They can proudly exert their blood-spewing punishments against American citizens for the entire world to witness on YouTube. If they're lucky, like the cop in Davis, California, their nasty acts will get turned into a viral meme.
Far from being shocking, “Rampart” practically presents an apologist's view of crooked cops because it doesn’t give anywhere near as much screen time to the victims of police brutality. To observe American police acting like enemy soldiers against its citizens has become a daily routine. “Rampart” doesn’t add anything to the conversation. As a piece of journalistic drama the film is too busy with goofy sex scenes and rambling subplots to make a cogent point about a despicable status quo. If the movie is not part of the solution, then it must be part of the problem. I can imagine the same cops who spray tear gas into the eyes of Occupy protestors going to see this film, and admiring Officer Dave Brown for his Teflon intellect and impudent approach to his job. With anti-hero protagonists like this one, we don’t need more enemies.
Rated R. 105 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Playing with a William Friedkin-like level of patient intensity, atmospheric style, and shocks of violence Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn creates his own 21st century dialectic of cinema. Part love story, part black comedy, and part crime thriller "Drive" is a film-lover's dream. Hossein Amini's adaptation of James Sallis's pulp novel provides Ryan Gosling with the kind of cool-blooded character actors would kill to portray. Known only as Driver, Gosling wears a trademark silver racing jacket with a big gold scorpion embroidered on the back. His curious fashion sense matches his singular motivation to drive...fast.
Driver is a "five minute" man. For the right price he will navigate L.A.'s "100,000 streets" as a getaway driver. Whatever happens before or after his five minute work schedule begins or ends is up to the client. One thing is guaranteed; his escape will be clean. His clients' fates are less certain. During the day Driver works as a mechanic when he isn't performing driving stunts in Hollywood movies. When we see Driver dressed as a cop before filming a stunt, it's telling how convincing Driver is as an actor. The layers of Gosling's stoic Driver run thick and many.
Driver's apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) snaps him out of his laconic loner routine. Irene has a boy named Benicio whose dad's release from prison is coming up. Such unnecessary exposition is mercifully kept out of the way of the mostly silent chemistry that passes between the would-be lovers. Careful and restrained, a romantic tension slowly builds. It crescendos with an elevator kiss in the presence of a hit-man. When Refn breaks the spell with a disgusting act of violence, every plotline and character line that has come before coalesces into a vortex of repulsed emotion. The lovers have a test. How much uncertainty can a new relationship withstand?
To give anymore of the plot away would be a sin. Suffice it to say Driver is a man of secrets. He lives by a strict code that only becomes apparent through his actions. Driver isn't telegraphing anything. Still, he does have a temper.
"Drive" is an impossibly glamorous and gritty film filled with nooks and crannies bursting with action goodness. Sam Peckinpah has clearly been a profound influence on Nicholas Wending Refn. Like Peckinpah--the genius filmmaker behind such classics as "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "The Getaway" (1972)--Refn understands the menace of sensuality and the sexiness of machines. He knows how to exploit these cinematic elements for all they're worth. Hopefully, Refn will not be co-opted and degraded by Hollywood as so many gifted directors before him have been.
The moody techno soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is the hippest thing around. Sexy, violent, and stylized like you can’t believe, “Drive” is a big-screen movie that oozes charisma and pops with brutality. Yum.
Rated R. 100 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)